The Great Tree, Virgo
It was clear to Atienna now. After witnessing the events that had unfolded for Olive, Cadence, Werner, and Maria, it was perfectly clear. Maria was right.
There was no time for hesitation.
Turning away from the Great Tree that illuminated everything in sight, she turned toward the darkness of the trees and ran into it. Through the brambles that scratched at her arms, over the roots that jutted up like boulders, onto the well-trodden path where she saw him pacing down leisurely.
Atienna dashed to him and met his eyes as he turned at the sound of her footsteps.
Before he could say anything more, she grabbed his wrist. “I agree with you when you say that I’m not like my mother. Saying that I am would just be ruining my mother’s image.”
“You have come here to just—”
“But don’t speak as if you know my mother,” Atienna said, tightening her grip. “She would never go to such lengths. Destroying something that people rely on. Risking the lives of other people to achieve the end goal.” Olive’s memory of heat, screams, and smoke bled into her mind.
Usian winced at the pain and fell to his knees.
“Yes, there is no evidence of your involvement and if I go to report this to the Council, then they will most likely find fault only with Bachiru. I cannot have that.”
“So you would turn a blind eye—”
“Morrowheat—have you heard of it?” Atienna asked. “It is a recreational plant that grows only in Gemini. I’ve learned about it only recently due to a friend of mine. When it is taken in large doses, it produces symptoms similar to that of sorrowheat, which is a poisonous plant found only within the borders of Virgo. It takes one close to death’s door, but not quite over the threshold. A person who uses this type of thing must be somewhat kind, don’t you think?”
The way Usian paled was akin to the way her opponents in the ring did when they saw her stand above them in absolute victory.
“Usian, did you know? Approximately twenty-five Virgoans make a trip outside of Virgo per year. Isn’t that such a strange statistic?”
“I tire of your dancing words, Atienna. From childhood till now—”
Atienna tightened her grip on his wrist until she felt something give way beneath her hold. Something cracking out of place. A crunch.
Usian’s scream whistled through the trees around them as he squirmed in her hold, but it was ultimately lost to the deep black of the night.
“In hopes of stirring Bachiru who holds high status due to my father and who holds family desperately close to him, you ‘poisoned’ me with the morrowheat you found on your trip to Gemini. I am assuming that is where you contacted ELPIS as well. And in poisoning me, you hoped to create enough tension to break out of Virgo’s twelve-year long isolation. Your deal with ELPIS was a reassurance. You were to destroy the generator conductors here for them, and in exchange they would stir the pot outside and create the perfect circumstances that would not allow Virgo to remain in isolation.”
Usian barked a laugh after he managed to catch his breath. “You are clever, Atienna, but you have only half the picture. Regardless, you say all of these meaningless words with no action. “You have no evidence. You will not bring this to the council and endanger your brother—”
“Of course, Usian.” Atienna smiled thinly. “You will be the one to bring this to the Council.” When Usian did a double-take, she released her hold of him and said slowly, “And when you tell them that you are the one who has poisoned me, then I will highlight how Virgo’s reluctance to leave its isolated self-protection has caused one of its most highly-esteemed teachers to fall to such lengths and show how close we are to self-imploding. From there, I will argue for Sagittarian support and after that—” She felt a surge of Maria’s boundless confidence. “—I will bring Virgo out of isolation. To help. With my status and father’s support, I’m sure I will be able to do just that. Just as mother wanted. Just as you wanted.”
Usian stared at her.
“Is that not a fair exchange? Instead of resorting to such violence. In exchange for brushing my brother’s involvement under the rug. In exchange for your arrest for my poisoning in Virgo, instead of your imprisonment in Ophiuchus for your involvement with ELPIS. In exchange for what you desire.” She chuckled. “For such a wise man, it surprises me that you haven’t thought of this.”
A white grin cracked across Usian’s lips. “Perhaps you are like your mother after all—”
Atienna knocked him out cold with another punch before he could finish his sentence. She then sank to her knees as a wave of exhaustion took her over. As she studied Usian’s bloodied features, she could not help but compare him to how he’d been when he was younger. Pacing the front of her classroom as he lectured about peace and conductors and vitae.
She placed a hand on his cheek.
Changes and choice really did make people unrecognizable.
Atienna could feel eyes on her again. The others. Mostly Jericho. His righteous justice was simmering beneath the surface. He wanted more, she knew. This wasn’t enough a punishment for Usian—this was what Jericho thought. Burying his involvement was not ‘right’ to Jericho. But—
“This is my justice.”