Zatmeniye Mountain Range, Aquarius
“Saint’s! Stupid! V-ehicle!”
Atienna peered over her book into the front seat of the v-ehicle. The driver’s seat was empty, but the seat beside it was occupied by a man with an unreadable expression. Unreadable, because his bald head was wrapped around numerous times with a colorful bright blue scarf and because another scarf hugged the lower half of his face. Atienna turned to the woman sitting beside her. She too was wrapped in a shawl of many layers and was peering down at a book through her glasses. The lenses were fogged up by the breath captured in her makeshift scarf mask.
“I’m sure Sefu can handle it,” the woman replied to Atienna’s unasked question.
Atienna considered this for a moment before she tried slowly, “I suppose I’ll keep him company then…” With that, Atienna closed her book and set it down gently
Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill with a shiver and pulled her blanket closer around her shoulders as she stepped outside of the v-ehicle. The frost nipped at her nose, and the cold brought tears to her eyes—tears that soon iced over and crystallized on her lashes. She wiped them away with the back of her mittened hand and stared out into the dawning brightness.
Everything was white—the mountainous mounds of shoveled snow that formed a short wall on either side of the road, the evergreen trees that poked up in between those mounds, and even the v-ehicle she had just stepped out of. Well, rather than being buried by a layer of the whiteness from on top, the v-ehicle was buried from the bottom. To be exact, its wheels had become one with the ground. It appeared as if the snow had melted somewhat around the rims due to the heat from them initially, but the water had frozen over again once the temperature had dropped encasing the entire thing in ice.
A tightly bundled, unrecognizable Sefu was pounding down on that ice with the butt of his conducting spear. He continued to pound and pound, seeming to not notice her presence. Abruptly, he let loose an agitated sigh before turning the spear around and slamming its bottom into the ground. He then began to mutter under his breath. A prayer. After letting out a quiet sigh, he whipped his spear around again and pointed its tip at the encasement of ice. The tip began to glow a bright yellow.
“Sefu…. I wonder if that’s a good idea.”
Sefu startled and quickly flipped his spear behind his back. “Miss Atienna—I—”
“Before you move onto that,” Atienna said, drifting to the front of the car, “maybe we should try checking to see if the engine conductor is still in working order? It was making strange sounds earlier. I wonder if something’s wrong with it…”
Sefu stiffened before he stumbled over the snow ruts to the front of the car. He popped the hood and stared. Atienna followed along after him while reaching out to Olive. It took several tries, but she managed to synchronize with him strongly enough for his physical form to appear before her eyes.
“I think it looks fine,” Sefu said, looking down at the device.
Olive shook his head, shivering slightly. The cold cracked the conducting core. There’s no saving it once it's cracked like that. He gave Sefu a side-eye. Maybe in some fantasy universe you can still use it.
Atienna relayed this information to Sefu—minus the last part—and thanked Olive who mumbled an incoherent thought before disappearing from her sight.
“You cannot be serious…” Sefu stared at the generator conductor listlessly before staring past it towards the stretch of white road behind them. The tracks their v-ehicle had made were already filled in by the snow.
The doors to the v-ehicle opened, and the man sitting at the front of the car and the woman sitting at the back stepped out with a crunch, crunch onto the snow.
“So for all of that praise for the functionality of these v-ehicles,” the now shivering man said, pulling out a long spear conductor from the v-ehicle and fastening it to his back, “they cannot even endure a short journey.”
“Enough, Kabal,” the woman with the reading glasses replied, shrugging her garments closer to her body. “Miss Imamu, what is the nearest town?”
Atienna pulled out a map from the satchel that hung at her waist. Out with it came an envelope that fell onto the snow. In a panic, she picked it up, checked it for damages, and with a relieved sigh placed it back into her satchel. She then inspected the map—
“The nearest town is about eight kilometers away. Vlatgrad. We should be able to reach it if we continue north from here.” She folded the map back into her satchel and began to recall the details of the book she had been reading in the v-ehicle. “It’s a mining town. They speak both Aquarian and Common, so communication shouldn’t be an issue.” She chuckled lightly. “Although, I cannot say the same for hospitality…”
“Well, we’ll just have to convince them to be hospitable,” the woman returned.
The woman was named Chiamaka, and she was of the Maneo Tribe. She was a member of the chieftain’s family of that tribe and had spent her younger years before the war studying social sciences and diplomacy. Her focus was on the governments and politics of the countries of south-eastern Signum which included Aquarius and Pisces. For this reason, she was chosen to act as the diplomat to those countries following Virgo’s slow return from isolation.
That was where they were headed. A tripartite diplomatic meeting between Pisces, Aquarius, and Virgo. A formality of sorts. A prelude to open up better relations between their three countries.
Kabal—currently polishing his spear conductor while still grumbling about v-ehicles—was a royal guard of the Maneo Tribe and was accompanying Chiamaka on this journey as her protector. He was a man of few words, and he never minced them.
Sefu was here to guard Atienna herself which she found a bit strange as her family was no longer considered the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe. Therefore Sefu, being a member of the royal guards strictly serving the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe, had no need to protect her any longer. And yet here he was. Curious.
And Atienna’s own purpose here? It was not diplomacy, that was certain. Her purpose was not as impressive as that. But a purpose was a purpose.
“Well, Miss Imamu,” Chiamaka said, peering at Atienna through her glasses as if evaluating her, “you are my advisor for Aquarius, are you not? So please do advise us on the way.”
Atienna bowed her head and—after they gathered what they could carry from the v-ehicle—started them along the path north.
It was a strange sensation—feeling the heat from her extraneous movements piling up inside her chest yet feeling the biting cold whip at her cheeks and limbs. Despite her sweating, she knew that the moment she pulled her hood down, she’d be bitten senseless by the whipping winds.
She glanced up when she noticed white specs floating down from the gray sky. More snowflakes.
She had never seen snow before. Not even from Werner’s or Maria’s side. It seemed as if their memories of such things had yet to make their way down to her. For this reason, she found this detour rather lovely.
It was a bit surreal. The quietness. The expanse of white. She imagined herself lying flat on the snow and staring up at the sky as they walked on. Absolute stillness. A spec in the middle of everything. Peaceful. The insignificance of herself if she were in that moment—comforting.
“How. Do. Aquarians,” Sefu panted suddenly from in front of her, each step making his voice breathier than the last. “Live. Like. This.”
Atienna chuckled. “Is it really that awful, Sefu?” She extended a mittened hand to catch one of the snowflakes and inspect its intricacies before it began to melt with her breath. “Was it not you who said there is beauty in everything when you requested that we stop by that Aquarian customized conductor store?”
“It was an exaggeration,” Sefu said, teeth clacking.
Atienna hummed. Sefu might think it awful, but to her it was—
Atienna tensed and turned her head in the direction of the exclamation. Sefu whipped out his spear conductor as did Kabal. Atienna exchanged a look with Chiamaka before Chiamaka signaled for the men to lower their weapons.
“Hello?” Atienna tentatively called out as she advanced towards the direction the sound had come from—a mound of snow that rose up in-between a cluster of pine trees alongside the road.
“Bonjour!” came a muffled voice from within the mound. “Who’s there?”
Atienna stared for a moment before she rushed forward and began digging at the snow pile. She was soon joined by Sefu and Kabal, and she stepped back in order to allow them to pick at the snow with the butt of their conductors. Slowly they began chipping away at the whiteness layer-by-layer until the petite face of a young woman with caramel brown eyes and wispy pale blonde hair frozen to her cheeks became revealed to them.
After blinking away the snow clinging to her long lashes, the woman looked at Sefu, then at Kabal, and then directly at Atienna. She did not appear to be very alarmed by her predicament, beaming at them as she spoke, “Oh, hello there! Are you tourists too? Here to see the infamous Tonkaya Liniya Lights or maybe the Zatmeniye caverns?”
Sefu and Kabal exchanged looks, obviously hesitant to continue their unburial.
“Are… are you okay?” Atienna tried.
“Oh, I’m spectacular!” the woman exclaimed. “This Aquarian rejuvenating technique is really something else. You should try it. It’s supposed to do wonders for your skin!”
Atienna took a moment to digest this information before she smiled gently. “Ah, yes, I’ve heard very good things about those techniques. Although I’ve also heard that it’s recommended that a person only submerges themselves in the cold for fifteen-minute increments. Is this perhaps a new method?”
“Well, yes, fifteen minutes would rejuvenate you, so if you bury yourself for an even longer amount of time it will extra rejuvenate you,” the woman said matter-of-factually, her Cancerian accent coming out in her Common. “I have heard that if you do this often enough, you can practically look young forever!” The woman tried to nod in affirmation, but the snow packed around her head acted as a cage.
Sefu crossed his arms over his conductor. “Well, eternally young in death maybe—”
The blonde woman’s delicate brows rose, and her eyes darted from left to right. “D-Death? W-Why are you saying death? This isn’t dangerous, is it?” Before anyone could respond, the woman began to wiggle in place. The snow packed around her pulsated and cracked.
The Cancerian woman burst out from the snow pile in a flurry of white and landed on top of Atienna in a tangle of limbs and a bundle of fur.
“Oh, I’m sorry about that!” the woman exclaimed as she pried herself off Atienna and helped pull her up to a stand. Before Atienna could get another word in, however, the woman began to walk around her in circles. “Your clothing is so pretty! Where did you get that from? Is it Aquarian?”
Atienna smiled pleasantly. “It’s Virgoan silk. But I have to say, your clothing is just as marvel worthy as mine.”
The woman was bundled up head to toe in numerous fur accessories. A black Aquarian ushanka topped her head, and several leather fur-lined coats of numerous shades were thrown over her shoulders. Beneath it all, she wore a pair of bright red leather boots that hugged her legs all the way up to her knees.
“Thank you! I—” The odd woman abruptly snapped her mouth shut and pulled back. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been so rude.” She put a hand to her cheek before extending it out to Atienna. “My name Louise Beaumont. I’m a tourist from Cancer.”
Atienna accepted the gesture, more amused than confused. “Atienna Imamu. I’m an advisor from Virgo.”
“An advisor?” Louise studied her for a moment. “You must have loads of knowledge then. Could you possibly spare me some advice?”
It took a moment for Atienna to realize what Louise had misunderstood.
“Here is some advice, miss,” Sefu said from behind her. “It is dangerous for someone to be trekking here by themselves.”
“Oh, I’m not by myself. I am never alone,” Louise responded, before digging into the folds of her coats and pulling out two perfectly round red apples. “When you have food, you’re never alone!”
What an... interesting perspective, Atienna mused.
A screws-loose perspective.
Chiamaka and Kabal regarded the Cancerian with expressions that seemed to coincide with the previous line of thought. Sefu, on the other hand, was salivating. Louise noticed him and offered an apple to Sefu without a thought. Also without a thought, Sefu accepted it graciously.
“But now that you mention it…” Louise trailed off as she watched Sefu devour the apple in two large bites. “I think I am a bit lost. It’s just that I keep seeing all of these wonderful things and—oh, well—getting distracted.” She looked around. “I swear just a minute ago I was near the city…”
Chiamaka spoke suddenly from behind them, “We’re headed to Vlatgrad. It’s a nearby village. They do speak Common, so I’m sure they’ll be able to point you in whatever direction you’re looking for.”
Louise glanced past Atienna, stared at Chiamaka, and then brightened. “Are you sure? Would you be so kind?”
“Accompanying us would make both of our journeys more bearable, don’t you think?” Atienna offered.
They continued their trek onwards, their group having increased from four to five. The snow that had been sprinkling down lightly from the sky at the beginning of the day began to pelt harder as they continued further. The white coldness crept upon them slowly and soon they were consumed by the flurry. The howling winds and whips of icey hail and snow that burst out from nowhere made it impossible for Atienna to see more than a meter in front of her face.
Atienna quickly advised for them to walk forward holding hands in a chain in order to not lose sight of one another. Through the storm they continued on, gripping each other like lifelines, with Sefu at the head and Kabal at the tail. Atienna herself was sandwiched in between Chiamaka and Louise.
“I see something!” Sefu shouted after what had seemed like an eternity. “It looks like a cave! We could take refuge!”
“I’ve never been in a cave before!” Louise exclaimed.
Atienna turned her head to find Louise smiling steadily behind her. She faced forward again and found Chiamaka frowning backwards. After offering Chiamaka a smile of reassurance she doubted the woman could see, Atienna squinted past her and into the storm.
A mouth of blackness loomed like a monolith in front of them. It was so large and towering that Atienna couldn’t help but imagine that it was the mouth of a giant waiting to swallow them up. The icicles that lined the ceiling of the cave and the ground floor almost resembled jagged teeth.
As soon as they stepped within the vicinity of the cave, the howling deafened and became replaced by the echoing tap, tap of their footsteps. The cold left them as well, and Atienna was able to peel down her hood to inspect the cave further. Large ice stalactites hung low from the ceiling with some even extending all the way to the ground. Ice draperies crisscrossed in between them, while below them grew pale bluish-white stalagmites. The back of the cave was pitch black and seemed to extend forever into emptiness.
But, there was light. In the far-left corner of the cave behind a cluster of flowstone and stalagmites glowed orange warmth. Atienna and her group exchanged looks before they rounded the cluster of stone structures to investigate.
A fire crackled there just behind the rock formations. And huddling around that fire was a party of eight people.
It wasn’t one large party—Atienna realized this upon closer inspection. Rather, it was a collection of smaller groups that were distinguishable from one another by their members’ clothing. There were two groups total.
The first consisted of three women and two men dressed in fur coats and fur caps. The firelight made their pale skin glow white and gave their angular faces an accented look. Aquarians.
The second group consisted of two women and one man who were all draped in thick, leather hooded cloaks. Their sun-kissed cheeks were an almost frost-bitten red, and their bare forearms were inked with dark, swirling tattoos. Piscese.
Oh? What a strange coincidence.
“It can’t be—are you the diplomats from Virgo?” one of the fur coat-wearing women murmured.
Chiamaka stepped forward and pulled down the scarf obscuring her mouth. “I am Chiamaka of the Maneo Tribe of Virgo. I am here for the southeastern tripartite meeting.”
“This must be fate,” one of the women dressed in the thick leather cloaks said in lightly-accented Common as she lowered her hood. Her dark curls popped out from beneath it and framed her round cheeks that were marked with black ink. She closed the distance between their two groups. “I am Moana of Pisces. I am the diplomat here to discuss improving relations between our countries.” She gestured to the man and then to the woman behind her who were also dressed in thick leather cloaks. “With me are my advisors Kalama and my guard Afu.” She then extended her hand out to Chiamaka. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Chiamaka accepted the handshake firmly. “And I you, Moana.”
One of the Aquarian men dressed in fur coats stepped forward, removing his gloves and extending a hand in Chiamaka’s direction. He had gunmetal blue eyes, a narrow nose, and wispy hair curling out from his hat. His fur coat was a vibrant blue color that served as a startling contrast to the dull brown coats of his Aquarian companions.
“I am Alexei Andrei,” the man said in Common, and there was barely an accent in his words. “I’m the diplomat representing Aquarius. I thought that this storm would put off our meeting, but it looks like it’s brought our meeting to an earlier time instead.” He chuckled good-nature day.
Another man wearing a fur coat joined Alexei’s side, whipped off his fur hat, and dusted it before nodding curtly at them. He was a head or so taller than Alexei, and his gaze was rather unfriendly.
“You’re…” Atienna trailed off as she registered his features.
Nikita Knovak. The Aquarian sergeant whom Werner had captured along the Aquarian-Capricornian border four months prior. So he was still alive.
Knovak arched a brow. “Yes? I am Nikita Knovak. Sergeant. Just here to make sure no harm for Yulia or Alexei. Nice to meet you.” He remained stiff, did not offer a hand nor inclined his head.
The three women of the Aquarian group stepped forward next.
One of them stood as tall as Knovak and had almost skeleton-like features: high arched brows, high cheekbones, and a high nose. “I am Yulia Kriska. I am Alexei’s secretary and will be recording everything that will be spoken at the meeting.” Her voice was razor-sharp, nasally, and her words—
—well, they almost sounded like a threat. Atienna supposed that words could be a reasonable weapon of choice. Words were powerful, after all—and even more powerful when one used another’s own words against them. A secretary was quite a terrifying thing in that perspective.
“I am Alexei’s advisor.” The woman who stood to Yulia’s left smiled gently as she introduced herself. Even though most of her features were obscured by her fur clothing, Atienna could tell that she was quite beautiful. The black curls that popped out from her fur cap framed her pale face, and the bright red lipstick she wore brought out the fullness of her lips. Atienna couldn’t help but think that something about this woman reminded her of Cadence’s Alma. “My name is Cvetka Akulova. ”
Their eyes met and Atienna offered her a small smile. Cvetka returned the gesture and lowered her gaze.
“Sigurd,” the last Aquarian woman introduced herself. “Yulia and Cvetka’s guard also.”
Sigurd was the shortest one in the entire Aquarian group—although she was still taller than any in the Piscese group—and was also the only one in the Aquarian group who was not wearing a fur cap. Her light blonde hair was tied up into a bun, her eyes an ice blue, and her nose hooked and prominent.
“Oh, don’t undersell yourself, Sigurd,” Alexei said with a light chuckle. “Sigurd here is from one of Aquarius’s special administrative regions. They operate under us, albeit a bit independently, so you’re in for a rare treat. She was born and raised in one of the mountainous tribes…. Which mountain was it? Valdol?”
“Valholl,” Sigurd corrected flatly.
There was tension there. How unpleasant.
“Could it be that you're from the Valkyrja Tribe?” Atienna interjected with a polite smile. “That is the main tribe that resides in the Valholl mountain rage, right?”
“Yes, I am from the Valkyrja Tribe,” Sigurd answered. She studied Atienna for a moment before crossing her arms and looking away. “That is my home.”
“T-That’s impressive,” Cvetka said after a beat, biting her red lips and tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear. “Not a lot of people know about our native special administrative territories. And when they do, they tend to only pay attention to our seaside ones.”
“Thank you for the compliment, but I honestly only know about that because I am serving as Miss Chiamaka’s advisor,” Atienna explained genially. “I’m Atienna Imamu.”
“Oh, I see.” Cvetka smiled with her eyes. “Well, I hope we can learn a lot from each other then.”
Sefu and Kabal introduced themselves next, and with that the formalities concluded.
“Well, I hope you’ve all brought sleeping bags,” Alexei said good-naturedly after a beat of silence. “The storms in this region can last for quite some time.” He glanced at Chiamaka. “And by any chance, would you have brought any food—”
“It’s all right! There’s no need to worry about the food!” Louise pipped suddenly from behind Atienna.
Everyone turned to stare at her.
Unperturbed, Louise reached into the folds of her coat and pulled out a bag of what appeared to be oats with her left hand and a bag of apples with her right hand. “I’m always prepared for situations like these! That’s what extreme tourism is all about!”
“And who is this?” Yulia asked plainly.
“She is a Cancerian tourist,” Chiamaka explained. “We found her wandering around these parts and offered to guide her to the nearest village. Unfortunately, it appears that we’ve led her more astray than anything else.”
“Nonsense.” Alexei waved a dismissive hand. “These storms make even the most coldblooded in our country lose their heads.” He gestured to all of them. “Besides, this has worked out quite well. Call me a foolish optimist but I find this storm more a blessing than a curse—now, would one of you happen to know how to cook?”
That night dinner was a sweet porridge of oats, fruits, and nuts.
It was rather startling to see how much food Louise was able to carry inside of her coats. Atienna couldn’t help but think that the woman had magical, bottomless pockets. In fact, Sefu had started looking at Louise rather reverently—almost as if she were some mystical creature not of this earth. Regardless of Sefu’s admiration, however, he still taste-tested everything Atienna ate. Kabal, witnessing Sefu’s behavior, mimicked it in regard to Chiamaka’s food.
“No,” Atienna heard Cvetka whisper to Alexei, “it is not tradition.”
When dinner was over, Yulia, Chiamaka, and Moana checked out early for the night after formal plans were made by the diplomats to initiate the beginnings of negotiations the following morning. Knovak, Kabal, and Afu held to their duties as guards responsibly and followed on after them. This left Alexei, Cvetka, Sigurd, Kalama, Louise, Sefu, and Atienna to speak amongst themselves. They were using the rock formations that grew around the fire as makeshift seats, and the atmosphere felt more like that of a friendly dinner party than anything else.
They spoke mostly about themselves. Nothing of politics.
A relief, came an intrusive thought.
Alexei started the autobiographical conversation by informing them that he had grown up in a rather impoverished region of Aquarius. Although he received food rations from the government at the time, the Reservoir War had brought with it constant shortages so the rations shrank every week. He received a shining opportunity when the war ended, and the government began seeking out individuals with a strong background in foreign relations and social sciences moving forward—which just so happened to be his area of study when he’d been in school.
He received an admirable “wow, amazing!” from Louise who then explained that she was an extreme tourist who was seeking all the world’s wonders. She listed off all the places she’d been to before which left Atienna feeling rather dizzy, impressed, and wistful.
The Piscese advisor Kalama chattered her way through her origin story but only managed to get halfway through it before she flushed profusely and apologized for stuttering, chattering, and stammering. Alexei offered her his thick fur coat and cap with words of reassurance, and she accepted both graciously.
‘A charming man,’ an outsider would think. But this too was a formality, wasn’t it? The kindness, the generosity. If circumstances were different, if this were not a meeting of diplomacy, would he be so generous? Whether that was right or wrong was up to perspective still.
Atienna refrained from speaking about herself and merely kept to the background. Sigurd kept her history confidential as well, although Louise’s persistence made her divulge that she was an Elementalist Conductor.
“How long do you think this storm will last?” Sefu asked after a pause of silence.
“Maybe several days,” Sigurd answered. “When they come without warning, they last for a longer time.”
Atienna saw Sefu smile slightly out of the corner of her eye. Ah, could it be that Sefu saw this as a vacation of sorts?
Many productive things could be completed within that time frame.
Atienna pondered this thought before politely excusing herself to the restroom.
Instead of heading to the area they had designated as the bathroom, however, Atienna strayed further into the back of the cave. It wasn’t on a whim that she did it, really. Part of her had been thinking about peeling away from the dinner group during the entire discussion. Avoidance, discomfort, exhaustion—perhaps, a mixture of all three. One step forward and another step backward. A dance to some, lack of progress to others. Hm.
Atienna sighed and glanced behind her in the direction of their campfire. While its glow hurt her eyes even from this distance, its warmth did not reach her. Shivering, Atienna considered heading back. But then something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Something on the cavern walls.
Atienna froze and stared.
For a moment, she thought it was the opening to a passageway that was on the wall—it was rectangular, black, and just the right size for someone to slip through. The discordance of the sight threw her in for a loop. Upon closer inspection, however, Atienna came to realize that it was a painting. A painting of a rectangular-shaped passageway done in black.
Atienna approached the wall slowly, extending a hand out to touch its surface. She recalled reading about these things somewhere, although she couldn’t quite remember where.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Atienna startled and turned. It was Cvetka, the Aquarian advisor. The woman was quietly inspecting the dark painting on the wall a meter or so away from her. Curious—Atienna hadn’t even noticed her.
Atienna hummed and tapped her cheek. “Yes, I’ve read that these paintings are very common in the caves of Aquarius. They date back to before Signum was split into thirteen countries, right? Wonderfully mysterious, don’t you think?”
“I see that you really do know everything,” Cvetka said after a pause.
Atienna lowered her hand, looking away. “Oh, I wish I did.”
“Really?” Cvetka reached out and traced the edge of the painted door. “I think not knowing is the best thing in the world.”
“That’s an interesting viewpoint for an advisor,” Atienna noted with a smile. “Unless you are referring to surprises.”
“Oh?” Cvetka glanced at Atienna before she chuckled lightly. “You are quite the teaser,” she said. “But I’m talking about ignorance. What is that Common saying? It escapes me…”
“Ignorance is bliss?”
“Yes.” Cvetka pulled away from the wall. “Well, ‘ignorance avoids disappointment’ is a better way to say it, I think. It’d be nice if we could live in a world where we could ignore everyone outside of us. It’d be peaceful. But that’s not possible—they say human beings are social creatures—so I guess that’s what diplomacy is for.” Pausing, she flushed and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Sorry, sometimes I talk without really knowing what I’m saying...”
Atienna wondered about both things—the former monologue and the latter statement. A line of thought akin to Atienna’s own. How unpleasant...
“You’re very well-spoken for not knowing what you are saying,” Atienna drew with a soft chuckle, “but speaking of avoidance, is it possible that we came here for the same reason?”
Cvetka flushed deeper. “Guilty as charged…”
“It is a lot—meeting everyone at once…” Atienna glanced back to the glow of their camp and then whispered quietly, “I don’t think I remember half of their names...”
“Oh—good—I thought I was the only one who had a hard time keeping up.” Cvetka sighed. “I’m just relieved that I’m not the only who thinks that way.” She wrapped her arms around her waist and offered a small smile. “Well, I’m going to try sneaking off to bed then.” She inclined her head. “It was nice speaking with you, Miss Imamu.”
Atienna bowed her head deeply in acknowledgment. “And I you, Miss Akulova.”
Atienna watched the woman go for a moment before turning her attention back to the cave painting. Why of all things would they paint this peculiar shape, she wondered. After a bit more wonder, she decided that she should get some rest too and headed back to the camp.
She found a spot for herself close to the fire beside a sleeping Chiamaka and a somewhat dozing Kabal who were both spread out on thick blankets. She reached into her satchel, pulled out a blanket of her own, and spread it across the ground.
So how are you doing, Werner? Atienna thought as she laid on her makeshift bed. I thought you’d unsynchronized after making that comment at dinner, but you’re still there, aren’t you?
“I apologize for intruding, Atienna,” came Werner’s voice from beside her. His image appeared before her standing. Their synchronization was strong enough for her to see that he was currently sitting in a train compartment. Bound for the Twin Cities. “It was not my intention.”
I don’t view it as an intrusion. It’s nice to have company you can speak to without putting up a front, don’t you think? Atienna returned. I enjoy our talks, Werner.
There was a pause.
They are informative. Another pause. And pleasant.
It looks as if things are picking up for all of us, don’t you think? Atienna thought. I’m worried for what’s happening on Maria’s, Cadence's, and Olive’s end of things. And, of course, there’s you...
I’ve already warned Maria. Cadence will be fine if she doesn’t involve herself in things that she doesn’t need to be involved in.
—which Cadence normally did. Never taking risks unless a large enough benefit was involved. But that was just another way to live, Atienna supposed.
And Olive? Atienna pondered.
He is skirting responsibility.
His intentions were well-meaning Werner, Atienna tried. He just wanted help, and he probably did what he thought was best. And… how should I say this… Olive isn’t very… combat pragmatic, so perhaps his decision was…
Intentions are intangible, Werner answered. Actions are. He seemed to sigh internally but his expression remained stolid. I’m not blind to the fact that his split-second decision-making was commendable. He did not freeze. As for the retreat… I must admit it was the proper course of action for him logically. Regardless.
So, perhaps all Werner wanted was an apology regarding the override? It was a bit of a childish wish, and Atienna could not help but smile slightly at the thought of it. It humanized him a bit.
Well, at least in all of this you were able to get a vacation from the front.
“It is not a vacation,” Werner insisted coolly, glancing into the flickering flames of the fire.
Atienna covered her smile with her hand but knew Werner had seen it already.
“If you’re going to rest, I advise you to insulate yourself better,” Werner said, turning away from her. “Many people have died in their sleep from cold exposure.”
“Hypothermia, paradoxical undressing, and cardiac arrest,” Atienna whispered. “The world is quite a frightening place, Werner. And that’s without people.”
Werner turned back to her, unsurprised. “That is correct.”
Atienna reached into her satchel and pulled out another bundle of blankets. She spied that envelope inside as well but averted her eyes from it. Instead, she buried herself in a makeshift fort of blankets and let out a sigh before she closed her eyes.
Good night, Werner.
There was a long beat of silence.
“Good night, Atienna.”
When Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill the next day, the first thing she noticed was that the ground was wet—so wet that her makeshift bed was crusted with the cold ice. There was a steady drip, drip, drip from somewhere. Perhaps, one of the ice formations that draped across the cave ceiling was melting. That was Atienna’s first thought.
But then she smelled iron. It was a familiar scent. And as she struggled into consciousness in the cold, she half-dreamt for a moment that she was back in the Night Circle. In the ring, standing against another opponent, fingers itching for more. Adrenaline shot through her veins, and she snapped up in her bed.
The dimming embers of the fire glowed before her and informed her of her reality. She shivered, rubbing her arms, and then went rigid. There was a red substance soaked into her blankets, leaking in from a stream of red that led to a puddle of red to her left.
Atienna turned her head slowly as she continued to follow the trail of crimson and then she felt her breath hitch.
Kalama, the Piscese advisor, laid beside her still bundled up in Alexei’s bright blue fur coat. Her eyes were wide, her lips blue, her skin an unnatural shade of ash. At the center of her chest—at the center of all that blur dyed fur—was a crystalline formation of red that erupted like a flower from the center of her chest.