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1. Faith in Fate

“See, I believe that you believe what you’re saying but I refuse to believe it.”

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He made his way down the branch very slowly, closer and closer he slithered to gain a better view. Unseen by anyone, his dark green scaly skin blended in with the leaves. Unheard as he was unseen, not a hiss nor his breathing was heard. Only the trickling of the river below. He was at the limb’s end and he pushed his head out further from behind the leaves blocking his sight. In his deadly, cold and venomous eyes he had his target. Even in this cold blooded form, he felt the warm rush of excitement just from setting his beady eyes on her. He coiled himself feverishly on the Marula branch above her. His target, a maiden, a beautiful young woman, who the ‘serpent’ had fallen in love with. He had been admiring her from afar for many days. Stalking and waiting in many beast forms, this day was the closest he got to her. The body of slithering snake isn’t easily detectable. The longer he stared, he felt himself growing more restless and impatient. The eagerness flowed through his body. Self control became an internal conflict, one he felt himself about to lose. The yearning of her company, the desire and longing to be in her midst was overwhelming. He found himself wrapped around the branch in pure heat.

Unaware that she had company, she continued to wash herself off in the river. The sun’s beams bounced off the water and the reflection hit her body in all angles. It was as if the heavens gave her own spotlight. Her bronze skin glowed with the sun, as it welcomed its warm embrace. It was as if her skin was mimicking the sun like how a child would, at a much lower intensity and in an adorable yet noticeable way. She moved gracefully in the current, as if she was dancing. Her movement was fluid and elegant. The snake was drunk in infatuation.

As she rinsed her hair and squeezed her locks of any water, her stalker stared mesmerized by her beauty then a man approached. A young man, son of a nobleman, his clothes weren’t shabby nor were they new. They weren’t in latest fashion but they weren’t worn either. He was a simple man one might have assumed however the ivory necklace and his golden bracelet spoke differently. He walked with a quiet and false sense of modesty. It felt like a disingenuous air of humility in anything he did. So far, everything about him contradicted something else about him but it did not matter much, as he was handsome. Humans are peculiar, they seem to misplace a sense of accountability when in regards to attractive humans. Anyway, his smile and his voice were disarming. His smile was as white as the ivory around his neck and as warm as the sun that was reflecting on it. His voice as smooth and as deep as his skin, which was like molasses. He was tall and his eyes were big and brown. All features that a woman would want to trust.

Our slithering serpentine friend was apprehensive. Was he to be her scaly savior? At the ready to come to her rescue, he quickly found out that won’t be necessary.

“Kito, you’re late!”, this was the first he had hear her spoke and the first he had ever seen her smile. Her voice as fine as the strumming of a harp and just as melodic. As fine as the sounds of running one’s finger on the rim of a champagne glass yet it was as moving and as powerful as the deep bellows of a whale and just as soothing and hypnotic. Her voice was like a flute that was crafted by the gods and her words were notes in a grand symphony, with a choir of angels. Her voice dispelled his apprehensiveness but that would only be temporary as the moments to come would then shape the coming days. Her smile was genuine happiness. It was filled with eagerness and anticipation, from her own heart. Yet that smile felt like it wanted you to share in its spoils too, that it wanted you to be as happy, as eager and as elated as her. It encouraged you to smile. With her white teeth beaming at whoever, it made them feel worthy. One would have a sense of pride and fulfillment knowing that such a beacon of joy was brought here in part by their own hands. That alone would make anyone smile. However just as with any other thing of beauty, while there is someone who is enjoying it there is someone who envies that enjoyment.

The ophidian laid there in hiding physically stunned but in his heart, writhing with jealousy. There was nothing more he wanted than to become the audience of her smile. To be the man she would look upon with such a dreamy gaze. Her eyes wanted him, they did not break from him once. In her eyes was Kito, in the snake’s eyes was discontent.

“My mother needed my help.”, Kito replied while getting undressed in order to join her in the river. As he was able to deduce what happen next, the snake slowly vanished into thin air and retreated home to the heavens where he assumed his true form, as Zagreus, son of the god of death.

Dressed in his black animal skin robes, elephant bone bracelets and a necklace made of lion teeth. The robes were made of jaguar and panther fur. He resembled his mother more than his father, his skin was like desert sand… a brownish orange. His facial features were strong and pronounced. Although he was handsome, it almost went unnoticed as he always looked as if he was upset. His eyes were low as he always squinted while in deep thought. He sat on his chair with his hand on his face, almost as if he was bored but truly he was just conflicted and bothered. He may have resembled his mother but his demeanor and mannerisms were that of his father. Rude, impatient and a wit as sharper the spear of the fiercest hunter. He sat in front of a mirror that would display his thoughts. The mirror was really thin and the face of it was almost fluid, like smelted silver. It would create ripples depending on viewer’s thought pattern. He would see images of his thoughts, however that would appear to him and be seen by him alone. The ripples could be seen by anyone in the room however. He thought if he could see his thoughts perhaps he could better organize them and resolve his problems. As all his focus and concentration went into this introspection, three bright orbs stormed into his room. His concentration still unfazed and his demeanor still that of an unamused spectator. The ripples maintained their constant rhythm even with this disturbance. His hand to his face still glaring at the mirror deeply.

“You weren’t summoned.”, Zagreus groaned.

“Fate is never summoned, Zagreus.”, one of the orbs retorted. These orbs, spirits of sister oracles took turns speaking. No single orb could speak in consecutive sentences. No one knew why, a curse perhaps?

“Ugh, here we go.”, he scoffed.

“Fate is the reason you’re in the heavens living amongst your kin and not in the pits with your father.” He didn’t say anything. “Well that shut him up.”

“Do you think we’re getting through to him?” the third one asked.

“Quite the opposite. You have nothing new to tell me which funnily enough ruins your overall purpose, so in turn I’m making the conscious decision to ignore you old hags. I’m not in the mood for redundancy today.” Zagreus indulged.

“You say mean things sometimes.”

He removed his hand from his cheek and took a deep breath. The ripples in the introspection mirror turned into large waves but on his face, he was straight and calm. He now sat upright with his arm on the armrest, staring at the floor for a moment in order to remain at ease.

“What do you want?”, he asked in the calmest voice he could muster.

“To bring you news, young god…”

He rolled his eyes. Then they took turns speaking.

“Your mind is conflicted.”

“Your body follows suit.”

“Fate may be fickle in it lays the truth.”

“Roads will converge then they will part, just as fate intervenes and changes a lover’s heart.”, the oracles said in unison.

“Wait… What was that last part? Fate intervening?”, Zagreus asked himself. The spirit orbs disappear and he found himself looking at the mirror once more. Again captivated by its gaze. “Fate… intervening… eh?”, he muttered as he stood up and walked towards the mirror. Then he smiled a devilish grin. An idea popped into his cunning mind. Fate’s intervention being his inspiration.

“Wait!”, the orbs returned. “You have three days and an attempt on each day.”

“One attempt a day? What if I do several a day?”

Darkness swallowed the room, only the spirit orbs glowed. With an ominous voice one of the orbs warned him.

“Only fools meddle with fate so fickle…”

“Plus you’re a god you don’t wanna come off too strong.”, another orb interjected.

The room was lit again and they disappeared a final time. Zagreus turn around to gaze into the mirror once more. Staring intently at his memory of her smile. He was confident that three days was more than enough time.

The next day came and he was ready to put his plan in effect. It was nearing the midday and his object of adoration had already started her day with chores. She had been putting out clothes to dry. Suddenly she heard a low rumbling, the earth under her feet began to tremble but it wasn’t like an earthquake. It felt like something was approaching, something big. She hurried around to the front of her house to investigate what it was. All she saw was a plume of dust approaching nonstop, with great force.

Her stomach was in knots. She still had an article of clothing in her hand, she gripped it tighter as this phenomena grew closer. As much as she cowered, she did not run inside nor did she frantically begged for mercy from the gods or whatever beast or demon approached. She stood there facing this object, biting her bottom lip, not wavering. Her feet planted, was it out of fear or bravery? Or both? She remained there as the rumbling grew louder, the earth moaned and rocks vibrated where they sat. The very foundation of houses shivered. She waited until it came to a stop right in front of her.

It stopped suddenly and when the dust settled, the menacing entity revealed itself to be a golden chariot drawn by three black arabian horses. The whole image was very extravagant. The reins were made of gold, the horses were wearing jeweled ornaments in the same way they wore armor for battle. These were features that did not make any practical sense only to make a shallow statement. The craftsmanship, the detail and the material used to create this was purely vain. There was no way this could have been used in battle. A golden carriage is too heavy and having horses in rubies and sapphires while in battle seems like a distraction. The wheels were encrusted with gold and had a red ruby in the middle of the spokes. The detail on the chariot itself had the carvings of the wings of an eagle, suggesting how fast it is. Funny. Along the edges of it were more jewels, the gaudy icing on this overbright and brassy cake.

The driver of this loud and showy chariot was none other than Zagreus. For once he was wearing something other than black. His pants made from lion skin, as he wore the mane around his neck and as sort of a cape he wore a pelt made of tiger fur. His boots were made from dragon’s hide, strongest leather known to man. His god-like physique was on display. His well defined abs and his rippling arms, was intentional left uncovered. On his wrist, he wore wooden bracelets made from a sycamore tree. As he stopped the chariot, he looked around puzzled as if he was lost and confused. He looked to his side and saw her looking up at him, also confused. In a very aloof manner, he hopped off the chariot coolly.

“Hello, fair maiden. Perhaps you could help me. Could you point me in the direction of a nearby steed caretaker? My horses need tending.”, he inquired as he leaned on one of the horses to flex his muscles.

“Well, you may have passed it on your way here. It’s in the direction you came from.”, she replied swiftly.

“Oh. I was lost.”

“They also sell maps. It’s right in the town.”

“Ah-”, he awkwardly began to chuckle.

“And could you keep it down when you leave. All the rumbling might disturb everyone. Thank you.”, she said as she was about to walk away.

“Wait! Okay, I guess I’ll be more straightforward. I’m a god, Zagreus and we are fated to be together. I mean, aren’t you lucky? So what do you say? Let me have you.”

She said nothing for a moment, she just stared at him to see if he was actually serious. Her eyes honed in on him.

“I’m serious. You’re lucky it could be much worse.”, he urged.

“See, I believe that you believe what you’re saying but I refuse to believe it.”, she retorted as she proceeded to walk away.

“Whoa, whoa… wait a minute, are you allowed to do that? You don’t believe that I’m a god?”

“I believe that, it explains the loud chariot but I don’t believe fate would do that.”

“What are you saying? You don’t believe in fate?”

“I believe in fate. I just don’t believe fate would do that.”

“Okay, I’m lost. Since we’re speaking of beliefs. I didn’t believe this conversation would be this long. A god swooping in with a golden chariot does it for most mortal women.”

She paused and stopped in her tracks to look around at him, “You don’t talk to women much do you?”

“Ouch, right in the ego. I’m just relaying a message here, darling.”

“My apologies. I just don’t believe fate would have me in love with my betrothed only to be whisked away with you. I don’t have any reason to believe it. I see no signs. My love for Kito remains but I should believe fate just because you said it? I’m not convinced.”

“Okay, I’m definitely sure you’re not supposed to do that. Where’s the darkness now? We have people meddling with fate. I repeat, meddling with fate!”, he exclaimed looking to the sky.

“Yeah, sorry…”, she walked away for a final time.

The orbs appeared as we walked off leaving him behind.

“Hey guys, what the hell?”, he angrily asked.

“I hope you know this counts as one attempt.”, one of the orbs replied.

“I stole one of my uncle’s chariots for this.”, he groaned while palming his face.

“You still have two more chances.”

After a deep sigh, he muttered, “Signs, eh?

He vanished, along with the oracle spirits and the chariot to return home and think of his next attempt. The next day and as the sun rose to begin the work day so did Zagreus’ plan. Kito’s father, a nobleman and an established lender found his purses robbed, everything of value stolen from his house even collateral he held from his clients. This was on a most unfortunate of days, clients were scheduled to return for their collateral as well as tax collectors making their rounds. Coming downstairs to see his home ransacked with everything gone, he became frantic. He knew what day it was. Lenders who cheat their clients or miss tax dates were dealt with swiftly, but as a nobleman, the reputation of his family was also at risk. In the distance outside in the shadows dressed as a civilian was Zagreus with the orbs.

“Wait for it…”, he said with a sadistic glee.

A knock came at the nobleman’s door, it was a tax collector with a few clients.

“It’s that time of the month, Kibwe!”, said the tax collector enthusiastically as he entered the lender’s home, three clients followed behind him, “That sounded better in my head…”

“You’re upbeat…”, the lender sighed.

“Yes, I feel as if today is going to be a good day.”

The nobleman remained quiet as he took a seat in his living area.

“Well, you’re a gloomy gus. I refuse to catch your mood. I am here to collect. This place is a mess, Kibwe.”

“I was robbed, Jelani.”, everyone in the room gasped. “They took everything. The safe keeping… Everything.”, everyone in the room was shocked. Everyone except the tax collector. A scowl took his face. His good mood left his body completely.

“Kibwe, you mean to tell me… Your house in the middle of this town… Placed beside the imperial guards’ barracks… Was robbed of everything…?”

“Yes, Jelani.”

“Kibwe, you were robbed of all your riches the night before you had to pay your taxes and return all the safe keeping?”

“I know this sounds-”

“Yes, I know how it sounds. With the amount of gold, silver and safekeep you have in this house, don’t you think it would be virtually impossible for anyone to pull that off with no one waking up or witnessing it?”, as the tax collector asked that. The clients who were once concerned were now enraged. The two continued their discourse as one of the loaners quickly retrieved the guards and told them what was happening. As this argument grew louder, the nobleman’s family woke up and his son raced to the common area to see what was going on. He came downstairs just in time to see his father being cuffed and taken for trial.

“Father! What happened?!”, Kito yelled.

“Everything! They took everything!”, his father exclaimed.

In the distant lingering in the shadows, grinning from ear to ear. Rejoicing in the air of victory was Zagreus who witnessed the whole ordeal.

“And that is how the cookie crumbles, my friends.”, he said as he left the city like a performer ignoring the cries of encore from the audience.

“Aren’t you going to tell her?”, asked one of the orbs.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“It won’t be a sign if it comes from me, but one of you guys let me know when he tells her okay? I’m going fishing. For our wedding, I’m thinking shellfish… Think she’s allergic to shellfish? Eh, I’m sure we have a treatment for that.”, he vanished yet again. This time to go fishing for lobsters.

The day progressed, the morning turned into the evening, the sky bled reddest orange as the sun set. Birds were flying back to their nests. Flowers closed their petals. Everything and everyone was getting ready for the next day. While Kito sat beside the river where Zagreus made the decision to swoon his betrothed. His feet were in the water and the tears flowed from his eyes as the river flowed along his feet. She came to meet him, seems this river was a meeting spot for the two. She approached him slowly, with his head hung low. She fought her tears with each step, he was truly a pathetic and pitiful sight. She came and sat beside him and he turned his head away so she wouldn’t see his tears. She embraced him right after. He cried more in her arms. Strange how embraces work. He tried to hide his feelings and tears by putting up a mental wall but her arms gave him enough protection already. Gave him the security, the freedom to cry. Then he told her what happened.

In the bushes across from them were the two of the orbs, one left to retrieve the

smitten god. They returned shortly after.

“Wow, he looks terrible. Am I good or am I good?”, whispered Zagreus.

“Don’t be so certain.”, one of the orbs replied.

After explaining how he and his family have nothing left to their name, that even their house was seized, that they might move and he was no longer fit to marry her. She quickly interjected.

“Who are you?”, she asked.

“What…?”

“I said ‘Who are you?’”

“I am Kito…”

“Yes. You aren’t your father, you aren’t his name, you aren’t his possessions. You are Kito. I am engaged to Kito.”

“But that’s not how it works. It isn’t that easy-”

“I didn’t say it was going to be easy. As long as you have your hands and I have mine, we can forge whatever life we want.”

“But where would we live?”

“With my mother until we find a new place.”

The earth rumbled, shaking at it’s very core. It violently shook everything. The couple had almost fallen into the river.

“Uh, Zagreus…”, one of the orbs tried urging him.

Zagreus had his hand over his mouth, not surprised… or anything really. He looked very calm as he stared at the two lovers. He seemed to be in deep contemplation more than anything else. His eyes squinted and they were fixated at the two. He stood there still, pensive. One could tell that he was upset from how violently the earth shook under his feet of course, not by his smooth and cool facial expression.

“Zagreus… The earth…”, another orb reminded.

He turned into a plume of black vapor or smoke, and ascended into the sky. The earthquake stopped and the couple were safe. As Zagreus returned home, his mood was again reflected in natural phenomena. As he flew through clouds, his dark vaporous body began affecting them. Each cloud he flew through became dark and unstable, transforming into a cumulonimbus. A new storm cloud formed as he passed by. Lightning and thunder spouted from each of these fierce storms in his wake. They lasted until he got home and retreated to his room. He laid in his bed and stared at his ceiling. The orbs followed him.

“You have one-”, one of them said.

“Leave.”

“Zag-”

“Now.”

They vanish while the god laid in his grand bed, made of angel feathers with a heavy vengeful heart feeling defeated. He also felt angry at everyone and everything, the couple, oracles and himself. Especially himself.

“Hello brother.”, in came Macaria, his sister.

“You’re interrupting my self-loathing time. Leave.”

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”, she said as walked around his room tinkering with his belongings. “Your girlfriend giving you a hard time.”

“Why are you here?”

“Well since you almost split the Earth open and left a line of thunderstorms in a tantrum, I thought I ought to check up on you.”

“I’m fine.”

“C’mon, talk to me. What did your little girlfriend do?”

“How do you even know about her?”

“Eh, our relatives gossip.”

“Tsk, whatever. I’m fine.”, he said angrily and turned his back.

“Okay, I thought you’d want a female perspective…”, she said as she was about to leave.

“Wait… Fine. Nothing’s working. Nothing that I do. I showed her the flashy chariot, I even made her fiance poor… nothing works.”

She chuckled.

“What’s funny?”

“Nothing, it’s just that… Like… What about him?”

“What do you mean?”

“A woman in love, is unmovable… Unshakable…”, as she said that he thought of how she stood firmly when he approached on his chariot. How she unlike the birds and woodland creatures that ran away, she remained resolute and unwavering. Even though she was nervous, she still didn’t show any fear. Her eyes were ready to face whatever this adversary was. “But men… A man’s heart can always change.”, she said while playing with some of the trinkets on his wardrobe, after she said that he thought of how Kito was ready to give up. How easy it was to change his heart. How easy it was to let go of hope and accept defeat. The winds and tides changed suddenly. “What is it?”, she inquired. She turned her head around to see him sitting upright in his bed with a devilishly grin. He had already thought of a new plan.

“Would you be willing to have a brother-sister day of bonding tomorrow?”, he asked with a wicked tone.

“Of course. I like that look on your face.”

Macaria was a beautiful goddess. A fierce attitude and a sadistic nature, she was the embodiment of a woman’s cruelty and ruthlessness. The cold-hearted will and character of a woman’s heart brought to the surface. She was beautiful as she was wicked and clever. From her bronze complexion, to her magnificent cheekbones to her elegant frame, she was beauty. She represented the physical attributes of womankind well. Her lips weren’t thick but they were full, they were able to sink a knife in your gut whenever she pursed them at you while making you feel at ease whenever she smiled. Her eyes were beautiful but a bit eerie. It was as if the peered into your soul, as if it looked at your consciousness. You couldn’t hide from these eyes. They looked through every lie and looked through everyone. They saw the very fiber of your being, you were always naked in front of those eyes. She knew this about herself and always looked people dead in the eye just make them uncomfortable. Zagreus sought to exploit this beauty.

The next day came and the plan was ready to be set in motion.

“Alright, hurry and get in place.”, Zagreus whispered to his sister. She held her hand up in his face to respond.

“Relax. This is what I do.”, she replied.

They were in the market place waiting for Kito to come. They knew he would be picking up a few items as they sent one of the orbs to his new home to eavesdrop and figure out their daily errands. He would pick up things from the market and she would wash his clothes and help her mother do some cleaning. The market was busy but they were able to spot Kito and follow through. In the meantime they were waiting Macaria was picking up a few goods too, to make it seem as if she was actually buying things. She also asked the oracle spirit if she was able to recall any of the items he had to get. The orb relayed the list. So as Kito perused the fruits and vegetables he needed, Macaria would be in the same vicinity picking up the same items either before him or after him.

“Why isn’t she talking to him?”, Zagreus asked the spirits.

“She said that this is what she does.”, one replied.

Kito saw only glimpses of her face but even in those small instances, he was still able to notice her beauty. She was wearing a hood as well, which added more mystery and made him more curious. They kept running into each at every turn to the point where it was almost expected. They playfully raced for items and exchanged short laughs. Kito had only one more item to get and he quickly went for it, thinking he would run into her again but she wasn’t there. He stood there briefly and a bit disappointed. He wasn’t entirely sure why either. He turned around ready to purchase these foods and be on his way, however he ran into her again. This time literally, knocking everything out of her basket including her hood from over her head, revealing her face.

“Oh man, I’m so sorry.”, Kito said, “Let me help you.”, he quickly knelt down and helped her recover her belongings. Only to be captivated be her face. The high noon sun fell through the cracks of the roof of the selling place and those beams just happened to fall on her face. The sun struck her face intimately, even the way the shadows on her face hugged every feature. He was already smitten.

“Thank you”, she said in a soft voice as if she was blushing. Then she put a put strand of hair behind her ear embarrassingly almost.

“This is a lot. I’ll help you with these.”, he insisted.

“Wait. Are you sure? You don’t-”

“No. It’s the least I can do.”

“Thank you.”, she laughed again trying to cover her face blushing.

“How the…?”, Zagreus looked from a distance in disbelief and confusion.

Kito and Macaria purchased their goods and Kito and walked her home. They had a really simple conversation with the exchanging of names. Her demeanor was timid and shy, so Kito carried most of the conversation. It was as if her timidness gave him more room to have the confidence to tell terrible jokes to break the tension. She still gave him blushful laughs in return. They finally got to the house that she said she lived. He placed the bags at her door as she didn’t invite him in. She stood in the doorway and they stood in front of each each in a short moment of silence, awkwardly almost.

“So… I’ve never seen you around here before.”, he said as if he was inquiring more about her. After he said that, she didn’t hold her head down. She looked him dead in the eye.

“Yes, I’m travelling. This is my uncle’s home. My father died recently. He left some acreage in a distant land and I am his only child.”

“So you’re going to claim it?”

“Yes.”

“By yourself?”

She chuckled again, looked down on the floor once more, brushed her hair behind her ear and drew a circle in the sand with her toe shyly.

“Do you believe in fate, Kito?”, she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“I wish I could… Fate has never been good to me… Some things that I know I want… I never get it… Even when it’s… Right in front of me.”, her eyes slowly tracked up further and further with word and her head slowly tilting up to look him in his eyes once more. It was as if he was possessed, he was no longer in control of himself. He lost all sense of himself. He was lost in her eyes. “Do you ever feel that way sometimes?”, she asked.

“Sometimes.” he said after a gulp. “But why wait on fate?”, he then asked breathlessly. He placed his hand on her cheek.

“Kito…”, she whispered faintly. “I don’t want to live there by myself.”

“You shouldn’t have to.”, he said as he moved closer.

“You’d move with me?”

“I’d follow you anywhere.”

“Good. Here’s the directions to the land. I’ve already committed them to memory.”, she said as she handed him a piece of parchment.

“Why can’t we go together?”

“Well, my uncle is taking me on this leg and his carriage is packed. However I can give you a horse and you’ll take it with you and get a day’s headstart. Is that okay with you?”

“Yes, I’ll see you there tomorrow.”, he said as he moved in for a kiss but she ducked to pick up the bags then locked the door in his face. She threw the bags on the family that actually owned the home as she went inside. She had tied them up and covered their mouths. Zagreus was sitting in a chair in the common room with his feet placed on the father’s head. Kito had left with the horse.

“That was amazing. Gross and uncomfortable to watch. Amazing though.”, Zagreus sighed with relief.

“Where’s the spirits?”, she asked as she grabbed a knife from her waist. “And could you hand me the father?”

“They said they’re job was done here… And uh, sure.”, he answered and picked up the father and placed him at her feet.

“Well you should be happy.”

“Yes, I am actually. I’m going to witness this myself.”

“Good, you deserve it.”, she said as she held she mans chin to show his neck and she casually slit his throat.

“Whoa… What the hell?”

“He was unfaithful to his wife… I’m sorry you had to find out this way, ma’am.”, she said to the mother who was tied up on the floor crying. “Don’t you judge me. You wear dead animals and I kill adulterous men, let me do my thing.”

“Yeah… same thing. I’m out.”

“See you when you get home.”

He eagerly rushed out to watch this play out. He transported himself as black vapor once more. He found them by the river yet again, quarrelling it seemed.

“It’s fate!”, Kito said.

“What are you even talking about?”, she asked with tears streaming down her face.

“We’re either subject to fate or we create our own destinies.”

“What?”

“I don’t know either but I’m willing to find out. I’m sorry. I’ve fallen in love with someone else. We are fated to be, I’m going to make sure of it.”, those were his parting words and he mount the horse that was “loaned” to him and left for the distant land.

“Kito!”, she screamed at him once more. Begging and beseeching for something more. How did this happen? Confused, she frantically ran to a tree and sat on the root that was above ground. Zagreus made his way over to her smoothly.

“How’s this for signs and reasons?”, he asked.

She looked up clearing her eyes and sniffling, “Wait. You? You did this?”

“Not me, dear. Fate.”

“Fate…? Kito just mentioned that… It was you… Even sending his father to jail? There was no way anyone could rob him.”

“Well, fate needed a helping hand.”, he said boastfully.

She sighed deeply before she asked, “So you did this because you’re in love with me?”

“Yes. More than anything else.”, he said as he fell to his knees to look her in her eyes. “Ever since I’ve-”

“Well then. Let me ask you something. Zagreus, right?”, she quickly interrupted.

“Yes, my love.”

“What’s my name?”

“… What?”, he asked. He did not foresee this happening.

“I’ve already lost my husband to be so if you can tell me my name. I am yours.”, she offered. He remained silent and confused. “Okay, I thought so. Now then, can you let me cry here by myself please?”

“But the prophecy…”, he muttered. Then it struck him. “It was Kito’s heart… Not yours that changed.”

She cried uncontrollably. Her once smiling face, the face he thought of in the mirror now in shambles. Wails of pain and agony, were where an infectious smile once sat. The tears streamed off her face into her lap. She started to hyperventilate and groan as if she was in physical anguish. Her face was in her hands. Zagreus stretched his arm out but he withdrew it. He knew the source of her pain could not be the person to console her instead he retreated back home.

“So you’re telling me, after sending a nobleman to jail, uprooting a family, killing someone’s fiance–”, Macaria listed before being interrupted.

“We killed someone’s fiance?”, Zagreus asked.

“Well, I gave him really bad directions. He should be dead or lost by now in a day or two… But back to my point. Breaking this girl’s heart and all you had to do in order to win her was know her name?”, Macaria asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re an idiot.”

He remained quiet.

“No need to to beat yourself up though. We all-”

“I’m not.”

“Good. How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sad?”

“No.”

“Mad?”

“No”

“That’s weird.”

“I just feel like I’m missing something from all of this.”

5. The Illusion of Choice

The echoes of her footsteps bounced along the cave walls paired with the steady, metronomic dripping from stalactites. The darkness was thick, dense and unyielding. It seemed to have gone on without end, like a  moonless, starless night. Only the ominous, fluorescent river running alongside her path gave some light but it still wasn’t enough. Its weak, bluish glow could not light the way ahead. The path felt aimless, the destination seemed uncertain, the desolation of this grotto was one’s only company. What business does anyone have coming here anyway? The only thing that could have been found in this place was fear, despair and hopelessness but she trekked on nonetheless, she felt none of this. All she felt was bitter nostalgia and to her, that was much worse. She definitely would’ve opted to feel the former. She came to the light at the end of this labyrinth, walking along the riverside. There was a figure of a man sitting at a grand table in a ballroom with the luxury furniture that we’ve seen before, waiting for her and he stood from his seat in respect as she arrived.

“Welcome, my child.”, a warm and sonorous voice echoed. The man, the God of the Dead. An eccentric being, a  walking, living and breathing contradiction. A man who’s very being challenged his godly purpose. From his smooth, deep and disarming voice, to his pleasant and confident smile, to the distinguished beard on his cheek, to the whiteness of  his robes and grandiose of his home, all of which countered the fact that he trafficked souls in his spare time.

“What’s all this?”, Macaria asked sharply.

“This is dinner.”

“What?”

He sighed briefly. “It’s been a while.”

“A couple hundred years.”, she said indignantly.

“Exactly, which is why I’ve prepared this banquet for us.”

“Exactly why we can do without a banquet.”, she said as she was about to walk away.

He punched the table while his free hand was in front of him, making a motion to try to keep himself calm. She stopped in her tracks. After another sigh and a brief struggle to remain calm, he spoke again. “I’m sorry and I hate to say this but the very reason there is air in your body in your day-to-day life and at this time… Especially, this time… Is because I’ve allowed it. You entering this cave…. Is because I’ve allowed it.”, he said in almost a painful groan.

She turned to look at him.

He continued. “You ran away from your mother’s domain, now you attempt to use me as a refuge and I understand and welcome that… But not take my kindness or even give an ear to my attempts to make amends in return?” He paused again to give his voice time to regain its pleasantries. “Now if you will, daughter,  please take a seat.” She walked to a chair at the opposite end of the table and sat reluctantly. Her face marred with her mood. Her jaw clenched, her lips pursed with her eyes getting smaller while her eyebrows knitted. Her arms folded and her legs crossed with one of her feet flicking impatiently. “You look like your mother when you’re upset. Did you know that? It’s absolutely unnerving.”, he said casually before taking his seat. He then clapped twice to summon his undead servants to wait their table. The tension was stiff but he still seemed quite nonchalant, almost.

“So what would you like to talk about?”, she asked dryly as her plate was being prepared.

“My mistakes.”, he replied as he cut into his steak.

“Excuse me?”

“I wasn’t exactly the best dad in the world–”

“You were hardly a father!”

“Well yes, you’re-”

“No! You abused us! Tortured us! Me especially! I had to brunt everything!”, the brewing resentment that had been bubbling under her skin for centuries had finally surfaced and its presence made itself known through her voice.

“Yes that is true but let me-”

“No, you must not remember! And you expect me to eat with you?! Even be grateful?! After everything you’ve-”

“Please let me finish.” he said sternly as he closed his fist. The fact that she wasn’t saying anything surprised him, so he looked up only to see her gasping  for air. “Macaria!”, he released his fist immediately.

“Did you just-?”, coughing and trying to catch her breath. This cave was his domain. Everything here was under his control, even the air that entered a visitor’s body.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I don’t normally have company over-”, feelings of remorse instantly flushed his face but she did not want to hear it.

“I shouldn’t have come here.”, she got up and gathered her things.

“It was an accident. Please don’t go… Please…”, he stood up as well. For once he seemed flustered. Usually a self-possessed man, who took the utmost pride in having everything under his control, especially his emotions. It was unlike him to be this ruffled. He was also aware that these feelings were new to him, that he was outside his nature. He didn’t know what to do with himself, feeling like a fish out of water in his own body. His bravado went into hiding. His boldness became immaterial and he almost looked vulnerable.

“What do you want from me?”

“This was… It was supposed to be yours.”, he said as his voice cracked.

“What?”

“You were my heir… Heiress…”

“What are you going off at?!”

“You were supposed to relieve me and everything I did was to prepare you for assuming my place. Taking over this domain.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s the reason we had you and your sister.”

“What…?”, the rage on her face was replaced with brief confusion. “So you and mom using us is supposed to make me feel better?”

“No… It’s only to let you know.”, he paused as he used his index finger and his thumb to wipe the corners of his eyes.

“Everything I did… Was to prepare you.”, he added.

“You made me… A child… YOUR child… Do terrible things…”

“I tried to rid you of your humanity… So you wouldn’t make my mistakes…”

“What? Are you really trying to justify your daughter’s dread?”

“No. I just said that I had made mistakes with you.”

“And what am I to do?”, her voice began to crack as well and tears began to stream along her cheeks. “I’m crying for a third time today… Good job with that humanity thing…”

“No, don’t speak like that.”, he urged as he walked towards her.

“Don’t come nearer.”

“Listen, do you remember your punishments for disobeying me?”

“What kind of question-”

“Do you remember them?”, he asked once more still advancing towards her.

“Yes.”, she replied in a cold whisper.

“One of them, I would send you into a pit… Remember? The Isankuri Hallow?”

“Pit of the damned and insane? Doesn’t ring a bell.”, her sarcasm did not go over well. He said nothing but only stared at her with a sense of irritation. “I don’t even know what’s the point of all this.”

“Answer me, Macaria.”

“Yes. I remember.”

“Good… Well, not good but good that you remember… What I’m trying to say is good came from it–”

“Out with it.”

“Well that would’ve unhinged anyone’s mind. Warp them into someone else. Not even I would’ve been able to manage that repeatedly but even at that young age, you were more powerful than I could have possibly imagined. I was foolish though, blinded by my own shortcomings to notice it until it was too late. Anyone else would’ve came back from that pit differently but you came back the same every time, with only tears in your eyes.”

“But I did become different.”

“No, you’re still capable of love and compassion and that is what, ironically enough, makes you stronger than me. I always felt that humanity was a weakness, but in a sense it is your strength. You’ve had a crappy life and terrible things have happened to you but you’re still able to love and care for people. That’s strength… Strength I couldn’t imagine of having. Like the strength to switch clothes with your sister to trick me, so I would think it was her… And you would bear it all… To protect her.”

“You knew?”

“I know my children, who do you think I am?”

“Yet, you still did it anyway.”, she replied coldly. “But you’re not making any sense either way. How can I take your place if I’m so filled with love?”

“Because your soul is incorruptible. Your strength is in your resolve. You left that pit the same as you entered, you were unchanged… Because your spirit, mind and soul is enduring… And that is what I should’ve assessed, not your humanity. I knew you were powerful, I knew your potential but I was….”, he paused to wipe his eyes once more. This pause was more dominant than the last. Macaria looked around her surroundings for a moment to gather her thoughts. Her eyes streamed around the room then focused on the crown of her father’s head as he was looking down at the floor, trying to find more words to explain himself.

“Are you bullshitting me?”, she asked.

“What? No!”, he looked up and saw her bags now at her feet. “Are you stay-”

“Firstly, you’re a terrible person… You’re so stupid. So stupid and I still hate you for what you’ve done. I can’t stress that enough… But I never thought that I’d see you of all people cry, so I guess you must have felt something for once and congratulations for that… Really, but I’m still hurt. You still did those things. You still messed me up. So I can’t even… I don’t know… I don’t want you to think me staying is me forgiving you. Frankly, I don’t think it is possible… I hate you. But it is a chance for you to earn that. And… I guess would like for us to change our present relationship. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity right? But don’t forget the only reason I’m here even considering this… it’s because I don’t have anywhere else to go without her finding me. So fortunately, here’s your chance to not let our future imitate our past. Don’t let yourself down.”

“That’s all I need!”, he said as he rushed to hug her.

“Please don’t move at me so quick again…. I almost stabbed you.”

“Thank you.”, it was a genuine hug. She finally felt warmth from a man who was cold all her life. A hug so convincing that she almost hugged him back.

“We’ll see.”

“Follow me to your room. I just finished cleaning it out.”

“Where’d my bags go?”, she asked as she bent down to pick them back up.

“I sent them off to your room.”

He walked her upstairs to another part of the cave that led to a grand bedroom. Just like all the other rooms, it was carved from the mountain rock. So the walls and floors were pitch black. The floors were granite with intricate, meander designs. They were so polished that they were almost reflective. There were pillars that were carved into the walls not for supporting the infrastructure, but only for decorative purposes. The room made a statement or a few. It felt bold and irrefutable like the essence of banks from the early 20th century. It was as distinguished and awe-inspiring as ancient temples, the typical homes of holy men or as grand mausoleums, the typical homes of corpses. Its last statement was majestic, dignified and palatial, sort of like a queen’s bedroom.

“You designed this yourself didn’t you?”, she asked in jest as she walked about it. He chuckled nervously.

The bed was large, with black linen, black sheets and black blankets. The pillows and mattress were filled with black, eagle-owl feathers. The bedhead as well as its frame were made of black, volcanic granite as well. Both of which had intricate designs carved into them. The bedhead however, had the face of an owl. In front of the bed was a fireplace, that was as detailed as her bedhead. It had an owl with its wings spread carved into the face of the mantle meanwhile the panels at the sides had feathers carved into it. The fireplace produced blue, smokeless fires. On the wall above it was a mirror but it was too high for Macaria to even see herself in. Another decorative feature, perhaps. Fortunately there was a stately wardrobe made from African blackwood on the other side of the room, that had a mirror for her to use. There was a nightstand at her bedside made from the same material. To top off the already gothic appearance of the room was a chandelier, made of black stone hanging over the bed. Its candles held the same smokeless flames.

She noticed black curtains blowing in the wind. “I thought you hated windows.”, she said curiously.

“I do… Take a look.”, she walked to towards them, as she broke through them it led to an impressive balcony. A balcony carved into the mountainside, with a view of the sands of the desert below.

“I know you enjoyed the view at your mother’s… That’s why I chose to build your room here,”, he continued.

“So you could build a balcony?”

“Yes, but I know it isn’t as cloudy here.”

She chuckled. “It’s fine. I like it. The balcony… The room… Everything… Yup, you definitely designed this yourself.”

He chuckled again this time with a sigh of relief. He was at ease now. It was as if he was waiting for her validation. He didn’t take a breath the entire time she was inspecting until she expressed her approval. “I’m glad you enjoy it.”, he added. He was about to take his leave so she could unpack. “I’ll have someone bring your plate up here.”

“Wait.”, she urged. He stopped and faced her.

“Is there something wrong?”

“No. I’ll eat at the table.”, he smiled and was about to leave once more. “Also.”, he stopped again but he detected something in her tone, something serious and for some reason it made him a bit nervous.

“Yes?”, he turned to face her once more.

“You said something downstairs…”, he tilted his head slightly, now listening intently. “Why did you and mom have us?”

There was a long moment of silence, only the flickering of the blue flames in the fireplace spoke, cutting the stillness of the room and it seemed as if they only grew louder and louder as the two said nothing. He looked around to gather his thoughts for a moment, realizing he may have possibly misspoke or even said too much. She could tell he was mentally fluttering, even amidst his nervous chuckling but her eyes were resolute, they remained on him. His silver tongue turned to lead in his mouth but eventually, with a deep breath when he noticed there was no way out and answered all her questions.

The next day came.

“All this training is…”, Macaria said.

“Repetitive?”, he finished her sentence while playing chess with himself.

“Yes.”

“I know you– Checkmate.”, he then continued. “I know that you know all these things.”

“So what’s the point?”

“Father/Daughter quality time?”, he asked guiley.

“You’re funny… I know you have something more for me.”

“You’re not wrong…”, he got up from his stool and walked around the room to stretch his legs. The room was underground. It was here the blue, translucent river Macaria and even Kibwe walked by became a waterfall. It was foul and dark, a place plagued by unhappiness but it didn’t seem to affect them. This training room was one of the rooms that held bad memories for Macaria. It was cold and eerie. It was the passing point of all damned souls. The river had split into two tributaries. One of them became this harsh waterfall where the souls of the corrupt are attached, cursed to pay for their sins in death, tortured for eternity. The other tributary, a peaceful stream that leads to a garden where souls can finally be at peace, where they would even gain a corporeal existence in this place and be free to roam.

Unlike her childhood self, Macaria was no longer timid and scared during her training. She acted more confident, more comfortable with her birthright. Finally, she had something that was hers. She was no longer in the shadow of her sister or a tool for her mother. It felt like she finally belonged but she hid her contentment and satisfaction all too well.

“So on with it.”, she barked.

“The lesson is choices. I’ve learned a lot more from humans than anywhere else. I’d like to think the things that are taught aren’t new necessarily information, they’re just observations. As such, what we’ll be doing today is observing.”

“Very well.”

As the Mande-Kuru Empire slipped into chaos, its many territories were either being sieged by rival empires or being reclaimed by its people. Some of these former colonies became unstable with their newfound independence and were going through drastic and in some cases, dangerous changes. The two, now dressed in sandy calico to blend in with the desert setting, came to a newly “liberated” city to observe a particular house but from a great distance and unseen by mortal eyes. It was the home of a young widow. Who had lost her husband only a few weeks ago as lawlessness plagued the city. He was a soldier and while on duty he was attacked by rebels. He and his men were murdered in the most gruesome fashion. She alone left to take care of their daughter. Too poor to find anywhere else to live, he didn’t leave behind a large estate. In fact he had joined the army not too long ago, at the lowest military rank his pay was able to sustain he and his family but it didn’t leave much to save. Macaria began noticing a slight resemblance between herself and the woman. She was beautiful and young but her face held the inexperience of her youth and the fear of the days to come but what she lacked in experience she made up for in her spirit, vigor and resolution. Her cheeks now sunken and her collarbones more noticeable from a poor diet.  

“Let the observation begin.”, the God of Death said.

A gentleman came to her door and knocked. As the older gentleman knocked she closed her curtains and locked her windows.

“Open up! I saw you close the windows! Aye!”, the man shouted. He knocked even louder, now making a scene. “I want my rent!”, he went on. Her pride cracked under the pressure of humiliation. She opened the door. He entered with a smug grin and he closed the door behind him.

“I’m sorry, I still don’t have your rent… Ever since–”

“I don’t want to hear that pity story anymore, the first 3 months it worked well but I really need my money!”

“I just- I don’t know what to do…”, a tear left her eye.

“Look… I noticed you don’t even have money for food either.. Look, I’m a pretty wealthy man. This isn’t the only property I own. I collect rent from over a dozen houses in this city, y’see?”

“I see.”, she said, waiting for him to make his point. She knew him as an even tempered and well-mannered man but today, he was different.

“If your story gave you a roof… Imagine what else you could get from me… If only…”, the landlord said as he attempted to touch her bosom. She impulsively slapped him.

“What the fuck are you doing?!”, she shrieked.

“What?”, he said in a tone of confusion. “You’re broke. You have no husband or breadwinner. You cannot get a job unless it’s at night.”, he added snidely. “Forgive me for that but look, there’s no food for you or your daughter here. You have nowhere to go and soon nowhere to stay… Unless…”, he reached for her bosom once more. Instead of a slap, it was a punch that was her rebuttal.

“Who do you think you are?!”, she towered over him as he knelt over holding his jaw.

“You foul whore! You don’t know what you’ve just done! You think you’re safe?! I’ve kept them at bay for you! And this is what you do?!”

“Get out!”

“What?! This is my house!”

“I said ‘Get out!’”, she exclaimed with a kick to his face. He crawled out of the house enraged, stumbling to get back on his feet. “You won’t make it past sunset!”, he yelled and limped away.

“Now we wait.”, whispered Macaria’s father while she remained quiet.

“Mama… What was that?”, all the yelling woke her daughter. She wiped her tears quickly to conceal the fact that she was crying moments ago.

“Our neighbors got into a fight… Are you hungry, baby?”, the little girl quickly nodded her head. “Good. Wash your face, I’ll make you something.”

“Yes, mama.”, as her daughter ran off she took the time to gather her thoughts and hide a knife up her skirt. She took the threats from her landlord very seriously. In a time like this, she already knew a single mother would be a target. Nonetheless, she never made her daughter any wiser. To protect her of course but there may be more reasons to consider. Her daughter’s innocence may have been somewhat of an escape. A stressed mind needs some form of freedom, an outlet even and feeding on childish happiness to ignore the dejection of their lives may work effectively for her, something as simple as playing a childlike game. As such she kept the child ignorant. She never revealed when she was crying, never revealed that food was running out, never revealed that their future was uncertain. Whenever that little girl was around, she was quick to wear a mask. It makes sense, she had just lost her father. That little girl doesn’t need any more stressors. She came back and her breakfast was made.

“Here you go, Iniko.”

“Where’s your breakfast?”

“I ate already, baby.”, yet another lie. There wasn’t enough food in the house for both of them to eat 3 meals everyday. The young mother would skip meals or skip days just to make sure that her daughter wouldn’t go without.

“You always eat without me.”

“I will eat with you tomorrow.”, the mother said as she kissed her child’s forehead and began cleaning.

“This is depressing to watch.”, Macaria growled.

“True. We’ll be back at sunset.”, her father replied. The two became plumes of black vapor, flew off in the sky and headed home towards the mountain.

Sunset came and the godly beings returned. As promised, the rebels that landlord sent came shortly after.

Her heart began to pound in her ears, she felt her stomach form knots and it was as if all the blood in her body rushed into her head.

“Are we really going to watch this?”, Macaria asked passionately. Her father didn’t answer, he kept his eyes on the house and watched as the men broke in. It was about 12 of them, it was impossible to make their age. A child’s scream finally cut the air. “I’m not standing by!”

He said nothing nor did he protest. Macaria rushed inside and found the widow on the floor, struck down by one of the rebels. Beside her was one of them laying in his own blood with a knife in his chest. The knife the mother hid on her person. Macaria would’ve found that amusing if she wasn’t so angry witnessing these grown men break in with the full intent of hurting a mother and her child.

“Who ar-”, was all one of the intruders could’ve uttered before Macaria stabbed him with a black double-headed spear that she forged out of thin air. Now there were two rebels laying in their own blood and as they turned their attention on her, she mowed them all down.

“You guys are safe now.”, as she pulled the spear out the last man’s chest.

“So my confident daughter says.”, he said as he walked in very slowly, surveying the room.

“You were going to let them die.”

“Not quite. If memory serves me correctly, I believe the lesson is choices. I chose to let you make your own and you didn’t disappoint. Good job… Almost.”, he continued walking and surveying.

Leaving his daughter confused yet again, “Wait… What do you  mean almost?”

“You missed one.”, one of them hid himself and as the God spoke, he lounged out at him. Quickly catching the hand the trespasser held his knife, he used his other hand to hold the intruder’s neck. “I was expecting a bit more from you.”, with eyes bulging from his sockets and gasping for air, the man’s trachea finally crushed in his hand. He turned his attention to the young widow after dropping the man’s corpse. “Ma’am, may I have a seat?”

“If any of you come any nearer, I’ll stab you.”

“Being threatened in the space of 24 hours, imagine that.”

“Who are you?”, she asked.

“To be frank, I believe your saviors should be treated with a little bit more care. Don’t you think?”, his voice and his calm attitude disarmed her. She nodded, allowing him to sit. “A bit scarce.”, he said still surveying the room. “But still so very clean.”, he added, rubbing his nails against each other. “Minus all the blood, of course. I am impressed.”

“Who are-”

“We’re almost there. Your daughter is probably scared, you should let her know that you’re fine.”

“Iniko!”, footsteps were heard shortly after. Her daughter running from where she was hiding frantic and with her eyes filled with tears. The two embraced each other. The mother gripped her child tightly and exhaling a sigh of relief. “Now tell me who you are.”

“I’m really self-conscious about it but either way, my name does not matter. What matters is my purpose. As well as yours.”

“And you know my purpose?”

“I know it pretty well actually. Just as I know you, Imani, daughter of Issa and Isabis, House of Brandlelie.”

“What…? How do you-”

Now pressing his fingertips against each other. He always found great difficulty in keeping his hands still while he spoke, he interrupted, “A dancer in the Mwalimu’s finest troupe… Well former, Mwalimu… A high honor for women in your family for a number of reasons.” he chuckled for a slight pause. “To be of noble blood and run off with a stonemason though…?”, opening his hands as if he’s looking for an answer. “Don’t get me wrong. It sounds poetic. Especially with your betrothed at the time being a general and your husband then becoming a low ranking soldier. I do love poetry. How long has it been since you’ve danced?”  

“No one here would know that… We moved out of the city for that…”, she replied but then pausing.

“You’re right.”, fidgeting with his ring before looking her in her eyes for moment. She stared back into his, as if she was searching for an answer. It seemed she found it, because she instinctively knelt and bowed. “Mortals, they always have to make you prove yourself.”

“Please don’t take offense, my lord.”, she said almost frantically.

“Nah, I’m pretty used to it. Come get up, bowing makes me nervous.”, she and her daughter took a seat in the other side of the room as he gave his order. “So I decided to bring you decisions that need to be decided on. Would you like to hear them?”, she nodded slowly. “So Imani, here are your options. You could stay here and try to see where life may take you. However, these men are a part of a gang and they’ve been sent by someone, so the proper thing to say is seeing where death may take you instead…”, Macaria rolled her eyes, she never quite understood his strange sense of humor. He continued, “Because if I was in a gang and my fellow gang members didn’t show up to our next meeting on time, I’d be concerned. I’d probably go looking for them. Tomorrow around the same time? Part two of tonight’s events?”, opening his hands once more. “Or the second option, the General you left high and dry has taken a slice of the empire’s pie. Did I rhyme just now?” Imani nodded again.

“Could you please?”, Macaria interrupted.

“Fine, anyways so a province has just crowned him King. Funny how life works, right?”, he asked conversationally before continuing. “He’s still smitten by you and unmarried by the way.”

“What’s the catch?”, Macaria asked abruptly.

“I was coming to that. See now, he’ll overlook the fact that you were married, he’ll even overlook the fact that you have a kid, just one thing that’s in the way. Only one.”

“What’s that?”, Imani asked.

“The kid.”

“What?! Are you asking me to kill my child?!”

“Whoa! That’s a whole different religion.”, everyone in the room held an expression of puzzlement once those words fell out of his mouth. “You guys don’t know about– Never mind. No, not kill her. What the hell? You’re going to have to keep her with your mother. Since you’ve already started a life before him he’s going to want to rid you of that. Rid you of anything that reminds you of your old life.”

“What do you mean?”

“You won’t be able to stay in contact with her… Probably not even your mother too. However, I’m sure he’ll allow you to send money to them.”

“But I can’t even send a letter?”

“Nope.”

“Will I see her again?”

“I doubt it.”

“No, it won’t happen. I can’t.”, she said without thinking.

“Okay.”, he got up from the chair and fixed himself, ready to take his leave.

“What… You’re leaving?”

“Why, yes.”

“What about helping us?”

“I’ve tried. Instead you’ve opted to be quite… Hmm, what’s the word? I’m trying not to step on any toes here… Hmm, fine I’ll come out with it… Selfish… Quite selfish, I think. I mean, you’d rather be around your daughter even if it means risking her life…. And I suppose I can understand that… I don’t know… I suppose.”, now walking towards the door. “But I must respect your choice. Come, my child.”, motioning to Macaria to leave with him. Macaria wasn’t about to leave so easily but to her surprise.

“Wait!”, Imani screamed. Macaria had assumed that she had already made up her mind while a sudden rush of victory came over him but he did a marvelous job of subduing it. It was as if desperation grew a voice. She finally crumbled, resolution turned to despair and anguish. Her iron will was smelted down and it yielded for the safety of her daughter. In the midst of this, Macaria was sort of stunned not believing that she would take the deal. Now for some reason she trusted her father with whatever this was. He stepped outside and summoned two black Arabian horses right in front of their home. Macaria was tasked with bringing the child to her grandmother’s house while he would bring Imani to the province of her soon-to-be husband. The painful sight to watch the two prepare to part ways was too much. Even for the goddess herself, she felt helpless. She wanted to do more but she knew her father had a reason for all this. All she could do was fold her lips, clench her jaw and believe that this was all for the best. Only the sounds of hushed tears and sobs broke the night’s peace. Imani gave Macaria, who was already on her horse, her daughter and watched as they rode off. As they took off, Iniko bawled even louder.

“It’ll be fine. You’ll be safe, I promise.”, Macaria whispered.

Then even more weeping came. The God wondered where she had the space for all these tears though he didn’t voice it. He only mounted his horse and extended his hand to help her get up as well.

“We have much ground to cover if we’re trying to get there by sunrise.”, he spoke and she hopped on as well behind him, embracing him. They were riding for about an hour before either of them said anything. Imani only prayed for her daughter’s safety while he didn’t mind the silence, he just kept his eyes glued on the path.

“How will I explain to him why I’m there?”, she asked, sounding a bit worn out.

“I want you to think of a lie that best replicates the truth.”, he quickly answered, still sounding refreshed. “You’re a clever girl, I know you’ll figure something out.”, he added, figuring that she would be confused.

4. A Tale of 3 Tales

His body lacked water, he couldn’t even sweat anymore. His clothes were now rags, torn and ripped to make bandages for his blistered feet and his shirt into a turban. He limped with every step, exhausted and clearly in pain. His cheeks sunken and his collarbones protruded. Now he became a thin man. He had not eaten in days yet food was the farthest thing on his mind. His thirst grew and slowly his lips were becoming chapped, his mouth and throat becoming dry. His last drink of water was about a week ago. The heat was draining him. He could taste nothing, he couldn’t even salivate. His hair grew wildly and it was unkempt, his beard followed suit. Yet having a drink or getting a haircut wasn’t his main concern. He was deprived but he was not desperate. His body, grew more fatigued, too tired to even swat the mosquitoes from his skin. Each tree he walked by he used for support. The pain of standing on his feet with how much his knees ache, it should’ve been too much to bear but he was determined to get where he was going.

Driven completely by faith, it was the only thing he had left in this world. The 38th day of his fast and he was deep in the Jungles of Lavi Donateur. The tropical forest claimed the lives of many who stumbled here, even if they were prepared for the journey, unlike our faithful friend. The hot, steamy environment was home to many wild creatures and it was easy to contract some form of sickness and die untreated. People perished in this place in only a matter of days. Yet he made it this long without food or any other resources for that matter, not even a tent. He came on this journey empty-handed. He should have been dead by now, the fact he was still alive gave him more faith to continue. The rains, if it rained and the running streams, if he stumbled by one would quench his thirst, it was not a guarantee. He grew tired with each step but he found a strength to keep going. The strength of faith.

He had been trekking through these leaves and greenery for over a month, facing the plagues of insects and the darkness of the rainforest without changing his resolve. He believed in this journey wholeheartedly and it all stemmed from a dream. He had a dream that he would discover a place that no man had seen for over a thousand years, he thought of it as a sign. In his dream, a voice told him that he would have to fast while on his journey. He followed the instructions without fail. On this day, he had been walking for a total of six hours, he finally came up on another stream. Exhausted, he threw himself in the water and laid there to cool off after gulping some sips hastily. As he shut his eyes, he thought of things that made him happy, like memories he had with his family. In his recollection, he relived the very moment that brought this change into his life. A painful memory. He used to fear remembering it. The pain along with certain memories feel unbearable almost. He remembered how he did everything to forget it. Turning to drink and a secular lifestyle however none of that helped. Nothing he did quelled his internal turmoil until he found spiritual happiness. Thinking of the timeline of events that brought him here gave him comfort in a strange way. He was not sure if he would find the place he saw in his dream but he had faith that he would find something important. He believed everything in his life happened for a reason. He laid there now resting, finding peace in his surroundings and the taking the opportunity to meditate with the soothing sounds of the rainforest in the background. He had to rebuild his strength. The trickling of the stream, birds and insects chirping and water dripping from the leaves of wild plants on the soils of the banks all placed his mind at ease.

After an hour of sitting in the midst of these sounds, for anyone they would begin to blend together, mesh and form a sort of white noise. In meditation however, his spirit deepened and his senses heightened. He was still able to discern these different sounds, from the flapping of wings to the light thuds of nuts falling from their trees. Then suddenly, a new sound emerged. The sounds of people humming and speaking. It grew even louder too. He began to hear rattles, shakers and even children at play. He then got up from the stream in his soaked clothes excitedly. Still drained, he found the energy to run towards the sounds of human life. As he ran passed the final line of trees and shrubs he saw the same building from his dream. It was a wonder to behold in real life.

It was the Temple of Melinoe, a temple carved out of a mountain. It was built by man with nothing but hammers and chisels. The entire mountain was reshaped to be an architectural feat of wonder. The walls, pillars, tiles, everything was made of mountain rock, as such it had a dark earthy tone however at sunrise it would seem to glow. They were pillars at the base of the mountain and encircled it, they were clearly there aesthetics as there would be no real need for a mountain to need support beams. They each had geometric patterns at their bases and at the very top of them with intricate grooves on their body. The temple itself hugged the shape of the mountain, carved out above the base were more pillars built outside of balconies and rooms. At the very peak was the statue of a woman, with both hands extending as if she was welcoming you to this site. The entire edifice was geometrically perfect and aesthetically pleasing, it’s only right that no one had seen this place in so long. This sight was a privilege. It was all completely untouched by the outside world, even the people; it was clear that they had no interest in worldly possessions. Everyone who lived here were clothed in robes, they dressed very conservatively. It was its own society. There were children, places of healing, schools but no marketplaces or places of business. No different classes, no monarchy, everyone lived with each other and for each other as it seemed. It was a beautiful relationship, a utopia in every sense. These people shared everything, even beliefs, it was like a family.

He walked closer and closer onto the magnificent courtyard. With every step toward the temple, the temple-people paused, stopping everything they were doing to greet him. There were cheers and praise, everyone was very welcoming. They tossed beads for him to wear, brought him bread and water as if they knew that he was fasting. He was a bit hesitant to take these gifts at first. A group of holy women approached him in the midst of the surprise celebration.Their robes were all white with gold lining around their sleeves with a blue border on the ends of their cloaks that dragged on the floor. Each of them wore beaded jewelry. Their earrings were hoops made up beads that made an intricate pattern. The beads were aligned by color, it looked like a color wheel but only the section with the warm colors were used. That ensemble applied to their necklaces too. Warm colors, shades of red, orange and yellow forming a mesmerizing and ornate design with the use of beads. Simple beads strung together to form something so complex, necklaces that wrapped around their necks down to their shoulders. Their faces had paint or some kind of dye. Some faces shared the same patterns, some did not. The patterns were around the eyes, along the cheekbones and down the nose-bridge along the lips in the form of dots. Some of the women had more dots, some had less. It probably denoted seniority. The last trait they shared was that their heads were shaved.

“We’ve been expecting you, Reth.”, the eldest of the women said to him. They all dressed the same except her. She had no paint on her face and her head was not shaved, instead she wore a white turban that wrapped her dreads. She looked well up in age but she was still spry. Her face was radiant and her wrinkles gave an idea of her wisdom. They led and he followed, he noticed they had a blue image of an elephant on the backs of their robes.They escorted him inside of the temple while pointing out key points, as if it was a tour. “We’re in the great hall, here is where we have ceremonies. We try to limit the traffic here as much as possible. Upstairs, are our homes.”, one of the women said. The belly of the mountain was as beautiful as its exterior. This was the ground level, it was a large prayer hall with more pillars and fountains. It was a grand design and a sight to behold. Outside the temple were farmlands, schools for the children and places where they made robes, beads and whatever cultural ornaments they needed. Inside, above the ground level were homes, more healing rooms, prayer halls, meditation rooms, classrooms and fountains. The interior was massive and it was sort of a city, all except the ground level. It was considered a holy place. The tiles were carved from the mountain as well, they formed a beautiful pattern. Its focal point was a gigantic fountain. The women brought him to the other side of the hall. As he walked further inside and walked by this breathtaking fountain, he was in awe. They led him outside on the leeward side of the courtyard, to a woman who was dressed in similar robes with a blue elephant on her back as well, who just so happened to be petting a baby elephant. “Here he is, master.”, the eldest woman said to her as he she bowed. The other women bowed as well.

“Thank you, Sauda.”, the woman responded, then they left. Her voice completely disarmed him. It was the same voice from his dream. It was a voice that could pacify torrential seas. A voice that could lull hurricanes into a light breeze. It had stern undertones and delicate deliveries. It felt like the voice of a young mother or that of an older sister, either way it made you feel as if you were being cared for and looked after. A voice that seemed know you at your weakest and most vulnerable but it gave you comfort, freedom and reassurance. It gave you hope and strength. It made you know love… You heard it every time she spoke. It had the confidence and even more wisdom than the the leader of the holy women. “Hello, Reth.”, she turned her head to greet him. He stood there staring almost awkwardly. She too felt awkward, she turned her head back to the elephant while he stared. Still paralyzed from from her voice, he was taking in each part of her being. She seemed respectful and polite. Her air was inviting, probably why the statue of her was made to be welcoming. Her demeanor alone wasn’t warm just by itself, he took note of her smile as she greeted the holy women as well. As pleasant as she was beautiful. The afternoon sun bathed her and her skin glowed, adding to her warm presence. She gave plenty of nonverbals with her eyes and lips. Whether it’s blinking quickly in an awkward situation, rolling her eyes in boredom, folding her lips to stop her from saying something mean or hurtful or even pursing them whenever she’s skeptical of something. Her lips weren’t thick but they were full. Her eyes on the other hand, words could not measure. Even though they were slightly slanted, her eyes seemed wide. Seemed free of judgement or any preconceived notion. Her eyes were very peculiar, not even just by description. She would prefer to make eye contact to anyone who was speaking to her, as if she listened with her eyes as well as see. Naturally it created a receptive environment, imagine speaking to someone who isn’t looking for a flaw or something to exploit. Someone who does not see you any less than herself but by no means does it mean she will view you any higher either. Receptive is the best word to use to describe them her but it still feels short, aside from being a loyal audience, these eyes emitted encouragement and hope. You could find your worth in these eyes, they saw you for who are and who you could be. The final thing he noticed was her hair, they were dreadlocks. He took note of how black her hair was, dreads are prone to being sun bleached. His wife and his daughter had dreads when they were alive, for some reason they came to mind when he saw hers. Even he had dreads, he shaved them off years ago.

The awkwardness grew. She looked at him at the corner of her eye to see if he was still staring and he was. She would return her eyes to the elephant in front of her, then back to Reth for a moment trying to not seem rude, as her blinking intensified. “You know people normally have questions.”, after sighing in exasperation. The awkward tension and silence had seemed to take a physical toll on her. She sounded anguished. He noticed she spoke with her hands as well, she had turned to him and gestured encouraging him to speak where the elephant had used his trunk to put hand back on his head. After coughing nervously, he finally found a question.

“Ele– Elephant, where did you get it?”

“The flea market.” she replied bluntly. He said nothing in response. She caught herself and realized how rude she sounded. She sighed once more before speaking, “Okay, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have–”

“No. It’s me. I was a bit creepy here…. I was just distracted.”

“Ah.”, she uttered as her reply.

“I meant to ask, why elephants? There were drawings… Images on the womens’ robes and on yours and you’re petting one… While there’s a herd out here just grazing.”, he said as he just took notice of his surroundings. He was surprised that they were there all this time.

“I should be flattered. To think my face is able to distract a man from a herd of elephants. This is how my sister ought to feel. I can see why she’s addicted, it’s truly empowering.”, she said as Reth began to blush.“Relax, I’m just teasing. The elephants, eh? No one’s ever asked about them… Well not at first at least… Especially to me.”, she paused for a moment. “The jungle wasn’t as dense as it is now. It used to be all savannah, just like here. Then, I came one day and I found these creatures. So gentle and kind to one another. Elephants remind me a lot of people, they socialize… They hold on to memories especially painful ones. But what gets me is how they interact, they never truly resent each other. For example, Susi here doesn’t quite fit in with the other baby elephants. He isn’t as… Coordinated.”, she whispered the final word as if he could understand. She continued to pet the beast as she finished her thought, giving both Reth and Susi their fair share of attention. “But even though they have that difference… It doesn’t create resentment. I can assure you if you threaten him in anyway, this herd won’t forgive you for it. It’s the way it should be. These elephants are my faith in mankind.”

“So how did the jungle come to be and just left this part untouched?”, she didn’t answer immediately so he felt as if he had offended her. “I mean– I thought I had– I didn’t know it was a one-question thing.”

“No. Actually that’s the point of today. Everyone here gets oriented by me when they first arrive. Today is dedicated to me answering all your questions and you answering mine.”, he nodded in response then she began to satisfy his curiosity. “Well I came here to meditate… Really to take a break from my family but hey, I came here pretty often but one day came where I noticed half of the herd had just vanished. I assumed they were migrating or grazing but days passed and they didn’t come back. Why would they leave for so long? They lived right by springs that flowed into rivers that gave them water and fed the grass they ate and it’s not like they can get lost. I got worried. More of them started disappearing whenever I was gone, so I decided to do a stakeout one night. I saw groups of men coming and snatching them. Enough that they could manage. I followed them. They led me to a country that was at war and the elephants they kidnapped were going to be used in their invasion. They were planning on riding the elephants up mountain ranges that were behind the country they were at war with. To see these peaceful animals used as instruments of war. I was upset and I was going to let them feel its sting. However my mother intervened and she said that I could not free them… I couldn’t punish those people… She told me that I had to let fate take its course. I was heartbroken. I felt hopeless… So I came back here to hate my mother for a bit. They were all gone this time and that broke me down even more… While I was crying in this very spot, they suddenly emerged. They were hiding but they came out to console me. They felt what I felt… And I cherished that but the fact they were hiding? I don’t know… It did something to me. This is their home… Who hides in their own home? So I created the rainforest around the mountain but leaving just this area untouched. Enough room for them to romp, graze… Be themselves. I didn’t want them to feel trapped either.”

“That was a sad story.”

“Really?”, she replied.

“Are you being sarcastic again?”

“No.”, she said as she chuckled. “I mean I guess it’s sad.”

“What do you mean?”

“The entire chain of events that led up to the end result was sad… But I placed myself in different situations. Let’s say I was there when the first man came to take one, I would stop him and thwart his efforts. Let’s say I was able to free them and crush the people who took them away. It wouldn’t have changed me. I wouldn’t have been crying on a mound. I wouldn’t have felt their empathy. I wouldn’t have felt the need to change their living conditions. Selfish thinking probably… But I wouldn’t have known to cope with loss or sadness, honestly. I wouldn’t even have created this haven for them, this utopia… My followers wouldn’t have made me this cool temple?” she teased then continued after he chuckled. “It is sad that plenty of them died in bondage, captivity and wars that they were forced into… But I cannot dwell on that sadness, that’s like self-inflicted pain. The longer we cling to sadness, it slowly becomes anger and a lust for vengeance festers. It is probably selfish thinking. I don’t think we should be our own tormentors. Situations only remain dark as long as we keep our backs turned from the light. What do you think?”, she asked.

He stared at the grass for a moment and tears welled up his eyes and as he was about to wipe them he felt something wrapping around his arm. It was Susi’s trunk. He was placing Reth’s hand on his head to pet him.

“Wow. He likes you… And he probably felt my hand getting tired.”, she said chuckling. Reth stroked the elephant’s head and it was as if each stroke soothed both of them.

“I think you’re right.”, he said as he continued to pet Susi. “I can relate.”

“Would you like to share?”

“A year or two ago I couldn’t…”, he paused briefly, still petting the creature who was all too relaxed under his hand. While she stared at him as he spoke. “10 years ago I was a captain in the army. We were assigned to police the city. Patrols… Apprehending thieves and muggers, you name it. I loved my job and I loved my country. My father was a captain too, in his younger years… We had intel of a rebel organization in the city, we were tasked with taking them down. We wanted to prevent an insurgency. We arrested a handful of them and I was always on the frontlines with my men. I guess it made me popular among the rebels…. I… Uhh… It was the dead of night, my house near the center of the city. So close to the barracks. I knew this was a move to hurt me mentally more than anything else. A desperate move. An effective move… The dead of night…”

“You don’t have to if it’s too painful.”

“I’m used to this pain… It no longer controls me.”

She nodded. He continued.

“The dead of night, we were all asleep. I hear someone entering my room. I grab my sword. I look to the door… And there they were. Rebels in my own home. I assume they’d been spying on me or had paid off one of the troops. That wasn’t my concern at that moment. They had my daughter… Held her by her hair… By her dreads…”, the tears welled up again. “With a knife at her throat. Then the leader entered my room and spoke: ‘Captain, you might want to put that back where you got it.’, he was speaking about my sword… My wife stood there, scared, frantic…. And I could do nothing…. For years I thought I should’ve lunged at them. They wanted me anyways, right?”, he sighed and scratched head, pausing briefly. The pain resurfacing on his face. You could tell from his entire demeanor, he had truly spent a large part of his lifetime fighting this. “But I suppose what happened, was meant to happen. Who knows? So I saw my scared wife… My petrified daughter… Tears streaming down their faces… I dropped my sword. ‘It’s me who you’ve come for… Just take me. Leave them alone, please.’, I asked and he said ‘You’re right. We’ll get to you in a minute. We’ll be borrowing your wife for a few moments.’, I objected. I said ‘No.’, then they pressed the knife against my daughter’s throat… I saw the blood from her neck… I felt so helpless. My wife saw and she did what any parent would do for their child, she went with them. They grabbed her by her hair too…”, he sighed again, this time Melinoe held his shoulder and he mustered more courage to continue. “Her beautiful hair. They took them into the room next to us while it was the leader, myself and two other individuals. I spoke again, ‘Please don’t do this.’, then he grinned the ugliest grin I’ve ever seen. I was looking at the personification of evil… This man had come ready and willing to carry out his plan… My words meant nothing, I knew this now. ‘Place your hands in these bonds or so help me Alkebulan, I give a signal and your family will breathe their last breath.’, he said as he gave me my bonds. I no longer begged. This was happening. I could do nothing. The very moment these bonds were fastened around my wrists, he gave a signal to one of the men at the door, I was about to say something and immediately I felt something hit me in the face, I was on the floor tasting my blood. He was the first one to beat me. “‘I want you to live, so you can live with this forever.’, the sounds of his fists kinda faded out after a while. All my ears were focused on was what was going on in the next room. I heard my wife and daughter struggling. To this day I can hear their muffled squeals and screaming. I didn’t sleep for years… All I heard were their cries for help, their anguish…. And I could do nothing but get beat up… I even overheard them speaking… The rebels… Talking among themselves… ‘Oh furaha, a virgin!’, I began to cry under every single blow they threw… Not because of punches and kicks… But because I couldn’t protect my family from what was happening to them… Hmm, I was the cause of what was happening… I… I was so weak… They took turns beating me as they left my bedroom, they entered the next room and vice versa… Although my eyes were swollen, I could still see through the blood and tears… These guys coming in fixing their pants… With that same wicked grin. Before beating the shit out of me. I no longer heard the screams and moans of my wife and child… I just wanted to die and I sensed that they did too. I couldn’t bear it anymore…”, his voice cracked and he took a longer pause this time. “Their timing was precise, once they all had their fill, the insurgency begun… The military sprung into action and of course they would need their captain… If I wasn’t there someone would come by and check. The rebels were aware of this so they carried us out, all three of us. My wife holding my daughter crying hysterically… With scars on her face… Both had their clothes ripped… My face felt so numb, I couldn’t even speak to them. They led us out, they placed me in a different carriage. I tried to fight but I was already weak. I couldn’t… I couldn’t get to them. As I was thrown into the back of the carriage I saw the face of my wife growing smaller into the distance… The woman I loved in absolute horror and fear. I never saw them again. They brought me to a camp and I was their prisoner… They wanted to get information out of me but I didn’t budge… I said nothing for the year I was in there, abused and tortured… Even starved. I thought my defiance through silence would be enough to kill me. It wasn’t enough. By the end of the year, they placed me in another carriage. Still not speaking. In the carriage was one of the rebels, he looked familiar… All he did was stare and I stared back, looking him in the eye. I was prepared to die. Then he spoke right as we were about to pull up, ‘You know you’re a strong man. Your family had that strength… When they were together, that is. They would comfort each other. Give each other hope. So the boss had to split them up. He sold the mother and kept your daughter. She got real quiet after… Not like you… Not that strong-type silence… It was fear that shut her up… And a man’s touch to get her chatty….’”

“What did you do you after that?!”, Melinoe shrieked.

“It was probably the most empowering thing I ever did…. I said nothing. Did nothing. Showed nothing. All I did was stare back.”, he chuckled. “He couldn’t manage looking me in the eye anymore. He held his head down until we got where we were supposed to go.”

“Wow… Where were you going…? And why didn’t you get upset? You knew he would cave?”

“They were trading me for another prisoner. I was heading home. I didn’t get upset because I was already upset. Do you know how much rage you have bottled up to not speak for a year? To not even feel pain from anything else but your own sadness?”

“A lot.”

“A lot, I was angry at the rebels because I had to be angry at them. For some reason I was angry at myself. I found a way to hold myself accountable by blaming myself for even joining the force. I even started to blaming my father for convincing me. If I was someone else, if I was a farmer it wouldn’t have happened. I made myself and them a target. I resented myself.”

“Hmm.”

“Anyways, he helped me out the carriage and the exchange was happening. As I entered the borders of the city, I heard cheers. Cheering for me, I was welcomed back like a hero simply because I gave up no intel. Foolish thinking. The reason I didn’t give it up wasn’t out of love for my nation it was because I wanted to die. On my arrival I received awards and praise, they had a job waiting for me. I turned it down, instead they offered me a retirement salary. The only person to ever gain such a thing. I took it. I went back to the house. Someone cleaned up. Went to the room they had my girls in and I closed the door then I went back to the bedroom, to shave my head and to try and hang myself. It did not work. Every attempt on my own life failed but I was getting paid. So might as well enjoy retirement huh? I basically lived at the bars and brothels for a total of five years. Then apparently my behavior didn’t reflect the military image… Whatever, went from being overpaid to not get paid at all. I spent every remaining dollar on alcohol and women. I became homeless. I had to sell my house to buy food… It was fine I didn’t sleep anyway. I was broke, hungry and homeless for years. Then I found the only place that would take me in for free… a monastery. I was there for the free food but they began teaching me the ways of the universe and helped me cope with things but I just actually started not too recently so I don’t understand why I would be chosen to come here.”

She embraced him as he finished that sentence with tears in her eyes. Amazing, she has heard stories from hundreds of people and she still manages to share in their empathy. She was immune to the common disease from being a public confidant, which is becoming desensitized to trauma. Finding someone who’s good at helping people cope while feeling what they feel is rare. Crying on his shoulder, she responded, “You are strong. It takes a lot of courage to head for the light. I’ve placed many monasteries across this continent and I’ve placed my own elders there to watch over them and make suggestions on who to bring here–”, she interrupted her own self by coughing. She lost her breath for a moment. A fully grown elephant came only a few feet away and used her trumpeting to signal to Susi, it was his mother. He ran to her while Reth tried to go get Melinoe some water. “No. It’s fine… As I was saying. It wasn’t just me. Your teachers believed you were ready to learn more… About everything, not just yourself too.”

“Well… If they think so…”

“That’s the spirit… Now let me give you a tour to complete this orientat–”, she started coughing once more, this time she fell to the ground. Some temple-people were nearby. Reth signaled to them.

“Get some water!”, they were on their way.

“Unhand her, mortal.”, a woman spoke from behind him.

“Wait mom, wait… He’s cool.”

“Then why are you on the floor, love? Come.”, she helped her up and felt her forehead for her temperature. “You’re getting sick.”

“I’m fine mother.”

As this conversation took place, Reth became a lot more aware of who this woman was and he went back to his former stage of awkwardness where he stared intensely.

“If you’re so fine, tell me why are you coughing? We don’t cough. Come let me take you ba– Sir, how can we help you?”

“Ah, Your Excelle– Your Maj– Your Divinity, I am but a humble servant who only seeks to help you.”, he said as he fell to the floor bowing.

“Oh… Uhm, those shrubs. Could you please tend to them?”

“Yes, my Queen of the gods.”, he quickly spoke as he sprung into action to fulfil her request.

“Thanks.”

“Reth, what are you doing? Stay.”, Melinoe commanded and he stood at the position of attention, again possessed by his awkwardness. “Mom, this is a new follower of mine and I was giving him an orientation and we weren’t done yet.”

“And?”

“And if I’m going home then I’m taking him with me.”, as Melinoe said those words, the pleasant mood on Alkebulan’s face was wiped off completely. “I mean if you’ll allow it, my Queen.”, she added nervously.

“No mortal has set foot in my domain….”, Melinoe was getting ready to get defensive. “But I trust your judgment.”, she added.

“Thanks, mom.”

“Alright sir, come along.”, Alkebulan said to Reth as she and her daughter walked along the corridor around the corner and he awkwardly followed behind them. As he broke the corner he found himself in a massive hallway instantly.

“Where– What?”, he muttered.

“Psst!”, Melinoe signalled to him.

“You know where to go… Your coughing interrupted my schedule. I still have work to do. Make sure he doesn’t touch anything.” Alkebulan said as she retreated to her study and closed the door.

“Where are we?”

“Shhh! Mother’s domain.”, she whispered.

“Wow, it’s massive… Hey you guys really don’t cough?”

“Or sweat.”

“Wow.”

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Why’d didn’t you bow for me?”

“I didn’t– I thought–”

“You don’t think I like cute stuff too?”

“No, that’s not it– I– The elephant.”

“Disappointed.”

“Why are we whispering?”

“Just to see if you’d do it.”, she chuckled, talking at her normal speaking tone. “I’m teasing. C’mon let’s go.”, with her very next step she shrieked.

“Oh, whoops… Did I not get you?”, Macaria asked dryly as she entered the hallway with a longbow in her hand, walking closer towards her.

“What?”, Melinoe asked frightfully, just missed the tip of her sister’s arrow.

“I meant ‘Are you okay?’”

“Sh– Shooting arrows in the house huh, Macaria?”, Reth noticed a change in Melinoe. The pleasantness she had turned into fear. “Might not be the safest thing…”, she said nervously.

“Yeah… You’re right, you could’ve been hurt.”, Macaria said to her twin sister now standing in directly front of while pulling the arrow out of the pillar. Reth hated bullies and he could not ignore injustice or the sight of seeing someone being taken advantage of. He intervened.

“Hello, I’m Reth.”, he said as he extended his hand to shake hers. She didn’t even look at him. She just kept staring at Melinoe, leaning on her longbow.

“A mortal… You know I tried bring one here once, mother said it was against the rules but I suppose she trusts you more, right?”, looking Melinoe dead in her eyes.

“He’s a–”

“Anyways, enjoy your sightseeing, mortal.”, she interrupted Melinoe as she was about to explain herself. She pulled the arrow from the pillar in front of her sister and left.

“What was that about?”, Reth asked.

“What do you mean?”, Melinoe replied who seemed to get back to her warm and pleasant self as her sister left them.

“Nothing…”, he left it alone. He felt as if it was a family issue and family issues tend to be treated with great privacy. Bearing in mind that at the end of the day, they share blood and in this case also a face.

“That’s just how my sister is… She teases a lot too.”, she said in almost a tone of embarrassment. “Let’s go.”, they headed out for the healing pools, it was the very top of the mountain while they were on their way, she answered all of his questions. He was awestruck, the view from their home was magnificent. It was a bit cold though due to the altitude, but the butterflies he got from watching the clouds beneath them and the sun’s rays striking the earth kept him warm. The path winded around the mountain and it took a while to get to where they were going but he had a question for everything and as the good host that she was, she answered all of them, so they were entertained and the time flew by. Some of his questions were funny as well as her answers. They shared many laughs on the way and they were getting acclimated with each other’s humor and presence. As they were coming up to the pools, a spear flying at great speed with great force headed towards them. Reth instinctively pulled her out of the way and it impaled a tree beside them, splitting it in two. A moment or two after a voice yelled.

“Look out!”, the voice yelled that so long after the spear hit its target it was almost like the person didn’t really care. She just yelled it so it was on record that she did. That voice was the voice of Macaria.

“Thanks! I’m okay!”, Melinoe replied.

“Thanks?”, asked Reth.

“Hmm?”

“I think your sister is trying to kill you.”, he replied. She chuckled nervously as she kept walking towards the pools. The pools were steaming and around the rims of each were African violets. Beautiful flowers with many healing properties, it made sense that they were planted here. Melinoe began to undress. Reth becoming awkward and nervous yet again, he turned his back to give her some privacy.

“Oh please.”, she got into the pool, let her hair down and relaxed.

“In the space of an hour, she shot an arrow at you and hurled a spear in your direction.”, he turned to face her.

“She does that all the time.”, she retorted.

“And that’s normal to you?”

“She’s my sister.”

“Which leads to my next question, what’s the deal between you two?”

“I think you’ve gotten too comfortable here.”

“I was too bold, my apologies.”, her words had knocked the wind out of him. It got quiet. They said nothing more, only the trickling of water broke the silence. He walked away to stare at the clouds while she sat in the steaming pool, sinking further and further to the where only her eyes were above the surface. Organizing her thoughts. The silence came and didn’t leave for some time.

“Would you like to join me?”, she asked, finally breaking the tension.

“Uh…”, his body got riddled with nervousness yet again. Funny to think that in combat, he was able to keep a steady hand but in socializing, he was gravely impaired at times. He began stuttering.

“Reth… I don’t date humans. You’re safe.”, she teased. He undressed awkwardly while she turned her back to him and joined her. “Are you in the mood for one more story about elephants?”, she face him as he got in.

“Sure.”, he said as he sat in the waters soaking in its heat. Feeling its healing properties, his body reacted like a plant finally getting watered. The blisters on his feet had healed and his aching stopped.

“So one of the elephants, drinking from the watering hole by herself gets captured, gets sold to a circus master and of course, is put in a circus, right? Alongside other exotic animals and stuff. Elephants are really smart. She figured out a way to free the other animals, using her trunk. She could not free herself however. Among the animals she freed was a cat, who came to the circus the same day as she did. The cat was already fed here… Where would she go? It was a black footed cat and she didn’t want to leave. She didn’t know where she was. She was scared. The circus master came back to discover that all his animals had been released and he found the elephant trying to get the cat out its cage. He was livid. He whipped her and blamed her for letting all his creatures go. The cat ran to go hide. His show was down to one animal now, who was untrained. He spent weeks training the beast. She and the cat became closer, hunting the mice that would intimidate her.”

“Elephants are really scared of mice?”

“You think people would make that up?

“Wow. I didn’t know.”

“Okay, they’re not but in this story they are.”, Reth was not pleased with being fooled yet again. She continued. “She would use her size to protect and hide her feline friend. One day the circus master’s son came to visit. He saw us– Them… Saw them as pets and as friends and he would visit them often. They both grew comfortable with the boy. Soon after the circus master saw him playing with the black footed cat, surprised really. He thought it escaped. They kept it as a pet. The elephant remained a circus act, she was all alone now. Then it was her first night performing… Wearing an embarrassing costume, being whipped and prodded to obey commands. The circus master’s son was in the crowd watching, distraught with his new pet sitting in his lap. He hated watching this. Her feelings were… Swirling around. The feeling of sadness turns into anger and resentment so quickly… Even you and I know that now. She was embarrassed and angry. The show was over and she was brought back to her cage. The boy came back stage to visit her. She was angry and afraid now. She didn’t feel as if she could trust the boy anymore or her friend. She was hurt. She wanted her companion safe, she would always try to keep her safe but when your oppressors show favoritism it’s… A different game. She felt resentment to her now. The boy noticed her mood and tried to calm her down. He opened the cage and told her to run away. She hesitated and as she left she looked back at her friend, to see if she would come along but she didn’t… Her resentment stayed and followed her for the rest of her life. Elephants never forget… Especially painful memories.”

“I thought you said elephant don’t resent… We’re not talking about elephants here are we?”, Reth asked. She went back under the water briefly once more.

“Our father did cruel things to us.”, she said as she came back up. “My experience wasn’t so bad compared to Macaria’s, she did everything to protect me and shelter me… Impersonated as me… Hid me from him… She’s always had the short end of the stick… And it was out of love for the most part… But here we are, she went through all that and I’m the black footed cat… I got chosen to be shown more love than what she gets. She has every right to resent me… I’ll take it but I know she loves me under all that… I don’t know… I don’t fuss about how she treats me because who knows, maybe that’s how I would’ve treated me too… And if that’s the trade-off, I’ll take it. If dodging arrows and spears is the cost of my sister’s undying kindness when we were younger, I’m all for it.”

“Isn’t that… Unfair? For the both of you?”

“Our lives have always been unfair, we’ll be fine… I know she seems pretty mean but she has a big heart.”

Around the corner was Macaria, with another spear in her hand and tears streaming down her face. She overheard the entire thing and ran back inside to get to her room.

“Macaria!”, Alkebulan yelled.

“Yes, mother?!”, Macaria yelled back after sighing and contemplating simply ignoring her. A moment passed with her mother not saying anything yet she yelled her name once more, this time more impatiently. Macaria finally rushed into her study wiping her eyes, not showing any signs of crying.

“Yes, mother?”, she came into the room and asked coyly.

“Am I taking you away from something?”, Alkebulan asked.

“No, mother.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, mom. What is it?”

“I have something for you, a mission.”

3. A Good Daughter

The Mande-Kuru Empire was at its peak of wealth and prosperity. Developing from a mere city-state, the empire had its humble beginnings with the use of trade. The trading of salt, gold, copper and slaves had allowed it to expand its borders and strengthen its armies. At its height, the empire had stretched to every corner of the known world as trading had quadrupled since its formative years. The cities of the Mande became important trading centers for the world, as well as centers of wealth, culture and learning. They became economic hubs and magnets for people who sought a better life. Mahali Kujifunza, a very important and historical city in the empire became one of its major cultural centers hosting vast libraries and universities, it was also the capital. So naturally it was home to a large population. The kingdom prospered in wealth and the people were exposed to new ideas and encouraged high level of thinking and as such many were philosophers, poets, scholars and artists. An advanced society blessed by the gods, even their government was unlike empires before it. The only kingdom that not only had a semi-democratic government but also a constitution. The constitution created an assembly with representatives from the original clans that had established Mande-Kuru when it was only a state. The representatives were given a voice and acted as a check against the  Emperor’s power, there was also a “speaker of the house” who was in control of all assembly deliberations and maintained order throughout these meetings, even ensuring no one spoke out of turn, including the Emperor. This constitution had stood the test of time and was almost as old as the Emperor’s lineage.

However as the original lands flourished there were new lands that had suffered. As the Mande stretched her hand across the known world, once independent and great countries became her colonies. People who lived free were now stripped of their identity and culture. The empire would take control of their trade and their resources and although the natives of these newly occupied lands became citizens of the empire, the were still treated as second-class citizens. Fortune always favored the conqueror. The new colonies would become poorer while the original cities like Mahali Kujifunza amassed great wealth.

Mahali Kujifunza was also home to the Emperor himself. His home was located in the middle of the city beside the first university that was built. In some way, each aspect of the Mende-Kuru Empire’s culture went back to the idea of learning and teaching. The reason for that was, long ago before it was even a village, it was a grassland and the aboriginals were nomads who only moved from place to place in search of food. One day, the land became barren due to desertification. Slowly, clan by clan these nomads died of hunger and thirst. Until a man, the direct ancestor to the lineage of kings and emperors to come, a very spiritual and humble man decided to pray and meditate. Instead of praying for food, rain, or a herd of cattle, he prayed for knowledge. He prayed for the knowledge of how to shape this environment around him to save his family and the rest of his people. The gods were surprised at this prayer, instead of praying for food he wanted to learn how to make food himself. They listened and taught him how to adapt to the land, how to farm and till the soil however it was in exchange that he would promise not to hoard information and knowledge to himself. The gods believed he could help in advancing the whole human race. The life of him, his children, his children’s children and so on would be dedicated to learning and teaching. His family would be charged with the responsibility of teaching and leading the people, which is why the title of “emperor” is sometimes “Mwalimu”.  Ever since, the way of thinking in their society has always been advanced and they always sought new ways to further their advancements. The university was originally the house of the humble man, it was the first house built there as well. It became a university as the nomads who then became tribespeople would come to his house to learn. Over the years, as new masters of the house and village chiefs would assume their responsibility and their birthright they would expand it and even hire other teachers till eventually it could no longer be a home. Now it is a place of learning and discussion for everyone. The only place where everyone is treated equally, the only place a slave could have the freedom and a voice to express themselves to even their master and even best him in a debate. The palace was constructed by the townspeople hundreds of years ago to pay respect to the royal family.

The palace and the universities shared similarities as they were both of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, both even had the same seal of a falcon. Being made of mud bricks and adobe plaster with large wooden log support as decorations that jut out from the wall about two feet that also act as scaffolding for annual repairs. Both buildings had cone-like roofs and resemble fortresses. Originally they were made from purely clay but as their kingdom extended its reach, they began learning other types of architecture. They began to incorporate stone with these buildings, which they learned from colonies in the east. With these stronger pieces of material, they could create more support beams in the form of pillars, arches and instead of sandy earth as the floor, they used to tiles. Both buildings were aesthetically pleasing, their features geometrically consistent and symmetrical. The palace faced the university just as every building in the original state does. Along the original city-state border which includes 3 former independent nations, as well as the capital of the empire were great stone walls, fortified at 100 feet high and 50 feet thick with imperial guards manning it all hours of the day. Strange, how these are supposed to be the motherlands of the people they’ve conquered, yet they’ve created walls to try and keep them out. The Mande-Kuru Empire didn’t start off conquering for the sake of greed and self gain, their main mission was to educate and share the knowledge they had with the world and as they did this, they would in turn learn from other cultures. However when visiting to other countries they would look down on the natives and believe them to be primitive. Whenever they tried to civilize or enlighten these people, they would resist through reason, so it was done by force. Eventually it turned into something dark.

The palace hosted the assembly. On this day, it was a day of deliberation on military force and how to disperse troops. The representatives of the clans, 29 men and 3 women, all were war chiefs, generals and military advisors while the Emperor was a warrior-king, Mwalimu Sekeo Mansa. They all sat around a table, on it, displayed a map of the territories, lands conquered, military posts, lands that were being sieged, it also included geographic features, like mountains, forests, rivers and lakes. They had figures that represented soldiers and platoons and used staffs to move them back and forth depending where they were in real life, they used them to plan invasions as well. They had figures that represented military assets as well, such as miniature forts depicting where the outposts were and miniature boats on the rivers. The use of the canoe expanded much of the Mande-Kuru Empire to what it was at its height. They would invade countries and villages by using these rivers for transportation. The map had a very intricate border around it, with geometric patterns showing great detail and craftsmanship. There was much side chatter in the room as there had been a break in discussion. These breaks resembled parties and banquets almost. The whole military, prim and proper image had left the room the moment the speaker motioned for a break. The servants had entered the room bringing in food and drink. No alcohol though. Slaves stood around the room with palm leaves cooling off the members of the long table. The King, the Mwalimu had been involved in deep discussion too. He was a well rounded individual in terms of intelligence was very argumentative, a true intellect. He was well versed on every topic you could think of and if he wasn’t, he was not hesitant to learn. He had been engaged in a discussion pertaining to taxes and how the funds were being managed then moved on to another discussion on the topic of planting yams. Truly well rounded but his intelligence really showed itself in military strategy. He had been in battle since days of his youth. Truth be told, he hasn’t experienced much outside of being a warrior or a king aside from the pages of books and stimulating and thought provoking conversation. Which made you then question his intelligence a bit as true wisdom comes with experience and if one had not been exposed to different situations, their perspective becomes limited. Creating little room for wisdom.

He was a black man in his early 50’s yet he didn’t have a single grey hair. He had a beard however it was not overly lengthy, yet it still showed a sense of wisdom. The jet-black curly hairs swallowed his cheeks, to his jaw all the way to his chin. He had full lips and a broad nose. He had defined eyebrows and long eyelashes. His eyes were always piercing anyone he looked at, it hinted at his competitive nature. Even in arguments, his eyes resembled the eyes of a puma about to pounce. He had a fiery spirit, fueled by competition and was intensely ambitious. He had a turban that had geometric designs that composed of repeated squares and circles that overlapped and interlaced that formed an intricate pattern. The cloth wrapped around his head was a was cream-biegeish color while the lines that made the patterns were gold. He had a robe, which was a bit like a cape that was a very deep red, a maroon, the most royal shade of red one had ever seen. It had similar patterns as the turban, and under it was a battle uniform. Everyone else had been wearing similar clothes. A falcon landed on the balcony and all side talks came to a close.

“Dismissed! Dismissed!”, said the speaker as he motioned the servants to leave. They took the plates and trays with them, however the fan slaves remained. The speaker walked over to the falcon to read the message it delivered. It was on the wings of trained messenger falcons that the empire got its initial meteoric rise which is why it became their national symbol. “They surrendered!”

“Y’all see that right?!”, the Emperor exclaimed. “Without a brandishing of a sword or shooting a single arrow!”, he was very content that his plan had worked. This was a siege of one of many nations, but what made this one any different was that this was a wealth country with a dense population, comparative to that of Mahali Kujifunza which meant a well funded army with a large number of soldiers. A head on fight would’ve been bloody, the Mwalimu argued. He did not want to kill an unnecessary amount of his soldiers. So he thought of a way that would hurt the enemy while preserving their wealth without putting the lives of his soldiers in jeopardy. He decided to wage the siege in the middle of the dry season, he sent 20,000 soldier to set a perimeter around the small country and 5,000 to build a dam. The nation had only one source of water during the dry season as it was landlocked which was a tributary. King Sekou ordered his men to build a dam and redirect the current. The nation only went a month before surrendering. A large number of their civilians perished as they could not leave as well as their soldiers.

“Do we give the order to destroy the dam?”, asked the speaker.

“No.”, the King swiftly replied.

“Why not?”, one of the clansmen replied. She was one of the few women there.

“How do we know if it’s truly unconditional surrender? I say we wait until our troops occupy places of interest fully, before we blow the dam.”

“There’s children dying.”, she replied.

“Then they should’ve surrendered sooner…”, he replied coldly. “But my friends, feel free to put it to a vote.”

“They had nothing to do with the battle.”, she insisted.

“Leave it to a woman to think about children in war.”, another clansman muttered.

“What did you just say…?”, she said as she unsheathed her sword and held it to his neck from across the table.

“No-nothing…”, he said nervously.

“Sheba…”, the King chuckled. “The most advanced civilization in the world and we still resort to violence?”

“That’s funny coming from the man who wants to take advantage of his victory!”, she said as she placed her sword back in its scabbard while the clansman she had under her blade tended to his wounds. “We’ve already won! Why not blow the dam?”

“It’s the wise thing to do.”

“It’s the cruel thing to do.”

“Let us vote then.”

The representatives voted, with the majority siding with the King. The speaker does not vote. Many of the votes seemed to have agreed with the King purely out of agreeing with the majority and that since his last idea went so well, they believed this to be a good idea too. Sheba and four others were the only ones to vote against it. The speaker wrote another message telling the soldiers to wait for further instruction on clearing the dam. Sekeo continued to sit at the table as the speaker closed the assembly. He stared at the map, smiling… so contentedly as all the clansmen left, he remained there. Almost as if he was basking in his own glory. He felt a warm surge of satisfaction flow through every fibre of his body. He looked at each corner of the map with pride and admiration for himself. None had ever accomplished this before him. No larger empire before it. His father nor his father before him achieved this, the Mande had never been this stretched this wide. No stronger army, no richer city or country, she had no equal, so he had no equal. As he stared down at the map, he was being stared down at too.

By a goddess,  Alkebulan, the goddess of the living, of life itself, the maintainer of the natural order, the goddess of the gods and the supreme ruler of the land of the living. She stared down at the Emperor through what seems to be a hologram of the world, an astral figure of the earth made purely of light, with it she was able to focus anywhere on the planet. She was in her study in her home in the heavens, a gigantic library, with telescopes and other laboratory devices. There were so many books, most of which she wrote herself. Where she had recorded each event she felt worth noting. She kept track of certain things as she believed history often repeats itself and if she would need to rectify the balance and not have a solution, she could simply revisit these records for an answer. She had enchanted feathers to write the books by themselves capturing each thought straight from her mind. The floors were terracotta tiles with geometric patterns. She was wearing a sparkling white robe, the holiest white. It was so long, this gown formed a train that dragged on the floor as the walked. She looked like an older version of Macaria yet she hardly had any wrinkles. Determining her age was not based entirely on her facial features, though she did have small lines around her eyes and mouth which gave a slight indication, it was only a slight indication of her age. Her body remained youthful and vibrant. Her radiant skin was a shade of Peruvian brown. She was a taller woman who was also a bit slender. Her personality and demeanor gave her away her years, she had possessed a great regal air where she would effortlessly gain the respect and attention of those in a room. A trait her children inherited. She would stand upright and maintain perfect posture. She was very stubborn, old-fashioned, resistant to new ideas, forceful and strong-willed. She never asked for help and prided herself in her independence. She was not very intuned with her emotions nor was she good at expressing them. At times she seemed very cold, most times unknowingly. Although she revealed very little feeling she had much loved for her loved ones, she just failed at expressing it in a gentle and warm way. Her hair was one of her many attractive features, it was long, curly, the darkest shade of black and slightly untamed. As she stood in front of her miniature earth, her eyes reflected someone who was in deep contemplation, her eyebrows knitted. She paced for a little and placed her arms in front of her holding each other as she came up with a solution.

“They never cease to amaze me really.”, she muttered in the tone of a disappointed mother. “Macaria!”, she yelled. She stood there waiting for her daughter maintaining that stance.

“Yes, mother?!”, Macaria yelled back. A moment passed with her mother not saying anything yet she yelled her name once more, this time more impatiently. Macaria finally rushed into the room.

“Yes, mother?”, she came into the room and asked coyly.

“Am I taking you away from something?”, Alkebulan asked.

“No, mother.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, mom. What is it?”

“I have something for you, a mission.”

“Finally.”, she said with a sigh of relief. She had been looking forward to helping her mother.

“The Mende-Kuru Empire have taken advantage of my gift. Instead of using knowledge to create peace and advance the welfare of the whole human race, they’ve used it for global conquest. Tsk.”, she was truly upset.

“So what do you want me to do? Burn down the capital or threaten to rain fire from the heavens if they don’t change their ways?”

“None of the above. I want you to seduce the King and his eldest son. I want you to turn them against each other. That will crumble their empire from within.”, Macaria said nothing in response. “Is there a problem?”

“No, it’s fine. Thank you.”, her daughter replied almost hesitantly.

“Good, go get ready. Things will be put in place by time you get back down here.”

She sent Macaria off to her room to get ready. She left the room in a hurry and in a slight breath of anger. Her steps pounded the tiles under her feet as she ascended the stairwell. She walked by her brother intentionally pushing him with her shoulder to get out of her way.

“Hey, is there a problem?”, he asked in a fright.

“No!”, she walked off now obviously seething and not remorseful for her act of aggression just now. She got to her room to pack her bags and that she did, while enraged. She flung her clothes in her trunks without folding them, as if she didn’t care and just wanted to get it out of the way. Simply doing what her mother asked of her, Zagreus entered the room.

“Are you and mom fighting again?”, he asked.

“No!”, she replied as she continued to slam her belongings in a trunk.

“Then why are you packing if she didn’t kick you out… Again?”

“She’s sending me on a mission.”

“Hey, good job. Happy you finally got what you wanted.”

“Yeah…”, she replied disappointedly.

“I’m getting a weird vibe here… Talk to me, killer. What’s wrong?”, he insisted as he held her shoulder to look her in her face as they spoke. “Why are you mad?”

She turned around and shrugged his hand off.

“She thinks I’m a monster…”, she said as her voice cracked.

“Well… You kinda are.”, she punched him as he said that. “Where’s this coming from anyhow?”, he asked in a tone of shock as he realized she was truly saddened.

“She just… I don’t know, Zagreus…”, she was having great difficulty in finding her words. “Okay, do you remember the last time me and her fought…? As in what she said that triggered it?”

“Yeah, she said you’re just like dad but–”

“But what if she meant it?”, she interjected.

“She apologized, Macaria… C’mon, don’t tell me you’re still holding that against her.”

“It’s not a matter of forgiveness, Zagreus. She may have apologized but I know she genuinely feels that way.”

“I think you’re crazy.”

“Think about it… You’ve had missions varying from establishing peace between countries to bringing rains to droughted lands… to even flooding a village when they would not give tribute to us… And let’s not even mention Melinoe… The golden child… Mother treats her like the second coming of herself… Imagine living in the shadow of my younger twin sister… Tsk.”, Zagreus remained quiet. “While me? she sends me on errands and covert operations to sabotage people. I never get that opportunity to feel as if I’m helping. I’m always doing something in secret… seducing men or whatever…”

“But just the other day I sent you to seduce a man for me.”

“I was helping my brother to get a date… That’s different.”, she sat on her bed beside her trunk before she continued. “All I want is to make her acknowledge me… To make her feel proud of me. I just want to impress her… I’ll do anything for that acknowledgement… But she will never even give me a chance. She thinks so less of me… I know she does.”, she said as she began to sob with her hands covering her face. The sight of Macaria crying was a very rare one, Zagreus’ older brother instincts came to the surface and he embraced her tightly while she cried.

“So why’d you agree to this then?”, he asked.

“What other option did I have? If I said no, she would think I was lazy or something… think even less of me…”

“I think you guys should talk about this.”

“What?”, she asked surprisingly while pushing him off. “With mother? Express myself with her? Been there, done that. I refuse to have her call me crazy for having feelings.”

“What do you mean?”

“Of course you wouldn’t understand.”

“Whoa, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to know what I’m feeling… This was fine, Zagreus. Thank you. I’ll be fine.”, she said while wiping her eyes.

“What are you talking about? If I were you–”

“The son of prophecy wouldn’t know what it’s like to question his mother’s love! You’re her only son… You’ve been babied all your life! What works for you, doesn’t work for me! I can’t open up myself to her without being judged! So save it… I don’t need your pity or your advice… I will be fine.”, she interrupted.

“I–”

“You can leave Zagreus.”, she interrupted him once more. She resumed packing her things. He left the room hastily.

“Are you ready?!”, Alkebulan asked from downstairs.

“Not yet, mother!”, she replied hiding the crackling of her voice. You couldn’t tell she was crying moments before, she sounded as if she was in a good mood. It’s absolutely startling how women can hide their feelings at will.

“Alright, hurry so I can brief you on more details.”, a few more moments passed and Macaria returned downstairs with two trunks, her mother was waiting with more instructions. “Great. Take your time…”, she said brashly. It was an obvious offhanded tone.

“That was rude.”, Zagreus said. He was sitting at a table by himself on the balcony of Alkebulan’s study with his thoughts. He was still going over what his sister said to him earlier in his mind, it really pushed him into this state of reflection.

“What?”, his mother replied. He looked around to answer but he say Macaria shaking her head to signal him not to.

“Nothing.”, he returned to his original position and continued staring off into the clouds below them.

“Anyways… Your role is a princess from the newly conquered territories in the north, you have been sent, escorted by soldiers to marry the King, then you will make his eldest son lust for you. Once you believe he’s fully smitten, fake your death and frame the son. His father will be so heartbroken and furious, he will make an attempt on his son’s life, news of the King murdering his son will be made publicly and will create a significant division in his empire. As his son, serves as a high ranking general of his armies and almost as an informal lord. He gains much respect in the capital, as well as from the council of clansmen… his admiration even stretches to a few colonies as well however he was conceived while his father was still a prince, his mother is not of royal blood so he will never be King. His status remains a threat to his other children and members of the royal family, as some members of the assembly wish to make an exception for him in order to assume the throne. He is well liked by many and greatly disliked by few, the King killing him under those conditions will definitely hit a nerve.”

“But the murder will be justified wouldn’t it?”, Macaria asked. “I mean he would have a reason for killing him because his son had ‘killed’ me.”

“I wasn’t finished. Which is why when the news becomes public, I’ll send Zagreus to claim to be an eyewitness who saw the King killing both you and his son out of anger and jealousy. He will call the King a liar, creating distrust. That should throw the kingdom into chaos, especially with clansmen already plotting against him while rebel armies are gaining strength in the colonies everyday.”

“I see.”, Macaria replied half-heartedly. She did not care for this plan too much but she didn’t say anything. “Who’s going to escort me?”

“I have some loyalists in his army.”

“If you have have followers in the army, why don’t you let one of them assassinate the King?”

“That won’t help. Empires only fall if they crumble from the inside.”

“You’re right.”, on the outside she seemed ready and willing, while her heart was riddle with grief. She was very reluctant to do this but she felt she had to, if she had any chance of making her mother proud.

“They’re waiting on you at the foot of the mountain. So how much time do you think you need?”

“A week.”, Macaria replied. There was a pause.

“One week?”

“Yes.”

“This isn’t the time to be trying to show off.”

“I know… They’re only men.”

“I suppose you’re right, if you fail do you assume responsibility?”

“Yes.”

“Good, that’s my daughter.”, she said as she patted her shoulder, as she walked by her to go to her room. “I’ll be taking a nap.”, she retired to her room.

Macaria called to her brother, “Zagreus?”

“Good luck.”, he replied without looking at her.

“Look, I’m sorry okay.”, she said as if she was fighting back tears yet again, he finally looked around at her.

“Please, I didn’t pay it any mind. You were right… I don’t know why I didn’t see it until now. I should be apologizing.”, he paused for a moment as she looked down and wiped her eyes. “Are you crying again? Listen, I’m not used to the waterworks, killer.”

“I’m not used to this either.”, she said while sniffling.

“You look ugly right now.”

“Can I have a hug?”

“Ugh… Sure…”, he was jokingly being insensitive to cheer her up. They shared a similar twisted sense of humor. He got up from his chair and walked from the balcony and embraced her tightly. As they were sharing this intimate moment, he heard what was like the sound of a horn. He looked down to his chest and saw her wiping her nose with his robe. She had blown her nose in his chest. “Macaria… This is panther fur.”

“If you didn’t see this coming, you’re a bigger sucker than I thought.”, she then pushed him to the floor and grabbed her trunks and left.

“Boogers… In my mink…”, he groaned.

She had made her way to the foot of the mountain to be escorted by the soldiers, before she knew it she had already arrived to the capital city. She had changed into something more seductive yet regal. Her outfit was a deep purple with linings of gold which complimented her jewelry. Her attire was mostly conservative but it was form-fitting. The sleeves of her top were narrow, the bosom had frills, that seamlessly connected with her turban but it left her belly and her navel ring exposed. Her trousers constrained together at the ankles but were roomy on her thighs. Her earrings were extravagant. Her carriage arrived to the entrance of the palace and the soldiers escorted her to the throne room of the King who had been expecting her. A soldier who was also a loyalist of Alkebulan announced her.

“Princess Banou of the Northern Territories!”, he bellowed. The soldiers left the room shortly after. King Sekou sat watching her intently. She bowed and removed her mauve veil.

“It is a pleasure, my liege.”, she said humbly. As she stood upright with face revealed, the King was surprised by her beauty. So surprised that he stood out of his throne almost in reverence.

“No, my dear. The pleasure is all mine.”, he got up from his throne, walked towards her, held her hand and kissed it. “What is mine is yours after today.”

“After we get married?”, she asked. “I would very much love a wedding first… I’ve dreamed of that day ever since I was a girl.”

“But of course, my soon-to-be Queen. I’ll get my subjects started on it. Did you have a date in mind?”

“Yes. A week from now. I would want to give my family ample to get here in time for it.”

“Yes, my love. You can plan this day exactly how you want it.”, the King was already smittened. “I’ll take care of everything.”

“I have one more request.”

“I’m listening.”

“I have been saving myself for that day…”

“My dear…”, he said as held her cheek. “I honor that just as I honor you, I will give you your own quarters as well, till then.”, he said as he kissed her forehead. He was much taller than her and she was slightly taller than the average woman. He sent her off to her room, then summoned his assistant. “Tabari! Please get these affairs in order.”

“Yes, sir.”, Tabari replied obediently.

“The Northern Territories he said? We must establish a greater presence there if they are home to such fine specimen… Ensure you contact her family immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”, he left to get started on that task.

As she got settled in her new room, a maid had been appointed with the task of giving her a tour of the palace. It was quite in depth but before the tour was over, ‘Princess Banou’ had been summoned for lunch. As she entered the dining area, she saw the King at the head of the table, sitting around him was his children. 8 sons from 8 different wives, but only 7 held the title of prince. They all stood as she entered the room, she had a seat reserved right beside the King, at his left. They took their respective seats as she took hers.

“The gods have blessed me with sons. They probably know the importance of continuing the future of our empire… but I am getting older, I do wish for a daughter as I enter these late stages of my life.”

“I will fulfill that wish for you, my King.”, she said as she kissed his hand. He smiled as if he was blushing. Macaria already won his heart. He went on to introduce each of his sons to their soon-to-be step mother. They all looked bored and unwilling to be there. Their eyes seemed to be filled with resentment, not only directed at her but mainly towards their father. Only two of his children didn’t exhibit these traits. General Djimon, the man she was tasked to kill and his third born son, Jabori… he did seem overly unwilling to be there but he didn’t really share the resentment his other siblings had, he seemed to have had other things on his mind. His demeanor reflected that he simply did not care for this meeting. You could tell he felt separate and apart from everyone else in this room. They sat beside each other while the general sat directly across from Macaria. The King introduced them last.

“This is Jabori. His mother died in childbirth, I didn’t have much time to raise him myself so I sent him overseas for schooling the moment he was old enough. Ever since he graduated, he spends his time traveling and learning from different cultures. I admire that, he shares my appetite for learning.”

“Hello, Jabori.”, she said and he nodded with a forced smile in response.

“And lastly, my first born…. Djimon. He has inherited much of my will and my fire in combat. A very charismatic leader as well. It pained me that he wouldn’t be able to see the throne. So I am working on some legislation to make an exception for him. We need a King like him.”

“Why wouldn’t he be able to assume the throne otherwise?”, she asked already knowing the answer.

“I had him in my youth… His mother was a maid here…”

“I see, it is a pleasure to meet you Djimon.”

“It is a pleasure to meet anyone who makes my father blush.”, he replied. The three of them shared a laugh.

“I would love for you to try and bond with them without my being here.”

“Yes, I will.”, she immediately thought to herself how easy this plan would be. They had left the table and gone to their rooms once the meal was over. It was up to her to hunt them down one by one. She decided to start with the children who obviously disliked her, she knew they would dismiss her quickly. She couldn’t find Jabori so she went straight to General Djimon. She found him leaving an informal meeting of military personnel.

“Princess.”, he said as he greeted her. He bowed his head slightly. “I take it that you are here to ‘bond’ with me.”, he said in jest.

“Yes.”, she chuckled.

“Very well. Walk with me then.”, he said as he motioned her to walk alongside him. They had deep conversation where they shared pieces of their childhood and spent hours walking about the palace.

“It’s really admirable the life you’ve made for yourself.”

“What do you mean?”, he asked.

“You’ve gained the respect of your father… To be at his right hand at the table… The respect of the people… All that yet your mother was a maid. Pardon my bluntness.”, Macaria seemed to tailor her tactics of seduction to the man who she set her sights on. Djimon wasn’t a deep, philosophical man. He did not spend his free time reading or contemplating an existence outside of his own. He was a simple man, a hard working man but he was a simple thinking man. He was not stupid either, he just was not highly complex. You could tell by how he spoke. She noticed his personality and became as direct and as blunt as him.

“It is pardoned.”, he said as he chuckled. “I take pride in that actually… Everything I did was by my own hands.”, he said in great self satisfaction. There, Macaria saw a possible angle. His ego.

“For him to rewrite centuries of tradition just for you… You should be proud.”, she said almost egging him on. He chuckled again, as he looked over a balcony and stared at the capital city. “Imagine, this will be yours one day.”

“Truly.”

“His exception will be only for you though… You’ll have to think of the future of your kingdom.”, her tone became more somber.

He turned around in curiosity but while doing so he noticed how the sun gracefully hit her face. He finally took a moment to notice and even appreciate her beauty, while continuing to stroke his ego she made herself get caught by him staring at his physique. “What do you mean?”, he replied.

“Your heir… He will need a crowned mother.”, as she spoke those words, he reflected on his own wife. She was only the daughter of a former general.

“I suppose you’re right. I didn’t give that any thought.”

“I know… Your Queen must compliment you, Djimon… Think of the things that you may neglect.”

“Where would I find such a queen?”, he asked while he leaned on the railing of the balcony, gazing into her disarming eyes.

“I’m sure if you put some effort into it, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for.”, she said staring back at him.

“That is very interesting… Probably I should put some effort into… The Northern Territories perhaps?”, he said very flirtatiously.

“Perhaps…”, she replied sultry and flirtatiously as well.

“You’re bad news aren’t you, Princess?”, he asked playfully. She giggled.

“I’m whatever you want me to be.”, as the words left her mouth, she gasped in shock as if she couldn’t believe what she said. “Forgive me, that was bold… I’ll take my leave.”, as she left he stopped her by holding her arm. She gasped again.

“There is nothing to forgive, Princess.”, he whispered in her ear.

“Are you sure?”

“The only person who should be forgiven is me.”, he held her closer.

“For what?”

“For this.”, he kissed her almost uncontrollably. His urges had boiled to surfaced and he could not fight them off. His arms wrapped around her tightly, she could feel the passion in his embrace. He finally mustered the strength to pull away. “Forgiveness for dishonoring my father.”, he removed his arms. “Dishonoring you… I don’t know what came over me…”

“There is nothing to forgive, King.”, she said as she placed her thumb on his lips. His eyes widened in amazement. He was flattered. Her angle seemed to have worked. He, like his father was now smittened.

“No woman has ever talked to me like you have… Listened to me like you have…”, he said as she caressed his bearded cheek.

“But what will be of us?”, she asked.

“Anything I want it to be… With enough effort.”, he kissed her once more, she knew she had already infatuated him enough. So she decided to part from him. “You’re leaving?”

“I trust it to you, that you will find what you’re looking for.”, as she was heading back to her room, she found Jabori staring from a corridor outside of on one of the wings of the palace watching the sunset. She had to walk by him to get to where she was headed. She contemplated whether or not to speak with him, if her role was to be believable she had to have some kind of introduction.

“Hello.”, she said.

“You spoke with Djimon for quite some time.”, he replied and she was startled. “I hope our talk won’t be as long. Truth be told, I was hiding from you all this time. I do dread these meetings. Unlike, big brother, I suppose it’s one of the few things that make him feel like one of us. It’s understandable.”, she was at ease once more and he continued after he took a sip of his tea. “I just think it’s funny that a simple man would be cursed to have a complex. Pardon me, I’m rambling.”, he said as he chuckled.

She taken aback by him and did not know what to think of him, “You’re smart.”

“I’m flattered. Unusual meeting.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Watching the sunset, drinking tea.”

“Do you do this often?”

“Every night while I’m here.”

“So instead of being a prince in the lap of luxury, you travel?”, she asked in the tone of Macaria and not Princess Badou.

“If you haven’t realized, Princess. There’s a surplus of princes in this palace. There will come a time where one is in a situation where he feels like he has no identity… So he goes out and find out what makes him any different.”

“And how do you do that?”

“I do what makes me happy.”, he chuckled.

“And that entails traveling?”

“I don’t wish to offend my future step mother.”

“No. I am curious.”

“My happiness is not being what my father wishes me to be and it is not what he thinks I am. My siblings have mothers who prod them in the direction of a prince or of a future king. Perhaps that is the fortune in my great loss, to not have that burden.”, he took another sip. “I am who I wish to be… And I wish to watch the sunset.”, she was taken further aback by this and almost forgot her role. All of his words struck a nerve.

“How do you feel about your father?”

“I love him, out of duty as a son. I think I am grateful he helped bringing me in this world but that’s all that it is. My father is stuck in his ways. He does not think outside of himself and he will not change that as long as he believes he has no need to. I cannot hold that against him. For what you cannot change, you conform and you leave to the universe. My father believes that he is sharing our glory with the world, that we are civilizing the people we murder and steal from. He is cold and ignorant. They are not grateful for what we do, they fear us and they hate us as they should. My father is not as wise as he believes, he sits on a throne far away from these people who he has stripped of everything…Ignorant, but he believes himself to be wise because he reads a couple books. He is nothing but an educated fool.”

“These are treasonous words.”

“You believe that I care… I detest everything here but I cannot change it. I cannot change my father nor can I change the evils of this empire without falling into the evils of politics… All I can do is get away when I can. Learn from the people we pillage, help them if I can and hope that the universe will change their ways.

“Help them?”

“I bring gold to struggling families without him knowing, it’s the only reason I return… As well as this sunset.”, he said as he sipped his tea.

“I see… you’re a smart man.”, she remarked.

“I detect a tone of surprise, Princess”

“My apologies. May I watch the sunset with you?”, she was completely disarmed. He did not look at her as if he lusted after her. He looked into her eyes as an equal, as if he didn’t want anything in return. All he cared for was this conversation and the sunset. Funny in this role, he made her feel like Macaria, not someone else. She felt free, like she had no reason to bite her tongue. The only person she had ever felt this way around was Zagreus and even around him it had its limits.

“Of course.”, he replied smoothly.

While the two stood and watched the beauty of the setting sun, on the other side of the palace the King had been in his study working. Tabari had entered his room.

“Sir?”, he greeted him as he entered.

“Yes, Tabari?”, he said while he continued writing letters to his men on the frontlines of wars and military outposts.

“You sent me to contact the girl’s family, sir.”

“You mean the Princess?”

“Yes, sir… Uh, we had conquered all of the Northern Territories nearly a decade ago and much of their royal families went into hiding.”, the King slowly raised his head from all his paperwork as his assistant relayed this information to him. “She isn’t who she say she is, sir.”

“Where is she?”, he asked seething with rage.

“She had been meeting with your children. It has been reported that she spent over four hours with one in particular. Everyone else spent a very brief amount of time with her.”

“Then he is the traitor. Who is it?”, he said he punched the table he sat at.

“She was last seen with Jabori, sir.”

“Of course, it would only make sense that he would resent me. Bring him and the soldiers that brought her here in and kill them and her… Bring her to me.”

After watching the sunset with Jabori, she left to the Heavens to meet with her mother. She was asleep in her chambers, however Macari walked in nonetheless.

“Mother, wake up.”

“Yes?”, she replied wearily.

“I believe we can change our plan.”

“To what?”, she asked as she wiped her eyes.

“Jabori, Sekeo’s third born… we could make him King instead.”

“What time is it?”

“What…?”

“I asked, what time is it?”, she asked once more while rising from her slumber.

“It should be six hours from midday.”

“Good.”, she said as she walked towards another holographic representation of Earth.

“What are you doing?”

“There is no mission to change.”

“What?”

“You served me well.”

“There is something you’re not telling me.”, Macaria said growing more passionate.

“Come look… Sekou is already dead and the empire divided among the clansmen in his assembly.”

“What…?”, she was surprised at what she was seeing. “You had this planned all along… So what was I…? Just a distraction.”

“Yes and an effective one.”

“I’m confused.”

“At my plan? Members of the assembly had already been scheming against Sekou, with Sheba leading them. They agreed he was getting mad with the power that he was abusing. They were waiting for the most opportune time to get rid of him. Him killing Jabori was the tipping point that made them execute him.”

“What?!”, Macaria was enraged.

“Are you still confused? They each took turns stabbing him. I’m glad they realized how much of a bad idea it is to give one man that much power.”

“He killed Jabori?! And you knew this would happen?!”

“Yes… Don’t tell me you took a genuine liking to him? And I didn’t know for certain… I calculated it. May or may not have happened.”

“There could have been another way.”

“His death garnered an absolute result. Your idea would not.”

“Do you not have hope?”

“I’ve seen this happen many times before. I’m not quite sure why you are upset. Human lives are fleeting anyway.”

“I’m upset because you used me.”

“That’s entire point of a mission.”, Alkebulan interrupted.

“You didn’t trust me to tell me your actual intent.”

“I did not see the need. I know you had a moving conversation with him.”

“So you know why I am upset?!”

“Not entirely. I didn’t care for it.”

“You are cold, callous and selfish. You don’t care for anyone but yourself. You’re rooted in your ways!”

“Well–”

“No! I am speaking!”, she cut her off while her mother stood there unfazed. “All I ever wanted was to make you happy! Make you proud of me! I did everything you ever asked! I tried live up to every unreachable expectation you placed in front of me! And you still did not care! You still did not flinch! I don’t even know who I am sometimes! All for you! I’m tired of this life!”

“What do you mean?”, her mother asked stultified. Zagreus overheard the argument and came to the door.

“I will no longer live for you.”

“You are so dramatic.”

“I’m done here.”, she said in a tone of exasperation. She was on her way out of the room.

“Isn’t this the part where you tell me that you hate me?”

“No, you don’t even deserve that.”, she left room in a haste, not enraged but painfully disappointed. She walked by her brother without saying a word. Alkebulan looked at her son for a moment.

“She gets this from her father, you know.”, she said to him as she walked back to her bed.

“Mother, tell me do you even love her?”, he asked. She stopped dead in her tracks.

“You know… The love you have for your sister is what reassures me that your father and I didn’t fail you all as parents… That love is strong and admirable… It is that love that protects you tonight, from paying the consequences for disrespecting me with that question. Get out of my room. I’m going to bed. We’ll finish this talk in the morning. Like every other argument, it will end with an apology… We’ll be fine.”, she said as she snuggled in her blankets. He left her to rest. He went to Macaria’s room and entered to see her on her balcony looking at the clouds.

“Remember how we used to stare at these clouds when we were kids?”, she asked.

“Are you okay?”, he asked ignoring her question, he wanted to console her. He felt her pain.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“I thought you’d be in tears.”

“Me too… I guess I’m out of tears.”

“That’s kind of scary… Before you do hate her remember why she is the way she is… But I’ll let you be.”, he kissed the side of her forehead before he left her room.

“I love you, Zagreus.”, she said as he passed her doorway.

“I love you too, killer.”, he replied as he closed her door.

The next morning came and Alkebulan came to Macaria’s door to talk. She knocked but heard no response, she entered the room nonetheless. There was no one inside, the bed was left made and untouched but there was a letter on one of the pillows. As she read it, the tears flowed down her cheeks and she let out a heart-wrenching wail. Deeply saddened and grief stricken as if she was in mourning.

2. The Curious Case of Death

Sleep is one of the few escapes we have to evade the horrors we face in our realities. Living in a cell is a reality many would shy away from. Clinging to his slumber as he tried to remain protected in his dreams, he laid there ignoring the bustling of outside and the sun breaking through his window. His brow twitched, he was awake but he laid there nonetheless with his eyes closed, inducing his own session of slumber in order to avoid the reality of his situation. Probably the worst part of being imprisoned is the toll it takes on the psyche. The sounds of people going about their business outside or the sounds of child crying or at play, not being able to see them or speak with them and all you can see are the bars and the walls that continue confine you. It’s maddening to have freedom so near, yet so far. Physically imprisoned, it’s only natural to seek solace mentally. The summer’s heat was as unforgiving as the judge that sentenced him. He laid there still, drenched in sweat trying to resume his dream. Laying on the floor with nothing but a sack of straws as his pillow, paying no mind to the tiny beads of sweat running from his forehead along his eyelids.

“Mr. Kibwe, sir. Good morning.”, said Jabari as he entered bringing breakfast. Jabari was a young soldier, charged with the task of guarding these cells. He worked the morning shifts so he and Kibwe had built a rapport. Jabari was a teenager and already the head of his household, as his parents had died tragically two years ago and he has had to take care of his younger sisters since. By nature, Jabari was introverted, a bit timid and soft-spoken. He wouldn’t speak to a soul unless spoken to however, he had met Kibwe before. Luckily, Kibwe had given the young man a loan just after his parents’ demise, a loan without collateral as a matter of fact. A very rare instance. Jabari’s well-mannered and kind demeanor made him trustworthy enough to get the pieces of gold needed for him and his family find a place to live. He was also very peaceful. He would avoid violence if he could, another trait that made him unfit to be a soldier. Regardless, he was an extremely hard worker and that alone made him find a place in the imperial army. He was of average height, skinny and unassuming, truly a humble soul.

“Thank you, Jabari. Again, you’ve made my stay here bearable.”, Kibwe said as he got up. Jabari handed him his breakfast.

“Remember how I told you that we’re supposed to be accomodating to prisoners of a noble family?”, Jabari asked. Kibwe nodded while he was eating. Even though he had only been imprisoned for a handful of days, you could tell by his body that his diet had changed drastically. He began to shed a few pounds. His cheeks were no longer plump, they became droopy and his collarbones began to be visible. He was anxiously eating his breakfast. “So, the commander found out you were here and he’s coming to see you.”

After taking a drink of water from his cup, he asked “Why?”

“I don’t know but I’m assuming it’s good.”

“Has he ever visited anyone here before?”

“Not since I’ve been here.”

“I see.”, Kibwe has always been a wise man and a deep thinker but he wasn’t sure what to make of it. Why would a high ranking officer come visit him? He thought perhaps he was a friend or a client and he became less apprehensive. “When did he say he was coming?”

“I’m not sure–”

“Attention on deck!”, one of the soldiers upstairs yelled. Jabari he assumed the position of attention until he received other instructions. It didn’t last long, he waited for a voice to shout back. It was a crisp, refined yet firm voice. A voice that matured with tones of giving commands, directions and instructions. A voice that allowed each and every troop to continue with their duties.

“Carry on!”, he shouted.

“It’s him!”, Jabari whispered as he tried to position himself in front of the cell to seem more menacing and disciplined in guarding it. He was visibly nervous.

Slowly he came down the stairs, he wasn’t excited or anxious nor was he seething with rage. He was very calm and he walked as if he owned the placed. He advanced to Kibwe’s cell with confident and proud strides and it didn’t seem as if it was intentional either. It seemed as if he naturally walked like that, with his chin up and his chest out. A natural posture that exudes authority, leadership and commands the respect of everyone around him. He finally came to the cell and peered inside with his hands behind his back holding each other. He was in battle dress. Metal plates over certain parts of his body, thin and light enough to retain agility and quickness but still strong enough to retard arrows and swords. These plates were on his thighs, torso, back and forearms. Under these plates were strips of leather and calico to keep them from rubbing against his joints and flesh. They were dark earthy tones like the skin they protected. The plate on his chest had chiseled detail on its border unlike everyone else, to distinguish him as a commanding officer. He was a taller man of an athletic build. His hair was curly and shiny while his skin was like dark, red oak wood. He had a long face and stubble facial hair. His eyes had slight epicanthal folds and they looked at Kibwe with a bit of amusement.

“I was told that you wanted to see me, sir.”, Kibwe said as he extended his hand through the bars to shake the Commander’s.

“That is true.”, he replied with a smirk. He then looked at Jabari, who was not breaking his military bearing. “What is your name, soldier?”

“Jabari, sir.”

“Jabari, could you open this cell? I’d like to speak with our prisoner.”, Kibwe became apprehensive again as his gesture went completely disregarded.

“Yes, sir.”, as Jabari opened the cell, more soldiers dressed similarly to the Commander but they did not enter. They were there for his protection. The Commander entered.

“So, I wouldn’t expect you to remember me but I’ll ask… Go ahead, do you remember?”

“I can’t say that I do.”

“My father applied for a loan once.”

“Oh… Good.”, he said with a sigh of relief. “I’m glad I could help.”

“You turned him down.”, Jabari flinched slightly. The whole tone of the room changed. Both Kibwe and Jabari thought they were meeting on good terms.

“I’m–”, the Commander stopped him.

“No. Don’t. I want you to remember first. Allow me to illuminate you. So my family lived off the earth, sold what we grew and sought spiritual contentment… One day, the earth no longer yielded. It began to give nothing. We prayed, we fasted… We believed it was a test of faith. With so many hungry children… Four of us. That faith begins to wane.”

“So your father came for a loan?”

“Yes… eventually but let me finish. My father didn’t believe in your loans. He was a proud man. He believed coming to you wasn’t only beneath him but it would upset the gods. Lack of faith and whatnot. One day came and he was faced with the brutal reality of it all, with my sister… His daughter fainting from starvation. He began to feel as if his faith was harming us and I guess he was right, I suppose. Pushing his faith and his pride aside, he came to you. We came to your house with nothing. We told you our predicament. You were fresh and new to the lending business. This was way before your days of nobility. You were younger then, so was I. I was only a boy at 17 years old. We came inside, you wife and your young children were there, eating. And you guys continued even after we told you we had been starving.”

“Did you offer collateral?”

“Does it matter?!”, the Commander asked loudly.

“No.”, Kibwe replied hesitantly.

“Good, because I don’t think it did either. We offered collateral and you still turned us away.”

“… What was it?”

“We offered our land. Our home. Your reply is what caught my attention because ever since I entered your home I was caught by the smell of your wife’s cooking and taken aback at how much food she had prepared and I knew you guys couldn’t finish all that. I was staring at the food left in the kitchen. But your answer caught me. You asked what could you possibly do with a barren piece of land? Needless to say, I was upset. Too hungry to protest though. Our plan was to use the money we’d get from you to buy another plot of land and rebuild our farm there but you didn’t see that happening.”, there was a silence in the room, everyone was somber but the Commander maintained a smirk, as he continued with his story. “My father was getting weak. Lack of proper nourishment for his age, slowed him down. He could not work. As the oldest, I thought I had to be the breadwinner now. I had to help my family out. However I could not find a job. The only place I could turn to was the imperial army. I would let you to know how much of a holy man my father was but I could not find the words, see. How holy we were. How we were raised. My father hated violence. He hated the Emperor’s use of force. We hated it. But I had no other choice, Kibwe. It broke him y’know? Tore him up inside. Tore me up too. I hated violence too. But at least there was an income in the house, we were able to purchase a new plot of land. It was also a time of peace. I thought all I could was serve my tenure then leave the army. That did not happen. You can imagine what happened next, right? Tell me what happened 13 years ago.”

“The war of the North.”

“Yes. I got sent there. I was right on the frontlines. Then I received news that he died the night after I got stationed there. Imagine my father’s pain, his only son sent to go fight a war. Right after joining the army too. I lost myself that night. I was very upset… So angry. We won the war, I came back a different man. A war hero too. Happy ending, you say?”

After a long pause, Kibwe found his answer while staring at the ground, “It’s not.”

“I’m glad you know that.”, the Commander replied while placing his hands on Kibwe’s shoulders as if he was ready to embrace him. “It’s not a happy ending. Because if you ask me? I would much rather go back to being the 17 year old boy praying with my father… And if you had given us that loan, I would’ve remained that boy. I wouldn’t have been sent off murdering people for a living…. But a ‘war hero’, now a Commander right? Anyways, I had to let you know why I’m about to do this to you.”

“You’re going to kill me?”

“Yes. But in the same way you killed me… The same way you broke me, I will break you. The same way you deprived me, I shall deprive you. The same way you made me suffer and go without, you will suffer and go without.”, he removed his hands from the prisoner’s shoulder. “I hope you enjoyed your breakfast today. That will be the last you’ll eat like this again.”, the Commander looked at his men and signaled to them. “Take him to the common side.”, his men then took him from his cell and brought him to the opposite side of the prison, to where the common criminals lived. As they took him out to escort him, he saw Jabari, who was visibly fighting himself. You could tell he wanted to say something and defend Kibwe, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. However, Kibwe was not expecting him to say or do anything. He seemed ready to accept his fate, even though he might not exactly like it. The Commander walked down the hall to take his leave, then he paused to watch his men carry Kibwe away, “Make sure he’s branded too.”, he instructed them as then he left. Jabari felt so helpless.

He finally got back to his new cell. It was a very long first day on the common side. He fell to the floor, shaken and on the brink of tears. He had gone through physical abuse by the hands of the men the commander left him with. They followed his parting instructions and branded him with a symbol which was used as a very derogatory term for a thief. It left a nasty scar on his neck. He reflected on how he squirmed and writhed in pain while they did it, how his wails and cries of anguish did nothing to the soldiers as the pressed the white-hot, unforgiving steel into his flesh. He remembered how it all smelled, while he laid on the floor. The smell of his burning skin. He recalled how brutal the other prisoners were, how he succumbed to their blows. Again, sometimes it isn’t the situation itself that affects us, it’s the how powerless we feel against it and that is what affects our psyche the most. The reality where nothing is under your control is a lot to conform with.

He laid there on the floor of his cell in vile things, bodily secretions of prisoners that had lived there before him, sobbing. The tears came and they did not stop. He thought of how different his life was before, only just a handful of days ago he had been in the lap of luxury, things seemingly under his control. Now, feeling the unforgiving hand of fate delivering sharp vicissitudes of fortune with no warning and no notice. It’s depressing to feel this way, conforming with the unknown but the unknown is an unshakable variable and Kibwe had just come to terms with that, on the floor of a prison cell laying in excretion. It is a variable that one must embrace, no one knows what fortune or misfortune life may bring.

While he laid there reassessing his life and what events led up to this night, he felt as if he was being watched. He could not move this feeling so he sat up and to his surprise he saw an astral being, a fox. A fox made up of light, staring at him on the other side of the bars. Kibwe crawled towards it in an attempt to investigate this phenomena. As he was extending his arm to touch it, the fox spoke with a deep and unsettling voice.

“I’m not a pet. I will bite your arm off.”, it said. Kibwe was taken aback and retreated to the back of his cell. “Relax. I come with a message. A proposition to free you.”

“Free me? In exchange for what?”

“Service.”

“Servic– I know you. I know what you are. You’re a messenger fox sent to make me sign over my soul!”

“Be that as it may, for now that is the only way you’ll get out of here.”

“And you admit to it so boldly?! Get away!”, Kibwe chased the animal away.

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Humans in better circumstances have folded.”, those were the fox’s parting words as he slowly vanished.

Kibwe sat back down with his back against the wall and laid there until he went to sleep. He woke up the next day, it was much noisier on this side. Some of the prisoners had begun to lose their minds, senseless shrieking, wails and moans, incoherent jabbering and other sounds of insanity were the morning roosters. These sounds that let everyone know that it was a new day. The soldiers were bringing the inmates breakfast, except him. He was intentionally skipped for his meal. On this side of the prison, the prisoners worked. They were marched with chains to help create roadways. Doing this on a hungry belly was almost impossible. The summer sun was relentless, as he swung the pickaxe he envisioned that it was his own head he was aiming at. The environment was torture. With the guards shouting and their brutal punishments over the smallest discrepancy, dark thoughts began plaguing his mind. He started to romanticize the idea of death. Death was the only escape he had now, it was no longer sleep. Sleep was too temporary. Another long day was finally finished, with no food and no drink, completely exhausting. His will broke already. The will he had the night before was gone. He was waiting for the spirit fox to return. While he waited he had a moment of introspection, he realized how far he had fallen. How he was ready to give in and throw away his own morals to escape. It was as if he did not know who he was anymore. He was becoming someone else. “You wouldn’t have done this before.”, he thought to himself. Do we know who we truly are and how we would truly react in any given situation? Or do we only believe that we know ourselves in order to maintain a sense of control? Or is it our morals and how much we will cling to them? He questioned himself while he waited, but his answer and his judgement was certain, he was willing to agree to this proposition. Interesting, how deprivation invites desperation.

The fox finally came as he was drifting off to bed.

“So?”, it asked and it startled Kibwe. “Do you have an answer?”

“Yes, I do. I’ll serve.”, Kibwe sighed.

“Good.”, the fox replied. Suddenly, Kibwe became very drowsy and fell asleep where he sat. He blacked out completely and when he came to, he found himself in what seemed to be a cave. There was a faint light in the distance, it gave him only just enough to see his surroundings. He made out stalactites and their shadows as well as a river, an ominous river. It glowed the similar color as the astral fox that came to him. He walked alongside the river and although he was thirsty, something told him drinking from it wouldn’t be so wise. The echoes of water dripping from these spikes made it even more creepy however as he advanced closer to the light, he began to hear music instead and someone humming. As he continued, he entered what seemed to be a grand ballroom, with statues made from pure marble, tall, exquisite pillars, many instruments and among them was a harp that was playing itself and luxurious furniture with the river flowing under the room itself. In the middle of the room, on what seemed to be the dancefloor was a man and a woman dancing but the woman, was similar to the river and the fox. She glowed a special shade of blue and she was transparent almost, just like the fox and the river. The man however was an older man, his beard had shades of grey and silver which gave him a distinguished look. He looked about the same age as Kibwe, if not a bit older. You could see the maturity in his eyes, not that he had bags or that his crow’s feet was extensive, they just looked like they were full of experience and wisdom. They seemed so sure and understanding of everything it had beheld and will behold. They were low and shared a slight epicanthal fold. Even though he had all these mature features, his face still maintained a youthfulness. They two continued to dance and dance, then he finally noticed Kibwe.

“My guest is finally awake. We’ll pick up tomorrow, okay?”, he said to the woman.

“Yes, my liege.”, she replied and vanished.

“How did you rest? Surely you must be hungry.”, he signaled Kibwe over with his hand and walked him to a table with a feast already prepared. Kibwe was moved to tears again and hastily ate. “Good, I’m glad you enjoy it. Everything was grown here.”, he said as he walked to the opposite side of the long table, to where the head of a family would sit. Kibwe noticed what this man was wearing as he walked away. It was a white robe, the purest white Kibwe had ever seen. It glowed against his brown skin. It was almost angelic to look at. Yet, it made Kibwe a bit uneasy. He was a wise man, he perceived this cloak to be as false as the man who was wearing it. He felt as if the garment was trying to impose an idea that the wearer was divine and innocent. He became apprehensive.

“Where is here, exactly?”, Kibwe asked with his mouth full.

“That’s relative.”, he answered tauntingly as he sat in his chair. “Here has many name but I call it home.”, he continued as he started his meal.

“That doesn’t answer my question, I think I have the right–”

“Pardon me, I hate to interrupt but you have no rights here.”, he said sternly and with a smile. Everything he said was genuine, his tone was genuine however his mood did not match the rude things he said. “You’re eating my food, sitting at my table, enjoying my music and I’m the one who broke you out of prison.”, he continued with the most radiant tone. “Besides, you already know where you are and you already know who I am, you just want some kind of reassurance.”

“Fine.”, Kibwe replied as he began to eat slower. “So what do you need me to do?”

“A job. I free you, you work for me, then when you’re done, you go back to your life. How does that sound?”

“What is the job?”

“How does it sound?”, he asked once more while eating.

“Fine.”

“Good. I’m going to put you in charge of something important and I need you to start immediately… Once we’re done eating of course.”

“Very well.”, the two sat and ate at the table in silence for the most part. “So what’s your name?”, Kibwe asked.

“It’s really long and you might get it wrong. I think you’ll find a name for me soon.”

“Hmm. well I’m finished.”

“Good, walk with me Kibwe and let me give you a rundown of what I ask of you.”, the two walked away from their table and exited the ballroom in the opposite way Kibwe entred. He placed his arm around Kibwe while he led the way. “As the shepherd for souls, sometimes I need a helping hand in getting them where I need to. As you can imagine I oversee many sheep, Kibwe.”, he laughed dryly. “I tailor these helping hands to the sheep that need to be tended to.”

“Go on.”

“There are different souls, all in different conditions that need to be brought here.”

“So I’m your delivery boy?”

“Yes.”, he laughed yet again, maintaining that jovial air. “The souls that you’ll be delivering will be the souls that are suffering.”

“What do you mean?”

“Souls that are very close to death but not quite there. You give them that firm but gentle nudge into… here.”

“How do I do that?”

“I’ve already blessed you and given you my mark. All you have to do is touch them.”

“Won’t I attract suspicion going around touching dying people?”

“You are unseen to everyone except those who are yearning for death. Those are the specific souls of suffering you will bring me.”, he led Kibwe outside of the cave which was on the side of a mountain that overlooked the city Kibwe had lived. On this precipice was a chariot with only one black horse. The chariot itself was black as well. “The chariot is unseen as well and the horse knows where to go.”

“So how long do I have to do this for?”

“Two souls.”

“Only two?”

“Only two.”, he said in that same joyous tone. Kibwe then manned the chariot, as he gripped the reins the horse took off and carried him into the skies at the speed of light. He landed in front of this home that hadn’t been looked after in years. It looked old and unkempt, the plants outside had rotted and died. He stepped off the cart and headed inside. As he attempted to open the door, he fazed through it. For some reason he felt as if he knew who he had come for. He felt some type of connection, a calling. He headed towards her room, he knew it was a woman. An elderly woman. As he entered her room, she opened her eyes a little and smiled.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”, she said with much relief.

“I’m here now.”

“Good…”

“Are you ready?”

“As ready as I can be… I didn’t expect you to look like this… You don’t look scary. When I was a younger woman, I never gave you much thought. I kept you at the back of my mind. I knew you’d come eventually. I had a long life. I had children. I’ve learned to have no regrets. I’m ready. Finally ready. I’ve lost my husband and my children are all grown up. I’ve been sick and alone for so long but I’ve waited so patiently… For you. Thank you so much for coming.”, she said as she lost her breath with each word.

“Come take my hand.”, Kibwe said as he extended his hand. He said it as if he wanted to comfort her and ease her pain. She took it and firmly gripped it as he gripped her. The moment the life left her body, the strength left as well and her hand fell limp. Her breathing stopped. A ball of light left her body and it headed in the direction of the mountain. He withdrew his hand and left the house. “This doesn’t seem as depressing as I thought… I eased her pain.”, as he left and walked towards his chariot he noticed how excited his horse was. It neighed and strutted restlessly. “I guess you’re ready for our next stop.”, he hopped on and was whisked away, this time to a desert. He felt the connection again, this time much stronger than before. He landed in the middle of a barren, desolate wasteland. The connection was unnerving. He walked as if he knew where he was going, he seemed almost reluctant to go on as if he didn’t want to see the person he had come for.

“NO!”, Kibwe cried.

“You’re finally here. Thank you. Come.”, said a feeble man, hunger stricken, lips severely chapped and in the sand on his chest crawling. It was Kito, but now skin and bones, his son. The tears did not stop and they flowed off his cheek into the soil. “Why are you crying?”

“Do you not recognize me?”, the grieving father asked feverishly.

“No… You are Death aren’t you? Here to end my suffering?”, Kito asked. Kibwe stood there heartbroken and in disbelief. He was so conflicted, he wished to save him but he knew he couldn’t touch him. “Well… Take me. Hurry… Please…”, he begged. The father was feeling his son’s pain which made him even more distressed and torn. Fighting himself.

“Fine, my son.”, Kibwe answered shakily. His voice cracked and he almost couldn’t find the strength to speak. He held his son’s face and watch his eyes rolled to the back of his head. The helping hand of death sobbed.

“I almost thought you wouldn’t do it.”, the man who had sent him on this mission appeared suddenly eating grapes casually.

“You did this, didn’t you?”, Kibwe asked angrily.

“Ask yourself, what makes you and your son so special? I have no reason to orchestrate this.”

“Why would you send me here?”

“To do your job.”, the man replied. Kibwe cried frantically. “It’s funny how humans interpret death.”, he continued as he walked over Kito’s dead body placing his foot on the boy’s back. “You people seem to think ‘death’ starts and stops at the physical body. Death is so much more dynamic. Death signifies the end of a person. Not just the end of that person’s being, could be the end of that person’s moral compass. You humans kill yourselves in a number of different ways before ending your own lives. Yes, think of you and the Commander in that prison Kibwe.” Kibwe reflected on his life in prison as he said that. He thought of how he had changed. He even thought of the Commander’s words of how he had ‘died’ because of Kibwe. “Dynamic isn’t? You are as dead as the old woman you thought you spared, as dead as the Commander of the imperial army and as dead as your son. Kibwe, the nobleman and lender is dead. Kibwe, the prisoner is dead. The only Kibwe alive, is the Kibwe, the hand of Death.”

“So what do you want from me now?”

“It does not matter what I want, Kibwe. With death comes a new life. You’ve led three different ones in the space of a week. You can either believe the lie I fed you and attempt to go back to the old life you had, even though in the eyes of the law you’re still a criminal… A criminal who broke out of prison. You don’t know where your family is and technically, you’ve killed your own son… But I mean, it’s not impossible.” he chuckled as he ate another grape. “Or… You could do what every single one of your kind fears. Embrace what you’re uncomfortable with. Face this new life and be comfortable with death itself.”

“Why me?”

“You were imprisoned.”

“So you try to free every prisoner?”

“Every mental prisoner, yes. All I did was enlighten you. You can hate me if you’d like and do whatever it is you want. Your son would have died here regardless… All I do is teach. Without death, humans would have never evolved.” as he plucked one more grape, he continued. “The choice is still yours. The horse knows to carry you back to the mountain-”

“I have my answer.”, Kibwe interrupted. “I will serve… Master.”, he said with a very heavy heart. He felt he had no other choice.

“Good choice. I know you’d like some time to process your loss. I’ll let you bury him in the mountain if you’d like.”, he said as he pulled a shovel out of thin air and handed it to Kibwe. “See, the God of Death isn’t a complete asshole. I care sometimes. I’ll be heading home now. See you there.”

“Wait! I saw you dancing with a spirit today. Does that mean I can talk to Kito too?”, he asked the god hopefully.

“No… He was at peace when he died.”

“Oh…”, Kibwe was somber yet again.

“Yeah… See you when you get home though.”, he cheerfully patted the lamenting father’s shoulder and vanished.