For Imei and Aldo Satsubara, it was always the intention to leave home, guided by years spent in dedication to the Alma. With the arrival of a stranger to their village, dressed as an outsider but welcomed as a son, those long-awaited plans are dramatically and tragically altered.
Chapter 1.1 :: Imei Satsubara
Imei Satsubara reached out to the spirits she served. She called to Ona, wise and cunning, to the Shikra who was proud and fierce and to ageless, timeless Ocha Lomada, stout and resolute, pleading to them. Pleading to any who would listen to take upon themselves her cause, to reflect her intent upon the Alma, and act as Arbiter on her behalf.
They still resisted. Imei was new to them yet, new to the practises of the Almata, though this year’s autumn ought to mark her rite of passage. The strength of their resistance had lessened. She smiled, and opened her eyes slowly.
With a precision unique to her brother, Aldo chose that moment to appear at her small room’s solitary window.
“Good morning, sister.” Aldo pushed the shutters back and tucked them against the wall. His thick, dark hair had been fastened into a bun high upon his head. Sharp, forest green eyes glittered with mischief above delicate cheekbones and a long, straight nose. His features were a touch harder than her own. It made him look more like their father than their mother.
“Don’t let mother see you out there.” Imei folded her arms across her chest and walked across the room to join him. Like most of the houses in the village, theirs had been built upon a platform. The Akindoro Valley was steep on both sides, presenting very little even ground upon which to build. Since becoming old enough to learn, they had been taught that balance was at the heart of everything. To give, was to receive, to take was to lose. Though the platforms were built to support their home, even a slight disturbance in that balance could quite easily bring it down. To Aldo, it was a minor concern. An unlikely eventuality born from a series of circumstances resulting from an impossibility; that he was wrong in his assertions.
“You shouldn’t sleep so late,” he smiled knowingly, letting the silence grow between them. “If you want to see the Grove, that is.”
“He’s letting us go?” She stepped towards Aldo, grabbing fistfuls of his robe and pulling him in sharply towards her. He was half hanging over the threshold, a wide, idiot grin upon his face. Imei peered intently at her brother. “He is?” Imei hadn’t seen the Grove in weeks. Tutor Renato had assured them that engaging in Repose bore better fruits, the further they were from the heart of the Alma. Each passing day caused the pain to embolden a little more. Her smile grew. Butterflies erupted in her stomach.
Aldo nodded, winking at her. “I told you he would.”
Over her brother’s shoulder, Imei saw Tutor Renato openly regarding them, deep-set eyes considering. He was an old man, well into his twilight, skin drawn taught over a square face. Pronounced creases and wrinkles gave him the appearance of aged leather. He wore the sides of his hair swept back, oiled and fastened into a bun, with the layers beneath drawn down and tied into a long tail. The dark, red mantle of his office hung loosely over his right shoulder. An abundance of fabric smothered half of a thin, wiry frame, hovering inches off the ground. On his younger counterparts, the mantle fit more comfortably, more snugly, appeared more dignified. Instead, it lent to Tutor Renato a disheveled appearance. Unlike those counterparts, who often decorated the mark of their status with whatever sign of wealth they could muster, Tutor Renato kept his plain and unadorned, in keeping with his strictly austere lifestyle.
“Good morning, Tutor!” Imei called, raising a hand in greeting. He turned away, shaking his head as he began up the single, narrow path that wound its way through a small stand of trees towards his home.
She let go of her brother’s clothing, allowing him to rediscover his balance on the platform outside. With the flat of her hands, she brushed out the creases, arranging the robe with the same precision she had applied to her own.
“It seems as though it is always me, waiting for you.” Aldo turned on the platform, frowning and watching their Tutor walk away.
“Then stop waking up so early.” She reached out of the window, flicking her wrist and slapping the back of his head. Aldo said nothing else, instead nimbly jumping down from the platform to the stream’s tussocky verge below, dirt and stone crunching beneath him.
Imei made her way towards the door across the room, crouching to retrieve her sword from its place beside her bed and slipping the slender, ivory scabbard through the knotted sash at her hip. It fit snugly, resting against her leg. With a hand on the ornate crossguard, fingers wrapped around the hilt, she slid the door open and stepped out into the hallway.
Theirs was a small house, with few furnishings and sparse decoration. The walls comprised of plain, wooden panels. Only the bedrooms had doors. In their place, the living area and the kitchen were partitioned with thin drapes swirling in a pleasant breeze. The wind’s cool breath crept along the floorboards, eddying through Imei’s legs. The silver chains were cool against her skin. She continued down the corridor and into the building’s square washroom. The space had been built up by their mother already that morning, with a display of soaps, powders and pastes for the family’s morning ministrations.
When at last Imei made her way to the kitchen, fully dressed and prepared for a day she hoped to spend engaged wholly with the Alma, she caught the subtle scent of breakfast wafting through the drapes, and was hit by a stifling cloud of steam as she parted the curtains. Her mother was stood beside the stove, gently stirring a bean paste soup seasoned with fish stock, thinly sliced carrots and parsnips. She looked over her shoulder as Imei entered, greeting her with a warm smile.
“Good morning, little sparrow.” Ayakame Satsubara had ever been a kind, demure woman. She was slight, carrying herself with a hard won dignity, and had passed on her most endearing traits to both of her young children. Though Aldo’s tan features were a touch harder than his sister’s, their mother’s soft features were apparent in Imei’s young face.
Ayakame was well versed in the ways of the Almata, and exceptionally powerful, which gave her children a decidedly elevated status, such as it was, amongst the other Almani. Despite this, she had never taken the office of Tutor for herself after their father had left, instead opting to care for her two sickly children. Both Imei and Aldo had encouraged her to reconsider once they had discovered their health but she had refused. With the aid of her comprehensive knowledge, and already well established relationship with the Alma, the studies of Imei and Aldo were aided significantly. Living in her brother’s shadow was bad enough for Imei, who often found his swordsmanship and intellect to be a testing rival. Joined with the near palpable expectation that came with living in their mother’s shadow as well, the next few days were sure to be taxing.
Imei moved to her mother’s side, placing a hand in the small of her back and leaning over to inhale the aromas wafting off the stove. A wooden bowl, full of steaming rice topped with seasoned mushroom, sat upon the worktop beside her. Ayakame replaced the ladle, propping it against the side of the pan to chop up a handful of spinach leaves, which promptly found their way into the simmering soup.
“Eat,” her mother said to her, lifting the soup from the stove and walking to the table. It sat low to the ground, with enough room for legs beneath. The soup joined a square of fresh bread, a sliver of butter, a jug of water and a plate upon which were slices of venison and pork. Imei wrapped a cloth around her hands and picked up the hot, wooden bowl, moving it to the table. She slid the scabbard from her sash, seating herself on a plump cushion, and placed the sword beside her.
The door swept open to admit her brother. Kom trundled in with him. She regarded the animal, brow furrowed, her lips pursed.
“Has he been with you all morning?” she asked, recalling the rapping of his paws she had heard whilst in Repose.
Kom trotted over to her, proud and spry, and fell down under her gentle strokes, rolling onto his back.
“No, he ran off with Tutor Morinaka.”
Kom squirmed lazily, his tongue lolling. He was a good dog, and rare, bred only in their province for hunting boar and deer. For many years, he had been a gentle friend and guardian, mistrusting of strangers but deceptively easy to woo. Imei smiled down at him, scratching his neck and beneath the shoulders.
Imei shook her head. “I thought I heard him in the house.” She took a strip of pork from the plate on the table and dangled it over Kom’s face, he flopped awkwardly to his side and back to his feet, chasing the strip to the threshold when she threw it.
“That was Ona, I think,” said Aldo, removing the cushion beside her, and kneeling in its place. “Was it Ona, mother?”
Kom wolfed the meat down hungrily then made to return for more. Imei forestalled him with a raised hand and extended finger, drawing it down to indicate the floor. “Sit.” Kom sat on his haunches, then after a moment, lowered himself to the ground and curled up, watching the three of them.
“It was,” their mother said, easing herself down to a cushion opposite her children. Pain twisted her elegant features, pain gifted to her by an old wound beneath the ribs, and one which never seemed to lessen.
Imei frowned, eyebrows drawing together. She cast an awareness out to the spirit, wondering why she’d felt nothing of the old fox, and found nothing.A spirit passing through her own home, and she’d felt nothing. Anger and disappointment simmered inside her.
“She wanders lately,” Ayakame continued, regarding her eldest. “Your awareness is improving, Aldo. I’m proud of you.”
At this, Aldo beamed, directing his victorious grin at his sister.
Her mother’s sentiment stung Imei. She clenched her teeth, heat rising in her cheeks.
“Be careful.” Imei narrowed her eyes, smothering a sneer. “Your face might split in half.” How terrible that would be. The thought complemented a potent desire to smack the smug satisfaction from his face. He knew he was good without having to try, and so he barely tried. Imei hated that about her brother. Hated it more each time he proved how true it was. Under the table, her fists clenched.
“Be nice, little sparrow.” Despite the remonstration, Ayakame smiled at them both, regarding them with a glow in her eyes. “Now eat, or Tutor Renato will take his frustrations out on me.”
“That seems… unlikely, mother,” said Aldo, shaking his head. His long hairtail swished with the movement. Indeed, it seemed exceptionally unlikely. Even so, the pair descended on their breakfast, Aldo with a more hearty enthusiasm than Imei could gather. In place of her taking on the mantle of Tutor, their mother had developed her culinary skills to a fine art. Tutor Renato would never raise a finger against their mother, at risk of never again getting a whiff of her beef trespetas. Imei hated it. The dish was comprised almost entirely of spice. On the many occasions Ayakame had served it, Imei had failed to finish it without being driven to tears. All the milk in the world couldn’t save it for her.
“Why is Ona wandering, mother?” Imei spooned another small portion of rice into her mouth, trying earnestly to distract herself. A spoonful of soup soon followed. The flavours mixed well on her tongue.
“She is restless. The loud few disrupt the harmony. But she will be well again.” Ayakame smiled warmly at her young daughter. “I am sure. The Grove blooms, the Shikra have returned, as well. Both are good omens.”
They ate in silence after that, leaving Imei alone with the notion that, traditionally, any talk of omens was in itself a bad omen.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading. I'll post more of my work once I've figured out the website, and gotten a feel for it.