Dense swamp covered most of Novi, the large trees which supported the Novi’ite homes rose out of tangles of roots in the shallow, murky waters. Astrea loved the trees of her home and would spend her entire day suspended in them were she allowed. It stayed cool and damp near the water, sheltered from the intensity of the sun by the canopy of close-growing branches and broad leaves. Where hills and ridges deviated the water away from land, the sun warmed and dried the ground during the daytime. The rocky ridges on moon number six rose at these partitions, once dotted along summits with large, open-air shrines and temples, but the last of them fell to Xandarian law after colonization. It was here Astrea climbed, long after dark, when the grass was damp on her bare feet and the air chilled.
The laws forbidding worship of their old gods also limited Novi’ite use of the ridges and the trails leading up to them. Peacekeepers often patrolled them, watching for any sign of homage, like flower garlands or offerings of deep bog fruits left where the starlight could reach them. Xandarians even limited stargazing from the peak due to the Novi’ites’ belief in their connection to the stars, and tracking of their trails and recording on the sextants deep in the catacombs was strictly forbidden.
But Astrea sometimes snuck up the ridge to celebrate Novi’s full phase. She didn’t need a chart or calendar to measure the stars. They shone brightly in her heart and called out to her when she held her breath for silence. Tonight she concealed a woven cloth embroidered with five-pointed leaves under her poncho as she padded up the overgrown trail.
The grass grew tall at the top, swaying in the breeze and making a gentle swish as she waded through. The planetshine barely lit her way, but it was enough for her to make out the ancient tree at the edge of the ridge where she stopped and lowered to her knees. She laid the burgeoning cloth to where the shrine’s well once stood and murmured a soft prayer. She placed her hands on her bare thighs and turned her face up to the stars to begin the period of contemplation required before Orion would join her.
Novi had no light pollution, leaving the night sky visible. But during the dark of Xandar the stars seemed especially vivid. At least in her mind. It was possible she was biased, and simply preferred the skies without their overlords in it.
She scanned the clear sky, wondering for perhaps the five hundredth time which stars were her parents. When she and Uri were younger they used to make up the constellations that included their families, lying on their backs on the roof of their home, drawing lines with their fingers only they could see. From the stars they were forged and to the skies they returned. Astrea breathed in the scent of damp dirt and fresh grass mingled with the faint dankness of the swamp, and repeated their names to the Forge Mother in a hushed whisper. Over and over. A loved one was never truly gone so long as their names remained spoken.
“You are supposed to be on house arrest, so I thought I might find you here.”
Astrea recognized the rich voice. Astrea turned about without startling, putting her hands up as she rolled her body to standing out of her seat of supplication. “Athene. I wasn’t—“
“I know what you were doing.” Athene stepped closer, her dark skin and full features reflecting the starlight enough to give the impression of her form in silvery glow. She towered above Astrea, even at full height, shoulders muscled and broad without being burly, her soul sword hilt cruciform over her shoulder. “Secrets are few above the canopies.”
“Are you here to stop me?” Astrea stood a little straighter, daring her to try.
“I am not.”
“Good.” Astrea brushed the dirt from her hands, suddenly embarrassed at the state of her appearance in front of one of the clan elders. “A witness, while not required, is always preferrable.”
Athene did not move, august and beautiful as she stared Astrea down. “I did not say I approved, either.”
“Of course. Well it’s a good thing I didn’t ask.” Astrea winced as soon as the words left her mouth. Novi’ites being decimated as they were, Athene ranked eldest among them, presumably in her early fifties. No one was quite sure, not even Athene herself. Athene’s amnesia started some time during the war over colonization. She commanded respect with her presence alone, and Astrea knew that. “I apologize.”
Athene hummed her acknowledgment into the night her eyes focused somewhere far away.
Astrea watched the elder’s for a long time, waiting for her to say more, which she did not. Whatever held her attention held it fast. Occasionally Astrea looked around them, watching for patrols, but turning her attention back to Athene before her. When Athene said nothing, Astrea spoke up, her words careful, but deliberate. “I guess I’ll be getting back to my contemplations.”
“So congratulations are in order.”
Astrea smiled tightly, caught mid-crouch. “I suppose so.”
Athene fell quiet again, walking slow steps in a curve around Astrea, who would have been lying if she said it did not have her on edge. Athene reached the remains of the well and stopped. “Do you know what you are doing?”
“Here at the well, or with life in general?”
Athene’s face smoothed into a look of placid displeasure. “Playing a fool does not suit you.”
Astrea’s brow knit, wrinkling the tattoo which spanned half of her face in five perfect points. Her lips pursed as she considered mouthing off then decided against it. “I know you’re talking about our Forge-bonding.”
“In part. Yes.”
Astrea did not want to talk about this. She was still wrapping her head around having agreed to it. She huffed and took a step to the side, and Athene followed, blocking her path. It didn’t feel menacing, but clearly Athene was not finished with their conversation. “You don’t approve. You’ve made that clear.”
“I approve of what is best for Novi.”
Astrea reached out, hand indicating the space around them. “You think that farce of an alliance the Xandarians want is what’s best for Novi.”
“I think the alliance is the best way to not poke the Xandarians with a stick like a hive of red stingers.”
Astrea’s lips thinned and tightened. “That’s not good enough. You’re just as bad as Reis. Instead of standing up for what’s ours you stand by and let them take everything from us.”
“Is that what you think the Chief is doing? Letting the Xandarians do as they will unchecked? Do you really think things would be as they are without all of his work? Or your brother’s work?” Athene tilted her head. “There is so much fight in you. It consumes you.”
“No,” Astrea insisted. “I-I feel so empty that this is all I have left. Someone has to fight for us.”
“And that someone has to be you?”
“If no one else is going to fight, yes.”
“Not every fight has to be violent.” Astrea turned her eyes away, fighting shame she could not explain. Athene made her feel off in a way she could not name. As is the act of disappointing her might bring on a long summer rain. “Reis is fighting to protect all of us, every day. The peace he’s brokered keeps remaining Novi’ites alive.”
“You think this is peace?” Astrea scoffed, unable to believe the proud warrior in front of her could be so wrong. How long had Astrea longed to be like this woman before her? “They force us to fight their wars. They tear down our monuments. They desecrate our catacombs. They strip us of everything we are. What’s the point of existing at all?”
“That is a path that will lead you to a dangerous place.”
“With all due respect, it’s my path. It’s the course of my star through the sky. They’ve taken everything from me, and this is the last thing I have as a weapon.”
Athene breathed quietly for a moment. Astrea’s eyes had adjusted to the light enough that she could make out the odd look which crossed Athene’s face. A frown turned her lips as she spoke softly, almost to herself. “I was like you when I was younger.”
Astrea raised a brow. “I thought you couldn’t remember when you were younger.”
“I,” Athene trailed off, uncharacteristically, eyes looking past Astrea, as if there was something she couldn’t quite see. She started again. “I can’t.” Neither of them spoke for a time until Athene broke the silence once more. “You must choose your fights, Astrea. Not every battle is worth your life.”
“This one is.” She lifted her chin.
“Is it worth all of our lives?”
Astrea didn’t answer, not right away. She stewed quietly, the anger and frustration like knotted vines in her belly. It coiled up into her throat, choking her. She could hardly breathe enough to form her words. “It won’t come to that.”
“I pray to the Forge Mother that you are right.” She sighed. “Go home, Astrea.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“I know. Your betrothed will be here soon.”
Astrea studied Athene, the generous lines of her face, the regal sihlouette she cut in the nighttime light. “I want this, and so does he.” She was mostly sure this was true.
Athene hummed and watched as Astrea walked past her. “Congratulations on your bonding. May it bring you both joy.”
“It will. You’ll–”
Sirens. The sound tore through the night, shearing the quiet like a sharp knife and raising bumps across Astrea’s skin. Not long after the first blaring notes, footsteps preceeded a small group of Peacekeepers. Shit.
“Elder Athene,” the leader greeted without any of the respect which should have accompanied her title. There was a pause as his anonymizing visor turned Astrea’s way. “Lady Astrea. You’re needed at the village center.”
“I’ll go when I’m ready,” Astrea said firmly.
The Peacekeeper shook his head. “No, I’ve been ordered to round up every fighter.”
Astrea opened her mouth to demand what for, when a fierce glow lit the sky with an intensity she could feel against her skin. “I don’t think fighters are going to be enough,” she murmured as her stomach rolled with dread.
©2019 b.r. hill-mann