Lusa bent down and cupped the flower in her palm. She examined it closely. The purple blue petals felt soft and smooth and she marvelled over it.
‘You’re meant to pick them not play with them,’ her cousin bossed.
‘I know. I know. But I’ve never seen one like this. It’s beautiful.’
‘It would be if it were orange.’ He waved the bag containing the other flowers in front of her face. ‘Stick it in. We better burn them and head back.’
Lusa plucked the flower out, paused to wonder at it a moment longer, then placed it in the bag. ‘Here.’
‘I’m going to take these to the fire. See you later.’ He tied the top of the bag shut and ran off along the path.
‘Okay. See you.’ Lusa turned and looked across the meadow, now entirely covered with nothing but the bright yellow flowers they did not pick. The flowers matched the surrounding trees, their trunks and lower branches having been painted a faded pastel yellow.
‘Same as all the others.’ She said out loud to herself.
A movement amongst the trees off to her left caught Lusa’s eye and she whipped round just in time to see a young face pull back out of sight. Lusa blinked. The face was unpainted, unlike hers, which she touched lightly.
She started to walk slowly towards the tree where she had seen the boy. ‘Hello? Who’s that?’
Suddenly the boy made a break for it, running off among the trees. Lusa followed without thinking. He was young, maybe lost. And the paint had come off. She thought she would help him.
He was fast for a boy his age, but no match for the naturally athletic Lusa. She caught up with him in a clearing. He stood facing her, panting and scared.
‘Are you lost?’ Lusa asked? ‘What happened to your face? I can see your skin. Have you been away long?’
‘He doesn’t need to paint his face.’ A voice answered.
Lusa was startled and turned to see a man climbing down from a tree. She stared. He was dressed completely in green with leaves and bits of shrubbery decorating his clothing. He had spirals of green ink running up his bare arms, but his face was completely bare, his pale pink skin shining out.
‘Who are you?’ Lusa looked back to the boy, then the man. The boy ran to his father. ‘What are you doing out here? Why is your skin bare?’
The boy clasps his father’s legs and is comforted with an arm, ‘I told you to stay near me. There’s nothing to worry about, I’ve got you.’ He looks up at Lusa and examines her closely.
‘It’s probably best if you don’t mention seeing us. Will you do that for me?’
‘No! Who are you? Where do you come from?’
‘I come from the same place as you. Some people leave. Did you not know that some people leave?’
‘Leave? Leave where?’
‘My name is Taal. And this is my son. What’s your name?’
‘Can we go home now Daddy?’
‘Wait one moment, we’ll go in a minute after I’ve spoken to this girl.’
Taal directed his attention back to Lusa. ‘Listen… Lusa… I left the Amba a long time ago. You know what that means?’
‘Why would you…?’
‘When someone left the church back then, they couldn’t stay in Ambras. I had to leave in order to stay safe.’
‘But it’s nice being part of Amba. I don’t understand.’
‘It’s not nice for everybody. Besides, I left because I don’t believe that one set of colours are more holy than the others.’
‘So why do you wear green?’
‘We wear Green because it makes us harder to see. You probably don’t know it, but not all Amba followers are nice to people who think differently.’
‘That’s putting it lightly.’ Ket said, stepping out from her hiding place. She also wore green, but had multi coloured inkings; red, blue, mauve and green, on her face and arms. Lusa glanced at her, then scanned the trees.
How many more are there?
Taal continued. ‘That’s why I don’t want you to tell anyone about seeing us. There are crazy people who will come looking for us… and hurt, even kill non-Amba like us.’
‘But the Azoo and the Arga live in Ambras as well.’
‘Yes some, but that wasn’t the case for a long time. Things are still fragile between the tribes’
‘Tell her about the murders.’ Ket added.
Taal gave his wife a look that suggested she was not helping, then turned to address Lusa again.
‘It was difficult to leave my Amba family, but I had to stand up for what I know is right. I had to endure tough times to be true to myself. The fact is… no one colour is holier than the others. That’s just the opinion of those that fear losing power… and their wealth… and so many other things… if they let the other factions in.’
‘You don’t have any colour? Not even blue?’ Asked Lusa.
‘That’s right. We don’t need a colour. We live naturally with every colour. Eat what we want. Wear what we want. Most importantly, think what we want.’
Lusa stood silently, considering Taal’s words.
‘But how do you…?’ She stops. Losing her train of thought for a moment. ‘ How do you know the difference between right and wrong?’
‘Lusa. There’s right and wrong in everything. Nature is… I mean, right and wrong can be found in the heart of most people.’ Taal curled his fingers on the middle of his chest. ‘If you respect others… and most importantly, do not hurt… live your life respecting people… there’s no real need for religion. If you think about it… people going around colouring themselves because of religion… it’s pretty daft.’
‘It’s not daft. I like it.’ Lusa complained.
The boy looked up at his father then accusingly at Lusa, “They were picking all the flowers that aren’t yellow.’
‘I know son, they’re silly aren’t they?’
‘I like the blue ones.’ Lusa said.
“So do I Lusa. Where I live, we allow all the flowers to grow. Black, blue, red… and yellow.’
‘Wow.’ She paused. ‘Where do you live?’
Taal suddenly became more serious. ‘We need to go.’ He took his son by the hand and they turned to leave.
‘Bear it in mind Lusa. You don’t have to believe everything you’re told. Discover life for yourself. If it’s not too late.’
And with that, they set off into the forest. Ket watched Lusa for a moment then, she too, slipped away.
‘Wait!’ Lusa cried.
‘Goodbye Lusa!’ Taal called.
‘Goodbye Lusa.’ His son mimicked.
She stood and watched as they disappeared from sight and wondered whether she should follow them. She wanted to. But it was easy to get lost. Many had.
As Lusa approached the city she sensed that something was happening. To one side of the main gate, an excited crowd had formed a large arc against the wall. They were reacting at intervals, letting out unified gasps. She pushed her way through the mass of yellow and gold, desperate to see what was going on.
As she approached the front, she heard someone speaking loudly and confidently.
‘Another one?’ He asked.
The crowd responded excitedly in the positive. Some were cheering, others more serious, but all were excited. Near the front, a small group of Arga holy men looked at each other with concern.
The man at the centre of the commotion, a senior soldier, held a device, which Lusa had not seen before. It resembled a long stick with a handle attached, although made from metal rather than wood. It was painted the customary yellow of Amba weapons. The soldier held it by the handle, pointed to the sky.
‘They call it a… gun. And there are more like this, as well as other similar devices. I’ll show you something else we have obtained, in a minute.’
He turned towards the city wall where a straw target had been propped up, and aimed the rifle. It made a short sharp surging noise just before a bolt of fire like energy shot out of the end and into the target. Lusa’s eyes widened as a small area of the straw was scorched and begun to burn as a flame took hold. She noticed several other scorch marks from previous shots.
The soldier smiled, ‘Far better than arrows. And they say we’ll be getting more of these. Thank the rays!’
The crowd murmured in agreement.
He slung the rifle carefully around his person and opened a pocket of his tunic.
‘And then there’s this little thing.’ He pulled out a thin finger length cylinder.
‘They won’t be cheap. But it will save a lot of time… watch this! Erm… I need something to paint. Okay, I’ll use my hat.’ He took his hat off and held the cylinder against it. Where he touched the hat with the device, it began to turn a golden yellow. Some of the crowd gasped. Others strained to see. The soldier walked along the line so they could see the demonstration.
‘How does it work?’ Someone shouted. The soldier stopped and laughed.
‘I’ve no idea!’ Almost everybody laughed.
One of the Arga priests stepped forward. ‘Will it paint red?’
‘No. Only Amba colours, my Safra friends. I’m sorry.’ He replied as he packed the light-pen carefully away.
‘I promised something special, and there you have it. We’ll see more of these soon. Hopefully. The sun and the light are shining bright for Ambras.’
As he readied to leave, he added.
‘I will see you all at Temple!’ The crowd parted to allow him through. Several intrigued citizens followed him, asking questions, which he deflected.
Lusa went over to the straw target. She touched the scorch marks, some of which were still warm.