New Ram City, Aries
Olive’s walk back to the royal palace was oddly filled with thoughts of Maria. He could only faintly see her in his mind’s eye. In a dark and dim cell with hands cuffed in chains, Maria sat without a smile. The very sight of her was unnerving. Betrayal must hurt.
When Olive finally made it back to the palace, he was greeted by Samuel and another guard.
“Your Highness!” Samuel exclaimed. “Where have you been?”
“The king and queen request your presence immediately.”
* * *
When Olive entered the throne room, he was immediately ushered into his chair beside his uncle and aunt’s thrones. They were already sitting there, both grim and stiff. They didn’t even look at him when he seated himself. Something he welcomed. Oddly enough, they were dressed formally. Dressed in the attire they would wear only to diplomatic meetings. A black suit and a red tie for his uncle, and a black dress laced with red for his aunt.
Olive then noticed Gabrielle standing to the side of the room with crossed arms. Izsak wasn’t with her. Olive knew he needed to get the vials to her.
Before he could think on it any further, one of the royal guards abruptly entered the room and boomed, “Your Highnesses, please welcome the nineteenth prince of Sagittarius. Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan.”
Oh. So they were expecting a prince from another country. That explained things. Talk about late notice. He thought of Atienna and wondered if they were here to seek aid.
Olive threw a disinterested look to the doors of the throne room, which creaked open slowly.
A person drifted forward, gliding in a way that made them seem as if they were floating on clouds. Sky-blue Sagittarian silken robes laced with silver-woven clouds wrapped around their body. Their hands were hidden by the long, dangling sleeves of the robe, while their face was hidden by a black hat. The hat’s rim was wide and circular, and its top rose to a flat top above their head—slightly higher than a normal hat would. A blue and white beaded string connected to the ends of the hat hung inches below their chin.
They bowed low as they neared the throne before lifting their head to meet the king’s and queen’s eyes.
Olive felt faint as soon as he registered the face hiding beneath the brim of the hat. A coldness seeped into his bones. His head buzzed; his stomach burned; a buzzing panic seized his chest.
“It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” Claire said calmly, smoothly, voice as steady and tranquil as Atienna’s. “I greatly appreciate your acceptance of my presence given the current circumstances that befall your crown prince.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction, and their eyes met.
Olive felt bile climb up his throat as realization dawned on him. He couldn’t breathe. He could taste smoke in the air.
“Prince Yuseong,” his uncle said calmly, “we are always glad to welcome a member of the Sagittarian royal clans even with short notice. However, given the current state of things, I do have to question your reason for coming here.”
“With all due respect, that’s exactly what I’ve come here for,” Claire interjected. “While I understand your desire to keep out of the border conflict due to your current internal situation, I must say it would be impolite to reject the request of a party that has aided you.”
“What are you saying, Prince Yuseong?”
Olive shakily reached for his coat pocket. Empty. When did he…?
Claire gestured behind him. Two figures entered the room and came to a stand beside him—one of his left and one on his right. Both of them were donning masks—one a porcelain white and one a wooden brown.
“These are my vassals,” Claire said. “The one with the wooden mask is Felix, and the one in the white mask is Soha.” He waved his hand in the air, and the two stepped forward each presenting two items in their hands with a bow. One vial and one arrow each. “This is evidence that Trystan Carter is not the assassin.”
“How did you get your hands on those arrows?”
“I’ve been investigating the assassination since I arrived,” Claire answered. “I will be open. The two individuals that went after the prince several nights ago were my vassals here, but I meant no harm. I was merely trying to lure out the true assassins—which did not turn out as planned unfortunately.” He gestured to Olive. “And as to how I got my hands on these arrows… you could ask Prince Chance that.”
Olive felt his uncle and aunt staring at him.
“We have much to discuss,” Claire—no, Haneul—finished with the smile of a politician.
* * *
Olive wasn’t really aware of being led back to his room nor was he aware of walking to his bed and sinking down into it. His bird was tweeting loudly, but he could barely hear it above the ringing in his ears.
Shut up already.
He buried his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, five shadows flickered into existence. What? All of them? He didn’t need this right now. Eighty percent synchronization. Eighty percent suffering.
“Leave me alone…” Olive muttered.
They didn’t move. One drifted closer. Atienna. She brought her with a sensation of calm. A calm he didn’t deserve.
“Leave me alone!” Olive snapped, leaping from the bed.
“Do you…” Atienna began. She paused, then continued gently, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to understand… we’re connected, Olive. The things you feel, we feel too.”
Olive sent her a glare. “Sure, anything to distract you from your own problems.”
“Hey now, Your Highness, let’s not get too harsh here,” Cadence said as she drew near. “It ain’t all that bad, kid. I know it sucks that Claire stabbed ya in the back, but it ain’t your fault. He was very convincin—”
“This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t listen to you and just let it be!”
“Yeah, prince, you’re right,” Cadence reassured him. But I did say the kid was a liar. “You shoulda just done your own thing. Ya know better than us about these kinds of things. You’re right—”
“I knew. I knew… It was pointless for me to try to help, but I did it anyway.” Olive kicked the pole of the birdcage, sending his bird into a fluttering panic. “I’m just an idiot who never learns anything. Always the same thing over and over again. I—”
I should just die.
Like a lightning bolt, Olive’s thought rattled through the room. Silence, shock. Shame, anger.
“Whoa, kid, that’s a bit much. Ya messed up, but there’s no reason ta start goin’ ta those lengths—”
“Why?” Olive scoffed. “Every time I try to help, I end up dragging down everyone around me. This, me freeing Oros, and—the world would be better if I was gone.” He shook his head before glowering at Cadence. “And what do you care? Sure, you might be connected to me, but I know what you really think. I’m just a spoiled brat to you. You act sad, but it’s just an act in the end.”
All of them remained silent.
“Stop looking at me like that. Does feeling pity toward other people make you feel better about yourself? ‘I may be bad, but at least I’m not like that.’ Is that what you’re thinking? I know it is. You just don’t want to admit it.”
“Kid, you might be brat, but ya ain’t that bad—”
“Not bad?” Olive scoffed. “I’m the one who caused the Tragedy of Aries!”
Another beat of silence.
Cadence exchanged a look with Werner. “Kid, I don’t know much history, but I doubt that you—”
Werner held up a hand. “Tell us.”
Olive stared at him wide-eyed. Words lodged in his throat. Heart hammering in his chest.
Atienna drew near and guided him onto the bed. There was no pity in her eyes. Only understanding. Nothing right, nothing wrong.
Olive swallowed and let out a breathy sigh. “I… My little sister was really talented. They said she could become a saint candidate. They took her to Ophiuchus to do the tests, but she failed. She was so upset after. I just wanted to cheer her up.” Saints, he was pathetic. “I did everything I could. Tried to build stupid toy conductors. Tried to buy her favorite sweets. But none of it was enough. So I snuck her out of the palace one day when my p—” Olive clenched his fists. “My parents had a meeting there. Bought her a stupid bird even though I had no idea how to take care of it. She was so happy then. She was probably just tired of being cooped up all the time—I… I felt like I’d accomplished something. I got full of myself. I was… so stupid.”
It was a memory forever burned into his mind. Her last smile.
“When we came back to the palace, there was a homeless man outside. None of the guards noticed him. And he was hungry and tired, and he asked for help. And… And… Because I was feeling like some self-righteous hero, I snuck him in. I…” He felt his voice crack. “I let him in… And he—”
“He let in the ELPIS members who murdered the people inside the royal palace,” Jericho realized. “The ones who started the fire.”
“ELPIS didn’t start the fire.” Olive felt somewhat lightheaded. “There were bodies everywhere, and it was all my fault… I…” He buried his head in his hands, eyes wide. “I tried to get Lavi away. I tried so hard. I ran. I ran. I ran, but they—she—”
The image of her small body dangling from that man’s white gloved hands invaded his mind. He felt sick.
“Maybe one of them could be saved, but I—” Olive dug into his hair. “I was just thinking to myself that I… that I couldn’t look at it. I just couldn’t look at her. At any of them. That’s all I could think. I couldn’t control it. I…”
The memory flashed in his mind. The fire that erupted from his hands without warning, spilling out from his fingertips, devouring everything in sight without discrimination. The white cloaks that the ELPIS members wore. The bodies strewn on the floor. His sister.
The smell had been revolting. It was truly something that no human should ever have experienced. The odor of burning flesh. The screams as bones and muscles melted. Seared into his memory.
When the Ophiuchians arrived later, they’d found Olive curled up in a pile of ash. Gabrielle had been the one to find him. Izsak had conjured mountains of stuffed-animals to try to get him to speak. But Doctor Kingsley had been the one to break through. They were the few who knew about his ability to channel vitae without a conductor. Something that he’d been able to do ever since that day.
Saints, Olive thought. He was pathetic. Saying he should just die or disappear when that was too easy of a punishment. Like an ant.
“Channeling vitae without a conductor…” Jericho stared.
Yes, it was all out now. They all knew what he’d done—
Jericho said, “ELPIS… their fault.” There was an edge to his voice, but Olive couldn’t feel the righteous anger from all those times before.
“That’s right, kid,” Cadence agreed. “Even if ya didn’t let them in, they still would’ve gotten in. Besides, you were just a—”
“Don’t say that!” Olive snapped. “Just saying that doesn’t make it better!”
“That is obvious,” Werner interjected. He closed the mental and physical distance between them and lowered himself, so they were eye-level. “But now you know you must take responsibility. You believe your sister is still present, correct? She is more than an illusion. That line of thinking isn’t illogical given our situation.”
Atienna glanced at him and then nodded. “I’ve been giving it some thought since you mentioned her. In the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, your sister may actually be alive in a sense. During the Tragedy, when she was near death, her vitae may have left her body and entered you. It might also explain why you’re able to conduct without a conductor.”
“If that’s the case,” Werner continued, “then you are partially responsible for her current condition.”
“And it’s your responsibility to find a way to reverse it,” Werner finished. “You have a goal now and a duty to reach that goal’s end. For your sister.”
An image flashed through Olive’s mind. It wasn’t Lavi. It was a young, frail-looking girl with platinum blonde hair and pale blue eyes. But the feeling was the same. A sibling affection.
Something clicked into place within Olive’s chest, and it suddenly felt as if the world became a bit clearer. He was ashamed at the feeling but at the same time…
“I’ll avenge you too,” Jericho interjected.
“I don’t want revenge.” Olive frowned. “And I don’t want anyone being killed on my behalf. I’m not like that.”
Jericho cocked his head at him.
“Nothing’ll be solved by beating someone with a suitcase,” Olive grumbled, rubbing his arms and then wiping the tears away from his eyes. Had he been crying? Embarrassing. “But thanks for the thought, I guess.”
Still, it didn’t feel right. It felt too easy. It really didn’t feel like he deserved this sort of redemption or whatever this was. It felt like an escape.
“You cannot die, Olive Chance.”
Everyone turned their attention to Maria. She was still within her jail cell on her ship—they could all see this—but she was standing now and gripping the bars of her cell. Tightly, just like Trystan had.
“I won’t allow you to die,” Maria elaborated. “Because I like you, and you are mine.” She looked toward him. “And I don’t let bad things happen to things that are mine.” She brightened abruptly and addressed all of them. “And that’s all of you.”
They all stared.
“Chance…” Werner said suddenly. There was an edge to his voice. “The attempt on your life was not an assassination attempt.”
Olive blinked a couple of times at the sudden nonsensical change. “Uh, what?”
“It’s very well known that Sagittarius is seeking aid from other countries after being pulled into the border conflict. It’s also known that Aries and Sagittarius have shared good relations following the Reservoir War. It follows that Aries would come to aid Sagittarius if need be. That is unless Aries had their hands full with another matter.”
“Werner…” Atienna murmured. “What are you saying?”
Werner opened his mouth, then shut it. His eyes widened, then darkened. Abruptly, the synchronization between them was cut.