Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance, having spent the past six years rejecting everything after the Tragedy of Aries took away of his family, is now accepting that he must move on forward. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Watch and an attack by the former peacekeeper Izsak Wtorek, Olive has decided that he must complete the State Conductor Exam and leaves the palace life behind him. He hopes by completing the exam, he will be able to gain better access to materials that may help in understanding his sister’s condition–his bodyless, ghostly sister whom only he and the over five can see.
Three months have passed since he’s left New Ram City with Trystan at his side and now…
Thousand Name City, Sagittarius
“Chance, the minutes from last week’s meeting.”
This was pointless.
“Chance, if we don’t clarify what topics were discussed last week then this meeting and subsequent meetings will be meaningless. We need to understand what every person has been doing and what we will be doing in order to not interfere with one another.” A pause. “Besides, this will aid you in the interview portion of your Conductor Exam.”
Olive didn’t see Werner’s logic but he figured he’d humor Werner like they all had been doing for the past three months.
Werner’s image resided in the corner of Olive’s room. The man was sitting at the round table, hands clasped in front of him. A gray rain cloak caked with dirt, mud, and grime was thrown over his shoulders. The uniform and medals beneath his cloak were, however, as immaculate as always.
“Fine.” Olive sighed, walking over to his desk drawer. After arching a brow at Jericho who was standing beside it, he pulled out a bound notebook, flipped it open, and began to read— “The first five minutes of last meeting were spent reviewing what happened in the meeting before that. I summarized my arrival at Sagittarius and how my studying and research have been going, Cadence talked about the Campana-Romano drama that’s been going on, you gave a very detailed report on the Argo…” Olive frowned and looked to the side. “…front. Atienna just left for Aquarius with—”
“Sorry, Olive, but may I ask Cadence something before we move further?” Atienna interjected. Her image was sitting across the table from Werner. She was bundled up tightly—wrapped head to toe—in swaths of colorful silken cloth. The only part of her that he could see were her eyes that twinkled with their usual inquisitiveness.
“Cadence, have you gotten any farther in that book I recommended you?” Atienna pressed. “I believe it was thirty pages long, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much…” Olive could feel her smiling beneath her scarf. “But I understand if you’re a bit busy with everything going on…”
“Don’t give her excuses, Atienna,” Werner interjected. He sighed, offered her an almost apologetic look. “I understand your perspective, but we all have things we need to do regardless of our circumstances.” He raised his head in Cadence’s direction. “Well, Morello?”
Cadence was leaning against the wall with crossed arms. “Guys, come on, what’s the point? I mean, if I need ta read somethin’ I can always get one of ya ta help me with that.”
Olive was still rather surprised that Cadence was illiterate. She seemed to be verbally fluent in almost every other language in Signum, so he had assumed that had applied to her reading ability too. He’d only found out about her illiteracy two months ago when he’d synchronized with Jericho at random. At that time their random synchronizations were still a bit awkward—not that they weren’t awkward now—and the peacekeeper had let slip that Cadence had called upon him to help her read a notice that had been posted outside her favorite bar. The news traveled fast after that.
Werner frowned. “We still don’t have a complete handle on this synchronization. You may be put into a situation where you will be required to use those skills without our assistance.”
A life-or-death situation where Cadence would need to read to survive? That sounded like the plot to a terrible book.
Werner gave Olive a pointed frown.
The man really did believe that a situation like that was a possibility. Made sense. ‘Nothing could be left to chance’ was his law.
“I mean, we’ve got enough a handle on the synchronization ta have meetin’s like this once a week.” Cadence shrugged.
“We can make it happen approximately 65 percent of the time. We cannot prevent it from happening. And while we are beginning to grasp the ability to decrease synchronization, we still can’t prevent the desynchronizations that occur at random,” Werner amended.
“Exactly.” Cadence unfolded from the wall, hands wide-spread. “If I’m in a pickle I’ll just keep throwin’ out a line till I connect to one of ya.”
There was a mental sigh from somewhere. Although Olive couldn’t quite pinpoint who had given off the feeling, he knew which of them hadn’t. Jericho and Maria.
During his entire note reading routine, Maria had been wandering around the room marveling at the furniture. Her first comment had been about his bed which was a thin but fluffy mattress laid straight across the wooden floor. While rambling on about how marvelous it was to see a Sagittarian-style bed again, she had strayed over to his bird cage and was now inspecting the animal inside.
“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.
“My turn, yes?” Maria hummed before she threw herself back on Olive’s bed. She folded her hands beneath her head and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m off to Pisces to pick up something mysterious!”
“Ya can just say that ya got a delivery pick up for the Campanas,” Cadence said, peering down at her. “I’m not the type to hold that stuff against ya. I mean, like I’ve said I’m just a Romano associate. No hard feelins.”
Maria twirled her hair. “Hm? What do you mean? Did I not mention that?”
“‘Course. Forgot who I was talkin’ to.” Cadence chuckled, then nodded to Jericho. “And how ‘bout you, detective?”
During the entire conversation, Jericho had been doodling away in a small leather journal. He’d been doing that a lot lately, and Olive attributed it to either Doctor Kingsley’s work or Atienna’s suggestion. Werner had lectured the peacekeeper on the importance of paying attention during meetings a while back but had given up about two months ago. The reason? Despite the supposed distraction, Jericho always seemed to be able to keep track of what was going on in the meetings. A weird sort of multi-tasking ability. And with Werner, as long as things were efficient, then they were acceptable.
Closing his journal, Jericho said, “I received the letter about my ELPIS Department application. Yesterday.” A pause. “I was rejected.” Stated concisely without a hint of shame or embarrassment. Not so much as a flush even after a long stretch of silence passed.
“Right.” Werner ruminated. “I will coach you on your next interview then.”
Jericho cocked his head slightly. “My last interview went well.”
It had not gone well.
They had all bore witness to Jericho’s one-on-one two weeks prior. The first chairman of the ELPIS Department, Agent Leona, had still been in the Twin Cities at the time, so the second chairman of the ELPIS Department had conducted the interview. The first thing Jericho had done was follow through on Cadence’s advice of complimenting the interviewer. So Jericho had complimented the second chairman on his wonderfully balding head. “It sparkles nicely,” he had said. Then Jericho had considered Werner’s advice of exemplifying his personal strengths by connecting them with his previous accomplishments. Jericho took this literally and informed the chairman of how he’d beaten an ELPIS member to the point of unconsciousness with only his strength and his suitcase. It had only spiraled further from there.
“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.
He was being gentler than usual.
Cadence drifted over to Jericho and gave him a tight squeeze on the shoulders. “Don’t overthink it too much. We’re all a bit lackin’ somewhere—”
Cadence was cut off as she appeared before them, floating down from nowhere like usual with her dark black hair falling into place just as they turned to face her.
“Hey, Lavi.” Cadence offered a tip of her hat and a grin.
“Hey, Cadence.” Lavi waved. She peered at Werner. “How are you doing, Werner?”
“I’m doing fine, Lavi,” Werner answered curtly. “Thank you for your—”
Maria shot up from the bed and bounded over to Lavi’s side before taking the girl’s hands in her own. “I’ve been waiting for you to appear, Lavi! Really! I wish we could speak freely without my dear Olive having to be present all the time.” Before Olive could even react to the unintended insult, Maria continued, “I saw something magical two days ago! It was a sea creature! I know you like these types of things, yes? So I tried to catch it, you see. My men said it was impossible, but nothing is impossible, yes?”
“When it comes to you, yes,” Lavi agreed with a chuckle.
Maria was a dangerous influence for sure. But Lavi….
Lavi was different from them. The more Olive spent time with the others, the more he came to realize it. The fact was that Lavi didn’t seem to be connected to the others at all. She couldn’t synchronize with them, couldn’t see any of their memories. The only connection she had with them was through him.
“Enough. We need to stay on task,” Werner stated clearly, concisely. It was amazing how his voice carried despite him not actually shouting. Olive supposed that was something one picked up when they were in a position of leadership.
“—fifty cens worth if you find the right market. ‘Course, you can transmute that kinda stuff and fake it but that takes the fun out of it.”
And somehow, during Olive’s split-second of distracted introspection, the conversation had derailed to this extent. He arched a brow at Cadence who had joined in on Maria’s antics. Despite being connected to the former woman, Olive had a hard time telling whether or not she was truly invested in these meetings.
“Enough,” Werner repeated, turning to Atienna as if for assistance, “we need to at least get through this meeting—” He trailed off.
And Olive could see exactly why.
With even Atienna looking more amused than concerned, it was already too late to salvage this meeting.
Abruptly, a loud boom echoed from Werner’s end. The man shot up to a stand, staring off into the distance. Olive hesitantly peered deeper into Werner’s surroundings. The man had been sitting on a small boulder hidden behind a cluster of rotted trees. The sound had caused the ground to shake and sent the droplets of water collecting on his cloak to splash up into the air.
Without another word, Werner bent down to pick up the conducting rifle he’d set beside him and turned away from them all. And just like that, as if by a pair of saintly pliers snapping down on a single link, the chain between them all disintegrated and the other five disappeared from his sights.
Olive swallowed, half-tempted to reach out and start another synchronization. He paused, however, when he saw Lavi standing beside the birdcage with her hands folded by her back. She quirked a brow.
He held out his free hand in turn, palm up. For a moment, there was nothing. And then pops of crimson light danced around his fingertips. Pops that sparked into embers that twirled around his fingers.
The sight of it was still nauseating, the smell kickstarting a headache at his temple. But… with practice every single day like Werner had recommended then maybe—
Lavi’s gaze brightened, and she gave him a small applaud.
A knock at the door jolted Olive causing him to dispel the flame vitae with a wave. He turned back to his sister only to find that she had apparated into thin air once again. After snapping his meeting notebook shut and shoving it back into his drawers, he walked across the room and pulled open the door.
It was Trystan Carter, the former Ariesian head royal guard turned his personal guard. Even though Trystan had shed the honorable Ariesian title, he hadn’t yet shed the demeanor that came with it. Straight-backed with furrowed brows even though he didn’t have anything to prove. Pointless.
“Are you ready, Your Highness?”
* * *
The afternoon sun hung low, shrouded by a thin layer of clouds that crawled across the skyline. The wind was fresh, clean, and light, almost like a glass of cold water on a particular hot Ariesian day.
Olive took in a deep breath. And then sneezed. He shivered and accepted the coat Trystan pulled out from his travel pack. Shrugging it on, he took in the cityscape.
It was much more open here than in the tight network of interconnected marketplaces of New Ram City. The flattened dirt roads were wide and lined with medium-rise buildings with tiled roofs that sloped down in a curvature. In-between the v-streetcars that rolled along the crisscrossing tracks pedaled men and women on bicycles. Half of them were dressed in neck-high buttoned shirts and silk dresses that went to their calves, while the other half wore loose garments. There were a couple of bicyclists around his own age, all dressed in what resembled black sailor uniforms. Students, probably.
“What will it be today, your highness?” Trystan asked.
Olive inclined his head across the street, and Trystan followed him over to a restaurant there.
While Trystan went in to grab a table, Olive wandered over to the newspaper stall across the street. Two large posters hung from the sides of the stall—both of a water-color portrait of a man with an elegantly long beard and a cone-shaped crown at the top if his head. There were characters underneath the portrait that Olive could not read but he assumed it said something along the lines of “All Hail the Emperor!”
The stall vendor peered down at Olive and stroked his graying mustache. He then grunted and disappeared behind a stack of papers in the back.
Crossing his arms, Olive perused the displayed papers. Each rack boasted the same article but in a different language. But not Capricornian, not Geminian, not Virgoan. Not even Common. The newspapers were in the different languages of Sagittarius.
Upon Olive’s decision to come to this country, Werner had questioned him on which languages of Sagittarius he had been familiar with. Olive’s subsequent confusion resulted in Atienna gently and Cadence amusedly informing him of his ignorance. Atienna had then further elaborated on the diversity of the Sagittarian languages in a lengthy lecture. Each one of the many major clans of Sagittarius had its own respective language paired with its own unique characters, dialects, and alphabets.
This resulted in this particular city having over twenty names. Over twenty in the different languages of Sagittarius, and one in Common. The Common name for it was ‘Thousand Name City.’
Whoever had come up with that name was ahead of their time, Olive had thought when he’d read the Common sign that was stacked up on top of many other signs at the city’s north entrance upon his initial arrival.
The stall owner abruptly popped back up at the counter and waved a newspaper in Olive’s face. It was in Common. The man gave a surprised but pleased grunt when Olive handed him five Sagittarian wuen-dongs in exchange before the man back into the depths of his stall.
Tucking the paper under his arm, Olive joined Trystan back at the restaurant. They were seated by one of the open paper windows and were served two cups of piping hot corn tea. After taking a sip, Olive began to peruse the newspaper.
The first article detailed Ophiuchus’s adoption of a highly advanced vitae-spectrophotometer that would enable them to solve cases more efficiently through vitae-color identification. A small time Ariesian conductor engineer had spent months developing the device and found recognition upon debuting it at New Ram City.
The second article was a political opinion piece about Virgo’s current diplomatic relationships with Pisces and Aquarius and how everything was still in the preliminary stages. About how everything was so uncertain.
The third was about a weaponized proto-conductor that was able to store a Conductor’s vitae in a way that made it available—properties, abilities, and all—for another Conductor who was not of the same conducting type. At the moment, only Conductors who were able to utilize vitae intraneously were able to store their vitae within the device.
Olive wanted to dig his nails into this proto-conductor. He had caught a glimpse of them on Cadence’s end when she’d been tasked to keep tabs on Matilda and her conductor delivery crew a month or so back. The proto-conductors has been among their deliverables. When he had pressed Cadence for details—about whether it operated similarly to conducting grenades—Cadence had merely responded with an impish smile.
“Well, wish ya’d be that enthusiastic when ya were talkin’ ta me about normal things,” she had said.
“Your Highness—” Trystan began.
“Weird for someone older to be calling someone younger ‘sir.’” Olive could see Trystan taking a deep breath from the corner of his eye.
Finally, Trystan said, “I still think finding a translator would be best, Olivier.” He waited until the waitress brought them two bowls of soup and left before continuing. “I admit that your understanding of the Sagittarian languages is… impressive. But we need to find someone who can translate the written word. You’ve only been reading the Common texts, but I truly believe that Sagittarian ones would be beneficial for your exam studying.” He glanced around the restaurant and continued in a quieter voice, “Besides, the way Sagittarian wind Elementalists utilize vitae through their conductors might—”
“Be helpful in showing me how to control the way I use vitae without a conductor?”
Trystan stiffened, eyes darting around the room. “Olivier, please, don’t talk about your ability so loudly. Someone might be listening.”
“Why?” Olive arched a brow. “Everyone’s going to see it when I take the practical portion of the exam anyways.”
Trystan looked as if he wanted to argue further. But instead, he said, “We should still find a translator.”
“I know,” Olive grumbled, lowering the article and tapping his fingers on the table, “but I’d rather get a translator who can also get us access to that Sagittarian temple that the guide mentioned.”
“A temple not of religion but of wisdom,” the guide had said. “It has sovereignty over itself, so Ophiuchus and the Sagittarian government barely touch it. It’s a sacred place. If you’re seeking knowledge, you’ll find it here. Of course, gaining entrance is no easy feat. That’s why Ophiuchus hasn’t ever reached that place!”
“Of course, Olivier. I see your point.” Trystan picked up the bowl to sip before he paused and said hesitantly, “I understand your apprehension, but perhaps we could ask—”
“Only when I’m desperate,” Olive interjected quickly.
But after spending the entire day searching the windy city for a translator and encountering only swindlers that were half Cadence’s caliber, Olive wondered if he was nearing that desperation.
* * *
As Olive continued his search through the city in defeat the next day with Trystan, he found his thoughts straying to Werner. The booming sound that had cut off their meeting from Werner’s end was still engrained in his memory. It had sounded like thunder almost.
Werner hadn’t synchronized with him above the thirty percent level since the incident. While Olive knew the man was alive and unharmed, he couldn’t help but feel anxious. He hoped Werner didn’t know that.
Out of all six of them, Werner, Cadence, and Jericho were the ones who got their hands the dirtiest. Maria didn’t count since her view of the world was a complete outlier. But those three—their lives were filled with violence and death every single day, and yet they didn’t seem to pay it any mind. Or maybe they were just pretending. Or maybe…
Olive absentmindedly wandered into a small bookstore as he continued mulling and selected a book from the first shelf he saw without so much as a thought. Trystan followed him, patiently studying the book spines crammed into the small shelves.
And what about me, Olive thought to himself, all I’m doing is studying for this stupid exam. I’m not even close to finding out about what I can do for Lavi.
It didn’t feel fair at all.
Olive brought the book to his face and buried his head into it. Stupid exam. Stupid Sagittarian temple. Stupid guide. I’m really…
With a sigh, Olive lowered the book. And then he froze.
Storm clouds were slathered across the sky. Low and overbearing, like they could drop down and crush him at any moment. There was a terrible smell in the air, and the dirt beneath Olive’s feet felt wet. Stretched out before him was a muddy marsh peppered with small craters and fallen trees. Jutting out in-between the scattered trees and waterlogged holes were boulders that stood as tall as him.
A crack of thunder rumbled on the horizon. No. Not thunder. A conductor. A Projector’s vitae ray. A flash of light blue.
This was not the bookstore.
Olive turned his head to the left.
Werner was tucked up behind a boulder there. His cloak was dripping with dirt and rainwater, and his usually combed back platinum blonde hair was falling into his face. The rifle conductor in his hands gave off steam. It had been fired recently.
Their gazes met.
Werner’s eyes were terrifying. They seemed to glow an ice-blue in the dark. A razor-sharp focus. Eyes that had just taken a life.
You shouldn’t be here.
“I didn’t mean to…” Olive managed. He glanced behind him and saw a group of Capricornian soldiers huddled against a cluster of rocks. And—
—a body. There was a body lying right behind Werner. No, half a body. The uniform was Capricornian. The blood staining the periwinkle uniform was beginning to wash away with the rain, and the mud slowly consumed what little was left of the body—the corpse.
A bright flash of light and a terrible whine exploded just behind Olive. A jolt of pain throttled every limb in his body, and he was left gasping for breath. But this wasn’t his pain. It was Werner’s. But Werner wasn’t harmed. Olive knew this. He felt this. But.
Olive shook his head, attempting to dispel the ringing in his ears and searched the swampy ground for Werner. There.
The Capricornian had been thrown back several feet by the blast and was bringing himself back up into a crouch. Without glancing at Olive, he returned to the cover of the boulder—half of which had been annihilated by the blast—and signaled his groaning, recovering men to lay low but move forward.
“I need three men on that target,” Werner ordered. “They may have gotten their hands on conductors, but they don’t know how to use them efficiently. Vogt, go back to base and report that the Argoans at the twenty-third section have conductors. We need reinforcements.”
Vogt scrambled to a stand and darted back through the muddy swampland. Werner, however, remained pressed up against the rock. He locked eyes with Olive and answered the unasked question—
I’m staying. I was ordered to gain control over this section. I will hold here until we have reinforcements.
Werner turned his back to Olive, aimed his conductor, and fired.
What? But this was crazy, Olive thought. Why were they still pushing forward? There was no way they’d win. No way.
Olive had seen it because Werner had seen it. They were outnumbered. Even if they came out of this with a win, it wouldn’t be worth it.
Run away. They all had to. If they didn’t then they would—Werner might—
Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—
—then slipped forward and face-planted into the mud. He scrambled to his feet and reached for Werner again. But the man was nowhere to be found. Realization dawned a beat after as Olive registered that his outstretched hand was gloved. Werner’s hand.
Someone scrambled to Olive’s side. A familiar-looking, glasses-wearing man with dark black hair caked in mud. There was blood running down his face.
Olive stared at him. The man stared directly back.
“How many grenades should I conjure, Lieutenant?! Do you need another conductor?!”
Olive opened his mouth, closed it.
And then Olive reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist. The man stiffened, looked down at Olive’s hand, and then back up at Olive.
“Retreat,” Olive said slowly, quietly.
“Retreat!” Olive snapped, jerking the man towards him as he scrambled to a stand. “Is it that hard to understand?!”
Without waiting for a response, Olive began to run, dragging the man along with him. They had barely made it a foot away from the rock before there was another flash of light and the entire thing exploded into fragments. One of the fragments caught Olive’s temple, and he stumbled forward blindly. When he caught himself and looked up, he found the cluster of Capricornian soldiers staring at him wide-eyed and gaping.
“Retreat!” Olive shouted at the flabbergasted soldiers as he tugged the glasses-wearing man along. “What will staring do? Retreat—now!”
There was only a split second of confusion and hesitation before the soldiers scrambled to their feet and fled backwards. Olive followed after them, tugging the glasses-wearing man along with him for only a little while longer before he shoved him forward to run on his own.
Their flight was met with a rain of light from the direction that the grenade had come from. Vitae rays. And Olive didn’t know what was worse—the boom the rays and bolts made as they pelted the ground around him, or the moment of blindness he had when one hit an area in front of him. All he knew was that he had to run.
Run. Run. Run.
Olive wasn’t sure how long he ran for but eventually his knees gave out and he collapsed on all fours. Everything was a haze. Footsteps around him, panting, gasping.
Was he even still alive?
He fisted the mud and felt the cold seep in between his gloved fingers. Something wasn’t right. Saints. He felt sick. He wanted to heave but couldn’t.
A pair of feet entered his periphery.
Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.
A man with peppered grayed hair loomed in front of him. The man would’ve looked like a schoolteacher if it weren’t for the dead look in his eyes and the mud and blood caked to his military uniform.
Olive recognized this man. He was Werner’s captain. Captain Weingartner. The man’s lips were moving—
“Werner, what’s going on? Why did you retreat?”
Capricornian. Clipped, rough, precise. It still felt strange to Olive—being able to understand it despite paying very little attention in his language classes back at the university.
Olive blinked at Weingartner through a haze of heat, dirt, and sweat. In the background, he could make out the shapes of heaving, shifting soldiers. He swallowed, panted, wiped the sweat from his face. What in the world was going on?
He could feel the wetness of the air, feel the grit of dirt rubbing in between his toes and the rubber of his shoes. The squelching of rubber against mud, the absence of the open breeze, the cling of cloth against his sweaty back.
Something was definitely wrong. Why was he still here? Why—
“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”
“If you really like the sound of your voice that much you should be a politician.”
As soon as the words left Olive’s mouth, his heart stopped. In the place of the thrumming of his heart, he instead felt the beat of Werner’s heart. Hammering, thumping, beating.
The full weight of what he had done sunk in.
Olive stared at the captain, and the captain stared back. And then the captain’s eyes narrowed.
“Lieutenant Waltz, would you care to repeat that?”
A stampede of sloshing footsteps from behind cut Olive off before he could retort. Someone clamped a hand on his shoulder and jerked him backward. Olive turned his head.
Brown hair and slate gray eyes. A half-grin, maybe smirk. Gilbert Wolff. Werner’s second lieutenant and childhood friend. Someone who knew about the synchronizations. Vague memories came to Olive’s mind.
“Captain Weingartner.” Gilbert gave a salute. “I think Lieutenant Waltz may have a concussion. I saw him hit the ground pretty hard earlier before the retreat. I think I should take him to medical.”
Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.
And so, for effect, Olive promptly bent over and puked.
* * *
Gilbert guided Olive through a ridiculously slippery path. Every step led to a mudslide that the Capricornian had to rescue him from. Olive had resisted at first but eventually conceded to the man’s help after he ended up slipping right into a five-foot pit. After a mile or so of silent treading, they came across a large stone slab. When they rounded the rock, Gilbert grabbed Olive’s shoulder and spun him around.
“Werner?” The man’s eyes searched Olive’s for something he evidently did not find. He then tried again in Common: “…who are you? You—” Then, he stared.
It took Olive a moment to realize why the man was gazing at him so intensely. He was shaking, shoulders trembling. Olive wasn’t sure if it was from the frigid cold that was burning his cheeks or—
Saints. He was pathetic.
Olive jerked himself away. “Don’t touch me.”
Gilbert recoiled and raised his hands, eyes wide. He paused and swallowed, before he said, “My bad.” His gaze lingered. “The tent’s this way. Nic’ll probably know how to handle this better.”
They found Nico Fabrizzio in the first of a series of lined up tents that were set up behind a cliff face a mile deeper into the forest. When they entered, Olive was immediately overwhelmed by a putrid smell. An overwhelming alcohol-like poignancy, and a nauseating wave of suffocating iron.
Pulling the crook of his elbow up to his face, Olive recoiled away from the tent’s flap. Gilbert paused and turned back with a raised brow. Undeterred. Olive dropped his hand and frowned.
Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”
After a beat, he followed Gilbert into the tent and surveyed the interior.
There were rows of beds lining each side of the tent with nothing between them besides an occasional metal cart. The beds were occupied by uniformed men and women who were pale but sweating. Some of them looked like moving an inch would cause them to die of exhaustion.
A coldness gripped Olive’s inside at the sight of them, and he felt as if just by breathing in the same space as them he was decreasing their chances of survival—
“Hey, you home?”
Olive ripped his gaze away from the groaning woman on the bed closest to him and came face-to-face with a frowning Gilbert Wolff and a pensive Nico Fabrizzio.
Olive regarded Nico. Cadence’s longtime, childhood friend. Olive had only seen flashes of Nico from the handful of Cadence’s memories that would occasionally trickle to him. And in those memories, Nico had been a teary-eyed, curly-haired mess who followed Cadence around like a lackey. Now he stood before Olive tall and almost dignified. Almost intimidating.
“So you’ve switch places? You guys call it an override or somethin’, right?” Nico drew slowly in Common, wiping his gloved hands on a rag at his side. “You can’t switch back?”
Olive’s teeth were clacking inside of his mouth, and he was sure if he tried to answer he’d bite his—Werner’s—tongue right off. Nico’s eyes widened before he headed to the back of the tent.
“Nico’s the only medic in here,” Gilbert provided. “So you don’t need to hold your breath.”
When Nico returned, he was holding a folded blanket which he held out. After a long beat, Olive accepted it and threw it over his shoulders. He shrugged into its warmth.
“So.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Why’re you here?”
Olive scoffed. “You’re acting like I want to be stuck in the middle of a mud swamp in the middle of a death zone. We obviously don’t share the same interests.” When he registered Nico’s wide-eyed stare, he clarified. “I’m not a masochist.”
Nico’s gaze softened. “Right. This must be pretty terrifyin’ for you.”
The pity in Nico’s eyes was aggravating.
“I’d be more terrified of someone who wasn’t terrified of something like this,” Olive returned.
Nico and Gilbert exchanged a look. Right. After the whole fiasco with Major Ersatz, Cadence, ELPIS, and the Aquarians, the two men had somehow struck up some weird sort of friendship. Olive personally didn’t understand it. From what he’d seen from Cadence’s and Werner’s memories, Gilbert and Nico were almost complete opposites. Weird. Creepy.
Then again, these were two people that Werner trusted. And Olive himself could feel that trust the man felt for them so—
“This is the first time I’ve overridden someone, so I’m on edge.” Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. “Maria’s the only one who’s done it like this before, but she’s something else so I can’t draw from her or anything.”
“Okay. That’s alright.” Nico nodded encouragingly. “Do you know what you were doing before this happened?”
“I doubt it’s going to help, but all I was doing was looking for books to study for the Conducting Exam,” Olive recalled. “And then I synchronized with Werner. And I—”
“Study for the—how old are you?!”
Olive sent Gilbert a pointed glare before looking away. “Not as old as you are obviously, old man.”
“Look, I just wanted to…” Olive grimaced, fisting the blanket. “…help. I wanted to help. Excuse me for not wanting to jump into a suicide run.”
“So you were the one who ordered the retreat then. Not Werner.” Gilbert pulled back and sighed. He ruffled his hair and rolled his neck. “Well, that makes more sense… So, what do you make of this, Nic? Can you fix it?”
Nico’s shoulders sagged. “I… I honestly don’t know. Sorry. But… Werner is alright, right? What are the others in your group sayin’ about what’s going on?”
“The others…” Olive reached out for them as he’d done countless times before and then froze. He reached again—this time a bit more desperately. There was a vast stretch of cold emptiness in the intangible space they’d always hazily occupied. It wasn’t like those times when their synchronization fell below thirty percent. Even then, he was able to feel them in the distance. Nothing like now. Nothing like this pit that reminded him too much of those six years after the tragedy. He covered his ears hoping that maybe all the groans of death and dying were just too loud for him to hear them, but— “I can’t feel the others…. I can’t.”
“It’s okay. Calm down.” Nico was easing him down onto a crate at the corner of the tent. “Just relax.”
Olive lowered his hands, suddenly feeling weak. “What if…” What if he was stuck like this? What if Werner was—
A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off.
“Look, kid. If you’re really connected with Werner, you should know he’s much tougher than that. Don’t worry about things that don’t need to be worried about.”
Olive glanced up. Gilbert. The man looked uncomfortable, his hand barely, delicately resting on Olive’s shoulder—like he thought that even the slightest touch would make Olive crumble to ash. Olive wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed or laugh at the ridiculousness of it. He’d seen Gilbert’s demeanor through Werner’s eyes, after all, and ‘delicate’ was definitely not a word to describe the man.
“I really don’t need reassurance from someone who’s been stuck as a second lieutenant for four years,” Olive said after a beat as he pulled away from the man and unfolded from himself.
“Hey!” Gilbert pulled his hand away and then frowned deeper, rubbing the back of his neck. “Did Werner tell you that or something?”
Clownishness aside, Gilbert was right. There was no use feeling sorry for himself.
Olive held out his gloved hand. Clenched it and unclenched. The leather that was sticking to his sweating palm felt like it was ripping his skin right off. Why did Werner even like wearing these things? “Atienna said something about emotional state having to do with it but—”
“I-Is Lieutenant Waltz, alright?” came a question in Capricornian.
Olive felt his nausea intensify as he lifted his head. Standing at the flap of the tent was the Capricornian soldier Olive had literally dragged through the mud in his escape. The blood had been cleaned up off the soldier’s face, and he was now sporting bandages around his head. The man’s name came to Olive slowly. Klaus Kleine. A Conjuror in Werner’s unit who was present during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.
“What are you doing here, Kleine?” Gilbert asked in Capricornian, stepping in front of Olive casually. “You know Nico can’t fix your glasses if you’ve broken them again. Can’t you conjure yourself a new one?”
Flushing, Klaus Kleine pushed his glasses up the bridge of his short nose and stammered, “I-It’s not that, sir. I just wanted to see if the lieutenant was alright. He helped me during the retreat.”
Klaus looked up. Their eyes met. Olive reflexively glared.
“Is the Lieutenant—”
“Look, Kleine,” Gilbert sighed as he drew to the tent’s entrance, “it’s great that you’ve got yourself promoted to lance corporal, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You still have a couple more ranks to go before you can be friendly with the first lieutenant. Hell, look at me. I’m only one rank under and—”
“Does this have to do with what happened to the Aquarian captain three months ago?”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat. Before he could even think of what Klaus was implying, Gilbert grabbed the man by the scruff and dragged him into the room. Klaus stared wide-eyed at Gilbert and struggled to stay on his toes as he was lifted off the floor.
Werner was going to be so pissed.
“Hey, saints, calm down—” Olive began to mutter with a frown. A sharp pain abruptly struck his temple, cutting him off short.
“Yeah, Gilbert, let’s hear what he has to say first,” Nico agreed.
Gilbert and Klaus glanced at the combat medic before the former released the latter. Klaus stumbled back and steadied himself before he said something quickly in Capricornian. Clipped and harsh as usual. But—and a chill crept up Olive’s spine as he realized this—Olive couldn’t understand what the man was saying. His head buzzed at the revelation, and he tried his best to hang onto their exchanged words. But it was gibberish.
What was going on?
Even at the very beginning of their connection, Olive had been able to understand vaguely what the Capricornians had been saying on Werner’s end despite only speaking Common fluently. So now why—
Gilbert had turned to him was now addressing him in Capricornian.
The sounds meant nothing to him.
Gilbert seemed to have recognized his confusion, because his brows rose and he asked in Common, “Oh yeah, you don’t speak Capricornian, right?”
Olive forced a shrug.
“Well,” Gilbert continued in Common, “Kleine here says that on the day the Aquarian captain disappeared, he saw a certain someone with that Aquarian captain waltzing through the woods. Apparently, there was a confrontation between that someone and Kleine, but Kleine here decided to keep his mouth shut for curiosity’s sake.”
Maria. Of course, it was Maria.
Olive narrowed his eyes first at Klaus and then at Gilbert. “What did you tell him?”
“Only what Werner told me.”
Olive stiffened further. His mind raced. Werner would definitely not want to involve any more people he knew in this mess. Out of all six of them, Werner had been the most stringent about keeping things discrete and quiet after the events following Ersatz. Appearances, he said
Swallowing his alarm, Olive muttered, “You must be the type of person who tells people where you hide your money. Might as well tell the entire world at this point.”
“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”
Klaus said something again in Capricornian before he got a nudge on the back by Gilbert. Klaus startled, glanced wearily in between them, and then spoke in accented Common: “Ever since then, I have been…” He seemed to struggle to find the word. “… keeping an eye out. I knew it was something else. The lieutenant is good at appearing normal, but I watch. Carefully. I thought lieutenant had condition.” He gestured to Nico and Gilbert. “I thought Doctor Fabrizzio transferred here to help with condition. But then secrecy between you three so I figured something else. Did not expect this. Phenomenon.” He mumbled to himself a bit more before he gave a salute and hesitantly extended his hand. “Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine.”
Olive frowned at the extended hand before pointedly crossing his arms. “I know who you are.” He looked away and found his gaze fixated on the unconscious woman on the bed again. He wasn’t sure if she’d become several shades paler since he’d walked into the room or if his eyes had adjusted to the light. He squeezed his arm and muttered, “It’s too convenient. That you’d be interested in helping Werner. It’s suspicious as hell.”
Klaus stared at him wide-eyed before exchanging a look with Gilbert who shrugged.
“Look, Olive, right?” Gilbert gestured offhandedly. “I don’t know where you’re from, but here, we don’t have time for that. Save that for the politicians. If Kleine really wanted to run off with this info, he’d have done it three months ago. Besides, the only thing you’re doing right now, kid, is making Werner look crazy.”
“Well, then at least now Werner will blend in with the crowd here,” Olive offered nonchalantly. “But fine. This is your place, not mine.”
Klaus was gaping again.
Gilbert rolled his eyes. “ Thank you.”
Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. He was certain now. It wasn’t just his nerves that had him shaking. It was freezing out here. He couldn’t understand how Werner and the other soldiers could stand it.
“Stop looking so stressed, kid. I get that your little possession group likes to keep things tight and under the table. Makes sense. But still—” Gilbert grimaced and shook his head as he looked Olive over. “This is so damned weird. I’m looking at Werner but I’m not.”
“Don’t look at me then,” Olive returned. He thought back to the incident with Izsak and Leona and then to Usian, Ersatz, and Verga. “It’s not like we don’t have a good reason to be cautious.” Before Gilbert could respond, Olive addressed Klaus with a slight nod. “So what’s in it for you? Do you want to blackmail us or something? Money? Promotion?” Olive squinted. “Eye surgery?”
Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions, and he shook his head wildly. “No, no, no, of course not! I—” He dug into his pants pocket and then shoved something into Olive’s hands. A small, leather-bound journal no larger than his hand. Reminiscent of Olive’s own journal. “Here. Notes in here.”
Olive arched a brow and opened it. “It’s in Capricornian,” he stated flatly but continued to flip through it anyways. He did recognize a couple of words. Oberleutenant, First Lieutenant. Morgen, morning. Geheimnis, secret. Each page was marked with a date at the top. While the initial entries were short and concise, the latter entries following July 5th were much more detailed. July 5 th —when Maria overrode Cadence and Werner.
“Want to know. I like to observe—”
“You don’t need to try to defend your hobbies to me. I don’t really care what you do in your free time.” Olive interjected. Klaus would probably get along well with Talib, he thought to himself as he turned another page.
“I—er—” Klaus glanced at Gilbert who again shrugged. He flushed in turn.
“It’s still weird…” Olive paused halfway through on a page that contained a sketch of what appeared to be a conductor. It was a set of thick ring conductors connected together by insulation tubes. “You’re trying to design your own custom conductor?”
Klaus flushed again. “Yes. Military conductors not tailored to Conductor. Hard to use sometimes, it is. New conductors shipped in recently—”
Olive figured he was referring to the conductors the Romanos and the Foxmans were shipping to the Capricornian Army as a part of the new deal Cadence and Werner had initiated. The idea didn’t sit well with Olive at all. Illegally producing conductors and selling them to fuel a war. Cadence had of course wiped her hands clean of the matter, and whenever Werner spoke of it he merely said that it was none of Olive’s concern.
“—said we can request our own custom conductor—”
“The concept is good but there is no way that this’ll be able to handle the amount of vitae particles you expel as Conjuror to create things,” Olive said. “You’ll overheat the thing. Conductors who conduct intraneously will never be able to use something like this. If you’re a Transmutationists, then maybe… but other than that…” Olive handed Klaus his journal back.
“Thank you…” Accepting the journal, Klaus glanced between them all. “So… what now? With lieutenant? Solution? Idea?”
A beat of silence.
Olive stared at his hand. “Well, I’ve never actually been overridden myself before. Not completely, I mean.”
“Maybe if you to be… knocked unconscious….” Klaus drew. “Then there would be… recalibration?”
Olive resisted doing a double-take. For someone who presented himself as a bookworm, Klaus sure was violent. But then again, Klaus was a soldier. Violence was on the roster.
“We can’t do that!” Nico objected, startling Olive with the intensity of his voice. “You might really injure Werner. Head injuries are serious!”
“Well, it’s better than me being stuck here like this,” Olive finally mumbled. “I can’t do anything. I’ll just end up getting Werner killed or something.” His gaze was once again drawn back to the woman lying on the bed. “Besides, you don’t look like you have the time to waste here— ow!” Olive jerked forward as something sharp cracked against the back of his skull. When he turned, he found Gilbert standing behind him with the butt of his conducting rifle still in the air.
“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed.
“What is wrong with you…?” Olive muttered, rubbing the bruise that was beginning to blossom at the area of impact.
Gilbert lowered the rifle and swung it back over his shoulder. “You agreed.” A pause. “So feel any different?”
“Well, yeah. The back of my head hurts now,” Olive grumbled. He frowned as the pain throbbing at the back of his head abruptly dulled. “I feel sort of—”
The world lost focus, and Olive was reminded of the watercolor paintings Maria had stolen from a ship bound to Cancer. Smears of brown, yellow, and gray. Hestumbled forward, reaching for the support of the crate behind him. Just as he reached it, however, it fell away from his sights. As did the beds in the room, as did the dirty ground beneath his feet, as did the cold and the nauseating smells within the tent.
And then there was deep black.
* * *
When Olive opened his eyes, he did not see the gray of the clouded skyline nor did he see the tan of the Capricornian medical tent. Instead, he saw sky blue silk drapes and the top of a mahogany bed canopy.
He held his hand in front of him. Sunburnt and gloveless. He was back. Back on a bed. A comfortable bed.
Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—
—wow, where did you all go? Is this some sort of new trick? I would like to learn it!
—it was strange not feeling you—
—how are you both feeling?
The synchronization was low level but came with such force that Olive nearly leapt out of the bed. He could feel them again. All of them. The hollowness had been filled.
Fine, fine, I’m fine, Olive thought back as he sat up.
Werner was there. Olive could feel him too. But Olive did not venture any further than that. He knew it was fruitless, but he tried his best to pull his thoughts and feelings away from the man as much as possible. He couldn’t face him after what he’d done.
Olive glanced to his left and found Trystan sitting on a chair at his bedside. The man unfolded himself quickly and drew nearer.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“I look how I feel,” Olive grumbled, “but I’m fine. What happened?”
“You suddenly passed out at the bookstore. You were out for the entire day…”
Olive swallowed, studying the sky-blue drapes. The color was familiar. “This isn’t our inn. Where are we?”
“Well…” Trystan pulled back and inclined his head.
Olive followed the man’s nod to the left side of the wall where a paper window stood wide and open. There was a cherry blossom tree growing just outside there, and a soft wind plucked the pink petals from its branches and tossed them into the room.
Plucking a stray cherry blossom petal from his hair, the Sagittarian prince turned away from the window and offered a pleasant smile. “Morning, Olive.”
Sagittarius is a rich, diverse, and windy country and the largest country in Signum. It consists of many clans and is ruled by one emperor. Each clan hosts its own unique language, culture, and way of life and is governed by one royal family whose members share blood relations to the emperor.Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition