Ariesian prince Olivier Chance had no idea what was going on.
The last two things he remembered before waking up face-first on the cold metal roof of the train were fluttering book pages and Trystan and Marta looking down at him in alarm. Now he was cold, nauseous, had an ELPIS leader ringed in vitae flame in front of him, and was surrounded by a handful of tall Capricornians.
It was a definite leap.
Obviously, he’d overridden Werner, but the why remained unknown. The time-frame didn’t match either.
Whatever this was, Olive knew he needed to cover for Werner. He’d acted without thinking again, and now everyone had seen his Elementalist conductorless conducting. He needed to think of an explanation for it but—
Right now, there wasn’t any time for thinking. Not even a second after he’d locked Iota in the fire ring, Emilia started whimpering from where she lay behind him. He whipped around immediately and sank to his knees beside her. As soon as he laid eyes on the red seeping out from her uniform and trailing down the roof of the train, his vision swam.
There was just so much blood.
Don’t panic, he told himself in Werner’s voice. Put pressure on the wound.
He followed through with the thought and tensed as she winced beneath him. Red seeped between his fingers—sticky yet slippery, warm yet cold, and very, very wet. Seeing blood through the other five’s eyes had nothing on this.
In the background, Werner’s captain shouted for Klaus to get Nico or Brandt before he stomped over to them. He sank down on the opposite side of Emilia, pressed a cloth over Olive’s hand, and pushed hard. He jerked his head, signaling for Olive to remove his hand.
Olive obeyed, tense.
“Don’t panic,” Weingartner said, although Olive barely understood him. “Keep control of your vitae flames over that ELPIS member.”
Olive stiffened, glancing over his shoulder towards Iota who was glowering at him from behind the wall of flame. After a beat of hesitation, he threw out his hand to add more fuel to the fire. When he turned back to the captain, he found the older man staring at him.
“Who are you?”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat. “W-Wha—” His voice cracked, and the words slipped out in Common. “What are you talkin—referring to, sir? That conducting was just part of a special, covert, routine, new conducting program that I’ve recently taken part in.”
That had sounded unbelievably stupid.
The captain stared right through him before switching to Common himself—“We spoke with a Cadence Morello just before you. And before that, there was someone else, but I didn’t catch their name. We knowabout True Conductors and ELPIS.”
Olive felt his blood run cold. “I—don’t know what you’re talkin—”
“Cadence informed us of everything,” Weingartner continued. “I know you’re not Lieutenant Waltz, and I know you’re stuck in what you call an ‘override.’”
Another shadow passed behind Olive, and Gilbert sank into a crouch beside him.
Gilbert grumbled in Capricornian.
Olive stared, uncomprehending.
The man then repeated in Common, “No need to act. The conwoman spilled everything.”
What…? Olive felt the world spin. What in the world was Cadence thinking?
“Your face is too readable.” Gilbert arched a brow, before gripping Emilia’s hand as she reached for him. “Thing is, Werner hasn’t checked in since we were back in unoccupied territory which was over two weeks ago—”
“—I’m guessing Cadence figured that whatever was happening to your possession group wasn’t going to stay under wraps and tried to use it to her advantage. Made a bunch of threats. Scared half the men to death.” He squeezed Emilia’s hand and whispered something down to her.
Olive stared, befuddled.
Gilbert whipped around abruptly and snapped into the wind. “Nico, stop moping and get your damn ass up here!”
Olive startled with a wince and sent the man a glare.
As if shouting was going to make Emilia do any better…
Gilbert met his glare and arched a brow. “It’s Olive, isn’t it? The one from the camp? I’d recognize that glare anywhere.”
“Dammit, Nico!” Gilbert snapped back again before grumbling, “He probably ran off to the farthest train cart…”
Unconsciously, Olive extended his hands out towards Emilia which was when he caught sight of his fingers. They were coated in a thin layer of red. “I… I can try to cauterize the wound.”
The captain and Gilbert exchanged looks.
“Your flame vitae could spread further past the wound after it’s cauterized,” the captain said.
“I know that… but if I just do it with the top layer of skin… then maybe Nico can transmute it off,” Olive muttered. “Just to close the wound. I think… I can. I’ve practiced. A little bit.”
Weingartner pressed, “And you’re certain you can do it?”
“Better than I can stand here just talking about it.”—the statement came out ruder than Olive had intended.
Weingartner looked him over before nodding and placing a piece of cloth into Emilia’s mouth. Emilia bit down on it without hesitation as the captain said, “One… two—”
Olive stared at Weingartner incredulously.
What was the point of counting down without any warning?
Weingartner lifted his hands, and Olive moved his to take their place. Weak crimson flame emitted from his palm, causing small embers to putter down onto Emilia’s reddened skin. She winced and whimpered but remained still.
Weingartner and Gilbert were watching closely.
Although Olive hated it, he ignored it. Instead, he carefully lowered his hands to the area—
—and suddenly she burst into crimson flames right before his eyes.
Olive barely had time to register the sight before the heatwave knocked him right off his feet. He flinched back in horror only to see the vitae flames that consumed Emilia flurry out towards both the captain and Gilbert. The embers ate away at their uniforms, licked at their skin until it bubbled off, and crumbled their bones. Their agonized screams scrapped at his ears as memories he’d steadily stopped thinking about these past couple of months suddenly returned at full force.
162 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature skin melted. 482 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature human fat melted. Above 1600 degrees, cremation.
No, no, no.
Nothing else was in Olive’s head besides that word.
Mind racing, he lunged for the three of them in hopes of somehow extinguishing the flames with his body but he fell forward onto ash. Their ashes.
He scrambled up to his feet only to find that he was no longer standing on top of the train. Instead, he was back in the long halls of the Ariesian royal palace with the signature red carpets and white walls stretching out endlessly before him. Down from the smoke cloud hanging high above his head rained black feathers that crumbled to ash as they hit the ground.
A terrible scent curled in the air—a scent he shouldn’t have been familiar with but was.
You’re afraid of being a coward?
Olive spun around and saw an ebony figure wavering there. Its body was made of feathers yet it crackled as if made of fire.
You should be more afraid of yourself when you’re being brave.
This wasn’t real. He knew it wasn’t. He’d dreamt this many times before. A nightmare that used to keep him up at night.
Please let it be a dream.
Olive squeezed his eyes shut and focused on his breathing just as Doctor Kingsley had taught him years ago.
Only when he felt something wet tap against his cheek did he open his eyes. Upon doing so, he quickly discovered that the Ariesian white walls and red carpeting no longer were laid out before him. Instead, gray clouds shrouded the skyline and concealed the moon above his head. A soft drizzle was starting to come down too. The droplets pitter-pattered against the roof of the still train, drowning out the distant sound of crackling flames in his ears.
And in the middle of all of that gray, an arrow with a tip inflamed by vitae was now being pointed squarely at his face. The pale rose light from the arrow’s tip illuminated its wielder—
The royal guard stood only inches away from him and was dressed in his usual red-caped travel wear. Bow conductor poised, frown firm. Trystan Carter.
Was this still a dream?
A squeeze on Olive’s shoulder drew away his attention. Gilbert Wolff sat beside him frowning with furrowed brows.
“Y-You’re alive…” Olive’s shoulders sagged.
Gilbert seemed to relax slightly before he side-glanced at Trystan. “Uh, yeah. Thought you were dead or something.” He searched his face. “What’s wrong with you? You said you were going to cauterize the wound and you froze up.”
Olive scanned his surroundings in confusion.
Emilia was still laying in front of him, and Weingartner had moved back to pressing against her wound. Just beside him sat Nico Fabrizzio, conducting gloves on, hands hovering. Nico’s heavy panting indicated that he’d arrived rather recently.
Behind both men stood a young woman with wispy, pale blonde hair. She looked a bit familiar to Olive, but he couldn’t recall why.
Slowly, Olive turned back to Iota and found that the crimson ring of vitae that had once surrounded her had been extinguished by the drizzle. Fortunately, Stein and Fischer were both on top of her now. Gauging by their twin breaths fogging air and their heaving shoulders, Olive figured that they must have arrived recently too.
The pale-rose light from the arrow inched closer to Olive’s face as Trystan pressed, “How did you know my name?”
Still dazed, Olive turned to look back at him. “Are you really Trystan…? What are you doing here?”
Trystan tensed. “How do you know my name, Capricornian? What was that conducting you did just now?”
“Did you come from the other train?” Weingartner asked, calm and in Common. “The medical train? We aren’t the ones who manipulated the chains that brought it down.” He nodded to Iota. “We have that one in custody. I’m Volker Weingartner. I’m in command of this train.”
Olive glanced to the left and stiffened. Laying there several yards away on the grass and bulging off of the opposite train tracks were derailed train carts.
“Why did that man call you ‘Olive’?” Trystan pressed. “I overheard him earlier. Paired with that conducting—what are you up to?”
Stein leapt to his feet and reached for something at his belt—presumably a weapon. “Who the hell do you think you are—”
“Wait!” Olive snapped. “Don’t, Stein!”
Stein halted immediately.
Without lowering his bow, Trystan produced a hexagonal, slender plate of gold from his pocket and presented it to them. The royal guard insignia.
“I serve directly under the royal family of Aries. It’s my duty to protect the prince and to attend to matters that may adversely—”
“Oh… fucking saints.” Gilbert sucked in a breath as he squeezed Olive’s shoulder hard. “You’re telling me you’re—you’ve gotta be fucking me. Kid, please tell me this isn’t what I think it is.”
Nico inched towards Emilia.
“Don’t move!” Trystan ordered, tauting his bow at Nico this time.
“Steady,” Weingartner said calmly.
“She’s hurt,” Olive urged, gaze flicking back to Emilia who now looked pale-white like a statue. “Just let him transmute her—”
“No one is moving until my questions are answered,” Trystan refuted. “Is this another Capricornian plot? Tell me what this is.”
Olive felt his stomach drop.
If he didn’t say it, Emilia might die. If he said it, he’d be revealing who he was to the Capricornians. And what if this knowledge spread? What would happen to Werner? What would happen to his own aunt and uncle…? Wait, no. Gilbert wouldn’t tell anyone, and Gilbert’d try to make sure no one else talked either. And Werner’s subordinates—at least most of them—were loyal to Werner. And besides, who would believe it? No, no, that was naive. He was naive. Right?
“I will ask you one more time, Capricornian.” Trystan pointed the arrow back to him.
You’re really going to let another person suffer—die—from the consequences of your actions. Again?
“Trystan, enough already!” Olive snapped up to his feet before grimacing and stating firmly, “Center cell along the left wall beneath the royal palace.”
Trystan froze at this before his eyes narrowed. “How—”
“Black tea with four sugar cubes and a drop of honey. Fresh-made strawberry milk on the side. Two waffles with maple syrup from the north. Every other morning.”
“You—You planted a medium to spy on the prince of Aries?” Trystan glowered. “The insolence!”
“No!” Olive snapped, now awake with complete irritation. He took in a deep breath and spoke rapidly, “‘For spark to ember to flame to inferno to smoke to ash—whatever I will become, whatever is needed, I will rise above or become the path that will be treaded.’”
Finally, Trystan’s eyes widened and he lowered his bow. He took a step back before looking Olive up and down. “I… don’t understand. That’s… the royal pledge. Only those who serve in the royal palace know it. How do you…?”
Dammit. Why couldn’t Trystan just infer from that?
“Saints, think, Trystan. There’s only one person who can know that and who can do this.” Olive held out his palm and allowed vitae flame to putter there. With a bit more effort than before he said, “Your duty as a royal guard isn’t to understand. It’s to follow what I say. That’s what you told me.”
The words felt sour on Olive’s mouth.
Trystan stared at him incredulously, but Olive held his gaze firmly. The royal guard startled back in response before shooting down into a kneeling bow. “I… Please forgive me, Your Highness. I-I don’t understand. Please forgive my insolence—I didn’t mean to point my conductor at you.”
“It’s fine, Trystan….” Olive grumbled. “Please… just get up.”
There was a beat of silence as Trystan obeyed.
Gilbert’s hand on Olive’s shoulder had slackened slightly. The other Capricornians had all either taken a step back away from him or were stiff as statues. Even the captain.
Nico was the only one who didn’t flinch back. He only looked mildly surprised and confused. And concerned—mostly about Emilia. In response, Olive gave Trystan a nod which prompted him to put away his bow-conductor completely. Nico moved forward immediately, glove conductors humming with soft light. He sealed up the hole entering Emilia’s abdomen and exiting her back before falling back with a deep sigh.
“So…?” Olive pressed nervously.
“She’s… lost a lot of blood,” Nico said, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. “She needs a transfusion. Type O, like… Otto.”
The tension in the air suddenly fell flat and was replaced by a heaviness that was almost suffocating.
Olive scanned the faces of those around him again. He couldn’t find Otto among them. The absence alarmed Olive arm since he’d always felt indebted to Otto. After all, the private had saved Werner’s life when Olive had accidentally distracted him with a synchronization mid-battle during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.
Come on. Olive shook himself. You’re in charge now. Get yourself together. One thing at a time.
“Trystan, I’ll explain everything later,” he said, more irritably than he’d intended to. “Right now, she needs help.”
“I’m with you, right? My… body… I mean…”—Olive hated how awkward it sounded but he shoved his embarrassment down and continued—“So there are medical Conductors with us too.”
Trystan nodded. “The king and queen sent them personally from Aries.”
At the mention of his aunt and uncle, Olive’s stomach churned. He pushed the feeling away, however, and rushed down to Emilia’s side. “Captain, you can use my medical Conductors.”
Weingartner stared before nodding tensely.
Olive rose to a stand and addressed Trystan, “Take them to my medical Conductors and have them treat her.”
“I am not going to put a Capricornian in the same room as you—as your body—Your Highness. It’s not safe,” Trystan objected. “With all due respect, you must recall that the Capricornians were—”
“Yes, I know. I was there more than you, Trystan. And… don’t call me that. Not now.”
Trystan tensed. “Alright, Olivier, but I don’t feel comfortable leaving you here without understanding the situation.”
“I’ll be behind you…” Olive grumbled before he sighed in frustration. “I’ll tell you everything later. Now’s obviously not the time.”
Trystan hesitated, looked him up and down, before dipping his head. “Of course, Olive.”
Klaus quickly conjured up a stretcher which they loaded Emilia onto. Together, Nico and Klaus guided the stretcher off the roof and followed Trystan over to the other train.
Olive was about to follow them but was pulled back by a hand around the wrist. When he turned, he found the blue-eyed blonde woman staring at him. She spoke to him in Capricornian with a wavering voice, but he had no clue what she was saying.
It was odd, he realized, how quickly he’d lost comprehension of Capricornian this time around. He had been trying to learn Capricornian on his own but it’d always been difficult to distinguish the others’ knowledge from his own so he’d put the pursuit aside. How Cadence managed to do it, he had no clue.
Gilbert approached them both and placed a hand over the woman’s shoulder. He said something in Capricornian which caused her to frown. He then guided her to the end of the train and helped her down the ladder back into the cart before turning back to Olive.
They stared at each other in silence for a moment.
Finally, Olive managed, “Who was that?”
A frown creased Gilbert’s mouth and he asked loudly, “What? You don’t recognize her?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s Viktoria. Werner’s sister. Told her you had a head injury, we’re on a secret operation, yada yada.”
Lavi flashed into Olive’s mind.
“What…? Werner’s sister is on this train…? Why…?”
“The entire family is. Minus the old man. He’s in the capital already.”
Wasn’t that too convenient—
Abruptly, Olive’s mother and father’s smudged faces seeped into his mind, and he felt that heavy chain dragging down his chest once more.
* * *
Klaus, Nico, and Trystan were already inside one of the rear, still-railed carts on the medical train when Olive made it over. He’d slipped on the wet grass a couple of times on the way there—half out of clumsiness and half out of distress from seeing passengers climb out of the toppled train carts and dotting the wet ground. Gilbert, however, kept pulling him up and forward.
Instead of dipping inside into the medical cart after reaching it, however, Olive stopped short of the door and remained outside, leaning against the frame.
Gilbert didn’t dip in either, instead remaining annoyingly by his side. “I thought Aries was a sunny country, but you sure seem to like the rain.”
Olive was rather startled about how casually Gilbert was acting despite the revelation. But he didn’t hate it—“It just feels weird being in the same area… as me-but-not-me.”
“Didn’t you think it’d be a good idea to tip us off that you’re royalty?” Gilbert asked after a pause. “Though it explains a lot about the attitude.”
“Attitude?” Olive scoffed. “I see you’re very self-aware.”
Gilbert blanched, muttered something under his breath, but said nothing else.
“But… Werner said it was better that way… keeping it a secret, I mean.” Olive grumbled, rubbing a strand of blonde hair between his fingers. “You see how dramatically everyone reacted. It’d cause trouble for everyone else, even if people like you who already knew about it found out… Unless you like the sound of having a political scandal.”
“Politics are for people who have too much time on their hands. The other guys just all think you’re a celebrity or something—that’s all it is.” Gilbert waved the idea off. “They’ll get over it. And Bergmann’s tough too, if you’re worried about that. Stands toe-to-toe with Stein. She’ll be fine.” He puffed out his chest a little. “Anyway, if you’re that prince, that means you’re a teenager, right? Unlicensed, I’m assuming?”
“I did get my license actually…” Olive mumbled. “Just a couple of months ago.”
Gilbert whistled and applauded, and Olive couldn’t tell whether he was being mocked or congratulated.
After a while, Klaus and Nico reemerged from the train compartment along with Trystan who immediately pulled out an umbrella and pulled it over Olive’s head.
“Those medical Conductors are amazing…” Klaus was saying to Nico in accented Common. “I guess royalty really—” He stopped short as he registered Olive.
“Yeah, well, the pay and status make an excellent motivator,” Olive mumbled.
Klaus shut his mouth and swallowed. He quickly looped around to stand on the opposite side of Gilbert and proceeded to shoot Olive nervous looks. Nico in turn casually stepped into place beside Olive—or tried to. Trystan turned his body into a barrier.
They stood in silence for a while until a crunch of footsteps approached them from the direction of the other train. It was Stein and Fischer.
“The hell…!” Gilbert snapped as they approached. “You’re both supposed to watch over the ELPIS woman, Engel, and Heimler.”
“Sorry, sir,” Fischer apologized, “Stein kept insisting that we come.”‘
Stein shrugged. “Brandt’s got it under control.”
“He’s a combat medic and he’s alone, you dumbasses.” Gilbert pinched the bridge of his nose.
Before Gilbert could say anything else, Weingartner came on towards them from down the side of the train.
“I just spoke with the train conductors of both trains,” the captain informed them. “They’re working on getting the chains removed, and they’ve already contacted the capital. We’ll get more information regarding that later.” He paused, nodding at Trystan. “And… how is she?”
“She will make a full recovery,” Trystan replied, “but the medical Conductors recommended that she remain under their watch for at least a week.”
Weingartner sighed. “I see… So we’ll leave her in your care then.”
Olive allowed relief to relax him for a moment before he frowned. “Will the other passengers be okay…?”
“There were combat medics and military medical Conductors on board,” the captain explained. “They’re assisting in the relief efforts.”
That didn’t comfort Olive much and so he turned to Trystan and said, “Ask our medical Conductors to help with everyone here after they’re done with Emilia.”
Trystan hesitated for a moment before dipping his head in acknowledgment.
“Thank you, Your Highness, for your generosity,” the captain said, “and for your help with Bergmann.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” Olive muttered, looking away. “It’s not like I’m the one who’s actually doing anything. And you don’t have to call me that. Especially now.”
“So you really are…” Klaus looked around nervously, swallowed, and then addressed Olive, “I’m sorry for what I said last time we met. About the ‘hitting you at the back of the head’ thing. But… should we bow? To show respect?”
His Common had improved greatly, Olive realized.
Stein began to dip his head in an uncharacteristically reverent fashion before Fischer cut in.
“Of course not. He’s not the Kaiser.”
Olive met Fischer’s glare head-on.
“You went out of your way to extend a hand to us,” Weingartner explained. “We really do appreciate your generosity.”
“It’s not generosity. It’s just being a person…”
After a beat of silence, Olive went ahead and gave a quick explanation to Trystan about True Conductors. Then he delved into the evolution of the connection, the overrides, the crossing of vitae, the syzygy, ELPIS, the involvement of saint candidates, and how closely they were all linked together. Even to death.
Judging by some of the Capricornian’s faces, however, Olive came to realize he had most likely given away something that Cadence had kept secret.
Trystan went pale. “So, if the other people you’re connected with are injured or die then the same would happen to you?”
Olive thought that for the most part Trystan was accepting all of this rather easily. Then again, Olive supposed it was his job.
“The hell… Werner and the other two didn’t say anything about that.” Gilbert rubbed his face. “How many of you are in there?”
“Olivier, why didn’t you tell me any of this? The king and the queen as well?” Trystan placed a hand over his chest. “It’s my duty to ensure your safety, but if the other people you’re connected to are in harm’s way then… The king and queen must be informed immediately—”
“No!” Olive snapped. “I don’t want to involve them in any of this—”
“Trystan. Whatever this is, involving them in this will only cause trouble for Aries. You’d have to be blind not to see that.” Olive frowned. “That’s what you care about most, isn’t it? Aries?”
Trystan remained silent.
“That’s… that’s an order, Trystan.”
“… Alright, Olivier. As you wish.”
“…And if I may ask,” the captain continued after a stretch of silence had passed, “what was that conducting we saw earlier?”
Olive replied hesitantly with a half lie, “I don’t understand much about it either so you’re wasting your breath asking me.”
Trystan moved on to explain what had occurred on his end of things. The fainting, the hospitalization through Claire’s help, and the attack on the hospital by the Augen.
Fischer spat something in Capricornian under his breath. Probably something unkind.
“My apologies that I didn’t bring you back to Aries sooner, Olivier,” Trystan said. “I wanted to wait for a response from the king and queen first which was an egregious mistake on my part. However, the good news is that additional royal guards including Alexander have come to assist me alongside the medical Conductors.”
Olive tensed. “Alexander Charming… is a royal guard again?”
“He recently reclaimed the position after we left the palace. He’s still below rank from me, but he came here to help me escort you—your body—home. I didn’t mention this to him. Would you like me to?”
A brief relief spread through Olive’s limbs but he shook his head. “No, let’s keep this between us.” He dug the tip of Werner’s boot into the ground. “Wait… what about my bird?”
“As you wish, Olivier. I will keep this quiet. As for your pet—it’s in the compartment with your body.”
Next came Weingartner’s explanation of the events that had unfolded with Cadence and—Olive deduced—Atienna. Their capture in Argoan territory, their escape with Cadence, the conversation in Aquarius in Cvetka’s tent, the order from the Kaiser… and Otto Vogt’s death.
Olive felt sick and weak at the knees after. Panic paired with dread pumped his heart rapidly.
Although Olive hadn’t really known Otto, he’d still felt and understood Werner’s feelings towards him as a subordinate. Otto had always been an important cog in Werner’s unit. Whenever Olive would dip in to synchronize with Werner, Otto would be there somewhere in the background.
It felt unreal. One blink and a person was gone. Olive chest clenched at the thought.
Absentmindedly, Olive lifted his left hand and stared at it. Consuming his palm was a bluish-black blob with what appeared to be a tail and limbs protruding from it. Olive had assumed this entire ordeal was an undiscovered side-effect of being a True Conductor, but… in reality, they were trapped…? Realizing that the surrounding men were all staring at him, he lowered his hand and recapped, “So we’re being forced to go to the capital—”
Why did it feel like every time something terrible happened involving all of them, it always happened in a city? That and—
“—and you all just agreed…?”
“Like I said, it was an order from the Kaiser,” Weingartner explained. “An official military mandate. His orders are… absolute. The Kaiser is the highest authority in Capricorn—much similar to your king and queen. I understand your doubts, but there may be more to this than meets the eye, Olivier.”
The statement threw Olive in for a loop. It sounded like the captain was trying to convince himself.
“Cadence went along with it,” Klaus pressed. “She said it was the best option because they seem to know what’s going.”
Gilbert remained silent.
“Your lack of respect and honor precede you, Capricornians,” Trystan said with a frown. “Do you not realize that you’re now handing over the Ariesian prince?”
“Cool it.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Obviously we didn’t find out about him until now. Like you.”
“Wolff,” Weingartner said testily.
“Then it’s worse. You were handing over a comr—”
“Saints, Trystan, it’s fine,” Olive grumbled. “Cadence is probably right. If they’re telling the truth, then Cvetka’s employer probably knows about what’s going on here. A person who knows what the problem is can generally fix it. Besides, True Conductors are important to them for some reason so they’d want to fix this… probably…”
“I’m going, Trystan.”
“Your Highness, it’s my duty to serve and protect you. I cannot let you go back into this unknown territory with someone whose intentions are also unknown.”
“Where was all this protection with Ilseong Jin?” Olive scoffed.
“That was a mistake. And I’m learning from my mistakes, Olivier.” Trystan sounded irritable now. “I failed you then, but I won’t fail you now.”
“Well, there’s no point in me going like this to Aries.” Olive gestured to himself. “Even if you put ten thousand royal guards on me, it’s not going to work because the guards aren’t going to be able to cover everyone I’m connected to.”
Trystan opened his mouth.
Olive interjected with an air of finality—“I’m not going to let people suffer because I ran away. I was still researching back in Capricorn anyways. Maybe I can finish it when we go back there.”
“… Then I will come with you.”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat. “You’ll draw attention.”
“Then I will disguise myself,” Trystan replied. “With your permission, I will inform Alexander that I’ve been requested by you to do follow-up research on your studies in Capricorn. If you’d like, I will also bring your bird with me.” A bargaining chip.
“I guess…” Olive felt stupid for feeling happy at the man’s promised company. He knew it was just Trystan’s duty. But…
Pounding footsteps resounding down towards them cut the thought off short.
When he turned, he found a man in a train conductor’s uniform approaching them—rather, Trystan.
Olive sure was getting tired of all these people popping in whenever they pleased.
“Mr. Carter,” the conductor said in Common. “We have a v-ehicle arriving that can transport our higher-profile passengers and patients to the next city hospital. It’ll arrive within a couple of hours.”
“Transport?” Olive pressed.
“Yes, sir.” The conductor saluted after eyeing the medals on his—Werner’s—uniform. “Since the train carts transporting them are damaged, they’ll have to—”
“What about the other patient passengers…?”
“They’ll… have to wait, sir.”
“Wait? Wait how long?”
“The next inbound medical train won’t be pulling into the capital until later next evening. So it’ll be a day or so after then—”
“Will they even be able to last that long? Are there enough supplies?” Olive pressed. “I don’t see why you’d have to wait for another train…”
“Well, the carts are damaged as you can see. I’m just following protocol.”
Was this guy being for real?
Olive side-glanced at the Capricornians and only found grim acceptance on all of their faces. Obedience and acceptance. Why—
You’re just lucky you’ve always had the freedom to not have to obey.
“Yes, I can see that,” Olive said, shaking away the thought. “But if that’s the only issue, then you can load them into the carts that are still on the tracks and keep going. There’s enough room. Look at these… They’re gigantic.”
“The engine to the medical train is blown and the vitae’s leaked out,” the conductor explained. “There’s no way to move the train even if we load all of the passengers and patients successfully. I’m sorry, sir, but we’re just following protocol—”
Olive resisted snapping and pressed, “Then we just transfer some of the vitae fuel from the other train to this train. It isn’t that hard.”
“We’ll delay that train then, sir, and that’ll throw off the schedules for subsequent trains.”
“Well, it’s not like that other train is going anywhere. They still need to get the chains off.”
“You would be able to find a way to transfer the vitae from one engine to another so quickly?” the conductor asked. “I don’t doubt the curriculum they teach at the academies, but—”
Gilbert placed a hand on Olive’s shoulder, cutting him off. “Look—”
Trystan grabbed a hold of Gilbert’s wrist and pulled the man’s hand off before dipping his head. He whispered under his breath, saying, “Olivier, I don’t believe getting involved in this situation would be wise. This is a different country. If it were Aries…”
Right. He was being too naive again—getting involved in things he didn’t understand. Always trying to help without realizing the consequences.
You know, just because everyone lives doesn’t make it a happy ending.
But still… Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt otherwise.
He looked toward the toppled carts and frowned before whispering back, “I get that there are times when I should be thinking about who, what, why, or what’ll happen if I help someone—because of my status. But now is not one of those times.”
Trystan pulled away.
“Sound arguments, I must say, Waltz.”
Saying this in Common, a man flanked by heavily decorated military officers on his left and right approached them from the side of the cart. The man had a shining bald head, a curled mustache, and a chest littered with so many medals that Olive was almost blinded by them.
The man looked vaguely familiar but Olive couldn’t place a name to the face. Olive figured he must have been someone important because all of the Capricornians around him abruptly broke out into a salute—the captain included.
Gilbert stepped on Olive’s foot which prompted Trystan to kick Gilbert in the shin. Gilbert recoiled in turn and sent Trystan a glare while Olive took the opportunity to pull his hand up into a salute. Trystan reacted with aghast but kept his mouth shut.
“What are you doing here, General Watzmann?” Weingartner asked, lowering his hand. “I heard you were doing work in the capital.”
“I was going in for a routine medical check-up when—as I’m sure you’ve heard—the Verbundene Augen held a demonstration in front of the hospital that evolved into something tumultuous,” the general responded. He added something in Capricornian before he continued in Common, “I didn’t expect the journey to be derailed. I’m trying to figure out how that happened now actually; and you look like you’re a man with answers, Hauptmann.”
The two continued on in Capricornian, presumably speaking about Iota.
“I see,” the general noted. “Well, it’s good that your train is headed to the capital then. The ELPIS Department’s chairwoman is there at the moment because of the Augen. You can report this Iota to her too.”
Olive’s head spun. Leona—at the capital… but what about Cvetka’s new employer?
“You’ve heard about our transportation operation then, General?” Weingartner inquired.
“No, I haven’t heard anything of the sort.” The general hummed. “You said it was an order by the Kaiser himself, hm? That’s quite interesting…” He waved his hand in the air. “Anyway, our service is to the land which includes the people of this land.” He nodded at Olive. “Waltz, if you believe your plan to be efficient, then you have my go-ahead. My men will go to work on the chains and re-coupling the carts of this train.” He addressed them all. “Our duty is to serve our people is it not? Let’s get to it.”
Everyone saluted again.
Olive resisted rolling his eyes at everyone’s sudden motivation and copied the salute despite Trystan’s clear displeasure.
* * *
When Olive asked Klaus to help him with the conductor engine, the man reacted with exaggerated surprise before following him, Trystan, and Gilbert to the main engine room of the medical train. The others returned to the main train, while Emilia remained in the care of his medical Conductors
Olive paced along the side of the train with the trio in uncomfortable silence. The rain pattered against the umbrella over his head, and the mud squelched beneath his boot.
It was on a whim that Olive had glanced into the window of the third cart they passed by. And it was then that he caught a glimpse of her. Before he realized what he was doing, he tore into the train cart, stumbled over the medical supply cabinets hammered to the ground within, and darted past the occupied hospital bed nailed to the floor by the entrance. His destination was the other bed pressed along the farthest wall.
In that bed he found a familiar, unconscious, shallowly-breathing woman lying there. Her delicate brows were furrowed ever so slightly and her dark skin glistened with sweat. Other than that, she looked peaceful.
Olive figured that it made sense that she would be here since she was in the same condition he was in and presumably stayed at the same hospital.
He felt light-headed just looking at her.
“What is it, Olivier?” Trystan asked from behind him.
Gilbert and Klaus were there as well and peered at Atienna curiously from over his shoulder.
Olive reached out and touched her hand. A brief spark of electricity went up his arm, but he ignored it and held up her wrist. Warm. Pulse, slow. Almost too slow. He interlaced their fingers and kneeled down—
“Unhand her this instant!”
Olive looked up, only to find the tip of a familiar-looking spear pointed squarely at his face. The wielder of the spear was none other than Sefu himself whose brows and nostrils were flared with anger. Trystan immediately pulled out his bow conductor, but Sefu didn’t budge.
Sefu snapped, “That is an advisor of Virgo that you are touching! Remove your hand at once—”
“And this is—” Trystan stopped himself short.
Sefu squinted at Trystan. “You are the Ariesian who was in our hospital room. With that prince.” He glanced at Olive. “Why are you with the Capricornians?”
“Sorry about him,” Gilbert said, reaching over and pushing the point of Sefu’s spear away. “He got a head injury a couple weeks ago. Hasn’t been the same since.”
Flushing, Olive quickly pulled his hand away from Atienna and rose to a stand. He turned to Trystan and whispered, “That’s Atienna. She’s… like me. Connected to me.”
“Would you like for me to request the medical Conductors to also attend to her?” Trystan whispered back.
“That’s Atienna…?” Klaus stared at her, cheeks flushing.
Sefu looked at them in confusion, still gripping his conductor tightly.
“I’m sorry for… the disturbance, Sefu,” Olive apologized before jerking his head and heading back off the train. “Good luck. You’re doing… good.”
“Wait… how did you know my name?” Sefu called back.
Olive quickly boarded off before he had to answer.
* * *
The engine room was smoking and clouded when they arrived. The engine conductor pressed along the back side of the small and cramped space was cracked open by a chain that now hung loosely at its side clank-clanking against its surface.
Olive peeled out of the room immediately, got on his knees, and gagged as he pulled the crook of his elbow to his face. As usual, Trystan brought out a handkerchief for him. It took Olive a moment of breathing through the fabric to quell the nausea. Faster than usual. The rain helped drown out most of the stench. When Trystan helped him up to a stand, Olive found Gilbert and Klaus staring blankly at him.
“It smells,” Olive said.
“But aren’t you a fire Elementalist?” Gilbert asked. “Thought you’d get used to stuff like that.”
Klaus stiffened beside Gilbert, eyes widening as if realizing something. “Leutnant…”
Olive ignored them.
Once they aired out the engine room and Olive sealed up the crack by melting the metal together, they began designing an insulation system capable of transferring the vitae from one conductor engine to the other. Klaus was rigid in his ideas for the structure of the device, and Olive could tell that he was taking most of it from Capricornian conductors. Still, it was impressive—at least more impressive than Gilbert who spent the time glaring out at the sky.
Olive didn’t understand how it had taken Klaus so long to get a promotion. He also couldn’t wrap his head around why Werner hadn’t ever gotten a promotion either. Frankly, he was unhappy about it.
As they worked, Trystan watched over them like a hawk but was kind enough to procure Olive with the leather gloves he’d requested earlier and aided him with slipping them on.
Eventually, Stein out of all people joined them. The man was just as useful as Gilbert. He spent his time standing around and kicking the engine conductor like he’d magically kickstart it by the power of his foot.
Trystan refused to ease up the entire time.
And then Werner’s sister entered the engine room. She came in dripping with rainwater causing Olive to hastily request Trystan to assist her. As Trystan procured a blanket for her to dry herself with, she began to converse with Gilbert in Capricornian. It didn’t seem like a very pleasant conversation given the way she stormed over to them after.
Instead of shouting as expected, however, Viktoria sank beside them and studied their rudimentary blueprints. After a beat, she asked in accented Common, “Gilbert says you are suffering from a head injury, Werner? May I help? I have worked on conductor orders before. I know more than clocks.”
Thinking of Lavi and of the pocket watch ticking away in his shirt, Olive hesitantly accepted. Much to his surprise, Viktoria came up with an idea that involved multiple insulation levels that would speed up the transfer process.
“Multiple levels,” Olive muttered. “That’s an impressive idea…”
Multiple levels… multiple vitae … levels…? Olive stiffened in thought. What if that’s—no, not time to think about that now. Shaking the idea off, he refocused on their work.
They finalized the blueprint of the system an hour later which left Klaus to conjuring up the needed parts. He did so proficiently, consulting the blueprints every so often. Meanwhile, Olive started to put together the pieces according to the blueprint in uncomfortable silence alongside Viktoria. Eventually, after conjuring about 100 parts, Klaus started to break out into a panting sweat.
“You can take a break, Klaus…” Olive mumbled, trying to keep the worry out of his voice. “There’s no point in conjuring everything fast if you’re going to pass out halfway through it…”
Klaus refused the suggestion at first, but a snap from Gilbert got him out of the room. Only a few seconds after that, another travesty struck. Another man whom Olive didn’t recognize entered the room. He was caked in mud and teetered haphazardly on a pair of elbow crutches. He exchanged a word with Gilbert before they both headed over together.
“Your brother Ludwig wanted to chip in too. Word spreads fast,” Gilbert explained in Common. “The faster we get this done, the better. Right, Werner?”
Didn’t Gilbert know how to tell people to go away—
Olive glanced at Ludwig’s legs and averted his gaze. He supposed the more hands involved, the faster he could escape this awkward predicament. So, he held his tongue, nodded, and pretended to be particularly fixated on his work for the rest of the time.
The silence was awkward and overbearing.
When Viktoria and Ludwig stepped out to take a break themselves—much to Olive’s relief—Nico entered the room. He exchanged a couple of words with Stein and Gilbert before seating himself across from Olive. Not before Trystan gave him an evil eye, of course.
Nico smiled. “Anything I can help with?”
Olive nodded, squeezing a gear into place. “We’re just fitting all the insulator connectors together. Try not to break anything.”
Nico picked up a glass insulation tube and jabbed it hazardously into a connecting piece that obviously didn’t fit. “You know, I wouldn’t have thought you were royalty if you didn’t say it. Ah, that’s a compliment, by the way—”
“If you want to ask me about Cadence then just say it…” Olive grumbled, snatching the parts out of his hands.
Nico stiffened. “You could tell?”
Olive rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s between her and you, not me and you, so don’t ask me. Don’t drag me into it.”
Nico blinked and then chuckled. “That’s exactly what Cadence said to me…”
“So it was about Werner then,” Olive concluded, more to himself than to Nico.
Nico flushed and looked around. “Hey—”
Olive arched a brow. “Don’t you have more things to be out here worrying about than that kind of stuff?”
“So… you know?”
“Know what…?” Olive tightened a screw with a wrench. “All I know is Cadence has been wanting to talk to you about you leaving the city… and that it involves Werner.” Grimacing, he fiddled with his wrench and turned it over a couple of times in his hand. “Why did you leave anyway…?”
As expected, there was a beat of startled silence.
“Forget it…” Olive grumbled. “It’s none of my business.”
“No, no, it’s fine. First time I’ve been asked that upfront, so I was just surprised.” Nico held up his hands in reassurance before a contemplative look crossed his face. “Honestly, I… really did just want to help. The Aquarians were down two medical Conductors back then. They wouldn’t have made it.”
“So, you’re a saint.”
“No, not really…” Nico dipped his head. “The border thing was just the reason I was waiting for. It’s hard to explain.”
‘A reason’… to escape?
Olive frowned. “Just because you tell me doesn’t mean it gets indirectly shunted to Cadence.”
“Oh, I know…”
A weird person, Olive thought. But escape, huh? Olive wondered if he was the same. He didn’t want to think about it.
After fifteen minutes, Viktoria, Klaus, and Ludwig returned.
The last seven hours saw them moving back and forth between the engine room of the main train and the medical train. They slinked several parallel insulating tubes adapted with Viktoria’s ideas in-between the two trains. Several of the less sickly patients from the medical train and passengers from the capital-bound train assisted with the effort.
Once the two engines were connected by the tubes, Olive used a kickstarter on the fuse box they’d fixed to the engine in the capital-bound train and watched with Klaus as glowing light began to spill out from the engine into the tubes. He followed the progression of the glowing light through the tubes by feet as did Klaus. Trystan tailed behind them. They dashed forward across the green and into the medical train engine room as the light spilled into the engine there from the tubes.
Ludwig was waiting there in front of the engine and reading a meter on its side. His hand was held in the air—halting. The seconds ticked by before finally Ludwig clenched his fist. Viktoria moved to flip a switch on the fuse box attached to the engine.
Olive looped around and read the meter. The needle was in green. Before he could stop himself, he jumped and clapped once. “We did it!”
When he turned, he found Klaus beaming brightly and proudly. Viktoria and Ludwig looked pleased but were staring at him in confusion.
Still, a bit of the heaviness had lifted away from his chest.
* * *
When Olive returned to the main train, the general’s men were still working on removing the chains around its body. With nothing else left to be done, Werner’s siblings departed back to their compartment with a stiff ‘see you soon.’
After being guided with Trystan by Gilbert, Klaus, and Stein to the train cart where the unit was staying, Olive found Weingartner sitting in a compartment with his hands folded and his head bowed.
Olive hesitated for a moment in front of the captain, before asking, “May I… speak with Iota? She… I think she has some answers to some things I’ve been looking into for a while.”
Weingartner lifted his head and stared at them. After a moment of consideration, he led them into the next cart over. There, Olive found Iota squared away in a seat and guarded by Fischer who was soon joined by Stein.
Nestled on the opposite side of the compartment were two additional people whom Olive realized were also prisoners. He very vaguely recognized one as Friedhelm Heimler whom Stein had labeled earlier as a ‘damn coward.’ The other was a face he’d seen in the newspapers—Marionette Engel, signature scarf and all. They looked to him as he entered before exchanging glances.
Both Fischer and Brandt were wielding weapons—a rifle conductor and a handgun, respectively. The sight of the weapons in such close corners made Olive nervous.
As soon as Iota laid eyes on him, she dipped into a mocking bow. “Your Majesty.”
Fischer promptly butted the back of her head with his conductor.
Olive closed the distance in-between them and would’ve gotten closer if it were not for Trystan holding him back with a steady hand.
“You knew that I was stuck like this somehow, Iota,” Olive said.
Before Olive could press further, he saw a flash of black out of the corner of his eye. He recognized that particular shade of black hair immediately, and his heart skipped an excited, hopeful beat. He’d never seen her when stuck in an override before.
He turned. “Lav—”
Olive’s words caught in his throat as he fully registered the small ghostly figure illuminated by the gray light filtering in from the train window. It was Lavi, but—
—but her arms were blackened and charred, and the skin of her face was melting into the bones of her eye socket and teeth.
She looked just as she had on that day.
“What’s wrong, Ollie?” Lavi took a step forward. “I was worried since I haven’t seen you for a while…”
Olive took a step back, heart racing.
Lavi halted immediately, face falling. “Is there something wrong with me, Ollie? Why are you looking at me like that?”
Olive swallowed, steeled his nerves. “I-It’s nothing…” Ignoring the Capricornians and Trystan who were looking at him in confusion, he pressed, “What have you been up to?”
“I don’t know…” Lavi twirled a lock of hair around her finger. The strands cut past crusted flesh into bone. “But I was supposed to tell you something important… but I forgot… What was it…?”
“You’re so forgetful sometimes…” Olive grumbled, forcing himself to look at her.
“It was really important, Ollie,” Lavi pouted. “Oh, Werner will be upset if I don’t tell you—”
Olive froze. “You spoke with Werner—”
No. Don’t trust her. How could you trust her? She’s a saint candidate—a failed one but still. She’s hiding something—
Gilbert abruptly grabbed him by the arm. “Werner?! Are you talking to Werner, right now?”
Trystan jerked Gilbert away in turn. “Do not touch the—”
Gilbert shoved him aside. “Werner’s here?”
“It’s not Werner.” Olive shot him a scowl. “It’s my sister.”
Trystan paused. “The late princess…?”
Ignoring them, Olive pressed, “You spoke with Werner? How? Where? What’s going on with him? Is he okay?”
“Oh! I remember!” Lavi snapped her fingers and brightened. “He told me to tell you one word! ‘Manipulator’!”
Olive blinked, and Lavi was gone. He stiffened a beat after, tore off his gloves, and stared at the mark on his hand.
The cut, the mark, Cvetka’s employer, the request for transport back to the capital.
‘AVOID CONDUCTOR’ was what Gilbert said Atienna had tried to tell him in code when she was here. And also ‘MAN.’ He’d said that Cadence hadn’t a clue what Atienna meant but—Manipulator! Atienna had been trying to warn them about a Manipulator!
Olive whipped to Iota and shoved his palm in her face. “What do you know about this? Why were you on this train? Why are you headed to the capital?”
“We asked already,” Fischer stated, eyes narrowed, accent thick. “She won’t talk.”
Iota leaned away from Olive, not looking particularly startled. “So you really are already infected. They really did mess up so much with you—even though you’re their precious resource.”
“What’s going on, Olive?” Weingartner pressed.
“I thought it had something to do with being a True Conductor at first…” Olive clenched his fist. “But it’s a Manipulator… I know it sounds crazy, but I think Werner—”
“This is the first time I’ve seen a True Conductor infected.” Iota looked him up and down. “But I’m pleased to see our theories about what would happen if it ever did happen are true. A lock in the polarization state. But it looks like this lock is preventing the Manipulator from fully manipulating you, so you can take that as you like.”
Olive’s mind raced.
Iota cracked another grin. “By the way, are you feeling a little bit tired, Your Majesty? If you’re so smart, you should know that if you stay like this that much longer you’ll die.”
Olive froze, suddenly feeling faint. A ghost pain throbbed at his shoulder.
Trystan stepped forward and pulled out his conductor. “What do you mean?”
“What?” Iota scoffed. “Did you think your vitae overflowing into the people you’re connected to was a blessing? No, no—the universe is rejecting your existence, don’t you see? Every time you do it, you’re pushing your boundaries and catapulting yourself into the grave. Even now—well, actually…” She frowned. “I was speaking about Gamma about it—how have you survived this long in the first place? If that Ariesian saint candidate really did become one with you, then you should’ve died a long time ago… Well, it’s your problem. Not mine.”
“What are you talking about?” Olive managed.
She indicated his hand. “Whoever gave you that cut was also infected. Judging by the location of the wound, I’m assuming the soldier tried to do something heroic?”
Heimler shot up to an abrupt stand, only to be shoved back down by Fischer and Stein.
“But… living manipulation….” Klaus stammered. “Olive, you sound normal—not like you’re being manipulated at all. How could it be manipulation? And if it was through the cut, then… there was no conductor involve—” He shut his mouth, eyeing Olive’s hands.
“Theta—Francis…” Olive muttered, ignoring Iota’s frown. “He implied that True Conductors and saint candidates can expel more vitae than a normal Conductor. I’m terrible at vitae theory but that might have something to do with it… I don’t know.”
Nico stiffened at Francis’s name.
“What if… the Kaiser is being manipulated then?” Klaus whispered.
Weingartner held up a hand. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. All we know is that the Kaiser is working with the ELPIS Department and that they’re aware of Waltz’s status and condition. What we can say for certain is that if what this woman is saying is true, then the Augen might be influenced by this Manipulator. This is bigger than we thought… We should inform the general—”
“I’m not being manipulated,” Heimler interjected.
“I’m not either,” Marionette insisted. “My thoughts and actions are my own.”
“Yeah, but are your eyes?” Olive returned more snappishly than intended. “Manipulation isn’t just about controlling the motion of an object.”
“Sir,” Gilbert addressed the captain, “what if the general is being manipulated? Should we really be telling him any of this?”
“It doesn’t matter since he’s being manipulated.” Fischer jabbed a finger at Olive. “He’s already broadcasting everything to whoever that Manipulator is.” He glowered down at Heimler. “The oberleutnant should’ve just let you get stabbed, you dirty coward.”
“How do we even tell who’s being manipulated…?”
“Maybe…” Olive stared at his hand. He shook his head and glared at Iota. “How do we fix this?”
“Who knows? Who knows?”
Saints, she was irritating.
Iota rolled her head. “Well… I’ll tell you this. That Manipulator inserted into you an impossible amount of vitae to transmute out, so you have three options. One involves getting the help of someone who will definitely not help you, and the other two involve a lot of killing and dying. I prefer that option for you.” Iota pulled back. “Anyway, everything you’ve done since you’ve gotten cut is the result of that Manipulator moving you along. I mean, you’re a medium yourself. So really, it’d be easier for everyone if you died.” She smiled again. “Well, either way, I should still thank you.”
Olive dropped his hand and pulled the glove back on. “Thank me…?”
“You are that prince, aren’t you? You’re the one who let us in.”
Olive felt a cold wave sweep through his entire body.
“Well, I didn’t see you myself,” Iota continued. “I heard it from the others who were there with me. ‘A child let me into the palace because he saw that I was hurt. Such fortune.’”
“You were there…?” Olive stared.
“Our primary goal was to destroy that filthy generator conductor you have hooked up to your main reservoir and the reservoir itself,” Iota continued, “but everyone else just got in the way. But—hey—you shouldn’t worry. They’ve all returned to the cycle. The late king, the late queen, all the old council members, the maids.”
A memory of red and black burned its way into Olive’s thoughts, causing his chest to seize. Before he could stop himself, he took a step back. Gilbert caught him from behind and gave him a confused look while Trystan abruptly stormed forward.
“I actually had the pleasure of meeting the late king and queen myself,” Iota continued. “They were willing to lay down their lives in the throne room for that reservoir and generator conductor. I had no other choice but to put them down. But don’t worry. I made it quick. Just a snap of the neck.”
Trystan drew out his bow and pointed an inflamed arrow at her. “Monster! Do you know how many lives were taken that day?! How dare you speak of it in a mocking tone?!” He whipped around. “Your Highness, we cannot let her be taken to Capricorn! Nor Ophiuchus! She must stand trial in Aries for her crimes—”
Before Trystan could even finish, Stein abruptly rushed forward and cracked Iota across the jaw. She went flying back against the window only to grin as Stein was pulled back by Gilbert and Fischer. Trystan was only momentarily distracted, however, and grabbed Iota by the scruff of her shirt.
“Trystan, stop. She’s lying,” Olive said faintly.
Trystan froze and looked back at him.
“My parents died in the halls outside the council chambers, not in the throne room. And it wasn’t by a Manipulator’s medium but a Projector’s. They were decapitated by a vitae blade.” Olive mechanically repeated the same information he’d told Doctor Kingsley years ago verbatim. He met Iota’s gaze blankly. “She’s just playing games. Not much different from whoever’s messing with us, are you…?”
Iota’s face creased with outrage.
Silence stretched long and thin as Trystan released her. Just like all of those years ago, Olive could feel all of their stares of sympathy, empathy, and pity boring into him, weighing him down.
But it’s all just an act.
“I’m too tired for this…” Olive mumbled, turning on his heels and starting out of the room. “I’m pretty sure Cadence hasn’t slept at all, and I just spent eight hours of my life beating a wrench over some insulating tubes. I’m done. Trystan, help me find a room.”
“Hey—” Gilbert called out.
“O-Of course, Olivier.” Trystan followed quickly behind him.
Before they exited the compartment, Olive turned and fixated Iota with a glare. “I’m not running away, by the way. I just wanted to let you know that. You’re not very convincing.”
And with that, they departed.
Once they found an empty resting room two carts down, Trystan checked inside before allowing him in. After Olive declined the guard’s offer of retrieving additional cushions and blankets, Trystan closed the door.
Olive threw himself onto the narrow bed within that was pressed alongside the wall. Closing his eyes, he buried his face into the cushion, tasted ash on his tongue, and sobbed.
* * *
When Olive opened his eyes again sometime later, he knew he was dreaming.
He was standing back in the endlessly stretching halls of the royal palace—rather, he was walking down them as if being pulled along by a string. His body felt strange and didn’t obey his thoughts. One foot in front of the other without his directive.
As he continued walking, however, the hall around him shifted. Royal red carpet bled into tiled wood. White pillared walls bled into metal frames embedded with rackety windows.
The train hall.
Protect the prince. Protect the prince. Protect the prince.
The mantra beat down in his head over and over again as he was forced to continue forward.
Dedicate yourself. Dedicate yourself. Dedicate—
Eventually, he entered a compartment that was occupied by a single person. Iota. She blinked up at him slowly from where she was curled up on the seat cushion before her eyes widened.
“You…!” Iota seethed. “So you were infected too…” Hurt and betrayal folded across her face followed by shame. “Why do you always look at people when they’re at their lowest?”
He lifted his hand and showed her the de-activated blade conductor in his grip. With a flick of his wrist, it ignited with crackling blue light.
“Please… don’t…” Iota doubled over with the beg.
Olive was startled by her sudden change in demeanor.
“I won’t remember Omega when I return. Not this Omega. She’s gone and never coming back—I—” Iota lifted her head and met his eyes. “Please, I’m the only one who still thinks of her. Who’s going to get revenge for—”
“You can’t ‘die,’” he interjected, voice garbled in his own ears. “You’re already dead. You died centuries ago. You’re just a ghost. If it hurts for you to think of Omega, think of how it hurts me to see all of you every single time. Over and over again—the same mistakes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re initiated property or not. Well I suppose, you’re a pretty little fool this time at least…”
Iota hung her head, tears dripping onto her dress.
Despite himself, Olive felt a pang of empathy.
He sank down in front of her. “You, Alpha, Omega, Theta, Gamma, Kappa—you’re all just imitations. Memories. Incomplete remnants.” He gently touched her face. “But I still care for you, so I’ll bring you one step closer to nothingness anyways.”
With that, he drove the blade into her abdomen.
* * *
Olive was startled awake by a hand on the shoulder. When he cracked open his eyes, he found Trystan eclipsing his face.
“I apologize for disturbing you, Olivier,” Trystan whispered, “but… the ELPIS leader Iota has escaped.”
Before Olive could get his head on straight, he was dragged out from the room and down the hall. A glimpse of flitting trees outside the train window and the click-clack rattling the carts told Olive that they had successfully freed the train and were now en-route back to the capital again.
Trystan led Olive into a cart at the very back of the train—the same cart from his dreams. Unlike his dream, however, all of the Capricornians minus Heimler and Marionette Engel were inside. Unlike his dream, Iota was not sitting at the very corner of the cart. Unlike his dream, the train window beside that empty seat was wide open.
“We separated her from Heimler and Engel on captain’s orders,” Gilbert explained, seemingly not too alarmed. “It didn’t feel safe keeping them all together. There was a mix-up on who was supposed to guard her.”
“We should’ve just killed her to begin with,” Stein sneered.
“Or we should’ve kept a better eye on her,” Fischer muttered.
Olive tensed as his gaze went from the Projectors in the cart: Gilbert, Fischer, and Stein.
3 thoughts on “17.1: Prince, 0400 Mandate”
Lol I missed Olive’s general roughness and aloofness and…. brattiness. Nice to see my boy growing up a bit. This experience will be good for him to learn its not all sunshine out there. I feel bad for the other Capricornians. Also…. did Iota just die? Feel bad for her a bit because of the whole Omega thing. And someone on the train is infected too. I’m 75% sure it’s Stein but I’m not sure. At least they know what they’re up against now
So I’ve been following this book and just caught up. I’m going to be switching over to royal road; even though I feel that reading on the website is MUCH better to read, I think royal road is better since I read so many other stories already and they have a neat follow stories system.
I’m very interesting to see where this is going. Brilliant story as always.
Alrighty, thanks for reading and letting me know! See you there!! 🙂