As the six start to slowly re-unite, they turn their eyes towards Capricorn and think about their interactions with Scorpio. While Olive recalls Trystan and Marta who have been converted into an elevated level of vitae and of P.D. Oram whom he’d nearly killed, Atienan thinks of home, family, and an agreement.
Olivier Chance had awoken to fussy royal guards and medical Conductors prodding him this way and that with stethoscopes, wooden sticks, and thermometers. In between the ‘how many fingers am I holding up’ and ‘are you sure you feel fine,’ they explained to him that he had fallen into a sudden coma while visiting the capital of Capricorn for the conductor convention. Trystan, who had been accompanying him on his Signum-wide travels, had abruptly left, acting on orders that Olive himself had apparently given him prior. Alexander Charming—somehow re-instated in his position—pressed Olive for what exactly he’d tasked Trystan with, but Olive had no clue. In fact, Olive figured that Trystan just had enough of him and had secretly quit the position.
Frankly, Olive didn’t care. Trystan could do what he wanted. Moreover, Olive didn’t understand why he’d decided to come to this foreign country or why he’d decided to get his State Conducting License in the first place. After Alexander had crowed over the ‘accomplishment,’ Olive had ordered him and the other guards out from his cabinet. They obeyed, of course. That was their job.
Once he was alone, he took out his conducting license from his pocket and studied it as he laid on his bed. His picture was ugly, and the entire thing felt wrong. Having a license, having this opportunity. It was something Lavi couldn’t have.
Lavi—he remembered suddenly. He had wanted to get his license so he could research about her ‘condition’—even though only he could see her, even though she might not even be real. Well, he supposed it was the least he could do for her.
However, everything became crystal clear as soon as he felt a warm hand rest on top of his head. His reasons became clear as memory after memory burned at the edges of his mind, clearing away the mistaken loneliness.
Relief came swiftly—followed shortly after by embarrassment. His self-loathing and self-pity were poignant, but it didn’t matter as long as he kept moving forward.
Not so soon after that reassurance was made came his memories of his override. Trystan’s loyalty and words of wisdom, the relief at being able to disclose his nature as a True Conductor to someone he could trust outside of the other five. Claire, Louise, and Werner’s unit. Finding his way to the belly of the capital with the others.
The images stayed with Olive even after he’d reopened the connection with Atienna and they all filtered into the room. His mind buzzed with the memory of Trystan and Marta melting into each other and P.D. Oran melting beneath his touch. Saints —he’d nearly killed someone. And Scorpio had been right. After the Tragedy, he’d wanted everyone around him to disappear more than he’d wanted himself to. Part of him now wanted to return to not remembering—
“—heard about everythin’ that happened in the capital, kid.”
Olive looked up as Cadence—who was disguised as his least favorite guard of all people—placed a hand on his shoulder.
“—I know it doesn’t mean much, but I’m sorry.”
Olive shifted in place. “There’s no reason to say sorry when what happened isn’t permanent.” He was going to fix it—return them both to normal.
The corner of Cadence’s mouth pulled upwards. “That’s the spirit, kid.”
“Atienna, what are you saying? This must be the lingering effects of the morrowheat—”
Olive glanced up and saw Atienna conversing with a gawking Sefu at the corner of the room.
“Everything I am saying is true,” Atienna said to him. “And because of this connection, I have to go back to Capricorn.”
Sefu fell back against the wall behind him, holding his head. After a moment of silence, he said, “Then allow me to accompany you. It is my duty.”
Olive felt a stabbing pain in his chest at the words, but he managed, “So we’re definitely going… right?”
Jericho and Cadence exchanged looks.
“Ta get the lieutenant and the captain,” Cadence drew slowly “And Nico too. And ya know… other important people… Why? Ya on board or something?”
But Scorpio was too big to handle.
Jericho blinked at Cadence. “But Francis wants to handle Scorpio too. He said it’s responsibility.”
Cadence ruffled her hair. “I… think Francis’s head still isn’t tickin’ right. We’re all in over our heads. I mean, think about it. This ain’t just one city, ain’t just one plot, ain’t just about one person. There’s some all-powerful Manipulator revin’ an entire country up, and we’re just—what—six people tryin’ ta face up against a whole political mishap? The best thing we can do right now is just get Nico, Werner, and Werner’s folks and high-tail it outta here. It’s self-contained right now, but if we go bargin’ in… Best to leave it ta the peacekeepers. Werner might throw a fit, but…” She nodded at Olive and Atienna. “Plus, both of ya are high-profile people. Can’t be pullin’ your own countries into another country’s mess, right—”
Bergmann frowned. “What…? I thought our main objective was to rescue my unit and remove Scorpio. Capricorn is rotting from the inside out because of Scorpio. My country is not perfect—I know. But this is too much!”
Rather than Scorpio causing it to ‘rot from the inside out,’ perhaps it was more akin to Scorpio festering a rot that was already there.
Olive shook the thought away and glanced at Atienna.
“I’m concerned about the diplomats that will be leaving Capricorn,” Atienna drew slowly. “There’s one matter of Scorpio’s spores spreading to the diplomats, and there’s another of the diplomats being harmed by Capricornians. That would cause quite a lot of trouble for Werner’s country, don’t you think? And for Signum as a whole… for you all…”
Cadence arched a brow at Atienna, studied her carefully, then sighed and shrugged. “Well, it ain’t like I can say no if all of ya are on board. Democracy, unfortunately.”
Olive looked between them in confusion before he was struck with a sudden realization. “Wait… Alexander is going to get in trouble if I just disappear. He just received his position back after what happened. I—”
“Just pretend ta throw a fit and lock ‘em outta this room,” Cadence suggested. “They’ll never know ya left.”
Olive arched a brow.
Cadence proceeded over to the door, pulled it open, and slammed it shut so hard that it rattled the walls. As footsteps resounded down the outside hall, she locked the door with a click. A second after, the door pounded and Alexander’s voice boomed—
“Your Highness? Your Highness, open the door!”
The rapping continued until Cadence placed her ringed fingers over her throat and allowed copper light to spill over the area. She opened her mouth and said in Olive’s own voice—
“Just leave me alone for one day. All of you keep coming in and going out—I can barely sleep. I know you don’t want to check up on me all the time, so stop forcing yourself to.”
“… as you wish, Your Highness,” came Alexander’s quiet reply.
Cadence shrugged off her suit jacket and laid it on the floor, revealing a black smudge staining the insides. “Your carriage awaits.”
* * *
Francis’s strange windowless, doorless room unnerved Olive, even though he remembered the place vividly from Cadence’s experiences. The children running around without care just added to the surreality of it all.
As Olive took it all in, he came to reason that the memories they shared only went so far. For instance, even though he had memories of Allen and Carl, he found himself rather intimidated by them. Despite wanting to get off on somewhat of a right foot with them—even though the two were criminals—he had unconsciously sent Carl a glare when he’d first arrived. Since then, the man had been staring bullets into his back. Carl didn’t bother rising from his lounge on the sofa beside Allen, however, which just unnerved Olive all the much more.
“If only we had a Specialist conducting ability capable of teleporting like this at the border…” Bergmann murmured suddenly from where she was crouching in front of some of the children and letting them examine her glove conductor.
Francis frowned at her slightly.
“We could’ve saved so many more people,” Bergmann finished. “Like Otto… Immediate transport to medical.” She glanced over her shoulder towards Francis. “The Manipulator was behind Otto’s death, right? He was controlling Herr Rath?”
Francis nodded at her. “Since that man was a member of the Augen, perhaps. Although, it could have also been of his own volition.”
Olive tensed and looked away with a grimace.
“We should try to move quickly,” Francis said after a pause. “Most of our operations in ELPIS functioned by splitting up our workforce so we could tackle multiple… objectives at once. I’m sure you follow a different way of doing things, but I suggest we divide and conquer.”
“And…” Cadence leaned against her crutch. “What exactly is our objective here? Still kinda unclear on that. Know I sound like a broken record, but we are in over our heads.”
“Eliminating Scorpio’s remaining towers,” Francis replied, “ensuring that the True Conductors connected to you still in the city are alive, and making sure Dämon Forstchritt’s work—”
Olive’s head buzzed at the mention
“—and, Miss Imamu,” Francis continued. “Your concerns are valid. More conflict will lead to the formation of more reservoirs… I will assist you in that as well.” He glanced at Olive. “However, I have concerns about your involvement, Prince Chance. You’re still a child—”
“I’m the crown prince of Aries,” Olive interjected. “It’s… It’s my responsibility.” As Werner would say. After a beat, he scowled. “Just because I’m a ‘child’ doesn’t mean you can just go throwing me wherever you want. I’m going.”
“That was not my intention,” Francis murmured in response. “But I understand.”
“I have some concerns about Werner’s condition,” Atienna said slowly after a beat. “I understand we can’t exactly prioritize him at the moment because we don’t know exactly where he is, but Scorpio’s influence…”
“The dear lieutenant was with the blue guy the longest, right?” Cadence nodded, locking eyes with Atienna.
“Right… I’m just concerned about what actions Werner will take before we can reach him.”
Olive looked between the two of them in confusion and saw Jericho do the same.
An image of Werner lifting a pistol and pointing it to the back of a familiar brown head flashed through Olive’s mind.
“—Werner wouldn’t do that, Atienna,” Olive interjected, heart hammering.
“She’s not sayin’ he would,” Cadence said, lifting her hands, wobbling over to him, and placing a hand on his shoulder. “But let’s just all agree that—for better or for worse—we were very different people before we lost our collective marbles.”
In the end, they decided to split into two groups. Since they didn’t know the location of Werner, Maria, Nico, and Werner’s subordinates, Francis offered to traverse his gates in search of them and transport them across the city upon request. Cadence—half-heartedly—Jericho, and Bergmann agreed to search the city for Marionette Engel and cut away any spores along the way. They would keep Lita in Francis’s room until her eyes were needed. Olive himself agreed to go along with Atienna and Sefu to ensure the safety of the diplomats. But even though all of this was set in stone, Olive’s mind kept going to his memories below the city.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
The moon was full and the dust particles hanging in the sky made the light coming down around the rigid buildings take on a blue hue.
Supporting Olive with one arm, Atienna Imamu stepped uncertainly out from Francis’s gate behind Jericho, Cadence, Sefu, and Bergmann and onto the gray and wet road. A bridge hung over their heads connecting one pointed spiraling tower to another. The shadows cast by the towers spilled over the courtyard to her left. Resting there lay what remained of a metal statue depicting gallant soldiers aiming their rifles at unseen enemies.
It felt as if she had just been in this city a moment ago, despite it having been weeks. This was—
—crazy. Absolutely crazy. She needed a drink.
Atienna glanced at Cadence who was now relying on just one crutch to hobble around. Atienna knew that out of all of them Cadence wanted to be here the least. But she also knew that Cadence knew her conducting ability was valuable.
As Atienna surveyed the stretching sidewalk and the v-tram with shattered windows to her right, she recalled Bergmann’s earlier explanation of the city’s layout. Francis had presented a map of the city’s entirety during the explanation, but Atienna had never been quite good with object-orientation.
Trying to recall the path to the train station where Gabrielle had told Francis the diplomats were preparing to depart from, Atienna stepped out beneath the shade of the bridge into the courtyard. Fear and anxiety bled in from Cadence and Olive, but Atienna knew that she herself was at peace—perhaps even a bit exhilarated.
Before she could think of a parting word—rather, wait for someone to say a parting word—a stampede of footsteps on the bridge above them drew her attention away. Upon glancing upwards, Atienna spotted an inhuman-looking silhouette peering down at them from the lip of the bridge. She wasn’t given the opportunity to even flinch because the silhouette suddenly launched themselves downwards.
Sefu whipped out his spear. Bergmann turned in alarm, flexing her conductor-gloved hand and reaching towards the ground while grasping her holster with her other hand. The figure, however, half-fell, half-soared over Bergmann’s head and hurtled towards Jericho who reflexively brought up his suitcase. The figure merely used the suitcase as a springboard, flying upwards again in a backflip before landing directly on top of Cadence who was waving her crutch wildly in the air.
As soon as the figure landed on top of Cadence, however, Atienna knew immediately who it was.
“It’s Cadence!” Maria sang, leaping back up to a stand and pulling Cadence back up along with her. She pulled her in close by the arm and inspected her face. “Your freckles are even more lovely up close!”
“Saints, Maria—” Cadence stammered, still clenching her chest. “Ya scared the hell outta me and nearly killed me too—”
“Is… this another one?” Bergmann asked tentatively, rising to a stand, hand still resting on the gun at her hip.
Maria whipped around, faced the Capricornian, and approached her quickly before walking a circle around her. “You are Emilia? It is nice to meet you! Such a lovely name! Say, I met an ‘Emil’ before on my travels to Argo many years ago! Do you know him?”
Standing at attention, Bergmann glanced fretfully at Cadence who was rubbing her shoulders. “Er, no—”
“Well, you should meet each other so you can know each other,” Maria continued. “Someone who is mine and someone who is Werner’s—”
Bergmann made a face. “With all due respect, I don’t belong to anyone—”
Cadence sighed, dusting off her suit jacket. “Okay, sunshine. Ya don’t wanna scare her.” She shook her head. “I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but how did ya find us—”
“What an amazing experience,” Maria rattled on, throwing her hands up into the sky as she twirled in a circle. “I was very confused only a minute before with my crew telling me strange stories about spirits and possessions and ‘manipulators,’ but now everything is crystal clear!” She swiveled around and gestured to the statues. “Well, after I woke up, my crew and Veles told me everything, and I wanted to see for myself. I heard that something happened in this place from rumors, but it turns out that I— of course—did this!”
“Wait. Veles?” Cadence perked up. “Veles is with ya?” She brightened. “This is great! We got a bangin’ fire Elementalist, a dazzlin’ earth Elementalist—” she paused to wink at Bergmann “—and now we got a water Elementalist on the roster. It feels like—”
“Well, he was set on finding Conta and he heard from Simon and Emmanuel that Conta and that other one left, yes? So he left too. A head start without me! Make no mistake—I will find Conta and I will be right there with him. But I must come for this crew first, no?”
Cadence sighed, lifting her hat and scratching her head. “Ya ever heard of ‘the more the merrier,’ sunshine?”
Atienna cleared her throat and interjected, “And where is the rest of your crew now, Maria?”
“Oh, you know Emmanuel and Simon cannot fight!” Maria’s smile thinned slightly. “I left them back where it is safe, yes? I—” She glanced around at them. “—We will not lose anyone else, yes?”
Bergmann stiffened then nodded. Olive followed suit.
Maria leaned in close to Cadence. “And you are watching over my dear Lita, yes?”
“She’s in safe hands don’t worry,” Cadence reassured her. “But—”
“Oh?” Maria cocked her head, listening. “You are looking for that Marionette Engel? I think Ludwig said he knew where the Augen was. We can ask him!”
“Francis did say Ludwig had the deets,” Cadence confirmed, “but he also said that the guy got nicked with the others by the military police after the whole blow out.” I need a drink—
“No, I saw Ludwig! Just now! When I was coming here!” Maria interjected. “I did not recognize him—no—but he was there.”
“There?” Bergmann pressed.
A faint, blurred memory of peering into a light-warmed window of a second-story building came to Atienna. A man bound to a wheelchair stared glumly out from that window; and behind him on the red sofa along the backside wall of the room sat another man, a woman, and a younger woman. Posted around them were uniformed officers.
“Werner’s family has separated from the others…” Atienna placed a hand to her chin in thought as the memory faded. “As I thought…” Scorpio was setting the stage on a microscale level too.
“We can go get where the Augen is from Ludwig and then take down the tower in that Marionette Engel person, no?” Maria continued, pointing to Jericho’s suitcase which caused him to stiffen. “And then after that, we can get where Werner is from Marionette or from Francis—whichever one comes first. And then we’re almost done!”
Maria’s vibrancy was—as always—too bright for Atienna. Although her brightness accentuated Atienna’s feelings of stagnation as usual, Atienna sincerely hoped at least that would stay the same.
“We don’t even know if Marionette has access to that information… She’s connected to Scorpio, but that doesn’t mean the connection goes both ways.” Olive arched a brow. “Anyways, doesn’t that entire thing seem convoluted to you…?”
“Nope,” Maria popped. “We go in, we go out, we find the tower, we find Werner, we find Scorpio, and we win!”
“Perhaps we can leave Scorpio for a little bit later,” Atienna pressed gently.
Maria glanced at her with contemplative consideration before brightening again. “Oh, Cadence and Jericho are going to handle this ‘tower,’ yes? And Emilia too? Then I will come with you!”
Bergmann frowned slightly. “I think it might be better if we evenly divide our unit—”
Maria whipped around and pointed at Cadence. “I am hearing from Cadence here that Francis is helping us, yes? So if anyone needs me, I can jump around—” She quieted suddenly, her gaze sweeping slowly from Jericho to Olive to Cadence and then finally to Atienna herself. “This is the first time I am seeing you all like this, no…?”
Cheeks flushing, Maria abruptly threw her hand straight forward. “I have seen people do this recently, yes? I wanted to save this up for when I found Conta and then do it with my crew on the ship, but you are my crew too, no?”
Atienna realized what Maria was aiming for and couldn’t help but smile faintly, despite the gravity of the situation.
“This isn’t some tournament or sport event,” Olive grumbled.
Cadence shrugged, throwing her hand forward and placing her hand over Maria’s. “Eh, why the hell not.”
Jericho looked between them before copying Cadence and Maria in confusion and putting his hand forward too. Atienna followed suit slowly before inclining her head and indicating Sefu to do the same. Bergmann looked around at them in slight confusion before putting her hand down as well. Begrudgingly, and perhaps moved by their own wishes, Olive put his hand down last.
“Let’s go, spirit crew!” Maria shouted without embarrassment as she threw her hand into the air.
* * *
Atienna heard the commotion from the train station before she saw it. The sound was quite familiar. If she closed her eyes, she would be transported to those past days where she’d stood in front of the glowing white Great Tree of Virgo with her mother following the Tragedy of Aries. Yes. In moments of desperation, people always stepped over each other unwittingly—sometimes metaphorically and physically.
As expected, as she approached the station with Olive and Sefu, she found that it was crowded to the brim. Men, women, children, civilians—all were pushing against each other and a thin line of officers that barricaded them from the singular, sleek black train that stood cold on the tracks.
“Let us leave!” some of them cried. “This is a warzone!” and “Why do they get to leave first? They’re not even Capricornians!”—to which the military officers responded with a simple, “Back, back, back! Step back!”
Behind that line of officers gathered a familiar cluster of well-dressed men and women in suits, silk outfits, and satin drapes despite the chill in the air. Despite the chaos unfolding before them, they all looked as if they were distant from the affair.
Atienna turned towards the call and found Claire standing at the lip of the crowd. Behind him stood his two masked royal guards—Soha and Felix—and one Gabrielle Law who looked more tired than usual.
“Claire!” Olive stared at the prince. “Are you an idiot? Why are you still here?” He ignored the glare of indignation Felix gave him, glanced at Gabrielle, and looked away quickly. “Is Eunji still here too?”
“No, my sister left on an earlier train—but, hey, I tried to leave too, you know,” Claire returned half grumbling, half good-natured despite the situation. He glanced over at the crowd. “Unfortunately, a bunch of other people got the same idea because of everything that’s been happening. The only train conductor that’s willing to operate right now is a ‘good-hearted’ man who won’t move the train until all the people here are on board. They don’t have train passes though, and the military police are trying to keep the diplomats… ‘safe.’”
Olive tensed, glancing at the military police officers. “Why didn’t you just use your conductor and fly out?”
Claire muttered, glancing back at Soha and Felix, “I can’t leave my vassals behind, Ollie.”
Olive’s face paled, and Atienna could feel his stomach drop as Trystan and Marta flashed through her mind.
“It’s good to see you back as yourself,” Claire continued. “I was worried about you, you know. That was a very long overlap… and…”
A faint image of P.D. Oran kneeling in a wreath of crimson flames flashed through Atienna’s mind.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I’ve been trying to get some sense of order here, but I guess having just one peacekeeper here isn’t enough. Most of the diplomats just want to save themselves. They’re afraid of the Capricornians dragging their political movement onto the train.” She nodded at Olive. “So, is everyone well? Are you well?”
Olive opened his mouth then closed it. “Yeah… Scorpio’s been removed.”
“Good.” Gabrielle nodded after a pause. “Anyway, Your Highness, do you have any updates for me?”
As a grimacing Olive disclosed everything that had unfolded since Gabrielle and Claire had left the dome of the convention, Atienna surveyed the two groups pushing against each other on the platform. She thought, considering solutions, considering what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ before an idea came to mind.
“We have to publicly make them choose—force them to decide the eyes of the public, ” Atienna drew slowly. “It’s quite a cruel way to go about things, but it’s a necessary choice, don’t you think?”
Gabrielle waved a hand. “Shoot.”
After explaining her idea to the others, Claire flew her up to the top of the train—Sefu surprisingly didn’t make a complaint—after handing her a makeshift megaphone that he had Felix conjure for her. As Atienna observed the shifting, pulsating crowd from below her, she took in a deep breath and felt her palms itch.
“There are sixteen region-states in Capricorn,” Atienna drew slowly into her megaphone. “We should…” She trailed off as she realized no one was listening.
A burst of crimson flames exploded up into the sky causing the crowd to gasp, shriek, and turn. Once Olive held their attention, he lowered his hand and extinguished the flames before pointing over directly at Atienna. The crowd followed his gesture to her.
“Miss Imamu?!” came an exclamation from below.
Atienna glanced down and saw her diplomat Niymbo Dimka standing at the very lip of the platform and staring up at her incredulously.
“As I said, there are sixteen region-states in Capricorn,” Atienna continued through the megaphone, feeling her cheeks flush at the attention. “There are over sixteen train compartments here. We all want to return home. I suggest we load all people from a specific region from specific train carts.”
“What?!” exclaimed a distinctly Cancerian-looking man from behind the police line in accented Common. “What about us? What about us who are not from Capricorn?”
“As I’ve said,” Atienna repeated, “there are over sixteen train compartments here. Those who are not from Capricorn like myself can take to the other compartments.” Perhaps effectively separating the possible infected Capricornians from the uninfected from other countries. She looked down at Dimka and the other diplomats. “The diplomats here have many trained guards with them. I suggest that they use them to help load and organize everyone onto the train—” Atienna could feel the glares from below. “Is that not what diplomacy is about?”
“Who will have priority?” one of the diplomats asked from below.
“Everyone will get on the train. Let’s not think of priority.” Atienna took in a deep breath. “However, we are working outside of political boundaries. Anyone who visibly supports the Augen, I ask that you put away your beliefs for now. No symbols, no mantras. If you can do that, I’m sure everyone will find a sense of reassurance.” Her words felt heavy and distasteful on her tongue—this choice, uncomfortable.
Atienna could feel Cadence peering in—
Ain’t that a bit risky…? What if a couple of Scorpio’s offshoots and spores spring into action and jump compartments?
The spread of passion versus the spread of possible conflict… Atienna thought back after quiet consideration. I’m not sure if I’ve made the right choice but… hopefully, Scorpio is dealt with before then.
Eh, I’ll gamble for ya, Atienna.
“She’s right!” Dimka shouted over the crowd. “We all want to return home safely. There is enough room on the train for all of us. Tickets and allowances matter little in a time of distress. Let’s work together!”
Whispers and affirmations spread through the surrounding station as Gabrielle pushed through the crowd and began to speak with the diplomats and military police. Atienna herself was brought back down from the top of the train with Claire’s help and rejoined Olive.
I wish the feudal lords back home were as convincing as that, Olive provided.
Atienna chuckled for him and then watched as the civilians were lined up into neat blocks and ushered into the train by a mixture of guards and police officers.
It was always astounding how efficient—as Werner would say—things ran when… when things operated under ever-watchful eyes. She’d read many dystopian books about societies that on the surface operated smoother with heavy surveillance. In reality, such things were deemed cruel. Regardless of method, coming together never lasted long. Pride, stubbornness, national loyalty, and all things laid in-between would not allow such a thing to pass. Or perhaps she was just being pessimistic.
Soon the train’s platform was empty with almost everyone having loaded into the train compartments. All who remained standing on the platform were the diplomats and other international officials. As the last civilian filtered into the train, the diplomats and internationals also began to head into their compartments, leaving just Dimka and his guards and Claire and his guards.
“I’m glad to see you well, Atienna,” Dimka said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I have to wonder how in the world did you make it here?” Before she could answer, he waved his hand. “Well, no matter. We will depart now. Come along—”
“I… still have work that I’d like to finish here,” Atienna drew slowly. “ I am an advisor for you. I’ll collect as much information here as possible so we can improve relations with Capricorn.”
“You are a Virgoan advisor, not a Twin Cities information broker,” Dimka said gravely.
Atienna averted her eyes from him and instead met Olive’s eyes. “I’ll find another route back to Virgo.”
“Miss Imamu, this is madness… This country is falling apart.” Dimka glanced at Olive, then at Claire. “And you too both. You are princes of your countries. While I do appreciate your hand in this—and I may be overstepping my bounds by saying this—but I’m sure your… parents would be very concerned about your well-being. You should return home.”
To return home…
Atienna nodded, looking away from Olive and back to Dimka. The choice was clear. “Please go, Niymbo. I will be with you soon. I promise.”
The diplomat regarded her for a while.
“I’ll look after them, Mr. Dimka,” Gabrielle drew slowly, studying them carefully.
“As will I,” Sefu interjected. “Since it is my duty still.”
Although Sefu’s determination was quite endearing, Atienna wondered what exactly was going through Gabrielle’s head. Gabrielle’s raison d’être and goal had just been stripped raw, after all.
Dimka let out a hefty sigh before shaking his head and signaling for his guards to board the train. Before he left, he offered her a tight squeeze on the shoulder and a “Return safely.” Atienna watched them disappear into the train compartment as the train horn blared and smoke began clouding the air.
“Claire,” Olive tried hesitantly from beside her, glancing at the other prince, “do you think you could—”
Claire visibly stiffened, causing Atienna’s stomach to churn.
It’s nothing against you, she reassured Olive.
“Nevermind. It’s fine. You should go, Claire,” Olive muttered. “This is… different from before. I don’t think there are any political benefits to helping me this time around. Besides, you were found out because of me…”
Claire’s guards exchanged looks and studied Claire. At the sight of their concern for their prince, another pang stabbed her chest.
“True,” Claire agreed, causing Olive to grimace. “But I’m not sure how long we would’ve been able to pull this charade off anyway with the way things are going.” He chuckled before his expression became somber. “Hey, I’m sorry about what happened to Trystan and Marta… If that happened to Felix or Soha, I don’t know what I would do…”
Yes… Claire had been looking after his vassals from the very beginiing—all the way back when Olive had first met him in Aries—hadn’t he? Atienna wondered how the nature of royalty and guard relationships was viewed and how it developed at such a young age.
—people keep saying ‘sorry’ about Trystan and Marta like there’s nothing I can do for them. I can do something still. I know it. I—
He means well.
“It’s fine, Claire.” Olive waved him off, glancing at her. “I get it…”
Olive looked back at Claire.
Claire tapped the fold of his loose blouse where a series of photographs were poking out. He glanced at Gabrielle, who was frowning, and then played a politician’s smile for her. When he looked back at Olive, he said quietly, “When I find out where the two of us stand in this, I’ll tell you. I promise.”
Atienna felt the apprehension in Olive’s chest lessen slightly. She smiled as Olive offered Claire a stiff handshake, which the latter accepted, and watched as the Sagittarian prince departed on the train with his vassals.
Atienna. Olive turned back to her slowly. I… I have to find Trystan and Marta.
We will, Atienna reassured him.
Atienna let out a quiet sigh and nodded. She glanced at Sefu faintly, then looked away, not wanting to imagine what he’d look like if the same thing that happened to Trystan happened to him.
As the train began to roll forward along the tracks, Atienna followed Olive out of the station and back onto the road. Before they reached the end of it, however, a shout came from behind—
“Wait, Your Highness, where do you think you’re going?”
Atienna turned to find Gabrielle trailing them. Olive scowled.
“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” Gabrielle asked as she neared them. “That’s not something politicians should be handling.”
Olive opened his mouth.
“Let me come with you.”
Olive still vividly remembered the way to the underground facility. Although he had taken an aerial route to the location, the layout of the streets was still burned into his mind. However, if he had to retrace the entire route there, he was certain he would vomit.
At his request, Francis opened a gate for them a block away from the location and even offered to accompany them. Atienna politely declined the offer— “Mr. Foxman, I wouldn’t say I’m quite an expert on war tactics, but Werner’s has shared quite a few books regarding them with me… I believe that you are quite an important asset here and having you out frolicking with us would be a bit foolish, don’t you think?”
Atienna could be rather sharp-tongued sometimes.
As they emerged from Francis’s gate in a dimly lit alleyway, Olive found himself starting to become afraid of Atienna’s thoughts bleeding into him. ‘There’s no point in doing this,’ she’d maybe think. Or even, ‘Poor Olive. This is all he can do.’ But—
Olive, I’m with you, came the reassurance.
Olive glanced to his left. Atienna who was standing there in the dark met his gaze. Sefu, who was just behind her, arched a brow. Olive tensed, cheeks flushing. But he accepted her words and even found a sense of embarrassing comfort in them However, he did not find the same in Gabrielle who was a quiet presence beside him. He was rather unnerved about how she’d willingly come along with them. Olive wondered if she was just desperately trying to find a reason and purpose now.
Just as they were about to spill out onto the road, pounding footsteps resounded around them. A figure passed the mouth of the alleyway. They were moving slowly and sluggishly due to precariously balancing stacks upon stacks of folders stuffed with files in their hands. It took a moment for Olive to register who that figure was. Gabrielle on the other hand—
Gabrielle hurtled out of the alley and tackled Dämon Forstchritt to the ground. The woman’s papers cascaded down around them in the aftermath, catching a psychedelic light emitting from the right side of the road. Gabrielle seemed to catch sight of this oddity and slowly turned her head in the direction. Her eyes reflected a terrifying sight, causing Olive to tear out of the alleyway and onto the road.
When he registered the familiar, groaning mass of vitae spilling in-between the buildings and crawling towards them from several yards away, he stumbled back and fell to the ground.
Trystan and Marta…
Atienna and Sefu were at his side immediately, the former pulling him back up onto his feet.
“What the hell have you done…?” Gabrielle whispered.
“I was just trying to transport my creation… the insulation cube broke… “ Forstchritt muttered faintly, staring at the mass of gelatinous light. “I need to preserve my research.” She turned to the approaching molten monstrosity. “Most of this batch has returned back to the third level of energy! It’s okay . We only need to wait a little while longer and it’ll turn back into a reservoir!”
“Turn into a reservoir…?” Gabrielle repeated incredulously. “It’ll turn everyone it touches into a reservoir!” She turned to the mass of vitae and flexed her gloved hands. “We have to take care of it here.”
No! There had to be another solution, Olive thought as his mind raced. He could melt insulation tubes together and block the mass of vitae from spreading any further. Or he could burn a hole in the ground. Or—
“That’s a brilliant, valiant decision,” Dämon replied to Gabrielle casually. “We actually recorded in one observational study that despite not having any pain receptors—or even cells—for that matter, it somehow can still feel pain when it’s in the super-elevated-level state of vitae. Perhaps it’s because of the properties of vitae particles… but regardless, you’d be doing it a mercy.”
Olive swallowed bile climbing up his throat as the world spun and realization settled in. Hot tears were threatening to spill from his eyes but he tried to keep his emotions contained because he didn’t want to throw off the others. He could barely even feel them above the pain squeezing his chest.
Gabrielle glared at Forstchritt, face twisting. “How… can you say it like it’s nothing?” When she received no response, she stepped forward and extended her conductor-gloved hand out towards the moving mass.
“No!” Olive shouted, grabbing Gabrielle’s arm and pulling her back. “Don’t!”
“Your Highness,” Gabrielle said tightly through gritted teeth. “That’s not Trystan and Marta anymore. If that thing escapes—”
“I know that!” Olive snapped, fists clenched, feeling his voice crack. “I know that…”
Gabrielle turned back to him in surprise.
The guilt of Trystan and Marta no longer being in the world versus the guilt of hundreds—no, thousands—of people being absorbed into a painful state of agony. The feeling of having Oran’s life dangling at his fingertips. And “the value of a human life” —
Olive knew he couldn’t be selfish. Trystan wouldn’t want him to be selfish; and a small part of him had wanted to show —to prove to—Trystan that he hadn’t made a mistake in choosing to continue guarding and protecting him.
It wasn’t fair … It just wasn’t fair! But… That was what happened to people who cared that much. The ones who desired the most change were the ones who were crushed under the weight of their ideals—well, fine. Olive decided he’d be crushed along with them then.
I’m with you.
Olive took a deep breath and grimaced. “My vitae is at a higher energy level than yours. I’d be able to shoot the energy of the vitae up and back down to the fourth level faster than you.” He let out a shaky breath. “And they’re citizens of Aries. I was the one who brought them to this country. I’m the crown prince. It’s myresponsibility. You’re a peacekeeper. This goes beyond your jurisdiction.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she clenched her gloves into a first. She studied him for a moment before nodding. “But if you can’t do it, then I’ll step in.”
Olive took in another deep breath, turning to face the warmth of the glowing vitae. He extended out his hand and tensed. And then, with a cry, he sent out a whip of crimson flame. As the whip touched the mass of vitae, an inhuman groan emitted from its body. The hot tears finally spilled out from Olive’s eyes at the sound, but he increased the output of his vitae until the entire roadblock was engulfed in crimson flames. The heat of his fire dried the wetness on his cheeks.
Sending out another torrent, he squeezed his eyes shut as he recalled stumbling before Trystan’s cell and being taken aback by the passion in the man’s eyes, as he recalled the sight of Marta’s back as he watched her toil away with her conductors in her shop, as he recalled Trystan’s wistful and hopeful gaze and loyalty on that train as he spoke of his hometown, as he recalled Marta’s fervent excitement as she spoke of her newly acquired position in that Capricornian library—as he extinguished what remained of both of them with his own hands.
A hand on his shoulder caused Olive to open his eyes. When he turned, he found Atienna staring at him with warm eyes. He lowered his hand as the flames around him died and then turned back to face the result of his immolation. As the smoke that clouded the air cleared, he was able to see a large, unmoving puddle of vitae staring back at him from just a yard away.
Olive fell to his knees, digging his nails into the ground and fisting the stray pebbles and dirt in his hands, tears continuing to spill from his eyes as his mind continued to race endlessly.
What if… What if there had been another option that he hadn’t thought of? What if there was a way to separate Trystan and Marta and keep them contained and away from everyone in the city? What if… they had never come to this city in the first place? No—what if they’d never met him? Would they still be standing here today? Endless what-ifs—
Letting out a cry, he slammed his fist into the ground and then curled into himself. He squeezed his eyes shut but all he could see was Trystan and Marta and then Lavi, his parents, and everyone in the palace on that day.
It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair! Everyone around him kept crumbling away to ashes.
The air was sweltering with smoke, making his sobs and gasps for breath all the more desperate. He cursed himself as he gasped for air—
Get yourself together! You’re going to drag the others down with you. Stop crying! Get yourself togeth—
A hand rested on his back. Atienna. He knew. Comforting pity. He wanted to push her away—push them all away and go back to the way things were before, back to his room, back to being locked away in the palace. Stagnant in place but peaceful.
But that would be the easy way out.
Olive turned and clung to Atienna desperately, buried his face into her chest to hide the tears, and continued to cry for not what he had lost but what others had lost. He cried for so long that he almost didn’t notice Flannery Caertas and Leona approaching them out from the shroud of smoke.
Tears threatening to spill from her eyes as she held Olive in her arms, Atienna tensed as the two saint candidates approached them from down the road. Pushing aside Olive’s anguish that closed a tight fist around her chest, she grabbed Olive by the arm and began to drag him back with Sefu’s help. Gabrielle, however, remained planted firmly in place in front of Forstchritt.
“Step away from Dämon Forstchritt, Gabrielle,” Flannery said. “This is somethin’ y’don’t want t’get yer hands in. Trust me.”
Gabrielle eyed the knife and gun in the woman’s hands, before raising her own hands and backing away. “I don’t remember you being this bossy, Flannery. You both took your sweet time though.”
Flannery didn’t respond and instead stepped in place in front of Forstchritt whose back was facing her. She lifted her gun and pointed it at the back of the woman’s head. Before she could pull the trigger, however, a burst of golden light lit up the smoky area and Flannery’s gun-wielding flopped onto the ground. Flannery stared down at her severed hand, unperturbed.
“ELPIS has P.D. Oran, Flannery,” Leona said calmly. “We need someone to help with the final preparations of the syzygy. After what ELPIS did to the Aurora reservoirs, Gemini and Capricorn are far from being able to assist us with the ley lines.”
The blood pooling out from the severed hand began to glow with an intense dark pink light before slowly being pulled by an invisible force back onto Flannery’s arm. The glowing dark pink blood and ligaments reattached to each other; and once everything was connected, Flannery tightened her grip on her gun again.
“Y’can find other talented minds ‘round Signum, Leo,” she said. “Ones who haven’t committed as many misdeeds as this one.”
“Her work—although disgusting—has helped us draw even closer to the syzygy,” Leona replied. “Her actions fall inside our free will agreement. Even without our influence, she would have eventually done the same thing. Intervening would go against that agreement.”
“If we go along with that precedent,” Flannery said after a pause, “I take it that yer pride would be alright with applyin’ the same t’Scorpio.” She jerked her head at Olive and Atienna. “By the way, I get the feeling’ y’might get a little antsy so let me just give ya a hint in case ya get ballsy and get ta it first.” She crossed her fingers over her chest directly above her heart. “Aim for the bullseye.”
“That’ll be your decision to make, and you shouldn’t encourage them,” Leona replied before turning her gaze to Olive and then Atienna herself. “Atienna Imamu, daughter of the former chieftain of the Imamu tribe—”
“—and Ariesian crown prince Olivier Chance. I’m glad to see you all well and in order. Although Scorpio’s machinations were filthy, at least we know of you now. I’m sure you know by now how important your safety is to us.”
Atienna felt tense, but alive. She replied quietly, “Olive and I may be important to you enough and in the public eye enough for you to turn a blind eye to us, but what of the others? What of the ones who don’t hold high political status? What of Werner, Cadence, Jericho, and Maria? What happened to all of those True Conductors who weren’t of high status that you found?”
“Well, we’ll protect the other four just as we protected them .”
“Protection doesn’t mean happiness, does it…?”
Memories of the dying Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska and Kovich twisted on top of each other bled into Atienna’s mind.
Leona’s lips pulled upwards, and she looked down at them almost with amusement.
“I… have a proposal,” Atienna continued.
Leona arched a brow.
“Cvetka is employed by you. Although she holds an important status now, I believe that was not the case when you first discovered her, correct? Because she agreed to do something for you in turn. She… agreed to hunt down other True Conductors.”
Leona nodded, silent.
“I think it’s a good time to speak of what we can do for each other, don’t you think?” Pulling away from Olive, Atienna rose to a slow stand and approached Leona. Once she was in front of the woman, she extended a hand. “My circle is more than suitable enough to perform the same, wouldn’t you agree?”
—what was she doing…?
Atienna looked over her shoulder and met Olive’s wide-eyed gaze of horror. Protecting what I truly truly care about.
Cadence’s image appeared behind Olive, and she placed a hand on his shoulder before offering Atienna a nod of approval. Gotta do what we gotta do.
“And your position in your group is where you can make this choice and final decision for them?” Leona inquired.
Atienna considered this before drawing slowly, “Yes… I suppose since Werner’s not here, I am.”
Leona reached out and accepted her gesture with a thinning smile.
Leona’s hands were cold.