Re-cap: Olive was swept away into Capricorn after Werner was infected by Saint Candidate of Scorpio’s spore. During his time in Capricorn in his override over Werner, he discovered the truth about the vitae energy levels, saint candidates, and vitae conversion. In exchange for the knowledge that he’d gained, however, he lost lost two individuals who were important to him. Trystan Carter, his royal guard, and Marta John, his conductor engineering friend.
As the chapter closed on Scorpio’s machinations in Capricorn, Olive was greeted with Aries imposing a tariff on Capricorn due to the former’s alliance with Sagittarius. Now as political unease brews…
Saddine “The Storm” Agwuegbo, First Chairman of the Communications Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Please don’t vote for me.”
The ash fell from the sky like snow—melting into the soot-stained ground and softening up the red residue dried to the earthen patches. Smoke pillars grew like trees up to the sky, their branches blooming black across the horizon and mimicking clouds. Bodies littered the ground beneath these pillars like crumpled, fallen leaves.
A man whose hair caught the faint sunlight falling in-between the gaps of gray oversaw this carnage—back sturdy, shoulders broad, stance firm. He was beautifully golden.
“I will not abandon these people,” he drew, rumbling voice filled with absolute certainty. “I refuse. If you continue on this path, I will stand against you with Altair, Vega, Deneb, and the others.” When he turned his head, his molten amber eyes were filled with disappointment. “Do you not have any pride for everything we’ve gone through to build this place from the ground up?”
Olive’s cheeks flushed as a line of fire erupted just behind the man, accentuating the unearthliness of the man’s features. The way his golden locks caught the light of the crimson fire made him look as if he were aflame—no, burning.
Burning just like everyone in the palace had. Just like his mother and father had. Just like Lavi had—
Up from the desecrated battlefield abruptly grew great red banners decorated with the Ariesian ram horns. The white walls of the palace emerged from the ground next, forming a cage around the golden man who liquified into a mass of unidentifiable bodies that writhed in a crisp black, cracked amalgamation.
Burning just like the servant in Claire’s villa had—
The white walls of the palace melted into paper windows as the burning corpses of the Ariesian royalty became replaced by a single young woman. She was swathed in torn silk garments that were eaten by scorch marks that were also etched into her arms.
Burning just like P.D. Oran had—
The surroundings bubbled down into a swirling lava puddle on the ground and coalesced into the quivering form of P.D. Oran who flinched away from Olive as crimson flames surrounded him.
Burning just like Trystan and Marta had—
No, no, no. Olive didn’t want to see this. Anything but this—
“This isn’t real, Olive,” came a familiar cool, calm voice paired with a cold hand at the back of his neck.
Werner? No. Atienna? No.
“You need to wake—”
Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance startled awake, his heart hammering, his ears ringing with the sound of chiming bells in the far distance. A shadow passed over his head, shielding him from the blinding white light that assaulted his eyes. It took a moment for him to realize the shadow was a person’s face. A man with a scar running down from his left temple to the corner of his lip. Stein—Derik Stein. Just Derik.
Derik pulled away with a grimace. “How the hell do you sleep this long?”
Blearily, Olive gathered his bearings.
A straw, prickly mattress currently supported his back while a stuffed cotton pillow supported his neck. The wooden door to the small bedroom he was residing in was still rattling on its hinges—still creaking back and forth from Derik’s presumably violent entrance. The blinds to the circular window above his head were thrown open allowing in the blazing heat of the Ariesian sun.
Olive blinked up at Derik in groggy confusion. “…What time is it?”
“Time to wake the fuck up,” Derik replied, heading back to the door and kicking it open just as it creaked shut. “And it’s about time we left this village too. It’s too damn hot in this country.”
Olive stared after him before he fell back onto his pillow and let out a ragged sigh.
Derik seemed like he was in a good mood today! For him at least. Energetic. Olive had no idea how Werner managed to get Derik to fall in line. The man was a loose cannon—
A sheen of black fluttered out of the corner of Olive’s eye, impeding his line of thought. Turning his head towards the color, he spied Lavi sitting by the windowsill with her back to him. She was peering out into the morning light and humming a half-familiar melody.
Olive studied her silhouette as his stomach churned.
Francis had confirmed it months earlier. Lavi was a bonafide saint candidate. Not a failed one. A real one. Aries incarnated in the flesh. Or spirit. Fourth-level of vitae, the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, baptism, vitae capacity, memories and soul, and everything in-between. But…
Francis still hadn’t ascertained as to how Lavi had ‘entered’ him. When Cadence had asked about it on Olive’s behalf not too long after the incident in Capricorn, Francis had said that “the pressure of all that extra vitae contained in saint candidates would expand on the ‘channel’ of a True Conductor beyond a True Conductor’s capacity and result in a True Conductor’s body melting into”—verbatim—“a possibly vitae-like yet jelly-like substance.”
Although the man had been very flippant about the gruesome outcome and description, his usual morose gloominess overcame him once the Tragedy of Aries was brought up. Olive had personally thought that if anyone should be depressed about it, it should be himself. He, however, remained silent as Cadence managed to move Francis along to the subject at hand. Aries and Lavi.
It had been a bit awkward in the beginning, but they had managed to hold a pseudo-interview between Lavi and Francis with Olive himself and Cadence acting as a telephone line. Unfortunately, Lavi answered many of Francis’s questions with ‘I don’t know,’ ‘What…?’, and ‘Are we almost done?”
“It might be that Aries is not fully ‘here,’” Francis had suggested after digesting all of Lavi’s answers. “It might be that Miss Chance is not fully ‘here’ either. Then again, the distinction between the two is…” He’d trailed off.
The statement had unnerved Olive.
In the end, the man had ended it all with— “There’s a missing component we’re not considering here… Or perhaps what’s important is the fact that it is missing. I’ll try to see what I can do. Not for Aries, but for you, Cadence… and that poor child—that prince.”
Shaking the old memories away, Olive continued to spy on his sister by the windowsill as he thought of asking her—“Lavi, you’re you, right?”
Finally, as if feeling his gaze or hearing his thoughts, Lavi turned to him and a cheeky grin split across her face. “You’re up early—are you really Ollie?”
Lavi pointed to the round clock across the room. The hour hand was barely touching the number 10. Olive shot up immediately at the sight of it.
It was only around ten in the morning….? What was wrong with Derik? First, he stormed the room like he was raiding enemy territory, and now he decided that 10 in the morning was a good time to force someone to wake up? Trystan would never—
Fighting against the heaviness that crumpled his chest, Olive swung his legs over his bed and reached for the small table set off to the corner of his bedpost. A rectangular box rested there on a multi-colored, handwoven tablecloth. When he reached for it and flipped it open, a set of black conducting rings greeted his eyes. Hand-designed and hand-crafted. Insulation tubes, even larger than insulation tubes of proto-conductors. Conducting core, small, but maximizing the amount of vitae flow inputted up to 79%.
Olive had used some of Marta’s old blueprints released by the Conductor Bureau of Aries for its creation and had dubbed it a Marta-Model Ring Conductor.
“Good work,” Werner had told him after he’d finished crafting the thing. “You’ve increased its efficiency… It’s certainly something to be commended.”
“I say we put it on the market and reap the profits,” Cadence had added with a chortle. “I bet ya these it’d be all the rage. People always like upgrades—no matter how tiny!”
“Oh, dear Olive, send me one, yes? I want to show it off to my crew!”
All three praises had made Olive’s day, but he’d pushed away the second idea. Besides, as Cadence had said, it wasn’t as if he’d made something entirely on his own. He’d just improved what was already there. Marta’s ideas. He’d recently tried to apply those ideas to his most recent three conductor projects which were now laid out on the desk in the corner of the room. Resting on said desk was a cylindrical object about 1.5 feet long, a small cube lined with glass insulators, and a circular metal sphere.
Ugh. They were embarrassing to look at.
With a grimace, he set the box of rings to the side, picked up a rag that he’d accidentally thrown to the ground the previous night, and tossed it over the devices to hide them. He paused after the action and took notice of the numerous other things that were scattered on the floor. Bolts, insulation tubes, small rags, clothing. It was an unsightly mess that needed to be addressed, and cleaning was the least he could do in exchange for their hospitality.
As Olive went through the motions of tidying up the room, his mind strayed to Marta and the conducting rings again. Nothing new—not even an invention. It was merely something minutely modified.
“Even the slightest improvement and modification aren’t things to be looked down on, don’t you think? Even that is something to be admired, right?” had been Atienna’s reply to that.
Olive frowned at the memory and then shrugged it off.
When he was finally done with the tidying affair, he slipped his hand-crafted proto-conducting rings on and wiggled his fingers. Watching as the large insulating tubes curled with crimson vitae, he hopped to his feet and held his hand out to Lavi.
Lavi’s gaze brightened immediately at the sight of his extended hand before she hopped off the windowsill and accepted his gesture. As soon as their fingers touched, the rings ignited in crimson flames that swallowed up her entire body. When the flames died away, Lavi shook her head and blew away the mirage of smoke. She looked the same as before, albeit blonde and blue-eyed with a red cloth mask covering her lower face.
“Let’s go for a walk today, okay?”
Lavi’s eyes glistened.
* * *
Like all of Olive’s usual morning walks with Lavi, Derik followed several steps behind them. The Capricornian wasn’t respectfully silent nor did he keep to the shadows as he walked along. No, instead he made his presence known, grumbling loudly every so often about the heat from beneath the large umbrella Olive had bought for him weeks ago while also flirting noticeably with all the women who paid him a glance.
It hadn’t taken long for the local Ariesians to get used to Derik’s gruff bluntness. In the beginning, they had thrown him glares of disapproval or frowns of apprehension from their red-bricked and limestone houses that dotted this wide dirt path that ran the length of the town. It had only taken them a couple of days to warm up to his attitude. Then they’d started trying to up-sell him fruit juices and shaved ice from their stores. Unfortunately, Derik barely had any left-over pension from his time serving in the Capricornian army due to his unceremonious desertion of duty and he was not an approved Ariesian royal guard either. This meant he wasn’t actively earning a salary. Thus, Olive had started to pay for his expenses out-of-pocket—well, out of his funds from the royal treasury.
‘Freeloader’ had been Olive’s first grumbling thought, but he supposed he was one in a sense too. And after some pondering and sifting through Werner’s fragmented memories of Derik, he’d reconsidered further. He felt pity for Derik: forced by Scorpio to follow a beating, thrumming, pulsating thought. To dedicate and to protect.
Just like Werner.
Olive shrugged uncomfortably at the thought.
That aside, even though Olive had informed all the townspeople here to ignore his status as the Ariesian prince—to which Cadence had reacted with “Why in the world would ya do that?”—he still received deep and respectful bows whenever he strolled the morning streets. He had at first thought of sending them glares for their stubbornness, but then he’d reminded himself that these people were people Trystan knew. After all, this was Trystan’s hometown of Torrine. And so, he had now settled on offering smiles and waves just like the feudal lords back home—except he wasn’t planning to pull one over on everyone here.
Maybe Cadence and Atienna were rubbing off on him.
“Oh, Ollie, there’s a lot of people out today, isn’t there?”
Olive glanced down at Lavi and tightened his hand around hers.
As always, Lavi was spending their morning walk greeting the townspeople as they started their daily activities. She didn’t have a particular order going about her morning salutations. If the first person she saw was the milkman ambling down the path with his signature crates of clinking glass bottles, she’d greet him first with the brightest smile and wildest wave. If it was the local farmer coming in for his morning coffee at the small local diner, she’d offer it instead to him. No favoritism here.
But Lavi was right about there being more people out and about. This small town had started to become crowded with new faces these past couple of weeks. Because of this, Lavi had been able to greet more people and new people with each passing day. These newcomers ranged from men and women in overalls and soot-smudged faces to men and women with large cameras dangling from their necks and clipboards and tape-recorders tucked beneath their arms.
Fortunately, most of them were too charmed by Lavi’s vibrancy to pay Olive any mind. Yes, they could all see Lavi now. Cadence’s illusions and conducting allowed this to happen, allowed Lavi to be seen by everyone like this, allowed her smiles and waves to be reflected back to her, allowed her to be… acknowledged.
Lavi had been overjoyed when she’d received her first wave back from an outsider when they’d done their first trial run of these conducting rings. Olive himself had nearly shed a tear. Truly, without Cadence, this wouldn’t have been possible. Still, whenever he brought it up, the woman always said, “Don’t sweat it, kid. Kinda weird how we didn’t think of this ta begin with, ‘ey?”
There were a lot of things Olive figured he should’ve thought of to begin with. That was just the tip of the iceberg. As he mulled over these things, they neared a log building at the very end of the path. A flock of birds was taking shade beneath the extended roof there, and they fearlessly cocked their heads at him as he approached. Lavi waved enthusiastically at them too before Olive guided her into the building.
Inside, a metal fan was beating on the ceiling. Below this fan sat a large and long table piled with a series of blueprints stained with coffee rings. Several men and women skirted the table—too engrossed in the numbers and structures sketched out on the papers to pay respects. But Olive preferred it that way.
Only one man pulled himself away from the table and approached Olive. The man’s face was sun-beaten, his hair black but graying, his brows thick, his eyes a familiar hazel shade. But Olive’s eyes were not drawn to these features nor the amicability drawn across the man’s face. Rather, his gaze was locked onto the familiar hexagonal, golden badge that hung from a leather string on the man’s neck.
“Prince Chance!” The man beamed as he paced over to Olive’s side.
Derik brushed past the man and stood beneath the whipping fan with a sigh of relief. Sweat was dripping down his face onto the blueprints on the table. He momentarily eyed the badge hanging from the approaching man’s neck before coming to a stand beside Olive.
“I told you to just call me Olive, Mr. Carter,” Olive mumbled, dipping his head. “You—”
“How many more times does he have to tell you not to call him ‘prince’?” Derik snapped, wiping the sweat from his brow. “If I have to listen to him repeat it one more time—“
Mr. Carter raised his hands. “I’m sorry, Olivier. Hard to break the habits.”
“It’s not that big of a deal… How is everything going?” Olive dipped his head again.
It was difficult to meet Mr. Carter’s eyes and to look at the man’s face. Whenever Olive did, all he could think was that maybe this was what Trystan would look like if he had been able to grow old.
It had taken everything in Olive to face Trystan’s parents again after he’d delivered to them the news of their son’s death. He was certain that all the somber gentleness they’d given him the first time they’d met was the result of deeply-ingrained and taught ‘royal respect’ and ‘lower-class humbleness.’ He’d thought that once the reality of Trystan’s passing settled in, they would deservedly hate him and shove him away just as Otto Vogt’s parents had done to Werner all those months ago. Much to his surprise, however, the Carters had both welcomed him with kind and open arms and with no grudges when he’d returned to this small village. They’d even offered him their house— Trystan’s bed —to stay for his time here. It hadn’t been an offer he could refuse without straining their relationship since the town was too small to even have an inn.
Their attitudes and generosity made sense in the end. Only parents like these could’ve managed to raise someone as selfless, kind, dedicated, and progressive as Trystan. ‘Crushed under the weight of ideals’ was how Scorpio had put it. Maybe so. But in the end, Trystan would be remembered—Olive would make sure of it. That way Trystan would never… really die.
Olive glanced at the blueprints and read the Common text blazed across the top of every single one of them.
The Trystan Project. A long-term infrastructure project with an objective to extend out new ley-lines and insulating tubes from Aries’s reservoirs to the countryside of Torrine where vitae reservoirs were sparse. Attracting teachers, educators, and investors to the area was a secondary goal of the project, but to Olive it was the most important goal. A way to set precedent.
While he had come up with the name for the project and took the initiative to start it, Atienna and Werner had helped him refine the 10-pronged plan for its development. Cadence and Jericho had helped him in speaking with the local officials and going through Ophiuchian laws and regulations about the project. Maria had offered her curious enthusiasm.
Although he was happy with the progress and felt a small sense of contentment at the idea that this entire thing was somewhat of a group project that he was sharing with the other five, in the end it still felt like he was supporting the technology that turned Trystan into that. Vitae-conversion. Reservoirs. Using them. Would Trystan approve…?
But right or wrong—that was how politics worked.
There had to be an alternative, Olive ruminated. Not to just the Trystan Project’s provisions, but to vitae—
“—laid down the main insulation tubes. We just have to make sure the ley-lines will be long enough to match them and get the shipments in,” Mr. Carter finished with a nod. “I think we could be done with this by the end of the year!”
Olive hid away his grimace with a nod and small smile.
The end of the year? That was such a long time…
“Change doesn’t happen instantaneously, Olive,” Werner would usually say whenever these thoughts would plague his mind. “This is why protocol and process exist. If change is too rapid without proper procedure then critical issues will emerge in the near future. This is a fact.”
Protocols and processes—lists—seemed to be one of Werner’s favorite things. He seemed to enjoy making them even more now since he’d taken up office at the Capricornian capital. He’d even recently tried to teach Cadence, Jericho, and Olive himself how to create lists to better manage goals and time. Olive had created a bare-bones list just to satisfy the man, and it had become this thus far—
1. Trystan’s hometown
2. Aries’s relationship with Capricorn
5. Gilbert’s Arm
Simple, but a simple approach wasn’t necessarily a bad approach— or so Werner had started saying recently. “Life is hard and becomes harder the longer you live,” was something Trystan had said that went along with that line of thought. “Take it simple goal by simple goal.” One thing at a time.
But it still felt too agonizingly slow. And when things were slow, Olive’s mind strayed to Trystan and Marta as well as… Atienna and Werner.
Olive was rather… concerned about them both. Ever since the incident with Scorpio, they both seemed different. More different than the other three. Of course, before Scorpio, Werner would dole out occasional crumbs of praise and reassurance and Atienna would have bouts of expertly veiled bite and cunning that Olive wouldn’t even notice until after the fact. But recently—Olive himself couldn’t quite put it into words—it seemed as if those aspects of them had become especially noticeable. In a sense, it was almost as if they had switched places somehow in a way that was difficult to explain.
Werner, Atienna. Talib, Scorpio. Lavi, Aries.
“She’s always so energetic—this one,” Mr. Carter said suddenly, drawing away Olive’s thoughts.
Olive followed the man’s gaze down to his sister and found her brimming brightly and waving at the men and women surrounding the blueprints. Lavi’s smile—Olive wanted to do all he could to preserve it.
* * *
“How much vitae are you expelling doing that?” was what Derik asked Olive as soon as he settled into the small table in the diner that Derik had selected.
Olive glanced at Lavi who was seated beside him, then shrugged.
Derik frowned at him then at Lavi before calling over a waitress who flusteredly bowed her head at Olive. Fortunately, the Capricornian drew her attention away with a flirtatious remark and then placed an order of two sausages, four eggs, and two slices of bread.
Still blushing from the man’s words, the waitress politely asked, “Is this for the both of you?”
Derik frowned for a minute before flashing a wolfish grin and stretching out his arms in a way that caused his muscles to bulge. “Well, you can see that’s barely enough to keep me going. Plus the prince is a growing boy.”
Saints. Gross. Derik was painful to be around. And yet still somehow the waitress was blushing.
Derik nodded at him. “What are you ordering, kid?” He glanced at Lavi. “Kids?”
The waitress turned to him expectantly.
Olive still wasn’t quite used to these kinds of interactions. Usually Trystan would order food for him—
Olive grimaced not at Derik but at the returning memory of Trystan. After receiving a brief appearances from Werner and a politeness is important, don’t you think? from Atienna, however, he offered the waitress a smile and ordered three pancakes and two strawberry parfaits. When Olive turned back to Derik, he found the man staring bullets at him.
“Saints. You eat like you want to die. Don’t you feel like shit after you eat that shit? Don’t the others feel like shit?”
The waitress stiffened.
Olive froze, thinking of the two sugars Werner had started taking with his coffee. He frowned and recently cleared his throat. “Actually, could I cancel that order and…” He trailed off as he eyed the waitress who was glancing nervously between them.
“I-I have just the thing!” the waitress stammered before folding away to the back of the restaurant.
Instead of addressing Derek any further, Olive reached out to the others—and they all answered his call. As he felt their synchronizations increase, he could better make out their surroundings in the back of his mind.
A yawning Cadence was scarfing down a slice of bread blanketed with prosciutto in Francis’s exitless room as the Foxmans and their men haphazardly tried to gather the children for lunch. Werner was at his desk and already four hours into his paperwork. Occasionally, he’d set his files down to take a sip of his usual morning cup of black coffee with two sugars. Maria was perched on the bowsprit of her ship and spying on the bustling docks far below her as she listened to the chiming of bells in the distance. In her hand was a warm churro, its warmth and sweetness still sticky on her tongue. The tea Atienna was sipping was equally warm, and the Virgoan continued to sip it as she turned the pages of her encyclopedia on Cancerian agriculture. In the distance on her end, the train’s horn bellowed. Jericho’s side of things was just as noisy. At the moment, he was nibbling on some crackers and sipping apple juice across from fellow Ophiuchian Agent Ferris Hart in the cafeteria area of the Serpens Establishment.
“So how long are you planning to stay in this dump?” Derik asked suddenly, drawing Olive out from his quiet observation of the others. “The only good thing about this place is the women.”
“Right, the women who avoid you,” Olive muttered absentmindedly.
Derik abruptly slammed his fist onto the wooden table, sending the utensils and plates leaping up into the air. “The hell did you say to me?”
Olive startled, heart skipping a beat as the porcelain rattled on the table.
Derik was leaning halfway across the table looking like he was about to throw himself forward. He glowered for a second longer before pulling back. “You don’t have a lick of damn respect, you brat.”
“I don’t have respect?” Olive muttered. “ You came barging into my room without knocking…”
Derik sneered. “Not everyone is going to take your shit. And sometimes when you throw shit, shit gets thrown back. Welcome to the real world.”
“In the real world people go barging down other people’s doors?” Olive arched a brow. “Why do you swear all the time…? We’re in public—”
“Stop being mean to Ollie!” Lavi huffed. “For someone who worked under Werner, you’re very rude…! Shouldn’t you be nicer since Ollie’s paying for everything for you?”
Olive admitted that he’d been pretty rude himself but the fact that Lavi could now hold somewhat of a conversation—even if it was an argument—with someone who knew she was there was such a relief.
Derik arched his brow. “What is she saying?”
Right. Intraneous transmutations only went so far. Although people could see Lavi, they couldn’t hear her.
Olive repeated Lavi’s words with a bit more bite.
Derik merely snorted at Lavi and then sneered at her. “Well, you have a lot of words for someone who can’t even speak them.”
Lavi’s face crumpled slightly before her cheeks puffed with indignation and her eyes narrowed. It looked like she was either about to launch herself across the table at Derik or curl up and cry. Olive was rearing to do the former or at least say—
“Stein, enough.” The words slipped out from Olive’s mouth before he’d even realized he’d said them.
Derik froze, meeting Olive’s gaze and holding it before shrugging and nodding. “Yes, sir.” He then muttered under his breath, “Can’t even win your own damn battles…”
Would you like me to speak further with him?
Olive couldn’t help but pinken at this as he brushed Werner aside mentally. No, no… It’s fine. I should try to get along better with him… even if he’s this.
Good. In the distance, Werner gave a nod of approval. This is a soft skill you should practice and hone on your own. There are times to rely on others and there are times to take initiative. Being able to work with individuals from different backgrounds and command them is a necessity—no matter their disposition.
Olive grumbled internally with embarrassment, unsure if he was at the brunt of a lecture or words of praise. Cadence seemed to take note and began to rattle on inside her head about how she was glad that she didn’t have a hangover from the drunk game of poker she’d played with Allen and Carl the previous night. This immediately diverted Werner’s attention away from him to her.
The waitress brought over their orders not too long after. While Derik immediately began to dig into his hefty platter of food, Olive found himself staring at a plate of six small circular flatter-than-flat flatbreads that were toppled with shredded meat, tomatoes, and cilantros.
“What kind of confused scientist made that?” Derik arched a brow at the plate, sausage half in his mouth.
The waitress cheerily explained, “This is a new dish from a really popular Ariesian chef that we’ve just recently managed to bring to Torrine. If I’m remembering this right, it was inspired by her journey to Leo. It’s called a…. taco! You just fold it and put it in your mouth, Your Highness.” She chuckled. “I’m surprised you haven’t had it yet. I figured you’d be the first in Aries to try it… with respect, of course, my prince… unless you don’t like it?”
“No, it’s fine,” Olive reassured her with Cadence’s and Atienna’s practiced politeness. He offered her a smile. “It’s an interesting recommendation. Unique.”
The waitress relaxed slightly.
Olive looked back down at the taco.
The taco was in Olive’s mouth before he could even process Maria’s thought. He clamped down, chewed, swallowed. The meat was juicy, the tomatoes popping and sweet, the shell soft and warm. It was—
“It’s good,” he noted, somewhat surprised.
Derik grunted, while the waitress brightened and headed off to the back of the restaurant.
Olive put down the taco to study the man. “Look, sorry about what I said… I get that you don’t like it here… But this is Trystan’s hometown. I-I promised him—”
“Yeah, I get that.” Derik rolled his shoulders. “But what I’m trying to say is that you already handed all the work over to the people here and all those contractors. They don’t need you here anymore. Ever heard of being efficient? Didn’t the lieutenan—the captain say anything?”
Begrudgingly, Olive admitted that Derik had a point. Werner had highlighted this fact several times before too, but Olive wasn’t even sure what his next step would be. The Monadic temples for Lavi? Cities that were strong in conductor research? There were too many things to do. An unknown destination. That and Atienna had proposed that perhaps he remain in place for a little while longer to watch over things in Torrine. At least here in Aries it was safe —was her line of thought. Somewhat more away from Scorpio’s possible eyes. Unpleasant, Olive had thought in turn—as Atienna herself would say.
“You like the lieutenant too, don’t you?” Derik asked abruptly. “You gonna try to do anything about the whole Ariesian-tariff-on-Capricorn issue thing? I don’t pay attention to the news, but my dad’s been calling and all he talks about is that. It’s making things hard as hell back home.”
Right… When Derik had first come to Aries with Olive, the man had still been wearing his Capricornian uniform. Despite the uniform being black in color, it seemed to act as a bright yellow warning sign. Derik had received half-glares and concerned frowns whenever he’d walked down the street with it on—all of which he’d returned in kind. Changing his uniform for a more casual blouse and slacks solved the issue, but his Capricornian accent remained thick and head-turning. At least, that was the case outside of Torrine.
“It’s not like I’m not trying to do anything about it,” Olive grumbled. “I mean, I’ve written to my aunt and uncle about it—” With the help of the others. “—but I can’t just barge in and demand them to change things—to ask them to backtrack against Sagittarius—when I haven’t done anything for Aries yet myself…”
“Okay, so all this…” Derik gestured around. “…is to win one over on your aunt and uncle so you can get them to listen to you about the tariff?”
Olive stiffened and then glared at the accusation. He slammed his hand on the table despite himself. “It’s more than that!” Trystan and Marta—
Derik grimaced. “Okay. I get it. Damn dramatic.”
“Ollie…” Lavi murmured beside him.
A stretch of silence passed and Olive was able to hear the faint muszak from the single radio set behind the wine counter at the very back of the dinner. A soft, deep, milky voice rang out behind a familiar saxophone trill.
“Looks like that one artist Alma or something,” Derik noted. “She’s pretty hot.”
Frowning, Olive called over a waiter and asked for the channel to be switched. With a deep bow, the waiter obliged the request and the sultry voice became replaced with faint static.
Thanks, kid, Cadence thought, but ya didn’t have ta do that.
Olive could tell that was a lie.
The static on the radio faded, and a boisterous voice crackled out in Common from the speakers—
“—resuming our daily Ophiuchian chairman election commentary! Unfortunately, Hilton Tyler who is our usual host for this event has retired short of notice! Fortunately, we won’t be missing out on any details of this election due to our new traveling hosts: Louise Kuroihoshi and Hideyoshi Bonnefoy—”
Olive straightened in his chair. What the…?
Well, at least one group of True Conductors is havin’ the time of their lives. Cadence lifted up her slice of bread as if it were a champagne glass. Cheers ta that, Hide.
“Well, my dear introduction-person whose name I don’t remember,” came Hideyoshi’s voice next, “thank you for your wonderful hospitality! You heard it here first! It’s that time of the year!”
“That’s right!” chimed Louise’s breathy voice. “This upcoming weekend marks the official start-y start day of the campaigns and the elections!”
“The first chairs of the twelve departments in Ophiuchus are going to be meeting—”
“—in the Serpens Establishment with their selected temporary vice-chairs to cast the first round of votes! Wow—how exciting!”
“And would you look at that? Mr. Current Head Chairman is actually stepping down from his position. He’s been the incumbent for years now! It looks like Signum will finally be seeing a new head chairman of Ophiuchus for real this time!”
“All of Signum coming together for an event like this—how romantic…”
“Romantic and exciting! Spectacular!” Hideyoshi cleared his throat. “ We’ll be here at the end of the week to update you on how the first round goes, so how about you do a favor for us too?”
The two finished in unison— “Licensed Conductors near and far, don’t you forget to vote!”
“The head chairman election….” Olive pondered before blanching as vague knowledge of the elections rules and proceedings came to him from Werner and Jericho. “Wait, the voting—it’s required…?”
Of course it is.
That was so stupid. It didn’t make sense.
“Shit.” Derik ran his hand down his face. “I forgot about that. Damn.” He dug into his back pocket and pulled out a rectangular plastic slip, which Olive assumed was his conducting license. After scanning it and shrugging, he re-pocketed it. “Eh. The deadline to vote is still far off for me.”
There… was a deadline?
There is a monetary fine if you don’t submit on time, Jericho supplied. So everyone—most of everyone—votes. A guarantee.
A democracy through somewhat forced compliance, Atienna mused. It’s quite ironic… don’t you think?
Olive tensed despite himself.
This is why ya don’t get an official license and just do it under the table, Cadence thought. Too many strings attached.
Part of the responsibility of having a license is complying with this rule. Werner. It’s your first election, Olive, but I assure you there is nothing complicated about it.
Olive swore he could feel the ghost of a hand on his head. He thought, How do you know when it’s your time to vote?
…It was in the information pamphlet you received when your license was mailed to you, Werner replied, an edge coming onto his thoughts as the ghostly hand retracted. I recall telling you to keep it—
Can I vote? Maria interjected, her mouth half-full with chorizo and eggs. She glanced over her shoulder and shouted back to her crew gathered behind her. “I can vote, no? For the Ophiuchian chairman election?” She pointed across the ship at Raul the Chef who Olive could faintly make out delivering seconds to everyone on deck. “And, Raul—tacos! You can make them, yes?”
“You need to have a conducting license to vote,” Jericho replied aloud, earning an arched brow from Ferris across from him. A curt warning from Werner caused him to clear his throat and sip his cartoon apple juice loudly. Those are the rules. When you come to Ophiuchus. Show your license. Vote.
But I can vote? If I sneak in and fake it, yes?
Yes. Technically. Jericho nodded, considering. But it is illegal.
Do you guys know who you’re voting for? Olive tried, hoping to stop Maria’s thoughts from derailing the conversation any further.
Gabrielle, came Jericho’s immediate affirmation.
There was a beat of tension.
Olive nibbled on the outer shell of the taco. Is she… going to be running running? Is she… able to?
She is a first chairwoman now. Of the General Investigations Department. Jericho took another long sip of his carton of juice. Yes. She is able to.
That wasn’t what Olive meant.
Ley? I like Ley! Maria cheered. She is cool, no?
I was thinking of selecting Gabrielle as well since she’s a potential ally, Werner agreed, eyes narrowing. Having her as the head chairman of Ophiuchus would be a better option than having either Leona or—
There was a brief, minute pause in Werner’s line of thought which was another reason why Olive had begun to worry.
—…but given the reach these saint candidates have, it may be a waste of our votes. Werner set down the pen he’d been writing with. Still, it is down to the numbers, so every vote is valuable. We shouldn’t be careless with our choice.
I wonder why he and Leona are in the running, Atienna pondered. The way he was speaking of it made it seem as if Ophiuchus was at the palm of their hands. While I do expect him to play games, Leona doesn’t seem like the type to do so with a free election, don’t you think?
Olive grimaced and felt a pang in his chest from Jericho.
I’m not too good with politics but it’s all about pullin’ wool over the people’s eyes, ain’t it? Make ‘em think they got a choice even though they don’t? Ta make it less suspicious? Cadence suggested. I could try askin’ Francis if ya’d like, but ya know him. I ask him one thing, and he goes on and on and suddenly it’s the next day—not that’s it’s not entertainin’, but I’ve got things ta do now—
I like listening to Francis talk, Jericho interjected.
Cadence spread her arms and winked to the side. I’d welcome ya to come here through a gate and listen ta him in my place, detective, but—
—no, came Werner’s ultimatum. Francis is a valuable ally. We cannot risk endangering him by having Scorpio somehow track you through a gate to him, Jericho.
And there’s the ‘but,’ Cadence popped, lowering her hands and then shrugging. Anyways, ya got any idea what’s up with the whole election thing, detective? Do ya think ya could squeeze the deets from good ol’ Gabe?
Jericho cocked his head in thought. I am not a politician. I don’t know. But I could ask ‘Gabe.’
Have you thought of becoming a politician? Maria pressed. Like Atienna or Ollie, yes—
Oh… I wouldn’t say I’m—
Olive choked on a piece of meat and waved Derik off when the man startled forward. I’m not a politician.
Perfect time ta be a politician though, ain’t it? Cadence chortled, earning a raised brow from Carl across the room from her. I got some info from down the drain pipe and it looks like we’ve got things burnin’ up in Sagittarius, Leo, and Cancer. Changin’ tides are perfect huntin’ ground for those types, yeah?
Given these developments, you should be cautious, Maria, Werner interjected. Being in your hometown doesn’t equate to being safe.
Maria threw her head back and laughed merrily. You worry too much, my dear Werner. She winked and closed her eyes beneath the morning sun rays. She exclaimed—“But for you… I will! I am confirming this for you—saying it out loud!”
There were so many internal exasperated sighs that Olive wasn’t sure which was his.
Atienna cleared her throat and shut her book. Did everyone enjoy their brunch?
As if all was right in the world.
Olive reached for another taco.
* * *
After breakfast, Olive made his rounds through the village. Lavi had not returned since fading away during brunch and the other five had desynchronized to start—rather, to continue —their daily activities. Therefore, all he had was the company of one Derik Stein who would occasionally dole out glares in random directions beneath the burning high noon sun. That didn’t deter any of the stall-runners, of course.
Still, it was rude in Olive’s opinion—especially since this was Trystan’s hometown. But Olive could only allow himself to feel slightly annoyed. It was not too long ago that he would’ve done the same thing.
When he returned to the small Carter cottage in the evening, Miss Carter was already home from her work out in the fields and was bustling around the small square of a kitchen that had walls painted pale yellow. Pots and pans littered the top of the small kitchen counter beside the sink, while a cloud of flour hung in the air.
“Good afternoon, Miss Carter,” Olive greeted her with a slight dip of his head once he’d caught her attention. “Do you need any help?”
“Smells good,” Derik noted.
“No, no, I can’t ask you to help. Thank you though, Olivier.” Miss Carter waved him off as she whipped her hands on her apron. She nodded over to the small square table nestled two steps away by the opposite wall. A pile of envelopes rested there. “You’ve got quite a lot of letters to you this evening. It looks like you’re going to be even busier now.”
After thanking her, Olive paced over to the table and pulled out the three letters addressed to him. One was in a manila envelope sealed with paraffin wax, the second was in cardstock, and the last was in a sky-blue-colored envelope and looking fairly wrinkled. He opened the first one with a hammering chest—
To Dear Olivier,
We were certainly happily surprised to receive a letter from you, although we would appreciate a call from you just as much. We’re sure this period must be very hard for you. Please remember that the royal palace is still your home. Whenever you’re ready to come home or visit, the gates will always be open. Additionally, we are aware that you’ve hired a personal bodyguard outside of Aries to replace—
Olive tensed as he felt his heart crumple. The heavy anchor that he was very familiar with began to drag his chest down once more. After grimacing and letting out a breath, he forced himself to continue reading.
—Honored Head Royal Guard Trystan Carter. While we respect your decision, we would still like to offer our other highly-trained royal guards here if you would like. Your safety is a priority, Olivier. If we sense that you are not well-protected enough, we may send additional guards your way, so please keep us updated on your whereabouts.
To now address the other portion of your letter to us, we would first like to mention our surprise to hear of your interest in Capricorn. Rather, we are surprised to hear that you’re interested in the tariff imposed on the country. Please understand, Olivier, that while we understand the many should not suffer at the hand of the few, we still must honor our relationship with Sagittarius. This may seem cruel to you, dear, but it is necessary. This is how countries and alliances operate. We cannot help everyone. Perhaps when you come onto the throne, you will understand our choice on the matter.
On another note, your ley-line project in Torrine brings us great pride and joy. From the presentations and notes that you’ve sent us, we can tell clearly that you have grown and matured very much since you’ve left the palace. Your thoughts for our people ring loud and clear. We wish this project of yours well and are happy to offer assistance if needed.
Finally, we do have one request from you, Olivier. As you may have heard, the emperor of Sagittarius has been on his sickbed for quite some time now. The royal court has recently received an invitation to send a representative to visit the Sagittarian court as a sign of comfort and solidarity between our two countries. At the moment, we are both quite preoccupied with matters concerning the larger ley-lines. Therefore, we were hoping that you might be able to go in our stead since you are familiar with some of the clans and the country already. If it is too much for you at the moment, please write to us or call us to let us know. We understand.
We think about you every day,
Your Aunt and Uncle
Of course. Stupid. Olive didn’t know why he thought writing to convince them would work. More than anything else, he’d probably just drawn their attention more. The thought of that brought him unease. And now what? An invitation to Sagittarius? For the emperor? While Olive did feel sympathy for the man, he’d also gotten the feeling from Claire that the emperor wasn’t the greatest person. Still…
Grimacing, Olive continued to his next letter.
To Ariesian Crown Prince Olivier Chance,
Your presence is honorably requested at the Royal Courts of Sagittarius this coming weekend February 12th, 1941. The details are attached separately. We look forward to your presence.
Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan
유성 하 늘
Olive resisted crumpling this one up. Not only was it blunt, but it was also obviously another political play by Claire. An invitation from the Seong Clan to the Ariesian prince when the emperor had a foot in the grave and right after a request for a representative from Aries?
Olive peeled open the next letter.
You probably received a super boring, overly formal invitation to visit Sagittarius from me earlier. I’m hoping that you opened this letter before you opened that one, but I’m assuming you didn’t, so I’m just going to apologize for that here. It’s all formality that we have to go through.
I really need to speak with you. There’s an important matter we should discuss. I’m referring to the topic we were discussing before I boarded the train. Fellow True Conductors should support each other, shouldn’t they? I do miss you too, of course.
See you soon hopefully,
Olive scowled and crumpled the letter.
Didn’t Claire know how to be discreet? What if someone had opened and read the letter? It would’ve been preferable if he’d sent it in code at least. That aside, ‘miss you too’—really? Who did Claire think he was convincing?
After a pause, Olive uncrumpled the letter and reread it.
The tone of the letter itself was upbeat, but appearances were deceiving. Firstly there was the ‘important matter’ that Claire had mentioned point-blank, then there was the fact that this entire development involved Claire’s ill father. Even if there was some bad history between Claire and the emperor, family ties were like iron shackles. This was something Olive knew from his own experiences as well as the memories of the other five.
Olive pondered on the fact that Claire was still cheerful and friendly to him even though his status as a True Conductor had been discovered because of him. The Sagittarian had even been dragged along down into the depths of Capricorn and had his life put in danger while helping him and Werner’s men. While Olive knew that Claire had his own personal motivations during that time, it still was a give-and-take relationship. Correction: friendship.
Olive snorted—“friendship”? Well…Maybe.
He shook his head and folded the letter with a frown.
And maybe… there was an opportunity here. To help the Captain. If he couldn’t get his aunt and uncle to remove the tariff directly, maybe he could do it indirectly instead. Perhaps by involving himself with Claire, he could somehow convince Sagittarius to reconsider its standing with the tariffs which would then prompt Aries to reconsider it too. Olive disliked how underhanded, dishonest, and convoluted the idea was but that was politics.
Grimacing, Olive started to go over his to-do list in his head.
1. Trystan’s hometown
2. Aries’s relationship with Capricorn
5. Gilbert’s Arm
7. The Chairman Elections
His mind spun with new and overwhelming additions to the list. There was too much to do and not enough time—
1. Trystan’s hometown ley-line implementation. Physical presence is unneeded for the current stage of the process. Absence acceptable.
2. Aries’s relationship with Capricorn and Sagittarius and consoling Claire. Presence needed in regards to Claire and potential alliance development with True Conductors; possibly a priority.
3. Gilbert’s arm and additional research. Can be done concurrently with other points.
4. Monadism and Lavi research. Can be done concurrently with other points.
5. Conducting License. A one-time event that will not take much time, but should be attended to.
Efficiency, Werner interjected, coming in at a medium-level synchronization. In the distance, Olive could see the man signing off on a stack of files at his desk. These goals can be easily coupled together and handled simultaneously. A pause. Thank you for your assistance with Gilbert and Capricorn, although the point with Capricorn need not be a priority at the moment. You need to hold your safety first
Werner always synchronized at the right time, Olive thought as he nodded slowly and flushed with slight embarrassment. I should be thanking you… Werner, but you… you know… don’t have to help me all the time. I mean, like you said. I need to learn how to figure it out on my own. I appreciate it—
I… apologize for my intrusion.
Slight embarrassment curled inside Olive’s chest at the statement — which was something else that had changed. A good or bad change—Olive didn’t know.
But you’re correct: this is a skill you should also develop on your own if you somehow temporarily lose contact with us like during the incident last year. Although a situation may seem unsurmountable, all that is needed is the right method of approach.
And there it was. That reassurance that maybe everything was steady, that maybe everything was manageable. And so for a moment, with that reassurance, everything was okay.
Right… I got it. Thanks—
A burst of excitement rushed out from Olive’s heart to his head and limbs, and a smile cracked across his face.
It is time for an adventure, yes? This is exciting! —although Maria was far and her synchronization low, he could always feel her strongly.
Olive locked eyes with Derik and said with an air of confidence, “We’re going to Sagittarius.”
Derik clapped once. “Fucking finally.”
* * *
After bidding Mister and Miss Carter an assuredly temporary farewell, graciously thanking them for their hospitality, and then delegating responsibilities around Torrine, Olive packed his belongings and his conductors in his suitcases and headed to the train station just outside of the town. Derik, as always, only helped with about half the luggage.
“You need to build some damn muscles,” he said, like always.
The train ride to Sagittarius was awkward. Olive was used to rattling on about his recent research and conductors to an attentive Trystan and then switching to listen to Trystan pontificate about the trials and tribulations of his corner of Aries. There was a sense of mutual respect there that Olive had enjoyed—especially since Trystan had actually sounded interested in his conductor ramblings. Trystan had been the second-best listener to his conductor ramblings, with Marta being the first.
But Derik was different. The man spent the train ride snoring loudly with his head half-hanging off the back of the seat. Whenever he would wake up, he’d just glance out the train window and either grunt and fall back asleep or flirt with the stewardess if she came on by.
Although Olive was as annoyed by the behavior as he usually was, this feeling was submerged by the pityhe felt towards the man. Forced into wanting to do something. But perhaps it was better that Derik was away from the borders now. Scorpio’s eyes could be anywhere, so keeping close was better, wasn’t it? And perhaps all that pity was up to perspective. It often turned out that those pitied were often leading contented and happy lives—sometimes even happier lives than the ones who pitied them. It could be both a good and a bad thing—the events that had developed with Derik.
Atienna… Olive realized before he reached out to her further. But what about Werner?
We’ll be here for him, Atienna answered him directly—although he could not feel her fully.
Her words were not as comforting as they used to be.
* * *
Thousand Name City, Sagittarius
The whistling the wind made as it snuck in-between all of the low-rise buildings and the grooves of their clay roof tiles brought with it heavy nostalgia. The crisscrossing tracks for the v-trams were bare of their locomotives, however; and the cable wires that hung above them swung noisily in the silence of the square. No students buttoned up in sailor uniforms riding on bicycles and no small v-ehicles trudging along either.
So this country was changing too, Olive thought as he took in the lonely scenery.
A chill tickled the back of his neck, and he shivered briefly as he set his luggage down on the ground.
“Damn. You’re weak.”
Olive turned to find Derik sneering at him from behind. He resisted scowling in turn. He couldn’t wrap his head around why in the world Derik was acting like he hadn’t been sobbing and sweating beneath normal Ariesian sunrays just the other day. With effort, however, Olive held his tongue.
Derik sneered at him just a second longer before reaching into the satchel hanging off his back. He pulled out a coat and tossed it at him. Olive caught it and tried not to look at the man’s eyes as he slipped it on.
Before any awkward conversations could occur, the synchronous stomp, stomp, stomp of marching footsteps reached Olive’s ears. He briefly recalled the stomp, stomp, stomp of marching through the muddy trenches south of the Capricornian border as he turned to find a medium-sized group of Sagittarians approaching him from down the empty, dusted road.
Yuseong Claire, First Prince of the Seong Clan, air Elementalist, and bonafide True Conductor, stood at the front of the approaching group. He was dressed in familiar silk garments with a rimmed hat strung with hanging beads. He would’ve looked just as he’d looked when he’d first revealed himself in the Ariesian throne room months ago if it weren’t for the deep black color of his garments. At his side walked Yuseong Eunji who was dressed in crisscrossing garments tied with a bow. Her hair was tamed into a reserved braid, and she only looked up to meet his eyes once.
Beside the two of them stood Felix and Soha, identifiable only by their masks. Although it wasn’t raining, they held out paper umbrellas above Claire’s and Eunji’s heads.
They were all dressed for a funeral even though the emperor was still alive. Odd.
“Hey…” Olive said awkwardly. “It’s good to see you, Claire, Eunji… Soha, Felix.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Derik sizing Felix up.
“You came, Olive…” Claire returned, expression tight. He glanced briefly at Derik with curiosity before he bowed stiffly at Olive. “Thank you.”
Eunji, Soha, Felix, and his other servants mirrored the gesture.
The formality caused Olive’s chest to tighten, but he dipped into an equivalent bow as customary. When he pulled himself back up, he tried, “Are… you okay? How’s your dad? And, saints—you don’t need to bow… geeze.”
Claire’s eyes glinted as he slowly pulled himself up. “The emperor has been bedridden these past couple of months. The Seong Clan and the nation of Sagittarius thank you for your presence here. In a tumultuous time like this, the reassurance of Aries’s relationship with Sagittarius presents appreciated solid ground.”
Olive resisted grimacing and straightened himself. “Yes. Of course.”
“I also apologize for not writing recently.”
“You barely wrote to begin with,” Olive muttered before he could stop himself. “No need to start.”
Finally, Claire’s grim expression broke into a faint smile. “Hey, what are you talking about? I wrote to you plenty of times. I guess all the mail carriers have been getting a bit frazzled lately with the elections, Leo and Cancer, and Aquarius and Capricorn, and all that.”
“I think Aries and Sagittarius are more than just ‘all that.’”
Claire blinked and then chuckled. “Whoops. I guess you’re right. It’s hard to see situations from an outside perspective when you’re inside that situation yourself.”
“Oh, about what I said in my letter—”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat, and he glanced behind Claire at his vassals. “Should we really be talking about it here?”
“Well, why not?” Claire’s smile dipped slightly. “When I showed my father those pictures, do you know what he said to me?”
The pictures of the files regarding the Capricornian Alles Für Alle Project. Vitae conversion. Vitae energy levels. The entire package.
“You’re making me not want to know what he said…” Olive grumbled, looking back at the vassals then at Eunji. “Why are you always so dramatic…? At least whisper…”
Claire merely kept his smile and said, “The emperor told me this: ‘If you ever stand where I’m standing on this throne, you’ll know everything.’”
Olive paused, a sense of apprehension crawling up his spine and unease squeezing his stomach. “What… What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, Ollie. I don’t know,” Still smiling, Claire gestured behind him down the road. “Shall we get settled now?”
Seamus Dolby, First Chairman of the International Relations Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “A Truly United Signum.”
The Trystan Project is a 10-pronged infrastructure and quality-of- life promotion project instilled by Ariesian Crown Prince Olivier Chance in the year 1941. It aims to increase the amount of vitae supplied to extraneous villages on the edges of Aries by supporting the development and implementation of ley-lines and insulation tubes connecting the country’s main reservoirs to these areas. An additional provision of this project is to increase the state of conductors in these out-skirting towns and to promote education and funding in tandem.
The first town of implementation is noted to be the mountainous town of Torrine.