3.1: Chance Detection

Re-cap:

Having slipped out from the watchful eye of his royal guards, Prince Olivier Chance falls asleep at a conductor store and awakens to Claire, a foreigner who requests Olive’s assistance in finding a conductor. Before the destination is reached, they are ambushed by two assassins seemingly after Olive’s life. Olive frightens off the assassins with his mysterious ability to conduct without a conductor and survives the night. The strange Claire is nowhere to be seen in the aftermath, and Alexander Charming is removed from his position of head royal guard due to his negligence. Afterwards, Olive encounters Gabrielle Law and Wtorek Izsak who have been sent to investigate his assassination attempt. He knows them well because it was at the Tragedy of Aries that they…

New Ram City, Aries

“We must allocate our funds to the military!”

“Oh please! What for? So you can waste more money on elaborate uniforms? They already look like walking art pieces! That’s not what the people need to see in this time of crisis! They need reassurance and answers!”

“If anything, that just proves the Investigation Bureau needs the funds!”

“The Investigation Bureau? With Ophiuchus around, the Bureau’s existence is pointless. It’d be better to dissolve it all together!”

Their words bounced around the room, not quite hitting their mark nor their target. A useless debate. Just like all the other debates before it. Olive had memorized their entire routine. Right after a jab at the IB—

“What? That’s ridiculous! You’re putting the royal family’s safety at stake by doing that! Do you not care at all about the prince?”

—there would be a remark about protecting the royal family. In this case, specifically him: the deadbeat nephew of the king and the queen. Olive, the king, and the queen sat in a row at the very center of the wall across from officials who were seated in a U-formation.

It wasn’t like any of them wanted to help him. He wasn’t egotistical enough to think that they needed to or that they were obliged to. But the fact was none of them wanted to help Aries either. All they wanted to do was line their pockets. Well, maybe they did need the money. Needed it to fill their mansions and groom the lands titled to them when they took up office as feudal lords.

But he didn’t care. Not really. Even if he did, none of his caring would matter. In the end, whatever changes they managed to get through today would probably be undone by some successor further down the line.

Why he even had to sit and watch them go at it went over his head. His uncle had said something about showing up for the people. But these weren’t people. These were politicians.

And politicians aren’t people?

Something tickled the back of his throat at the sudden thought. A laugh. He almost choked on it but covered it with a cough.

If they’re people, then humanity is screwed, he returned.

A flicker of black out of the corner of his eye interrupted his thoughts. Lavi. She stood at the center of the room with her hands pressed against her ears, head tilted upward, eyes closed. The v-light sprinkling down from the chandelier above them painted her cheeks with dapples of white and blue.

“Can you hear it?”

Olive uncurled from where he sat as a chill crept up his spine.

Her eyes opened slowly, lashes catching onto the light. Slowly, she lowered her hands and met his eyes. “The pulse of the syzygy. Everything is aligning now. There’s no turning back. True peace is—”

“Lavi…?”

“Is there something you’d like to comment on, Olive?”

Olive turned his head and found his uncle’s eyes boring into him. Not only his uncle’s eyes but everyone’s eyes. Their gazes prickled his skin.

He glanced back to the center of the room. She was gone.

“I need to use the restroom.”

* * *

Olive didn’t think he would walk down a hallway and hear only one pair of footsteps ever again. He glanced over his shoulder as he drifted down the palace corridor. Trystan was keeping at his shadow. The man’s left hand rested on the conductor at his hip, and his gaze swept from the floors to the windows to the ceiling, as if he’d find some shadowy assassin clinging to the walls like a spider. What they found at the end of the hall was, however, not a spider. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek?”

“Hey, Olive!” The peacekeeper waved as he approached them. He nodded at Trystan. “Mr. Carter.”

Trystan fumbled for a moment and offered a deep bow before he was stopped halfway by a hand on the shoulder.

“No need for that.” Wtorek waved him off. “It makes you look guilty.”

Trystan froze. “I―”

Izsak chuckled. “Don’t worry. I know a good kid when I see one.”

Trystan stiffened, and Olive smirked.

“Of course, I’m talking about you too, Olive.”

Olive frowned, and he heard Trystan cover a snort with a cough.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Wtorek?” Olive pressed as politely as he could.

“Well, I was actually looking for you.”

“Looking for me?”

“Yeah, Gabrielle’s finishing the interviews for the day, and I thought I’d dip out early.”

That didn’t sound responsible.

“I wanted to have a chat,” Izsak finished. He glanced at Trystan. “Just the two of us―”

Immediately, Trystan stepped forward. “With all due respect, Mr. Wtorek, as the new head royal guard, I cannot leave the prince’s side―”

But Izsak was already steering Olive away. “It’s just for a minute. I promise I’ll return him happier than before.”

Before Trystan could say anything more, they were already rounding the corner.

Izsak led Olive through the halls and up several staircases with the flair of a tourist guide despite the fact that Olive knew the building better than him. But Olive let him at it. There was no use fighting against it, anyways. That was what he thought until the halls began to look unfamiliar to him. The intricate paintings of royal families past had disappeared from the walls and had become replaced by stiff guards who eyed Olive and Izsak’s sash at their passage.

It wasn’t that Olive was unfamiliar with this place. Rather, he’d done everything in his power to avoid it. But before Olive could formulate a proper escape plan, they were already in front of a sturdy set of twin doors that looked so heavy that they seemed impossible to push open.

There were six guards stationed in front of the door, each of whom raised their conductors at their approach.

Izsak pointed to his sash before flashing his Ophiuchian badge. The guards stiffened before joining together to push the doors open. The metal door groaned against the marble flooring, and the guards were left panting at the effort.

Izsak gave Olive a wink over his shoulder like it was all part of some ruse before ushering Olive inside. Stepping into the room was like walking out from the coolness of the mansion into the blazing heat of midafternoon. The air felt thick and muddy, oversaturated but electrifying. Olive wasn’t sure whether breathing was more akin to drowning or suffocating. But he forgot his discomfort as soon as he saw it.

The cylinder rose up in a mess of tubing and wires before them like a mountain. It hummed with life, and white light pulsated through the glass veins that crisscrossed around its body. At its feet was a glowing lake of light that seemed to have no bottom.

The sight of the vitae reservoir made Olive’s stomach churn.

Izsak walked up to the long railings that circled around the device. Hesitantly, Olive joined him. On the wide strip of cement that filled in the space between the rails and the vitae reservoir, a handful of Conductors were rushing back and forth. Probably doing everything they could to ensure the generator conductor continued to run smoothly.

“You’re probably wondering why I brought you here,” Izsak hummed, leaning against the rails. He studied the cylinder with a frown. “It looks terrifying up close, doesn’t it? Hard to imagine this is the conductor that powers a quarter of Aries.”

Olive glanced at the man.

“Even harder to imagine that just six years ago this thing was in a pile of ashes.”

The statement was a slap to the face.

“I couldn’t believe it at first, when I heard,” Izsak continued. “That ELPIS would do all of those terrible things just to try and destroy this conductor. The Tragedy of Aries―all of those lives―just for this.” A dry laugh. “Then again, we did fight an eighteen-year war over vitae reservoirs. Makes you sort of wonder if we’d be better off without all of this.”

“If you want to give a history lesson, then you should’ve become a teacher. You might be better at it than a peacekeeper,” Olive said despite himself. He paused as his words resounded in his ears. “I mean…” He trailed off as he eyed Izsak.

Izsak wasn’t smiling but he wasn’t frowning either. His eyes were trained on the conductor looming before them. “I was thinking of becoming a teacher, actually, during the war. But after it was over and done with, I thought it’d be too easy on me if I did that.”

“Too easy?”

Izsak gave a wry chuckle. “I wasn’t too proud of the things I did during the war, and I’m still not proud. But at the time I was young and thought I deserved some sort of punishment in exchange for all the things I did. Gave up my dream and became a peacekeeper as some sort of convoluted retribution. Who knows if that was the right decision?”

Olive tensed. He felt exposed.

“But hey, it’s not all bad,” Izsak continued, “Elizabeta and I had Csilla, and our darling little girl almost became a saint candidate.” A sigh of pride.

Olive could almost understand the feeling.

“My sister was almost a saint candidate too,” Olive mumbled. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it, but his chest felt a bit lighter when he did. He hated the feeling.

“Your sister was almost a saint candidate? I see… Well, I’m sure when you complete your State Conducting Exam, you’ll be pretty great too.”

Completing the Exam? Olive couldn’t even think that far ahead.

Izsak let out a sudden sigh. “Well, our conversation got derailed like usual.” He faced Olive and gestured to the conductor. “I wanted to bring you here to show you this.” Pushing up his glasses, he met Olive’s eyes. “Even if something is burnt to the ground, it still can be rebuilt as long as there’s at least one person willing to rebuild it.” Izsak pulled away from the railings and reached for him. “Let’s just say I recognize that look in your eye.”

Olive didn’t like what Izsak was implying but allowed the man to squeeze his shoulder. Resisting someone like Izsak took too much effort. It was better to let them think that their words would change things.

* * *

Izsak led Olive back to the hall where Trystan still stood waiting. The peacekeeper didn’t linger long, conjuring both of them stuffed animals before departing with a wave.

Before Trystan could ask about anything, Olive threw his animal into the man’s hands and headed into the bathroom at the end of the hall.

Olive shut the door behind him. He ambled forward and glanced at the bathroom stalls before bypassing them and approaching the mirror. He glared at his reflection for a moment, then turned on the sink to splash his face with hot water. He remained there, gripping the edge of the sink as he stared into the steam rising up.

A creak drew his attention and it was followed by a flicker of black from the corner of his eye.

He straightened and turned. “Lavi—”

His words died in his throat as a shadow spilled out from the window that now stood ajar. A silhouette perched there. Black against white.

Olive barely had the time to take a step back before the figure lunged forward, pinning him against the sink and clamping a hand over his mouth. The steam rising from the sink provided a cloak of concealment for the intruder, but Olive had already seen it. Seen his assailant’s face. It was—

“Claire…?”

His assailant stiffened before pushing past the cloud of steam. “Olive…?”

“What the—why are you—what are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Claire whispered in turn.

There was such an earnest expression on his face that Olive had to take a moment to digest it before he scowled and snapped: “This is the royal palace. I’m royalty. Do you need more clarification—”

“Is everything all right, your highness?” Trystan’s voice was barely audible above the rush of water.

Olive reached over to turn off the faucet and didn’t even glance at Claire as he answered, “Everything’s fine. You’ve already got the position as head royal guard. Are you really trying to climb up further now? I may be the prince, but you really need to be sucking up to other people. I can’t change anything.”

“That’s—I…” Trystan fell silent.

Olive turned back to Claire and shrugged the young man’s hands off his shoulders. “Stop looking like that. It’s annoying. I don’t want to be involved in whatever this is. Just get out of the palace now.”

Claire took a step back, hands raised. “You don’t want to know why I’m here?”

Olive dusted his sleeves and crossed his arms. “Like you want to tell me. With how you ran off the other day, I doubt it’s something that’ll be good for you or for me.”

“Okay, I have an explanation for tha—”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Okay, the truth is—”

“I said I didn’t want to hear it—”

“I’m in this country illegally.”

Olive paused.

“I sneaked past the borders and I don’t have any papers on me.”

A long stretch of silence passed.

“But you have to understand. I’m here for a reason—”

“This isn’t a confessional,” Olive said. “And that’s what all the illegal aliens say.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “So is that why you approached me? Want me to magically wave my hands and make all of your problems go away?”

Claire stiffened and shook his head while waving his hands. “No, no, no, no, I had no idea, honestly.” He paused, met Olive’s eyes, and gestured hesitantly at him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you didn’t really seem like the type. You don’t act regally. No offense.” He started waving his hands again. “I didn’t even know you’d be here. Really!”

Olive said nothing.

In the silence, Claire seemed to crack. “Okay, there’s this guy who promised to forge papers for me if I got him something from the royal palace. It’s this red vase thing.” Claire mimicked the shape with his hands. “Apparently, it’s a super valuable artifact, and I heard a rumor that it might be here so I… yeah.”

Olive looked him up and down. “Are you… suicidal? Stupid?”

“I….”

“Get out.”

Claire opened his mouth but then resigned himself to silence. He made it to the window.

That’s not very exciting, is it? Just letting him go like that.

Exciting? Who the hell cares if it’s exciting, Olive thought

—but then a sensation cracked open in his chest and expanded outward. It twisted deep in the pit of his stomach and before he could even put a name to it, he was already extending a hand.

“Wait—”

Claire, one foot already on the windowsill, paused and turned his head. He looked torn between confusion and fear but held steady.

“The Ramicus.”

Claire’s brows furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“That’s what the pot is called. The red one you’re talking about. They say that our Ancestor brought it from her homeland when she first came to Signum,” Olive elaborated. “I’m not going to forge documents for you, but I don’t mind giving you the urn. It’s ugly and everyone’ll be secretly happy it’s gone anyways.”

“I…” Claire stepped down from the sill. “I’m confused… Do you really mean that…? I—but why…?”

“That must be your favorite word.” Olive grimaced. “Don’t they teach you ‘don’t question good things that come your way’ in your country?”

“I… thank you,” Claire managed. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, first the conductor and now this.” He took a step forward. “Please let me thank you somehow. Oh, I know! I can treat you to something. You probably have eaten everywhere in the city already but still—”

“I’m not leaving the palace without my guards.”

Claire faltered and then chuckled. “O-Oh, right… Of course. You’re royalty. It’d probably be weird if you went out with someone like me.”

“It’s not that.” Olive glanced back at the door. “It’d be too much of a pain to deal with all the increased security. I already tested my luck yesterday.”

Claire was silent. And then he dug into his satchel and presented Olive with a rice ball. Olive had tried the food before when a traveling chef from Sagittarius visited the palace, but that had been a long time ago.

“How about I treat you here? It’s not much, I know. But it’s still something.”

“Is it poisoned?”

“What?”

Before Claire had the chance to form a coherent sentence, Olive grabbed the rice ball out of his hands and joined him at the windowsill. He sat down on the protruding terrace and bit into the ball. He chewed thoughtfully as Claire settled down beside him with a rice ball of his own.

A comfortable silence passed.

Then Olive asked, “Why are you trying to sneak into Aries in the first place? Getting your papers isn’t that hard if you’ve got the money. And you look like you’ve got the money.”

“I thought you said you didn’t want to know.” It was hard to tell whether he was being sarcastic or earnest.

“Fine, don’t tell me.”

“I’m looking for something here. It’s important. I just didn’t have enough time to go through all that paperwork.”

“If you’re going to be vague about it, I don’t see why you even bother saying it,” Olive grumbled. “What’s the point of not getting to the point?”

Claire stared for a beat before he chuckled. “It’s just difficult to explain… it’s not something physical.”

Olive harrumphed. “So I was wasting my time finding you a conductor.”

Claire flushed. “Oh, well. I mean, I did need one.” He paused, turning to stare out at the horizon. “But this thing I need… it’s something that you’d expect to get everywhere, but…”

“Are you a deaf poet?”

Claire shrugged. After a beat, he asked, “Don’t you get bored of staying inside here all the time?”

“I’ve never been outside of the Capital.” Olive shrugged. “Hard to know what you’re missing when you never experience it. Which is why you shouldn’t experience it. People who go out there just increase the number of things they realize they’re missing, and then they keep going out to try and fill in what they’re missing, but it’s just an endless cycle.”

“Wow, it must be fun to be you.”

“You’re still here though. You must be a masochist,” Olive replied.

“So this is what men do when they’re in the restroom together. I’ve always wondered.”

A gentle voice wafted in from behind, causing Olive to snap up and whip his head around. He swept the bathroom as a familiar sensation crept up his spine and clouded his mind. Déjà vu…?

The bathroom was empty. Occupied only by the remnants of steam from earlier. Nothing out of the ordinary. The cool wind that drifted in from the outside had begun to clear up the fogged mirror above the sink. Olive stared at it for a moment in confusion, and as the blurriness receded to the corners of the reflective surface, he did a double-take.

Captured there was not a reversed image of the bathroom’s interior, but an entirely different scene. An open window frame. A white window frame with a white flower box at its lip and a white windowsill on which a young woman had propped her elbows. A young woman who offered him a pleasant, thin smile as their eyes met. As if nothing about their situation was odd.

The more Olive looked at the mirror, the more it looked like a window. Flowery vines spilled out from the flower box and into the sink. Sunlight bounced off the glass windowpanes and splattered the flowers with droplets of light. It looked like a painting.

“W-What is it?” Claire whispered. He was craning his neck to peer inside the bathroom.

Olive glanced at him and then back at the mirror. Claire’s words confirmed his suspicions: this was something that he could only see. Like the woman from that night. Like Lav—

“It’s nothing,” Olive said, turning away and tapping his foot. He took another large bite out of the rice ball and swallowed without tasting it.

A soft chuckle resounded from behind again. “I’m not sure how, but I get the feeling that you’re in a tense situation right now. You must be very daring to spend time alone with someone you’ve just met while also turning your back on another person you’ve just met. Is this what they call bravery or is this what they call loneliness?”

Olive craned his neck just enough so that he could send the woman a glare. A glare which he soon found himself redirecting to the wall just beside the mirror-window when the woman smiled. It wasn’t that the woman had an unpleasant smile or a creepy one—in fact, it was a very beautiful one. But something about it seemed unnatural.

“It’s a good thing,” she said, now smiling with her eyes. “Many psychologists believe that human beings are social creatures, so I think it’s very natural to feel lonely. I’ve always wondered if people who never feel lonely have somehow evolved beyond the need for that. Or perhaps it’s a devolution? Sorry, I’m rambling now.”

Was that an insult or a compliment? Was any of that even directed at him?

There was a long stretch of silence, and the woman’s smile tipped downward. Her eyes, on the other hand, softened with an understanding that usually would have caused Olive to grit his teeth. Somehow, however, he could almost feel—understand—the sentiment behind her expression. Almost apologetic.

“You seem like you’re the one who’s lonely,” he said.

The woman’s eyes did not brighten, but the corners of her lips turned upward again. “You don’t seem very alarmed by my presence.”

“You’d have to beat pipe-swinging lady’s entrance if you wanted to alarm me,” Olive grumbled, facing forward again, but keeping the woman in the corner of his eye. “Anyways, I’m not a stranger to being messed up in the head, so nothing can surprise me.”

“P-Pipe-swinging lady?” Claire muttered beside him in confusion. “I don’t think you’re messed up in the head. I…” He glanced at the mirror. “I, uh… I talk to myself a lot too. A lot of people do. It’s actually a sign of intelligence, you know?”

Olive stared at him. “Right. Thanks for the pep talk.”

“I don’t think I’ve met this ‘pipe lady’ yet, but I’ve met the one called Cadence and the one called Werner,” the woman continued from her windowsill. She reached out and gently touched the lip of a flower that bloomed on one of the vines. “On another note, the human brain is frighteningly complex. Even the greatest researchers don’t completely understand what’s considered normal for a person’s mind. So, for you to say with that level of certainty that I’m a symptom of this ‘messed up head’ of yours—well—you must be smarter than them.”

“You really like to talk, don’t you?”

The woman chuckled at this, and Olive wondered how in the world he kept encountering people who laughed at pointed insults.

“Well… I think I am a little bit extroverted,” Claire replied. “But I’ve been trying to tone it down recently…”

Olive glanced at him and then looked back at the woman.

“I suppose you’re right to say I’m lonely,” she said. “Although it’s self-inflicted. I’ve been wondering recently: perhaps I’m a bit of a sadist? Or would that be a masochist?”

Olive felt something tickle in his chest at that statement. An almost dry laugh. Which was embarrassing. He side-glanced at Claire to check if he’d seen the slip, but Claire was focused solely on the horizon. Olive followed his gaze and then froze.

It was Lavi. She was here again. Standing at the very edge of the roof.

Olive came to a stand immediately, startling Claire beside him.

“Wow…” came the flower woman’s response. “I think this is the first time I’ve experienced more than two of us speaking like this to each other. This is something amazing.”

Then it clicked.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. No, he felt his heart stop altogether.

She could see Lavi…?

Of course, she could see her. It was only natural. They were both swirling around in his mind, after all. Just like Lavi could see his hallucinated pipe-swinging woman from the other night, this hallucination could also see Lavi. Hallucinations were aware of hallucinations. It made sense. But even so—

It was pathetic. Olive knew it was pathetic to feel this emotion rising in his chest after so many years, but he couldn’t stop himself from feeling it. From acting on it.

“You can see her?” Olive whispered, whipping his head around and gesturing to where Lavi stood. His voice sounded unnatural in his own ears. “You… can see Lavi?”

“See who?” Claire’s voice resounded faintly in the background.

The woman in the mirror was no longer smiling with her lips nor her eyes. She seemed to be analyzing his expression. She straightened herself and peered into his face and then glanced at Lavi again. “Yes, of course, I can see her.”

It really was pathetic. How just four words could make that stupid, worthless, embarrassing feeling surge. That hope.

“You—” He stepped onto the windowsill breathlessly and—

And then there was pain. A sharp, pulsating pain erupted like fire. It came so suddenly and so forcefully that for a moment, he thought he’d been shot again. He looked toward the window bewildered but was only met with Claire’s own bewildered gaze.

“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.

He wasn’t sure if he screamed or cried or swore, but a second later he was on the ground shaking.

Distantly, someone called out a familiar name—

“Olive!”

He blinked once. Twice.

The bathroom around him twisted, swallowed up by an entirely different scenery. Somewhere gray and drab. Somewhere wet.

He was on the ground. On an unfamiliar hard, cold concrete floor. Red spilled out from somewhere and pooled at his fingertips. A cloak of white swooshed just beyond his line of sight. In the distance, a familiar voice called out a familiar name—

“Jericho!”

And then there was black.

“The morning of July 12th. A sunny day without a cloud in the sky. Helena Duncan, a fruit stall owner operating on the outskirts of New Ram City, says she heard loud booms in the direction of the royal palace. Moments later, the palace was ablaze and all power to the city and nearby towns was lost. 

[…]

The details are just coming in now, but the Ophiuchian Agents on the scene have strong evidence that this was an ELPIS machination and the target was the grand generator conductor. The true damage is difficult to discern due to the damage from the fire. Seventy-eight people have been reported missing, and twenty-three have been confirmed as dead including the royal king and royal queen and the princess. The country weeps at their passing, but hold hope in the prince who was found alive and remains in critical care. 

This is a day we shall not forget. A tragedy for Aries.”

Excerpt from the Ariesian Tuesday Serial, 1935

2.[]: Boy in the Capital

“Hm. Yes, that boy. The foreigner. Claire. He’s very well-mannered. He says he’s here searching for something. Something he can only find here. I don’t have a clue what that is. The heat maybe?”

Sarah Apples, Fruit Stall Owner in New Ram City

New Ram City, Aries

The dawn air had soaked up much of the late-night rain and hung heavy with humidity. Even with the breeze circling around him, he was sweating. While the sky-blue cloak drawn over his head protected his dark hair from drinking in the sun’s rays, it also trapped him in his own sweltering body heat.

How Ariesians could tolerate these blazing temperatures astounded him.

The downtown marketplace was just beginning to awaken, and all the Ariesian small-time business owners threw open their windows and greeted the scathing heat with either a hearty, determined nod or enthusiastic smile.

An older woman with deeply tanned skin and wisps of gray hair hidden beneath a faded kerchief was opening a fruit stall to his left. He approached her with a friendly smile and after some bargaining, he managed to get a pound of peaches for five common-coins. The units of measurement in Aries always confused Claire. They were the only country in Signum that preferred using imperial to metric.

Regardless, the peaches were a bargain. Smaller stores often preferred their native currency—in this case, the flimsy Ariesian bill—over common-coin and tended to charge higher on foreign currency. He thanked the woman with a bow before retreating to the shade provided by a tarp canvas pulled over a jewelry stall. There he sat on a crate and bit into a peach as he watched the dawning buzz of the marketplace evolve into a daybreak bustle.

He couldn’t help but smile as he watched a child around the age of twelve—who was helping her parents transport crates of spare conductor parts—pause and bask in a sudden gust of wind. The wind swirled through her dark hair before coming up to meet him where he sat.

Conductors… What was it that Olive had said the night before? A conductor with a strong insulator? Yes, that did make sense conceptually.

He took another bite of his peach and chewed thoughtfully.

Olive Chance. Olivier Chance. Ariesian prince.

He scanned the crowd and rolled the peach in his palm, nearly dropping it when he spotted the very subject of his thoughts amongst the masses of colorful cloaks and twirling umbrellas. A cloak of deep red shrouded the prince’s dark head in shadow, but those green eyes were unmistakable. Behind Olive trailed two men dressed in uniform, metallic and red. The red seemed to part the crowd of the bazaar like waves.

A silence took over the passersby as they stared, and whispers of speculation followed.

But he knew the truth. This was indeed Olive Chance.

Tucking the peach back into his bag, he leaped from his seat, shouting: “Olive!” He waved wildly as he wove through the bodies crowding the marketplace. “Olive!”

Wide, green eyes turned toward him.

“Olive!” he exclaimed one last time as he broke through the crowd with arms wide. He brought his hands down on the prince’s shoulders. “You’re okay!”

Olive pulled away from him. “Claire?!” For a moment, the corners of his mouth ticked upward. “How…?”

“I’m—”

Before Claire could even finish his sentence, he was met with the flame-lit tip of a drawn arrow. At the other feathered end of the weapon was a young man wearing a fiercely stern expression. His hair was black and cut layered, and his almond-shaped eyes were hazel.

“Release the prince at once,” he ordered, pulling the arrow taut.

Before Claire could comply with the order, Olive clicked his tongue loudly, pulled away from Claire’s grip, and pushed the bow-wielding man’s arms aside.

“Trystan, stop.”

Trystan tensed but did not lower his weapon.

“He isn’t a threat,” Olive finally said, glancing away. “This is Claire. The guy I mentioned who was with me last night.” He gave Claire a once over. The relief that had been on his face was now replaced by curiosity and suspicion.

“What?” Trystan whispered before he lowered his weapon. “Him? My apologies,” Trystan said as he fastened his conductor to his belt, still eyeing Claire with suspicion. “But if that’s the case, I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.”

Claire started. “Q-questioning…?”

“It is my duty as head royal guard to ensure that members of the royal family are protected. Since you were involved in an incident that may be tied to the assass—”

“If you want to go accusing people of things,” Olive interjected with a look of annoyance, “move to a more private area. Unless you like broadcasting political issues to the entire city.”

Trystan stiffened and glanced around. The whispering around them had become louder now. He exchanged a look with his fellow guard, then swallowed and cleared his throat. “My apologies, Prince. Claire, if you would come with us, we will take you to the palace so you can be questioned. It will not take long.”

“Not take long?” Olive stared. “It took us two hours to get here because of the traffic. And we still haven’t gotten the things we need. I’m not going until we’ve got everything.”

Trystan’s eyes narrowed. “Right, your highness. Then I’ll have Samuel take him instead while I remain here with you.”

“Look,” Olive said, “it’ll take two times as long without Samuel.”

“What do you suggest,” Trystan asked.

Claire studied Trystan. For someone who was head royal guard, this man seemed like a novice. There was a lack of professionalism in the way he conducted himself with Olive. Perhaps this was a cultural difference. Or maybe it had to do with Olive’s personality. Or it could have been Trystan himself.

Trystan turned to Claire since Olive only offered continued silence. There was frustration in his eyes, but he spoke calmly: “Claire, seeing as we are occupied at the moment, I would rather you accompany us until we finish our… duties… then accompany us back to the palace for questioning.”

“Ah, well, actually that all kinda works out.” Claire chuckled sheepishly. He turned to Olive. “Now that I know you’re okay, I was hoping to ask you about that conductor.”

They wove through the marketplace district with surprising ease, discussing parts and models of conductors. Slowly their conversation turned toward the events of the night before and Trystan couldn’t help but involve himself in the details.

“So, you tried to run and get help using the chaos as a distraction.”

Claire nodded. “But all the guard posts I ran to were empty.”

“Because we were already assisting the prince at the scene.”

“And when I ran back—”

“The situation was already dealt with,” Trystan concluded. “We were no longer in the area.”

“I hope that clears things up.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”

Trystan held up a hand. “No, I’m glad you were with the prince. Your presence may have been what thwarted the attack. You still will need to report to the palace though. My opinion means little.”

Claire stared up at Trystan’s serious face.

Olive was walking half a meter ahead of them and Claire ran to join him, but Olive did not so much as acknowledge him.

“So, the conductor you mentioned last night,” Claire began. “I know you showed me to a general conductor store, but I honestly still don’t know what to loo—”

“There’s nothing more annoying than a guy who beats around the bush.”

Claire frowned in confusion.

“It’s a two-way torture,” Olive continued without looking at him. He grimaced. “Then again, I could care less about whether or not you want to torture yourself, so never mind. Ask about it or don’t.”

Well, that certainly was a roundabout way of speaking.

Claire hesitated and glanced at Olive’s hands. “You mean… ask about that?”

Now Olive met his gaze. His eyes were emerald, narrowed.

“I… I didn’t want to be rude or anything, but since you asked…”

His gaze then flicked to Trystan, who followed closely behind. There was tension between them.

“What kind of conductor were you using?” Claire pressed with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like it before! It was so small I couldn’t even see it! I was actually wondering about that, but I thought that it wouldn’t be right if I mentioned it because of what was going on so I…” He trailed off.

Olive regarded him for a minute before he scowled. “You really are…”

“Are what?” Claire pressed. When he received no response, he suppressed a sigh and glanced around. “By the way, I’m sorry if I’m overstepping here, but is it really safe to be wandering around the streets like this when you have something like that going on?”

Olive followed his gaze before frowning deeper than he already was. “Staying in one place in a situation like this does more harm than good. Habits make you an easier target.” He let out a sigh. “Besides, my damn bird has been making a mess in his cage. I think I need to change his diet.”

“You’re shopping for your pet bird?” Claire couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s surprising.”

“How? You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way, right?”

This made Olive halt in his tracks and stare.

Claire stiffened beneath the attention and felt himself flush. “Uh… well… I’m sure you have a lot of friends in high places. I mean—not in a bad way. Like sons and daughters of officials—um. But anyways, a commoner like me probably doesn’t have much to offer you so—”

“You really are an…” Olive trailed off without a change in expression, and for a moment, Claire thought a different word would fall from his mouth. But in the end Olive let out what appeared to be his favorite word: “Idiot.”

Ouch.

“It depends on your definition of idiot,” Claire returned. “But I think you have a very broad definition of that.”

“A lot of people fall into that category in my book,” he said.

Claire blinked in surprise before he chuckled. “It’s always good to fall in with the majority.”

They spent the next couple of hours weeding through the marketplace. When they stopped by a conductor parts stall, Olive took the time to point out which parts were overpriced and which were too good to be sold at a backwater market. The stall owners seemed to be biting their tongues all the while—something Olive seemed to enjoy to almost devilish levels.

When they saw shops selling pet-care supplies, Claire took the time to explain which feeds were appropriate for which kind of birds.

“You know a lot about birds,” Olive finally noted, looking disinterested as usual as he spun a birdcage from where it hung on a pole.

“Oh, yeah.” Claire chuckled. “I usually end up spending a lot of time in places full of them. You tend to pick up a thing or two.”

Olive chuckled. Or perhaps he scoffed. Maybe sneered. It was hard to tell. “So that’s the kind of company you hang around. Makes sense.”

It was definitely a sneer. The implication was clear.

Still, Claire smiled. “It’s therapeutic, you know.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before the sneer slid from his face.

At the next conductor shop, Olive casually asked, “You have a conducting license, right?” He sounded like he already knew the answer, and so when Claire presented him with a—

“Why?”

—he turned to him with a bewildered expression. After the singular question and its implication registered with him, Olive snapped, “Because you need one to buy a weaponized conductor!”

“Ah… that’s right.”

“You’re not even a Conductor, are you?”

Claire scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s why I needed help, you see. Because I’m not a Conductor myself so I don’t really know. Well, I can always come back for it after I get a license,” Claire hummed.

Olive looked down. “It must be nice…. to be so carefree.”

At the cusp of dusk, they finally completed their last stop.

The traffic had increased tenfold around them. They were limb-to-limb with other shoppers and a couple of shopkeepers who were closing up. Olive briefly mentioned something about rush hour, and how everyone was now trying to leave the marketplace at the same time. Trystan and Samuel attempted to push back the crowd while simultaneously juggling all the items Olive had bought.

“Be careful,” one of them said.

“It’s easy to get lost or pickpocketed,” someone else said.

But Claire did not hear the rest of their worries.

Because Claire had already slipped away from them.

* * *

From the belfry of a steeple that oversaw the entire market square, Claire sat enjoying the evening breeze. He was seated on the railings that caged in the bell behind him with one leg dangling over the edge and the other tucked just beneath it. He studied the people below.

In the square, the little dots of Ariesian citizens and of tourists darted from stall to stall, cloaks fluttering. From this distance, the sleeves of their cloaks looked almost like wings. The way they wandered around without exiting reminded him of birds trapped inside a cage. Claire couldn’t help but smile at the thought.

A shadow flickered from behind him. Then another. He turned.

Standing in front of the bell was a figure dressed in black-cloth stealth gear. A traditional white mask painted on with red cheeks and a black smile obscured their face. Beside that figure crouched another in similar gear, wearing a wooden mask.

Claire smiled. “I was afraid that you were going to kill that Ariesian guard.”

“I-I apologize,” stammered the wooden-masked man as he bowed his head. In the next second, he sprung up into a stand with a fisted hand. “But he was going to lay a hand on you and—”

“Settle down now,” the white-mask said not unkindly, but not gently either.

“It’s all right.” Claire nodded. “I understand how you feel. Ariesians are pretty dangerous.” He turned back to the scenery. The square was empty now. The white tiles of the marketplace seemed to glow in the heat. “Besides, in the end, I was able to earn his trust.” A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “Though I have to work on his head guard.”

“And what now?”

Claire rose to his feet on the railings. “See if Ophiuchus has sent anyone to handle the situation yet. If they intervene, we may have to change our plans.”

“And what will you do?” the white-mask pressed.

“I’m going to get a private session with the Ariesian prince.” Claire threw a thin smile over his shoulder. With that, he dug into his back pants pocket and pulled out a slender cylindrical object that was eight centimeters in diameter and a tenth of a meter long. It was sleek and black with four holes that ran in a straight line along its length. The wind whistled through the holes almost musically. The whistle deepened to a hum as he spun the object in hand. Out from both ends of the cylinder popped the rest of its length, which gave it a completed height of two meters.

Giving the thing one last turn, he listened as the extensions clicked into place and pointed his newly elongated staff down into the city. Wind gathered where his hands skirted the holes in the staff; and with a flick of the thing, he sent the breeze whipping out around him. The bell tolled behind him at the force of the wind, while the two figures embraced the welcomed reprieve from the Ariesian heat.

Giving his companions one last nod, he stepped off the building with his staff in hand. The breeze caressed him and caught him mid-air, lifting him onto his staff, which had remained floating horizontally in the sky. He landed deftly on it, balancing on the thin beam, using the arches of his feet.

2.4: Gloria Jive

Re-cap:

Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez has christened the sailors who were a part of the ship she raided members of her crew. The former sailor captor Morandi has accepted her recruitment proposal with some resistance. At the insistence of her normal crew, she allows them to go through the cargo they’ve obtained from the cargo ship. The pirates are disappointed when they only find spare conductor parts.

Then, Maria stumbles upon a large crate. And within? Numerous amounts of gold coins, jewelry, and all things that glitter. And a woman with golden hair. 

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

Maria pressed her index finger forward. Again, she received no response. She sighed.

“Captain, I don’t think that’s helping…”

“Oh, I’ve tried telling her, Conta. But she seems very set on doing it.”

Maria straightened from where she had been leaning over the bed and leaned back in her chair. Bending her head backward, she eyed the two who stood behind her.

Conta sat at a round table in the back. A mountain of glittering golden coins, jewels, conductors, and spices were littered before her. The smell was excitingly intense, and the sight dazzlingly bright.

At the opposite corner of the room stood Simon with a bucket of water in one hand and a rag in the other. He crossed the room and knelt down beside Maria. His gaze was not trained on her, however. It was trained on the woman who lay on the bed in front of her.

The woman with golden hair.

The woman was clothed now—as per Conta’s insistence—in one of Maria’s blouses and pants. A thin blanket had been thrown over her—once again, as per Conta’s insistence—and the only sign the woman was alive was the gentle rise and fall of the sheet.

Maria watched Simon draw the rag across the woman’s forehead before she reached forward and pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek again. No response.

Maria peered at her closely.

Even her eyelashes seemed to be made of gold.

“My dear Simon, what do you think is wrong with this lovely lady?” she asked, peering deeply into the man’s face. “Why will the most interesting of treasures not awaken?”

“That, I don’t know.” Simon sighed as he pulled away. “No signs of fever. Heart rate slow, but not alarmingly so.” He gently, reverently lifted the thin blanket to reveal the woman’s hands that were still bound by the thick, steel cuffs. “And the fact that we can’t remove this isn’t helping.”

“You say so, but I have yet to—” Maria reached for the offending object, but a gentle hand placed on her wrist stopped her. Eyes sharp, she glanced up.

Simon smiled down at her knowingly. “I have no doubts about you, Captain, but I fear what the removal of that will do to our mysterious guest here. It may be connected to her condition.”

Maria returned the smile. “My Simon, how daring of you.”

“Oh, well, I do learn from the best, my Captain.”

Maria laughed and slapped him on the back before she hopped to her feet. She made her way over to Conta’s side and leaned over her shoulder.

“Anything of interest, my dear Conta?”

Conta tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before plucking a coin from the pile and stacking it on top of a tower of similar coins.

“Just the usual, Captain,” she said.

Maria stared at her for a long moment, and Conta seemed to flush beneath her gaze. The moment stretched on, and the groans of the ship resounded in the silence. Finally, Maria cracked a smile and squeezed Conta’s shoulders. “Whatever you say, my dear Conta.”

With that, Maria swept out of the room. She made her way down the halls, enjoying the cracking sound her boots made against the wooden floorboards. As she approached the mess hall at the end of the passage, the sounds of idle chatter and the squeaks and clacks of chore work reached her ears. As she drew nearer and as the sound of her boots resounded louder and louder, the sounds of chore work heightened, and idle chatter lowered.

She burst through the doors of the mess hall with a grin and observed the scene with hands on hips.

The mess hall was dotted with the newly indentured men. Some dragged soapy rags across food littered tables while others swooshed mops across the brine-stained floor. In the back, behind the kitchen counter, Maria could faintly hear the plastic clicks of dishes and the metal clacks of silverware.

The sailors were still in their uniforms, which had begun to lose their pristine white glow. At her arrival, they all slowed their movements.

“My, my”—she laughed—“you are doing so much better than the ones on duty before you! Perhaps they did so poorly on purpose?”

No one answered her question, which made her hum in thought.

A sailor who manned one of the mops nodded at her. “Captain, may we assist you with anything?”

Maria stared at the mop-wielding man for a long moment before she closed the distance between them. They were almost nose to nose now, but even as she peered more deeply into his face, he held his ground. As she pressed forward a bit more, he only faltered for a fraction of a second. She pulled away from him and grinned with relief. Clapping a hand on his shoulder, she said, “Ah, my dear Morandi, I was afraid you were sick—you were acting so strangely just now! So easygoing!”

“Well, Captain,” he responded, “seeing as we’ve reached an agreement, it would be dishonorable for me not to follow through.”

Maria scratched her head and hummed again as she turned away from him. “There’s that honor you speak of once again.” A thought came to her, and she snapped her fingers and twirled around before clamping her hands back onto his shoulders. Squeezing tight, she said, “You will answer my questions!”

Morandi started and then frowned. “Look, I’ve already told you everything I know about that woman. I know nothing about her. We’re just charged to ship things. We don’t ask what we’re shipping. That’s part of the job.”

A beat of silence.

“Tell me about conductors and conducting.”

Morandi stared. “I—Excuse me…?”

“Conductors, conductors, vitae, extraneous, intraneous.” Maria bounced on the soles of her feet. “Tell me about these things! Spirits have been doing strange things with them, you see? And I want to know more! And I wish to know, Morandi, from you who is tasked with carrying them for our dear friends in Gemini.”

Morandi faltered a step before he shook his head. “I am by no means an expert, Captain. I don’t even have my Conducting License.” He took a moment to collect himself before he regarded her. “I’m aware that your crew is quite the salad bowl—you’re all from different parts—but I’m surprised you don’t have even one Conductor among you.”

“Oh, we do have a Conductor.” Maria hummed with a grin. “A former Conductor. Simon from Leo. But he is retired. Taken on a religious lifestyle. Something about worshiping your Ancestors? What’s that religion called? Monadism?” She turned to the men and gestured to herself. “I was raised in a Leonian Monadic church alongside Conta, did you know?”

Morandi and his men did a double take.

Maria spread her arms wide. “They said I was amazing and that I had the greatest potential for saint candidacy. Funny, no? I already knew that I could do anything. I didn’t need people telling me those things. Belief in myself has always been enough for me.”

“S-saint candidacy—you?! That’s—”

“Pretty cool, yes?” Maria chuckled. “Well, I never really understood the entire thing. But I was excited to see what it was all about, you see? But alas! Right before my initiation ceremony, the church was raided! By pirates of all things!”

Morandi exchanged a look with his men.

“That was the only time I haven’t been in control of my life, and it is… how do you say… troubling? Yes. Troubling.” Maria pursed her lips and tapped her chin. “I am in search of those pirates… the captain… I will find them… yes.” She uncurled herself and stared at the sailors for a moment. “What were we talking about again?”

“Conductors…”

“Right! I wish to hear from you, Morandi. About these conductors!” Maria took a step back and fell back into a seat at the wooden table. “Tell me your experience and knowledge of these things. Your version, your tale, your legend.” She propped her elbow up on her crossed legs and rested her chin on her knuckle before she offered a smile. “Please do make it interesting.”

“What’s with the sudden interest?” he asked with narrowed eyes.

“Maybe I’ll know it when you tell me!”

There was a stretch of silence.

Finally, Morandi sighed, rested his mop against the table, and crossed his arms. “Well, where do I even start? The basics? Like how Conductors channel and manipulate vitae through conductors? Or about the basics of vitae? Soft versus hard? How vitae can be manipulated extraneously or intraneously—”

“Ah, yes, about that,” Maria interjected. “I think I’ve heard about it. From the spirits. About how certain Conductors can use the vitae in themselves versus the vitae outside. But is it not tiring to use the vitae from inside? The concept is beyond me, but vitae is like energy, no?”

“For someone who claims to not know how vitae and conductors work, you sure seem to know a lot about them,” Morandi mused before ruffling his hair. “Like I said, I’m not an expert, but from what I understand, intraneous vitae can be replenished through ingesting the soft vitae that is present in food. Still, Projector Conductors who literally just shoot out the vitae inside of themselves—well, apparently, they have shorter life expectancies than other Conductors… or something like that. Not sure if that’s really it. I mean, why would anyone want to do that?”

“Maybe that is what you call passion?” Maria tapped her chin in thought before she mused: “There is a saying that goes ‘vitae is the color of a soul,’ no? Would conducting then not be akin to burning the soul of something for fuel? Like a fire?” Her eyes widened and she leaned forward. “Can something like a soul truly be replenished by eating?”

“That’s just a saying. Vitae isn’t actually a person’s soul,” Morandi said matter-of-factly. He quirked a brow. “If you’re this interested, why don’t you go to Ophiuchus and take your State Conducting Exam? That way you’ll get access to all sorts of vitae-related research material you wouldn’t be able to gain access to otherwise. Maybe you could even think to release me and my crew on land while you’re at it.”

“Why do that when it’d be so much easier and exciting for me to hear about it from people like you?” Maria returned with a chuckle. “Besides, that is not our agreement.”

“To think a pirate would hold so steadfastly to promises.”

“I never break a promise, my dear Morandi.” Maria rolled her neck before hopping off her table and coming to sit beside him instead. Abruptly, she snapped her fingers and grinned. “Ah, yes, I almost forgot! How many people are able to manipulate vitae without those conducting devices? I would like to learn how since it seems quite fun!”

Immediately, a short burst of laughter erupted from Morandi’s lips, but it was quickly silenced with a clearing of the throat. He exchanged looks with the others around him who were also stifling their laughs. The sound was not mirrored by Maria.

“You’re… serious?” he asked before he shook his head. “Forget ‘how many’—there’s no such thing as conducting without a conductor. Those two go hand-in-hand.” He spread his arms wide. “It’s just not possible.”

“There’s no such thing as no such thing,” Maria said after a pause. “It’s just that you don’t know of it yet.” She stretched out her arms and leaned her head back against the tabletop behind her. “‘Impossible’ is something to be broken by the strong.” In the silence that followed, she studied the lines of the ceiling and turned her ears toward the groans of the ship. The smile slipped from her face. “Also, ELPIS—what is it?”

The other members of the cleaning crew who had been listening in on the conversation froze at the question. Maria didn’t pay them any attention and merely turned her head expectantly toward Morandi again. The thumps of footsteps and muffled voices from other areas of the ship resounded in the silence.

Maria tried again. “So, what is this ELPIS exactly? What is so exciting about it?”

Morandi gave her a look of confusion, but when she did not acknowledge him, he sighed. “It’s not a what. It’s a who.”

“Who?”

“The matter is hush-hush, but they’re what’s left of a group of people who fought during the war. Lived before the war. The thirteenth group.”

“The thirteenth group, you say…?” Maria murmured. “Do you mean those funny people who work in that Ophiuchus place?”

“No, no, no. Definitely not.” Morandi shook his head. “Well, I think I understand the confusion. Where Ophiuchus is now is where that thirteenth country was located originally.”

“Thirteenth country?”

“Yes.” Morandi rubbed his chin. “They had some radical beliefs—that country. They saw usage of vitae and conductors as evil, sacrilegious. Tried to purge conducting and those who used conductors. Very steadfast in their beliefs. Determined. Even though they use conductors themselves. Hypocrites. I was never on the battlefront during the war—worked on cargo just as I do now—but I’ve heard many stories about them. Horror stories.” He reached for the mop and studied it. “But they are the reason why the war ended.”

Maria perked up at this.

“The twelve countries ended up banding together to fight against them,” Morandi explained. “It was an annihilation. Of self-defense, of course. Left all of us too weak to fight any further.” He shrugged. “Still, it’s difficult to kill off radical beliefs. Some pockets of the country survived and branched out. Eventually became known as ELPIS. But they’re only a fraction of what they used to be. Anyways, the leaders are psychopaths.”

“Leaders?”

“Yes, usually you’re able to tell them apart from the others because they have special tattoos. A rite of passage, I suppose.”

Such an odd thing—ELPIS.

Maria turned the word over in her mind. What a sour and unpleasant thing—strange, since she usually enjoyed even the most morbid of concepts and ideas. She leaned forward and thrummed her cheek in thought. Her eyes locked onto one particular sailor who seemed to be fidgeting with his collar. With a smile, she nodded at him. “You seem like you have something interesting to say. What is it?”

The sailor in question stiffened before he cleared his throat and stepped forward. “I—er—they’re pretty big actually, ma’am—er—Captain. When I was younger, my home was attacked by them. They ransacked the conductor that powered our town and took a bunch of children. I was one of the lucky ones…I’ll never forget it… when they used their conductors, the color of their vitae—they were all the same… completely whi…” The sailor shook his head.

Maria whistled before gesturing to the other sailors in the area. “Does anyone else have anything interesting to add about this ELPIS?”

“They’re just plain crazy,” interjected another sailor without skipping a beat. “Don’t know how or why, but their mass conversion rates are insane. Completely insane. I knew a friend of a friend—a farmer in Taurus—who just up and joined ELPIS one day. Just like that. Left his wife and daughter without a second thought.” A swallow. “There’s a rumor that they like… show you some terrible secret that just makes you snap and join them.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Now that’s crazy,” one of the others scoffed.

Maria hummed. “Crazy is just something you use to describe something you don’t understand, no? Perhaps you to me?”

The sailor started. “Uh, well, yes, I guess… I mean—”

“Why so flustered, my friend?” Maria laughed.

“I—”

“It’s all right, Giorgio. Doubt she means anything by it.” Morandi rubbed his chin again and then shook his head with a sigh. He turned back to Maria and finished, “Anyways, I’m by no means an expert in history either, so…”

Maria patted the man’s shoulder and beamed. “My dear Morandi, how knowledgeable you are!” She gestured out toward all of them. “You all are very knowledgeable! How lucky of me to have you on my crew! Surely, I chose well!”

“How is she even a captain,” one of the sailors muttered under his breath.

“Oh?” Maria hummed at the sailor who had spoken and made her way over to his side. “So will you be challenging my leadership, my dear?” When the man stumbled back, she chuckled. “You can think what you want, my dear. What sort of world would this be if that were not the case?” Before he could respond, she turned away and addressed all of them with an absentminded wave. “Anyways, you can all rest for the night. You told me such interesting things, after all!”

“Uh—”

“See you later, my dears!” With that, she swept out of the room.

* * *

When Maria returned to the cabin that housed the mysterious woman, Simon was nowhere to be found and Conta was dozing away at her table. The golden woman was, of course, just as asleep as before.

Maria crossed the room and knelt down beside her again. She pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek. No response as always.

How boring.

“It might be the handcuffs…”

Maria perked up and turned her head. Leaning against the wall with crossed arms to her left was a familiar boy. He had dark hair that was tied into a loose ponytail and green eyes. There was a cloak thrown over his shoulders that looked fabulously extravagant.

“Oh!” Maria pointed at him as she rose to her feet. “You are that boy from earlier, no? The small, angry one. With the fire!”

The boy started and uncrossed his arms as a scowl formed from his expression of indifference. The indifference returned a second later, and he reclined against the wall with crossed arms. He threw a glance in Conta’s direction. “You’re taking this hallucinating thing pretty well.” He glanced back at her. “You must be crazy or stupid.”

Maria tilted her head at him and hummed. “That may be so.” She tilted her head as a thought occurred to her. “But what about you?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed but he said nothing, instead choosing to approach the bed. He bent over the golden woman and studied her with a frown.

Maria hummed. “Do you see something you like, my dear?”

In response, the boy sent her a quick glare but remained focused on the golden woman. He knelt down with hovering hands. He hesitated. “Can I touch her?”

Maria cocked her head. “Why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask her?”

Another glare. He leaned forward and traced the cuffs around the woman’s wrists. With care, he lifted them and rubbed his thumb against the edge. There was a thin, almost imperceptible strip of material there. It seemed to be glass. His eyes widened. “It’s a conductor.”

“A conductor?” Maria tilted her head.

The boy inspected it closer. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Usually, conductors have an insulator just on the inside to help control vitae flow but…” He pressed against the material, and it seemed to squeak beneath his fingers. “There’s an insulator on the outside.” He shook his head and pulled back. “I didn’t think it was possible… but I think these handcuffs are suppressing—no, maybe it’s constricting—her intraneous vitae flow somehow. And if it’s doing that then…”

Maria scratched her head before she chuckled. “Well, I don’t really understand but you sound like you know how to remove it, yes?” She peered into his face. “At first, my dear crew tried using all sorts of things to try and remove it, but Simon insisted that doing so was too risky. I care for Simon, you see, so I listened to him.”

“Look, I don’t care. But you helped me this morning, so I’ll return the favor. I don’t like owing people. Real or not.”

“Real or not?” Maria ruffled her hair and rose to her feet. The boy craned his neck up to look at her, and she smiled at him. “Oh, I am very real my friend. I am the most certain thing in this world.” She pointed a finger at him. “It is you who is uncertain. But since I am something that is completely certain, I can make you certain just like that.” The snap of her fingers echoed in the quiet that followed.

The boy stared and glanced away with a mumble, “You sure like to talk a lot.”

Maria threw her head back and laughed. “Well, of course! How else will you know what I’m thinking?”

“I don’t want to know,” the boy huffed as he rose to his feet and walked over to the table where Conta rested. He reached out but Maria stopped him with a hand around the wrist. “I just need this conductor,” he said. When she released him, he reached over and plucked a slender object from the table. It was long and black with a thin, pointed end like the blade of a rapier. The handle of the thing was made of rubber and was a dull gray color. It was only slightly larger than his hand. “It’s a kickstarter. Pre-charged with vitae,” he explained. “Usually they use these things on new conductors because the insulators in them can become stuck and prevent vitae flow—”

“I don’t really get it,” Maria laughed, “but I am surprised! You sure sound smart!”

“It’s common knowledge,” the boy responded as he turned away from the table and walked back toward the bed. “Any person who knows about conductors knows about it.”

Maria stepped in front of him and stared into his eyes, searching. “What is this? Are you rejecting what I think of you? My opinion?”

The boy hesitated. “No, I—”

“Then why do you deny what I say?”

“Why do you have so much to say?” the boy returned evenly.

At this, Maria laughed again. “My dear friend, why are you asking a question I have already answered?”

The boy opened his mouth to retort but then shut it, pushing past her toward the bed. “Anyways, if I can get this past the insulator to reach the conducting core, I might be able to overcharge it. Overheat it.”

Maria made her way over to him as he knelt beside the bed. She watched as he lifted the cuffs and slid the thin, pointed part of the conductor into a crack that was between the metal and glass of the cuffs. He pressed down a nodule at the side of the device, and it hummed with life as light spilled from the nodule down its shaft to its pointed tip.

Maria leaned forward and watched with awe. “Wow! Conductors are truly beautiful, no? For the world to contain something like this—it’s quite amazing, yes?”

The boy gave her a strange look again before shaking his head and returning his attention to his work.

Maria studied him with interest before a thought occurred to her. She leaned in close—so close that her breath blew stray hairs out of his face—before she asked, “Ah, by the way, what is this Tragedy of Aries that I keep seeing everywhere?”

And just like that, the boy was gone. The conductor that had been in his hands was suddenly in hers, and as the thing gave one last final hum, the cuffs let out a click. A second later and they fell open onto the mattress of the bed. In turn, the golden woman let out a soft breath.

Maria leaned in, spilling her shadow across the woman’s face.

The woman’s golden lashes fluttered open. Slowly, as if waking from a dream, her eyes rose to meet Maria’s.

The woman’s eyes were the color of molten amber. Not quite gold, not quite brown.

Extending a hand, Maria grinned. “My golden lady, shall we become friends?”

“The Golden Beast has a hunger that’s insatiable. They say that it only appears in front of people who have no destinaton. Like wanderers or nomads–no, sea drifters. It climbs aboard the ship and disguises itself as a member of the ship. And  if it’s disrespected, then slowly one by one, everyone disappears leaving only an empty ship drifting to the shore. They say that the Beast actually eats everyone, leaving not even a drop of blood left…. Scary, huh?”

“Don’t go spreading that story around too much, Brandt. Next thing you know, the guys up top’ll be asking us to go and catch the thing to sick it on on our enemies. We’ll never retire then. ‘Cause we’ll never find it!”

A conversation between Capricornian combat medic Alwin Brandt and Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff

2.1: Chance Deflection

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olive, tired of the suffocating extra protection he has received from increased security due to the assassination attempt on his life, has snuck away from the watchful eyes of his royal guards Trystan and Alexander. He has escaped to a conductor store owned by a woman named Marta whom he knows well. His head has been aching since the attempt, and he has been hearing things. But he does not care.

He dozed off, but not before speaking with a ghost–or perhaps an illusion–of his sister who died six years prior. A strange young man entered the store just as he fell asleep.

New Ram City, Aries

When Olive started into consciousness, he nearly fell out of his chair. Nose-to-nose with him was the young man in the sky-blue cloak. The one who’d been sitting behind him when Olive had first arrived at the store.

“What the—”

The young man pulled back with raised hands. “S-Sorry! You looked like you were having a bad dream… I…”

Olive ignored him and glanced over his shoulder toward the couch. His sister was gone. He glanced back over the counter. The back room of the shop was still thick with smoke. The clock that hung to the side of the wall read 2:01.

Nine hours of sleep.

Olive frowned.

He felt odd. As if he’d been asleep for longer than that. As if he’d been away for longer than. It still was a long time regardless. Olive figured the royal guards were probably looking for him now.

“Do you come here often?”

Olive turned back to the young man who had lowered his cloak to reveal his face. His features were sharp—more foxlike than catlike, Olive realized. His dark hair was wildly windswept. And he was tall. Two or three heads taller than Olive.

Instead of answering, Olive swept off the chair and started toward the door. The young man followed him.

“I-I was wondering if you could give me some advice on a conductor for a friend of mine. A weaponized one,” the young man continued. “They’re an Elementalist—”

Olive stopped short, sent him a look of displeasure. Did this person not know who he was? Usually, people on the streets avoided him when he traveled without a cloak and recognized his face. Whether it was because of his handed-down status or the rumors surrounding him, Olive didn’t care to know. He asked, “What makes you think I know anything about conductors?”

The young man rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Good question. You just… seem like the type? I mean, you’re here.” He gestured to the store.

“You’re here, too,” Olive returned. “There’s a mechanic in the back.”

“She seems busy…”

“She is,” Olive affirmed, sliding past him. “That’s what appointments are for.”

“Oh, you have to set an appointment?” The young man blanched before he chuckled with embarrassment. “I feel like an idiot now.”

Olive paused just as he reached the door and craned his neck. “How long have you been waiting here?”

The young man glanced at the clock. Paled. “Nine hours…”

Olive stared. “You are an idiot.”

The young man continued to ogle the clock.

“Extraneous or intraneous?”

“What?” The young man blinked out of his daze.

“Your friend is an Elementalist Conductor,” Olive repeated. “Do they conduct vitae extraneously or intraneously? The vitae outside their body or inside?”

The young man perked up immediately. “I-Intraneously?”

“Then you should probably get one that has a stronger insulator,” Olive said, turning his attention back to the door. “So they don’t exhaust their vitae reserves.”

“An insulator?”

Olive paused. Turned. “The material that goes inside a conductor? To keep vitae utilization stable?” When the young man frowned in confusion, Olive turned to him fully. “How are you looking for a conductor when you don’t even know what an insulator is…?”

“Th-That’s why I’m here.” The young man scratched his head. “Isn’t it…?”

“This shop is for special, customized conductors,” Olive said. What a pain. “You have to know what you want before you come here.” He pushed the door open but paused halfway through the threshold. “It’s closed right now, but there’s a store a couple streets down.”

With that, he inclined his head and pressed outside. The young man brightened and followed him.

The twilight air was still heavy and humid, but the lack of sun allowed a cool breeze to creep between the buildings. As Olive led the young man around the block, the breeze picked up.

The darkness of the night crept into the corners and alleyways around them, but a couple of stores were still open and poured out warm light. The streets were dotted sparsely with pedestrians. Nothing even remotely comparable to the afternoon rush hour from earlier.

The young man shoved a hand in Olive’s face. “I-I really appreciate you showing me the way. My name is Claire.”

Olive studied the hand apprehensively. “I don’t really need to know that.”

“Oh, true.” Claire lowered his hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’s your name?”

“You don’t really need to know that.”

“But I kind of do,” Claire insisted. “You’re helping me out. I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least get your name.”

Olive regarded him. “Olivier.”

“Oh, okay.” Claire nodded. “Can I just call you Olive?”

What—why? Did this guy really not know?

“I don’t really care.”

“I’m seventeen,” Claire continued, unperturbed. “How old are you, Olive? I mean if you don’t mind me asking…”

“Sixteen.”

“Oh, so I’m older. Are you from around here?”

“That’s how I know where everything is,” Olive replied dryly as they turned down a corner. “Let me guess: you’re a tourist.”

Claire broke out into a smile. “How did you guess?”

“You don’t know where anything is.”

“I guess you’re right about that.” Claire laughed sheepishly. “Anyways, it’s really impressive how much you know about conductors.” He pulled off his cloak and tied it around his waist. “Passionate people really inspire me. The fact that you can find something that you really love out of the millions of things out there and choose to pursue it on our own? It’s amazing.”

“Are you sure you’re not a solicitor trying to sell me something?” Olive side-eyed Claire.

“Did it sound that way?” Claire frowned. “I’m being honest…”

They trudged up a sloping walkway in silence.

“It’s not a passion,” Olive finally grumbled. On the outskirts of his vision, he saw a flash of long black hair. “It’s barely even a hobby.”

“Passion, hobby,” Claire mused. “They’re all things that you care about enough to—”

Olive came to an abrupt stop which sent Claire crashing into him. Claire stumbled backward after mumbling an apology before he gave Olive an inquiring look. In response, Olive nodded at the building in front of them. A behemoth, wooden sign loomed on top of the building. conductors: general, weaponized, generator.

The store was much larger than the shop they were previously in. This took up the entire block. It was a wooden building with window displays filled with conductors of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

Claire blinked up at the sight. “How did I not notice that before?”

What a pain, Olive thought with a sigh.

Claire returned the sound with a grateful smile and an extended hand. “Thank you—”

A sliver of brilliant cyan light cracked through the blackness just behind Claire. It blitzed past Claire in an instant and hurtled past Olive’s head. A dull crack resounded followed by a sharp pain at Olive’s ear.

Olive cradled his ear with a wince before he turned his head. A short knife with a blade made of cyan light was embedded in the wall just behind him. Its light dissipated a second after, taking the shape of the blade along with it. The handle clattered to the ground.

There was wetness at Olive’s ear. A drip, drip, drip of blood.

A conductor, he realized. A melee conductor. A Projector Conductor’s weapon.

“What—”

A shadow dropped down between them before Claire could finish.

A tall and dark figure cloaked in black.

Their face was covered by a white mask with painted red cheeks and a black smile.

The masked figure reached for their hip where an array of bladeless hilts hung on a belt. With a deft twist of their fingers, they plucked one of these hilts and twirled it in the air before pointing it at Olive. Out from the hilt grew a bright cyan blade. The light from it banished the shadows around them and ended at the hot tip that ghosted Olive’s throat.

Olive swallowed.

The figure spun the knife in hand and raised it high in the air.

“Olive!” Claire shouted.

Here we go again, Olive thought as he watched the edge of the knife hurtle toward him. It was like the universe was pushing him toward this point. But why? What did his assassination even accomplish? Was his life really worth all of this effort? At this point, wouldn’t it be better if he just—

Dodge! Tuck!

The thought came at Olive so forcefully that he obeyed it without hesitation. With a quick drop of his knees, he fell beneath the line of the knife’s path. Its sharp edge missed the top of his head by a hair’s breadth and carved a line in the wall where it became embedded.

Fight! Grab their weapon! Use it against them! Sweep their feet!

What? No! That was stupid!

“Run!” Olive shouted at Claire before he ducked out underneath the figure who had reached for their belt again. He gave the figure a jab at the side with his elbow before dashing down the walkway. His footsteps pounded in his ear as did his heartbeat. But those were the only sounds he could hear. Had the assassin gone after Claire?

Olive craned his neck just in time to see the silver glint of a blade arcing toward him.

Duck!

Olive snapped forward and ducked. The blade once again skirted his head. The momentum of his evasion, however, sent him tumbling forward and crashing into a trash bin.

A woman across the street gave a shout of alarm. Papers, rotten food, and scraps of metal rained down around him, drowning out the sound. By the time Olive got his bearings, the shadowy shape of the assassin was in front of him.

The assassin flicked their gloved hands and lilac light grew from their palm. The light illuminated their face—their mask. The mask was brown. Wooden. Carved into a smile.

The mask. It was different, Olive realized. The vitae color and conducting type were different too. A Conjurer Conductor, probably. This was not the person who had attacked him before. There was more than one assassin.

The lilac light began to take shape in the assassin’s hand. Another sword. As it solidified in their hand, the light it emitted dimmed until all that was left was a normal longsword, which they lifted into the air.

This was—

—exhilarating!

What… ?! Like hell it was!

“Guards!” Olive managed as he scrambled backward.

He felt something ghost the skin of his hand and turned his head. Crouching right beside him was a woman with tanned skin, with dark brown hair that fell in wild waves to her ears, with bottle-green eyes that glowed unnaturally in the darkness. A woman whose hand was wrapping around his.

“Wha—”

Before he could respond, the woman jerked his hand and forced it to wrap around a stray metal pipe on the ground beside him. With a manic grin, she guided his hand and the pipe upward—

Clang!

Sparks erupted in the dark as metal clashed against metal. The woman pulled Olive’s hand back and forced it forward with the pipe. With a surprised grunt and a metallic screech, the masked figure blocked the blow with their longsword.

Olive’s arm strained against the push of the assassin’s sword, but the woman continued to guide his pipe forward, forward, forward. But the assassin seemed prepared. Flicking their free hand, they conjured another weapon there in a flash of purple light. A dagger.

“Wow, conductors sure can do amazing things!” the woman laughed—of all things—from beside him.

The figure hesitated for a moment before driving the dagger toward Olive’s side. With a quick upward kick, however, the woman sent the dagger spinning in the air. Using the temporary distraction to her advantage, the woman gripped Olive’s hand tight and slid the pipe across the longsword. The motion sent the assassin stumbling back. Without hesitation, the woman swung the pipe at the assassin’s side. A sickening crack resounded.

As the assassin collapsed with a groan, Olive released the pipe, rose to his feet, and dashed down the walkway. He was jerked back, however, by the woman whose hand was still wrapped around his own. She was studying the groaning assassin curiously.

“What are you doing?!” Olive snapped. “Ru—”

He blinked.

The woman was gone.

His hand felt cold.

He looked around in confusion.

Nowhere.

“Wha…?”

He couldn’t linger on the absurdity for any longer because the masked figure rose to their feet. With a grimace, Olive turned on his heels and ran down the road. He locked eyes with the woman who was still standing across the street with her hands cupping her mouth in horror.

“Hide! Get the guards!” Olive snapped at her. She stumbled back in response, but he didn’t wait to see if she followed his request. He rounded the corner into an alleyway and threw a glance back in the direction of his assailant. They were dashing after him at an alarming speed.

“Olive—!”

Olive snapped his attention forward just in time to see a familiar pair of fox-like black eyes. With a painful crack, he collided with Claire and fell to the ground alongside him in a messy tangle of limbs.

“Olive!” Claire panted breathlessly as he sat himself up. He gripped Olive’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Olive swallowed a groan and unfurled his body. “W-Why are you here?!”

“I-I was following—”

“Why in Aries’ name are you following me?!” Olive snapped.

“I was just trying to help!” Claire returned, an edge creeping into his voice. He pulled himself up to a stand and then frowned. “Why are they chasing you?”

“Because I’m the prince, you idiot!” Olive snapped.

“The prince…?! The prince of what?!”

“Seriously?!” Olive recoiled. “I’m the prince of Ari—”

A swift blow to the side cut him off and sent him flying against the alley wall. His vision blurred as his back cracked against brick. His bandaged shoulder pulsated in unison, and his vision dimmed. With a grunt, he shook away the paired pain and forced himself to focus.

The assassin with the wooden mask approached him, sword in hand. But Olive didn’t care for this assassin. The assassin he cared for was the white-masked one who was now approaching a fallen Claire with a glowing cyan knife.

No.

Not again.

It was happening again. All his fault. The same thing. If he hadn’t reached out that helping hand then—

Olive felt it before he saw it. A heat bubbling up the base of his palms. A heat that steadily rose in intensity and temperature until it reached a boiling point. No! But it was too late. Before he realized what was happening, activation energy had been reached.

A flash of pure red sparked at his palms. A spark that exploded into a blaze of deep crimson. A wreath of fire.

The wooden-mask let out a shout of alarm as the flames licked at their feet. They stumbled backward to escape the heat, but the flame was relentless. Crawling across the ground, snapping, and devouring everything in sight. There was no stopping it now.

Soon the wooden-mask was pressed against the opposite alley wall alongside the white-mask. Flames surrounded them.

“Impossible!” the white-mask whispered against the wall of fire. “Without a conductor…?”

Mind buzzing, Olive scrambled to his feet and to Claire’s side. Claire sat up and squinted in confusion. His eyes widened and reflected in the blackness of his irises were the flickering flames. He turned to Olive and whispered, “Did you…?”

The crackling fire crept closer and closer to their assailants as Claire continued to stare, but then a gust of cold wind swept through the alley, extinguishing the roaring fire in an instant. A haze of smoke took its place and suffocated everything in a gray.

Olive stared. What sort of luck—

And then he coughed. He doubled over and coughed and gagged. The haze around him clouded everything. His sight. His mind.

Abruptly, a warm cyan light broke through the smoke, and Olive blinked up to find the white-mask staring down at him. Their knife conductor was pointed squarely at his face.

“Halt at once!” a familiar voice suddenly boomed from the darkness behind them.

Olive turned his head in the direction of the sound. And in the darkness there, a blade of deep crimson light bloomed. The face lit up above it belonged to none other than Alexander Charming.

A fiery arrow burst out of the darkness just behind the man’s head, and it hurtled toward the white-mask. Drawing and igniting another knife conductor in a flash of cyan, the white-mask deflected the arrow with ease.

Out from the night emerged Trystan with a sleek, black bow and arrow in hand. He was soon joined by a group of royal guards who each wielded a conductor.

“In the name of the Ariesian king and queen,” Trystan shouted, “you are hereby under arrest for your assault on the Ariesian prince. Lay down your weapons immediately!”

The white-mask and the wooden-mask exchanged looks before—in a mind-boggling feat of acrobatics—they scaled the wall behind them and climbed onto the rooftop. They peered down the ledge for a moment before disappearing into the night.

“After them!” Trystan ordered. The guards behind the man split off into groups. Trystan followed suit, disappearing down the street, conductor in hand.

Olive watched in a stupor before he turned to Claire. Claire who was no longer sitting beside him. Olive looked around wildly. Nothing. Nowhere. Nowhere. Nothing. Nothing but smoke and ash.

“Prince Chance,” Alexander said as he came to Olive’s side. His voice sounded distant, gargled. “Are you all right?”

Olive turned and emptied his stomach onto the ground. He could taste it. The acrid smoke curling on his tongue. He could feel it. The ghost of flames licking his skin. He could hear it. A distant crackle and pop. A memory.

“They escaped,” came a distant voice. It was Trystan, re-entering the alleyway panting. “Is the prince all right?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

A pause. “Those flames…”

“That’s for another time,” Alexander responded. He shut off his conductor with a flick of his hand. “Send out a search party for the assassins. We might still be able to catch them.”

“Right.”

Olive could feel Trystan staring at him—staring at his hands that were surrounded by dying embers. But Olive was staring at Trystan too. Staring at the conductor in the man’s hands. The bow and arrow.

* * *

The throne room was quiet save for the pit-pat of his uncle’s shoes as he paced back and forth in front of his throne. The throne of the king of Aries was as grand as all thrones tended to be. It had a gold frame that intricately twisted around a red cushion and rose up in the shape of ram horns. The queen’s throne next to it had the same design, and Terra sat on it pinching the bridge of her nose.

Olive stood in front of his pacing uncle. To his left stood Alexander and Trystan, both standing with their heads bowed.

“So you still haven’t been able to catch the two assassins,” his uncle drew as he threw a glance in Alexander’s direction.

“No, we haven’t, my king,” Alexander replied, finding a way to bow his head even more. “The search party we sent out several hours ago combed through the entire city, but they’ve found nothing. The assassins may have fled the city.”

“And the boy and the woman that Olive mentioned?”

“We haven’t been able to find them. Witnesses said they did see a boy running after Olive, but they didn’t see a woman.”

Olive frowned at this information. Was Claire…

Abruptly, Alexander sank to his knees, startling Olive from his thoughts. The royal guard pressed his head against the floor and clenched his fists. “My king, I am deeply ashamed that I let the prince be put in harm’s way like this, not only once, but twice now. I humbly accept any punishment.”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “Hey, wait a minute—”

“Olive, quiet,” his uncle said as he approached Alexander. “Alexander,” he said, “you’ve served the royal family for many years now and you’ve proven yourself worthy of your title as the head of the royal guards numerous times. After seeing the way you handled the Tragedy, I thought that there was no person better fit for the job.”

“Yes, my king.”

“But as you know, the Ariesian royal guard’s sole purpose is to protect not only New Ram City, but the royal family,” his uncle continued. “Alexander, your personal feelings toward Olive have clouded your judgment. I know you view him as an adolescent in need of freedom, but Olive is the prince of Aries. He is no normal teenager.”

Terra perked up at this with a frown.

“You will be demoted from your position as head royal guard, and you will be assigned to an outpost at the outer city wall,” his uncle stated without a drop of emotion.

Olive stiffened. Wasn’t that excessive? In the end, it had been his own decision that put him in the path of the assassins.

“But—”

“Olive! You don’t have a say in this,” his uncle snapped. “Especially after your constant reckless disobedience! Take some―”

“I know!” Olive snapped back. “I know it’s my fault!”

His uncle closed the distance between them in an instant. Hand raised.

Olive waited but the impact never came. Instead, his uncle lowered his hand and turned away.

“Although it may have been Olivier’s decisions that led to this situation,” his uncle continued, stepping in front of the former royal guard, “it is your duty to ensure these decisions do not get out of hand, Alexander.” He met Olive’s gaze. “Do you understand, Olivier?”

The doors clicked open a moment later, and a royal guard walked up to them.

“Sir, the Ophiuchian peacekeepers are here,” she said.

“Gabrielle and Izsak…” Olive mumbled under his breath.

The guard startled. “Yes, those are the peacekeepers. My prince, how did you know it was them?”

Olive frowned. How did he know?

“Send them into the meeting chambers and tell them we’ll be in shortly.” His uncle waved his hand.

* * *

Olive was wandering down the halls of the palace several hours later. The meeting seemed to be stretching on forever. It was a meeting his uncle and aunt had excluded him from very pointedly, but he didn’t focus on this fact.

The assassins. Claire. Alexander. The woman. They were all weighing on his mind. And the weight on his shadow? Trystan and another guard by the name of Samuel. They were at his heels and watching him like hawks. Alexander had been the only guard to truly master the art of the aloof watcher.

Alexander.

Olive clenched his fists as his gut twisted.

That was what happened when you cared about things.

“Hey, cheer up, Ollie! Maybe we could go to Uncle and convince him to let Alexander slide after!”

Olive stopped short and turned his head. There Lavi was, twirling a lock of dark hair as she strayed between him and the guards.

“I’m not going to convince him about anything,” Olive muttered, turning away from her. “You heard what he said. It’s final. I can’t take back the fact that I snuck out, and I can’t change the fact that he’s being punished because of it.”

“Why are you like this?” Lavi sighed, crossing her arms. “You never used to give up so easily!”

Olive clicked his tongue and whipped his head in her direction. A retort was on the tip of his tongue, but it died there as he locked eyes with Trystan who stood behind her. The man was exchanging a confused look with Samuel. Olive shut his mouth.

“What?” Lavi huffed. “You’re going to ignore me now? You can’t just do that.”

“Yeah, I’m aware.” Olive glanced away from her and stared at the ground. He’d been aware for six years.

“Good.” Lavi beamed, chin lifted. “Now, I’m sure we can convince Uncle if we go to him together.” A pause. “And maybe we can convince him to let us out with some guards to try to find Claire and that lady.”

Olive paused and shook his head. Of course, Lavi saw the woman and Claire. She’d always been able to see things he could see, whether they were real or not. Coincidentally, she strayed the line between reality and illusion too. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Trystan study him with uncertainty.

“Uh, sir,” Trystan began.

A smile broke across Lavi’s face as she pointed down the hall. “Oh, look, it’s—!”

“Well, look at who we have here! It’s Olive Chance!” came a familiar voice.

Down the hall came a man and a woman dressed in black and white suits. White sashes imprinted with the Ophiuchian symbol were wrapped around their right arms. The woman wore a red tie, while the man wore a yellow-orange one. Gabrielle Law and Izsak Wtorek. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents.

“Miss Law,” Olive greeted them in surprise as they came to a stop in front of him. “Mr. Wtorek.”

“Olive, didn’t think we’d see you!” Izsak grinned. “How many years has it been now? Three?”

“It’s been two years,” Gabrielle replied with a yawn. She looked him up and down. “I’m glad to see that you’re all right.” She then reached for his head with her ringed hand. Before she could make contact, he slapped it away with a pointed glare. Instead of looking annoyed by this, she chuckled. “Same as ever, I see.”

Really, what a terrible personality. The most two-faced of them all.

“Look at you!” Izsak whistled. “You’ve grown so tall.” He snapped his fingers and reached into his suit pocket with a gloved hand. “I need your opinion.” There was a familiar amber glow from the area, and when Izsak pulled his hand out from his pocket, a stuffed animal rested in his palm. Pointed ears, buggy eyes, stubby tail.

Olive couldn’t help but let a smile tug at the corner of his lips as he studied the atrocity. “You’ve gotten better.”

Izsak chuckled. “That’s good to hear. Ophiuchus may outlaw the conjuring and transmutation of currency, but there’s nothing written about stuffed animals. In other words, I can start my own monopoly!”

Olive took it from the man and turned it over in his hand. Lavi skirted close to him and rubbed her fingers across its cheek. Her eyes brightened, and she brought up her other hand to squish its other cheek. “Wow,” she whispered, “it’s so ugly that it’s cute.”

“You all know each other?” Trystan’s question cut through the conversation abruptly, and all heads turned toward him. When he realized the attention, he straightened and cleared his throat. “Uh, I apologize, sirs, for interrupting your conversation. I was merely curious.”

Gabrielle regarded him before asking, “Trystan Carter, right? I remember seeing you at the Conductor Exam. I see you’re doing well for yourself. Climbed the ladder pretty quickly, too. King Augustus mentioned thinking of giving you a promotion to head royal guard.”

Olive started at this and glanced at Trystan. Their eyes met. He looked just as startled.

“I’m not surprised you asked if we know each other,” Gabrielle continued, rolling her neck. “I bet you haven’t seen our prince here talk to anyone so friendly like, right?”

What a terrible personality, Olive thought as he regarded the man and did his best to suppress a scowl.

“But to answer your question, yes, we know each other. We’ve been acquainted since six years ago.”

Trystan took a moment to digest the information. After a beat, he stiffened in surprise. “Wait, do you mean… six years ago… during the Tragedy?”

Olive stiffened in the silence that followed. And as he watched, Lavi tucked a lock of hair behind her hair with an unreadable, faraway expression. His stomach churned.

“We were one of the many peacekeepers at the scene after it happened,” Izsak explained.

Gabrielle elaborated, “The fire destroyed most evidence of ELPIS involvement in the royal palace, so we’re lucky Olive was there as key witness.”

There was a somber silence.

Before any more information could be offered, Olive interjected with feigned disinterest, “Anyways, is the meeting over?”

“Yeah, we just wrapped up,” Izsak replied, gaze lingering. “We’re working with the chair of your Investigation Bureau and Security Council to get to the bottom of this before it gets anymore out of hand.” He paused in thought. “You need to be careful, Olive.”

“He’s right you know,” Lavi added, arms crossed again.

“They seem very set on the idea that the assassins are Ariesian,” Gabrielle muttered. “Which I can’t exactly fault them for. It’s very rare for non-Ariesians to be Elementalists with the fire attribute.”

Izsak’s gaze flicked to Gabrielle’s face. “You sound unconvinced.”

Gabrielle chuckled, sliding her hands into her pockets. “I even have my reservations about whether the second group that attacked Olive last night are part of the first assassination attempt. We don’t fully understand the motive. There are too many variables to say for certain.”

And nothing could be left up to chance.

“You mean that there might be more than one group?” Lavi frowned. She gave Olive a worried look. “That’s not good.”

“Anyways”—Gabrielle sighed, waving the thought off—“all the royal guards are to submit their conductors for inspection by tomorrow night.” She nodded at the two who stood behind Olive. “Why don’t you two submit your conductors right now? I’ll handle our prince here.”

Trystan and the other guard exchanged uncertain glances, but before they could protest, Izsak stepped between them and pushed them down the hall. “Here, here,” Izsak said good-naturedly as he threw a glance back at Olive and Gabrielle, “I’ll show you where to submit them.”

It wasn’t until the three had disappeared from view that Gabrielle spoke.

“I heard that you used it again,” she said quietly. Her dark eyes seemed to bore into his face as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right? Would you like me to put in a word to Doctor Kingsley?” Olive winced at the pressure, and she pulled back in surprise. “Oh, sorry…” Another pause. “You should get your wound examined. You know how dangerous elemental vitae can be.”

“I’m fine,” Olive replied, shrugging away from the woman. With that, he inclined his head down the hall and headed in the direction. Lavi soon joined him at his side.

“Wait―where―”

“To feed my bird,” Olive said. “It’s quieter.”

“But―”

“I’ll ask for an escort home, so don’t worry. You won’t get in trouble with your superiors.”

“And he says that I have a terrible personality,” Gabrielle sighed before she shouted: “You should be going to the medical Conductors!”

Aries is a warm northern country ruled by a fair king and queen. Beneath the king and queen are feudal lords who are assigned states to govern and given certain duties in turn. The capital is New Ram City which is under the protection of the royal guards, personally selected Conductors chosen to protect the royal family.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

0.1: Ariesian Prince

“Passionate people make this world harder to live in.”

Olivier Chance

“What is the color of a person’s soul? Well, that’s an easy question to answer.”

Olivier Chance eyed Professor Morgan with annoyance. Morgan was a young professor flexing his theories and methods at the Royal University of New Ram City. Rumor had it he was only two years out from obtaining his conducting license. Rumor had it that he’d even earned the highest score on the State Conducting Exam out of his entire year. Perfect for teaching others how to score similarly on their Conducting Exams. But Olive didn’t care about those rumors. He didn’t even care about the fact that Morgan was so young. What Olive cared about was the fact that Morgan himself cared about these rumors and he let it affect his teaching style. Morgan was so desperate to please and to be liked that he’d even ask a simple question like this.

“The answer can be found by examining a person’s vitae—or so says the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Morgan said with a charming smile that almost seemed to say, please tell me you’re enjoying this lecture. “And while we’ve known how to harness vitae for energy and channel vitae in different forms for several centuries now, we’ve yet to fully understand it. Which is peculiar to think about since it’s the basis of the founding of our thirteen countries of Signum. We power our world via the vitae reservoirs found throughout it. And even more peculiar when you realize we’ve fought a war over these things! And who discovered these vitae reservoirs?” He paused for dramatic effect. “Our Ancestors, the nomads and first settlers of Signum, after whom our countries were named.”

Well, Olive supposed, as boring as it was to hear a rehash of basics, it was much better than having to slog through new topics.

“Quick question. What was one major result of this aforementioned Reservoir War?”

A hand shot up, and before Morgan even had the chance to acknowledge it, the hand’s owner answered matter-of-factly, “Well, Capricorn became a military-based government and Virgo started its isolation.”

“Okay, but—”

“And the peacekeeping city-state of Ophiuchus was founded, professor.”

“Precisely. And what purpose–”

“To mediate positive, peaceful relations between the twelve countries, professor. And, of course, to handle the terrorist group ELPIS.”

“Great, Hannah. Perfect!” The professor clasped his hands. “Now, would you mind giving the others a chance to answer my next question?” He gestured to all of them. “Back to the matter at hand. Vitae. How can we visualize a person’s vitae?”

A dozen hopeful hands flew high at the question and Olive dodged one that grazed his face. The glare he sent the girl sitting beside him went unnoticed. The offense wasn’t worth the effort of confrontation, so Olive settled on glaring out the window across the classroom. From his desk he could faintly make out the glowing cityscape beyond the rising red-brick walls of the school.

“Well, Chance, what do you think?”

Professor Morgan’s shadow passed over him.

“How do you think we can visualize a person’s vitae?” He paused. “I’ll give you a hint. It’s through the same type of device we use to power our”—he cleared his throat—“country.”

Olive turned. The professor stood in front of him now with kind eyes and a smile even more desperate to please than before.

The answer to the question was obvious. A child could’ve answered it without a second thought. But that was why Morgan was asking it. An easy question, an easy answer. A feeling of fulfillment as teacher and student. All Olive had to say was, “You can see a person’s vitae color by having them use a conductor,” and then he’d fulfill whatever childhood dream his professor was holding onto.

Instead, he shrugged and turned his attention to the window again.

“Oh, come on, Chance.” Morgan chuckled. “Give it a try. Surely, the royal tutors have taught you all about the fundamentals of vitae. What do you think? I’ll give you another hint: The people who are trained to channel their vitae through these objects, often as weapons, are called similarly—Conductors with a capital C.”

Olive was thinking. Not about the question, but about the fact that it was around noon, which meant that the guards would be switching rotation. That meant the annoyingly dutiful Alexander would be going to lunch and the blasé Jacob would be taking his place outside the classroom.

Olive stood and paid no attention when Morgan stepped back in surprise. He approached the open window and swung his legs over the ledge.

“Wha—wait—”

And he leapt.

A blur of green and brown rushed up to meet him as rustling and snapping echoed in his ears. After a couple beats, he landed on all fours in a bed of red flowers. He fisted the petals in his palm and shook off his disorientation.

Glancing upward, he found the colorful faces of Morgan and several of his classmates staring back down at him two stories up. No time nor care to read their expressions.

He dusted himself off and made his way out of the floral display and onto the stone path just beyond. The floral display he had fallen into was one of the many that lined the walkway, and the window from which he had escaped was one of many that dotted the Vitae Studies Hall. Sun sprinkled through the leaves of the trees overhead and through the archways that connected the hall to another on his right and to his left. The golden droplets of light dappled the flags swaying on the walls. In the brightness, they glowed red.

Olive gave the flags a pointed glare before he took off down the path in a dash. He could hear shouts of alarm and stampeding footsteps filter out down from the classroom window. Eventually, the sounds faded away and were replaced by the serene chirping of birds.

He slowed to a stop as the open pathway ended and led to a roofed hallway. Sunlight spilled into the corridor from open windows and painted the black doors tucked between them a blinding white.

Just as he was about to duck into the hall, one of the doors closest to the mouth swung open. Olive flung himself into the nearest floral display and scrambled up a tree. Wrapping his arms around the highest branch, Olive held his breath.

Below him came a pair of guards wrapped in red.

“Ollie, you can’t keep doing this,” whispered a voice above him. “Professor Morgan is gonna have a stress-induced heart attack one day. He really cares about you, y’know.”

There she was again. Her wisps of dark hair curled around her round face as she spied at him sternly from a branch above. The sunlight streaming in through the trees caught her hair in such a way that it looked ablaze.

“You’re too naïve,” he said. He wanted to sigh, but even that was too much effort.

“You’re too negative,” she returned with a pout. “Pessimistic.”

“Pessimistic implies that I care,” he muttered. “Which I don’t.”

He stared past her over the roof of the hall to the city that lay beyond. The sun beat down on the city traffic like a whip. They looked like dots from here—the people. Tiny dots weaving around each other and sputtering v-ehicles in single-file. Almost like ants. But if anyone was an ant, Olive reasoned, it was himself.

“Ollie…”

He looked back up at her and returned with a roll of his eyes: “It’s just a figure of speech.” He turned back to the view just in time to see a glinting speck on the horizon. A glinting speck hurtling right toward him. Closer, closer, closer.

An arrow. It was an arrow. An arrow shrouded in vermillion-red, flame-like vitae. An Ariesian must have been the archer.

Closer, closer.

He couldn’t dodge it in time.

But what he could do was try to activate his vitae and pull up his defenses. That arrow would be incinerated in an instant. But—no. That would be too dangerous.

He blinked.

The arrow pierced his shoulder and knocked him right out of the tree.

He heard a shout from a guard below.

But he felt no pain.

The air was no longer thin and dry but heavy and cold. The sun dimmed. The guards were still shouting. The flower bed on the ground was coming closer and closer to him. Rather, he was coming closer to it. It met him warmly, as did she as she knelt beside him to touch his shoulder.

Her dark hair fell like a canopy over his face as true darkness crept in at the corners of his vision. He couldn’t help but think the reason she was here was to watch this unfold. This?

Was this—

Vitae Reservoirs: are pools of hard vitae that are harvested to power the countries of Signum. A long war was fought over these things.

Lecture 56a, Professor Morgan, New Ram Royal University