Mind buzzing, Olive scrambled to his feet and to Claire’s side. The latter pushed himself to a sit 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 and suffocated the roaring fire in an instant. A haze of smoke took its place and suffocated everything in a gray.
Olive stared. What sort of misfortune—
And then he coughed. He doubled over and coughed and gagged. The haze around him was clouding everything. His sight. His mind. An endless ashen sheet of confusion.
Abruptly, a warm blue light broke through the haze, and Olive blinked up to find the white-mask staring down at him. Their knife conductor was pointed squarely at his face.
How melodramatic, he thought.
“Halt at once!” A familiar voice suddenly boomed from the darkness of the street behind them.
Olive turned his head in the direction of the sound. And in the darkness there, a blade of deep red bloomed. The face it lit up above it belonged to none other than Alexander Charming.
A fiery orange arrow burst out of the darkness just behind the man’s head, and it hurtled towards the white mask. Drawing and igniting another knife conductor in a flash of blue, 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 subjected to 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 beat of a second 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 them go in 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 alright?”
In response, 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.
“They escaped,” came a distant voice. It was Trystan, re-entering the alleyway with heavy pants. “Is the prince all right?”
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.”
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, pit-pat of his uncle’s shoes as the man 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. The throne had a gold frame that intricately twisted around a red cushion and rose up above it in the shape of ram horns. The queen’s throne that was built next to it was designed the same way, and Terra sat on it pinching the bridge of her nose.
In front of Olive’s pacing uncle stood Olive himself. To his left stood Alexander, and to the left of Alexander stood Trystan. Both men stood 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, bowing his head. “The search party we sent out several hours ago have 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 did not see a woman.”
Olive frowned at this information. Not at the fact that no one had seen the woman, but at the fact that Claire hadn’t been found. Was Claire—
Abruptly, Alexander sank to his knees startling Olive out from his thoughts. The royal guard pressed his head against the floor and clenched his fists. “My king, I am deeply ashamed that I have let the prince become harmed like this not only once but two times now. I humbly accept any punishment you bestow upon me.”
Olive uncrossed his arms. “Hey, wait a minute—”
“Olive, silence,” his uncle stated as he approached Alexander. “Alexander,” he said, “you have served the royal family for many years now and you have proved yourself worthy of your title as the head of the royal guards. After seeing the way you handled the Tragedy, I thought that there was no person better fit for the job than you.”
“Yes, my king.”
“But as you know, the Ariesian royal guards’ sole purpose is to protect not only New Ram City but the royal family. There is nothing else for them but this.” His uncle continued. “Alexander, your personal feelings towards 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 duty at an outpost at the outer city wall,” his Uncle stated without a drop of emotion.
Olive started. Wasn’t that excessive? In the end, it had been his own decision that had gotten him into the path of the assassin’s.
“But—” Olive began.
“Olive! You don’t have a say in this. Especially after your constant reckless disobedience.” His uncle snapped. “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 quietly as he stepped in front of the former royal guard, “it is your duty to guide those decisions, Alexander.” He met Olive’s gaze. “Do you understand, Olivier?”
The doors clicked open a moment later, and a royal guard walked in and up to them.
“Sir, the Ophiuchian peacekeepers are here,” she said.
“Gabrielle and Izsak…” Olive mumbled under his breath.
The guard raised her brows in surprise. “Yes, those are their names. My prince, how did you know?”
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.
His mind was buzzing. The assassins. Claire. Alexander. The woman. They were all weighing on his mind. And the weight on his shadow? Trystan and another royal guard. They were at his heels and watching him like hawks. Alexander had been the only guard to be able to truly mastered the art of discretion.
Olive clenched his fists as his gut twisted.
That was what happened when one cared about things.
“Hey, cheer up, Ollie! Maybe we could go to uncle and convince him when he gets out of the meeting!”
Olive stopped short and turned his head. There Lavi was twirling a lock of dark hair as she strayed in-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 didn’t always 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 look with the royal guard standing beside him. Olive shut his mouth.
“What?” Lavi huffed. “You’re going to ignore me now? You know you can’t just do that.”
“Yeah, I’m aware.” Olive glanced away from her and stared at the ground.
“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 that Claire person and that lady.”
Olive paused and then shook his head. Of course she saw the woman and Claire. She was always at his side ― even when he didn’t see her. She saw what he saw. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Trystan study him uncertainly.
“Uh, sir,” Trystan began.
Abruptly, a smile broke across Lavi’s face and 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 ⛎ symbol were wrapped around their right arms. The woman wore a red tie, while the man wore an orange-yellow one. Gabrielle Law and Izsak Wtorek. Ophiucian 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 alright.” She then reached for his head with her ringed. Before she could make contact he slapped it away with a pointed glare. Instead of looking annoyed by this, she merely chuckled. “Same as ever, I see.”
Really, what a terrible personality.
“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 orange 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 heavily 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?” ― the question cut through the conversation abruptly, and all heads turned towards the person who asked it. Trystan. 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.” 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 eight years ago.”
Trystan took a moment to digest the information. After a beat, he stiffened in surprise. “Wait, do you mean… eight years ago… during the Tragedy?”
Olive felt himself stiffen in the silence that followed. And as he watched Lavi tucked a lock of hair behind her hair with an unreadable, far-away expression, his stomach began to churn.
“We were one of the many peacekeepers at the scene after it happened,” Izsak responded.
Before any more information could be offered, Oliver 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 Security Council to get to the bottom of this before this 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 of Ariesian blood,” Gabrielle muttered. “Which I can’t exactly fault them for. It’s very rare for a non-Ariesians to express that sort of vitae conducting type.”
Izsak’s gaze flicked to Gabrielle’s face. “You sound unconvinced.”
Gabrielle chuckled, sliding her hands into her pocket. “I even have my reservations about whether the second group that attacked Olive last night are even a part of the first assassination attempt. We don’t even fully understand the motive. There are too many variables to say something 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 tonight.” 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 royal guard exchanged looks uncertainly with each other but before they could make any protest, Izsak stepped in-between them and pushed them forward down the hall. “Here, here,” Izsak said good-naturedly as he threw a glance back at Olive and Gabrielle, “I’ll show you who to submit it to.”
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 elemental vitae can be.”
“I’m fine,” Olive replied, shrugging away from the woman. With that, he inclined his head down the hall and began to head in the direction. Lavi soon joined him at his side.
“To feed my bird,” Olive said. “It’s more quiet.”
“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 the terrible personality,” Gabrielle sighed before she shouted: “You should be going to the medical Conductors!”