Four (1/5): chance direction

Good morning, my lovelies!

Olive snapped up in bed, heart hammering in his chest, as his eyes darted around the room. Sunlight was just beginning to spill onto his carpet from the window, and his bird was chirping its morning song at the foot of his bed.

Damn Maria.

Good morning, Maria, came Atienna’s response at the back of his mind.

Olive fell back in bed and closed his eyes tight. Just as sleep was beginning to claim him again, however, he was greeted with the rattling sounds of morning street traffic that once again echoed at the back of his mind. From Cadence’s end. It had to be.

What in the world was going on? Everything from their end was so clear now. The sounds, the colors—if he closed his eyes, he could practically see it and touch it.

He opened his eyes and glared at the ceiling. No use sleeping now.

He swung his legs off his bed, fed his bird, and then made towards the door.

“You’re up early, Ollie.”

Olive paused and turned his head. Lavi. She was sitting on the windowsill looking out at the courtyard below.

“Did something good happen?” She continued absentmindedly. 

“More like a series of unfortunate events,” Olive muttered.

“Really?” Lavi turned away from the window. “I actually liked your new friends.”

Not friends.

“It was nice speaking to someone other than you for once,” she continued, somewhat cheeky. “I mean, you’re so grumpy all the time.”

Olive froze in place. What was this? She’d never said anything like this before. Not even once. She had always just been there by his side as if she had never left, always acting as if all was right in the world. A ghost. An Illusion. Something that felt nothing and only existed as a reminder. 

But they had confirmed it, hadn’t they? The other five. 

She was more than an illusion that only he could see.

“Lavi, you—all this time…” Olive whispered, taking a step towards her. “Have you… are you lonely?”

“Huh?” Lavi frowned. After twirling a dark lock between her fingers, she looked down at her feet. “I guess it does get boring sometimes,” she admitted, pulling her knees to her chest. “I was never an extrovert like you but I’m not a hermit either, you know.” 

A terrible yet familiar feeling seized his chest. 

How could he have not realized?

“If that’s the case then…” Olive swallowed, looking away. “I’ll find a way to make it so that… you can talk to people whenever you want. I promise.” He looked up at her just to find her staring at him rather vacantly.

There was a stretch of silence. 

“Okay,” she said with a strange smile, and she disappeared. 


When Olive cracked open the door to his room, he found that it was Samuel and another guard who were posted by his door. Trystan was nowhere to be seen. 

“Oh, your highness, you’re up early…” Samuel said as he noticed Olive peeking out the doorway.

“Like I could sleep with all the racket you’re making out here,” Olive said, slipping out into the hall. “Well, I guess it’s fine since it looks like you’re temporarily free from the dog leash that Trystan has around your neck.” He looked around with disinterest. “Where is he by the way?”

Samuel and the other guard exchanged nervous looks. 

“About that…” Samuel said quietly. “Trystan’s been stripped of his position as head royal guard.”

Olive started. “What? Why? Because of what happened yesterday? That was my fault. I just passed out. As much as he’d like to, he doesn’t have the power to knock me out without touching me.”

The two exchanged looks again.

“No, it wasn’t that, your highness.” Samuel clenched the conductor that hung at his side. “Trystan has been arrested for…. treason.”

Treason…?

“They found evidence linking him to your assassination attempt,” Samuel continued. “When he was called in for his conductor inspection and questioning—well—it was all laid out there.”

A ringing began in Olive’s ears, and he felt his blood run cold.

“The conductor-type and conducting-type that he uses matched the one used on you. Plus, the timeline matched up with his transfer to the royal palace and…” Samuel looked away. “Well, everyone serving as a royal guard knows… During his days at the academy, he was very vocal about his views on the royal family and officials. It was so obvious. I can’t believe we didn’t see it.”

Olive remained silent.

“Everything is alright now, your highness,” Samuel said gently. “He tried to get close to you as head royal guard to probably finish the job he failed to do. It’s a good thing that he’s gone.” 

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt. “The Ophiuchian Agents work pretty quickly for all the trash talk everyone likes to give them.”

“No, it was actually the Investigation Bureau,” the other guard supplied. “They were running a parallel investigation themselves.”

Olive started at this information.

“At the moment the IB is trying to send the peacekeepers back to Ophiucus since the thing they came here for is over and done with,” Samuel said. “But, you know Ophiuchians. They always want to have control—”

“I’m hungry,” Olive interjected. “Let’s get breakfast.”


The chairs lining the long table within the dining room were empty as usual, although the table itself was full. Eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruits, yogurt parfaits—the surface of the table was completely cluttered with them. 

Olive settled himself down at a random chair and began to pick at the food with his fork.

Samuel and the other guard that had been posted at his door were standing a little ways away by the wall. At the opposite end of the room was another set of guards. All four of them seemed to be at ease. Olive hadn’t seen the royal guards relaxed like this in weeks. Having the weight of the assassination investigation and being suspects themselves abruptly removed from their shoulders must do wonders for the stress lines, Olive thought.

Well, it all seems a little too convenient to be true.

Right. It would be a slightly different story of Izsak and Gabrielle had closed the case but if it was the Investigation Bureau—wait.

Olive shook his head. There wasn’t any point in thinking about this. He knew that for sure. So if he knew that, then… who had thought otherwise…?

Who was here?

Olive scanned the room carefully as a vague sensation of deja vu crept along the corners of his mind. 

“So, this is the kinda stuff royalty gets treated with.”

Olive nearly jumped as the voice within his mind abruptly resounded right next to his ear. Leaning with an elbow propped up against the table to Olive’s right was one grinning Cadence Morello. She picked up an apple from the fruit tray and took a bite.

Olive blinked.

And then he realized that he was the one taking the bite, not her.

He frowned and put the apple she had made him pick up down. He glanced at the guards. As expected, they didn’t seem to register anything out of the ordinary.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” she said with a mild wince. 

What was she doing here?

Cadence shrugged as she turned around and leaned against the table with crossed arms. “I’m actually preparin’ for a job and decided to hit my favorite bar just beforehand. Was drinkin’ with some tourists and found myself here.”

There was a slight throb at Olive’s temple followed by a series of images and sounds. The first was of Cadence entering a brightly lit bar. The next was of her sitting in a booth surrounded by a group of young men and women marveling at the bar’s interior and saying something about the beauty of Geminian architecture. After that came the image of Cadence pulling out a deck of cards and setting it on the table. And then one of Cadence pulling a man’s wallet out from his pocket as she threw an arm around his shoulder. The last image—Olive somehow knew—was what Cadence was going through at that very moment. 

Classy. 

“What should I call ya by the way?” Cadence gestured to Olive. “Are you stickler for titles or do you wanna be called somethin’ else?” She raised her hands. “Just wanna get along with everyone since we’re here together.”

Olive sighed.

“Alright, your majesty. Then it’s free real estate with nicknames,” Cadence chortled. “Anyways, I couldn’t help but notice your predicament.”

It wasn’t really a predicament. 

Olive blinked, and his surroundings abruptly changed. He found himself in front of the booth Cadence was seated in. He could see the flashy jewelry worn by the people seated at her table—none of whom acknowledged him—to a startlingly clear degree, and he could hear the faint clinks of glass and silverware in the background. There was a disgustingly strong smell of v-cig smoke in the air.

Olive knew that in reality he was still sitting at the table back at Aries, and he could feel the sweetness of the parfait that he’d just spooned into his mouth. Still, it felt strange.

With an air of disinterest, he examined Cadence’s card game with the tourists. What was this? Poker?

I’ve got a good eye for people—comes with my profession, Cadence’s thoughts echoed in Olive’s mind as she flashed the woman across from her with a charming smile. Trystan—that’s tall, dark, and handsome, right? From what I can go off of from what I’ve seen, he’s a cherry boy. Honor and duty type of guy. And a school boy playin’ warrior.

Olive watched as she dealt the cards to the tourists. She placed a bet of fifty Geminian Cens.

Definitely not the type of person to try an assassination attempt. Wouldn’t want that on his record. 

The others placed their bets in what appeared to be Aquarian Dracul. 

“The Investigation Bureau thought otherwise, but maybe you’re right. Maybe I should be listening to the words of someone who’d cheat tourists out of their money instead of the state police,” Olive retorted. 

I may not know much about politics but I know enough to not trust a politician. Cadence increased her wager. And I’m pretty sure those are more of your thoughts than mine.

The tourists exchanged nervous looks. Some folded. Others clung to their cards with grins.

Anyways, cherry boy was obviously framed. Cadence increased her wager again, while patting the woman to her left on the shoulder and simultaneously, subtly pulling off the woman’s silver necklace and pocketing it. 

“What’s the point in telling me about this? Not like I can do anything. The IB already made its decision. It has nothing to do with you,” Olive muttered.

Well, the point is that your assassin is still out there and you don’t have a royal guard that’ll fly to your side on command anymore. Cadence made eye-contact with him. You’re not tellin’ me you don’t even feel a little bit worried about tall-dark-and-handsome? Not a bit of righteous justice coursin’ through your veins?

Olive frowned. He didn’t want to be hearing about that from someone like Cadence. She was probably just concerned with the possibility of her dying along with him.

Man, kid, you really don’t pull your punches, do you? Cadence raised her hand and leaned over the table to order another round of drinks from the bar. When she pulled back, she somehow managed to unfasten the wristwatch from the man sitting across from her and tucked in her palm. 

How in the world were these people not seeing this? Olive wondered. It was kind of impressive.

Anyways, shouldn’t you be a bit more concerned about dyin’? Or is this just how kids are nowadays?

“Why are you calling me a kid when you’re one yourself?” Olive returned.

Cadence’s smile cracked for a moment but she brought it back up easily. Look, I’ll admit it. I don’t wanna die. But separately from that, I don’t want you to die either. I get easily attached—what can I say?

Cadence finally revealed her cards as did two of the other tourists who had not folded. Judging by the tourists’ ecstatic faces and cheers—

“You lost,” Olive noted.

Did I? Cadence winked and tapped her full pockets.

Olive blinked.

The bar scene slowly faded away from his vision, and the dining hall came more into focus in front of him. He’d been working on an omelet the entire time he’d been speaking with Cadence. It was odd—being present in more than one place and being vaguely aware of it. 

Cadence was back standing at his left, hands on hips.

“I do think it does warrant some looking into,” came a familiar, sudden, quiet voice to his right. “Being wrongly accused and arrested is a bit pitiable, don’t you think? But it’s ultimately your decision, Olive.”

Olive didn’t need to turn his head to see who it was. Atienna. Cadence offered her a tip of her hat at her sudden arrival. 

“You two must have a lot of free time on your hands,” Olive muttered with a sigh. “Only if all normal adult life was like that.”

“Thought you said I was a kid,” Cadence returned cheekily. “But really—”

“Fine. I’ll look into it,” Olive sighed, rising to a stand. “I probably won’t be able to do anything but I don’t want your deaths on my hands—”

“Your highness?”

Olive jumped in surprise. Samuel was standing right behind him with a puzzled expression. 

“Were you speaking to me sir?” Samuel asked. “I couldn’t hear you from my post.”

Olive looked to his left and right. Atienna and Cadence were gone. Of course.


It wasn’t hard to give Samuel and the other guard the slip when they brought Olive to the royal palace upon his request. They weren’t as tightly wound as Trystan nor were they as keen as Alexander. In fact, as soon as they arrived inside the main entrance hall, the two immediately began to speak jovially with the other guards present.

It was expected. They weren’t exactly the most attentive before or during the assassination incident. 

Olive waited for the guards to start talking about Trystan and how they had seen his betrayal coming before Olive leisurely made his exit.

People love to gossip, came Cadence’s observation.

Really. How did she have this much free time on her hands, Olive thought to himself as he slipped through a door that led to the stairwell. He peered up, squinting at the stretch of carpeted red that extended up numerous zigzagging staircases. He then glanced down and found the same red zigzagging downwards. 

Okay, so you wanted to visit your family. That’s really cute of ya, but what does this have to do with the whole Trystan and assassin thing?

“The royal dungeon is beneath the palace,” Olive sighed. “It’s where Trystan is being kept and interrogated, probably.”

Saints. You keep a dungeon beneath your royal palace? Monarchies are really somethin’ else.

Olive waved away the thought and began his descent down the stairs. He moved quickly, but quietly. Tense. As he went deeper and deeper down, the decorative walls were replaced with bare unpainted ones and the carpet traded for hard concrete flooring. 

Olive paused as loud clanging echoed from below him. He pressed his back against the left wall and continued slower. When he reached the next floor space, he peered cautiously around the corner. A great oak door. The light leaking from the space beneath the door was warm. There was a sweet smell wafting out.

The kitchen. 

He quickly passed this area and descended further.

It was after three more levels that he reached an absurdly long set of stairs. It seemed to go on for miles, and he began to become self-conscious of his labored breathing as he continued down. As he neared the stair’s bottom, he began to hear a sound other than his panting.

Stomping leather boots. 

He paused just in front of the threshold where the floor level met the stairway. 

It was dim here. The floor was made of cobblestone, the walls of brick. There were wooden tables draped in royal red sheets along the walls, and a desk was placed at the very corner. Large pillars ran from the floor to the high rise ceilings.  It was a little bit too far for him to see it from this angle, but he could just barely make out the fringes of where the wrought iron door leading to the jail cell room stood.  

Voices and footsteps drifted towards him.

“—it was really Trystan. I always had a bad feeling about him when we were together at the academy.”

“Right? He was always so snooty. Talkin’ about how reliant we’ve become on Ophiuchus—look at him now! Caught by not Ophiucus but by us—ha!”

“Yeah, he was only popular there because his grades were kinda good and he was kinda okay with his conductor. Nothin’ special.”

Three pairs of footsteps began to drift away.

Olive darted forward, hurtling towards the table that was just across the room. He scrambled to the floor and rolled underneath the tablecloth before clamping his hand over his mouth. Damn it—this was so stupid. 

What’s with all the sneakin’? Can’t ya just use your authority to just waltz in there? 

“I’m a prince. I’m just there for appearances. I don’t actually have any say in anything.” Olive whispered under his breath, before he paused and sent a look over his shoulder. “If they find me here, they’ll put more guards on me and I’ll never be able to sneak back in here. I’m not crawling around for fun but if that’s what you’re into—”

“Hey, guys, I’m kinda hungry. How about we grab lunch in the kitchen upstairs real quick?” One of the guards suddenly sighed.

“I was hoping you’d say that. I was just about to eat my hand,” responded another.

“You’ve been liking food a lot recently huh?” Asked the third.

“Are you calling me fat!?”

Olive waited for the shadows of feet to pass him and listened for the pad of footsteps up to fade up the stairs before peeling out from beneath the table.

Wait, wait, wait. What if they’re more of ‘em?

“They’re not,” Olive said, brushing off the dirt from his shirt. “Clement, Adam, and Leslie are the only ones on guard around this time since it’s near lunch. They always skip out for food.”

Wow, y’know the rotation of your royal guards? You’re pretty good, kid. 

“It’s nothing special. Just helps for when I sneak around.” Olive took the time to look around the room. There was not much to see that he hadn’t been able to see earlier. Just a v-light that gave the room sparse light and a thin window high up near the ceiling. 

He walked over to the cellar door and grimaced at the rust growing along its edges. He reached for the handle and paused. He grabbed the padlock that hung there.

As expected, it was locked. 

Olive took a step back and scanned the walls.

What’re you doin’?

“Looking for the keys,” Olive sighed. When he noticed that the key holder built into the wall was empty, he swore under his breath before addressing Cadence. “What are you doing? Why are you still here?”

Jeeze. Don’t take it out on me, your highness. You could always lock-pick it.

“I’m not the type of person to learn how to break into places in my free time.”

Well, you’re in luck because I happen to be the type of person that does.

Olive frowned. “Are you planning on overriding me?”

Nah, I’ll just tell ya how to do it. Not sure what model that is but I’m pretty sure usin’ the end of that pin in your shirt’ll do.

Creepy how she knew that, Olive thought as he reached for the gold-pressed pin and unfastened it. 

A minute later and he was kneeling on the ground blankly jabbing the end of his pin into the padlock with little result.

No, no, no, you can’t just go straight in like that—

This was stupid. How else was he supposed to do it?

To the side! You’re supposed to feel for it and twist it and—

“You really should avoid becoming a teacher,” Olive muttered under his breath. “Or a lock picker. Your job prospects would be—”

“What are you doing?” A cool voice abruptly cut their conversation short.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he could feel Cadence’s heart skip a beat as well. A chill crept up his spine after, but it was not a hair-raising chill. Rather, it was a familiar one.

Olive rose to his feet and turned.

It was the Capricornian Lieutenant. Werner Waltz. He stood there with his hands folded behind his back inspecting the room with an unreadable expression. 

“It seems as if I’ve synchronized with you and Morello,” Werner said calmly. He raised his hand briefly to his temple before clasping it behind his back again. “This is reckless.” 

“I don’t have time for this,” Olive grumbled, turning away from him.

Cadence tried to assuage Werner while Olive continued to work on the padlock which he was now tempted to smash his head against.

“So you don’t believe Trystan was the perpetrator,” Werner said after a lengthy pause. “Then who do you think did it?”

“Don’t know,” Olive said. “Don’t really ca—”

Werner held up his hand, cutting him off short. “Someone’s coming.” 

“Wha—”

“You need to hide.” 

Olive’s eyes darted around the room. The desk. Beneath there. 

He made for it. Or at least he tried to. He barely took his first step before he tripped over his own foot and face-planted on the ground. 

Kid—

Shadowy arms abruptly wrapped around Olive’s waist and drew him upwards. Upwards off of his feet. Up, up, up, up, until he was near the ceiling and straddled against one of the pillars. Before he could scream, a hand was clamped over his mouth and a familiar shhhh brushed his right ear. 

Don’t panic, came Werner’s voice although Olive could no longer see him. 

Below them, one of the guards Olive recognized from earlier approached the cellar door. The guard unhooked something from his belt and hung on the wall. The key. 

The guard let out a sigh before rubbing his face, muttering under his breath, and heading back up the stairs. The sound of his footsteps echoed for a moment before silence fell. 

Olive swallowed and craned his head neck to look over his shoulder. He glared into the shadows, and then—

“Claire?!” Olive whispered incredulously, jerking his head away from the clamped hand.

“Olive!”

The sight was almost unbelievable. There Claire was hanging upside down from the pillar. He was using his legs to wrap around the thing and hold himself in place. 

“Wha—what are you?!”

“Wait, wait, let me get us down first,” Claire whispered back in a strained voice.

A minute later and they were both on the ground. Claire collapsed back against the pillar behind him and sighed— “You’re pretty heavy you know.”

Olive frowned deeply. 

“Anyways, I’m really glad you’re okay after yesterday. Should you really be—”

“What are you doing here?”

“I—what do you mean—”

“Don’t play dumb.” Olive looked him over. “What are you doing here in the dungeons?”

Claire’s eyes bulged. “This is a dungeon?” He looked around bewildered. “You have dungeons beneath your royal palace?”

 “Wha…?”

“I thought this was the treasury.” Claire took a step back and swiveled in a full circle. He pointed at Olive. “I thought you were trying to steal something so that’s why I—what are you doing here then?”

Olive shook his head incredulously before he snapped: “First off, does this look like a treasury room to you?!” He startled himself with his own shout and pulled back with crossed arms. He continued more quietly: “Secondly, why would I steal some from the treasury? And third, what were you doing looking for the treasury in the first place?”

Claire opened his mouth and then closed it before he said, “The Ramicus…”

Olive stared. “You broke into the treasury of the royal palace to try and steal a pot that I was going to give to you.”

“I thought… since you fainted… I didn’t want to burden you with that.”

“It’s more of a burden now that you’re here—”

There isn’t time for this. Werner’s thoughts cut through sharply like a knife. You came here with an objective. 

Why was that Capricornian even here watching him?

The prince clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned away from Claire. He walked over to the cellar door and unhooked the key from where it hung before inserting it in the slot.

“Wait, what are you doing here though?” Claire pressed from behind him. “I mean… the dungeon—isn’t it dangerous?”

Kid—it was Cadence now—careful.

“Trystan was arrested for corroborating my assassination,” Olive stated plainly. 

That’s the opposite of bein’ careful.

“Trystan?” 

Olive didn’t answer him and pushed the door open. The metal door creaked on its hinges and scrapped against the floor. Olive stepped inside with Claire following shortly behind him.

Surprisingly, the room inside was well lit.

The cellar room consisted of roughly ten individual jail cells—five on the left and five on the right—with roughly six inches of spacing in-between each. A wide strip of walk space divided the room in half, and at the center of the walk space was a long table piled with an assortment of documents and items. 

Only one cell was occupied—the one closest to the window. The figure cloaked in shadows there had been sitting on the bed inside the cell and had raised his head at their entrance. When the figure registered them, he shot up to a stand and ran to the bars.

“Your highness?!”

Olive frowned and put a finger to his lip.

“W-What are you doing here?” Trystan whispered.

Trystan definitely looked worse for wear. There were bruises on his cheek, and his left eye was swelling. His fingers that were wrapped around the bars of the cell were raw red. It looked like the Investigation Bureau had interrogated him thoroughly. But even still— 

His eyes were strong.

They glimmered with a sort of fiery intensity that Olive supposed all foreigners thought Ariesians possessed.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Olive returned. 

Trystan’s eyes widened at the implication, and his grip on the bars tightened. “It wasn’t me, your highness. I would never dare to take the life of a fellow Ariesian—much less a member of the royal family. It’s my duty to protect them.”

“You sure like waxing lyrical,” Olive said, looking him over. “But the evidence is really stacked up against you. You really need to start keeping your political opinions to yourself.”

Trystan froze.

“I read through some of your papers earlier today.” Olive reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of folded paper. He opened it and began to recite in a mocking tone: “‘The election of feudal lords has moved from competitions of merit to calculated nepotism. The royal family has devolved from its former state of reassuring the people through their image to being mere figureheads. They need to be reformed.’”

That’s a bit much.

 Olive ignored Cadence and said, “Anybody reading your papers would think you were radical enough to act on them. Maybe you’re radical  enough to think that an assassination would solve everything.”

Trystan’s grip on the bars loosened and he stared into the floor. “That’s… not the way true, permanent changes are made.”

“Are you going to break him out then?” Claire asked suddenly, sounding a bit hopeful.

Trystan finally noticed the Saggitarian standing behind Olive. “You’re… How—”

“Long story,” Claire said with a wave. “But we’re going to get you out of here—”

“No, that would be stupid,” Olive interjected. 

Claire paused. “We’re not breaking him out?”

“Firstly, there’s no ‘we’—”

Odds are better with ‘we’.

“Secondly, breaking him out would cause more trouble for him and for me,” Olive continued, ignoring Cadence’s thought. “Doesn’t help him look innocent.” 

Olive turned away from the cell and walked to the center table. He moved aside the papers there that detailed aspects of the case recorded by the Investigation Bureau. There, beneath the file. He picked up two long, thin metal objects that had been set to the side together. He held them loosely for the other two to see.

“My arrow…” Trystan identified. “And the one you were shot with.”

“Since the IB didn’t have the actual conductor used on me, they focused on the conducting type used instead and the fact that an arrow was used. A conductor who is a fire elementalist who uses a bow and arrow.” He pointed to the tips of the arrows. “But the real evidence is here.” He tapped his shoulder. “And here.”

“You believe me?” Trystan asked quietly.

“You’re too stuck up to dirty your hands trying to kill me.” Olive waved him off. “But who knows.” With that, he headed back towards the door.

“Your highness—no, Olive.”

Olive paused and turned.

Trystan met his eyes. “Thank you.” 

The very sentence made him nauseous. Disgusting. 

He exited the cellar without another word. Claire followed shortly behind him.

Abruptly, the Sagittarian said, “Let me help you, Olive.”

Olive stopped in his tracks, turned, and raised a brow. 

This guy is too suspicious. No one ever offers help without schemin’ somethin’ behind the scenes.

Olive had to agree with Cadence on that part but—

Claire pressed on: “You’ve seen me. I’m pretty good at getting in and out of places. Maybe even better than you.”

He was pushing it now.

“Why do you want to even help me?” Olive asked.

“Like you said.” Claire shrugged. “I’m an idiot.”

Maybe he really was an idiot. 

Or maybe he’s playin’ idiot.

Either way—

Someone is coming—Werner again, cutting through their thoughts with his clipped voice. Storming of footsteps down the stairwell followed.

Olive grabbed Claire’s arm. “Okay fine. I’ll let you be an idiot. How did you get in here?” 

Claire pointed up to the window.


Half an hour later and they arrived behind in front of the place where they had first met. The specialized conductor store. They entered the building side-by-side and were welcomed by a familiar mess of tables topped with conductor parts and a haze of smog.

Didn’t think this’d be the kind of place a prince’d hang out at.

Olive nearly jumped at the sound of Cadence’s voice. She had been silent during their journey here. He had for a moment had the hopeful thought that he was finally left alone. Why in the world was she still here—

“… Chance?” The owner of the shop appeared out from behind the curtains at the back of the store. Wiping her hands on a rag that hung at her waist, she walked up to the counter and squinted at him.

“Didn’t expect you to be here so soon,” she said. She glanced at Claire. “You were here the other night, weren’t you? You know each other?”

“Claire.” Olive thumbed Claire. “Marta.” Olive pointed to the woman. Introductions done and over with. 

“Nice to meet you, Claire.” Marta gave the addressed a slight bow of her head before turning her attention back to Olive. “You here to sleep again or…?”

“I’m actually here about that thing you were talking about last week.”

“That thing?” — a question from both Claire and Cadence.

“My vitae-spectrophotometer!” Marta boomed, causing Claire to start. “ I’m finishing up the trials as we speak. I’m hoping to get it board-approved at Ophiuchus by the end of next month.” 

“I was wondering if I could use it.” 

Marta paused. “Use it?”

“Borrow it,” Olive tried.

Marta looked unconvinced.

Tell her that you’ll convince your uncle and aunt to set up an exhibition to promote her invention thing.

Why? It wasn’t like he could actually convince them of that, and he doubted Marta cared.

But she doesn’t know that. And besides, there’s one thing I know about anyone who creates anything— they always seek validation.

With nothing to lose, Olive told her what Cadence told him to tell her. And—

Without another word, Marta took them to the back of her store. It was as cluttered as Olive expected it to be but for some odd reason he felt an itch to clean it up. It’s appearance was… unacceptable. 

After rummaging beneath her desk at the corner of the room she pulled out a large rectangular contraption and hefted onto the desk. It was black with two slots set slightly off-center. It was connected by two cables to a general generator conductor that was square and white and to a large, cylindrical, clear glass insulator. 

The generator conductor was an Ariesian brand—the obnoxious Ariesian ram was printed on its center and everything—and read “100 VPps” and 10K VP charge. One hundred vitae particles per second. And ten thousand vitae particles stored inside? That was pretty good. 

Noticing Olive’s stare, Marta shrugged. “Plugging into the vitae provided by the city generator conductors is too unreliable.”

Claire looked between them in confusion. “Sorry… I’m confused… what does this do?”

“Whenever someone uses a non-general conductor, some of their vitae lingers on not only the conductor but whatever they used their conductor on,” Olive said. “A manipulators vitae’ll still be in whatever they manipulated. If an externalist uses a conducting gun, their vitae will linger on whatever they shoot at. And, well, you can see why elementalists can be so dangerous.” He pulled out the two arrows he had tucked into his coat pocket and nodded to the device. “This thing can extract and read that vitae.”

“Oh! So it’s like the V-Type Test they give you so that you can find out your conducting type!” 

“Don’t compare my baby to that simple thing!” Marta snapped. She placed a gentle, loving hand on the device. “The V-Type test isn’t sophisticated like this thing. This baby here—it can read vitae colors. And not just of human beings—no, that would be too boring. My vitae-spectrophotometer can read the colors of anything.”

“I see,” Claire said despite not seeing.

“Everyone has a unique color to their vitae, so…” Olive removed the arrowhead from the Trystan’s arrow and moved towards the machine as Marta began to mess with the cables connecting everything together.

“You sure know a lot about conducting,” Claire noted.

“Not conducting. Vitae theory goes over my head. But… Conductors—yeah, I know a thing or two,” Olive corrected absentmindedly as he set the arrowhead in one of the slots. Marta handed him a cubical glass cover to slip over the thing. “I wanted to be a conductor engineer when I was younger.”

“What made you change your mind?”

Both Claire and Cadence asked the question. 

“I realized it was stupid. Pointless,” Olive answered as he helped Marta check the cables. “You make things thinking that you’re helping people by making them. That you’re making a difference. But that’s just you trying to reassure yourself that something you’re putting so much effort into actually matters. It’s stupid.” He moved away so that the mechanic could hook an empty vial to the other slot. “Sometimes just by doing that you make it worse for everyone else without realizing it.”

Damn, kid. Uh, are you alright?

Marta ran the machine. 

After half an hour, a wispy light began to spill into the empty vial. They then tested the assassin’s arrow next. And after another half an hour, another empty vial was filled. 

After retrieving the vials, Olive held them up to the light. The one labeled ‘death arrow’ contained a swirling orange-red light while the one labeled ‘Trystan’ contained a pale-rose light.

“They’re different!” Claire exclaimed, a grin breaking across his face. “This proves Trystan is innocent!”

“It’s not enough,” Olive said. He tapped his shoulder. “We need to test one more thing.”

After the third vial was filled and Olive’s shoulder was treated, they examined the contents of the former. It swirled a red orange color, matching the color of the vitae inside the tube labeled ‘death arrow’. 

“Now we’ve proven Trystan’s innocence,” Olive said, slipping the vials into his coat pocket. “And—”

“I don’t get what’s going on and I don’t want to get involved,” Marta interjected bluntly. “But you’re going to have that exhibition set up for me, right?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. You’ll have your moment in the spotlight,” Olive muttered. He tapped his pocket where the vials were stored. “But first I have to turn this into—”

“Wait.” Claire gave a rare frown. “Is that a good idea? I mean, you already know you can’t trust some of the people at top. They might just get rid of the evidence as soon as you give it to them.”

I agree, came Werner’s sudden thought, jot. Caution is key.

Had he been silently watching this entire time? Talk about creepy.

But he had a point.

“I’ll hold onto it until I can get to Gabrielle or Izsak—they’re Ophiuchians that’re here to investigate this mess.”

“That’s a good idea,” Claire approved. He checked his wristwatch. “Oh—I have to go now. Sorry.” Before Olive could respond, Claire had already made it to the curtains. “But I’ll keep in touch.”

Somethin’ about that kid, came Cadence’s thought. Your highness, don’t mean to get in-between you two, but I know a liar when I see one.

THREE CONNECTING PIECE: convergence

It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.

Saints. It hurt. 

Even after the healers and Transmuters had come and gone saying that all was in order, it still hurt. Even after they had informed him of what had occurred—that he had fainted in the bathroom, that Trystan who had just been called in for questioning an hour earlier had brought him back to his room, that he had been out for several hours.  Even after he bit his tongue and kicked them all out of his room, it still hurt. But that didn’t matter. 

As soon as Olive was alone, he ran to the door to make sure it was shut tightly and then fell back against it and slid to the ground. 

It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. But—

But that wasn’t what was important. What was important was… What was important was… 

Grunting, Olive scrambled to his feet and spun around the room.

“Enough already.” He snapped at the ceiling. “I don’t care if you wanna mess around and mess up my life. I’m already screwed as it is. If you’re not real—fine. I already know I’ve got screws loose. But if you’re real…” He glared at the corners of his room, fists balled 

“Don’t you dare… give me hope.”

Silence answered him. Deafening silence.

“Well, fine.” He turned away and faced the door. “It’s all pointless anyways.” He paced towards the door but stopped short with his hand on the doorknob. His grip on it tightened, and he bit down on the inside of his mouth. “No, you know what. No.” He turned away and walked forward, arms crossed. “Enough already! You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.”

His voice echoed around the corners of the room. When the echo of his voice died another sound came to take its place. There wasn’t a word Olive could use to describe it. Maybe it was like something breaking? Something cracking apart? A clapping? Whatever the sound was, it unfurled from all directions, into all directions. His surroundings reverberated with the noise and then cracked and fragmented. Different colors and sensations. Hot and cold. Blue and green. Gold and orange. White and black.

And then as the sceneries melted together, five figures appeared before him. 

There was the woman in the window with the flowers—Atienna—sitting at the foot of his bed surrounded by a garden of flowers that Olive knew was not really there. Just a little ways away from her sitting at his windowsill was not her boyish, red-haired young woman who had cards in her hands and a smile on her face—a smile that began to slide down into a gawk. Her gaze fell away from her cards and towards a man who stood opposite her beside Olive’s closet: a dark man with square glasses resting over his dark eyes. Standing just a few feet away from him was the green-eyed woman who had an unnerving demeanor about her. Even as their eyes met, her smile remained unfazed. It may have even grown brighter.

“What is this…?” The white-haired man—the soldier with ice blue eyes that Olive had seen aiming a conductor at an unarmed man on that moonlit night—who stood at the corner of the room whispered as he rubbed his temple. The soldier then swept the room with an expression that was at first horrified and then reserved. Without another word, he brushed past Olive and headed towards the door. He tried it. It did not budge. And so instead, the man paused there with his gloved hand pressed against the frame of the door. Calmly, he said, “This is a hallucination.”

Atienna stared at the man and began to reach out for him when an exclamation cut her off short—

“Atienna?”

Atienna looked back at the red-haired, young woman who had called her name, and her dark eyes widened. “Cadence?”

“Spirits!” The green-eyed woman exclaimed abruptly, loudly, exuberantly, as she jumped up onto Oliver’s bed with widespread arms. She looked down at all of them with a blinding smile. “Why is it that you have summoned me here?”

Atienna, who was now halfway off of the bed, who was no longer surrounded by her garden of flowers, blinked up at her with a smile that seemed almost unnatural. “Maria..? You know I’ve said that we’re not spirits.”

The woman—Maria—blinked down at her and scratched her head. “You are—Atienna, yes? But if you are not a spirit then…”

“I ask that none of you move.” The man with the glasses said with an air of authority that did not match the tilt of his head. He extended his hand out to no one in particular. “I am Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. Currently, I am investigating—” 

“Wait,” Cadence interjected as she studied the man, “aren’t you—”

“Huh?” Maria tilted her head at Jericho, before she crouched so she was eye level with him. “Hey, I know your voice!”

“Can someone tell me what is goin’ on here?” The red-haired woman snapped as she leapt up from the windowsill and threw down her cards. “Even this is gettin’ a bit too much for me. Where am I?”

“This is not real.” The soldier, eyes closed, chanted from his corner. “I am suffering from a head injury. A concussion. This is not real. I need to inform a medical Conductor of my hallucinations. This is not real.”

“Uh — Werner, right?” Cadence pulled back from her outburst and peered at the man. “Are ya’ alright?”

The soldier continued to mumble. Cadence continued to peer. The green-eyed woman and the agent continued to speak over one another. And Atienna continued to observe them all with an expression that was either one of curiosity or amusement.

Olive himself observed the chaos unfolding in front of him for what seemed like hours before he felt something thin and brittle inside of him snap in two.

“Oh my saints — just shut up already!” He snapped so loudly that he almost thought he’d torn his vocal chords.

Heads turned. Gazes became fixated. Voices were silenced.

“Look, I don’t get what’s going on, and normally I wouldn’t care.” He crossed his arms. “But…” He pointed at Atienna. “You saw her. You could see her. You could see Lavi…” He took a step forward. “Right?”

Atienna lifted her head and opened her mouth to respond but—

“Wait a minute, aren’t you that prince? The Ariesian one!” Cadence said, jabbing a finger in Olive’s direction. “Yeah, I recognize ya! From the newspapers!”

The soldier stiffened from the corner of his eye. “Ariesian prince…?”

Cadence stepped forward and eyed Olive up and down. “The tabloids were sayin’ that you were in ‘hopeless, irrecoverable condition’, but you’re lookin’ pretty good, kid.” She offered up a smile that reminded Olive of the feudal lords in the court.

“That’s not the point—” 

“Prince?” Maria jumped down from the bed and came to a stand right in front of him. She was tall—he realized—and she had to stoop slightly to peer into his face. He could see all the flecks of green in her irises now. They looked almost inhuman. “I’ve never seen a prince before—wait a moment. You are the boy! From that night! The grumpy, short one!”

“I—what?” Olive recoiled before he glowered. “I don’t want to be talked down by someone who—”

“Who said anything about talking down to?”

“Is it customary to shout when meeting a large amount of people like this?” Jericho interjected. 

Everyone stared at the Ophiuchian for a long second. 

Atienna took the opportune moment of silence to step forward with raised hands. “Everyone, please calm down.” Her voice was gentle, deep, and quiet, reminding Olive of the sound of owls hooting in the quiet of a dead night. “This is the first time we’ve been able to talk all together like this so we should try to understand what’s going on, don’t you think?” She glanced at Olive and flashed him an expression of sympathy which he bristled at. “After we gain at least a little bit of an idea of what is happening then we can move on to our individual issues… if that’s alright with everyone?”

“That is an appropriate idea.” Jericho gave a thumbs-up from his corner. “This could aid in my investigation.” He gave another thumbs-up with his other hand.

He was definitely a weird one. Well, whatever.

“Whatever you say, doll.” Cadence tilted her hat with a charming smile. 

Olive gave Atienna an affirmative nod but then found his gaze drifting over to the corner of the room. Atienna and then Cadence followed his gaze and locked eyes with the soldier who stood there still stiff as stone.

Cadence quirked a brow and called back to him, “You gonna join us, good sir?”

There was an uncertain pause of silence, and in that silence the soldier seemed to appraise them with scrutiny. His eyes were sharp, cold, calculating. Whatever meltdown he’d been going through earlier he seemed to have recovered from. 

“I mean,” Cadence hummed, “if we’re all going crazy we should at least try to understand it, right?”

“If this is how this situation is going to be handled,” the soldier said finally, unravelling himself from his corner of the room and falling in place beside the peacekeeper, “I will partake. I believe that we should start with introductions first.”

“Call this a wild guess, I feel like we all sort vaguely know each other’s names already.” Cadence said pointedly, easing her way back onto the windowsill she’d first been sitting on when she’d arrived in Olive’s room. 

“Things should not be left to assumption.” The soldier replied coolly. He folded his gloved hands behind his back and seemed to put away whatever nervousness he’d shown earlier with the motion.

He was weird too. 

“Right, right.” Cadence nodded as she hopped off the windowsill. She tilted her hat at them. “The name’s Cadence Morello. I’ll be open with ya, so I hope all of ya will be open with me. Born in Aries, raised in Gemini. Currently working in the Twin Cities. Nice to meet ya.”

Something about the way Cadence spoke made Olive want to befriend her which rang alarm bells in Olive’s mind because he never wanted to befriend anyone.

“Twin Cities?” Maria exclaimed suddenly before she chuckled. “I was just there a couple of days ago! Such a fun place.”

“Did ya now—”

“We should stay on task,” the soldier advised, raising his hand to stop the conversation from derailing any further. “I am Werner Waltz, First Lieutenant serving in the Capricornian Army, 212th Division of the Border Force.”

Carpicornian Army. Border Force. Olive felt a chill run down his spine, as he recalled staring into the whites of that young soldier’s eyes the night he’d somehow found himself in Werner’s presence. Olive had felt it then. The intent to kill. The lack of hesitation. To somehow reach that point—it made Olive’s stomach churn.

The green-eyed woman clapped her hands loudly and rose to a stand above the bed. Olive was jarred out of his thoughts and took a quick look around the room to make sure he wasn’t the only one who found her behavior strange. Sure enough, Cadence and Werner were giving her odd looks. Atienna, however, had an expression that betrayed curiosity. Jericho did not show any reaction at all.

Taking a deep bow, the green-eyed woman introduced herself with a grin, “Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez of Gloria’s Grail—here at your service! I am excited to discover more things about you all!”

“Atienna Imamu.” Atienna gestured to herself, tucking a stray dark curl behind her ear with downcast eyes. “I… am the daughter of the current chieftain of the Imamu Tribe in Virgo.”

The peacekeeper’s introduction came next, and he stepped forward with a hand extended in greeting: “I am Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. Currently, I am in the Twin Cities of Gemini investigating the disappearance of a fellow agent. We believe that it may involve ELPIS.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

“Ok, so we got the who’s,” Cadence drew. “Now we need to know the what’s and why’s, right?”  

“Yes, that would be the next logical step.” Werner affirmed. He gestured to them all. “If this is indeed real, what exactly is this and why is it happening?”

“Oh, it’s real alright.” Cadence leaned forward, nodding at Jericho. “I met him in the flesh just the other day. Saved my ass too.” She winked at him. “Owe ya one.”

“Just because you two have claimed to have met beyond this,” Werner interjected, gesturing to the space in between them, “does not mean it is real. However, it is what must be worked with.”

“Got ya, got ya.” Cadence leaned back. “Y’know, you make a lotta sense when you’re not mumblin’ to yourself in some corner.” She flashed a sly grin.

Werner did not react with a cold snap of rightness nor a gaze of disapproval as Olive had been expecting. Rather, he appeared startled: “That was… inappropriate of me.” He cleared his throat. “Regardless, I need confirmation from you all on what you are seeing right now. At the moment, I am standing in the communications cabin at my camp. I know this with certainty. However,” he paused, glancing around Olive’s room, “there is an image superimposed on my surroundings.” 

“Yeah, it’s my room.”

“I see.” Werner glanced around the room again, gaze lingering on Olive’s unmade bed for a second longer. “Then, is it the same case for all of you?”

Cadence nodded, bending down to pick up the cards off of the floor. “I’m sittin’ in my apartment right now but I…” She rose to a stand and ran a finger along the frame of the windowsill. “Yeah… definitely… this is weird.”

“So, it appears as if somehow we’ve synchronized with Prince Chance’s location, although we are not actually present.” Werner concluded. “And this is not the first time it has happened, correct?”

“For me, this synchronization has happened quite a few times,” Atienna replied with a thoughtful expression. “I believe it’s happened between us, Werner, at least once.”

Werner seemed caught off guard by the comment and studied Atienna with a frown. 

“Synchronization?” Maria repeated as she fell flat back onto Olive’s bed. “Is that what this is called?”

“Are you clean to be jumping on my bed?” 

“Huh?”

“We need to stay on topic. Referring to incidents like these as ‘synchronization’ will aid only our communication,” Werner interjected. He frowned and then suddenly looked tentative, cautious. “It appears that during synchronization, there are times when…” He trailed off.

“Like a flooding,” Atienna supplied, offering him a small smile of affirmation. “The synchronization with one person overwhelms the other.” She tilted her head, placing a hand on her cheek. “Feelings and thoughts of another come in so strongly that they overtake you. I believe I experienced something similar recently.” She looked to the side. “Although, I can’t remove myself from responsibility just because of that.”

“Then—” Werner began before he seemed to catch himself. When he received an inquiring look from Atienna, he said, “We should save our personal questions for the end.”

“Okay so when we experience this synchronization thing, we end up crisscrossin’ like this or whatever. Flooding is when someone else’s feelings and thoughts or whatever overwhelm you,” Cadence summarized. “Now, I was hopin’ for some reassurance that you’re also all seen some weird stuff. Like vision weird. I mean, as much as I’d like to be psychic, I’d rather not see some weird bird man on fire when I’m mindin’ my own business.”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. How—she saw? The nightmare that kept Olive from sleeping every night. That memory that had become twisted over the eight years since then. 

“Oh, I saw that too!” Maria exclaimed. “What exactly was that?”

No. She saw too.

Of course, they saw. Synchronization. But memories too? Dreams? What else could they see and feel? Could they feel the panic seizing his chest right now? The fear? No. Get out—

“It’s alright, Olive,” Atienna murmured, her voice cutting through him like a knife. “Let’s not delve into it too much.”

He looked up from the spot he’d been drilling a hole through with his eyes on the ground. They were all looking at him. Maria with a bit of confused curiosity. Jericho with a blank stare. Atienna with the same sympathy in her eyes as always. And Werner with furrowed brows.

The soldier studied Olive for a moment before he nodded. “This is good information. Now we know that memories may also factor into the equation.”

“I may have an idea.”

All heads turned to Jericho. 

“You nearly died with the assassination attempt, correct, Prince Olive Chance? Around four or five days ago.” Jericho asked matter-of-factually.

Olive shrugged and nodded, grateful for the deviation, although he was unnerved at the bluntness. He could feel Atienna shoot him a look of concern and he could even feel the emotion which unnerved him even more.

“And you said you were Atienna Imamu, correct? You were poisoned around that time  too.”

Atienna brought a hand to her mouth, eyebrows shooting up in surprise. But then her hand lowered and a polite smile took the place of her gaping mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry you had to experience something like that. I wasn’t aware our synchronization was happening as early as that.”

“It was not because of synchronization. Ophiuchus keeps tabs on every country in Signum. Even the ones in extreme isolation,” Jericho said bluntly.

Atienna lowered her hand and clasped it over her other. “I see… that’s how peace is kept outside, is it?”

“I fell down the stairs four days ago too,” Jericho continued calmly. “I was in critical condition.”

“Must’ve been a long flight of stairs,” Cadence whistled. 

“It was.” Jericho informed her. “In fact, it holds the record of being the longest staircase in Signum.”

There was a pause. Olive resisted rolling his eyes.

“Right…” Cadence raised a brow. “Anyways, I was caught up in an accident around that time too. Saint’s must be on my side with how I survived that one.”

“I was also injured four days ago by a conducting ray,” Werner affirmed. “It was near a vital area. I don’t believe in miracles, but if I were to speak in such terms I would call it something like that.”

Everyone turned to Maria who blinked back at them perplexed.

“Well, I can’t really recall ever doing something like nearly dying,” she hummed. “I mean I will never die.” Her eyes were bright, confident, shining, and the way she said the odd phrase was matter-of-factual.

Olive could feel that she indeed believe that she’d never die which was a concept Olive found hard to wrap his head around. This woman had more screws loose than he did, he concluded.

“But I did fall into the ocean four days ago. It was a nice swim.”

“So, that settles it. It happened because we all nearly kicked the bucket.” Cadence hummed, “Now we have the how—”

“We have a time table of when it happened,” Werner corrected. “And we only have half of the how. Our near death experiences may serve as the points of connection but the line isn’t drawn.”

Cadence chuckled. “Right, right. I’m gettin’ too eager. Ya got smarts, Lieutenant. And ya speak like a poet. I like that in a guy.”

Werner’s frown deepened.

Gross.

“I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this,” Atienna murmured, placing a hand beneath her chin. “I’ve spoken about this before but in Virgo, there is a common belief that vitae is more than just a source of life energy. The belief is that it also has the capability of storing memories, in a sense.” 

“Yes, I’m familiar with that theory. That’s the one that goes along with the P.D. Oran school of thought, am I correct? She was popular during the War, if I recall correctly.” Werner said. “The belief that there is an imperceptible part of vitae that is actually representative of the soul. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. It has not been proven, but it is often taught that way to the general public in order to aid their understanding of what vitae actually is.”

“Oh, do you not believe that, Werner?”

“Although P.D. Oran has published a number of widely accepted works,she  has also published numerous disproven and even redacted papers.” Werner responded. “When that theory is proven completely, I will believe it. Until then, vitae is energy. Nothing more. But please continue.”

Atienna’s gaze lingered for a moment as an inquisitive smile graced her lips. Tucking another lock of hair behind her ear, she continued, “Well, while I believe it’s widely accepted that vitae burns out and ceases after it is utilized by a conductor or after a person dies, this belief says contrary. When something or someone dies, their vitae gets released from their physical being and returns to the world. And since, in this theory, vitae contains memories that would mean that memories are released through the vitae upon death. If a person is resuscitated, their vitae would return to them and they would most likely say that their ‘life flashed before their eyes’. But what if two people died close to me another and were resuscitated at the same time? What if during the time period where their vitae were returning to their bodies, there was a crossing over of their vitae?”

“Wait, wait, I barely understand what vitae is. My attention span is only so long.” Cadence swatted her hand above her head as if the action would somehow do away with the confusion clearly cluttering her mind.

“Ah, sorry, I tend to ramble when I’m excited,” Atienna mumbled, flushing. 

“No, no, I got ya’ now, I think,” Cadence reassured her. “So, you’re sayin’ when we nearly died, our souls—vitae or whatever—crossed over during the ride back and that’s why this is happenin’?”

“That’s my theory,” Atienna concluded.

“If the Anima-Vitae hypothesis is true, that would make for a sound explanation, although the reasons for why would still remain unknown,” Werner supplied after a moment of thought.

“What about you, your highness—what do you think?” Cadence asked suddenly, nodding in Olive’s direction. “You got access to all sortsa education, right? You must be pretty smart?”

Olive ignored her. 

He’d skipped too many lessons in the past to really have a grip on the conversation. Usually, he didn’t care if people knew the fact, but with these people for some reason he just couldn’t let them know.

“Oh, I see,” came Cadence’s light response.

Damn.

“I am surprised you don’t know about vitae,” Jericho said, locking eyes with Cadence. “You would not be able to take the State Conducting Exam without this knowledge.” He pointed to Cadence’s ringed fingers. “You are a Conductor. You must have a license. May I see it—”

“Wait, I have a question!” Maria shouted suddenly, snapping up in the bed. Cadence gave her a grateful look but it went mostly ignored. “I think I get this synchronization and flooding stuff, but does that have anything to do with me being able to speak with people from your places? I mean, I was on my ship but I was still able to speak with them when I was ‘synchronized’ with you all.”

There was another pause of silence as realization settled in. 

“So it was you!” Cadence snapped, rising to a stand. “With Verga! You…!” She glared at Maria for a tense second before her shoulders relaxed and she held up her hands. “I got a lot on my hands now ‘cause of that, y’know?”

“Ah, were you referring to the tall, strange-looking man? The grump one?” Maria questioned, before she offered yet another smile. “I just told him my thoughts. Was that not what you were thinking too?”

Cadence opened her mouth to retort but seemed to think better of it. “Yup, that’s the one.”

Werner stepped forward at this moment and addressed Maria: “Captain Gloria-Fernandez, am I correct to say that you were the one who dealt with the Aquarian prisoners then?”

“Oh, yes!” Maria mused. “Were they Aquarians? Such an interesting group! They had very interesting accents.”

“What did you do with the Aquarian Captain?”

Maria peered at him. “You do not remember?” She glanced at Cadence and then at Olive.

“This is a serious matter. I was ordered to—” Werner seeme to catch himself. “I was ordered to handle the Aquarian captain by my superior.”

“Oh. Well, I let her go.”

Werner’s expression betrayed nothing. Olive couldn’t feel anything from him. “You let him go.”

Maria shrugged. “Yes, I felt like it. It’s not so bad is it?”

Werner’s expression yet again betrayed nothing but his voice quieted and he almost looked paper. “It’s unacceptable.”

Maria did not appear phased. “What about it is unacceptable?”

Cadence took the opportunity to pop up in between them. Her hands were raised in placating, and she wore an easy smile as she faced Werner. “Look, I get it, I get it. I’m in the same boat. But ya gotta make do with the cards you’re dealt.” She glanced back at Maria. “Besides, gettin’ along at this point is what matters, right? Understandin’ one another?”

Werner’s responding gaze was cold and frigid causing Cadence to raise her hands higher. But then after a moment, the man shook his head oddly. Finally, he said, “I’m aware of that, Morello.”

That was when Olive realized it. No, he felt it. While the others had brought in pieces of their surroundings with their arrival, Jericho had come with nothing. No, not with nothing. As Olive looked closer, he could see it. There was a gaping blackness behind Jericho. A hollow space. A void.

Olive’s thoughts must have bled outwards—or maybe it was someone else’s thoughts that were bleeding inwards—because everyone began to slowly turn towards the peacekeeper. 

“Is there something on my face?” Jericho asked when he finally noticed their gazes.

“Jericho,” Atienna tried gently, “where exactly are you right now?”

Jericho stared. “I don’t know. I believe I’m unconscious.”

“Unconscious?”

“Yes, I believe I was injured. Ambushed by…”

There was a flare of red hot rage that nearly winded Olive. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Werner holding his head with a grimace. Atienna was frowning deeply, and Cadence looked nauseous. Maria, of course, looked unphased as always.

“….ELPIS.” Jericho gestured to his shoulder and his abdomen. “I believe I’m in critical condition.”

No one said anything. No words needed to be said. A mutual understanding had dawned on all of them. 

“What…?” Cadence was smiling, but her fear and nervousness bled into the room causing Olive’s stomach to do flips. “Are ya sayin’ that whenever one of us…goes through somethin’ like that, we all feel it?”

“Are you feeling alright right now, Jericho?” Atienna asked with concern.

“I feel no pain. Most likely because I am unconscious,” Jericho replied. He studied his hand, fisting it and unfisting it. “This feels like a dream. It’s hard to hold on.”

Cadence swore under her breath and ran her hand through her hair. She paused halfway through the motion as a thought struck her. A thought that radiated outwards—

What would happen if one of them died?

“If anything, all of this information highlights our need to break off this connection,” Werner finally said after a long stretch of silence.

“Break it off?” Atienna repeated.

“We are a liability to one another remaining like this,” Werner responded coolly. “Politically, this is a disaster waiting to happen. A prince of Aries, a person involved in the Virgoan political sphere, and an Ophiuchian agent.  If something happens between one of your countries then your confidentiality is compromised. Additionally, Jericho and I are constantly in combat due to our professions. This,” he paused, gesturing to the man, “is a risk that is accepted in such professions.”

“Well, when ya put it like that…”

“What is this about cutting off a connection?” Maria shot up abruptly from the bed. “This seems to be quite an interesting occurrence, no? Are we not lucky to be experiencing something as unique as this? Something that so little people have the chance of experiencing? No one will see it quite like this, no?  Why would you want to stop something that can lead to so many possibilities?”

“Unique and fun?” Olive quirked a brow at Maria.

“Of course!” Maria sang, launching herself off of his bed and landing right in front of him. She took a step forward causing him to take a step backwards, before she spun on her heels and faced the others with widespread arms.  “I was already blessed with such an expansive world made just for me to explore and discover, but now?” She grinned. “Now I can see everything through your eyes!”

Her energy was ridiculously infectious, and it took Olive’s entire willpower to keep his head straight. He mumbled, “It must be nice to be an idiot…”

Even Werner was looking befuddled by her enthusiasm. 

But still, the lightness leaked out from her into the air. And for a moment, everything felt like it might turn out alright. And then—

Suddenly, abruptly,  she appeared right before him, landing gently on her feet, hair softly cascading down onto her shoulders as if she had just gracefully floated down from the ceiling.

Olive’s eyes widened. “Lavi—”

Cadence yelped and leapt back. Maria leaned forward with interest, while Atienna covered her mouth in surprise. Werner’s hand reached for his side automatically. Before any further action could be taken, however, Olive stumbled forward, putting himself in between his sister and them.

“You can see her.” Olive stared at them. He felt weak at the knees. “You can see her.”

“Your…. sister…?” Werner said slowly, his expression becoming distant and strange. He eyed Olive. “Is this… a memory? Is she real?”

Before Olive could respond, Lavi pushed him aside and stood in front of Werner with crossed arms and puffed cheeks. “That’s rude! Of course I’m real!”

Werner remained impassive.

“Wait, so there’s seven of us?” Cadence wondered.  She looked Lavi up and down. “What’s your name, doll?”

“Lavender Chance,” his sister answered, chin raised.

“Well, that’s a pretty name,” Cadence complimented. She smiled but she thought to herself that the name sounded sort of familiar and in a bad way.

“Her name sounds familiar because she was one of the royal Ariesian family members that died in the Tragedy of Aries,” Werner drew slowly, studying Lavi and then Olive. “Am I correct, Prince Chance?”

Olive wasn’t sure if he responded. 

“I’m dead?” Lavi huffed. “I’m standing right here, you know?”

As soon as those words left her mouth, she disappeared. All traces of her gone in an instant. As Olive vaguely listened to the commotion following her sudden exit in the background, he explained, “She comes and goes. But she always comes back.”

Always. No matter what. It was probably some form of punishment.

There was a long stretch of silence afterwards. 

“Okay, okay, okay, as exciting as this’s been, this is getting a little too much for me,” Cadence finally sighed, looking around wearily. “No more sudden surprises, right?”    

Olive’s head was still buzzing. They could see her. They could see her. And if they were real and they could see her that meant that she was—

—real.                                                                                                                                                                             

Was that a good thing? A bad thing? What exactly—

“I don’t really understand what’s going on,” Maria said suddenly as she met Olive’s eyes, “but things are real if you think they are real, and things are good if you believe they are good, no?”

Olive stared at her, unsure if she was crazy or if she was an idiot or if he was crazy or if he was the idiot.

Suddenly, Jericho broke through the silence with an out of place statement: “ELPIS may be involved with our current condition.”

“You think ELPIS may be involved?” Werner pressed, ripping his gaze away from Olive. “What makes you think that?”

“Intuition.”

“…. intuition?” Werner frowned. “That is not enough grounds to draw that sort of conclusion.”

Jericho digested this response for a long minute, before he responded: “ELPIS may be behind the prince’s assassination. It may be behind Atienna’s incident. It most likely was behind mine.”

“Okay, Jericho, you’re a nice guy and all,” Cadence said, walking over to the man and placing a hand on his shoulder, “but it sounds to me like you’re seein’ ELPIS everywhere. I mean—oh.” She released him as a sudden memory came to her mind— a memory that abruptly bled into Olive’s mind as well jarring him out of his daze.

It was a blurry barrage of feelings and images but Olive got the gist of it. Some old man named Verga apparently was being paid by ELPIS to ship something. Olive shook his head to shake off the memory and saw the others doing the same. They must have seen it too then. Olive took the opportunity to peek at Cadence.  Huh, he thought, so that was the kind of work she did. It made sense.

“Saints, you might be onto something’ actually,” Cadence muttered, glancing at Olive for half a second before focusing her attention back on Jericho. “Well, Agent Jericho—”

“Yes, I will look into the matter. But at the moment.” He stared down at his hands. “I am unable to.”

Cadence cracked a grin again. “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“Not because of my incapacitation, but because most information regarding ELPIS is restricted to the ELPIS division of Ophiuchus which I am not yet a part of.” 

Cadence’s grin fell somewhat, but still she said, “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“I hope with my completion of this Leona case that I will be able to be promoted to the division,” Jericho concluded with a nod.

“Alright….before this gets anymore out of hand, let’s get on common ground,” Atienna gently said, clasping her hands together. “We all have things going on at the moment, right? And at the moment we have no idea how to stop whatever this is. Perhaps we could help each other out. I’m not talking about getting involved in national affairs or anything, but… it would be reassuring if we all guaranteed each other’s safety for the time being, don’t you think—seeing how much we affect one another? And, of course, this is so that we ensure we also don’t interfere with one another without the other’s permission, right? And work together to look into what this is? I’m sure each of our countries has information the other doesn’t have. It’s much better than ignoring one another and coming across unexpected problems because of it, don’t you agree?” She let out a breathy sigh before flushing. “Sorry… rambling…”

Werner frowned, glancing at Olive for a moment. And then he nodded. “That is acceptable, so long as everyone agrees to those conditions.”

Cadence cracked a lazy grin from where she sat. “Well, sounds good enough to me. Let’s get along and look after one another, shall we?”

“So we are all going to be around one another from now on then?” Maria brimmed with a radiant joy that was almost blinding. “This will be fun then, my dears!”

Olive rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Whatever happens happens.”

“I accept,” Jericho said.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief that filled the room with an odd sort of serenity. 

“So, to summarize this meeting’s conclusion,” Werner cleared his throat, “we will be working with one another strictly to ensure our survival. We will mutually research what exactly this incident is, and we will investigate the possibility of ELPIS involvement. I don’t believe we will be able to get much on that front until Agent Jericho has recovered and joined the ELPIS division.”

Jericho nodded.

“Seems about right,” Cadence affirmed.

“Then, I will return to my duties and try to resolve the obstacle that has been put in my way.” Werner nodded curtly. And with that, he was gone. 

Cadence nodded at Jericho. “I’m assumin’ you’re still in the Twin Cities. I’ll try sendin’ you some help.” When she received a look of surprise, she chuckled, “I can be reliable, y’know. Honest.” And with that, she gave a tip of her hat. “Well, I guess I’ll be checkin’ out too. Nice meetin’ ya.” And she disappeared.

Maria soon followed suit with an energetic shout and an incomprehensible wave. Jericho didn’t even say anything before he disappeared, but Olive was beginning to expect as much from him.

Atienna lingered. She lingered and drifted over to where he stood. A gentle smile and warm eyes. “That was very brave of you, Olive. Calling out to us,” She said. “You should be proud of yourself.”

The kind words made something in his stomach twist, and he averted his gaze with a scoff. “There’s nothing brave about doing something that benefits you in the long run.”

“Perhaps,” she murmured in response.

And then she too was gone.

His room was quiet.  His windowsill was unoccupied, his bed empty, the floor graced with feathers from the cage strewn loosely about.

But he could feel them—see them—distantly in his mind’s eye. Clearer than before. The noise, the colors, the sensations buzzed around loosely in his mind. They were there. And Lavi—she was here.

Olive walked over to his bed and fell face-first down into it.

He wasn’t alone.

What a pain.

Three (5/6): imamu snap

“Can you hear it? The pulse of syzygy?”

Atienna stopped and turned. 

There was nothing behind her. Only the long, familiar stretch of green walls she had known since—since—

—ah, what an unpleasant thought. Recently they had been occurring more and more lately. 

She looked away.

“What is it, Atienna?” 

Safiyah was giving her the usual look of concern. Despite having met with one another just the other day, Safiyah had insisted on popping in for a wellness check. 

“The walls…. Do you think we should repaint them?” Atienna wondered, moving over to the wall and pressing her hand against it. “The green is a little suffocating, don’t you think?”

“Atienna…”

“Maybe white?”

Something terrible twisted in Atienna’s stomach at the thought.  

“Well, maybe not white—”

“Atienna!”

Safiyah rushed forward suddenly and grabbed her hand. A surprisingly tight grip. “What on Earth happened? Did someone do this to you?”

Atienna startled in alarm and then wondered what in the world Safiyah was referring to. When realization dawned, however, she could not help but smile. Safiyah always worried incessantly. 

“I was gardening again,” Atiena replied, slipping her bandaged hand out of her friend’s grip and then holding it sheepishly. “The roses are very pesky.” She dropped her hand and flushed. “Even though I’ve been at it for years… I still…”

Safiyah threw back her head and let out a dramatic sigh. “You are so clumsy! You need to take better care of yourself! Every single time I see you, you always have on new bandages! If I didn’t know you, I would think you were out getting into fights with your hands like that. Who would’ve thought gardening was so dangerous.”

The irony was not lost on Atiena, but instead of addressing it in words or in mind, she mimicked snipping scissors loosely with her hands as they continued their stroll down the hall. “Gardening… I don’t think it’s really fair coming out of it unscarred. To help, to hurt, to cultivate—whether it’s either of those intentions— it’s a change. And change always results in pain one way or another, don’t you think?”

Safiyah stared at her wordlessly before shaking her head. “You say the strangest things sometimes, Atiena.”

“And I’m grateful you’re still my friend despite it.”

“I’m your friend because of it.” Safiyah elegantly rolled her eyes. “I know what to expect from you.”

“Do you?” Atienna grinned devilishly.

“Of course.” Safiyah huffed. “With the Council, at the moment they’re saying that they’re refraining from international involvements due to the current internal affair, but who knows what they will say next? We might be off to fight in that silly Capricornian-Aquarian conflict tomorrow after they suddenly declare they suspect outside involvement with your poisoning. Well, not tomorrow. They’ll probably sit on it for another couple of years or so before we hear anything of it, I’m sorry to say.”

“I thought you’d be happier about that. Not the part about my investigation case, but about the continued isolationism—well, I hope you wouldn’t be happy about my case.” Atienna chuckled.

“Oh, stop teasing me.” Safiyah rolled her eyes. “What I’m saying is that other people change ‘at the tip of a hat’ as the Ariesians say. But you—you never change.”

There were words that Atiena knew were for comfort, but for a brief moment she felt something flare up in the pit of her stomach. Her palms itched, but the sensation only lasted for a second. This was not the place, after all. She could wait. She needed to.

And so instead, Atienna merely chuckled jokingly, “For you to be around such a boring person all the time must be a hardship for you.”

They passed through the halls speaking about everything but what Atiena presumed was on their minds.  When the front doors were within their sights,  they found Nia and Sefu waiting for them at their posts. The guards turned almost immediately at the approach and gave their usual salutes.

Safiyah nodded at them with an air of nobility that she seemed to have drawn from thin air. Under her breath she whispered, “They’re not going to search me again, are they?”

“I bribed them with food made by my father’s personal chef. Kupika. He’s served the chieftain family of the Imamu tribe for generations. Apparently he gets requests to cook outside of Virgo,” Atiena whispered back.

“I don’t mind being bribed as well.”

After sharing a hug with Safiyah, Atiena watched as Nia escorted her out the door and through the pathway outside leading to the gate. Sefu remained posted by the door.

“You look tired, Sefu. Did you have a late-night shift again?” Atiena asked.

Sefu turned his head towards her but his face remained impassive. Rigidly, he looked over his shoulder at the twisting walkway and back down the hall behind her. Almost immediately the tightness in his shoulders loosened, and he hung his head.

“Miss Atienna, I’ve been posted here since midnight! I am near fainting!”

Atienna covered her mouth in shock. “I’m so sorry. You’ve been here for that long? Without food?”

“Well, no. I did take a lunch break an hour earlier,” Sefu admitted. “And a breakfast break before that but there have been so many guests coming in and out of the estate that—”

Atienna kept her hand over her mouth to hide her smile. “Worry not, Sefu. I am at your service.”


Atienna made her way back through the halls and found her way to the kitchen doors. She reached for the handle but paused. 

A muffled voice echoed from within. 

Bachiru.

Probably raiding the fridge again in an effort to procrastinate his homework from Usian. Usian… 

SIghing with a smile, Atiena pressed her hand against the door and pushed it open an inch.

“—don’t have to follow what the Council orders.”

Atienna froze in place and peered down at the space between the floor at the door. The light spilling out from the crack was smeared by shifting shadows. One, two, three, four, five—

Just how many people were inside? 

And with so many people present, why was Bachiru the only one speaking? 

“All they do is speak about their beliefs about what is right, what is moral, what is good for this country. But beliefs alone do nothing. They are merely the spark, and a spark that does not catch flame is meaningless. Actions are the tinder to the flame.”

Atienna’s vision swam. 

Those were the exact words. The words that she had engraved into her heart. The words that her—their—mother had spoken to that crowd on that day. That day that—

No. No. No.

“I already have the support of the Mkuki tribe. Although they have close ties with the Ra who have strictly voted against both Sagittarian aid, I have managed to convince their eldest chieftain son of our cause. And as you all know they are one of the tribes that have the highest number of registered Conductors. With them at our side, we can—”

Atienna peeled away from the door. 

Should she intervene? Was that right? For stopping him from starting something that could become something that could become irreversible? Was the irreversibility good or bad? 

Should she allow Bachiru to continue? Was that right? Would he be in the right, in that case, or the wrong. Both? Ideals were never wrong as long as they were viewed within the right frame of mind.

No. She didn’t know. What was right, what was wrong. Both.

Bachiru he—

And just like that, suddenly, abruptly, a woman appeared right in front of Atienna’s eyes. Out of thin air. Like she had been dropped from the sky. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the sensation she would feel when she would skip pages in a book and be taken from a tragic scene to a happy reunion. Startling, but not quite out of place nor unwanted.

The woman was very tall, with broad shoulders, and a posture that radiated confidence. Her deep green eyes were strong and determined, looking straight ahead without reluctance. The smile that she wore was charismatic and fearless. Perhaps an author might have spotted  her in passing and then crafted a heroic princely figure in a novel out of inspiration.  Yes, that was the impression Atiena got from this woman. An unearthly, impossible person.

“For you to drop by so suddenly, you must be very bold,” Atienna said, meeting her eyes. 

“Oh! You can see me!” The woman chortled, letting out a laugh that almost sounded unearthly as it filled in all the corners of the hallway. She stepped forward and clasped Atiena’s hand in her own. Warm. “Are you a spirit too then?”

Atienna opened her mouth to reply but—

“Well, I suddenly found myself with that other one, yes? The short, angry child? Well, it was very boring so I left that place. And then I was somewhere else and now I am here.” The woman rocked back on her heels and nearly stumbled back towards the door. She caught her balance on the balls of her feet, however, and rocked forward. “But you—you’re the first one to speak to me like this! Say, why is that, spirit? You are a spirit, yes?”

Ah. This was a bit too much. But perhaps this was just the way this person was. 

“Well, although I can’t confirm or deny your interesting theory on spirits, I can’t say I feel very much like one,” Atienna responded. 

“Hm? You just denied my theory, didn’t you? Why are you saying you can’t? When you speak like that, I get really confused, you know?” The woman’s gaze pierced through her like an arrow. It was unnerving. Those unsettling eyes paired with that sparkling grin.

Atienna covered up her smile of discomfort with her hand. “Well, when you put it eloquently like that, I guess I have to confirm my suspicions that I am not a spirit. I doubt the others you may have encountered are either.” Atienna then did her best to explain what little she knew of their current situation. The connecting thoughts. The mirages. The feelings.

After the lengthy explanation, Maria Gloria-Fernandez merely tilted her head and stared at Atiena with a puzzled expression. And then she broke out into another dazzling grin and gripped Atiena’s shoulder tightly. “I don’t really get it, and I definitely have never felt anything but emotions that are my own,” she said. “But from what I am understanding, we are currently experiencing something that no one has experienced before, yes? In other words, this is amazing!”

Atienna was rather taken aback. Even Cadence hadn’t reacted this positively. Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if people like this truly existed or if this was just a burst of sudden emotion that Maria was exhibiting out of nervousness. She wondered—

“What are you doing?” Asking this, Maria suddenly popped up only inches away from Atienna’s face.

Atienna stepped back despite herself but smiled thinly. “I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, but I could ask you the same thing.”

“I’m here because I’m bored,” Maria answered simply. She then leaned back against the door behind her and raised her brows when Atiena startled. She gestured backwards and cocked her head. “You want to go inside, don’t you? Or is it that you want to walk away? I don’t really get what’s going on, but whatever you do is much better than just standing here, no?”

Ah. Atienna’s palms began to itch. Had she not dressed them properly before?

“It’s very kind of you to be concerning yourself with my current situation, but from what I gather, you seem to be at a crossroads yourself.”

And then Maria frowned, perplexed. “Huh? What are you saying? What does that have anything to with what you want to do?”

This Maria was—

“Your body is strong. I am sure if you tried to punch me now and I let you, it would definitely hurt. But your eyes…” Maria lifted her hand, brought it to Atienna’s face—just brushing over her left eye ever so lightly. “At first I thought you were like the boy, but you’re not even looking in any direction. Not a path of escape, not a path forward.” She cracked a grin again. “Well, regardless, I still like you.”

Leaving that statement in the air, Maria Gloria-Fernandez promptly disappeared from Atienna’s sight. But the itch remained.

There was a sound from behind the door—someone was approaching. Atienna swiftly backed away and headed into the bathroom two doors down. Once inside, she approached the stone sink carved from the wall and ran the water. She rinsed her face before shutting off the spout and headed to the window to her left. She could barely make out the pathway leading to the gates from this angle but she could still see the sunlight splattering through the overhanging canopies.

Sunlight…

She glanced down at the sill. Her heart sank at the sight of it. With all the commotion going on, she had forgotten to water her flowers here and they had begun to wilt. Virgo was in the middle of a heatwave, after all. She picked up the pitcher that was in the corner of the room, filled it up in the sink, and took to watering her neglected plants. 

Bachiru—

Worrying did nothing. It was better not to think about it. It was all useless in the end anyways.

Atienna held her lightly throbbing temple as a heaviness suddenly pressed down on her chest. The feeling of deja vu that she had become familiar with followed shortly after.

And then she felt it. That sensation again. Like with the woman. Something startling but not out of place or unwanted. 

Atienna turned her head.

And just like that, a young boy appeared there in the mirror. He was sitting on the edge of a windowsill staring outwards. There was another person sitting next to him. A friend? No, it didn’t seem that way. 

Just like Maria, he did not seem alarmed at her appearance. 

As she spoke with him, Atiena could not help but wonder what it was that made Maria think they were alike initially. It was a little ways into their conversation that she noticed the third person. A girl. She could vaguely make out the girl’s thoughts, but everything about her was surrounded in a haze. When she addressed the boy about the girl, he gave an unexpectedly emotional response. There was desperation in his eyes and anger and guilt. But before she could address it—

—like a lightning bolt, an unexplainable rage throttled through her core. 

It bubbled up in her chest and rose upwards where it lodged in her throat. Her vision blurred.

Bachiru. How dare he. After everything that had happened, after everything their father had suffered, after—

“Ah!”

Abruptly Atienna found herself doubled over, cradling her stomach. Her hands were wet, warm. She tried to move them away from her stomach to assess the damage but even the slightest of movements caused an excruciating arrow of pain to shoot through the area. Grimacing and blinking the tears out of her eyes, she looked down. Red was seeping between her fingers. 

Blood…?

Yes. And no.  This wasn’t her pain, she realized. Not her wound. This was…

Atienna looked up at the mirror above the sink. “Jericho.”

A coldness gripped her insides as she spoke the name and the feeling closed in around her chest. She gasped for air as the iciness gripped tighter, making each breath even more painful than the last. Black dots began to flood her vision.  And then—

—the coldness released her.

It took a moment for Atienna to catch her breath. When she looked back up at the mirror, the boy was gone. The pain was gone too. 

She glanced down at her stomach.

Gone.

But the feeling remained. Lodged in her throat. 

What in the world was that pain? 

She leaned back against the windowsill and wiped her brow. After taking a minute to recollect herself, she stood up and glanced around the bathroom. Rubbing her arms, she asked quietly, “Are you alright…?”

Silence answered her. The quiet sent a chill down her spine and a sensation of fear she knew was irrational. Still, she decided that staying in the bathroom any longer would do more harm than good. 

Taking in a deep breath, Atienna made her way back out the hall and then found herself right in front of the kitchen doors. Maria’s words echoed inside of her mind again, and those words paired with that feeling were almost unbearable.

Atienna reached forward towards the door.

But then it swung open abruptly.

Bachiru stood there looking rather startled. “Oh, Atienna—did Safiyah leave already?”

Atienna remained silent and instead peered behind him. The kitchen was empty but the tabletops were cluttered with crumb-filled plates and used utensils. 

“Did your friends leave already as well?” Atienna smiled pleasantly.

Bachiru’s eyes widened and his body tensed. “I—Wha—Yes.” He swallowed. “I invited them over to make bets on the Olorun Game Festival this fall.” 

Atienna walked forward and did not allow her gaze to leave his face even as he backed away. She closed the door behind her. 

“What are you doing, Bachiru?”

“Wha—what do you mea—”

“The Mkuki Tribe—what is it exactly that you plan to do with them? Use them as a tool to bend the Council to what you want? Through fear?”

A long stretch of silence. 

“So you have heard then.” Bachiru finally said. “You have always told me it is not polite to eavesdrop.” 

“Nor is it polite to urge people who are seeking peace to bear arms.” 

Bachiru lifted his chin. “If we don’t do something, then they will win.”

“They?”

“The people who hurt you, Atienna!” 

“I am perfectly fine, Bachiru. What happened to me has nothing to do with what you are doing. Using what happened as an excuse is a bit irresponsible, don’t you think?”

“It has everything to do with you! You heard what has been said—what everyone knows! You were poisoned because father wanted to support the Sagittarians! It was a threat!”

“And if it really was a threat, do you think dividing our Council is the correct way to respond to it? When the one who did it is not even known? Who is to say that the people you’ve allied with aren’t the ones who did it? If you look at it that way, it’s an endless spiral of conspiracies. When one already doesn’t know who to trust, why would they be spreading distrust to others? It doesn’t fit together, don’t you think?”

Bachiru opened his mouth and then closed it.

“These issues that are happening—I think you are justified in your feelings and what you want to do,” Atienna said gently. “I can’t tell you whether you’re right or wrong, but I can tell you that what you’re choosing to do is out of what you feel is right.” 

A soft, wry chuckle escaped from Bachiru’s lips as he shook his head. “That’s always how you are. Can’t even tell me whether I am right or wrong? Not even addressing what this is all about. Question after question after question that goes nowhere. Just because you don’t see the problem, it doesn’t mean it’s not there!”

Ah. There it was again. That accusation. 

Averting her eyes? What was wrong with that? It was better than choosing something and hurting others, wasn’t it? That’s right. No matter where it landed on the scale, a choice always ended with suffering. 

Not only that… Not only that…

Her palms ached, her knuckles cracked as she clenched her fists.

No. No. No.

Keep calm, she told herself. It wasn’t right to be angry now. Bachiru was justified in his thoughts from his point of view, but she was also justified in hers. No one was right, no one was wrong.

And what she was feeling right now— that was only for the night. That was a choice for no one to see. 

“Seeking to offer peace to another country by inciting violence in your own—don’t you think that’s just a little bit strange?”

“Atienna. You know that speaking about beliefs does nothing. Acting on those beliefs is what matters. Just speaking about it alone lets problems fester. Look what happened to mother—”

Something snapped. A dam broke. 

“Wait, I did not mean…”

The feeling that had been bottled up near her throat suddenly was released. The red, hot anger that was now spilling out into her fingers, out from her mouth, coursing into her veins.

Did she scream? Yell? She didn’t know. What she did know was that there was now a deep dent in the wooden table beside her and—

—that in the petals of wood that fragmented outwards from the dent’s center, her closed fist now rested. There was a dull throbbing at the side of that fist but it hurt no more than it hurt when she threw a bad punch in the ring.

“A-Atienna…”

Bachiru was wide-eyed. Concern? Fear? She did not know.

“What makes you so sure that you’re right?” — whether she was shouting or whispering, she did not know either — “What kind of arrogance do you have that you think your version of justice is so much better than mother’s—than anyone else’s?”

Bachiru was stumbling backwards, but she continued towards him. 

“After everything she fought for, after everything that’s happened to her—to us—because of what she fought for, how dare you do all of this? How selfish can you be? Calling me indecisive? I have been thinking of this family every single day ever since mother became the way she is! What to do and what not to do so the same mistake never happens again—it’s all I ever think about! And you—you have the gall to—“

Bachiru was backed up against the wall now, and she was mere centimeters from his face. 

“You told all of those people in here that beliefs were meaningless without action. Using mother’s words so easily.” Atienna clenched her pounding fist. “Do you know what my greatest aversion is, Bachiru? You do, don’t you? It’s when people speak with such vindication without having a clue about what they are speaking about!”

Letting out that final shout, Atienna released all of her righteous, burning anger and punched the wall right next to his head. The picture frame that had been hanging there shattered and the wall behind it splintered. Glass shards rained down onto the floorboards as the picture within the frame became loose and fluttered downwards.

Out of the corner of her eye, Atienna caught a glimpse of the photograph. 

It was the six of them. Before they became the chieftain household of the Imamu tribe. Before—

The anger, the heat, the rage disappeared in an instant leaving Atienna with a cold emptiness.

Atienna stumbled backwards, cradling her bleeding hand. She looked away from where the photograph now lay at the ground and up at her brother who flinched at her gaze.

“Bachiru, I…” 

Her brother slid to the ground shaking, and her heart fell with him. 

One (5/6): imamu snip, i

Atiena Imamu lay propped up in her bed with a book in her hands and a garden of flowers at her feet. There were twenty bouquets total each from a high-ranking member of the twenty other tribes. With them came words of condolences and good-will wishing. As much as it pleased Atiena to know that the other tribes were aware of her green thumb and that they cared for her, she knew that there was another reason behind the attention and gifts. To remove suspect. To do away with the idea that their particular tribe had been the one to slip the poison into her wine. That much was obvious. 

Unfortunately for them, because they had all chosen to deliver the gifts, they had all made their play at innocence null and void. Not only that, but the delivery of gifts highlighted suspicion as well. 

“I can’t focus, after all,” Atiena sighed, lowering her book.

The book was leatherbound in red and its pages were still crisp and new. In black letters, the cover of it read, Vitae & Conductors: Who is Using Who by P.D. Oran.  Right below the title, faded tape had been pasted. The writing on the tape read, “Redacted by the Ophiucian Literary Department for incitement to violence”.

She raised the book up again to tap it against her lips and swept her gaze across her room. A large set of bookcases consumed her entire left wall. Thick tomes to thin novelettes to hardcover texts — all were displayed in a colorful rainbow arrangement on the mahogany shelves. To her right was a long and open window. At the sill blossomed an arrangement of psychedelic flowers. Some sprouted out petals like stars, others frilled out like snowflakes. In-between their growth grew twisting vines that spilled out onto the floor and ate up the ground halfway to her bed. 

Stretching out her arms and then cradling the book to her chest, Atiena approached the overgrowth with a fond smile. She extended a hand to cradle the head of a star-petaled flower. Poor thing looked as if it needed watering. 

She reached over the windowsill for the water-filled clay bucket that rested on the grass there but paused halfway through the motion. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a man and a woman standing outside at the left and the right of the bucket.

The rays of light streaming lazily down from the sun were obscured by a haze of fog that hung loosely along the canopies of the forestry that dotted the area. The rays also caught onto the man’s and the woman’s shaven heads.  In this foggy haze of light, both squinted around the clearing and gripped tightly the spear conductors in their hands. The bright blue and green shawls that were thrown over their shoulders caught the dew drops that dribbled down from the roof.

“Hello, my faithful guards.” Atiena greeted them both with a smile as she placed down her book and leaned over the windowsill.

“Miss Atiena!” The guards stuttered in unison before forming their left hands into an M shape and placing it over their hearts. 

Atiena returned the gesture with a polite smile. “How are your mornings going, Nia? Sefu?”

“We are both doing well, my lady,” Nia answered first, bowing her head. “It is very kind of you to ask—”

“Well,” Sefu interjected, twirling his conductor and raising a brow, “actually, standing out here in this weather is—”

Sefu did not finish as per courtesy of Nia who jabbed him in the ribs.

“It must be awful standing guard out here in this humidity.” Atiena frowned sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do?”

“We are fine, my lady,” Nia replied. “It is our duty to serve the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe.”

Sefu nodded agreeably at this although he rubbed his chest with a grimace. He then studied Atiena with scrutiny before rubbing his chin and suggesting, “Are you trying to win us over so you can make an escape?”

For an odd moment, the thought of sneaking out did tempt Atiena. To escape. To run away. To run away from these two-faced people who pretended that everything was right in the world. Tiptoeing around things and averting their gazes. All of it was such a pain—

What…?

Atiena dispelled the odd streams of thought with a slight chuckle that she hid with her hand. “So, you’ve figured me out, Sefu.”  She moved to pick up the clay pot again and sprinkled some water onto the plants. She then picked up a pair of garden shears and snipped off a thorny vine that was growing into one of the flowers. 

Snip. Snip. 

She cleared away the debris.

“Be careful with those,” Sefu said, gesturing to the shears and then to her fingers that were raw and red. “You keep cutting yourself, my lady.”

Atiena hid away her hands in embarrassment and flashed a smile. “Ah, yes, I’m so clumsy.” After a beat, she leaned forward again and folded her hands behind her back. “I was planning to escape down the hall and grab a snack,” she pressed. “If you would kindly let me escape, I could maybe bring you something in exchange.”

“Well, since you’ve offered,” Sefu cleared his throat with an amused smile. “An apple from the kitchen sounds very inviting.”

Atiena hid a laugh with her hand again. “Alright, Sefu. An apple for you.” She raised a coy brow at Nia. “Nia, and you?”

A beat of silence passed, and Nia’s belly grumbled.

“An apple would be most graciously accepted,” Nia said with defeat.

With that promise made, Atiena swept out into the halls with another book in hand. She greeted the guards stationed in front of her room and offered to retrieve food for them as well. They politely declined but offered to attend her down the hall. She politely declined herself in turn and continued on her way. The walls in their home were painted a mossy green and were decorated with various hand-carved art pieces. An ivory horn painted with geometric shapes. A wooden mask carefully etched with a smile. Paintings of moons and suns frequented the walls. 

She was just rounding the corner when she was suddenly assaulted at her neck and at her legs by. Arms, wrapping tightly. She was used to such assaults, however, and held herself straight. 

“Kamaria,” she sighed to the one wrapped around her neck. “Kichea,” she sighed to the one wrapped at her feet. “You two aren’t little anymore. You’ll really kill me one day.”

The strangling pressure around her neck and legs released, and Atiena turned to find her sisters blinking at her expectantly. Kamaria stood five heads taller than Kichea and was dressed in her usual attire: a deep green and beaded silk dress that skirted above her knees daringly. Her hair was box-braided and tied into an elaborate updo that made it look as if a lotus flower was blooming from the top of her head. Kichea, on the other hand, was in a simple white dress. Her hair was a wild bush. 

“Excuse me for being happy to see my sister not bedridden.” Kamaria rolled her eyes. She looked Atiena up and down before placing her hands on her hips. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed though? Do you feel better? Did you sneak out?”

“I missed you, Ati,” Kichea interjected, closing the distance between them with outstretched arms.

Atiena slipped down into a crouch and took Kichea into her arms. After an embrace, she released her younger sister and raised a brow at her and then Kamaria. A smile tugged at the corner of her hips — the sight of which caused Kamaria to swallow.

“My, my, it really touches my heart to see both of my beloved sisters saying they miss me and visiting me here out in the hall,” Atiena said, resting her head onto her propped up hand. “I wish I saw them doing this when I was in bed.”

“W-We did visit you! A lot! We even snuck past the healers — the doctors!” Kamaria protested. “But you were too knocked out to notice!”

Atiena tilted her head. “Yes, thank you for that. But since you’ve visited me so many times, I feel bad to keep you from what you’ve been doing — ah, and what is it that you’ve been doing?”

Kamaria averted her gaze and cleared her throat. “Well, that’s…”

Atiena glanced down at her youngest sister instead and raised her brow. “Kichea?”

“I missed you, Ati,” Kichea repeated, stretching out her arms again for a hug.

“It seems as if your sisters who managed to deceive me cannot deceive you,” came a deep laugh from just behind her. 

Atiena rose and turned to find a large and bulky middle-aged man coming down the hall. He was dressed in a loose purple and sage colored robe that billowed at his approach. His well-trimmed beard was graying, and his smiling eyes were wrinkled at the corners.

“What excuse did they use this time to escape from your lessons, Usian?” Atiena asked.

“Well, this time Kichea had a stomachache that was so terrible that she just had to go see the resident healer. And her kind older sister Kamaria offered to escort her to them,” Usian explained, coming to a stop before them with crossed arms. “At least when I was tutoring you, Atiena, you remained in the classroom. You were reading books instead of paying attention to my lessons but still.”

“I’m still sorry about that,” Atiena chuckled apologetically before turning her eyes on her sisters. “But I must say that I’m very jealous of my little sisters’ craftiness.”

Kamaria rolled her eyes.

“Come on,” Atiena sighed good-naturedly, inclining her head down the hall. “It’s only half an hour more until your lesson ends, isn’t it? That’s not that long.”

Kamaria rolled her eyes again before taking Kichea’s hand and heading down the hall.

“I’m glad to see you’re doing all right, Atiena,” Usian said when the two were out of ears’ reach. “I heard they’re having a hard time identifying what type of poison was used.” 

“Yes, I’ve heard the same,” Atiena returned, turning back to him. She tapped the book in her hand and frowned. “I’ve been looking into it but I haven’t been able to find any poison that has similar side effects. A fainting spell paired with a flash fever and hallucinations? There’s nothing. Nothing with symptoms that disappear so quickly, at least.”

Usian gave a half-hearted smile. “Perhaps you should join the investigation team.”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s nothing that I know that they haven’t found out yet,” Atiena murmured sheepishly. “You know I’m not very good with large groups.”

“Ah, by nature or by choice?” Usian smile.

Atiena merely returned the expression.

Usian’s smile, however, soon slid from his face. “This… event… I believe it has to do with the recent Sagittarian request for aid. Your father did vote in favor of them. He was in the minority, but you know how the people view your father. If given the right tools, he could sway them—”

“I don’t think it’s right to make assumptions just yet.” Atiena frowned somewhat. “It might start—”

“And it is right to not think at all? To sit back and watch things progress and hope for the best? Like we’ve been doing all these years?”

Atiena started at this but did not allow her surprise or hurt to make their way onto her face. Usian seemed to sense her emotions, however, and pulled back into himself.

“Forgive my rudeness, Atiena.” Usian cleared his throat. “So much has been going on lately. It’s been hard to keep easy with this and what’s been going on beyond our borders…”

“It’s alright, Usian,” Atiena returned, smile back in place. “I understand.”

His eyes widened for a fraction of a second as she said this, and he seemed to look her over. What he was searching for, what he was hoping to find, what he saw — she did not know.

Finally, he pulled back and cleared his throat. “Well, I should go back to your sisters then. Before they concoct another plan of escape.”

Right. It was better to brush these things under the carpet. Addressing them any further would simply lead to conflict. To avert the eyes was the best option.

“Oh.” Usian paused and turned towards her. “You’re visiting your mother today, right?”

Atiena answered quickly, “Yes. A bit earlier this evening since I haven’t seen her in a while.”

Usian’s smile returned at this. “Perhaps I shall join you then. If your sisters don’t swindle me again.” And with that he went down the hall after her sisters.

Atiena watched him go before turning down the opposite direction. With a sigh, she studied the cover of her book as she continued down the hall and then spied at her fingers. They were still raw and red from—

A sudden chill nipped at her neck and her bare arms and her bare legs. A draft from somewhere, it seemed. She looked up from the cover and stopped cold in her tracks. 

The hallway. It was gone. 

In place of the green walls was a forest lining of barebone black trees interspersed with flimsy tents. Above her head unfurled a gray and cold skyline that looked as if it was about to weep. 

She took a step back in confusion and turned her head. Just behind her stood a line of uniformed men and women. None of them seemed to acknowledge her as she drew nearer. Perhaps they couldn’t see her? But their uniforms — she’d seen them once in one of her history books. Certainly, that dark periwinkle colored uniform belonged to a Capricornian soldier.

“Well, this is strange,” she murmured to herself and rubbed her arms. “An effect of the poison still…? But the doctors said it should have been cleared from my system…” She waved her arms in the air but received no response.

Frowning, she drew closer only to be cut off as a man suddenly stepped in front of her and in front of the soldiers.  The man was tall and pale. His facial features were sharp, his slicked-back hair a platinum blonde, and his eyes an icy cold blue. The air around him seemed frigid.

Curiously, she studied him.

His name. Somehow, despite never seeing him before in her life, she knew it. In the back of her head, a voice whispered—

“Werner Waltz?” She tried.

Zero (6/7)

Atienna Imamu, Virgoan Daughter of Sixth House Chieftain

They were arguing again. 

She watched them as they slammed their fists against the tablecloth and pointed their utensils at each other’s throats.  Despite their raised voices, they did not draw the eyes of those seated around them. It was difficult to hear anyone in this large dining hall, after all. The clay walls that rose around them ended in an arch above their heads. It was an arch that threw back their voices at them tenfold. A whisper became a shout. A pleasant comment, a booming exclamation.

Needless to say, with the ten families lining the long white table to her left and another ten families to her right, the entire room was filled with an almost headache-inducing cacophony. Paired alongside the idle words of conversation were the clicks and clacks of spoons against porcelain bowls and knives against clay plates.

Atienna glanced back down at the book she’d hidden under the cloth. It rested on her lap open, alluringly beckoning her to delve into its pages once more. One more page, it said. If not that, one more paragraph. Or one more sentence.

It was a bit difficult to read in this dimly hall. The only light present came from the parallel streams of vitae that ran along the floors of the hall beside the wall. At the bank of the rivers of light grew vibrant star-shaped flowers and twisting vines.  Atienna knew that these rivers ran out from the building to a large vitae pool just around the back. The streams would continue out from this pool and stretch out into a river that reached all the way to their neighboring country of Gemini.

Legend had it that their Ancestor had purposefully built the dining hall around the vitae streams. For what reason? Atienna wondered about it quite often. Perhaps it was in order to not disturb the natural balance of things. Or perhaps it was for something else.

“What do we look like now that we’ve chosen to do nothing?!”

Atienna slowly lifted her gaze up to the one who sat across from her. Despite the brightly woven and beautifully patterned yellow and green formal robes her brother wore, he looked anything but elegant and courtly.  His eyes were wide and irate, his dark skin glistening with sweat.

“The Sagittarians have aided us whenever we were in need! How can you agree with the Council’s decision to deny their request for aid!”

“We never asked them for assistance!” The young woman beside him snapped, shaking her head so hard that her high, cone-shaped headdress nearly fell straight off her head. “And you can’t compare sending a handful of volunteers to help with wildlife restoration to assisting a war effort!”

“It’s not a war effort!” came the aggravated sigh. “They’re defending their lands from those skirmishes between Capricorn and Aquarius. They only seek peace and to protect their people.”

“So, you would have us risk our own people for theirs?” 

A pause. And then a spit. “You have no heart, Safiyah!”

“You have no head, Bachiru.” 

And then the young Safiyah laid eyes on her. And then her brother laid eyes on her.

Oh, bother.

Atienna shut her book and awaited the full brunt of their words. The storm of breathless shouts. The demands. And come the words did.

“Atienna, talk some sense into your brother! He’s been hanging around Usian for far too long. That man has clouded your brother’s empty head with foolishness!” Safiyah pressed, swinging her fork in Bachiru’s direction.

“Atienna,” Bachiru retorted, fending her fork off with a fork of his own.  “Talk some sense into your friend! She knows nothing of empathy or sympathy! She has sold her heart to some devil!”

Atienna glanced in-between them and waited a beat. In the lull in conversation that hung there, she could hear their heavy panting.

“Bachiru,” she addressed her brother first. “If you feel so strongly about this, why don’t you take it to the Council instead of wearing yourself out here? Our father is a chieftain on the Council, isn’t he? Is it not better to speak to him about these things?”

Bachiru opened his mouth to retort, and Safiyah did as well. Their faces were creased with confusion. She could read their thoughts like the pages from her book— whose side was she on?

“Safiyah,” she addressed her friend next. “The Council has already made their decision, and it’s a decision that coincides with your beliefs.  And you and I both know that Bachiru is too stubborn to ever change his opinion.” She smiled gently, almost sheepishly. “Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why this argument is happening to begin with. You’ve disagreed about this subject with members from other tribes, but I’ve never seen you reach this level of anger.” After a pause, her smile turned impish. “Unless there’s another reason for this…”

Their brows furrowed with confusion and then rose with realization. They tried a glance in each other’s direction but paused halfway and instead settled back into their chairs and began to busily shove their mouths with the spiced rice.

Offering an even more impish smile, Atienna gently opened her book on her lap again and thanked the server as he came over to refill her glass cup with wine. She lifted the glass up to her lips and took a sip as she turned the page. The next chapter. Finally.

She blinked.

That was odd.

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus. 

“Atienna…?”

Now that she thought about it, everything seemed out of focus. The noise around her. The movements of her brother and friend across the table. Her own movements. 

The wine glass slipped from her fingertips and shattered onto the floor in a great explosion of red and translucent petals. She followed it to the ground not so long after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the archways in confusion and studied the intricate designs that had been carved there centuries ago. The archways, in turn, echoed back the shouts of alarm from those seated around her.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. The lights cast by the streams of vitae twisted strange shadows across those faces in a way that made them look foreign, strange. 

Beside her, the wine bled out onto the tablecloth and into the pages of her book. 

Was this—