New Ram City, Aries
“We must allocate our funds to the military!”
“Oh please! What for? So you can waste more money on elaborate uniforms? They already look like walking art pieces at this point! That’s not what the people need to see in this time of crisis! They need reassurance and answers!”
“If anything, that just shows you that the Investigation Bureau needs the funds!”
“The Investigation Bureau? With Ophiuchus around, the Bureau’s existence is an oxymoron. It’d be better to just dissolve it all together!”
Their words bounced around the room, not quite hitting their mark nor their target. A useless debate. Just like all the other debates before it. Olive had memorized their entire routine. Right after a jab at the IB—
“What? That’s ridiculous! You’re putting the Royal family’s safety at stake by doing that! Do you not care at all about the prince?”
—there would be a remark about protecting the royal family. In this case, specifically him: the deadbeat nephew of the king and the queen. The king who sat at Olive’s right, and the queen who sat to the king’s right. They were seated at the very center of the wall across from the officials who sat in their chairs that were lined up in a U-shaped formation.
It wasn’t like any of them wanted to help him. He wasn’t egotistical enough to think that they needed to or that they were obliged to. But the fact was none of them wanted to help Aries either. All they wanted to do was line their pockets some more. Well, maybe they did need the money. Needed it to fill their mansions and groom the lands titled to them when they were ordained as feudal lords when they took up office.
But he didn’t care. Not really. Even if he did care, none of his caring would matter . In the end, whatever changes they managed to get through today would probably be undone by some successor further down the line.
Why he even had to sit and watch them go at it went over his head. His uncle had said something about showing up for the people. But these weren’t people. These were politicians.
And politicians aren’t people?
Something tickled the back of his throat at the sudden thought. A laugh. He almost choked on it but covered it with a cough.
If they’re people then humanity is screwed, he returned.
A flicker of black out of the corner of his eye interrupted his thoughts. Lavi. She stood at the center of the room with her hands pressed against her ears, with her head tilted upwards, with her eyes closed. The v-light sprinkling down from the chandelier above them painted her cheeks with dapples of white and blue.
“Can you hear it?”
Olive uncurled from where he sat as a chill crept up his spine.
Her eyes opened slowly, lashes catching onto the light. Slowly, she lowered her hands and met his eyes. “The pulse of the syzygy. Everything is aligning now. There’s no turning back. True peace is—”
“Is there something you’d like to comment on, Olive?”
Olive turned his head and found his uncle’s eyes boring into him. Not only his uncle’s eyes but everyone’s eyes. Their gazes prickled his skin.
He glanced back to the center of the room. She was gone.
“I need to use the restroom.”
* * *
Olive didn’t think he would walk down a hallway and hear only one pair of footsteps ever again. He glanced over his shoulder as he drifted down the palace corridor. Trystan was keeping at his shadow. The man’s left hand was resting on the conductor at his hip, and his gaze swept from the floors to the windows to the ceiling as if he’d find some shadowy assassin clinging to the walls like a spider. What they found at the end of the hall was, however, not a spider. It was—
“Hey, Olive!” The peacekeeper waved as he approached them. He nodded at Trystan. “Mister Carter.”
Trystan fumbled for a moment and offered a deep bow before he was stopped halfway by a hand on the shoulder.
“No need for that.” Wtorek waved him off. “It makes you look guilty.”
Trystan froze. “I―”
Izsak chuckled. “Don’t worry. I know a good kid when I see one.”
Trystan stiffened, and Olive smirked.
“Of course, I’m talking about you too, Olive.”
Olive frowned, and he heard Trystan cover a snort with a cough.
“What are you doing here, Mr. Wtorek?” Olive pressed as politely as he could.
“Well, I was actually looking for you.”
“Looking for me?”
“Yeah, Gabrielle’s finishing the interviews for the day, and I thought I’d dip out early.”
That didn’t sound responsible.
“I wanted to have a chat,” Izsak finished. He glanced at Trystan. “Just the two of us―”
Immediately, Trystan stepped forward. “With all due respect, Mr. Wtorek, as the new head royal guard, I cannot leave the prince’s side―”
But Izsak was already steering Olive away. “It’s just for a minute. I promise I’ll return him happier than before.”
Before Trystan could say anything more, they were already rounding the corner.
Izsak led Olive through the halls and up several staircases with the flair of a tourist guide despite the fact that Olive knew the building better than him. But Olive let him at it. There was no use fighting against it, anyways. That was what he thought until the halls began to look unfamiliar to him. The intricate paintings of royal families past had disappeared from the walls and had become replaced by stiff guards who eyed Olive and Izsak’s sash at their passage.
It wasn’t that Olive was unfamiliar with this place. Rather, he’d done everything in his power to avoid it. But before Olive could formulate a proper escape plan, they were already in front of a sturdy set of twin doors that looked so heavy that they seemed impossible to push open.
There were six guards stationed in front of the door, each of whom raised their conductors at their approach.
Izsak pointed to his sash before flashing his Ophiuchian badge. The guards stiffened before joining together to push the doors open. The metal door groaned against the marble flooring, and the guards were left panting at the effort.
Izsak gave Olive a wink over his shoulder like it was all part of some ruse before ushering Olive inside. Stepping into the room was like walking out from the coolness of the mansion into the blazing heat of midafternoon. The air felt thick and muddy, oversaturated but electrifying. Olive wasn’t sure whether breathing was more akin to drowning or suffocating. But he forgot his discomfort as soon as he saw it.
The cylinder rose up in a mess of tubing and wires before them like a mountain. It hummed with life, and white light pulsated through the glass veins that crisscrossed around its body. At its feet was a glowing lake of light that seemed to have no end.
The sight of the vitae reservoir made Olive’s stomach churn.
Izsak walked up to the long railings that circled around the device. Hesitantly, Olive joined him. On the wide strip of cement that filled in the space between the rails and the vitae reservoir, a handful of Conductors were rushing back and forth. Probably doing everything they could to ensure the generator conductor continued to run smoothly.
Why did Izsak bring him here?
“You’re probably wondering why I brought you here,” Izsak hummed, leaning against the rails. He studied the cylinder with a frown. “It looks terrifying up close, doesn’t it? Hard to imagine this is the conductor that powers a quarter of Aries.”
Olive glanced at the man.
“Even harder to imagine that just eight years ago this thing was in a pile of ashes.”
The statement was a slap to the face.
“I couldn’t believe it at first, when I heard,” Izsak continued. “That ELPIS would do all of those terrible things just to try and destroy this conductor. The Tragedy of Aries―all of those lives―just for this.” A dry laugh. “Then again, we did fight an eighteen-year war over vitae reservoirs. Makes you sort of wonder if we’d be better off without all of this.”
“If you want to give a history lesson then you should’ve become a teacher. You might be better at it than a peacekeeper,” Olive said despite himself. He paused as his words resounded in his ears. “I mean…” He trailed off as he eyed Izsak.
Izsak wasn’t smiling but he wasn’t frowning either. His eyes were trained on the conductor looming before them. “I was thinking of becoming a teacher, actually, during the War. But after it was over and done with, I thought it’d be too easy on me if I did that.”
Izsak gave a wry chuckle. “I wasn’t too proud of the things I did during the War, and I’m still not proud. But at the time I was young and thought I deserved some sort of punishment in exchange for all the things I did. Gave up my dream and become a peacekeeper as some sort of convoluted retribution. Who knows if that was the right decision?”
Olive tensed. He felt exposed.
“But hey, it’s not all bad,” Izsak continued, “Elizabeta and I had Csilla, and our darling little girl almost became a saint candidate.” A sigh of pride.
Olive could almost understand the feeling.
“My sister was almost a saint candidate too,” Olive mumbled. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it, but his chest felt a bit lighter when he did. He hated the feeling.
“Your sister was almost a saint candidate? I see… Well, I’m sure when you complete your State Conducting Exam, you’ll be pretty great too.”
Completing the Exam? Olive couldn’t even think that far ahead.
Izsak let out a sudden sigh. “Well, our conversation got derailed like usual.” He faced Olive and gestured to the conductor. “I wanted to bring you here to show you this.” Pushing up his glasses, he met Olive’s eyes. “Even if something is burnt to the ground, it still can be rebuilt as long as there’s at least one person willing to rebuild it.” Izsak pulled away from the railings and reached for him. “Let’s just say I recognize that look in your eye.”
Olive didn’t like what Izsak was implying but allowed the man to squeeze his shoulder. Resisting someone like Izsak took too much effort. It was better to let them think that the things they said would change things.
* * *
Izsak led Olive back to the hall where Trystan still stood waiting. The peacekeeper didn’t linger long, conjuring both of them stuffed animals before departing with a wave.
Before Trystan could ask about anything, Olive threw his animal into the man’s hands and headed into the bathroom at the end of the hall.
Olive shut the door behind him. He ambled forward, glanced at the bathroom stalls, before bypassing them and approaching the mirror. He glared at his reflection for a moment, before turning on the sink and splashing his face with hot water. He remained there, gripping the edge of the sink, as he stared into the steam rising up.
A creaking drew away his attention, and it was followed by a flicker of black out from the corner of his eye.
He straightened and turned. “Lavi—”
His words died in his throat as a shadow spilled out from the window that now stood ajar. A silhouette perched there. Black against white.
Olive barely had the time to take a step back before the figure lunged forward pinning him against the sink and clamping a hand over his mouth. The steam rising from the sink provided a cloak of concealment for the intruder, but Olive had already seen it. Seen his assailant’s face. It was—
His assailant stiffened, before pushing past the cloud of steam. “Olive…?”
“What the—why are you—what are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” Claire whispered in turn.
There was such an earnest expression on his face that Olive had to take a moment to digest it before he scowled and snapped: “This is the royal palace. I’m royalty. Do you need more clarification—”
“Is everything alright, your highness?” Trystan’s voice was barely audible above the rush of water.
Olive reached over to turn off the faucet and didn’t even glance at Claire as he answered, “Everything’s fine. You’ve already got the position as head royal guard. Are you really trying to climb up further now? I may be the prince, but you really need to be sucking up to other people. I can’t change anything.”
“That’s—I…” Came Trystan’s response before he fell silent.
Olive turned back to Claire and shrugged the young man’s hands off of his shoulders. “Stop looking like that. It’s annoying. I don’t want to be involved in whatever this is. Just get out of the palace now.”
Claire took a step back, hands raised. “You don’t want to know why I’m here…?”
Olive dusted his sleeves and crossed his arms. “Like you want to tell me. With how you ran off the other day, I doubt it’s something that’ll be good for you or for me.”
“Ok, I have an explanation for tha—”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Ok the truth is—”
“I said I didn’t want to hear it—”
“I’m in this country illegally.”
“I snuck in past the borders and I don’t have any papers on me.”
A long stretch of silence passed.
“But you have to understand. I’m here for a reason—”
“This isn’t a confessional,” Olive said. “And that’s what all the illegal aliens say.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “So is that why you approached me? Want me to magically wave my hands and make all of your problems go away?”
Claire stiffened and shook his head while waving his hands. “No, no, no, no, I had no idea honestly.” He paused, met Olive’s eyes, and gestured hesitantly at him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you didn’t really seem like the type. You don’t act regally. No offense.” He started waving his hands again. “I didn’t even know you’d be here. Really!”
Olive said nothing.
In the silence, Claire seemed to crack. “Ok, there’s this guy who promised to forge papers for me if I got him something from the royal palace. It’s this red vase thing.” Claire mimicked the shape with his hands. “Apparently, it’s a super valuable artifact, and I heard a rumor that it might be here so I… yeah.”
Olive looked him up and down. “Are you…suicidal? Stupid?”
Claire opened his mouth but then resigned himself to silence. He made to the window.
That’s not very exciting, is it? Just letting him go like that.
Exciting? Who the hell cared if it was exciting, Olive thought—
—but then a sensation cracked open in his chest and expanded outwards. It twisted deep in the pit of his stomach and before he could even put a name to it, he was already extending a hand outwards.
Claire, one foot already on the windowsill, paused and turned his head. He looked torn between confusion and fear but held steady.
Claire’s brows furrowed. “Excuse me?”
“That’s what the pot is called. The red one you’re talking about. They say that our Ancestor brought it from her homeland when she first came to Signum,” Olive elaborated. “I’m not going to forge documents for you, but I don’t mind giving you the urn. It’s ugly and everyone’ll be secretly happy it’s gone anyways.”
“I…” Claire stepped down from the sill. “I’m confused… Do you really mean that…? I-but why…?”
“That must be your favorite word.” Olive grimaced. “Don’t they teach you ‘don’t question good things that come your way’ in your country?”
“I… thank you,” Claire managed. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, first the conductor and now this.” He took a step forward. “Please let me thank you somehow. Oh, I know! I can treat you to something. You probably’ve eaten everywhere in the city already but still—”
“I’m not leaving the palace without my guards.”
Claire faltered and then chuckled. “O-Oh, right… Of course. You’re royalty. It’d probably be weird if you went out with someone like me.”
“It’s not that…” Olive glanced back at the door. “It’d be too much of a pain to deal with all the increased security. I already tested my luck yesterday.”
Claire was silent. And then he dug into his satchel and presented Olive with a rice ball. Olive had tried the food before when a traveling chef from Sagittarius visited the palace, but that had been a long time ago.
“How about I treat you here? Uh, it’s not much, I know. But it’s still something.”
Olive raised an eyebrow. “Is it poisoned?”
Before Claire had the chance to form a coherent sentence, Olive grabbed the rice ball out of his hands and joined him at the windowsill. He sat down on the protruding terrace and bit into the ball. He chewed thoughtfully as Claire settled down beside him with a rice ball of his own.
A comfortable silence passed.
Then Olive asked, “Why are you trying to sneak into Aries in the first place? Getting your papers isn’t that hard if you’ve got the money. And you look like you’ve got the money.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want to know.” It was hard to tell whether he was being sarcastic or earnest.
“Fine, don’t tell me.”
“I’m looking for something here. It’s important. I just didn’t have enough time to go through all that paperwork.”
“If you’re going to be vague about it, I don’t see why you even bother saying it,” Olive grumbled. “What’s the point of not getting to the point.”
Claire stared for a beat before he chuckled. “It’s just difficult to explain… it’s not something physical.”
Olive harrumphed. “So I was wasting my time finding you a conductor.”
Claire flushed. “Oh, well. I mean, I did need one.” He paused, turning to stare out at the horizon. “But this thing I need… it’s something that you’d expect to get everywhere, but…”
“Are you a deaf poet?”
Claire shrugged. After a beat, he asked, “Don’t you get bored of staying inside here all the time?”
“I’ve never been outside of the Capital.” Olive shrugged. “Hard to know what you’re missing when you never experience it. Which is why you shouldn’t experience it. People who go out there doing things just increase the number of things they realize they’re missing, and then they keep going out to try and fill in what they’re missing but it’s just an endless cycle.”
“Wow, it must be fun to be you.”
“You’re still here though. You must be a masochist,” Olive replied.
“So this is what men do when they’re in the restroom together. I’ve always wondered.”
A gentle voice wafted in from behind, causing Olive to snap up and whip his head around. He swept the bathroom as a familiar sensation crept up his spine and clouded his mind. Deja vu…?
The bathroom was empty. Occupied only by the remnants of steam from earlier. Nothing out of the ordinary. The cool wind that had been drafting in from the outside had begun to clear up the fogged mirror above the sink. Olive stared at it for a moment in confusion. And as the blurriness began to recede to the corners of the reflective surface, he did a double-take.
Captured there was not a reversed image of the bathroom’s interior but an entirely different scene. An open window frame. A white window frame with a white flower box at its lip and a white windowsill on which a young woman had propped her elbows. A young woman who offered him a pleasant, white smile as their eyes met. As if nothing about their situation was odd.
The more Olive looked at the mirror, the more it looked like a window. Flowery vines spilled out from the flower box and into the sink. Sunlight bounced off the glass windowpanes and splattered the flowers with droplets of light. It looked like a painting.
“W-What is it?” Claire whispered. He was craning his neck to peer inside the bathroom.
Olive glanced at him and then back at the mirror. Claire’s words confirmed his suspicions: this was something that he could only see. Like the woman from that night. Like Lav—
“It’s nothing,” Olive said, turning away and tapping his foot. He took another large bite out of the rice ball and swallowed without tasting it.
A soft chuckle resounded from behind again. “I’m not sure how but I get the feeling that you’re in a tense situation right now. You must be very daring to be spending time alone with someone you’ve just met while also turning your back on another person you’ve just met despite it. Is this what they call bravery or is this what they call loneliness?”
Olive craned his neck just enough so that he could send the woman a glare. A glare which he soon found himself re-directing to the wall just beside the mirror-window when the woman smiled. It wasn’t that the woman had an unpleasant smile or a creepy one—in fact, it was a very beautiful one. All white. But something about it seemed unnatural.
“It’s a good thing,” she said, now smiling with her eyes. “Many psychologists believe that human beings are social creatures, so I think it’s very natural to feel lonely. I’ve always wondered if people who never feel lonely have somehow evolved beyond the need for that. Or perhaps it’s a devolution? Sorry, I’m rambling now.”
Was that an insult or a compliment? Was any of that even directed at him?
There was a long stretch of silence, and the woman’s smile tipped downwards. Her eyes, on the other hand, softened with an understanding that usually would have caused Olive to grit his teeth. Somehow, however, he could almost feel—understand—the sentiment behind her expression. Almost apologetic.
“You seem like you’re the one who’s lonely,” he said.
The woman’s eyes did not brighten, but the corners of her lips turned upwards again. “You don’t seem very alarmed by my presence.”
“You’d have to beat pipe-swinging lady’s entrance if you wanted to alarm me,” Olive grumbled, facing forward again but keeping the woman in the corner of his eye. “Anyways, I’m not a stranger to being messed up in the head so nothing can surprise me.”
“P-Pipe-swinging lady?” Claire muttered beside him in confusion. “I don’t think you’re messed up in the head. I…” He glanced at the mirror. “I…uh… I talk to myself a lot too. A lot of people do. It’s actually a sign of intelligence, you know?”
Olive stared at him. “Right. Thanks for the pep talk.”
“I don’t think I’ve met this ‘pipe lady’ yet, but I’ve met the one called Cadence and the one called Werner,” the woman continued from her windowsill. She reached out and gently touched the lip of a flower that bloomed on one of the vines. “On another note, the human brain is frighteningly complex. Even the greatest researchers don’t completely understand what’s considered normal for a person’s mind. So, for you to say with that level of certainty that I’m a symptom of this ‘messed up head’ of yours—well—you must be smarter than them.”
“You really like to talk don’t you.”
The woman chuckled at this, and Olive wondered how in the world he kept encountering people who laughed at pointed insults.
“Well… I think I am a little bit extroverted,” Claire replied. “But I’ve been trying to tone it down recently…”
Olive glanced at him and then looked back at the woman.
“I suppose you’re right to say I’m lonely,” she said. “Although it’s self-inflicted. I’ve been wondering recently: perhaps I’m a bit of a sadist? Or would that be a masochist?”
Olive felt something tickle in his chest at that statement. An almost dry laugh. Which was embarrassing. He side-glanced at Claire to check if he’d seen the slip, but Claire was focused solely on the horizon. Olive followed his gaze and then froze.
It was Lavi. She was here again. Standing at the very edge of the roof.
Olive came to a stand immediately, startling Claire beside him.
“Wow…” Came the flower woman’s response. “I think this is the first time I’ve experienced more than two of us speaking like this to each other. This is something amazing…”
Then it clicked.
Olive felt his heart skip a beat. No, he felt his heart stop altogether.
She could see Lavi…?
Of course, she could see her. It was only natural. They were both swirling around in his mind, after all. Just like Lavi could see his hallucinated pipe-swinging woman from the other night, this hallucination could also see Lavi. Hallucinations were aware of hallucinations. It made sense. But even so—
It was pathetic. Olive knew it was pathetic to feel this emotion rising in his chest after so many years, but he couldn’t stop himself from feeling it. From acting on it.
“You can see her?” Olive whispered, whipping his head around and gesturing to where Lavi stood. His voice sounded unnatural in his own ears. “You… can see Lavi?”
“… see who?” Claire’s voice resounded faintly in the background.
The woman in the mirror was no longer smiling with her lips nor her eyes. She seemed to be analyzing his expression. She straightened herself and peered into his face and then glanced at Lavi again. “Yes, of course, I can see her.”
It really was pathetic. How just four words could make that stupid, worthless, embarrassing feeling surge. That hope.
“You—” he stepped onto the windowsill breathlessly and—
And then there was pain. A sharp, pulsating pain erupted like fire. It came so suddenly and so forcefully that for a moment he thought he’d been shot again. He looked towards the window bewildered but was only met with Claire’s own bewildered gaze.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked.
He wasn’t sure if he screamed or cried or swore but a second later he was on the ground shaking.
Distantly, someone called out a familiar name—
He blinked once. Twice.
The bathroom around him twisted and was swallowed up by an entirely different scenery. Somewhere gray and drab. Somewhere wet.
He was on the ground. On an unfamiliar hard, cold concrete floor. Red spilled out from somewhere and pooled at his fingertips. A cloak of white swooshed just beyond his line of sight. In the distance, a familiar voice called out a familiar name—
And then there was black.
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Epidemiologist with a love for writing and reading.
My life is the epitome of eating a box of donuts at 3 am and waking up the next morning with a stomachache.
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