Olive opened his eyes.
The clicks and clacks of the train trudging along the tracks were the first things he became aware of. Then came his awareness of the surrounding animated chatter.
Across from him sat Jin, sandwiched in-between Claire and the latter’s step-sister Mai. At Claire’s left sat Eunji with her head buried in her book, and at Mai’s right sat Kai who was looking at the scenery flitting past the train-car window. The rest of the compartment was filled with Claire’s and Mai’s entourage. It was a rather tight fit, but the heat wasn’t unpleasant. It reminded Olive of the air back home. At Olive’s left sat Trystan who mumbled a “Did you sleep well?” as Olive gained his bearings.
“Good morning, kiddo.” Jin flashed him a grin.
Ignoring her, Olive rose from his seat and headed over to the corner of the train cart where his bird had been placed alongside all of his other belongings. The blackbird tweeted at his approach, and he looked around expectantly for Lavi to show her face. But she didn’t.
Olive grimaced and stared at Jin’s reflection on the window beside him.
He knew that his portion in this plan of theirs was rather simple. Much more simple than the tasks of the other five. And yet still, he wouldn’t be able to do it without Cadence’s help. It was pathetic.
“Seeing that bird in that cage is pretty depressing.”
Olive startled and whipped around to find Jin hovering over his shoulder.
“I would say set the bird free,” Jin continued, “but what’s the point? It’s been conditioned to captivity, so it’ll be absolutely useless when you let it loose in the wild.”
“I see you’re an ornithologist now,” Olive muttered. “People really are into fields that reflect their personality.”
“Are you calling me bird-brained?” Jin whistled. “You have a lot of gusto, kiddo. Wonder if I’ll ever see that aloof arrogance disappear.” Her smile thinned. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” She chuckled. “Just kidding, kiddo. Maybe in my next life.”
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
The train docked at The Grand Snake Station five hours later.
As Olive was gathering his belongings alongside Trystan and Claire, he kept his eye glued on Jin. She hadn’t brought much with her on their train ride and was busy chatting with the car attendant at the cabin’s exit.
It was now or never.
Olive sucked in a breath as he headed towards her; and then with unpracticed uneasiness, he tripped forward. He let out a yelp and reached out for the closest thing to him, which just so happened to be—as calculated—Jin. She whipped around quickly and caught him mid-fall. His vision went black for a moment. When it returned, Jin was flashing him another grin.
“Sure,” Olive muttered, peeling away from her and quickly shoving his right hand into his pocket. He beckoned for Trystan with a jerk of his head and headed through the train doors behind Jin. Abruptly, Jin reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Olive tensed, heart hammering, and turned back towards her.
“Good luck on your exam,” Jin hummed, tightening her grip. She nodded at Claire, Eunji, Mai, and Kai who had just finished packing their things. “All of you.”
“You’re not coming to watch?” Claire asked perturbed.
“I’ve got something I need to take care of first. I’ll be around though,” Jin answered, stepping off the train with a wave. “Good luck!”
Olive swallowed, curling his fingers around the proto-conductor that Cadence had just plucked from Jin in his pocket. Now all he had to do was keep an eye on her and figure out what to do with the proto-conductor. Keeping it away from her was the best option at the moment. But first, he had to stop acting suspicious. Shrugging his shoulders, he shuffled off the train and stepped out onto the platform.
It was annoyingly crowded. Men and women in black and white uniforms brushed past him without care, while men and women dressed in casual wear looked around at them in confusion. Despite the overwhelming crowd and noise, Olive didn’t find it jarring or uncomfortable. Even though he had been to this place only once many years ago, everything was still very familiar to him. Beside him, Trystan surveyed the area while balancing all of their belongings.
Claire appeared from behind with a pleasant smile. “Lost?”
Behind the Sagittarian prince stood Felix, Soha, and Eunji. Mai and Kai and their entourage seemed to be elsewhere. Good.
“Because we are,” Claire finished. “You wouldn’t happen to know a friend who knows their way around, would you?”
Olive didn’t know what Claire was playing at, and he was too tired and anxious to even think about it. So, without complaint or response, Olive led them to and through a straight pathway in an open yard dotted with statues of faceless, genderless figures. The pathway eventually led to a large white marble staircase that extended as far wide as it extended high. It seemed completely impractical, but instead of grumbling about it to himself, Olive found himself staring at a spot at the foot of the steps.
He was certain.
This was the very spot that Jericho had struck when he’d been pushed from the top by Omega. This was where Jericho almost died. This… was a safety hazard.
Olive shivered but was jarred out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder.
Claire chuckled. “Mentally preparing yourself for the climb?”
When they reached the top of the staircase, they were greeted by an army of peacekeepers who prompted them to turn in any conductors they had. Olive and Trystan flashed them golden, hexagonal medallions imprinted with the Ariesian royal ram, while Claire and his entourage flashed silver medallions carved with Sagittarian letters. The peacekeepers looked the identifications over, before allowing their group to pass with their conductors. A little bit of misdirection with Cadence’s assistance allowed Olive to slip the proto-conductor past them too.
“Perks of being royalty,” Claire sang.
After passing a vitae spectrophotometer test within, they were directed inside and given directions to a room to store their belongings. The directions were poor, of course, and vague too. But thankfully, Jericho synchronized at just the right moment and directed Olive on where to go. Eventually, Olive guided the group to a large storage room where they checked in their belongings with several peacekeepers.
Olive didn’t ask these peacekeepers for the directions to the examination room. Instead, he continued forward with a shrug and led the Claire and the others to an open room on the fourth floor of the establishment. STATE CONDUCTING EXAM was emblazoned on a plaque just outside of the room.
No use in it being there, Olive thought, if people couldn’t even find the room to begin with.
The room’s walls were guarded by rows of white waiting chairs, half of which were occupied. They bypassed these chairs in favor of approaching the half-circle receptionist desk at the room’s center.
A familiar man with black curls and a tattooed face manned the desk’s forefront. It was Moraeni, the Piscese peacekeeper who was a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle.
The man greeted them pleasantly at the desk; and after ascertaining which members of their party were taking the exam and checking their identities, he handed Eunji and Olive each a slip of paper with a number on it. He didn’t seem affected by their twin statuses of royalty.
“That’ll be your examinee number, and if you pass this exam, it’ll be your license number,” Moraeni explained in Common. “Please be aware that it’ll take around two months for you to receive your license if you pass due to secondary background checks. Also, while you can come in and take the written exam on any day of your choice, you must take the practical portion on the day you’ve taken the written portion. If you don’t, you’ll have to take the written portion again.” He gave an apologetic smile, the formality in his body and tone dissipating. “It’s just how the system works. Sorry.”
Olive nodded, not particularly caring.
“As you know, only the examinees are allowed to be in this room while the exam is being proctored,” Moraeni addressed Claire, Soha, Felix, and Trystan, “so go ahead and exchange your good wishes.” He nodded back to an ominous-looking black door just behind him. “When you’re done, the test takers may enter through that door to the examination room.”
Claire pulled Eunji to the side and began to speak to her quietly. Felix and Soha stood in front of them, blocking the siblings from Olive’s view. Not that Olive needed a first-row ticket to family drama. Ignoring them, Olive pulled Trystan to the far corner of the room.
“I need you to do something for me,” he said.
“What is it, your highne—Olivier?”
“I need you to find Jin and keep an eye on her.”
Trystan frowned somewhat but obliged. “… Of course, Olivier.”
“But keep your distance. Don’t… don’t get too close.” Olive reached out, squeezed his arm.
Trystan nodded hesitantly and departed from the room alongside Claire and his two guards. Olive sighed and grimaced before heading towards the ominous door. He found Eunji standing right in front of it, stiff with a constipated expression. He would’ve chuckled at the sight if he wasn’t as nervous himself. And not just about the exam.
“Come on.” Olive gave Eunji a nudge forward. “Can’t take the test standing.”
Together, they stepped inside.
The room was spacious and wide. It held a lecturer’s podium at its center with interconnected desks arching around it. A handful of young men and women who looked nauseous already occupied several of the desks.
The entirety of it reminded Olive of the lecture halls back in New Ram City.
Olive helped Eunji find her seat before walking over to the desk that was marked with his number and taking a seat himself. The test proctor came to a stand at the center of the room and monologued about rules, cheating, and time frames as another proctor started passing out the exams.
When Olive received his own exam packet, he grimaced. It was more like a tome than anything else. Almost an inch thick. As much as he cared for Atienna’s love of plants and trees, he sincerely hoped it was single-sided.
“—and now,” the test proctor boomed with an aggravatingly dramatic flourish, “you may begin!”
Taking a deep breath, Olive picked up the pencil that they had provided to him and flipped open to the first page.
Olive finished the exam with an hour to spare. After double-checking his answers and switching back and forth between A and C for several questions on the multiple-choice section, he decided enough was enough. He shut the packet, signed his name at the front of the thing like he was signing his will, and handed the packet to the proctor.
As he made his exit, he realized that Eunji’s seat was empty. She had completed her exam before him, it seemed. It was a slight blow to his ego, but it was mended a second later when Olive spied Kai among the seated examinees. The man was staring holes into his testing paper and seemed to be sweating and swearing under his breath.
Olive swept out of the room and let out a sigh. He stopped short, however, as he registered Eunji sitting along the wall with her head buried in her hands. He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck before walking over and sinking down beside her.
“What did you put for number 23b in section C?” Eunji asked, snapping up to stare at him. “The question about the vitae particles and kick-starter?”
“Would knowing what I put change anything?” Olive arched a brow.
Eunji stared down at her hands, opened her mouth, grimaced, fell silent.
Talk about awkward.
But Olive could tell what was going through her mind. Only a couple of months ago, he’d been going through the same thought process. The desire not to be useless but the fear of being useful. Trying to dissect if the effort was worth anything at all in the end.
“You should stop thinking so much and just worry about what you can do now. The rest will come later,” Olive finally said. When Eunji blinked up at him hesitantly, he jerked his head towards the exit. “Let’s go. Unless you have a friend you’re waiting for.”
Upon exiting the examination room with Eunji in tow, Olive found Claire, Soha, and Felix lounging around in the hall just outside. Claire beamed at their appearance and rushed over to Eunji’s side.
“How was it?” he asked.
Olive cast a glance to the side and was startled to find Trystan approaching them from down the hall. Olive detached himself from the Sagittarian and met Trystan halfway.
“Trystan?” Olive asked. “You couldn’t find her?”
“No, I did find her, Olivier,” Trystan replied, dipping his head. “But she entered a location that I was barred entry from.”
“What’s going on?” Claire asked as he joined them alongside his sister and bodyguards.
“It’s nothing—” Olive began.
“This is about my aunt, isn’t it?” Claire interjected.
Eunji looked between them in confusion. “What about Aunt Jiji…?”
Olive turned back to Trystan. “Show me where.”
Trystan startled. “But, Olivier, your practical exam is—”
“The practical portion isn’t for another two hours,” Olive interjected. “Take me, Trystan—”
Claire placed a hand on Olive’s arm and urged, “I’m comin with you. This is one of the people of my clan.”
Olive regarded him for a moment before brushing his hand aside and nodding.
Claire turned back to Eunji and his vassals. “Soha, stay with Eunji. Felix, with me.”
“Yes, my lord,” came the affirmations in unison.
Olive’s heart hammered in his chest as Trystan directed them through white halls, past suited peacekeepers who only spared their traveling group a glance, past rooms marked with department names and numbers, down several floor levels. As Trystan continued to lead them onwards and as they continued to descend the Serpens Establishment, Olive came to realize that he knew this route. Down, down, down they went until they reached the first-floor level and made their way through a near-empty corridor.
Olive knew what was at the end of this corridor. He—no, Jericho—had been down this way once before. At the end of this hall would be a series of tightly guarded checkpoints that only certain Ophiuchian agents were able to get past. After that, they would be greeted by a metal elevator that would bring them to the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center.
Olive stopped short in his tracks halfway down the hall. Trystan, Claire, and Felix turned back to look at him.
It’s okay, Olive tried to reassure himself. As long as Jin didn’t have Theta’s proto-conductor, whatever she was planning, she wouldn’t be able to properly execute. She wouldn’t even think about doing that… right?
A loud boom resounded from down the hallway. The sound was followed by the rumbling and groaning of the entire building. Dust fell from the ceiling and a crack appeared on the floor.
Then the sirens blared.
Trystan was at Olive’s side immediately, bow conductor drawn. Felix drew near to Claire but didn’t move to conjure anything.
Olive was in no state to pay attention because Maria’s anguish suddenly tore through his heart like a knife. He doubled over at the intense emotion thatt weighed down his chest like an anchor. Olive thought he’d never feel like this again. This pain, this heaviness, this guilt.
Olive had been alone when he had suffered these feelings after the Tragedy of Aries and—
—he wouldn’t let Maria go through it alone like he did. He clawed his way towards her, increasing their synchronization through the haze of sorrow until he was with her. With her facing Conta. With her charging in fury at Conta. With great effort, he convinced Maria to quell her rampage, and he was left drained at the attempt. Maria was a force of nature. Sometimes Olive doubted if she was human. But still. He didn’t want her to be alone—
Something buzzed warm in Olive’s right pocket, bringing him back into his reality in the hallways of the Serpens Establishment. Glancing down, he found that his pocket was glowing. He dug into it, pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. It was bright, burning hot.
Reflexively, he yelped and dropped the thing. It shattered as soon as it hit the ground, spewing the glowing substance across the floor with a splatter. The liquid-like substance trickled along the ground, crawling forward until it eventually divided the hall in two.
Trystan jerked Olive backwards away from the newly formed portal just as it nearly reached his foot. Olive offered him a subdued look of gratitude before he realized that their entire group was on the side of the hall leading towards the detention center. He looked back and then forward, measuring the distance the portal covered with his eye. It looked at least several feet wide.
Suddenly, from that newly formed portal, a familiar voice cracked out—
“There really is no hope.”
Only a second later, out from the pool of light flew four figures in monochrome uniforms. Three landed on Olive’s side of the hall, while one landed on the opposite side. Olive recognized one of the peacekeepers who landed on his side immediately. The recognition was paired with relief.
- Town of Morioh
- Luckiest Unlucky Person Alive
Hobbyist writer, epidemiology graduate student, case investigator, retired weeb. I don’t have flashbacks; I have cringebacks. And the person who rings me up the most is Spam Likely ♡
(If you’re reading this, have a great day!)