The Fragmented Six (Six Chances)

by

elmerwynn

(91) Part III | 15.4: Advisor, 0101 Distance Pain

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A note from elmerwynn

semi-long chapter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override with Werner and scours the unoccupied territory with Werner's unit in attempt to meet up with Captain Weigartner for a pincering operation against the Argoans.

Atienna and Werner's unit discover that the meeting point camp that they were supposed to the captain at, however, has been decimated. The Verbudnene Augen leader Marionette Engel, a fellow Capricornian soldier named Henning Rath, and an Argoan named Emil are the only found survivors. As the group heads back to camp to report their findings, they are ambushed by Argoans. And although they win the battle, Otto Vogt is felled not by an enemy weapon but by fellow Capricornian soldier Henning Rath. The cracks in the Capricornian army have become clear.

While of this has been unfolding, an antagonistic voice pounds at the back of Atienna's mind.

 

Fernweh » Distance pain at 0101 hours

 

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

 

No matter how hard Atienna scrubbed, the blood wouldn’t come off. Rubbing her gloves against the overgrowth eating away at the stream bank failed her as did plunging her gloved hands into the stream’s icy depths. All it did was numb her hands to the point where they felt as if they belonged to another. Which they did.

It was nighttime now. She and Werner’s unit were almost within reach of Capricorn. “About half a day's walk,” Gilbert had said before they had settled here for the night. They had already passed the lamia trees crowning the area that greeted her at the beginning of the override, and now they had found camp beside a thin stream nestled within a patch of woods.

Nico, Gilbert, Marionette, Emil, and Werner’s subordinates were a meter back behind a line of trees. Atienna had started a campfire for them before secluding herself to this area. “To refill my flask,” she’d told them, gently dissuading Nico when he’d offered to accompany her.

A waxing gibbous moon hung low in the sky, spreading its quiet blue light through the branches weeping overhead. It spilled along the rippling waters, giving the illusion that the river itself was emitting light. The trickle was quiet, crystalline, much like the streams back home.

Their walk to this scenic place had been cloaked in absolute, respectful, somber silence—something akin to a funerary march. They had left Otto’s body in a shallow grave marked by his conducting rifle. Apparently, there existed a special Capricornian division that would come back along these tracks, exhume Otto’s body, and return him home.

Home…

Atienna scrubbed her gloved hands in the water again. When she pulled them back out, the moonlight illuminated the red caked in between the leather. It was different from fighting in the Night Circle—the blood easily washed away from her bare hands there, and there was no death there either. Only hurt pride.

So, the best thing to do would be to peel away these gloves and do away with them altogether. But Werner wouldn’t like that very much and…

How cruel, Atienna thought, for her to wash away Otto like this.

But that was how she was. Always watching from afar and washing her hands of things when they became unpleasant. Only involving herself when it affected the people close to her or when she was pushed to the edge. Playing by curiosity otherwise. Curiously delving into mysteries—into the appendix—when it was a distant affair. But as soon as it was something close to the heart, averting her eyes and peeling away.

But she was moving instead of remaining still—

—but was she really? And were the results any better?

Otto again flashed into Atienna’s mind. She had heard about people dying every day—read about it, saw it through the eyes of the others. But she supposed that until it was someone one knew, until it was someone one loved, it was all just noise, ink on paper, a distant look through another’s eyes.

And she had seen so clearly with Werner’s eyes at that moment. Even now. Everything defined, detailed, crystalline: Otto’s slowly paling face, his bluing lips, his searching eyes. He must have been utterly terrified, she thought. Dying in front of people he’d probably only known for a handful of months. Dying away from his family.

Did she even know Otto that well to be feeling like this?

Werner did. Diligently attending training exercises, and a quiet presence in the trenches—that was Otto. A space filled. And that was enough.

Oh, Werner. He would blame himself, Atienna knew. But she didn’t know that—

Why was she always feigning ignorance? Didn’t she know everything?

No, she only wished she did.

No, she chose to be ignorant. Knowledgeable when pleasant, selectively ignorant when unpleasant—

“Isn’t that right, Miss Imamu?”

Atienna’s blood ran cold at the familiar voice as red spilled on down towards her from upstream. As she followed that line of red upwards, dread began to build in her stomach. The first thing Atienna saw were her eyes, wide open and blue. Then Atienna saw her throat, bulleted through with a small hole and pouring out red into the blue.

In the frigid moonlight, Yulia Kriska lay across a rock bed jutting up from the waters. Her ashen face was several shades paler than Otto’s had been, but her eyes were sharp and terrifyingly clear. Despite the odd angle her neck was bent at, she was able to crane her head towards Atienna.

Atienna shot up to a stand.

It was the same thing she had seen when she had been getting water with Nico at the stream bank just the other day. The same thing that appeared in her nightmares. A ghost; a mirage; a trick of the mind possibly due to the override or trauma; an illusion—Atienna knew this. But despite all logic and reason, she couldn’t help but stumble backwards as her heart thundered.

“You pushed me into this,” Yulia said, her voice hollow and gravelly. “I had no other choice.” She began to pull herself forwards along the shallow waters—arms bent at inhuman angles. “We could’ve been free, but you stole my choice from me. Even though you’re just like me.” Her bones cracked as she dragged herself closer and closer. “Did it feel good to win against me? Did it feel good to be ‘right’?”

Atienna took another step backwards, slipped on mud, and fell flat on her back.

“You!” Yulia hissed even closer now—so close that Atienna could see her breath fogging up the air. “You—

A pale hand wrapped around Atienna’s ankle. Heart pounding, she followed that pale hand to a pale arm to a pale and blemishless neck, to a round and painfully youthful face.

“—took everything from us,” Kovich seethed.

Atienna swallowed a scream, squeezed her eyes shut, and kicked hard. As soon as the grip around her ankle fell away, she jumped to her feet, arms raised, body tense, eyes open. But—

—there was one. Nothing. Just the silent, quiet stream bathing in moonlight and the trees stretching up to the sky like hands.

The hairs on the back of Atienna’s neck stood on end.

That had felt like a synchronization reminiscent of when she had first started crossing over with the other six. No, it was nothing like that. Here, she was alone. Here, there was no one to experience that with her.

A result of the prolonged override.

Was it...?

All Atienna wanted to do was run into someone’s arms—to Sefu who was always ready at request, to Cadence who would make her laugh, to Werner who would offer her reason and calm, to Maria who would highlight the minisculity of her problems, to Olive who would offer her company, to Jericho who would always listen—but that was impossible in the present situation. And she couldn’t run to Gilbert or any of Werner’s subordinates.

Atienna drifted back into the direction of camp but paused as a thick bush overgrowing with white, star-shaped flowers caught her eye. Absentmindedly, she crouched down by the thrush and inspected the flora. After a moment of consideration, she sank to her knees and crawled into a small space beneath the brambles. Once hidden away, she tucked her knees beneath her chin and buried her head.

In her childhood, she would frequently do this with Safiyah and Bachiru—stowing away into the shrubberies around the meeting halls of Virgo, telling stories, whispering to each other in the damp quiet. Maria too would do this all of the time, Atienna recalled. Yes, Maria and her dear—who? Atienna couldn’t recall at the moment—her mind was so muddled.

Why did she even leave Virgo, to begin with? What had she hoped she could accomplish? Every choice she’d made since putting Usian down had led to terrible outcomes. Even her choice to handle Usian and Virgo’s withdrawal from isolation was questionable. And all of those choices—she had made on her own. But of course now—like always—she was trying to distance herself from her choices. Regrets? Pathetic.

It was so lonely. She hated it.

Her father’s warm face, her mother’s gentle eyes, her brother’s boisterous laugh, and her sisters’ mischievous giggles as they ran around the estate—those images seeped into the edges of Atienna’s mind.

She missed home. She just wanted to go back, to return to her book reading in the gardens, to return to her visiting the Great Tree weekly and resting her head on her mother’s lap. Even if it meant turning back to the days where she would lift her fists in the Night Circle.

What…?

Was that what she really wanted? What she truly missed? No, as much as she missed her family, she feared returning to Virgo. She didn’t want to be the only one out of all six of them who remained unchanged, unmoving. Right, all she wanted right now to be anywhere else but here—here where Werner, Gilbert, Nico, Klaus, Otto, and the others spent half of their lives. It was selfish but there was a difference. Still, she was avoiding things again.

Well if she didn’t want to be here and she didn’t want to be there, where exactly did she want to be? Want, want, want, want. And the only way to achieve what was desired was to choose the extreme.

Why couldn’t there be a path down the middle? If there had been a path like that available maybe then Otto… Yulia… Usian… her mother...

Tears leaked from Atienna’s eyes before she could stop them. They spilled out molten hot, and she put out her hands to catch them. She had not spilled tears for herself in some time, she realized. She didn’t think she’d ever done so. Her tears were usually for someone else, and the last time she had cried for someone else was six years ago after her mother had…

No, she didn’t want to think about that.

“Hey, what are you doing under there—oh... Shit.”

Atienna startled and looked up. She’d been so distracted by her own thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed she had been approached and discovered. What a dangerous position to be in if it wasn't a familiar face that was looking down at her.

Gilbert stared, one hand prying up branches to her hiding place, the other finding repose on his holster. “Uh… You sure you don’t want me to try hitting you over the head to see if that works? Don’t blame you for not wanting to be here.”

Atienna couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is… that how you usually solve your problems, Gilbert?”

Gilbert gave a noncommittal grunt, sliding himself beside her and kicking up his boots.

His nonchalant directness didn’t surprise her, although she felt shy of it. She wiped her cheeks and hid her face. “This is… a bit embarrassing. I’m sorry. I feel like a child.”

“Nah, you’re pretty good for seeing your first body.” He ripped a flower from one of the brambles hanging overhead and inspected it. “You should see half of the floppies they send here—new recruits, I mean. Get a bit of blood on their uniforms and they’re asking for bleach. Otto was the same. Grew into it though.”

Atienna studied the flower in his hand and thought of Otto. After a beat, she drew, “This… is not the first time I’ve seen something like this.”

Gilbert squinted at her, dropped the petals. “And… what exactly do you work as again?”

Atienna hesitated but she didn’t quite know why. Although Werner did not admit it, he trusted Gilbert wholeheartedly—and yet, an odd sort of apprehension unfurled in Atienna’s chest at the prospect of divulging everything to him. A flitting nervousness. The type of feeling that would only blossom in her chest when speaking to a stranger.

“I’m an advisor,” she finally said, “for a Virgoan diplomat.”

Gilbert’s eyes widened, and he swore under his breath. “No wonder you’re good with words. Did some weird silver-tongued thing to that Argoan Emil too… I get what Werner means now by your happy-go-lucky possession group being a security issue.”

Atienna suspected that Gilbert’s reaction would be much more dramatic if he realized Olive was a….? Prince—Olive was an Ariesian prince.

There it was again. That fleeting feeling.

“… I heard from Werner that you don’t like them very much. People in my profession, I mean.” Atienna plucked one of the fallen petals from the ground. “Would it reassure you if I told you that I don’t have a direct influence over anything?”

“That’s what they all say. Ask ‘em to change something and they say their hands are tied—either the opposition is pushing back, it’s too much money, or it’s too complex to do.”

Oh. Atienna looked away. She supposed he had a point.

Gilbert sighed and rummaged for something in his pocket before pulling out two rectangular bars wrapped in wax paper. He placed them in her hand. “Here.”

She turned them over and inspected the golden print on brown there. Schokolade.

“Werner’s sister and mother sent these down for him. He didn’t want it, so I stole it from him,” Gilbert explained. “Guys out here would kill for this stuff.”

“Comfort food,” Atienna surmised.

“Go ahead.”

She hesitated before carefully peeling away the wrapping and breaking off one of the six square chocolate blocks. She popped it into her mouth, and her tongue immediately curled. Wincing, she quickly chewed and swallowed.

“Oh, that must be the bitter chocolate.” Gilbert snorted. “His mom’s kind of a health nut. The other bar’s from his sister. Probably milk chocolate if that suits you better.”

“I think I’m satisfied…” Atienna drew, folding the wrapper over itself and handing both bars back to him. “I appreciate your kindness.”

“Keep them.”

Atienna hesitated again before moving to tuck the bars into her front pocket. She paused as she felt something already stored there—round, slender, smooth. The pocket watch, she realized. She reverently pulled her hand away before storing the candies in Werner’s pants pockets instead.

“I can see why Werner relies on you.”

Gilbert stiffened, scoffed. “Trying to butter me up now?”

“He does rely on you, Gilbert,” Atienna murmured, lips curving upwards. A distant memory that was not her own clouded the edges of her mind. Although the image was not clear, the feeling was. “He’s… very grateful for you just being there. Truly.” And because Werner had felt this way, Atienna felt the same. The fleeting feeling from earlier faded with the thought.

“Yeah, well….” Gilbert shrugged with a grimace—perhaps even a slight flush. “I owe him a lot, so it’s good to know that I’m making good on dues.” He sighed. “Third time I’m talking to someone who looks like Werner but isn’t, and I’m still not used to it.”

Humming, Atienna took a sip of Werner’s canteen to wash the bitter taste out from her mouth. “If you don’t mind me speaking about this... You’ve known each other since childhood, right?”

“Yeah. My mom worked as a cleaning lady for his parents.” Gilbert scoffed. “I helped my mom out from time-to-time. ‘Course Werner’d always shove me to the side because I didn’t do a good enough job. Honestly, the guy’s so ‘straight-laced’ that the military probably doesn’t even have to pay him to be out here… He was originally supposed to do stuff in the capital but here he is...”

A complicated friendship. Perhaps as complicated as Cadence’s and Nico’s. Atienna realized she was lucky to have an uncomplicated one with Safiyah.

“You’re a woman of many words.”

Atienna lifted her head, offering a wan smile. “And you’re a man of few.”

Gilbert regarded her before muffled shouting in the direction of camp behind them caused a frown to crease his face. He sighed, getting on his knees and then crawling out of their hiding place. “Can’t leave them alone for one minute,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He disappeared into the moonlight, his footsteps fading in the direction of camp. The silence that he left did not last long. A stomp of boots crunched a minute afterwards and was followed by hushed whispers. Atienna peered through the spaces between the leaves and made out two figures creeping along the water’s edge. A tall man with red hair and a woman with brown curls—Friedhelm Heimler and Marionette Engel. There was little space between them, and their expressions were tight, their hand gestures animated. Atienna, however, could not overhear them from this distance. Although Werner’s sight was sharp, it appeared that his sense of hearing was not.

Atienna hesitated before slinking quietly through the bushes and approaching them from behind. She made sure not to step on any fallen branches nor any frosted patches dusting the earth. The feat was a bit harder carrying Werner’s weight but she managed to keep to the shadows beneath the overhanging trees. Friedhelm and Marionette continued conversing, bodies turned towards the river.

“—murdered Vogt!” Friedhelm hissed. The moonlight accented the age-lines on his face. “What in saint’s name is going on?”

Marionette pulled away from him, turning away from the river. “I don’t know—” She stopped short as she stared out into the darkness in Atienna’s direction.

Mildly impressed, Atienna peeled out from the dark. “What appears to be the issue here, Friedhelm?”

Friedhelm stiffened, took a step back, shared a look with Marionette before grabbing her arm. “Sorry, sir. Miss Engel said she needed to use the restroom. I—”

“And you’re planning to watch her?”—it did feel a bit nice to be more direct, Atienna thought, although it still seemed too sharp.

Friedhelm cleared his throat. He pushed Marionette roughly towards the thrushes and jerked his head. “Make it quick, Engel.”

Marionette sent Friedhelm a callous look before studying Atienna. She then dipped behind the shrubberies a meter away, tucked into a squat, and went silent. The noise from the trickling stream gave her some privacy.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

Atienna turned to Friedhelm, unsurprised. It was a question asked over and over, each inquirer expecting a different answer. How troubling.

“Er, sorry, if this is overstepping my bounds, sir, but I was just curious. My son was a combat medic, you see. He said head injuries were the worst type.”

Hm. Werner had deemed it unnecessary to investigate why Friedhelm Heimler had decided to re-enlist in the Capricornian army despite holding anti-militaristic views. This was because the military had approved Friedhelm, and that protocol was sufficient. Werner was still straight-laced and law-abiding despite everything, and Atienna found that charming. However, she personally deemed investigation very necessary. Friedhelm’s motivations were… quite curious. Atienna’s fingers itched at the thought—wait. Was a combat medic,” he said? Perhaps, it would be best to approach this in a Cadence-like manner.

“I… appreciate your concern, Friedhelm. I’m feeling alright.” She side-glanced at him. “How are you feeling? After that…”

He side-glanced back at her. She could see the gears in his head turning, calculating.

“I’m alright, sir. Thank you for asking.”

“You mentioned your son was a combat medic,” Atienna continued, trying her best to keep the hesitation out of her voice. “I recall reading that he was serving in the Border Force. My memory is still fuzzy...” She took note of the way his eyes sharpened again, though they appeared pained. “Is your son serving out here with us?”

Friedhelm’s lips pulled tight, his gaze flicking left towards nothing. “He passed away, sir. During the border conflict with Aquarius.”

A coldness gripped Atienna’s chest tight and squeezed. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… I’m sorry for bringing up something painful.”

It had been recent too. The wound of having his son carved out from his life was still exposed, fresh—perhaps even festering.

“Not bringing it up doesn’t change the fact that it happened,” he interjected, bending down to pick up a rock at the stream’s edge. “With all due respect, sir.”

Truth and… motive.

Their gazes met. The whites of his eyes seemed to accentuate the black of his pupils. Out of habit, Atienna looked away.

“I thought I was fighting in that war—the Reservoir War—so my son wouldn’t have to fight in another one.” He threw the rock in his hand. It skipped once across the shallow waters. “But look what happened. We’re still fighting. I’ve been at this for years, so I know how it’s going to turn out. If we win whatever piece of land that’s here, they’ll just send us out again. It’s like a drug.” He scoffed. “Cheers to living to fight another day in another man’s war.”

It seemed as if he was very steadfast in his beliefs. And it all appeared to have been sparked by— “I truly am sorry, Friedhelm, for what happened to your son…”

Friedhelm’s eyes glinted again, but then he snorted, undignified. “What are you saying, sir? I served with your father during the Reservoir War. I’m sure he feels the same way….” He paused. “Except you’re still alive. Just think about how your father feels with you out here.”

Atienna wondered about that.

“I mean, look at what happened just now to… to Vogt. What are you going to tell his parents…? No parent should outlive their child.”

Atienna gazed down into her distorted reflection in the stream.

“And before that too. With you. You’re still young in my book, sir. In your current state… it’s only going to get harder for you.”

A rustle from the shrubberies detracted Atienna’s attention. She glanced to the side and found Marionette peeling out from the shadows.

Atienna regarded the woman for a moment before turning to Friedhelm and asking quietly, “Are you thinking of taking advantage of my current condition, Friedhelm?”

Glistening sweat began to trail down the man’s face immediately. “A-Advantage, sir? I apologize if I’ve overstepped my bounds. I was merely stating my opinion—”

Atienna glanced back at Marionette who had stopped short in her tracks. The woman’s stiffness reminded Atienna of the aghast surprise that would grace her younger sisters’ faces when she would catch them sneaking out from their chambers late at night.

“Do you think my mental faculties are so far gone from my injury that you could easily sway me? What do you think influencing me as I am now will even do?” Atienna turned back to face Friedhelm whose face was white. “You’re… part of the Verbundene Augen, aren’t you, Friedhelm? You tried to hide Miss Engel from us when you found her earlier. Perhaps… you knew she was there—”

Friedhelm reached for the pistol strapped at his waist, ignoring Marionette’s hiss of alarm. Before he could pull out the weapon, however, Atienna placed a hand over his—gentle but firm.

“Please don’t be too rash, Friedhelm,” she said, meeting his eyes. “It would be a bit strange if you went against your beliefs right now and drew your weapon, don’t you think? Moral beliefs aside, given your suspicious behavior earlier… I don’t think it would end very pleasantly for you. Gilbert is very sharp.”

Friedhelm stiffened.

“While I believe you have the right to your own beliefs, what you do with those beliefs… is a different matter, don’t you think?” Atienna paused in thought, before continuing slowly, “But right now I’m just trying to understand what’s happened here. Believe me. Many people have lost their lives, and I think it would be sad if we didn’t uncover the why.”

Then the anger came to Atienna—the anger that this man had almost lifted a finger against someone dear to her. Without hesitation, even. If Cadence or Olive had been here in her place instead, what would have happened? This man was a coward attempting to draw a weapon against someone whom he thought was not at full mental capacity.

Atienna, however, swallowed the bitter pill and waited for Friedhelm to release his weapon before she released his hand. “What were you planning here?”

Silence filled in the lapse in their conversation. Friedhelm glanced past her shoulder towards Marionette.

After a beat, he responded tightly, “Sir, it was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration. I swear on my blood. This is my country—I love it—and I’ve served here far too long to do it any harm.”

“Henning Rath… the other soldier you found… he was a part of the movement too,” Atienna surmised, “wasn’t he? There are many more of you in the Capricornian Army.”

Friedhelm hesitated, eyed Marionette.

“I understand your hesitation. But as I said, Friedhelm, all I want right now is to understand. Lack of understanding is what causes these problems, don’t you think? Politics can wait. It’s only fair to Otto.” —Otto whom Friedhelm might have viewed as a surrogate.

Now Friedhelm looked away. “I received information from a Twin Cities broker about a route here that wasn’t traveled by the Argoans or us, so I told Miss Engel and she took a small group of our members along that route for our demonstration.” He turned back to face her. “I was supposed to meet with them when we met up with the captain for the operation. Then, our members were supposed to join hands and stand together in an act of solidarity, sir. I promise. We weren’t breaking any laws with this demonstration.” He shook his head before frowning and Marionette. “What happened with Rath and Otto, what happened with our meeting point—what the hell was that, Mari?”

Marionette studied Atienna hesitantly. The stream seemed to roar behind them.

Finally, the woman said, “I already told you what happened. One of the ones in your division took the first shot…” Her expression was tight yet flat. “I’m not sure how they found out about us. But one of ours retaliated...The situation got out of hand. And that was the result.”

Moment passion could drive people to such extremes—Atienna knew this well. She had experienced this herself six years ago in front of the Great Tree. Words, ideas, or weapons—each could lead to conflict, but one was more dangerous than the others.

Atienna weighed the truthfulness of Marionette’s words before she tried, “When Gilbert—Second Lieutenant Wolff—asked you earlier, you said that this attack happened two days before we arrived.”

Marionette’s brow twitched.

“Would it be a correct assumption to say that you were stretching the truth? To make us think that it had been too long for us to chase after your members that might’ve escaped…?” Upon noticing Marionette’s apprehension, Atienna elaborated: “This is for the sake of the people in your movement too. This is a dangerous place for them to be wandering around, don’t you think? So if they’re closer than we believe, we might be able to retrieve them before someone else does…”

Marionette hesitated. “… I think it was just a day before you came.”

The timeline lined up.

“There was a member of your group dressed in Argoan uniforms,” Atienna continued. “Was this also part of your demonstration ?

Friedhelm and Marionette exchanged looks of confusion.

Atienna elaborated, “The Argoans that we encountered several days before coming to Captain Weingartner’s camp—right before I was injured... there was a Capricornian among them. One of the members of your group may have disguised herself as... the enemy. I’m still wondering the ‘why’.”

What?” Marionette’s eyes widened. “You and your second lieutenant never mentioned this to me—”

“And you never mentioned that you had fellow Augen members in this division, Miss Engel, and you stretched the truth on when your conflict with the captain happened. And—”

And this would’ve never happened if their Augen group hadn’t been there.

Refraining from speaking those unpleasant thoughts, Atienna let out a quiet breath. “But I don’t believe in a lie for a lie or an eye for an eye… So we should try to find an understanding as I said. I don’t believe it would make sense for highly-trained soldiers to attack so rashly nor do I believe that it would make sense for members of an anti-military peace movement to react violently—not unless something pushed them to that point.”

Another encompassing silence.

Marionette finally said, “Argo wasn’t included in our demonstration plan, though a group of them had the misfortune of coming across us during the shootout and got pulled in.” She folded her arms. “But… Recently, I’ve heard rumors. Maybe Capricorn restarted the Watch but made it domestic. Spying on citizens and sewing unrest in organizations that oppose them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your soldiers stationed at the camp was involved in something like that. Or maybe even that ‘member of ours’ that you mentioned.”

Oh, conspiracy… not even questioning her own people. Typical.

Marionette’s nails dug into the skin of her forearm. “Who was it? The woman you found—can you describe her to me?”

Oh. She had more reason than that.

“…The Capricornian was a young woman—perhaps, mid-twenties,” Atienna replied. “She was blonde… And her fingernails painted with your movement’s symbol.”

Marionette sighed. “It must be Angelika… She’s from Grünland and came here with me for the demonstration. I lost sight of her during the shootout at the camp… ” She glanced at Friedhelm. “You wouldn’t know her, Friedhelm. She was a new recruit.”

So, that lowered the possibility of it being an Argoan machination.

Marionette shook her head. “I have no idea what Angelika was doing. She must have panicked or…” She let out a quiet sigh. “Since Angelica isn’t with you, then…”

“She…” Atienna glanced at Friedhelm. “I don’t quite recall, but I believe it may have been a suicide…”

“You mean the Argoan that attacked me?” Friedhelm’s brows rose. “The one that cut you?” He turned to face the other woman. “Mari, she bit her own tongue off.” His gaze darkened. “If you’re moving onto tactics like that—”

Marionette paled. “What…? Don’t be ridiculous. I already told you. I would never ask them to do something like that.”

“Then what was that with Rath and Angelika?” Friedhelm hissed.

And Otto…

“I don’t know,” Marionette replied quietly before shaking her head. “It just got out of hand.”

It was a bit startling to see Friedhelm speak so vehemently, Atienna thought. His docility seemed to have been just a facade. That aside, this was rather perplexing. Marionette didn’t seem to be untruthful here…

“Lieutenant Waltz, they—we—were only trying to… stand up for our rights, for our children, for our country. Believe me. Whatever happened here wasn’t supposed to happen,” Friedhelm urged. “If you explain it to the higher-ups then maybe…”

Feeling a frown press against her lips, Atienna turned to the man but then froze. She couldn’t recall his name. She knew she had known it just a moment before because Werner had known it. But as she continued to stare at the man whose name she could not recall, she realized she could also not recall a single thing about him other than the information he’d just given her regarding his son and his beliefs. Nothing from when he’d joined Werner’s unit, nothing about what he’d been doing serving in Werner’s unit these past few months.

Atienna swallowed, heart racing. Olive had mentioned in passing that he’d lost the ability to understand and speak Capricornian during his override of Werner several months prior. His knowledge—perhaps memory—had been snipped off cleanly during that period. Olive also had said that his comprehension of Capricornian had returned once the override had ended. Knowledge—sewn back on.

Atienna wondered faintly—did overrides lead to a slow and complete disconnect with the knowledge and memories of the others?

How frightening…

Was that really how she felt? Or was she relieved at no longer being put under the pressure of the memories of those who were constantly making her choose? All choices led to misfortune. There was no such thing as satisfaction.

Relieved ‘at no longer having the others forcing her to choose’…? What…?

And then it dawned on Atienna.

“Who… are you…?” she whispered in reserved disbelief, staring past the shoulder of the man whose name she could not recall and into the moon-streaked woods.

That voice inside her head—although it sounded like it—was not her own. She knew this with absolute certainty. It did not belong to any of the others either.

That was ridiculous. What voice would it be if not her own?

Yes, it was a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it was that she’d gotten so used to the others buzzing around inside of her head that she had forgotten what it’d felt like to be alone with her own thoughts. She supposed it was a relief—

Exactly.

There it was again. The misstep. The incorrect assumption. The truth of the matter was that it was the five who were pushing her forward. Without them, she knew she would remain firmly rooted to the ground. No different from The Great Tree, eternally growing. That was one of the reasons why she needed them. She was glad that they were making her choose.

I wouldn’t be me, she thought, if I didn’t think like this. I would like it if you didn’t test me like this… whoever you are.

There was a beat of silence and her ears rang.

She really was a clever one.

Atienna’s chest tightened.

Cvetka was right about you.

Cvetka? Atienna’s mind raced. Cvetka’s employer—

“Er… sir…? I’m Friedhelm Heimler.” The ginger-haired soldier whose name she had forgotten gestured to himself in front of her. “Do you not recognize me? Should I get Fabrizzio or Brandt?”

The memory came back instantly but Atienna was in no state to feel relieved.

When did you get here? Atienna’s eyes narrowed. Her nerves lit on fire as she suddenly became hyperaware of both Friedhelm’s and Marionette’s un-averted gazes. What are you trying to do?

Why are you acting like I’m doing something? It’s their choice and their actions. Your actions. You all did this to yourselves.

‘Their’ choice? ‘Their’ actions? Whose? No, those words had been bait. A distraction. What she needed to focus on was the important facts:

Cvetka’s employer. Saint candidacy, which was a possible criterion for conducting without a conductor. Werner’s cut. The blue cracks spreading along Rath’s blade when he’d attacked Wilhelm. Displaced Capricornians. The misplaced anger. These thoughts that were not her own. How terrifying it would be if these were all connected.

Oh, you really are clever.

All this speaking of ‘cleverness’—Atienna was certain that this wasn’t so much as her own cleverness as this intruder’s foolishness.

Who do you think you are calling me foolish? The thought seemed to boom out from all around her—a scraping voice of vehement. Take a good look at yourself!

The world suddenly spun, the moonlight sheering through the trees and burning her skin silver. The light painted the branches white in a way that made them reminiscent of the ever-glowing Great Tree. The branches looked like they were scratching across the clearing towards her. A suffocating feeling like she was being watched crept along her spine as she buckled beneath the overwhelming feeling of dread.

Friedhelm caught her. “S-Sir?”

Calling me a fool when you go skirting around hard decisions and expecting your choice to be the righteous one that’ll satisfy everyone. A person like you can never be happy nor can the people around you ever be happy. Even the choice of happiness is just too much for someone like you to even bear. And that will just drag down everyone else around you.

Atienna’s head pounded. Her mind reeled. How deep did this intrusion go?

I don’t need you highlighting my flaws, Atienna managed calmly. I know exactly how I am. More than you do.

Then that makes everything you do… the voice continued. And Atienna’s heart plummeted in her chest as the venomous words rang out in her mother’s gentle, warm tone: ...so much worse.

Friedhelm startled at something past her shoulder. The white of his eyes glowed in the moonlight, and his lips pulled back into a grimace. Tensing, Atienna whipped around and froze. Out from the trees in the direction of camp slinked men and women garbed in Argoan uniforms. They peeled out from the dark, rifles ready and aimed, eyes sharp and murderous.

So close to the border…?

Atienna tensed. Too many. She couldn’t risk injuring Werner like this. She couldn’t face them alone.

And you will continue to be alone. That’s what happens to people like you. You can never be happy because you refuse to make a choice—

No… She did make choices. With Usian. With… Yulia.

What’s the point of making a choice when you start pulling back at the last moment?

Atienna bit the inside of her cheek as her fingers began to itch. She stopped herself before the heat of the moment possessed her, however, and lifted her hands into the air Friedhelm and Marionette eyed followed suit.

But it’s okay. I will continue to watch over you even though you’re all so ugly.

One of the Argoans approached her and nudged the tip of his rifle to her back. The silent ‘move’ was clear. The Argoans led Atienna back through the woods at gun-point along with Friedhelm and Marionette.

The voice remained silent all the while, but Atienna still felt nauseous.

Despite their gradual approach to the warm firelight of camp, Atienna felt only coldness in her chest. Once they arrived, they found another ring of Argoan soldiers interspersed among the rolled-out sleeping bags dotting the trodden ground.

Gilbert was bound, gagged, and kneeling at the center of the clearing beside the smoldering campfire as were all of Werner’s subordinates. The formerly bound Argoan Emil was standing behind the group and holding a rifle. When he met Atienna’s gaze, he tensed and looked away towards a tall, thin man kicking up dirt into the campfire.

When that man noticed Atienna’s guided approach, he turned and eyed the medals on her uniform. Then, he sneered. “You must be Werner Waltz. I’ve heard many things about you, Cold Eye. Everyone keeps their head low back home because of you. But look at you now. You can’t even look at me in my eyes!”

Oh dear... Atienna stared at Gilbert past the Argoan’s head. She didn’t think she had time to deal with someone like this. There were more pressing matters at hand.

The man spat in the dirt and jeered. “All you Capricornian pigs should be happy. As of today, you’re Argoan property.”

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About the author

elmerwynn

Bio: 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 ♡
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(If you’re reading this, have a great day!)

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