The Fragmented Six (Six Chances)

by

elmwynn

(103) Part III | 17.2: Royal Guard, 0620 Guidance

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A note from elmwynn

semi-long chapter

Re-cap:

Olive steps into the override and manages to subdue the ELPIS leader Iota. He aids a medical train containing both his body and Atienna’s and many other injured in continuing on its path away from the capital. After reuniting with his royal guard Trystan and having his status of prince revealed, he and Werner’s unit and captain realize that a Manipulator is pulling the strings from a distance. He continues on the journey to the capital of Capricorn, while Trystan Carter guards over him with apprehension.
-
As Werner breaks through a haunting memory of his mother, a cracking can be heard in the distance. Shion watches his progress from across the divide. 

 

Beratung » Guidance attempted at 620 hours.

 

Ariesian royal guard Trystan Carter had always desired change. From the days when he’d toil away working in the paddy fields governed by the appointed feudal lord to the days when he’d attended school lectures held by passionate, underpaid teachers—change was always on his mind. Perhaps it was because of the passion of those teachers that Trystan had grown to become passionate himself—first about the history of their nation, then about the politics of their nation, and finally about their socioeconomic disparity.

One day, at the tender age of ten, he stumbled upon a small union of local workers in the town hall. They invited him into one of their meetings despite his youth and introduced him to the injustice and greed that flowed through Aries:

The taxes that his parents paid to the feudal lords didn’t go to programs to support the people. Instead, it went into small vanity projects like self-idolizing statues and luxurious residential estates for their political supporters. To avoid beckoning the law, the feudal lords contracted the locals to complete the construction and paid them the bare minimum.

After recalling how his mother and father toiled away in the fields of such an estate day-in-and-day-out, Trystan became filled with righteous rage.

When he had taken this issue up with the local council, they had all laughed down at him saying, “You’re a child. You care too much for unimportant things. You don’t understand how the world works.”

His schoolmates had thought similarly and had distanced themselves from him in turn. Although it did hurt, he didn’t care for their apathy.

His parents had fortunately offered their support: “Look at our son,” they’d say, “trying to make life easier for us. Take it one goal at a time. Who knows how much you’ll change?”

And Aries began to show those shades of change after that fateful afternoon. Trystan still remembered the day of the Tragedy like it was yesterday. His entire town had gathered around the singular radio in the local library as the telegrapher reported the ELPIS invasion minute by minute. Some had gasped—some cried—as death after death was grimly reported.

“Maybe there’ll finally be change in this country,” one of the union workers had said a week after, “since there’ll finally be a fresh page to start off with.”

Trystan couldn’t believe his ears at the time. He wanted change and supported progress—but cheering for the death of hundreds in hopes for it? That was not what Trystan wanted at all. It disgusted him.

But the Tragedy, as they’d all said, did bring about change. The taxes and poverty rates in the countryside skyrocketed as the sister of the late queen took the throne with her husband. Trystan wasn’t sure if this resulted from their inexperience, the influence of the new feudal lords, or their own greed and corruption.

Unfit ruler after unfit ruler with a backdrop of scheming feudal lords was a seemingly cemented cycle no matter the changing times. Trystan had doubted there would ever be a ruler capable of tearing away from such a repetitive system. But—

“The prince is kind,” the union members had said. “He’s not pulled down by bureaucracy and tries to avoid it at all cost. Hopefully, when he takes the throne, he’ll take this country where it needs to go.”

And so Trystan had set sights on the prince. If there were any person who would listen to him, Trystan had thought, perhaps it would be this person—but first Trystan knew he would have to reach that person.

At that time, te best way for a commoner to reach that level was by becoming a servant in the royal palace. One step further were the servants who had the most contact with the royal family: the royal guards. And so, Trystan had set his sights on the position.

Unfortunately, his skill had never been academia, so he had sacrificed nights that bled into mornings toiling away at his studies and had spent ages refining his skill with the bow. But his hard work paid off. At the age of eighteen, he achieved his first goal and readied his mind for his next of falling in favor with the prince.

But when Trystan had first laid eyes upon Prince Olivier Chance, he felt his stomach turn with disgust. He’d never seen such a disrespectful, apathetic, spoiled person in his entire life. The king and queen had allowed Olivier’s grievances—perhaps out of pity—and his ill traits had festered.

Surely, Trystan had thought, this person would become the worst puppet king of Aries in history. The worst thing was that the prince seemed to know this but didn’t seem to care. How could he work with this, Trystan had fumed to himself with utter disdain. What was the point? All of his efforts up until this point has been fruitless.

But then that very same spoiled person had swept into Trystan’s jail cell when he had been framed and unjustly accused. It befuddled Trystan's mind at the time as Olivier had no reason to offer aid. In fact, Olivier had every reason to believe the verdict and accusations. Why would someone so careless and apathetic reach out to another person they barely knew?

And then Trystan had realized something that seemed too simple to be true. Despite his apparent apathy, Olivier was a person of compassion who acted on that compassion regardless of circumstance and consequence.

And so, Trystan had found hope again. Perhaps, he had thought, he would be able to properly guide the prince to the right path.

“Take it goal-by-goal,” were the words his parents had sent him off with a week before his departure. It was clear that they didn’t want him to leave and Trystan himself had been apprehensive of leaving, so their words had been a comfort.

As Trystan watched Olivier through their journey from Aries to Sagittarius to Ophiuchus to Libra to Capricorn, he came to three conclusions about the prince.

First, Olivier actually enjoyed the company of others. It all seemed very convoluted, but despite his snappish words, he often sought out crowded areas and would engage in casual conversation with locals.

Secondly, Olivier loved conductors. Not the weaponized kind, but general conductors. He often spent hours talking about the newest inventions even if they were sub-par. Trystan himself enjoyed listening to passionate people speak so he enjoyed the spiels-turned-rants fully.

Most importantly, however, Olivier still hadn’t fully understood the importance of sacrifice. No, the necessity of sacrifice. He wanted everything and refused to lose anything—and this did not apply to acts of selfishness but to acts of altruism and selflessness as well. Food, service, knowledge, giving aid, anything. Olivier wanted it all. It was not quite spoiltry, not quite naivety, not quite greed nor kindness. Trystan couldn’t quite think of a word for it.

Even now while wearing the face of a Capricornian who towered over him, Trystan could see it in Olivier’s eyes. The fear of losing something, the refusal to give up something. The incident with the medical train had further proved that to Trystan as did the revelation of the existence of True Conductors.

How such a secret had evaded him for so long, Trystan didn’t know and was ashamed of it. A small part of him still wondered if perhaps it was all some Capricornian ploy. But...

Trystan had stumbled upon the prince speaking to himself quite a number of times but always attributed it to the prince thinking out loud. He'd assumed the habit would go away with age. Regardless, he was a royal guard. Therefore, his duty was not to question or object, merely obey and advise if necessary. And guide.

And so after the confrontation with the imprisoned ELPIS leader within the train and after putting the prince to sleep, Trystan had dutifully gathered the prince’s favorite items, books, and pet bird from the opposite medical train and had transferred it to the capital-bound train before waiting dutifully for the prince to awaken.


Capricorn

 

The Capricornians appeared to be very fond of all forms of smoking—be it v-cigarettes or normal cigarettes or cigars. This led to the entire train cabin smelling of it. Olivier bore with it for a surprising amount of time but eventually gave in and requested for Trystan to have them move to a different cart.

Thus Trystan purchased a larger, more accommodating cart near the front of the train. While he guided Olivier to this area, they passed by the familial members of the man—Werner Waltz—whose face Olivier currently wore. They had a brief conversation in Common with them in which the mother pressed Olivier to get some rest because he ‘looked awfully exhausted.’

Something about the woman rubbed Trystan the wrong way but he held his tongue.

Immediately after they arrived at the newly purchased train cart, Olivier requested a full course meal. He’d slept for over an entire day following the ELPIS Leader’s escape, so Trystan was unsurprised by his hunger. After running the order through the kitchen cabin, he brought the prince a full plate of fruit-topped pancakes, a parfait, and a side of strawberry milk.

Just as Olivier picked up his knife and fork, the Capricornian second lieutenant entered along with one of the lower-ranking Capricornian soldiers. Gilbert Wolff and Derik Stein, if Trystan recalled correctly. Olivier had thrown out a poorly-worded invitation to them so Trystan was surprised at their arrival. The invitation had gone something along the lines of “If you can quit smoking for a minute, then you can come over to my train cart if you want.”

Gilbert tried to take a seat in the booth across from Olivier but Trystan immediately stuck out his hand. The man merely shrugged and reclined back on the sofa along the wall opposite. Stein meanwhile helped himself to the small bar offset to the side.

“Didn’t think anyone could beat Stein in eating,” Gilbert noted, eyebrows arched as he watched Olivier down a slice of pancake in three bites. “And he’s the human embodiment of gluttony.”

“If I’m going to be sold out to someone, I want to at least have a decent last meal,” Olivier responded.

Gilbert remained silent.

Stein lifted a glass of whiskey he’d poured from the bar and downed it.

Olivier recommenced his dive into the pancakes but paused briefly to mumble, “Still, thanks, Gilbert.”

Gilbert stared in disbelief but Olivier didn’t elaborate and continued working on his food.

The prince was into his third pancake when they were joined by the rest of the Capricornians—from the captain to the two common soldiers to the two combat medics to the two prisoners.

Trystan narrowed his eyes at the last group. Although he felt sympathy and understanding towards the Augen movement, they had been the ones behind the attack on the hospital where the prince was residing and now were possibly in the fold a seemingly all-powerful Manipulator. Violence to bring about change was something that Trystan abhorred. The Capricornians bringing members of such a movement—the leader no less—into the same room with the prince was beyond irresponsible.

While the other Capricornians explored the room while marveling and whistling, the captain approached their table. He made to sit but Trystan held out his hand. Olivier nodded, prompting Trystan to allow the man through.

“We’re almost at the capital,” the captain said calmly in Common. “I think it would be best for us to get on the same ground. Although Cadence disclosed a certain amount of valuable information to us, I don’t believe she disclosed everything. I don’t blame her. Not only are all of you not my subordinates, you aren’t citizens of this country either. I can also understand your apprehension in trusting us.”

Seemingly disinterested, Olivier took a long sip of his milk through his straw.

The captain stared before clearing his throat. “We’re in the same unknown waters. I might be bound by duty, but I want to reassure you that my loyalty doesn’t lie with one man. I hold my own doubts, but I don’t believe acting without understanding a situation fully is the best route. If you’d be willing, I’d like for us to get to mutually find our way to the same ground.” After a beat of silence, Weingartner continued, “Werner is still my subordinate, and my subordinates' well-beings are still one of my priorities.”

Olivier regarded him for a moment before setting down his cup. “I… have an idea to see if any of the others are possibly being manipulated.” He hesitantly pulled off the glove from his hand and showed them the dark mark there. “Maybe… marks like this are left by the Manipulator if someone’s been turned into a medium.”

The one called Wilhelm Fischer scoffed in accented Common, “With all due respect, Captain, that’s ridiculous. Why would a mark be left? And why would they choose to leave a mark in the first place?

Olivier flushed lightly. “It was just a suggestion.”

“I remember seeing that mark before. Back in the unoccupied zone,” Kleine slowly drew. “It was on an Augen member who was disguised as an Argoan.”

Gilbert straightened, closing the distance between him and Olive. He took a hold of Olivier’s bare hand, stiffened, then looked away. “You’re right…”

Fischer started again. “But—”

“What? Feeling a bit shy, Fischer, ‘cause you’re in front of royalty and a woman?” Gilbert arched a brow, unbuttoning the front of his uniform. “Not like you haven’t done it before. Anyway, better safe than sorry.”

Thus, all the Capricornians stripped down to their undergarments. The captain himself stripped as the other Capricornians lined up in single file down the line of the train. He then went down the line to inspect all of their bodies.

It was surreal, awkward, and uncomfortable, but those feelings left Trystan’s mind when he registered the Capricornians fully. Most of their bodies were riddled with scars. They crisscrossed across arms and legs like roads on a map. Paired with the scars were blotchy spots of pinkened skin.

Trystan looked back to the prince and found that his expression had folded. His eyebrows furrowed, his eyes slightly wide, his lips pulled downwards. Empathy.

When the captain reached Marionette, he stopped. A large sweltering scar ran across the woman’s front torso.

Weingartner pointed to it, asking, “And where was this from?”

“It’s from the Reservoir War,” Marionette responded, pulling her shirt back up and rebuttoning. “The Second Raid of Okor. A Projector.”

Weingartner studied her before turning back to the booth.

“You can redress,” he told his men before reseating himself and addressing Olivier. “There're no markings. If that’s truly how we can identify someone who’s being manipulated, then I can safely say that no one here is being used as a medium.”

Besides possibly the prince himself.

“I would like to know the exact circumstances regarding the ELPIS leader’s escape,” Trystan interjected once the captain was fully clothed. “My duty is to the prince’s safety, so any activity that hints at otherwise draws my suspicion.”

Weingartner nodded. “Alwin Brandt was the one who suggested that we separate the ELPIS leader from the other two. Derik Stein and Wilhelm Fischer were the ones assigned to watch over her, but there was confusion over the shifts. Usually, there would be a correctional discipline ordered, but given the circumstances, I’m willing to postpone that issue.”

“I’m sorry again, Captain,” Fischer stammered. “It won’t happen again—”

“Of course it won’t happen again…” Olivier grumbled. “Because she’s gone.”

Trystan refocused his attention on Brandt, Stein, and Fischer. He knew for certain that most Capricornians were highly-trained and highly-disciplined. To have someone escape under their watch was highly suspicious.

“Mr. Carter, I understand you wish to accompany your prince to the capital and to keep him safe, but it’d be best if you didn’t draw attention,” Weingartner continued. “We’ll provide you with a uniform before we arrive.”

“But Captain,” Fischer protested, “he is not a Capricornian. We can’t just give him a uniform. Wearing this is an honor. It’s like allowing infiltration—”

Weingartner sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Yes, I understand that, Fischer. But you forget there’s a bigger picture. Capricorn is not the only country in Signum.”

“But, sir—”

“If anything, we should be worried about you,” Olivier interjected suddenly. “We’re not the ones who sent assassins to your country. But I’m not the type of person to start another problem when there’s already a problem to be worrying about.”

Fischer quieted, lips pulling tight.

Abruptly, a now fully-clothed Heimler broke away from Brandt and Fischer and darted over to their table. He grabbed for a hold of Olivier’s hand before Trystan could stop him and got on his knees.

“I know this is not the time for this,” Heimler pressed in barely accented Common, “but if you truly are the Ariesian prince then you can speak for us. Speak for the Augen. If you’ve seen through the first lieutenant’s eyes, then you’ve seen how it is out here. Do you really want all this senseless fighting to continue?”

“Pathetic,” Stein spat.

Fischer nodded in agreement.

Trystan reached out to grab ahold of the man.

“Stop it, Trystan.” Olivier held up a hand before looking down at Heimler with a frown. “I don’t get it. Why are you even asking me…?” He looked away. “Look at the situation. If I could do something, I wouldn’t be here to begin with...” He grimaced. “Putting all of your expectations in one person is stupid.”

Trystan frowned.

Heimler stiffened. “Just your word would be—”

“Heimler,” the captain interjected tersely. “You might be under question of the state, but you have to realize that you still represent Capricorn and you represent me. Have some dignity. We’ve all lost things. That doesn’t mean we should grovel—”

“With all due respect, Captain, you used to represent me,” Heimler drew. “Pride is meaningless before dedication.” He balled his fists. “The government put an unfair burden on my son even though he was barely an adult and forced him into an early grav—”

“And what do you think you’re doing now?”

Stiffening, Heimler stared up at Olivier and paled. Stein stormed over and pulled Heimler to his feet and back into line.

“I can speak for myself,” Olivier grumbled. “Just because I’m younger—”

“What I’d like to know, if I may, Captain,” Fischer interjected, “is what other people are involved in your True Conductor connection. Cadence was a hostile party who tried to coerce through intimidation—”

Olivier stared. “You thought Cadence was intimidating... ?”

“She made threats—”

Olivier snorted before clearing his throat after receiving stares. “Well, if you thought Cadence was intimidating, then you’ll be in for a surprise… If I didn’t know them, I’d probably think those other two were monsters. Or just crazy.” There was a fondness in the prince’s voice despite the insult. “Even Werner has nothing on them.”

Weingartner asked, “Would you mind elaborating on who those two are?”

Olivier stiffened.

“That’s fine.” Weingartner nodded. “Let’s address this Manipulator now. We don’t know if the Kaiser is associated with them or if this is Cvetka’s employer or an adversary of both. It would be nice if we understood where we stood with them.”

“The Manipulator we’re dealing with might be—no, most likely is—a saint candidate,” Olive mumbled. “But they might be against the ELPIS Department... It's happened before. Saint candidates not getting along, I mean.”

“And why do you think the Manipulator is a saint candidate?"

Olivier dipped his head. “It’s because…”

“Take your time,” the captain said calmly.

Olivier looked away towards the window again. It was a minute before he spoke. “My sister was a failed saint candidate. She was with me on that day... And after the Tragedy, I began to see her everywhere. Like how she looked before.”

Trystan stared at Olivier in disbelief as a chill went up his spine and a pang of empathy vibrated in his chest.

“That’s when I was first able to conduct without a conductor. I thought Lavi was just… my mind playing tricks on me at first. That’s what a doctor at Ophiuchus said. I’m not going to get into that. But I encountered the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius not too long ago, and she could conduct without a conductor too. My ability to do it is probably because of my sister.”

The captain nodded. “I see… So in the end, it comes back around to saint candidates. And ELPIS...”

“About ELPIS...” Trystan cleared his throat. “There was suspicion that ELPIS might be involved in the attack on the hospital.”

Olivier straightened, frowning. “What…? Really? Why didn’t you mention that earlier?”

“It was mere speculation. I didn’t witness it myself, but there were rumors that the military police found proto-conductors filled with white vitae,” Trystan explained.

“But…” the combat medic Brandt interjected suddenly. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Right.” Olivier pulled back, frowning even deeper. “ELPIS and the saint candidates are… against each other, I think. And the Manipulator is a saint candidate and is manipulating the Augen… so why would the Augen be with ELPIS…?”

“Maybe they’re framing ELPIS and the Augen,” Brandt pressed.

“But why would they do that?” Gilbert arched a brow. “ELPIS is already public enemy number one.”

“If one of the others were here, they could probably figure it out.” Olive stabbed a piece of fruit and popped it into his mouth as he leaned against the side window.

The Capricornians stared.

A lapse of silence passed before the captain pressed, “Is there anything else that you think would be helpful for our understanding of the situation?”

Olivier played with a blueberry on his plate before mumbling hesitantly, “Well… While I was in Capricorn, I was looking into the different types of vitae: the soft and the hard. I was thinking maybe… there was a third form of vitae. I was thinking maybe that has to do with my ability to conduct.”

“A third form…?” Weingartner appeared skeptical.

Brandt was frowning.

“This is all theoretical, okay? It’s been researched, but no one’s ever found concrete proof of it… but there was this saint candidate named Pema. She wrote about her ability to conduct without a conductor and said it was from this third form of vitae. I found her notes in the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius.” Olivier cleared his throat. “Anyway. I was talking to Werner’s sister earlier, and she gave me an idea. What if instead of different forms of vitae, we’re talking about different levels of vitae? Like energy levels. What if vitae isn’t in a constant state of energy flux? If that’s the case, then I think we can quantify what those levels are. And how they can connect to the saint candidates….” Olivier trailed off as he realized he was receiving stares. “Like I said. All theoretical.”

Weingartner appeared thoughtful. “Well, what variables would you consider? The temperature, most likely. And what would you consider to be the higher and lower values would be for those levels?”

Olivier stared, frowning. “I didn’t think you’d take me seriously...”

“Well, we have time on our hands. Any information—no matter how theoretical—would be very helpful. And I did teach vitae theory way back when myself.” Weingartner turned his head. “Kleine, we could use your input too.”

“I’m not... good at the theoretical stuff... ” Kleine admitted in heavily-accented Common, cheeks pinkening. “I read it… in one ear and out the other.” He brightened a minute after. “But books—I have many! Bought when we were in Eisburg.” With that, he darted out of the room and returned a minute later with two stacks ten books tall. He set the books on the table and stepped back, gesturing.

“I can help instead,” Brandt offered, one hand raised. “I might not look it but I graduated top of my class.”

Trystan frowned again but before he could say anything Olivier requested for him to bring over the notes from the Bodhi temple that were tucked in the storage cart. Trystan complied, and when he returned with the notes, he found Marionette standing beside the table.

“If you’d let me,” she said, “I can also help. My concentration in the military academy aside from political science was vitae theory.”

“And why would you be interested in this?” Weingartner asked, regarding her carefully.

“Are you serious?” Marionette’s eyes narrowed. “If our movement is being taken by this Manipulator then it's my responsiblity.”

“You do realize, Frau Engel, that your trespass across the border will still be tried in court as is.”

“I’m aware I will be tried according to the system that's in place.”

Olivier looked between them. “Is this happening or not…?”

Weingartner nodded and Marionette took a seat beside him.

And thus the four began to delve into the books and spoke of particles and densities and other concepts that Trystan had long forgotten about after completing the state conducting exam. Eventually, Olivier excused his presence.

The other Capricornians—minus Heimler who was seated on the sofa and Fischer who guarded him—were gathered around the bar. Trystan wasn’t particularly interested in them—save for whether or not they were a threat to the prince—but he was thirsty so he went around to pour himself a glass of water.

“So, is the salary good?” Stein asked from the bar stool as he chugged wine straight from the bottle. “For being a royal servant, I mean?”

“Being a royal guard is an honor. Salary is secondary,” Trystan replied.

“Come on,” Gilbert pressed, pushing him a glass of whiskey. “Loosen up. Sound a lot like someone I know.”

Trystan caught the glass and inspected the second lietuenant carefully. Gilbert was unrefined but Trystan got from him a sense of loyalty. “Yes, the salary is suitable.”

The Capricornian soldiers continued to converse in their native tongue for several hours before Marionette abruptly slammed her hands on the table, leapt to a stand, and drew the attention of the room.

After registering Olivier’s pale and nauseous expression, Trystan quickly went over to the table. There, he found a long sheet of paper filled to the brim with numbers, variables, and degrees.

“You knew about this, didn’t you?” Marionette snapped to the captain in Capricornian.

“No, I didn’t...” Weingartner responded calmly in Common, despite the sweat beading his brow. “You know I couldn’t have.”

Marionette sank to the table, remaining silent.

“What is it?” Trystan pressed.

Dead silence.

Olivier was the one who spoke first— “...Going by Pema’s notes, hard vitae would probably be considered the lowest energy level. It wouldn’t be weird to assume that soft, living vitae would be at an energy level above that. The third form of vitae would have to be above that—again, going by Pema’s notes. So we were thinking that maybe the third level was… what vitae reservoirs were made of too.”

“Given the right conditions, vitae particles in the natural environment—and even in us—can sporadically jump up energy levels,” Marionette continued, “but from what we have here, that only occurs around 0.0001% of the time.”

“You can bypass this barrier with a conductor,” Brandt interjected.

Olivier nodded, staring down at the equations. “Because a conductor’s conducting core concentrates vitae particles from a person’s body, theoretically… it can cause the vitae particles of whatever it’s used on to jump energy levels. So if you use a vitae blade on a person then...” His brows furrowed. “70% of the vitae gets knocked down an energy level. But… it’s theoretically possible for that other 30% of the vitae to get elevated an energy level. With Conjurors, we don’t know yet but...”

Weingartner added, “We cross-referenced major conflicts with recorded formations of reservoirs, and it lines up.”

“Generator conductors harvest vitae from the reservoirs,” Brandt finalized. “But weaponized conductors can create vitae reservoirs under the right conditions.”

A chill shot up Trystan’s spine as apprehension boiled in his chest. He became hyper aware of the weight of his conductor that he’d refused to put in the storage room at his hip.

If this was the case then—

“Wait. But this... is all theoretical… right?” Kleine spoke nervously in his native tongue and looked to the captain. “I mean...something like this—if it was real, it had to have been publicized. I would’ve read about it.”

“I agree, sir,” Fischer said from the corner of the room. “The Kaiser and the government would tell us this if this was true. With all due respect, a couple of people coming up with random theories in a train cart doesn’t sound like concrete evidence. Right now all it sounds like is coincidence.”

“What’s the big deal anyways?” Stein yawned. “So using conductors on people can create the vitae in reservoirs? Well, might as well put some of the dead to use. Like recycling. Not like they’re being sling-shotted straight into a reservoir, right? We kill them; they maybe become fuel. Not too bad a deal.” He scratched his head. “What the hell happens to that vitae when generator conductors are used then—”

“It isn’t natural,” Brandt interjected, sending Stein a glare. “That’s what’s wrong with it. And if this is how it is and if the people above us know, then there are a lot more reasons for them to send us out to the border. Suddenly, the Augen makes sense. Think about Otto.”

Stein arched a brow. “What’s up with you?”

“I... sorry.” Brandt recollected himself. “This is a little too much.”

Weingartner nodded, clasping his hands together and leaning forward. “Right. Let’s end this here for now.”

“But, sir—” Kleine started.

“That’s an order, Kleine.”

Olivier locked eyes with Kleine, opened his mouth, closed it, and then looked out the window.

“I’m going for a smoke,” Gilbert muttered as ruffled his hair. “Anyone wanna join me?”

Only Kleine and Brandt took up the offer and exited the compartment with him. Fischer meanwhile dragged Marionette back beside Heimler.

Seconds bled into minutes bled into hours.

Cottage houses flitted past the train window as they passed by a small village. A handful of children dressed in caps and shorts waved newspapers at them as they passed.

“Is it weird…?” Olivier mumbled suddenly. “Coming back here after all that?”

Weingartner blinked out of his daze before nodding slowly. “Yes, it’s strange.”

***

Trystan accompanied Olivier back through the halls later when the latter excused himself to the restroom. As they made their way there in silence, the prince reached into his pocket and pulled out a rectangular object wrapped in wax paper. He unwrapped the thing and brought it up to his mouth.

Trystan grabbed a hold of his hand. “Where did you get this from?”

“Obviously my pocket.” Olivier frowned. “It’s just a chocolate bar.”

“Is this from the Capricornian?”

“Probably—”

“Allow me to test it, Olivier,” Trystan said, prying it from the prince’s hands and breaking a square off. He popped it in his mouth, chewed, swallowed. “We can’t allow you to risk—”

Bitter. Poison

“It’s not poison. It’s bitter chocolate. Popular over here.” Olivier grumbled, snatching the chocolate back and folding it into his pants pocket. “Now I don’t feel like eating it anymore—” He abruptly winced and reached for his shoulder.

“What is it?”

Olivier leaned against the window and rubbed the area. “It’s nothing.”

Trystan frowned.

Olivier sighed. “This was where Werner was shot when everything started… Ever since Iota said what she said earlier, it’s been hurting. Probably my mind playing tricks on me. It’s nothing. Really.”

Trystan frowned and took in a deep breath before asking, “Olivier, what are your feelings towards the Capricornians?”

Olivier recoiled. “Seriously? What does that question even mean?”

“The man standing before me is someone you're connected with—I understand that—but he’s a Capricornian soldier. I’m worried about how that will affect your...”

“I can care about people outside of Aries, Trystan. I’m not in a mutually exclusive relationship with Aries. Anyway, Werner is part of the reason why I’m still alive. He and the others are the only reason I didn’t end up in an obituary article after that entire Watch thing.”

Trystan felt a prick of inferiority and guilt at the statement.

“Why are you worrying about that when you just learned what conductors can do...?” A brief look of fear and apprehension folded over Olivier’s face.

Trystan frowned, placing a hand on his bow conductor at his hip. “I do find your discovery disturbing, but I don’t think that’s an issue we can handle right now, Olivier. Besides, the reservoirs aren’t the only issue in Signum.”

Olive grimaced again. “There are problems everywhere. Aries, Capricorn, Gemini... I know how it looks with me wandering around when I'm the prince of Aries. But it’s not like I can do anything more than that right now without making it harder for everyone else. It’s frustrating. One thing after the other. I don't know what to do.”

Trystan startled and stared.

“Why do you look so surprised?” Olivier grumbled. “I’ve had people to bounce my ideas off in my head for months. Now there’s no one but you. I know Gilbert and the others through Werner, but it’s not like they know me, so...”

“No, I appreciate your confidant, Olivier. About what you said—that’s—”

“That’s the way the world works. I know. It is the way it is.”

“No, I was going to say that that takes time,” Trystan said. “Life is hard and becomes harder the longer you live. I believe taking it simple goal by simple goal. Your ‘wandering’ research in Capricorn is for the princess, isn’t it? I think that’s a fine goal for the time being. The rest will come later.”

Olivier looked away. “I wasn’t asking for your blessing or approval to begin with. Where did that even come from?”

Trystan felt his cheeks burn with embarrassment but he cleared his throat. “If I may say this, Olivier… I still think your rightful place is the throne of Aries. Once you come of age and the king and queen abdicate, it is your duty to take to ensure someone with ill intent doesn’t take it instead.”

Olivier’s glower turned to surprise.

“That being said, your rise to the throne is not the reason why I’m out here with you.”—Trystan knew he was overstepping his bounds as a royal guard—“I know that’s what you think, but that’s not the case. I’m here for Olivier. Besides, the throne is still a long ways away. A goal in the far future. First, this current issue. Then the princess and your studies. Then the reservoirs. And then eventually the throne.”

After a beat, the prince asked, “You’re from Torrine, right?”

“How did you—”

“You talk about it all the time.” Olive rolled his eyes and popped open the window. “I feel like I’ve practically grown up there at this point.” He put his head slightly out and seemed to enjoy the wind. “I’ve... looked into it. The tax burden there is a lot higher there than the northern regions of Aries where the cities are at. The education system there isn’t great either. The reservoirs… aren’t...” He tugged on a strand of hair and pulled back in. “If this works out okay and if I end up somehow being on the throne, then I'll work there first…You know—set precedent or whatever.”

Trystan felt his heart skip a beat and his chest swell before he dipped into a deep bow. “Tha—”

“Enough with the bowing… We’re not even there anymore.”

Trystan straightened. “I’m sorry, Olivier. I’m just. Grateful.”

Olivier squirmed before flushing and mumbling something under his breath. He became coherent a second later, saying, “No... Thank you, Trystan. For coming with me… Look, it’s hard for me… awkward for me to say things like this. But I mean it. I’m not just saying it just to say it like all those feudal lords back home to win loyalty.”

Trystan startled, suddenly feeling somewhat embarrassed himself. “I-It’s my pleasure, Olivier.”

Olivier squinted at him. “That sounds disingenuous.”

“I assure you it’s not.”

Trystan knew now for certain he was a failure as a royal guard because he did not view Olivier as a prince, nor as a person to be protected and guided. Because of this, he was not able to offer a course correction if necessary. Simply put, he foolishly viewed the prince as a friend.

***

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Being back in the capital of Capricorn put Trystan on edge—even though he and the prince were now perfectly blended in with their uniforms. He had tried many times to dissuade Olivier from coming to this country to begin with. Because, after all, although the Watch had been dismantled, that still didn’t change the fact that the prince’s entire assassination plot had been originally a Capricornian machination—whether or not ELPIS was involved. But Trystan understood Olivier’s insistence now—up to a point. It was that compassion and refusal to sacrifice again.

Upon stepping off of the train onto the platform, Trystan immediately held Olivier back with an extended arm while keeping Olivier’s belongings balanced on the baggage carrier with his other hand.

Gathered around the ticket station only several meters away stood a crowd of people holding signs. At the center of that mass and standing on top of the booth was a man wearing a tweed coat. He was snapping in Capricornian at them—too fast for Trystan to pick up. Whatever it was, it seemed inspirational since the crowd cheered louder as he continued on.

A steady thump, thump of boots against concrete resounded to the left of the booth, and a file of military officers with shining gorgets approached the booth swiftly.

Trystan and Olivier were pushed forward by Fischer who stepped out onto the platform with Marionette and Heimler in tow. Both were cuffed but had their hands hidden behind the coats they held in their hands. The other Capricornians loaded out behind them and eyed the scene with varying degrees of interest and worry.

The captain requested them to wait in place while he went off to the telephone booth across the street.

The military police officers meanwhile began to shout at the citizens as they pulled out their batons and began beating them against their own palms in a rhythm. One citizen shoved an officer back. This prompted the policemen to push back against the crowd. A younger girl who had climbed up onto the desk to escape was dragged down by a policewoman which initiated a flurry of thrown fists. It was clear, however, that the police group was more in control of the situation.

One of the officers abruptly broke off from the commotion, approached them, and addressed them cheerily in Capricorn, “Werner, Gilbert, what a surprise! It’s good to see you again. I wish the circumstances didn’t involve us having to clean up your mess at the border, but that’s life.”

Mess?

“It’s that one ranked police officer we always come across whenever we have to turn our report into the capital. Vash Something-something,” Gilbert whispered in Common to them. “Grade-A asshole.” He turned back to Vash and continued in Common, “Don’t know what you’re talking about, but they’re finally putting you to work, huh? About time.”

The language switch jolted the policeman, and he took a second to recollect himself before responding in the same language, “The amount of work done doesn’t exactly equal the quality work, does it?”

“You could say that if work was being done in the first place,” Olivier stated. With a grimace, he inclined his head towards the police who were finishing up rounding up the protestors.

Vash straightened, cleared his throat, tipped his hat, and went back to rejoin the rest of his group.

Gilbert sighed. “Feels good to have that directed at someone else instead of yourself.”

Trystan had to agree.

Once the policemen cleared out the ticket booth, Olivier approached it. Trystan swiftly followed behind him. The prince pulled out a newspaper from the stand there before immediately passing it to Gilbert when the man approached them from behind.

Gilbert scanned the headline. “Fuck.” He proceeded to hand the newspaper to the other men who joined them.

The article was written in Common, and the headline read—Justice Demanded For Border Slaughter. Unarmed Protestors Gunned Down. Kaiser demanded to Put to Trial Those Involved.

Fischer and Kleine paled, Brandt remained blank-faced, Nico looked to Olivier, while Stein crumpled up the paper and tossed it over his shoulder. Marionette picked it off the ground and showed Heimler what was written.

“We’re not going to receive disciplinary action for what happened at the border are we?” Kleine paled. “We didn’t know… And the Manipulator—”

Weingartner returned to them and took the newspaper from Marionette. “Don’t worry. I’ll make a case for you. I’m sure after I report our discovery into the High Chancellery and the generals, we can resolve all of this.” He nodded to the prince. “That being said, I’ve contacted the chancellery office to inform them of our arrival. They’ve directed us to wait at the Konvergieren dome where the convention is being held for the time being.”

“That’s dangerous,” Trystan interjected. “If this movement is being used by this Manipulator then putting Olivier in an open—”

Olivier placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s fine, Trystan.”

Trystan frowned but obliged.

As they wove their way through the capital, Trystan noted that it was much quieter than when he’d initially come here with the prince. Some of the store windows were boarded up, and there was not a child in sight running through the streets. The newspaper stalls dotting the stone walkways had their shutters pulled down. The openness and rigidity that he’d appreciated when he’d first arrived here now felt ominous and oppressive.

***

They arrived at the domed building which hosted the conductor convention just as a woman stepped off of the central stage. An intense and excited buzz clouded the air, and so Trystan assumed that the woman must have said something of great importance.

A loud announcement boomed through the speakers in Capricornian a second after. Klaus roughly translated for them that they were halfway through a repose in the convention events and there was an hour left to go.

Weingartner guided them to a collection of leather cushions against the wall and again requested them to wait while he went to make another call. Olivier seemed to want to explore the convention but held his tongue and stayed seated. After Trystan made sure the prince was situated, he began to straighten the baggage he’d brought along and fed the prince’s blackbird in its cage. It tweeted cheerfully before an abrupt and booming shout from the center of the convention startled it into feathery flighty.

“What an amazing sight! Truly this place has prepared well for my—Veles’s—arrival!”

An odd, dark-skinned man with a fur cloak thrown over his shoulders commanded the attention of the entire dome. Behind him paced two men—an older one in sailor’s uniform and a younger one who was inspecting all of the conductors laid out on the tables. A small, glum-looking girl walked with them while holding the sailor’s hand.

Foreigners.

“I... don’t believe this convention was put in place just for you, Mr. Veles,” the man in the sailor’s uniform whispered. “But please, would you keep it down?”

Olivier stared after the group before his brows creased as he rose to a stand.

“Do you know them, Olivier…?” Trystan inquired.

Olivier frowned. “No… I don’t think so...” He placed a hand to his temple and grimaced. “Something’s not right. I don’t feel good, Trystan.”

Nico and Gilbert turned to them, both frowning.

Gilbert pressed, “What’s going on—”

The man was cut off as Olivier grabbed a hold of his arm and leaned on him for support.

“The hell? You’re scaring me.” Gilbert snapped before paling slightly as he peered at Olivier’s face. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with you?”

Nico peered into Olivier’s face and removed his hand from his shoulder and inspected the area.

Trystan looked to the combat medic. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m not sure.” Nico frowned. “Let’s sit you back down—”

“Oh, what are you doing here, Werner?” a voice called out from across the lobby area. “I thought you said you were going to be attending an important meeting.”

Olivier stiffened, causing Trystan to stiffen as well. When Trystan turned, he found Werner’s mother and siblings just a couple of feet behind. An older man was standing there with them as well. He held a grim, stolid expression like a displeased schoolteacher.

“Herr Waltz!” Gilbert extended a hand towards the grim man and beamed. He continued on cheerily in Capricornian and jerked his head back ever so slightly.

A diversion—

“Oh, where did Werner just run off to?” the mother asked suddenly, interrupting Gilbert mid-exchange.

Trystan tensed and turned. Sure enough, the spot where Olivier once stood was empty.

The prince had returned to pulling his greatest trick in the book.

A great tremble suddenly rolled through the ground. It shook all the conductors and contraptions off from the tables and rattled the frames of the windows of the overhead dome. The glass cracked under the pressure, sending a crystalline clattering of shards raining onto the floor. Shouts of alarm rang out shortly after.

Trystan fell to the ground as the trembling continued. With effort, he managed to pull himself up, righting the birdcage that had fallen on its side before darting out of the building. He tumbled down the limestone steps outside and barely managed to right himself as he scanned the area. All the pedestrians were flat on the ground as the rumbling shook the surrounding lamps and buildings. One of the trams had stalled and now rocked back and forth on the tracks while the wires stringing it along swung wildly in the air.

And then Trystan felt it. An intense heat that reminded him of home rolled out in waves from down the street.

Olivier?

He shot off in the direction of the warmth without hesitation. Resounding footsteps followed behind him, and a quick look over his shoulder informed him that Nico, Gilbert, Brandt, and Stein were tailing after him. He, however, paid them no mind.

After rounding several corners towards the heat source, he found the prince standing in front of a conductor store. But it was not the prince’s conducting that was causing the humidity in the air. No, the prince was too preoccupied at the moment by a strange blonde-haired woman with caramel-colored eyes entangled in his arms. In fact, it appeared as if Olivier was trying to drag her away from the heat source which was spilling out onto the streets towards them:

A glowing mass of liquid-like light, flowing like a living river. It was psychedelic yet somehow colorless at the same time. The steel tram that this fluorescent mass flowed past melted with the feverish heat pulsating from its body.

A reservoir leak…?

Breaking out into a sweat from the hot haze, Trystan darted over to Olivier’s side and helped him drag the strange woman up to her feet. The Ariesian summer heatwaves had nothing on this intensity, and Trystan could feel the hair on his brows begin to singe off. As he dragged both around the corner, he heard a blood-curdling wail and a groan resonate through the air.


Threshold

 

Werner crushed another blue scorpion beneath his boot and smeared it into the muddy ground. The row of corpses lined up in front of him on the dirt fragmented to pieces, and the surrounding bony trees around him shattered back into black. The black was overtaken by a deep indigo two seconds later as a hanging full moon eclipsed the sky. The light illuminated Lavi who squatted at his side and Shion who stood across the divide from him.

He wasn’t certain if they had both bore witness to that memory with his mother in that room and the memories following that. At this point, he didn’t care anymore. He had shown that he was capable of handling this predicament well enough, and he had shown satisfactory handling of the situations. Appearances kept; situation maintained. There were more pressing matters to be concerned with.

“Were you able to brief Chance?” Werner asked Lavi.

“Yup,” she affirmed. “I was only able to remember the word ‘Manipulator’ when I went up there, but I think he understood what I meant.”

Chance was bright. That was to be expected.

“And the ELPIS leader?”

“She’s captured, but...” Lavi looked away from him. “I shouldn’t do that too much. Go up there, I mean. It’ll just accelerate the process… the strain is too much.” She seemed to pout—an expression Werner wasn’t personally unfamiliar with. “I need to tell Ollie to stop using my vitae and conducting like that since it’ll accelerate it too.”

“Accelerate it?”

“Can’t you hear it, Werner?” Lavi put her hands to her ears, causing Werner to vaguely recall when she’d done this in front of Olive when this had first all begun. “You’re already breaking.”

Werner tensed, feeling a sudden and sharp throb at his shoulder. He knew it wasn’t a real sensation so he didn’t address the area.

“You can’t just say ominous stuff like that, Lavi,” came Shion’s sigh from across the white line. “You’ll just stress everyone out...” She looked to Werner, making an okay sign with her hand. “You’re doing fine.”

Her reassurance held no meaning.

“This is the fifth memory I’ve acted through since Chance stepped into the override,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. “It doesn’t appear that I’ve made any progress, and I haven't changed the person in the override. Is it the more that I progress, the more difficult—”

“You realized that you were dealing with a Manipulator earlier,” Shion interjected. “That must’ve come down partially from Atienna… But if you’re beginning to be able to hear the others, that means they're being drawn down here too...” Her eyes narrowed. “This isn't good...”

In other words, he was progressing too slowly. The issue was that he didn’t know how to progress faster. Unsatisfactory.

Shion opened her mouth and then closed it before an unnerving grief pulled down her lips and furrowed her brows.

“Hey, Werner,” she finally said. “I’ve been meaning to ask this but what—”

The surroundings twisted as the moonlight above suddenly bleached everything a painful blue. Werner brought his hand up to block the brightness despite himself. And once the light faded and his eyes adjusted, he lowered his hand and found himself standing at the center of a familiar tent. Weightless clocks hung on the leather flap walls around him, and faint rain was pattering down just outside. Despite the make-shift roof above his head, Werner kept seeing a glimpse of blue moonlight out of the corner of his eye.

“—exactly is the reason why you chose to be a military man to begin with?”

Upon turning, Werner found Captain Weingartner sitting behind him at a familiar wooden desk.

“Well, Werner?” the captain pressed. “From Wilhelm, I get the sense of a desire to prove self-worth. I know Otto wants to support his parents with the stipend. Derik is here for the glory and the thrill, while Emilia is here partially out of family and loyalty. Klaus and Gilbert would rather be anywhere but here, but stay out of discipline and fear of the consequences of desertion.” He tapped the papers on his desk. “I’ve read through your profile and your mission statement, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a lack of passion. What is your goal in serving in the Capricornian army?”

The tick-tocking clocks and pattering rain filled in the silence.

“Enough roleplaying,” Werner finally said. “I can see your smirk from here.”

The tick-tocking stopped, the hands of all the clocks stilling. The rainfall seemed to evaporate.

The thing that wore Captain Weingartner’s face locked eyes with him before its features stretched and twisted unnaturally. Its eyes bled into its lips, and its brows dipped into its eyes. When the thing’s features settled, it was no longer wearing the captain’s face but his mother’s instead.

Werner tensed despite himself.

The thing’s face morphed again into his brother’s then to Fischer’s then to Atienna’s, Cadence’s, Olive’s. Its skin cracked and a deep dark blue light seeped out from its pores. The blue light consumed its body until the entire thing was just an amorphous mass of glowing light. Although it had no eyes, Werner had the intense sensation of being watched from all angles.

A click-clattering resounded through the tent as shimmering, black, spiny, stinger-ladden insects spindled out from the thing’s body and petaled out onto the table and then to the floor. Soon the entire ground was teeming with them.

And then Werner felt it.

He only had faint memories of this feeling from when Olive had first encountered Jin back at the Bodhi Temple: the ominousness. It was a bottomless dread that Werner had only personally felt once before during his very first battle at the southern border.

“You’re the Manipulator,” Werner stated calmly. “The intruder.”

“That would be me.” Clasping its hands together, the thing smiled ear-to-ear as its voice reverberated from all directions. It took some time but I’ve finally burrowed deep enough to talk face-to-face with you like this. It’s a pleasure to fully lay eyes on you, First Lieutenant Werner Waltz. Let's get to know each other.”

 

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A note from elmwynn

Drawn by my wonderfully talented friend nichimiey. Character designs again by my other wonderfully talented friend jackadoodle-d. 


About the author

elmwynn

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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