New Ram City, Aries
Olive woke up gagging on nothing, gripping his left hand as if it were on the trigger of a gun, and blinking away nonexistent tears from his eyes. He shot up only to double over and empty his stomach over the side of the bed. Or at least he tried to. Nothing came out.
Had he been poisoned…?
He winced and grabbed his shoulder. He winced even harder at the dull pain that followed the touch. Right. The arrow. He’d been shot by an arrow with vitae flames. He glanced down and found that his shoulder was wrapped in bandages. It looked as if they’d gotten him to a medical Conductor.
He blinked blearily around the room.
Scarlet drapes hung from the window that opened to his left. The light falling in from the sun graced the large, oaken closet on the opposite side of the room but did not manage to reach the desk at the left corner. The item that received the full brunt of the sun was the birdcage that stood tall at the room’s center, right in front of his bed. Inside it fluttered a blackbird.
The blackbird turned its neck to him and tweeted.
He glared at it in turn. “What do you think you’re looking at?”
A chiming laugh rang out to his right, startling him. There she was, propped up on her elbows near his head. Her dark hair formed a halo across his blanket.
He sighed. “That’s some way to greet your brother who nearly got impaled by an arrow, Lavi.”
“You didn’t nearly get impaled by an arrow,” Lavi returned. “You were impaled by one.”
“That makes your reaction much, much worse.”
They stared at each other for a long minute before an expression of relief broke across her face. The expression was followed by an eruption of tears. They cascaded down her flushed cheeks like a waterfall.
“I’m glad you’re okay!” she cried as she threw her arms around him. “Don’t you get shot again, do you hear me? You idiot!”
Olive stiffened in her hold before he returned the hug and patted her head. “It’s not like I chose to get shot, Lavi. Jeez, were you always such a crybaby?”
Lavi pulled back with a glare. Before she could snap at him, the oak doors next to his closet swung open. At the threshold stood a man and woman wrapped in royal red garments interlaced with twisting gold thread.
“Uncle! Auntie!” Lavi piped as she pulled away from him.
“Olive!” the woman cried. In an instant, she closed the distance between them. She threw her arms around Olive’s neck before pulling back to examine his face. She turned his face over with her calloused fingers before hesitantly reaching for his bandaged shoulder. “The medical Conductor said you’d make a fast recovery, but… how are you feeling?”
He studied his aunt as she studied him. Her straw-colored hair was tied up into a graceful bun. The years had creased wrinkles at the corner of her drooping green eyes—unnervingly greener than his own—and just beneath those eyes were deep and dark circles. The sight of them made his stomach churn.
His uncle approached him next and looked him over with scrutiny. His narrow, gray eyes were also accented by dark circles. His dark hair was peppered with gray and silver. His long face was gaunt and hollowed out by stress and time.
“We’ll double the security around the mansion and quadruple security around your quarters,” he finally said. “The Investigation Bureau is mobilized as we speak. I just received word Ophiuchus sent agents to investigate too. Until we find out the reason for this, I want you to stay within the estate. I told your professors at the university that you’ll be taking a leave of absence until you recover.”
Olive opened his mouth to protest but realized nothing would come of it and instead offered a nod. His uncle studied him for a long moment before resting his hand on his wife’s shoulder.
“Terra, can I speak to Olive alone for a moment?” his uncle pressed in a quiet voice.
Terra’s brow furrowed, and her eyes narrowed. Olive recalled stories regaling her as ‘The Blaze of the North.’ There were legends about her time on the battlefield during the war. She had been younger, then. Lively. Scorching everything with a flick of her conductor. At least until the Tragedy. Briefly, Olive wondered if she’d do the same to him. But then she released Olive from her hold and peeled away. She placed one last hand at his cheek before pulling back and heading out the door.
That left the three of them. Great. Olive side-glanced at his sister, who shrugged at him while biting her lower lip.
“The guards told me it looked like you saw the arrow coming.” His uncle sat down at his bedside. “The arrow—it’s the only lead we have.”
It took all of Olive’s willpower not to bury his head into his blankets.
“Olivier, I would’ve rather had you burn that arrow to a crisp and be unharmed and with nothing to investigate than have you hurt.”
His uncle didn’t understand at all.
Olive said nothing and instead stared into the birdcage in front of him. The blackbird hopped around and fluttered its wings. The sheen of its feathers caught the sunlight in a way that made it look ablaze. Like a phoenix, came the thought. If only.
“And your behavior at the university is…”
Out of the corner of his eye, Olive could see his uncle reach for him. Olive turned to face him fully and watched as the man retracted his hand. If Olive would’ve cared enough, he would’ve laughed. Instead, he held his uncle’s gaze and watched as the man gave a nod and departed from the room—
And that left the two of them.
“They’re worried about you, Ollie,” Lavi said from beside him as she pulled closer. “You have to talk to them.”
“I don’t have to. It’s not like talking will do anything.” Olive grunted and swung his legs over his bed and stared at the dirt floor that was dusted with gravel and slick with rain.
Wait—dirt floor? Rain?
The normal wooden floorboards of his room stared back at him.
He shook his head.
Raising a brow at his sister, he swept past the cage and made his way to the door. He cracked it open and peered around the hall. He only just managed to throw a glance to the right when the door was yanked open and he found himself face-to-face with a bulging set of bare arms and a pair of piercing blue eyes.
“Where do you think you’re going, Prince?”
It was Alexander Charming, dressed in the red uniform of a royal guard—minus, the sleeves. How he managed to pass royal guard inspection, Olive didn’t know. Probably because of how meticulously he polished his golden buttons or how pristinely shined he kept the medals that gleamed at his chest.
That aside, Charming was someone who lived up to his name. Spiked blonde-hair, dimpled cheeks, broad shoulders. A cylindrical, black conductor hanging in grandiosity at his waist for all to see. A melee-class model. He always did enjoy facing things head-on. Usually, hot-blooded people like Alexander irritated Olive. But Olive thought Alexander was a decent human being. More decent than a lot of the people around the mansion. Still, he loathed Alexander’s name. No, he felt pity for Alexander’s name. ‘Charming’? Really? It was a lot to live up to, that name.
“Look, if they really wanted to kill me, they would’ve used a better weapon than a bow conductor.” Olive sighed.
“If they didn’t want to kill you, they wouldn’t have tried to shoot you in the first place,” Alexander returned. There was guilt lining the corners of his false smile.
Olive didn’t quite understand it. It wasn’t Alexander’s fault. Sure, he’d been the one stationed to guard Olive at the time, but Olive had given him the slip. Really, Olive thought, people who cared too much just had to be masochists. There was no other explanation for them to put all their eggs into one basket, even with the knowledge that the basket might be smashed to a yolky pulp in one go.
Olive frowned. That was an odd line of thought. Where had that come from?
Shaking it off, Olive opened his mouth to retort but stopped short when he noticed there was an unannounced man standing just behind Alexander. The man had on a thick coat that obscured much of his pale skin. Even so, Olive could tell that the man was rather lean. His hair was dark and jagged, his eyes a bright hazel. At his waist hung what appeared to be two pairs of curved conductors. What kind they were and what conducting type the man wielded, Olive did not know. The man looked young though. Maybe a year or two older than Olive himself.
“Oh, right,” Alexander said with an inclination of his head. “This is Trystan Carter. He was just indoctrinated into the royal army from the academy.”
The man named Trystan stepped forward. Stiff, proper. He gave a deep bow. Stiff and proper. Olive hated these types, too. Behind the professionalism, there was deep-rooted two-facedness and desperation. Desperation to rise in the ranks, desperation to please.
Olive glanced at Alexander.
“He passed his State Conductor Exam with flying colors,” Alexander explained. “Top ten from the pool of those completing it this month. He interviewed well too, despite his strong opinions on the Ariesian government, so now he’ll be serving as royal guar—”
“Oh.” Olive hummed. “Couldn’t make it into the top five, huh?”
Trystan bristled. His head snapped up, his lips forming the beginning of what would probably be a profane shout. But then his eyes widened, and he cleared his throat before giving a curt nod. “Yes, unfortunately not, sir.”
Olive was disappointed at the response. Alexander looked exasperated.
“Don’t mind him, Trystan,” Alexander said. “Prince Chance enjoys testing newcomers. His bark is worse than his bite.” A laugh. “Actually, I don’t think he can even bite!”
Olive resisted rolling his eyes and stared down the opposite end of the hall.
“Anyways,” Alexander continued. “You should be resting, your highness—”
Olive didn’t listen to the rest because something else caught his attention. Distantly, he heard an odd sound he couldn’t quite place. A click-clacking that rang in his ears. Paired with it was a low rumbling that was finished off with a low, bellowing groan.
Olive frowned. Trained his ears.
Was that…. a train horn?
“I’m worried about you, Jericho—”
Olive started and turned. Both Alexander and Trystan stared at him. The two royal guards exchanged looks.
“Is everything all right, sir?” Trystan asked. “You’re being quiet.”
Olive felt himself frown. “What do you mean? That sound—”
Alexander stared at him. “What sound?”
Olive prepared to retort but thought better of it. It didn’t really matter, did it?
“Never mind. I’ll be in bed then,” he said, slipping back into his room.
He closed the door behind him before either man could respond and headed to his closet. He threw it open and changed out of his sleepwear and into casual clothing. A loose shirt, a loose pair of shorts. Over this, he threw on a cloak and pulled the hood of it over his head.
“What are you doing, Ollie?” Lavi asked.
He sighed. “I’ll come back before they notice I’m even gone.” Like always.
Before she could say another word, he was climbing out the window.
* * *
The heart of New Ram City was noisy as usual. The streets were filled with v-ehicles rolling alongside walkways dotted with ambling pedestrians. Pedestrians who would pause to peruse the clustered, open-stall stores that appeared every few blocks.
The sun beat down on everyone and everything mercilessly. The smallest of movements would induce sweat. A glance upward would cause temporary blindness. Such was the weather of Aries.
All the stalls had roofs or cloth canvases pulled over them and all the people had hoods pulled over their heads or sun-umbrellas twirling in their hands. In Aries, those items were common wear. To be seen without one or the other would be labeling oneself as a foreigner.
A couple blocks ahead, a v-ehicle swerved onto the walkway and nearly took out a fruit stall. The stall owner catapulted red, ripe fruit at the v-ehicle as it sped away.
Olive didn’t quite understand why so many people bought into the v-ehicle fad. They required extensive use of vitae to power their engines. Whether the driver provided the vitae or a plugged-in, clunky generator conductor did, it still left much to be desired. And it was expensive. There was word of a new prototype hitting the markets, however, which functioned with a built-in generator conductor one could refuel at vr-stations.
Olive was skeptical. He had the chance to glance over the prototype blueprints when they’d been handed over to the feudal lord who was the chair of Conductor Development in Aries. It was a pipe dream, for sure. To condense a conductor down to such a small size yet keep its ability to power an engine was practically impossible. Even v-trains had generator conductors that were behemoth in size and had to be refueled every couple hundred miles. Besides, only licensed Conductors could operate them. The market for such things was tiny.
Useless thoughts, Olive realized. Brushing them aside, he continued down the walkway under the blazing heat. It was past noon so the humidity that blanketed the air was especially suffocating. If he pressed his palm against the brick wall to his left, he would burn his hand.
Olive stopped short in confusion—
Was he… cold?
—and shivered more as nausea overtook him.
Appearances are everything. Deceiving. Nothing left to chance. Wondering. The world is mine to explore. Never let go.
Olive broke off from the stream of pedestrian traffic and leaned against the wall of a nearby deli stall. Several passersby gave him odd looks, but he didn’t care for them. What he did care for was taming the headache that now screamed from temple to temple.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he turned and pressed his forehead against the sun-bleached wall behind him. The effect was immediate. The heat seeped into his skin and radiated down his neck and through his spine. When he opened his eyes, the pain was gone along with the nausea that came with it. Like it was never there to begin with.
Well, that was unpleasant.
But it was what it was. There was no use wondering about it. If it happened again, it happened again. If it didn’t, then it didn’t.
Olive peeled away from the wall and continued onward. His destination was a small square of a store that rested in a cul-de-sac a little deeper into the city.
When he entered the store, he was greeted by a familiar sound and sight. A grinding of metal against metal, and an eruption of sparks. Gears, nuts, and bolts littered the floor, and scraps of metal filled the corners of the room. A smog hung low in the room, obscuring nearly everything in sight. The barely visible counter of the reception desk was a faulty barrier to the smoke that streamed from the back of the shop.
Olive walked up to the counter and pulled out a stool to sit. It was five minutes before a wiry young woman with frizzy brown hair emerged from the cloud of smoke. She had on a pair of overalls that were stained with grease and a pair of goggles that she lifted from her face when she drew nearer.
“What in saint’s name are you doing here?” she asked. “News is you got shot.”
Olive pulled down his shirt and gestured to his bandaged shoulder. It stung with the effort, but he ignored it.
“And you decided to come here instead of kicking back at your mansion?” She threw her head back with a laugh. “I’ll never understand you.”
And that was what Olive liked about her. She didn’t understand him, and she said it clearly. She didn’t hide words or pull back. She was straightforward to the T. Nothing hidden, nothing falsely promised.
“Unfortunately, I’ve got a lot of orders today. Bless our ancestors—finally! What with the rumor of modified conductors being passed around in the black markets, who’d want to have a conductor made old-fashioned style? Plus, I need to make some finishing touches to my project.” She picked up a wrench on the counter and swung it back and forth. “Anyways, the point is that I’ve got nothing for you to tinker with today.”
Olive raised his brows and gave her three slow claps.
“You could be a little more enthusiastic for me.” She rolled her eyes before pulling her goggles back on. With that, she headed back into the haze of smoke, lifting her hand up in farewell. “You can catch a wink here, though, if that mansion if yours is too high class for you.”
Olive stared after her and considered the offer. Before he could accept or reject, however, the door behind him creaked open. In came two figures.
The first was a young man with jet-black hair and cat-like eyes. A light blue cloak was thrown over his head and hid the rest of his features. It looked expensive. Like it was made out of silk. Must be wealthy, Olive surmised. Odd to see a person like that here.
The young man glanced at him before bowing his head and taking a chair that had been propped up alongside the wall.
And the second figure—
His sister. She quickly closed the distance between them with crossed arms.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
She looked insulted at the question. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She studied him. “What about you?” She side-glanced at the young man. “Should you really be here? What if someone tries to—”
“Right, right. I was going to take a nap,” he interjected with a raised brow. “And if someone tries something, let them.” He paused before nodding over toward the couch that lined the wall opposite of the young man. In a gentle voice, he said, “You look tired. You should rest. We’ll head home after, okay?”
“Fine…” She pouted, arms crossed.
He watched as she begrudgingly sauntered over to the couch before he glanced at the young man across from her. The young man was frowning at him with an arched brow.
“Are you talking to me?” His voice came out lightly accented Common.
Olive stared at him long and hard. The man returned the expression without falter.
“No,” Olive returned. Before the young man had a chance to reply, Olive rested his head back down on the counter and crossed his arms across his stomach. As he listened to the drone of metal against metal in the background, he drifted off.
He wondered, as sleep claimed him, if he should be more alarmed by his circumstances. His headache. His hallucinations. His apparent break from reality. All after nearly being shot dead by a Conductor. A Conductor-slash-assassin. He figured any normal person would head to a Specialist medical Conductor right away. But he didn’t find the events that had occurred that strange or alarming.
He’d been cracked in the head for these past six years already, right?
Because his sister who had died at the start of those six years was sitting behind him.