New Ram City, Aries
The dawn air had soaked up much of the late-night rain and hung heavy with humidity. Even with the breeze circling around him, he was sweating. While the sky-blue cloak drawn over his head protected his dark hair from drinking in the sun’s rays, it also trapped him in his own sweltering body heat.
How Ariesians could tolerate these blazing temperatures astounded him.
The downtown marketplace was just beginning to awaken, and all the Ariesian small-time business owners threw open their windows and greeted the scathing heat with either a hearty, determined nod or enthusiastic smile.
An older woman with deeply tanned skin and wisps of gray hair hidden beneath a faded kerchief was opening a fruit stall to his left. He approached her with a friendly smile and after some bargaining, he managed to get a pound of peaches for five common-coins. The units of measurement in Aries always confused Claire. They were the only country in Signum that preferred using imperial to metric.
Regardless, the peaches were a bargain. Smaller stores often preferred their native currency—in this case, the flimsy Ariesian bill—over common-coin and tended to charge higher on foreign currency. He thanked the woman with a bow before retreating to the shade provided by a tarp canvas pulled over a jewelry stall. There he sat on a crate and bit into a peach as he watched the dawning buzz of the marketplace evolve into a daybreak bustle.
He couldn’t help but smile as he watched a child around the age of twelve—who was helping her parents transport crates of spare conductor parts—pause and bask in a sudden gust of wind. The wind swirled through her dark hair before coming up to meet him where he sat.
Conductors… What was it that Olive had said the night before? A conductor with a strong insulator? Yes, that did make sense conceptually.
He took another bite of his peach and chewed thoughtfully.
Olive Chance. Olivier Chance. Ariesian prince.
He scanned the crowd and rolled the peach in his palm, nearly dropping it when he spotted the very subject of his thoughts amongst the masses of colorful cloaks and twirling umbrellas. A cloak of deep red shrouded the prince’s dark head in shadow, but those green eyes were unmistakable. Behind Olive trailed two men dressed in uniform, metallic and red. The red seemed to part the crowd of the bazaar like waves.
A silence took over the passersby as they stared, and whispers of speculation followed.
But he knew the truth. This was indeed Olive Chance.
Tucking the peach back into his bag, he leaped from his seat, shouting: “Olive!” He waved wildly as he wove through the bodies crowding the marketplace. “Olive!”
Wide, green eyes turned toward him.
“Olive!” he exclaimed one last time as he broke through the crowd with arms wide. He brought his hands down on the prince’s shoulders. “You’re okay!”
Olive pulled away from him. “Claire?!” For a moment, the corners of his mouth ticked upward. “How…?”
Before Claire could even finish his sentence, he was met with the flame-lit tip of a drawn arrow. At the other feathered end of the weapon was a young man wearing a fiercely stern expression. His hair was black and cut layered, and his almond-shaped eyes were hazel.
“Release the prince at once,” he ordered, pulling the arrow taut.
Before Claire could comply with the order, Olive clicked his tongue loudly, pulled away from Claire’s grip, and pushed the bow-wielding man’s arms aside.
Trystan tensed but did not lower his weapon.
“He isn’t a threat,” Olive finally said, glancing away. “This is Claire. The guy I mentioned who was with me last night.” He gave Claire a once over. The relief that had been on his face was now replaced by curiosity and suspicion.
“What?” Trystan whispered before he lowered his weapon. “Him? My apologies,” Trystan said as he fastened his conductor to his belt, still eyeing Claire with suspicion. “But if that’s the case, I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.”
Claire started. “Q-questioning…?”
“It is my duty as head royal guard to ensure that members of the royal family are protected. Since you were involved in an incident that may be tied to the assass—”
“If you want to go accusing people of things,” Olive interjected with a look of annoyance, “move to a more private area. Unless you like broadcasting political issues to the entire city.”
Trystan stiffened and glanced around. The whispering around them had become louder now. He exchanged a look with his fellow guard, then swallowed and cleared his throat. “My apologies, Prince. Claire, if you would come with us, we will take you to the palace so you can be questioned. It will not take long.”
“Not take long?” Olive stared. “It took us two hours to get here because of the traffic. And we still haven’t gotten the things we need. I’m not going until we’ve got everything.”
Trystan’s eyes narrowed. “Right, your highness. Then I’ll have Samuel take him instead while I remain here with you.”
“Look,” Olive said, “it’ll take two times as long without Samuel.”
“What do you suggest,” Trystan asked.
Claire studied Trystan. For someone who was head royal guard, this man seemed like a novice. There was a lack of professionalism in the way he conducted himself with Olive. Perhaps this was a cultural difference. Or maybe it had to do with Olive’s personality. Or it could have been Trystan himself.
Trystan turned to Claire since Olive only offered continued silence. There was frustration in his eyes, but he spoke calmly: “Claire, seeing as we are occupied at the moment, I would rather you accompany us until we finish our… duties… then accompany us back to the palace for questioning.”
“Ah, well, actually that all kinda works out.” Claire chuckled sheepishly. He turned to Olive. “Now that I know you’re okay, I was hoping to ask you about that conductor.”
They wove through the marketplace district with surprising ease, discussing parts and models of conductors. Slowly their conversation turned toward the events of the night before and Trystan couldn’t help but involve himself in the details.
“So, you tried to run and get help using the chaos as a distraction.”
Claire nodded. “But all the guard posts I ran to were empty.”
“Because we were already assisting the prince at the scene.”
“And when I ran back—”
“The situation was already dealt with,” Trystan concluded. “We were no longer in the area.”
“I hope that clears things up.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”
Trystan held up a hand. “No, I’m glad you were with the prince. Your presence may have been what thwarted the attack. You still will need to report to the palace though. My opinion means little.”
Claire stared up at Trystan’s serious face.
Olive was walking half a meter ahead of them and Claire ran to join him, but Olive did not so much as acknowledge him.
“So, the conductor you mentioned last night,” Claire began. “I know you showed me to a general conductor store, but I honestly still don’t know what to loo—”
“There’s nothing more annoying than a guy who beats around the bush.”
Claire frowned in confusion.
“It’s a two-way torture,” Olive continued without looking at him. He grimaced. “Then again, I could care less about whether or not you want to torture yourself, so never mind. Ask about it or don’t.”
Well, that certainly was a roundabout way of speaking.
Claire hesitated and glanced at Olive’s hands. “You mean… ask about that?”
Now Olive met his gaze. His eyes were emerald, narrowed.
“I… I didn’t want to be rude or anything, but since you asked…”
His gaze then flicked to Trystan, who followed closely behind. There was tension between them.
“What kind of conductor were you using?” Claire pressed with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like it before! It was so small I couldn’t even see it! I was actually wondering about that, but I thought that it wouldn’t be right if I mentioned it because of what was going on so I…” He trailed off.
Olive regarded him for a minute before he scowled. “You really are…”
“Are what?” Claire pressed. When he received no response, he suppressed a sigh and glanced around. “By the way, I’m sorry if I’m overstepping here, but is it really safe to be wandering around the streets like this when you have something like that going on?”
Olive followed his gaze before frowning deeper than he already was. “Staying in one place in a situation like this does more harm than good. Habits make you an easier target.” He let out a sigh. “Besides, my damn bird has been making a mess in his cage. I think I need to change his diet.”
“You’re shopping for your pet bird?” Claire couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s surprising.”
“How? You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way, right?”
This made Olive halt in his tracks and stare.
Claire stiffened beneath the attention and felt himself flush. “Uh… well… I’m sure you have a lot of friends in high places. I mean—not in a bad way. Like sons and daughters of officials—um. But anyways, a commoner like me probably doesn’t have much to offer you so—”
“You really are an…” Olive trailed off without a change in expression, and for a moment, Claire thought a different word would fall from his mouth. But in the end Olive let out what appeared to be his favorite word: “Idiot.”
“It depends on your definition of idiot,” Claire returned. “But I think you have a very broad definition of that.”
“A lot of people fall into that category in my book,” he said.
Claire blinked in surprise before he chuckled. “It’s always good to fall in with the majority.”
They spent the next couple of hours weeding through the marketplace. When they stopped by a conductor parts stall, Olive took the time to point out which parts were overpriced and which were too good to be sold at a backwater market. The stall owners seemed to be biting their tongues all the while—something Olive seemed to enjoy to almost devilish levels.
When they saw shops selling pet-care supplies, Claire took the time to explain which feeds were appropriate for which kind of birds.
“You know a lot about birds,” Olive finally noted, looking disinterested as usual as he spun a birdcage from where it hung on a pole.
“Oh, yeah.” Claire chuckled. “I usually end up spending a lot of time in places full of them. You tend to pick up a thing or two.”
Olive chuckled. Or perhaps he scoffed. Maybe sneered. It was hard to tell. “So that’s the kind of company you hang around. Makes sense.”
It was definitely a sneer. The implication was clear.
Still, Claire smiled. “It’s therapeutic, you know.”
Olive regarded him for a moment before the sneer slid from his face.
At the next conductor shop, Olive casually asked, “You have a conducting license, right?” He sounded like he already knew the answer, and so when Claire presented him with a—
—he turned to him with a bewildered expression. After the singular question and its implication registered with him, Olive snapped, “Because you need one to buy a weaponized conductor!”
“Ah… that’s right.”
“You’re not even a Conductor, are you?”
Claire scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s why I needed help, you see. Because I’m not a Conductor myself so I don’t really know. Well, I can always come back for it after I get a license,” Claire hummed.
Olive looked down. “It must be nice…. to be so carefree.”
At the cusp of dusk, they finally completed their last stop.
The traffic had increased tenfold around them. They were limb-to-limb with other shoppers and a couple of shopkeepers who were closing up. Olive briefly mentioned something about rush hour, and how everyone was now trying to leave the marketplace at the same time. Trystan and Samuel attempted to push back the crowd while simultaneously juggling all the items Olive had bought.
“Be careful,” one of them said.
“It’s easy to get lost or pickpocketed,” someone else said.
But Claire did not hear the rest of their worries.
Because Claire had already slipped away from them.
* * *
From the belfry of a steeple that oversaw the entire market square, Claire sat enjoying the evening breeze. He was seated on the railings that caged in the bell behind him with one leg dangling over the edge and the other tucked just beneath it. He studied the people below.
In the square, the little dots of Ariesian citizens and of tourists darted from stall to stall, cloaks fluttering. From this distance, the sleeves of their cloaks looked almost like wings. The way they wandered around without exiting reminded him of birds trapped inside a cage. Claire couldn’t help but smile at the thought.
A shadow flickered from behind him. Then another. He turned.
Standing in front of the bell was a figure dressed in black-cloth stealth gear. A traditional white mask painted on with red cheeks and a black smile obscured their face. Beside that figure crouched another in similar gear, wearing a wooden mask.
Claire smiled. “I was afraid that you were going to kill that Ariesian guard.”
“I-I apologize,” stammered the wooden-masked man as he bowed his head. In the next second, he sprung up into a stand with a fisted hand. “But he was going to lay a hand on you and—”
“Settle down now,” the white-mask said not unkindly, but not gently either.
“It’s all right.” Claire nodded. “I understand how you feel. Ariesians are pretty dangerous.” He turned back to the scenery. The square was empty now. The white tiles of the marketplace seemed to glow in the heat. “Besides, in the end, I was able to earn his trust.” A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “Though I have to work on his head guard.”
“And what now?”
Claire rose to his feet on the railings. “See if Ophiuchus has sent anyone to handle the situation yet. If they intervene, we may have to change our plans.”
“And what will you do?” the white-mask pressed.
“I’m going to get a private session with the Ariesian prince.” Claire threw a thin smile over his shoulder. With that, he dug into his back pants pocket and pulled out a slender cylindrical object that was eight centimeters in diameter and a tenth of a meter long. It was sleek and black with four holes that ran in a straight line along its length. The wind whistled through the holes almost musically. The whistle deepened to a hum as he spun the object in hand. Out from both ends of the cylinder popped the rest of its length, which gave it a completed height of two meters.
Giving the thing one last turn, he listened as the extensions clicked into place and pointed his newly elongated staff down into the city. Wind gathered where his hands skirted the holes in the staff; and with a flick of the thing, he sent the breeze whipping out around him. The bell tolled behind him at the force of the wind, while the two figures embraced the welcomed reprieve from the Ariesian heat.
Giving his companions one last nod, he stepped off the building with his staff in hand. The breeze caressed him and caught him mid-air, lifting him onto his staff, which had remained floating horizontally in the sky. He landed deftly on it, balancing on the thin beam, using the arches of his feet.