The steady rhythm of the train running over the tracks fills Azure's ears. He raises his head, opening his sore eyes only to find himself in near darkness. In the far corner of Azure's train compartment, sunlight creeps into the empty box through a crack in the door.

Azure licks his cracked lips and tries to stand up. Immediately, his stiff legs send him crashing back onto the floor. Without his hands, which are bound tightly behind his back, Azure's face smashes straight into the ground. He sits still for several seconds, groaning. At last, Azure maneuvers himself back into a kneeling position.

Even from this position, a cool breeze manages to reach Azure through the crack in the door. He inches closer to it, peering out through the narrow crevice at the world beyond. Rich, wild meadows of tall grass, wildflowers, and weeds whizz by the passing train. Beyond, near the horizon, stand tall lines of spruces growing in thick forests of bright green.

As Azure watches, a sign planted right beside the railroad tracks zooms past. Despite the limited line of sight, Azure manages to make out the words on it: Loviisa, Population: 8,452.

"Loviisa?" Azure mutters. "That name…"

Just as Azure ponders the name, an abrupt jerk followed by an ear-piercing shriek causes him to slam his head against the ground once more. Azure gropes around until he is back on his knees again. By now, the train has stopped, and the roar of the engines has begun to die down.

Outside, along the length of the train, the doors of other compartments can be heard rattling open and closed. However, Azure does not move. Instead, he listens to the sound of a conductor making his rounds, barking orders in a gravelly voice as he extracts other prisoners from their compartments.

Finally, someone can be heard fumbling around outside Azure's compartment. The door slides open with a jarring rattling noise, revealing a bright haze of light that causes Azure's maladjusted eyes to wince. Squinting, Azure manages to make out a middle-aged man with a scruffy goatee and a conductor's cap standing before him.

"Up you get," says the conductor, clicking his tongue impatiently. He watches as Azure stumbles to his feet, sways, and then collapses onto his side, his feet unable to move after the long journey. Grumbling impatiently, the conductor hops into the compartment and grabs Azure by the arm, dragging him out and throwing him onto the ground below.

Azure coughs and spits out dirt as he lies sprawled on the floor. He looks up at the unsmiling conductor, who bends over him and shouts, "Hurry up and get on your feet, boy! I ain't got all day."

With great care, Azure shuffles back into a standing position. As a breeze caresses the ends of his hair, Azure turns his head to survey his surroundings. The train has stopped outside what appears to be a small town. On either side of the train tracks, untamed forests of spruces dominate the landscape. Above them, a bridge leading into the town bisects the tracks.

Ahead of Azure stand several other people, looking just as dazed as Azure, their hands also bound behind their backs. Azure watches his fellow prisoners. Most of them are middle-aged or older, though some appear to be quite young as well. All of them are dazed and disheveled from the long journey.

Feeling a presence behind him, Azure wheels around. The conductor stands several meters away from him, his mostly crooked teeth bared as he scowls at the new arrivals. He opens his mouth and begins shouting in a voice that nearly carries the length of the train:

"After me, you lousy maggots! If any one of ya tries and leg it outta here, I've been authorized to pump a few pieces o' metal into your bums, so no funny business, all right?" Grinning nastily at the thought, the conductor pounds the ground with the butt of a shotgun.

In a straight line, the new arrivals follow after the conductor. Walking near the front of the group, Azure watches as the conductor pulls out a tiny device and pores over it. The device repeatedly emits loud, disjointed crackling noises, but the conductor does not appear to mind. He totters slightly, his steps irregular under what appears to be a weak left leg, though he still manages to push along at a steady pace. None of the prisoners say anything as they follow him.

Soon, the conductor leads the group up a hill and onto the bridge. They tread directly in the middle of the road without regard for traffic; indeed, there is none at all. A car sits parked by the side of the road, the jagged shape of a stunted tree growing out of its hollowed-out innards.

Ahead of them is a large brick church, its gray steeples reaching high towards the sky. Vines of ivy creep along the sides of its walls, while several missing shingles dot the roof of the building. On either side of the road, the tops of the forests surrounding the area poke out and form a natural barrier for the bridge.

Nobody says anything as they cross the bridge. Azure, however, finds himself looking left and right as they draw closer to the town, his eyebrows furrowing. All of the buildings appear to be abandoned. To the left of the church stand a few single-story residential buildings, their windows and doors boarded up and paint chipping from their walls. The roof of one house has even caved in, exposing the rotten beams supporting it. Indeed, the lawn of the church itself is in total disarray, with grass growing up to the height of an adult's knees, and weeds running helter-skelter in between the thick hedges of grass.

But an even more impressive sight rises over the roofs of the other buildings in town. The cylindrical dome of a nuclear reactor towers over the horizon, cutting an imposing image against the otherwise picturesque town. Like everything else, though, the reactor appears to be long-abandoned.

Eyes widening at the sight of the reactor, Azure sputters, "Th-this is…!"

A few paces ahead of Azure, the conductor does not appear to hear his remark. Instead, the elderly man marches on, his slightly hunched back bobbing up and down with every stride. The device in his hand continues to emit the same random crackling noises.

Another cool breeze floats by, carrying with it the smell of rotting wood. Azure's wrists chafe against the metal of the handcuffs binding them together. He narrows his eyes as he walks. "There's no doubt about it. This place is…"

An abandoned school looms on the group's left. In contrast with the other buildings in town, some effort at least has been made to attend to the school's appearance. The windows are polished, while the grass on the lawn in front of the school building has been cut, albeit unevenly. Many weeds still thrust out from between the tufts of grass.

"'ere we are," says the conductor.

Waiting at the entrance to the school is a tall and imposing man. He cuts a rather bulky frame underneath his navy double-breasted coat; any number of pins and medals adorn his chest. A deep, jagged scar runs along his left eye, while his short and bristly gray hair is mostly hidden underneath a captain's cap.

"In you lot go," the conductor says, a sneer playing about his lips. Several guards have appeared by now, all of them seedy-looking men in uniform equipped with both guns and whips. With stern looks on their faces, the guards usher the new inmates, about fifteen of them total, into the school.

Azure scowls as he is marched down a windowless corridor before being stopped at the entrance to a gymnasium. A surly man glares at him before releasing the handcuffs on Azure's aching arms. His hands freed at last, Azure follows the other prisoners to the front of the gym. The man in the captain's hat from earlier stands watching them, a frown on his face.

At last, all of the new inmates are gathered in front of this man. His beady eyes sweep over the group, pausing to rest on each individual for a second or two. Azure glares back as their eyes meet. Finally, the man opens his mouth to reveal a set of sharp, fang-like teeth. "Listen up, you vermin!" he bellows. His voice is loud and wolf-like.

"My name is Commandant Jake Harkess," the man continues, his eyes still roving about the room. "I am the lead foreman of this Loviisa Camp, and these are my men, whom you will obey as carefully as you will obey me." Behind Harkess stand about twenty overseers, well-kept, unsmiling men in military jackets. On either side of the gymnasium are additional uniformed guards standing at attention.

"Because of your crimes against the Empire, you have been relocated to this isolated labor facility in Scandinavia with the aim of making you vermin at least productive. As you might have guessed, this town was abandoned after the Nuclear Incident of 1945. Your jobs will be to clean up the mess left behind and rejuvenate this town.

"You will be expected to work hard and obey our every command. Slackers will not be tolerated. Illness or injury will not be tolerated. Escapees will be shot, and anyone who aided or conspired with them as well. Rebellion will be met with death. Is that understood?"

Disjointed murmuring follows Harkess' words. The commandant frowns and bares his teeth, a growl rising from out of his lower throat: "I said, is that understood?!"

"Understood!" chant the prisoners, including Azure. Brief and muffled wailing interrupts the heavy silence that follows. Just behind Azure, a mother cradles her young son close as he sobs into her chest. Azure quickly looks away from the pitiful sight.

"Very well," says Harkess. "You lot are dismissed to the mess hall. Eat up while we make preparations for your work tomorrow. Heavens knows you'll need it."

Azure joins the others heading towards the exit, Harkess' unpleasant chuckling ringing in his ears. More guards soon surround them, jostling the group back into the hallway. Moving as slowly as possible, Azure waits for the mother and son pair to catch up. When they do, Azure places a hand on the boy's shoulder, causing both parent and child to look up with surprise.

"It'll be all right," says Azure.

The line moves slowly through the mess hall, as one by one, the new arrivals are given their food. Azure wrinkles his nose slightly as one of the workers, a repurposed guard wearing a hairnet, deposits a ladleful of colorless porridge into his empty bowl. Accepting a piece of stale bread from another guard, Azure stoically turns away, his tray of food in his hands.

Several rows of wooden tables occupy the room, most of them empty. Nonetheless, Azure stands for several seconds at the head of the mess hall, surveying it. Presently, Azure feels a pair of eyes on him. He swings around, and sees a young man not much older than him sitting alone at one of the tables near the back. When Azure looks, however, the boy appears to be fixated upon a cup of tea.

After hesitating a moment, Azure decides to approach this table. He stops short of the person sitting there, clearing his throat nervously. "Er… excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?"

The person in front of Azure looks up from his tea, the faintest of smiles on his face. A dazzling pair of green eyes gazes back at Azure, their intricate depths as clear and yet as complex as an emerald. Loose curls of brown-blonde hair cradle the upper portion of his pale oval face. Everything about this person is peculiar, from his gloved hands to the clearly nonstandard fur parka draped over his shoulders. Under the coat, however, he wears the same blue collared shirt worn by all the other inmates.

"My, I would be delighted to partake in the pleasure," smiles this person, "Azure Dunbarton."

Azure freezes halfway in between sitting down in front of his newfound companion. He watches the young man's boyish, smiling face, his own stony. "You know who I am?"

Folding the tips of his fingers together, Azure's companion stares back at Azure, the same faint, evanescent smile lingering about his lips. His clear green eyes are vaguely nostalgic, like the leaves of some flower blooming at the height of summer.

"Dear me," he says. His voice is light and boyish, almost fleeting. "I beg you to forgive me my poor manners. I must apologize for the indignity of learning your name before you have learned mine, Azure. You may call me Xavier."

"Xavier?" Azure repeats.

"Yes," nods Xavier. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

Azure's eyes stray towards the teacup in front of Xavier, as well as the teapot, warm with condensation, sitting not too far away. A number of tiny biscuits and wafers rest on a plate next to it. Then, looking down at his own bowl of murky gray porridge, Azure's stomach growls rather noticeably.

Xavier smiles again as Azure's face reddens. Azure clears his throat. "P-pardon me for asking, but how did you manage to get all this?"

Producing a second teacup from nowhere, Xavier pours Azure a cup of tea. He slides the cup towards Azure, who reluctantly accepts it as he sits down across from Xavier. Clasping his hands together again, Xavier says, "The overseers in this place are not as hard of heart as you may believe, Azure. They are simply ordinary men doing what is expected of them. You may be surprised to learn what you may acquire merely by asking."

Azure's hand pauses midway to his mouth, his spoonful of porridge dangling in the air. "I'm sorry, but somehow I have a hard time believing that, Xavier."

"That is not unexpected," Xavier says, stirring his tea with a spoon. "Well, you have certainly not been conditioned to think the most highly of the men who administrate our empire, have you, Azure? A shame indeed, but most understandable."

Placing his spoon down, Azure frowns. "I apologize if this sounds rude, but who are you?"

"Ah," smiles Xavier, "it would appear my sincere apologies are in order once again. Forgive me my insolence, Azure, but I am a person who has observed you from afar for some time now. To answer your initial inquiry, you must first understand that the press has developed quite an affinity for your name. Through those means I have come to grow rather familiar with the circumstances regarding your arrival in this place. Consider me a fan."

"A fan," says Azure. He watches as Xavier picks up his teacup and takes a long, slow sip from it.

Xavier flashes another smile at Azure. "I beg that you sample this oolong tea, Azure. Its taste is simply exquisite. The woody flavor of this blend is counterbalanced by a slight hint of jasmine, producing an invigorating and ultimately divine combination."

"Er—yeah," says Azure. "Say, Xavier—"

Screams from the front of the mess hall interrupt the conversation. Azure and Xavier turn to watch as one of the guards bears down on an inmate, the very same mother of the child whom Azure had comforted earlier. The guard kicks the woman as she curls up on the ground, a sadistic leer on his face. "Your first day here and already asking for more food, eh? What do you think this place is, a charity?!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" the woman says, her wails drowning out everything else in the room. Though the few others gathered in the mess hall all watch the scene with bated breath, none of them say a word or move a muscle. In fact, several avert their faces as the argument grows louder.

"My son… he's young and of poor health, please just let me have a little more for him!"


The guard pulls a pistol from the holster at his side. He raises it as though about to strike the woman, but stops mid-swing. Azure crushes the guard's fist in his own, holding back the would-be attacker. "Stop this already!" Azure says hoarsely.

"Azure!" Xavier hurries over to join Azure at the front of the room.

The guard's lip curls as he gets a better look at Azure's face. "Well, well, aren't you Azure Dunbarton? You're another rat who doesn't know when to quit, are ya?!"

"Something like that," Azure says. When the guard resists, Azure raises his right hand. Even without a mana glove, a faint ray of violet light begins to coalesce around the middle of his palm. "I've about had it with being pushed around by assholes like you. Everyone here is a British citizen just like you, and yet you—"

"Why, you…!" the guard interrupts. "Attack me if you dare, prisoner! The Commandant will have your head on a platter before the hour's up!"

"There is no need for such hostilities!" says Xavier, stepping between the two. He places a hand on both of them, separating Azure from the guard. "The new arrivals are undoubtedly weary and disoriented from their long journey here. Any unbecoming behavior must be tolerated. I am sure we may reach an understanding with regard to that, perhaps?"

The guard stares from Azure to Xavier, his face growing paler by the minute. "V-very well," he mutters, not meeting Xavier's eyes. Then, turning back to Azure, he adds, "However! You, on the other hand, I'll be writing you up for resisting against a guard! Report to the Commandant's office at once!"

As the guard stalks away, Azure turns to the mother-son duo. "Are you two all right?"

"Y-yes," stutters the woman, accepting the outstretched hand of Xavier, who assists her to her feet. "Thank you for everything. I could never have asked for you to stand up to that guard like you did."

"Don't mention it," says Azure, his eyes flicking towards Xavier as the latter walks away. "What's your name?"

"Anna, and this is my son James," the woman answers. She looks around before dropping her voice to a whisper. "My husband was a frequent dissenter of the Regents before they were deposed. He disappeared before his trial a few months ago and I'm sure he was murdered by the government. They sentenced my son and I as accomplices; when the military took over, I'd hoped they would commute our sentences, but—"

Anna freezes as Xavier approaches again. However, her eyes grow round as the boyish Xavier extends a bowl of extra porridge to her. "Please take this," he says. "Dissenters of the Empire or not, none of its citizens ought to be condemned to starvation."

Accepting the bowl from Xavier's hands like a priceless gem, Anna holds it close to her chest. Her eyes are watery when she says, "Thank you, thank you so very much! How can I ever repay you two?"

"Your sentiments ought to be directed solely toward Azure," says Xavier. "Among those present only he possessed the courage to speak on your behalf. Even I did not move as quickly as he to act."

Azure frowns even while Xavier turns to him glowingly. "I wonder about that," he says to himself. "What good is speaking up when you don't have the ability to change anything? Otherwise, Ophelia and Father might still be…"

Somewhere inside the cramped office, a clock ticks. Azure sits alone on a hard, straight-backed chair staring stubbornly ahead at the shuttered window on the wall opposite him. Directly in front of him is a messy wooden desk laden with piles of documents, folders, writing utensils, and other miscellaneous records.

The door swings open behind Azure. Commandant Harkess strides into the room, his boots clicking against the floor underneath. His breathing is heavy, while a heavy odor of cigarettes hangs about him. Taking a seat behind his desk, Harkess surveys Azure with folded arms and a wry smile on his face.

"So," he says, "thought you'd be cheeky, eh? Thought you'd fight the good fight and stand up against one of my men, eh? Seriously. Your first day here and already trying to stir up trouble. And after I'd explained what I do to troublemakers like you, too."

With one quick move, Harkess pulls a pistol out from under his desk, loads it, and points it in Azure's face. The latter's breath immediately grows short as he leans back, staring down the barrel of the gun.

Breathing heavily, Harkess stares at Azure for several seconds. Slowly, he lowers the gun and puts it back down on the desktop. Azure lets out an audible sigh of relief. Harkess frowns. "What's your name, prisoner?"

"A-Azure Dunbarton," Azure replies.

Harkess only raises his eyebrows halfway at best at the sound of the name. "You'll understand if I don't really care who you are," he says gruffly. "But remember this, Dunbarton. This is my camp and in my camp you are going to obey my rules. Understood?"

"Yeah," says Azure. "But that doesn't mean I have to like you or approve of how you handle things. You're all nothing but a bunch of bullies. Whether it's you or the Regents or the military, it doesn't matter. You'll bully others, using fear, repression, censorship, or whatever means you have until you get your way. I'll serve my sentence but that doesn't mean I'll approve of the way the Empire does things."

His lip curling, Harkess stares back at Azure. "An idealist, are you? Let me tell you something. You're a criminal. Criminals don't have rights. It doesn't matter to me who you were or what you did back home, you are one of my prisoners now. A rat. Vermin. I decide whether you eat, whether you speak, whether you live. You have no rights as far as I'm concerned, do you understand?!"

Harkess finishes speaking, leaving an uncomfortable silence as Azure continues to stubbornly refuse to speak. With a huff, Harkess leans back in his seat and puts out his cigarette. "With that in mind, I'll be sure to take special care in arranging your work duties, Dunbarton. Thank you for airing your grievances. You're dismissed."

Starlight glimmers through the heavens; the innumerable stars, like tiny signal lights in the vast ocean of space, dominate the unlit sky of Scandinavia. Little disturbs the night, save for the chirping of insects and the distant gurgling of a body of water. Azure stands alone on the porch outside his cabin in the barracks located behind the school. He leans against the wooden fence in front of the porch, listening to the insects and watching the stars. Nothing else disturbs the night.

Momentarily, Azure turns to look as the door of the cabin swings open. Xavier emerges from the building, an oil lamp glowing in his hand. Looking around, Xavier quickly spots Azure. "Experiencing some difficulty sleeping, Azure?"

"I suppose," says Azure. "I've got a lot on my mind."

Xavier sets the lamp down on the porch against the fence and joins Azure's side. Together, they watch the stars for some time, neither saying anything. At last, Azure breaks the silence. "Do you mind if I ask you something, Xavier?"

"What is it?"

"How did you end up in a place like this?"

Moving away from the fence, Xavier instead stands up straight and stares at Azure, his emerald green eyes burning brilliantly even through the darkness. "I must admit that I do not quite know, Azure," he says, "though I am certain I am here for a reason. Perhaps there is something I may learn here, and that is why fate has deemed it necessary to bring me to this place at this time."

"You don't know why you're here?" Azure blinks. "You mean like, you don't know what crime you committed?"

Azure's companion smiles. "Well, something akin to that."

"I see," Azure sighs. His neck cranes up again, towards the vast infinity above them. An uncountable number of stars gaze back; Azure's eyes grow wide as a shooting star skips across the sky. He sighs again. "I wish I could share your optimism, Xavier. But here, I realize more than ever how powerless I am to change things. Standing up to a few bullies here and there won't change this screwed up world."

Xavier leans against the fence again as well, his gaze following Azure's towards the heavens. He clasps his hands, almost as though in prayer. "Those who have suffered are most adept at sympathizing with those who will suffer. If you wish to change the way things are, then take this merely as an opportunity to understand what must be done."

Azure turns to Xavier, who continues on, as if in a reverie: "Men such as Harkess and his overseers are doing simply what the world expects of them. Criminals exist—in order to maintain peace, men such as Harkess are expected to exist. The challenge lies in changing those expectations. Were those expectations to change, then perhaps there shall be peace. It will require a great leader to effect such change, however."

"Would that even be possible?" Azure asks. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably.

The faint hint of a smile crosses Xavier's lips even as he shrugs. "That remains to be seen. But you are a kind and peaceful person, Azure. There shall be a role for you in changing the world yet."

'A kind and peaceful person…'

Without warning, Azure laughs, though it is a rueful one full of irony. "If you're going to tell me that I should keep hitting my head against the same wall again and again, then forget it. I already tried to fight for those I love once, and I only lost them all faster."

Striding past Xavier, Azure reenters the cabin. The door shuts behind him, leaving Xavier alone outside. Gazing up at the stars, Xavier smiles again. "I was not going to tell you that, Azure. Though it would appear that your words are misleading, for it seems you have been searching for a reason to continue fighting since you arrived here. I pray that you do."

A/N: This story chronologically occurs after ORCHID. It is NOT the sequel to ORCHID, which will be named ROSE. I highly recommend that you read ORCHID before reading ORCHID: The Scandinavian Interlude, as this story depicts events that occur after the end of ORCHID. For those interested in ROSE, The Scandinavian Interlude is considered canon and is not a side story, though it is optional. You will not be required to read The Scandinavian Interlude in order to understand the sequel, but it is recommended for further understanding of the events in ROSE. Thank you!

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. The views expressed in this work are not necessarily representative of my own beliefs. The words and actions of characters in this story are not an endorsement of any political or personal ideals, nor are they meant to be interpreted as indicative of the beliefs of any other persons or organizations.