The dominoes are beginning to fall.
Olive has been in search of a Sagittarian translator and someone who could take him to the infamous Bodhi Temple in order to study for his State Conductor’s Exam when he suddenly overrode Werner and caused the man to order a retreat. He awakens from the override in the care of Prince of the Seong Clan of Sagittarius, Yuseong Claire.
Sihyeon Villa, Sagittarius
When Olive awoke on that cloudy afternoon, he knew that it was going to be a terrible day. There was a heaviness in his chest that squeezed tight—almost as if an anchor hooked onto his heart was dragging his entire body deeper, deeper down. With it weighing him down so heavily, the only thing he could was think. Think about the things he’d done the previous day—no, the previous week. Absolutely fruitless. Meaningless. Mistakes made. Nothing accomplished at all.
Olive curled into himself and tried to collect his thoughts—catch them—before they somehow slipped out to one of the others. It was times like these that he hated their connection the most. The vulnerability, the rawness—
Good morning! No—beautiful morning! Yes! It is a beautiful morning! The sun, the air! Something exciting will happen today! I can feel it!
The exploding shout came paired with a burst of heat against his face, a splash of cold water on his skin, the feeling of wet clothing clinging to his body, and—of course—a rush of feverish excitement. The first feeling was welcomed. The others, not so much.
Saints, Maria. Don’t just synchronize like that randomly. Ya nearly gave me a heart attack.
Had Maria just attempted synchronization with all of them just to wish them a good morning?
But it is a very good morning. I wanted you all to experience it too!
Maria was crazy.
Rubbing his face, Olive forced himself up off his bed. He shivered and sauntered over to his bird cage to feed his bird and then stared out the paper window that opened up beside it. The cherry blossom flower petals from the tree outside had made it into the room and dusted the floor and the bird cage. His bird was busily collecting all of the petals into a corner.
Olive glanced back out the window at the courtyard. There was a pond out there beyond the cherry blossom and persimmon trees. A small pavilion with curved up roofs floated on an island at the center of it, and it was surrounded by lotus flowers that bobbed up and down in the water.
It was peaceful.
He almost wanted to look at it forever. But he knew he couldn’t. He had to keep moving. So with a heavy sigh, he started his morning grooming.
When he finally made it outside of his room half an hour later, he was greeted by Trystan who was posted outside his door:
“Did you sleep well, Olivier? Good morning.”
Olive arched a brow at him. “What about you? You don’t need to be on me all the time especially since Claire has his guards all over this vacation home thing.”
“Yes, he has been hospitable but—”
Olive sighed. “Yeah, I know. It’s not like we can trust him completely, but since we’re here…”
Might as well take advantage of the situation.
Trystan seemed to understand his point and nodded as they began to walk down the hall. “Prince Yuseong has invited you to breakfast again.”
The floors here were of polished wood. The estate, while consisting of only one floor, was expansive. Paper sliding doors lined the hall, and light from the outside seeped lazily through the square, white slots giving everything a hazy glow.
“The Sagittarian diet is very nutritious I’ve heard, so you should eat as much as you can to recover.”
Was Trystan a nanny or a guard at this point? He almost sounded like Werner minus the strictness.
Sounds like tall dark and handsome got promoted to nanny, came Cadence’s chirpy response. A light synchronization.
Olive gave a noncommittal grunt.
Trystan continued, “That may be a good time to test the waters with Prince Yuseong regarding—” He stopped short.
There was a girl halfway out of one of the sliding doors up ahead. She had round cheeks and jet-black hair that grew out to the sides of her ears. She was dressed in the formal, silk pink robe, but she was bare footed. She locked eyes with Olive.
Claire’s younger sister. Eunji.
Claire had introduced Olive to her over dinner the first night he had spent at this villa. And what an awkward dinner it was. The girl had bowed her head respectfully when Olive was introduced and then had proceeded to stare at him during the entire dinner. Lavi, who had appeared before Olive at the time, had gushed over the girl, floating over to her and asking her all sorts of things— “What’s your favorite color? Favorite book? Favorite animal?” Not that Eunji could hear her, of course. Olive supposed Lavi was excited to see someone closer to her age around. Before Olive could repeat any of Lavi’s questions to Eunji, however, the girl had excused herself from the table and had run off escorted by a flock of bodyguards.
A flock of bodyguards that was currently nowhere to be seen.
“What are you doing?” Olive asked plainly.
Eunji’s cheeks flushed. “I—I…”
A stampede of footsteps came from down the hall. Sagittarian guards. Eunji’s eyes widened, and she threw herself out the doorway without another word. A second later, a collection of twenty guards wearing masks of various colors and designs came pounding down the hall. Behind them were two unmasked women wrapped in light silken garments.
The entire flock, minus the two unmasked women, started off in the direction Eunji had disappeared to. Both women bowed before Olive and Trystan.
“I apologize if the young lady has disturbed you,” the younger woman said, dipping her head further. “She was at her daily lessons with her teacher but she suddenly ran off.”
“No need to apologize,” Olive grumbled. “It’s not like I need one… no need with the bowing either.”
“You are a friend of the prince,” the more elderly of the two said, “so you will be treated with respect.”
And what if that friend was royalty? Olive thought to himself.
It appeared as if none of the villa staff knew of his status as Ariesian prince. Not even Eunji did since Claire had merely introduced him as “my friend I met in New Ram City.” But Olive didn’t hate it. He had already gotten used to the feeling of not being recognized in the streets of Sagittarius—although he did hear a couple of pedestrians and some of Claire’s vassals occasionally say, “Doesn’t he look a bit like the Ariesian prince?” A welcomed experience.
“Alright then.” Olive shrugged, slipping past them with Trystan. “Good luck finding her.”
The dining room of Claire’s villa was spacious and lined with the familiar paper-sliding doors. A single square table with short legs sat at the center. Silken plush cushions were furnished at the sides of the table, and seated at one of those cushions was the Sagittarian prince of the Seong Clan, Yuseong Haneul. Aka, Claire.
There were two guards posted behind Claire. Familiar ones. Firstly there was the white masked Projector who nodded deeply upon Olive and Trystan’s arrival. Then there was the wooden-masked Conjuror who seemed to glower at them. If Olive recalled correctly, their names were Soha and Felix, respectively. They were the two vassals who had accompanied Claire to New Ram City, and they had been the ones who had attacked him on the night he had first met Claire. It had all been an act, but Olive still felt unnerved by them.
Claire gestured for them both to sit. Trystan, as usual, hesitated at the invitation. Olive, however, flopped down on the cushion chair and indicated for Trystan to do the same. After another reluctant pause, Trystan sat down but not before giving the two guards watchful looks.
“Your sister probably isn’t going to come for breakfast,” Olive said, glancing at the remaining open cushion seat. “It looked like she was trying to get as far away from here as possible. I can understand the sentiment.”
If Claire had heard the last part, he didn’t show it. “I’m sorry if she disturbed you. She has a habit of trying to escape the guards.” Claire offered an apologetic look, although Olive thought he saw some smugness there. “How are you feeling by the way?” He gestured to the steaming tea cups and the assortment of colorful side dishes of pickled vegetables set out on the table. “You should try some of the daikons, they help with digestion and have a lot of potassium. They’ll help you feel much better, I promise.”
“Anyway,” Claire continued, “I was just speaking with Felix here about how lucky it was that we came across you that day. I literally just decided to go to that bookstore on a whim, and, well, you said something about studying for the Conducting Exam over dinner, right, so—”
“What do you want from me, Claire?”
Claire paused mid-monologue and chuckled. “What do you mean?”
Olive could feel Cadence peering in. Despite his disappointment in her recent choices, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to impress her. How pathetic.
“I appreciate the hospitality,” Olive said, “but I’m not going to play along with your act. You can continue if you want, but I’m just going to be sitting here with popcorn.” He crossed his arms. “If you think that you can trick the same person with the same act, maybe it’s time to reconsider who the real stupid one is here.”
Olive had more to lose this time around. He had to be careful.
“How dare you!” Felix snapped, taking a step forward. “You may be the prince of Aries but you are in the land of Sagittarius. You—”
“Calm down, Felix.” Claire held up a hand.
The wooden-masked man tensed and then folded back on himself along the wall. He said nothing more.
Claire turned back to Olive with lightly furrowed brows and a hesitant smile. “I know how it looks with what happened last time, but honestly I—”
“I didn’t come to this country without learning how your government works,” Olive interjected. “I know that the emperor that sits on the throne is your father. I mean, obviously.”
Claire visibly stiffened at this, and his expression twisted in a startling manner. He almost didn’t like himself. The contempt in his eyes.
“I also know that he’s the father of the princes and princesses of the other nine clans here. Your half-siblings. And I know that all of you can technically inherit the throne.” Olive picked up his teacup and stared into it. Cadence’s reflection stared back at him. “There’s a lot of rivalry, I bet… since all of you can inherit the throne. You have to constantly make yourself look good—like, ‘being the one to get aid from foreign countries’ good. What’s pride and honor, right?”
Claire’s frown deepened which Olive couldn’t help but feel a rush of victory from. And a sudden pang of guilt.
Don’t mind it, kid, Cadence’s thoughts of reassurance floated down from somewhere in the dark. Keep goin’.
“And let’s not forget to mention that other thing you’ve been keeping secret from even your closest associates.”
While Soha and Felix exchange looks from behind their masks, Claire paled somewhat.
It’s always good to pretend that ya know more than ya actually do.
“Look.” Olive sighed. “If you want to lead people around all of the time then get a dog. If you want something from me then just say it. But maybe this time I want something from you too. If not, then we’re both wasting our time here playing pretend—”
Claire rose from his cushion abruptly and slowly walked over to Olive. Trystan tensed from beside him and stiffened further when Claire sank to his knees and bowed before Olive.
“My lord!” Felix unfolded himself from the wall and took a step forward in protest but was stopped by Soha who placed a hand on his arm.
The righteous victory, the coyness, that had been building at Olive’s core crumbled in an instant.
“Prince Chance, I admit that I do have intentions that go beyond me offering you hospitality but I promise you that these intentions do not revolve around me. It involves my sister.”
Eunji? What about her? And now Claire was suddenly speaking like a politician again too. Olive didn’t like this.
“My sister is only twelve years old. She took the V-Type Test recently which revealed that she’s an air Elementalist like me. So she’s… viable for the throne. And because she’s viable, my mother wants her to complete the State Conducting Exam so that our clan has two candidates for potential rulership.”
What? Wasn’t Eunji only around twelve? Wasn’t that too young to take the exam—not to mention inherit a throne? Werner had told Olive that the average age for State Conducting Licensing in Capricorn was sixteen, but Olive had assumed that the early age was due to Capricorn’s military focus. But twelve was kind of—
“But because she’s taking this exam and because she is an air Elementalist, she has been brought to the attention of the other clans. I know they will seek to kill her—”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat at the word.
The memory of the arrow wreathed in flames from four months prior came at Olive suddenly.
“—before she can complete the exam in order to decrease my clan’s chances of gaining control over the throne. The other members of my clan have retracted their aid because they don’t view her as worthy. The guards that you see on the estate are the only ones we have to protect her.” Claire took a deep breath. “Please, Prince Chance. My sister means everything to me. I’m not asking for you to protect her, but your presence as the prince of Aries alone will be enough to make the other clans hesitate.” Claire’s fists balled. “Just for a little while, I ask you to accompany us until she completes her exam.”
A succession war, Olive realized, a chill creeping up his spine. That was insane. The idea that there existed people willing to kill someone who showed just a fragment of promise just to gain an upper hand. This wasn’t what Olive had been expecting at all. He had assumed Claire was going to try to use their supposed friendship as a means to make himself look more diplomatically inclined when compared to his half-siblings.
“You want the prince to act as a decoy?” Trystan drew darkly, rising to a stand. He stopped short when he saw Soha and Felix tense.
“No, not a decoy. Just as a warning.”
“Then why didn’t you announce that I was the Ariesian prince when I first came here if you want to use me like that?” Olive asked. “And why are you letting your sister take the State Conductor Exam if that’s what’s making people target her? Does she even want to take it? And—saints—get up!”
Claire rose from his bow but remained seated. He locked eyes with Olive, eyes afire. “She must take the State Conductor Exam in order to increase our clan’s chances of gaining the throne. This is for the sake of our clan, Prince Olivier. We cannot be selfish when thinking for our people—I’m sure you understand this.”
Olive felt his stomach tumble, and the anchor that he had forgotten about started to weigh down on his chest again.
“As for why I didn’t announce your status—I want to ensure that any traitors that found their way into our domain will be ousted.” Again, Claire spoke like a politician. “If I revealed that you were the Ariesian prince then they would hide away and bide their time. I can’t let them fly under the radar only to come back up when you are no longer with us… I…” He looked away. “The affairs of my country and clan are complicated.”
It sounded as if Claire was disappointed in himself more than anything else.
“So you’re risking your sister’s life to try and save her?” Olive frowned. “Those are some impressive mental gymnastics.” He rose from his cushion slowly. “Well, I have things I want too, like I said. Risking my life is a high token though, so I’ll think about it.”
Olive headed to the doorway behind him but paused when Trystan started to follow.
“I’m just going to the restroom, Trystan.” Olive waved a dismissive hand. “You can finish your food. I’ll be back in a second.”
Olive exited the room before Trystan could respond. He continued slowly down the hallway and glared holes into the wooden floorboards. He really did hate politics. It was the same here as it was back in Aries. Maneuvering around every other person, playing people like chess pieces, false words and faces. What for? It didn’t make sense.
Something flashed out of the corner of Olive’s eyes. He looked up from the floorboards, paused, stared.
It was Eunji, once again halfway out of one of the sliding doors. Had she been caught earlier and was now trying to attempt another escape? Or had she never been caught in the first place?
They locked eyes.
She didn’t flush this time, at least not visibly. She didn’t move either.
“Your brother cares for you a lot, you know,” Olive said after a beat. “I don’t really care about it but you should think about things like that before you make dumb decisions.”
Eunji stiffened at this and looked down. When she looked back up at him, her cheeks were beet red and the corner of her eyes were wet. “I-I know that…”
Olive tensed and looked left and then right. Shoot. This was awkward. Dammit. This is why he hated getting involved with other people. Misunderstanding and disappointment, one after the other.
“Well, if you know that then why are you out here causing trouble?” Olive finally asked. After not receiving a response, he tried, “Do you think acting like this will make him pay attention to you any less? That’s not how it works, you know. Not with family at least.”
Eunji stared at him, eyes wide.
A padding of footsteps came down the hall before she could respond. Olive turned his head to find the older vassal from earlier approaching him. The woman offered a deep bow and muttered an apology before rounding him and nearing Eunji.
“The others are looking for you on the opposite side of the villa, but I had an inkling you would be on this end,” the vassal said, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “How about we return to your lessons and then we can have some fun, my lady?”
Eunji dipped her head, glanced at Olive, and then nodded meekly.
Smiling at this, the vassal inclined her head in Olive’s direction. “Excuse me, sir.” And then she began leading Eunji down the opposite end of the hall.
Olive stared after them for a beat, before turning on his heels and walking in the opposite direction.
It was Atienna. With her thought came a surge of adrenaline. A thrill. Something had happened to her recently, although the details had not fully trickled down to him yet. Her hands were curled into fists. As their synchronization increased, so did the details of her circumstances, as did her image which appeared beside him. He turned to her alarmed.
Something’s not right, don’t you think?
Olive stopped in his tracks and swiveled around.
Eunji and the elder vassal were halfway down the hall. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. In fact, it was a tender scene with the elder vassal guiding Eunji with a hand on the back.
But appearances were deceiving.
Olive approached them slowly. “Hey, wait a minute.”
They both stopped and turned.
Olive stopped short too a foot away from them. “I… Claire wanted Eunji to come to breakfast with us.”
The vassal smiled. “Yes, well, it may be best if Eunji finishes her morning lessons before that. This is a very important time for her.”
Olive arched a brow. “Can you really think without a full stomach? Or is this some Sagittarian torture technique?”
The vassal’s polite smile drooped. Eunji looked between them in confusion although there was a hesitant smile beginning to climb up her lips.
It was Werner.
He was watching? Even after—
The vassal shook her head and then spoke in a variant of Sagittarian—one that Cadence knew did not belong to the Seong clan: “I guess I’ll make use of this foolish foreigner now.”
Eunji looked up at the vassal in confusion just as the vassal charged at him—
—Saints, Olive thought in the split second that followed. For an old woman she moves fast—
—and slammed him to the ground.
“That Seong prince will find your corpse and that brat princess’s corpse, and you will be named the assassin,” the old woman hissed.
The override was brief.
One moment the old woman was on top of Olive, and the next he was on top of her. He barely had the chance to digest the sudden change of position before the older woman kicked him away and scrambled backwards. Olive hopped to his feet, grimacing at the knobbing bruise forming at his abdomen, and then ran at the woman with a shout. Instead of charging at her, however, he ran right past her towards Eunji. Olive grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled her close while whirling around and extending out his free hand towards the assassin. Crimson sparks danced at his fingertips and spilled onto the ground.
A line of fire now divided them.
Olive squinted past the flame at the older woman who was now staring at him and gaping. Realization set in for him a beat afterwards.
He had done it. He had done it! He had been able to conduct and control his vitae exactly how he’d wanted too!
Reckless—yes, but he had finally done it!
“I am the Ariesian prince Olivier Chance,” Olive stated as the embers swirled around him. “You dare attack this young girl whose brother offered me hospitality in my presence?”
Well, that’s dramatic, came Cadence’s thought. What’s with all the waxing lyrical?
Olive felt his cheeks burn—not from the heat of the flame, but from the heat of embarrassment. I know that.
“I care little for the political affairs involved,” Olive continued, speaking above the crackle. “But I cannot stand by while you raise your hand against both me and this innocent young girl. What is your name and where do you hail from?”
The older vassal paled in the light and remained silent.
“You don’t believe me?” Olive pressed. “Is the sight of my flame not enough for you? Are you blind to the color of my vitae?”
I think your overactin’ is convincin’ enough.
“I ask you again. What is your—”
One of the paper doors behind Olive burst open. In came another woman holding a blade ignited with glowing purple vitae.
It was the other vassal. The younger one who had been with the elder earlier. Her eyes took in the scene in confusion, and then they narrowed with determination. Without another word, she charged at Olive, blade raised.
“No, wait!” shouted the older vassal. “Don’t! That’s—”
Olive brought up his hand, feeling heat spark at his fingertips.
The moment he’d done it, he knew it was too much.
An explosion of heat erupted from his extended hand engulfing the assassin in an instant. A familiar, acrid smell curled up in Olive’s nostrils as the assassin’s screams filled the air. But he couldn’t take time to process the events. The flames were still reaching out and consuming everything, despite the fact that he had lowered his hand and was no longer expelling vitae.
Olive threw himself over Eunji and braced himself for the ensuing heat but—
A cold wind throttled through the hall, blasting open the paper doors and snuffing out the flames in an instant. Light poured in from the outside and blinded him briefly.
When Olive’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found Claire standing in the now open hallway behind the elder assassin with his staff conductor in hand. The area around them was speckled with flecks of floating blue light. Behind the Sagittarian prince came Felix, Soha, Trystan, and a handful of other masked guards. Soha quickly apprehended the older assassin who didn’t resist and instead stared horrified in the younger assassin’s direction.
Olive swallowed, felt nausea build at the pit of his stomach, and pulled away from Eunji. He gave her a quick once over and found that—although her face was once again beat red—she seemed fine. He turned back to the younger assassin and felt his head buzz.
The younger assassin laid on the ground groaning, croaking, sobbing. Her entire body was covered in splotches of red and charred black. Her clothing was indiscernible from her skin. The smoke that curled out from her body smelled disgusting and looked unnatural.
Hey, kid, she’s still alive. Nothin’ a little bit of transmutin’ won’t fix. Besides, you were just defendin’ yourself—
“Are you alright, your highness?” Trystan knelt down beside him. “I apologize for not getting here sooner.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine,” Olive murmured, glancing back to his left where Eunji still remained stiff and red. She was staring at his hands which he began to rub despite himself.
A shadow passed over the three of them. Claire. The Sagittarian prince locked eyes with Olive before sinking down next to Eunji.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Eunji managed a nod.
Several of the guards who had accompanied Claire across the hall abruptly dropped to their knees and bowed before him.
“My lord, I apologize for our negligence,” said the one who was closest. “We should have kept a better eye on her. We are ashamed.”
It was a rather familiar scene.
“No, they slipped past me too,” Claire said, rising to his feet. He turned to Soha who had the elder assassin in tow. Glancing at them briefly, he addressed the other guards: “Please take Eunji to the medical Conductors.” He then glowered at the younger assassin who was sobbing on the ground and cradling her splotchy black and red arms. “Treat her too but don’t let her out of your sights.”
“Yes, my lord,” came the echoing responses.
Felix took the lead and gingerly aided Eunji up to a stand before guiding her down the open hall. The other guards picked up the younger assassin and started off in the opposite direction.
“You are from the Sitaara Clan, correct?” Claire addressed the elder vassal who was staring at Olive. “One of the mid-tier clans. I’ve heard that the eldest princess of your clan took the V-Type Test, and it read that she was a Conjuror. It’s rare, and I understand it must come as a shock to your clan. I do feel some sympathy, and I believe you have learned your lesson, so I will return you and your friend back to your people.” He side-glanced at Olive.
How annoying. But—
“The Sagittarian prince has treated me with hospitality,” Olive stated clearly to the woman. “And it is the Ariesian way to treat those who treat you kindly the same. I won’t stand for underhanded attempts like this against someone who has treated me well.”
“Do you understand the gravity of raising a hand against the Ariesian prince?” Trystan pressed from beside him.
The older woman paled in response and then dropped to her knees, pressing her forehead against the ashen floor. “I did not know you were the Ariesian prince. I would not have laid a hand against you or the young lady if I had known. Please, my actions do not reflect the actions and intentions of my clan towards Aries—”
Olive resisted squirming and merely grimaced. “It shouldn’t matter whether or not I’m the Ariesian prince.” His thoughts returned to the younger assassin, and he looked away from her.
“Y-Yes, of course,” the older woman stammered. “I… my apologies.”
“Since I am releasing you back to your clan,” Claire interjected, “I take it that you will inform them of everything you have witnessed here, correct?”
The woman stiffened at Claire’s voice and lifted her head to glower at him. Her gaze then flicked to Olive and then she bowed her head once more. “Of course.”
Claire ordered Soha to take the woman away leaving the hallway to just himself, Olive, Trystan, and Felix.
“Ollie…” Claire tried hesitantly.
“There’s a temple up in the mountains a couple of miles away from this city. It’s called Bodhi Temple,” Olive began coolly. “Apparently, it has a library of unique books that are good for studying for the State Conducting Exam. Apparently, it’s very hard to get into. In fact, a guide told me that there are only two ways to get into it. Either dedicate your life to the temple or be brought in by someone who has access to that place. And I’ve heard rumors that royal members of Sagittarius’s clans are—”
Olive closed his mouth, feeling rather un-victorious. “Okay?”
Claire nodded. “That’s actually where the Seong Clan has been sending their potential successors to study for the Conductor Exam for generations. I have a sky v-tram booked to get us there already. You and Trystan are free to come along.”
Olive exchanged a look with Trystan.
“I also need someone who can translate the written word for me. Of all the languages of Sagittarius,” Olive tried challengingly.
“I can do that too.”
They left for the sky v-trams two days later.
The sky v-trams were something Olive had been secretly looking forward to seeing. These were things that were exclusive to Sagittarius and consisted of boxcars strung along together and suspended by a pair of very thin cable wires. Metal wing-like extensions designed to catch updrafts protruded from each boxcar. Each tram was conducted by four Licensed air Elementalist Conductors who would conduct air up the shaft of the wings. This paired with the v-trams own uniquely constructed generator conductor brought it higher and higher up the cables to its destination.
Needless to say, when Claire informed Olive that they would need to ride the v-trams in order to reach the temple up in the mountains, Olive had been somewhat happy. If the burnt young woman’s body did not plague his dreams, he might have even been ecstatic. Keep moving forward, was something Werner had told him afterwards. Regrets are tools for motivation if utilized properly.
There were only four people allowed per each boxcar of the v-tram, and so Soha, Felix, Trystan, and Eunji filed into one—both Felix and Trystan protested at this—while Olive and Claire were seated in another. The rest of their shared boxcar was filled up with their luggage which counted as two passengers altogether. A handful of Claire’s other guards were piled up in the adjacent boxcar and would occasionally check on them through the window of the doors that separated the cars.
The sides of the boxcars were lined with red cushion seats but also contained poles to hold onto for standing. Olive opted to stand in order to get a good look out of the large windows lining the cart above the seats, and he watched with mild interest as the wings of the boxcars shook as they ascended. Seeing the ginormous v-tram station fall away below him and blur away to a tiny dot was interesting to say the least.
Claire abruptly joined him after spending half an hour searching his luggage. The Sagittarian prince leaned against one of the poles adjacent to Olive and crossed his arms. Olive offered him a disinterested look in turn before admiring the view again.
“I guess you want me to tell you more about True Conductors as a part of everything too then, right?” Claire asked suddenly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Since we’re alone for the moment, I thought it’d be best to get this out of the—”
Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he turned to Claire slowly. “What.”
Claire froze and dropped his hand. “What?”
“Did you just say True Conductors?!” Olive snapped, taking a challenging step forward before hesitating and then taking a cautious step back. “How do you know that word?”
“Because I am one?” Claire returned with a perplexed expression. “You didn’t know—but I thought—isn’t that the reason why you said what you said?”
“The secret that I kept hidden from everyone—you said you knew what it was,” Claire explained, before realization eclipsed his features. He sighed, rubbed his face, and then rubbed the back of his neck. “You were bluffing. I should’ve known.”
Olive remained silent, staring, unsure of how to react, unsure if he should try to reach out to the others.
“Well, we did make a deal, and I’m grateful for your help.” Claire glanced out the window and then back at Olive. “So, anyway, I bet you have a lot of questions now, huh? I’d be happy to answer what I can.”
There was a long stretch of quiet. Their compartment darkened as they passed through a patch of clouds.
“You’re a True Conductor?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.” Claire chuckled a bit—almost nervously.
“And… what are True Conductors?”
“People like you and me,” Claire elaborated without really elaborating.
“And who are people like you and me?”
“People who are psychically connected with other people,” Claire said, tapping his temple. “Connected through memory and therefore thought and feeling.” He tapped his chest to finish the statement. “It’s a bit romantic if I say it like that though.”
“You’re connected to other people too…?” Olive knew he sounded like a broken record, but he was too befuddled by the sudden revelation to think straight.
“Yup,” Claire popped. “I am connected with other people, but I’ll refrain from saying who. I’m sure after that whole thing in New Ram City, you’re plenty aware of the dangers that come with this… status.”
“Why…?” Olive shook his head. “I mean why are we… like this?”
Claire frowned, and Olive could see the gears turning in his head. His gaze brightened as he realized the meaning of Olive’s question. “Well, the why still escapes me, honestly. But the how is through a mutually-timed, near-death experience. At that moment where everyone in your connected group was knocking on death’s door, your vitaes somehow crossed over—”
“The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis….”
Claire’s brow shot up somewhat. “Yes, exactly. The top Conductors in vitae research at Ophiuchus say that there’s no sound evidence behind the idea, but there’s no sound evidence denying it either. So I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and agree that vitae does in fact store memories. I’ll refrain from commenting on the soul aspect of the entire thing since I’m no philosopher.” A sheepish chuckle.
“Vitae stores memories.” Olive tried a course correction.
“Right. That’s actually how this psychic link works. It isn’t that we’re able to telepathically communicate with people in our group. It’s just that the memory of our thoughts is flowing into the other person.” Claire made a circle with his index finger in the air. “The mirage of the person you see is all just a memory that they have of themselves. Simple.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Well, we timed it when my group and I met physically in person. It actually was only a month after we became connected. Anyways, when we were speaking to one another inside of our heads, a person in my group noticed that there was a very small lag between when something would be said and when something would be responded to. When we timed it, we noticed that there was a five-second gap between when one person would think of something and—yeah.”
Olive figured he made a face because Claire chuckled again.
“The time frame got shorter, of course, the longer our group was connected,” Claire explained. “We stopped timing it three years ago when it was below half a second. We thought it had to do with the amount of memories we shared, but who knows really.”
Three years ago? How long exactly had Claire been a True Conductor?
Brushing those thoughts aside, Olive took a brief moment to mull over the information.
Everything Claire said sounded realistic, but a portion of it didn’t match up with his own experiences. Was there really such a lengthy lag between his communication with the other five? It didn’t seem so much that he was speaking to a memory of them than actually speaking to them. And if there really was such a time lag with newly connected groups, how had the other five helped him as if they were actually there on that day in New Ram City?
“Speaking of memories, I honestly was a bit concerned for you in the beginning. You may or may not have experienced this already, but the more time you spend connected to them the higher the chance that there’s going to be an overlap.”
“Mhm, like… a possession almost.”
“Is that what you call it? So you must have experienced it yourself already.” Claire hummed. “Or maybe you were the one doing it since your sense of self is pretty strong from what I’ve seen.”
Olive couldn’t help but grimace as he recalled his override of Werner. As Claire’s words settled in, he arched a brow at him. “Sense of… self?”
“Yeah, your sense of who you are, your ideals, your values. Well, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the connection tends to affect everyone in your group a little differently.” Claire shrugged. “Some people receive more memories and the feelings associated with them than others, and some people are more affected by things like that. Those all have to do with how strong that sense of self is. The weaker, the more easily affected. Of course, that’s not a bad thing exactly.”
Olive’s thoughts immediately returned to Werner. A weak sense of self? Werner of all people? No. That didn’t make any sense. Werner was dependable, reliable, reasonable, and steadfast.
“It does make some good food for thought though.” Claire looked out the window again, but the darkened clouds had made it more of a mirror so he was left staring at his reflection. “Memories make us who we are, right? So… then…” Claire waved a dismissive hand. “Well, anyways, I haven’t encountered any groups that have completely shared their memories one hundred percent yet.”
“So there are more people like us?”
Claire nodded. “I’ve come across a total of ten separate groups not including you. Whenever we’d come across each other, we’d exchange notes about the things we experienced. That’s how I know so much about this.” His gaze darkened suddenly. “Of course, that was before.”
“Before?” Olive sighed, scowled. “Stop making everything so mysterious and get to the point.”
“How do I put this without making you launch yourself out of this sky v-tram to try to get away from me…”
“Maybe by not starting off with that,” Olive grumbled.
Claire frowned and a hardness entered his gaze. “Of the ten groups that I encountered before, only four of them are still… active.”
“The other six have completely disappeared off of the face of this earth,” Claire said. “The other nine True Conductors and I had all planned a get together a year ago. I was invited but I didn’t end up going since I had my State Conducting Exam to go to. Someone in my group went instead—although she’s a loner so she kept to herself and sorta spied on them instead of being friendly.” A fond smile traced his lips at the last statement, but then the corners of his lips drooped down again. “After that meeting, we started losing contact with the other groups one by one. We think some True Conductors out there might be hunting other True Conductors down. Maybe they’re working with ELPIS? I don’t know. And why ELPIS is after us—I don’t know either.”
“So then why trust me and why trust you?”
“Good question.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck again. “You just seem trustworthy to me. As for why you can trust me—that’s up to you really…”
Olive grimaced. “How did you know I was one…?”
“Well, it was kind of obvious. You talked to yourself a lot, and the night we first met you pulled some pretty unnatural moves. I mean, I know they teach you a lot of things in your royal academy, but you held your own against Felix that night and he’s been trained for his entire life. You hurt his ego a lot by the way.”
“But you’ve stopped doing that now which is good. And it’s also good that the ELPIS member… that Izsak Wtorek—”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat, and he found himself rubbing his throat.
“—who found out that you were a True Conductor is locked up in Ophiuchus now. He won’t tell the other members of ELPIS so you’re safe.”
“That’s not the only group we should be worrying about.”
Claire looked away from the window with a perplexed expression.
“It’s not just ELPIS that’s after True Conductors,” Olive explained. “It’s… well… I don’t know who, but someone who’s connected to me encountered a saint candidate who knew the word ‘True Conductor’.”
“A saint candidate?” Claire’s frown deepened. “Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.” Olive glanced back at the other compartment. “She actually became less hostile when she found out that ‘my person’ was a True Conductor.”
“That’s pretty strange,” was Claire’s only comment.
“The saint candidate is also working for the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus,” Olive mumbled, “and we’ve been thinking she might be connected to ELPIS somehow or maybe another group also looking for us—”
“Just because it’s one saint candidate doesn’t mean that it’s the others,” Claire interjected, voice tight, eyes sharp.
“I didn’t say it was…” Olive frowned, and Claire looked away from him in turn.
It seemed like a touchy subject. Too much of a hassle to address further. Better to drop it.
Claire seemed to appreciate the silence that followed, because he addressed Olive with a light-hearted smile next: “That ability of yours to conduct without a conductor is something else though. I don’t know any True Conductors who can do that.” He studied Olive for a moment. “Are you sure you shouldn’t try hiding it a bit? Like try using a conductor instead?”
“You don’t think I tried?” Olive grimaced. “I’ve burned right through all of them just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
Claire’s brows shot up, and he chuckled. “You’re quite terrifying, you know?” He tapped his chin and dquinted. “Are you having trouble controlling it—your conducting, I mean?”
Olive’s mind flashed to the young assassin, and nausea gripped his stomach.
Claire hummed. “Well, maybe the monks at the temple can give you a hand with that. Air Elementalist conducting is very different from fire Elementalist conducting—or so I’ve heard—so maybe leveraging the two will…” He shrugged. “I have no idea where I’m going with this, to be honest.”
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to the temple. Air conducting is freer in a practical sense, while fire conducting has to be more controlled and precise.” Olive nodded, suppressing the nausea with a deep breath. He prepared to continue to address the subject when a thought—rather, a realization—came at him suddenly. He unfolded himself from the pole he was leaning against and took a step forward. “Wait, forget about that—what about the syzygy? What is that even?”
“What?” Claire frowned perplexed, un-crossing his arms. “Syz…ygy? What’s that? Something to do with your conducting?”
“…nevermind.” Olive frowned, folding back against the pole. After a beat, he said, “You’re awfully relaxed about being-hunted-down-by-ELPIS situation. It must be nice to be so carefree.”
Claire chuckled at this, but the sound was hollow. “Ollie, I know I’ll probably sound selfish by saying this but I don’t have the time to worry about things like that. I have my clan and my country to think about. I’m sure you understand, right?”
“Anyway, the key here is to be careful.”
The clouds pulled away, revealing the bright of the sun and the looming mountains below.
In the room with no windows, no doors, and no exits, the six children dashed around in excitement. It was a game of tag, it seemed. They wove around the candles littering the floor, stumbled over the stacks of books that rose up like pillars, and bumped into the bookcases lining the walls.
Tau watched them go from where he sat alone at the gameboard table before he slammed his hand against his leg and jabbed a finger in their direction. “Stop running!”
The children froze and stared.
“What is wrong with you kids nowadays?! First you run around acting like you own the entire place, and then what?! You’ll be taking this outside and disturbing the lives of all the upstanding common folk! Jaywalking, trespassing! All it takes is one slip-up, and you’ll be in and out of youth correctional centers for the rest of your life—”
“Leave it be, Tau,” came a familiar voice from the dark, “you have more important things to do. Besides you six will take responsibility and clean after yourselves, right? Responsibility is everything.”
The six children nodded fiercely before they continued their play—this time carefully straightening the items that were out of place along the way.
Tau sighed, pushed up his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, about ‘those important things.’ Unfortunately, I’m not getting anywhere even with my connections. Nothing on our package from Verga and nothing on that other vitae reservoir and generator conductor.”
A page turn and a thoughtful hum came in response. “I see, so we can’t rely on that then. That’s not unexpected. You were someone who was paid to look away from these types of affairs.”
Pushing his glasses up his nose again, Tau scowled but refrained from chasing the subject. “We still haven’t heard back from Omicron, Omega, and Beta either. Are you sure we should be moving forward with this, ‘leader’?”
“Beta’s and Omicron’s affairs are separate from us. And you know Omega is a cautious person. They won’t move until the time is right.” A flutter of another page. “Besides, Omicron never fails.”
Sagittarius’s royal succession ceremonies are elaborate and are celebrated all over the country. In order to be considered viable for the throne, an individual must be a direct descendant of the emperor or empress, be an air Elementalist, and obtain a State Conducting License. Near the end of the ruler’s reign, the crown princes and princesses of the ten clans of Sagittarius gather at the capital to initiate the selection proceedings. The final decision is made by the ruler, thus each clan tries their best to earn their favor.Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition