Seemingly far away from ELPIS’s machinations, Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance travels to the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius in an attempt to study for his State Conducting Exam and in hopes of learning more about his sister’s ghostly condition. He makes a deal with Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong to help “protect” the former’s own sister from rival clans in exchange for access to the temple and aid in translation of the Sagittarian texts. On the way there, Claire reveals that he too is a True Conductor.
Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius
As the air v-tram descended through the clouds, the extravagance of Bodhi Temple’s square arches became revealed. They rose tall and black against the brown peaks of the mountains and stood over a large stone path that wound up the mountainside. At the end of the stone path was a large brass door fitted in-between two mountain peaks. It loomed so tall that even from where Olive stood in the boxcar, he couldn’t see over its top.
When the tram docked at the near-empty sky v-tram station and Olive realized the distance between the station and the temple gate, he nearly climbed right back into the boxcar.
But then the other five flashed into his mind. At the thought of them, Olive shoved away his complaints. His problems were minuscule compared to the problems they were facing. He didn’t deserve to complain.
But Eunji voiced her complaints instead—
“It’s so far! Claire, you said it was only ten minutes from the station!”
Claire simply swiveled around and buttoned up his sister’s coat with a beam. “It is if you put your back into it!”
Eunji scowled before glancing at Olive, straightening herself, and nodding her head. “Let’s go then.”
What a weird girl.
They began to slowly, painfully wind their way up the stone path to the looming gate. The steps were wide and far apart, almost as if they’d been designed for giants. They were in good condition, however, and were clear of debris. Cared for tenderly.
They reached the top of the staircase after an unsaintly amount of time, and if Olive were not so bogged down by exhaustion, he might have marveled at how titanic the gates truly were. They seemed to scratch the sky.
“I know, right?” Claire hummed as he walked up and rapped on the door thrice. The metallic bongs ran up the door’s belly and bled out into an echo in the surrounding air.
When the door creaked open, they were met with a gust of pleasantly warm air, a soft glow of yellow light, and an army of bald men and women all wearing deep dark blue robes. An older man wearing a beaded necklace headed the group and seemed to evaluate them in the silence.
Monks…? Intimidating monks.
Claire, Eunji, Soha, Felix, and Claire’s other guards dipped into deep bows and were given bows of equal depth in turn. When the older monk turned his eyes onto Olive, Olive quickly dipped into a bow too and watched from the corner of his eye as Trystan mimicked the behavior. When Olive straightened himself, he found that all of the monks were returning the gesture.
It felt natural—being bowed at. And Olive hated himself for feeling this way.
“This is my friend,” Claire said to the old monk in Seongese, gesturing to Olive. “Olivier. I was hoping you could offer him hospitality. He’s studying for the State Conducting Exam like Eunji. He heard the rumors about the Bodhi Temple’s great library and wants to read some of the great texts.”
The old man studied Olive carefully.
Olive straightened himself and stood a bit taller.
“There are more details, of course,” Claire continued, “but I believe that may be better discussed privately.”
The old man broke out into a smile and nodded before speaking in Common: “Of course, of course. We are not ones to deny those who seek knowledge to improve themselves. Come in, come in.”
The sea of monks parted forming a straight path for them to enter. Claire, Soha, Felix, and the other Seongese guards entered without hesitation. Olive followed suit with hesitation and with Trystan at his feet.
What lay beyond the gate was a large stone courtyard populated with small, well-kept gardens. The courtyard seemed to extend for a sizable distance and a handful of robed men and women paced in the background. Beyond them stood pagodas interconnected by roofed but open halls that were reinforced by wooden beams. A small stream ran along the outside of the halls, and it pooled into a central pond that was littered with lotus flowers. Surrounding the pond were a cluster of monks who sat cross-legged and closed-eyed. Meditation, maybe. Olive wasn’t too familiar with the idea.
They were led into a large dining hall where a handful of monks were already seated at wooden tables that ran long, low, and parallel.
Olive was ushered to a table by Claire who then ordered some of his guards to bring them food. Trystan sat to Olive’s right, stiff, unmoving, awkwardly rubbing his fingers along the conductor at his side. Eunji who sat on Claire’s left kept glancing past Claire towards Olive himself. Whenever Olive would look at her, she would flush and look away.
Seeming to not be aware of this interaction, Claire happily accepted a bowl of rice porridge from his guards and started digging in. Claire’s guards soon followed suit, removing their masks to enjoy the meal.
Soha and Felix were the only two of Claire’s guards who were seated with them given the crowdedness of the halls. The duo sat directly across from them; and although Soha was freely enjoying her meal without her mask, Felix had barely lifted his mask enough to feed himself.
He most likely had some complex, Olive figured.
Olive stared down at his own rice porridge as he listened to others downing their food.
It was peaceful. Like at Claire’s villa before the assassins had attacked—
At the thought of the young assassin’s charred body, Olive’s stomach churned. Then came the memories of the corpses that had been laid out in front of Maria, of Kalama’s body, of the peacekeepers strewn about on the floor of the detention center, of the knife that had emerged from the mayor candidate’s back as Theta looked on calmly, and of Alice sitting bound to the chair.
Grimacing, Olive set down his spoon.
“It’s a waste if you don’t finish that,” came a voice in Common diagonally across from him. A man.
Keeping his frown in place, Olive gave the nosey man a disinterested look. “It’s weird if you watch people eat.”
The man had wispy blond hair and gray eyes. Obviously not of Sagittarian descent. He was, however, dressed in a robe like all of the other monks. The wrinkles lining his brow and sagging his cheeks betrayed his age and gave him a sagely appearance as if highlighting his monkliness.
He looked a bit familiar, Olive realized as he inspected the man further. Something about him was…
As Olive searched his memory and the memories of the other five to put a name to the man’s face, it suddenly clicked. Not only had Olive seen this man’s face before, but so had Atienna, Werner, and Jericho. They had all seen his face printed on the back cover of numerous textbooks on vitae theory.
Olive gaped. “You… are you P.D. Oran? You wrote all of those books about the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis!”
The smiling man’s lips drooped down immediately, and his eyes went wide. He gaped like a fish before leaping up from the table and dashing out the hall without another word.
“Wait!” Olive stammered, shooting up to a stand.
“It is best to leave him be,” came a voice from behind in Common
Turning his head, Olive found the old man who had greeted them at the doors standing there with a whimsical smile.
“Some people come here for knowledge to improve the outer world,” the old man said. “While others come for knowledge to improve the inner world.”
So basically Oran had issues, Olive surmised. Probably due to all of the backlash the man had received following his publication supporting the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. The publication had practically murdered his career. Gaining infamy for being associated with just one thing was terrible—Olive knew the feeling well.
Feeling a bit guilty for calling the man out, Olive sank back down. He was startled to find no one staring. All the monks merely continued to mind their own business. It was a relief.
“Claire has informed me of your situation,” the old monk continued. “And I would be happy to provide some help.” He inclined his head. “My name is Tenzin, and I am what you would call the ‘head monk’ of this temple. You would be Olivier? If you’d like, I can give you an overview of what this temple can provide for you in your particular pursuit.”
Olive glanced at his still full bowl of porridge before nodding slowly and rising back up to a stand. “I’d like that… Thank you.”
Trystan followed suit but Tenzin held up a halting hand. “I believe it will better benefit Olivier if I am able to speak to him alone. The more people present, the more we tend to conceal ourselves.”
Olive hated proverbs.
Regardless, he gave Trystan a curt nod, and that was that.
Olive followed the monk through a maze of paper-door-lined hallways before he was led into what he presumed was the man’s office. It was rather plain and empty with only two cushions set to the side of a low wooden table. The only decorations consisted of a scroll splashed on with black-inked characters hanging on the back wall and two bamboo plants placed in opposite corners.
“Claire tells me that you can conduct without using a Conductor,” the monk said as soon as he seated himself at the table.
Well, that was one way to start a conversation.
“I’m glad… he keeps his mouth shut,” Olive grumbled, following suit. The ability wasn’t something he was particularly hiding, but it unnerved him to have it pointed out so readily. Still, Olive figured that if anyone needed to keep their mouth shut, it was himself.
“I have only seen one other person with the ability to do that,” the monk said casually.
The monk grinned. “Well, that got your attention, young one.”
The fact that the man didn’t sound condescending irked Olive but he remained silent, waiting.
“Her name was Pema. She was an air Elementalist Conductor and a monk here,” Tenzin explained. “She was also my sister. And… she was a failed saint candidate.”
A saint candidate…? A failed one. Like Lavi.
Olive felt the hairs on his back rise as he digested this information.
“I believe she began to show the ability shortly after returning back from Ophiuchus after failing the saint candidate initiation ceremony. This was before the war broke out, of course. All of us at the temple were intrigued at her ability, but we didn’t actively question it. Earthly matters like that don’t pertain to the pursuits we have here.” Tenzin hummed. “Still, she told us that it was a confidential matter, and we were to keep it a secret lest we create a buzz within the Monadism community.”
And the old man was telling him?
Again, Olive kept his mouth shut.
“She didn’t stay in the temple long after she returned. She renounced us and began traveling the world.” He stroked his chin. “She kept a journal of her travels. It’s likely she may have detailed her experiences with the conducting oddity there. After her death, her journals were stored in the archives of our great library here.”
Olive perked up at this, leaning across the table. If his conducting ability really was connected to Lavi who was a failed saint candidate then maybe—
“Of course, you would have to have a State Conducting License to access her journal.”
“What…?” Olive couldn’t help but scowl. “I thought Ophiuchus didn’t step foot in here.”
“They don’t,” Tenzin replied. “There are things that Ophiuchus does as a peacekeeping organization that I don’t agree with, but using the license as a key to the gate of knowledge is not one of those things. If one is not prepared for it, one will be overwhelmed by knowledge and be unable to make use of it. That is dangerous for not only oneself but for those one keeps close.”
“So you’re saying a slip of plastic is the key to wisdom?”
The monk chuckled. “I don’t believe I’ve said anything about wisdom. But the license is a badge showing the hard work and effort you have put into your pursuit of knowledge. It proves that you have gone out of your norm of comfortability to gain it. That is the first step. And things must always be taken one careful step at a time or one will surely miss something important.”
Heart sinking, Olive frowned. “Is that a proverb?”
Tenzin smiled. “When you’ve completed your State Conducting Exam, you’re free to come back here and read her entries.”
Letting out an internal sigh, Olive averted his gaze. “Thanks. That’s really generous of you.”
“Of course, completing the exam is one thing. Passing it is another,” the monk continued. “Feel free to access the books on the lower levels of our library. There are books even on those levels that you will not find anywhere else in Signum.”
This time Olive bowed his head. “Thank you.”
Atienna accompanied Olive frequently on his first several days of rounding the archives. Whenever he’d pluck a particularly old-looking book off the shelf, he’d be overwhelmed with the urge to run his fingers along its leather bindings and leaf through its pages to breathe in its musty scent. Atienna would appear beside him smiling pleasantly during these times, and he’d find himself treating the texts rather gingerly in her presence.
Olive couldn’t comprehend how Atienna could be so calm with everything going on in her end of things. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking about it? Averting her eyes? No, she’d renounced that months ago. Whatever it was that she was doing to maintain ease, he wished he could do the same. Eventually, however, Atienna stopped reaching out for synchronization whenever he’d come to the archives and that left him alone on many nights with just Claire, Felix, and Trystan.
A majority of the texts in the archives were written by the monks themselves. Some texts dated back several centuries, but Olive presumed even older texts were located in the upper areas sanctioned off by the monks. Areas only accessible to State Conducting Licensees.
Similarly to the royal libraries back in New Ram City, texts that were in those sanctioned levels were not allowed to be brought down from them. On Cadence’s suggestion, Olive had tried to get Trystan to sneak out books from one of the upper floors but that had only ended with a lecture from both Werner and an intimidatingly muscular monk.
Regardless, the basic texts and manuscripts that Claire was able to translate for him were useful. It seemed as if the monks at the Bodhi Temple viewed vitae similarly to how Virgoans viewed it. As a cycle of vitae ebb and flow, of life and death, over and over again. The concept of reincarnation was thrown around several times, although it was spoken about in a sense of a ‘universal’ reincarnation. And Olive had no clue what that meant.
Some of the texts on vitae theory dipped into philosophical musings that Olive could barely wrap his mind around. What was the point of using flowery paragraphs when getting to the point just took three words? Unfortunately, Werner and Jericho had informed him that the written portion of the exam did contain questions regarding different theories of vitae. So flowery paragraphs, it was.
Which was unfortunate.
Olive despised vitae theory.
At least in conductor engineering books, everything was concrete and quantified. Numbers, variables, parameters. What was fact versus what was error.
‘How many joules of vitae will be produced by a conductor when it contains an insulator with a diameter of 2.5 cm and a conducting core capacitor capable of allowing a current of 6.7 x 10^7 vitae particles?’— Easy.
‘Using the most widely accepted school of thought, soft vitae and hard vitae are best used by what type of Conductors?’ —Who the hell knew.
Olive wondered briefly how Eunji was doing. She had been whisked away with her guards and Soha after their first dinner here, and he hadn’t seen either since. He wondered if she was struggling as much as he was.
Frankly, part of Olive wanted to see if Werner or Jericho would be willing to synchronize with him while he took the written portion to feed him answers, but another part of him wanted to prove to them that he could score high on his own. To impress them.
It was embarrassing to think about.
Mulling about these things to himself as he sat at a moonlit table in the library alongside Claire and Trystan, Olive continued to read Claire’s written translations of an encyclopedia on vitae theory.
About an hour had passed before he finished dissecting the translations. And when he turned to see what else Claire had managed to translate for him during the half hour, he found the Sagittarian prince face down on the table and faintly snoring. Across from him Trystan was also out cold, head hanging back against the chair. Felix, on the other hand, stood rigidly behind Claire, arms crossed.
“I’m going to the restroom,” Olive said, rising from his seat. He nodded in Trystan’s direction. “Just in case he wakes up and panics.”
Felix didn’t give any indication he’d heard so Olive shrugged and wound his way around the tables to the library’s exit. The tables that had been crowded earlier were now empty, leaving the area with a sense of loneliness. As Olive inspected the tables half-heartedly, his eye caught onto a lone book resting on one of the tables.
On a whim, Olive went over to examine it but then hesitated when he saw what was printed in the corner on its cover. ACCESSIBLE TO STATE CONDUCTING LICENSEES ONLY.
Who had left this textbook out? And how had they gotten it out from the upper sections of the library?
His eyes darted down to the title.
Conducting Variants: Vitae, Energy, Life, Blood. Soul? Notes by Pema.
The head monk’s sister.
Olive’s heart skipped a beat and he held his breath as he scanned the area.
No one around.
Olive grabbed the book and flipped it open to a page that had been marked with dog ears.
The text was scribbled out in curling Common:
When the science of conducting was in its initial stages of development, various methods to conduct vitae were employed in an attempt to utilize it to its full capacity. The final form of conducting seen today was achieved through centuries of trial and error, and it’s curious to look back on the failed and discarded attempts of conducting. And to make fun of those idiots.
The irreverent comment jarred Olive but he pushed forward reading.
One method of vitae conducting that has been long since abandoned forgotten is one that directly harvests the vitae particles found in the bloodstream. Due to this peculiarity, this method was available only to those who were able to utilize vitae intraneously. Instead of separating vitae particles from the body as is done with present-day conductors for intraneous users, this form of conducting bypasses the separation leading to a more intimate usage of vitae. This method may be more ‘powerful’ than modern conducting but it’s also more taxing on the Conductor due to the higher purity and density of the vitae particles being expelled. Also—blood loss. Duh.
This method was developed by Ophiuchus centuries ago and has been forgotten centuries ago. As of this journal entry, you can’t even call it a myth anymore. It’s nonexistent.
Omicron and Theta’s bloodied hands immediately flashed into Olive’s mind.
Was that the type of conducting that they used…? What in the world…? This was too much of a coincidence.
With a chill seizing his spine, Olive threw the book back onto the table and quickly made his way out of the library. As soon as he stepped outside into the open hall, he was greeted and calmed by the cold, cool night air. A full moon was bleaching everything in light blue, and the silence was crept on by the trickling stream that ran alongside the hall.
Olive let out a quiet breath and prepared to start forward. But then he froze.
A woman dressed in a crisp black and white suit stood in his path. The blue moonlight cascading down in between the wooden beams of the hall fell in separated layers across her face and acted as a spotlight on the white band that glowed on her arm.
What was a peacekeeper doing here? No—why on earth was she wearing sunglasses?
Despite the time of day, a pair of circular shades perched on the woman’s nose. They were jet black—the same color as her rope of dark hair.
Something wasn’t right.
Olive took a step backwards as a frigid cold dripped down from the back of his neck to his toes. A numbing dread seized his limbs that didn’t allow him to move any further.
Something about her wasn’t right. Something about her made his skin crawl.
“Hey, kiddo,” she called out to him in Common. “You’re the Ariesian prince, right? Seen you in the papers. If you’re not him, you’re one helluva look alike.”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat at her baritone voice. “… Who’s asking?”
A white smile cracked across the woman’s face. “Ilseong Jin of the Seong Clan. Saint candidate of Sagittarius. Saint of the Arrow, Saint of Direction.”
What… A saint candidate? Here? Wh—
In the blink of an eye, Jin closed the distance between them, gliding over the lotuses that grew up onto the floorboards from the stream. She stopped only inches away from him, hands in pockets, as she inspected him over her sunglasses.
“Cool, suave, handsome, never misses a shot, war hero,” Jin continued sing-song. “I could list more details if you’d like. I do like talking about the many talents I’ve honed over the years. My life is practically a shooting star.”
Olive pulled back, heart hammering.
Jin grinned. “You’ve met Leona I’m assuming? During your whole assassination thing couple months back?”
Olive frowned, trying his best to keep his voice even. “Leona? You mean the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department? She spoke to me a little after everything. Don’t remember really. Not interested in stuff like that.”
Jin rolled her neck. “Yeah, well if you’ve seen her, I can sorta understand why you’re so unfriendly since I’m a saint candidate too. She can be a B, right?”
Olive resisted doing a double-take and peered behind the woman. An escape route. Be casual. “So saint candidates aren’t cliquey?”
Jin barked out a laugh before waving him off. “Sure we are, but even I can clearly see that Leona’s got an inferiority complex—or is that a superiority complex? Well, whatever. She’s got one of them.”
“Good to know,” Olive mumbled, stepping around her.
Jin side-stepped along with him, blocking his path. “But enough about that. What’s the Ariesian prince doing up here at our sacred temple? Huh. You look taller in the papers.”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat again, and his nerves began to run his mouth. “What’s a peacekeeper doing at a sacred temple? Thought peacekeepers were all about cultural competency. I’m a prince, like you said. Don’t you think you’re being too casual with me even if you’re a so-called saint candidate?”
Jin’s smile thinned. “Your sister was a saint candidate, right?”
Olive’s heart began to thunder.
“A ‘failed one,’ I mean,” Jin amended. “Allegedly died in the Tragedy of Aries? Ironic for the Saint of Ashes, yeah?”
It was like a punch to the gut. A terrible combination paired with the ominous dread that was already wrapped around his stomach.
“People skills must not be a criterion to get saint candidacy,” Olive returned. The words slipped out before he could stop them, and he felt his limbs tightening in anticipation at the expected retribution. When he looked up at the woman, however, he found that Jin was still grinning.
“I’m not the type to believe the newspapers. About your sister, I mean. You know what they say about the media.” Jin leaned in close and stared directly into him. “Does ‘syzygy’ mean anything to you?”
“What’s a syzygy?” Olive asked, hoping he was channeling enough of Cadence to sound convincing.
“Hm, so you know it but you don’t know it.” Jin traced his features with her eyes. “Ever heard of Kovich?”
“The author of the Endless Cycle…?” Olive recalled from Atienna’s bookish conversation with Cvetka.
“Smart kid,” came Jin’s unwanted praise. She pulled back, hand on hip, poked a finger at his chest. “It’s the end of that.”
What did that even mean?
Olive arched a brow. “What? What are you talking about? If you want to start a book discussion then there’s a library back there—”
“Do I have to spell it out for you, kid?” Jin sighed. “What is the dictionary definition of a syzygy? ‘The lining up of celestial bodies’ aka stars. It’s just a fancy word. An analogy. Don’t remember who in the world thought it up, but basically…” She poked him in the chest again. “People like you are the stars that need to be lined up in order to make thathappen. That is, if Izsak was right about you being a True Conductor.”
Olive felt his blood run cold, felt nauseated and lightheaded.
“Ding, ding. Looks like I’m right,” Jin mused. “But don’t worry, kiddo. Izsak is locked up and isn’t rearing to kill you. And while Leona suspects you after that whole thing in New Ram City, she probably thinks that you’re something else. I won’t tell her either. Your secret is safe with me.”
Who did Jin think she was fooling? And what did she mean by ‘something else’? And why was she talking to him about this? What did she want? Was she going to disappear him like the other True Conductors? What about the other five? What—
“It’s a shame what happened to Izsak,” Jin hummed. “I met him when he was just a kid like you. Saw him rise up to become the ‘Shepherd of Okor’ myself.”
“L… Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Olive managed, stepping around her again. “Syzygy? True Conductor? Izsak? I’m trying to focus on the State Conducting Exam here. And right now I just want to use the restroom—”
“Don’t you want to know what really happened to one Miss Princess Lavender Chance? I mean, she’s still floating around in there somewhere, right?”
Olive stopped short and turned. “How—”
Jin faced him with a grin. “I thought so. Dang, I’m smart. And you’re too honest, kiddo. People’ll see right through you if you don’t learn to think before you react.”
“Ollie. Stay away from her,” came a sudden whisper in his ear. “She doesn’t seem right. Please, Ollie.”
Olive glanced over his shoulder and found his sister standing just behind him. Her pale fingers were gripping the side of his arm, and she was glowering at Jin. Olive had never seen such a hostile expression on his sister’s face before, and it unnerved him.
“Is that why you’re here, kiddo?” Jin continued. “To search the temple records to see if you can find out anything about it?” A grin cracked across her face again, and she tapped her temple. “Come on, kiddo, use your head. Why’re you looking around for something like that when the answer is right in front of you?”
“Ollie…” Lavi pressed, tugging on his arm. “Please…”
Olive glanced back at Lavi, registered her crumpled expression of desperation and fear, and then took a step backwards.
“Look,” he said, placing his hand over his sister’s, “Jin, you must like hearing broken records because—again—I have no idea what you’re saying. I’m sure you’re enjoying your monologue but you should probably find another person who has a lot of time on their hands like you—”
“Come on. Stop with the charades. It’s kinda pathetic if you stretch it too far. Like I said, your secret is safe with me. And don’t look so scared, kiddo. Us saint candidates want to preserve True Conductors like yourself,” Jin said, once again closing the distance he had formed between them. “It’s really ELPIS y’need to look out for. They think that people like you need to die.”
Olive’s mind flashed to Francis—Theta—and then Omicron, Izsak, and Alice. And then Cadence and Jericho. And then Werner, Atienna, and Maria.
Olive paused, felt Lavi’s grip on his arm tighten. He hesitantly looked Jin over. “Let’s say I know what you’re talking about. Are you saying that you’re on my side? Because you’re a saint candidate…? And we’re important for the ‘syzygy’?”
Jin looked away and shrugged. “Well in the short run, yes. In the long run, no. But I’m personally trying to freestyle a bit now. Kinda tired of the whole duty and ceremony saint candidate thing—so, you do you. You’re on your own, kiddo.”
“You’re making it sound like that’s a bad thing.”
Jin barked out a loud and abrupt laugh. “Sorry. You’re really just so honest, kiddo. Earnest too. Maybe a bit stupid. Nah, just naive.”
It wasn’t the first time Olive had heard the word tossed around. Ever since leaving the royal palace, he started feeling that it was the most commonly used word in Signum. Back then, when he had been spending the months lounging around in the palace, he had thought he had known enough. Not everything. But enough. Enough to not try learning anything anymore. That was naive.
“At least that means I can still learn something,” Olive returned. “What does that make you?”
“Stupid, probably,” Jin popped.
The response again jarred Olive, and it took him a moment to relocate his train of thought. “So… who’s behind this whole syzygy thing? Is it… the saint candidates? A Monadism thing?”
Jin reached out and placed a hand on his head causing him to stiffen. “You were looking to skedaddle, kiddo, but you’re curious now, aren’t you? Anyway, if I gave you all the answers now then I’d have to listen to Leona’s ranting for the rest of this life. Besides, I’ve probably given you enough to chew on.”
“Why are you even… telling me this?”
Jin grinned, smile white in the blue light. “Why not? I mean… what are you going to even do about it?” There was a beat. “But… I’ll tell you this, kiddo, this whole rodeo’s been going on for a lot longer than you realize.”
Startling, Olive whipped around to find Claire emerging from the library entrance while waving like a madman.
“My favorite nephew!” Jin called back before amending, “Well, my only nephew, right?”
“What’re you doing here?” Claire asked, rushing up to her. “I thought you were in Ophiuchus!”
“I was just a minute ago,” Jin replied, giving the Sagittarian prince a cuff on the shoulder. “Thought I’d swing by.”
“Eunji will be so happy to see you!” Claire beamed. “She’s probably asleep already though, but…” He side-glanced at Olive and startled as if just noticing him. He gestured to Jin. “Oh, Ollie, this is my aunt! Jin!”
“I sort of figured when you shouted ‘Aunt Jiji,’” Olive mumbled, arms crossed, heart still thundering.
“Eunji’s studying for the Conducting Exam, right?” Jin popped, nodding at Claire. Her interest in him seemed to have waned, Olive realized, which came as a relief. She continued offhandedly, “Just a fair warning. Heard Kai and Mai Beijixing from the Xing Clan are coming up this way too. You should probably keep an eye out when you leave.”
“Oh, I know. I already prepared for that,” Claire said, side glancing at Olive. “But thanks for the heads up.” He beamed again, smiling with unusual earnesty.
Olive could see it now. The reason for why Claire had been so oddly defensive about saint candidates. It all dwindled down to family. Olive wondered if Claire’s aunt even knew of his status as a True Conductor.
And then, Olive thought of his own aunt sitting back on the throne back in New Ram City. Did he even cross her mind? Probably not. She was probably too busy doing queenly things to even think about him. Maybe even secretly relieved that he was gone. He wondered if the other five would think the same if their synchronization ended.
Olive shook his head. He needed to stop thinking like that. Especially right after a harrowing encounter.
“Yo.” Jin directed a nod behind Olive with a wave before dipping into a surprisingly deep bow. “I see you’re still kickin’.”
Still gripping his sister’s hand, Olive turned his head to find Trystan, Felix, and Tenzin standing behind him.
Tenzin bowed at Jin in return. “I see you’ve finally returned to the temple. What brings you here?”
“I was feeling a bit nostalgic,” Jin replied with a shrug. “And I’m looking for someone. An Ophiuchian special mission. Top secret.”
“Well, I hope the person you’re searching for is a willing person,” Tenzin replied. “Free will and choice are very important in life—in case you’ve forgotten the teachings of the temple since your pre-candidacy days.”
“I’ll ask politely,” Jin said. “Don’t worry.” She pointed loosely to the bow conductor at Trystan’s side. “I use one of those too. There’s an archery range around back, Mr. Bullseye. We should practice together. You don’t want to get rusty sitting around reading books all day, do you?”
Trystan frowned—at least until Olive whispered Jin’s identity into his ear—and then he bowed. “It would be an honor.”
Olive startled and tried to subtly shake his head to signal for Trystan to decline the offer. Trystan merely gave him a look of confusion. Typical.
While Claire and Jin began speaking animatedly with one other, Olive took the opportunity to slink away from them. He managed to get Trystan to follow suit and held his sister’s small hand tightly as they looped around the hallways. Olive separated from Trystan in the residential halls and slipped into the small bedroom he’d been provided for his stay.
As soon as he heard Trystan’s step recede from behind the doorway, he whipped around and gripped his sister’s shoulders tightly. He searched her face.
“W-What’s wrong, Ollie?” she stammered, worry creasing her brow.
His stomach twisted.
“Lavi…” Olive began after a second of hesitation. “Why did you want me to… stay away from Jin? How long were you watching?”
“I just have a bad feeling about her,” Lavi murmured. “That’s all… she doesn’t seem like a good person.”
Olive studied her, tightening his grip. “I… when you were… in Ophiuchus… for the saint candidate ceremony… did you…” He realized he didn’t even have a full grasp on what he wanted to ask her but managed, “A couple months ago… you said something about a ‘syzygy’ when I first started getting synchronized with the others. What did you mean? ‘The pulse of syzygy.’”
“Huh? Did I say that?” Lavi questioned, cocking her head. “I don’t remember ever saying that.” She peered into his face. “You don’t believe me? Everything’s really fuzzy, Ollie. I’m sorry but I don’t remember ever saying that—really. I was just so excited that we were talking to other people. You know I don’t pay attention to some of the things I say…”
A knock on the door drew Olive’s attention away, and when he looked back towards his sister she was gone. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Olive wrung his hands and made his way to the door. When he pulled it open, a smiling Claire stood waiting.
“What are you doing here?” Olive arched a brow, already pushing the door shut.
Claire wedged his foot in the doorway and pressed a finger to his lips. “I wanna talk to you about something. Just the two of us. Just for a minute. Come on.”
“Unconvincing argument.” But after a beat, Olive conceded and let the prince through.
Claire made himself at home, strolling in and inspecting the room before walking right out onto the balcony that opened up at the side of the far wall. Olive rolled his eyes and followed him outside.
The moon was still beating down harsh in the night sky, revealing the mountain range’s ruts and cliff faces in startling detail just as the sun would.
“You know, I never really wanted to be involved with politics,” Claire said when Olive fell into place beside him. His gaze was fixated on some far point beyond the tips of the mountains. “Never really wanted to be a prince either, but you can’t choose what you’re born as.”
Olive glanced at him unimpressed. “Wow. Your life sounds awful.”
“I know how that sounds.” Claire chuckled. “A lot of people would kill to be where I’m at.”
Definitely. Olive knew people probably thought similarly about himself.
“Good to know you’re at least a little self-aware,” Olive muttered. “Is that what you’re here to talk about? The monks would be better therapists than me.”
“No… that’s not it. I could tell that you were nervous about my aunt,” Claire replied. “She told you she was a saint candidate, didn’t she?”
“It was in her lengthy introductory speech.”
“Yeah, she can be like that…” Claire mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean, she’s kind of earned the right to. If it weren’t for her becoming saint candidate, my clan would still be considered a lower-rung clan and we wouldn’t…” He trailed off.
“Alright, I’m listening,” Olive grumbled. “If you want to tell me your backstory so much then let’s get to it.”
“Well, when you put it like that then I feel awkward.” Claire frowned. He held up a hand, stopping Olive short before he could retort.
Olive shut his mouth and waited.
After what seemed like half an hour, Claire finally spoke: “Haneul… my real name… it means ‘sky’ in Seongese but it can also mean ‘heaven’. My mother told me that the name chose me because ‘it was my destiny to bring the Seong clan to the heights of the heavens above all the other clans.’ That it was a name befitting an emperor.” A rare frown pulled down Claire’s lips, and he glared down into the darkness stretching below. He brightened a beat after and scoffed. “The sky is supposed to be free and open, but the name is so oppressive. Suffocating, you know? Can you even imagine a person like that? As an emperor ruling over all these clans? Having to watch their back all the time?”
Olive glanced at him. “Yeah, the way your government works sucks.”
“That’s exactly why I want to abolish that clan system in Sagittarius.” Claire chuckled again. “Well that’s not true. I just want to live in a place where I don’t have to worry about problems like that. Where my sister doesn’t. Where other people don’t. Everyone would just be free to do whatever they wanted without dealing with those kinds of expectations. The restrictions. The divisions.”
That was ridiculous, Olive thought. There was no way anybody could do something like that. People’s self-interest and greed would always get in the way. And even if someone were to achieve that, someone else would just undo everything further down the line.
“Anyways, I told my aunt Jiji I hated my name one day, and she just said, ‘Then why don’t you just change it’. Made me feel kinda stupid for not doing it before. And so I did. Chose ‘Claire’ because I thought it sounded cool. Like the Common word for clear.” Claire peered down into the cliff face below them. “Anyways, choosing my own name was the first step in all of this. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my aunt. She actually helped me a lot when I was younger…. so I’m basically asking you to give her a chance.”
So Jin meant a lot to Claire. And despite Claire’s slipperiness, he was still just a kid. What a pain. Still, averting your eyes from a problem did nothing.
And so, after a minute of agitated mulling, Olive informed Claire of the things Jin had said to him only half an hour prior. Syzygy. True Conductors. ELPIS. Saint candidates.
Claire digested the information silently with an unreadable expression. The quiet stretched long and thing before he finally spoke again. “Thank you… for telling me that. I… there’s probably an explanation…” He shook his head before leaning against the banister. “Syzygy…” He paused, lifted his head, and turned to Olive. “Wait… you said my aunt asked about your sister too, right? Why was that?”
Olive revealed the true reason for why he was pursuing a State Conducting License. The incident at the Tragedy of Aries. His sister’s failed saint candidacy. How her ‘spirit’ became visible to him afterwards. And how it could be connected to his ability to conduct without a conductor.
Claire ogled him afterwards. “That’s a pretty crazy backstory… I’ve never heard any True Conductors seeing ‘ghosts’ before so I don’t think it has to do anything with that.” After a pause, he said, “And you started being able to conduct without a conductor after that happened?” Another pause. Claire glanced over Olive’s shoulder. “And… does Lavi know anything about it?”
“She says she doesn’t.”
Claire considered his words before sighing. “So we both have family members who might not be trustworthy. Saint candidates…”
Olive frowned. “Don’t put my sister and your aunt in the same boat. My sister was a failed saint candidate so whatever it is—”
“—has to be something else?” Claire finished. “Maybe it is.” He straightened himself abruptly and began digging into his pocket. “Well, I wasn’t going to show this to you because it was risky for my circle but since we’re really being honest with each other now, I thought I’d show you. It might be useful for you in the future.”
Claire pulled out a narrow cylinder the size of his palm and gave it a twirl. Additional segments extended from each end of the device with the motion. Claire’s staff conductor.
“Why?” Olive asked plainly.
Claire whipped his conductor around once. Nothing happened. And then he whipped it around another time, sending out a cold, frigid wind speckled with blue lights. The twin movements seemed a bit familiar. Something scratched at the back of Olive’s mind—
Then came the snowflakes. They cascaded down onto them from the area where Claire had sent out his whip of wind. Although the snowflakes appeared normal at first glance, a closer inspection revealed them to be faintly glowing with blue vitae.
“Great, you can change weather patterns,” Olive stated, unimpressed. He caught a snowflake in his palm with disinterest. But as he watched a snowflake lose its glow as it melted, the realization slapped him hard. He turned to Claire in disbelief. “Are you saying that we can—”
An excruciating pain throttled through his core cutting him off short. Every limb in his body seized with agony, and he fell onto the floor with a thud.
Ignoring Claire, Olive bared his teeth and reached out in the direction of the pain. He pulled himself along the invisible thread until the temple room faded away behind him and became replaced by an entirely different scene:
People screaming, people crying, people shouting, people running. Smoke clouded the air as they rushed around him—half of them tripping on the cobblestone ground that was laden with shattered pieces of brick and glass. At his right was a crumbled building still billowing out a steady stream of smog and dust.
The scent was nauseating, but—
Where was this?
Olive glanced to his left across the street and found a familiar high-rise building with a golden plaque at its front: Abaccio Hotel.
Gemini. The Twin Cities. Cadence or Werner.
Olive’s heart felt as if it were about to explode as he reached out for both of them in desperation. And then he saw it out of the corner of his eye—a flash of copper hair.
Cadence. She stood frigid amongst the chaos, seeming to not notice the bodies strewn around the floor nor the people running past her. As he tapped into his synchronization with her and met her gaze, he realized that she was not truly there either. Then that meant—
“I…” Cadence ran her fingers through her hair as she stared blankly past him. “It was an accident… I didn’t…”
Olive followed her gaze and the tug of pain down to the ground behind him. Only a couple of feet away amongst the rubble was a woman with curly black hair and porcelain skin.
She was unconscious, but it appeared as if she was unharmed because right beside her—no, draped right over her protectively—was Werner. There were large pieces of brick, stone, and glass strewn over his normally immaculate military uniform and red was pooling beneath his head.
Olive was at Werner’s side in an instant, grasping the man tightly.
“H-Help!” he stammered desperately to the people who he knew couldn’t hear him, to the people who probably wouldn’t help even if they could. “Help! Please!”
Olive’s mind raced with memories of fire, screams, smoke, burning flesh, curling up into loneliness—
—and then came the memories of long-winded lectures, of the meetings that filled the spaces of emptiness between his studies, of the feeling of for once not being on the outside looking in, of being able to share thoughts that he’d kept to himself for years, of not having to face everything alone.
A void was beginning to expand outwards from Werner’s body, and the surroundings around the man began to flicker and dim. Just like the void that had surrounded Jericho when he had been injured all those months ago. The blackness encroached quickly, stealing away the warmth that Olive still felt faintly seeping from Werner’s body. Their synchronization was weakening.
Olive gripped onto Werner’s body like a life-line, holding with all he could onto their synchronization.
And then, Olive was back on the balcony in the Bodhi Temple on all fours. Claire was beside him but Olive paid him no mind. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cadence’s image staring at him silent and pale. She had been desynchronized from Werner too. But—she was near Werner. She could help him. She had to. Werner was still alive, but he was hurt. Bad. Olive could feel it.
What had even happened?
The memory of the event Cadence and Werner had just experienced would not come to him. And then a cold, creeping realization dawned. The few times when there were gaps in the memories they shared despite synchronization were during overrides.
Torn between nausea and horror, Olive turned to Cadence and whispered, “Cadence, what… what did you do?”
“Yep, the saint candidate of Sagittarius would be me. What? Why I stepped down as chairman of the ELPIS Investigation Department? Dunno. I mean, it just got boring. ELPIS is just so old fashioned, you know? It gets repetitive. They just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s not even a game of cat and mouse at this point. Hm, ‘what does that mean’? Well, I’ve given you enough to chew on, haven’t I? If you really want to know then why don’t you give the ELPIS Department a shot? Hell, maybe you’ll get my old spot”Jin Ilseong, former head chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department of Ophiuchus