Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance was tasked by his aunt and uncle with attending a court meeting in Sagittarius to pay respects to the ill emperor, Claire’s father. Up until this point, Olive had been steadfastly working in Trystan’s hometown in hopes of improving the living conditions there while also simultaneously working on numerous conductor projects. On his mind was not only being there for Claire and abiding by his aunt and uncle, but also possibly assisting Werner with the tariff on Capricorn by Aries tied together by Sagittarius.
As the political wheel turns, Olive…
Sihyeon Villa, Sagittarius
Olivier Chance felt awkward. Cadence’s advice of “things are only awkward if ya think they’re awkward”wasn’t helping. At all. He’d spent the past couple of days at Claire’s villa in an uncomfortable state of being ushered around from room to room by Claire’s maids and butlers. Despite Claire’s lackadaisical attitude and Olive’s insistence, all of them kept referring to him as ‘Prince Chance.’ What made matters worse was that Claire was barely ever around despite hosting the stay, so Olive hadn’t been able to find the time to squeeze in talk about Sagittarius’s relations with Capricorn. The very thought of the manipulative tactic churned Olive’s stomach, but…
Regardless of that, Olive understood the reason for Claire’s half-absence. Claire’s father was not in a good place, after all. He just wasn’t sure whether he should address the topic further with Claire than he already had. Their ‘friendship’ was weird.
Olive had seen Claire’s mother once or twice in the villa. She was quite beautiful—delicate, highbrows, and even complexion. It was obvious where Claire and Eunji had gotten their looks from. She, however, held an odd sort of distance from them both. It sort of reminded Olive of the distance he had between his uncle and aunt. A respectful distance that didn’t cross emotional boundaries. An annoying distance that wanted to be crossed but with stubbornness acting as a great barrier.
Awkward family issues aside, Olive spent half of his time at the villa introducing Eunji to Lavi and then acting as the interpreter between them. This was the one time that Cadence’s advice worked. If he didn’t think it was awkward creating an illusion of his bodiless sister and acting as her voice so she could befriend people her age, then it wasn’t.
Eunji, unlike Claire, was not as busy. Instead, she mostly kept to herself in the villa’s library.
“Hey, Eunji… This is my cousin,” Olive had said when introducing the two in that library. “You’re… around the same age, so… you would probably get along. She has difficulty speaking, so I’ll be talking for her.”
Eunji had arched a suspecting brow at first; but as soon as Lavi had stepped forward and threw out a hand, she’d flushed and shyly introduced herself. They’d spent the next few days trading questions back and forth: What books do you like? What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite subject? Did you hear that new song on the radio? Who’s your favorite actor? Your favorite singer? And so on.
“Does your brother drag you everywhere too?” Lavi had whispered one day as if he wasn’t even there. “And you only go along because you feel bad?”
“And he always tries to give me advice that I don’t even ask for,” Eunji had agreed. “He’s so awkward when he gives it too…”
Regardless of the occasional insults, Olive had kept with it.
The other half of his time was spent tinkering with the new conductors he’d been trying to work the kinks out for the past month or so. But as soon as he felt like he was dawning on a way to work out kinks in their mechanical functions or whenever he gave the devices a trial run, it kept ending in disastrous failure.
A part was missing. As Werner always said, it was ‘insufficient.’
* * *
Century Palace, Xing, Sagittarius
The day they were to head to the royal courts to visit the emperor was a very windy one that Olive had been ill-prepared for. Usually, Trystan would always check the weather for him before they went outside anywhere. Stein, however, took one step outside, got smacked in the face with a leaf being tossed in the wind, wiped his face, and said—
Thus, at the moment, Olive found himself stepping onto grounds of Sagittarius’s Royal Century Court i with his hair sticking up this way and that and his suit and tie more than mildly disheveled. His nose was running slightly, but thanks to the wondrous Derik who’d thrown him an overcoat just a minute ago he was doing slightly better than before.
Atienna and Werner had both buzzed at the back of his mind and had advised and berated him respectively about not checking the weather before venturing outside half an hour earlier. All in all, it couldn’t be worse.
The journey to this place had surprisingly taken only half a day. This area was isolated in the same way the royal palace back home had been with only a single road connecting the palace to the rest of the city of Xing. Atienna had informed him much earlier that this royal capital city had a revolving name that changed based on the clan of the enthroned emperor. It was like a final, overly dramatic kick to the other losing clans.
Olive currently stood at the top of the steps leading into the royal courtyard at the threshold of its great red gates. The courtyard was an almost endless stretch of cement that was enclosed by brick walls manned by up-curling glazed roof-tiles. At the lip of those walls ran canals of glowing vitae that seemed to run off somewhere behind the palace.
A brick white cement path led from the gates to the palace which was a single-story building that stretched flat almost from wall to wall. While the main portion of the building was topped with the signature glazed roof tiling with edges of gold flame-like metal-work, its far ends were graced by large pillars that stretched high and were topped with a dome.
Along the front wings of the palace stood a series of large brass bells which were being tapped in rhythm by a collection of men and women dressed in clothing similar to Claire’s. Sitting on the cement ground behind them on either side of the white-bricked path were additional men and women dressed in brighter clothing and sashes. They held long-necked string instruments that seemed even longer than their arms and plucked the strings along to the bell chimes. Another row of men and women dressed even more differently were tapping out a steady beat on oddly-shaped drums. The next row hosted men and women plucking string instruments that sat on the ground, long and wooden. And so on and so on with all of their silk garments spilling out into psychedelic puddles that caught the light of the vitae stream boxing them in.
Olive glanced at Derik who was standing to his left. The man’s brows were raised, his arms crossed, his suit—which Olive had to have tailor-made—seeming unfitting below his disinterested frown. The backpack on his back looked unfitting with his outfit. Olive turned his head to find Claire conversing cheerily with the v-ehicle driver at the foot of the polished steps.
Claire had his usual black cap with hanging beads resting on his head and was swathed in his sky-blue traditional cloth robes—although this fit had golden clouds sewn onto its edges. Beside him stood Eunji who was also dressed in crisscrossing cloth dyed light pink. Beside them stood Felix and Soha—both masked, both carrying sun umbrellas despite the lack of sun. Their mother had ridden with them in the v-ehicle but had departed at an iron-gated building several miles behind their current stop. She too had been wearing something similar to Eunji.
Olive had been rather surprised at their choice of clothing. For visiting a sick family member, it was extravagant and bright. Claire has responded to his confusion earlier with a chuckle and a—“What? My father hasn’t died yet, Ollie. It’d be respectful if we acted like he’s dying whether or not he actually is. White’s the color of mourning anyways.”
After some more conversation, Claire bid the driver a farewell before ascending the steps with Eunji, Soha, and Felix.
Once the four were at his side, Olive gestured subtly to the musicians on the ground. “Uh, they’re not your half-siblings, right?”
Eunji made a face.
Claire chuckled. “Of course not. They’re just vassals of the court. Court musicians sent by each of the clans to welcome us. A lot of people consider it an honor. Adding some drama and flair to our arrival, you know?”
One of the court musicians began to bellow out a hymn as some of the distant reed players began to harmonize with them.
Saints. This was different, Olive thought. He was used to ornate court ceremonies but this was more than he was used to. Even seemed a bit old school. But it was best to keep those thoughts hidden. Different cultures—
“Fuck. This is weird,” Derik muttered under his breath. “Why is there music?”
‘Why was there synchronic marching for Capricornian ceremonies?’ Olive wanted to ask, but he held his tongue and instead said, “Derik, could you please just… keep that to yourself?”
Claire cleared his throat and flashed a smile at the man. “Like I said, Mr. Stein. It’s probably best if people don’t know that you’re Capricornian. We’re not getting along too well right now, you know?” Before Derik could open his mouth again, Claire guided them to the side of the path and chimed, “We should probably step aside for now. We actually arrived here a bit too early. There’s a staggered way of seating here. From higher-tier clans to—”
“You say that and yet you’re here,” came a familiar voice in Xingese from the steps behind them. “I would say a proverb about being too early but it would go to waste.”
Up the steps came a man and woman dressed in tight collared, dress-like, deep green robes that were spiraled with twisting floral patterns. While the woman’s sleeves were bare and her hair ornately decorated with golden pins, the man’s sleeves were concealed and his hair was simply combed to the side. Behind them came four individuals swathed in tight black clothing and wearing porcelain masks that were splashed on with colorful designs. Vassals and guards, most likely.
Beijixing Kai and Beijixing Mai. Olive recalled encountering them during his first visit to the Bodhi Temple. Mai was as staunch as he remembered her and Kai just as lackadaisical.
Mai stopped short in front of them, locking eyes with Eunji. “What is that you’re wearing? Do you have no respect for our father?”
Eunji’s face went beet red, while Claire smiled pleasantly.
Olive grimaced and interjected in Xingese, “I’m guessing I’m underdressed or overdressed too? Might as well just say it to my face like you said it to hers.”
And here he was using his status like a baton again, Olive thought to himself. But better him to use it like this than not at all.
Mai looked up at him as if just noticing his presence before her eyes widened and she took a deep bow. “Prince Chance.” She rose and continued to speak in Common, “The fact that you would be considerate enough to visit our father during his ailment means more than you’ll ever know—”
“I see you’re humbly kissing toes as usual, Mai,” drew a voice paired with a sigh from down the stairs.
And here came another one.
Olive turned to see a young woman coming up behind them. Her black hair was partially hidden by the deep pink-purple, patterned veil—matching the shade of her robe-like dress—pulled halfway over her head. Complementing the gold embellishments sewn into her clothing was a gold looping headpiece that dangled down from her forehead.
“You’re complaining about early arrivals, sister,” the woman continued, glancing at Mai with disinterest, “but we might have to start complaining about late arrivals soon.” She smiled at Kai. “It’s nice to see you, Kai.”
Mai opened her mouth but was cut short as a gong resounded somewhere in the distance. The instruments changed their tune, and several loud chimes resounded through the court. Without another word, Mai nudged Kai on the arm and they headed up the path towards the court building with their vassals trailing behind them.
As Olive watched them walk to the rhythm of the song, he thought to himself that he was glad that Lavi was his only sibling and that his relationship with her wasn’t whatever this was.
“Claire…” Eunji mumbled suddenly, tugging on Claire’s sleeve. “She’s right. I should’ve just worn—”
Before she could finish her sentence, Claire reached out, tucked his hand under her chin, and squeezed her cheeks together with one hand. “No. You look cute.”
Eunji’s cheeks pinkened, glanced at Olive, and then scowled as she swatted Claire’s hand away. “Stop—”
“How many times have I told you that you can’t be affected by things like that? People will think they can take advantage of you in this place.”
Olive glanced at Claire and found that his eyes had lost some of their light. Eunji’s cheeks had also lost some of their pinkness.
A second later, Claire turned around to face the earlier woman and beamed with spread arms. “Ritu, it’s good to see you!”
Talk about a mood swing.
“You say that and yet you haven’t visited us for nearly half a decade,” the young woman—Ritu—said as she came up to stand beside him. “Arjun calls sometimes asking about you.”
Claire’s facade fell for a moment.
Ritu smiled down at Eunji. “You should listen to your brother. Sometimes on rare occasions, they know what they’re talking about.” She then glanced at Olive, clasped her hands together, and offered a mid-way bow.
The gong resounded again. The music changed into something more flutey with beats of reed.
“Oh, that’s our cue!” Claire chirped before gesturing down the path. “Come along now, my dear guest.”
Arching a brow, Olive followed behind Claire, Eunji, Soha, and Felix with Derik at his side. Once they crossed the courtyard, walked up the small flight of steps, and through the entrance, an expansive hall with shining marble flooring greeted them. Round and smooth pillars lined the red halls, extending to the high ceiling which held up swirling watercolor murals of ornate clouds. Small v-lights lit up the corners of the painting and illuminated the icon at the mural’s center—a large black bow and arrow with its tip pointing into the chamber that lay ahead.
The chamber housed a triangular dome on the ceiling that let in the evening light. This light fell on the stacked, staggered, short, black lacquered tables lining the chamber’s left and right. Above those extended balconies dotted with men and women. Unlike all the other people Olive had seen on the court grounds so far, the men and women up there were dressed in plain suits and dresses. Underdressed just like him.
At the very back of the chamber was a sheer black screen that hid away what appeared to be the faintest outline of a throne. Standing at the center of the chamber was an elderly man dressed in similar clothing to Mai and Kai, save for the subdued neutral tones and lack of swirling patterns.
A court attendant.
As they approached this man, he proclaimed loudly, “Seong Clan. Family name: Yuseong. Prince Yuseong Haneul and Princ—ess Yuseong Eunji. Guests, Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance and his attendant.”
Derik’s lips pulled down. “I’m not a fucking—”
Olive elbowed him in the ribs and received a stomp on the foot in turn. Instead of biting back verbally, Olive swallowed his bitterness and pride and gestured to Derik. “We’ve brought a gift for the emperor from the Ariesian king and queen.”
Derik grimaced and then brought out a black vase from his backpack. The vase was painted over with ombre red-to-yellow flames and had two handles on either side that were shaped like horns. The Ramicus.
The elderly attendant dipped his head low, in turn, and accepted the gift. Meanwhile, Olive side-glanced at Claire. Claire’s eyes crinkled with amusement but he kept his expression pleasant.
Another attendant approached them from the side. Separating from Claire, Eunji, and their vassals, Olive followed the attendant up a set of redwood stairs that led to the balcony above with Derik and watched as Claire and Eunji paced to the black screen and offered a deep bow.
The attendant handed Olive a name tag reading ‘Seong Clan Special Guest’ and asked, “Do you need a translator? The language of the court today will be in the language of the Xing Clan in honor of Emperor Heixing.”
Olive waved a hand. “No, I’m good. Thanks.”
Derik opened his mouth, closed it after a second of thought, and sank beside him—legs spread wide, hand resting on chin. Bored already.
“Wow, this is amazing!” came a coo.
It was Lavi, phasing into existence to his right. She peered over the ledge down into the court and offered a small wave in Eunji’s direction.
“It’s something,” Olive agreed, glancing at the black screen.
Slowly, one by one, the different members of the clans filtered into the courtroom as each of their names and titles were read off by the elderly attendant.
“Hoshi Clan. Family name: Shiroihoshi. Prince Shiroihoshi Tooru. Prince Shiroihoshi Kaworu. Princess Shiroihoshi Naru.”
The clan name tickled Olive’s memory, and so he peered down into the court to find a trio bowing at the foot of the throne. They were all wearing multi-layered clothing that was crisscrossed in front of their chests and tied with a sash at their waists. While the princes had solid black robes, the princess’s sported intricate floral designs.
“Tārā Clan. Family name: Uttarētāra. Princess Ritu Uttarētāra. Prince Bheem Uttarētāra.”
The young woman from earlier and a slightly older man dressed in a long shirt that went to the knees bowed before the throne before taking their seats where two stern men with wrapped heads stood stiff and proper.
“Kyaal Clan. Family name: inapplicable. First Princess Enkari Kyaalhpyauu. Second Prince Htain lkyaal.”
A girl no older than ten dressed in a colorful two-piece dress with short sleeves and a long skirt and a young man dressed in a loose long-sleeved white top and a long skirt piece approached the screen and bowed before departing to their seat a little closer to the entrance.
“Sao Clan. Family name: Saođanglên. Princess Trang Saođanglên.”
At the familiar clan name, Olive’s stomach began to churn. Memories of the young assassin writhing on the floor of Claire’s villa wormed their way into his head. They were interrupted by bright flashes of P.D. Oran writhing in agony beneath his steady hand and then of Trystan looking at him one last time before melting into the viscous puddle of vitae. A sticky substance, a stick memory, clinging to Olive’s mind and hanging on tight like the heavy chain that was beginning to dig down his chest.
With effort, Olive refocused his attention.
A young woman with a stubby nose and dark hair approached the hidden throne and dipped low. She wore a silk dress a bit similar to Mai’s save for its long sleeves and single floral pattern vining up its front.
The clan with an heir that was not an air Elementalist but a Conjuror Olive recalled. A clan that was not viable for the throne.
After half an hour or so, all the seats were filled. Olive had stopped listening in around the fifteenth clan name announcement, so when silence abruptly fell, he was left disoriented. He glanced around at the seats beside him to see that they’d been almost filled out while he’d been daydreaming. As he scanned the people there with disinterest, his eyes caught onto a familiar face sitting in the far corner—one familiar not to him but to—
Reneé! Maria’s excitement and thought throttled through Olive like a lightning bolt. It’s Reneé!
It took every ounce of willpower in Olive’s body to not leap up from his seat and launch himself at the man. Instead, he restrained himself and studied the Cancerian man from the corner of his eye. He’d recalled Reneé being bright-faced,annoyingly attractive, and suave from the glimpses of him he’d seen from Maria. But the Reneé sitting in the corner there had half-moons under his eye and looked like he’d just dragged himself out from the gutters. His suit was wrinkled, his blonde hair slipping from his ponytail, his lips dipped downwards.
So Reneé hadn’t been caught…? Or maybe he’d escaped? Did that mean Hilton Tyler was okay too? No, of course not. Olive had seen through Atienna’s eyes as Hilton had been carted off by the ELPIS Department. Unlike Hilton—Olive came to realize—Reneé was most likely someone important in the public eye. Just like himself.
Olive had always imagined that Reneé would be off starting some underground revolution against the saint candidates or maybe even helping Louise and Hideyoshi evade Scorpio’s watchful eyes. Olive fisted his suit pants at the thought. It was stupidly naive. Or maybe it was pleasantly hopeful—
“All rise for the Grand Emperor.”
At the sudden proclomation, Olive tore his gaze away from Reneé and rose to a stand as a marble palanquin veiled in red curtains was carried into the chamber. As the palanquin passed those seated below, they bowed their heads. The elderly attendant followed behind the palanquin and came to a stand to the side of the screen as the palanquin was brought and hidden behind it.
“Grand Emperor Fu Heixing has arrived,” the attendant announced. “From his successful vie for the throne at the age of 17, the emperor has led Sagittarius victoriously to and through the Crisis of the 1910s, the Reservoir Disasters of 1918, and through the Reservoir War while keeping Sagittarius’s economy and honor steadfast.”
Bows and applause.
“Thus, we will now begin the presentation of familial gifts to honor him and his accomplishments.”
Olive started counting the heads of the princes and princesses below and stopped after twenty.
How long was this going to take…?
His gaze trailed to Reneé again but found that the man’s eyes were eerily locked onto Claire. By the time Olive refocused his attention, he found Mai and Kai kneeling before the throne and presenting two wooden black rectangular boxes to the attendant.
“Father,” Mai said, “we present to you a set of porcelain ware that was not factory-made but handcrafted by our most skilled pottery maker. Along with this, we have brought you herbal medicine prescribed by some of our best medical Conductors and herbal practitioners. We sincerely hope that these gifts find you well.”
After the elderly attendant took the gifts and handed them off to another one attendant who carried the boxes off, Mai and Kai returned to their seats with Kai yawning halfway and Mai dealing a subtle kick to the shin in turn. Next came Claire and Eunji, presenting twin boxes wrapped in silk cloth.
“Father, we have brought for you today a warm pair of resting wear woven by our most talented tailors and an accompanying set of porcelain ware crafted by our most skilled potters. We hope these gifts keep you warm and give you luck.”
Claire was smiling as he lifted his head, but Olive could see a dark glint in his eye. Olive watched him return to his seat and arched a brow when Claire looked up at him.
The pattern continued like that for what felt like hours. Presented gift after presented gift after presented gift. One group even performed a swirling dance. For those presentations, Olive’s attention was sharp. For everything else, he periodically ‘dipped out’ and reached for the others as he waited for the events to proceed.
When Olive fully returned to himself, the dome was darker, the sun having fallen from where it had formerly rested high above the dome. It was quiet—save for Derik’s soft snoring to his right.
The elderly attendant now stood in front of the black screen. He boomed, “Now that the emperor has been honored, we shall begin our lanterns festival—”
Olive felt a chill crawl up at his spine at the gravelly voice, and he turned to the screen to find the silhouette of the emperor’s trembling hand extending out towards the rest of the court.
“Your Highness?” the elderly attendant tried. He bowed his head. “It’s tradition for us to have our lanterns festival after all of our united clan meetings. Are you feeling unwell—
“Pema…” the emperor croaked. “Bring me Pema.”
Olive felt his heart skip a beat. Pema. The Saint Candidate of Sagittarius before Claire’s aunt Ilseong Jin. The one who’d written the texts that he’d studied for the State Conducting Exam. Tenzin’s sister. An incarnation of Sagittarius in the flesh.
“Please forgive me, Your Highness,” the attendant rattled on, bowing deeply towards the screen. “Pema is no longer alive. She passed away during the cusp of the war—”
“Then bring me Jin,” the emperor croaked.
Olive stiffened and locked eyes with Claire down below.
“But Your Highness,” the attendant pressed, “we have not received news from her since—”
“I have spent all my years of life cultivating this country and ensuring that its people and future generations prosper. Are you telling me you can’t even bring one person in front of me when I’m at my weakest?”
While the room below remained in reverent and shocked silence, whispering resounded around Olive causing him to grimace. People liked drama too much.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness!” The attendant fell to his knees and touched his head to the ground. “Forgive me!”
Olive’s stomach twisted at the sight of him as he recalled Alexander doing the same to his aunt and uncle a lifetime ago. The urge to go down there and get the attendant off of his knees was hard to suppress. People should be honored but not worshiped like this, right…? Or was that naive too?
The emperor took in a raspy breath. “Then bring me the next saint candidate of our country.”
Olive felt his stomach drop and his mind turn with confusion.
That confirmed it. Claire’s father really knew about the true nature of saint candidates and vitae conversion. Trying to think any other way would just be more than naïve at this point. But if that was the case—if the Head Chairs of Ophiuchus, the Kaiser of Capricorn, and the Emperor of Sagittarius knew about the truth of saint candidates—then what did that mean for his own aunt and uncle…? His… parents—
“The first blood child of mine who brings me the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius will be given the title of emperor.”
Olive did a double-take, and the whispering around him fell silent.
The attendant stammered as he scrambled to his feet. “B-But what about the air Elementalist criterion? Your Highness, are you saying—”
“It doesn’t matter,” the emperor bellowed. “Air Elementalist or not, love or hate—the one who brings me the next saint candidate will have proven themselves more than anyone else.
What in saint’s name…? Olive stared. The emperor couldn’t be serious—
“The emperor has decreed it so!” the elderly attendant proclaimed as he turned around and faced the princes and princesses. “The heir who brings in the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius will inherit the throne!”
Olive’s gaze swept the floor below and felt an uneasiness creep up his shoulders. While some of those below were staring at the hidden throne in awe, others were looking towards those around them. Ritu in particular looked pale, while the Sao clan princess had eyes that were ablaze. The guards surrounding each of the respective royals pulled closer to them with narrowed eyes.
You need to leave the country. Now.
* * *
“Well, that was certainly a surprise,” Claire said casually as Olive joined him, Eunji, Soha, and Felix in the courtyard outside half an hour later with Derik in tow. He gestured to the court that was now devoid of musicians and then to the royal court building’s empty halls. “Sorry for all the family drama.”
“It felt like it was more than family drama…” Olive mumbled. He glanced at Claire. “Doesn’t the emperor know who the potential saint candidates are already…? Why send everyone on a goose hunt? Doesn’t the Monadic temple usually handle this?” And force someone into becoming something inhuman?
Claire scratched his neck. “Actually, we’re not super into Monadism like the rest of you guys. Usually, when a couple of potential saint candidates are found, it’s a hush-hush situation. It’s usually kept inside the families, and people don’t usually announce it unless they’ve successfully gone through the…” His gaze drifted to the side. “…baptism through the Monadic Temples. We’re pretty private, you know? Honor and all that.”
Olive glanced at the royal court palace. “You guys have an interesting way of staying private…”
“Not surprised.” Derik snorted. “One merchant gets a little knocked up and you go crying to Ophiuchus and other countries for help.”
Eunji shifted uncomfortably, while Felix delivered a pointed glare.
It finally dawned on Olive that the reason why Sagittarius’s relations with Aries were so strong recently had to do in part with Claire’s fiasco in New Ram City. It was one domino after the other. Inevitable. No—
“Yes, well, that’s my father for you.” Claire hummed.
“You’re going to go searching for the saint candidate too…?” Olive tried tentatively. “Even though…”
“It’s the throne, Ollie,” Claire pressed sharply. “I don’t like it either, but I can’t put my people aside for one person.”
Olive found himself thinking of Trystan and Marta again.
Eunji looked between them in confusion before glancing at Soha and Felix who were scanning the courtyard and the gates.
Claire gestured to said gates and beamed. “Anyways, I’ll get you that v-ehicle back to the villa so you can go back home. Thanks for coming, Ollie. I appreciate it. Really.”
Olive regarded him. “You’re not going to try to get me to help you?”
Claire’s bright expression dimmed. “And abuse our newly found friendship?”
Olive’s stomach did flip-flops, and automatically he mumbled without thinking, “I think you need to look up the definition of ‘friendship’ again.”
Claire chuckled. “You’re always a joker, Ollie. But really. I already asked more than enough from you. Here. In Aries. With the Bodhi Temple—‘course that one was an equivalent exchange. The capital was a bit rough, but I did end up skedaddling in the end, so.”
So he did feel guilty about that?
“Besides, I don’t think I have to be too concerned with my siblings murdering me. By the sound of it, I already have a pair of watchful eyes on my back.” Claire swept the courtyard with his gaze before cuffing Olive on the shoulder. “Anyways, I won’t be heading to the villa with you. I need to get a move on, so we’ll be parting ways here. Just sit tight and I’ll get you right on home.”
Olive watched as Claire descended the steps with his sister and vassals in tow.
So this was it then? No resolution for Capricorn or Lavi or anything? And Claire being thrown into a succession race? And some unfortunate person being dragged into a saint candidacy just like his sister was?
An overwhelming sense of unease and fatigue dragged down at Olive’s chest again like a chain. Everything that he needed to do felt like an insurmountable mountain. He couldn’t do anything—no, no. Not that again. He had to do something. No—he could do something. Everything was laid out.
Claire, the potential successor to Sagittarius’s throne. Himself, the potential successor to Aries’s throne. The tariffs, their future. It was all in their own hands, wasn’t it? Yes, of course. But with the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius—just thinking of contributing to someone’s untimely baptism made Olive feel sick. But maybe he could work something out. If he hesitated too long—
The memory of the blob of volatile, oozing vitae being burnt to cinders in the Capricornian capital jarred its way into his mind.
Olive startled and started down the steps in a manic state before his knees abruptly locked in place and he found himself frozen stiff on the seventh step down. Derik, who had come on down after him, stopped short at his side and arched his brow. A shadow passed over Olive, accompanied by a cool presence.
Olive. This is too far.
Werner’s apparition solidified in front of him with a firm, halting hand planted on his shoulder.
“But Werner. Your country—” Olive shut his mouth because of Derik’s arched brow of confusion and Werner’s icy stare.
Proposing that your aunt and uncle ease the tariffs is one thing, Werner stated. Earning Claire’s favor in order to try to reach the emperor is another. Involving yourself directly in a war for succession in a country not your own is an entirely different field. You are not only endangering yourself, but you are also endangering the others. The dangers of dealing with a saint candidate—even a potential one—also need to be considered.
Olive, I understand your feelings and your desire to help. However, recall: you’re already assisting me by working on your conductor projects. While this event may have not ended with success, your conductor projects still show promise—
“No, no, that’s—that’s all just helping Gilbert,” Olive interjected before he shook his head. Not you.
Werner paused—froze. Atienna appeared behind him, expression soft but eyes sharp.
“Olive,” she said gently, “you also should consider what it means for Aries if you side with Claire—”
I know that. But still. This… This is barely even considered doing something for you, Olive insisted. All of you guys help me all the time, and I just—
“Let me just do something for you, Werner,” Olive grumbled. “Please.” He glanced reluctantly at Atienna. “You both are always putting us first… It’s like you forget everything else and push everything else aside…” He tensed. “That’s not what I meant. I just… want to make things easier for you.”
Werner’s lips pressed thin. He looked over at Atienna who met his gaze evenly, quietly. They were having one of their silent conversations again—the ones that Olive could hear fully if he pushed hard enough. He never did though, always opting to keep a respectable distance. He’d always thought it was a stupid thing, but he understood the need for privacy.
Finally, Werner pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed internally as he turned away from Atienna to face him.
Olive knew the signs well. He’d won.
Werner reached out a gloved hand and rested it on Olive’s head. The invisible warmth bled through the phantom touch. We understand. Everything considered, this approach may prove fruitful. Developing and maintaining potential alliances simultaneously with easing tensions between our nations is a goal worth attempting. However, disengage immediately if signs of overt danger appear. Your safety comes first.
Got it, Werner. But allies…? Werner had been mentioning ‘allies’ a lot lately. He was always thinking tactically ahead and preparing—for what? Olive had no clue.
Werner’s eyes narrowed suddenly and he turned away to address something in his surroundings as his mirage disappeared completely. Atienna remained, smiling placatingly.
“Do you need help speaking with Claire?” she asked. “I’m free at the moment, Olive.”
Despite her kindness and warmth, Olive couldn’t help but look away from her. The frustration that followed was not so much directed at her as it was himself. “No… it’s fine. Thanks.”
Atienna’s gaze bled understanding, and he tried his best to avoid it as he continued down the steps away from her.
“What?” Derik grunted as he followed on after him. “Did you have another pow-wow with the captain? Fucking weird as hell. You need to learn how to keep that shit under wraps.”
Deciding not to pursue a snide remark, Olive continued down and found Claire hailing a v-ehicle at the bottom of the steps by the empty and eerily desolate street.
Claire turned to him with a beam. “Just in time—”
“I’ll help you.”
Claire paused. “Uhm. Help me?”
“I’ll help you find the next potential Saint Candidate of Sagittarius, if when you become emperor—not if you become emperor, but when—you promise that you’ll get rid of the tariff between Capricorn and Sagittarius. It has to be one of the first things you do.”
“You might have eyes on you but those eyes aren’t stopping your step-siblings from coming after you and from getting to the potential saint candidate first. It won’t stop them from going against you even after you get the throne. But if I’m there supporting you, you know it’ll be easier.”
Claire closed his mouth. “And what about the potential saint candidate…?”
Olive grimaced. “Well, I’ll deal with that when it comes to it.” He grumbled. “Look, do you want my help or not…?”
Claire hesitated for only half a second and beamed. “Oh, well, since you offered, how can I say no—”
“We’ll put it down on paper then,” Olive interjected. “To make it official. So we can’t break it off.”
“Well, you’re getting all business-y and mature now, aren’t you?” Claire chucked good-naturedly before his gaze was drawn over Olive’s shoulder. He paled. “Reneé…”
Olive’s heart skipped a beat and he turned around to find Reneé Leblanc standing behind him with a faint smile. The man approached Claire but was stopped short by Felix.
Claire waved his guard aside. “No, Felix, it’s okay.”
When Felix lowered his guard, Reneé stepped forward, took Claire’s hand in his own, and planted a kiss there. “It’s good to see you,” he said, smile thin. He did the same to Eunji.
Why was he being so open with knowing Claire…?
Reneé glanced at Olive. “And who is this lovely young boy?”
“Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance,” Olive answered after a beat.
In an instant, Reneé’s bright expression darkened and Olive felt the man’s glare pierce him through. “I see. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“I heard about your group from a certain saint candidate who loves dramatics,” Reneé responded. “My dear Hilton is not quite in a good place right now due to his noble heart, you see. The saint candidate offered both of us our freedoms if we brought in Louise, Hideyoshi, and other True Conductors for them. As you can tell by my state, we obviously declined.”
Unlike Atienna who had accepted.
“But after a discussion with that saint candidate, he told us quite a lot about you and your group. I realized it seems as if mine and my dear Hilton’s efforts and suffering were for nothing, no?” Renee chuckled hollowly. “Given that information, we should have folded since our woes were for naught. But that would be dishonorable, non? Sacrificing someone’s happiness for our own? Hilton would never agree to such a thing.”
The words felt like a slap to the face and a stab to the gut.
Claire frowned. “Reneé, I’m sorry—”
“You aren’t sorry, Claire,” Reneé interjected. “If you were, you wouldn’t be so eager in your pursuit of the Sagittarian saint candidate, would you?”
“Watch your tongue!” Felix snapped.
Claire stopped him with another halting hand but remained silent.
Olive recognized the dull glint in Reneé’s eyes and his callous demeanor—hurting others to reject others; rejecting others to keep them away; keeping them away to minimize the possible pain that came with more connections; the shame of falling so low. His own past self was reflected there—Olive was certain.
No, perhaps Reneé was suffering even more? Guilt curled in Olive’s gut at the idea. He didn’t want Reneé—bright, funny, brilliant, lovely Reneé—to spiral downwards like he had. He wanted to say something reassuring. But he hesitated. He had no place to say anything, and nothing he could say would change anything. The only thing that his words would earn would be embarrassment and Reneé’s glare—
But what was a moment of embarrassment and shame compared to a lifetime of regret, yes?
“Reneé, wait…” Olive stammered. “We… can help you. One of mine works in Ophiuchus. Somehow, maybe we can—”
“That’s quite a dangerous thing to be saying when you’re being watched by so many eyes, isn’t it?” Reneé hummed.
“I know how they’re thinking,” Olive muttered. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes. They don’t think we can do anything to change anything or whatever it is that’s going to happen, so it doesn’t matter to them if we do this…” He extended a hand.
Reneé looked at Olive’s hand for a long and quiet moment. After what seemed like hours, he asked in a soft voice, “And does everyone else in your group agree with your move here?”
Olive opened his mouth, hesitated, grimaced, said, “We’ll… always be here.”
Reneé remained silent before turning away from Olive’s hand and sauntering off.
* * *
Only five hours later, Olive found himself nestled in a v-train booth with Derik snoring on his left and Lavi dozing on his right. Across from him sat Claire, smiling pleasantly. On Claire’s left napped Eunji, and on his right sat Felix stiffly.
Olive had brought Lavi out with Cadence’s conducting after she’d appeared before him at the train station. He’d made up some elaborate story about him asking her to meet them there. While Felix and Soha—the latter of whom was combing through the train compartment—suspected something, Eunji accepted Lavi’s presence with open arms.
The two had played silent charades for about four hours before Eunji had finally dozed off with her head now resting on Clare’s shoulder. Lavi had nodded off not too long after that. She hadn’t disappeared yet, which had surprised Olive. He couldn’t quite understand it. When she’d learned that they were pursuing a potential saint candidate earlier, she’d pursed her lips and looked away, saying nothing.
The entire thing was unsettling.The violin music wafting in through the halls of the train compartments from the radio wasn’t helping his unease at all.
Shaking the thought aside, Olive cleared his throat and asked, “So, Claire, we’re headed to Bodhi Temple, right? Any specific reason why?”
Claire answered, “I know all my wonderful siblings are rushing to the main Monadic temples to try and find records for potential saint candidates as we speak. It’ll be a bloodbath.”
Olive frowned slightly at Claire’s flippantness. “I guess the reporters will be all over this. The election people in Ophiuchus too.”
“Oh, this is a personal family situation. Nothing important enough to make breaking news or call in Ophiuchus.”
“‘Bloodbath’ doesn’t sound like breaking news to you…?” Olive arched a brow. “Family dinners must be exciting then…”
“I was poisoned at one before actually,” Claire noted, glancing at Felix as the man visibly bristled. “It makes for a good ice breaker in conversation—”
“Hey…” Olive grimaced, glanced at Claire, thought of Werner. “Look…”
“I’m looking,” Claire responded cheerfully.
“Claire, I was thinking about the last time we went to Bodhi Temple.” Olive glanced at Felix. “You visited me in my room. We talked.”
“Oh right…” Claire cleared his throat. “That was kind of embarrassing and weird, huh?”
“Yeah, but…” Olive waved the thought off. “Do you… actually want to become emperor?”
Claire blinked and chuckled. “I wouldn’t be putting my neck out if I didn’t want to be. You remember what I said my goal was, right?”
Abolishing the clan system.
“The only way to do that is to become emperor,” Claire continued. “It’s pretty much as simple as that.”
There was always another way to do it, wasn’t there? Instead of saying this thought out loud, Olive drew slowly, “Okay… But what about after that? Wanting to abolish the clan system isn’t the same as wanting to become emperor. If you jump through enough mental hoola-hoops it is, but…”
Felix had stilled, and it was difficult to tell whether he was sleeping.
Claire’s smile fell somewhat. “This sure is a strange conversation to be having with a person you want to become emperor so he can implement the policy you want, isn’t it?”
Realization dawned on Olive as Claire’s question sank in. He had to choose, didn’t he? Claire’s and the potential saint candidate’s ‘happiness’ over his own. Just like Atienna had chosen back then. But…
The violin instrumentals on the radio abruptly became interrupted by a burst of static before a bone-chillingly familiar voice rang out—
“Veterans who’ve been through struggles are now officers in battle—in Aquarius and Capricorn. They call for our hearts to be open to peace. Pacifist nations they ask us to be, but what of peace outside of Signum? Capricorn and Aquarius have not seen a moment of peace since the war’s end, but Ophiuchus has done nothing about it!”
“If you vote for me, I assure you that—”
The violin song returned.
Claire glanced over at Olive then at Felix and Derik and then around the room. “That’s… Scorpio, isn’t it? He seems like the type that likes to start fires.”
Olive glanced at Derik. “… yeah.”
Claire looked at Lavi before studying Eunji and poking her cheek lightly. “I wasn’t going to say anything earlier but Lavi is Aries, isn’t she?”
“Why say you weren’t going to say anything when you flat out say it,” Olive grumbled. After a beat, he said, “Yes and no. I don’t know. You were there. And…” He almost mentioned Cadence and Francis but stopped himself short. It was dangerous. He didn’t know if Scorpio could be listening in.
“She’s not with them, is she?” Claire pressed. “She’s not dangerous?”
“Of course not!” Olive scowled. “But… When we get to Bodhi Temple, I need to talk with Tenzin.”
* * *
Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius
“I don’t like this, My Lord,” Felix pressed through gritted teeth.
Olive watched the man pace back and forth along one of the wide steps leading up the mountain to Bodhi Temple. He sat on the step just below him with a half-scowl. Claire perched only a foot or so away from him, thoughtfully turning over his un-elongated staff conductor in his hands. Derik was sending Felix a glare from Olive’s immediate right.
Just half an hour ago, they had wound their way up the large and long mountainous steps leading up to the temple gates, only to be turned down at the entrance by a stern monk.
“Only one guard is allowed in per group,” the monk had said, pointing to Derik, Soha, then Felix. “Only half an hour stay per group.”
As annoying as that was, Olive had figured that they could just split up and go in as two groups.
“No coming in separately. I already marked you down as one group. There are four other groups here already. You understand why we’re being cautious.”
Following this had been a fight between Felix and Derik over who was to accompany them into the temple and who deserved the most protection and whose task was the most important to complete. Eventually, Olive came up with an idea.
He would go in disguised as Claire and Derik as Felix, leaving Claire disguised as Olive himself so that he could freely investigate the libraries. He’d be a decoy in other words. If he encountered any outside clan members, he would simply reveal himself and stop them in their tracks with his status.
Werner wasn’t present fully enough to approve and dissect the idea and the others were preoccupied, so Olive wasn’t too sure if his plan was a sound one.
“Claire, I’m just as much a part of this as you are,” Eunji insisted—as she’d been doing for the past half hour—from where she sat a step below with crossed arms. “I want to help. Why did you bring me along if I’m not going to do anything?”
“You must understand, My Lord,” Soha addressed Eunji from beside her, “this is all for your safety.”
“You’re still a potential heir,” Claire answered calmly. “If we left you alone, you’re practically a walking target. That’s why you’re here. Besides, you can be here cheering for us and being our mascot.”
Eunji bristled, but remained silent.
* * *
Half an hour later, Olive found himself under the guise of Claire with Claire under the guise of himself and Derik under the guise of Felix—all with the help of some proto-conductors Felix had conjured paired with Cadence’s conducting.
At the gates of the temple, the monk studied them before peeling open the doors.
“Half an hour,” he said before quickly disappearing into one of the side buildings.
The courtyard was empty and quiet. The streams of water flowing around the buildings trickled loudly and the lotuses threading their way through them bobbed up and down thunderously in the silence.
After exchanging a tense look with Claire, Olive continued forward with him and Derik at his side. They entered the main temple building and bypassed the desolate dining hall. Claire split off and went down a hall leading to the library, while Olive continued forwards with Derik at his tail through several more corridors before reaching a familiar pair of sliding doors. He knocked on them twice, rattling them in their frames. A second later, they slid open and a familiar, old, wrinkled face appeared. Tenzin, the head monk of the temple.
“Ah, Prince Yuseong. I was expecting you.” Tenzin offered a sagely smile as his eyes glimmered with recognition. He pulled open the screen fully and let them into the room.
“It’s empty here,” Olive noted as he stepped inside with Derik.
“Yes, well, it’s not all just because of the succession race, Claire. This month is one of pilgrimage for many here.” Tenzin walked over to his low desk at the back of the room. “Of course, you and your siblings being here is a contributing factor.” He seated himself. “What is it that you’re seeking from me that you can’t seek from our libraries?”
Olive held out his hand and produced a flame of crimson vitae. After Tenzin’s eyes widened slightly, he extinguished the flame and said, “I have questions.”
“Prince Chance, I see.” Tenzin nodded. “You certainly fooled Yangstso at the gates—”
“You know what saint candidates really are, don’t you…?” Olive pressed, stepping forward. “You knew what your sister Pema really was. What happened to her.”
Tenzin appeared unaffected and merely closed his eyes and dipped his head. “Yes, I’m aware of the cyclic nature of saint candidates. That knowledge has been kept within these temple walls for centuries. They were bearers and givers of knowledge and wisdom.”
“Ophiuchus doesn’t even touch this place. You said it yourself,” Olive pressed.
“Yes, this place was placed under the protection of the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius themselves centuries ago. It truly is a neutral place, although as the years turn it’s becoming less and less so—”
“Then why haven’t you done anything…?”
“Do what?” Tenzin inquired calmly.
“You know what…” Olive clenched his fists and grimaced but then realized this wasn’t the way to do it.
Accompanying the thought came Cadence who solidified at his right and gave him a tap on the shoulder. Ya can’t go guns blazing when ya want info, kid. Ya gotta play ta their tune first. She looked Tenzin up and down. For this one, ya gotta play with guilt. Yep, that’s my verdict. Guilt’s one of the best motivators. She glanced around the room afterward. Talk about a throwback. Ya sure this is a good idea?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell,” Olive said after a beat before extending his hand and forming an illusion of Lavi before him. “My sister was the Saint Candidate for Aries. They say she was a failed one, but we both know that wasn’t. After the Tragedy, she somehow… entered me—I can see her and she’s here—and that’s why I’ve been able to conduct like this. Because she’s a saint candidate. You probably knew all of that, but you didn’t say anything. I just need answers—on how to help her. Fix her.”
“Offering knowledge to someone who is not ready for it is like offering blueprints to a man who has never picked up a tool in his life. That remains the same even now.” Tenzin folded his hands. “What exactly do you consider ‘fixing’? If you are bestowed with knowledge, Olivier, how exactly would you go about removing that knowledge? Your experiences and memories make up who you are.”
Olive extinguished Lavi’s image with a clench of his fist. “Did you feel the same after you found out that Pema wasn’t Pema anymore? You didn’t care?”
“Are you saying that your sister is not your sister anymore, Olivier?” Tenzin inquired. “I never said I never cared.”
Almost hit a nerve.
“You need to learn to free yourself from these past burdens,” Tenzin continued calmly. “Things will happen as they’re meant to happen. Fighting against the flow of the river will wear away at more than just your spirit. You must accept the flow as it is the flow that shapes you like a rock.” After a pause, he added, “You should give yourself time to feel the flow around you and understand how it works with you instead of struggling.”
Inevitable. ‘It wasn’t worth the effort.’ ‘Why try when nothing changed in the end?’ Was that what he was saying?
“Are you kidding me…?” Olive whispered. Memories of thinking the same as he laid curled up in the royal palace for years sank into him followed by flashes of his first steps outside of New Ram City with Trystan, of his ventures with Claire to Bodhi Temple and then to Ophiuchus, of his short blips in Capricorn with Werner’s subordinates, of the other five flitted through his mind. “How can you say that…?” He took a second to recollect himself before he managed, “Vitae conversion—do you know what that is?”
Tenzin inclined his head. “This place is a temple of knowledge and enlightenment.”
Olive bristled. “You’re okay with that?” He didn’t even quite know what he was angry at or about, but frustration and indignation were pulling every muscle in his body tight.
Kid, take it down a notch, Cadence advised, placing a hand on his back. Ya know the slogan Jericho goes by. Don’t act when you’re confused.
But Olive wasn’t confused. He was just angry.
“What exactly are you trying to accomplish and what are you trying to stop?” Tenzin asked after a beat. His gaze softened. “Your eyes—I can tell from here. On your journey since leaving this place, you’ve had to take something from someone else.”
Olive felt a cold coil unfurl from his stomach. His head spun.
“Rather than what you want to do, why do you want to do it? Perhaps from there, I might be able to point you in the right direction.”
Looks like he really wants ya ta fight for it, Cadence observed. Ya might have ta go full ham on this one then. Really pull on the heartstrings.
“Lavi deserves to be able to live a normal life and hang around with friends and learn and interact with other people like a normal person. If I don’t return her to normal—” Olive felt his voice begin to quiver despite himself. He couldn’t understand why he was getting so worked up “—then everything everyone has done for me to help me would’ve been for nothing.”
Cadence studied him. That was good, kid.
“It wouldn’t be for nothing,” Tenzin replied.
“You’re really telling me you just accepted Pema the way she was then? There’s not anything you can tell me about saint candidates or her?”
“I did try to separate them,” Tenzin said after a beat, causing Olive’s heart to leap. “When I was younger, I realized what Pema had become. And so, I threw myself into vitae theory research to figure out a way to change who she was.” He reached into his desk and pulled out a rectangular black box. He opened it, revealing a worn-out stack of sheets with a binding sewn with leather string. “Whether you reach the same conclusion as me at the end—time will tell.” He pulled out the book and held it out.
Olive tentatively stepped forward and took the notebook from him.
Tenzin gestured to the door. “It’s been twenty minutes already. You best meet up with Claire and leave before you encounter any trouble, Olivier.”
After a minute pause of hesitation, Olive dipped his head and muttered, “I’m sorry for yelling, but… you… I…”
Tenzin merely smiled. “Goodbye, Olivier.”
Was it stagnation or peace in Tenzin’s eyes? Olive couldn’t quite tell.
Hugging the text closely to his chest, he exited the room only to come face-to-face with a vaguely familiar-looking woman with dark complexion and a rope of black hair. She was wearing a loose blouse and a colorful skirt that went to her ankles. Wrapped over her hand was a glove conductor.
“Oh, hello, Claire,” the woman greeted him. “I expected to see you here.”
Olive wracked his head for her name.
Ritu, kid. Her name’s Ritu.
Oh. The sassy one who kept insulting Mai.
Ya gotta remember these kinds of things, Cadence chided. Ya never know which person’s gonna end up your best friend, savior, enemy, or killer, ya know?
A lecture from Werner was one thing, but a lecture from Cadence? Well, that was embarrassing.
“Ritu,” Olive greeted the woman with a pleasant smile. “Fancy seeing you here. I thought you’d be with the others at the Monadic temples.”
Olive glanced behind Ritu and noticed the tall, burly man with a headwrap standing there. Her guard.
“Did you find what you were here looking for, Claire?” Ritu pressed. “Would you care to share?”
“Depends on what you think I was looking for,” Olive returned so cheerily that he nearly cringed. He brushed past her and swallowed a grimace as he spied Derik trailing behind him and visibly sizing up Ritu’s guard.
Ritu and said guard followed swiftly behind them. “What else could you be looking for here? Tenzin’s advice?”
“Well, after what father just ordered us to do, who wouldn’t be? Oh wait—I keep forgetting you’re a force of nature, Ritu.” Olive quickened his pace despite himself and broke into the dining hall a second after. He skidded to a halt a beat afterward as he realized the dining hall was now occupied by four groups that each sat in different corners of the room.
In one corner sat a group of three with only one whose face was not covered with a demonic-looking, drooping porcelain mask. The unmasked one was a young man with fair skin and dressed in a loose cloth shirt and a pair of baggy cloth pants. Kaworu from the Hoshi Clan.
In another corner sat a single man in a cloth mask and a painfully familiar young woman still in the dress she’d worn when presenting herself before the throne in the courtroom. Trang from the Sao Clan.
The third corner hosted a pair as well—a woman with a half mask dressed in a uniform embellished with medals and a very young boy probably no older than twelve. The boy was dressed in a white collared shirt with a bright sash hanging diagonally across his chest. Somboon Kindāw of the Dāw Clan.
The final corner was occupied by a group of ten or so men and women dressed similarly to Ritu’s guard.
“It looks like we all had the same idea,” Kaworu mused, thrumming his fingers along his table. “My siblings are all off at the Monadic temples, but I decided to stop here instead as a precautionary measure.”
“The books with the potential saint candidates for the decade are missing from the library,” Trang drew. “Meaning someone already took it.”
“Was it you?” Somboon pressed, eyeing Olive then the book in Olive’s hands.
“This isn’t the book with the potential saint candidates,” Olive responded automatically before offering another relaxed smile and tapping the book against his temple. “I just had some questions about vitae theory after the convention that I wanted to bother Tenzin with. These are just his notes.”
“You expect us to believe that?” Trang rose to a stand and pointed at the notebook. “We’ve all come here for the same thing. At least this far, we should work together.”
“You’re awfully willing to be working together with everyone now that you have a chance for the throne,” Kaworu said, drawing out a fan from his sleeves and airing himself.
Upon closer inspection, Olive came to realize that the fan was a conductor—a custom-made one with almost non-visible insulation tubes.
Trang frowned at him and rested her hand—conductor-gloved—on the table in front of her.
Ritu visibly tensed and brought her gloved hand out in the open too. Ritu’s guard lifted his hand in turn, revealing the metal contraption he was holding that looked almost like a brass knuckle. With a flick of his hand, a rosemary-colored blade of light emerged from the knuckle area. A vitae katar. Olive had seen it only in textbooks.
Okay, kid, Cadence drew slowly. It’s probably about time ya revealed yourself.
Trang’s guard abruptly flexed his conductor-gloved hand and out from it spilled a sapphire-colored mist. Before Olive could even register the sight, the blue mist had consumed the entire room.
“Cover your face!” came Derik’s shout.
Olive obeyed, burying his face in the crook of his elbow as his eyes watered in the mist. A second later, a burst of wisteria-flecked wind shot out diagonally across from him and blew away the curling smoke. At the helm of the torrent stood Kaworu, lazily swiping his fan through the area. As soon as the area cleared, however, the glowing blue mist vitae consumed it again and came back thicker. Distantly, Olive could hear Kaworu continuing to fruitlessly attempt to blow away the cloud.
Heart hammering, Olive snapped his fingers and dispelled Claire’s disguise over himself. Only a second later, he found himself dodging a blade that came at his face from nowhere and then ducking low as an entire table hurtled over his head.
Saints, no point in reavealin’ yourself if they can’t even see ya, is there?!
A faulty plan—
A jolt of electricity surged through Olive’s body and he suddenly found himself lying flat on his stomach on the ground. The smoke didn’t reach the ground area, so he was able to see the floor clearly.
Stay on the ground—It was Werner, not synchronized fully enough for Olive to see him. He did not sound happy. Instead of offering a lecture, the man’s voice rattled in Olive’s head—Scan your surroundings. Avoid the skirmishes. Find the exit. Leave quickly.
Face flushing, Olive searched the ground-level desperately and spied a movement a little ways to his left causing his heart to nearly fly from his chest. Relief came a second after. It was Derik, who was also flat on the ground. When they locked eyes with each other, Derik made several signs with his hands. ‘Stay low. Look up ahead.’
Olive looked forward as directed and then felt his blood run cold. There was a body lying there unmoving with a pool of red forming beneath them. Dead or injured…? His stomach churned at the sight, but he couldn’t focus on it for long because movements at his left and right drew his attention away. Beneath the smoke cloud, Olive was able to see several pairs of feet dancing around each other. Every so often there would be a burst of light, a cry, and then a splatter of crimson on the ground followed by a body hiding the floor.
Derik stiffened slightly across from him before a familiar, chilling glint entered his eyes. His lips curled as he reached for his belt and pulled out a blade-less hilt.
Olive followed his gaze to a pair of feet shifting around five feet ahead of them. Before he could even think of a halting shout, Derik had already started forwards and launched himself at the figure ahead. A screech resounded followed by a hissing sound and a flash verdigris light. A beat later, something wet and floppy landed right in front of Olive. A hand. A severed hand, gloved with a conductor that was still faintly sputtering out glowing blue mist.
Gilbert flashed through Olive’s mind followed by an intense wave of guilt—
“Bao!” came Trang’s horrified cry.
Trang’s guard, Olive realized.
A whirl of bitterly cold wind whipped through the hall clearing the blue mist in an instant. And now that Trang’s guard was clearly incapacitated, the blue mist did not return. With the area now clear, Olive was able to see the carnage in full.
All the dining hall tables were overturned and several of them were draped over with groaning bodies. Kaworu stood on top of one of the toppled tables with his fan-conductor pointed directly at the throat of Somboon. Ritu stood only a foot away with her glove-conductor pointed at Trang who was on the floor cradling her groaning guard who was now missing his left hand.
All of them froze in place as soon as they laid eyes on Olive.
“Is that the Ariesian prince…?” Kaworu whispered, lowering his conductor.
Trang stared daggers into Olive’s skin, while the others took a step back. Derik skirted back to Olive’s side, grabbed him, and jerked him close.
“Take one step closer and I’ll fuck you up,” Derik spat in Common, words thickly accented. He pointed to Trang’s guard. “Just I like fucked him up.”
That definitely ain’t a way to diffuse a situation.
Saints. What was Derik thinking?
“A Capricornian?” hissed Somboon. “How dare you come here!”
“Well, they’re with me,” came a voice from the entrance of the hall connecting the dining area to the library. Claire stood there at the threshold, smiling laxly and having shed Cadence’s illusions. His staff conductor was pointed out towards them, implicating him as the one who had cleared the smoke cloud. In his other hand was a book bound in tweed rope. Without skipping a beat, Claire tossed the book in Olive’s direction.
Olive caught the book haphazardly, causing the standing princes and princesses to visibly tense.
“Looks like all of you have to find another place to look up potential saint candidates, guys,” Claire added cheerfully.
What in the world was Claire thinking?
Abruptly, with no hesitation, Ritu lunged forward and flung out her gloved hand in Olive’s direction. The air at her fingertips distorted with flecks of aquamarine light before the specs hurtled towards him. Just as the flecks of light descended upon him, Derik tackled him to the ground. The specs of light continued along their path and lacerated the wall behind Olive. Invisible blades of air.
“Ritu, are you insane?!” snapped Kaworu. “That’s the Ariesian prince!”
In a flash of light, Trang conjured a pistol in her hands as she gently rested her groaning guard on the floor. “If you’re not willing to do what it takes, then you aren’t worthy of taking the throne.”
Before Trang could make any moves, Derik drew out another vitae blade from his waist and chucked it at her. She barely dodged out of the way and hit the ground with a grimace. Instead of hurtling after her, Derik ran at Olive and ripped him up to his feet. A second after, Claire dashed to Olive’s side, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him towards the exit.
“There goes that plan,” Claire noted as if it wasn’t obvious.
Derik followed swiftly behind them, occasionally throwing vitae blades out from his belt and firing off vitae-rays madly with a conductor-pistol he’d brought with him. How he had an entire arsenal at his disposal, Olive had no clue. The man was obviously enjoying himself way too much. It was almost unnerving.
As they broke out into the courtyard, Claire whipped out his staff conductor and held it parallel to the ground. After sending out a burst of blue-speckled air from the conductor, he hopped on top of it and extended a hand out to Olive.
Olive reached for it but then paused as he turned to stare at Derik who firing off rounds of vitae ray fire at their pursuers. “Derik—” he stammered. “What about Derik…?” He stiffened at the cluster of Sagittarians spilling out after them. Without hesitation, he threw out his hand sending an arc of crimson flame.
The Sagittarian pursuers skirted back at the heat before the princes and princesses whipped out their conductors and sent a collective, psychedelic burst of air back at him. The two temperature fronts met and extinguished each other, leaving a hazy gray smoke in their wake.
Kaworu who stood closest lowered his fan-conductor and stared. “Without a conductor—”
Claire grabbed at Olive’s wrist and stared at him incredulously. “Helping me is one thing, but you’re still the Ariesian prince. If you end up seriously hurting or killing one of them—”
Olive paled as Trystan and Marta clouded his mind.
That hadn’t been his intention at all.
But Claire was right.
“Just get on the damn conductor, you fucking brat,” Derik half-grumbled, half-snapped, waving away the smoke clouding the air. “I’ll find another way to get down. It’s not the end of the world—”
Olive jerked his hand out of Claire’s and threw it out again, sending another arc of crimson fire at the Sagittarians. This time, he didn’t hold back and it blazed on forwards despite their attempts to extinguish it with bursts of air from their conductors. They were forced back into the temple as the heat began to melt the court foundation.
With his other hand, Olive grabbed Derik’s arm, locked eyes with him, but no words came out.
For once, Derik appeared startled. “Brat, look—”
A howling tornado of wind blasted through the courtyard from above before Derik could finish. Panic thundered through Olive’s chest as he looked up, but then he did a double-take. It was Eunji up there, descending towards them while riding on her staff conductor.
“Eunji?!” Claire paled. “I told you that you weren’t supposed to come here! It’s dangerous—”
As she floated to a hover beside them, Eunji flushed and hesitantly extended her hand out to Derik. “Well, it sounds like you need me so…”
After a beat, Derik accepted the gesture and pulled himself up onto her staff conductor as the smoke cleared with a burst of wisteria-speckled wind. Once Olive finally hopped onto Claire’s conductor, they collectively shot up to the sky just as the other Sagittarians bounded on towards them. Much to Olive’s incredulity, Ritu, Kaworu, Somboon, and some of their guards burst on after them into the sky riding on their conductors. Claire and Eunji blasted forwards with such whistling fury that Olive nearly flew off of the staff-conductor. But still, the Sagittarians continued to surge forward, closing their distance quickly.
Olive’s mind raced before he stammered over the howling, biting wind, “Claire, did you read the book? Did you memorize the names of the potential candidates?”
“What?” Claire shook his head. “Yeah, I remembered some of them—”
“Enough of them?” Olive pressed, holding up the bound book Claire had thrown at him earlier.
Claire’s eyes widened slightly and he nodded. With that, Olive turned and threw the book behind him. The force of the wind tore all of its pages from its seams, and they fluttered out like a snowstorm in the wind.
Kaworu and Somboon let out cries of alarm before hurtling downwards to different fluttering pages. Ritu continued on after them. Grimacing at this fact, Olive flung out his hand again, sending a flurry of crimson flames towards them. Ritu fell back immediately as all the pages lit a flame, while Kaworu and Somboon shouted in horror.
Soon, the smell of smoke and the other Sagittarian royals fell behind them as Eunji and Claire continued flying forwards. They remained in silence as they moved on ahead; and in the quiet, Olive was able to catch a glimpse of light beyond the distant mountain peaks.
At first, he thought it was the sun rising on the horizon. As they drew nearer and nearer to the brightness, he came to realize the light emanated from floating paper lanterns sauntering across the skyline in the distance. The sight of them caused an odd wistful nostalgia to squeeze his stomach.
“I guess father decided to release them after all…” Claire murmured.
“So now what?” Olive asked after a beat.
“Now we search for the ones listed in that book you just used as fireplace wood.”
Ignoring the snide comment, Olive hesitated and then asked, “So, who’s at the top then?”
“I was surprised when I saw them on that list,” Claire replied. “I guess that was why Ritu was so adamant about us not getting away.” He glanced back at him. “Her younger brother was listed as a potential saint candidate. It’s complicated but I think he’s our best bet in getting our hands on a potential candidate without my other siblings getting in the way. I mean, because he’s exiled and all.”
Guilt curled in Olive’s stomach at the idea of bringing someone in and then disgust at himself for his hypocrisy; but still, he asked with an arched brow, “People still get exiled?”
“It’s more like he got disowned.” Claire chuckled. “It’s less depressing-sounding that way.”
“Can I at least have this mysterious person’s name?”
Claire sighed and looked at the lanterns again. “Arjun Gandiva Uttarētāra.”
Royal Imperial Decree #789
Decree Date: February 22, 1941
Succession shall now be determined by familal status and blood relation to the emperor. The blood child who brings the emperor the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius will inherit the throne.