Olive has agreed to help Claire in the succession race for the throne. The goal: to bring the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius before the emperor before he passes away. Olive and Claire have found a potential saint candidate in Arjun who seems to share a past with Claire. Thus, their search begins.
In the background, the Chairman Elections are swinging into action and the mysterious drug chlorowheat–which has the effect of temporarily dispelling the connection between True Conductors–continues its circulation.
In-Transit, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius
“Can I ask you a question, Ollie?”
“You already did—”
“When are you going to stop staring at me?”
Olive scowled and looked out the train window. “I just can’t believe you did it again.”
Claire raised his hands innocently across from Olive. “I really didn’t know you didn’t know. Like before. Honestly…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re really good at looking like you know what you’re doing?”
That was definitely an insult. A subtle one, like one of Atienna’s.
Olive turned to Claire sharply. “Has anyone told you that you look like—” —you never know what you’re doing, was what he wanted to finish with. He thought better of it. “Never mind.”
“He’s connected to some people that know the people that you’re connected to.” Derik Stein shrugged from beside Olive. “So what? Big fucking deal.”
“It’s just that we’re working working together now,” Olive mumbled. “We need to”—he gestured between them— “be on the same page.”
“Like know what each other knows to a T?” Claire asked innocently. “But if I tell you everything, then” —his eyes narrowed— “won’t that give more work to the others in your group—at least, from what I understand? I’d rather keep my friends just as free as am I, you know?”
Olive narrowed his eyes at the accusation. But he had a point. But at the same time, did Claire think that lowly of him? He used to not care if people thought he was the worst of the worse but appearances and pride and all that.
Claire held up his hands. “It’s not like I can talk though since I’m living very peacefully right now and turning a blind eye. I’m not pointing any fingers here. Still…”
Olive glared a bit longer, then sighed. “I wasn’t asking you to tell me your life story. I’m just asking for us to be on the same page about important things. And we’re obviously not going to go out of our way to do things that they”—the saint candidates—“don’t make us to do. You can trust me on that part at least…”
“Trust you?” Claire’s face was unsmiling for a brief moment. Then he brightened. “Of course, I know that I can trust you, Ollie! We’ve worked together how many times now?” He continued on with a hum, “I mean, it’s just me, Sigrid, and” —he glanced around the booth— “you know. That’s it.”
“‘That one…’” Olive mimicked Jericho’s air quotation marks. “He has an interesting…. job. I’m just surprised. that he’s still sticking with it after what we’ve learned about them.”
Was that another reason why Claire had been so adamant about not believing that saint candidates were bad news when Olive had told him during their initial travels to the Bodhi Temple before the State Conductor’s Exam? Not only was his aunt a, but he was also connected to a True Conductor who was presumably devoted to them.
Claire blinked. “Well, beliefs shouldn’t be cast aside just because there’s one bad person tarnishing those beliefs.” He sighed. “But yeah…. I guess it’s quite complicated.” He waved a hand in the air. “Never mind that. Would you mind spilling the beans on your group since you have all my beans?”
Olive waited, but heard no objections from the others. Still, he figured he needed to be cautious.
“There’s six of us like I said before,” Olive drew slowly. “You’ve already met Werner and Jericho, and I guess you met Maria and Cadence indirectly too.” He mulled. “I’ll tell you if any of yours meet any of mine.”
“That’s fair,” Claire chimed. “Glad you’re not an eye-for-an-eye type.”
Olive thought for a moment then added, “Oh, we found something weird recently. It’s something called chlorowheat. A cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat—“
“Good shit—that morrowheat,” Derik said.
Claire arched a brow. “You’ve had it before?”
Olive shook his head and continued, “For some reason, it weakened one person’s connection with the rest of the group…. We’re not sure if it affects all True Conductors the same way but… Generally speaking, assuming that it does, you don’t even notice when the person who is being affected by it is gone. What the person being affected experiences isn’t transferred properly after either, so… it’s like an override but not…”
“I see…” Claire placed a hand to his chin. “Thanks. for telling me, Olive. That does sound pretty concerning.” He chuckled. “The world is moving rather fast, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess…” Olive mumbled. Something then itched in the corner of his mind. “Wait… Have you ever heard of someone called Shion Myosotis? I figured I’d ask since the name sounded half-Sagittarian.”
“The person that chattery bastard went on that rant about?” Derik frowned. “Pretty sure that guy just threw that name in randomly just so he could have more things to say. Bastard loved the sound of his own voice. Wanted to blow my brains out when he was ranting to himself.”
“…She’s a real person,” Olive said, side-glancing at him. “We looked her up. Someone we know knew her. She was a peacekeeper.”
Claire’s brows rose. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting name… First name definitely sounds like she belongs to the Hoshi Clan. The surname…?”
Claire nodded with a half-frown. “Can’t say it rings any bells.” He brightened. “Oh, but you know what? Back before the Reservoir War, there were a couple of scandalous inter-marriages between certain clans and people from outside countries. I heard some stories about Ophiuchians—the original ones—coming into the clan system too. It could be that.” He placed a hand to his chin. “If you’re curious about it, I’d like to say that you can check the Hoshi Clan records through some underhanded methods, but their records were destroyed during the war.” He snapped his fingers. “You know what? Maybe Kaworu would know—”
“You mean the prince rival guy who was chasing us with the fan conductor?” Olive squinted at Claire. “Reminder—you want me alive. Besides, I doubt he’ll be gracing us with his presence any time soon…”
“Oh, there’s no doubt that the wealthier clans are hiring people to track us right as we speak,” Claire responded casually. “We can only do so much to avoid them, so we’ll probably be seeing them again soon.”
Olive stared. “So what was the point of putting our lives on the line digging into Bodhi Temple when we could’ve just followed someone else?” Then again, he’d gotten some useful information from Tenzin there himself. He still hadn’t gotten far into understanding the man’s texts.
“For the honor, Ollie,” Claire pressed matter-of-factually. “It looks better to the people.”
Olive sighed. “Anyways. So we’re heading to Zhūshā Chéng, right? You didn’t really explain why we’re headed there. Refer back to two conversations ago for why I shouldn’t have to ask you to tell me why.”
“Oh, my bad.” Claire shrugged. “Well, have you ever been to the Twin Cities in Gemini?”
“Sort of…” Olive muttered.
“Best night I’ve ever had,” Stein noted unhelpfully before kicking back in his seat. “The booze, the women, the casinos, the nightlife. Can find anything there.”
Olive paused and side-glanced at him. “Weren’t you…” Tight curling guilt twisted his stomach.
Derik arched a brow. “Yeah, I got fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good time.”
“It must be nice to be so care free,” Olive muttered. Or simpleminded.
Derik sneered. “If you cry over every damned inconvenience all the time, you’re a damned pussy.”
“The world can use more sensitive people, you know?” Claire noted helpfully.
Derik snorted. “Cry a minute in the shower, slap yourself, and move the fuck on. That’s all there is to it.”
“I see how you two get along so well,” Claire chimed.
Olive bristled but didn’t bother taking the bait.
Claire continued, “Well, anyways, Zhūshā Chéng is kind of like the Twin Cities but without multiple crime organizations spinning things in the background.” He held up his index finger. “There’s only one. The Red Flower Family. They’ve been here since the 10th emperor’s reign. They run all sorts of businesses beneath the city—gambling, illegal trading, modified conductor markets, the black-market—”
“—and selling information. They don’t hold allegiance to any specific clan, so the city’s neutral grounds even though we’re in Xing Clan territory now. We’re headed to a very good information broker named Loawnu who knows everything about everyone and everyone about everything—”
“—what? That doesn’t make any sense—”
“They even call her Wise Woman sometimes. You can go to ask her a question once a week—and once a week only—and she’ll give you whatever you ask for in exchange for a payment.”
Olive thought of Astante, the information broker in the Twin Cities who was connected to Cvetka, and blanched. “Do you really think it’s wise to be messing around with information brokers? They always ask for information in exchange. I don’t know if you noticed this but…”—he gestured between them— “I’ll let you puzzle together what I’m trying to say.”
“Oh? The True Conductor stuff? This broker—yeah, she knows what I am and who the people I’m connected to are. I actually visited her way back when all of this started. She helped point me in the right direction.” Claire tapped his temple and shrugged casually. “I’m still here, and they’re still where they are, so she has a tiny, little sliver of trustworthiness to her.”
Olive ogled him. “I can’t tell whether your desperation is a driving force or a damning force.”
“Aw, no need to whip out the lexicon, Ollie. We can keep it casual.” Claire nodded to the empty space by Olive’s right. By the way, is Lavi going to visit today? Eunji seems to really like her. I think it’s good for her to have someone around her age to hang around with no strings attached.”
“I feel the same…” Olive mumbled, rubbing a strand of hair between his fingers. “Eunji… is nice.” The atmosphere started feeling weird, so he added off-handedly to make things less weird—“Unlike her brother.”
“Hey!” Claire pouter before arching a brow. “Is it really necessary to keep a whole mystery surrounding her circumstances to my sister and vassals though? I respect your decision as a friend, of course, but… it seems like a lot of extra leg-work. My sister’s not stupid either, you know. She’ll find out eventually.”
“Is it really necessary to keep Soha, Eunji, and Felix in the dark about all this True Conductor stuff?” Olive returned back bitingly. “They’d be more helpful if they knew.”
Claire’s smile faded, indicating to Olive that he’d hit a nerve.
“I just want Lavi to feel normal,” Olive mumbled after a beat.
Claire smiled again. “Well, I understand the feeling.”
* * *
Zhūshā Chéng, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius
Zhūshā Chéng was nothing like Die Hauptstadt nor the Twin Cities nor New Ram City, but it was also everything like them at the same time.
The streets were illuminated by a warm light blue haze seeping out from tall buildings packed tight together. The buildings themselves had sweeping tiled roofs that curved up to points. Despite the buildings here standing taller than the ones in the Twin Cities, Olive could still see the expanse of the sky due to the wideness of the streets and sidewalks. V-trams cut across the wide roads and were painted in shades of blue and yellow by the odd v-lights that were encapsulated in paper lantern shells strung up on lamp posts and insulation cables.
Everything was coated in a pleasantly colored light blue fog that spelled almost perfume-line. Incense, Claire later explained.
Although there were many v-ehicles dotting the roads, there were several carriages being carted around by sweating men and women. Every so often, a boy or a girl or a man or a woman carrying a basket of flowers would approach them and try to sell them flowers. They were even approached once by a strange man in a desert cloak with a mask drawn up to his face. A beggar? Maybe.
Olive supposed their group was more approachable now since they were in civilian wear—although Derik scared most off with a sneer and Felix with the fact that he still kept his half-mask over his face.
Once they arrived at the hotel that Claire had booked, Claire nonchalantly announced that he didn’t have any clue where to find Loawnu nor the ‘underground’ of the city. Olive had to resist snapping at him. He knew Claire wasn’t actually this carefree but the fact that he acted like it was annoying. It was like he did it on purpose.
“No one really knows where the entrances to the underground of the city are since it changes around all the time,” Claire informed him casually. “You have to find a flower girl or boy who gives out a red chrysanthemum, and they’ll tell where one of the entry points is.”
Until they found that flower child, they decided to spend their nights hopping from hotel to inn to motel to hotel. The idea was to keep anybody tailing them off their scent. Cadence called it playing hot potato. Werner called it the correct course of action. Derik called it annoying even though he flirted with every single attendant in every single hotel.
After two days of babysitting Eunji and pouring over his half-baked conductors and research notes, Olive decided to head out with Claire and Felix for the search too. Eunji managed to convince Claire to let her tag along, and Lavi happened to appear around the same time so Olive made her visible with Cadence’s conducting and brought her along. Soon they were weaving through the streets to the setting sun and being annoyingly chatted up by street merchants. At least Eunji and Lavi seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Olive himself was quite used to these hagglers from his own experiences in New Ram City and from Cadence’s personal experiences in Gemini. Ignore them until they left was Olive’s strategy. Claire himself was quite good at feigning interest in their products and sending them off with a promise to purchase, unlike Derik whose scowls paired with his Capricornian appearance made them haggle him even more. Must be court practice on Claire’s part, Olive figured, and bad socialization on Derik’s.
The one downside to traveling as a group was that Felix and Derik kept shooting snide remarks at each other as they followed behind Olive, Lavi, Claire, and Eunji.
“You’re attracting unwanted attention with your leering,” Felix said at one point.
“Says the one wearing a fucking face-mask still,” Derik returned.
For some reason, the two men just couldn’t get over themselves. Olive didn’t understand why Felix was down on the ground with them instead of Soha who was watching them from above on the rooftops. Didn’t it make more sense to separate people who didn’t get along? Maybe Claire was entertaining himself. Olive didn’t understand why they thought traveling from rooftop to rooftop was normal either. Then again, that actually did seem to be the norm given some of the building designs. Certain high-rises had wide, ungated doorways that opened up to the city on several of their floors. ‘A sheer drop,’ one would think, but every couple of minutes, a person would appear illuminated at the threshold, whip out a conductor, and take flight in a burst of colored air.
Air Elementalists dotted the skyline above the trafficky roads too. Every so often, one would float down and offer Olive or Claire a ride for some money. Politely declined, of course.
Eventually, Olive split off from Claire, Eunji, and their vassals to weave through the streets with Derik.
“Two princes lookin’ for a flower pal,” came a sudden voice to Olive’s left. Cadence. Her faint image took form at his side, and she peered up at the sky with a hand over her eyes before side glancing at him with a lopsided smile. “Sounds like the beginnin’ of a either a really good joke or a really bad one.”
With her arrival came the buzz of all the others, all coming in at different levels of synchronizations, their surroundings sharp or blurred.
“Am I correct in my assumption that what you’re searching for is akin to a red-light district?” Werner. His tone of voice was definitely not a pleased one. And when he appeared, his lips were pressed thin.
“Heard of this place a couple times down under,” Cadence replied with a nod. “We worked with that Red Family once I think for some conductor shippin’ stuff.” She glanced briefly at Jericho who had popped in beside her. “Anyways, apparently, the… entertainers down under are the most beautiful in the land.”
“That is illegal,” Jericho stated. “That kind of activity.”
“Eh.” Cadence shrugged. “It depends on the country.”
Jericho mulled. “Yes… you’re right.”
“It’s legal with regulation in Capricorn,” Werner provided.
“Oh, are you familiar with these kinds of places then, Werner?” Atienna now, although she was distant and merely peering in.
“We have similar… activities near the border, although—as I’ve implied—it’s highly regulated,” Werner replied. “The military allows units to visit individuals specializing in pleasure as a form of stress relief.”
“And ya never visited any of ‘em yourself?” Cadence arched a brow before she chortled. “Wait, no. I’m not surprised by that at all.”
“I had no interest in places like that,” Werner responded curtly. “Engaging in other activities can be just as relieving. There are other ways to relax.”
“Aw.” Cadence pouted with a smile. “No whiskin’ any sweet dame or lad off into the sunset?”
“I don’t believe one should start a relationship on a whim,” Werner said after some thought. “Matters like relationships should be handled with caution since they tend to be volatile. They can become… distractions.”
“‘Friendships can become distractions’…?” Jericho’s brows furrowed. “No. That’s wrong. I disagree.”
“He means of the romancin’ flavor, detective,” Cadence explained.
Werner nodded in confirmation.
Jericho cocked his head. “Love?”
Cadence opened her mouth, closed it, shrugged.
“Love? Cadence and I talked a lot about that before!” Maria popped up in front of Olive, nearly sending him into cardiac arrest. “So, I know about love, my dears!” She pointed at Olive. “I love you!” Then at Cadence. “And you!” Then at Werner, Atienna, and then Jericho. “And you, you, and you!” She gestured up to the sky next. “And I love the sky! And the ocean and the earth!” She whipped back to Werner. “You see, my dear Werner, there is no distraction with love.”
Cadence chortled. “Well, that’s an interestin’ interpretation of the conversation. Really touchin’, too sunshine, but love—at least in my opinion—is a word that needs ta be dealt with… with some more finesse, so to speak. Ya know, like how I said.”
“Hey, brat.” —Derik’s voice cut through the conversation in Olive’s head.
Olive blinked and found a short curl with round cheeks holding a flower out to him.
“Would you like a flower, mister?”
Oh, Olive! Atienna. It’s–
It was a red chrysanthemum.
* * *
After some footwork with Cadence’s help, Olive managed to annoy a thin business card from the flower girl and returned to the hotel with his head held up somewhat pathetically high. Much to his dismay, Claire also had a thin business card in hand when he returned as well. Both read in red-inked in the language of the Xing Clan—
Fu Mei’s Wok: Authentic West Xing Clan Cuisine
By this time, Lavi had faded from Olive’s vision and the other five had retreated backwards—save for Werner who lingered as always—which meant they were lucky enough not to bear witness to a very long and awkward argument between Claire and Eunji. At the argument’s melodramatic end, the latter finally agreed to stay behind with Soha.
When Olive, Claire, Derik, and Felix arrived at the back entrance of the restaurant that was designated by the card, a smoking waiter had them strip and put all of their conductors in a burlap sack. The fact that there was heavy smoke filtering out from the restaurant didn’t help alleviate any of Werner’s concerns that buzzed at the back of Olive’s head.
Derik and Felix themselves objected for different reasons.
“No way in hell am I going to put my conductors in there.” Derik sneered. “I didn’t get my license for no reason.”
“How dare you ask that of the—” Felix began before glancing at Claire’s smiling face. “—of the upstanding citizens
But after some coercion on Claire’s part— “It’s just a little bit of skin, Felix”—and Olive’s own part—“I’m going down without you”—both men complied. After they were down to their respective undergarments and Olive was left shivering in the cold, they were led into the restaurant, through the disgusting smoke, and into a small room containing only a thin, metal black door that looked like it led into a walk-in fridge. Standing in front of the fridge was a woman wearing a pair of conductor gloves. Flanking her left and right were two men holding rifles.
The woman. Transmutationist, Conjuror, Elementalist, Specialist. Be cautious.
Olive squinted at the woman’s gloves. The insulation tubes embedded in them looked thin. Definitely a Transmutationist.
The Transmutationist beckoned them forward and ran her gloved hands along every square inch of their bodies—Felix objected this time while Derik did not. After finishing with Derik, she gave the waiter a nod. The waiter then brought out a large familiar contraption from another room before holding it before them.
“I hope you know what this means, sirs,” the waiter said.
A vitae-spectrophotometer, Olive realized. Memories of Marta working away in her workshop to perfect the device followed by her eyes glimmering with pride when he’d performed a successful trial run using it to prove Trystan’s innocence flooded Olive’s mind. Those two had been linked to each other through this device, and they had been linked to him through it too. But—
Don’t cry, Olive urged himself as he felt his eyes burn. It’s an amazing invention. I can’t ruin that by feeling like this—
A cool, cold calm passed over him paired with the faint impression of a warm hand on top of his head.
Letting out a breath, Olive allowed the waiter to take a sample of his vitae and test it. The others did the same. The waiter left with the device afterwards and returned shortly empty-handed.
“Looks like you’re all cleared,” he noted gruffly before waving his hand at the women and guarding men.
The men moved to open the doors as the woman exited the room. The waiter gestured inside before stepping in himself.
Were they checking for Scorpio and ELPIS members? Olive thought as he followed the waiter and stepped over the threshold into a cold empty fridge with another metal door built into its opposite wall.
After they were handed new pairs of clothing—cloth robes with a confusing tangle of layers—they were led through the door and into a small, square room that barely fit all of them. The waiter pulled the doors shut and hit one of the buttons lighting up a panel on the left-side wall. The room shook, then began to move.
An elevator, Olive realized. And they were going down.
As they descended, the smog clouding the air only increased. Incense. It was perfume scented and pleasant-smelling just like how it was above, but it still nauseated Olive so much that he nearly doubled over and puked on the spot. Derik arched a brow at him, side-stepped away, before grumbling and handing him a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket. Olive sent him a grateful look before pressing the cloth to his mouth.
The elevator dinged and the waiter pushed open the doors letting in curling, colored smoke that hung low to Olive’s feet.
Olive stepped out with the others and was met with a still smoky air. Much to his surprise, however, he was not met with a dark gambling den nor a low-roofed hallway as he was expecting. Instead, he was greeted by a wide walkway with wooden tiles lined with multi-tiered buildings with curved, tiled roofs. Red paper v-lanterns hung in front of these buildings and lit up the pedestrian-dotted long stairs that ran up to a flat top beyond which Olive couldn’t quite see. There was little to no space between the individual buildings—just narrow alleyways a person could barely squeeze through.
It was dark above the glow of the lanterns. Darker than Olive had been expecting even though they’d left at dusk not too long ago. Squinting up in search of starlight and finding not a twinkling star, Olive figured that it must have been an overcast night. Only after squinting further did he come to a startling conclusion. There was no sky. Only a metal ceiling whose shiny surface just barely reflected back the red vitae glow from the paper lanterns.
A humming sound drew his attention away, and he turned to find the waiter shutting the door of the elevator from inside. Up he went. Without even saying a word. Great customer service.
“I didn’t realize you were being literal when you said this place was underground…” Olive muttered, facing forward again.
It was actually… kind of amazing.
“It was used as a large shelter during the Clan War back in the 1600s,” Claire provided. “Carved out by the rare Sagittarian earth Elementalist. Turned into an entertainment district after that. Fortified during the Reservoir War and turned back into a shelter. Now… it’s a red district again.”
“Thanks for the history and tour,” Olive muttered before arching a brow. “Don’t you know a lot about shady things for a prince?”
“Look who’s talking.” Claire chuckled lightly. He led them up the wood steps and through the street.
Now that he was closer to the buildings, Olive was able to see that they were lined with wide-open, glassless wooden windows. Men and women dressed in bright silk robes designed with flowers and other swirling patterns filled the rooms behind the windows. Many of them played large string instruments, while others spoke animatedly with less-well-dressed men and women sharing the room with them.
The music they played was quite beautiful, melodic, slow and peaceful—so peaceful that Olive almost forgot the discomfort that the smoke and incense gave him.
Other rooms, however, were not as pleasant. They contained shelves full of black boxes marked in letters that Olive couldn’t quite understand and were manned by grim-faced men and women. Every so often, one of the pedestrians would approach these rooms, slip the ‘merchant’ a thick envelope, and receive a black box in return.
Olive glanced back at the men and women playing the instruments and wondered if they were here against their will. Suddenly, it all didn’t seem so amazing anymore. His stomach curled as his mind searched for a solution.
Seeming to ignore these clearly shady developments, Derik whistled at a couple of the women in the nicer rooms. Unlike half of the women Derik usually did this to, the ones in the rooms neared the windows and began to blow him kisses and beckon him in. Olive had to tug the man away by the arm.
“No dignity,” Felix muttered under his breath.
As they ascended the steps, the number of passersby decreased, and soon they were the only ones making the ascent. When they reached the top of the stairs, they were greeted by a one-story building with paper doors drawn open. The path leading to the building was illuminated by lamp posts with dangling red paper lanterns. However, their luminescence was overshadowed by the bright blue light emanating from the chandelier hanging centrally in the building.
A young woman sat directly beneath that light holding a long-necked string instrument.
Olive was rather surprised that he hadn’t yet heard any off-handed comments from Cadence or Werner’s strong presence advising him to remain careful. Absent-mindedly and half-upset at the fact, he reached out to them both. But his call went unanswered. His heart stopped as he fully realized the emptiness swirling at the back of his mind.
The others. He couldn’t hear them or feel them. Again. Like before. An override? No, he was still himself. Scorpio—
His heartbeat returned, hammering.
No, he hadn’t been cut or infected. He was sure. Was he? What if—
Olive’s eyes widened as he stared at the colored smoke swirling at his feet.
Chlorowheat…? Here? How hadn’t he noticed? In the air? Mixed with the incense, so he hadn’t been able to tell? He should’ve realized it still! Stupid. Wait. But why? Did they know he was a True Conductor? Wanted to… catch him…? Wait. No, that was paranoid and jumping to conclusions, stupid.
Calm down, Olive urged himself in Werner’s voice just as he’d done back in Capricorn. Panic doesn’t do anything. Taking in a deep breath, he glanced at Claire and found him smiling pleasantly.
Was Claire not cut off from Sigrid and Andres? Or was he acting? Did chlorowheat not affect all True Conductors after all?
Claire moved towards the building tailed by Felix. Olive glanced at Derik who arched a brow at him.
“You sick again?”
Olive shook his head and followed after Claire with Derik behind him. As they stepped into the building past the paper doors, it became clear that they were not the first arrivals. Trang of the Sao Clan and Kaworu of the Hoshi Clan sat in front of the string-playing woman on opposite corners of the spacious room. It was just them. No guards. Weird.
Keep alert, Olive told himself in Werner’s voice.
“Hello, brother!” Kaworu waved pleasantly upon noticing them. “Good to see you again!” He dipped his head at Olive. “And a pleasure to meet your acquaintance again, Prince Olivier Chance.”
Gotta be cordial, Olive told himself in Cadence’s voice and so he offered a curt nod.
Trang remained cold and silent, sending daggers in Derik’s direction. Derik merely sneered at her, while Claire offered her a pleasant smile before sitting down. Claire then bowed deeply before the central, string-playing woman.
“It’s good to see you in good health, Loawnu.”
The woman was alright-looking, Olive supposed as he tried to distract himself from the unease he felt. Her hair was long, black, and done up with fancy-looking black pins bedazzled with jade. Her silk robes consumed half the floor. And her hands which plucked the stringed instrument were gloved with a conductor that had large glass insulation tubes with copper-rounded ends.
A Conjuror or a Specialist, Olive figured.
“I ask that your guards allow us to speak in private,” Loawnu said, setting down her instrument and smiling with red lips. Something about her slow, fluid, graceful movements was unnerving.
Felix and Derik bristled.
“I’m not a damned vassal,” Derik spat.
“I will not leave Prince Yuseong unattended,” Felix stated with a lifted chin.
“Lord Shiroihoshi and Lady Saođanglên have sent their guards to the lower level,” Loawnu responded calmly. “I understand your apprehension but this is how I must do business and keep confidentiality.”
Claire waved his hand in the air and turned to Felix. “Don’t worry so much, Felix. It’ll only be just a bit.”
Felix’s eyes narrowed but he dipped deeply and exited the building.
Olive looked back at Derik and motioned with his head for the man to do the same. Derik held his ground for a full minute before sneering and heading down the steps.
“Thank you.” Loawnu pulled out a long pipe once the two men had left and began to puff it. “I understand you’re all here due to the emperor’s most recent decree.” She glanced at Olive. “I thought the rumors about the Ariesian prince being involved were just that—rumors. But I see that’s not the case.” She dipped her head at him. “It’s an honor to be in your presence just as much as it is an honor to be in the presence of a possible future ruler of Sagittarius.”
Olive resisted a grimace at the formality and side-glanced at Claire. Then he froze. Claire’s eyes were wide, his gaze constantly flicking side-to-side. Searching, scanning—for what? Wait, was the chlorowheat taking affect—
Abruptly Claire shot up to a stand. “I’m sorry, but do you have a restroom I could use?”
Loawnu lifted a slender arm and pointed down the hall that opened up to the right. “Just down there, Lord Yuseong. It’s marked with a sign.”
Claire bowed and headed down the direction as Trang and Kaworu stared after him. After only a second of hesitation, Olive followed on after him down the hall. He peeled into what he assumed was the bathroom through a pair of sliding doors and found Claire bent over the basin there and staring into the mirror hanging up on the wall. He didn’t turn when Olive entered.
“Olive, I can’t hear or feel them.” Claire was pale and clammy in the reflection. “This isn’t an overlap. I’m me.”
“It’s… I think it’s the chlorowheat,” Olive drew slowly. “I think they mixed it in with the incense they’re putting out here. Remember what I told you in the train cart about what it can do?”
Claire stared at him through the reflection.
Olive stiffened. “Do you… want me to get Felix?”
Claire shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t understand… He’d…”
“Claire,” Olive drew slowly, somewhat alarmed. “Look… It’s temporary. You’ll be able to hear them again once we get out of here after a couple of hours, but… we should get the information first… right?”
Claire continued to stare at him.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get Felix?”
“Felix…” Claire stared down into the basin. “…was a refugee from Aquarius that came here during the famine in that country around ten years ago…. He came to Sagittarius when he was really young,” he explained. “When I was visiting one of the refugee camps when I was younger, an assassin tried to drive a horse cart over me and make it look like an accident. Even though I didn’t know Felix, he pushed me out of the way and was injured in my place. I took him in after that. He’s been by my side since. But even though he’s by my said, my clan doesn’t recognize him as a member because of his lineage… I’m very grateful to him…. like I’m grateful to Soha. She’s been there as long as I can remember. Sometimes I think she’s been more of a mother to me than…” He shook his head. “They both believe that I can become emperor and abolish the clan system. I can’t have them seeing me like this.”
“Uh…” Olive shut the door behind him as thoughts of Werner filled his mind. “Okay…”
He was completely flabbergasted. He’d never seen Claire like this before, and he felt like he was encroaching on something personal just by witnessing whatever this was. Was it the chlorowheat? But it wasn’t affecting him in the way it was affecting Claire. Was it because Claire wasn’t connected to Sigrid and Andres anymore or was it a direct effect of the chlorowheat? Whatever it was, this thing was dangerous. That and Claire was making him annoyingly worried.
“I’m not driven and strong like Sigrid. I’m not dedicated like Andres.” Claire’s grip on the basin tightened. “All I can ever think about is trying to find an escape route and being free from all of this—” He gestured around the dim bathroom and then slammed his hands on the basin in frustration. “Why do I have to do this? Why can’t someone else step up and do it instead? It just isn’t fair. It’s not like I’m the only one who decided to do this back then. We all made that promise, but everyone else just… gave up. Or maybe they grew up.”
Olive blinked, startled, and watched as Claire threw himself against the wall behind him before sinking to the floor.
“But if I don’t do it then who will?” Claire grumbled. “My sister might have to do it instead, and I can’t let her go through this… But will becoming emperor and abolishing the clan system do anything in the long run? What if it doesn’t last? If I stop and look back in the future, I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed by everything behind me. That it’s all for nothing.”
The words were like a slap to the face.
“Look I’m no good with these kinds of things…” Olive grumbled as he awkwardly sank down beside Claire. “But even if Sigrid and Andres help you along the way, it’s still you who’s doing these things one-by-one and taking these steps.”
Claire’s head dipped.
“And just because you might be disappointed by the end result doesn’t mean that you should stop. One disappointment doesn’t mean everything else will be a disappointment. That’s just how the numbers add up. It’s impossible to be completely one thing, so it’s impossible for everything to be disappointing. Anyways, not like you can’t learn from those disappointments.” Olive had no idea what he was saying. Cadence was way better at these things than him. He bit his lip as he searched his mind. “If you…. really want to stop, then I think you should stop. But I don’t think you want that. I mean, we were given these lives of privilege… so not doing anything to—er—help others”—Saints, this was embarrassing, Olive thought—“with it feels like we’re… not using it right.”
Claire’s head remained bowed.
Olive reached over and shook Claire hard on the shoulder. “Claire, it’ll be okay.” He cast a glance to the side. “You’re okay. And being okay is better than okay. Ugh. Please don’t make me say any more.”
Claire finally lifted his head and blinked blearily at him before running a hand down his face. After a second, he sighed. “Well, that was embarrassing…”
“That wasn’t embarrassing…” Olive grumbled, releasing Claire’s shoulders and pulling away. “You scared me…”
“I’ve been…” Claire mulled. “Stressed… so to speak. Sorry you had to see that.”
“I mean… it’s basically what happened to me when we were in Capricorn. I’ve just experienced it already. That’s it.” Although it was much, much worse back with Scorpio, but Olive didn’t bother mentioning it.
“Huh….” Claire regarded him. “Well… thanks for bearing with me…” He nodded at the door. “Would you mind heading back first? I kind of do have to use the restroom.”
* * *
When Olive re-entered the main room, Kaworu was fanning himself absentmindedly while Trang was quietly sipping tea. The tea set itself was set in front of Loawnu who was pouring two small cups from a brass pot.
“Welcome back, Prince Chance,” Kaworu greeted Olive with a smile as Olive seated himself. “I’m still quite surprised that Aries has decided to put their foot into this affair, but I admire your passion for international relations.”
What was Kaworu trying to do? Olive thought. Butter him up?
“You’re being friendly even though you were chasing me through the sky just two weeks ago.” Olive frowned and then took one from Jericho’s book. “‘Is it customary’ to let bygones be bygones just like that?”
“I apologize for that,” Kaworu returned without skipping a beat. “I wasn’t in the right state of mind. You have all the right reasons for being angry. However, I want to keep relations between us pleasant since we’re potential future leaders of powerhouse nations.”
Kaworu hid an obvious scowl with his fan.
Trang sipped her tea quietly before setting down her cup. “It’s always you people getting involved in things you don’t understand and bringing your problems into our country while seeking to profit from us. External intervention is why my clan slipped in power in the 1700s.”
Kaworu scoffed from behind his fan. “That’s quite an excuse. Is that also why you haven’t had a member on the throne since then?”
Olive resisted rolling his eyes.
Loawnu cleared her throat, cutting the conversation in two. “I hope I’m not stepping out of bounds by saying this, My Lord and My Lady, but I hope that you take a look at what’s going on beyond the borders of this country too.” She set two teacups in front of Olive. “Recently, a handful of Aquarian thieves were found in the residence of a Cancerian duke. Whoever ascends the throne will have to deal with the tumultuous relations between those two countries.”
Kaworu hid his mouth behind his fan again, although his eyes narrowed. “Aquarius and Capricorn. Such troublesome nations.”
A soft padding of footsteps signaled Claire’s return, and he entered the room before reseating himself beside Olive. Loawnu offered him a pleasant smile and resumed puffing on her pipe.
“As you know in this line of business,” she said, “a payment of information is necessary in order to obtain information or we’d be out of business. Unfortunately, it’s quite easy for people to lie. Fortunately…” She tucked her pipe away and extended her conductor-gloved hand. “I can easily read the whole truth from you with my conducting. I’m a Specialist.”
Kaworu and Trang stiffened while Claire remained relaxed with distant, tired eyes. Olive himself leaned forward in surprise—wait a minute…
“I promise it won’t hurt,” she added.
“Wait…” Olive drew slowly as the gears in his head turned. “Your conducting… You can… read the memories from a person’s vitae?” Like Epsilon?
The corners of Loawnu’s eyes crinkled. “It brings into question why there’s such debate surrounding the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, doesn’t it? But yes, I can extract information that is stored in a person’s vitae through touch.”
“Can you…” Olive tried. “Pass on the information to other people too?”
“Oh? Passing on the information that I’ve received? Now that sounds like quite a fairytale, doesn’t it?” Loawnu shook her head before continuing, “Obsessions. Desires. Intense lingering attachments. These are the things that I usually obtain through my conducting.” She extended her hand. “So who’s first?”
Kaworu and Trang exchanged looks from their respective corners. Claire moved forward, although his face was still pale and his lips tight. Olive felt something squirm uncomfortably in his stomach at the sight so he moved forward ahead of Claire and took Loawnu’s hand. The woman blinked at him in surprise, and he felt three pairs of eyes on him.
“Just because the atmosphere’s getting too dramatic for me…” Olive grumbled. “Let’s just get this over with…”
Loawnu smiled at this for some reason before shifting forward towards him. In that instant, her long silk robes peeled slightly away from her pale, bare legs.
Olive felt sick again as he eyed them, and his heart plummeted into his stomach.
Her legs. They were chained. Before he could fully digest the sight, a warm ocean blue glow drew away his attention. His hand that was in Loawnu’s hold was enveloped in the color and it warmed the entire room in the same hue. Loawnu’s eyes themselves were glassy and distant.
“Ah… that’s peculiar…” Her brows met. “This isn’t you.”
Olive felt a chill run down his spine.
“The syzygy, the lingering desire to complete it. The Saint Candidate of Ophiuchus and the True Conductors. True peace. A complete return to nothingness. Happiness.”
Loawnu released Olive from her hold before smiling again. “Thank you for your payment.”
“Wait…” Olive’s head spun. “What did you see?”
Loawnu merely pulled back into her former position. “Perhaps next time, Prince Olivier Chance. You want to find the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius above all, don’t you?”
* * *
“Thank you for your payment,” Loawnu said as she pulled away from Kaworu who was the last person to offer her their hand. “Since you have now all paid an equally precious token, I’ll tell you what you’ve come here to seek. A couple days ago a Monadic priest visited me to request some information I won’t disclose due to confidentiality. In return, however, I read some of his memories. In those memories, I spied the individual you seek engaging in friendly relations with him. This priest’s name is Lyrs Faitah, and he’s still in this city—though, who knows for how long. While I don’t have the location of the one you seek, I’m certain Lyrs Faitah does”
What…? Olive had to resist scowling. So they had to search for person two in order to search for person one? This was getting annoying.
“A priest?” Kaworu stopped fanning himself. “That’s a bit odd—a priest coming here.” He snapped his fan shut. “And what happens to be the name of the person the priest has friendly relations with…? Or perhaps you could provide the list of the potential saint candidates instead?”
“That’s quite a large sum of information you’re requesting, Lord Shiroihoshi,” Loawnu replied, bowing her head. “I’m sincerely sorry, but you are aware that you can only request one piece of information per week. It’s quite taxing otherwise with all the other visitors I receive.”
Eyes narrowing, Kaworu snapped his fan shut and rose to his feet. He shook his fan once and then something thin, metal, and slender fell out from it onto his waiting palm. The glass insulation tube that ran through its center designated it clearly as a conductor. Pointing its tip squarely at Loawnu, Kaworu lifted his head.
“Kaworu!” Trang snapped.
“You were the one who said that if you weren’t willing to go this far,” Kaworu pressed, “then you don’t deserve the throne, correct?”
Loawnu remained impassive. “Oh, dear. How did you manage to get that past our checkpoints?”
In response, Kaworu lifted the small conductor and brought it down. Olive braced himself for impact, but nothing happened. Kaworu stared at his conductor in confusion.
“You won’t be able to use your conductor or any form of conducting here,” Loawnu explained calmly. “The air in this underground district is filled with smoke from a plant that has peculiar effects on Conductors. There’s not enough of it in the air to cause psychological or somatic effects, but it’s quite enough to render Conductors unable to utilize their vitae temporarily.”
At this, Olive immediately glanced down at his bare palm and concentrated. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. His hands hummed with warmth and the very faintest of sparks danced at his fingertips, but it puttered away into nothing. His head became light at the sight, and he was unsure if he was afraid, worried, or relieved.
Kaworu took a step back and frowned at Loawnu’s hands. “But you—”
“I’m quite used to the scents here,” Loawnu explained pleasantly. “It seems as if my body has adapted to it. I need a much larger dose for it to affect me the way it affects you.”
That couldn’t be good for her health long term, Olive thought with a grimace as he clenched his fist. Lavi…
Loawnu proceeded to gesture to the open paper doors behind them. “Thank you for using my service. Please come again. You can leave from the way you came.”
* * *
In nervous quiet, Olive rode up the elevator with Claire, Felix, and Derik. They had rejoined the latter two men outside the building, and both had reacted as expected—concerned and very angry—after learning the effects of the chlorowheat.
“This is dangerous, My Lord,” Felix muttered as the elevator slowed to a stop. “We need to return to Soha as soon as possible. I won’t be able to protect you properly without my conducting.”
Claire, still pale, nodded silently. This earned a frown of concern from Felix.
The elevator dinged, and they loaded back into the empty walk-in fridge where they were handed back their clothes, conductors, and miscellaneous items.
“Fuck,” Derik swore after trying to activate a blade-conductor that had been formerly confiscated from him. “It really doesn’t work.” He nodded at Olive as they cautiously exited the restaurant building and re-entered the street. “How long does it last? This feels weird as hell.”
Olive shrugged. “A couple hours…? Maybe?” He squinted up at the skyline.
It was night-time now, the crescent of the moon barely seeping through the smog in the sky.
“I suggest we use an air Conductor to get home,” Felix said.
Claire nodded silently.
After frowning with concern again, Felix hailed four passing air Conductors with a whistle and wave. While Claire boarded a conductor in the shape of a large oar conducted by an elder man, Olive found himself balancing on a staff conductor that seemed ten times thinner than Claire’s. Its Conductor was a young man who looked half Olive’s own age. Reassuring.
They took to the skies a second afterwards one after the other. Olive took the time to admire the twinkling lights and tiny little lanterns flitting below them as they flew forwards, while also trying to reach for the others.
A sudden gust of cold wind swirled through the area causing Olive to shiver. And then suddenly, his stomach was doing flip-flops. It took another second for him to realize that he was in free fall. Just one second after, he was crashing into the roof tiles of a building and sliding down its sloping edge. He managed to catch himself with the sole of his shoes just before he flew off the edge and plummeted five stories below. The air Elementalist that had been flying him wasn’t so lucky and slid past him and off the roof.
With effort, Olive grabbed at the Conductor’s arm and pulled him up onto the roof. The young man gave him a grateful look but Olive met it with a scowl. He then glanced over his shoulder and found Derik groaning just a foot away from him and Claire and Felix pulling themselves up further back. He faced forward again and blanched.
There were over twenty porcelain-masked air Elementalists floating in the skyline across from them. Each Elementalist shared their conductor with another masked individual. The uniforms and their frowning monstrous masks looked familiar to Olive. He’d seen them several times before.
“Assassins from the Xing Clan!” Claire shouted behind Olive in alarm.
Olive barely had the time to react before several of the masked assassins lifted their gloved hands, conjured what looked like knives, and threw the weapons at them. Paired with this assault came a whirling rain of painfully bright vitae blades.
Claire was in front of both Olive and Derik in an instant.
“My Lord!” Felix cried in alarm.
Claire spun out his staff-conductor quickly to its full length and whipped it in a dizzying arc. Several loud metallic clinks resonated through the air as the knives and vitae blades embedded themselves into the roofing around them. At the end of the storm, Claire was left only mildly panting—although he was still pale and clammy.
“Damn,” Derik noted. “You didn’t tell me you knew combat.”
“Why thank you. But, well…” Claire lowered his staff-conductor as the Projectors pulled out conducting rifles and the Conjurors produced pistols. “I can’t block bullets and vitae-rays…” He cupped his hands and called out to the assassins. “I have the Ariesian prince here with me! Do not—”
All of them aimed their weapons simultaneously.
“Run!” Claire shouted despite the fact that he was already darting across the rooftop with Felix just behind him.
Derik grabbed at Olive’s wrist as the air Elementalists they’d been riding with yelped and scrambled away in the opposite direction. Without warning, as vitae rays and bullets pounded around them, Derik dragged Olive forward along the rooftop after Claire while muttering under his breath— “I shouldn’t be running. Bastards.” Olive himself could barely catch up with the man’s pace and his feet left the ground several times.
Soon, they reached the very edge of the roof—which Claire and Felix leapt off of without a second thought. Derik hesitated for just a moment before leaping too and pulling Olive with him.
They stumbled onto another tiled roof just three feet below and continued to run along it as the vitae-ray fire blazed down around them. As they neared the edge of this roof, one of the tiles beneath Olive’s foot shattered beneath his weight, sending him slipping down to his knees. Derik was jerked backwards by his fall, and he whipped around with a glare—
“Are you fucking serious—”
He didn’t have time to finish his sentence as two of the Projectors leapt down from the air Elementalists they were riding with and darted at them. Derik threw himself at one of them just as the assassin was on top of Olive. The other accompanying assassin tackled Derik to the ground in retaliation and pulled out a flickering wisteria vitae blade as he held Derik down.
Olive stared frozen, ears ringing.
“Run, you fucking dumbass!” Derik snapped at him.
Olive scanned the area for something, anything as he tried to get sparks to ignite at his fingertips. Trystan’s agonized face burned its way into his thoughts. No, no no heat, but—there. He grabbed at a piece of the tiled roofing that had chipped off, ran at the assassin on top of Tryst—Derik—and proceeded to swing the tile at the assassin’s head. It shattered upon impact and the assassin staggered backwards.
Derik used the opportunity to deliver the assassin a quick blow to the chest that sent them stumbling back into the first assassin. Olive meanwhile picked up several more cracked tiles and chucked them at the assassins and at several of the ones in the air. Most missed, some hit.
“Saints—you’re a dumbass!” Derik snapped, scrambling to a stand.
“Don’t you think I know that?!” Olive scowled back.
“Olive!” Claire jogged back towards them and swept his staff-conductor along the roof, flinging up the tiles in the air with a cloud of dust. “Hurry! Let’s go!”
Derik grabbed Olive by the arm again and dragged him after Claire and Felix. Rooftop to rooftop they leapt, dodging the seemingly endless pursuit. Over clotheslines, through clusters of v-lanterns strung up between buildings. Along the way, Felix managed to pick up several conjured blades that had missed them and hurtled them at their pursuers. A handful of them met their targets and sent them plummeting to the city below. This seemed to turn Felix into a target as the vitae ray fire and weaponry became concentrated on him. While Felix was startling fast, eventually a flying blade managed to hit his leg. At the impact, the man grimaced, stumbled slightly, but staggered forward.
“Felix!” Claire cried in alarm as he caught the man. Despite Felix’s protests, Claire looped the man’s arm over his shoulder and continued to drag him along in their escape.
Eventually they reached the edge of a building with a much larger gap between it than the next. It looked at least several yards across with a sheer drop into the city below.
“Look!” Felix pointed to a pair of wooden beams that connected the buildings to each other.
Olive figured it was left-over from construction with the way all of these roof tiles kept falling apart.
Felix extended his hand out to Claire. “My Lord, you must hurry quickly—”
“You first!” Claire ordered. “You’re injured!”
Felix opened his mouth.
“This is an order, Felix!”
With reluctance, Felix obeyed and quickly made his way across the wooden beams. Derik hoisted Olive up next. Olive gulped, spreading his arms wide as he balanced his way across the makeshift bridge. Below him, the v-ehicles and v-trams looked like ants. But there were people down there, and Olive didn’t feel like traumatizing them with his death any time soon.
As soon as he made it across, he turned to find Derik just behind him. As soon as the man made it over, however, the bridge was splintered by a whirling vitae blade. In a blink, the bridge exploded into tiny pieces that rained down into the traffic below.
“Claire!” Felix cried out in alarm.
Without hesitation, Claire swung out his staff conductor, ran backwards several feet, and then charged forwards. Using his staff as an axle, he flung himself forward across the distance. But it wasn’t far enough. Just a little more and it would’ve been perfect—
But Olive flung himself forward instead and grabbed a hold of Claire’s wrist just as he fell past them on the building. Felix was at his side in an instant and together they pulled Claire onto the roof with them. Felix sent Olive a grateful look as he guided Claire back onto his feet. It would’ve been nicer if they weren’t running for their lives.
Upon spinning around to see where they were to run to next, Olive found his dazed relief melting into a scowl.
Large metal fencing rose up on the three sides of the building around them. Obviously impenetrable without a conductor.
“Whose bright idea was this?” Claire asked, panting and glancing at Derik.
“I was just jumping where this dumbass—” Derik jabbed a finger at Felix “—was fucking jumping.”
Felix dipped his head. “I deeply apologize, My Lord.”
The air Elementalists began to ring around them in the air.
Claire let out a shaky sigh and pulled up his staff conductor again.
It was then that Olive spied something odd on the ground just a foot away. A black spot. It couldn’t be. Francis’s gate. Wait. He didn’t have a proto-conductor. But still—maybe—it was worth a shot even if it was embarrassing.
Olive fell to the ground beside the spot and earned odd looks from those behind him. He whispered down into the spot regardless, “Francis, please—”
Much to Olive’s surprise, the black spot ignited in pale tangerine light as a burst of cold air blew him backwards towards Derik who caught him. Olive couldn’t believe his luck. “Guys, jump—” His words died in his mouth and his relief quickly dimmed as an unfamiliar figure emerged from the light while facing him in a stumbling burst.
A woman. Her hair was long, glossy, and dark which reflected the white light from the vitae blade in her hand. Upon seeing that color of vitae, Olive didn’t feel any simmering hatred. No, Jericho wasn’t here for him to be feeling something like that. So the only thing Olive felt was fear.
“ELPIS…!” one of the assassins floating above them hissed.
The air became razor thin as all gazes became focused on the woman.
It took a moment for Olive to realize that the woman’s gaze wasn’t focused on him or the others but on the gate itself. But why?—
Clink, clink, clink, clink.
Olive’s blood ran cold at the familiar sound that began to emit from the gate. He’d faced it two times before—once himself in Capricorn and another time through Cadence and Jericho in Gemini.
Pale, white, glowing chains burst out from the gate like flower petals without warning. The ELPIS woman lifted her vitae blade as a man emerged from the gate. His hair was full of wild ginger curls, his hand gloved and extended out towards the woman, his bow tie billowing slightly in the wind.
“You’re Gamma’s dog, Iota…” The ELPIS woman lifted her blade.
“That bitch?” Derik whispered, raising his fists. “What the fuck is going on? I thought I—”
Iota merely flicked her wrist and sent the chains hurtling at the woman. The woman in turn dodged left, right, and then leapt at one of the air Elementalists hovering just above her. The air Elementalist began to sway beneath the added weight before he was torn from the air by Iota’s chains. The ELPIS woman leapt onto another air Elementalist then another and another as Iota shot through them all.
“You’re pointing fingers when you’ve always been a follower, Nu,” Iota called out.
The white chains raked through the sky wildly as Iota lifted her hand. They swept through the area in a wide circle, knocking several of the air Elementalists out from the sky. Olive ducked low beneath the sweeping chains with the others and watched as they tore away the fencing around them.
Nu threw herself at the opposite building and managed to land safely on her feet. She proceeded to whip out a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor and spluttered its contents on the ground. Without skipping a beat, she pointed its tip to the ground and slid into the light that emanated from it.
Shouting in frustration, Iota flicked his wrist and formed a chain bridge between their building and the one below. Once he reached the other side, he just barely managed to fling himself into the gate Nu had created before it closed.
And just like that, the ELPIS leaders were gone.
“Was… that a fever dream?” Claire whispered.
The remaining assassins hanging in the air began to float on towards them. Their goal and target clear despite the intrusion.
“It feels like it’s about to become a fever nightmare…” Olive muttered.
After stumbling backwards with the others, he peered over the roof’s edge that was now clear of the fencing due to Iota’s intervention. A canopy was just six feet below. And another canopy just below. And another one. Okay. Time to channel Maria.
“Claire!” Olive shouted before he leapt at Derik and sent both of them off the roof just as another burst of vitae rays rained down on them.
Derik swore all the way down—even as they crashed onto the canopy and into another canopy and into another one and finally collided with the ground on their backs. Both Felix and Claire landed beside them on all fours—like feathers. Annoying feathers. Seeming to notice Felix’s gracefulness, Derik quickly pulled himself onto his feet and jerked Olive up to a stand by the back of his shirt.
Shouts of alarm filled the air as all the people that occupied the alleyway they had landed in fled in opposite directions. Their shouts increased as the canopies above their heads were torn to pieces by raging winds. Down from the now clearly skyline descended the assassins. One of the Projectors descending with an air Elementalist leapt off from their partner’s conductor with a vitae blade drawn—
The Projector fell to the ground like a rock and red pooled beneath him.
Olive’s ears rang with the sound of the bullet, and he turned to find a figure in a ragged desert cloak wearing a half-mask standing behind him. The cloaked figure lifted his pistol and shot another air Elementalist who was hurtling down towards them right out of the sky. The Elementalist dropped like a stone to the ground with a sickening crack. The figure then grabbed Olive by the wrist—
“Wha—” Olive barely had the time to respond before he was dragged away by them. He kicked, shouted, and bit at the figure’s wrist but to no avail.
Down smoky streets they went, turning tight corners, squeezing between narrow alleys, past buzzing markets—
“Get the fuck off of him! Fuck you, asshole! Pedophile!”
Olive whipped around to see Derik, Claire, and Felix hot in pursuit. He faced forward again just in time to find himself pulled through the paper doors of a narrow back alley building. The figure pushed Olive to the side and closed the paper doors as soon as Derik, Claire, and Felix stumbled inside.
Olive nearly leapt five feet when another masked figure—shorter than the first—emerged from nowhere and shoved a stack of clothing into his hands. The other taller figure moved to provide the same for the other three.
As Olive tried to calm his heavy panting and collect his thoughts, he scanned the area. It was a room. A small with only a single circular table set off to the side wall, a fireplace, and two beds set parallel to each other sitting opposite of everything else.
The taller figure pointed to their clothing.
Did he know about Scorpio’s mediums? Who was this? One of the other clan members? One of the people from the underground?
Mind racing, Olive quickly changed into the new set of clothing while Claire followed suit. Felix frowned at this but did the same with great difficulty due to his injury. Olive sent him a sympathetic look and then Derik a glare until the latter reluctantly changed clothing as well. The tallest cloaked figure then gathered all of their clothes and tossed them into the fireplace before pointing to Felix’s leg.
“He’s not infected,” Claire answered quickly. “I assure you—he isn’t.”
“Wait, My Lord,” Felix drew hesitantly. “Perhaps, I should—”
Derik meanwhile rolled up his sleeves and glowered at the masked figures. “No, no one is going anywhere. You—”
“Stand down, Stein,” ordered a familiar voice. Masculine, strict, deep, strong.
Derik stiffened, eyes widening at the tallest cloaked figure.
The figure removed his mask as he set down his pistol onto the table. Olive resisted gawking at the face hidden beneath it. Captain Volker Weingartner in the flesh. The other figure pulled down his mask revealing himself to be none other than Friedhelm Heimler.
“You’re the Ariesian prince.” Captain Weingartner nodded at Olive without skipping a beat. He extended his hand to him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you… in person as yourself, Olive. You’re much more charming in person than in the papers and than in someone else’s body.” When Olive didn’t move to take his hand, he arched a brow. “Do you remember me…?”
“I… yes…” Olive stared, accepting the handshake. The man’s hand was firm. “Just… surprised.”
Weingartner nodded and turned to Claire before offering the same gesture. “It’s a pleasure to become reacquainted with you as well, Prince Yuseong.”
Claire returned the handshake with a tired but practiced smile. “It’s a small world. You’re very far from Capricorn, Captain.”
Weingartner nodded and turned then to Derik, looked him up and down, before saluting. Derik returned the salute with his usual lack of enthusiasm but his back was straighter than usual. Weingartner then offered the man a handshake too which Derik accepted.
“I have to say… I’m both surprised and not surprised to see you here, Stein,” Weingartner drew slowly. “How are you feeling…?”
“Like usual, sir,” Derik replied. “Better here than in Aries. Missing Capricorn but there’s enough action around the prince.”
Heimler moved forward, sat Felix down at one of the beds, and began to bandage the man’s leg.
“Aries?” Weingartner arched his brow before looking down at Olive. His expression became sympathetic for a moment before he smiled. “Good man.” He then addressed them all with a firm nod, “Don’t worry about your pursuers. They won’t follow us here. Not to this part of the city. And if they do—well—we have several escape plans in place.”
Olive exchanged a look with Claire before drawing slowly, “I thought you were near Bodhi Temple somewhere… Why are you here? How did you know we were…?”
“Oh, I suppose Viktoria’s letter hasn’t reached Werner yet.” Weingartner rubbed his chin before sitting down on a stray stool. “We found out about this city last month. It’s nature makes it difficult for Scorpio’s eyes to make home here. They also have resources here we can use to our advantage too. We’ve been working with—well… It might be better if I communicate directly with Werner about this situation. As for how I found you…” Weingartner thought for a moment. “Did you really not see me when you arrived here?”
Olive arched a brow and shook his head.
“Well—” Weingartner’s lips pressed thin. “Anyways, may I speak to Werner, Olive?”
Olive tensed. “I’m… not able to talk to any of the others at the moment.”
Heimler stiffened as did Weingartner.
“I’m not infected or anything.” Olive raised his hands. “It’s just the chlorowheat. We went to the underground… And…” He explained the situation from the very beginning to both Capricornians.
“I see…” Weingartner’s gaze was soft. “So the radio wasn’t overdramatizing your allegiance to Prince Yuseong. But you’re saying that your overall aim is to…? That’s very kind of you, Olive.”
Olive looked away. “Not really… Just don’t want… things to get weird or harder for Werner.”
There was a beat of silence.
“You’re looking for a Monadic priest?” Heimler exchanged a look with Weingartner. “Would they happen to be a Scorpioan priest?”
“Lyrs Faitah?” Claire tried.
Heimler finished bandaging Felix’s leg before going over to the bed sitting parallel to Felix’s. It was occupied. With little hesitation, he pulled the sheets off revealing a slumbering young man with short dark locks and tanned skin. He was dressed in instantly recognizable Monadic robes.
“He stumbled in here drunk this morning,” Heimler explained, shaking his head. “A far cry from any Monadic priest that I’ve ever seen—that’s for sure.” He reached into the man’s pocket and pulled out a slip of plastic. A conducting license. He held it out to them.
Olive moved forward, took it, scanned it.
Lyrs Faitah / 1921 / M
License Special Class: Diplomat
Most used c.a.: glove conductors
Issue Year 1938 / Expire Year 1942
“It says they’re a diplomat…” Olive frowned.
“It also expires this year,” Claire said pointedly as he read over Olive’s shoulder. “It could be outdated. The status, I mean.”
“Fuck it.” Derik spat. “I’m sick of this city already. Let’s just take him and get the hell out of here.”
“Now?” Olive turned to Derik and scowled as he gestured to the unconscious man. “You mean abduct him?”
“Well…” Claire drew.
Olive squinted at him before turning back to Weingartner. “If you have a message for Werner… I can still give it to him once our connection is back.” He shifted in place. “He’s at the Aquarian-Capricornian border right now, so….”
“He’s…” Heimler frowned. “At the border…?”
“The government and Scorpio…” Olive frowned. “…are making him investigate the ACC there.”
Weingartner and Heimler exchanged looks again, both of their lips thinning into lines. Olive tensed at this.
“I understand your situation,” Weingartner said, “but given that information, I think it might be best for us to refrain from information exchange temporarily. Just for the time being.”
Olive understood the implications and felt his cheeks burn. “I… okay… still, thank you for helping us and everything.” He gestured around the room. “I hope this all works out…”
“I should be thanking you,” Weingartner returned. “My daughter’s safe because of Cadence. And we were able to covertly make our way here through her help too.”
Olive opened his mouth, then shut it as he pulled on a strand of his hair.
Weingartner placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’re just getting started, Olive. Trust me. We’ll be ready for whatever comes.”
* * *
In-Transit, Xing Clan Territory, Sagittarius
Three hours later Olive, Claire, Felix, Soha, Eunji, Derik, and Lyrs were on a train in a private compartment heading away from Zhūshā Chéng.
Olive’s connection with the other five still hadn’t returned and his conducting hadn’t yet either. The same applied for Claire. Felix’s conducting had returned two hours ago, and Derik looked to be getting his conducting back. He’d complained that it felt like was in conducting-training and the military academy all over again.
At the moment, the three of them sat together in the compartment with a frowning Soha and a pensive Eunji. Both had been troubled after learning of chlorowheat’s effects, although Eunji seemed more curious than concerned. Her curiosity at the moment was mostly held by the unconscious Lyrs Faitah who was draped across an entire booth seat in front of them all.
“My Lord, I believe we should just induce his awakening,” Felix said, now back in his dark robes. “I fear we may have the wrong man. It would be best to wake him even if it is a violent awakening.”
“Fuckin’ agree with this Aquarian for once,” Derik grumbled. “Getting bored as hell just waiting for him to wake up now.
Eunji approached the man casually, pulled off his socks, and pinched both of his toes.
Olive stared. “What are you—”
Lyrs immediately shot up with a loud yelp that nearly sent Olive into cardiac arrest. Again.
“Works like a charm every single time,” Eunji noted.
Claire squinted at her. “Wait a minute. Do you do that to me—”
“Where am I…?” Lyrs blinked blearily, gaining all of their attention, as he scanned the room. He arched a brow as he looked them up and down. “I didn’t ask for this kind of service.” He pointed to Eunji. “Definitely not this kind of service.”
Soha pulled Eunji away from him and slapped his pointing finger down.
“You are in the presence of Sagittarian royalty,” Felix said thickly before glancing at Olive, “and Ariesian royalty. I advise you to hold yourself with some dignity.”
Lyrs did a double-take. “W-what…?” He scooted back against the train window and then whipped around to peer through it. “Am I… Am I on a train? What in saint’s name is going on here?”
Claire subsequently moved on to explain the succession war, Arjun, and the details given to them by the information broker.
“You… kidnapped me… to try to get me to help you find Arjun?” Lyrs looked them over. “You’re all royalty? Can I see your licenses to be sure? Do I bow?” He paused. “Can I take a picture?”
Olive felt apprehensive. He thought of Cadence and tried to channel her way of thinking. Right. This man here was being way too casual about this. He either had a motive up his sleeve or he had a few screws loose. It would be awful if it was both, meaning that it was probably both.
“Do you know Arjun?” Claire tried, also sounding apprehensive as he showed Lyrs his license as proof.
“Of course, I know Arjun,” Lyrs replied, crossing his legs and scanning the ID. “I know where he is now too.”
“We’ll pay you handsomely if you give us his location,” Claire said, his smile practiced despite his tired eyes. “But I think it might be best if you stay under our care for the time being. I understand that this might be hard since you probably have other commitments. But please understand. A lot of dangerous people will be after you for your connection with Arjun—”
“I can do you one better,” Lyrs interjected, relaxing back into his seat. “I can lead you right to him. Only you. No one else. And no commitments here aside from my daily prayers”
Now, there were alarm bells ringing in Olive’s head.
“I mean… I’ll do it for a price, of course.”
“I’d like for you all to endorse someone who’s running for Head Chair of Ophiuchus,” Lyrs continued. “It would help them earn quite a lot of votes if they were endorsed by future powers of Signum.”
Olive did a double-take, trying to wrap his head around the turn of events in this already befuddled day.
“His name is Seamus Dolby,” Lyrs finished, “and he’s first chair of the International Relations Department. I’m sure you’ve heard how great he is on radio.”
Olive scowled. “I’m not—”
“Deal,” Claire chirped. “From here on, Seamus Dolby is the greatest chairman to have ever graced Signum.”
“My Lord,” Felix pressed quietly. “Something about this concerns me…”
Claire turned back to him with a half-smile. “All for a better future for Sagittarius, right?”
* * *
Two hours later and still nothing. The quietness made Olive uneasy so he stayed in the main compartment area a little while longer than usual. Soha had already taken Eunji away for rest. Claire, on the other hand, had stayed up for a little while longer with Felix but eventually turned in too. He didn’t look too great, so Olive had hoped that he was able to reconnect with Sigrid and Andres by the morning for his sake. That left Olive alone with Derik.
Derik’s conducting had finally come back fully, and he was now sitting in a booth and idly inspecting one of his ignited blade-conductors with something akin to pride. After some hesitation, Olive shut the text he’d been reading and wandered his way over to the Capricornian. Derik didn’t acknowledge his presence.”
“Derik, can I ask you something…?”
“Yeah?” Derik deactivated his blade. “You fuckin’ already are, but shoot.”
Olive ignored the former comment and asked slowly, “Could you… teach me how to… fight?” Saints, it was embarrassing to say that out loud.
Derik blinked. “Yeah, kid.” He smirked. “Finally. It’s about time you learned how to use a gun without the captain’s help. Finally grew a backbone, huh?”
“No. I just want to learn self-defense.” Olive balled his fists as the past night blazed through his mind. “Being able to do things without a conductor…”
“Oh, with a gun—”
“No!” Olive scowled, lifting his hands up. “With my hands or a knife… or something else not a gun.”
Derik scoffed. “Fist versus gun—what wins? Gun! And what do you think happens when a knife goes into someone’s body anyways? They die 75% of the time. Painfully. Way better to use a gun in that case. Mercy kill.”
Derik rolled his eyes. “Fine. Yeah, sure. Fuck it. Tomorrow morning. Six-hundred hours. You better be up.”
* * *
Then, all at once, everyone returned.
Olive could see them in his mind’s eye carrying on with their nightly activities as he was toiling away with his conductors in his private room at two in the morning. Jericho was returning back to Ophiuchus from Francis’s room, while Cadence had already clocked out. Maria was idly chattering to Conta—or attempting to—while Atienna was just beginning to slip into slumber. The Virgoan stirred slightly when Olive reached out to her—
Oh? You’re up again, Olive? Did I wake you?
—but soon fell asleep.
They hadn’t noticed he’d been gone, he realized. And he didn’t want to ruin their nights by dropping the bomb on them. Tomorrow morning, he reasoned as relief spread in his chest.
After a moment of thought, he extended his fingers and concentrated. Faint sparks jumped at his fingertips before popping into crimson embers. He extinguished them by closing his fist and let out a sigh—of disappointment or relief, he wasn’t sure.
Abruptly, Werner appeared before him, synchronizing with full intensity. Olive nearly startled out of his desk at the sight of the man standing tall and cold beside him.
“Did you take chlorowheat?” Werner pressed immediately, extending a hand.
What? How did Werner know—
PROTECT. PROTECT. PROTECT.
It was like a heartbeat. Unnerving. Louder and roaring more violently than Olive had ever heard before. It was almost terrifying.
“I… apologize, Olive.” Werner pulled back slightly. “My intention wasn’t to be overbearing. I merely have concerns. Your stamina is low, indicating that it wasn’t sleep that kept you away for these past hours. Your presence was also quite faint. Again, I apologize if my presumptions are faulty.”
“No, no, it’s okay…” Olive stammered before looking away with a grumble. “I didn’t take any chlorowheat intentionally…” He proceeded to summarize the events of the night.
“I see…” Werner nodded in understanding before kneeling down beside Olive so that he was eye-level with him. “While I do expect a more thorough debriefing on your experience, seeing as you’re fatigued at the moment, I suggest you sleep now for the time being—that is, instead of staying up to work on your conductors.”
Olive glanced at his desk. “Wasn’t really getting anywhere with this anyways…”
“Were you hurt?”
Olive lifted his arms to show that he was unscarred and un-bruised.
Werner remained silent, waiting.
“No, I wasn’t hurt,” Olive said out loud, before he admitted, “but… when we went to that underground city… the woman there… the people there… I think… they’re being taken advantage of. And I didn’t do anything. And Claire just… had a breakdown or something. I don’t know if I handled it right. Trystan and Marta” Guilt curled in his stomach. “I just—”
“Olive, remember what I told you.”
“Itemize, list, group, approach, go over the tasks at hand,” Olive recited. “Yes, I know.” One step at a time, as Trystan said.
Werner reached out and placed a hand on top of his head. The faint whispers of ‘protect’ were nonexistent. “You’ve made progress, Olive. You did well given the circumstances. You deserve rest.” With that, he rose to a stand and his synchronization began to lessen.
Olive hesitated, something he couldn’t quite place a finger on itching the back of his mind. A question that refused to take shape. “Hey, Werner, before you go…”
“I’m not ‘going’ anywhere, Olive,” Werner replied curtly. “I’ll always be here. That being said, what did do need?”
The words were reassuring. Just what he needed to hear. In fact, they were so reassuring that—
“I forgot what I was going to say. Never mind… Good night, Werner.”
“Good night, Olive.”
With that, Werner faded completely. Olive switched off his workstation light in turn before throwing himself onto the small bed beside him. He shut his eyes but did not drift off to sleep. Instead he thought of two recent developments that had been keeping him awake at night. The first was the phone call he had made back to Torrine to check up on the Trystan Project. Much to his discomfort, his phone call had been rerouted to the Royal Palace where his disgruntled uncle had picked up the call.
“What do you think you’re doing, Olivier?” His uncle had asked quietly, rigidly. “Are you siding with the Seong Clan during their succession war? You cannot do things like that in the public eye! Does this have to do with your request about the tariffs in Capricorn? What if the Seong Clan loses the succession?”
“Uncle,” Olive had stammered in response, scrambling for a coherent answer, “I’m sorry for doing this without telling you, but I had to do it. If things get any worse, then the peace of Signum—”
“You’re too young to be thinking about the peace of Signum,” his uncle had replied. “You’re the Prince of Aries. You should first be thinking of peace for Aries.”
Olive had swallowed as the words had stirred something in his mind. “Uncle. Do you know what the syzygy is?”
The silence that had followed was unbearable.
“Olive, you’re too young to be—”
Olive had proceeded to hang up the phone.
Not too long after this, Olive had tried to speak with Francis again regarding Lavi’s condition and the possible solutions for it. He’d suggested using Epsilon’s ability to somehow transfer all of Lavi’s soul, memories, everythingout from him and into her own body. Francis had been skeptical at the idea due to the volatility of Lavi’s vitae among other reasons he’d laid out plainly.
“You’re quite bright, Olive,” Francis had said kindly. “And you’re also very kind-hearted. I hope for you to hold steadfastly to these attributes. However, with everything you reach and hope for, there will always be consequences and remunerations to ponder. With this idea of transferring vitae, for instance, you must also consider the other important factor: what body would you transfer Lavi into? One that is already in existence or one that is not?”
Olive couldn’t even be mad at Francis when the man had said that because he’d put it so gently. It must’ve been more Francis than Theta, Olive thought. Or maybe vice-versa. That and Francis was right.
“Why do you and Atienna think such depressing thoughts before you sleep, my dear Olive?”
Drawn from his reminiscing thoughts, Olive cracked open an eye and found Maria casually lounging by his side.
“Why do you always pop in when I’m about to sleep?” Olive mumbled.
“Because I want to see you!” Maria beamed. “Besides, you will find everything that you are searching for, my dear Olive.” She tapped his nose. “Just as I’ve found everything that I am searching for.” She reached her hand out to the ceiling—to the twinkling night sky in her surroundings. “This world is endless, my Olivier, and every possibility exists in it. All you must do is find that possibility”—she clenched her fist “—and seize it with your own hands or carve it with your own hands.”
Olive arched a brow.
“Signum is just one place, yes?” She beamed. “There are many other places to search if you can’t find the answers here.”
Olive stared at her, wondering how a person like this could even exist. “Yeah… Thanks, Maria.”
In-Transit, Taurus, Alpha’s Vessel
“Praxis Daedalus Oran.”
P.D. Oran stiffened upon hearing his full name and turned to find Alpha hovering over him with a smile. At the moment, Oran sat at a desk tucked away in Alpha’s captain’s quarters. He was working away at a small, cubical conductor that Alpha had tasked him with completing since sweeping him out from the captivity of the ELPIS leader Gamma. Some nights Oran wondered if it would be better to be back under Gamma or maybe even Damon Forstchritt herself.
“Are you ashamed of your name, Praxis Daedalus? Shouldn’t you have a bit more pride in your name? If not, it’s only a name. I told you this when you were younger, didn’t I?”
The ship’s creaks as it rocked back and forth on the waters brought a sense of ominousness to Alpha’s calm smile.
“You did teach me many things,” Oran agreed, “which is why I can’t help but wonder why you would need me to help you with this. You surely know more than me.”
Yes, Alpha—a previous version of him—had taught Oran everything he’d ever known. Vitae, conductors, theories, energy levels. It was freeing—that sort of knowledge. And Oran had happily spread that knowledge across Signum in hopes of freeing people the same. Signum itself had rejected that knowledge and ostracized him for it before extending out a hand to him and locking his legs in chains. Knowledge—as it turned out—was also a prison.
Alpha didn’t answer his question as the door to the cabin suddenly creaked open and a young adolescent suddenly entered the room. It was one of the Leonian children they’d swept up from the orphanage recently. Dominic Elegido-Rosa, if Oran recalled correctly. A boy who Oran believed didn’t know his place.
Dominic strolled right in and walked up to Alpha with his chin pointed high. “I’m bored, Proteus. Show me something fun.”
“Just wait outside,” Alpha replied gently, placing a hand on top of the boy’s head. “I’ll show you something fun soon.”
Dominic nodded, apparently quite pleased, before exiting the room without even a farewell.
“You must be thinking that boy doesn’t know his place,” Alpha noted as soon as Dominic was gone.
Oran remained silent at this.
“But your presumptions about people needing to know their place just proves that you still have lingering attachments to those concepts even after all I’ve taught you. You’ll never be free that way.” Alpha’s eye narrowed slightly but he remained smiling. “That boy you think doesn’t know his place is the brightest star to ever shine above Leo. He may even shine brighter than my dear Maria.” He pressed his hands together. “I wonder if Ophiuchus would be proud of what we’re about to bring down on Ophiuchus.”