Olive is helping Claire in his search for the potential saint candidate for Sagittarius—Arjun Gandiva Uttarētāra. Claire promises that once Olive helps him bring Arjun to his father and he is crowned emperor, he will end the tariff on Capricorn. This in turn—Olive hopes—will end Aries’s tariff on Capricorn as well since Aries and Sagittarius share strong relations. Clouding Olive’s mind, however, is the knowledge that his aunt and uncle know of the syzygy.
Along the duo’s journey they have picked up a Scorpioan Monadic priest named Lyrs who claims to know where Arjun is but will only provide the duo with information if they endorse Seamus Dolby in his chairman election run.
Inelki Station, Scorpio
Olive once again landed flat on his back. Stars flooded his vision as he calmly tried to count how many brain cells had been knocked out of his head in the past half hour. “Get used to it,” Derik had said after the first time he’d smacked Olive to the ground. “Can’t be a damned pussy. Getting knocked down is a part of life. Getting knocked down’ll teach you how it feels like to pick yourself up.”—Olive had questions on the comprehensiveness of Derik’s ‘wizened words’ of advice but Derik had continued on without stopping— “Gotta do it on your own. Can’t be relying on other people all the time. Look at me. Every time I’m knocked down—which isn’t fucking often—I pick myself the fuck back up.”
No wonder, Olive had thought in response. That was why Derik had so many screws loose—concussion after concussion after concussion. Olive wondered how many brain cells still remained in the man’s head after all that. Whatever was still there was probably being twisted by Scorpio—
Olive grimaced at the recollection before his thoughts were cut off by a hand drifting into his view. He took it and allowed himself to be yanked back up to his feet. As expected, the hand didn’t belong to Derik. Much to his surprise, however, it didn’t belong to Werner either. Instead, Maria was the one who greeted him with a beaming smile.
“My dear Olive, you are supposed to be learning to fight, yes?” she asked, leaning in close to his face. “Not be knocked down by Werner’s crew member, no?”
“You don’t think I’m trying…?” Olive grumbled as he rubbed his sore back and peered around her.
Derik stood only a few feet behind Maria.
Half an hour earlier, the man had rolled up his sleeves dramatically before proceeding to speak and lecture vaguely about how to maintain the proper posture, to follow through with punches, etcetera.
“You know,” Derik had said while swinging his arm around during the warm up, “I had to learn this shit on my own. At the military academy—for Projector’s at least—”
“—they don’t teach intensive hand-to-hand combat,” Olive had recalled from the faint memories of Werner’s own time at the academy. “It’s an elective.”
“Yeah…” Derik had squinted at him. “That bastard Fischer is the only Projector I know who took the full course. Dumbass.”
“Didn’t you used to be good friends with him?” Olive muttered.
“Yeah, well, times change,” Derik had retorted.
“Would’ve been a useful friendship if you could’ve picked up a thing or two about close combat from him other than just his bad attitude.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Bad attitude—do you see yourself?”
A black bird circling overhead cawed loudly, cutting the recollection short. The sight of it unnerved Olive, but he shoved his paranoia aside. Overall, he was very doubtful of Derik’s teaching ability now that he had the displeasure of experiencing it firsthand for himself. Derik, however, seemed to be very animated about giving the lessons so Olive was now both giving him the benefit of the doubt and entertaining him.
A few feet behind Derik were Claire, Eunji, and Lyrs lounging on a rolled-out silk blanket. Claire and Eunji were both sitting cross-legged beside each other while Lyrs was sprawled out on his back behind them. Felix and Soha, holding large sun umbrellas over the trio’s heads, were standing on opposite sides of them.
At the moment they were all situated in the middle of a dusty field just outside of the rural Inelki train station. The station itself loomed several yards away from them in the distance. Despite its dull beige painted stone walls and maroon-colored terrace, it wasn’t hard to miss even from this far away. And this was definitely not because Olive’s eyes were becoming as good as Werner’s. In fact, Olive was pretty sure his vision was getting worse due to the late nights he’d been spending toiling away at his conductors in the dark. The reason for the station’s clear visibility: there was nothing surrounding it. Nothing but a flat grey surface sprinkled in rocks of various sizes. Empty nothingness.
“Who the fuck puts a station in the middle of fucking nowhere,” was Derik’s initial comment upon arrival which even Felix agreed with.
Still, despite the eeriness of it all, Olive had felt a sense of nostalgia when he’d first off boarded the train. While the heat from the barely visible sun concealed by the clouds was a welcome familiarity to him, the aridity brought a foreign sentimentality. Jericho had synchronized with him strongly during arrival without saying a word.
Olive had proceeded to entertain the man by treading the tracks along the station, picking up a couple rocks, and throwing them into the distance—actions that were once again nostalgic yet foreign. When he closed his eyes, he could faintly see colorful tents flapping on sandy dunes far away. The recollection had been oddly peaceful—at least until Derik, who had followed him all the way along the tracks, had started to loudly complain. Again.
Since the train bound to Madat—their final destination—wasn’t due for another four hours, Olive had suggested to Derik that they start a training session to kill time. Jericho had remained synchronized with him during the first half hour of Derik’s lesson and attentively listened to Derik’s explanations on what to do when facing a larger opponent—although Olive had doubted that Jericho needed the lesson. The peacekeeper even remained when Olive had begun the ‘application’ portion of Derik’s ‘class’ which consisted of Derik charging at him without warning. This ended up with Derik flat on his stomach after Jericho sent Olive’s legs sweeping out under him. Derik had of course thrown out a mixture of swear words before scoffing at the fact that Olive himself wasn’t holding on his own.
Olive had to agree with him.
“But you are weak, Olive,” Jericho had informed him calmly—earnestly, so Olive couldn’t get mad at him. “Stein will hurt you. Accidentally or on purpose. I will stay and help. To thank you and to apologize. About last week. Your birthday.”
“Well me being ‘weak’ is why I should do it on my own…” Olive mumbled. I can’t rely on you all the time. What if… you have to rely on me or something? What then?
I do rely on you already, Jericho responded, staring.
Olive squirmed. “Anyways, you don’t have to thank me or apologize.” He looked away towards Derik. I thought we’d already gotten past that point.
Jericho had stared long and hard at this before apologizing with what seemed like embarrassment and then pulling away.
“Jericho is funny, no?” Maria asked suddenly, drawing Olive once again out from the memory. “He sees things as just black and white, yes? One thing or the other?”
And you don’t? Olive thought.
“I see things in all colors. It is what I see,” Maria sang before pointing to his arm muscle. “Just because you are weak here doesn’t mean you are weak here—” She moved to point to his chest before pointing to his head— “or here!”
If anyone else said that, Olive was sure he’d laugh. Instead, he arched his brow and asked, “What does that have to do with colors?”
Maria sank to a sudden crouch and beamed up at him. “You are my Olive, yes? You can do anything.”
“Okay…” Olive looked down at her as a sense of unease began to boil in his stomach. “Maria—”
Before he could finish, a flash of black hair danced out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly, Lavi was standing between them both and catching the faint sun rays seeping down from the clouds on her fingertips.
Maria leapt up to her feet and spread her arms wide in greeting. “It’s Lavi!”
“Maria!” Lavi exclaimed, mirroring her movements. “I haven’t seen you in a while, right…? Ollie tells me that you’ve been going through a lot lately…” Her gaze lowered briefly. “I… hope you’re okay…”
Maria tilted her head slightly before glancing at Olive. “Oh, you have been talking about me with Olive? I think Cadence is rubbing off on him, yes? She does enjoy talking about people.” Her smile dimmed slightly before she stared at Lavi for a long while.
Lavi returned the stare for a moment before trying, “Maria?”
Hesitantly, Olive stepped in-between them and pressed, “Are you okay, Maria…?”
Maria cocked her head. “What do you mean? I am always alright—better than alright, no? Are you talking about my crew? Because I will get them, yes. Are you talking about Morandi? He is mine and because he is mine he cannot die, yes? That’s how it is.”
Maria’s shining confidence had always been a comfort to Olive—-much like Werner’s reliability. But Maria’s encounter with Alpha had started to sow uncomfortable seeds of doubt in Olive’s mind. For instance—what if Maria was just like Werner…? Olive only vaguely understood the circumstances of both of their upbringings but he grasped the big picture—the idea of being carefully crafted by someone else’s hand whether that was by one person, many people, willingly, unwillingly.
Maria turned her head abruptly to glance over her shoulder. In the distance on her end of things, Olive could see nurses and doctors maneuvering around down a white hospital hall. It was quite a lavish-looking place with a visitor area furnished with leather chairs. Expensive.
Olive had seen the medical bill for Morandi. Although Olive hadn’t thought much of it, both Werner and Cadence had both been alarmed by it—especially since Maria had no means to pay for it since she’d lost almost everything during the encounter with Alpha. Threatening the hospital staff to do away with the bill had been suggested, but the idea was ultimately shot down. Olive had wanted to transfer some of his funds to Maria to cover the costs but Werner had warned against it since he suspected Scorpio could somehow track said funds to Maria. So, instead Cadence was the one who shilled money out to Maria for the hospital bills.
Maria’s synchronization abruptly began to decrease. Stiffening, Olive reached out and grabbed a hold of her hand before she pulled away completely. She blinked down at him before beaming and abruptly reaching over to pinch his cheeks. “Sonrisa, Ollie! You are beginning to become like Werner, no? Worrying too much, yes?”
Olive shrugged her hand away. That wasn’t much of an insult.
“I spoke to Jeri earlier, yes? He said you helped him last week!” Maria pinched his cheek again. “You have shown your strength in that way, no?” She stared into his eyes and starting squeezing harder, harder—
Finally, Olive winced, swatted her hand away, and rubbed his cheek. “Sain—geeze, Maria… that hurts…”
Maria blinked at him before rubbing his cheek absentmindedly. With that, she pulled away to the very recesses of his mind.
Olive was amazed at how Maria’s optimism seemingly overpowered every bad situation that came her way. Or was it more like she was always ready to move onto the next thing…? Unaffected even—no. Maybe that was how she was before they became connected. It was different now. Olive could feel it.
Once Maria faded completely from his vision, Olive spied Derik ogling him from a few feet away.
“You know how fucking weird it looks when you talk to yourself like that?” Derik finally said. “Ever thought of being subtler?”
Lavi huffed. “Why is he always so rude?”
Claire and Eunji made their way over. Soha and Felix tailed them, still carrying the sun umbrellas. Lavi waved animatedly at Eunji, but Eunji merely avoided Olive’s gaze. This didn’t seem to dishearten Lavi, however, and she instead hovered pleasantly and patiently at Olive’s side—probably waiting for him to make her visible to everyone again.
Claire smiled annoyingly as he glanced at Derik. “Say, Derik, I have to say that sure is a really interesting way of teaching.” He flashed Olive a grin. “How about you practice against me so we can see how much Derik’s really taught you?”
“I’m not an idiot. I know you’ve had self-defense training since you were a kid,” Olive muttered, glancing back at Lyrs who was still lying flat on his back on the blanket. “I don’t feel like being thrown around again.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t,” Claire noted before placing a hand on top of Eunji’s head. “Didn’t have self-defense training yourself, I mean. Even Eunji here was trained to fend off assassins when she was younger.”
Eunji smacked Claire’s hand away with a scowl.
“Yeah, well…” Olive grumbled. “My aunt and uncle were…” He tensed and looked away briefly. “…they were sort of overprotective. That and I barely went outside our estate half the time so it didn’t seem—”
“‘Estate,’” Derik muttered. “You know you’re coddled when you start calling your house an estate.”
Olive scowled at him but didn’t bother taking the bait. “I usually had at least ten guards around me at all times, so I guess they didn’t see the point of doing self-defense training. They were… good too—our guards.” Feeling the familiar tight anchor beginning to drag down his chest once more, he crossed his arms and glared over Claire’s shoulder. “They were probably too good. Honestly… I caused a lot of trouble for them…”
“Besides, things were normal then.” Olive glanced at Claire. “Before you waltzed in and started talking about the Ramicus.”
“I guess that shows how much you needed defense training back then, right?” Claire smiled good-naturedly, although there was a hint of sympathy there that Olive didn’t enjoy very much.
“If I did,” Olive retorted, “then your fake assassination attempt-Ramicus-border-help plan wouldn’t have played out and… Aries might not have put that tariff on Capricorn…”
Claire’s smile faltered. “Ollie, I’ve said this already but I probably can’t say it enough—believe me when I say that I was just doing what was best for my clan and country. I didn’t know it would play out like this. And—” He stopped short as he caught onto Eunji studying him pensively.
Olive glanced down at Lavi in turn.
He supposed Claire had a point about self-defense. Much better than burdening the royal guards and royal funds with his protection. He’d always felt guilty over the fact that his aunt and uncle were spending so much time, care, and love on him even though he wasn’t their son. But had that been love…? Did they only treat him so kindly because they’d somehow known that he was a True Conductor—since apparently, he’d been one before a year ago? If not that, then was it because they knew Lavi was inside of him or because they thought he was Aries?
Olive felt his chest squeeze tighter.
If his aunt and uncle knew, then did his parents know? They couldn’t have. Because if they did—how… could they have sent Lavi off to that ceremony with smiles on their faces? How could they send her off if they loved her? Did they love her? Did they love him? He only faintly recalled their faces now—he recalled Werner’s and Atienna’s faces much more prominently—but—
As always, the thoughts whirlwind through his mind relentlessly.
When Lavi grew too old or her face was no longer ‘in favor with the people’ were they planning to exchange her with the next potential candidate? Exchange her in the same way Leo had ‘passed on’ his title? By having her empty herself out into the reservoir?
Maria had told them all word for word, piece by piece, memory by memory about the vitae she’d received from Epsilon a week ago. The circumstances surrounding him giving it to her were unclear, but the reality of it—
A hand on Olive’s head stopped his thoughts from derailing further, however. Upon looking up, he spied Werner’s shadow. The man’s eyes were distant, indicating that he was busy at the moment. Olive couldn’t tell exactly what he was just with but Werner flickered out of view before he could ask.
“I could teach you, you know?” Claire offered suddenly. “I’ve tutored people before, you know? In mathematics, not combat, but I’m sure it’s the same thing.”
“Fuck no,” Derik interjected. “I’m training him. Your Sagittarian shit is too soft. The only thing I’ve seen you do is run away.”
Claire’s smile thinned and he extended a hand as the light in his eyes lost its shine. “The Capricornian rumored gold-star military academy training versus the highly-esteemed Sagittarian defensive arts passed on for centuries. That would be interesting to see.”
Felix immediately squeezed between them in alarm. “My Lord, I must object. You shouldn’t waste your time on someone like”—he sent Derik a glare— “this.”
Derik bristled and rolled up his already rolled-up sleeves but Olive stepped in front of him and held him at bay with an arm. Derik shoved him forward slightly in response but did nothing else.
Claire laughed lightly, the brightness returning to his eyes.
Sigrid, most likely.
“I was just joking, Felix.” Claire patted the man on the back. “I have to set a good example, right? We’re trying to head in the direction of improving relations with Capricorn, not tearing them apart—but, really, who do you think would win: you or Derik?”
“Myself, of course, My Lord,” Felix answered immediately.
Derik merely guffawed long and hard—only to be interrupted by a loud snore from Lyrs. Upon looking closely, Olive could make out a flask of alcohol tucked tightly beneath the man’s left arm. He proceeded to exchange an apprehensive look with Claire.
A sudden yet familiar low droning horn paired with the ground rumbling beneath Olive’s feet indicated that it was time to pack up.
* * *
Olive had doubts. A lot of doubts. About Lyrs. About finding the potential Sagittarian candidate Arjun—-just to throw him into the reservoirs so he could come out a crazed, super-powered being who had a fondness for wearing sunglasses in the dark. About Werner and the ACC too. About Maria and Alpha. About Cadence and her lies. About Jericho and his well-being. About Atienna and…. Louise, Reneé, and Scorpio.
Louise—the very thought of her sent bile crawling up Olive’s throat. He remembered knocking Reneé to the ground, sliding those suppression cuffs over Louise’s wrists, and being enveloped in Scorpio’s hot embrace. It was as if he’d done it himself—and technically he had done it himself.
It just wasn’t fair. There had to have been another way. Louise’s life—a human life… And Reneé: what he’d seen through Hilton’s eyes—Hilton who chose imprisonment to save Louise. It was just all tangled up.
To ease his unease over his many doubts, Olive spent much of his time on the train going through the list of things-to-do that Werner had helped him develop several months prior. Trystan Project, Marta, Arjun and Claire, Gilbert’s arm, Lavi’s condition. As much as Olive hated to admit it, the disturbing memories Epsilon had showed Maria held saint-send information on saint candidacies and baptisms. That paired with what he’d gleaned from Tenzin’s notes was piecing together a puzzle in his mind. Thus, Olive had temporarily set aside working on Gilbert’s prosthetic arm to focus fully on the subject of saint candidacies, and he still felt guilty for doing so despite Werner’s reassurance.
At the moment, Olive was pouring over Tenzin’s notes in a private room in the train compartment he had bought out with Claire. Lugging his conductors, tools, and notes to this small wooden desk pressed up against the wall had been an arduous task that he’d had to take on alone since Derik had refused to help him.
Honestly, the ‘private’ part of this room was a euphemism. Derik was currently splayed out on the bed just behind him, after all. Somehow the Capricornian managed to give him even less privacy than Trystan had—
Olive shook his head and refocused his attention on the notes for a particular date right before in the middle of the war:
Successful entry into Pandora, Ophiuchus with Pema. Had to sneak past ‘white guard’. Close encounter with man who wielded 13 white swords as mediums.
Identified reservoir Pema was initially forced into.
Proceeded with plan of approach [see page 15 for details]:
15 centimeter wide incision above forearm. Result: substance assumed to be vitae spilled out (note: pulled out, attractive property) into reservoirs. Fifteen seconds after, flow of vitae reversed. Failure.
15 centimeter wide incision across chest. Result: substance assumed to be vitae spilled out into reservoirs. Twenty seconds after, flow of vitae reversed. Failure.
20 centimeter wide incision below navel. Result: substance assumed to be vitae spilled out into reservoirs. One minute after, flow of vitae reversed. Failure.
And on and on it went with each recorded incision detailing results and failures. Most likely, Tenzin had been trying to empty out Pema into the reservoirs much like Leo emptied himself near the end of the war. How Tenzin managed to get Sagittarius into a situation where he was able to try and excise the high level vitae from her body—Olive had no clue. That aside, the mechanical language of the records disturbed Olive. He knew Tenzin must have felt something as he was cutting his sister over and over again, right? Or did Tenzin think that Pema wasn’t his sister…?
Following that detailed recording was a long list of different formulas that included variables like body mass, blood pressure, heart rate, atmospheric pressure, air quality, vitae density, and so on. Half of the formulas were erratically written. For most of them, Tenzin had failed to hold certain variables constant, so Olive was unable to discern what was actually influencing the results. It was frustrating—having the idea of the answer but not being able to grasp the steps needed to execute it.
What would Marta think about this? She’d worked with third energy level vitae, after all. Against her will. Maybe she would’ve known something.
Olive grimaced and ruminated again.
The only other person who seemed to have any conductor know-how locally was Eunji. And she was what? 13? 14? Olive didn’t want to drag her into this, and he doubted Claire would allow it either. Plus, he wanted Eunji’s friendship with Lavi to remain as it was.
“Derik,” Olive found himself asking suddenly, “what… would you do if I died?” He remained stiff and silent as he waited for an answer and relaxed slightly when he didn’t get one.
Olive turned to face the man and frowned. Derik’s arms were now folded behind his head, and he had a bored look on his face.
“I don’t fucking know.” Derik shrugged after a beat. “I’d probably try to find someone else I could dedicate myself to. That’s what I feel like I need to do: the dedicating shit.”
Olive arched a brow. “Who?”
The man shrugged again. “That Sagittarian prince dick maybe? No, I’d rather shoot myself. His sister? Nah, that’d be a pain in the ass.” He rubbed his chin before he sighed. “It’s fucking annoying but it has to be you. What the fuck kind of person can’t look over a scrawny-ass brat, anyways? It has to be you. I’m proving a damned point.” There was a pause before Derik suddenly began to ram his foot into the wall below him. “That! Fucking! Chatty bastard! It’s all his fucking fault! That damned Marionette bitch—”
“Saints, Derik…” Olive muttered. “Calm down.” He gestured to the dent that had formed in the wall. “I have to pay for that, you know?”
Derik stopped using the wall as his punching bag, turned, and held Olive’s gaze. “If you died, I’d probably kill myself.”
Olive felt his blood run cold.
“Fuck. I hate it but I’m pretty sure I’d do it. Even though I have so much to live for—girls, booze, money.” Derik scowled. “Dedicating myself to you is my reason for living. If I can’t even do something like that then…” He shook his head. “Shit. Sounds like some sissy bullshit.”
Self-ending thoughts like that had been Olive’s closest friend before he’d met the other five. But hearing someone else say out loud was…? It made Olive feel a bit sick.
“Derik… this… this is an order,” Olive drew slowly. “Even if something happens to me, you have to live. You have to… want to live. Promise me.”
Derik arched a brow at him. “I don’t take orders from you.” After a beat, he relaxed back into the bed. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me dying anytime soon ‘cause have you seen me? I’m fucking awesome. Invincible. You need to stop worrying about people kicking the bucket, kid. Focus on yourself so I don’t have to.”
Olive tensed slightly.
“I can read it all over your face,” Derik retorted. “It’s pathetic.” He shook his head. “Otto was the same way. No matter how hard Fischer and I kicked him he always fucking worried whenever we’d get a vitae-ray to the leg or something.” He grimaced briefly. “People die all the time, kid. It’s something you should get used to.”
“Well, if it’s not from natural causes, I don’t think we should get used to it,” Olive mumbled.
“Whatever. Don’t know where this conversation is going anymore.” Derik crossed his arms. “Why did you ask me that anyways?”
Olive remained silent, looking to the side.
“Is it the captain?” Derik arched a brow when Olive didn’t answer and then continued, “The captain is an annoying bastard who always has his shit together. You can’t get anything past him. He’s like a rock. No point in wasting your time worrying about it.” He jabbed a finger at his temple. “You share thoughts, don’t you? Ever think that you’re stressing people out just by being stressed yourself?”
Olive opened his mouth to retort but—
“I’m done with this conversation. Goodnight.”
And with that, Derik turned towards the wall and started snoring a minute after. It always amazed Olive how quickly the man fell asleep. He supposed it made sense since in the trenches Werner and his unit had to get what little the rest they could when they could. They were probably accustomed to falling asleep on order or on the spot.
Great, Olive thought to himself after thinking on it. He’d just somehow made himself feel even sadder than before.
As he turned back to his desk to refocus on Tenzin’s notes and dissect the formulas there, a knock at the door resounded.
The door creaked open regardless. Much to Olive’s surprise it wasn’t Claire who poked his head into the room but Lyrs. Before Olive could say anything, the Monadic priest slipped inside and made his way over to Olive’s desk. Olive looked to Derik for assistance but the man continued to snore away. So much for the heart-to-heart conversation earlier.
“So is this what kids are into nowadays?” Lyrs stroked his chin as he peered at the notes splayed out on Olive’s table.
Olive quickly concealed everything on his desk by flipping everything over and leaning over it. In response, Lyrs arched a brow.
“Can I help you with something?”
“I just wanted to make sure that you’re still going to endorse Seamus Dolby in the elections,” Lyrs replied nonchalantly. “I am going out of my way for you, you know? It’s a fair deal.”
Olive couldn’t quite follow Lyrs’s logic but he held his tongue. At least, he tried to. “You’re really all for Seamus, aren’t you…? Do you really think he’s everything that he says he is? From my experience, the more they talk the more they’re tryin’ to hide.”
“Let’s just say that I think he’s a lot better than everyone else on the roster,” Lyrs replied. “Talib Al-Jarrah might seem nice, for example, but I know he’s up to something. Trust me. I’m Scorpioan. I can read my people like a sore thumb.”
Maybe that was because Talib wasn’t Talib.
A dull pain throbbed in Olive’s chest but he rubbed it out. “I’ve never heard of a Monadic priest being so passionate about politics,” he muttered.
“Well, the eighth pillar of Monadism—which I’ve chosen as my pinnacle—is ‘to embrace your passions and pursue them to the fullest and help others pursue them as this is the life given to only you,’” Lyrs replied matter-of-factually.
“Your passion is politics?”
Lyrs cleared his throat again. “You do remember our deal, right? When we get to where Arjun is, you’ll give your endorsement for Seamus before I tell you exactly where he is.”
“Yeah, I know,” Olive mumbled. “You’ve said it so many times now that I literally hear your voice echoing at the back of my head like a subliminal message…”
Lyrs opened his mouth then closed it.
“How… did you even come across Arjun anyways?”
Lyrs pulled back, crossing his arms. “He came to a Monadic temple I served in a while back. He had all types of weird questions about Monadism and the candidacy ceremonies. Said he was looking for a sense of direction. We spoke often then.”
Olive did a double-take at this. “Saint candidacy ceremonies?”
Lyrs nodded. “He was really interested in the ones that happened during the war.” He shrugged. “Don’t know what for, but he was a polite conversationalist so I let him enjoy himself.”
Olive digested this information.
Lyrs’s expression flickered suddenly and he lifted his chin. “And of course I—Lyrs—was gracious enough to provide the information he sought.”
Olive paused, ears ringing, heart hammering as the familiar speech pattern jangled free one of Maria’s memories. He slowly turned to face Lyrs as the proud smile slid off the man’s face.
Lyrs cleared his throat again and looked around sheepishly. “That’s what they teach you in the temples. Modesty, honesty, lending helping hands.”
The dots connected in Olive’s mind but he tried to force them apart. He didn’t want another Louise.
* * *
They reached Madat by noon. This place—or so Lyrs ascertained—was where he’d last encountered Arjun, where he was certain Arjun was.
Madat was a large city that was currently basking in the dawn heat piercing through the overhead gray clouds. Some of the buildings here were made of tanned sandstone and appeared weathered down—not from rain but from sand which Olive could spy caked into the corners where sidewalks met buildings. Contrasting jarringly these beige tones were towering skyscrapers that popped up between every ten or so buildings. A handful of billboards sprouted from the tops of the lower sandstone buildings, and half of them sported the faces of several of the first chairmen and chairwomen—even Talib’s. For Jericho’s sake, Olive turned away from those ones.
As Olive made his way through the streets with the others and luggage in tow, Lyrs finally revealed that he didn’t have Arjun’s exact location. All he had were about ten locations where Arjun could be within the city. Not only that but he refused to provide the locations until Olive and Claire made their first endorsements. Olive had exchanged a displeased look with Claire at this revelation, but Claire merely clapped his hands and agreed.
Olive thought—this entire thing was starting to evolve from ‘not promising’ to just ‘plain stupid.’
The first two hours after their arrival were then spent gathering random pedestrians in one of the open squares in front of one of the city’s busiest streets.
Claire then nonchalantly gave his statement, praising Seamus for all sorts of things that he seemed to be pulling out from thin air. Claire truly was a politician through and through, Olive thought. Himself? Not so much so despite his work with the Trystan Project. The idea of supporting someone who gave him a bad feeling made him uncomfortable—especially since he still wanted Gabrielle to win. So, Cadence offered him a helping hand, stepped into an override, and completed the gross task for him. When Olive came to again, he was standing in front of a cheering crowd. Eunji, Soha, and Felix ogled him from the sidelines, while Claire merely clapped good-naturedly.
In the evening afterwards, Olive checked in with the others into a local hotel before heading out again as dusk began to pull an indigo blanket over the sky. As per usual, Derik complained about the heat. Again, he found some solace in Felix who quietly agreed with his complaints.
The first place they stopped by was a large Monadic temple dedicated to Scorpio. It looked like every other Monadic temple Maria, Jericho, and Cadence had stepped through in the past two months—although it had a ceiling so high that Olive almost lost balance when he tried to look up and study the designs carved there. At the very back of the temple was a faceless white statue with one hand placed over its heart and the other extended outwards. A priest at the very back welcomed them warmly in Common—at least, that was until he laid eyes on Lyrs after which he started to let out a long string of Scorpioan curses and proceeded to throw them all out before they could get a word in.
All Lyrs had to say to this was— “Didn’t look like Arjun was in there.”
Every Monadic temple they visited in the city had similar results leaving Olive to wonder what sort of monstrous thing Lyrs had to have done to be ostracized to this extent. There was no wonder why he’d been hiding out in Zhūshā Cheng.
* * *
On their fifth day in the city, they investigated the seventh location on Lyrs’s list—a small garden fenced in by white wooden gates at the far corner of the city away from the traffic. Lavi appeared before Olive just before they were to set off so he made her visible—disguised, of course—and took her along with them.
The garden consisted of several sections divided off by tressiles consumed by crawling verdigris vines. A dirt path led to each section of the garden and joined together at the garden’s center where a familiar faceless statue stood at the heart of a small pond littered with lotuses.
Water Elementalists dressed in overalls and headwraps waved their conductor-gloved hands through the air, sending splashes of water over the tiny bushes, succulents, and flora. Atienna synchronized lightly with Olive then—although she only offered a small smile and nothing else—and thus he found his attention drawn to the various plants sprouting from out from the various lots.
Orange tulips, white jasmine, vibrant poppies…
As they wove their way through the garden, Olive took note of the conductor generator humming at the very back of the gardens. It was overgrown with vines, flower buds, and everything green. There was something about the sight that felt poetic. Olive just found it gross.
They didn’t find Arjun here either. As they made their way to the exit together, Derik once again loudly complained about the weather while Eunji and Lavi chattered about which flower they thought was prettiest. Olive was just squeezing out through the narrow white gates himself when a familiar voice rang in his ears—
Olive snapped his head towards the call as he stepped out of the garden’s premises just in time to see a figure that had been standing idle beside the garden’s entrance come at him. The figure’s attire glowed familiarly in the dull sunlight—royal crimson red, dull brown leather—
Olive blinked and the mirage faded. It was not Trystan who stood before him now, but someone equally familiar. Alexander Charming. Olive looked him up and down in confusion. Alexander, in turn, held his gaze for a moment before glancing down at Lavi who was still holding his hand. Something flickered in the man’s eyes but it was not recognition.
Derik barreled forward and tried to shove Alexander to the side. “Who the fuck is this?”
Alexander held his ground and frowned down at him. “I’m the head Ariesian royal guard Alexander Charming. Who are you?” He shoved Derik off of him before kneeling before Olive. “Your Highness, I’ve been sent here for you.”
The few pedestrians passing across the street were beginning to stare.
“How…” Olive regarded Alexander in disbelief. “How did you find me?”
Alexander turned to him. “Your Highness, the queen and king have been extremely concerned about your whereabouts. They sent me to bring you back to Aries—”
Realization dawned on Olive slowly.
They’d been tracking him.
* * *
“Your Highness, what are you doing?!”
“Ollie, I don’t know what’s going on but this is a bit much, isn’t it?”
It was dusk now. The city lights had flickered on half an hour ago; but much like the Twin Cities in Gemini, the sidewalks were still dotted with people.
Olive stood in front of the hotel now surrounded by Claire, Eunji, Felix, Soha, Lyrs, Derik, and Alexander. Lavi was with him still and holding his hand, but she hadn’t spoken once since they’d encountered Alexander in front of the gardens. Olive had spent the previous past half hour pulling all of his belongings out onto the hotel’s front steps, garnering the attention of passing pedestrians who started forming a small crowd on the opposite sidewalk.
Olive didn’t pay them any mind and instead gathered all of his belongings in one big pile. After looking over the luggage, the shirts, the trinkets that he’d gathered over his nearly year-long journey, he extended his fingertips over them and threw out an arc of crimson red. The pile ignited in an instant aided by the dryness of the air. A collective of gasps resounded across the street but Olive again paid them no mind and instead tuned his ears to the crackling and popping of the pile in front of him. The smoke that curled up from it made him want to puke and gag but he bore with it—
“Your Highness!” Alexander whispered, sand grabbing him by the wrist. “Your conducting—”
Derik ripped Alexander’s hand away, but Alexander held his ground and pressed, “If people see you—”
“It doesn’t matter if people know or not anymore,” Olive returned, meeting Alexander’s eyes. “It’s different now, Alexander—”
Alexander regarded him with an expression of incredulity but Olive returned his attention to his smoldering belongings—the items his aunt and uncle must have been mediums on. The royal guard tensed and took a step backwards.
Oh, that was right, Olive realized—Alexander hadn’t seen him control his conducting in person, had he? No, Alexander probably still recalled him as that bratty prince who would always run away during university lessons.
Another hand around the wrist stopped Olive from blazing out another crimson whip of fire. It was not Alexander, however. Not Derik or Claire either. And not Werner. Instead, Cadence stood there wide-eyed and half-frowning, half-smiling. She placed her hands on his shoulders and gave him a rough shake.
“Kid,” she started, “I agree that the situation surroundin’ the whole royal high command is messed up. It sucks. It ain’t right.”
Olive, caught off guard by her sudden appearance, stared at her in confusion.
“And it’s pretty awful for your aunt and uncle ta put a medium on ya to track ya without askin’,” Cadence said, pushing him back gently. “But there’s better things ta do with all these… potential mediums than just lightnin’ ‘em up.”
Olive studied her, not quite understanding. Cadence pinched her fingers together as she patted him on the shoulder again with a wink. Money. Slowly, the anchor that had been pulling down Olive’s chest lessened and lessened in weight. Soon, all that remained was a growing sense of embarrassment.
Oh, damn it, he thought as he glanced around the area. He was stupid. That had been a stupid move.
Ya ain’t stupid, kid, Cadence reassured him. Your idea ain’t bad. The execution’s just a bit off.
Claire proceeded to whip out his conductor and extinguish the flames consuming what remained of Olive’s belongings. Surprisingly, his flames eaten away very little of his belongings.
More ta sell. Good ta sell.
Olive turned to Alexander and studied the familiar badge hanging from his belt. “Alexander, I know you’re doing what you think is best and that you’re just doing your job, but…” He lifted his head and met the man’s eyes. “Alexander Charming—this is an order. Don’t follow me anymore. Return home to Aries and tell the king and queen that I’m going to continue supporting Prince Yuseong here. I’m doing it to improve our relationships with other countries. I will ensure that Claire takes the throne, and I will work to improve our relations with Capricorn from there. Go home. You don’t need to check up on me any longer.”
Alexander appeared taken a back for a moment. But after a few seconds, he finally managed, “Your Highness, I know you mean well, but these are complicated times and your aunt and uncle—”
“I understand that it’s complicated. I understand what they told you to do,” Olive returned, looking down at the ground. “And I’m sorry for putting you in a… uncomfortable positions over and over again. You were… always… good to me.” He lifted his chin to meet Alexander’s eyes. “But… But when I come of age, I’m going to be the one ascending the throne”—Just saying the words sent Olive’s head spinning— “Do you understand? Whatever happens here is on me. Alexander, you can try taking me by force—but whether it’s just you or if you bring other guards with you, you won’t be able to drag me home.”
Alexander remained silent.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Olive glanced around the area again. The whispering crowd still cluttered together on the opposite side of the street—still skirting away but remaining attentive to the scene. Except for one person. A man. He was not keeping to the sidewalk across the hotel like the other onlookers. Instead, he was walking steadily towards Olive from across the road. The man’s style of dress was odd: despite the heat thinning the air, he had a large fur coat thrown over his shoulders. Jarringly paired with this clothes item was a bow-tie tuxedo that glimmered with sew-in gem studs. Cancerian in origin. The man’s hair was jet black and tied up into a familiar ponytail.
Olive stared as recognition dawned on him. “Hideyoshi…?”
Cadence lightly grabbed his shoulder. Yeah…. That’s him alright. That’s Hide.
What’s he doing all the way over here in Scorpio?
Touristing… probably, Cadence reasoned with a tight expression. At least he was—ya know—before…
Olive could feel Atienna pull close.
The Hideyoshi that was coming closer and closer to Olive now, however, didn’t seem anything like the man Cadence had encountered in the Twin Cities and in Argo. The charm that had glimmered in his eyes the first time Cadence had encountered him was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was overshadowed by a dull glint that was so intense that it seemed to have pushed down bags beneath his eyes. He was muttering something under his breath that Olive couldn’t quite hear.
Cadence placed a hand on Olive’s shoulder again and pulled him back.
Wait. This was bad. Scorpio was probably watching. And if Scorpio realized that Hideyoshi was a True Conductor too from their interaction then—
Mind racing, Olive tried his best to hold Hide’s flickering gaze and pressed his fingers to his lips, but—
“That conducting…” Hideyoshi whispered, gesturing to Olive’s smoldering hands. His eyes widened as he reached for his hip. “You were in the cave. You’re like us. You were with Atienna. You—”
A black bird landed on Olive’s smoking suitcase and let out one loud caw. The sound echoed in the silence that stretched for a second afterwards before a cloud of blackbirds suddenly appeared like a storm above them. The crowd screeched and scattered as the birds descended. Soon, the flock covered every square inch of the sidewalk and street within a fifteen feet radius of the hotel. Only a few pedestrians remained—land locked by all of the birds.
Claire chuckled nervously beside Olive as Soha, Felix, Derik, and Alexander tensed.
“Not this fucking bastard again,” Derik spat under his breath. “Oh, I’ll fucking show him—”
“Derik,” Olive whispered back, tense, “You’re not going to fight against a bunch of birds and win. Just… wait.”
“The True Conductor,” one of the few remaining pedestrians drew, staring at Hideyoshi. “Get the True Conductor.” Their gaze shifted to Olive. “Get the True Conductor. The deal.”
“He always goes too far,” Lavi murmured beside Olive suddenly.
Olive turned to her just in time to see her vanish before his eyes. He unwittingly, reflexively dispelled her illusion as she faded drawing the attention of Eunji and Alexander.
Every single bird in the flock had now turned their beaks towards Hideyoshi. They fluttered their wings in unison before taking flight and swathing around him. In the blink of an eye, Hideyoshi was surrounded by a cloud of black birds that swirled around him like a tornado. They pecked, cawed, flapped—deafening Olive’s ears.
A high-pitched whistle abruptly tore through the air as wind snapped through the street. The surrounding area flooded with a bursting rain of black feathers as the wind pushed away the birds and sent them fluttering away from Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi in turn lowered his arms and stared down the street. Olive followed his gaze.
A young man stood there at the center of the road. In his hands he wielded a long, sleek, black bow conductor. He was dressed in a collared robe slightly similar in fashion to the ones Olive had seen Mai and Kai wear. His robes were, however, pure white in color and touched all the way down to his ankles. His jet black wavy hair that fell down just above his ears contrasted sharply with the whiteness as did his dark skin.
“Arjun,” Claire breathed.
Olive startled in surprise as he looked back at the young man. Olive supposed if anyone screamed elegance and royalty, it was this person.
“Claire…?” Arjun stared back at Claire in disbelief before lowering his bow. His gaze then flickered to Lyrs beside him. “Lyrs, is that you? You…”
Arjun looked back at Claire and held his gaze for a moment before he bowed his head. “Claire, you’re here because of father, aren’t you?” His voice was deep, smooth, milky.
“Soha, Felix, take Eunji away,” Claire drew calmly, flipping his conductor once. Before the two could object, he snapped with a smile. “That’s an order.” He proceeded to extend a hand out to Arjun. “Arjun, would you mind coming with me?”
Arjun let out a sigh. “This has to do with the succession, doesn’t it? I don’t want any involvement in it.” He gestured across the street towards Hideyoshi. “Hideyoshi, let’s go.”
Olive did a double-take. Arjun and Hideyoshi knew each other?
Before Olive could digest the revelation fully, Claire abruptly whipped his conductor out in an arc sending a whip of blue-speckled air at Arjun. Arjun startled before twirling his own conductor in a circle and breaking apart the burst of air with his own burst of air.
“I see there is little point in discussion,” Arjun sighed.
With that, he shot up to the sky with his conductor. Claire immediately followed after him, leaving behind a loud shaking boom in his wake. Felix shouted at him in alarm.
Olive, came Atienna’s warning, look out—
Olive looked forward just in time to see Hideyoshi lunging at him with the conducting blade he’d drawn out from his belt. It ignited in a streak of cobalt blue before coming down like a comet. In a flash, Derik darted forward, ripping a conducting blade from his own belt and bringing it up to block the blow. He held Hideyoshi there with one arm as he used the other to inch towards the conducting pistol clipped to his waist. He wasn’t able to pull it out from its holster completely, however, as Hideyoshi quickly swept his legs beneath him. Derik hit the ground with a thud but not before managing to slice through Hideyoshi’s coat and send the man’s blade flying off into the distance.
Hideyoshi stumbled back before ripping off the fur coat entirely.
“That’s… Kuroihoshi Hideyoshi, isn’t it?” Soha whispered tensely behind Olive. “He was known during the war as the Black Reaper. I heard he died while in service to the Hoshi Clan several years ago, but…”
That guy? Hide? ‘Black Reaper’? That ain’t an exactly pleasant moniker…
Well, that’s why they say appearances are deceivin’—
Suddenly Hideyoshi was in front of him again. In the two or so steps the man had taken to get from his position to Olive, he’d somehow drawn one of Alexander’s conducting blades out from his belt and had activated it. It sparked at its hilt due to the incompatibility, but still Hideyoshi swung out the weapon wildly without restraint. Olive reflexively threw out an arc of flame at the slash of blue that came down on him, but Hideyoshi cut through it and continued forwards.
Olive stumbled backwards, landing on his rear as Hideyoshi’s blade continued downwards. A thin line of cyan light blocked the blade before it finished its course. Soha, holding the hilt of the blade, pushed backwards against Hideyoshi before sending him backwards with a high kick to the chest. She backed away towards Eunji then and locked eyes with Olive.
“It’s… fine,” Olive answered her unasked question. “Just take Eunji and go already. Be careful about the birds. I’ll… look after Claire.”
Soha hesitated for a moment before she picked Eunji up by the scruff, tucked her under her arms, and darted down the road. Felix followed after them, picking Lyrs up by the scruff and towing him away.
“Where is she?!” Hideyoshi demanded, barreling forwards and plucking Derik’s blade from where it lay a foot away from Derik’s groaning form. “Where’s Louise?!”
Derik perked up immediately with a snap. “Hey, you bastard, that’s mine!”
Hideyoshi ignored him and swung the blade again at Olive, but Derik charged forward and tackled the man to the side. Derik struggled for a moment to pin Hideyoshi to the ground before he was kicked backwards and barely missed a decapitation by his own blade.
Alexander grabbed at Olive’s arm and pulled him close behind him as Hideyoshi threw the conducting blade at him. The blade whizzed high above Olive’s head—missing by a high margin. A familiar loud clang resounded from behind him, however, and Olive immediately shoved both himself and Alexander to the ground as the vitae blade which had rebounded from the wall behind them soared above their heads and back into Hideyoshi’s hands. Alexander proceeded to scramble to his feet.
“Do you understand that the person you’re trying to attack is the Ariesian royal prince?” Alexander demanded.
Hideyoshi stiffened briefly before he continued forward. Alexander caught Hideyoshi by the wrist as the former swung his blade. A second afterwards, however, Alexander was flat on his back. Derik fired at Hideyoshi next and managed to catch a bullet in Hideyoshi’s arm—but the man continued on blocking the rest of the vitae rays with precise slashes of his conductor. The black bird cloud above their heads shifted suddenly, and they darted down to swarm not Hideyoshi but Derik. The man swore in alarm as he lowered his pistol and tried to swat them away.
“Derik!” Olive shrieked as terror tore through him. “Stop! Stop! Stop attacking him! Get away! Run! Scorpio will go after anyone who tries to hurt any True Conductors—me or Hideyoshi! You’ll be infected again!”
Derik tensed before ducked under the birds and sought cover beneath the roofing of an adjacent building. He snapped from cover—“You fucking run then, you dumbass!”
“Your Highness… ” Alexander pulled out his own conducting blade and ignited it in flame.
Olive shoved Alexander away. “You too, Alexander!” He pointed to the sky. “Don’t let any of those things come near you!”
“What?” Alexander stumbled in confusion.
Olive sighed in frustration as Hideyoshi continued to limp towards him. His gaze then darted to the handful of pedestrians still frozen in shock across the street and then to the cloud of blackbirds above. He turned on his heels a second after and dashed down the street.
“Your Highness!” Alexander shouted after him in confusion, but Olive ignored him.
Olive continued down the sandy road with Hideyoshi at his feet and Scorpio’s flock tailing him from above. At this rate, Scorpio really would get a hold of Hideyoshi and—
Olive refused to have it play out like that—
Kid, I think ya have bigger problems than that, Cadence thought.
Cadence, Olive thought desperately, squeezing his hand that was ringed with her conductors.
Got it, kid, Cadence thought from beside him as she placed her hand over his. Let’s go dark.
Olive rounded a corner into a narrow alleyway just as popping crimson sparked at his fingertips. He immediately pulled back and pressed against the alley’s left wall as the red transmutation consumed him completely. Invisible to the naked eye in an instant.
Hideyoshi rounded the corner a second after and sped past Olive in down the alleyway. He slowly skidded to a stop and looked around in confusion as he reached a dead end. Turning on his heels, he swept past Olive and peered up and down the street. He backed into the alley once more, coming to a stop right in front of Olive.
Hideyoshi turned suddenly and threw a hand out in Olive’s direction. Olive gasped as Hideyoshi’s fingers wrapped around his throat and began squeezing tighter and tighter. Grimacing, Olive dispelled the illusion.
“I’ve seen this trick more than once before in the war,” Hideyoshi said darkly.
Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as his gaze floated up to the skyline where the black birds fluttered erratically.
He had to get away from Hideyoshi, but he also had to get Hideyoshi away from the birds.
Guided by Atienna’s hand, Olive sent his palm upwards towards Hideyoshi’s nose like Derik had taught him. There was a loud crack! before Hideyoshi released him, stumbled backwards, and cradled his face. Olive took the opportunity to duck beneath the man and ran back out onto the street. He scanned the buildings desperately before—
He darted into the bookstore just across the road. The shop’s interior was small and narrow with walls made of shelves that ran up all the way to the ceiling. Surprisingly, there were a dozen people crowded inside. A store clerk manned the very back desk behind which there was a glass door revealing another alleyway.
“Get out!” Olive snapped at the shoppers and the clerk. When they all stared blankly at him, he surrounded his hand in flames and swung it through the air. “Get out now!”
The group immediately shrieked in alarm before crowding together and squeezing through the shop’s narrow front exit—save for the clerk who bolted out the back door. As the crowd thinned and exited the building, Olive was able to make out a lone figure standing still like a statue at the exit’s threshold. Hideyoshi. Soon, it was just him that remained.
As Hideyoshi stepped forward, Olive threw his hand out towards the bookshelves lining the door behind the man. They immediately caught fire and burst into crimson flames that consumed the entire shelf. Hideyoshi looked back in confusion, which was when Olive took the opportunity to throw a ring of flames around him. Upon looking forward again, Hideyoshi stiffened in realization before his eyes narrowed. The hatred in his eyes was jarring.
Still, Olive held his ground. With his conducting, he knew that the advantage would always lay on his side of the field. He might as well make use of it.
“Where’s Louise?!” Hideyoshi snapped, swinging his conducting blade in an arc so hard that the wind from it temporarily extinguished Olive’s flames.
“I… don’t know…” Olive stammered, throwing another ring out. “I think she’s beneath the Serpens Establishment… where they take the others.”
“Why…?” Hideyoshi whispered, nearing the edge of the fire as smoke thickened in the air. “Why couldn’t you leave us alone?”
Olive brought his elbow to his face as his stomach churned with the smell of smoke. The fire was spreading now along the shelves bolstered to the walls. Crisp, burnt book pages were falling down through the smoke.
“It…was part of a deal,” Olive responded, coughing slightly, stomach curling with guilt. “We have to bring in other True Conductors or we’d—”
“So just to protect your own group, you sacrifice other groups and claim it’s for the greater good,” Hideyoshi stated, dull eyes flickering in the firelight. He pulled back. “You’re no better than the princes and princesses dancing around in the clan system. You understand what it’s like, don’t you? Being with someone who is with you at all times. Having someone who truly understands you and lends you a helping hand when you need it. But look at you.” He turned his back to Olive. “You’ve turned something beautiful into something ugly.”
Olive could feel Atienna stir at the words. Cadence placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder but said nothing.
“Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?” Hideyoshi continued in a whisper. “We wouldn’t have done anything. We don’t care about whatever is going on outside of us. It was just us.” It seemed as if Hideyoshi was talking to himself now—reassuring himself even maybe. “It was fun to be an idiot. If it makes the world easier to live in, then why not do it?”
The words rang in the back of Olive’s head for a reason he didn’t know. Doing things to make the world easier to live in—that was what Atienna and Werner were doing, weren’t they? Doing things to make the world easier to live in for him, Cadence, Maria, Jericho. Doing things like lying to people and rejecting them made things easier. But rejecting people and lying to them never really got anywhere, did it? That was something that Olive had learned when he’d finally left the royal palace—and yet despite that, he’d rejected Lyrs and in a sense lied to Reneé.
It was frustrating. It had to change.
“Hideyoshi…” Olive tried. “I’ll help you. And Louise. I can… We can try. No, we’ll do it. We’ll get her out.”
Olive could feel Atienna tense.
Hideyoshi turned and studied him. “How many people have you told that to…?”
“One other person,” Olive replied slowly. “And I intend to keep the promise I made to him too.” He clenched his fists and looked to the side where Cadence’s and Atienna’s images stood faintly flickering. “Whatever it is that’s happening in Signum is more than what just one group of us can handle. Going along with what they want—the people pulling the strings… It’s just a temporary ‘solution’ to our problems. There’s… no point in going through with it all of the way until the end. It’s just—there’s no point.” He looked back up at Hideyoshi. “So please, Hideyoshi, just run away from here for now. The birds outside are being controlled by the Manipulator we came across in Die Hauptstadt. If they somehow follow you after you kill me or try to kill me, then it’s over for you. The Manipulator—Scorpio—will find you.” He hacked for a minute as tears stung his eyes. “There’s no way you can save Louise if you’re locked up with her too. And… And I have someone who has enough access to get to her—”
“You’re asking me to forgive you, run away, and wait for your help?”
“I know you won’t forgive me,” Olive muttered. “I can’t understand what you’re going through, and I can’t even manage to imagine it. All I’m saying is… I’m just asking you to take this chance. It’s a better chance than all the other chances out there to get Louise out of where she is now. Please. I promise you.”
Hideyoshi remained silent.
Olive ignited the bookshelf wall to his left before pointing to the door behind him that was slowly seeping out the smoke from inside. He coughed and threw up a bit in his mouth but managed to keep his head held high. “The smoke in here is enough cover for you to avoid being seen by Scorpio’s mediums—I think.”
Olive lowered his hand and stopped feeding the flames encircling Hideyoshi. After a moment, the embers there died down. Hideyoshi came at him then, stopping short only when he was an inch away. He held Olive’s gaze, and Olive had to resist trembling—Cadence’s and Atienna’s presences acted as a reassurance.
“You’re a child,” was all Hideyoshi said.
Olive managed, “If you ever find a weird black stain when you’re going around, go up to it and say that I—Olive Chance—sent you. It might take some time since you don’t have a proto-conductor, but the person on the opposite end will help you. I promise.”
Hideyoshi’s eyes narrowed before he briskly brushed past Olive and walked towards the back exit. He paused at the emblazoned threshold and turned to lock eyes with him before disappearing into the flames.
Olive felt himself relax slightly before Cadence pressed—
Kid. Ya gotta get outta here too.
Olive started towards the back exit but then paused and turned towards the front exit that was now just a ring of fire. Squeezing his eyes shut, he charged onwards and threw himself forwards. Intense heat licked his skin as he passed through the threshold, but he managed to stumble out from the building and onto the sidewalk. Hacking and coughing blindly, he made it across the street before he collapsed onto the ground. The sky was completely black now—the street lamps populating the street just barely illuminating the darkness.
The ground shook with pounding footsteps beneath his head shortly after, and he looked up to find Derik and Alexander hovering over with annoyance on one end and alarm on the other. Olive blinked blearily at them both before he was jerked up into a stand by Derik.
“What the fuck happened?” Derik pressed.
“Hideyoshi’s gone,” was all Olive provided, glancing weakly up at the sky.
There were still a few birds perched on top of the buildings. One fluttered down towards him and landed only a few feet away. It approached him steadily before peering at him with one eye. Derik whipped out his pistol and fired at it, but it flapped back up into the sky quickly.
A loud boom abruptly rumbled through the sky followed by a burst of glowing blue overhead. Olive looked up just in time to see that the clouds had parted with the light-speckled wind and now revealed the clear night sky that was being illuminated by the full moon. High up there and being accented by the lunar light hovered Claire and Arjun—both facing each other, both balancing on top their conductors. Olive noted how both of them wobbled almost off-balance in the air—like they were about to tumble down at any moment. It was an unusual sight since he recalled Claire always being annoyingly graceful when riding his conductor through the clouds.
The air, Olive realized a beat after. It was hot despite the time of day. The air here was less dense than the cool air of Sagittarius, making lift more difficult to achieve. These two were playing a dangerous game. Or—they were stupid. Probably both.
“So you’re running away again?” Claire called out at Arjun from across the distance. “Wasn’t almost a decade of running away enough for you?”
“You blame me for running away,” Arjun returned calmly, “but you’re still playing father’s game after all of these years. Do you realize what you’re asking of me?”
“If I bring you to our father,” Claire responded, “then I’ll be crowned emperor. I’ll be able to abolish the clan system after that. You do remember that, don’t you? You wanted to do that too—”
“Claire, you talk about being free from the clan system,” Arjun returned, “but you are still bound by its machinations. How can you do away with it if you’re still playing by it?”
In response, Claire whipped his conductor at Arjun and sent a burst of air at him. He temporarily fell as he did so but caught himself back on his conductor a moment afterwards. Arjun barely managed to throw himself out of its range before he shot up even higher into the sky. He floated there for a moment above them all before he pulled his bow conductor from beneath his feet. And then, he fell.
As he descended, he aimed his bow conductor downwards at them and pulled back on the bow’s invisible string. An arrowhead of sharp blue light ignited at the center of the bow where an arrowhead would have rested. As Arjun pulled back on that invisible string tighter and tighter, the light grew and grew before he released that string. The blue arrowhead shot forth in a burst of wind, producing a sonic boom that shook the buildings and shattered the windows. Olive felt like his skeleton was going to be torn out from his body by the vibrations.
Claire was thrown off his conductor by the force of the wind and fell onto the roof of one of the nearby tall buildings. His conductor clattered down with him. Olive’s heart skipped a beat in alarm, worry, and fear, but relief came as Claire picked himself up a second after and shot back up to the sky with his conductor. Arjun had already caught himself from his fall and hovered up in the air at a higher point above Claire.
Ears ringing and maybe even bleeding from the aftermath of the boom, Olive blanched. He knew that he was getting himself into some complicated family feud but this just felt like a soap opera. At the rate things were going, the Sagittarian princes were both going to kill each other—which defeated the whole purpose of trying to find Arjun to begin with.
Mind racing, Olive started after them with Alexander and Derik at his feet. As he stopped directly below the two princes, Felix broke out from an adjacent alleyway beside him.
“My Lord!” Felix called out in alarm before he darted across the street towards a tall building—most likely intending to scale it to reach Claire.
Before Felix made it past him, however, Olive grabbed a hold of the man’s wrist. Felix squinted back at him in confusion from behind his mask.
“Wait. Trust me.”
Felix tensed, then nodded.
Grimacing, Olive held out a hand up in the air before he shot up flames with all his might. The flames barely skirted two feet below both princes—but Olive knew that the heat of his flames were swathing them. Claire looked down at him with an arched brow, while Arjun stared down at him with widening eyes—
“So I wasn’t seeing things earlier. Without a conductor—you—”
Before Arjun could finish his sentence, his conductor bowed beneath him. He fell to his knees on his conductor and began to sway on it as it jerked up and down. The speckled air pouring out from it spun around through the sky erratically. Claire was in a similar situation, now crouched on his conductor as he continuously wobbled up and down on it.
Olive dispelled his flames once both princes began to descend haphazardly downwards. Eventually both reached ground-level and stumbled down onto opposite sides of the street in front of him.
Claire’s gaze remained fixated on Arjun, but he still pressed in a light tone, “Ollie, what are you doing—”
“Wait, Claire.” Olive held his hand out to him before turning to Arjun who was regarding him quietly. “Arjun, you’re looking into the saint candidates, aren’t you?”
Arjun remained silent, studying Olive apprehensively. Claire, on the other hand, stiffened.
“Does me conducting without a conductor mean anything to you?” Olive pressed. When he received no response, he pressed, “We might be trying for the same thing.”
Arjun lowered his conductor slightly, gaze flitting towards Claire. “Are you working with my brother?”
“Yes, I’m working with Claire. Our goals align,” Olive responded tightly. “Claire’s probably way more involved in all of this than you think…” He looked between the two of them. “You’re looking into something specific, right? That’s why you were with Hideyoshi and looking into candidate ceremonies. Lyrs said that you were searching for a direction. I—we—might have some answers for you.”
Arjun looked him over for a beat before asking, “Where is Hideyoshi?”
“I can explain,” Olive drew steadily, holding out a placating hand, “But it’s complicated. I think it’s better for us all to exchange information and talk instead of throwing tornadoes at each other. We’re all royalty, aren’t we?”
“Royalty?” Arjun looked Olive up and down again.
“I’m the Ariesian prince,” Olive replied, gesturing to himself. “Olivier Chance.”
Arjun lowered his conductor completely and rested its edge against the ground. He bowed his head. “I apologize for my drastic actions, Prince Chance. I’m ashamed that you had to witness such behavio—”
Claire abruptly whipped out his conductor and sent a razor burst of air hurtling towards Arjun. The other prince barely had the time to snap to him in alarm before he was thrown back hard against the building wall behind him. He hit the ground unconscious a second after, his bow conducting clattering unattended at his side.
“Cuff him, Felix,” Claire ordered. “Now.”
Felix moved to complete the order, darting to Arjun’s side, turning him over, and conjuring a pair of cuffs which he slapped over the man’s wrists.
Olive turned to Claire in shock and upset but paused as he saw a thin smile of victory pull its way up Claire’s lips. The prince’s eyes glinted with a dull and unfamiliar hunger and desperation.
Olive looked away from the unnerving scene and turned to Alexander who was studying him silently. “You don’t have to worry about me anymore, Alexander. I can handle things on my own. And if I can’t, I have other people here with me too.”
* * *
Olive stared up at the ceiling of his hotel room with a frown. He hadn’t heard a response from Werner or Atienna yet about his declaration. Atienna had folded quietly away afterwards and Werner had yet to touch in.
Arjun was still bound in cuffs three rooms over and was being guarded tightly by Soha and Felix. Two rooms over resided Alexander who stated that he planned to head back to Aries as soon as day broke. Olive could hear Lyrs snoring just a room over. The Monadic priest had cheerily rejoined them after their short battle, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He’d glanced at Arjun’s unconscious and bound body with a mild look of sympathy and had even placed a hand over his heart before reminding both Claire and Olive himself to sponsor Seamus. Lyrs then proceeded to invite himself on their journey up until they cast their votes to ensure their end of the deal.
If the situation were slightly different, Olive would’ve shot Lyrs down right away. But Lyrs presented a possibility. An opportunity to reach out to Veles through him. It as tricky but—
The memory of Claire’s hollow gaze interrupted Olive’s thought, and he shot up from his bed with a sigh of annoyance. He glared at the scorched luggage stuffed in the corner of his room. He intended to sell it all the following morning following their departure but the sight of it still churned his stomach. To the pile’s left sat Derik snoring loudly away.
Olive studied the man for a moment before sighing and pulling himself off of his bed. He snuck quietly out from his room and moved through the halls into the dining room of the hotel. Given the lateness of the hour, all the tables of the dining room were empty save for one. Claire sat bowed over this table at the room’s center—elbows propped on its surface, head buried in his hands.
Grumbling under his breath, Olive approached him from behind before seating himself at an adjacent table.
Claire stirred and glanced at him in surprise. “Ollie? You’re not asleep yet?”
“How can I sleep after that?” Olive grumbled.
Claire shrugged nonchalantly before pointing to the open kitchen across the room. “Did you want to grab something to eat? I haven’t had the chance to try any Scorpioan food before. I’ve seen pictures though. Looks pretty good—”
“So what now?”
Claire blinked at him. “What do you mean? We take Arjun to Ophiuchus for his ceremony, ring in the Monadic priests in Sagittarius, and then bring him back to Sagittarius after that.”
“You put it so lightly…” Olive muttered. “And then what?”
“And then my father crowns me emperor and I abolish the clan system,” Claire replied sing-song. “I do away with that silly little tariff my father put on Capricorn and then… everything falls into place.”
“And after that?” Olive pressed. “What about the syzygy?”
Claire’s eyes lost focus briefly. “What about the syzygy?”
“Well, I told you what Maria saw from Epsilon’s vitae, didn’t I?” Olive replied. “It’s obviously not a very good thing.” He glanced at Claire. “Claire, I don’t think your idea is bad or stupid. I think it’s… good of you… or something. I just think the execution is off.”
Claire quieted and scanned the room for a while before finally speaking, “I guess Aunt Jiji is—or will be… And Arjun will…”
“Yeah…” Olive drew slowly, scanning the room too. “I don’t really understand what your relationship with him is, but even though you were throwing him around—you…” He grimaced, cheeks flushing slightly. “… cared about him, right? I mean, you usually don’t get that angry at people that you care about unless you have issues.”
Claire turned to him.
“I’m just stating the obvious,” Olive muttered.
Claire answered after a beat, “It wasn’t just me who was all gung-ho for doing away with the clan system, you know? There were more like me. Kai and Mai were all for it and so was Trang. We had this whole plan when we were younger. We wouldn’t participate in activities; we held protests in the middle of the courts. A youthful, peaceful rebellion kind of thing.” He smiled almost fondly for a moment. “We were caught and punished for it though. Since we were royals, they were lenient on us and just demanded for us to point out which one of us ‘manipulated’ the others into going along with our ‘movement.’ We were young. Arjun took the fall for it in the end.”
“That’s why he was exiled…?”
“He was supposed to be exiled for only a short while. But by the time his exile ended, the others had given up on the idea of abolishing the system,” Claire muttered, grimacing. “Arjun never came back which just caused father to extend his exile. He—”
“—ran away,” Olive finished. “You think he ran away.”
Claire said nothing for a while, before he suddenly chirped, “I… think you’re pretty tough, Ollie, you know that? You’ve been through a lot but you still keep going and keep at it in the same direction without faltering. I think that’s pretty impressive.”
Olive arched a brow. “Are you planning to kill me or betray me soon or something? What’s with this sappiness?”
Claire just chuckled. “Hey now. We’re friends aren’t we, Ollie?”
There was a beat of silence.
“I guess…” Olive rubbed a strand of his hair between his fingers. “Yes, we’re friends.” He flushed a second afterwards.
“It’s always nice to have someone who understands,” Claire said before Olive could take back his words. “I know we have the people in our circle, but having someone outside of it who understands is really nice. Overlaps and everything. Like, for example, Andres can be a handful sometimes. Sigrid can make me get carried with things.”
“Yeah,” Olive agreed after a beat, “Maria can be a handful sometimes too.”
“I hope your person’s alright—Maria, I mean,” Claire drew slowly. “That… Alpha…” He glanced over at Olive. “I’m really sorry about what happened there. The saint candidates, ELPIS—it feels like we’re just playing pieces in their game.” He placed a hand to his chin as his eyes glinted. “The question is how we turn ourselves from pieces into players.”
Olive arched a brow at him before his thoughts strayed to Maria. “Andres was in a Monadic orphanage, right?”
Claire nodded. “I’m honestly not much of a religious person—Sagittarius is mostly agnostic—but Andres’s fervor… is really something else. Sometimes I find myself reciting those Monadic pillars before I sleep.”
“Andres—did he grow up in an orphanage?” Olive tensed. “Sorry if that’s personal, but…”
Claire stilled but nodded. “It’s hard for me to talk about…” He grimaced. “Because of how Andres feels about it… I understand what you’re trying to ask though.”
“‘Either you become the shining star—’”
“‘—or the night sky that supports the star,’” Claire finished, rubbing the back of his neck. “Like I said, it’s hard for me to talk about it, but I do want to help you with the… Alpha thing.”
Olive nodded, falling silent in thought.
“You know—I feel like you know too much about me now.” Claire laughed. “You know, usually when two characters have a heart-to-heart moment like this in books, one of them usually dies not so long after.”
“Don’t… say that.” Olive muttered, tensing as he recalled Derik’s words on the train earlier.
“It was just a joke, Ollie,” Claire reassured him.
“A bad one,” Olive muttered, shivering and rubbing his arms as a chill crept out from his spine and into his limbs. “Words… they’re never enough but they can still do things. If you say things like that even as a joke—self-deprecating things and everything—it just hammers it down.” He rubbed his arms harder. “I don’t know…”
Claire arched a brow. “That sounds like a lot of baggage.”
“Hello: you just told me your dramatic tragic backstory—again.”
“For context,” Claire replied. “If you don’t give me context, I won’t have any clue what you’re talking about when you say things like that, Ollie.”
They sat in silence for a while.
“About Arjun and the ceremony—” Olive began, turning to Claire and shivering again. He stopped short when he registered Claire staring at him wide-eyed.
“Ollie… you’re shaking like crazy.” Claire rose from his seat, closed the distance between them, and peered into his face. “Are… you okay?”
Olive frowned as he rose from his table but staggered forward as the world around him spun dizzyingly. Claire caught him and said something but Olive couldn’t quite understand him—he sounded like he was underwater. Olive gripped his chest as his vision blurred. His heart didn’t feel like it was his own—hammering off-beat, chaotically, painfully.
“Is it one of the others?” Claire’s voice finally broke through. “It’s not Maria—I can see her. She’s—”
But it was one of the others.
Olive reached out to each of them as his breath became ragged.
It wasn’t Cadence who was stumbling through what appeared to be a hotel hallway. It wasn’t Maria either who was doubled over Morandi’s hospital bed. Not Atienna who was curled over a bathroom sink. Not Jericho who was being supported by Leona as his knees buckled in front of a group of Monadic priests. But if not them, then who—
Olive’s vision flickered and for a moment he found himself lying on the floor of a familiar bathroom. Shards of glass and several cracked vials were scattered around him along the tiled floor. The door across from him was closed, and the v-lights above the sink were flickering on and off. The mirror just below it reflected back a nauseatingly familiar sight: smoke, curling up pleasantly towards the ceiling.
He was cold, shaking—but also hot at the same time. Sweat was dribbling down his brow as he struggled to breathe. Gripped in his left hand was a packet of bundled leaves. In his other hand was a familiar black pocket watch that was steadily ticking time away.