Olive has agreed to help Claire locate the next Saint Candidate of Sagittarius so that Claire may become emperor and lift his country’s tariff on Capricorn. With the help of a Monadic priest—also suspected to be a True Conductor—named Lyrs, the two have located and captured Arjun, the potential saint candidate. During their journey, Olive has had to face off against other opposing clan members and has even faced off against another True Conductor—Hideyoshi Kuroihoshi—whom he has helped escape from Scorpio’s ever watching eyes.
After witnessing the effects the True Conductor hunt has had on people close to him, Olive makes a resolution to resist. Not everyone around him, however, is so willing to do the same.
“I was wondering why you were so adamantly defending this small village in the literal middle of nowhere.”
The familiar sound of crackling reverberated low like a whisper.
“At first, I thought it was because you were fond of this particular physical location, but now I can see it’s because you’re fond of these people. No, it’s because you want them to return to the cycle and suffer as such.”
Olive stood in a familiar barren field littered with bodies. Ashes snowed down from the skyline meeting the smoke pillars that rose up from the ground. Bodies dotted the spaces between the pillars. A familiar man whose hair caught the faint sunlight falling in-between the gaps of gray oversaw this carnage—back sturdy, shoulders broad, stance firm. He was beautifully golden.
Leonhart, Olive now recognized from Oros’s memories Maria had received from Epsilon. There was a woman standing behind Leonhart and behind her crowded a cluster of men, women, children, soldiers—faces smudged with fear. Behind that group stood the remains of what once must have been a village. Now, it looked like a black skeleton forest.
“Leo…” the woman behind Leonhart murmured. “Everything will be okay, right?”
It was Epsilon, Olive realized.
“This carnage is unnecessary,” Leonhart responded calmly. “Excessive. This village isn’t in the path of your campaign—”
“It’s a war path, Leo.”—Olive realized it was he himself who said this or at least it felt like he was the one who said it. His lips moved in sync with the words and a sigh escaped from his lips. “So you’ve been in contact with them this entire time. That paints you in a questionable light.” He clicked his tongue. “It’s pretty aggravating, you know? Seeing you standing there like you’re proud—”
“I will not abandon these people,” Leonhart drew, rumbling voice filled with absolute certainty. “I refuse. If you continue on this path, I will stand against you with Altair, Vega, Deneb, and the others.” When he turned his head, his molten amber eyes were filled with disappointment. “Do you not have any pride for everything we’ve gone through to build this place from the ground up?”
An unseen force guided Olive’s arm up and straightened his hand to point at Leonhart. Sparks erupted at his fingertips. Crimson. A familiar color. The color of his vitae, of his sister’s vitae, of Aries’s vitae.
In response, Leonhart threw his hand in an arc and familiar line of gold light wove out from his fingertips.
The scene cut to black.
When Olive’s vision returned to him, he found himself standing in what he thought was one of the rooms of the Serpens Establishment. The walls were white as were the pillars that rose up around him—wait, no. These walls and pillars were not pure white but stained red. Some of the pillars were toppled over on their sides, caging in bodies clothed in familiar white robes. The Ophiuchians—born out from the Ophiuchus District of United Signum. The white snake tattoos visible on some of the bodies of the corpses classified them further. These were ELPIS leaders.
This was Pandora, Ophiuchus; and this was the hall that led to Ophiuchus’s chamber.
Moved again by an unseen force, Olive lifted his head and scanned the room. His heart nearly leapt out of his chest as he registered Nareen—dressed in a dark blue military uniform that was decorated with medals—sitting on a toppled pillar across from him. Pacing around in a circle beneath the fallen ceiling to her right was a yawning Jin. Nareen’s attention was not focused on Jin, however. Instead it was focused on the russet-haired man who stood directly across from her. He too was dressed in a decorated military uniform.
The Saint Candidate of Libraduring the war. Arthur something-or-other—Olive had been slacking on the history texts this past year with good reason.
“This was not what I meant by equivalent retribution.” Libra’s eyes were stone cold as he scanned the room. “This is too far.”
“What?” Jin whipped around, slipping her hands into her pockets. “Practically wiping out an entire country and its people isn’t equal retribution for our old friends pulling wool over our eyes for a couple of centuries?” She raised a finger. “For the unaware, that was sarcasm.”
“I know you enjoy pointing your finger at me, dear Libra,” Nareen drew, lips curling, “but I assure you what happened here was not my doing. It’s the natural order of things. Outside of the inner machinations we have going on here, wouldn’t you say the course Ophiuchus and all of them have taken has stalled the syzygy by decades? Therefore—if we go by your flavor of law and order and your scales—shouldn’t this be an expected development?”
“Ophiuchus was supposed to stand trial for the actions of ELPIS. They were not the true accused. ELPIS itself was the party suspected of going against our deal. They should have been captured and then tried before all of us.” Libra gestured to the doors across from him. “How do we deal balanced punishment when we don’t understand the weight of the crime?”
The doors were ajar, revealing another room that housed an empty stone table. This was where Ophiuchus had been laid, Olive realized. This was where Leonhart had—
“You know how Ophiuchus’s vitae is,” Libra continued. “This is absolutely unjust—”
“Seriously?” Nareen sighed before swinging off of the pillar. “Dear Libra, you should have been clearer then. You say something so invigorating like ‘we need equal retribution’ and then you’re confused when people are moved forward by your words? That’s like dropping stone into a puddle and not expecting ripples to form.”
Libra stared through Nareen.
“Why’re you still glaring at me?” Nareen returned his gaze. “I’m not the one who did this.”
Libra scanned the area before his gaze became drawn to the blood-stained floor. “I see Leo’s vitae concentrated below us…”
“Yep, he’s checked out—returned himself to the reservoir,” Jin replied. “Emptied the last bit of himself just as I flew over the area. So did some of the others. Leo got here first before them so…” She shrugged and gestured to the corpses. “I don’t think it’s that hard to connect the dots.”
“I didn’t think Leo had it in him,” Nareen hummed. “Well, I knew he was capable of this”—she gestured to the massacre—“but it’s a bit… inelegant for him, isn’t it? Well, perhaps he was this way all along. You know, outside of our one get-together not too long ago, I haven’t spoken to him much since this war began…”
“Aries, do you have anything to say about it?”
Olive’s heart hammered wildly as Jin, Nareen, and Libra turned to look at him.
“No,” he found himself saying, “We only had one face-to-face skirmish several years ago. I haven’t spoken with him since—besides that meeting.”
Aries had lied…?
Nareen inspected her nails. “Well, no matter. Since Ophiuchus is gone and our bargain is through, then we should move forward with the syzygy without any problems. The reservoirs still haven’t reached full capacity yet even with all this man-made carnage, so I suppose we should do a little more work ourselves—”
“No,” Libra said.
“No?” Nareen’s lips drew down into a frown. “What do you mean no? They broke the deal—”
“And we went against our end of the bargain and accused and condemned without trial,” Libra replied. “The actions taken here against Ophiuchus today have balanced the scales that were unbalanced by the alleged actions of the accused. No, they have now unbalanced the scales in the opposite direction. Now we must make retribution.”
“What? That’s ridiculous.” Nareen’s gaze narrowed. “Where do you exactly stand on the syzygy, Libra?”
“I’m on neutral ground.”
“Neutral ground’s practically being for the syzygy anyways, right?” Jin arched a brow, looking between the two. “And would you mind not flirting anymore? It seriously gives me a headache, and I kinda wanna puke in my mouth a little. Not pleasant.”
“Think what you want. Your view is perception, not reality. As always, I have no stance on this,” Libra replied calmly. “I will uphold the bargain and see to it that everyone else here upholds it as well.”
Jin looked away, rubbing the back of her neck, while Nareen held Libra’s gaze. The latter walked up to Libra and stopped short only a foot away from him. Then, she looked over Libra’s shoulder and asked–
“What about you, Aries?”
There was a stretch of silence.
“Would you feel any sense of accomplishment if you push the syzygy with your own hand?” Olive found himself asking after a pause. “If we cause the syzygy ourselves, then would we be proving anything? Would that bring you any satisfaction?”
“That would be pretty unsatisfying,” Jin agreed, side-glancing at Scorpio. “You know how it is. You cook food yourself and it’s alright, but when someone else cooks you that same food it’s just.” She kissed her fingers.
A look of irritation knitted itself into Nareen’s face. “Haven’t we seen enough of that these past centuries? The story won’t change when you read the book again. The only thing that changes is perspective.” Her irritation melded into amusement. “Perhaps on the third read through you’ll see the hero as a villain and the villain as the hero. Perhaps you’ll see the neutral judge as a slovenly observer.”
Libra shook his head.
“Either way, when you get to the last page, it will say ‘the end.’ Nothing changes.”
“Yes, like you’ve said–we’ve already seen the world sauntering vaguely downwards for the past handful of centuries,” Aries drew. “What’s fifty or so more years to it? At least this way we’ll know for absolutely certain. You still care for your people, don’t you?”
Nareen’s eyes narrowed before she took a step back and placed a tender hand to her heart. “I’ve never stopped loving them for even one second. I only want to bring them true peace.”
Libra nodded and straightened himself as he looked ahead into the chamber where Ophiuchus once laid. “From hence on we will maintain the agreement we struck with Ophiuchus when this all began. The syzygy will move forward—as instructed by the free will of the people—”
A loud, thunderous rumbling resounded throughout the building. The walls then shook and dust rained down from above. Libra’s eyes widened and then trailed to the floor that was beginning to form cracks.
The man’s eyes widened. “Our reservoirs—”
Olive looked down to the floor as well just in time to see white rays of light seep up from the growing cracks. “What—”
The scene cut to black again.
Suddenly, Olive found himself standing haphazardly on the branch of a great oak tree. His gaze was focused on a point in the distance—a thick column of smoke that rose from the center of a pristine, white city. It took him a moment to realize that point was where he—rather Aries—had been standing only a moment before.
“Damn, you’re all heavy,” came a sigh from behind him.
Upon turning, Olive registered Nareen, Libra, and Jin standing behind him. Nareen was leaning against the trunk of the tree while Libra observed the smoke tower before them. Jin was sitting a step away and swinging her feet with a bored look on her face. She must have flown them here before the entire building collapsed, Olive realized.
“Seriously?” Jin grimaced, squinting at the smoke. “Now who in the world did that? Talk about excessive. I… guess we won’t see some of the others for a while.”
“It was most likely their desperate last resort,” Libra reasoned.
“And you still want to uphold this deal, Libra?” Nareen drew, eyes narrowing. “After they did this?”
“Yes, of course. It’s only what’s fair.”
“Fair?” Scorpio chuckled. “So you say. I can see you, Libra. The truth is that your brand of unmoving justice is just embodying the fact that you don’t want to move and choose. Slow-moving justice is ultimately useless.” She sighed, smile thinning. “No matter. I suppose we should be patient then—be virtuous and the like.”
Jin snorted. “You’re the least patient person I know.”
Nareen continued to smile. “Say now… who do you think is the tortoise in this ‘the tortoise and the hare’ story? Us or them?”
Olive shot up and gasped for air as Derik burst through the door of his private room. Just as the door was about to crash into the wall behind it, Derik caught it by the edge.
No need to pay for damage fees this time. Hurray.
Derik arched his brow. “Huh. You’re awake. Good. Still feel like shit?”
In response, Olive bent over the side of bed and puked into the bucket that he’d been keeping there for the past week and a half. Derik grimaced in response.
“That’s gross as hell.”
Olive wiped his mouth with his arm.
“Ugh. Don’t you know that’s fuckin’ unsanitary?”
Unfortunately, Derik was an eerily clean person, so there were no biting remarks Olive could make—not that biting remarks did any good. The only dirty thing about Derik was his mouth really. And oh saints did Derik show how dirty his mouth was when Alexander had tried to accompany Olive on his journey back in that small Scorpioan town. Somehow Derik had managed to bring out Alexander’s less charming side in their shouting match, and eventually Alexander had given in—leaving Scorpio by himself to head back to Aries.
Olive scowled before he stumbled out of the room and into the bathroom across the hall. He scrubbed his face over the sink, rinsed his mouth, then stared into the mirror. In the reflection there, he saw Werner curled up on that thin bed in Francis’s exitless room. The pain and cold and shivering had lessened substantially in the past week and a half, but the hunger still remained at the pit of the stomach and so did that small whisper of desperation for that single instant of temporary relief—
In alarm, Olive reached out to Werner—Hey, I’m working more on the conductors later again. Can you come look at it later?
Werner visibly stiffened at the request. There was hesitation still on Werner’s end of things. The lingering guilt, regret, and shame were still present—Olive could feel it.
Your expertise in that area is greater than mine, Werner finally answered. I don’t believe I would be of any assistance.
Yeah, but… I… Olive grumbled then sighed. I want company, Werner. Your company.
There was a pause.
Werner nodded. I understand. I’ll come when you call.
Olive couldn’t help but all the other times Werner had promised that before. He had maintained that promise throughout these months and had only recently broken the chain. Protect, protect, protect—was that the only reason Werner stayed…?
Olive pushed the thought aside before it could reach Werner. Keeping him busy was good for now.
The bathroom door rattled suddenly, jarring Olive from his thoughts.
“What the fuck is taking so long in there?” Derik snapped, giving the door another pound. “Is there a masseuse in there that I don’t know about? Hurry the fuck up.”
Olive hadn’t told Derik the full circumstances behind what had happened with Werner yet. All Derik knew was that Werner had been ‘poisoned’ and was in recovery—which wasn’t too far from the truth in Olive’s personal opinion. Chlorowheat—it was poison. It clung like smoke to a person’s insides, blackening and staining everything. Like soot and ash, it was difficult to remove. Each scrub drove it deeper into a person’s skin. Could it even be removed?
Olive blinked again, and the reflection in the mirror rippled. Grimacing, he rubbed his eyes. When the stars cleared from his vision, he registered Maria not Werner reflected in the mirror. Maria too was in one of Francis’s rooms—separate from Werner since the close proximity between them had only amplified their ability to feel each other’s pain. Maria had been running a high fever for the past several days and had only stumbled out of bed to stop Jericho from squeezing the life out of Alpha a day or two earlier. Her fever had broken half a day ago, but she was still keeping to her bed.
While Olive was afraid about something that would never leave Werner, he was afraid about something that would never return to Maria.
Tentatively he reached out to her—Hey, Maria, I want to show you something I’ve been working on later. Can you… swing by?
Something to show me? Maria shifted in bed, turning to face him through their connection. I don’t understand conductors as well as you do. It would not be very fun for you… no?
She didn’t sound right.
There was another pause.
Okay, my dear Olive.
Olive blinked. His own reflection stared back at him. He balled his fists. There was no time to feel sorry for himself. He had work to do.
* * *
With Derik just a step behind him, Olive made his way into the main private train compartment that he’d rented out with Claire. The compartment was empty save for two tables. One was occupied by Claire, Eunji, and Lyrs; and it was piled on with various Seong Clan dishes. Pickled vegetables, rice, meat, and other colorful foods. The table across from them was occupied by Arjun who was sandwiched between Soha and Felix.
For the moment, Arjun was free from the cuffs that he’d been shackled in earlier. Despite his situation, the young man was calmly spooning rice into his mouth and helping himself to the tofu platter on the table in front of him. As Olive passed him and headed to Claire’s table, Arjun looked up and held Olive’s gaze.
Olive looked away from Arjun only when he slid himself down into the seat across from Claire. Derik slid in beside him and began to immediately help himself to the food. Upon studying Claire, Olive was reminded of the feverish devotion Andres had displayed to Maria and Jericho in that Monadic temple in Leo. Olive’s hand immediately went to his left arm as the memory played out in his mind again.
Claire eyed Olive’s arm and maintained a tight smile. “Good morning. How’re you feeling, Ollie?”
“Morning…” Eunji mumbled, looking between them hesitantly.
“Must be nice to sleep in, huh?” Lyrs yawned and took a loud slurp of his coffee. “Youth.”
Olive wasn’t sure whether to go with “Are you implying you’re old?” or “You slept in past noon every single day this week.” He opted for neither option in the end. Although he was annoyed by Lyrs’s comment, he was glad that Claire had asked that question. It showed that at least he cared in his own sort of way. Friends—or so Jericho liked to insist.
“Not good, Claire,” Olive replied.
Derik frowned beside him.
The honest answer seemed to throw Claire off. “Ollie, I—”
Olive waved his hand, picked up a stray fork, stabbed it into a peeled hard-boiled egg sitting in a bowl at the center of the table.
Claire watched him for a bit. “I tried, Ollie. I really did.”
Olive merely grunted in response as Eunji exchanged a look with Soha and Felix and Derik a look with Lyrs. He downed the dryness off the egg with a glass of water before moving to the more appealing ruby red strawberries sitting at the corner of the table. He popped ten in his mouth, hoping that their sweetness would distract both Maria and Werner from their pain.
“You say that every morning,” Olive replied finally. “And I always say the same thing.” He glanced at the others at the table. “And after I say the same thing, I say ‘should we really be talking about this here?’”
“Things generally aren’t suspicious until you paint them as suspicious,” Claire answered matter-of-factually. “Besides, I think we’re being just vague enough to be a little bit irritating and nothing more.” He glanced down at his sister beside him. “Isn’t that right, Eunji?”
Claire pulled back from his sister and returned his attention to Olive. “How is she…?”
“I don’t know….” Olive looked away and clenched his left fist. “I know, but I don’t know.” He glanced at Claire again. “How is he…?”
“I know but I don’t know,” Claire responded. He leaned back in his seat. “Really…. I tried.”
Were all these words a result of Claire’s own guilt? Andres’s? Both? Guilt was a good motivator, but it was useless and even harmful if a person didn’t act on it.
“It’s messed up,” Olive muttered, recalling the clamor of the bells on that day. “What they did to them.” He glanced over at Lyrs. “Monadism…”
Lyrs choked on his coffee at his comment and set down his cup with a frown. “Now what’s this about Monadism?”
Olive figured that remark was probably not a good move in his plan to foster friendship with Lyrs. It wasn’t as if all Monadic people were cultists who brainwashed children and kicked them into reservoir, after all—just like not all ELPIS leaders were explosion enthusiasts. All-in-all, Olive was surprised that Lyrs had even taken offense to it. Lyrs didn’t seem like the type to be fully devout.
Lyrs stared at Olive expectantly. Olive glanced over at Claire in turn, but Claire just looked out the train window.
“It’s just sketchy sometimes,” Olive tried haphazardly. “That’s all. Belief—”
“Hm. It’s generally not the belief that’s evil or ‘sketchy’ when it comes to Monadism,” Lyrs said, taking a long sip of his cup. “It’s the people who interpret our beliefs that can be ‘sketchy’ or evil.” He held up a finger and smiled like an annoying politician. “Actually, technically speaking, an evil belief can even be turned ‘good’ if the right leader takes the reins. All you need is the right concept at the right time being implemented by the right person.”
Olive exchanged a look with Claire. Where in the world had that come from?
“And where do you fall in all of that, Lyrs?” Claire asked, propping his elbows up on the table. “Out of curiosity.”
Olive had already informed Claire about his suspicions about Lyrs being a True Conductor. Claire’s response had been an arched brow and an “Oh, I think I know who they’re in a circle with then.” When Olive had pressed him for who that might be, Claire had laughed and waved the thought away—“No, no. I don’t want to tell you now in case I’m wrong. I’d be embarrassed, Ollie. Just let me test the waters first.” Olive knew Claire had obviously meant Veles—just as Olive himself had suspected, but at the time of the conversation, he had been in too much pain to press any further.
“I’m but a humble and devout follower,” Lyrs replied, placing a hand to his chest, “not a leader, so I can’t really answer that, can I?”
Claire studded him curiously for a moment before offering a smile. “Well, that was a middleman’s answer. Are you sure you’re not secretly moonlighting as a politician?”
Lyrs placed another hand to his chest. “I’m not a man of the material world—”
Olive scoffed despite himself. “You drank all of Claire’s sake last night.”
“Yes, true. But did you know,” Lyrs interjected, lifting a finger, “that the pillar of Scorpio used to be known as one of pleasure—”
“Yeah, you keep mentioning,” Olive replied thickly before he could stop himself. “‘Pleasure and passion—’”
“‘A thin line between them.’” Lyrs nodded.
Olive opened his mouth to retort but thought better of it. The conversation thus lapsed into silence, and Olive shoved another strawberry into his mouth as he scanned the room. His eyes found Arjun again, so he glanced back at Claire. “So. Now what?”
Olive indicated Arjun.
“Oh.” Claire avoided Arjun’s sweeping gaze. “Now we consult with the Monadic priests in Ophiuchus.” He smiled calmly as Arjun turned to look at him. “They’ll do a consultation with Arjun there and then he’ll go through the ceremony—”
Static filled Olive’s vision as memories of Benì walking down that metal bridge flooded his mind. Clang, clang, clang, splash. Just like Talib—
After shaking the memory away, Olive found everyone at the table staring at him. He frowned. “What?”
Lyrs repeated, “I said… And that’s when you’re going to endorse Seamus Dolby, right? I saw your licenses. You’re both due to vote at the end of the month, right? Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”
Ugh. What was with everyone’s obsession with Seamus Dolby? They were acting like he’d saved their children, their family, their livelihoods. At least Scorpio had something to show for it—cringe-worthy billboards, empty promises, and fear. All Seamus really did was smile handsome for the pictures and throw in a couple of one-liners. What? Was he secretly some sort of saint candidate whose conducting ability made everyone fawn over him? What a nightmare. Wait, no. Seamus was Libran—at least on paper—so that whole saint candidate theory wouldn’t work out… right?
Olive’s mind was too boggled by crisscrossing memories from Leo and Alpha for him to think straight about saint candidates and ELPIS.
Waving the thoughts aside and ignoring Lyrs’s remark, Olive arched a brow at Claire. “Is that going to work? Do you think Arjun’s going to go willingly before and after the ceremony?” He forked another strawberry into his mouth. “Shouldn’t we bring him to your dad first?” Stall, in other words.
Arjun set down his spoon and folded his hands on the table. Soha and Felix tensed at this but he didn’t acknowledge them.
“He’s not the saint candidate of Sagittarius yet,” Claire replied. “There wouldn’t be any point. If I brought him into Sagittarius now, I’d be putting him in danger since there’ll be more people after him.”
Olive frowned. “And you’re not putting him into danger doing what you’re doing now?”
Claire pouted slightly. “Hey, I thought we had a heart-to-heart.” His expression lessened as his eyes trailed to Olive’s left arm. “I guess we didn’t really get to finish it, did we? And we didn’t get to finish our heart-to-heart after that one either.”
“We didn’t have a heart-to-heart after that.” Olive arched a brow. “Talking about what you should wear at your coronation ceremony isn’t heart-to-heart talk. And—yes—I still think that wearing a shirt that says ‘winner’ is like asking for a target on your back. Aren’t you hated enough already by your siblings?”
Claire chuckled, unaffected. “We have very different definitions of heart-to-hearts and what’s socially acceptable then.”
“Yeah, we do.”
Claire gaze trailed to Olive’s left arm again. “I know what you’re thinking, Ollie, but please do remember what you have at stake too.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “That’s that.”
“That’s that?” Olive frowned and then reached for his left arm again as he looked away from Claire.
“That’s… that.” Claire nodded slowly, watching him. “I ascend the throne. We work out all the politics. Everything is nice and peaceful and we return to our daily lives.”
Olive frowned. “For a short time.”
Eunji and Lyrs exchanged looks of confusion as did Soha and Felix. Meanwhile, Arjun’s gaze remained constant and clear. Alpha’s words of omen rang in Olive’s ears all the while.
Syzygy. Lavi. Werner. Maria. Tariffs on Capricorn. Arjun, emperor, Saint Candidate of Sagittarius. Saint Candidates in general. Alpha, ELPIS, their plans destroying reservoirs. Chlorowheat. The deal with the Saint Candidates.
* * *
As per usual after breakfast, Olive made a call to Trystan’s hometown to check up on the project there before he headed into the compartment he’d rented out for his research. Cadence had been badgering him about how it was important to save money now that he’d officially ‘checked himself out of the royal bank account.’
Olive had sold everything he’d taken with him from home in Scorpio with Cadence’s assistance back in Scorpio, and he sincerely believed Cadence had cheated the market merchants out of at least five hundred common coins—which he still felt guilty for. All in all, because of that, he wasn’t too worried about finances at the moment. Or maybe he was just privileged to be thinking that way.
Cadence had been buzzing around more than usual lately about this and that. Olive figured she was trying to keep things bright and rolling—stepping in for Maria and Werner most likely. Olive had expected to see that from Atienna, but he supposed her occasional visits were enough.
Upon entering his compartment, Olive rolled out his tools onto the long desk at the far corner of the room. Derik meanwhile threw himself onto the small cot on the opposite side. The man was snoring in seconds. Olive stared at him for a minute before sweeping his gaze across his work station.
His object of interest was not the sphere that rested at the corner of his table, but the cylindrical object concealed by a thin white cloth. The grooves and curves of its slender body were still visible from beneath the sheet. Beside it rested an advanced conducting circuitry textbook and a textbook on human anatomy.
The proto-conducting sphere filled with Alice’s vitae that he’d been working on exhaustively following Benì’s ceremony had been put aside. When they had made a pit stop by a border-touching Scorpioan town earlier that week, Jericho had passed through a gate to provide Olive with some of Alice’s vitae so Olive could fill his own version of the sphere. But Olive had not touched the sphere since filling it because now he was pouring his entire time into the project he’d been working on for Werner, for Gilbert, and—now—for Maria.
Taking in a deep breath, Olive reached out to both Maria and Werner and pulled on their shared connection. Werner manifested first, flickering like a flame. His dim surroundings came to Olive in the same fashion as did his nausea and pounding headache. Maria came in second like a lightning bolt, and her surroundings followed suit. An electric ghost pain in Olive’s lower left arm followed shortly after.
They both looked very, very tired. There were twin dark circles beneath their eyes, and their foreheads were dabbled with sweat. Upon registering each other, they stared.
“Maria…” Werner’s gaze trailed to her empty sleeve. “I see.”
Olive sensed they had spoken previously about what had happened in Leo, but he hadn’t been privy to what they had spoken about. Before Olive could think any further on the fact, locks of black hair flashed out of the corner of his eyes and drew his attention away.
She phased into existence at Olive’s right and threw her hands up in the air. A second later and she was bounding over to Werner. She flung her arms around the man’s neck before moving on and doing the same to Maria. She returned to Olive’s side a moment later and murmured as she studied both Maria’s and Werner’s faces, “I hope you’re both feeling better…”
Maria and Werner exchanged looks before Werner nodded and Maria offered a tired wave and smile.
Werner seemed to catch onto Maria’s sluggishness, and he asked after a beat, “Are you well enough to be here, Maria?”
“What? Of course I am,” Maria replied, leaning forward and peering into his face. “Sonrisa, my Werner. You are supposed to be relaxing.”
Werner studied her, brows knitting almost unnoticeably. “You as well, Maria.”
Olive stared at Werner in surprise as did Maria.
Werner returned his attention to Olive. “You were going to show us your most recent project?”
Olive nodded “Oh, right—”
But before Olive could move forward to unveil the conductor he’d been working on to them, he felt a faint buzz at the back of his mind. A buzz that melted into a gentle touch.
Olive swiveled around and registered Atienna’s apparition seeping into existence behind him. She looked as surprised as he felt.
“Oh,” she murmured, “this hasn’t happened in quite some time.”
“An accidental synchronization,” Werner observed.
Atienna nodded before her gaze swept to Werner and Maria. She did not meet their eyes and instead flashed Olive a wan smile. “If this is just between you three, then I can try my best to leave—”
Olive shook his head. “No, no! It—it doesn’t…really matter…”
Atienna’s brows rose in surprise before her smile became at ease and then coy. “Alright, Olive. I’m honored.”
Now Olive felt like he had to pull everyone else in. Cadence was, however, dealing with the AAC movement at the moment and Jericho was juggling both Alpha and Leona—so the two had their hands full. Although Olive knew Cadence probably wouldn’t mind missing a ‘meeting,’ Jericho was a different story. Jericho—although he didn’t vocalize it or express it noticeably—always got a bit sulky whenever he missed unplanned meetings.
There was also the fact that this whole situation now felt entirely awkward. There was some weird three way tension going on between Werner, Maria, and Atienna that Olive was only vaguely aware of. He could get down to the bottom of it if he reached hard enough, but it seemed personal. He didn’t want to trespass their privacy rule even if Werner had taken advantage of it.
Werner stiffened slightly.
Olive waved the thought away hastily, shook himself, and nodded before moving to remove the rag on top of the cylindrical object. He tried his best not to do it with a dramatic flourish—he was no Cadence, after all—but he couldn’t help but search their faces expectantly for a reaction. They were aware of his research, of course, but recent events had discombobulated synchronization meetings and his ability to constantly update them with his research.
“So… this is it…” he tried.
The cylindrical object that now captivated all of their attentions was not quite cylindrical. It was composed of three segments with each segment smaller than the previous one. The last segment was trapezoidal in shape and sprouted five thinner rectangles broken up by ball-and-joint sockets. Fingers connected to a hand. A hand connected to an arm. It skin was composed of a network of metal casing threaded through with copper wires and cables. Its skeleton—which was visible between the large gaps of metal—was supported by clear insulating tubes that ran to the central conducting core resting at its palm.
Maria’s expression tightened as she laid eyes on the prosthetic arm. Olive could feel something bubbling inside her chest, but he couldn’t tell what. He looked to Werner and Atienna but both had their gazes trained on Maria.
“It… You can use it as a proto-conductor and a regular conductor,” Olive tried, pulling the prosthetic out so Maria could see it better. “It’s not exactly finished yet, but it’s getting there.”
Maria stared at it just a second more before turning to him and chiming, “Gilbert will enjoy this.”
Olive studied her with concern.
“It is very impressive,” Werner said as he inspected the object closer. “…Olive.”
Olive felt his nerves ease slightly, although it was quickly followed by a wave of nausea.
Werner looked up at him. “How does it operate?”
Olive cleared his throat, gaze trailing from Maria to Werner. “Theoretically, a Manipulator’s vitae is stored in its main conducting core just like how it is with regular proto-conductors.” He gestured to the gray nodes at the end of the upper arm of the prosthetic. “These little nodules here connect to your nerve endings and they take just a bit of your vitae to kickstart it. And….” He studied Maria’s expressionless face. “You control the proto-conductor aspect of it through these nodule connections. The Manipulator’s vitae moves the mechanical parts of the proto-conductor and—again—it’s not finished yet but…”
“Oh my…” Atienna leaned in and the ghost of her hand touched his shoulders. “That really is amazing, Olive.”
Olive squirmed. “It’s… not too impressive. I mean, I haven’t even finished it yet…”
“It’s innovative despite it not being completed,” Werner corrected slowly, clearly choosing his words carefully. “Each conductor you’ve developed so far has shown marked improvement from the last one you’ve made. There is replication, then there is innovation. To have accomplished this much in such a short amount of time—it’s more than commendable.”
Olive could feel it. Their pride in him. It was a pure and true feeling untouched by anything that had happened in these past few months. For a moment, that feeling cleared away his worries and anxieties surrounding Claire, Arjun, Hideyoshi, Aries, and Lavi. He had made something good, and perhaps now he was even a bit proud of himself for it.
Lavi nodded enthusiastically. “Ollie’s been working so hard on this.” She peered into his face. “You know, Ollie, Eunji is really good at this stuff too. You could ask her to help. Two heads are better than one—oh, and you’ll finally make a girl friend!”
Olive scowled immediately. “What’s that supposed to—”
“I don’t need something like this,” Maria said suddenly, smile light. “This is for Gilbert, right? That’s why you’re showing this to Werner?” She turned to Werner. “I’m sure he will like it, Werner!” Her smile became tighter as she faced Olive again. “Conductors are bad things, aren’t they? Why do we need conductors like this anyways? We can do things without them, can’t we?”
“Maria…” Lavi murmured, gaze flicking back and forth nervously. “I mean…”
Maria stared down at Lavi with an unwavering gaze. Lavi squirmed uncomfortably. A knot formed in Olive’s stomach.
Maria looked up at Werner then at Atienna before breaking out back into a bright smile. “This was a very cool thing you showed us, my de—Olive,” she chimed. “You are really something! It was very amazing to see, but I’m not sure why you showed me this. What are you trying to say?”
Before Olive could respond, Maria pulled away from the synchronization and faded away from his sights. His heart immediately sank into his stomach.
A ghosting hand on his shoulder temporarily assuaged the anchor that began to drag down his chest.
“It’s alright, Olive,” Atienna, squeezing his shoulder slightly.
“The meaning behind her words are not what you’re interpreting them as,” Werner added gently. “It is most likely that her frustrations are directed at herself, not you.” He paused, lips thinning. “Although it’s hypocritical for me to say this, it is unacceptable behavior. I can speak with her if you’d like—”
“No… She’s right. We shouldn’t be using conductors,” Olive managed, leaning against the desk and gripping its edge. “But… if there’s anything a conductor should be used for,” he managed, grip on the table tightening, “it should be this.” He bit his inner lip. “If I’d just been doing stuff like this instead of just laying around feeling sorry for myself for years then maybe I’d be further and—”
“Ollie…” Lavi murmured.
Werner and Atienna studied him in silence.
“You’re doing it now, Olive,” Atienna said finally. “That’s… what’s most important.”
Olive could hear a counter-argument lurking at the back of her head. If something is done too late, would it sometimes have been better to not do it at all? But the bitterness seemed more directed at herself than at him.
“Olive, as I’m sure you’re already aware,” Werner continued just behind Atienna, “it’s good to acknowledge one’s past mistakes. It helps ensure the same mistakes won’t happen again. That acknowledgement is something few people can bring themselves to do.” He paused. “I know I have no place to say this at the moment, but I do believe the path you’re on is the correct one. The progress you’ve made is something that you should acknowledge and be proud of yourself.”
The compliment felt good—normal. Olive could almost forget that the past month hadn’t happened if he focused hard enough. Nodding, he peered at Werner and Atienna but paused when he was able to catch onto their tired features—felt their fatigue in himself.
These people that he looked up to and relied on were crumbling beneath the weight of… everything. He’d been relying and leaning on them this entire time, but now…? He needed to step up himself. He was 17 as of last month. Still young and still a kid, but he was still able to do something.
Olive’s gaze drifted to Lavi, and he perked up. “Oh, I’ve been having this recurring dream lately…” He allowed his memory of his dream with Aries, Nareen, Jin, and Libra to be filtered out to them.
Afterwards, Atienna and Werner exchanged looks but said nothing.
“I know it’s wishful thinking but maybe…” Olive drew in the silence as he glanced towards Lavi. “Aries was…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not sure if this is useful or not but maybe… I mean—the saint candidates are inhumanly strong. They’re one-person armies, so… if we could just have one on our side…” He waved his hand. “Nevermind. It’s probably useless information…”
Werner shook his head. “In this case, Olive, I do believe that information is of use. Thank you.” He placed a thoughtful hand to his chin. “Being able to identify which saint candidates are less likely to be our adversaries is a definite advantage. Contrarily, however, we can’t be presumptuous enough to assume that any of them are our allies. Ilseong Jin—”
“We can’t turn Arjun in,” Olive said, following the line of thought.
Werner nodded slowly. “Assuming Ilseong Jin is no longer in commission, it would be in our best interests to prevent another Saint Candidate of Sagittarius from emerging. Even if Sagittarius appeared to have poor relations with the other candidates, we cannot take any chances—”
“It’s more than that,” Olive murmured, looking up at the man. “Right…?”
Werner’s brows knitted ever so slightly as he held Olive’s gaze. Olive could hear the pulse now that they were more tightly synchronized—protect, protect, protect. Slowly, Werner nodded and opened his mouth, before he abruptly stiffened and turned towards the door.
Olive followed suit, freezing upon registering Eunji standing at the threshold there and the door ajar.
“Eunji!” Lavi beamed.
“Are you… talking to yourself?” Eunji scanned the room, gaze lingering on Derik.
Olive stared at her for a moment. “Yes. Yes, I am. Why?”
“Uhm… okay.” Eunji took a step inside but hovered by the door. Her gaze flitted over Lavi. “Is Lavi here…?”
Olive gestured around the room. “Do you see her?”
Eunji studied him, avoiding his eyes as her cheeks pinkened. “Okay… whenever you can make her appear again, can you ask her if she wants to hang out later?” She waved and looked around the room. “Bye, Lavi.”
Lavi waved enthusiastically back.
Before Olive could even think of what to say, Eunji swept out of the room.
* * *
Several days later as the train passed over the border of Scorpio into Sagittarius on its way to Ophiuchus, Olive pulled Claire aside in a private bedroom in their private train compartment. Derik followed in with them, while Soha and Felix remained vigilant by Arjun’s side.
Claire threw himself onto the bed inside immediately only to be slowly, carefully pushed off by Derik who then claimed the bed for himself. Claire landed on his rear on the floor before perking up in Olive’s direction.
Claire chirped, “I take it good old Derik hasn’t gone through any of the Ariesian royal guard’s training regimen yet. They do teach etiquette in that, don’t they—”
Derik shot up. “Did you just fucking call me old in Common…?”
“Is that what you got out of that?” Claire queried with a good-natured smile. He amended, “It’s just a general term of endearment.”
“I think you’re rubbing off on the Sagittarian,” Derik muttered, nodding at Olive. “In a fuckin’ bad way.”
Claire continued to smile at this before he spread his arms. “So why whisk me away into your private quarters, Ollie? Another heart-to-heart?” He thumbed Derik. “With Derik too this time?”
“I know you have a lot of bad history with Arjun,” answered Olive, cutting to the chase.
Claire’s smile faltered slightly before he picked himself off the ground. “Yep, that was what our second heart-to-heart conversation was about. Arjun’s a real jerk, isn’t he? Just sitting there and eating calmly like everything’s all peachy.”
“I mean… he’s being pretty well-mannered for someone who had the literal wind knocked out of him,” Olive reasoned, crossing his arms. “For someone who was kidnapped.”
“It’s just an act,” Claire argued after a beat.
Olive sighed before he began to rub a strand of his hair between his fingers. “Don’t you think he should… at least know what he’s really getting into?”
The memories that Jericho had disclosed to them all about the 1400s and Oros’s memories from the Reservoir War that Maria had received brushed the edges of Olive’s mind. The unbalanced relationships, the pedestals, the worship, the ideals, the misunderstandings that went unaddressed and ate away at the framework that held up United Signum—repeating even in this time period.
Olive managed after a pause, “I think it’s better to… communicate clearly now so you don’t have to deal with those annoying, cliché misunderstandings and so you don’t have any regrets later…”
Claire’s lips finally pressed down into a frown.
Olive dropped his hand as he looked Claire over. He thought of Lavi and then of Aries, Francis then of Theta, Conta then of Beta. “Claire, you know I hate saying stuff like this, but–he’s still family.”
* * *
“So you would like to sit down for discussion now, Claire?” Arjun asked calmly as he took a sip of the chai tea that Olive had bought earlier in order to win him over. He inclined his head in Olive’s direction. “You were the one who arranged this, correct?”
At the moment, Olive was sitting across from Arjun in a small booth in their private train compartment. Claire was at Olive’s left and was staring clear daggers into Arjun’s face. That sharp gaze contrasted eerily with Claire’s pleasant smile. Lyrs, Derik, Soha, Felix, and Eunji had left this compartment on Olive’s and Claire’s orders so it was just the three of them in here.
“It’s always a good thing for the next emperor to speak with his people, isn’t it?” Claire returned.
“It would be good for the future Saint Candidate of Sagittarius and the future emperor of Sagittarius to be good on terms, yes,” Arjun provided, “regardless of how the two came to be.” He let out a quiet sigh. “I’ll refrain from speaking my opinions regarding this path you’ve chosen, but I’m sure you’re already well aware of my feelings regarding it.”
Claire’s smile dropped slightly.
“You could have asked nicely for me to come with you,” Arjun said after a beat, “instead of throwing me against the wall.” He nodded at Olive. “I would have much preferred exchanging information like Prince Chance here had suggested initially—”
“Would you have come if I asked nicely?” Claire returned, still smiling. “I mean… I sent some of my vassals to deliver you messages back in the day during your exile, and you sent each one of them on their way. You even sent one back with a broken arm—”
“Ho-sook.” Arjun closed his eyes briefly. “Yes, I remember him.”
Claire frowned fully.
“That was an accident,” Arjun continued, dipping his head towards the table. “Sincerely, I am sorry. I covered the medical bills to the best of my abilities, but I was cut off from my clan’s funds during exile—”
“There you go acting like you’re a saint again,” Claire said lightly, smiling again. “You truly do embody the Saint Candidate of Sagittarius, don’t you?”
“I’m being honest,” Arjun replied calmly. “I am no saint, but if that’s what you wish to use me as, so be it.”
Claire’s smile twitched. “You just accept everything so easily, don’t you? And criticize while you’re at it? I should ask Lyrs if that’s one of the Saint of Arrows and Direction’s pillars.”
“If you’re referring to father,” Arjun responded, a frown finally forming on his lips, “then I take it my actions are clear where I stand regarding him.”
Olive had not been expecting for them to immediately get to the point like this. He figured he’d have to squeeze it out of them first. Then again, he supposed it made sense since Claire was an extrovert—although wearing his feelings openly on his sleeve like this was very un-Claire-like. Olive wasn’t sure whether this openness was due to what happened in Zhūshā Cheng, what happened when they’d captured Arjun, what had happened with Andres, or if it was all of those things combined.
“How exactly are your actions clear?” Claire chuckled once. “You’re just going along with becoming a saint candidate for my emperorship just like that. You refused to return home after your original exile ended and…” He leaned back in his seat. “You… basically just ran away, didn’t you? You ran away after acting like some noble hero and taking the fall for what we did when we were kids. Did you just want to look good in the moment? Make us feel bad for letting you go afterwards?”
Oh, saints. Claire was on a roll. Even so, Olive figured it was good to clear the air rather than have feelings like that fester on the inside.
Claire continued speaking lightly and smiling— “We were waiting for you to come back, you know? It only felt right. Keeping our heads low and waiting, and then you just…” He thrummed his fingers on the table’s edge. “…ran away.”
“Claire…” Arjun frowned. “I didn’t run away. You can’t change the system when you’re actively participating in it. And I…” He studied his half-brother. “There are things that are going on in this country that you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh, why of course! Ah, it’s easy to paint yourself in a heroic light, isn’t it?” Claire responded lightly. “I looked up to you when I was younger, you know? I wasn’t ashamed to admit that back then but I’m pretty embarrassed to admit that now.”
Olive could finally truly see and understand it now. He’d seen it in Leonhart’s eyes, he’d seen it in Proteus’s eyes, he’d seen it in Werner’s eyes and Atienna’s eyes—although with Leonhart and Werner, Olive was certain some of it was self-directed: disappointment.
The only direction to go when you were on a pedestal was down and off.
“Anyways, let’s get to the point. You’ve met Ollie, right?” Claire thumbed Olive. “He’s my friend. We met back in New Ram City. He’s a bit of a bleeding heart.”
“Yes, the Ariesian prince. You call him a bleeding heart,” Arjun replied, “but I see a person who has an open heart.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction. “I do appreciate your offer earlier and I hold nothing against you in these circumstances.”
Urgh. It was a compliment and an earnest one, but it was just so old-fashioned that it almost sounded cringey.
“Look…” Olive held up a hand. “I’m really not into whatever family drama play you’re enacting right now. Honestly, I don’t even know how you’re not embarrassed by laying it all out in front of me…” He waved his complaints away. “The reason why we’re sitting here is to let you know what it really means to be a saint candidate.”
“What it means to be a saint candidate?” Arjun inquired.
Claire glanced over at Olive.
Olive held his gaze. “It’d be better if you told him, wouldn’t it? It’s only fair.”
Claire hesitated for a moment before nodding and meeting Arjun’s eyes and then looking at a spot just over Arjun’s left shoulder. He proceeded to explain the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, the vitae energy levels, baptismal ceremonies of saint candidates and what they really entailed and required. Olive filled in the spots Claire didn’t exactly summarize correctly and the spots he left out.
After the explanation, Arjun closed his eyes and let out a quiet breath.
“You can believe me if you want or you can just think I’m crazy,” Claire replied evenly, folding his hands. “What’s going to happen is set in sto—”
“No… I believe you.” Arjun opened his eyes. His gaze was crystal clear. “During my exile, I visited many of the temples around our country—not one’s dedicated to Monadism, of course, but our natural temples. Even though they weren’t Monadic, they had… interesting records regarding Monadism and vitae that were written by previous saint candidates. I was particularly interested in the entries written by the one before Aunt Jin: Pema of the Tārā Clan. It was… concerning, but I wasn’t able to reach any concrete conclusions. Until now.”
Olive glanced over at Claire but his friend remained silent.
Finally, Arjun spoke again—“So, you’ll have me become somebody else then, Claire?” There was a faint hint of hurt in his voice and even a dash of disappointment.
“I need to protect my clan and better Sagittarius,” Claire replied evenly. “You can’t be a leader without making sacrifices. You can’t have everything. Like you wouldn’t do the same if our positions were switched.”
Scorpio’s words began to buzz at the back of Olive’s mind but he brushed them aside before they fully formed.
“…I’m truly sorry for not returning without saying anything,” Arjun drew, lowering his gaze. He folded his hands together in front of him. “That was wrong of me, and I don’t expect you or the others to forgive me. Perhaps, the others have even moved on from this. It has been some time…” He lifted his gaze to meet Claire’s eyes. “The truth of the matter is that I didn’t want to come home empty-handed. That and I was afraid of what would may have happened if any of you became involved with me.”
Olive rolled his eyes.
Claire rolled his eyes too. “Oh, please… Don’t give me that excuse.”
An excuse? A reason. But maybe this time it was one that needed to be heard.
“Claire, I’ll accept what is to come,” Arjun replied quietly, “since my neglect and lack of care and tact has resulted in things reaching this point. That’s how the karmic cycle turns. However, you must understand: becoming emperor in the state that Sagittarius is in and in the state that Signum is in is just a temporary solution. I have utmost faith that you can implement the changes that we had in mind when we were younger. I have faith that, unlike father, you won’t be dragged into whatever these saint candidates have planned. You won’t be a puppet. I have faith that you won’t use our people so callously either. If the situation were different, I would like to be by your side assisting you instead of perhaps becoming your enemy through this saint candidacy.”
“But whatever you do will be undone by them or by people influenced by them. There is a chance that perhaps it will be undone even by our wayward descendants,” Arjun continued. “Although we have little control over the latter possibility, we have absolute control over the former one—”
“Just stop, Arjun.” Claire held up his hand. “That’s not going to work on me.”
“Claire….” Olive grimaced. “I know you’re trying your best, but Arjun is right… The clan system is one thing but the whole way everything is in Sagittarius and the rest of Signum.” His mind scrambled for words as Claire turned on him. “Uhm, Zhūshā Cheng too. There’s a lot more than jus—”
“What the hell do you know about my country?!” Claire snapped abruptly, shooting up to his feet.
Olive startled, heart leaping to his chest.
“You’re just a foreigner! And still you come in here waltzing and pointing out things with disrespect and with your head held high and with some sense of twisted moral superiority! And you even have the gall to offer me suggestions? You don’t think I know–we know–everything that’s wrong with our country? We live it! Look at your own country before you look at mine!”
Olive felt his cheeks burn and felt a defensive insult curl on his tongue. Instead of spitting it out, however, he thought of how Werner had lashed out defensively at them all and how it had made him feel. Taking in a deep breath, Olive collected himself and drew slowly just like Werner and Atienna would—carefully choosing his words— “I… I didn’t mean it like that, Claire. I just meant with all of these things going on in the background… things might not turn out the way we want them to. There might not even be a point to doing it—and I don’t mean that in the same way I meant it when we first met. Like I’ve said, I’ve always admired what you want to do for your clan and country… You even wanted to do it since you were really young, so that’s even more impressive… I guess…” He looked up and locked eyes with Claire. “There’s a bigger problem here that affects everyone.”
Claire ogled him for a moment before he sighed and sat down. “So you set up this conversation because you wanted us to talk it out…”
“That’s why you agreed, isn’t it?” Olive mumbled.
Claire sighed. “It’s too much, Ollie…” He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands for a moment. “It’s just too much right now.”
For adolescents reaching for adulthood, it was definitely rather too much, right?
Olive awkwardly reached out with his right arm and gave Claire a pat on the shoulder.
Arjun frowned sympathetically. “Claire…”
“I don’t want to stress you out even more, but there’s also something that’s been bothering me…” Olive frowned as he pulled away tugged on a strand of his hair in thought. “We know saint candidacy potential can be passed down through the bloodline—there’s something weird there with the ‘original’ saint candidates—but in your case…” He looked between Claire and Arjun. “Which side of the family are you inheriting that potential from…? I know it’s all written down that it’s specific people who’re potential candidates, but what if that’s just listing the people that’re more likely to not be ‘failed’ potential candidates? Maybe the listings have to do with the concentration of high-energy level vitae a person has inside of them? I mean, that would make sense, wouldn’t it? Especially if you consider that there’ve been saint candidates from different clans in the past?”
Claire and Arjun froze and stared at each other.
“What happens when Arjun returns himself to the reservoir?” Olive gestured to himself and bit his lip as he felt his stomach twist. “If my sister was successfully r-returned to the reservoir, I’m guessing… either I would be… or some cousin of mine would be…” He shook his head and glanced at the two half-brothers again. “But for you guys it would make sense—through all the inter-marriages I mean—if…”
“Eunji…” Claire whispered, paling.
“Or yourself,” Arjun added.
Claire scoffed. “Of course father’s searching for another saint candidate even though he can just become one himself. Coward.” He fell silent for a moment before he murmured, “If I become emperor, I can stop that from happening. In Sagittarius at least—I can stop the ceremonies.”
“Monadism is separated from the state in almost all countries, Claire,” Arjun corrected, earning a glare from Claire. “It’s going to be very difficult to do that.”
“Claire, look at what they’ve done,” Olive pressed. “What they’ve indirectly done. You’ve seen it firsthand. What they did to Maria… to Andres.”
“Andres, isn’t…” Claire fell silent.
“What’s the point of being the ruler of a country when there’s not going to be a country left—when there’s not going to be a world left—to fix?” Olive clenched his fists as he thought of Werner, then Maria. “Temporary victories like this—” he gestured between Claire and Arjun “—and temporary solutions are just that. Temporary. I know you two have a lot of history that you need to work out, but you’re also the only two people with power in your country that know what’s really going on.”
Claire chuckled. “It’s going to take a lot more than just the two of us to stop whatever this is.”
“You’re right. But like I said before,” Olive continued, “we were born with privilege. If we wanted to, we honestly could just do what we want to do and… run away when things get bad.” He looked up at Claire, then at Arjun. “But I know you’re not like that, Claire, and I’m assuming Arjun isn’t like that either. We have a responsibility not just to the people close to us”—his mind drifted to Hideyoshi and Louise—“but we have a responsibility to people outside of us too. I mean what’s the point of having all this ‘power’ when we don’t do anything actually use it when the time calls for it?”
Arjun nodded at Olive. “I agree with your perspective, Prince Chance.” He returned his attention to Claire. “Whatever it is you have in mind–if it is for the true benefit of our people, Claire,” he drew slowly, “I’ll work together with you.”
Claire looked between them before pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighed. “You do realize a decade of grudges isn’t going to be solved with a twenty minute conversation, right, Ollie?”
“Well…” Olive scowled. “Then—”
Claire smiled and gestured to the exit doors of the compartment. “Would you mind leaving Arjun and I alone to have a heart-to-heart for a bit?”
* * *
“So…” Lyrs thrummed his fingers on the table. “What’s going on here exactly?”
“What do you mean?” Claire chuckled. “We all just had a heart-to-heart and got to understand one another, so it’s all worked out now. All’s well that ends well.”
Olive let out a long but quiet sigh before pulling out the spherical proto-conductor filled with Alice’s vitae from his pocket. He had promised to show Eunji how it worked two evenings ago and had even planned to do a sort of play date with her and Lavi today while showing her, but Claire had swept him away just as he was reaching out to her this morning.
Claire had spent the previous three-days having a ‘heart-to-heart’ with Arjun. Olive was half-convinced one of them would come out dead at the end of it, but t that fortunately wasn’t the case. Just that morning, Claire had invited Lyrs, Arjun, and Olive himself out into this compartment for a ‘real heart-to-heart.’ Derik and Felix had tagged along as guards, while Soha had brought Eunji—despite her protests—into a private room located at the end of the compartment.
At the moment, Olive was squeezed between Derik and Lyrs, while Arjun was wedged between Claire and the window. Olive admitted he was somewhat curious about what Claire and Arjun talked about, but at the same time he was glad he didn’t have to witness any more melodrama.
“Okay,” Lyrs drew slowly, glancing over at Arjun hesitantly. “No hard feelings about me turning you in then, right, Arjun?”
Arjun offered an eerily serene smile. “No, hard feelings. There’s no point in holding grudges, is there?”
Saints. It was eerie how princely he was. No wonder Claire had some sort of complex about him.
“Right…” Lyrs returned the smile, although the nervousness in his voice was clear. “You’ll be a fine Saint Candidate of Sagittarius.”
Claire and Arjun exchanged looks.
“Yeah, I changed my mind about that bit,” Claire replied. “I’m not going to take Arjun in for the candidate ceremony stuff.”
Olive relaxed back into his seat.
“Oh…” Lyrs studied them. “But you’re still voting and endorsing Seamus, right—”
“So, Lyrs.” Claire interjected, leaning forward. “I figured we should get down to the nitty gritty while we’re all here. You know Veles, right?”
Olive tensed and scanned the compartment nervously. They’d rented this compartment out for just themselves and had done a clean sweep before settling into it but still—one couldn’t ever be too cautious as Werner always said. What was Claire thinking?
The smile immediately slid off of Lyrs’s face, and he leapt to his feet. In one quick fluid motion, he reached into the pockets of his robes and pulled out a pair of conducting gloves. Before he could put them on, however, Felix’s conjured blade was at his throat. Derik meanwhile had plucked a teaspoon from the table and was gripping it threateningly.
Felix looked to Claire for instruction.
Claire held up a placating hand, signaling Felix to lower his weapon. “Veles, come on. You don’t have to keep me in the dark like this. We know each other. I mean, obviously not that well since we’ve been keeping quiet about all the people in our circle, but we can change that. A lot’s happened, hasn’t it?” He dipped his head and placed a hand to his chest. “As your humble supporter, I ask that you allow us to gift us and to bestow with your trust and ear for a little while.”
Felix did a visible double-take, and Olive imagined the man was gaping from beneath his mask.
Lyrs glanced over his shoulder for a moment. A look of annoyance crossed his face as he looked over his other shoulder. He then moved to stare over Felix’s shoulder and then over Olive’s own shoulder. Finally, he shook himself and then straightened as his entire demeanor changed.
“Fine,” Lyrs said, relaxing. “I will let you be graced by my trust and time, Claire. But do remember that this would be the twentieth time I’ve given you such a gift.”
Derik made a face and arched a brow at Felix. Olive assumed Felix was reflecting the same back at Derik with a little bit of indignation.
“Of course, of course,” Claire sang. “Thank you for your generosity.”
Arjun’s brows were knitted.
Lyrs—Veles—sank back down into his seat, flourishing his hands as he did so.
Saints. It was always so weird to see another person go through an override. Olive couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as he recalled all the times he himself and the others went through it similarly. Werner always got the short end of the stick when it came to these things though.
“What do you desire to tell me?” Veles pressed.
Claire proceeded to explain their situation regarding the saint candidates, their watchful eye, and the True Conductor hunters.
After the explanation, Veles leaned back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest. “I see, I see. So there are True Conductor hunters.” He boomed out a painfully loud laugh. “How funny! Do they think that they can hunt the ultimate hunter?”
“Aren’t you a guild master?” Olive muttered. “Not a hunter? You made a big deal about it in the beginning—”
Veles waved a hand in the air. “I am many things and everything.” He paused and stared. “And who exactly are you to be speaking to me so familiarly?”
“It was fuckin’ weird when it was the captain,” Derik muttered under his breath, “and it’s still fuckin’ weird now.”
Olive’s annoyance at Veles quickly faded into sympathy as he recalled the fact that he too must have been picked up at some point by Alpha.
“Anyways, as you can see, Veles,” Claire continued, spreading his arms. “We’re dealing with quite a lot. I know you already offered us a lot of your help last year in Capricorn, but I was hoping we could get on the same page about these—”
“My attention is captivated by another hunt at the moment, Claire,” Veles drew. “I’ve recently found that I have put my trust in a person of ill character—yes, even someone as grand as I can make mistakes.”
Olive’s stomach twisted into knots again and glanced out the window. The sky was gray, and it was starting to pour down in sheets.
“However,” Veles continued. “I can lend you my hand for the time being.” He gestured to himself—rather to Lyrs. “You did help this dear guildmate in his own task. I am gracious enough to return generosity when it is offered.”
“Yeah, about that. I have to ask”—Claire leaned forward-—“why is Lyrs pushing us to vote for Seamus for? Is it that—”
Before he could finish his sentence, a loud series of metallic bangs and thuds resounded from over their heads. The ceiling shook from the sound and v-lights lining the walls began to flicker on and off. Claire immediately leapt to his feet and eyed the ceiling, while Olive tensed and pocketed his proto-conducting sphere.
The banging and thudding continued, increasing in intensity until the entire train was shaking from the rumbling. As the pounding dragged on, Soha and Eunji stumbled out from the private room at the end of the train compartment before quickly making their way over.
“They’re here,” Soha said gravely, sweeping the room with her eyes as the entire compartment began to lurch back and forth.
Lyrs seemed to have retaken hold of himself and was gripping onto the edge of the table seemingly for dear life.
“Looks like we’re going to have an unprecedented family reunion,” Claire drew, holding out his hand to Felix.
Felix, in turn, immediately conjured a familiar thin cylindrical object and handed it to Claire. His staff conductor.
Olive returned his attention to Claire and grimaced. “Did you really just say that—”
An ear-splitting screech resonated through the entire train compartment, shaking the windows in their frames. The tables began to shake from the vibration as the plates and tea cups resting on them slid off and shattered onto the ground.
They were compressing air around the outside of the train, Olive realized incredulously. Were they stupid?
Before he could answer the question with a ‘yes’ inside his head, the windows imploded inwards, sending glass shards tornadoing through the air. Claire immediately wrapped his body around Eunji while Soha and Felix formed a cage around the two. Olive only got to glimpse the sight for a moment before he was tackled to the ground hard by Derik. Lyrs meanwhile stumbled forward and landed flat on his face.
Olive squirmed underneath Derik’s weight and managed to squeeze out from under him just in time to see a gust of light-speckled wind take Arjun right out the window.
“Arjun!” Claire shouted in alarm before whipping his conductor out and following the man through the window in a gust of air. He was quickly followed out by Felix who maneuvered like a spider out the window and up the side of the train.
“Claire!” Eunji cried before she too whipped out a staff and shot out the window. A second later, Soha was scrambling after her.
Olive froze, heart hammering. Then he scowled.
Ugh. Seriously? Why was his luck on trains so bad?
Olive grimaced as he scrambled to his feet, crawled over the glass-ridden table, and poked his head out the window. He was immediately met by a torrent of rain to the face. Now dripping wet, he pulled back inside, darted down the hall, and burst outside through the door at the end of the compartment.
As expected, as soon as he stepped foot outside, he was lambasted with another waterfall of blinding rain. Wiping his face again, he turned on his heels and squinted up at the compartment’s roof. There was movement up there, and he could hear someone faintly speaking above the pitter-patter of the rain. Letting out a shaky breath, he ascended the ladder beside the door and climbed up onto the top of the compartment.
The rooftop was slick with water, making it difficult for him to balance. The drizzling rain had now seeped thoroughly into his shirt and had completely matted down his hair. Still, he shook and steadied himself before scanning the area.
At the very center of the roof stood Claire and Arjun back-to-back. Eunji was wedged between them while Felix and Soha flanked their left and right. They were surrounded on all sides by masked figures headed by unmasked figures. From rival clans obviously. Olive could gauge vaguely where they were from by the way they were dressed. It looked like there were four different clans here total.
This was not good.
Olive registered Mai and Kai were standing on the far opposite end of the train and were surrounded by their masked guards. On the train’s right stood Kaworu, fanning himself with his conductor. He too was surrounded by his guards who were all wielding various conductors. Two of them were not armed, however, and together held a large paper rain umbrella above Kaworu’s head. On the train’s left side stood Trang. She was alone, a gun in her left gloved hand and a knife in her other.
“Fucking finally…” came a sneer from behind Olive. Derik, pulling himself onto the roof. “I was getting bored out of my fucking my mind.”
Trang turned and stared at Derik. “Youagain…” She glowered. “I’ll take your arm.” Her gaze returned to Arjun. “After I take you, Arjun.”
Cadence. Olive could vaguely see that she was at an AAC meeting so her synchronization was weak. Her dazzling, relaxed presence was still a comfort—but it would have been better to have one of the others synchronize with him.
Olive reached out reflexively for Werner and Maria but was met with a foggy wall of resistance. Both sleeping, he realized. They always slept nowadays.
I can wake ‘em or Atienna can—
No. He had to try handling this on his own first.
Kid, Cadence began, increasing her synchronization with him. Don’t wanna rub salt in the wound, but don’t ya remember what happened last time—
No, no. Olive wasn’t going to do what Maria had done in the temple—no. If he needed help, he would seek it. But for now he had to handle it on his own.
“Saints…” came another whisper from behind him.
Olive looked over his shoulder to find Lyrs climbing up the ladder onto the roof. The priest haphazardly pulled himself up onto the rooftop and immediately began to shiver in the cold.
“What are you doing up here?” Olive whispered, doing a double-take.
“Do you think I wanted to come up here?” Lyrs returned with a grimace.
Olive shook his head and returned his attention to the tension building in front of him.
“Arjun is under my clan’s protection now,” Claire said, holding up a hand. “I found him first. Therefore—”
“—therefore we can take him as we please,” Mai finished.
“Hey, Arjun.” Kai offered a wave, revealing a conductor-gloved hand. “Good to see you again. Almost didn’t recognize you there.”
“Kai. Mai.” Arjun nodded at them before turning to acknowledge Trang and Kaworu. “Trang. Kaworu. It’s been some time.”
There was a tense stretch of silence.
“There are other potential saint candidates of Sagittarius, you know?” Claire tried. “Ones that aren’t being heavily guarded—”
Kaworu sighed and snapped his fan shut. “Claire, what’s the point of saying that now?”
“I thought I’d try.” Claire shrugged before he glanced at Soha over his shoulder. “Soha, take Eunji and go—”
Mai lifted a hand, and all of the guards on her side of the train lifted their conductors. “None of you are going anywhere. Eunji is as much a part of this race for succession as you are, Haneul. We can’t have her claiming Arjun for herself.”
Mai flourished her hand in the air. In response, one of the guards behind her activated his conducting blade and hurled it directly at Eunji. Soha moved forward immediately, striking out her own conducting blade and whipping the oncoming one out of the air. The offending blade rebounded and hurtled towards Kaworu who waved his fan and generated a burst of air that sent the blade flying to Trang. Trang startled and ducked out of the path of the blade just in time before glaring at Mai.
“Seriously?” Kaworu sighed, frowning at Mai before lifting his hand and signaling his own guards to raise their weapons. “Throwing around words and weapons as if we aren’t even here. How typical of you.”
This was going to be a bloodbath.
Olive scrambled forward in a panic, nearly sliding off the roof as he did so. As he reached Claire’s side, he threw out a wreath of fire causing the surrounding guards and other royals to skirt back to the edges of the roof. His flames however died out within seconds beneath the pounding rain.
“That conducting really is something else…” Kaworu noted, waving the smoke away with his fan.
“Wait! Just stop. No one move!” Olive stammered, watching as Derik stormed over to his side. “Arjun is under my protection now—under the protection of the—”
Trang flung the knife in her hands at him. It whistled through the air, hurtling closer and closer—its point sharp and glinting in the rain. Too fast. He couldn’t raise his hands fast enough to produce flame—
—before the knife found a spot between Olive’s eyes, however, Derik darted forward and caught it by its hilt. Olive panted in relief and sent the man a grateful look. Derik scowled in turn.
How about askin’ for help now? Kid, you’re really stressin’ me out—
No, not yet.
“I’ve told you already,” Trang drew, as she conjured another knife, “your status as prince means nothing to me—”
“Are you insane, Trang?” Mai snapped before turning to Olive. “I apologize for my sister’s behavior. Her actions do not reflect the whole of my country—”
“Aren’t you the bitch who sent those assassins after us?” Derik snapped. “I recognize the get-up of your sheep.”
“That was an accident,” Mai explained, holding up a hand. “Prince Chance, I sincerely ask you not to get any further involved in the politics of our country. I don’t know what Haneul has told you, but it’s more complicated than you realize.”
“I’m not budging from this spot,” Olive returned before gesturing to everyone around him. “We need to talk.”
Trang scoffed while Kaworu hummed and fanned his face.
“Look at this foreigner,” Kaworu drew in his clan’s language, “stepping foot where he doesn’t belong.”
“It must be easy for him to spout nonsense when his inheritance is served to him on a platter,” Trang agreed in her clan’s language. “And that Capricornian that’s with him—a mercenary? How shameless.”
“I was kind of surprised when I met him the first time,” Kai replied in Xing Clan language. “I don’t mean to be mean, but he looked more like a servant than a prince. I feel kind of bad for him—look at him. Shivering in the rain like that.”
Kaworu tutted. “He’s probably never worked a day in his life.”
Yeesh. Cadence whistled low. Talk about a tough crowd. Don’t take it ta heart kid. Ya know what ya should take though? You should take my advice and get the others—
“I can understand you!” Olive snapped, cheeks flushing.
The half-siblings stiffened in surprise.
“Oh yeah…” Kai chuckled. “Forgot about that.”
Olive was momentarily distracted from his indignation by a point in the distance that was closing in on them. A series of tunnel-like bridges overseeing the tracks loomed ahead of them. The bridges looked long and wide—meaning they would be in darkness for long stretches of time. Not good.
The Sagittarians seemed to have noticed the oncoming tunnels too. Collectively they tensed, the guards tightening their grips on their conductors and the royals locking eyes with each other. The first tunnel was coming closer and closer now. No—it was here. The first compartments slithered into the darkness of the tunnel first, then the next ones, and then the next ones after that. Finally, the compartment Olive was on top of reached the tunnel and darkness immediately fell over him and those around him.
Olive barely had the time to let out his breath before chaos broke out. Flashes of light erupted in the dark as conductors activated in pops. The slivers of light began to dance around in the pitch black as light-dotted wind howled through the area. Every so often, Olive caught sight of glowing blues, reds, greens, and purples sparking up against each other in blinding bursts of light. Thuds, shouts, cries, screeches echoed cacophonously from every direction.
A point of light appeared in the far distance. The end of the tunnel. The light grew and grew in size until finally the train emerged from the darkness. As Olive’s eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, he registered a Sagittarian guard hurtling towards him with a drawn conducting blade. The guard seemed to be as surprised as Olive was gauging by the way he tried to skid to a halt—but to no avail.
Olive managed to duck beneath the swing of a blade just as it skirted his neck. He stumbled forward, whipped around, and sent his legs sweeping beneath the guard’s—just like Derik had taught him. The guard smacked forward onto the roof before rolling down its side. Olive didn’t have long to enjoy his victory, however, as he slipped a second after and was sent rolling down the side of the roof as well. Clang, clang, clang—he just barely managed to grab on the edge of the roof before he went flying off its edge. Derik was at his side immediately, pulling him back up with a scowl.
“You’re a dumbass,” Derik informed him helpfully. “But that was good.”
Olive grimaced as he steadied himself and surveyed the area.
The fight had spread across the other adjacent compartments now, and Olive couldn’t tell who was who and what was what—wait, there.
Lyrs stood only a couple feet away ahead of him. In front of the priest stood two guards from the Xing Clan and two guards from the Hoshi Clan—gauging by their clothing. Lyrs was thrashing both of his now conductor-gloved hands wildly in the air as the guards approached him with cautious confusion.
As Lyrs continued to wave his hands wildly, glowing gray-blue water droplets rose from the roof of the train into the sky and sprayed out in every direction in a wide circle. The glowing mist rained down on every single person standing on the rooftops—including Olive himself—but otherwise did nothing else. Despite being on evidently opposing sides, the guards in front of Lyrs exchanged almost friendly and amused looks of confusion.
Veles’s conducting, Olive realized—but he was certain Veles was more powerful than this.
Abruptly, Lyrs took a step back and clenched his left gloved fist. The puddle of water beneath the guards’ feet began to glow gray blue—as did the layer of water soaking the guards’ uniforms. A crackling spark of almost electric-like light formed between the two different bodies of water and then—
Drawn forward by an unseen force, all four guards suddenly were slammed down onto the ground. Electric lines of light sparked between their uniforms and the puddle they were now face-planted into. The four struggled in place but couldn’t seem to pull themselves off of the roof.
The gears in Olive’s head turned.
“Your vitae particles act like charged magnets?” Olive tried, running up to Lyrs’s side.
Yes, that had to be it: vitae particles latching onto surfaces and then attracting each other like charged particles—pulling together whatever objects they were attached to at the same time. It was vaguely reminiscent of the qualities of high-energy-level vitae.
“When you say it like that, it sounds pretty pathetic,” Lyrs sighed. “But yes. Sort of. I can bring together whatever my vitae particles touch. Veles’s conducting helps spread it around a bit, but…” He squinted at Olive. “I still don’t know where you fit in all of this, Prince Chance. Anyways…” He placed a hand to his chest. “As a Monadic priest I am bound to non-violence so”—he spread his arms—“I’d rather not get my hands dirty with this right now, so I’ll just head out—”
“Why the fuck,” Derik interjected, stepping forward, “are you talking about this when there’s people trying to decapitate other people five steps next to us?”
Unsure if that was enthusiasm or annoyance in Derik’s voice, Olive grimaced and glanced at the next tunnel-bridge coming up ahead.
Wait a minute.
He looked left and right, taking in the thick forest of trees that dotted the opposite sides of the train. He recognized this place. Francis, Jericho, Cadence, and Maria had swung by this area during their long search for Alpha a couple weeks ago. That meant that there was a gate here. Yes, inside one of the tunnels. Right. Olive could feel the visages of a plan forming together in his mind. Not a perfect one. A risky one. Still—
Olive reached out to Jericho desperately—but not for combat assistance. Once Jericho answered his call, Olive whipped back to Lyrs who startled at his attention. “Lyrs, your vitae particles are on me, right?”
“I want you to use your conducting and bring everyone towards me when I say so. Including yourself.”
Lyrs stared. “You want me to flatten you into a pancake by smashing everyone against you?”
“Just trust me!” Olive clicked his tongue in annoyance as he grabbed Lyrs’s arm and began running down the roof.
The sound of sloshing just behind Olive signaled to him that Derik was following close at his feet. He continued down the top of the train until he reached the end of the compartment where he skidded to a halt. Just across the train link one compartment over, Olive could see Claire and Arjun and Eunji darting back and forth. Soha and Felix maneuvered around them, deflecting oncoming bullets and vitae blades.
“Claire! Everyone!” Olive called out, waving his hand wildly. “Over here!”
Claire didn’t hesitate for even a second before he grabbed Arjun and Eunji by the wrist and headed over towards him. With a twist off his staff-conductor and a burst of wind, Claire easily leapt over the gap separating their carts and landed unsteadily in front of Olive with Arjun and Eunji in tow. Felix and Soha were just a step behind him. As soon as they all reached Olive’s side, he motioned for them and took off down the roof. They followed suit.
Once Olive reached the end of the compartment, he leapt blindly onto the next one. He nearly slipped and rolled down its side and brought Lyrs down with him, but Derik caught them both by the scruff.
“What the fuck is the plan, kid,” Derik demanded. “Fucking run around. Let’s just bl—”
“Just wait,” Olive panted as he pushed forward.
Down the train they continued, leaping from cart to cart with the other Sagittarians tailing them from behind. Finally, they reached the very last compartment at the back of the train and they were immediately surrounded by the other Sagittarians. The front of the train was just beginning to enter the tunnel ahead.
Olive stepped forward and threw out a wreath of flame causing the enclosing Sagittarians all to skirt back.
The train was halfway through the tunnel now.
Olive continued throwing out flame and after flame forcing the Sagittarians back further and further. As soon as they were outside of the range he had calculated, he pulled out the proto-conducting sphere from his pocket.
Now the compartment they were on was beginning to pass into the tunnel and darkness fell over them.
Olive locked eyes onto the barely visible black spot on the wall of the tunnel just ahead. The gate.
The black spot on the wall burst open with light, nearly blinding Olive in the darkness.
“Lyrs, now!” Olive shouted, running to the very edge of the compartment.
Lyrs hesitated, glancing over his shoulder—most likely looking at Veles through their connection.
“Saints, Veles, Prince Chance, you’re both crazy.” Lyrs clenched his gloved fist.
Olive’s clothing began to glow faintly with gray-blue light as did the clothing and bodies of everyone around him.
“Ollie…” Claire drew slowly, looking over his glowing body and then Eunji’s. “What’s going on here?”
Estimating the velocity and the distances and angles of himself and the others in relation to the gate inside his head, Olive launched himself off the edge of the train while simultaneously activating the proto-conductor sphere. A familiar ring of light expanded outwards from the sphere’s body. The opaque light passed through Olive’s body and the bodies of those gathered at the very edge of the train’s roof until it touched the circlet of the opposing clan members surrounding them. Then, the light intensified. All of the opposing clan members immediately fell limp but did not collapse onto the roof of the compartment. Instead, their bodies began to float towards him.
Olive faced forward as he floundered in the air for a second before he fell through the pale tangerine gate on the side of the bridge—
—the rain stopped as Olive made it through to the other side of the gate. He barely had the time to enjoy the reprieve from it before he crashed into something sturdy but soft. It was not the crash-landing he’d expected. As he felt a pair of arms wrap around his body, he looked up and found himself peering at a familiar pair of square glasses and a blank face.
Jericho, blinking up at him from where he lay flat on the ground.
Are you alright, Olive?
In the distance, Olive could feel Cadence relax.
Before Olive could nod or let out a sigh of relief in response, a crescendo of thuds resounded behind him. He peeled himself out from Jericho’s embrace and scanned the area. The gate on the wall across from him was beginning to dim. The floor beneath that gate was littered with bodies—the Sagittarians, Derik, Lyrs, everyone. It seemed as if Felix had managed to conjure a large mattress beneath them all just in time to break everyone’s fall.
“Kid!” Derik shouted in alarm from where he’d landed at the corner of the mattress. He scrambled up to a stand and darted to Olive’s side. His eyes were wide and wild with an unnatural fear. “Kid—you fucking brat—are you okay?”
Olive nodded silently, somewhat alarmed as Jericho guided him back up to his feet.
“Is this another one of your conducting things at work?” Claire asked, popping up to a stand and helping his sister to her feet as Soha and Felix made their way over to him. He glanced at his unmoving half-siblings and their guards. “The others can’t move?”
Arjun and Lyrs picked themselves up off the ground and looked around the room with quiet wonder. They stopped short as they stared off into the corner of the room. Olive followed their gazes and found Cavallo, Bendetto, Agape, and Carl staring back at them from the corner table they were occupying. They appeared only somewhat alarmed.
Ignoring them, Derik eyed Jericho with a frown and jabbed a finger at his chest. “And who the fuck is this? Wait… You look kind of familiar…” He snapped up to his feet and pointed to where the caporegimes and Carl sat. “Wait a minute—who the fuck are these people? Wait…” He squinted at Carl. “I know you…”
“Shit…” Ignoring Derik, Carl rose from his chair. His eyes were glued to Olive’s face. “I’ve seen you in the papers…” He paused, looking around. “Cadence is no joke connected to—”
“Ariesian and Sagittarian royalty,” Cavallo acknowledged, nodding at Olive then at Claire. “I take it you’re the infamous Ariesian prince that’s been making the headlines recently?”
* * *
“A corrupt peacekeeper and a handful of criminals from the underbelly of the Twin Cities,” Mai scoffed from where she sat being bound to a chair by Jericho. “So this is who you’ve been hanging around, Haneul.”
Jericho stared at her as he tightened the rope around her wrists. “I am not ‘corrupt’.” He turned to stare at Kaworu who was already tied up next to Mai and then stared at Trang who was tied up next to him. “I am not—”
“How dare you touch the princess of the Xing Clan!” one of the guards bound behind Mai snapped.
Jericho stared at the guard until he looked away. “I am not touching her a lot,” he explained. “I am being respectful—”
Wincing as he watched the entire thing unfold, Olive walked over to Jericho and pulled the man back. It’s not worth it. Trust me.
Jericho nodded. Derik, who stood just behind Olive, scoffed.
“Mai—my dear sister—it’s actually my first time meeting these gentlemen actually,” Claire answered Mai from where he was shaking hands with Cavallo, Agape, Carl, and Bendetto at the table in the far corner of the room. He turned on his heels to face Eunji who kept close behind him. He ruffled her hair. “Sorry for bringing you into all this, Eunji.”
Eunji still looked too flabbergasted to respond. “There… aren’t any… doors or windows…”
“Yep!” Claire marched back over to where his half-siblings and their guards were bound in front of the gate. “And by the way, Mai, it’s not just so-called ‘corrupt peacekeepers’ and ‘criminals’ in this place.” He thumbed vaguely behind him before spreading his arms. “This is actually an old ELPIS hideout!”
Olive grimaced. Seriously?
“ELPIS?” one of the bound guards whispered.
Mai and Kai paled while Trang and Kaworu exchanged looks.
“You’ve lost it…” Kaworu tutted sympathetically.
Olive resisted facepalming.
“So?” Carl gestured vaguely at Olive from beside Claire. “What is this? Are we holdin’ ‘em up for ransom?” He eyed Jericho then Olive. “Well? What the hell is this, Cadence?”
Olive frowned at him.
Carl’s eyes narrowed before he stomped over to Olive. He stopped short only a foot away and peered into Olive’s face. “Well? Cadence, are you in there or what—”
“Step the fuck off,” Derik interjected, shoving Carl away.
Carl stumbled back and bristled immediately before rolling up his sleeves and jabbing a finger at Derik’s chest. “And who the hell do you think you are? Wait, I recognize you—you’re one of those damn Capricornians.”
“Carl,” Agape said warningly. “Let’s be civil.”
“I’m not just any damn fucking Capricornian.” Derik slapped Carl’s hand away. “Private Derik Stein of the—”
“Only a private, huh—”
“What the fuck did you say—”
Both men lunged at each other a second after. Before they reached each other, however, Jericho stepped between them and caught them each by the wrist.
“No violence. Not here,” Jericho stated. He released them after they stopped struggling against him and he proceeded to point to his white armband. “I am a peacekeeper. I will… facilitate things. And keep the peace.”
Derik looked Jericho up and down before recognition finally seemed to dawn on him. “Wait a minute—you’re that fucking crazy peacekeeper who was in the captain in the capital, aren’t you? The one who nearly fucked us all over—”
“Hey!” Olive frowned, stepping forward. “He’s not crazy… Don’t call him that…”
“Okay, fine. He’s not crazy—but he did almost fucking kill us, right?” Derik pressed, glancing at Olive. “Not that I would’ve fucking died, but—” He whipped back to Jericho before relaxing slightly. “—but you helped us fuck over the old kaiser, didn’t you? Yeah. I guess you’re alright.”
Olive sighed. Sorry about him, Jericho.
Jericho offered a silent thumbs up. Question. Why did you bring them here? This is—He not-so-subtly eyed the Sagittarian royals—what Werner would call a ‘compromising’ situation.
“What the fuck is up with the quotation marks…?” Derik muttered, arching a brow at Jericho’s air quotation marks. He looked between Jericho and Olive. “Oh—you’re doing one of your weird head conversations?”
Olive sighed. “Can you get Epsilon for me, Jericho? I… think I can work something out with everyone… maybe.”
Jericho cocked his head slightly in response. Olive allowed his haphazardly, half-formed plan to bleed into the man in turn. Jericho nodded a moment after before leaving through a gate. He re-entered a second later with Epsilon in tow. As Jericho brought the ELPIS leader to Olive, Olive offered the man his hand. It felt awkward. He didn’t understand how Cadence and Werner could do it so casually and frequently.
Epsilon studied Olive cautiously before accepting the gesture timidly. “I’ve seen you before and read about you. In other people’s vitae. You’re a prince. The Ariesian prince. The twenty-third one, I think, right? Olivier Chance.”
“Just Olive is fine.”
Epsilon grinned. “Okay, just Olive!”
Claire leaned in and thumbed Epsilon before nodding to Mai with a pleasant smile. “Oh—here’s an ELPIS leader, like I was mentioning before!”
Mai tensed and said nothing.
Olive dropped his hand and stared at Epsilon for a beat before trying, “I’m not sure exactly how you do it, but you can extract specific memories, right? From the vitae? I’m guessing it has to do with how memories are coded into each vitae particle? I’ve seen you do it two ways. The first one is from extracting it from the vitae particles in a person’s blood and the second one has to do with contact, right? Maybe through something akin to transmutation—”
Epsilon beamed. “Woah, yes—that’s exactly it! You’re really, really bright!”
Epsilon was the one who was bright, Olive thought. Blindingly bright.
“I prefer to do it by extracting the memory from the vitae particles in the blood itself,” Epsilon explained, “but sometimes there are weird cases when it comes to maneuvering around certain types of people with special vitae, so I developed a different way about two or three centuries ago? I wrote it down in some of the records here! I didn’t start using it until recently this time though since I had to make sure I was doing it right.” He pointed to Jericho then Olive. “The second way is much faster and much more flexible, but it can be… kind of painful?” His smile fell slightly. “Right—I think I developed it to help Leo back in the 1600s, but I’m not too sure!”
Wow. Epsilon liked to talk a lot.
He is good company, Jericho reasoned. And he also does not like Alpha now. So he is good—
“Wait a damned minute!” Carl snapped. “You mean we didn’t have to chug damned blood like—”
Epsilon held up his hands. “I didn’t know about it until I read my notes in Theta’s records! But I can do it now, so we can do it that way from now on! But it’s not pleasant, like I said….”
“I’d like you to share some of my memories with some of the others for me,” Olive interjected.
“I know you don’t really know me but—”
“Of course, I can do it for you! You’re Leo’s friend, right? Because you’re Jericho’s friend and Jericho’s Leo friend—so you’re also my friend!” Epsilon beamed. “You don’t even have to ask! Who am I sharing it with?”
Olive squirmed inside at the lie. He was rather surprised at how willing Epsilon was to go along with this and how oblivious—or seemingly oblivious—he was to everything. Olive, however, figured he should’ve expected as much from what he’d seen of the man through Maria’s, Jericho’s, and Cadence’s eyes. Epsilon was the type of person who was happy to please others. Still…
“Uhm, thanks, Epsilon. I was hoping you could share it with them,” Olive tried, gesturing to the line-up of Mai, Kai, Kaworu, and Trang, “if you could…?”
“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Mai scoffed. “Memories in vitae? You expect us to believe something like that?” Her eyes narrowed at Olive. “I hope you understand, Prince Chance, that you’ve directly acted against several Sagittarian clans by—”
Ignoring her, Claire approached Olive cautiously. “Wait, I thought you were just going to hole up everyone here while we—y’know—went about our business.”
Olive frowned. “What kind of plan is that…? It’s not like we can do this all alone….”
“True, but my siblings are pretty hard-headed,” Claire drew, waving at Mai as she scowled at him. “I don’t think ‘sharing memories’ like you say will change their minds much. Blood succession war and bloody sibling rivalry and all that. Even if we sat down and explained everything, they’ll still say we’re lying. Trust me. I’ve never won an argument with any of them.”
“The way Epsilon’s conducting works,” Olive explained, “is kind of how it feels when we synchronize or connect or whatever with people in our circle. I think.”
Claire’s brows rose in surprise.
“Anyways, I just have to show them the right memory…” Olive drew, recalling how Trang had wept over her injured guard at Bodhi Temple. He shook his head and returned his attention to Epsilon. “Can you, Epsilon?”
Epsilon perked up and nodded before he began counting the heads of the bound Sagittarian royals. “The four of them?”
“Well…” Olive cast a glance over to where the caporegimes sat and then eyed Carl. “Actually… I’d like to show them too.”
“Hell no. You may be a damned prince,” Carl snapped, “but you’ve got no authority here.”
Olive frowned and grumbled, “Really, Carl? Come on…”
Carl pulled back with raised brows. “It’s really damned creepy—you talkin’ like you know me.”
Olive felt a pang of hurt at that statement, so he retorted with a—“And it’s creepy that your bank saving’s account password or whatever is the last name of your first girlfriend from when you were fifteen”
Carl stiffened and looked around quickly as if to make sure no one else had overheard. He half-whispered, half-spat, “Cadence said she wouldn’t tell anybody that.”
“Yeah, she didn’t,” Olive replied. Before Carl could react to that statement, he said to Epsilon, “The memory I want to share was when I was in Capricorn and stuck in an override… It was around mid-December last year—”
“The Week of Blindness…?” Claire asked before his eyes widened and empathy bled out from his gaze.
“We’re already well aware of what happened during that week,” Cavallo said calmly. “We’re being quite hospitable with you suddenly entering this place—all things considered—so proposing this so suddenly is rather… daring.”
Olive frowned. “You may have heard about it, but you haven’t seen it.” He turned to Mai and Kai. “And you both… were lucky enough to escape it before you saw it.”
“You think you can move people with your words,” Cavallo drew as he finally rose from his seat Prince Chance?”
“Not someone like you,” Olive muttered. “But…”
“Again. Hell no,” Carl snapped. “I’m not goin’ through that shit again.”
“Don’t you want to see what Francis was doing during that time?” Olive muttered before he mumbled. “You know to fulfill that weird sibling complex of yours—”
“What the hell did you say?” Carl snarled.
Cavallo placed a hand to his chin. “You do offer a callous yet interesting proposal, Prince Chance—”
“Just Olive is fine. Like I said.”
Cavallo offered an eerily polite smile. “I would like to see what information we can garner from the memories of a person of high political standing… so I will take up your offer, Prince Chance.”
“I’ll refrain,” Agape said, folding her hands in front of her.
“I won’t,” said Bendetto’s a second after.
Carl grumbled for a moment before he grimaced. “I won’t either then.”
Epsilon placed a hand to his chin in thought. He peered at Olive and drew slowly, “Would it be okay with you if I did it my new way? The only caveat is that—I still haven’t worked out the kinks yet—you would… live through the memories again. It won’t be pleasant, like I said.”
“You mean like what happened with Alpha?” Olive wondered.
Epsilon’s lips pressed thin but he smiled a moment after. “Yep! Just like Alpha!”
Olive looked over at Jericho and held the man’s gaze for a brief moment before he nodded at Epsilon. Epsilon proceeded around the room, placing his gloved hand to the temples of the people designated to receive the memories—namely Claire’s half-siblings, Bendetto, Cavallo, and Carl. Claire volunteered himself as did Arjun, Derik, and Jericho—the latter offering a thumbs-up and saying something about ‘being all-in together.’ Olive figured Jericho was beginning to pick up slang from the Twin Cities people so he didn’t question it.
Epsilon finally came back to Olive and placed a gloved hand to his temple. Olive nodded at him in turn and watched as Epsilon clenched his fist. A warm fuzziness buzzed sprouted out from the back of Olive’s mind and fogged his thoughts.
It was quite pleasant. That was at least until he abruptly remembered that awful day. The memory forcefully dragged itself up from the recesses of his mind—
Falling into the depths below the capital of Capricorn with Claire and the others. The explanation about the levels of vitae. Alwin launching himself on top of him after he’d run away because it was all too much; Alwin wrapping his fingers around his throat; Francis stepping in. And then—Marta’s screaming. Trystan, pushing him away before melting like butter coalescing together into one with Marta.
The scenery shifted.
Now he was standing in the cold streets of the Capricornian capital. A sickening blazed bright just a few yards ahead of him—a mass of vitae, swarming at the very end of the road. Yes, the thing that was once Marta, Trystan, and who knew who and what else. The people he couldn’t help and couldn’t save. His friends. His people.
Guided by the memory of what he’d done all those months ago, Olive lifted his hand and threw out an intense burst of flame that consumed the two people he had only recently finally admitted to having been his friends. The pain, anguish, and guilt eating him out from the inside burned more intensely than the flames. Losing something he’d tentatively held close. Again.
The pain consumed Olive’s whole chest and spread out to his limbs.
This was enough—
But the scene shifted.
Beni was falling now—falling down, down, down into the pulsating vitae swirling in the reservoir below. As he hit that viscous light and lost himself in the brightness, the scene shifted again. Olive found himself straddling Francis and pinning the man to the ground. Rain pattered down around them in sheets.
“Wait.” Olive squirmed in alarm. “This isn’t—”
Francis disintegrated into sand that spread out around Olive’s feet. The air buzzed hot and humid around him as the sound of flapping tents echoed in the distance. Someone was holding his hand and dragging him forward. Sand dusted his eyes, so it was difficult to make out that someone’s face.
“Come on, Ah-hee,” that person begged. “You promised—”
The scene melted under the pressure of the blazing heat from above, and now Olive found himself standing in front of a three-fold mirror in a room lined with paper doors. In the middle mirror, Olive found a young boy with dark hair and dark, foxlike eyes. His arm was strewn up in a cast, and his eyes were brimming with tears. In the left mirror, Olive found the reflection of a young girl with icy blue eyes, a hooked nose, and short blonde hair. In the right mirror, Olive found another girl with dark curls and tanned skin.
Claire. Sigrid. Andres?
“Why are you crying?” Sigrid’s eyes were sharp and cold. “You have food on your table and a warm bed to sleep in. That’s nothing to cry about.”
“No one wants me here,” Claire whimpered. “I can’t even trust my hand maiden. They’re all trying to get rid of me… the assassins…”
“It’s okay, Claire,” Andres consoled him. “If you can’t become something, then just become something else. Something that can support something greater. That’s what they tell us.”
“W-Wait a minute. What’s going on—” Claire’s disembodied voice echoed at the back of Olive’s mind. “Olive, what is this? Stop—”
One of the sliding doors flew open, letting in blinding light. When Olive’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found another small figure standing in the doorway. Dark skin, dark hair, clear eyes. A young Arjun.
Arjun’s clear eyes became clouded with worry as soon as he seemed to register the tears, and he immediately rushed towards Olive—towards Claire. “Are you okay—”
The scenery flickered again.
Olive now knelt in at the center of a familiar courtroom. Around him in the stacked pews sat men and women in varying styles of clothing—all looking down at him and those kneeling beside him with disdain. The person kneeling to Olive’s immediate left rose to a stand before turning on his heels and exiting the courtroom. Olive was able to turn his neck and see the person’s broad, proud, heroic retreating back.
Pain, admiration, guilt, duty—followed by the desire to be free from the weight of it.
The scenery melded once more into another one.
An all too familiar throne room stood before Olive’s eyes. His body moved on its own, turning away from the twin thrones sitting on top of that high platform and then charging down the hall opposite. Someone’s hand was in his own. Lavi’s. They were running together—no, they were escaping. Crimson flame ate away the banisters hanging on the wall. Blood stained the marble at his feet. Too much smoke—
“No, no, no—” Olive flailed his hands out blindly. “Too far! Too far—”
Olive opened his eyes as his vision swam. He was standing back in Francis’s exitless room. Epsilon was on the ground and holding his cheek. Jericho hovered over him, hand still curled into a fist.
“I apologize.” Jericho dropped his fist and offered Epsilon a hand. “Reflex.”
“No, I’m sorry!” Epsilon accepted Jericho’s gesture and hopped to his feet. He placed a hand to his face. “I should have realized. Things are a bit different with True Conductors, right? Things can crossover and get a bit messy—I have to look into it a bit more to really understand it.” He pointed to Claire who swayed in place a few feet away from Olive. “That was dangerous, mister! You should have told me you were a True Conductor who wasn’t connected to Olive.” He brightened a moment after. “It’s alright though! We avoided disaster… whew!”
Jericho turned back to Olive. Olive in turn offered the man a thumbs up which Jericho reflected back.
Claire rubbed his eyes and hesitantly eyed Olive. “Did you see…? Did they all see…?”
Olive nodded silently.
Claire sighed. “Well, that’s embarrassing—”
“W-What the hell was that…?” Mai stammered, tugging on her bindings. Her eyes were wide, and she looked back at Kai and her guards with a mixture of fear and alarm and worry—as if she expected them to melt down into a viscous groaning mass of vitae just like Trystan and Marta had. “What was that thing?”
Mai’s sibling and half-siblings next to her were just as pale and pallid as she was. Bendetto, Cavallo, and Carl appeared to have fared a bit better but they all appeared grim. Across from Olive, Arjun had sunken down cross-legged onto the floor and was now staring at a spot on the ground with a frown. His eyes were clouded. Derik stood just beside him with crossed-arms and a scowl.
“That was a human being,” Olive replied, wiping the wetness from his eyes. He waved Jericho away when the man peered into his face with concern. “You should already know how it—how Trystan and Marta—became like that… You saw the explanation.” He held his chin up high and then swept his gaze across the audience that had just bore witness to his memories and feelings—as embarrassing as it was to think about. “We still don’t know what the syzygy is, but we know that it involves turning people—our people—into vitae. This goes above all of us. So, if you all just want to continue fighting over a puppet crown, then go ahead. Just know that whoever ascends to the throne will have to deal with your people’s blood being on their hands.”
“This ‘syzygy’ that keeps being mentioned,” Trang drew after a pause, holding Olive’s gaze and then glowering with a tight expression, “when is it supposed to happen?”
Olive frowned. “We don’t know exactly.” And that was what scared him.
“Not having a schedule is pretty rough,” Claire noted, rubbing the back of his neck. He eyed his half-siblings before pressing, “So, Ollie, what was your big plan here exactly…? I’m still all for just locking them up here for the time being by the way—”
“Hey!” Carl snapped at Claire. “I don’t care if you’re some Sagittarian prince, but this joint ain’t a storage facility.”
Ignoring Carl, Olive sighed as he felt Werner and Maria finally stir into consciousness. “Well, if I’ve said anything that convinced any of them to change their minds, I was thinking we should actually head back to Ophiuchus.”
half-manic author’s note:
//looks at my previous author’s note. WELLL. This is awkward.
So the story is that im still working and schooling at the same time—although I am only working one job again. Work isn’t the killer at the moment though but school is;; the semester is coming to an end and I have a bunch of projects due—one about HPV and its vaccine + a presentation on it and another about running a regression for the framingham heart study ((+ a presentation for that for some reason)) that I haven’t even thought to take a look at yet—and some other miscellaneous assignments.
—that is all a long explanation for the lateness of this chapter ((also the fact that this chapter is literally 19k+ words long))and why I don’t think I’ll be able to get a chapter out this coming weekend. I have to work on that one of those final projects I haven’t started on yet that’s due this weekend aiweoruewioruoi. The semester ends in 1-2 weeks though so I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to return to the 1x/2x chapter update schedule then ((this is the third time I’ve said this but shhh)). I really want to finish this part by the end of may and release the beginnings of part 5 around then too so—//fingerscrossed!!
End chapter comment note: olive is 10x more productive than I am awiuorweuior. Also dream sequence in the beginning is a callback/finisher thing of the dream sequence that this part opened with. I also have no idea why this chapter is so long but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ actually I do but that’s a future me problem //jingerguns.
Oh! if you want more accurate update timelines ((and if you want to see me have a stress-induced mental breakdown every other day or if you just want to talk)), you can join the discord ((we have SC-themed emotes!)), follow me on twitter, or follow the story twitter //fingerguns. Also there’s an SC quote tweet bot here too.
Finally, sorry for the wait and thanks for reading!! and for reading this half manic author’s note. this author’s note is super long but hey the chapter is super long so why not.
I-i am free;;;;;
time to make banana bread
oh and good luck to everyone who’s finishing off their semester this month o/!!