11.6: Olive’s (Nascosto) Test

Re-cap:

Olive has been in the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius studying for his State Conducting Exam. Alongside him is Claire and Claire’s sister Eunji who is also studying for the exam. The saint candidate of Sagittarius Ilseong Jin appears before Olive ominously casting doubt on Olive’s efforts and Olive’s sister Lavi. She is then revealed to have ties with ELPIS.

As the night of their plan comes into fruition, Olive’s part is to…

Olive opened his eyes.

The clicks and clacks of the train trudging along the tracks were the first things he became aware of. Then came his awareness of the surrounding animated chatter.

Across from him sat Jin, sandwiched in-between Claire and the latter’s step-sister Mai. At Claire’s left sat Eunji with her head buried in her book, and at Mai’s right sat Kai who was looking at the scenery flitting past the train-car window. The rest of the compartment was filled with Claire’s and Mai’s entourage. It was a rather tight fit, but the heat wasn’t unpleasant. It reminded Olive of the air back home. At Olive’s left sat Trystan who mumbled a “Did you sleep well?” as Olive gained his bearings.

“Yeah.”

No.

“Good morning, kiddo.” Jin flashed him a grin.

Ignoring her, Olive rose from his seat and headed over to the corner of the train cart where his bird had been placed alongside all of his other belongings. The blackbird tweeted at his approach, and he looked around expectantly for Lavi to show her face. But she didn’t.

Olive grimaced and stared at Jin’s reflection on the window beside him.

He knew that his portion in this plan of theirs was rather simple. Much more simple than the tasks of the other five. And yet still, he wouldn’t be able to do it without Cadence’s help. It was pathetic.

“Seeing that bird in that cage is pretty depressing.”

Olive startled and whipped around to find Jin hovering over his shoulder.

“I would say set the bird free,” Jin continued, “but what’s the point? It’s been conditioned to captivity, so it’ll be absolutely useless when you let it loose in the wild.”

“I see you’re an ornithologist now,” Olive muttered. “People really are into fields that reflect their personality.”

“Are you calling me bird-brained?” Jin whistled. “You have a lot of gusto, kiddo. Wonder if I’ll ever see that aloof arrogance disappear.” Her smile thinned. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” She chuckled. “Just kidding, kiddo. Maybe in my next life.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

The train docked at The Grand Snake Station five hours later.

As Olive was gathering his belongings alongside Trystan and Claire, he kept his eye glued on Jin. She hadn’t brought much with her on their train ride and was busy chatting with the car attendant at the cabin’s exit.

It was now or never.

Olive sucked in a breath as he headed towards her; and then with unpracticed uneasiness, he tripped forward. He let out a yelp and reached out for the closest thing to him, which just so happened to be—as calculated—Jin. She whipped around quickly and caught him mid-fall. His vision went black for a moment. When it returned, Jin was flashing him another grin.

“Nerves?”

“Sure,” Olive muttered, peeling away from her and quickly shoving his right hand into his pocket. He beckoned for Trystan with a jerk of his head and headed through the train doors behind Jin. Abruptly, Jin reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Olive tensed, heart hammering, and turned back towards her.

“Good luck on your exam,” Jin hummed, tightening her grip. She nodded at Claire, Eunji, Mai, and Kai who had just finished packing their things. “All of you.”

“You’re not coming to watch?” Claire asked perturbed.

“I’ve got something I need to take care of first. I’ll be around though,” Jin answered, stepping off the train with a wave. “Good luck!”

Olive swallowed, curling his fingers around the proto-conductor that Cadence had just plucked from Jin in his pocket. Now all he had to do was keep an eye on her and figure out what to do with the proto-conductor. Keeping it away from her was the best option at the moment. But first, he had to stop acting suspicious. Shrugging his shoulders, he shuffled off the train and stepped out onto the platform.

It was annoyingly crowded. Men and women in black and white uniforms brushed past him without care, while men and women dressed in casual wear looked around at them in confusion. Despite the overwhelming crowd and noise, Olive didn’t find it jarring or uncomfortable. Even though he had been to this place only once many years ago, everything was still very familiar to him. Beside him, Trystan surveyed the area while balancing all of their belongings.

Claire appeared from behind with a pleasant smile. “Lost?”

Behind the Sagittarian prince stood Felix, Soha, and Eunji. Mai and Kai and their entourage seemed to be elsewhere. Good.

“Because we are,” Claire finished. “You wouldn’t happen to know a friend who knows their way around, would you?”

Olive didn’t know what Claire was playing at, and he was too tired and anxious to even think about it. So, without complaint or response, Olive led them to and through a straight pathway in an open yard dotted with statues of faceless, genderless figures. The pathway eventually led to a large white marble staircase that extended as far wide as it extended high. It seemed completely impractical, but instead of grumbling about it to himself, Olive found himself staring at a spot at the foot of the steps.

He was certain.

This was the very spot that Jericho had struck when he’d been pushed from the top by Omega. This was where Jericho almost died. This… was a safety hazard.

Olive shivered but was jarred out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder.

Claire chuckled. “Mentally preparing yourself for the climb?”

***

When they reached the top of the staircase, they were greeted by an army of peacekeepers who prompted them to turn in any conductors they had. Olive and Trystan flashed them golden, hexagonal medallions imprinted with the Ariesian royal ram, while Claire and his entourage flashed silver medallions carved with Sagittarian letters. The peacekeepers looked the identifications over, before allowing their group to pass with their conductors. A little bit of misdirection with Cadence’s assistance allowed Olive to slip the proto-conductor past them too.

“Perks of being royalty,” Claire sang.

After passing a vitae spectrophotometer test within, they were directed inside and given directions to a room to store their belongings. The directions were poor, of course, and vague too. But thankfully, Jericho synchronized at just the right moment and directed Olive on where to go. Eventually, Olive guided the group to a large storage room where they checked in their belongings with several peacekeepers.

Olive didn’t ask these peacekeepers for the directions to the examination room. Instead, he continued forward with a shrug and led the Claire and the others to an open room on the fourth floor of the establishment. STATE CONDUCTING EXAM was emblazoned on a plaque just outside of the room.

No use in it being there, Olive thought, if people couldn’t even find the room to begin with.

The room’s walls were guarded by rows of white waiting chairs, half of which were occupied. They bypassed these chairs in favor of approaching the half-circle receptionist desk at the room’s center.

A familiar man with black curls and a tattooed face manned the desk’s forefront. It was Moraeni, the Piscese peacekeeper who was a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle.

The man greeted them pleasantly at the desk; and after ascertaining which members of their party were taking the exam and checking their identities, he handed Eunji and Olive each a slip of paper with a number on it. He didn’t seem affected by their twin statuses of royalty.

“That’ll be your examinee number, and if you pass this exam, it’ll be your license number,” Moraeni explained in Common. “Please be aware that it’ll take around two months for you to receive your license if you pass due to secondary background checks. Also, while you can come in and take the written exam on any day of your choice, you must take the practical portion on the day you’ve taken the written portion. If you don’t, you’ll have to take the written portion again.” He gave an apologetic smile, the formality in his body and tone dissipating. “It’s just how the system works. Sorry.”

Olive nodded, not particularly caring.

“As you know, only the examinees are allowed to be in this room while the exam is being proctored,” Moraeni addressed Claire, Soha, Felix, and Trystan, “so go ahead and exchange your good wishes.” He nodded back to an ominous-looking black door just behind him. “When you’re done, the test takers may enter through that door to the examination room.”

Claire pulled Eunji to the side and began to speak to her quietly. Felix and Soha stood in front of them, blocking the siblings from Olive’s view. Not that Olive needed a first-row ticket to family drama. Ignoring them, Olive pulled Trystan to the far corner of the room.

“I need you to do something for me,” he said.

“What is it, your highne—Olivier?”

“I need you to find Jin and keep an eye on her.”

Trystan frowned somewhat but obliged. “… Of course, Olivier.”

“But keep your distance. Don’t… don’t get too close.” Olive reached out, squeezed his arm.

Trystan nodded hesitantly and departed from the room alongside Claire and his two guards. Olive sighed and grimaced before heading towards the ominous door. He found Eunji standing right in front of it, stiff with a constipated expression. He would’ve chuckled at the sight if he wasn’t as nervous himself. And not just about the exam.

“Come on.” Olive gave Eunji a nudge forward. “Can’t take the test standing.”

Together, they stepped inside.

The room was spacious and wide. It held a lecturer’s podium at its center with interconnected desks arching around it. A handful of young men and women who looked nauseous already occupied several of the desks.

The entirety of it reminded Olive of the lecture halls back in New Ram City.

Olive helped Eunji find her seat before walking over to the desk that was marked with his number and taking a seat himself. The test proctor came to a stand at the center of the room and monologued about rules, cheating, and time frames as another proctor started passing out the exams.

When Olive received his own exam packet, he grimaced. It was more like a tome than anything else. Almost an inch thick. As much as he cared for Atienna’s love of plants and trees, he sincerely hoped it was single-sided.

“—and now,” the test proctor boomed with an aggravatingly dramatic flourish, “you may begin!”

Taking a deep breath, Olive picked up the pencil that they had provided to him and flipped open to the first page.

Double-sided.

Damn. 

***

Olive finished the exam with an hour to spare. After double-checking his answers and switching back and forth between A and C for several questions on the multiple-choice section, he decided enough was enough. He shut the packet, signed his name at the front of the thing like he was signing his will, and handed the packet to the proctor.

As he made his exit, he realized that Eunji’s seat was empty. She had completed her exam before him, it seemed. It was a slight blow to his ego, but it was mended a second later when Olive spied Kai among the seated examinees. The man was staring holes into his testing paper and seemed to be sweating and swearing under his breath.

Olive swept out of the room and let out a sigh. He stopped short, however, as he registered Eunji sitting along the wall with her head buried in her hands. He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck before walking over and sinking down beside her.

“What did you put for number 23b in section C?” Eunji asked, snapping up to stare at him. “The question about the vitae particles and kick-starter?”

“Would knowing what I put change anything?” Olive arched a brow.

Eunji stared down at her hands, opened her mouth, grimaced, fell silent.

Talk about awkward.

But Olive could tell what was going through her mind. Only a couple of months ago, he’d been going through the same thought process. The desire not to be useless but the fear of being useful. Trying to dissect if the effort was worth anything at all in the end.

“You should stop thinking so much and just worry about what you can do now. The rest will come later,” Olive finally said. When Eunji blinked up at him hesitantly, he jerked his head towards the exit. “Let’s go. Unless you have a friend you’re waiting for.”

Upon exiting the examination room with Eunji in tow, Olive found Claire, Soha, and Felix lounging around in the hall just outside. Claire beamed at their appearance and rushed over to Eunji’s side.

“How was it?” he asked.

Eunji shrugged.

Olive cast a glance to the side and was startled to find Trystan approaching them from down the hall. Olive detached himself from the Sagittarian and met Trystan halfway.

“Trystan?” Olive asked. “You couldn’t find her?”

“No, I did find her, Olivier,” Trystan replied, dipping his head. “But she entered a location that I was barred entry from.”

“What’s going on?” Claire asked as he joined them alongside his sister and bodyguards.

“It’s nothing—” Olive began.

“This is about my aunt, isn’t it?” Claire interjected.

Eunji looked between them in confusion. “What about Aunt Jiji…?”

Olive turned back to Trystan. “Show me where.”

Trystan startled. “But, Olivier, your practical exam is—”

“The practical portion isn’t for another two hours,” Olive interjected. “Take me, Trystan—”

Claire placed a hand on Olive’s arm and urged, “I’m comin with you. This is one of the people of my clan.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before brushing his hand aside and nodding.

Claire turned back to Eunji and his vassals. “Soha, stay with Eunji. Felix, with me.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the affirmations in unison.

***

Olive’s heart hammered in his chest as Trystan directed them through white halls, past suited peacekeepers who only spared their traveling group a glance, past rooms marked with department names and numbers, down several floor levels. As Trystan continued to lead them onwards and as they continued to descend the Serpens Establishment, Olive came to realize that he knew this route. Down, down, down they went until they reached the first-floor level and made their way through a near-empty corridor.

Olive knew what was at the end of this corridor. He—no, Jericho—had been down this way once before. At the end of this hall would be a series of tightly guarded checkpoints that only certain Ophiuchian agents were able to get past. After that, they would be greeted by a metal elevator that would bring them to the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center.

Olive stopped short in his tracks halfway down the hall. Trystan, Claire, and Felix turned back to look at him.

It’s okay, Olive tried to reassure himself. As long as Jin didn’t have Theta’s proto-conductor, whatever she was planning, she wouldn’t be able to properly execute. She wouldn’t even think about doing that… right?

A loud boom resounded from down the hallway. The sound was followed by the rumbling and groaning of the entire building. Dust fell from the ceiling and a crack appeared on the floor.

Then the sirens blared.

Trystan was at Olive’s side immediately, bow conductor drawn. Felix drew near to Claire but didn’t move to conjure anything.

Olive was in no state to pay attention because Maria’s anguish suddenly tore through his heart like a knife. He doubled over at the intense emotion thatt weighed down his chest like an anchor. Olive thought he’d never feel like this again. This pain, this heaviness, this guilt.

Maria….

Olive had been alone when he had suffered these feelings after the Tragedy of Aries and—

He grimaced.

—he wouldn’t let Maria go through it alone like he did. He clawed his way towards her, increasing their synchronization through the haze of sorrow until he was with her. With her facing Conta. With her charging in fury at Conta. With great effort, he convinced Maria to quell her rampage, and he was left drained at the attempt. Maria was a force of nature. Sometimes Olive doubted if she was human. But still. He didn’t want her to be alone—

Something buzzed warm in Olive’s right pocket, bringing him back into his reality in the hallways of the Serpens Establishment. Glancing down, he found that his pocket was glowing. He dug into it, pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor. It was bright, burning hot.

Reflexively, he yelped and dropped the thing. It shattered as soon as it hit the ground, spewing the glowing substance across the floor with a splatter. The liquid-like substance trickled along the ground, crawling forward until it eventually divided the hall in two.

Trystan jerked Olive backwards away from the newly formed portal just as it nearly reached his foot. Olive offered him a subdued look of gratitude before he realized that their entire group was on the side of the hall leading towards the detention center. He looked back and then forward, measuring the distance the portal covered with his eye. It looked at least several feet wide.

Suddenly, from that newly formed portal, a familiar voice cracked out—

“There really is no hope.”

Only a second later, out from the pool of light flew four figures in monochrome uniforms. Three landed on Olive’s side of the hall, while one landed on the opposite side. Olive recognized one of the peacekeepers who landed on his side immediately. The recognition was paired with relief.

Jericho.


The State Conductor Exam (sometimes referred to as the State Conducting Exam) is a standardized examination given to propsective Conductors. Established six months following the foundation of Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping state, this exam consists of three portions: written, practical, and interview. The written portion consists of questions regarding conducting principal and vitae theory, while the practical consists of conductor maneuverability and usage. 

Altogether, the exam can take 7.5 hours to complete.

In order to receive a State Conductor’s License, one must pass this test. 

Conducting Informational Packet, circa 1935

10.2: Cadence’s Gambling (Fallacia)

Mood OST for this chapter: (ಥ﹏ಥ)

Re-cap:

Disguising herself as Werner, Cadence works with Gilbert and Werner’s men to investigate Colonel Fritz von Spiel and his dealings with the Campanas. After a confrontation with Gilbert, the two work to together to discover that the Campanas are selling Specialist children and the colonel is more than willing to buy.

Afterwards, Cadence stumbles across Francis and follows him back to Theta’s room. Here, Cadence discovers the truth behind ELPIS, the resistors, and Theta’s plan. Reeling from this discovery, Cadence escapes and…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence stumbled out of the portal, heart and head pounding. She didn’t have a clue where she was—it was too dark to make anything out. If it wasn’t for the fact that she could hear herself panting, she might’ve thought she were dead.

Scrambling blindly forward, she ran smack into a wall, tripped backwards, fell flat on her back, and blinked upwards. There was a crack of skyline there, and the smog clouding the sky reflected back the blue-orange lights from the city.

Judging by the thickness of the smog and the color of the lights, she figured she was in an alley in the west side of the city. The Louvre District again.

“What in saint’s name do I do…”

Save Alma. Right. They could leave this city together. Cadence’d gotten the means to do it. She’d get Alma to safety.

And then what?

What would happen to the city?

Well, that was Ophiuchus’s responsibility. They’d handle it fine. Since they were in the city already, they’d find the trail. And Jericho would probably say something about ‘intuition,’ swing that suitcase of his, and everything’d be okay. Werner hadn’t even needed to contact Ophiuchus to begin with. Right? Yeah.

No. That was a lie.

Would Ophiuchus even be able to find Theta’s room?

Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor that she’d taken off Comissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau.

She could just turn this into Ophiuchus, she thought. Make up a story. Say she’d encountered Jericho’s scuffle against Iota and found it on the streets afterwards. Everything’d be peachy then.

No. That was also a lie.

Cadence doubted Ophiuchus knew how to use the thing. And if she gave it to them, they’d just be hopping from place to place willy-nilly hoping they’d get the jump on ELPIS. Pure luck and chance.

And…

Jericho wanted it. He was the reason why she was gripping it so tightly in her hand. Any tighter and she’d shatter the thing. Jericho wanted it so that he could get to them. And if he got to them…

What would Jericho do to Theta—no, Francis?

Cadence paled as a chill ran up her spine.

ELPIS’s origins were irrelevant to Jericho. His hatred remained unchanged regardless of their circumstances. Cadence knew this—could feel this. And if that was the case then…

What would happen to Francis?

Cadence rolled over on all fours and stared at the ground, digging her nails into the damp, dirty concrete.

If Ophiuchus couldn’t fix this in time, what would happen to Allen, Carl, Fortuna? Alice? The executives? Werner’s men? Nico…?

Something hot and putrid crawled up her throat, causing her stomach to flip flop. She hadn’t felt this sick since she’d gone out drinking with the Foxman brothers and Nico before Nico had left for the Aquarian-Capricornian border.

As the memory of that drunken, chatter-filled night surfaced, Cadenced heaved, gagged, and puked.

Take damn responsibility,” Gilbert had said.

In that moment, as Gilbert had berated her, Cadence had felt intense shame. In his eyes, she’d only been a cowardly, selfish, two-faced liar. And Cadence knew that was what she was. That was how she grew up. There was no helping it. But still, when she met Gilbert’s disapproving eyes, she’d wanted to curl up, hide away, drink, change.

It was ridiculous. She barely even knew Gilbert. Which meant that Werner cared a lot about what Gilbert thought. Appearances and whatnot.

No.

It was different with Gilbert. By just a slight shade. Werner had cared because of… ‘Friendship’? That didn’t seem like him at all.

Cadence herself had never thought too deeply about the word. She’d purposefully stopped herself from thinking about people that way. There was no such thing in this city.

That was a lie.

All she was doing was trying to find the easiest way out. Like usual. A victim of circumstance. 

“I know that,” Cadence whispered, wiping her mouth. “But what in saint’s name am I supposed ta do?”

Who could she go to? No one. She’d burned all her bridges. No. They had never been there to begin with. She’d built up false bridges that held no substance. Try and walk across and she’d fall right through the illusion.

Damn.

No time to think about that.

She had to report into Cavallo. About the Campanas?

Cadence scrambled to her feet, pocketed Theta’s proto-conductor, and stumbled forward blindly. Eventually, she squeezed herself out of the alleyway and stumbled out onto a near empty street lit dimly by v-street-lamps.

“… Is that you, Cucciolo?”

Cadence straightened and turned.

A familiar woman with jet black hair that curled to her ears stood beneath a flickering light. Her red satin dress glowed in the dark as did her cherry red lips. Her eyes were soft, sad.

“Alma…” Cadence took a moment to take her in before she stumbled towards her. Cadence embraced her, and after a beat, Alma returned the gesture.

“You were… disguised as that Capricornian soldier, weren’t you?” Alma whispered into her hair. “You saved me that night, didn’t you? And you came to Enzo’s dinner tonight too… right? That was you.”

Alma had known. Of course, Alma had known.

“Are you alright?” Alma pressed, examining Cadence’s face. “You seemed really hurt in that explosion, and then you showed up at Enzo’s dinner like it was nothing… You poor thing…”

Werner’s bloodied body flashed into Cadence’s mind, and Cadence felt bile climb up her throat again.

“Alma,” Cadence breathed, grabbing hold of the woman’s hand. “Come with me.”

Alma stared at her, hand loose. “Come… with you?”

“Out of this city,” Cadence stammered, digging into her pockets, brushing past Theta’s proto-conductor, and pulling out the collection of proto-conducting rings she’d stolen from Russo. She held them out for Alma to see. “We can disguise ourselves. Sell these things. Use the money and get ourselves a place. I’ll buy you a piano. I—”

“Oh, Cucciolo.” Alma sighed, placing a hand on Cadence’s cheek. “If we run away, what then?”

“What… then?”

“Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me.”

What…?

“Y-You don’t need any of that—”

“Of course, I do, Cucciolo,” Alma said gently. “What’s the point of playing a song when no one is there to listen? A caged bird always sings for someone, right?” Alma pulled her hand out of Cadence’s grasp. “You should leave this half of the city, Cucciolo… Enzo was talking about looking for you earlier. He seemed very angry…”

Cadence remained frozen in place. Confused, flustered.

“I should go… but you should stay safe, Cucciolo,” Alma said as she began to pull away. “It was nice seeing you again. And… thank you for saving me. See you some time.”

Without sparing another look back, Alma continued on her walk down the street in the opposite direction—carrying on as if it was just any other night in her life. Unreachable.

“A-Alma… Alma, meet me at the Sognare!” Cadence shouted, voice cracking, as she curled her fingers around the rings. “Meet me at the Sognare! And I…” She trailed off as Alma disappeared from her sights. “Please…”

Silence.

Cadence turned on her heels, continued forward. Absentmindedly, she shoved the rings in her suit pocket and tried to collect her thoughts.

Shrug it off. Yeah. Just shrug it off. Alma would come back around. She would. She promised. If not, then it was just bad timing. Just the situation—

A sharp crack and pain against the back of her head cut the thought short, and Cadence fell forward into darkness.

***

When Cadence came to, she realized that not only was she bound to a metal chair but she was also cold. Cold as hell. She was in a small room with metal walls, with a metal ceiling lined with hanging icicles growing in-between slabs of meat on metal hooks. A cooler. Damn bad luck. At least it had an exit: a heavy-looking door just across from her.

But—to check the last box on the checklist of misfortune—she could no longer feel the familiar press of her conducting rings on her fingers. Whoever had taken her in had known enough to take them off.

Fortunately, she could still feel the press of Theta’s proto-conductor and the ring proto-conductors in her pants pocket. She would’ve felt more relieved, however, if she could actually move her hands enough to reach them. Her captors had bound her with metal chains wound so tight around her chest, arms, and legs that it hurt to breathe, move, shiver. No sticky-fingering or muscling her way out of this one.

The cooler door abruptly opened, and two figures stepped in. Two familiar men who shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other.

“Well, this is an odd sorta friendship ta see,” Cadence mused lightheartedly. “Did ya guys meet-cute?”

Donato of the Romano Family chuckled as he approached her, while Enzo of the Campanas stood beside him with a tired look. It seemed as if Donato’s encounter with Iota hadn’t shaken the old coot up a bit.

“A Caporegime of the Romanos and an executive of the Campanas meetin’ up with one another while the families themselves are beatin’ the snot outta each other,” Cadence hummed. “Now that’s a good secret.”

“And you’ll keep it a secret?” Donato mused. “Like how you’ll keep the Campana’s product a secret?”

“Product?” Cadence arched a brow.

“Oh, come on, Cadence.” Donato sighed. “I know you were at Enzo’s meeting. We found Cavallo’s dog Russo just as he was leaving the area and pulling off a proto-conductor ring. A ring that was obviously filled with your vitae.”

Dammit, Russo.

“And… where would Russo happen ta be now?”

“Six feet under,” Enzo replied. “Unlike you, he wasn’t as willing to lend an ear and was feelin’ a bit loose lipped.”

Dammit, Russo…

But. Okay. This was good. Bad for Russo. But good for her. They were planning on letting her live… up to a point. She had to get more information in the meanwhile, but she couldn’t overstep her bounds.

“So, given what’s goin’ down in the city that now, I’m guessin’ none of the bosses or any of the other executives know that you two are buddy-buddy. How long ya been pen pals?”

“How long have I been capo?” Donato returned.

Cadence arched a brow. “Geeze, so from the very beginning, huh? Pretty impressive how ya got under the bosses’ noses. Bet ya both were excited when Fortuna and Ambrose said they were gettin’ engaged, huh?”

“You too, Morello.” Enzo nodded. “I mean, that meant that the divide between you and Alma would no longer be there, right?”

Cadence froze.

“Alma talked about you a lot when she first came to me,” Enzo explained. “‘Course, she stopped after she got used to the good life, but I have a good memory.”

“She’s talked about ya a lot too when we met up,” Cadence returned good-naturedly. “Gossip, right?” She paused, pulling back. “I’m not a gossiper myself. Especially when my life is on the line—”

“I’m sure you said the same thing when you were dealing with Verga,” Donato interjected. “And Verga is stupid so he believed you.” He gestured to himself. “You can see there’s a difference here.”

Cadence smiled with effort. “That’s why you’re a capo and he wasn’t.” She shrugged. “If you’re gonna consider doin’ me in, can I at least get some of the details? Can’t let me die with curiosity, can ya?”

Donato considered this before chucking. “I like you, Cadence, so here it is—”

Obviously, he didn’t like her to not beat her over the head and tie her up, she thought.

“—You know this for fact: the Campana Family is selling Specialist Conductor children. The market for them is crazy. Especially in countries who’re bordering less-than-friendly countries outside of Signum. The wealthy love them too. And I’ve been providing some of them to Enzo in exchange for…” Donato slapped his bad leg. “Well, you see, they’ve got an amazing Specialist who’s been slowly but surely healing my leg. Soon, I’ll be walking like everyone else.”

Betraying the Family just for one healed-up leg? What a rat.

“Congratulations,” Cadence said faintly. She swallowed, cocked her head. “That’s great for ya and everything, but aren’t ya concerned about what’ll happen if any of the executives find out? I mean, they’re all busy dealin’ with killin’ each other, but ya know Francis is a good multitasker—”

“Francis?” Donato threw his head back and barked. “He’s probably completely lost his head by now. He’s not doing anything anytime soon.”

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.

Donato knew. And if he knew, then…

“What…. did you do?” she whispered.

Enzo walked out of the cooler abruptly.

“You see, the Foxmans and the Campanas have had a bad relationship for some time now,” Donato explained. “The problem is the Foxmans are too loyal. Too nosey. So, honoring their relationship with the Romanos, they covertly started working with Ophiuchus to investigate the Campanas in an effort to take ‘em down. ‘Course if they started investigating the Campanas, then there’s no telling when they’d dig up our business agreement. Enzo and I would both be in bad waters with our bosses.”

Enzo returned carrying an open wooden crate and dropped it at Cadence’s feet. Cadence peered inside, and another wave of nausea overtook her. Resistors. The crate was full of resistors. Some of their glass-tube handles were filled with a swirling white light, while others were hollow and empty.

“Enzo found a whole cargo shipment full of these conductor-looking, knife-things stored in a warehouse in the west side,” Donato explained. “Apparently, Verga was shipping these for a certain group.” He bent down to pick up a resistor that was empty. Its blade was caked with dried blood. “What you’re seeing here is the very knife Francis was stabbed with.”

Cadence balled her fists, bit the inside of her lip, kept her face calm and even.

“It’s quite interesting—the effect of these things when they’re filled with the white vitae stuff.” Donato ran his finger along the blade. “Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps, and they completely went off the walls. We had to put most of ‘em down. ‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.” He tapped the tip. “It surprisingly took a while for Francis to crumble, but the entire thing took the Foxmans’ eyes off of us for a while.” He chuckled. “Well, forever now.”

“Do ya even understand what ya’ve done…?”

“These things have something to do with ELPIS, yeah.” Donato nodded, tossing the resistor back into the crate. “But I’m not too concerned about them. We have what they want, after all. ‘Course dealing with Ophiuchus is another issue. I had to put in a lot of legwork to get away from the guards they put on me. And you know me—I’m old and I’m not as slick as I used to be—”

“This is all your fault!” Cadence seethed, startling herself, Donato, and Enzo. “You… You!”

“What has gotten into you, Cadence?” Donato sighed and rubbed his wrist. “You of all people should understand. In time, whatever this is will pass, and people’ll move on. ELPIS’ll do its thing, and they’ll leave like they always do. The Families’ll resolve their issues.” He paused, smiled genially. “Same goes for all the people you’ve deceived for us, right?”

“People’ll move on…?” Cadence parroted. She laughed. “Ya can’t be serious, Donato. I mean, ya’ve gotta be pullin’ my leg again, right? How in saint’s name are they gonna move on from this? This is ELPIS. They—”

They hadn’t moved on for centuries.

“I’m leaving you in Feliciano’s care while I decide what to do with you, Morello,” Donato said, nodding at Enzo. “Though, a couple of Feliciano’s friends have ended up as stiffs recently, so I can’t say he’s gonna be in too good a mood. He’ll be visiting soon.”

Enzo bent down to pick up the box of resistors and with Donato he exited the room. The cellar door shut quietly behind them, leaving Cadence alone in silence.

Cadence began to tremble despite herself.

Feliciano’s ‘care’?

Saints. They were going to beat the living hell out of her.

Cadence stared at the floor, mind racing. Would she be able to talk her way out of a beating?

Feliciano’s sneering face flashed into her mind.

No, definitely not. Not with Feliciano. He’d had a bone to pick with her since they were kids. Think.

Saints—

A shadow spilled across the floor in front of her. Cadence stiffened and yelped instinctively. But as she registered—as she felt—who was present, she startled.

Werner.

The Capricornian first lieutenant drew near to her, meeting her eyes with an unreadable expression. Just like how he’d looked at her when she’d encountered Jericho and Iota in the Louvre District. A void stretched out behind Werner. He still wasn’t awake.

“Morello, this will be excruciatingly painful.”

Cadence blinked.

What? What was he doing? Rubbing in it? Yeah, that made sense after what she’d done. She didn’t blame him at all.

Werner frowned. “I am not here to ‘rub it in.’ Morello, you’re unable to escape, and the others will most likely feel the pain Feliciano and his men are about to inflict on you. It may compromise us, and that cannot be afforded.”

The guilt came in like a flood at the realization. She had been so caught up in her own situation that she hadn’t even thought about how she’d affect the others.

Werner regarded her silently before extending a hand. “Allow me to override you, Cadence.”

Cadence did a double-take.

What…?

“There is evidence that when one of us is overridden, the others are unable to access the memories of the events nor the sensations the overrider experiences,” Werner explained calmly. “At the moment, this is our best option since the others are preoccupied.”

Cadence gaped.

He would go to such lengths to protect the others? It didn’t make sense. This didn’t seem like something he would do.

“Cadence, it’s not just them. You don’t have enough pain tolerance to handle this. Your reaction to Jericho’s injury during our first synchronization meeting makes this obvious,” Werner said. “As I’ve said, this is the best solution.”

Cadence stared at him incredulously. It really didn’t make sense. After everything she’d done, she wouldn’t blame him if he despised her, hated her, maybe even wanted the worse to happen to her. But…

“Why—” She met Werner’s eyes and felt her voice catch in her throat.

No…

The answer needn’t be said. Cadence could feel it. She wished she couldn’t but she did. It was a simple feeling, but a strong one. Not pity, not disappointment, not resentment—

Despite her selfishness, he cared for her. No, he still cared for her.

It hurt.

“I… I’m sorry, Werner,” Cadence whispered. She felt her eyes burn, felt her heart crumple, felt shame and disgust curl in her stomach.

If only she had her damn conductor. Then she could just snap her fingers and make everything go away. Disappear the shameful tears that were beginning to prick her eyes. Mask the trembles that were cascading down her body into a suave, casual, relaxed pose. And hide it. Hide everything away. Hide her cowardice, hide her selfishness. Shrug off her problems—

Just proving that you’ll never change,” Theta had said.

“I’m so, so sorry…” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just wanted to help Alma.” No, that was a lie. What she wanted was to stop Alma from leaving her side. Pathetic. Another blow. “I didn’t want ya to get hurt, Werner.” A truth. “I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was so stupid. I coulda killed ya…” Saying it out loud was horrifying. “Saints, I coulda killed all of ya…”

—a hand suddenly touched her cheek.

She lifted her head to find Werner staring at her, blue eyes piercing and hard—but not exactly cold. A faint memory, faded at its images, floated into Cadence’s mind: a long, tall, thin woman standing in the middle of a cold, empty room wielding a long, tall, thin stick—an overbearing shadow.

They were the same, Cadence realized, paling. But that made Werner’s proposal so much worse. She couldn’t understand it. They had been in similar situations and circumstances, but they had turned out so different. How was that possible?

“Enough, Cadence,” Werner said tersely. “They’re coming.”

He really meant it, she realized. He really wanted to override her and endure the pain instead. But that didn’t make any sense. Was this really his choice?

Werner frowned. “Although I do believe my current state of mind might be somewhat altered due to my condition, this is my choice, Morello. Make no mistake.” He seemed to read her mind. “If you are truly sorry, then accept whatever guilt comes by me doing this. Accept responsibility, live with it, and don’t let it happen again.”

That was awfully manipulative of him.

The cellar door creaked open behind Werner, and a cluster of men eclipsed him. Feliciano and his lackeys.

“It’s time, Cadence,” Werner said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”

Before she could respond, Cadence felt the darkness pull her away from him almost instantly, felt him relax into the cold chair in her place, felt her consciousness slip away into blackness.

And in that pitch-black dark, she dreamt. No, in the dark, she remembered.

She remembered her mother with her long copper locks and her father with his freckled cheeks. War veterans in search of a better life in the Twin Cities. They’d only received a singular benefit package from Aries after the war’s end and had struggled to even afford a place to stay in the city.

Cadence had spent many nights home alone because her parents were always out working. One night, as she’d roamed through the house in the dark waiting for them to return, she’d discovered her mother’s conducting rings. She’d slipped them on, thinking they were fashionable items, adoring the way they’d make her fingers tingle. She’d try them on every single night while she waited for her parents to return, and it was by mere luck that she managed to activate them one day. She’d transmuted herself into one of the dresses she’d seen in her mother’s favorite fashion magazine and had been giddy with excitement and glee.

Slowly, slowly, she refined her skill until one night—when her parents came home late—she revealed her conducting to them. They’d both been ecstatic, proud, cheering as they spun her around the room.

Talented, they exclaimed, amazing. My talented, amazing daughter.

But that happiness was not the norm.

It was a stressful postwar era. Her parents constantly argued over money, food, bills. But Cadence hadn’t been bothered by it because to her that was normal. Besides—or so she had thought—as long as they had each other, it didn’t matter. Not the arguments, not the occasional thrown fists. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

Then one night, her mother returned home with a black a shadow riding on her shoulders. When Cadence had greeted her at the doorway, her mother sank to her knees and wrapped her fingers around her neck.

“If it weren’t for you…” her mother had seethed, squeezing tight. “I wouldn’t have to be with that man. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this. I wouldn’t be the damned laughing stock at work. I wouldn’t have to deal with people always looking at me with pity. It’s because of you. It’s all because of you, you, you!”

Cadence had sobbed, clawing at her mother’s hands as she gasped for air. Just as her vision began to fade, her mother released her and pulled back with a sob of her own. When Cadence had finally gained her bearings and her breath, she found her mother crying apologies under her breath—

“I’m terrible. Oh, I’m so terrible. I don’t deserve to be your mother. I’m terrible.”

It had hurt for Cadence to see her mother like that. Hurt more than the throbbing around her throat. And so, Cadence had crawled up to her mother’s side and said, “I-It’s not your fault, mommy. You’re just angry because you’re tired, right? It’s not your fault… And I’m okay, you see?” Snapping her fingers with a grin, Cadence disappeared the bruise marks on her neck in a flash of copper.

The way her mother’s eyes had lit up afterwards was like a dream, and the warmth from her mother’s embrace made Cadence forget all about the pain.

This wasn’t her mother’s fault at all, Cadence had thought. It was merely the situation, the circumstance.

That incident marked the first time her mother had a bad morrowheat trip. And it wasn’t the last.

“It’s stress relief,” her father had told her as he began to take morrowheat up himself. “We get nightmares, you know. About the war.”

This had been before morrowheat became properly refined and legalized. In its unrefined form, it was terribly addictive and often caused hallucinations, mood swings, lethargy. And as her parents continued to take the drug, they became less and less inclined to leave their apartment for work. Instead, they lounged together with interlocked limbs on the mattress on the floor that they all shared.

It was okay though. Because they were together. It was enough.

But then, Cadence’s mother passed. Just like that. In her sleep. They didn’t have enough money to hire doctors to figure out why. They didn’t have enough money for a funeral. And so, Cadence was left standing in front of her mother’s unmarked grave wondering exactly what had happened. There were no answers. There never were.

Cadence spent the following weeks curled up on their mattress in her mother’s spot. She’d burrowed into her mother’s blankets, breathed in her scents, and imagined that her mother was still there lying beside her. Cadence had even used her conducting rings to bring the illusion to life once. It was momentary comfort.

One day Cadence’s father came home and spoke to her about things she didn’t understand. Her mother had a savings account with a decent amount of money, he’d said. They’d both been saving the funds so that they could eventually send Cadence to school, he’d explained. But because of Gemini’s strict personal protection and privacy laws at the time, only the owner of the account was able to withdraw funds. And so, he wasn’t able to access any of it.

“Y…You can do it, can’t you, Cadence?” her father whispered with bags under his eyes as he held her hand. “You can make yourself look like mommy and take the money out, right?”

The desperation in his voice had been pitiful—so pitiful that several nights later, Cadence found herself wearing her mother’s conducting rings and standing in front of their chipped bathroom mirror. Snapping her fingers, she’d watched with joy, disgust, relief, horror as her deceased mother’s form shimmered over her own.

When Cadence brought home all of her mother’s savings from the bank the following morning, her father had been ecstatic. He’d picked her up and twirled her around, proclaimed how much he loved her, showered her with gifts—

Happiness. It was enough.

And then one day, he didn’t come back home.

Cadence spent those following weeks roaming the house, digging into the pantries for food, curling up on their mattress, waiting and waiting—until there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord who told her curtly, strictly, firmly that she needed to pack up and leave.

“You’re lucky that I’m not making you take on your parents’ debt,” was what he had left her with.

And so, for the first time in her life, with only the clothes on her back and her mother’s conducting rings on her fingers, Cadence stepped outside onto the streets of the Twin Cities alone. She’d learned quickly though. Learned to pickpocket, steal, swindle. Learned to take advantage of other people’s pity. Learned to use her conducting to get herself out of tight situations.

And then Alma found her. Rather, she found Alma. A beautiful, gentle person whom Cadence could always find at the Sognare. A person who smiled at her with apparent affection instead of pity. A perfect person. A constant.

Not so long after that, Cadence had encountered—rather, pickpocketed—Ricardo Romano who then introduced her to Fortuna. Literally days later Cadence befriended the Foxmans and then finally Nico. Together they had roamed the streets, claiming territory childishly as their own, challenging other delinquent rings to pick-pocketing feuds, swindling tourists with gambles and games.

Happiness. A constant.

Perhaps, that was why Cadence adored Alma so much. Meeting Alma marked the beginning of the best time in Cadence’s life… But Alma’s departure also marked the end of it.

Cadence still remembered it as if it was yesterday—the day that Alma left. After whispering apologies about being unable to stay by Cadence’s side, Alma had placed a hand on her cheek and had said with a dreamy smile: “Oh, I’m so excited, Cucciolo. All the girls at the Casa say that Enzo is so wealthy, and he knows so many famous people. Maybe with him, people will finally listen to my song…”

But Cadence had blamed Alma’s words on too much alcohol.

Fortuna took up on her father’s mantle not too long after that, while the Foxmans abandoned their pipe dream of running their own bar in favor of running the city’s docks. She’d congratulated all of them at the time, of course. Always appeared crooked-smile, bought them congratulatory presents using money she’d swindled from tourists, never showed a hint of jealousy, disdain, disappointment, hurt.

But appearances were deceiving.

Still, at least Nico would stay by her side, Cadence had thought to herself foolishly. Out of their entire group, the two of them had spent the most time together. Huddled in between alleyways, swallowing cigarettes whole for laughs, pick-pocketing wealthy kids who were in over their heads. Playing piano at the dwindling Sognare, sharing drinks at the bar after a rough day of work, musing about their unattainable dreams.

Right. Nico needed her, she’d thought, always followed her, would never leave her. It was something Cadence treasured. A constant.

But then… Nico had left too. Left for the borders of Capricorn while following his dream of being free of his father’s shadow in that twisted way of his. Left for that dream of his that had suddenly become attainable.

And Cadence was happy for him. Truly. But still she thought—

It was better to have an unattainable dream. Something that always needed to be pursued. No disappointment when it came down to it. No losing the dream and its perks, since it’d never be achieved. A constant. The same thing came to people. Situation over disposition.

***

When Cadence sluggishly came into consciousness, she was greeted with pain and cold. It felt as if cement had been filled in between her muscles and bones. She also no longer had any sensation in her fingertips. And her mouth tasted of iron.

Sure enough, when she got her bearings and surveyed her surroundings, she found that she was lying in a pool of her own blood. The cellar door was locked tightly. The only positive she collected from a second look around was that during the beat down, Feliciano and his goons had decided to untie her and leave her untied.

She tried to crawl up into a sitting position, but a dull pain shot up her limbs in protest. She collapsed and laid in place. Too much pain to even shiver.

If it hurt this much for her now, she thought, how much had it hurt for him?

It’s not your fault, whispered a familiar voice at the back of her head. Werner offered.

“Shut up,” she muttered.

It wasn’t your mom and dad’s fault either, the whisper continued, relaying the echoes of her dream. They couldn’t help their situation. They couldn’t help reacting the way they did. It was the stress, the poverty, the drugs. It’s all circumstance. 

Cadence shivered, wincing at the shooting pain it brought her.

One-way ticket to hypothermia.

But even so, despite the cold, she could still feel Werner’s warm hand against her cheek.

No, no. She didn’t want to think about that. Not now.

Right? It’s all circumstance. It’s not your—

“Shut up!” Cadence sobbed and pulled into herself. The tears stung the cuts on her cheek but she knew that the stinging pain was incomparable to what Werner had taken on for her. “Damn it! Shut up! Stop lying!”

Silence answered her.

Right. The person she’d been deceiving the most—Cadence realized in the quiet—had been herself all along. The truth was that it wasn’t all just circumstance. Not with herself. Not with her mother, not with her father, not even with Alma.

The answer was ridiculously clear:

A child representing past mistakes and an inescapable situation. 

A tool to earn money. 

And a person who was more pitiable than herself, a person who made her feel as if her own life wasn’t that awful.

—this was how her mother, her father, and Alma had viewed her in those moments that Cadence had painted over as ‘circumstance’.

It was as simple as that.

And simplicity hurt.

Cadence sobbed and curled deeper into herself.

How dare she think about herself after everything that had happened? How dare she—

“What in saint’s name are you doing…?”

Cadence blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes and found Olive standing before her. He felt her pain—she could tell—and was barely managing to hold back a wince. Damn.

“Of course, I can feel your pain,” Olive half-growled, half-grumbled. He knelt down beside her, hands hovering, hands shaking, eyes… wet? Tears. They were leaking from his eyes, and he was failing terribly at holding them back.

“S-Saints, your highness…” Cadence cracked a grin with effort. She had a cut on her lower lip that stretched open with the action. “Y-You should be laughin’ at my situation. Not cryin’. Specially after everything I did and everything I said to ya.” She grimaced. “I-I’m sorry about that, kid. You were right about everything… so ya gotta stop cryin—”

“It’s just sad okay, dammit… It’s not fair.” Olive wiped his eyes. “Those kids— they’re almost my age… it’s wrong what the Campanas are doing… and what…” His voice cracked. “W-What happened to you… and to Werner.” He shook his head. “It’s just not fair! How can people do that?”

It was easy for people to do that, Cadence thought. It was hard for them not to do that.

“You’re a good kid, Olive.” She sighed. “I mean it.” She laid her head back and groaned. “I’m sorry. For everything. It was all my fault. You’re all way too good for me.”

Him, Werner, Atienna, Jericho, Maria.

A pain more terrible than the throbs running through her limbs seized her chest.

And Nico, Francis, Allen, Carl, Fortuna too.

“You’re stupid,” Olive said, shaking his head. “You’re stupid and you’re so unbelievably selfish.”

Cadence tried to squint at him but even that was too much effort, so she laid back her head and closed her eyes.

“It wasn’t circumstances with Alma, your mom, or your dad,” Olive continued. “But it’s also not circumstance with me, and it’s not circumstance with any of the others. When it comes to us… I…” His cheeks flushed, and he took a deep breath before he grimaced. “If you get what I mean… I’m not here because of circumstance.”

Cadence cracked open an eye.

“You’re good enough for me,” Olive said, meeting Cadence’s gaze. “As long as we’re constantly trying to improve and trying our best to not make the same mistakes, we’re good enough for each other.”

Cadence abruptly recalled she was talking to a prince, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He was regal when he put the effort into it.

“We need to get out of here,” Olive muttered, rubbing his arms absentmindedly.

Right. Even if it hurt like hell, she had to find a way out of here before Feliciano came back. She couldn’t make Werner go through that again. She couldn’t let the others deal with the fading pain either. Responsibility, dammit.

Biting the inside of her cheek, Cadence forced herself up into a sit. The world spun around her, but she pushed herself further to an unstable stand and began to wobble to the door.

Pain, pain, pain.

Cadence, please don’t push yourself…

But she had to.

Cadence managed to make it to the door and pressed her hands against its surface. She could barely see more than a crack because her eyes were so swollen, but she didn’t need full vision to see that the door was frozen shut.

Suggestion. Don’t panic.

That was hard to do.

Kick it down! You can do it!

Really? Why was that even a suggestion?

“Claire said something…” Olive muttered from beside her. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He placed his hands over her own and closed his eyes.

Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.

And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.

She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms.

“What the—”

Olive grabbed her and pulled her backwards as the door was engulfed in flames of vitae. Flames that she had created. Without the appropriate conductor. Without being an Elementalist.

“Saints…!” she exclaimed in unison with Olive.

The heat crackled wildly, eating away at the frost and the door itself, melting everything it touched. Soon the door became molten metal and ash, and the icicles that had been hanging above her head began to drip, drip, drip into puddles of water around her.

Once the fire died and warm night air spilled in from the door-less doorway, Cadence turned to Olive and blinked. “Did ya just see that?”

Olive snapped, “Of course I saw that. I’m right here! This is—”

“Kid, my body hurts like hell, and I don’t think I can spare another brain cell ta try and figure out what in saint’s name just happened,” Cadence said as she stepped forward, “so I’m just gonna get outta here now and leave the thinking ta you, Werner, and Atienna.” She paused and looked back at him. “Thanks, Olive. And not just for the mojo melting thing.”

And Werner too. She needed to thank him. But she wanted to say it to his face. It was only fair.

Hesitantly, Cadence stepped through the melted doorway and out into a dark alleyway just beyond. She took a deep breath. Soot, salt. Home.

“Woooooow.” A clap echoed from above. “I was just swinging by and thought I was gonna have to pull a heroic rescue, but look at this!”

Cadence recognized that voice. No, Olive recognized it. But that was impossible.

A series of metal clangs filled the air—each lower in tone than the last—and down from the darkness dropped a slender, tall figure concealed in shadow.

Cadence felt it immediately. The apprehension. The dread. Ominous.

A woman dressed in a monochrome suit stepped into the light pouring out from the cooler.

There were two things that Cadence noticed about the woman. One: there was a white Ophiuchian sash on her arm. Two: she wore sunglasses despite it being nighttime.

Cadence. Olive’s heart was hammering. I don’t understand. How is she here

Peacekeeping saint candidate Ilseong Jin stood before Cadence in the flesh.

I literally just saw her—

“A-Are you a peacekeeper?!” Cadence stammered, rushing to Jin and wincing with every step. “Ya gotta help me. I-I got jumped. A hospital. I need ta get to a—”

“How’s that Ariesian prince doing?” Jin asked, cocking her head. “Just saw him a minute ago but still.”

Cadence froze and felt Olive’s fear seep into her aching bones. “What…? What are ya talkin’ about?”

Cadence stumbled slightly. Jin caught her with one hand. But it was not a comfort. The peacekeeper’s touch sent chills down Cadence’s spine.

“Oh, come on,” Jin grumbled. “First the prince and now you? I mean, I literally saw your conducting!” She squinted. “At least you’re a bit more convincing. Though it really does look like you need to go to a hospital.” She squeezed Cadence’s shoulders sending Cadence a ripple of pain. “But congrats on taking the next step of True Conductorhood. First time I’ve ever seen a vitae crossover without an actual conductor though!” She released Cadence nonchalantly. “Cool.”

Cadence stumbled backwards, barely keeping her footing. “I’m guessin’ ya didn’t come here by train…”

“Nope. Just came to check on a friend though…” Jin took a step back and gave Cadence another once over. She then slipped a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor filled with black liquid out from her pocket and tapped it against the wall behind her. The wall immediately became engulfed in a familiar pale, tangerine light.

Cadence paled.

“I like the stupid kiddo, so needless to say, I like you,” Jin said as she stepped into the light with a wave, “so I’ll leave you with a warning. Omicron’s told me that Theta’s priming ready to snap, and when that happens…” She aimed a mock gun. “… the city’ll go with it no matter what plan they have.”

10.1: Olive’s Dimming (Fiammata)

Re-cap: 

Olive is at the Bodhi Temple studying for the State Conducting Exam. He is also there to partially protect Claire’s sister Eunji from rival clans using his status as Ariesian Prince. In exchange, Claire is to translate Sagittarian texts for him.

On a moonlit night, Olive encounters the saint candidate of Sagittarius, Ilseong Jin, who is also a peacekeeper and is Claire’s aunt. Jin unnerves Olive with her knowledge of True Conductors, his sister, and the mysterious syzygy but does not seem to be hostile. Fortunately, Olive is able to form a bond of trust with Claire despite the circumstances. His trust with Cadence, on the other hand, crumbles as he realizes that she has selfishly overridden Werner. Still far from the dangers of the Twin Cities, Olive…

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

Thwack.

“We’re leaving for Ophiuchus at the end of the week, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“… Already?”

Thwack.

“Eunji is bright. Way brighter than me, and I’m pretty bright. She’s already memorized all the materials that they usually put on the exam and then some. She’s just got to memorize a couple more of the conducting motions for the practical and we’re ready to go.”

Thwack.

“And memorizing is the same thing as learning?”

Thwack.

“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t memorize it. Education in Sagittarius is centered around memorization, actually.”

Thwack.

Silence.

Thwack.

“I know what you’re thinking, Ollie. You’re thinking about the others in your circle, aren’t you? I can see it all over your face. And I get it. We’re both lucky to be born in positions where our struggles are more social and political than physical… I’m sure at least some people in your circle aren’t as lucky as us.”

Thwack.

“But it’s really a waste of energy thinking about it, Ollie.”

Thwack.

“Wow, Claire…” A mocking clap. “Thanks for your unwanted words of wisdom. Did they teach you that in politician school?”

Thwack.

“Hey, I’m trying to be helpful here. One of yours was seriously injured that night, right? You’re lucky to be alive… I’m serious.” A sigh. “Anyway, I’m assuming from the way you’ve been acting that you haven’t been able to talk to the one who got hurt. That really sucks, but the fact is that you’re all still alive. And you’re not doing whoever it is any favors by moping about it. Trust me. I know first-hand. You should focus on the things you can do instead of the things you can’t—”

Crack!

Olive startled, turning his attention away from Claire and towards the archery range laid out in front of them. A row of targets bulleted with arrows was lined up at the far end of the range. Just below the open terrace Olive occupied, Trystan and Jin stood side-by-side poised with their bow conductors.

Claire leaned forward with interest beside Olive, and Claire’s guards who stood behind him did the same. Several monks had gathered around to watch the spectacle as well, leaving Olive to wonder how much free time they actually had. Then again, the current archery match unfolding truly was something to gawk at—especially on Jin’s end.

If Jin had terrified Olive the other night with her showy ridiculous enigmatic monologue, she had now completely horrified him with her prowess at both conducting and archery.

Trystan who was most definitely a skilled archer was clearly losing ground.

Alexander Charming used to rattle on about Trystan’s skill back at the palace. Olive hadn’t cared much for Alexander’s praise then, but over the past few months, Olive had come to appreciate Trystan’s prowess. In fact, Olive had felt a bit of pride when Trystan had first stepped out onto the archery range and had hit each of the targets right through the bullseye marks with a single arrow of fire vitae each. But then Jin had swooped in, twirling her bow conductor in hand before splitting and extinguishing Trystan’s fire arrows with invisible arrows of air.

It seemed unnatural—both Jin’s loose archery style and her bow conductor. Her bow conductor was long, black, sleek, light, string-less. It was so lightweight that Olive barely made out the glass insulators on its body. Something about the device didn’t seem right, but Olive couldn’t put his finger on it.

Trystan, rather than being embarrassed or flustered at his gradual defeat, seemed to be utterly gobsmacked by Jin’s precision and clapped loudly whenever she’d obliterate one of his arrows.

It was ridiculous. Olive figured Trystan was a masochist.

“I don’t really mean focusing on my aunt or anything when I say that,” Claire added under his breath. “That’s not something you or I can do right now. Probably. Since we don’t even know what’s happening on that front. But maybe I could ask. Maybe she’d tell me.” He turned to Olive, smiling. “Playing the fool is the way to success.”

Olive glanced at him. “I can see that.”

The monks around the range started clapping and cheering.

Jin had won, obviously.

The saint candidate turned on her heels, aimed a mock gun in Olive’s direction, and winked— “Bang!”

***

Olive regretted his decision to confront Cadence as soon as he did it. As usual, Olive found that his words were not as carefully chosen as Atienna’s and his thoughts not as collected as Werner’s. And so, he ended up saying something he didn’t mean:

“Aren’t you supposed to be good at reading people? It’s pretty obvious to me that Werner cares more about you than Alma does—if she even cares about you at all.”

And thus, as expected, Cadence completely snapped. She tore into him, dug out the tiny feelings he kept to himself, and laid them out to light.

It was embarrassing—the fact that Cadence could see through him so well. It hurt—the fact that Cadence knew what words would hurt him and said them anyways.

But she was right. It was stupid. How could he even think that the other five were anything remotely like family to him? They weren’t even friends. And that truth stung. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was what Cadence had done.

As his shouting match with Cadence reached its climax, Atienna synchronized with them both and intervened. She looked Cadence’s image right in the eye and slapped her hard. Cadence’s synchronization with him faded after that, but not before Olive managed to catch a rather disturbing look of hurt satisfaction flash across Cadence’s face.

Atienna remained with him several minutes afterwards. They didn’t exchange many words and refrained from speaking about what had occurred. However, just before Atienna departed, she placed a hand on his cheek and said, “You’re important to me, Olive. And that’s enough for me.”

The relief Olive felt at her reassurance was just as embarrassing as Cadence calling him out, and he could not reciprocate Atienna’s words.

Lavi came to him a while afterwards and seemed concerned about the lack of synchronization meetings. She wasn’t truly connected to him, Olive knew, so she wasn’t aware of what had happened between Werner and Cadence. As always, Lavi tried to get to the bottom of what had occurred, but he brushed her worries away.

It wasn’t something she needed to deal with, he told himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her. Not at all.

Still, despite everything that had happened, Olive absolutely refused to mope around and to spend the day rolling around in bed. And so, right after his confrontation with Cadence, he rinsed his face in his bathroom sink and headed out with Trystan in search of Claire.

There were Sagittarian texts that needed to be translated, after all.

Olive found Claire and his masked guard Felix standing stiffly in front of the library’s doorway. The two were conversing with a duo standing at the threshold there. A woman and a man. The woman had short black hair that came up to her ears and had on a pair of circular glasses. Just by looking at her, Olive could tell that she was mean. There was something in her eye that just glinted viciousness. The man, on the other hand, had a mess of spiky dark hair and drooping eyes that made him look half asleep.

The woman locked eyes with Olive and glowered.

“Who’s that foreigner?” she snapped in some dialect of Sagittarian that Cadence knew. “You keep bringing people who aren’t of Sagittarian blood into our traditions. Don’t you have a sense of pride? First you bring a foreigner to be your vassal and now—”

Felix stiffened.

“Sister, I understand your concerns but although Felix may not have the blood of the Seong Clan running through his veins,” Claire responded politely, “his heart is Seongese through and through. He has spent all but five years of his life serving me, and he is one of my people. I would appreciate you treating my people with the same amount of respect you treat me with.”

Which apparently is none, Olive thought.

“Come on, Mai,” the spiky-haired man said from beside the woman. “Give Haneul a break, would you? We’re all here for the same thing.”

“Unlike that one, Kai,” Mai clarified, “you will pass your Conducting Exam with flying colors.”

“You doubt my sister’s prowess still, I see,” Claire said, smiling thinly.

“You’re ridiculous. He’s a disgrace—” Mai stopped short, sending a glare in Olive’s direction. “Why is that foreigner looking at me like that?”

“The foreigner’s name is Olivier Chance,” Olive responded in the dialect they were speaking as he joined their circle. He gave her a well-aimed look of disinterest. “Ariesian prince.” He nodded at Trystan who trailed behind him. “This is Trystan, my royal guard.”

Mai stiffened, looked him over, and then dipped into a deep bow. “I—my apologies, Prince Chance. I didn’t realize it was you. I heard rumors but…” She cleared her throat. “That aside, my name is Liuxing Mai of the Xing Clan. The man beside me is my younger brother: Liuxing Kai.”

Kai dipped into a bow too, looking more amused than anything else.

Olive arched a brow. “‘Liuxing’—oh, I recognize that surname. You were the group that went to Virgo in search of aid during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, right?” He turned to Claire. “Haneul here came to Aries and managed to get my uncle and aunt to approve of his request within days. How did it go for you again?”

Mai’s face deepened red as she rose from her bow. “Our initial requests for aid were declined but subsequently Virgo did offer their assistance—”

“Right.” Olive shrugged. “But that was separate from your personal request, right?”

Mai’s face reddened further.

For once, Felix gave him a look of appreciation. Claire, on the other hand, had a careful expression of calm indifference folded across on his face. But Olive had seen it already—Claire’s brief smirk was undeniable.

“Woah, look at this!” came a familiar sing-song voice from down the hall. “All my favorite family members and favorite people gathered all in one spot.”

Olive grimaced and turned to find Jin casually strolling down the open hall towards them. Mai, Kai, and Felix dipped into bows at her approach. Jin merely offered a half-hearted, two-fingered salute at them in turn.

“So, Kai, you really going to take your State Conducting Exam at the end of this week?” Jin asked. “Coming here to cram right before?”

“That’s how Mai’s calendar is looking,” Kai replied. “Two Conductors capable of ascending the throne for the Xing Clan is better than one.”

“Mhm. Anyway, that’s when Eunji is taking it too, right?” Jin inspected them all from beneath her sunglasses. “All the clans will be watching closely because of that, huh?” She cracked a grin. “I’ll be watching too, of course.”

Claire and Mai exchanged a look and stiffened together.

“Really?” Claire pressed. “You’re coming to Ophiuchus too?”

“Of course! I wanna see you kiddos complete the State Conducting Exam.” Jin flashed a grin. “Besides, I have a feeling it’s going to be an explosive event.”

***

In between his time spent at the temple’s archives, Olive often went to observe the monks practicing with their conductors in the open courtyard that extended out just behind the library. He had discovered this courtyard during his second night at the library after looking out the leftwing window. The courtyard was large, square, and laid with a network of crisscrossing tiles that formed the image of a lotus. Barely. He had to squint to really see it.

Usually when the monks concluded their practice and emptied the field, Olive would take their place and try to emulate some of their motions. He often requested for Trystan to remain within the library so he could have the entire square to himself and to not risk Trystan being somehow caught in a crossfire. Trystan had reluctantly agreed but always kept a watchful eye on him from the second-floor window of the library facing the courtyard.

And so, right after Olive’s awkward conversation with Claire and his half-siblings, Olive decided to put reading texts aside and took to the courtyard instead. Trystan took to his perch in the library window. The monks were nowhere to be seen this time around, however, and Olive started off on his own.

As usual, his first ten conducting attempts ended with small sparks of vitae that puttered out into weak flame that spiraled out lazily and died quickly. Too weak. It was always either too weak or too strong whenever he tried to conduct.

The smell of burning flesh and the sobbing Sagittarian assassin abruptly flashed into his mind.

Olive grimaced and shook his head. He could never rein it in the way he wanted to.

He flicked his hand again to dispel the memory. Another poor spark and sputter.

If only he could achieve that sort of freedom air Elementalists had when conducting, Olive thought to himself, then maybe—

A clap resounded through the open square.

Olive stiffened and surveyed his surroundings. He glanced up at Trystan cautiously. The man was frowning from his post at the window and staring down and out towards an open hallway that ran at Olive’s right. Olive followed Trystan’s gaze and swallowed. Ilseong Jin was watching him from the walkway there. She was leaning against one of the pillars supporting the roof with arms crossed. Her bow conductor was slung over her back.

“Wow,” Jin said, singsong as she stepped out from the hall and carelessly skipped across the small stream that ran just beside it. After shaking off the water from her pants legs, she came to a stop in front of him and grinned. “I clapped because it felt like the right thing to do, but that was kinda sad.”

Olive tensed as he felt the familiar ominousness swirl at the pit of his stomach. “A lot of people must have said that to you, huh?”

“Yeesh, kiddo.” Jin sighed. “You have more salt in you than there is in the Piscese Ocean. Anyway, you looked like you needed help so I thought I’d—”

“Maybe you should get your prescription checked,” Olive said, gesturing to her sunglasses. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there.”

Go away. Go away.

Even with Trystan watching over his shoulder, Olive felt uneasy.

“Well, I’m seeing it pretty clearly, kiddo. You have issues conducting, don’t you? Without a conductor, I mean. Need a tip—”

“No.”

“Yeesh, kiddo—for real?” Jin chuckled. “At least let me lay my case first: I’ve read them. Pema’s books. The old monk’s sister. The one who conducted without a conductor. I read all of ‘em.”

Olive tensed.

“You wanna know a tidbit of what she wrote in there?” Jin grinned. “Just say please. I won’t tell anyone that I told you. We don’t want to both get into legal trouble, do we?”

Olive remained silent.

“Oh, fine, whatever. I’ll tell you anyways.”

Again, Olive remained silent.

“You say you’re not conducting with a conductor, but you are,” Jin said, tapping his chest. “Your entire body is the conductor. Your blood vessels and veins are the insulators. Your heart—your soul—is the conducting core. You get the picture, right?”

Olive slapped her hand away but digested the information she’d given him. That was very unusually backwards thinking. Conceptually, it seemed ridiculous.

Jin grinned, tucking her hand in her pocket. “Another tip: you shouldn’t hold back in anything you do. The more you try to control something, the harder it gets to control. Just like the more you try not to think of something, the more you think about it. Regrets hold you back—even in conducting.”

“Are you going to monologue again?”

“I’ll save my monologue for later.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, what do you plan to do about the State Conducting Exam? The practical part, I mean. Since you can conduct without a conductor—well, that’s gonna draw a lot of unwanted eyes, you know?” She unfastened her conductor and twirled it in her hands. “Why don’t you try making something that looks like a conductor and use that? You look smart enough to do it.”

“For someone who says they’re on neutral ground, you’re giving me a lot of advice.”

Jin grinned thinly.

A cluster of monks started walking along the hall behind them and caught Olive’s attention. The group passed by slowly without acknowledging them. A particular ‘monk’ caught Olive’s attention—P.D. Oran. The man kept his head ducked low as he walked by with the group and kept his eyes glued to the ground. For his sake, Olive looked away.

“Ah, there he is,” Jin said singsong. She smiled back at Olive, waved her hand lazily through the air, and departed after the group of monks.

Olive waited until she disappeared before relaxing somewhat. Shivering his uneasiness away, he returned his attention to the task at hand and extended his arm out in pensive thought. Conducting without a conductor without restraint seemed impossible. But thinking of himself as a ‘conductor’ rather than a ‘Conductor’… It was a ludicrous idea, definitely, but…

He scanned the courtyard quickly. No one nearby. No one to be harmed.

His heart hammered in his chest as he closed his eyes and extended his hands outwards further. He pictured the components of a conductor in his mind’s eye. The insulator, the conductor core, the connecting tubes. His veins and blood vessels, his heart, his body. He pictured the vitae particles, the carbon atoms, the oxygen atoms—

The Sagittarian assassin’s burnt body flashed into his mind, but instead of shoving it away, he allowed it to pass.

—He then pictured the hum of the conducting core, the beat of his heart, and the culmination of atoms and particles into an explosive wreath of flame. Just this once. No restraint.

This is stupid, he thought. And then he flicked his wrist. The familiar spark of heat tickled his fingertips, and a gust of warmth flushed the front of his body.

Olive cracked open an eye.

A wreath of crimson flame swirled in front of him, twirling into the figure-eight shape he’d pictured in his mind. Nausea built up at the pit of his stomach at the smell of smoke that followed the ignition, but Olive was too flabbergasted to even register it.

Ridiculous. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

He closed his eyes, imagined himself as a conductor, flicked his wrist again. When he opened his eyes, he found the flames dancing in a circle before him—once again just as he’d pictured. He chuckled nervously and did it again and again and again. Each time, the crimson flames obeyed.

Olive wanted to desperately synchronize with the others to show them all what he’d just learned, but he restrained himself as Cadence’s words rattled through his mind. Instead, he went through the motions for several hours before the usual fatigue that followed excessive vitae usage consumed him. Afterwards, he wiped the sweat from his brow, fell back onto the ground, and chuckled again despite himself as he watched the clouds pass overhead.

State Conducting Exam at the end of the week?

Focusing on the things you can do,” Claire had said.

That didn’t sound too bad.

But then, the knowledge of the Specialist children being sold by the Campanas suddenly bled into Olive’s mind from Cadence’s end.

9.2: Olive’s Naivety (Sapienza)

Re-cap: 

Seemingly far away from ELPIS’s machinations, Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance travels to the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius in an attempt to study for his State Conducting Exam and in hopes of learning more about his sister’s ghostly condition. He makes a deal with Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong to help “protect” the former’s own sister from rival clans in exchange for access to the temple and aid in translation of the Sagittarian texts. On the way there, Claire reveals that he too is a True Conductor. 

Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius

As the air v-tram descended through the clouds, the extravagance of Bodhi Temple’s square arches became revealed. They rose tall and black against the brown peaks of the mountains and stood over a large stone path that wound up the mountainside. At the end of the stone path was a large brass door fitted in-between two mountain peaks. It loomed so tall that even from where Olive stood in the boxcar, he couldn’t see over its top.

When the tram docked at the near-empty sky v-tram station and Olive realized the distance between the station and the temple gate, he nearly climbed right back into the boxcar.

But then the other five flashed into his mind. At the thought of them, Olive shoved away his complaints. His problems were minuscule compared to the problems they were facing. He didn’t deserve to complain.

But Eunji voiced her complaints instead—

“It’s so far! Claire, you said it was only ten minutes from the station!”

Claire simply swiveled around and buttoned up his sister’s coat with a beam. “It is if you put your back into it!”

Eunji scowled before glancing at Olive, straightening herself, and nodding her head. “Let’s go then.”

What a weird girl.

They began to slowly, painfully wind their way up the stone path to the looming gate. The steps were wide and far apart, almost as if they’d been designed for giants. They were in good condition, however, and were clear of debris. Cared for tenderly.

They reached the top of the staircase after an unsaintly amount of time, and if Olive were not so bogged down by exhaustion, he might have marveled at how titanic the gates truly were. They seemed to scratch the sky.

“I know, right?” Claire hummed as he walked up and rapped on the door thrice. The metallic bongs ran up the door’s belly and bled out into an echo in the surrounding air.

When the door creaked open, they were met with a gust of pleasantly warm air, a soft glow of yellow light, and an army of bald men and women all wearing deep dark blue robes. An older man wearing a beaded necklace headed the group and seemed to evaluate them in the silence.

Monks…? Intimidating monks.

Claire, Eunji, Soha, Felix, and Claire’s other guards dipped into deep bows and were given bows of equal depth in turn. When the older monk turned his eyes onto Olive, Olive quickly dipped into a bow too and watched from the corner of his eye as Trystan mimicked the behavior. When Olive straightened himself, he found that all of the monks were returning the gesture.

It felt natural—being bowed at. And Olive hated himself for feeling this way.

“This is my friend,” Claire said to the old monk in Seongese, gesturing to Olive. “Olivier. I was hoping you could offer him hospitality. He’s studying for the State Conducting Exam like Eunji. He heard the rumors about the Bodhi Temple’s great library and wants to read some of the great texts.”

The old man studied Olive carefully.

Appearances.

Olive straightened himself and stood a bit taller.

“There are more details, of course,” Claire continued, “but I believe that may be better discussed privately.”

The old man broke out into a smile and nodded before speaking in Common: “Of course, of course. We are not ones to deny those who seek knowledge to improve themselves. Come in, come in.”

The sea of monks parted forming a straight path for them to enter. Claire, Soha, Felix, and the other Seongese guards entered without hesitation. Olive followed suit with hesitation and with Trystan at his feet.

What lay beyond the gate was a large stone courtyard populated with small, well-kept gardens. The courtyard seemed to extend for a sizable distance and a handful of robed men and women paced in the background. Beyond them stood pagodas interconnected by roofed but open halls that were reinforced by wooden beams. A small stream ran along the outside of the halls, and it pooled into a central pond that was littered with lotus flowers. Surrounding the pond were a cluster of monks who sat cross-legged and closed-eyed. Meditation, maybe. Olive wasn’t too familiar with the idea.

They were led into a large dining hall where a handful of monks were already seated at wooden tables that ran long, low, and parallel.

Olive was ushered to a table by Claire who then ordered some of his guards to bring them food. Trystan sat to Olive’s right, stiff, unmoving, awkwardly rubbing his fingers along the conductor at his side. Eunji who sat on Claire’s left kept glancing past Claire towards Olive himself. Whenever Olive would look at her, she would flush and look away.

Seeming to not be aware of this interaction, Claire happily accepted a bowl of rice porridge from his guards and started digging in. Claire’s guards soon followed suit, removing their masks to enjoy the meal.

Soha and Felix were the only two of Claire’s guards who were seated with them given the crowdedness of the halls. The duo sat directly across from them; and although Soha was freely enjoying her meal without her mask, Felix had barely lifted his mask enough to feed himself.

He most likely had some complex, Olive figured.

Olive stared down at his own rice porridge as he listened to others downing their food.

It was peaceful. Like at Claire’s villa before the assassins had attacked—

At the thought of the young assassin’s charred body, Olive’s stomach churned. Then came the memories of the corpses that had been laid out in front of Maria, of Kalama’s body, of the peacekeepers strewn about on the floor of the detention center, of the knife that had emerged from the mayor candidate’s back as Theta looked on calmly, and of Alice sitting bound to the chair.

Grimacing, Olive set down his spoon.

“It’s a waste if you don’t finish that,” came a voice in Common diagonally across from him. A man.

Keeping his frown in place, Olive gave the nosey man a disinterested look. “It’s weird if you watch people eat.”

The man had wispy blond hair and gray eyes. Obviously not of Sagittarian descent. He was, however, dressed in a robe like all of the other monks. The wrinkles lining his brow and sagging his cheeks betrayed his age and gave him a sagely appearance as if highlighting his monkliness.

He looked a bit familiar, Olive realized as he inspected the man further. Something about him was…

As Olive searched his memory and the memories of the other five to put a name to the man’s face, it suddenly clicked. Not only had Olive seen this man’s face before, but so had Atienna, Werner, and Jericho. They had all seen his face printed on the back cover of numerous textbooks on vitae theory.

Olive gaped. “You… are you P.D. Oran? You wrote all of those books about the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis!”

The smiling man’s lips drooped down immediately, and his eyes went wide. He gaped like a fish before leaping up from the table and dashing out the hall without another word.

“Wait!” Olive stammered, shooting up to a stand.

“It is best to leave him be,” came a voice from behind in Common

Turning his head, Olive found the old man who had greeted them at the doors standing there with a whimsical smile.

“Some people come here for knowledge to improve the outer world,” the old man said. “While others come for knowledge to improve the inner world.”

So basically Oran had issues, Olive surmised. Probably due to all of the backlash the man had received following his publication supporting the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. The publication had practically murdered his career. Gaining infamy for being associated with just one thing was terrible—Olive knew the feeling well.

Feeling a bit guilty for calling the man out, Olive sank back down. He was startled to find no one staring. All the monks merely continued to mind their own business. It was a relief.

“Claire has informed me of your situation,” the old monk continued. “And I would be happy to provide some help.” He inclined his head. “My name is Tenzin, and I am what you would call the ‘head monk’ of this temple. You would be Olivier? If you’d like, I can give you an overview of what this temple can provide for you in your particular pursuit.”

Olive glanced at his still full bowl of porridge before nodding slowly and rising back up to a stand. “I’d like that… Thank you.”

Trystan followed suit but Tenzin held up a halting hand. “I believe it will better benefit Olivier if I am able to speak to him alone. The more people present, the more we tend to conceal ourselves.”

Olive hated proverbs.

Regardless, he gave Trystan a curt nod, and that was that.

***

Olive followed the monk through a maze of paper-door-lined hallways before he was led into what he presumed was the man’s office. It was rather plain and empty with only two cushions set to the side of a low wooden table. The only decorations consisted of a scroll splashed on with black-inked characters hanging on the back wall and two bamboo plants placed in opposite corners.

“Claire tells me that you can conduct without using a Conductor,” the monk said as soon as he seated himself at the table.

Well, that was one way to start a conversation.

“I’m glad… he keeps his mouth shut,” Olive grumbled, following suit. The ability wasn’t something he was particularly hiding, but it unnerved him to have it pointed out so readily. Still, Olive figured that if anyone needed to keep their mouth shut, it was himself.

“I have only seen one other person with the ability to do that,” the monk said casually.

Olive startled.

The monk grinned. “Well, that got your attention, young one.”

The fact that the man didn’t sound condescending irked Olive but he remained silent, waiting.

“Her name was Pema. She was an air Elementalist Conductor and a monk here,” Tenzin explained. “She was also my sister. And… she was a failed saint candidate.”

A saint candidate…? A failed one. Like Lavi.

Olive felt the hairs on his back rise as he digested this information.

“I believe she began to show the ability shortly after returning back from Ophiuchus after failing the saint candidate initiation ceremony. This was before the war broke out, of course. All of us at the temple were intrigued at her ability, but we didn’t actively question it. Earthly matters like that don’t pertain to the pursuits we have here.” Tenzin hummed. “Still, she told us that it was a confidential matter, and we were to keep it a secret lest we create a buzz within the Monadism community.”

And the old man was telling him?

Again, Olive kept his mouth shut.

“She didn’t stay in the temple long after she returned. She renounced us and began traveling the world.” He stroked his chin. “She kept a journal of her travels. It’s likely she may have detailed her experiences with the conducting oddity there. After her death, her journals were stored in the archives of our great library here.”

Olive perked up at this, leaning across the table. If his conducting ability really was connected to Lavi who was a failed saint candidate then maybe—

“Of course, you would have to have a State Conducting License to access her journal.”

“What…?” Olive couldn’t help but scowl. “I thought Ophiuchus didn’t step foot in here.”

“They don’t,” Tenzin replied. “There are things that Ophiuchus does as a peacekeeping organization that I don’t agree with, but using the license as a key to the gate of knowledge is not one of those things. If one is not prepared for it, one will be overwhelmed by knowledge and be unable to make use of it. That is dangerous for not only oneself but for those one keeps close.”

“So you’re saying a slip of plastic is the key to wisdom?”

The monk chuckled. “I don’t believe I’ve said anything about wisdom. But the license is a badge showing the hard work and effort you have put into your pursuit of knowledge. It proves that you have gone out of your norm of comfortability to gain it. That is the first step. And things must always be taken one careful step at a time or one will surely miss something important.”

Heart sinking, Olive frowned. “Is that a proverb?”

Tenzin smiled. “When you’ve completed your State Conducting Exam, you’re free to come back here and read her entries.”

Letting out an internal sigh, Olive averted his gaze. “Thanks. That’s really generous of you.”

“Of course, completing the exam is one thing. Passing it is another,” the monk continued. “Feel free to access the books on the lower levels of our library. There are books even on those levels that you will not find anywhere else in Signum.”

This time Olive bowed his head. “Thank you.”

***

Atienna accompanied Olive frequently on his first several days of rounding the archives. Whenever he’d pluck a particularly old-looking book off the shelf, he’d be overwhelmed with the urge to run his fingers along its leather bindings and leaf through its pages to breathe in its musty scent. Atienna would appear beside him smiling pleasantly during these times, and he’d find himself treating the texts rather gingerly in her presence.

Olive couldn’t comprehend how Atienna could be so calm with everything going on in her end of things. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking about it? Averting her eyes? No, she’d renounced that months ago. Whatever it was that she was doing to maintain ease, he wished he could do the same. Eventually, however, Atienna stopped reaching out for synchronization whenever he’d come to the archives and that left him alone on many nights with just Claire, Felix, and Trystan.

A majority of the texts in the archives were written by the monks themselves. Some texts dated back several centuries, but Olive presumed even older texts were located in the upper areas sanctioned off by the monks. Areas only accessible to State Conducting Licensees.

Similarly to the royal libraries back in New Ram City, texts that were in those sanctioned levels were not allowed to be brought down from them. On Cadence’s suggestion, Olive had tried to get Trystan to sneak out books from one of the upper floors but that had only ended with a lecture from both Werner and an intimidatingly muscular monk.

Regardless, the basic texts and manuscripts that Claire was able to translate for him were useful. It seemed as if the monks at the Bodhi Temple viewed vitae similarly to how Virgoans viewed it. As a cycle of vitae ebb and flow, of life and death, over and over again. The concept of reincarnation was thrown around several times, although it was spoken about in a sense of a ‘universal’ reincarnation. And Olive had no clue what that meant.

Some of the texts on vitae theory dipped into philosophical musings that Olive could barely wrap his mind around. What was the point of using flowery paragraphs when getting to the point just took three words? Unfortunately, Werner and Jericho had informed him that the written portion of the exam did contain questions regarding different theories of vitae. So flowery paragraphs, it was.

Which was unfortunate.

Olive despised vitae theory.

At least in conductor engineering books, everything was concrete and quantified. Numbers, variables, parameters. What was fact versus what was error.

‘How many joules of vitae will be produced by a conductor when it contains an insulator with a diameter of 2.5 cm and a conducting core capacitor capable of allowing a current of 6.7 x 10^7 vitae particles?’— Easy.

‘Using the most widely accepted school of thought, soft vitae and hard vitae are best used by what type of Conductors?’ —Who the hell knew.

Damn.

Olive wondered briefly how Eunji was doing. She had been whisked away with her guards and Soha after their first dinner here, and he hadn’t seen either since. He wondered if she was struggling as much as he was.

Frankly, part of Olive wanted to see if Werner or Jericho would be willing to synchronize with him while he took the written portion to feed him answers, but another part of him wanted to prove to them that he could score high on his own. To impress them.

It was embarrassing to think about.

Mulling about these things to himself as he sat at a moonlit table in the library alongside Claire and Trystan, Olive continued to read Claire’s written translations of an encyclopedia on vitae theory.

About an hour had passed before he finished dissecting the translations. And when he turned to see what else Claire had managed to translate for him during the half hour, he found the Sagittarian prince face down on the table and faintly snoring. Across from him Trystan was also out cold, head hanging back against the chair. Felix, on the other hand, stood rigidly behind Claire, arms crossed.

“I’m going to the restroom,” Olive said, rising from his seat. He nodded in Trystan’s direction. “Just in case he wakes up and panics.”

Felix didn’t give any indication he’d heard so Olive shrugged and wound his way around the tables to the library’s exit. The tables that had been crowded earlier were now empty, leaving the area with a sense of loneliness. As Olive inspected the tables half-heartedly, his eye caught onto a lone book resting on one of the tables.

On a whim, Olive went over to examine it but then hesitated when he saw what was printed in the corner on its cover. ACCESSIBLE TO STATE CONDUCTING LICENSEES ONLY.

Who had left this textbook out? And how had they gotten it out from the upper sections of the library?

His eyes darted down to the title.

Conducting Variants: Vitae, Energy, Life, Blood. Soul? Notes by Pema.

The head monk’s sister.

Olive’s heart skipped a beat and he held his breath as he scanned the area.

No one around.

Olive grabbed the book and flipped it open to a page that had been marked with dog ears.

The text was scribbled out in curling Common:

When the science of conducting was in its initial stages of development, various methods to conduct vitae were employed in an attempt to utilize it to its full capacity. The final form of conducting seen today was achieved through centuries of trial and error, and it’s curious to look back on the failed and discarded attempts of conducting. And to make fun of those idiots.

The irreverent comment jarred Olive but he pushed forward reading.

One method of vitae conducting that has been long since abandoned forgotten is one that directly harvests the vitae particles found in the bloodstream. Due to this peculiarity, this method was available only to those who were able to utilize vitae intraneously. Instead of separating vitae particles from the body as is done with present-day conductors for intraneous users, this form of conducting bypasses the separation leading to a more intimate usage of vitae. This method may be more ‘powerful’ than modern conducting but it’s also more taxing on the Conductor due to the higher purity and density of the vitae particles being expelled. Also—blood loss. Duh. 

This method was developed by Ophiuchus centuries ago and has been forgotten centuries ago. As of this journal entry, you can’t even call it a myth anymore. It’s nonexistent. 

Omicron and Theta’s bloodied hands immediately flashed into Olive’s mind.

Was that the type of conducting that they used…? What in the world…? This was too much of a coincidence.

With a chill seizing his spine, Olive threw the book back onto the table and quickly made his way out of the library. As soon as he stepped outside into the open hall, he was greeted and calmed by the cold, cool night air. A full moon was bleaching everything in light blue, and the silence was crept on by the trickling stream that ran alongside the hall.

Olive let out a quiet breath and prepared to start forward. But then he froze.

A woman dressed in a crisp black and white suit stood in his path. The blue moonlight cascading down in between the wooden beams of the hall fell in separated layers across her face and acted as a spotlight on the white band that glowed on her arm.

What was a peacekeeper doing here? No—why on earth was she wearing sunglasses?

Despite the time of day, a pair of circular shades perched on the woman’s nose. They were jet black—the same color as her rope of dark hair.

Something wasn’t right.

Olive took a step backwards as a frigid cold dripped down from the back of his neck to his toes. A numbing dread seized his limbs that didn’t allow him to move any further.

Something about her wasn’t right. Something about her made his skin crawl.

“Hey, kiddo,” she called out to him in Common. “You’re the Ariesian prince, right? Seen you in the papers. If you’re not him, you’re one helluva look alike.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat at her baritone voice. “… Who’s asking?”

A white smile cracked across the woman’s face. “Ilseong Jin of the Seong Clan. Saint candidate of Sagittarius. Saint of the Arrow, Saint of Direction.”

What… A saint candidate? Here? Wh—

In the blink of an eye, Jin closed the distance between them, gliding over the lotuses that grew up onto the floorboards from the stream. She stopped only inches away from him, hands in pockets, as she inspected him over her sunglasses.

“Cool, suave, handsome, never misses a shot, war hero,” Jin continued sing-song. “I could list more details if you’d like. I do like talking about the many talents I’ve honed over the years. My life is practically a shooting star.”

Olive pulled back, heart hammering.

Jin grinned. “You’ve met Leona I’m assuming? During your whole assassination thing couple months back?”

Olive frowned, trying his best to keep his voice even. “Leona? You mean the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department? She spoke to me a little after everything. Don’t remember really. Not interested in stuff like that.”

Jin rolled her neck. “Yeah, well if you’ve seen her, I can sorta understand why you’re so unfriendly since I’m a saint candidate too. She can be a B, right?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take and peered behind the woman. An escape route. Be casual. “So saint candidates aren’t cliquey?”

Jin barked out a laugh before waving him off. “Sure we are, but even I can clearly see that Leona’s got an inferiority complex—or is that a superiority complex? Well, whatever. She’s got one of them.”

“Good to know,” Olive mumbled, stepping around her.

Jin side-stepped along with him, blocking his path. “But enough about that. What’s the Ariesian prince doing up here at our sacred temple? Huh. You look taller in the papers.”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat again, and his nerves began to run his mouth. “What’s a peacekeeper doing at a sacred temple? Thought peacekeepers were all about cultural competency. I’m a prince, like you said. Don’t you think you’re being too casual with me even if you’re a so-called saint candidate?”

Jin’s smile thinned. “Your sister was a saint candidate, right?”

Olive’s heart began to thunder.

“A ‘failed one,’ I mean,” Jin amended. “Allegedly died in the Tragedy of Aries? Ironic for the Saint of Ashes, yeah?”

It was like a punch to the gut. A terrible combination paired with the ominous dread that was already wrapped around his stomach.

“People skills must not be a criterion to get saint candidacy,” Olive returned. The words slipped out before he could stop them, and he felt his limbs tightening in anticipation at the expected retribution. When he looked up at the woman, however, he found that Jin was still grinning.

“I’m not the type to believe the newspapers. About your sister, I mean. You know what they say about the media.” Jin leaned in close and stared directly into him. “Does ‘syzygy’ mean anything to you?”

What…?

“What’s a syzygy?” Olive asked, hoping he was channeling enough of Cadence to sound convincing.

“Hm, so you know it but you don’t know it.” Jin traced his features with her eyes. “Ever heard of Kovich?”

“The author of the Endless Cycle…?” Olive recalled from Atienna’s bookish conversation with Cvetka.

“Smart kid,” came Jin’s unwanted praise. She pulled back, hand on hip, poked a finger at his chest. “It’s the end of that.”

What did that even mean?

Olive arched a brow. “What? What are you talking about? If you want to start a book discussion then there’s a library back there—”

“Do I have to spell it out for you, kid?” Jin sighed. “What is the dictionary definition of a syzygy? ‘The lining up of celestial bodies’ aka stars. It’s just a fancy word. An analogy. Don’t remember who in the world thought it up, but basically…” She poked him in the chest again. “People like you are the stars that need to be lined up in order to make thathappen. That is, if Izsak was right about you being a True Conductor.”

Olive felt his blood run cold, felt nauseated and lightheaded.

“Ding, ding. Looks like I’m right,” Jin mused. “But don’t worry, kiddo. Izsak is locked up and isn’t rearing to kill you. And while Leona suspects you after that whole thing in New Ram City, she probably thinks that you’re something else. I won’t tell her either. Your secret is safe with me.”

Olive swallowed.

Who did Jin think she was fooling? And what did she mean by ‘something else’? And why was she talking to him about this? What did she want? Was she going to disappear him like the other True Conductors? What about the other five? What—

“It’s a shame what happened to Izsak,” Jin hummed. “I met him when he was just a kid like you. Saw him rise up to become the ‘Shepherd of Okor’ myself.”

“L… Like I said, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Olive managed, stepping around her again. “Syzygy? True Conductor? Izsak? I’m trying to focus on the State Conducting Exam here. And right now I just want to use the restroom—”

“Don’t you want to know what really happened to one Miss Princess Lavender Chance? I mean, she’s still floating around in there somewhere, right?”

Olive stopped short and turned. “How—”

Jin faced him with a grin. “I thought so. Dang, I’m smart. And you’re too honest, kiddo. People’ll see right through you if you don’t learn to think before you react.”

“Ollie. Stay away from her,” came a sudden whisper in his ear. “She doesn’t seem right. Please, Ollie.”

Olive glanced over his shoulder and found his sister standing just behind him. Her pale fingers were gripping the side of his arm, and she was glowering at Jin. Olive had never seen such a hostile expression on his sister’s face before, and it unnerved him.

“Is that why you’re here, kiddo?” Jin continued. “To search the temple records to see if you can find out anything about it?” A grin cracked across her face again, and she tapped her temple. “Come on, kiddo, use your head. Why’re you looking around for something like that when the answer is right in front of you?”

“Ollie…” Lavi pressed, tugging on his arm. “Please…”

Olive glanced back at Lavi, registered her crumpled expression of desperation and fear, and then took a step backwards.

“Look,” he said, placing his hand over his sister’s, “Jin, you must like hearing broken records because—again—I have no idea what you’re saying. I’m sure you’re enjoying your monologue but you should probably find another person who has a lot of time on their hands like you—”

“Come on. Stop with the charades. It’s kinda pathetic if you stretch it too far. Like I said, your secret is safe with me. And don’t look so scared, kiddo. Us saint candidates want to preserve True Conductors like yourself,” Jin said, once again closing the distance he had formed between them. “It’s really ELPIS y’need to look out for. They think that people like you need to die.”

Olive’s mind flashed to Francis—Theta—and then Omicron, Izsak, and Alice. And then Cadence and Jericho. And then Werner, Atienna, and Maria.

Olive paused, felt Lavi’s grip on his arm tighten. He hesitantly looked Jin over. “Let’s say I know what you’re talking about. Are you saying that you’re on my side? Because you’re a saint candidate…? And we’re important for the ‘syzygy’?”

Jin looked away and shrugged. “Well in the short run, yes. In the long run, no. But I’m personally trying to freestyle a bit now. Kinda tired of the whole duty and ceremony saint candidate thing—so, you do you. You’re on your own, kiddo.”

“You’re making it sound like that’s a bad thing.”

Jin barked out a loud and abrupt laugh. “Sorry. You’re really just so honest, kiddo. Earnest too. Maybe a bit stupid. Nah, just naive.”

It wasn’t the first time Olive had heard the word tossed around. Ever since leaving the royal palace, he started feeling that it was the most commonly used word in Signum. Back then, when he had been spending the months lounging around in the palace, he had thought he had known enough. Not everything. But enough. Enough to not try learning anything anymore. That was naive.

“At least that means I can still learn something,” Olive returned. “What does that make you?”

“Stupid, probably,” Jin popped.

The response again jarred Olive, and it took him a moment to relocate his train of thought. “So… who’s behind this whole syzygy thing? Is it… the saint candidates? A Monadism thing?”

Jin reached out and placed a hand on his head causing him to stiffen. “You were looking to skedaddle, kiddo, but you’re curious now, aren’t you? Anyway, if I gave you all the answers now then I’d have to listen to Leona’s ranting for the rest of this life. Besides, I’ve probably given you enough to chew on.”

“Why are you even… telling me this?”

Jin grinned, smile white in the blue light. “Why not? I mean… what are you going to even do about it?” There was a beat. “But… I’ll tell you this, kiddo, this whole rodeo’s been going on for a lot longer than you realize.”

What—

“Aunt Jiji!”

Startling, Olive whipped around to find Claire emerging from the library entrance while waving like a madman.

“‘Aunt’?”

“My favorite nephew!” Jin called back before amending, “Well, my only nephew, right?”

“What’re you doing here?” Claire asked, rushing up to her. “I thought you were in Ophiuchus!”

“I was just a minute ago,” Jin replied, giving the Sagittarian prince a cuff on the shoulder. “Thought I’d swing by.”

“Eunji will be so happy to see you!” Claire beamed. “She’s probably asleep already though, but…” He side-glanced at Olive and startled as if just noticing him. He gestured to Jin. “Oh, Ollie, this is my aunt! Jin!”

“I sort of figured when you shouted ‘Aunt Jiji,’” Olive mumbled, arms crossed, heart still thundering.

“Eunji’s studying for the Conducting Exam, right?” Jin popped, nodding at Claire. Her interest in him seemed to have waned, Olive realized, which came as a relief. She continued offhandedly, “Just a fair warning. Heard Kai and Mai Beijixing from the Xing Clan are coming up this way too. You should probably keep an eye out when you leave.”

“Oh, I know. I already prepared for that,” Claire said, side glancing at Olive. “But thanks for the heads up.” He beamed again, smiling with unusual earnesty.

Olive could see it now. The reason for why Claire had been so oddly defensive about saint candidates. It all dwindled down to family. Olive wondered if Claire’s aunt even knew of his status as a True Conductor.

And then, Olive thought of his own aunt sitting back on the throne back in New Ram City. Did he even cross her mind? Probably not. She was probably too busy doing queenly things to even think about him. Maybe even secretly relieved that he was gone. He wondered if the other five would think the same if their synchronization ended.

Olive shook his head. He needed to stop thinking like that. Especially right after a harrowing encounter.

“Yo.” Jin directed a nod behind Olive with a wave before dipping into a surprisingly deep bow. “I see you’re still kickin’.”

Still gripping his sister’s hand, Olive turned his head to find Trystan, Felix, and Tenzin standing behind him.

Tenzin bowed at Jin in return. “I see you’ve finally returned to the temple. What brings you here?”

“I was feeling a bit nostalgic,” Jin replied with a shrug. “And I’m looking for someone. An Ophiuchian special mission. Top secret.”

“Well, I hope the person you’re searching for is a willing person,” Tenzin replied. “Free will and choice are very important in life—in case you’ve forgotten the teachings of the temple since your pre-candidacy days.”

“I’ll ask politely,” Jin said. “Don’t worry.” She pointed loosely to the bow conductor at Trystan’s side. “I use one of those too. There’s an archery range around back, Mr. Bullseye. We should practice together. You don’t want to get rusty sitting around reading books all day, do you?”

Trystan frowned—at least until Olive whispered Jin’s identity into his ear—and then he bowed. “It would be an honor.”

Olive startled and tried to subtly shake his head to signal for Trystan to decline the offer. Trystan merely gave him a look of confusion. Typical.

While Claire and Jin began speaking animatedly with one other, Olive took the opportunity to slink away from them. He managed to get Trystan to follow suit and held his sister’s small hand tightly as they looped around the hallways. Olive separated from Trystan in the residential halls and slipped into the small bedroom he’d been provided for his stay.

As soon as he heard Trystan’s step recede from behind the doorway, he whipped around and gripped his sister’s shoulders tightly. He searched her face.

“W-What’s wrong, Ollie?” she stammered, worry creasing her brow.

His stomach twisted.

“Lavi…” Olive began after a second of hesitation. “Why did you want me to… stay away from Jin? How long were you watching?”

“I just have a bad feeling about her,” Lavi murmured. “That’s all… she doesn’t seem like a good person.”

Olive studied her, tightening his grip. “I… when you were… in Ophiuchus… for the saint candidate ceremony… did you…” He realized he didn’t even have a full grasp on what he wanted to ask her but managed, “A couple months ago… you said something about a ‘syzygy’ when I first started getting synchronized with the others. What did you mean? ‘The pulse of syzygy.’”

“Huh? Did I say that?” Lavi questioned, cocking her head. “I don’t remember ever saying that.” She peered into his face. “You don’t believe me? Everything’s really fuzzy, Ollie. I’m sorry but I don’t remember ever saying that—really. I was just so excited that we were talking to other people. You know I don’t pay attention to some of the things I say…”

“Lavi—”

A knock on the door drew Olive’s attention away, and when he looked back towards his sister she was gone. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Olive wrung his hands and made his way to the door. When he pulled it open, a smiling Claire stood waiting.

“What are you doing here?” Olive arched a brow, already pushing the door shut.

Claire wedged his foot in the doorway and pressed a finger to his lips. “I wanna talk to you about something. Just the two of us. Just for a minute. Come on.”

“Unconvincing argument.” But after a beat, Olive conceded and let the prince through.

Claire made himself at home, strolling in and inspecting the room before walking right out onto the balcony that opened up at the side of the far wall. Olive rolled his eyes and followed him outside.

The moon was still beating down harsh in the night sky, revealing the mountain range’s ruts and cliff faces in startling detail just as the sun would.

“You know, I never really wanted to be involved with politics,” Claire said when Olive fell into place beside him. His gaze was fixated on some far point beyond the tips of the mountains. “Never really wanted to be a prince either, but you can’t choose what you’re born as.”

Olive glanced at him unimpressed. “Wow. Your life sounds awful.”

“I know how that sounds.” Claire chuckled. “A lot of people would kill to be where I’m at.”

Definitely. Olive knew people probably thought similarly about himself.

“Good to know you’re at least a little self-aware,” Olive muttered. “Is that what you’re here to talk about? The monks would be better therapists than me.”

“No… that’s not it. I could tell that you were nervous about my aunt,” Claire replied. “She told you she was a saint candidate, didn’t she?”

“It was in her lengthy introductory speech.”

“Yeah, she can be like that…” Claire mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean, she’s kind of earned the right to. If it weren’t for her becoming saint candidate, my clan would still be considered a lower-rung clan and we wouldn’t…” He trailed off.

Sounded complicated.

“Alright, I’m listening,” Olive grumbled. “If you want to tell me your backstory so much then let’s get to it.”

“Well, when you put it like that then I feel awkward.” Claire frowned. He held up a hand, stopping Olive short before he could retort.

Olive shut his mouth and waited.

After what seemed like half an hour, Claire finally spoke: “Haneul… my real name… it means ‘sky’ in Seongese but it can also mean ‘heaven’. My mother told me that the name chose me because ‘it was my destiny to bring the Seong clan to the heights of the heavens above all the other clans.’ That it was a name befitting an emperor.” A rare frown pulled down Claire’s lips, and he glared down into the darkness stretching below. He brightened a beat after and scoffed. “The sky is supposed to be free and open, but the name is so oppressive. Suffocating, you know? Can you even imagine a person like that? As an emperor ruling over all these clans? Having to watch their back all the time?”

Olive glanced at him. “Yeah, the way your government works sucks.”

“That’s exactly why I want to abolish that clan system in Sagittarius.” Claire chuckled again. “Well that’s not true. I just want to live in a place where I don’t have to worry about problems like that. Where my sister doesn’t. Where other people don’t. Everyone would just be free to do whatever they wanted without dealing with those kinds of expectations. The restrictions. The divisions.”

That was ridiculous, Olive thought. There was no way anybody could do something like that. People’s self-interest and greed would always get in the way. And even if someone were to achieve that, someone else would just undo everything further down the line.

“Anyways, I told my aunt Jiji I hated my name one day, and she just said, ‘Then why don’t you just change it’. Made me feel kinda stupid for not doing it before. And so I did. Chose ‘Claire’ because I thought it sounded cool. Like the Common word for clear.” Claire peered down into the cliff face below them. “Anyways, choosing my own name was the first step in all of this. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my aunt. She actually helped me a lot when I was younger…. so I’m basically asking you to give her a chance.”

So Jin meant a lot to Claire. And despite Claire’s slipperiness, he was still just a kid. What a pain. Still, averting your eyes from a problem did nothing.

And so, after a minute of agitated mulling, Olive informed Claire of the things Jin had said to him only half an hour prior. Syzygy. True Conductors. ELPIS. Saint candidates.

Claire digested the information silently with an unreadable expression. The quiet stretched long and thing before he finally spoke again. “Thank you… for telling me that. I… there’s probably an explanation…” He shook his head before leaning against the banister. “Syzygy…” He paused, lifted his head, and turned to Olive. “Wait… you said my aunt asked about your sister too, right? Why was that?”

Olive revealed the true reason for why he was pursuing a State Conducting License. The incident at the Tragedy of Aries. His sister’s failed saint candidacy. How her ‘spirit’ became visible to him afterwards. And how it could be connected to his ability to conduct without a conductor.

Claire ogled him afterwards. “That’s a pretty crazy backstory… I’ve never heard any True Conductors seeing ‘ghosts’ before so I don’t think it has to do anything with that.” After a pause, he said, “And you started being able to conduct without a conductor after that happened?” Another pause. Claire glanced over Olive’s shoulder. “And… does Lavi know anything about it?”

“She says she doesn’t.”

Claire considered his words before sighing. “So we both have family members who might not be trustworthy. Saint candidates…”

Olive frowned. “Don’t put my sister and your aunt in the same boat. My sister was a failed saint candidate so whatever it is—”

“—has to be something else?” Claire finished. “Maybe it is.” He straightened himself abruptly and began digging into his pocket. “Well, I wasn’t going to show this to you because it was risky for my circle but since we’re really being honest with each other now, I thought I’d show you. It might be useful for you in the future.”

Claire pulled out a narrow cylinder the size of his palm and gave it a twirl. Additional segments extended from each end of the device with the motion. Claire’s staff conductor.

“Why?” Olive asked plainly.

Claire whipped his conductor around once. Nothing happened. And then he whipped it around another time, sending out a cold, frigid wind speckled with blue lights. The twin movements seemed a bit familiar. Something scratched at the back of Olive’s mind—

Then came the snowflakes. They cascaded down onto them from the area where Claire had sent out his whip of wind. Although the snowflakes appeared normal at first glance, a closer inspection revealed them to be faintly glowing with blue vitae.

“Great, you can change weather patterns,” Olive stated, unimpressed. He caught a snowflake in his palm with disinterest. But as he watched a snowflake lose its glow as it melted, the realization slapped him hard. He turned to Claire in disbelief. “Are you saying that we can—”

An excruciating pain throttled through his core cutting him off short. Every limb in his body seized with agony, and he fell onto the floor with a thud.

“Ollie?!”

Ignoring Claire, Olive bared his teeth and reached out in the direction of the pain. He pulled himself along the invisible thread until the temple room faded away behind him and became replaced by an entirely different scene:

People screaming, people crying, people shouting, people running. Smoke clouded the air as they rushed around him—half of them tripping on the cobblestone ground that was laden with shattered pieces of brick and glass. At his right was a crumbled building still billowing out a steady stream of smog and dust.

The scent was nauseating, but—

Where was this?

Olive glanced to his left across the street and found a familiar high-rise building with a golden plaque at its front: Abaccio Hotel.

Gemini. The Twin Cities. Cadence or Werner.

Olive’s heart felt as if it were about to explode as he reached out for both of them in desperation. And then he saw it out of the corner of his eye—a flash of copper hair.

Cadence. She stood frigid amongst the chaos, seeming to not notice the bodies strewn around the floor nor the people running past her. As he tapped into his synchronization with her and met her gaze, he realized that she was not truly there either. Then that meant—

“I…” Cadence ran her fingers through her hair as she stared blankly past him. “It was an accident… I didn’t…”

Olive followed her gaze and the tug of pain down to the ground behind him. Only a couple of feet away amongst the rubble was a woman with curly black hair and porcelain skin.

Alma.

She was unconscious, but it appeared as if she was unharmed because right beside her—no, draped right over her protectively—was Werner. There were large pieces of brick, stone, and glass strewn over his normally immaculate military uniform and red was pooling beneath his head.

No…

Olive was at Werner’s side in an instant, grasping the man tightly.

“H-Help!” he stammered desperately to the people who he knew couldn’t hear him, to the people who probably wouldn’t help even if they could. “Help! Please!”

No.

Olive’s mind raced with memories of fire, screams, smoke, burning flesh, curling up into loneliness—

—and then came the memories of long-winded lectures, of the meetings that filled the spaces of emptiness between his studies, of the feeling of for once not being on the outside looking in, of being able to share thoughts that he’d kept to himself for years, of not having to face everything alone.

No.

A void was beginning to expand outwards from Werner’s body, and the surroundings around the man began to flicker and dim. Just like the void that had surrounded Jericho when he had been injured all those months ago. The blackness encroached quickly, stealing away the warmth that Olive still felt faintly seeping from Werner’s body. Their synchronization was weakening.

No.

Olive gripped onto Werner’s body like a life-line, holding with all he could onto their synchronization.

“Please, somebody—”

Werner was—

And then, Olive was back on the balcony in the Bodhi Temple on all fours. Claire was beside him but Olive paid him no mind. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cadence’s image staring at him silent and pale. She had been desynchronized from Werner too. But—she was near Werner. She could help him. She had to. Werner was still alive, but he was hurt. Bad. Olive could feel it.

Werner. 

What had even happened?

The memory of the event Cadence and Werner had just experienced would not come to him. And then a cold, creeping realization dawned. The few times when there were gaps in the memories they shared despite synchronization were during overrides.

Torn between nausea and horror, Olive turned to Cadence and whispered, “Cadence, what… what did you do?”


“Yep, the saint candidate of Sagittarius would be me. What? Why I stepped down as chairman of the ELPIS Investigation Department? Dunno. I mean, it just got boring. ELPIS is just so old fashioned, you know? It gets repetitive. They just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s not even a game of cat and mouse at this point. Hm, ‘what does that mean’? Well, I’ve given you enough to chew on, haven’t I? If you really want to know then why don’t you give the ELPIS Department a shot? Hell, maybe you’ll get my old spot”

Jin Ilseong, former head chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department of Ophiuchus