Bodhi Temple, Sagittarius
“We’re leaving for Ophiuchus at the end of the week, Ollie.”
“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.”
“And memorizing is the same thing as learning?”
“Well, you can’t learn anything if you don’t memorize it. Education in Sagittarius is centered around memorization, actually.”
“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 psychosocial and political than physical... I’m sure at least some people in your circle aren’t as lucky as us.”
“But it’s really a waste of energy thinking about it, Ollie.”
“Wow, Claire…” A mocking clap. “Thanks for your unwanted words of wisdom. Did they teach you that in politician school?”
“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—”
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 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, stringless. It was so lightweight that Olive could barely make 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 would 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 she’d done.
As his shouting match with Cadence reached its climax, Atienna synchronized with them 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 just 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 for thinking they were family, 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 occurred, 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—”
“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 nephews and nieces 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 finally 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 an open courtyard that extended out just behind the library. He had discovered this courtyard during his second night spent at the library after peeking out of the library’s left-wing window. It was a large, square yard 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 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 took to the courtyard again while 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 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—”
“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.”
“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 from his sights before relaxing somewhat. Shivering the uneasiness away, he returned his attention to his 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 had 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, and 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.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he 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.