구름

Claire watches clouds with the people who are important to him—the people he’s lied to.

Spoilers for 27.3.

☁︎

Yuseong Haneul is watching the clouds pass by with his mother. He thinks he sees a flower in one of them. His mother tells him to stop being childish.

He is four. His brother Eun-ho was born just the other day. His mother handed off Eun-ho to the servants hours after he was born. Haneul wishes he could have stayed with him just a little longer—held onto his little finger a little longer. But his mother wouldn’t let him.

“Will Eun-ho be my friend, Umma?” Haneul asks. “My best friend?”

“There are no ‘friends’ in this world, Haneul,” his mother answers. “There are only enemies, pawns, and—if you’re feeling generous—acquaintances. Everyone will betray you in the end.”

“Park-ha is my friend.”

“Park-ha?”

“Cousin Park-ha.”

“Ah, the half-blood. She’ll betray you too. Because you’re Haneul. You’ll bring the Seong Clan high above the heavens. No one will be able to reach you.”

“No one?”

“I am telling you, Haneul: if you accept anyone, they’ll poison you from the inside out. You will be left hung and dry or—worse—dead by the end of it. That’s why you need to bring the Seong Clan to the heights of the heavens. That way no one can touch us.”

“Why only the Seong Clan, Umma? What about everyone else?”

“What about everyone else?”

Haneul frowns. He feels something cold under his fingers. It’s a smiling porcelain mask not so different from the ones his vassals where. He slips it on. It fits comfortably.

“Umma, I’m sorry.”

“What for?” his mother asks. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. You wouldn’t have turned out this way if it weren’t for me. I know I pushed you too far. It was different before Jin became a saint candidate—before she became different. The Seong Clan didn’t have the prestige and power it has now. We were at the bottom of the chain. Trampled on by the other clans.”

“I know.”

“Then why are you—”

“I want to stop but I can’t. If I stop, then people will suffer. If I don’t stop, people will suffer too.”

“Those are words every emperor—every leader—has said before committing an atrocity.”

“I’m not like that, Umma.”

“I know.”

His mother’s pale hand reaches for his mask but he pulls away.

☁︎ ☁︎

Haneul is watching the clouds pass by with his vassal Jaeseong Soha. He thinks he sees a monster in one of them. Soha tells him it is not a monster but a sword of bravery—ready to slay any enemies in its path.

He is eight years old. His cousin tried to kill him just a week ago with a poison dagger during their tea ceremony. Park-ha. He had thought she was his best friend, but perhaps his mother was right.

He still remembers it—the frigid blackness that radiated out from the knife in his abdomen as his own blood soaked his clothes warm. The emptiness that followed haunts him every time he closes his eyes. Death and darkness, hand in hand without an open sky.

“Are you my friend, Soha?” he asks.

All he wants is one—just one friend. One friend he can rely on. He could not find one in Park-ha, but maybe he can find one in Soha. He has known her since the day he was born, after all. She is always in his shadow—ever watchful, catching him whenever he falls, drawing the blood of assassins for his sake.

Soha reaches a hand towards his head but retracts it. “I would like to be your friend, young lord, but I am unable to.”

“Why?”

“It would not be appropriate for someone of my status to think of you as a friend.”

“Even someone as strong as you can’t go against it?”

“I’m sorry, young lord.”

Haneul lets out a breath. He is still wearing the mask.

“It’s not your fault, Soha.”

“What, isn’t?”

“Everything.”

“Young lord?”

“Sometimes when I think of the world ‘umma’, I don’t think of my umma. I think of you. You’re always there. After every assassination attempt, after every speech, after every court meeting. I always know you’re in my shadow so I always make sure to hold my head high so I won’t disappoint you—well, in a way. You know I don’t mind groveling.”

“You always do what is necessary. I’ve never had any doubts about that.”

“I never could tell you all of those things I said just now even though I really wanted—want—to. It just isn’t ‘appropriate’ for a prince to tell his vassal these kinds of things.” He chuckles. “Look at me. I want to dismantle the clan system but I can’t even bypass these kinds of simple class structures. I’m a hypocrite.”

“You’re just young.”

“Too young to be emperor? To gain the throne?” Haneul covers his eyes. “I want it, but I don’t want it. No. That’s not it. What… do I really want? Without wanting to become emperor, what do I have?” His hand moves to his mouth. “Forget what I just said. I’m just joking.”

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Haneul is watching the clouds pass by with his aunt. He thinks he sees the number four. His aunt says that it looks like a kite.

He is eight years old. No one wants him here. Everyone wants him dead or for him to make other people dead. He has no real friends—he can tell that now. When he passes through the halls, he can hear his so-called friends and cousins whispering about how strange he’s become:

“He talks to himself all the time,” they say, “in tongues.”

“He’s always so moody now,” they mutter. “They say he’s no longer viable for the throne.”

“If he’s gone,” they whisper, “does that mean I can take his place?”

His mother has been right since the very beginning. Her words—he thought them cruel, but now he realizes their intention was to protect.

He wants to be like the cloud—blowing away in the wind. Tethered to nothing. Free of the courts, of the ever-watchful servants, of the gossip, of the weight of the sky.

“That’s a bit poetic and dramatic for a kid, isn’t it?” his aunt asks.

“I hate everything.” Haneul sniffles. “Everything sucks. I hate my clan. I hate my name. I—”

“Well, that’s a lot of hate for a lot of things you can change. ”

Haneul looks to her in surprise. “Change…?”

“You shape your own reality and direction, kiddo. Other people might point you in one direction or the other but you’re ultimately the one who decides to take the path.”

Haneul studies her.

Jin spreads her arms wide like wings. “If you hate your clan, change it. If you hate the system, change it. If you hate your name, change it.” She spins in dizzying circles. “But you need to remember, just because you change something doesn’t mean things outside of yourself—people, ideas, and so on—will follow through with your change. It’s up to them to decide. You point them in the right direction and ride on in your own in direction.”

“That sounds lonely.”

His aunt stops spinning, reaches over, and taps his mask.

“Why did you do it? Work with ELPIS?” he asks. “What was going through your head?”

Jin laughs. “People always ask why, but the answer’ll never satisfy them.” She points up to a cloud that resembles a bird. “Once you set your eyes on a clear goal, you should take aim and fire. Hurtle forward like an un-tethered arrow. If you don’t follow through in that moment, you’ll miss. Nothing stays in place. Everything is in a state of perpetual motion. Your goals and dreams too.”

“So you’re saying that I’m right in not giving up on becoming emperor and changing the clan system…?”

Jin lowers her hand. “Why are you asking me?”

Haneul quirks a brow. “Aren’t you the Saint Candidate of Arrow and Direction?”

Jin flicks his mask. “How about this: you’re only given one life as your current self on this celestial body. Only one. In this one life, you’re given many chances to pursue your—” She clicks her tongue “—passions and goals to your hearts content. Why squander that one life and all those chances on something that makes you unhappy?”

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Haneul is watching the clouds pass by with two girls only he can see. They are watching clouds in different skies, but he thinks he sees a heart in each of them.

“They’re clearly rocks,” the Aquarian girl corrects.

Haneul snorts.

“They look kind of like butterflies,” the Leonian girl tries. “Don’t they…?” She looks over at him and rubs her chest. “Are you okay…? I… you feel sad.”

Haneul is still eight years old—the other two are notably older than he is, so he feels as if he needs to make up for it somehow. He has just come from an exhausting meeting with his head clan members and another one with his father shortly after. Even when he sits across from those people he calls family, he feels kilometers away from them. Out of reach. Alone.

He has no one to confide in. His brother is only five years old, and Claire can’t bare the idea of dragging him into his problems and sadness. He doesn’t want Eun-ho to experience the same loneliness and suffocating pressure that greets him every morning—

“There are people out there who have it worse than you,” the Aquarian girl interjects. “That’s what my father always says.”

Somehow she can read his thoughts.

“There are people out there who don’t even have someone they want to protect,” she continues. “There are people out there who don’t have roofs over their heads. There are people out there who don’t have food in their stomachs. Do you have food in your stomach and a roof over your head?”

“Yes…” Haneul fidgets, cheeks flushing in shame as he feels ghostly tendrils of hunger and fatigue that are not his own. He looks over and studies the Aquarian girl’s gaunt cheeks. He feels guilt and wonders if he can somehow share his wealth with her.

“Just because someone has suffered more than another person,” the Leonian girl says, placing a hand on Haneul’s shoulder, “doesn’t invalidate their suffering. That’s what the pillars teach us.”

The Aquarian girl looks away and folds her arms. “Sure. Whatever. So, are we finally going to exchange names now or what. I’m getting tired of calling you ‘Prince’ and ‘the Monadic one.’ I am Sigrid. Sigrid Anker.” She nods at the Leonian girl. “You?”

“I… they call me Carmen,” the Leonian girl draws, “but…” She glances at Claire. “Your aunt said something recently. I… I don’t know how I know what she said, but I like what she said. About ‘changing.’ I’d like to change directions too.”

Haneul wonders—is she talking about Aunt Jiji?

“… Jiji? Is that her name?” Carmen wonders. She nods, confirming it herself. “I… don’t really like name Carmen and I don’t like the dresses that the priests make me wear. I… I haven’t told anyone this before, but I’d like to be called… Andres.”

“Andres?”

“Yes, and… I’d like to wear pants instead of skirts and grow out a beard instead of growing out my hair.” She becomes flustered. “A-And I-I just… I want to be a boy instead of a girl, and I know that’s strange, but I have to pretend out there, so I just want to be myself in here, a-and—”

Sigrid arches a brow.

Haneul doesn’t quite understand fully either, but he can feel waves of courage spilling out from Carmen—Andres—as she—he—says this. In turn, he can only feel admiration. And jealousy.

“Oh. Okay.” Haneul thinks. “That makes sense I guess… Andres.”

Sigrid shrugs, evidently not caring either way.

A smile of relief breaks across Andres’s face.

They are all the same, Haneul realizes then. They are all wearing masks and shadowed over by systems beyond their reach and control. Puppets entangled in string.

“People are forced to be a certain way by other people. Puppets and puppeteers. That’s how the world works, ‘poet.’ Anyways what about you?” Sigrid nods at him. “What’s your name?”

Haneul is taken off-guard by the attention. He knows he hates his name, but he hasn’t thought of any alternatives yet despite wallowing about it for so long. So, he blurts out the first word that comes to mind—“Clear? Like a clear goal. Clear skies. Well, not a sky—”

“Clear?” Sigrid snorts. “What sort of name is that?”

Haneul flushes.

Andres offers a tentative smile. “How about Claire? It’s the name of sounds the same, doesn’t it?”

“Okay… Call me Claire.”

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Claire is watching the clouds pass by with an adolescent man and an adolescent woman only he can see. He thinks he sees stars in their shared skies, but he has no time to wonder about it.

“Why did you let them do that to you, Andres?” Sigrid asks, eyes narrowing as she holds her throat.

“They’ve given me everything,” Andres croaks from where he lays in-between Claire and Sigrid. “I couldn’t become a star, so it’s my responsibility to become the night sky. To support the star.”

His voice rings clearly in Claire’s head even though he has now lost the ability to physically speak.

“You owe them nothing,” Sigrid hisses. “You don’t owe anybody in this world anything. Not when all they do is take.” Her eyes narrow but Claire holds her gaze shoulder and her demeanor calms. She places a hand on his arm. “Family is different.”

Claire curls his fingers around Andres’s locks. He has spent the past few weeks with Sigrid trying to convince Andres not to go through with the Goldening Ceremony. They even have gone as far as to try an overlap with the man to stop him from attending, but it was of no use. Andres is bound by the chains of precedent, hierarchies, tradition in the same way that Claire, his fellow clan members, his sister are bound to them.

Tradition—Claire wants to dismantle it.

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Claire is watching the clouds pass by with a man and a woman only he can see. He thinks he sees a balloon in their shared skies. Andres says it’s a lollipop. Sigrid says it’s just a ball on a stick.

Claire has just turned eighteen. He is riding on a train away from the Capricornian capital. He is escaping with his sister and vassals safely in tow. Even so, he feels awful—because he has left someone behind. Prince Olivier Chance. Ollie.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty,” Sigrid says. “He gave away our status as True Conductors to that… saint candidate. Who knows what would’ve happened if we didn’t escape.”

“Andres is still safe,” Claire reasons, smiling as he shivers in Sigrid’s cold. “So it’s not all bad. Plus, I doubt they’d touch me since I’m a prince. Right, Andres?”

Andres remains silent.

“Claire, are you listening? That Ariesian prince and the other True Conductors in his circle are trouble.” Sigrid’s eyes narrow. “Have you not noticed that wherever they go, people drop like flies? That guard Trystan—what if that had happened to Soha or Felix?”

Claire allows the smile to slide from his face. “You don’t seem to be in a very good mood, Sigrid.”

“You said that prince was just a tool to you,” Sigrid continues. “You know what my father always says you’re supposed to do with dangerous tools or tools that are no longer useful?”

“Discard them,” Claire answers matter-of-factually.

“You always say that my father is a smart man.” Sigrid lets out a breath, fogging up the frigid air on her end. “But I have never seen you go through with the principle.”

Claire can’t tell what her tone of voice is.

Andres reaches over and holds his hand. “It’s okay, Claire—”

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Claire is watching the clouds pass by with his half-brother Arjun. He thinks he sees a chain and ball up there. Arjun says he sees a regal staff—the kind kings in Aries used to wield.

Claire is fourteen years old. He has just come from a meeting with Arjun and his other half-siblings. The world feels like it’s finally starting to turn. Momentum is building. The clan system feels the strain. Tradition—he shall dismantle it together with his family. Yes, this is something that needs to happen through unified action not a solitary one. Not alone. It’s the only way it’ll stick.

“Now if only we could pick a date for our demonstration,” Claire jokes, “instead of arguing over what tea to serve at our meetings.” He whispers behind his hand, “Masala chai will always go above oolong for me—just between us.”

Arjun smiles before looking away. “It does make you wonder—how can we work together so well despite the fact that we can’t agree on something as simple as tea.”

Claire shrugs. “You don’t have to like each other to work together. You just need to know how to communicate with each other.”

Arjun hums. “I’ve always been impressed by your ability to deal with people like Mai and then switch over to match the pace of people like Trang.”

“Of course, Arjun. You have to be an adaptable people person to work the courts.” Claire waves off the half-compliment. “Being a court meister is like being a multi-faceted gem. You show the side of yourself that’s most appealing to the other party. Sparkle, sparkle.”

“Are you calling yourself a treasure now?”

“I am quite valuable. Though I don’t think we’d all be working together if it weren’t for you, Arjun.”

Arjun remains silent for a while before saying, “‘Showing your different faces’ you say—are you calling yourself two-faced?”

“Hey… rude. I’d like to call it practiced performance. And I’m multi-faceted—excuse me.”

“So you could be showing me one of your faces right now. Not your real one. Performing.” He thrums his fingers. “No one knows your true face, do they? Do you even know it?”

Claire scoffs. “Like you’re showing me your honest, truest self right now.”

“I’d like to think I am.” Arjun looks up towards the sky again. “I really hope we make a difference. Sagittarius can’t continue on while stepping on the heads of the common people.”

“Yeah. It can’t. Leaving people behind to boost ourselves forward isn’t sustainable. There are only so many heads and hands you can step on.” 

Claire knows because he has regrettably stepped on a few himself. He also knows, however, this unyielding truth that looms over their dreams: a weak link in the chain is all it takes for everything to fall apart.

Claire touches his mask absentmindedly, feeling for cracks.

“Was that thought directed at me?” Arjun interjects. “About me accepting my exile without protest? You’re still bitter about it, Claire. I sense it.”

“Of course, I am. You were our leader. I looked up to you.”

“You’re also jealous of me.”

“Yes, that’s also true. I’m not like you, Arjun. You’re perfect. You’re what they’d call a main character. I bet you’ve never complained about anything that’s happened to you ever. Needless to say, while I was bitter about you leaving, I couldn’t help but feel happy that you had at least one tiny flaw. It’s got nothing to do with you, and everything to do with how I am though. So… is that really a flaw?”

“Blaming doesn’t do anyone or anything any good.”

Claire smiled wryly. “There you go again.”

“It’s true.” Arjun studies him. “You think too lowly of yourself and too highly of others by the way.”

“Well, I mean… I am a phony. A fake. I’m always afraid. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time or why I’m doing it. I want to give up, but I’m too stubborn to. I can’t stand on my own without other people supporting me. I’m—”

Claire slaps a hand over his mouth. These are thoughts that he has only shared with Sigrid and Andres.

Arjun turns to him. “A ruler isn’t someone who stands on their own nor are they fearless.”

A shadow passes over Claire’s face before he can respond. Claire recognizes its owner. “Kai?”

Kai’s face eclipses Claire’s. His eyes narrow. “I warned you.”

Something cracks.

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Claire is watching the clouds pass by with his brother Eun-ho. He thinks he sees a boy playing catch by himself. Eun-ho says he sees a girl juggling.

Claire is sixteen years old—which is strange because he swears he was fourteen just a moment ago. He has just saved his brother from a very intense scolding by their mother who caught him trying on the hanboks of one of the female servants. Claire didn’t ask any questions then. Instead, he merely lied to their mother and said that it was his idea to have Eun-ho try them on. For fun.

“Claire…” his brother begins. “I… sorry.”

Eun-ho, Felix, Kai, and Soha are the only ones who call him ‘Claire’ outside of Andres and Sigrid. It means more to him than they’ll ever know.

“What for?”

“I’m weird…”

“I don’t think you’re weird,” Claire says. “Not in the way that you think you’re weird. Outside of that—yeah, you’re pretty weird.”

Eun-ho scowls.

“What? You just admitted it.”

Eun-ho looks away with a huff. After a long stretch of silence, he takes in a long and deep breath before he says, “I… don’t feel comfortable in… hanboks for boys. I… just don’t feel right. I… feel more like me when I…” He lets out a long, steady breath. “… when I close my eyes and imagine that I’m a girl—”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I have a very close friend who’s kind of like that—except the opposite way around—so I understand.”

“You have friends, Claire?” Eun-ho gasps.

He can’t tell if she’s being defensive, if she’s joking, or if she’s serious. But then he sees the relief spreading across her face like warm butter.

“Anyways.” Claire waves off the comment. “If you want to wear a girl’s hanbok, wear it. If you want to wear earrings and hairpieces, wear it. Don’t care about what anyone else says. Their gossip is your power. They think about you enough to gossip about you which means that you occupy their thoughts. That’s powerful.” He reaches up to the sky and clenches his fist, grabbing air. “Use it.”

Eun-ho stares.

Claire lowers his hand. “My friend that I mentioned—he ended up choosing a different name for whatever reason. Do you want to? I mean, you don’t have to. Names are tricky things.”

“Oh….” Eun-ho pulls on strands of her hair. “I was thinking… Eunji.”

“Eunji? That’s cute. ‘Eun’ as in ‘kindness, mercy, charity’ and ‘ji’ as in ‘wisdom’ and ‘intellect.’ I… like it. Can’t say all the meanings fit, but—”

“Hey!” Eunji snaps, flushing.

“I said I liked it, Eunji, didn’t I?”

Crack!

Claire shoots up to a sit and reaches for his mask. He feels a fault line running from the left corner of the smile to the left eye.

“Claire, what’s wrong?”

Claire lifts his head and stares at his sister. He finds himself recalling her first steps, her first words, their first and last arguments, her joy when she’d passed her licensing exam, his pride. He finds himself wondering what kind of woman she’ll grow up to be—but he can’t fully picture it for some reason. He used to do it so easily, but that imagined future refuses to come to him now.

He reaches for her arm and grips it.

She stares in surprise. “Claire…?”

Claire pulls her into a hug. He can hear her heart beating inside his ears. Slowly, he moves his hand to his own chest. The beat is not the same.

“C-Claire, what’s wrong?” She struggles briefly. “You’re scaring me—”

Still, he clings to her tighter. “I love you… Eunji. I love you so, so much… okay? You’re perfect. Don’t be like me. Do what you want to do. Forget the clans and Sagittarius. Forget the gossip. You don’t owe them anything. Be happy.”

“C-Claire…?”

The anxiety won’t go away. He doesn’t understand why.

“I’m… sorry. I’m so sorry. Don’t be sad. You can be mad if you want. But… please don’t be sad—”

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Claire is watching the clouds pass by with his most trusted vassal Felix Pederson. He thinks he sees two foxes leaping over a fence. Felix agrees.

Claire is fifteen years old. Just five years ago he spotted a ten year old Felix plowing the rice fields with a group of immigrant migrant workers. Despite the fact Felix harvested the most grain, he was not paid the most nor was he lauded by the workers he was with. Instead, he was ostracized.

Claire watched him quietly eating a slice of bread alone beneath the shade of an outhouse. He always saw Felix in the same spot every day when he took his morning stroll. Always watching, never interacting. He only reached out to him when he saw Felix fending off against a group of older men who were trying to steal his rations. Claire sent them away swiftly with his own guards before settling down beside the bruised and battered boy and offering to share a meal with him. After Felix hungrily devoured two entire bowl of rices, Claire offered him a place by his side. The look of relief and gratitude radiating from Felix’s resulting smile burned itself into Claire’s mind.

Nowadays whenever Claire feels as if he’s doing everything for nothing, he just thinks of Felix’s smile on that day. Then, all is right. After all—the smile signifies that he has managed to make a change in at least one person’s life.

“You don’t always have to agree with me, you know?” Claire says, squinting up at the sky. “If it doesn’t look like a fox, just say so. I can’t have a yes man as my right hand man, can I?”

Felix agrees again.

“What did I say?”

“I… apologize, my lord.” Felix shifts in place. “But I do also see a fox, so in this case I do agree with you.”

“I suppose that means we think a like then.”

“I… suppose it does. That’s the greatest of compliments, my lord.”

“Is it?” Claire rubs his chin. “Say, if it was someone else who brought you into their palace and offered you a job way back when, would you say the same things to them? The only reason you’re so loyal is because I was the only one who offered you a hand. If anyone else did the same, it wouldn’t matter to you.”

“But… my lord, you were the only who reached out to me. No one else.”

Claire chuckles. “You’re so loyal. Like I planned. I wanted someone who wasn’t tangled up in the puppet strings of the Sagittarian courts. I wanted someone who was loyal to me—not to the Seong Clan. That’s why I plucked you up from poverty and dropped you into my lap. You’re a tool. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“I know.” Felix dipped his head. “I’d happily be your tool.”

“But you would be happier being something more than that.”

Felix pales before he bows his head even more deeply. “I’m ashamed. I’m merely a vassal. Thinking of our relationship in any other way is indecent.”

An unexplainable fear suddenly seizes Claire’s chest, and he can feel another crack forming on the opposite side of his mask. Desperately, he reaches for Felix. Felix reaches for him too.

“Wait.” Claire falters, slumping into Felix’s arms. “No, what I said just now—that’s a lie. A front. I’m just pretending to be some mastermind—that’s just what I do. All the time. I brought you in because you looked like you needed help, Felix. You reminded me of me. You looked lonely and… I was lonely.”

“I know, Claire.” Felix holds him briefly before he begins to pull away. “I’m sorry, my lord. This gesture is inappropriate between a lord and their vassal—like you said all those times before. I’m sorry—”

Claire grabs his hand. “No. I’m sorry. Felix, I’m scared. Something isn’t right. Please don’t go—”

☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎ ☁︎

Claire is watching the clouds pass by with Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance. He thinks he spies a crown in one of them. Olive tells him that he sounds desperate.

Claire is eighteen and a couple months old. He has found himself on yet another journey with Olive again. Their first journey was a daring escape within the walls of New Ram City, the second a traversal from the Bodhi Temple of Sagittarius to the towering Serpens Establishment of Ophiuchus, the third a short journey through the rainy city of Die Hauptstadt. Half of these meetings were planned, the other half coincidental. It’s odd now that Claire thinks about it. They’ve somehow become entangled in each other’s puppet strings.

“Is this what you do in your free time?” Ollie sighs.

“What? It’s nice. Ever imagine what it would be like to be a cloud? No worries. Just floating there, you know?”

“Have you ever heard of the saying ‘a hobbyist resembles their hobbies’?”

“Hey, are you calling me an air-head?” Claire pouts. “You know that’s a terrible stereotype—air Elementalists being airheads, I mean. I can guarantee that none of my half-siblings are air-headed—not with all the political chess they play.”

Ollie sighed. “Are you loading your baggage onto me again…?”

“I thought we were just having a heart-to-heart.”

Ollie rolls his eyes before squinting up at the clouds.

Claire can feel the cracks on his mask meet. “Ollie, I’m sorry.”

“Uh. Okay.” Olive squints at him. “What do you want from me now?”

He wants Ollie to stay.

“I do consider you a friend, you know,” Claire says instead. “I didn’t in the beginning. When we first met, I admit I just used you. Because it was convenient that way. And it was the best thing to do for my clan. And I was trying to play my part. When we met the second time around, I thought I could use you some more. Eunji’s safety means everything to me, you know? That’s why I did what I did. ”

“Lavi’s means everything to me,” Olive says in understanding. “I get it, so no need to waste time talking about it. It’s weird.”

“I knew you’d understand. You’re very easy to read and manipulate.”

“Yeah and you’re very easy to hate.”

“That’s just because your immune to my diplomatic charms. That’s a rare immunity, you know.” Claire chuckles before looking at the clouds again. “The third time we met… I don’t know. Somewhere along the way you started becoming something other than a tool and an acquaintance. That’s pretty stupid of me, right? I’ve had terrible experiences with friends. I wonder why—why I considered you a friend, I mean. Maybe because you’re such a bleeding heart? Maybe because I knew you’d never stab me in the back? You’d rather be stabbed yourself than stab someone else, so there was that trust factor there. Or…. maybe it was because we’re similar? Well, we’re similar, but we’re heading in opposite directions. You’re becoming more and more regal every day, while I’m just—I don’t know—becoming something else. You always look like you’re getting more sure of yourself, while I just…”

“What are you talking about?”

“Dunno. But, I think we’re pretty much stuck together now. You can’t get rid of me at this point. We’ll just keep crossing paths. It’s destiny. Anyways, I used to think a lot about the type of adult-rulers we’d be—hopefully a lot more put together.”

“Me stuck with you for ten, twenty, thirty more years?” Olive rolls his eyes. “Yeah, well, hopefully you somehow develop some social sensibly in the next decade.” He pauses. “Wait—‘used to’…?”

“Yeah I used to think that I could introduce you to Hae-won—she’s my personal chef. She’s a great cook. Never poisoned me even once.”

“Wow… Spectacular. I see your standards are high.”

“Hey—finding a Sagittarian-born chef who hasn’t tried poisoning someone before is really hard, you know?” Claire quiets. “Weird. I can’t picture what that’d be like—showing you her food, I mean. I actually used to think about it all the time. Why can’t I think of it now…?”

“Claire, are you okay…?” Olive crawls closer and hovers over him. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”

“I used to wonder what your relationship with Eunji would end up being like too. She has a crush on you, you know? I always imagined what it’d be like if you got together or if you broke her heart. By the way, I’d kill you if you did that—even though we’re friends. But, I can’t picture that now either.”

“Claire.”

“I also used to imagine what it’d be like if I became emperor and you became king. Would we still get along? You’d probably stay super pure, but I’d probably become the worst of the worst.” He frowns. “I also… can’t think of what that’d be like anymore.”

“Claire.”

“I remember thinking about those things all the time. The crown, the syzygy, my sister, my vassals, the future of all my people, and all those other things. But everything is so fuzzy now. That’s weird, isn’t it?”

“Claire…?”

Claire takes a shaky breath as realization finally dawns on him. He turns to stare into his friend’s eyes—“Ollie, I think I’m dying.”

⋆⁺₊⋆ ⋆⁺₊⋆

It is pitch black.

Claire searches the skyline but can find no clouds. He realizes he is wearing a white hanbok. There is a white flower pinned to his left chest. He is in the attire he’s been saving for his father’s funeral. But his father isn’t dead yet. So, that can only mean that someone else is dying instead.

Claire feels cold. He feels alone. He hates this feeling. It reminds him of the time Park-ha drove the knife into his chest.

His chest.

He feels for it.

It’s cold.

There is no beat.

“Claire!”

Claire turns and finds Sigrid and Andres standing behind him. Relief warms his body, and he runs to them—half desperate.

Andres catches him, eyes wide. “Claire… I-I’m sorry.” He turns to Sigrid. “I’m sorry. My hand—”

Sigrid places a hand on the man’s shoulder before turning her attention to Claire. “Claire, look at me.”

Claire looks at her.

These are the only two people who have ever seen all sides of his gemstone—all facets. These are the two people he has cloud-watched with the most. And yet they can never agree on what they see.

“Claire. Are you okay?”

Finally, Claire’s mask falls away completely into shards. He clings to them.

“I-I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going on,” Claire admits, trembling. “Don’t leave me alone. I don’t want to be alone. Not again. Not this again.”

Memories spin their way into his head weaving a tale of the most recent events. The bridge above the reservoirs. The pain at his hand. The gunshots.

Oh no.

His eyes widen in horror.

He’s doomed them all.

“I should’ve never come to the reservoirs…” he whispers. “What was I thinking…”

“It’s not your fault,” Andres reassures him. “It’s mine. I—”

“It’s fine. We’re here, Claire,” Sigrid interjects. “We’re here until the very end.”

Andres whispers as he tightens his grip on Claire’s arm, “Just hold on, Claire. Olive will get a Transmutationist to you. We’ll get through it like we always do—”

A weak link in the chain is all it takes.

Sigrid and Andres suddenly disappear from his line of sight. Claire stumbles forward in their absence.

“S-Sigrid?” He whips around wildly. “Andres?”

Silence.

“Sigrid!” he begs. “Andres! Where are you?!

The void expands around him.

Sigrid!” He’s half-crying now. “Andres—”

Claire falls to the ground and curls up on himself.

He.

Is.

Alone.

“I told you, kiddo.”

Claire lifts his head and turns towards the sound to find his aunt standing behind him. Behind her rushes a river of white light. It stretches far off into the distance—farther than Claire’s eyes can see.

Aunt Jiji sighs. “What did I tell you? If you don’t fire at your goal the moment you see it, it will slip from you. If you’d just given Arjun a little push into the reservoir and returned home spic-and-span, you would’ve gotten your crown… and I would’ve been able to make my grand re-entrance.”

She turns to the river of light. On the opposite side of stream Claire can just faintly make out the silhouette of another person—an older woman around Aunt Jiji’s age. 

“You got distracted, kiddo. Like I did. Should’ve said everything that was on your mind to all those people back then. Too late now. No one you leave behind will really know you, know how much they meant to you, or know how different things could have been. Don’t take it too hard though. You’re young. That’s just how it goes.” She sighs. “Oh—by the way—a cloud is no different from an arrow. It’s still moving forward towards an end destination—obviously not by the hand of an archer but by the hand of the wind. That’s how it is.”

Wisps of psychedelic light descend down from the black sky. They touch the white river, but nothing emerges from the opposite end. It doesn’t look or feel right.

“Oh, that? There’s been less and less vitae returning to the cycle every day. The reservoirs are just gobbling it all up. All of it is starting to accumulate on this side instead of that other side. Unable to move on and all that jazz.”

A familiar girl appears suddenly at Jin’s side.

“Lavi…?” Claire realizes.

“It’ll pop soon,” Lavi says. “Like a bubble.”

A brilliant white tree bursts up from the stream. Its branches spread far and wide, swallowing up the blackness of the sky. The tree itself is blindingly beautiful. As Claire peers towards its trunk, he swears he can see faint shapes, shadows, figures moving around inside of it.

“Yeah. That’s probably got nothing to do with our syzygy,” Jin notes. “If anything, I’m guessing that’s something more akin to a tool to obtain a dream-like utopia. Happiness—maybe. Using our current dystopia as fertilizer—definitely. Not the future, not the past, but technically both at the same time. Bet the others aren’t too worried about it even though they should be. Oh well.”

“Happiness?” Claire whispers longingly before he comes back to himself. “Am I… dying?”

Lavi closes her eyes.

Everything he’s left unaccomplished, all the things left unsaid, all the things left undiscovered, all the regrets left behind—it all comes rushing to his mind at once. He hasn’t been able to see anything through. Nothing at all. Not dismantling of the clan system, not rising to the throne—

But did he even really want all of that in the first place? Why did he have to be the one to struggle for something like that? Why did someone else just take the responsibility away from him? It was all probably because of the curse of his name—

Claire tries to think of Felix’s face on that day to make those thoughts disappear. For a moment it works like a charm, and he feels calm. Because at least least he has a roof over his head and food in his stomach. At least he’s made a friend or two along the way. At least, he has people at his side.

Claire looks up. “Wait, I need to tell them that I—”

Jin claps twice. Bows twice. Takes both of his hands in her own.

“You’re already dead, kiddo. Me on the other hand?”

⋆⁺₊⋆ ⋆⁺₊⋆

Claire is watching the clouds pass by. He is alone.

He is eighteen and some months. He is concluding a long journey with his friend Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance, his vassals, and his sister. Just a couple moments ago, he helped Ollie commence his plan and then—

Suddenly, Claire is no longer alone. Ollie is hovering over him again. So are Derik and Felix. Ollie and Felix look terribly sad and desperate, while Derik looks pale. But—their voices and faces are growing farther and farther away. Are they leaving him? He’ll be alone again. No, he doesn’t want that—

Oh wait.

They aren’t the ones who are leaving. He is—slipping away into a dark loneliness that has been at his side longer than any friend has.

He continues watching the clouds pass by, slowly, lazily as the voices fade away completely.

He thinks of how nice it would be if he could be a cloud himself. To float away. To never be alone. To be seen in all facets. To forget. To be forgotten. To be unbound. To head in whatever direction he feels like—even if guided by the wind. To be free.

What sort of shape should he take—

☁︎

 

A/n: Tribute to Claire. A child who only ever got to show his true face to two people. Wrote this really quickly after making myself sad as hell thinking about him. Also wanted to clarify some things that were subtly hinted since the beginning of the story. Will probably write short tribute fics to others who’ve passed away. 

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