Ignoring the concerns of the other five and members of her loyal crew, Maria has continued to try to befriend Oros. She also begins to investigate the disappearance of her crew members from her ship. Before any realizations can be made, however, she is overthrown by members of her mutinied crew under the leadership of Oros. Now that she is imprisoned and her pride hampered, she…
Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters
“I can’t believe Oros actually bested the Captain.”
“She’s not the captain anymore. Don’t call her that.”
Pierre and Tulio descended to the prison cells where Maria was kept below deck. The two had been crewmates together aboard a cargo ship called the G.S. Dante prior to being roped onto Gloria’s Grail. At the time of the Dante’s overtaking, instead of abandoning ship like the other crew, Pierre had headed for the cargo holding bay. His thought process had been this: if he was going to be out here risking his life on payroll, he should be paid equivalently. It was there that she had found him stuffing his pockets with Geminian Cens. At that moment, he had thought that she was the devil because when she had approached him, she hadn’t looked human. Her green eyes glowed, her smile seemed out of place, and the v-light behind her made it look as if there was a golden halo around her head.
“Oh, do you really like those things that much?” She had laughed as she looked down on him. “Well, they are quite shiny, but I already have a lot of them. You can keep them. You, on the other hand—I’m keeping you in exchange, yes?”
She had been a saint to him in that moment, and out of a fearful sort of admiration, he had accepted her offer. He had stayed at her side through thick and thin, ensuring to the best of his ability that she was always entertained.
It was after they came across and rescued a passenger ship that Pierre had begun to understand how Maria truly was. Instead of raiding it, Maria had offered a helping hand. When Pierre had questioned Maria about this, her answer had been a slap to the face.
“Hm?” She had studied him. “Why are you so against helping? Mercy is something only the strong possess, yes? Besides, are you not a passenger of this passenger ship? Why would you want me to do something bad to you?”
Maria really did not understand, Pierre had realized. He was not necessary to her.
And then Oros came. The self-proclaimed Golden Beast. Pierre didn’t really believe in such tall sea tales, but when Oros had made Maria bleed, Pierre realized there was no other possible explanation. Not only that, but—
“Pierre, would you go check on Maria?”
—Oros had remembered his name. It was something so small and insignificant, but it moved him.
And now Pierre and Tulio were following their new captain’s orders. They had passed several of the other crew who’d accepted Oros as the new and better captain. A captain who was not a domineering force of oppression and carelessness. The crew had all cheered and whooped at Pierre and Tulio’s passing. Some were a bit rowdier, but Pierre assumed they were just drunk.
The first thing Pierre noticed when he got down to the cell room was that the two men Oros had posted by the cell were no longer there. Pierre exchanged a panicked look with Tulio before he rushed forward and inspected the jail cell.
Empty. It was empty. He tried the cell door. Still locked. What in the world?
“Tulio—” Pierre began as he turned. The name caught in his throat.
Gone. Tulio was gone. The space where he had been standing was empty.
“Tulio?” Pierre tried. Silence answered. His heart thundered.
Pierre stumbled up the staircase and through the hallway.
Quiet. It was too quiet. Empty.
The men crowding the halls were gone. There was no trace of them.
Oros. He had to get to Oros.
Pierre darted down the hall and clambered up onto the deck of the ship.
There she was. Standing in the sunlight practically glowing with her back turned toward him. Just beyond her were the ones who would not accept her gracious proposal. Simon, Conta, Morandi and his men, Emmanuel, and the chef. They were bound by rope and guarded by a handful of other crew members.
Before he could call out her name, however, a cold hand grabbed the back of his neck. He already knew who it was.
He turned to look. A monster with green eyes looked back down at him. Every inch of it was coated in red. No space of human skin remaining.
“What the—” came a shout from across the deck.
The crew members seemed to have finally noticed its presence and turned while raising their weapons. Oros remained with her back turned.
“What the hell is that?!” yelled one of the men.
“What do you mean?” it chuckled. “Oh, by the way, the only people left on this ship are now standing on this deck, you know?”
A sweet smell permeated the deck.
It turned its eyes onto Oros. “How did you like it, Oros? Living out my legend.”
“Your legend?” Pierre whispered.
It blinked down and flashed a white smile. “Conta was very fond of telling tall tales when we first started sailing, yes? I had always wanted to create my own, you see? But I’ve never been very imaginative.”
Pierre’s eyes widened.
“I am the Golden Beast,” it affirmed. “And let me tell you how the real story ends. The Golden Beast devours everyone and everything including the ship itself. And then she finds another ship to follow.”
Oros finally turned to face them. She looked amused more than anything else.
“So what will you do?” the Beast asked the crew members who were frozen in place. “Will you continue following her?”
One of the men frowned. “You’re letting us choose—”
“I am not telling you to choose between me and her,” it said with a chuckle. “There is no coming back to my side after what you have done. I won’t leave a trace of you left. What I am telling you to choose between is life and death. This is mercy.”
Its eyes glowed inhumanly. Its hand, which was still pressed on Pierre’s neck, felt wet and sticky.
“If you stay, I promise the Golden Beast will not leave a trace of you left.” It pointed to the open waters. “The ocean is beautiful, yes?”
When no one moved, it took a step forward. Almost immediately, the crew members ran to the sides of the ship and launched themselves off. Pierre swallowed as the beast’s laughter echoed in the background.
“And what about you, Pierre?”
Pierre froze as its hot breath ghosted his ear.
“Will you let me devour you too, like the others below?”
A scream of terror escaped Pierre’s throat and he scrambled toward Oros. He stopped short, however, as her golden eyes bore into him. No. There would be no mercy if he ran to her—that was what her eyes seemed to say. And so he ran past her.
As Pierre ran past Oros, the last thing he heard was—“Pathetic.”—before he plunged into the deep blue sea.
* * *
Licking the wine from her hand, Maria basked in the spray of sea that greeted the air upon Pierre’s departure. The wine had been Cadence’s idea who’d said it would be the icing on the cake for her revenge. Maria didn’t quite understand it, but it had seemed fun, so she’d agreed. She turned back to Oros who was now wielding a conductor. From its hilt glowed a yellow blade. Maria’s gaze then flicked to her crew that were still tied up between them.
“Don’t worry,” Maria told them. “You’re mine so it only makes sense that I protect you, yes? So just stay right there.”
“There you go with your disrespectful words, again.” Oros shook her head.
Maria stared at her. “I’m going to devour you. For taking things that are mine.”
Before Maria could move forward, a person appeared out of thin air in front of her.
The man looked between Maria and Oros and realization settled in. He turned to face Maria in her mind’s eye and held up a halting hand. “This woman may be the missing Agent Leona—”
“Why should I stop her just because she is this Leona?” Maria asked him out loud.
“She is the Chairman of the ELPIS Division of Ophiuchus,” Jericho said. “Important to Ophiuchus.” A pause. “I need her to get into the ELPIS Division.” Another pause. “And Ophiuchus will find out that you attacked an Agent. You will be on the run forever.”
Maria didn’t quite understand the problem with that. Jericho frowned before flickering out of existence. Good.
“‘Leona’?” Oros’s eyes narrowed. She scanned the deck. “Who are you speaking to?” Her eyes widened and then she threw her head back and laughed. “I see. It all makes sense now. There was no way a normal person would be able to hold their own against me for so long. But if they had the experience and memories of others right behind them? Well, perhaps that wouldn’t be so odd after all.” Without another word, Leona lowered her conductor before tossing it onto the deck of the ship.
“What are you doing?” Maria asked plainly.
“I’m letting you go,” Leona replied simply. She then inspected her nails. “Do you know what the word ‘conductor’ means?”
Maria stared at her.
“A conductor is something that transmits something. Heat, sound, vitae. Usually when using this word, you’re referring to how good an object is at transmitting those things. In that case…” Leona gestured to her. “You would be considered True Conductors.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. But just because you say you are letting me go,” Maria said, eyes glowering, “does not mean that I am letting you go.”
Abruptly, Atienna appeared in front of her. She looked around curiously before she seemed to understand what was happening. She immediately stepped in-between her and Oros, just as Jericho had. Unlike him, she smiled. “You said we were yours, right? If we’re yours then wouldn’t you want to keep us happy?”
A wave of calm passed over Maria. She wondered if this is what the others meant by ‘feeling an emotion that was not their own.’
Maria paused and considered Atienna’s words. Her gaze then swept to Morandi and his men to Emmanuel and the chef and then to Simon and Conta. Conta…
“I understand what you are saying, I think. If you put it that way, then I guess I will save this for a later time,” Maria said with a nod. She returned her attention to Leona. “But still I’ve been thinking—I don’t understand why you are doing this.”
Leona tilted her head. “Are you saying that I should let the people who shamelessly humiliated me and carried me in a crate free? People can’t learn without punishment. Peace can’t be obtained without the fear of war keeping everything controlled.”
“We…” Morandi stammered. “We didn’t know that you…”
“Your ignorance doesn’t matter. Your actions do.” Leona crossed her arms. “Pride is priceless. The humiliation I have suffered—not even your life will be able to compensate, but it will do for now.”
Maria stepped forward. “No. They are mine too. Unhappiness for a life is an exchange I will make.”
Leona’s gaze darkened but then she chuckled mirthlessly. “Fine, I can forgive this. I also forgive you for your disrespect of me too but only because you are necessary.” Leona bent down to pick up the fallen conductor, ignited it in a flash, and severed the ropes holding her prisoners. Gripping the conductor tightly, she grabbed Conta and pulled her up to a stand.
Simon and Morandi gave a protest of alarm but were silenced when met with the tip of her conductor.
“Forgiving this one is a different story.” Keeping the conductor pointed at Simon’s and Morandi’s throats, she reached for Conta’s neck and plucked a golden chain that hung there. She yanked it off with little effort before pocketing the thing. “Thief.”
Conta trembled in her hold. “C-Captain… I…”
“Oh, I will definitely kill you if you do anything to her,” Maria chuckled. “She is my favorite.”
“Just something to hold the beast at bay,” Leona chuckled back as she moved the tip of the conductor to Conta’s throat. Holding Conta tightly, Leona walked to an area where a singular, small fishing boat hung by ropes in the air. The ropes were connected to a wheel built into one of the poles of the ship. Conta had insisted that they have extra boats on board just in case something happened. Maria assumed this was not what she meant.
“Lower the boat for me,” Leona ordered. Conta whimpered.
Morandi remained firmly planted in place.
“You should do it, Morandi,” Maria said with a pleasant smile. “It’s okay.”
Morandi frowned at her before rising to a stand and walking over to the wheel. He cranked the thing several times until the boat was level with the ship.
Leona got on the boat and pulled Conta with her. “Keep going.”
“Do it,” Maria agreed.
Morandi began cranking again, and the boat descended. Maria went to the edge of the ship to watch it go. When the boat hit the waters, Leona looked back up at her.
“Don’t misunderstand this situation,” Leona said. “I am allowing you to live because you are too important to die. If I stay any longer, you will try to attack me, and I will be forced to kill you in retaliation. We can’t have that.” She smiled. “Besides, I have duties that I’ve been taken away from.” She tightened her grip around Conta. “Do you understand?”
Understanding. That was the one thing Maria lacked, wasn’t it? Yes. Not even Maria the Golden Beast had achieved it yet. She didn’t fully understand what Leona was saying but what she did understand was that Leona had a lot of pride. So much pride that she would not let Conta go unless Maria said—
“Yes, I understand.”
With that, Leona pushed Conta into the sea and kicked the boat away from the side of the ship. Without hesitation, Maria dove into the waters after Conta.
“Conta, I’m bored. Can you read me another story? Not one of the old ones. Something new!”
“Maria… I’ve read all the books we have already.”
“Aw… well, then I’ll go get some for you—“
“Please don’t harass those kids at that school again, Maria… Oh! How about we make a story instead? It’ll be fun!”
“Make a story? But wouldn’t that be just like saying everything that’s happened already? That sounds boring…”
“You say really weird things sometimes, Maria… Here. I’ll start… How about we start with a monster? That’s exciting, isn’t it? A beast…”A conversation between Maria and Conta, many years ago