The dominoes are beginning to fall.
First Lieutenant Waltz was out near the southern Argoan border when he was overridden by Olive. Given Argo’s sudden obtainment of conductors, Werner is sent along with several of his men (Klaus Kleine, Gilbert Wolff, Emilia Bergmann, and Derik Stein) and Nico Fabrizzio to the Twin Cities of Gemini to initiate a new deal. Waiting for them there is Colonel Fritz von Spiel, the main negotiator.
Twin Cities, Gemini
The train ride to the Twin Cities was uneventful. The passage required two stops to switch train cars. One stop was at a medium-sized town in Pisces, and the second was at an outpost on the border Leo shared with Gemini. Due to the sizable distance between northeast Gemini and southern Capricorn, the traversal period not including rest stops took 36 hours, 15 minutes, and 6 seconds.
As soon as the train docked into the station on the Dioscuri Bridge of the Twin Cities, Werner became synchronized with Morello. Rather, she synchronized with him. An 80 percent value of synchronization: her form was present and her environment was in his mind’s eye. Her excitement was on par with Maria’s regular emotional state: energized.
“So what are ya gonna visit first here?” Cadence asked as he unloaded his belongings from the overhead compartments. “I recommend the Gamma Geminorium. It’s buffet style but the good kind. It’s got a great pasta bar and an even better wine bar. I’d recommend the Casa de Bambolle, but you don’t seem like the type to like that kinda stuff if ya know what I mean.”
I am here strictly for business, Morello, Werner informed her. You should be more concerned about the issues on your end.
He had already informed Nico that their meeting would most likely be delayed. He didn’t inform Nico of the reason why as it was irrelevant, and Nico didn’t need to be bothered by that information. Gilbert was overly pleased with the fact. “More vacation time,” he’d said. Since Gilbert was not to be involved with the negotiations, the delay didn’t seem to bother him at all.
“Saints, Lieutenant,” Cadence sighed as she accompanied him off the train, “you’re in sin city. Ya gotta indulge at least a little bit.”
I’m not interested in such things, Werner returned. It took him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness outside of the compartment. The faint orange glow from the skyline provided an agreeable light. If he hadn’t known the exact hour and if this had been the first time he’d seen this city, he would have thought that the light was emanating from a sunrise. He knew, however, that the glow was from the city lights beneath the bridge.
Cadence didn’t respond.
The synchronization had been cut off it seemed. That was fine. If the subject were truly important, Cadence would attempt a resynchronization at all costs.
Werner’s men had already boarded off the train and were crowded around the railings of the bridge that oversaw the glittering city and river below. Werner himself had seen it all before through the memories that had trickled down from Cadence and Jericho these past few months. There was no need to admire it again, although he was quite impressed with the architecture of the buildings and the networking of the sidewalks and streets. Geminian architecture was something to marvel at. A perfect balance of practicality and aesthetic.
And so he drew out his pocket watch, allowed five minutes to tick by, and then addressed his men curly, “The colonel arrived two hours before us. He will have already checked in at the hotel and is waiting for our arrival. Let’s not make him wait longer.”
The only one who voiced protest was Gilbert. The only one who appeared relieved was Nico. The latter had been quiet since they had arrived and had been looking out at the cityscape rather sullenly.
As they wound their way down the long stretching staircase to the bottom of the city, Werner was able to taste for himself the soot from nearby manufacturing plants and salt from the nearby seaport. It was unpleasant. The crowded walkways were also unpleasant. Every so often a passerby would brush past him, eye his uniform, and either glare or stare. The stores, however, were pleasant enough. There were several patisserie shops dotting this strip, each one with a display case more extravagant than the next. Competition was high, Werner conjectured. And since everything was judged based on appearance it was best to be as eye-catching as possible.
There were also unsupervised children running amuck everywhere. They scurried around the sides of buildings, ducked underneath the swinging arms of passersby, and snickered to one another as they bumped into adults.
Pickpockets. Taking advantage of tourists.
The adolescents among them were more reserved, watching the ongoings from afar.
Pickpocket ring leaders. Street rats—orphans.
But this was not any concern of his. He was here for one purpose and one purpose only. Regardless of how minuscule that purpose seemed, he would follow through with his duty.
“Wait for me!” came a desperate plea, nearly drowned out by the bustle of the crowd.
Werner turned his head as a warm haze swept over him.
A child with an unruly mop of black curls was weaving his way through a cluster of pedestrians behind him. The boy managed to squeeze past a plump woman and a skeleton-thin man and broke out onto a clear area on the sidewalk.
“Francis! Fortuna!” the boy cried as he dashed past Werner. “Cadence, wait!”
Werner felt his blood run cold.
The boy in question tripped over his own two shoes and face planted onto the ground. Hesitantly, Werner approached the boy as the latter rose to his feet and began dusting himself off. Werner reached for the boy’s shoulder—
—and a fully-grown Nico Fabrizzio, dressed in his crisp medic combat uniform, turned back to face him.
“Werner?” Nico asked. “What it was?”
Head pounding, Werner removed his hand from the man’s shoulder. “It’s nothing.”
When they arrived at the Abaccio Hotel, they were greeted by a polite bellhop who escorted them to the fifth floor which hosted their rooms. After unpacking their things in their respective rooms, Werner ordered everyone to gather in the lobby of their floor.
When he made it back down to the lobby room, Werner found Gilbert, Bergmann, Kleine, and Stein already clustered near the window opposite the fireplace. Nico hadn’t joined them and instead seated himself at the grand piano that was set just off-center from a fireplace crackling alongside the left-side wall.
Was he late?
Werner checked his pocket watch.
He was on time.
Which meant that he was late.
“Werner, come check this out,” Gilbert called from the window, “they activated the v-lights on the Dioscuri Bridge. You can barely see it from here, but it’s amazing.”
Werner declined the offer and sat down beside Nico. He glanced at the keys, feeling a familiar itch.
“Everyone marvels at the city when they first arrive,” came a voice from behind the piano. “Do take your time to take in the sights. I’ve also furnished your rooms with the best this hotel has to offer, so even if you’re not the type to go out and sightsee, you’ll be able to enjoy the comfortably equivalent to Ariesian royalty.”
Werner peered over the piano.
A pale man with perfectly combed dirty blonde hair stood in front of the hearth. He was dressed in a blemish-less white, long-sleeved blouse fitted over with a pin-striped vest. One hand was in his pocket, and the other was holding an expensive-looking cigar. Despite the formal dress and lack of uniform, Werner recognized him immediately.
“Colonel Fritz von Spiel.” Werner greeted the man with a salute after rising to a stand.
The others clustered by the window straightened themselves and offered salutes. As per usual, Stein’s and Gilbert’s salutes were loose and half-hearted. Gilbert even gave the colonel a once over.
“No need to do that formality here.” Fritz waved them off as he approached Werner and offered him a handshake. “This is vacation time, right?” He nodded at the four gathered by the window. “Those who work the hardest and prove themselves should be rewarded, isn’t that right, Werner?”
Werner accepted the gesture. “Of course, sir.”
Fritz took a puff of his cigar and hummed. Gesturing to them all, he said, “I’m sure you’re all famished. Well, don’t worry. I’ve reserved our dinner at a particularly luxurious location. The Geminorium Gama—have you ever heard of it?”
The restaurant owned by the Foxman Family.
The Geminorium Gamma was as presentable on the inside as it was on the outside. Chandeliers painted the white walls of the room in a golden light, and the round tables were spaced perfectly equidistant to each other.
It was—as Cadence had said—a buffet-style restaurant. The food lines took up the entire left wall while the right wall was occupied by a large stage. On that stage performed an orchestral ensemble of sharply dressed men and women.
It was a pleasant melody.
Werner and the other soldiers were placed swiftly at a table at the room’s center.
The colonel was seated to Werner’s left, Nico to his right, and Gilbert to the latter’s left. Bergmann was seated in between Kleine and Stein and was giving Stein a look of contempt as the latter attempted to throw a light-hearted joke in Kleine’s direction. It appeared as if Stein was earnestly trying to spark camaraderie with Kleine for whatever reason, and Bergmann was doubtful. However, Stein’s friendliness was understandable. Kleine had proved himself in the past several months, after all.
Light conversation about recent military achievements began as a waitress brought them glasses of water.
“Bring us your most expensive wine,” Fritz said with a laugh as he looped an arm around her waist. “We’re here to celebrate!”
The waitress flushed and then nodded before heading off to comply with the request. She returned a minute later with the requested items and departed just as quickly.
They were receiving stares from fellow restaurant-goers who were evidently marveling at their uniforms and who were intrigued by Fritz’s demeanor. A celebration, Fritz had called it. In regards to Argo’s development, this was anything but a celebration, but appearances needed to be kept.
“Why don’t you, Bergmann, and Kleine go get a head start on the food,” Fritz said, addressing Stein who had just concluded his tale of how he’d taken out an entire squadron of Argoans on his own with a normal sniper rifle. “I want to hear a story from Wolff now. That one about the Aquarians on Zeigenberg Ridge.”
Gilbert was visibly disgruntled and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not a very interesting story.”
“Everything is interesting if you know how to make it interesting.” Fritz chuckled. “Of course, that requires the right skill set.”
What a douch—
Werner shook his head, dispelling the thought before it finished. Kleine gazed at him curiously and quickly looked away when Werner made eye contact. Adjusting his glasses, Kleine quickly departed the table and was followed by Stein and Bergmann.
Gilbert watched them go longingly.
This left the table to Werner himself, Colonel von Spiel, Nico, and Gilbert.
“Second Lieutenant Wolff, you would be aware of our true purpose here in the city, correct?” Fritz inquired, reaching for his glass of wine.
Gilbert tore his eyes away from the buffet line and gave a half-shrug, half-nod. “The issue about the modified conductors, right? With Nico and that one organization?” He glanced around the table. “I might know about it, but I’ve got nothing to do with it so I hope you’re not gonna ask me to attend some meeting, sir.”
“Of course not, Wolff. You’re free to enjoy yourself, but I thought you’d appreciate information on what’s been going on.”
Gilbert shrugged again.
“Our meeting with the Romano and Foxman organization has been rescheduled to next week,” Fritz informed them as he swirled the glass and took a sip. “So we’ll be here for a slightly lengthier period of time than planned.” He locked eyes with Nico. “Mr. Fabrizzio, do you happen to know the reason why?”
Nico stiffened. “I honestly have no idea why this happened. I’m as confused as you, Mr. von Spiel.”
“And you’re the liaison?” A scoff.
“I…” Nico faltered and made eye contact with Werner.
“If this was a recent development, sir,” Werner interjected, knowing that it was, “then I believe it’s not out of the ordinary for him to be unaware of the situation. We arrived only an hour and forty-five minutes ago.”
Fritz took a sip of his wine, gauging Werner carefully. “Yes, it was rather recent. My sincere apologies, Mr. Fabrizzio, I don’t mean to be rude.”
Nico waved him off with a sheepish chuckle. “No, it’s all—”
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise?” The question was paired with a musical laugh.
Werner’s head pounded at the sound.
A shadow spilled over their table, and Nico’s eyes lit up instantly.
“Francis!” Nico shot up to a stand, nearly knocking over his glass of wine.
Werner caught it before it spilled and ruined the table cloth and then exchanged a look with Gilbert who was arching a brow. He turned his attention to the man who was now the focus of the attention of the table.
Francis Foxman stood across from them dressed in his usual dark maroon suit. The dark circles under his eyes had lessened somewhat.
“It’s good to see you, Nico,” the man said, rounding the table to Nico’s side and giving him a pat on the side of the arm. “You look well. Unfortunately, Carl and Allen are caught up with their usual hobbies so they won’t be seeing you this week.”
A nauseating sensation of deja vu throttled Werner’s mind, and his stomach began to somersault. Paired with it came a lightheadedness that made the room spin. The words Francis and Nico were exchanging became muffled, indiscernible.
What was this?
Werner hadn’t felt this way since the incident at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. He clenched his fists beneath the table and kept his expression stolid as he tried to get a hold of himself. Eventually, the nausea lessened and he forced himself to focus on the conversation.
Francis was now addressing the colonel: “Mr. von Spiel, I hope you and your fellow men are finding everything to your tastes. On behalf of Mr. Romano and my brothers, I apologize for the delay. We are happy to provide you with anything you need during your extended stay.”
Right. The crime organizations were trying to keep the conditions of the dons quiet. This most likely meant the colonel and Nico were going to be intentionally kept in the dark about the affair. And that was fine.
“Feel free to speak openly, Mr. Foxman. Everyone here has knowledge of our business relations,” Fritz said, waving him off. “And there’s no need to apologize. Things happen.”
“I see.” Francis offered a pleasant and courteous nod to the others gathered at the table. “While I understand that may be the case, we may not know who’s listening in. For professionalism’s sake as well as both of our sakes, I think it’d be best if we discussed these types of things privately.”
“Francis, are you feeling alright?” Nico interjected as he inspected his friend’s face. “You look pale. Have you been getting enough sleep?”
Francis cleared his throat loudly. “I’m fine, Nico. It really is good to see you again, but I think it’d be better if we caught up personally at some later time.”
Nico faltered. “Right…”
Kleine returned to the table with two large plates of lobster and looked between Francis and the colonel in confusion.
“Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy your dinner then,” Francis said, giving Nico one last cuff on the shoulder before he departed. “Please do enjoy.”
Werner gazed at Francis’s back as the man departed, and his head began to pound once more. There were no other sounds besides that pound, pound, pound.
A hand on his back startled him. Nico—smiling cheerfully just before an expression of concern took over his features. As always. His nostalgic expression, however, did nothing but exacerbate the pounding in Werner’s head. He excused himself from the table and made his way to the bathroom that he knew—from Cadence’s memories—was located at the back of a restaurant down a brightly lit hallway.
He entered the farthest stall, removing his gloves as he entered and pocketing them. He sat on the closed seat and leaned forward as he placed a hand over his face. The roughness of his bare palms was unpleasant, but it brought him focus.
The pounding began to subside.
The door to the bathroom squeaked open abruptly, and someone entered. Werner didn’t hear them move towards the stalls which caused him to tense. He rose from his seat before quietly pushing open the stall.
The colonel was hunched over the sink, knuckles white as he gripped the basin’s edges. His hard gaze was fixated on his reflection in the mirror. The intensity in his eyes matched that of someone who was ready to shoot someone down on the battlefield.
His lips were moving.
“It’s okay,” Fritz whispered to himself. “It’ll be okay. Everything will work out.” His gaze drifted to the basin of the sink. His eyes were wide, and he appeared to be staring at something deep down the drain. “No. Think, you fool. If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart.”
Crazy stressed maybe.
Fritz locked eyes with Werner through the reflection in the mirror and whipped around immediately.
There was a beat of silence.
“Are you feeling alright, sir?” Werner asked.
Fritz cleared his throat. “I’m still getting used to the air in this city. I’m from Cologart, you see. It’s very open there. The fumes from the capital don’t reach it, so I’m not accustomed to…” He waved his hand in the air. “…this suffocation.”
“I see, sir.” Werner approached the sink.
Fritz opened his mouth to speak but then closed it and headed out the door without another word. Werner stared after him for a moment before washing his hands. When he slipped his gloves on and stepped back out into the hall, he found the colonel leaning against the wall opposite and puffing a cigar.
“Walk with me, Waltz.”
That’s usually the right signal ta skedaddle.
“Of course, sir.”
Instead of walking out through the entrance, however, Fritz led Werner through the back door of the establishment. The waiters and waitresses threw them furtive looks, but Fritz silenced them with a handful of Geminian Cens.
The night outside was cool and dark. The v-lights of the skyscrapers and stores were dimmed by either the smog or the clouds hanging low in the sky. The faint glow from the lights on the Dioscuri Bridge gave the clouded sky a hazy orange glow.
In silence, they spilled out from the musty alleyway onto the open streets. It was less crowded now given the later hour.
“Waltz, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Fritz said calmly as they walked.
“What is it, sir?”
“You were close to Ersatz, weren’t you?”
Werner answered without hesitation: “He was my superior.”
“Yes, on the Aquarian border and at the Argoan border before that,” Fritz continued. “I heard that he was the one who recommended you to be promoted to first lieutenant.”
“That is true, sir,” Werner affirmed. “I detailed all of this information in my report regarding his misconduct.”
“Yes, a very thorough report. I read it,” the colonel noted, taking another puff of his cigar. “Detailed every single one of Ersatz’s points of misconduct and suspicious activities perfectly. You even recommended bi-annual screenings for enlisted officers which the capital is taking very seriously among other things.”
“Yes, sir. I thought that those were appropriate measures.”
Fritz hummed and twirled his cigar. “You’re thorough and dedicated—I’ll give you that, Waltz. ‘An exemplary soldier’ is what they’re throwing around at the capital. That must give your reputation and ego a power boost, no?”
“It’s my duty, sir.”
The colonel threw his head back and laughed, startling a rather familiar-looking Sagittarian man who passed them by. The man laughed along with the colonel for a beat before continuing on his way with a lighthearted whistle. Werner stared after the Sagittarian before he returned his attention to Fritz.
“It’s like you’re cut out from one of the capital’s propaganda posters.” The colonel clapped his hands loudly, sending ash from his cigar onto the sidewalk. “Fantastic!”
Abruptly, Fritz’s smile dropped from his face and he stopped in his tracks. “Ersatz didn’t happen to mention anything about any associates he may have been engaged with on our end, did he? People working with ELPIS? You know if there’s one rat, there’s always more.”
“Everything I experienced was detailed in my report, sir,” Werner answered.
Fritz hummed at this and puffed his cigar again. “Always more rats…”
Werner studied Fritz from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but think that there was a pattern when it came to his superiors ranking higher than captain in that—
—they all had a couple of screws loose.
Frowning, Werner shook the disrespectful thought off.
“By the way, since I have you here alone,” Fritz continued as they rounded the corner, “I would like to mention a recent development. The Romanos and the Foxmans are not the only organizations operating in this city who are selling valuable…” —There a pause and a strange expression flitted over his face. It disappeared as quickly as it came, however, so Werner was not able to dissect it— “…products. Products that may be of use to the Capricornian Army. No, products that will be of use to us.”
A v-ehicle passed them on the road to the left, its headlights painting the colonel’s face white.
“It’s taken quite some time for me to arrange it, but I’ve managed to set up a meeting with this organization. They are referred to as ‘the Campanas’.”
With the Campanas?
“Is there an issue, Waltz?”
It took a moment for Werner to realize he had spoken the grievance aloud.
“No, sir,” Werner returned curtly. “I wasn’t made aware of business with the Campanas, and I was merely surprised.”
“So you’ve heard of them then.” Fritz hummed in response. “Anyway, they have a specialization different from the Romano Family. A more organic specialization, you could say. I was referred to them by an associate of mine.”
An associate? It couldn’t have been someone from the capital. The Geminian underground was more discrete than that. Perhaps it was the information from the information broker then—the one Cadence mentioned off-handedly sometimes. Astante, was it? But the colonel had mentioned only arriving in the city recently. He wouldn’t have been able to contact the information broker so soon, would he? Curious.
Werner shook his head.
“With the recent developments at the southern border, I think it’d be best practice to engage with the Campanas too. Really, your proposal about the Romano Family has opened many doors for Capricorn.”
“And the capital is aware of this, sir?”
A pause. “Of course.”
When they made their round back to the restaurant, a commotion was unfolding just at the front.
“We don’t want people like you in here disturbing our guests!”
Shouting such a thing in Geminian, a large, bulky waiter who was standing at the threshold of the entrance shoved an adolescent boy to the ground. The boy had been holding what appeared to be a board game and a bag full of game pieces, and so when he hit the ground, the game pieces scattered across the floor.
“Get your shit and get out!”
The boy scrambled to his feet, gathering a handful of game pieces and bringing the game board close to his chest before dashing off teary-eyed.
Much to Werner’s surprise, Fritz walked right up to the cluster of waiters and waitresses crowded at the front and addressed them in a cold voice: “What seems to be the problem? Throwing children around like that. Is that how Geminians operate?”
“Hey, we’re just doin’ our job. A bunch of kids just started making a ruckus outside the restaurant,” one of the waitresses explained in thickly accented Common, rolling her eyes. “Lookin’ for some person in the restaurant. Sounded like they were searching for their parents or somethin’ but they look like street rats, so I’m sure they’re just aimin’ to steal some scraps. Maybe they’re with Matilda’s gang.”
Fritz’s gaze darkened. “Gang?”
“That’s quite an assumption to make, Miss Lane,” a voice replied from behind.
It was Francis. He stepped out from the restaurant and parted the crowd with his presence.
“Uh, Mr. Francis, I—”
“Maybe it’d be best for you to not speak so callously about things you most likely don’t understand,” Francis spoke calmly in Geminian but there was a dangerous glint in his eye. “You’re working for us, Miss Lane, and you represent us. Please take care not to tarnish our reputation.”
The waitress stammered wordlessly before she muttered an apology and headed back inside.
“I’m sorry for the disturbance,” Francis said in Common, inclining his head in their direction. “I hope this doesn’t disrupt your evening too much. You are valued patrons, after all.”
The meaning was clear.
“It would take more than that to ruin my day.” Fritz laughed and puffed his cigar again. The coldness that has gripped him earlier seemed to have folded away somewhere.
“Hey, boss, look at this,” said the bulky waiter who had thrown out the boy as he bent down to pick one of the fallen game pieces. He tossed it to the younger Foxman brother. “Kids are playing all sorts of weird games these days. What do ya reckon this one is?”
Francis caught it and then inspected the piece with a raised brow.
Werner blinked, and suddenly he too was holding one of the game pieces. It was circular and flat, somewhat resembling a checkerboard piece and a casino token. There was a faint imprint of a star on its surface, and at the center of the star was a strange singular character: ‘Θ’.
He didn’t recognize it—
Werner turned his head. Jericho’s image was standing behind him. An override then.
The peacekeeper glanced between Werner and the game piece. “Sorry. Accident.” Responsibility.
It’s fine, Werner returned, as long as it doesn’t happen again. What was the reason?
Jericho flickered out of sight before he elaborated.
The peacekeeper was peculiar. He was difficult to read in a way that was different from Cadence and Atienna.
“Here, let me take that,” Francis said suddenly, hand extended. He was standing in front of Werner now wearing an easy smile. “I’ll throw it out for you.”
Werner’s head buzzed again and the pounding began to return. Without another word, he held the item for the man. After accepting the piece, Francis turned over it in hand and then pocketed it with a faint smile.
It was near the weekend that they held their synchronization meeting. The week had comprised of his men and the colonel inviting him out to bars, casinos, and other Geminian attractions. Werner wasn’t interested in such things, and so he declined a majority of the invitations. Out of courtesy and formality, he accepted the colonel’s invitations to dinner and breakfast only.
Prior to the synchronization meeting, Werner made certain his hotel room door was locked and his windows were bolted before he attempted reaching out to the others. It took three attempts to bring all of them together.
Almost immediately upon their synchronization, Olive’s thoughts and recent memories crashed down like a waterfall. Werner had been vaguely aware of the prince’s whereabouts up to that point and had been synchronized enough to witness the prince’s encounter with the Sagittarian assassins earlier. The prince’s discussion with Yuseong, however, did not reach his knowledge until now. The other four appeared to be in the same circumstances.
“There’s more of us?” Cadence looked around bewildered from where she stood at the corner of his room. After a beat, she shrugged her shoulders. “Well, that kinda validates Kleine there, doesn’t it? Not too hard ta believe. I mean, it’s a small world. Better that there’s more of us though, ya know?”
At the mention of Kleine’s name, Olive paled and guilt bled out through their connection.
Atienna gave the prince a sympathetic look from where she rested at the foot of Werner’s bed before pondering out loud: “So Claire says he is one of us, and he also believes this to be something akin to the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.” She placed a hand on her chin and stared out of his window that opened up to the city nightlife. “But some of the points he mentioned do not match up with what we’ve experienced.”
“The time frame between our transference of memory—for the lack of a better word—is notably different,” Werner agreed.
Atienna thrummed her fingers along her cheek and hummed. “And then there is that ‘sense of self’ topic Claire seems to be fixated on.” She glanced at Werner briefly with a small smile. “What do you think?”
“Different people experience different things,” Jericho stated, although it seemed more of a question than a suggestion.
Maria abruptly reached out for the peacekeeper and pulled him in close to her. Jericho stared at her blankly as she guided him through a strange waltz that spanned the entire room.
“This is amazing!” Maria laughed merrily as they spun round and round. “More True Conductors! My dears, this is exciting! I want to meet them all!”
The wave of positivity was dizzying but Werner managed to hold onto his reason. After all—
“He literally said, ‘you can’t trust anyone,’’ Olive muttered, arching a brow.
Werner nodded. “This information indicates that we should be even more cautious moving forward. We need to keep an eye out for other True Conductors who may be targeting us as well. Not just ELPIS alone.”
Jericho remained expressionless at the mention of ELPIS, despite having been released from the distraction that was Maria’s dance.
“Seeing as how Wtorek and Major Ersatz were both indoctrinated into ELPIS at some point—manipulated or not—we cannot rely on those in authoritative positions unless we are completely certain they are not involved with that group.”
Cadence whistled. “Good ta hit your rebellious streak finally, Lieutenant.”
“Nothing ta do with rebellious streaks. Got it.”
Ignoring Cadence, Werner continued: “The unknowns that still remain are why we are being targeted, how to remove this connection, and how Agent Leona is involved in this. There is a possibility that she and the hostile True Conductors might be involved with ELPIS, but that is merely an assumption as well and not a conclusion.”
“This is makin’ my head hurt,” Cadence complained, pulling off her hat. “Why can’t there just be one group after us? Why can’t life be easy?”
“‘That’s life’ is what people say,” Jericho answered her rhetorical question.
Cadence smiled wanly. “Thanks, detective.”
“And then there is the syzygy that Claire seems to not be unaware of…” Atienna murmured after giving the two a fond smile. “And it is a bit strange that people like us have been around for quite some time and Ophiuchus hasn’t noticed, isn’t it?”
There was a beat of silence.
“For the time being, we should try our best not to be in physical proximity with one other,” Werner finally said. “So far, Chance and Jericho have made contact as have Jericho and Morello. Morello and I are in the same area, but we should try to be as uninvolved with one other as possible.”
“Got it, Lieutenant.” Cadence saluted. “And what about the prince?” She glanced at Olive. “The other one, I mean.”
“Prince Yuseong is a viable source of information,” Werner said in thought, “but you should be cautious too, Chance. He says that there are people that are not trustable, but there’s nothing separating him from that group.”
The prince stiffened from where he stood beside Atienna and nodded as he avoided Werner’s gaze. “I know…”
“Can I just quickly ask,” Cadence said suddenly, whirling around, “why in saint’s name do crazy things happen to us all at once? Like can’t we take turns goin’ through stuff? I mean, it’s fun and all—keeps me on my toes—but ya gotta admit that this is pushin’ the bar a bit here.”
Olive discovering Claire being a True Conductor. The attack on the Romano Family’s don. His own situation. Atienna’s cavern conflict. Maria’s bounty. Yes. Things were piling up, weren’t they.
“There is nothing happening on my end,” Jericho stated.
“Yet. Don’t jinx yourself, detective,” Cadence replied, and then she chortled. “Unless ya’ve got some amazin’ luck then feel free to share.”
There was no such thing as luck. Jericho needed to be careful as well.
“You’ve got too little faith, Lieutenant.” Cadence hummed. “The universe works in mysterious ways, ya know that? Gotta keep a positive outlook.” She thumbed Maria who had been oddly silent during their conversation after her waltz with Jericho. “Like sunshine here.”
Maria offered a beaming smile from where she sat on his desk, and by her demeanor Werner could tell that she’d only picked up about half of the conversation.
“I did pay attention, my dear Werner,” she sang. She placed a hand on her chest. “I will be discrete, my dears, in order to protect my favorite things, yes?” And leaving that odd statement hanging in the air, she blinked out of existence.
Maria’s departure marked the slow filtering out of the others. They did have personal matters to attend to after all, and Werner was not surprised to see them filter out quickly. However, Olive remained before him, loitering by his bedside.
Werner did not speak, merely inspected the boy as the boy stared up at him.
A long stretch of silence passed.
“Werner, I…” Olive took a step forward and stared at the ground. “Look. I’m… sorry for what happened. I didn’t mean to. Really—I. I… well, look.” Olive lifted his head. “I’m sorry for overriding you, but I’m not sorry for retreating. Holding your ground was crazy—I don’t care how talented and strong you are. You said it yourself—nothing can be left to chance and—”
The explanation was nonsensical but acceptable.
“I understand, Chance,” Werner said, raising a hand to stop the prince from unraveling further. “I accept your apology but not the tardiness of it.” He studied the prince for a moment. “Still, I can’t deny that despite your actions being rash, they did end up assisting me in the end. For that portion, I do thank you.”
The boy stared, evidently baffled. “Really? That’s it? You’re not… angry?”
“I’ve already told you how I feel about the situation, Chance. Do I need to repeat myself?” Werner allowed a beat of silence before he added after some thought: “And here is a warning since I’ve noticed this as a re-occurring issue: good intentions and self-righteous beliefs need to be paired with planning and management in order to be effective. If not, it’s a hindrance.”
Chance tensed and then grimaced. “I… okay. Sorry.”
Werner resisted a sigh. “Just be cautious around Prince Yuseong, Chance. And don’t forget to notate the details of this meeting. Just because we didn’t run the minutes today doesn’t mean we won’t in the future.”
Olive mentally rolled his eyes but nodded. He seemed to mull over something and glanced back up at him. “And Colonel Douche?”
“Colonel Fritz con Spiel is my superior,” Werner said, “but I’m planning to look into him. His behavior is… strange.”
I knew it. Werner’s too reliable and strong to have a weak ‘sense of self’. It has to be something else. Claire was wrong.
Olive startled suddenly, cheeks flushing. “Did you…”
“Yes, I did.”
Olive’s cheeks deepened even further, sending a heated wave of embarrassment tumbling down Werner’s chest. The boy blinked out from his sight not even one second after.
And that left Werner by himself.
Sense of self, he thought. The topic they had skirted around during their discussion. Three words. Meaningless by themselves but together held so much power.
Claire had implied that having a weak sense of self led to a True Conductor being more easily influenced by those they were connected with. And Werner couldn’t deny it. He was the one in their party who had been overridden the most. Still, some of Claire’s statements didn’t seem to hold true to them, so perhaps this ‘sense of self’ was also along the same line of things. Whatever it was, Werner knew he had to correct himself.
A knock at the door drew Werner’s attention away from his thoughts. When he undid the lock on the door and cracked it open, he found Gilbert standing there and holding two bottles of wine and four empty champagne glasses.
“Is there something you need?” Werner inquired, pulling the door open a bit further.
“Great! You’re in a friendly mood!” Gilbert hummed as he brushed past and slipped into the room. “Did you have one of your meetings or something?”
“Can we come in?” Kleine asked.
Werner checked his pocket watch and nodded. “I have three hours to spare before I need to finish my report.”
“Come on, Werner,” Gilbert groaned, throwing himself on the bed, “relax a little. Does the capital really have that much paperwork for you to do?”
“I have 72 reports due by the time we return to the front.”
“Saints.” Gilbert rose and stared. “Do they want you to write an essay or something?”
“Evaluations,” Werner replied.
Kleine walked in hesitantly, throwing curious glances around the room. “Wow… your room looks like it’s barely been used.”
Nico offered Werner an almost apologetic smile and slipped in as well.
“Werner’s just fond of cleaning,” Gilbert explained, pouring a glass of wine for himself. “You should’ve seen how he was when he was younger.”
Werner shut the door behind him and fastened the lock. “Is there a reason for why all three of you are here?”
“Kleine wanted to ask you some things about your possession circle thing,” Gilbert replied, downing the wine in two quick gulps. “More details on his lady friend who might be like you—what was her name?”
“More questions, actually,” Kleine mumbled, adjusting his glasses. “And her name was Charite.”
After a moment of thought, Werner decided to divulge his recent discovery to the three men. It was not a notable discovery nor endangering information. In fact, it served as an exceptional opportunity.
And so as Werner informed them of the confirmed existence of other True Conductors, he studied Kleine’s expression carefully. He had chosen Kleine for this mission solely to isolate the man in order to keep a closer eye on him.
Kleine brightened immediately. “This is great! I mean, it’s great that we know that they’re people like you out there—I mean. That means my friend could really be one. I knew it.”
“Oh, so you were telling the truth, Klaus?” Gilbert downed another glass of wine, “Guess I can call off the bounty hunters I sent after you. Heard about them from Brandt. Apparently, they’re really good.”
Kleine paled. “What?” He took a step back, tripped over nothing, and fell flat on his back. He then laid there unmoving.
A sense of suspicion crept into Werner’s mind. The lackadaisical demeanor with which Kleine spoke and Gilbert’s extreme looseness was telling. He frowned. “Are you drunk, Lance Corporal Kleine?”
Kleine flushed deeper and stared up at the ceiling.
Werner turned away from him and studied Gilbert who was on his fifth glass of wine.
“You’re both inebriated,” Werner concluded with a frown.
“Sorry, Werner,” Nico murmured from beside him, “I was actually trying to bring them back to their rooms. We were at the casino earlier. I managed to get Stein back to his room with Bergmann’s help, but…”
Werner sighed. “I see.”
“I… can try to drag—I mean, bring—them back now. Uhm—”
“No. Gilbert is a terrible drunk. It’s best to leave him be for now.”
Gilbert mumbled something incomprehensible in response as he inhaled another glass.
Gilbert and Kleine managed to down the entire bottle of wine by themselves within an hour and passed out only twenty-five minutes later. Given their inebriation upon their arrival, Werner was not surprised by this development. Nico fretted over them, but Werner advised him to leave them be. Self-inflicted punishment would arrive for them in the morning in the form of a piercing headache.
“But really… should we get them back to their rooms, maybe?”
“And allow them to take advantage of your generosity after they’ve done this to themselves?” Werner inquired from his desk. During the two men’s drunken ramblings, he’d managed to complete four additional reports. It was surprising how he was able to get through them faster in the presence of their distraction.
Nico chuckled at his rhetorical question and then remained silent. The silence stretched on for half an hour before Werner decided to address it.
“There’s something on your mind,” Werner observed, putting down his pen and turning to face the man. “Something other than Gilbert and Kleine.”
Nico was leaning against the drawers set off to the side of the room and perked up at the statement. “How did you know?”
It was essential to know these types of things as a commanding officer. And it was obvious.
“You’ve been quiet since the train ride,” Werner said. “And you’re here.”
“It’s kind of stupid… It’s really nothing.”
“If you think it’ll affect you at the meeting next week then it’s not nothing.”
“I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I didn’t think I’d be back here so soon.” Nico half laughed with a wry smile. “Seeing Francis was nice and all but…”
“You aren’t happy that you’ve returned.”
Nico paled somewhat. “Cadence isn’t listening in is she…?”
“My synchronization is low with everyone at the moment, but I can’t say for certain if the memory of this will trickle down to them or not.”
Nico’s brows furrowed, and he seemed to weigh his options before he finally relented: “I know that my main reason for even being in your division is to be a liaison, but I enjoyed being out of the city. Helping you all.”
“Are you planning on leaving those duties when we’re finished here?”
Nico shook his head fiercely, hands raised. “N-No, of course not! I mean, I don’t want to… it’s just that I feel like someone’s is just going to come up to me and rip me off the streets and drag me back.”
There was a beat of silence, and Nico flushed.
“Well, when I say it like that,” he mumbled, “it does sound pretty stupid.”
“It’s good practice to be vigilant.” Werner capped his pen. “And you’re wearing a Capricornian officer’s uniform. No one will approach you.”
“You say stuff like that so confidently sometimes, I can’t help but believe you.” Nico chuckled.
“It’s fact, Nico. Not confidence.” Werner replied.
Nico chuckled again, rubbing his arm. After a pause, he asked, “Is Cadence alright? I’ve been trying to reach her and my dad, but the lines must be bad or something. They’re not picking up. Is there… something going on?”
And then Werner could feel it. A pressure at the back of his neck—a pair of arms wrapping around him. A phantom. A weight.
Nico shouldn’t be told. Nico would worry. And if Nico worried, he would act rashly.
But it would be best to tell him. To clear the ground so the issue would not create complications later. Complications of trust.
This had nothing to do with trust.
And after a cold, long drawn out moment, Werner realized that he could not tell which thought belonged to him and which thought belonged to one of the others.
“She’s fine. She’s just busy,” Werner said, tugging at his collar. “There’s no need to worry about it.”
“I’m home! And with a special delivery!” Shouting such a pleasant thing, the young woman stepped into the room that had no windows and no doors. “It was hard getting to him, you know? It was like that. Yeah.”
Tau sighed, arms crossed, from where he sat by himself at the makeshift board game table. “Do you mind clarifying, Omega? You always talk like everyone can read your mind.”
Letting out an airy giggle, the woman called Omega flipped her long, bleached hair lazily. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could?”
“You’re still going on with that air-headed act?” Tau lifted a brow.
Omega smiled. “Is it not cute?” Not waiting for a response, she stretched out her arms and leaned side to side with a groan. She then pounded her shoulder lightly with a sigh. “That was a bit more exhausting than I thought it’d be.”
“You’re complaining about being tired all of the time when I’m the one who’s doing all the hard labor?” came a grumble from behind.
Out from the darkness behind Omega stepped Iota dragging along a squirming, sobbing man bound with thick chains. Iota’s polka-dotted dress was stained with blood, and her bow was beginning to slip off of her head.
“You managed to get him,” Tau said, rising from his chair and walking over to them. “Did Leona finally leave?”
“Yep,” Omicron popped, threading her fingers through her hair. “Iota had a lot of fun picking off the peacekeepers.” She whispered behind a hand to Tau, “I think she might be a sadist.”
Iota shrugged, fixing the bow in her hair.
“It looks like Leona’s heading back to Ophiuchus,” Omega continued, eyes somewhat glazed over. “Hopefully, Omicron will leave before then.”
“Did you check for hidden weapons before you brought him here?” Tau interjected.
Omicron absentmindedly ran her fingers through her hair again, and Iota gave him a pointed glare.
“W-Why…? Why’re you here?” the chained man at Iota’s feet stammered suddenly, staring at Tau wide-eyed. “Y-You’re the co—”
Tau glanced down at the man. “You’re one of the mayor candidates the Romanos were looking at to replace the recently deceased Mayor Vargas. Depa Amaril. The candidate most likely to be selected.” He sank down into a crouch in front of the man and grimaced. “How much are they paying you? How many underhanded things did you have to do in order to get on that candidate list, huh? Do you feel even a little bit guilty, huh?”
Depa gaped at him.
“What?” Tau scowled. “Can’t talk? What’s the issue? You morally reprehensible pig!”
“Tau, you can reprimand him after we’ve gotten the information we need,” came a voice from the dark corner of the room.
Depa’s gape widened as a figure holding a book stepped out from the corner. He remained wordless as the figure came to a stand in front of him.
“This must be the first time you’ve ever been this terrified isn’t it?” Theta asked, staring down at the chained man. A pleasant smile. “Rest assured. It will only become more of a nightmare for you from now on.”