First Lieutenant Werner Waltz was on his way to report in his superior Colonel Fritz von Spiel for possible corroboration with the terrorist group ELPIS. He had discovered this information from a report from Stein who stated that he had seen the colonel speaking with Omicron. Before Werner could complete the call, however, he was overridden by Cadence whose intention was to save Alma who was caught up in a Romano-on-Campana attack. Werner was injured in the aftermath leaving his subordinates uncertain of what to do next.
Twin Cities, Gemini
Gilbert Wolff had never been an overachiever. He’d never been an ‘underachiever’ either. Just an achiever. He didn’t really put much thought into it when he was younger but all the people he’d hung out with at the time thought he was ‘cool.’ Whatever that meant. Didn’t matter much when his mother’d smack him upside the head every month or so to tell him to put more effort into the things that he did. The thing was, he did put effort into things. Things he thought were important.
His nature gained him average written and maths scores at the military academy, but ‘in the middle’ was a comfortable place to be. On the other hand, his interest in conductors and physical activities landed him above-average combat scores. His classmates at the academy thought he was ‘cool’ here too, but he once again didn’t put much thought into it.
Gilbert didn’t put much thought into his assignment out into the southern border either—even though during his second year of the academy, he made a pledge with Greta and forcibly Werner to be in the same division together. A childish pledge. Never to come true. Greta’s shyness made her score lowly at interviews despite her high grades and got her sent east—away from combat, thankfully. Werner’s perfect scores and interviewing skills got him sent to the capital. And Gilbert—well—could barely remember his interview after he completed it, so he wasn’t surprised at all by his path to southern hell.
But when Werner showed up at the v-train station in their home-town with a suitcase in one hand and a ticket in the other on Gilbert’s deployment day, Gilbert had thought. A lot.
“I was most likely assigned to the capital due to my father’s prior position as a war hero,” Werner had explained to him on the train ride. “Earning a position through nepotism is unsatisfactory. I’ll earn my standing through my own merit in the southern border. I’ll be able to serve Capricorn better this way.”
Gilbert thought and thought about what Werner really meant. But the answer never came. So Gilbert thought and thought some more.
And that ended with him starting to put some thought into his service in the south. He thought about what the point of it all was; he thought of whether or not the lives of his division-mates were worth the meter of bulleted land they were meant to protect; he even thought about what his superiors were doing while he was dodging bullets.
If all of Gilbert’s thinking wasn’t stressful enough, Werner just had to go crazy and start hearing voices inside of his head. Right after a promotion too. Then came the underground modified conductors, the weird ‘sense of self’ shit, and Werner trying not to lose control of the situation.
Which was why Gilbert hated thinking. Damn, he hated thinking.
All of that thinking landed Gilbert in his current position: sitting in the fifth-floor lobby of the Abaccio hotel without any superiors barking down needed orders and with a group of subordinates asking unneeded questions.
“Sir… what do we do now…? Do we contact the capital…? To cancel the vacation…?”
The fire crackled in the hearth stretching shadows across the grand piano nestled just in front of it. Terrible design choice in Gilbert’s opinion. Made the room look creepy as hell.
“No need to call me sir when we’re on vacation, Emilia.” Gilbert sighed. “Though you can’t really call it much of a vacation now, can you?”
Bergmann dipped her head from where she sat on the sofa across from him. Beside her, Kleine fidgeted with his glasses.
“Damn.” Crossing his arms, Gilbert ruffled his hair and leaned back against the sofa. “The elites at the capital better give us a damned refund on this vacation. First Derik and now Werner?”
‘Glory, victory, honor, duty, and service’? What bull. The elites in the capital spewed out those words like propaganda machines. But Gilbert didn’t see them taking a bullet to the leg at the borders, and he didn’t see them out here in the Twin Cities acting as decoys for some stupid business deal either.
“Sir—Gilbert,” Bergmann tried, “was it really a blown generator conductor that caused it? Both for Stein and the first lieutenant?”
Gilbert arched a brow.
“I mean… I was speaking with a local earlier. He said that… there’s a rivalry between… He said that there’s criminal organizations in this city… He said that they’re warring.”
That was exactly what it was.
“Well, I’m sure the locals know a lot more than us, so maybe that’s the case,” Gilbert answered. “But it doesn’t involve us.” A lie. “So we shouldn’t get involved.”
“And Nico,” Bergman pressed on, “is he…?”
Nico had his hands full with not only Stein now but Werner too. In the hours following the explosion, Nico had swept Werner out of the general hospital and had whisked him away to his underground hospital—wherever the hell that was. Gilbert had been informed of this over a quick phone call with a dead-sounding Nico on the other end of the line.
Gilbert rubbed the back of his neck. So annoying. Bergmann and Kleine were the smartest in the unit, so he could only hold up the facade for so long. “Yeah, our combat medic is—”
“What exactly are you discussing, Second Lieutenant Wolff?”
At the familiar voice, Gilbert turned his neck and found a stiff silhouette standing at the threshold of the lobby. With that platinum blonde hair and those ice-blue eyes, it was hard to mistake the figure there as anyone else but Werner Waltz.
“Lieutenant Waltz?!” Kleine stammered, shooting to his feet with a salute ready.
Gilbert shot up and rushed over to the man, looking him up and down. “What the—Werner?! You’re…” He looked completely fine.
“I’m fine,” Werner confirmed. As usual, he was looking stern and professional. Like he hadn’t just been blasted sidewise by a so-called ‘malfunctioned generator conductor.’ “Fabrizzio is a skilled Transmutationist. He extended himself, however, and is recuperating at the moment.”
Gilbert felt a pressure on his chest lift. “Damn, Werner, I swear you’re superhuman sometimes.”
“What about the colonel?” Werner pressed, scanning the room. “Was he informed of what happened yet?”
“What? No,” Gilbert replied. “I was actually trying to figure what to do with that. The colonel’s somewhere in the west side of the city now, right? You said that he’s inviting us over for some sort of dinner today? Didn’t really give us a number to ring him up about anything.”
Werner’s gaze flicked to the left. And for a startlingly brief moment—so brief Gilbert almost missed it—a pained look crossed his face.
“I see. Since the invitation is still in place, we should prepare to attend—”
“What?” Gilbert did a double-take. “Seriously? You just got out of the damned hospital and you want to go to a dinner party? Just because you don’t want to be late? That’s even a bit much for you.”
“This was a personal invitation by the colonel, Wolff,” Werner responded. “We may be on vacation, but he is still our superior. He nodded at Kleine. “Could you give me the hour, Kleine? I would like to know how much time we have left.”
Kleine fumbled around his uniform in search for what Gilbert assumed was his own personal pocket watch.
Werner watched Kleine struggle for a full minute before holding up his hand. “That’s enough, Klei—”
Gilbert rushed forward, grabbed Werner by the back of the neck, and slammed him into the table in front of them. He pinned the man there and pulled the man’s arms tightly behind his back.
“Lieutenant Wolff, what do you think you’re doing?!” Werner snapped as he struggled against Gilbert’s hold.
And that settled it.
“Who the hell are you?” Gilbert growled, pulling the man’s arm higher. “You think you can come waltzing in here pretending to be our first lieutenant?”
“L-Lieutenant Wolff!” Bergmann stammered. “What are you doing?!”
“It’s me, Gilbert,” the man beneath him pressed. “I haven’t been overridden by anyone. You are overstepping your bounds. I am your superior—”
Gilbert pulled the man’s arm.
“Ow, ow, ow! Saints, saints, saints, saints—I give! I give!” the man beneath him snapped. “Let me go! You’re hurting me!”
Gilbert didn’t release the man, although his desperate shouts made Gilbert loosen his hold just a bit. Not so much out of sympathy as out of shock. But the loosened group was enough for the pinned man to abruptly snap his fingers. The snap was followed by a brilliant flash of copper light. When the light faded, Gilbert found himself staring down at a young woman with mousy brown hair dressed in a Capricornian nurse’s uniform.
“G-Greta?!” Gilbert stammered, releasing his hold and stumbling backwards.
Greta popped up a beat after, shaking the arm that he had pinned. “Sheesh. What’s with ya Capricornians and always layin’ on with the violence first?” Common. Faintly accented. She glanced at Kleine and Bergmann who were standing tense to her left and right before glancing back at him and cracking a lopsided grin. “Well, I see someone’s got a crush though.”
Bergmann immediately lunged for a v-lamp that rested beside the sofa, flipped it around, and wielded it like a spear. Gilbert doubted its effectiveness.
Ignoring the heat burning at the tips of his ears, Gilbert glowered. “Who the hell are you?”
Not-Greta frowned slightly. “Hey, no need ta be so rude. Look, can we all just take it down a few notches?” She sighed. “I’m pullin’ a big risk just by bein’ here, and I’d appreciate it if ya’d just listen ta me for a sec. I mean, it’s three against one. Tigers against a mouse.” Her gaze flicked left again. Pain. “Against an ant, really. No risk for you.”
“You know the lieutenant?” Kleine pressed. “As in…” He trailed off.
Not-Greta pointed a finger-gun in his direction and winked. She then snapped her fingers.
This time Gilbert watched as a copper light slipped up her arm from her fingers and enveloped her entire body. The light then cracked and shattered revealing Werner smiling—creepy. “‘Course, how would I get every single fine detail of our dear lieutenant down to a T, if I didn’t?”
This was a Transmutationist… right?
Not-Werner cast Bergmann who had lowered her makeshift spear an amicable smile. “There we go, ‘milia. I already thought ya were lovely even with that terrifyin’ look on your face but without it—well—I’m heart-struck.”
Bergmann did a double-take. “How do you know my name?”
“Hey,” Gilbert warned.
Not-Werner waved him off. “I’m a good pal of your lieutenant.”
“You really are…” Kleine tried again. “One of the people that—”
“Woah, ya really like jumpin’ on things, don’t ya?” not-Werner interjected. He took a step backwards and dipped into a deep bow. “You can just call me Cadence.”
Gilbert frowned. That Cadence? The one that was involved in the Twin Cities’ underbelly? The one connected to Werner. What the hell was she doing here?
Bergmann stared. Kleine looked like he was connecting the pieces together, and his face brightened.
“Hate to say this, Kleine,” Cadence interjected with a sympathetic expression that looked out of place on Werner’s face, “but you’re still half in the dark as it is—”
“Hey,” Gilbert interjected. He paused, met her eyes. “You really need to shut your mouth if you don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Look, I’m doin’ this on Werner’s behalf.” Cadence locked eyes with him. “I just need an ear. Three pairs of ears.”
“Come on, Gilbert.”
The voice was the same.
Kleine and Bergmann were looking to him to decide.
Gilbert ran a hand down his face. “Hurry up and spit it out.”
* * *
On Cadence’s request, they all moved into Gilbert’s room before Cadence gave her explanation. Gilbert knew all the details already so hearing about it again was a pain. Cadence didn’t mention the whole weird mental connections thing—good. But not once during her entire recall of events did she mention ELPIS playing kidnappers with the city’s overlords. But maybe that was what Werner wanted, and so Gilbert refrained from mentioning it.
“So we’ve been receiving illegal conductors from a crime organization…?” Kleine paled, staring at his hands. He looked up at Cadence who still wore Werner’s guise. “Capricorn is okay with that…? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I get why it’s pretty shockin’,” Cadence said sympathetically. “But I can see where they’re comin’ from. Ya guys are neck-to-neck with the Argoans, right? Sometimes ya gotta make some tough choices. The ends justify the means.”
“What if Ophiuchus finds out—”
“Look, Klaus,” Cadence drew, “the Romanos’ve been circlin’ product for years, and no one’s caught them ‘em yet.” She tapped her chin in thought. “Though I can’t say what’ll happen if Capricorn finds out if you guys know about it now. That’s probably why ya should keep everythin’ here our secret, right?”
Kleine paled and glanced at Gilbert. Shaking his head, he addressed Cadence again: “Wait, so Lieutenant Waltz was—”
“Yeah…” Cadence frowned, gaze flicking left again. “He was caught up in the Romano-Campana fall out that’s been happenin’ since the beginnin’ of the month. It wasn’t on purpose though. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time…”
Gilbert jerked his head at her. “So. Why’re you here?”
“Well, Werner… before the accident… he was investigatin’ your colonel, ya see. He’s a bit suspect—the colonel, I mean.” She glanced at Gilbert. “Did he mention that ta ya?”
“The last thing he said to me was he needed to make a phone call,” Gilbert replied. “Then he ran off and got blasted sideways.”
“Wait—he was investigating Colonel von Spiel?” Kleine pressed. “Why? The colonel is—”
“Ya put too much faith in humanity, Klaus,” Cadence tutted. “Your colonel is one of what ‘em—whaddya call ‘em—richies? He’s the type ta think people come with price tags. But—hey—can ya blame ‘im? People born with gold spoons in their mouth tend ta be that way.”
“You got that right,” Gilbert grumbled.
“Anyway, point is—the details aren’t important—the colonel was fishy and is set ta do some stuff probably not sanctioned by your military in that restaurant, so Werner was itchin’ to report him to the policing’ authorities. Urgently. ‘Specially after what happened with Ersatz.”
It was weird to hear Ersatz’s name being mentioned. No one had really talked about him since the whole border disaster.
“But the thing is, the higher-ups probably woulda probably asked him to gather more details on that bit,” Cadence continued, “since the only evidence of the colonel’s suspicious activities was a secondhand account from Stein.”
Bergmann stiffened. “You don’t think that…” It was the first time she’d spoken during the entire ordeal.
“Don’t know.” Cadence shrugged, some of the easygoingness leaving her with the motion.
“So you want to—what?” Gilbert arched a brow. “Help out?”
“Look, what’s important ta Werner is important ta me,” Cadence said, placing a hand to her chest. Her brows met, and she stared at the ground. Her gaze flicked subtly left again. “I just wanna get the information he was gonna have ta gather. Which involves me goin’ ta that dinner party the colonel invited us into and gettin’ the details of what he’s really doin’ there. After we get the scoop, I’ll leave it to ya ta turn in the information.” She spread her arms wide. “So what do ya say?”
Kleine and Bergmann looked to Gilbert expectantly.
Damn. If Gilbert could travel back in time and turn down that military promotion, he would.
Gilbert considered Cadence’s reasoning for a moment before sighing and muttering, “Fine. But if he’s pissed, you handle him.”
Cadence’s gaze shifted to the left again. “Yeah… I will…”
Gilbert followed her gaze there and found nothing.
“Anyways, thanks!” Cadence rose from the bed. “Don’t worry. All ya gotta do is just come with me to that place the colonel invited us to and act normal.” She approached the door. “I’ll handle the rest.”
“And when exactly are we going to meet up?” Gilbert arched a brow.
Cadence paused at the door. “Mm… I think it was in three hours or so? Ever heard of bein’ fashionably late?”
This person was more careless than he was, Gilbert realized. Or maybe she was just pretending to be that way.
“Really, ya don’t need to worry about a thing.” Cadence offered a wink before pulling the door open. Then she paused, stared at the suit-wearing, somewhat balding man who stood in the doorframe. “Russo?”
As if acknowledging the name, the man cracked her in the jaw and sent her flying backwards into Kleine. Bergmann was on the offender in an instant, pinning him to the ground.
“Hey, hey, let’s all be calm-like here!” Cadence said, cradling her cheek as she rose to a stand. She placed a hand on Bergmann’s shoulder. “I know him. It’s okay.”
Gilbert nodded at Bergmann. She released the man and allowed him to get back on his feet. The man sneered in return, brushing off his shoulders with a look of disgust.
“He’s a lackey of someone I work for,” Cadence explained, sliding a hand into her pocket. She nodded at Russo, speaking in Geminian that Gilbert barely understood: “Ya followed me on Cavallo’s orders?”
“Yeah,” Russo affirmed in Geminian with a sneer before glowering at the rest of them. He spat in Common: “Here I was hopin’ to catch you bein’ a rat, but instead I find a group of Capricornian rats instead. I overheard everything. Ready to follow their leader into a dirty deal with the Campanas. You really are sheep like they say.”
Gilbert barked out a laugh and rolled up a sleeve. “Say that again so I can time my punch right this time.”
“Hey, now,” Cadence interjected, switching to Common and stepping between them, all smiles. “Let’s take a breather, aight? If we don’t take a good look at our situation, we might miss the opportunity.”
“And what’s the situation?” Russo snapped, looking Cadence up and down. “Why in saint’s name are you playin’ soldier?”
“About that…” Cadence threw an arm around Gilbert’s shoulder. She thumbed him and nodded at Kleine. “These guys here are the perfect opportunity for gettin’ me in with the Campanas. Since they’re high-tier guests, security’ll be a bit laxer. I can slip in with my conductors unlike last time—”
Gilbert shrugged her arms away and pushed her aside. “The hell is this all really about?”
A look of hurt briefly, startlingly crossed Cadence’s face. He wondered if he’d imagined it though because it disappeared in a flash.
“The whole situation is a bit complicated so I didn’t really go into detail,” Cadence drew slowly, “but like I said, there’s a bit of organizational family rivalry involved in all of this. Which makes the colonel even more suspect since he kept pushin’ for a Campana deal despite everything that happened.” She looked like she was going to elaborate but caught herself and ended with a half-hearted smile.
“That ain’t a bad idea, Morello.” Russo grinned with a nod. He looked her over and shrugged. “Sorry ‘bout the roughhousing. You know how it is.”
“Oh, do I,” Cadence reassured him. “So I—”
“I’m comin’ with you,” Russo interjected. “Just transmute one of your disguises over me. Can collect better info that way.”
A nervous pause. “That sounds like a good idea and all, but how is that gonna work? I mean, I can transmute a disguise on ya but I’m an intraneous user. It’s gonna break eventually if I don’t have contact with ya, and as much as I like ta hold hands…”
“Proto-conductors,” the man said after a beat of thought. “The new ones where Conductors can store their vitae inside of ‘em. Just pack your vitae in there, and I’ll slip on one of ‘em.”
“And ya’ve got one for a Transmutationist that can conduct vitae intraneously?”
“‘Course,” the man affirmed. “I’ll just go as Nico. He’s with the lot, isn’t he?”
“Go as Nico?” Cadence arched a brow. “I mean, again, that’s a brilliant idea and all, but Nico’s still a Romano associate.” She placed a hand on his arm. “Come on, Russo, I don’t wanna see ya riddled with bullet holes—”
“Then put one of those invisible transmutations over me,” Russo demanded, grabbing her by the scruff. “Like how you covered the boss and the Foxmans when you did Verga in.” Before she could get a word in, he released her then and jabbed her in the chest. “You wait here, Morello. I’ll bring ‘em.”
“… Ya know I’m patient,” Cadence replied sing-song.
“You lot better wait too,” Russo grunted, nodding at Gilbert and Kleine and then sneering at Bergmann.
Saints. Gilbert wanted to punch him. But before Gilbert could take a swing, Russo was out of the room.
* * *
Russo returned a couple of hours later carrying a briefcase.
“You gotta remove all your conductors before you can use it,” Russo said to Cadence as he placed the case on the bed.
Cadence eyed Gilbert, Kleine, and Bergmann with hesitation before she snapped her fingers. She shed Werner’s appearance with a shimmer or orange light and shrugged her shoulders.
Gilbert was a bit startled by Cadence’s true appearance. He sure wasn’t picturing a short, boyish, freckled red-head. But there she was, fingers littered with rings. It was hard to tell which ones were conductors. Maybe that was the point. She slid all her accessories off, pocketed them, and wiggled her fingers outwards. Russo undid his suitcase, revealing a cluster of conductor rings, bracelets, and gloves. They didn’t look that much different from regular conductors of those designs—save for the large insulation tubes that took up more than half of their bodies.
Kleine leaned forward with interest.
“So, do I just transmute the disguise I want on?” Cadence asked, plucking one from the case. “Or do I just blast it with my vitae, and you handle the outfit bit?”
“Transmute the disguise you want on,” Russo grumbled.
“Yes, sir,” Cadence said, sliding the ring on and snapping her fingers. She disappeared in a flash of copper and reappeared a second later as she slid the ring off. Its encircling insulating tube was now filled with her copper-colored vitae. She dropped it into Russo’s waiting hand.
Russo slipped on the ring, gave his stubby fingers a wiggle, and disappeared in a flash of copper. Then came the satisfied bark of laughter.
Kleine visibly shivered.
“Well, let’s hurry up and get this over with,” came Russo’s voice from the empty space. His still open suitcase floated up in the air. “Damn. I gotta put this somewhere first…”
Russo didn’t notice it. But Gilbert did. There were only two ring conductors left in the case as the invisible man snapped it shut.
* * *
Gilbert along with Bergmann, Kleine, one Cadence who was disguised as Werner, and one Russo who was disguised as a damned ghost took to the streets. They winded down cement sidewalks that bled into cobblestone walkways before passing over a series of bridges beneath which interconnected streams littered with gondolas flowed.
Cadence abruptly stopped short at a crosswalk that divided the Gamma District from the Louvre District. She then glanced across the street towards some commotion that was breaking up the flow of pedestrian traffic there. A cluster of suited men of Geminian descent were surrounding a Sagittarian foreigner who looked like he’d just been tousled by a storm.
“The hell is Donato’s son doin’ over here?” came a voice from the empty space beside Gilbert.
Cadence held up a loose hand and paced across the street. Gilbert followed on after her, signaling for Bergmann and Kleine to stay put. As they neared the boisterous tousling group, the person whom Gilbert assumed was the ringleader turned on his heels to face them. The Sagittarian, who was being held up by the scruff by two of the ringleader’s lackeys, gave them a grateful look.
“The hell you looking at…” The ringleader trailed off as he registered what Gilbert assumed was his and ‘Werner’s’ height and prowess.
Maybe, Gilbert thought, the guy had even recognized their uniforms. It was one of the pluses of wearing them.
“What appears to be the issue here?” Cadence asked, matching Werner’s icy tone to startling perfection.
“The only issue here would be you stickin’ your nose in where it don’t belong,” the ringleader snapped.
“You’re disturbing the public,” Cadence informed him coolly, gesturing to the pedestrians flocked around them. “And you are causing an obstruction due to the disturbance…” She trailed off, gaze drifting to one of the lackeys who stood behind him.
Lackey in question had a face that looked like it was healing from getting run over by a v-ehicle. Purple bruises, slit lip that looked like it was healing incorrectly, patches of hair missing. If this city was as dangerous as Cadence was painting it to be, then Gilbert assumed that the man had probably been tousled in a similar way to how the Sagittarian was currently being tousled.
“Feliciano,” the bruised lackey stammered, “why does he keep lookin’ at me like that?”
“Shut up, Luigi,” Feliciano snapped.
Luigi pushed past the other lackeys and placed a hand on Feliciano’s shoulder. “Hey, Feli, I already took a beatin’ earlier, and I don’t want to end up a stiff like—”
“That is enough,” Cadence said, stepping forward and causing the group to skirt backwards. “You’ve caused enough of a disturbance this evening. I kindly ask that you leave this street and this poor man alone.”
Gilbert stepped forward too just for the dramatics.
Feliciano skirted back some more but still kept one leg planted forward. “We were just leavin’.” He waved his hand loosely in the air, and his lackeys dropped the Sagittarian. Feliciano turned to the freed man and jabbed a finger at his chest. “Keep your mouth shut.”
And with that, the flock of bastards left, leaving the Sagittarian only mildly flustered. The pedestrians who had gathered turned on their heels and began to filter away from them. People really only did like to watch when things got violent, Gilbert thought.
The Sagittarian man brushed off his shoulders, straightened off his suit, and then abruptly dipped into a deep bow. “I am grateful for your kindnesses, dear stranger. And I humbly offer you my life.”
Damn. This man was off his rockers.
Cadence lightly pressed her gloved hands against her throat, and a warm light pooled beneath her palm. “Well, ya already owe me a favor, but if ya wanna lay on one more then that’s alright with me, Hide.”
The Sagittarian man snapped up immediately, eyes wide. “That voice…”
Cadence sounded like how she’d sounded when she took on her normal appearance.
“I probably look a bit different now but I’m still the same person inside,” she said with a wink. She removed her hand from her throat, and the glow on her skin there faded.
“Why—it’s Cadence Morel—”
Cadence lifted her hands in the air. “‘Ey, ‘ey, let’s not get too excited here. I’m kinda doin’ some top-secret undercover stuff at the moment. Ya mind keepin’ it on the down-low?” Her voice sounded like Werner’s again.
Hide slapped a hand over his mouth and nodded. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“Great. By the way, mind if I cash in that favor now?” Cadence asked, placing a hand on Hide’s shoulder.
“Alrighty. That’s the spirit. Would ya mind headin’ over ta that new casino located between Gambino Street and Loretta Street back in the west side? Rosario Round. Ask a waiter that you’d like to speak to the boss, and tell ‘em Morello sent ya.”
“And tell ‘em everything that the guy Feliciano told ya not ta speak about. And tell ‘im you saw Feliciano with that Luigi guy too, would ya?”
Cadence offered him a look of sympathy. “I know that may be a bit risqué since Feli just—”
“You’ve got it, Miss Morello!” Hide sang, dipping into a deep bow. “I will fulfill my duties to you with honor.” And with that, he too disappeared down the street.
“What was that about?” Gilbert muttered.
Cadence glanced back at Gilbert. Gave him a look of familiarity. Which would’ve been normal if she were actually Werner.
“Complicated stuff…” she said. “Givin’ myself a headache thinkin’ about it.”
“Well, welcome to the club.”
Cadence chortled. “…By the way, how did ya know I wasn’t him?” She turned on her heels, gesturing to her guise. “I mean, doin’ this is my job. I’ve been a bit rusty lately, but…”
“Don’t worry. Russo ain’t here.” She nodded across the street where Bergmann and Kleine stood waiting. “I didn’t really make his transmutation perfect, so there’s a bit of distortion where he’s standing. Ya probably can’t see it but it’s my work so I can.”
What a cheeky person.
“You asked for the time,” Gilbert explained after a beat. “Werner keeps his pocket watch with him all the time. Never asks for the time. Dead giveaway.”
“Must be some important pocket watch, huh…”
“His sister made it for him,” Gilbert responded after a beat. “You didn’t know that? Thought you guys crisscrossed memories or whatever.”
Smiling, Cadence rubbed her wrists. “Surprisingly, we don’t get much from Werner’s end of things. Ya’d think we’d be the same person by now, but guess that’s not how it works—”
“I know it’s late to ask this,” Gilbert interjected, arms crossed, “but did Werner actually want you to do this? Telling Kleine and Bergmann about this. The thing is, if he didn’t, then this is pretty messed up.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Okay.” Cadence sighed. “Well, ya know the lieutenant never goes outta his way goin’ around askin’ people for help. He kinda goes all quiet-like. Waits until the very end to see if he really needs ta ask for help.”
“You mean he has restraint?” Gilbert arched a brow. “He’s cautious?”
Cadence’s gaze flicked left again. There was nothing there though. Just a phone booth.
“… Look,” she said. “I know a liar and person who’s untrustworthy when I see one. You guys don’t fit that bill. Don’t know if it’s that Capricornian sense of honor or whatever but that’s the vibe I’m gettin’. And ya know what…” Pain again, briefly. “Werner’s a reliable guy, but he doesn’t have that many people he can rely on himself. Doesn’t seek people like that out. So I’m sorta doin’ half of the seekin’ out for him.” She gestured to herself, smiling thinly. “I’m not the type who worries about appearances. They’re deceivin’. So I’m fine with grovelin’ like this if I have to.”
Gilbert scoffed. “You’re kidding. You’re telling me you’re a saint? That you’re not doing any of this for yourself?”
Cadence’s eyes widened slightly, and her gaze flicked left again. Nothing there. Just the telephone booth.
* * *
The colonel welcomed them into the five-star restaurant like the bastard he was. It wasn’t a restaurant any fancier than any of the others they’d seen in the city. Same art decorations, same circular tables dotting a fancifully carpeted floor, same pillars popping up in between the tables. There was even a stage at the back where a woman wearing a satin red dress was performing at a piano.
After sitting them down at a table covered in a red cloth embroidered with gold, the colonel excused himself. Cadence remained seated for quite some time, throwing glances at the pianist in between paces of conversation. When the pianist finished and took a deep bow, Cadence was amongst the loudest clappers in the audience. The pianist took notice and locked eyes with Cadence from across the restaurant.
Cadence excused herself to the restroom as soon as the pianist left the stage. Off to ‘do the job,’ Gilbert assumed. And after a lot of thinking, Gilbert ordered Bergmann and Kleine to stay put and he followed Cadence’s trail. It took a bit to find the restroom given how big the restaurant was. He was so irritable by the time that he found it that he nearly threw himself through its bright-red doors. But a conversation from within gave Gilbert pause just outside those doors.
“Would ya give me a break, kid…?” Cadence’s speech patterns with Werner’s voice. “I’m trying ta make up for i—”
A beat of silence.
“Okay, okay, ya make a fair point but what else can I do about it?”
“Kid, that’s not healthy. Ya can’t go around beatin’ yourself up like that for somethin’ ya did in the past. Yeah, ya did it, but it doesn’t define ya. I mean, I barely recognize ya from the brat three months ago. And back then, with you… it was just the situation—”
“Yes, I do understand that ya gotta take responsibility. And, no, I’m not tryna twist this around ta make an excuse for myself, but I can see why ya see it that way.”
“Look, I feel terrible about what happened. Sincerely. That disappointment ya feel is not yours alone, kid. It’s mine too. And flower girl’s, captain’s, and detective’s. It’s a five-way slaughterhouse.”
An even longer silence.
“ ‘Alma doesn’t care about me but Werner does?’ …Kid, what do you know?”
And then a wry chuckle. A cruel chuckle.
“Oh, I get it. Ya really are a sweetheart ain’t ya, kid? You’re thinkin’ that all of us are some type of family, right? Atienna’s like your mom, Werner’s like your pop, I’m your screw-up older sister, and Maria and Jericho are your weird aunt and uncle? Yep, that really is how ya see it, isn’t it?”
A painful silence.
“Well, I’m just going to lay it down for ya so ya don’t get hurt in the future. This niceness that we all got goin’ on is just playin’ pretend. We gotta act like this ta make it work. It’s fine pretendin’ like it’s family if ya want. Maybe you can even make us be that way. I mean, ain’t that what you’re doin’ to Wern—”
Frowning, Gilbert stormed through the doors and found Cadence still in Werner’s guise standing in front of the bathroom mirror holding her cheek. It looked like she’d been slapped. When she lowered her hand, however, her cheek was pale. She locked eyes with him through the mirror and whipped around—
“Talking to yourself is not a good look,” Gilbert replied.
Cadence chuckled hollowly, rubbing her cheek. Her eyes were dry, making Gilbert wonder if he’d been mistaken when he saw them as wet earlier. “What are ya doin’ here?”
Gilbert ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “Let me come with you,” he said. “To the meeting. In a disguise, obviously.”
Cadence did a double-take.
“Look,” Gilbert said, staring directly into Cadence’s eyes, “Werner asked me to keep him in line when this whole damn thing started. I promised to do that… And you know what? I messed up.”
Cadence stared at him, wide-eyed, pale, nauseous; and by the look on her face, he could tell she was about to drop a bombshell.
“You messed up…?” Cadence chuckled. “I’m the one who messed up.”
And then she laid it on him. Just like that. How she’d overridden Werner to save that ‘Alma’. About how Werner had gotten knocked sideways because of that override. About how Werner was investigating the colonel—for his connections to ELPIS. About how Werner was going to report his suspicions to the capital and to Ophiuchus and call it a day. About how she was being pushed to investigate the Campanas by both ELPIS and her crime organization.
It was fucking ridiculous.
“So you should just skedaddle, Gilbert,” Cadence said at the end of it all. “This really doesn’t involve ya at all.”
Letting out a sigh, Gilbert pinched the bridge of his nose. And then he reached out a hand and slapped Cadence upside the head. She yelped and was met with another slap upside the head.
“I’d punch you across the damned room if I didn’t think Werner’d feel it too. The hell—you think telling me all of this is gonna make me say ‘Oh no, you’re so right. I should just sit my ass down and let you do your thing’?”
Cadence stared at him wordlessly.
“I know the type of person you are. I see people like you all the time in the capital,” Gilbert growled. “You never get your hands dirty. You force other people to, and when those people end up getting hurt or dying, you show up saying, ‘It couldn’t be helped. It was the situation.’ Just like them. They end up convincingthemselves that that’s how it is!”
“Like hell it can’t be helped! That’s just damned lazy thinking. Easy for you to say that when you’re not getting your ass personally handed to you. It’s apathy through and through. That’s why you’ll never change.” He glowered at her. “Do you actually give a damn? Do you actually care? Because, obviously, people care about you. A bad investment if this is how you really are.” He took a breath, locked eyes with her. “Answer me. Do you actually care about any of the people you’re connected with, or are you just swindling them like how the capital swindles us, like how you’re swindling Nico?”
“Swindling Nico? I’m not—of course, I care—”
“Then prove it, you bastard!” He pressed a fist against her chest. “Every damn word you speak, every damn action you take—it has consequences. So you own up to your damn mistakes, and you don’t feel sorry for yourself. Get your head out of your apathy, and get some damn control of your life. Take some damn responsibility. Grovel if you have too.” A pause. “Is that understood?”
Cadence stiffened. “Y-Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Gilbert took a second to recollect himself and straightened his uniform in the mirror. “Anyways, with the way our capital works, they probably would’ve sent Werner on a damned goose chase so you made a good call about investigating Colonel Bastard—”
The bathroom door abruptly swung open and closed but no one entered. Russo.
“Was scopin’ out the place,” came the expected voice from the empty space in the corner of the bathroom. “Hurry up and transmute yourself so we can head in.”
Cadence threw something at Gilbert, and he caught it deftly. A ring conductor. She exchanged a couple of words in Geminian with Russo, and the latter grunted.
“Just hurry it up then,” Russo grumbled.
Cadence nodded at Gilbert, and so he slipped the ring on. Giving it a flick, he watched as his reflection disappeared from the mirror in a shimmer of copper.