Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez is in the city of Hapaira, Pisces to pick up a package for the Campana Family. Her package has been stolen, however, and a blood trail leads to a mysterious girl surrounded by a massacre. In the background, Conta is behaving strangely, there is a tale of a mysterious beast of the deep, and a strange Cancerian Chevalier named Renee is also searching for something in the town.
Maria waved a hand in front of the girl’s face. The girl continued staring blankly forward, unflinching.
“Wow,” Maria exclaimed, “you really are blind!”
“Captain!” Morandi sighed. “How many times are you going to do this?”
They had stolen away into one of the buildings deeper into town. Maria had initially wanted them to take a house by the stream but Ley and Werner had advised against it.
“Doesn’t make sense to hang around a body of water for so long when we’ve got a water Elementalist and then some on our tails, does it?” was how Ley had put it. Werner had thought along the same lines, although he was much more serious when discussing the topic. He’d said something along the lines of “You should remain in Hapaira until you resolve the issue with the Elementalist. The Elementalist may utilize vitae extraneously and might catch you at a disadvantage if you return by sea.”
Maria hadn’t been too concerned about the Elementalist herself, but Werner had been so thorough about it that she decided to relent. Maria personally thought that Werner thought too much. So did Atienna and Olive. Why spend all that time worrying when one could spend the time enjoying?
That aside, it had been some time since Maria had been landlocked like this. The last time she’d been in one place for so long was a couple of years ago when she’d spent a week tearing through Cancer. She still hadn’t decided if she was fully enjoying this particular experience as much as that one yet.
Chef Raul, on the other hand, was enamored with their current place of residence. Correction—he was enamored by the kitchen of the house since it was stocked full of dried herbs and all sorts of strange-tasting ingredients. He hadn’t stepped foot outside of the kitchen since their arrival.
At the moment, Maria was seated at a table in a central room alongside the mysterious girl, Ley, Morandi, and Giorgio. Her other crew members were making a ruckus in the dining room, and despite Maria’s desire to join them, her interest was quite enraptured by the girl who sat before her. The girl also seemed to have piqued Conta’s interest. The woman quietly stood at the threshold of the door in between the dining room and the central room. The bounty hunter whom they had captured earlier was awake and bound in the corner just beside her.
Maria reached over the table and flicked an item that hung by a chain at the blind girl’s neck. It was a pair of old-looking glasses lined with jutting bits of metal and thin tubing.
A conductor. Probably for a Specialist.
The girl startled at Maria’s touch and wrapped her fingers protectively around her glasses.
“Come on, kid,” Ley drew from beside the girl. “We’ve got a lot of questions, but I’m sure you have a lot of them yourself. Let’s help each other out here. Could you at least give us a name?”
The girl turned her head away from Ley.
Maria found her endearing.
Propping her elbow up on the table, Ley sighed at the bounty hunter. “How about you?”
The bounty hunter remained silent.
“It’s alright, dear,” Morandi assuaged the girl, throwing a dismissive glance in the bounty hunter’s direction. “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to. But we need to clarify a couple of points we’re a bit foggy about.” He gestured to himself and then faltered and cleared his throat. “We made introductions earlier, but I’m sure with everything going on, memorizing our names is the last thing on your mind. Once again, my name is Morandi. I’m a sailor. From Gemini.”
The girl turned in his direction and inclined her head. “It’s nice to meet you. Gemini is where I need to go.”
“You’re the package the Campanas wanted Maria to deliver,” Ley surmised after rubbing her eyes and tightening her magenta scarf.
“I go wherever Don Campana needs me to go,” the girl replied.
“And what places has Don Campana asked you to go to?” Ley asked.
“I’ve been everywhere,” the girl responded, crossing her arms and lifting her head. Maria marveled at how unaccented her Common was. “I’ve been to Cancer, to Scorpio, even to Taurus. People request me in those places all the time.”
Maria jumped forward, taking hold of the girl’s hands. “So you are an adventurer too! Oh—have you seen the Monadic Scarabée Temple in Cancer? Or the Okor Mountains of Taurus?”
The girl hesitated before shaking her head. “No, I’ve never seen those places.” She frowned. “I’m visually impaired.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “In case you haven’t noticed.” She cleared her throat, straightened herself, and lifted her chin again.
“Well, you may not have seen them,” Maria pressed, “but surely you have been to them! Felt the stones of the Scarabée, felt the rocks on the mountains—”
“No… I haven’t.”
“What?” Maria gasped, releasing the girl’s hands. “Well, that is no good! But it is okay! You are still young! We can still go to those places. Yes, let us head to the Scarabée Temple!”
“Head to the—” The girl shook her head, eyebrows dipping downwards. “What? We need to go to the Twin Cities. The Campanas were sending me there for ‘very important business’. That’s why you’re here, right? To get me there?”
“That is correct, my dear,” Maria hummed. “I thought this was going to be a very boring expedition, but things kept piling up, my dear, and now I have met you!”
The girl opened her mouth, then closed it.
“We would go to Gemini but we’ve got a couple of bounty hunters on our hands right now,” Ley continued, eyeing the bounty hunter. “Since one of them is probably a water Elementalist Conductor, it’s probably not the best thing to go back by boat—”
“Then we can go by v-train!” the girl shouted.
“V-trains are not very fun, yes?” Maria replied, crossing her arms on the table resting her chin on her folded hands. “There is not much freedom, no? Your destination is pre-set. There is only one direction you can go. Boring.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s not fun!” the girl exclaimed. “It’s what’s necessary!”
“There’s no point in getting so worked up,” Ley said, waving a dismissive hand. “If we can nip this bounty group in the head, then we can get you there fast and easy. Which is why I need you to tell me if you’ve ever heard anything about this ‘beast of the deep’.”
“The beast of the deep?” the girl parroted, brows furrowing delicately. Her milky eyes flicked left and then right before she nodded. “Mhm, the people who had me before you—there was someone there who kept talking in third person and calling themselves that. It was a man.” She made a face. “He was weird. I think he was Aquarian… by his accent.”
The bound bounty hunter bristled.
“So we’re looking for a male Aquarian water Elementalist,” Ley surmised before studying the girl closely. “Going back to the Campana topic… the way we found you makes me wonder how exactly you’re related to them. You’re talking like you’re employed by them, but I don’t know any employers who put their employees in shipping containers.”
The girl lifted her head again. “Well, I’m special. That’s why. I’m important. I can’t be seen out in the open.”
“And still you want to go to the Twin Cities by v-train out in the open.”
The girl flushed.
“So do the Campanas have other people like you working for them?” Ley continued.
“What does that matter…?” The girl frowned before snapping, “I-If you won’t take me to the Twin Cities, then I’ll go myself!”
“How will you go if you cannot see?” Maria cocked her head.
The girl stiffened at this, before shooting up to a stand with a glower.
“Do you need help—” Morandi began.
Conta moved forward silently, placing a hand on the girl’s arm. When the girl turned her head in Conta’s direction, Conta lifted the girl’s hand onto her own arm.
“Which one were you again?” the girl asked. “Your name?”
Conta opened her mouth and paused before she answered, “Conta.”
“Can you take me to the dining room, Conta?” the girl asked.
The girl allowed Conta to take her out of the room and into the dining area. Neither spared Maria nor any of the others a second glance as they made their exit. Maria watched them go, her words of praise for Conta’s forwardness remaining in her mouth.
“Captain.” Morandi sighed in exasperation. “Please try to be more tactful. Every time I think you improve, you take a step backwards.”
Ley muttered, shaking her head. “Kids…”
Maria turned to her. “What is wrong, my dear Ley? Do you not like little ones?”
Ley shook her head again. “No, it’s not that…” The corner of her eyes crinkled, causing Maria to wonder if she was smiling. “I used to work with someone who was annoyingly popular with kids… Never even had to think too much. But if this is the way I think it’s going, then…”
Morandi rubbed his mouth and glanced at Ley. “You don’t think that the Campanas ship…”
Maria glanced between them. “If you speak so cryptically like that, I won’t be able to understand you, my dears.”
“Sorry about that, Captain. Anyway, I think I’m going to go for a walk.” Ley rose to her feet, yawning and rolling her neck before exiting the room.
“Captain, I mean this with the most tender of intentions but,” Morandi drew afterwards, running his hand down his face. “You really must stop discovering people in boxes.”
The next morning the mysterious girl was nowhere to be found. As Maria scoured the dining room where her crew were draped drunkenly over one other, she could not find even a hint that the girl had ever been with them. During her search, the bounty hunter drew her attention with a chuckle.
“She slipped out last night,” the bounty hunter informed her. “You’ve lost what you’ve found.”
“Thank you for telling me, my dear,” was all Maria said.
Maria thus set off through town while humming to herself in thought. She wound down the narrow cobblestone streets, dipped in and out of the buildings, and even climbed one of the arches to see if she could spot the girl in the distance. Unfortunately, Maria realized that even if she spotted the girl, she wouldn’t be able to call out to her since she didn’t know the girl’s name. Her wandering took her back to the small river she’d discovered a week prior. It looked the same as before—save for a small boat that was docked by the steps running up its side.
Maria approached the boat curiously and inspected it. A couple of neatly folded, intricately designed blankets were within but that was it.
“Please step away from the boat, madame,” a voice called out from behind. Accented Common.
Maria whipped around to find a somewhat familiar man standing behind her.
It’s Renée, Gloria-Fernandez. The Chevalier from Cancer you encountered when you first arrived in Hapaira.
Snapping her fingers in realization, Maria pointed at the man and identified him out loud. And then Maria spied a small body standing behind the man. A familiar girl in a sequined dress with milky eyes.
“Oh!” Maria exclaimed, taking a step forward with a grin. “It’s you!”
The girl skirted back behind Renée with a frown, while he took a step forward and held out a halting hand.
“Madame, as you say, I am a Chevalier of Cancer.” Renée flourished his hand. “To turn my back on this poor girl who has been abducted from her home would be a dishonor to the title. No, a dishonor to myself!”
“Abducted?” Maria cocked her head. She stared at the girl who cowered behind him. “Did we not un-abduct you?”
“I don’t want to lay a hand on a fair woman,” Renée continued on. “But from what I understand, you are partially behind what’s happened to this poor girl. I’m sure you don’t want any trouble, so I ask that you leave. I’m going to take this girl back to the Twin Cities—”
“No,” Maria popped. She pointed at the girl. “She is mine. I won’t let you take her, Renée, even though I like you, yes?”
Not waiting for the man to answer her, Maria closed the distance between them. She reached for the girl behind Renée but was stopped by a hand around the wrist.
“Please, madame.” Renée sighed. “I do not want to—”
Maria grabbed Renée’s hand and flipped him over her shoulder. The young girl startled at the sound of his body thudding against the ground and took a step backwards when Maria reached out for her.
You’re scaring her.
Maria hesitated and lowered her hand.
A sudden burst of peach-colored light from behind caught her attention. She whipped her sword out from her scabbard just in time to meet the edge of a sharp blade.
“I see that you’re not just some fair maiden,” Renée noted as he pushed against her sword with his own and rose to a stand. Both of his hands were gloved with familiar metal contraptions that were faintly humming with fading peach light.
Maria gasped. “Are you a Conjuror?”
Renée winked before he flicked a gloved hand and brought it to his blade. There was another flash of peach-colored light, and the weight of his blade suddenly fell away. Maria stumbled forward slightly at the sudden loss of resistance but brought her blade up just in time to block the thrust of an ornate dagger aimed at her gut.
Sparks flew as she swung up her blade and threw him off balance. Utilizing the opportunity, she grabbed his wrist and flipped him over her shoulder again. He managed to land somewhat on his feet this time and ripped his wrist out of her grasp as he stumbled back.
“Madame, I would appreciate it if you would stop doing tha—”
Glub, glub, glub.
At the strange sound, Maria turned her attention to the stream. She lowered her weapon and stared in awe. The river was bubbling and flowing backwards, glowing faintly with flecks of violet light. She threw a quick look in Renée’s direction to see if he was somehow involved in the oddity but found that he was staring too—not at the river, but at the area behind her. His eyes were wide, his mouth ajar.
And then she heard it. A rumbling. Almost like the growl of an animal. A beast. A growl so loud that the ground beneath her feet began to tremble.
The sunlight that had been beating down above her head suddenly fell away into darkness, and a coolness hugged her body in its absence.
Maria followed Renée’s gaze towards the sound.
It was an awe-inspiring sight. A wave of water towered above her. So crystalline and clear that she could see the flecks of violet light illuminating the items that swam in its body—small schools of fish, branches from trees, remnants of ships.
The torrent crashed down onto Maria in an instant, ripping her right off her feet and submerging her within its depths. It didn’t, however, manage to knock the wind out of her body, nor did it rip her blade from her hands—not even as it threw her this way and that.
It was like a ride. Exhilarating. Around and round. Thrashing this way and that—
And then, the surge ceased abruptly and everything stilled. The speckles of light dotting the water dimmed slowly leaving her in darkness.
She felt it only a second after.
Just like when Olive had overridden Werner. No, it was more like when Jericho had been injured by Omicron. But more intense. She couldn’t feel the Capricornian soldier any longer, but could feel Cadence’s panic, feel Olive’s confusion and terror.
Maria hadn’t realized it up until but the others had all been so quiet recently in her head. Now, they were absolutely silent.
Shaking herself, Maria swam up towards the faint light trickling through the darkness above her. She broke through the surface of the water with a gasp and shook water droplets from hair. She chuckled lightly as the last bits of adrenaline left her body, but the laugh felt hollow. An odd, uncomfortable feeling weighed down her chest. She’d felt it before—when her old crew had left her for Leona, felt it when Jericho had been injured gravely by Omicron, felt it lightly when Conta had started acting cold towards her.
It wasn’t a good feeling.
She didn’t understand the feeling at that time just as she didn’t understand it now. She knew Werner would not die from his injuries. She would not let him. But there was uneasiness still. An uncomfortable sensation of restlessness.
And there was another question tickling her mind—
“Cadence… why did you do that…?” Maria asked out loud.
The lapping of the waves answered her in the silence. And then she came to a realization. Where the blue skyline met the blue sea was indiscernible. The horizon that divided the two was gone. Hapaira was no longer in sight.
The ocean itself was littered with debris. Planks of wood. Linen and plastic tarps. Occasional crates, glass bottles, and what appeared to be pieces of fruit. They bobbed up and down in the rippling waves, knocking into one another with hollow clicks and clacks. Above all of this noise was another sound. Panting, splashing, gasping.
Maria scanned the open waters as she tuned her ears. There. Her eyes locked onto something—rather, someone—floundering several meters away amongst a cluster of crates.
It was the blind girl. Her hands were high in the air, and her head was bobbing up and down just above the water.
Maria recognized the signs immediately. The girl couldn’t swim.
After sliding her sword back into its scabbard with some difficulty, Maria dove under the water and swam towards the girl. She popped up just behind her and tucked her arms under the girl’s armpits before leaning backwards. The girl struggled in a panic against her hold, but she was rather weak so Maria was able to keep them both above water while restraining her with ease.
“Ay, you are so energetic all the time.” Maria chuckled. “You must learn to relax, yes?”
The girl stiffened, and when her coughing subsided, she turned her head slightly. “Are you… Maria?”
“That would be me!” Maria affirmed. “You are very good at recognizing people’s voices, aren’t you?”
“Wha—” the girl blinked the saltwater from her eyes. “You… saved me? After I… why?”
“Because I could?” Maria shrugged. “Plus, you are interesting and I want to learn more about you.” She thought a little more on it. “And I still have to get you to the Campanas, yes? I always see things through to the end, you see. I don’t really see the point in doing something if I don’t plan on finishing it.”
“But with the Cancerian—I—”
There was no one to remind Maria of what the man’s name was but she recalled it anyways. “Ah, yes, Renée! He is interesting, yes? I know a couple of Conjurors but he’s the fastest one I’ve seen.”
There was a beat of silence and then— “…T-Thank you…. Maria.”
Maria grabbed hold of a plank of wood that drifted past them. She placed the girl’s arms over it before wrapping her own arms around it.
They spent several minutes drifting like that until Maria spotted a small, narrow, overturned canoe several meters away. Leaving the girl hanging on the plank, Maria swam over to it leisurely before flipping it upright with a huff. After pulling herself up into the boat, she rowed over to the girl and extended a hand out to her. The girl didn’t respond, merely shivering tense as she clung tightly to the wooden plank.
“Right here!” Maria popped. She tapped the girl’s shoulder causing her to whip a flailing hand out. The girl was afraid of being abandoned. Maria took the girl’s hand in her own before hoisting her into the canoe.
The girl felt around for a bit before she settled down into the corner and stared in Maria’s direction. “Now what?”
Maria tapped her chin in thought. The pleasant rays of the sun beating above their heads were beginning to warm her cold limbs. Even so, Maria found herself frowning. “I think… I think we will wait.”
“Well, I could paddle us back to Hapaira,” Maria replied, sweeping her gaze across the horizon, “but I don’t feel like doing that right now, yes? I am a bit… down right now, so I think we’ll just wait until my crew comes to us.”
“W-What?! They’ll never find us!” the girl snapped. “T-They’ll never find us…”
“You have too little faith in my crew. They will certainly find us.”
The girl’s lips began to quiver, and she sniffled. “Saints… We’ll die out here.”
Maria stared at the girl as large tear droplets spilled down her face.
“I… I have to go to the Twin Cities.” The girl rubbed her eyes as she started to sob. “I have to be useful. If I’m not useful then… If I’m not useful… they won’t… t-they’ll throw me away.” Her words became lost in her wails as she gripped the odd pair of glasses that hung heavy, cold, and wet around her neck.
“You want to be useful?” Maria inquired, peering into the girl’s face. “And if you are not useful, then you have no purpose? Is that how you think?”
The girl continued to sob loudly, wiping her tears with the back of her arms. Maria didn’t interrupt her. Eventually, the girl’s sobs subsided and she was left gasping. When she finally caught her breath, she nodded her head before burying her head into her knees. “That’s just how life works.”
“You are very small to be thinking like that, no? I think someone once told me that it is called ‘maturity’, but I’m not sure so sure.” Maria chuckled. She studied the girl more carefully this time. “You are like my Ollie. If you keep thinking like that, you will surely make yourself unhappy.” She poked the girl in the chest. “You are the owner of your own life, yes? Your life is yours? Your possession? And because it is yours, you are the one who decides how valuable—or ‘useful’, as you say—it is.”
The girl’s brows furrowed.
“This world will become what you see it as. If you view it as bad, it will become bad. If you view yourself as useless, you will become useless. If you view it as unfair, it will become unfair,” Maria continued, nodding in affirmation. “Hm, yes, this world is exactly what I see it as. This is my story.” She paused, glancing down at her reflection in the water. “So, you see, I don’t really understand people who blame things on circumstance. In the end, you are still the one who has the power to break circumstance… yes?”
“What…?” The girl frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“That is what my Ollie said to me too.” Maria hummed before placing a hand on the girl’s head. “But, my dear, from my point of view, your life is quite valuable as it is. You have made it up to this point, no? That in itself holds value.”
Night soon fell. The warm sun sank down into the depths causing the temperature to drop considerably. Maria had salvaged a piece of dry wood and dry cloth that had been floating on top of a nearby plank and had managed to set it aflame. It had taken quite some time and a lot of patience but the cloth managed to catch crimson flame beneath her hands. Now, the torch crackled brightly at the tip of their canoe. The only spec of light in the pitch black. Well, not exactly.
The blackness of the sky was broken up by twinkling stars that were reflected back up by the ocean waters. If Maria reached out her hand, she could just scoop them up from the darkness.
“That really goes to show you how endless the world is!” Maria exclaimed. “One day, I will even reach the stars!”
The girl frowned again from where she sat in the corner of the canoe. Her legs were tucked beneath her chin. “The stars are out…? I barely remember what they look like.”
So she wasn’t always blind.
“Well, if you cannot see it, then you can feel it, yes?”
“H-How can you feel the stars?” the girl grumbled, shivering.
Maria enveloped the girl’s hands in her own causing the girl to stiffen. Ignoring this, she turned the girl’s hands palm up and guided them upwards. Very faintly, just where the starlight crescented their skin, there was warmth.
The girl wiggled her fingers. “That’s stupid.” But she held them there and kept her face tilted upwards.
Releasing the girl’s hands, Maria laid on her back and stared up at the sky. She folded her hands behind her head and sighed. Her breath created transient clouds in the air. It was a bit cold, she realized.
A shuffling accompanied by the steady rocking of the boat drew Maria’s attention. When Maria lifted her head, she found the girl inching towards her on all fours. The girl must have felt her stare because she froze.
“I-It’s cold,” the girl stammered, flushing. “I… uhm… can I… If I get sick, I can’t be as usef—”
“You want to lay next to me?” Maria beamed. “There is plenty of room!” She motioned for the girl to come closer, paused, and then placed a hand on the girl’s arm. Slowly, she guided her down beside her.
The girl was tense, Maria noticed. Everyone was tense. And Maria didn’t really like it.
She tuned in a bit as she sensed Atienna and Cadence conversing with one another somewhere at the back of her mind but she did not move to join.
Sometimes things are just as interesting if you watch instead of hurtling in right away, don’t you think? It gives you quite a lot of time to contemplate the ‘interesting’ things you see, was what Atienna had said many times before. Maria had tried practicing it every so often out of curiosity, but this time she did it out of another feeling she couldn’t place.
As she listened in silently, she found herself thinking that Atienna was a bit terrifying. In a different way than herself.
Once their conversation ended, Maria hummed. “I wonder where Renée went.” She closed her eyes. “I wonder where Werner went…”
“Werner…? Who’s that?”
“Someone who is mine,” Maria replied. “I’ve lost him temporarily, I think.”
“He… passed away? I’m sor—”
“Of course not!” Maria laughed. “He will never die. I won’t allow it… It’s just that I see him all the time, and I have a feeling I will not be seeing him for a while now.”
“Oh, so you miss him?”
“I… do not think I like it,” she murmured. “When people leave. It is like a story is ending, yes? Their stories.” She twirled a lock of her hair. “Some time ago most of my fellow adventurers left me. Conta, Emanuel, and chef Raul are the ones who stayed. Morandi and Giorgio and all the others are all new, yes. Meeting new people is fun, but I would still like to see old people from time to time.”
“… all stories need to end,” the girl said matter-of-factly. “If they don’t end then what’s the point? You won’t value something if it can’t end. That’s what Mr. Campana tells me.”
“Mr. Campana does not sound like a very fun person—”
“Mr. Campana is smart,” the girl interjected. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
That sounded familiar. Maria didn’t understand what the girl meant nor did she understand what Cadence meant by those words. Maria informed the girl of this; and after asking who ‘Cadence’ was, the girl fell quiet.
Finally, the girl mumbled, “I need to pay him back. For everything he’s done for me… after my parents…” She trailed off.
“So you want to… repay Mr. Campana for helping you by working for him,” Maria drew. She nodded. “Hm, I understand—”
“So that’s why—”
“But I don’t understand.”
“I have been thanked several times before, yes? One time when I saved a woman’s daughter, she bought me an entire cow! I really didn’t understand what she was trying to do… I mean, I saved the daughter because I could.” Maria tapped her chin. “How do I say this? It’s just a feeling I have. If someone does something for you and expects something in return… or if you want to ‘make up for it’ and do something in return just for that reason…. it is… on both parts, insincere, yes?” Maria clasped her hands together. “I think insincerity just shows that you are not strong enough yet. But that is okay! Strength is something nurtured!”
The girl remained silent.
Maria slapped the girl on the arm causing her to yelp. “But if you just want to do something that is considered ‘kind’ just because you feel like doing it—that is strength!”
The girl mumbled something sleepily in response, but Maria didn’t quite catch it because—
—there it was again. The tension tightening her chest. Worry. It was a feeling she was still not unaccustomed to do as it usually wasn’t a feeling of her own. This time, it was a bit different. It was a mutual feeling. And although she knew she could bear the weight of the feeling on her own, she wasn’t sure about the others.
Werner is fine, my dears, she thought, and Cadence is sorry, yes? That is all that matters. Moving forward!
Thinking these reassuring thoughts to them all night despite no response, Maria continued to stare up at the starry sky until morning.
The first thing Maria did when the girl uncurled from her sleep was exclaim, “I caught fish! If you are hungry!”
The girl, still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, blinked at Maria in befuddlement. “Y-You caught a fish…?”
“I caught a fish.”
“With… with what?”
Holding out the now lifeless trout she had just caught, Maria laughed. “With my hands, of course! What else would I catch it with—ah, well, I could have used my sword, yes? But that’s not as fun.” She whipped said sword out from her scabbard and made four cuts into the fish before handing a sizable slab of filet to the girl.
The girl shivered as she held the meat in her palm. “I… can eat this? Are you sure? Is it safe? Raw?”
“Of course it is safe!” Maria laughed again. “I once was lost at sea for ten weeks and lived off of a shark I caught, you know?”
The girl stared, filet half in her mouth. “You’re lying.”
“No, it is the truth!”
And thus, Maria continued on speaking about her previous adventures. Adventures that ranged from pillaging a ship full of designer dresses from Cancer to temporarily adopting a raided ship full of illegally smuggled animals. Each tale seemed to pique the girl’s interest more and more, and soon the girl was on all fours, leaning forward and hanging onto every word with intent. When Maria informed the girl that she had gone from living in an orphanage to being recruited onto a pirate’s ship, the girl’s suspension of disbelief broke.
The girl made a face. “Really? You’re not lying? You were taken by pirates?”
It was night time now. The stars once again blanketed the sky. A renewed crimson torch burned at the edge of the canoe.
“Oh, yes. I am actually in search of that pirate who whisked us away. I am just taking the long way around,” Maria popped. “The scenic route. Conta and I both.”
“You say you’ve known Conta since childhood… but it didn’t seem like she liked you much,” the girl mumbled.
“Oh, we had a fight. I think,” Maria recalled. “I upset her back when we were in the Twin Cities.” She beamed down at the girl. “Which was around when I decided to take up a job for the Campanas, you see? I mean, I am not sure how they found me, but I had wanted to revisit Hapaira for some time now so I decided to take it.” Leaning forward, she peered into the girl’s face. “What exactly are you to do in Gemini? I have been meaning to ask.”
The girl looked away. “They don’t tell me a lot but I think I was supposed to do some work for the Romanos because of some engagement thing? I don’t know…”
“The Romanos? Oh, well if that is the case, I don’t think you will be given to the Romanos anytime soon.”
The girl paled. “W-what? Why? Did Mr. Campana contact you? Did I mess up with one of the other clients?”
Maria cocked her head. “No, they did not contact me. I know because someone who I know knows.” She pressed down the crease that had formed on the girl’s brow. “They are fighting.”
“Right! Conta and I were fighting,” Maria continued. “When we were in Gemini, she wanted to stay a little bit longer to stock up on supplies but I wanted to leave because it was getting a bit boring. She can be very stubborn, yes? I didn’t really think about it when I said it, but I told her, ‘My dear Conta, you are arguing with me now, but you will go with what I say in the end, yes? Because you are always following after me.’ And she was so upset that she ran off for an entire day.”
The girl’s brows furrowed again. “That’s a weird thing to stay angry about…” She peeked in Maria’s direction. “I mean, for an adult.”
Maria pushed down the girl’s furrowed brows again. “And you know of adult things?”
The girl looked away. “Yes, yes, I do.” But she didn’t sound proud like before at the fact and that made Maria feel a heaviness in her chest. Before Maria could digest the feeling, the girl straightened suddenly and whipped around to face her. “Maybe she’s just sick?”
“When you’re not feeling well, you can be kind of… grumpy. Maybe that’s what’s happening with Conta. I can tell.”
“Are you a doctor?” Maria thought of Nico.
“I’m a Specialist. I’m able to see the color and flow of vitae in everything—living and non-living—through my eyes when I use my conductor.” She gestured lightly to the glasses that still hung around her neck. “That’s what I do working for Mr. Campana. I read the flow and color of vitae of Mr. Campana’s clients, and I can tell by how the flow looks how long a client’s natural life’ll be and what type of Conductor they’ll be.”
The flow of vitae…?
“I usually see it as a… river-beam-of-light thing sort of surrounding the person and kind of leading upwards like smoke,” she explained. “It’s hard to really describe. Uhm… But if a person’s sick then I can tell… Sorry if that was confusing. I don’t usually explain it mysel—”
“That’s amazing!” Maria exclaimed.
The girl dipped her head. “Well… I can check Conta’s vitae flow if you’d like. And uhm Mr. Morandi’s too. And since you’re here… maybe yours?”
Maria opened her mouth prepared to blurt out an excited response but paused in thought. She studied the girl carefully before asking, “Is this strength or insincerity, my dear?”
The girl stiffened before nodding firmly. “Strength.”
Maria beamed. “Okay. Let’s do it then. It will be fun, yes?”
Nodding again, the girl gingerly unfolded the glasses that hung at her neck and slipped them on. She looked a bit funny wearing them. Maria laughed loudly. The girl huffed, flushing, before holding out her hand palm up.
“It’s easier for me to focus on a specific vitae flow if I’m in contact with what I want to read.”
Maria placed her hand into the girl’s palm and wiggled her fingers as the girl’s fingers wrapped around hers. The girl lowered her head and closed her eyes. After a couple of drawn-out seconds, she lifted her head and her eyes. Her irises seemed to glow teal.
Maria glowed with amazement. “Wow, your eyes—”
“Saints…!” the girl whispered, trembling as she leaned back to look up at the sky above Maria’s head. “I’ve never seen such a large amount of vitae before. It’s like…” She made an explosion sound and threw her hands up in the air. Awe, not fear.
Maria cocked her head and then grinned. “Maybe I should become a Conductor then, yes? If I have so much of this vitae? Is that what you are saying?”
The girl shook her head and continued to gape.
“There’s… something really weird…” the girl continued after a pause. “Usually people’s vitae just kind of fades up into the sky, but yours—it… it splits off.” She jabbed her finger at the sky while counting under her breath. “It splits off into five directions.” She slowly lowered her gaze and seemed to meet Maria’s eyes. “… what are you?”
“An adventurer, of course—”
Maria spotted something in the distance behind the girl’s head and immediately leaped to her feet sending the boat rocking. The girl yelped in alarm and reached out for Maria in the darkness. With a loud laugh, Maria swept her off her feet and spun in a circle.
“W-What’s going on?! Maria!”
“Can’t you feel it?!” Maria beamed, hoisting the girl with one arm and pointing to the horizon with her free hand.
There in the distance, a very familiar ship was slowly but surely drifting on towards them.
“They are here!” She laughed, the cold sea air stinging her lungs. “My crew may be a bit funny but they are strong, yes?”
“Once again, we put forth the recommendation to officially increase the minimum age requirement for the V-Type Test to Ophiuchus. Now that the war has ended, there is no need for children under the age of sixteen to have their conducting-type tested. In fact, adolescent V-Type testing may put children at risk for being taken advantage of by militant parties seeking particular Conductors.”Proposal on Minimum Age Requirements in Regards to Conducting (1938), Joint Ethics Committee of Signum