Mood OST for this chapter: (ಥ﹏ಥ)
Disguising herself as Werner, Cadence works with Gilbert and Werner’s men to investigate Colonel Fritz von Spiel and his dealings with the Campanas. After a confrontation with Gilbert, the two work to together to discover that the Campanas are selling Specialist children and the colonel is more than willing to buy.
Afterwards, Cadence stumbles across Francis and follows him back to Theta’s room. Here, Cadence discovers the truth behind ELPIS, the resistors, and Theta’s plan. Reeling from this discovery, Cadence escapes and…
Twin Cities, Gemini
Cadence stumbled out of the portal, heart and head pounding. She didn’t have a clue where she was—it was too dark to make anything out. If it wasn’t for the fact that she could hear herself panting, she might’ve thought she were dead.
Scrambling blindly forward, she ran smack into a wall, tripped backwards, fell flat on her back, and blinked upwards. There was a crack of skyline there, and the smog clouding the sky reflected back the blue-orange lights from the city.
Judging by the thickness of the smog and the color of the lights, she figured she was in an alley in the west side of the city. The Louvre District again.
“What in saint’s name do I do…”
Save Alma. Right. They could leave this city together. Cadence’d gotten the means to do it. She’d get Alma to safety.
And then what?
What would happen to the city?
Well, that was Ophiuchus’s responsibility. They’d handle it fine. Since they were in the city already, they’d find the trail. And Jericho would probably say something about ‘intuition,’ swing that suitcase of his, and everything’d be okay. Werner hadn’t even needed to contact Ophiuchus to begin with. Right? Yeah.
No. That was a lie.
Would Ophiuchus even be able to find Theta’s room?
Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out Theta’s proto-conductor that she’d taken off Comissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau.
She could just turn this into Ophiuchus, she thought. Make up a story. Say she’d encountered Jericho’s scuffle against Iota and found it on the streets afterwards. Everything’d be peachy then.
No. That was also a lie.
Cadence doubted Ophiuchus knew how to use the thing. And if she gave it to them, they’d just be hopping from place to place willy-nilly hoping they’d get the jump on ELPIS. Pure luck and chance.
Jericho wanted it. He was the reason why she was gripping it so tightly in her hand. Any tighter and she’d shatter the thing. Jericho wanted it so that he could get to them. And if he got to them…
What would Jericho do to Theta—no, Francis?
Cadence paled as a chill ran up her spine.
ELPIS’s origins were irrelevant to Jericho. His hatred remained unchanged regardless of their circumstances. Cadence knew this—could feel this. And if that was the case then…
What would happen to Francis?
Cadence rolled over on all fours and stared at the ground, digging her nails into the damp, dirty concrete.
If Ophiuchus couldn’t fix this in time, what would happen to Allen, Carl, Fortuna? Alice? The executives? Werner’s men? Nico…?
Something hot and putrid crawled up her throat, causing her stomach to flip flop. She hadn’t felt this sick since she’d gone out drinking with the Foxman brothers and Nico before Nico had left for the Aquarian-Capricornian border.
As the memory of that drunken, chatter-filled night surfaced, Cadenced heaved, gagged, and puked.
“Take damn responsibility,” Gilbert had said.
In that moment, as Gilbert had berated her, Cadence had felt intense shame. In his eyes, she’d only been a cowardly, selfish, two-faced liar. And Cadence knew that was what she was. That was how she grew up. There was no helping it. But still, when she met Gilbert’s disapproving eyes, she’d wanted to curl up, hide away, drink, change.
It was ridiculous. She barely even knew Gilbert. Which meant that Werner cared a lot about what Gilbert thought. Appearances and whatnot.
It was different with Gilbert. By just a slight shade. Werner had cared because of… ‘Friendship’? That didn’t seem like him at all.
Cadence herself had never thought too deeply about the word. She’d purposefully stopped herself from thinking about people that way. There was no such thing in this city.
That was a lie.
All she was doing was trying to find the easiest way out. Like usual. A victim of circumstance.
“I know that,” Cadence whispered, wiping her mouth. “But what in saint’s name am I supposed ta do?”
Who could she go to? No one. She’d burned all her bridges. No. They had never been there to begin with. She’d built up false bridges that held no substance. Try and walk across and she’d fall right through the illusion.
No time to think about that.
She had to report into Cavallo. About the Campanas?
Cadence scrambled to her feet, pocketed Theta’s proto-conductor, and stumbled forward blindly. Eventually, she squeezed herself out of the alleyway and stumbled out onto a near empty street lit dimly by v-street-lamps.
“… Is that you, Cucciolo?”
Cadence straightened and turned.
A familiar woman with jet black hair that curled to her ears stood beneath a flickering light. Her red satin dress glowed in the dark as did her cherry red lips. Her eyes were soft, sad.
“Alma…” Cadence took a moment to take her in before she stumbled towards her. Cadence embraced her, and after a beat, Alma returned the gesture.
“You were… disguised as that Capricornian soldier, weren’t you?” Alma whispered into her hair. “You saved me that night, didn’t you? And you came to Enzo’s dinner tonight too… right? That was you.”
Alma had known. Of course, Alma had known.
“Are you alright?” Alma pressed, examining Cadence’s face. “You seemed really hurt in that explosion, and then you showed up at Enzo’s dinner like it was nothing… You poor thing…”
Werner’s bloodied body flashed into Cadence’s mind, and Cadence felt bile climb up her throat again.
“Alma,” Cadence breathed, grabbing hold of the woman’s hand. “Come with me.”
Alma stared at her, hand loose. “Come… with you?”
“Out of this city,” Cadence stammered, digging into her pockets, brushing past Theta’s proto-conductor, and pulling out the collection of proto-conducting rings she’d stolen from Russo. She held them out for Alma to see. “We can disguise ourselves. Sell these things. Use the money and get ourselves a place. I’ll buy you a piano. I—”
“Oh, Cucciolo.” Alma sighed, placing a hand on Cadence’s cheek. “If we run away, what then?”
“Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me.”
“Y-You don’t need any of that—”
“Of course, I do, Cucciolo,” Alma said gently. “What’s the point of playing a song when no one is there to listen? A caged bird always sings for someone, right?” Alma pulled her hand out of Cadence’s grasp. “You should leave this half of the city, Cucciolo… Enzo was talking about looking for you earlier. He seemed very angry…”
Cadence remained frozen in place. Confused, flustered.
“I should go… but you should stay safe, Cucciolo,” Alma said as she began to pull away. “It was nice seeing you again. And… thank you for saving me. See you some time.”
Without sparing another look back, Alma continued on her walk down the street in the opposite direction—carrying on as if it was just any other night in her life. Unreachable.
“A-Alma… Alma, meet me at the Sognare!” Cadence shouted, voice cracking, as she curled her fingers around the rings. “Meet me at the Sognare! And I…” She trailed off as Alma disappeared from her sights. “Please…”
Cadence turned on her heels, continued forward. Absentmindedly, she shoved the rings in her suit pocket and tried to collect her thoughts.
Shrug it off. Yeah. Just shrug it off. Alma would come back around. She would. She promised. If not, then it was just bad timing. Just the situation—
A sharp crack and pain against the back of her head cut the thought short, and Cadence fell forward into darkness.
When Cadence came to, she realized that not only was she bound to a metal chair but she was also cold. Cold as hell. She was in a small room with metal walls, with a metal ceiling lined with hanging icicles growing in-between slabs of meat on metal hooks. A cooler. Damn bad luck. At least it had an exit: a heavy-looking door just across from her.
But—to check the last box on the checklist of misfortune—she could no longer feel the familiar press of her conducting rings on her fingers. Whoever had taken her in had known enough to take them off.
Fortunately, she could still feel the press of Theta’s proto-conductor and the ring proto-conductors in her pants pocket. She would’ve felt more relieved, however, if she could actually move her hands enough to reach them. Her captors had bound her with metal chains wound so tight around her chest, arms, and legs that it hurt to breathe, move, shiver. No sticky-fingering or muscling her way out of this one.
The cooler door abruptly opened, and two figures stepped in. Two familiar men who shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other.
“Well, this is an odd sorta friendship ta see,” Cadence mused lightheartedly. “Did ya guys meet-cute?”
Donato of the Romano Family chuckled as he approached her, while Enzo of the Campanas stood beside him with a tired look. It seemed as if Donato’s encounter with Iota hadn’t shaken the old coot up a bit.
“A Caporegime of the Romanos and an executive of the Campanas meetin’ up with one another while the families themselves are beatin’ the snot outta each other,” Cadence hummed. “Now that’s a good secret.”
“And you’ll keep it a secret?” Donato mused. “Like how you’ll keep the Campana’s product a secret?”
“Product?” Cadence arched a brow.
“Oh, come on, Cadence.” Donato sighed. “I know you were at Enzo’s meeting. We found Cavallo’s dog Russo just as he was leaving the area and pulling off a proto-conductor ring. A ring that was obviously filled with your vitae.”
“And… where would Russo happen ta be now?”
“Six feet under,” Enzo replied. “Unlike you, he wasn’t as willing to lend an ear and was feelin’ a bit loose lipped.”
But. Okay. This was good. Bad for Russo. But good for her. They were planning on letting her live… up to a point. She had to get more information in the meanwhile, but she couldn’t overstep her bounds.
“So, given what’s goin’ down in the city that now, I’m guessin’ none of the bosses or any of the other executives know that you two are buddy-buddy. How long ya been pen pals?”
“How long have I been capo?” Donato returned.
Cadence arched a brow. “Geeze, so from the very beginning, huh? Pretty impressive how ya got under the bosses’ noses. Bet ya both were excited when Fortuna and Ambrose said they were gettin’ engaged, huh?”
“You too, Morello.” Enzo nodded. “I mean, that meant that the divide between you and Alma would no longer be there, right?”
“Alma talked about you a lot when she first came to me,” Enzo explained. “‘Course, she stopped after she got used to the good life, but I have a good memory.”
“She’s talked about ya a lot too when we met up,” Cadence returned good-naturedly. “Gossip, right?” She paused, pulling back. “I’m not a gossiper myself. Especially when my life is on the line—”
“I’m sure you said the same thing when you were dealing with Verga,” Donato interjected. “And Verga is stupid so he believed you.” He gestured to himself. “You can see there’s a difference here.”
Cadence smiled with effort. “That’s why you’re a capo and he wasn’t.” She shrugged. “If you’re gonna consider doin’ me in, can I at least get some of the details? Can’t let me die with curiosity, can ya?”
Donato considered this before chucking. “I like you, Cadence, so here it is—”
Obviously, he didn’t like her to not beat her over the head and tie her up, she thought.
“—You know this for fact: the Campana Family is selling Specialist Conductor children. The market for them is crazy. Especially in countries who’re bordering less-than-friendly countries outside of Signum. The wealthy love them too. And I’ve been providing some of them to Enzo in exchange for…” Donato slapped his bad leg. “Well, you see, they’ve got an amazing Specialist who’s been slowly but surely healing my leg. Soon, I’ll be walking like everyone else.”
Betraying the Family just for one healed-up leg? What a rat.
“Congratulations,” Cadence said faintly. She swallowed, cocked her head. “That’s great for ya and everything, but aren’t ya concerned about what’ll happen if any of the executives find out? I mean, they’re all busy dealin’ with killin’ each other, but ya know Francis is a good multitasker—”
“Francis?” Donato threw his head back and barked. “He’s probably completely lost his head by now. He’s not doing anything anytime soon.”
Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.
Donato knew. And if he knew, then…
“What…. did you do?” she whispered.
Enzo walked out of the cooler abruptly.
“You see, the Foxmans and the Campanas have had a bad relationship for some time now,” Donato explained. “The problem is the Foxmans are too loyal. Too nosey. So, honoring their relationship with the Romanos, they covertly started working with Ophiuchus to investigate the Campanas in an effort to take ‘em down. ‘Course if they started investigating the Campanas, then there’s no telling when they’d dig up our business agreement. Enzo and I would both be in bad waters with our bosses.”
Enzo returned carrying an open wooden crate and dropped it at Cadence’s feet. Cadence peered inside, and another wave of nausea overtook her. Resistors. The crate was full of resistors. Some of their glass-tube handles were filled with a swirling white light, while others were hollow and empty.
“Enzo found a whole cargo shipment full of these conductor-looking, knife-things stored in a warehouse in the west side,” Donato explained. “Apparently, Verga was shipping these for a certain group.” He bent down to pick up a resistor that was empty. Its blade was caked with dried blood. “What you’re seeing here is the very knife Francis was stabbed with.”
Cadence balled her fists, bit the inside of her lip, kept her face calm and even.
“It’s quite interesting—the effect of these things when they’re filled with the white vitae stuff.” Donato ran his finger along the blade. “Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps, and they completely went off the walls. We had to put most of ‘em down. ‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.” He tapped the tip. “It surprisingly took a while for Francis to crumble, but the entire thing took the Foxmans’ eyes off of us for a while.” He chuckled. “Well, forever now.”
“Do ya even understand what ya’ve done…?”
“These things have something to do with ELPIS, yeah.” Donato nodded, tossing the resistor back into the crate. “But I’m not too concerned about them. We have what they want, after all. ‘Course dealing with Ophiuchus is another issue. I had to put in a lot of legwork to get away from the guards they put on me. And you know me—I’m old and I’m not as slick as I used to be—”
“This is all your fault!” Cadence seethed, startling herself, Donato, and Enzo. “You… You!”
“What has gotten into you, Cadence?” Donato sighed and rubbed his wrist. “You of all people should understand. In time, whatever this is will pass, and people’ll move on. ELPIS’ll do its thing, and they’ll leave like they always do. The Families’ll resolve their issues.” He paused, smiled genially. “Same goes for all the people you’ve deceived for us, right?”
“People’ll move on…?” Cadence parroted. She laughed. “Ya can’t be serious, Donato. I mean, ya’ve gotta be pullin’ my leg again, right? How in saint’s name are they gonna move on from this? This is ELPIS. They—”
They hadn’t moved on for centuries.
“I’m leaving you in Feliciano’s care while I decide what to do with you, Morello,” Donato said, nodding at Enzo. “Though, a couple of Feliciano’s friends have ended up as stiffs recently, so I can’t say he’s gonna be in too good a mood. He’ll be visiting soon.”
Enzo bent down to pick up the box of resistors and with Donato he exited the room. The cellar door shut quietly behind them, leaving Cadence alone in silence.
Cadence began to tremble despite herself.
Saints. They were going to beat the living hell out of her.
Cadence stared at the floor, mind racing. Would she be able to talk her way out of a beating?
Feliciano’s sneering face flashed into her mind.
No, definitely not. Not with Feliciano. He’d had a bone to pick with her since they were kids. Think.
A shadow spilled across the floor in front of her. Cadence stiffened and yelped instinctively. But as she registered—as she felt—who was present, she startled.
The Capricornian first lieutenant drew near to her, meeting her eyes with an unreadable expression. Just like how he’d looked at her when she’d encountered Jericho and Iota in the Louvre District. A void stretched out behind Werner. He still wasn’t awake.
“Morello, this will be excruciatingly painful.”
What? What was he doing? Rubbing in it? Yeah, that made sense after what she’d done. She didn’t blame him at all.
Werner frowned. “I am not here to ‘rub it in.’ Morello, you’re unable to escape, and the others will most likely feel the pain Feliciano and his men are about to inflict on you. It may compromise us, and that cannot be afforded.”
The guilt came in like a flood at the realization. She had been so caught up in her own situation that she hadn’t even thought about how she’d affect the others.
Werner regarded her silently before extending a hand. “Allow me to override you, Cadence.”
Cadence did a double-take.
“There is evidence that when one of us is overridden, the others are unable to access the memories of the events nor the sensations the overrider experiences,” Werner explained calmly. “At the moment, this is our best option since the others are preoccupied.”
He would go to such lengths to protect the others? It didn’t make sense. This didn’t seem like something he would do.
“Cadence, it’s not just them. You don’t have enough pain tolerance to handle this. Your reaction to Jericho’s injury during our first synchronization meeting makes this obvious,” Werner said. “As I’ve said, this is the best solution.”
Cadence stared at him incredulously. It really didn’t make sense. After everything she’d done, she wouldn’t blame him if he despised her, hated her, maybe even wanted the worse to happen to her. But…
“Why—” She met Werner’s eyes and felt her voice catch in her throat.
The answer needn’t be said. Cadence could feel it. She wished she couldn’t but she did. It was a simple feeling, but a strong one. Not pity, not disappointment, not resentment—
Despite her selfishness, he cared for her. No, he still cared for her.
“I… I’m sorry, Werner,” Cadence whispered. She felt her eyes burn, felt her heart crumple, felt shame and disgust curl in her stomach.
If only she had her damn conductor. Then she could just snap her fingers and make everything go away. Disappear the shameful tears that were beginning to prick her eyes. Mask the trembles that were cascading down her body into a suave, casual, relaxed pose. And hide it. Hide everything away. Hide her cowardice, hide her selfishness. Shrug off her problems—
“Just proving that you’ll never change,” Theta had said.
“I’m so, so sorry…” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just wanted to help Alma.” No, that was a lie. What she wanted was to stop Alma from leaving her side. Pathetic. Another blow. “I didn’t want ya to get hurt, Werner.” A truth. “I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was so stupid. I coulda killed ya…” Saying it out loud was horrifying. “Saints, I coulda killed all of ya…”
—a hand suddenly touched her cheek.
She lifted her head to find Werner staring at her, blue eyes piercing and hard—but not exactly cold. A faint memory, faded at its images, floated into Cadence’s mind: a long, tall, thin woman standing in the middle of a cold, empty room wielding a long, tall, thin stick—an overbearing shadow.
They were the same, Cadence realized, paling. But that made Werner’s proposal so much worse. She couldn’t understand it. They had been in similar situations and circumstances, but they had turned out so different. How was that possible?
“Enough, Cadence,” Werner said tersely. “They’re coming.”
He really meant it, she realized. He really wanted to override her and endure the pain instead. But that didn’t make any sense. Was this really his choice?
Werner frowned. “Although I do believe my current state of mind might be somewhat altered due to my condition, this is my choice, Morello. Make no mistake.” He seemed to read her mind. “If you are truly sorry, then accept whatever guilt comes by me doing this. Accept responsibility, live with it, and don’t let it happen again.”
That was awfully manipulative of him.
The cellar door creaked open behind Werner, and a cluster of men eclipsed him. Feliciano and his lackeys.
“It’s time, Cadence,” Werner said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”
Before she could respond, Cadence felt the darkness pull her away from him almost instantly, felt him relax into the cold chair in her place, felt her consciousness slip away into blackness.
And in that pitch-black dark, she dreamt. No, in the dark, she remembered.
She remembered her mother with her long copper locks and her father with his freckled cheeks. War veterans in search of a better life in the Twin Cities. They’d only received a singular benefit package from Aries after the war’s end and had struggled to even afford a place to stay in the city.
Cadence had spent many nights home alone because her parents were always out working. One night, as she’d roamed through the house in the dark waiting for them to return, she’d discovered her mother’s conducting rings. She’d slipped them on, thinking they were fashionable items, adoring the way they’d make her fingers tingle. She’d try them on every single night while she waited for her parents to return, and it was by mere luck that she managed to activate them one day. She’d transmuted herself into one of the dresses she’d seen in her mother’s favorite fashion magazine and had been giddy with excitement and glee.
Slowly, slowly, she refined her skill until one night—when her parents came home late—she revealed her conducting to them. They’d both been ecstatic, proud, cheering as they spun her around the room.
Talented, they exclaimed, amazing. My talented, amazing daughter.
But that happiness was not the norm.
It was a stressful postwar era. Her parents constantly argued over money, food, bills. But Cadence hadn’t been bothered by it because to her that was normal. Besides—or so she had thought—as long as they had each other, it didn’t matter. Not the arguments, not the occasional thrown fists. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.
Then one night, her mother returned home with a black a shadow riding on her shoulders. When Cadence had greeted her at the doorway, her mother sank to her knees and wrapped her fingers around her neck.
“If it weren’t for you…” her mother had seethed, squeezing tight. “I wouldn’t have to be with that man. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to suffer like this. I wouldn’t be the damned laughing stock at work. I wouldn’t have to deal with people always looking at me with pity. It’s because of you. It’s all because of you, you, you!”
Cadence had sobbed, clawing at her mother’s hands as she gasped for air. Just as her vision began to fade, her mother released her and pulled back with a sob of her own. When Cadence had finally gained her bearings and her breath, she found her mother crying apologies under her breath—
“I’m terrible. Oh, I’m so terrible. I don’t deserve to be your mother. I’m terrible.”
It had hurt for Cadence to see her mother like that. Hurt more than the throbbing around her throat. And so, Cadence had crawled up to her mother’s side and said, “I-It’s not your fault, mommy. You’re just angry because you’re tired, right? It’s not your fault… And I’m okay, you see?” Snapping her fingers with a grin, Cadence disappeared the bruise marks on her neck in a flash of copper.
The way her mother’s eyes had lit up afterwards was like a dream, and the warmth from her mother’s embrace made Cadence forget all about the pain.
This wasn’t her mother’s fault at all, Cadence had thought. It was merely the situation, the circumstance.
That incident marked the first time her mother had a bad morrowheat trip. And it wasn’t the last.
“It’s stress relief,” her father had told her as he began to take morrowheat up himself. “We get nightmares, you know. About the war.”
This had been before morrowheat became properly refined and legalized. In its unrefined form, it was terribly addictive and often caused hallucinations, mood swings, lethargy. And as her parents continued to take the drug, they became less and less inclined to leave their apartment for work. Instead, they lounged together with interlocked limbs on the mattress on the floor that they all shared.
It was okay though. Because they were together. It was enough.
But then, Cadence’s mother passed. Just like that. In her sleep. They didn’t have enough money to hire doctors to figure out why. They didn’t have enough money for a funeral. And so, Cadence was left standing in front of her mother’s unmarked grave wondering exactly what had happened. There were no answers. There never were.
Cadence spent the following weeks curled up on their mattress in her mother’s spot. She’d burrowed into her mother’s blankets, breathed in her scents, and imagined that her mother was still there lying beside her. Cadence had even used her conducting rings to bring the illusion to life once. It was momentary comfort.
One day Cadence’s father came home and spoke to her about things she didn’t understand. Her mother had a savings account with a decent amount of money, he’d said. They’d both been saving the funds so that they could eventually send Cadence to school, he’d explained. But because of Gemini’s strict personal protection and privacy laws at the time, only the owner of the account was able to withdraw funds. And so, he wasn’t able to access any of it.
“Y…You can do it, can’t you, Cadence?” her father whispered with bags under his eyes as he held her hand. “You can make yourself look like mommy and take the money out, right?”
The desperation in his voice had been pitiful—so pitiful that several nights later, Cadence found herself wearing her mother’s conducting rings and standing in front of their chipped bathroom mirror. Snapping her fingers, she’d watched with joy, disgust, relief, horror as her deceased mother’s form shimmered over her own.
When Cadence brought home all of her mother’s savings from the bank the following morning, her father had been ecstatic. He’d picked her up and twirled her around, proclaimed how much he loved her, showered her with gifts—
Happiness. It was enough.
And then one day, he didn’t come back home.
Cadence spent those following weeks roaming the house, digging into the pantries for food, curling up on their mattress, waiting and waiting—until there was a knock at the door. It was the landlord who told her curtly, strictly, firmly that she needed to pack up and leave.
“You’re lucky that I’m not making you take on your parents’ debt,” was what he had left her with.
And so, for the first time in her life, with only the clothes on her back and her mother’s conducting rings on her fingers, Cadence stepped outside onto the streets of the Twin Cities alone. She’d learned quickly though. Learned to pickpocket, steal, swindle. Learned to take advantage of other people’s pity. Learned to use her conducting to get herself out of tight situations.
And then Alma found her. Rather, she found Alma. A beautiful, gentle person whom Cadence could always find at the Sognare. A person who smiled at her with apparent affection instead of pity. A perfect person. A constant.
Not so long after that, Cadence had encountered—rather, pickpocketed—Ricardo Romano who then introduced her to Fortuna. Literally days later Cadence befriended the Foxmans and then finally Nico. Together they had roamed the streets, claiming territory childishly as their own, challenging other delinquent rings to pick-pocketing feuds, swindling tourists with gambles and games.
Happiness. A constant.
Perhaps, that was why Cadence adored Alma so much. Meeting Alma marked the beginning of the best time in Cadence’s life… But Alma’s departure also marked the end of it.
Cadence still remembered it as if it was yesterday—the day that Alma left. After whispering apologies about being unable to stay by Cadence’s side, Alma had placed a hand on her cheek and had said with a dreamy smile: “Oh, I’m so excited, Cucciolo. All the girls at the Casa say that Enzo is so wealthy, and he knows so many famous people. Maybe with him, people will finally listen to my song…”
But Cadence had blamed Alma’s words on too much alcohol.
Fortuna took up on her father’s mantle not too long after that, while the Foxmans abandoned their pipe dream of running their own bar in favor of running the city’s docks. She’d congratulated all of them at the time, of course. Always appeared crooked-smile, bought them congratulatory presents using money she’d swindled from tourists, never showed a hint of jealousy, disdain, disappointment, hurt.
But appearances were deceiving.
Still, at least Nico would stay by her side, Cadence had thought to herself foolishly. Out of their entire group, the two of them had spent the most time together. Huddled in between alleyways, swallowing cigarettes whole for laughs, pick-pocketing wealthy kids who were in over their heads. Playing piano at the dwindling Sognare, sharing drinks at the bar after a rough day of work, musing about their unattainable dreams.
Right. Nico needed her, she’d thought, always followed her, would never leave her. It was something Cadence treasured. A constant.
But then… Nico had left too. Left for the borders of Capricorn while following his dream of being free of his father’s shadow in that twisted way of his. Left for that dream of his that had suddenly become attainable.
And Cadence was happy for him. Truly. But still she thought—
It was better to have an unattainable dream. Something that always needed to be pursued. No disappointment when it came down to it. No losing the dream and its perks, since it’d never be achieved. A constant. The same thing came to people. Situation over disposition.
When Cadence sluggishly came into consciousness, she was greeted with pain and cold. It felt as if cement had been filled in between her muscles and bones. She also no longer had any sensation in her fingertips. And her mouth tasted of iron.
Sure enough, when she got her bearings and surveyed her surroundings, she found that she was lying in a pool of her own blood. The cellar door was locked tightly. The only positive she collected from a second look around was that during the beat down, Feliciano and his goons had decided to untie her and leave her untied.
She tried to crawl up into a sitting position, but a dull pain shot up her limbs in protest. She collapsed and laid in place. Too much pain to even shiver.
If it hurt this much for her now, she thought, how much had it hurt for him?
It’s not your fault, whispered a familiar voice at the back of her head. Werner offered.
“Shut up,” she muttered.
It wasn’t your mom and dad’s fault either, the whisper continued, relaying the echoes of her dream. They couldn’t help their situation. They couldn’t help reacting the way they did. It was the stress, the poverty, the drugs. It’s all circumstance.
Cadence shivered, wincing at the shooting pain it brought her.
One-way ticket to hypothermia.
But even so, despite the cold, she could still feel Werner’s warm hand against her cheek.
No, no. She didn’t want to think about that. Not now.
Right? It’s all circumstance. It’s not your—
“Shut up!” Cadence sobbed and pulled into herself. The tears stung the cuts on her cheek but she knew that the stinging pain was incomparable to what Werner had taken on for her. “Damn it! Shut up! Stop lying!”
Silence answered her.
Right. The person she’d been deceiving the most—Cadence realized in the quiet—had been herself all along. The truth was that it wasn’t all just circumstance. Not with herself. Not with her mother, not with her father, not even with Alma.
The answer was ridiculously clear:
A child representing past mistakes and an inescapable situation.
A tool to earn money.
And a person who was more pitiable than herself, a person who made her feel as if her own life wasn’t that awful.
—this was how her mother, her father, and Alma had viewed her in those moments that Cadence had painted over as ‘circumstance’.
It was as simple as that.
And simplicity hurt.
Cadence sobbed and curled deeper into herself.
How dare she think about herself after everything that had happened? How dare she—
“What in saint’s name are you doing…?”
Cadence blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes and found Olive standing before her. He felt her pain—she could tell—and was barely managing to hold back a wince. Damn.
“Of course, I can feel your pain,” Olive half-growled, half-grumbled. He knelt down beside her, hands hovering, hands shaking, eyes… wet? Tears. They were leaking from his eyes, and he was failing terribly at holding them back.
“S-Saints, your highness…” Cadence cracked a grin with effort. She had a cut on her lower lip that stretched open with the action. “Y-You should be laughin’ at my situation. Not cryin’. Specially after everything I did and everything I said to ya.” She grimaced. “I-I’m sorry about that, kid. You were right about everything… so ya gotta stop cryin—”
“It’s just sad okay, dammit… It’s not fair.” Olive wiped his eyes. “Those kids— they’re almost my age… it’s wrong what the Campanas are doing… and what…” His voice cracked. “W-What happened to you… and to Werner.” He shook his head. “It’s just not fair! How can people do that?”
It was easy for people to do that, Cadence thought. It was hard for them not to do that.
“You’re a good kid, Olive.” She sighed. “I mean it.” She laid her head back and groaned. “I’m sorry. For everything. It was all my fault. You’re all way too good for me.”
Him, Werner, Atienna, Jericho, Maria.
A pain more terrible than the throbs running through her limbs seized her chest.
And Nico, Francis, Allen, Carl, Fortuna too.
“You’re stupid,” Olive said, shaking his head. “You’re stupid and you’re so unbelievably selfish.”
Cadence tried to squint at him but even that was too much effort, so she laid back her head and closed her eyes.
“It wasn’t circumstances with Alma, your mom, or your dad,” Olive continued. “But it’s also not circumstance with me, and it’s not circumstance with any of the others. When it comes to us… I…” His cheeks flushed, and he took a deep breath before he grimaced. “If you get what I mean… I’m not here because of circumstance.”
Cadence cracked open an eye.
“You’re good enough for me,” Olive said, meeting Cadence’s gaze. “As long as we’re constantly trying to improve and trying our best to not make the same mistakes, we’re good enough for each other.”
Cadence abruptly recalled she was talking to a prince, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He was regal when he put the effort into it.
“We need to get out of here,” Olive muttered, rubbing his arms absentmindedly.
Right. Even if it hurt like hell, she had to find a way out of here before Feliciano came back. She couldn’t make Werner go through that again. She couldn’t let the others deal with the fading pain either. Responsibility, dammit.
Biting the inside of her cheek, Cadence forced herself up into a sit. The world spun around her, but she pushed herself further to an unstable stand and began to wobble to the door.
Pain, pain, pain.
Cadence, please don’t push yourself…
But she had to.
Cadence managed to make it to the door and pressed her hands against its surface. She could barely see more than a crack because her eyes were so swollen, but she didn’t need full vision to see that the door was frozen shut.
Suggestion. Don’t panic.
That was hard to do.
Kick it down! You can do it!
Really? Why was that even a suggestion?
“Claire said something…” Olive muttered from beside her. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He placed his hands over her own and closed his eyes.
Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.
And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.
She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms.
Olive grabbed her and pulled her backwards as the door was engulfed in flames of vitae. Flames that she had created. Without the appropriate conductor. Without being an Elementalist.
“Saints…!” she exclaimed in unison with Olive.
The heat crackled wildly, eating away at the frost and the door itself, melting everything it touched. Soon the door became molten metal and ash, and the icicles that had been hanging above her head began to drip, drip, drip into puddles of water around her.
Once the fire died and warm night air spilled in from the door-less doorway, Cadence turned to Olive and blinked. “Did ya just see that?”
Olive snapped, “Of course I saw that. I’m right here! This is—”
“Kid, my body hurts like hell, and I don’t think I can spare another brain cell ta try and figure out what in saint’s name just happened,” Cadence said as she stepped forward, “so I’m just gonna get outta here now and leave the thinking ta you, Werner, and Atienna.” She paused and looked back at him. “Thanks, Olive. And not just for the mojo melting thing.”
And Werner too. She needed to thank him. But she wanted to say it to his face. It was only fair.
Hesitantly, Cadence stepped through the melted doorway and out into a dark alleyway just beyond. She took a deep breath. Soot, salt. Home.
“Woooooow.” A clap echoed from above. “I was just swinging by and thought I was gonna have to pull a heroic rescue, but look at this!”
Cadence recognized that voice. No, Olive recognized it. But that was impossible.
A series of metal clangs filled the air—each lower in tone than the last—and down from the darkness dropped a slender, tall figure concealed in shadow.
Cadence felt it immediately. The apprehension. The dread. Ominous.
A woman dressed in a monochrome suit stepped into the light pouring out from the cooler.
There were two things that Cadence noticed about the woman. One: there was a white Ophiuchian sash on her arm. Two: she wore sunglasses despite it being nighttime.
Cadence. Olive’s heart was hammering. I don’t understand. How is she here—
Peacekeeping saint candidate Ilseong Jin stood before Cadence in the flesh.
I literally just saw her—
“A-Are you a peacekeeper?!” Cadence stammered, rushing to Jin and wincing with every step. “Ya gotta help me. I-I got jumped. A hospital. I need ta get to a—”
“How’s that Ariesian prince doing?” Jin asked, cocking her head. “Just saw him a minute ago but still.”
Cadence froze and felt Olive’s fear seep into her aching bones. “What…? What are ya talkin’ about?”
Cadence stumbled slightly. Jin caught her with one hand. But it was not a comfort. The peacekeeper’s touch sent chills down Cadence’s spine.
“Oh, come on,” Jin grumbled. “First the prince and now you? I mean, I literally saw your conducting!” She squinted. “At least you’re a bit more convincing. Though it really does look like you need to go to a hospital.” She squeezed Cadence’s shoulders sending Cadence a ripple of pain. “But congrats on taking the next step of True Conductorhood. First time I’ve ever seen a vitae crossover without an actual conductor though!” She released Cadence nonchalantly. “Cool.”
Cadence stumbled backwards, barely keeping her footing. “I’m guessin’ ya didn’t come here by train…”
“Nope. Just came to check on a friend though…” Jin took a step back and gave Cadence another once over. She then slipped a familiar, needle-shaped proto-conductor filled with black liquid out from her pocket and tapped it against the wall behind her. The wall immediately became engulfed in a familiar pale, tangerine light.
“I like the stupid kiddo, so needless to say, I like you,” Jin said as she stepped into the light with a wave, “so I’ll leave you with a warning. Omicron’s told me that Theta’s priming ready to snap, and when that happens…” She aimed a mock gun. “… the city’ll go with it no matter what plan they have.”