Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
“Papers,” the man ordered in accented Common, hand extended. “Papers, please.”
Rainwater trickled down the brim of his charcoal-colored cap onto the metal gorget hanging around his neck by a thick chain. The imprint of a sea-goat lined the top of the accessory with the word Militärpolizei stamped in bold, capital letters just below it. A baton, a holstered gun, and a conductor of an unknown type hung at the belt around his waist.
Balancing her small evergreen umbrella above her head, Virgoan advisor Atienna Imamu searched the small satchel that hung from her shoulders. After shifting aside three thick books and a stack of folded papers, she pulled out a slip of paper stamped with a Virgoan M-seal and her tribe’s seal.
The man accepted the identification and scanned it. Despite his hard eyes, his neatly trimmed ginger mustache brought some color to his face.
At the moment, they both stood at the corner of a sidewalk with steady traffic. A very large and gray stone-laden square unfolded before them. It was dotted with just-as-square v-trams that rolled along the tracks and around medium-sized, closely packed, just-as-square buildings. Several of those buildings were capped off with mint-colored domes, but the predominant colors in the area were beige and gray—gray from the clouding skyline. Despite the low, overbearing clouds, however, there was a sense of extended space to the square—an openness. Although there were most likely hundreds of people bustling around, it was not very crowded.
“Ah, I see. You are an advisor, Atienna Imamu.” The man nodded, handing back her slip and flashing her a cordial smile. “You are here for the Leitertechnik Diplomatisch Konvention! The conductor diplomatic convention! Is it true that people from even Libra and Sagittarius are coming over here?”
“Well, you’re very knowledgeable, Herr…?”
“Herr Schmidt,” replied the man with a grin, tipping his cap and sending some rainwater pattering onto the sidewalk. “Are you not with a bodyguard?” He glanced down the brick-stone walkway. “While it is quite safe here, there have been a couple of… incidents because of a… certain political group as of late. It would be best to travel with someone who can protect you, Frau Imamu. We would not want harm to come to a diplomat visiting our city.”
Atienna dipped her head. “I am just out to make a quick phone call.” She pointed to a building marked with long windows and capped with a triangular maroon roof just across the street.
Sefu was in there on the fourth floor being hustled around by the newly appointed Virgoan diplomat to Capricorn—Nyimbo Dimka of the Maneo Tribe. The man was much younger than the former diplomat Chiamaka had been and was much more energetic too. Thus, Atienna had used Nyimbo’s overzealousness to her advantage and had slipped away from them all minutes prior.
“I am just in there, so it is not so far.” She flashed the officer a genial smile. “I do thank you for your concern.”
“Enjoy your stay here, Frau Imamu.” The military police officer tipped his hat before pointing down the road. “There is a phone booth just down this street and to the left. It will be right across from the… how do you say… newspaper booth.”
Atienna dipped her head in thanks as the officer departed before following on down the road as the officer instructed. Her leather shoes click-clacked against the path, accentuating the subdued chatter ghosting the square.
After rounding the corner, she found the telephone booth as the military police officer had described—rectangular, green-painted, straight across from the newspaper stand. Closing her umbrella, she slipped inside and took a moment to admire how clean and well-kept it was. She even thought she caught a hint of lemon-scented, cleaning-agent near the windows. She paused in her admiration to eye the phone box resting alluringly in front of her.
Her palms itched.
Atienna took in a deep breath and pulled out a slip of folded paper from her pocket. She had treated it with care ever since she’d received it from the True Conductor—rather, True Conductor hunter—Cvetka Akulova, and so it looked the same as it had when she’d accepted it two months ago. Though, she supposed she hadn’t so much treated with ‘reverent’ care as with ‘fearful’ care. Fear of deciding to use it. Fear of deciding not to. She had discussed this numerous times with Cadence and Werner. But the choice, Atienna knew, was ultimately her own.
She picked the phone off the receiver and waited to connect to the operator. After offering a polite word of greeting, she read the number off to the woman and waited as the phone trilled a ring before the line connected.
“Hello. Secretary speaking,” came the voice on the other end. Clipped, almost mechanical.
“This is a private line that is being recorded for quality assurance purposes,” the voice continued. “At the moment, I’ve been directed to transfer all calls to a separate receiver. Please hold while I send you on over.”
Before Atienna could answer, the line rang again.
“Hello,” came another voice—cheery—a second later. “You’ve reached the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus! This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Are you calling to submit a new request or to address an old case? If it’s the former option, I’d be happy to direct you to the Assignment Department. If it’s the latter, may I please have your case number or the name of the peacekeeper you’re in contact with?”
Atienna paused. “Oh… I suppose I have the wrong number. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” She slowly placed the phone back onto the receiver. And then she let out a sigh—of both disappointment and relief.
It seemed as if she had narrowed her number of tasks considerably after having only been in the city for a day. Still, it was odd. Had something happened to Cvetka’s contact or had it all been a taunting ploy….? It was something that definitely needed to be addressed… Perhaps, at a synchronization meeting.
Atienna spied the newspaper stand across the square and contemplated giving it a gander. Eventually, she pulled out her umbrella and started across the square. She politely addressed the vendor within and paid for the daily newspaper with one Capricornian mark.
The newspaper headline detailed the diplomatic conductor convention. Hosted below the informational article was a rather passionate, anti-military piece written by Marionette Engel, leader of the recently popularized Verbundene Augen movement:
—the political aficionados refuse to admit that the reason they support our constant skirmishes at the southern border is because it lines their pockets with money. In short, the Capricornian military is overfunded. Some economists may argue that these monetary resources trickle over to other economic sectors. While this may be true, they must acknowledge that, with every large investment, there is always a large down payment. And that down payment is the lives of our sons and daughters—
A sharp prick at the base of Atienna’s palm distracted her from her reading.
Werner, it seemed. But they had all promised to keep a low level of synchronization whenever he and Jericho were on operations or assignments. Atienna contemplated reaching out for him regardless but thought better of it. She didn’t want to distract him. And so, she returned her attention to the newspaper.
That was odd…
The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.
Several words seemed to stand out from all the blurred ink. One from the headline article, one from the demilitarization piece, and another from an ad printed at the bottom corner.
Now, everything seemed out of focus. The noise around her. The movements of the pedestrians and vendors around her. Her own movements. The movements of the other five—no…. The others were drifting away from her. She could feel it, feel them pulling away, leaving her in cold, cold darkness.
The newspaper slipped from her hands and fell onto the floor. Her knees buckled, and she followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the gray sky in confusion and studied the shape of the clouds. They almost looked like eyes, peering down at her unyieldingly.
Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. Capricornian words shouted in alarm and concern. Beside her, the rainwater bled into the pages of her newspaper.
This sensation… the heat at the pit of her stomach and the cold enveloping her skin…. It was like when she had been poisoned by sorrowheat back at the dinner meeting in Virgo. Exactly the same.
She couldn’t complete the thought. Heaviness weighed down on her eyelids. As she drifted away, the pitter-pattering of the rain sounded like whispering in her ears.
I see you. I see you. I see you.
Slidr River, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
“Am… Am I really walking on water?”
“Yes, this is called a blessing, child Lita. I—Veles—have made it so!”
Maria Gloria-Fernandez threw her head back and hummed as she gently took both of Lita’s hands in her own and guided her forward in a slinking dance. “You are certainly amazing, my dear Beast of the Deep!”
At the moment, Lita was indeed walking on water. As was Maria. As was the bounty hunter Veles, as was the Monadic priest Simon, as was the sailor-turned-pirate Morandi, as was the foreign conductor engineer Emmanuel. Barefoot and walking along the surface of a crystalline river speckled with particles of glowing purple light.
There was an encroaching winter chill in the air, and the rocks guarding the side of the riverbank were lightly frosted. Overhead, grayed sunlight bled in through the archway of branches and barely touched their skin. Every so often a chunk of ice would glide on down the stream towards them. In response, Veles would offhandedly wave his conductor-gloved hand and the current would change causing the ice to flow around them.
It was quite strange feeling the water pushing up against her toes and keeping her afloat, Maria thought. It reminded her of that time she had stolen a hot-air balloon from Cancer and had ridden on its top all the way to Taurus. The airy buoyancy, the feeling of exhilaration of being at the divide of two different terrains. It was peaceful.
“Golden Beast, your words are too kind!” Veles returned as he marched forward in front of them. Every so often, he would flick his hand and the glow of water beneath their feet would expand further ahead of them and recede a bit behind them. Despite the cold, Veles was still bare-chested, although he had taken up a much thicker fur-lined cloak that concealed his entire body.
Maria herself had a similar cloak wrapped around herself. She had gotten it in exchange for some of her medals back at an Aquarian port.
“I-It’s too bad Giorgio couldn’t come…” Lita mumbled, her words muffled in the fur-lining of her thick leather coat.
Maria moved forward to pull up the girl’s hoodie.
“Yes, well, he and the others have to take care of all the children,” Morandi said, gazing with uncertainty at the water flow below him. “It’d be precarious to bring them all along…” He glanced down at the girl. “Just as it is precarious for us to bring you along—”
Lita turned in his direction and frowned. “More precarious than when I was under the Campanas?”
Morandi grunted. “Well, dear, ELPIS and the Campanas are completely different organizations…” As he said this, his eyes widened and he hung his head. “What in saint’s name are we doing? This is crazy.”
“I still can’t wrap my head around it…” Emmanuel scratched the back of his neck as he shrugged his cloak more over his shoulders. “I have studied the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. For my license. But my impression was that it was… not real? But you say memories can be stored in vitae? So… your Ophiuchus… is wrong?”
“There is only one truth you need to know, Emmanuel,” Veles boomed. “And that is that I—Veles—will avenge my fallen guildmates!”
“Yes, we will find Beta, and I will rescue Conta,” Maria affirmed with a nod. She cocked her head at Emmanuel. “Was that not clear when we left the ship?”
Morandi choked and coughed, hard.
Maria blinked back at him, brow arched. “Are you alright, Morandi…?”
“Yes, Capitana,” Morandi managed, pounding his chest. He glanced at Veles then back at her. “I was just concerned about whether or not we’re all on the same page…”
“Same page?” Maria inquired.
“I know we’ve been working together for several weeks now, and we and Veles share similar goals…” Morandi elaborated. “But the execution of those plans seems a bit… different.”
Maria recalled the day two weeks prior when she’d bounded into Veles’s hideout in Hapaira after dropping off the Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. She had quickly dismantled Veles’s bounty hunting associates—without any deaths included, since ‘that wouldn’t be a good way to make friends’ as Atienna had pointed out—and had approached Veles who reclined at the back of his hideout on a leather sofa. There, she had graciously bowed before him and requested his assistance in locating Conta. He was not interested in her request at first—at least, not until she explained that Beta was most likely the one who had executed his underlings. After that, he had immediately packed his bags and left with her.
It was through Veles’s efforts paired with Cadence’s trickle of information from the Twin Cities that they had made it to this river that ran along the Aquarian-Capricornian border. Maria had left her ship in the Aquarian bay that this waterway poured into and had then left their canoeing boat behind too as the river had narrowed to the point where it was no longer accessible by it. The river had widened since then, but they had decided to settle on a more scenic route instead of opting for locomotive transportation.
The capital of Capricorn!
Yes, the trail of ELPIS sightings across Signum led there. A destination in sight. Die Hauptstadt.
Emmanuel was coming along to the capital due to his interest in the conductor convention there, while Lita wished to offer the assistance of her eyes in finding Conta. Morandi was there as a ‘nanny’ as Olive had put it. And as for the silent Simon who was taking in the scenery beside her—Maria supposed he was concerned about Conta. Or perhaps….
“Well, we both wish to protect what is ours…” Maria murmured, releasing Lita’s hand and fingering her blade beneath her cloak. “Is that not—ow…!”
Maria jerked her hand away from the blade before blinking down at her bare, tanned palm. She shook it absentmindedly and looked up to find Veles and the others studying her.
“Ay, that was strange…” She chuckled.
And suddenly, she became winded, her lungs igniting with intense, burning pain. Before she could even comprehend the situation, she was face down on the water. Its press against her cheek was both warm and cold, both wet and dry.
She didn’t hear the rest because she abruptly broke through the barrier and fell into the depths of the river. The cold gripped her tightly, forcing her to release her held breath and sending air bubbles out from her mouth. Her limbs would not obey her, frozen stiff in the cold of the dark waters.
The memory of being caught in that conducting grenade explosion onboard Morandi’s ship over half a year ago seeped into her mind intrusively.
The only difference was that now she was not bleeding and that now she was in the middle of seeking something that had been stolen from her instead of stealing from other people. And—the air bubbles too. They were different. They almost looked like eyeballs, staring directly at her as they rose to the surface.
Maria sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark.
All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her crew. She had to. She had to find Conta. To fulfill that promise.
An intrusive thought invaded her mind as black dots pricked her vision.
I don’t want to lose again—