Landser Wilhelm Fischer always wanted to be somebody. Anybody. He wanted to be more than his grandfather who fished day-in and day-out with a lame leg that ached every morning. He wanted to be more than his grandmother who toiled away at the bakery reading customers’ lips and because she’d lost her hearing in the Reservoir War. The two always praised him. Whether he was average or not, they always showered him with praises: “that’s our boy” or “we’re so proud!” Wilhelm hated it. What was the point? He was average.
He’d pushed himself in his classes as hard as he could, scrambled fruitlessly to graduate at the top of his class. All he had to show for it was a slightly above average class-ranking and a flimsy piece of paper. Still, his graduation ceremony from the military academy had been one of the happiest days of his life. He had been shortly after offered a position as a drill instructor for a middle-tier military academy in his hometown because he ‘could inspire dedication.’ But he’d declined and instead selected to serve in the Border Force.
And then for once, as the news of his decision reached his grandparents, neither of them had any words of praise waiting. All they’d said was, “How could you? After what happened to your parents? What’s wrong with you?”
Wilhelm had convinced himself their words were a badge of honor. He’d left cowardice and normalcy and bureaucracy behind in favor of serving his country as a true Capricornian. Just like the war heroes defending Capricorn at the very beginning of the Reservoir War.
But when Wilhelm saw his first battle, he’d cowered in fear as his first operation went south. He’d been part of a unit intended to make one of the first breaches into the Argoan trench. Halfway there, they’d been ambushed and their commander had been shot straight through the skull. Even the Transmutationists couldn’t do anything for him.
Cowering behind a fallen tree, he’d hugged his melee axe conductor like it was a lifeline. He wasn’t alone. More than half of the unit members had joined just two weeks prior, and this was their first battle too. At the time, there had been a young man huddled to Wilhelm’s right clutching a conducting-rifle. Trembling, Wilhelm had locked eyes with that man’s ice-blue eyes and saw his own terror and the terror of those around him reflected there.
A boom had resounded, signaling the end; and Wilhelm had squeezed his eyes shut and had thought of his grandparents—
The young landser who had been cowering just beside him suddenly peeled out from behind cover and fired off two vitae rays before ducking down again. The agonized screams following this indicated that the private had hit his targets head-on. His eyes had become sharp, calculating, focused, ready. Just what everyone had been looking for. Without hesitation, the landser had continued forward, shouting orders, signaling them all to get into formation, all while firing off his rifle conductor with pristine accuracy. It had been all very rudimentary—his orders and directions. Word-for-word of what had been taught in the Advanced Military Tactics class at the academy, but again, it had been what was needed. And together with him at command, they’d held position until reinforcements came.
Wilhelm would later learn that the landser’s name was Werner Waltz. And Wilhelm aspired to become just like him, especially after Waltz was promoted to Grenadier shortly after. Of course, admiring Werner Waltz was paired with being at the brunt of Gilbert Wolff’s abrasiveness, but Wilhelm was fine with that. As long as he had a goal to shoot for, he could accomplish anything.
But the promotions never came. Those who entered his unit after him climbed up the ladder faster than he did. There were always rumors about conducting-type playing a large role in ranking-up but Wilhelm didn’t believe it because that would mean that his dedication meant nothing. Besides, if Waltz could be promoted despite being a Projector, so could he.
Only two weeks or so ago before they started this operation in unoccupied territory, the oberleutnant had commended Wilhelm’s dedication, saying something along the lines of, “I always thought this, but I feel like it needs to be said. Your dedication is not unnoticed.”
But now after everything had been laid out in the open the previous night, Wilhelm was beginning to doubt whether those words had been the oberleutnant’s at all.
True Conductors—among them Fritz von Spiel and the oberleutnant himself—who were linked in memory, thought, and feeling across Signum. Overrides that allowed one of the linked to take control over the other and somehow allowed an exchange of conducting-type—Hauptmann Weingartner had shown both extreme interest and concern at this. The truth held in the Anima-Vitae hypothesis. ELPIS and resistors. And Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Department who were actively searching for True Conductors. And finally, there were the deals Capricorn made with the crime organization that Cadence Morello, who currently held the reins of the override, was frequently employed by.
It sounded ridiculous. It was more likely that the oberleutnant had lost his mind, but Wilhelm didn’t like thinking about that possibility.
“A lie sounds more likely than the truth,” had been one of Cadence’s closing notes.
Wilhelm didn’t trust her. She had to be lying. If not, why would Oberleutnant Waltz keep this entire ordeal a secret? Maybe the oberleutnant was working in tandem with the Capricornian government and using this condition to his advantage—Wilhelm’s first and hopeful thought. But then Cadence had made open threats with ease: if the higher officials were informed of any of this, she would readily tie them down with their own past mistakes.
Just who did she think she was? She might’ve thought that she had something on him like the others, but she had nothing on his loyalty to Capricorn. He would do what needed to be done—even if he had no clue what was going on.
“Gil and Nico told me that the person here before me said to not use conductors and to look out for a ‘man,’ right? Looks like we got half of that part down,” Cadence had concluded that night, taking the reins with nonchalance. “But let’s take it one step at a time and get out of this hell hole first. Deal? At least until we figure out why the dear lieutenant won’t come to the phone right now.”
And everyone had just accepted it. Like it was nothing. Wilhelm couldn’t tell if it was out of fear of the threats, lack of belief, or something else.
And now here Wilhelm was walking alongside Aquarians hand-in-hand. The forest grew thick around them, the sky an irritating gray and the ground a mess of leaf and dirt. There was a morning chill in the air. That aside—
“Do you need me to carry anything, Sigrid?”
Wilhelm looked up to find his oberleutnant pacing beside one of the Aquarian soldiers. Said Aquarian had a natural, rugged charm about her—the kind of charm Wilhelm figured Stein would jump on top of it. But Stein was keeping his distance and walking right alongside Wilhelm himself. Occasionally, Stein would throw furtive looks in Cadence’s direction.
“I’m not carrying anything,” Sigrid responded curtly, increasing her pace.
Cadence matched it a second later and whispered into her ear.
When Hauptmann Weingartner had thoroughly drilled Cadence the previous night about why she had seemed to show camaraderie to Engel during their imprisonment, the conversation had gone something like this:
“Why were you being friendly with Engel?”
“I wasn’t being friendly with her—”
“You placed a hand on her shoulder and kept her away from our confrontation.”
“Are you serious…?”
“Saints. Because she was pretty, alright? And you were being too harsh. When I see a pretty, passionate woman who’s getting bullied, I can’t help but be the gallant knight in shining armor. Haven’t you heard of chivalry?”
It had been pathetic. Plainly put, Cadence was a damned womanizer, and Wilhelm loathed womanizers. To even coddle the enemy…
Sigrid merely quickened her pace again. Cadence didn’t move to pursue her and instead fell back into step with Fabrizzio. Nico Fabrizzio.
Wilhelm had more or less grown to respect the man for his quick-thinking during tight situations on the field. Turned out it wasn’t so much as quick-thinking as dirty-thinking—learned from his time as an underground doctor and from acting as a liaison between Capricorn and a crime family. Wilhelm doubted Nico’s trustworthiness since the medic was associated with people who’d sold conductors to Argo.
On the other hand, Capricorn taking weapons from underground deals was sensible. Even with the inverse law between reservoirs and conductors put in place by Ophiuchus, Capricorn still didn’t have enough conductors. And the ones that they did have weren’t always good enough. It was all justifiable.
Even the Aquarians did it. One of the Aquarians most closely associated with it was even here.
Said Aquarian Kapitan Dunya Kramer was walking alongside Hauptmann Weingartner ahead of him. Weingartner had shown his own betrayal to Capricorn by keeping his awareness regarding falsified reports on the Twin Cities incident quiet. And according to the swindler, he’d also done something warranting a Manipulator to be placed on him.
A step away, Leutnant Wolff, Kleine, Bergmann, and Brandt were boxed in around Heimler and Engel. Friedhelm Heimler—a sniveling traitor—jining some crackshot “peace” movement just because he was too afraid to serve. A coward. The four circling him weren’t that much better, falsifying reports over the incident in the Twin Cities and not disclosing they were aware of the Capricornian deal.
Traitors. They were everywhere. The only other soldier to the unit present mentally—who seemed to hold some bit of respect and loyalty to their country was Brandt. But according to Cadence, he wasn’t all clean either.
Wilhelm glanced at Stein who yawned and rubbed his eyes. The man was still a friend in Wilhelm’s eyes but friendship didn’t save him from treasonous charges. Still, it was strange how indifferent Stein was to everything. Wilhelm wondered if something happened in the Twin Cities between them all that caused them to be so nonchalant about the entire ordeal.
As if to answer Wilhelm’s wondering, Stein suddenly approached Cadence. “Hey, teach me how you do that.”
Cadence turned. “That, Stein?”
Stein stiffened slightly. “How you stole back the pocket watch and Bergmann’s cigarettes. Without any of those Groans noticing. Was that your transmuting?”
“Are you referring to my proto-conductor?” Cadence corrected with a lie as she subtly eyed the Aquarian group clustered just a step ahead of them. She flexed her gloved hands, the impression of her rings faintly visible below them. She placed a hand on Stein’s arm. “It has nothing to do with it. It’s misdirection, Stein.”
Cadence nodded. “People pay very little attention to their surroundings. Even with effort, attention is minimal.” She held out her gloved hand. Resting on her palm was a lighter. His lighter.
Stein took his lighter back from her and grunted. Nico sighed from beside Cadence almost out of exasperation.
“How about you, Fabrizzio?” Stein asked. “Anything to show?”
One of the Aquarians—Nikita Knovak—peeled away from the other Aquarian he’d been walking with and fell into step beside Cadence and Stein.
“Makes sense that Capricornian know how pickpocket. You all sneaky ‘cause can’t fight.”
“What did you say, Aquarian?” Stein glowered, shoving him to the side. “Last time I recall, you were lying in that hospital bed and our prisoner.”
“And I remember I have fight for you against your crazy major,” Knovak bit back, dusting off his shoulder. “I never receive thank you for that.”
Wilhelm realized he was referring to Major Ersatz who had—according to the Geminian—been initiated into ELPIS through use of a resistor. Wilhelm had admired him too.
Before Stein could retort, Cadence interjected in Capricornian: “Listen, Derik, you should play it smart before playing it rough. Let it go.”
“I’m not playing anything.” Derik sneered back in his native tongue.
“Right, right,” Cadence assuaged. “You’re in it to win it. But the thing is winning isn’t all about muscles—”
“You say that it’s brains and I’ll punch you.” Stein spat on the ground. “You’re not actually the oberleutnant.”
“No, it’s about satisfaction,” Cadence corrected, nonplussed. “Going back-and-forth isn’t fun unless you’re a masochist. Victories are subtle.” She continued in Common as she nodded at Knovak: “You dislike Argoans, Stein, which is understandable. He dislikes Argoans. Rather than discussing your dislike towards each other, it would be more efficient to foster your mutual dislike for the Argoans. We will be working together for the time being, so we should be amicable.”
It made Wilhelm’s skin crawl—how this swindler could mimic the oberleutnant so well. Cadence had said something like “preserving at least some of the dear lieutenant’s dignity” and “keeping things under wraps as best as we can.”
“You still crazy, Capricornian,” Knovak muttered before smirking. “Good.” His gaze flicked to Nico. “And you. Always switch sides, doctor. Never work out, huh?”
* * *
After another two hours of walking, the two hauptmänner—Kramer and Weingartner—stopped to discuss the statistics regarding their location and their destination. They had been heading in the direction opposite of the setting sun since they had all recalled facing the setting sun when they had been led into this country. The idea was to keep walking until they eventually reached the border—Capricornian or Aquarian, it didn’t matter.
Just as they were about to start the briefing, a rumbling snaked its way through the thin overgrowth around them. A quiet sputtering. The ground vibrated. A v-ehicle. No. A vehicle. Both hauptmänner tensed and signaled for them all to remain still.
“Hauptmann,” Cadence stated calmly, “I will investigate.”
Instead of abiding by the order like they all did, Cadence darted forward towards the sound, followed shortly after by Nico.
“Waltz!” Weingartner called out. “What are you—”
Gilbert swore under his breath and chased after her only for her to disappear in a shimmer of copper. He ducked down immediately as he reached the lip of the woods and pulled Nico down with him. Gilbert shimmied forwards, peeking up above the thrushes towards the rumbling sound before signaling them all forwards. After sharing a look, Weingartner and Kramer nodded, and they crept forwards as a unit.
As Wilhelm reached Gilbert’s and Nico’s side, Cadence appeared just in front of him in a burst of light and jerked her head towards the bushes. Wilhelm jumped back in surprise, still unnerved by the sight of the conducting, before peering through the greens along with the others. Just beyond the leaves, a strip of asphalt road extended out from a tunnel down to a winding hill. Every so often, a vehicle would roll steadily on by. They didn’t look military-grade.
“Civilians,” Cadence provided, unbuttoning her uniform shirt and sliding it off. The blouse beneath it was spotless. She plucked off the medals adorning the uniform, pulled out the pocket watch, and studied them all for a moment before slipping them into her pants pocket. After side glancing at the group, she neatly folded the uniform before setting it aside. She whipped off her cap next, tossing it onto the uniform. “Captains, my suggestion is that we disguise ourselves as civilians and convince one of the drivers to transport us.”
“To the border?” Weingartner frowned and then seemed to let out a sigh. Not unkindly. “Waltz, I doubt that any non-serving Argoans would be allowed to make it to that point. Even if that’s the case, the chance of being reported—”
“Not to the border. To Stonbo,” Cadence clarified. “The city that the Argoan mentioned.”
“And what do you suggest we do there, Oberleutnant Waltz?” Kramer pressed.
“I was speaking with Fabrizzio earlier. As you’re both aware, his situation is special.” She glanced at Nico crouched beside her. A wordless conversation. “There’s an organization there that doesn’t serve beneath the government directly. They specialize in shipping things into Argo from Signum below the radar. The reverse is possible.”
“Smugglers,” Kramer realized, gaze narrowing. “You want us to go deeper into enemy territory to try to get out of it? Work with an enemy organization? That’s insane.”
“You could call my actions back at the Aquarian-Capricornian the same, Captain Kramer,” Cadence replied. “But we can both agree that the end result begged much to differ. As long as we remain covert and don’t draw attention to ourselves, they won’t notice. Even the most attentive person tends to be too self-absorbed to fully notice their surroundings—at least not until it’s too late… Although I don’t believe in chance, this may be the closest chance we have to escaping Argo without conflict and with minimal casualties and within the shortest time frame.”
A long stretch of silence passed. Ten vehicles passed by on the road.
Eventually, Kramer pinched the bridge of her nose and nodded.
“Go on, Waltz,” Weingartner urged.
Cadence continued, “It’ll be too suspicious if we’re all out on the road initially. With your permission, I will go out solo and give a signal for when I believe it’s safe for all of us to reveal ourselves. I will be taking on an alternate persona as a facade to blend in more effectively, so I ask that you play along with me.”
“Are you kidding me?!” Wilhelm snapped, unable to contain his indignation any longer. “With all due respect—you’re suggesting we work with the same Argoan smugglers who’ve been smuggling conductors to those damned Groans?!”
“Fischer, stand down.”—Wilhelm stiffened at the oberleutnant’s voice and the switch to native tongue—“Keep check of your emotions. You can’t allow them to dictate your actions. I understand we’re under a situation of duress but we can’t put aside opportunities when they present themselves.”
Wilhelm stammered, “Sorry, sir—”
Wilhelm shut his mouth and narrowed his eyes at Cadence who simply held his gaze for a moment before turning back to the hauptmänner.
“You should take off your uniforms too,” she said.
“Right. Everyone. Uniforms off.”
It was painful for Wilhelm: stripping off the uniform that he had cherished and taken care of for months. Compared to their older uniforms, these ones were light-weight and more suitable for trench weather. They’d been given to only a select few units. It had been an honor to receive them and so it was a disgrace to toss them aside.
Bergmann and Kleine seemed to be as hesitant as he was, peeling off their sweat-drenched and mud-caked uniforms slowly and plucking off their medals reverently before storing them in their pockets. Stein, Heimler, Engel, and Gilbert whipped theirs off without care. The Aquarians fared similarly, Sigrid and Knovak shedding off their uniform with ease while Kramer and the other Aquarian did so with hesitation. As they stripped, Cadence ran her fingers through the lieutenant’s hair causing blonde strands to fall into her eyes.
Then, they waited. Several vehicles passed by in clusters, but Cadence didn’t make a move for them. Probably because there were too many of them at once.
Eventually, a single vehicle with an empty, wooden trailer attached to its back came sputtering out from the tunnel down the road towards them. Letting out a breath, Cadence peeled out from the shrubberies and began to wave her hands wildly in the air. The vehicle pulled to the side in front of Cadence. The passenger side window squeaked downwards. An older man with a balding head sat at the wheel with a disgruntled expression.
“Thank you!” Cadence panted in Common. “You’re the only one that’s stopped by for us in the past four hours!”
“The hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” the man grumbled.
Cadence chuckled and thumbed back towards them in the woods. “My friends and I were having a party back in Stonbo, and our seniors dropped us off in the middle of nowhere when we were asleep. Part of a hazing type deal.”
Nico peeled out immediately from the woods waving a hand. “Someone finally stopped? Thank you so much, sir!”
Gilbert exchanged a look with Hauptmann Weingartner who then exchanged a silent conversation with Kapitan Kramer. Collectively, they filtered out of the forest together.
“Where are we anyways?” Cadence pressed.
The old man glanced at them as they emerged, expression folding with wariness. “…You’re in-between Cyril and Streighem.”
Cadence pulled back and scratched the back of her head. “You’re kidding me…”
A head popped out from the back-passenger seat. “My goodness! I thought I was seeing things but—is that the Cadence?”
Cadence squinted into the darkness and hesitated for only a split-second before throwing her hands up in the air and beaming. “It’s Hideyoshi!”
The man—Hideyoshi, apparently—at the back scrambled out into the passenger’s seat and nearly leapt out the window to shake Cadence’s hand. “It’s so good to see you, my friend! It’s been so long!”
The man was clearly of Sagittarian descent with smiling dark eyes and dark hair that was combed back into a ponytail. He was dressed oddly, wearing a suit-and-tie with a woolen coat thrown over it.
Relaxing somewhat, the old man at the wheel looked between them. “You two know each other?
“Of course!” The Sagittarian gushed. “We met back in Gemini! Cadence here saved my dear life!” He scratched his head. “Some strange things happened there, didn’t they? Well, no matter—” He paused, squinting down at her. “Why are you in that outfit again? Your red hair is so lovely—”
Cadence barked out a laugh and slapped Hideyoshi on the shoulder. “Are you on about that night again?” She jerked a thumb at him. “You’ve probably heard him talk a lot about his adventures, haven’t you?”
Wilhelm had no idea what the hell was going on. The only person who didn’t look even mildly confused was Gilbert.
“Well, I don’t have a problem with Geminians despite all the trade restrictions. Crazy tourists coming in during wartime is good for business.” The old man glanced back at them again. “It’s just those damn Capricornians and Aquarians.”
“You think you have a problem with them?” Cadence mused. “Back when I was in Gemini, I couldn’t even get away from ‘em. They’re everywhere in Signum. We’re Argoans by the way. Just went to the Twin Cities on vacation.
Wilhelm bristled, bit the inside of his mouth, and remained silent. The disrespect… He was surprised by a hand on the shoulder by Cadence, however, and the woman offered him a sympathetic look before turning back to the Sagittarian:
“Anyway, Hideyoshi, gotta ask, how and where’s your better half?”
“Oh, my dear, Cadence. The capital!” Hideyoshi exclaimed, before rubbing his eyes. “It’s terrible. People are beating each other with signs there! I thought it was some cultural sport at first, but I was a fool!” He pulled back and stroked his chin. “Although, I was able to see some peacekeepers, a saint candidate, and a guild master there! Such an exciting place!”
Cadence’s smile dipped slightly.
Hideyoshi blinked. “Wait, did I ever tell you about Louise?”
The old man interjected with a cough. “So, what are you folks doing out here?”
“University vacation hence the hazing,” Cadence explained, waving Hideyoshi off. “We may not look like it, but we’re actually students at the—well, take a guess!”
The man thrummed his fingers on the wheel. “Slemings.”
The man paused. “Elysian University?”
“Bingo!” Cadence snapped her fingers.
Hideyoshi gasped. “I didn’t know you went to an esteemed university, Cadence!”
“There’s a lot that you don’t know about me, Hide.”
The old man’s brows shot up. “Really now?” He looked them up and down again as if re-evaluating their worth.
“I’m studyin’ medicine,” Nico interjected with a frighteningly friendly smile. “I’ve got two more years t’go.”
“Makes sense for how you got to visit that Twin Cities if you can afford to go to a school like that…” The old man stroked his chin before glancing behind Wilhelm where Marionette squirmed in her human prison between Stein and Bergmann. “Is everything alright, miss?”
After receiving a nudge from Stein, Marionette lifted her head. “Everything is fine.”
Cadence waved her hand in the air. “Anyway, I was hoping that we might catch a ride with you?”
The man thrummed his fingers on the wheel in thought.
“I’ll pay. What do you charge?”
The man grunted. “Depends on where you want to go.”
The man grunted again. “Ten. For each person.”
Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out a wallet. Werner’s wallet. As she began rifling through it, she nodded at the back of the man’s vehicle. “That’s a lot of empty space. Did you just make a delivery?”
As the man glanced backwards, Cadence activated her conductor and wrapped her fingers around one of the Capricornian marks inside. Copper light shimmied over it, changing the grayish mark imprinted with the Kaiser’s face into a bright blue slip with the number ‘500’ slapped front and center. Transmutation of currency. A universal law in Signum—broken without a care in the world.
The old man turned back to them. “Yeah, I just dropped off something in Cyril. Work as a carrier.”
“That’s pretty amazing—seeing the entire world for a living. Wait, do you have change?” She flipped through the wallet and pulled out the transmuted bill.
The old man ogled the bill before quickly digging into his glove compartment and pulling out a mess of Argoan bills. He counted them and held out both hands—one empty, the other piled on with the cash.
Cadence dropped her Argoan bill into the man’s hand, plucked the man’s wad of cash from his hand, and shoved about twenty bills into her pocket before handing the rest of the bills back to the man. “You keep the rest of the change. Think of it as a tip.”
Biting down a smile, the old man jerked his head to the back of the vehicle. “Get in.”
Cadence popped into the passenger seat, while Nico loaded into the backseat of the vehicle beside Hideyoshi and was joined by Gilbert. This left Wilhelm and the others no choice but to load onto the trailer.
The disrespect for superiors was aggravating, but Wilhelm swallowed his words and took his seat. The back window of the vehicle was wide open so he could easily overhear the discussions going on inside the vehicle.
Cadence Morello. Wouldn’t. Stop. Talking.
The worst part was that the Argoan driver was eating it all up. Even if he was a dirty Groan, Wilhelm still felt bad for him. Being told lies like “I’ll put in a good word for you at my dad’s company” and “they’re really looking for drivers,’ and “wow, it’s impressive that you’re able to keep on the road for so long”—it reminded Wilhelm of his own grandparents’ empty praises. Nico fed into the charade, offering occasional compliments here and there. They worked like a well-oiled team.
Cadence was still talking when the city lights of Stonbo began to shine on the horizon. It was a lot brighter but less sharp than the v-lights of Die Hauptstadt. Wilhelm still remembered his lessons back in primary school about energy sources outside of Signum:
Countries beyond Signum still hadn’t moved beyond using an archaic source of energy that ate away at and polluted their environment. It was also unsustainable and was not able to power as much per unit of energy as vitae particles did. That was why, his teachers had said back then, it was good to conserve vitae in reservoirs when possible since they were blessed with being born in Signum—no, in Capricorn—where they naturally formed. This lesson had been shortly, ironically followed by a military declaration from the Kaiser stating that the levels of the singular vitae reservoir of the country were extremely low.
After this and following the orders of an official military mandate, Wilhelm’s village was required to cycle the use of their conductor generator two times a day for half-an-hour increments to preserve it until the reservoir was replenished naturally. It was all sensible though. A little bit of sacrifice for the whole of the country. Civilians still had duties too.
But seeing the number of Argoan civilians dotting the sidewalks increase as the vehicle drew deeper into the city gave Wilhelm a sense of odd discomfort. So did the buildings and street lamps. The city looked no different from the capital yet different at the same time.
“Look at all these people,” Marionette muttered. “Half of them will probably end up having to take up arms because we keep pushing them to that extent.”
Heimler remained silent beside her, merely offering a furrowed brow of sympathy.
“They’d come at us whether or not we stop shooting at them,” Stein retorted. “Better to shoot them before they can pull out their artillery.” He nudged Kleine sitting beside him. “Ain’t that right?”
Bergmann frowned. “Stop it, Stein.”
Stein opened his mouth but shut it a beat after. He was probably thinking about Otto.
“Or maybe they’d be willing to put their weapons down once they realize they don’t have to defend themselves anymore. Land is land, lives are lives. They’re separate, not the same.” Marionette frowned. “You paint things as ‘us’ and ‘them’ when in reality it’s our militaries putting us against each other. We’re just puppets on strings.”
“What kind of bullshit is that? You’re not even out here,” Stein scoffed, waving her off. “Not listening to you anymore. Shut up before I shoot you.”
The Aquarians across from them exchanged muted looks. It rubbed Wilhelm’s skin the wrong way. As if their country was any better with their greedy oligarchs and their constant famines in areas without reservoirs.
Eventually, the old man parked his car at a building with an overhanging plastic red roof at its front. While he and Cadence began to exchange contact information—false on Cadence’s part—the Aquarians began to load off the trailer.
“Smells like the Twin Cities,” Stein grumbled, scrunching his nose as he swung himself over the wall of the wagon onto the brick sidewalk. “Like shit. Worse than the trench.”
Wilhelm followed him off, a bit more hesitantly. Pedestrians eyed their group as they passed by. Their laughter and conversations sounded muffled like whispering in Wilhelm’s ears like they were underwater. What were they saying? Did they see something off?
In enemy territory. Surrounded by enemies. Far from home.
Wilhelm’s heart hammered, and a chill crept up his spine. Something brushed against his leg causing him to startle away and reach for a ghost of a gun at his waist. When he looked down, he found a boy no older than ten blinking up at him warily.
A hand brushed his shoulder.
Wilhelm turned to find the oberleutnnt—no, Cadence—standing behind him, eyebrows arched. Just behind her stood Nico and Gilbert. The Aquarians, the rest of the unit, and Engel were crowded in front of the building beneath the roof. While Nico and Cadence looked relaxed, everyone else too seemed on edge.
A sputtering sound cut between the garbled whispers as the old man started up his vehicle and waved a hand out the window. The Sagittarian mimicked the gesture.
Cadence waved her hand in the air, muttering, “Not gonna be too friendly when my transmutation wears off, but Hide will handle that. Don’t understand that Hide at all though.” When she turned back to him, her expression betrayed worry.
Wilhelm wondered why. Not like she knew him.
“Calm down, Will,” she said. “This is a gambling city, remember? People care more about earning their fill than anything else.” Digging into her pocket, she pulled out a chocolate bar, broke off an extended piece, and handed it to the Argoan boy.
The child took it greedily and popped it into his mouth only to make a face a second after and spit out the half-chewed piece onto the ground. “It’s bitter.”
Cadence grimaced but quickly pulled her lips into a thin line and tucked the chocolate bar back into her pocket. “You shouldn’t be wasteful.”
Weingartner approached them from behind causing the boy to stiffen and run off without another word. For a moment, Wilhelm thought he saw the hauptmann’s face fold.
Cadence sighed. “You know, when I was younger, I ate whatever I could find. One time I swiped a melon from a traveling fruit seller. Turned out it was bitter melon from Sagittarius. But you know what? I still ate it.”
“No one forced you to eat it, Cadence,” Nico amended. “Ricardo was hosting dinner that week and invited you.”
“Well, I worked for it,” Cadence responded, eyes still locked onto the boy’s retreating figure. “Of course, I’m going to eat it. But you’ve been hanging around here so long, you’ve probably forgotten all about your roots, huh?”
Nico frowned. “What’s that supposed to—”
“Well, Morello,” Weingartner drew, glancing back to where the others clustered by the sidewalk a meter away. “What’s the next step? How will we get to the smugglers?”
“Nico and I’ll search the city and get information on them,” Cadence replied.
“And what do we do?”
“Relax?” Cadence suggested, dropping three bills into the hauptmann’s hand. “Enjoy yourself.”
“I’ll come too,” Gilbert interjected.
“No offense, Gil, but you’re not the best actor.”
“I don’t feel comfortable leaving reconnaissance to just you and Fabrizzio,” the hauptmann agreed. “You…”
“Don’t you worry, Captain. I won’t be abandoning you.” Cadence flashed a smile. It seemed off from her usual lax grin—a bit duller. “The dear lieutenant wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if anything happened to you. Half of the others’d probably be pissed too. Cost-benefit analysis…”
It almost sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
* * *
They waited in front of the building for half an hour before Cadence and Nico returned. Time moved sluggishly for Wilhelm. He’d spent the time sitting beside Stein at a cafe patio across from the building they’d arrived in front of and staring at the lights within. The lights occasionally flickered on-and-off which prompted a worker to light candles and place them around the tables.
Cadence greeted them as the oberleutnant would, minus all the ingrained military procedure. She was dressed sharper now as was Nico—both in crisp suits that looked expensive. Normally Wilhelm wouldn’t question it out of habit, but now he had to restrain himself from asking how’d she gotten her hands on the clothing.
Cadence led them down the road several blocks and through several twisting alleys, before presenting them in front of a wide building with pillars embedded into its walls. The pillars held up an engraved wooden sign bleached by a spotlight below. It read in Common, Albion Dreams.
The entryway was crowded. Dresses glitter and shining suits sparkled in the glow cast by the bleeding spotlight. The customers’ breaths fogged up the air creating a cloud of energy above their heads.
“A casino?” Weingartner inquired.
“It’s a front,” Cadence replied, staring up at the sign. “It hides the real business underneath… ‘Albi…on… Dreams’—fancy name.”
Nico turned to Cadence in surprise. “You can rea—”
“The owner of the smuggling ring owns this location and is fond of poker. All we need to do is get her attention.” Cadence glanced at the Aquarians and turned back to the hauptmann. “With your permission, sir, I ask that you let me and Nico handle that affair since we’re familiar with it.”
This was ridiculous.
But still the hauptmann nodded and merely said, “We’ve come this far already.”
Wilhelm knew that Weingartner was merely going along with Cadence because she had promised to keep his daughter safe. Thinking that his daughter’s life was worth more than his dignity as a Capricornian—shameful. If the head generals learned about this…
Cadence waltzed right into the casino like she visited it every single day while Wilhelm lagged a step behind with the others. She greeted a circle of men crowded around a billiard table at the very front of the casino and put money down for one of the players. The men there exchanged glances of confusion at first before warming and inviting her to observe. Eventually, the man she’d bet her money on won the game, and she reaped the earnings before heading to the back of the casino.
How she was able to navigate the elongated tables, the swarming waiters, and the half-drunken customers amazed Wilhelm—though he didn’t admit it. She headed over to a token booth caged in by diamond-shaped bars at the back of the room, bought a handful of tokens, and seated herself at the nearest poker table. Nico followed suit a minute after, giving the hauptmann a nod, Gilbert an arched brow, and all the others a reassuring smile. He seated himself across from her and joined the game.
“Down draw attention to yourself,” was Weingartner’s only order.
Wilhelm awkwardly moved to observe a roulette game along the left-side wall as the others dispersed around him. Eventually, he was joined by Stein dragging along Marionette by the arm. But even with Stein’s off-handed, crass comments about the drunken man playing in front of them, Wilhelm couldn’t focus on the game. His gaze kept drifting over towards the poker table.
As the poker game over there dragged on, it drew more and more attention as players in tweedled jackets and in loose gowns became replaced with players in well-tailored suits and gem-encrusted dresses. When a crowd began to form around the tables, Wilhelm peeled away from the roulette table along with Stein and Marionette and joined the onlookers.
It was startling to see how many tokens were piled up on Cadence’s side of the table. Opposite of her, Nico had half that amount and would occasionally wring his hands and tap his hand of cards against his palm. Gilbert had a single token but didn’t seem too disgruntled by the fact. The others at the table, however, did and sent glares in Cadence’s direction. Ignoring the looks, Cadence revealed her cards.
One of the other players slammed his fists on the table. “You’re cheat—”
Abruptly, the crowd behind Cadence parted like a veil and a tall woman with a sharp nose stepped forward. She wore a black dress with a red train that dragged on the floor behind her. The trail of cloth reminded Wilhelm of the way streaks of blood would stain the ground when moving a body. She tapped the shoulder of the man sitting to Cadence’s right, and he quickly moved aside. After taking his place, she asked the dealer to restart the game and dropped a handful of tokens onto the table seemingly from nowhere. No one complained.
Wilhelm had never played poker before. He always spent his free time cleaning out the insulating tubes of his conductors or counting the second ticking by in his head. He’d always thought poker was a silent mental match of endurance, but the way Cadence played made it seem like something else altogether.
“Oh, are you my lucky charm or my bad luck charm?” Cadence asked as she put several cards down.
The woman smiled, responding, “Only time will tell.”
Ten minutes into the first round and Cadence won.
“You must be quite wealthy seeing how well you play,” the woman said, batting her eyelashes over the new cards she’d been dealt.
“Oh, I know how to make money.” Cadence chuckled good-naturedly. “Just don’t know how to save it. Not really. Keep using it for useless things.”
“Well.” The woman smiled. “It’s my pleasure to let you earn and lose here at my establishment. If you’re willing to play another round with me, I might be willing to give you a discount.”
“You’re the owner?” —It was difficult to tell if Cadence’s surprise was genuine— “Well, the pleasure is mine, Miss….?”
* * *
The table played into the late hours of the night. Customers were ushered out at one in the morning—some drunk and grumbling, others excitedly cheering, and most with their head hung low. Wilhelm noticed, however, that none of the unit nor any of the Aquarians had been asked to leave. The two hauptmänner were sitting at a bar sharing a drink of all things, while the others were scattered about. It was obvious that something wasn’t right.
But Cadence didn’t seem to notice. Throughout the entire evening, she’d been exchanging flirtatious looks with the Argoan and even went so far as to brush her leg up against the Argoan’s every so often.
It aggravated Wilhelm to no end.
“It’s been a long time since a man’s caught my eye,” Mallory said. “I wish we could play forever.”
“I can’t say I’ve got the best luck with women.” Cadence offered a smile. “But maybe I should give it another go.”
Mallory covered a chuckle with her hand before setting her cards down and sighing. “So what are Capricornians and Aquarians doing on this side of the border?”
Wilhelm tensed. The dealers and bartenders that had once been stacking chairs around them whipped out guns from nowhere. Stein, Sigrid, and Knovak all launched themselves at the armed men closest to them and tackled them to the ground. There was a brief struggle, but after a stomp on the face from Sigrid, five punches across the jaw from Stein, and a kick in the groin from Knovak, the trio took hold of the weapons and aimed them at Mallory.
Wilhelm lunged for the nearest bartender who was holding a pistol, but as soon as he took a step forward, a dealer standing to his right pointed a gun right in his face. Wilhelm froze in place, body tense, grimacing. If he had his conductor on him, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Woah, what’s with all of this violence?” Cadence’s hands were up in the air. “I thought we were batting eyelashes at each other just a second ago.”
“Your companions are the ones that attacked mine first.” Mallory shook her head. “You residents of Signum are such hypocrites.”
“You sound a lot like a friend of mine,” Cadence continued, undeterred. She threw a look back towards Weingartner: “Captain…?”
“Stand down,” Weingartner ordered.
Three weapons were lowered.
Mallory waved her hand in the air causing the rest of the weapons to be lowered. She then turned to Cadence and looked her up and down. “How did you hear of me?”
“Let’s just say I’m acquainted with an acquaintance of an acquaintance of someone you did good business with. It makes me very privy to this kind of information.”
Mallory hummed. “Someone from the Twin Cities then?” She eyed Nico. “And you. You must be that famous underground doctor’s son… Why are you involving yourself in a fight that’s not yours?”
Cadence merely side-glanced at Nico.
“I don’t understand you people at all.” Mallory curled a lock of hair around her finger before she shrugged. “You have peacekeepers to make sure you don’t fight each other, but you do anyway. You even fight us. But hey, at least it is good for business. While it lasted at least.”
“I know, right?” Cadence chirped. “Always ready to become target practice for what? A bit of land? A bit of glory? For honor? Victory is upon us?” She looked to the side at the others, but Wilhelm couldn’t tell who specifically. “Maybe a bit of romance?”
Mallory chuckled then, leaning forward across the table. “It’s the reservoirs. And the conductors… although I don’t think they’re worth all that trouble.” She was practically laying on the table now. “You on the other hand… I’m still considering it.”
“Miss Mallory,” Hauptmann Weingartner interjected. “Given that you’re aware of who we are, it’s clear that you know what we’re looking for.”
“You’re looking for someone to transport you across the border,” Mallory concluded, pulling back. “Well, it’s good that you’ve come to me. Anywhere else and they might’ve shot you on the spot. Not so much for this country but for all of their friends and families you’ve killed.”
Wilhelm grimaced. Acting like they didn’t do the same, he thought. Hypocrites.
“It’s a shame what Capricorn has become,” Marionette agreed from the sidelines.
Saints. Wilhelm wanted to put a bullet through her.
Cadence reached into her pocket causing all the Argoans to raise their weapons. A hand wave from Mallory, however, dissuaded them. The Geminian continued and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her pocket. Bergmann and Stein reached for their own pockets in surprise. Ignoring them, Cadence offered Mallory a cigarette and lit it for her. She then reached into her pocket again, this time drawing out a collection of items that she tossed onto the table. The silver and gold medals that were every Capricornians’ honor and dream clattered against the wood. Hollow, heavy, hard.
Wilhelm startled, and he heard Bergmann gasp.
“I hear that you have a thing for Signum military medals. Doesn’t matter if they’re pre- or post-Reservoir War.” Cadence picked up the Iron Horn and smoothed her gloved fingers over its intricate points. “You paid ten-thousand Argoan dollars for just one of these. And I bet it wasn’t the best medal. I’m offering you around—well, let’s say—maybe six of these. Highest quality, highest honor. Pretty sure that covers the transportation of at least three-fourths of this lot—”
What? How dare she…?
“—that and I’ll put in a good word for the heiress of the Romanos for you.”
Mallory threw her head back and laughed. “That princess? You think I want anything to do with the Romanos anymore? Everyone’s heard what’s happened in that city. The Campanas are through; the Romanos have become mere dogs on chains… Oh, and one of the Foxmans is out of his mind.”
Cadence’s smile dipped slightly, and Nico’s brows creased.
“The Reservoir War weakened Signum. All the other countries surrounding it are just waiting for that last crack to appear so they can reap the rewards.” Mallory puffed. “The Second Reservoir War—ha, how do you feel about that?”
Stein stormed forward, teeth bared, eyes wild. Bergmann and the hauptmann gave him a warning shout but his mind seemed set. Before he could cross that line, however, Marionette grabbed a hold of his arm and jerked him backward. He whipped around towards her with a raised fist, but she dug her nails into his arm and whispered something into his ear that caused him to stop altogether.
Cadence’s and Mallory’s conversation continued undisturbed.
Cadence clasped her hands together. “Well, a chained dog can be more aggressive than a free one. Anyways, what I’m saying is that the Romanos have been investing in a new resource. Not quite illegal.”
“What do you think a cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat is?”
Mallory’s brows rose. “Expensive…”
“I’ll be able to send you the details in a couple weeks. But until then…” Cadence pushed the medals forward. “Any of these catch your eye?”
Mallory twirled the cigarette in-between her fingers as she stared at the medals considering. “Hm… make it seven.”
Mallory flicked off a bud of ash and narrowed her eyes. “But tell that Fortuna that if I see her face again, I’ll gouge her eyes out.”
Cadence’s smile dipped before she offered a pleasant smile. “I can only deliver the message if I’m alive… the entire package included.”
Mallory reached across the table with a pale hand and placed it over Cadence’s. “You showed me such an entertaining time. How could I—”
Cadence suddenly shot up to a stand and ripped her hand away. Her eyes were wide, her breath heavy and shallow, her voice trembling. “W-What did you just say…?”
Mallory frowned, retracting her hand. “It was a compliment. No need to be so rude. Is this how you do business deals in your country…?”
Cadence’s gaze flicked around the room, eyes darting from bartender to dealer from Weingartner to Kramer from Stein to Sigrid. When her eyes landed on Wilhelm, Wilhelm felt static prick its way up his back. It was like she was staring right through him.
Nico rose to a stand, his movement catching her eye. She turned to him, stared into him, and then sank back down into her chair with an easy smile. It was eerie how well she was able to change her expression. Wilhelm couldn’t even tell which one was real.
Cadence reached across the table and placed a hand over Mallory’s. “Sorry about that. Your touch is just so electrifying. That’s all.” She took Mallory’s hand in hers and gave it a shake. “So, we have a deal then.”
* * *
At 0200 hours, they were loaded beneath the tarp of a caravan attached to a vehicle at the back of the casino. There were no words exchanged as they situated themselves in the caravan nor were there any words exchanged when the vehicle started rolling forward. Wilhelm sat in tense silence listening to the labored breathing of the others as the vehicle bumped along the road.
The vehicle stopped after an uncountable amount of time, and they were ushered out and greeted by a rose-colored sky lathering the horizon with pink clouds.
The first thing that Wilhelm tasted was the familiar salt hanging heavy in the air. Paired with it was a mustiness—probably from seaweed that had been washed ashore. Seagulls cawed above their heads and circled them like vultures. Summing all of these parts together, Wilhelm concluded that they were near an ocean port.
Sure enough, they were led through a small portside town dotted with shirtless men and women wearing bandanas. The stench of fish tied up in fishnets hung up on sides of buildings and dismantled boats wasn’t overwhelming to Fischer, but he became embarrassed when Stein and Bergmann began to gag.
“Come on. Move quickly,” the Argoan who had driven them to this place said. “I wanna go home too.”
They peeled onto the docks extending out from the town. The echo their rubber boots made against the wood brought much-unwanted nostalgia to Wilhelm. The Argoan driver led them up to and onto a steel behemoth of a boat that stretched half the length of the dock. The name of the boat that was pasted on the side was clearly in Piscese. Stolen, probably.
After being loaded into the lower deck, they were handed a pack of cards, two packets of cigarettes, and a gallon of water in a plastic jar. “Happy sailing” were their parting words.
The lower deck area was small and smelled of mildew. There was a singular porthole to the side of the wall that allowed evening light to coat the tarps thrown over steel containers filling the room.
After an hour of inspecting the area, Cadence invited the Aquarians to play a card game with the rest of the unit: “My subordinates suggested a card game to pass time. Would you like to join?”—all said with a serious expression, with an even tone. Only Knovak took up the offer, with Sigrid choosing to reside quietly in the corner with the other Aquarian and with Kramer moving to discuss something with the hauptmann behind a hanging tarp.
They built their makeshift game table out of a stray wooden crate and used canisters of oil as chairs. They set up their game behind a stack of containers and crates by the singular porthole for light and privacy.
Wilhelm didn’t join the game, instead choosing to watch the unit—minus Stein who was on guard over Engel—and Knovak from a close distance. It irritated Wilhelm to no end that Cadence had invited not only Knovak to play but also Heimler who hesitantly accepted the cards she dealt out. Gilbert, Kleine, Brandt, Nico, and Bergmann accepted their cards without this hesitation.
It was like Cadence was baiting him.
Halfway through the first round, Brandt complained he was tired and headed off to sleep. He was soon joined by Nico who exchanged a quick slew of words in Geminian with Cadence before departing.
“Can’t believe it work,” Knovak finally said after their third round.
“Our last partnership worked,” Cadence responded. “It’s not unusual for our second one to be the same.”
“You crazy.” Knovak snorted. “You crazy, but you smart. Anyway, gotta piss.” And with that, he rose and disappeared behind the stack of containers.
A silence fell over them as they waited for Knovak to return.
“So, Cadence.” Bergmann swallowed. “You really do work for the crime organization that supplied Capricorn with…” She trailed off, peering into Cadence’s face and studying it.
That analytic curiosity reminded Wilhelm of the way the hauptmann had inspected Cadence on the night of the revelation. The hauptmann had asked a series of strange questions then: how do you distinguish your thoughts from each other, how many times have you crossed conducting-types, what types of memories do you experience, how long have you been in hiding from ELPIS and the ELPIS Department, how is Capricorn involved, and how sure are you that you’re actually you.
“You were there, Bergmann,” Cadence said, not unkindly. “I’m sorry for the city being unpleasant during your last visit. It’s usually very lively—in a good way.”
“You’re very good at acting like the oberleutnant…” Kleine noted, setting down his cards playing-face up. “It’s uncanny.”
“Well, we are swimming around in each other’s heads half the time.” Cadence abruptly gathered all the cards and shuffled the deck in a methodical manner reminiscent of the oberleutnant—not that Wilhelm had ever seen Waltz handle cards. “It’d be weird if I didn’t know how he acted. Plus, it’s my profession. And you seem like you’d be uncomfortable if I started talkin’ ta ya all like this which is how I normally talk, doll. So I decided to continue speaking like this. I’m doing it for myself too, of course. I’m not that generous—as you’re all aware.”
The threat grated on Wilhelm’s nerves. He grimaced. “I can’t believe we have to rely on Groans like this. The oberleutnant would never approve of this strategy. He’s not a coward.”
“Fischer,” Gilbert warned.
Cadence blinked at him. “Never said he was… “
Wilhelm glanced at Gilbert, winced under his glare, but continued anyways. “People like you are dangerous. You’re a liability. You could sell out all of our secrets that the oberleutnant knows just like that!” He whipped around to the others. “Can’t you see that?!”
Cadence held up a hand and offered a sympathetic smile. “Look, I understand how you feel. You’re dedicated. But let’s all just get along—”
Unable to control his irritation any longer, Wilhelm flew up to a stand and slammed his hands against the crate. The cards still resting on the table fluttered into the air. “You can’t give me orders! You’re not the person I chose to follow!”
His words drowned in the silence that followed.
Cadence silently reached into her pocket, pulled out a lighter, and lit herself a cigarette. The embers painted her face orange. “I get where you’re coming from, Fischer. I really do. You care about your country—”
“Exactly.” Wilhelm gritted his teeth. “Once we get back to Capricorn, I’m going to report all of this in. Not just the Augen but that the oberleutnant is a True Conductor. He should’ve reported it to begin with, but I’m guessing you people had something to do with that. You don’t scare me. You have nothing on me.”
After a beat, Cadence sighed. “Word of advice. First, don’t make obvious threats. Ya gotta be subtle. It amps up the fear. And don’t make threats when your threat ain’t immediately executable. Secondly, pride is a bad investment.” She took a drag and held out her hand. Copper sparks seeped up from her gloves like smoke and danced at her fingertips before coalescing together to form a humanoid figure on her palm. “Thirdly, if ya keep people on a pedestal like that, you’ll only be disappointed. Admiration and dreams’re only mirages. The closer ya get, the more reality seeps in. ‘Course that doesn’t mean, ya shouldn’t go after ‘em. That’s what bein’ alive is all about.”
Wilhelm shook his head. “What does that even have to do with—”
“He trusts you.” Lowering her hand onto her playing cards, Cadence took a drag and stared out the port window. “The dear lieutenant, I mean.”
Wilhelm could feel the discomfort in the atmosphere. Cadence seemed to find home in it.
“You, Derik, ‘milia, Klaus, Alwin, the good captain,” she continued, gathering the playing cards again. “‘And of course Gilbert.” She winked at the leutnant before her smile dipped slightly. “And… Nico too.”
A brief spark of satisfaction beat in Wilhelm’s chest
“But he’s a cherry boy when it comes to things like these. Soon as you break through the initial ten meters of ice, you’re in the iron fortress for good.” Cadence hummed, shuffling the cards rapidly. “But ya see, I can see the type of persona ya are, Will. You’re lookin’ like you’re constantly searchin’ for praise. Thing is, it’ll never be enough praise. Not for you. You’ll never be satisfied, so you’ll keep at it even if it hurts people—” She shrugged “—but some people are just like that. The problem is that what you want’ll make my investments go kaput. And I can’t let that happen.”
Wilhelm’s heart skipped a beat as she locked eyes with him.
“I’m not the type for personal threats but I owe the guy a whole lot so I’ll tell ya this.” She held a card out to him—a joker—and then she snapped her fingers.
Copper light popped at her hands again and swallowed her body whole. When the light shattered, a chill ran down Wilhelm’s spine as he found himself face-to-face with his grandmother who then morphed into his grandfather in a flash of copper light.
How did she know…?
“Ya said that I’m not the person you chose to follow. Dramatics aside, you’re right. I’m a Twin Cities rat through and through. Power dynamics aren’t concrete in there, ya get me? Even a rat can eat ya alive.”
Wilhelm had completely forgotten about the stories he’d heard about the denizens of the Twin Cities. It had all been buried beneath the tales of endless night parties, one-night-millionaires, and romantic meetings. The truth was that the people who lived there—the crooks, thieves, criminals—used people’s lives like currency. And this person—this Cadence Morello—was the one who’d initiated the deal with Capricorn. And she was connected to people who’d been able to sneak modified conductors right under Ophiuchus’s nose for years. Dangerous.
“Back in the Twin Cities, we don’t run by many laws but we’ve got a general rule of thumb. Ya hurt me, I hurt you. Doesn’t matter if we go blind by doin’ it. Ya get me? I may not be the type ta bury someone a meter under but I’m friends with people who do it three times a day. Don’t even need a phone call to ask ‘em ta pull in a favor.” She gestured around the circle. “I’m sure ya know this yourself, Will. Ya don’t need to be strong to make it in this world. Ya just need ta surround yourself by people who are. And all you’re doin’ is pushin’ those people away. You’re lucky ta be in this unit, like I’m lucky ta have met Nico and the Foxmans.”
Wilhelm didn’t know it was possible to feel both fear and shame at the same time.
“Anyways, the worst kinda pain ain’t the physical kind. Trust me. I know from experience.” She smiled, thin and without a care, as she shed his grandfather’s skin in a shimmer of light. “Everyone has something they don’t want to lose.”
The ship horn blew.
Cadence laid down the deck of cards, playing-face up. The joker card stared at him.
* * *
The ship docked an unknown amount of time later. They waited below deck as the thump, thump, thump and clang, clang, clang of cargomen moving around containers and crates resounded above. Eventually, a man of Piscese descent came below deck and jerked his inked-head upwards.
As soon as they stepped out onto the docks and into open, salty air and blinding dawn light, they were met with the points of conductors—melee, long-range, and all the above. Kramer stepped forward, pulling something out from her pocket and flashing it to the man with the highest number of silver waves plated onto the shoulder pads of his uniform. The man scanned the item before his eyes widened. He opened his mouth and said something in a language Wilhelm barely understood. Aquarian.
Damn. They were in Aquarius.
After conversing with the man, Kramer turned back to them and said in Common, “I will speak with my superiors about what happened on your behalf. I will be back.” And with that, she departed behind an army of bodies and left them caged in by an army of bodies.
Kramer returned half an hour later flanked by Aquarians on her left and right. She was dressed in her uniform again, cap and all, and had even re-clipped her medals. Wilhelm’s heart hammered in his chest as her gaze swept over them. He knew that she had the advantage here. Betrayal was easy.
Hands folded behind her back, she spoke clearly, “I’ve explained the situation to my superiors stationed here. They’re willing to provide you transportation to the border, since you aided us in our escape.”
Relief lifted a weight off of Wilhelm’s shoulders, but Cadence’s words still hung heavy in his chest.
“But, because this is an entanglement between two of our countries, Ophiuchus has been notified and requested a meeting before departure. Fortunately, one of our newly-appointed liaisons to Ophiuchus is already here for a routine conductor inspection.” She nodded at Knovak and Sigrid who both looked disinterested by the unfolding events. “Knovak, Sigrid, you should both be familiar with her. She was with you during the event at the Zatmeniye Caverns.”
A woman stepped out from behind Kramer and—saints—she was a stunner. Dark locks curled around her heart-shaped face, her long dark lashes catching the faint light spilling in from between the clouds. Her red lips seemed to be the only splash of color in all the gray.
Out of the corner of his eye, Wilhelm noticed Cadence take a sudden step back and Sigrid tense.
“It’s good to see you again, Nikita, Sigrid.” The woman smiled, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her. “My name is Cvetka. Cvetka Akulova… And I promise I won’t take up too much of your time.”
Werner Waltz squinted and held up his hand to catch the sunlight sauntering down in-between the stone pillars that rose to his left and right. Just across the grassy courtyard in front of him glowed a crimson-red flag emblazoned with a sewn-on golden ram head.
Realization and memories crashed down on Werner immediately: he had been tasked to find and excise the intruder he’d allowed into himself, and yet he had somehow forgotten that purpose and had become entangled in that living memory. Unacceptable.
Something brushed against his hand—his bare hand—and he whipped around to find a young girl with wispy black hair blinking up at him past the sunrays. Lavender Chance. Her cheeks were rounder and her hair shorter than he remembered. She was younger, he concluded. Perhaps no older than five.
“Come on, Ollie,” Lavi pouted, wrapping both her hands around his upper arm. “You promised you’d show me your friends! You promised!”
What was she playing at?
Werner frowned down at her and prepared to respond but his lips started moving on their own and words tumbled out without his control— “You need to be patient, Lavi! I’ll show you after lunch! Alexander said mom and dad are going to bring sweets from Pisces!”
This was a memory, Werner realized. And not his own.
“Bingo,” came a familiar voice from behind. “It rarely happens like this, but think of it as a side story.”
Werner turned away from the pouting Lavi to find Shion standing behind him. The sunlight painted her dark hair gold, while the shadow of a pillar concealed her face in darkness.
“You brought me here.”
Shion held up her hands. “I’m on your side. You were being pulled in too much.”
So she had seen. And that aside, to be able to do this and to come here with him indicated she was playing more of a role than she was revealing.
Shion frowned. “Like I said, I’m on your side…”
Lavi tugged him forward. He couldn’t resist her because Olive didn’t resist her, and together they dashed forward. They passed by a building lined with many circular windows, and Werner caught Olive’s tanned, round, exasperated yet pleased face reflected there. They continued until they reached a small clearing that housed a stone water fountain with tiers crafted to resemble flames. Lavi pulled him to the edge, sank into a crouch, dug into her pocket, and threw in a handful of common-coins.
“What did you wish for?” came Olive’s question from Werner’s mouth.
“That the saint candidate ceremony goes good!” Lavi popped up into a stand.
“If you tell your wish to other people, then it won’t come true.”
Lavi’s face fell. “Then why’d you ask?”
“It’s okay.” —Werner’s hand reached forward towards the fountain on its own— “If I take it out then it’ll reverse the reverse of the wish!”
Just before Werner’s fingertips touched the barrier of water, he felt control over his body return to him. He pulled his hand away from the water but paused when something in the fountain caught his eye. The tiled floor of the fountain suddenly extended out deeper and farther down, until it seemed almost bottomless. Werner peered closer but instead of finding the tiled-floor at its bottom, he found a familiar room filled with blue moonlight pouring in from a frosted glass window. A small figure stood front and center there, and before that figure stood a tall woman holding a thin, long stick.
It was as if he was looking down at the scene from a high vantage point, and it gave him a sense of vertigo. An impossible occurrence. Regardless, Werner kept his breathing even and inspected further.
Muffled sounds rose from the scene below and bubbles escaped from the mouths of the small and tall figure. When the bubbles rose to the surface of the water and popped, Werner was able to hear the conversation released from the bubbles in full:
“You’re telling me that Frau Wolff’s son wasn’t the one who broke the vase? You’re saying that it was you? You’re not lying to me, are you? To make it so that I don’t fire Frau Wolff? You know what people think about liars, Werner.”
“I was in the room. I should’ve prevented it from being broken since I was there, but I didn’t. I need to take responsibility for it.”
“…That’s right, honey. That’s so admirable. People will think you’re an amazing, responsible leader if you go on acting like that from now on. You should hold people in the same regard.” A soft sigh resounded. “Because you know Werner—”
A sharp crack resounded as the last bubble rose to the surface and popped.
“Appearances are everything.”
Werner frowned. Something wasn’t right. This being placed here was almost like a lure—
—but he had to get back. And this was an entryway to get back to the place Shion had whisked him away from.
Right. He had a task to finish.
Werner reached forward towards the water but before he could touch its surface, a hand wrapped around his wrist. He didn’t need to turn to know that it was Shion. He was jerked backwards and—
—he fell back onto the ground, gravel scraping against his bare palms. Dimness suddenly surrounded him, and it took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the new darkness.
When his eyes adjusted, he found that he was no longer staring at the water fountain but in front of a red brick wall. The sunny sky had become replaced by heavy black clouds overhead. The air tasted of soot and salt. The Twin Cities.
Shion was trying to deter him, Werner realized as he picked himself off the ground and scanned the area. The next question was why she was trying to deter him when she’d set him on this course initially.
A sniffling from his left drew his attention away. A young boy with curly dark hair and amber eyes sat on the dirty ground surrounded by a ring of groaning younger children. Gauging by the bruises purpling all of their faces and arms, it appeared as if there had been a fight.
“Are you okay, Cadence?” Nico wiped the tears from his eyes as he stumbled over and took his—rather Cadence’s—hand in his own. “Why did you do that?”
“I’m uninjured.” Werner paused as he realized he was also able to speak freely now too. He pulled his hand away out of habit.
“You don’t have to do that for me, Cadence.” Nico sniffled. “I can take the punches. Don’t take it for me again, or I’ll hate you forever!”
Werner swallowed a sigh and paced forward.
It seemed as if this was another memory—one of where Cadence had rescued Nico from his childhood bullies. These were things that Werner ‘remembered’ frequently, so he was not deterred by the events. Now, he just needed to find an exit—like that fountain.
“Where are you going? We should go to my dad! You’re hurt!”
“I’m fine, Nico.” Werner scanned the walls slathered over with peeling posters and stepped over glass bottles scattered over the ground. “I need you to help me find something.”
“Anything that looks out of the ordinary.”
“Out of the ordinary…” A pause. “Wait, were you trying to be like your imaginary friends again?” Nico continued just a step behind him. “Like the Capricornian or the one in the Monadic orphanage?”
Werner stopped short, turned, narrowed his eyes. Nico startled.
What…? Wasn’t this a memory? Nico was obviously referring to him and Maria despite their first synchronization not occurring until just over half a year ago. This memory was evidently from much earlier. Perhaps, this wasn’t a memory after all. Which was dangerous.
Werner pushed the issue aside and continued forward down the alley. The important matters needed to be addressed first as much as he disliked leaving things unresolved.
“Could you talk about the book girl or the Capricornian again?” Nico continued. “They’re my favorite out of all six of ‘em.”
Werner frowned. “Nico, please focus—” He stopped short again. “Out of all the six…?”
10 thoughts on “16.2: Private, 0405 No Honor”
Wait…. there’s six people that one person is connected to? So there’s seven? ;o And, Cadence, run.
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Good eye! And yes, all shall be revealed : )
Perhaps it’s easier to get lost in your own memory than another’s? Maybe that’s why they want Werner to leave
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Oh, good theory!
You opened up the comment section! Thank you!!!!! I’m excited to see what happens in 16.()
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was the comment section not open before? 16.() is probably going to be about francis/theta getting involved in things..
You had to have a WordPress account before you could comment ;P. That’s what I think too. Hopefully he’ll be a helping hand instead of trying to topple another city
So many comments 😮
I suppose Scorpio wants Werner in a place where the necessary action is harder
So many comments 😮
I suppose Scorpio wants Werner in a place where the necessary action is harder, due to familiarity?
[[[Mallory reached across the table with a pale hand and placed it over Cadence’s. “You showed me such an entertaining time. How could I—”
Cadence suddenly shot up to a stand and ripped her hand away. Her eyes were wide, her breath heavy and shallow, her voice trembling. “W-What did you just say…?”]]]
Love the chapter! No idea what this part was hinting at though.
[[[“You crazy.” Knovak snorted. “You crazy, but you smart. Anyway, gotta piss.” And with that, he rose and disappeared behind the stack of containers.
A silence fell over them as they waited for Knovak to return.]]]
Be glad this story isn’t a horror movie or this would be the part where first blood begins heheh
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