Cadence Morello couldn’t believe her luck
She wasn’t the type to swear, but as soon as she laid eyes on Cvetka Akulova, she had to suppress her inner sailor. If it weren’t for her profession constantly forcing her to be in situations like these, she might’ve turned tail and run. Hell, if it wasn’t for the fact that she owed Werner a whole lot, she might’ve done so despite her experience.
Cvetka Akulova, self-proclaimed True-Conductor-hunter and stone-cold fatale, stepped right in front of her with a gaze that trailed up and down.
Instead of running, Cadence saluted, spoke in Common—“First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, 212th Division of the Border Force”—and extended a hand.
Cvetka flushed before accepting the gesture. Red cheeks, but hands so cold. The iciness seeped through the leather of Werner’s glove like melting snow. It was a shame that Cvetka was so pretty. Seeing her through Atienna’s eyes was one thing, but seeing her up close and personal made Cadence’s heart flutter. Like a Cancerian oil-painting. She really did look like Alma. The childish paper-star earrings that dangled above her fur scarf were a bit odd though.
At the thought of first Atienna and then Alma, Cadence felt an uncomfortable pang in her chest.
“I’m Cvetka Akulova,” Cvetka murmured back in Common. “You look different from the pictures… and from what I’ve heard.”
What? Seen? Heard? From where?
“Oh, I meant from the newspapers,” Cvetka amended. “You were in them a lot during the border conflict between Aquarius and Capricorn.”
“I apologize for my appearance.” Cadence kept her voice even. “It’s difficult to keep looks in order when treading through enemy territory.”
Wait. No. Stupid. Werner would never even try to crack a joke like that in any situation.
Cadence gestured stiffly to Weingartner and said, “This is my hauptmann—my captain. I defer questioning to him.”
“Hm.” Cvetka’s eyes flicked to Werner’s captain. “Well, I don’t want to keep you that long. We should get going.”
Cadence’s mind raced as Cvetka led the entire group through the port-side town. Compared to the port back in Argo, it barely smelled. Cadence figured it was probably due to the cold.
A thin layer of sandy snow dusted the ground and the fishing nets strung up along jutting poles. Ice crept up in-between the spaces of wood and brick of every storage house and creased the gutters of every roof in sight.
Cvetka couldn’t know about Werner, Cadence thought, could she? Werner was careful. And Cadence had practiced caution in turn. Anyways, when in saint’s name had Cvetka been promoted to ‘Ophiuchus liaison’? What even was that? And was this even something Ophiuchus usually got their hands into?
Cadence cursed herself for not paying more attention to Ophiuchian politics. Technically though, it wasn’t all her fault. Jericho was the Ophiuchian peacekeeper. He was the one who should’ve been keeping tabs on things.
She’d been dealing with a constant stream of stress, fatigue, anxiety, and the whole shlock of things since she’d come to. The persistent adrenaline had muddled her memory so much that she couldn’t recall the last update Jericho had given about what was going on in Ophiuchus. The thought of the peacekeeper pressed against Cadence’s chest.
She was completely and utterly alone, surrounded by a bunch of stab-happy, overly-prideful Capricornians in the middle of a hellish, southern autumn with an encroaching winter. First time really outside of the Twin Cities, and this was the vacation she got?
As they peeled into a large tent at the very edge of town, Cadence glanced at Nico and then Gilbert.
Well, she wasn’t completely alone.
The tent was more like a palace than a tent. A mahogany table eclipsed by a series of blue, cushioned chairs sat at the center. A lacquered cabinet with glass doors that allowed the numerous wine bottles within to be on open display was nestled at the back. White-armbanded peacekeepers in monochrome suits circled the walls like bars of a cage. More than twenty of them.
“Heard about the promotion, Akulova, but this is something else,” Knovak said in Aquarian, whistling as he inspected the area. “Maybe I should become a peacekeeping agent, no?”
Saints. If Cadence had known being an ‘Ophiuchus liaison’ led to this lavish a lifestyle, she’d have signed up right away. Convincing the prince’d probably take some time, but cost-benefit analysis made the path clear. She’d get enough money to support the kids back in the Twin Cities too.
Her admiration died quickly as she counted the chairs encircling the table. Sixteen to be exact. Four on each side. The exact number of chairs needed for the number of people entering. The wine bottles and glasses resting on top of the table indicated that the intention here was not interrogation but discussion.
Cvetka took a seat at one of the chairs closest to the wine cabinet before beckoning them to join.
The captains exchanged looks. Obviously, this was not how routine military debriefings went nor was it how the routine Ophiuchian debriefings went—Cadence had primary sources to pull from about this.
Kramer tried sitting across the table from Cvetka but Cvetka clicked her tongue, shook her head, and then motioned to the seats beside her. Following this not-so-subtle gesture, Kramer and Weingartner filled in the seats to Cvetka’s right and left. Cvetka then directed Knovak to seat himself on the last chair in that row while Sigrid and the other Aquarian soldier were directed to the left side of the table alongside Bergmann and Brandt. Stein, Heimler, Marionette, and Fischer were invited to occupy the right side of the table which left the seats directly across from Cvetka as the only option available.
Cadence glanced at Weingartner. The captain merely nodded.
Cadence took the remaining seats with Nico, Gilbert, and Kleine as Cvetka poured herself a glass of wine.
“We’re here to discuss the events that landed us working together in Argo,” Weingartner said as he declined Cvetka’s offer for a drink. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have everyone here for this, especially since we have someone here who’s under military arrest.” He glanced at Marionette. “I understand that you’re just doing your job, but that’s an internal affair beyond Ophiuchus. That aside, I can represent Capricorn and disclose my side of the incident. We’ll save time that way. My men just want to go home—”
“Have you ever heard of focus groups, Captain Weingartner?” Cvetka asked, beckoning one of the peacekeepers standing behind her forward. She accepted a manila folder from him and placed it delicately on her lap. “They’re best for seeing all sides of a story.”
Weingartner frowned. “And what exactly did you say your position was? Ophiuchian liaison? My apologies but that’s the first time I’ve heard of it.”
Cvetka chuckled, digging into her coat pocket and pulling out a slip of laminated paper. A State Conducting License. Beside Cvetka’s monochrome shyly smiling photo on the license was a slew of demographic information with the Aquarian national symbol watermarked just behind it. At the very corner of the card was a stamp of the Ophiuchian symbol.
“Yes, it’s a new profession. But rather than being called a ‘liaison to Ophiuchus’, I think it might be more appropriate to call me a liaison of the ELPIS Department.”
Really not good.
“But, before that…. Dunya Kramer.” Cvetka tilted her head as if listening to something and then gestured to Nico. “That man sitting there is the reason for why your country lost its supply of modified conductors half a year ago. I’m… sure you’re at least a little bit aware of who he is.”
Cadence’s hairs stood on end.
Nico serving as the link between the Romano Family and both militaries was another headache that Cadence hadn’t been wanting to deal with. The Aquarians who knew of Nico—Kramer and Knovak—hadn’t seemed too put off by his presence. Cadence had figured that as long as weapons were being supplied to Argoan enemies, the Aquarians didn’t care who the Romanos were selling to. Maybe they did but why complain to their sole potential seller?
Kramer tensed. “Is that why you’re here? Aquarius has already closed that case with Ophiuchus.”
“Ophiuchus was very lenient recently with Aquarius regarding the modified conductors… right? Just a light tap on the wrist. Aquarius was very lucky… especially since we’ve now lost support from Virgo.” Cvetka slipped her license back into her pocket. “Like how Capricorn was lucky when Ophiuchus was lenient about Capricornian military presence in the Twin Cities a couple months ago… even though it’s not too hard to connect the dots of why certain members were present—”
“I don’t know what theories you have, Miss Akulova,” Weingartner interjected, “but cases presented without evidence are conspiracies.”
There ya go! Go, Captain, Cadence thought as she pushed her lips down to a frown.
Cvetka hummed before lowering her gaze. “Well, even if that’s so, that’s not what I’m here for. And I’m not here to discuss your time in Argo either…”
Cvetka slid the manila folder off her lap and laid it onto the table. Hand-delivering the final omen.
“Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Department is searching for a particular subset of individuals, and I’ve been helping them. One of the minor reasons for why they’re looking for these individuals is because these individuals are actively being targeted by ELPIS.” She flipped open the folder revealing a thick bundle of stapled documents inside. The title page of the paper sitting frontpage read, TRUE CONDUCTORS.
Despite the cold sweat that instantly broke out at the back of her neck, Cadence kept her expression tight and even. Not too hard of a feat. If only Kleine, Fischer, and Bergmann didn’t immediately snap to look at her in response before quickly diverting their attention away to random objects in the room.
Dammit. Couldn’t they have at least tried not to be so obvious about it?
Cadence herself couldn’t comprehend it. Other than this muck up, she and the others had been so careful in hiding. Maria didn’t count. How did Cvetka…?
Sigrid. It had to be Sigrid. Cvetka was after Sigrid. But Cadence didn’t dare look in the woman’s direction in fear of giving herself away.
“The ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus was made aware of your interest in these people, Captain Weingartner,” Cvetka continued. “I heard you’ve garnered a lot of unwanted attention recently because of it. Would you like to disclose what you’ve discovered? Anything helps.”
Weingartner remained silent.
“Well, that’s alright,” Cvetka amended after a stretch of silence. “This is all very confidential anyways. These individuals are capable of both upholding and disrupting the peace in Signum in an instant.”
If it was so confidential, Cadence wondered why in saint’s name Cvetka was just telling it like it was nothing? And ‘disturbing the peace of Signum’? Cadence wished she had that much power.
Always yearning for something unattainable.
Cvetka flipped to the next page. Clipped to a type-set paper were three grayscale photos. Yulia Kriska, posing beside the departed Alexei Drei. Colonel Fritz von Spiel, puffing a cigar and surrounded by uniformed Capricornians. And finally an unsmiling Kovich, wearing a white shirt and holding a metal sign stamped with an identification number.
“Some of you are familiar with these three individuals.” Cvetka looked up, meeting first Knovak’s gaze, then Sigrid’s, and finally Cadence’s. “These people were True Conductors…. You knew of Fritz, right, First Lieutenant Waltz?”
Cadence frowned. “I knew of him. From my understanding, he was colluding with ELPIS. Why would he be working with them if he’s being hunted by them, as you say?” After a practiced pause, she said evenly, “You mention confidentiality, but Colonel von Spiel was a Capricornian, not an Ophiuchian. Any details regarding Von Spiel should’ve been disclosed to the state. Ophiuchus is a peacekeeping agency, not a sovereign power.”
Cvetka stared up at her, chuckled, and reached to turn the page again. “You surprise me with your forwardness. I was told that while you’re strict with your subordinates, you’re very… respectful to superiors.”
Cadence felt like she was being played with but replied evenly, “You aren’t my superior, Miss Akulova.”
Cvetka flushed. “Pardon me. I’m still new at this, so I’m trying to get my bearings. Sorry if I’ve overstepped my boundaries… But for your questions—well, is it strange that I get the feeling that you’re not really expecting an answer for it?”
“A question wouldn’t be asked if an answer wasn’t expected, with all due respect, Miss Akulova,” Cadence tried, recalling the words Werner had spoken to Olive not so long ago. “I believe I’m speaking for everyone here when I say that I’d like to get to the purpose of this meeting.”
“Right. I should get to the point. I’m sorry for the detour. I’m not very fond of conclusions… But the thing about these True Conductors is that they always somehow come to flock together. I would know. Because I’m one too.”
Cadence tensed. What in the world…?
“And because I am one, I know for certain that I’m not the only True Conductor sitting here.” Cvetka turned the page again and smoothed it out.
Another monochrome photo was clipped to a dense document. Captured in the photo was a group of children standing in an open flower field with a tall woman smiling brightly behind them.
Cadence remembered exactly when this picture had been taken. It’d been a sunny day, and the council meeting had been let out early. After playing in the halls just outside of the meeting room, they had all gathered outside to take this picture. ‘They,’ as in Atienna, her siblings, Safiyah, and her parents.
Sigrid and Knovak straightened.
“This is a Virgoan advisor and a confirmed True Conductor: Atienna Imamu,” Cvetka explained. “I encountered her in the Zatmeniye Caverns several months ago.”
Cadence felt faint.
Why was Cvetka laying everything out in the open?
She side-glanced at the Aquarians.
She knew that Werner’s unit was on leashes, but she hadn’t looked into any of the Aquarians here, not to mention Marionette. But she didn’t have anything on them. Atienna’s normalcy and life would be uprooted if any of them ran their mouths. And…
“As those who were present are aware, a Diverger from ELPIS was able to open up a portal that connected Zatmeniye to the Twin Cities. The advisor entered that portal, and I followed her,” Cvetka continued. “Now, during that event, the advisor’s personal bodyguard was swept into the portal because of a confrontation with Yulia. It’s natural to assume that she followed in after them to help him what little way she could.”
Cadence looked back to Cvetka.
“But, you see…” Cvetka tilted her head again as if listening. “At the center of the event in the Twin Cities were three crime organizations: the Campana Family, the Foxman Family, and the Romano Family. You’re familiar with them. They supplied you both with weapons and helped clean up the modified conductor mess at the Aquarian-Capricornian border.”
Nico clenched his fist beside Cadence but his expression was eerily calm.
“Another important aspect about True Conductors is that they come in groups, so to speak… Through vitae and through approaching death together, connected True Conductors can access each other’s thoughts, feelings, and… memories. And yes, that means that I’m implying that the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is true, but that’s not important here.”
Cadence drew her brows up in mock surprise. The Aquarians did the same, while the Capricornians tensed. Terrible actors. And a terrible situation. The dots were connecting to form a crosshairs target mark, and Cadence didn’t like where the bullseye was landing.
“So, this big incident in the Twin Cities with ELPIS that Miss Atienna ran into…” Cvetka continued. “Well, it’s most likely that another True Conductor she was connected with was also present. You see, I don’t believe in coincidence.”
When Cvetka turned the page again, Cadence’s head buzzed.
“So with the crime organizations in the Twin Cities being the centerpiece of this event, we investigated them thoroughly. The telling-signs of a True Conductor can be easy or hard to see depending on the nature and personality of that True Conductor. But we…. received some intel recently that helped solve this mystery.”
Cvetka reached forward and tapped the photograph clipped to the new document. There, Cadence found a side-profile of herself captured in monochrome. The TwinStars Pub was in the background, and the city lights bleached the edges of the photo white.
Good photo. Bad situation.
“This is a swindler from the Twin Cities who works closely with the Romano and Foxman group. We’re certain that she’s a True Conductor connected to Miss Imamu.”
Werner’s gloves began to feel unbearably sticky
“And since we found that Cadence Morello was one, we began to look into her recent activities. There’s always a pattern. So we asked ourselves, ‘what unusual activities has she been involved in’? Anything crossing border lines?” Cvetka locked eyes with Nico. “And what we found was a person crossing border lines. From Gemini to Aquarius to Capricorn and back.”
Cadence felt bumps prick up along her arm as Cvetka reached to flip the page again. Slowly, torturously, the woman peeled back the page fully. Cadence didn’t even need to look at the photograph clipped there. She felt it—
The piercing gazes from all angles stabbing her through the chest. The sluggish, insect-like pin-pricks that crawled up her spine. Hyper-awareness kicked up to notch ten.
“We were already starting to investigate this individual because he was involved in multiple incidents with ELPIS. Cadence Morello simply served as the missing, sealing link.”
Cadence kept her voice even and interjected, “I don’t appreciate these baseless accusations. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is pseudoscience. And this is the first time I’ve heard of—”
“—of the term ‘True Conductor’?” Cvetka finished.
“It is,” Cadence affirmed, eyes narrowing. “If we’re to believe that the hypothesis is true and that this subject affects the whole of Signum as you say, then Ophiuchus keeping it undisclosed is—”
Cadence felt faint. “This isn’t something that Ophiuchus should conceal. This information should be disclosed to—
“—to all of the countries of Signum, including Capricorn,” Cvetka finished.
Cadence kept her mouth shut.
“Like I said, I do find your argumentativeness a bit strange, Lieutenant. Though, I think it can be explained. The one other caveat about True Conductors is that due to the nature of their crossed vitae and memories, they are capable of… in a sense… ‘taking over’ another person they’re connected to. Some call it an overlap, others call it an override, others dissociative-interference, and so on.”
Here it was. The dreaded royal flush. And this time Cadence wasn’t the one holding that hand. Talk about a reversed hook, line, and sinker.
“So, what do you think, Miss Morello?” Cvetka held her gaze. “Is my deduction right?”
She wouldn’t be able to talk herself out of this one. Conviction beat deception.
Cadence considered activating her conductor and making a run for it—
Run for what? Where would she go?
Not only that but what the hell would happen to Nico and Werner’s men if she left? Not like she could grab them all in time.
Well, it wasn’t like they were her problem anyways, right? It was just the situation. Just like before.
Cadence bit the inside of her mouth as her head began to pound.
“Please don’t try to use transmutation to escape,” came Cvetka’s voice. “My employer knows everything about you. It’ll be more difficult for you than for us.”
The silence that droned on buzzed around Cadence’s head, and the static that had invaded her spine spilled out into her limbs. It felt like she was caged in her own skin, and it took all of her willpower to move. She broke the silence with a sigh as she crossed one leg on top of the other, saying, “So you were playing me with this the entire time. That’s kinda sadistic.”
The stares of the others within the tent didn’t bother her as much as Cvetka’s stare did. The woman’s eyes were bottomless pits, drawing in all light, pulling everything in deeper and deeper. Definitely nothing like Alma.
“I didn’t mean to draw it out this long. I just thought it’d help soften the blow,” Cvetka murmured. “You were actually very difficult to find. If it weren’t for my employer, you probably would’ve remained hidden for quite some time… You’re very clever, you know. It was only after we found out about you that Astante realized you were keeping tabs on him.”
“The information broker…?” Nico murmured.
“I don’t understand.” And Cadence really didn’t.
“It’s not your fault. My employer sees everything. Like how you’ve been stuck in your current predicament for several days now.” Cvetka’s lips dipped into a frown, and her brows became knitted with sympathy. “It must’ve been very hard for you.”
What? How? Manipulator? What medium? No, that wasn’t it.
“Makes me think we should’ve just accepted your offer as—what is it—an Ophiuchus liaison?” Cadence chuckled.
Cvetka remained silent.
“So you got all of us then. You were callin’ Atienna clever this entire time, but turns out the clever one was you all along.”
Cvetka murmured, “‘All of you…’? Maybe. Maybe not. And I’m not the clever one. My employer is.”
Bad. Time to switch gears.
“What’s with all this confrontation now? I always got the feelin’ that ya were the type ta keep everything discrete,” Cadence pressed. “Something must’ve happened, right? You keep mentionin’ that employer of yours.”
This didn’t seem like something Leona would order. Despite the woman’s overzealous, proud nature, Cadence could tell Leona was discrete and private. Leona had threatened Gabrielle and Alice to keep confidentiality back in the Twin Cities, after all. But as much as Cadence wanted to mention the peacekeeper, only Jericho and Olive had ever encountered her. Mentioning it would just draw suspicion. But she was certain…
“New employer?” Cadence tried. “Trouble in paradise?”
Cvetka’s smile dipped, and instead of addressing the topic, she turned to the Aquarian side of the room. “Now, Sigrid—”
Sigrid flew up to a stand immediately, kicking up the mahogany table and sending the wine bottles and champagne glasses hurtling into the air. As they shattered on the ground sending up a rain of red wine and shards, Sigrid lunged for Knovak’s pistol and pulled it out of its holster.
Cadence startled to a stand, unable to register the events that followed.
Suddenly, Sigrid was on the floor being pinned down by one of the stationed peacekeepers. Weingartner’s gun was out, but he wasn’t able to aim it since another peacekeeper had conjured up a gun and was now pointing it to the back of his head. Stein had also snapped up, but he too was held at conjured gunpoint.
Weingartner tensed, but there was no fear in his eyes. “Do you realize what you’re doing?”
Kramer rose to a stand, eyes hard as she regarded the peacekeepers. “An Ophiuchian is an Ophiuchian, and an Aquarian is an Aquarian. Do you know who you’re representing when you’re pointing that gun at an Aquarian soldier and a captain of Capricorn, peacekeeper? You’re pushing your boundaries. Stand down—”
She was cut off short as another Ophiuchian who had been standing idle whipped out a blade-conductor, ignited it in a burst of pink light, and held it to her throat.
Something about the blade of vitae that protruded out of the Projector’s blade-conductor looked strange, Cadence realized as she stared at the scene in disbelief. She could very faintly make out blue lines running up the blade’s body. It looked like it was going to shatter at any moment. She wondered if it was broken. Olive would know.
The Ophiuchian who had handed Cvetka the folder and the only one who had yet to pull out a weapon approached Cvetka slowly and reached to caress her face. As Cadence resisted gawking, Cvetka rose to a stand only to be slapped so hard that she fell onto the ground. Blood pooled below her hands as the glass on the floor became embedded into her skin.
“You speak too much, Useless,” the Ophiuchian said, lowering his hand. He turned to Cadence. “Anyone moves, your captains die, all you tin soldiers die.”
He made a hard bargain.
“Take off your gloves,” the Ophiuchian ordered, pointing at Cadence from across the toppled table.
Cadence stared. “I don’t strip for just anyone.”
The Ophiuchian closed the distance between them causing Cadence to take a step back and nearly fall back over the chair behind her. The man reached for his belt and whipped out the conducting rifle clipped there. Instead of pointing it at her, however, he pointed it at Nico who tensed. Without saying a thing, he moved his finger to the trigger as Gilbert reached for his pistol.
“Wait!” Cadence snapped.
Conductors were greater than normal weapons in any equation.
The Ophiuchian paused as did Gilbert. Then came the repeated demand, “Take them off.”
“Okay, okay, okay.” Cadence began peeling off Werner’s gloves. “Can’t take a joke? Come on.” She tucked them into her pocket. “Now what?”
She wasn’t sure if she felt uncomfortable about the bareness of her hands because her once hidden proto-conductors were now out in the open or if it was because she still felt faint memories of Werner’s personal shame regarding them.
The Ophiuchian reached forward causing Cadence to flinch. He ripped her rings off of her fingers before gesturing to Nico with the conductor. “Look at her hand. The injured one.”
What? They knew about that too?
Cadence gave Nico a reassuring nod. He drifted to her side before he began to undo the bandages wrapped tightly around her hand.
Once Nico undid the bandages, they both studied the knife-wound. He’d given the injury a check-up right before they’d headed to the Argoan casino earlier. But despite her profession, Cadence had always disliked the sight of blood and any injury, so she hadn’t paid attention during his initial inspection. It was gross. Things meant to be in the body should stay inside the body. Plus, Werner had always been self-conscious about his hands, and she’d wanted to give him at least that bit of dignity. Now, as she peeked at it, she did a double-take.
It was difficult to see the reason—the physical marks—for why Werner had always kept his hands hidden beneath his gloves. This was because the reason was hidden by a dark-blue-ish, bruise-like splotch that filled in the crater of Werner’s palm. Cadence couldn’t even see the scar of the knife-wound above it all nor the scars lying beneath it.
Had there been poison on that crazed Augen member’s knife? No, Nico would’ve found out if that were the case.
“It’s gotten worse…” Nico murmured, running his thumb along the dark splotch. “I noticed it was gettin’ darker and bigger but this is—”
The dark area began to move.
Cadence yelped, jerking back slightly only to be held firmly in place by Nico who held up a hand. She followed his gaze to the mark and almost fainted when she saw the mark sprout nine buds—four on opposing sides and one extending long out the back. The shape floundered around for a heart-stopping moment before remaining still.
“The hell is that…?” Gilbert whispered.
“Remove it,” the Ophiuchian ordered, signaling a standby female peacekeeper forward.
The peacekeeper brought out her gloved hands, conjuring up a pair of conducting gloves in a flash of blue-purple light. She handed Nico the gloves before stepping to the side. Cadence nodded, and Nico hesitantly slid on the gloves in response.
“Transmute that off,” the Ophiuchian ordered again.
“I second that,” Cadence murmured with a grimace. “…But then again, I never liked the doc doin’ stuff ta me with me really knowin’ what it’s all about honestly…”
“I don’t know, Cadence.” Sweat began to drip from Nico’s brow. “It’s deep, whatever it is. I can tell. It’s risky. Werner might lose his hand. I need a donor at least before I try anything. And again—I don’t even know what this is. I thought it was purpura then blue nevus, but this is—”
The Ophiuchian pressed the gun to Nico’s temple and then extended his free palm. “I’m the same blood-type, and I meet the requirements. No questions. Do it now.”
“He makes a hard bargain.” Cadence swallowed, arching a brow. “A real Carl on our hands. It’ll be alright.”
Ignoring the Ophiuchian, Nico gave Cadence an exasperated look as he cupped her hand with one hand and hovered over her palm with the other. “This is a bad time for jokes, Cadence…”
“You’re starting to sound like the dear lieutenant.” Cadence chortled. “Well, anyway, we’re obviously pretty valuable to this group, so I doubt they’d want us ta do anything wild like dyin’. Go ahead.”
Instead of responding, Nico got to work. Always without warning. Fuzzy light pooled out from his gloved hand, and her palm began to numb as if being were pricked with invisible needles. It felt nice—
But then a shooting pain ricocheted from the base of her wrist up her arm to her head. It was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Bullet wounds, scrapes and bruises from childhood fights, strangled bruisings around the neck from her mother, injuries experienced from the other five, her near-death experience at the TwinStars—nothing compared. A pain that ate its way from inside-out. It was indescribable.
Cadence’s knees gave away, and she fell forward onto Nico who caught her in alarm. As soon as he stopped his transmutation, the pain faded like it’d never been there in the first place. They sank to the ground together, Cadence left panting heavily. Sweat dripped from her head to the floor, and she swore she could taste blood.
“Saints. Cadence, are you okay?!” Nico held her tightly before he checked her pulse. He apparently didn’t like what he found because he whipped to the Ophiuchian and snapped uncharacteristically, “What’s going on? What’s wrong with her? What is that?!”
Cadence lifted her head just in time to see the Ophiuchian jab the point of the pistol at Nico’s forehead.
Gilbert finally pulled out his pistol fully and pointed it at the Ophiuchian while ignoring the fact that he now had five conductors trained on him. “Fuck it. If you blow his brains out, then I’ll blow yours out, and then everyone can blow mine out, and it can be an entire damned chain!”
“I appreciate it, Gil,” Cadence continued. “But I really can’t afford ta have you dyin’ so please take it down a bit.”
“Stand down, Wolff,” came Weingartner’s affirmation.
Gilbert reluctantly obeyed.
“Cadence,” Nico pressed. “This isn’t a good idea.”
“Damn it, Nico. Didn’t ya hear me? They don’t want me dead. Doesn’t mean they want me happy.” Grabbing a fistful of his shirt, Cadence flashed him a tight smile as nausea swept over her. “Just do it already, would ya? Let’s just get this over with. Gettin’ it over with is how we get by, right?”
Nico paled but nodded. He cradled her hand in his before reaching forward with his conductor once more.
The excruciating pain returned as soon as Nico’s glove began to glow. Every single nerve in her body felt like it was being snapped in two. Instead of blood pounding through her veins and arteries and hearts and lungs, it felt like hot lava was searing through it all instead. She remembered Allen hiring out a Diverger who was able to make the vitae particles hooked to a person’s blood cells vibrate to the point where their blood cells ruptured. Beneath all the hazy pain, Cadence wondered if the poor sap who got the brunt end of Allen’s wrath felt something similar to this.
She doubled over on the floor as tears pricked her eyes. Her mind raced for an exit.
—was not here. Neither was Atienna, Maria, Jericho, or Olive. They couldn’t lend her a helping hand.
A ‘helping hand’…?
How dare she try to even think of getting any of them to take her place here?
But that was just how she was. There was no helping it. It was just the situation.
No. Constantly pinning it on the situation was what got her into her situation back in the Twin Cities. Everything that was cast aside was just built up until it could no longer be contained. Living more freely and without consequence wasn’t a party in the long run.
Another wave of pain pulsated out from her palm, but this time she didn’t cry. She had to keep up Werner’s appearances, after all. They were everything to him—
Cadence dry-heaved, covered her mouth, tasted iron, felt something wet sip in-between her fingertips. When she blinked open her eyes, she saw red.
She just had to hold it. Just a little longer. Either whatever the hell was on her hand would pop off or the Ophiuchian would call it off if it went too far. Just a little longer. She couldn’t lose Nico.
She couldn’t lose anything because she didn’t have anything. She didn’t own anything.
The realization felt like a slap to the face.
The more she owned, the more she owed. It was a bad investment.
The pain stopped as Nico immediately pulled his conductor away at the order. When she collapsed again, Nico caught her.
“I-I’m so sorry,” came Nico’s wavering voice. “Saints, Cadence, I…”
Wiping the blood from her mouth, Cadence blinked blearily and watched as the Ophiuchian turned on his heels and exited the tent. The other peacekeepers minus Cvetka followed him out, bringing the Aquarians along with them. Cadence managed to hold Sigrid’s gaze for half a second before the woman was guided out of the tent forcefully by the Ophiuchian.
“Are you alright?” Asking this with a sweet and gentle voice, Cvetka picked herself off the floor, closed the distance between them, and sank beside Cadence.
“More concerned about the Aquarian who just kicked the table and was pinned to the floor,” Cadence returned.
Cvetka eyed the tent’s flap. “She’ll be in good hands. It’s just an extra protective measure. We’re all very important…”
Cadence feigned ignorance. “Are ya sayin’ she’s a True Conductor too?”
Cvetka opened her mouth, paused, remained silent.
“I’m guessin’ your new employer might be a little in over their head, and my situation’s unexpected? What’s happenin’ ta me right now isn’t the usual thing that happens ta True Conductors, right?” Cadence flexed her hand. “Usually the person who knows the most about it is the one who’s behind it. Do I get any hints?”
Cvetka didn’t take the bait and instead lowered her gaze. “Being stuck like this alone for so long… How can you even stand it? I’d rather die than be alone without Astante and…”
Cadence didn’t take the bait either and instead cocked a brow. “Well, that’s a pretty sad thought. Was worried about the Aquarian but now I’m more worried about you.”
“And why would you be concerned with me?”
“When I see a pretty lady in trouble I can’t help but ta offer a helping hand.”
“I’m not the one in trouble. You are.”
“Appearances are deceivin’.”
Cvetka’s eyes darkened before she rose to a stand and pulled away. “It seems like you’ll have to see my employer directly to get this issue resolved…” She pulled a slip of paper out from the manila folder laying on the floor and paced over to Weingartner. Handing it to him, she said, “Captain Weingartner, your unit has been assigned to transport First Lieutenant Werner Waltz to Die Hauptstadt. A member of the ELPIS Department will be there waiting for you to assist with Lieutenant Waltz’s current condition.”
The capital? In Capricorn? Why even ask Werner’s division? Why not just escort her there themselves? Cadence knew ‘why.’ They were playing games. But she didn’t know why.
Seeming to have recovered from being at the point of a vitae-blade, Fischer fumed, “We’re not Ophiuchians. We don’t take orders from—”
“‘Joint Order by the Grand Military Command of Capricorn in Tandem with Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Department’—it has the Capricornian command seal,” Weingartner interjected as he scanned the paper inside the folder. “It’s been signed by the Kaiser.” He frowned. “‘…those who refuse to complete the objective will be subject to a court-martial and will be tried for treason’?” Jaw tightening, he stared at Cadence and then at Cvetka before folding the paper. “What’s going on here?”
“What’s been going on since the very beginning,” came Cvetka’s response as she drew to the flap of the tent and threw a look over her shoulder towards Marionette Engel. “The train leaves in three hours.”
Silence fell as Cvetka’s click-clacking footsteps faded into quiet crunches against ice and snow.
Cadence was guided to a stand by Nico and was soon joined by Gilbert. Their lips started moving, but all Cadence could hear was a distant, muffled buzzing. Instead of addressing them, she approached the cabinet at the back of the tent and pulled it open. She scanned the bottles within before plucking one from the very back. The bottle’s year was 1821, the brand Aqcua Di Vita. She was familiar with it since it was the boss’s favorite brand. Apparently, the grapes the wine was made from grew only in a vineyard in Gemini that blossomed alongside a vitae stream. Expensive stuff. She grabbed a glass from the row lining the back wall before passing by Werner’s men who were swarming her like how flies swarmed the poorer alleys of the Twin Cities. Taking a seat back on the leather cushion, she popped the cork with a coin from her pocket, poured herself a glass, and sipped.
Mm. Fruity with a cinnamon aftertaste. Sweeter than Francis or Allen would like though. Still, Gemini really did make the best wines.
She downed the red liquid with four more sips before she poured herself another glass. She downed this one in three gulps. The next glass was downed in two. And as Nico tried to take her champagne glass away from her, she began to down the bottle. She was on her seventh gulp when her vision faded.
* * *
When Cadence drifted back into awareness, she could hear a faint chugging in the background paired with a clink-clink-clink. Cvetka’s shoes—no. Something else. Cadence was familiar with this sound. She’d always hear it whenever she’d cross below the Dioscuri Bridge. A train.
Her head pounded with every click and clack.
A warm shadow pooled over her face. Nico.
“Saints, Cadence, are you crazy? Are you alright? How are you feelin’…?”
“How much did I drink?”
“…half the bottle.”
“Werner must be a lightweight then, huh?” Cadence pulled her hand out of his hold and stared at the dark-splotch on her palm. It didn’t move this time. “Well, probably something in the alcohol.”
“You probably passed out more from the pain than the alcohol, Cadence.”
She slowly dug the heels of her palms into her eyes as she felt them burn. “Pretty sure there was something in the alcohol.”
Nico remained silent for a beat. “Yeah, must’ve been the booze.”
It was all falling apart. All of it. The worst part was that she didn’t know the who, what, or why. All she had was a general sense of everything breaking to pieces around her. Atienna’s normalcy, Werner’s normalcy. After all the others had done for her, she had somehow…
Everything would’ve turned out better if she hadn’t worried about Werner’s men. If she had just been a little bit more selfish—
Saints. What would happen to them now? The same thing that happened to all those other True Conductors Claire had mentioned that had disappeared?
“You couldn’t have known, Cadence…” Nico murmured. “This is obviously bigger than all of us. It was just—”
“What? The situation?” Cadence scoffed. “I wish it was that easy. Can you believe the first thing I thought of was just grabbin’ you and Gilbert and deckin’ it outta there? I thought, ‘Screw the other Capricornians. Werner can live without ‘em.’ Twin Cities through and through. Probably wouldn’t have gotten far anyways.”
Nico then said, “I’ve heard stories about an Aquarian combat medic who goes into every single battle without a gun. Saves the enemy even when they’re bein’ shot at.”
Cadence had heard this before from Nico. Through Werner’s ears.
“But y’know what I think when someone points a gun at me? I think of the best place to shoot and kill them without causin’ them pain.” Nico squeezed her leg. “You’re not the only one, Cadence. But your first thoughts aren’t what define you. Your actions are. Even if you mess up along the way…” He chuckled. “Anyways, ‘Twin Cities through and through’ just means we can make it out of whatever this is.”
“When did ya become such a pep-talker?” she asked, despite knowing the answer. “Well, thanks for sayin’ that I messed up.”
“You have really selective hearin’ don’t you?.”
Cadence peeked at him from between her fingers. “It’s good ta see ya again. I mean, really see ya.”
“I’d say the same, but…” Nico gestured at her with a lopsided but fond smile.
Cadence sat up and scanned the small cabin. Wooden, ugly walls; an elongated leather seat on opposing sides of that wall; a wooden door behind; and not a window in sight. “Where are we?”
“On a train,” Nico explained, hands hovering. “We crossed the Capricornian border an hour ago. Does it still hurt anywhere?”
“Oh, Nico, ya’d know if it hurt.” She noticed Werner’s gloves resting on the seat across from her, grabbed them, and slid them on. They fit better now that she was no longer bandaged nor wearing her proto-conductor rings underneath.
“Hey…” Nico began, eyes lingering. “Do you know…”
There he went again.
“Why?” Cadence asked. “What’s it to ya? Ya super close ta the lieutenant or somethin’? I mean, if he wanted you ta know, he woulda told ya. Kinda weird how you’re askin’ outta the blue. Doctor’s bad bedside manner that your dad taught ya seepin’ in again?”
What in the world was she saying…?
Instead of waiting to see how Nico reacted, Cadence swung her legs off the seat and peeled out the door despite Nico’s resounding protests. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light bleeding in from all the windows out in the train hall. When they finally adjusted, she found Gilbert, Brandt, and Stein seated at a booth drinking whiskey across from her. At the booth just to their left sat Heimler and Marionette who were being stared down from across the table by Kleine, Fischer, and Emilia.
“Hauptmann…” Stein called when he noticed her.
The door to the cabin beside the one Cadence had just popped out of creaked open. Captain Weingartner, looking more like a school teacher than ever with his baggy eyes and messy peppered hair, stepped out and studied her.
“Morello… right?” Weingartner greeted her calmly. “How are you feeling?”
So that was how he was playing it. With that false kindness to try to win her over. Well, she didn’t blame him. That was how the cards fell.
“Like I died a second time again, but that’s pretty good all things considered.” She approached an unoccupied booth and propped open the window there. “Appreciate ya askin’.”
Captain Weingartner joined her side. “How far does this go, Morello…? How did they know everything? You said that you’ve been concealing yourselves and being careful….” He glanced down at her gloved hands. “And what was—”
“Captain, ya think I know anything?” Cadence popped her head out the window. “I’m probably more clueless than you are. All that big talk from me, and now all my cards are folded…” She trailed off as her eyes adjusted to the stale brightness in full.
A gray sky unfurled in rows high above her head. Beneath that, archways popping up as far as she could see extended above the railroad tracks and train like monoliths. They almost reminded her of the archways guarding the Monadic temples back in the Twin Cities, except here they were square instead of rounded and so much larger. Almost the size of entire buildings. Adorning the left and right sides of the archways were enormous black flags gilded with the Capricornian insignia in silver.
As the train passed beneath one of the archways, everything became shrouded in black. The darkness was cold, the wind whipping at her face like razors as the echo of the train’s locomotion became boxed in around her. As they neared the light at the end of the archway and her eyes adjusted again, Cadence came to realize that there were words engraved on the walls of the archway. It took her a good minute to sound out all the letters—
Für den Ruhm. Für die Ehre. Der Sieg liegt bei uns.
Over and over again.
Really…? The patriotism was almost comical at this point.
“We’re headed to Eisburg.”
Cadence pulled back inside as they broke out of the archway-tunnel. “Werner’s hometown?”
Gilbert stared at her head and snorted.
She smoothed out her hair. “That doesn’t sound like ‘Die Hauptstadt’ ta me. I’m all for home leave, but are ya sure ya should be makin’ pit stops, Captain? Cvetka might look like a pushover, but she’s one scary lady.”
Weingartner studied her, before elaborating, “The train leading straight to the capital was closed due to construction. They’re finally laying down new insulating ley-lines that they’ve been collaborating with all of Signum on. This was the next best option, but there are some detours along the way.”
Cadence recalled Atienna speaking about the insulating ley-lines back when they’d all visited the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs with Jericho. But she couldn’t quite remember what Atienna said about them. The memory was blurred, like smudged ink.
Cadence glanced at Marionette. “So, why is Miss Love-and-Peace still here? Don’t know how your law system works, but shouldn’t she have more security on her or somethin’ or be transported somewhere else? Didn’t ya tell your superiors ‘bout her when you arrived?”
Now that Marionette knew that Werner was a True Conductor Cadence preferred to have her close by.
Marionette stared at her from across the train-cart. Cadence imagined the woman was trying to make heads-and-tails of the whole True Conductor business. Maybe trying to even figure if she could use this to support her movement. When Cadence flashed her a smile, however, Marionette averted her eyes.
Weingartner pulled out a folded slip of paper and handed it to Cadence. She unfolded it and vaguely recognized an official-looking, horned-and-tailed seal stamped across its top. She scanned the letter slowly, but in an eerily mind-buzzing moment, she realized she couldn’t make heads-or-tails of it. It was gibberish. She imagined receiving disappointed looks from both Atienna and Werner. Instead of panicking, however, she handed the paper back to Weingartner with a shrug as she sank into the booth.
“My… readin’ skills aren’t that good. The others’ve been teachin’ me but all this”—She made a circle in the air with her finger—“is makin’ it hard to concentrate.”
Weingartner’s brows rose, and he seemed to evaluate her differently before he said, “The Kaiser also ordered us to escort Engel to the capital to make our report… After we deliver you.”
“No need ta look guilty, Captain. Orders are orders.” Cadence rested her head against the window and watched as Nico slid down to sit beside her. She flexed her marked hand. “Plus I get free healthcare. ‘Course the most important thing in life is ta always be cautious of things that’re handed ta ya free, but I’m pretty sure I already paid the price.”
Weingartner frowned and sat down across from her. “They somehow knew Engel was with us. And they had the tent prepared perfectly. I don’t like this.”
She knew what he was implying but that didn’t seem like a reasonable idea.
“A Manipulator? But what would the medium be? And who would it’ve been on?” Cadence sighed, pulled out Werner’s pocket watch, and inspected his reflection on its surface. “Never taken the State Conductor’s Exam, so most of what’s beyond the super basics is beyond me. Anyway, if there was a medium planted, it had ta have been sometime after Werner checked out because I ain’t messy when it comes down ta business… most of the time.”
Weingartner gave her another look. His sympathy was as clear as day. It seemed like that little spiel in the tent had shifted his opinion of her. Just like that. He was soft for a captain, but she could use this.
“Well, what I can tell ya is that whoever’s callin’ the shots at the moment likes ta play games. Askin’ all of ya ta escort me, revealin’ everything…” She waved a hand in the air and sighed. “But no use thinkin’ about things ya can’t change.”
“Saints. You say stuff like that all the time, Cadence—no wonder Alma didn’t choose you.”
Head buzzing, Cadence turned to find Nico staring at her. “What did you say…?”
Nico blinked. “Huh? Nothing…?”
Cadence turned away from him slowly and stared at Weingartner across from her and then at all of Werner’s subordinates who were peeking at her from behind him. She sighed.
“Look. I’m sorry all of ya got dragged into whatever this is,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Honestly, I was just plannin’ to scare ya a bit and make ya keep quiet. You go about your daily life, and we go about our own daily lives. Nothin’ more than that. This is probably a lot bigger than your spiel with the Argoans—no offense.” She ran her hand down her face. “I really am sorry. Not like all of ya don’t have enough on your plate already.”
After a stretch of silence, Gilbert shrugged. “Not like we don’t live a day without almost dying.”
4 thoughts on “16.3: Swindler, 0707 Homebound”
Damn. I didn’t expect everything to be laid open. I guess there’s no turning back now…. I see blue text bastard is at it again. I sense a conflict between Nico and Cadence coming up.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Dude??? What do they do now??? Other than trying to get Werner fixed??? Werner’s hand??? Like THE ENEMY knows?? Marionette??? The blue text person just seems to be messing around with them. I’m assuming that the enemy knows because they’re technically inside Werner and can see everything?? Dude
(Also it’s nice that you opened up comments on this site 🙂 )
LikeLiked by 1 person
Scorpio, maybe you should consider, idk, convincing potential saint candidates to do the thing rather than mucking with true conductors? like is there even a point right now
Still a saint of passionate jerk I see, I’m not sure if the main six should ally with Elpis or the employer atp because they’re both extreme XD.
Arc 3 is intense fun but damn that’s one hella insane difficulty mode to give (whom I considers to be the most adept at handling unexpected troubles) Atienna and Cadence a run for their money. How would Olive even navigate this if his turn ever comes up Σ(°Д°；)
LikeLiked by 1 person