“That was embarrassing, Werner! How could you do that to me? Didn’t you think of how I’d feel? You’re no different from your brother!”
Cadence had been at the brunt of those words following the awkward dinner with the captain, Gilbert, and Werner’s family. All she’d wanted to do was at least keep up Werner’s appearances in front of his family, and that had been the result.
After the free feast had ended and everyone had left, Werner’s mother had stormed into the bedroom, demanding an explanation for why the door to the bedroom was closed.
At first, Cadence had thought it was a joke. Closing a door? Really? Werner was an adult, for saint’s sake.
But when Werner’s mother went on a rant about the rules of the house and feeling disrespected, Cadence came to realize that his mother was completely serious. Some nonsense about responsibility and how important it was to keep up appearances and how the way ‘he’ acted affected the entire family followed. Then came the finale of the disappointed sigh, the pinching of the nose, and the quiet departure.
Viktoria had hovered in the hall during the entire ordeal. Cadence couldn’t quite recall what Werner’s relationship with her was like, so she’d just slipped back inside Werner’s room after—careful not to close the door.
A couple of hours later, Werner’s mother had returned with an apology that wasn’t even an apology:
“I haven’t seen you in so long, honey. You understand how stressful it is waiting for you here. I just want you to be the best. I don’t want anything more.”
That was when Cadence had excused herself out the window—after Werner’s mother had left, of course. She’d felt a bit like the prince as she’d made her escape. It was a kind of a thrill, so she could see why Olive had done it all the time. She’d stumbled over those gorgeous wheat fields not too long after that and had for a moment found peace—at least until Ludwig rolled along with his awkward temperament.
Just remembering the previous night gave Cadence a migraine on top of her migraine. At least she knew that her own mother hated her. Hard to tell with Werner’s. Cadence seldom hated anyone but now prayed that she wouldn’t have to see that woman before they arrived at the capital.
No wonder Werner was so anal all the time, Cadence thought—though she had the feeling that the man didn’t think it was anything more than discipline. Which was pretty depressing. She wondered if she’d be able to convince him otherwise.
—Cadence blinked out of the memory and her thoughts and found Gilbert, Stein, and Nico staring expectantly at her from across the table. There were cards in their hands. Just beyond the rattling train window to her left, gray scenery flitted by.
Right… They were on the train now.
“Cadence…?” Nico’s voice cut through her thoughts hazily.
He sounded distant, fuzzy. Well, everything was fuzzy. She just wanted to sleep. But she couldn’t. No. She wouldn’t.
Now that she thought about it, this was probably the longest all-nighter she’d ever pulled in her life. How many hours had it been? 49? 56? 78?
She was so tired that she couldn’t even remember who’d started this poker game to begin with. Which was bad. To add to the mayhem, after studying the cards in her hands, she realized she couldn’t remember who had the bad hand either.
When she glanced up to read all their expressions and determine the state of affairs in this card world, she felt her blood run cold. Gilbert’s and Stein’s faces looked blurred—smudged like a smear of oil on canvas—as were their other features. Their medals, their uniforms, their hands, their legs—she couldn’t make out any details about them. The only thing that remained crystal clear was Nico.
It was happening again, Cadence realized. Just like back in Argo. Back then she’d thought it was a symptom of the botched, prolonged override. Now…? Exhaustion?
“Thinking of another way to pull one over on us?” Gilbert’s voice came out monotone, flat.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Cadence had seen Gilbert sit down in that spot across from her earlier, she wouldn’t have been able to tell it was him. She couldn’t read him. Couldn’t read any of them. Frustrated? Excited? Smirking? Frowning? She didn’t know, so she couldn’t tailor her responses smoothly. That meant she couldn’t trust anyone here either because she had no one here. Not even Nic—
Ah, screw this.
Cadence stood up. “Actually, ya know what. I just had a brilliant idea.”
She swung herself to the booth behind her. Two indistinguishable figures resided there in opposite seats. She was certain at least one of them was Klaus Kleine because she’d seen him sitting there earlier. Probably.
Leaning towards the blob closest to her, Cadence asked, “Mind if I ask ya a favor, Klaus?”
“Oh, I’m not Klaus,” came the light response. Monotone again. “I’m Emilia. Emilia Bergmann. We’ve met but… I’m a gefrieter. A corporal they call it in Common. I’ve served in this unit for about a year. I was at the border with Sagittarius before that. Attended the Norden Military Academy in—”
Cadence had no clue why Emilia was sharing her autobiography now. Well, it was still cute—even though Cadence couldn’t see her face.
“I’m just pullin’ your leg, ‘Milia,” Cadence interjected. “But I’d be happy ta sit and talk whenever ya’ve got the time. Norden, ya said? Heard that’s a good place ta vacation to.”
“Do you need something, Cadence?” came the gray mass sitting across from Emilia-blob.
Oh. There he was.
“Hey, Klaus, would ya mind conjuring up some Transmutationist proto-conductors for me?” Cadence asked. “I’ll transmute ya anyone ya like in exchange. Any crushes ya got in mind? Or popular musicians? Actresses—from different walks of life? Heard those types of books—if ya know what I mean—are all the rage here.”
“Uh—I—t-there’s no need for that, Cadence,” Kleine-blob stammered. “I memorized the components of the general proto-conductor, and I think I might be able to adapt it to your preference… But I haven’t trained much on it, and I usually have at least a blueprint if I’m unfamiliar with it. It’s pretty complicated—”
“Application is the best practice. Besides, I have faith in ya.”
“Oh, well… of course then.”
Although Kleine-blob’s voice was monotone to her, Cadence imagined the man enjoyed the praise.
“I—” Kleine-blob fell silent. “I should probably get approval from the hauptmann first…”
Cadence understood the hesitation. It wasn’t like she was his actual superior or anything.
Just as the thought left her mind, a pair of footsteps came up from behind her. It was another faceless figure, no different from the ones sitting in front of her. Maybe… the hauptmann?
“What’s going on?” the new blob asked.
“I just had a spark of brilliance,” Cadence explained. “How about I fill a couple of proto-conductors for ya?” She gestured to herself. “My skill set is pretty rare. Heard that only 15% of Transmutationists are internalists like me, so I think havin’ a couple of proto-conductors with my vitae in it’ll help ya in the long run. Whatdya say?”
“Kleine hasn’t studied the engineering behind nor structure of proto-conductors fully yet,” the blob replied. “But… I do agree that your skill set is… valuable.”
Sounded like the dear lieutenant, Cadence thought.
“If you’d be willing to provide your conducting for us, we’d greatly appreciate it,” the captain continued. “There’s no obligation of course.”
He was being a bit easy, she realized. Probably felt some order of guilt for playing the tin soldier and treating her as a package. Well, she didn’t blame him.
“I’m offerin’. ‘Course I’ll put a long-term favor token in my back pocket in exchange.”
“Go ahead, Kleine,” hauptmann-blob affirmed. “And, Morello, if the proto-conductor begins to feel in any way hotter than normal when you try to fill it with vitae, you should stop, alright? A misconjured wire is all it takes to turn a conductor into a bomb. Just be careful.”
“Got it, Hauptmann,” Cadence responded, offering a two-fingered salute.
“Alright, sir. I need to go get my conductor from the storage cart.” Kleine-blob rose and squeezed himself out of the booth and out of the cart. “I’ll be back.”
Blob-Klaus returned ten minutes later with a handful of proto-conductors and an apology for his tardiness. Cadence accepted them graciously before excusing herself into one of the private rooms “ta better concentrate” on her work.
She glanced over her shoulder just as she slid into the room set to the side of the corridor. Nico was still sitting in between Stein-blob and Gilbert-blob. Chuckling lightly. Not looking too concerned or worried for once.
* * *
Once inside the room, Cadence shut the door, sank into the bed provided, and pulled off Werner’s gloves. Drawing from faces she’d encountered in the past few months, she began to spill her vitae into the proto-conductors and store the illusions inside of them. After a while, she transmuted her own red-headed image over herself and pulled out Werner’s pocket watch to study her reflection.
Funnily enough, she wasn’t sure if she’d gotten the details right. Freckles, check—but had her nose always been that small? Even funnier than that was that she remembered other people’s physical characteristics better than her own. If Atienna were present, Cadence figured she’d probably say something philosophical about identity.
After filling the last ring with vitae, Cadence slipped all the proto-conductors into her pocket and studied her bare palm. The black spot hadn’t changed at all, so Cadence didn’t pay any mind to it. Instead, she ran her fingers along the deep, red, bumpy lines that were barely visible beneath it.
“If anyone should be ashamed, it should be her, not you,” she mumbled before rocking back and stretching out her limbs. “And I’m really talkin’ ta myself now. Fantastic.”
She held out Werner’s pocket watch again. Her eyes were so foggy that she could barely read the hands. 6:30.
Just a minute of sleep wouldn’t hurt, right…?
Cadence stretched out her limbs and fell back against the bed. Folding her arms behind her head, she closed her eyes—
—and opened them a second later.
However, it wasn’t sight that returned to her first but sound. A hopping piano trill paired with some dampened trombone notes and violin strokes.
When her vision returned, she found herself standing in a narrow alleyway with walls that extended up so high that she couldn’t even see the crack of the sky. She glanced down into the puddle at her feet and found her nine-year-old self staring back at her. A quick check of her hands and limbs confirmed she had indeed somehow turned back the clock of time.
The music suddenly amplified and crashed down in disjointed echoes across the grimy walls of the alley. A milky, sultry voice in Common wafted down:
“Presenting this heart for you—”
“Alma?” Cadence whispered, staring upwards at the sky she couldn’t see.
A rumbling resounded down the far end of the alley. When Cadence turned her head in the direction, she found only endless darkness—a haze of black that seemed to creep closer and closer. Deep, throaty growling and barking resounded from within the shadows.
“—against all those who you can choose.”
Suddenly filled with body-numbing terror that she’d only ever experienced in childhood, Cadence ran in the opposite direction. The rumbling, barking shadow followed her as she scrambled away—gaining ground with every step.
An exit. She needed to find an exit .
In the distance, she saw light spilling into the alleyway from doors that were ajar along the walls. Relief blossomed in her chest, as she threw herself to the nearest doorway. She froze as she registered what was inside.
Mom. Dad. Sitting at a round wooden table in front of a copper fireplace that crackled away. Cadence almost couldn’t believe the sight of them because they were both smiling, hands intertwined, cheeks rosy with life—that was, at least until they turned their eyes on her. Their smiles dropped, their stares piercing through her skin.
Cadence took a step back and blinked.
The table was gone—the fireplace too. Her mother was now dead on the ground entangled in sheets with a fistful of morrowheat in her hands just like that night many years ago. Her father stood right by the doorframe, glaring down at her.
Your mother died by morrowheat, his eyes seemed to say as he shut the door in her face. How could you go around flaunting it like that?
Cadence shook her head before dashing to the next door.
Fortuna was standing there with all the Romano capos and the boss sitting behind her at a round table. The Romano heiress stared down at Cadence with large, unnatural eyes too big for her face and with an inhumanly cold gaze. Without saying a word, she too shut the door.
The rumbling, howling behind Cadence grew louder and louder.
She stumbled to the next doorway and found Allen, Carl, and Francis sitting on a stack of crates within. They looked younger—probably around the age when they’d all met. Cadence threw herself at them in relief but was shoved back to the ground by Carl. She gathered her bearings only to see Allen pulling the door to a close.
You expect us to let you back in after what you did? came their silent words.
However, before the door shut completely, Francis stopped it and pulled it back open. There was sympathy on his face but not pity. But just as relief began to seep back into Cadence’s body, Francis’s face began to bubble and blacken as if someone was putting cigarettes out all over it. Eventually, his face crumbled away into ash.
Before Cadence could reach out to him, the door slammed shut. She stepped back in horror before throwing herself at the closed door, struggling to pull it open and then pounding on the door when she failed. She only tore herself away when the howling reached her ears again.
Only one door left at the dead end.
A child was already standing there, eclipsed in light. Nico. He held his hand out to her, his face folding with its usual worry. Upon reaching him, she grabbed a hold of his hand—warm like the sun—and stepped into the doorway only to find herself stepping back out into the alley. When she turned, she found a glass door behind which an older Nico stood chattering with Stein and Fischer—all the while smiling straight at her.
“Against all these ones that’ll abandon you,”
The door disappeared in a blink.
No more doors left. All of them were closed. No exit.
The rumbling, howling grew louder behind her, almost completely drowning out the cheery tune still trilling out. As it descended upon her, Cadence tucked herself into a squat, squeezed her eyes shut, and covered her ears.
Then there was nothing.
Hesitantly, Cadence cracked open her eyes, uncovered her ears, and unfurled herself. She winced against the harsh, singular, indigo spotlight pouring down on her from an unknown source. The dissonant jazzy tune was resounding around the black emptiness that extended out around her.
Well, this definitely wasn’t what she had in mind when she’d said she’d wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way.
A soft click echoed in the distance.
Turning towards the sound, Cadence found another indigo spotlight cast on a single woman draped over a stack of books far away. Surrounding the woman was a series of closed doors.
It was… Atienna? Looking lovely as always.
Cadence’s heart nearly leapt for joy at the sight of her. She wasn’t the type to be sappy, but finally—
Terror seized her a moment afterwards as Cadence registered that there were small, shiny black bodies crawling all over the Virgoan. They were in her hair, all over her limbs, and pattering across her face. Scorpions, tails raised and poised, ready to strike.
Shoving her cowardice down, Cadence started forwards. “G-Get away from her!”
“So I’m presenting the one who doesn’t ever choose,”
As Cadence neared Atienna, the bugs suddenly burst open and out from them grew red flowers. They had thin, dripping petals that seemed to act as fingers crawling along Atienna’s skin.
Chills running down her spine, Cadence stopped short. Only for a second. She started forwards a second after. But just as she was within reach of Atienna, the light above the woman suddenly went out leaving Cadence panting in complete darkness again.
A soft, familiar click resounded just a second after.
This time a spotlight formed farther away in the distance. It was brighter and harsher this time, illuminating a figure leaning against an upright rifle conductor.
Cadence recognized that broad back immediately. Werner. The apprehension and fear eased from her shoulders immediately. Good to see the real him instead of staring at his reflection.
“Presenting the one who will become whatever you choose,”
A figure was draped over his back. A tall, thin woman with sinewy limbs enveloping his neck. The crazy woman—his mother.
The woman’s form rippled suddenly, blue cracks forming along her body until she shattered. What was left of her was a glowing mass of blue. The thing barely held a humanoid shape, but Cadence could tell that it was smirking at her. And as it seemed to laugh haughtily, it began to seep and dig into Werner. It was painful—Cadence knew—but he didn’t even flinch.
“Werner!” Cadence snapped, glowering. “Get outta him, ya creep!”
As she took a step towards him, however, another burst of indigo flared out from the corner of her eye. When she turned, she found an additional spotlight shining directly behind her. A woman wrapped in a thin silken black dress stood below it—Alma, humming the tune of the echoing song in front of a stand-up microphone. At her feet crawled scorpions that were slowly making their way up her leg to her chest. No, they were crawling beneath her skin—writhing, squirming under all that porcelain. But she was still smiling in song.
Cadence’s chest seized at the sight of Alma—heart soaring and mind-numbing. When she managed to tear her gaze away from Alma and back to Werner, her heart dropped to her stomach. The distance between them had suddenly increased tenfold. He was almost a speck now. And when Cadence turned back to Alma, she found that the same distance had grown between them.
Cadence hesitated for only one moment before she started towards Werner as the music rose into a cacophony.
Alma was Twin Cities through and through, Cadence knew. Alma’d claw her way up and drag people down to get to the top just fine. To Alma, Cadence had the sinking feeling she’d just been a beloved stepping stone too. But Werner…
Just as Cadence reached the spotlight and extended her hand past the blue rays, the light cut to black. Again.
“Choosing the one you love,” came a sing-song voice in Cadence’s ear.
Whipping around, Cadence found Alma less than half a meter away from her.
“No….” Cadence took a step back. “I didn’t choose ya—I didn’t!” She turned around and searched the dark, cupping her hands and shouting—“Werner! Atienna!”
“It doesn’t matter how much everything changes,” Alma sang into the mic. “Deep down, your choice and heart will stay the same.”
Cadence froze and locked eyes with Alma just as a scorpion popped out from the corner of the woman’s eyes. Her attention was drawn away from the horrifying sight by an itching at her palms. She looked down in terror to find something squirming beneath the black mark on her hand.
“Can’t you see that none of them are for you because the only one will ever love you is—”
“Cadence.” A woman suddenly appeared behind Alma in the darkness. She had a dark rope of hair, a monochrome suit, and a white band wrapped around her left arm. Feathers rained down from above her. “Wake up.”
Alma extended her hands out and cupped Cadence’s cheeks as she sang the last word.
—Eyes flying open, Cadence jerked up to a sit and looked around wildly.
The wooden walls of the train’s private room greeted her as did the dampened click-clacking of the train tracks. The v-lights to the room flickered on and off as the compartment rattled with each bump. Beyond the door to her left, she could hear muffled chattering. It smelled like v-cig smoke too. Normally she appreciated the smell, but now it turned her stomach.
Cadence stiffened. “Kid?” She scanned the room, half-desperately. “Olive…?”
Wiping the sweat from her brow, she checked the pocket watch that had fallen on the floor. 6:30–still? Only fifteen seconds had passed? And she still felt so tired.
Cadence was ready to kill for a drink but she didn’t want to accidentally turn Werner into an alcoholic. Bad enough that she’d been chain-smoking nonstop since getting here.
Shoulders sagging, she buried her head in her hands.
What the hell was she doing here with all of Werner’s men anyways? She should’ve run when she had the chance, she knew. If she had just taken Werner’s body, Nico, and Gilbert and run then—
—then Weingartner and Werner’s men would’ve been stuck with the consequence of the situation she’d put them in.
The others weren’t important. Self-preservation was the law of the land. That’s just how it was.
But they were important to Werner.
He would’ve gotten over it.
No, he wouldn’t have. She knew him and knew he wouldn’t. On the surface, yes, to keep up appearances he’d rattle on about numbers and statistics. But not really. Besides, she doubted she could convince Gilbert to come along. She had imagined that maybe she could convince Nico, but she could see now that—
Why was she caring about people who didn’t care about her? Who didn’t know her? What was she trying to prove? It was a bad investment.
In the long run, what was she trying to accomplish here? What about in the Twin Cities? With all of those children? Just involving herself was causing her to fall into a negative balance—a deficit. Cost-benefit analysis pointed to that.
No, the money was third-rate. She’d wanted to help the Foxmans in any way she could—
Even though she’d always be second-rate to them?
Cadence’s chest squeezed.
Well, that was fine, she thought. As long as she could just make all of those children have a childhood better than hers then that would be enough.
But that was also self-deception. Because in reality, she was just using that as a way to make her feel like a better person.
And so what if I am?, Cadence rebutted. She was sure that she wasn’t doing that. But if she was, at least she was doing some good by it. If everyone acted only on intention, the world would be crapsack.
But she was only thinking like this because of the others. This altruism wasn’t really hers.
True. Cadence had often imagined what it would be like to think clearly without the other five’s sense of morality or amorality pressuring her all the time. Life would be simpler.
“Easier,” she agreed. To be free from all that … all this …?
But cost-benefit analysis painted a clear picture. Being buddies with literal royalty, a guy who was the definition of reliable, a pretty dame who could think and fight, a beast ready to get her out of sticky situations, and a get-out-of-jail-free card peacekeeper? Working with the other five was worth the payment of all this extra weight.
So that’s not the route to go then.
The thought gave Cadence pause.
Something wasn’t right… Cadence knew something wasn’t right from the very beginning. But she was so tired and she couldn’t think. And—
A quiet tune seeped into the room through the cracks in the door.
Cadence felt numbness spill out into her limbs as she turned towards the sound.
“Presenting this heart to you,” came the familiar milky, sultry voice, barely audible singing behind the door. “Against all the ones you can choose… ”
Cadence leapt to her feet and threw open the door. Faceless figures were gathered at the tables in the train hall. She couldn’t tell whether they were staring at her or ignoring her, but she paid them no mind. Instead, she scrambled towards the whispering melody, brushed past the passengers crowding the compartments, blazed from cart to connecting-bridge to cart.
Eventually, she made it to the cart the music was emanating from. The compartment was empty, the only signs of former occupancy being the stray glasses of whiskey on the table.
“Presenting the one that won’t ever choose. ”
Where was it? There. In the corner resting on the farthest table.
Cadence very vaguely recalled seeing it in Ophiuchus through Jericho’s eye—a portable radio, powered by vitae through some mechanism she again only vaguely recalled Olive reading about. It was wooden and small with a fenced-looking front and numerous small knobs and buttons lining its body.
Cadence grabbed the radio and jabbed at the buttons and turned the knobs, but the damned thing wouldn’t turn off. Alma’s voice only blared louder and louder and—
“Lieutenant, what’s wrong?”
Cadence straightened and turned.
“Against the ones who will abandon you…”
Nico stood there looking worried as always.
“Lieutenant.” Nico glanced nervously through the window of the door behind him. “What’re you doing?”
Cadence pointed to the radio. “Who put that on? Did you do that?”
Nico shook his head. “I think it was Stein. He likes her singing. I thought you’d like it too…”
Why was he so clear while everyone else was blurry? She couldn’t stand it. She’d rather she not see him at all. Because right now she could see that all he was concerned with was—
“Werner, Werner, Werner—that’s all you say,” Cadence scoffed before she could stop herself. “I thought you’d at least pick up a bit more Capricornian when you were out here, but that’s all ya seem to know.”
Nico startled. “What? What are you talkin’ about…?” He glanced through the window and ducked his head again. “This isn’t the place, Cadence. There’s passengers in the other carts. If something’s wrong, we can talk somewhere else—”
“There you go again. You’re always playin’ the tender-hearted, responsible, innocent, carin’ victim,” Cadence muttered. “I know ya’ve always thought ya were better than us, but ya gotta quit flauntin’ it.”
What was she saying…?
What she truly felt.
“That’s not true—” Nico stiffened, glancing over his shoulder again. “Where is this even comin’ from—”
“There ya go again. Ya always talked about how ya wanted ta leave the life. Talkin’ about how ya’d get outta workin’ under your dad.” She spread her arms. “Well, congratulations, Nic. Ya did it in the most backwards way possible. Ya happy?”
Nico’s eyes widened.
She knew his buttons like the back of her hand. Hook, line, sinker.
“Why’re you bringin’ him into this…? What does that have to do with anything?” Nico almost snapped, fists clenched. “I’m helpin’ good people. It’s my choice. What my dad’s doin’ is—”
“Ya think those guys are any better than us?” Cadence scoffed. “At least we’re honest about who we are and what we do.” She jabbed a finger at the door behind him. “They’re out here foolin’ themselves. For glory? For honor? For the paycheck, more like it! Ha—what kind of paper-thin reasonin’ is that?! What’s your reasonin’?”
“Bendetto ordered a hit on a group of delinquents who tried ta take advantage of all the chaos after what happened back home. Ya know what he said when he strung up all those kids by the docks? He said it was for honor.”
“You’re not here—you don’t know what they go through or their reasons. You don’t have to know. And you don’t have to know mine,” Nico interjected. “But I can tell you that it’s more than just a paycheck. For their families—”
Red hot anger throttled through Cadence’s chest. Before she even realized what she was doing, she grabbed a whisky glass from a nearby table and threw it at him. Nico dodged it with wide-eyed alarm, and it shattered against the window behind him.
“For family?! Rich comin’ from you! How can ya even say that?” She slapped her chest. “And I am here! How do ya think this whole thing works? I see almost everything he sees. Remember half the things he remembers. And because of that, I know the real reason you’re stayin’ here. Not ‘cause you’re a damned saint—that’s for sure.”
“Who said I was a saint to begin with—” Nico stopped short, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed before raising his hands again. “Look, I’m sorry for yellin—”
“Please, just stop with that act. I see how ya look at him,” Cadence spat. When she registered Nico’s stricken expression, she felt a surge of thrill. “What? Do you always have to have someone you cling to? First it was your dad, then it was me, and now him?”
Nico’s ears began to burn red. “Stop bringing my d—”
“I really thought you’d changed but you’re still the same old crybaby Nico clingin’ ta whatever poor sap treats ya nicely,” Cadence interjected. “You’re always expectin’ someone ta come get ya out of whatever mess ya get yourself into—”
“I’m not expectin’ anythin’ from anyone,” Nico interjected, gesturing to himself. Basically—‘You’re selfish.’
“But ya admit that’s the reason why you’re out here—”
“What?” Nico recoiled. “No! How could you even say that? Is that really what you think of me? You don’t even know me! Stop actin’ like you do! You always do this!”
“Stop changin’ the subject. ‘Cause you know what?” Cadence glowered at him. “It’s all for nothing! I’ve seen inside his head. I know what he thinks of you.”
Nico’s face became tight. “Cadence, stop—”
“You’re just a tool that’s lost its use,” she pressed on despite the lie twisting in her stomach. “The only reason he tolerates ya is ‘cause he remembers me savin’ your ass all the time. It’s the only reason he cares about ya even. That and you’re a decent Transmutationist. But besides that”—she mimicked Werner’s icy expression—“you’re just an annoyance.”
Nico paled as if slapped. But after a beat, he scoffed, “At least… At least I’m not chasing after someone who clearly doesn’t care about me. I’m not a masochist unlike you. I’m not addicted to people leavin’ me out to dry.”
He knew what buttons to push for her too.
Cadence moved before she thought, launching herself at him like she’d launched herself at his bullies back with the Foxmans years ago. Nico caught her fist in alarm before they tumbled back against the table.
“I don’t care how ya feel about Werner. And ya know what? I don’t care why you’re out here—” Cadence spat, her frustration forming tears in her eyes. “But ya should’ve been back home! We needed you! Back when Francis was losin’ his shit. After he lost it. Before he lost it! Back when Verga and his lot were makin’ a mess of the Romanos and pinnin’ it on Matilda’s gang. But you left! And I had ta put my neck on the line ta get Werner not ta murder ya!”
Nico’s face crumpled, and he held her by an arm’s length. “Werner said… he said you said everything was fine back home.”
“That was a lie!”
Nico paled before his brows furrowed and he fired back, “Do you hear yourself…? A lie—you said it! I can’t read your mind, Cadence!”
“Don’t give me that bull. I can’t read your damn mind either!” Cadence snapped. “But I still came ta your rescue whenever ya said ya were fine when you were really gettin’ a shakedown down by some holier-than-thou kid from the Monadic District.” She scoffed. “Are ya seriously tellin’ me that ya heard about Verga kickin’ the bucket, saw Francis literally becomin’ a damn terrorist, saw all of ‘em bein’ kidnapped and held for ransom, saw Ophiuchus kickin’ down the door—and ya thought, ‘Oh, they’re just damned fine.’ Ya knew we needed help but ya just pretended not ta know! What kinda damn doctor are you when ya ignore people like that!”
“If you would’ve just asked for my help, I would’ve come home!”
“Okay, then go home,” Cadence hissed, meeting his gaze and fisting his shirt into her hands. “Right. Now.”
“You… You know I can’t do that, Cadence,” Nico stammered. “Look at the situation. I’m sorry—”
Frankly, the statement brought relief to Cadence. She was glad that there was someone else reliable by Werner’s side. But with the relief came the bitter realization that in turn that meant no one would be by her side. “See.”
“You can’t say it like that…” Nico’s face twisted into a grimace. “Why do you expect me to know when you’re lyin’ and when you’re not…? You lie all the time! And you—you always lie to me! It’s like you can’t live without lyin’.”
The words wouldn’t have stung if anyone else had said it.
“Not just that. You’re always twistin’ me this way and that—ever since we were kids! You keep draggin’ me along like I’m some pet. But I still went along with it ‘cause I lov—”
“Oh, I’m dragging you along?” Cadence scoffed. “You’re the one draggin’ me along. You just kept me around— all of us around—‘cause none of the normal kids wanted ta hang out with ya since ya were the doc’s kid and a pushover’. Ya hear that? Ya were—and are —the doc’s son. Ya were practically livin’ the high life when you were a kid. Ya had food on the table—even brought food ta us sometimes—and ya had clothes on your back. Ya didn’t need to be around us, but ya still went around pretendin’ ya were a street rat until ya didn’t need us anymore! But that’s the city, ain’t it—”
“Are you serious?!” Nico recoiled. “You’re the one who does that. You drop everythin’ as soon as it involves Alma! Doesn’t matter if it’s me or Francis or Fortuna or—” His eyes narrowed. “Or even Werner.”
“I apologized for that already—”
“You think an apology does anythin—”
“That’s between me and him, not you!” Cadence paused, grip loosening, as she grimaced. “And I’m sorry for playin’ ya like that all those times. I just wanted ta protect ya—”
“Oh, there you go. Pretendin’ you’re a white knight in shinin’ armor?”
Cadence winced and then glowered. “Well, that seems ta be your type.”
“See. You’re not sorry. Not really,” Nico scoffed. “Because you’re still doin’ it. You’re the same. This right now. And, I mean—our song? Really? You don’t think I can tell you did it on purpose—”
“Well, like ya said—I can’t know if it upsets ya if ya if ya don’t tell me!” Cadence snapped.
Nico opened his mouth, shut it, then glowered. “You’re a hypocrite. You’re selfish.”
“You’re a hypocrite. You’re selfish!”
No matter where she went or who she was with, she would never be the most important person for anyone; and that meant that when push came to shove, she had no one. And nothing to lose.
“The hell is going on here,” came a monotone voice from behind before Cadence found herself pulled away from Nico.
Nico was aided to a stand by two blobs. There were blobs crowded by the entrance to the cart too.
Cadence blinked as her vision blurred and then stiffened as the blobs became recognizable human beings again. Stein and Kleine were the ones helping Nico up, while the one who had pulled her off of Nico was Gilbert. Werner’s other men crowded in the doorway. His family was there too—from the crazy woman to Viktoria to Ludwig. Cadence had no clue how long they’d been standing there.
Gilbert grabbed her arm and whispered, “The hell are you doing…?”
The tired fog returned to Cadence as the adrenaline left her.
She cleared her throat. “Everything is in order. There was a minor dispute.”
“Everything is obviously not in order,” Gilbert hissed “Half the train heard you shouting. What’s going on? If you want to fight, take it to a damned private room—”
“I said everything was in order, Leutnant.”
Gilbert stiffened reflexively and loosened his grip.
Cadence pulled her arm away. She picked up a trash can resting nearby the opposite entrance, swept the shards of whiskey glass scattered around into it, and then turned to the ones crowded by the left entrance. “I apologize for the disturbance.”
She made her exit through the opposite door before anyone could respond. The frosty night air of the connecting bridge greeted her and slapped some of her fogginess away before she entered the next compartment.
Sloppy, she knew. She’d messed up. Big time.
Cadence continued from cart to cart to cart. She had no idea where she wanted to go. All she knew was that she needed to find an exit. To get her thoughts together. And to sleep.
Eventually, she found herself stopping short just outside one of the last compartments on one of the metal walkways linking the carts together.
A half-moon hung low in the night sky, illuminating both the forestry rushing around her and another train running opposite and parallel to her. Said train looked no different from the one she was on besides the red cross stamped onto every other cart. Medical transport, probably.
A stampeding of footsteps behind her drew her attention away.
They were following. She needed to escape. Go where they couldn’t find her. Quickly.
She reached for the ladder fixated beside the door on the next compartment over and climbed. Once she pulled herself onto the top of the cart and stumbled forward to the center of the roof, however, she paused. Blinking back tears from the whipping wind, she peered over the edge and felt nausea at the sight of the ground rushing below her.
Cadence sank to all-fours.
Why the hell had she thought this was a good idea? The only reason she’d been able to confront Francis on that spire of the Dioscuri months ago was because she had been running on adrenaline and pure determination. All she was running on now was regret and fizzled-out anger. Matter-of-fact—why the hell had she thought taking it out on Nico was a good idea?
Guilt coiled in her stomach at the thought.
It was true that she’d always thought those things deep down. In fact, she’d be filled with frustration, hurt, and anger whenever she spied Nico through Werner’s eyes. It was a miracle that Werner hadn’t acted on her feelings. But despite her animosity, she’d understood Nico’s perspective. To an extent. She’d been planning to talk it over with him—Atienna’s go-to solution—but she’d pushed discussion back every single time.
Cadence turned to see a flash of blonde catching the moonlight just at the edge of the train cart. It was Viktoria, shakily pulling herself up on the roof. Her hair was whipping wildly in the wind, her pale cheeks reddened with the cold.
“Do not come up here, Viktoria,” Cadence ordered, keeping her tone hard and cold.
Viktoria continued climbing and crawled to Cadence swiftly. When their eyes locked, Cadence suddenly became aware of Werner’s pocket watch ticking away in her pocket. Viktoria abruptly cupped Cadence’s face. Her icy blue eyes were identical to Werner’s.
“I knew it. I thought something was strange when you didn’t ask me to check on the pocket watch when you came home. It was an important gift, don’t you know?” Viktoria’s face crumpled. “Where did you go this time…? Who are you?”
Before Cadence could think of a way to respond, an oddly familiar clink, clink, clink emanated loudly from behind her. At first, she thought the clinking was from the train itself, but then she saw the white glow reflecting in Viktoria’s widening eyes.
“I knew it,” came a voice from behind. “I thought that the Capricornian in the wheelchair looked familiar. Are you two related or something?”
Cadence felt her stomach drop. The chilly air had nothing on the cold that washed through her entire body. With effort, she broke free of the ice entangling her limbs and grabbed hold of Viktoria’s hands before throwing herself at Viktoria. They tumbled along the slope of the roof just before a flurry of white, spiked chains bulleted the area they’d just been sitting at.
“Are y’alright?” Cadence asked Viktoria below her who responded with a wince.
A woman with wild, fiery red hair barely tamed into a ponytail stood at the edge of the cart eclipsed by the moonlight with her polka-dot blue dress billowing in the wind. She was missing half an arm. But her good hand was gloved and extended outwards. At the gesture, a torrent of chairs unfurled out from behind her in a pattern that vaguely resembled wings.
Although everything else was fuzzy, the terror that had seized Cadence the night she’d worked alongside Werner’s men and Jericho to try and rescue Donato from this ELPIS leader was still crystal clear.
“You were working with that suitcase peacekeeper, weren’t you?” Iota whispered, eyes so wide that Cadence could see the whites—it seemed as if Iota hadn’t forgotten that night either. “Back in Gemini.”
Always bad luck with women.
4 thoughts on “16.5: Swindler, 0630 Filial Affliction (2)”
Thanks for the chapter. First of all I KNEW IT. Hard to say if feelings are reciprocated since Cadence clearly views Nico as just a friend/family and their feelings influence each other. Hard to say who was right in the argument too. Obviously Cadence is wrong for throwing that glass but Nico did kind of ditch them but at the same time Cadence did lie. Friendships are complicated
Dream sequence was unpleasant. In a good way
I don’t have a discord but would create an account to join if you created one. I also comment on the other site too so I’m fie with whatever choice you make. I did see our story listed in that one forum thread recently so the troll might’ve rolled through there. People need to chill
Good luck with writathon! And work and school!
And I was wondering why the link didn’t work… lol
LikeLiked by 1 person
Scorpio doesn’t really have a reason for this torture, does he. Even as it makes his work less effective
This just go to show how well Atienna is at detecting Scopio’s intrusive thought because Cadence is getting owned big time
[[[“Not just that. You’re always twistin’ me this way and that—ever since we were kids! You keep draggin’ me along like I’m some pet. But I still went along with it ‘cause I lov—”]]]
Nicoooo, Stoppppp!! Doesn’t matter if the feeling is platonic or romantic. Conta , Omicron, all the couples are dead you hear me? Having a ship is the most surefire deathflag in this novel !!
LikeLiked by 1 person
atienna definitely had it figured out but AEIWUOREI your last death flag pattern analysis gave me life
LikeLiked by 1 person