Maria is headed into Capricorn with Lita the Specialist child, Simon the Monadic Priest, Veles the bounty hunter leader, and Emmanuel the foreign engineer when she is rendered unconscious by Scorpio’s invasion. When she awakens in an override over Werner, she swiftly intervenes in Leona’s combat engagement with Werner’s associates and defeats the saint candidate before running off again.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle Law and her group have discovered and encountered the saint candidate of Libra, Flannery Caertas who stands on neutral ground. Flannery encounters Werner’s associates and removes the spore from Stein and Leona before departing with the latter.Â
With their footing lost and feeling out of their depth, those outside of the six must determine what to do next.
Kundgebung » Rallying forces 0600 hours
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
The bells were ringing again far off in the distance. The chimes swelled in harmony alongside the ocean waves crashing against the rocky cliff faces just beneath her. In-between the beats of water and the tolling brass, the seagulls bellowed loudly. It was a wonderful, relaxing melody that caused her to drift further into a comfortable, hazy drowse. The sunlight kissing her skin and her closed eyelids gently intensified the haziness; and the grass bed beneath her cushioned and lulled her deeper into drowsiness.
“Oh, Maria,” came the exasperated sigh, carrying with it a shadow that passed over her closed eyes, “the priests said that we should be back by noon for lunch. We were late for lunch ten times over already. I don’t want to be scolded again. Can we please go now?”
“Don’t worry, Conta,” Maria replied with a hum. “I’ll carry you if you’re worried about not getting there fast enough. My legs are much longer, yes?”
Another sigh. “Oh, Maria, please—”
Maria’s eyes fluttered open. Disappointingly, she wasn’t met with warm golden sunlight nor by Conta’s worried face overshadowing her own. Instead, hanging heavily over her was a slate-gray sky. Instead of flattened grass tickling the back of her neck, she felt instead the cold press of cement roofing.
Well, this sky and weather were nice too, Maria supposed as she squinted upwards. She enjoyed being able to taste the coming rain riding in on the cool winds. And the ground wasn’t so uncomfortable either—it was good for the back.
Maria just barely remembered climbing onto this rooftop some time ago. The sun had been shining brightly up in the sky then, but the clouds made it difficult to tell where it was now.
Ah, that was right. For whatever reason, she was in Capricorn now and in an override over Werner. She couldn’t quite pinpoint when she’d realized she was stuck here. She’d just abruptly woken up to a burst of pale tangerine light in a small, dingy room. Women and men in lab coats had been darting around in there as a cold updraft had torn through the plastic bags, tubes, and gauzes that lined the metal trays in the area. The updrafts had nearly ripped the hanging sign—reading ‘Emergency Room’—above the door right off of its hinges too.
In all the chaos unfolding, Conta had emerged from a glowing pale tangerine light on the ceiling and had grabbed a hold of a familiar man lying on a gurney at the center of the room. Maria recalled the man being badly burnt—with flaking skin on his forearms that was barely wrapped over with gauze. When Conta had dragged the man back into the gate, Maria had given chase through it—only to end up in an empty and unfamiliar alleyway. After hearing some commotion in the distance, she’d followed it and had found Werner’s crew fighting against Leona. After she’d defeated and captured Leona—an exhilarating event—Werner’s crew had explained to her something about being infected by a Manipulator and about her being stuck in an override—a not-so-exhilarating event. She’d left them not too long after that; and now here she was, not being able to hear the others and…
Maria touched her shoulder and then winced as the area flared out with pulsating pain. She pulled herself up to a sit and nearly fell back down as a wave of nausea gurgled in her stomach and rose to her throat. An intense chill expanded out from her chest leaving her with a shiver.
Maria had never felt this terrible before.
While she had the intention to find her own crew in this country after dropping Werner’s crew off at that conservatory, this terrible feeling had been so intense that she’d climbed up here hoping to sleep it off. Thinking back now, however, she began to wonder if she should have stayed with Werner’s crew to begin with.
She was always like that. Running off, pockets full, to do things as she pleased and losing everything along the way.
“Well, I am learning,” Maria said, tugging on a strand of hair and looking around. “Just because I am strong doesn’t mean that I can’t make mistakes. Overcoming mistakes is part of what makes me strong. Ah, good morning by the way, Voz!”
“You are just a ‘voice’ so you are Voz!”
Maria thought she could almost hear a chuckle.
The only reason you think like that is because of how you were raised. You were a potential saint candidate, and the orphanage’s tactics were —
“I think the way I think because I am me,” Maria replied, searching the sky. “I don’t understand why you are trying to say otherwise.”
I see this isn’t worth the effort.
“Why do you keep saying things like that? It does not hurt me, but there are important people to me who might take what you say as important. I cannot forgive it if you hurt them, yes?” Maria wondered, “Does saying these things make you happy?”—she’d seen her fair share of strange people who had fun hurting other people.
If you think helping people makes me happy, then yes.
“Helping?” Maria tilted her head. “You… think you are helping people?”
And I can help you too. Right now because of a mistake I made, Werner will die—you all will die—if you don’t handle this quickly. I admit I got too carried away, but I have helped him—to a point where I think he’ll do fine if I’m no longer there. Since Libra is finally active, I think it would be in your best interest to seek her out. Of course, having a conversation with Jericho before we part then would be preferable. I can help you find her—
“Wow, you talk a lot. But I don’t understand. Who is this Libra? What is this about dying? I will not die, so they will not die. And how are you helping them?”
You’re close enough to our perspective to understand. People can’t change who they really are. Because of that, they can’t change anything. Any sign of change is merely surface level. It’s a waste of time to do it and can cause a person great pain. That’s why I help people come to terms with who they and help them pursue their deepest desire. Reservoirs are a bonus.
“‘Close enough’…? Are you saying that you get to decide who they are?”
No, I just see who they are deep down and guide them that way. You could say that I’m simply a trigger any person can encounter on any day that will set them on the path to their passions and self.
“But is that not just your perspective? Atienna talks about that a lot.” Maria stood up, holding her shoulder. “And my Conta always used to say that if you can’t solve a problem, you need another perspective. Anyways, I know my passion and I know myself, so I don’t need your help.”
It’s not perspective. It’s reality.
“But that is your perspective, yes?”
There was silence.
“Hello?” Maria called out again.
Well, that was disappointing.
Before Maria could ponder on it much longer, commotion from below drew her to the roof’s edge. Curiously, she peered down over the ledge and into the gray streets to find a sea of men and women—dressed in common wear and military garb—moving in waves down the walkway and weaving in-between trams and tracks.
They chanted in unison, throwing up their wooden signs in the air with their right hands and painting over the black flags of the buildings they passed with the other. The paintings left behind were blue and dripping in dollops onto the ground.
Can you believe that only one-tenth of those people have my spore planted in them? All of this is—
Maria quickly scaled down a water pipe to the ground floor before squeezing her way into the crowd. She was immediately swept along by their marching and was handed a sign and a wet paintbrush. “What is with this excitement?” she asked the woman closest to her over the chanting.
The woman looked her up and down before saying something clipped and curt.
Maria tilted her head. “Sorry, I usually understand Capricornian, but I am having a hard time right now. Could you say that again in Common?”
The woman ogled Maria, eyed her dark pants and long-sleeved blouse, before repeating, “We are protesting. Not just for demilitarization of Capricorn anymore. Innocent Capricornians were killed at the border, and the Kaiser refuses to take accountability. Even some of the generals agree, and they’ve joined us too. Marionette’s been released by a general who is for our cause, and we’re finally starting to move forward.”
Maria blinked. “Well… that’s not very nice of the Kaiser.”
The woman, cheeks flushed, gestured widely with an expression of pure joy. “It isn’t even the day of the official protest yet, and do you see how many people are here? We’re making history!”
“There are a lot of people.” Maria nodded, smiling. “The last time I saw so many people gathered in one place was when I went to that Fleur et Vin Festival in Cancer last year. Ah, since there was wine and food at the festival, do you have some here too?”
The woman stared, eyebrows furrowed. “We… just came from Marionette’s speech down at the Reichenbach Square… There were refreshments there—if that was what you were asking?”
Maria shook her head.
The woman studied her. “…Anyway, you sound like a foreigner, but you look Capricornian. Come, come.” She abruptly guided Maria through the crowd by the hand to a large, bronze statue prostrate at the center of a courtyard. It towered two Jerichos above Maria and had a handful of flowers blooming at its feet. Unfortunately, half of the florals had been trampled down by the boots of the people clustering around the statue as they painted over it.
Poor flowers, Maria thought. Atienna would be sad. Maybe Jericho too.
“The Kaiser spends money putting monuments up to make it seem like he’s done something for this country—stroking his own ego!” The woman dragged Maria to the foot of the statue. “There are many other Capricornians who have laid down their lives in service who deserve their statue here instead of him!”
“Why are you painting there?” Maria asked. When the ones painting the statue and the woman turned to frown at her, Maria brushed past them and scaled the statue swiftly. She perched on its shoulders, straddling its head between her legs before peering down at the crowd. Her shoulder pulsated all the while, but she ignored it. “What should I draw?”
After chattering amongst themselves, they collectively pointed to a wall to their left where the symbol of a cartoonish eye with three lashes stared back at them. Chuckling at their strangeness, Maria drew the symbol right on the statue’s face. At her final brushstroke, the crowd below her erupted into whooping shouts and cheers. It was a bit funny—Maria’d always gotten the impression that Capricornians were a serious and quiet bunch, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
Maria inspected her work.
Something about the symbol was oddly familiar to her, although she couldn’t quite recall what it was exactly—
A sudden, sharp, ear-piercing whistle cut through all the cheering below her. Closing in on them in the distance thundered a tsunami of uniformed men and women with metal gorgets hanging from their necks. The Capricornians below her immediately shouted at each other in a panic—something like ‘run’ probably—before dispersing. As Maria watched them scatter and contemplated doing the same, a flash of mousy brown hair retreating in between the moving bodies caught her attention.
Maria leapt down from the statue, landing deftly beside an elder woman who fell back with a yelp. She guided the elder woman back to her feet and then darted after the figure. Weaving between the stampeding paintbrush-wielding crowd and dodging their swinging pickets, she didn’t let Conta out of her sights. A man with a metal gorget grabbed at her arm and swung at her head with a baton, but Maria quickly ducked beneath his swing and swung her own picket up to crack him across the jaw. She tossed the picket onto his body when he fell unconscious to the ground and dropped her paintbrush too along the way.
Without breaking pace, Maria followed Conta down into a wide alleyway dotted by a handful of retreating figures. She rounded the corner at the end and—
Maria stumbled backwards before righting herself and reaching out to catch the woman she’d just crashed into by the arm. The woman gaped as she registered Maria before looking back at the uniformed woman and the suited man standing a step behind her. Both the man and the uniformed woman started forward, shouting the woman’s name—
—but Frau Engel righted herself and waved her hand. “It’s alright. I know him.”
But Maria didn’t know her.
“Both of you, leave us to talk for a moment, would you?”
The duo exchanged a look before walking back in the direction Maria had come from.
Once they were out of earshot, Frau Engel hugged her waist and said, “I’m surprised that Scorpio didn’t catch you yet. From the sound of things, you’re very valuable to him… And you yourself are a valuable person to your country too. Perhaps he’s playing a game again.”
Did this woman know Werner? Who was this Scorpio?—Maria realized that she’d probably know all of these things if she’d stayed with Werner’s crew.
“Why… are you surprised?” Maria asked.
Engel tensed. “I don’t have to justify myself to you.”
“Okay.” Maria looked over Engel’s shoulder and paused when she saw only the dead-end of the alley. No place Conta could slip through or into. Nothing Conta could use to scale the wall. Maria’s heart fell at this but she quickly shook herself.
“Scorpio offered me a deal. Rather, he released me,” Marionette continued suddenly, eyes narrowing. “He implanted a… he calls it a ‘spore’ in some of the generals in the chancellery cabinet. Scorpio… showed them our feelings towards our cause, I’m assuming; and they joined us.”
Maria blinked back at Engel.
“The Kaiser doesn’t realize he’s being played by Scorpio, but I do. The saint candidate wants to create reservoirs using the Augen and the Kaiser’s loyalists—fine. Eventually, he’ll be satisfied and we’ll still be here and so will the Kaiser. Nothing will change if I don’t take this route, and there needs to be a change. I’ll do anything for my country.”
“You sound very sure of yourself,” Maria noted.
“I’m doing what I can with what I’ve been given. You’re young, so you probably don’t understand. I’m sure once you step onto that throne, you’ll—”
“I would not say I am stepping onto any thrones… Oh, but maybe I would like to try it out?”
Engel arched a brow, lips dipping before her brows shot up. She took a step back. “You… changed. Again.”
“Changed…?” Maria tilted her head before a realization hit her. She tapped her temple. “Oh! By Scorpio do you mean the voice in here? This is a strange person, yes? Is he the ‘Manipulator’ then?”
Engel sighed quietly. “I’m assuming you haven’t been able to touch point with Weingartner then—”
“Are you also being manipulated?” Maria interjected.
Engel’s eyes narrowed. “Scorpio’s influence only goes so far. It was what I wanted from the beginning. He just brought it to the surface. That’s all. It’s what I want.”
“Oh, well, that is good to hear.” Maria’s gaze was suddenly drawn to the alley wall where a large blue-eyed symbol identical to the one she’d drawn earlier stared back at her. Then her memory clicked. “Oh, I recognize that!”
Engel followed her gaze. “Yes, it’s… the symbol of the movement. The Verbundene Augen—”
“Really? So you were inspired by Monadism then?”
Engel stared at her again. “What are you talking about?”
“What? Are you not religious, Frau?” Maria inquired. Chuckling, she walked up to the wall and, with her hand that was dripping with the blue paint from earlier, began to draw a circle right beside the Augen symbol. She then dotted the circle’s center and pulled away with hands on hips to inspect her work:
“This is a symbol that the Monadic priests at the orphanage taught us many times,” Maria explained. “The dot represents us in Signum, while the circle around it represents the protection, the completeness, and the perfection of the Signum that the ancestor’s created for us. It stands for the soul of Signum and how the ancestors will always keep watch over us in a… spiritual sense, yes?”
Engel looked pale when Maria turned to her.
“I can’t believe I still remember that! It is probably because my Conta and Simon are so into this Monadism, thing,” Maria continued, reaching over to the wall one more time to paint a smile beneath the two pairs of circles. She looked back to find Engel even paler than before. “What is the matter, Frau?”
When Engel didn’t respond, Maria rocked back on her heels and studied the dead-end of the alley again. She then glanced back over her shoulder. At that moment, a familiar flash of mousy brown hair flitted around the corner.
Maria peeled away from Engel and darted after the retreating figure. She brushed past the ambling paint-covered men and women, past the fallen trash bins on the otherwise clean ground, and then stepped back out onto the street. Discarded batons, signs, and paintbrushes lay scattered on the ground there in between pools of spilled blue. Far in the distance, Maria could see the shrinking backs of the gorget-wearing Capricornians running on after the paintbrush-wielding Capricornians. But Conta was nowhere in sight.
Once you lose something, it’s very hard to find it again. When you lose someone, it’s almost impossible.
Maria paused, thinking. “Voz—no, Scorpio—did you make me see things?”
I’m showing you—
“Fucking hell—is that you?!”
Maria turned as she felt a hand wrap around her arm. She turned to find a familiar man standing beside her with hard eyes and a scowl pulling down his lips.
“You are Derik, yes?” Maria asked, somewhat dazed. “Derik Stein? One of Werner’s crew?”
* * *
Maria allowed Derik to drag her through the streets, over numerous v-tram tracks, and down a handful of alleyways. Eventually, he led her to a circular metal lid that budded from a protrusion of cement on the ground in an abandoned walkway. When he lifted the lid, a set of stairs descending into darkness was revealed. Maria followed him down and was pleasantly surprised to find a small room waiting for her at the bottom.
The room was quite musty and dimly lit by a series of v-light bulbs strung up along the top of the walls. There was a single table set at the center. Around the table sat a series of couches dotted with an array of familiar-looking men—Werner’s Captain Weingartner; Werner’s glasses crewmember, Klaus Kleine; and Werner’s new crewmember, Friedhelm Heimler. Behind them, a mattress was set against the wall. Gilbert, who was laying on top of it, propped himself up to a sit to gawk at her as she arrived, while Nico and Alwin Brandt who were seated beside him startled at her entrance. Another one of Werner’s crew—Wilhelm Fischer—was sitting in the corner opposite with his hands bound in front of him. Strange.
That aside, Maria was quite proud of herself for remembering their names. It seemed she was getting better at it.
She surveyed the rest of the room, noting the shelves toppled with slender, brown packages and tin cans that lined the cream-colored walls. A sign at the very back of the room read ‘Schutz.’
“You’ve found her…?” Werner’s captain rose from his seat and paced over to her.
Derik shrugged before walking over to the wall and leaning against it with crossed arms.
“So you found a new place, yes?” Maria looked around further. “I think the greenhouse is more beautiful, but this has a nice atmosphere too.”
“It’s an old bomb shelter. From the war,” Werner’s captain replied slowly, inspecting her. “You ran off before we could properly introduce ourselves to each other. I’m glad to see you unharmed…” He gestured to her paint-stained shirt, hands, and face. “I see you’ve been busy.” He then extended his hand. “I’m Volker Weingartner. Captain.”
Maria chuckled, accepting the gesture and shaking his hand enthusiastically. “I’ve always wanted to meet you, Volker. Because you’re like me! We are equivalent, yes? Oh, like that Aquarian captain! Duma Kamer…?”
Volker stared. “You’re… Are you the one who released Kramer then—Dunya Kramer?”
“Dunya—that was her name! She was a lovely person to talk to, yes? I wonder how she is.”
Volker opened his mouth, then closed it, before asking gently, “You said your name was Maria…?”
“I am Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez.” Maria took a step back and dipped into a deep bow. “I am a seafaring adventurer and captain of a crew.” When she popped back up from the bow, everyone in the room was standing and staring.
Volker nodded slowly “Right… Well, with Leona—thank you for your help, Captain Gloria-Fernandez. It’s greatly appreciated. But I’d like to ask for you remain with us until we clarify some details… and for you to tell us when you have other plans in mind.”
“You don’t need to thank me, my dear Volker.” Maria dipped her head slightly, placing a hand to her chin. “And, yes, right. Werner always tells me that I shouldn’t run off from people I’m with without saying something. I just wanted to see my crew again, you see? I know they are in good hands, but I’m thinking about them, yes? But, I will tell you next time.”
Volker inclined his head. “We appreciate your consideration. And… I understand the sentiment.”
“How… How did you do that?” Alwin asked suddenly, rising and walking over to her. “How’d you hold your own against Leona…?”
“What do you mean ‘how could I hold my own’?” Maria laughed. “Leona is strong but I am also strong—how else could I do it? There is no question about it.”
“But Leona is a saint candidate,” Alwin continued. “She’s—”
“Ah—I was almost a saint candidate too! Ah, a potential one.” Maria curled a strand of hair around her finger. “They said I was the best potential saint candidate for Leo, yes? But before my ceremony, an adventurer came in and took me on a journey. It was a while ago, so it’s hard to recall…”
Werner’s crew stared at her just like her own crew and the other five had when she’d told them. Strange. There had been many other potential saint candidates with her at that Monadic orphanage, so Maria didn’t really understand what was so exceptional about it.
“Ah, where is Leona?” Maria looked around. “Did she… escape?” She scanned the room further. “That Sagittarian air Elementalist and his crew are not here either!”
“Libra freed Leona,” Alwin replied. “From the Manipulator, I mean. The Sagittarians went to deliver information to the peacekeepers.”
Volker gave Alwin a nod.
“‘Libra’?” Maria pressed. “I have heard that country spoken like it’s a person before. And here it is again. Who is this Libra?”
“Another saint candidate,” Alwin answered. “She’s the only one who can help Werner and the people being manipulated right now. And as for saint candidates… they have to do with Monadi—”
“Another saint candidate!” Maria exclaimed before tilting her head. “There are so many now… First Leona then Jin now this Libra… and this ‘Scorpio’ I am guessing too?”
“What’s so funny?” Maria pressed.
“Nothing.” Derik gestured to her. “So… What is this? Musical chairs? How long are you going to keep switching for? What’s going on with the brat prince then?”
“Well, I think it’s a good thing that the prince isn’t here,” Gilbert grunted from the mattress. “After what happened with that royal guard—Trystan—I don’t think he’s in the right headspace.”
“Who is this Trystan?” Maria wondered curiously. “Is it a new person I haven’t met yet?”
No one answered.
Maria studied their frowning, confused faces and her heart fell. “Oh, did I forget someone important? That’s not good… I’m trying to be better about that…”
“Cadence mentioned that she was havin’ a hard time rememberin’ things that the others did,” Nico drew as he peeled away from Gilbert’s side. “I think the Ariesian prince might’ve experienced somethin’ like that back when he first overrode Werner at the border a couple months ago. I think it’s a side-effect of stayin’ in it too long.”
Volker’s frown deepened. “I see. But why wasn’t I told this when you found out?”
Nico tensed. “Well… Cadence—”
“This doesn’t work if we don’t tell each other everything. Even if it’s something as small as this,” Volker said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We can’t be caught blind.”
“Sorry, Captain,” Gilbert grunted.
Volker held up a hand before turning to Maria again. “I understand that you want to keep things discreet to protect the people you are close to, but—”
“No, I will tell you. Werner trusts you,” Maria said. “But I don’t know much. Werner, Atienna, and Olive are the ones who do most of the figuring.” She chuckled. “I just enjoyed the company. So who have you met already?” When they answered her, she hummed. “Then all that’s left is Jericho!”
“Yes, he is a… peacekeeper as you call it—”
Everyone stared again.
Klaus cleared his throat. “Is he the one we saw in the Twin Cities then? The one fighting that ELPIS leader? The one… with the bleached vitae?”
“Yes, Jericho has white vitae,” Maria confirmed, although she didn’t understand what the concern about that was. “He is strange for a peacekeeper though. He likes using his suitcase instead of his words.”
“Right…” Volker drew. “So there are six of you?”
“Yes, only six,” Maria replied. “I think it would be fun if we had more, but I’m sure the others would not like it…” Her attention was drawn then to Wilhelm at the corner of the room. She pointed at him. “That is Wilhelm, yes? Why is he in handcuffs? Is he the enemy?”
“He sold us out,” Derik spat. “To the damned Kaiser and Manipulator.”
“So you are the reason why Gil lost his arm…” Maria wandered over to the man.
“I did what I had to for Capricorn.” Wilhelm glowered up at her. “I’m not a traitor. The Kaiser has good intentions, and we need reservoirs. We’ve been doing it this entire time—”
“No, you did it because you were not strong,” Maria rebutted, leaning forward. “I can see it in your eyes, yes? Regret.”
“Have you ever heard of the tale of the golden beast, Wilhelm?”
Wilhelm did a double-take. “What does an urban legend have to do with any of this?”
“So you have heard of it, yes?”
“Alwin tells the story all the time.”
Maria brightened and turned. “Is that true, Alwin? That makes me happy! You’re spreading the legend that Conta helped craft!”
“‘Crafted legend’…?” Alwin frowned.
Maria turned back to Wilhelm and sank down in front of him. “You see, when someone breaks or takes someone important to the golden beast, it is very different from when it is a some thing.”
She reached forward and wrapped her hands around his. “Did you know? In the next tale, the golden beast tries to stop its own gluttony—tries to stop devouring everything it sees on the ocean. But the thing is that long periods without a feast only increase the beast’s hunger—”
Wilhelm winced and tried to pull his hand away, but she didn’t allow him. She squeezed harder and harder and stared into his eyes until she saw tears begin to form there. When she almost felt a crack beneath her fingers, she stopped and opened her mouth.
“It is not just satisfied with the single person or ship it encounters.” She jerked his hand forward so his fingertips were just beneath her teeth. “If you steal from it—” she began to clamp down on his fingers as she continued to stare into him “—it will also devour everything and everyone that you are connected to—”
“Maria. That’s enough! Stop it,” Volker demanded. “He’s my subordinate. I’ll decide what to do with him. Stop!”
There was a stretch of silence.
Maria released Wilhelm, who skirted back and cradled his hands, before she popped up to a stand with raised arms. “Of course, Werner’s captain! I understand.” Her shoulder pulsated again with the motion, causing her to wince. A glance at Nico, however, brought a smile to her face. “Ah, Nico, you are a doctor, yes? Can you help me with this?” She gestured to the area.
Nico looked worriedly at her—unlike the others who simply regarded her in stiff silence—before approaching. “Your shoulder…?” He frowned, gaze trailing the area. “Is it a ghost pain? It could have to do with the manipulation and the override. Olive seemed to—” His eyes widened. “Saints! You dislocated your shoulder!”
“Who dislocated Werner’s shoulder?”
“You did!” Nico straightened her and looked her up and down. “I’m not surprised with all of that somersaultin’ you were doing earlier…”
Maria felt her stomach curl uncomfortably. “I… I am sorry. Can you… relocate Werner’s shoulder?”
Nico stared at her before chuckling and nodding. “It’s not too big a deal. Just… keep still.” He held her shoulder steady and began to tug and roll her arm around.
It was a bit painful, but Maria remained still for him until—pop!
Maria beamed, feeling instant relief radiating from the formerly pulsating area. “This feels much better!” She lifted her arm and swung it around but Nico reached and stopped her short—
“No, no, no. You still need to keep it still!”
Nico motioned for Klaus who conjured an arm sling at his request. Maria waited patiently as Nico fitted her into it.
“Once you’ve dislocated your shoulder once, it’s very easy to do it again,” he said, pulling away.
Maria’s face fell. “Oh, I didn’t know… Will Werner’s shoulder be okay?”
Nico stared at her again before sighing and smiling very lightly. “As long as you keep that arm still for a while, it should be fine.”
“Well, that’s good. You are spectacular, my dear Nico! Anyway! This Manipulator—this Scorpio… he is bad, yes? For Capricorn?” She tapped her temple. “But he also told me to go to Libra… who is good? It seems very complicated.”
“Scorpio speaks to you…?” Nico frowned.
Maria nodded. “It’s like how it is with the others, but he’s not as kind.”
Volker remained silent for a moment, gaze flicking between her and Wilhelm. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose and pressed into his eyes. “The saint candidates’ feelings towards True Conductors are separate from how they feel towards Capricorn obviously. If Ophiuchus is looking into Scorpio now… it might be best if we do what Leona says. Stay out of it.”
“But, sir,” Heimler argued. “We don’t even know what Leona wants or if she’ll even be able to manage Scorpio. He caught her once—he can do it again. And we already agreed to meet our point of contact near the convention.”
“I understand that,” Volker said, pressing his fingers further into his eyes. “But our intervention and interference might cause a difficult situation for Leona and the peacekeepers. The ELPIS Department obviously is one of the few that has the ability and resources to handle this situation. We are out of our depth.”
“But do the peacekeepers have the jurisdiction?” Heimler pressed. “And if they do so without it, then they’re setting precedent to intervene just like this again. It’s like a trap, Captain, to think like that. And what happens afterwards? What happens to the Kaiser and the country?” He glanced around the room at the men before grimacing. “They should’ve taught you this at the academy, Volker. A leader doesn’t demoralize.”
Volker grimaced. “I’m aware—”
Maria reached for Volker’s hand and pried it from his face. “That’s not good for the eyes,” she said. “And what’s this about staying out of things? This is your country, no?”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Confusion and uncertainty—I am beginning to realize now—is a natural part of being alive.” Maria nodded, hand on chin. “Hmm… I tell my dear Olive this all the time: even when it looks like you can do nothing, you can most definitely do something. Werner likes to quantify even things like this, but I don’t think that’s necessary. It is what it is. No number. None or all. That is what part of being strong means.”
“Makes no sense.” Derik snorted again.
Volker regarded Maria before staring at some point in the distance. “…You make a valid point, Heimler. Alright. We’ll meet with our point of contact and decide how to move on from there. This is our country. Our future.”
“Yes, sir,” came the affirmations unison.
“Still,” Volker continued, “we need to figure out where Werner falls into this and the rest of the manipulated too. Libra obviously is a valuable asset, but not a reliable one.”
Maria tilted her head. “Can you explain to me more how this Libra can help Werner?” When they explained Libra’s abilities, Maria brighted, swung around, pointed to herself. “Oh, this all works perfectly then! Jericho can break vitae particles apart too! He is a Specialist! He doesn’t have that other ability to see vitae—his eyesight is bad. But—” she pointed up the ladder “—my dear Lita, who is a member of my crew, can see it. She is a Specialist too. She is probably in this city!”
Gilbert straightened. “She’s here? You’re sure?”
“Yes!” Maria nodded fiercely. “We were searching for someone important to me in this capital, but I promised to show her the conductor convention while we were here. My dear Emmanuel was also interested and came along, so it only makes sense for them to be here. At the convention. She doesn’t like strangers, but I’m sure I can find her! I’ve spent most of my life finding things, and I plan to spend many more doing it.” She tapped her chest. “So since this is ‘musical chairs,’ as you say, when my Jericho comes, he and my Lita can work together… And cut this thing out of Werner! And, of course, help cutting out these other spores.”
“Wait,” Nico interjected, “Francis said it was dangerous for you to use a conductor and expel vitae when you’re like this. Said it’d eventually kill you.”
Maria’s eyes widened. “Is that true…? I need to be careful then, yes? And I was getting excited about using these proto-conductors… Well, I am sure if you tell Jericho when he is here, he will understand. Just using it once will not hurt. “ She blinked. “Wait Francis is here? I haven’t seen him in some time!”
“Yes, he was—” Nico paused, eyes widening slightly. “Wait… do you know Francis through Cadence or have you met him before…?”
“Oh, yes, Francis, Carl, Allen, and I have great fun together. Last time we spoke, I was delivering something for them…” Maria trailed off, before nodding firmly. “Anyway, I am announcing that I will be leaving now then, yes? To find Lita and the rest of them?”
“Captain,” Volker interjected, “I would feel more comfortable if some of us went with you.”
“Is it… safe if you go with me?” Maria pointed to herself. “Werner is this ‘medium,’ yes? I don’t understand conductors and Conductors, but that means that Scorpio can see and find him, yes? So he can see and find you?”
“Every person in Capricorn is a possible medium at this point. Going with you or not probably wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Alright then.” Gilbert began to haphazardly pull himself up to a stand.
Maria walked over and pushed him back down with one hand.
Gilbert startled and scowled. “What the hell—”
Maria studied his face. Atienna always said that ‘emotion hid in the eyes,’ and so Maria leaned in further to stare right into his. Gilbert leaned back, but she could still see it—the frustration there. At least, that was what she thought it was.
Maria sank to a crouch. “I am sorry, my dear Gil. About your arm.”
Gilbert shrugged hesitantly. “You had to do what you had to. Better than running around obsessing over one thing. No offense, Stein.”
“Anyway, I can still—”
Maria tipped forward, rocking on her heels. “Does it… hurt?”
Gilbert opened his mouth, frowned, shrugged. “Nah, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Maria beamed again. “Yes, I knew it. You are strong, Gil. You can overcome anything.”
He arched a brow at her. “Sure yeah, that’s why I’m coming—”
Hm. Was that stubbornness? Or did that mean he did not believe her words? Was she not speaking right? If she recalled correctly, Atienna had also said that words really only held meaning if they were ‘given to someone from someone who meant something to that someone.’ Confusing.
“Werner would think you are still strong. He thinks you are strong. Always.”
Gilbert stared and snorted. “Okay, sunshine and rainbows. I don’t think he wakes up in the morning thinking that.”
“Maybe not, but Werner thinks he is very lucky to have a friend like you.” Maria smiled back. “I do not lie, yes? Werner thinks this all the time: he is grateful.”
Gilbert grimaced. “That’s not something you should say out loud.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“It has more meaning if you don’t say it and just do or show it. Didn’t you say that?”
Maria chuckled. “Did I?” Her mind wandered to Conta. “Well, maybe some things are better said out loud…” She placed a hand on his head. “Still, you are Werner’s tesoro. I am not saying that the others are not his tesoros, but you are a special one. Do you understand? He relies on you. But me? I am fine.”
Gilbert stared at her for a very long time before he said, “You go, Nic.”
Nico tensed, uncertain, looking between her and Gilbert. “But what about—”
“Alwin didn’t get the medic combat badge for show. I know you want to go anyway.” Gilbert fell back slowly into the mattress. “I trust you more being by his side than ELPIS man here. The rest of the Waltz family might be there so you should keep an eye out.”
“‘Course, if that’s all clear with you, Captain.”
“Right.” Volker nodded. “Heimler, Kleine, Nico, and I will head to the convention with Maria then. We should try to be covert even if there’s a possibility of them knowing we’re headed there. There may be some who haven’t been turned into mediums yet in service and there’s also the freed ELPIS Department too—we should take advantage of that. I also haven’t seen any released news about what we did in the courtyard yet, so we should take extra caution.”
Klaus brightened. “We could use those proto-conductor rings that I made that Cadence left behind.” He gestured to Maria’s pants. “I… think I saw the prince take them out from his pockets. So maybe…”
“Proto-conductor rings?” Maria tilted her head and then emptied her pockets. “I have no such thing.”
“The peacekeepers probably have it. Looks like they had him change out his uniform since he burnt it to a crisp.” Gilbert grumbled. “Maybe the prince burnt those things to a crisp too.”
“That doesn’t sound like my Olive,” Maria said, head tilted.
“It’s fine. We’ll just need to take extra care,” Volker stated. “The convention will be crowded, so we’ll use that too.”
Cadence always said that ‘careful’ was not in Maria’s dictionary, but Maria was certain she could put it in there.
* * *
“This… is not very exciting…” Maria sighed, looking around with a falling heart. “I have heard that the diplomatic conductor convention is an exciting place, but this… does not hold excitement… Should there not be more conductors if so many countries are involved?”
A large and mostly vacant room unfolded around her. There were only a handful of tables scattered around in rows, and half of them were empty. It was so empty that she could hear the footfalls of the two pacing elder men dressed in shining medals echoing from across the room. They were the only ones in the area wearing uniforms.
Maria glanced back at Friedhelm, Volker, Nico, and Klaus behind her. Unlike those medal-wearing men, these four were no longer in their uniforms. Instead, they were dressed in long-sleeved button-ups, slacks, suit jackets, suspenders, and caps. Maria herself had to clean all of the paint from her hands and arms before slipping into a new button-up herself since her old one had been stained with paint too.
“Those are two of the generals. Vogel and Katze,” Volker muttered, pulling his cap down low. “Why are they here…?” He nodded at Klaus. “Kleine, take point. See what’s going on.”
“Yes, sir.” Kleine nodded before glancing at Maria and heading to a booth set off to the sidewall in front of a cluster of chairs.
Volker jerked his head to the side. “Heimler, with me. Fabrizzio, stay with Maria. Keep a low profile.”
Volker and Friedhelm then exited the building swiftly.
Maria grabbed a hold of Nico’s arm and pulled him along with her as she began to search the room. But despite there not being many people scattered around, not a single member of her crew was in sight.
I told you. Once you lose someone—
Abruptly, something glinted out of the corner of her eye. Maria startled, grinned, and pointed over to a table at the corner. “Oh, my dear Nico, look at that!”
Maria pulled him out of his hesitation and towards the table after her. Once they reached the table’s side, she sank into a crouch and inspected the contraption resting there. It was quite a beautiful thing, consisting of four white tiles painted over with black numbers. The tiles would flip every so often, one moment reading 9:49, the next 9:50. The tiles were encapsulated in a glass cylinder which was connected to a conductor generator beneath the table via copper wires and glass tubing. The flipping tiles paired with the hum through the glass was quite a melodic sound—
“My Lita would love something like this!” Maria declared.
Maria turned to find two men and two women poised right beside her. The man and woman closest to her were much older than the two farther. The older man’s face was stolid, and his ice-blue eyes glinted familiarly. The older woman’s eyes—blue with flecks of gold and silver—had an oddness to them that pricked at Maria’s skin and caused her heart to throttle in her chest. The younger woman, on the other hand, had wispy blonde hair and wavering eyes that reminded Maria vaguely of Conta. The younger man beside her… was seated in a wheelchair. When Maria stared at the chair, he stared back, lips thinning.
The older woman said something in Capricornian to Maria before looking around with a grimace.
Nico stepped forward with an easy smile, despite the sweat rolling down his back. He spoke quickly to them in Capricornian, while Maria looked between them with curiosity. The four Capricornians looked quite familiar to her, but she couldn’t put her finger to it—
Maria turned and was immediately enveloped in long, sinewy arms. It took a moment for her to recognize the woman who hung from her neck. Her wispy blonde hair, caramel brown eyes, and a wonderfully strange manner of dress ticked at Maria’s memory.
“I remember you!” Maria brightened. “You were in the Twin Cities! With the Sagittarian! I… saved you from those Geminians, yes?”
The woman blinked then grinned as she pointed to her face. “Yes! You saved me from the street ruffian Feliciano. It’s me: Louise—”
“—Louise Bonnefoy…?” interjected a voice with a Librish lilt.
Maria glanced over her shoulder to find a man with bushy brows and a camera hanging from his neck gawking at the now named Louise—
“It is you! Cancerian Duchess of the House Étoile!”
Louise’s smile fell immediately, and she took an intrepid step back. “How did you know that? Did someone send you? Was it Reneé…?” She glanced over her shoulder. “Hideyoshi…”
“Reneé from Cancer?” Maria brightened—glad to finally understand something about the unfolding events. “So you do know Reneé the Chevalier!” She turned to the Libran photographer. “And you too maybe, Mister?”
“Mr. Hilton…” The Libra stared at Louise.
“Werner,” the older Capricornian woman interjected in Common, “honey, are these acquaintances of yours? What happened to your arm? What are you wearing?” She turned to Louise. “What sort of relationship do you exactly have with this woman? You’ve been so busy lately and haven’t been keeping in contact. I don’t even know what’s going on with you anymore.”
Nico stepped forward, hands raised. “Frau Waltz…” He continued in Capricornian.
Frau ‘Waltz’? Ah.
Maria studied the four Capricornians curiously. “You are…. Werner’s family?”
Nico winced. The older man and older woman—Werner’s parents, Maria decided—frowned. The younger man and woman—Werner’s siblings, Maria deduced—stared at her with widened eyes. Maria was very well aware of how much appearances and reputation meant to Werner, so she tried to cook up a reasonable thing to say and do—at least until something behind Werner’s family caught her attention.
Walking hand-in-hand there in-between an older man dressed in a sailor’s outfit and a younger man wearing a worn blouse smudged with oil was a young girl with milky blue eyes. The girl was wearing a flowing dress and had a shiny pair of conductor glasses around her neck. But despite these luxurious items, her expression was sullen.
Maria recognized the three instantly—her darling Lita; her noble and wise Morandi; and her curious Emmanuel, the conductor engineer hopeful. She briefly wondered where Simon and Veles were but put the matter aside.
Maria pushed past the Capricornians, past Louise and Hilton, past Nico, and towards her crewmembers. The trio turned at her pounding footsteps; and she greeted them with a warm smile before sweeping Lita out of Morandi and Emmanuel’s hands. Maria then swung the girl up into the air with her good arm and held her there delicately.
Despite this delicateness, Lita flailed her arms blindly. “W-What’s going? W-Who are you?”
“W-What are you doing?!” Morandi snapped. “Let her go!”
Morandi—always so kind.
Maria skirted back as Emmanuel lunged at her.
Emmanuel—always so determined.
“Put on your conductor, my dear Lita. Trust me!” Maria urged.
Lita hesitated before sliding the conductor over her eyes. Her gaze focused on Maria’s face before trailing upwards to the sky. Slowly, gradually, her cheeks became colored rosy, and her brows rose. “T-That color… t-that shape—M-Maria…?!”
Maria grinned. “Ay, my dear—” She was cut off as Lita threw her arms around her neck and squeezed tight.
“Maria, is it really you?” Lita whimpered, squeezing tighter and burying her face into Maria’s good shoulder. “I was so scared… t-they said you wouldn’t wake up… I’m so glad you’re okay… but—” she lifted her head, brows furrowed. “—your body—it feels different? And your voice sounds strange too—it’s so much deeper…”
Emmanuel paused in his lunging to eyeball Maria.
Morandi, face flushed, looked between them. “What is this?”
Lita lifted her head and turned towards the men’s voices. “Mr. Morandi, Emmanuel, why didn’t you both tell me that Maria was awake?”
Morandi and Emmanuel exchanged looks again
“It is a very long story, my dears,” Maria hummed, “but I am your captain, yes?”
Morandi made a face before glancing at Lita. “Are you certain, Lita…?”
Lita nodded fiercely.
Morandi sighed, head dipping. “I’m frankly no longer surprised at anything at this point, Captain. Does whatever this is have to do with Conta and ELPIS? What’s with the Capricornian?”
Before Maria could elaborate, Nico ran up to her and touched her lightly on while glancing back at the four Capricornians. “Lieutenant Waltz,” he said, glancing in confusion at Morandi, Emmanuel, and Lita. “I was just explainin’ to your family about the operation we’re on with some of the foreigners, but I think it’d reassure them if they heard directly from you.”
What? A lie? Maria truthfully disliked lies. She always told the truth, and she never broke promises. Cadence seemed to be more natural at these types of things, so Maria thought she would be much more suitable for this type of thing. But Cadence was not here, so Maria knew she had to try. At least for Werner—
“You peacekeepers have no jurisdiction here!” came an outraged shout from the opposite side of the room. “How dare you!”
Maria turned towards the excitement and found a crowd clustered directly beneath the glass dome at the center of the room. A handful of the crowd members wore monochrome suits and white bands around their arms. Peacekeepers, most definitely. The two generals Volker had pointed out earlier were among them too. One of them was being put into cuffs by a familiar peacekeeper wearing a trench coat and fedora—a man whose name Maria couldn’t place. The other general was being cuffed by a distinctly Leonian-looking male peacekeeper. His name also itched at Maria’s brain, but remained unclear. The Sagittarians from the previous night stood behind them. Off to the side yawned Gabrielle Law herself. And right beside her, another peacekeeper—a very familiar woman with a pair of red glasses resting over her sharp blue eyes—was steadying a very familiar man wearing a turtleneck and suit. Francis Foxman, pale and clammy.
Morandi rubbed his eyes. “Is that…? Mr. Foxman? And Ley…?”
“Francis…?” Nico whispered in alarm. He glanced back at Maria, before darting over to Francis’s side at her nod of approval.
Just as Maria was about to go on after him, a hand on her back stopped her short. When she turned, she found Werner’s mother again frowning deeply with eyebrows knit with concern—“What are you doing, Werner? What’s with that girl? You shouldn’t get involved in things you have no place getting involved in. You know that. Don’t do anything embarrassing—”
Maria did not like this woman—which was a first because she usually enjoyed everyone. And so, reveling in this new feeling, Maria offered, “You should not speak, yes? I tend to forget things, but I do remember never asking for what you think.” Not waiting to see the woman’s reaction, Maria made her way over to the cluster beneath the dome with Lita in tow. When she reached them, the trenchcoated peacekeeper and the Leonian peacekeeper were bringing the grumbling generals to their feet.
Gabrielle Law, who was watching the interactions with a yawn, turned to Maria with raised brows. “Oh, wow. Talk about some luck. Maybe it’s fate for me to keep meeting you—” She glanced at Lita before her eyes widened slightly. “You’re…?”
“That voice… Ley…?” Lita whispered hesitantly.
Gabrielle glanced behind Maria just as Morandi and Emmanuel came up behind her. “Don’t tell me—Maria...?”
Maria chuckled. “Wow! You’re amazing, Ley! I see why you’re such a good peacekeeper now. Good deduction!”
“Well, it’s a small world,” Gabrielle sighed after a beat. “Good thing you’re here though. Hope this Captain Weingartner I keep hearing about is here too.” She extended a bulging closed fist out to her.
Maria nudged Lita slightly. The girl hesitantly extended out her hand. In turn, Gabrielle dropped the items in her closed fist into the girl’s waiting hands: a collection of proto-conductors filled with a copper light—a color Maria found herself vaguely missing—and two bars of chocolate, one half-eaten.
“Let’s all sit down and talk.”