A gathering occurs at the convention in the capital of Capricorn. Gabrielle Law arrives with Talib Al-Jarrah, Alice Kingsley, Roberto Gonzalez, and Francis to arrest two generals on the premises. Maria, in search of her crew, arrives with Captain Weingartner, Friedhelm Heimler, Klaus Kleine, and Nico—the former two in search of their point of contact. Also present are Werner’s family members, a strange photographer named Hilton, and the Cancerian duchess Louise Bonnefy that Reneé is searching for.
Festung » Fortress found at 1600 hours
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Viktoria Waltz knew she couldn’t achieve perfection. A recessive disorder that rendered her internal vitae flow underdeveloped stole that possibility from her. Not only was she unable to expel vitae without becoming sickly, but she was also born with a weak constitution. Her mother lamented it often—“I’ve always wanted a girl, you know. A Waltz woman in the military would be a dream, but I guess the world isn’t that kind.”
Viktoria was certain that she’d never heard a word of praise from her mother’s lips—which was the opposite for her brothers. But she never despised them because ‘they were always there to protect her.’ Youth allowed her to foolishly believe in certainties like this. Even so, she should’ve known. The foundation of the Waltz family was of carefully upholding perfection. And so when Ludwig lost the use of his legs and could no longer keep up appearances, he fled, leaving just her and Werner in that house. She couldn’t bring herself to hate him though. She was very aware of the oddity of their family—especially the pecularity within Werner.
Werner’s peculiarity became apparent to her one night when he came home late from the military academy and was berated for hours by their mother. That night, Viktoria knew it wasn’t her brother standing there opposite their mother. Because as soon as her mother left, ‘he’d’ muttered “bitch” under his breath. When Not-Werner looked up and found Viktoria peering at them around the corner, they tensed and then pressed a finger to their lips. After a moment, Viktoria had reflected the gesture.
In the end, Viktoria never questioned it. Rather, she was afraid to address it. Fear hung over her head that if she asked about it, Werner would leave her all alone just like Ludwig had. But in the end, even though she didn’t speak of it, he left too to go serve in the Capricornian Army.
During that time, Viktoria wanted nothing more than to escape that house. She’d drowned herself in the clockmaking lessons her father provided and dreamed of leaving and starting her own business in some far-off city. However, that final leap seemed too great—the eyes that were on her, too piercing. And so all she could look forward to were her days spent working away at her bench, her talks with her customers, her visits to Fenrir at their neighbor’s house, and—of course—Werner’s returns.
The first time Werner came back from the field, however, Viktoria noted his peculiarities had vanished. What was left was an unfamiliar statue carved with stolidity. And just like a statue, with passing time, every time Werner returned it felt like a part of him was missing or worn away. Viktoria often wondered if one day he would come back as just a speck of dust.
But then the peculiarities abruptly returned.
Viktoria knew that the person who came home by train a couple days ago was not her brother. She could tell by the way that their eyes would crinkle when they thought no one was looking, the way they’d throw an arched brow at that Nico Fabrizzio whenever they had taken a sip of wine at dinner. That outburst on the train confirmed the truth. A pretender.
The person who stood with heroic nervousness in the crimson inferno on top of that train was not Werner either. The moody looks, the half-mumbled responses, that Ariesian young man who always kept to that person’s side. Another imposter.
And even now:
The person who nonchalantly stood beneath the crystalline light spilling in from the dome amongst the crowd of Capricornians, peacekeepers, and foreigners was not her brother either. The sling on one arm, the girl wearing the conductor glasses and hanging from the other arm, the openness of the stance. Another stranger.
Despite her mother’s protests, Ludwig made his way over to the crowd. Viktoria swiftly followed behind him and caught sight of the apprehended generals wedged between two peacekeepers. Only a step away was a man with a snake tattoo on his face. A terrifying sight.
Before Viktoria could react, an un-uniformed Captain Weingartner came on towards them from nowhere accompanied by a highly decorated military officer—most likely a major general. Viktoria recognized the officer from the papers: Martin von Spiel, father of Fritz von Spiel who betrayed Capricorn by working with ELPIS several months ago. Von Spiel had with him a dozen men who quickly cleared out the rest building save for their crowd beneath the dome. Meanwhile, a glasses-wearing lance corporal explained that the convention was abruptly discontinued earlier than planned. After some direction, the stranger who wore Werner’s face took the conductor-glasses-wearing girl in her arm to the newly gathered soldiers led by Von Spiel. Each soldier introduced themselves as the girl touched their faces and hands. The girl was eventually brought to Viktoria and her family, and they all passed whatever silent test she gave them.
Just as the young girl was about to move on to the peacekeepers, one of them—a man who had introduced himself as Roberto earlier—argued that they were wasting time. A peacekeeper introduced as Gabrielle tried to rebut him, while the peacekeepers ‘Talib Al-Jarrah’ and ‘Alice Kingsley’ tried to diffuse the situation. Eventually, the young girl with the eyeglasses conductor became flustered, and the stranger pulled her back and reassured her with nonsensical phrases.
Father was taken aside by Von Spiel for a serious discussion, and when he returned, he simply said, “It appears as if Werner is working covertly on some operation between the chancellery and Ophiuchus. They’d like to put us under surveillance since we’re so close to the operation and Werner who’s involved.”
“Oh, Werner’s working with Ophiuchus?” Mother’s face flushed. “Well, that’s wonderful!”
Not too long after this, Viktoria was ushered with her parents and Ludwig up an upwards sloping hall hidden behind a storage closet at the back of the dome. Behind them came the rest of the group.
Ludwig was silent as she guided his wheelchair up. She’d confronted him during their repose with the train earlier because she knew he knew what was going on, but he’d kept silent. At least, she’d thought bitterly then, he wasn’t running away this time.
When they reached the top of the ramp, Viktoria was surprised to find an interior balcony that ringed around the inner edge of the domed windows. Detaching from her family, she approached the railings and peered down. Seeing the emptiness of the convention hall from above was quite a liminal feeling. She was soon joined by the stranger with her brother’s face, Nico, two foreign-looking men, and the young girl. Before the stranger could get a word in, Viktoria said calmly, “I know you’re not my brother…”
While Nico blanched, the stranger hummed. “I am not surprised. You are very smart. Like Werner.”
Viktoria’s heart sank. “And where is… Werner? Does it have to do with whatever this is?”
The stranger draped themselves across the railings. “The world is very big, but it is also small, no? Everything is connected, so I can answer ‘yes’ and be right all the time.”
A peculiar way of speaking…
After a beat, Viktoria tried, “My brother’s pocket watch… Do you still have it?”
“Pocket watch?” The stranger tilted their head before digging into their pockets with their good hand. “It is such a strange thing to be carrying around, no? In the middle of battle?”
“It’s hard to keep track of time out there,” Viktoria murmured. “And if you lose track of time, you can lose track of many other things…” And become dust.
“Oh, I am very familiar with losing track of things”—the stranger’s eyes widened comically as they pulled out two bars of chocolate and conductor rings from their pockets—“Ay, no! I think I’ve lost it! Or Gabrielle lost it? I only have these…” The stranger handed one of the chocolate bars—bitter chocolate and half-eaten—to the small girl at their side.
Cheeks flushed, the girl broke off a piece and nibbled on it before licking her fingers. It was the first time Viktoria had seen someone so young enjoy bitter chocolate so enthusiastically.
Pocketing the bars and rings back into their pocket, the stranger also licked their fingers of melted chocolate and asked, “Would you like me to find it? I am very good at finding the things that I lose.”
Viktoria couldn’t help but chuckle at the peculiarity. “No, it’s old anyways.” She ran her fingers along the small satchel at her waist that contained all of her tools. “I’ve been working on something else for him to replace it for a while now… I hope he comes back by then.”
“You are so talented, my dear, and pretty too. Don’t worry. Werner is reliable. He always comes back.” The stranger hummed pointing behind her. “Your mother there. Do you like her?”
The stranger’s smile thinned. “Would you like me to—”
A pair of footsteps approached them from the side: the man with the snake tattoo on his face. The sight of him caused Viktoria to stiffen, and she could feel Ludwig’s eyes burning into her back from behind.
“Nico…” The man said without even looking at them. “I need your help.”
Nico tensed, nodded, and followed after him with the stranger, the two men, and the girl trailing behind them. Not even a goodbye.
Von Spiel’s men guided Viktoria away from the balcony then and to a stone bench pressed against the wall. There, she sat beside her mother and the Cancerian foreigner—Louise, if she recalled correctly. Viktoria spied across the balcony towards the Sagittarians conversing with Werner’s captain and the Libran photographer in the far corner, then at the stranger and Nico’s group with the ELPIS member, then at the peacekeepers contained in their own bubble, then at Von Spiel watching everything opposite, and then at the two generals surround by Von Spiel’s men beside him.
“I wonder what freedom means in Capricorn?” Louise asked suddenly, staring not at the window but the Libran photographer.
Nico Fabrizzio couldn’t believe that this series of events started with him making a firm decision to help a group of injured Aquarian soldiers at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. He still wondered even now how different things would’ve been if he hadn’t been there in-between Cadence and Werner. Often wondered whether his actions had been an act of altruism or rebellion too.
Whatever it was, in a domino-like fashion, one thing had fallen after the other leading him here—kneeling in front of his childhood friend turned criminal organization leader turned ELPIS leader. Francis laid before him, unperturbed, with his shirt rolled up to his chest revealing the pink scar at his abdomen.
Maria had trailed them to this corner with Lita and two members of her ‘crew’ in tow. Now they hovered directly behind Nico, peering down curiously.
“Libra severed the vitae connecting the part of me that is Theta to the part of me that is Francis,” Francis explained. “If I use my conductor, I will end up in the same state I was in when I was in the Twin Cities. Naturally, my condition will normalize into an equilibrium just like how it did before. But I’m uncertain how long it will take. I need you to reconnect the flow so I’m able to use my conductor freely now.”
“Francis, I understand what you’re sayin’, but this—vitae storin’ memories thing—the application is still beyond me.”
Francis stared. “It’s just like when you’re transmuting and reconnecting tissue or even a limb. A stitch, but deeper.”
“Francis, I’m sorry—but that’s a terrible analogy. I can’t even see what you’re talkin’ about. I—”
“You’re the only one I trust to do it, Nico. Please. A favor.”
Trust. Werner had said that word back in the Twin Cities with such affirmation and strength that it seemed to give a new meaning and weight to it. Nico felt the weight of it even now.
“Okay…” He sighed in defeat. “I’ll try—”
“Mr. Francis,” the man in the sailor’s uniform behind Maria stammered suddenly. “I can’t believe it…”
Francis smiled politely. “Well, Mr. Morandi, it’s a small world.” He glanced at Nico before explaining, “Maria here used to take shipments from us around Signum. Morandi there did this too outside his normal work—though he worked with more of our… friendlier products.”
Oh. Money laundering cover-up.
“I apologize, Mr. Morandi,” Francis continued, “it looks like I gave you a hard job.” He glanced back at Maria. “By the way, Maria, after Nico finishes this and I get my head in order… again—I would like to speak to you regarding the color of your vitae.”
Maria nodded enthusiastically before pointing down at his chest. “Do you think Lita can help you with this? My Lita has amazing eyes and is very good at giving directions, yes?” She pushed Lita forward, guided her hand to touch Francis’s cheek, and pulled up the conductor-glasses hanging on Lita’s neck over the girl’s eyes.
“A Specialist.” Francis studied Lita’s face. “I see.” He reached out and placed a hand on top of her head. “You are very young, so I feel ashamed to ask for your help.”
Maria peered into Lita’s face. “Can you do it, Lita?”
“The white vitae is…” Lita frowned, swallowed, and then lifted her chin. “I can do it, Maria.”
Maria patted the girl before addressing them, “I will trust you with my dear Lita then, yes? Good luck, Nico!” She turned swiftly towards the two men behind her. “Let us leave them to talk alone! It is called ‘reading the atmosphere,’ I think.” And with that, she dragged the two away.
“She’s somethin’ else…” Nico muttered before turning to study Lita.
When Maria had mentioned a Specialist member of her crew who could see the flow of vitae, he hadn’t been expecting it to be such a young girl. Then again, they had all been young too back in the city.
“What do you see, Lita?”
Nico fastened his conducting gloves as Lit mumbled, “It’s really weird. There’s like flows of vitae—er, uhm veins—that are white in patches and orange-ish in others. It’s… broken-looking.” She pointed down to Francis’s scar. “Right there… It looks like it’s coming together again.”
Francis nodded. “Miss Lita. Please show Nico where one of the breaks is.”
Lita did just that, guiding both of Nico’s palms right over Francis’s chest. Much to Nico’s surprise, when he activated both of his conductors, he could feel the difference in the consistency of the vitae there. The vitae beneath his left palm was more fluid, the other beneath his right palm more solid.
“Good,” Francis deadpanned. “When you start your transmutation, focus on the actual vitae particles. The cells and molecules they are associated with can be ignored. You should feel a section that is harder to move than the others. I need you to mend the two where they’ve split.”
Nico hesitated before he tried to move the vitae patch that was under one palm closer to the vitae patch under his other. It didn’t give, so he tugged harder. Francis winced slightly, causing Nico to pause. After a beat, Nico tried again as sweat broke across his brow. It was like trying to drag a 100-kilogram weight. Still, he kept at it, until he felt the two textures blend together beneath his palms. With a heavy sigh, he deactivated his conductor and sat there panting.
Great. One down. An unknown amount more to go.
“Don’t overexert yourself, Nico,” Francis murmured. “Take it easy.”
Nico nodded, falling back to catch his breath.
Francis promptly pressed, “I’ve been meaning to ask… what was up with you earlier? Why’d you apologize to me?”
Nico paused, wiping his brow before he continued with his transmutation. “It’s nothing… I… had a talk with Cadence right before meeting you. We…”
“I see. You and Cadence had a fight.” Francis winced again. “Was it about what happened back in the city? You always did know how to push each other’s buttons… What’d you fight about?”
Nico stiffened. “You know that I was there too. I should’ve… I don’t know…”
Instead of looking into the chaos unfolding in the city and the family, Nico thought to himself, he’d remained by Werner’s side after the man was injured by the incident with Alma.
“Your presence would not have changed the outcome. No offense, Nico.” Francis hesitated. “Or perhaps it would. Wondering does nothing… But from what I understand, you had other competing priorities at the time with the Capricornians.”
Nico opened his mouth and then grimaced.
“I’m aware that you care for me, Nico Fabrizzio. I have never thought otherwise, so you needn’t worry about that. I care for you as well. And we care for Cadence which is partially why we’re here. Your reason for doing something doesn’t have to be single-fold. And just because you’ve moved forward doesn’t mean you’ve left something behind.”
Nico closed his mouth in surprise and then intertwined another two strands of vitae at Lita’s direction. After a beat, he panted, “But afterwards… I could’ve…”
“You probably could have. The same goes for me, but there is no point in lamenting over it. Lamenting does nothing, but perhaps serves as motivation. Cultivating that lament into responsibility and action is the way. Agonizing about the past is an addiction. In the end, people forget… although forgetting it is a mistake too.” Francis glanced at him and then slowly frowned. “You’re really caught up about this, aren’t you?”
“Cadence threw a bottle of wine at me, Francis. She was really mad. I mean, it’s not like she’s a saint either, but she had a point… It just caught me off guard. She’s never said anythin’ like that to me before. ”
Francis’s expression fell flat. “I see. I am not going to tell you that Cadence’s words were solely the influence of Scorpio. Whatever Scorpio brings to the surface was already there to begin with.”
“I’m not sayin’ that you lie to me—” Nico arched a brow “—but you could be gentler with your words.”
“… Cadence was honest with her words which has a positive connotation of its own—although she could have been more civil about it.” Francis paused, brows furrowing. “A bottle of wine… really?”
“It was the expensive stuff too.”
Francis stared up at the dome. “The farther you are from someone or something, the more you will realize how much they mean to you. The closer you are, the more you forget.” He closed his eyes. “That’s why human beings can never be satisfied. It’s an endless cycle some wish to escape instead of bearing fully. Although—that’s not such a bad thing. Constantly searching for something brings meaning to life.”
Grunting in acknowledgment, Nico connected two more veins of vitae, feeling slight satisfaction as he felt it melt together beneath his palms. He paused. “Francis… this stuff about vitae storin’ memories… do you think it’d be possible to… transmute this vitae out of you? So you would just… be you?”
Francis stiffened then relaxed. “I’ve thought about that a lot. Theoretically, Nico, you’d kill yourself trying to do it because of the resistance of bleached vitae and the amount of that vitae I have in my body. But… if it could happen, then my feelings for Omicron in that last moment might disappear. Nothing would change, and I wouldn’t learn anything.” He chuckled. “It’s ironic. Just like now. Right as I’m about to be torn apart, I want to stay the way I am more than ever.”
“Hey don’t give me that talk.” Nico clicked his tongue as he connected another two strands of vitae. “No one’s bein’ torn apart, Francis…. Huh. Don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk that much except at one of the family get-togethers.”
“What are you talking about? I’m sociable. Besides, who else is going to talk for the business if I don’t? Not Carl or Allen.” Francis looked to the side. “Although I guess I’m not there now…” He sighed. “I appreciate you not commenting on the way I’m talking, by the way. Sometimes I don’t realize how weird I can sound until later.”
“Why…? Did Carl say something to you? Y’know him. He doesn’t mean bad by it. Probably just worried.” Nico shrugged. “I think it’s charmin’. Sophisticated.”
Francis chuckled. “By the way, what else did you two fight about? I can tell it wasn’t a one-way shouting match.”
“You can talk to me, Nico.”—But when Nico told him the rest of it, Francis arched a brow. “Seriously? What are you—kids? Over something like that…?”
Nico felt his ears burn.
“Well, none of us really ever had any luck in the romance department, so I’m not too surprised.”
Nico studied him. “Are you talkin’ about Omicron?”
“All I can tell you from experience, Nico,” Francis said after a stretch of silence, “is that there’s a time and place for everything, but if you wait too long what’s important might disappear… then again, perhaps it’s better not to pursue passion.”
Nico nodded. “So you—‘bachelor for life’—are givin’ me love advice which is… to flip a coin and hope for the best.”
“…I don’t remember you being this sassy.”
“Half of the people out here are as crass as Verga, Francis.” Nico glanced at Lita and asked gently, “Where else?”
Lita, who looked thoroughly engrossed in her eavesdropping, refocused her attention on Francis’s chest. “I… I actually think that’s it… uhm…”
Francis sat up with Nico’s assistance and pulled out a knife at his belt. Before Nico could stop him, he dragged it across his bare palm and clasped it against his gloved hand. “Hold out your hands,” he ordered Lita.
Lita obeyed. Then, sand—of all things—spilled out of his closed palms into hers. Lita wiggled her fingers as the grains trickled through before something large and spikey fell onto her openpalm. A conch shell.
As Lita pressed the conch to her ear, Francis sighed and pulled down his shirt. “Thank you, Lita. And thank you too, Nico—”
“You said… ‘Omicron’… right?”
Nico turned and found Kleine standing behind him.
“You’re the one that she wanted to… er… protect, right?” Kleine looked between them nervously. He seemed tense as if he were expecting Francis to lunge him at any moment; and he kept staring at the snake tattoo. “Her… Her name was Charite.” He gestured to himself. “I’m… Klaus—”
“Klaus Kleine. The boy who would read with her in the library back in Buchter.” Francis nodded. “Yes, she spoke fondly of you. I believe the reason she was more willing to join me when I was going through reading the records was due to your influence.”
Kleine’s face folded. “Where… Where is she? I-I mean I know she’s not here anymore—the lieutenant told me—but… her body…”
“I’ve laid her to rest.”
“Laid her to rest…? Where…?”
“At a distant place from here—”
“What about her family? Her parents? Her friends?” Kleine almost snapped before taking a step back. “They… don’t even know she’s dead.”
Francis stared at him, brows slightly raised. “Yes… I apologize. I didn’t think of that… The body still has meaning after death in this time…” He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a pack of v-cigs before lighting one for himself and then offering another to Kleine who accepted after some hesitation—
“Oh, there is a party here now!” Abruptly, Maria popped up at Nico’s side with her crew members tailing her exasperatedly. “You are feeling better, Francis, yes? I am eager to hear what you have to tell me!”
Francis stared and chuckled before his lips thinned. “I heard from the Sagittarians about your vitae color. Gold. Much similar to Leona’s. I’ve already explained it to the peacekeepers, but since this seems personal to you, I will tell you too.”
Maria sank to a crouch. Nico studied her, noting how her smile brightened Werner’s features.
Francis continued, “The first time I came across Leona in her current form was back in the Twin Cities. The Iota that you knew, however, encountered Leona personally several months before I became initiated. I was quite surprised to read about her current state in our records. You noticed she uses a conductor.”
Maria nodded. “I don’t really remember who said it but… it is used as a disguise sometimes, yes? To fake being able to conduct without a conductor?”
“It is not a disguise—at least not in Leona’s case…. I believe Leona’s baptism was incorrect.” Francis placed a hand to his chin. “I don’t know the circumstances nor the mechanism behind it, but I am certain she does not contain the normal concentration of elevated vitae particles found in other saint candidates. This is most likely why she cannot expel vitae without a conductor and why Scorpio could manipulate her so easily.”
“She is… not a saint candidate?” Maria tilted her head.
“She is a saint candidate, but an imperfect one…” Francis regarded her. “Tell me, Maria, have you ever been taken to the reservoirs in Ophiuchus?”
“I was supposed to. The Monadic orphanage made all of these grand arrangements! But on the day of the ceremony, a pirate—an adventurer—raided the orphanage and took me on an adventure. And, well, here I am, yes?”
“I see… What is the name of the person who took you? Do you remember?”
“His name?” Maria tapped her chin in thought. “He called himself many different things, yes? Exciting in that way. But the name that stuck to me was… Proteus?”
Nico studied Francis. “Do you recognize it?”
“It does sound familiar, and it’s an Ophiuchian name.” Francis nodded. “But I can’t seem to recall from where…” He sighed with familiar frustration. “There’s no point in trying to remember it since that info’s probably been lost through me using my vitae over the years.”
Kleine abruptly turned to Maria and asked, “Maria… right?” When given a nod, he continued, “Do you… mind if I ask you something?”
“Of course, my dear Klaus! You already asked me a question though, yes? What is it?”
Kleine hesitated before continuing, “Do you still remember Otto? And Emilia?”
Maria nodded as she scanned the platformed area. “Oh, yes, I was meaning to ask that but I keep forgetting—where are they?”
Kleine exchanged a look with Nico but said nothing.
Maria studied them, opened her mouth, then closed it, considering. She offered another smile. “You don’t have to tell me, but I am very curious.”
The memory of Otto bleeding out beneath his hands was still burned into Nico’s memory. He’d had people die on him on the table many times before. They had all been strangers though—henchmen, crime leaders, and passing wealthy politicians. It hurt all of those times even with their foreignity. But Otto wasn’t a stranger. And now repeating news of Otto’s death over and over again to these overriders was beginning to intensify the pain of loss.
Maria hummed. “Why do you ask, Klaus?”
Kleine replied hesitantly. “I think Otto would be happy if the lieutenant were to remember him… He looked up to him, you know. And you said you’ve been having trouble remembering things from the others, so I thought that maybe the lieutenant… ”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that.” Maria waved him off. “Werner remembers everything!”
Francis rose to a stand. “I see. So the erosion is well on its way. Maria, you most likely can better retain Werner’s memories since you are in an override over him. Once you’re freed from Scorpio, you may have difficulty recalling your override and other memories associated with the others because of this prolonged state of seperation, but the memories will return.” He frowned, staring off to the side. “Being forgotten is true death… That is why we try our best to leave our mark in the world. In a sense it’s remembrance.”
Kleine glanced at him. “…Right.”
“Maria—one more thing,” Francis continued. “If I may, could I try to speak to Scorpio through you?” When Maria sank beside him with a grin and nod, he prodded, “Scorpio, do you truly believe we know better than them?”
There was a beat of silence as Maria tilted her head as if listening. But then she said, “He… is not saying anything. I don’t think it is you though, my dear Francis. This Scorpio does not seem to like me much—oh, by the way, do you know where Conta is?” She pointed at his conductor. “Through your conducting?”
“You’re referring to Beta?” Francis clenched his gloved hand. “They’re all still here in this city. They’ve been asking me to open gates for them. Since they have Oran and this… ‘Forstchritt,’ I haven’t been heeding them.”
“Well, that’s wonderful!” Maria beamed. “Then I can go and find Conta with—” She paused and turned to her men standing behind her. “Where are Simon and Veles, Morandi?”
Morandi startled. “Well, Simon is taking care of your… body. And Veles is sweeping the city.”
Maria’s smile fell slightly. “Simon is alone…?”
“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” called a voice from across the platform, “could we borrow you for a moment?”
There stood Captain Weingartner, Major General von Spiel, the Sagittarians, and the Libran photographer. Maria, after accepting Lita’s reaching hand and bidding a cheery wave, headed on towards them with Morandi and the other man following shortly behind.
After watching them go, Nico turned back to Francis. “Francis… I get that Theta helped create the theories of vitae and all—which is super impressive—but how do you know so much about what makes True Conductors tick? I mean… theory can only go so far, right? That’s a lotta detail—”
“It was in our records.”
“What… does that mean?”
Francis looked away as realization dawned on Nico.
The way things were done in the past wasn’t so much different than now, after all.
“This is Martin von Spiel,” Volkner introduced the older man standing to his left as Maria neared him. “He’s a major general. The point of contact I was referring to. He’s been serving in the capital for several years now and has always had concerns with the Kaiser’s practices. He was confused about Ophiuchus’s involvement here; and when his concerns were thrown away, he started to become suspicious.”
Maria looked from the Sagittarians and the Libran standing to Volker’s right to this Martin. He seemed a bit older than Volkner—to the point where Maria could count the wrinkles on his face but not his gray hairs. He also smelled like smoke. She couldn’t quite recall if Werner had met him before or not, but she really wanted to pluck that shiny heart-shaped medal off his chest.
“He has a couple of questions for you,” Volkner continued. “It’s regarding his son. Fritz von—”
“Oh, Fritz!” Maria brightened. “The man who smokes the cigars! Yes, I remember him!”
Martin stared at her before exchanging a look with Volkner.
“I told you,” Volkner said. “This isn’t Lieutenant Waltz, but a Leonian named Maria.”
Martin regarded her before trying tentatively, “And my son was one of these… True Conductors like you…? Was he really working with ELPIS?”
“Fritz? Yes, he was a True Conductor.” Maria circled Martin and studied him carefully. The resemblance was uncanny. She hummed, “Working with ELPIS…?” Thinking back into these past months was like trying to sail through fog. Still, she recalled lying down next to Fritz’s corpse and Fritz’s argument with Omicron in that alleyway before that. “Ah, yes, Fritz was working with ELPIS.”
Martin’s face fell. “Do you know why?”
Maria studied his expression. “Because he… was like me. He was trying to reach someone important, but in the end, he couldn’t.”
Martin arched a brow. “What…?”
“It’s how she talks,” Volkner explained before asking—“Maria, would those ‘important people’ happen to be a woman or a child? True Conductors he was connected to?”
“Yes! I think her name was Yulia Kriska. The boy…” Maria put her hand to her chin. “Kovich—I think?”
Martin frowned. “They were… Aquarians?”
Maria nodded again, placing a hand on Lita’s head. “Kovich was like my dear Lita here. He was a Specialist and very valuable to the people in the Twin Cities… He was a treasure, but they treated him like—I believe Cadence calls it—a ‘product.’ Fritz was trying to work with—”
“—an ELPIS leader named Omicron to save Kovich and the other disadvantaged children,” came Francis’s voice as he approached them with Nico and Klaus. “During the chaos, another ELPIS leader named Gamma found Kovich and killed him, which led to your son’s death. It’s what we’d call a botched gambit pileup back in the cities.” He placed a hand on his chest. “I apologize on Gamma’s behalf for what happened to Kovich… and in turn your son.”
Martin’s eyes narrowed. “I recognize your voice, Mr. Foxman. We spoke briefly over the phone about our arrangements… the irony doesn’t escape me.” He glanced across the platform towards the group of peacekeepers. “Where is this Gamma now?”
Francis glanced at Maria. “He’s still in this city too.”
“Perhaps to dole out what he thinks is suitable punishment.” Francis pointed down to the ground as his gaze darkened. “I’m sure you’ve noticed what’s going on beneath the surface.”
Martin frowned at him. “And why should we trust a word coming from your mouth? How do I know you’re not covering for this Gamma?”
“Gamma is trying to kill me too,” Francis replied. “Besides, Gamma is conservative in his beliefs and radical in actions. I disagree with his methods—”
Maria threw an arm around his shoulder. “Francis is trustworthy! I guarantee it!”
Martin looked between the two of them before turning back towards Volkner. “I appreciate you reaching out, Volkner, but this—”
“Martin.” Volkner held out a stack of files to him. “You’ve read about what they’ve been doing down there. I’ve told you what the Augen is being used for.”
“When you said you needed help, I wasn’t expecting this.” Martin accepted the papers and slapped them in his hands. “This—this radical revolution—is too much. I still have my wife, Volkner.” He jerked his head back towards the Capricornians guarding Werner’s family. “And my subordinates have families.”
Maria glanced back towards Lita then towards Morandi and Emmanuel.
“And I have my daughter,” Volkner rebutted. “Just think of the vow we made when we swore to serve this country. Do you want the future generations of Capricornians to grow up with a Kaiser like this? We enlisted to serve not to be tools.”
Martin sighed, handing the papers back to him. “I understand, but I don’t feel comfortable working with the peacekeepers… or ELPIS members. Besides, I’ve met the peacekeepers you have here briefly already. We don’t get along.”
“Hey, no worries. We can just sweep all of that under the rug,” came Gabrielle’s voice as she approached them with Alice, Talib, and Roberto in tow—Maria had found it quite easy to catch onto their names, so she was certain Jericho had known them even though she couldn’t recall it. “Anyway, we’re all gathered here today—to say that Scorpio is our mutual enemy.”
“The last saint candidate of Scorpio was a woman named Nareen,” Talib provided, pulling a journal from his trenchcoat and flipping through it. “There aren’t any records of subsequent Scorpioan saint candidates, so we’re probably dealing with someone who’s become it recently. Libra—er, Flannery—implied that this Scorpio was in this city. Aside from that, all we know about this Scorpio is that he has two out of three towers left and that he and the Kaiser want to create more reservoirs using the Augen… and he doesn’t seem confrontational.”
“The question now is when will this quota be reached?” Alice provided, arms crossed. “When will Scorpio be satisfied?”
“Maybe this protest happening tomorrow is curtain call,” Talib suggested. “Or the climax.”
“Hold that thought.” Gabrielle nodded towards the Sagittarians. “Prince Yuseong, mind if I ask why you’re still hanging around? Do you have an arrangement?” After receiving a ‘no comment’, she nodded at Volkner. “Captain Weingartner, right? It looks like Scorpio made you get into some unwanted combat in that square. No need to worry about that. Leona is taking care of it.”
Volkner frowned. “She’s covering it up? To hide Scorpio’s existence…?”
Alice replied, “The motives are unknown. What we know for sure is that she’s using the fact that the Augen members are using proto-conductors filled with bleached vitae as grounds to intervene—like how Scorpio originally had the situation laid out. She’s going after the ELPIS leaders who have Oran and Forstchritt too. But, from my understanding, she doesn’t plan to act against the Kaiser.”
“We didn’t hear from her directly,” Gabrielle explained. “She had another peacekeeper drop off a letter for us before we came here. Even asked us to step back. Again. We’re in the dark as much as you are.”
Martin frowned. “Why would Leona act against the Augen but not the Kaiser? Does she want the reservoirs or not? Is it just the ELPIS Department and that knows about this vitae conversion— ”
“It can’t be the entirety of Ophiuchus.” Gabrielle waved the idea off. “If that was the case, we would’ve found it all out already. It’s probably just narrowed down to the saint candidates, certain members of the ELPIS Department, and… Well, I’d still like to keep it discrete until everything is wrapped up.” She grimaced. “Anyway… as for why—”
“To keep up appearances?” Talib suggested. “She might think that she needs to maintain Ophiuchus’s neutral standing and Capricorn’s status as an independent, functional nation… even if it means slowing down. Going head-to-head with the Kaiser is—well….”
“Ah, wait—that movement with the blue paint—that is the Augen?” Maria inquired, not quite following. “I met with the leader at that one rally today.”
There was a pause.
Gabrielle sighed. “So the rumors we’ve been hearing are true. Marionette’s out and rallying the protests happening tomorrow.” She ran a hand down her face. “This is getting out of hand. And I don’t feel comfortable leaving this to Leona, so…”
Volkner gestured towards the two generals caged in by Von Spiel’s men. “Is that the reasoning behind their arrest?”
Gabrielle thumbed the generals. “Those two are really patriotic. Hard to get anything out of them. Apparently, they came here because they were confused on why the convention was ending so early, so even they don’t know everything.” She sighed. “Anyway, dismantling the chain of command and getting info on Scorpio was the idea, but…”
Friedhelm turned. “Pardon me, Maria, Marionette is free? What did she say? How is she?”
Maria scratched her head. “Marionette? That is Engel, yes? She said a lot of strange things. Something about being used in a game but continuing anyways, yes? And not being manipulated? She was very serious about that.” She pointed back to the two generals. “Those are generals? She said that Scorpio let her use and infect them. Well, probably not them, yes? But other generals.”
“So she’s following Scorpio’s orders,” Martin concluded. “As expected of a movement that goes against the exact morals, unity, and responsibility that makes Capricorn what it is—”
“Marionette wouldn’t do that,” Friedhelm argued. “She might be overly passionate, but she’s honorable—”
“I mean this with all due respect, Herr Heimler,” Talib interjected, “but movements tend to grow well beyond their founder. Sometimes founders become swept along for the ride. They can’t help themselves.”
Martin turned on Heimler. “I used to respect you, Friedhelm. I remember when you led that entire battalion across western Signum. You can’t use your son as an excu—”
“Do not talk about my son!” Friedhelm spat back. “I used to respect you too before you became a capital bootlicker!”
So they knew each other? Maria wondered. And they had lost people too. Was having that in common not meant to bring people together?
“This is a lot of talk of respect, but I do not see it,” she said absentmindedly.
There was a stretch of silence before Gabrielle craned her neck back towards the generals just a meter away, cupped her hands around her mouth, and whispered—“Did you hear the gist of that, generals? Your Scorpio looks like he’s turning his back on you, doesn’t it?”
“That’s an absurd lie!” one general—Vogel, if Maria recalled correctly—snapped. “Scorpio would never try to manipulate any of us. We’re needed to rebuild it after—”
Martin’s eyes narrowed. “They’re the shame to Capricorn.”
“Well, all in all, we still don’t know Libra’s movements.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. “So we’re on unknown grounds with the Kaiser and Scorpio. Marionette even. Then there’s ELPIS and their hostages.” She nodded at Martin. “You have plenty of loyal men, Martin von Spiel. We could really use their help. We have a multi-pronged problem here and our numbers are small. Volkner won’t be able to do it without you.” She held up her hands. “It’s your country.”
Martin glanced at Volkner and then back at Gabrielle. “Why’re you so eager to get involved then?”
Gabrielle tapped on her armband. “It’s my job. And I smell a good promotion from it. People love conspiracies.”
“It’s better than doing nothing,” Talib provided.
Martin’s eyes narrowed before he nodded. “Okay. But you mentioned cutting out this spore? How will this work if this Libra isn’t here?”
Gabrielle nodded at Maria. “Jericho is one of you, right?”
“Oh, yes, peacekeeper Jericho!” Maria brightened and made a swinging motion with her hands. “This one!”
“The peacekeeper with the suitcase…?” Francis asked, staring.
Alice shared a look with Talib—both of them tense.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot! You were the one who took him in, Francis, yes?” Maria recalled vaguely.
Francis didn’t respond, his v-cigarette dripping ash onto the floor.
“You have wonderful intuition, my dear Ley,” Maria noted.
Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, you kind of did straight up tell me Jericho was yours back when I was on your ship. He’s been around the prince more than a couple times too.” She nodded at Martin. “Jericho can do basically the same thing as Libra minus the eyes.” She indicated Lita. “Which the young missy here can more than make up for. We just need to gather a couple of proto-conductors and have—”
“I was thinking that too though. We have similar thoughts!” Maria interjected, smiling. “But only if Lita agrees, yes?”
Gabrielle glanced at her, then at Lita. “Of course…”
Talib glanced at Alice. “You never found this out about Jericho?”
“I respect people’s privacy, Talib,” Alice replied, arms crossed. “If they’re not ready to share, then prying is pointless.”
“Anyway, since you’re probably serving as a medium, Maria”—Gabrielle made a gentle shooing gesture with her hands—“it’d probably be best if we kept you away from all of this planning until Jericho arrives and we can get Scorpio cut out of you.”
Maria considered this. “Like solo…?”
She had Conta to search for so she didn’t mind it. She didn’t quite understand all of these complicated half-answers anyway. A bit boring and confusing.
It’s what happens when people lose their footing. They grapple desperately. Poor things. I tried to throw them a couple of hints, but it seems like they’re too involved in getting what they want to notice.
“Throw them hints?” Maria tilted her head, but there was silence.
Ludwig Waltz watched as the large group of peacekeepers, soldiers, foreigners, and his not-brother conversed across the platform. His mother and father remained complacent beside him, while Viktoria fidgeted with her tools and gears. His mother, in particular, looked very displeased—arms folded, lips tight, silent.
Of course, she was unhappy. When she didn’t have full control of a situation, she was always like this. But she didn’t dare speak against their father. Saints—Ludwig had forgotten how much he hated them both.
Eventually, he couldn’t stand her presence any longer and shoved past Von Spiel’s soldiers to the edge of the balcony away from them. He invited Viktoria to come along but she declined politely. Some things couldn’t be fixed. People weren’t clocks.
Earlier, Heimler had come to quickly update him on what had gone down since their train arrival—which happened to be a hefy amount of events. It made Ludwig’s head spin and caused a sense of hopelessness to expand in his chest. He couldn’t understand how Heimler could pick himself after discovering this—the Augen, the vitae, the Kaiser. Everything they had worked for—from the border to the Augen—was… a farce. Everything he’d done to try to make up for his mistakes was…?
“You look upset, Ludwig,” came a voice. It was Werner—no, Maria—coming towards him and flanked by two men and a girl. Although she wasn’t smiling, her eyes twinkled. “You should go back and sit with your family.”
‘Your’ family? Ludwig thought. She wasn’t even trying at this point. She wasn’t even wearing Werner’s gloves either. The bareness felt unnatural, and something about the lightness in her shoulders made him feel uncomfortable.
“Well, maybe that’s because the family isn’t all here, Maria. Though I doubt you could call it that.”
Maria stared at him for a moment, before she cheerfully addressed the older man to her right, “Say, Morandi, why do Capricornians not relax when it is time to relax?”
“Capricornians are serious and hardworking, Captain, especially the ones in this region,” Moradi explained. “There’s a cultural diligence to it. Maybe a need to prove oneself to their country and family? Anyway, Captain, speaking about a person like this when they’re right in front of you is… impolite.”
A stupid stereotype, Ludwig thought.
“But you are doing the same, no, my dear Morandi?” Maria glanced back at him.
Morandi opened his mouth then closed it.
“Oh, I get it!” Maria faced Ludwig and leaned forward. “Do you think you’re weak? And you are trying to prove otherwise? Break away from that woman?”
Anger ignited in Ludwig’s chest, but then he recalled his outburst to Werner all of those years ago and the feeling extinguished itself. He thought of his wife rubbing circles into his hand and released his self-pity.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ludwig gestured to his head. “Is that what Werner’s thinking? Is that how it works? He thinks I’m weak?” He shook his legs with his hands. “Because of this?”
Maria stared blankly at him. “Ah. The body is not what makes a person weak, my dear Ludwig. That is not where true strength comes from.” She poked his chest while the two men behind her exchanged looks of exasperation. “It comes from here.”
Ludwig resisted snorting. “Seriously…?”
Maria nodded vigorously.
It wasn’t cruelty but naivety, Ludwig then realized. There was an innocence to Maria that only appeared malevolent because she appeared older. Seeing that innocence on his brother’s face was sobering.
Taking in a deep breath, Ludwig said, “Just be careful with my brother’s body.” Then he made his way over the peacekeepers and the ranked officers.
Heimler glanced at his arrival in surprise. “Ludwig?”
“I’m a member of the Augen too. I know everything,” Ludwig said quickly. “Heimler told me everything about what’s happening.”
Heimler paled. “Ludwig—”
“Heimler!” Werner’s captain snapped in disbelief.
“I helped organize the initial protests in the eastern village areas of Capricorn when the Augen was only made of fifty people,” Ludwig explained. “They organize the same way every single time. If you let me help and give me a map of the city, I can show you where they’re probably going to go. I could probably guess where Marionette is too. I can be useful.”
“What front did you fight on during the war?” the peacekeeper in charge—Gabrielle—asked, not even glancing down at his legs. “Highest rank?”
“The northern front. The highest rank I achieved was colonel.” Promoted at the end.
“…Any family? Outside the ones here?”
Gabrielle paused, face tightening. “Any… young kids?”
After a beat, she nodded. “Okay, you’re on board. You’ll be working with—”
A familiar rumbling resounded from below them like thunder. Footsteps. Rubber boots, marching on.
“Everyone,” Martin ordered, lifting his hand into a fist and then dragging it down. “Down. Quiet.”
Almost immediately, all the soldiers in Von Spiel’s unit slid to the ground, dragging Ludwig’s family and the two generals with them. The peacekeepers hit the ground too, the ELPIS leader being dragged to the ground by them and Nico. Ludwig looked back at Maria in a panic and felt relief when he found she was prostrate too.
Ludwig pulled himself closer to the edge of the balcony and peered below to the floor. There he saw a crowd moving back and forth—some members in civilian clothing, others older and in worn military uniforms, and three in the clearly identifiable uniforms of generals. Most of them were coated with blue paint.
“Did they come here tracking Maria?” Gabrielle muttered.
The ELPIS leader shook his head, placing a finger to his lips. He whispered, “Spores still can operate independently. I don’t see the towers among them. Do not worry. I can open my gate if necessary.”
“What’s the meaning of this?” General Vogel whispered, staring at the other generals below. “How—” Before he could finish, one of Von Spiel’s men slapped a hand over his mouth.
All they had to do though, Ludwig figured, was to remain quiet. Not too hard.
Abruptly, a dark cloud passed over the glass dome above their heads. Ludwig ignored it until the cloud glowed out of the corner of his eye. When he looked up, he found it wasn’t a cloud overhead but an entire body of water filled with flecks of purple light. Without warning, the tsunami crashed through the window sending down a torrent of water and glass. It waterfalled down onto the dome floor, sending half of the ones gathered down there to their knees.
Riding on down towards them through the broken windows on a glowing wave of water were two men. One dressed in Monadic priest robes, and the other in a thick fur cloak with a conductor-gloved hand. An Elementalist.
Wiping the water from her face, Gabrielle stared at the Elementalist in disbelief. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Either tactics or manpower—which would you choose as more important?”
“A thorough strategy lays the groundwork for victory. A good strategy cannot be replaced, but manpower can be.”
“Very good, Waltz.”
Werner looked around the room slowly, taking minute note of the familiar wooden window frames that let in gray light into the classroom. A map was pasted along the back wall and marked with past battles of Signum. The lecturer standing in front of the chalkboard at the front of the classroom peered around without a smile.
Werner kept himself straight-backed as he tried to dissect his situation: He was going through the motions—the memories—again, he realized. There wasn’t a purpose to it, but there was no exit.
The bell rang as class ended.
Werner quickly gathered his things and exited the school premises. A military v-ehicle blocked his normal route home, so he took a detour through the poppy fields behind the academy. As he walked on and calculated his time of arrival, he came across an odd, aged tree with something small scurrying around its base. Werner was immediately able to identify it even from his distance. It was a puppy. No, Fenrir.
This was the day that he’d first come across her, he realized. When he’d first found her, he’d considered putting her down since she’d been so frail. After that, he considered taking her to the pound. It was following much consideration that he’d decided to adopt her in hopes of training her to be a military dog like the ones he’d read in the books. To add a canine to his future unit to serve Capricorn under the Kaiser would be further accomplishing his duty as a Capricornian soldier—
No. That’s not how it happened.
The surroundings bled into watercolor and re-solidified. Werner found himself standing on that very path again. The same tree, the same dog. There was not a detail different besides a very small, smiling Olive who was standing at his hip and tugging at his sleeve:
“Werner, look! The dog, Werner! The puppy!”
Werner’s mouth moved on its own: “I can see it, Olive.”
“Aw, it’s so cute. Can you let me see it, please?”
“It could be dangerous,” Werner said warningly, the words slipping from his lips without him even thinking of them again. “Rabid.”
“Look at that face!” the prince pouted. “Does that look like a dangerous face to you? Werner, look at its eyes! Please, can you pet it? My parents don’t let animals into the palace. Please?”
After a moment of consideration, Werner relented and paced over to the puppy who immediately peeled out from the tree and darted to him. It ran circles around his legs before he sank down and offered his hand which it began to immediately lick.
A small Cadence skirted his vision apprehensively, while a much younger Jericho, Atienna, and Maria appeared before him and began to peer in at the puppy curiously. Not soon after, Shion appeared—not the present Shion, but the Shion of the past.
“Aw, you have a friend.” The peacekeeper chuckled as she rested a ghostly hand on his head. “Are you going to take her in?”
Werner shoved the childish idea down. “We don’t have the time nor the resources to raise something like this in my house.”
Still—Fenrir was actually quite adorable when she was younger, Werner found himself thinking as his hands moved on their own to rub below her chin. In fact, even now as he lived through this memory he didn’t recall, he had the intense desire to—
The surroundings blinked and returned. It was a different day, although the scenery remained the same. Memories of purposefully heading down this detour just to visit Fenrir flitted vaguely through Werner’s mind like a choppy, colored film reel.
As Werner approached the tree this time just as he had in those memories, however, he found that two boys and a girl were already gathered there. He could see even from the distance that they were wielding sticks and beating them against Fenrir without mercy.
It was not hot rage that gripped Werner’s stomach then at the sight of them, but a cold and intense desire to—
“Get away from her,” Werner demanded calmly, pacing forward and locking eyes with the trio.
The trio immediately retreated. Werner dashed to Fenrir’s side and assessed her injuries as he scooped her into his arms. Her arms and legs were riddled with scrapes and red lashes, but she still licked his face enthusiastically.
Olive appeared beside him with a rush of worry. “I-Is—”
“She’ll live, Olive. Don’t worry,” Werner reassured before pausing in thought. “I don’t believe she’ll be safe here since they’ll most likely return, but…”
His mother would not accept something like this in the household. She wouldn’t allow it with good reason. Despite this knowledge and the feeling of his mother’s gaze pricking his skin, however, that underlying and intense wish remained.
“I’ll discuss the details with my parents later,” Werner said. “For now, I’ll keep her in my room quietly until she recovers.”
Oh, rebellious now, ain’t ya?—Cadence, still too afraid of the dog to fully synchronize.
Atienna skirted his vision, her lips curling up into a smile. “Well, if you’re going to take it in, it’s appropriate to choose a name for her, don’t you think?”
Werner was rather surprised at how this memory of Atienna had eyes that twinkled with such mischief. It was foreign but familiar.
“Eins,” Werner found himself suggesting. Upon receiving looks of disapproval, he explained, “My marks for creative writing are not as good as the marks for my other classes. If you have any other suggestions, I’d like to hear them.”
“How about Fenrir?” Atienna tried.
“From the Capricornian fairy tales?” Werner asked. “That’s referring to the legend about the hound who will destroy the world and devour the saint candidates during the apocalypse.” He turned back to the puppy and found himself thinking—in the memory and in the present—that it was too harsh of a name for her.
Atienna hummed. “That’s one perspective. You could also think of it as the story of how a mythological beast conquers the unjust rulers of Signum after being put down over and over again. A heroic…”
Going through the memory felt very surreal to Werner. These words, thoughts, and actions—despite feeling like they were his own—were too incongruent with the way he was currently. It was disorienting.
Werner looked up from the newly named Fenrir towards the worn-down tree. Shion—the present Shion—stood there watching him. He couldn’t deduce what she was trying to achieve by having him do this. It was a poor use of time.
“I’ll show you,” she had said.
Show him what?