Maria and Veles have offered their assistance to the peacekeepers and Capricornians, cleanly sweeping away the Augen members and the Augen-converted generals. Guided by Scorpio’s hand, however, Maria departs with Veles after Conta. Those who remain…
Verdeckt » A covert player unveiled at 2350 hours
Alice’s fascination about the human mind had developed at an early age. Of all the books her parents could’ve grabbed for her as they’d fled their mansion to the shelter during the wartime bomb raids, they had gone ahead and selected neurology and psychology encyclopedias from their library’s top-shelf. How they had thought this book was more suitable for a child than the short fantasy novel just a shelf below—Alice still had no clue. Regardless, she consumed those pages gluttonously:
Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, the medulla, and the pons. A connected system somehow producing a coherent thought. Something not quite yet understood; something that never would be understood. Theories about how the electrical signals activated through a cascade of chemicals through synapses. The possibility of those electrical signals being able to transfer memory into vitae particles—romantic but not grounded in reality.
What Alice truly enjoyed about the human mind was its neuroplasticity. It was like an allegory for the change a person could go through throughout life. A little damage here, and a person could adapt functionally—up to a point. And it was that exact adaptability and change that Alice wanted to be a part of. That paired with her habit of watching the fretting adults and children inside and outside the shelter as the raids droned on acted as a catalyzing agent. Although she hadn’t been able to overcome her fear back then, she still had managed to guide and console some of the younger children—but only because she’d been inspired by Flannery’s bravery.
Flannery’s change in behavior following her saint candidacy near the war’s end was the final push. At first, Alice had assumed that the Monadic priests had done something to Flannery. But Flannery never exhibited the attributes of those types of traumas. She did, however, show a decreased interest in her hobbies and lost her rebellious spunkiness. Alice’s parents had said it was ‘maturity,’ but Alice had held doubts. However, no matter how hard Alice tried, she could never get to the answer. The books and her years at the university told her nothing. All she could do was theorize—but that in itself was faulty because it was through the lens of her own perspective. Absolutely frustrating.
Taking up the helm of peacekeeper was the culmination of these things. ‘Psychological Evaluations,’ they had named the division. ‘Quality Assurance’ and ‘Agent Screening’ were the other proposed titles. Its creation was the partial result of several incidents involving peacekeepers exhibiting trauma-related episodes that disrupted their assignments. The press was not happy about this; and with Ophiuchus needing analytical assessments of several external and internal sociological and psychological factors, the Psychological Evaluations Department was birthed as a result.
Why this department hadn’t been established as one of the first founding peacekeeping departments, Alice had no clue. Then again, it wasn’t a popular department. No one enjoyed being forced to have their problems dissected by a stranger and judged on whether or not those problems would hinder them on their job assignment. Many peacekeepers, in fact, came to dislike Alice for her straightforward strictness and thus christened her with the title “Ice-gate of Ophiuchus.” Many of Alice’s fellow department members thought her approach and non-leniency were overly harsh too.
Each person was different and preferred different methods of approach—that much Alice agreed on. But in her personal opinion, tiptoeing around reality didn’t solve problems. It only prolonged them. Embracing someone and feeding them with constant reassurances—although helfpul in itself—were temporary measures. It was better to be safe than regretful.
All in all, it was a rewarding job, despite her always taking care to keep her distance from her patients. The distance remained firm even when Jericho came under her care. Because “the only person who can truly help you is yourself” as she would tell her patients. Everything else in that person’s surroundings was a tool to guide them to that ‘salvation’—Alice included herself as such a tool and resource. If she became too close to a patient and her perspective on her patients became skewed as a result, then she wouldn’t be able to do her job effectively.
Talib, on the other hand, was much more hands-on and optimistic in his approach. Rather than being a cog in the wheel of change, he’d wanted to be one of the forces behind it. She never quite got along with him as normal friends would—with most of their conversations turning into sparring arguments. His humor was both sad and humorous at the same time. Still, she trusted him which was why she insisted that he become Jericho’s partner after Jericho had finally gotten the clearance for official assignments and when Gabrielle’s interest in him had been inevitably piqued.
Alice still recalled the day she’d asked Talib to do it—although the memory of the conversation before her askance was much more prominent in her mind:
It had been searingly hot in Scorpio on that day. Unlike Aries, the hot air was dry instead of humid, leaving Alice with the feeling that her skin was on the verge of cracking and that she was one sniffle away from a nosebleed. But Alice, despite her discomfort, had been prepared for it and dolloped sunscreen on—since oftentimes when she and Flannery would visit Talib in his home country, they would return to Ophiuchus and Libra with sunburns. How Talib could bear it, she didn’t know.
As Alice waited for Talib’s arrival, she had seated herself by her lonesome in the balcony shade of Talib’s mansion which oversaw the lime-stone city of Ubar. Not a single living thing was on the city’s dusted streets save for the camels tied to a hitching post and taking shade behind several v-ehicles.
“I had to go in for another courtship meeting,” Talib had complained when he’d finally arrived carrying with him two cups of her favorite cold drink in the country—limonana, made of mint and lime. “I shouldn’t have told my family that I was on vacation.”
“What was her name this time?” Alice accepted the drink from him.
“Ah, from that one family that owns the land with the reservoirs in north Scorpio? You should be more considerate. I’m sure Miss Nader feels the same way.” She took a sip. “Besides, people would kill to have what we have. Going on occasional ‘courtship’ dates in exchange for bottomless wealth is a small price to pay.”
“It’s all a master plan for our family to accumulate wealth…” Talib took a sip too. “Well… we did have a good conversation. Spoke about the war.”
“Even though you never served in it?”
“We had a discussion about why it started,” Talib continued, ignoring her.
“It’s not difficult to rationalize why any war starts,” Alice replied. “It must have been a quick conversation then.”
“Hah!” Talib slammed his hands on the table. “That’s only on the surface! She agrees with me that there was a secondary force—the Organization —feeding the war from the sidelines!”
The Organization seemed to be Talib’s favorite conspiratorial entity. Why he didn’t think of a better name for it, Alice still didn’t know.
“While I’m glad that you’ve found someone who shares your interest, Talib, I’m still inclined to think you’ve been reading too many of those detective novels.” Alice loosely indicated the book he’d brought with him. “I’m surprised you haven’t grown out of them yet.”
One of the requirements to become a peacekeeper was to be conversational in at least four languages of Signum. Reading literacy was not a part of this requirement, but Alice had taught herself how to read in several languages regardless. Due to this and partially due to Talib’s tutoring, she was able to see that the Scorpioan swirling letters at the very corner of Talib’s book read—Reading ages: 9-12.
“It’s on a multiplier,” Talib argued. “That’s how Scorpioan literature works.” He amended later, “It’s more a guilty pleasure.”
“Is that your stress relief then?”
He picked the book up and tapped it against his head. “It would just be nice if we could fix all the problems like they do in here just by solving a mystery or defeating an evil organization.”
Alice had digested his words for a moment, wondering at the time if Jericho thought of ELPIS in the same way. Finally, she said, “I have a favor to ask you. A patient of mine…”
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
“I should’ve been there,” Talib muttered as he wrung his hat that was sopping with water. “Maybe we could’ve convinced Flannery to stay together.”
Alice stared in the direction of the gate Theta had just sunken into. She sighed. “I doubt we’d be able to. There’s a point a person can reach where no amount of convincing can change their minds. The decision to change has to occur internally not by an outside force.”
“What? Are you saying that we should just give up on Flannery? Then what?”
“Talib, we need to be realistic. Look at the situation we’re in. Gabrielle refuses to acknowledge it, but the fact that this vitae conversion and the creation of reservoirs through it has remained unknown for so long implicates four possible things. One, it’s been kept secret by all the countries of Signum. Two, it’s been kept secret by Ophiuchus’s invisible arm. Three, it’s both. Four, there’s some external party involved. Whatever it is, we no longer have the luxury to be thinking like that.”
It was a needed distance.
Talib covered his mouth. Alice turned to him, and he proceeded to pound on his chest and cough.
“Water. Choking.” Talib wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That Veles is something else. I can see why he was a potential saint candidate for Aquarius.” He glanced at Hilton, who had shed his proto-conductor ring and had seemed to return to himself, and Louise conversing in the corner of the room. “I was always the one talking about conspiracies and the Organization, but it looks like you’ve taken point on it.”
“Except my theories have sound, logical basis.”
“And mine don’t?” Talib challenged. “The signs are everywhere!” He sighed. “Anyway, here I was actually considering joining Monadism.”
“Talib, have I ever told you that your tendency to put on an act usually ends up with your act becoming reality for you? Even with your detective performance.”
“You tell me constantly.” Talib nodded before tugging on his trench coat. “But I’m insulted you think that my detective visage is an act. I did work as a PI at one point, you know? Before I became a peacekeeper.”
“Please. You started this detective persona only a month after Flannery returned from her ceremony. The correlation is clear.” She spared him a sympathetic look. “I understand the sentiment and the reasoning, but now that Flannery is no longer here, there’s no reason for you to keep up the habit.”
Saying the words out loud felt like a failure. A nail in the coffin.
“Correlation doesn’t prove causation,” Talib argued before staring down at the hat in his hands. “Though I suppose all acts have to end eventually… Otherwise, we’ll have an endless play on our hands.”
“It’s quite amazing how you can have a metaphor that sounds so meaningful yet holds no meaning.”
“Practice, my dear Alice.” He put his hat back on.
Alice was prepared to rebut him but quieted herself as Gabrielle approached them bringing an uncertain-looking Nico Fabrizzio along with her. Alice regarded the Geminian man who somehow had found his way into Capricornian ranks.
“Say, Mr. Fabrizzio, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Gabrielle said suddenly. “Since you know Francis, you probably know a thing or two about modified conductors, right?”
Nico became rigid, glanced at Alice and Talib, then relaxed. “I’m not sure what you’re talkin’ about, Miss Law. Francis didn’t do that kinda work.”
“Really? Well, why else would a Twin Cities man like you throw themselves into a country like Capricorn? Didn’t even think the Capricornian military would accept a non-Capricornian citizen into the ranks.”
Nico looked to the side. “I volunteered for a special exchange program, Miss Law. Sorry if it seems suspicious. But everythin’ in life seems suspicious one way or another.”
Alice followed Nico’s gaze to Werner Waltz’s family residing in the corner by some tables and surrounded by Von Spiel’s men.
Alice ventured from her observations of Nico’s interactions that Nico most likely sought and needed stability in his life. She deduced the same for Francis Foxman and this ‘Cadence Morello’ she’d heard about on occasion. Gabrielle was never one to read people to such depths, however, so the woman merely patted Nico on the shoulder and directed him to his superiors at the opposite end of the hall.
Once Nico was out of sight, Gabrielle sighed, tightened her ponytail, then yawned. “Those Capricornians are still proud and diligent despite being driven into the dirt. Have to admit that I always admired that. Served with a couple of units during the war.”
“So what’s the game plan, Gabrielle?” Talib asked. “We have one, right?”
Gabrielle rubbed the back of her neck. “First thing’s first. We need to get out of here, for one. While Theta is looking for Maria, we can regroup. I spoke to some of the more coherent Augen members. There’s a protest going on tomorrow. Obviously, we need to handle that. Not sure if Leona’s on point there yet.” She revealed something she was holding in her palm: two proto-conductors filled with black liquid. “We can probably use these to make our great escape quicker. Theta—or Francis or whoever—”
“Hey… Gabrielle, wait…” Talib interjected. “This is a bit of a strange question, but I need some reassurance with all of this going on.”
“Why… did you ask Alice and me to join you? In the beginning, I mean. Is there really anything we can do for you here? We haven’t exactly been trained for… combat.”
Gabrielle’s brows rose, and she rubbed the back of her neck—like she always did when caught off-guard. “… Well, it iskind of a bad time to be asking things like that, Talib.” She yawned. “But to make it short and simple—remember back a couple of years ago when that air Elementalist peacekeeper committed suicide and fell right into the courtyard of the Serpens Establishment?”
“It wasn’t suicide—” Talib interjected before he covered his mouth and began coughing again.
“Right. Shion Myosotis.”—Alice remembered her well.
Shion was a passed peacekeeper who Alice had diagnosed with a depressive disorder—possibly one partially affected by the weather and seasons. It wasn’t an uncommon find in Ophiuchus as many war veterans took up the peacekeeping occupation. Although Shion had admitted to having suicidal ideations, her mental health had improved with time. Shion had turned out to be a simple but very kind woman who seemed to take everyday with stride.
So, when Alice had heard news of Shion’s ‘suicide,’ Alice had been in utter disbelief. It had come out of the blue—Shion had shown almost no signs of that intention at all. Additionally, Shion planning a suicide in such a public space seemed unlikely. Those matters were usually done privately as the attempter typically didn’t want to draw the attention and worry others. In the end… it still had been another failure, another nail in the coffin.
“She was… almost like a mentor to me,” Talib admitted. “We didn’t speak often, but whenever I came across her in the lunchroom, she always had good advice to give.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I didn’t think it was suicide either. When the report on Shion came out, you two were the only ones who fought like hell to have a reinvestigation. I liked that fire.” She shrugged. “Plus you’re both smart. Combat doesn’t win everything.”
Alice stared at Gabrielle. “Are you saying you chose us just because of that? You had no other criteria? And not due to our familial statuses?”
“Well, Flannery is—was—money bags, not you, right?” Gabrielle shrugged again before jerking her head in the opposite direction. “Roberto!”
The man was standing alongside the far wall and suppression-cuffing the Augen general beside the two uninfected generals they had apprehended earlier. He glanced up at her call, then glanced back at the two generals. Both men were staring holes into the Augen general with varying expressions of disbelief—but that was what folly was.
After finishing his conversation with the duo, Roberto made his way over to them. “What’s up, Gabe?”
“You said you reached out to the others in Ophiuchus, right?” Gabrielle nodded at him in acknowledgment. “Mind giving us the rundown?”
“Yeah.” Roberto jerked his head. “So, Ferris, Moraeni, and Elizabeta are doing fine. Ferris was worried and confused. I didn’t give details like you said. Just told them to be cautious.”
“And… what about Csilla?”
Wtorek Csilla, beloved daughter of Wtorek Izsak and Wtorek Elizabeta. Failed Saint Candidate of Taurus—or perhaps Taurus themself.
“Elizabeta says she’s doing fine too,” Roberto grumbled. “Didn’t mention anything out of the ordinary.”
“Did you get the rest of the details from Ferris about those letters we received?” Alice inquired. “I’m referring to the lotus patterns on the back of the notes. There’s a possibility that Scorpio wrote them, and deciphering their meaning might help us in understanding his intentions.”
“Yeah.” Roberto dug into his pants pocket and handed her a slip of paper that was sopping wet. “I wrote it all down here. Hopefully, it’s still legible.”
Alice accepted it with a frown. She could see the blue ink bleeding through the parchment.
“Great.” Gabrielle clapped her and Roberto on the shoulder before she left with a wave. “I’m going to go head over and talk departure with the Capricornians. Regroup in a second.”
Roberto jerked his head back to the generals and left without saying anything else. After a beat, Talib dug into his trenchcoat pocket and pulled out a stack of origami papers protected by wax paper. After peeling the wax paper away, he indicated Lita who was pushing around fallen glass with her feet and holding the Monadic priest’s hand.
“I’m going to go speak with Lita for a bit,” he said. “Poor girl—being caught in all of this.” He slapped the stack of papers. “You know kids love these things.”
Strange priorities, but that was Talib.
“She’s blind, Talib.”
“Well, she can still carry it around. And it’s not like she can’t learn how to fold ‘em either. Flannery always enjoyed doing crafts back then—you know before.”
Alice caught herself and considered this. “You’re right. I apologize for my insensitivity.”
“You’re a strange one, Alice.” Talib arched a brow and nodded before heading off to Lita.
Alice returned her attention to the slip of paper Roberto had given her. She gingerly peeled it open and was surprised to find the writing still legible despite the blue bleed:
Always there for you. 3 lotus flowers on back.
I am here. 1 flower.
I’ve got my eye on you. 5 flowers.
Laughing and lamenting with you. 4 flowers.
Be there for you. 6 flowers.
Take me with you. 2 flowers.
Alice frowned in thought.
Was there an association between the number of flowers and the individual phrases? Or was this a collective message…? Maybe it indicated chronology?
Either way, she was certain that this was a message from Scorpio now. From what she had seen of his behavior so far, she could tell the saint candidate enjoyed playing games and pushing people to the end of their rope. Rather than wanting to be a cog in the wheel of an individual’s downfall, it seemed he enjoyed being the pushing force and then watching as the individual followed through with the momentum of the fall.
Alice scanned the room in thought and caught sight of Hilton. He was no longer conversing with Louise but was instead standing with the Sagittarian prince and Captain Weingartner. Hilton removed several black-and-white photos from his camera and handed them to Claire, who accepted them with a practiced smile. Upon noticing her stare, however, both Claire and Hilton stiffened. Claire quickly shoved the photos into the sleeves of his shirt and made his way over to her with a wave.
Claire, a peculiar adolescent wearing a variety of masks.
“Do you need something, Prince Yuseong?” Alice asked when he reached her side.
His smile dipped for a moment as he locked eyes with her, but he continued pleasantly, “I… actually have a couple questions about the saint candidates, Miss Kingsley. I admit I was kind of carried away earlier and ran off before understanding the situation fully.”
That was youth.
“The Capricornians still seem kinda confused about it and Miss Law is kind of intimidating honestly,” Claire continued, “so I figured I should try asking you instead, Miss Kingsley, if you have the time.”
And I’m not intimidating? Alice wondered, but she nodded. “Yes, your aunt was the candidate for Sagittarius, if I recall correctly? If you have questions about her, I wouldn’t be able to help you. She was taken into the custody of the ELPIS Department and is being contained in the Black Constellation Detention Center.”
“Oh, I figured that.” Claire half-shrugged, still smiling pleasantly. “I actually had questions about the saint candidates themselves and the ceremony. I understand that it’s passing on the memories from previous saint candidates,” he continued slowly, “but I had some questions about the process of it.”
Alice considered whether or not to disclose this information to him.
Despite his young age—as ‘sad’ as it was—he held lofty responsibility as a Sagittarian prince. Due to his experience in that realm, Alice deduced he had developed a certain amount of maturity ‘beyond his years’—although she despised the term. He deserved respect as such. That and she assumed he was also a True Conductor—though he had yet to admit this openly—so he was a centerpiece in this.
“Theta didn’t give us complete details either,” Alice informed him. “From what I understand, the ceremony involves being ‘baptized’ by head Monadic priests in the vitae of the Prognoikos Reservoirs of Ophiuchus.”
“The reservoirs…?” Claire’s smile faltered slightly. “What… about someone who just falls into the reservoirs without any special ceremony or Monadic priests or baptism…?”
“I would assume the result would be the same if they were a ‘suitable candidate’, since bathing in the reservoir seems to be one of the main requirements—though I could be wrong,” Alice replied. “The priests might be just an accessory to the main event.”
Now, Claire was pale.
Alice frowned. “What is it?”
“Didn’t he tell you…?” Claire pressed. “I told the peacekeepers when I was interviewed back then… It was only for a second because I went down with my conductor to pick him back up… but back when Olive and I ended up at those Aurora Reservoirs with my aunt a couple months ago—”
Alice slowly looked down at Roberto’s notes. She ordered them chronologically in mind as her ears began to ring:
(1) I am here. Received by Talib.
(2) Take me with you. Received by Alice herself.
(3) Always there for you. Received by Gabrielle.
(4) Laughing and lamenting with you. Received by Ferris.
(5) I’ve got my eye on you. Received by Jericho.
(6) Be there for you. Received by Roberto.
Head buzzing, Alice stared over Claire’s shoulder towards Talib.
The man was crouched in front of Lita while Maria’s companions watched on from a litte ways away. He was busily folding a dark blue piece of paper. When he finished, he presented a folded lotus to Lita which she accepted before running back to the other men.
Alice returned her attention to the notebook. The first letters chronologically spelled out clearly: I am—
“—Talib,” Claire finished. “He… fell in.”
Alice looked back up at Talib who noticed her stare from the distance. He picked himself off the ground and proceeded towards them with his usual smile on his lips and his thick stack of origami papers still gripped in his hands.
“Claire,” Alice whispered calmly, “please take your guards and leave immediately.”
Claire, keeping himself faced forward, attempted to look over his shoulder.
Claire stiffened then nodded before taking off towards his two masked guards who were watching him closely from the sidewall. Talib fell into step in front of her just as Claire reached them.
“What happened?” Talib cocked his head as he watched Claire and his guards retreat out the door. “Are the Sagittarians going to leave the capital now…? Did you find out why they stayed for so long?”
Alice’s heart began to hammer wildly in her chest. She hadn’t even felt this sort of apprehension when facing Flannery.
Calm down, Alice urged herself. Think.
If Talib was Scorpio, then why hadn’t the generals said anything? Answer: they hadn’t met the actual Scorpio, only mediums and spores of Scorpio. If Talib was Scorpio, then why hadn’t Flannery said anything? Answer: personal conflicting feelings. If Talib was Scorpio then why had he gone undetected by them after all this time? Answer: he was never tested by Lita due to interference and—
Talib took a step forward, now only two steps away from her.
“Talib. Just stay there.” Alice held out a hand. “Please.”
“What?” Talib took another step forward, hand reaching. “Alice—”
Talib stiffened and froze as all eyes in the room turned towards them.
Gabrielle frowned from across the room and approached them. “What’s going on here—”
“Gabrielle, don’t go near him!”
Gabrielle startled, looking between them. “Alice, you… think Talib’s been infected?”
“W-Wha…?” Talib did a double-take. “I-I’m not being manipulated!” He paled. “At least… I don’t think I am.”
Alice could feel the atmosphere in the room thin into almost nothing, making it difficult to breathe.
Gabrielle sighed, reaching for her belt. “Look, we can just snap suppression cuffs over him or have Lita read him if that’s the case and then wait it out for Jericho. Not a big deal.”
“I’m not even certain that they’d work,” Alice said testily. “And I don’t believe that girl should go anywhere near him.”
Gabrielle tensed as realization flickered in her eyes.
“W-What…?” Talib seemed to understand the implication too because he shouted aghast—“Just because I’m a Manipulator doesn’t mean that I’m the Manipulator! Is it because I’m Scorpioan?”
The Capricornians in the room reached for their holstered conductors and weapons.
Talib’s eyes went wide and wild with confusion. “T-That’s discriminatory!” He paused and then snapped his fingers. “It must be the Organization! This is a set-up! I’m not sure how it was set up, but—”
“Talib!” Alice interjected, taking a deep breath to recollect herself. “This isn’t the time for that.”
“Alice… I’m not…” Talib faltered, looking around fretfully. He swallowed, lifted his hands in the air, and then put them forward. “Look, like Gabrielle said—you can test the suppression cuffs on me or ask Lita to—”
“Why didn’t you tell us you fell into the reservoir in Ophiuchus?” Alice asked.
Talib stiffened, glanced towards the door where Claire had just exited, cheeks flushing. “I… I didn’t think it was a big deal back then! And after we found out about the saint candidates… I didn’t want this”—he gestured widely—“to happen. I-I’m me.”
Alice felt icy dread expand out from her chest.
Shame and embarrassment were things that Talib had forgone years ago. Another nail in the coffin; another failure—
But the possibility remained that Claire had seen incorrectly, or perhaps a brief dip in those reservoirs was an insufficient amount of time to transfer saint candidacy—
No, she refuted. Stop denying reality.
“This is crazy, Alice,” Roberto said, coming forward. “Who put that idea in your head? This is out of the blue.” He gestured loosely to Talib, then to her. “There haven’t even been any saint candidacy ceremonies recently. Nothing in the news. Besides, if Talib was the saint candidate then why is he out here helping us?”
The answer was obvious: to play a game.
Half the Capricornians now had their rifles and conductors drawn—the only thing keeping them at bay being Major General von Spiel’s halting hand.
“Wait, let’s calm down,” Nico murmured, holding his hands up in the air too. “This could be a trick by Scorpio to get us all to turn on each other. Not the first I experienced that. Let’s just have Lita retest us all—or if she doesn’t want that then we can just do a suppression cuff test, right?”
“Exactly!” Talib agreed, relaxing slightly. “We don’t know anything about how this Manipulator works still. Not for sure. Even Nico here—he was taken in and tortured by the Argoans. Since the Argoans faced off against the Capricornians, there’s a possibility that the Argoans near the border were infected and transferred the infection to him—to all the people he was around. And they still passed the test! Lita’s eyes might not even work like Libra’s, so the suppression cuffs sound like the best option.”
Some of the Capricornians looked to Nico.
Nico’s expression tightened, his gaze not directed at the staring Capricornians but at Talib. “How did you know that happened…?”
Talib’s eyes widened and a perturbed look crossed his face before he put his hand to his gaping mouth. Instead of hacking cough racking his body, however, his lips split into a grin beneath his fingers.
“That one was probably too easy of a hint. I apologize. There’s no mystery or suspense in that.” He sighed, pulling off his hat and ruffling his head of curls. “You weren’t getting any of my other earlier hints, and I was getting a little impatient. That is a virtue, you know. Patience.”
Talib spread out the stack of paper in his hands like a deck of cards. Slowly, one by one, each sheet of paper became illuminated with dark blue light—darker than his normal shade of vitae, as if it had been stained black. Slowly the papers rose into the air and folded themselves into different shapes. Some took on the form of cranes, others meticulously folded lotuses that were almost identical to the ones drawn on the back of the cards they’d all received.
The origami papers shot out in all directions, squeezing themselves into every single empty space in the hall. One crane hovered only half a meter from her face. A single papercut and they were done for.
Alice’s head spun at the beautiful yet terrifying display as an unyielding sense of ominous dread washed over her.
How had she not been able to see it? Was it because he still looked and acted the same just as Flannery had?
“You’re always so sure of people, Alice—so sure that you know who they really are,” Talib answered her question as if reading her mind. “All because you spent a couple of years reading from a textbook and received a flimsy piece of congratulatory paper? Not only are your deductions inaccurate half the time, but you even incorrectly assume that you can change people. What sort of arrogance is that…?”
His glare pierced deep.
“Saints, Talib…” Gabrielle’s face folded with both horror and pity as she tightened her conducting gloves. “How long…?”
Talib’s eyes narrowed. “That’s quite a bold look coming from someone like you, Gabrielle Law. You know who I am but you’re still speaking like you have a handle on the situation.”
The origami cranes began to unfold and refold themselves into various shapes in a cyclic pattern: rabbits, fish, butterflies, turtles, frogs, stars. Only the paper lotus flowers remained unchanged.
“The sands of Scorpio were ground from rock by my very own two feet.” Talib—Scorpio—held out a finger and allowed a paper crane to alight on it. “And now I suppose Capricorn will be too.”