“Congratulations, Hauptmann Waltz,” Acting Kaiser General Watzmann said. “You’ve done well. Capricorn thanks you for your service.”
Newly promoted Hauptmann Werner Waltz stood at attention as the general fixed a medal in the shape of a thirteen-pointed star over his chest. Werner stood now in the late Kaiser’s office with Kleine, Bergmann, Brandt, Stein, and Gilbert just a step behind him. The glass shards that had once cluttered the floor had been cleaned up and a rickety replacement glass pane had been put over the window. The warped glass distorted the morning light that was seeping through the clouds, making everything seem hazy and dream-like.
Promotions had been given to Werner’s subordinates as well just a moment earlier: Kleine from Grenadier to Gefreiter Class III, Bergmann from Gefreiter Class III to Unteroffizier Class III, Stein from Landser to Grenadier, Brandt from Sanitäter Class III to Class I, and Gilbert from Leutnant to Oberleutnant.
“You held the final defensive line against the revolting Verbundene Augen and defended the Kaiser with all your might with the little resources you had and despite being slandered by misinformation,” Watzmann continued. “Marionette Engel’s forces were overwhelming. The military police weren’t prepared for her coup d’état. The Kaiser’s assassination was not your fault. And yet still, order has been maintained.”
General Watzmann, whom Olive had met back on the medical train, had arrived at the capital only two hours after the Kaiser’s death was announced to the public. The two other generals who were in Leona’s care deferred leadership to him. Thus he welcomed Ophiuchus’s intervention with open arms. His lack of involvement with both the Augen and the chancellery cabinet due to his long medical leave had put him in a mostly favorable light in the public eye.
“Waltz, I take it you’ll take your new office position at the capital just as seriously as you did your position on the Border Force. Logistics and communicating with Ophiuchus is quite a big deal,” Watzmann continued, pulling back and surveying the others behind him. “As long as your hauptmann here gets all of his paperwork done, I’m sure everything will run smoothly at the border too. Everything goes top-down.” A pause. “And everything is more-or-less operating the same as before you stumbled upon this discretion as well, so keep your heads up. You have a hefty responsibility on your shoulders. Carry it with pride.”
It wasn’t like he had a choice. Sleaze.
Gilbert said nothing. Stein shifted in place, leering at the general up and down. Bergmann and Kleine exchanged looks.
“Now, Hauptmann Waltz,” Watzmann continued, “you wouldn’t happen to know what happened to Friedhelm Heimler and Volker Weingartner, would you? Heimler was a prominent member of the Augen, and Weingartner’s being investigated for his own involvement, but they’ve both disappeared without a trace. Weingartner’s daughter as well” He folded his hand over his stomach. “How about Ludwig? He had former relations with the Augen, didn’t he? Would he or your sister by relation know anything? I heard that your family just made it back to Eisburg. Should we make a call?”
Werner clenched his fist behind his back but kept his face stolid. “No, sir. I have no knowledge of what happened to Heimler and Hauptmann Weingartner. I’m aware that Ludwig has dissociated himself from the Augen, and there’s been a case opened for him about the fact that he was also possibly manipulated. I doubt he knows anything about their whereabouts.”
Watzmann turned and pulled a stack of files from his desk. After rifling through them for a moment, he peered at Werner. “And I assume that even after all of this, your loyalty lies to…?”
“To Capricorn, of course,” Werner responded without skipping a beat.
“Very well then.”
Werner watched him set the papers down and then released his clenched fist.
Stripped of his subordinates. Stripped of his original duty. Stripped of his freedom. Stripped of his privacy. It was an unsightly state. And here it was being treated as some exceptional, praised distinctive honor. A false, honorable appearance. Appearances were everything, but also deceiving.
“I’m sure General von Spiel will give you some pointers on the office culture of the capital when he comes around,” Watzmann continued. “It’ll be much calmer and safer here than the border, but you will still be watched and held to the same standard.” He nodded. “I say—with the recent discovery of a vitae reservoir just beneath our feet, Capricorn is about to enter a renaissance age. There’s no better time to be a capital soldier.”
Trystan’s agonized expression as he melted down into a pool of vitae flashed through Werner’s mind.
“You can all leave now. Thank you for your service.”
Werner exited the office with Gilbert and the others following behind. The ringing of telephones and tap-tapping of typewriters filled the surrounding hall. On the walls of the hall hung the familiar portraits of the past Kaisers—Kafke Netzche’s grim-faced profile being the most recent addition.
Werner stared up at the portrait for five seconds more before he turned to face his subordinates. “You all still have two weeks of leave before you’re to report back to the border. You’ll be taken under a different commander then.”
“You’ll always be our commander, Oberleut—er—Hauptmann,” Kleine interjected, brows furrowed, fists clenched. “Not anyone else—”
“That’s not how it works, Kleine,” Werner interjected before inclining his head. “But I appreciate the sentiment. I’ll remember your words.”
Werner took in a deep breath and then said steadily as he met each of their eyes: “This is my last order to you. When you go home, don’t think of what’s transpired here. Enjoy your time with your families instead. And when you go to the border to serve, make sure you come back alive.”
Stein nodded, while Kleine and Bergmann stood at attention. “Yes, sir.”
“I’ll see you sometime soon.”
Gilbert lingered by Werner’s side when the other three departed. After a while, he muttered, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me, does it? Honorable discharge and all that.”
Werner turned to him, brows knitting as he glanced again at Gilbert’s armless sleeve that was tied into a knot.
“Well, I’m not letting them kick me out that easily. Not you either. I mean, I heard Nic’s somehow got a job as a medical officer for the new hospital here and earning a good paycheck. Can’t let him beat me.”
“And not like their bonus package the capital is giving me is going to last us long,” Gilbert continued, ruffling his hair with a sigh. “So I was thinking of maybe trying for that special program for injured-in-combat officers. The one Ludwig mentioned to me a while back.”
Werner paused before he realized in surprise: “The Stahlherzprogramm. That’s the one Kaiser Netzche put in place, correct? To provide influential positions for officers who were left disabled during battle… It’s a highly competitive program.”
“Yeah, guess the guy did one thing right other than being a puppet.” Gilbert grimaced. “Well, anyway, I might actually try for that—like I’m going to actually try for it.” He sighed, ruffling his hair again. “No idea what the hell I’m doing jumping right back into things when I got a free pass, but just sitting around doing nothing pisses me off.” He peeked at Werner. “‘Course. Getting into the program is one thing; getting an actual job is another.”
Werner nodded, allowing a slight smile to touch his lips. “I’ll keep a position open.”
“Thank you, paycheck.”
* * *
Werner stepped out from the chancellery building and took in the morning rays seeping in lazily through the clouds. He took a sweep of the streets, noting how the cement roads were even more dilapidated than before. Still, despite this, every so often a group of civilians would filter by in a hurry. And—there was almost complete silence. In the distance, instead of the thunderous boom of battle, there was the warbling of birds. It was a sign of recovery—perhaps. Or maybe that was too optimistic.
Feeling a faint pull at his chest, Werner walked down the steps of the chancellery building and down the road. He stepped around several fallen v-lamps along the way, stopping temporarily to direct some newly deployed and lost military police officers to their designated locations. The pull continued all the while; and eventually, he followed it into a barricaded alleyway. After two more minutes of walking, he reached a very small clearing where a familiar group of five gathered in a circle—some sitting on crates and steel drums and others standing—around a toppled stack of insulating shields.
Olive sat closest to him, face caked in ash. He looked nothing like a regal prince of Aries. Cadence was leaning against the wall beside him, spinning a golden necklace by the chain around on her index finger. When she noticed his stare, she cracked a grin—Hey. I found it on the ground. Honest.
Maria sat beside her. Despite the sweat staining the woman’s face and the blood soaked into her shirt, she was beaming brightly and waved wildly at his arrival—We are captains together now, no?
Sitting quietly next to her was Atienna who was also caked in ash but smiling faintly. Last was Jericho who momentarily stopped scrubbing away the blood caked to the suitcase on his lap to turn and offer him a short wave. In between Jericho and Olive was an empty crate waiting to be occupied.
Their appearances were rather poor and perhaps even pathetic. However, at the moment, that didn’t matter to Werner—
Olive shot up to an abrupt stand and approached Werner swiftly, coming to a stop just before him. His eyes were glued to the ground, his hands balled into fists, his cheeks still visibly puffy and red. When Olive finally looked up, Werner noted the boy’s eyes were just the same: red and puffy.
Olive opened his mouth and then closed it with a grimace. Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Werner, causing Werner to lift his hands in surprise.
Desperation, fear, relief, sadness, and loss reeled through Werner’s mind with such intensity that he almost doubled over from the pain of it all. But he maintained himself. Protect.
Werner stiffened, hesitating at the closeness as he thought of politics and appearances, before he slowly lowered his arms. He placed one hand on top of Olive’s head while resting the other across the younger’s back shoulders. He held him there for a stretch of time as he also held Atienna’s gaze. After an agreeable amount of time had passed and the heaviness he felt in Olive’s chest numbed, he led Olive back to the circle and seated himself there alongside him.
The six of them sat there in silence for a stretch of time before Werner felt his stomach grumble. It took a moment for him to realize it was Olive’s stomach, not his own. Absentmindedly, Werner reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the single bar of milk chocolate that his sister had gifted him months ago. After carefully peeling off the wax paper, he handed the full bar to Olive.
Olive took the bar with an embarrassed frown before breaking off a piece for himself. After a beat, he hesitantly handed the rest to Cadence. Cadence bit a piece off the bar nonchalantly with her teeth before tossing it to Maria.
As they continued to pass along the chocolate bar, Werner stared at the wrapper in his hand and then pressed it flat against his knee. Feeling as if he was being moved by an unseen force, he began to fold and crease the paper methodically. Corner to corner, side to side, flip there.
By the time he finished it, Jericho was holding the remaining two pieces of the chocolate bar. Werner placed the newly-folded origami crane on top of the stack of insulating shields in front of him.
Talib—no, that wasn’t it.
He stared at it with the others for a while until, in a flash of black, Lavi appeared before them and knelt in front of it with a dreamy expression.
Lavi sighed. “That’s really cool. Who taught you, Werner?”
Werner wasn’t sure. Before he could think on it much longer, he felt all six of their stares on his face. No doubt the scorpion tattoo had crawled its way back onto his cheek. It was a sign of their defeat. No. It was a reassurance that, little by little—even if not apparent, whether for better or for worse—they were indeed changing.
Chewing his piece of chocolate carefully, Jericho held the remaining piece out for Werner and dropped it into his palm. After a pause, Werner popped the piece into his mouth.
It was a familiar taste.
* * *
Olive was the first to depart the capital.
He first exited their gathering in the alley and went to clean himself up at a nearby wash house in order to not arouse the suspicion of his royal guards when he returned to the train. Atienna held concerns about him wandering the city alone in the chaotic aftermath, but he rejected her offer to accompany him.
After his long bath, Olive wandered down another alleyway and found a gate of Francis’s that was to let him back onto his train. Just as he was about to pull Francis’s proto-conductor from his pocket to jump the gate, he was approached from nowhere by a duo of military police officers who demanded his ID and his conductors. He flippantly ignored them which caused them to aggressively shove him against the wall. Before any overrides could be made, however, the two officers were abruptly thrown to the side and cracked against their jaws by none other than Derik Stein who flew into the alley from nowhere.
Stein continued to kick the officers while they were down until Olive pulled him away in alarm. Turning to face Olive, the man held out a familiar golden badge. Trystan Carter’s royal guard insignia. Heart seizing in his chest, Olive stared at it in disbelief as he reached out to take it, but then—
Stein dipped into a kneeling bow. “I don’t get all this formality shit, but you basically don’t have a personal guard anymore, right? Well, I’m not being pushed around like some bargaining chip. Those saint bastards want to keep you safe anyway, right? I can do that.” He looked up, gaze wide and burning. “Please say yes. I’ll be your guard.”
Olive, alarmed and unnerved by the fire in Stein’s eyes, reached out to Werner in alarm. But Werner gave his approval. Begrudgingly, and with slight pity, Olive accepted the offer.
When Olive returned to the medical train cart, he made up some elaborate excuse with Cadence’s help: Stein was a professional sought out by Trystan at Olive’s own orders—with Stein being the reason Trystan left for the capital. Stein then bluntly informed Alexander of Trystan’s death, covering it up with little care as Trystan being caught in a crossfire between the Augen and the military police. Alexander took in the news of Trystan’s death with a strained expression that melded into surprise when Olive requested for them all to return to Aries.
This also brought concern from Jericho and Atienna.
Don’t worry, Olive thought to them as the medical train finally departed to Aries. No matter what happens, I won’t go back to the way I was before. To the way I was back when I was locked up in the royal palace… I promise. I won’t go back. Not again. A promise more to himself than anyone else, it seemed.
Two days later, Olive arrived in Trystan’s hometown and found his way to the late royal guard’s house which was a small cottage no bigger than Olive’s personal bathroom. This made Olive’s stomach drop.
Trystan’s parents’ faces lit up at his arrival and they gushed about how proud they were of Trystan and how honored they were that the prince of Aries had taken Trystan in as his personal guard. Olive almost didn’t want to tell him the truth, but he refused to run away and delivered the news mournfully.
Trystan’s parents immediately fell to their knees and wept at Olive’s feet. He sank down beside them and handed them Trystan’s royal guard badge that Stein had begrudgingly relinquished. It was the only physical thing of Trystan that remained—something that Olive had a hard time relinquishing himself.
“Trystan… He didn’t die for nothing,” Olive reassured them. “He told me about all the problems here. I’ll do something about it. Things will change.” He glanced over his shoulder as Lavi’s apparition appeared there smiling morosely. Lavi, his sister and a true saint candidate. “I promise…”
The evening of Olive’s return to Aries was the evening of Marionette’s public execution which was held in the courtyard in front of the chancellery building. Werner did not attend and instead—after witnessing Olive’s personal visit—left the city to meet Otto Vogt’s parents. As soon as he entered their flower shop and they locked eyes with him, however, Otto’s mother slapped him across the face, accused him of murder, and kicked him out of the shop. Werner complied with a steely expression, leaving Otto’s personal flora books and uniform folded neatly at the front door.
On the way back to the capital, the train’s internal speakers played out the execution event in full. It blared out so loudly that Werner had no choice but to put down the papers he was working on to listen. Above the constant crackle of static, a voice cracked out:
“We’re gathered here today to witness the execution of treasonous Verbundene Augen leader Marionette Engel who—on the 15th of this month—assassinated Kaiser Kafke Netzche in cold blood. She has declined Monadic blessings from the local Monadic temple, so we now ask for her final words.”
There was a beat of silence.
“There will always be people like me whether you view me as a hero or a villain,” crackled Marionette’s voice, firm and strong. “People who want change for better or for worse and are willing to die for it. That isn’t despair. That’s hope.”
Then came the snap of the rope and more static.
* * *
The second to officially depart was Cadence, who frequently dipped in and out of Francis’s gates to visit Werner in his temporary office in an older building in the military district.
“Ya sure that even with Ophiuchus here, everythin’ is goin’ ta turn out okay?” was one of her frequently asked questions. And also—“Ya sure you’re okay?”
Her concerns were warranted. Marionette’s death brought about a series of riots in which houses and stores of military officers—retired, serving, for-Augen-or-not, high-ranking-or-not—were targeted, torn apart, and burned down. They claimed these riots to be disassociated from the Augen and solely protesting the death of a ‘woman who was merely speaking her mind.’ Suppression—this time without Ophiuchian aid—was slow and dragging.
Sometimes, as if to take her mind off of things, Cadence would often bring with her Geminian tabloids and news articles during her visits with headlines like—
APPARENTLY MISSING TWIN CITIES PHILANTHROPISTS ROMANOS AND FOXMANS REVEALED TO BE SAFE. CONTACT MADE WITH NEWS REPORTER.
ROMANOS AND FOXMANS SAID TO BE TAKING TIME AWAY FROM PUBLIC EYE. WILL CONTINUE PHILANTHROPY.
CAMPANA SPOTTED IN LEO? SECRET LOVER?
It was all gossip and rumor. And although Cadence knew the truth behind the matter—that Francis had whisked them all away into his gates when this all began and that the organizations were all now using his presence to their advantage—she enjoyed the flair of it.
Werner did not believe such things were educational, so he provided her with primary news articles, such as—
A HALF-WAY AGREEMENT ON PEACE AT THE BORDER
Acting Kaiser General Watzmann has stepped forward with the aid of Ophiuchus to address the issues that the Augen movement has brought to light. Stating that he has understood and heard the pleas of the people, he has decided to move forward and cut military spending while simultaneously reaching out to improve relations with Argo. However, Capricorn is not the only country in Signum that has precarious relationships with the Argoan country, and so General Watzmann has reached out to Aquarius hoping to improve border relations.
At 1300 hours on December 30th of the year 1941, a joint agreement was made between the Acting Kaiser General Watzmann of Capricorn and Tsar Efrosin Mikhailov and Premier Onisim Tarasov of Aquarius to create a joint task force to work towards this mutual goal of obtaining a truce with Argo.
To improve relationships between both countries to achieve this, numerous joint activities are to be held during various points in the coming year. Among these activities include a provision to decrease taxation on vitae transportation across borders, the installment of better ley lines between the reservoirs between the two countries, and joint military training exercises.
When Cadence finished reading this article—at a faster rate than normal, which Werner found pride in—she arched a brow. “Yeah, this is why I don’t like readin’ the news. Stressful and depressin’. I mean it looks good on paper, but doubt the other countries’re gonna take this too well. The two big militaries of Signum joinin’ hands? Nah.”
“The Augen and other anti-Kaiser groups will be temporarily appeased with this.”
“People are never satisfied for long though,” Cadence noted. “That’s why people keep visitin’ the casinos even though they’ve already won big money.”
“If the Foxmans and the Romanos decide to continue to hide,” Werner pressed after a moment of silence, “what will you do?”
Cadence shrugged, shifting from foot to foot.
“I appreciate your visits, Cadence,” Werner finally said, “but Francis’s gates are our only advantage and the saint candidates most likely have him as a high priority target. I’m the person most in the eyes of the saint candidates. Visiting me is putting not only yourself but also Francis in danger.”
A prick of pain stabbed Werner’s chest.
—but Cadence flashed a smile and tipped her hat. “I get what you’re sayin’. Not like we can’t have a party like this in our heads instead.”
Werner placed a hand on her head in response. “You need to speak with Nico to resolve whatever conflicts you have, so we don’t run across any issues in the future. You should be concerned about yourself first.”
Cadence pulled her hat down slightly. “Aye, I know, Captain.”
* * *
The third to depart was Maria, but not before she made her way to the laboratory below the city. The area was warded off and well-guarded by officers, but she easily slipped and bashed her way past them to the underground. When she reached the series of insulation bars and tubes that Olive recalled Kappa being tied up to, she was instead met with the woman’s corpse: killed with a bullet straight through the head. No sign of Conta in sight.
Both Veles and Gabrielle were already there, inspecting the body when she arrived.
“It’s Gamma, most likely.” Gabrielle sighed. “We’re just dancing around blindly at this point.”
“Well, I dare say, Maria, since we’ve reunited by means of my own machinations,” Veles proclaimed abruptly, “I suggest we rejoin our forces to hunt down this nefarious Beta.”
Maria thought on it and agreed jubilantly. She left Gabrielle with Veles in tow and picked up Morandi, Simon, Lita, and Emmanuel before hurtling them through Francis’s gate to a port near her ship. Once back on board, her crew greeted her as they normally would and rallied her with questions:
“Welcome back, Capitana.”
“How was it?”
“You didn’t start that revolution in Capricorn, did you, Capitana?”
“No, but I participated in a rally,” she answered. “It was quite fun!”
“We should be careful about traveling from now on,” Raul the Chef said warily as he handed her a newspaper. “Maybe we should pull out of Signum for a little while.”
TARIFF TENSIONS REACH ALL-TIME HIGH
This week has been bursting with economic tension. Sagittarius’s poor relations with Capricorn have been well known since the end of the Reservoir War and became highlighted during the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict. It came to a head today when bedridden Emperor Heixing of the Xing Clan announced that they would place a 30% mark-up tariff on all food and animal products imported from Capricorn.
The reasoning for this, paraphrased from the Emperor, was due to Capricorn’s “atrocious treatment of its citizens and staining of its people’s civil rights” and its “carelessness for its international allies” as seen during the recent Augen revolution. He has also increased the mark-up of Aquarian imports as well due to Aquarius’s friendly relations and support of Capricorn. Since Sagittarius makes up 10% of Capricorn’s and 15% of Aquarius’s consumers for these items, both are sure to feel the burden.
Eyes have now turned to Aries who shares a long-standing, strong relation with Sagittarius following the war. There has been talk that, as an ally of Sagittarius, Aries should issue the same tariff. Word has been heard that Aries is to issue a 10% mark-up on the same goods imported from Capricorn and Aquarius.
The Tariff and Embargo Protections issued by Ophiuchus in the year 1931 prevents tariffs being placed on solely one country by one country from being marked-up higher than 30%. This was to protect the economic integrity, stability, and relations throughout the continent. With this act came the ban of embargos for the same reason.
Pointing to this Protection, columnist Edmund Sieg warns against this sort of economic retribution. He states:
“Globalization is necessary to uphold the peace of Signum. Our peace works because we depend on each other economically. If we raise taxes and tariff each other into oblivion, we will force the other party to adapt and become less involved in Signum’s international activities. Independence in this case is not a good thing. Once a country in Signum becomes economically independent from another, there can be no peace.”
Edmund Sieg has received criticism for his remarks—
Maria crumpled up the newspaper, preparing to toss it over her shoulder. She thought better of it and reopened it with a hum. “They do not know how to get along and share, no? We should be careful, yes?”
Veles chuckled. “There’s no need for caution when I’m around.”
Her crew gave Veles an exasperated look before pressing, “Where to now, Capitana?”
“Well… I have been thinking about Conta recently and Leona too,” Maria drew slowly, gaze lowering. “And thinking about them makes me think about the Monadic orphanage I grew up in.” She turned to her crew. “If I am thinking about that place and them, they must be thinking about it too, no? So, we set sail!”
* * *
The fourth to depart was Atienna. Instead of leaving through one of Francis’s gates, she decided to wait with Sefu until the train stations were up and running again. The process took approximately four days, and she spent the time perusing the capital’s library and reading through Aquarian literature alongside Sefu as she thought of Yulia and Kovich.
When she was finally able to load into her train booth the morning of her departure, she felt somewhat morose. She recalled her homesickness when she had been stuck in her override of Werner. Her father and siblings had burned in her mind at the time. Now that she was on her way home, however, she was overcome with a desire to not return. She didn’t think she was as strong as Olive. And so if she returned, she wondered if she would become re-rooted in place
In thought, she glanced at the booth across from her and spied a strange woman sitting there covered in numerous layers of fur coats and adorned in several lower-face masks. It took Atienna a moment to realize that it was Louise Bonnefoy who sat across from her. Alone. Louise’s eyes brightened when their gazes locked, but she quickly put a finger to her mouth. Atienna slowly returned the gesture in slight confusion but looked away when Louise broke off their eye contact.
As Atienna looked out the window in wonder as the train began to roll along the tracks, she received an answer to her unasked question. Outside on the train platform stood Libran reporter and True Conductor Hilton Tyler, absentmindedly lighting a v-cig. He took one long puff before he turned and found himself surrounded by a handful of men and women in monochrome suits wearing white armbands. The ELPIS Department. Without resistance, he followed them away.
So Hilton had chosen a different, more altruistic path. Atienna wondered…
“Hey,” came Cadence’s voice as her apparition appeared suddenly beside her, “we can’t help other people if we can’t help ourselves. It sucks, but…” She reached over and squeezed Atienna’s hand. “Eh, it just sucks.”
Atienna switched trains with Sefu near the border of Capricorn. When she entered the compartment on her new train designated by her ticket, she found someone already sitting there. A woman with dark curls, red lips, and bottomless pitch-black eyes. Cvetka Akulova.
“I see you’ve made the same choice as me. Leona told me all about it after we reconnected,” Cvetka said, inviting Atienna to sit with a gesture. When Atienna accepted and Sefu followed suit, she smiled and handed Atienna a newspaper article.’
A MARRIAGE ACROSS COUNTRIES
As many of you following the regal circles, successions, and gossip of the remaining monarchies in Signum may know, the Cancerian Duke of the House Lune proposed to the Duchess of the House Etoile Louise Bonnefoy almost two years ago. The Duchess has been reported to be ill and has not seen the public eye since then, but the Duke has remained steadfast despite rumors that she’s run away. People lavished that he was absolutely love-struck. So, there’s no question as to why the public was surprised when the Duke proposed to the Princess of Leo. Alas!
While the duchess and dukes are not seats ingrained in the Cancerian government, they still serve as symbols of the country. What this marriage proposal will mean for relations between the two countries and the rest of Signum… we may only wonder.
Small editor’s note: I’m sure all of our readers have noticed that our recent articles have a different tone than usual and that we’ve been spinning through many different writers. This is because we were recently informed that beloved reporter Hilton Tyler has chosen retirement. We weren’t given much notice—no shame on his part—so our articles may be far and few in-between until we find an appropriate underwriter. To Hilton Tyler, we wish you all the best.
“This is what happens when you make those kinds of choices. Selflessness is another form of selfishness.” Cvetka tucked a lock of hair behind her ears as her eyes narrowed. “We’re all just cogs in a clock being moved forward by other people’s hands. So, let’s enjoy ourselves, shall we?”
* * *
The last to depart was Jericho, and he left by train alongside Alice and Gabrielle. Since the train ride was stiff with silence, he spent the time conversing with Maria and Cadence inside of his head while sketching in his journal. The only interaction Alice and Gabrielle had was Alice handing over the photo she’d received from Francis.
Their reception in the Serpens Establishment was just as muted. Stares were abound. Jericho did not like it.
“Everyone is just tense because of everything that’s been happening,” Atienna reassured him.
As soon as Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with Gabrielle and Alice, however, they were met by a hysterical Wtorek Elizabeta. She grabbed Gabrielle by the scruff and stared at her with wide, mad eyes.
“Where is she?! Where is she?!” Elizabeta cried. “Where’s Csilla?”
Gabrielle stared at her in confusion—
“It seems as if little Csilla has wandered off somewhere. A runaway.”
At the sound of Talib’s voice, Jericho tensed and moved closer to Alice.
Lounging casually on one of Gabrielle’s sofas was Talib—no, Scorpio, Werner reminded him—himself, no longer bound in suppression cuffs. At his left sat Roberto, looking tense but alert. Sitting on the island table in front of him was a gift basket filled with multiple bottles of wine. Across from that sat Ferris and Moerani—both tense and quiet, the former appearing concerned as she studied Talib’s face.
“My intention wasn’t to bring Taurus out of hiding, but it appears as if that was another surprising effect.” He curled a dark lock of hair around his finger. “It’s like the universe is dancing at my fingertips—said the man before his fall.”
“So they let you out of your cage, huh?” Gabrielle asked, stiffly. She glanced at Roberto. “Did you let him go?”
“Well, I am needed in the ELPIS Department,” he answered casually, before turning to Ferris and smiling thinly. “But I was considering the Assignment Department instead and working my way up to first chairman. Perhaps even Psychological Evaluations.” He glanced disinterestedly at Roberto. “Oh, yes, Flannery was kind enough to cut me out of Roberto here, but I was thinking perhaps I should place another medium close to you. Well, maybe I already have.”
Roberto tensed, pale.
“Flannery doesn’t think you’re dangerous; but even though I know you’re pathetic, Gabrielle, I know how dangerous you can be. You’re very good at pulling people into your fold and having them throw away their lives for you. Me being one of them.”
Scorpio rose from his seat, plucking two bottles of wine and two wine glasses from the gift basket. He sauntered over to her, popped the bottle, and began pouring her and himself a glass. Gabrielle accepted the glass when offered, causing Scorpio to chuckle.
“The head chairman election is coming up soon, isn’t it? The old man at the top is getting too senile, right? I might try for that too.”
He lifted his glass.
“Let’s have one more beautiful form of democracy before the syzygy.”
“The suppression cuffs,” Alice interjected, eyes narrowing. “When you had them on, you felt guilty. I know you did, Talib. I saw you.”
Scorpio’s eyes narrowed at her as he brushed past. He paused by the threshold of the door to lock eyes with Jericho and then departed with a wave. “See you around, partner. Keep a good eye on my dear Werner for me.”
* * *
Unlike the other five, Werner did not leave the capital of Capricorn. Instead, he spent his time preparing to move into his permanent office in the chancellery building for his new position. He was not one for decorations, so his office consisted of only his desk, a sofa, a bookshelf exhibiting some books Francis had recommended to Cadence, and a birdcage housing Olive’s blackbird that he’d rescued from storage. It was suitable and practical.
During his second week in his permanent office, Werner was visited by General von Spiel, who delivered to him paperwork to be filed about conductor distribution by the next evening. They exchanged little words besides formalities. Before he left, Von Spiel dropped off a stack of letters he’d picked up for Werner from the mailing room. Among these letters and documents was a letter from home signed by Viktoria.
Setting aside the other letters, Werner opened this one first. Inside, he found a neatly written message detailing the events Viktoria and his family had encountered since they’d arrived home from the capital. She wrote that they were all healthy. Mother was worried and wanted to speak of him. Ludwig was thinking of taking a visit to Sagittarius to see if he could start a business there—
Werner frowned as he scanned over the letter again. It was a coded message—one that Ludwig most likely had helped Viktoria to write: Weingartner, his daughter, and Heimler were in Sagittarius in hiding. Werner reasoned this had to do with the deal the hauptmann made with Claire earlier. While Werner appreciated the information, he thought it dangerous for Viktoria to use this means of communication. Part of him was even slightly irritable at Ludwig for bringing her into it. Then he thought of his mother and father and tensed. Some things couldn’t be fixed, could they? But what did it mean to ‘fix’ something like a relationship?
Werner’s attention was drawn away from the letter as he felt the pull of the synchronization. It was Atienna, synchronizing at a high enough level that he could see her surroundings. She was in a small room tucked into some silk blankets with a thick tome resting on her lap.
“Well, it’s a relief that you’re not avoiding me at least,” she said, eyes twinkling.
She was referring to Olive.
“He’s trying not to be cold, but he’s clearly upset and it slips out…”
“Olive is still young,” Werner said. “He’s just beginning to realize that not everything in the world is completely right or wrong.” He set down his paperwork. “You made a necessary choice.”
“For us—I agree.” Atienna smiled wanly. “But for others…”
“We need to think in the long-term and be pragmatic.” Werner folded his hands together. “It’s becoming apparent that this is just one battle in a long war. And wars are never won without cost.”
Atienna hid her smile with a hand. “Is your head still on the battlefield despite being confined to an office? You’d make a fearsome military police officer, don’t you think?” She peered into his face and then averted her gaze. “Olive and Cadence were concerned about you and I was too… but when you say things like that, it’s a bit reassuring…”
Werner allowed himself to smile just slightly before he returned his attention to his paperwork. “You should go to sleep. It’s getting late.”
The others had already turned in for the night—Werner could barely feel them in the distance.
Jericho had the earliest sleep schedule, but Werner supposed he had to sleep early due to most of his deskwork cases requiring him to wake up at 0300 to 0600 hours to handle. The peacekeeper, however, had a peculiar habit of sleeping: with his suit and work shoes on. Despite Werner trying to mend this habit, his instructions often slipped Jericho’s mind. On this particular night, however, Jericho had changed into sleeping wear, clocking out at exactly 1900 hours.
Cadence’s sleep habits were more sporadic. On this night, she’d fallen asleep on the couch after playing a drinking game with Allen and Carl and a disinterested Francis while the other children slept.
Maria’s sleep habits were even more sporadic. Tonight, however, she slept reasonably early with Lita tucked in beside her on her hammock and the rather loud snores of her crew members, the Diverger children, and Veles echoing around her ship.
Olive had stayed up a bit later, tinkering away at his conductors and sifting through books in the library of Trystan’s hometown under Stein’s watchful eye. He had fallen asleep right at his workstation.
Werner noticed Atienna seemed to be peering at them all too, and she looked down at Werner with an inquisitive smile. She then tapped a small hand-written note sitting at the corner of his table. Nico’s handwriting. It read—At least 5 hours of sleep! She then disappeared from his sight, leaving him with a “Goodnight, Werner” and some of her drowsiness.
Suppressing a yawn, Werner rose from his desk and turned to stare out the window behind him. It was pitch-black out and the city was dead asleep. After mulling for a moment, he walked over to his office door, closed it, then locked it. He proceeded over to his sofa and laid down on it as he stared up at his ceiling and planned his next day while listening to the ticks of his pocket watch tucked in his chest pocket.
Since he was staying here for the night, he would have to wake up earlier to use the bathing house in the morning: 0400 hours. Coffee: 0430 hours. Then, he would start documenting the rest of Von Spiel’s files right away: 0500 hours. A short lunch at 1200 hours. And the rest of the day filing through papers. Sleep at 2300 hours. 5 hours of sleep.
Werner suddenly realized that none of the other five were having any dreams or nightmares. What a rare occurrence. Olive had once complained that being in this state was lonely, but Werner found it a quiet recluse. It was only at rare times like this when he had his thoughts to himself that he knew with certainty that they were his own.
And so he thought about that long period when he was not himself. A missing gap in time. As Viktoria said, ‘it was very easy to lose track of it.’ Time, that was. And although he was missing that time, he felt he had somehow gained something else in exchange. Something that he couldn’t quite remember. Not something Scorpio had given him—he was certain, although he disliked thinking about nebulous things like this.
He was not one for philosophy, but perhaps just because something wasn’t remembered didn’t mean that it was not important. Yes. That was obvious. Perfection, imperfections, appearances, unsightliness, victory and failure, and duty aside, he felt more certain of himself. His purpose felt clear. Those he was important to paired with what and who were important to him were even clearer. All of this culminated in one thought, succinct thought:
It was good to be himself.
Werner Waltz closed his eyes.