22.2: The Swindler and The Stolen Tesoro?

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello was pulled into a nightmare crafted by Scorpio when Werner was infected. She was captured with Werner’s unit and brought into Scorpio but managed to buy their way out by offering a new product that the Romanos were beginning to produce—a cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat—along with some medals. She was pulled into a fight with Nico not soon after where she finally released her anger towards his departure from the Twin Cities. 

In the end, although not all scars were mended, Cadence returned to the Twin Cities to the Specialist children, Allen, Carl, and…


Nadinaline “The Corpse Bride” Delacroix, First Chairwoman of the Assignment Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Preserve the Past in Our Memory. Preserve the Future with Our Own Hands.”  

Twin Cities, Gemini

The dogs were at each other’s throats, snarling and yapping as saliva dripped out from in-between their jagged white teeth. The orange spotlight burning above them illuminated the carnal hunger in their eyes, while the ring of jeering men and women gathered around their fighting cage seemed to spark their aggression into murderous intent. In-between the shouts and howls, the metal chains hanging down from the high roof of the formerly abandoned warehouse noisily clinked and swayed against a cold draft. 

From a platform high above all this chaos and hidden behind a ragged curtain, Cadence sat watching it all.

“For people to be entertained by such violence…” Francis Foxman—crime organization head turned ELPIS leader turned back to crime organization head—sighed from beside her as he peered down at them too. “This merely proves that the issue in this era truly is not confined to viceful use of the reservoirs and conductors.” 

“What? Are ya sayin’ ya never held one of these back then?” Cadence responded, wiggling her fingers and feeling warmth spread down to her fingertips. “It makes money, Francis. You know that. For the kids. Besides, it ain’t even real.”

Appearances were deceiving, after all.

In reality, the dogs yipping and snapping at each other’s throats were mere illusions she’d been transmuting for the last half hour. They were being projected through one of Francis’s gates that connected from the glowing patch in front of her to a slit beneath the mat of the fighting ring below her. 

“It ain’t even real,” repeated the small boy who sat in-between them. His head was full of blond curls, and he was dressed in a pair of spenders—newly-sewn by Pi with colors selected by Cadence herself. In-between his legs straddled a radio that blared out the sound of barking dogs. 

“‘It isn’t even real,’ Mateo,” Francis corrected. He locked eyes with Cadence. “You should try to practice good behavior, Cadence. Children model after the ones they look up to and the ones that surround them. Learning incorrect grammar usage and pick-pocketing is—”

“Never thought I’d be considered a role model.” Cadence chortled. She winked down and nudged Mateo on the arm. “I’m your role model, am I? Not the best.” —Maybe she’d be more of a ‘big sister’ type like Olive’d always imagined. 

Mateo was too enraptured by the illusions below to pay her words any mind.

“It was quite dangerous bringing Mateo here,” Francis murmured, studying the boy and then resting his free hand on the boy’s head. “Especially in this city. He could be taken by people who want to take advantage of him again if we don’t keep an eye on him… This is a reward for good behavior, however—” 

“The kids need ta get out every once in a while, Francis,” Cadence replied. “Kids need a little adventure and danger sometimes. Get their fingers dirty in the real world. Can’t shelter ‘em forever. Bein’ protected doesn’t mean happiness.” She finished with, “Ya know back when we were kids we had our fair share of adventures. Ferrari’s store and all that—remember?” 

Francis glanced back up at her with a faint smile. “And look where that got us.” 

“At the end of Allen’s wrath. But eh. It was a good time—”

“Concentrate,” Allen chided from where he lounged at a table counting a bag of cens on a metal fold-up chair behind them. “We need to make it exciting enough for patrons to come back for another round.”

“Ya know we’d turn profit faster if we paid Matilda and her gang ta get a little sticky-fingered with the crowd here. I’d contribute ‘course.”

“You represent the Foxmans now, Cadence,” Allen said steely. “Pickpocketing our patrons at one of our events would put a bad name to our reputation. Don’t even joke about it.”

Cadence knew the words were meant to be a slap on the wrist but they felt more like one of Werner’s occasional psychic head pats than anything else. 

Carl approached them from the shadows and swatted at her head. “Yeah, stop bein’ a smartass, Cadence.” And then at Francis’s. “And stop bein’ so damned depressin’, Francis.” 

Cadence adjusted her hat with a shrug. 

Francis, however, swatted Carl’s hand away and carefully re-did his hair with his free hand. “Hey, stop that. Let’s at least try to be professional, Carl.” 

Carl merely broke out into a toothy grin—and Cadence could see the relief glimmering in the man’s eyes. A good look. He pounded over to the edge of the railings and peered over into the ring below. “Anyways, look at ‘em. They’re havin’ the time of their lives.” 

Francis followed his gaze. “Schadenfreude,” he murmured. “Perhaps only when they conquer such a feeling like this will people of this time truly be able to achieve peace.” His gaze lowered, and he studied Mateo. “Perhaps the same would apply to us and to them. From the very beginning, it was wrong.”

“Sure, Francis.” Carl frowned and gave Cadence a look.

Cadence gave him a jerk of her head and nudged Francis on the arm with her elbow. “How about we play another round of Itero Recino later? I almost won the last round, didn’t I?”

Francis regarded her. “Are you interested in truly playing the game or finding a cheat to the game?”

‘Aw, come on. Ya know I’m always lookin’ ta learn new tricks in the trade,’ was what she’d say if this was the old Francis; but after studying the man and the way he interacted with the children, Carl and Allen, and the other Foxman executives, she’d learned to change her tune—“I just want ta learn somethin’ that’ll help me out in the future, ya know? Ta stay cultured.”

 Francis’s eyes narrowed. “Are you being sincere or are you attempting to find a way to win disputes against me?”

Although Francis was starting to get his usual Twin Cities sharpness back, he still preferred playing Itero Recino to determine the winner of arguments. This drove Carl insane more often than it did Allen and Cadence herself, but that was mostly because Carl was the one who fought with Francis the most. 

“Hey, Jericho wants ta look in and learn too,” Cadence said honestly. “Said he was only taught half the game back then. So, it’s kinda for him.” 

Francis’s gaze softened. “Jericho…? I see.” He dipped his head. “Well, if it’s for someone who truly wishes to learn, I wouldn’t mind teaching and playing it.” He studied her ringed fingers, and his face folded with noticeable concern. “We should start wrapping it up now. You’ve expelled a lot of your vitae, Cadence. You might be a True Conductor, but you’re still human.” He glanced over his shoulder. “What do you say, Al?”

Allen swept all of the cens from the table into the briefcase resting on his lap. “Alright. Cadence, dog one loses tonight.”

Cadence winked, wiggled her fingers above Francis’s gate, turned the knob on the radio in Mateo’s lap, and went in to create a grand finale.

* * *

( )

After the fake dog fight, they quickly collected their set-up, doled out the earnings, and pocketed the tip money. No personal contact with the patrons themselves, of course. That was the way it had to be. Didn’t know if any of them could be Scorpio’s spores. Didn’t want Maria to have to bring in Lita to test everyone if just one person contacted someone who could be infected. Safety and precaution and all that.

With the matter closed, they bid the fighting ring farewell and collectively exited through one of Francis’s gates. 

Francis was immediately swarmed by the children when they arrived at the newly-minted warehouse the children now called home. Only Mateo remained by Cadence’s side which she found a small victory in. 

The warehouse was large and long with a ceiling that towered high above their heads. Colorful v-lights were strung up along the ceiling—a pain to get them up there—while paper crafts dangled from thread strings in-between them. There wasn’t any pretty wallpaper, but there didn’t need to be because crayon and stencil drawings were pasted on the walls. There were long rows of bunk beds—each decorated uniquely with stickers and crafts—alongside the far corner and hidden by a paper divider.

A long dining table stretched across the width of the room. Several of the Foxman’s lackeys sat there reading the books they’d drawn out from Francis’s bookshelves which stood sturdy in the adjacent corner. Pi, who had been shepherding the children until then, waved at their arrival from the bedposts. 

This place was exitless like all of Francis’s rooms—no doors, no windows, no way to tell where this warehouse even was located. Even Cadence didn’t know where it was. She doubted Carl and Allen knew either.

After a while, half the flock of twenty or so kids detached themselves from Francis and began to crowd towards their second favorites. Half of them came to Cadence and began tugging at her suit jacket and cheering for another “magic trick, magic trick, magic trick!” She still wasn’t too great at carrying the smaller ones, so they dangled haphazardly from her arms and legs. The radio they’d been using for the fight that was tucked under her arm didn’t help. 

“I can’t show ya tricks if I don’t have the hands for ‘em,” she said in a strained voice as she teetered beneath their weight. “I’m a magician, not an escape artist!” 

Still. She figured that she was getting better with handling the kids—at least better than Allen who the children still skirted away from. Probably still wouldn’t be able to handle anyone older than twelve—so definitely none of the Specialist kids who’d onboarded Maria’s ship way back when. Adolescents were unpredictable. Suitable for Maria’s care though. 

 Despite her own complaints, Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted the illusion of invisibility around her in a shimmer of copper. The children immediately squealed with amusement before releasing her from their death hold and running over to the table where Francis now sat with a book. The children who swaddled Carl had returned to Francis’s side too. The Foxman’s trusty right-hand man Maximallian, Pi, and Fleck—someone who’d come onboard two months before Francis almost sank the city—were still lounging there too. The other men had moved away from the area. 

Cadence undid her illusion, then watched as said men went to speak with Carl and Allen in the corner. A serious talk from the looks of it, but Francis didn’t seem interested.

She placed a hand on her hip as she scratched her head beneath her cap while feigning a look of disinterest.

It was weird having Francis back again. Nah. It felt weird having Francis back while running this pseudo-daycare of kids—Specialist and not. But it was still good.

Cadence glanced down beside her and found Mateo also with a hand on his hip and scratching his head. Copying now, was he? She recalled Atienna’s siblings doing the same. Saints—bah, she had to stop thinking that word—kids were cute.

“Ya not gonna go brag about your adventures today to everyone else?” Cadence teased, nudging his shoulder with her elbow. 

Mateo crossed his arms and blinked up at her. “Can’t let ‘em know that I’m winnin’.”

Cadence arched a brow.

“It’s not fair!” came a sudden, squeaky cry. “How come Mateo gets to go outside but we can’t?”

Cadence looked up and found that one of the children clustered around Francis was red-faced, teary-eyed, and half-fuming, half-crying. A couple of the kids around the boy were either teary-eyed or red-faced too.  

What was this? A youthful rebellion?

“Kent,” Francis said calmly, kneeling down in front of the shaking freckled, curly-haired boy. “Mateo worked very hard on his studies and did well on the test I gave all of you. His birthday is also nearing. It was a reward. If you also—”

“It’s not fair!” Kent huffed, fists balled. “I can’t go outside because I’m dumb?! Why just one of us—”

Damn. Kids were hilariously ridiculous.

Cadence resisted snorting, while Pi visibly flinched behind Francis.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Francis continued. “Kent. It’s dangerous—”

“Y-You…” Kent’s cheeks puffed as he stomped his feet. “You’re mean, Theta! Y-You suck! You’re like them! I want to go out! I want to go outside!”

“Hey, watch it! You’re pissing me off!” Fleck snapped, taking a threatening step forward. “We put a roof over your head and you give us bite back?!  What are you—ungrateful?”

Kent held his ground for a split second before taking a step backwards. Still, he glowered. 

“Maybe if you actually listened when I was damned tutoring you how to do those math problems, you would’ve scored better and got the chance to leave!” Fleck continued as he towered over the six-year-old. “You’ve got no one to blame but yourself! Show some damned respect! Do you know bad it can get out there—but here you’re beggin’ to go out? You piss me off!”

Damn. Adults were ridiculously hilarious.

“Fleck,” Francis stated warningly, eyes narrowing. “You should show some respect as well.”

Fleck tensed.

“If I knew we were going to stay here forever,” Kent heaved in the beat of silence that followed before he turned on his heels and dashed to the beds across the warehouse, “I would’ve gone with everyone else with the Golden Beast! I hate you! I hate you!” With that, he flung himself onto his bed. 

Carl and Allen watched his fit from the distance and glanced at Francis, before exchanging looks and continuing to converse with the rest of their men. Pi worriedly ran after Kent with the rest of the children following just behind him. Cadence, on the other hand, joined Francis by the table and sat down. Mateo followed her and plopped himself just beside her. 

She glanced at Maximallian and Fleck who were looking to her as if for some sort of guidance—awful choice, she thought. After a beat, she addressed Francis, “Hard ta control kids even for the great Francis sometimes, ‘ey?”

“It’s a natural response,” Francis replied, rising from his crouch and staring after the children. He turned down to look at Mateo and offered a smile which Mateo reflected. “It was inevitable that the children would be feeling anxiety in a time like this after everything they’ve experienced.”

“Inevitable, huh?”

Francis remained silent for a beat and stared at Allen and Carl across the room, before he said, “Words are quite powerful things—able to connect and convey how we feel to the people around us. However, oftentimes we are not aware of the weight they carry. Words like ‘pissed’ and ‘hate’ should not be spoken lightly and yet they are. Fleck—”

Fleck stiffened further.

“—you say ‘pissed’ like that, but in the end, you’re simply concerned for Kent and the others’ well-beings. Kent says ‘hate,’ but he means ‘afraid,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘worried.’ Turning concerns and anxieties into personal attacks against others is troubling and shows lack of understanding.”

Fleck cleared his throat, looking to Cadence for help again.

Cadence shrugged.

“If we’re not more careful with our words, we may become insensitive to not only others but also to the intricacies of our own feelings. There is no denying that I am not a master at this either.” Francis turned to Maximallian then to Fleck and then finally to Cadence herself. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Maximilian shifted his feet and shrugged. “Uh, I guess, boss.” 

“That’s what makes the misuse of language—spoken at least—a troubling issue. I would like to think words on a page are at least a little bit closer to the heart.”

Atienna would probably agree, Cadence thought as she resisted squinting at him. Obviously, this wasn’t a grammar workshop lesson type of deal, but it felt like he was squeezing a Geminian class in there somewhere. She frankly wasn’t quite following but she could feel Jericho peering in with an interest that made her feel like dissecting Francis’s words a bit further. 

Words were powerful and being careful with them was important—this was something she knew since stepping out on the streets of the Twin Cities. You had to play words carefully—deliver them just right and to the right people. Hook, line, and sinker. Illusory but powerful things, like Atienna’d say.

Illusory, huh?

Cadence studied Francis again and could feel Jericho ghosting her mind.

The fact was this wasn’t really Francis. It was him, but it also wasn’t. There was a word for it, but she couldn’t quite bring it to mind and didn’t feel much like reaching out to the others for assistance. Besides, if she thought like that, the same’d apply to Werner.

Almost no one in the group ever talked about it, but the Scorpio roundabout had kicked some gear out of—well, maybe in—place. The machine ticked differently now. The players had been rearranged and given different cards.

Atienna averted her eyes away from the game even though she’d played the final card. Jericho didn’t understand it really. Werner was the one who got his cards scrambled the most. Olive—was the only one who ever thought about it.

Cadence felt sorry for him. The kid was worrying about everyone else when he had a lot on his plate too—ha. Sagittarian court invitation? She understood the benefit, but the whole political angle seemed complicated. She’d help him through the entire thing, of course. Still. 

Bah. 

Here she was feeling sorry for a prince who could probably buy her and the Foxmans in a heartbeat. Not that money could ever be able to amount to any human life. 

Cadence’s gaze swept across the warehouse and she took in Carl and Allen, then Francis, and then the children. Only two people in the Twin Cities crew missing. 

Ah, damn.  

She half-heartedly reached out to the other five. Werner returned her call immediately, while Atienna touched base a second after. Maria came in full-force followed by a confused Olive and an even more confused Jericho. 

Damn indeed, she thought as she waved them away and pulled away from them. 

She didn’t want to lose any of this. She didn’t want to lose any of them… But ‘she couldn’t lose anything because she didn’t have anything.’ That was something good old Scorpio had tried to beat into her like a whip back then. Yeah, that was true maybe.  

In the end, the only person who seemed to have remained untouched by Scorpio’s ballroom waltz through Capricorn was Maria herself. She was consistent in her unpredictability. Sounded like an oxymoron but it was true. 

Huh. There were two consistent captains on their roster now—consistent in two vastly different areas. Nice.

Cadence felt the smile slide from her face. 

She still liked it better when the only person she had to worry about was herself. And Alma and Nico. Eh. Maybe ‘liked’ wasn’t the right word. 

At the thought of Nico, Cadence sighed, ruffled her hair, and began to fiddle with the radio she’d set down on the table beside her. At the thought of Alma, she cranked the volume slightly.

“—can you believe it?” a voice cracked out.

Look at that. It was Hideyoshi. 

“It’s almost out of a fairytale!” 

And Louise.

Cheers to them again.

“Only a couple days before the election and we have a magician’s miracle!”

“That’s right, folks! The ley lines that were being built up to the largest city in Taurus disappeared mysteriously overnight! How queer!”

“Just like magic! Ophiuchus is sending a lot of people from the ELPIS Department to investigate. Oh, wait—we aren’t supposed to talk about this are we, Hideyoshi? We’re supposed to stay on topic—talk about the election! That’s what we’re paid for! How could I forget!”

“You’re absolutely right, Louise—but before that! Have you heard about Alma?”

Cadence tensed.

“Oh, everyone’s heard about Alma. A rising star with a beautiful voice, stealing our hearts with her lyrics—only to suddenly vanish without a trace just when she was about to perform on the Ophiuchian Way a month ago! Can you believe that? It’s tragic!” 

“People say that her manager Enzo Something-or-other has just been keeping her under the wraps for some sort of publicity stunt!”

“So it’s un-tragic then, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, Louise. Anyway—”

“—the important thing here is that—”

“—we can still enjoy Alma’s lovely pre-recorded songs,” they finished in cheery unison, “right here on this station!”

Cadence flicked off the radio before Alma’s familiar pre-recorded voice could filter out. She’d always been able to tell whether it was really Alma singing or if it was a recording or fake. She found it a bit creepy that they were playing a recorded song from someone who was possibly missing, but she guessed that was how show biz worked. 

Still… Alma missing and Enzo…?

When news of the disappearance first hit, Cadence had half the mind to pay the information broker Astante a visit to see if she could get some info about it that way; but seeing as how Astante was connected to Cvetka, Cadence had figured that wasn’t the best way to play it. Even if Alma strayed between her nightmares and dreams.

“Cadence, are you alright?” came Francis’s voice.

Cadence looked up to find that Carl, Allen, and the rest of their lackeys—minus Maximallian and Fleck—had already left the warehouse through one of the gates.

“Are you going to watch them tonight?” Francis gestured to the bunk beds where the children had run off too.

Cadence shook her head and raised her hands. “Not today, Francis. Sorry. Got some business I got ta take care of.” She tapped her temple.

Francis nodded, dug into his pocket, and dropped a proto-conductor into Fleck’s waiting hand. “Watch over them like usual, would you?”

“Got it, boss.” 

* * *

There was always a slow period after one of their ‘acting’ gigs. It was a logistical one. Time was needed to count the money, count the level of interest, count whatever else needed to be counted. And while Cadence knew life was a numbers game, she wasn’t as fond as Werner and Olive were about all those variables. So, she went on to enjoy her social period.

In the early morning after the fake dog fight, she traversed Francis’s gate to the limestone alleyways of some city where the sun slapped the building walls with blinding white light and her face with dry heat. Didn’t do well to dampen the haze of sleepiness riding on her shoulders. Only Jericho, Atienna, and Werner were awake at this time too, so she had no one to tease nor anyone to cheer her awake either.  

Pulling her hat over her face, she paced to the end of the alley and walked into the phonebooth resting at the corner. Inside, she waited until the phone began to trill just like it did every other Wednesday she visited.

As she picked up the receiver, she placed her ringed fingers over her throat and activated her conductor. When she spoke next, her voice came out deep and baritone as she spoke in Capricornian— “Hey, doll, how have you been? I’ve been waiting to receive a call from you.”

“Oh, you know how it is down here,” came the soft voice in Capricornian from the other end of the line. “There’s not much happening, but they always have things for us to do.”

“What kind of things, doll?” Cadence pressed. “I’m out here traveling the world, but it sounds like you’re living more excitingly than I am.”

There was a beat of silence and then a feathery laugh. “Oh, honey, you know I can’t give out that information. I could be court-martialed. We don’t know who’s listening.”

Got it.

This was a game. Cadence, a traveling flirtatious suitor and businessman. She, a weary but plucky soldier reaching out to a possible suitor in-between beats of duty. However, it was also a serious mission to maintain contact and collect information. 

Cadence switched gears. “Right, right. You’re safe down there right? I heard that there was a skirmish down south a week ago from the radio.”

“Yeah…” the woman’s voice became muted. “It was an accidental crossfire, but… it’s been smoothed out. It’s been quiet since then… then again there’s been some anti-Aquarian-Capricornian protesters here.” 

Cadence tensed.

“They’re not as fond of tattoos as the members of the Augen movement and they’re not quite as vocal, so maybe it’s not so bad? People… tend to not like change, I guess.” 

She sounded tired, and Cadence didn’t blame her. A cycle from one protest to the next. 

“The training exercises with the Aquarius are great though!” the woman chimed a beat after. “I hoped we’d see Captain Kramer or Knovak since it’d be my third time meeting up with them, but it looks like they weren’t assigned to it even though I thought we shared close border sections.” 

No Kramer. No Knovak. 

Got that, Captain?

In the distance, she could feel Werner nod from where he was already working away at his desk despite the time of day. Maybe she even heard him thank her, but she wasn’t sure. It was always difficult to feel Werner in the early mornings, she noticed. She didn’t wake up this early that often, so she couldn’t tell if the earliness was the cause of it or what.

“I should be going now, dear,” the woman on the phone said after a pause. “There’s a lot of people waiting to use this phone.”

Sweet girl.

“You’re not running off with those two other guys, are you?” Cadence teased, ears perked.

“Don’t worry. They’re too busy with all these training exercises. Me too.”

“Right, right. Stay safe down there, Emilia,” Cadence finished before tossing the phone back on the receiver. 

After the call, Cadence decided to visit Allen and Carl. They had their own special exitless room where they conducted all of their business—dirty and not. The room was much smaller than the warehouse—probably only slightly larger than her old apartment. It held two desks for filing paperwork and counting money, a file cabinet for that paperwork, a cabinet for wine, and a rarely used type-writer that sat on top of it. Cadence had no clue where Francis kept pulling these rooms from, but they sure were convenient.

When she arrived, she found not only the Foxman brothers present, but two Foxman executives too. Barnolli and Mariana, if Cadence recalled correctly. A young man and a young woman who’d stuck with the Foxmans through the incident in the Twin Cities up until now. Francis, on the other hand, was nowhere in sight. He didn’t like involving himself with these types of things anymore, but no one really talked about it. Just like no one talked about Scorpio. 

Allen was busily counting a plethora of common coins and Geminian cens at his desk. Cadence tried to guestimate from the distance how much of a cut she’d get from the game. Hard to say.

Unlike Allen, money didn’t seem to be on Carl’s mind at all since he was busy chattering away all grim-like with Barnolli and Mariana at the opposite side of the room.

The Foxmans and the executives didn’t pay her any mind after she bid them a polite greeting, and so she began perusing the area. Nothing much different from the last time she’d visited. The bottle of wine sitting on the desk in Allen was new and unopened though—

Cadence paused as she spied a series of stacked cardboard boxes resting in the corner of the room. Something green wrapped in plastic was popping out of the box on the very top. She made her way over to it, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t stepping on any toes by doing so. 

Up close, she could see that inside the boxes were numerous plastic-wrapped bundles of some sort of plant. Looked almost like morrowheat. But it wasn’t. Too dark for that.

Hesitantly, she picked up a plastic bundle and gave it a sniff. Her nose tingled like it did back when she’d be around her parents while they were smoking morrowheat, but her head felt light and her cheeks flushed just like that time when Atienna’d been poisoned by Usian back then.

“Cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat,” Allen grunted at her from his desk. “We’re starting to ship them out.”

Cadence straightened, turned, stared. A far-off, faded, buried memory of her mother ghosted the back of her mind. It nearly made her drop the bundle.

“Why you actin’ surprised?” Carl arched a brow. “You were the one who put in a word for us with Argo, ain’t you? Or was that someone, you know…” He tapped his temple.

“I ain’t gonna let anyone take the credit for something I did. It was me.”—Cadence knew she had to take responsibility for it, after all. She allowed a smile to smooth over her face. “Just curious.”

“Market’s good for ‘em right now in Argo,” Allen explained. “Their war vets and the lot who fought at the border with Capricorn and Aquarius eat this up. Gives ‘em a nice buzz and haze. Never tried it ‘cause I’m not stupid.”

How awful, but—

Cadence tensed. “It’s not being sold in Capricorn or Aquarius is it?”

“Not that we know of,” Allen replied. “We’re strictly shipping to Argo.”

Relief loosened Cadence’s shoulders. “… does Francis know?” 

“We tossed the idea out to him a couple months back before he went to Capricorn,” Allen explained. “He gave us an alternative that worked for a short while.”

“Got that bit.” Cadence nodded. “But… does he know now?”

There was a beat of silence. A clear answer.

“You know Francis still isn’t right in the head,” Carl said, rolling his shoulders.

The executives around him said nothing.

Ah, damn. Cadence knew she shouldn’t say what she was about to say next because it’d be stirring the pot, but she also felt like it needed to be said—not just for them but also for herself—

“I’m no expert on vitae—that’s more of the kid’s deal, but…” She met Allen’s gaze, then Carl’s as leisurely as she could. “Theta’s a part of him now. I mean, he’s as much Theta as he is Francis.” Same applied to the captain, right?

Carl didn’t say anything. Neither did Allen. The executives still remained silent.

“You know this kind of stuff involves the Romanos,” Allen finally said. “They’re doing the production. We’re doing the handling and shipping. Just like before.” He paused. “Don’t like the idea of the Romanos taking advantage of Francis and his conducting, so it’s better if he’s away from all that.” 

A flimsy reason. A white lie. But she understood where he was coming from mostly. That was how Atienna played her cards too in a way, and that was how Cadence herself used to play them.

“Like we’re not takin’ advantage of him now?” Cadence arched a brow before suppressing a grimace. What in the world was she saying? Well, it was what she really felt, but she knew it was smart to keep Carl and Allen in the dark about it. She figured the kid and sunshine were rubbing off on her.

Carl frowned; and by how low his brows dipped, she figured she must’ve hit a nerve. “When the hell did you become a sai—”

“Francis’s smart the way he is now,” Allen interjected. “Not that he wasn’t bright before—but now… he’s too gullible, too soft,” Allen interjected as he returned to counting the cens. “We need to keep each other safe. You’re family too, but you need to watch it, Cadence.”

* * *

Near the end of the slow week—at least on her end—Cadence visited Francis in his special room with a paper jotted with notes she’d written herself tucked into her back pocket. The room was the one that Francis and the rest of the ELPIS leaders had held the Romano executives hostage in. The room where all the ELPIS records were held.

She ventured here more often than she’d thought she’d have to. Half of it was through what she figured was Jericho’s own personal want to visit him. But she still had her own reasons. Sometimes Francis felt like Alma and Olive combined. If she didn’t look after him, he’d disappear.

As soon as she stepped into the room through his gate, she was greeted by the sight of him half-draped across a table despite there being an empty sofa along the wall. The saxophone record she’d gifted him was blaring out on the player but it just accentuated the gloom in the room. The ground was scattered with so many books and papers that the floor couldn’t even be seen beneath them. 

It was an unsightly mess.

As Cadence began to pick up the books and put everything in order, Francis stirred from where he lay and straightened himself. He didn’t greet her and continued to study the book in his lap.

After she placed the last book on its shelf, Cadence turned and asked, “Find somethin’ interestin’?”

Francis glanced up at her before nodding. “I almost missed it because not only are the records from this time almost completely destroyed…” He paused. “….but it appears as if Omega was tasked with the record-keeping for whatever reason. They were never well-practiced at keeping notes legible to external parties.”

Then why was she given the task? came a thought, but Cadence kept her mouth shut and digested his words. She blinked in surprise as realization dawned. “Wait a minute. Are ya tryin’ ta find—”

“The specific individuals who might have indoctrinated Jericho and those other children.”

As soon as those words left Francis’s mouth, Cadence felt Jericho synchronize in with such force that for a moment she swore she was going to be overridden. He thankfully pulled back a second after, and she was in control of herself again. Through their connection, she could make out that he was eating lunch in the cafeteria again with Ferris. Also eating crackers again. Blegh. The blandness dried out her tongue even from this end. She had to show the guy better things to eat—to enjoy.

In the end though, she was glad that Jericho was getting along better with Francis. An improvement from the insta-face-punching during their first face-to-face encounter. Part of Cadence was concerned that it was all just the result of Jericho’s lingering memories of the old Theta.

I know he is not that Theta, Jericho responded.

Francis turned over his book to her. The book was almost barebone, pages torn from the seams or burnt at the edges. The leather binding was worn, and the few passages that remained inside were faded. He pointed to a single smudged line on a half-torn page. “This note was left by Omega during that time.” 

A        visited today!

Cadence squinted at the smudged ink. “A?” 

“My theory is that ‘A’ indicates ‘Alpha.’”

“Alpha? Like alpha dog?”

No. The Ophiuchian letter. A name. ELPIS Leader.

Francis confirmed this verbally before continuing, “So they may have been initiated during the period I was in during my previous initiation—or perhaps even prior to that. Omega never mentioned them, but that may just indicate that they were working on a different operation.” 

Feeling Jericho press at the back of her mind, she asked, “What was Alpha like?”

Francis placed a hand to his mouth as his eyes became distant. “Alpha… was intelligent. We didn’t speak often because our studies and research were in different areas… but…” He mumbled into his hand. “…Of course, I could be wrong in the theory that they were involved with what happened to Jericho. It’s not good to jump to conclusions.”

Werner and Atienna had always agreed with the statement, so Cadence found herself agreeing with it too.

“Was there something you needed, Cadence?” Francis pressed before he smiled lightly. “Or are you here to keep me company?”

Cadence paused and then tapped her back pocket. “Sorry, but I got another round of the prince’s questions for you, Francis.”  

Francis hummed. “Well, there’s no need to apologize when asking questions—no matter how ridiculous those questions may be. A moment of embarrassment is a smaller price to pay sacrifice than an eternity of ignorance.”

“Got ya. Thanks for the reassurance, Francis.” Cadence reassured him before pulling out the paper and carefully reading what she’d written—rather sloppily—there. “First question is from the kid. He just wants to understand your conducting ability and all that.”

 Francis nodded thoughtfully, then said, “It has to do with the base attribute of a vitae particle. The widely accepted theory during my time was that all the vitae particles originated from one particular event. In a sense, due to this attribute, all vitae particles have varying degrees of association with one another. A blueprint of origin. My conducting uses this…” 

Cadence started zoning out. She was sure Olive and Jericho were paying attention, so it was probably alright. Her focus sharpened as soon as the thought left her mind. 

“…vitae particles as an extension of my own body hence my general awareness of my gates. For modern conductors and conducting, there is often a separation between the conductor—” Francis lifted his conductor-gloved hand before reaching over and tapping Cadence’s chest. “—and the Conductor.” 

Cadence offered a smile.

“You do remember what I said about the disconnect between words and feelings, don’t you? Perhaps you could connect that to the way people of this era use conductors.”

Francis and his analogies again, Cadence thought before glancing at her list again. After a beat and taking the time to read her scratchy handwriting and take in the words, she winced internally and said, “This is an Atienna question so it’s a bit… plucky. Don’t take it ta heart. Here it is— ‘You say you’re against vitae-conversion, but you still use conductors. Therefore, you would still be contributing to the process, wouldn’t you? Could you please explain your reasoning?’”

Francis frowned slightly but replied, “The state of our vitae—that is, it being bleached—and the manner in which we use vitae in one its purest forms is such that expelling our vitae has a very low vitae-conversion rate. It would be less than even the vitae-conversion rate at natural death. I wouldn’t consider it an ‘energy level’ on its own just as vitae elevated beyond the fourth energy level is still unnamed. This, of course, does not excuse the actions we have taken up to this point.”

Cadence gave a thumbs up. “Next question’s from the captain and… the kid.” She scanned the note. “In summary, they’re wonderin’ how ya guys manage to blast away the vitae reservoirs without havin’ ‘em… ya know…”

Francis blinked in surprise before frowning deeper.

 Maria and Atienna always knew how to hit raw nerves but did it in different ways.

“The process is quite different since we’re starting off at a different energy level to begin with,” Francis drew slowly. “The threshold for reaching that hyper-elevated energy level of vitae—from my observations—is at such a high level of energy that it is unreachable by the means that we use—explosives of the conducting variety or not.” His gaze darkened. “The unnatural things Dämon Forstchritt must have done to achieve such an effect…”

Cadence’s stomach did flip-flops as faint memories from Olive’s nightmares—of Trystan and Marta coalescing into one—bled into her mind—

Francis stiffened abruptly.

“What is it?”

“Someone’s used one of my proto-conductors without asking for a location… I’m not sure where they’ve ended up.”

“One of the ELPIS folks?” she tried, pushing down a blip of annoyance and simmered anger.  

Francis studied her—seemed to look into her—before he shook his head. “They always ask.”

A gust of wind swirled through the room a second after, and Fleck stumbled inside. The man’s head was drenched in sweat and his breathing was labored. He lurched forwards, locked eyes with Francis, stammered— “U-Uh, boss, we have an issue.”

A moment later Fleck was leading them out of Francis’s room through a gate and back into the kids’ warehouse. As soon as Cadence stepped foot inside, she knew something was off. It was too quiet. There were no cheers at their arrival, nor were they swarmed by small bodies. 

Cadence felt her heart drop into her stomach and her stomach itself twist into a knot.

“What is the meaning of this?” Francis’s voice cut through her cold worry and confirmed what she was seeing. 

The warehouse was absolutely devoid of the kids. Gauging by Fleck’s panic, Cadence grimly wagered that they’d—

“—ran away,” Fleck said. “They stole my proto-conductor somehow and ran through the gate before I even realized it. Max and Pi are out searchin’ for ‘em—” 

Cadence scanned the room again. Nothing. 

Mateo ran too then? Her good cookie? Well, if he saw her as a role model, then it wasn’t too surprising— 

“Mr. Fleck, you are aware that I gave you only one task to do, aren’t you?” 

Cadence turned to find Francis fixating Fleck with a cold and hard stare that reminded her of how he’d looked when he’d been about to sink the city. She was pretty pissed too. This was not a ‘blame it on the situation’ situation. Someone needed to take responsibility, but first she needed to be calmTime was of the essence.  

Right. 

She placed a hand on Francis’s arm. “I hear ya, Francis, but we gotta act instead of simmer, right?”

Francis stared down at her with the same intensity he’d given Fleck before his expression lessened. “You’re correct. There is no use in becoming angry when the matter has already passed. You must try harder next time, Fleck.”

Fleck just tensed even more. 

“We’ll start a search immediately.”

* * *

Twin Cities, Gemini

Combing through the streets of the Twin Cities was step one of Francis’s process. There was apparently some pattern to the way his gates opened when they weren’t used correctly with a proto-conductor. Something about proximity and past vitae markers and vitae theory. If they didn’t find the kids in the city, Francis said, then they’d have to expand their search outwards. 

The Foxmans requested Matilda’s network to help with the search. The group had been lying low too and had been using Francis’s gates to get around. Cadence figured the lack of work due to the Ophiuchian crackdown made them eager to get their hands in. 

Werner suggested for them to do a very specific, efficient line sweep of the city with their resources. The Foxmans accepted the proposal and doled out the commands. 

I advise you not to join the pursuit, was Werner’s next line of advice. However, if you insist, you should be cautious and be aware of those who could potentially be turned into hostages around you besides the missing children. Atienna’s deal does not equate to safety. The same applies to Francis.

Got it, Captain. 

I’ll be watching. 

And so, Cadence too scoured through the streets she knew like the back of her hand. She raced down the streets she’d been assigned to search until the cobblestone alleyways bled into bricked red roads and continued on even after the skyscrapers that scratched the clouds simmered down into short, flat cobblestone buildings. The taste of soot and salt coated her tongue as it always did when she stepped outside in these parts, but she was too focused on her goal to hate-love it. She did take note, however, of the emptiness of the streets. Unusual for the hour. She proceeded with more caution.

Soon the seconds bled into minutes bled into hours and still—nothing. The horizon began to devour the sun. 

She swung by the TwinStars pub and asked the very few patrons present about the kids before doubling back around and touching base at the Abaccio then the Rosario Round casino. When not a lick of the kids or any information about them were found there, she crossed over into the west side of the city. 

The Campana-Romano rivalry had almost completely disappeared after Ophiuchus got its hands on the city after ELPIS’s rollout. It was almost like it had never even existed. Actually, the entire chemistry of the Twin Cities had changed. There was a sense of ‘quietness’ to the surface now that made it feel more like the capital of Capricorn than anything else. Last she’d checked, the petty crime rates had gone down too. ‘Course the quietness of this particular day was unusual. Regardless. Appearances were deceiving. Everything rumbled beneath the surface.

Bad and good and politics aside, because of Ophiuchian influence, Cadence wasn’t too worried about being yanked aside and shaken down by Campanas as she crisscrossed over the bridges above the canals on the west side. Ambrose was still off in Leo with some mysterious lover according to the tabloids too, so free sailing. 

None of the sailing did her any good, however. After knocking on the doors of a couple of police officers in the area and coming up with nothing again, she hit the final place in Werner’s suggested line sweep. The Monadic district.  

The district was as pristine white as it always was—swept clean of debris and dust, all buildings scrubbed of the soot that sometimes fell this way from the smoke pillars rising from the conductor manufacturing plants. There were twelve temples here—rumor was that there was a thirteenth that got taken down after the war—with each of them dedicated to one of the twelve Ancestors. They were built large, tall, and facing each other in a ring. 

Cadence jogged up the white marble steps of the Ariesian temple first and peered inside its dark interior. The temple pews that were dappled in stained-glass light inside were unoccupied. The large, white, face-less statue of Aries in the back stood silent and with its hands clasped forwards as if in offering. Creepy, if one knew the truth.

The Geminian temple was her next stop, but it was just as empty as the Ariesian one. The only difference was that there were two towering statues inside. They stood facing each other holding hands, their facelessness making them identical—like a reflection. 

After pulling out of this temple, Cadence skidded down the steps and rounded the building towards the Leonian one. Just as she laid eyes on said temple’s front, she felt her heart nearly leap in her chest. Curled up on the steps of the temple was Mateo in the flesh. At his left and right sat a man and woman dressed in Monadic robes—black cloth, heavy, and all.  

The duo gave Cadence pause, and she pulled back behind the Geminian temple building. 

The doors to the Leonian temple were swung wide open allowing the faceless Monadic statue of the Ancestor Leo to be seen in its full berth. The statue was dappled over with the lustrous light spilling in from the windows of the building. From the distance, it looked like the towering statue was about to envelop Mateo and the two priests in its widespread arms.

Cadence tensed and studied the two priests. She didn’t recognize them. Not saying much since she rarely visited these parts. Scorpio’s spores maybe? Should she wait it out? Or would they whisk Mateo away? Approach? Carefully.

She then weighed whether or not she should disguise herself. If she didn’t disguise herself and they were Scorpio’s spores, she could be tagged like Atienna, Werner, Jericho, and probably Olive were. The possibility of Scorpio’s eyes being on her all the time gave her the heeby jeebies. On the other hand, if they were Scorpio’s spores and she disguised herself, then they might accidentally cut and infect her—effectively doing away with Atienna’s deal but also giving her and the others another bad ride in Scorpio town. She didn’t think Mateo’d recognize her if she went disguised either, and Monadic priests were generally very cool, no? 

Cadence shook the thought away. Not too sure about that. Nothing on Simon, Sunshine.

Cost-benefit analysis…? Go in as herself carefully. Have Mateo come to her. Run Mateo through a check by Lita. Get info from him and find the others. 

Approved. Still, she should have Francis’s proto-conductor immediately ready in case there needed to be an escape. 

Curling her fingers around the proto-conductor in her back pocket, Cadence pulled herself out of hiding and walked towards the trio as she waved her hand. “Kid! Mateo! Saints—” 

Before Cadence could finish her sentence, Mateo leapt to his feet, dashed forwards, and flung himself at her. She caught him haphazardly and held him in confusion as he tried to palm something into her hands. Something cold and thin. Francis’s proto-conductor. 

“C-Cadence. I want to see Theta,” Mateo whispered, trembling. “They said they were Theta’s friends. I don’t believe them. He said he’d take them on an adventure. They went. I didn’t. I—”

Damn, so Mateo had pickpocketed Fleck, Cadence realized. Half of her was proud, half of her wanted to smack him upside the head—wait. ‘Theta’s friends’?

“Are you his parent or guardian?” 

Cadence looked up and found that the female Monadic priest was only a meter away from her. The woman was tall, her skin sun-kissed, her hair coming out in thick, black curls to her waistline. As the priest lifted up her hand kindly, the sleeve of her robe slipped down her arm and—

—Cadence saw it. The white snake tattoo that grew from the base of the woman’s palm to her upper forearm.

Despite her hammering heart, Cadence hid away her surprise with a pleasant smile while biting her inner lip as she braced herself for Jericho’s anger. Much to her surprise, however, the anger simmered below the surface—almost ready to pop but not quite. She wasn’t quite sure if this was Jericho’s doing or Werner’s quiet presence.

Dangerous, was the detective’s only thought to her. Leave. I will take care of them. Later.

“Aren’t you too young to be taking care of someone so young?” the woman pressed, still smiling, hand still extended. “Are you hungry? Tired? Why don’t you come with us? And tell us about Theta while you’re at it? We’re his friends, you know.”

Be calm and alert, Werner advised. They haven’t engaged.

“Theta…? Who’s that…? I really should be going home to my parents…” Cadence spoke in the softest voice possible and managed not to take a step back—couldn’t let them know her apprehension. 

How old did they think she even was anyways? And—ELPIS leaders? Here? The real question was whether or not they were with Gamma, was it not? Sure, but—intuition: they were not. The movements of Gamma’s group were still locked in at Taurus and Leo according to the ELPIS Department’s recent reports.

“What?” the woman frowned. “You don’t know Theta?” She smiled. “Well, even if you don’t know them, you can still come with us—”

“Thank you…” Cadence murmured shyly, rubbing circles into Mateo’s back. “But like I said… I should really be going home. Our parents are worried sick…”

Cadence, Werner’s thought cut through. Carefully back away and subtly pull out the proto-conductor. If your words are not enough of a distraction, use Olive’s conducting.

The male priest—the disguised ELPIS Leader—suddenly stared holes into Cadence. He was as tall as the woman and had cat-like eyes and a nubby nose. She noted how one of his hands was hidden behind his back.

After a beat, the man spoke in a raspy voice, “This one looks young, but she’s probably too old, isn’t she, Rho?” 

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat as his words sank in. She’d heard them before. The memory came to her now—those same words were said beneath the scorching sun as she and all the others wept across Theta’s corpse. 

A figure had stood above her with lips pressed into a sympathetic smile. “This one looks young, but he’s probably too old, isn’t he?”

“No one is ever too old,” a voice had hummed from just behind them. The owner of the voice had approached not long after, kneeling down and offering a hand. “Do you want Theta’s death to be in vain—”

“The musician was old, Nu, but he still took her in,” the ELPIS woman spoke again, drawing Cadence out of the swirling memory.

Nausea bubbled in Cadence’s stomach as she tried to regain a sense of where she was. She could tell Werner and Jericho were still reeling from the memory too. 

“Because the musician had talent,” Nu replied before approaching and looking Cadence up and down. “If this one knows that one, then she also most likely knows Theta. She’s lying.” 

Mateo buried himself further into Cadence; and before she realized it, the proto-conductor had slipped from his hands. The click-clack it made as it hit the ground and rolled along the white road felt like a pin-needle drop in absolute silence.

“Oh. There it is,” Rho noted. She stared at Cadence. “Do you know what that is?”

Holding her gaze with the woman, Cadence shook her head. “It’s probably something my little brother here stole from my parents. He always does those things…” She took a slow step forwards— 

“Don’t move,” Nu interjected.

Cadence froze, stared at the proto-conductor glinting in the dimming dusk in disbelief. Seriously? She then tensed, locked eyes with Nu and Rho again. Like hell she was going to risk her life—their lives—for this thing. Besides what if these ELPIS Leaders were with Gamma? Gamma had Francis’s approval to use proto-conductors, so might as well let them have it again, right? Captain? Detective? Deal—

Before Cadence realized it, she suddenly found herself pushing Mateo aside and flying towards the proto-conductor. Rho charged too, but a familiar and invisible force guided Cadence’s legs upwards. Her foot cracked against Rho’s temple and sent the woman flying backwards. As Cadence tucked into a roll from the motion, her fingers wrapped around the proto-conductor and she pulled it close to her chest.

Escape while they’re distracted, came Werner’s order. Don’t become distracted yourself.

Whipping the smile from her face, Cadence scrambled to her feet a second after and gave out a quick ‘thanks, Sunshine,’ before she stumbled back to Mateo and grabbed a hold of his hand. She slapped down the plunger of the proto-conductor, sending the black liquid sputtering onto the ground. Not skipping a beat, she twirled the needle and pressed its point against the liquid causing it to immediately glow.

“The bay! The bay!” she hissed.

A burst of wind brushed against her cheeks and she began to sink down into the light with Mateo. Before the light swallowed them both whole, she was able to catch a glimpse of Nu standing with a blade ignited in white in his hands and of Rho standing with her gloved hand extended as a strange white mist rolled on towards them.

A second later, Cadence found herself and Mateo on top of the empty rooftop of a high-rise building. A familiar series of sights, scents, and sounds greeted her as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The smell of the sea, the shuddering of the crashing waves, the lights of the Dioscuri Bridge flickering on in the darkening skyline in the distance—this was the Pollux Bay.

She slowly unfurled from Mateo before falling on her back with a sigh. Mateo shakily mimicked her and pressed his back against hers, but she was too tired to do anything else but offer him a half-smile.

Werner’s and Jericho’s image solidified beside her a beat after.

Are you alright? Werner pressed. The ghost of a hand brushed against her head.

Cadence offered a Jericho-worthy thumbs up in turn. She could feel the relief warm both of their chests a second after, but Werner’s gaze remained steely and he sent a look of disapproval off in the distance—

That was reckless, Maria. 

But we came out unscratched, right? A win there, Cadence thought back.

Werner frowned at her before his gaze flicked to the left. Cadence followed his gaze to the quiet heat that was warming her cheek in the direction. Her eyes immediately widened, and she scrambled to the edge of the roof and peered over the edge.

The skyline was burned red and raked through with pillars of smoke. Ash rained down from those pillars and coated the docks below it in a nightmarishly familiar gray haze. The waters of the bay reflected back the burning light full force. From this distance, she could see tiny little dots of people running from the bay waters to the source of all the fire.

The silence of the entire city now made sense to Cadence. The Twin Cities was a living thing, and one of its major limbs had just been sliced to the bone.

 All the warehouses owned by the Foxmans were now aflame. The ships they owned that were looped to the docks were crumbling to burnt metal cinders. The shipping containers subtly marked with their name were wreathed in red. Etched into the cement ground—no, burned into it by what was most likely like a vitae-blade—amongst all this chaos were a slew of almost unrecognizable, large letters. 

βρες με 

Cadence didn’t know what it meant, but her hands curled into fists.

‘Find me,’ Jericho provided, stiff, cold. Who?

Cadence took a step back and turned towards Mateo who was curled up in a ball on the ground. She went to his side immediately and placed a tender hand on his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry—”

“It’s okay,” Cadence tried gently. “I ain’t mad. I’m just worried. I promise.”

 Mateo nodded, relaxed slightly.

“Now, would ya tell me what happened?”

A beat of silence.

“I just wanted everyone to go outside… like me,” he whispered. “I didn’t know how to use it. We came here—I don’t know where. But there was someone there already. Waiting? He took the others. He asked and they went with him.” 

“Was it one of those two we just saw?”

Mateo shook his head.

“Did you catch his name? Was it ‘Gamma’?”

“No,” Mateo whimpered, shaking his head once more. “His name was Alpha.” 

Hårek Ohmdahl, First Chairman of the Medical Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Mending the Wounds of Signum.”


FALSE PEACE BROUGHT BY OPHIUCHUS TO THE TWIN CITIES?

Follow the events of ELPIS’s attack on the Twin Cities, Ophiuchus has been praised for stepping in and stamping out the petty crime in the city. The crime rates are reported to have gone down 36%. There have even been reports that major crime leaders in the city have absconded.

However, readers, I ask you to look into what isn’t reported and to why such corruption was allowed to go on for so long. Instead of praising short-term affects, I advice us all to look at the long-term.

Daily Duo Article #404, written by Hilton Tyler, 1942.11.20

3 thoughts on “22.2: The Swindler and The Stolen Tesoro?

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