Jericho’s journey through Capricorn had him temporarily regressing to his previous state of believing wholeheartedly in the cycle and the destructiveness of conductors after learning the truth about vitae conversion. After being calmed by Werner’s words, he found closure with both Francis/Theta and Alice but discovered the truth about Talib.
Now with no partner and an uncertain purpose, Jericho…
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Jericho stood stiffly in front of the woman prostrate on the couch. There was a heavy, sticky, sweet smell lingering in the air. The darkness kept in place by the drawn blinds in the room felt like it was preventing the scents from escaping.
Jericho sank down beside the woman. “Gabrielle. Do you want my report? You said you wanted me to come to your office and give you a report before and after an ELPIS Department meeting. Now is before.”
Gabrielle stirred slightly.
Jericho stared. “Will we have lunch today?”
Gabrielle yawned, rubbed a hand down her face, squinted at him. “Jericho?”
“Will we have lunch today?” Jericho repeated. “We did not have it yesterday. Or the day before that. Or the week before that. Or—”
Gabrielle held up a hand. “I got it, Jericho. I got it. Let’s see. Lunch…?” She blinked blearily and checked her wristwatch—which was unacceptably fifteen seconds behind. “Oh, wow. It’s this late already…” She glanced over at her desk at the back of the room: a mess of file stacks and strewn paper. “I have to go through the compiled reports made by the other chairs in the department before the preliminary elections this weekend. It’s a mess. Brock—the first chairman before me, right?—didn’t keep anything together. Half-tempted to just have him bump back up to where I’m at, so he can deal with this.”
“Werner can help with that,” Jericho interjected. “He is good. With organizing.”
Gabrielle stared at him. “Right—the Capricornian…” She waved her hand as she slowly sat up. “No, it’s fine. Thanks for the offer. I’ll handle it on my own. Have to meet with Poe during lunch anyways—”
“Poe. The vice-chair you choose for the election.”
Gabrielle paused, then nodded. “You know, if this were a couple months back, I would’ve chosen someone else. But everyone’s off in different departments now…” She paused, burying her head in her hands. “What I want is so close… of course, now it turns out that all the first chairs know about vitae conversion and the saint candidates…” She lifted her head, eyes searching the dimness. “… but that doesn’t mean that they support it… right?” Eyes still wide, she turned to stare at him—through him. “I still can work with this, right?”
Jericho tensed, unsure of what to say. Then, he placed a hand on her shoulder, and said, “I am here for you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle offered a half-smile. “Don’t worry about it. Just go eat lunch with Ferris again, okay?”
Jericho felt something uncomfortable squeeze his stomach. “Okay.”
Carefully rising to a stand, Jericho side-stepped over the empty bottles scattered around the floor, collected the ones that were on the table for disposal, and exited Gabrielle’s office just like he’d done all the weeks before.
A terrible personality…? Maybe not…
* * *
Jericho stirred from the buzz clouding the back of his head and stared at Alice Kingsley who was sitting stiffly to his right on the sofa. Her eyes bore into him but were not mind-reading. Her brows were furrowed slightly, her lips pressed downwards. But Jericho knew this expression was not meant for him.
“It’s your turn.”
Jericho turned forwards and stared at the board game in front of him. Scattered on the many tiles were black and white pieces imprinted on with stars. His were the white pieces, his opponents the black. There were more black pieces than white ones on the board. He was losing.
He looked over the shoulder of his opponent towards his opponent’s main office desk pressed against the back wall. It was neatly organized, the origami folded cranes that were resting on it lined up into ordered rows. A plaque rested at the edge of the man’s desk. It read:
First Chairman of the Psychological Evaluations Department of Ophiuchus.
Finally, Jericho turned his attention to his opponent. The man sitting there was dressed in a crisp monochrome suit. The familiar fedora and trench coat the man usually wore were no longer in sight. Aside from this difference, the man’s black curls were free as they usually were, and his signature mole still graced the spot just below his eye. Familiar but not.
Jericho curled his hand into a fist. Talib. No. Saint Candidate: Scorpio, Leona, and Flannery. Not ‘right.’ Yes. And ELPIS too. No: the one who had made him and the other children back then believe in those things and do those things—that person was not right. There was a distinction. A line to be drawn. Yes. Jericho understood now.
Jericho picked up a piece and ate three of Scorpio’s in one swift move. As he took Scorpio’s pieces, Scorpio replaced them with three white pieces he’d taken earlier on the board.
Their ‘sessions’ were always like this. It had all started after Alice had referred him to the sixth chairwoman of the Psychological Evaluations Department. Sonya Louvre. Jericho had liked her. She was kind. She was patient. She was not strict. She listened. She was always happy—even after Scorpio had replaced her as sixth chairperson.
Scorpio had switched over from General Investigations to Psychological Evaluations only one week after the incident in Capricorn. Jericho didn’t understand how. It was not easy to switch departments, especially to highly specialized ones like ELPIS Investigations and Psychological Evaluations. It was not easy to move up into the chair-tiers either, much less obtain first chairperson.
Intuition: Scorpio ‘pulled strings’ as Cadence would say or ‘it was a diabolical, under-the-table, pre-planned machination’ as Talib would say.
Jericho did not like these sessions, but they were ‘required’ until Scorpio signed off on papers saying he longer needed them.
“You’ve improved,” Scorpio noted, moving one of his pieces and eating five of Jericho’s own. He collected Jericho’s pieces, leaving the board filled with only black pieces. He chuckled. “Not that it matters, since I’ll always win. But that does bring into question—has Vega been teaching you through Cadence, perhaps? They must be working together now, right?”
Jericho remained silent, staring at all of his playing pieces piled up on Scorpio’s side of the table.
“And if they are together, that means you’ve truly forgiven Theta. If you’ve forgiven Theta, that means that Omega died at your hands for nothing. If Omega died for nothing, then you didn’t fulfill your promise to all the ones you turned to nothingness. Even without the discussion of vitae levels and the cycle, wouldn’t that mean you’re just like them? Doing and forgetting without care?”
No. There was a distinction. A line drawn.
Jericho frowned, the gears in his head turning. He tried his best to recall what Werner had told him on that rainy day.
‘Do not act if you’re confused.’ And ‘I am here.’
Right. Werner was here even now—as he always was during these times. Hovering. Just out of reach. Halfway synchronized. Watchful. Ready. Ready for what? Jericho didn’t know.
“What are your thoughts, Alice?” Scorpio glanced right, smile thinning. “Are you proud of Jericho’s progress—or lack thereof? You, who spent all but half your life trying to change and ‘help’ people despite the circular relapse? You couldn’t even hold on to Jericho. You gave up on him. And I suppose you did the same to me too. I’m glad I could make you understand that, at least.”
Scorpio met Jericho’s gaze. “But don’t worry. I’ll never give up on you.”
Alice remained silent.
“Oh? Alice, are you still bitter about me earning the same degrees as you in record time? You shouldn’t be. I have quite some many years on you.” Scorpio extended his hand and sent the white game-pieces clattering onto the game board. “That’s enough for today.”
Jericho glanced at Alice who nodded. They rose together in unison and headed towards the glass doors leading out of the office. On their way, they passed a bulletin board pinned with photographs of familiar faces connected to articles and each other by crisscrossing red strings.
“I would keep my eyes open, partner,” Scorpio said suddenly. “It’s already been said many times before, but hairline fractures remain even after something looks like it’s been fixed. It’ll always be there.”
Jericho stared back at him. “I am not good with analogies and metaphors.”
Scorpio shrugged. “I can’t tell you everything, partner.”
Scorpio said nothing more and began to haphazardly stack the playing pieces on top of each other, forming a wavering tower. Jericho felt an odd urge to assist the man but exchanged a look with Alice who pressed him towards the door. Just as they reached the threshold, Scorpio called out once more—
Jericho stopped short with Alice. He turned to find Scorpio approaching them with something held behind his back.
“I just remembered. The preliminary elections for head chairman are this weekend, but I haven’t chosen a vice-chair yet even if though everyone’s selected theirs months ago.” Scorpio closed the distance between himself and Alice—so close that he was only one step away from her.
Jericho stepped forward, wedging his leg and foot directly in-between them.
Scorpio glanced down at the gesture before smiling thinly. “You’re the second chairwoman of this department now, Alice. Wouldn’t it be sensible for me to ask you to be my vice-chair for the election campaign?Or would you still prefer to be the diabolical villain in our story here?”
Alice’s brows twitched slightly, but she remained expressionless. “What are you playing at?”
Scorpio peered at her, aghast—intuition: mocking. “What…? Dear Alice, don’t you want to act as a spy for Gabrielle? To see what me and my little campaign are up to during the election? Or do you have no faith that Gabrielle can win with how she is now?” He took a step back, gesturing to himself. “You don’t care to do a favor for an old friend?” He extended a hand. “Or would you rather I choose someone else to bother instead?”
Alice took in a deep breath, eyed his hand, before extending her own hand. She did not move forward to accept his gesture. Scorpio eyed her hand, lips pressed thin. The two remained like that for some time with Jericho’s foot and leg still wedged between them.
Finally, a white smile cracked across Scorpio’s face. “You’re always so stubborn to the bitter end. You never change.” He reached out to shake Alice’s hand. “Let’s have lunch together to discuss. Perhaps even Libra will stop by for us both.”
Jericho remained planted firmly in place.
Alice glanced at him, eyes softening just slightly before she nodded. “You can go, Jericho. I’ll speak with you later.”
Jericho remained still like a stone, uncertain. After a pause, he pulled his leg away.
“Oh, wait. Not just yet, partner.” Scorpio pulled out the object he’d hidden behind his back. It was a wine bottle. “A gift for good old Gabe.”
* * *
Jericho looked up from his journal which he’d been hiding with a propped up manila file filled with documents. Around him in the dark sat a group wearing monochrome uniforms in rows. They had identical files to his resting on their laps and were facing forwards towards a drawn projector screen that was being lit up with a grainy image. It took a moment for Jericho’s eyes to adjust to the light on the screen and to register the woman who stood in front of it. The light from the projector ringed her golden hair in a halo.
“Do you have any comments on this particular subject?” Leona continued. “All voices are welcome at these meetings when asked for.”
Jericho did not like meetings. Correction: he did not like meetings that were not synchronization meetings. He especially did not like them when they were of ‘this particular subject.’
He glanced to Leona’s left and at the image being projected onto the screen. The grainy, monochrome projection captured the silhouette of a man standing on the spire of what appeared to be a bridge. The man was dressed in a turtleneck and suit jacket with a v-cigarette burning in his right hand. His left hand was gloved and pressed against the spire. Just beyond view at the edges of the image was a cityscape illuminated in an unnatural glow that also accented the snake tattoo on the right side of the man’s face.
Jericho looked past his journal towards the file in his lap. The top page read:
ELPIS Name: Theta (#16)
True (Initiate) Name: Francis Foxman
Initiate Country of Origin: Aries with Geminian Residency
Capable of a form of spatial distortion that allows for teleportation/transportation
Requirements—user’s blood marked with appropriate diameters at location of interest, conductor contact with separate blood marked area
Location of tattoo: Right-side of face
Threat Level: S+
Additional notes: Do not engage.
“No comment,” Jericho replied, refocusing his attention on his journal where he’d sketched a portrait of Leona. After comparing the sketch to reality, he pondered if Francis would like to see his drawings. He probably would. Francis always was an artsy kind of guy.
“Everyone here knows how dangerous ELPIS is and how steadfast their anti-conductor beliefs are,” Leona said steadily, “given they’ve found a way to pass on their memories and vitae to unfortunate individuals. Since Theta’s initiation was confirmed to be faulty, we don’t know how unstable he is given the nature of the Twin Cities. Any information or ideas provided may prevent people from dying at his hands.”
Yes. Everyone in the ELPIS Department knew the truth about ELPIS. They knew the truth of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis as well. What everyone here didn’t know, Jericho reasoned, was that ELPIS was also against vitae conversion. From what he had gauged, he deduced they did not know what vitae conversion was either.
“No comment,” he repeated.
A sigh—maybe a mirthless chuckle. “I see.”
A soft click resounded.
Jericho glanced up again.
The image of Francis became replaced by the photo of an unfamiliar woman with dark skin that was tattooed almost fully with swirling white marks. The woman was standing in a dimly lit alley and leaning to the side. Her gaze was focused forwards—intuition: she had been staring at the photographer—and she was offering up a wave with her right hand. Her left hand was palm-up and holding up a toy-sized v-ehicle.
“Now, we’ll re-address the second-highest threat-level active ELPIS Leaders. This is Delta. Some of you may be familiar with a past iteration of them during the war. Back then they were known as the ‘Nation Crusher.’ They are a Conductor capable of decreasing the space between vitae particles as well as compacting them. In a viral fashion, they can force this attribute onto other vitae particles. While its effects on hard vitae are clear and easily handled, its effect on soft vitae is more troublesome.”
Jericho flipped to the next page in the file:
ELPIS Name: Delta (#36)
True (Initiate) Name: Unknown
Initiate Country of Origin: Pisces
Capable of a form of spatial distortion
Requirements—user’s blood contact with object of interest
Location of tattoo: Below base of neck on chest
Threat Level: S
Additional notes: Do not engage unless wearing protective gear.
Not Alpha. Not the one Francis mentioned. Still. Bad. Unjust. Wrong.
Faint embers of anger curled in his stomach.
Jericho glanced up to find a barren landscape being displayed on the screen now. There were lines gouged into the earth where something must have once been placed or built. In the far background, there were faint smudges of mountains shrouded by mist.
“I’m fairly certain that Delta was the one who decimated the Csatlakozás ley lines that run up to the Okör mountains in Taurus,” Leona continued. “A team has already been sent to the location to investigate.”
The image of a woman with sun-kissed skin and black curls cascading down to her waist replaced the barren landscape. The picture was taken from a far distance, leaving most of the woman’s other features blurred. Still, it was easy to make out the feathered fan in her hand and the white mist glowing at her feet. But Jericho recognized her. Correction: Cadence recognized her from two days ago. Maria recognized that mist from just yesterday.
But at both Leo and Gemini? The distance between the location of Cadence’s encounter of this person and of Maria’s encounter of the white vitae mist was too far to traverse that quickly. Intuition: proto-conductor?
Jericho straightened, read the next page in the file.
ELPIS Name: Rho (#57)
True (Initiate) Name: Unknown
Initiate Country of Origin: Leo
Corrosive, poisonous vitae
Requirements—user’s blood contact with air
Location of tattoo: unknown, but most likely on arm
Threat Level: S
Additional notes: Do not engage unless accompanied by an air Elementalist.
Again. Not Alpha, but—
A familiar half-melted orphanage standing at the edge of a cliff appeared on the screen.
“Recent events in Leo tell us that Rho might be operating there at the moment.”
Jericho felt his lips pull down just slightly.
“We’ve, however, been notified that there may possibly be ELPIS activity occurring in the Twin Cities that may be reflective of Rho’s presence there. The time window between the possible disturbance in the Twin Cities and Leo is, however, very small. This may indicate usage of proto-conductors—either of Theta’s or Rho’s.”
Cadence, Jericho thought. She may know. Be careful. Distantly, he could see Cadence tipping a hat in acknowledgment.
Jericho refocused on the screen and felt his stomach twist into knots at the new photo displayed there. It was of Gamma standing in the rainy streets of Die Hauptstadt. Feeling the memories of that time pulsating at the back of his head, Jericho turned the page in the file again.
ELPIS Name: Gamma (#107)
True (Initiate) Name : Wtorek Izsak
Country of Origin: Taurus / Special note: Former Ophiuchian Agent
Location of tattoo: lower jaw
Threat Level: C+
Additional notes: Potential selected leader.
“As I mentioned earlier, we have reason to believe that a divide has formed within ELPIS due to Theta’s faulty initiation,” Leona continued. “Whether the ELPIS Leaders fall under Gamma’s or Theta’s leadership will be the deciding factor in our approach of them. A dual task force has already been put in place, and I’ll be personally selecting several of you to the force—”
The door to the room creaked open behind Jericho, and a man walked briskly past the projector machine and up to Leona.
Handing Leona a manila folder, the man said, “We have reports of a possible new ELPIS Leader’s emergence—”
“Do you understand that you’ve interrupted my presentation? Whatever this is—its urgency should be up to par,” Leona stated, locking eyes with the man as she took the folder from him. She didn’t wait for him to respond and flipped it open. Her eyes widened a second after, and her expression twisted strangely. “Epsilon…”
“Would you…” the man tried. “Like me to add onto the presentation with—”
“No. I’ll handle it.” Leona snapped the file shut and looked out towards them all. “You’re all dismissed for lunch. I’ll visit you personally for assignment.”
In respectful silence, everyone began to rise from their seats and head out towards the door. Jericho followed suit behind the others, but then—
Jericho was beginning to realize that word paired with his name was not something he particularly ‘liked.’ He stopped short at Leona’s call and turned to find her standing alone in front of the screen that was now just lit up with blank yellow light. After a beat, he approached her and came to a stop a distance away.
“After lunch today, meet me in the courtyard outside,” Leona said, tucking the file under her arm. “I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”
* * *
After Jericho departed his meeting with his department, he headed to the crowded cafeteria for lunch where he grabbed a brown bag of saltine crackers and an apple juice carton from the food line before heading to his usual table. Ferris Hart was already seated there waiting for him and nibbling on a neatly cut sandwich. Her hair was dyed a lilac purple today. A nice color.
As soon as he sat down across from her, she leaned forwards and half-shouted, half-whispered—“Jericho! Jericho! Jericho—you won’t believe what just happened!”
“I will probably believe it,” Jericho replied.
Jericho liked Ferris. She was kind and always chose to have lunch with him. Atienna had suggested that she missed Gabrielle’s gatherings with him, Talib, Elizabeta, Roberto, Alice, Moraeni. They had not gathered together for quite some time due to ‘business and personal reasons.’ Cadence suggested that she missed Talib in particular. Jericho did too. Sometimes they would reminisce. “Remember when Talib…”, “Remember when Alice…”, “Remember when Roberto…”
“I’m a vice-chair for the election!” Ferris exclaimed, throwing her hands around him. When she received stares, she pulled away while simultaneously palming something into his hands. “The first chairman of my department just came up to me this morning and asked. Can you believe it? I was so nervous. I don’t think I have enough experience, but I’ll try my best! My grandma is going to be gobsmacked!”
Jericho quickly slipped the note into his suit sleeve before clapping once for Ferris. “Congratulations. Alice was also selected.”
Ferris’s smile faltered briefly. “Selected…? As vice-chairperson…? For the Psychological Evaluations Department?”
Jericho nodded. “Scorpio asked. She agreed.” He opened his bag of saltine crackers while simultaneously peering up his sleeve at the note Ferris wrote for him. It was a scrawl of lines and dots, but he could easily read it due to Werner’s personal experience with this form of code:
He reached out to Werner to confirm this with him. No record of ‘Shion Myosotis’ in the records of those who had taken the State Conductor’s Exam in the last ten years—information courtesy of Moraeni with Ferris serving as the messenger. The previous investigation was for the last five years. It would be difficult to find records closer to the founding of Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping agency.
He should get rid of the note.
With a sleight of hand, Jericho pulled out the note and hid it behind a cracker.
Jericho popped the cracker and note into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. Sipped on his juice. Just as he was about to nibble on another cracker to help the paper go down, an odd smell wafting through the air stopped him short. It was a sharp but musty smell. One that was both familiar and unfamiliar.
Who remembered this smell…?
Jericho turned his head towards the scent and saw that the other peacekeepers in the cafeteria had their attention fixated on a new group that had just stepped into the cafeteria. A suit-wearing woman was guiding a young man with light brown curls and dressed in an intricate, lacey suit through the cafeteria.
The duo were surrounded by three other suited peacekeepers boxed around them in a triangle. Jericho could not make out the features of those peacekeepers because laced veils hanging down from circlets around their heads concealed their faces.
Bahshshhshhhhshhshhh. Bahshshhshhhhshhshhh. Bahshshhshhhhshhshhh.
The three peacekeepers made strange sounds as they moved forwards. Jericho could not tell if the sounds were laughs or raspy breaths.
The guiding, suit-wearing woman came to a stop in front of his and Ferris’s table. She was tall and slender, her monochrome suit especially form-fitting. She wore the signature Ophiuchian armband on her arm and a gem-encrusted bolo-tie at her neck. A Cancerian headpiece with a dark veil encircled her head and concealed her face as well.
The smell—Jericho realized—was from this woman. No. It was from the three peacekeepers standing stiffly around her.
“M-Miss Delacroix—” Ferris stammered, shooting up to a stand.
“I said you could just call me Nadinaline or even Nadine, dear,” the woman said, her pink smile just barely visible from behind her veil. She spoke in Common, her Cancerian accent soft and musical. She reached behind her and pushed forward the man standing there. “Would you mind watching Monsieur Calice here for an hour?”
Ferris nodded. “Of course!”
“Thank you, dear.” Another ghost of a smile. “See you soon.”
Nadinaline then turned and walked out of the cafeteria with the three peacekeepers following just behind her.
Bahshshhshhhhshhshhh. Bahshshhshhhhshhshhh. Bahshshhshhhhshhshhh.
Jericho stared at the woman’s receding figure for a moment longer before he turned to study the Calice who Ferris had just invited to sit down. After a beat, Jericho waved at him. The man blinked at him, then returned the gesture with a nervous chuckle.
“My first time being here at Ophiuchus…” the man murmured, his Cancerian accent thick. “Oh—I’m Béni Calice, by the way.”
“Ferris Heart. Assignment Department of Ophiuchus. It’s a pleasure.” Ferris greeted him with a pleasant smile.
“Jericho.” Jericho nodded and stared a bit longer before flashing a practiced smile that felt unnatural. “It is also a pleasure here.” He paused, pondering if this was a good time to start a conversation. “Why are you here?”
Béni squirmed in his seat, cheeks flushing. He then glanced around the cafeteria and whispered: “I’m supposed to keep this secret, but… I’m actually here for a saint candidacy ceremony.”
The color drained from Ferris’s face. Jericho felt his stomach clench. Béni looked between them with a frown.
“Sorry.” Béni dipped his head. “I know I should keep it quiet but it’s exciting—”
“Don’t do it,” Jericho stated, his mind flashing to Talib then Lavi. He reached out and wrapped a hand around the man’s wrist. “Don’t do it. You are you.”
Béni startled, looking to Ferris nervously. “What…?”
He needed to be careful.
Jericho opened his mouth, closed it, before collecting his crackers and juice box and rising to a stand. “I will go now. Bye.” He glanced at Ferris who was biting her lower lip. “See you, Ferris. It will be okay. I promise.”
* * *
After departing the cafeteria, Jericho made his way through the twisting white halls of the Serpens Establishment, past the map hosting the circular continent of Signum posted up in the main lobby, and descended the pearly white steps of the building.
The skyline was cold and gray with only a sliver of golden sunlight piercing through. The ray of light illuminated one of the many white pillars lining the equally white walkway leading from the building to the Grand Snake Station. Standing by that pillar and bathing in the sunny spotlight was Leona herself.
Jericho swiftly approached her and noted that her attention was captivated by the pillar. Correction: it was captivated by what was on the pillar. There was a splash of pink liquid trickling down the pillar and forming a puddle on the ground. Tiny black bodies were weaving their way up and around the sticky pinkness and coalesced into a black mass at the pillar’s foot.
“It appears as if someone’s made a mess here,” Leona said, lips curled down with disgust. She clicked her tongue, arms crossed as she stared down at their tiny black crawling bodies. “The maintenance crew should have handled this already.”
“It looks like strawberry milk,” Jericho stated in the beat of silence that passed. “There are a lot of ants.”
“Such tiny, insignificant creatures,” Leona mused as she studied them. Abruptly, she extended her index finger out and allowed an ant to crawl onto her nail. “So easily crushed beneath a boot. Unable to resist the ebb and flow of time and their own nature.”
Jericho studied her.
Leona brought the ant up to the dull sunlight and seemed to inspect it beneath the sun rays. “Still… he was right. They’re quite capable when they work together harmoniously. Creating networks and connections and expansive kingdoms, despite their own fragility and smallness. So insignificant, disgusting, and small and yet…”
For a moment, Jericho thought he saw fondness in her eyes.
“My, my, Leo, I wouldn’t have expected you to even touch something as lowly as this.”
Jericho turned at the familiar voice and found Talib—Scorpio—approaching them from down the steps.
The man stopped short in front of Leona before glancing at Jericho. “Afternoon, partner.” He then reached out a finger and swiped the ant away from Leona’s. As he held the ant up to the light, dark blue light began to spill onto its body, and it began to writhe on his finger.
Scorpio merely shook his hand and allowed the ant to fall back onto the cluster of other ants. The other ants immediately began to bite at the fallen ant which was now glowing dark blue. The ants that attacked this ant, however, began to glow a dark blue themselves. Soon the entire dark blue infection had spread until all the ants were thrashing and scrambling on top of each other.
Jericho stared, frowned, clenched his fist. “No. Don’t do that.”
Scorpio blinked at him. “What do you mean? I’m not doing anything.” He peered down at them as he continued to smile. “These creatures naturally kill each other off if there’s a shortage of supplies or if they suspect a creature is different from themselves. That’s all it ever is, all it ever has been, all it ever will be. If it reassures you any, most of these tiny things will return to the cycle.”
Jericho’s stomach flip-flopped at the word.
“It’s quite lovely torture.”
The ants continued to consume and bite at each other until they were all left twitching and then unmoving in black mounds all over the ground.
Leona finally pressed, “What are you doing, Scorpio?”
Scorpio gestured down the walkway. “I’m merely enjoying the weather, dear Leo.” He glanced at Jericho. “The question is—what are you doing—”
“I suggest you carry on with your walk,” Leona interjected.
Scorpio merely offered a hum and a wave as he passed them on by and continued down the white sidewalk. Jericho stared after him until Leona spoke—
“As you know, Jericho, the preliminary chairman elections are being hosted two days from now. Each first chair is to select an individual within their department to serve as their vice-chair to help them with their campaign. You—”
“No,” Jericho replied immediately as he turned to face her.
Leona’s eyes narrowed. “No?”
“Our deal was not this, Miss Leona,” he said. “I do not want to go against Gabrielle. No.”
Leona’s eyes narrowed further.
“I am not good with people or talking,” Jericho clarified. “I would be bad. It would be bad. You would lose. There are others. Better.”
“You’re mistaken if you believe the vice-chair serves as anything more than being a secretary for the first chair.” Leona gave a mirthless chuckle. “I thought you knew where your position was, but perhaps I have to remind you. You are very valuable, Jericho, so I will not be sending you on field assignments against individuals actively seeking to kill you anytime soon. True Conductor-hunting is a different story, of course, but the others in your group are already on that task. That being said, I can’t have you sitting around doing nothing either.” She extended her hand out to him. “This isn’t a request, but an order.”
What was she planning? What did she want? Was this a trap? Perhaps a way to get closer to him in order to locate Maria and Cadence?
If it was a trap, then he could just turn the tables around against her.
It was a risky approach.
But still. He could use this as an opportunity to gather more intel on Leona on the candidates, couldn’t he? Cost-benefit analysis.
They couldn’t just stand here and do nothing the entire time.
To help everyone? Jericho thought amongst the chaotic thoughts zipping through his head. Okay.
Jericho dipped his head, then nodded as he accepted Leona’s gesture just as Atienna had done months before him.
* * *
Only two days later Jericho found himself riding down the elevator in the Serpens Establishment side-by-side with Leona. He watched the light from the floors they rolled past flit by through the thin crack in the elevator doors.
The elevator kept going down, down, down. Past the fourth and second floor. Past the first. Past even what he knew were the floors to the Black Constellation Detention Center. Down, down, down.
As he descended, he felt the others reach out to him. He answered their call, and they synchronized in with him fully. He could see them physically before him: Olive arms-crossed and eyeing Leona with a frown; Cadence with a small box of popcorn in her hands; Werner standing stiff and inspecting everything; Maria ogling Leona with a curious smile; and Atienna, quiet and observing.
Their reasons for tuning in were varying from what he understood. Werner wanted to gather information. Atienna was curious. Maria wanted to see Scorpio and Leona and didn’t want to miss out on the ‘fun.’ Cadence wanted to ‘enjoy’ the drama. Olive simply didn’t want to be left out, although he kept insisting that this was not the case.
Jericho did not feel nervous about this to begin with, but the presence of the others was still an additional layer of reassurance.
Jericho stepped out of the elevator with Leona and found himself standing in a large chamber with black-tiled walls. At the center of the room rested a large, rectangular, lacquered marble table. Around that table on the white leather chairs sat a group in monochrome suits. The first chairs. Behind each of them stood a single person also dressed in a suit. The vice-chairs.
Eleven out of thirteen of those chairs were occupied. Plaques listing names and respective departments rested on the table in front of each chair.
As Jericho neared the table with Leona, he read the plaques and tried his best to tie the names written there to the people sitting in the seats, but it was difficult. He did, however, recognize some faces.
He recognized Nadinaline from earlier sitting in one seat. Her plaque read [First Chair of the Assignment Department, Nadinaline Delacroix]. Ferris stood behind her and stared at Jericho with a gaping mouth as he approached.
Jericho also recognized Moraeni sitting at a chair beside Nadinalime. His plaque read [First Chair of the Licensing Department, Moraeni Pōʻai]. Sitting just beside him was Gabrielle, her hair nightly tied into a tight ponytail. She ogled Jericho for a moment before she smiled slightly. Her plaque read [First Chairwoman of the General Investigations Department, Gabrielle Law]. Jericho did not recognize the people standing behind the latter two.
Jericho, on the other hand, did recognize the vice-chair standing behind the man whose plaque read [First Chair of the Medical Department, Hårek Ohmdahl]. Said man had a head of straw blonde hair, a rigid face, and a pair of circular glasses resting above his blue eyes. Beneath those eyes hung dark bags. The vice-chair standing behind him was none other than Wtorek Elizabeta herself who merely nodded at Jericho as he approached.
Finally, the last two Jericho recognized: Alice who stood behind Talib—Scorpio—who sat diagonally across from Gabrielle. Upon recognizing Talib, Alice’s lips dipped downwards. Scorpio, however, didn’t spare Jericho a glance and merely pushed his plaque along the table as if bored. His plaque read—[First Chairman of the Psychological Evaluations Department, Talib Al-Jarrah].
“It’s Voz and Talib!” Maria exclaimed, waving so wildly that Jericho had to grip his wrist to prevent himself from doing the same
Leona seated herself in the empty chair across from Scorpio that was marked with a plaque reading her name and title. As Jericho came to stand behind her, he peered at her plaque. It read [First Chair of the ELPIS Investigations Department, Leona Gloria-Angelo].
“‘Gloria’…?” Atienna murmured, placing a hand to her mouth and peering at Maria. She said nothing more.
Silence fell shortly afterwards.
Jericho stood stiffly, occasionally exchanging glances with Alice, Ferris, and Moraeni. Gabrielle avoided eye contact. Every so often, he stared at the single empty seat at the head of the table.
“Is the head chairman not coming?” Nadinaline asked after a stretch of time had passed. “I haven’t seen him in a while. I’ve missed him so… He hasn’t died, has he?”
What the…? Olive stared, frowning.
“Does he need to be present for us to move forward?” asked one of the other seated first chairs. The man’s skin was dark, his cheekbones high, his head shaved. Over his Ophiuchian suit, he wore a silk scarf that was dyed blue. His plaque read [First Chair of the Communications Department, Saddine Agwuegbo]. He tensed when he received stares and cleared his throat. “I’m merely suggesting that we move forward as quickly as possible… The department’s been so busy recently… Oh…so busy…” He cleared his throat again, trailing off.
“I don’t blame him for wanting to get out of here,” Olive mumbled beside Jericho. He glanced around the room. “This feels like a prison.”
“I suggest we wait for the head chairman before moving forward with proceedings,” a chairwoman sitting to Gabrielle’s left spoke. She had blonde hair that was tied even tighter than Gabrielle’s hair into a bun. Her eyes were sharp and cold—almost like Werner’s. Her plaque read [First Chairwoman of the Conductor Regulation and Conducting Law Department, Katharina Groth]. “We can’t disrupt things as we choose and please just because we’re first chairs—”
“We will wait for the head chair,” Leona interjected, eyes closed as she sat motionless in her chair.
A silence fell and stretched on and on.
Maria appeared disappointed at this.
“Look. Let’s be honest here,” one of the men said abruptly, arms spread. His hair was a full russet color, his cheeks freckled and full, his eyes a bright blue. His accent sounded Librish. “Half of the people here don’t want to be head chair. All of us have enough on our plates already running our departments.” He gestured to Nadinaline, Gabrielle, and then Saddine. “Especially you and you, Nadine, Gabe, Saddy. Your departments are some of the busiest.” He clasped his hands together, and his eyebrows knit. “If you think about it in the long run, shouldn’t a person who truly wants to take the lead be head chair? That narrows down the playing field quite a lot, doesn’t it? You can narrow it down further by looking for a department that works with Signum at large. A department that interacts with Signum collectively as a whole. That would, of course, be my own department—International Relations. So, what I’m saying simply is this: pass on the head chairman title to me without this voting mess.”
Saints, I hate him already, came Olive’s thought.
There was a stretch of silence.
“Shocked silence,” Cadence whispered, shoveling popcorn into her mouth. “Ya can feel the tension, can’t ya, detective? Damn. The guy’s ballsy.”
Jericho couldn’t. But he could vaguely feel that some of her enthusiasm was forced. Her mind was on the children.
“You should say something, Jeri!” Maria exclaimed, squeezing his shoulders. “This silence is no fun, yes?”
Jericho opened his mouth, but Werner forced him to keep it shut and sent Maria a disapproving shake of the head.
Atienna pondered, “He’s creating enemies before the election has even started…”
“His suggestion is ill-advised and out-of-order,” Werner returned, frowning. “It’s disrespectful—”
“I agree,” Scorpio interjected suddenly, leaning forwards, his eyebrows furrowed. “There’s so much going on right now between Cancer, Leo, Sagittarius, Aquarius, Capricorn. Signum truly needs someone of respectable caliber to act as a guiding light. An election during this tumultuous time would be especially divisive, wouldn’t it? International Relations does appear to be the most unifying department. You wholeheartedly have my support, Seamus.”
Seamus studied the man for a beat before he smiled. “Why, thank you, Talib…”
Jericho blinked and stared at Scorpio, then at Leona. Leona’s eyes were now open, and she was staring directly at Scorpio whose attention was directed elsewhere. Jericho was not very good at reading Leona’s stony expression, but—
“She’s just tryin’ ta keep a cool head,” Cadence noted in-between nibbles of popcorn. “She doesn’t like him, does she? Don’t blame her after he used her as a sock puppet. But I guess that’s business, right?”
“Absolutely not!” Hårek slammed his hands on the table, startling half of the voice chairs. “How could you even suggest something so ludicrous? That’s taking power away from the people!”
Scorpio pulled back and placed a hand to his chest. “Oh, I apologize, Hårek. I didn’t mean to be rude. I understand where you’re coming from—having to grow up under the rule of those oligarchs back in Aquarius… With very little freedom and choice. Truly insensitive of me.”
Hårek quieted, lips thinning. “You—”
“While I respect your position as a saint candidate and the wisdom that comes with it…” another chairman spoke in unaccented Common. His hair was jet black, his eyes almond-shaped, his skin ever so slightly tanned. His plaque read [First Chair of the Reservoir Conservation Department – William Saovàng]. “We should keep to the rules we wrote ourselves, Talib. We can’t let things get out of hand…” His eyes narrowed, and he studied the man. “Like what happened in Capricorn, for instance…”
Scorpio remained unaffected, expression still sympathetic. “I hear you, Liam. What is my wisdom in light of all the hardships you’ve individually faced to get to this point? That passion—I admire it.”
“I agree—with William, I mean,” said another chairman, accent faintly Geminian. He had dirty blonde hair that was slicked back and a golden pendant dangling from his neck. He was rather handsome and appeared to be much younger than the others in the room. His plaque—[First Chair of the Commerce Regulation Department, Luca D’Angelo]. “We should vote. Definitely. It’s not fair to the rest of us if we just hand it all over to you.”
“Luca…” Nadinaline tutted. “You have a lot to say for someone who doesn’t have a motto. Not that I disagree.”
“What I want for Signum as head chair can’t possibly be captured in a motto,” Luca rebutted with a wink. “I’m amazed at how the rest of you can do it. I just don’t want to be like the politicians back home, right? Slinging around an insincere motto….”
“Indirect jab number five.” Cadence clapped.
“More like an excuse,” Olive muttered.
It was like being in a room full of Atiennas and Olives, Jericho thought. At this, Atienna and Olive turned to him with mixed expressions.
“My, my, my…” Nadinaline chucked airily in a way that reminded Jericho of Omega. “Aren’t we, as peacekeepers, supposed to put aside our past connections to our old countries and act as neutral parties?”
“Being neutral is hard for you, isn’t it, Nadinaline, William, Seamus?” Luca pressed, leaning back in his chair. “With everything that’s going on in Cancer, Sagittarius, and Libra?”
“I’m from Aries, not Sagittarius,” William replied, frowning.
“That’s more a question for Nadinaline than me anyways, isn’t it?” Seamus replied pleasantly. “Libra is in order as usual.”
“You know I am not very fond of Cancerian politics.” Nadinaline sighed. “I hate them very much. All of them over there acting like they’re still some dukedom monarchy when the elected premier is the one who makes the decisions.” She tutted.
“That’s not a very neutral opinion, is it?” Scorpio pondered. “And you too, Seamus. This isn’t the old traditional Librish-Cancerian rivalry coming back to light, is it? Nadine? Seamus?” His gaze flitted to Luca. “Maybe you’re right, Luca.”
Another stretch of silence.
Nadinaline paused, turning to Scorpio but saying nothing.
Seamus smiled, however, and spread his arms. “It has nothing to do with politics. Merely personal dislike. I’ll remain professional, of course. I suggest you do the same, Nadinaline.”
“Oh, I’m being very professional right now,” Nadinaline responded.
Jericho turned his attention to the elevator. A thin man entered the room and came to stand in front of them.
The head chairman? Jericho wondered.
“And you are?” Seamus pressed, looking the new arrival up and down.
“Apparently not,” Cadence noted.
“The neutral vote-counter the head chairman sent,” the thin man replied. “He will not be attending, so he sent me to inform you all to proceed.” He began walking around the room and passing out ballots. “Please remember. You’re not allowed to vote for yourself.”
“Then we will proceed to cast the preliminary votes,” Leona said. “I take it that everyone here has read the platforms of all the running chairs before this meeting.”
Jericho had only half-skimmed the packet Leona had handed him two days ago. It had contained the campaign promises of all the first chairs. Some had been more extensive than others. Jericho did not care for them. He was going to vote for Gabrielle.
And vote for Gabrielle Jericho did, marking the checkbox next to her name on the ballot before returning it to the thin man as he made his way around the table again.
“Right now Gabrielle is at an advantage with you, Elizabeta, Moraeni, Alice, and Ferris here,” Atienna murmured, placing a hand on her chin. “It brings into question exactly why their respective first chairs chose them…”
“An advantage…? Does it… matter how they vote?” Olive asked tentatively, gesturing around the room, not quite looking at Atienna. “I mean… these are just a handful of votes. Once the other licensed Conductors start voting…”
“It’s all about the buzz, kid,” Cadence replied. “From what I’m gettin’, our very own Louise and Hide’ll broadcast and spread the results here. People’ll look at who’s winnin’. The lot that’re neutral’ll probably just vote for the ones who have the most votes already here.”
“Every vote holds importance, Olive. The numbers add up,” Werner informed the prince not unkindly. “As I’ve said, this is why it is our duty to participate.”
“Leona most likely has a majority of the other votes since she remained neutral but commanding…” Atienna pondered further.
“They say ‘the more, the merrier’, no?” Maria pondered aloud, bouncing on the heels of her feet and eye-balling the thin man who was now counting the ballots at the opposite side of the table. “Oh, look—he’s done!”
“I will now announce the results,” the thin man said only a second after. He gazed at all of them before proceeding: “The following first chairs have earned 0 votes: Moraeni Pōʻai, Nadinaline Delacroix, Hårek Ohmdahl, Talib Al-Jarrah, Saddine Agwuegbo.”
While most of those whose names were announced did not display emotion, Saddine visibly let out a sigh of relief.
“The following chairs have earned one vote: Luca D’Angelo, Katharina Groth, Sera Aliz.”
No reaction again, although Luca rolled his neck.
“The following chair has earned two votes: William Saovàng.”
“Seamus Dolby has earned five votes and comes in third.”
Seamus smiled pleasantly, ignoring the glares he received.
“The first chair with the second-highest among of votes at a total of six votes is—”
There was a beat of tense silence.
The tension in the room thinned as confused looks were shared among several of the vice chairs and first chairs. Leona didn’t spare Gabrielle a glance. She merely kept her gaze focused on the vote counter.
“And the first chair who has earned the highest number of votes at a total of seven votes,” the thin man finished, “is Gabrielle Law.”
Gabrielle was scanning the room carefully.
Atienna murmured, “Someone else voted for Gabrielle instead of Leona outside of the others…”
Jericho could feel her going over the numbers with Werner. But for what? Potential allies.
“I will announce these results publicly at half past the hour,” the man proclaimed before collecting his things and heading towards the elevator. He stepped inside and turned to face them. “I wish you all luck in this upcoming year.”
The elevator doors closed a beat after, leaving its ascending hum to fill in the quiet.
“With that, the preliminaries are over,” Leona finally said. “You are all free to leave now. Your participation is appreciated as always. Good luck on your campaigns.”
With that, the first chairs slowly began to filter out of the room into the elevator along with their vice-chairs, until the only ones left were Jericho himself, Leona, Moraeni and Elizabeta, Scorpio and Alice, and Gabrielle who had sent her vice-chair up with the others. They sat around the table stiffly.
“Well, that was entertaining, wasn’t it?” Scorpio mused, breaking the tense quiet. “I can’t recall the last time I had so much fun getting involved in politics—Capricorn doesn’t count, of course.” His gaze flicked over to Jericho, and Jericho felt Werner tense. “Plus, this is a surprise, partner. So you were chosen as Leo’s vice chair in the end. Who in the world would have thought that would be a possibility?”
Jericho stared past Scorpio towards Alice who shook her head subtly.
Leona said nothing.
Scorpio’s smile slid from his face. He rose from his seat and rounded the table over to them, stopping short just by Leona’s chair. He glanced briefly at Jericho and flashed a smile before staring down at the Leonian.
Leona in turn slowly, gracefully, smoothly rose from her chair and stood eye-level to him. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?You’re beginning to overstep your bounds. My patience only goes so far.”
“As expected of someone who’s only half of who they used to be.”
Leona’s gaze sharpened, her eyes narrowing.
“All the others—even Pisces—have stepped down from this running circus of an election… Do you find pride in winning so easily, Leo? I think not!”—the very last sentence brought Jericho a painful nostalgia—“I’m just here to create more of a challenge for you.”
“You’re childish, Scorpio.”
“You’re welcome, Leo.”
Talib Al-Jarrah, First Chairman of the Psychological Evaluations Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “A Kinder Ophiuchus”
Leona Gloria-Angelo, First Chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Stability Lies In Unity.”