Maria has been on Conta’s tail ever since Beta was initiated into Conta during the events of the Twin Cities many months ago. She finally meets Conta in Comientzo, Leo in front of an orphanage that seems to have been attacked by another ELPIS leader. Before she can make contact, Conta flees the scene.
Around the same time, Maria encounters a silent Espada named Andres who was present during the aftermath of the attack on the Leonian orphanage. In the background, Cadence has encountered an ELPIS leader named Epsilon who has been initiated into Ambrose Campana. Epsilon has the ability to extract and transfer the memories stored in vitae and appears to have a deep connection with the Saint Candidate of Leona whom he mistakes Maria to be…
Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters
Maria greeted the morning rays seeping through the porthole of her ship with a grin and a stretch. Lita groaned from beside her as the hammock they’d been sleeping on swung with the motion. Maria in turn bent over and squeezed the girl’s cheeks before popping out of bed. The floor was cold, the sunlight spilling in from the porthole warm. The air was peppered with the smell of meat and eggs which meant that Chef Raul was already busy at work in the kitchen. In other words—it was already a beautiful morning!
“Good morning, Maria…” Lita mumbled sleepily.
“—Yep! Mornin’, sunshine!”
“Good morning, my dear Cadence!” Maria sang, turning and finding a familiar, small silhouette shadowed against the pole that her hammock was strung up on. “It’s unusual to see you up this early, no?”
“Well, the early bird catches the worm.” Cadence cracked a half-grin as she inspected the treasures hanging there. “Besides, this ain’t the first time—remember, doll? I’m up early makin’ those calls for our other gracious captain. Give me more credit.”
“Is it one of them again?” Lita piped, popping up and looking around the room curiously. She flushed and straightened her hair. “I’m not ‘presentable.’”
Soundin’ like the captain there.
Maria walked over to the hammock and rested a hand on top of Lita’s head. “Do not worry, my dear! As my Cadence says ‘appearances are deceiving,’ yes? She is not one to care for appearances. No matter how you look, my lovely Cadence will accept you regardless!”
Not a completely foolproof way of reassuring someone.
“—plus, Cadence is just here to ask for something again, yes?”
“Hey, I don’t always come here askin’ for things.” Cadence cracked a smile and placed a hand on her chest. “I contribute some, don’t I? I’m like your personal built-in translator.” She cleared her throat. “Actually… I am here ta ask a favor.”
Maria beamed. “What fun things do you have for me today? I am always excited when you come around! What is it? Another game of cards? A trick? Oh—will you teach me some new languages?”
“Well….” Cadence tapped her temple. “Give it a sec.”
Maria nodded and concentrated. Soon enough, bright memories of traversing Comientzo side-by-side with Francis, Jericho, Fortuna, and Maximallian colored her vision.
“So?” Cadence pressed. “Thoughts?”
“Jeri was with you? With you?” Maria gasped. “Why did you not invite me? I would have liked to come too—well, I was just there and I should be focusing on Conta, but it would have been fun!”
Then came the memories of wandering into the Monadic temples, of encountering Epsilon in the fields just outside of Comientzo, of taking the cup from Epsilon, and then of seeing him—the old man with the eye-patch and a young man with the eye-patch—through Epsilon’s conducting—
“You saw the man with the eyepatch!” Maria realized, leaning in close to Cadence. “Really?”
“There we go.” Cadence snapped her fingers. “So, any thoughts on the whole spiel? Been gettin’ weirder and weirder lately. Everyone’s ELPIS at this point.”
“The person who took me in was a pirate—an adventurer!” Maria exclaimed. “He had many names, yes, but he never called himself ‘Alpha’? Proteus, yes, Michelangelo, maybe, and I think Antonio at one point too! But! He wasn’t with ELPIS!”
“But hear me out,” Cadence pressed, spreading her hands. “What if he was.”
Maria pondered this. “Would I still seek him? Yes, of course! I have been seeking him all this time and will continue to seek him!” She patted Cadence on the head. “You are wonderful, my dear Cadence! Absolutely wonderful for showing me this!”
Cadence finally cracked into her usual lopsided smile. She had been smiling before too but it had been a dishonest one. Maria could tell. She was getting better at telling. Just like she’d intended to.
Maria pulled back. “Oh, but Jericho doesn’t like ELPIS very much outside of Francis, no? And if that man is Alpha, then why did he… do that to my dear Jericho? And your children?”
“Well, we don’t know if Alpha’s Jericho’s guy exactly. No reason or rhyme for any of what he’s doin’.”
Lita perked up and then dipped her head. “Jericho…? The one with white vitae… The Capricornian…”
“Oh—no, no.” Maria chuckled. “Jericho is from Scorpio! He is one of those peacekeepers. Werner is the Capricornian.”
Lita’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“Jericho doesn’t like ELPIS,” Maria tried to clarify. “Werner doesn’t like ELPIS either, but Jericho really doesn’t like ELPIS. Except for Francis?”
“Now that’s a whole nother bag of cats I don’t feel like gettin’ into at the moment.” Cadence ruffled her hair and swiped off her hat. “Anyways, for some reason or another, pretty sure the Epsilon guy thinks you’re… Leo.”
“Me? Leo?” Maria paused. “Like the saint candidate Leo? Like Leona?” She laughed at the idea.
“I mean he was practically kissin’ your hand after ya nearly decapitated him,” Cadence said. “Back in Comientzo.”
“Oh, I guess his attitude was interesting back then,” Maria recalled and laughed. “I wonder why. Is it because I was a potential saint candidate back then? That’s not so important to who I am, no?”
Cadence shrugged. “Francis ain’t explainin’ the ‘why’ very well even after I told him what happened ta ya—keeps goin’ off on his usual tangents. But basically, Epsi won’t spill unless he sees Leo—er, Leona, I guess—and we can’t make that realistically happen—”
“Why not? I’m sure we can if I tried.”
Cadence continued to smile. “I don’t doubt that one bit, sunshine, but we gotta find the kids quick. The whole maneuvering Leona’ll take up too much time. So, I was hopin’ ya’d help out with that.”
Help with that? Maria cocked her head. How else was she supposed to help other than finding Leona and bringing her to Epsilon?
“Glad ya asked.” Cadence clasped her hands together. “My idea is that we have ya pretend ta be Leo—”
“But I’m not Leo.”
“Hence the pretendin’.”
“Pretending to be someone who I’m not?” Maria thought on it, reached out, placed a hand on Cadence’s head again. She pushed her head back slightly so she could stare into her eyes. “I don’t like pretending to be someone who I’m not, my dear Cadence.”
“I get that. I do.” Cadence nodded. “But think about it. It could be fun. Ya’ve never gone covertly on somethin’ before, right?”
“What about when I pretended to be Werner back in Capricorn?”
Cadence arched a brow. “Were you really pretending ta be Werner though?”
Maria pondered the question and chuckled. “I guess you are right, my dear Cadence.” She hummed. “I guess it could be fun. And it would help you with your search for the children…. Yes, for you—okay, Cadence!” She paused a beat after and mulled, “So your Ambrose has become Epsilon…?”
Lita stiffened as she was stepping off of the hammock. “A-Ambrose? What about searching for children…?”
Maria glanced at the girl. “Have you met Ambrose before, my dear?”
“We heard about him…” Lita mumbled. “The people who were moving us around talked about him sometimes… He’s Mr. Campana’s son, right…? What happened to him?”
A ghostly hand slapped itself over Maria’s mouth before she could answer.
“Maybe ya shouldn’t, sunshine,” Cadence said as she pulled her hand away. “Lita’s still a kid. No need ta bring back old trauma.”
“I don’t think it is very good to lie, Cadence,” Maria replied, confused.
“It ain’t lyin’ exactly. Well, it’s better ta say it’s like a white lie. Keepin’ a secret to protect a person, ya know?”
“Are you protecting the person you are keeping the secret from or are you protecting yourself so you do not have to deal with it?” Maria wondered, before she felt a sharp pang in her chest. Upon looking down, she found Cadence still smiling.
“Didn’t expect ya ta pull an Atienna on me,” Cadence noted.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you, my dear Cadence,” Maria replied, “and I wasn’t trying to ‘pull an Atienna’ either, yes? It is an honest question. It makes no sense to me—dishonesty.”
“I get ya, sunshine. I do,” Cadence replied. It’s just complicated. Ya gotta be careful in how you approach and handle people. Some people are more delicate than others—and that’s fine. That’s life.
“But what does this delicateness have to do with lying though?”
Look, we’re yours, right? Just because ya can protect us physically—and I know ya can, sunshine— doesn’t mean ya can always protect what’s in here—Cadence tapped her chest and then tapped her temple—and in here. She shrugged. Even the other captain—whose whole thing is ‘protect’ now—can’t manage it completely. Same applies ta people outside of us. Hence, we gotta be delicate.
Maria froze, her mind flashing to that night in the warehouse. She poked Cadence’s forehead then her chest. “But this is what makes Cadence Cadence, no?”
Cadence smiled again and shrugged. “The gist of it is that knowin’ about certain things can cause certain people ta not feel nice basically. And when people don’t feel nice… it’s not a good thing. People can do stupid things when they don’t feel nice. I’m talkin’ from experience, ‘course.”
Maria regarded Cadence for a while before she sank in front of Lita. “I will be going to visit my Cadence for a little while, my dear Lita. Ambrose Campana is no longer Ambrose Campana, yes? Like how Francis became Theta, Ambrose has become Epsilon—but Ambrose is more Epsilon than Francis is Theta, I think. Your friends with the Romanos have been kidnapped.”
“But you will stay here while I go, yes? You don’t need to worry. The Campanas will not be a problem when I’m here, and we will find the others, yes?”
Cadence ruffled her hair, then shrugged.
Lita’s brows furrowed, and she remained silent for a while before she nodded. “Okay, Maria…”
* * *
It took Maria quite some time to find exactly where she’d put the proto-conductor she received from Francis near the end of the events of Die Hauptstadt. Usually, Werner would appear whenever she was in search of something she’d misplaced, would lecture her on not misplacing things, and then would proceed to help her find her lost item, but today he didn’t. Perhaps he was too busy?
After devouring a hearty breakfast, the children—with Albatross taking the lead—helped her scour the lower levels of the ship. Maria had labelled it as a great treasure hunt; and although some rolled their eyes at her call, all the children dove into the search wholeheartedly. This was why she loved them—their enthusiasm was absolutely wonderful. The adults on her crew were not as enthusiastic in their searching. Morandi complained about his back hurting, while Emmanuel complained about losing time on his conductor engineering work. Veles deemed himself above ‘seeking earthly treasures,’ and so on. But Maria enjoyed them all still.
Eventually, Miriam—a fourteen-year-old Specialist with the ability to somehow sense the movement of vitae particles through touch and who had selected her name ‘Miriam’ from a book Simon had read to her a month ago—found the proto-conductor stored away inside a large trunk full of expensive stolen wine from Cancer. For her efforts, Maria decided to name her captain for a day much to the chagrin of the other children and her other crew members.
Veles wasn’t too happy when Maria told him that she was off for the day and to hold up on the search for Conta until she returned. They had docked the ship several kilometers off-shore from the seaport city-town of Lunanegra and had intended to scrape through the town that afternoon. His interest was piqued, however, when she mentioned that a man with an eye-patch was involved.
“Oh?” Veles chuckled. “How ironic that there are three men with eyepatches that have touched upon our paths.” After some time, he laughed and exclaimed—“I will allow it and take full command on this ship for the time being! You may go!”
“And I will allow that!” Maria chimed.
When Maria finally popped through the gate she opened on deck, she emerged out into a familiar-looking room hosting a table and a cabinet of wine. At the table sat several familiar people—one of whom was opting to lean against the back of a chair instead of sitting.
“Cadence!” Maria exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. She quickly plowed over to where Cadence was leaning and drew Cadence under her arm. “It is nice to see you in person, no? Again, I mean! It was wonderful to see you before—”
“—saints, sunshine!” Cadence chortled. “It was just a couple months ago. Not like we don’t talk ta each other almost every day.”
Maria continued to beam and turned her attention to the others seated around the table. Only one of them wasn’t gawking at her. Maria had been practicing, so even without Cadence’s help, she could put a name to each of the faces there. Cavallo, Agape Rosario, Bendetto, Maximallian, Allen, Carl, and—
“Francis! It’s good to see you too!”
Francis, who had been sitting impassively at his seat and reading a book while puffing his v-cigarette, looked up at her and offered a smile. “Hello, Maria. It’s good to see you as yourself. I see Cadence was able to convince you…”
Carl ogled her while Allen silently puffed on a v-cigarette.
“I can’t fuckin’ believe it…” Carl muttered, glancing at Cadence and nodding at Maria. “This nut job’s really connected to you.”
“Don’t be rude, Carl.” Francis frowned.
“It’s Carl and Allen too!” Maria rounded her way over to them. She placed a hand on the back of Allen’s chair and rested a hand on Carl’s shoulder. After peering into their faces, she felt a distant stare prick her skin and turned to face—“Hello Agape!”
Agape frowned. “I see you know me from Cadence. That’s quite a security breach.” She crossed her arms, then glanced at Allen and Carl. “You know each other on a personal level?”
“She used to run shipments for us from time to time,” Francis explained, smiling and flicking ash from the bud of his v-cig. “She was a reliable transporter.”
“You had someone like this handling our conductor shipments?” Fortuna pressed with a frown.
Francis’s amicable smile slid from his face as a silence fell over the room—
“You all are very good at creating a strange atmosphere, no?” Maria interjected. “I am better at reading atmospheres now, and it’s not a very ‘normal’ and ‘fun’ one right now, no? You asked me here to pretend to be Leo, yes?”
“I still don’t agree with this deception,” Francis murmured, looking away from Fortuna. “Epsilon is a dear friend of mine… He may no longer be as I remember him, but…” He placed a hand over his mouth and mumbled, “Even if a person has changed in a way that makes them almost unrecognizable, should they not be treated the same as they were before? Or perhaps with at least respect? Even if very little of them remains or none of them at all…”
Allen and Carl shared a look.
Cadence came to Francis’s side and squeezed his shoulder. “We need ta find the kids, Francis. And ta find the kids, we need ta find this maybe-Alpha guy. Epsi is the only lead we have right now.”
“…You’re right.” Francis shook his head. “Don’t know why I’m hesitating. Sorry.”
Cadence was always very good at convincing people, Maria realized. She did it in a much different way than Maria did. There was no excitement nor cheer in her words nor did she drag people by the arm to where she wanted them to go. And yet…
Francis turned to Maria. “Thank you for your help, Maria. I’m grateful. Truly.”
“There is no need to thank me, my dear Francis. I am doing this because I want to, yes?” Maria laughed. “Oh, but I do have a question. Cadence says you did not explain it very well… but why did Epsilon think I was Leo?
Francis glanced at Cadence in surprise before a hurt expression crossed his face. “I apologize if I didn’t explain clearly… but if that’s the case, I would’ve liked for you to have told me…”
Cadence blanched and held up her hands. “Nah, Francis, it’s good really—”
“Then I’ll explain again,” Francis said curtly. “One of the requirements of becoming a saint candidate is that your vitae must be of a similar wavelength—color, in a sense—to the previous saint candidates. It’s quite a complicated thing… Think of it as a small seed being blown away from the whole fruiting plant and finding its way to you. But it’s peculiar—your circle of True Conductors. Jericho. You. The irony doesn’t escape me—”
See. Tangent. Cadence reached over and patted Francis on the back. It’s charmin’ when it ain’t about somethin’ serious. She made a face. Saints—wait, no. Bah, we need ta make another word for ‘saints’—
“—are you listening…?” Francis frowned, peering at them. “Is it that I’m not explaining it well or is that you’re not listening well?”
“From the gist of what I can understand,” Fortuna interjected, “which is not much since conducting doesn’t interest me, it has to do with the wavelength and color properties of your vitae and possibly also your conducting-type. Not quite relevant in my opinion, but that information could be useful somewhere down the line.”
“Your summary is correct, Fortuna.” Francis nodded. “You’re bright as always.”
Fortuna held Francis’s gaze.
Such an odd atmosphere they enjoyed creating, Maria thought again.
Maria hummed. “So Leona and I have similar colored vitae…? That’s quite interesting, no? She is very interesting—”
“Ambrose—” Fortuna interjected again. “Epsilon seems off. Francis, are you certain he was initiated… properly?”
Maria stared at her and thought—Fortuna and Ambrose did share a history, didn’t they? Yes, she recalled the engagement they had to ‘secure their power in the city’ on Cadence’s end of things many long months ago. Maria didn’t quite understand being bound down by something like that just to gain power when one could just seize that power all on their own. But she wondered if she would feel like Fortuna did if she’d lost Conta in that way. What if Conta was fully Beta and not Conta? No, Maria couldn’t imagine it. Impossible.
“Oh, I’m fairly certain he was initiated properly,” Francis replied. “And I am sorry for your loss.”
“Well… Serves that Campana bastard right.” Carl grumbled before shaking his head. “That Epsilon guy’s still weird though.”
Francis took a drag of his v-cig. “Epsilon has always been strange. But yes, he’s burnt through quite a lot of his vitae. Every time he conducts, he burns out his vitae. He’s not as conservative with it as I was… Supposedly, according to the records, the last time he was initiated was back in the 1700s. The time era shift certainly isn’t helping.”
“Were you as looney as him in the beginning?” Carl snorted.
“I had Omicron to guide me back then,” Francis answered, “so it wasn’t so bad.”
Carl grimaced. “Didn’t mean to bring that up… Anyway, pretty damn useful ability if it didn’t damn fry your brain afterwards. Could be useful for gettin’ info under the table.”
Francis frowned. “It was originally meant to be both a form of therapy and a way to ensure that history was properly recorded. To put it as you do…”
Carl arched a brow. “There was therapy back then?”
“For those who have had a painful or traumatic experience in the past.” Francis nodded. “Of course, there did arise an issue of people abusing the ability…”
“Abusin’ the ability?”
“Yes… some preferred to relive the best moments of their life over and over again at the cost of living in the present. It was a troubling situation…”
“So his conducting was kinda used like a drug, boss?” Maximallian tried.
Maria glanced up and saw everyone exchanging a tense look. They really enjoyed building up a strange atmosphere, didn’t they?
“I suppose so,” Francis murmured after a beat. He smiled at Max, then drew, “That’s an interesting analogy, Maximilian. Thank you for sharing.”
The man stiffened, glanced at Carl, cleared his throat, shifted on his feet. “Er, no problem… boss.”
“What about you, Francis?” Maria wondered, walking back to Cadence’s side and propping her arm up against her head. “You researched too, yes? Ollie said you told him that back in Capricorn.”
“My interest was more in…” Francis mulled. “…the quantum state of vitae particles, the association vitae particles have with each other and whether or not each individual vitae particle’s base components were that much different from another’s. I was also quite interested in the origin of the vitae particle, but I doubt even with centuries more of research I’d ever be able to understand it.”
“—we should get to the task at hand,” interjected a voice.
Maria glanced to her right and noticed Cavallo puffing his v-cigarette calmly. The white smoke trailing up from the blunt of his v-cig matched the whiteness of his skin and hair. Maria had almost forgotten he’d been there. Like a ghost!
“I’ll go retrieve him.” Francis rose from the table. “I believe he’s spending time with Pi and Mateo.” He approached the black-painted wall and slipped through it after igniting it with pale tangerine light.
Hey, by the way, between you and me has he seemed off lately?
“Off?” Maria glanced down at Cadence, ignoring the looks she received. “Francis?”
Carl and Allen turned sharply.
No. The other captain. Cadence waved the two off. I don’t know about you, but—
“Cadence, about what we discussed earlier,” Cavallo drew.
When Maria looked up, she found the man staring not at Cadence but at her.
“Ambrose’s condition has given us a unique opportunity to capitalize on.” Cavallo leaned back in his chair with folded arms. “He remains the acting head of the Campana Family due to his father’s imprisonment. His missing status could agitate the Campanas and the hold they have over the west half of the city or his. Or a new engagement to Fortuna could help stabilize this city and put it under the fold of the Romanos.” He rolled his v-cig between his fingers. “Maria, is it? Seeing as you’re associated with Cadence and I assume care for her, it would be in your best interest to convince Epsilon to listen to you as Leo and have him accept Fortuna’s proposal.”
The gears in Maria’s head turned, then she laughed. “Why must you lie again with this? Why not just ask him simply?”
Agape and Bendetto shared a glance from across the table.
“As you may be aware from Cadence, the Campanas and the Romanos share a tumultuous history,” Cavallo explained calmly. “Given that the two former family members who had tight access to some… confidential information of our family… are still at large, we remain at a disadvantage.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about those two,” Maria noted. “Donato and his son Feliciano, yes? The golden beast killed them.”
There was a beat of silence. Everyone stared.
A ball of tension formed in Maria’s stomach but she quickly shoved it away.
Bendetto shot up from his seat. “The what…? That old urban legend?” He opened his mouth, then closed it. “Why are you saying that?”
Maria blinked and cocked her head. “Because I am the golden beast?”
Cavallo and Agape turned sharply to her, while Allen and Carl glanced at each other. Maximallian shifted in his seat, eyeing the empty chair where Francis once sat.
“Oh, Cadence didn’t tell you?” Maria laughed. “The golden beast is a story I made up with my friend Conta—who I’m searching for! It’s about me!” She patted Cadence on the head. “Cadence has been helping me spread my legend! Very exciting, no?”
Fortuna asked quietly, “When?”
“Back when Francis was doing his thing, yes?” Maria explained. “I was quite… hm? Upset at the time? Yes, upset. I found Donato and Feliciano running away with some Geminian cens, yes? The resistors that they were hiding and used on Francis—well, I’m pretty sure they used it on my dear Conta too.”
Maria found her eyes drawn to Allen and Carl, both of whom were giving her an odd glance. Empathy.
“I forgive people very easily, yes? But I cannot forgive someone that has taken or hurt something from me. Donato, Feliciano, Voz, and maybe even Leona…”
Cadence glanced up at her. Despite wearing a confused look, Maria could tell that Cadence was grimacing internally. Preferred it if ya kept all that on the down low, came Cadence’s thought, but are ya alright, sunshine?
Maria smiled down at her. “Of course, my dear Cadence! Because I will retrieve Conta, no matter what!” She studied her more closely. You still keep so many secrets! They are not so necessary, yes?
“Well, that’s a good one in my book!” Carl snapped, breaking the silence and slamming his fist onto the table. “Fuckin’ bastards! After what they did to Francis. Would’ve rather buried the bastard myself, but…”
“You’re sure the two of them are dead?” Allen asked quietly.
Maria nodded. “With my own two hands.”
A gust of cold wind swirled through the room, cutting off the conversation short. In from the gate along the wall stepped Francis, Epsilon, and Pi. Pi was just as Maria remembered from Cadence’s memories. Quite tall, pale, and Aquarian-looking with sharp features. Epsilon looked very frazzled—blonde hair sticking up this way and that—but also very much like Ambrose Campana.
“Leo…?” Epsilon started forward and stopped short only half a meter away from Maria. “Is that you Leo?”
“I am who I am!” Maria beamed, detaching herself from Cadence and spreading her arms. “You have something to show me, yes?”
Pi cocked his head from behind Epsilon and pointed to Maria and then to Epsilon before frowning at Francis beside him. “Leo? No. Not—”
Francis rested a hand on the man’s shoulders and placed a finger to his lips.
“I’m so blessed that you’re still here, Leo!” Epsilon exclaimed, taking hold of Maria’s hand and then falling to his knees. “I wasn’t able to check the records but with the way everyone was behaving I feared you had turned your back on us. Oh, I shouldn’t have doubted you for a second!”
Well, that’s more than I expected, Cadence noted with an arched brow. But I guess it’s touchin’? Saint candidates and ELPIS leaders, huh?
Maria stared at Epsilon for a moment before she fell to her knees too. “You shouldn’t doubt anything for a second, no?”
“Oh, Leo, you’re right! You’re right!” Epsilon rattled on. “This world has become—fantastic! The technology has advanced so far and the architecture—oh, the architecture!” He shook his head. “Oh, but the syzygy is still coming, isn’t it? Have you been able to delay it any—no, stop it completely? If you’re here then we must have made some progress!”
Maria laughed, glancing over her shoulder to Cadence who merely shrugged non-judgmentally, nonchalantly. She glanced then at Fortuna and found the woman frowning with crossed arms. “You’re quite funny, Epsilon,” Maria noted as she looked back to Epsilon. Before he could respond, she reached for her belt, pulled out her sword from its scabbard, and pressed the blade against his palm. “You have something to show me, yes? May I?”
“O-Of course, Leo!”
Maria drew the blade across the man’s palm without hesitation. He didn’t flinch, and so she pulled his hand up to her lips and gave it a lick.
Saints, sunshine, do ya really gotta do it like that—
Epsilon lifted his gloved hand to the side of Maria’s temple and squeezed. Immediately, Maria’s vision became flooded with black pinpricks.
When Maria’s vision came back to her, she found herself walking through an open corridor lined with white pillars that allowed sunlight to slip between them. Low off-white banisters fitted the spaces in-between those pillars and were overgrown with twisting vines. In the distance leaning against one of those banisters stood a man and a woman.
The woman had long red hair that was barely kept back by a white-bowed headpiece. Her skin was pale and nearly glowed in the sunlight. The man on the other hand had darker skin and long dark curls. They were both staring at something on the railings of the banister. A bee and a hornet—engaged in stinging combat.
The man reached down and touched the hornet with his index finger. Blue light spilled out from his fingertip onto its shiny body, and immediately the insect’s body seized which allowed the bee to scamper off. When the man extended his finger out again to the hornet, the insect crawled up to it and rested peacefully on his nail.
Voz?! Maria thought excitably.
“Pretty, isn’t it, Hatsya?” the man inquired, lifting his finger to show the woman beside him.
“It’s quite fascinating, Scorpio,” Hatsya agreed. “To be able to stop violence so easily—”
Maria wished dearly to run right up to the two and ask the man if he was Voz, but her feet would not obey her and so she continued down the hall until she reached the end where the roof ended and a series of steps descended down into a brick path. Upon continuing forward down the first step, Maria was immediately blinded by morning brightness.
When her eyes adjusted to the light, however, she found herself not standing beneath a brightly shining sun but instead beneath a full moon. The sky was dark above her and an intense heat wrapped her from head to toe. As her eyes scanned the area on their own, she came to register that she was standing on a gray elevated path surrounded by glowing pools of light that stretched flat out into the distance. White pillars rose up along the gray path up to a circular elevated platform where a familiar woman with long dark hair stood before a large divot containing glowing liquid. The liquid seemed to be spilling in from the surrounding pools via the thirteen gouged lines that radiated out from the divot to the outer edges of the circular platform. Behind that pool stood a woman with long, dark hair.
It took another moment for Maria to realize that she was not standing alone. There was a man at her right and a woman at her left and even more people dotting the spaces in-between the pillars further down the path.
Before she could study them any further, her gaze became forcefully drawn to the end of the path where a figure was walking up slowly. As the figure drew nearer and nearer, Maria could identify them as a man with golden hair and sun-kissed skin. He moved with rigid purpose, a broad back, a steady pace.
When he passed her by, he flashed the briefest smile and continued up to the woman where he stopped opposite of the small pool. Upon reaching the spot, the golden man turned to look back at Maria.
Maria tried to lift her hand to wave but instead found herself offering a nod then watching as the man dipped into a deep bow.
“Do you understand what is going to happen, Alejandro Apolinar?” asked the dark-haired woman.
“I do, Vega,” the man said, head still bowed.
“Do you understand the weight of the knowledge that is going to be bestowed upon you?”
“Have you trained in mind, body, and spirit to be able to wield and conduct yourself as a proper bearer of knowledge?”
“Will you respect the will of the candidates that have come before you and light up a new path with your own will?”
“The pillar of Leo is victory. Do you understand what this pillar represents?”
“Achieve victory not only in the external world but also the internal world. Do not be defeated by past failures.”
Vega extended her hand across the glowing divide. The golden man reached back out to her and barely grabbed a hold of her hand. Then, he stepped forward into the glowing pool and sank down, down, down—
—again, Maria’s vision became filled with pinpricks. When her eyes finally adjusted, she found a man with an eyepatch sitting in front of her. He looked just like the man who had taken her from the orphanage—wait. No, no. The man before her was young, not old. Not the man she was looking for.
Behind him hovered a nervous-looking Epsilon and a collection of familiar young faces. Cadence’s children. This was the memory that Cadence had seen earlier.
“Hello, there.” The young man with the eyepatch smiled at Maria.
Maria frowned slightly, peering over the man’s shoulder towards the children.
Maria’s attention snapped back to the man.
“Are you surprised?” the man chuckled. “Maybe not. Do you even remember me?” He smiled pleasantly. “It’s me—Proteus. But at this point, you might know me as Alpha instead. I look different, don’t I? I still remember the sound of the Monadic bells when I picked you and Conta up from that orphanage. Do you?”
A faint memory ghosted the edges of Maria’s mind. The sound of bells ringing in the distance as children squealed and shrieked.
“It’s a shame what happened to Conta,” Proteus continued. “I was quite surprised to see Beta instead of her when we met recently. She was always attached to you, wasn’t she? And much weaker.” He sighed pleasantly. “And now here I find out that you’ve also become a True Conductor. I knew you could become anything.”
Maria wanted to greet him and ask him so many things but her lips were sealed shut.
“I’ve already left this message for Theta.” Proteus gestured behind him. “I have what Theta’s been desperately searching for.” He chuckled. “Vega’s always been a bit foolish. She’s much improved without Altair, but her current condition leaves much to be desired. Plus, she’s gotten attached.” His lips thinned. “To be unbound by anything and to achieve true freedom. That’s true victory and true happiness. If I managed to teach you anything, it should be that, right?”
Epsilon fidgeted in the background and glanced in confusion at the children.
Proteus looked back at him. “I’ll leave Epsilon in your care until I need him again.” He rested a hand on his chin and smiled. “I doubt you’ll be able to get many hints from him, so I’ll leave you this old story I used to tell you and Conta both:
There once was a nameless hungry white beast,
Who found devouring the names of others a great feast,
Every time it ate each of their names,
It would assume their identity whether others, sirs, or dames,
It ate and it ate past the sun that rose from the east and set in the west,
It became the worst, the infamous, the famous, and the best,
But its hunger still remained even as it travelled to the golden fields far and bold,
There it encountered another beast that was the color gold.”
Maria cocked her head and found that she was able to do it.
Proteus chuckled again. “See you soon, my little Maria.”
* * *
“What the hell are we supposed to do with a damn story poem?” Carl grumbled.
“That was a waste of time,” Agape agreed.
“We should head back to Comientzo tomorrow night,” Fortuna concluded, “and see if the dockworkers have noticed anything off. That peacekeeper will be with us, right, Cadence? He’ll be a good intimidation factor.”
Maria listened to their complaints from where she lounged hanging off the edge of the table they were all sitting around. Cadence was leaning against the back of a chair in front of Maria and would occasionally send Maria looks and questions of are ya sure ya didn’t see Alma there?
Epsilon had been carted away by Pi a little bit earlier despite begging to remain by Maria’s side. Maria was rather endeared by him, so she’d been reluctant to see him go. But it reassured Cadence so she accepted it as it was. Still, she hoped to bring him on board her ship soon. As long as it didn’t upset Jericho too much.
“It’s not all for loss,” Francis said suddenly. He’d been quietly in his seat for a long time, so Maria had assumed he’d fallen asleep sitting up and smoking—which was a hilariously ridiculous scenario. “There’s a hidden message in that poem. I’m certain now that the person in Epsilon’s memories is Alpha. I don’t understand what he’s doing…”
“This is ridiculous.” Fortuna sighed but said nothing else.
“Are you going to be able to dissect that riddle, Francis?” Fortuna asked.
Fortuna rose from her seat then, followed by Cavallo, Bendetto, and Agape. “Well, I hope to see some results soon, Francis,” was what she said before glancing at Maria and adding, “Please consider what we discussed earlier.” With that, the Romanos exited the room with Maria waving at them in farewell.
After some time, Carl, Allen, and Maximallian went away too after sharing a word or two with Francis and Cadence. That left just Francis, Cadence, and Maria herself. They sat in silence for a while as Francis started to smoke again and read the book he’d brought with him. Maria meanwhile tried her best to read the atmosphere and watched the smoke trail up from the man’s v-cig.
“Francis, ya know I don’t want ta push ya, but…” Cadence started suddenly, staring at Maria for a bit before nodding. “Maria didn’t give all the details to the others earlier. She saw more than the whole bit with Proteus. She shared it with me, but… there was a whole… baptism situation I think with Leo. She said you were there.”
Francis perked up from the book.
“I feel like it’s kinda obvious at this point, but you and the saint candidates have history, don’t ya?” Cadence continued. “Did ya… perform any baptisms for them?”
Francis closed his book, suddenly looking morose. “… I suppose I did, although I don’t recall the exact details. It’s nothing like how it’s done today—I’m certain. I’d rather not speak of it. I’d like to say that those details are unimportant but that would be going against myself and everything that we’ve started to dedicate ourselves towards.” He hummed. “Yes, becoming a saint candidate was an honor. Back then, the knowledge passed down was revered. More than anything else, they were record keepers and providers of knowledge. That was what we hoped to do with the resistors too. Knowledge. Somewhere down the line of time, knowledge became sentient. Knowledge and memories. The soul itself…”
Maria tilted her head as she tried to understand.
“Some of us were quite close, cycling through the roles of teacher and student.” Francis set his book down on the table. “Maria, you do remind me of Leo back then—although the memory itself is quite fuzzy. That radiant pride is quite something. If I didn’t know any better, I’d perhaps think you were Leo.”
It’s a compliment, Cadence reasoned. Really. Probably.
“Well, I can’t be Leo because I am me!”
“Yes, you’re quite a shining star, Maria,” Francis seemed to agree quietly. “You might remind me of Leo but you also remind me of Omicron at times. For some people, you might shine so brightly that it hurts their eyes. They might ask you to dim your light or try to dim your light themselves.” He took a drag of his v-cigarette.
“No one’s gonna dim sunshine’s light.” Cadence chortled. “That’s for sure. No doubt about it. Pretty sure even Scorpio can’t.” She stretched her arms out then and yawned. “Well, I’m probably gonna turn in for the night.” She tipped her hat. “See ya later, Francis.” She winked at Maria. “See ya in my dreams, sunshine. Thanks for that.” And with that, she too departed.
“You should sleep too, yes, Francis?” Maria hummed, watching as the light from the gate Cadence had just exited dim. She could still feel Cadence there faintly, sleepily. “Cadence is thinking it, although she is not saying it for some reason.” She perked up as she recalled something. “Oh, and some of the children were asking about you, Francis!”
“The children on the ship?” Francis perked up again. “And the children are doing well?”
Maria nodded. “Yes! They’ve all chosen names for themselves already! They’re very bright, yes? Great adventures too!”
Francis’s gaze softened. “I’m very glad… for them to have an opportunity at a freer future than Cadence, Fortuna, my brothers, and I had… A sign of change perhaps.”
Maria stretched out across the table and laid flat on her back. She turned her head to Francis who stared at her blankly. “Sleep, yes? I tell my Werner and Jericho all the time because Nico gave it as good advice.”
“At least five hours of sleep a day!”
Francis chuckled. “It’s quite peculiar how you True Conductors function. I’ve only known you through business dealings, but you treat me so familiarly, Miss Maria… It’s quite touching to imagine that you care for me in the same way that Cadence does.” He chuckled musically. “Assuming that she cares for me.”
“What belongs to Cadence belongs to me. And Cadence thinks you’re family, so—you understand, yes?”
“‘Family.’ Again. I see… Poor thing.” Francis’s eyes dimmed for a moment and he stared at his v-cigarette. “I’ve heard about your circumstances a bit from Cadence…. You’re still in search of Beta, correct?”
“Conta?” Maria smiled. “Yes, of course!”
Francis smiled pleasantly then. “I’m not completely certain about this, but Beta’s—Conta’s—path might align with our search for the children and Alpha. I can only open my gates where I’ve been previously, and I’ve gotta admit that I don’t have as many as I’d like in Leo. Since you’re traveling through Leo at the moment, would you mind if I occasionally came on board to put my gates down wherever you’ve stopped at?”
Maria brightened. “You are already part of my crew, my dear Francis! You may come onboard anytime!”
* * *
Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters
Alpha or Beta? Proteus and Conta?
Maria stepped back onto the deck of her ship as she pondered on the two paths that lay ahead of her. It was quite dark on the ship now and quiet too. A thick black blanket clouded the skyline, so she couldn’t even tell if the moon was shining. She hadn’t realized she’d been gone for so long. She never did, did she?
Maria approached the bow of the ship, walked up onto the bowsprit, plopped onto its tip, and scanned the scenery. Instead of seeing the sea’s endless expansiveness, she spied the faint outlines of buildings with lit-up windows in the distance and the wood of an empty dock just below her.
It seemed as if someone had steered the ship to shore.
“How was your trip, Captain?”
Maria turned to find Simon approaching her from the dark. He was still dressed in his morning robes, and his eyes appeared sharp and alert in the dark.
“It was amazing!” Maria sang. “I met a lot of interesting people! Well, I re-met them because Cadence already met them, yes?”
“Well, I’m glad you had a good time, Captain,” Simon whispered. “Everyone’s asleep now. Veles was the one who guided the ship here. He said something about the currents leading him to this port and how there shouldn’t be any doubt in his instinct.” He chuckled. “He’s as interesting as you, Captain… He truly believes that Conta may have been carried this way.”
Maria beamed, turning to him. “That’s amazing! This is why Veles is cool, yes?
“I suppose so, Captain,” Simon drew hesitantly, “although I still do have concerns about Veles’s intentions towards Conta—”
“Nonsense, Simon! You worry too much, no? We already discussed everything, yes?” She laughed a bit, then turned to face the townscape again. In the distance, she swore she could hear bells. “Say… Are you still a part of Monadism, Simon?”
“Are you, Captain?”
She could hear the tap, tap of his footsteps drawing nearer and nearer until he was right behind her—not beside her.
“I asked you first, my dear.”
Simon laughed before he quieted. “… I think with things like this… the belief system is what’s most important. Not the people teaching those beliefs. Not the spreading of those beliefs. And yet…”
Maria glanced over her shoulder at him. “I can’t understand it if you say it like that, Simon…. Was that a yes or a no?”
“I’m not sure yet, Captain,” Simon replied faintly before smiling. “Not everyone can know everything for certain and be so sure of themselves like you.”
“Of course, they can!” Maria beamed, before peering at him. “So why did you leave and join me?”
“Other than the fact that you swept me off my feet, Captain?” Simon smiled. “It’s odd for you to ask things like this. I’m surprised.”
“Why shouldn’t I ask?” Maria tilted her head. “You are one of the oldest members of my crew, no?” She thought on it. “Well, Morandi would be the oldest but you would be the oldest, yes? Aside from Conta?”
Simon’s smile became faint.
Maria hummed. “Say, Simon, can you not sleep?” She hopped to her feet and balanced her way back to the bow of the ship. Extending a hand to him, she offered, “Shall we begin our hunt a little earlier than the others?”
* * *
The seaside town of Lunanegra looked almost no different from Comientzo. In Maria’s opinion at least. There were numerous pearly white Monadic temples dotting every street corner and several parlors with open patio seatings squeezed in-between them. Maria did notice that it was much quieter here than in Comientzo, but she figured that was just because it was late at night and everyone was fast asleep. There were a couple of dark-robed Espada roaming the streets and a handful of Leonian police officers too. The latter’s uniforms were much more regal-looking than the police officer uniforms Maria recalled from Werner’s and Cadence’s ends of things. These uniforms were jet black with twisting braids of gold linen lining all of their edges. Some even wore little shiny little brooches shaped into a lion’s head wearing a crown.
Despite the sameness of it all, Simon insisted that this town was different.
“This is actually the Leonian princess’s favorite seaside town,” he said as they walked along the cobblestone path lined by stone buildings pressed side-to-side. “She visits here once a year and occasionally visits the orphanages in the surrounding towns—like Comientzo, for instance.”
“The Leonian princess?” Maria pondered, thinking of Atienna whom she hadn’t spoken to often as of late. “The one who is going to be married to that Cancerian duke?”
“Ilunaria Solnaciente.” Simon nodded. “This town was renamed after her. It’s interesting how the countries are in a buzz about it even though they seem more like figureheads…” He trailed off, then studied Maria. “I’m surprised that you’d pay attention to politics, Captain.”
“Well, Atienna enjoys them a bit and Jericho is starting to get involved in it, so I thought I should try to enjoy them too,” Maria replied. “They’re quite boring though—all this talking without acting, no?”
They continued through the town and were stopped once or twice by Espadas and Leonian police officers. The Leonians seemed to be very curious about Simon’s robe and kept pulling him roughly to the side to speak with him. Maria didn’t like their roughness so she pried them away from him, chatted them away, and stole a golden brooch or two for Lita and Cadence.
Eventually, they came across a Monadic temple with steps that seemed even whiter than all the temple steps they’d passed by earlier. The tops and bottoms of the pillars of the temple flared out in such a way that they reminded Maria of a lion’s mane.
Maria pointed up to the building and broke out into a grin. “This looks like one of the temples the priests would take Conta and me to when we were younger!”
Without skipping a beat, she ran up its steps and tried its doors. Locked. Hm. Turning in a full circle, Maria delivered the door a big and swift kick causing it to immediately give way. Simon sucked in a breath and scanned the street.
“Oh, Captain…” He sighed but said nothing else.
Maria took his hand in hers and pulled him inside. Just like the other temples she’d stepped in before, the only source of light inside came in from the stained-glass windows. Pews lined the left and right sides of the temple and pointed forward towards the large white faceless statue standing tall at the back with widespread arms.
“Hello?” Maria called out as she walked in with Simon in tow.
Simon winced then sighed when only an echo answered her. “It’s quite late, Captain. Any priests residing here must have finished their prayers and mantras hours ago. It’s just us.”
“You’re so knowledgeable, Simon!” Maria chimed as she released his hand and walked right up to the back.
She came to a stop before the great faceless statue that was just beginning to be painted with flecks of color pouring in from the stained-glass windows. Sunrise, it seemed. The statute itself looked so sturdy and tall, and yet Maria had the urge to run up and push it over. She recalled one time when the priests had brought all the children of the orphanage to the temple; and Maria had opted to scale up the statue with Conta riding on her back despite the priests’ protests. The other children back then had cheered her on. She wondered where they’d gone.
“My dear Simon,” Maria drew, glancing back at the man who was now seating himself in the pew closest to her, “do you speak with the people you spent time with before joining my crew?”
“You have a lot of questions for me today, Captain.” Simon chuckled, then nodded. “I do write to some old friends of mine who are still active in Monadism. There’s one who serves in the Monadic temples in Scorpio. Lyr—”
The doors to the temple suddenly flew open and a panting figure staggered inside. Beneath the panting sound, there was a steady drip, dripping. Red was pooling onto the temple’s wooden floor from the figure’s wounded hand.
Simon immediately shot up to a stand and turned. “Conta…?”
Maria beamed as she fully registered Conta’s mousy brown hair and her full cheeks. “Conta! I knew you would be here! Were you also feeling a bit nostalgic?”
Conta glanced at Simon briefly before staring into Maria. “You again. True Conductor.”
Conta lifted her hand—gloved—and the blood staining her arm began to glow. She flicked her wrist immediately, and the red liquid burst into life with a white glow that rose from her arm and hurtled towards Maria and Simon like bullets. Maria threw herself forward and tackled Simon to the ground away from the spears before popping up to a stand to find that another person had entered the temple and now held Conta’s attention. A familiar man draped in jet blackwear dappled with bits of gold stood in the threshold of the door. Maria wracked her brain before her memory finally clicked. It was the Espada from Comientzo.
Maria grinned, popped up, and waved wildly as she pushed Simon behind one of the pews. “Andres! What are you doing here?”
Mouth slightly ajar, Andres arched a brow at her before looking back towards Conta. He lifted his left conductor-gloved hand revealing a pistol in his grip. He aimed it and fired at Conta but she managed to throw herself forward out of the way of the bullets which instead shot through the stained-glass window that had been behind her. Some of the shards rained down onto Simon’s hair but Maria quickly brushed them out.
Maria then detached herself from Simon’s side and walked over to where Conta had fallen only to come face-to-face with another white burst of spears. She immediatley rolled beneath the pew to her right out of the way of the white spears but didn’t remain there long since the spears began to pierce their way up the table towards her. She popped out from the pew just as it burst into splinters only to come face-to-face with the nose of a gun. Andres’s gun. He didn’t pull the trigger, however, and so she kicked up some of the wooden splinters into his face. He coughed and covered his mouth, allowing Maria the opportunity to deliver him a swift kick to the gut. Much to her surprise, he lifted his arm to block the blow and skidded back only slightly.
“Oh!” Maria beamed. “You’re quite good, no? I like you, Andres—”
“Captain, watch out!”
Maria whipped around to see four white tendrils shooting towards her. Without much thought, she kicked her feet underneath Andres’s and swept him onto the ground out of the way of the tendrils. Simultaneously, she reached for her belt and pulled out—not her usual blade but—her blade-conductor which she activated with a flick of her wrist. The golden light that burst from its hilt as she waved it through the air extinguished the white spears in an instant.
Conta’s eyes widened then narrowed in the dim light as she lowered her hand. “So you really are—”
A gunshot cut her off, and Conta barely managed to duck below another bullet that flew past her and embedded itself right into the chest of the white statue. Maria turned to find Andres back up on his feet and staring up at the cracks that were beginning to spread across the statue’s chest. His eyes were wide, his face paling.
“How about we stop fighting, yes?” Maria suggested.
Shaking his head, Andres lifted his pistol but then stopped short to glance over his shoulder at something Maria couldn’t see. He lowered the pistol a second after and extended his gloved hand instead. In a flash of amber light, he conjured a series of long blades gilded with gold that glinted cold in the growing sunlight torn by the stained windows.
“Those are quite beautiful,” Maria noted.
Andres blinked at her before avoiding her eyes. Instead of saying anything, however, he lifted his pistol again and aimed it—not at Maria herself or even at Conta, but—at Simon.
Maria immediately sent out her foot and kicked the pistol right out of Andres’s hands. In a flash, he conjured another one and fired it off without hesitation. Maria flicked her vitae blade up and extinguished the bullet in an instant. Without skipping a beat, she threw a kick back to Andres who blocked it again. She used the momentary distraction to traverse her way over the pews to Simon’s side. She grabbed Simon by the collar as she straddled herself on top of two pews. Before she could toss Simon out the window and to safety, however, she felt Andres’s shadow upon her. Instinctively, she pushed Simon back to the ground and reached for her normal blade—because she liked Andres and didn’t want to hurt him too much—but stopped short as Andres pushed her to the floor. Much to her surprise, Andres continued over and past her.
As Maria tried to rise up after him, she found herself pulled back down by an unseen force. “Oh…!” She stared at the seven or so blades that now pinned her to the ground through the sleeves of her shirt and her pants legs. She pulled one out from her sleeve as Simon plucked another out from her pants. When she managed to wiggle herself up a bit, she found that Andres was pursuing Conta to the back of the temple.
That wouldn’t do.
Taking aim, she threw the blade in her hand as hard as she could. It whined as it tore through the air and hit its target spot-on: the sleeve of Andres’s shirt. The force of it threw him back against the wall and pinned him there just as he was about to take aim at Conta. Maria then plucked the blade from Simon’s hand and threw it at Andres again. This time it nailed his other sleeve to the wall.
Conta, who was pressed back up against the statue, studied Maria before extending her hand out to Andres. The tendrils of white rose from her blood; but before they could reach their target, Maria plucked another knife from her sleeve, aimed it at Conta, and threw it without hesitation. After two more aims and throws, Conta was thrown and pinned against the bottom of the statue across from Andres.
There was a long stretch of silence as they all there pinned against their respective surfaces.
“We shall talk now, yes?” Maria called out to them as she reached out to Cadence and pulled with all her might.
Cadence appeared before her a second afterin a haze of sleepy confusion. Faintly, Maria could make out that she’d been sleeping on a couch in one of Francis’s exitless rooms only moments earlier.
“What in saint’s name—” Cadence rubbed her eyes and blinked blearily around Maria’s surroundings. “Wait—no. I get it.” She shook her head. “How do ya get up ta so much when we’re asleep…?”
“Will you help me?” Maria tried. “I… think you are better at getting people to get along? I am practicing on getting better myself—yes. But for now, since I finally found Conta… could you try?”
Cadence blinked at her in surprise before flashing a thin smile. “Didn’t need ta ask…” She ruffled her hair. “This might take a little extra thinkin’ though and my brain is still half asleep…” She gestured around the temple. “Ya know with these types of things it’s best to keep our cards hidden. Maybe even better ta dip and leave it as is.”
“I will not do this ‘dipping,’” Maria replied. “Conta is here!”
Cadence sighed. “Figured as much.” She cleared her throat. “Well—”
“—Look, we all want something from each other, right?” Maria said, her words feeling strange and foreign on her tongue. Was this what an override felt like? “And obviously gauging by how ferociously all of you are going at each other, it’s probably a tight situation, right? ‘Time is of the essence’ type? We don’t have time to be throwing fists if it’s that big of a situation, right? Things are always best sorted out through talking. A lot less painful most of the time too. Maybe the other party is a lot more willing to talk than you think. So since we’re all disarmed right now, how about we clear the air a little bit?”
Simon arched a brow at Maria, while Conta studied her with an unreadable expression. Andres stared at her for a moment before glancing over his shoulder again. After a beat, he nodded and began to wiggle his gloved hand. Instead of conjuring any sort of weapon, however, he conjured a sheet of paper with some text in Common written on it. With difficulty, he angled it towards Conta. Maria could barely see it, but it seemed to read—
Where are the children? I have been sent by the High Monadic Temple of Leo to find the children that you took from the orphanage.
“The Monadic temple?” Simon frowned, squinting at the written words. “Shouldn’t the ELPIS Department be handling this since it involves ELPIS instead of the temple?”
Andres conjured another note and flashed it to Simon and Maria. It read, Leo as a country is handling this separately from the ELPIS Department’s investigation since it’s also a matter that falls within national lines. We are consulting the ELPIS Department during this process.
Uh-oh. That ain’t good.
“I didn’t take the children from the orphanage,” Conta responded suddenly, calmly. “I’m not the one you’re searching for.”
Andres tossed his sign to the side and conjured another one that read, I saw you at the cliff with the orphanage.
“I was chasing after someone and ended up there,” Conta explained. “The children are of no interest to me.”
“Wait a minute,” Cadence interjected. “I’m not the detective by any means, but maybe—”
“Wait! Alpha did it!” Maria exclaimed.
Conta tensed. “How do you know that name?”
“Wait,” Cadence said, “we gotta be more careful here now—”
Maria rattled on, “He took the little ones of someone important to me, yes? And he works with someone who has conducting similar to the mist conducting we saw at the orphanage! He is actually Proteus, apparently?” She craned her neck up at Conta. “He was the one who took us in too—remember, Conta? The one we’re looking for!” She turned to Andres. “Alpha took the children, not Conta!”
Conta remained silent.
Maria continued brightly, “Francis is working to find them with my dear friend—”
“Oh, you call him ‘Theta’ I think, Conta—”
Conta paused, stared. “Theta’s working with you…?”
“Well, he is working with my dear friend,” Maria drew, glancing at Cadence beside her. “And so, he is working with me… yes! He brought me Epsilon, and Epsilon showed me a message from him—”
“Epsilon’s been initiated?” Conta looked up sharply then closed her eyes. “I see. It’s all coming together now.”
“Is it really…?” Cadence arched a brow. She shook her head and snapped her fingers. “Okay, I think we can salvage this. Jericho might not be too happy with it—Werner probably won’t be happy either—but I got an idea that’ll probably get everyone here what they want—”
“We should work together, no?” Maria pressed. “You are in search of Alpha, Conta? And I am in search of you and Proteus. Andres is in search of the children Alpha took! Does it not make sense to become a crew since we are on the same journey?”
“You’re a True Conductor. I’ve tried to kill you many times before.” Conta inclined her head at Andres. “He’s tried to kill me. You want us to work together.”
“Yes, of course!” Maria beamed. “Why should we let things that happened in the past cloud our present? The present will soon become the past so we should enjoy it as it is fully, no?”
Conta remained silent, unsmiling for a long time.
Maria waited patiently.
Finally, Conta said, “I would like to speak with Theta personally. I promise I won’t bring him harm. If what you’re saying is true, then this is important.”
In a flash of amber, Andres conjured another note. I’d like to meet this person too. I’d like more details. Then he conjured another. I assure you that I’m trustworthy. I won’t speak of this partnership with the ELPIS Department. Finding the children is what is important to me. And another. If you don’t allow me to see him, I will have to bring in the authorities. And another one. If you kill me, then the authorities will seek me and find out about this. And one more. Please let me come.
Maria laughed, pulling the rest of the blades pinning her to the ground with fluid ease. She tossed them up in the air and caught them before resting a hand on Simon’s head. “Of course! This is our new-old crew, yes?”
As she peered at Conta’s unchanging expression, however, Maria’s smile felt a bit heavier than usual.