Conta rejoins Maria onboard her ship alongside Andres. Although their reasons differ, together they share a goal of finding Alpha. In the background, Veles continues to seek vengeance against Conta and also shares commonality in being found by Alpha unbeknownst to Maria due to her carefree nature. Additionally, Cadence holds concerns about chlorowheat and Werner, but this is overshadowed by Fortuna’s proposal to Epsilon in order to unite the Romano and Campana families.
In-Transit, Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters
“So you’ve finally brought my target before me,” Veles boomed as soon as Maria had brought Conta and Andres onto the deck of her ship through Francis’s gates.
“Yes, our target has been acquired!” Maria exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air and then bringing them down to squeeze Conta’s shoulders. “Conta is home!”
Maria—with Andres and Conta at her side—stood across from Veles beneath the gray clouded sky as the ocean waves slapped against the hull of the ship. Sea birds cawed in the distance but Maria couldn’t quite see them. She wondered if Werner would be able to.
Despite the chill in the air, some of the children had come up on deck and now peeked curiously at Andres who held up a hand in greeting. The other older crew members were up as well and staring at Conta. Both Morandi and Simon held back the younger ones while Albatross held back Lita—once again too serious for the situation. Their whispers tangled the wind as the waters around them began to pulsate wisteria.
“Now, righteous punishment shall be dealt!” Veles boomed, throwing his fur coat over his shoulders and pointing his gloved hand at Conta. “For taking the lives of the guildmates who served dutifully against the higher power known as myself, I, Veles” —he closed his fist and the waves rumbled around them— “will give you what you deserve.”
With that, the ocean waters rose around them, peeling upwards like flower petals.
Sunshine, this is why ya gotta think a little bit more before ya go runnin’ off. Cadence, who was still synchronized tightly since Maria had just left her physical side, shivered in her shoes.
Maria had thought.
“You’re the bounty hunter,” Conta realized, eyes narrowing. She reached for the knife at her belt but Maria stopped her with a hand around the wrist.
“Veles is a member of my crew!” Maria corrected. “And also a True Conductor!”
There is no point in hiding things for a person like me, yes? Maria thought back to her. I have nothing to hide except what you have given me to hide. Hiding is a way for the weak to cope, no?
“You really do all gather together,” Conta muttered, eyes narrowing.
Maria glanced at her briefly before turning to Veles and gesturing at the waves. “What is this about punishment, Veles?” She pushed Conta behind her despite her resistance. “Veles, we have finally found Conta! We should celebrate!”
“Celebrate?!” Veles boomed. “Why should I celebrate with the one who murdered my guild mates?!”
“Captain…” Simon pressed nervously.
Maria flashed Simon a smile as she tried to reason an answer for Veles. “That was Beta that did those things, no?” She shook Conta’s shoulders again. “This is Conta, not Beta!”
“My patience thins even for someone who holds almost as much grandeur as myself, Maria!” Veles bellowed. With that, he threw out his hand and sent one of the petals of water at Conta.
Before Conta could draw the blade she’d pulled from her belt across the palm of her hand, Maria kicked her feet out from beneath her and swept her up bridal-style. With ease, Maria leapt back just as a blade of water pelted the deck and splintered it where she stood.
Some of the children and older crew members shouted in alarm. The older crew members then began to pick up the younger adolescents like rag dolls and dragged them to the far corners of the deck.
“The ship!” Giorgio cried in horror as he dragged back Albatross who dragged back Lita. “Veles, the ship!”
“How dare you speak to the Beast of the Deep when I’m dealing righteous punishment?!”
Again, another petal of water torrented downwards—this time aimed at Maria herself.
Maria leapt onto the rails and ran along them as she dodged the whips. One glowing whip snapped the railing in front of her and chopped off a piece of the wooden deck along with it. Maria plucked that piece of wood from the air and threw it down at a passing wave of pulsating ocean water. The next moment saw to her leaping onto the piece of wood and surfing on it through Veles’s conducted waves.
She maintained her balance as the waves twisted tightly through the air and even laughed for a moment as she enjoyed the icy splash against her face. When she looked down at Conta, however, she found Conta not looking worried. Conta didn’t look very excited either. Conta didn’t look like Conta.
Sunshine, I know you’re enjoyin’ the joyride—Cadence’s thought cut through the moment—but ya need ta calm Waterworks down over there or—
“The ship! The ship!” Morandi snapped. “It’s falling apart!”
Maria hopped off the makeshift surfboard as the wave she was riding on passed over Veles. She pounced on his shoulders and then leapt back onto the railings.
A flash of warm amber light blinked out of the corner of her eyes at that moment. Upon turning, Maria found Andres standing at her side and holding an oddly familiar-looking staff-conductor. Silently, he whipped it in an arc and sent out a flurry of amber-speckled frigid wind. The waves around them crystallized solid as did the water mopping the deck at its icy touch. Morandi and Giorgio, who had just finished ushering the children below deck, came up in unison, slipped, and slid across the frosted-over wood.
Veles’s eyes narrowed at Andres. “That conducting…”
Andres conjured a note.
Veles leaned in, squinting.
Yes. I am familiar with Claire. Claire is requesting that you two communicate without fighting. I agree. We are out on open waters. People will drown if you both keep this up. You both have members on this ship, correct?
Hey, sunshine, mind if ya let me do the talkin’?
Maria pondered it for a moment before conceding. She then beamed and said, “Veles, you know about ELPIS Leaders, yes? How they are technically immortal?” She released Conta as the woman struggled out of her hold. “The Beta that you seek is not here but in the thing they call a resistor. If you attack Conta here, it will do nothing.”
“If I die, I’ll return to my resistor. It’s as simple as that,” Conta said calmly as she alighted herself on the deck of the ship. “However, I won’t die without a fight. With everything happening with Alpha, I cannot afford to die here. It would take too much time.”
Maria didn’t like Conta’s words at all.
“And where is this resistor of yours?” Veles pressed.
“Not on me,” Conta replied.
“Think about it, Veles,” Maria continued. “What you really want is Beta, not Conta—yes?”
Veles lowered his hand as the frozen waters around them dimmed. He hummed, remained silent for a beat, before he swept up his fur coat. “It’s clear that I first have to destroy this ‘resistor’ this harlot speaks of!”
Maria thought she heard Cadence laugh.
“Only then will I return to take her life myself.” With that, Veles walked—slid—past Maria towards the entrance leading below the ship.
Maria gripped his arm, stopping him short. “What is this about taking lives, Veles? I cannot allow you to take the life of a member of my crew, yes? Especially not Conta. We worked together to find her, so why would we destroy what we found, Beast of the Deep?”
Veles looked stricken—almost hurt. It was an unnatural expression for him. Maria couldn’t understand it.
“Do you not understand what she’s done to my guild mates, Golden Beast?”
“She killed them,” he said, jerking his hand out of hers. “How would you feel if I said the same about someone who killed your crew members?”
Maria tried to ponder it but—
“You should be grateful I am greeting you this temporary mercy, Maria,” Veles said thickly before sweeping below the deck.
In the blink of an eye, he gathered his remaining bounty hunters who looked around in confusion. After dipping his hand in some water, he proceeded to conduct a rising wave out from the ocean for them to ride out on. Some of the bounty hunters hesitated while others readily followed him onto the glowing waters.
“Veles, we spent a lot of time travelling together!” Maria called out to him. “It was fun, yes? Why must we end it?”
He didn’t answer her, and instead rode off into the distance.
* * *
Half an hour later, Cadence desynchronized and the ice was just beginning to melt from the deck of the ship. Some of the children were moping it up already, while Maria herself was sitting on a barrel at the mast and waiting for the cool winds to dry her off. Werner had come earlier, chastising her about keeping warm but Maria told him—as always—that he worried too much.
Sitting with her on some adjacent barrels were a closed-eyed Andres who seemed to be meditating, Morandi who appeared restless, Giorgio who appeared even more restless, Simon who kept looking between them all, and Conta who was looking over a map. Lita had joined Maria earlier and was now sitting on her lap, while Albatross was sitting at her feet.
A crew member abruptly approached them from nowhere carrying with them a stack of towels. After mumbling something to themselves, they started handing out the towels to them.
Maria accepted the towel from the crew member but then paused as she studied them. It was a young woman. Maria could tell that much by the woman’s lashes and her shape. The rest of the woman’s face was concealed, however, by a mesh red mask embroidered with gold. Her hair which spilled out in dark curls was barely concealed by a veil of the same design. Paired with that she wore a simple blouse and a pair of slacks, making her stand outlike a sore thumb.
Maria stared curiously at the young woman. She was certain that she’d never seen her onboard before. The woman was certainly much too old to be one of the children and too young to be one of her other crew members.
Maria blinked and cocked her head. “Are you a friend of Ley?” She reached for the veil.
“Ley?” the young woman tensed, skirting away from Maria’s hand. “I have no association with the law if that’s what you’re asking. I’m just—” Accented Common. Leonian?
“No, not law. Gabrielle Law!” Maria gestured to the woman’s veil. “She liked hiding her face too, yes? I don’t think I’ve seen you before, you see? So I was just wondering if you knew Ley.”
Giorgio looked the woman up and down. “I don’t recognize you either. Who are you?”
The woman took a step back.
“She came on board earlier from Lunanegra. Her name is El,” Morandi replied. “Offered her medical skills. She’s a Transmutationist. Unlicensed.”
Giorgio squinted. “Unlicensed?”
“I-I’m planning to get my license eventually,” the woman stammered. “I’ve finally got the time and freedom to do it, so… I was just hoping to journey with you so I can learn a bit and in exchange of offering… my services. I…” She glanced at Morandi. “I heard it was okay, so…”
Andres cracked open an eye and stared at her.
“Can we see your face?” Giorgio pressed. He glanced over at Morandi. “Did you check her for those tattoos the captain keeps mentioning, Captain Morandi?”
Morandi sighed. “You’ve been getting a little bit forward recently, haven’t you, Giorgio? Yes, I checked for the tattoo. I’m not senile yet. She doesn’t have any.”
“And has Lita checked her over?”
“Yes, Giorgio. Watch it.”
Giorgio raised her hands. “Sorry, Captain Morandi. I just… want to be cautious.” He studied El. “I would still feel more comfortable seeing your face—”
Andres conjured a note and stuck it into Giorgi’s face. If she doesn’t want to show her face, then we should respect that.
“I agree! You can do everything you set your mind to, my dear El! You should do what you want, yes?” Maria sang. “I am sure you will be able to get your license and do what you please, yes? I’ve never had any medical professions on my ship before, no? I do know one. Nico. He’s quite good, but he is more so Werner’s and Cadence’s than mine. But that also makes him mine.”
El stared at her. “Uhm… thank you?”
“Believing that you can do everything is folly,” Conta interjected suddenly. “You can’t live freely like that without it being at the cost of others.”
El looked between them. “Uhm…”
Maria chuckled, leaned in close to Conta. “And why not? I am planning to live freely, yes? With both of my crews? I will not die and neither will they. That includes you, Conta!”
“Your words are sugar-coated in kindness, but that’s a selfish and single minded way of living. A rigid perspective: assuming everyone you mentioned sees it the way you do.” Conta looked over them then the children sweeping the deck. “‘Your perspective is not reality. It’s just a shade of it. That’s something you learn as you grow older or something you unlearn as you grow older.’ That’s something Theta always used to say. Libra too.” Conta’s eyes narrowed at Maria, and she lowered the map. “You still haven’t changed even after I’ve been gone, but I suppose that might just be the orphanage’s fault.”
Maria cocked her head. “But I can still turn my perspective into reality, yes? This world is mine—” She paused, eyes widening slightly. “Wait, you remember before our time in the Twin Cities, my dear Conta?!”
Conta continued, “Age, illness, sickness, pain, despair, heartache, tragedy, the forces of nature. These are things beyond anyone’s control. These are things that you can’t overcome no matter how hard you try. Hope—while inspirational—is still logical. It doesn’t apply in these areas.”
“What do you mean?” Maria chuckled. “These things can be conquered too, yes? All you must do is reach forward and—”
“You’re no longer just you,” Conta interjected. “Just by existing as a True Conductor, you’ve also become many other people. While your will is strong, I doubt that the people you’re connected to are as strong. Your will overpowers them, and they become whittled away and absorbed into your way of seeing things—your perspective. But they aren’t you. They can’t survive thinking like that. You feel them, can’t you? When they suffer? When they’re in pain? How can you conquer these things for them?”
Faint pain ebbed its way into Maria’s chest as faint images—worn and not quite clear—flitted through her mind.
Olive curled up in his bed in the royal palace and night bled into day into night and into day again. Him, standing before that pulsating and glowing viscous monstrosity with tears streaming down his cheeks as he burned it away into nothing. Then came images of the Sognare and Alma being pulled away into the dark. Then of Cadence—in near hysterics—as she begged for Francis—her childhood friend—to stop saying and doing painful things. Then, Werner standing in that white room in front of that white woman. Werner’s brief twisted nightmares of Otto, the trenches, the moonlight, the eyes; and then of him readily accepting the chlorowheat that Cadence was so afraid of. Atienna next, standing before the Great Tree of Virgo with her mother at the back of her mind. Shaking in the streets of the Twin Cities as Yulia and Kovich were killed right before her eyes. And then there was Jericho. The sand, the decision, his friends crumbling away into dust and looking at him in confusion because they ‘were friends.’ And then rain—rain pouring down on him in the capital of Capricorn as the realization of what he’d done finally dawned on him. Finally, came Veles’s look of hurt and betrayal—
Maria shook away the memory slowly and drew, “Yes, my spirit crew have been through many painful things, but we still all look forward to the future and the next adventure, yes? Sometimes things hurt, but then they get better.” She beamed. “I help them and they help each other too. We do not lose each other. I do not lose them.”
“You still don’t get it. And what if that’s not enough?” Conta shook her head. “No, it’s not enough. Solutions like that are mere fairy tales. If I reached out to Gamma like that, nothing would change. His mind is set on a perspective different from my own. So is Theta’s. I can’t do anything to undo Omicron’s and Omega’s deaths. Theta will spend the rest of his life agonizing and mourning. That’s reality, not perspective.” She paused then continued, “I remember you saying that you protect the things owned by the things you own. Things: people. So if that’s the case, then why did they all suffer and die?”
“What… do you mean? That is different, no? They were not mine then, but now they are….” Maria cocked her head, feeling something uncomfortable twist in her chest. Only Conta could ever make her feel this way. “Well—”
“Accepting that you can’t do everything is the first step to true strength,” Conta replied. “You’ve missed that point, so how can you be strong like you say all the time—”
Maria looked over to Morandi who was frowning deeply.
“From what I understand, you’re still Conta, aren’t you?” he asked. “So Maria is still your captain. Respect should be given where it’s due. You’re better than that, Conta.”
Conta met his gaze evenly before rising from her seat. “I’m going to look over the map in quiet.” With that, she headed below deck.
“Are you okay, Captain?” Morandi pressed once she’d disappeared from their sights.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Maria cocked her head at him, leapt up to a stand with Lita still in tow, and paced around the deck. Albatross followed behind her. “You don’t need to worry so much, my dear Morandi. Conta is just a bit angry.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
Maria chuckled and looked over her shoulder to find not Morandi but Jericho standing behind her. Synchronized just ever so slightly.
I have an intuition… Jericho peered at her. Like Nico said. An umbrella. Avoid things you don’t like. That is best. Sometimes.
“But being around Conta is fun, yes? I would never want her to be by my side.” Maria laughed again. “Don’t worry, my dear Jericho. I am strong.”
* * *
The toll of the bells clanging through the long, rectangular exitless room were not quite as loud and powerful as the ones from the orphanage. They were but small tiny brass things resting on the white-draped small tables pressed alongside the candlelit left and right walls. Maria suspected that the bells were no larger than her own hand.
Pews lined the left and right sides of the wall, all leading up to a single white arch that reminded Maria of Monadic temple pillars. It was carved with a wave-like patterned design with a top that blossomed out into twin wing shapes. Directly beneath it idled a nervous-looking Simon and beside him stood a stiff Andres. The ceiling rose quite high above the arch and two men, giving the area an expansive feel. This expansiveness was helped even further along by the fact that only a handful of the aforementioned pews were occupied.
On the left side of the pews sat Cavallo, Bendetto, Agape Rosario, and a handful of other people Cadence labelled as Romano executives. At the very front of the pew sat a familiar, wizened old man with a face full of wrinkles. Ricardo Romano—present, because he’d managed to win over the peacekeeping agents watching over him. For the time being.
“The old man wouldn’t even think about missin’ this event.” Cadence had chortled. “Best pops in the universe, am I right?”
On the right-side pew were just two women and one man. Remnants of the Campanas, Cadence had said.
The Campanas. The ones who had harmed Maria’s dear newly added crew members. The ones who had harmed Lita.
Well, more like the footmen of those guys, Cadence had reasoned. Most of the executives are locked up with old man Campana. And Ambrose is…
Mercy then, was it?
Lita had checked them all over thoroughly before they’d been granted access to this place. While the Romanos were used to such a procedure, the Campanas were evidently not. Lita had been nervous about seeing them again but had put on a brave face. Maria was quite proud of her, so she had happily held a blade to the Campanas’ throats as Lita had read their vitae; and when recognition flickered in their gazes as they’d looked over Lita, Maria was sure to draw blood.
Now Maria watched them all from an elevated platform that stretched the length of the hall and extended high above the heads of the ones below. There were no stairs leading to this platform—only a tiny black painted door on the platform’s floor.
On Maria’s left stood Jericho and Cadence. On Cadence’s other side clustered together Francis, Carl, and Allen—all puffing on v-cigs. On Maria’s right was Lita who kept glancing up at Conta and Tau who were both to her right. Werner, Atienna, and Olive—although not physically present—were all buzzing somewhere at the back of Maria’s mind, peering in with curiosity.
“I have never seen a marriage before,” Jericho noted. “I read about them. In books.” He stared down at the aisle and pointed. “They are described as ‘happy,’ ‘warm,’ and ‘the best day of a person’s life.’ This…” He glanced at Cadence then at Maria. “…atmosphere does not match that. Or am I reading it wrong?”
“No, you’re definitely readin’ it right, detective.” Cadence chortled half-heartedly. “It’s a different kinda marriage here.” Her smile dimmed slightly, and her eyes became half-moon slits. “This is a blood marriage.”
Maria peered at her. “But… there is no blood?”
Carl grunted and took a drag of his v-cig. “We’re lucky there’s not with the people stuffed up in this joint. Like a powder keg waitin’ to blow. Still don’t know how you managed to get the Campanas onboard with this lot.” He gestured at Tau and Conta.
“I told ya that all ya need ta do was leave it ta me.” Cadence chortled, running her fingers along her hat. “It’s not so hard ta do some convincin’ when the boss is willin’ ta do it.”
“Absolutely filthy. Of course they were easy to convince. You lot are cut from the same, damned, putrid cloth. Lawless—the lot of you!” Tau scoffed, immediately earning him a rigid glare from Jericho. He returned it. “And you… suitcase peacekeeper, you’re the most lawless of them all. Switching allegiances all willy-damned-nilly—”
“Shut up,” Jericho stated, his voice hard and cold.
Tau glowered. “Excuse me. Who do you think you damned are interrupting me—”
“Tau,” Francis interjected. “Enough.”
Tau, red-faced not from embarrassment but evidently from all of his fun shouting, shut his mouth.
Come on, detective.
Jericho’s gaze narrowed further but then he caught eyes with Francis and proceeded to dip his head.
Francis placed a hand on a dark spot on the railings in front of him and nodded at Cadence. The dark spot there began to glow as did the black painted door on the wall below them opposite of the arch. Out from that door stepped a pair. First was Fortuna Romano, all dressed up in a sparkly white dress with lace sleeves and a flower-woven train that flowed behind her. Beside her stood Epsilon in a neat tuxedo and with his hair gelled all the way back.
Cracking her knuckles, Cadence paced over to the small piano set at the very end of the platform. She sat down, flourished her hands dramatically with an easy smile. Then she began to tap away at the keyboard, playing a song Maria was certain she’d never heard her play before. It was smooth and slow, reminding Maria more of Atienna and Werner than it did of Cadence.
Pleasant, Werner thought.
“Theta ever have anythin’ dramatic like this back then?” Carl nodded at Francis. “Y’know between Theta and Omicron?”
Damn it, Carl—
An unpleasant twang hit the air. An incorrect note played.
Maria could feel Werner frown slightly.
Francis glanced over at Cadence briefly before eyeing Carl. “No… We didn’t have anything like this. I believed then and believe now that simple, quiet, intimate gestures can sometimes carry more connotation than loud ceremonious expressions like this.”
Carl grunted. “Yeah, well, you always preferred to make quiet threats. Thought it made you look more suave and cool or something.”
Francis frowned but then glanced at Cadence again. Then, he chuckled musically and looked back down at the pews. “Because it does.”
Maria felt a pressure that had been strangely occupying her chest for the past few weeks lessen.
“Anyways, the feeling and mutual understanding were enough for us.”
“Unspoken promise,” Jericho suggested suddenly.
Carl arched a brow at him but Francis nodded.
“Bringing people like them here is defiling this place,” Tau muttered under his breath and jabbed his finger into the bannister. “This place is sacred. There’s rules you have to meet to use this place. And what is this? A damned corrupt criminal blood union—”
“Ah, shut up, Giustizia,” Carl grumbled. “You’re lucky we’re lettin’ you live after what you did.” He clapped Francis on the shoulder, startling him. “Omicron said that things were different back then, right? What she mean by that?”
Francis frowned, rubbing his shoulder. “Oh, yes… that. While we were both researchers of vitae, research was rigidly divided into theory and practical applications back then. I was more into theory, while she was more into applications. Our different realms of study made it unlikely for us to interact unless it was for… particular ceremonies—”
“Theta!” Tau snapped. “Why are you telling them everything?! They don’t deserve to know—”
“And why not, Tau?” Francis returned. “The past is there not just to uphold the concept of time. It’s there to be learnt from and reflected on. Otherwise, what other importance does it hold?”
Tau shut his mouth, shared a look with Conta, and then pushed his glasses up his nose.
“So Theta was stuck up,” Allen suggested.
“I guess I kinda was,” Francis agreed after a beat.
Tau scoffed again. “Having standards isn’t being stuck up. It’s what any upstanding person has. You ever heard of—”
“Tau. Please be quiet,” Conta interjected with a sigh. She nodded at Francis. “As soon as this is over with, Maria will take Epsilon on board her ship with me, correct? Then Tau will work with you from here.”
Francis glanced over at her and nodded. “That would be the best course of action.”
“You are quite forward, my dear Conta, no?” Maria peered at the woman curiously.
Conta didn’t respond.
Fortuna and Epsilon finally reached the arch where Simon stood, and Cadence stopped playing. She scrambled back over to them before squeezing herself back into place between Jericho and Francis. Simon meanwhile flashed a smile at Epsilon and Fortuna—although Epsilon was the only one to return it. Simon then proceeded to recite something long and elegant about unity and marriage. Maria quite liked his voice but found his words very boring. Something about love—Maria knew all about that—and unity and sacrifice.
As Simon went on, Maria recalled the night she’d first met him. He’d been a tearful, sobbing mess mumbling incoherently in a small bar in a backwater Leonian village. It had been only a few months since Proteus had disappeared from Maria’s and Conta’s sights and they hadn’t yet gotten a ship of their own. As Maria had been going around the bar cheerfully asking if anyone would be willing to lend her their ship and their hand, she witnessed Simon being thrown out onto the streets by the bartender. Out of curiosity, she went out to greet him with Conta. He was incoherent—half-mumbling about ‘cut voices’ and ‘cruelty’ and how he ‘didn’t know’ and how he ‘should be punished.’ It was quite an odd thing, and Conta had tried her best to comfort him. To no avail. When Maria smiled brightly at him regardless and extended her hand out to him in invitation, however, he had gripped her hand tightly and called her a saint and his saving grace. Simon would later claim that their first meeting was quite different from that, but Maria was certain that he was just embarrassed over the entire ordeal. He needn’t be—
“Do you, Ambrose Campana, take Fortuna Romano as your lawfully wedded wife?”
Maria perked up and out of the memory at Simon’s voice.
“I do,” Epsilon said from below.
“Do you, Fortuna Romano, take Ambrose Campana as your lawfully wedded husband?”
“This is damned weird though… ain’t it?” Carl grumbled.
Francis puffed his v-cig with narrowed eyes.
“You may now kiss the bride.”
“Saints,” Carl muttered. “I’m gonna puke. She can do way better than that guy.”
“Kiss?” Epsilon pulled back slightly. “Isn’t that a little… risqué? You’re much younger than me, aren’t you?”
Whispering from the Campana side of the hall resounded.
Fortuna flushed slightly and said through gritted teeth. “Just. Kiss. Me.” When Epsilon still hesitated, she grabbed him loosely by his collar and pulled him close as she closed her eyes.
Maria leaned forward with interest as she felt her cheeks flush from either Werner or Atienna—she couldn’t tell. Grosswas Olive’s comment.
The kiss lasted for twenty-seven seconds exactly.
“A bit weird ta be countin’, Captain,” Cadence said lightly.
* * *
As the small bells gradually lost their chimes and the entire ceremony concluded, the Romanos and Campanas started chattering idly amongst themselves. Maria found it all quite boring again. Fortuna and Epsilon were arm-in-arm the entire time and smiling brightly despite the dullness. Eventually, some of the Campanas and Romanos left, leaving just Fortuna, Epsilon, Simon, Andres, Ricardo, and the caporegimes down there.
Despite the protest of the others, Maria leapt down from the platform and joined them. Agape Rosario startled backwards at her arrival but Maria ignored her and approached Ricardo who was still seated at the pew. She leaned in close to him and beamed—
“You are the one who took in my Cadence, yes? Ricardo Romano! I have always wanted to meet you myself!”
Ricardo immediately reflected her smile. “I’m flattered that a young lady like you knows who I am. You’re a friend of Cadence’s then?”
“Cadence is mine. Yes.” Maria chuckled, tapped on her temple. “I have seen many things from her.”
“Ah, yes, I’ve heard about what you are. A True Conductor. You must be ‘connected’—as they say—to Cadence then.”
Maria continued to smile. “Yes. I am a True Conductor. And you are the one who took in Cadence.” She leaned in closer. “You think you saved her, no? When she was younger? But did you do that out of mercy? Because you wanted to? Or because you wanted something from her?” She was almost nose-to-nose with him now. “Did you give her happiness?”
Ricardo held her gaze.
Maria was jerked back by the arm before she could say anything more.
“Hey now! Okay, okay, sunshine…”
Upon turning, Maria found Cadence standing behind her along with Jericho and the Foxmans. Tau, Conta, and the rest were still hanging up on the platform.
“You’re looking well, Cadence,” Ricardo noted. “It’s a shame that you’re no longer working directly for us. The Foxmans are lucky to have you.”
“Well, you know how times change,” Cadence replied, spreading her hands with a smile. “Would never forget everythin’ ya’ve done for me, of course.”
Ricardo’s brows rose but then his gaze went over Cadence’s shoulder. “Carl, Allen.” He greeted the two brothers with a nod as they approached. He paused as his gaze fell on Francis who was a step behind them. “Francis.”
“Mr. Ricardo,” Francis returned. “It’s good to see you well. I…” His eyes narrowed slightly. “…truly apologize for everything that happened in the city months ago. I know that words aren’t enough, but please believe me when I say that I wasn’t of sound mind. That’s no excuse in itself, but—”
Ricardo held up a hand. “I’m still breathing, and the city still stands. The city is quick to forget. Plus, you’re helping us to finally unite the two halves of our city. Perhaps this place will finally know peace.”
“Peace? Peace cannot happen if your illegal activities are still continuing to grow throughout this city,” Francis immediately said, eyes narrowing. He cleared his throat after Cadence and Allen nudged him. “I apologize for that. I may not be in a position to speak of it—”
“Of course you are!” Tau snapped suddenly from the platform above them. “Finally you’re talking some sense, Theta—”
Conta slapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him back before anymore could be said.
Ricardo glanced up at Tau and then regarded Francis. “It’s fine. No harm done…”
“I apologize for him too.” Francis paused. “I was told that you wanted to speak with me, Mr. Ricardo. What is it?”
Ricardo glanced at Fortuna who was now standing beneath the arch with Epsilon, Andres, and Simon. Then he eyed the tattoo on the right side of Francis’s face.
Maria felt Cadence tense inwardly and saw through her eyes as Carl and Allen did so outwardly. There was a tick of silence.
“Do you know who I am, Theta?” Ricardo asked.
Francis’s brows twitched slightly and he looked the man up and down. Then he smiled politely. “You’re Ricardo Romano, of course. Unless you’ve hired another Transmutationist that’s in Cadence’s line of work.”
“Unfortunately, I haven’t.” Ricardo chuckled loudly, warmly, good-naturedly. “I am who you say I am.”
Maria joined him in his laughter and soon Epsilon joined her too.
“Hey,” Cadence quipped quickly with a chortle. Time ta smooth out the situation. “There’s only one Transmutationist that’s as good as I am. Don’t go replacin’ me now, boss.”
Eventually the others joined the laughter in more subdued tones.
It’s almost akin to chasing after a ghost, don’t you think? Atienna’s thought floated downwards. But I suppose it’s like Cadence says. ‘The act of chasing after something is more important than the act of finding something.’
I didn’t put it as eloquently as that, Cadence returned. Ever thought of writin’ speeches, Atienna?
Maria didn’t think it was anything like chasing after a ghost though. As her laughter died away, her gaze strayed up to Conta before a movement from Allen caught her gaze.
With an unchanging frown, the man stomped out the cigarette beneath his heel.
* * *
After the wedding ceremony, Francis brought them all back into the exitless room where the Romanos held their meetings. Ricardo had returned back to the Twin Cities, leaving just the main caporegimes, Tau, Jericho, Cadence, the Foxmans, Fortuna, Epsilon, and Maria and her crew. Maria was quite sorry to see some of Ricardo go, but she was quite glad that Werner, Atienna, and Olive had all synchronized in fully in his place.
Maria joined the group at the executive meeting table as Tau began his quite endearing ranting about law, order, and everything in-between. Andres and Simon who followed behind her gave the man odd looks. Maria personally wanted to take Tau onboard her crew too—but then again, Jericho wasn’t too fond of him. She was sure they could get along though. Or maybe that was just her perspective…? No, she was sure they would.
“So, we’ve joined the Campanas with us now,” Fortuna said as she took her seat at the table. She motioned for Epsilon to sit beside her, but he wandered over to Maria’s side instead. Clearing her throat, Fortuna continued, “We’ll use the Campana assets to expand our search for the… children and Alpha.”
“My suggestion is to turn our attention towards locations we suspect Alpha to appear,” Werner said. “We know he’s in search of children to convert them to ELPIS in order to bolster his forces. I’m assuming that he’s taking advantage of the fact that their youth would cause many to refrain from retaliating against their advances.”
Would people hesitate? Maria wondered about that. If a child came up to her and threatened one of her spirit crew or her ocean crew, she would surely retaliate without question—
Jericho clenched his fist, eyes narrowing.
Faint memories of sand, burning heat, and slinking through cold and empty buildings flitted through Maria’s mind. They reminded her faintly of her own memories of running around with children in the orphanage—sword play, wrestling, all those pleasant things. She wished Jericho had experienced something similar to her. Perhaps she could show him sometime later.
Werner eyed Jericho before reaching over and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Seeking out locations that have children—Specialist or gifted children—in their care is our next best manner of approach. That way we can prevent them from being captured in the first place. Prevention is key. This would require extensive contributions by the Romanos and… our temporary allies.”
Cadence repeated what Werner said out loud.
“Since this involves an attack on Ophiuchus,” Atienna added slowly, “it might be best if we told Leona and the peacekeepers about this…. Regardless of what their future intentions are, we should think about the present consequences, don’t you think? Peacekeepers still have a role to play in maintaining the peace of Signum, after all, and if Alpha succeeds in his invasion…”
Cadence didn’t repeat this part out loud, but—
Jericho nodded and offered a thumbs up. “Okay. I will tell Leona of Alpha’s plans.”
“What?!” Tau snapped. “Working with the damned scum of the Twin Cities is one damned thing too far, and the only reason we’re doing that is because it’s for the better good! But the damned fake Ophiuchians? The peacekeepers? Leona?!”
“From what I get—which is not much—” Cadence tried “—didn’t you also work with the saint candidates way back when?” She pointed to her temple. “Epsi—”
“—showed us many interesting things in his vitae and memories!” Maria continued, leaning against Epsilon’s shoulder. “You used to do this baptism of the saint candidates yourself, no? You ELPIS leaders? Right, Epsi?”
Epsilon arched an eyebrow. “Well, yes… I was there during one of yours, Leo, remember?”
Tau jabbed a finger at Maria. “Wait a damned minute here. Why—”
“Tau, it’s taken care of,” Conta interrupted. “Let’s focus.”
Tau opened his mouth wider, but then shut it and lowered his finger.
Francis placed a hand to his chin. “Going back to the topic at hand… That idea about heading to places where we think they might hit next is sound, especially since they’ve gotten a hand on my proto-conductors. I’ll, of course, try to locate them that way… but if we can save the children before…” He cleared his throat before nodding at Cadence. “Werner, was it? I thank you for the suggestion.”
Damn, he’s mad, Cadence thought.
Maria thought he looked calm but she supposed Cadence knew him better than she did.
“We need to also consider the fact that we don’t know when Alpha is going to execute his operation,” Werner added. “The timeline could be as compressed as a week or as dilated as an entire year.
Cadence relayed this to Francis who nodded, stared at the ground, covered his mouth, murmured, “Yes, the timeline is worrisome… Even if we follow the preemptive plan, it would prove meaningless if we don’t know when Alpha is planning to…” His eyes narrowed. “The children…”
Cadence walked over to him and gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Hey, we have Kent. We’ll get the others.”
“Yeah, Francis,” Carl added. “Ever heard of a bit of optimism?”
“Oh! Thank you for inviting me to your wedding, Fortuna!” Maria sang, breaking the quiet as she waltzed over to Fortuna’s side. “I’ve never attended a wedding before, so this was quite nice, yes? Boring but nice.”
“I don’t recall inviting you…” Fortuna muttered. She tapped her fingers against the table and shook her head. “Well, we’ll be able to put more men on our search like I said. But we’ll have to go through extensive steps to ward off this Scorpio or whoever too. I just need you to tell me where we need to look.” She sighed. “So the poem turned out to be useless.”
“Things shouldn’t be cast aside so easily,” Francis drew suddenly. He mumbled something into his hand again, then said, “Rather than being a location, the poem perhaps could be the hint of a timeline.”
“A timeline?” Tau pressed.
Conta stiffened. “It could be. No, you’re probably right… Alpha always held to his timetables.”
That didn’t sound much like Proteus, Maria thought. He always used to talk about how time and schedules were constraining.
“Right. We’ll have to approach it from a different angle. We should go over it again…” Francis nodded before staring oddly at Jericho, Cadence, and Maria. He perked up. “Oh, Tau, Beta—I have a favor that I’ve been intending to ask of you both. Well, it’s more of a favor for a friend than a favor to me.”
Tau arched a brow, following Francis’s line of sight. “I suppose we can since it’s a request from you specifically, Theta.”
“Maria, would you mind showing them Olive’s conducting?” Francis asked, gesturing to Maria after eyeing Cadence.
Maria’s heart skipped a beat as a curious excitement and hopefulness filled her chest. She glanced to her side and found Olive staring wide-eyed, cheeks flushing.
Cadence cleared her throat and then jerked her head towards Epsilon. “Eh, how about we clear the room first?” Still gotta keep the ruse about you bein’ Leo, Maria.
Francis exchanged a look with Tau and Conta before nodding. He approached Epsilon, whispered to him, before leading the man to a gate on the wall. Epsilon passed into it and exited the room after enthusiastically returning the wave Maria offered him.
After Francis rejoined their group, Maria proceeded to extend her hand, felt her head buzz pleasantly as Olive’s ghostly hand passed over her own, and then chuckled as her fingertips sparked with warmth. A golden flame leapt from her fingers a second after.
Tau startled backwards while Conta leaned forward with arched brows.
“What the hell…?” Tau straightened himself. He adjusted his glasses as the light stretched shadows across his face. “The color of that vitae…”
“That’s not the point, Tau.” Conta let out a breath and shook her head. Her gaze trailed from
Maria’s hand to her face. For the first time in a long time, their eyes met. “That conducting. It belongs to Aries.” She looked towards Francis. “But that should be impossible for a True Conductor.” She indicated Cadence and Jericho. “And you can do this too?”
Cadence nodded as did Jericho after looking to Werner for approval.
Tau put his hand to his mouth and then jabbed a finger at Cadence. Jericho smacked it away before Maria herself could. The man pulled back. “But you’re not Aries. You can’t be. You’d die if you were. You’re leaky channels. If anything, you should be melting into a viscous jelly-like substance right before my damned eyes—damnit!”
“Ya guys are really specific about the jelly-like substance thing,” Cadence noted, skirting back towards Maria.
“Do you know that you’re breaking the damned laws of vitae theory just by standing here and wiggling your damned fingers!” Tau snapped, swinging his finger now at Maria. “What? Breaking the damned literal law isn’t enough for you? You need to break this one too? Huh?”
“One of you must have the potential to be the Saint Candidate of Aries,” Conta drew, glancing at Maria. “I know it’s most likely not you.”
At the word saint candidate, Simon and Andres tensed and exchanged looks.
“Why are you jumping to that?!” Tau snapped before gesturing wildly at them. “Shouldn’t we be talking about the fact that they’re alive somehow?!”
“The two points are connected.” Conta waved him off. “As I was saying— if Aries’s vitae did enter one of them and it’s now spread across them, then one of the people in this True Conductor circle must be a potential Saint Candidate of Aries.”
“That person isn’t physically present at the moment,” Francis replied calmly. “But I know who they are. They’re a blood relative of the one who was the candidate for Aries… but…”
Olive tensed at this and looked back to Werner and Atienna. The latter gave him a reassuring smile while the former placed a hand on his shoulder.
“That makes sense…” Tau muttered before he shook his head and snapped. “No, wait a damn minute. No, it doesn’t!”
“I can’t recall the details of the baptism, unfortunately,” Francis continued. “Too much of my vitae has been lost over the years. Therefore, I’m unable to have the full picture. I was hoping one of you”—he gestured between Conta and Tau— “could help me out with that.”
Tau sighed—sympathetically—and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “It’s the vitae particle’s wavelength—don’t you remember, Theta?”
“Particle wavelength,” Jericho pressed on Olive’s behalf. “What does that mean. In the context of Saint Candidates.”
Tau lifted a challenging chin at him before sighing. “You’ve met Scorpio, haven’t you?”
Jericho looked away briefly. “Yes…”
“Have you seen the attractive properties of high-energy-level vitae particles?”
“If you’re asking if we’ve seen Scorpio’s head blown off and reattach itself then no,” Cadence replied. “But that kinda gossip goes around fast.”
Andres and Simon exchanged looks again at this. Andres then reached for his Monadic pendant.
Tau harrumphed. “When displaced high-energy level vitae is recoalescing and returning to the highest concentration of particles of the same wavelength and energy, some particles get left behind.” He locked eyes with Theta. “We’re talking about max ten particles or so at a time. The distance from these particles to the main source is too large for them to traverse at that density so they linger at the trauma site.”
Francis perked up at this, his gaze becoming distant. “I see… So then….”
“As the passage of time continues and the cycle of vitae turns,” Tau continued, “these high-energy-level particles become incorporated into surrounding vitae. Too small to have any impact individually. But sometimes they become associated with what you uneducated hooligans consider ‘soft vitae.’” He cleared his throat. “Not referring to you, of course, Theta. But anyways, as I was saying… what was I saying?”
“Soft vitae,” Jericho provided.
Tau squinted at him. “Right. So people can ingest this vitae. Doesn’t have any peculiar effect when ingested. That’s a whole other subject matter. Basically, if you throw this person into the reservoirs in Ophiuchus, nothing will happen. Well, they’ll get severe burns at areas of contact with flesh, but like I said. A different subject.” He narrowed his eyes at Maria’s palm which was still sparking with flame. “However, when it comes to time for reproduction, that’s an entirely different story.”
Gross, came Olive’s thought.
“When this high-energy-level passes from parent to child—if it does—it becomes viable. There’s a chain effect that’s identifiable in the color of the vitae. If this child is baptized in the vitae of those reservoirs and if it’s the correct reservoir with vitae containing particles of the same wavelength, since the person is in close enough proximity to the highest concentration of that high-energy-level vitae, then the high-energy-level vitae particle inside of that person will begin to become pulled towards that higher concentration. After some pull and tug, the external vitae gets pulled into the person’s body instead and bonds with those few high-energy level vitae particles inside the person. I’m sure you understand the rest. It’s quite a painful process.”
Olive swallowed. Jericho stared.
“That’s what makes a person a potential saint candidate,” Tau concluded.
There was silence again.
“Wait, so Maria here has Leo vitae particles floatin’ around inside of her?” Cadence thumbed her.
“And Talib,” Jericho pressed. “The reason. He had a particle of Scorpio inside of him. If he didn’t, then he wouldn’t have become Scorpio.”
“What are you? Slow?” Tau scoffed. “Look at the color of their vitae! Did you not hear me earlier—”
Jericho interjected, “Cadence is not slow. I am not slow either.”
Cadence waved her hand in the air and patted Jericho on the arm. “Don’t worry about that bit, detective. I mean I’m only just learnin’ how ta read. And you’re the sharpest tool in the box of intuition. No need ta prove anything.”
Cadence cleared her throat. “Anyways, so if Maria leapt into the reservoir for the Saint Candidate of Leo or something, she’d become Leo? I mean, if Leona wasn’t currently Leo?”
“No, she would die,” Conta replied. “That’s why it’s so peculiar that you’re able to conduct like that”—she gestured to Maria’s still inflamed hand—“and be standing before us now.”
Maria extinguished the flames as the three ELPIS leaders began to whisper amongst themselves. She couldn’t quite wrap her hand around what they were saying, but Olive was pressing Jericho to listen in and her mind swam with the strange theories and concepts.
After fifteen minutes of conversing, all three ELPIS leaders stiffened and locked eyes with each other in abrupt unison. After another stretch of silence, Francis muttered—
“There was another one…”
“Well, that’s pretty ominous, Francis,” Cadence noted. “Ya mind explainin’ that a little more?”
Francis turned to her slowly. “There’s only one plausible way for you to possibly survive a baptism. It would be a very rare occurrence and certain events would have to line up perfectly in succession, however…”
Yet another lengthy pause. Maria didn’t quite like them.
“Keepin’ us in suspense here, Francis.”
“If there was one more individual in your group and they were somehow excised from your group,” Francis finally said, “then theoretically it’s possible that you would be able to take on Aries’s vitae if the body of Aries’s hosts was temporarily damaged. Rather, Aries’s vitae would act as a glue of sorts, holding your crumbling channels together. The actual host of Aries herself would—”
“—would take the place of the seventh person’s vitae,” Jericho again spoke on Olive’s behalf.
“Francis, kid, that’s a great idea and all,” drew Cadence who was scratching her neck. “But the thing is that I’m pretty sure we’d know if there was a seventh in our group here. Besides, we didn’t get all connected until after…” She glanced in Olive’s direction. “…after what happened in Aries.”
“Perception is different from reality,” Francis replied. “Assuming this seventh passed and at the same time Aries took their place, it may be possible that you all became connected earlier than you originally believed you were.”
Atienna frowned visibly at this as did Werner. They exchanged looks and seemed to be conversing on a more private level. Maria didn’t barge into their conversation. Respect, as Werner always said.
Francis continued, “If the seventh person was excised—as in, if they had died—then they would have dragged all of you to what we call the threshold of life and death too. It’s possible that your vitae and memory may have been damaged from the trauma of the event to the extent where you all forgot about it.”
“That sounds a bit… theoretical and nebulous,” Atienna murmured, “don’t you think?”
“But Francis said it,” Jericho reasoned out loud. “Francis is smart.”
Francis blinked at him. “Thank you, Jericho. I appreciate your faith in me.”
Jericho offered a thumbs up.
“Maybe that’d explain why we ‘connected’ easily in the first place,” Olive murmured. “Remember what Claire said about their being a disconnect with the synchronization with his group at first?” He shifted on his feet and mumbled, “I mean… the concept isn’t too unbelievable. Theoretically, it is possible. And… if we knew each other before then…” His cheeks burned slightly. “I dunno.”
“My suggestion, Cadence, Jericho, Maria, and the others that are listening in,” Francis drew, “is that you ask those close to you if they’ve noticed any peculiarities in your past behavior.”
Werner stiffened out of the corner of Maria’s eye.
Francis mumbled into his hand again. “Although I suppose if you’re unaware of it now, then that might be a fruitless endeavor—”
“Well?” Cadence cleared her throat, spread her arms, gestured to herself. “Any ‘peculiarities’?” She turned to Carl, Allen, then Fortuna. “Anythin’?”
Francis blinked, stared, smiled. “You’ve always been the same Cadence to me.”
“That one time you got a haircut,” Allen said from his chair. “That was weird. You loved your hair.”
Cadence stared and then ruffled her hair. “Well, it’s just hair. Short hair is more popular nowadays, ain’t it?” She looked around. “Is the hair the only thing?”
“I’m barely followin’ the conversation,” Carl interjected, “but ain’t you bein’ too casual about findin’ out that you might’ve been in cuckooland way earlier than a year ago? I mean, ain’t that like amnesia? Lost time or whatever?”
Cadence shrugged. “I mean, it’s a great theory and all but it doesn’t really change anything, does it? Not ta sound crass, but… we gotta focus on the kids and the whole Lavi situation. Plus, it doesn’t really seem to have affected anything if it is a thing that happened. Just the idea gives me the heebie-jeebies—”
“How can you say that?” Olive objected immediately. “If there was a seventh then that means that there was someone else like us. With us. Just like how we’re connected now. And now… they’re not here, and we don’t even know who they are or what they…” He looked around. “…what they were to us…” A pause. “Isn’t that… sad…? No one even knowing that you were here? That you existed? I mean—who were they?”
Werner studied him inquisitively, while Atienna offered him a sympathetic look.
Cadence held up her hands. Sorry, kid. I didn’t mean it like that. You’re right. I’m just tryin’ ta be objective, ya know? It is pretty depressin’ ta think about if that’s actually the case, but it’s still just a theory.
Olive met her gaze briefly then rubbed the back of his neck. Yeah. I understand. I’m sorry too.
“Regarding the situation with Lavi…” Francis drew. “I’m afraid that with what I know now… if we try to separate Lavi from Olive’s form, then that may result in all of your death’s.”
Maria this time did not allow the silence to linger. Instead, she chimed quickly, “We can still try, no? Impossible can be broken by the strong, yes?”
Francis considered this. “Of course. We’ll still be in search of a solution.”
Olive met Maria’s eyes and gave her a grateful look.
Everyone then began to speak about potential locations they could travel to in order to catch Alpha. After two more hours of this discussion—Maria wasn’t quite paying attention—they compiled a list of orphanages, schools, and other ‘children-associated’ places. Cadence, Jericho, Francis, Tau, the Romanos, and Foxmans were to handle a portion of the list, while Maria was given another portion.
Maria finally felt some excitement tickle her chest as she scanned the locations on the list handed to her. There were a couple of places here that she’d never even heard of. She was even handed another set of Jericho’s suppression cuffs.
After the locations were all designated out to their respective search parties, the meeting reached its conclusion and the others began to filter out. First went the caporegimes, then went Tau and the Foxmans. Atienna and Olive ‘left’ after that, leaving just Maria herself, Jericho, Cadence, and Werner.
“Jericho, you should return soon,” Werner addressed him. “Ophiuchus needs to be notified of this as soon as possible.”
Hey, hey, Captain, Cadence thought as Werner began to fade away, mind hangin’ around with me a little while?”
Werner resynchronized strongly. “Why? What do you need, Cadence?”
Cadence hummed. Er…. Company?
Werner sighed and rested a hand on her head. We can talk at some other time, Cadence. Just give me notice.
He disappeared from Maria’s sights a moment after. She hummed at this and peered curiously at Cadence.
“I can keep you company, my dear Cadence!”
“I can keep you company too,” Jericho added. “Not physically, but ‘emotionally.’ I am not doing much at work. I would like to give you company. To… yes.”
Cadence chortled before frowning slightly. “I appreciate it, sunshine, detective, but that ain’t it.”
“Then what is ‘it’?” Jericho pressed.
Cadence paused. Let’s keep this on the down-low okay?
We cannot keep things on the ‘down-low’, Jericho reasoned in confusion. The connection, Cadence.
Yeah, but we can still keep it discrete. Like the kid’s cake. Just don’t think about it too hard.
I have not mastered ‘not thinking too hard’ yet.
Cadence snickered slightly. It’s fine, detective. A good thing probably. Anyway, basically… Have either of ya talked talked to Werner lately? Outside of the synchronization meetin’s?
Jericho nodded. I spoke with Werner about the cake yesterday. Two days before that we talked about my photography with Benì.
I haven’t spoken one-on-one with my dear Werner recently, no. Maria brightened. Oh! But I should, yes?
Why? Jericho pressed. About Werner. Not the one-on-one.
Cadence mulled, then sighed. I’m just worried about the whole chlorowheat thing that happened a couple days ago. Ya know with these kind of things—it can be unpredictable.
Werner is careful, Jericho reasoned.
Yeah, but, like did ya see how he just took it like it was nothin’?
Maria cocked her head. Well, it is always exciting to try new things, yes?
Not somethin’ like that. Cadence stiffened and stared at Maria with almost wild eyes. Ya gotta promise me you’re not gonna try somethin’ like that.
Maria studied her for a moment before nodding firmly. If it worries you do, then I won’t. It is just that simple, yes? She hummed. But my dear Cadence—It was only one time for Werner, no? To be covert, yes?
Was… it just one time though? Cadence pressed.
Maria couldn’t quite understand what Cadence was implying.
Don’t ya think he’s been a little bit too relaxed lately?
What do you mean? Maria tilted her head. He is still doing that letter thing with Volker and Friedhelm, yes? He is always working, yes? He is too serious as always too.
Cadence was silent.
I did have some ‘intuition’ earlier, Jericho thought suddenly. That he was hiding something. Last month. But he explained it. It is Scorpio’s mark. The thoughts. He says he is handling it. Slowly, he looked down at Cadence. Do you not trust Werner, Cadence…?
What? Of course I trust him. Ya know I do. Cadence let out a loud sigh and ruffled her hair. Maybe I am just bein’ paranoid…
* * *
Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Leonian Waters
And with that exciting debacle reaching its end, Epsilon finally came into Maria’s care. Maria was quite excited for him to finally come onboard. What she was not too excited about was the fact that Cadence and Werner had asked her to continue to pretend to be Leona. She did not like being anyone but herself just as she didn’t like the other five being anyone but themselves. But she supposed if it made them happy, then she could do it for a little while.
When she brought Epsilon onto the deck of her ship with Conta, Andres, and Simon in tow, Morandi and Giorgio let out loud gasps.
“That’s Ambrose Campana!” Morandi shouted, stumbling backwards.
Epsilon stared at him and waved. Giorgio meanwhile started to grab the nearby children, nearly tripping over them and falling flat on his face as he did so.
“This is not Ambrose Campana!” Maria proclaimed. “This is Epsilon! A friend of Francis who is now a friend of mine, you see?”
“A friend of Mr. Francis’s,” Morandi drew slowly before looking Epsilon up and down. His eyes widened. “You mean he belongs with…”
“He is an ELPIS leader, yes! But he is a good one like Conta and Francis. He is married to Fortuna now, you see?”
Morandi clenched his chest, winced, and let out a heavy sigh. He hobbled over to the railings of the ship, leaned against then, then slid to the floor. “You need to tell me these details, Captain.” He paused, then gave Epsilon a sympathetic look.
Maria paced over to his side and chuckled. “Well, I am telling you the details now, no?”
“I didn’t think you were the type to be fond of children, Leo,” Epsilon noted as he joined her and studied the children running around. “Is it me or are the children looking at me oddly—”
“I am fond of many things, my dear Epsilon,” Maria sang as she watched Conta, Simon, and Andres join her side at the railings too. Now was a good time to dig for information. “So, my dear Epsilon, tell me what have you been up to since you were initiated!”
“Glad you asked!” Epsilon beamed. “I was initiated by Alpha, right? The older one that you saw.”
“I was a bit surprised. He was a lot different from what I remembered. The country of Ophiuchus is too…” Epsilon dipped his head and rested it against the railings. “Ophiuchus is also gone—no. They’re scattered most likely. At least that’s what”
Maria tilted her head. “She is not in the reservoirs? Not fully?”
“Wouldn’t you know, Leo?” Epsilon stared before sighing and resting his head on the railings again. “I was pretty depressed about everything that’s happened since we put ourselves into our resistors, so Alpha showed me all sorts of wonderful places. To cheer me up, surely. He’s such a great man.”
Conta shook her head.
“Wow…” Epsilon let out a sudden breath as he spied out past the horizon where the sun was just beginning to rise out from the sea. It was a slow bleed of colors—the red and orange ring around the orange sun bleeding out into the purple sky and the blue ocean. “This world really has become amazing, hasn’t it? I saw the Dioscuri Bridge, the lights over the Zatenminye Caverns, the new temples of Leo, the great arches of Capricorn, and the Great Tree of Virgo! The people are so generous too! So interesting!”
Maria threw her hands up in the air and laughed. “Yes! Yes! This world is wonderful!”
Epsilon basked in the light from the horizon for a moment more before continuing, “Alpha said he was going to return to his resistor for a little while after he showed me around. He asked me to hold onto some vitae for him. It wasn’t his, of course. It was the vitae of some old man. He had vitae with memories that were several centuries old though inside of him. I must’ve put them there—another version of me, I mean.”
Maria enjoyed the ocean breeze as she listened and wondered how Veles was doing.
“In the end, Alpha came back to me as a younger man. Apparently, Gamma initiated him sooner than he expected.” Epsilon perked up. “Oh? He brought me to Lamendos too at one point.”
“Lamendos?” Conta tensed. “Why? Did he have you do something to the resistors there?”
Epsilon stared at her before glancing at Maria. Maria, in turn, offered him an encouraging nod.
“Well, he asked me to transfer the vitae from all the resistors that were in Lamendos into him,” Epsilon answered simply. “And so I did that.”
Conta visibly paled. “He what?”
“It was quite hard—I couldn’t get everything in,” he continued. “So there was some vitae remaining in some of the resistors… He… damaged those ones for some reason. I don’t understand why. But, well, we did call him one of the Five Great Devourers along with Gemini, Delta, Theta, and Pi, didn’t we—back in the day? A childish nickname, right? But it does sound cool.”
“Five Great Devourers?” Maria pressed, interest piqued.
Abruptly, Conta reached over and grabbed him by the scruff. “Why…? Do you realize what you’ve done?”
Epsilon stared at her in confusion. “Beta, right? What’s wrong? You know we can just make new resistors, right? We can just transfer the vitae back into them after. Alpha said he was just borrowing it!”
Conta’s grip tightened.
“L-Leo?” Epsilon looked to Maria worriedly.
Maria reached out and easily pried Conta’s hand from Epsilon’s scruff. “Let us all get along now, yes?”
“Have Cadence or Jericho tell Theta this immediately, Maria,” was all Conta said. “He should know what that means.”
* * *
Maria cheerily steered their ship along the Leonian coast and through the Vencedorza River channel that ran through the middle of the country. They passed by Lunanegra again and Comientzo too. Maria slowed the ship ever so slightly so the children could take in the calm sights of the river banks and the forests that lay beyond them. They even passed by a vitae stream at one point too and admired its warmth and the way the river reflected its light.
Eventually they reached the small town of Encuentrolza which housed one of the locations on Maria’s given list. The Santa-Gloria Boarding School for Gifted Leonian Children. As soon as they docked the boat at the pier of the seaside town, Epsilon ran off the ship while excitedly chattering about seeing new sights.
Hand-in-hand with Lita, Maria followed him off the ship with equal excitement. Behind her came Conta, Morandi, Simon, Albatross, Andres, and El.
The town was quite busy for its small size. It reminded Maria a bit of Comientzo with the many Monadic temples popping up in-between smaller, rustic, stone buildings with curved roofs. Half of them were flower shops that sold pleasant little bundles of poppies, forget-me-nots and roses. Their petals were scattered elegantly all along the ground, but it was a pity they were half-trampled by the heavy traffic. A couple horse-drawn carts rolled down the cobblestone streets in-between the sputtering v-ehicles, giving the entire town a somewhat congested feeling. But Maria quite enjoyed it.
Eventually they reached the town’s central square. A large, towering statue of a faceless being stood with widespread arms tall and proud at the center of it. The statue itself was surrounded by a bustling bazaar. Fruits, jugs of water, books, conductors, flower shops, and everything in-between were being bought and sold left and right from the clustered stalls and shops. Bodies were pressed close against each other, making it almost impossible for Maria to see half a meter ahead of her. She was almost tempted to jump on someone else’s shoulders just so she could observe the chaos from a more pleasant and aerial perspective.
It was then that Conta announced that she would look into the boarding school— “alone,” she said. And without any further explanation, she departed deeper into town.
Maria found herself oddly worrying that Conta wouldn’t return from her ventures there. She considered following after her since it was in line with their objective anyways but instead became distracted by Epsilon who suddenly darted to the large statue.
“How could they leave it like this…?” He murmured. And with that, he whipped off his suit jacket and grabbed a bucket of water from a nearby stall. He plunged his jacket into the bucket and began to scrub the foot of the statue with it almost manically. “They should take care of it! How could they leave it?!”
The statue was covered with moss and flower petals and dirt, Maria finally noticed. Unsightly. But was it really? Maria thought it was quite pretty.
Several pedestrians shouted in alarm and skirted away as Epsilon’s movements became more erratic. Maria laughed at the sight and made to join Epsilon before a distant sound caught her attention. A low, melodic, brass chime that reverberated through the air. Loud enough to shake the square. It was almost nostalgic—almost exact.
You should keep a better eye on him, Maria. He’s distressing the public.
Maria blinked and turned her head. She spotted Morandi, El, Lita, Albatross, and Simon staring past her towards Epsilon with gaping mouths. Andres meanwhile was giving him a nod of approval. A shadow fell over her face then. Werner.
“Do you hear the bells, Werner…?” Maria asked.
Werner’s eyes narrowed briefly but then he nodded. Yes. I can hear the sound of the bells. But you should—
“Get down! Stay put!”
Maria snapped forward at the Leonian shouts and found that a collection of police officers were now surrounding around the statue and a crowd had formed there. She tried her best to push her way through that crowd but they were so boisterous that Maria had no choice but to leap over their shoulders to get to the statue. After she did so, however, she found that only a single officer remained there pushing back the crowd. And—there was no Epsilon in sight.
“Hello!” Maria waved wildly in the officer’s face. “I like your uniform, yes? Would you happen to have seen someone in a tuxedo around here? A bit strange, but most likely smiling? He was just here, yes?”
The policeman stared at her blankly before thumbing behind him. “You mean the guy we just arrested?”
It’s alright, Werner, Maria reassured him. “Can you unarrest him? He is mine, you see?”
The policeman stared. “What? No, we can’t just ‘unarrest’ him. He stole from a shopkeeper and desecrated our Monadic statue.”
Before Maria could grab the officer and explain to him exactly how he technically could just simply unarrest Epsilon, Werner stopped her short. Andres and the others then made it to her side through the crowd. At the sight of Andres, the police officer stiffened and took a step backwards.
The crowd stopped their pushing and shoving immediately, formed a wide circle around them, and began to whisper amongst themselves. Maria found the excitement a bit odd but enjoyable. The Espada—the night sky that supported the stars, yes?
Andres conjured a sign in Leonian and showed it to the officer. Please release the man you just took into custody.
The officer swallowed. “I’m really sorry, sir, but I really can’t. Even with your authority.”
“Haven’t you heard the news?”
“The prince of Leo recently put out a mandate that said policing authorities aren’t required to defer to Monadic authorities anymore,” the officer explained. “It’s part of the separation of Monadism and state that he’s been pushing for recently. They’re being very strict about it. I can’t. Sorry.” He muttered under his breath,“I’m sure this is all just because of the chairman elections…”
Andres’s frown deepened and he looked over his shoulder towards Simon.
Maria pondered whether or not she should force the officer to return Epsilon to her. But that would cause trouble for Conta, wouldn’t it? Yes. They were here to help Cadence and find the children above all. Yes. But then what was the path should she take? Well… she’d never been officially jailed before, had she? It would be quite a fun experience, no?
Maria, came Werner’s warning tone.
He was always so serious. Maria couldn’t understand why Cadence was so concerned.
Cadence is concerned? About what?
Maria offered her wrists to the officer and beamed. “How about I allow you to arrest me so I can meet my dear Epsilon again instead? I actually have never experienced jail before!”
The police officer arched a brow at her. “Have you committed a crime?”
Maria pondered this. “Well, maybe? I have a bounty on my head. I stole once from a very rich Cancerian person. I stole some ships. I’ve raided some ships. I have killed some people, yes. Oh, have you heard of the Golden Beast?”
* * *
Sitting in the cell within the Leonian jail reminded Maria only slightly of the time she’d been imprisoned on her own ship by Leona and her old crew. She’d been cuffed back then just as she was now—although her crew was with her now instead of against her unlike back then. Only Raul, Emmanuel, Simon, and Conta were the ones who’d stayed with her since that time. Raul and Emmanuel had fretted over Conta when Maria had reunited them a week or so ago. Raul had even cooked all of Conta’s favorite meals, but it seemed as if Conta’s tastes had changed some. Perhaps Beta’s influence? And perhaps it was Beta’s influence too that Conta held no interest when Emmanuel went on to show her all the new conductors he’d been working on since their time in Die Hauptstadt? She’d always been so interested in listening to Emmanuel talk before all of this. ‘Not the same.’
Was this how Francis’s brothers felt…?
Werner had desynchronized slightly after giving a long lecture about her recklessness, so he wasn’t present to answer her questions.He was always so worried. Earlier he’d even told her he was concerned about Veles’s departure since it meant that there were less eyes on the children. But Maria was certain she could watch them all on her own.
Pondering this, Maria observed the area around her and felt a growing sense of nostalgia. Her cell was quite small and furnished with only a hanging bed. There were five other cells in this small space—all the same size as hers. Three on one side of the room and three on the other. El, Andres, and Morandi occupied these cells individually, while Lita, Simon, and Albatross all shared one. While they all had their belongings taken from them—conductors, suppression cuffs, weapons and all—Andres was allowed to keep the pencil and notebook he’d conjured for himself.
The layout of the cell vaguely reminded Maria of the dungeon beneath the Ariesian royal place. Olive had visited there once, hadn’t he? To try to save Trystan and prove his innocence. Yes. Right when this had all begun.
But there was a difference between this jail and that dungeon. There were two doors built onto opposite sides of the room. The door on the left was the one Maria had entered through. As for the door on the right? She wondered where it led to. She pondered exploring it once she retrieved Epsilon and broke out of this place with everyone.
Just as the last thought left her mind, the more familiar door swung open and a pair entered the room. One of the police officers and a handcuffed Epsilon l who looked slightly frazzled. As soon as Epsilon laid eyes on Maria, however, he brightened.
“Leo!” His bright expression twisted with indignation. “How dare they lock you up here? Don’t they know who you are?!”
Morandi sighed. “Boy, calm down. We’re here because of you.”
“Because of me…?” Epsilon’s confused expression remained on his face even after the officer locked him in the remaining cell.
Maria waved at the officer as he walked towards the mysterious other door. The officer arched a brow at her at this but returned the wave before exiting the room and locking the mystery door. Maria then returned her attention to Epsilon.
“I was only trying to clean your statue,” Epsilon tried to explain as he neared the bars of his cell. “They left it so dirty! I couldn’t stand it!”
Andres tapped his notebook against the bars of his cell and then scribbled into it. I agree. It was filthy. You were right to want to clean it.
“You say it is dirty, but all of that moss, dirt, and grime are a sign of that statue’s experiences, no?” Maria inquired. “Signs of its adventures? Wiping it away is a bit sad and boring, no? It looks more interesting the way it is, yes?” She received odd looks from Andres and El, but she didn’t pay them any mind. Instead she kept her gaze focused solely on Epsilon.
Epsilon stared at her for a long while before his eyes sparkled. “Oh my gosh, Leo! You’re absolutely right! I didn’t even think of it like that—”
The mystery door creaked open again, and a trio walked into the room. It was the same officer again accompanied by a young man and pre-adolescent. Maria was still focused on Epsilon so she didn’t quite pay attention to the trio—at least that was until they stopped right in front of her cell.
Maria’s eyes were immediately drawn to the young man first because something about him felt a bit different.
The first thing she noticed was that, unlike herself and her crew members, the young man was not handcuffed.
The second thing she noticed was that the young man was dressed in a naval officer’s uniform.
The third thing she noticed was that the young man’s lips were curled up into a pleasant smile.
Ba-dump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.
The final thing she noticed was the eye-patch stretched over the young man’s left eye.
“Oh? Why isn’t it little Maria?”