Cadence’s lies have caught up to her. Concealing the fact that the Romano and Foxmans have been working together to ship out chlorowheat has led to a fallout between herself, Carl, Allen, and Fortuna and Francis. The chlorowheat’s reach has extended far beyond this, however, as it is revealed that Werner suffers from a chlorowheat addiction. In the days following, Maria falls in her confrontation against Alpha and loses her arm. But, there are some victories: they have managed to capture Alpha and Leona, and Olive has potentially brought the Sagittarius royals into the fold.
Cadence now maneuvers around the AAC, trying to fill in not only Werner’s shoes but Maria’s as well.
Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
Playing Werner was easy. Playing Dieter was even easier. Then again, Cadence had helped create Dieter so it didn’t really count. Well—actually the fact that she’d molded Dieter was just all the more credit to herself.
Since Cadence had stepped in for Werner a week or two ago, she’d gone to at least three high-level AAC meetings. Though most meetings involved kicking it back and inhaling copious amounts of chlorowheat, there were occasional serious discussions about protests, politics, conspiracy, and—of course—many, many, many conversations surrounding Seamus Dolby who was making his way down from Ophiuchus.
Frankly, the chairman elections were the very last thing on Cadence’s mind. She figured it’d slowly made its way to being at the bottom of the list of important things to worry about for the other’s too. Ironic—since this whole thing had started with the elections at the top of the list of things to grow gray hairs over. Funny how that worked. You could cry your heart out about someone or something for years but then suddenly throw it all on the backburner as soon as something else got your attention. ‘Course there was the bit when something would stick with you no matter how hard you tried to slough it off—and sometimes you even liked the fact that it stuck with you.
Cadence wondered where Alma fell in all of that. She also wondered where chlorowheat fell, where Maria fell, where Werner fell.
Cadence hated it—the chlorowheat—and she rarely hated anything. Sure, she’d occasionally have to wander into a couple of morrowheat dens back in the city on odd jobs, but she never had to sit down across from someone having a puff. And sure, she might’ve turned a blind eye when she used to work for smaller crime organizations who dealt that stuff, but that was before… Before what? Before nothing because that was all after—after her parents were ruined by it. Or was it better to say after her parents ruined themselves with it?
Not so clear-cut.
Long-story short: whenever Matthias and the other upper-AAC members invited her down to their smoking den, she had half the mind to just rob them blind—maybe steal their identity or frame them for robbery or worse. Served them right for even thinking of handing Werner that stupid syringe—but bah! She couldn’t do that. She understood that the poor bastards had meant no harm. They really thought they were doing him a favor. Just like Werner thought the chlorowheat was helping him and he had it under control. Just like Maria thought she could juggle Alpha, the kids, and the whole Leo spiel like it was nothing. Just like Cadence herself thought that she, Carl, Allen, and Fortuna could just keep the entire Foxman-Romano shipping shebang away from Francis.
‘No harm done’ and ‘it’s necessary’ were the assumptions.
Cadence admitted it: she messed up big time with Francis and the whole chlorowheat deal in general. There was ‘situation and circumstance’ but all that just provided context—not an excuse. She got that. She accepted that and the consequences of her actions. But as for Werner and Maria? As for what they did and what had happened to them? They were never perfect in her eyes, but… It just didn’t feel right saying that they were responsible for what happened to them.
Every time Cadence passed by that restroom she’d found Werner in at the inn, she felt her heart-rate skyrocket and her vision blur and nausea grab a fistful of her stomach. She remembered everything that happened in that moment with excruciatingly painful detail. The smog, the glass, the smell—
Cadence wanted to be there with Werner—at his side—in Francis’s room. But she couldn’t. In order to keep him put, she had to be out here making excuses to Matthias on why ‘Dieter’ wasn’t feeling up for another round of smoking.
Among the many excuses she used to avoid chlorowheat were ‘still recovering from that last bad trip,’ ‘my stomach’s been too upset lately,’ and ‘it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.’ She even managed to get Matthias and some of the other AAC members to drink during meetings instead of smoke. Wasn’t that much better but better was still better.
Cadence couldn’t be by Maria’s side either. She didn’t even know if Maria wanted her to be. Every time she swung by physically and psychically to Maria at Francis’s place, Maria would always be all sunshine and smiles like always. The sunshiny demeanor just made Cadence feel like she was intruding on Maria’s good time. If Cadence brought up what happened in Leo, Maria would just get a scary look in her eye before ushering Cadence to do fun things and not to worry.
Being by Francis’s side was also a no-go because Cadence had taken yet another ax to that bridge. As for being by the side of the children that they did manage to rescue from Alpha? Well, she was by no means a therapist. Fun little ‘magic’ tricks only did so much cheering up in light of being kidnapped.
Here she was stretching herself thin for a bunch of uptight men, a dozen or so children, and a handful of out-there women. The latter bit came to her naturally but she never thought she’d do the former two in a million years.
The only thing she really had a handle on was the AAC. She had an aerial view of the playing board, and —needless to say—the AAC was getting a little bit out of control. But not in the normal sense. Cadence was familiar with powerplay and politics and the whole scramble to come up top-dog that colored the interactions in the Twin Cities. That wasn’t the case with the AAC. Here, they all followed along the weirdly-shaped hierarchy with Matthias and Constanza at the top. Frankly, it was hard to even pin those two as ‘leaders’ like Werner seemed to see them as—though Cadence reasoned his judgment was probably affected by all the chlorowheat he’d been taking. The duo tended to heed the opinions of their fellow members a little too well in Cadence’s opinion. Hard to get anything done if you listened to everyone. That was why that poor secretary was still tied up in that room.
The secretary’s status was a frequent subject in the Werner-ified reports Cadence gave to Kramer. However, it wasn’t exactly a trending topic with their peacekeeping contact Otto Erinneridt—of all names it just had to be Otto.
Sad reminders aside, Cadence was very well-practiced at keeping the story straight. They ended up collectively deciding not to report the secretary’s status to Ophiuchian-Otto. In fact, their entire operation had been put on a halt because one Seamus Dolby was making his way down to this border-city to ‘handle’ the AAC issue. Cadence wasn’t sure whether she should celebrate how easy her task had become or stress over what Seamus’s arrival meant. There was also the issue with Scorpio and Werner’s True Conductor hunt. But it was easy to lie and say she—Werner—was still investigating whenever Scorpio would check on her through one of his spores.
“Well, that’s quite unlike you, Werner,” Scorpio said once through the lips of lower-tiered AAC member when checking in one day. “What happened to the ‘Cold Eye of All Things Clerical’? You do know the clock is ticking, right?”
“I apologize for my lapse in judgment,” Cadence had replied, “but I now have the situation under control. I am very well aware of your vigilance and the tasks we need to complete.”
“Awareness and negligence can coexist, dear Werner,” Scorpio had replied to that as he departed. “I hope both don’t occupy your heart simultaneously. We both there’s only one pursuit of passion for you, don’t we?”
Ack. What an annoying guy.
Those types of unpleasant encounters aside, both Kramer and Knovak were a little bit weary and confused whenever Cadence gave the aforementioned reports—like they were questioning whether she was really just Werner after all—but they’d adapted quickly. Greta on the other hand was a different story. Whenever the woman wasn’t having her cute little subtle romance with good old Gilbert at a handful of the AAC meetings, she’d be sending Cadence occasional worried looks.
Cadence couldn’t reassure her out in the open because of Scorpio’s eyes—hence the Wernerification of all her oral reports—but she thought of a work-around. Two days into her stay as Dieter, she lit Werner’s room at the inn on fire in the middle of the night. Sorta. Synchronizing with Olive, she ran a flame-coated hand over every square-centimeter of that room—burning and snuffing out any of Scorpio’s possibly planted mediums and spores.
Gilbert called her crazy for it and he almost rang in the firefighters halfway through the incineration. Nico managed to stop him before disaster struck, however, while Kramer and Knovak burst into the room half an hour later in alarm. The room smelled like smoke for two days afterwards but it was a loss Cadence felt was acceptable.
The gamble was that Scorpio had too many mediums to care if a handful of them suddenly disappeared. ‘Course there was his creepy little obsession over Werner to consider, but Cadence was sure it was fine. If Scorpio came knocking? Blame it on a brief mental breakdown and an override. Hell—Scorpio would probably be happy if he heard Werner went through that. Bastard. Damn, she missed Talib. Amendment: she missed him a lot. At least Talib was cute.
Thus with that room set up, Werner’s ‘squad’—as in Kramer, Knovak, Gilbert, Greta—and Nico holed up inside and touched-point. Greta came in through the window—which Cadence would’ve found funny if the situation weren’t so terrible. The others filtered in through the doors like normal people.
Cadence maintained her disguise as Werner as a precaution, and they all exchanged information and discussed a bit—reassured each other in a subtle way that nothing in their life had changed at all. She’d decided to make this a habit: wait in the room until the absolute dead of night before returning back to Francis’s exitless room—home. Safer that way.
There was tension in the room at first, of course. An AAC member, two Aquarians, a Capricornian, and two people who were involved in shipping weapons all together in one room? Sounded like the beginning of a really bad joke. The only thing tying the lot together were their relationships to Werner.
Cadence managed to smooth things over a bit with a whole ‘we all agree that chlorowheat is bad for the AAC and Capricorn and Aquarius, right?’ paired with a card game around a small round table. She took it full-stride from there. Or at least she tried to. Gilbert made it difficult. He really had it out for her.
“Funny that you of all people say shit about chlorowheat being shit…” Gilbert replied, not even bothering to participate in her card game. “…since you were the one who played that fucking card to the Argoans.”
Hurt like a knife to the gut. Easy thing to do was shift blame, but she knew she couldn’t do that. Not really. Not anymore.
“Yeah,” Cadence muttered in agreement, “it’s on me….”
“It’s… not her fault, Gil,” Nico interjected. “It’s more complicated than that…”
Felt nice to have Nico at her side again. The fact that he could actually play a decent game of cards was a bonus. Damn. She’d missed him. Should’ve treasured him more as a person rather than just a presence to begin with.
Before Gilbert could retort any further, Greta pulled him back from behind, held him still, and offered Cadence a wary but sympathetic look.
Gilbert merely grimaced. “Can’t fucking stand you, Morello, you know that? But if I fucking treat you bad and you feel sad, then he would probably feel it too, right?”
“Yeah… usually…” Cadence half-shrugged. “He’s been sleeping a lot these days. Connection weakens a bit in altered states, I think. Probably wouldn’t really know about it until a bit later. Do as you like. I don’t blame you.”
Gilbert said nothing to this, while Knovak and Kramer exchanged looks.
Knovak, who was quite invested in the card game, rolled his eyes a second later. “Capricornian drama bullshit. He’s strong. He’ll be fine.”
And thus they fell into a new routine.
During the negative exchanges Cadence had with Gilbert, Nico would continually try to assuage the man. Greta too. Greta. Oh Greta. Always wary and staring Greta—like Nico except much softer around the edges. Sure, Greta and Gilbert were cute together, but Cadence thought Werner and Greta would look pretty cute together too—if Werner were into that type of thing.
“Doll,” Cadence told Greta when their eyes met one day when Cadence had been playing a small game of cards with Nico, “it’s just a transmutation. An illusion.” When Greta flashed a nervous or hesitant smile at this, Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted Greta’s own image over herself. “Or is it?” She quickly snapped her fingers and threw Werner’s image back over herself.
This earned a gasp from Greta, a death glare from Gilbert, and a slight head shake from Kramer.
Kramer usually remained eerily silent during these get-togethers outside of the information exchanging. She’d always ask about Francis’s gates though. Seemed she had a couple of ideas floating around in her head. Cadence just had to reel them in.
* * *
It was after her sixth or so AAC meeting that Cadence figured she should test the waters on how Werner’s ‘allies’ took to Olive’s resistance ideas. Cadence herself was more of a lover than a fighter, but she reasoned sometimes the two went hand-in-hand.
So, during the tenth get-together with Werner’s ‘allies’ in their little secret base, she tried, “The secretary. Poor bastard. Wasn’t enough that he had an old boring job taking notes for a bunch of geezers but now he’s locked up in a room with a bunch of…” She frowned. A bunch of addicts.
Despite the touchy topic, she maintained a casual appearance and started a game of cards with Nico and Knovak at the small coffee table at the corner of the room. Kramer who was seated there with them, eyed the game with mild interest.
Nico looked to Greta who was nervously sitting beside a disgruntled Gilbert on the man’s bed. “How’s his condition? You’ve been checkin’ on him, right?”
Greta eyed Nico curiously for a moment before nodding. “His physical condition has improved but I…”
“The guy’s still stuck there,” Cadence interjected. “Which makes things a bit complicated on the moral and political scale, am I right?”
“Yes,” Kramer agreed.
“I think I can talk some sense into Matthias and the lot,” Cadence drew, “but that’d require me giving that ‘Ophiuchian’ contact of yours a heads up.” She pointed to the area around them. “And technically that would involve old Eyes-y knowing about it too?”
Kramer and Knovak exchanged looks.
“From what I understand of what you told me about what happened in Capricorn,” Kramer responded carefully, “Scorpio knowing about this development—if he hasn’t already discovered it—would merely give him another way to harvest vitae from the reservoirs. He would incite a deadly event.”
“Not exactly. According to the saint candidate’s free will clause thing, that’s a no-no,” Cadence explained. “No interference. A ‘We humans destroy ourselves on our own terms’ kind of thing. Libra’s on active duty and she leashes Scorpio, basically, so Scorpio running amuck won’t happen. Probably…”
Kramer’s lips pressed into a thin line.
“Tip-toeing around and saluting your probable executioner must be a hard thing to play,” Cadence drew slowly, wringing out the sympathy in her voice. “It’d be nice if we could all run around freely like before, right?”
Kramer’s eyes narrowed. “What are you suggesting, Miss Morello?”
“Like I said before”—Cadence flashed a smile— “call me Cadence. Or Werner. Or Dieter. I think we’ve experienced enough crazy together to be on a first name basis, right? Can I call you Dunya? Or Miss Dunya?”
Kramer regarded her. “Miss Dunya is fine.”
“Old-fashioned—I like that.” Cadence began to deal the cards out to Kramer without invitation. “So, Miss Dunya, what do you think I’m suggesting?”
Knovak snorted and muttered to Kramer in Aquarian, “I don’t know much about how this True Conductor shit works—-but, Captain, this is the one who was sobbing on the floor when we were in that tent with Cvetka, right? Pissing her pants while Nico was trying his transmutation on her? Should we really be listening to her?”
“Okay. I admit I have a low pain tolerance and that was not my best moment,” Cadence informed him in Aquarian. She lifted her left hand and pointed to it with her right. “But you try having some Manipulator’s vitae forcefully removed from your body when you’re wide awake! I read about it, you know—they usually put people under some sort of anesthesia for that!” She fell back and spread her arms. “But I digress.” She returned her attention to Kramer.” I just couldn’t help but notice you have a keen interest in our little gates recently.”
Kramer regarded her before picking up the hand of cards Cadence had dealt her. “They’re quite… a useful resource. Do you happen to know where all these gates are placed exactly?”
“Well, not exactly,” Cadence replied, inspecting her own cards. “But they can basically be anywhere you want them to be.”
“From my perspective,” Kramer said after a stretch of silence, “their practicality as being used as escape routes is something worth exploring.”
“But its usefulness as an escape route is difficult to develop when under constant surveillance.” Kramer set her cards down. “It’s not only us being watched but people
“Yeah, that is our issue, isn’t it? Hostages and all that.” Cadence sighed. “But we gotta keep in mind that even gods slip up sometimes. It’s just that we put them on too high a pedestal to notice. I’m not one for strategy but we just have to keep an eye out for that chink in the armor.” She set her cards down too. “All it takes is one moment really. One single moment—and everything can change.”
Kramer thrummed her fingers on the table briefly. “Well, if you find this moment, Werner, please do let me know. I’d be interested in exploiting this chink in the armor with you.”
Did Cadence have an actual solid plan? Of course not. But that’s how investment worked. Buy in before it was profitable and wait to see it skyrocket. Better to have one foot in.
* * *
The next AAC meeting was filled with buzz about Seamus Dolby’s arrival. Cadence again managed to convince Matthias, Constanza, Milkovich, and the other AAC members to spend the meeting drinking instead of smoking. They gathered together on the sofa on the level just above the smoking den and passed around some sharp-tasting concoction that combined vodka and beer. Not up to Cadence’s taste since Geminian wine was far superior, but she stomached it well enough. Helped to drown on that terrible, sweet, curling smell that clung to every surface inside the building.
“Say, Dieter,” Matthias drew suddenly from Cadence’s right, “when do you think you’ll be going up to vote? For the chairman elections?”
Aw, hell. That was right. Werner hadn’t cast his vote yet. When was he supposed to do that again? Cadence couldn’t really recall the date. Damn. She didn’t want to have Werner pay the scam of a late fee for it.
“Do you have any idea who you’re going to be voting for?” Matthias continued, taking a large gulp of his beverage. “You know what I always say—”
“When in doubt,” Constanza concluded for him, “you might as well vote Seamus.”
Matthias shrugged. “I mean, Seamus is really putting his neck out for us coming down here to meet us in person. I don’t see the ELPIS Department’s first chair down here even though the other agents in that department are blanketing this place.”
Well, there was a reason for that, Cadence thought.
Matthias frowned. “They’ve been down here for almost a month already and what do they have to show for it? Absolutely nothing.”
“I mean, we could always give the ELPIS Department the information we have on the kaiser and the premier,” Milkovich suggested, taking a swig of his drink. “They can’t work with what they don’t have. I know it’s not their department, but…” He took another swig. “We could give it a go anyways.”
Matthias and Constanza exchanged looks.
Constanza shook her head with a loose shrug. “And then what? They’ll demean what our entire movement stands for. The kaiser and premier will just paint it as all of them just ‘finally getting along.’ The Yastreby’s dance in Cancer? ‘Just some wayward extremists,’ they’ll say. ‘Nothing governmentally related.’ And the Capricornian-Aquarian training session at the border of Sagittarius? ‘Nothing out of the ordinary,’ the ELPIS Department will agree—because they’re cowards.”
“Seamus, on the other hand, is a different story,” Matthias interjected quickly. “He’s actually coming to speak with us—not the people up top, but us. If he hears it from us, he’ll understand and—well—he’s the First Chair of the International Relations Department. He deals with this kind of serious stuff on the daily.”
It all felt like rabbit logic—jumping from one place to the next and thumping around in no direction—but Cadence kept that to herself.
“Yeah, yeah.” Cadence nodded enthusiastically. “I hear you. I hear you. He seems to care a lot more about the important things than the other chairs. He’ll definitely lend us an ear.”
“Exactly!” Matthias’s face brightened. “He’s International Relations! Do you know the amount of training and school you have to go through to be accepted into International Relations—let alone step up as its first chair?”
Olive was right about everyone being obsessed with Seamus Dolby. Unlike Olive, however, Cadence could see the man’s charm. Seamus was like an Ambrose Campana—before Ambrose kicked the bucket and became sun-shiny Epsilon. Seamus was good with his words and good at making himself seem charming, affable, caring, knowledgeable—the definition of ‘the academic friendly-type’ basically.
“We’re not acknowledging the scars of the past,” Seamus had said during one interview, “so how can we address future problems? Future aspirations—structures—are built on the framework of the past. So we need to first fix the framework: the scars and the wounds left behind by the Reservoir War. Hate still runs deep. Until we mend these beams that support our continent, we cannot start stacking the building blocks of peace.”
Constanza and Matthias had literal newspaper clippings of him they’d started taping onto walls this past week. Kind of funny now that Cadence thought about it. Lyrs was pro-Seamus too. Technically, the kid and Claire were also pro-Seamus—political maneuvering aside. Was it just a True Conductor thing to be pro-Seamus? Maybe it had to do with socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sociopsychology, and the other fancy words Atienna used to like throwing around—
Wait a minute.
Cadence nearly choked on a sip of her drink as she straightened in. She waved off Matthias’s guffaw and laughed into a slap on the back from Milkovich as her mind raced.
There was no such thing as coincidence. Not really.
Truly, full-blooded, pro-Seamus True-Conductors: Lyrs, Matthias, Constanza. Lyrs was connected to Veles, while Matthias and Constanza were connected to each other. Was there another string tying them altogether somewhere?
“Say,” Cadence tried, “I heard that some princes ended up endorsing the heck out of Seamus in Scorpio of all places. That can’t be true, is it? I mean, that’s high profile—”
“Oh!” Matthias straightened. “That’s completely true. I promise you.”
Cadence arched a brow. “Really? The tabloids always blow stuff out of proportion. It’s a wonder how we get any real news nowadays.”
Matthias insisted, “It really happened—”
“I won’t believe it until I see it with my own two eyes.” Cadence waved him off. “All this praise about Seamus could be fake too actually, now that I think about it.”
“Look.” Matthias fell silent for a moment, glancing at Constanza who was subtly shaking her head. “Okay, I have a friend who was down in Madat when the Sagittarian prince and Ariesian prince made their endorsements. He saw it happen.”
“A friend, huh?” Cadence rubbed her chin. “And how do I know you didn’t make this friend up?”
“What?” Matthias did a double-take. “He’s real. He spoke to both princes personally. They’re really for Seamus!”
Saints. Matthias was easy to play. Cadence almost felt bad for him. Almost.
Anyways, this pretty much solidified her theory that Lyrs was connected to this duo too. Explained their mutual obsessions with Seamus. But—why Seamus? A priest, an ex-spy, an ex-soldier, and a bounty hunter being obsessed with one politician just didn’t make sense.
Unless—Seamus Dolby was also in the loop somewhere? Well, that seemed out there. Seamus Dolby—a True Conductor? Just how did he stay under the radar that long if that were the case? Was it because he was a politician? That could partially explain how he rose so quickly in the International Department—he had a foot in like four different countries. Time to test the hypothesis.
“Okay, say I believe you,” Cadence drew, “I’m still a bit iffy on the guy. It’s good that he cares more than other chairs, but what does he stand for exactly? What are his… policies?”
Oh boy did Matthias and Constanza know all about Seamus’s policies. They knew the ins-and-outs of what he believed and stood for—increased regulation of countries, official adoption of the Common coin, etcetera—and somehow managed to paint him like he was a saint even though he’d suggested once to force Virgo out of isolation before it had exited it itself. Their rambling lasted almost two painful hours. But those two hours sealed in the details. Details, details, details—very important things.
“How did you even find out about Seamus?” Cadence arched a brow after they finished. “I honestly didn’t know about any of the first chairs until I joined the AAC.”
Matthias and Constanza exchanged looks.
“Well,” Matthias drew, flashing a small smile at Constanza, “let’s just say that we both had a mutual sort of revelation following a touch with death.” He turned his attention back to Matthias. “I read a lot of the papers Seamus wrote in the hospital after I got into a car accident back in the day. Quite a lyrical guy.”
Hah. They thought they were being cute and subtle with each other, but they’d kinda just sealed the deal. So that was how it was. Oh. Everything else around her was a mess right now, but this? This was a ripe cherry for the picking. The International Relations Department was big. And right now, Cadence and the others really needed big. Big allies, big money, big everything.
Anyway—long story short?
Cadence lifted her glass at Matthias then at Constanza. “Well, you make a convincing argument. Guess I’ll check that box off when I go vote then.”
* * *
Or so Cadence thought. Not so long after that whole revelation, Olive decided to bring a whole Sagittarian party into Francis’s place. She’d always told the kid to take a gamble and risk every once in a while, but she didn’t mean to empty out the entire bank account.
In hopes of rescuing the mutual savings account she now shared with the other five, Cadence decided to risk heading back to Francis’s place early after her AAC meeting concluded. She’d planted a gate beneath Werner’s mattress at the inn for ease of access so she made her way through the snow from Matthias’s place while weighing exactly how she should approach the situation.
As she entered the inn through the squeaky front doors, the clerk at the front desk waved his hand wildly to get her attention. Once he got it, he pointed to the phone booths nestled in the corner of the lobby. It was ringing.
Cadence arched a brow.
The clerk pointed at the booth again.
“Yes, I understand,” Cadence replied before heading to the trilling booth. She stopped short in front of it and eyed the receiver.
Cadence knew the drill. Mother—Werner’s mother—was probably calling back to try and make amends. Maybe she’d apologize for being insensitive and for taking up his time. Maybe she’d comfort him and tell him that his subordinate’s deaths weren’t his fault—it was theirs. Maybe she’d reminisce about how things used to be, about how he was when he was younger, about how she missed him. Maybe she’d tell him that she loved him and was proud of him.
That was why and how Werner was continually ensnared by her. That was probably why a lot of other people like him were ensnared by people like his mother. Stab, put a band aid over, stab, put a band aid over—and so on and so forth.
Cadence tentatively reached out to Werner but was met with a fuzzy wall. Sleeping still. Good, she thought as she moved to pick up the phone.
“Mother,” Cadence said tersely as she placed the handset to her ear and rolled her eyes, “I told you—”
The voice was soft, gentle, whispering—and it was the last one Cadence had been expecting to hear. For a moment, she thought she was dreaming just by hearing those words rattle through the device.
“‘Toria?” Cadence winced internally at her slip-up but recovered quickly—“How did you get this number?”
There was a pause from the other end. As expected. Viktoria was a bright girl. She’d probably figured out that something wasn’t quite right and had connected the dots.
“From… our… mother,” Viktoria answered slowly. “I came back home earlier this week. Ludwig’s here too. We’ve been trying to reach you this entire time.”
Cadence felt her heart begin to pound. “I see. I apologize for missing your calls. I’ve been preoccupied.”
“… are you busy, right now?”
Viktoria was asking about Werner. Aw, shit. Cadence knew Werner would definitely not want her to tell Viktoria what was really going on. She herself had a cover to maintain too.
“Yes, in a sense,” Cadence replied carefully. “As I’m sure you’re aware, I’ve been put on a covert assignment. At the moment, it’s difficult for me to communicate… as normal.”
There was a beat of hesitation before Viktoria tried, “Are you… alright?”
Cadence paused for a brief moment, considering. “Everything will be fine. You needn’t worry yourself.”
There was another pause. “Should I… call back later?”
“No, no—it’s better if you tell me now,” Cadence said quickly, internally wincing at the poor acting attempt. “What’s the reason for your call?”
“I…” Viktoria hesitated before she let out a breath. “Werner… mom’s sick.”
Cadence felt a cold wave of dread wash over her.
“She’s really sick,” Viktoria continued. “She’s been in the hospital for the past week. The doctors… they—they don’t know. They say she’s… frail.”
Now Cadence felt like puking.
This had to be a joke. Why couldn’t the world just give them a break? Or at least let only one of them be the universe’s punching bag at a time? Why did everything have to hit the fan for all of them at once? Why couldn’t they take turns—
“Are you”—Viktoria’s voice cut through Cadence’s thoughts— “still there?”
“Yeah—yes, I hear you. I… understand,” Cadence managed. “I will visit as soon as possible.”
There was another pause before Viktoria let out a shaky breath. “Okay… Please be careful. I love you, Werner.”
The line went dead before Cadence could think of a response. She pulled the handset away from her ear for a moment and stared at it blankly. It took all of her willpower not to slam the damn thing back onto the base, but she managed to hook it back gently.
Her mind immediately went to how she could hide this from Werner—he was in no state to be hearing this type of news. She immediately wanted to punch herself for even thinking of that a second after. She had just seen how lying and keeping things from Francis—no matter her intention—played out in disaster and here she was thinking of doing it again?
* * *
A couple minutes afterwards, Cadence sauntered back into her room in Francis’s exitless place with a hanging head. Upon arrival, she snapped her fingers to disperse Werner’s mirage before throwing herself onto her sofa in the corner. Needed to rest a bit before she addressed things on Olive’s end.
After a minute or so of lying face-down like that, a soft fluttering sound from the corner of the room by her head caught her attention. Upon lifting her head, she registered a shadowy figure standing only a foot or so ahead of her and facing the wall. Cadence yelped, leaping to her feet as she threw herself backwards.
The figure turned to her with a familiar frown. Snake tattoo. Book-in-hand.
“F-Francis…?” Cadence placed a hand to her chest and felt her heart beating there like a hummingbird. “Ya nearly gave me a heart attack!”
“I was expecting you to come to me,” Francis drew slowly, closing his book, “but I ended up being the one to come to you.”
“Kinda hard for me to come to you when I don’t know where you’re at,” Cadence reasoned, letting out a sigh of relief.
Francis said nothing and held her gaze. Cadence felt her chest squeeze a bit.
“Look. Francis.” Cadence let out a breath as she swung her legs off the bed. “I’m sorry. I know ya’ve heard me say it a buncha times before but I really am sorry… for lyin’ to ya, for thinkin’ that ya needed ta be lied to, for lettin’ it all happen ta begin with.” She looked up and met his eyes. “Honest.”
Francis said nothing.
“Ya don’t have ta accept my apology,” Cadence continued. “I mean it’d be the tenth one of mine ya’ve accepted at this point. I was just… worried about ya—I know I shoulda said something if I was worried but… I thought… I don’t even know. I just didn’t want ya to run off again.”
Just like how she didn’t want Nico to. Just like how she didn’t want to give Werner another reason to think chlorowheat was a good escape by telling him about his mother.
“I’m speakin’ from the heart—no lie,” she drew, “but that only goes so far—I know. Like I said, it’s okay if ya don’t forgive me. I just don’t want ya ta think I… I just don’t want ya ta be hurt or anything’. Ya can hate me if ya want to—”
Francis’s brows furrowed. “I can’t hate you, Cadence. You know I can’t. How could you even suggest that…?”
“I mean generally people love me or they hate me,” Cadence admitted with a shrug. “Can’t find a way ta just be down the easy middle when it comes ta likeability…”
Francis drew closer to her and gently laid his book on the arm of her sofa. “We’ve known each other since we were children, bled and fought on the same streets together, grew up from the same barren soil—”
Looked like he was whipping out the poetry again.
Francis paused mid-sentence, sighed, looked up at her. “I forgive you.”
Cadence startled. “Huh?”
“I’ve lived long enough to understand your position. Although you acted in falsehood, I understand your intentions were well-meaning. I am in no position to say that intention forgives action, however, it does offer perspective.” He frowned. “I am not a child, Cadence Morello, so don’t treat me like one. If you care for and respect me, then you will be honest with me—like I’ve done to and for you.”
Cadence honestly had been sort of expecting this. Didn’t mean she didn’t feel both a sense of relief and guilt at his words.
“Besides, I did tell you that I’d let you swindle me one last time back then, didn’t I?” Francis clasped his hands together. “Just this once we can consider this bit as part of that equation.”
Cadence hung her head at this. “Ya’ve only been good ta me, Francis… and I just keep pullin’ the wool over your eyes again and again…” She thought of Alpha’s bright white memories. “Francis, it’s all my fault. You were right when you said it’s all no good now.” She grimaced, her chest starting to hammer rapidly, uncomfortably. “And now Werner and Maria are…”
“Maria?” Francis frowned. After a moment, he sank down beside her.
“You can’t undo it once it’s been done,” Cadence rattled on, thoughts running from Maria to Werner to Werner’s family to everything in-between. “Atienna said somethin’ fancy once about a drop of black paint fallin’ into a bucket of white paint before. She said somethin’ about it no longer bein’ able to go back to the original color. It’d always be a slight shade off or somethin’. Ya know—hopeless, inevitable, yada yada.”
She was stressed as hell.
“…I did say those things—that it was hopeless and many other somewhat dramatic statements—but that was just quitter talk,” Francis drew slowly, leaning forward so he could meet her eyes. He studied her for a moment. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there? Tell me.”
Ah. Reading people like Francis, but direct and to the point like Vega.
“I’m supposed ta be grovelin’ on my knees and apologizin’ ta ya.” Cadence arched a brow. “But here ya are given’ me a pat on the back.”
Francis stared at her blankly. “You did the same for me, did you not?” A smile thinned its way across its lips. “What? You don’t trust me?”
She wanted to laugh but couldn’t bring herself to.
“I-I’m terrified outta my mind, Francis,” she finally admitted as she stared down at her hands. “Atienna’s—I don’t know what she’s doin’ but I need her really badly right now but she’s…” Cadence collected her thoughts—or tried to. “My parents… They…. They went through the same thing and—and one of ‘em came out crazed and then dead and the other…” For the first time, Cadence allowed herself to scoff at the father who’d abandoned her. It was also the first time she’d physically told anyone about her parents since she’d talk Nico when they were younger. “…who knows where he’s at.”
He’d abandoned her. Took the money and left. No excuses. No situation. No circumstance. He had a choice to make and he went off with it.
Cadence shook her head and stared at a point on the wall. “When Werner was yellin’ and shoutin’ like that… all I could think of was my mom. But, Francis, he’s not her. I know he’s not. He’s better than them both put together, so seein’ him like that… Bah, I don’t know what I’m sayin’.”
There was a lapse of silence.
“I see…” Francis’s eyes widened and his brows furrowed. “I understand what you’re saying, Cadence. Don’t worry.”
“It’s…” Cadence felt her voice crack despite herself as she felt the weight of Werner’s and Maria’s absences weigh down on her shoulders—as she felt the weight of the shoes she’d been trying to fill. She’d spent all her life playing different characters and filling shoes but playing as them and filling theirs felt wrong and incomplete. “…all my fault.”
Cadence bent over to hide her face from Francis. Ah, damn. She’d already gone through this with Nico and here she was doing it again. She wanted to transmute another disguise over herself to hide the tears that were beginning to leak from her eyes, but that would just be another lie to Francis.
“Werner’s only been good ta me too and I kept pullin’ the rug out from under him,” she mumbled. “Things were gettin’ better after a while but—but Scorpio.” She clenched her fist then released it. “I don’t know what he did but he just— it’s awful. The things that are good are mixin’ with the things that are bad. Really terrible paint. Need ta get a refund…” She pushed out a laugh and shook her head. “Ya know what? I’m really supposed ta be apologizin’ ta you, but I’m just makin’ it about myself—”
Silence answered her.
Collecting herself, she unfurled to face Francis. Before she could say anything, however, she was met with a slow and soft embrace. Needless to say, she was startled by the action and her hands hovered in confusion as she stared over Francis’s shoulder.
“You poor child…” Francis whispered.
Eh. Okay. Kinda weird hearing that from Francis, but if she kind of pictured him as Vega or Theta it wasn’t too strange. Anyways, it felt a bit nice. So, she slowly lowered her arms and returned the gesture. He smelled like cigarette smoke, old books, and rain.
They stayed like that for a stretch of time.
“I apologize for saying those things about chlorowheat and Herr Waltz,” Francis finally said. “Even if I was justified in my anger, I shouldn’t have lashed out. I’m sorry if I’ve dug up old wounds.”
Cadence felt the tension leave her shoulders as she leaned more into his embrace.
“I’m on the same page with you, Francis,” Cadence said, pulling away from him. “The chlorowheat’s gotta go. We don’t need that. We need the rest of the kids. And this… syzygy’s the thing we need ta focus on. That and whatever Alpha’s plannin’…”
“Yes, I…” Francis frowned. “I actually left to try and handle the chlorowheat aspect of that issue.” He paused. “Were you aware that I—that Theta—took in Mr. Ricardo when he was younger?”
“I had an idea…” Cadence admitted, wincing slightly. “Honestly it didn’t seem that important at the time. Kinda weird ta bring it up in conversation, ya know? The old man’s like a father ta me. It just felt awkward.”
Francis let out a quiet sigh before he explained to her that he’d just returned back from a trip with Tau to the Twin Cities—specifically a trip to see old man Ricardo, specifically to negotiate. Apparently, however, the whole thing had ended in ‘utter failure.’
“I ended up berating Mr. Ricardo the entire time.” Francis pinched the bridge of his nose before rubbing his hand down his face. “In retrospect, it was probably not a good idea to have Tau act as my advisor and partner in our discussion.”
“You…” Cadence choked out a laugh and wiped a tear from his eye. “Ya brought Tau? Francis, come on. The old man might know about the whole ELPIS spiel now, but he probably looks at Tau and just sees plain old Giustizia. Plus Tau is—I mean, he’s entertainin’ for sure, but…”
“He moonlit as what you would consider a lawyer back in the day,” Francis explained before offering a half smile and shrug. “It seemed like a good investment at the time.”
“Huh.” Cadence arched a brow. “I thought he was just a Mathitís, but he’s got a couple of tricks in the bag I guess—”
Francis paused and turned to her. “How do you know that word…?”
“A lot’s… happened,” Cadence drew slowly, “during your little short trip ta the cities. Ya heard us jumpin’ back and forth between your gates, right?”
“Yes… I heard you.”
“Yeah so… some things happened.” Cadence gripped her left arm and offered an easy smile. “Well, on the bright side of all the zaniness that went down, we did get the other half of Alpha’s poem. I don’t read much, but I don’t think I’m far off the mark when I say I think he could work on his prose a bit.”
Francis tensed and turned, worry furrowing his brow. “You… encountered Alpha?”
“We didn’t just encounter him.” Cadence indicated the gate across from them. “He’s taken up residence in our little estate here. Leona too.”
“What…?” Francis rose to a stand. “Then the children—”
Cadence proceeded to explain everything that had happened on Maria’s and Jericho’s end of things. Alpha, Leona, the children, Maria’s arm, Jericho, Epsilon, and the poem.
“I see…” Francis put a hand to his mouth afterwards. His shoulders seemed to lose some of their tension briefly but they tensed a second after. “I’m glad at least some of them are safe. As for Alpha—Rho will most likely move forward without his direction.” He mumbled something into his hand. “I’m sorry to hear about Maria. If you would like, I can—”
Cadence held up a hand as she rose to a stand too. “Maybe it’s better if we don’t do that right now… She’s still—ya know—outta it.” She shifted from foot-to-foot. “Ya know Maria. She’s usually all sunshine… but I guess there’s somethin’ that can be too much sunshine sometimes.”
Francis regarded her for a moment. “Are you having trouble with the others?”
“Speakin’ of relationship troubles,” Cadence drew quickly, shifting gears, “did ya happen ta see Allen while you were out and about? Carl’s been worried about ya. He’s real sorry too. I’m sure Al—”
“I would rather not speak to Allen at the moment,” Francis interjected, eyes narrowing. “I know you were just following what you believed was right, I know Carl is just… Carl, and I know Fortuna is still young and acting in a way she believes is necessary based upon how she was raised—but Allen is a different story.”
“He’s your blood brother, Francis,” Cadence reasoned. “I know he lied—” She stopped short. “Yeah, I can’t touch that topic with a ten foot pole, but ya know what I mea—”
“He spoke against me, Cadence, during my meeting with Ricardo,” Francis interjected, his voice taking on a familiar yet rare hard edge. “I know some people can somehow view profit margins as more important than the lives of children, but this with Allen—this goes beyond poor moral obligation. Can’t you tell, Cadence?”
Yikes. This obviously was more deep-rooted than the current issue with the chlorowheat. Cadence had witnessed a couple Foxman blow-outs herself back in the day, but Francis usually maintained a calm demeanor during them and always ended things by stalking off. Though the last time he’d done that he’d—
“He’s been this way ever since we were kids,” Francis muttered, shaking his head as he paced forward. “Hiding things from me. Kept saying I was too young and naive. Took me forever to earn the respect I needed to be out there with both of them.” He whipped around, throwing out his hand. “And now he does this? He’s just doing it because he wants to hold onto the idea that he’s in the ‘right’ when it comes to doing right by us and the kids. He cares for the children—I can tell—but he’s focusing too much on the present and not enough on the future. He keeps throwing around the phrase ‘he’s an adult’ or ‘she’s an adult’ but he has no respect for anyone in that regard.” Francis turned to her. “He was the one who asked everyone to lie, wasn’t he?”
Francis held her gaze for a moment before he seemed to catch himself and let out a quiet sigh. The gloomy calm slid over his shoulders again. “I apologize for my outburst. Lashing out and getting worked up solves nothing but exacerbates everything.”
“No problem, Francis. Ya know I’m always all ears.” Cadence offered him a reassuring smile. “Do ya… want me ta… help out with the Ricardo thing? Is that why you’re here?”
Francis paused as a look of guilt cut clear across his face. “I want you to be aware that my intention coming here was not to solely ask you this but… I believe your presence may be of use in convincing Ricardo to give up his pursuits of chlorowheat and to redirect the family resources elsewhere.”
“Ya didn’t even need ta ask, Francis.” Cadence chortled, pacing up to him. “The old man might be my old man but you”—she gave him a light punch on the shoulder—“you’re like a brother from another mother. Besides, ya might given out forgiveness like a philanthropist but I still gotta make it up to ya.”
Francis offered a sympathetic smile of all things before he looked towards the gate on the opposite wall. “I was hoping to head there right away, but it seems to me like we’ve got a couple things that probably need addressing first.”
“Oh yeah…” Cadence ruffled the back of her hair. “Right.”
* * *
And so, Cadence headed with Francis into the exitless room where they were keeping Alpha and Leona. She knew Jericho was waiting there already in front of the gate for them and had an extensive mental conversation with him beforehand. The poor detective was worried sick about his ‘friendship’—Cadence wasn’t sure if she’d call something so complicated that exactly—with Francis. She reassured him that out of all the people Francis was angry at, Jericho was probably near the bottom of the list. Sorta. Regardless, she went through different scenarios and apologies with him on her way over.
“Francis, I apologize,” Jericho said as soon as Cadence stepped into the room through the gate with Francis which caused Francis to startle back slightly. “I also knew about the chlorowheat, but I said nothing. I am sorry. I broke your trust. Omicron. I knew, but I didn’t say. That’s like lying. Truth is important, I know, but—”
He was jumbling around the different apologies she’d practiced with him a second ago and mixing them all into one.
Jericho glanced at her, and although his face was calm, she could feel the alarm seeping through their connection. I am not good at apologizing. Cadence, help—
Francis held up a hand before placing it on Jericho’s shoulder. “It’s alright, Jericho. I’m not angry with you.”
“You’re not.” Jericho stared. “But…” He glanced at Cadence. “I saw… everything that happened.” His face fell noticeably. “After Werner…” He stared at a spot on the wall for a while before Cadence nudged him through their connection. He returned his attention to Francis. “You were very, very angry. At everyone. At… Cadence.”
Francis offered a calm and sympathetic smile. “It’s a bit different with Cadence…”
Cadence arched a brow at Francis when he looked at her over his shoulder.
“I understand what you were trying to do, Jericho. Intention cannot serve as an excuse but it can offer a perspective like I’m sure you’ve heard me say through Cadence. Even if that’s the case, I haven’t blamed you for anything,” Francis continued gently. “Me asking you to apologize is…” His face become somber. “…wrong after what’s happened between you and the previous Theta.”
“No.” Jericho shook his head. “It wasn’t you. It was, but you took us in. You taught us and were kind to us. It’s different. The person who’s at fault—the one who made us believe in all of that—is… is not you.”
Francis frowned. “Jericho—”
“Is that you, Vega?” called an unpleasantly familiar voice from behind Jericho.
Cadence peered around the man and spied one familiar Alpha sitting bound to a chair at the center of the room. Despite the situation, Jericho’s smile was calm and pleasant. He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t look sad either. An unreadable smile.
“Vega—Francis Foxman,” Alpha drew, squinting at them almost comically, “and… Cadence Morello. Black Knight of the Romano Family. Or are you working with the Foxman Family right now?”
What the—saints. What a creep.
Jericho stepped in front of her and pushed her slightly back. Cadence peered around him anyways. Now that she could actually see Alpha with her own eyes, she understood the unease some of the others had felt around him. His eyes were empty. Black, bottomless pits that absorbed all light. Cadence couldn’t glean anything from his gaze. But apparently, he already knew all about her. Because he knew everything.
Before Francis could respond, a smooth, honey-like voice across from Alpha drew his attention away—“So you’ve really been divided to this point… and yet you still resist in your small, individual ways…”
“Leo…” Francis murmured.
Leona, Cadence realized as she looked the golden woman up and down from where she’d been bound to the chair across from Alpha. Again—Leona was dazzlingly beautiful. Straight out of a magazine. Bombastic. Like a film star.
Is she? Jericho didn’t seem convinced.
Still, it was weird to Cadence that while she’d only met Leona physically in person once last fall, she’d literally seen her through Jericho’s eyes every day for the past couple of months. Another one of those ‘I know you but you don’t know me’ type of things that Olive thought about sometimes. Well, Cadence supposed she thought about it to—especially when it came to Gilbert.
“How are you faring, Theta?” Leona asked calmly as if she were in casual conversation. “I again offer my condolences for Omicron’s death.”
Francis’s expression tightened before he walked forward and came to a stand in-between the two. Jericho peeled away from Cadence’s side and followed him. While Francis’s gaze remained solely focused on Alpha, Jericho’s gaze flickered back and forth between the man and Leona.
“It’s sad to see you like this,” Francis finally said. “What is your goal, Proteus? What are you doing with the children? Where are they—”
“Oh, so you know my name now?” Alpha chuckled lightly. He shrugged a moment after. “I don’t have a goal, Vega. Not really. And the children? I’m sure you’ve seen them, haven’t you? I haven’t done anything to them that they didn’t want me to do.” His smile thinned as he held Francis’s gaze. “I’ve seen you do the same thing over and over again, century after century. You bring in children and keep them close, placing them in your captivity—and when you leave? Those children who’ve never tasted freedom in their lives—”
Cadence felt Jericho clench his fist. Before the man could strike Alpha across the jaw, she darted forward and grabbed him by the wrist. Both Jericho and Francis turned to her at this, but she merely thought to Jericho—
Easy, detective. No point in swingin’ except temporary satisfaction.
She looked back to Alpha and found him gazing with that same pleasant smile at her. Wait—no. There was something glinting there in his usually empty eyes. Jealousy? No—something similar to that, but just a shade off.
“Ya had a thing with Ophiuchus, didn’t ya?” Cadence drew, staring down at Alpha as she slowly released Jericho from her grip.
“Oh, Ophiuchus.” Alpha chuckled. “I was her Mathitís—yes.” He studied her for a moment. “Ah, Jericho showed that to you, I see. Interesting times, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not much of a history enthusiast, so I’ll just keep my peace,” Cadence returned. “Gotta say though… Ophiuchus really was somethin’, so I don’t blame ya for havin’ a bit of a thing for her—”
Francis frowned as his gaze narrowed—yikes. Cadence glanced at him for a split-second to reassure him that she meant nothing by it.
Alpha meanwhile stared at Cadence long and hard before laughing lightly. “I wouldn’t say I had a thing for her. Ophiuchus was Ophiuchus. That’s all really.”
“Right, right. ‘Ophiuchus was Ophiuchus.’” Cadence spread her arms. “In other words, no one could replace Ophiuchus, could they? She was special.”
“Special—like Alma Miraggio?” Alpha asked only a second afterwards. If he was bothered by her words, he sure didn’t show it.
But Cadence didn’t show she was bothered ever despite her stomach twisting and her heart soaring. Words hurt, but she’d been anticipating these particular words. So, time to gather information—rather, time to let him just spill it to her. ELPIS and saint candidates shared one thing in common: they sure liked to talk.
“Alma speaks fondly of a ‘Cadence.’ Whenever she plays the piano for the children, she brings a ‘Cadence’ up. I thought she was talking about a musical cadence at first, to be honest with you,” Alpha continued before he chuckled briefly. “I think she’s a bit attached to you. You are to her too, right? It’ll only bring you both suffering in the end.” He seemed to study Cadence for a beat. “She’s with that Enzo and chasing after a bygone and materialistic dream, it seems. A mirage. Dreams drag you down too.”
“But that’s what life’s all about, aint it? Chasin’ after those things. If ya don’t chase after somethin’, then is that really livin’?”
So Alma was safe and playing piano for the kids, Cadence thought. Didn’t seem to care she was riding it out with a crazy man. Sounded about right.
“Anyway, yeah—I’m a hopeless adorer.” Cadence shrugged, feeling a weight lift from her shoulders. “What can I say? Well, I can say this: I get the feelin’ that you’re one too. Ya say ya ain’t goin’ to Ophiuchus the country for some kinda revenge party. No, you’re goin’ for the real Ophiuchus, ain’t you?”
Alpha remained smiling.
Damn. It didn’t seem like she’d be able to get any more out of him.
“Wait…” Leona drew suddenly from behind them. “You can’t possibly be intending to try to rebaptize Ophiuchus, are you?”
Francis’s eyes widened as Alpha’s smile fell.
“All of this?” Francis murmured. “For that? It will never work… It’s impossible.”
“‘Impossible is something to be broken by the strong’”—Alpha replied “—that’s something Leo always used to say, isn’t it? You’ve always given up far too easily, Theta. You only gave up even more so after coming together with Altair.”
Francis bristled, so Cadence had to hold him back by the wrist too. His expression then became somber.”
“ I know that it’ll work because I know everything,” Alpha continued. “And if it somehow doesn’t work?” He shrugged. “No loss. Not really.”
“Why would you risk the lives of our members and the children for something so…” Francis’s brows furrowed. “…ephemeral?”
“Good question,” Alpha hummed. “Who knows.”
The silence that stretched on was long and thin.
“I know what day you play to have your raid,” Francis finally drew. “Your riddles have lost their shine, I’m sorry to say.”
“I’m eager to hear your answer,” Alpha replied.
“Signum is a circular continent. You could very much imagine a clock face over it. Associating each hour with the month and combining that with the cardinal directions you’ve laid out in your prose…” Francis let out a sigh. “You plan to enter Ophiuchus on June 6th.”
“Wha?” Cadence did a double-take The beginnin’ of next month?” She glanced back at Leona whose expression remained unaffected. “Is… Ophiuchus prepared for that…?”
“The election announcement date,” Leona drew. “How childish of you.”
“Oh? Is that when the election results are announced?” Alpha chuckled. “Oh, right—it is. Honestly, that’s entirely coincidental.”
Cadence didn’t believe in coincidence. Not really.
* * *
The next stop was the room where Olive was hosting his ‘diplomatic relations’ with the Sagittarian royals. Francis remained silent the entire time of their transversal—most likely thinking about that date they now had marked on the calendar. Cadence was thinking about it too of course, but it wasn’t like it was the only thing she was worried about.
As soon as she stepped into the room with Francis and Jericho, she could feel the atmosphere thin. The chair-bound Sagittarian royals ogled their arrival—rather, they ogled the tattoo on Francis’s face. Olive’s uninitiated—pun intended—friendly company joined in on the ogling. Epsilon who was lounging in the corner of the room perked up and bounded over to them with a relieved wave. In the opposite corner, the caporegimes and Carl watched them silently, tensely.
Mai whispered under her breath— “It really is an ELPIS leader…”
The entire scene made Cadence personally feel a bit nostalgic—except that Francis was standing on their side now.
Cadence broke off from Francis with Jericho and made her way over where Olive was standing in the far corner with Claire, Arjun, Lyrs, and Derik, while Francis headed over to the capos and Carl.
“You’re the one who was sobbing on the floor back in Aquarius in that tent last year, aren’t you?” Claire greeted Cadence with a handshake once she introduced herself.
Damn. Was that all that people remembered her for? Didn’t they know she’d once put piano keys up in the skies over the Twin Cities?
“Ah, shit.” Derik sneered. “The groveler. Where the hell is the captain?”
Ignoring the nausea that came over her at Werner’s mention, Cadence merely reflected her smile and accepted Claire’s gesture. “And, Yuseong Claire, you’re the one who took off ta the skies in Capricorn, right? Don’t blame ya. It was the situation, wasn’t it?”
Claire remained smiling although his eyes sharpened. He then turned to Olive and said, “I really like the people in your circle, Ollie. They’re flashy.”
Cadence tipped her hat at him before turning towards Olive. She had felt Olive’s relief at her and Jericho’s arrival. The kid had definitely taken a big gamble bringing this lot here, and his adrenaline was just about running out.
“So…” Cadence thumbed behind her. “Ya’ve got new friends?”
“I… have kind of a plan,” Olive tried to explain, glancing up at Jericho. “Not really but… sort of…” He glanced over at Derik. I thought Werner would be up, but he…
“Yeah…” Cadence rubbed the back of her neck.
Werner and Maria had been awake very briefly half an hour ago before they’d both slipped back into sleep.
Cadence reached out and cuffed Olive on the shoulder causing him to scowl—but she could feel that he appreciated the gesture. “Anyways, I’m sure we’ll have this all worked out before that train of yours docks at Ophiuchus.”
If things do not resolve easily here—and you shouldn’t be upset with it if it doesn’t, Olive—it would be best to think of a way to return everyone, don’t you think? Atienna—with one toe dipped into the water. Drawing unwanted eyes in our current situation is…
“It’d be pretty weird ta have a train dock into a station missin’ some high-profile passengers,” Cadence agreed.
I know… Olive started playing with a strand of his hair again—a nervous tick of his that Cadence found a bit endearing.
Cadence then turned her attention to the corner of the room where Francis was conversing with Carl and the caporegimes. Agape and Bendetto looked tense, but Cavallo looked at ease and Carl merely looked as miffed as he usually did. Francis, however, appeared gloomy, grim, serious—but not angry. Rolling her shoulders, she made her way over to them.
“Heard ya had an unpleasant trip down someone else’s memory lane,” Cadence noted as she neared them. “Thought ya’d be more wow’d by bein’ in the presence of royalty by the way. Did ya happen ta get any enlightenment?”
Agape, arms crossed, evaluated Olive from the distance. “‘Enlightenment…’ What a silly concept, Cadence.” She glanced at Bendetto, Cavallo, and Carl. “I’d rather avoid seeing something that affects how I function in everyday life.”
Averting one’s eyes—
“Ya shoulda looked, Agape,” Cadence noted. “Might give ya some insight.”
Agape’s eyes narrowed.
Agape was a heartless woman but Cadence knew she did have some sort of twisted affection for her workers at the Casa de Bambolle. It was a shame Agape didn’t take a peek at the memories. Cadence was sure they would’ve really shaken her up and over to their side.
Bah. Sounded manipulative now that Cadence thought about it. Probably was. Maybe she was rubbing off on Olive in the wrong way.
Keeping one eye on Francis, Bendetto grimaced. “The only thing I got out of that was feeling sorry for the poor bastards in my unit who were stuck in barbed wire and trapped beneath those boulders earth Elementalists threw around for fun. We were ordered to put them out of their misery. Thought I was mercying them.” He rubbed his chin “Is everyone I put a vitae bolt through like that? Worming around in the reservoirs? My wife fought too, you know? She’d cry if she ever found out.”
A sharp pain pricked Cadence’s chest.
“Eh, I don’t really know ta be honest. The whole different energy level spiel might affect things a bit?” Cadence scratched her head and pushed away the feeling. “Because the kid doesn’t know. He’s usually my go to for all the vitae and conduct hijinks.” She glanced at Francis. “Francis…?”
Francis remained silent.
After looking to Francis briefly, Cavallo regarded Cadence and spoke in a low voice, “I still don’t understand exactly what your associate was trying to do or convince us of. He’s quite… young.”
Cadence could feel Olive tense and whip towards them. With difficulty, she managed to redirect his attention back to some weird conversation about coronation outfits he was having with Claire.
“I suppose that was a scare tactic of sorts?” Cavallo pressed. “I do hope he knows exactly who he’s dealing with. A sign of mutual respect.”
“Oh, he knows real well,” Cadence noted, “‘cause I know.”
“If it was a damned scare tactic,” Carl muttered, “then sure as hell worked on me.” When he caught Francis’s attention with his statement, he cleared his throat and reached out a hand. “Look, Francis, I’m real sorry for lyin’ to you—”
Francis caught his hand and put it down gently. “It’s okay, Carl. I forgive you.”
“I said, ‘I’m sorry—’” Carl stopped and did a double-take. “Uh—what? Are you sure? Why—”
“Mostly because I need you right now,” Francis explained.
“Need me?” Carl arched a brow. “Why…?”
“I take it that your escapade to Ricardo didn’t go as planned?” Cavallo inquired calmly. “So you convinced Cadence through weaponizing her guilt and she requested a favor of the Ariesian prince. The Ariesian prince then came here to show us and convince us to fall more in line with your perspective.”
“‘Ey, Cavallo, come on. That was entirely coincidental. The kid called his own shots,” Cadence interjected, “and the kid isn’t just throwin’ up some mumbo jumbo.”
“‘Kid.’” Agape’s eyes narrowed.
Cadence didn’t take the bait but instead moved to elaborate— “Okay—yeah—the whole execution of the kid’s plan was a bit… on the questionable side—”
Kid, come on.
“—but I can see it affected all of ya. The general idea is that we need ta come together ta handle whatever the saint candidates are gonna throw at us. Ya know. Just like a deal. But maybe instead of it bein’ a deal through deception, it could be an honest deal. A ‘we’re all in the same ballpark and field’ type of deal. A ‘better be friends than enemies or get in each other’s way’ agreement. Maybe… even a shift in perspective.”
Carl snorted but quieted when he received a frown from Francis.
“Those are a lot of buzzwords, Cadence.” Agape frowned. “Buzzwords hold no substance.”
“You want to utilize the Romano Family’s dwindling resources to prevent this syzygy, ” Cavallo surmised after a pause, “which Francis still doesn’t fully remember and understand. You want to stop these vitae levels from rising. And you want to clean out the family in a way that you think is righteous from your perspective.”
Okay. He didn’t seem too convinced.
“I mean our big goal here is ta stabilize the family, right? For reach, money, power, dreams, and so on, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “That’s why we all came to this city. For that ta happen, ya generally need people. If you wanna be a musician, ya need people ta listen ta ya. If you wanna be a writer, ya need people ta read your story. If ya wanna be filthy rich, ya need people ta print the money and ta compare yourself against. Ya get the picture. The syzygy does away with the people aspect of human society from my understanding of it. And chlorowheat? Short-lived profit—yeah—while forever damaging your consumers—the people you’re makin’ money off of.”
Cavallo arched a brow. “You do realize weaponizing chlorowheat is an effective measure against these saint candidates and elevated vitae levels, don’t you?”
Cadence’s lips thinned at the comment. Couldn’t he have at least tried to pretend to give the tiniest damn about her?
“Yes, that’s something I’m becoming more and more aware of that fact with each passing moment,” Francis murmured before glancing at Cadence, “but at the moment it’s clearly out of control. Mass consumption should not be its main use.”
“You speak strongly for someone who nearly brought the ceiling down over us,” Agape said thickly. She looked over at Cadence. “Cadence, I hope you know where you’re playing your cards.”
“I do,” Cadence said firmly.
Francis held Cadence’s gaze briefly before turning to Cavallo again. “That being said, I’ve come here to tell you this to be open to you. To not deceive you unlike you’ve done to me. Hopefully, this can improve our relations from now on.”
“I see… Well, while I may be a caporegime,” replied Cavallo. “but I share this role with several others. And these others and I are only the second rung of the ladder. You need to take this matter above us.”
“I’m aware of where your power falls in this ‘family,’ Cavallo,” Francis replied calmly. “Just as I am aware of how to approach Mr. Ricardo. I did raise him with certain values, after all.”
“Wait—what?” Bendetto exchanged a look with Agape.
“Certain values??” Carl arched a brow.
And finally Francis’s thought process clicked in Cadence’s head.
“Weaponizin’ the thing that’s been weaponized against you.” Cadence scratched the back of her head. “That’s quite devious of ya, Francis. Maybe a bit heartless too. We probably gotta talk ta the Al, Fortuna, and the others first though. Nico too probably.”
Francis’s brows furrowed slightly but he nodded.
Carl looked between them in confusion before shaking his head and grumbling, “Don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but let’s have this dumb damned intervention.”
* * *
Nico, Fortuna, Allen—the trio arrived into the room Cadence had cleared out with Francis and Carl in exactly that order.
Cadence was distracted by things unfolding on Werner’s, Olive’s, and Maria’s side of things so she wasn’t paying too much attention to the passing time. Both Maria and Werner had finally fully woken up—Cadence couldn’t find the right moment to tell Werner about her phone call with Viktoria, however—and were dealing with Olive’s whole debacle with the Sagittarians along with a synchronized Atienna. Jericho was there too—though he’d physically stuck to Alpha’s room. Cadence was psychically shimmying in-and-out of the two locations the entire time so she only gave Nico a nod and Fortuna a wave upon their arrivals.
To Cadence’s knowledge, Fortuna hadn’t participated in the whole Epsilon-vitae-sharing spiel, so Cadence was surprised that she’d even showed up after Cadence had reached out to her. When Carl pressed her about it, Fortuna merely pinned it on ‘investing in her interests.’ Needless to say, there was tension between not only Fortuna and Francis but also Fortuna and Nico. Too many unsaid things.
The moment Allen stepped in, however, Cadence pulled away from the other five and focused fully on her current surroundings.
The room they’d chosen for this confrontation was one of Cadence’s favorite rooms: the piano room. At the moment, she was seated not at the piano but at the round table across from it. Fortuna, Nico, Carl, and Francis were seated all around her—wearing varying expressions of contempt and nervousness.
Allen didn’t even sigh as he entered the room and noticed them all. “This isn’t the place I asked to go, Francis. What is it now?”
Francis remained silent, eyes narrowing.
Allen held his gaze for a moment before nodding at Cadence. “You alright, Cadence?”
“Could be better,” Cadence answered honestly. “But the dear captain—well, both of them—are improvin’ so so am I.”
“Nico?” Allen asked next.
“Doin’ as good as usual,” Nico replied slowly, side-glancing at Francis.
Francis rose from his seat. “We need to talk.”
“We’ve already talked,” Allen replied. “We talked for hours at Ricardo’s place.”
“A one-sided conversation is not talking,” Francis replied thickly.
Allen studied him for a moment before walking up to him slowly and looking him up and down. “You’re the one who had the one-sided conversation.”
Cadence hopped up from his chair and stepped between them, hands raised. “Hey, now—let’s just take it down a notch.”
“What is it? You want me to apologize to you?” Allen asked calmly, thickly. “For keeping you from running off again? For keeping you from doing something dangerous and stupid? You’re still not right in the head, Francis—”
Cadence tried, “Hey, Allen…”
“And your head’s not right either, Cadence,” Allen stated, glaring down at her. “I haven’t said anything because at least you’re able to keep your head on straight. But after that whole thing in Capricorn, you’ve been acting out more and more. Not being start.”
Cadence felt something in her chest bristle at the insult, and she had to restrain herself from biting back at him.
What’s his problem? Olive. Cadence, I don’t think any of your decisions have been that stupid at all.
“You wanna cut chlorowheat off completely? Destroy what we find and what we have left?” Allen pressed. “I get it, Cadence. It messed up you and your friend. I’ll talk around and make sure that we cut flow to Capricorn and Aquarius after we get things under control.”
“A-Allen,” Cadence interjected, “that’s not enough—”
Allen’s gaze narrowed. “How will we find the rest of the kids?”
Cadence tried, “Fortuna said she’ll—”
“I know Cadence’s probably won you over, Nico, so”—Allen turned to Fortuna— “why are you here, Fortuna?”
“I’m merely investing in my own interests,” Fortuna replied from her seat. “I do find that our investments in chlorowheat have fallen short of expectations.” She slowly looked over at Cadence and held her gaze. Something akin to worry and sympathy were there. Maybe even guilt and regret. “We need to cut production and shipment and search elsewhere.”
Well, that was surprising.
“Really?” Allen stared Fortuna down. “This isn’t about your dad not giving the full reins of the family to you even though you united the Romanos with the Campanas? This isn’t some tantrum?”
Fortuna’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know who you think you are, but our relationship isn’t one where you can speak so condescendingly to me like that—”
“He thinks he’s the head of the household is what it is,” Francis interjected, frowning. “He’s taking hold of an illusion of control—”
“Ey.” Carl pulled on his suit collar with an uncomfortable expression. “Wait a minute, Francis—”
“Illusion of control?” Allen looked Francis up and down. “To me, that seems more of your thing, Francis. I’m not holding any leashes. You’re all adults and can do whatever you want—”
“So you keep saying,” Francis interrupted. “You may not be holding any physical leash, but there is more than just one way to bind someone. Feelings, lies, empty promises, reassurances. These things tie others down. Don’t act as if it’s a foreign concept, Allen. You’ve seen it since childhood and now you’re using it yourself. Just like your fat—”
Allen visibly bristled and raised his hand. Cadence reflexively flinched as did Francis. From the corner of her eye, Cadence could see Allen’s eyes widen slightly. Thinly veiled realization, guilt, horror. Allen’s body jerked forward suddenly. It took a moment for Cadence to realize he’d been pushed—by a small body that now had its arms wrapped around his legs. It took another moment for Cadence to recognize that it was Kent.
“Please don’t, Mr. Allen!” Kent stammered, tightening his grip. “If you do it once, you’re gonna do it again. It always happens like that. Please don’t—”
“Kent?!” Carl exclaimed, snapping up to his feet. “Where the hell—heck did you come from, you brat?”
Allen stared down at the boy in disbelief as did Francis. Allen lowered his hand and jerked his head towards Francis. Gaze softening, Francis stepped forward to scoop Kent up in his arms.
Cadence slid forward and took Kent from Francis next. “Come on, Kent,” she said. “How’d ya get in here? This place’s off limits for hide-and-seek, ya know?”
Ignoring her, Kent whipped to Allen. “Don’t.”
“I won’t…” Allen said quietly, lips pressing downwards. He paced over to the piano and sank down into the chair in front of it. “I could never.” He grimaced and looked over at Francis. “But how could you even compare to that bastard?”
Francis’s brows knitted as regret folded over his features. “Al, I’m sorr—”
Allen jabbed a finger in his direction. “You talk like you’re on some moral high-ground and that you know better than everyone. I thought you did too. That’s why I thought it’d be fine sending you off to Scorpio. Seemed like you had a good handle on it. Sure, you and Cadence might have more know-how in what’s what in this syzygy department. But”—He folded his hands together and studied Francis—“You know what happened the last time we had a big fight and you stormed off, Francis?”
Cadence felt her face drain because she knew where this was going. She hadn’t predicted that he’d say this—she’d never been able to really read into Allen—but now that he was saying it, it was perfectly clear. Like a slap in the face. Francis seemed to sense it too because his eyes widened.
Allen turned his attention to her. “You know what happened last time Alma came back into the picture, Cadence? You were played like a damned fiddle and you nearly ended up dead.”
Allen jabbed a finger at Nico. “You know what happened last time when you ran off to meddle in Capricornian and Aquarian business, Nico?”
Nico’s face flushed slightly. “That’s—”
“And Fortuna, do you remember the last time you tried to tie the Romanos and Campanas together?”
Fortuna stiffened, her expression becoming sympathetic, before she bristled. “Allen, you aren’t—”
Allen held up a hand. “Don’t you understand why I do these things? You are all I have.”
There it was—the admittance. And paired with came that familiar thick and heavy silence that was so suffocating the lack of oxygen made Cadence think she was in a dream.
“You and these damned kids,” Allen continued. “We need money. I couldn’t give you good lives without money. I can’t give them a good life without money. It’s all down to the money. Money gets you education, gets you food, gets you a roof over your head, pays off stress, gives you time to relax. You know what happens when stress builds up and you don’t get time to relax? I don’t care how good of a person you are, but eventually you’ll snap and do things you regret.”
Cadence thought of Werner, then of Atienna, then of Maria. Oddly enough, she also found her thoughts straying to Leonhart.
Francis’s expression became clouded.
“You and Cadence used to understand that. Our joints are not enough. You’ve seen the numbers, Francis. They’ve been going down in profit since the beginning of the year because people on the street think there’s a war coming. We might have to close them. And then we’ll really be in the shits.”
Allen cared. Cadence had known this already but his care had always been a little bit subtle. He had put down the down payment for her first apartment. He’d also bought her a new pair of shoes after she’d worn them out when she was ten. He probably viewed himself as their caretaker and protector—just like Werner probably viewed himself as one for her and the other five.
Fortuna was looking at her hands now, Nico at his shoes, Carl at a spot on the wall.
“But yeah.” Allen looked Francis in the eye again. “I’m sorry I lied to you, Francis. It was a bad call. Doesn’t change anything though, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t change what happened,” Francis agreed, closing the distance between them until he was foot-to-foot with Carl, “but apologies do help.” He stayed there for a moment before sinking down to sit beside him. “I’m sorry for comparing you to that bastard, Al. My head wasn’t right—in that moment. Besides that lapse in judgement, however, my head is perfectly on my head. So is Cadence’s. That’s how things are now. It’s something that must be accepted. Rejection will only bring more pain.”
“I’m an adult and I do have years on you, Allen. That’s just fact—but you’re still my older brother and I love you,” Francis continued. “I understand your concerns and fears, and I apologize for not considering them before. It saddens me that you had to take those responsibilities on at such a young age.” He closed his eyes briefly before he glanced over at Kent. “The status quo is not something that can be maintained. It must be changed and made better as each generation changes and does better. If we can’t convince Mr. Ricardo of this, then positions must change.”
“Chlorowheat’s poison, Allen,” Cadence added, “and we needed ta really start directin’ resources to the right areas that really matter.”
“So you all keep saying,” Allen muttered, eyeing Kent.
Francis reached for his own belt and pulled out the pistol still strapped there. He held the pistol out to him briefly. “I apologize for not fully recognizing your perspective, Al.”
Allen frowned, appearing troubled
Francis curled his fingers back over the pistol and reholstered it. “So, in consideration of that, I’ll be keeping this a bit longer.”
Allen looked visibly relieved by the action. After a beat, he shook his head. “You came here because you want me to come with you to confront the old man, right? Do the same thing you’re doing to me to him.”
A hurt look crossed Francis’s face and he glanced briefly at Cadence. In turn, she set Kent down, ushered him over to a disgruntled Carl, and approached the two men. Allen arched a brow at her, waiting expectantly.
“We all have issues we need ta work out with each other, but the only people who’ll look out for us is us. We all know that,” Cadence drew slowly. “But. But, but, but—how does that correlate ta screwin’ everyone else over exactly? The way ta get rich is by investin’, isn’t it? The old man is—well—gettin’ old. Not sayin’ that we should kick the guy completely outta the picture. Gotta keep around the past and work together with it ta learn. But… the helm… needs ta change. Please, Al?”
Allen regarded Cadence for a very long time before he let out a sigh and nodded. “Alright. Let’s go handle the old man then.”
* * *
Twin Cities, Gemini
Cadence felt a bit weird wandering through the streets of the city out in the open. Felt even weirder walking with the whole gang around her—well, most of the gang. Nico was absent as was usual, but he was also keeping her dear lieutenant—captain—company so it was all good in her book. Felt real nostalgic though—walking down the sidewalk with Fortuna a step ahead of her, Francis beside her, and Carl and Allen just behind. All that was missing was Nico on her opposite side, but again—captain-company.
For some reason, as Cadence walked up to Ricardo’s gated mansion down the block, she found herself thinking that it wasn’t as big as she remembered it. The doors that his men let them all in through were not as grand as she remembered them either. The spiraling staircase they were led up seemed much shorter now compared to when she was a kid crawling them up. The doors leading to Ricardo’s office seemed less daunting than before too. And when Cadence passed through those doors, stepped out onto that Sagittarian carpet draped of the hardwood, and laid eyes on Ricardo who sat calmly at his desk against the back window, she couldn’t help but think that the old man looked a lot smaller than she remembered.
Ricardo regarded them all as they entered—eyes sweeping slowly from left to right.
“Allen, Francis”—Ricardo nodded his head at the two men first. “Back so soon?” He then cracked a smile. “What brings you all here? Fortuna?”
“You know why we’re here,” Fortuna said, “father.”
“Clarify that for me,” Ricardo replied. “Francis, I’ve already told you where I stand on your own stance.”
Francis nodded. “When I came here initially, I was hoping to reach an agreement of equal grounds with you, Mr. Ricardo, but obviously that sort of compromise won’t work.”
“I’m taking over, father,” Fortuna stated.
“You’ve already taken over—”
“No, that’s mere puppet play,” Fortuna interrupted. “I’m taking the official title as don from here on out. I’m the one binding us to the Campanas, and I’ve proven myself more than enough already. From here on out, the family falls under me.”
Ricardo thrummed his ringed fingers on his desk for a beat in response. “And suppose you take the lead now. What are your plans?”
“We’re going to cut production of chlorowheat,” Fortuna replied just as they’d discussed. “And we’re going to redirect our resources to addressing this Alpha and the syzygy since they negatively impact our business exceptionally.”
Ricardo leaned back in his chair and seemed to take them all in. “So, I see you’ve all come to try and take power away from an old and frail man.”
Cadence did feel kind of bad now—all of them ganging up on an old man they probably all considered to be a pseudo-father at one point or another.
“Come on, Ricardo,” Carl scoffed, “you ain’t frail.”
Ricardo chuckled at this. “You speak of negative impacts on the family business, but stopping chlorowheat profits will also have negative impacts on the business. So, how are you going to address these red margins?”
“Francis can literally open up little portal things anywhere he wants,” Cadence reasoned. “We can always find some other product to sell. One that doesn’t…” She frowned. “…end up messin’ people up. Not all illegal things are bad, after all, ya know? Some people and countries out there are up-tight. We can profit from uptightness.”
“There are rites of passage and ceremonies that you need to go through before any titles can be passed on,” Ricardo drew. “You would need the approval of the other capos.”
“Yeah, pretty sure Bendetto and Cavallo are on board about that,” Cadence noted, rocking on the balls of her feet. “Might take a bit to convince Agape, but I think we can manage that.”
Ricardo remained silent.
“This is a decision that all the ones who’ve come before the younger generation must make,” Francis spoke finally. “Well, rather than a decision, I’d say it’s a necessity. The decision lies in whether one releases this role genially or grips onto it—dragging everything to the ground in the process. Will you take this passing with grace or dishonor, Ricardo?”
Ricardo’s gaze slowly swept from left to right—from Fortuna to Carl to Allen to Francis and finally to Cadence herself. He proceeded to let out a long and quiet sigh before he began to peel off all the rings that glistened on his fingers and place them on his desk. Finally, he removed his tie and set it down too.
“Okay, so be it.”
* * *
Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
When Cadence—guised as Dieter—popped herself out of Werner’s mattress through Francis’s gate, she was met with one startled and shrieking Gilbert. If it weren’t for Nico grabbing the man and pulling him back, Cadence was pretty sure he would’ve socked her in the face.
“Where the hell have you been?” Gilbert demanded as Cadence pulled herself fully out of the mattress. “Scared the shit out of me.”
“Didn’t Nico tell ya?” Cadence asked, brushing herself off. “We’ve got a couple of things boilin’ in the background.”
“Yeah, I heard a thing or two,” Gilbert muttered, looking her up and down. “How’s Werner?”
Cadence glanced at Nico. “Well, I think Nico could tell ya some more about that—”
Nico, who was rummaging through his luggage, startled and whipped around to send her a glare at this.
Gilbert looked between them in confusion. “What…?”
Cadence looked away. “Anyways—yeah—he’s alright… Doin’ better… I guess…” Again, she felt the urge to be by his side and by Maria’s side. Werner had promised her that he’d stay, but that unease from her parents’ departure still squeezed her stomach tight. Brushing it aside, she took a quick glance around the room and asked, “Anyways, what did I miss? Where’re Greta and the Aquarians? No homecoming party for me?”
Gilbert merely jerked his chin towards the far window. “Take a look for yourself.”
Arching a brow, Cadence maneuvered to the window, rubbed the glass, peered out.
A crowd gathered in the yard below—packed together on top of the snow. Photographers swayed at the inner-circle with their cameras pointed up at the crowd’s center: a raised platform occupied by familiar men and women. There stood Matthias, Constanza, Milkovich, a handful of other AAC members, the damn secretary that the AAC had kidnapped, a handful of peacekeepers, and one blindingly smiling Seamus Dolby.
Cadence was beginning to consider Olive’s whole theory about the guy being a saint candidate because for some reason he was perfectly able to turn directly towards each photographer and smile just as they snapped a shot.
Okay. Talk about flashy. Literally.
“So that guy finally came down, huh?” Cadence asked. “I bet he had a noisy arrival.”
“Yeah,” Gilbert grumbled, “he actually met with the AAC ‘heads’ two days ago. Talked for two days. And then they all came out hunky-dory. There was buzz in the AAC meetings about him. Apparently, he’s going to make a statement today. Hence, the ravers out there. The Aquarians are already out there.”
What? Damn. How had that all happened in the short time she’d been away? Talk about a missed opportunity to gather information and test her hypothesis. Still—
Cadence then headed out of the inn with Gilbert and Nico a step behind her. She spied Greta, a guised Kramer, and a guised Knovak among the crowd. Interest piqued, she wove her way to the crowd’s center just in time to see Matthias shake hands with Seamus on the platform. Matthias proceeded to brush past Seamus and hug the secretary tightly. The secretary tensed, eyeing Seamus who gave him a nod before returning the gesture. The clapping and cheering that boomed in response rattled her bones in her skin. The last time people had been this riled up, the kaiser was killed.
Anyways, this was definitely going down way too easily. Wasn’t anyone else seeing that?
The silence died down when Seamus lifted his hand and waved. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve heard everything you’ve had to say and you still have my ears, my eyes, and my heart—”
Cadence didn’t personally think it was too bad.
“—We will resolve this issue peacefully, and I will address all of your concerns with the kaiser and the premier. Secret alliances are threats to Signum’s peace,” he continued. “I won’t let your voices be unheard any longer. International Relations is about respecting different nations, after all. And respecting trust. So, please trust in me.”
The crowd died down after that, dispersing into different areas of the town. Cadence was a bit disoriented with the dispersal at first because, as she watched them go, the Cancerian town from Atienna’s surroundings—the quiet cobblestone buildings, the musty air recently quenched with rain, and the fireflies blipping through the air despite the cold—became overlapped with her own. For a moment, she didn’t know where she was.
It was a bit terrifying at first. She hadn’t experienced anything like this since this whole synchronization thing first began. A quick are you alright? from Atienna and a tap on the shoulder from Nico brought her back to reality.
“We’re headin’ back now,” Nico said, thumbing Gilbert who was alright trudging away behind him. “Are you comin’ with.”
“I think I’m gonna slink around a bit,” Cadence replied slowly, “but you go on home.”
Nico hesitated for a moment before following Gilbert back in the direction of the inn.
Cadence pretended to head off in the direction too after a couple minutes. Instead of heading on in, however, she hopped behind one of the evergreen trees growing adjacently to the inn. After transmitting an illusion of invisibility over herself with a snap of her fingers, she slinked her way back through the snow—ensuring that she walked in footsteps left in the snow by others.
Eventually, she made it back over to the stage and studied Seamus, Matthias, and Constanza as they spoked animatedly about politics for a boring half-hour. Cadence spent the time trying to synchronize with Werner and Maria. Eventually, Matthias invited Seamus and Constanza back to his house. Milkovich and the other AAC members didn’t receive the same invite and instead headed down to the local bar. Suspicious, definitely. Seamus accepted the invitation after handing off the secretary to one of the idle peacekeepers.
Cadence proceeded to follow the trio back to Matthias’s place and slipped in through the backdoor with just a wee bit of lock-picking magic. Much to Cadence’s relief, Matthias did not bring Seamus down to the smoking den. Instead, she found Matthias, Seamus, and Constanza in the kitchen adjacent to the living room that was closed behind a locked door—she had to shimmy her way in through the back window to get in. A bit more muscling around than she was used to.
The kitchen itself was a lot more clean than the rest of the house. Kind of felt like walking into another world. The black-and-white tiled floors were scrubbed clean, while the kitchen counters were absolutely spotless. The walls were decorated with various photo frames containing pictures of mountain ranges, planes, rivers, reservoirs. Clean dishware and even a polished knife set rested by the sink in the corner. Nothing like the mess of the living room and the smoking den.
It was like Matthias was trying to make it nice for Seamus’s arrival. Or like he was trying to scrub the room clean of any possibly placed Manipulator mediums.
Seamus was leaning cross-armed against the counter with a glass of wine in his hand. Constanza sat at the small round table at the corner of the room with her arms crossed on the table and her head buried in her arms. Matthias meanwhile paced back and forth from wall to wall—to a steady tick, tock, tick, tock that resounded out from somewhere throughout the room.
Cadence scanned the room for the sound’s source.
An intricate wooden clock rested above Costanza’s head on the wall. Its clock face was shaped like a pentagon with five corners dotted with small gold stars. It was a Waltz model. Probably designed by Viktoria. Cadence could tell. She was a bit proud of the fact.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Then Cadence remembered Werner’s mother.
“—about as supportive as it gets, isn’t it, Sea-sea?” Matthias spoke suddenly, abruptly, brightly. “That’s basically the entirety of the AAC, isn’t it? They’ll pass the word on to their friends and families and you’ll have even more people voting for you. You give the people what they want.”
‘Sea-sea’? Talk about bad nicknames.
Seamus took a sip of his wine and stared into the glass.
Matthias stopped pacing and sighed as he looked in “What? You’re still not satisfied? I mean, you have the AAC under your belt and endorsement from those two princes from Lyrs, right?”
Okay… Wow. Bingo. Ding, ding, ding.
Seamus took another long sip of wine before smiling. Finally he spoke, “The Ariesian prince’s endorsement is much more meaningful than the Sagittarian’s prince’s, Matt.” His lips dipped down a moment afterwards. “Talib, Gabrielle, and Leona are still stiff competition. This will probably maybe put me in the top three. However…”
Saints. This was as incriminating as it got. Didn’t these people have any sense of self-preservation? And damn. Talk about using a political movement to your political advantage. Politicians were really terrifying. Heartless, even—especially if one considered the fact that Constanza and Matthias were chlorowheat users. They might not even have touched the drug if it weren’t for whatever political game Seamus was playing out here. Werner might not have—
Wait. Did this Seamus guy not care?
Cadence admitted it. This Seamus guy kinda pissed her off, and people rarely pissed her off. The only redeemable feature about him at this point was that he had cute pet names for the others.
Constanza finally lifted her head and rubbed her eyes as she looked over at the men. “Nothing’s more needed now than someone who knows the ins-and-outs of diplomacy—especially with what’s going on with Leo and Cancer right now. You worry excessively, Seamus.” She frowned. “The kaiser and the premier… Using us like chess pieces—no, like fuel.” She scoffed. “Fighting for fuel just to become fuel ourselves.”
“That’s why we’ll make them our chess pieces,” Seamus replied. “Our fuel.” He took another long sip of his wine before offering a charming smile at no one in particular. “There’s no better time to move the world in the direction you want it too than when the world itself is trembling at the brink of war.”
Eh. Dramatic. Seemed like a good time to one up him with a dramatic reveal.
“That is some big talk with gusto,” Cadence noted in Capricornian and a deep voice.
Constanza leapt to her feet, while Seamus tensed and swept the room with his eyes. Matthias darted to the counter, ripped out a large knife from the knife set, and brandished it threateningly around the room.
Okay. So no big, dramatic, grand reveal just yet. Didn’t want to be skewered.
“I thought you said you cleared this place out,” Seamus whispered under his breath.
Matthias moved to place his fingers to his lips. Gauging by the way the man’s eyes flickered between Constanza and Seamus, Cadence could tell that he was conversing with them through their connection.
“Woah, woah, let’s take it easy,” Cadence drew, backing her way towards the door. “I’d probably be a little more careful about speaking so openly even in close quarters like this—like you can see by my example here—”
Matthias threw the knife in her direction but she ducked to the side quickly, nearly collapsing onto the floor as she did so. She managed to pick herself up a second later and glanced back to see the knife embedded in the door behind her.
Scooching to the side, Cadence spoke quickly, “Hey, hey, hey, now. I haven’t even explained myself yet, have I? Let’s not act or speak before thinking. Who knows who else might be listenin’ in. I know you’re the cautious type, Dolby, so that warning was more for Veles.”
Constanza and Matthias paled.
There was the hook.
Seamus held up his hand. Matthias, who was grabbing another kitchen knife from the set on the counter, stopped short.
“Good news is that I’m pretty sure I’m on your side here—even if you’re manipulatin’ some people I care about.”
“Who are you?” Seamus asked calmly.
“I’m a friend for now. And you’re Seamus Dolby—first chair of International Relations—in the flesh,” Cadence noted, continuing her maneuver around the room. “Who knew you were also a True Conductor?”
There was the line.
Seamus tensed. “How do you know about that word?”
“I know it for the same reason you know it.”
Seamus let out a breath before he peered into his glass of wine. He took a very, very, very long and loud sip. Then, he asked, “What do you know?”
How to answer…
“From your perspective”—Cadence thrummed her fingers on her chin in thought before she procured a smile — “I know everything.”
And there was the sinker.
A/N: Sorry for the late update again. I was frozen in extreme stress by finances, the final semester-ending school projects, and work changes. Cried a bit this morning, got over it. Sort of. Anyways, I intend to return to the normal—possibly accelerated—updated schedule. Maybe. That is all. Thanks for reading. 16.7k words, this chapter is.
I was going to be a joke comment about the chapter but I forgot what it was… may update this later with the joke if I can remember it. Oh the joke was- a part 4 chapter without an action scene? the twin cities folks are lovers not fighers