Choosing to face Proteus alone, Maria has lost not only her arm but also her grounding. As everyone prepares for a resistance around her, Maria—
The bells continued to ring at the back of Maria’s mind long after she’d left the Monadic Temple behind. The sound reverberated from the base of her skull, down her spine, through her limbs, and down all the parts that extended out from them. The one area where the trembles did not travel was her left arm just above her elbow. In that area, she only felt a numb prickle. Yes, she could still feel it there—her arm.
She had stayed awake staring at the dim brown ceiling illuminated by candlelight as Nico’s father had removed it—snip by snip, cut by cut, incision by incision. She had studied the way the shadows danced back and forth, how the light stretched and compressed, how it all blended together. It reminded her of when she’d used to play shadow puppets with Conta at the orphanage deep into the night. They’d sneak out from their rooms and hide beneath the cloth-draped tables of the dining hall by candlelight. As Maria would make shadows stretch across the makeshift screen with her hands, Conta would chant—
“A golden beast, ready for a feast—”
The surgery wasn’t as painful as Maria thought it’d be—it had hurt a lot more when she’d driven her hand through the wall of Rho’s vitae. Werner was out cold and Jericho’s view of pain was quite different, so they didn’t deal with her pain too much. The others did not cope with the pain too well though. Cadence and Olive agonized through it. Eventually Cadence passed out from the ordeal, while Olive laid curled up and heaving in his private room on his train bound to Ophiuchus.
Maria was quite used to dealing with pain from the others because Jericho was accident prone as was Cadence—for vastly different reasons. What she was not used to, however, was the others taking on her own pain. She rarely injured herself, after all. Having the others feel her pain was not pleasant at all. She figured she could handle it by drawing all of the pain into herself—but she couldn’t. Perhaps it was because she had never had to really do it before. If she had enough practice, she was certain she’d be able to—but getting that ‘practice’ in would mean having to get injured repeatedly. And she was strong so that was impossible. Impossible—
Simply put—Maria didn’t know what to do.
After the surgery was finished, Nico’s father informed Maria that it would take around a month for the wound to heal and up to a year for ‘the residual limb’ to stabilize in size and shape. There were a lot of numbers involved with it all, but Maria had never been limited by such things. He pressed for her to remain in bed at least three weeks which Maria felt was too long. She felt fine—just a little sleepy. However, the others worried immensely, so she stayed put just for them.
The first day after Nico’s father removed her arm, Olive came to her bedside, sank to his knees, and bit his lip as he held her gaze. He tried very hard not to cry but in the end the tears leaked out and he buried his face into her sheets.
Maria was quite surprised by his actions. He made it seem like something truly awful happened to her—which she didn’t think was the case. In fact, she had at first thought he’d come to cry about Werner. It wasn’t until he mumbled—“It’ll be okay. I’ll figure out a way to make things better, Maria. I promise”—that she realized his tears were for her. He had shed tears for her before—for Conta—but this time felt different.
Maria didn’t know what to do.
Cadence’s visit—visits—were a bit more happy. Whenever Cadence came physically, Cadence would go on and talk about things she saw that day or bring Maria a ‘souvenir’ she ‘found’ while outside. When Cadence synchronized from some other place, she would show Maria some wintery scenery or play Maria a song from the piano in one of Francis’s other rooms.
Cadence was quite talented. Her sounds were always vibrant, colorful, and happy. No one could play quite like her.
One day, however, Cadence suggested that Maria have a conversation with Gilbert through her. Maria couldn’t quite understand why. Maria did like Gilbert a lot since he was Werner’s, but she didn’t feel much like speaking to him at all. Cadence seemed sad at this bled thought—which was quite peculiar to Maria.
Maria didn’t know what to do.
Jericho visited her often as well—although she technically visited him before he started visiting her:
It was only two days or so after her surgery that she felt an intense wave of boiling yet chilling hatred simmer at the pit of her stomach. She knew immediately that it was Jericho and so—despite warning and protest—she swept herself out from her bed and to the room Jericho was holding Proteus and Leona in. Upon entering, she found Jericho straddling Proteus and squeezing his fingers over the latter’s throat. Epsilon was hovering over him, looking faithfully from side to side.
Maria could feel the pounding hatred coursing through her veins—stronger than anything she’d ever felt before—but still she managed to move forward, pull Jericho aside, and hold him in place. Epsilon meanwhile came to Maria’s side and flashed her a smile of relief.
You seem like you are in a bad mood, Jericho, Maria noted as she stared over the man’s shoulder towards Proteus who was staring up at the ceiling without seeming disturbed. Let’s cheer up!
Maria looked over at Leona who was still bound upright across from Proteus. When their eyes locked, however, Leona’s gaze moved to Maria’s left. Then, Leona made a soft clicking sound with her tongue and shook her head before turning her attention to Epsilon.
“It’s his fault,” Jericho muttered to Maria. “For everything. It is him. All of it. He took everything, Maria. He started everything. ELPIS, the chlorowheat, Ayda, Altair, Vega, Omicron, Francis. Me. You.”
Bright blips of faded scenes—white on black—flitted through Maria’s mind eye. Proteus, Ophiuchus, Altair, Vega, Mathitís, and everything in-between. With it came Jericho’s burning hatred.
Maria followed the man’s gaze to Proteus and nodded. “He did many bad things, ye—” She shut her mouth and tightened her grip on Jericho’s arm. “He did bad things. I don’t think I will forgive him for it—but I think Werner and Atienna want to keep him alive. He still has my crew and Cadence’s children. We should wait. It is more fun when there’s build up, isn’t it?” Her smile thinned as she stared at Proteus and she felt her upper left arm begin to pulsate.
“But for now we should show mercy, Jericho,” Maria continued. “Mercy is—”
“—is a virtue only the strong hold.” Proteus chuckled. “You’re certainly dazzling, Maria. Every time I see you, I do truly see Leo.”
“You need to get your eyes checked then. I am Maria, not Leo.” Maria continued to hold onto Jericho’s arm. “You took my ship and my crew and my spirit crew’s crew. And now, we’ve taken you. So—where are they?”
“Vengeance, I see….An eye for an eye…” Proteus shrugged. “I’m not with them now, am I? That’s a strange question to be asking someone who hasn’t set foot on that ship in—how long has it been now?”
Maria thought on it. “You said you know everything, so wouldn’t you know where they are?”
Proteus continued smiling. “You’re holding onto those types of things still—the both of you. Corporeal and incorporeal. Little Maria and Jericho. You’re clinging to each other too.” His eyes fell half-lidded. “Haven’t those things only brought you unhappiness?” His gaze rose to the ceiling. “Leo, you would know, wouldn’t you—what happens when you hold onto something too tightly or for too long? That is a self-inflicted prison. I’m sure you learned that way before me. That is—through whatever happened in the 1600s and during the war. Oh, I mean the latest war, of course.” He chuckled and then looked past Maria towards Epsilon. “Epsilon has certainly brought some things I’d long let go of back into the forefront of mind. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall. Freedom is so easy to obtain but we’d much rather choose imprisonment. Well, you’re free to listen or to ignore or both—as always.”
Maria pulled Jericho a bit closer and motioned for Epsilon with her head. Then she offered Proteus a thinning smile. “I don’t want to talk with you anymore, so we’ll be leaving now—but I will be back.”
With that, she directed Epsilon and Jericho out of the room through the gate. When they arrived on the opposite side of the gate into another one of Francis’s room, Maria felt resistance on Jericho’s end. She stopped short and swiveled around to face him curiously.
Are you mad at me? Jericho searched her face. “You don’t feel mad but Cadence said that if someone stops using a ‘nickname’ with you that means they are upset with you.” He looked over her shoulder. “You didn’t say… ‘my dear Jericho’.”
Maria cocked her head.
Jericho slowly returned his gaze to her face. “Intuition: it is something else. Alpha is the beginning. But who you are and who I am: it is ‘shaped’ by something else. For you it is before that ‘beginning’ and for me it is after. I…” He seemed to struggle for words. “Would you like to talk about it?”
Maria held his gaze momentarily before offering him a smile. “I’m not upset with you, Jeri. You worry too much.”
Maria wasn’t mad at all. She just didn’t know what to do.
* * *
Maria’s visitors did not only include her spirit crew but her ship crew as well.
Simon was a constant. He had claimed a chair in the room’s far corner as his own and would frequently bring it over to sit by her bedside in silence. Maria would fill in the silence by idly chatting about whatever came to her mind, but at some point, she reached a point where she couldn’t think of anything else to say—a rare occurrence.
On the second day of silence, Maria asked absentmindedly, “Could you tell me more about yourself, Simon?”
“You mean why I joined?” Simon smiled faintly. “I already answered that, Captain.”
Maria shook her head. “No, about you, Simon. Before me. Where did you start?”
“Does it matter?”
“I will know when you tell me,” Maria replied with a smile.
Simon regarded her for a moment before chuckling. “Well, I grew up in Trastámara—that’s a city in central Leo. My father was the head priest of the city, so you can see that I… followed in his footsteps. I didn’t really think there was any other career choice for me, really. It’s not as if the beliefs in Monadism are bad or anything so I had no qualms about doing it.”
“So you are always following something or somebody?” Maria inquired.
Simon placed a hand to his chest. “I suppose you could say that…” He looked at a far point in the wall. “I can’t say I was particularly social, but that made me better able to focus on my Monadic studies. So, I was able to move up within the ranks of the Monadic Temples quite easily. Soon, I was appointed to be a priest at one of the Gloria orphanages.”
“Oh.” Maria cocked her head. “So you could have met Conta and me! Maybe you could have been our priest instead! That would have been fun.”
Simon chuckled. “I’m not that old, Captain. That actually… hurt a bit. I think we’re around the same age…”
He cast a glance to the side towards Lita and Albatross who were sitting together on the sofa against the wall. Maria followed his gaze and noticed that there was a large gap of space between the two. Albatross was looking in Lita’s direction but Lita was looking ahead at nothing—simply listening.
“I learned about the process of selecting potential saint candidates and what the orphanages were really for during my training for the role. I learned what the saint candidates truly were—in a sense.” Slowly, Simon lowered his head until his eyes met Maria’s. “Believing what you believe because you choose to believe it on your own merit—the pride in that action…? That is what the pillar of victory stands for.” He gripped his chest. “Indoctrination and forcing beliefs. Saying ‘devote yourself’ or be unloved and punished. Obsession… lack of compassion… The children who couldn’t become the Saint Candidate of Leo…” Simon let out a long and quiet sigh. “The priests force them to cut their vocal chords as a vow of silence. Some orphanages require them to remove their tongues. Mine was one like that. That way the secrets stay within closed doors.” He shook his head. “As if they aren’t brainwashed into staying quiet in the first place. That… fervor… it’s… terrifying. Those children become—”
“They become Andres,” Maria finished.
Simon grimaced briefly with a nod before he continued, “I couldn’t handle the guilt of it so I left. I didn’t quite give my two weeks’ notice, Captain, but they replaced me rather quickly. My father actually found me after I ran away just to tell me that I was disowned. Seems archaic, doesn’t it? I figured it was good enough punishment for me just turning tail and running. I didn’t know what to do, who to tell, and I still don’t quite know, Captain. It was awful. I was… desperate for an escape from the guilt. And then… I met you. The moment I saw you and Conta, I knew. You—Maria—were one of those children. But somehow, you’d escaped—freed yourself.”
Escaped? Freed? Taken. Saved.
“I know this is awful of me to say, but I was saved in that moment. I was ready to tell you everything, Captain,” Simon whispered, “but you were searching in an entirely different direction, so I… thought the least I could do was to—”
“Oh, so the reason you stayed in my crew—I made you join but you stayed on your own choice—was because of that?” Maria closed her eyes as she hummed. “You did not stay because I was me or because you wanted the adventure. You stayed because I was a potential saint candidate for Leo. You stayed because you felt guilty.”
Maria flashed him a smile again but did not open her eyes. “That is not a bad reason to do something, is it?”
Did his answer really matter? Of course not. The adventure and the experience was all that mattered. She was herself, and that was that. But—did she think like that because she had been taught to think like that? Of course not. She was herself, and that was that. But—
The thoughts looped in a cycle in her head over and over again.
She didn’t know what to do.
* * *
Lita and Albatross were also almost always there too whenever Simon was. Lita, however, would hover far off in the corner—silent. Whenever Maria called out to her, she would escape through Francis’s gate and Albatross would follow on after her. Maria tried to chase after her whenever that happened, but she could never find which of Francis’s rooms Lita was hiding in. A constant search. Again.
Proteus’s gaze came to Maria after these fruitless searches and his words would echo in her mind. Why was she searching for something—attaching herself to someone—when it hindered her freedom? Why be tied down from her adventure? It was because she had become attached to the children and to her crew and it was because she had become refocused on searching for Proteus that she had stopped adventuring and exploring and having fun. In fact—now that she thought more on it—attaching herself to all of these things had made her lose even more of her freedom. It had made her lose her—
The answer was because it was Lita, and Lita was hers. There was no other reason for her searching. But the idea of ‘things being hers’—Maria wondered if that idea was originally hers to begin with.
That chase aside, the other children—her children and Cadence’s—also visited. Maria enjoyed their company. They were fun and energetic and didn’t look at her with the same sort of sadness that the other five and her other, older crew members did. She would tell the ones who had chosen to stay with Cadence long tales and stories of her past adventures, and reenact all her battles with vigor. However—despite the children hanging onto each and every word—they would always end the day by staring at the left half of her body. Maria didn’t usually mind it but for some reason now she did.
She didn’t know what to do.
* * *
During the short lapses of time when she had no visitors, Maria would experiment with her left hand—rather, the lack of it.
Today was no different.
In the beginning, whenever she would try to wiggle her fingers, she would feel throbbing pain above her elbow where her arm had been severed. There was less pain when she did it now so she was able to focus on the other sensations from the action. Specifically, she was able to feel the tingling sensation that went down her absent appendage. She could feel an itch at the base of her non-existent palm and feel a prickle of pin-needles up the area. Phantom limb, Nico’s father said.
It was quite a funny feeling. Something there but not truly there. Like Conta—
“You changed your style of speaking.”
Maria looked up from her bed to see Conta entering the room through the gate just across from her bed.
Conta frequented the room often. Actually, she always seemed to be there—hidden in the corner and remaining silent. Whenever Simon or Maria would try to speak to her, Conta would stare them down wordlessly. She only ever spoke to—greeted—Lita who would occasionally hesitantly come to her side. Lita wouldn’t say anything, however, and they often stood together in silence.
“Did I?” Maria cocked her head at Conta. “Well, trying new things out every once in a while is fun, isn’t it?”
Conta stopped a meter away from Maria’s bed before moving to recline against the wall with crossed arms. “This is not trying out something new. This is you trying to cope with your mistake and with what you’ve learned.”
“A mistake? What I’ve learned…?” Maria thought on it and felt a static run up her left arm. “Yes, I… made a mistake. And I have learned some new interesting things too… About Leo, about our orphanage. Mistakes can be fixed, can they not?”
“Fix this mistake? Because you can do everything?” Conta pointed to Maria’s limb. “Can you regrow that limb of yours?”
Maria’s head buzzed and felt her arm begin to throb.
“That Capricornian military officer that’s staying in one of Theta’s other rooms,” Conta continued. “He’s obviously connected with you, and there’s obviously something wrong with him. Can you fix him?”
“I have not tried any of those things yet…” Maria drew. “But maybe it is that all the possibilities have not been tried yet—”
“Do you hear yourself?” Conta interjected, shaking her head and throwing out her arm. “You’ve realized how ridiculous you sound, but you’re not fully acknowledging it. Yes, there’s a possibility that some time in the future things like this can be fixed or solved but you will not be the one to do it.”
Conta was saying unpleasant things again.
Maria tried to brush away the thoughts. “You were very heroic when you carried me out of the temple, Conta. I was very surprised. We switched roles for a moment. Why did you do that—”
“I loved you.”
Maria looked up to find Conta gazing at her without waver.
“Even in a hot country like Leo, everything felt cold,” Conta continued. “The head priests, the caretakers, even the children who were there with us. The priests said the same things. The children acted the same way. You were different. You were bright.”
Maria blinked before her heart skipped a hopeful beat. “You are Conta.”
But not really.
Maria pushed the thought aside again and chuckled. “Leo wasn’t so bad, was it? You were very bright too in my eyes. And I also love—”
“No, you don’t,” Conta interjected, crossing her arms slowly. “We were taught to ‘love’ everything and everyone equally—that was probably why I was a failed potential candidate. I showed ‘difference’ in my love.” She shook her head. “Anyways, someone who loves everyone and everything equally truly deeply loves no one.”
Favoring one person more than another and the importance of ‘love’ as a word to Cadence—
“I admired you more than anything else,” Conta continued. “Through all of their adventures across the sea and lands inside and outside of Signum, I found you more vibrant and beautiful than all of the wonders we saw. Being in your presence was more than enough—but you shared that warmth equally with everyone. You would retract it without discrimination and care too—though, I thought that added value to being in your presence.”
Maria opened her mouth but then closed it a moment after.
“But then I became Beta. Or I became Conta.” Conta unfolded her arms. “The directional flow doesn’t really matter as time bleeds on—on this subject, I do agree with Theta.” She paused, gaze trailing to the gate across the room before returning to Maria. “After becoming who I am now, I came to a realization: you’re just a byproduct of their folly. Just as I was a byproduct of their folly as Conta. I was one of millions, and you were one of thousands.” She looked to the side briefly. “I have no idea what Leo was thinking—developing a system like that. Perhaps it was a way for them to escape imperfections or a way for them to be distant from the people they called theirs…?”
There was a long lapse of silence.
Maria finally said quietly, “I didn’t save you in time back then, Conta. Lo siento. Lamento. You had to experience, see, and remember many unpleasant things because of that. I was your captain, but I did not rescue you properly. I did not rescue Lita and the other children properly. I could not rescue Werner properly either nor Talib nor Benì—even though they are important people.”
Conta didn’t respond.
“Do you… not love me anymore, Conta?”
“I don’t love you anymore,” Conta concurred, nearing Maria’s bed and looking down at her. “Not in that way and not because of your failures. If anything, I pity you. And through that pity”— she lifted her hand and left it hovering by Maria’s cheek— “I care for you. You saved me back then and I feel indebted as a result. So much so that your status as a True Conductor is almost pardonable. You didn’t choose to be one, after all—just like you didn’t choose to be a child raised to be the next Leo.”
Conta dropped her hand. “Even though we have Alpha, more obstacles continue to be in our way. The syzygy seems inevitable at this point and yet we’re still being so selective in our path… So, I ask now that your eyes have been opened a bit wider, do you have any solutions, Captain?”
* * *
It was shortly after this that Werner finally came to visit Maria again. He did not come to her often because whenever he did come, an intense wave of pain would radiate out from them both and into the others.
Werner was kind in this respect, Maria thought—always thinking for the others and his crew. He had been hurt rather badly recently—in a way that was more than physical—and Maria was beginning to realize she had exacerbated his pain. Her stomach churned when she thought about it—
Still, she was pleasantly surprised when he reached out to her out of the blue on some pretext of acting on the concerns of the others. She was even more surprised when he moved forward to cusp her cheek and delivered to her gentle words instead of a reprimand like he usually would.
In that moment, as he held her cheek, she saw him radiating clearly—the things that he had been given since he’d been younger: the shape he had molded himself at the expectation of others because appearances were everything and what he had been imposed upon him by Scorpio. Things given to him—yes—just like everything that had been given to her. It was a bit different, of course, but Maria understood what he meant. ‘It was not bad if it was not yours to begin with’ was what he was saying. Many things were built upon aspects of other things and improved upon further from that blueprint.
“Maria,” he said in the end, “I still find your unpredictability problematic—especially in high-pressure and delicate situations—but these are aspects that I associate with you and you alone. Your positivity and optimism are important to the morale of this group, and I admit that at times those things have given me the drive to continue forward in moments of weakness. You have made these characteristics your own.”
His words were quite kind and reassuring. But when she looked into his eyes, all she could see were the things that she could not prevent and the things she could not do. Being able to do anything and everything: perfection—nearable but impossible to obtain. And also with all of that—the necessity of an anchor. Not a chain to freedom but an anchor to hold steady. A necessity for any ship.
Maria stared into his eyes afterwards. “I love you, Werner.”
“I do love you, Werner, don’t I?” Maria pressed. “You can feel that I love you?”
Werner regarded her for a moment before letting out a breath. “I’m unable to answer that for you, Maria, but I do feel affection through our connection.” He continued a beat after, “I can tell you this with certainty: you have the ability to control everything within your vicinity and within yourself. This is a valuable characteristic to have. However, that being said, in general it is very difficult to control external factors. You can account for them and set up preventive measures, but you cannot stop them. Impossible—within your current ability and limits—is a possibility. Even you cannot escape this law. In fact, it is through acknowledging this that you can better adapt to the implications of the impossible.”
As his words and touched slowly seeped into her, Maria finally admitted it—she could not do everything. Not everything was within her grasps. Some things easily slipped through. And when they did…
Maria didn’t know what to do.
* * *
It was two weeks afterwards that Maria was finally able to catch hold of Lita. It was when Maria was waking from a deep slumber that she found Lita and Albatross snoozing side-by-side and resting their heads on her bed. Upon seeing them both, Maria hesitated for just a moment before placing a hand on top of Albatross’s head then on top of Lita’s. The latter stirred before stiffening and tensing and then pulling away. Maria released her and did not give chase. This gave Lita pause.
“Lita, why do you always run from me?” Maria asked as Albatross lifted his head. “I may be the Golden Beast, but I do not want to feast on you. We haven’t spoken in almost a month now. I do miss speaking with you.”
“Captain,” Albatross mumbled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He perked up, gaze fliting from Lita to Maria. “Captain, you have to understand. Lita—”
“I-I can say it for myself,” Lita stammered, balling her fists. She turned in Maria’s direction. “I’m sorry about avoiding you… I…I know you’re going through things, Captain.” Her lips trembled slightly but she pulled them thin. “And I know what you’ll say after I tell you what I want to tell you—that I’m still me—but it’s more than that and I… don’t want you to think that I’m weak or leave or that I’m dirty—”
Maria reached out and touched Lita’s arm. “Your vitae is white now, Lita?”
Lita’s face crumpled and she followed Maria’s extended hand and arm to her bed. Then, she buried her face into Maria’s shoulder.
“I-I’m sorry, Maria… I…” Lita took a deep breath. “Some of the others—Maria, they… I don’t know how t-the man did it but they… Maria, they agreed to bleach their vitae.”
Maria felt something in her chest sink and then burn brightly with indignation and fury.
“I knew it was wrong but I…. I couldn’t think of how to convince them to stop, so I….” Lita swallowed and sobbed. “I made a deal. I thought I was being smart like Cadence. That man treated me like I was someone important, so I… I asked him if he would stop letting the others go through that if I did it instead.”
Another defeat. No, more than a defeat. This was not about her but about Lita.
Ah. Maria felt her heart crack.
Albatross dipped his head, distraught lines folding across his face.
“Lita, I would never think you were weak or dirty because of something like this,” Maria drew after a stretch of silence. Placing a hand on top of Lita’s head just as Werner would, Maria pulled Lita closer and tucked her beneath her chin. “This is not your fault. I… I did not get to you fast enough. I’m… sorry.”
“Maria, it feels wrong,” Lita whispered. “The man… he talked about cycles and returning to them and not returning to them. Will I not return to the cycle now? I-I’ll be gone—”
“You will be fine, Lita,” Maria interjected. “I will make sure of it.”
Lita fell silent.
Maria felt her lips pull tight. Maybe this was… another thing she could not conquer.
“You know the peacekeeper who speaks a bit strangely sometimes?” Maria drew. “You saw him when we found you, I think.”
Lita nodded. “From Capricorn. He…” Her brows touched. “He said some really weird things when we met again, but…”
“He is Jericho,” Maria told her. “He is someone very, very important to me—important like how you are to me. He is a treasure, and he has gone through something similar to you. I think he will be better at talking with you about something like this than me.” She thought more on it. “Maybe you could help him too.”
Lita nodded slowly before reaching an uncertain hand forwards. She reached, reached, reached, until she finally touched what was left of Maria’s left arm.
“Maria, it’s…” Lita’s face crumpled further. “… gone.”
Pale and with a faint expression of disbelief, Albatross looked away.
“Yes, yes, it is.”
* * *
Sometime later Maria received an unexpected but exciting visitor. It was Andres accompanied by an unusually serious-looking Jericho. She recalled from Jericho’s end of things that Andres had been kept in another one of Francis’s more furnished rooms alongside Dominic. Jericho had visited them every so often to bring them food. During these visits Andres had always asked about whether the other orphanage children outside of Dominic had been found and about Maria herself. Dominic meanwhile would always act feral—as Cadence put it. The first time Jericho had come to the two, Dominic had lunged at him. However, because Dominic was still affected by Alice’s vitae particles, his movements were slowed. And so, Jericho had reflexively punched him right in the face. Jericho had apologized afterwards but ever since then Dominic had kept away from the man. Cadence reasoned Dominic was intimidated by Jericho— “Must’ve never been punched in the face before then. Probably was humblin’.”
Now as Andres approached her with Jericho just a step behind, Maria found herself wondering what exactly he was coming here to her for and… why he hadn’t come earlier.
Andres pulled out a notepad from his robe pocket as he approached and scribbled something down on it. Once he was at Maria’s bedside, he flashed her what he’d written—
I’m deeply, deeply sorry.
Maria merely laughed. “What are you sorry for?”
Andres wrote, Your arm.
Straight to the point. That seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention. Her arm. Her loss.
Andres scribbled some more on another page. Dominic is not yet the saint candidate of Leo and yet I caved into him. He’s someone that I need to save, not follow. I apologize for not helping you. I know apologies do little, but I truly am sorry. I also apologize for coming with this apology too late. He flipped to another page before continuing to write— For waiting until now to apologize. Claire visited me physically—Andres smiled briefly—and made me realize keeping away is not the ideal solution. I’m sorry. You are an ally and I should’ve treated you more as such.
Apologies? Not helping her? But needing help was a sign of…?
“I would have rejected your help at the time anyways, Andres,” Maria drew slowly with a faint smile. “I rejected everyone else’s help, after all—even the help of people who were closer to me than you. But! I accept your unneeded apology anyways!”
Why?—at the same time Andres wrote this and showed it to Maria, Jericho also thought the same question. Why did you try to do it alone?
Jericho detached himself from behind Andres and came to Maria’s bedside.
“I wonder…” Maria murmured, staring off into the distance. “I think I wanted to show Proteus—no, I wanted to prove to myself—that I… That I am me. That I could do anything and what was mine was mine and no one else’s. But if I feel the need to prove to someone that I can do it then…”
—but you are Maria. There is nothing to prove. Jericho glanced briefly at the gate on the wall. I spoke to Francis recently. About Alpha. About Leo. The candidates and ELPIS. Francis said we are fragments. Of vitae. Like glass. Made up of things given to us by the people who came before us. Not made of original parts but the final image we make is original.
Maria stared at Jericho and for a moment she caught a glimpse of a memory in his mind’s eye—a memory that matched one of her own: the stained-glass windows of the Monadic Temple she’d frequented during childhood. Shards of blues, reds, greens, yellows—fitted together to form one image.
Slowly, Maria turned to Andres. “And how about you, Andres? Why did you follow what Dominic said to begin with? Because of his potential saint candidacy? Is following fun? You know what the saint candidates really are.”
He believes he has no other purpose, Jericho answered. He believes this path is the right one. There is nothing else.
What other purpose do I have? They are greater and more noble than us, Andres wrote, confirming Jericho’s thoughts. He paused, flipping over his notebook and writing quickly on the same page. When he flipped it back over to her, the second line had been scribbled out and a new line had been written: The others in my circle have said their peace. I see their perspective, but the pillars give me comfort. I don’t want to abandon it. It’s what I’ve always known.
Jericho peered at the man’s notebook and nodded. “You are trying to understand. Other perspectives. The truth. You want confirmation. To see it with your own eyes. I understand.”
Andres turned to meet Jericho’s gaze and returned the nod.
Maria thought on the two men for a moment. They were a bit alike, but went in opposite directions. And—she could not prevent what had happened to them either.
Andres turned to Maria again and wrote, You were also raised in a Gloria orphanage like me?
Maria cocked her and nodded.
But you are neither the star nor the night sky, Andres wrote. My intention isn’t to be rude, but: if you are neither of those, then what are you?
* * *
Atienna synchronized in frequently with Maria, but whenever she did there was something in the atmosphere that Maria could call ‘tension.’ Maria had heard Atienna’s rather angry thoughts regarding her choice to face Proteus alone—like served her right among other things. Maria admitted that she’d felt a sharp pang in her chest when Atienna’s thought had flowed on down to her, but Atienna always went away whenever Maria was prepared to ask her about it.
Atienna’s synchronization visit this time shortly after Andres’s visit, however, felt a bit different. She sat quietly at Maria’s bedside with a book in her hand and with her Cancerian surroundings faraway and distant.
“I think you know why I’m here, Maria,” Atienna said quietly.
Maria glanced over at her and nodded. “You finally can talk about what you’ve been thinking this entire time?”
Atienna studied her for a moment before averting her gaze. “Werner won’t say it because he feels responsible for it, so I suppose I have no choice but to say it: you put everyone in danger by pushing us all away like that. You are responsible for what happened.” She folded her hands together. “Werner as well in his own case…. There is a thing they call ‘tempting fate’. Paired with denialism it can be a very troubling thing—especially when in the mind of talented and powerful individuals…” She clasped her hands together. “Maria, you always charge so recklessly into things, don’t you think? Your confidence is something is unmatched. ‘As expected’ as Werner says—that’s what this outcome is. It would’ve happened at one point or another…”
Maria remained silent.
“We’re opposites, so… it’s very easy for me to condemn you like this. The distance…” Atienna studied her hands. “I wonder if you’re following in Leo’s footsteps after all—folly, a star falling, disappointment—”
“I am not Leo,” Maria interjected.
Atienna looked up in surprise before her face softened with sympathy. “I know it doesn’t seem like it with everything I’ve said and thought, but I do care about you, Maria. Deeply. If you hadn’t moved me to act when we first met, I would still be in Virgo. And…” She reached forward abruptly and gripped Maria’s empty shirt sleeve. “That’s why—why did you do such a stupid thing?”
A dull throb pounded at Maria’s chest.
Atienna pulled her hand away, averted her gaze for a moment, before shaking her head and meeting Maria’s eyes again. “I’m… concerned now. I know it is contradictory of me when I say this, but your recent behavior—this shift in the way you speak and your perspective—is… cognitive dissonance. Everyone faces this at one point or another… however, the way you’re acting is… I wouldn’t have expected this…” Her lips pressed thin. “And I’m worried, Maria. What is wrong? What’s really wrong? Is it… what they taught you at the orphanage? Even if who you are is built off from those founding blocks, you are still you.”
“That’s what everyone’s been saying… but you are the first to ask me that question,” Maria noted, brows raised. She contemplated the question for a moment before she felt her brows furrow. “Atienna, you don’t know—just as you always say. It’s more than that. The reason why I push things aside easily as you say is because I believe I can overcome anything. This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am strong. But all of it is… ” She turned to Atienna, searching her face. “If I say it for what everyone sees it as then…”
Atienna’s brows knitted.
“Werner said to make it my own, but making it my own would be acknowledging that this wasn’t mine to begin with.” Maria pressed a hand to her chest. “It is mine. Because if it is not mine, then what is?”
Atienna’s eyes widened a fraction before she drew nearer to Maria. She remained silent for quite some time before saying, “You’re… at a definitive crossroads, Maria… It’s certainly ironic for me to talk about this topic, but… usually when a choice needs to be made… there is the need to find the right question to ask pertaining to the path to be chosen. I don’t mean to sound egotistical but I’m rather practiced at finding this question—” She let out a breath. “—I’m just terribly at answering it…”
Maria looked down at her left hand—at where it was supposed to be, at where it was not—and acknowledged that it was gone. Gone like Conta’s love. Gone like the feeling of being able to do absolutely everything. Gone like that feeling of endless freedom.
Reality sank in. The hill loomed ahead—
—but there was value in realizing the ephemerality of things.
“So—what makes you different from all of them? Different from all of the others? Why does Epsilon think you’re Leo and not Leona herself?” Atienna murmured, slowly taking hold of Maria’s only hand and squeezing tight. “Those are the questions that you want to have answered, don’t you think?”
Oh? What made them different?
* * *
Moved by this question, Maria decided it was time to face Oros once again. But she did not intend to face Oros alone. She swung by the room containing Andres and Dominic and invited them along for the journey. Andres hastily accepted the invitation while Dominic brushed her off. So—without much ado—Maria and Andres bound the boy quickly and brought him along with them.
Halfway through traversing through the gates to the room where both Alpha and Leona were kept, however, Maria encountered El who stumbled into her path out from a gate. Maria saw El every once in a while, but had requested El to spend her time caring for Morandi—which she’d abided by. Needless to say, Maria was surprised by her arrival.
“I heard from Andres about what you’re planning,” El explained, breathless. “I can’t explain myself properly because of my situation, but I am Leonian and I-I’d like to know. It’s my country so I… can I also be a part of this?”
Maria was quite curious about El’s reasoning but allowed El to join her without forming that curiosity into a question.
Collectively they entered the room where Proteus and Leona resided. Jericho was not on stand-by as usual but Epsilon was. Epsilon perked up at Maria’s arrival and waved wildly as she approached him with the others.
Proteus smiled and said nothing before looking away with disinterest, while Leona evaluated them with a sharp eye. Maria studied the former and tried to catch his gaze—but he would not meet it.
It was disappointing, Maria realized. She had imagined what her reunion with Proteus would be like for years. After learning who he truly was, what he had done, and what he believed, she found that he no longer matched up with the mysterious, grandiose, imposing image she had of him in his mind. Her curiosity had been replaced with something she couldn’t quite describe. Pity? Maybe not. Hm—
Maria wondered if this was what Conta had felt towards her after becoming Beta. She wondered if this was why Atienna didn’t want to know everything. Curiosity was fun, but truly discovering was…?
“Leo, Leo! You’re up! Are you alright to be walking around?” Epsilon crowed, pulling Maria’s attention away. “Jericho and Theta brought me some newspapers yesterday. Did you see that they’re renovating something called the Dioscuri Bridge in Gemini? Apparently, they’ve gotten more ley-lines there to direct more vitae from the reservoirs to it so that’s why they can renovate it—” His face fell for a moment. “I don’t think that’s very good for our goal, but it still is something, isn’t it?”
Oh, Epsilon. He treated her the same as always. It was quite refreshing.
Maria beamed him a smile. “That is amazing! I will take you some time to see it if you want! Before that…” She tapped him on the chest. “Could you do something for me?”
Epsilon stilled, nodding seriously. “Anything.”
Maria lifted her finger and pointed to Leona. “I want to see what Leona remembers about 1600s. Anything from around that time.” She gestured to Andres, El, and Dominic. “I want you to show all of us.” She met Leona’s widening eyes. “I want to know the difference between me and you, Oros.”
Leona paled—a peculiar sight. “Epsilon, don’t you dare.”
Epsilon glanced at Leona for a moment with a frown before he turned back to Maria with a slow nod. “Okay, whatever you want.” With that he began approaching Leona with his conductor-gloved hand extended.
Leona pulled back away from him but he successfully made contact with her temple and reached out for Maria who closed the distance between them. As soon as Maria touched her temple to his other gloved hand, a warmth shot through her entire body—
The year is 1613. The month is July. The day is the 27th. The bells on top of the royal palace give their blessings to the birth of twins—a boy and a girl.
Isabella listens to the toll from the steeple of a Monadic Temple adjacent to the palace and watches as a procession of men and women clad in shimmering armor dappled with gold march forward carrying flags embellished with a vibrant lion’s mane. Behind them, more men and women—this time swathed in folded robes woven with bits of gold and silver—move forward pulling a small carriage of wood. The carve is carved with furling ferns that join together to form a lion’s head guarding its front. Although a thin veil conceals the passengers of the carriage, Isabella can make out two small shapes
“We’ve performed all the tests, Leo,” comes a voice from behind her. “Both of them are potential candidates…”
Isabella turns and spies a young man in dark robes standing beside the bell in the tower behind her. This is Alonso, a newly indoctrinated priest of Monadism. Infant religions like Monadism tend to draw in the young. Youthful vigor is quite easily melded into devout fervor. Alonso is no Epsilon, of course.
“This is a time of peace,” Isabella notes, gazing out towards the procession once again. “I doubt that you will require any guidance in this century, yes? You should take pride in being able to move forward on your own, my dear.”
“It’s just a precautionary measure,” Alonso mumbles. “The head priests are worried for some reason…”
Head priests. They are nothing like the Mathités. They don’t pursue knowledge nor do they try to advance it—no, they merely use it and discard it. However, they are all still hers. And regardless, Alonso’s words have warmed her chest.
“Stelleona and Leonce—twins, are they?” Isabella tests the names on her tongue. “Those are peculiar names, yes?”
“Twins. Absolutely identical—aside from certain parts, of course. The king and queen wanted to show their gratitude so they named the two in your honor, I believe,” Alonso reasons. “And they were amazed to have given birth to two potential saint candidates. This is the first time it’s ever happened.”
“This kingdom is quite young for such words, yes?” Still, Isabella smiles at this. “Though, I do see why it’s a celebratory affair.”
“Since there are two possible candidates,” Alonso presses. “What do we do? Who do we choose when the time comes?”
“Is that why you summoned me?” Isabella places a hand to her face and sighs. “My dears, are you so hopeless without me?”
Alonso merely dips his head.
“Simply choose the one who contains the most of my vitae—even if it’s by a miniscule amount,” Isabella answers, before she scans the clear blue horizon and the sun passing its rays over all of her people marching below. “However—this time period feels peaceful, doesn’t it? I doubt you will have to make him the Knowledge Bearer in this era.”
“Knowledge Bearer?” Alonso cocks his head.
Of course. As the duty of baptism has changed hands, so has the linguistics—so has the meaning of it all. The fact that Ophiuchus has shut its gates to outside countries has only accelerated the change. Most of the continent has forgotten about Knowledge Bearers and the intricacies of vitae. The records have also been actively torn apart by Monadic priests—to keep the matter and knowledge sacred. Ludicrous. Soon the common people will no longer understand the cycle—perhaps it will become myth and legend to them.
Ah, but she still loves them for they are hers.
“The next Saint Candidate of Leo,” Isabella amends. “Besides, I am still here, no? I am not old.”
“Speak,” Isabella orders, “my dear.”
“The head priests told me to tell you that you can rest and return to the reservoirs after you advised us, Leo,” Alonso says, dipping his head.
A blip of irritation furls out from Isabella’s chest as she turns to Alonso. They dragged her to the reservoirs in Ophiuchus just last week against her will with vague explanation, dressed her in the ceremonial, and—when she showed the last signs of resistance—pushed her into the reservoirs. She—of course—realized the importance of her baptism after the fact, but the lack of tact in the delivery is repulsive. She has taught them better than this. The Mathitís always treated the potentials with tender care. These people—
“Thank you for your services. We’re eternally grateful.” Alonso dips his head further. “Without your presence, we would not be able to be the nation we are today.”
—are still her people.
This is the choice of her people.
So be it.
The unpleasant irritation is gone in an instant and is replaced by affection.
When Leo returns into something akin to consciousness, he is walking up a long, spiraling, marble staircase to a familiar raised platform. Below him, a pool of glowing light swirls and pulsates—beckoning him.
As he continues to ascend those marble steps, he comes to realize he has become Leonce. Or perhaps it is the other way—Leonce has become Leo. The direction of flow has become hard to determine with each continuing iteration.
Memories of a sunny childhood treading through dance halls, long games of hide-and-seek in a rose garden, and reading in the dead of night by candlelight shimmer through his mind. During these types of play and rest alike, he had one sole companion: Stelleona. She had always been by his side—a smiling reflection, a reassurance of his own identity, his platonic other half.
At the thought of her, Leonce feels a warmth rise up from his chest and thread itself through his limbs and hands. He can still recall her sweet rosy smile, her unkempt blonde hair which he earned how to braid at the age of five, and her bright smile that always sparkled with curiosity.
Then comes the memory of their shared eight birthday—the day they were taken from each other’s side. Stelleona was raised in the palace among the ministers, while he was raised in the royal academy amongst the scholars. A queen and a candidate—separated as higher powers deemed necessary. He hadn’t seen her for five years now, but he’d been counting the days on the calendar ever since then in expectation for this day—this day he was to be reunited with her again at her coronation ceremony and at his baptism.
Poor children, Leo thinks. Moved forward by powers greater than their tiny hands could fight.
“Your sister is going through her coronation ceremony as we speak,” the head priest waiting at the top of the steps informs Leonce when he reaches the platform. “We are to meet her and present your candidacy. Do you recall?”
“Yes, I recall, my dear Alonso,” Leonce informs him. When the priest’s face brightens, Leonce offers him a fond smile before lifting his arm and inspecting the golden chains and artifices that hang from his limbs. “A Saint Candidate at the age of thirteen—that is… rather different, yes? And so is a queen sitting upon the throne at the very same age.”
“These are troubling times, Leo,” Alonso informs him. “We were hoping for your guidance.”
Leo gives a nod of approval before he looks past the Monadic priests towards the pristine white building that is surrounded by pillars tall and strong several meters away . Behind those pillars, Leo spies unfamiliar yet familiar figures peering in his direction.
“The Ophiuchians have given us passage for just the hour for our religious ceremony,” Alonso says, ushering Leo forward. “We should make haste.”
As Leo passes the Aesculapium with the priests as his entourage, he makes eye contact with the crowd standing on the opposite side of the pillars. To the one standing first and foremost in that gathering, Leo offers a nod. Then—he spies a man among them who offers him an energetic wave and smile.
To him, Leo gives a subtle wave and a slight smile.
Once Leo reaches the outer border of Ophiuchus and he is changed into clothing suitable for a saint candidate—an armor plated with gold that spills out draping red cloth—he boards a horse-drawn carriage with the priests and heads to the capital of his country. On the way, he spends time admiring how his countryside has changed in these past few years. The carnations and roses blooming in the bushes in the far distance glow in the summer sun. His people ride alongside him on the cobblestone roads, while children chase each other through the grassy pastures lining the path.
However, when Leo tunes his ears to the people, he hears unpleasant things:
“What a cruel queen,” the people on the street whisper. “Did you see what happened to the minister who tried to lower taxation in the central districts because of their poverty?”
“She executed him,” whispers another. “She’s wicked.”
Leonce frowns at all the gossip up until he reaches the royal palace’s gates. It stands just as rigid and tall as it did five years ago when he was taken away. Crowned pillars the color of sand and long bridges that connect them are the epitome of elegance. Draped across
A red carpet is rolled out from the gates through the hexagonal gardens to the entrance of the palace. Leonce walks along the path that is set out for him and enters the vast hall with walls painted with vibrant swirling murals of the countryside. The hall is lined with wealthy aristocrats, governing ministers, and armored knights all standing in a line, and they all begin whispering amongst each other as they lay eyes on him.
Leo pays them no mind because his attention is captured by what lies ahead:
Sitting dainty upon the gold-leaf encrusted throne is a girl just eclipsing the age of thirteen. Her blonde hair is threaded through with roses, and the dress she wears is embroidered with gemstones. Although she wears no crown upon her head and her eyes are free from crow’s feet, her blue gaze is regal, cold, and sweeping.
It has been five years since Leonce has seen her—yes—but Stelleona is just as adorable as he remembers her to be. As he looks her over carefully, he thinks that she is no different from the girl he once played hide-and-seek with in the sprawling royal rose gardens of the palace. Yes, she is no different from the tearful girl whose hair he once braided as he too cried in a quiet twilight garden. He still sees her in there—that eight year old girl.
His reminiscing is cut short as he is summoned to stand before her. He does as directed and kneels before her throne. She rises from her seat slowly, lifts her layered dress above her ankles revealing her ruby red shoes, and descends the tiered steps. Stopping before him, she extends her hand.
Leo in turns lifts his right hand and allows a liquid line of gold to spill out from his fingertips. Waving his hand in a circle, he draws golden petals from the fine line and directs them to form a crown above Stelleona’s head. The ministers and knights gasp but he ignores them and focuses on Stelleona’s face which has become rosy with awe. Pleased with his single-person audience’s reaction, he snaps his fingers and dispels the petals of vitae into a glittering rain of light. He takes Stelleona’s hand in his own and places a kiss on it as the ceremony requires.
Stelleona lifts her head at this before the regal facade cracks and a giddy blush takes over her expression completely.
“Leonce!” she cries, flinging her arms around his neck. “I’ve missed you so much!”
Leonce doesn’t hesitate to return her embrace just as tightly. “I’ve missed you too,” he responds quietly. “Worry not. I won’t leave you from now on, my dearest.”
Leo has never felt a filial affection this strong before. Perhaps, it is because Stelleona is Leonce’s twin. Or perhaps it is because Leonce is so young that his feelings of attachment are especially intense.
The aristocrats let out gasps, while the ministers let out exasperated sighs.
“All hail the Queen of the Kingdom of Leo and the Saint Candidate of Leo,” the head knight proclaims, ignoring all dramatics.
The rest of the ceremony proceeds smoothly. Ministers, aristocrats, nobles and the like approach both Leo and Stelleona, giving their blessings and placing kisses upon both of their hands. The ministers treat Leo with a bit more reverence than the nobles and aristocrats do. Just like the previous generation of ministers and the previous ruler, they are well-aware of what ‘saint candidates’ truly are.
Leo accepts the gestures with a warm and welcoming hand and smile. All these people are certainly worth his while—or so he thinks until he is approached by a middle-aged man dressed more simply than the rest. His velvet-crafted suit is barely touched with gold and there is but a single ring on his bony fingers. This is—
“I am Minister Pablo Fierro-Batista,” the man introduces himself. “Although I am well acquainted with the crowned queen, I have yet to meet the Saint Candidate of Leo, so it is an honor, Leonce.”
Leo can smell the corruption on the man. He remembers it as well from even before Leonce’s age. He has seen this man sweeping the Leonian courts for decades through Isabella’s eyes—although he has never felt such disdain for a person before. This must be Leonce’s intense dislike. Regardless, the corruption stinks more than anything, and so before the man can place a kiss upon his hand, Leo pulls away his hand and folds it behind his back.
“Leonce!” Stelleona gasps. “Don’t be so rude! This is Pablo, my best minister. He always handles things for me when it gets too much.” She extends her hand so Pablo can place a too-long kiss upon it. “Just last week he helped me solve the issue with the late payments we’ve been dealing with from the Amarillo District for the past five months.”
“The Amarillo District?” Leo frowns. “They’re one of the wealthiest districts here and have always been pleasant and generous.”
Generosity is a virtue the strong and proud maintain, after all.
“Were pleasant and giving. In the past five years, they’ve grown more and more dissident,” Pablo replies calmly. “No doubt it’s because of the dense ethnic Scorpioan population that’s lived there since this country’s founding. Fresh Scorpioans keep coming in too. A majority of them aren’t even Monadic.”
Xenophobia. How foolish and weak—blaming things on other people. Leo remembers when he and the other eleven celebrated eliminating such a concept from their land. A victory declared too early. Embarrassing. At least the other prejudices they’ve excised have yet to return.
Leonce ignores Pablo and turns to Stelleona with a smile. “How exactly did you get them to procure payment?”
“We set an example,” Stelleona replies cheerily, pressing her fingertips together with innocence. “They paid up right away. Much more than we asked for actually! Pablo is using the extra money to fund some infrastructure programs around the capital.”
Pablo offers a genial smile at the end of explanation, and it infuriates Leo. The sheer disrespect—Leo can see the thoughts spinning in the man’s mind as well as in the minds of the other ministers: we can play these two children like puppet strings even if they are a queen and a candidate. A child is a child.
So, Leo meets Pablo’s gaze evenly and holds it. Pablo tenses and takes a full step backwards as do the surrounding ministers. Stelleona does not take notice and continues to smile as she greets other ministers who dare hesitantly move forward.
Leo supposes he can’t despise them nor hate them. He has helped to advise the growth of this country, after all. In a sense, his people are the result of his hard work—his pride.
Leonce keeps by Stelleona’s side as promised for the years that follow. His role is more of a servant and babysitter than an advisor for the queen, but he is surprised to find that he doesn’t mind it one bit. He gets to spend his days idle braiding her hair while she speaks about the Leonian carnations in her garden. Most days are spent reading and discussing Leonian poetry of past and present. Occasionally, he brings her tea in the evening and they discuss the beauty of the seaside towns of the countryside. Sometimes when no one is watching they escape to the gardens and play hide-and-seek, pretend, or other Leonian-staple childhood games—ones that Leo designed himself not too long ago.
Leo certainty has pride but Leonce doesn’t find playing these games shameful at all.
On rare occasions, Leo does sneak away to Ophiuchus where he greets the ELPIS leaders in what was once the Aesculapium. While Theta turns away in shame and murmurs something about puppet children strung up on strings of pain, Gamma moves forward and presses for the next steps of their prevention plan. Epsilon, as always, offers his presence and his ears. Once Epsilon learns about Stelleona, he eagerly requests if he can meet her in-person. Leo does fancy the idea—a meeting between two people he holds in high regard—but it is impossible without implicating this alliance he holds with ELPIS. Then again—impossible is something to be broken by the strong.
Every time Leo returns home from these trips, however, he always finds Stelleona sitting up her dainty throne with the ministers encircling her like vultures. They whisper into her ears words like honey and coax out of her orders and decrees she enacts without a single thought.
“Okay,” Stelleona hums to one minister. “If we have extra money, you can use it as you like. Just make sure you put some money into my gardens, okay?” To another who’s earned her favor, she hums, “Oh? Are we lacking in funds for the military? You can just get the money from the people, can’t you? Like we always do? Let’s have cake later, okay?”
Stelleona holds a cruel innocence, while the ministers are simply cruel.
They will learn and get better, Leo tells himself. They are his people, after all. He has helped lay down the foundations for them. They may stray but as long as the foundation is strong and steady so will they be. He may be bound by the free will clause to only advise and not act, but he is certain what he has already laid out is enough.
That being said, he also knows he should love his people equally. Favoritism is something the strong should not show. Yes, love and care and affection should be given equally.
“Do you know what marks a good ruler?” Leonce asks Stelleona one day during tea time.
They are sitting out in the garden enjoying the morning sun. Leonce has just plucked a carnation from the surrounding bushes and placed it into Stelleona’s hair.
Stelleona sighs, twirling a lock of hair absentmindedly around her finger. “An imposing figure, elegance, and pride.”
Leonce frowns then chuckles. “No, my dearest Stelleona. A good ruler is one who is a great leader.”
She frowns, plucking the rose from her hair. “Isn’t that the same thing as a ruler?”
Leonce shakes his head. “A leader is someone who walks alongside the people below him—or her—and directs them towards the goal they wish to achieve. A leader is someone who knows when to condemn and when to offer mercy.”
Stelleona pouts. “Would you lecture me like this if you weren’t the Saint Candidate of Leo? You’re always telling me what to do now. You didn’t used to do this before…”
No, that was the ministers.
“I’m not telling you what to do, Stelleona,” Leonce replies. “I’m merely providing you with knowledge. That is all.”
Stelleona peers at him hesitantly. “You’re… still Leonce, right? You’re still my brother?”
Leo turns to her and sees fear in her eyes. He dislikes seeing such an emotion in her gaze, so he offers a smile to dispel it. “Of course. Always.”
Despite all of that regality and power, Stelleona is still like any other girl. At the age of fifteen, she falls for a fair Cancerian duke who lives halfway across the world. They are betrothed two months after they met, and Leo truly wishes them the best.
The fair duke of Cancer, however, becomes infatuated with someone else: a passing fair maiden from the Amarillo District near the seaside ports. There are many immigrants there, flooding in from countries far west.
In the end, in a twist of events, the duke breaks off his engagement with Stelleona and proposes to the maiden. Despite the maiden rejecting the proposal, the people romanticize the event and woo over their never-to-be romance.
Overcome with fervent jealousy, however, Stelleona soon becomes obsessed. Whenever Leonce visits her in her chambers, he finds her weeping into her pillow or cradling a vibrant painting of her and the duke’s engagement party.
“You shouldn’t shed tears for such a simple man,” Leonce assures her when she weeps in his arms. “You will find someone better or you will find that you don’t need anyone at all.”
Leo, of course, is also insulted by the duke’s actions. How disrespectful and ignorant. Careless. His own people would never act in such a way.
One day while returning from a covert visit to Ophiuchus, Leo finds Pablo speaking to Stelleona privately in her chambers. Instead of heading in or waiting outside at a respectful distance, Leonce hides himself and listens into their conversation. Spying and eavesdropping are distasteful actions, but he cannot help but feel that in this case it is necessary.
“Ah yes, that woman is Scorpioan,” Pablo is saying to her. “The country in itself is a reprehensible country. The majority of its country is not Monadic. In fact, they are—” He whispers something into Stelleona’s ear that causes her to frown. When he pulls away, he offers a sympathetic smile and ends it with a quiet line: “It makes sense that its people are also immoral and reprehensible. They have made you a laughing stock to the rest of Signum.”
Leo feels his frown deepen.
“Who is she?” Stelleona whispers. “Where is she from?”
“I believe that woman lives in the Amarillo District,” Pablo continues. “I fear that the duke must have been bewitched by her while wandering the countryside there. Why else would he break off your long-held engagement?”
Finally, after quite some time has passed, Stelleona beckons Pablo closer and says in a quiet voice—“I want to see that wretched district burn.”
Leo startles at the cruel, vicious request before he storms into the room. Drawing his hand in an arc, he produces blades of vitae from his palm and directs them to Pablo’s throat. Before the blades reach their execution site, Leo is stopped by arms around his waist.
“Leonce, stop!” Stelleona shouts, squeezing tight. “What are you doing?”
“Do you understand what you’re asking, Stelleona? Answer me!” Leo demands. “The people you are condemning to death are your people.” His people.
Stelleona trembles momentarily beneath his gaze before she says evenly without even being phased, “I’m the queen and you’re my saint candidate. Your purpose is to give me knowledge and advise me. Not to control me! Am I not one of your people too anyways? Are you my brother or are you not?”
Her question rings clear.
Leonce falters. He cannot say no to her. And so, he abides by the free will clause.
In the end, everyone else also bows to the queen’s royal order. The Amarillo District is pillaged overnight. Buildings burned—red, bright—briefly matching the colors of the district’s outer gardens before they are faded to ash. While blood flows through the streets, the wealth of the district flows into the pockets of the distant ministers and aristocrats. Conductors—tools meant to lead to technological advancement and build the path to peace—have now been turned into weapons of murder and war. All it took was a century or two. Truly abominable.
When Leonce returns to the palace making sure to have washed off his blood stain sleeves, Stelleona greets him with giddy glee— “Leonce, Leonce, let’s drink tea!”
The reservoirs grow—Leo can feel it.
The next few months unrest begins to grow. But Stelleona continues living lavishly in luxury and in ignorance. Although Leo keeps his ears peeled to his people’s dissent, he still finds time to spend with his sister. Tea time still remains the best.
Upon exiting the chambers one day after a particularly grand tea time, Leo steps out into the now wilting rose garden and spies someone tending to a dead royal Poinciana tree at the garden’s center. It is a dark-skinned woman draped in colorful, vibrant, patterned cloth.
“Virgo,” Leo realizes as he approaches her. “What are you doing here?”
“My current chieftain has an audience with your ministers,” Virgo explains before peering at Leo curiously. “Did you not know?”
Leo frowns at the insult.
“You should be careful, Leo,” Virgo continues a moment after. “Part of being a Knowledge Bearer is to offer guidance. Just like a book. Books speak to you, influence you, cause change in you.” She breaks off a dead branch with care and holds it out to Leo, ever so slightly pointing it at his chest. “Books themselves remain unaffected.”
“I must object to that proposal, my dear Virgo,” Leo replies. “Books are renovated and edited in new editions, yes?”
Virgo smiles, flicking her wrist. “Yes, that is true. Records are updated by authors, book editors, and the victors of war. But the book doesn’t change on its own, does it? There are dangers when that happens.”
Starting from the point where Virgo’s hand grips the wood, dark green light begins to slither across the branch, sprouting familiar petals at its very ends. When the light shatters, Virgo is holding a branch in full blossom. Her conducting is a bit different from how he remembers.
“Your blossoms truly are the best,” she notes, drawing the flora close to her face. “Be careful of what you do next, Leo. Scorpio is quite interested in what’s going to happen here since his people are involved. Do remember the free will agreement.”
“I need no warning.” Leo lifts his chin. “How haughty of you to think I need advice. This is my country.”
As expected, in the end, the people have had enough. Rage amplified by conviction and misfortune and injustice, the people begin coming together all against the queen. Marching all across Leo’s glorious land, a noble knight—a survivor from the Amarillo District—leads them forward with a conducting blade in hand. Soon the masses reach the capital—
When the news of their arrival reached Leo’s ears, he lets out a quiet sigh. It appears as if it is time for someone to die—there is no other way for his people to be satisfied. Should he feel proud of his people for rising against his injustice? Or should he feel outraged that they dare raise a hand against someone who rightfully rules this country of his—someone who shares his blood?
Soon the capital knights are overwhelmed by the encroaching mob—after all they are more familiar with attack and less with defense. The ministers of the court proceed to flee one-by-one while the Monadic priests far and wide began to gather close as the masses descended.
Leo can easily wipe them out with a flick of his wrist if he so desired, but the people knocking down the palace walls are his people and they are not wrong in their demands. The free will clause holds an iron grip—like a rope around the neck. So instead, he quietly recluses to his sister’s chambers with a blade of light in hand and with Monadic priests tailing his feet.
There trembling on a silk bed, a girl eclipsing 18 sobs with only her favored minister at her side. She looks up as soon as Leo steps into the room. Ignoring the priests, she throws herself into Leo’s arms.
“Leonce, I’m scared. What’s happening?”
Leonce dispels his conducting blade and moves to wipe a tear from her cheek. “The people want your head.”
Pablo rises from where he’s been kneeling by Stelleona’s bedside and approaches them. “The disrespect! How dare they!”
Leo regards Pablo. Although the man is manipulative and slyer than a snake, he has shown more loyalty than all the other cowardly ministers who have woven this fate for themselves. Yes, he is one of Leo’s people.
Stelleona sobs even further. “Leonce—”
Leonce lifts her chin so that he can meet her eyes. Despite what has fallen on his country at her careless decrees, the only thing he can see in her gaze is the eight year old girl whom he played with in the royal gardens—innocent and sweet.
“They won’t get their way,” he tells her, affirming his decision. “We’re twins. We look exactly alike. Therefore, I will take your place while you make your escape. They won’t know the difference”
The Monadic priests behind him begin whispering amongst each other. Stelleona pales.
“If they call you the epitome of evil, then I am too,” Leonce continues evenly, “because our blood is one and the same, yes?”
While the priests begin muttering the thirteen pillars under the breath and praising his sacrifice, Stelleona’s face folds. “Leonce, you can’t.”
“This is the role that I will play with this iteration of mine, my dear,” Leonce affirms, taking in the priests’ prayers and his sister’s gaze. “You are one of my people, are you not? Besides, I am not like you. I will not truly die.” He turns his attention to the Monadic priests behind him—gaze focusing on Alonso. “I don’t ever make requests. I’ve never had the need to, but just this once I ask that you follow this request of mine. Take Stelleona far away from this place. If you require another saint candidate, find someone else. There are plenty to choose from.” He turns back to Stelleona and pinches her cheek. “You would like to experience freedom, yes?”
Favoritism. Nepotism. Mercy.
Alonso bows his head in acceptance as does Pablo.
And with that, their fate is sealed.
And so, Stelleona escapes. Leo’s people storm into the royal palace as Leonce awaits them on his sister’s throne in his sister’s magnificent gown. He can hear their shouts and storming from a distance. He even faintly catches onto an invigorating speech echoing through the royal halls: freedom, justice, pride. Yes, pride. He has laid down the groundwork for his people well for them to unite against like this. However, as his people enter the throne him, surround him, and show him their visage—covered from head-to-toe in blood—he cannot help curl his lips in disgust:
“And you call yourselves Leonian?”
The day and location of the execution is swiftly set in stone. The Monadic priests easily pull strings—after all, there are still many believers among the people—so the time to die is set on the day of Leonce’s birth and in the location of Leo’s birth.
The Leonian people are granted safe passage into Ophiuchus and Leo marches to the jeers and jowls of Leonians while he bares the pitying stares of the Ophiuchians who peer at him from a distance with curiosity. He moves forward, chin lifted high.
Upon reaching the Aesculapium, he is put in a makeshift cell illuminated only by moonlight and provided with a Monadic pendant to say his final prayers. How ludicrous—praying to himself?
He is visited by two Ophiuchians. A familiar woman and a man. Theta and Epsilon. Theta’s dark brow is knitted with pity while her eyes are clouded with a morose gloom and something akin to rage—most likely directed at the grievances that have been put upon children so young. Epsilon on the other hand looks like he is on the verge of tears.
“It’s you, isn’t it, Leo?” Theta asks quietly, peering at him through the bars. “You can speak honestly. Only Epsilon and I are here now. The others are elsewhere throughout the continent.”
Leo merely lifts his chin high and says, “Theta, don’t record this event.”
“Leo.” Theta’s expression folds with sympathy. “If we remove records because of shame then we will not learn anything. Learning from defeats is just as important as learning from victories. We cannot let this happen again.” Her lips press thin. “It shouldn’t even have to be recorded, but that is how things have become. It’s as if we’re regressing to a time before United Signum was founded.”
“I won’t let it happen, Theta.” Leo looks past her shoulder, meeting Epsilon’s eyes. “And I am not ashamed.”
Epsilon nods. Leo knows he will do away with the records when Theta turns a blind eye. Loyal Epsilon. Leo still holds onto the hope that Epsilon will be able to meet Stelleona.
“I know you’ll be fine returning to the reservoirs,” Epsilon mumbles suddenly, “but is this really necessary? Can’t you just… run away here? It’s cruel, Leo…”
“You’re just a child…” Theta agrees, closing her eyes briefly. “Is it because the life a child has lived is so much shorter than theirs that they find it so easy to take it away? Evaluating something that cannot be evaluated. They were once children before so one would think that they would understand that a child cannot lift such a cruel hand as seen, but I suppose it is the same in regards to the poor who become rich—they are no longer part of that group and that is the end of it.”
Leo frowns but isn’t surprised by the lack of tact. Omicron isn’t here, after all. “I know my people,” he answers in a steady beat, “and they will not be satisfied until the one they believe is responsible for the crime is punished completely. Besides, this is the best way to mitigate the syzygy. With ‘Stelleona’s death, they will be satiated.”
For the time being.
Theta does not call Leo’s people fools even though Leo can see the word on her tongue. She waits beside him up until the final hour before departing with a somber ‘I will see you again.’ Epsilon meanwhile stays on hanging close up until the executioners enter the cell. As he is pulled away, he makes one final promise—
“I’ll keep you company next time—”
When the hand reaches the final hour, Leo is brought out of the Aesculapium and out onto the platform that hovers above the reservoirs. A noose is slipped around his neck as he is guided to the edge. The crowd that gathers around endlessly demands ‘Repent!’ Meanwhile the Monadic priests hanging near the back and seem to lament.
Leo turns to face the people he cannot help find pride in even as they look upon with eyes of hate. Closing his eyes, he lifts his chin and meets his fate. Given a final push, he tumbles down and down until the rope tauts. His breath is taken from him as his throat is squeezed tight and pressure in his head begins to build. There is a snap and suddenly he cannot move anymore. But he does not die, of course.
It does not take long for his people to realize the development. They tremble in fear and confusion before they raise their weapons and stakes and start their final onslaught. Blade, whip, bludgeon—all of them pierce into him as his people’s cries rise and rise. Jubilation and justice, jubilation and justice, jubilation and justice.
Finally, finally, Leo feels himself spilling out, emptying his vitae and knowledge into the reservoirs no doubt—
In the far distance, he hears the bells ring, echoing a memory of when they celebrated the birth of twins—a boy and a girl.
Somewhere along the line, Leonce finally ends.
When Leo comes to something akin to consciousness, he is laying in a bed shrouded with familiar drapes. They are pink—Stelleona’s favorite color. These are her drapes. This is her bed. Slowly he reaches forward and pulls back the drapes as his—her—memory slowly returns to him—her.
At the foot of Stelleona’s bed Leo finds Alonso—looking only slightly more grayed—kneeling with a head deeply bowed. Beside him sits a bowed-head Pablo in a gloomy shroud. Behind them kneel knights and priests.
“With no successor to the throne, there has been in-fighting on who should ascend,” Pablo explains. “Hundreds of thousands have died in the past year alone in this barbaric succession war.”
“We need your guidance,” Alonso elaborates further. “I know you asked us not to, but this was the most common sense option, Leo—you must understand.”
“Stelleona is dead in the public eye,” Pablo continues, “but Leonce is known to be alive. My suggestion is to take up Leonce’s identity and reclaim the throne. It is yours to begin with.”
As Leo rises to a stand, he realizes he has become Stelleona.
Memories of a sunny childhood treading through dance halls, long games of hide-and-seek in a rose garden, and reading in the dead of night by candlelight shimmer through her mind. During these types of play and rest alike, she had one sole companion: Leonce. He had always been by her side—a smiling reflection, a reassurance of her own identity, her platonic other half.
At the thought of him, Stelleona’s feels a warmth rise up from her chest and thread itself through her limbs and hands. She can still recall his boyish and innocent smile, his unkempt blonde hair which she learned how to comb down neatly at the age of five, his bright blue eyes that always sparkled with warmth.
Then comes the memory of their shared sixteenth birthday—the day he was taken from her side. She was in the crowd, covering her whimpering mouth with a shaking hand as they hung him as if the reservoirs were the gallows. She squeezed her eyes shut when they began to desecrate Leonce’s hanging body with conductors and whatever they could find. She remained there for days after the execution’s end. It was with great difficulty that Alonso was able to finally drag her out of Ophiuchus back to Leo. After that, she was taken by the priest to a small town Monadic Temple where she spent the next several years helping to raise children orphaned by her own hand. Penelope, Rosa, Michaela, Luis—she grew fond of them all and hoped to grow old watching them grow old even if she realized she didn’t deserve as much. But then Pablo came to the Temple with an entourage of knights and conversed with Alonso into the late hours of the night. After that—
When the memories stop spinning through Leo’s mind, Leonce realizes he’s been betrayed by his beloved people whom he has forgiven, shown mercy, and pardoned time and time again, while Stelleona realizes she has been played like a puppet for all the years of her life by her own people. Everything Leonce has sacrificed for her has been for nothing. All the hardships Stelleona has endured repenting and learning from her mistakes has been for nothing—
And yet here they’re still bowed down at her feet after hanging him from a noose and playing her like a marionette.
What more do they want? Could they do nothing on their own? Did they only know how to create messes, cause destruction, desecrate the beloved carnations and dahlias of her countryside, and reap the tears of her common people? No, no, no. Her common people are no better: storming through her castle all those years ago and felling every brave knight—young and old—without mercy; demanding the execution of a sixteen-year-old girl despite knowing full well she was too young to be fully behind the atrocities that spilled out beyond the royal palace; greedily coveting wealth within their own defined borders.
How many times will they do this over and over again? How many times will they crawl on their knees and beg? How many times will she have to humiliate herself for them?
But—she laid out this groundwork, this infrastructure, this system of governance for them. She directed them in the right direction whenever they stumbled. She was present in the moments they chose the wrong path. So… if they have failed and proven themselves weak, then that meant that she also—
The two words that Stelleona tossed around carelessly many times before ring through Leo’s mind. Without so much as a thought, Leo lifts her hand and draws a ray of gold above her head. With a flick of her wrist, she brings it down on Pablo’s head.
Red bleed into gold.
They manipulated his beloved sister.
Leo flings out her hand in an arc, generating circlets of gold that expand outwards and bisect the fleeing Alonso and his fellow priests.
They manipulated her beloved brother.
She steps out from her chambers and greets the knights and priests waiting there with a raised hand.
They can’t even keep a promise.
She paints the muraled walls red with their blood. The priests do not dare to lift a hand against someone who they’ve been taught to worship like a god and take their punishment like cowards, while the knights point their conductors at her like barbaric insurgents.
Stelleona doesn’t stop at the gates of the castle. No, she sweeps through the streets and paints them red too. The family strolling down the road and eating tomatoes together without a care in the world—disgusting. Gone in three quick slashes. The merchant pulling his wagon of fruits while riding on his trusty steed—putrid. Beheaded with a golden hatchet, but the horse is allowed to ride free. Horses are her—Stelleona’s—favorite animal, after all.
The people scream and cry and shout as Leo continues through the royal city. Some beg for their lives but the behavior just disgusts Leo even more so. She ends them in a blanket of warm gold. She doesn’t want to see them. She doesn’t want to see this disgusting disappointment any longer.
If they want to live like pigs then she would let them die like pigs.
By the end of it all, Leo finds herself standing alone in a small garden of carnations and dahlias—a small patch of green, pink, and blue among the red that now flows through the city’s streets. It is only after she plucks every single petal from all of the blossoming flower stems that she realizes what she has done.
Now that she has gone this far she cannot go back.
Covered from head to toe in blood, Leo turns and finds a familiar man wrapped in a pure white toga among all the red. Epsilon. The man moves forward without hesitation, and before Leo can lift a finger, he wraps her in a warm embrace.
“What do you want me to do?” he asks.
Oh, right. Epsilon has never asked for anything. Epsilon has only ever given. And he had always kept his promise.
Maria was pulled abruptly out from the memory, and it took a moment for her to recollect herself. Andres stood stiff beside her, while El and Dominic sat trembling on the ground. Andres quickly aided El up to her feet and then Dominic. With El, he cast a hesitant look at Epsilon and Leon.
Andres’s brows furrowed as he studied the two before he put a hand to the pendant hanging at his neck. Meanwhile, Epsilon pulled his hands close to his chest and studied Leona with a tight, pale frown. Leona held the man’s gaze.
“You…” El managed. “Slaughtered ou—your own people.”
“You were weak…” Dominic whispered before he shook his head. “No, you were strong.”
Leona remained stiff. “They proved that they were no people of mine. Even after that, they created the Gloria Houses as an attempt to prevent a so-called atrocity like that from happening again. It was a means to control the next candidate. It’s ludicrous. As if they could control me. It wasn’t even worth tearing down, so I allowed it and approved of its continuation. I don’t want to be baptized into someone of lower qualities anyways.” She narrowed her eyes at El. “And you? What do you do but run like a coward away from your people?”
El took a step back.
“I know who you are.” Leona chuckled after a beat and looked in Maria’s direction. “This is where the myth of the golden beast truly originated, Maria. That tale certainly isn’t yours. It was mine from the very beginning. You truly are a pirate—plundering and stealing what isn’t truly yours.” Briefly, she cast a glance at Epsilon.
Maria felt something uncomfortable churn in her stomach at Leona’s words but she continued to think on what she’d just seen. “You could not save Stelleona,” she drew. “You could not save Leonce. You’re people turned against you. You were proud of them for everything they accomplished, but then things changed. You thought they were no longer your sparkling treasures. You were ashamed of them. No, you were ashamed… of yourself because you viewed them as yours. Ownership…. responsibility?”
Leona regarded her. “How did you feel when your crew mutinied against you after everything you’d done for them? Your leadership was inefficient and sloppy—obviously—but you still offered them a place to stay and protection. They threw all of that away and continued to ask for more: for forgiveness. Pathetic.”
“…I was angry—but I don’t think I understood that at the time,” Maria admitted. “I was… very angry. Like how I was angry at Beta for taking Conta. Like how you were angry that they took Stelleona. And then I was disappointed…”
Leona’s gaze narrowed again.
Maria thought of Olive and Werner. “People who take their disappointment in themselves out on themselves are very sad to me.” She then thought of Cadence and Atienna. “People who take their disappointment in themselves out on other people are… people who have a moment of weakness. I don’t know how to feel about them in those moments, to be honest.” Finally, she thought of Jericho. “People who are still discovering what it is to be disappointed in themselves are people I can understand. They are like me. Like you.”
“I’d rather not be held in comparison to someone like you,” Leona responded evenly. “You are a mere tool necessary for the syzygy—”
“You have taught many things, Leona,” Maria continued. “You really did love your people. But they were not yours—not really. Like these things were given to me, those people were given to you… yes? I am starting to realize that things can get confusing if you keep thinking things are ‘yours.’”
Leona offered only a mirthless, dry laugh in response.
“Cadence speaks of pedestals quite often. She speaks of people falling off of them specifically. I think I have fallen off a couple pedestals now—like you.” Maria thought of Conta briefly as she went over everything in her mind. “But once they are off and on the ground, why is the choice to just be disappointed in them? To turn away from them? Why is the choice not to help them back onto their feet?”
There was a stretch of silence.
“I… know the difference between me and Leo now.” Maria nodded definitively. “I showed mercy. And I don’t—I will not—give up even if I am disappointed. Yes, I can’t do everything, but there are others who can fill in the parts I cannot do.”
Leona remained silent and merely looked away.
“I will continue to show mercy,” Maria decided, looking away from Leona and toward Proteus. “And I will continue to make it so everything that you, the priests, and everyone else has been kind enough to give me truly become mine.” She nodded in affirmation. “Yes, so thank you.”
Proteus was no longer smiling and instead gazed at her with an unreadable expression.
Maria now had an idea of what to do.
“Oh, I believe dear Olive has a plan,” Maria continued, turning to face El and Andres. “So, we should increase the size of our crew for this! We… don’t want to lose anything else, so let us be a little bit more cautious this time around…. yes?”
* * *
Morandi was awake when Maria entered his hospital room. His face was much fuller compared to when she had last seen him, but his hair was much grayer too. As soon as he laid eyes upon her, his expression brightened but then became pained. He shot up immediately to a sit, but El, who had returned to tending to him at his bedside, pushed him back down.
Maria felt an uncomfortable pang in her chest at this sight—a pain she could not prevent, something else she could not do. In fact, she was the cause of it.
“Captain, I was worried for you,” Morandi said as she drew nearer. His eyes sauntered to her left—her empty sleeve. “I see you’ve…” He reached out and gripped the sleeve and shook his head, eyes watering. “Maria…”
Maria sank to her knees and rested her head on his lap. “Morandi is a very nice surname, dear Morandi. So… Can you give it to me?”
Morandi at first stiffened at the action and stiffened even further at the question. His next words were, however, spoken in a gentle tone, “Captain, what’s gotten into you?”
Maria didn’t answer him. After a long while, she felt a hand warm her head.
“Please get better, dear Morandi,” she said to him quietly. “And then we can talk a lot more. And then I can get to know you better.” She closed her eyes. “I’ve discovered recently that adventure is not limited just to physical things, yes…? You can adventure through things you cannot touch too. That is freedom too. I would like to adventure through those things with you. If you want, of course, dear Morandi.”
“Of course, Captain.”
* * *
Maria was eager to find Veles and knew exactly where was. Rather, Jericho had some intuition on where he might be. And Jericho was quite good with intuition, so she followed it without question.
Entering on through one of Francis’s gates with Andres and Albatross accompanying her, Maria made her way to the familiar old surfboard shop that she had first met Lita in. She barely entered the shade of the store before a familiar rumbling reached her ears. Upon turning, she spied the canals spider-webbing through the town in the distance. They were beginning to pulsate with purple light. In the blink of an eye, those waters burst out from their containments and hurtled down towards them—rising, rising, rising with each crashing wave.
Albatross took a startled step back, while Andres remained steady.
The taste of the sea and the brush of the ocean breeze graced Maria’s senses before the towering wall of water loomed before her. She greeted the rumbling wave with a wave of her own and was not surprised as the wave stopped short only meters away from her.
A faint mist rained down as the moving mass groaned and lurched, and Maria wiped her face clean of it as she looked back at Albatross and Andres. Albatross was trembling while Andres appeared impassive. So, Maria reached out and offered Albatross a squeeze on the shoulder and a reassuring smile.
“You dare stand before me again?” Veles’s deep voice abruptly boomed all around them as the waters glowed and shook. “After you have dared to betray my trust? Without bringing before me the one I demand?”
“There are some things I cannot do,” Maria shouted back, cupping her hands around her mouth, “and understanding people easily is one of them. I got better at it but I failed to continue getting better at it, so I am sorry for not understanding you! Beta took your people from you and hurt your guild members! I would also be very upset if that happened to me—I would be more than upset. I would be furious! Having people taken from you is not a good feeling!”
The rumbling stilled and the water itself stilled—so much so that it more resembled a wall of ice than anything else.
“And having a crew member or guild member not understand that and brush that away would make me very sad!” she continued. “But you were kind, yes? You showed mercy! By not going after Conta after you saw how important she was to me! I am sorry for not realizing!”
The waters parted like a curtain and out from the newly formed gap stepped Veles. He looked the same as ever.
Maria brightened at the sight of him, and she could see him brighten too before a seriousness eclipsed his features.
“Your apologies are heard and accepted because—as you say—I, Veles, am merciful,” he declared, nodding as he neared her. “So I expect that you are coming here to announce that you will bring Beta’s head to me.”
“I’m sorry, dear Veles, but another thing I cannot do is hand over Conta to you,” Maria replied. When Veles’s gaze visibly darkened, she pressed. “What I can do for you is to make it so Beta never returns again.”
“Beta is an ELPIS Leader,” Maria explained. “The only reason Beta is here is because of the saint candidates and this syzygy, yes? You learned more about it through your people near the Aquarian-Capricornian border, no?”
Veles’s eyes widened a fraction, and he opened his mouth to respond before startling abruptly. He rushed towards her and took hold of her armless sleeve. “Your arm…!” He pushed his face into hers and studied her. “Impossible. How could this happen? Did you do this out of your own volition? You had to have. You are only one step below my own prowess, so it’s impossible for you to be injured like—”
“I lost,” Maria admitted, heart sinking again.
Veles regarded her in stiff silence. “You lost…?”
Maria nodded. “And because I lost, I know I cannot do everything on my own. I am strong, but even I cannot do that much, yes? You probably heard from the others—like I said—about the situation with the saint candidates. But I know you are different from them, so I wanted to apologize to you and ask you directly. You deserve as much, no?”
Veles slowly released her sleeve. “Yes, I’m glad that you realize my significant difference from those around me and my individual greatness…” His brows furrowed. “‘Ask me directly’—you say? Ask me what?”
“I know you have helped me a lot already”—Maria beamed— “but, dear Veles, can you help me again?”
a/n: this was almost 17k words. also day 160000 of regretting using colored text in this story because it takes fifteen years to format coloring. the next chapter will probably be out next wednesday and another chapter maybe that sunday ((not saturday because i’ve been invited to a wine festival with a friend))
anywho anhow–thanks for reading. we’re almost at the end of this part–yeehaw im dead inside. oh late chapter because work + i’m doing an online bootcamp thing but i think i’m going to set the bootcamp aside to just write + work until p4 is finished because my priorities are straight. so hopefully back on track version 1000
oh i also wanted to thank the people who’ve been supportive to me on twitter recently!! i really appreciate it even though we don’t talk much!! i shall remember you forever!!!