Atienna remains uncertain about the decision the other five have made to resist the will of the Saint Candidates. Still, she acts alongside their wishes and befriends Albertine Echecs who has just become a True Conductor himself—in a bathroom of all places. As she fosters this alliance with him, something that has been long brewing begins to…
Albertine was a… unique presence. Although he was not as provocative and forward as his brother Aldéric, he was still—as Cadence not so gently put it—a lot. Atienna’s explanation to him about True Conductors had been the bare minimum due to the circumstances at the time of their meeting in that bathroom. Serious conversations during a short bathroom break were rather odd, after all.
She touched on the topics of shared thoughts, feelings, memories, death, life and briefly expanded on the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis while highlighting the importance of staying under the radar. Albertine looked as if he was clinging to her every word like it were a lifeline and did not interrupt her even once. At the end of it, however, all he had asked was—
“So there’s no way to undo this? You’re absolutely certain?”
It was like looking into a mirror of the past. It wasn’t too long ago that Werner pressed for the same thing. An inconvenience, a complication, a detriment—these were the things Werner had attributed to the connection and these had been reflected in Albertine’s eyes.
Atienna had answered his question with a confirming nod which had resulted in Albertine’s knees giving in. Atienna had caught him—of course—before his head cracked against the sink basin behind him, but she had to politely explain to him that she couldn’t carry him all the way out from that bathroom to the v-ehicle. Too suspicious among other things.
Atienna managed to assuage the man and—with some of Cadence’s help—convinced him to keep calm and quiet until they had a better chance to speak privately.
Following this, Atienna had made the return journey to Secoursonne along with Dimka, Sefu, the two Échecs brothers, and all of the latter’s guests. With the good relations between Virgo and Cancer solidified and Dimka having achieved his purpose, Atienna was set to leave with him, his guards, and Sefu at the end of the week. She was thus left preoccupied with figuring out how exactly to maneuver around this set departure—all while Albertine continuously begged her with his eyes to stay, stay, stay. Fortunately—or perhaps not—on the eve they were set to leave, Dimka received a formal request by phone from a Cancerian diplomat to stay in Cancer for a while longer in order to hold an open discussion about economic relationships and foreign policy. No doubt this was triggered by the Yastreby’s appearance in Cancer and made socially acceptable in the public eye by their prolonged stay in the country.
As Dimka’s booking at the inn had expired on the day they received such an invitation, Aldéric generously procured another invitation—one for them to stay in Cancer in his manor for the remaining time. Dimka accepted the offer graciously. Albertine seemed just as grateful.
Atienna thus found her time split largely between discussing the etiquette, formalities, and other matters of the Cancerian political sphere with Dimka and exploring the duke’s manor a bit more deeply. She found the latter activity far more engaging.
For instance, on the seventh floor of the estate was a long hall with walls lined with water color paintings of different men and women all wearing somber expressions. Half of the works depicted the men and women encircled by reaching arms and hands. Some of the depicted wore those limbs and digits like gowns, others like wreaths and halos, more so like chains.
Below each portrait was a small plaque labeled with a Cancerian name and a time period. The names ranged from rather complicated and long to short and simple, while the years ranged from the 1500s to the present.
Atienna turned her head and found Jericho synchronizing in beside her. He came in rather strongly, so she was able to see that he was sitting alone on a stool in the exitless piano room. His sketchbook rested dutifully on his lap, but he had yet to touch pen to paper.
I wonder how he’s doing, Jericho continued. Clarification: Benì.
“I wonder too…” Atienna murmured, side-glancing at him from the distance.
It was rather unfortunate. People who rejected people somehow drew people closer, while people who wanted connection always found such binding strings clipped away by tragedy and circumstance.
Atienna found herself drawn to a particular painting at the very end of the hall and drifted on towards it. Captured in a golden frame was a long-haired woman standing up on a pedestal of hands. Adorning her thin, pale neck was a chain of interlocked hands—a necklace almost, squeezing tight.
“If you mix two colors together,” Jerichosaid, pointing to a blush of purplish pink that colored the sky behind the saint candidate, “you can get a new, unique, ‘beautiful’ color. It will be tempting to add more different colors to get a more ‘enticing’ shade. Warning: if you become too eager and add too much”— he moved to point to one of the grayish hands wrapped around the candidate’s neck — “you will eventually end up with the same shade as everyone else. An ‘ugly’ color.”
Atienna turned to Jericho in surprise.
“That is a quote from a book written by P.S. Cies,” Jericho elaborated. “Francis gave it to me recently. He knew I would like it. Somehow.” He glanced at her. “Nico also gave Werner a book recently. Conjecture: Nico and Werner’s relationship is similar to my relationship with Francis. Is this assumption correct or am I misinterpreting again?”
Before Atienna could make a loose remark about the over peculiarities of the book author’s name, she finally digested with confusion and amusement the last half of Jericho’s sentence. “Oh dear—wait a moment, Jericho. I… believe that the situation between Werner and Nico is far different from what your situation with Francis.”
“Yes, it does feel different.”
Humor aside, Jericho did bring to attention a question Atienna had been purposely neglecting to address. How exactly would they approach relationships from here on out…? Troublesome… but romantic.
“Intuition: the same concept applies to saint candidates,” Jericho said, returning his attention to the painting and drawing Atienna’s attention as well. He paused, fists clenching. “The One—Alpha—too. If I am using this analogy correctly: he would be the ugliest color.”
Feeling a familiar heat beginning to boil at the pit of her stomach, Atienna turned to face Jericho. He looked rather forlorn instead of angry, however.
“Do you like your siblings, Atienna?” Jericho asked suddenly. “Observation: Werner’s relationship with his siblings is ‘awkward’. It is more difficult for him to talk to them than it is for him to talk to us. I think I am both happy about this and sad for Werner. You?”
Atienna considered this. “I’ve been rather blessed—if using such a term is wise—in that sibling department.” She chuckled, hiding her smile with her hand. “I’ve taken care of the three of them since they were quite young, so viewing it as awkward is awkward in itself. We’re… close—as I’m sure you’ve seen. From an outsider’s perspective though—I suppose it might appear awkward.”
After a lapse of silence, Atienna wondered, Is there a reason you asked?
“I’ve been thinking about it recently,” Jericho replied. “About siblings. About the past. I wonder how it would feel to have them. Clarification: have them myself. Not through any of you.” He paused before looking at her seriously. “I do like your siblings. Bachiru is ‘cool.’ Your sisters are ‘sweet.’”
Jericho nodded, then abruptly stated, “Intuition: you took care of your siblings because of what happened to your mother. The ‘roles’ changed. You had to take on more responsibility.” He added after a pause— “Like Werner had to after what happened to Ludwig. An anchor.”
Atienna felt her smile pull tight. “Ah, yes, that’s right. You’re getting quite good at picking people apart, aren’t you?”
Jericho studied her, brows knitting slightly. “I am… sorry if that was rude. I was… curious. Because of how Olive thinks of you. I am s—”
“No, it’s alright.” Atienna looked away. “Sometimes pleasant things follow unfortunate events, don’t they? Sometimes unpleasant things follow fortunate events. You’ve experienced it yourself too, haven’t you?”
Jericho’s expression tightened ever so slightly. Atienna felt her heart sink. Why had she gone ahead and said something like that for?
Before Atienna could amend her words, she was moved again down the hall and found herself standing in front of the more peaceful portrait of a young fair woman being presented flowers of various shades and types by sunbathed hands. The woman wore a peaceful smile, her face illuminated by the reflection of colors bouncing off from the flora.
These are very good, Jericho thought. When I look at things like this, I think I can ‘feel’ what the person who made them felt. It is like this connection. Except through time. Without vitae.
“Can you?” Atienna wondered, searching the painting for exactly what he was referring to. “Ah, do you mean the meaning behind it?” She placed a hand to her chin and studied the painting further. “I wonder… this could be an example of the relationship this particular candidate had with the Cancerian public during this time period—the 1600s, perhaps? I wonder—”
“No, not that. Not ‘analysis.’” Jericho shook his head. “Feeling.”
“I want to be able to do the same,” he continued, “with my art.”
Atienna smiled faintly again. “You’re already skilled in that department, don’t you think? Your sketch of Fenrir—”
“No. Not yet.” Jericho shook his head again. “Not yet.”
Atienna wondered if Jericho’s fascination and attraction towards different forms of arts was because the process inherently involved creation. Creation—the opposite of his conducting. Perhaps he was trying to find some semblance of balance—
“I… just like it, Atienna.” Jericho stared at her before looking towards the painting again. “I am trying to find something else. Like everyone said. Conjecture: After Alpha is gone, I will be able to convey feeling better.”
Atienna’s smile dipped slightly. “I’m sorry, Jericho. I didn’t mean anything by it…”
“It is okay. Those were ‘private’ thoughts. Like your thoughts about Werner and Maria. Like your thoughts about Olive’s idea about going against the deal. Alice said it’s normal to have these thoughts from time to time. We keep it inside. Sometimes it slips out.”
The silence that followed stretched allowed the guilt simmering at the pit of Atienna’s stomach to intensify.
After a while, she asked, “Have you tried experimenting with different styles, Jericho?”
Jericho cocked his head.
“You’ve been experimenting with a lot of different mediums lately. It’s very impressive, don’t you think? Photography, charcoal, water color, ink…” Atienna elaborated, pointing to his sketchbook. “Since you’ve tried all those different mediums, perhaps you could consider venturing into different styles? Impressionism, realism, abstract, surrealism, and so on. Perhaps looking at them could help you solidify your own style? Ah, it’s just a suggestion. You don’t have to listen to it.”
Jericho stared for a while before saying, “I don’t think I know what those ‘-isms’ are.”
Atienna chuckled. “I don’t really know either, but I can definitely look into it more for you. This manor has a rather extensive library and Cancer is stereotyped for its refined arts, so I do believe I’ll be able to find something for you… Would that be alright, Jericho?”
The corner of Jericho’s lips twitched slightly. “Yes, I would like that—”
Atienna turned away from Jericho and the Cancerian portrait to find Albertine briskly approaching her from down the hall. He was dressed in an elegant silk dark purple tuxedo, but his bowtie was half-hanging from his neck. As he neared her, she could see that he was sweating rather profusely. Upon reaching her side, he grabbed at her wrists and panted—
“Can we talk again—”
Atienna grabbed Albertine’s wrist with her other hand and ripped his hand away from her own. Albertine startled at this action and stared at her befuddled.
Atienna side glanced at Jericho who’d risen to a stand beside her.
Jericho frowned, releasing Atienna’s hold on Albertine’s wrist. “Sorry. I do not think I ‘trust’ him. He knows Aldéric uses chlorowheat, but he doesn’t do anything.”
I understand, Jericho. Atienna nodded sympathetically in his direction before returning her attention to Albertine. To him, she offered a practiced smile. “I’m sorry for that, Albertine. You startled me… Is there something you’d like to talk about?”
* * *
Every other night Albertine would seek Atienna out and confide in her about the progress of his relationship with the mysterious other in his circle. She had advised him to approach the mysterious other with sympathy and understanding since they were most likely just as confused as he was. Offering some information about himself to earn their trust was something else Atienna had suggested. However, that mysterious other was a person who didn’t care for or about being found. So, this particular approach had earned Albertine only a handful of information so far—
Firstly, the mysterious other was not a native Cancerian. Secondly, they were not from a place of wealth and spent long hours doing a laborious task as their occupation—an occupation that remained wholly unknown to Albertine. Thirdly, the individual was an earth Elementalist and, as a result, had extensive knowledge on different types of rock formations. And lastly, they adored First Chairman of the Psychological Evaluations Department Talib Al-Jarrah—an adoration that started when the man had visited one of their worksites—also unknown. This didn’t narrow the search by much which made Albertine visibly nervous. Thus, Atienna was unspokenly given the task to uncover who exactly this mysterious other was. It wasn’t as if she was unused to the activity. She’d been the one to gather information on potential True Conductors during their True Conductor hunt, after all.
Atienna was rather unaccustomed to Albertine’s rather constant presence. To put it in less discourteous terms, it had been some time since Atienna had much company outside of the other five that wasn’t strictly politically related. Then again, Atienna supposed her interactions with Albertine were also political in nature.
“I had to host a dinner party,” Albertine said to her once he’d pulled her into a private study room on the fifth floor of the manor. “I ‘synchronized’ as you call it and ended up raving about Talib Al-Jarrah during a toast to our ‘wonderful’ president. It seems as if my so-called headmate cares little about the whole saint candidate conspiracy—though on this part I don’t blame him.” He slowly brushed some stray strands of hair from his eyes. “Conducting without a conductor? It still seems like something I have to see for myself to believe.”
The study room here that they frequented—which Atienna had cleared of any potential mediums with Olive’s conducting—was a surprisingly small space compared to the other rooms in the manor. It was a square area that stretched only two of Atienna’s own arm lengths across. Shelves guarded two of the walls, while a mahogany writing table piled with newspaper clippings prostrated at the center. A single window taking up half the wall allowed in outside light. At the moment, a faint drizzle was pattering against the glass.
Winter had already passed for this country, Atienna realized as she gazed out the window and took a seat at the table across from the already situated Albertine. Time passed by so fast.
“Oh, I see…” she said, offering a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It was rather embarrassing.” Albertine nodded, ripping off his bowtie. “However, now that I think about it, it’s not such a bad thing. Maybe this will convince them not to invite me next time. At the rate things are going in this country—no, in this continent—these ‘dinner parties’ will just become political funding campaigns.”
Atienna allowed a moment of silent to rub away the tension in the atmosphere before she asked genially, “Is there something specific that you wanted to talk about…?”
Albertine leaned forward. “Oh, of course. My apologies. Well— I’ve found a way to dampen this—this connection.” His eyes began to sparkle. “You know how my brother has certain activities that you were kind enough to keep quiet about…?”
Atienna started feeling faint.
“Checking in on Aldéric and his swoon of the week has gotten me something other than heartache and a headache,” Albertine continued, grin wide and strong. “Chlorowheat—somehow it can make all the voices go away.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small wax packet. He didn’t need to open it for her to know what it was.
Atienna resisted with all of her might thinking of Werner. She understood that from Albertine’s perspective he was justified in his approach to this. Being so suddenly connected to someone on such a deep level was disconcerting—she knew this first hand. Searching for an escape route was natural to some in such a situation. Sometimes escape was a necessary choice, but—sometimes escape was a form of burning down a bridge.
“Albertine,” Atienna finally managed, reaching across the table and placing a hand on his arm. The contact felt unnatural but Atienna remained steady, “please don’t go that route.”
Albertine looked down at her hand and then up at her in surprise.
“I… I haven’t used it myself,” she said quietly, “but someone—someone… close to me has. And…”
Ah, this was unpleasant. She didn’t want to talk about this—not with someone outside of the other five. Oftentimes she didn’t even want to talk about it with the other five either. Werner was already on the path to recovery. There was no need to look back, was there? Choosing to avert one’s eyes in this case—would be falling into the same patterns. Being comfortable—comfortable and routine just like how True Conductor hunting had been. Ah—
“He believed he had it under control,” Atienna drew, averting her gaze. “It helped him dampen our connection. He wanted to stop us from feeling his pain.” She quieted, then said. “He wanted to stop himself from feeling it. It… went too far. He became sick.” Slowly, she lifted her gaze to meet Albertine’s. “You and this other person may have more things in common than you realize. Even the smallest of similarities can act as a bonding agent, don’t you think? I’m sorry if I’m being rather forward this, Albertine—and you don’t have to take my advice for this of course—but if you attempt to cut this off in such a dangerous way at such an early stage, I wonder if you’ll end up with regrets…”
Albertine regarded her for a moment before curling his hand around the chlorowheat. Wordlessly, he tucked it back into his pocket. Following this, they sat in silence for some time. The rain outside intensified
“Oh, I have more clues on who this person is,” Albertine said after a while. He tapped his temple. “Recently they’ve been working on some sort of dig site—I’m rather fuzzy on the details—but I believe they’re performing a rescue op on some sort of disaster. So…” He gestured to the articles strewn on the table. “I did some research and came up with a couple scenarios. I was hoping you could help narrow my field of search—so to speak.”
Atienna tensed slightly. “Did you collect these yourselves or did you request someone to do it for you…?”
Albertine arched a brow. “Well, I can’t busy our maids and butlers with every menial task I think of, can I? So I collected these myself. Is… there an issue that I’m not aware of?”
Atienna felt some of the tension leave her shoulders. “No, that’s very kind of you, Albertine. And it was a good choice…” She glanced at the articles. “It might be better not to involve even those closest to you in these types of… things. Just as a precautionary measure… I also think it might be wise to make sure there’s no one watching when you… research like this.”
Albertine frowned. “You’re saying I can’t even trust my maids and butlers.”
“I’m saying that you might not be able to trust whose eyes are watching from behind theirs.”
“Right. True Conductor hunters and saint candidates.” Albertine’s brows rose but instead of speaking, he pushed one of the articles towards her.
ELPIS ATTACK IN THE HEART. ELPIS DEPARTMENT INVESTIGATING. RESCUE SLOW BUT UNDERWAY.
“Perhaps they’re a peacekeeper?” Albertine suggested.
“Perhaps.” Atienna smiled before moving onto the next one.
A RISE IN MISSING CHILDREN IN LIBRA. IS THIS CONNECTED WITH THE ELPIS ABDUCTION OF CHILDREN THROUGHOUT THE CONTINENT.
“Another ‘perhaps they’re a peacekeeper,’” Albertine pressed again. “I know it doesn’t quite line up but maybe….”
Atienna silently moved onto the next article.
STRANGE VITAE ACTIVITY CONTINUES NEAR THE GREAT TREE OF VIRGO. RESEARCHERS FROM THE CONDUCTOR & VITAE RESEARCH / LITERARY DEPARTMENT SENT TO INVESTIGATE.
She gently pushed this article aside as Albertine pushed another one into her view.
ANOTHER CHLOROWHEAT DEN DISMANTLED IN CAPRICORN. MEDICAL DEPARTMENT ALLOWED ENTRY AND INTERVENTION.
Atienna pushed this one aside as well before pulling one of the last few towards her.
HORRIFIC ROCKSLIDE AT THE OKÖR MOUNTAIN RANGES OF TAURUS.
NUMBER OF PEOPLE TRAPPED: UNKNOWN.
Atienna paused and plucked the article from the table.
Rockslide. Rescue. Earth Elementalist.
“Talib visited Taurus on a campaign two months or so ago, right…?” she asked.
“Mr. Al-Jarrah? Or—Scorpio as you call him?” Albertine frowned. “He did, yes. There were a handful of news articles and radio talks about it.”
Atienna stared at the monochrome photograph taking center stage of the article—a large pile of stones piled up on top of each other on a mountainside. Branches and dirt dotted the spaces in-between the stones. “I believe if we look into the list of technicians on this rescue operation, we’ll be able to identify them. Since Taurus has a select few isolationist policies, it’s most likely that the person connected with you is Taurusian and not some outsider lending a hand. Have you… noticed your skills in Taurusian improving any?”
Albertine shrugged. “I was tutored in all the languages of Signum, so it’s hard to say.”
“Very impressive,” Atienna humored him.
“Oh, you flatter me.” Albertine smiled briefly before he sighed. “So… we finally are closer to identifying who this is. They’re awfully difficult, aren’t they? It would be so much simpler if they just flat out told us. Difficult. Like a Taurusian. Sensible enough of a theory.” After a pause, he asked, “You’re rather good at this, aren’t you, Atienna?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Atienna offered a half-smile.
He held her gaze. “Louise Bonnefoy—you’ve heard of her. They say she’s ill, but that’s not true at all. She ran from home.”
Atienna felt her heart skip a beat.
“She was one, wasn’t she? A True Conductor?” He cast a glance out towards the rain pattered window. “That’s why she ran away. Well, she always wanted to leave, but… she was so different in the days before…”
Atienna could hear her heart drumming in her ears.
“Did you know her, Atienna?”
“Yes, well—I figured that since True Conductors seem to constantly cross paths according to your stories, you might have come across her. Or perhaps you know of another True Conductor who knew her?”
How to approach this…
Lie. Easier. Easy was really needed at this particular point in time. Then again—
Truth. Harder: yes. More ‘right.’ Better. Harder in short term. Easier in long term.
And less chance of fallout.
Here was where the path diverged once again.
“I believe I actually physically came across herself myself once—although I didn’t realize who she was.” Atienna tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and studied the articles. “When I was up in Aquarius acting as an advisor for the Virgoan diplomat to Aquarius and Pisces at the time, there was a terrible blizzard and we all ended up having to stow away in the Zatenminye Caverns. Louise was already there when we arrived—taking shelter from the storm.”
“You mean the debacle that happened with the tripartite meeting?” Albertine’s eyes became saucers. He did a double-take. “Louise was all the way in Aquarius?”
Atienna held her silence.
With reluctance, she nodded. “Louise said she was ‘extreme touristing’… She was very lively.”
Atienna chuckled, clasping her hands together tight as Kamala’s corpse flashed through her mind. Then came Yulia’s corpse and Kovich’s on top of it. “Forgive me if I’m being presumptuous, but it seems like you’re aware of what happened, Albertine. It was everywhere in the papers, wasn’t it?”
Albertine blinked and pulled back. “Yes, it was… Although from what you’ve told me, I can’t even trust the news anymore.” He studied her before clearing his throat. “I apologize if I was tactless there, Atienna…. I’m sure that experience was difficult for you.”
Atienna merely continued with a smile, “Louise escaped safely from the caves. We ended up together in the Twin Cities briefly, but we parted ways after that… I didn’t realize she was a True Conductor until we’d known each other for some time.”
“Twin Cities…?” Albertine shook his head. “Right… that ELPIS Leader—a Specialist among Specialists. And… somehow an ally.” A grimace touched his face when he mentioned the organization but he smoothed it out with a tight smile “You kept her identity as a True Conductor a secret after that—I have to thank you for that.”
That wasn’t a falsity. Atienna’ hadn’t told anyone Louise was a True Conductor. Scorpio had already known.
“Do you know where she went after that?”
Ah, right. Albertine was out of the loop regarding Louise’s most recent appearance since Aldéric had asked for their silence. A promise kept to ensure trust and yet going against another’s trust. Peculiar how that worked.
“I’m sorry if these questions make me seem like a stalker.” Albertine pulled back. “It’s just with all this ‘True Conductor hunting’ going on… I’m worried. Louise—she was my brother’s childhood crush, but she was also my childhood friend.”
Louise’s and Renee’s paired desperation as they clung desperately to their freedom still rang clear in Atienna’s mind. Thinking ‘if they were in her position, they would do the same’ didn’t quite act as comfort since Hilton had proved the opposite. Though—perhaps now he had regrets. Then again, Renee had proven that also somewhat opposite.
“I’m…. sorry,” Atienna murmured, clasping her hands tighter. “Her missing status made it easier for her to be…”
Albertine’s face slowly drained of color.
“She’s safe,” Atienna assured him. “The saint candidates treasure True Conductors, so they’re generally not harmed and allowed to live comfortably.”
Albertine did a double-take. “Right—they just take away our freedom. Physically or metaphorically. They took away Louise’s freedom in both senses there.” He frowned before he chuckled. “Can you imagine? Me—a wealthy brother of a duke given wealth without responsibility complaining about personal lack of freedoms?”
Atienna thought of the memories Maria had obtained from Leona through Epsilon—the memories of Leonce and Stelleona. “Yes, I can imagine it…”
“Do you know how…?” Albertine pressed. “When….?”
Atienna quickly but quietly replied, “I believe there might be an operation of sorts that might help her, so I want to reassure you that—”
“An operation? A rescue…?” Albertine shot to a stand. “Can I help somehow?”
She offered him a sympathetic look. “Albertine… You’re still new to this. It might be best if you didn’t strain yourself too much. With synchronizing—it can be head-turning if you’re still novel at it. You might draw unwanted attention.”
Albertine slowly seated himself and looked her over. “Am I… able to trust you, Atienna?”
* * *
The questions Dimka brought to Atienna prior to his outings with the Cancerian diplomat slowly, steadily, subtly became more tailored to one particular subject. There were times when questions were so specific that Atienna had to spend an entire day researching the topic before being able to advise him. And the topic so heartfully and curiously ventured into? Cancer’s deep-rooted relations with other countries. Countries of note were Aquarius, Capricorn, and Aries.
One night after a particularly long consultation with Dimka, Atienna returned to the seventh floor of the manor to survey the paintings. She had been invited to attend an extravagant dinner party on the first floor by Albertine, but she had declined in order to find some solace and think in peace here.
Now that she had time to herself, she thought. The other five were rising together towards some sort of climax—facing a cliff with such a steep angle that Atienna couldn’t imagine climbing it. They fueled each other’s desires and drives. While Atienna had always found this aspect of their connection a pleasant thing, at times like this it was rather dangerous. So many strings… Even with Werner’s organization skills, tying them all together seemed impossible. Werner—
Albertine came to her before Jericho was able to synchronize in and talk about the paintings. As per usual, Albertine looked rather out of sorts—his suit disheveled, his hair lacking its usually tame comeback, his tie askew.
“Aldéric asked me to pontificate about Mr. Al-Jarrah out of the blue,” Albertine panted, whipping his tie off. “And oh did I pontificate. No one has pontificated like I pontificated right there. It was embarrassing. So embarrassing—”
Just as Atienna was about to press him for more details and offer him a word of sympathy or two, the door at the far end of the hall creaked open and a figure approached brusquely. It was her guard Sefu, walking forward with purpose. He drew near to them, saluting her with the usual fist on the chest. Atienna offered him a cautious nod and shyly waved away the formal gesture.
“I was asked to retrieve you by Dimka, Atienna, but….” Sefu explained, eyeing Albertine with a frown. “But—I would like to talk.”
“We haven’t spoken in a while, Atienna,” Sefu elaborated, gaze flicking between her and Albertine. “Truly spoken.”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m sorry, Sefu.” She offered him a sympathetic smile. “Things have gotten rather busy and strange lately, haven’t they? l do miss our talks.” She paused, studying him pensively. “What would you like to speak about…?”
Sefu eyed Albertine. “Something in private preferably.”
Albertine raised his hands. “Oh don’t mind me.” He proceeded to walk two meters down the hall, parked himself in front of a painting from the 1700s, and offered an affirming wave.
“Cancerians…” Sefu frowned, whispering low. “All flair, no etiquette…. At least they can cook.”
“Sefu,” Atienna chastised quietly before drawing nearer. “What is it…? Is it something urgent? Are you alright?”
“Bachiru wrote to me,” Sefu explained. “He said you haven’t written to him this past month. Unusual for you, my lady. He was concerned… So am I.”
Atienna opened her mouth, then closed it. “Oh, I’m sorry. II didn’t want to worry him—or you… It’s just that there have been some… things going on… here and elsewhere.”
Studying her carefully, Sefu nodded. “Is everything alright—”
The door at the end of the hall creaked open again rather noisily. It remained ajar as a suited man entered and approached them—one of the estate’s butlers, holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a champagne glass in the other.
“Oh that’s Manon,” Sefu whispered to her, “he works in the kitchen here. I met him when we first came before our trip. We bonded over football, and now he sneaks me food from the kitchen sometimes.”
Manon continued forward, coming to a stop a meter or so away from them. He then held out the bottle of wine and the glass. Sefu arched a brow in confusion before reaching out for the items. Heartbeat quickening as the hairs on her arm rose to a stand, Atienna grabbed hold of Sefu’s wrist and pulled it back. Sefu now arched a brow at her.
Manon smiled at her in response. “You’ve been distant, Atienna, this past month. Quite hurtful in all honesty. We’d bonded quite a bit, didn’t we? Are Now why—”
“—would you suddenly pull away after doing something like that?”
And then Atienna felt it. The familiar yet foreign ominous dread. It seized her stomach tight and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed as cold sweat broke across the back of her neck.
Slowly, she turned her attention towards where the second, familiar voice had originated from. Another figure approached from down the hall walking at a steady, relaxed pace. The dread in her stomach built and built and built as the figure drew nearer and nearer.
Atienna couldn’t quite dissect why she was feeling such dread since she and Werner had encountered him many times before through his mediums and Jericho had encountered him many times in person. Perhaps it was because he was always shrouding himself in sheep wool in those instances. Or—perhaps it was because she personally had never encountered him in person before this very moment.
Yes. Talib Al-Jarrah—Scorpio—in the flesh was proceeding on down towards them. He walked close to the left-side wall and trailed his fingers along its surface—dragged his fingers across the hanging paintings there.
Almost immediately, Atienna felt the other five pull in close—synchronizing in almost fully. Werner arrived first followed by Jericho and then by Cadence and Olive and finally Maria.
Cadence was the only one to offer her thoughts—Well, damn.
“Saints…” Albertine whispered. “Is that who I think it is…?”
“Isn’t that the chairman?” Sefu wondered aloud. “The Saint Candidate—”
“Sefu,” Atienna warned, placing a hand on his arm.
Sefu eyed her briefly before some sort of realization dawned and he whipped off the spear conductor from his back and held it firmly. Meanwhile, Scorpio was drawing closer and closer still, keeping close to the walls.
“Usually people become distant because something unexpected happened in their life or because they’ve grown to dislike the people they’re becoming distant from,” he drew as he came closer, closer, closer—now less than a meter away. “So what would be the cause for you—Atienna, who has nothing at all going on, who is disturbed by nothing, who is living exactly as desired, who wants to keep friendly and positive relations with someone like me—to be keeping away?”
Atienna tensed—but then he passed her by and proceeded down the hall. He continued pacing forward even as he reached the end of the hall and continued onto the right side wall. His fingers trailed the wallpaper and paintings all the way.
“What are you doing here, Mr. Al-Jarrah?” Albertine asked curtly, voice stiff, turning so as to seemingly not let Talib slip from his sights.
“Your brother invited me since I was in the area campaigning,” Scorpio replied, studying him closely. “Why do you sound so cold, Monsieur Échecs? I mean, you spoke of me so lovingly at the dinner earlier. That speech of yours about me was rather moving by the way. It’s a shame that you had to run along before I made my entrance shortly after.”
Atienna realized—he was being too flamboyant, too open, too forward in front of someone who alleged knew nothing about saint candidates and True Conductors
Intuition: he knew.
Now, Scorpio was approaching them again, hand still pressed against the right-side wall. His gaze, however, was no longer trained on Atienna. “Albertine, Albertine, Albertine. Brother of a duke. Living lavishly in wealth without having to take on any responsibility for it. If only you were an absentminded man, then you would be able to enjoy yourself to the fullest without a care in the world—without feeling the crippling guilt of uselessness. Aldéric might be an antique piece of furniture put out on display, but you are not even an ornament.”
Atienna grabbed Aldéric by the warm, startling the man and cutting him off short. She shook her head subtly.
“Dear Atienna, you’re just like that Alma of Cadence’s, aren’t you? Charming people left and right, drawing them in yet remaining at an arm’s length. I suppose that’s what makes you a good hunter, Atienna.”
Albertine stared at her.
“If you’re aiming for romantic pursuits, Albertine, I would stay away from Atienna here. You too, Sefu. She’s more cold-hearted than even Libra. You can’t even imagine it.”
Olive grimaced. He really likes to talk, doesn’t he? Is there a point to rubbing his hands all over the walls?
“Now some rather curious things have been happening recently, haven’t they, Atienna dear?”
“There are always curious things happening,” Atienna replied lightly.
“Hm, true,” Scorpio agreed. “But it’s quite peculiar that I lost sight of Alpha with my mediums around the same time Leona’s and Jericho’s leave of absence, wouldn’t you say? Would my partner happen to know where she’s gone off too?” He hummed. “Well, no matter. If Leona is currently in a situation of humiliation, I would like to see it for myself. Her half-heartedness paired with that arrogance…” He waved a hand in the air dismissively. “As for Alpha? Well, I’m sure my partner would be glad if that particular ELPIS leader met misfortune, right? His happiness is my happiness.”
Jericho’s presence became intense.
“Yes, that’s all very peculiar…” Atienna murmured. “I can’t speak for Jericho, but would you happen to know anything about it?”
Scorpio didn’t reply.
“Alpha,” Atienna tried, “the one who’s been abducting the children….”
“You’ve encountered him, haven’t you?”
“I personally haven’t—no. His actions do seem rather concerning. Even if he somehow isn’t in the picture any longer, are you not concerned about his followers? Are they not a detriment to your plans?”
Scorpio chuckled. “Let Alpha—Proteus—and his followers run amuck if they so desire. They’re just accelerating the syzygy with all of their reckless abandon.” He frowned, a brief look of irritation crossing his face. “Though Alpha claims to hold no passion at all. In fact, he claims to want nothing—and yet he’s still here, isn’t he? If he wanted nothing—if he truly reached that point of despair—he would have smashed that resistor of his a very long time ago. Still, he lauds the concepts of non-attachment and embracing nothingness—the gall. He doesn’t know what he wants. I do, of course.”
Irresistible curiosity began to prick at Atienna’s mind. It itched and itched and itched—
Atienna, Werner warned.
“These are rather cruel things to say about someone who was a Mathitís of yours and someone who is a fellow Knowledge Bearer, don’t you think?”
Scorpio paused, turning to her slightly. “And where did you hear that terminology from?”
“Theta,” Atienna replied evenly with a tight smile. “A while ago, so I’ve been thinking on it all this time. Who else would I learn that from?”
“Theta you say? That doesn’t sound like something they’d tell you—though maybe Francis would. Besides, Alpha was no Mathitís of mine. No, no—he kissed the feet of another saint candidate.”
“I see…” Atienna studied him. “I hope this isn’t presumptuous of me, but the way Theta was speaking of the past made it seem as if you weren’t particularly for the syzygy in the beginning. Until… you conversed with Virgo.”
Scorpio stared at her causing a cold shiver to run down her spine yet also intensifying her curiosity. Then, he chuckled. “I do like this little game of ours, Atienna dear.” He passed by Albertine and continued down the hall towards the door—hand still dragging. “So, for irony’s sake, I’ll let you in on it briefly.”
Ya don’t really have to pry information from him, do ya? He’ll just silver platter it for the laugh, Cadence thought, peering at Scorpio cautiously through Atienna’s eyes and from behind Werner and Jericho. ‘Course there’s that thing that they call being selective in dealin’ your cards.
“Virgo’s way of being attunes her to the world around her. Dare I say this attribute makes it so that Virgo loves you people even more than I do. Passion at its finest. But with deep love comes disappointment—as I’m sure Leo is astutely aware of—and deep empathy and sadness. When someone or something you love is in pain, you want to relieve that pain, don’t you?”
“But sometimes the pain and injury is so great that you feel helpless because you can do nothing to relieve it. Well, nothing but one thing.” He tapped his chest. “In that moment, I connected with Virgo, I felt and understood her pain—though I’ve grown out of it. I’m sure you understand it yourself, right? Haven’t you felt the same towards your own mother? Haven’t you thought of just offering her that mercy dear Maria always throws around—oh, has she gotten any closure on that pursuit of passion of hers? That endless search? Well, anyways, mercy isn’t always offering life, is it? Mercy can also involve a present of death.”
Maria placed a hand on her hip, cocked her head, but didn’t think anything.
Atienna, on the other hand, clenched her fists as she felt her palms itch. The implication—the insinuation—was clear.
“You have considered it, haven’t you?” Scorpio drew it out regardless. “Taking a silk pillow from your bed, walking over to your mother’s chair, and just—well, you get the picture. Mercy.”
Finally, he reached the last painting on the wall, tapped it, removed his hand, turned to face them.
“What do you want?” Albertine asked, tense. “For me to come with you?”
Saints. What an idiot—
Well, if Scorpio didn’t know then, he knows now.
“Did you think I came here just to greet you and retrieve you, Albertine? To reprimand you, Atienna?” Scorpio gestured for Manon who popped the wine bottle open, poured a glass, and handed it to him. Scorpio in turn raised the glass in the air. “No, no, no. I’ve come here to celebrate.”
“Celebrate?” Albertine asked in barely a whisper.
“Yes, yes, celebrate.” Scorpio hummed, taking a sip of the wine. “And to relieve you of your duty, Atienna.”
“You needn’t worry about any of the others being whisked away by us anymore though. You’ve played your part and you shall be rewarded handsomely—that’s the natural order of things, isn’t it?”
Scorpio lifted his free hand.
All the paintings in the hall—all the ones he had touched-began to become outlined in dark blue light. Seemingly guided by his orchestral direction and a flick of his hand, the paintings peeled themselves from where they were pasted and began to float in the air.
Sefu muttered a swear as his grip on his conducting spear tightened.
“This land that we stand on—this celestial body—is one of many.”
Scorpiowaved his hand loosely through the air. The paintings began to fly forward, tornadoing around the room and enclosing Atienna in a swirling tomb of paper and paint.
“Saints…”—the tremble rang clear in Albertine’s voice
“We are all expanding forward, forward, forward out into space—pushed by some great event that occurred even before us saint candidates came into being. No amount of force can counteract this predetermined path—though struggle as you all might to resist. Forward, forward we go together. However, expansion is finite.”
The swirling paintings stilled in place—hovering in the air.
“Once we reach that ending point, everything will move backwards, backwards, backwards in the direction where everything came until everything is back in its initial state. Then, the expansion happens again. A cycle. Equilibrium. An eternal return.”
Scorpio lowered his hand. The paintings rushed outwards, fluttering back to the walls—no, to the frames—where they took back original positions at the center of their gilded frames.
“In other words—I’m here for a front row seat for that re-run.”
I don’t really wanna see any type of show that that guy’s looking forward to, Cadence noted.
Olive added half-biting, half-nervous, Did he really need to make a whole scene about? What was the point of that?
Their thoughts were a comfort.
“Can’t you feel it, Atienna? The syzygy—the pulse of it?” Scorpio looked up to the ceiling, raising his now empty glance towards it before looking back down to meet her gaze. “Well… maybe not. You do enjoy spending your time idly averting your eyes. Don’t. You. Think?”
Atienna asked quietly, calmly, “What did you do?”
Scorpio shook his head and clicked his tongue. “How many times must I tell you, Atienna? You’re more intelligent than this, aren’t you? I didn’t do anything. You’ve naturally brought yourselves to this point. Choice by choice, decision by decision.” He turned on his heels towards the door. “It’s too late to find any escape route. The hand of fate has pushed this stone down the sloping hill of time. This momentum has been building since the very beginning and no amount of friction can counteract it. The only thing you can do now is to do what you’ve always done best, Atienna. Stand by and watch.”
Jericho placed a ghosting hand on her shoulder as Scorpio headed towards the exit.
“Don’t worry,” he said, offering a wave as he passed over the threshold. “You’re all very valuable and dear to us—to me. So you’ll be safe and—” he chuckled “—‘protected’.”
Scorpio was gone the next moment.
The other five began to buzz noisily at the back of Atienna’s mind— did Scorpio know what they were planning? If so, how much did he know? Did it matter if he did? Why was he taking them off of their task and letting them ‘run free’?
“Are you alright, Atienna?” Sefu’s words barely filtered into her perception. He touched her arm but she pulled away from him.
“Am I screwed?” Albertine whispered to her, searching her face.
Mind still buzzing with thoughts from the others, Atienna stared at him wordlessly. In turn, he detached from her side and stormed out of the door. Shaking herself, Atienna darted out after him—or tried to. The outside hall was flooded with men and women running back and forth along the Sagittarian carpeting. Their voices saturated the air, while their foods clambered noisily against the hardwood floor hiding beneath the carpet.
Sefu was at her side in an instant, pushing away those who came too close. With difficulty, Atienna pushed past them all herself and spied Albertine standing bewildered by the stairwell. She caught sight of him descending and followed on after him. As she went down flight after flight tailing him, she came across different levels of chaos on the lower floors.
On the sixth floor people were crowded around all the phones stationed around the room. The people shouted at each other, fighting for the devices. The phones themselves seemed to be trapped in a constant state of ringing and trilling. On the fourth floor guests were hysterically speaking over one other, pointing fingers at each other, gathering in clusters around all the statues and decorative objects dotting the room. Some of the statues had toppled over and glass shards from shattered vases littered the ground. On the second floor there was silence, however. Some sat quietly on lush sofas with their hands clasped together while others stood with their heads bowed.
Upon finally reaching the first floor, Atienna pushed past all the cloistered men and women and maids and butlers and made her way towards the dining hall. The crowd thinned as she neared it which piqued her curiosity. At the entrance of the dining area, she spotted Albertine. His hands were clasped tightly in front of him, his gaze was focused ahead—towards Aldéric who sat at the main white-clothed table centermost in the hall.
Aldéric’s head was buried in his hands. Whether it was to hide his face or to block out the whispers from the aged and suited men and women—politicians Atienna could identify by name—gathered tightly around him was unknown to her. Despite the grim expressions the politicians wore, there was a sparkling intensity in their gazes.
Atienna stopped short several meters from Albertine—hesitating.
“Atienna,” Sefu said, panting behind her as he finally reached her side. Touching her arm again, he whispered, “What—”
Before he could finish, Dimka suddenly appeared before them. He trained a glare in Sefu’s direction. “Sefu, what took you so long?”—spoken quietly in his native tongue. He turned to Atienna herself and grabbed hold of her arm. “Atienna, we must depart immediately.”
“Depart…?” Sefu did a double-take.
Dimka’s lips pressed into a thin line as he held up a silencing hand—“The Princess of Leo is dead. Murdered. Assassinated.”
Atienna’s head spun as alarm from the others—still synchronized strongly—combined with her own.
“Wait,” Olive stammered. “Assassinated?” He paled. “How? Isn’t she missing? Why would they…? International Relations can step in, can’t they? They know—”
A political ploy. How coy.
No. This is—
Olive cast a look in Werner’s direction. “What’s the goal? The point?” He paused, eyes widening. “Is it to—”
“No one knows who did it, but everyone is assuming that it was done by the Aquarian Yastreby,” Dimka clarified. “The princess’s brother is a vehement person. I believe he’ll press the governing body to declare…” He silenced himself, looking around cautiously. “Pack your things,” he said with an air of finality as he swept away. “We need to leave now.”
Werner stiffened subtly through their connection. Atienna could already see him plotting out the points, reasoning the probabilities, estimating what would follow. The lines that divided their countries began to become more and more prominent—
“I’ll get your things,” Sefu whispered into Atienna’s ear before heading off into the crowd. “Stay here please, my lady.”
Atienna stared after him for a moment before turning towards Albertine. Finally, taking a deep breath, she approached him.
Albertine glanced at her before turning his attention back to Aldéric. “It seems as if another one of my brother’s loves has been taken away…” He sighed. “Leo and Cancer were tied together by the mere thought of this union. Where Leo goes, Cancer is sure to follow. Hm. Virgo is rather friendly with Aquarius, isn’t it…?”
“I’m sorry for your brother’s loss, Albertine, but… not everything is as it seems. And in light of everything that’s happening—that might come to happen—I… believe it would be best if you came with me,” Atienna whispered. “Come to Virgo. It was once an isolationist country and has cherished neutrality ever since then. I’m sure they will welcome anyone in with open arms—before things reach a dangerous point, at least. It might be the best option given where you stand, don’t you think…?”
Albertine gave a one-note laugh.
“Even though you’re an important figure in the public eye and even if Scorpio says he will not touch you,” Atienna tried again, “we cannot trust their whim…”
“Atienna, you truly amaze me with how you can separate yourself from everything that’s going on…” Albertine stared. “Did you promise the same to Louise?”
Atienna fell silent, her stomach tightening, before she shook her head. “I didn’t offer her anything at all.” However, Louise had offered her many things. Food items, yes—but it was still an offer.
Albertine took in a breath and shook his head. “I apologize if that sounded rude. You’ve only been a great help to me—but at the moment, this True Conductor business is the last thing on my mind. I… need to stay with my brother.” He turned his attention back to Aldéric. “I’m sure if you were in my position, you would agree with my choice. And I’m sure if I was in your position, I would agree with your choices.”
Sefu, Dimka, and Dimka’s guards were at her side a moment later—bags and luggage in hand. Atienna momentarily turned over the idea of staying as her gaze flitted between them and Albertine—staying just like she had done in Capricorn. However, she soon came to understand that this was no Capricorn. This was not the conclusion of unrest—she knew—but the beginning of it.
And so, Atienna allowed herself to be ushered out of the manor by Sefu and into a v-ehicle waiting on the outskirts of the estate. As everyone loaded inside the v-ehicle and it pulled away from the manor, she cast a look back at the retreating buildings and gardens.
It seemed that while the other five had readily formed or reforged alliances, she had been slowly whittling them all away. Though did such alliances remain pertinent at this point? The syzygy was one thing. This was another.
Ironic—it was just as Alpha had said and just as Scorpio had implied. They were both right in a sense despite their conflicting ideologies. The first domino had fallen—and the rest were sure to follow. A spider web spun from the eclipse of time. Alpha truly had known everything and Scorpio too—at least in that moment. Most likely, they knew because they had seen it happen before. Or perhaps it was all very obvious.
In the distance, Atienna could hear the bells toll. A note preluding the drums of war.
A/N: chapter is a bit ‘shorter’ than the usual one. sorry if it was not as action-y and exciting as the other ones and for the tardiness. was feeling a bit down while editing it but i powered through. hurrah–thanks for reading uwu
BY THE WAY. THERE ARE CHARACTER TRAILERS. PLEASE LOOK AND SEE IF YOU SO DESIRE: