Jericho has been remaining inside Francis’s rooms and watching over the now imprisoned Alpha and Leona.
The steady beat of drums is resounding as a plan of escape boils beneath the surface. As the election, international conflict, and a potential ELPIS attack on Ophiuchus rapidly hurtle towards a meeting point, Jericho must decide how to deal with Leona.
Jericho had ‘mixed feelings’ about entering the room where Alpha resided. At times, he stayed up late into the night staring up at the ceiling and thinking about what he would say and what he would do the next time he saw the one. Clarification: he was not excited about this.
Contrarily: other times he tried to ‘busy’ himself with other activities to not think about the meeting. He at first divided his time between visiting Werner and visiting Maria. After Francis and Cadence ‘made up’, he also visited Francis from time-to-time. However: all three of them started to become preoccupied themselves. Werner had a plan, and Francis and Cadence were acting in accordance with that plan. Everyone was. Jericho had his own part to play. Note: an ‘important’ part. Werner had said they were relying on him. This had made Jericho something akin to happy.
But first: Werner had said that it was important to ‘rectify’ the situation with Leona in order to proceed with his part in the ‘operation.’ Jericho understood this. He Just did not know exactly how to do it.
He visited the room Leona and Alpha shared every single day to feed them. Often, he would bring whatever food Cadence grabbed from the outside. Sometimes this was pasta; sometimes it was pizza; sometimes it was just bread. Other times, he would bring things Werner would make. Recent discovery: Werner could cook. ‘Sort of.’ Olive thought it was ‘bland’ food but had tried to hide the thought from Werner. He was not successful in his attempt.
Note: feeding Leona and Alpha was difficult. Jericho could not untie them. It would be too dangerous. So: he had decided to feed them by hand. Correction: he had decided to feed Leona. In Alpha’s case, Jericho often threw whatever food he brought with him onto Alpha’s lap with little regard. Sometimes the scalding hot food would spill all over the man’s lap and even douse his chest. Jericho didn’t care. Epsilon therefore took over feeding Alpha instead.
Returning point: Leona was difficult to feed.
The first time Jericho had brought a spoon to her mouth, she had lifted her chin and glowered at him. She never spat, however, and never kicked nor shoved him away. Intuition at the time: this was good.
“The disrespect,” she had said one day after refusing another meal. “Do you still not understand who I am?”
The possibility of her starving to death had eventually arisen. This would not have been a ‘good’ development. Reasoning: Leona was necessary for their plan.
“It is like you are royalty,” Jericho had reasoned some days afterwards, following Cadence’s whispered direction. “Being spoon fed. Is it not customary for those in power to be spoon fed from time to time? I am like your ‘butler’ in this case. Maybe.”
Leona had merely frowned. After some time, however, she had relented and had begun allowing Jericho to feed her. She never had anything nice to say about the food. ‘Bland,’ ‘lacking taste’, ‘awful,’ ‘commoner food,’ ‘made by a novice.’ Cadence often pretended to be insulted by the fact, while Werner seemed rather distraught.
Thus: slowly, Jericho began to be able to adjust to this new ‘relationship.’
Then came Lita.
Jericho did not really know what to do with Lita. He knew she was going to come to him because Maria had asked her to, but Jericho didn’t understand why Maria had asked her to come to him. Conjecture: Maria wanted him to console Lita. He understood that he was similar to Lita in one or two particular areas, but he did not understand how to ‘console’ her. The others like Werner and Atienna were much better at this ‘consolation’ than him. Francis was also better with his words. Just be yourself, Jeri, was what Maria had left him with. Jericho wasn’t certain on what she had meant by that.
“Aw, come on, detective. You can do it. You’re thinkin’ about it too much is all,” Cadence reassured Jericho when he had asked her to speak in his place. “Just start ramblin’ about yourself and show her a couple of your drawings.” After a moment, she’d added: “Try it for yourself first, detective. And if things start goin’ south, then I’ll step in for ya.”
Jericho was uncertain if he was reassured by this. There was no time to think, however. Shortly after this conversation, Lita came to him in Francis’s piano room just as he was about to exit. She did not come alone. Albatross accompanied her, his arm looped around hers.
“Hello,” Jericho greeted them, taking a step back to allow them entry.
“Jericho?” asked Lita.
“Yeah, it’s him,” Albatross confirmed, looking Jericho up and down and then eyeing the Ophiuchian sash on Jericho’s arm. “He’s very tall—taller than me—and he’s dark. He wears glasses—”
“Maria’s described him to me already…” Lita mumbled. “And I’ve met him a couple times before.”
Albatross flushed briefly. “Oh. Right.”
A stretch of silence followed. Jericho knew he should have said something, but he simply could not think of what to say. He tried to imagine Lita was Csilla—correction: Taurus. This did not prove helpful. Talib was the one who was best at speaking with her.
Lita fidgeted before lifting her head and staring in Jericho’s direction. “Can we talk? Here? Everywhere else is kind of… crowded right now. It’s getting busy…”
Jericho nodded, then amended himself: “Okay, but…” He glanced at Albatross. “Do you also need to be here?”
Albatross frowned and straightened before he glanced at Lita. “Only if Lita needs me here…”
Lita bobbed her head.
“Okay.” Jericho nodded again. He thought for a moment before gesturing to the piano.
Before they could move towards the instrument together, the gate behind them burst with light, and four figures stepped into the room: Tau and three Geminian police officers. Two women, one man. As soon as Tau laid eyes on the two children and Jericho himself, he became red in the face.
“Do you have the right to be here?!” Tau snapped, flying forward and jabbing a finger in each of their faces. “Why do you people think you can go wherever you damn well please, hm? Is this your house? No!” He whipped to face Lita. “And look at you, staring at me like you—
“She can’t see,” Albatross responded, brows furrowing. “Giustizia—”
Tau shut his mouth and pulled back before turning to Albatross and jabbing a finger at his chest. “You, boy, have no respect? Using my last name like some hooligan? Do you even have a license to be acting as a blind guide? Huh? No, I bet not! Look at you! You probably—”
“What—” Albatross frowned, taking a step back. “Isn’t that for dogs…?”
“We have permission to be here,” Jericho interjected, stepping in-between them and shoving Tau back. “Francis allowed it. We’ve been here longer than you have.”
Tau stumbled backwards. The Geminian officers rushed to his side and steadied him. Tau scowled before he brushed his shoulder off and pointed another finger in Jericho’s direction. He snapped, “That’s assault, you know. I could have you jailed for it! And how dare you imply you have seniority over me! Who do you damned think you are—” He began hacking and coughing and pounding his chest as the officers tended to him.
Albatross pulled Lita away from Tau and towards Jericho.
When Tau’s coughs subsided, the man pushed his glasses up his nose and heaved: “I stood in this place as it was being built and who knows how many times after that. I have seniority—”
“In the past. But not now,” Jericho answered. “What matters more—”
“Er, boss…” one of the female officers behind Tau whispered. “Weren’t you coming here for something specific?”
“Right.” Tau shut his mouth and shook his head. “Oh—no, no, no. I’m not going to let you waste my time and distract me. I can sue you for that too but I don’t have time to!” He pointed at them again, before whipping around and storming to the bookcases on the far left wall with his three officers tailing him. He continued to rattle: “But don’t think I’m letting you off the hook either! The universe infinitely curves towards justice—”
Jericho gestured to the piano bench again. Albatross guided Lita over to the seat and took the far left corner of the bench while Lita sat at the center. Jericho stared briefly before taking the right corner. Lita fidgeted.
“What would you like to talk about?” Jericho tried.
Lita stiffened and lifted her head. After clasping her hands together and squeezing tight, she murmured, “You… also had your vitae bleached, right—”
“Yes,” answered Jericho immediately.
Lita startled and after a moment asked, “How old were you…?”
Jericho thought about it. “I’m not sure. Conjecture: around your age. No: younger.”
Her brow’s knit. “And… did you start talking like that after it was bleached?”
Jericho paused. “‘Talking like that’?”
Lita pinkened. “Oh… nevermind…” She smoothed out her dress and played with some thread that had become undone at the edges. “Did it hurt for you?”
“Yes.” Jericho nodded. “I did not know how to describe it at first, but Atienna—she is someone who is also connected to us—read a book recently where a spy was captured and tortured by a foreign government. A fire Elementalist injected tiny amounts of his vitae into his prisoner to literally ‘put fire in his veins’—”
Albatross and Lita both paled.
Feeling his own cheeks pinken, Jericho quickly finished, “I think that is a good way to describe the pain. Was it the same for you?”
Biting her lip and rubbing her arms, Lita nodded. Her face scrunched, her eyes becoming wet. “And now… I can’t feel anything. Mr. Francis says that I need to be really careful since… I can’t see either, so I wouldn’t be able to tell…”
Frowning, he reached over and put his hand over her own. “You can feel.”
Lita tensed at the contact.
“You can still feel things,” Jericho continued. “Warm. Cold. Textures: flowers, books, leather, flour. Tastes: sweet like strawberry, sour like lemon, bitter like coffee, salty like ocean water.” He realized that most of those sensations had been provided to him from the others.
“Barely,” Lita whispered.
“It gets better,” Jericho reassured her. “Slowly, little-by-little. Like a blank canvas. Adding color. From experiences. A full picture. The good and the bad.”
Lita peered at him curiously at this before she asked, “Are you… afraid?”
“Afraid of… not… not ‘returning to the cycle’,” Lita stammered. “I don’t really know Mr. Foxman too well, but the others do and…. I heard a lot about the—uhm—concept when the others were… here… Kent talks about it a lot…”
“I… don’t think about it,” Jericho answered honestly. “Oh. Correction: I didn’t. Until recently.” He stared at the gate on the opposite wall. “I am not afraid of becoming nothingness.” Lifting his head, he gazed over at Tau who was still rifling through books. “ ELPIS continuing on and tricking more people without being brought to justice: I was afraid of this. But now there’s the syzygy.”
And a reason for ELPIS. But a reason was not an excuse and not closure. In existence: a distinction. ELPIS Leaders who went one way and ELPIS Leaders who went the other way: differing with initiation or remaining the same. Original purpose: twisted and forgotten.
But what if his own original purpose? Finding something else, yes, but—
Jericho blinked out of his thoughts and found Albatross arching a brow at him and Lita gazing in his direction expectantly. After reassuring himself of his surroundings with a quick scan of the room, he discovered that a new person had entered: Agape Rosario. With a v-cigarette hanging from her lips, she lounged on a small sofa in the far corner of the room.
“When the others go, I will go too,” Jericho said. “They will return to the cycle. I won’t.” He frowned, feeling something hard and heavy swell in his chest.
“That’s… dark,” Albatross muttered under his breath before Lita nailed him in the foot with her heel.
“I’m sorry for complaining instead of actually talking,” Lita mumbled, “especially because I did this stupid thing myself.” She grimaced. “I was so stupid…”
Jericho shook his head. “No, you shouldn’t be angry at yourself. It was not your fault.”
“He’s right…” Albatross agreed.
“I barely spoke to Proteus when I was younger,” Jericho said, “but I know he is the one who is wrong. Manipulative. It was your choice but it was not your choice.” He struggled to find the words. “You didn’t know what you were doing.”
“But I did…” Lita fidgeted. “I knew what would happen. I just didn’t want the others to also—” Letting out an abrupt sigh of frustration, she slammed her tiny fits into her lap. “Why didn’t the others just use their dumb brains! Bleaching your vitae… not returning… the cycle… ELPIS… ”
Somewhat startled, Jericho stared at her briefly before nodding. “Okay. Yes, you knew.”
Albatross glared at him.
“But. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Jericho continued, “and I did very bad things: returning people to the cycle. Killing people”—even after he’d left ELPIS— “You knew what you were doing and you tried to do a good thing: preventing others from becoming like us. From being tricked. Question: who is right and who is wrong then?”
A pop echoed through the room: Tau had snapped shut the book he’d been perusing. Turning on his heels, he said, “The offense is obvious, the verdict a bit more unclear. But that’s why we have the law to guide us.”
Uhm. Did anyone actually ask? Olive, listening in and scowling somewhere.
Tau turned to face them, a book pressed between both his palms. “Murder is a damned criminal offense in every single country on this damn continent—so in your case, Suitcase Peacekeeper, that would be your charge. And it would be my charge.” He whipped around and pointed at each of his officers and then at Agape. “And it would damn well be all of your charges too! How can you live with yourselves, you filthy murderers—”
“Wait—uhm. What’s… happening…? Is that Tau?” Lita whispered, looking around in confusion. “Are you still here, Jericho…?”
“Yes, I am still here,” Jericho replied evenly. “It is just someone else needs to shut their mouth so we can talk.”
“Tau, I’m sure if you visit some country outside of our continent,” Agape interjected suddenly, taking a slow drag of her v-cigarette, “murder would be viewed as acceptable in certain contexts or if done by a certain person in power. Laws and morals change. So how would you reach a verdict then?
Tau whipped to face her but did not start shouting. Instead, he replied, calm: “Laws and morals do change and evolve with time, context, and location. But it’s our duty as social beings capable of evolution and self-aware thought to evolve with them. It’s about respect, damnit. About justice! Are you even human if you’re incapable of that?”
Jericho did not like the fact that an ELPIS Leader like Tau was talking about morals, law, and justice. Clarification: Jericho wanted to strike the man for it. But there was a distinction, Jericho knew. And that distinction made Jericho think. Something about what Tau said clicked inside of his mind. Evolution. Change. Yes, with that frame of reference, Jericho’s own changing—evolving—towards feelings ELPIS began to become more understandable to him.
“Who knew you were capable of philosophy, Giustizia,” was all Agape said.
“It’s not damned philosophy,” Tau snapped. “It’s damn common sense and morals.” He whipped around and pointed a finger at Jericho. “Don’t get too relaxed, Suitcase Peacekeeper. I am not consoling you. You still have one particular criminal charge that you need to answer for.” He lowered his hand. “You returned Omega to nothingness.”
“She pushed me down a flight of stairs,” Jericho replied immediately. “She was not innocent. Neither are you. You people, you trick people, you deserve punishment—”
“I haven’t tricked anyone. Lies are for criminals. For cowards,” Tau spat.
“You pretended to be the good old commissario, didn’t you?” Jericho found himself asking. “That’s a lie.”
Tau shut his mouth again before slapping a hand to his lips. “Damn. You’re right. Am I slipping? It’s the damned corruption of this place—I can’t even smell my own corruption with all this corruption stench!” He whipped around to his officers. “Why did none of you bring this to my attention?! Where did you earn your badges from—letting this fraud slip by you like it’s nothing? What? Did you fake earning your certifications—”
“Er, we did bring it up, boss,” one of the officers muttered. “After we found out…”
“Did you?” Tau huffed, pulled back, straightened his hair and glasses. “Well, then…” He returned his attention to Jericho. “Mr. Suitcase Peacekeeper, who exactly made you judge, jury, and executioner? There’s a reason those are separate damned professions given to separate damned people.” He turned his attention to Lita. “Moving aside temporarily from that charge: bleaching your vitae is not a criminal offense. It is a choice. Having bleached vitae does put you under ‘watch’ by the ELPIS Department of your silly peacekeeping organization, but it’s not until you break a law that you’re a criminal. You’re just like any other person—in fact, you have the leverage of suing for discrimination. Given that the modern perspective is that the vitae inside of your body is part of your property, you can even sue for bodily violation if you were arguably forced to bleach it.” He began to pace back and forth, slapping his book into his hand. “If you wanted to take it a step further, you can even sue for criminal coercion. There’s a distinct, clear, obvious difference between coerced choice and a choice made with full autonomy. Of course, one could argue what exactly constitutes as autonomy. ‘Despite coercion, you could still resist since you still have your mental faculties about you,’ one could argue—” He stopped short. “ Damn—where was I going with this?”
Jericho didn’t answer the man and turned his attention to Lita. Her brows were knitted.
“Oh, right.” Tau snapped his fingers. “Counter-arguments! Manipulation, duress, and so on—especially when done to minors. Learning about the cycle of vitae was something that was natural in my day among the generally educated, but the delivery of that knowledge always needed to be done with care and generally was delivered by practiced professors. Yes, everything does return to the natural cycle of vitae, but that doesn’t diminish the value of the vitae already here. In fact, it only highlights the value of it. Learning about the cycle while being taught this most important fact is essential. If not…” He gestured to Jericho.
Saints. Olive again. He’s still talking?
“Now onto the case of murder under manipulation. As current and conducting law of old dictates, those under the influence of a manipulator while committing a crime are pardoned as long as they’re subject to thorough counseling for an agreed upon timeframe afterwards. In this case, the law accepts the perpetrators as the victims. Of course, in the court of public opinion, the verdict could vary drastically”
Jericho felt his stomach drop as he thought of that day in the Capricornian capital.
“Of course, you’re current practicing courts didn’t do a damn thing about upholding this after the Week of Blindness, did they?” Tau snapped. “Moving on! Any murder you’ve committed after realizing this fact and any completed with full autonomy: for that, you do receive a guilty verdict.” He spun around and pointed at Jericho again. “You murdered Omega when you were at full mental capacity, suitcase peacekeeper. For that, you are guilty. I rest my case.”
He… was making a case?
“You were making a case?” Albatross voiced Olive’s thoughts aloud.
Tau approached their piano bench in response. Gesturing to Jericho then Lita, he said, “You were talking about becoming nothingness earlier? That was Omega’s ultimate fate. She won’t return to the cycle any longer. That’s all of our ultimate fates: nothingness.”
Lita’s brows furrowed, while Albatross smacked Tau’s finger away.
“Back in the day some considered that an ultimate punishment, others an ultimate state of peace. A goal to be reached in other words. Enlightenment, the final stage, and so on. But—or so I argued back in the day,” Tau continued, “‘nothing’ is just a temporary state. So it’s neither—”
No longer angry but merely confused, Jericho wiped some of Tau’s spit off from his face and stared at the man.
“Boss,” one of the officers interjected, “didn’t you say you failed to defend that whole nothingness dissertation defense thing or whatever back in the day?”
The gate on the wall burst with light before Tau answered. Jericho knew who it was immediately: Olive accompanied by Derik.
Albatross grabbed Lita’s arm. “It’s the prince. The Ariesian Prince. Maria wasn’t joking when she said…”
Lita stiffened. “A prince…?”
The officers behind Tau stared, while Tau merely inspected Olive with narrowed eyes.
“Alright. Get the fuck out,” Derik snapped, walking forward and kicking over one the many bookstacks in the room. “Now!”
“Derik!” Olive scowled, running up to the man and pulling him back. “What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy? That was a rhetorical question, by the way.”
Derik glanced back at him. “You said you wanted to talk with the weirdo in person and in private.”
Olive pointed to his temple and stated flatly, “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Wonder how I can do that—”
Suddenly, Derik stormed towards Tau and grabbed him by the scruff. “You again—I remember you, you four-eyed freak.” He paused as if recalling something, grimaced, and released Tau. “Beat it, you possession freak.”
“Hey, lay off!” one of the Geminian officers snapped. “That’s the commissario of the Twin Cities you’re talkin’ to!”
“Former commissario,” Tau corrected. “We can’t commit fraud again now, can we, Butch?” He snapped back at Derik, “ And I have every damned right to stand in this damned room and you have no damned authority over me until you bring me a piece of signed legislation saying that you do!” He brushed past the man, waved his book in the air, and huffed: “I will take my leave now— but don’t think I’m letting you off the damned hook! I promise you I’ll—”
Jericho couldn’t hear the rest of it because the man exited a second after with the officers following close behind. Agape shook off the ash hanging off the bud of her v-cigarette before departing as well.
Lita squeezed Jericho’s hand, drawing his attention away from the departing party.
“Thank you very much for the talk, Jericho,” she drew, releasing his hand and rising to a stand with Albatross’s assistance. “Could we… talk again some other time?”
“Yes. Whenever you would like.”
After a word of parting, she too departed with Albatross.
But Jericho was not alone.
He rose to a stand, meeting Olive by the toppled book stack. He offered a wave.
Olive quirked a brow and smiled slightly. “Hi, Jericho.”
Jericho stared at him for a moment before moving to pick up the fallen books on the floor and returning them to the pile. Olive joined him in the task, while Derik sprawled himself out on the piano bench. In the quiet, Jericho began to think of his conversation with Lita. Had it gone well?
“Dealing with kids can be annoying and a hassle—especially Dominic. Every time one of you goes to him, I want to hit my head against the wall. How can someone be so annoying?” Olive muttered, breaking the silence first. “I think that you handled that conversation with Lita… well. Sorry that Tau barged in halfway through. I don’t get what his problem is…”
Verdict: guilty or innocent.
Olive looked up at him. “It’s more complicated than that, Jericho… You know that…”
Suddenly, Jericho became aware of how much he towered over Olive. “But you are still classified as a child and ‘kid’ also, Olive? Why do you refer to children as children when you are a child?”
Olive did a double-take. “Wha—look. I’m trying to help here!” He flushed, scowled, glared at Derik, then sighed. “Why do you always say that…?”
Jericho studied him. “That is… how it is.”
“I’m a young adult,” Olive mumbled, looking away and handing Jericho a book. “It’s different, obviously.”
“Okay.” Jericho accepted it and stacked it up on the growing tower. “You ‘evolved’.”
Olive snorted. Then, he muttered, “The plan Werner has…” He glanced over at Derik as the man perked up at the name. “Everything’s going to change. We… probably won’t be able to go back home after this.”
Home. Taken away.
“You can still go home, Olive,” Jericho interjected. “There… is still a place for you.”
A sharp pricking pain stabbed Jericho’s chest. Jericho felt his own chest sink in turn. It seemed as if he had said the wrong thing. Again.
“I know I’m luckier than all of you since I’m the prince,” Olive mumbled. “But that place isn’t home to me.” He grimaced. “Not to Lavi either. At least not anymore…”
Then where was home?
I’m not running away or anything. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I know I need to change things. I’m just trying to say that to me home….
Then Olive looked up at him. After some time had passed, he approached Jericho and slid a small cold disk with a glass center filled with an odd mix of pale tangerine and copper light into his hands. A proto-conductor.
“For the plan,” Olive explained. “Hopefully, this thing works.”
* * *
Epsilon, who was always present in the room with Alpha and Leona, would always ask the same thing whenever Jericho came by: “Leo isn’t with you?”
“Maria is still with Veles,” Jericho answered Epsilon’s question this time just like he’d answered the question all the times before. “She will come soon.”
This time Jericho brought with him two bowls of scalding Käsespätzle. As usual, he threw one of the bowls hard onto Alpha’s lap. The bowl toppled over and spilled steaming cheese onto the man’s legs. Alpha did not flinch. Jericho did not care. While Epsilon rushed to clean up the mess, Jericho approached Leona with a readying spork. After situating himself beside her on his usual chair, he sporked out a bite of the Käsespätzle and held it out for Leona.
Leona remained in place and opened her mouth. Jericho popped the food into her mouth.
Leona chewed slowly, swallowed, stated: “It’s adequate.”
Jericho frowned slightly. Werner had worked hard on it.
“The Leonian princess was ‘assassinated’,” Jericho informed her as he prepared another sporkful for her. “They think the brother of the princess will push the king and queen to declare war. I know the Leonian princess has run from home, so intuition: the Leonian government is using this. Reason: unknown. To harvest vitae…?”
Leona closed her mouth and regarded him expressionlessly. “I see. How disappointing of Ilunaria. It’s expected but you would think that someone who’s going to be been bestowed the Leonian crown would be somewhat more dignified than the other ants. Rather than disappointing, I suppose it’s more correct to call it an ‘insult.’”
Jericho studied her and held out another sporkful of cheesy pasta. He needed to handle this now, he realized. He did not want to cause trouble for the others any longer—not after they had colored his canvas.
“They are using Ilunaria like they used Stelleona and Leonce,” Jericho said. “The 1630s. Massacre. The Golden Beast. It will repeat. Another Reservoir War. Almost, but different.”
Alpha chuckled suddenly. “I see my prediction was right. I did tell you that I knew everything, didn’t I? The 1630s, hm…? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
Leona shut her mouth, eyes narrowing at Jericho. “You should be careful. You may be a True Conductor and I may be allowing myself to be in this position but you test my patience with every action you take and ever word you speak—”
“What you did then. Me too,” Jericho said after a beat. “I did the same. I understand why you thought what you thought during that time. I think I do.”
Leona remained silent.
“I thought I was right,” Jericho continued. “And that they were wrong. The children who were in ELPIS with me. My friends, I think. I was upset that they wouldn’t listen to me—that they were doing the incorrect thing: over and over again. I was like you. Maria told me about it: your justification.”
“They were wrong.”
“When people are right, they don’t hide or lie,” Jericho said, thinking of Cadence. “They only do that if they know they are guilty or if they’ve done wrong.” He slowly turned to Alpha whose lap was still being tidied up by Epsilon. “But ‘guilt is a good motivator.’ You are better than people like him. People who do not feel that they are wrong or guilty. People who force others to do things—”
“Jericho, I’ve already told you…” Alpha smiled from the distance. “All this anger you’re directing towards me, all these concepts and ideologies that you’re attaching to yourself, and all these people you’re attaching yourself to, the affection they show you: they’re only temporary. In the case of your fellow True Conductors, they’re forced. So acting while spurred on by these temporary things… you’ll only become more and more unhappy.”
“Shut up.” Jericho glowered.
“‘Save the children’,” Alpha continued. “‘Show them mercy’ as Maria would say. What makes you think they want or need to be saved? Just because you’ve suffered doesn’t mean others have. Children are not as innocent as you think they are—though they are freer than adults.”
A faint hand touched upon Jericho’s shoulder. A voice whispered— “Calm yourself, Jericho. If necessary, you can attempt this another day.”
“Your actions were justified, Jericho,” Leona drew suddenly. “Those children—if you’re speaking of the ones you killed before you were taken into Ophiuchus—were beyond a point of saving. They might have tried to change, but they truly wouldn’t be able to. You would have only been disappointed in the end. There was no other way—”
“No, there was another way.” Jericho felt his brows furrow. His grip on the bowl tightened. “But I am not like Olive. I could not find it. Could not obtain it. True peace. Justice. Is that what the Knowledge Bearers tried to obtain but couldn’t?”
Leona studied him silently. The way she studied him reminded him of the way she had studied that ant on her finger while they stood in the yards of Ophiuchus together several months ago.
“Epsilon is right,” Jericho said. “You are not Leo. You are Araceli.” Forced. Tricked. “I see you.”
At Leo’s name, Epsilon perked up and looked over at them.
Leona’s jaw muscle tightened and her eyes narrowed. Then she turned away from him and closed her eyes. “How impudent.”
“I think that is a good thing. You remained strong. You stayed yourself,” Jericho stated. After thinking of Talib and Beni briefly, he asked, “Do you want to go back to Ophiuchus?”
Leona opened her eyes slowly. “What…?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Jericho admitted. “I have also been ‘chastised’ by the others for taking you. Maria was hurt. You were there. I didn’t want Maria to be found. I ‘panicked.’ But now that you are gone, there are problems. I don’t want to cause trouble for the others.”
“And yet you have,” Leona replied. “You expect me to move on from your traitorous actions and come along with you? Act as if nothing has been done? Have you not thought of people questioning what we’ve been doing this entire time?”
Betrayal. That was what Leona felt. She would rather feel betrayed than feel that she had failed. Disappointment in others over disappointment in herself.
“Alpha. The One. We can bring him back to Ophiuchus now,” Jericho reasoned, “and say that we have been searching for him this entire time. A lie: like the lie about what happened when you were onboard Maria’s ship. The lie in the newspapers.”
Leona’s gaze narrowed.
Jericho frowned, thinking of Werner, Francis, and Cadence. “No. Maybe not. Lying is—”
“You’ll hand over the person who’s responsible for putting you on your path of vengeance? The one who deceived you and the children you grew up with? Has your hatred of ELPIS faded that much?” Leona placed the questions before him one-by-one. “You’re at peace with letting him go like this?”
“No. He deserves worse punishment.” Jericho glowered at Alpha again who looked unaffected. Then he looked down at the cheesy noodles in his hands. “But, I… don’t think I should be judge, jury, and executioner. The other ELPIS Leaders that were with Alpha will still try to attack Ophiuchus. The children they have: they need help. This is the job of the ELPIS Department.”
Leona regarded him.
“But… I want to see him jailed. I want to walk him into that cell myself.” Jericho stared at Alpha before looking over at her. “So I can see him feel what I felt. To be trapped. Alone. I want to see if he will say the same garbage he says now after a couple of decades. If you will let me. I will keep your secret too.”
—that and he needed to fulfill his part of the plan.
Alpha shrugged. “I assure you that won’t bring you peace, but if you think that’s what your justice is then feel free to. I have time.”
Jericho shot up to his feet, nearly dropping the bowl of food—nearly throwing it at Alpha.
“And what of the other ELPIS Leaders who aren’t working alongside Alpha?” Leona inquired. “For instance—the ELPIS Leader whose residence we’re currently sitting inside?”
Jericho frowned and he shook his head. “Francis is not a bad person.”
“The scars that remain in the Twin Cities beg to differ—and that’s both before and after Theta’s arrival.” Leona studied him. “You’re being selective in your justice, Jericho. Your conducting may be like Libra’s but you don’t have her vision nor her lack of bias.”
Jericho couldn’t tell whether or not she sounded disappointed.
“Again I’m asked to forgive a grievous offense and to complete a favor.” Her gaze fell onto Jericho—her stare intense and molten gold. After a while, she looked away and let out a breath. “I’ll forgive this transgression of yours and think of our time here as a brief and sub-par vacation. We’ll leave within the hour. Now untie me.”
Jericho froze briefly before nodding. He slowly and carefully undid Leona’s bindings, while keeping an eye on her the entire time. Upon being released, Leona rubbed her wrists and rolled her arms until there was a pop. She then rose to a stand and slowly walked over to Alpha and Epsilon. Epsilon moved back slightly causing Leona to frown but she ignored him and came to a stop before Alpha.
“You’ve never looked so pathetic, Proteus. I pity you.”
“And I you,” responded Alpha.
* * *
For the first time in nearly a month, Jericho physically stepped out into open air. It felt nice. The air was warmer and more humid than it had been the previous month, and the birds were singing their morning song. The horizon just above the roof-lines of Oroslita blushed in shades of gold, red, and purple. Note: paint this scenery later.
Beside him stood Leona and beside her stood Alpha. The latter’s arms were bound at the wrist by two suppression cuffs and a potato sack had been pulled over his head. Leona meanwhile stood silently staring out at the cityscape as the sun began to rise over the rooftops. As the golden light reached them on the cobblestone street, she spread her arms and let the sunlight slide up her fingertips, dance up her arms, and touch her face. Her hair and eyelashes glowed in the heat.
Jericho felt a bit bad for Leona. She was not like him in this case: there was no one connected to her who shared fragments of the outside world with her while she was stuck in Francis’s room. As Jericho thought on her more, he realized that she did not seem like the type of person who would—
Lowering her arms, Leona said, “I’m going to bathe first.”
* * *
The train ride from Leo to Ophiuchus was long. Jericho spent his time using oil pastels Atienna had gifted him a while ago to recreate the scenery he’d seen in Oroslita. He could feel Leona’s gaze on him the entire time. Alpha remained quiet. The other passengers on the train were not quiet.
Every single compartment was filled with chatter: Cancer, Leo, Aquarius, Capricorn, Aries, Sagittarius, borders, assassination, tension.
“The stocks are crashing,” said one passenger. “I’m coming from the Twin Cities and—let me tell you—the city is in a damned panic.”
“I heard that Seamus Dolby tried to talk to the Aquarian premier but they kicked him out of the country…” said another.
“What are they going to do about this?” a passenger in the compartment just across from them scoffed loudly, eyeing both Jericho and Leona. “It’s their job to stop this kind of thing, isn’t it? I knew peacekeepers were useless.”
Jericho stared at the passenger in turn.
The passenger startled and turned away.
“All they can do is ask and ask,” Leona said in her native tongue.
* * *
The Grand Snake Station was more crowded than Jericho had ever seen before. Bodies pushing against bodies. Shouting over shouting. Clashing sounds, languages, words. Scrambling civilians and peacekeeping agents keeping them at bay. No space in-between them. It was difficult to squeeze past them all in the beginning, but the crowd parted as people began to register Jericho’s and Leona’s faces and armbands. The crowd’s shouting died to whispers as they eyed Alpha whom Jericho dragged behind them.
The Serpens Establishment was just as crowded. The front steps were dotted with agents and civilians: it almost looked as if bodies were flowing over the railings. Jericho was surprised that no one had fallen down the stairs yet. At least there would be someone to break their fall.
With difficulty, Jericho and Leona made it past the vitae-spectrophotometer screening process before entering the cool building. Inside was only slightly less crowded. Several peacekeepers who stated that they were from the Assignment Department stood at the center of the lobby and directed civilians to two main areas: the Licensing Department to vote and International Relationships ‘for concerns.’ Said Assignment Department agents quieted and exchanged looks as Jericho and Leona passed them with Alpha in tow.
“It’s the chairman…” one whispered.
“The elections are still going on,” Jericho stated. “Even when what is happening is happening. That is… odd?”
“Is it so surprising?” Leona replied, walking ahead of him. “Even at the climax of the Reservoir War, individual countries continued to hold elections and support candidates from countries outside of their own for political gain. The same held for wars before that.”
Eyes continued to be on them as they walked deeper into the building—whispers of fellow peacekeeping agents echoing alongside each step they took. Jericho searched the agents who passed him by for familiar faces: Alice, Gabrielle, Ferris, even Roberto. But he could not find them. Where were they?
As they passed on through the halls of the ELPIS Department, peacekeeping agents emerged from their desks and cubicles to ogle and stare. Relief, confusion, surprise.
“Chairman, Jericho—y-you’re back!” one of the peacekeepers approached them briskly. It was the second chair of the department. Marcella Amaretto. “What happened? We were almost about ready to submit a missing person’s report to the Assignment Department.”
Another peacekeeper pressed, “We thought maybe some saboteur of the election targeted you or maybe that…” She stared at Jericho.
Leona’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the agents. “What? Do you think that lowly of me and the person I selected as my vice chair?” Turning, she moved to pull the bag off from Alpha’s head.
Alpha blinked slowly as he appeared to adjust to the light. His gaze swept past Jericho, Leona, and the peacekeepers and drifted to the walls and halls. Then, he smiled. “Oh… No wonder it felt so familiar. I see the color scheme was kept.”
“Is that…?” one of the agents whispered.
“Alpha,” Leona confirmed, her gaze sweeping over them all. “Marcella, I need you to put all agents of the department on alert. Recall everyone who’s on a field mission. ELPIS is planning an attack on the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs and will most likely attack here as a means of distraction. The attack will most likely happen next week as the last round of the votes are cast.”
All the surrounding peacekeepers tensed, their raised brows becoming furrowed, their narrowed eyes widening.
“I would also like for you to announce to the public that I’ve successfully captured the ELPIS Leader Alpha who is responsible for the abducted children across the continent,” Leona continued. “Even in circumstances like this, publicity should be maintained. The one who wins this election will dictate the future of Signum.”
“Shouldn’t publicity be the vice chair’s job?” Marcella complained.
Leona studied Jericho. “No, I have business with my vice chair. Carry on.”
Alpha chuckled at Marcella’s deepening frown and offered a smile. “You don’t have to listen to her, you know? She isn’t what she seems.”
* * *
The ride down to the Black Constellation Detention Center was quiet save for the hum of the elevator as it glided downwards. Again, Jericho studied the light through the small slit between the doors. Light, dark, light, dark—no. The in and out reminded him too much of Werner’s condition on that night.
Jericho turned to his left to study Leona who was staring impassively straight ahead. He then turned to his right and stared at Alpha. The man was still smiling faintly, but as a slit of light passed over the man, Jericho saw something strange: a glistening streak of wetness trailing from the corner of the man’s eyes to his chin.
The elevator dinged.
Jericho looked ahead.
An unfamiliar dark hall unfolded before him. Glass panes were spaced evenly along the walls perfectly opposite to each other. In-between each glass pane was a familiar metal door. Behind the panes appeared to be rooms that were identical to one another. Inside each: a small bed in the corner, a metal desk along the wall, and a restroom area.
Jericho noted, “I have never been to this floor before. Intuition: this is new or very hidden. This is deep.”
“We’re at the pit of the detention center,” Leona explained, proceeding out of the elevator. Her heels click-clacked on the linoleum floor as the overhead v-lights buzzed above her.
“The pit?“ Jericho followed her out, looking into the cells. There were two men and two women in the closest cells whom he did not recognize.
“Where we keep other True Conductors,” Leona explained. “And where we started to temporarily hold ELPIS Leaders here for the maximum of two days until we can transfer them elsewhere for the safety of the peacekeepers and the True Conductors here—a lesson from Gamma’s escape last year. The cells here are fortified with insulation and material similar to the insulators used in suppression cuffs. This makes it difficult not only to conduct in general but also for True Conductors to communicate with people in their circle.”
Jericho stopped short, ignoring Alpha as the man crashed into him from behind. He found his gaze then drawn to the side. Sitting in the corner of the cell on his left was Hilton Tyler. He was curled up into himself, staring listless at the wall across from him. The food tray resting on the metal table in the room was empty, the food—slices of apple and crackers— all lined up in neat little rows on the floor.
Slowly, Jericho turned his attention to his right. There laying on her back at the center of the floor was Louise Bonnefoy. Her straw blonde hair looked dried and frayed, spreading out like sun rays around her head. Her gaze was fixated on the ceiling—her lips unsmiling. He could not tell if she was awake or not.
Jericho’s head buzzed as he suddenly felt the walls closing in around him. The ones in the cells were in the same position he had been.
A hand pressed against his arm. He turned at the touch. Werner.
Nodding, he slipped his hand briefly into his pocket. Brushing past four pieces of folded paper in there, he felt around. There: a familiar, cold metal disk. He slid it in-between his middle and index finger and walked forward to the glass behind which Louise resided. He pressed the same hand onto the window and then slapped it.
Ack! Saints—more subtle, detective! More subtle!
The disk stuck to the wall, and Jericho felt a familiar cold liquid spill out beneath his hand. A small barely visible burst of copper light seeped through his fingers a moment afterwards.
“They can’t see you,” Leona said. “But if you’re concerned, don’t be. They’re treated with care here. We’re not savages unlike so many others here.”
Heart hammering, Jericho formed his hand resting there into a fist. No stain. No disk-shaped conductor. Application: successful. Risk: present, but acceptable. He then stared into the cell. Now that he was closer he could see that Louise’s eyes were open. Open and wet. He felt his chest throb.
“No,” he disagreed, “it is more than that. I was in a similar place here. It is not enjoyable. You can’t see anyone, but everyone can see you. You are being watched. It is unpleasant. You are alone.”
He drew closer towards the glass, and the way the overhead v-light bounced off of it made it so that his reflection was captured on its surface—his reflection and the reflection of the other five. All in the distance, but all close and watching.
He was not alone.
Saints, detective, Cadence thought. I thought we’d have ta play a little bit of footsie to get access to this place and land the kid’s conductor here. Somethin’ about this doesn’t sit right with me. Call it paranoia or call it Scorpio. Too easy. Then again, that’s life sometimes, ain’t it? Too easy, too hard. Never in the middle.
We do need to maintain caution. Werner. A success at the beginning is not indicative of success at the end.
“This is also where Ilseong Jin died,” Leona continued, walking to an empty cell at the end of the hall, “although death itself is a temporary state.”
Jericho could feel Olive startle at this, and he turned towards Leona in surprise.
Leona beckoned for him. Jericho pulled Alpha along and joined her in front of the iron door there.
“Remove your clothing, Proteus,” Leona ordered. “There’s a fresh set waiting inside for you. You’ll be moved soon so don’t start getting comfortable.” She nodded at Jericho. “You can remove his suppression cuffs now.”
Jericho hesitated for a moment before glancing over Proteus’s shoulders and meeting Maria’s eyes. Nodding, he removed the cuffs and hooked them to his belt. Alpha smiled at this before slowly shedding his naval officer’s uniform. First went his dirty navy jacket, then his buckle, then his pants—
Okay, staring’s kinda weird, Jericho… Can we just… look away?
—and then his blouse.
Jericho’s eyes widened as he registered Alphas bare back and torso. The man’s entire front and back were threaded over with one long and intricate snake tattoo. It spiraled around his abdomen, its tail constricting his left arm and its head ending at his right wrist. Upon closer inspection, Jericho came to realize the snake was made up of many iterations of the word ‘ELPIS.’
Turning to Jericho, Alpha closed his eyes, peeled off his eyepatch, and dropped it on the floor. Humming to himself, he slowly opened both of his eyes. They were both intact. One brown, the other a pale gray.
Leona grabbed the ELPIS Leader by the arm before guiding him into the cell and shutting the door behind him. Alpha moved to the table inside where a new set of white clothing awaited him. He dressed himself quickly before taking a seat on the bed inside. After a pause, he turned in their direction. He smiled.
“Are you satisfied, Jericho?” Leona asked.
Jericho was satisfied he’d placed Francis’s gate covertly and successfully, but he was unsure of his satisfaction regarding Alpha. Alpha was a continued existence. Continuation. Unended. To continue doing the same things over and over again. Injustice. Reason: none.
“Saints—is that who I think it is? Welcome to the treasury, partner.”
Jericho perked up and turned to find Scorpio walking slowly towards them. The elevator was open behind him, its light accentuating his silhouette.
“Scorpio,” Leona acknowledged him.
“Leona.” Scorpio spread his arms as he approached. “It’s good to see you back, dear old friend. I was worried when you didn’t touch in for a month. I mean—here all of us chairmen are campaigning in Cancer, Leo, Capricorn, and the like, but there wasn’t even a whisper about any campaigning from you for an entire month! Surely you must have this election in the bag to not feel the need to put yourself out there anymore.”
Scorpio continued approaching them, stopping short in-between the cells containing Louise and Hilton. He cast a glance in Hilton’s direction and then in Louise’s direction. His smile became crooked.
Scorpio, however, continued forward, coming to a stop in front of Alpha’s cell beside them. He tapped the glass and peered inside. “What an irritatingly pitiable man. He wants nothing but wants everything. He claims to not care about us, but the way he’s using his vitae now mimics us. Love, worship, hatred, and disdain. Passion cycles these emotions quite easily. This is especially true in someone who’s hollow on the inside.” He glanced at Jericho. “Right?”
“I don’t understand the analogy,” Jericho answered honestly.
Scorpio merely chuckled. “Say— you were in a place like this when you were younger, weren’t you, partner? Right before that Shion Myosotis handed you over to Psychological Evaluations?”
“Shion Myosotis.” Jericho stared. “She gave me to Alice. She committed suicide ‘on paper.’” He paused. “Did you kill her? Did you… know she was—”
“A seemingly insignificant simple woman who proved rather significant,” Scorpio hummed, still tapping the glass. “What isn’t remembered obviously isn’t important though because you didn’t opt to hold it in your memory.” He turned to Leona. “By the way, the head chairman called for a meeting half an hour ago, so I’m surprised that you’re idling down here, Leona. Not as surprised as I am about you bringing my partner down here.” He eyed Jericho. “And why exactly are you down here?”
“I wanted to see him imprisoned,” Jericho answered. “The one.”
Scorpio chuckled. “Ah, seeing your passions through, I see—well, partially through at least. If only you could crumble him to dust, right?”
Jericho returned his attention to Alpha.
“But oh dear—you must abide by the rule of your first chair.” Scorpio chuckled, walking back to the elevator. He turned to face them as he leaned against the back wall. As the doors began to slide to a close, however, he extended his hand and held it open. “Aren’t you two coming along? Part of the discussion is election proceedings, so vice chairs have been invited too.”
Leona unfolded her arms, nodded at Jericho, and walked into the elevator herself. As Jericho followed the two into the lift, he threw one glance back at the glass widow of Louise’s cell. Confirmation: the gate had been placed.
* * *
The ride up the elevator was quiet. Jericho stood directly behind both Scorpio and Leona who stood side-by-side facing the elevator doors. Jericho was not sure whether the atmosphere was tense or awkward or something else.
When the elevator dinged, Scorpio and Leona stepped out. Jericho followed behind them before realizing he was now in the meeting room where the preliminary elections had been held. He watched as Leona and Scorpio took their places across from each other at the central oval table before scanning the area. Several first chairs were already present and seated including Seamus Dolby who flashed a charming smile at Jericho when their eyes met, Saddine Agwuegbo whose head was buried in his hands, Katharina Groth who studied Leona with a frown from the distance, William Saovàng who also stared at Leona with a grimace, and the head chairman himself who regarded Jericho without expression. Some vice chairs and other first chairs were clustered together in different corners of the room. Noted detail: most of them were staring at either Leona or at Jericho himself.
Jericho turned. Alice, Ferris, Nadinaline, and Gabrielle were conversing in the far left corner of the room. At the sight of them, he felt his chest lighten. He briskly paced towards them only to be met by Alice halfway there.
“Where have you been?” Alice asked calmly, gaze sharp and almost mindreading. “We were supposed to have specific sessions twice a week. You didn’t call.”
Jericho was somewhat caught off-guard. “Things ‘happened.’”
Alice clicked her tongue, eyes narrowing. “There is no complete resolution for that particular condition. No complete recovery. That’s why in the initial stages of ‘recovery’ having these sessions is especially important to target the source of the problem.”
Jericho’s heart skipped a beat. “I am sorry, Alice. Things happened. Out of control. One after another.” He dipped his head and thought of Maria. “I didn’t know what to do. I am sorry for not keeping in contact. Will he be okay?”
Alice studied him for a moment before she let out a breath. “Given what’s been happening this past week, I doubt any of us will be considered ‘okay’ in the end. ” She crossed her arms and studied the chairmen. “We can resume our sessions now that we’re in contact again—if we remain in contact.”
“Even at times like this, these practices shouldn’t be neglected,” Alice explained. “In fact, in times like these, these practices are needed more than ever.” After a pause, she whispered, “I was worried, Jericho.”
Jericho dipped his head again.
“That must’ve been one interesting elevator ride down,” came another voice.
Jericho looked up to see Gabrielle, Ferris, and Nadinaline approaching them.
“Leona decide to go on a sudden vacation?” Gabrielle continued, sliding her hands into her pockets as she stopped in front of them. “Or was this disappearing act for her campaign—for show?”
“Alpha,” Jericho replied, offering her a greeting wave, “we captured Alpha. Now, we are preparing for an ELPIS attack.”
“An ELPIS attack?” Nadinaline’s lips thinned behind her veil. “Now? In the middle of all of this…?”
Some of the other surrounding chairs and vice chairs quieted at Nadinaline’s whisper. Jericho did not pay them any mind but stared at the woman instead. Why was she here speaking with them? Was she now a part of Gabrielle’s circle? Jericho felt uncomfortable with this addition.
“In one week,” Jericho confirmed. “The department is preparing for it. I think you will hear about it soon.”
“Now, now,” Seamus called out suddenly, clapping his hands together, “let’s start this meeting, shall we? Let’s save the gossip circles for tea time. The head chairman took the time out of his day to arrange this, after all.”
The chairs and vice chairs who were standing around in circles slowly began to filter to their respective chairs. Reaching into his pocket and rubbing the four folded pieces of paper there, Jericho looked between Seamus and Alice, Gabrielle, and Ferris. Then, he moved forward and embraced all the latter three one-by-one. Simultaneously, he slid his hands into their suit and dress pockets and dropped the folded pieces of paper there. When he pulled back from his final hug to Alice, he found Ferris and Gabrielle staring at him
“I missed you,” Jericho tried.
When Gabrielle and Ferris continued to stare, Jericho winked at them. The action felt odd so he slapped a hand over the winking eye and turned away. He took his place behind Leona. This was when he noticed that each first chairman had a small envelope resting on the table in front of them.
The head chairman gave a curt nod once everyone was situated and all the first chairs proceeded to peel open the envelope and pull out the slender card inside. Jericho peered over Leona’s shoulder to read it.
99th Round of Election Results.
Psychological Evaluations Department: Talib Al-Jarrah – 1,545 votes
International Relations Department: Seamus Dolby – 1,088 votes
General Investigations: Gabrielle Law – 875 votes
ELPIS Investigations Department: Leona Gloria-Angelo – 870 votes
Conductor Regulation: Katharina Groth – 620 votes.
Reservoir Conservation Department: William Saovàng – 519 votes.
Conductor & Vitae Research Department: Moraeni Pōʻai – 421 votes
Commerce Regulation Department: Luca D’Angelo – 398 votes
Communications Department: Saddine Agwuegbo – 301 votes.
Assignment Department: Nadinaline Delacroix – 201 votes
Medical Department: Hårek Ohmdahl – 196 votes
Conductor & Vitae Research / Literary Department: Sera Aliz – 182 votes.
Ya know I’m not the greatest at math, came Cadence. But—I think this warrants a long night of drinkin’.
I can’t believe Gabrielle didn’t even come in second…came Olive’s incredulous thought.
Jericho blinked then glanced over at Alice and Gabrielle who both seemed grim and tense. Other chairs appeared disappointed, while more so looked relieved. Seamus Dolby continued to wear a smile.
“Well, look at that… I remember when you were in first place, Leona,” Scorpio noted, breaking the silence first, “and now you’re not even in third. I’m sorry to see that—especially since you’ve been working so hard on your cases this past month. Let’s see…” He scanned the room, before locking eyes with Gabrielle. “There are only 500 votes left to be tallied and even if another chair won all of them, the results wouldn’t change at all, would they…?”
“I suppose this means that I’ve… won?” Scorpio offered a sheepish smile. He offered a warm smile around the room. “This was a fair run, everyone. I know times are especially tense, but I promise you that I’ll guide us to a kinder and better future where we can all understand each other—”
“Well, I wouldn’t say 500 votes is all there is, Talib,” Seamus interjected suddenly, garnering the attention of everyone in the room. “There is a particular clause that exists that states that if there is more than one contender who has over 1,000 votes allocated to them, the other contenders with over 1000 votes can allocate their votes to another contender so long as 80% of those who voted for them agree on the contender’s candidate of choice—”
“What? That’s ridiculous.” First Chairman Katharina Groth frowned. “Cease this shameless obstruction—”
“But it’s true.” Seamus smiled. “You can check if you’d like, Katharina. It’s a thoughtful clause that exists in consideration for the second majority. And there’s even a clause that states that the candidate who received the donated votes can’t donate their votes to another—so it’s not a thoughtless clause.”
“What are you planning, Seamus…?” Nadinaline asked, voice denoting what seemed more like curiosity than contempt.
“If I petition successfully,” Seamus continued, smiling blindingly, “I would elect to donate my votes to Gabrielle.”
“What?” Gabrielle gawked.
Gabrielle would pull ahead just barely ahead of Scorpio then, Olive reasoned. This is good…. right? That guy is super annoying, but this is really good…?
Talk about playin’ up the dramatics. Cadence chortled. That’s my political douchebag.
With 500 votes remaining, there is a possibility that Scorpio will still win, Werner clarified. We shouldn’t celebrate yet. The next 500 votes will determine the end result— He paused. Wait—
“Well, if that’s the case,” Scorpio noted with a hand on his chin, “then I’ll just allocate my votes to Leona.”
The atmosphere in the room became thick and strange. All gazes flicked back and forth from Scorpio to Leona.
“I’m sorry to say, Gabe,” Scorpio drew, casting Gabrielle a sympathetic smile, “that I don’t have the faith in you that I used to. As the first chair of Psychological Evaluations, your recent behavior concerns me. In light of everything that’s been happening in this continent so far—I just don’t think you’ll be able to handle it properly.” He turned to Leona who sat stiff and still. “You wouldn’t mind if I handed over my votes to you, would you, Leona?” His smile became pleasant—almost Talib-like. “That wouldn’t hurt your pride—being given a victory—would it?”
Jericho moved to place a hand on Leona’s shoulder. He was not sure why he did it. Upon receiving stares, he removed his hand.
“The final result won’t be known until the final votes are in,” the head chairman interjected. “Therefore, let’s move on to the next more urgent topic on the agenda: the political tension between Leo and Aquarius.” He gestured to Seamus. “Seamus, if you will.”
“I’d be happy to.” Seamus continued smiling before gesturing to them all. “I’ve spoken personally and privately with the president of Cancer, the premier of Aquarius, and the monarchs of Leo just this past weekend. The Leonian throne claims that their search for the missing—runaway—Princess Ilunaria ended with them finding her mangled corpse in an inn near the Aquarian embassy in the country. They claim that hallmarks of a Yastreby assassination were found onsite and even provided pictures as evidence—which have surely hit the local papers by now—but they wouldn’t give my department or General Investigations access to the actual crime scene. The Leonian crown informed me that if the Aquarian government didn’t admit to the offense and make reparations for the alleged murder by an undisclosed deadline, they would move to drastic measures.”
Nadinaline exchanged a look with Hårek who sat across the table from her.
“The premier has denied the accusations, of course. And so, I offered to help launch an investigation using our department’s resources jointly with General Investigations.” Seamus nodded at Gabrielle who frowned. “But my proposal was shot down. My team and I are currently developing alternative paths to foster more succinct communication.”
Silence lapsed and stretched on thin and long.
Finally, Chairman Willian shook his head. “Despite all this, Capricorn and Aquarius still refuse to remove their joint training sessions away from Aquarius’s border with Sagittarius.” He frowned. “They refuse to de-escalate.”
“Why would they listen to the request of someone who’s tariffed them to hell and back?” Chairman Luca shrugged. “Sagittarius brought that onto themselves. Dragged Aries into it too actually—but the current Ariesian crown’s never been quite as effective as the previous crowns, have they?”
“Watch your tongue, Luca,” William interjected. “A first chair shouldn’t be making such blasé comments about another country in times like these.”
“Peacekeepers aren’t supposed to be attached to political ideologies and countries either,” Luca returned. “So I’m free to state as I please behind closed doors, aren’t I? You’re too uptight, Will. What? Are you upset about what I said about Aries?”
Jericho felt his stomach churn.
Scorpio leaned forward, lips dipping yet eyes glistening. “Well, I think at this point we shouldn’t be making plans on how to prevent war but on what to do once it’s begun—wouldn’t you say, Seamus?”
Seamus studied him, the corner of his lip twitching.
The elevator dinged again.
Jericho turned to see an unfamiliar peacekeeping agent walk in. The peacekeeper tensed as he looked around the room before his face brightened as he registered Seamus. Seamus seemed to recognize the man too because he gestured him forward. The peacekeeper obeyed, handing Seamus a slender envelope before Seamus sent him back up the elevator with a wave and a pleasant smile.
The room remained silent as Seamus opened the envelope and read the contents of the letter inside. After a couple minutes, Seamus let out a long and quiet sigh before he closed his eyes. Wordlessly, he handed the letter to William who sat to his left.
William looked around the table before scanning the letter himself. His face became pale and he would not meet anyone’s eyes as he handed the letter to Katharina beside him. Katharina’s expression remained stolid throughout her entire reading of the letter. She too handed the piece of paper over. Katharina’s and William’s vice chairs took several steps back and exchanged shaken looks.
Slowly the letter continued around the room: handed off in grim silence. When the letter reached Nadinaline, Ferris who stood behind her gasped, scanned its contents over her shoulders, and then pressed her hand over her mouth. She leaned in close to Nadinaline and whispered something almost desperate into the woman’s ear. Nadinaline nodded slowly in response. Ferris detached from the women’s side in turn and darted to the elevator. A moment later, she was gone.
When the letter passed into Gabrielle’s hands, Gabrielle grimaced, slammed her fist into the table, before passing the letter on over. Scorpio, on the other hand, didn’t even glance at the letter when it reached his hand and passed it down the chain.
Finally, the letter came into Leona’s hands. Jericho looked over her shoulder to read it.
Joint Resolution Between the Cancerian Republic and the Kingdom of Leo
This past week on May 26th of the year 1942, the Leonian princess Ilunaria Solnaciente was found dead in an inn on Leonian soil near the Aquarian embassy. Clear evidence was found that this murder was done at the hands of Aquarian’s infamous spy organization, the Yastreby.
As the princess was to be wed to the Duke of House Lune in this year’s winter, this assassination has been viewed as an attack on both the Leonian crown and the governing body of Cancer. The Crown of Leo demanded communication with the Aquarian governing body by June 1, 1942, but received no answer. Given the country of Aquarius’s past deeds in the past two decades, including alleged mishandling of modified conductors and its disregard for the borders of sovereign countries, it is believed that these transgressions will not end here and it is deemed that the Peacekeeping Organization of Ophiuchus has not and will not handle this danger effectively.
Therefore, to protect the sovereignty and safety of our nations, on this day June 5, 1942, the Cancerian Republic and the Kingdom of Leo mutually declare war on the Aquarian Union.
A/n: Sorry for the late chapter. Dealing with some things™ and mini crises™—I’ve decided to pursue another bachelor’s degree simultaneously along with my master’s degree. No boom-boom action this chapter but hey we have war \o/. I also wanted to thank the people who were supportive on twitter recently after a mini-crisis. I really appreciate all of your tweets and responses and they live eternally in my head. Also thank you to the people who’ve donated over these past few months too o/. And thanks for reading! After the next chapter, we are heading into the finale!!