27.0: Peaje Silencioso: Insiders & Outsiders [ ]

Re-cap:

War brinks.

In preparation for their plan against the saint candidates, the main six have reached out to potential allies. In the week preluding the ELPIS attack on Ophiuchus, they…


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“What do you think they’ll name their alliances this time?” 

Scorpio’s words echoed through the black marble meeting chamber. 

Leona found his voice grating and ear-splitting even though he sat a far two seats down from her at the other end of the black table. Only one of the other seated four seemed to share her sentiment, however. The rest calmly sipped their glasses of wine.

Despite one of their members leaving since they’d last had a full meeting in the chambers, the number of those attending remained the same. This was because they had gained another member in the meanwhile. Cancer now sat in the place Taurus once occupied across from Leona. 

“Nothing to say, Flannery?” Scorpio cast a glance at Libra who sat across from him.  “Or are you thinking about Taurus again? I truly believed you would have gone after her.” He tutted. “I should have known. It’s much easier for you to just sit back, idle by, and call it ‘allowing free will’, isn’t it?” 

“Taurus isn’t interferin’ with the natural flow of the people, is she? I have no reason t’chase after her,” Libra answered. “Yer a different story.”

Scorpio smiled politely, knitting his fingers together beneath his chin as he leaned forward on the table. “…So you keep saying, but I have never crossed the free will clause. And I’ve been here the entire time. I mean—I did have an election to take from someone who didn’t deserve winning, didn’t I?”

Leona remained impassive.

Scorpio glanced at her. “Oh. I was referring to Gabrielle, Leona, since… she did have more votes than you.” He turned his attention to Cancer sitting quietly beside him. “How do you feel touching base just in time to see the start of another war, Cancer?”

“You think I would be happy about it? Of course not… but if it’s what the people want then….” Cancer fidgeted in place. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be here. My president has called for my audience…” 

Cancer had always been hopelessly faint-hearted, Leona thought. Always wore their heart on their sleeve. She’d frequently questioned their dedication to the syzygy, though she knew putting too much faith in the people always led to disappointment.

“Well, of course.” Scorpio pulled back. “My head of state called me back for a meeting as well. They’d rather ask someone to tell them what to do so they have someone to blame when things don’t go their way.” He gestured to Leona. “It’s only natural—wouldn’t you say, Leona?”

He doesn’t know, Leona reassured herself. As usual, he was merely observing and picking apart anything that stumbled into his all-seeing gaze in that half-concerned, half-vehement way of his. She admired his passion—but the fact that he abandoned all of his pride while following through with it was something she’d always found distasteful. 

“You must have a lot of concern for the ants on the ground,” Leona answered evenly, “to be constantly bringing this topic up.”

“Well, I do love and care for my people,” responded Scorpio.I suppose that’s where you and I differ…” He waved a dismissive hand. “Anyways, none of the other countries will probably make any drastic movies until Capricorn, Aries, and Sagittarius all fold—which could happen any day now.” He reached out and plucked his glass of wine from the table. “Our head chairman certainly has his work cut out from him but that responsibility will soon be passed on.” He raised it. “The syzygy and ‘mercy’—it’s right around the corner.”

Pisces, who had been keeping quiet up until that point, moved to lift his glass. Cancer glanced at him and raised his glass too. Scorpio followed suit. Finally, Libra also joined in. Eventually, Leona lifted her glass as well.

A clink resounded as the lips of their cups met.

Scorpio took a long sip before saying, “I’ve heard Gemini’s leaders are planning on baptizing them too since their reservoir is looking more up to par than before.” He stared into his cup. “I wouldn’t say Gemini is the most reliable, but at least they show up unlike Virgo. At least they don’t neglect their duties without notice… right, Leona?” 

“The department I run is the ELPIS Department,” Leona answered calmly. “My task is to shut down ELPIS in whatever shape or form it takes—especially if they continue to act against the free will clause. Watch your tongue and open your eyes, Scorpio—”

“Oh my. No one asked for a speech, Leona.” Scorpio chuckled. “Though, honestly, the silly little things Alpha is doing is helping to move the syzygy forward… so you could have just let him go. In fact, you can say that you’ve actually stalled the syzygy just by a bit by not letting him run loose—not that his capture really matters now that his followers are planning to stumble their way in here. Isn’t that what free will is all about? Stumbling along blindly?”

Leona shook her head.“Scorpio, Alpha’s main goal was to bring Ophiuchus back into being.”

Scorpio’s smile thinned while Libra took another sip of her wine.

Finally, Scorpio chuckled. “Oh…? Alpha’s a perfect example of not practicing what you preach—” 

“It’s the steps he may take t’try and achieve that goal that’re dangerous,” Libra interjected. “The wayward footfalls of a man walkin’ on a narrow path towards a blindin’ goal can lead to a lot of trampled flowers. Ya did good prioritizin’ him, Leo—”

“I don’t need your confirmation on that matter,” Leona said. “I wouldn’t invest my time in things that are worthless endeavors.” 

“Well, I apologize for my misspeak then,” Scorpio replied, placing a hand on his chest. “I am glad my partner is somewhat satisfied with the end result of your endeavors. Oh, how was spending that long month with Jericho by the way, Leona? You’re not telling me you spent that month with him without developing a soft spot, are you? He is quite endearing.” 

Cancer looked up.

“He did as I told him to and served his role as my vice chair—” 

“You let him below the detention center,” Scorpio interjected. “Is that a task you gave him as vice chair too?”

“He wanted to see Alpha imprisoned with his own eyes,” Leona countered evenly. “The culmination of his life’s work. A show of his pride.”

“Or… a show of your bias,” Scorpio added. He gestured to Libra. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Libra turned and met Leona’s gaze. Leona held it.

“There are other True Conductors down there,” Scorpio continued.There may be people in Jericho’s circle who are indifferent and apathetic much like several of us here—” He eyed Libra “—but there are a few bleeding hearts among them—I even helped one become more in tune with that. Your Leonian mistake happens to be one of them.”

“Jericho informs me that she is disarmed quite literally at the moment,” Leona interrupted. 

“He told you that…? Well, Jericho also happens to be a bleeding heart—though it’s not in the way people typically think. So—” 

“You think he would dare go against us,” Leona drew, “despite all the different pawns, eyes,  mediums you claim to be keenly watching everywhen and everywhere? Do you have any evidence or just vague recollections from your distant mediums?”

“You were the one who suggested giving True Conductors a little taste of this false freedom, so having a problem with my mediums is an extension of having a problem with your own decision, isn’t it?”

“Your mediums still have difficulty identifying True Conductors unlike True Conductors themselves.”

Silence.

This spar with Scorpio was getting tiring. 

“He was my partner before he became your pseudo-Epsilon,” drew Scorpio. If there’s anything about him I know for certain, it’s that once he deems something as wrong, he will pursue what he views as justice relentlessly.”

“Your suspicions are insulting.”

“So some may think, but are they ever wrong?”


(   )

If dealing with the Sagittarian royals taught Olive anything, it was that he was lucky to have only one sibling. That and he was lucky to have a sibling whose ratio of sour to sweetness was 25 to 75. All of Claire’s half-siblings seemed to have it flipped. 

The Sagittarians–Claire included–had spent nearly the entire length of their Ophiuchus-bound train arguing inside Francis’s rooms. It was ridiculously petty stuff–accusing each other of putting poison in each other’s teas, of coveting the throne, of unjustly jailing each other’s clan members. Okay–so maybe it wasn’t petty stuff, but no one admitted anything so the conversations just went in circles.

Olive had thought that after seeing and feeling everything he’d experienced during the Week of Blindness, the Sagittarians would be a little bit more forthcoming and willing to work together–but he realized that was stupid and naive again. It seemed as if years of grievances and wrongdoings couldn’t be wiped away by a brief moment of harmony.

He tried to intervene at several points during their heated arguments even though Cadence pressed him to remain neutral. When Mai and Trang started coming for Claire’s character with jabs like ‘you’re a fox’ and ‘you’re a selfish cretin’, Olive found himself interjecting with things like ‘it must run in the blood then’ and ‘is this what they call projecting?’

He took breaks from dealing with all of the drama by moving into one of Francis’s other rooms and focusing on tinkering with his newly-developed conductors. Two of his conductors were in active play in Werner’s plan. No–two of them were serving as the cornerstone for Werner’s plan. It made Olive nervous, but Werner seemed to have full-confidence in him. That was–after Werner had asked about all sorts of probabilities and measurements: mechanical failure, manner of activation, radius of activation. Still, the belief was there. And that made Olive both happy and nervous. 

Olive fiddled not only with the conductors that were being implemented in their plan, but he also messed around with the mechanical arm proto-conductor he’d been working on since the beginning of the year. He still felt completely under-qualified to even be attempting to make something like this. Thankfully, Nico had been lending him a hand whenever they briefly crossed paths in one of Francis’s rooms. Unsurprisingly, the man knew a lot about human anatomy—highlighting how little Olive knew about it himself. Nico was always gentle in his corrections, however, and frequently laughed for seemingly no reason. Like Cadence, he seemed to be amused by the weirdest things. But unlike Cadence, Nico’s thoughts were not readily available to Olive. It was a bit disorienting—feeling trust towards someone he couldn’t quite read.

One day, Nico asked, “You’re makin’ this because of Gilbert, right? That’s a really honorable thing. I’m sure you know this already, but Werner talks about you sometimes. He’s really proud of you and grateful for you too.”

Olive flushed despite himself. 

“I… actually started because of Gilbert,” he mumbled after a stretch of silence fueled by embarrassment, “but I want it to be used by everyone who needs it…” He ruffled the back of his hair. “Assuming that I ever get it to work.”

Nico regarded him for a moment as if in surprise before offering a smile. 

* * *

When Olive entered the room where the Sagittarians were holed up a day later with Derik, he found Claire, Eunji, and Arjun beginning to undo the bindings of their siblings. Upon noticing Olive, Claire waved and paced over to him.

“Sorry, Ollie.” Claire said, pulling close and offering an almost frown. He placed a hand on Olive’s shoulder. “It’s not going to work out in the way we want…”

As Claire explained—the end result of all that shouting between the Sagittarians was less than what Olive had hoped for. Most of the royals wanted no part in the rescue operation. Olive figured that the news about war declarations had pretty much smoldered any of the fiery passion his memories had sparked—and that hurt. Trystan and Marta were both more than that. More than the… persuasion piece that he was using them as. More than tools. 

Despite all of this, the Sagittarians did come to a singular agreement. They would temporarily put a hold on their succession war and their goal of dunking Arjun into the reservoirs.  If Arjun was relieved by this fact, he didn’t show it—no, at the moment he continued calmly freeing his siblings from their bindings. 

On the other hand, Olive found himself tentative of putting his full trust in this agreement. Distrust seemed to be mutual as Claire soon explained that several of the royals intended to watch their actions ‘from afar’ to ensure that Claire didn’t shove Arjun into a reservoir and claim the throne for himself. 

Seriously? Even if they were at the brink of war and after learning the truth about vitae, they still were pissy about the crown? 

“They’re basically just settling on watching to see how things play out,” Claire finished. 

“They’re talking about you not being trustworthy,” Olive muttered, scanning them. “but you’re the most trustworthy person here—”

“Aw, Ollie—”

“What? That’s not saying much.” Olive crossed his arms and side-glanced at him. “Anyways, what about you?”

“What about me?”

Olive peered at him. “Are you going to do the ‘watch from afar’ thing too?”

“Oh, Ollie, I already told you. Arjun and I are in for the ride.” Claire flashed a smile. “I mean, you basically fulfilled your end of our bargain.” His smile thinned. “And I’m very interested in the portion of your plan that involves saint candidates. Plus being at the epicenter of a major soon-to-be catastrophe like this is just me practicing how to become ruler of my country. Catastrophe is around every corner. We need to learn how to deal with it.”

After scoffing and offering Claire a mocking shoulder pat, Olive eyed Mai who was still bound alongside her vassals and brother. He moved towards her with Derik tailing behind him. Some of Mai’s vassals grunted at him warningly. He did everything in his power to resist rolling his eyes at them. Didn’t help much when Derik started grunting at them back. 

Ugh. 

Holding his tongue, Olive watched as Claire moved to untie Kaworu. He then moved to untie Mai himself.

“We shouldn’t have been surprised by this outcome,” Mai started under her breath. “The Aquarians truly have no sensibility. They only know how to cause chaos for others. I assume the Capricornians—”

Derik sneered.

“—are going to stand with them on this. The careless troublemakers of Signum.”

“It’s the Cancerians and Leonians who declared war, you know,” Olive muttered. “I’m not justifying any of them, but… holding grudges doesn’t help in all this.” He thought of Jericho. 

As usual, Mai didn’t snap back. Instead, she asked calmly, “Prince Chance, am I correct in assuming that Aries will side against Aquarius on this? Aquarius has close ties with Capricorn, and Capricorn was responsible for your assassination attempt—”

“What…? I… don’t know…” Olive grumbled, now somewhat irritated. “Does who siding with who even matter? The kings and queens and rulers and presidents and all the other people on top probably just want to harvest more vitae for the reservoirs. The what—not the who—is probably what matters to them the most…” He looked away and made eye contact with Claire as he untied the last knot. “… and if someone in that kind of position values things like that, then the people are basically….” He shook his head. “Anyway, if our plan works then this conversation might be pointless.”

Louise. 

 Mai rubbed her wrists and moved to free Kai. “That is exactly what everyone used to say in 1911 before the war broke out.”

Olive grimaced.

Trang added, “How do you think other countries will react when they find out Cancer is making false accusations like you’re implying—especially if all they want are more reservoirs?”

Olive crossed the room and came up behind Trang. She glowered at him before glaring at Derik who had followed him. Olive ignored her and untied her knot.

Olive! Look out—

As soon as Trang was free, she lunged at Olive and pinned him to the ground. 

“Do you really expect to lay a hand on my vassal and attempt to abduct me without consequence?” she hissed, nails digging into her shoulders. 

Derik started forward instantly, but Claire arrived first, whipping out his staff-conductor and pointing it at Trang’s back.

“Trang!” Mai snapped from across the room. “Use your head! That’s the Ariesian prince!”

“Use my head…?” Trang’s eyes narrowed. “You’re the ones who aren’t—”

Now.

Olive used the opportunity to knee her in the stomach. When she stumbled backwards, he gave her a kick in the chest that sent her flying right back into Claire’s arms. The two half-siblings struggled for a bit before Trang shoved Claire away. Soha and Felix who were coming up behind him caught him, while Trang backed away and lifted her hands in a peaceful gesture.

A now free Kaworu sighed and fanned his face with his hand. “It’s called diplomacy, Trang. If you can’t understand that, then you truly are unfit.”

Diplomacy.” Trang shook her head. “It’s more like handing away the opportunity for the throne. Don’t tell me that any of you think for one minute that the person who wins the crown won’t save their own clan and send all the others out to die when Sagittarius gets dragged into the war.”

A stretch of silence answered her. 

“Trang,” Claire said evenly. “The solution is simple. The person ascending just needs to keep Sagittarius out of the war or abolish the clan system. Alternatively, we stop the war from escalating. All options are good if you ask me.”

“The person ascending, hm?” Kai arched a brow.

Claire offered a genial smile and a shrug.

Trang regarded Claire impassively. “Are you sure you’re the one who should be speaking about clan loyalties and country loyalty?”

Saints.

Olive felt the need to invest in earplugs. 

* * *

It took a while to get the Sagittarians all reboarded on the train. They all still seemed to be rather baffled by Francis’s gates and conducting. Olive was surprised the novelty hadn’t worn off yet. 

He was the last to board and just barely managed to catch sight of Kaworu departing. The Hoshin Clan Prince left behind two vassals—ticketless—as his ‘eyes.’ Trang opted to stay herself despite Arjun bringing up the fact that she also didn’t have a ticket. Mai and Kai seemed to depart immediately without any warning.

Frankly, Olive was happy to be rid of them. Too much family drama, and they wanted to take more than they gave. Though, Olive supposed he was asking for too much too. 

Just as he was finally re-settling down into his compartment booth with Derik, Claire, Arjun, Lyrs, and Eunji, however, Kai suddenly appeared beside their booth.

“Hey, kids. I just have a couple last things to say before I go,” Kai explained with a laugh.

Olive wasn’t sure what to think of Kai. He’d only come across him maybe three or four times before. Kai gave off the impression that he was less pressed and strict than Mai and Trang. But appearances were deceiving. 

“First—it was really good to see you again, Arjun.” Kai bowed his head in Arjun’s direction. “Despite Ma’s attitude, I think she was glad to see you.”

Olive resisted rolling his eyes. Despite her attitude? Did he mean her trying to abduct Arjun to dunk him in the reservoirs? Then again, Olive supposed Claire and him weren’t too much different from that a week or so ago. That and they’d done some abducting outside of that too. What the heck was happening to his moral compass? 

Arjun bowed his head back. 

Then Kai turned his attention to Olive and Claire. “Do you mind if we talk in private for a moment?”

Olive and Claire exchanged looks. Olive nodded first, then Claire reflected the nod. As they got up to follow Kai down the hall, Derik rose as if to follow. Olive held him back with a placating hand on the chest. After some sneering and a not-so-vague threat aimed at Kai, Derik sank back into the booth.

Olive followed Kai into a private room at the end of the compartment with Claire. Kai held the door open for them and shut it slowly behind him after they’d all entered.

 “You two must be very proud of yourselves,” Kai drew, turning, “thinking that you have managed to pull those many years older than you into the fold of your hand.”

Great. It was one of these conversations.

Claire spread his hands and smiled. “What’s this about coming into folds of hands? We just came closer together as a family, didn’t we?”

Kai chuckled. “Come on. It’s not like we can’t see you trying to manipulate us with how we feel about our siblings and our people. You both are still very young. Sometimes it can be hard for you to sorta grasp the complexities that motivate others in the world out there. Your words and motivation are just a tool for other people to use as their own tools for their own agenda. Speaking of youth, I’d question the sensibility of any adults who approve of you two participating in this plan you have here.”

Okay. That was a little rude.

“What about you then? And what’s your agenda?” Olive returned, meeting Kai’s eyes. “Did you just come in here to make some sort of demeaning, self-righteous speech?”

Kai chuckled. “Well, that’s a ballsy thing to say for someone who just abducted a handful of Sagittarian princes and princesses. But I guess ignoring status has got you to this point so far.” He glanced  at Claire. “Maybe we should be doing the same.”

Claire smiled irritatingly. “Ollie certainly is unique. Anyways, you’re just worried about us, right? Thanks for keeping an eye out.”

Kai reflected the smile, and they held each other’s gazes.  

“You should be careful, Claire,” Kai said in the language of the Seong clan. “From what I’ve seen, the people around Prince Chance seem to quite literally go up in flames. I’m worried for you.”

Claire’s smile fell. He replied in the language of the Xing Clan, “Kai, I’m know how to take care of myself. I can’t help but think that you saying this is an insult towards my decisions and choice. It’s also an insult to my friend and ally, and I don’t take those types of insults lightly. What kind of character would I have, if I did?” He smiled again. “I do appreciate the brotherly concern though. Makes me feel loved. Oh—and Olive understands everything we’re saying.”

Kai startled—fake—glancing at Olive. “Oops. Forgot again.” Common. He headed towards the door. “That’s a sign I should make my exit. See you around.”

A sense of unease crept up Olive’s shoulders as he watched Kai exit the room. A distracting flash of black hair abruptly fluttered in the corner of Olive’s eye. Upon turning, he registered Lavi phasing into existence beside him. He hadn’t seen her in a while so he was both relieved, surprised, and uneasy. Whenever things escalated, she seemed to run off somewhere. 

Lavi crossed her arms and stared at Kai’s disappearing back. “Are you being bullied again, Ollie? Or are you bullying?” 

“Neither,” Olive grumbled. 

Claire sighed. “Sorry about Kai. He can be weirdly critical out of the blue sometimes.” He moved towards the door. 

Olive stared at Lavi. “Wait, Claire…”

Claire paused.

“You left me in Die Hauptstadt last winter.”

Lavi turned. 

Claire’s smile faltered slightly as he faced Olive. “I thought we got over that already. I did say I was sorry, didn’t I? There were things going on… Well, there are still things going on, but running away didn’t work so well last time, so—”

“What?” Arching a brow, Olive held up a hand. “Why do you automatically jump to defending yourself whenever I say something? It makes you seem suspicious.”

“I mean…” Claire gestured at him. “Can you blame me…?”

Lavi tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Well…”

Olive sighed in annoyance. “What I’m saying is… if you need to run away again, then do it.”

What?! Cadence neared immediately, synchronizing just enough so that Olive could see her apparition. She noticed Lavi and waved. Oh—been a while, kiddo.

Lavi reflected the gesture with a beam.

Cadence returned her attention to Olive. Kid, we need all the people we can get right now. Don’t get rid of—

I know. Olive squirmed internally. But what’s the point of having allies if they just…

Claire stared. “What…? Is it because of what Kai said? Aw, Ollie, you don’t have to—” 

Olive held up a hand again. “Claire, look at what’s happened to everyone who’s even been remotely near me—”

“Hey now. There’s a bit of a difference here. We’re in the same boat, Ollie. I’m a prince too. I’ve lost people. I’m also a True Conductor—”

“Yeah, obviously.” Olive sighed. “But you don’t have a…” He cast a glance in Lavi’s direction. “A saint candidate by your side, do you?” 

A good luck charm. Or a c—no. 

Claire opened his mouth.

“Look. I’m not trying to be cool or dramatic or cliché…” Olive crossed his arms. “And I’m not saying to ditch me either. But… there’s being brave and then there’s being stupid. And I know you’re anything but stupid—most of the time. So… just keep doing what you’ve been doing best: making the most of things smartly.”

Claire placed a hand on his hip and sighed. “I’ve almost died once already. It’s not going to happen again. And even if I somehow choose your life over mine, that’s still countered by the fact that I’d choose the people in my circle over your life—so don’t worry about it.”

Olive regarded him—

“Still—aw. Thanks for worrying about me. Is it me or have we grown super close recently?”

—then he scowled.


Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

The AAC gaggle was thinning as members started leaving Polovinastadt left and right. If circumstances were different, Cadence would’ve viewed this as a good thing—less candy in the bowl for the saint candidates to grab. The circumstances of that thinning, however, weren’t so peachy. After all—nothing ever good came out of a letter addressed to a person from their country’s respective capital. 

The letters came in like flowers mailed to an Ophiuchian Way actress. Nonstop. Letters arrived, people departed. Some didn’t even bother to open the letters before leaving—Cadence figured it was because they already knew what the letters were going to be about. 

That aside, if the AAC investigation was ‘glacial’ before, now it’d come to a complete stop. The peacekeeping agent Otto Erindt met with Cadence—Cadence Waltz, she’d now deemed herself whenever she was in Werner’s guise—Gilbert, Nico, Knovak, and Kramer privately to inform them that their AAC investigation case was on indefinite hiatus. He only asked for them to remain on standby before leaving on a train to Ophiuchus. 

Their lacky, dutiless AAC investigation squad didn’t stand by long though because—lo and behold—letters came for all of them too. Knovak’s and Kramer’s came first, and they departed with a not-so-cryptic parting of ‘see you soon.’ Gilbert’s letter came next and he left on a train to the Capricornian capital with Greta since she’d received one too. He glared through Cadence’s disguise and gave her a rough pat on the shoulder before he left—a warning and a promise combined.

Soon it was just Cadence, Nico, the locals, and a few remaining AAC members—including the leaders. Constanza and Matthias invited Cadence in for one last ‘meeting’ before they followed through with the letters they had received simultaneously just two days before. The two for once did not reek of chlorowheat. They sat across from Cadence with the sort of expressions that reminded her of someone mentally preparing themselves to run a marathon. They still didn’t know the link between Dieter and Cadence herself, but Cadence supposed that was fine for now.

She had already slipped them the proto-conductors they needed to make an escape with their families. Their group’s only part of the plan was to take care of themselves and run when the signal was given—save for Seamus, Lyrs, and Veles. Seamus instead had opted to remain seated in Ophiuchus, while Veles and Lyrs were more heavily involved in the plan–the latter less eagerly so than the former.

“This is it, Dieter,” Matthias finally said. “This is the beginning of another two decades of—”

“Come on, Matthias,” Cadence reassured him since she felt a bit bad, “It’s only been a one-sided declaration so far and no one’s attacked anyone yet. I’m sure Ophiuchus’ll take care of it. And if not, we have the whole movement here to protest against this bullshit.”

Constanza glanced over her shoulder and chuckled with a headshake. “What’s the point of protesting when we’re not the ones waging the war?”

They left a day later on opposite-bound trains.

Then it really just was Cadence and Nico. On most mornings when Cadence assumed they were under the watchful eye of Scorpio, she sat together with Nico on the porch deck of the town’s sole bar and waited for the sun to set. Spring hadn’t done much to do away with the snow—ground was still frozen solid. It did bring with it a bit of splattered sunshine through the leaves and branches of the surrounding trees. 

“Are ya scared, Nico?” Cadence asked two days after the war declaration.

“Naturally, yeah,” Nico admitted before smiling slightly. “Why? Do you want me to reclaim my title as crybaby Nico?”

Cadence chortled. “Well, playin’ that character might help ya with a thing or two. Ya know that type of character is irresistible ta certain types of people—if ya know what I mean.”

Nico frowned. “Hey—”

“Anyway. Do ya remember any bit of the war, Nico? The Reservoir War.”

Nico shrugged. “No, not really.” He smiled wryly. “My dad said it was good for his profession though. Said he was happy to be able to help that many people.”

Cadence resisted shivering. “That’s the doc for ya.”

They sat in silence for a while. 

“So,” Nico drew, “what are you going to do if you… find Alma?”

Cadence’s heart—as always—fluttered at the sound of her name. Then she thought of Kent, Lita, the other children, Maria. “Depends. I’d like ta give her a place ta stay while all this blows over, but if she ain’t treatin’ the kids right, then…” She shifted in place then spread her hands out.

Nico reached out and gave one of her hands a confirming shake.

Soon Nico’s letter came too, and he left the afternoon of its arrival. And then Werner’s letter arrived. Cadence didn’t open it—not out of lack of care but out of principle. As unresolved as it was, she was glad this AAC thing was done and over with. AAC, the chlorowheat dens, the Scorpio shenanigans—just bad memories.

* * *

(   )

Cadence liked to consider herself a social butterfly. A delicate thing that needed the pollen of entertaining people to get by—though Atienna had told her the metaphor didn’t really fit right. Empty Polovinastadt was devoid of people and even the only bar there had closed since some of the locals had been recalled to their capitals too. It was just straight-down depressing in more ways than one. Cadence therefore eagerly looked forward to returning home—to Francis’s rooms. But—recently things had been dead there too.

However, when Cadence stepped from her room at the inn in Polovinastadt into Francis’s room the night of Nico’s departure, she was immediately met by Francis—who shoved a small pink box wrapped in red ribbon into her hands.

“Er—what’s this?”

Francis merely smiled. 

Aw, Francis, ya didn’t have to.” Cadence chortled, shaking the box by her ear. “It’s real sweet of ya though. I’m touched.”

 “Matters like this should not be forgotten—especially in times like these,” Francs murmured. “In fact, it is during these times that they must be remembered the most—”

“Right, right.” Cadence hummed, giving the ribbon a tug.

Carl and Allen entered the room at that moment. While Allen proceeded to the long couch in the corner and lit himself a v-cig, Carl stopped short of the entrance and ogled the box in Cadence’s hand. 

“Shit….” Carl grimaced. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Your birthday’s in June? I thought it was in July or somethin’.”

Cadence knew that Carl had forgotten and she didn’t mind it, but messing with Carl was too tempting. So— “I mean, I told ya a couple times,” she said, ruffling the back of her head. “I get with all the stuff ya got goin’ on, you’re busy. It’s easy ta forget—”

Carl frowned. “Hey don’t be pullin’ that guilt-trippin’ shit on me and me only.” He jutted his chin out to Allen. “Allen didn’t get you anything either—”

“That gift is from Fortuna, Francis, and me,” Allen interjected. He nodded at Cadence. “Kept the receipt if you want to return it—”

“Why the hell didn’t you include me?” Carl snapped. He turned to Francis, paused, then swiveled to Allen. “What’s the big idea?!”

“You didn’t chip in.” Allen shrugged.

“I thought you were planning on gifting her separately, Carl,” Francis said, placing a hand to his chin. “I’m sorry for not reaching out to you. If we have learned anything in these passing months, it’s that transparent communication and trust are the bedrock to understanding and respect. Love can only be carried so far by a lie… Although perhaps the strength of enduring love can be tested in the face of a lie and faltering communication.”

“Er… right…” Carl rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, well…”

There was a stretch of silence—a show of the tension that remained.

“How old are you now, Cadence?” Francis inquired a moment after. 

“Eh…” Cadence shrugged. “Age doesn’t really matter in the cities.”

“But it should matter,” Francis replied. “Age is a measure of how much time one has had to experience events and gain knowledge—”

“Right, right. I’m…” Cadence paused, considering what age would suit her best. “Eh… let’s say I’m 16–”

Carl snorted. “The only thing 16 about you is your height—”

“I’m just gonna assume you’re tellin’ me that I’m 16 meters tall.”

“That’s a nightmare to picture,” Allen muttered.

Carl rubbed his chin. “Cadence, you know what? You sure are talkin’ big for someone who’s not playin’ big role in the plan you keep rattlin’ about.”

“Hey. First off—you’re not gettin’ off that easily. Secondly—not bein’ a big part of the plan is always a good thing.”

Allen nodded.

 Cadence tapped her chest. “And I am a big part of the plan. My aficionado is goin’ ta be what gets all these hostages of ours into our house here.”

“A selective rescue…” Francis mumbled suddenly. 

“Yeah…” Cadence frowned and sighed. “The kid and Atienna have both given their reservations about that bit. The kid more in a moral sense and Atienna in a philosophical sense.”

“The bigger concern is what happens after this.” Allen took a long drag. “After this then what?”

“After this, we maybe end a war. After that, we all gotta lay real low.” Cadence shrugged before popping open the box and peering inside. She stared at its contents for a moment and then she chortled.

* * *

A day later, Fortuna hosted the first official Romano-Campana meeting since she’d taken the reins of the Romano family. In one of Francis’s rooms, of course. 

The chosen room was long and dotted with menial decorations. A few cabinets along the walls and a long wooden table set smack at the center. Romanos and associates—including the Foxmans and one Matilda—on the left. What remained of the Campanas on the right. Cadence was invited to this meeting, of course; and she found a seat for herself on Romano’s side, perfectly wedged between the Romanos and the Foxmans—right next to Francis and Agape. Good place to be. She easily kicked Francis’s leg whenever he glowered a bit too hard.

Fortuna and Epsilon sat together at the head of the table. Epsilon kept casting nervous glances at the Campana’s side. Fortuna seemed to notice this because she reached over and subtly—so subtly that Cadence was sure she was the only one who noticed—placed a hand over his under the table. Surprising to say the least. 

Fortuna took in a breath before she began— “We are soon to become involved in a perilous activity that I can only describe as military and rescue in nature. I understand that some of you may think that we’re putting our hands into something that doesn’t concern us.”

There was a stretch of silence that Cadence assumed Fortuna was prolonging for dramatic effect. 

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Fortuna stood up and placed a hand on the table. “As a business, we sell products.”

Francis frowned slightly. 

“Products to people,” she continued. “Without people, we turn no profit. You could argue that we could  leave this continent and try to find profit elsewhere, but we would be abandoning our tradition and history and risk failure in re-establishing ourselves in a foreign territory. If that isn’t enough convincing for you”—she gestured to Francis— “then the deal we have with Francis regarding transportation of goods external to Signum surely is.”

Cavallo exchanged a look with Agape, while the Campana’s whispered briefly among themselves.

“Signum is a brilliant light—cultivated by Knowledge Bearers,” Epsilon interjected suddenly. “And bright lights cause and cast dark shadows. Like your organizations. But with only blinding light and without shadow, we can’t make out the shape of anything.”

Huh? That was unexpected. 

Fortuna glanced at Epsilon in what Cadence deduced was surprise. After a beat, she nodded—“There are two ages where organizations like ours cast the darkest shadows. Times of strict oppression and law. And times of war.”


(   )

As Werner stepped back into the room deemed as central headquarters from the outskirts of Eisburg, he snapped his fingers to disperse the transmutation he’d placed over himself. 

This room was one of the larger ones of Francis’s and had been completely empty prior to them establishing it as their base. When Werner had inquired what the room’s previous purpose was, Francis had merely responded with a smile.

At the center of the room was a large wooden table with a map of Signum’s entirety splayed out on top of it. Pins dotted different areas of the map, marking old gates and newly placed gates. Flags marked target locations and populated areas central to the new gates. News articles hung on bulletin boards on the back wall. The most recent articles read:

CAPRICORN’S STATEMENT ON RELATIONSHIP WITH AQUARIUS

LIBRAN PRIME MINISTER MAKES STATEMENT

SAGITTARIUS MOVES TROOPS TO BORDER WITH AQUARIUS 

On another wall was a chalkboard divided into eight quadrants—eight quarters. Code-names placed next to unchecked boxes denoted unretrieved target individuals.

Stationed around the central table were Captain Weingartner and Friedhelm Heimler. Sagittarians moved around them. These were not Sagittarians associated with the royal clans of the court, but Sagittarians of Zhūshā Cheng’s underbelly. Although Werner was not aware of the fine details, he did come to understand that Captain Weingartner had become involved in the black markets of Sagittarius and the people associated with them. Werner wondered if the captain had dealt in chlorowheat. He wondered if any of these Sagittarians had any on them—

Captain—

Right.

Werner came to a stop behind his captain, stood at attention, saluted. This formality felt like slipping on a glove. Werner was uncertain of whether or not he felt more like himself or less like himself with this glove on, but he set the debate aside for another time. 

“At ease, Werner.” Weingartner offered him a smile. “How’d it go?”

“I’ve successfully placed the last of the gates for quarter five of the operation,” Werner answered, folding his hands behind his back. “Gilbert and Groth have both been recalled to the capital but they’ve managed to place gates for quarter three on their way. They will still be able to perform their part.”

Weingartner exchanged a look with Friedhelm across the table and nodded. “Alright. Good. We’ve almost finished placing all the gates now then.”

They had developed a list of high priority targets that they either knew were being used as blackmail hostages or that they had deduced would be used as blackmail hostages. These individuals were categorized into different groups—quarters—and different task forces had been assigned responsibility of them. Among the individuals sprinkled throughout the quarters were Werner’s family, Gilbert’s, and—

Werner noted Weingartner’s grim expression. “Is there a problem, sir?”

“Waltz, the timing and execution of this has to be exact,” Weingartner drew slowly. “And there are so many quarters and task forces to deal with.” 

“I… understand, sir.”  

Weingartner tapped the central marker on the map. “The distraction here is what’s allowing us to do this, so… going directly into this place could make the saint candidates aware of our operation. If that occurs, then with Scorpio’s spores everywhere…  Is it absolutely necessary to retrieve the targets here…?”

“I understand your point, sir, and have considered the risks—”

Protect, protect, protect—

“—however, the True Conductors trapped there are pivotal for the syzygy. If they are no longer in the saint candidate’s hold, then their plans are set back by a considerable amount. Louise Bonnefoy is also being held captive here. She’s a central figure to the current war, and she may be able to prevent escalation. Considering the risk and benefits involved,” Werner replied, “I believe that in this case a temporary solution is better utilized than ignored.”

The statement left a sour taste in his mouth. Temporary solutions. His own error.

“That is a compelling argument.” Weingartner moved to tap three flags marked in Capricorn. “Another point of concern I have is that these are… the residences of the families of Bergmann, Brandt, and Kleine, correct?”

Werner tensed. “Yes, sir.”

“They were good men,” Weingartner drew after a pause. “It’s unfortunate that they fell victim to external machinations. I’m sorry for their loss. But now that they’ve passed—”

A failure to protect. A repeated mistake: like how he had failed Otto. They had all looked up to him and sought him for guidance and yet—

“—necessary to include them in this operation…? With those three gone, their families arguably are no longer being held in a dangerous position—”

Protect, protect, protect.

Werner felt a cold sweat break out as a familiar hunger clenched his stomach. A temporary solution—

Werner.

“Werner?”

Werner refocused and found Weingartner peering at him pensively. He took a moment to recollect himself, then replied, “Given their connections and relations, I do believe there is value in adding them to our quarters.” That and even though he could not protect his subordinates, at least he could protect their families. “I understand your dislike for the risk and uncertainty, but l believe that the benefits outweigh the risks in these cases.”

A cost-benefit analysis. 

Nodding, Weingartner smiled wanly. “Backing down in the face of uncertainty is very anti-Capricornian, isn’t it? For honor, for glory…”  He returned his attention to the map before pausing, reaching into his pocket, and pulling out a small packet.  “Oh, Werner, would you mind handing these to Lenora for me if you’re on your way out again?” 

* * *

Werner found Weingartner’s daughter Lenora in what he could only describe as the ‘play room’ of Francis’s residence. It was a small square space with walls covered from floor to ceiling with children’s drawings. Toy trains and stuffed animals were littered on the floor, and wax crayons were scattered across the five short tables sprawled across the carpeted floor. Werner made a mental note to clean this room in five hours. The reason for the five hour window: the children that currently occupied the room.

Said children swarmed Werner as he entered. They chattered away in different languages, commenting on his height and curiously whispering about his gloves. Werner stood stiff, watching them as they circled around. Eventually, they seemed to get bored and wandered off to different areas of the room. He took this opportunity to approach Lenora who was sitting on a small stool in the far corner of the room. In her arms was a small infant with rosy cheeks.

Werner extended his hand. 

Ey’, Captain, is a handshake really necessary? Cadence.

It’s appropriate and polite.

Lenora chuckled and accepted the gesture before tending to her infant again.

Werner procured the small packet of medicine. “The captain requested for me to deliver this to you.”

Lenora offered a word of gratitude before accepting the packet. She bounced her child on her leg and the infant gurgled. Werner eyed the infant.

Protect.

“Have you and your daughter situated yourselves completely?” Werner inquired after one second’s hesitation as he folded his hands behind his back.

Lenora glanced down at the infant and chuckled. “I bet a hurricane could come through here and Annett wouldn’t even notice. Not a touch of fussiness in this one.”

“And you, Frau Lenora?”

Lenora peered him. “You’re very different from  what my father’s told me…” 

Appearances

She brought Annett closer to her chest and studied the children playing at the opposite side of the  room. “This isn’t where I expected to be raising my child. I thought that since I had to grow up in places like bomb shelters, my children wouldn’t have to. Not all suffering is a sacrifice it seems.”

Poor thing…

Abruptly, Lenora asked, “Have you not ever wanted to settle down, Captain Waltz…?”

Settle down?

A memory of Olive tinkering with his conductor came to Werner suddenly followed by a memory of listening to Cadence play an energetic song on the piano. Then came the memory of listening to Maria’s tall tales at odd hours of the day and then of watching Atienna quietly reading on weekend evenings. A more recent memory of working alongside Jericho to prepare Olive’s birthday cake and Cadence’s followed shortly after. And then—for some reason—Nico came to mind.

Werner quickly folded the thoughts away. “For me, duty comes first and foremost. I don’t usually consider those things, Frau Lenora. I hope you’re able to experience the settling down and peace of mind you hope for soon.”

“I do too.” Lenora smiled almost whimsically. “Just like my dad said—you’re a Capricornian soldier first and foremost.”

* * *

Later that afternoon, Werner was approached by Cadence as he was traversing through the rooms back to headquarters. She stopped short right in front of him, slapping the letter addressed to him from the capital on his chest. 

Werner accepted it, broke the seal, and carefully read the letter’s contents.

Captain Werner Waltz,

You are hereby relieved from your current duties. You are to report back to Die Hauptstadt by June 10th for further instruction.

Acting Kaiser Watzmann

“Well? What’s the verdict? I promise I won’t sneak a peek unless ya want me ta—unless ya accidentally slip. But I’m curious.” 

Werner glanced at Cadence as he folded the letter back into the envelope and pocketed it. “It’s what I expected it to be.”

Cadence studied him. “Ya know… It ain’t goin’ AWOL or desertin’—doin’ this plan instead of goin’ back, I mean. In fact, ya can think of it as doin’ your duty by doin’ this. A covert operation assigned by the invisible voice of justice.”

An attempt at reassurance. Cadence was rather crafty and practiced with her words.

“Yes, I’m aware.” Werner allowed himself a smile as he placed a hand on her head. “Thank you for not opening the letter.” 


(   )

When Maria brought Veles into one of Francis’s rooms, Veles took one large sweeping look and gave a nod of affirmation.

“This place is worthy of being my new temporary place of residence.” He gestured around. “My fellow guild members will certainly enjoy it.” He folded his arms across his chest. “And Conta?”

Maria looked to the side, smile slipping just slightly. “Conta will do her own thing, yes? I don’t know where she went, but I know the only reason she stayed was because of Alpha.”

“I’ve accepted your apology but Conta is a different story,” Veles drew. “She killed people close to me and I—Veles—would be doing their memory a disservice if I walked hand-in-hand with her.”

“I think I understand,” Maria drew, thinking of Jericho. A tightness clutched at her chest. Acceptance and letting go could lead to forgetting, no? But you are strong enough not to forget, yes?”

Veles waved a hand in the air. “Well, I can’t deny your confirmation of my ability.”

 “Conta is very dear to me, Veles. You are dear too. I would like for both of you to live. But I understand how you feel, yes? Justice—I understand—but there should be mercy too. There is another way, no?”

Veles remained silent for a moment. After a while, he drew, “You’re letting go of the person we’ve searched for months just like that? That’s unlike you.”

Maria blinked at him before staring at the ceiling in thought. “The thing that you think is your goal is sometimes disappointing when you find it. Sometimes you lose something when you find it too or you have to lose something to get it, no?”  

“You—someone who has almost held their own against me—losing?” Veles scoffed before he quieted and looked down at her arm.

Maria hummed. “Alpha…” 

“Ah, the guild master?” Veles inquired. “The one you claim was also your adventurer?” He paused. “How was he? As exceptional as I remember him to be?”

“No. It turns out he was just a sad person, Veles,” Maria said after some thought. “I think it is best—when you are setting destinations and goals—to set it not out there”—she gestured around them before tapping her chest—“but set it inside here, no?”

* * *

When Maria was not explaining to Veles the parts he and his guildmates were to play in Werner’s plan, she was helping Olive with his conductor in Francis’s room. No, that wasn’t quite right. He was helping her with her arm. No—they were helping each other. 

These sessions usually involved her laying down on a sofa with Olive perched on a stool beside her. He would put the mechanical arm proto-conductor he was working on a stool next to her and work on connecting all of the nodules to different parts of her residual limb. It hurt a bit—sort of reminded her of the pain she’d felt when she’d originally lost her arm.

Olive apologized over and over again and teared up whenever this happened, but Maria reassured him it was fine. Pain was normal. One just needed to overcome it—no, accept it and then overcome it. 

Atienna then suggested that Olive was shedding Maria’s own tears for her. Thinking about it in that context, Maria felt grateful but also… guilty again for her pain bleeding out to him. She needed to be more careful, she knew. Having pain color such a fun time was not a very good time. She thought Olive’s conductors were amazing, after all, and watching him passionately work away with his tools was something she enjoyed. 

“You will make it, dear Olive,” she said one day as she watched him disconnect the nodes. 

Olive merely arched a brow and half-smiled at her.

* * *

Spending time with and relaying Werner’s plan to her ship crew was another thing Maria did as she excitedly waited for the day of their plan’s implementation. Chef Raul and some of her other crew members who had been abducted by Alpha were all very quiet whenever she was around. She understood how they felt because it was something similar to what Olive felt from time to time and almost exact to what Werner felt whenever he looked at her arm. 

Guilt.

“My dears,” she would reassure her crew, “things have changed, yes? But that’s not always a bad thing. There are times to mourn change and times to step into and celebrate change, yes?”

Epsilon, who always found her in one of the rooms one way or another, would agree enthusiastically. “Exactly, Leo! That’s the reason we’re doing what we’re doing as ELPIS!”

Epsilon’s constant endearing enthusiasm aside, Maria also noticed that Andres would also stop by from time to time. Her other crew members would eye him and whisper amongst themselves whenever he was around—at least until she invited them to say their thoughts out loud.  When Andres wasn’t with her, Maria assumed he was swinging by El or visiting Dominic and maybe even some of Cadence’s children. Dominic—Maria used to be very intrigued and interested in him. Wanted to beat him in a duel even. Now that she knew they came from the same background, however, she was not too sure how to feel about him. Curiosity? No. Pity? No.

On the Thursday evening after Cancer declared war, Maria again found herself in the company of her crew, Epsilon, and Andres but this time she focused on Olive’s mechanical proto-conductor arm which he had given her to test while he was off in Ophiuchus. She’d been testing it on-and-off for the past hour—nodules connected and all—gaining the attention of her crew, Epsilon, and Andres.

Emmanuel leaned forward with interest and began to ask this and that questions. Maria reached out to Olive and relayed his long-winded, excited explanations for the man. Although Maria found the information not as interesting as other things, she did find enjoyment in Olive’s enthusiasm about it as well as Emmanuel’s. Her other crew members and Andres looked a bit confused by everything. Epsilon meanwhile hung on to her every word and even started poking around the proto-conductor himself. She could feel Olive’s slight irritation at this.

“Epsilon… why do you like Leo so much?” Maria asked as she tried to flex the mechanical arm. It did not obey her. She tried to flex it harder—

Ack! Wait, stop! Stop! Stop!

Maria stopped.

“Why?” Epsilon stared at her then laughed. “Because you are you.”

Giorgio arched a brow at the man from where he was poised leaning over Maria’s shoulder. Maria was surprised to see Giorgio here today. Usually he was at that hospital in Leo with Morandi and El.

Maria tapped her chin. That was a good answer. But then Atienna whispered something at the back of her head, so she asked, “What makes me me?”

Epsilon chuckled sheepishly. “It’s hard to describe what a person is like, Leo, with words. I can say things like you’re determined, strong, brilliant, kind, amazing, brave, honorable—but that can be used to describe anyone. Oh, it’s too hard, Leo…  especially if I’m trying to describe someone like you. 

Maria considered this. “I think that is why Jericho prefers drawing and painting and all of those things to speaking, no? Words are not enough?”

Epsilon seemed to ponder this. 

“I am not Leo, dear Epsilon.” 

Epsilon stopped tinkering.

“I am Maria,” she said firmly. “That is because I like being Maria. I am not Maria because other people like or want me to be Maria. That is why I am okay when I fail, yes? Do you understand?”

Instead of saying anything, Epsilon smiled.


In-Transit, Gemini 

There were more people on the trains now than before—every compartment packed to the brim no matter what class, the air trifle with whispers and the flutter of newspapers, a strange atmosphere of unease tied together by a ribbon of tension. The subjects of conversations were what Atienna expected them to be. 

“So it seems like they sent the third chair of International Relations to Aquarius and the fourth chair to Cancer,” said a woman dressed in long silk, overlapping garments. Scorpioan it sounded like.

The man dressed similarly across from her tutted. “And not the second and first chairs?”

“I’m assuming they’re too busy with the election.”

 “Talk about crooked priorities.”

“Well, there are rumors about their attention being… preoccupied by something else at the moment.”

Atienna tuned out of the conversation and loosely listened to snippets of the other ones unfolding around her—

“The Aquarians murdered the damn Cancerian princess. Over what? Over her brother making a political fuss? Awful. Just awful.”

“Did you hear that Aquarius reached out to Capricorn?”

“Cancer to Sagittarius?”

“Aren’t you worried about the draft?”

Letting out a breath, Atienna glanced across the table from her and studied Dimka. He’d been pouring over newspaper articles and documents ever since they’d boarded this train, and it didn’t appear as if he was changing course anytime soon. Beside her, Sefu sat staring tense out the window. His grip on his drawn spear conductor was tight. 

When they reached a connecting station on the Dioscuri Bridge in the Twin Cities of Gemini, Atienna took one moment to taste the soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant and the salt from the distant seaport. Then she descended the bridge with Sefu at her heels and headed to the nearest phone booth. She found a free one with some difficulty at the foot of the bridge. Its windows were taped over with different speculative newspaper articles that had been released in the past few days. War, blame, economic turmoil, peacekeepers. Reassuring, truly. 

After connecting with the operator, she requested to be connected to her hometown in Virgo. The phone rang for quite some time. 

Her family had moved out of the furnished homes provided to them for their membership on the tribal council and had moved back into their residence in the rural lands of the Imamu Tribe. Reception there was not quite as good as other areas but it needn’t be.

Be careful.

I know.

“Hello?” a voice finally crackled through. 

It was not the one Atienna had been expecting.

“Safiyah?” Atienna wondered in surprise, glancing across the street at Sefu who was idling across the street.

“Atienna?” Safiyah gasped. “It has been so long! You have barely written! How have you been? Are you coming home soon?

“I—” Atienna collected herself.  “I’m doing alright given the circumstances. I should be asking how you’re doing. Is the Tribal Council going alright? How are your parents faring? You’re… answering from my home phone, aren’t you—”

“Oh, Atienna, I could spend hours talking about everything that has been going on if I could. It has been absolute chaos. Half want Virgo to re-enter isolation and put down a foot of neutrality, while the other half have suddenly become absolute war hawks. And Bachiru—ugh! Bachiru. I cannot believe him. He is nothing like you, Atienna. He says dangerous things—”

“Where is Bachiru, Safiyah?”

“Oh, he is in the kitchen,” Safiyah replied after taking a breath. “We’ve been watching over Kamaria and Kichea together here since your father has been involved in some of the research expeditions geared towards the Great Tree.”

“The Great Tree…” Atienna murmured. “I‘ve heard about it… Peculiar, they say.” 

“Yes, it is—oh, Atienna! Your way of speaking has changed so much!” Safiyah chuckled. “You truly do sound like a well-to-do career woman.”

“I’m afraid only my way of speaking has changed,” Atienna half-joked. “I’m sorry to hear that you’re having such a hard time…”

“Well, it could be worse.” Safiyah sighed. “Your brother keeps pressing me to…”

“Become a war hawk?”

“Be more involved. Which is basically the same thing if you ask me.” Safiyah sighed. “But enough about me. As much as I would love to keep you here all day, I know you are calling for your siblings. Would you like me to pass you over to them?”

Atienna’s voice caught in her throat.

“Atienna…?”

“Oh—could you please, Safiyah?”

Rattling indicated that Safiyah had set down the phone. Atienna heard her call Bachiru’s, Kamaria’s, and Kichea’s names. Then came pounding footsteps and excited, nostalgic whispering. The phone rattled, hands fumbling. And then—

“Ati—”

Heart skipping  a beat, Atienna hung up the phone.


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho received four flowers on his desk on Saturday morning. A white camellia. An iris. An aster tataricus.  A snapdragon. Each flower’s stem was tied with a ribbon. Three of the ribbons were black, while one was white: a coded message that Werner had Jericho write in the letters Jericho had slipped into Gabrielle’s, Alice’s, and Ferris’s pockets. The fourth flower was most likely from Moraeni. Atienna had advised to include but not inform Roberto of the plans since Roberto had a connection with Scorpio. 

Black, black, black, white.

Stay, stay, stay, run.

Jericho pulled the ribbons from the stems and shoved them into his pocket. Before he could do anything else, Marcella shadowed over him. A pile of folders stuffed with papers then landed on his desk.

“Take these to General Investigations,” she said. “We’re reworking the eastern defensive perimeter and we need them to get moving.”

Jericho scanned the room for Leona but could not find her among all the suits. So, he nodded, took the folders, and paced out of his cubicle and out of the department. It was difficult to maneuver around the halls without bumping into an agent or a civilian. 

Uncomfortable.

Jericho decided to take the lesser known back stairs instead of the main escalators in an attempt to bypass the crowds and get to the other department faster. His plan was successful, as the back marble stairwells were nearly empty save for a few other peacekeeping agents. He continued down briskly, lifting his hand to offer a wave to agents who made eye contact with him. 

As he winded down the second flight of stairs, he lifted his hand in preparation to wave as he saw someone rounding the corner up towards him but then stopped short. 

“Jericho?”

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat as he registered the man standing at the foot of the flight of steps. “Benì.” 

He could feel Werner, Olive, and Atienna increase their synchronization with him.

“I haven’t seen you in some time,” Benì said, taking a step up towards him. “How are you faring?”

Jericho remained silent, frozen, almost unbelieving. Uncertain. Benì. The pain was still there. 

“You don’t want to talk with me? I don’t blame you…” Benì’s expression softened. “I’m sorry for calling you crazy, Jericho.”

Jericho felt something in his chest quiver at this, and he descended the steps: stopping just short of Benì. Benì did not take a step back. 

“I understand now from your own experiences with Scorpio and Talib that you had the best intentions towards me,” Benì continued. “It’s just that when people have their mind set on a certain path, they become abrasive to those who try to stop them.”

Jericho looked Benì up and down. “Do you… still like taking pictures?” Are you still Benì? Are we still friends?

Benì chuckled. “I’ve always liked taking pictures—being able to capture impermanence in a near permanent way. The camera is an amazing invention.”

Jericho…

“Are you… for the syzygy?”

Benì held his gaze before smiling and looking away. “I’m for what my people want.” He turned, rounded the corner, and started descending the steps.

Jericho followed on after him. “But the syzygy—”

“If the people feel like they’ve been wronged, then I’ll act accordingly,” Benì interjected. “If they want more reservoirs, then I’ll help them make more reservoirs. If they want everything else to go away, then I’ll help make it go away. If they want happiness, then I’ll help them obtain it.” He stopped in place, causing Jericho to stop too. Isn’t it the same for you and your fellow True Conductors?”

The question caused a beat in Jericho’s thought. The pause: intensified by Benì’s stare. 

Finally, Jericho answered: “Yes. I want them to be happy.”  

“Happiness is very much subjective—just like art,” Benì replied. “One person’s happiness might seem disgusting or self-destructive to another person, but that’s all idiosyncratic. The only thing that matters is that the feeling is felt. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Like that saying: another man’s rock is one man’s lottery ticket out of the cities.”

Benì stared befuddled for a moment before chuckling. “I guess that’s one way to say it… but wouldn’t you do anything to achieve the happiness of the people you’re connected to no matter what that happiness is?”

Jericho frowned, thinking it over. Then he recalled Werner. Werner had buried the feeling as deep as he could, but Jericho still had felt the tendrils of euphoria‘happiness’—that chlorowheat had given him.  “If it’s not good for them: no. No.” He stared at Benì. “Is the syzygy good for your people?”

Benì didn’t answer.

“Your main purpose is not to do this: the syzygy,” Jericho stated. “Because you are… a Knowledge Bearer. No, because you are Benì—”

Benì’s brows rose. “So you know that term…” He sighed.Yes, as Knowledge Bearers, my purpose is to—well—provide knowledge. What kind of knowledge we provided was what shaped the kind of governments our countries formed. I enjoyed offering knowledge about the fine arts to my people since the other eleven focused on other subjects. I thought it gave them a bit of uniqueness among Signum’s people. Art—whether it be in the form of a brush or a pen or a note—is something that’s cast aside way too often… even though it’s the foundation of science.” 

Jericho studied Benì. “Yes, art… is important.” 

They stopped on the third floor landing. A mural painted with spiraling swirls of black and gray hung on the wall. 

Benì glanced at it. “My people back then lauded the ones who produced art they deemed within their aesthetics, and they put those people up on pedestals and positions of power.  They revered them and wealth and power accumulated—as it always does. That’s how the Houses were born. Untouchable, elegant, and above the common people. He approached the painting and ran his finger along the bottom of the canvas. “You can teach people all you want, but people will choose what they want to learn and what they want to ignore.”

“You are saying Cancer is the way it is because the people did not listen to you?”

“Things like how hard work and toiling even in light of unfairness, injustice, and inequality can meet with talent. Things like how art—in all shapes and forms—is subjective…” Benì looked at him as if asking him to respond.

Unsure of how to go about doing that, Jericho settled on: “You sound like Francis.” He looked at the painting and then added, “‘The value of intangible things and imagination beyond the concrete have always been topics that we have had difficulty grasping—despite those things serving as the bedrock for everything concrete that we know. Subjectivity included.’” He looked back at Benì. “Francis said that once.”

Saints… Do you remember everything he says word for word…?

“Francis? Oh. Theta.” Benì let out a breath. “That does sound like something they would say. I concur.” He pulled his hand away from the painting. “Do you think this is a good painting, Jericho?”

Jericho glanced at it. “I like the colors.”

“Hmm. Yes, they are very nice colors, aren’t they? As a whole it’s beautiful. Some others might think it’s ugly or atrocious. But what’s valuable and ‘good’ is in the eye of the beholder. The ones who say otherwise are those who are unable to fully connect with other people or they’re unable to fully grasp intangibility or perhaps…” Benì smiled slightly. “I think this composition is quite representative of the syzygy itself. That’s how I see it.”

Jericho turned to focus on the painting fully. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the shades on the painting were not strictly solid gray and black but a composition of reds, yellows, blues, greens, and a handful of other colors that had been blended together. The paint was acrylic so the ending of all of the swirls was slightly raised. Little lines had been etched into the raised paint in such a way that made them look like miniature hands.

A very, very small plaque was nailed to the far right corner of the piece:

‘PEACE JOINING THE END TO THE BEGINNING’, unknown artist

Jericho tore his gaze away from the painting in slight confusion, but Benì was already gone. 


(    )

It was June 10th. 2135 hours. The time estimated until ELPIS’s planned invasion: 15 hours, 25 minutes, 05 seconds—

Cadence waved her hand in the air and leaned back in her chair. “Saints, Captain. I appreciate the update, but it’s not helpin’ much with the tension. Relax a little.”

Werner frowned slightly from where he sat beside her. “We need to be prepared for—”

“Yeah, I get that, Captain.” Cadence patted him on the back. “But that’s still hours away. Stress happens all the time. Relaxin’ happens once in a while. Stress happens naturally, while relaxin’ has ta be coaxed out. What I’m sayin’ is that relaxin’ is a valuable thing.”

Werner let out a breath.

Around a small circular, wooden table in one of the smaller rooms in Francis’s domain sat Cadence, Werner, Olive, Atienna, Maria, and Jericho. The couches pressed up along the walls of the room and the smaller tables sitting in the room’s far corners were empty. It was just them in here—them and the table piled with platters of food in front of them. 

They had all brought something to this table. Olive had brought a large slab of steak from a restaurant near the inn he was staying at in Ophiuchus, Cadence had brought some fresh focaccia bread from a local baker in the Twin Cities, Werner had procured some mashed potatoes, Maria had brought a variety of beverages, Atienna pickled vegetables, and Jericho had procured—borrowed, stolen—some silverware, wine glasses, and platters from the cafeteria of the Serpens Establishment. Werner and Atienna had set the table earlier, placing the main dishes at the table’s center. 

The six of them now sat silently at the table, taking in each other’s presences. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been in each other’s physical presences individually before, and it wasn’t as if they hadn’t been all physically together before either. This was, however, the first time they had the opportunity to come together for a considerable and lengthy amount of time. 

“It shouldn’t be this awkward…” Olive mumbled, picking up his fork and tapping the table. “Why does this feel so weird…?”

Cadence leaned over Werner, tapped Olive on the shoulder, winked. “Let me tell ya a secret about social aptitude, kid: it ain’t awkward until ya make it awkward.”

Jericho, who was trying to empty a cartoon of apple juice into a glass of wine, looked between them. “Is it awkward…?”

Atienna clasped her hands together and cleared her throat. “The food looks lovely. We should begin, don’t you think?”

Werner nodded at her and began to work on the large slab of steak at the center of the table. He cut a medium-sized slice and placed it into Olive’s plate, then cut a slightly smaller one and placed it into Cadence’s. Then came medium-sized cuts delivered to Atienna and Jericho. When Werner finally came to cutting a piece for Maria, everyone paused and stared. Werner and Maria locked gazes as he placed the slice onto her plate. He then sat down and cut himself a piece. No one moved afterwards. There was a stretch of silence.

Finally, Werner asked, “Maria, will you allow me to cut your entire steak for you?”

Maria stared at him and cocked her head. “Why?”

A pause. Olive swallowed, while Cadence leaned back in her seat.

“I would like to lend a hand for the time being,” Werner reasoned. “Until you’ve recovered fully.” 

Maria continued to stare at him for several more moments before beaming. “I like the way you cut everything into perfect pieces, yes? Go ahead!” 

Werner nodded. Atienna picked up Maria’s plate and passed it to Olive who passed it to Werner. 

Werner did not immediately get to work. Instead, he peeled off his gloves slowly and tucked them into his pants pocket. After quietly picking up his knife and fork, he proceeded to cut up the steak into small square pieces. The other five watched him silently. Under their gaze, his movements became stiffer, stiffer—

“Look at that.” Cadence whistled, breaking the silence. “They really are perfect squares.”

Olive leaned forward, staring at the plate. “Are they… the same size? They are.”

Werner’s movements became fluid again. 

Jericho, who had begun to follow suit in cutting up his steak into tiny pieces too, stopped and stared down at his plate. Then he frowned slightly.

When Werner was finished, he handed the plate off to Cadence beside who handed it to Jericho who placed the plate in front of Maria.

Maria held his gaze and then smiled. “Thank you, Werner.”  She stabbed her fork into a piece of meat and popped it into her mouth. 

The others followed suit and began to dive into their own dishes.

A quarter way into her cut of the steak, Cadence asked, “So, are we gonna talk about why we’re all here now? I mean, I’d love ta have one last hurrah meal before our big day, but I know there’s another reason why we’re here.” She nodded at Olive. “Plus, you’re not very good at keepin’ secrets, kid.”

Olive frowned. “Maybe you’re not very good at not snooping around—” 

“This is for my birthday, isn’t it?” Cadence asked. 

“We thought it would be best to celebrate it late than to never celebrate it at all,” Atienna drew slowly. “We’ve already missed so many… We shouldn’t miss another.”

“Aw, it’s real sweet of all ya.” Cadence placed a hand to her chest. “But I think I’ve pretty much reached the age where I’d prefer it if people forget it ta be honest. No birthday, I can pretend ta be younger, and I’ve got an excuse for—ya know—not gettin’ it together.”  

“I mean… it’s a reasonable excuse,” Olive muttered. “Like… A war…”

 “Yeah… Talk about bad luck though—a war startin’ the day after your birthday.” Cadence twirled her utensil and leaned in towards Werner. “Anyways, what’s my cake?”

Werner and Atienna exchanged looks. Atienna shook her head.

“Aw, come on, Captain. Ya know I’ve only ever been surprised twice in my life—” 

Cadence…” Werner let out a breath,  but gave in—“We made a lemon ricotta—”

“Ooo, from that book Nico lent ya, hm?” Cadence’s smile became feline as she cut and popped a piece of steak into her mouth.

Werner frowned. “Yes, it’s proven useful—”

“Mhm.”

Olive looked between them.

Atienna cleared her throat. “The seasoning is well done on this steak, Olive. You made a wonderful choice.”

“I mean… it’s good for take-out…” Olive mumbled. He cleared his throat when Atienna looked at him and then said, “It’s… yeah—the seasoning is good.”

Cadence thrummed her fingers. “Kid, ya ever think that your palette is just too studded with diamonds ta truly enjoy the finer things in life since you’re grindin’ everything up?”

Olive made a face. “That’s the most convoluted metaphor I’ve ever heard…”

“Olive has good tastes,” Jericho interjected. “For sweets. I remember we tried some together in the Twin Cities at that person’s house.” 

Maria cocked her head as if recalling something and then smiled. “Feliciano and Donato, yes?”

A cold and wet, yet hot and dry memory painted over a dim alleyway entered everyone’s minds.

Olive shivered.

Cadence leaned forward. “Ya know, detective, I think ya’ve got the most interestin’ palette out of all of us actually.”

Jericho seemed confused by the statement. 

“I mean ya always eat the same thing for lunch, detective. Saltine crackers and apple juice. Why not switch it up a bit?”

Werner paused his eating in consideration. “I… agree that it would be best to improve your diet, Jericho. Variety in diet is a necessary cornerstone for an individual to live a healthy life.”

“Yeah, they’re pretty salty—your crackers. Probably not good for the whole blood pressure spiel,” Cadence said. “And that apple juice ya always get is really sweet. I was gonna pin that last bit on the kid—”

Olive choked on a piece of meat. “Hey—”

“—but…” Cadence waved her fork around. “Anyways. Jericho, ya can’t really taste things too well, can you?”

Jericho seemed to consider this. Then, he answered: “Things taste best when I taste them from you.”

A blip of silence followed.

“Well, if that is the case,” Cadence continued, “I say we enter the detective here in one of those spice tolerance contests. He could handle it. There’re some of them out there that give out monetary rewards and since we’re basically goin’ down under, we need—” She rubbed her fingers together.

Olive arched a brow.

Cadence waved her fork again. “Anyways back ta the topic of sweets. Ya should get that sweet tooth of yours under order, kid. Nico’s been crackin’ at me about all the sweets I’ve been eatin’ and he won’t believe me when I tell him it’s because of you. Even the captain’s developed a sweet tooth now.”

Werner cleared his throat. “It’s… a minor indulgence—”

“For you, Captain—you can indulge all ya want,” Cadence reassured him before snapping back to Olive. “But you, kid, you’re a different story.”

Olive opened his mouth.

Werner set down his silverware. “I do agree with the sentiment. You need to consider your health when you grow older, Olive.”

Olive shut his mouth before looking over in askance at Atienna, but Atienna continued to eat undisturbed.

“Why don’t ya take one from Claire,” Cadence continued, “and eat somethin’ healthy after dinner for dessert instead of a whole slice of cake. Eat a—I don’t know—strawberry or somethin’. Ain’t that your favorite fruit?” She snapped her fingers. “Hell. Ya can even go vegetarian, kid.”

“Vegetarian?” Jericho tried.

“Yeah, like no meat,” Cadence said. “Or ya can go vegan—but that’s real hard.”

Olive rolled his eyes. “Where is this conversation even going…?”

“Speaking of conversations going places,” Maria interjected with a laugh, “did you know that I once met a man who told me that anything he said became reality? That sounds much more extreme than thinking that you can do anything, no?”

“That sounds delusional,” Olive muttered, arching a brow. “Are you sure that isn’t Veles… or Scorpio…?”

Atienna leaned forward with interest. “I don’t think you’ve told this story before, Mara, and I don’t believe the particular memory of it has come to me either. I’m quite… interested in hearing the rest.”

The tale continued on with Maria becoming more and more animated with each spoken word. Olive looked less confused and more intrigued as the tale reached its climax—an emotion most likely aided by the memory of the event that bled through with its telling. Atienna leaned forward with similar interest but pulled back as Maria’s tale tumbled down its falling action.

Eventually, the story ended and the meal also neared its end. Werner slipped his gloves back on and exited the room before returning with a small white box. He removed his gloves again and opened the box to reveal a beautifully frosted, perfectly circular ricotta cake. There were little painted lemons on the side of the cake—an indication of Jericho’s addition.

Cadence chortled and spread her arms wide before pointing a finger gun at Olive. “How about you start off the song, kid?”

“Wha—” Olive grimaced. “Why me?”

“Come on. Please? I even played the piano for yours, didn’t I?”

After a small internal struggle, Olive let out a sigh and relented as he began to mumble an off-tune happy birthday song. Maria joined in with some gusto, followed shortly by Atienna who sang it more calmly, Jericho who said it more than sang it, and then Werner who joined in quietly.

When the song ended, Cadence offered a standing ovation. She then rubbed her hands together as Werner cut her slice first. Once he provided the others with their slices, Cadence eagerly stabbed her fork into her slice and popped a bite into her mouth.  She placed a hand to her cheek and sighed. “Now this is a cake. Hate ta say it, kid, but this cake beats your cake by a far mile.”

Olive rolled his eyes again. Atienna chuckled and hid her smile with her hand. 

“You should show Leona one of your cakes, Werner,” Cadence continued. “I promise ya she won’t say anything about it.”

Werner and Jericho exchanged looks.

“Yes, I can do that,” Jericho added.  “I did not agree with what she said either—”

Olive snorted slightly then stared at Jericho with an arched brow. “Jericho… she’s kidding.”

Jericho frowned, glancing at Werner. “But Leona should know the truth.”

“Eh, maybe some other time, detective.” Cadence chortled. 

Cadence, Olive, and Maria carried on the conversation for half an hour. Eventually, the mood settled. Then a quiet, somber atmosphere fell over them. Slowly, everyone seated turned to look at Olive. Olive didn’t squirm at the attention but remained silent for some time.

“I know… none of us are perfect.” Olive finally sighed, shoved a whole forkful of cake in his mouth, and nearly choked on it. “And I don’t think any of us need to be. We need time to ourselves sometimes. We keep making mistakes and sometimes we hurt each other—and obviously that last part is not a good thing—but…” He flailed his hands out. “But… still sticking together… Ack—you know what I’m talking about.”

“It’s okay, kid.” Cadence reached over and gave him a pat on the back. “We can pretend ya said somethin’ cool.”

Olive scowled briefly before muttering, “Good of you to return the favor.”

Cadence chortled.

“We understand the sentiment, Olive,” Werner said quietly, offering an affirming nod. “We all do.”

Maria jumped up from her seat abruptly and shoved her good hand into her glass of wine.

“Maria!”

Maria smiled and plopped a dot of wine onto the table cloth in front of her spot at the table and then one in front of Jericho’s. 

Perfection cannot be obtained, she drew, circling the table and dabbing a dot in front of Cadence, Werner, Olive, and Atienna. “Monadism teaches us the pillars, yes, but that is so we can follow them to come close to ‘oneness.’ A unity. Something the saint candidates are supposed to have.” She reached over Atienna and placed a dot of wine at the table’s center. “That oneness is something close to inner peace and strength and a true state of being.”  Then she walked back around the way she came, dragging her fingertips from dot to dot until she came back to where she started, having drawn a full circle.  She met Werner’s eyes then Atienna’s and took her seat back at the table.  “We come close to perfection.”

Ruffling her hair, Cadence shrugged. “Here’s ta comin’ close ta perfection.”

Moved, they lifted up their wine glasses in synchrony.

* * *

Werner looked up from the plans he had been pouring over and then checked his pocket watch. It read 2360 hours. He scanned the room. 

While Werner had remained at the dining table alongside Jericho following the end of their meal, the others had moved to different areas of the room. Olive had reclused to the sofa in the corner to tinker with his conductors, Cadence and Maria had moved to a table at the adjacent side of the room to play cards, and Atienna had moved to read her book at the long couch pressed against the wall across from Olive.

Now, Jericho’s head was resting on top of his sketchbook and the papers he had been looking over—indicating he’d either fallen asleep doing paperwork or drawing. Olive was motionless on the couch—eyes closed, one arm dangling off to the side. The conductor he had been working on rested on his chest while his tools had fallen on the ground. Atienna was still up, completely absorbed in her book. Cadence was snoozing at her chair, head knocked back. Across from her, Maria was studying her with her elbow propped on the table and her hand tucked beneath her chin.

Maria waved wildly and abruptly, gaining Werner’s attention. She whispered, “It’s alright for them to stay like this until early morning, no? No one will notice.”

Werner offered a stiff nod after a pause of consideration. He checked his watch again and then glanced back down at Jericho—

Jericho fell asleep unusually early.

Werner slowly reached across the table and removed the glasses from Jericho’s face. He placed them neatly and reverently on the table beside him. A moment later he felt a stare and turned.

Atienna smiled coyly at Werner as she shut her book. She said in a quiet voice, “It’s most likely that he’s comfortable, Werner.”

Werner studied her before pacing over to Cadence. As soon as he reached her side, Maria swept off the overcoat she had been wearing and handed it to him. He accepted it before draping it over Cadence.

Atienna meanwhile moved over to Olive, carefully moved the conductor on his chest to the ground, before pulling out the blanket tucked into the corner of the sofa and pulling it over him.

Werner soon joined her.

“It’s interesting,” Atienna drew, “how some of us were so dedicated to the duties of our countries before and now we’ve…”

“This is my duty to my country,” Werner corrected. “To defend. To protect—” 

Atienna placed a hand on his arm. I’m sorry. It was meant to be a tease.

…I understand. Werner nodded before he returned his attention to Olive. He brushed strands of dark hair out from the boy’s face and allowed himself a brief smile. 

Atienna peered at him, her lips curling into a coy smile, the corner of her eyes crinkling. She returned to her couch and sank down. After a pause, he followed suit and sank down beside her. 

“Do you have any other thoughts or reservations regarding the plan’s implementation?” he asked.

Atienna chuckled. “It’s a rather tardy time to be having this conversation, don’t you think, Werner?”

“I… apologize,” Werner replied. After a pause, he added, “Being late is much more acceptable than being neglectful of any potential dangers that have been left unconsidered. Rectification of any errors is necessary at every point in any plan and… I value your input.”

“I have full-faith in you, Werner. You’re always so careful,” Atienna murmured after a pause. “I’m more concerned about what will happen after all of this…” She clasped her hands together. “Having so many people involved… in here… with us… People of different backgrounds and goals suddenly being forced to come together… It’s rather…”

“Yes, I’m aware of the increased risk with the more individuals we involve, but—” Werner paused,  brows furrowed. He leaned forward, pinching the bridge of his nose. 

Protect, protect, protect.

Expression falling, Atienna placed a hand on his back. 

After a while, he lifted his head and turned to look at her. “Do you suggest we cut down the number of quarters?”

Atienna didn’t have a chance to reply because a shadow passing over them interrupted their conversation. 

“Are you two worried again?”

Maria, waving. Before either could answer, she plopped herself down right in-between them. They shifted slightly to make more room for her.

Atienna sighed, glancing at Maria’s arm. “I do have one concern.” She met Werner’s eyes before returning her attention to Maria. “Maria, do you think… you’re recovered enough to be playing such an active part here?  Olive’s proto-conductor still isn’t… near done yet.” She glanced back at Werner. “Werner…”

Werner’s gaze trailed to Maria’s residual limb and his expression tightened.

“This is my mistake, dear Werner. Not yours,” Maria said, locking eyes with him before turning to Atienna. “And I will be playing an active part alongside everyone else. I may not have gotten back to where I was before yet, but I will not be alone going in, yes? And this will help me get back to where I was before. It is better together, no? I want to come. I need to.”

Atienna and Werner exchanged looks but fell silent. 

 “So tomorrow is the day, yes?” Maria continued. “We get to see Werner’s plan in action, we get everyone here, we test Olive’s theory about the saint candidates, and we have some fun while we do it.” She turned to Werner. “After we do this and we get some peace, then we can maybe try that ‘settling down’ Lenora talked about, yes? It does sound a bit boring, but I would not mind trying it for a little while—”

Werner tensed. “That is not—”

Maria whipped back to Atienna. “Dear Atienna, you read a lot of books, no? And now you have great imagination, yes? What do you think we would be like if we ‘settled down’?”

Werner frowned deeply. Atienna smiled innocently, coyly.

“I wonder… A domestic life. Like an alternate telling?” Atienna placed a hand on her chin. “Olive wouldn’t be a prince. Perhaps he would still be in school—but at an advanced university, of course. Or maybe he would already be making breaking discoveries in conductor research. Cadence would most definitely be a performer of some kind. Werner—well you do have an affinity for baking, don’t you? As for you, Maria—I honestly can’t picture you being anyone else or doing anything other than what you’re already doing. Jericho, on the other hand… It would be nice to see him able to actually pursue his talents, don’t you think?”

Maria offered a quiet clap. “I like that!” She peered at Werner. “And you?”

Werner let out a half-sigh. “It’s an… inventive reality.”

“What about you, Atienna?” Maria leaned towards her, staring into her eyes. “Where would you be in this domestic life?”

“I wonder…”

They fell into comfortable silence.

Atienna drifted off to sleep first after delving 100 pages more into her book. Werner lingered for a bit longer pouring over his plans, but Maria gave him a nudge and he drifted off just like that. 

Then it was just Maria that remained awake. 

She carefully untangled herself from her spot on the couch before whipping around to study Atienna and Werner who were slumped on opposite sides of the couch. She noticed Werner’s brows were furrowed, so she crouched before him and pushed down the furrow with her index finger. She then paced around the room and did the same to the others before coming to the center of the room and laying down on the floor. She reached up towards the ceiling— “Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong”—and then clenched her fist. 

Silence.

* * *

Threshold 

Reliving these memories down at the threshold, Shion Myosotis let out a quiet breath and glanced across the threshold at Lavi.

Lavi looked away. “It’s almost here.”


Distant Waters, Onboard Gloria’s Grail

Rho hummed to herself as she paced along the deck of the stolen ship. It was nighttime. The waters the ship rocked on were far from the reaches of civilization, so the stars twinkled especially bright. Little pinpricks of light. A window to the past, a snapshot of far and distant worlds, not quite tangible—and yet people still liked to look up at them.

A pair of footsteps resounded behind her, and when she turned she registered a woman and a man approaching her. Beneath the stars, the woman looked ethereal. Skin like porcelain, hair like charcoal, eyes empty—but not empty like Alpha’s. Hers had a visceral hunger.

Tut-tut. 

“Alma, right?” Rho tapped her chin as she studied the woman. She eyed the man. “And you belong to the ship of that woman Alpha half-raised—or maybe I should say that woman who would have become Leo?”

“If you’re talking about my captain,” the man replied thickly, “then I am a part of her crew. And her name’s Maria Gloria—”

Rho chuckled. “Sure, sure. What are you doing up and about? Trying to make an escape again?” She eyed Alma before sweeping her arms towards the open sea. “Go ahead. The only thing stopping you is yourself. Or would you rather wait for when a more opportune moment comes out tomorrow?”

The man didn’t budge. Only grimaced.

“About that… I’m…” Alma clasped her hands together and offered a shy smile. “Well, Enzio is worried about what’s going to happen next. We heard that there…. are some plans for Ophiuchus, but…” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “…we’re in the middle of nowhere… so maybe they really are just rumors?” 

Enzio? Oh that man all about the chlorowheat and the money. Hm…

“Is Enzio concerned or are you concerned, Alma?” Rho inquired, closing the distance between them. She smiled. “Using other people so you don’t have to state your own opinion is quite crafty. PP—Politics by proxy.” She looked her up and down. “Oh, you’ll definitely be a star like you wish. But—you’ll never be happy.”

Alma’s cheeks flushed, but she didn’t look upset. How queer.

“Anyways. Tomorrow is the day.” Rho clasped her hands together. “And one way or another, we will be riding this ship into Ophiuchus.”

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Ring!

Clack—

Ring!

Clack—

Ring—

Setting down his metal spoon, Alpha reached out and placed a hand on the empty metal tray sitting on the desk in front of him. The ringing stopped.

He paced over to the left wall and pressed his body against. He felt a faint rumble—like crashing ocean waves. He smiled in anticipation of the reunion. 

One thought on “27.0: Peaje Silencioso: Insiders & Outsiders [ ]

  1. This healed the scars left by last chapter XD. My son. Werner… settling down. Thinking about the others :sob:. Maria’s conversation with Veles showed a lot of her inner development. The part where they were all sitting down and having dinner together and the gentle tenderness… Found family… I SEE HINTS OF PART 5 IN HERE. :6c_CONSPIRACY:

    Liked by 1 person

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