this chapter is more unedited than usual. edits’ll be added over the next couple of days when i have more time. gomen orz
As soon as Maria stepped back into the headquarters at Francis’s place, she felt the wave of exhaustion that had been sloshing around in her stomach wash over her completely. As her legs gave in completely, she could faintly make out Albatross, Arjun, and Simon crowding around her. She dragged Leona down with her as she fell, but Jericho held onto them both—with difficulty. The floor was becoming slippery and red—Leona’s worsening wound.
The room was tense and quiet—filled with Sagittarians, Capricornians, Leonians, Geminians, her crew. All eyes, however, were trained on Leona. Simon and Albatross who were huddled together in the corner broke apart from the others, pulled Maria away from the arm link, and helped her to a stand.
A gate in the far corner of the room opened a moment after, and Werner, Nico, Derik, Olive, and Cadence entered.
“Waltz, what is this?” Weingartner asked, tense from where he stood at the central table. “What’s going on? This wasn’t part of the plan.”
“I apologize, Captain. I will deal with this,” Werner replied curtly, gaze sweeping from Jericho to Maria to Leona. He moved forward and supported Jericho’s arm around his shoulder—simultaneously pulling him away from Leona who was left to stand on her own. Are you alright?
“Just a little tired, dear Werner,” Maria replied.
Werner’s gaze lingered on her.
Leona’s eyes were trained on him the entire time. Perhaps she remembered Werner’s face from that time Maria had faced her in Capricorn. Leona was so focused on him that she did not even notice Cadence slink forward and pull all her conductors from her belt until Cadence was peeling away. Leona startled and lunged at her, but Werner pushed her back against the wall while Cadence stumbled into Nico’s arms.
Bringing her here was dangerous. Werner’s eyes narrowed.
Yes, Jericho agreed, but she helped us. She accepted our help. She does not seem like the others. She was also… tricked. She helped us eliminate the One. The One is the one we need—
We needed to escape the surveillance of the saint candidates, Werner corrected—but Maria could hear the faintest protect, protect, protect leaking out from his thoughts. His gaze flitted from Leona’s wound to her face.
Mercy, no? Maria thought.
“We can use this to our advantage,” Werner reasoned after a pause. Information extraction. “We’ll need to apply suppression cuffs on her first and foremost as a precaution. Nico, you’ll be in charge of her.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Leona said, scanning the room as she stepped back and pressed against the wall. “So you’ve all come to this place then.”
Another gate opened. This time Pi and Francis entered tailed by Fortuna and Epsilon. Leona stared in their direction, but they approached regardless. Maria was quite glad to see them and offered them a wave as they neared. Epsilon waved back hesitantly.
“Listen. You’re obviously bleeding pretty badly…” Nico tried, stepping towards Leona and snapping her attention towards him. “Look, if you don’t give me any trouble, we don’t have to put suppression cuffs on you. We can work all the politics out after the fact.”
Werner frowned at him but Nico simply raised a hesitant hand—
“No,” Leona repeated calmly as she cradled her abdomen. “I refuse.” She looked him up and down. “Your uniform is Capricornian but your accent is Geminian. Nico Fabrizzio, am I correct?”
“Nico is very amazing, yes?” Maria interjected. “It’s no wonder you know who he is.”
“I know who all of you are.” Leona’s gaze swept the room. “Francis Foxman, Theta. Mladen Petrov, Pi. Ambrose Campana, Epsilon. Fortuna Romano. Volker Weingartner. Friedhelm Heimler. Aohoshi Aoi. Ilkyaal Aung. The rest of your Sagittarian ring. Cadence Morello. Werner Waltz. Deserters, criminals, and traitors. I didn’t come here to be drawn into the web you’ve entangled yourselves in. I refuse your help.”
Nico pulled back slightly.
Maria looked on at Leona—-wondering if she would have understood Leona better if she were in the mindset she’d been in a year ago.
“Araceli.” Jericho stared at her. “You’re bleeding. You’ll die.”
Leona stared at him momentarily before scanning the room again. “Where is the boy? The next potential saint candidate for Leo. Where is he?” She turned to Simon. “I left him in your care. Where is he?”
Simon glanced at Maria. “He… I lost sight of him with everything going on. I tried looking for him, but—”
Francis exchanged a look with Epsilon.
Leona clicked her tongue causing blood to dribble from the corner of her mouth. “Your sole responsibility as a Monadic priest of Leo was to watch over the potential saint candidates left in your care—a lifelong dedication that you failed because you abandoned your post, Simon Iglesius-Elegado. You’re a failure. You failed at the one thing you’ve dedicated your entire life to.”
Simon put a hand to his heart again but he tightened his grip on Maria and said— “You’re right. I did fail. I ran away by myself… when I should have taken those children away with me. So they wouldn’t become like Andres. So they won’t become like you—”
“If you look at me like that again, I’ll gouge your eyes out.” Leona’s gaze slid from Simon to Maria as she slowly sank to the ground. “Those who are wayward and fail tend to be drawn together just like True Conductors are drawn together. Scorpio said something like that once. As volatile, paranoid, and erratic as Scorpio was, they were always able to see the strings that tied people together and the ones that kept them standing.”
“So… What does that make you…?” Olive half-whispered. His eyes too were like Simon’s. Glimmering just slightly with- empathy?
Yes—Maria believed she felt it too.
Look, I get it—Cadence cut through, but havin’ soft heart for the other side of the table is dangerous. Let’s not forget that there’s a saint candidate hidin’ behind that pretty face. Right, Captain?
Maria thought on this and then said more to Leona than anyone else, “Simon failed, but that does not make him a failure. There are few people who are actual failures, no?”
Leona said nothing.
Nico inched towards her again—
“If you take one step towards me,” Leona croaked, hissed, “I’ll rip your throat out with my hands.”
Maria frowned simultaneously with Werner.
“Hey, doll face, an attitude won’t get ya anywhere,” Cadence said, tugging Nico back by the back of his shirt.
Perhaps it would be best to leave her be for now, wouldn’t it? With wounds like that left untreated… she won’t last long—Atienna. She was watching from a distance as she moved the people they’d take in through the maze of Francis’s corridors. We can’t force someone to accept help if they don’t want to accept it. That’s not helping them… is it? It’s their own choice… don’t you think?
Olive looked back in her direction. “What…?”
“So we just wait for this woman to die then?” one of the Sagittarians asked in accented Common. “She’s with those outsiders—those saint candidates—is she not? What if there are mediums on her? You mentioned that Scorpio—”
“Scorpio is gone,” Jericho interjected.
Maria felt that empathy stir in her chest as she studied Leona sitting all alone against the wall. She could feel a foreign loneliness from the distance that separated them. “Why…?” Although she knew the points that separated her from both Leona and Alpha, Maria still could not fully understand either of them.
“Pride,” Jericho suggested.
Shame, Atienna reasoned.
“There’s a war waiting for you beyond the walls of your safe haven here,” Leona spoke again, breathing ragged. “While you were busy with this nonsense, Leonian troops were walking along the neutral borders of Ophiuchus towards Aquarius. Your naive intention is to use your words and political cards and cleverness and empathetic speeches to change the minds of not the governing bodies but the people, correct? The unfortunate truth is that the people will do whatever they please so long as they aren’t in the spotlight—so long as they can blame their mistakes on other people.”
“Some, maybe, yes,” Maria agreed, “but that means that there are people directly opposite, no? I do like extremes, but even I am beginning to see those are not good, yes?”
Leona gave a mirthless laugh as her gaze swept over them all. She lingered on Jericho and then Maria. “Looking at all of you turns my stomach. I don’t blame the other people you’re connected to for making this asinine decision, Maria. Your stupidity has bled into them—”
“In all honesty I’ve been stupid from the beginnin’ so if ya need ta be directin’ comments anywhere…” Cadence drew, eyeing the lake of blood forming beneath Leona’s body.
Leona leaned her head back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling. “You’re all serving the same role as Ophiuchus did back during the first war and during this centuries-long cold war. You’re going to try to stop this with all your might, but in the end you’ll pick up your weapons of war and flail them around self-righteously.”
Maria could see Francis frown.
Leona snapped to stare at Maria again before she eyed Albatross. “Will you still be proud when he too picks up a conductor and turns it on another person? How about when he steps into the line of fire at eighteen and calls it ‘strength’—as he learned from you?”
“He will learn from my mistakes.” She turned to Albatross. “Yes?”
Leona’s eyes became half-lidded but still holding Maria’s gaze. “His mistakes—all of their mistakes—will be your mistakes.”
Maria could feel the weight of Leona’s words tugging at the back of her mind. She thought of Conta and their argument, of Lita, of the chase
“Well… you can learn more from mistakes than you can from your successes, no?” she inquired, feeling the distance between Leona and her grow, grow, grow. “I have learned a lot more from the mistakes of Leo and Alpha than I have learned from their successes. I’m sure your people have learned a lot that way too.”
Leona said nothing else—and Maria could not tell what she was thinking. Werner, Jericho, Olive, and even Cadence couldn’t either. So, she held Leona’s gaze for a very, very, very long time. For a moment, as she did so, Maria remembered that specific, poignant smell that had kept her company alongside Conta for most of her childhood—where the sea met the sky at land. She could not put what she felt in those moments into words. In fact, she felt that maybe putting it into words would make that moment less golden. She felt the same way towards the things she’d seen about Leo from Epsilon—felt the same way towards her sentiments about Leona.
But Maria had the feeling that something needed to be said. Maria could see it in Leona’s eyes because Jericho could see it: Leona was looking for a reason—an answer. Maria had never been as good as Cadence with her words nor as careful as Werner—she’d never even thought about the way her words came across before she’d. Honestly—this was what made her her. The cruelty that oftentimes came with that honesty—she was certain this was something that the orphanage had given her. And she did not want it anymore.
So, after a long time of thinking, Maria settled on, “Araceli, you will be the last Leo.”
Jericho looked over at her and stared for a moment. “There will never be another Araceli. Not again.”
Simon winced slightly.
Maria understood that he did not know what she and Jericho knew—those two phrases were not words of sympathy nor cruelty. They were reassurances. Maria thought about explaining it to him later but then thought better of it—this small understanding should be kept between them only.
Leona lifted her head and straightened herself against the wall slightly. The candlelights of the room dimmed, but her eyes burned more brightly gold than ever. She took a breath and then said—“The syzygy will most likely commence at the peak of the war—when every single country in Signum has been dragged into it. Since the foundation was faulty from the beginning, it won’t take long. It most likely will happen at the end of July or August. The reservoirs will be able to sustain the syzygy fully then, and the ley lines will connect the metaphorical gears of our continent together. Pisces will be the one to initiate it, and you True Conductors will be the ones to ensure its completion.”
“Pisces…” Francis’s hand moved to his mouth.
“After that, there will be nothing. Absolutely nothing. No war, no peace.” Leona closed her eyes. “I’ll say nothing more.”
Finally, she stilled. She looked like a statue sitting there—almost no different from the faceless statues dotting the yards of the Serpens Establishment. No. Leona—Araceli—had a face.
Nico hesitantly moved forward again, but was brushed aside as someone behind him stepped forward.
“Epsilon—” Fortuna’s cut through. “What are you doing?”
“I may be a fool, but I’m not an idiot,” Epsilon said, stopping short beside Leona. “Fortuna Romano, you’re… a very manipulative woman. I know you’re just using me as Ambrose to pull the Campana’s strings. But… you do have positive qualities too. You’re really good at preparing tea, managing your business, and making sure everything gets done. You’re an exceptional person. That’s why Ambrose proposed to you—aside from the fact that you were Ricardo’s daughter. I think you still have a lot to learn though, but that’s better than having nothing to learn, right?”
Fortuna froze in place as her face folded with confusion.
Maria was also somewhat surprised. Epsilon seemed different. She was half-intrigued.
Epsilon glanced back at her, then at Jericho. “I heard you, Maria, when you were inside Alpha. I heard you loud and clear. It reminded me of a conversation I overheard between Jericho and Theta: that it’s the blemishes in a painting that really lets you appreciate the beauty of the entire thing.”
There was a beat of silence. Maria could see the ending of the story forming in her mind.
Epsilon sank down beside Leona. “Even though there are a lot of ugly things in this decade, some lovely colors still manage to shine through. Everything that you’ve built to patch over and draw over these stains—I think it’s all amazing. I could stare at it forever.” He leaned in close to study Leona’s face. “It really is amazing. Lovely.” He perked up and turned to Maria again. “Maria.”
“Yes, dear Epsilon…?”
“Can I take Araceli here with me for a little bit?”
Fortuna took in a breath.
“You… do not need my permission,” Maria answered carefully after some thought. Will you… come back? Maria wanted to ask. She’d wanted to ask Conta—Beta—this too before she’d left. But she knew that question would be similar to a command if she asked it, so she’d refrained then and she refrained now.
Epsilon beamed briefly before she turned back to Leona. “Araceli, will you let me take you on an adventure to Leo’s favorite place?”
Leona—Araceli—stirred briefly and cracked open her eyes. When her gaze landed on Epsilon, her expression betrayed nothing. Epsilon leaned in closer. She whispered into his ear. He nodded. The next moment saw Epsilon scooping Leona up into his arms and—with effort—staggering to a stand.
Turning back to them all, Epsilon nodded at Francis and asked, “Would you mind fulfilling a request from an old friend?”
Francis remained still.
“If not a friend, then maybe your favorite student?” Epsilon tried next. “Or if not your favorite, then maybe just one of your students? Or just for an old acquaintance?”
“Francis,” Fortuna said warningly.
“Soon there won’t be any of us left,” Epsilon continued after Francis’s prolonged silence. “Even we aren’t here forever—but everything that we’ve dropped while trying to wander in the right direction will be. Having all of that weight shed with the knowledge that someone will pick it up makes wandering both a little bit easier and a little harder, but—” He continued on Ophiuchian.
Maria could not understand him even though Jericho understood Ophiuchian. The words would not connect together in neither her mind nor Jericho’s mind.
A different dialect, perhaps…?
Whatever Epsilon said, it brought a clearly pained expression to Francis’s face. Maria was hungrily curious, but this moment—she knew—was not for her.
Francis finally approached Epsilon. He stopped short beside him and placed a hand on the gate behind him.
“Wait a moment,” Weingartner interjected. “What’s going on?”
“Francis,” Fortuna pressed, “don’t you dare—”
The gate burst open with blinding light a moment after and brought with a warm gust of wind that blew out the candles. While almost everyone else winced away at the light, Maria refused to look away. Because of this, she was able to catch a glimpse of Epsilon turning back to look at her before he stepped into the gate with Leona in tow. He spoke in Ophiuchian again—his words almost lost to the wind—but this time Maria understood him.
The hours following their departure from Ophiuchus saw Olive trying his best to find a way to return to Ophiuchus again—to the reservoirs—undetected. Cadence’s new peacekeeping contacts in touch with Alice and Gabrielle on the outside had informed them that the Conservation Department was on the scene and was keeping everyone else out of the scene. Werner and Cadence kept reiterating that returning to the reservoirs was dangerous—that they should wait until things calmed down before searching for Claire.
But the more they waited, the more time passed, the less likely they were to find Claire. That was how the numbers added up. That was why missing posters piled up in the General Investigations department when Jericho worked there.
Olive knew Claire was still alive because Andres was still alive—unconscious still but stowed safely away into the room they’d converted into a mini-clinic. Though—Claire had fallen into the reservoir. So maybe the reason Andres was alive was because Claire’s body had fallen into it—no. Olive refused to think about that. Instead he thought of what would happen if the saint candidates—what remained of them—found Claire. They’d lock him up, wouldn’t they?
Olive had left the reservoirs with the intention of going back to find Claire, so just not following through with it felt…?. It was like he had chosen his own safety over Claire’s. The guilt gnawed at his stomach as did the thought of the cold possibility that he’d never see Claire ever again.
“I understand how you feel, Olive, and I’m sorry,” Werner told him after they left the room Maria had arrived in—the room Leona had departed from. He rested a hand on Olive’s head before moving it down to the side of his face. “However, returning to the reservoirs now would be unwise. You will endanger not only yourself but others as well. Please be patient.”
Olive knew if he argued hard enough, Werner would crack. The protect, protect, protect was just too powerful. But Olive couldn’t even think of doing that to Werner. So instead, Olive gave the man a tight hug before they all went their separate ways for the time being.
Olive was soon joined by Felix and Derik as he passed through into another room. Neither man said anything and instead kept at his heels. While Derik was something akin to an ironically calming presence, Felix’s quiet footsteps stirred anxiety and acted as a reminder.
Still Olive was confident that if he tried hard enough, he could make his way in undetected. There were plenty of gates scattered around the reservoirs now. The peacekeepers couldn’t possibly have found all of them.
But when Olive tried one of the gates while shouting ‘Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs’, nothing happened. Not when he said the word differently. Not when he jammed the proto-conductor against the gate. Not when he shouted louder, jammed harder. Francis just wouldn’t open the gate for him.
Felix grabbed his arm and pressed, “Why?” His eyes were wide and wild.
Derik pried him from Olive but didn’t shove Felix back like Olive expected. Instead, Derik said, “Calm the fuck down. It’s not his fault.”
A passing Sagittarian who Olive recognized as being one of Weingartner’s men noticed them and said, “None of the gates to Ophiuchus are open now. They’re closed. “You—you’re that Ariesian prince, aren’t you?” Before Olive could respond, the man turned his attention to Felix. “That mask. Are you a vassal of the Seong Clan royal famil—”
“No one gives a fuck.” Derik sneered at the man. “Move the fuck on.”
The Sagittarian frowned at this but did as Derik asked.
Olive wished the man had stayed. Because then at least he would have a temporary distraction—which he knew was an awful thing to think. If he had known that he couldn’t go back immediately then he wouldn’t have left the reservoirs. He would’ve stayed. He’d just made the same mistake again—assuming things. He’d assumed that Trystan and Marta couldn’t be saved. He’d assumed that the peacekeepers had left. He had assumed that person whom he had let into the royal palace on the day of the tragedy had good intentions. All of his problems—
Olive didn’t know how long he stood there staring at the wall. He did know Felix stared and stood just as long as he did.
“Brat.” Derik grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around. “Look, I’m sorry for what happened to the other brat—it sucks. But shit happens—”
“He’s not dead,” Olive argued.
“Didn’t fucking say he was,” Derik interjected. “Like I said shit happens and so you do shit to make it the way you want it to be. I say let’s fucking grab that depressed-looking chain-smoking Geminian back there, put a fucking gun to his head, and—”
“What?” Olive did a double-take. “We can’t do that.”
“So why the fuck are you moping around for? It looks pathetic.” Derik sighed. He didn’t sound angry or irritable. “Don’t you have other things to do?”
“The Torrine people,” Derik explained. “You know—your fucking people.” He sighed and crossed his arms. “Look. I don’t want you to fucking mope later and say, ‘Oh woe is fucking me. I should’ve fucking paid more fucking attention to my people instead of wallowing in my own shit.’ Gives me a headache.”
Olive felt like he’d been slapped in the place. Torrine. Trystan’s parents—
“No matter what you fucking do, you’ll feel guilty about not doing the opposite thing. Regret or whatever. That’s the way it fucking works.” Derik lifted his chin. “That’s why I don’t think about it and just move onto the next thing.”
“But, it’s Claire…” Olive whispered.
“I know.” Derik frowned. “But you don’t want to put a gun to the chain smoking depressed bastard’s head, so you can’t get where you want to get. So, just do fucking something you can do. Be useful.”
Derik was right. The people of Torrine were his responsibility. He needed to make sure they were okay and that they knew what the situation was.
Olive placed the proto-conductor to the gate again.
“Wait—here are you going…?” Felix whispered, falling more into his shadow.
“I…” Olive looked back at him and felt faint. “Wait—I need to tell Eunji and Soha first… I…”
“You know where they are?” Derik asked.
“You know where the Torrine guys are at?”
“Efficiency,” Derik said with an air of finality.
—like Werner’s lists. But…
Olive reached out an awkward hand and placed it on Felix’s shoulder. “Felix, you should find Soha and Eunji—and Arjun too. I’m not sure if I’d be the right person to let them know first. Just… let them know and let them know that I will find him. I’ll find you all and explain more after—”
“I can’t return to them until I find Claire,” Felix interjected. “I’ll follow you until I find Claire.”
Olive couldn’t refuse him.
* * *
After speaking with the Torrine people for a half hour, Olive exited their room and entered one deemed for storage to collect his thoughts— tailed by Derik and Felix again. Hard to have time for his own thoughts with two tall, brooding, ill-tempered men flocking behind him.
Mr. Carter and Ms. Carter had been—as always—understanding. Olive couldn’t quite understand how people like them could exist. When he apologized for their situation, informed them that their connections to him put them in danger, and that he would take responsibility for them, they assured him that they already knew this fact. They only asked if the Trystan Project would be completed—and he promised that it would. He even promised that they’d be compensated for their time away from the project—something that they both refused. When he tried to explain what had really happened to Trystan—he couldn’t bring himself to explain that Trystan could’ve been saved— they offered to help in any way that they could.
There were some Torrine townspeople who were disgruntled, of course—and Olive found a strange relief in this. He reasoned with them the best as he could before deeming Mr. Carter the Torrine room’s temporary defacto leader.
Brushing his thoughts temporarily aside, Olive took a quick scan of the room, took note of the crates of wheat, seeds, and flour stacked in the far corners. He took a seat on top of one of the crates and began to rub his hands down his face. A flash of black out of the corner of his eye stopped him short. Lavi.
Wordlessly, she sank down onto her knees in front of him and held his face in her hands. The behavior threw him in for a loop so did her arms falling around him.
“It’ll be okay, Ollie, because…”
He froze for a moment before embracing her back—
“Can you hear it?” she whispered suddenly. “It’s close. It all returns to nothing.”
Olive snapped open his eyes just in time to see Lavi fade from his vision.
He didn’t have the time to even fully digest what had happened before a familiar draft of wind breezed through the room. He looked up from his hand just in time to see two silhouettes illuminated by the open gate across from him. The two people he wanted to see least but also the two he needed to see the most.
“T-There you are…” Eunji stammered, face flushed as she stumbled hesitantly forward. Her eyes darted to Felix and her face brightened further. “Felix!”
Soha froze in place. “Felix, where is the prince?”
The shy smile on Eunji’s face froze. Her eyes darted around the room. Still smiling, “Where… is my brother?”
Felix dropped like a rock to his knees and touched his forehead to the ground. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I failed you. I failed my duty. I don’t deserve to bear the Seong Clan name. I failed. I failed—”
The gate behind Eunji flashed open. Arjun, looking fatigued and disoriented, stepped into the room. When he seemed to register them all, his expression sobered.
Eunji’s smile slid from her face as her cheeks paled. “Felix, what are you saying…? Where’s my brother….?”
Felix crawled forward, shakily reaching out to touch Eunji’s ankle. “I’m sorry—”
Soha reached down and picked Felix up by the scruff of his shirt. Felix remained limp like a doll as she ripped his mask from his face revealing his distraught, desperate, pained expression.
Olive rushed forward, pushing Soha and Felix apart. “Stop it! It wasn’t his fault! It just… happened… so quickly—”
Soha pulled her own mask from her face, revealing her burning eyes.
The world spun.
“Soha, stop it,” Eunji whispered—her voice barely a whisper. “Please, stop it. I don’t understand what’s happening…”
Eventually, Soha released Felix. The younger man collapsed into her arms, but instead of shoving him away like Olive expected, the older woman held him there.
The world spun even faster.
Someone—he didn’t know him—asked Felix what had happened. Felix stumbled nonsensically over his words. Olive tried to explain but the words and events refused to connect together in his mind. He didn’t know why it was so hard to explain it—it wasn’t like Claire was dead after all. So why—
“The… peacekeepers who were guarding the reservoirs earlier—they came back and began to attack,” Arjun explained. “Claire was holding them off but something broke his concentration…” He paused, taking in a breath. “And then….”
“And then…?” Eunji pressed, whipping around. “And then?” Her voice became high-pitched, her breathing labored.
“He was shot,” Arjun answered. “He fell into the reservoir. Eunji, I’m… sorry—”
“But we… we made sure that the peacekeepers left”—Eunji’s voice was high-pitched now—“He gave me an easy, stupid job because he just wanted me to go away. And I—I did it.. I—is this my fault…?”
Soha’s eyes widened and she reached out to hold Eunji’s shoulder. “No, it’s mine.” She turned to Arjun. Although her voice came out calm, her eyes still burned “I don’t understand. We sent the peacekeepers away. I made sure of it. I—”
“Claire is just pulling another trick, isn’t he?” Eunji pressed, stepping forward. “He put you up to this, Olive. He’s always pulling stupid stuff like this.”
Olive didn’t know what to say. No—he did know what to say, but he couldn’t bring himself to say and he didn’t know why. ‘Claire’s alive.’
“It’s no one’s fault,” Arjun said quietly, hands coming together in front of him. Finally, he too looked lost for words. “No one’s.”
“I don’t understand…” Eunji murmured again. “What happened to Claire…?” When silence answered her, her eyes widened like saucers and her knees buckled beneath her. The wave of grief that washed over her was visible from a mile away. “No….”
Since Olive was closer to her than Felix and Soha, he caught her first and held her upright. She grabbed fistfuls of his shirt before burying her face into his shoulder which became soaked in an instant. Each tremble that went through her body, shook him to his core.
Olive moved to hold her just like he would hold Lavi—just like how Lavi had just held him. He muttered, shaking his head, “Wait, wait. Claire is still alive out there.”
Soha and Arjun straightened at this.
“Andres is still alive so Claire’s still alive too,” Olive tried to explain as he peeled Eunji away. He stared into her eyes. “He’s not awake, but he is alive.”
“You said that before,” Arjun interjected, “when we were at the reservoirs. What do you mean?”
“One of the True Conductors connected to Claire—his name is Andres,” Olive explained. “He helped us get everyone out of the detention center. He’s… connected to Claire like I said. Sigrid too—we need to find her…” He shook his head. “For True Conductors—we all die when one of us dies, and if one of us is alive that means all of us are alive—”
The name Shion Myositis appeared in his mind.
Correlation, not causation.
Olive pushed the fact aside.
“I…” Eunji’s lips quivered. “I don’t understand, but you’re saying that Claire is okay…? But Arjun said he was—”
“Look. I just learned that the last time I gave up on something…” Olive grimaced as he recalled . “It turned out that it could’ve been fixed if I just… if I didn’t give up. So sometimes you just need to do the stupid thing and keep going.”
Eunji’s face contorted in slight confusion.
“I… don’t know where Sigrid is….” Olive rambled on. “…b-but Andres is here, and Andres is alive. I’m going to go back to the reservoirs when things calm down and look for him—”
“We shouldn’t wait,” Soha interjected. “We must search immediately—”
“We can’t go now. It’s too dangerous. None of the gates in Ophiuchus are going to open for you—”
“Then I’ll exit outside of Ophiuchus and enter from there,” Soha said.
“I’ll come too,” Felix insisted.
“I… me too,” Eunji whispered, looking lost. “I—”
“It’s too dangerous for you to come, my lady,” Soha said kindly down to her. “You must remain here—”
“It’s…” Olive hesitated. “It’s too dangerous for anyone to go into Ophiuchus right now. The security’ll be… I don’t think you’ll be able to make it to the reservoirs on foot. But I promise. We will find him. Cadence has peacekeepers that she’s talking to, and we have Gabrielle and Alice too. They’ll keep an eye out for us. I promise. We will go as soon as everything is clear. I’ll come with you.”
“You expect us to wait around?” Soha questioned calmly.
Olive didn’t answer her. He didn’t know how to.
“Wait…” Eunji wiped her cheeks, gripped his shirt, searched Olive’s face. “Can I… see Andres?”
Olive pulled back a little bit more and saw a faint glimmer of desperate hope in Eunji’s eyes that looked a little bit too familiar. He nodded.
Arjun took a step back suddenly. “I will need to return to my country.”
“What…?” Olive stared at him, then recoiled. “What? Why? Look. You might not be a True Conductor, but you still have connections with us. Even though Scorpio’s not there anymore, you’re still…. You’re not exactly a ‘politically important person’ anymore, but you’re a potential saint candidate, so—”
Arjun held up a hand. “I am grateful for your consideration. However, Ophiuchus is in shambles as a peacekeeping organization. I understand there are those with good intentions within the organization, but they will be too preoccupied with what just happened to do their jobs effectively. There needs to be someone on the throne who keeps us out of the war—out of this syzygy that the saint candidates appear to desire.”
“I am not saying that should be me,” Arjun amended. “But I need to ensure that when father” —he glanced at Eunji— “passes, the person who ascends will do what is right. I would prefer that person to be… Claire, however…” He paused, collecting himself. “I will not tell the courts about what happened to him. In order to keep the Seong Clan safe, I will tell them that Claire is out on another diplomatic voyage with the Ariesian prince. That is not too far from the truth anyways.” He extended a hand out to Eunji.
Eunji, still appearing dazed, accepted the handshake.
Arjun then held out a hand for Olive.
Uncertainly, Olive returned the gesture.
A day after the Ophiuchus catastrophe, Cadence was traversing through the gates with a handful of newspaper articles about Gemini’s recent debacles—
NEW SAINT CANDIDATE OF GEMINI SELECTED. MORE DETAILS IN FOLLOWING ISSUE.
IN A SURPRISING TURN OF EVENTS, GEMINI OFFERING SUPPLY ASSISTANCE TO AQUARIAN FRONTLINE. GOING AGAINST THEIR ARIESIAN TIES?!
GEMINIAN V-EHICLS CARRYING SUPPLIES ATTACKED BY. GEMINIAN DRIVERS TAKEN INTO CANCERIAN BORDERS. WILL NOT BE RELEASED UNTIL GEMINI MEETS CANCER’S DEMANDS.
RENOWN GEMINIAN WAR HERO NIL ALBERO PUSHES MINISTRY AND PRESIDENT TO RETALIATE AGAINST INJUSTICE.
Cadence’d gotten real good at reading recently. Too bad the tabloids she used to make Werner, Atienna, or Jericho read out to her were being pushed off the papers in favor of stories like these. Stories? News.
She needed to deliver these papers to HQ so they could stay updated on what was going on in Signum. Which was a lot.
Honestly, HQ was starting to feel more and more like a newsroom than anything else. The handful of times she stopped by, she found Werner and his captain buried to their heads in paper. Looked much more ridiculous in person than through Werner’s eyes.
She decided to make a pit stop in the piano room before delivering the papers this time around though. Figured that a little bit of jazz would probably bring up the others’ moods up by a notch or two.
When she arrived in the piano room, however, she found a different sort of audience waiting for her. Allen and Carl were sitting side-by-side on the sofa against the wall. Nico lay sprawled out on the adjacent couch with his arm over his eyes. Fortuna was sitting at the table in the corner of the room by herself.
Before Cadence could say a hello, the gate opposite to her opened and Francis entered. Nico stirred from his sleep and looked between them. He waved sleepily. Cadence waved back.
“So where’s Ambrose Campana?” Allen asked an immediate beat after.
Francis glanced at him. “Gone.”
“You could’ve given us a head’s up, Francis,” Fortuna said with a sigh, “before letting my husband elope with another woman.”
“You could’ve given me a heads up about dealing out the chlorowheat,” Francis responded, eyes narrowing.
There was a beat of tension.
Francis looked away. “Sorry. That was childish of me.”
Cadence handed Nico the stack of papers and sank down at the piano at the other corner of the room. A meowing sound notified her that Alice—the kitten—was somewhere in her vicinity. After a thorough investigation, she found the little white ball of fur tucked behind the music rack. She reached out to scratch behind its ear and snickered as it purred.
It was probably hiding from Werner’s dog. They’d brought Fenrir in without really thinking of how Fenrir would adapt to life inside Francis’s rooms. Rather, Werner had a little bit too much faith in Fenrir’s good behavior—a rare slip for the Captain. Long story short—Fenrir and Alice didn’t get along too well and had to be kept separately.
Drama in the human kingdom and the animal kingdom, it seemed.
Cadence pulled back her hand and cracked her knuckles. “How about a song? I’ll play all of ya a song. For old time’s sake.” She didn’t wait for an answer and slammed her hands onto the C-chord. She continued on, not quite playing to any music sheet. Just playing what felt right.
Francis drifted over and sat down beside her.
Fortuna walked over too, leaned against the wall beside the piano, crossed her arms. She looked down at Francis. “It was clear as day that there was something between Epsilon and this Leo. They made googly eyes at each other the entire time.” A pause. “Were they lovers or something?”
“You jealous, Fortuna?” Allen asked, pulling out a v-cig and lighting with a flick of his wrist.
“Allen, please,” Fortuna scoffed.
“Ya know that Fortuna makes people fall for her,” Cadence said, switching her playing to a slower pace. “Not the opposite way around.”
“They weren’t lovers by the way.” Francis studied Cadence’s hands for a moment. “What would you consider a lover anyways? The Common word for ‘love’ has roots in almost all of the languages of this continent. That just highlights the importance of that word to us, doesn’t it? So… is a lover someone who gives you a passionate kiss? A friend who hugs you in your time of need? A family member who hides something from you in hopes of sparing you pain? A stranger who offers you a temporary escape?”
For a moment, Cadence thought of Alma. Just briefly. Her mind went to the news article she had separated from the rest and discarded—
SINGER ALMA MIRRAGIO RETURNS FROM A LONG ABSENCE AND BRINGS SONG OF HOPE ‘LIBERTÀ’ TO THE CONTINENT. SONG TOPS CHARTS.
Alma didn’t really match any of those definitions Francis was listing out. The other five and everyone in this room on the other hand? The bratty kids?
—eh… too sappy again. Really not like her to think like this.
Carl arched his brow. “Uh… honestly, Francis, this mumbo-jumbo—er, not mumbo-jumbo but ‘philosophy’—stuff’s a bit too much sometimes. Lovers are lovers.”
“Carl.” Francis gave a half-sigh. “It was just food for thought.”
Carl scratched the back of his head and crossed his arms. “Well, I ain’t hungry.”
“Keeping Epsilon here was keeping the Campanas in check and that saint candidate is trouble,” Allen said. “Letting people run off like that is dangerous, Francis. We can’t do things like this. Do anything that disturbs the structure of things. Especially now.”
Fortuna rubbed her arms and then asked, “What did Epsilon say to you, Francis? Why did you let him go?”
“In a perfect world, everyone would be given a brief moment of freedom,” Francis replied, vaguely “even if it is just a blip. That’s what Omicron believed. The understanding that they too were only children…”
“Freedom or escape?” Allen arched a brow and took a puff of his v-cig. “Blip or an illusion?” He sighed.
“Well, it happened already, hasn’t it?” Nico murmured. “Nothing we can do to change it now, so there’s no point in keepin’ with pokin’ the topic, is there?”
Francis studded Nico and then his brother with a frown before returning his attention to the piano keys. “There are uncertain times ahead. What lies ahead cannot even be compared to an uphill climb anymore. It’s more correct to liken it to trying to reach the stars.”
Cadence stopped playing and nudged him in the arm. “Well, all we need ta do is throw your proto-conductor up there and smash it, right? Open your gate and we have direct access, right?”
Francis finally chuckled.
There was no cessation to motion even after the operation concluded. The individuals who were part of the evacuation quadrants needed to be informed of their predicament and what the rules of their say were. Nico, who was given the role as head medical officer, was tasked with managing the medical room and the medical Conductors they had on board. Though Nico had seemed nervous about this role at first, he stepped into it rather well—when he wasn’t in the presence of his father.
At the moment, Werner was putting together the news articles Cadence had recently brought him. He had just returned from a brief covert expedition to Polovinastadt with Kramer and Knovak. The town had been desolate when they had arrived, and there had been military officers from both Aquarius and Capricorn stationed at the inn in the town. From reconnaissance, they had been able to gather that those officers were part of a new joint squad responsible for hunting down deserters.
The situation was worsening at a rapid pace.
Since it was late into the night, Weingartner and his team had retired for the day. The other five were also asleep for the night—though Cadence had stayed up later than usual. Werner understood her reasoning and felt both shame and comfort from her intentions.
Werner sensed the gate in the corner of the room opening from the draft of wind. He looked up to find Gilbert and Greta side-by-side in front of the gate.
Werner asked after evaluating their condition. They both appeared exhausted. “Did you need something?”
“My mom is still giving me hell.” Gilbert sighed as he walked over to the sofa pressed up against the wall. He threw himself onto it. “No one appreciates it when you break an arm and leg for them. People just love to complain. She was like ‘where are the windows?’ Ma, I don’t know where the fucking windows are!” He touched his limb. “Making a big dramatic deal every single time…” He shrugged. “Other than that, everything is as good as it usually is.”
Greta gave him a sympathetic smile and rubbed his shoulder. She looked back up at Werner and said, “Nico’s really good at keeping everyone in order, so it hasn’t been too difficult on my end.”
Werner set down his papers and walked over to the two. “You’ve both been performing well.” He paused, considering. “I’m truly grateful for your assistance—”
“No need to thank us.” Gilbert waved a lazy hand in the air. “We should be thanking you for letting us hop on. Knowing the Kaiser, he’d probably send both of our parents to the field to fight with their canes.”
Greta chuckled. “I’m pretty sure your mom wouldn’t like it too much if you paired her with a cane already.”
Werner refrained from commenting on the subject and instead said, “You should rest both rest for the day.” He reached for Gilbert’s head. “Gilbert—”
Gilbert caught Werner by the wrist and then stared at his hand bewildered. “Werner… what the fuck is this?”
Greta looked between them in slight confusion.
Werner retracted his hand as he felt embarrassment rise from his stomach and touch his cheeks. “It… was a force of habit. I apologize.”
“Werner, you asked me to keep you straight,” Gilbert drew, clasping his hands together. “I know I fucked up—”
Werner felt his palms itch.
“—but since you asked me that, that means we’re on equal grounds. That means you don’t pat me on the head like you do with the brat and that swindler. Handshake, hug—that’s cool. Anything else and it just feels… I don’t know.”
Werner hesitated. “I understand. That was inappropriate of me. I apologize—”
Gilbert sighed and waved a hand. “No, fuck it. Forget it. I made it awkward.” He rubbed his hand wrist and looked over at Greta before eyeing Werner. “Well you too, Werner. It’s past midnight. You should get some rest too.”
There was a stretch of silence.
Werner knew they were all thinking about the same incident.
* * *
When Werner was not preoccupied with ensuring that operations were running smoothly so they could enact the next step of the operation with little to no setback, he was visiting his mother. His mother had her own room separate from the others. In this room resided his family as well. This setup had been suggested by Nico himself as mother’s condition was continuing to deteriorate and Nico believed that familial support would help keep her well.
Werner did not speak often when he came to his family’s room. There were no words that needed to be exchanged past the debriefing he had provided them about their current predicament: vitae, syzygy, saint candidates. He did not inform them of the issue with chlorowheat, however, as that was not relevant to the situation. And he was not ready yet to speak of it.
After his father had come to terms with the situation, the man had remained by his perspective: regardless of Capricorn’s actions and intentions, they should have remained to support their country. The country had provided for them land and wealth and had been built by their ancestors. Turning away would not only be dishonorable of themselves but also dishonorable to the Capricornians before them who had defended their homeland. Viktoria and Ludwig did not seem to share the same sentiment. Werner knew it was not so long ago that he would have agreed with his father’s sentiments.
However, he had decided loyalty should be given to the people, not the land. It was the people who remained loyal to you, after all, even after you strayed. And Werner would not go against this. In the end, his raison d’être remained to protect.
There was no argument despite the disagreement between their perspectives.
Werner thus spent this day too sitting at his mother’s bedside and holding her weakening hand even though his itched in hers.
* * *
After visiting Mother, Werner headed to the storage room of the room network for a drink of water. He was expecting to have the room to himself given the fact that few had access to this room and given the lateness of the hour, so he was surprised to find that the room was occupied by a figure.
It was Nico, sitting on a wooden crate against the wall and sipping from a glass of milk.
Nico perked up at his arrival and waved. “You’re still up, Captain?” He then tapped the space beside him.
Werner hesitated for a moment before taking the offered seat.
“How’re you doin’?” Nico asked, reaching back into the great behind him and procuring a glass of milk from the crate behind him. He handed it to Werner.
Werner accepted it with slight confusion but decided milk would be an acceptable drink to quench his thirst.
“Any symptoms still? Any headaches?”
Werner shook his head. “Thank you for asking.” He unscrewed the cap. “Are you doing well?”
Nico shrugged. “Fakin’ it until I make it. My dad did say he was proud of me earlier—which was the most uncomfortable thing ever.”
“I apologize for the added stress.” Werner closed the cap. “I should have given you more time to consider the position—”
“No. It’s good for my resume, Captain. It’s good to be pushed out of my comfort zone every once in a while. Don’t worry.” Nico reached over and took the cap from him. “I… heard about what happened to Olive’s friend… Is he doing okay? Are you doin’ okay?”
Werner took a sip of the milk. Claire: another failure to protect. Olive: suffering because of that failure. Another failure in itself. Like Otto, Magda, Henning, Klaus, Emilia, Alwin, and the ones whose name tags he collected.
The reality was that he could not live up to his reason for living. It was almost unbearable. Wallowing in it was unproductive, but his thoughts felt as if they were being forced back into this cycling pattern of thinking.
“Hey, thanks for savin’ me earlier,” Nico said suddenly. “You really saved me—protected me—there.”
Werner looked up at the word and then felt his chest warm at the sincerity of Nico’s expression. “Just try to stay more alert when you’re in combat.”
Nico sighed. “Yeah… Got it, Captain.”
Werner stared at the milk in his hands for a while and counted 60 ticks of the pocketwatch tucked inside his shirt pocket. Finally, he said, “I… should be thanking you, Nico. You’re the one who—”
Nico tapped his shoulder.
Werner turned. He quieted when he realized that it was not Nico’s hand that had tapped his shoulder but Nico’s head. It appeared as if Nico had dozed off. He looked calm, peaceful. He must have been exhausted.
Werner considered waking him for a moment and then considered carrying him to a bed. He reconsidered the options. One would be too discourteous and the other too inappropriate. After weighing his other options, Werner settled on slowly leaning back against the wall—careful as to not disturb Nico—and closing his eyes.
“Where are they?”
Atienna, who had been weaving through the rooms with Sefu and answering the questions of the different parties that now occupied their shared living space, was familiar with this question. When she turned on her heels, she pictured the layout of Francis’s catacombs inside of her head and poised herself to give an answer. She froze as soon as she registered who it was that stood behind her.
Sefu placed folded his fingers into the shape of an M, placed his hand on his chest, and bowed his head.
“Where is my family, Atienna?” Safiyah demanded. “Why am I here while they are out there?” She abruptly shoved a crumpled, damp newspaper article into Atienna’s hands.
Atienna glanced down and read it—
VIRGO SHOWS SIGNS OF RETURNING TO ISOLATIONIST POLICIES. OPENING THEIR GATES AND BORDERS FOR REFUGEES FOR A SHORT TIME.
“I don’t understand why you can’t go out and get them,” Safiyah pressed. “I understand everything you told me about the saint candidates and this reservoir and this syzygy, but—”
The people who were lounging around the room were beginning to stare. The candlelight flickered. Sefu looked to her.
“Safiyah…” Atienna averted her eyes. “It’s… too dangerous now. Your parents could be under the saint candidate’s watch or… even…” She crinkled the paper.
“You’re accusing my parents of working together with the saint candidates?” Safiyah gasped, baffled. “Are you serious? What about yours?”
“I didn’t bring my parents here either—”
“Because you couldn’t get to them in time,” Safiyah challenged.
“Safiyah, please don’t do this…” Atienna slowly met her friend’s gaze. “It’s more complicated than that—”
In that quiet, Atienna found herself wondering why the others were so much more adept at maintaining their relationship than she was. They were supposedly close to being one now, weren’t they? Closer in general? So then why did the distance in the relationships the other five had with people outside this circle seem to be shrinking, while her own distance seemed to be growing?
Oh, Atienna knew the answer to that question. Even if she wished she didn’t know.
“Wait… Did you… only bring me here because I was there at the time?” Safiyah’s eyes widened. “That’s it, isn’t it, Atienna…? If I wasn’t there, then you would have just left me there with all of our people.” She looked Atienna up and down. “What am I to you, Atienna….?”
Atienna couldn’t put her answer into words. Words were insufficient. So, she instead shook her head and put her hand to her mouth. “Safiyah, it’s not like that at all…”
Safiyah held up her hand before ripping the newspaper article out of Atienna’s hands. “If you will not help me, then I will figure it out myself.”
Atienna still could not find her words as she watched Safiyah retreat out from the room through a gate.
* * *
After that conversation with Safiyah, Atienna was left feeling rather faint. So, she parted from Sefu and headed alone to the room where all the adolescents and children were put in during the day. She often dropped Kamaria and Kichea off in this room. And although the two had only spent a day here so far, they seemed to enjoy the company of the other children. Atienna usually did not swing by this early because of this fact, but she wished to be in their company for a little while—Bachiru was too much and the other five seemed more than a little preoccupied. And—she wanted to bridge the distance that had grown between her and her siblings as the distance between her and the other five had shrunk.
Much to Atienna’s surprise, she didn’t find Pi tending to the rowdy children as he normally would. Instead she found all of the children asleep on the floor encircling Francis who sat by candlelight with an open picture book on his lap.
“Miss Atienna Imamu,” Francis greeted her with an air of familiarity. He gestured to Kamaria who was curled up with Kichea just beside him. “Your sisters, right? They have very wild imaginations.”
Atienna offered him a smile as she carefully stepped around the sleeping bodies. Once she reached his side, she offered a shy smile. “It runs in the family.”
“I supposed Cadence has inherited that as well then?”
He abruptly rose from his seat and beckoned for her to follow him.
They wove around the small bodies on the floor and settled in the far corner of the room by stacks of books and wax candlelight.
“Is there something I can help you with, Francis?” Atienna asked before murmuring, “Well, I suppose I should introduce myself first—”
“Cadence tells me you enjoy literature.” Francis began flipping through the picture book. “Do you have any recommendations for me?”
“Oh…” Atienna looked over at her siblings. “I should be the one asking you for recommendations, don’t you think?” When Francis didn’t answer, she said, “I feel as if the only author I can recommend to you that wouldn’t be embarrassing to recommend would be… have you heard of Kovich?”
Francis placed his hand to his chin as if in thought. “Ah, that author. He’s the one who wrote that line about value and villainy, right?”
Atienna nodded. “It’s the one passage I remember best from his writing.”
“Yes, there is some truth to those words,” Francis mumbled. “A nihilistic, cold outlook. However… if you were to value everyone the same, would you truly be valuing anyone at all? The word he opted to use: ‘value’—is that not a word used for objects? Perhaps his intended audience for that passage is people who tend to view people as objects.”
Atienna pondered the idea. “I wonder…”
“It is not my intention to eavesdrop,” Francis started suddenly, “but I overheard your tumult with your friend.”
Atienna was somewhat taken aback by the directness but offered a genial smile nonetheless. “Gossip travels surprisingly fast.”
Francis smiled briefly. “There is an old saying that relates friends as to holding up mirrors to you. Through those mirrors, you are both able to see parts of yourself that you were unable to see before and improve yourself from that reflection.” He stared into the candlelight between them. “I do find some truth in those words. However, there is also truth in the fact that the closer that friend moves towards you, the closer the mirror comes. Soon, you will be unable to discern your whole image through that reflection. Only a small facet is revealed.”
Atienna wondered if his intention was to comfort her. She thought of Maria and Conta, studied her siblings, and said in the silence that followed, “I heard from someone close to me once that it was only from a distance that she was able to see how important that other person was to her.”
“Value again, is it?” Francis hummed. “Perhaps I need to reassess my prior thought.”
Atienna shared the sentiment.
“Where is Talib…?”
Jericho turned and found Ferris standing behind him. Her hair was a soft brown color. Intuition: she had washed out the dye. She looked very different without it. No color. Jericho was not sure if he liked it more like this or the other way.
“Hi, Jericho.” Ferris smiled faintly. She wrung her hands. “I should probably be asking how you’re doing before asking where Talib is…” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “So… how are you doing?”
Jericho offered a thumbs up. “How are you? And your family?”
“We’re settling in alright.” Ferris offered a kind smile. “I saw… Mladen the other day. I was surprised…” She shook her head. “Oh—this is unrelated but—I was hoping I could put my hands more into the… operation you have here. I’m still a peacekeeper, and I still have my training behind me. I can be of assistance—whether it’s clerical work or research work you need.”
Jericho nodded. “Yes, Werner said he wanted you.”
“Your clerical and research skills. From the Assignment Department,” Jericho elaborated. “Werner says you are good. He says you should come to HQ. You will be an ‘asset.’”
Ferris nodded slowly. “And Werner is…”
“My friend. No, something more.”
“Something more…?” Ferris appeared confused.
“A True Conductor connected to me,” Jericho tried again. “You met him once. Maybe. He’s a little bit taller than me. Hair: blonde. He always looks serious.” He paused, staring. “He likes baking. He is called Cold Eye.”
“But before that.” Jericho gestured to the gate across form them. “You want to see Talib? I think he would like more company.”
* * *
Talib had not been placed in a room with other people. No. Talib had a solitary room. There was only one gate painted onto the wall of the room, a bed, a table beside the bed, and twelve candles. Werner had put very strict rules on who could enter the room: only Jericho, Atienna, Maria, and Werner himself could enter the room unaccompanied; medical Conductors and any other visitors had to be accompanied by either Maria, Werner or Jericho himself; and there were not to be groups of more than three people in Talib’s room at once.
Talib was laying in the metal frame of the bed like he usually was. There was a handcuff on each of his wrists: long-chained and connected to the frame of the bed. The soft blanket Jericho had brought in earlier was still pulled over him. Talib was still motionless, eyes closed.
“He…” Ferris stared.
“He always sleeps,” Jericho said as he led Ferris to the three wooden chairs placed exactly two meters away from the bed. “Like Andres.”
Ferris put her hand to her mouth as she leaned forward. “Did it… not work—”
“It worked,” Jericho said quickly. “It worked.”
Ferris bit her lip as she stared over at Talib.
“You look ‘nervous’.”
“Everything is just…. spiraling so fast.” Ferris muttered. “I remember when it was just us—when Izsak was here. Everything seemed so much simpler back then. Sometimes I think if I close my eyes real hard and open them again—everything will go back to normal.”.
After a pause, Jericho said, “Normal.”
Ferris offered him a sympathetic smile. “I’m only talking about myself now. How… do you feel?”
Jericho stared. “Okay.”
“I meant…” Ferris wrung her hands again. “About that ELPIS Leader… Alpha. I know we haven’t spoken much because of the elections, but I heard people—the children—talking around here. About you and Alpha. He… was the one who… forced you to do all of those things, wasn’t he?”
Oh dear. Gossip once again…
“He was the One.” Jericho looked down at his hands. “Forced? Tricked. Alice said I should not try to find closure in the people who hurt me. Addition: Alice, my friend. Not the cat.”
“Oh…?” Ferris chuckled. “There’s a cat named Alice now?”
Jericho nodded. “I don’t think it likes me.” He turned to look back at Talib. “I was not the one who put down the One. That was Maria. I wanted to bring him in. Justice. Letting him go would be undeserved. He deserved less than Omega because Omega was… Francis’s friend.” He frowned. “But: Maria is connected to me. She brought down my conducting on Alpha.”
“I see… How… did you feel?”
“I don’t know,” Jericho replied, “but Maria felt sad. Correction: bad. She felt bad for him. Pity. She said she was offering him mercy.”
“Mercy?” Ferris’s brows raised as her face paled. “You… seem to be connected to very interesting people…”
Jericho nodded, continuing to study Talib from the distance. “I was not thinking about the One at in that moment. I was wondering—am wondering: can the others rest now?”
“Rest? Do you mean the people you’re connected to?”
Jericho shook his head. “Ayda. And the others. The other children. The ones who were with me back then. The ELPIS Leaders are not what we thought. Theta is here. The One is gone. Can they rest now? Or do they still want more?” He thought of Maria and Conta, Werner and his mother, Cadence and Francis, Olive and Claire, Atienna and Safiyah. He looked back at Ferris. “I just want them to forgive me. Is that closure?”
Ferris startled. “Closure…? I-I don’t know, Jericho…”
Jericho nodded and returned his attention to Talib.
Maria, who had been running through the maze of Francis’s rooms and tending to the children with Simon and Lita for the past two days, made a pit stop in the medical room. The room was lined with beds on wheels that were guarded by shiny poles holding up plastic bags filled with mysterious liquid. There were Sagittarians and some Ariesians running around, while the beds were occupied by familiar faces—people Maria had met herself, some that the others had met. Some of Maria’s children occupied these beds as well, and Maria offered them waves as she passed.
She headed over to the familiar corner of the room that was hidden by curtains. When she drew them back, she did not find Morandi sleeping peacefully there where she normally found him. El as not at the bedside either.
Maria whipped around, staring at Simon and Lita, before she scanned the entire room. She spotted Nico in the corner and bounded over to him. “Dear Nico! Where is… dear Morandi? Where is El?”
“Oh—Maria!” Nico, who was washing his hands in a basin at the opposite corner of the room, offered her a pleasant smile that soon became a somber one. “I was just about to go get you. They left together about two minutes ago. I cleared them for a short trip to the Pollux Bay in the Twin Cities.”
“A short trip?” Maria cocked her head.
“Maria…” Nico drew quietly. “It’s—”
Realization settled in quickly for Maria. “Simon, get Giorgio.”
* * *
Twin Cities, Gemini
Maria arrived with Giorgio, Lita, and Simon at the docks of the Pollux Bay just as the v-lights of the Dioscuri Bridge began to flicker off. The horizon was a dapple of purple and red—its faint light just barely strong enough to illuminate the ships tied to the docks and the two lone figures sitting at the end of the longest pier.
Maria briskly made her way over to the duo with the others at her tail. As she drew nearer, she came to recognize the faint outline of El and Morandi. El was standing. Morandi was sitting in a wheelchair.
Maria slowed as she neared.
El turned, startled. “Oh, Captain—”
Morandi chuckled, not yet turning. “Ah, Captain, of course you’d find me.”
Maria rounded him with Giorgio just a step behind.
“Captain,” Giorgio stammered, sinking to his knees in front of the man, “what are you doing out here? You’re not well!”
“That’s exactly why I’m out here, Giorgio,” Morandi replied.
Maria looked up at El and tightened her grip on Lita’s hand. “What is going on, dear El?”
“It’s just my time,” Morandi replied before El could. “All these years at sea haven’t been the best for my heart. My drinking habits certainly didn’t help.”
Maria felt her stomach clench. “There is always something that can be done to reverse things,” she said, “yes?”
“Sometimes damage is irreversible,” Morandi replied casually. “In the future, something like this might be reversible, but now—”
“Then I will bring the future here,” Maria insisted, getting on her knees beside Giorgio, “and then we can reverse this thing, no—”
Morandi gave her a wane smile. “I think I’m okay, Captain. Actually, I heard from the others that you performed quite an amazing feat just a few days ago. I’d like to hear about that story firsthand.”
The cold of the sea seeped into Maria’s skin. The lingering exhilaration and paradoxical calm she had felt after offering mercy to Alpha seeped from her body almost instantly as she studied Morandi’s face. His wrinkles seemed to be highlighted in the darkness as did the sunkenness of his eyes, but his face was calm.
Forcing him to stay—she did not wish to return that old habit even if…
“C-Captain,” Giorgio said, eyes wet, “don’t you… want to go see your daughter, Captain? What are you saying? Captain, we can’t sail without you—”
“You have a different captain now, Giorgio. You know that.” Morandi sighed.
Giorgio’s lips quivered.
“My daughter and I… left off on the wrong foot,” Morandi went out to explain. “We haven’t spoken in over 20 years. I send her a portion of my earnings every month.” He coughed and patted El’s hand when she touched his shoulder. “ Visiting her now… it wouldn’t give her closure. It would only give me closure. It would just bring her pain. So…” He coughed again. “Captain, would you do me a favor?”
“Would you continue to send them to my daughter?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “Here.”
Maria accepted the paper and nodded again.
“Could you do me a favor as well, El?”
El sank down beside him and nodded. “Do you need me to do something else to make you feel more comfortable?”
Morandi shook his head and then asked, “Would you mind letting me see your face?”
El froze, eyes wide.
“Well, if it’s against your personal beliefs, then that’s fine.” Morandi’s eyes became half-lidded. “Perhaps that’s something you’re saving for Andres and Andres alone. Or maybe I’m being presumptuous.”
El seemed to hesitate for a moment before she reached up and undid her veil. Dark curls emerged as the silk fell away. A tanned and freckled face, a round nose, and pink lips drawn into a nervous line.
Giorgio gasped while Simon put a hand to his chest. Maria merely took in the face she had seen in newspapers many times before—the face that Werner had been hoping to see beneath that veil. The person that was required for the next part of the operation.
“I see…” was all Morandi said. He turned back to Maria. “Now how about that story, Captain?”
“I am not as good as Conta at these things,” Maria admitted. Maybe it is because she didn’t look backwards and reflect too often—though she supposed that one couldn’t learn that way. “But I will try.”
Maria began her tale swiftly, going over the rescue in the detention center, delving into her battle with Leona, touching on her arrival at the reservoirs, and detailing Proteus’s monstrous rise and quiet defeat.
“Now that’s a glorious ending,” Morandi mused when she finished.
Maria smiled in turn.
“How many sunrises have you seen now, Captain?” he asked abruptly.
Maria, who was now sitting at the edge of the pier beside him, dipped her feet into the water. “I don’t count, dear Morandi.”
“Do you ever think about the sunrises you’ve seen after you see them?”
“I will think about this one, dear Morandi.” When Morandi didn’t answer, Maria continued quietly, “Morandi… May I have your name please?”
Morandi remained silent for a while again before he asked, “What am I to you, Maria?”
“I… don’t know yet, dear Morandi,” Maria replied after some thought. She smiled. “If you stayed a bit longer, then… maybe we could discover it, yes?”
“That’s how it is, isn’t it?” Morandi chuckled. “There will never be enough time to try it all. Even if you have the ability to do—no, try—everything, you will run out of time at some point or another. Though, I don’t think that’s quite an ending. It’s a branching point.”
Maria looked up at him.
“You are a free spirit, Maria,” he said. “I personally think that should mean that you have freedom from loneliness too. You shouldn’t ever travel alone for too long.”
Maria thought of Leona and then nodded in agreement.
Morandi smiled. “You can have my name, Maria.”
For the rest of the time, they sat in silence watching the sun rise over the ports of the Twin Cities.
When the sun was a quarter way up in the sky, Maria looked over at Morandi and immediately froze. His eyes were closed, his face pale, his wrinkles seemingly frozen in place. He had passed, she realized.
Behind her, she could hear Simon chanting a Monadic prayer. Giorgio was weeping. Lita was squeezing her hand. Maria stared at the man in disbelief before she pulled Lita in closer to her. After a pause, she reached out to touch Morandi’s face. Briefly, she recalled the first moment she had met him on board his ship. He was at her feet—calling her a monster. And ever since then he had kept by her side.
The sun was warm, the ocean was cold, and she felt…? She was not sure what to feel.
This was a natural part of life: death. The ending of a story like Leo’s. No—stories didn’t end as Morandi had said. They didn’t flow in just one direction. They expanded outwards, branching out at different points.
Maria slowly retracted her hand from Morandi’s face and turned to face El who was beginning to wrap her face back up in her veil. “You know what I am about to ask you, yes?”
“There are always people who run, people who stay, people who worship, people who follow, people who lead,” Maria said. “It is good to not get stuck in one of those categories for a long time, yes?”
“I will be there with you every step of the way,” Maria said. “It is up to you, but you have seen the result of how our country does thing, no? What happens to people like Araceli and Andres and me? If you have support and you can do it, then why not do it, yes?”
At Andres’s name, El stiffened.
Maria Gloria-Morandi offered her hand. After a long stretch of silence, Ilunaria Solnaciente accepted it.
* * *
The others left with Morandi’s body shortly after. Only Maria and Lita remained at the docks with their feet dipping into the war. The sun was halfway up the sky now. There were people starting move around on the docks behind them.
The sun was hot. The water was cold. Still, Maria did not know exactly what she felt.
Maria turned to find Jericho’s image appearing behind her. Jericho waved. Maria waved back. Jericho sank down beside her.
“I will sit here with you.”
Olive appeared beside him a blink after.
“Does this… feeling ever go away?” Maria wondered, blinking away the burning in her eyes.
Lita tightened her grip on her hand.
“No, it doesn’t,” Olive muttered as he looked down at the wood of the pier. “It’s always there.” He looked back at her. “But—you know—when you end up being dragged out to places with different people… experience more things, different things… it gets better…”
Maria wished she could have done those things with Morandi.
“We can’t stay out in the open like this for long.”—Werner’s voice cut through as he appeared beside her. He scanned the docks behind her and seemed to keeping track of who went and came. “Scorpio may no longer be an adversary, but that doesn’t immediately mean that we will not be watched when we leave Francis’s domain. We also have to consider Scorpio being rebaptized. “ He turned back to her, studied her for a moment, and then reached out to thumb away the tear that stained her left cheek. “Are you ready to go back?”
Shaking her head, Maria murmured, “There was so much more to see—things we could do. He was old, but he was young.”
“That’s how it happens, sunshine,” Cadence said, popping up from behind her and then falling into a crouch. “People go, ya regret not doin’ somethin’ else, start reminiscin’ about the past. It’s okay ta regret, sunshine, but it’s good ta be glad that ya had time ta begin with.”
Maria remained silent as she squeezed Lita’s hand.
Atienna arrived next and placed her hands on Maria’s shoulders. “It would be alright to watch the sun until it rises completely, don’t you think?”
In silent agreement, they watched the sun until it rose fully in the sky.
The sun was rising.
Leona observed the intricate blemishes in the buildings—the chips, bleached spots, and cracks of the city below them—carved by the climates and human hands. From this grassy cliff that oversaw it, Leona took it all in as she leaned against Epsilon’s shoulder for support.
“It’s brilliant,” Epsilon noted from beside her. “It’s beautiful, right? I think Maria took me here once. So pretty.”
“She irritates me—that woman.” Leona’s eyes narrowed as she held her abdomen.
“She was the closest shade of Leo out of all the Leo’s I’ve seen or that I’ve been shown since the first one,” Epsilon noted. “I like her.”
“You like everyone,” Leona murmured. The sunrays touched her from in-between the buildings. “She was supposed to be Leo, not me. I was supposed to go on an adventure. Proteus—that fool. Because of him, our roles became reversed. He didn’t even know what he truly wanted.”
“Do you know what you want, Araceli?” Epsilon asked innocently. “The syzygy? To work with us again?”
Leona remained silent.
“Everything that Leo built and helped build is still standing,” Epsilon continued, gesturing towards the town. “It’s really amazing to think about, isn’t it? The past touching the present touching the future.” He rattled on.
“Why are you so loyal, Epsilon?” Leona asked.
Epsilon quieted and looked back at her. “Because Leo took me under his wing when I was at my ugliest and lowest.” He smiled wanly. “That version of Leo is gone now. He only existed for a moment—though it was nice to pretend he stretched on forever. He was a blip. Everything that has value does. He left a legacy behind to be inherited by the Knowledge Bearers after him. That’s what Knowledge Bearers are supposed to do. Hold the knowledge, not become the knowledge. I wanted to keep that safe.”
Leona heard a bird cry in the distance and felt its shadow circle above her. She thought of Oros, then she thought of Maria, then of Epsilon, then of Jericho. What did any of them know about her? They made laughable claims and even had the gall to say they knew who she was. Speaking about the usefulness of failures and mistakes, pedestals and worshipers, mercy and cruelty. She had served her purpose as a saint candidate—taking the responsibility for herself when Maria had been taken away—and now she had fulfilled her goal of being carried away on an adventure.
“What do you want, Araceli?” Epsilon repeated
All she wanted now was to rest.
Araceli closed her eyes, allowing the sunrise to take her.
a/n: 28c out in a few moments