8.[]: An Inheritor’s Avarice (Generosita)

Re-cap:

The last domino falls.

Ricardo Romano, don of the Romano Family, has been stabbed alongside the don of the Campana Family at a meeting that was meant to unite the two rivals. Fortuna Romano, Ricardo’s daughter, temporarily puts aside her engagement with Ambrose Campana and orders Cadence to investigate both the Campanas and the Foxman brothers for possible involvement. 

Twin Cities, Gemini

Fortuna Romano could easily divide her life into three time periods. This was because for each of those time periods she held a different name—rather, a different title.

Her first title was ‘Trash’. It was a name ceremoniously bestowed upon her by the store owners residing in the poorest district of the Twin Cities which had become her first home. The name was never said with malice, merely offhandedly:

“Ah, Trash is outside again. Why don’t you bring her some food?”

At the time, Fortuna hated the name just as she hated her powerlessness in accepting the scraps of food they tossed out to her. She didn’t know the word ‘pride’ but she certainly understood the concept of it. She couldn’t object though. If she did, she knew she might end up being even hungrier than she already was if the store owners retracted their kindness.

Her second title—name, rather—was given to her by Ricardo Romano on a particularly cold morning mid-autumn. She wasn’t quite sure what day it was as she never counted the days at that time. She instead counted meals. And Ricardo started off with bringing her first meal of that day which was a slice of warm pizza with cheese that melted in her mouth like butter. He brought her the second meal of the next day as well as the third meal.

“Well, aren’t you fortunate being fed by me all the time?” Ricardo had asked one day as he shielded her from the rain with an orange-yellow umbrella. “You’re expecting it at this point.”

“You don’t look like you need the food,” she said in between gulps of the tomato soup he’d brought to her in a cup.

“Oh, quite a tongue on you.” Ricardo had chucked. “And what’s your name?”

She told him what it was at the time.

“Trash, hm? That’s not a very flattering.” Extending a rough, calloused hand, Ricardo said, “How about we call you ‘Fortuna’, hm? Since you were fortunate enough to come across me. And let’s increase your fortune a bit, shall we? How about you come home with me?”

Fortuna didn’t see the man as much more than a food source at the time so she had accepted the invitation in order to get access to even more food.

In the beginning, she didn’t pay much attention to the quality of the food nor clothes that she was showered with when she was taken in. She was much too hungry, much too cold, and much too focused on

All she could think about was food, food, food.

Eventually, however, as the months under Ricardo’s care carried on, the ravenous hunger subsided and she began to realize the strangeness of her situation. One day, after she wandered her father’s mansion in search of him and finally discovered him lounging in his large office, she had asked, “Why are you being so nice to me?”

The man had laughed. “Well, I’m your father now. Shouldn’t that be the case?”

Father. It was a word she knew but not one she was familiar with. Another word she was not familiar with was ‘friend’ which Ricardo saw to educate her about when he introduced her to another girl around her age. The boyish young girl had freckled cheeks and shockingly copper-colored hair. When the boyish girl smiled, dimples formed at the corner of her mouth. Upon their introduction to each other, the boyish girl had taken a swooping bow and introduced herself as “Cadence Morello, black knight of the Romano Family.”

“Keep her out of trouble, all right?” Ricardo had asked, not clarifying who was to look after who.

It was through Cadence that Fortuna met Nico Fabrizzio and the Foxman brothers. In the beginning, she had been spoiled so thoroughly in her father’s care that she merely viewed the group as ruffians and had wondered why her father seemed to be associated with any of them and why he wanted her to be associated with them. Of course, time changed her thoughts just as time changed everything.

They had a strange dynamic—Nico and Cadence. Nico would always tearfully get himself into some sort of trouble, and Cadence would always rescue him from it with a smile and a slew of carefully woven words. That was something Fortuna had admired about Cadence back then and even now.

One day while Fortuna was with the two walking through an alleyway enroute to the Sognare, Nico got himself into a situation that Cadence had great difficulty getting him out of. The situation involved the son of one of the executives of the Romano Family—one Feliciano Donato. He had taken to pestering Nico and had recruited several of his friends to crow on the boy. Cadence had stepped between them attempting to assuage Feliciano but Cadence’s words seemed to only infuriate Feliciano more.

“Come on,” Cadence had said to Feliciano, nodding in Fortuna’s direction, “don’t want ta be violent in front of such a pretty doll, do ya? I mean, she’s Ricardo’s dau—”

Fortuna had skirted away from them as soon as Feliciano raised his fist and delivered a cracking punch to Cadence’s cheek cutting her off. Nico had yelped in alarm and lunged for Cadence only to be tackled to the side by Feliciano’s goons.

It was a sort of violent scene that Fortuna had thought was long behind her. And as the violence escalated and Feliciano turned his eyes on her, Fortuna could not help but think of only escape.

It was then that Francis appeared from nowhere, rushing into the alleyway like a madman and delivering a well-aimed flying kick to Feliciano’s chin. It was something out of one of the superhero comics she’d sometimes read in the newspaper. It quickly turned to something else, however, as Francis ripped off one of the lids of a nearby trash can and started beating Feliciano over the head with it. The flurry only lasted a second as Francis was tackled to the side by one of Feliciano’s friends. The latter was, however, was tackled too—by Cadence of all people who leaped like a cat at him and began clawing and biting at his face.

As Francis had picked himself off the ground, he had tossed Fortuna the trash lid and had given her a nod, before leaping back in and helping Nico rip Feliciano’s friend off of Cadence.

Staring at the unraveling chaos in front of her for only a moment more, Fortuna had gripped the trash lid like a madwoman and then charged into fray, slamming the lid against heads, bodies, and limbs of friends—accidentally—and foe alike.

They were, of course, fighting a losing battle since Feliciano’s gang outnumbered them greatly 10 to 4. However, at the last minute, Carl and Allen—at the time they had towered over all the street children—stormed into the playing field, and their appearance marked the changing tide of battle. All it took was Carl picking Feliciano up by the scruff and throwing him ten meters down the alleyway, and Feliciano and his entire gang tucked tail and ran.

After their small victory, Allen had taken them to a popular candy store afterwards where they had regaled their tale of victory to all of the other children within.

Fortuna admitted it. Those times in between the tutoring lessons Ricardo made her attend where she ran through the streets of the Twin Cities with the other children were truly wonderful—even if picturing a teenaged Carl and a near-adult Allen beating up children was hilariously pitiful looking back now.

But then Fortuna had met Bianchi. It was him that changed everything.

Bianchi was one of the executives of the Family at the time and would always shower her with gifts when he would come to her father. That had been why he had been one of her favorites and also why she did not question it when he took her out for dinner one night.

But the bastard had taken her to the Casa de Bambolle.

She was too young at the time to realize what kind of place it was and had skirted away from the half-naked men and women who lounged around on the silken couches. When Bianchi brought her to one of the couches at the corner of the establishment far away from watchful eyes, she had smiled and squirmed uncomfortably.

“Now, Fortuna, this is the first time you’ve ever been to place like this right?” He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’m sure you’ll like it—”

Before he could make any further moves, however, a young woman who seemed to have come from nowhere grabbed him by the wrist. Fortuna had recognized her. She was a pianist that Cadence liked to visit at the Sognare—Alma.

“Excuse me,” Alma had said quietly, eyes lowered to the ground, “but there is an age limit at the Casa—”

Before Alma could even finish, the man had ripped his wrist out from her grip and slapped her across the face sending her onto the floor. Fortuna had flinched away from him an instant, cowering against the arm of the couch.

“Do you know who I am?!” he had seethed.

“What do you think Miss Agape Rosario will say if she’s seen you here with her?” Alma had murmured from the floor, holding her reddened cheek. “With a girl who looks too well-dressed and well-fed to be visiting this place.”

Bianchi had stared at the woman long and hard before the rage in his eyes cooled. Without another word, he left the premises with Fortuna in hand and returned her to her home. He did not look at her as he dropped her off.

Still feeling rather skittish the following day, Fortuna had informed her father of the occurrence.

In that moment, Ricardo’s eyes were terrifying; and even though he spoke to her with kind words afterwards, Fortuna found herself shivering in her shoes. Powerless.

Not so long after that, her father had introduced her to as an aspiring young and handsome police officer by the name of Vincente Giustizia. The officer had extended a kind hand down to her and had smiled charmingly: “You’re a brave girl, Miss Fortuna. Did you know that? Well, I’m here to help brave girls like you, okay? You can rely on me.”

Fortuna had been so enamored by him that she had merely flushed and nodded wordlessly.

Two days afterwards she watched as Bianchi was escorted out from the bank that he owned in front of a crowd of photographers. He had looked pale, clammy as if he had already died.

“And that, Miss Fortuna,” Giustizia had told her after, “is what we call justice.”

Justice.

What a lovely word.

In her childish fantasy at the time, Fortuna imagined herself being just like Vincente Giustizia—even by his side—as an officer of justice. Gallant, charming, powerful.

That was why when she came across a young woman being unwillingly dragged by a roguish man into the Casa De Bambolle on a particularly sunny morning while on her way to school, Fortuna had immediately gone to her father. When she told her father of this event, however, he merely rubbed his chin in thought. “That would be Mr. Enzo. He’s under the Campana Family. It’s best we turn a blind eye to that one. We’re just beginning to work things out with them.”

And that was that. The dismissiveness of her father was like a slap to the face.

It wasn’t right, she had thought. She didn’t understand it at all. And as she continued to think about it, she began to recall Francis’s bravery and Giustizia gallantry.

She would take it upon herself, she decided. A powerful, brave woman of justice. And so that night she snuck out of her father’s estate and somehow made it to the city’s main police office.

Vincente greeted her as warmly as she entered the brick stone building, smiling with even his eyes as he sat her down at his desk.

Only a second after she began to explain her tale, however, did the very same man she had come to report enter Vincente’s office. Mr. Enzo. He strolled in casually, not even glancing at Fortuna as he walked up to the police officer.

“I made a bit of a mess last night,” Enzo said, reaching into his pocket and holding out a roll of Gemini Cens to the man. “Clean it up for me, will you?”

Pocketing the rolls of cens with a charming smile, Vincente said, “Thank you, Mr. Enzo. Don’t worry about a thing.” After Enzo left, the police officer turned back to her and brightened. “What were you saying, Miss Fortuna? I’d be happy to help. Did your father send you?”

It was like a slap to the face. The filth, the corruption, the false faces and her at the center of it all. Fortuna felt unsafe. Powerless. Small. It was an unbalanced dichotomy from the start. Her craving for justice while despising powerlessness. Unachievable. The only thing that had changed since she was known only as “Trash” was that she now had a full belly. Still relying on other people—for food scraps on the streets and for a place of comfort and rescue in her father’s care. Without her father, what was she? Not Fortuna. Just “Trash.” Was this just going to be her pattern of living from now on? Floundering around with some illusion of strength?

No, she thought to herself as she had stared wide-eyed at the corrupt policeman. Even if she was going to be bent out of shape while doing it, she was no longer going to allow herself to be like this anymore.

Thus, her third title was one she chose herself. Inheritor of the Romano Family. She wasn’t quite sure when she decided on the title. Maybe it was when she had volunteered to take notes during her father’s meetings so that she could sit in on them. Perhaps it was when she had proposed networking with countries outside of Signum to provide conductors. Either way, it was a title she would not let slip from her grasp. Always waiting for an opportunity. It was never enough.

Finally, a golden opportunity came with Ambrose Campana.

Fortuna had heard of the Campana head’s son in passing conversation but had never gone so far as to come across the man herself. It was on a sunny Saturday morning that she had encountered him at a musical instrument storefront based in the grey, neutral zone that separated the east and the west of the Twin Cities.

She had been wearing a hat decorated with expensive feathers from an exotic bird native to Virgo that matched the Capricornian-made pocket watch that dangled out from her satin blue dress pocket. With annoyance, she had flipped open that pocket watch while cursing Cadence’s tardiness under her breath. That was when she saw him reflected in the glass of the watch.

Fair hair. Deep brown eyes and a prominent nose. He was very attractive. And it seemed as if he knew he was because he said to her as he fell into step beside her— “What’s a lovely bird like you doing here?”

She had thought of him as no more than an annoyingly flirtatious stranger at the time so she had dismissed him a wave of her hand. “This bird is named Fortuna Romano, and I’m waiting for someone.”

Usually, her surname alone made people skirt from her but—

“Well, Fortuna Romano, I am Ambrose Campana.”

Fortuna had startled, stepping away from him in an instant.

“I’m actually here on waiting for a date too but it appears as if they’ve stood me up,” Ambrose said, extending a hand out politely. “Would you mind mending my wounded ego?”

“Do you realize what you’re asking me?”

He’d merely smiled. “We shouldn’t let the issues of the previous generation affect the current generation, right? I certainly don’t hate cinnamon just because my father hates it.” He still did not lower his extended hand.

It was on a whim of curiosity that she had accepted his invitation to accompany him to a nearby cafe. Something about his words and the way he held himself intrigued her. Although he was what people would call ‘charming,’ she could see that his niceties were artificial. Like plastic. She wondered if he’d melt if held to flame.

They took a booth by the window and were brought a pair of beautifully decorated sponge cakes. Ambrose got to work immediately and somehow managed to carry the conversation on his own in between mouthfuls of cake. He was the one to bring up their family affairs first and had started off with a complaint—of all things—about how he was still kept in the dark about certain affairs despite his contributions.

It was rather pathetic, really.

As Fortuna listened to him rant, she stared out the window of the cafe and pondered to herself. If Ambrose were truly a bumbling friendly fool like this then she could use him, couldn’t she?

“You must be thinking ‘this is a great opportunity,’ aren’t you?”

Fortuna’s heart skipped a beat, and when she turned back to Ambrose, she found that he was grinning devilishly. The lightheartedness was gone from his eyes.

What a bastard.

“Well, I’m thinking the same thing. I don’t know what your end goal for your family is but I’m sure you’re thinking that something good could come out of this fateful meeting,” Ambrose had said as he cut into the delicate cake with his knife and fork. “Change is necessary in order to stay at the top, and although things are going well for both of our families at the moment, neither of our families have changed very much since they’ve found their niches. I believe both our families contain weaknesses that the other family can compensate for. If the weaknesses are not compensated, then they will be exploited.”

What?

Her eyes narrowed.

Was he really proposing what she thought he was proposing? Ridiculous. She could see right through him. Like plastic. His complaints paired with this suggestion. Obviously, this was a maneuver for power in his family. How relatable.

“I don’t want to associate myself with someone who believes in something like fate,” Fortuna replied, stabbing her fork into her cake. “And I don’t want to associate with someone who makes a business proposal one hour after meeting someone.” She popped a piece into her mouth. “But I do understand the need for adaptation.”

It really was like looking into a mirror.

“Fantastic.” Ambrose beamed. “When should we have our next date?”

Together, they carefully wove a tale of romance and companionship convincing enough to beguile executives of both families.

But all of Fortuna’s efforts came crumbling down in one night, and all it took was a sorry knife to the back. As she sat in Doctor Fabrizzio’s lobby on the night of her father’s attack, she could not even keep her head straight. Instead of thinking about the next step, all she could do was pace back and forth hoping for the doctor to bring her good news. Powerlessness.

“We should postpone our engagement,” she had when she had met up with Ambrose two days after the stabbing incident. They had met up in a small bar at the center of the Twin Cities, both taking care to ensure that none of their bodyguards had followed them.

Ambrose had smiled back wanly at her. “That does seem like the correct route. Of course, in the meantime I’m launching a full investigation on what happened that night, so I may not be in touch as often. We need to get to the bottom of what happened to our fathers, right? No matter who the perpetrator is.”

Bastard.

“Of course. It’s only natural,” Fortuna had returned.

***

Sitting at her father’s desk as she mulled over all of these things of the past and present, Fortuna began to bite her thumb. She had contacted Agape two days prior but the woman had yet to return her calls. Cavallo was out dealing with the police force, and Benedetto had his hands full with managing the properties her father usually managed. Donato was flat out ignoring her requests for him. This had never happened with her father.

What was it? Were they planning something against her? Scrambling for more power while her father was hospitalized. Just like her. She was alone in this, wasn’t she? Of course, she was—

Wait. Damn.

Fortuna grimaced as a thought came at her from nowhere.

Why hadn’t she thought of it sooner? What if one of the Romano executives had hired out the Specialist that had most likely attacked her father? For a grab at power? It could have been one of the lower-tier executives. She couldn’t trust anyone.

A fly of soft pinks and blues caught the corner of her eye.

The flowers she’d received from the Foxmans. She knew that the three would never lay a hand on her father, but if she had not ordered Cadence to investigate them too then her actions would be viewed as favoritism. Weak to affections. Not fit to head the Romanos. Powerless.

Still, despite everything she’d done, would they…?

At the very thought of requesting their assistance, she bit down harder and drew blood.

Damn. Completely powerless. A cycle.

***

“Fortuna? What in saint’s name are you doin’ here?!”

Looking up from the Sognare’s dismal menu, Fortuna was greeted by such a bewildered shout. When she lifted her gaze, she found three figures crowding the doorway. One stocky, one thin, one short. One missing.

“Cadence.” The thin figure turned to the short figure. “You said you had a lead on someone involved in Francis’s stabbing.”

Cadence shrugged. “I said I had a lead. Didn’t say what kinda lead.”

Carl as always stormed forward without a thought. “So what’s the deal, Fortuna? Can’t send out a normal invitation?” He side glanced at the empty bar. “At least invite us to a place that’s actually staffed. Where’s the bartender?”

“I sent him away.” Fortuna sighed and put down the menu. “Where’s Francis? I need two voices of reason here. Not just one.”

“Francis was feelin’ a bit under the weather,” Carl explained, seating himself across from her, “so he’s sleepin’ it off.”

Allen seated himself beside Carl and folded his hands. “What is this, Fortuna?”

Fortuna didn’t quite know what it was herself. What did she want from them? Assistance? She had only a vague idea of her desire when she had ordered Cadence to bring them here. So what was it?

“I just wanted to ensure that the Romano Family and the Foxman Family are still on amicable terms,” she said. “We haven’t reached out to you due to our current circumstances, but—”

“Of course we are,” Carl stated as if it was obvious. “But we’re busy ourselves so sorry if we ain’t offering a hand with the old man’s case.”

“What’s the real issue here, Fortuna? Can’t trust Cavallo or Agape?” Allen probed, lighting a v-cigarette from his pocket. “Not Donato?”

A stab at her pride.

Fortuna frowned and thrummed her fingers on the table. “What a ridiculous implication.” She glanced to the side and frowned deeper when she saw Cadence leaning back against the table across from them. “For goodness sake, Morello, get a chair.”

“Nah, I’d rather stand,” Cadence said with a shrug. “I’m honestly just waitin’ for ya to give me the all clear so I can —” She stopped short, face suddenly drained of color, expression unsettling.

Fortuna didn’t think she’d ever seen Cadence wear such an expression before in her life, and she was startled into silence in herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Carl and Allen assessing Cadence too.

“What’s the matter with you, Cadence?” Carl muttered, arching an eyebrow at the redhead. “What’s with that look? You look ready to kill someo—”

And then there was a familiar and chilling updraft of wind that seemed to whistle upwards from the floorboards.

Following this was a blinding flash of tangerine light that erupted beneath all of their feet, and suddenly Fortuna was sent into free fall in a white void. And then there was black.

***

(    )

“—hate, hate, hate, hate people like you!”

Fortuna was awoken by such nonsensical shouting in Common. It took her a moment to get her bearings, and the shouting did not stop all the while.

“You people are the absolute dirt of this earth! Absolute filth! Admit it! You know what you are! I want you to say it! Spell it out for me!”

Fortuna found herself sitting on a wooden chair with her hands bound behind her and her ankles tied to the legs of the chair. The knot in her back and neck informed her that she had been sitting in this position for a while.

Across from her was a stretch of black wooden bookcases that ate up the entire wall. The spines of the books shifted from colorless to colorful, unreadable to readable. A result of the flickering light that emanated from the wax candles which acted as the sole light sources in the room. In front of one of the bookcases was a makeshift table with a board game propped up at its center. A woman wearing a blue polka dot dress with a bow in her hair sat there staring at the board pensively.

Wait.

Fortuna’s gaze flicked across the room.

There was no door or window in sight. Impossible. There had to be one. An escape route. Hidden. Behind the bookcase maybe.

“‘Bout time you woke up,” came a grumble to her right.

She glanced in the direction. It was Carl, bound on a chair just as she was. On his other side sat Allen who was similarly bound. Down the line were vaguely familiar faces: the businessman they had just instated as head of the city’s main bank, one of the mayor candidates—Depa Amaril—and a couple of lower-tier executives of the Family. They all looked worse for wear and were trying to crane their necks to see the one who was shouting at them from behind. Cadence was nowhere to be seen.

She glanced to her left. There was only one person there. A woman wearing librianesque glasses with bright red lipstick. Agape Rosario. The woman’s head was drooped down indicating that she was unconscious.

Grimacing, Fortuna wiggled her foot forward as much as she could and tapped Agape’s leg. It took a moment but eventually the woman stirred.

After blinking dazedly, Agape stared at Fortuna long and hard before grimacing. “So they’ve got you too, Miss Fortuna.” And then Agape stared past her at Allen and Carl. Her eyes widened. “What are you two doing here…? Why—”

“Agape,” Fortuna interjected with a whisper, “how long have you been here?”

The woman grimaced. “I’m not sure. It was Wednesday the last time I checked.”

“It’s Friday now,” Fortuna returned.

Agape understandably paled.

“Black market capitalism! Weapons trafficking! Money laundering! Human beings! Despicable!” The ranting continued on in the background.

Bubbling laughter suddenly blossomed in the cold air, and Fortuna stared past Agape to find a cluster of children darting around the towers of books dotting that side of the room.

“They’re Matilda’s workers from what I understand,” Agape whispered. “Rather, they used to be.”

What…? So this was Matilda’s work? The delivery girl? No. The girl wasn’t gutsy enough to do something like that, especially since she’d been elevated in society due to the work they’d given her.

Keeping this in mind, Fortuna continued to assess her surroundings.

Other than the children running around the far end of the room, the one who was shouting irately behind her to her left, and the polka-dot-dressed woman, there were three other hostiles present that she could see. The three sat together clustered at a table and were dressed in identical drab, grey uniforms. Police officer uniforms.

The police? What was this?

The dots connected when the man who was shouting irately from behind them came to continue his ranting in front of them.

Police Commissario Vincente Giustizia. The commissario was nearly frothing at the mouth as he yelled on and on. It was a startling sight-seeing Vincente like that. Nothing like the calm and collected man from her memory.

“You’ve been given positions of power in this city, but you abuse it! What are you, huh? Animals?” Vincente walked up the row, wagging his finger in the faces of those he passed. He stopped to glare at her and then Agape. “Despicable! How many people are there ten feet beneath the ground because of people like you? Using words like ‘family’ to brand and to romanticize yourself! As if you’re some good Samaritans working together for the greater good—but whose greater good? Your own! Sure, some of you lot might not be the worst people in existence. Sure, some of you might do charity but you know who else does charity? Politicians!”

“How dare you!” one of the lower tier executives shouted in Geminian, face red from down the line. “We can put you five feet under—”

“Shut up!” Vincente snapped back in Common. He stormed back to the man and leaned in close so he was nose-to-nose with the executive. “What are you doing, huh? Willing to confess to even more crimes now?!” Vincente pulled back. “Wait. So you are making a confession then?” He gestured to one of the police officers sitting behind him. “Are you getting this?”

The officer stared at him befuddled.

“He’s been ranting like this every couple of hours,” Agape informed Fortuna quietly. “There’s something wrong with that man’s head.” She then added even more quietly: “He’s the only one besides that woman in the dress over there that I’ve seen come here repeatedly.” Her gaze flicked to Carl and Allen. “And there’s also—”

“What are you doing here if you’re not writing this down? We need records! Records!” Vincente slapped his hands together with each syllable. “How are we supposed to move forward if we don’t have records!”

“Chief—” the police officer started.

But Vincente had already turned his attention away from the officer and now stalked up the line to Agape. “Miss Agape Rosario, do you know what justice is? No, do you know what morals are? Obviously, you must not have even an inkling of what it is since your host club and strip joints serve as money laundering fronts for your crime organization! Despicable! Absolutely despicable! The fact that people like you can—” A sudden cough, a heave. “—advantage of other people is just—” Another coughing fit and a heave. Panting. “—absolutely hate people like you!” More coughing and heaving.

The sole female police officer scrambled over to Vincente’s side with a glass of water in tow. He accepted it, downed it in two big gulps, before handing it back to her. The officer retreated back to her table with the other two officers a second later.

Fortuna grimaced. “I can’t even understand what you’re saying. I’d heard from the broker that you were losing your touch but to think you’ve fallen to this extent—”

“Fallen? Me?” Vincente snapped, nearly frothing again.

“Was the money not enough, Commissario?” Fortuna returned. “If you were patient, Cavallo would have made arrangements for you to make up for lost pay due to my father’s condition. Now though—”

“Money?” Vincente barked a laugh and pushed his glasses up his nose. “The nerve you people have! Just because you’re the type to bend over backwards for something people put value to centuries ago doesn’t mean others are just like you. Do you think someone like me would start putting investing in something like a slip of paper just because some punk told me to? No! I’m not a fool!”

He looked like a fool, Fortuna thought but she kept her lips sealed. And he most definitely was the type of person to do that.

Vincente continued on, seemingly following a completely different line of thought: “If something in the system is broken, you fix it! You don’t use it to your advantage! People like you tread over the hope people have in humanity! Street thugs like you—”

A clap resounding from behind Fortuna cut him off short, and a woman stepped into the candlelight between her and Agape. The woman had dark skin and was dressed in a loose suit. Her features were cat-like, and the hair that cascaded down her back was bleached white. “Your filibusters are entertaining as always, Tau.”

Fortuna tried to crane her neck back. Where had the woman come from? An exit. There had to be one.

Vincente scowled, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose again. “It wasn’t a filibuster, Omega!” He let out a sigh, pushed back his hair, and said, “I was citing points to prepare my counter-argument.”

“Your counter-argument?” the woman addressed as Omega pressed, smiling thinly.

“Yes, about why we shouldn’t keep these people here,” Vincente said, gesturing widely at their row. “This is all a bad idea. Too soon—”

“And yet you listed over ten points for why they should be here,” Omega hummed.

“Exactly!” interjected the polka-dot dress-wearing woman from where she sat at the board game table. She sent Fortuna a look that was so razor-sharp and full of pure-hatred that Fortuna physically startled despite herself. “I don’t understand the hesitation, Tau. These people are filthy. Using conductors is one thing, but making them and selling them? It boils my damn blood!” She slammed her hand onto the game board. “It’s taking everything in me to chain myself to the floor and not rip their damn spines out of their bodies! Disgusting!”

“If we all thought and acted like you, Iota,” Vincente rebutted, “there would be no hope for the human race.”

“What did you say?”

Omega slowly flipped her long white hair with a heavy sigh.

Fortuna’s eyes widened as the bare skin at the back of Omega’s neck became illuminated for the briefest second by the candlelight. There had been something there. Something. Fortuna saw it clearly, but. What was that? It couldn’t be.

“Let’s all get along,” Omega hummed, crossing her arms. “There’s no way to win an argument against a fool, right? I mean, you guys do argue the most out of all of us.” The corner of her lips drew upwards as Vincente scowled and as Iota pursed her lips. Omega flipped her hair lazily once more.

There. There it was again. There was no mistaking it. It was clear to Fortuna now. That tattoo.

Cold dread swept down to Fortuna’s toes, and she suddenly felt lightheaded. She felt the same squirming in her stomach that she’d felt when Bianchi had brought her to the Casa de Bambolle all those years ago. The same tension in her body that she’d felt when Vincente had accepted the cens from Mr. Enzo. This feeling. Fear. Powerlessness.

“I’m only kidding of course,” Omega amended with a chuckle.

“Saints, shut up already!” Carl snapped from beside her. “You bastards are as good as dead once—”

“Shut up,” Fortuna whispered.

Carl turned to her incredulously. “Wha—”

“I said shut up,” Fortuna snapped through gritted teeth. If she did not bite down as hard as she could, she was sure that they would be able to hear her teeth chattering.

Omega stared down at her and twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. A vague smile passed over her lips as if she’d just achieved some satisfying victory. Instead of addressing Fortuna, however, she addressed Vincente and Iota: “Well, now that they’ve both made their point, what appears to be the verdict?”

The three turned their heads into the far corner of the room.

One of the children pulled away from the playgroup and plucked one of the candlesticks off of the floor. She brought it slowly over to the corner of the room, coming to a stop in front of a stack of books.

There was someone sitting there, Fortuna realized, beside the books. Another person.

The light from the candle was not enough to illuminate the individual’s face, but Fortuna could tell that it was a man. The black turtleneck would have made him appear one with the darkness behind him if it were not for the white of his hands and the white pages of the book those hands held open.

“I’ve heard enough,” the man said. “There’s no denying it now.”

Vincente and Iota straightened. Allen and Carl visibly stiffened. Fortuna merely bit down harder. Her teeth felt like they were about to shatter beneath the force.

The girl brought the candlestick up a bit higher, and the flame peeled away the shadows veiling the man’s face.

As he slowly closed his book, Francis Foxman lifted his head to meet Fortuna’s gaze and said: “You need to take responsibility for everything you’ve done.”


“Why are you asking me if I think Miss Fortuna will be able to properly manage the Romano Family in her father’s place? I think her actions speak for herself, don’t they?”

Francis Foxman, executive of the Romano Family

8.6: Atienna’s Warmth (Refreddato)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Atienna is acting as an advisor to the Virgoan diplomat Chiamaka for Virgo’s tripartite meeting with Aquarius and Pisces. With them are Atienna’s guard Sefu and Chiamaka’s guard Kabal. They encounter a strange Cancerian tourist named Louise who joins them on their journey. However, they are caught up in a storm prior to their arrival at the meeting and stow away in a cavern. Fortunately, they find that the diplomatic parties of Aquarius and Pisces are also stowed away there. From Pisces are the diplomat Moana, the guard Afu, and the advisor Kalama. From Aquarius are the diplomat Alexei, the advisor Cvetka, the secretary Yulia, and the two guards Nikita Knovak (whom Werner encountered at the border) and the quiet Sigurd. Just as things are about to look up, however, Atienna awakens to find the advisor Kalama murdered before her eyes. 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

The storm continued to rage outside as they moved Kamala’s body away from the campsite.

The wailing of Afu, the Piscese guard, as he was pried from Kalama’s body was something that Atienna wished to never hear again. It reminded her too much of her father’s wails on that night six years ago. The pain of having someone close to you flicker out of existence just like that was truly an unbearable thing. Remembering how they used to be and thinking back on how their little quirks filled in a space in your life—truly, excruciating. A pain that she herself had a hard time looking away from. Her pain was not the same though, Atienna knew. At least her mother was still alive.

They were careful when they moved the body—both to preserve Kalama’s dignity and the evidence. They set her aside behind one of the larger rock formations several meters away from the campsite.

Moana and Afu were given time to perform their cultural funerary rites away from prying eyes. Atienna, however, prospected that they were most likely unable to complete the entire thing in fear of damaging any evidence they might have missed in their preliminary checks of the body.

Leave it to the diplomats not to resort to finger-pointing and senseless shouting in a tense situation. Instead, Chiamaka, Moana, and Alexei calmly discussed how they should proceed. They had all agreed it would be in ill taste to move forward with their meeting of diplomacy and had voted to stall it until a proper investigation could be carried out. “Our personal, unresolved feelings could introduce bias to the investigation and negatively impact the future of our countries,” was something along the lines of what was said.

Despite the agreement, the Aquarian and Piscese groups started to keep their distance from each other and from Atienna’s own group as well. The only time the fire was occupied by all groups was at night time and even then their groups sat far apart. The only person who was able to freely go between groups was the only uninvolved party: Louise Beaumont. She went around somberly offering handfuls of various consumable goods to each party with tearful eyes.

Out of all them, Louise should have been viewed as the most suspect, but her bumbling nature had made most of them turn their gazes away from her. Too harmless to hurt a fly was the saying.

At the moment the diplomats were discussing what Atienna assumed were additional measures near the mouth of the cavern alongside their respective guards. Atienna had been present for a portion of it as was the Aquarian advisor Cvetka but they were both politely excused. Sefu had nearly made to follow her but a stern hand on the shoulder prevented him from leaving Chiamaka’s side. Rewritten duties, it seemed—although it seemed a bit odd. The one who had died was an advisor just as she was, after all. Then again, Atienna knew she could manage herself.

As Atienna pondered these things, she approached the fire to warm herself.

Louise was huddled there beside Cvetka. The former woman’s somber expression seemed a bit out of place on her face—a face that Atienna could only remember being rosy with a smile. The Cancerian tourist had been surprisingly affected by Kalama’s death and had only recently stopped shedding fitful tears every hour.

“May I join you two?” Atienna asked quietly.

Cvetka smiled slightly, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear as she nodded her head. Atienna took a seat beside the woman and stared into the flame.

“She was such a nice girl…” Louise murmured, staring into the fire as well as she nibbled on a bag of nuts she’d pulled out from her coat. “I didn’t know her that well at all, but I knew she was a nice girl…”

Cvetka nodded her head. “She was using this as an opportunity to travel the world. That was what she said.”

“I don’t really understand politics much…” Louise glanced at Atienna and then at Cvetka. “But I hope this doesn’t cause problems for you all or anything. I don’t think Kalama would want that at all… I mean…. she was such a nice girl.”

“What do you think, Atienna?” Cvetka asked abruptly.

“She was a nice girl,” Atienna agreed.

Cvetka smiled wanly and stared back into the fire. “I meant about what happened. Obviously, someone here had to have done it. There’s no other explanation.”

Louise paled from beside her and looked around. “Everyone here is so nice though, Cvetka. Please don’t say that. I don’t want anyone to fight… It had to have been an accident.”

Hm.

While Louise was focused on what was to happen next, Cvetka seemed to be focused on what had happened before. Strange. Shouldn’t it be the opposite way around?

Atienna pondered this for a moment. “I’m not much of a detective…”

There were a lot of factors involved in Kalama’s death after all, but there were several things for certain. Firstly, the way Kalama died was most definitely conductor-related. Secondly, her death was either an accident or a message—a threat. Kalama had informed them at the fire the previous night that she had only recently become an advisor, meaning her political enemies would be far and few between. Additionally, due to her rookie nature, she had not been given many duties regarding this affair and therefore her death would not impact Moana’s diplomacy abilities. Either someone had ill intention personally towards Moana and Afu or—Atienna’s mind went to the blue coat that Kalama had been wearing at her time of death—or towards Alexei. But why? That was the question. Whoever did such a dangerous thing must not have feared the consequences their actions would have towards their country. A detached person.

But saying all of these things without acting on them or reaching a conclusion would be—as Werner always put it—a waste of time—

“How dare you say that!”

Cvetka and Louise both startled from beside her as the shout resounded around the cave. Atienna exchanged a look with Cvetka before they both rose and headed towards the mouth of the cave where the diplomats and their guards were gathered.

It was a rather startling scene.

The Piscese guard Afu stood wielding what appeared to be a feathered spear above a fallen Alexei. The tattoos on the man’s face were twisted alongside the expression of absolute hatred stretched across his face. So much hatred—he didn’t seem to even notice Nikita pointing a conductor rifle at him nor did he notice Kabal and Sefu aiming their conducting spears at his chest. Chiamaka and Yulia stood behind their respective guards, the former with an expression of disappointment and the latter with an unreadable one.

Standing slightly offside from them was Sigurd who held what appeared to be a halberd-shaped conductor behind her back. Despite all the chaos, her expression was blank. Like that of an observer.

“Afu!” the Piscese diplomat Moana shouted from where she stood in between Chiamaka and Yulia. “What are you doing? He was only trying to propose a solution—”

“By desecrating Kalama’s body?!” Afu screeched. “He wants to get rid of the evidence! Trying to hide the fact that he was the one who killed her!”

“T-That’s not what I intended!” Alexei stammered from beneath him. “I’m sorry for your loss. I truly am but—”

“She was wearing your coat!” Afu seethed, before he jabbed the weapon at Alexei’s throat. “And you—you wear that face of goodwill, but I’ve seen the types of things you support in your country! You think you’ve hidden it well but your closest allies even—”

“He gave it to her last night when we were around the fire,” Sigurd said calmly, tightening her grip on her conductor.

“And why should I believe you?!” Afu hissed. He glowered at Alexei. “You… What kind of monster—” He lifted his spear and—

Sigurd swung her halberd in an arc immediately and from the after-image of the swing appeared a razor line of water—it glowed a psychedelic wisteria hue—that rushed at Afu’s chest. Before the water reached him, she swung her halberd again, and out came a burst of frigid wind that iced over the line of water in an instant. The now frozen solid ice razor slammed into Afu’s chest sending him flying backwards. He managed to hold his ground, though he looked dazed.

Fascinating. Two elements? That should be impossible, shouldn’t it? But then again there was no such thing as impossible.

Sigurd swung her halberd twice again—this time aiming it at Afu’s feet. The ice encased his legs in an instant, grounding the man to the spot. Alexei scrambled away in the chaos, just barely making it out of Afu’s reach.

But then Afu whipped out his hand—gloved—and flicked his wrist. In his palm in a flash of coral light appeared a pistol.

A Conjuror.

Atienna’s gaze flicked between them. These were diplomats, and they still could not find a resolution. How unpleasantly frustrating. If only everyone would calm down and listen then—

Atienna rushed forward, ducking beneath the blast of his conductor which he fired off at her in alarm; and then sweeping her legs beneath his feet, she drove the palm of her hand up his chin. A crack resounded through the air before the man fell backwards unconscious onto the floor.

Adrenaline lit her veins on fire as she stared down at him. The rush was incredible as it always was.

Atienna could feel Sefu and Cvetka staring at her back with wide eyes. Out of the corner of her own eye, she could see Chiamaka remaining impassive. Unpleasant. As she backed away from the scene, Moana darted forward and pried Afu’s conductor away from his hands. Sigurd slipped beside her and generated cuffs of ice around him with the two flips of her conductor.

“I… I apologize, Alexei,” Moana stammered as she pulled away from the unconscious man. “I-I don’t know why he… he is just deeply affected by Kalama… I—”

“I understand, Moana,” Alexei said as he was guided to his feet by Nikita. “No one is harmed. Save for Afu.” He glanced at Atienna. “We just need to detain him to—”

“Detain?” Moana frowned lightly, rising to a stand as well. “Afu is not a criminal.”

“I understand where you’re coming from Miss Moana,” Alexei said gently, “but how do we know that Afu will not act again?”

The light in Moana’s eyes died in that moment, and her smile flickered. “We know because I have known Afu for years just as I have known Kalama.”

Alexei tensed and held up a hand. “I meant no disrespect, Miss Moana. I’m merely just trying to be cautious—”

“I do agree with Alexei on this matter,” Chiamaka said suddenly, peering at them both from beneath her glasses. “As I’ve said before, we can’t allow our personal feelings to affect the future developments of our countries. We’re merely cogs in the wheel.”

Eventually, an agreement was made to have at least two guards—one from Virgo and one from Aquarius—on Afu at all times.

Olive’s incident with the Sagittarian assassins occurred only a minute after, so Atienna was not able to fully focus on what was being discussed.

Startlingly enough, Cvetka had come to stand beside Atienna while the proceedings went underway and had even gone so far as to loop her hand around her arm—whom the gesture was meant to comfort remained a mystery to Atienna. Obviously, Cvetka’s was not at all deterred by her show of violence.

“That’s the problem,” Cvetka murmured beside her. “We can never understand each other no matter how hard we try.”

***

After witnessing Olive’s reaction to the massacre on Maria’s side, Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with her. Olive had been so affected and disgusted by the bloody scene that he had nightmares of it combined with flashes of the young assassin he’d burnt in the days following. She did feel sympathy for the fallen bounty hunters’ friends and families who would never see them again just as she felt sympathy for Afu and Moana for their loss of Kalama. But that was all her feelings amounted to. Sympathy. A distant feeling.

Did she only feel that distant feeling because they had nothing to do with her? Perhaps it wasn’t that simple.

Atienna mulled over these things to herself as she sat before the fire again a day later. She was joined by Cvetka and Louise again as well as Sefu who sat beside her. Yulia was with later, although she sat on a different stone slab a meter or so off. She was jotting notes down in her notebook.

“I can’t believe Afu did that…” Louise mumbled suddenly in a lull in their conversation, nibbling on a bag of pecans and stretching her arm across Atienna and Cvetka to offer Sefu some from the bag.

Sefu accepted graciously and through a mouthful of nuts, he said, “Yes, I was surprised. He seemed very level-headed.”

“That’s how it happens,” Cvetka mumbled from Atienna’s right, staring across the fire at Yulia. “No matter how good your intentions, as soon as you start valuing one person or one group more than another, you automatically become a villain to the other party.”

“That’s from The Endless Cycle by Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna asked quietly. “It’s a popular read in Aquarius or so I have heard.”

“You really do know everything,” Cvetka replied. And then a smile tugged the corner of her lips. “Or at least you wish you did.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I only know about him because Yulia recommended his book to me.”

Yulia did not show any indication that she’d heard her name mentioned.

Cvetka stared at her before she turned to Atienna and continued, “Have you read his other works?”

Atienna nodded. “Yes, I’ve read his entire To Man collection. Do you have a favorite?”

Thus began a lengthy conversation around literary matters, and Atienna was rather impressed by how well-read Cvetka was. She seemed to know literary works originating from all over Signum—both recent and old. It made Atienna feel as if she was outclassed in that category.

After a while, they fell into a comfortable silence.

“I wish I brought some of Kupika’s seasoned jerky with me,” Sefu grumbled suddenly from beside her. He glanced at Louise. “No offense, Miss Louise, but your food is not as hearty as what we have at home.”

“Perhaps, you and your country should have stayed in isolation,” Yulia interjected, not looking up from her task. “This world is filthy. You step outside from home, and you become dyed in the grime.”

Atienna was surprised by her sudden entry into the conversation but not so much by her words.

Frowning and clearly perplexed, Sefu replied, “It is our country. We are the ones who can speak for it. Not you.” After being nudged in the ribs by Atienna, he amended. “Of course, I am sure you feel similarly about your country—”

“I don’t care what happens to my country,” Yulia interjected. “I don’t understand people like you who do. You are only valued if you can become what they deem as a useful member of society. Happiness is a commodity. If you are useful but do not capitalize on your usefulness, you’re simply sold to people who can.”

“Those are interesting words for a secretary to a diplomat,” Sefu huffed.

The exasperated indignation reminded Atienna of her brother Bachiru. At the thought of him, her mind drifted to the letter resting inside of her pack.

But then Yulia laughed loudly, abruptly with wide eyes that held no light. It was a long and hollow laugh that seemed out of place. After what seemed like an eternity, she quieted and continued on jotting down notes in her book, leaving them only with, “If you don’t come to your senses, you will fall apart. You and your country.”

The ghost of her laugh, however, continued to bounce around the rock formations in the cave.

It was unnerving to say the least, and Atienna found her gaze lingering on Yulia as she thought on the woman’s words. Sefu scooted a bit closer to her afterwards. Cvetka meanwhile gave her an apologetic look.

***

It wasn’t so long after that conversation that their weekly synchronization meeting was held. The revelation that there were other groups similar to them did not come as a surprise to Atienna. And after it had concluded, she secretly listened in to Werner and Olive’s conversation. It hadn’t been her intention to, of course. Merely an accident spurred on by a single thought of curiosity.

An interesting conversation generated by light misunderstandings.

“We can never understand each other,” was what Cvetka had said, wasn’t it? But Atienna wondered if that was the case with those she was connected with. They kept things from each other, avoided each other, averted their eyes from unpleasant things—she wondered if she would be able to truly ever understand any of them.

And the sense of self topic was an interesting point as well. How could a person hope to understand another person when the latter person couldn’t even understand themselves?

That was why on a night when she snuck away to explore the cavern not so long after the meeting, Atienna addressed the topic when Werner happened to synchronize with her. He appeared beside her during her stroll, and it was evident that he was working on those reports of his again. Still, he put down his pen to listen to her.

“Yes, the sense of self aspect is revealing,” Werner said after she brought up the subject, “and it should be looked into thoroughly. But that wasn’t the most significant information we received from Prince Yuseong.”

“It does make you think though, doesn’t it?” Atienna whispered. “What exactly defines you as you and me as me? It would be quite easy to say that we are defined by our experiences, wouldn’t it? But if there were someone out there who had the same exact experiences as me, would they also be qualified as me? And if I were to somehow accumulate the experiences of another person, could I still be considered Atienna Imamu? Would they be considered Atienna Imamu? I wonder…”

Werner remained silent.

“If that’s not the case, if we don’t put experiences and memories as our definition of who we are, then would it be our goals that define us? Olive’s goal is to return Lavi to normal. Cadence’s goal… well, to be honest, it seems to flip back and forth between fame, just getting by, and that Alma….” Atienna smiled thinly, knowing that Werner knew that it did not meet her eyes. “Isn’t that amazing? Having someone dedicate their entire life to you?”

Werner said after an internal sigh, “That dedication is not one that I think about.”

“That may be so. But Werner, what about you?” Atienna continued. “What exactly is your goal?” Perhaps she had gone far enough, she thought to herself—but that itching curiosity spurred her forward.

“It’s simple,” Werner replied. “My goal is to serve Capricorn to the best of my abilities.”

“Right?” Atienna smiled, resting her cheek on her hand. “That’s exactly the kind of goal I’d expect the perfect military officer to have. Someone who isn’t after the money or the glory. Someone whose sole purpose is to serve their country and their country alone and rise in the ranks. It’s almost as if you fit the template perfectly. When I first met you, I couldn’t help but think ‘amazing, people like this truly exist.’ You are orderly, pragmatic, strict, and you follow through on everything that is asked of you.”

“That’s what’s expected of a Capricornian soldier,” Werner replied, although there was a pause before he spoke. “If I was not this way, then I would have never been promoted to this position.”

Atienna hummed in agreement. “That’s right, isn’t it? That’s exactly how you should be… rather—”

What in the world was she saying? Why in the world was she saying these things? She knew she should stop, but she wanted to keep going, to see, to get to the bottom of it. She couldn’t avert her eyes again.

“—that’s how ‘you should appear to be’, should I say?” She continued. “Is that just how I see you or is that how the others see you as well?”

Werner studied her silently. She could see it in his eyes—he was trying to gauge what she thought of him.

“I think…. perhaps… Olive sees you as—well, expects you to be—someone who is stern yet forgiving,” Atienna pondered aloud. “Maybe even something akin to a guiding hand. Cadence expects you to be someone who is a voice of reason, someone who is a stable balance to her own instability. I personally don’t hold any expectations for you at all, Werner.”

Werner again remained silent.

“We do tend to bend ourselves slightly to what people expect of us. Like a piece of hot metal. Molded and shaped.” She shrugged her coat more over her shoulders. “I wonder if it’s able to ever return to its original form.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Sorry… I’m rambling again but what I really wanted to say was… recently I’ve been wondering Werner, who exactly are you?”

When Atienna turned and registered Werner’s expression. Why did she say such things? She wished he would just—

“We are both adults, Atienna,” Werner said, expression falling flat. “We have more important matters to handle than philosophizing all day.”

Just as she’d hoped and expected him to say.

Werner seemed to sigh internally again. “If there is nothing else to discuss then—”

Then it struck like lightning. The burning hot feeling compressing in her chest expanding outwards. The feeling she hadn’t felt in months, snapping through every muscle in her body. Pure hatred.

“Jericho,” Atienna whispered.

“Yes, something is happening on Jericho’s end.” Werner nodded. His eyes became distant.

He was trying to synchronize with the peacekeeper. How dutiful. She attempted to do so as well but was met with an iron wall. Every time, she neared it she was met with a surge of hot anger and a barrier that seemed unpassable.

Werner frowned and shook off his dazedness before meeting her eyes. “He’s being reckless. He’s not listening.” His frown deepened. “That style of conducting… it’s dangerous.”

The image of it flashed through her mind. The black streaks that glowed tangerine. Omicron. The Specialist.

Atienna put her hand to her mouth as her stomach began to twist into knots. “Will he be—”

A high-pitched shriek pierced her ears. For a moment, she thought she was hearing something that was spilling in from Jericho’s end, but then she was abruptly tackled to the side and wrapped in furry arms. Werner disappeared from her line of vision at the impact, their synchronization dropping in an instant.

“It’s terrible, Atienna! Terrible!”

Atienna lifted her head to peer over the bundles of fur and registered warm caramel eyes framed with straw blonde hair.

“There’s two people hurt over there! Oh, Atienna, it’s terrible!”

Atienna’s eyes widened. Another attack? A murder?

Louise shook her head. “I don’t know who they are or where they came from. Oh, this is awful—”

Atienna placed a reassuring hand on Louise’s shoulders and smiled gently. “Please calm down, Louise. Where are they?”

Shakily, Louise pointed into the darkness behind her. In the direction of the painted walls. Painted walls. Two people.

The dots connected within Atienna’s mind.

It couldn’t be.

Atienna immediately started towards the direction, glancing back in slight surprise as Louise clasped her hand from behind.

“I-I’ll show you…” Louise stammered.

Although Atienna was familiar with the direction she allowed the woman to guide her. As they drew nearer to the black painted door, Louise’s steps slowed and Atienna began taking the lead. Despite the darkness increasing its depth as the black-painted cave wall loomed before them, Atienna’s eyes were able to adjust to it quickly as she was quite used to maneuvering in the shadows.

There were two bodies strewn over each other beside the black painted wall there. Atienna’s heart thundered as she came closer and realized she recognized them. Louise tightened her grip on her hand.

The one closest to the wall—Atienna could tell—was most definitely dead. He was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline, and deep black eyes that stared listlessly up at the ceiling. His cheeks were still a deep, frost-bitten red.

Major Ersatz…

White cracks that were sprawling out from the glowing white wound at his shoulder had nearly consumed his entire body.

At least he was not in any pain.

The other was a tall, lean man with a strong and prominent brow and a light mustache. He was dressed in a familiar monochrome uniform paired with a pale white armband. Mladen. He was bleeding from the shoulder but most definitely alive given the labored rise and fall from his chest. And—

—and there was a knife embedded into his abdomen. The one Omicron had handed Ersatz. The handle of the knife appeared to oddly be made of glass. Cracked glass. There was something inside of the handle encasement—a swirl of white light that was slowly beginning to dim and sinking to the point where the hilt met the blade. Some of the light seeped out from the cracks and bled out into the dark of the cave.

What in the world? Was that vitae?

Spatial distortion. The black markings. The dots connected. Those two men had fallen through one of the pools of light and had come here. It was hard to believe but fact was fact.

Conductors were truly terrifying.

But was the Specialist here? She needed to be cautious. Analyze. Think. Calculate.

Yes, Atienna had to agree, caution was important, but she had a gut feeling that this event had been a miscalculated fluke. These two men were not supposed to end up here just as—the memory flashed into her mind—Omicron and Alice were not meant to end up wherever they were.

And that knife in Mladen’s chest—no, that conductor—

Before Atienna could move forward to inspect the knife, a stampede of footsteps resounded from behind her.

“What is going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind. Chiamaka.

Atienna turned her head and found the woman and everyone else minus Afu and Sefu gathered behind her. The newly arrived party seemed to assess both her and Louise for a moment before their eyes fell on the two men.

Alexei ogled the two bodies and did a double-take. “Where in saint’s name did they come from?!”

“They’re injured,” Moana observed with a frown before turning around and heading back to the campsite.

Stiffening beside Alexei, Nikita stared at Mladen. “That’s—”

“You know him?” Alexei pressed.

“Yes,” Nikita stated, surprise and confusion plastered across his face. “He… He is Mladen. We worked together. Before he join Ophiuchus.” Nikita’s gaze fell onto Ersatz and his eyes narrowed. “I know him too. Capricornian major on border. Crazy. Worked with ELPIS. Supposed to be locked… in Ophiuchus.”

“ELPIS?” Yulia repeated, grabbing Nikita’s arm. Her eyes widened when the man gave her a confused nod of confirmation, and she looked around at them wildly, desperately. “Transmutationist—is anyone a Transmutationist?!”

“I am,” Moana said, as she returned to the scene panting heavily, hands now gloved in a conductor. “Remove his shirt for me.”

Without hesitation, Yulia moved forward and ripped open the man’s suit shirt with a strength that almost seemed unnatural.

Moana got to work immediately, sinking to his side placing her hands over the man’s upper arm. His skin under her gloves began to glow a hot pink. Almost immediately, a frown took over her controlled expression. “Something isn’t right. I’m having trouble moving the vitae particles to… ” She shook her head, flicking her hands slightly and causing the light to glow more intensely. Finally, she seemed to make progress. Letting out a sigh of relief, she guided the glowing splotch to the open wound on the man’s shoulder. When she removed her hands, the area was covered over with a thin stretch of skin. She then assessed the knife embedded into the man’s abdomen. She nodded and addressed the closest person to her—Yulia: “When I say go, pull the knife out.”

Yulia inclined her head, wrapping her hands around the cracked glass handle.

“This is difficult…” Moana wiped her forehead with the back of her hand before placing it over the man’s chest again. “I don’t understand. It’s like it’s resisting me.” Her brows furrowed, and the salmon-pink light brightened beneath her hand brightened. “Now!”

Yulia ripped the knife out from the peacekeeper’s chest as Moana brought up the glowing patch of skin to cover the newly opened hole. The light dimmed as she removed her hand revealing that the wound had been successfully closed. Moana gave a sigh of relief as she fell back, while Yulia clutched the broken handle of the knife as if it was a lifeline.

There was a beat.

Mladen’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared up at the cavern’s ceiling blankly. And then he shot up immediately.

Yulia jumped back with him in surprise, while Moana leaned forward with concern.

What? Atienna startled. How had he recovered so quickly? She had read the books. She had seen the wound. It was deep. Even the most skilled Transmutationist wouldn’t be able to—

Moana seemed to agree. “Mr. Mladen, sir?! What are you doing?! You must rest! I have not assessed your internal injuries yet—”

Mladen turned to stare at the Piscese diplomat with an owl-like expression cutting her off short before he looked to Major Ersatz lying beside him. No sooner did the peacekeeper flinch away from the corpse did the white cracks expanding across his finally finish their journey. In an instant, Ersatz’s body crumbled away into nothing.

“What the…”

Moana retracted herself in alarm as did Alexei.

Yulia, however, paid the occurrence no mind and drew near to Mladen. She placed a hand on his shoulder and pressed the odd knife to his chest. Her eyes were wide, and she seemed dazed. “Can you tell me if—”

Before she could finish the statement, Mladen ripped the knife out from her hands and stared at the thing in horror. “Broken!” Mladen shouted, running panicky fingers through his hair as he gripped the thing. “Terrible!”

“What in the—what’s wrong with him?” Alexei grimaced, skirting backwards.

“Maybe he has a concussion,” Moana murmured, inching closer with raised hands. “Where did you come fro—”

Mladen shook his head and his face twisted with frustration. “No. No concussion.” He held his head with his free hand and gripped the knife tightly. “Initiation. Faulty. Terrible.”

“And here I was hoping for a voice of reason from a peacekeeper…” Alexei muttered under his breath.

Something must have happened when he was stabbed with the knife, Atienna conjectured. The knife was most definitely a conductor. Perhaps manipulation? No, despite his erratic behavior, his actions were still comprehensible. Plus, he was still able to vocalize somewhat properly—an attribute not found in those who were manipulated. Besides, Ersatz was a Conjuror, not a Manipulator.

“Peacekeeper?” came Mladen’s questioning tone. “Peace? Syzygy?”

At the word, Atienna was immediately drawn out of her thoughts. She slowly lifted her gaze to Mladen who was now staring blankly at Alexei who was frowning back at him in confusion.

What…? Atienna thought. Why in the world did he say that word? No—how did he know it? Her mind spun round and round.

“Syzygy? Over?”

Before she could fully comprehend his words, she saw it. Rather, she saw them—their reactions. Cvetka’s eyes narrowed for a moment, while Yulia looked as if she had been slapped. Sigurd who had been quietly standing behind Alexei the entire time with an air of disinterest snapped her attention forward.

“That sounds familiar…” Louise murmured quietly from beside her as she tapped her chin. “Is that a peacekeeping word?”

What was this?

Atienna’s heart began to hammer wildly in her chest—but it was not unpleasant. Like the thrill right before stepping into the ring.

This already precarious situation had turned dangerous.


(    )

Sitting in the room without any windows and doors, the one known as Theta slowly shut their book. A smile touched their lips—

“Let’s begin.”


8.5: Jericho’s Reunion (Seperazione)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

After enjoying his usual luncheon with Gabrielle’s inner circle, Jericho begins to wonder if his connection with the other five has quelled his rage. Alice says it is good progress and invites him to visit ELPIS-converted Wtorek Izsak who is imprisoned in the belly of Ophiuchus. 

Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus

“These security checks are ridiculous. We’re Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. We shouldn’t have to go through these things like these tourists here.”

“Is it that you think you’re above all of these ‘tourists’, Talib? Do you think you’re above the security measures?”

“See! That’s exactly how the Organization wants you to think. They’re taking advantage of your docility and compliance! These vitae-spectrophotometer tests are just tools they use to find their next targets!”

“And how and why exactly would they do that? And who are these targets?”

Jericho paused and turned. Alice was walking right behind him and Talib beside her. She was wearing a slim-fitting pale blue dress with a blue ribbon tightened around her waistline, while Talib wore a loosely buttoned blouse with a pair of slacks. A blue scarf was lightly tossed over his shoulders as if as an afterthought.

Their outfits somewhat matched, Jericho realized. Maybe they were a ‘couple.’ But he had assumed Ferris and Talib were a couple. Had he conjectured incorrectly? Or was this one of the ‘love triangles’ Cadence liked to talk about?

Deciding that these thoughts were irrelevant, Jericho continued forward.

They were walking along a wide bridge platform that rose high above the ground. Several meters below them glowed a cluster of oval-shaped vitae reservoirs. There were thirteen total with twelve smaller ones circling around a larger central one. The glow from them from this distance was psychedelic—shifting from soft blues to pale greens to bright purples. Particles of light rose from the pools and dusted the air coating everything in a dreamy haze.

It hurt to look at.

The platform they were walking across was one of twelve. Each platform hung over one of the twelve outer reservoirs and connected together at a central platform that stood tall above the largest reservoir. The platforms were congested, but not as congested as the streets of the Twin Cities.

Jericho approached the railing to his left and peered downwards into the light. His head pounded at the glow, but he took a deep breath and reached out to the other five. It took two tries. Synchronization was around 80 percent with all five appearing physically before him. Some were confused. Some were curious. One was excited.

Uh, what’s the deal, detective?

You said that there was nothing happening on my end, Jericho explained. I’ve heard that it is… customary… to visit places like this Prognoikos Aurora attraction since they are ‘touristy’—

“Jericho, put your hands down,” Werner interjected. “You’ll draw attention.”

Jericho put down his air quotation marks. Touristy. Uplifting to the spirit. That is what the books say. About this place.

“That’s very nice of you, Jericho,” Atienna drew with a smile, clasping her hands together. “Thank you.”

Her smile was pleasant.

Maria threw her hands up the air and wrapped him in her arms before she peeled away and leaned over the railings. “Amazing! I have always wanted to visit this place!” She leaned forward. “What do you think it’s like to swim in it?”

“These are gigantic compared to the one in the royal palace,” Olivier noted, ignoring Maria as he peered over the railings beside her. He grimaced. “There’s so much of it here. I don’t understand why it isn’t just harvested and given out.” He glanced at Werner. “It’d save people a lot of trouble.”

It seemed as if Lavi was not with him today. Jericho was somewhat disappointed. He had wanted to see her reaction.

“That’s not how economics works, kid,” Cadence replied to Olivier with a shrug, glancing with only mild interest at the reservoirs.

“And you know how economics works?” Olivier arched a brow back at her.

Cadence remained smiling. “Hey, I ain’t the one who got scammed by some old coot.”

“Well, this place is considered sacred in Monadism,” Atienna informed them. “It is used for the baptismal portion of saint candidate ceremonies. Although… I have heard that they are starting to begin the construction of a continent-wide insulator system to connect these reservoirs with other major vitae reservoirs around Signum. They’re hoping to provide the poorer areas with it too.”

Olivier perked up at this. “Really? I must have missed that…”

Atienna pressed her fingers to her lips. “It isn’t that you have missed it, it is that it has not been announced yet. Diplomats have very interesting conversations.” She smiled lightly. “Despite everything we can still keep personal matters from each other. That is reassuring, don’t you think?”

Olivier shrugged and glanced at Jericho. Jericho had not heard of it either and mimicked the gesture.

Cadence cracked a grin, nudging Olivier on the shoulder. “See, friends in high places everywhere.”

“I’m literally the Ariesian prince…”

“Exactly!” Cadence snapped her fingers and waved him off. “Anyway, I once sold a whole group of elites from Cancer phony VIP tickets to this place.” She slipped between Maria and Olivier at the railings. “I couldn’t really understand why a buncha people would fork over a thousand common coin to visit some vitae reservoirs but lookin’ at it now…”

“It’s pleasant,” Werner agreed. “The gesture is appreciated, Jericho. I’ve always wanted to see the Ophiuchian vitae reservoirs myself, so—”

What? Cadence’s grin widened. Mr. This-isn’t-a-vacation is takin’ in the scenic view?

“I do appreciate the natural wonders of Signum,” Werner returned coolly. “These are the things that fuel our countries. We should treat them with respect.”

“Hm—Hey, why are some of ‘em kinda lower than the rest?” Cadence inquired, gesturing to about eleven of the reservoirs. “It kinda ruins the whole symmetry.”

“It is a natural phenomenon,” Atienna explained, observing them far from the railings. “Every couple of decades, the levels of the vitae reservoirs rise and fall. I hear there is still research going on about it.” She glanced at Jericho before placing a hand on her chin. “However… During the end of the Reservoir War, the original country of Ophiuchus ended up desecrating half of the reservoirs here, so several of them have never risen since then.”

Cadence rocked back on her heels and grimaced. “That sounds like a history lesson I don’t wanna get into.”

The nausea that had been lightly holding Jericho’s stomach suddenly tightened as he watched them continue to converse, and he placed a hand over his stomach absentmindedly.

Olivier glanced back at him with a frown. “Look, Jericho, it’s not that great.” He loosely thumbed the reservoir below him. “You don’t have to show us this. A picture is good too.”

Cadence whipped around grinning. “Or ya could draw us it too. We could put it in a frame and everything. Hey, who knows? Ya might be the next big artist! People’ll be talkin’ about ya in the streets!”

“—uh, Jericho, are you home?”

Jericho snapped his attention to Talib who was standing right beside him waving a hand in front of his face.

The man startled at Jericho’s attention and placed a hand over his heart. “Saints! You scared me.” He straightened his scarf and nodded. “I was saying that this really is quite the view, isn’t it? And it’s nice to be out of uniform.”

Jericho stared back at him before he nodded. “No one stares.” He glanced around at the pedestrians passing by around them. “I didn’t realize. Some people aren’t fond of peacekeepers.”

Talib nodded slowly, following the passersby with his eyes. “Either we’re too controlling or we’re not controlling enough. Either we spend too much time saving people who don’t matter or we don’t spend enough time saving people who matter.”

“You’ve thought about this. A lot.”

“Yes, well… we can’t save, help, and make everyone happy,” Talib said. “But if we can save and help at least one person, I think that’s enough. Like that poor fellow and those women who were manipulated by that Cancerian.” He paused, gesturing to Jericho’s waist. “You’re a Specialist, right? I wasn’t going to talk about it but—”

“Jericho.”

Jericho turned to find Alice behind him. She had been walking along the opposite railing and now stood before him with an unreadable expression as usual.

“I think this is good progress for you to come here,” Alice said curtly. “But today is also the day you said you would come with us to visit Izsak. I hope you don’t think that coming here this morning excuses you from your promise.”

“This is not an excuse.”

Alice nodded. “Good.”

***

Black Constellation Detention Center, Ophiuchus

Beneath the Serpens Establishment was the Black Constellation Detention Center. It was a prison that extended many meters below the ground and consisted of a network of halls and cells layered up on top of one another. Ferris had likened it one time to a beehive.

After passing through the ten security checks at the Center’s entrance—one of which consisted of a vitae-spectrophotometer test—Jericho, Alice, and Talib were allowed into a small elevator. When Jericho had come here when Ophiuchus had first begun using the vitae-spectrophotometer test, he had nearly been tackled to the ground when the results of his test came in. Alice had been nearby at the time, however, and had flashed her Ophiuchian chairman badge in his defense. Following that event, she had done a hefty load of paperwork and procured a special badge for him that allowed him to bypass the tests.

“Good ta know people in high places, right?” Cadence had chortled.

Sometimes Jericho wondered what those people who knew the color of his vitae thought of him. Rumors had probably already started.

They rode down the elevator in silence. Jericho watched as light from different levels bled through the crack in doors as they descended past them. Ten minutes later the elevator dinged, and they reached the last floor.

When they exited the elevator, they were met with a sterile nearly all-white hallway. Lining the left of the hall were large two-way mirrors in-between which large metal doors stood rigid. In front of each of those doors stood a pair of uniformed peacekeeping agents. Cells.

The walls across from them were spotted with black metal benches. The walls themselves were dotted with occasional strange streaks of black.

Jericho glanced into the first two-way mirror as they walked past. Usian. Laying down on the bed provided within the room with his hands folded over his stomach, the man stared up at the ceiling with an unreadable expression.

The second two-way mirror down the hall contained another man. Major Ersatz. The Capricornian major paced the room back and forth while biting his thumb and muttering to himself.

Jericho felt his gaze unnaturally linger on the man before he forced himself forward.

They came to a stop before the third two-way mirror.

Jericho glanced inside.

Wtorek Izsak sat at a table set at the room’s center. Across from him sat a woman in a black suit wearing a white armband. Her wavy brown hair was tied into a rather messy bun, and her hand was resting on the man’s upper arm.

Wtorek Elizabeta.

The heaviness in Jericho’s chest felt foreign and detached.

Alice immediately went to the window and stood before it with crossed arms. Jericho stared after her for a moment before glancing at the other wall.

There was a girl sitting on the bench across from the two-way mirror of Izsak’s cell. Wispy brown hair braided, caramel-colored eyes. She appeared to be around fourteen years old. Resting on her lap was a strange-looking stuffed rabbit, and Jericho was reminded of the monstrous stuffed animal that rested on a table back in his condo.

“That’s Izsak’s daughter. Csilla,” Talib whispered as he detached himself from Jericho’s side and walked over to the bench. He sat down beside the girl and began speaking animatedly and using his usual dramatic hand gestures.

Csilla giggled in turn. She was entertained, it seemed.

Jericho stared at the two and offered Csilla a small wave when the girl looked up at him. She returned the wave with a faint smile before her gaze drifted to the two-way mirror. Jericho followed her gaze before coming to a stand beside Alice in front of the glass pane.

“Maintenance still hasn’t gotten rid of those stains yet?” Alice grimaced and turned to one of the guards standing beside the door. “Mladen, it’s disgusting to look at.”

Mladen was a tall, lean man with a light mustache, a prominent brow, and an expression of complete indifference. An Aquarian, gauging by his sharp features.

The Aquarian grimaced. “Every time you complain I go up to maintenance and cleaning and tell them. After that we have to take the prisoners out to a separate level while the stains are cleaned out. Then we move them back in. You know what happens after that? More stains appear. And the cycle repeats. Someone is pulling some stupid prank, and I have to suffer for it either way.”

“Give me the names of the maintenance crew, and I’ll deal it with myself if you can’t.”

Stains?

Jericho looked around.

There. It was barely viewable from his current angle, but there was a black streak running along the wall just behind Izsak’s head. It was about the length of his arm, and it looked a bit familiar. It reminded Jericho of the paintings in Atienna’s cave. And…

Jericho turned his head.

There were similar black streaks on the wall behind him.

So it wasn’t a customary design then.

“That doesn’t help me,” Mladen complained. “I’ll just have to move all of them again when the stains reappear.”

Alice sighed and knocked on the steel door.

Elizabeta startled from within and pulled her hand away from her husband’s arm. She turned back towards the door and then glanced at the two-way mirror. Although she couldn’t see them, she nodded in their direction.

“Open the door,” Alice ordered.

Mladen rolled his neck and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a set of keys and inserted one into the slot in the door. There was a cold draft of wind as the door groaned open.

The guard beside Mladen shivered and grimaced. “Saints. They need to turn off the damn heat—”

A loud squelch cut the guard off, and the sound was followed by a gurgle and then a steady drip, drip, drip.

Jericho turned, stared, and then tried to piece together the events that had preceded the scene before him. All he had seen was a flash of tangerine light, a glint of metal, and then—and then just red.

Red seeping in-between the white tiles of the floor, red bleeding onto the guard’s Ophiuchian armband, red pooling out from the guard’s mouth—his mouth from which a steel beam now protruded. The beam extended almost all the way to the opposite wall, and the weight of the thing dragged the peacekeeper forward. His body crumpled to the floor in an instant, sending red droplets splattering onto the walls as he clutched his throat and gurgled.

“Z-Zeke!” Mladen shouted, rushing to the fallen guard’s side. He glared at the other Ophiuchian guards standing frozen around him. “Conductors! Get the damned medical Conductors! Don’t just stand there!”

“Wait! Nobody move!” Alice snapped.

The door to the cell behind her was just barely open. The chaotic noise from their side seemed to have traveled through the crack in the door, however, as Jericho could see that Elizabeta had shot up to a stand through the two-way mirror. Izsak, meanwhile, was facing the wall and was staring at the black smear there.

“Where in saint’s name did that come from?!” shouted another one of the peacekeepers closest to the elevator.

The elevator doors were closed. None of the peacekeeping agents had pulled out their conductors yet. The perpetrator was not in sight.

Jericho whipped his head around to where Talib and Csilla sat. The girl’s face was buried in Talib’s chest, and the man was holding her tightly and staring at Zeke with wide eyes.

The wall behind the two was glowing. No. The black patterns painted on the wall were glowing—glowing with pale tangerine light. And out from those numerous glowing splotches grew steel beams coated in white light.

Familiar. Manipulator. White. That color.

The world around him began to blur, the surroundings melding into one another.

Calm down. Think.

Jericho whipped his head around and tackled Alice to the ground just as the steel beams whistled out from the pools of light. The ear-piercing screech was followed by the ring of metal against glass, metal against tiled floor, metal against body. When the sounds dampened, Jericho peeled himself off of Alice and observed his surroundings.

Talib was on the ground as well, body caged protectively over a shivering Csilla. They both looked unharmed. Several other peacekeepers had also made the successful dodge. A number of them, however, were flat on the ground—bodies pierced through with pieces of metal.

The glow from the wall dimmed leaving behind the black smears that still seemed to hum with a faint energy.

Specialist…? But even for that, this is—

Jericho scrambled to his feet to fully assess the damage. The two-way mirror leading to Ersatz’s cell had shattered and the floor was flooded with blood, bodies, pieces of metal, and fragments of glass. The two way-mirror of Izsak’s cell was, however, still intact—the door, still cracked open just slightly.

Ears ringing, Jericho dashed towards it.

“Jericho, wait!” Alice snapped, rising to a stand only to slip on the blood that dyed the floor crimson.

Ignoring her shout, Jericho ripped the door open and rushed inside.

Elizabeta stared at him wide-eyed as he entered. “Jericho? What’s—”

Jericho’s gaze fixated upon the black streak on the back wall that Izsak was now extending a hand out towards. Before Jericho could move forward, however, he was pushed to the side by another peacekeeping agent. Mladen.

The peacekeeper flicked his gloved hands and conjured a pistol and a combat knife in a flash of deep green light. He pointed the pistol squarely at Izsak, gripped the knife tightly in his other hand, and snapped, “Don’t move, Wtorek!”

“What are you doing?!” Elizabeta hissed at him. “Are you craz—”

The black streak on the wall began to glow with pale tangerine light bringing with it a chillingly familiar updraft of wind. Something slithered out from that glowing streak. A hand.

Elizabeta whipped her head around and stared at the glow gaping. “What in the world is—”

Izsak started forward, reaching out towards the hand protruding from the wall with an extended hand of his own.

“No!” Elizabeta cried, throwing her body across the table and tackling Izsak to the ground away from the light.

“You’re going to make this very hard for us, aren’t you?”

Jericho froze as the familiar voice drifted out from the glowing light. The same voice as the one from that night at the docks. The same mocking tone. The same feeling building in his chest. A hot iron heat that sent a surge of electricity through his entire body. His head buzzed, his ears rang—

Jericho, calm down.

The hand retracted back into the pool of light for a beat and then shot outwards again flinging out a spray of red that splashed across the room.

Without thinking, Jericho ducked beneath the splatter. Mladen, however, lifted his hand wielding the knife, and the red droplets caught on to his hand and the blade.

The man wiped the droplets from his face with a grimace. “Disgusting—”

And then the blood flecked upon his conjured blade began to glow white. The whiteness consumed the entire thing in an instant. Before the man had the chance to react, the knife flew from his hand and then flipped over to face him with its point. It hovered there for a moment before hurtling forward and piercing his shoulder. The force of the blow sent him flying back out of the doorway. He hit the wall in the hall with a thud before sliding to the ground motionless.

“‘Disgusting’? Isn’t that a bit too harsh? Unsanitary, yes—I have to admit that it is.”

Out from the glowing streak on the wall stepped a young woman dressed in a loosely buttoned blouse and a pair of black slacks. A chain glinted faintly on her neck barely hidden by her dark, loose rope of braided hair partially concealed her face. By her relaxed demeanor, however, it was evident that the concealment was not done purposefully. She had nothing to hide.

Sighing, the woman paused to brush off her shirt before glancing to the side of the room where Elizabeta remained hovering over Izsak. “You’re not going to cause trouble for us, are you?”

“Stay away from my family,” Elizabeta hissed, eyes fierce and cold. “He’s not one of you!”

The woman sighed again and snapped her conductor gloved fingers. The sound was followed by a whirling whine as the knife from Mladen’s shoulder flew out from his body and into her waiting hand.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Omicron said, pointing the knife at them, “but that man—”

Jericho rose to a stand, heart hammering, ears ringing, head pounding. If the others were there, he could not hear them or feel them. All he could feel was the heat that was building inside his chest just waiting to explode outwards. A feeling almost forgotten. Never.

Flipping her hair away from her face, the woman turned to face Jericho. In the pale overhead lights shining down from above, the white of the snake tattoo on the left half of her face blended into the pale of her skin.

Omicron. Yes. That was her name. He hadn’t forgotten since that night at the docks in the Twin Cities. He could not recall the pain he’d felt when she’d pierced him through with the steel beams that night, but he could still recall the white glow of her vitae. A member—a leader—of ELPIS in here. In the Serpens Establishment. In the place Alice had said was safe.

Omicron’s eyes widened. “You’re…”

Recognition. Good. Good to know one’s executioner.

Izsak locked eyes with Jericho from beneath Elizabeta and held up a warning hand in the ELPIS leader’s direction. “Omicron, be careful, he’s a—”

What? Why was he—

Jericho grabbed one of the chairs that had toppled to the ground, leaped over the table at the room’s center, and swung the chair at her head. Omicron formed a fist with her gloved hands, and out from the pool of light on the wall behind her came another steel iron bar. The clang of metal against metal rang through the room as the bar slipped through the legs of the chair and locked it in place.

But Jericho was not deterred. He slipped beneath the thing and landed a solid kick to the woman’s chest sending both of them flying back into the wall and into the pool of light. Cold nipped at Jericho’s ears as they tumbled through a stretch of void and light. A tumbling free fall with no end and no beginning and—

—suddenly Jericho was falling out onto the messy floor of a familiar hallway. The floor was wet and red beneath him and littered with shards of glass, steel beams, and unmoving bodies dressed in monochrome.

He was somehow back out in the hall outside of Izsak’s cell. Above him, the black streaks on the wall were once again glowing with light.

Spatial distortion? Even for a Specialist, that’s hard to believe. Regardless. Pay attention. Look out for the other Conductor. Be careful. Get reinf—

Jericho’s ears began to ring again, muting Werner’s cool, calming voice. In the white noise, he began to evaluate his physical condition as Alice had directed him to do over and over again. The fragments of glass from the shattered two-way mirror of Ersatz’s cell had pierced his forearm, but he did not feel the pain. Operational still.

He focused his gaze upon Omicron who lay only a meter or so away from him. She was slowly rising to her feet now, groaning.

There was another peacekeeper laying beside him. At the peacekeeper’s waist were two conductors. One in the shape of a gun, and the other a bladeless hilt.

There was a sudden pang of horror in Jericho’s chest followed by remorse and disgust and pity at the sight of the body—the corpse—and then—

Probably a Projector’s conductor. Probably incompatible with a Specialist. It’s too dangerous—

Olivier.

But those facts didn’t matter.

Jericho lunged for the Projector’s gun, whipped around, and pointed it squarely at Omicron just as she turned to face him. Her eyes widened for a moment before an impassive expression slipped itself over her face. Acceptance. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger.

The heat and the hum that trembled through the conductor told Jericho that his conducting-type was most definitely incompatible with the conductor. But the conductor still served its purpose. Out from its tip exploded a burst of blinding white light that hurtled right towards the woman’s torso.

In the moment before contact, however, another figure leapt in front of the white blast. The vitae ray caught the figure’s shoulder, and the force of the blast sent him flying back into Omicron. A familiar groan reached Jericho’s ears.

It was Ersatz, who lay draped across Omicron’s body while clutching his shoulder. Omicron stared down at him wide-eyed, before she reached into her pocket and slipped something into his hands. A pendant, knife-shaped and crafted with a glass handle.

Saints—your conductor!

Jericho glanced down and saw that the conducting gun was smoking.

You’re crazy! You cracked the insulator! It’s not usable anymore—

Jericho chucked the thing aside, gaze snapping to the bladeless conductor still at the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

Omicron whipped her gloved hand out again sending three of the steel beams that were scattered around the ground hurtling in his direction.

Jericho dove for the Projector’s blade conductor, activated it, and sliced through the steel beams with ease. Then without hesitating again, he lunged at her.

Omicron pushed Ersatz to the side as she launched herself backwards. She tensed as her escape was shortened by the two-way mirror behind her. Back pressed against the mirror, she glowered.

“You’ll die here,” Jericho stated before he swung again.

Omicron dropped and ducked below the swing but the blade skirted her braid, disintegrating it in an instant and leaving her with a rugged short cut. She flicked her wrist and sent another wave of pipes in his direction from all sides. She slipped out beneath him as he disassembled the pipes with three quick swishes. Before she could get out of his reach however, he grabbed her by what little remained of her hair and threw her back up against the pane. She hit it with a thud and slid to the floor with a slight grimace.

“Haven’t you heard of being a gentleman?” she asked.

Instead of answering, he swung at her again. She moved quicker than before, although she still barely managed to skirt him this time. His conductor, however, did make contact with something on her person—an oddly-shaped pendant of the chain that had been hanging from her neck. It was knife-shaped with a clear handle just like the one she’d handed to Ersatz. It fragmented and shattered in an instant just like everything else his vitae touched. This time, however, Omicron’s reaction was different. Her eyes widened in horror; and with a roar, she sent Jericho away from her with a solid kick to the chest.

Jericho hit the black painted wall behind him but immediately popped back up to a stand while flipping the conductor in his hand. The handle of it was hot in his grip, but he did not pay it any mind.

Omicron still had a completely stricken look on her face as she gripped the chain around her neck. Distracted.

He made towards her again but Olive’s thoughts rang out once more—

Jericho, it’s hot! You’re overheating the conductor! It hurts—

No sooner did the thought leave his mind did his hand suddenly release the conductor. It fell onto the floor, losing its blade of light immediately. It sizzled and smoked and popped, sparks bursting from its body.

He glanced at his hand. It was red and raw.

“You’re really crazy, you know that?”

He looked up to find Omicron standing and holding her gloved hand out in his direction. Surrounding him from all sides were rows of glowing white pipes. But he stared past them and stared holes into the woman. The woman grimaced and flicked her wrist—

—but before she could bring her hand down, Omicron was abruptly tackled to the side wall by another body. Jericho could barely register that it was Alice before the two women fell into the glowing pools of light there and disappeared in an instant.

No.

Jericho dashed towards the wall but was stopped by a hand around the wrist. Turning his head, he found Ersatz standing there, eyes wide and livid, practically foaming at the mouth. There were white cracks along man’s body, bleeding out from his wounded shoulder. The cracks were gradually spreading, fragmenting along his lower torso. Still, Ersatz struggled forward, brandishing the knife Omicron had dropped onto the ground moments before. Before Ersatz could even make a move, however, he too was tackled to the side of the wall—and into one of the glowing pools of light—by another peacekeeper. Mladen. In an instant they too were swallowed up.

And then—

—just like that, the light on the wall dimmed into nothing, leaving the black smears looking just as they did when Jericho had first come into this hall.

Jericho slowly walked up to the wall and placed a hand on one of the smears. Cold.

He couldn’t quite comprehend the scene.

Elizabeta was now out in the hall hugging Csilla tightly. There were other peacekeepers filtering in through the elevator. Talib was standing in front of him, shaking him and shouting. Alice. Where was Alice.

Were those his own thoughts or Talib’s shouts. Jericho didn’t know.


(    )

“Oh…” Omega lifted her head as she flipped her hair. She was sitting at the board game table across from Tau and had been using one of her black pieces to capture one of his white ones when her eyes had suddenly glazed over.

“Omega?” Tau pressed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “What is it?”

Omega returned her attention to the board game, eyes still glazed over, as she finished capturing one of his pieces. “Omicron isn’t in the Serpens Establishment anymore. Neither is Ersatz.”

Tau clicked his tongue at her move and handed one of the black game pieces he’d captured previously back over to her. “That’s good…. Then, where are they?”

“I don’t know,” she hummed, accepting the piece and placing it in the spot that his piece had previously occupied. She flipped her hair again, this time over her shoulder. “They’re not anywhere that I’ve used my conductor at. I can’t see them through any of my mediums. Oh, but Izsak is still there—”

“What?!” Tau snapped, shooting up to a stand. “That’s not good at all! What was the point of Omicron going there? I knew trusting that peacekeeper was a terrible, awful idea! Dammit! Izsak has valuable information! If I hadn’t lost that damn game with Omicron then—”

“It was the peacekeeper with the suitcase again,” she said, voice sing-song. “But he didn’t have his suitcase this time around. What a terrifying person.”

“The suitcase bastard Omicron met in the Twin Cities?” Tau pinched the bridge of his nose. “Again?”

“Theta is off right now,” Omega sang. “I wonder what they’ll do when they find out their knight in shining armor has failed.”


“If someone asked for your help, cried in front of you, or asked for your love, what would you do? Certainly, the easiest answer would be to embrace them. It’s the simplest method with the fastest effect. But giving a hug or a kiss or even offering a drink—these are all temporary measures. What about tomorrow? The day after that? Would you embrace them every single time? And what if you’re no longer around? What then? That is why, Jericho, I will not be like any of the others. I will not simply embrace you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley, Third Chairwoman of the Psychological Evaluations Department of Ophiuchus

8.4: Maria’s Capture (Fuga)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Maria has a bounty on her head, but she is not concerned with it. Instead, she has focused her attention on retrieving a package she is to deliver to the Campanas from Pisces. Upon arrival at Pisces, however, she has discovered that the package holder Elele has been murdered by the bounty hunters after her head and that the package is now missing. Maria thus begins a hunt for the bounty hunters, while Conta’s aloofness weights on the back of her mind. Her mysterious new crew member Ley also seems to know more than she’s letting on. Amongst everything, there is a tale swirling around about a “beast of the deep”. 

Hapaira, Pisces

“We’ve been on this so-called hunt for over three days now, Captain,” Morandi grumbled from where he sat at the foot of the steps. “This isn’t looking good. If the Campanas were to…”

“Nonsense, my dear Morandi!” Maria laughed, wiggling her bare toes and feeling the smooth stone beneath her feet. She reached down into the river which ran up to her thighs, cupped a puddle of it in her arms, and then flung it in Morandi’s direction.

Ley and Simon who were seated to his left managed to leap away just before the wave of water crashed onto shore, but Morandi and the others at his right were not as lucky and were barraged by the torrent.

“Captain!” came the shouts of exasperation.

Morandi sighed before he pulled off his shirt and wrung it over the river and laid it out on one of the steps to dry.

Maria had discovered this waterway during one of their many searches for the bounty hunters. The water here was crystalline making the rock bed beneath it visible to the naked eye. The rush of the river was barely audible, and the entire thing was bordered by a pair of short staircases that ran along its length. Beyond the stairs on the left was a strip of empty, small, and colorful brick buildings; and beyond the stairs to the right was a patchwork of marshy overgrowth.

Upon their arrival, Maria had staked a claim on the land and labeled it as hers. Simon had informed her that it wouldn’t be possible for her to claim the land legally to which Maria had responded with “that’s why we do it not legally, no?” That had all been in good jest, of course. There was no way she would trap this piece of gorgeous land under her title. Something as beautiful as this deserved to be free and unclaimed. In a sense. It was still hers, of course. If anyone would dare to defile it, she would show them the terror that was the Golden Beast.

“I wonder what is taking my dear Giorgio so long?” Maria sighed as she ran her hand along the surface of the water. “He is surprisingly energetic when it comes to this stuff, yes?” She recalled Giorgio’s excitement when they’d first found this river. He had floundered around with her, kicking up the water with his feet.

“He’s a river boy at heart,” Morandi explained as he picked up a stray stone and tossed it into the river. “His village—before it was attacked by ELPIS—was renowned for its fishing industry. He’s practically married to any flowing body of water. It’s a bit of a strange interest, now that I think about it.”

Married, hm?

Maria paused in her play to glance over her shoulder. Sitting on the steps at the opposite side of the river was Conta. The woman stared at Maria with a blank expression which deepened into a frown when Maria wadded across the river to join her.

“What are you looking at my dear, Conta?” Maria asked, falling to a crouch in the stream in front of her so they were at eye level. “I was looking for you earlier, you know? Usually, you are already one step behind me, but this time I had to go in search of you! It’s fun to switch things up from time to time, yes?”

Conta averted her gaze. “I suppose, Captain.”

Maria chuckled lightly, resting her chin on her knees. “You know, it is strange. I am actually sort of glad that you are mad at me, Conta. It’s more funny than strange, actually? I mean…” She paused to stare at Conta’s reflection in the rippling water. “It is from that distance that I truly realize how much you mean to me.”

Conta’s reflection stiffened, and her eyes narrowed. “Captain, I…”

Maria beamed and popped her head up. “Even though I say that, I still hope that your next words are going to be ‘I am no longer upset with you.’ I truly did not mean to say that—” Maria paused, rose, and turned around.

Giorgio was coming along the strip of trodden land lining the stairs at the opposite side of the river. In his hands was a brown bag which looked full of food. A gift from Raul, probably. The chef had decided he felt comfortable enough not accompanying Maria several days ago and had returned to the ship to continue his cooking duties. Since the stores and stalls dotting the pier were still devoid of people, it was not so hard to raid them for food ingredients. In fact, it had been rather boring. But Raul was happy with that so Maria supposed it was fine.

Maria drifted back across the river and popped up back onto the stairs on the opposite side just as Giorgio came down the stairwell. When she approached him, he flinched away from her while holding the brown bag of food high above his head.

“Captain! Captain!” Giorgio stammered. “The food! You’re dripping wet!”

Maria neared him still, placing one finger to her lips as she reached for something at his belt. “You said you sleep with a knife, my dear Giorgio, but I see you have started carrying it with you all times! You are starting to get the hang of me being your captain, yes?”

“Wha—”

Maria plucked the knife from his side, flipped it and caught it by the tip of its blade, before hurtling in the direction of one of the buildings behind him. The knife whistled through one of the open windows—a sound followed by a loud grunt and then a thud.

Maria brushed past the others and headed to the building she had sent the knife into. She leapt in through the window and landed deftly on the wooden floor inside. There was a trail of blood there leading to the corner of the room, and within that corner resided a panting man who was clutching his left arm. He was tall and dark with bottle green eyes. He tensed as Maria approached him.

Her gaze flicked to his sides. No weapons.

Wait. Had she gotten the wrong person?

Pay attention. Observe.

Her gaze drifted to the man’s wound—rather, the hand clutching the wound. And then she smiled. This was definitely the right person. What was it that Cadence always said? ‘Bingo.’

“You are not a very good spy, yes?” Maria asked, reaching forward and wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the knife that protruded from his arm. “I could see you following my dear Giorgio from far away, my friend.”

The man’s bandaged hand gripped his wound and what little of the blade protruded from his arm. He was evidently missing several fingers.

Without hesitation, Maria ripped the knife out from his arm and watched as the man yelped and slid to the ground with a groan.

That’s terrible.

Not really.

Maria fell into a crouch in front of the man and tapped the knife at his cheek. “What exactly were you doing, my friend, following Giorgio like that?” She smiled and pressed the edge of the knife against the man’s face. “Mm… that’s not the right question. The right question is what were you planning to do to my dear Giorgio?”

Gritting his teeth, the man remained silent.

“You see, I have lost quite a few things recently, and I’ve been starting to think that the feeling of losing things is not fun, yes? So this is important to me, do you understand?”

Again, silence.

“Hm. How about this? One of my friends likes reading books, you see,” Maria continued. “There is one book she read—it is quite funny—where this one character who was a cannibal, yes? He ate other people and was able to get their memories from eating them. It was a horror story, but I found it very funny. ” She leaned in close and whispered into the man’s ears: “Shall I give it a try?”

“Captain!”

Maria turned her head and found Ley, Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio storming into the room behind her. While Simon, Giorgio, and Morandi came in through the door, Ley leapt in through the window and was at Maria’s side at an instant.

Ley’s gaze flicked from the knife in Maria’s hands to the wounded man. Her eyes then narrowed from above her magenta mask, and she sank to the floor beside Maria while placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Do you mind if I try a crack at it, Captain?” Ley asked, voice barely muffled. “I used to be called a villain back in the day, so I’m sure that I might get some more out of him with just a little less loss of appendages.”

Maria considered Ley’s proposal for a moment before she nodded and peeled away from the bounty hunter’s side. Ley took her place, falling into a crouch in front of him.

“Where are your bounty hunting pals?” Ley asked after either a yawn or a sigh. “You came alone even after you saw her tear through you guys that other night. That doesn’t seem like a very bounty hunter-like thing for you to do.”

The nameless bounty hunter glowered, but something else flickered in his eyes. What was that look? Pain—a different one than physical. That pain was of someone who had lost—

“Piscese bounty hunters don’t tend to operate in groups so I was pretty surprised when I saw you guys working together.” Ley yawned again, rubbing the tears out of her eyes. “Sorry. Tired. Anyway, that’s a pretty murderous vibe you’ve got there in your eyes. Makes me wonder if the bounty is all that’s on your mind.”

The flicker in the man’s eyes sparked into a flame and he launched himself up at Maria only to be swept to the ground by Ley who had kicked her feet beneath his own. He hit the ground with a thud and then went limp.

Ley swore under her breath and reached over to check the man’s pulse. “He’s just passed out.” She glanced at Maria. “We could use a Transmutationist if you’ve got one.” She gestured to his bleeding arm. “It’s not deep, but what do I know?”

“You really know how to take the reins, huh, my dear Ley?” Maria chuckled before she glanced over her shoulder at Simon. “No Transmutationists here!”

Ley shrugged and began to search the man’s clothing. She paused and pulled out something from the folds of his shirt. It looked like a keychain. A rather cute one of a blue mini surfboard. “Either a lead or a dead end.”

Maria hummed.

“It might be too good to be true,” Ley drew, “but there was that surfboard shop we passed by earlier.” She tossed the item to Maria. “Surfboard. Water. The Elementalist. The beast of the deep. Bounty hunters. The package. There’s too many coincidences.”

Maria inspected the keychain before swinging it by the ring around the point of her knife. “So the surfboard store is the way to go, yes?” She threw it up in the air, caught it, pocketed it.

Ley rose to her feet. “That seems the case. I think we should wait until princess here wakes up before we check it out though—”

“No, you will all stay here while I go now,” Maria said, wiping the knife off on her shirt. She twirled it around as she approached Giorgio who was hovering by the doorway and slid the thing back into his belt. “If there really is a beast out there, then it only makes sense for another beast to face it, no?”

***

Oddly enough, excitement was not brewing in Maria’s chest as she wove her way back through the colorful town of Hapaira. Instead, an emotion that was a bit unfamiliar to her was growing there. She couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but it was quite unpleasant—tying her stomach into knots.

At a fork in the red brick road beneath one of the town’s infamous arches, Maria paused to look left and then right. “I don’t remember which way to go…”

Left.

It was Werner!

She looked around but could not see him.

Wait—

He sounded unhappy.

Unhappiness has nothing to do with this. I am advising you to think your actions through thoroughly. Going into an unknown location without the proper support is—

Maria laughed, feeling the odd knot in her stomach lessen. “Do not worry, Werner, I am strong, and I will never die.” She turned down the left path and began to wind down the narrow stone walkway there.

Everyone dies, came Werner’s thought. You should refrain from speaking out lou—

“Not me.” Maria hummed as she continued onwards. “And not you. We won’t die.” Ever. “I won’t let you.”

She reached the surfboard store not so soon after. It looked the same as before with bright colorful surfboards lining its front and seashell trinkets hanging from its extended roof. It was a very open store with its shutter door pulled all the way up to allow in sunlight. Upon closer inspection, however, Maria noticed that behind all of those displays at the very back wall was a small and narrow blue door.

After a moment of consideration, she reached out and pushed over one of the upright boards decorating the front. It crashed into the surfboard behind it which knocked into another surfboard—all in a domino crescendo. The crashes echoed through the silence surrounding her for a moment but quietness reigned in a beat after.

Hm. No one was coming through the door. That was a bit boring.

She was crazy.

“Oh, Ollie!” Maria greeted him and threw her hands up in the air. She looked around but she could not see him either. She didn’t mind it though, as the knot in her stomach disappeared completely leaving her feeling light and pleasant as always. “Are you here to join me on this adventure?”

‘Course he is, doll. It’s hard ta ignore that kinda spirit, came Cadence’s voice drifting down into her thoughts. I was wonderin’ why I couldn’t stop shakin’ my leg. Turns out your excitement is just that infectious.

Cadence was here too! Well, that was wonderful. All that was needed was Atienna and Jericho, and it would just be like the synchronization meeting minus all the long boring talk.

“Well, onwards we go!” Maria cheered.

Wait—

Maria paced up to the narrow blue door at the back of the store. When she pulled it open, she found a staircase descending downwards. While the path down was entirely pitch black, she could see a very faint light glowing from the bottom. Without skipping a beat, she dashed down the stairwell. When she reached the floor below, she found herself standing in a very small room lit only by a single v-bulb that swung from the ceiling. But—

Maria could feel Olive pale immediately with fear, disgust, and horror. She could even feel the chill that ran up his spine. It was an unfamiliar sensation to her.

How awful….

It was Atienna, and with her came a wave of apprehension and worry. Something weighed down in Maria’s chest at Atienna’s thought. An uncomfortable weight.

There were bodies everywhere in front of them. Bodies on top of bodies. Bodies drooping over the small circular tables that dotted the space. Red staining into the wood.

Ignoring Olive and Atienna’s apprehension, Maria continued forward and glanced around. These were most definitely some of the bounty hunters that came at her the previous week. This was definitely peculiar.

Maybe they all killed each other, Cadence suggested. Like a shootout. Bang, bang.

Why would they do such a thing? Atienna pondered.

Bounty greed? Cadence tried. I mean, they are after the money.

Atienna seemed to think about this deeply. As strong and as terrifying desire is, it’s a bit strange that they would all be cooperating with another only to turn on another so suddenly, isn’t it? Even though they haven’t obtained what they’ve come for…

Well, when ya put it that way…

Intuition. The same weapon was used to kill all of them. It was Jericho, solidifying before Maria’s eyes with absolute clarity. He was crouched down inspecting one of the bodies. It was riddled with fist-shaped holes as was the body beside it. They have similar markings. Not a shootout. One person.

Werner solidified beside him as well and gave a firm nod. I would say that a Projector did this, but these markings seem different. He gestured to a woman draped across one of the tables. She had a hole drilled straight through her forehead. Look at the singe marks of the exit holes. It’s too controlled and clean.

The one who killed your package holder Elele. Jericho nodded. “That person was an Elementalist. This is another party.”

Maybe it’s another bounty hunting group, Cadence reasoned. Killin’ off competition. And Mr. Fingerless there thought it was you, so that’s why he went after ya alone. Kinda weird for a bounty hunter though. Never thought they’d be the type for camaraderie.

Was this really about Maria’s bounty? Atienna thought. I know you have quite a strong personality, Maria, and you draw attention everywhere you go, but it’s a bit strange that the bounty hunters knew exactly where you would be… plus, we still don’t know the chronology of these events. If one event is moved slightly out of order then…

That’s a valid point, Atienna, Werner agreed.

Wow, ya both are risin’ detectives ain’t ya? Cadence snickered. Gonna give Jericho a run for his money—

‘Run for my money’—what does that—

It’s awful, came Olive’s abrupt thought.

Jericho and Werner exchanged looks.

Don’t get me wrong. Olive continued, hesitant. I get that they’re out for Maria and that they’re dangerous. But when you talk about them like that, it’s like they’re not even human. A pause. These were people.

Olive… Atienna began.

Maria noticed something black flicker out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, what’s that?”

Sitting in the back corner of the room was a polished black crate that reminded Maria of one of the fancy cabinets she had stolen from a Cancerian estate several months prior. Surrounding it was a ring of corpses—some still clutching what appeared to be conductors, knives, and guns.

Ignoring the hesitation she felt curling in her chest, she strode over to the crate and popped the lid open. The interior was lined with bright pink padding, and it was filled with silk white pillows and stuffed animals.

It looks almost like a coffin… that is a bit ominous, don’t you think?

Looks like a good place ta take a nap. The container looks kinda familiar though—

There was a creak from behind Maria.

Hm.

Maria kicked up a knife that one of the corpses was holding, caught it, and spun around slashing. The figure that was standing behind her, however, ducked backwards from the swing and missed it by a hair’s breadth.

Oh! Maria thought as she studied the person. That is sort of impressive—

“Geeze, Captain. It’s just me.”

It was Ley, standing with her hands held up in the air.

“Wow,” Maria hummed, lowering the knife in surprise. “You are quite skilled, Ley!”

Skilled or creepy? Olive thought. There’s a difference.

I’m the one who’s skilled?” Ley chuckled, straightening herself and adjusting her scarf mask.

“What are you doing here?” Maria asked. “I said to stay behind, yes?”

Ley opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by another voice coming from behind—

“Who’s there?”

Maria cocked her head. Ley’s gaze focused on a point behind her. Following that gaze, Maria turned around.

There was something beneath one of the tables over which two corpses were draped. Rather, it was a someone. A person who was huddled there on all fours. After a beat of silence, that person crawled forward from out beneath the table and rose to a stand.

There was alarm from Werner, Olive, and Atienna’s end but Maria herself was simply curious because—

—standing amongst the corpses was a girl no older than twelve. Her skin was a pale white which was only several shades lighter than the milky white of her eyes. The colors contrasted with her dark brown hair which was graced with a red bow. The bow itself reminded Maria of the ones that would be placed on top of her birthday presents back at the orphanage.

The girl turned her milky eyes in their direction.

“Are you here to pick me up for Mr. Campana?” the girl asked, brushing off her wonderfully expensive-looking sequined blue dress before crossing her arms with a huff. “I’ve been waiting all day, you know?”


Twin Cities, Gemini

Swallowing, Matilda pressed down on the folds of her dress and checked her reflection on the window to her left. Her hair wasn’t as dolled up as it had been that night at the Romanos-Foxman meeting, and so it frizzed out like a lion’s mane. Her butterfly shaped birthmark seemed even more prominent beneath the dim v-lights of the cafe, and she couldn’t help but nervously pick at the chipping wood of the table in front of her. It wasn’t her fault, really. She hadn’t been expecting this meeting at all.

“What’s wrong?”

Matilda startled and turned forward as her invitee slipped back into the seat across from her. She stared down at her hands. “Uh, nothing, I…”

“You seem nervous.” A chuckle that sounded off. “There’s no need to be.”

“Right,” Matilda said nervously, toying with a thread that was coming loose at the bottom of her skirt, “so why… did you… erm—”

“Do you… want to leave the city?”

Matilda froze and looked up.

The man was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater which was much different than his normal wear, but his easy smile was familiar.

Matilda’s mind raced. What was he saying? Why was he saying it? Did he want her to leave the city? Was she not doing a good enough job with her group? “Why would I want to do that? I mean, I wouldn’t find a better opportunity than this here…”

“Opportunity?” The smile began to slide from his face.

“I mean, even if I left the city, where would I go?” Matilda tried. “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to even go anywhere. I don’t think I’m on any records. And records are important, right? I mean, I know people who left the city trying to make a name for themselves, but they end up coming back here with even less than before. This is the only place for people like me.”

There was a pause. The chatter of those around them reached Matilda’s ears. It was worse than silence.

“I see. If you look at it that way, I can see how you would want to stay forever,” he said quietly. “You are very well-spoken, Matilda.”

Matilda found herself flushing at this, and she didn’t quite know why. She was never like this around him usually. She cleared her throat. “Thank you, but can I ask why you’re asking, Mr. F—”

Her voice caught in her throat, and it took her a moment to find her words again:

“A-Are you… is everything okay…?”

“You really are well spoken…” The man gently rubbed the wetness from his eyes. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Have you come across anything strange with the items you’ve been delivering?”

The question was so odd that Matilda for a moment forgot the man’s tears. “What do you mean?”

“Items that maybe aren’t conductors or conductor parts is what I’m referring to.”

Matilda shook her head. “Were we missing some of the items we handed off? I know some of the recent deliveries haven’t made it to the drop-off locations, but I already explained everything to you…”

The man remained silent for a moment, turning to look out the window. “Your current occupation is very dangerous,” he drew, “and it’s going to become even more dangerous soon. You should leave. I’m sure the children working under you have already started to voice their dissent.”

Matilda stiffened. “I-I can take care of them. I don’t know why some of the others acting up suddenly and quitting, but I can always look for others. There’s a lot of kids like me on the street looking for some cens so—” Her voice caught in her throat again as she registered the gaze that the man fixated upon her. Something about it was unnerving. Unnatural. “Is there something wrong?”

“The only thing chaining you to your circumstances is yourself,” he murmured, rising to a stand, “and if you can’t break those chains yourself then allow me to destroy your circumstances.” He tossed a handful of cens onto the table and turned to leave. “As I’ve said, you should leave.”

Scattered among the Geminian Cens that were still clattering back and forth on the table were a handful of strange black and white game pieces imprinted faintly with the shapes of stars.


8.3: Werner’s Diligence (Rilassamento)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

First Lieutenant Waltz was out near the southern Argoan border when he was overridden by Olive. Given Argo’s sudden obtainment of conductors, Werner is sent along with several of his men (Kleine, Gilbert, Bergmann, and Stein) and Nico to the Twin Cities of Gemini to initiate a new deal. Waiting for them there is Colonel Fritz von Spiel, the main negotiator.  

Twin Cities, Gemini

The train ride to the Twin Cities was uneventful. The passage required two stops to switch train cars. One stop was at a medium-sized town in Pisces, and the second was at an outpost on the border Leo shared with Gemini. Due to the sizable distance between northeast Gemini and southern Capricorn, the traversal period not including rest stops took 36 hours, 15 minutes, and six seconds.

As soon as the train docked into the station on the Dioscuri Bridge of the Twin Cities, Werner became synchronized with Morello. Rather, she synchronized with him. An 80 percent value of synchronization: her form was present and her environment was in his mind’s eye. Her excitement was on par with Maria’s regular emotional state: energized. 

“So what are ya gonna visit first here?” Cadence asked as he unloaded his belongings from the overhead compartments. “I recommend the Gamma Geminorium. It’s buffet style but the good kind. It’s got a great pasta bar and even better wine bar. I’d recommend the Casa de Bambolle, but you don’t seem like the type to like that kinda stuff if ya know what I mean.”

I am here strictly for business, Morello, Werner informed her. You should be more concerned about the issues on your end. 

He had already informed Nico that their meeting would most likely be delayed. He did not inform Nico of the reason why as it was irrelevant, and Nico didn’t need to be bothered by that information. Gilbert was overly pleased with the fact. “More vacation time,” he’d said. Since Gilbert was not to be involved with the negotiations, the delay didn’t seem to bother him at all. 

“Saints, Lieutenant,” Cadence sighed as she accompanied him off the train, “you’re in sin city. Ya gotta indulge at least a little bit.”  

I’m not interested in such things, Werner returned. It took him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness outside of the compartment, but it did not take long. The faint orange glow from the skyline provided an agreeable light. If he had not known the exact hour and if this had been the first time he’d seen this city, he would have thought that the light was emanating from a sunrise. He knew, however, that the glow was from the city lights beneath the bridge.

Cadence did not respond.

The synchronization had been cut off it seemed. That was fine. If the subject were truly important, Cadence would attempt a resynchronization at all costs. 

His men had already boarded off the train and were crowded around the railings of the bridge that oversaw the glittering city and river below.

He had seen it all before through the memories that had trickled down from Cadence and Jericho these past few months. There was no need to admire it again, although he was quite impressed with the architecture of the buildings and the networking of the sidewalks and streets. Geminian architecture was something to marvel at. A perfect balance of practicality and aesthetic. 

And so he drew out his pocket watch, allowed five minutes to tick by, and then addressed his men curly, “The colonel arrived two hours before us. He will have already checked in at the hotel and is waiting for our arrival. Let’s not make him wait longer.”

The only one who voiced protest was Gilbert. The only one who appeared relieved was Nico. The latter had been quiet since they had arrived and had looked out at the cityscape rather sullenly. 

As they wound their way down the long stretching staircase to the bottom of the city, Werner was able to taste for himself the soot from nearby manufacturing plants and salt from the nearby seaport. It was unpleasant. 

The crowded walkways were also unpleasant. Every so often a passerby would brush past him, eye his uniform, and either glare or stare. The stores, however, were pleasant enough. There were several passatier shops dotting this strip, each one with a display case more extravagant than the next. Competition was high, Werner conjectured. And since everything was judged based on appearance it was best to be as eye-catching as possible. 

There were also unsupervised children running amuck everywhere. They scurried around the sides of buildings, ducked underneath the swinging arms of passersby, and snickered to one another as they bumped into adults.  

Pickpockets. Taking advantage of tourists. 

The adolescents among them were more reserved, watching the ongoing from afar. 

Pickpocket ring leaders. Street rats—orphans. 

Werner frowned. But this was not any concern of his. He was here for one purpose and one purpose only. Regardless of how minuscule that purpose seemed, he would follow through with his duty. 

“Wait for me!” came a desperate plea that was nearly drowned out by the bustle of the crowd. 

Werner turned his head as a warm haze swept over him. 

A child with an unruly mop of black curls was weaving his way through a cluster of pedestrians behind him. The boy managed to squeeze past a plump woman and a skeleton-bone thin and broke out onto a clear area on the sidewalk. 

“Francis! Fortuna!” the boy cried as he dashed past Werner. “Cadence, wait!”

Werner felt his blood run cold.

The boy in question tripped over his own two shoes and face planted onto the ground. Hesitantly, Werner approached the boy as the latter rose to his feet and began dusting himself off. Werner reached for the boy’s shoulder—

—and a fully grown Nico Fabrizzio turned back to face him. 

“Werner?” Nico asked. “What it was?”

Head pounding, Werner removed his hand from the man’s shoulder. “It’s nothing.”

*** 

When they arrived at the Abaccio Hotel, they were greeted by a polite bellhop who escorted them to the fifth floor which hosted their rooms. After unpacking their things in their respective rooms, Werner ordered everyone to gather in the lobby of their floor. 

When he made it back down to the lobby room, Werner found Gilbert, Bergmann, and Stein already clustered near the window opposite the fireplace. Nico hadn’t joined them and instead seated himself at the grand piano that was set just off-center from a  fireplace crackling alongside the left side wall.

Was he late? 

Werner checked his pocket watch. 

He was on time. 

Which meant that he was late. 

“Werner, come check this out,” Gilbert called from the window, “they activated the v-lights on the Dioscuri Bridge. You can barely see it from here, but it’s amazing.”

Werner declined the offer and sat down beside Nico. He glanced at the keys, feeling a familiar itch. 

“Everyone marvels at the city when they first arrive,” came a voice from behind the piano. “Do take your time to take in the sights. I’ve also furnished your rooms with the best this hotel has to offer, so even if you’re not the type to go out and sightsee, you’ll be able to enjoy the comfortably equivalent to Ariesian royalty.”

Werner peered over the piano. 

A pale man with perfectly combed dirty blonde hair stood there in front of the hearth. He was dressed in a blemishless white, long-sleeved blouse fitted over with a pin-striped vest. One hand was in his pocket, and the other was holding an expensive-looking cigar. Despite the formal dress and lack of uniform, Werner recognized him immediately. 

“Colonel Fritz von Spiel.” Werner greeted the man with a salute after rising to a stand. 

The others clustered by the window straightened themselves and offered salutes. As per usual, Stein’s and Gilbert’s salutes were loose and half-hearted. Gilbert even gave him a once over. 

“No need to do that formality here.” Fritz waved them off as he approached Werner and offered him a handshake. “This is vacation time, right?” He nodded at the four gathered by the window. “Those who work the hardest and prove themselves should be rewarded, isn’t that right, Werner?”

Werner accepted the gesture. “Of course, sir.”

Fritz took a puff of his cigar and hummed. Gesturing to those gathered at the window, he said, “I’m sure you’re all famished. Well, don’t worry. I’ve reserved our dinner at a particularly luxurious location. The Geminorium Gama—have you ever heard of it?”

The restaurant owned by the Foxman Family. 

***

The Geminorium Gamma was as presentable on the inside as it was on the outside. Chandeliers painted the white walls of the room in a golden light, and the round tables were spaced perfectly equidistant to each other. 

It was—as Cadence had said—a buffet-style restaurant. The food lines took up the entire left wall while the right wall was occupied by a large stage. On that stage performed an orchestral ensemble of sharply dressed men and women. 

It was a pleasant melody. 

Werner and the other soldiers were placed swiftly at a table at the room’s center. 

The colonel was seated to Werner’s left, Nico to his right, and Gilbert to the latter’s left. Bergmann was seated in between Kleine and Stein and was giving Stein a look of contempt as the latter attempted to throw a light-hearted joke in Kleine’s direction. It appeared as if Stein was earnestly trying to spark camaraderie with Kleine for whatever reason, and Bergmann was doubtful. However, Stein’s friendliness was understandable. Kleine had proved himself in the past several months, after all. 

Kleine…

Light conversation about recent military achievements began as a waitress brought them glasses of water. 

“Bring us your most expensive wine,” Fritz said with a laugh as he looped an arm around her waist. “We’re here to celebrate!” 

The waitress flushed and then nodded before heading off to comply with the request. She returned a minute later with the requested items and departed just as quickly. 

They were receiving stares from fellow restaurant-goers who were evidently marveling at their uniforms and who were intrigued by Fritz’s demeanor. A celebration, Fritz had called it. In regards to the Argo’s development, this was anything but a celebration, but appearances needed to be kept. 

“Why don’t Bergmann, Kleine, and you go get a head start on the food,” Fritz said, addressing Stein who had just concluded his tale of how he’d taken out an entire squadron of Argoans on his own with a normal sniper rifle. “I want to hear a story from Wolff now. That one about the Aquarians on Zeigenberg Ridge.”

Gilbert was visibly disgruntled and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not a very interesting story.”

“Everything is interesting if you know how to make it interesting.” Fritz chuckled. “Of course, that requires the right skill set.”

What a douch—

Werner shook his head, dispelling the thought before it finished. Kleine was gazing at him curiously and quickly looked away when Werner made eye contact. Ruffling his hair, he quickly departed the table and was followed by Stein and Bergmann. 

Gilbert watched them go longingly. 

This left the table to Werner himself, Colonel von Spiel, Nico, and Gilbert. 

“Second Lieutenant Wolff, you would be aware of our true purpose here in the city, correct?” Fritz inquired, reaching for his glass of wine. 

Gilbert tore his eyes with great difficulty away from the buffet line and gave a half-shrug, half-nod. “The issue about the modified conductors, right? With Nico and that one organization?” He glanced somewhat tiredly around the table. “I might know about it, but I’ve got nothing to do with it so I hope you’re not gonna ask me to attend some meeting, sir.” 

“Of course not, Gilbert. You’re free to enjoy yourself, but I thought you’d appreciate information on what’s been going on.”

Gilbert shrugged again. 

“Our meeting with the Romano and Foxman organization has been rescheduled to next week,” Fritz informed them as he swirled the glass and took a sip. “So we’ll be here for a slightly lengthier period of time than planned.” He locked eyes with Nico. “Mr. Fabrizzio, do you happen to know the reason why?”

Nico stiffened. “I honestly have no idea why this happened. I’m as confused as you, Mr. von Spiel.”

“And you’re the liaison?” A scoff. 

“I…” Nico faltered and made eye contact with Werner. 

“If this was a recent development, sir,” Werner interjected, knowing that it was, “then I believe it’s not out of the ordinary for him to be unaware of the situation. We arrived only an hour and forty-five minutes ago.”

Fritz took a sip of his wine, seeming to gauge Werner carefully. “Yes, it was rather recent. My sincere apologies, Mr. Fabrizzio, I don’t mean to be rude.”

Nico waved him off with a sheepish chuckle. “No, it’s all—”

“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise?” The question was paired with a musical laugh. 

Werner’s head pounded at the sound. 

A shadow spilled over their table, and Nico’s eyes lit up instantly. 

“Francis!” Nico shot up to a stand, nearly knocking over his glass of wine. 

Werner caught it before it spilled and ruined the table cloth and exchanged a look with Gilbert who was arching a brow. He then turned his attention to the man who was now the focus of the attention of the table. 

Francis Foxman stood across from them. He was dressed in his usual dark maroon suit, crisp and clean, and the dark circles under his eyes had lessened somewhat. 

“It’s good to see you, Nico,” the man said, rounding the table to Nico’s side and giving him a pat on the side of the arm. “You look well. Unfortunately, Carl and Allen are caught up with their usual hobbies right now so they won’t be seeing you this week.”

A nauseating sensation of deja vu throttled his mind, and his stomach began to somersault. Paired with it came a lightheadedness that made the room spin. The words Francis and Nico were exchanging became muffled, indiscernible. 

What was this?

Werner hadn’t felt this way since the incident at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. He clenched his fists beneath the table and kept his expression stolid as he tried to get a hold of himself. Eventually, the nausea lessened and he forced himself to focus on the conversation. 

Francis was now addressing the colonel: “Mr. von Spiel, I hope you and your fellow men are finding everything to your tastes. On behalf of Mr. Romano and my brothers, I apologize for the delay. We are happy to provide you with anything you need during your extended stay.”

Right. The crime organizations were trying to keep the conditions of the dons quiet. This most likely meant not only the colonel but Nico too was going to be intentionally kept in the dark about the affair. And that was fine

“Feel free to speak openly, Mr. Foxman. Everyone here has knowledge of our business relations,” Fritz said, waving him off. “And there’s no need to apologize. Things happen.”

“I see.” Francis offered a pleasant and courteous nod to the others gathered at the table. “While I understand that may be the case, we may not know who’s listening. For professionalism’s sake as well as both of our sakes, I think it’d be best if we discussed these types of things privately.”

“Francis, are you feeling alright?” Nico interjected as he inspected his friend’s face. “You look pale. Have you been getting enough sleep?”

Francis cleared his throat loudly. “I’m fine, Nico. It really is good to see you again, but I think it’d be better if we caught up personally at some later time.”

Nico faltered. “Right…”

Kleine returned to the table with two large plates of lobster and looked between Francis and the colonel in confusion. 

“Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy your dinner then,” Francis said, giving Nico one last cuff on the shoulder before he departed. “Please do enjoy.”

Werner gazed at Francis’s back as the man departed, and his head began to pound once more. There were no other sounds besides that pound, pound, pound. 

A hand on his back startled him. Nico—smiling cheerfully just before an expression of concern took over his features. As always. His nostalgic expression, however, did nothing but exacerbate the pounding in Werner’s head. He excused himself from the table and made his way to the bathroom that he knew from Cadence’s memories was located at the back of a restaurant down a brightly lit hallway. 

He entered the farthest stall, removing his gloves as he entered and pocketing them. He sat on the closed seat, leaning forward as he placed a hand over his face. The roughness of his bare palms was unpleasant, but it brought him focus. 

The pounding began to subside. 

The door to the bathroom squeaked open abruptly, and someone entered. Werner did not hear them move towards the stalls which caused him to tense. He rose from his seat before quietly pushing open the stall. 

The colonel was hunched over the sink, knuckles white as he gripped the basin’s edges. His hard gaze was fixated on his reflection in the mirror. The intensity in his eyes matched that of someone who was ready to shoot someone down on the battlefield.

His lips were moving.

“It’s okay,” Fritz whispered to himself. “It’ll be okay. Everything will work out.” His gaze drifted to the basin of the sink. His eyes were wide, and he appeared to be staring at something deep down the drain. “No. Think, you fool. If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart.”

He’s crazy. 

Crazy stressed maybe.

Fritz locked eyes with Werner through the reflection in the mirror and whipped around immediately. 

There was a beat of silence.

“Are you feeling alright, sir?” Werner asked. 

Fritz cleared his throat. “I’m still getting used to the air in this city. I’m from Cologart, you see. It’s very open there. The fumes from the capital don’t reach it, so I’m not accustomed to…” He waved his hand in the air. “…this suffocation.”

Douche. 

“I see, sir.” Werner approached the sink.

Fritz opened his mouth to speak but then closed it and headed out the door without another word. Werner stared after him for a moment before washing his hands. When he slipped his gloves on and stepped back out into the hall, he found the colonel leaning against the wall opposite and puffing a cigar. 

“Walk with me, Waltz.”

That’s usually the right signal ta skedaddle. 

“Of course, sir.”

Instead of walking out through the entrance, however, Fritz led Werner through the back door of the establishment. The waiters and waitresses threw them furtive looks, but Fritz silenced them with a handful of Geminian Cens. 

The night outside was cool and dark. The v-lights of the skyscrapers and stores were dimmed by either the smog or the clouds hanging low in the sky. The faint glow from the lights on the Dioscuri Bridge gave the clouded sky a hazy orange glow.  

In silence, they spilled out from the musty alleyway onto the open streets. It was less crowded now given the later hour. 

“Waltz, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Fritz said calmly as they walked. 

“What is it, sir?”

“You were close to Ersatz, weren’t you?”

Werner answered without hesitation: “He was my superior.”

“Yes, on the Aquarian border and at the Argoan border before that,” Fritz continued. “I heard that he was the one who recommended you to be promoted to First Lieutenant.” 

“That is true, sir,”  Werner affirmed. “I detailed all of this information in my report regarding his misconduct.”

“Yes, a very thorough report. I read it,” the colonel noted, taking another puff of his cigar. “Detailed every single one of Ersatz’s points of misconduct and suspicious activities perfectly. You even recommended bi-annual screenings for enlisted officers which the capital is taking very seriously among other things.”

“Yes, sir. I thought that those were appropriate measures.”

Fritz hummed and twirled his cigar. “You’re thorough and dedicated—I’ll give you that, Waltz. ‘An exemplary soldier’ is what they’re throwing around at the capital. That must give your reputation and ego a power boost, no?”

“It’s my duty, sir.”

The colonel threw his head back and laughed, startling a rather familiar-looking Sagittarian man who passed them by. The man laughed along with the colonel for a beat before continuing on his way with a lighthearted whistle. Werner stared after the Sagittarian before he returned his attention to Fritz. 

“It’s like you’re cut out from one of the capital’s propaganda posters.” The colonel clapped his hands loudly, sending ash from his cigar onto the sidewalk. “Fantastic!”

‘Propaganda?’ 

Werner frowned. 

Abruptly, Fritz’s smile dropped from his face and he stopped in his tracks. “Ersatz didn’t happen to mention anything about any associates he may have been engaged with on our end, did he? You know if there’s one rat, there’s always more.”

“Everything I experienced was detailed in my report, sir,” Werner answered.

Fritz hummed at this and puffed his cigar again. “Always more rats…”

What the…

Werner studied Fritz from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but think that there was a pattern when it came to his superiors ranking higher than captain in that—

—they all had a couple of screws loose.

Frowning, Werner shook the disrespectful thought off. 

“By the way, since I have you here alone,” Fritz continued as they rounded the corner, “I would like to mention a recent development. The Romanos and the Foxmans are not the only organizations operating in this city who are selling valuable…” —There a pause and a strange expression flitted over his face. It disappeared as quickly as it came, however, so Werner was not able to dissect it— “…products. Products that may be of use to the Capricornian Army. No, products that will be of use to us.”

A v-ehicle passed them on the road to the left,  its headlights painting the colonel’s face white. 

“It’s taken quite some time for me to arrange it, but I’ve managed to set up a meeting with this organization. They are referred to as ‘the Campanas’.”

With the Campanas?

“Is there an issue, Waltz?”

It took a moment for Werner to realize he had spoken the grievance aloud. 

“No,  sir,” Werner returned curtly. “I wasn’t made aware of business with the Campanas, and I was merely surprised.” 

“So you’ve heard of them then.” Fritz hummed in response. “Anyway, they have a specialization different from the Romano Family. A more organic specialization, you could say. I was referred to them by an associate of mine.”

An associate? It couldn’t have been someone from the capital. The Geminian underground was more discrete than that. Perhaps it was the information from the information broker then—the one Cadence mentioned off-handedly sometimes. Astante, was it? But the colonel had mentioned only arriving in the city recently. He wouldn’t have been able to contact the information broker so soon, would he? Curious. 

Werner shook his head.

Atienna. 

“With the recent developments at the southern border, I think it’d be best practice to engage with the Campanas too. Really, your proposal about the Romano Family has opened many doors for Capricorn.”

When they made their round back to the restaurant, a commotion was unfolding just at the front. 

“We don’t want people like you in here disturbing our guests!”

Shouting such a thing in Geminian, a large, bulky waiter who was standing at the threshold of the entrance shoved an adolescent boy to the ground. The boy had been holding what appeared to be a board game and a bag full of game pieces, and so when he hit the ground, the game pieces scattered across the floor. 

“Get your shit and get out!”

The boy scrambled to his feet, gathering a handful of game pieces and bringing the game board close to his chest before dashing off teary-eyed. 

Much to Werner’s surprise, Fritz walked right up to the cluster of waiters and waitresses crowded at the front and addressed them in a cold voice: “What seems to be the problem? Throwing children around like that. Is that how Geminians operate?”

“Hey, we’re just doin’ our job. A bunch of kids just started making a ruckus outside the restaurant,” one of the waitresses explained in thickly accented Common, rolling her eyes. “Lookin’ for some person in the restaurant. Sounded like they were searching for their parents or somethin’ but they look like street rats, so I’m sure they’re just aimin’ to steal some scraps. Maybe they’re with Matilda’s gang.”

Fritz’s gaze darkened. “Gang?” 

“That’s quite an assumption to make, Miss Lane,” a voice replied from behind. 

It was Francis. He stepped out from the restaurant and parted the crowd with his presence.  

“Uh, Mr. Francis, I—”

“Maybe it’d be best for you to not speak so callously about things you most likely don’t understand,” Francis spoke calmly in Geminian but there was a dangerous glint in his eye. “You’re working for us, Miss Lane, and you represent us. Please take care not to tarnish our reputation.”

The waitress stammered wordlessly before she muttered an apology and headed back inside.  

“I’m sorry for the disturbance,” Francis said in Common, inclining his head in their direction when she had left. “I hope this doesn’t disrupt your evening too much. You are valued patrons, after all.”

The meaning was clear. 

“It would take more than that to ruin my day.” Fritz laughed and puffed his cigar again. The coldness that has gripped him earlier seemed to have folded away somewhere. 

“Hey, boss, look at this,” the bulky waiter who had thrown out the boy said, bending down to pick one of the fallen game pieces and tossing it to the younger Foxman brother. “Kids are playing all sorts of weird games these days. What do ya reckon this one is?”

Francis caught it and then inspected the piece with a raised brow. 

Werner blinked, and suddenly he too was holding one of the game pieces. It was circular and flat, somewhat resembling a checkerboard piece and a casino token. There was a faint imprint of a star on its surface, and at the center of the star was a strange singular character: ‘Θ’. 

He didn’t recognize it—

Theta. 

Werner turned his head. Jericho’s image was standing behind him. An override then. 

The peacekeeper glanced between Werner and the game piece. “Sorry. Accident.” Responsibility. 

It’s fine, Werner returned, as long as it doesn’t happen again. What was the reason? 

Unsure… 

Jericho flickered out of sight before he elaborated. 

The peacekeeper was peculiar. He was difficult to read in a way that was different from Cadence and Atienna. 

“Here, let me take that,” Francis said suddenly, hand extended. He was standing in front of Werner now wearing an easy smile. “I’ll throw it out for you.”

Werner’s head buzzed again and the pounding began to return. Without another word, he held the item for the man. 

After accepting the piece, Francis turned over it in hand and then pocketed it with a faint smile. 

***

It was near the weekend that they held their synchronization meeting. The week had comprised of his men and the colonel inviting him out to bars, casinos, and other Geminian attractions. Werner was not interested in such things, and so he declined a majority of the invitations. Out of courtesy and formality, he accepted the colonel’s invitations of dinner and breakfast only. 

Prior to the synchronization meeting, Werner made certain his hotel room door was locked and his windows were bolted before he attempted reaching out to the others. It took three attempts to bring all of them together.

Almost immediately upon their synchronization, Olive’s thoughts and recent memories crashed down like a waterfall. Werner had been vaguely aware of the prince’s whereabouts up to that point and had been synchronized enough to witness the prince’s encounter with the Sagittarian assassins earlier. The prince’s discussion with Yuseong, however, did not reach his knowledge until now. The other four appeared to be in the same circumstances. 

“There’s more of us?” Cadence looked around bewildered from where she stood at the corner of his room. After a beat, she shrugged her shoulders. “Well, that kinda validates Kleine there, doesn’t it? Not too hard ta believe. I mean, it’s a small world. Better that there’s more of us though, ya know?”

At the mention of Kleine’s name, Olive paled and guilt bled out through their connection. 

Atienna gave the prince a sympathetic look from where she rested at the foot of Werner’s bed before pondering out loud:  “So Claire says he is one of us, and he also believes this to be something akin to the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.” She placed a hand on her chin and stared out of his window that opened up to the city nightlife. “But some of the points he mentioned do not match up with what we experienced.”

“The time frame between our transference of memory—for the lack of a better word—is notably different,” Werner agreed. 

Atienna thrummed her fingers along her cheek and hummed. “And then there is that ‘sense of self’ topic Claire seems to be fixated on.” She glanced at Werner briefly with a small smile. “What do you think?” 

“Different people experience different things,” Jericho stated, although it seemed more of a suggestion and a question. 

Maria abruptly reached out for the peacekeeper and pulled him in close to her. Jericho stared at her blankly as she guided him through a strange waltz that spanned the entire room. 

“This is amazing!” Maria laughed merrily as they spun round and round. “More True Conductors! My dears, this is exciting! I want to meet them all!” 

The wave of positivity was dizzying but Werner managed to hold onto his reason. After all—

“He literally said, ‘you can’t trust anyone,’’ Olive muttered, arching a brow at the spinning duo. 

Werner nodded. “This information indicates that we should be even more cautious moving forward. We need to keep an eye out for tother True Conductors who may be targeting us as well. Not just ELPIS alone.”

Jericho remained expressionless at the mention of ELPIS, despite having been released from the distraction that was and Maria’s dance.

“Seeing as how Wtorek and Major Ersatz were both indoctrinated into ELPIS at some point—manipulated or not—we cannot rely on those in authoritative positions unless we are completely certain they are not involved with that group.”

Cadence whistled. “Good ta hit your rebellious streak finally, Lieutenant.”

“This has—”

“Nothing ta do with rebellious streaks. Got it.”

Ignoring Cadence, Werner continued: “The unknowns that still remain are why we are being targeted, how to remove this connection, how this connection began, and how Agent Leona is involved in this. There is a possibility that she and the hostile True Conductors may also be involved with ELPIS, but that is merely an assumption as well and not a conclusion.”

“This is makin’ my head hurt,” Cadence complained, pulling off her hat. “Why can’t there just be one group after us? Why can’t life be easy?”

“‘That’s life’ is what people say,” Jericho answered her rhetorical question.

Cadence smiled wanly. “Thanks, detective.”

“And then there is the syzygy that Claire seems to not be unaware of…” Atienna murmured after giving the two a fond smile. “And it is a bit strange that people like us have been around for quite some time and Ophiuchus hasn’t noticed, isn’t it?” 

There was a beat of silence. 

“For the time being, we should try our best not to be in physical proximity with one other,” Werner finally said. “So far, Chance and Jericho have made contact as have Jericho and Morello. Morello and I are in the same area, but we should try to be as uninvolved with each other as possible.”

“Got it, Lieutenant.” Cadence saluted. “And what about the prince?” She glanced at Olive. “The other one, I mean.” 

“Prince Yuseong is a viable source of information,” Werner said in thought, “but you should be cautious too, Chance. He says that there are people that are not trustable, but there’s nothing separating him from that group.” 

The prince stiffened from where he stood beside Atienna and nodded as he avoided Werner’s gaze. “I know…” 

“Can I just quickly ask,” Cadence said suddenly, whirling around, “why in saint’s name do crazy things happen to us all at once? Like can’t we take turns goin’ through stuff? I mean, it’s fun and all—keeps me on my toes—but ya gotta admit that this is pushin’ the bar a bit here.”

Olive discovering Claire being a True Conductor. The attack on the Romano Family’s don. His own situation. Atienna’s cavern conflict. Maria’s bounty. Yes. Things were piling up, weren’t they.

“There is nothing happening on my end,” Jericho stated. 

“Yet. Don’t jinx yourself, detective,” Cadence replied, and then she chortled. “Unless ya’ve got some amazin’ luck then feel free to share.” 

There was no such thing as luck. Jericho needed to be careful as well.  

“You’ve got too little faith, Lieutenant.” Cadence hummed. “The universe works in mysterious ways, ya know that? Gotta keep a positive outlook.” She thumbed Maria who had been oddly silent during their conversation after her waltz with Jericho. “Like sunshine here.”

Maria offered a beaming smile from where she sat on his desk, and by her demeanor Werner could tell that she’d only picked up about half of the conversation. “I did pay attention, my dear Werner,” she sang. She placed a hand on her chest. “I will be discrete, my dears, in order to protect my favorite things, yes?” And leaving that odd statement hanging in the air, she blinked out of existence. 

Maria’s departure marked the slow filtering out of the others. They did have personal matters to after all, and Werner was not surprised to see them filter out quickly. However, Olive remained before him, loitering by his bedside.

A long stretch of silence passed.

Werner did not speak, merely inspected the boy as the boy stared up at him. 

“Werner, I…” Olive took a step forward and stared at the ground. “Look. I’m… sorry for what happened. I didn’t mean to. Really—I. I… well, look.” Olive lifted his head. “I’m sorry for overriding you, but I’m not sorry for retreating. Holding your ground was crazy—I don’t care how talented and strong you are. You said it yourself—nothing can be left to chance and—”

The explanation was nonsensical, but acceptable.

“I understand, Chance,” Werner said, raising a hand to stop the prince from unraveling further. “I accept your apology but not the tardiness of it.” He studied the prince for a moment. “Still, I can’t deny that despite your actions being rash, they did end up assisting me in the end. For that portion, I do thank you.”

The boy stared, evidently baffled. “Really? That’s it? You’re not… angry?”

“I’ve already told you how I feel about the situation, Chance. Do I need to repeat myself?” Werner allowed a beat of silence before he added after some thought: “And this is a warning since I’ve noticed this as a re-occurring issue: good intentions and self-righteous beliefs need to be paired with planning and management in order to be effective. If not, it’s a hindrance.”

Chance tensed and then grimaced. “I… okay. Sorry.”

Werner resisted a sigh. “Just be cautious around Prince Yuseong, Chance. And don’t forget to notate the details of this meeting. Just because we didn’t run the minutes today doesn’t mean we won’t in the future.”

Olive mentally rolled his eyes but nodded. He seemed to mull over something and glanced back up at him. “And Colonel Douche?”

“Colonel Fritz con Spiel is my superior,” Werner said, “but I’m planning to look into him. His behavior is… strange.”

I knew it. Werner’s too reliable and strong to have a weak ‘sense of self’. It has to be something else. Claire was wrong. 

Olive startled suddenly, cheeks flushing. “Did you…”

“Yes, I did.”

Olive’s cheeks deepened even further, sending a heated wave of embarrassment tumbling down Werner’s chest. The boy blinked out from his sight not even one second after. 

And that left Werner by himself. 

Sense of self, he thought. The topic they had skirted around during their discussion.  Three words. Meaningless by themselves but together held so much power. 

Claire had implied that having a weak sense of self led to a True Conductor being more easily influenced by those they were connected with. 

Werner could not deny it. He was the one in their party who had been overridden the most. Still, some of Claire’s statements didn’t seem to hold true to them so perhaps this ‘sense of self’ was also along the same line of things. Whatever it was, Werner knew he had to correct himself. 

A knock at the door drew Werner’s attention away from his thoughts. When he undid the lock on the door and cracked it open, he found Gilbert standing there and holding two bottles of wine and four empty champagne glasses. 

“Is there something you need?” Werner inquired, pulling the door open a bit further. 

“Great! You’re in a friendly mood!” Gilbert hummed as he brushed past and slipped into the room. “Did you have one of your meetings or something?” 

“Can we come in?” Kleine asked. 

Werner checked his pocket watch and nodded. “I have three hours to spare before I need to finish my report.”

“Come on, Werner,” Gilbert groaned, throwing himself on the bed, “relax a little. Does the capital really have that much paperwork for you to do?”

“I have 72 reports due by the time we return to the front.”

“Saints.” Gilbert rose up from the bed and stared. “Do they want you to write an essay or something?”

“Evaluations,” Werner replied. 

Kleine walked in hesitantly, throwing curious glances around the room. “Wow… your room looks like it’s barely been used.”

Nico offered Werner an almost apologetic smile and slipped in as well.  

“Werner’s just fond of cleaning,” Gilbert explained, pouring a glass of wine for himself. “You should’ve seen how he was when he was younger.”

Werner shut the door behind him and fastened the lock. “Is there a reason for why all three of you are here?”

“Kleine wanted to ask you some things about your possession circle thing,” Gilbert replied, downing the wine in two quick gulps. “More details on his lady friend—what was her name? Charite.”

“More questions, actually,” Kleine nodded and mumbled, adjusting his glasses.

After a moment of thought, Werner decided to divulge his recent discovery to the three men. It was not a notable discovery nor endangering information. In fact, it served as an exceptional opportunity. 

And so as Werner informed them of the confirmed existence of other True Conductors, he studied Kleine’s expression carefully. He had chosen Kleine for this mission solely to isolate the man in order to keep a closer eye on him.

Kleine brightened immediately. “This is great! I mean, it’s great that we know that they’re people like you out there—I mean. That means my friend could really be one. I knew it.”

“Oh, so you were telling the truth, Klaus?” Gilbert downed another glass of wine, “Guess I can call off the bounty hunters I sent after you. Heard about them from Brandt. Apparently, they’re really good.”

Kleine paled. “What?” He took a step back, tripped over nothing, and fell flat on his back. He then laid there unmoving. 

A sense of suspicion began to creep into Werner’s mind. The lackadaisical demeanor with which Kleine spoke and Gilbert’s extreme looseness was telling. He frowned. “Are you drunk, Lance Corporal Kleine?” 

Kleine flushed deeper and stared up at the ceiling. 

Werner turned away from him and studied Gilbert who was on his fifth glass of wine.

“You’re both inebriated,” Werner concluded with a frown. 

“Sorry, Werner,” Nico murmured from beside him, “I was actually trying to bring them back to their rooms. We were at the casino earlier. I managed to get Stein back to his room with Bergmann’s help, but…”

Werner sighed. “I see.”

“I… can try to drag—I mean, bring—them back now. Uhm—”

“No. Gilbert is a terrible drunk. It’s best to leave him be for now.”

Gilbert mumbled something incomprehensible in response as he inhaled another glass. 

***

Gilbert and Kleine managed to down the entire bottle of wine by themselves within an hour and passed out only twenty-five minutes later. Given their inebriation upon their arrival, Werner was not surprised at this development. Nico fretted over them, but Werner advised him to leave them be. Self-inflicted punishment would arrive for them in the morning in the form of a piercing headache.

“But really… should we get them back to their rooms, maybe?”

“And allow them to take advantage of your generosity after they’ve done this to themselves?” Werner inquired from his desk. During the two men’s drunken ramblings, he’d managed to complete four additional reports. It was surprising how he was able to get through them faster in the presence of their distraction. 

Nico chuckled at his rhetorical question and then remained silent. The silence stretched on for half an hour before Werner decided to address it. 

“There’s something on your mind,” Werner observed, putting down his pen and turning to face the man. “Something other than Gilbert and Kleine.”

Nico was leaning against the drawers set off to the side of the room and perked up at the statement. “How did you know?”

It was essential to know these types of things as a commanding officer. And it was obvious. 

“You’ve been quiet since the train ride,” Werner said. “And you’re here.”

“It’s kind of stupid… It’s really nothing.”

“If you think it’ll affect you at the meeting next week then it’s not nothing.”

“I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I didn’t think I’d be back here so soon.” Nico half laughed with a wry smile. “Seeing Francis was nice and all but…”

“You aren’t happy that you’ve returned.”

Nico paled somewhat. “Cadence isn’t listening in is she…?”

“My synchronization is low with everyone at the moment, but I can’t say for certain if the memory of this will trickle down to them or not.”

Nico’s brows furrowed, and he seemed to weigh his options before he finally relented: “I know that my main reason for even being in your division is to be a liaison, but I enjoyed being out of the city. Helping you all.”

“Are you planning on leaving those duties when we’re finished here?”

Nico shook his head fiercely, hands raised. “N-No, of course not! I mean, I don’t want to… it’s just that I feel like someone’s is just going to come up to me and rip me off the streets and drag me back.” 

There was a beat of silence, and Nico flushed. 

“Well, when I say it like that,” he mumbled, “it does sound pretty stupid.”

“It’s good practice to be vigilant.” Werner capped his pen. “And you’re wearing a Capricornian officer’s uniform. No one will approach you.”

“You say stuff like that so confidently sometimes, I can’t help but believe you.” Nico chuckled. 

“It’s fact, Nico. Not confidence.” Werner replied. 

Nico chuckled again, rubbing his arm. After a pause, he asked, “Is Cadence alright? I’ve been trying to reach her and my dad, but the lines must be bad or something. They’re not picking up.” Nico stared at him, amber eyes wide and filled with worry like usual. “Is there something going on?”

And then Werner could feel it. A pressure at the back of his neck—a pair of arms wrapping around him. A phantom. A weight. 

He shouldn’t tell him. Nico would worry. And if Nico worried, he would act rashly. 

But it would be best to tell him. To clear the ground so the issue would not create complications later. Complications of trust.

This had nothing to do with trust. 

And after a cold, long drawn out moment, Werner realized that he couldn’t tell which thought belonged to him and which thought belonged to one of the others. 

“Werner?” 

“She’s fine. She’s just busy,” Werner said, tugging at his collar. “There’s no need to worry about it.”


(    )

“I’m home! And with a special delivery!” Shouting such a pleasant thing, the young woman stepped into the room that had no windows and no doors. “It was hard getting to him, you know? It was like that. Yeah.”

Tau sighed, arms crossed, from where he sat by himself at the makeshift board game table. “Do you mind clarifying, Omega? You always talk like everyone can read your mind.”

Letting out an airy giggle, the woman called Omega flipped her bleached hair lazily. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could?”

“You’re still going on with that air-headed act?” Tau lifted a brow. 

Omega smiled. “Is it not cute?” Not waiting for a response, she stretched out her arms and leaned side to side with a groan. She then pounded her shoulder lightly with a sigh. “That was a bit more exhausting than I thought it’d be.”

“You’re complaining about being tired all of the time when I’m the one who’s doing all the hard labor?” came a grumble from behind. 

Out from the darkness behind Omega stepped Iota dragging along a squirming, sobbing man bound with thick chains. Iota’s polka-dotted dress was stained with blood, and her bow was beginning to slip off of her head. 

“You managed to get him,” Tau said, rising from his chair and walking over to them. “Did Leona finally leave?”

“Yep,” Omicron popped, threading her fingers through her hair. “Iota had a lot of fun picking off the peacekeepers.” She whispered behind a hand to Tau, “I think she might be a sadist.”

Iota shrugged, fixing the bow in her hair.

“It looks like Leona’s heading back to Ophiuchus,” Omega continued, eyes somewhat glazed over. “Hopefully, Omicron will leave before then.”

“Did you check him for hidden weapons?” Tau interjected.

Omicron absentmindedly ran her fingers through her again, and Iota gave him a pointed glare.

“W-Why…? Why’re you here?” the chained man at Iota’s feet stammered suddenly, staring at Tau wide-eyed. “Y-You’re the co—”

Tau glanced down at the man. “You’re one of the mayor candidates the Romanos were looking at to replace the recently deceased Mayor Vargas. Depa something. The candidate most likely to be selected.” He sank down into a crouch in front of the man and grimaced. “How much are they paying you? How many underhanded things did you have to do in order to get on that candidate list, huh? Do you feel even a little bit guilty, huh?”

Depa gaped at him.

“What?” Tau scowled. “Can’t talk? What’s the issue? You morally reprehensible pig!”

“Tau, you can reprimand him after we’ve gotten the information we need,” came a voice from the dark corner of the room. 

Depa’s gape widened as a figure holding a book stepped out from the corner, and he remained wordless as the figure came to a stand in front of him.

“This must be the first time you’ve ever been this terrified isn’t it?” Theta asked, staring down at the chained man. A pleasant smile. “Rest assured. It will only become more of a nightmare for you from now on.”


8.2: Olive’s Stagnation (Accelerazione)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Olive was in search of a Sagittarian translator and someone who could take him to the infamous Bodhi Temple in order to study for his State Conductor’s Exam when he suddenly overrode Werner and caused the man to order a retreat. He awakens from the override in the care of Prince of the Seong Clan of Sagittarius, Yuseong Claire.

Sihyeon Villa, Sagittarius

When Olive awoke on that cloudy afternoon, he knew that it was going to be a terrible day. There was a heaviness in his chest that squeezed tight—almost like there was an anchor hooked onto his heart that was dragging his entire body deeper, deeper down. With the feeling weighing him down so heavily, the only thing he could was think. Think about the things he’d done the previous—no, the previous week. Absolutely fruitless. Meaningless. Mistakes made. Nothing accomplished at all.

Dammit. 

Olive curled into himself and tried to collect his thoughts—catch them—before they somehow slipped out to one of the others. It was times like these that he hated their connection the most. The vulnerability, the rawness—

Good morning! No—beautiful morning! Yes! It is a beautiful morning! The sun, the air! Something exciting will happen today! I can feel it!

The exploding shout came paired with a burst of heat against his face, a splash of cold water on his skin, the feeling of wet clothing clinging to his body, and—of course—a rush of feverish excitement. The first feeling was welcomed. The others, not so much. 

Saints, Maria. Don’t just synchronize like that randomly. Ya nearly gave me a heart attack. 

Had Maria just attempted synchronization with all of them just to wish them a good morning?

But it is a very good morning. I wanted you all to experience it too!

Maria was crazy. 

Rubbing his face, Olive forced himself up off his bed. He shivered and sauntered over to his bird cage to feed his bird and then stared out the paper window that opened up beside it. The cherry blossom flower petals from the tree outside had made it into the room and dusted the floor of the room and the bird cage. His bird was busily collecting all of the petals into a corner.

Greedy bastard.

Olive glanced back out the window at the courtyard. There was a pond out there beyond the cherry blossom and persimmon trees. A small pavilion with curved up roofs floated on an island at the center of it, and it was surrounded by lotus flowers that bobbed up and down in the water. 

It was peaceful.

He almost wanted to look at it forever. But he knew he couldn’t. He had to keep moving. So with a heavy sigh, he started his morning grooming. 

When he finally made it outside of his room half an hour later, he was greeted by Trystan who was posted outside his door: 

“Did you sleep well, Olivier? Good morning.”

Olive arched a brow at him. “What about you? You don’t need to be on me all the time especially since Claire has his guards all over this vacation home thing.” 

“Yes, he has been hospitable but—”

Olive sighed. “Yeah, I know. It’s not like we can trust him completely, but since we’re here…”

Might as well take advantage of the situation. 

Trystan seemed to understand his point and nodded.  “Prince Yuseong has invited you to breakfast again,” he said as they began to walk down the hall. 

The floors here were of polished wood, and they had been provided with woolen slippers to walk around in. The estate, while consisting of only one floor, was expansive. Paper sliding doors lined the hall, and light from the outside seeped lazily through the square white pap slots giving everything a hazy glow. 

“The Sagittarian diet is very nutritious I’ve heard, so you should eat as much as you can to recover.”

Was he a nanny or a guard at this point? He almost sounded like Werner minus the strictness. 

Sounds like tall dark and handsome got promoted to nanny, came Cadence’s chirpy response. A light synchronization. 

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt.

Trystan continued, “That may be a good time to test the waters with Prince Yuseong regarding—” He trailed off and stopped short. 

There was a girl halfway out of one of the sliding doors up ahead. She had round cheeks and jet-black hair that grew out to the sides of her ears. She was dressed in the formal silken light pink robe, but she was bare footed. They locked eyes. 

Claire’s younger sister. Eunji. 

Claire had introduced him to her the first night Olive had spent at this villa at dinner.  And what an awkward dinner it was. The girl had bowed her head respectfully to Olive when he was introduced and then had proceeded to stare at him during the entire dinner. Lavi, who had appeared before Olive at the time, had gushed over the girl, floating over to her and asking her all sorts of things about herself—her favorite color, her favorite book, her favorite animal. Not that Eunji could hear her, of course. Olive supposed Lavi was excited to see someone closer to her age around. Before Olive could repeat any of Lavi’s questions to Eunji, however, the girl had excused herself from the table and had run off escorted by a flock of bodyguards. 

A flock of bodyguards that was currently nowhere to be seen. 

“What are you doing?” Olive asked plainly. 

Eunji’s cheeks were flushing now. “I—I…”

A stampede of footsteps came from down the hall. Sagittarian guards. Eunji’s eyes widened, and she threw herself out the doorway without another word. A second later a collection of twenty guards wearing masks of various colors and designs came pounding down the hall. Behind them were two unmasked women wrapped in light silken garments. 

The entire flock, minus the two unmasked women, started off in the direction Eunji had disappeared to. Both women bowed before Olive and Trystan.

“I apologize if the young lady has disturbed you,” the younger woman said, dipping her head further. “She was at her daily lessons with her teacher but she suddenly ran off.”

“No need to apologize,” Olive grumbled. “It’s not like I need one… no need with the bowing either.”

“You are a friend of the prince,” the more elderly of the two said, “so you will be treated with respect.”

And what if that friend was royalty? Olive thought to himself.

It appeared as if none of the villa staff knew of his status as Ariesian prince. Not even Eunji did since Claire had merely introduced him as “my friend I met in New Ram City.” But Olive didn’t hate it. He had already gotten used to the feeling of not being recognized in the streets of Sagittarius—although he did hear a couple of pedestrians and some of Claire’s vassals occasionally say, “Doesn’t he look a bit like the Ariesian prince?” A welcomed experience. 

“Alright then.” Olive shrugged, slipping past them with Trystan. “Good luck finding her.”

*** 

The dining room of Claire’s villa was spacious and lined with the familiar paper-sliding doors. A single square table with short legs sat at the center. Silken plush cushions were furnished at the sides of the table, and seated at one of those cushions was Sagittarian prince of the Seong Clan, Yuseong Haneul—although he still insisted on being called Claire. 

There were two guards posted behind Claire. Familiar ones. Firstly there was the white masked Projector who nodded deeply upon Olive and Trystan’s arrival. Then there was the wooden-masked Conjuror who seemed to glower at them. If Olive recalled correctly, their names were Soha and Felix, respectively. They were the two vassals who had accompanied Claire to New Ram City, and they had been the ones who had attacked him on the night he had first met Claire. It had all been an act, but Olive still felt unnerved by them. 

Claire gestured for them both to sit. Trystan, as usual, hesitated at the invitation. Olive, however, flopped down on the cushion chair and indicated for Trystan to do the same. After another pause of reluctance, Trystan sat down as well but not before giving the two guards watchful looks. 

“Your sister probably isn’t going to come for breakfast,” Olive said, glancing at the remaining open cushion seat. “It looked like she was trying to get as far away from here as possible. I can understand the sentiment.”

If Claire had heard the last part, he didn’t show it. “I’m sorry if she disturbed you. She has a habit of trying to escape the guards.” Claire offered an apologetic look, although Olive thought he saw some smugness there. “How are you feeling by the way?” He gestured to the steaming tea cups and the assortment of colorful side dishes of pickled vegetables set out on the table. “You should try some of the daikons, they help with digestion and have a lot of potassium. They’ll help you feel much better, I promise.”

“Thanks…”

“Anyway,” Claire continued, “I was just speaking with Felix here about how lucky it was that we came across you that day. I literally just decided to go to that bookstore on a whim, and, well, you said something about studying for the Conducting Exam, right, so—”

“What do you want from me, Claire?” 

Claire paused mid-monologue and chuckled. “What do you mean?” 

Olive could feel Cadence peering in. Despite his disappointment in her recent choices, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to impress her. How pathetic.   

“I appreciate the hospitality,” Olive said, “but I’m not going to play along with your act. You can continue if you want, but I’m just going to be sitting here with popcorn.” He crossed his arms. “If you think that you can trick the same person with the same act, maybe it’s time to reconsider who the real stupid one is here.” 

That was right. Olive had more to lose this time around. He had to be careful.

“How dare you!” Felix snapped, taking a step forward. “You may be the prince of Aries but you are in the land of Sagittarius. You—”

“Calm down, Felix.” Claire he’d up a hand.

“But—”

“Felix.”

The wooden-masked man tensed and then folded back on himself along the wall. He said nothing more. 

Claire turned back to Olive with lightly furrowed brows and a hesitant smile. “I know how it looks with what happened last time, but honestly I—”

“I didn’t come to this country without learning how your government works,” Olive interjected. “I know that the emperor that sits on the throne is your father. I mean, obviously.”

Claire visibly stiffened at this, and his expression twisted in a startling manner. He almost didn’t like himself. The contempt in his eyes. 

“I also know that he’s the father of the princes and princesses of the other nine clans here. Your half-siblings. And I know that all of you can technically inherit the throne.” Olive picked up his teacup and stared into it. Cadence’s reflection stared back at him. “There’s a lot of rivalry, I bet… since all of you can inherit the throne. You have to constantly make yourself look good—like, ‘being the one to get aid from foreign countries’ good. What’s pride and honor, right?

Claire’s frown deepened which Olive couldn’t help but feel a rush of victory from. And a sudden pang of guilt. 

Don’t mind it, kid, Cadence’s thoughts of reassurance floated down from somewhere in the dark. Keep goin’. 

“And let’s not forget to mention that other thing you’ve been keeping secret from even your closest associates.”

While Soha and Felix exchange looks from behind their masks, Claire paled somewhat. 

It was always good to pretend that ya know more than ya actually do. 

“Look.” Olive sighed. “If you want to lead people around all of the time then get a dog. If you want something from me then just say it. But maybe this time I want something from you too. If not, then we’re both wasting our time here playing pretend—” 

Claire rose from his cushion abruptly and began to slowly walk over to where Olive sat. Trystan tensed from beside him and stiffened further when Claire sank to his knees and bowed before Olive. 

“My lord!” Felix unfolded himself from the wall and took a step forward in protest but was stopped by Soha who placed a hand on his arm. 

The righteous victory, the coyness, that had been building at Olive’s core crumbled in an instant. 

“Prince Chance, I admit that I do have intentions that go beyond me offering you hospitality but I promise you that these are not ones that directly surround me. It involves my sister.”

Eunji? What about her? And now Claire was suddenly speaking like a politician again too. Olive didn’t like this one bit.

“My sister is only twelve years old. She took the V-Type Test recently which revealed that she’s an air Elementalist like me. So she’s… viable for the throne. And because she’s viable, my mother wants her to complete the State Conducting Exam so that our clan has two candidates for potential rulership.”

What? Wasn’t Eunji only around twelve? Wasn’t that too young to take the exam—not to mention inherit a throne? Werner had told him that the average age for State Conducting Licensing in Capricorn was sixteen, but Olive had assumed that the early age was due to Capricorn’s military focus. But twelve was kind of—

“But because she’s taking this exam and because she is an air Elementalist, she has been brought to the attention of the other clans. I know they will seek to kill her—”

Kill?

Olive’s heart skipped a beat at the word. No. Assassinate. 

The memory of the arrow wreathed in flames from four months prior came at Olive suddenly. 

“—before she can complete the exam in order to decrease my clan’s chances of gaining control over the throne. The other members of my clan have retracted their aid because they don’t view her as worthy. The guards that you see on the estate are the only ones we have to protect her.” Claire took a deep breath. “Please, Prince Chance. My sister means everything to me. I’m not asking for you to protect her, but your presence as the prince of Aries alone will be enough to make the other clans hesitate.” Claire’s fists balled. “Just for a little while, I ask you to accompany us until she completes her exam.”

A succession war, Olive realized, a chill creeping up his spine. That was insane. The idea that individuals were out there who were willing to kill someone who showed just a fragment of promise just to gain an upper hand. This was not what Olive had been expecting at all. He had assumed Claire was going to try to use their supposed friendship as a means to make himself look more diplomatically inclined when compared to his half-siblings. 

Naive. 

Dangerous. 

“You want the prince to act as a decoy?” Trystan drew darkly, rising to a stand. He stopped short when he saw Soha and Felix tense. 

“No, not a decoy. Just as a warning.” 

“Then why didn’t you announce that I was the Ariesian prince when I first came here if you want to use me like that?”  Olive asked. “And why are you letting your sister take the State Conductor Exam if that’s what’s making people target her? Does she even want to take it? And—saints—get up!”

Claire straightened himself up from his bow but remained seated. He locked eyes with Olive, eyes afire. “She must take the State Conductor Exam in order to increase our clan’s chances of gaining the throne. This is for the sake of our clan, Prince Olivier. We cannot be selfish when thinking for our people—I’m sure you understand this.”

Olive felt his stomach tumble, and the anchor that he had forgotten about started to weigh down on his chest once more. 

“As for why I didn’t announce your status—I want to ensure that any traitors that found their way into our domain will be ousted.” Again, Claire spoke like a politician. “If I revealed that you were the Ariesian prince then they would hide away and bide their time. I can’t let them fly under the radar only to come back up when you are no longer with us… I…” He looked away. “The affairs of my country and clan are complicated. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” 

There was something in Claire’s voice—it sounded as if he was disappointed in himself more than anything else. 

“So you’re risking your sister’s life to try and save her?” Olive frowned after a stretch of silence. “Those are some impressive mental gymnastics.” He rose from his cushion slowly. “Well, I have things I want too, like I said. Risking my life is a high token though, so I’ll think about it.” 

Olive headed to the doorway behind him but paused when Trystan started to follow.

“I’m just going to the restroom, Trystan.” Olive waved a dismissive hand. “You can finish your food. I’ll be back in a second.” 

Olive exited the room before Trystan could respond. 

He continued slowly down the hallway as he mulled over the recent revelation and glared holes into the wooden floorboards. He really did hate politics. It was the same here as it was back in Aries. Maneuvering around every other person, playing people like chess pieces, false words and faces. What for? It didn’t make sense.

Something flashed out of the corner of Olive’s eyes causing him to look up from the floorboards. He paused. Stared. 

It was Eunji, once again halfway out of one of the sliding doors. Had she been caught earlier and was now trying to attempt another escape? Or had she never been caught in the first place? 

They locked eyes. 

She did not flush this time, at least not visibly. She did not move either. 

“Your brother cares for you a lot, you know,” Olive said after a beat. “I don’t really care about it but you should think about things like that before you make dumb decisions.”

Eunji stiffened at this and looked down. When she looked back up at him, her cheeks were beet red and the corner of her eyes were wet. “I-I know that…” 

Olive tensed and looked left and then right. Shoot. This was awkward. Dammit. This is why he hated getting involved with other people. Misunderstanding and disappointment, one after the other. 

“Well, if you know that then why are you out here causing trouble?” Olive finally asked. After not receiving a response, he tried, “Do you think acting like this will make him pay attention to you any less? That’s not how it works, you know. Not with family at least.”

Eunji stared at him, eyes wide.

A padding of footsteps coming down the hall before she could respond, and Olive turned his head to find the older vassal from earlier approaching him. The woman offered a deep blow and muttered an apology before rounding him and nearing Eunji.

“The others are looking for you on the opposite side of the villa, but I had an inkling you would be on this end,” the vassal said, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “How about we return to your lessons and then we can have some fun, my lady?”

Eunji dipped her head, glanced at Olive, and then nodded meekly. 

Smiling at this, the vassal inclined her head in Olive’s direction. “Excuse me, sir.” And then she began leading Eunji down the opposite end of the hall.

Olive stared after them for a beat, before turning on his heels and walking in the opposite direction. 

Olive. 

It was Atienna. With her thought came a surge of adrenaline. A thrill. Something had happened to her recently, although the details had not yet trickled down to him yet. Her hands were curled into fists. As their synchronization increased, so did the details of her circumstances as did her image which appeared beside him. He turned to her alarmed. 

Atienna—

Something’s not right, don’t you think?

Olive stopped in his tracks and swiveled around. 

Eunji and the elder vassal were halfway down the hall. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. In fact, it was a tender scene with the elder vassal guiding Eunji with a hand on the back. 

But appearances were deceiving. 

Olive approached them slowly. “Hey, wait a minute.”

They both stopped and turned. 

Olive stopped short too a foot away from them. “I… Claire wanted Eunji to come to breakfast with us.” 

The vassal smiled. “Yes, well, it may be best if Eunji finishes her morning lessons before that. This is a very important time for her.”

Olive arched a brow. “Can you really think without a full stomach? Or is this some Sagittarian torture technique?”   

The vassal’s polite smile drooped. Eunji looked between them in confusion although there was a hesitant smile beginning to climb up her lips.

Careful, Chance. 

It was Werner. 

He was watching? Even after—

The vassal shook her head and then spoke in a variant of Sagittarian—one that Cadence knew did not belong to the Seong clan: “I guess I’ll make use of this foolish foreigner now.” 

Eunji looked up at the vassal in confusion just as the vassal charged at him—

Saints, Olive thought in the split second that followed. For an old woman she moves fast

—and slammed him to the ground. 

“That Seong prince will find your corpse and that brat princess’s corpse, and you will be named the assassin,” the old woman hissed. 

The override was brief. 

One moment the old woman was on top of Olive, and the next he was on top of her. He barely had the chance to digest the sudden change of position, before the older woman kicked him away and scrambled to her feet and backwards. Olive hopped to his feet too, grimacing at the knobbing bruise forming at his abdomen, and then ran at the woman with a shout. Instead of charging at her, however, he ran right past her towards Eunji. Olive grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled her close while whirling around and extending out his free hand towards the assassin. Crimson sparks danced at his fingertips and spilled onto the ground.

A line of fire now divided them. 

Olive squinted past the flame at the older woman who was now staring at him and gaping. Realization set in for him a beat afterwards.

He had done it. He had done it! He had been able to conduct and control his vitae exactly how he’d wanted too!

Reckless—yes, but he had finally done it!

Focus. 

“I am the Ariesian prince Olivier Chance,” Olive stated as the embers swirled around him. “You dare attack this young girl whose brother offered me hospitality in my presence?”

Well, that’s dramatic, came Cadence’s thought. What’s with all the waxing lyrical? 

Olive felt his cheeks burn—not from the heat of the flame, but from the heat of embarrassment. I know that.

“I care little for the political affairs involved,” Olive continued, speaking above the crackles. “But I cannot stand by while you raise your hand against both me and this innocent young girl. What is your name and where do you hail from?”

The older vassal paled in the light and remained silent. 

“You don’t believe me?” Olive pressed. “Is the sight of my flame not enough for you? Are you blind to the color of my vitae?”

I think your overactin’ is convincin’ enough. 

“I ask you again—what is your—”

One of the paper doors behind them burst open. In came another woman holding a blade ignited with glowing purple vitae.

It was the other vassal. The younger one who had been with the elder one earlier. Her eyes took in the scene in confusion, and then they narrowed with determination. Without another word, she charged at Olive, blade raised. 

“No, wait!” shouted the older vassal. “Don’t! That’s—”

Olive brought up his hand, feeling heat spark at his fingertips.

 It was too much. The moment he’d done it, he knew it was too much. An explosion of heat erupted from his extended hand engulfing the assassin in an instant. A familiar, acrid smell curled up in Olive’s nostrils as the assassin’s screams filled the air. But he could not take time to process the events. The flames were still reaching out and consuming everything, despite the fact that he had lowered his hand and was no longer expelling vitae.

Olive threw himself over Eunji and braced himself for the ensuing heat but—

A cold wind throttled through the hall, blasting open the paper doors and snuffing out the flames in an instant. Light poured in from the outside and blinded him briefly. 

When Olive’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found Claire standing in the now open hallway behind the elder assassin with his staff conductor in hand. The area around them was speckled with flecks of floating blue light. Behind the Sagittarian prince came Felix, Soha, Trystan, and a handful of other masked guards. Soha quickly apprehended the older assassin who did not resist and instead was staring horrified in the younger assassin’s direction. 

Olive swallowed, felt nausea build at the pit of his stomach, and pulled away from Eunji. He gave her a quick once over and found that—although her face was once again beat red—she seemed fine. He turned back to the younger assassin and felt his head buzz. 

The younger assassin laid on the ground groaning, croaking, sobbing. Her entire body was covered in splotches of red and charred black, and her clothing was indiscernible from her skin. The smoke that curled out from the extinguished flames that had consumed her body smelled disgusting and looked unnatural. 

Hey, kid, she’s still alive. Nothin’ a little bit of transmutin’ won’t fix. Besides, you were just defendin’ yourself—

But—

“Are you alright, your highness?” It was Trystan who was now kneeling beside him. “I apologize for not getting here sooner.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” Olive murmured, glancing back to his left where Eunji still remained stiff and red. She was staring at his hands which he began to rub despite himself. 

A shadow passed over the three of them. Claire. The Sagittarian prince locked eyes with Olive before sinking down next to Eunji.

“Are you okay?” he asked. 

Eunji managed to offer a nod. 

Several of the guards who had accompanied Claire across the hall abruptly dropped to their knees and bowed before him.

“My lord, I apologize for our negligence,” said the one who was closest. “We should have kept a better eye on her. We are ashamed.”

It was a rather familiar scene. 

“No, they slipped past me too,” Claire said, rising to his feet. He turned to Soha who had the elder assassin in tow. Glancing at them briefly, he addressed the other guards: “Please take Eunji to the medical Conductors.” He then glowered at the younger assassin who was sobbing on the ground and cradling her splotchy painfully black and red arms. “Treat her too but don’t let her out of your sights.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the echoing responses. 

Felix took the lead and gingerly aided Eunji up to a stand before guiding her down the open hall. The other guards picked up the younger assassin and started off in the opposite direction. 

“You are from the Sitaara Clan, correct?” Claire addressed the elder vassal who was now staring at Olive. “One of the mid-tier clans. I’ve heard that the eldest princess of your clan took the V-Type Test, and it read that she was a Conjuror. It’s rare, and I understand it must come as a shock to your clan. I do feel some sympathy, and I believe you have learned your lesson, so I will return you and your friend back to your people.” He side-glanced at Olive.

How annoying. But—

“The Sagittarian prince has treated me with hospitality,” Olive stated clearly to the woman. “And it is the Ariesian way to treat those who treat you kindly the same. I won’t stand for underhanded attempts like this against someone who has treated me well.”

“Do you understand the gravity of raising a hand against the Ariesian prince?” Trystan pressed from beside him. 

The older woman paled in response and then dropped to her knees, pressing her forehead against the ashen floor. “I did not know you were the Ariesian prince. I would not have laid a hand against you or the young lady if I had known. Please, my actions do not reflect the actions and intentions of my clan towards Aries—”

Olive resisted squirming and merely grimaced. He hated when things came down to this. “It shouldn’t matter whether or not I’m the Ariesian prince.” His thoughts returned to the younger assassin, and he looked away from her. 

“Y-Yes, of course,” the older woman stammered. “I… my apologies.”

“Since I am releasing you back to your clan,” Claire interjected, “I take it that you will inform them of everything you have witnessed here, correct?”

The woman stiffened at Claire’s voice and lifted her head to glower at him. Her gaze then flicked to Olive and then she bowed her head once more. “Of course.”

Claire then ordered Soha to take the woman away leaving the hallway to just himself, Olive, Trystan, and Felix. 

“Ollie…” Claire tried hesitantly. 

“There’s a temple up in the mountains a couple of miles away from this city. It’s called Bodhi Temple,” Olive began coolly. “Apparently, it has a library of unique books that are good for studying for the State Conducting Exam. Apparently, it’s very hard to get into. In fact, a guide told me that there are only two ways to get into it. Either dedicate your life to the temple or be brought in by someone who has access to that place. And I’ve heard rumors that royal members of Sagittarius’s clans are—”

“Okay.”

Olive closed his mouth, feeling rather unvictorious. “Okay?”

Claire nodded. “That’s actually where the Seong Clan has been sending their potential successors to study for the Conductor Exam for generations. I have a sky v-tram booked to get us there already. You and Trystan are free to come along.”

Olive exchanged a look with Trystan.

“I also need someone who can help translate the written word for me. Of all the languages of Sagittarius,” Olive tried challengingly. 

“I can do that too.”

***

They left for the sky v-trams two days later. 

The sky v-trams were something Olive had been secretly looking forward to seeing. These were things that were exclusive to Sagittarius consisting of boxcars strung along together and suspended by a pair of very thin cable wires. Metal wing-like extensions designed to catch updrafts protruded from each boxcar. Each tram was conducted by four Licensed air Elementalist Conductors who would conduct air up the shaft of the wings.  This paired with the v-trams own uniquely constructed conductor engine brought it higher and higher up the cables to its destination. 

Needless to say, when Claire informed Olive that they would need to ride the v-trams in order to reach the temple up in the mountains, Olive had been somewhat happy. If the burnt young woman’s body did not plague his dreams, he might have even been ecstatic. Keep moving forward, was something Werner had told him afterwards. Regrets are tools for motivation if you utilize them properly.

There were only four people allowed per each boxcar of the v-tram, and so Soha, Felix, Trystan, and Eunji filed into one—both Felix and Trystan protested at this—while Olive and Claire were seated in another. The rest of their shared boxcar was filled up with their luggage which counted as two passengers together. A handful of Claire’s other guards were piled up in the adjacent boxcar and would occasionally glance into the window of the doors that separated the cars to check on them. 

The sides of the boxcars were lined with red cushion seats for sitting but also contained poles to hold onto for standing. Olive opted to stand in order to get a good look out of the large windows lining the cart above the seats, and he watched with mild interest as the wings of the boxcars shook as they ascended. Seeing the ginormous v-tram station fall away below him and blur away to a tiny dot was interesting to say the least.

Claire abruptly joined him after spending half an hour searching his luggage. The Sagittarian prince leaned against one of the poles adjacent to Olive and crossed his arms. Olive offered him a disinterested look in turn before admiring the view again. 

“I guess you want me to tell you more about True Conductors as a part of everything too then, right?” Claire asked suddenly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Since we’re alone for the moment, I thought it’d be best to get this out of the—”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he turned to Claire slowly. “What.”

Claire froze and dropped his hand. “What?” 

“Did you just say True Conductors?!” Olive snapped, taking a challenging step forward before hesitating and then taking a cautious step back. “How do you know that word?”

“Because I am one?” Claire returned with a perplexed expression. “You didn’t know—but I thought—isn’t that the reason why you said what you said?”

What?

“The secret that I kept hidden from everyone—you said you knew what it was,” Claire explained slowly, before realization eclipsed his features.  He sighed, rubbed his face, and then rubbed then rubbed the back of his neck. “You were bluffing. I should’ve known.”

Olive remained silent, staring, unsure of how to react, unsure if he should try to reach out to the others. 

“Well, we did make a deal, and I’m grateful for your help.” Claire glanced out the window and then back at Olive. “So, anyway, I bet you have a lot of questions now, huh? I’d be happy to answer what I can.”

There was a long stretch of quiet. Their compartment darkened as they passed through a patch of clouds. 

“You’re a True Conductor?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.” Claire chuckled a bit—almost nervously—in the silence that followed. 

“And… what are True Conductors?”

“People like you and me,” Claire elaborated without really elaborating.

“And who are people like you and me?”

“People who are psychically connected with other people,” Claire said, tapping his temple. “Connected through memory and therefore thought and feeling.” He tapped his chest to finish the statement. “It’s a bit romantic if I say it like that though.”

“You’re connected to other people too…?” Olive knew he sounded like a broken record, but he was too befuddled by the sudden revelation to think straight. 

“Yup,” Claire popped. “I am connected with other people, but I’ll refrain from saying who. I’m sure after that whole thing in New Ram City, you’re plenty aware of the dangers that come with this… status.”

“Why…?” Olive shook his head. “I mean why are we… like this?”

Claire frowned, and Olive could see the gears turning in his head. His gaze brightened as he realized the meaning of Olive’s question. “Well, the why still escapes me, honestly. But the how is through a mutually-timed near death experience. At that moment where everyone in your connected group was knocking on death’s door, our vitaes somehow crossed over—”

“The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis….”

Claire’s brow shot up somewhat. “Yes, exactly. The top Conductors in vitae research at Ophiuchus say that there’s no sound evidence behind the idea, but there’s no sound evidence denying it either. So I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and agree that vitae does in fact store memories. I’ll refrain from commenting on the soul aspect of the entire thing since I’m no philosopher.” A sheepish chuckle. 

“Vitae stores memories.” Olive tried a course correction. 

“Right. That’s actually how this psychic link works. It isn’t that we’re able to telepathically communicate with people in our group. It’s just that the memory of our thoughts is flowing into the other person.” Claire made a circle with his index finger in the air. “The mirage of the person you see is all just a memory that they have of themselves. Simple.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Well, we timed it when my group and I met physically in person. It actually was only a month after we became connected. Anyways, when we were speaking to one another inside of our heads, a person in my group noticed that there was a very small lag time between when something would be said and when something would be responded to. When we timed it, we noticed that there was a five-second gap between when one person would think of something and—yeah.” 

Olive figured he made a face because Claire chuckled again. 

“The time frame got shorter, of course, the longer our group was connected,” Claire explained.  “We stopped timing it three years ago when it was below half a second. We thought it had to do with the amount of memories we shared, but who knows really.”

Three years ago? How long exactly had Claire been a True Conductor? 

Brushing those thoughts aside, Olive took a brief moment to mull over the information. 

Everything Claire said sounded realistic, but a portion of it did not match up with his own experiences. Was there really such a lengthy lag between his communication with the other five? It didn’t seem so much that he was speaking to a memory of them than actually speaking to them. And if there really was such a time lag with newly connected groups, how had they helped him as if they were actually there on that day in New Ram City? 

“Speaking of memories, I honestly was a bit concerned for you in the beginning. You may or may not have experienced this already, but the more time you spend connected to them the higher the chance that there’s going to be an overlap.”

“Overlap?”

“Mhm, like… a possession almost.”

“An override.”

“Is that what you call it? So you must have experienced it yourself already.” Claire hummed. “Or maybe you were the one doing it since your sense of self is pretty strong from what I’ve seen.”

Olive couldn’t help but grimace as he recalled his override of Werner.  As Claire’s words settled in, he arched a brow at him. “Sense of… self?”

“Yeah, your sense of who you are, your ideals, your values. Well, I’m sure you’ve noticed that this connection tends to affect everyone in your group a little differently.” Claire shrugged. “Some people receive more memories and the feelings associated with them than others, and some people are more affected by things like that. Those all have to do with how strong that sense of self is. The weaker, the more easily affected. Of course, that’s not a bad thing exactly.”

Olive’s thoughts immediately returned to Werner. A weak sense of self?  Werner of all people? No. That didn’t make any sense. Werner was dependable, reliable, reasonable, and steadfast.

“It does make some good food for thought though.” Claire looked out the window again, but the darkened clouds had made it more of a mirror so he was left staring at his reflection. “Memories make us who we are, right? So… then…” Claire waved a dismissive hand. “Well, anyways, I haven’t encountered any groups that have completely shared their memories one hundred percent yet.”

“So there are more people like us?”

Claire nodded. “I’ve come across a total of ten separate groups not including you. Whenever we’d come across each other, we’d exchange notes about the things we experienced. That’s how I know so much about this.” His gaze darkened suddenly. “Of course, that was before.”

“Before?” Olive sighed, scowled. “Stop making everything so mysterious and get to the point.”

“How do I put this without making you launch yourself out of this sky v-tram to try to get away from me…”

“Maybe by not starting off with that,” Olive grumbled.

Claire frowned and a hardness entered his gaze. “Of the ten groups that I encountered before, only four of them are still… active.”

“Active?”

“The other six have completely disappeared off of the face of this earth,” Claire said. “The other nine True Conductors and I  had all planned a get together a year ago. I was invited but I didn’t end up going since I had my State Conductor Exam to go to. Someone in my group went instead—although she’s a loner so she kept to herself and sort of spied on them instead of being friendly.” A fond smile traced his lips at the last statement, but then the corners of his lips drooped down again. “After that meeting,  we started losing contact with the other groups one by one. We think some True Conductors out there might be hunting other True Conductors down. Maybe they’re working with ELPIS? I don’t know. And why ELPIS is after us—I don’t know either.”

“So then why trust me and why trust you?”

“Good question.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck again. “You just seem trustworthy to me. As for why you can trust me—that’s up to you really…”

Olive grimaced. “How did you know I was one…?”

Claire chuckled again. “Well, it was kind of obvious. You talked to yourself a lot, and the night we first met you pulled it some pretty unnatural moves. I mean, I know they teach you a lot of things in your royal academy, but you held your own against Felix that night and he’s been trained for his entire life. You hurt his ego quite a lot by the way.” 

Again, a wave of a hand.

“But you’ve stopped doing that now which is good. And it’s also good that the ELPIS member… that Izsak Wtorek—”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat, and found himself rubbing his throat.

“—who found out that you were a True Conductor is locked up in Ophiuchus now. He won’t tell the other members of ELPIS so you’re safe.”

“That’s not the only group we should be worrying about.”

Claire looked away from the window with a perplexed expression. 

“It’s not just ELPIS that’s after True Conductors,” Olive explained. “It’s… well… I don’t know who, but someone who’s connected to me encountered a saint candidate who knew the word ‘True Conductor’.”

“A saint candidate?” Claire’s frown deepened. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.” Olive glanced back at the other compartment. “She actually became less hostile when she found out that ‘my person’ was a True Conductor.” 

“That’s pretty strange,” was Claire’s only comment. 

“The saint candidate is also working for the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus,” Olive mumbled, “and we’ve been thinking she might be connected to ELPIS somehow or maybe another group also looking for us—”

“Just because it’s one saint candidate doesn’t mean that it’s the others,” Claire interjected, voice tight, eyes sharp. 

“I didn’t say that…” Olive frowned at Claire’s reaction, and Claire looked away from him in turn.

It seemed like a touchy subject. Too much of a hassle to address further. Better to drop it.

Claire seemed to appreciate the silence that followed, because he addressed Olive with a light-hearted smile next: “That ability of yours to conduct without a conductor is something else though. I don’t know any True Conductors who can do that.” He studied Olive for a moment. “Are you sure you shouldn’t try hiding it a bit? Like try using a conductor instead?”

“You don’t think I tried?” Olive grimaced. “I burned right through the thing just like that.” He snapped his fingers. 

Claire’s brows shot up, and he chuckled. “You’re quite terrifying, you know?” He tapped his chin as he squinted at him. “Are you having trouble controlling it—your conducting, I mean?”

Olive’s mind flashed to the young assassin, and nausea gripped his stomach.

Claire hummed. “Well, maybe the monks at the temple can give you a hand with that. Air Elementalist conducting is very different from fire Elementalist conducting—or so I’ve heard—so maybe leveraging the two will…” He shrugged. “I have no idea where I’m going with this, to be honest.” 

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to the temple. Air conducting is freer in a practical sense, while fire conducting has to be more controlled and precise.” Olive nodded, suppressing the nausea with a deep breath. He prepared to continue to address the subject when a thought—rather a realization—came at him suddenly. He unfolded himself from the pole he was leaning against and took a step forward. “Wait, forget about that—what about the syzygy? What is that even?” 

“What?” Claire frowned perplexed, un-crossing his arms and obviously startled by the change in conversation. “Syzygy? What’s that? Something to do with your conducting?”

“… Nevermind.” Olive frowned, folding back against the pole. After a beat, he said, “You’re awfully relaxed about being-hunted-down-by-ELPIS situation. It must be nice to be so carefree.”

Claire chuckled at this, but the sound was hollow. “Ollie, I know I’ll probably sound selfish by saying this but I don’t have the time to worry about things like that. I have my clan and my country to think about. I’m sure you understand, right?”

Olive shrugged.

“Anyway, the key here is to be careful.”

The clouds pulled away, revealing the bright of the sun and the looming mountains below. 


(    )

In the room with no windows, no doors, and no exits, the seven children dashed around in excitement.  It was a game of tag, it seemed. They wove around the candles littering the floor, stumbled over the stacks of books that rose up like pillars, and bumped into the bookcases lining the walls. 

Tau watched them go from where he sat alone at the board game table before he slammed his hand against his leg and jabbed a finger in their direction. “Stop running!”

The children froze and stared. 

“What is wrong with you kids nowadays?! First you run around acting like you own the entire place, and then what?! You’ll be taking this outside and disturbing the lives of all the upstanding common folk! Jaywalking, trespassing! All it takes is one slip-up, and you’ll be in and out of youth correctional centers for the rest of your life—”

“Leave it be, Tau,” came a familiar voice from the dark, “you have more important things to do. Besides you seven will take responsibility and clean after yourselves, right? Responsibility is everything.”

The seven children nodded fiercely before they continued their play as they looped around the room—this time carefully straightening the items that were out of place along the way. 

Tau sighed, pushed up his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, about ‘those important things.’ Unfortunately, I’m not getting anywhere even with my connections. Nothing on our package from Verga and nothing on that other vitae reservoir and generator conductor.”  

A page turn and a thoughtful hum in response. “I see, so we can’t rely on that then. That’s not unexpected. You were someone who was paid to look away from these types of affairs.”

Pushing his glasses up his nose again, Tau scowled but refrained from chasing the subject. “We still haven’t heard back from Omicron, Omega, and Beta either. Are you sure we should be moving forward with this, ‘leader’?”

“Beta’s and Omicron’s affairs are separate from us. And you know Omega is a cautious person. They won’t move until the time is right.” A flutter of another page. “Besides, Omicron never fails.”  


Sagittarius’s royal succession ceremonies are very elaborate and are celebrated all over the country. In order to be considered viable for the throne, an individual must be a direct descendant of the emperor or empress, be an air Elementalist, and obtain a State Conducting License. Near the end of the ruler’s reign, the crown princes and princesses of the nine clans of Sagittarius gather at the capital to initiate the selection proceedings. The final decision is made by the ruler, thus each clan tries their best to earn their favor. 

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

8.1: Cadence’s Honor (Dishonore)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

The violence of the Twin Cities has reached even the criminal bosses who rule the city’s underbelly. Criminal boss and owner of the city ports, Francis Foxman, was stabbed several weeks prior and the assailant still remains at large. Not soon after this, during a meeting meant to unite the powerful Romano Family and Campana Family through the engagement of Fortuna Romano and Ambrose Campana, both dons of the Families are stabbed under mysterious circumstances.

Despite being caught up in all of this chaos, Cadence Morello still finds time to visit the Sognare and dreams of Alma, the pianist who had treated an orphaned Cadence kindly onto to disappear many years ago.

Twin Cities, Gemini

“Why aren’t you saying anything, huh?!”

Thuds resounded through the near-empty casino.

“You just said you were going to talk!” Another thud. “A minute ago!” Thud. “So why!” Thud, thud, thud. “Are you so damned quiet?” There was a monstrous roar. “Talk, dammit!”

Whistling, Cadence watched as a man was sent flying through the casino hall and sent crashing into a billiard table. The cue balls lined up on its surface exploded upwards and ricocheted off of nearby poker and roulette stations which sent black and white poker chips clattering onto the waxed floor.

“Talk,” Carl had said, but Cadence presumed the man didn’t have enough teeth to talk at this point.

The man who was now draped across the billiard table let out a croak as if in agreement with her thought.

“You’re making a mess, Carl.” Francis stood beside Cadence while inspecting one of the cue balls that had hurtled towards him amidst his brother’s tantrum. “Is this any way to treat a guest at our fine establishment?”

Carl whipped around with a glower. “What? You want me to get him a chair?!”

Francis smiled. “Well, we could certainly do that. He may not be able to stand with what we have planned for him for the rest of the day.”

Carl arched a brow and then smirked. He signaled for the group of men and women lounging at the mini-bar at the opposite corner of the hall. Two of the men rose from their positions, one picking up a chair from a nearby table and the other grabbing the croaking man off the pool table. Utilizing a level of teamwork worthy of a cricket duo, they threw the beaten man onto the chair and dragged him in front of the brothers.

“And here, by ‘guest’ I was hopin’ you were referrin’ to me.” Cadence chortled and bent down to pick up one of the poker chips that had rolled over to her feet. She glanced at the man that had been dragged in front of them and resisted a grimace. She could barely make out his eyes beneath all that purple and red. “Is it always this excitin’ when ya guys are openin’ a new business?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Francis set the cue ball onto the poker table behind him.

Allen sat at that table shuffling a deck of cards with a v-cig in his mouth. “Don’t break any more equipment, Carl. Replacing it’s expensive.”

Carl wiped his bloody fists on a towel provided by one of his men. “Come on. We can replace things, Allen. But we can’t replace blood.”

Something twisted in Cadence’s gut at his statement. The memory of Olive’s words and the look in the kid’s eyes on that morning the previous week.

Guilt.

Damn, that kid’s self-deprecation was infectious.

Allen rose from his table, pocketed the deck of cards, and walked over to stand beside Carl. Although Allen was smaller than Carl, he held a pressure that was ten times as suffocating. The seated man shrank into himself as that pressure weighed him down.

“If I heard you correctly over Carl’s shouting earlier, you would be Mr. Luigi, right?” Francis asked the man as he pushed between his brothers wearing his usual calm smile.

Out of all of them, Francis had always been the most mild-mannered one. Whether it was delivering business deals to executives or delivering orders to underlings, he always spoke politely and respectfully. Back in the day, she’d joke around with Carl that if Francis or Nico ever stepped foot out of the city, people would assume they were from the good walk of life. Francis had dropped into their conversation to point out that Cadence herself could appear as anyone she wanted so she had the upper hand in that case. But appearances were deceiving.

“Well, am I correct that you are Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed calmly. “Just nod your head yes or no.”

Luigi swallowed and nodded slowly.

It seemed as if he thought Francis was a ray of mercy.

“We see you here quite frequently, Mr. Luigi,” Francis continued. “And we’re quite familiar with the large debt you owe not only to us but also to your bookie. But, since you also happen to be bringing in a large sum of patrons from your other gambling nooks, we’ve been turning you a blind eye. I understand how this is easy for you to interpret as giving us the slip but—”

“Who was it that told you to jump my brother, huh?!” Carl roared, grabbing Luigi by the throat. “And don’t you dare tell me that it wasn’t you! We have five other witnesses pinning you on the damned scene!”

“I don’t know!” The man sobbed, spluttered. “I don’t know! I didn’t ask! I only spoke—spoke to some middle guy—to some middle man!”

“That’s not a name!”

“Please, believe me! I don’t even know the middle man! He didn’t show his face!”

Francis straightened himself and glanced at Carl. “What do you think, Carl? Does Mr. Luigi here seem to be telling the truth?”

“Well, I dunno, Francis.” Carl sneered. “You got an idea?”

Francis’s smile thinned. “How about this, Mr. Luigi. How about we resolve this with a simple request. If you do one small thing for me, we’ll let you go. Don’t worry. It’s not anything big. It’s the sort of thing you’d try to do if you maybe had just a little bit too much to drink. How about it?”

Luigi nodded fiercely.

“Are you sure, Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed. “Well, while it is a small task, if you can’t do it then we’re going to have an even longer talk afterwards.”

“I-I’ll do it!” Luigi stammered, spitting out blood. “Whatever you want me to do to someone, I’ll do it! Whatever it is!”

Carl exchanged a look with Francis before he barked out a laugh. Francis remained smiling.

“Oh, Mr. Luigi, this isn’t something we’re asking you to do to someone else,” Francis explained. “This is something we’re asking you to do to yourself.” With that, Francis reached into his pocket, pulling out the cue ball he’d picked back up from the table a minute earlier and holding it out to the man. “Think of this as a pill of truth. Swallow it whole, and we’ll believe you and let you walk.”

Luigi’s eyes widened as he stared at the ball. “B-But that’s—that’s—”

“You accepted, Mr. Luigi. A deal is a deal.”

Francis handed the cue ball to Carl who then began to slowly shove the thing into the man’s mouth. Gagging and screaming followed.

Cadence felt a bit bad for Luigi. He probably had just taken up the job out of desperation to try and get some cens to pay off his debt. Desperation made people irrational and stupid.

But at the same time, part of her was a bit happy at his suffering. That was probably because to her the Foxmans had a speci—

Bah.

She was getting too worked up about this. It wasn’t like any of this involved her anyways. This was strictly a Foxman issue. And Francis was fine, so—

Those are impressive mental gymnastics, came Olive’s thought paired with sarcastic mental clapping. Gauging by his demeanor, Cadence assumed that this was not an intentional synchronization. The synchronization was light, so she could only tell that he was eating breakfast and that he felt uncomfortable with his situation. He was not visible to her. So, you’re really doing it then. Thought you were friends with them.

Sure, we’re friends. Doesn’t mean I gotta always meddle in his problems. We’re grownups. Friendship is different when ya reach a certain age, Cadence returned. A slight smile tugged on the corner of her lips. Which is why enjoyin’ your little friendship breakfast hang out with Claire should be a priority—

Annoyance bled out from their connection. We aren’t—

Man, we’ve synchronized twice today already, kid. I know we’ve been gettin’ along real swell lately but—

“You seem to be in a good mood, Cadence,” Francis said suddenly, drawing Cadence out of her internal conversation. “Never thought you to be the sadistic type.”

During her spiel with the kid, Carl had ordered some of their men to drag out “Mr. Luigi” to the back room where Cadence presumed additional hospitality would be offered.

“Saints, I wasn’t the one makin’ mincemeat with my fists,” Cadence quipped. “I’m a lover at heart.”

Carl scoffed, wiping his knuckles off with another towel. “You just don’t like gettin’ your hands dirty.”

The entrance doors to the casino abruptly flew open, and a woman wearing a fedora stepped in. She rushed to Francis’s side. “Boss, the police commissario is here,” she stammered. “He wants to speak with you.”

“Tell him to buzz off,” Carl muttered.

“He insists,” the woman pressed. “Says it’s important.”

Allen turned to the woman which caused her to stiffen. But he brushed past her and walked over to the poker table and sat back down slowly. He gave a puff of his v-cig and began inspecting the deck again.

Allen really did not know how to treat a woman. Well, he didn’t know how to treat anybody.

“I ain’t a fan of ‘the law’ seein’ my face,” Cadence said, pulling the bill of her hat down low, “so I’ll be makin’ my exit—”

The large wooden doors to the casino blew open without warning.

Cadence immediately snapped her ringed fingers and transmuted the form of one of the brothers’ men over herself. Francis glanced at her briefly before turning to face another one of his underlings who had rushed in from outside.

“Sorry, boss,” the man panted. “They wouldn’t listen—”

Francis nodded. “It’s all right, Clarence.”

“’All right’?” A scoff resounded from the door. “’All right’? What about the current state of things makes you think it’s ‘all right’?”

In stepped a group wearing familiar uniforms. Gray button-ups with billed gray caps and gray slacks. Very gothic in Cadence’s opinion. Matched the police’s state in the city perfectly. In front of this gray uniformed group stood a man in a suit. His dark brown hair was slicked back, his sharp eyes piercing through the square glasses that rested on his hawk nose.

Commisario Vincente Giustizia. The police commissioner of the Twin Cities of Gemini.

Cadence had purposefully stayed as far from his as possible not only at the dinner party with the Romanos and Foxmans but also in general. She didn’t trust law enforcers and trusted corrupt law enforcers even less.

Not talkin’ about you, Jericho, Cadence thought just for good measure.

“Commisario Giustizia,” Francis greeted the man with a practiced smile. “What do we owe the pleasure of seeing you today?”

“Oh, trust me. If it’s a pleasure, it’s only for you!”

Cadence resisted doing a double-take. Francis and Carl exchanged looks. Allen remained impassive.

“I mean, look at all this.” The officer stomped over to Francis, gesturing wildly around him. “How did this building even get approved by the city officials? What licenses do they actually have to run this establishment? And their restaurants? And their bars?!”

For a man who was rumored to be cool, suave, and level-headed, Vincente sure enjoyed shouting maniacally.

Cadence had heard many things about Vincente from the people of the city. That he was a handsome gentleman, that he was kind and considerate, that he was fighting for a safer city against the darker underworld. But people of that underworld knew the truth about him. And as Fortuna had so eloquently put it years ago, he “was a soulless, greedy pig who would bend over backwards for money only to flaunt it on women half a second later.”

Carl glowered, taking a step forward.

Francis held up a placating hand and stepped forward himself. “If you want our licenses, I’d be happy to provide them, Mr. Giustizia, as long as there’s probable cause for it. That is the law which I’m sure you—”

“The law?” Vincente huffed. “The law? I am the law! I’m more of the law than—”

“Why’re you here?” Allen asked plainly. “If you don’t give us a reason and continue to make a scene before our business opens then you’ll have to arrest yourself for disruption.”

“Arrest myself?!”

What a funny person.

For a moment, a laugh tickled Cadence’s throat. But even though she did not allow the laugh to escape, Vincente whipped his head in her direction.

“You—are you laughing?”

“Uh, no, of course not. Sorry, sir,” Cadence responded, voice deep and gravely. She coughed and slammed her chest with her fist. “Bad cough. Trynna quit smokin’ but it’s givin’ me a hard time.”

Vincente scrutinized her.

Something about the man’s gaze made her skin crawl. It was almost familiar—the feeling. She couldn’t quite place it. An unpleasant nostalgia. A memory was on the very tip of her tongue. One of the others’. Before she could reach out to one of them, he looked away from her.

“Well, you do have a point. My apologies.” Vincente cleared his throat and straightened his uniform. “That isn’t like me, is it.” He glanced back at the officers behind him who shook their heads with a collection of “No, chief”s. “I shouldn’t have been so straightforwar—”

“You still haven’t answered our question,” Allen said. “Why you’re here. Did Fortuna or Cavallo send you? Or are you here to complain about not receiving your pay off from Ricardo? I’m sure you know why that payment’s late.”

You know why I’m here,” Vincente replied, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“This is about what happened last week. The unfortunate circumstances that fell on Ricardo and Mr. Campana,” Francis concluded. “If you’re here to question our involvement, you won’t find anything. We weren’t there on that night. And we’ve been in good business with the Romanos and wouldn’t dare to disrupt that.” He frowned, eyes hardening. “To even think that we’d raise a hand towards someone who we’ve been working with for years is an insult.”

“Why don’t you look into the Campanas?” Allen asked loosely, still not looking up from his cards. “Heard their don is already making a speedy recovery. Suspicious.”

Vincente didn’t acknowledge the man and instead placed a hand on Francis’s arm. “Look. I’m just here to ensure nothing else happens. For your sake—”

Several of the Foxmans’ men stiffened at this and directed their steely gazes towards Vincente.

Keeping his smile in place, Francis held up his hand to keep them at bay. He then grabbed the officer’s resting hand. “Commisario Giustizia, while your concern is warranted…” Tightening his grip, he removed Giustizia’s hand from his arm. “… your accusations and suspicions are not. Frankly, I find them very rude.”

Vincente winced and rubbed his hand once Francis released it. He took a moment to study Francis long and hard, and Francis held his gaze in turn. Finally, the police commissioner turned on his heels and signaled for his officers to leave. He left a beat afterwards, stating rather ominously that they’d be seeing each other again soon.

“Who does that bastard think he is waltzing in here like that,” Carl spat once the doors to the casino had slammed shut. “Bet those damn Campanas are tryna get that guy to plant something on us or somethin’.”

“Ricardo owns him, not the Campanas,” Allen corrected.

“Still!”

“Seems like suspicion is comin’ in from all angles.” Cadence sighed, shaking her head. “It was pretty awful—that night. Can’t get his body outta my head—Ricardo’s, I mean. It just didn’t look right.”

“Yeah, always thought the mean old bastard would outlive us by at least fifty years,” Carl grumbled.

“Stop talking like he’s dead,” Allen interjected. “He’s in good hands with old man Fabrizzio.” He grunted. “Though I feel sorry for his bill.”

“How’s Fortuna…?” Francis asked suddenly.

“You know her. She knows the boss’ll pull through so she’s not even sheddin’ a tear.” Cadence chuckled. “She may have been a bit cold in the doc’s waitin’ room that night, but she really does appreciate the flowers.”

Carl turned with a grimace. “Yeah, well, good.”

“And is Fortuna the one that sent you here, Cadence?” Allen asked without hesitation.

“Come on, Allen. There’s no need to bully Cadence,” Francis sighed. “She may be many things—” He paused to chuckle at his own joke. “—but she’s a friend first and foremost.” He turned to her, wearing his usual smile. But his eyes were as hard as steel.

“‘Course, I mean I can’t forget all the stupid stuff we’ve done together, right?” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Ya know, after Fortuna and Ambrose started gettin’ along together, I thought everything’d get sorted out.” —She was speaking too much now, she knew— “Thought it’d even somehow sort out your bad blood with the Campanas too.”

There was a long stretch of silence before Allen waved his hand of cards in the air. “Let’s play a round.”

“A round of cards?” Cadence huffed, feeling the corner of her mouth tug upwards as Carl joined his older brother at the table without question. “Now?”

“Why not?” Francis asked, joining Allen at the table too. “They’re always interesting, aren’t they?”

“Interestin’?” Cadence arched a brow. “Ya mean interestin’ in how we all end up somehow havin’ royal flushes at the end?”

Francis offered a musical chuckle in response.

***

After the game—after Allen won three times in a row—Francis offered to accompany Cadence on the way back to her apartment. She’d moved again recently and Francis had stated he wanted to check out the front.

It took a lot of convincing for Allen not to send them off with five additional men. Cadence assured the man that she of all people knew how to get out of sticky situations and that she was sure to pass on the knowledge swiftly.

The two were strolling along the sidewalk commenting on their previous game when Cadence spotted a familiar candy store coming up around the corner. A sign in the shape of a lollipop hung from its window.

“Hey, Francis, ya remember when we used ta do a trio routine with Nico t’pull one over on that candy shop owner?”

“Mr. Ferrari,” Francis recalled, glancing at the store in question. “Yes, I do remember that. It worked like a charm. We ended up stealing two hundred cens worth of candy over the years. The cops wouldn’t look into it, so he ended up putting up wanted signs he drew himself.”

“Yeah, didn’t he try ta put ‘em all around town or somethin’?” Cadence threw her head back and cackled. “Wait, I remember now. No one—”

“No one would let him put his signs up, so he ended up just placing them all around his store,” Francis finished. “And people started to think we were child candy brand models.”

“Man, the look on his face when we made our last heist. Cleaned out his entire stock of candied nuts.”

“And that’s how we discovered I was deathly allergic to peanuts.” Francis chuckled.

“Yeah. Never seen Nico cry that much before in my life. I had ta practically drag the both of ya ta the doc’s.”

“Don’t know what was worse. The anaphylactic shock, meeting Doctor Fabrizzio for the first time, or Allen beating us over afterwards.”

“Eh, Allen doesn’t even come close to the doc. No offense—”

“Matilda and her group remind me a lot of how we were before we started getting more involved in the city. Do you think a couple of years from now, she’ll also be…”

Huh? That was random.

Cadence turned to address the odd change in conversation but paused when she saw a familiar figure peering into the window of the candy store they had been discussing.

It was the Sagittarian tourist from that night in the alleyway with Feliciano and two of Matilda’s girls.

“Give me a sec,” Cadence said, patting Francis on the back as she approached the tourist from behind. She cleared her throat and said, “Well, talk about a twist of fate.”

The Sagittarian’s head perked up as he turned around. And he squinted at her for a long and hard moment before he threw his hands up in the air.

“It’s you!” he exclaimed, suddenly wrapping Cadence in a tight hug. “My knight from the night! Cadence, was it?”

Cadence was taken aback but returned the gesture with a pat on the back. “For someone who doesn’t know up from down, ya sure got a knack for rememberin’ names. By the way, what’s your name?”

The man pulled away before dipping into a low bow. “I am Kuroihoshi Hideyoshi.”

Interesting customs.

“Your friend there…” The man popped up a beat after and seemed to register Francis standing behind her. With raised brows, he muttered, “Isn’t he…”

Cadence glanced back at Francis before placing a hand on Hideyoshi’s soldiers. “Listen, Hide—can I call ya Hide? Number one tourist experience be damned. Ya don’t want to be barkin’ up that tree.”

“I swear that he…” Hideyoshi rubbed his chin. He startled suddenly and whipped back to look inside the store. “Saints! They’re almost sold out.” He whipped around again and grabbed Cadence by the shoulders. “The limited-edition Cioccolato bar! How can I call myself an extreme tourist if I don’t get my hands one of these?!”

Extreme tourist? That sounded a bit familiar…

“Uh.”

Without another word, the man spun around again and dashed into the store. Cadence watched with mild amusement and confusion as the man began to shout ecstatically to Mr. Ferrari’s son who was currently manning the counter within.

“What was that guy’s deal?” Francis asked, approaching Cadence from behind.

“Touristy type,” Cadence explained as she nodded down the street and started walking again. “Met him a couple of nights ago while Feliciano was kickin’ him in.”

Francis frowned, falling into pace beside her. “Donato’s son?”

“Yep. Seems like he’s got a coupla screws loose—the tourist, I mean. Directed him to the Sognare to keep him off the streets for a little while—I mean, I do perform acts of kindness every once in a blue moon.” She chortled before she sighed: “This city keeps gettin’ weirder and weirder.”

It was more like the world, actually, that was getting weird.

“The Sognare…” Francis frowned. Realization flickered in his eyes. “Wait, Cadence, don’t tell me that you’re still—”

“What?” Cadence shrugged. “I gotta keep ‘em in business. ‘Specially since Nico is off playin’ soldier, you and your brothers are rakin’ in business, and Fortuna is Fortuna. One of us has got ta stick to the roots.”

“Nico is going to be back in town soon,” Francis murmured. “I almost forgot. Should we throw a welcome party for him?”

“Nah.” Cadence waved off the idea. “Ya know he’s not into that kinda stuff.” Plus with everything going on…

Francis seemed to consider this for a moment and stopped suddenly in his tracks. She turned to look back at him.

“Cadence. Don’t take what Allen said too seriously. About you being hired out by Cavallo or Fortuna. He just has to put up that front for the men. Honestly, you can just forget it ever happened.”

“And done.” Cadence snapped her fingers. “And should I forget what you said too?”

Francis shook his head with a wry smile. He stared off across the street before pulling out a v-cig from his pocket and igniting it with a flick. “You ever think back and wonder how things would’ve turned out if we made different choices? I mean, you always said you wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way, and Carl and Allen wanted to open a bar of our own. Without all the extra things we’ve added on the side, I mean.”

“Not really.” Cadence shrugged. “That was a bit random, Francis. What’s got ya reminiscin’?”

Francis half-sighed, half-laughed. He took a drag and then rolled the cigarette between his fingertips. “It’s nothing. Forget what I said.”

“Already forgotten.”

They reached her apartment fifteen minutes later. Francis politely declined her invitation to stay for lunch and then headed on his way.

Not suited for this business, huh? Cadence mused, waving to him from her apartment window. As if anyone was suited for this business. People were just making due with what they had.

***

On the dawn after Ricardo Romano and the Campana head were attacked, Cadence was called into Ricardo’s main office. With all of the chaos that had unfolded shortly after that night, Cadence was surprised at how swiftly things were dealt with.

Ricardo and the Campana don sent to their respective medical Conductors. Increased security for executives. A full investigation launched by the commissario that tore through both sides of the city. Not even a single drop of additional Campana or Romano bloodshed that night despite the circumstances. Not even a rumor of the events slipping out besides those who had attended the party and additional high-profile parties related to them.

Really, the city was terribly efficient.

When Cadence stepped into Ricardo’s office, she was rather surprised at her lack of surprise at seeing Fortuna sitting there at her father’s desk. For anyone else to do it, it might’ve been seen as disrespectful or callous. But Fortuna was different. She was putting her foot down. Her position of power nailed firmly in place. A sign for the other caporegimes to lower their greedy eyes.

So much for family.

Cavallo stood beside Fortuna with a steely expression, but Cadence didn’t pay any mind to him. She approached the table swiftly.

“Fortuna, is everythin’ all—”

“I have a job for you, Morello.”

Cadence paused and then spread her arms. She glanced at Cavallo. “Already? Well, aren’t we workin’ fast—”

“Don’t look at Cavallo, Morello. I am the acting head,” Fortuna stated, folding her hands on the table. “And I am the one giving this order.”

Morello, appearances. Werner’s voice ghosted the edges of her mind.

Cadence lowered her hands and folded them behind her back. Cavallo arched an eyebrow at her but she kept her gaze focused on Fortuna. Fortuna smiled ever so slightly at this, but the expression didn’t last long.

“The Campanas have already set their own paid police dogs loose in the city,” Fortuna said. “They’re turning over every stone in sight to find the ones who did this. Starting with the Foxmans.”

Cadence dropped her hands to her side and leaned forward a bit. “Now, I ain’t one to be involvin’ myself in drama and gossip, but that seems a little suspect, don’t ya think? I know the Romanos and the Campanas have a good thing goin’ but…”

Fortuna held her gaze before speaking, “The engagement between the Campanas and Romanos has obviously been postponed. Goodwill aside, we can’t allow the Campanas to handle this investigation on their own.”

Saints. An entire engagement postponed just like that. Cadence didn’t blame them, but it seemed a bit detached. Was the whole romance between Fortuna and Ambrose broken off like that? All that passion gone—rather, put on hold—in an instant? Was there even any passion to begin with, or were they both batting eyes at each other at face value?

Bah. None of it involved her. No use thinking about it.

Cadence finally noticed the flowers sitting in the vase on the table behind Fortuna. “So ya want me ta look into the Campanas? I heard their don is makin’ a fast recovery, so it does seem a little weird. ‘Course, intentions aside, the idea that a don would knock himself into a hospital room just ta gain the upper hand does seem a bit extra—for both sides.” —Saints, she was rambling. Too much time talking to Atienna— “Then again, this city is—”

Fortuna seemed to notice her gaze because she soon clarified: “You’re mistaking my intentions, Morello. Yes, I want you to look into the Campanas, but I also need you to look into the Foxmans. One of them may have gotten their hands on a Specialist who was capable of doing something like that. I don’t care about why someone did this. I want to know who. And how.”

Cadence paused and arched a brow. “Ya sure that’s a good investment of time? I mean, they weren’t even there.” Which made them even more suspect.

“Morello. You call yourself a freelancer, but a major source of your income comes from work from this Family. You are employed by us, Morello. Not the Foxmans. I hope you haven’t forgotten this.”

Cadence kept her voice even and a pleasant smile on. “How could I? Black knight, right?”

Fortuna glanced back at Cavallo before she leaned back with crossed arms. She sighed. “Again that ‘knight’ talk. We’re a business, Cadence. The Foxmans are a business. Nico is an associate of our business and so are you. We’re not children anymore. You could argue that we never were.”

Do people really say these things and think they sound cool?

“Things like this always come from the direction you least expect them to,” Fortuna continued. “That’s why they happen. I want you to keep an eye on the Foxmans. See if they’re up to anything and what they were up to last night. It doesn’t matter if you find it out as yourself or as one of the Foxmans’ men. The same applies to the Campanas. I want you to keep an eye on the acting head in particular.” She reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a case. She clicked it open. “This is the first half. You’ll receive the rest after you complete this.”

It glittered alluringly—the stacks of cens all nicely wrapped up in a clear plastic packaging, all lined up in stacked up rows. The money she’d gotten from her most recent odd job swindle was nearing its end, and her monthly bills were coming on down the road—

And there Olive appeared behind the table looking at her with an expression of both disinterest and judgment. A judgement that she felt curl up in her own chest.

“Look, the pay is swell and all, Fortuna,” Cadence said, reaching out to close the case. “But I’m actually kinda booked at the moment—”

Fortuna reached out and placed a hand above Cadence’s, effectively stopping her from closing it fully. “You have unusual monetary habits, Morello.”

Cadence froze and released the case.

“Splurging half of your pay as you please and storing the other half in a deposit at the city bank,” Fortuna said, pulling the case open again. “What exactly are you saving all that money for?” She folded her hands again. “Who?”

“For myself, of course,” Cadence returned smoothly. “Y’know Allen’s always preachin’ about savin’ up for a rainy day. Heard it so many times, thought I’d at least try practicin’ in.”

Fortuna seemed to consider this and then abruptly chuckled. “The owner of the city bank passed away a week ago. We were able to get one of our own into the vacant position.” She pulled the case back open. “We’ve asked him to keep a special eye out on the accounts of the people who are associated with us. For protection’s sake.” Fortuna’s smile thinned. “Don’t you think you at least owe us something for the extra measures we’re going to ensure the safety of your funds?”

The threat was clear. As clear as Olive’s piercing green gaze.

Regardless, Cadence took two steps backwards and offered an overzealous bow. “Of course, my liege. How can I forget your wonderful generosity?”

Olive grimaced and turned away.

***

Near the end of the week after her stroll with Francis, Cadence opted to forgo her Foxman investigation in favor of a Campana investigation. She reasoned that she wouldn’t be able to get much from the Foxmans since they were too focused on their own personal investigation.

Unfortunately for Cadence, however, the Campana’s security had increased tenfold. They checked for conductors at the entrance to all of their establishments and even had the city police running around every block checking every pedestrian in sight.

It was as if the universe was directing Cadence in the Foxman’s direction. At this point, it wasn’t her fault.

Brushing these thoughts aside, Cadence made her way through the city and towards the Sognare. A soft tune was already drifting out of the bar as she approached. Her heart skipped a beat at the sound, and she continued further albeit a bit more slowly.

As she neared the entrance, the melody became clearer. Like water trickling down a stream into a still pool. The way of play—Cadence recognized it. There was only one person who could play in such a melodic manner.

Taking in a deep breath, she snapped her fingers. She did not need to check a mirror to see that she was now dressed in a crisp suit instead of a beat down oversized one.

She pushed through the entrance. The bartender did not greet her as usual but this time it was not out of habit. This time his negligence of her arrival was due to his attention being drawn away to the center of the stage at the back.

Standing there beneath the spotlight in front of the old grand piano was a woman. A woman with short black curls, with pale ivory skin. Her small and thin frame was wrapped in deep black dress that glimmered with stones—like stars in the night sky. But even the stars paled in comparison to the glimmering smile the woman gave Cadence as she turned away from the instrument.

“Alma…”

Cadence drifted past the tables, nearly tripping over her own two feet as she neared the stage. Alma neared the edge at Cadence’s approach and sank down to a crouch.

“Hello, Cucciolo.”

Cadence extended her hand out to the other woman while taking a gracious bow. Alma accepted the gesture, bowed even more graciously, and pulled Cadence up onto the stage.

“My, this is more dramatic than when you stopped by our hotel with flowers,” Alma finally said as she guided Cadence over to the piano. “You still haven’t told me how you found me. We’d barely settled back into the city, and there you were with your roses. You left me so curious that I didn’t have any choice but to accept your invitation to come here. Playing on my curiosity like that.” She tutted.

Cadence had known the exact moment Alma stepped foot in the city. It had been exactly one week prior to the Romano-Campana meeting on a sunny Tuesday morning. 8:09 am to be exact on Werner’s watch. And while Cadence had known Alma was in the city the moment Alma had arrived, finding Alma had been an entirely different story. This was because, for these past ten years, Alma had been in the company of a dangerous party.

“Well, maybe if you swing by here tomorrow then I’ll tell you. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.”

Alma chuckled at this and looked Cadence up and down before the corner of eyes crinkled. “You’ve really matured so much since then. It feels wrong for me to keep calling you ‘Cucciolo’. I wouldn’t have even recognized you if it weren’t for…” Alma trailed off, raising a hand to twirl a lock of Cadence’s copper locks around her index finger.

“You could call me darling instead,” Cadence suggested, resting her hands on the piano keys and playing a C major. “And I’ve been reading lately, so I hand my maturity off to the that.”

A beautiful chuckle followed by a short musical staccato. Cadence returned the sound with a staccato of her own, albeit a bit faster.

“I meant to ask when you visited,” Alma drew, “how is Miss Agape? You must know her well now if the rumors that I’ve been hearing are true. She always treated me so kindly when I was working at the Casa…” Another smile crinkled the corner of her eyes. “I wouldn’t have been able to practice at the Sognare if she didn’t give me the time off… and then I wouldn’t have been able to meet you.”

“She keeps trying to get me to join the Casa or one of her other clubs.” Cadence sighed, playing another C major. “She’s always looking for profit—”

“Don’t do that, Cadence,” Alma whispered, eyes wide as she cupped Cadence’s cheek with her hand. “Not at the Casa or the clubs. You’re too talented, too precious to me to do something like that.”

“Hey, the workers at the Casa and the clubs are plenty talented.” Cadence chuckled, stroking a B flat. “I mean, I’m sure they lost a lot of talent when you left. Agape complained about it all the time.”

Alma’s eyes suddenly lost their light. “So, if you really do know Agape well enough for her to speak to you like that,” she drew, pulling away her hand, “then it really is true. You really have been working with the Romanos all these years—”

“No!” Cadence shook her head. “I haven’t joined them. I’m only working for them. I’m not on any of their rosters or anything. Just odd jobs here and there.”

Alma remained silent.

“…I only decided to stay with them because I knew one of the executives bought you out from the Casa de Bambolle and—” And she had needed the funds.

“—and gifted me to the Campanas. As some temporary truce,” Alma reached her own conclusion. “Because one of the executives from the Campanas thought I was charming.”

Cadence stared down at the black keys in between all of the white.

“Oh, don’t look so sad, Cadence. He’s been very kind,” Alma drew. “Enzo, the one who bought me. He was just a capo for the Campanas then but now he’s second in command. Truth be told, I hated him at first. I did everything I could to upset him. I broke his favorite vases, called him names in public, and refused to speak with him at home. But he was very patient and always paid attention to me. When he found out that I missed playing the piano, he bought one for me. When he saw me get frustrated playing a complicated piece, he bought me a teacher.”

I can do that too, Cadence thought. I can do that for you too. And then she thought of Fortuna and her bank account. Fortuna really knew how to hit it where it hurt.

“He even rented a stage for me to play in front of an audience recently. Can you imagine that?”

“It sounds like he certainly knows how to treat people.” Cadence faked a smile.

Alma’s eyes twinkled again, but in a different way. “He calls me his songbird even though I have a terrible voice. I thought he was being silly at first, but it turns out he really does think of me that way.” She glanced at the piano. “Like a bird in a cage. The only thing that’s changed are the surroundings.” She turned back to Cadence smiling. “He kept me in his villa in Cancer, did you know? It’s a very beautiful country.”

“Alma…”

Alma shook her head. “My feelings for Enzo—and Agape, the Campanas, and the Romanos—are still complicated, but I have a lot to thank them for. I mean, without the union between the two Families, I would’ve never come back here. I would have never been able to see you again.” She stared at the piano. “Cadence…. you’re special, you know that? You made me feel like I could do anything.”

Her words were like a dream.

Cadence felt her chest swell. “I guess I have a lot to be thankful for too. Since you’re here again. I… I’ve been making decent money here… and… maybe… I was thinking…” After this all settles down. “I could make a decent place for you here. Like your own piano playing joint—place, I mean.”

“A place for me here?” Alma remained smiling but the light in her eyes changed. “This city is as suffocating as I remember it. The skyscrapers remind me of the bars of a cage. It smells worse than before somehow, and there’s trash everywhere. And then there’s everyone else—those pitiable people clogging up the streets all thinking they’ll do something big someday.”

It wasn’t that bad, was it? Cadence hated the place too, but she’d grown up on these filthy streets. It wasn’t quite home, per se, but it wasn’t not-home either.

Cadence found herself pausing at her own thoughts.

Wait a moment.

Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that she’d been dreaming about kissing the city goodbye? And playing on the Ophiuchian Way with Alma? But recently, she had been thinking that it wasn’t too bad staying here—that it was bearable. What exactly had changed…?

A cold began to creep up her spine as her mind drifted to the other five.

She was fickle. That’s all it was. 

“Cadence.”

Snapped out of her thoughts, Cadence looked back at Alma and found her frowning.

“Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Alma asked quietly. “Enzo has been distant these past few days. Cold. Stressed. Angry. He told me that the union between the Campanas and the Romanos was postponed, but he hasn’t told me anything else…. But—this involves little Francis and his brothers, doesn’t it…? I overheard Enzo speaking with the other executives the other day…”

The Campanas were talking about the Foxmans? Did they suspect them? Or were they trying to frame them? Or?

“They’re not so little anymore.” Cadence threw up an easy smile. She had to find a way to steer Alma off this conversation quick. But then she paused as she fully digested Alma’s words. “’Angry’? What do you mean angry?”

Alma’s lips drew downwards. “They own the ports now, don’t they—Francis and his brothers? And little Nico is probably working with his father, and cute Fortuna is probably…” A hum. “I really did love when you would bring them by.”

“Yeah, but Alma, what do you mean by angr—”

“Cadence,” Alma said, “can you do something for me?”

“Anything, Alma,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. She was being watched by some of the other five. She could feel their gazes prickling her skin, ghosting her consciousness.

The others wouldn’t understand. The others weren’t like her. They had all grown up differently than her. And that was fine. That was just the hand fate dealt them. There was no helping it. Yes, they wouldn’t understand that—

—before Ricardo, before the Foxmans, before Nico, there was Alma. And before Alma—well, Cadence didn’t want to think of what came before Alma, so Alma to her really was the beginning. Alma, the pianist who would play a tune at the Sognare every Thursday night. Alma, the mysterious young woman who drew in all types of late-night walkers to the bar. Alma, who had beckoned a eight-year-old Cadence in from the cold winters outside with a pale finger. Alma who had ignored the words of protests from bar patrons and had allowed Cadence to sit at a table closest to the piano. Alma, who had taken Cadence into her small flat, not caring about how grimy Cadence’s cheeks were nor how dirty her worn-down shoes were. Alma, who had taken Cadence’s hand and twirled around her flat to music droning off the record player. Alma, who had given Cadence a home. No. Alma who had become home.

“I’m scared, Cadence,” Alma whispered, voice as breathy and lovely as always. “The Foxmans must have something to do with what’s going on. Could you look into it for me, please?”

Yeah. The universe really was directing her into the Foxman’s direction. There was no helping it now.


(    )

“It’s your move, Iota.”

“I know that, Tau.”

Conversing in a small room lit only by an assortment of wax candles, a man and a woman sat across from one another observing a game board placed on top of a stack of books. The man was wearing glasses and was dressed in a crisp suit. The woman was wearing a polka-dotted blue dress and had a red bandanna tied into a bow on top of her head. There were no windows present to provide better light nor were there any doors present to let in air, but this did not seem to deter the man and the woman at all.

The game board in question consisted of approximately 10 by 10 squares and was littered with small token-shaped black and white pieces. There were twelve white pieces left on the board and only two black pieces. It was evident who was winning.

After a longer beat of silence, the woman named Iota reached forward—the white snake-tattoo on the arch of her hand glowed in the candlelight—and moved one of the white pieces diagonally up and over the second to last remaining black piece. She tucked the black piece beneath under her palm as she did so and dropped it on her side of the table.

Iota’s opponent reached for his remaining black piece on the board and used it to jump across three of the white pieces—

“Dammit!”

Iota slammed her fist against the side of the makeshift book table, sending the playing pieces jumping into the air. She clicked her tongue and slid three black pieces over to the other man Tau. The man picked them up, removed the white pieces he had jumped over, and arranged the black pieces in their place on the board.

“Forget it!” Iota snapped, slapping her hand onto the board. “We’ve been playing for hours.”

“So you’re saying that I win the argument then?” Tau inquired, rubbing his wrists.

“Of course not!”

“Well, if we can’t resolve our arguments with words, we play the game. Whoever wins the game wins the fight. If we don’t follow this rule then we’d argue all the time and nothing would get resolved, and then we wouldn’t get anywhere with anything. That’s the law and order!” Tau said, starting off calm and then ending irate. Pausing, he turned his head to the corner of the room that was clustered with piles of books and warmed by soft candlelight. There was a figure there, sitting in silence and reading a book. “Isn’t that right, Theta?”

“And if the game remains unfinished then that means the fight wasn’t important enough to begin with,” came the reply from the direction.

“The children went looking for you again, Theta,” Tau said after a pause.

Iota glanced into the corner as well. “Your identity will be discovered soon, won’t it…?”

“And then the city will discover us,” came the quiet reply. “You sound like you don’t like that idea, Iota. Is it that you want to remain hidden for the rest of our time here?”

Iota threw her head back as laughter wracked her body. “Of course not!” Her eyes went wide, and she slammed her fist onto the board sending pieces clattering to the ground. “I’m just dying to tear this city limb from limb.” Her legs began shaking. “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting—watching those bastards walk around this place like they own it and throwing around those modified conductors like—”

“Calm down, Iota. Don’t be rash. We don’t want a repeat of what happened to the former mayor and the heads of the Families. When you act independently like that, you cause problems for the entire group.”

Iota shut her mouth immediately and grimaced. “Sorry, I…”

“I understand your frustration, Iota, but we must be patient.” The flutter of a page turning. “There’s no use rushing to the ending when the ending remains the same.”

“Right, ‘leader’. Patience I can do.”

Sitting in this room that had no windows and no doors—no exits—Theta smiled and continued to read in the dark.


“Ah, yes, Alma. I used to play duets with her down at the Sognare. She had big dreams, that one. Very kind too. Took in some orphan a while back. Kid became attached to her hip. Alma always did seem a bit… off though. Anyways, I haven’t seen them in years. I wonder what they’re up to.”

Sebastian Faux, former player at the Sognare

7.[]: A Terrorist’s Hate (Amore)

Re-cap:

Omicron, a leader of the terrorist organization ELPIS,  encountered Jericho in the Twin Cities of Gemini several months prior. Somewhere along the way, she also came across Usian and former peacekeeper Wtorek Izsak. Now, as the dominoes begin to stack up in the city of sin, she—

Twin Cities, Gemini

They were following the two girls—the four men and one woman, that was. Down into an alleyway. The girls didn’t seem to notice, attention focused on distributing the weight of the cargo box held between them evenly. 

Shrouded in darkness, Omicron watched the stalk from the fire escape attached to one of the apartment buildings lining the alley. 

“Hey, what are two pretty girls like you doing out here so late?” one of the four men called out to them. It seemed as if he was the ringleader. He was certainly dressed like one. Gold chains gleamed from his neck, and his suit looked blemishless. Not one for subtlety of words nor appearance, it seemed. 

The two girls froze and exchanged looks before they set down their cargo box gently and turned to face the five who were now forming a ring around them.

“W-We’re just passing through,” the braver of the two stammered as she stepped in front of the other. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“Oh, why would we want to give you any trouble?” the ring leader at the forefront chuckled as he slid forward. “You work under Tilda, right? Under Matilda, doll?”

There was a beat of silence. 

“Y-You know Matilda?” stammered the braver girl. 

The ringleader grinned like a cat—no, like a predator. “‘Course, my dad is one of her bosses, you know?” He took another step forward and grinned wider as the girls skirted backwards. “Hey, hey, now, what’s this? One word from me and I can make it so you lot are back digging for scraps on the streets, y’know? Don’t be so rude.” He grabbed one of the girls by the arm. “But as long as you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you—that’s how the city works, right?”

Abruptly, the lid of the trash bin lining the alley wall behind the group popped open. Two of the men jumped backwards away from the bin before peering into the darkness in confusion. 

It was a man. Standing in the trash bin was a man. 

Omicron could barely make out the man’s features in the darkness, but she could tell that his cheekbones were high, that his dark hair that was combed loosely back, and that his build was rather sturdy. He towered over the other five with his height and seemed rather fit for a dumpster diver. The suit he wore looked expensive; and if it weren’t for the banana peel resting on his head, she might have thought him someone famous—like an actor. 

“Sirs, you wouldn’t happen to know where the Zatmeniye Caverns are?” the strange trash man asked, scanning the darkness and scratching his head. There was a slight accent in his Geminian. “I swear I was just walking there, and suddenly it was warm, and—well—now I’m here.”

“Who’s this quack?” one of the men who had flinched back half snapped, half laughed. He glanced back at the ringleader, saying, “Hey, Feliciano, what do you make of him?”

Feliciano released the girl from his grip and instead grabbed the man in the trash bin by the scruff. “What, they let you loose from the looney bin or somethin’, huh?”

“Sir, is this some Aquarian tradition? To grab new people you meet like this?” the Sagittarian inquired, hands raised. “I apologize if this sounds rude but I’m not from around these parts and these traditions are a bit rough.”

“What? Aquarian?” Feliciano sneered. “Stupid, you’re in the Twin Cities of Gemini!”

“Gemini?”

“That’s right,” Feliciano spat. “And you’re talkin’ to Feliciano, son of Donato. Donato of the Romano Family—”

“My, sir, all of those words sound so similar that I—”

Feliciano punched the man, cutting him off and sending him flying back into the trash can. Before the other man could even register the assault, Feliciano grabbed him by the scruff again and raised his fist for another blow. 

“Come on, Feliciano, don’t ya got better fish to fry?” came a voice from the mouth of the alleyway. “Pickin’ on some tourist and a buncha kids. Is that how Donato’s been teachin’ ya stress relief?”

A young boyish-looking woman stood there with relaxed shoulders, with her hands casually slipped into her pockets. Her back was bathed in the light of the city glowing behind her which ringed her ginger hair in a copper glow. Her front was, however, concealed by the darkness of the alleyway. A faceless person. 

Feliciano dropped his raised fist, shoved the Sagittarian to the side, and stormed over to the woman. He grabbed her by the scruff instead.

 What a brute. 

“What’s it to you, Cadence?” Feliciano spat.

“Hey, hey, calm down, Feliciano,” the woman, Cadence, said in a lax tone, hands lightly raised. “I’m just trynna keep an eye out for ya. With everything goin’ on, ya don’t want ta attract any suspicion, right?”

“What?” 

“I mean, those two pretty ladies over there look like they’re Matilda’s guys, and Matilda’s got business with the Foxmans and—more importantly—the boss,” the woman continued, smile evident in her voice. “Looks kinda weird ta see someone with Family ties beatin’ around the street and beatin’ up business associates. With everyone pointin’ knives at each other’s throats at the moment, Donato’s fatherly power might not be able ta spare ya this time ‘round.” A pause. “Right?”

Feliciano glowered, and he pulled the shorter woman up off the ground to eye level. A second later, however, he threw the woman back down and nodded at his four followers. 

“Let’s blow,” he grumbled, shoving past the woman. 

The other four followed after him, some of them sneering at Cadence as they passed by and others offering strangely apologetic smiles. 

The young woman offered the ones who smiled a nod before she turned back to the alleyway to address the two girls. The pair had drawn near to the mouth of the alley. 

“You two need ta be more careful, aight?” Cadence sighed. “Now ya best beat it before creeps worse than the prodigal son over there come out for their rounds, aight?”

The girls nodded graciously at her before heading back into the alleyway, picking up the cargo box, and continuing on their way. 

No sooner had they left did the odd Sagittarian rush at the young ginger-haired woman. 

“Miss Cadence, yes? You have my gratitude!” the Sagittarian exclaimed with a deep bow. “Those ruffians were terribly rude. Truly, I am grateful!”

“Geeze, pal, no need for the dramatics. And no need ta thank me either,” Cadence said, sliding her hands into her pockets. “Just remember how I helped ya and be ready if I ever phone a favor in.” The young woman chuckled, offering him an off-handed wave as she turned to leave. “Not that we’ll probably ever see each other again, Mr. Tourist.” She then added as an afterthought as she was swallowed up by the late-night traffic: “Oh—and if ya really want a sight ta see, check out the Sognare. Heard it’s most popular player is back in town”

Omicron turned away from the scene and set off along the interconnected fire escapes after the two girls once more. She had an inkling the night wasn’t through with them yet—it never was. And sure enough, after rounding several corners, she glanced down to find the two girls face-to-face with Feliciano’s party again—minus the company of Feliciano himself and one man.

“Y’know I kept thinking about it over and over,” one of the men said, sneering, “and the more I think, the more I realize I don’t have to be afraid of whatever in saint’s name Morello was talking about. I mean, it’s not like any of that stuff involves us, right? We ain’t really a part of the Family. Doesn’t matter to me.” 

“You got that right, Petro,” the sole woman of the group agreed as she smiled sweetly at the two girls. “You poor things look tired and cold. Why not come home with us?”

The two girls dropped the cargo box for the second time that night, and the braver girl once again stepped in front of her companion. This time, however, the brave girl’s trembling was visible. 

This made the man addressed as Petro grin. “Aw, come on, doll faces, why’re you scared for? I ain’t gonna hurt you—”

Petro reached for the trembling girl—

—and Omicron dropped right down into the darkness between them, catching the man by the wrist before his fingers made contact.

“Go,” Omicron ordered the two girls behind her who had both yelped at her arrival. She glanced down at the cargo box. “And leave that here.”

The girls hesitated. 

“You shouldn’t have to carry the burden of the mistakes of those before you.” Omicron leaned in close to them, ensuring that even in the darkness they were able to see her face. “But if you do then there really is no point in letting you go.”

The girls froze with wide eyes as they registered her face—rather the left half of her face—and cold terror drained the hesitation right from their eyes. Without another word, they scrambled out of the alley. 

Omicron turned her attention back to Petro and the others who were all squinting at her through the veil of darkness. She tightened her grip on Petro’s wrist. 

Scum. 

If she could snap his wrist in her hand, she would but—

“It’s just some girl,” the woman of the group muttered, squinting into the dark. “Where she come from?”

“Don’t know,” said the second man, “but she’s gotta nice shape. Maybe she’s one of Agape’s.”

“Do kindly shut up,” Omicron stated calmly. “You’re clogging the air with your filthy breath.”

Petro ripped his wrist out of her grasp before he grabbed her arm and tugged her out of the darkness and into the dim light barely reaching them from the street. “And who do you think you’re talking to, doll face—”

“What the—that tattoo—”

“Saints! She’s—”

Petro yelped and threw Omicron against the alley wall as he stumbled backwards. 

“I believe I’m talking to an associate of the Romano Family,” Omicron answered his question as she stepped forward, brushing off her shoulder. “Or maybe an associate of an associate. You don’t seem to be an important member with the way that young lady was treating you earlier. And by your grandiose monologue.”

A beat of tense silence. 

Omicron had always been one for dramatics, so she allowed herself to revel in it. But—

“She’s probably just some fake. Like what Verga did at that warehouse couple months back,” the man standing behind Petro said.  “She ain’t much to look at with that tattoo on her face, but we could at least have a little fun with her, Petro.” And with that, the man flipped out a switchblade from his pocket and pointed it at her as he drew near.  “Whadya say, doll?”

“Hey, I wanna see that necklace around her neck. Looks pretty,” the woman added, nodding at Omicron’s throat. “Grab it for me while you’re at it.”

“Sure thing, doll face,” the knife-wielding man returned, flipping his weapon in hand. 

And a knife too. Really? Was this supposed to be a robbery or a kidnapping? The insults were just piling up now. 

“Gross.” Omicron frowned. 

The man growled and lunged at her with the knife.

Omicron caught the blade with her left hand, also catching the man by surprise as she held it in place. 

“‘Some fake’?” Omicron drew slowly, tightening her grip around the knife and drawing blood. She did not flinch as the man jerked the weapon out of her grasp nor did she flinch at the rain of crimson that splattered across the ground as a result. Instead, she raised her conductor-gloved right hand and flicked her wrist. “I’ve never been more insulted in my entire life.”

The blood that was on the man’s knife glowed a burning hot white, causing the man to release it with a yelp. It did not clatter to the floor, however, and remained floating there in the air. 

“W-white,” the former knife-wielding man stammered. “White vitae—”

With another flick, she sent the knife flying into the man’s throat. He collapsed in an instant, gurgling as he flailed about on the ground. 

“You wield and sell terrifying, abominable weapons without thinking about the consequences of your actions. Without fear of consequences. But here you are afraid of a little knife trick and the color white—”

A loud bang echoed through the alleyway, and Omicron felt something catch her shoulder a beat after. She glanced down. A small hole blossomed red there. A bullet wound. What a nuisance. At least it looked like it went straight through. 

Nodding at Petro who was still pointing the gun at her with shaking hands, she inquired, “Is that a one-trick pony?” When silence answered her, she tried, “Is that still a colloquialism, or am I behind on the times again?” 

Two more shots fired—both skirting her head by what felt like more or less a centimeter. Then came the telling click, click, clicks of a gun with an empty chamber. 

“What are you?!” Petro stammered. “What kind of damned conducting is that?!”

“It makes sense retribution-wise when using something this disgusting, doesn’t it?” She sighed, flexing her hand that was gloved with the conductor. “If you’re going to commit atrocities, you might as well start penance early and bleed for it.”

Instead of answering, Petro threw the empty gun at her and chased after his female friend who had already started dashing down the alley.

Omicron whipped her wounded hand in the direction of a stray pile of wooden planks and steel beams lying beside the wall to her left. The blood droplets splattered onto the items and coated them in an instant with a glowing white light. She guided those items with her gloved hand to form a fence at the end of the alley—blocking Petro and the woman from their escape. 

The pair rattled the jail of wood and metal, throwing punches and kicking at the bars until they finally turned to face her. 

“What do you want?” Petro snapped, voice cracking. “None of us are Conductors! That’s what you care about, isn’t it? Conductors?! We ain’t even associated with the Romanos. We only hang with Feli cause he’s loaded!” 

“Yeah! We don’t have anything to do with the Romanos or their conductors!” stammered the woman. “It’s Feliciano! He’s the son of one of the capos! He’s the one you want!” She shook her head and pressed back against the bars. “It doesn’t involve us!”

Omicron flicked her gloved hand again, sending the barrier of planks and bars up into the air. The man and the woman stared up at the storm to come and then towards the mirage of freedom of the unblocked alleyway. She could see it in their eyes. That hope. The hope that maybe they’d be able to make it out of this alive, that maybe they’d make it back to their families and put this all behind them, that maybe they could bury this night and all of their other misdeeds away and start anew. Yes, Omicron knew that type of hope well. She could see it in her mind’s eye—them on their hands and knees spouting how they would learn their lesson and how they’d turn over a new page. 

But these types of people didn’t deserve that kind of hope because—

“You don’t have anything to do with it? It doesn’t involve you? What does that even mean? People like you allow it to happen.”

Omicron brought her gloved hand down and allowed the poles and planks to bullet into the ground, into the bodies. Bones cracked; barriers that were not meant to be broken were pierced through with ease. Red seeped in-between the poles and wooden planks that jutted from the ground like grave markers.

Better to end it before the cycle repeated for them—crime, and then forgiveness, and then redemption, and then back to crime, forgiveness, redemption, back to crime. 

No. That wasn’t right, was it. 

Omicron couldn’t allow herself to slip into that line of thought. There was always hope. Even in a cycle of mistakes. Yes, and it was because of that hope that she had to do these things. That was all there was to it. 

And—

“Did I really use all that energy to beat up street thugs?” Sighing, Omicron lowered her hand. The white light coating the beams and fragments of wood faded, leaving her in complete darkness. She walked back over to where the abandoned cargo crate rested and popped it open. As expected, there were a plethora of conductors within. 

Disgusting.

Omicron reached into her pocket and pulled out a vial that was filled with black liquid. It was lined with metal that came to a short needle-like point at one of its ends. At the other end was a short plunger. 

It was one of the new proto-conductors raved about in the newspapers. A proto-conductor that was capable of storing the vitae of a Conductor for future usage by another individual. Damned proto-conductors. Progress without understanding. 

Still—

She hit the plunger on the device sending the black liquid splattering onto the items within the crate. She flipped the vial around after emptying its contents and pressed the pointed tip to the liquid coating there. Immediately the coating began to glow with a pale—almost white—tangerine light. The glow swallowed the crate and its contents in a blinding flash of light that blinked out of existence a moment afterwards. Darkness returned. When Omicron’s eyes adjusted, she glanced down to find the crate nowhere in sight. Just a bare alleyway floor. 

—Theta’s Specialist conducting was as beautiful to see as always. And… 

“I beat the rhetoric senseless, but I have to admit conductors sure are convenient, aren’t they?” 

Her eyes caught on to the corpses still littering the floor a couple of feet away. Hm. Not worth using the proto-conductors to clean up that mess, frankly. 

Shaking her head, she turned away and started off in the opposite direction. She stopped short after a few steps, however, and glanced down at her still bleeding hand that was leaving a trail of blood behind her. She gently tapped the wound and felt a very faint throb. Her shoulder was beginning to throb a bit too. She supposed she would have to go to Lambda to fix this. Hopefully, Theta wouldn’t find out. 

***

Several hours later Omicron found herself standing on top of the tallest building the Twin Cities had to offer and observed the ongoings of the city twinkling below her. Flashes of yellow, orange, reds, and blues. The backdrop of the sky was pitch black giving the city the illusion of beauty. A treasure trove of sparkling gems. If she listened closely, however, to the wind whistling through her braided hair, she was certain she’d be able to hear the shots of Projectors firing illegal conductors or the screams of children she hadn’t been able to save. 

Omicron extended her hand outwards and balanced the far away glowing skyscrapers and networking streets in the palm of her hand. She then turned her hand to the side and shielded the city from her sight. She wished she could cover her ears to dull that sense as well but at the moment she had only two hands. “There’s only one way to make it so they don’t hear or see things like this anymore.”

She reached for the chain that hung around her neck, pulled out the knife-shaped pendant that hung at its end, and pointed the thing at the cityscape. 

There wasn’t much time now as it was. 

“Let’s just cut it all out. Whatever comes with it is collateral.”

A whistle rang out from behind her, and it was followed by an offhanded remark in Common: “That’s a terrifying thing to hear someone say when they’re talking to themselves in the dark. Also, should you really be waving that thing around? Didn’t you lose a whole batch of those when Verga made his exit from life?”

Tucking the pendant back into her shirt, Omicron turned.

A shadowy figure stood behind her, features shrouded in the night. There was only one discernable aspect about them—the white sash wrapped around their arm. It almost seemed to glow. 

“Look at who the real terrifying one is here,” Omicron muttered, ignoring the latter comment. “Betraying your organization like that without blinking an eye. Haven’t you heard of honor?”

Omicron couldn’t see the peacekeeper’s face, but the shrug of nonchalance they gave told her all she needed to know about what they felt. 

Instead of saying anything more, the peacekeeper extended a hand as if to ask for a dance. After some thought, Omicron closed the distance between them and accepted the gesture. Acting on the unspoken pact, the peacekeeper shot them up into the skies in a whirl of wind and dust of glowing blue. 

The night rushed below them in pin streaks of yellows, reds, greens, and blues. Nothing left distinguishable—not the city lights that blurred into treetops, not the twisting roads that blurred into mountains. An endless smear of colors. 

Omicron wasn’t sure how long it was that they streamed across the sky but when the peacekeeper finally slowed their flight Omicron felt as if her cheeks were bitten numb. 

“There it is,” the peacekeeper said, nodding to the spec of white that now loomed below them. 

A couple of kilometers away from the direction the peacekeeper had indicated glowed a cluster of psychedelic vitae reservoirs, the light from which bled into the sky in a smoky aurora of color. 

“You peacekeepers really have desecrated it, haven’t you…” was all Omicron said. 

The wind rushing then lessened, and they began to descend. 

“Y’know, you probably wouldn’t even need my help sneaking in if you didn’t have that tattooed to your face.”

“Maybe a year ago, I could’ve,” Omicron agreed. “But I’ve heard that you’re starting to test people with a vitae spectrophotometer before they can even step inside.” Her eyes narrowed as the spec of white became more discernible with their nearing. “Pushing forward all these technological conductor developments without even understanding a thing. Pitiful.” She frowned. “As for the tattoo… It’s a symbol. So we won’t forget, so we’ll never turn back.” 

The peacekeeper snorted as they descended further. “Never forget? Now that’s ironic. Anyways, no need to sing poetry for me. Your stop is almost here.”

It was clear to see the building and all of its details now glowing white beneath them against the black of the night. 

“Hm, at least now you’ll be able to tear apart this world you hate so much,” the peacekeeper noted before adding: “Your welcome for that.”

“I’m not doing this because I hate this world,” Omicron muttered. “I’m doing this because I love it.”

With that, Omicron dropped down into—

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“No matter how hard I try, it just ends up being that I don’t have enough blood to bleed for this world.”

Omicron

7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. 

Several months prior, peacekeeping agent  Jericho was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing peacekeeping agent named Leona, future chairwoman of the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus. His investigation took him to the Twin Cities of Gemini alongside his assigned partner Talib Al-Jarrah where he encountered an ELPIS sect and an ELPIS leader Omicron who had been working with Atienna’s teacher Usian. After falling into a period of stasis after their clash, Jericho arrived in New Ram City to rescue Prince Olivier Chance from former peacekeeping agent Izsak Wtorek who was discovered to have been manipulated and indoctrinated into ELPIS. 

Upon Jericho’s return to Ophiuchus, he was introduced by Talib to Gabrielle Law and her inner circle which consisted of his psychiatrist Doctor Alice Kingsley, Agent Ferris Hart, and a handful of other peacekeeping agents. And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!” 

Jericho skidded to a halt as Talib’s voice echoed around the stucco alley walls.  He glanced up and found a paper crane enveloped in dark blue light racing over his head. He chased it down the opposite end of the alley and into the backdoor of what appeared to be a pastry shop. The pâtissiers that were within yelped and jumped backwards at his entrance sending a mist of flour into the air.

He ignored them and scanned the area. 

Floured counters, folded dough, piping bags gripped tightly in hands. 

There.

The origami paper crane was fluttering over the counter that divided the kitchen from the front of the store which was crowded with startled customers. The crane began to ring around a patron who was slowly backing away towards the door behind him. A young blonde man with bulging, vacant eyes.

Jericho threw himself across the counter towards the man. Instead of running out the door as Jericho had calculated, the man grabbed the closest patron—an old woman wearing a floral shawl—next to him with one gloved hand and held out the other hand haltingly to Jericho. When Jericho continued forward anyway, the man flicked his wrist. At the base of his gloved palms flashed brilliantly light that flickered from a pastel pink to a mint green. Telling signs. The light eventually solidified into a distinct shape. A gun. A Conjuror.

The other patrons were shouting and cowering now, but Jericho paid no mind. Instead, he studied the gun. It was misshapen and crooked like someone had melted it the forge of a conductor-manufacturing plant. Seeming to not care about its malformation, the Conjurer lifted the weapon and pressed it against the older woman’s temple. 

Without hesitation, the Conjuror moved his finger to the trigger. Without hesitation, Jericho kicked his foot out and knocked the gun right out of the Conjuror’s hand. The Conjuror did not hesitate again to conjure another weapon—a knife—and he released the old woman and charged at Jericho.

The man jerked forward strangely. Like a puppet on strings. It did not take much effort for Jericho to dodge the thrust of the man’s blade. And as Jericho lunged forward to knock it out of the man’s hand, he found that the blade too was misshapen, bent. Jericho swung his suitcase up and uppercut the Conjuror causing the man to lose his footing. Using the open opportunity, Jericho spun the man around and slammed him against the wall. One of the patrons screamed again.

Jericho reached for the suppression cuffs on his belt and slapped them onto the man’s wrists. The man immediately went slack and let out a groan. 

“What is your name?” Jericho asked as he held the Conjuror in place.

“Leize. I’m Leize. My name is Leize,” the Conjuror whispered, eyes wide, words hollow.  “That wasn’t me. I-It wasn’t. I saw. Not me.”

“You are okay, Leize,” Jericho said. “You will be treated by the Medical Department of Ophiuchus—”

“I’ve found the Manipulator!” This time Talib’s voice resounded much more closely. Just outside of the store. 

The paper crane had slipped beneath the door and was now hovering outside the store.

Jericho released the Conjuror who collapsed like a rag doll onto the floor. He stared at the man for a moment, regretting that he had not put him down more gently. He then addressed the older woman whom the Conjuror had previously held hostage: “Please watch this man. And do not take off the cuffs.” 

With that, Jericho burst out of the storefront following the fluttering paper crane through the busy streets of the Cancerian town. He blasted past the crepe stall that was pulled out on the side of the store and darted along the gray brick sidewalk. 

The crowd casually strolling along the pathway let out shrieks and parted. 

There. 

The only one who was running away from him. 

The Manipulator. A tall, blonde man wearing a dark blue suit. His escape was one full of clumsy stumbling with each step ending in a trip that he had to pick himself up from. Jericho was vaguely reminded of the drunk, swaggering man whom Cadence had played a round of poker with at a bar the last time they had synchronized. 

The distance between them closed swiftly. 

As Jericho neared him, however, the man abruptly whipped out a knife conductor and began swinging it wildly in an arc in his direction. Fortunately, the Manipulator’s erratic behavior earlier had already prompted people to stay as far away from him as possible. No complications. 

Ducking beneath the swing of the blade, Jericho swept his leg beneath the man’s feet causing the man to flop backwards onto his back.

Jericho pounced on the fallen Manipulator and held him there, squeezing the hand that wielded the knife conductor. There was a crack and the Manipulator released the weapon with a yelp.  Jericho placed a foot on the conductor and dragged it away from the man and slipped it into a slot on his belt. He then felt along his belt and then paused. 

Hm. 

He had forgotten to grab an additional suppression cuff from his suitcase which was for once not attached to his arm. 

What to do. 

Abruptly, however, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes had snapped to the back of his head and his tongue was lolling out from his mouth.

Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching him continue to contort almost as if having a seizure. Jericho knew this, of course, was not a seizure. Fact. This was penance. Justice. 

Talib Al-Jarrah joined him half a second later. He was panting heavily but brushed past Jericho to inspect the perpetrator. 

A sympathetic yet righteous look passed over Talib’s face before he knelt down to slap suppression cuffs on the man’s wrists. “What a fool.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Cancerian Manipulator was charged with five cases of illegal manipulation and conducting without a license. Four of the cases were women. They were treated by medical Conductors who managed to transmute most of the Manipulator’s vitae out from their bodies. They are in recovery. The same cannot be said for a charged suspect. It seems as if he’s suffering from the usual psychosis that results from living manipulation.” Rattling off the details of their latest closed case, Talib took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He clicked his tongue and shook his head, huffing, “This is why Manipulators have such a terrible reputation. Because of people like this man.”

“If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up not so much different than him,” Doctor Alice Kingsley said from beside him. She was eating a fruit salad from a plastic container and had paused to gesture at him with her fork. “Although with the way you are, I’m not sure it’d make a difference.”

“Ah, yes, Alice, your words are as sharp as a knife that cuts through the heart as always,” Talib said.  “Good. That’s how I know the Organization hasn’t gotten to you yet.” He pointed to her plastic fork. “But, if you continue using things like that then it’s only a matter of time. Don’t you know that’s how they’re able to move forward with their plans? They make small, subtle changes to your environment without you noticing. You think to yourself ‘oh yes, how convenient this disposable fork is,’ but in reality, that fork is a device they use to lower your guard—that’s how they get you. Ignorance is compliance!”

“It isn’t healthy to make blaise comments like that,” Alice returned, slowly inserting a piece of lettuce into her mouth with her fork. “You may eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.” 

“Who says that it’s fiction?” Talib rebutted before his voice became gravely: “The Organization is a very real threat, Alice. I’ve known since childhood that you were of a person of intelligence so it’s strange that you would openly deny their existence—unless it’s that you’re trying to get them to think that you don’t believe them which is quite ingenious—”

“For such a terrifying organization, Talib, why would they have such a common name as ‘Organization’? Assuming that they’re the megalomaniacs you’re painting them as then would they not choose a more eye-catching pseudonym?” 

“Well—” 

Jericho watched them go back and forth from the sofa across from him for a moment before he turned to study the others in the room. Ferris Hart from the Assignment Department was sitting to his left and was giving Talib a tired look. She had recently dyed her hair a bright popping blue, and Jericho still had yet to adjust to it. 

“Adjusting to new things takes time,” Alice had told him during one of their first sessions. “And a willingness to accept.”

Roberto Gonzalez, a middle-aged man of Leonian descent with dark curls and full cheeks, was sitting to Jericho’s right and puffing a v-cig. Roberto belonged to the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus. Although the man was only a general agent in the department, as Gabrielle put it, “he had the keenest eye in Ophiuchus.” Accordingly, Roberto was able to spot conjured or transmuted counterfeits of anything on the spot. He had even closed a case that made headlines in the papers recently. 

Although there was no seating chart in place that Jericho knew of, it always seemed as if they fell into the same seating arrangements whenever they had their lunch meetings in Gabrielle’s office. At the thought of Gabrielle, Jericho stared at the empty desk behind him. The dust piling up on the surface was unsightly.  

“Regardless of your beliefs, your Cancerian criminal was handed to me,” Alice said, waving off Talib mid-rant. “I’ve heard from the chairman above me that they may transfer you both to more specialized departments.” She locked eyes with Jericho as she said this. “And I put a good word in for you both despite my initial misgivings, so we are making progress.”

“Well, your report was nicely typed, Talib,” Roberto commended. He spoke very fast like he was in a rush, but he appeared very relaxed.  “Might get you a promotion up to maybe the fourth chair of the General Investigations Department. And with Gabe promoted to second chair last month, and Alice keeping it up as third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department, we might actually be getting somewhere finally.”

“Correction, Roberto,” Talib interjected, “I wasn’t the one who typed up the report. It was my partner here, Jericho.”

“The ELPIS guy? Really?” 

The guy who gets paid to play spot the difference? Really? 

“I’m not with ELPIS,” Jericho said. “It’s rude for you to say that.”

Roberto scoffed. “I still don’t get why Gabrielle roped you into this to begin with. She wants to create a big and good name for herself in order to head Ophiuchus, but she took you in. With a background like that, you’re bound to ruin her reputation.”

“Not many people know of my former association with ELPIS,” Jericho corrected. “Only the first chairmen of the departments and the executive of Ophiuchus know. And Alice. And you all.” And the other five. “I don’t use my conductor often.”

“Roberto, how could you say something like that?” Ferris interjected. “We’ve been working with him for months now and you can see how dedicated he is. I can’t believe you.”

“That’s not what you said when you found out the first time he used to be a part of ELPIS,” Roberta scoffed. “You told me you were scared of him.”

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

“Enough,” Alice said, putting her salad down on the island table. “Even though Gabrielle is away, we need to keep consistent with our work. There is no point in remaining in the same position. We all need to work to elevate our rankings, including you, Roberto—”

“Hey, I’m trying—”

“Yes, Roberto is merely being stagnated by the Organization’s machinations—”

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth. 

In the past couple of months, Jericho had found that his social circle had increased somewhat. The addition of Olivier, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to six. He was quite happy with his progress, although he could not inform Alice of it due to the group’s agreement of secrecy. Therefore when he was introduced by Talib to the individuals who were in Gabrielle’s inner circle, he supposed he had been something akin to ‘happy’ since Alice was able to see this progress. 

“What are you looking at?” Roberto huffed suddenly causing Jericho to realize he’d been staring at the man.

“Nothing,” Jericho replied, looking away in favor of staring at Alice’s salad. 

Jericho wondered if Roberto was someone who could even be considered a friend. He made a mental note to inquire Alice about it later. Or maybe Atienna or Cadence. 

That matter aside, other than Gabrielle herself, three other people who were a part of Gabrielle’s ‘inner circle’ were missing from the luncheon.  

The first was Moaerni, a man from Piscese who apparently knew Izsak and Gabrielle during the war. He worked in the Licensing Department and had a rather busy schedule. Cadence had tried several times to convince Jericho to “butter Moaerni up” so that Oliviercould more easily pass the State Conducting Exam. Jericho hadn’t understood what she’d meant but Werner, Atienna, and Olivier had all shut down the idea. 

Whenever Jericho would pass Moaerni in the hallways, the Piscese man would always give Jericho a wink and a small smile before rushing off to his next evaluation. Jericho would try his best to return the gesture. That was what their relationship amounted to. 

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta. 

Despite being apparently a significant part of Gabrielle’s operations, Elizabeta seldomly made her appearance. She was a Transmutationist in the Medical Department of Ophiuchus which was one of the busiest departments in the organization alongside General Investigations, Assignments, and Licensing. She was most likely preoccupied with her largest case. That of Izsak. 

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak. 

An Ophiuchian Conjuror originally from Taurus. Someone Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle respected. Someone Olivier was fond of. Someone who had been a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle. Someone who had tried to kill Olivier for being a True Conductor. Someone who had become a member of ELPIS. Correction, someone who had been manipulated via Manipulator into working with ELPIS. 

Needless to say, Wtorek Izsak was also a no show. 

The last no show was Flannery Caertas, but Jericho did not find her not being present unusual. She was not a peacekeeper by profession. And she apparently only swung by in their first meeting because she was well acquainted with Alice and Talib. Jericho was confused about the relation there, but he did not question it. “She’s the money bags,” Roberto had told him one day when he had been in one of his better moods. 

Their luncheon concluded half an hour later, and they all headed back to their respective departments within the Serpens Establishment. While on the way back to the General Investigations Department, Talib excused himself to the toilet leaving Jericho to stand out in the hall waiting for him.

“Traitor.”

At the sudden whisper that tickled the back of his neck, a sense of deja vu whipped through Jericho’s mind and something akin to a chill ran up his spine.  Jericho turned his head in the direction of the whisper but all he found was Ferris Hart.  

“Hey, Jericho,” she said when she approached him, “sorry if I startled you—”

“You did not startle me.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, okay. Uhm…what Roberto said earlier. I—”

“It is okay if you are afraid of me,” Jericho stated, offering her a thumbs up since it seemed customary and appropriate. “I won’t force you to change how you feel.”

Ferris looked sad when he said this, but he couldn’t understand why. 

***

His weekly session with Alice saw to them dissecting the contents of a small leather journal. 

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been adding drawings to the weekly journal entries I’ve been requiring you to write,” Alice noted, flipping through the journal in question. 

That was true. 

After Jericho’s incident in the Twin Cities several months prior, Alice had begun requiring him to detail his thoughts, feelings, and activities in weekly journal entries which she would later go over the following week. 

His first journal entry had read, “Given advice by C. Suggested to use Ophiuchian badge to get occasional free drinks. Informed C that I do not drink alcohol.” The next entry read: “Spoke with Doctor Kingsley. Spoke with Talib. A stated interest in my journal. Spoke with member of ELPIS Department. Denied requested information. Will try again later.”

Alice had not been pleased at these entries, although she voiced her interest in ‘C’ and ‘A’ and only seemed mildly put off when he declined to speak on them. 

The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. 

When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought.

It was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian Lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown and the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner had not been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”

Afterward, Atienna had taken interest in his drawings and had suggested that he continue them in his spare time as to “have something to take his mind off of things”. Maria had asked for him to draw all sorts of things. He was not sure if some of those things existed but tried to complete the requests anyway. Which landed him here with Alice squinting at a cat with bat wings.  

“I was told it was customary to ‘doodle’.” Jericho stared. “This is not what you wanted?”

“Why would you assume that?” Alice asked tersely. She leaned back in her chair with crossed arms. “What you’ve drawn here has told me more than what you’ve written and spoken about in all of our sessions.” For a moment, Jericho thought he saw her smile. “They’re nice, Jericho. Continue them. But I am curious as to what’s inspired them though.”

Praise? 

And then she stared at him with her piercing blue eyes. 

Again he found himself wondering if she could somehow hear his thoughts. Maybe, he thought, she would be able to pry the other five from his mind if she stared long enough. He couldn’t let that happen. He broke off eye contact and stared at the corner of her desk. 

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t mentioned ELPIS recently in your entries or in our sessions save for your recent interview with the ELPIS Department,” Alice drew suddenly. “What are your thoughts on Wtorek Izsak’s condition?”

“The Medical Department says that it is complex. The manipulation. They’re having a hard time transmuting the Manipulator’s vitae from Izsak. Elizabeta would know more about this than me.” 

“Yes, that’s what they say.” Alice raised her head.  “And Elizabeta is only able to perform transmutations along the guidelines that they’ve provided her with. She’s told me that it’s been difficult to even do that.” She began tapping her fingers on the surface of her desk, her manicured nails click-clacking. “You’ve seen how suppression cuffs affect individuals who have been manipulated firsthand, Jericho.”

Recalling Leize’s groaning and stuttering, Jericho nodded. “Yes.”

“This detail hasn’t been released yet but Elizabeta has told me that the suppression cuffs render Izsak fully unconscious.” She shook her head. “And that implies that Izsak isn’t under such manipulation—something that Elizabeta refuses to believe…. As much as I believe in Izsak’s character, these are the facts. But there is something missing. The head of the Medical Department is still labeling this as a Manipulation case despite everything. Something here isn’t fitting. I don’t like it.”

“Is that something Talib has said?”

Alice frowned. “Don’t insult me, Jericho.” 

Jericho stiffened under her gaze. 

But then she shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose before reclining back in her seat with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.” She handed Jericho his journal back before reaching under her desk to pull out a leather, diamond-studded handbag. “Continue your journal entries, Jericho. And feel free to leave whenever you’re ready.” 

Jericho accepted the journal.

Alice paused before him as she rounded the desk and seemed to evaluate him in the silence. After a beat, she said, “Elizabeta asked me to invite you to come down to the Black Constellation Center to visit Izsak.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Why? I wasn’t close to Wtorek Izsak.”

Olivier was. 

“I’m surprised you’re not more interested in it to begin with given your goal,” Alice returned after studying Jericho for a beat. She then sighed: “Elizabeta’s being selfish most likely. I wasn’t going to even mention it. But given your recent journal entries, I thought it might be a good exercise. I’m also curious about it myself so I can’t deny I have a reason either”

Jericho thought on it for a moment. “For you Alice, okay. Izsak is not a real member of ELPIS but since he is being used by them, I will assist.” 

Offering either a hum of approval of a sigh of disapproval, Alice departed from the office leaving Jericho in silence. 

“Traitor.”

This time the whisper ghosted Jericho’s ear. When he turned his head, however, he only saw the awards and certificates dotting Alice’s wall. 

A ghost of a memory? The blur between reality and past illusions hadn’t been happening in a while. What was it that Alice had said? Focus on a single point. 

Jericho focused on a point on the wall. It was painted white, he realized. 

White. ELPIS. 

He wasn’t forgetting, was he? Forgetting ELPIS? Forgetting what they’d done? Forgetting that feeling? 

He gripped the journal tightly, crinkling the pages beneath his fingernails. 

No. He would never forget. His reason for being. 

Suppression cuffs are a newly added addition of required equipment to be carried by Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents at all times. These items will suppress the vitae flow within a suspect who is capable of using a conductor and will render them unconscious. Going forth, each agent is to carry at least two suppression cuffs while out on investigations at all times.

Additional information: The discovery of these devices was made by Agent Leona of the ELPIS Investigations Department, and they have been tested thoroughly. Usage on victims being illegally manipulated will suppress the Manipulator’s vitae and allow the victim to operate at a somewhat normal capacity until the Manipulator’s vitae is removed. 

Mass Department Update posted in the main hall of the Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus, Post Date: 31.08.1941

7.5: Atienna’s Journey (Soggiorno)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred.

Former chieftain’s daughter of the Imamu Tribe, Atienna Imamu’ lives in the country of Virgo which has existed in a state of isolation for many years following the Reservoir War. Her mother was a prominent political figure during this time but was gravely injured during one of her demonstrations which left Atienna fraying between right and wrong, correct and incorrect. She has skirted this line this by averting her eyes from unpleasant things and then beating out her frusterations in the fighting ring known as the Night Circle. However, upon witnessing her former teacher Usian’s machinations and manipulations of her younger brother Bachiru to incite a revolution, Atienna moves forward and crushes—quite literally—Usian’s attempts. Ultimately, however, she is left with the decision to follow through on Usian’s desires or to return to the way things were before. A choice is made, and Virgo begins to peel out of its isolation. Atienna vows to continue on in her mother’s footsteps and reach out to the world as well.

Whether this is the correct choice is…

Zatmeniye Mountain Range, Aquarius

“Saint’s! Stupid! V-ehicle!”

Atienna peered over her book into the front seat of the v-ehicle. The driver’s seat was empty, but the seat beside it was occupied by a man with an unreadable expression. Unreadable, because his bald head was wrapped around numerous times with a colorful bright blue scarf and because another scarf hugged the lower half of his face. Atienna turned to the woman sitting beside her. She too was wrapped in a shawl of many layers and was peering down at a book through her glasses. The lenses were fogged up by the breath captured in her makeshift scarf mask.

“I’m sure Sefu can handle it,” the woman replied to Atienna’s unasked question.

Atienna considered this for a moment before she tried slowly, “I suppose I’ll keep him company then…” With that, Atienna closed her book and set it down gently

Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill with a shiver and pulled her blanket closer around her shoulders as she stepped outside of the v-ehicle. The frost nipped at her nose, and the cold brought tears to her eyes—tears that soon iced over and crystallized on her lashes. She wiped them away with the back of her mittened hand and stared out into the dawning brightness.

Everything was white—the mountainous mounds of shoveled snow that formed a short wall on either side of the road, the evergreen trees that poked up in between those mounds, and even the v-ehicle she had just stepped out of. Well, rather than being buried by a layer of the whiteness from on top, the v-ehicle was buried from the bottom. To be exact, its wheels had become one with the ground. It appeared as if the snow had melted somewhat around the rims due to the heat from them initially, but the water had frozen over again once the temperature had dropped encasing the entire thing in ice.

A tightly bundled, unrecognizable Sefu was pounding down on that ice with the butt of his conducting spear. He continued to pound and pound, seeming to not notice her presence. Abruptly, he let loose an agitated sigh before turning the spear around and slamming its bottom into the ground. He then began to mutter under his breath. A prayer. After letting out a quiet sigh, he whipped his spear around again and pointed its tip at the encasement of ice. The tip began to glow a bright yellow.

“Sefu…. I wonder if that’s a good idea.”

Sefu startled and quickly flipped his spear behind his back. “Miss Atienna—I—”

“Before you move onto that,” Atienna said, drifting to the front of the car, “maybe we should try checking to see if the engine conductor is still in working order? It was making strange sounds earlier. I wonder if something’s wrong with it…”

Sefu stiffened before he stumbled over the snow ruts to the front of the car. He popped the hood and stared. Atienna followed along after him while reaching out to Olive. It took several tries, but she managed to synchronize with him strongly enough for his physical form to appear before her eyes.

“I think it looks fine,” Sefu said, looking down at the device.

Olive shook his head, shivering slightly. The cold cracked the conducting core. There’s no saving it once it’s cracked like that. He gave Sefu a side-eye. Maybe in some fantasy universe you can still use it.

Atienna relayed this information to Sefu—minus the last part—and thanked Olive who mumbled an incoherent thought before disappearing from her sight.

“You cannot be serious…” Sefu stared at the generator conductor listlessly before staring past it towards the stretch of white road behind them. The tracks their v-ehicle had made were already filled in by the snow.

The doors to the v-ehicle opened, and the man sitting at the front of the car and the woman sitting at the back stepped out with a crunch, crunch onto the snow.

“So for all of that praise for the functionality of these v-ehicles,” the now shivering man said, pulling out a long spear conductor from the v-ehicle and fastening it to his back, “they cannot even endure a short journey.”

“Enough, Kabal,” the woman with the reading glasses replied, shrugging her garments closer to her body. “Miss Imamu, what is the nearest town?”

Atienna pulled out a map from the satchel that hung at her waist. Out with it came an envelope that fell onto the snow. In a panic, she picked it up, checked it for damages, and with a relieved sigh placed it back into her satchel. She then inspected the map—

“The nearest town is about eight kilometers away. Vlatgrad. We should be able to reach it if we continue north from here.” She folded the map back into her satchel and began to recall the details of the book she had been reading in the v-ehicle. “It’s a mining town. They speak both Aquarian and Common, so communication shouldn’t be an issue.” She chuckled lightly. “Although, I cannot say the same for hospitality…”

“Well, we’ll just have to convince them to be hospitable,” the woman returned.

The woman was named Chiamaka, and she was of the Maneo Tribe. She was a member of the chieftain’s family of that tribe and had spent her younger years before the war studying social sciences and diplomacy. Her focus was on the governments and politics of the countries of south-eastern Signum which included Aquarius and Pisces. For this reason, she was chosen to act as the diplomat to those countries following Virgo’s slow return from isolation.

That was where they were headed. A tripartite diplomatic meeting between Pisces, Aquarius, and Virgo. A formality of sorts. A prelude to open up better relations between their three countries.

Kabal—currently polishing his spear conductor while still grumbling about v-ehicles—was a royal guard of the Maneo Tribe and was accompanying Chiamaka on this journey as her protector. He was a man of few words, and he never minced them.

Sefu was here to guard Atienna herself which she found a bit strange as her family was no longer considered the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe. Therefore Sefu, being a member of the royal guards strictly serving the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe, had no need to protect her any longer. And yet here he was. Curious.

And Atienna’s own purpose here? It was not diplomacy, that was certain. Her purpose was not as impressive as that. But a purpose was a purpose.

“Well, Miss Imamu,” Chiamaka said, peering at Atienna through her glasses as if evaluating her, “you are my advisor for Aquarius, are you not? So please do advise us on the way.”

Atienna bowed her head and—after they gathered what they could carry from the v-ehicle—started them along the path north.

It was a strange sensation—feeling the heat from her extraneous movements piling up inside her chest yet feeling the biting cold whip at her cheeks and limbs. Despite her sweating, she knew that the moment she pulled her hood down, she’d be bitten senseless by the whipping winds.

She glanced up when she noticed white specs floating down from the gray sky. More snowflakes.

She had never seen snow before. Not even from Werner’s or Maria’s side. It seemed as if their memories of such things had yet to make their way down to her. For this reason, she found this detour rather lovely.

It was a bit surreal. The quietness. The expanse of white. She imagined herself lying flat on the snow and staring up at the sky as they walked on. Absolute stillness. A spec in the middle of everything. Peaceful. The insignificance of herself if she were in that moment—comforting.

“How. Do. Aquarians,” Sefu panted suddenly from in front of her, each step making his voice breathier than the last. “Live. Like. This.”

Atienna chuckled. “Is it really that awful, Sefu?” She extended a mittened hand to catch one of the snowflakes and inspect its intricacies before it began to melt with her breath. “Was it not you who said there is beauty in everything when you requested that we stop by that Aquarian customized conductor store?”

“It was an exaggeration,” Sefu said, teeth clacking.

Atienna hummed. Sefu might think it awful, but to her it was—

“A-absolutely astounding!”

Atienna tensed and turned her head in the direction of the exclamation. Sefu whipped out his spear conductor as did Kabal. Atienna exchanged a look with Chiamaka before Chiamaka signaled for the men to lower their weapons.

“Hello?” Atienna tentatively called out as she advanced towards the direction the sound had come from—a mound of snow that rose up in-between a cluster of pine trees alongside the road.

“Bonjour!” came a muffled voice from within the mound. “Who’s there?”

Atienna stared for a moment before she rushed forward and began digging at the snow pile. She was soon joined by Sefu and Kabal, and she stepped back in order to allow them to pick at the snow with the butt of their conductors. Slowly they began chipping away at the whiteness layer-by-layer until the petite face of a young woman with caramel brown eyes and wispy pale blonde hair frozen to her cheeks became revealed to them.

After blinking away the snow clinging to her long lashes, the woman looked at Sefu, then at Kabal, and then directly at Atienna. She did not appear to be very alarmed by her predicament, beaming at them as she spoke, “Oh, hello there! Are you tourists too? Here to see the infamous Tonkaya Liniya Lights or maybe the Zatmeniye caverns?”

Sefu and Kabal exchanged looks, obviously hesitant to continue their unburial.

“Are… are you okay?” Atienna tried.

“Oh, I’m spectacular!” the woman exclaimed. “This Aquarian rejuvenating technique is really something else. You should try it. It’s supposed to do wonders for your skin!”

Atienna took a moment to digest this information before she smiled gently. “Ah, yes, I’ve heard very good things about those techniques. Although I’ve also heard that it’s recommended that a person only submerges themselves in the cold for fifteen-minute increments. Is this perhaps a new method?”

“Well, yes, fifteen minutes would rejuvenate you, so if you bury yourself for an even longer amount of time it will extra rejuvenate you,” the woman said matter-of-factually, her Cancerian accent coming out in her Common. “I have heard that if you do this often enough, you can practically look young forever!” The woman tried to nod in affirmation, but the snow packed around her head acted as a cage.

Sefu crossed his arms over his conductor. “Well, eternally young in death maybe—”

The blonde woman’s delicate brows rose, and her eyes darted from left to right. “D-Death? W-Why are you saying death? This isn’t dangerous, is it?” Before anyone could respond, the woman began to wiggle in place. The snow packed around her pulsated and cracked.

“Wait—”

The Cancerian woman burst out from the snow pile in a flurry of white and landed on top of Atienna in a tangle of limbs and a bundle of fur.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that!” the woman exclaimed as she pried herself off Atienna and helped pull her up to a stand. Before Atienna could get another word in, however, the woman began to walk around her in circles. “Your clothing is so pretty! Where did you get that from? Is it Aquarian?”

Atienna smiled pleasantly. “It’s Virgoan silk. But I have to say, your clothing is just as marvel worthy as mine.”

The woman was bundled up head to toe in numerous fur accessories. A black Aquarian ushanka topped her head, and several leather fur-lined coats of numerous shades were thrown over her shoulders. Beneath it all, she wore a pair of bright red leather boots that hugged her legs all the way up to her knees.

“Thank you! I—” The odd woman abruptly snapped her mouth shut and pulled back. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been so rude.” She put a hand to her cheek before extending it out to Atienna. “My name Louise Beaumont. I’m a tourist from Cancer.”

Atienna accepted the gesture, more amused than confused. “Atienna Imamu. I’m an advisor from Virgo.”

“An advisor?” Louise studied her for a moment. “You must have loads of knowledge then. Could you possibly spare me some advice?”

It took a moment for Atienna to realize what Louise had misunderstood.

“Here is some advice, miss,” Sefu said from behind her. “It is dangerous for someone to be trekking here by themselves.”

“Oh, I’m not by myself. I am never alone,” Louise responded, before digging into the folds of her coats and pulling out two perfectly round red apples. “When you have food, you’re never alone!”

What an… interesting perspective, Atienna mused.

A screws-loose perspective.

Chiamaka and Kabal regarded the Cancerian with expressions that seemed to coincide with the previous line of thought. Sefu, on the other hand, was salivating. Louise noticed him and offered an apple to Sefu without a thought. Also without a thought, Sefu accepted it graciously.

“But now that you mention it…” Louise trailed off as she watched Sefu devour the apple in two large bites. “I think I am a bit lost. It’s just that I keep seeing all of these wonderful things and—oh, well—getting distracted.” She looked around. “I swear just a minute ago I was near the city…”

Chiamaka spoke suddenly from behind them, “We’re headed to Vlatgrad. It’s a nearby village. They do speak Common, so I’m sure they’ll be able to point you in whatever direction you’re looking for.”

Louise glanced past Atienna, stared at Chiamaka, and then brightened. “Are you sure? Would you be so kind?”

“Accompanying us would make both of our journeys more bearable, don’t you think?” Atienna offered.

***

They continued their trek onwards, their group having increased from four to five. The snow that had been sprinkling down lightly from the sky at the beginning of the day began to pelt harder as they continued further. The white coldness crept upon them slowly and soon they were consumed by the flurry. The howling winds and whips of icey hail and snow that burst out from nowhere made it impossible for Atienna to see more than a meter in front of her face.

Atienna quickly advised for them to walk forward holding hands in a chain in order to not lose sight of one another. Through the storm they continued on, gripping each other like lifelines, with Sefu at the head and Kabal at the tail. Atienna herself was sandwiched in between Chiamaka and Louise.

“I see something!” Sefu shouted after what had seemed like an eternity. “It looks like a cave! We could take refuge!”

“I’ve never been in a cave before!” Louise exclaimed.

Atienna turned her head to find Louise smiling steadily behind her. She faced forward again and found Chiamaka frowning backwards. After offering Chiamaka a smile of reassurance she doubted the woman could see, Atienna squinted past her and into the storm.

A mouth of blackness loomed like a monolith in front of them. It was so large and towering that Atienna couldn’t help but imagine that it was the mouth of a giant waiting to swallow them up. The icicles that lined the ceiling of the cave and the ground floor almost resembled jagged teeth.

As soon as they stepped within the vicinity of the cave, the howling deafened and became replaced by the echoing tap, tap of their footsteps. The cold left them as well, and Atienna was able to peel down her hood to inspect the cave further. Large ice stalactites hung low from the ceiling with some even extending all the way to the ground. Ice draperies crisscrossed in between them, while below them grew pale bluish-white stalagmites. The back of the cave was pitch black and seemed to extend forever into emptiness.

But, there was light. In the far-left corner of the cave behind a cluster of flowstone and stalagmites glowed orange warmth. Atienna and her group exchanged looks before they rounded the cluster of stone structures to investigate.

A fire crackled there just behind the rock formations. And huddling around that fire was a party of eight people.

It wasn’t one large party—Atienna realized this upon closer inspection. Rather, it was a collection of smaller groups that were distinguishable from one another by their members’ clothing. There were two groups total.

The first consisted of three women and two men dressed in fur coats and fur caps. The firelight made their pale skin glow white and gave their angular faces an accented look. Aquarians.

The second group consisted of two women and one man who were all draped in thick, leather hooded cloaks. Their sun-kissed cheeks were an almost frost-bitten red, and their bare forearms were inked with dark, swirling tattoos. Piscese.

Oh? What a strange coincidence.

“It can’t be—are you the diplomats from Virgo?” one of the fur coat-wearing women murmured.

Chiamaka stepped forward and pulled down the scarf obscuring her mouth. “I am Chiamaka of the Maneo Tribe of Virgo. I am here for the southeastern tripartite meeting.”

“This must be fate,” one of the women dressed in the thick leather cloaks said in lightly-accented Common as she lowered her hood. Her dark curls popped out from beneath it and framed her round cheeks that were marked with black ink. She closed the distance between their two groups. “I am Moana of Pisces. I am the diplomat here to discuss improving relations between our countries.” She gestured to the man and then to the woman behind her who were also dressed in thick leather cloaks. “With me are my advisors Kalama and my guard Afu.” She then extended her hand out to Chiamaka. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Chiamaka accepted the handshake firmly. “And I you, Moana.”

One of the Aquarian men dressed in fur coats stepped forward, removing his gloves and extending a hand in Chiamaka’s direction. He had gunmetal blue eyes, a narrow nose, and wispy hair curling out from his hat. His fur coat was a vibrant blue color that served as a startling contrast to the dull brown coats of his Aquarian companions.

“I am Alexei Andrei,” the man said in Common, and there was barely an accent in his words. “I’m the diplomat representing Aquarius. I thought that this storm would put off our meeting, but it looks like it’s brought our meeting to an earlier time instead.” He chuckled good-nature day.

Another man wearing a fur coat joined Alexei’s side, whipped off his fur hat, and dusted it before nodding curtly at them. He was a head or so taller than Alexei, and his gaze was rather unfriendly.

“You’re…” Atienna trailed off as she registered his features.

Nikita Knovak. The Aquarian sergeant whom Werner had captured along the Aquarian-Capricornian border four months prior. So he was still alive.

Knovak arched a brow. “Yes? I am Nikita Knovak. Sergeant. Just here to make sure no harm for Yulia or Alexei. Nice to meet you.” He remained stiff, did not offer a hand nor inclined his head.

Yulia?

The three women of the Aquarian group stepped forward next.

One of them stood as tall as Knovak and had almost skeleton-like features: high arched brows, high cheekbones, and a high nose. “I am Yulia Kriska. I am Alexei’s secretary and will be recording everything that will be spoken at the meeting.” Her voice was razor-sharp, nasally, and her words—

—well, they almost sounded like a threat. Atienna supposed that words could be a reasonable weapon of choice. Words were powerful, after all—and even more powerful when one used another’s own words against them. A secretary was quite a terrifying thing in that perspective.

“I am Alexei’s advisor.” The woman who stood to Yulia’s left smiled gently as she introduced herself. Even though most of her features were obscured by her fur clothing, Atienna could tell that she was quite beautiful. The black curls that popped out from her fur cap framed her pale face, and the bright red lipstick she wore brought out the fullness of her lips. Atienna couldn’t help but think that something about this woman reminded her of Cadence’s Alma. “My name is Cvetka Akulova. ”

Their eyes met and Atienna offered her a small smile. Cvetka returned the gesture and lowered her gaze.

“Sigurd,” the last Aquarian woman introduced herself. “Yulia and Cvetka’s guard also.”

Sigurd was the shortest one in the entire Aquarian group—although she was still taller than any in the Piscese group—and was also the only one in the Aquarian group who was not wearing a fur cap. Her light blonde hair was tied up into a bun, her eyes an ice blue, and her nose hooked and prominent.

“Oh, don’t undersell yourself, Sigurd,” Alexei said with a light chuckle. “Sigurd here is from one of Aquarius’s special administrative regions. They operate under us, albeit a bit independently, so you’re in for a rare treat. She was born and raised in one of the mountainous tribes…. Which mountain was it? Valdol?”

“Valholl,” Sigurd corrected flatly.

There was tension there. How unpleasant.

“Could it be that you’re from the Valkyrja Tribe?” Atienna interjected with a polite smile. “That is the main tribe that resides in the Valholl mountain rage, right?”

“Yes, I am from the Valkyrja Tribe,” Sigurd answered. She studied Atienna for a moment before crossing her arms and looking away. “That is my home.”

“T-That’s impressive,” Cvetka said after a beat, biting her red lips and tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear. “Not a lot of people know about our native special administrative territories. And when they do, they tend to only pay attention to our seaside ones.”

“Thank you for the compliment, but I honestly only know about that because I am serving as Miss Chiamaka’s advisor,” Atienna explained genially. “I’m Atienna Imamu.”

“Oh, I see.” Cvetka smiled with her eyes. “Well, I hope we can learn a lot from each other then.”

Sefu and Kabal introduced themselves next, and with that the formalities concluded.

“Well, I hope you’ve all brought sleeping bags,” Alexei said good-naturedly after a beat of silence. “The storms in this region can last for quite some time.” He glanced at Chiamaka. “And by any chance, would you have brought any food—”

“It’s all right! There’s no need to worry about the food!” Louise pipped suddenly from behind Atienna.

Everyone turned to stare at her.

Unperturbed, Louise reached into the folds of her coat and pulled out a bag of what appeared to be oats with her left hand and a bag of apples with her right hand. “I’m always prepared for situations like these! That’s what extreme tourism is all about!”

“And who is this?” Yulia asked plainly.

“She is a Cancerian tourist,” Chiamaka explained. “We found her wandering around these parts and offered to guide her to the nearest village. Unfortunately, it appears that we’ve led her more astray than anything else.”

“Nonsense.” Alexei waved a dismissive hand. “These storms make even the most coldblooded in our country lose their heads.” He gestured to all of them. “Besides, this has worked out quite well. Call me a foolish optimist but I find this storm more a blessing than a curse—now, would one of you happen to know how to cook?”

***

That night dinner was a sweet porridge of oats, fruits, and nuts.

It was rather startling to see how much food Louise was able to carry inside of her coats. Atienna couldn’t help but think that the woman had magical, bottomless pockets. In fact, Sefu had started looking at Louise rather reverently—almost as if she were some mystical creature not of this earth. Regardless of Sefu’s admiration, however, he still taste-tested everything Atienna ate. Kabal, witnessing Sefu’s behavior, mimicked it in regard to Chiamaka’s food.

“No,” Atienna heard Cvetka whisper to Alexei, “it is not tradition.”

When dinner was over, Yulia, Chiamaka, and Moana checked out early for the night after formal plans were made by the diplomats to initiate the beginnings of negotiations the following morning. Knovak, Kabal, and Afu held to their duties as guards responsibly and followed on after them. This left Alexei, Cvetka, Sigurd, Kalama, Louise, Sefu, and Atienna to speak amongst themselves. They were using the rock formations that grew around the fire as makeshift seats, and the atmosphere felt more like that of a friendly dinner party than anything else.

They spoke mostly about themselves. Nothing of politics.

A relief, came an intrusive thought.

Alexei started the autobiographical conversation by informing them that he had grown up in a rather impoverished region of Aquarius. Although he received food rations from the government at the time, the Reservoir War had brought with it constant shortages so the rations shrank every week. He received a shining opportunity when the war ended, and the government began seeking out individuals with a strong background in foreign relations and social sciences moving forward—which just so happened to be his area of study when he’d been in school.

He received an admirable “wow, amazing!” from Louise who then explained that she was an extreme tourist who was seeking all the world’s wonders. She listed off all the places she’d been to before which left Atienna feeling rather dizzy, impressed, and wistful.

The Piscese advisor Kalama chattered her way through her origin story but only managed to get halfway through it before she flushed profusely and apologized for stuttering, chattering, and stammering. Alexei offered her his thick fur coat and cap with words of reassurance, and she accepted both graciously.

‘A charming man,’ an outsider would think. But this too was a formality, wasn’t it? The kindness, the generosity. If circumstances were different, if this were not a meeting of diplomacy, would he be so generous? Whether that was right or wrong was up to perspective still.

Atienna refrained from speaking about herself and merely kept to the background. Sigurd kept her history confidential as well, although Louise’s persistence made her divulge that she was an Elementalist Conductor.

“How long do you think this storm will last?” Sefu asked after a pause of silence.

“Maybe several days,” Sigurd answered. “When they come without warning, they last for a longer time.”

Atienna saw Sefu smile slightly out of the corner of her eye. Ah, could it be that Sefu saw this as a vacation of sorts?

Many productive things could be completed within that time frame.

Atienna pondered this thought before politely excusing herself to the restroom.

Instead of heading to the area they had designated as the bathroom, however, Atienna strayed further into the back of the cave. It wasn’t on a whim that she did it, really. Part of her had been thinking about peeling away from the dinner group during the entire discussion. Avoidance, discomfort, exhaustion—perhaps, a mixture of all three. One step forward and another step backward. A dance to some, lack of progress to others. Hm.

Atienna sighed and glanced behind her in the direction of their campfire. While its glow hurt her eyes even from this distance, its warmth did not reach her. Shivering, Atienna considered heading back. But then something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Something on the cavern walls.

Atienna froze and stared.

For a moment, she thought it was the opening to a passageway that was on the wall—it was rectangular, black, and just the right size for someone to slip through. The discordance of the sight threw her in for a loop. Upon closer inspection, however, Atienna came to realize that it was a painting. A painting of a rectangular-shaped passageway done in black.

How interesting.

Atienna approached the wall slowly, extending a hand out to touch its surface. She recalled reading about these things somewhere, although she couldn’t quite remember where.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Atienna startled and turned. It was Cvetka, the Aquarian advisor. The woman was quietly inspecting the dark painting on the wall a meter or so away from her. Curious—Atienna hadn’t even noticed her.

Atienna hummed and tapped her cheek. “Yes, I’ve read that these paintings are very common in the caves of Aquarius. They date back to before Signum was split into thirteen countries, right? Wonderfully mysterious, don’t you think?”

“I see that you really do know everything,” Cvetka said after a pause.

Atienna lowered her hand, looking away. “Oh, I wish I did.”

“Really?” Cvetka reached out and traced the edge of the painted door. “I think not knowing is the best thing in the world.”

“That’s an interesting viewpoint for an advisor,” Atienna noted with a smile. “Unless you are referring to surprises.”

“Oh?” Cvetka glanced at Atienna before she chuckled lightly. “You are quite the teaser,” she said. “But I’m talking about ignorance. What is that Common saying? It escapes me…”

“Ignorance is bliss?”

“Yes.” Cvetka pulled away from the wall. “Well, ‘ignorance avoids disappointment’ is a better way to say it, I think. It’d be nice if we could live in a world where we could ignore everyone outside of us. It’d be peaceful. But that’s not possible—they say human beings are social creatures—so I guess that’s what diplomacy is for.” Pausing, she flushed and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Sorry, sometimes I talk without really knowing what I’m saying…”

Atienna wondered about both things—the former monologue and the latter statement. A line of thought akin to Atienna’s own. How unpleasant…

“You’re very well-spoken for not knowing what you are saying,” Atienna drew with a soft chuckle, “but speaking of avoidance, is it possible that we came here for the same reason?”

Cvetka flushed deeper. “Guilty as charged…”

“It is a lot—meeting everyone at once…” Atienna glanced back to the glow of their camp and then whispered quietly, “I don’t think I remember half of their names…”

“Oh—good—I thought I was the only one who had a hard time keeping up.” Cvetka sighed. “I’m just relieved that I’m not the only who thinks that way.” She wrapped her arms around her waist and offered a small smile. “Well, I’m going to try sneaking off to bed then.” She inclined her head. “It was nice speaking with you, Miss Imamu.”

Atienna bowed her head deeply in acknowledgment. “And I you, Miss Akulova.”

Atienna watched the woman go for a moment before turning her attention back to the cave painting. Why of all things would they paint this peculiar shape, she wondered. After a bit more wonder, she decided that she should get some rest too and headed back to the camp.

She found a spot for herself close to the fire beside a sleeping Chiamaka and a somewhat dozing Kabal who were both spread out on thick blankets. She reached into her satchel, pulled out a blanket of her own, and spread it across the ground.

So how are you doing, Werner? Atienna thought as she laid on her makeshift bed. I thought you’d unsynchronized after making that comment at dinner, but you’re still there, aren’t you?

“I apologize for intruding, Atienna,” came Werner’s voice from beside her. His image appeared before her standing. Their synchronization was strong enough for her to see that he was currently sitting in a train compartment. Bound for the Twin Cities. “It was not my intention.”

I don’t view it as an intrusion. It’s nice to have company you can speak to without putting up a front, don’t you think? Atienna returned. I enjoy our talks, Werner.

There was a pause.

They are informative. Another pause. And pleasant.

It looks as if things are picking up for all of us, don’t you think? Atienna thought. I’m worried for what’s happening on Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Olive’s end of things. And, of course, there’s you…

I’ve already warned Maria. Cadence will be fine if she doesn’t involve herself in things that she doesn’t need to be involved in.

—which Cadence normally did. Never taking risks unless a large enough benefit was involved. But that was just another way to live, Atienna supposed.

And Olive? Atienna pondered.

He is skirting responsibility.

His intentions were well-meaning Werner, Atienna tried. He just wanted help, and he probably did what he thought was best. And… how should I say this… Olive isn’t very… combat pragmatic, so perhaps his decision was…

Intentions are intangible, Werner answered. Actions are. He seemed to sigh internally but his expression remained stolid. I’m not blind to the fact that his split-second decision-making was commendable. He did not freeze. As for the retreat… I must admit it was the proper course of action for him logically. Regardless.

So, perhaps all Werner wanted was an apology regarding the override? It was a bit of a childish wish, and Atienna could not help but smile slightly at the thought of it. It humanized him a bit.

Well, at least in all of this you were able to get a vacation from the front.

“It is not a vacation,” Werner insisted coolly, glancing into the flickering flames of the fire.

Atienna covered her smile with her hand but knew Werner had seen it already.

“If you’re going to rest, I advise you to insulate yourself better,” Werner said, turning away from her. “Many people have died in their sleep from cold exposure.”

“Hypothermia, paradoxical undressing, and cardiac arrest,” Atienna whispered. “The world is quite a frightening place, Werner. And that’s without people.”

Werner turned back to her, unsurprised. “That is correct.”

Atienna reached into her satchel and pulled out another bundle of blankets. She spied that envelope inside as well but averted her eyes from it. Instead, she buried herself in a makeshift fort of blankets and let out a sigh before she closed her eyes.

Good night, Werner.

There was a long beat of silence.

“Good night, Atienna.”

***

When Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill the next day, the first thing she noticed was that the ground was wet—so wet that her makeshift bed was crusted with the cold ice. There was a steady drip, drip, drip from somewhere. Perhaps, one of the ice formations that draped across the cave ceiling was melting. That was Atienna’s first thought.

But then she smelled iron. It was a familiar scent. And as she struggled into consciousness in the cold, she half-dreamt for a moment that she was back in the Night Circle. In the ring, standing against another opponent, fingers itching for more. Adrenaline shot through her veins, and she snapped up in her bed.

The dimming embers of the fire glowed before her and informed her of her reality. She shivered, rubbing her arms, and then went rigid. There was a red substance soaked into her blankets, leaking in from a stream of red that led to a puddle of red to her left.

Atienna turned her head slowly as she continued to follow the trail of crimson and then she felt her breath hitch.

Kalama, the Piscese advisor, laid beside her still bundled up in Alexei’s bright blue fur coat. Her eyes were wide, her lips blue, her skin an unnatural shade of ash. At the center of her chest—at the center of all that blur dyed fur—was a crystalline formation of red that erupted like a flower from the center of her chest.

Aquarius is a large southeastern country in Signum. It is, in fact, the largest country of Signum and is home to several specially governed semi-independent states categorized as either mountainous tribes or seaside tribes. Due to its large size, it also hosts the greatest number of vitae reservoirs out of all of Signum. Although the area around such vitae reservoirs experience high-levels of almost eutrophic growth, Aquarius itself is a cold country holding a record-breaking temperature of -26 degrees Celsius on  January 3rd, 1921. Its southeastern beaches are considered tourist attractions. 

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition