22.3: The Soldier & The Black Orden.

Re-cap:

Werner was invaded by the Saint Candidate of Scorpio. Following his infection, he was thrown to threshold of life and death while the other five took his place. At the threshold, he was tortured by Scorpio to near breaking point. However, in the threshold he also found Lavi who was revealed to be Aries and the forgotten Shion Myosotis who was a former True Conductor in their circle. After recalling what he truly wanted, Werner grasped the role of protector and returned to the surface.

At the final hour, the Kaiser was executed by Verbundene Augen leader Marionette Engel who was soon executed herself.

As Capricorn enters a period of recovery and demilitarization, Werner… 


William Saovàng, First Chairman of the Reservoir Conservation Department
Motto: “I’m busy! Stop asking me for my motto already.”

Captain Werner Waltz always started his mornings by going over the 7-day itinerary he composed at the beginning of each week. 

One, seven days a week, 0430 hours: awaken. 

Most nights he slept in his office located in the Mueller Building in the Military District-turned-Resources District to cut transportation time: the apartment the capital had provided him was more than halfway across the city. It was not difficult to wake up at the exact second and hour as he rarely had dreams to tie him to slumber. 

Immediately after awakening, he would head out of his office to freshen up at the overly-furnished bathhouse installed within the office building. At this early hour, Atienna and Jericho were usually the only ones awake—although they were distant and far off in a fog. Due to this fog, greetings were difficult, so Werner always scheduled them for later in the day. 

Two, seven days a week, 0450 hours: begin his morning exercises in his office. 

These exercises included the following: a set number of push-ups, sit-ups, and other resistance training that only Jericho had opted to pick up after he had formally taught them to all the others. Then came the 8-kilometer jog around the Mueller. Following this, he would attend the shooting range and ensure he hit all of his selected targets before leaving.

If Jericho synchronized around this time, Werner would tutor the man on how to aim and fire properly—be it with the man’s conducting whip or a normal handgun. Jericho had once asked him why he was still practicing despite not needing to anymore. Werner answered him simply: his departure from the field was not an excuse to neglect honing his skill, body, and training. Werner merely hoped Klaus, Emilia, Derik, Gilbert, and Alwin were implementing this the same way.

Three, seven days a week, 0600 hours: return to the bathhouse and freshen up thoroughly. 

He would ensure that after a cold shower, he would dress in the appropriate attire and be presentable for office culture. The capital office employees were not given any specific dress code—Werner found this unprocedural and lacking—but many opted for a dress-shirt and tie paired with a military suit-jacket, so Werner had adopted this too. His gloves were an item he opted to add on to the dress-wear, although he always took them off when doing paperwork away from the eyes of others. Overall, the attire was somewhat uncomfortable compared to his Border Force fatigues, but it was manageable.

Four, seven days a week, 0615 hours: routine mail check.

On this particular Wednesday morning, there was a thick stack of letters waiting for him in the small post office attached to the exterior of the building. He was greeted with a salute from Post Master Renning as he picked up the letters and offered one in turn, but he did not remain for small chatter.

Five, one Wednesday a week, 0620 hours: visit the cafeteria bakery.

On all other days of the week, Werner would merely visit the cafeteria to purchase a cup of black coffee—although recently, he’d taken up to adding two sugar cubes to the morning brew. It was a minor indulgence, but one that was acceptable

Wednesdays were different, however.

On Wednesdays, he would also stop by the small bakery cubicle set to the side of the main food line area. There, he would find small rectangular slices of multi-layered chocolate cake laid out on top of small plaster plates and hidden behind a plastic wall. He would then carefully peruse them and purchase the one with the most decadent and perfect appearance. 

Six, seven days a week, 0630: head back to his office. 

Werner’s office was located on the third floor of the building. There were two routes to reach this floor: one through a rolling elevator and the other up a series of mahogany staircases. Only on Wednesdays did he opt for the rolling elevator to reduce the probability of accidentally dropping his cake, coffee, and letters.

With items one through six now completed, Werner arrived at his office, shut the door, and sank down at his neatly organized desk. Carefully setting his cake down on the table beside his cup of coffee, he surveyed his room. 

Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. All of his books were still slotted in alphabetical order in his mahogany shelf pressed along the left wall. His filing cabinet was dustless and still locked on the opposite wall. The sofa beside it was clean. Additionally, his pens and papers were still laid out methodically and properly in stacks and rows on his desk in front of him.

Appearances were deceiving, however. 

Even though it was not visible to the naked eye, Werner was certain that Scorpio had planted one of his spores here somewhere—most likely even more of them dwelled in his apartment. In other words, Werner was—always was—being watched. His palms itched at the idea.

Six, seven days a week, 0635 to 0650: collect thoughts.

Serving at the capital allowed more spare time to think than serving in the trenches. Near the border, there were always tasks to complete in-between the lulls of vitae-ray fire and gunpowder. Stock, supplies, training, re-briefings. Productivity. Here in the capital, however, the social network made it so that one could not complete a task without waiting for another to complete their task. This led to a surplus of idle time. Thus, there was time left to think like now.

Werner picked up his fork, carefully cut away a piece of the cake, and slid it into his mouth. It melted slowly.

The cake was sweet but not overly so. The creamy overtones of the coconut-peanut frosting balanced well with the sharpness of the cocoa sponge. 

This was an acceptable cake. No, it was an almost perfect cake. This sort of patisserie was made with care and finesse. Its delicateness was to be admired. A noteworthy achievement. And it was only on Wednesdays that the cake reached this level of acceptableness. On Tuesdays, it was too dry. On Fridays, it was too underdone. This day was the only reasonable day to enjoy it like so.

Enjoying cakes, however, brought with it the memory of birthday cakes. Of course, they were not from his own memory. Werner had not celebrated a birthday since he was eight. Celebrating it any older than that was ‘childish’ and ‘embarrassing’—or so he had come to believe. Olive, Maria, and Atienna, however, thought differently. 

Jericho’s birthday had come and gone without celebration within their group. Instead, a small office party was hosted by Ferris in the Serpens Establishment for him. Werner and the others, of course, had synchronized on-and-off during the event. Werner’s own birthday had already passed with little to no incident despite the insistence of the others—namely Olive, Maria, and Cadence. He was not one for unnecessary celebrations, after all. 

Olive was a different story. Sugar-filled, blindingly bright memories of birthday parties before the Tragedy and the quiet celebrations that came afterwards encroached on Werner sometimes when he was enjoying this delicacy. Often times, like he was doing now, he pondered on whether or not to host a celebration for Olive within the group since Olive was still young. The preparations needed for such an event had to be considered, however. There was also the matter of the actual birthday cake and the distribution of the cake. They had not physically met one another since the Augen movement’s end. Along with this, only Atienna had some skill with baking among them, so that meant that Werner himself would have to learn it—

Or perhaps was he putting too much thought into this. 

Werner paused in thought and checked his pocket watch. 0650 hours.

Snapping the watch shut and re-pocketing it, he set down his fork and pushed his cake aside to allow himself to move onto item seven of his itinerary. He began to peel through his letters.

The first letter was a brief weekly summary of the logistics of the new Demilitarization Project.

“Demilitarization” for Capricorn meant the decentralization of the Militärpolizei. Decentralization of the Militärpolizei indicated an unrefined halving of the Militärpolizei workforce through layoffs and cutting other police-funding costs. This left many without jobs. In addition to this, Argo still had not yet signed the official armistice, and so the Border Force still needed to be kept in place. Those formerly in the Militärpolizei often enlisted in the Border Force. Cause and effect. 

Werner had proposed starting an infrastructure project to provide these unemployed individuals with alternate career and job options several months ago. It had been accepted by the chancellory cabinet but had been under ‘consideration’ for over an entire month now.

Werner moved on to the second letter. It was a two-paged call for Acting Kaiser General Watzmann to resign due to his ‘incompetence in effectively managing demilitarization and peaceful transition.’

The third letter was a rebuttal of the second and was asking for signatures to support the Acting Kaiser.  

Werner frowned. 

It was most likely that the ones who compiled these letters were not interested in the ‘incompetence’ of the Acting Kaiser himself, but rather the power shift that came with his position.

Werner agreed with the thought. 

Life in the capital permitted him to face a different type of battle. He was not fond of these underhanded politics. He was certain some of his animosity was from Olive and perhaps even from Atienna. His own personal dislike for it stemmed from the fact that this indirectness only hindered progress in the long term. When there was a clear solution, it needed to be pursued. Actions like these produced unnecessary barriers to progress. Diverting attention away to less important matters would lead to failing to protect

 Werner checked his pocket watch again before moving on to the next letter. This one was from Mother. She wrote to him three times a week. Her messages ranged from praises at his position, wishes that Viktoria and Ludwig could be like him, and warnings of not bringing embarrassment to the family. Today’s letter fell under the latter category. 

Why was he even reading these letters from that woman anyways?

Werner paused, temple throbbing. Cadence.

Sorry, Captain—

“—that was an accident. Honest,” came her voice paired with a half-salute as her image phased before him. She was leaning against his desk only a centimeter away with crossed arms. Despite her solid form, he could not tell exactly where she was. “Why do ya even read her letters, Captain?”

“She’s my mother, Cadence.” There needn’t be any further explanation than that. Respect, returning dues, family.  

“Yeah, well, Ricardo took me in too and gave me a job but…” Cadence looked out his window. “I feel a lot safer workin’ with the Foxmans and all of ya than I did when I was under him. Maybe ya’ve spoiled me a bit and I’m expectin’ too much now, but…” She sank down to the floor and hung her head. 

Resisting a sigh, Werner reached out and placed a hand on her head. I appreciate your concerns, Cadence, but it’s better to focus on the issue in front of you rather than another’s. The children—

“Hey, Captain, ya know that’s not how it works.” Cadence offered a half-smile. “All of your problems are automatically my problems.”  

Werner paused. And yours are mine. Are the Foxmans still avoiding ELPIS Department involvement?

“They tried ta cover up the blazin’ hellfire; but with that info broker Astante bein’ in the city and bein’ their lapdog, I can’t tell if it was worth the back leg. It’s a headache.”

It was an unfavorable position.

Werner removed his hand and moved on to his next letter. This one was from Viktoria, detailing how she was looking into a place to stay in Sagittarius while working somewhere there near the Bodhi Temple. It was code again. It appeared as if Weingartner and Heimler had moved locations once more. He would have to consult a map—or have one of the others consult a map—to deduce their new location. 

If I didn’t read Mother’s letter, Werner thought to both himself and to Cadence, it would draw attention to Viktoria’s letter.

“Ya could pretend ta read it, couldn’t ya?” Cadence suggested. 

Briefly, Werner recalled Nico’s analogy on umbrellas and the rain.

Cadence raised her brows.

Before Werner could reply, there was a knock at the door. After Werner offered an invitation to come in, Nico entered the room. He was dressed in a white lab coat sewn with the Capricornian emblem over the chest. 

When Werner looked back to Cadence, she was gone. It appeared as if the tension was still there. He made a note to address it later before he turned back to Nico and greeted him with a nod: “Good morning.”

“Mornin’, Captain,” Nico mumbled. He paced over to the desk, rounded it, and leaned against it in the same place Cadence had been just a moment before. 

“You’re here early. Is it slow at the hospital?”

Nico nodded. “A couple of old military police people transferred in recently. Took a lot of shifts off of me, but I have to teach them some things too. It’s not so bad though.” He mulled, then smiled. “Gilbert’s physical therapy is going well, but he swears like a sailor. Scares some of the more elderly patients that we have in the PT room with him.”

From what Werner had gathered from Maria’s end of things, he believed it was more appropriate to say Gilbert swore more than a sailor. Regardless, Werner said, “I’ll speak with him about that.”

Nico chuckled them eyed the cake. “Is that from the cafeteria? Can I try some?”

Werner nodded and slid the plate to him. Nico happily indulged himself.

“Wow—this is good!”

“The flavors are balanced well,” Werner agreed, “and the texture is smooth. It’s only on Wednesdays that the cake is up to this standard.” 

Nico glanced at him and then chuckled. “Your palette is somethin’ else, Captain.” He forked another bite into his mouth. “Wolfram’d be touched if he heard you say that.” When he seemed to notice Werner’s confused look, he explained, “He’s the one who cooks for this office on Wednesdays. All other days of the week he’s makin’ meals for the hospital. Says it takes a lot of precision to get everythin’ right.”

“He’s quite good,” was Werner’s response to that.

As Nico went in for another bite, the door to Werner’s office flew open. Gilbert, clad in the standard capital office wear, stormed in with a stack of files tucked under his arm.

“Gil—”

Gilbert grumbled, “That dumbass Fischer bumped into me in the damn hallway and went ‘Oh! Good morning, sir!’ and saluted me like we were all damned peachy. Pissed me off.”

Lance Corporal Wilhelm Fischer was indeed working in the capital now. Werner had not yet encountered him and had only read one of his reports delivered by a secretary. There was a minimal amount of error in the write-up, so Werner had to send it back only once.

“You didn’t cause any trouble, did you?” Nico sighed.

“Of course not,” Gilbert muttered. “I’m not an idiot. I just spilled my coffee on him a little bit.”

Werner shook his head. Childish. “Did you finish the report on the eastern border?”

“Yeah,” Gilbert replied, placing the files beneath his arm in the desk tray. “Oh shit—is that cake? They were all out of it by the time I got here. Let me try some.” He took the fork from Nico before digging into the plate.

Werner meanwhile glanced at the knotted sleeve on Gilbert’s other arm and what was missing below it. He resisted a frown. 

“You’d think they’d toss out that Kaltes Auge title once you got working to the capital,” Gilbert said between mouthfuls of sponge, “but you still managed to keep it around.”

Nico arched a brow. “Am I missin’ on some office drama?”

“Yeah. They call Werner ‘The Cold Eye of All Things Clerical’ now.” Gilbert snorted. “Write illegibly? Get a date wrong? Accidentally sneak a typo in there somewhere? Enter the wrong number in the wrong column? ‘Cold Eye will come for you and put you in a time loop of never-ending editing.’” 

Werner frowned. “Taking up a position in the capital does not mean working any less. Mistakes on the field should not be tolerated nor should any mistakes here. Our work here affects everyone beneath us. If we want to protect—”

“No need to preach to me, Werner,” Gilbert replied. “I’m with you there.” He jabbed his fork in the direction of the files. “That’s why all of my paperwork is damn near perfect. I didn’t spend five hours crying over it for it to be sent back for editing.” He paused, glancing at Werner. “But the typos thing is a bit much, Werner. You’ve got to admit that.” 

“If you’ve met the criteria to be serving in the capital as an officer,” Werner replied, “you should not show lack of professionalism by allowing a typo in your report.” 

“Part of being in the capital comes with the general idea that you don’t have to do that much work, you know? People usually think about it like a vacation.” Gilbert grimaced. “But yeah. We have it pretty lucky here. I hope everyone down south has it this easy. First we have the Argoans then the Augens and now anti-Aquarian-Capricornians.” 

“I heard that half of ‘em are originally Augen members. They… think that partnerin’ with Aquarius’ll just bring Capricorn into even more conflict—even the Aquarians are part of the group.” Nico shrugged light-heartedly. “Not everyone can be satisfied, but that’s what keeps the ball rollin’.” 

“I’m sure they’re handling themselves fine at the border, Gilbert,” Werner answered. “It’s not beyond their training.”

Gilbert rubbed the back of his neck to signal he’d received and understood the message. “I hope Glasses is alright. Doubt he has time to research and read his books down south.” He scraped the plate four times with his fork. 

‘Glasses’ was not referring to Klaus. It was referring to Jericho. The scrapping code spelled out S-H-I-O-N. The question Gilbert was truly asking was whether or not Jericho had successfully researched the name ‘Shion Myosotis.’ Apparently, Gilbert had heard Scorpio mention the name when he had been imprisoned by the saint candidate in the execution tower. Atienna proposed it was the name of another True Conductor. Werner considered the name was perhaps one that Scorpio dropped to send them on a fruitless investigative chase, but the possible loss of information could not be risked. Thus, Jericho had been tasked with going through the Conductor records in search of a match through Moraeni’s aid in the Licensing Department. 

Werner straightened his files and tapped them on the desk twice. N-O. 

Gilbert hummed, then shrugged.

Werner frowned slightly as the man scraped the last of the cake from the plate into his mouth, but he permitted the action. Once Gilbert finished, Werner took the plate from him and set it to the side. As he did so, he felt both Nico’s and Gilbert’s gazes drawn to his left cheek. He didn’t need to look at them to know that Scorpio’s mark had trailed its way back up to his face. The mark was unpleasant. A sign of change. And a sign of a mistake. A forgotten time. Then again, perhaps all of that was too philosophical for him.

“Well…” Gilbert drew after a beat. “I’m gonna split. Only came here to complain anyways. I have like ten reports that Schiller bastard shoved off on me yesterday.”

Werner frowned. “If the reports were originally to be completed by Schiller then—”

“It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m not going to become a typical capital asshole so I better put some legwork in.” Gilbert waved them both goodbye as he slipped out of the office. “See you at lunch, Werner. Later, Nic.”

There was a beat of silence after the door closed.

“Anyways.” Nico uncrossed his arms and moved to open the window behind Werner just a crack to let in the cool winter air. “Enough about us and them. How are you doin’, Werner?” He glanced around the room, then at the sofa beside the cabinet. “Are you really sleepin’ here?”

“It’s more efficient.”

Nico hummed in consideration. “Well, can’t argue with that—but maybe you could add some decorations to make it feel more like home?” He pointed to the cabinet. “Maybe a cute lamp there.” Then he gestured up along the wall. “And maybe some of those hangin’ v-lights or dangly pattern things they’re always talkin’ about on the radio.” He snapped his fingers. “You know, I was talkin’ to Mutton the other day, and he said he had a statue of his dog in his office to remind him of home. Ever consider puttin’ one in here of Fenrir?”

Werner chuckled briefly. “That would be excessive, Nico.”

It was good that Nico could enjoy himself so casually after leaving everything behind.

Werner frowned and subtly shook the thought away.

“—Ophiuchus’s doubled-down on its Manipulation laws, I heard,” Nico was continuing. “The Conducting Law Department’s pushin’ out new guidelines at the end of the month. Livin’ manipulation research might be blacklisted just like life conjurin’ research.” He met Werner’s gaze. “You’d think that’s a good thing… right?” 

“Whatever laws, guidelines, and events come, we’ll just have to adapt and prepare for them, Nico. That’s all there is to it.”

Nico nodded slowly, appearing reassured. 

“You would think that it would be a good thing,” Werner found himself continuing. “They say ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing; however, acting as if you’re not ignorant or halting the pursuit of knowledge despite ignorance is, don’t you think? When is ignorance more valuable than knowledge? On matters of unethical subjects? But you would think that knowledge of unethical topics—beyond just conjuring life and living manipulation—would be more useful than ignorance of them, wouldn’t you?”

 Nico cocked his head after a beat of silence. “Who thinks that? Atienna…?”

Werner stiffened, paused, then nodded. “I believe so. However, the fact remains that… we must be vigilant.” 

“You know what helps with vigilance and alertness?” Nico chirped a beat after and patted him on the shoulder. “At least five hours of sleep.”

Werner allowed a brief smile. Hours, he thought. Pulling out his watch again, he read the hands. 0701 hours. A frown pressed his lips. He was one minute behind—

Nico peered over and startled at the face of the clock. “Oh no—I need to head back soon.” He was at the door a second later, waving and saying in departure: “Stuff’s always happenin’, Werner. The world still spins when we sleep, you know? I think it’s okay to relax sometimes.”

* * *

Werner spent the rest of the day going through files and papers. Every so often, a secretary or fellow capital soldier would enter his office to deliver to him more papers to go over. For every ten papers he received, he would mark five up in red pen and send it back via secretary to be revised. His work was somewhat equivalent to quality assurance. He was the main communicator between Ophiuchus and Capricorn in Ophiuchus’s support of Capricorn during its current political shift. In order for Ophiuchian support in controlling further unrest and providing Capricorn with certain funds, Capricorn had to provide Ophiuchus with a weekly social needs and progress assessment detailing how much its demilitarization and policy changes had progressed. So far, Werner had deemed the progress acceptable as did the International Relations Department of Ophiuchus.

At 0721 hours, Werner had finished all of his work. He finished much earlier than he’d expected, and he turned back towards his window in thought. 

Despite the early hour, winter had brought with it a shorter daytime; and so the backdrop of the sky behind the city was a dark, navy blue. The clouds overhead had parted just slightly to spill out faint moonlight that illuminated the empty, snow-dusted streets.

The scars left by the Week of Blindness—as the series of Augen protests and riots that ran through the capital had been aptly named—were unnoticeable. All the craters formed on the sidewalks by earth Elementalists and the scorch marks pelted into alleyway walls by Projectors had been smoothed away. The Augen eye which had been formerly painted onto every single building in the city had been scrubbed clean the very first week after the Kaiser’s death. Although Werner had not seen it himself, he’d heard that even the dilapidated statues around the city had been refurbished. Perhaps this indicated that the city was healing. Or perhaps it indicated what the country was trying to hide. 

Werner checked his watch again. He still had an hour to spare before dinner.

It felt unnatural having this spare time available to him. It didn’t feel right not to feel stiff tension resting on his shoulders. This extra expanse of time to think was also odd. He wondered if it was truly acceptable for him to experience something like this. It felt as if he was being lazy and unproductive. He was certain there was more that he could do to help and protect them—then again, why did he have to think in terms of ‘lazy’ and ‘productive’? 

 Werner waved Maria’s vibrancy off. In the quiet that followed, the duty and calling to protect pulsated at the back of his head like it did in his every waking moment. It shadowed him even when he slept. 

As Werner moved to close his window, he was drawn away by a knock at the door. After he resituated himself at his desk and made sure everything was tidy and in order, he called the mysterious visitor in.

A woman in a military suit entered his office and remained by the threshold of the door. A folder filled with thick papers was tucked under her arm. “I have a couple of things I need to squeeze in, Captain Waltz, if you don’t mind.”

Werner nodded before indicating the metal tray at the corner of his desk. “That would be good. Put it there. Thank you.”

The woman approached his desk and gently set the file down in the directed area. She, however, remained standing there afterwards. Werner frowned at this then—

“How are you doing, honey?” 

—he stiffened and slowly lifted his head to fully meet the woman’s gaze. The woman’s blonde hair was tied back in a tight ponytail, while her lips were pulled into a smile. Despite the dull glint in her dark brown eyes, her—his—gaze pierced Werner through. Scorpio.

“I told my partner to look after you for me, but you know me—I have to see you myself because I care about you.” Scorpio looked around the room “You’ve been doing so well. Serving Capricorn to your fullest even after everything that’s happened. That’s what they call a loyal, obedient dog. You’re still remaining true to who you really are.”  

Werner remained silent.

“What you’re doing here isn’t so different from when you followed the Kaiser and your superiors. It’s just now instead you’re listening to them.” He chuckled. “Appearances are still everything. You’ve just switched which appearance you’ve chosen to don. It’s a very ill-fitting one. Soon there’ll be nothing of you left, but that’s all right, Werner. You—like everyone around you—will remain in that state of dynamic equilibrium. To believe and change only to end up where you’ve initially begun.”

 “Is there a reason for your visit?”

Scorpio extended a hand towards him. The moonlight made his skin deathly pale white and his fingers thin, long, skeletal—as if they were reaching at Werner from beyond some grave. Much like Otto’s hand did in his nightmares back when he still had them.

Werner ordered himself to move, but he couldn’t. He was frozen in place just as he had been before in the execution tower, just as he’d been in the Kaiser’s office, just as he’d been when he’d stood in that white room before her. His palms itched at the memories, and his skin prickled at the thought.

Werner, however, remained steady and braced himself for Scorpio’s icy touch. But before the man’s hand contacted his cheek, Werner found his own hand shooting forwards and wrapping around Scorpio’s wrist. He squeezed down hard—almost waiting to hear that familiar crack.

“I would rather you not do that, Voz,” Werner said. “I really don’t like it when you do that.” He released Scorpio from his hold as he felt a warm presence hovering just over his shoulder. He was ashamed that his weakness had been so apparent, but he still thought regardless: Thank you, Maria.

Werner heard no words in return but instead felt a warm press on top of his head. It appeared as if the synchronization was not strong enough here either. 

Scorpio’s smile thinned as he pulled his hand away. “Oh, it’s you again. Leo’s problem child.”

Werner’s eyes narrowed at this statement, but he could feel Maria peek in with intense interest. 

“I’d rather not talk to you, but since Leona is vexed and you’re still something akin to human… I suppose I have to love and care for you too.” 

The man was playing in riddles again. However, this was information; and so Werner remained silent and took notes internally. 

“Anyways, I have something that will keep you busy for quite some time, Werner.” Scorpio reached over again, but this time opened the folder he’d placed in the tray. TRUE CONDUCTORS was printed in blue ink there. “I’m sure you’re aware of it, but Miss Atienna has been doing good work looking into peculiar incidents around Signum these past few months. We’ve parsed through the lot of them and picked a select few of interest. Of closest relation to you, Werner dear, is a woman in the anti-Aquarian-Capricornian movement.” 

Werner could already connect the dots. The time had arrived. This momentary false ‘peace’ was over. This sensation of unproductivity and laxness would be corrected. He did not, however, feel any form of relief at this.

“It’s laughable, isn’t it? Even though I dangled the carrot of peace in front of them, they chose the stick of conflict instead. Every single time.” 

“I’m being assigned to investigate a suspected group of True Conductors,” Werner concluded.  

“You’re being assigned to hunt them—but this isn’t just for us. This is for the peace of your country. The people Atienna marked as possible True Conductors might disrupt Capricorn’s ebb and flow, so that should interest you, dear. The Acting Kaiser would like the anti-Aquarian-Capricornian movement dismantled from the inside out too. Ophiuchus is too slow for him—which I agree with. Of course, while I’m all for embracing the fleeting passions of movements, I’m for the syzygy even more so.” He drummed his fingers on the file. “There is a time limit. It wouldn’t be fun if it weren’t made into a game and if you weren’t putting your all into it. If you don’t find them by the time listed in here, then our deal will be reconsidered. And if Atienna’s deductions were wrong? Well…” His eyes narrowed into slits, his lips upturning ever so slightly. “The decision lies with you.” 

Werner kept his expression impassive, then nodded. “Will this be a solo or a task force operation? If it’s the latter, will you be handing the selection of members?” 

“Accepting without question once again… Not only that but you’re straight-to-the-point as always. How cold of you. Capricornian through and through. I admire it.” Scorpio leaned forwards. “Why’re you so interested in that anyways? Were you expecting your subordinates to help you? Klaus, Emilia, Zu, or Otto—oh, he’s dead, isn’t he…? Poor thing.” 

Werner resisted a grimace. 

“And Derik is bound to that cruel prince…”

Scorpio stared past his shoulder out the window.

“Anyways, to answer your question—well, we can’t very well have the little pieces that keep you locked in place from going away with you. You might escape with them if we allowed that. The same applies to everyone in that cute little manor in Eisburg.”

Viktoria, Ludwig, Mother, Gilbert’s mother, and Ulrich flashed through Werner’s mind.

 “By refusing to be taken in with us like dear Hilton, you’ve technically imprisoned not only yourselves anyways but those around you and beyond you too. I doubt Atienna dear cares about the latter group, of course…” He gestured around the office. “Then again, from the beginning, this is only an illusion of freedom. Even if my eyes weren’t always watching you, that freedom of yours would still be an illusion. There’s only one way to be free for every single person walking on this earth, but they’re pulling you away from it…” 

“I merely want to be prepared,” Werner said after a pause. “I would like all the guidelines and rules you’re able to provide. I do not want to make a mistake.”

Scorpio hummed at this. “Well. You can’t choose your subordinates serving at the border, but you’re free to select whoever you want stationed here.” His smile thinned. “I know you, so I already know who you have in mind.”

Werner tensed but didn’t respond. 

Scorpio paced back to the door finally but paused there. “By the way—have you been using a new cologne, Werner?” He turned back to him, eyes narrowed slightly. “You should take care of yourself. You know that you’re important. If you don’t take care of yourself, then we’ll have to take you into our care instead regardless of the little game of deal you’ve played with Leona.” 

Werner remained silent. 

Scorpio smiled again, then waved. “Remember. I’ll always be watching. Everyone is. Glad you all enjoyed your cake.”

The door shut a moment after, and a cloud passed over the moon. The itch at the base of his palms remained.

Werner slowly pulled the file out of his tray and laid it before him. Since he had partially assisted Atienna in narrowing down possible True Conductors, he already had an idea of who he was to find.

At the thought of Atienna, a voice sank down to him—I’m sorry, Werner… 

“We’re doing what’s necessary.” For the time being. “That’s all.”

* * *

Werner spent the night debating on whether or not to request Nico’s and Gilbert’s aid with the assignment. He momentarily considered Fischer as well. However, the latter man had already proven his falter twice in high-pressure situations beyond the field and had proven himself untrustworthy along with this. As for the other two—this was beyond rank-and-file, despite him being able to order them on the mission due to being their superior. Of course, Werner understood that their relationship was beyond rank-and-file all the same. Drawing them into a possibly dangerous operation when they had stable, well-paid positions in the capital was… difficult. 

In the past, he would not hesitate to select members for matters like this. However, now the impulse to protect them collided with his impulse to protect the others. It was a grating conflict, an itch from within that could not be scratched. There was only one thing that could give him temporary peace.

In the end, Werner presented the operation to both Nico and Gilbert and allowed them the option to join.

“Don’t even need to ask,” was Gilbert’s response. “Not like I’m not used to being someone’s dog. How much is the raise?”

Nico had a more earnest, bright reply: “Of course, I’ll come! Let me just make sure everythin’ is taken care of for my shift at the hospital first.”

* * *

On Saturday morning, Werner boarded a train bound to Aquarius alongside Nico and Gilbert. As he entered the compartment assigned by his train ticket, he found it already occupied by a man and a woman dressed in fur coats marked with triple waves at the shoulder pads. He met each of their gazes as the realization settled in.

Nikita Knovak clicked his tongue, shook his head after exchanging a look with Dunya Kramer beside him, and then nodded at Werner. “Still crazy, Capricornian?” 

Katharina Groth, First Chairwoman of the Conductor Regulation and Conducting Law of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Peace Through Order”


The Week of Blindness will forever be put down in history. It will infamously be known as the week in which Capricornians bore arms against their friends, family, and neighbors. Beginning with the attack on the capital’s Grand Hospital on the Monday of the first week of December, it reached its conclusion with the death of past Kaiser Kafke Neizche and the capture of Verbundene Augen leader Marionette Engel on that week’s Friday. The death toll was believed to be in the thousands. 

After suffering this grave loss together, never again will we repeat our past mistakes. Together, we stand united as Capricornians.

Die Zeitung, Issue #441, 12.12.1941


22.2: The Swindler and The Stolen Tesoro?

Re-cap:

Cadence Morello was pulled into a nightmare crafted by Scorpio when Werner was infected. She was captured with Werner’s unit and brought into Scorpio but managed to buy their way out by offering a new product that the Romanos were beginning to produce—a cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat—along with some medals. She was pulled into a fight with Nico not soon after where she finally released her anger towards his departure from the Twin Cities. 

In the end, although not all scars were mended, Cadence returned to the Twin Cities to the Specialist children, Allen, Carl, and…


Nadinaline “The Corpse Bride” Delacroix, First Chairwoman of the Assignment Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Preserve the Past in Our Memory. Preserve the Future with Our Own Hands.”  

The dogs were at each other’s throats, snarling and yapping as saliva dripped out from in-between their jagged white teeth. The orange spotlight burning above them illuminated the carnal hunger in their eyes, while the ring of jeering men and women gathered around their fighting cage seemed to spark their aggression into murderous intent. In-between the shouts and howls, the metal chains hanging down from the high roof of the formerly abandoned warehouse noisily clinked and swayed against a cold draft. 

From a platform high above all this chaos and hidden behind a ragged curtain, Cadence sat watching it all.

“For people to be entertained by such violence…” Francis Foxman—crime organization head turned ELPIS leader turned back to crime organization head—sighed from beside her as he peered down at them too. “This merely proves that the issue in this era truly is not confined to viceful use of the reservoirs and conductors.” 

“What? Are ya sayin’ ya never held one of these back then?” Cadence responded, wiggling her fingers and feeling warmth spread down to her fingertips. “It makes money, Francis. You know that. For the kids. Besides, it ain’t even real.”

Appearances were deceiving, after all.

In reality, the dogs yipping and snapping at each other’s throats were mere illusions she’d been transmuting for the last half hour. They were being projected through one of Francis’s gates that connected from the glowing patch in front of her to a slit beneath the mat of the fighting ring below her. 

“It ain’t even real,” repeated the small boy who sat in-between them. His head was full of blond curls, and he was dressed in a pair of spenders—newly-sewn by Pi with colors selected by Cadence herself. In-between his legs straddled a radio that blared out the sound of barking dogs. 

“‘It isn’t even real,’ Mateo,” Francis corrected. He locked eyes with Cadence. “You should try to practice good behavior, Cadence. Children model after the ones they look up to and the ones that surround them. Learning incorrect grammar usage and pick-pocketing is—”

“Never thought I’d be considered a role model.” Cadence chortled. She winked down and nudged Mateo on the arm. “I’m your role model, am I? Not the best.” —Maybe she’d be more of a ‘big sister’ type like Olive’d always imagined. 

Mateo was too enraptured by the illusions below to pay her words any mind.

“It was quite dangerous bringing Mateo here,” Francis murmured, studying the boy and then resting his free hand on the boy’s head. “Especially in this city. He could be taken by people who want to take advantage of him again if we don’t keep an eye on him… This is a reward for good behavior, however—” 

“The kids need ta get out every once in a while, Francis,” Cadence replied. “Kids need a little adventure and danger sometimes. Get their fingers dirty in the real world. Can’t shelter ‘em forever. Bein’ protected doesn’t mean happiness.” She finished with, “Ya know back when we were kids we had our fair share of adventures. Ferrari’s store and all that—remember?” 

Francis glanced back up at her with a faint smile. “And look where that got us.” 

“At the end of Allen’s wrath. But eh. It was a good time—”

“Concentrate,” Allen chided from where he lounged at a table counting a bag of cens on a metal fold-up chair behind them. “We need to make it exciting enough for patrons to come back for another round.”

“Ya know we’d turn profit faster if we paid Matilda and her gang ta get a little sticky-fingered with the crowd here. I’d contribute ‘course.”

“You represent the Foxmans now, Cadence,” Allen said steely. “Pickpocketing our patrons at one of our events would put a bad name to our reputation. Don’t even joke about it.”

Cadence knew the words were meant to be a slap on the wrist but they felt more like one of Werner’s occasional psychic head pats than anything else. 

Carl approached them from the shadows and swatted at her head. “Yeah, stop bein’ a smartass, Cadence.” And then at Francis’s. “And stop bein’ so damned depressin’, Francis.” 

Cadence adjusted her hat with a shrug. 

Francis, however, swatted Carl’s hand away and carefully re-did his hair with his free hand. “Hey, stop that. Let’s at least try to be professional, Carl.” 

Carl merely broke out into a toothy grin—and Cadence could see the relief glimmering in the man’s eyes. A good look. He pounded over to the edge of the railings and peered over into the ring below. “Anyways, look at ‘em. They’re havin’ the time of their lives.” 

Francis followed his gaze. “Schadenfreude,” he murmured. “Perhaps only when they conquer such a feeling like this will people of this time truly be able to achieve peace.” His gaze lowered, and he studied Mateo. “Perhaps the same would apply to us and to them. From the very beginning, it was wrong.”

“Sure, Francis.” Carl frowned and gave Cadence a look.

Cadence gave him a jerk of her head and nudged Francis on the arm with her elbow. “How about we play another round of Itero Recino later? I almost won the last round, didn’t I?”

Francis regarded her. “Are you interested in truly playing the game or finding a cheat to the game?”

‘Aw, come on. Ya know I’m always lookin’ ta learn new tricks in the trade,’ was what she’d say if this was the old Francis; but after studying the man and the way he interacted with the children, Carl and Allen, and the other Foxman executives, she’d learned to change her tune—“I just want ta learn somethin’ that’ll help me out in the future, ya know? Ta stay cultured.”

 Francis’s eyes narrowed. “Are you being sincere or are you attempting to find a way to win disputes against me?”

Although Francis was starting to get his usual Twin Cities sharpness back, he still preferred playing Itero Recino to determine the winner of arguments. This drove Carl insane more often than it did Allen and Cadence herself, but that was mostly because Carl was the one who fought with Francis the most. 

“Hey, Jericho wants ta look in and learn too,” Cadence said honestly. “Said he was only taught half the game back then. So, it’s kinda for him.” 

Francis’s gaze softened. “Jericho…? I see.” He dipped his head. “Well, if it’s for someone who truly wishes to learn, I wouldn’t mind teaching and playing it.” He studied her ringed fingers, and his face folded with noticeable concern. “We should start wrapping it up now. You’ve expelled a lot of your vitae, Cadence. You might be a True Conductor, but you’re still human.” He glanced over his shoulder. “What do you say, Al?”

Allen swept all of the cens from the table into the briefcase resting on his lap. “Alright. Cadence, dog one loses tonight.”

Cadence winked, wiggled her fingers above Francis’s gate, turned the knob on the radio in Mateo’s lap, and went in to create a grand finale.

* * *

After the fake dog fight, they quickly collected their set-up, doled out the earnings, and pocketed the tip money. No personal contact with the patrons themselves, of course. That was the way it had to be. Didn’t know if any of them could be Scorpio’s spores. Didn’t want Maria to have to bring in Lita to test everyone if just one person contacted someone who could be infected. Safety and precaution and all that.

With the matter closed, they bid the fighting ring farewell and collectively exited through one of Francis’s gates. 

Francis was immediately swarmed by the children when they arrived at the newly-minted warehouse the children now called home. Only Mateo remained by Cadence’s side which she found a small victory in. 

The warehouse was large and long with a ceiling that towered high above their heads. Colorful v-lights were strung up along the ceiling—a pain to get them up there—while paper crafts dangled from thread strings in-between them. There wasn’t any pretty wallpaper, but there didn’t need to be because crayon and stencil drawings were pasted on the walls. There were long rows of bunk beds—each decorated uniquely with stickers and crafts—alongside the far corner and hidden by a paper divider.

A long dining table stretched across the width of the room. Several of the Foxman’s lackeys sat there reading the books they’d drawn out from Francis’s bookshelves which stood sturdy in the adjacent corner. Pi, who had been shepherding the children until then, waved at their arrival from the bedposts. 

This place was exitless like all of Francis’s rooms—no doors, no windows, no way to tell where this warehouse even was located. Even Cadence didn’t know where it was. She doubted Carl and Allen knew either.

After a while, half the flock of twenty or so kids detached themselves from Francis and began to crowd towards their second favorites. Half of them came to Cadence and began tugging at her suit jacket and cheering for another “magic trick, magic trick, magic trick!” She still wasn’t too great at carrying the smaller ones, so they dangled haphazardly from her arms and legs. The radio they’d been using for the fight that was tucked under her arm didn’t help. 

“I can’t show ya tricks if I don’t have the hands for ‘em,” she said in a strained voice as she teetered beneath their weight. “I’m a magician, not an escape artist!” 

Still. She figured that she was getting better with handling the kids—at least better than Allen who the children still skirted away from. Probably still wouldn’t be able to handle anyone older than twelve—so definitely none of the Specialist kids who’d onboarded Maria’s ship way back when. Adolescents were unpredictable. Suitable for Maria’s care though. 

 Despite her own complaints, Cadence snapped her fingers and transmuted the illusion of invisibility around her in a shimmer of copper. The children immediately squealed with amusement before releasing her from their death hold and running over to the table where Francis now sat with a book. The children who swaddled Carl had returned to Francis’s side too. The Foxman’s trusty right-hand man Maximallian, Pi, and Fleck—someone who’d come onboard two months before Francis almost sank the city—were still lounging there too. The other men had moved away from the area. 

Cadence undid her illusion, then watched as said men went to speak with Carl and Allen in the corner. A serious talk from the looks of it, but Francis didn’t seem interested.

She placed a hand on her hip as she scratched her head beneath her cap while feigning a look of disinterest.

It was weird having Francis back again. Nah. It felt weird having Francis back while running this pseudo-daycare of kids—Specialist and not. But it was still good.

Cadence glanced down beside her and found Mateo also with a hand on his hip and scratching his head. Copying now, was he? She recalled Atienna’s siblings doing the same. Saints—bah, she had to stop thinking that word—kids were cute.

“Ya not gonna go brag about your adventures today to everyone else?” Cadence teased, nudging his shoulder with her elbow. 

Mateo crossed his arms and blinked up at her. “Can’t let ‘em know that I’m winnin’.”

Cadence arched a brow.

“It’s not fair!” came a sudden, squeaky cry. “How come Mateo gets to go outside but we can’t?”

Cadence looked up and found that one of the children clustered around Francis was red-faced, teary-eyed, and half-fuming, half-crying. A couple of the kids around the boy were either teary-eyed or red-faced too.  

What was this? A youthful rebellion?

“Kent,” Francis said calmly, kneeling down in front of the shaking freckled, curly-haired boy. “Mateo worked very hard on his studies and did well on the test I gave all of you. His birthday is also nearing. It was a reward. If you also—”

“It’s not fair!” Kent huffed, fists balled. “I can’t go outside because I’m dumb?! Why just one of us—”

Damn. Kids were hilariously ridiculous.

Cadence resisted snorting, while Pi visibly flinched behind Francis.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Francis continued. “Kent. It’s dangerous—”

“Y-You…” Kent’s cheeks puffed as he stomped his feet. “You’re mean, Theta! Y-You suck! You’re like them! I want to go out! I want to go outside!”

“Hey, watch it! You’re pissing me off!” Fleck snapped, taking a threatening step forward. “We put a roof over your head and you give us bite back?!  What are you—ungrateful?”

Kent held his ground for a split second before taking a step backwards. Still, he glowered. 

“Maybe if you actually listened when I was damned tutoring you how to do those math problems, you would’ve scored better and got the chance to leave!” Fleck continued as he towered over the six-year-old. “You’ve got no one to blame but yourself! Show some damned respect! Do you know bad it can get out there—but here you’re beggin’ to go out? You piss me off!”

Damn. Adults were ridiculously hilarious.

“Fleck,” Francis stated warningly, eyes narrowing. “You should show some respect as well.”

Fleck tensed.

“If I knew we were going to stay here forever,” Kent heaved in the beat of silence that followed before he turned on his heels and dashed to the beds across the warehouse, “I would’ve gone with everyone else with the Golden Beast! I hate you! I hate you!” With that, he flung himself onto his bed. 

Carl and Allen watched his fit from the distance and glanced at Francis, before exchanging looks and continuing to converse with the rest of their men. Pi worriedly ran after Kent with the rest of the children following just behind him. Cadence, on the other hand, joined Francis by the table and sat down. Mateo followed her and plopped himself just beside her. 

She glanced at Maximallian and Fleck who were looking to her as if for some sort of guidance—awful choice, she thought. After a beat, she addressed Francis, “Hard ta control kids even for the great Francis sometimes, ‘ey?”

“It’s a natural response,” Francis replied, rising from his crouch and staring after the children. He turned down to look at Mateo and offered a smile which Mateo reflected. “It was inevitable that the children would be feeling anxiety in a time like this after everything they’ve experienced.”

“Inevitable, huh?”

Francis remained silent for a beat and stared at Allen and Carl across the room, before he said, “Words are quite powerful things—able to connect and convey how we feel to the people around us. However, oftentimes we are not aware of the weight they carry. Words like ‘pissed’ and ‘hate’ should not be spoken lightly and yet they are. Fleck—”

Fleck stiffened further.

“—you say ‘pissed’ like that, but in the end, you’re simply concerned for Kent and the others’ well-beings. Kent says ‘hate,’ but he means ‘afraid,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘worried.’ Turning concerns and anxieties into personal attacks against others is troubling and shows lack of understanding.”

Fleck cleared his throat, looking to Cadence for help again.

Cadence shrugged.

“If we’re not more careful with our words, we may become insensitive to not only others but also to the intricacies of our own feelings. There is no denying that I am not a master at this either.” Francis turned to Maximallian then to Fleck and then finally to Cadence herself. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Maximilian shifted his feet and shrugged. “Uh, I guess, boss.” 

“That’s what makes the misuse of language—spoken at least—a troubling issue. I would like to think words on a page are at least a little bit closer to the heart.”

Atienna would probably agree, Cadence thought as she resisted squinting at him. Obviously, this wasn’t a grammar workshop lesson type of deal, but it felt like he was squeezing a Geminian class in there somewhere. She frankly wasn’t quite following but she could feel Jericho peering in with an interest that made her feel like dissecting Francis’s words a bit further. 

Words were powerful and being careful with them was important—this was something she knew since stepping out on the streets of the Twin Cities. You had to play words carefully—deliver them just right and to the right people. Hook, line, and sinker. Illusory but powerful things, like Atienna’d say.

Illusory, huh?

Cadence studied Francis again and could feel Jericho ghosting her mind.

The fact was this wasn’t really Francis. It was him, but it also wasn’t. There was a word for it, but she couldn’t quite bring it to mind and didn’t feel much like reaching out to the others for assistance. Besides, if she thought like that, the same’d apply to Werner.

Almost no one in the group ever talked about it, but the Scorpio roundabout had kicked some gear out of—well, maybe in—place. The machine ticked differently now. The players had been rearranged and given different cards.

Atienna averted her eyes away from the game even though she’d played the final card. Jericho didn’t understand it really. Werner was the one who got his cards scrambled the most. Olive—was the only one who ever thought about it.

Cadence felt sorry for him. The kid was worrying about everyone else when he had a lot on his plate too—ha. Sagittarian court invitation? She understood the benefit, but the whole political angle seemed complicated. She’d help him through the entire thing, of course. Still. 

Bah. 

Here she was feeling sorry for a prince who could probably buy her and the Foxmans in a heartbeat. Not that money could ever be able to amount to any human life. 

Cadence’s gaze swept across the warehouse and she took in Carl and Allen, then Francis, and then the children. Only two people in the Twin Cities crew missing. 

Ah, damn.  

She half-heartedly reached out to the other five. Werner returned her call immediately, while Atienna touched base a second after. Maria came in full-force followed by a confused Olive and an even more confused Jericho. 

Damn indeed, she thought as she waved them away and pulled away from them. 

She didn’t want to lose any of this. She didn’t want to lose any of them… But ‘she couldn’t lose anything because she didn’t have anything.’ That was something good old Scorpio had tried to beat into her like a whip back then. Yeah, that was true maybe.  

In the end, the only person who seemed to have remained untouched by Scorpio’s ballroom waltz through Capricorn was Maria herself. She was consistent in her unpredictability. Sounded like an oxymoron but it was true. 

Huh. There were two consistent captains on their roster now—consistent in two vastly different areas. Nice.

Cadence felt the smile slide from her face. 

She still liked it better when the only person she had to worry about was herself. And Alma and Nico. Eh. Maybe ‘liked’ wasn’t the right word. 

At the thought of Nico, Cadence sighed, ruffled her hair, and began to fiddle with the radio she’d set down on the table beside her. At the thought of Alma, she cranked the volume slightly.

“—can you believe it?” a voice cracked out.

Look at that. It was Hideyoshi. 

“It’s almost out of a fairytale!” 

And Louise.

Cheers to them again.

“Only a couple days before the election and we have a magician’s miracle!”

“That’s right, folks! The ley lines that were being built up to the largest city in Taurus disappeared mysteriously overnight! How queer!”

“Just like magic! Ophiuchus is sending a lot of people from the ELPIS Department to investigate. Oh, wait—we aren’t supposed to talk about this are we, Hideyoshi? We’re supposed to stay on topic—talk about the election! That’s what we’re paid for! How could I forget!”

“You’re absolutely right, Louise—but before that! Have you heard about Alma?”

Cadence tensed.

“Oh, everyone’s heard about Alma. A rising star with a beautiful voice, stealing our hearts with her lyrics—only to suddenly vanish without a trace just when she was about to perform on the Ophiuchian Way a month ago! Can you believe that? It’s tragic!” 

“People say that her manager Enzo Something-or-other has just been keeping her under the wraps for some sort of publicity stunt!”

“So it’s un-tragic then, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, Louise. Anyway—”

“—the important thing here is that—”

“—we can still enjoy Alma’s lovely pre-recorded songs,” they finished in cheery unison, “right here on this station!”

Cadence flicked off the radio before Alma’s familiar pre-recorded voice could filter out. She’d always been able to tell whether it was really Alma singing or if it was a recording or fake. She found it a bit creepy that they were playing a recorded song from someone who was possibly missing, but she guessed that was how show biz worked. 

Still… Alma missing and Enzo…?

When news of the disappearance first hit, Cadence had half the mind to pay the information broker Astante a visit to see if she could get some info about it that way; but seeing as how Astante was connected to Cvetka, Cadence had figured that wasn’t the best way to play it. Even if Alma strayed between her nightmares and dreams.

“Cadence, are you alright?” came Francis’s voice.

Cadence looked up to find that Carl, Allen, and the rest of their lackeys—minus Maximallian and Fleck—had already left the warehouse through one of the gates.

“Are you going to watch them tonight?” Francis gestured to the bunk beds where the children had run off too.

Cadence shook her head and raised her hands. “Not today, Francis. Sorry. Got some business I got ta take care of.” She tapped her temple.

Francis nodded, dug into his pocket, and dropped a proto-conductor into Fleck’s waiting hand. “Watch over them like usual, would you?”

“Got it, boss.” 

* * *

There was always a slow period after one of their ‘acting’ gigs. It was a logistical one. Time was needed to count the money, count the level of interest, count whatever else needed to be counted. And while Cadence knew life was a numbers game, she wasn’t as fond as Werner and Olive were about all those variables. So, she went on to enjoy her social period.

In the early morning after the fake dog fight, she traversed Francis’s gate to the limestone alleyways of some city where the sun slapped the building walls with blinding white light and her face with dry heat. Didn’t do well to dampen the haze of sleepiness riding on her shoulders. Only Jericho, Atienna, and Werner were awake at this time too, so she had no one to tease nor anyone to cheer her awake either.  

Pulling her hat over her face, she paced to the end of the alley and walked into the phonebooth resting at the corner. Inside, she waited until the phone began to trill just like it did every other Wednesday she visited.

As she picked up the receiver, she placed her ringed fingers over her throat and activated her conductor. When she spoke next, her voice came out deep and baritone as she spoke in Capricornian— “Hey, doll, how have you been? I’ve been waiting to receive a call from you.”

“Oh, you know how it is down here,” came the soft voice in Capricornian from the other end of the line. “There’s not much happening, but they always have things for us to do.”

“What kind of things, doll?” Cadence pressed. “I’m out here traveling the world, but it sounds like you’re living more excitingly than I am.”

There was a beat of silence and then a feathery laugh. “Oh, honey, you know I can’t give out that information. I could be court-martialed. We don’t know who’s listening.”

Got it.

This was a game. Cadence, a traveling flirtatious suitor and businessman. She, a weary but plucky soldier reaching out to a possible suitor in-between beats of duty. However, it was also a serious mission to maintain contact and collect information. 

Cadence switched gears. “Right, right. You’re safe down there right? I heard that there was a skirmish down south a week ago from the radio.”

“Yeah…” the woman’s voice became muted. “It was an accidental crossfire, but… it’s been smoothed out. It’s been quiet since then… then again there’s been some anti-Aquarian-Capricornian protesters here.” 

Cadence tensed.

“They’re not as fond of tattoos as the members of the Augen movement and they’re not quite as vocal, so maybe it’s not so bad? People… tend to not like change, I guess.” 

She sounded tired, and Cadence didn’t blame her. A cycle from one protest to the next. 

“The training exercises with the Aquarius are great though!” the woman chimed a beat after. “I hoped we’d see Captain Kramer or Knovak since it’d be my third time meeting up with them, but it looks like they weren’t assigned to it even though I thought we shared close border sections.” 

No Kramer. No Knovak. 

Got that, Captain?

In the distance, she could feel Werner nod from where he was already working away at his desk despite the time of day. Maybe she even heard him thank her, but she wasn’t sure. It was always difficult to feel Werner in the early mornings, she noticed. She didn’t wake up this early that often, so she couldn’t tell if the earliness was the cause of it or what.

“I should be going now, dear,” the woman on the phone said after a pause. “There’s a lot of people waiting to use this phone.”

Sweet girl.

“You’re not running off with those two other guys, are you?” Cadence teased, ears perked.

“Don’t worry. They’re too busy with all these training exercises. Me too.”

“Right, right. Stay safe down there, Emilia,” Cadence finished before tossing the phone back on the receiver. 

After the call, Cadence decided to visit Allen and Carl. They had their own special exitless room where they conducted all of their business—dirty and not. The room was much smaller than the warehouse—probably only slightly larger than her old apartment. It held two desks for filing paperwork and counting money, a file cabinet for that paperwork, a cabinet for wine, and a rarely used type-writer that sat on top of it. Cadence had no clue where Francis kept pulling these rooms from, but they sure were convenient.

When she arrived, she found not only the Foxman brothers present, but two Foxman executives too. Barnolli and Mariana, if Cadence recalled correctly. A young man and a young woman who’d stuck with the Foxmans through the incident in the Twin Cities up until now. Francis, on the other hand, was nowhere in sight. He didn’t like involving himself with these types of things anymore, but no one really talked about it. Just like no one talked about Scorpio. 

Allen was busily counting a plethora of common coins and Geminian cens at his desk. Cadence tried to guestimate from the distance how much of a cut she’d get from the game. Hard to say.

Unlike Allen, money didn’t seem to be on Carl’s mind at all since he was busy chattering away all grim-like with Barnolli and Mariana at the opposite side of the room.

The Foxmans and the executives didn’t pay her any mind after she bid them a polite greeting, and so she began perusing the area. Nothing much different from the last time she’d visited. The bottle of wine sitting on the desk in Allen was new and unopened though—

Cadence paused as she spied a series of stacked cardboard boxes resting in the corner of the room. Something green wrapped in plastic was popping out of the box on the very top. She made her way over to it, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t stepping on any toes by doing so. 

Up close, she could see that inside the boxes were numerous plastic-wrapped bundles of some sort of plant. Looked almost like morrowheat. But it wasn’t. Too dark for that.

Hesitantly, she picked up a plastic bundle and gave it a sniff. Her nose tingled like it did back when she’d be around her parents while they were smoking morrowheat, but her head felt light and her cheeks flushed just like that time when Atienna’d been poisoned by Usian back then.

“Cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat,” Allen grunted at her from his desk. “We’re starting to ship them out.”

Cadence straightened, turned, stared. A far-off, faded, buried memory of her mother ghosted the back of her mind. It nearly made her drop the bundle.

“Why you actin’ surprised?” Carl arched a brow. “You were the one who put in a word for us with Argo, ain’t you? Or was that someone, you know…” He tapped his temple.

“I ain’t gonna let anyone take the credit for something I did. It was me.”—Cadence knew she had to take responsibility for it, after all. She allowed a smile to smooth over her face. “Just curious.”

“Market’s good for ‘em right now in Argo,” Allen explained. “Their war vets and the lot who fought at the border with Capricorn and Aquarius eat this up. Gives ‘em a nice buzz and haze. Never tried it ‘cause I’m not stupid.”

How awful, but—

Cadence tensed. “It’s not being sold in Capricorn or Aquarius is it?”

“Not that we know of,” Allen replied. “We’re strictly shipping to Argo.”

Relief loosened Cadence’s shoulders. “… does Francis know?” 

“We tossed the idea out to him a couple months back before he went to Capricorn,” Allen explained. “He gave us an alternative that worked for a short while.”

“Got that bit.” Cadence nodded. “But… does he know now?”

There was a beat of silence. A clear answer.

“You know Francis still isn’t right in the head,” Carl said, rolling his shoulders.

The executives around him said nothing.

Ah, damn. Cadence knew she shouldn’t say what she was about to say next because it’d be stirring the pot, but she also felt like it needed to be said—not just for them but also for herself—

“I’m no expert on vitae—that’s more of the kid’s deal, but…” She met Allen’s gaze, then Carl’s as leisurely as she could. “Theta’s a part of him now. I mean, he’s as much Theta as he is Francis.” Same applied to the captain, right?

Carl didn’t say anything. Neither did Allen. The executives still remained silent.

“You know this kind of stuff involves the Romanos,” Allen finally said. “They’re doing the production. We’re doing the handling and shipping. Just like before.” He paused. “Don’t like the idea of the Romanos taking advantage of Francis and his conducting, so it’s better if he’s away from all that.” 

A flimsy reason. A white lie. But she understood where he was coming from mostly. That was how Atienna played her cards too in a way, and that was how Cadence herself used to play them.

“Like we’re not takin’ advantage of him now?” Cadence arched a brow before suppressing a grimace. What in the world was she saying? Well, it was what she really felt, but she knew it was smart to keep Carl and Allen in the dark about it. She figured the kid and sunshine were rubbing off on her.

Carl frowned; and by how low his brows dipped, she figured she must’ve hit a nerve. “When the hell did you become a sai—”

“Francis’s smart the way he is now,” Allen interjected. “Not that he wasn’t bright before—but now… he’s too gullible, too soft,” Allen interjected as he returned to counting the cens. “We need to keep each other safe. You’re family too, but you need to watch it, Cadence.”

* * *

Near the end of the slow week—at least on her end—Cadence visited Francis in his special room with a paper jotted with notes she’d written herself tucked into her back pocket. The room was the one that Francis and the rest of the ELPIS leaders had held the Romano executives hostage in. The room where all the ELPIS records were held.

She ventured here more often than she’d thought she’d have to. Half of it was through what she figured was Jericho’s own personal want to visit him. But she still had her own reasons. Sometimes Francis felt like Alma and Olive combined. If she didn’t look after him, he’d disappear.

As soon as she stepped into the room through his gate, she was greeted by the sight of him half-draped across a table despite there being an empty sofa along the wall. The saxophone record she’d gifted him was blaring out on the player but it just accentuated the gloom in the room. The ground was scattered with so many books and papers that the floor couldn’t even be seen beneath them. 

It was an unsightly mess.

As Cadence began to pick up the books and put everything in order, Francis stirred from where he lay and straightened himself. He didn’t greet her and continued to study the book in his lap.

After she placed the last book on its shelf, Cadence turned and asked, “Find somethin’ interestin’?”

Francis glanced up at her before nodding. “I almost missed it because not only are the records from this time almost completely destroyed…” He paused. “….but it appears as if Omega was tasked with the record-keeping for whatever reason. They were never well-practiced at keeping notes legible to external parties.”

Then why was she given the task? came a thought, but Cadence kept her mouth shut and digested his words. She blinked in surprise as realization dawned. “Wait a minute. Are ya tryin’ ta find—”

“The specific individuals who might have indoctrinated Jericho and those other children.”

As soon as those words left Francis’s mouth, Cadence felt Jericho synchronize in with such force that for a moment she swore she was going to be overridden. He thankfully pulled back a second after, and she was in control of herself again. Through their connection, she could make out that he was eating lunch in the cafeteria again with Ferris. Also eating crackers again. Blegh. The blandness dried out her tongue even from this end. She had to show the guy better things to eat—to enjoy.

In the end though, she was glad that Jericho was getting along better with Francis. An improvement from the insta-face-punching during their first face-to-face encounter. Part of Cadence was concerned that it was all just the result of Jericho’s lingering memories of the old Theta.

I know he is not that Theta, Jericho responded.

Francis turned over his book to her. The book was almost barebone, pages torn from the seams or burnt at the edges. The leather binding was worn, and the few passages that remained inside were faded. He pointed to a single smudged line on a half-torn page. “This note was left by Omega during that time.” 

A        visited today!

Cadence squinted at the smudged ink. “A?” 

“My theory is that ‘A’ indicates ‘Alpha.’”

“Alpha? Like alpha dog?”

No. The Ophiuchian letter. A name. ELPIS Leader.

Francis confirmed this verbally before continuing, “So they may have been initiated during the period I was in during my previous initiation—or perhaps even prior to that. Omega never mentioned them, but that may just indicate that they were working on a different operation.” 

Feeling Jericho press at the back of her mind, she asked, “What was Alpha like?”

Francis placed a hand to his mouth as his eyes became distant. “Alpha… was intelligent. We didn’t speak often because our studies and research were in different areas… but…” He mumbled into his hand. “…Of course, I could be wrong in the theory that they were involved with what happened to Jericho. It’s not good to jump to conclusions.”

Werner and Atienna had always agreed with the statement, so Cadence found herself agreeing with it too.

“Was there something you needed, Cadence?” Francis pressed before he smiled lightly. “Or are you here to keep me company?”

Cadence paused and then tapped her back pocket. “Sorry, but I got another round of the prince’s questions for you, Francis.”  

Francis hummed. “Well, there’s no need to apologize when asking questions—no matter how ridiculous those questions may be. A moment of embarrassment is a smaller price to pay sacrifice than an eternity of ignorance.”

“Got ya. Thanks for the reassurance, Francis.” Cadence reassured him before pulling out the paper and carefully reading what she’d written—rather sloppily—there. “First question is from the kid. He just wants to understand your conducting ability and all that.”

 Francis nodded thoughtfully, then said, “It has to do with the base attribute of a vitae particle. The widely accepted theory during my time was that all the vitae particles originated from one particular event. In a sense, due to this attribute, all vitae particles have varying degrees of association with one another. A blueprint of origin. My conducting uses this…” 

Cadence started zoning out. She was sure Olive and Jericho were paying attention, so it was probably alright. Her focus sharpened as soon as the thought left her mind. 

“…vitae particles as an extension of my own body hence my general awareness of my gates. For modern conductors and conducting, there is often a separation between the conductor—” Francis lifted his conductor-gloved hand before reaching over and tapping Cadence’s chest. “—and the Conductor.” 

Cadence offered a smile.

“You do remember what I said about the disconnect between words and feelings, don’t you? Perhaps you could connect that to the way people of this era use conductors.”

Francis and his analogies again, Cadence thought before glancing at her list again. After a beat and taking the time to read her scratchy handwriting and take in the words, she winced internally and said, “This is an Atienna question so it’s a bit… plucky. Don’t take it ta heart. Here it is— ‘You say you’re against vitae-conversion, but you still use conductors. Therefore, you would still be contributing to the process, wouldn’t you? Could you please explain your reasoning?’”

Francis frowned slightly but replied, “The state of our vitae—that is, it being bleached—and the manner in which we use vitae in one its purest forms is such that expelling our vitae has a very low vitae-conversion rate. It would be less than even the vitae-conversion rate at natural death. I wouldn’t consider it an ‘energy level’ on its own just as vitae elevated beyond the fourth energy level is still unnamed. This, of course, does not excuse the actions we have taken up to this point.”

Cadence gave a thumbs up. “Next question’s from the captain and… the kid.” She scanned the note. “In summary, they’re wonderin’ how ya guys manage to blast away the vitae reservoirs without havin’ ‘em… ya know…”

Francis blinked in surprise before frowning deeper.

 Maria and Atienna always knew how to hit raw nerves but did it in different ways.

“The process is quite different since we’re starting off at a different energy level to begin with,” Francis drew slowly. “The threshold for reaching that hyper-elevated energy level of vitae—from my observations—is at such a high level of energy that it is unreachable by the means that we use—explosives of the conducting variety or not.” His gaze darkened. “The unnatural things Dämon Forstchritt must have done to achieve such an effect…”

Cadence’s stomach did flip-flops as faint memories from Olive’s nightmares—of Trystan and Marta coalescing into one—bled into her mind—

Francis stiffened abruptly.

“What is it?”

“Someone’s used one of my proto-conductors without asking for a location… I’m not sure where they’ve ended up.”

“One of the ELPIS folks?” she tried, pushing down a blip of annoyance and simmered anger.  

Francis studied her—seemed to look into her—before he shook his head. “They always ask.”

A gust of wind swirled through the room a second after, and Fleck stumbled inside. The man’s head was drenched in sweat and his breathing was labored. He lurched forwards, locked eyes with Francis, stammered— “U-Uh, boss, we have an issue.”

A moment later Fleck was leading them out of Francis’s room through a gate and back into the kids’ warehouse. As soon as Cadence stepped foot inside, she knew something was off. It was too quiet. There were no cheers at their arrival, nor were they swarmed by small bodies. 

Cadence felt her heart drop into her stomach and her stomach itself twist into a knot.

“What is the meaning of this?” Francis’s voice cut through her cold worry and confirmed what she was seeing. 

The warehouse was absolutely devoid of the kids. Gauging by Fleck’s panic, Cadence grimly wagered that they’d—

“—ran away,” Fleck said. “They stole my proto-conductor somehow and ran through the gate before I even realized it. Max and Pi are out searchin’ for ‘em—” 

Cadence scanned the room again. Nothing. 

Mateo ran too then? Her good cookie? Well, if he saw her as a role model, then it wasn’t too surprising— 

“Mr. Fleck, you are aware that I gave you only one task to do, aren’t you?” 

Cadence turned to find Francis fixating Fleck with a cold and hard stare that reminded her of how he’d looked when he’d been about to sink the city. She was pretty pissed too. This was not a ‘blame it on the situation’ situation. Someone needed to take responsibility, but first she needed to be calmTime was of the essence.  

Right. 

She placed a hand on Francis’s arm. “I hear ya, Francis, but we gotta act instead of simmer, right?”

Francis stared down at her with the same intensity he’d given Fleck before his expression lessened. “You’re correct. There is no use in becoming angry when the matter has already passed. You must try harder next time, Fleck.”

Fleck just tensed even more. 

“We’ll start a search immediately.”

* * *

Combing through the streets of the Twin Cities was step one of Francis’s process. There was apparently some pattern to the way his gates opened when they weren’t used correctly with a proto-conductor. Something about proximity and past vitae markers and vitae theory. If they didn’t find the kids in the city, Francis said, then they’d have to expand their search outwards. 

The Foxmans requested Matilda’s network to help with the search. The group had been lying low too and had been using Francis’s gates to get around. Cadence figured the lack of work due to the Ophiuchian crackdown made them eager to get their hands in. 

Werner suggested for them to do a very specific, efficient line sweep of the city with their resources. The Foxmans accepted the proposal and doled out the commands. 

I advise you not to join the pursuit, was Werner’s next line of advice. However, if you insist, you should be cautious and be aware of those who could potentially be turned into hostages around you besides the missing children. Atienna’s deal does not equate to safety. The same applies to Francis.

Got it, Captain. 

I’ll be watching. 

And so, Cadence too scoured through the streets she knew like the back of her hand. She raced down the streets she’d been assigned to search until the cobblestone alleyways bled into bricked red roads and continued on even after the skyscrapers that scratched the clouds simmered down into short, flat cobblestone buildings. The taste of soot and salt coated her tongue as it always did when she stepped outside in these parts, but she was too focused on her goal to hate-love it. She did take note, however, of the emptiness of the streets. Unusual for the hour. She proceeded with more caution.

Soon the seconds bled into minutes bled into hours and still—nothing. The horizon began to devour the sun. 

She swung by the TwinStars pub and asked the very few patrons present about the kids before doubling back around and touching base at the Abaccio then the Rosario Round casino. When not a lick of the kids or any information about them were found there, she crossed over into the west side of the city. 

The Campana-Romano rivalry had almost completely disappeared after Ophiuchus got its hands on the city after ELPIS’s rollout. It was almost like it had never even existed. Actually, the entire chemistry of the Twin Cities had changed. There was a sense of ‘quietness’ to the surface now that made it feel more like the capital of Capricorn than anything else. Last she’d checked, the petty crime rates had gone down too. ‘Course the quietness of this particular day was unusual. Regardless. Appearances were deceiving. Everything rumbled beneath the surface.

Bad and good and politics aside, because of Ophiuchian influence, Cadence wasn’t too worried about being yanked aside and shaken down by Campanas as she crisscrossed over the bridges above the canals on the west side. Ambrose was still off in Leo with some mysterious lover according to the tabloids too, so free sailing. 

None of the sailing did her any good, however. After knocking on the doors of a couple of police officers in the area and coming up with nothing again, she hit the final place in Werner’s suggested line sweep. The Monadic district.  

The district was as pristine white as it always was—swept clean of debris and dust, all buildings scrubbed of the soot that sometimes fell this way from the smoke pillars rising from the conductor manufacturing plants. There were twelve temples here—rumor was that there was a thirteenth that got taken down after the war—with each of them dedicated to one of the twelve Ancestors. They were built large, tall, and facing each other in a ring. 

Cadence jogged up the white marble steps of the Ariesian temple first and peered inside its dark interior. The temple pews that were dappled in stained-glass light inside were unoccupied. The large, white, face-less statue of Aries in the back stood silent and with its hands clasped forwards as if in offering. Creepy, if one knew the truth.

The Geminian temple was her next stop, but it was just as empty as the Ariesian one. The only difference was that there were two towering statues inside. They stood facing each other holding hands, their facelessness making them identical—like a reflection. 

After pulling out of this temple, Cadence skidded down the steps and rounded the building towards the Leonian one. Just as she laid eyes on said temple’s front, she felt her heart nearly leap in her chest. Curled up on the steps of the temple was Mateo in the flesh. At his left and right sat a man and woman dressed in Monadic robes—black cloth, heavy, and all.  

The duo gave Cadence pause, and she pulled back behind the Geminian temple building. 

The doors to the Leonian temple were swung wide open allowing the faceless Monadic statue of the Ancestor Leo to be seen in its full berth. The statue was dappled over with the lustrous light spilling in from the windows of the building. From the distance, it looked like the towering statue was about to envelop Mateo and the two priests in its widespread arms.

Cadence tensed and studied the two priests. She didn’t recognize them. Not saying much since she rarely visited these parts. Scorpio’s spores maybe? Should she wait it out? Or would they whisk Mateo away? Approach? Carefully.

She then weighed whether or not she should disguise herself. If she didn’t disguise herself and they were Scorpio’s spores, she could be tagged like Atienna, Werner, Jericho, and probably Olive were. The possibility of Scorpio’s eyes being on her all the time gave her the heeby jeebies. On the other hand, if they were Scorpio’s spores and she disguised herself, then they might accidentally cut and infect her—effectively doing away with Atienna’s deal but also giving her and the others another bad ride in Scorpio town. She didn’t think Mateo’d recognize her if she went disguised either, and Monadic priests were generally very cool, no? 

Cadence shook the thought away. Not too sure about that. Nothing on Simon, Sunshine.

Cost-benefit analysis…? Go in as herself carefully. Have Mateo come to her. Run Mateo through a check by Lita. Get info from him and find the others. 

Approved. Still, she should have Francis’s proto-conductor immediately ready in case there needed to be an escape. 

Curling her fingers around the proto-conductor in her back pocket, Cadence pulled herself out of hiding and walked towards the trio as she waved her hand. “Kid! Mateo! Saints—” 

Before Cadence could finish her sentence, Mateo leapt to his feet, dashed forwards, and flung himself at her. She caught him haphazardly and held him in confusion as he tried to palm something into her hands. Something cold and thin. Francis’s proto-conductor. 

“C-Cadence. I want to see Theta,” Mateo whispered, trembling. “They said they were Theta’s friends. I don’t believe them. He said he’d take them on an adventure. They went. I didn’t. I—”

Damn, so Mateo had pickpocketed Fleck, Cadence realized. Half of her was proud, half of her wanted to smack him upside the head—wait. ‘Theta’s friends’?

“Are you his parent or guardian?” 

Cadence looked up and found that the female Monadic priest was only a meter away from her. The woman was tall, her skin sun-kissed, her hair coming out in thick, black curls to her waistline. As the priest lifted up her hand kindly, the sleeve of her robe slipped down her arm and—

—Cadence saw it. The white snake tattoo that grew from the base of the woman’s palm to her upper forearm.

Despite her hammering heart, Cadence hid away her surprise with a pleasant smile while biting her inner lip as she braced herself for Jericho’s anger. Much to her surprise, however, the anger simmered below the surface—almost ready to pop but not quite. She wasn’t quite sure if this was Jericho’s doing or Werner’s quiet presence.

Dangerous, was the detective’s only thought to her. Leave. I will take care of them. Later.

“Aren’t you too young to be taking care of someone so young?” the woman pressed, still smiling, hand still extended. “Are you hungry? Tired? Why don’t you come with us? And tell us about Theta while you’re at it? We’re his friends, you know.”

Be calm and alert, Werner advised. They haven’t engaged.

“Theta…? Who’s that…? I really should be going home to my parents…” Cadence spoke in the softest voice possible and managed not to take a step back—couldn’t let them know her apprehension. 

How old did they think she even was anyways? And—ELPIS leaders? Here? The real question was whether or not they were with Gamma, was it not? Sure, but—intuition: they were not. The movements of Gamma’s group were still locked in at Taurus and Leo according to the ELPIS Department’s recent reports.

“What?” the woman frowned. “You don’t know Theta?” She smiled. “Well, even if you don’t know them, you can still come with us—”

“Thank you…” Cadence murmured shyly, rubbing circles into Mateo’s back. “But like I said… I should really be going home. Our parents are worried sick…”

Cadence, Werner’s thought cut through. Carefully back away and subtly pull out the proto-conductor. If your words are not enough of a distraction, use Olive’s conducting.

The male priest—the disguised ELPIS Leader—suddenly stared holes into Cadence. He was as tall as the woman and had cat-like eyes and a nubby nose. She noted how one of his hands was hidden behind his back.

After a beat, the man spoke in a raspy voice, “This one looks young, but she’s probably too old, isn’t she, Rho?” 

Cadence’s heart skipped a beat as his words sank in. She’d heard them before. The memory came to her now—those same words were said beneath the scorching sun as she and all the others wept across Theta’s corpse. 

A figure had stood above her with lips pressed into a sympathetic smile. “This one looks young, but he’s probably too old, isn’t he?”

“No one is ever too old,” a voice had hummed from just behind them. The owner of the voice had approached not long after, kneeling down and offering a hand. “Do you want Theta’s death to be in vain—”

“The musician was old, Nu, but he still took her in,” the ELPIS woman spoke again, drawing Cadence out of the swirling memory.

Nausea bubbled in Cadence’s stomach as she tried to regain a sense of where she was. She could tell Werner and Jericho were still reeling from the memory too. 

“Because the musician had talent,” Nu replied before approaching and looking Cadence up and down. “If this one knows that one, then she also most likely knows Theta. She’s lying.” 

Mateo buried himself further into Cadence; and before she realized it, the proto-conductor had slipped from his hands. The click-clack it made as it hit the ground and rolled along the white road felt like a pin-needle drop in absolute silence.

“Oh. There it is,” Rho noted. She stared at Cadence. “Do you know what that is?”

Holding her gaze with the woman, Cadence shook her head. “It’s probably something my little brother here stole from my parents. He always does those things…” She took a slow step forwards— 

“Don’t move,” Nu interjected.

Cadence froze, stared at the proto-conductor glinting in the dimming dusk in disbelief. Seriously? She then tensed, locked eyes with Nu and Rho again. Like hell she was going to risk her life—their lives—for this thing. Besides what if these ELPIS Leaders were with Gamma? Gamma had Francis’s approval to use proto-conductors, so might as well let them have it again, right? Captain? Detective? Deal—

Before Cadence realized it, she suddenly found herself pushing Mateo aside and flying towards the proto-conductor. Rho charged too, but a familiar and invisible force guided Cadence’s legs upwards. Her foot cracked against Rho’s temple and sent the woman flying backwards. As Cadence tucked into a roll from the motion, her fingers wrapped around the proto-conductor and she pulled it close to her chest.

Escape while they’re distracted, came Werner’s order. Don’t become distracted yourself.

Whipping the smile from her face, Cadence scrambled to her feet a second after and gave out a quick ‘thanks, Sunshine,’ before she stumbled back to Mateo and grabbed a hold of his hand. She slapped down the plunger of the proto-conductor, sending the black liquid sputtering onto the ground. Not skipping a beat, she twirled the needle and pressed its point against the liquid causing it to immediately glow.

“The bay! The bay!” she hissed.

A burst of wind brushed against her cheeks and she began to sink down into the light with Mateo. Before the light swallowed them both whole, she was able to catch a glimpse of Nu standing with a blade ignited in white in his hands and of Rho standing with her gloved hand extended as a strange white mist rolled on towards them.

A second later, Cadence found herself and Mateo on top of the empty rooftop of a high-rise building. A familiar series of sights, scents, and sounds greeted her as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The smell of the sea, the shuddering of the crashing waves, the lights of the Dioscuri Bridge flickering on in the darkening skyline in the distance—this was the Pollux Bay.

She slowly unfurled from Mateo before falling on her back with a sigh. Mateo shakily mimicked her and pressed his back against hers, but she was too tired to do anything else but offer him a half-smile.

Werner’s and Jericho’s image solidified beside her a beat after.

Are you alright? Werner pressed. The ghost of a hand brushed against her head.

Cadence offered a Jericho-worthy thumbs up in turn. She could feel the relief warm both of their chests a second after, but Werner’s gaze remained steely and he sent a look of disapproval off in the distance—

That was reckless, Maria. 

But we came out unscratched, right? A win there, Cadence thought back.

Werner frowned at her before his gaze flicked to the left. Cadence followed his gaze to the quiet heat that was warming her cheek in the direction. Her eyes immediately widened, and she scrambled to the edge of the roof and peered over the edge.

The skyline was burned red and raked through with pillars of smoke. Ash rained down from those pillars and coated the docks below it in a nightmarishly familiar gray haze. The waters of the bay reflected back the burning light full force. From this distance, she could see tiny little dots of people running from the bay waters to the source of all the fire.

The silence of the entire city now made sense to Cadence. The Twin Cities was a living thing, and one of its major limbs had just been sliced to the bone.

 All the warehouses owned by the Foxmans were now aflame. The ships they owned that were looped to the docks were crumbling to burnt metal cinders. The shipping containers subtly marked with their name were wreathed in red. Etched into the cement ground—no, burned into it by what was most likely like a vitae-blade—amongst all this chaos were a slew of almost unrecognizable, large letters. 

βρες με 

Cadence didn’t know what it meant, but her hands curled into fists.

‘Find me,’ Jericho provided, stiff, cold. Who?

Cadence took a step back and turned towards Mateo who was curled up in a ball on the ground. She went to his side immediately and placed a tender hand on his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry—”

“It’s okay,” Cadence tried gently. “I ain’t mad. I’m just worried. I promise.”

 Mateo nodded, relaxed slightly.

“Now, would ya tell me what happened?”

A beat of silence.

“I just wanted everyone to go outside… like me,” he whispered. “I didn’t know how to use it. We came here—I don’t know where. But there was someone there already. Waiting? He took the others. He asked and they went with him.” 

“Was it one of those two we just saw?”

Mateo shook his head.

“Did you catch his name? Was it ‘Gamma’?”

“No,” Mateo whimpered, shaking his head once more. “His name was Alpha.” 

Hårek Ohmdahl, First Chairman of the Medical Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Mending the Wounds of Signum.”


FALSE PEACE BROUGHT BY OPHIUCHUS TO THE TWIN CITIES?

Follow the events of ELPIS’s attack on the Twin Cities, Ophiuchus has been praised for stepping in and stamping out the petty crime in the city. The crime rates are reported to have gone down 36%. There have even been reports that major crime leaders in the city have absconded.

However, readers, I ask you to look into what isn’t reported and to why such corruption was allowed to go on for so long. Instead of praising short-term affects, I advice us all to look at the long-term.

Daily Duo Article #404, written by Hilton Tyler, 1942.11.20

22.1: The Prince & The Llamamiento!

Re-cap: Olive was swept away into Capricorn after Werner was infected by Saint Candidate of Scorpio’s spore. During his time in Capricorn in his override over Werner, he discovered the truth about the vitae energy levels, saint candidates, and vitae conversion. In exchange for the knowledge that he’d gained, however, he lost lost two individuals who were important to him. Trystan Carter, his royal guard, and Marta John, his conductor engineering friend.

As the chapter closed on Scorpio’s machinations in Capricorn, Olive was greeted with Aries imposing a tariff on Capricorn due to the former’s alliance with Sagittarius. Now as political unease brews…


Saddine “The Storm” Agwuegbo, First Chairman of the Communications Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “Please don’t vote for me.”

The ash fell from the sky like snow—melting into the soot-stained ground and softening up the red residue dried to the earthen patches. Smoke pillars grew like trees up to the sky, their branches blooming black across the horizon and mimicking clouds. Bodies littered the ground beneath these pillars like crumpled, fallen leaves.

A man whose hair caught the faint sunlight falling in-between the gaps of gray oversaw this carnage—back sturdy, shoulders broad, stance firm. He was beautifully golden.

“I will not abandon these people,” he drew, rumbling voice filled with absolute certainty. “I refuse. If you continue on this path, I will stand against you with Altair, Vega, Deneb, and the others.” When he turned his head, his molten amber eyes were filled with disappointment. “Do you not have any pride for everything we’ve gone through to build this place from the ground up?” 

Olive’s cheeks flushed as a line of fire erupted just behind the man, accentuating the unearthliness of the man’s features. The way his golden locks caught the light of the crimson fire made him look as if he were aflame—no, burning.

Burning just like everyone in the palace had. Just like his mother and father had. Just like Lavi had—

Up from the desecrated battlefield abruptly grew great red banners decorated with the Ariesian ram horns. The white walls of the palace emerged from the ground next, forming a cage around the golden man who liquified into a mass of unidentifiable bodies that writhed in a crisp black, cracked amalgamation. 

Burning just like the servant in Claire’s villa had—

The white walls of the palace melted into paper windows as the burning corpses of the Ariesian royalty became replaced by a single young woman. She was swathed in torn silk garments that were eaten by scorch marks that were also etched into her arms.

Burning just like P.D. Oran had—

The surroundings bubbled down into a swirling lava puddle on the ground and coalesced into the quivering form of P.D. Oran who flinched away from Olive as crimson flames surrounded him.

Burning just like Trystan and Marta had—

No, no, no. Olive didn’t want to see this. Anything but this—

“This isn’t real, Olive,” came a familiar cool, calm voice paired with a cold hand at the back of his neck.

Werner? No. Atienna? No.

“You need to wake—”


Torrine, Aries

“—up!”

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance startled awake, his heart hammering, his ears ringing with the sound of chiming bells in the far distance. A shadow passed over his head, shielding him from the blinding white light that assaulted his eyes. It took a moment for him to realize the shadow was a person’s face. A man with a scar running down from his left temple to the corner of his lip. Stein—Derik Stein. Just Derik.

Derik pulled away with a grimace. “How the hell do you sleep this long?”

Blearily, Olive gathered his bearings. 

A straw, prickly mattress currently supported his back while a stuffed cotton pillow supported his neck. The wooden door to the small bedroom he was residing in was still rattling on its hinges—still creaking back and forth from Derik’s presumably violent entrance. The blinds to the circular window above his head were thrown open allowing in the blazing heat of the Ariesian sun. 

Olive blinked up at Derik in groggy confusion. “…What time is it?”

“Time to wake the fuck up,” Derik replied, heading back to the door and kicking it open just as it creaked shut. “And it’s about time we left this village too. It’s too damn hot in this country.”

Olive stared after him before he fell back onto his pillow and let out a ragged sigh.

Derik seemed like he was in a good mood today! For him at least. Energetic. Olive had no idea how Werner managed to get Derik to fall in line. The man was a loose cannon—

A sheen of black fluttered out of the corner of Olive’s eye, impeding his line of thought. Turning his head towards the color, he spied Lavi sitting by the windowsill with her back to him. She was peering out into the morning light and humming a half-familiar melody.

Olive studied her silhouette as his stomach churned. 

Francis had confirmed it months earlier. Lavi was a bonafide saint candidate. Not a failed one. A real one. Aries incarnated in the flesh. Or spirit. Fourth-level of vitae, the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, baptism, vitae capacity, memories and soul, and everything in-between. But… 

Francis still hadn’t ascertained as to how Lavi had ‘entered’ him. When Cadence had asked about it on Olive’s behalf not too long after the incident in Capricorn, Francis had said that “the pressure of all that extra vitae contained in saint candidates would expand on the ‘channel’ of a True Conductor beyond a True Conductor’s capacity and result in a True Conductor’s body melting into”—verbatim—“a possibly vitae-like yet jelly-like substance.”

Although the man had been very flippant about the gruesome outcome and description, his usual morose gloominess overcame him once the Tragedy of Aries was brought up. Olive had personally thought that if anyone should be depressed about it, it should be himself. He, however, remained silent as Cadence managed to move Francis along to the subject at hand. Aries and Lavi. 

It had been a bit awkward in the beginning, but they had managed to hold a pseudo-interview between Lavi and Francis with Olive himself and Cadence acting as a telephone line. Unfortunately, Lavi answered many of Francis’s questions with ‘I don’t know,’ ‘What…?’, and ‘Are we almost done?”

“It might be that Aries is not fully ‘here,’” Francis had suggested after digesting all of Lavi’s answers. “It might be that Miss Chance is not fully ‘here’ either. Then again, the distinction between the two is…” He’d trailed off. 

The statement had unnerved Olive. 

In the end, the man had ended it all with— “There’s a missing component we’re not considering here… Or perhaps what’s important is the fact that it is missing. I’ll try to see what I can do. Not for Aries, but for you, Cadence… and that poor child—that prince.” 

Shaking the old memories away, Olive continued to spy on his sister by the windowsill as he thought of asking her—“Lavi, you’re you, right?”

Finally, as if feeling his gaze or hearing his thoughts, Lavi turned to him and a cheeky grin split across her face. “You’re up early—are you really Ollie?”

Early?

Lavi pointed to the round clock across the room. The hour hand was barely touching the number 10. Olive shot up immediately at the sight of it.

It was only around ten in the morning….? What was wrong with Derik? First, he stormed the room like he was raiding enemy territory, and now he decided that 10 in the morning was a good time to force someone to wake up? Trystan would never—

Trystan… 

Fighting against the heaviness that crumpled his chest, Olive swung his legs over his bed and reached for the small table set off to the corner of his bedpost. A rectangular box rested there on a multi-colored, handwoven tablecloth. When he reached for it and flipped it open, a set of black conducting rings greeted his eyes. Hand-designed and hand-crafted. Insulation tubes, even larger than insulation tubes of proto-conductors. Conducting core, small, but maximizing the amount of vitae flow inputted up to 79%.

Olive had used some of Marta’s old blueprints released by the Conductor Bureau of Aries for its creation and had dubbed it a Marta-Model Ring Conductor.

“Good work,” Werner had told him after he’d finished crafting the thing. “You’ve increased its efficiency… It’s certainly something to be commended.”

“I say we put it on the market and reap the profits,” Cadence had added with a chortle. “I bet ya these it’d be all the rage. People always like upgrades—no matter how tiny!”

“Oh, dear Olive, send me one, yes? I want to show it off to my crew!”

All three praises had made Olive’s day, but he’d pushed away the second idea. Besides, as Cadence had said, it wasn’t as if he’d made something entirely on his own. He’d just improved what was already there. Marta’s ideas. He’d recently tried to apply those ideas to his most recent three conductor projects which were now laid out on the desk in the corner of the room. Resting on said desk was a cylindrical object about 1.5 feet long, a small cube lined with glass insulators, and a circular metal sphere.

Ugh. They were embarrassing to look at. 

With a grimace, he set the box of rings to the side, picked up a rag that he’d accidentally thrown to the ground the previous night, and tossed it over the devices to hide them. He paused after the action and took notice of the numerous other things that were scattered on the floor. Bolts, insulation tubes, small rags, clothing. It was an unsightly mess that needed to be addressed, and cleaning was the least he could do in exchange for their hospitality. 

As Olive went through the motions of tidying up the room, his mind strayed to Marta and the conducting rings again. Nothing new—not even an invention. It was merely something minutely modified.

“Even the slightest improvement and modification aren’t things to be looked down on, don’t you think? Even that is something to be admired, right?” had been Atienna’s reply to that.

Olive frowned at the memory and then shrugged it off. 

When he was finally done with the tidying affair, he slipped his hand-crafted proto-conducting rings on and wiggled his fingers. Watching as the large insulating tubes curled with crimson vitae, he hopped to his feet and held his hand out to Lavi.

Lavi’s gaze brightened immediately at the sight of his extended hand before she hopped off the windowsill and accepted his gesture. As soon as their fingers touched, the rings ignited in crimson flames that swallowed up her entire body. When the flames died away, Lavi shook her head and blew away the mirage of smoke. She looked the same as before, albeit blonde and blue-eyed with a red cloth mask covering her lower face. 

“Let’s go for a walk today, okay?”

Lavi’s eyes glistened.

* * *

Like all of Olive’s usual morning walks with Lavi, Derik followed several steps behind them. The Capricornian wasn’t respectfully silent nor did he keep to the shadows as he walked along. No, instead he made his presence known, grumbling loudly every so often about the heat from beneath the large umbrella Olive had bought for him weeks ago while also flirting noticeably with all the women who paid him a glance.

It hadn’t taken long for the local Ariesians to get used to Derik’s gruff bluntness. In the beginning, they had thrown him glares of disapproval or frowns of apprehension from their red-bricked and limestone houses that dotted this wide dirt path that ran the length of the town. It had only taken them a couple of days to warm up to his attitude. Then they’d started trying to up-sell him fruit juices and shaved ice from their stores. Unfortunately, Derik barely had any left-over pension from his time serving in the Capricornian army due to his unceremonious desertion of duty and he was not an approved Ariesian royal guard either. This meant he wasn’t actively earning a salary. Thus, Olive had started to pay for his expenses out-of-pocket—well, out of his funds from the royal treasury.

‘Freeloader’ had been Olive’s first grumbling thought, but he supposed he was one in a sense too. And after some pondering and sifting through Werner’s fragmented memories of Derik, he’d reconsidered further. He felt pity for Derik: forced by Scorpio to follow a beating, thrumming, pulsating thought. To dedicate and to protect. 

Just like Werner.

Olive shrugged uncomfortably at the thought.

That aside, even though Olive had informed all the townspeople here to ignore his status as the Ariesian prince—to which Cadence had reacted with “Why in the world would ya do that?”—he still received deep and respectful bows whenever he strolled the morning streets. He had at first thought of sending them glares for their stubbornness, but then he’d reminded himself that these people were people Trystan knew. After all, this was Trystan’s hometown of Torrine. And so, he had now settled on offering smiles and waves just like the feudal lords back home—except he wasn’t planning to pull one over on everyone here. 

Maybe Cadence and Atienna were rubbing off on him.

“Oh, Ollie, there’s a lot of people out today, isn’t there?”

Olive glanced down at Lavi and tightened his hand around hers. 

As always, Lavi was spending their morning walk greeting the townspeople as they started their daily activities. She didn’t have a particular order going about her morning salutations. If the first person she saw was the milkman ambling down the path with his signature crates of clinking glass bottles, she’d greet him first with the brightest smile and wildest wave. If it was the local farmer coming in for his morning coffee at the small local diner, she’d offer it instead to him. No favoritism here. 

But Lavi was right about there being more people out and about. This small town had started to become crowded with new faces these past couple of weeks. Because of this, Lavi had been able to greet more people and new people with each passing day. These newcomers ranged from men and women in overalls and soot-smudged faces to men and women with large cameras dangling from their necks and clipboards and tape-recorders tucked beneath their arms. 

Fortunately, most of them were too charmed by Lavi’s vibrancy to pay Olive any mind. Yes, they could all see Lavi now. Cadence’s illusions and conducting allowed this to happen, allowed Lavi to be seen by everyone like this, allowed her smiles and waves to be reflected back to her, allowed her to be… acknowledged

Lavi had been overjoyed when she’d received her first wave back from an outsider when they’d done their first trial run of these conducting rings. Olive himself had nearly shed a tear. Truly, without Cadence, this wouldn’t have been possible. Still, whenever he brought it up, the woman always said, “Don’t sweat it, kid. Kinda weird how we didn’t think of this ta begin with, ‘ey?”

There were a lot of things Olive figured he should’ve thought of to begin with. That was just the tip of the iceberg. As he mulled over these things, they neared a log building at the very end of the path. A flock of birds was taking shade beneath the extended roof there, and they fearlessly cocked their heads at him as he approached. Lavi waved enthusiastically at them too before Olive guided her into the building.

Inside, a metal fan was beating on the ceiling. Below this fan sat a large and long table piled with a series of blueprints stained with coffee rings. Several men and women skirted the table—too engrossed in the numbers and structures sketched out on the papers to pay respects. But Olive preferred it that way.

Only one man pulled himself away from the table and approached Olive. The man’s face was sun-beaten, his hair black but graying, his brows thick, his eyes a familiar hazel shade. But Olive’s eyes were not drawn to these features nor the amicability drawn across the man’s face. Rather, his gaze was locked onto the familiar hexagonal, golden badge that hung from a leather string on the man’s neck.

“Prince Chance!” The man beamed as he paced over to Olive’s side. 

Derik brushed past the man and stood beneath the whipping fan with a sigh of relief. Sweat was dripping down his face onto the blueprints on the table. He momentarily eyed the badge hanging from the approaching man’s neck before coming to a stand beside Olive. 

“I told you to just call me Olive, Mr. Carter,” Olive mumbled, dipping his head. “You—”

“How many more times does he have to tell you not to call him ‘prince’?” Derik snapped, wiping the sweat from his brow. “If I have to listen to him repeat it one more time—“

Mr. Carter raised his hands. “I’m sorry, Olivier. Hard to break the habits.”

“It’s not that big of a deal… How is everything going?” Olive dipped his head again.

It was difficult to meet Mr. Carter’s eyes and to look at the man’s face. Whenever Olive did, all he could think was that maybe this was what Trystan would look like if he had been able to grow old. 

It had taken everything in Olive to face Trystan’s parents again after he’d delivered to them the news of their son’s death. He was certain that all the somber gentleness they’d given him the first time they’d met was the result of deeply-ingrained and taught ‘royal respect’ and ‘lower-class humbleness.’ He’d thought that once the reality of Trystan’s passing settled in, they would deservedly hate him and shove him away just as Otto Vogt’s parents had done to Werner all those months ago. Much to his surprise, however, the Carters had both welcomed him with kind and open arms and with no grudges when he’d returned to this small village. They’d even offered him their house— Trystan’s bed —to stay for his time here. It hadn’t been an offer he could refuse without straining their relationship since the town was too small to even have an inn. 

Their attitudes and generosity made sense in the end. Only parents like these could’ve managed to raise someone as selfless, kind, dedicated, and progressive as Trystan. ‘Crushed under the weight of ideals’ was how Scorpio had put it. Maybe so. But in the end, Trystan would be remembered—Olive would make sure of it. That way Trystan would never… really die. 

Olive glanced at the blueprints and read the Common text blazed across the top of every single one of them.

The Trystan Project. A long-term infrastructure project with an objective to extend out new ley-lines and insulating tubes from Aries’s reservoirs to the countryside of Torrine where vitae reservoirs were sparse. Attracting teachers, educators, and investors to the area was a secondary goal of the project, but to Olive it was the most important goal. A way to set precedent. 

While he had come up with the name for the project and took the initiative to start it, Atienna and Werner had helped him refine the 10-pronged plan for its development. Cadence and Jericho had helped him in speaking with the local officials and going through Ophiuchian laws and regulations about the project. Maria had offered her curious enthusiasm. 

Although he was happy with the progress and felt a small sense of contentment at the idea that this entire thing was somewhat of a group project that he was sharing with the other five, in the end it still felt like he was supporting the technology that turned Trystan into that. Vitae-conversion. Reservoirs. Using them. Would Trystan approve…?

But right or wrong—that was how politics worked.

There had to be an alternative, Olive ruminated. Not to just the Trystan Project’s provisions, but to vitae—

“—laid down the main insulation tubes. We just have to make sure the ley-lines will be long enough to match them and get the shipments in,” Mr. Carter finished with a nod. “I think we could be done with this by the end of the year!”

Olive hid away his grimace with a nod and small smile. 

The end of the year? That was such a long time…

“Change doesn’t happen instantaneously, Olive,” Werner would usually say whenever these thoughts would plague his mind. “This is why protocol and process exist. If change is too rapid without proper procedure then critical issues will emerge in the near future. This is a fact.”

Protocols and processes—lists—seemed to be one of Werner’s favorite things. He seemed to enjoy making them even more now since he’d taken up office at the Capricornian capital. He’d even recently tried to teach Cadence, Jericho, and Olive himself how to create lists to better manage goals and time. Olive had created a bare-bones list just to satisfy the man, and it had become this thus far—

1. Trystan’s hometown
2. Aries’s relationship with Capricorn
3. Monadism
4. Lavi
5. Gilbert’s Arm

Simple, but a simple approach wasn’t necessarily a bad approach— or so Werner had started saying recently. “Life is hard and becomes harder the longer you live,” was something Trystan had said that went along with that line of thought. “Take it simple goal by simple goal.” One thing at a time.

But it still felt too agonizingly slow. And when things were slow, Olive’s mind strayed to Trystan and Marta as well as… Atienna and Werner. 

Olive was rather… concerned about them both. Ever since the incident with Scorpio, they both seemed different. More different than the other three. Of course, before Scorpio, Werner would dole out occasional crumbs of praise and reassurance and Atienna would have bouts of expertly veiled bite and cunning that Olive wouldn’t even notice until after the fact. But recently—Olive himself couldn’t quite put it into words—it seemed as if those aspects of them had become especially noticeable. In a sense, it was almost as if they had switched places somehow in a way that was difficult to explain. 

Werner, Atienna. Talib, Scorpio. Lavi, Aries.

“She’s always so energetic—this one,” Mr. Carter said suddenly, drawing away Olive’s thoughts.

Olive followed the man’s gaze down to his sister and found her brimming brightly and waving at the men and women surrounding the blueprints. Lavi’s smile—Olive wanted to do all he could to preserve it. 

* * *

“How much vitae are you expelling doing that?” was what Derik asked Olive as soon as he settled into the small table in the diner that Derik had selected.

Olive glanced at Lavi who was seated beside him, then shrugged.

Derik frowned at him then at Lavi before calling over a waitress who flusteredly bowed her head at Olive. Fortunately, the Capricornian drew her attention away with a flirtatious remark and then placed an order of two sausages, four eggs, and two slices of bread.

Still blushing from the man’s words, the waitress politely asked, “Is this for the both of you?”

Derik frowned for a minute before flashing a wolfish grin and stretching out his arms in a way that caused his muscles to bulge. “Well, you can see that’s barely enough to keep me going. Plus the prince is a growing boy.”

Saints. Gross. Derik was painful to be around. And yet still somehow the waitress was blushing.

Derik nodded at him. “What are you ordering, kid?” He glanced at Lavi. “Kids?”

The waitress turned to him expectantly. 

Olive still wasn’t quite used to these kinds of interactions. Usually Trystan would order food for him—

Olive grimaced not at Derik but at the returning memory of Trystan. After receiving a brief appearances from Werner and a politeness is important, don’t you think? from Atienna, however, he offered the waitress a smile and ordered three pancakes and two strawberry parfaits. When Olive turned back to Derik, he found the man staring bullets at him.

“What?”

“Saints. You eat like you want to die. Don’t you feel like shit after you eat that shit? Don’t the others feel like shit?”

The waitress stiffened. 

Olive froze, thinking of the two sugars Werner had started taking with his coffee. He frowned and recently cleared his throat. “Actually, could I cancel that order and…” He trailed off as he eyed the waitress who was glancing nervously between them. 

“I-I have just the thing!” the waitress stammered before folding away to the back of the restaurant. 

Instead of addressing Derek any further, Olive reached out to the others—and they all answered his call. As he felt their synchronizations increase, he could better make out their surroundings in the back of his mind. 

A yawning Cadence was scarfing down a slice of bread blanketed with prosciutto in Francis’s exitless room as the Foxmans and their men haphazardly tried to gather the children for lunch. Werner was at his desk and already four hours into his paperwork. Occasionally, he’d set his files down to take a sip of his usual morning cup of black coffee with two sugars. Maria was perched on the bowsprit of her ship and spying on the bustling docks far below her as she listened to the chiming of bells in the distance. In her hand was a warm churro, its warmth and sweetness still sticky on her tongue. The tea Atienna was sipping was equally warm, and the Virgoan continued to sip it as she turned the pages of her encyclopedia on Cancerian agriculture. In the distance on her end, the train’s horn bellowed. Jericho’s side of things was just as noisy. At the moment, he was nibbling on some crackers and sipping apple juice across from fellow Ophiuchian Agent Ferris Hart in the cafeteria area of the Serpens Establishment. 

“So how long are you planning to stay in this dump?” Derik asked suddenly, drawing Olive out from his quiet observation of the others. “The only good thing about this place is the women.” 

“Right, the women who avoid you,” Olive muttered absentmindedly. 

Derik abruptly slammed his fist onto the wooden table, sending the utensils and plates leaping up into the air. “The hell did you say to me?”

Olive startled, heart skipping a beat as the porcelain rattled on the table. 

Derik was leaning halfway across the table looking like he was about to throw himself forward. He glowered for a second longer before pulling back. “You don’t have a lick of damn respect, you brat.”

I don’t have respect?” Olive muttered. “ You came barging into my room without knocking…”

Derik sneered. “Not everyone is going to take your shit. And sometimes when you throw shit, shit gets thrown back. Welcome to the real world.” 

“In the real world people go barging down other people’s doors?” Olive arched a brow. “Why do you swear all the time…? We’re in public—”

“Stop being mean to Ollie!” Lavi huffed. “For someone who worked under Werner, you’re very rude…! Shouldn’t you be nicer since Ollie’s paying for everything for you?”

Olive admitted that he’d been pretty rude himself but the fact that Lavi could now hold somewhat of a conversation—even if it was an argument—with someone who knew she was there was such a relief.

Derik arched his brow. “What is she saying?”

Right. Intraneous transmutations only went so far. Although people could see Lavi, they couldn’t hear her. 

Olive repeated Lavi’s words with a bit more bite.

Derik merely snorted at Lavi and then sneered at her. “Well, you have a lot of words for someone who can’t even speak them.”

Lavi’s face crumpled slightly before her cheeks puffed with indignation and her eyes narrowed. It looked like she was either about to launch herself across the table at Derik or curl up and cry. Olive was rearing to do the former or at least say—

“Stein, enough.” The words slipped out from Olive’s mouth before he’d even realized he’d said them.

Derik froze, meeting Olive’s gaze and holding it before shrugging and nodding. “Yes, sir.” He then muttered under his breath, “Can’t even win your own damn battles…”

Would you like me to speak further with him? 

Olive couldn’t help but pinken at this as he brushed Werner aside mentally. No, no… It’s fine. I should try to get along better with him… even if he’s this.

Good. In the distance, Werner gave a nod of approval. This is a soft skill you should practice and hone on your own. There are times to rely on others and there are times to take initiative. Being able to work with individuals from different backgrounds and command them is a necessity—no matter their disposition. 

Olive grumbled internally with embarrassment, unsure if he was at the brunt of a lecture or words of praise. Cadence seemed to take note and began to rattle on inside her head about how she was glad that she didn’t have a hangover from the drunk game of poker she’d played with Allen and Carl the previous night. This immediately diverted Werner’s attention away from him to her.

The waitress brought over their orders not too long after. While Derik immediately began to dig into his hefty platter of food, Olive found himself staring at a plate of six small circular flatter-than-flat flatbreads that were toppled with shredded meat, tomatoes, and cilantros.

“What kind of confused scientist made that?” Derik arched a brow at the plate, sausage half in his mouth. 

The waitress cheerily explained, “This is a new dish from a really popular Ariesian chef that we’ve just recently managed to bring to Torrine. If I’m remembering this right, it was inspired by her journey to Leo. It’s called a…. taco! You just fold it and put it in your mouth, Your Highness.” She chuckled. “I’m surprised you haven’t had it yet. I figured you’d be the first in Aries to try it… with respect, of course, my prince… unless you don’t like it?”

“No, it’s fine,” Olive reassured her with Cadence’s and Atienna’s practiced politeness. He offered her a smile. “It’s an interesting recommendation. Unique.”

The waitress relaxed slightly.

Olive looked back down at the taco.

It looked—

—delicious, yes?

The taco was in Olive’s mouth before he could even process Maria’s thought. He clamped down, chewed, swallowed. The meat was juicy, the tomatoes popping and sweet, the shell soft and warm. It was—

“It’s good,” he noted, somewhat surprised. 

Derik grunted, while the waitress brightened and headed off to the back of the restaurant.

Olive put down the taco to study the man. “Look, sorry about what I said… I get that you don’t like it here… But this is Trystan’s hometown. I-I promised him—”

“Yeah, I get that.” Derik rolled his shoulders. “But what I’m trying to say is that you already handed all the work over to the people here and all those contractors. They don’t need you here anymore. Ever heard of being efficient? Didn’t the lieutenan—the captain say anything?”

Begrudgingly, Olive admitted that Derik had a point. Werner had highlighted this fact several times before too, but Olive wasn’t even sure what his next step would be. The Monadic temples for Lavi? Cities that were strong in conductor research? There were too many things to do. An unknown destination. That and Atienna had proposed that perhaps he remain in place for a little while longer to watch over things in Torrine. At least here in Aries it was safe —was her line of thought. Somewhat more away from Scorpio’s possible eyes. Unpleasant, Olive had thought in turn—as Atienna herself would say.

“You like the lieutenant too, don’t you?” Derik asked abruptly. “You gonna try to do anything about the whole Ariesian-tariff-on-Capricorn issue thing? I don’t pay attention to the news, but my dad’s been calling and all he talks about is that. It’s making things hard as hell back home.”

Right… When Derik had first come to Aries with Olive, the man had still been wearing his Capricornian uniform. Despite the uniform being black in color, it seemed to act as a bright yellow warning sign. Derik had received half-glares and concerned frowns whenever he’d walked down the street with it on—all of which he’d returned in kind. Changing his uniform for a more casual blouse and slacks solved the issue, but his Capricornian accent remained thick and head-turning. At least, that was the case outside of Torrine. 

“It’s not like I’m not trying to do anything about it,” Olive grumbled. “I mean, I’ve written to my aunt and uncle about it—” With the help of the others. “—but I can’t just barge in and demand them to change things—to ask them to backtrack against Sagittarius—when I haven’t done anything for Aries yet myself…”

“Okay, so all this…” Derik gestured around. “…is to win one over on your aunt and uncle so you can get them to listen to you about the tariff?”

Olive stiffened and then glared at the accusation. He slammed his hand on the table despite himself. “It’s more than that!” Trystan and Marta

Derik grimaced. “Okay. I get it. Damn dramatic.”

“Sorry…”

“Ollie…” Lavi murmured beside him. 

A stretch of silence passed and Olive was able to hear the faint muszak from the single radio set behind the wine counter at the very back of the dinner. A soft, deep, milky voice rang out behind a familiar saxophone trill.

“Looks like that one artist Alma or something,” Derik noted. “She’s pretty hot.”

Frowning, Olive called over a waiter and asked for the channel to be switched. With a deep bow, the waiter obliged the request and the sultry voice became replaced with faint static.

Thanks, kid, Cadence thought, but ya didn’t have ta do that.

Olive could tell that was a lie.

The static on the radio faded, and a boisterous voice crackled out in Common from the speakers—

“—resuming our daily Ophiuchian chairman election commentary! Unfortunately, Hilton Tyler who is our usual host for this event has retired short of notice! Fortunately, we won’t be missing out on any details of this election due to our new traveling hosts: Louise Kuroihoshi and Hideyoshi Bonnefoy—”

Olive straightened in his chair. What the…?

Well, at least one group of True Conductors is havin’ the time of their lives. Cadence lifted up her slice of bread as if it were a champagne glass. Cheers ta that, Hide. 

“Well, my dear introduction-person whose name I don’t remember,” came Hideyoshi’s voice next, “thank you for your wonderful hospitality! You heard it here first! It’s that time of the year!”

“That’s right!” chimed Louise’s breathy voice. “This upcoming weekend marks the official start-y start day of the campaigns and the elections!”

“The first chairs of the twelve departments in Ophiuchus are going to be meeting—”

“—in the Serpens Establishment with their selected temporary vice-chairs to cast the first round of votes! Wow—how exciting!”

“And would you look at that? Mr. Current Head Chairman is actually stepping down from his position. He’s been the incumbent for years now! It looks like Signum will finally be seeing a new head chairman of Ophiuchus for real this time!”

“All of Signum coming together for an event like this—how romantic…”

“Romantic and exciting! Spectacular!” Hideyoshi cleared his throat. “ We’ll be here at the end of the week to update you on how the first round goes, so how about you do a favor for us too?”

The two finished in unison— “Licensed Conductors near and far, don’t you forget to vote!” 

“The head chairman election….” Olive pondered before blanching as vague knowledge of the elections rules and proceedings came to him from Werner and Jericho. “Wait, the voting—it’s required…?” 

Of course it is.

That was so stupid. It didn’t make sense.

“Shit.” Derik ran his hand down his face. “I forgot about that. Damn.” He dug into his back pocket and pulled out a rectangular plastic slip, which Olive assumed was his conducting license. After scanning it and shrugging, he re-pocketed it. “Eh. The deadline to vote is still far off for me.”

There… was a deadline?

There is a monetary fine if you don’t submit on time, Jericho supplied. So everyone—most of everyone—votes. A guarantee.

A democracy through somewhat forced compliance, Atienna mused. It’s quite ironic… don’t you think?

Olive tensed despite himself.

This is why ya don’t get an official license and just do it under the table, Cadence thought. Too many strings attached. 

Part of the responsibility of having a license is complying with this rule. Werner. It’s your first election, Olive, but I assure you there is nothing complicated about it.

Olive swore he could feel the ghost of a hand on his head. He thought, How do you know when it’s your time to vote?

…It was in the information pamphlet you received when your license was mailed to you, Werner replied, an edge coming onto his thoughts as the ghostly hand retracted. I recall telling you to keep it—

Can I vote? Maria interjected, her mouth half-full with chorizo and eggs. She glanced over her shoulder and shouted back to her crew gathered behind her. “I can vote, no? For the Ophiuchian chairman election?” She pointed across the ship at Raul the Chef who Olive could faintly make out delivering seconds to everyone on deck. “And, Raul—tacos! You can make them, yes?”

“You need to have a conducting license to vote,” Jericho replied aloud, earning an arched brow from Ferris across from him. A curt warning from Werner caused him to clear his throat and sip his cartoon apple juice loudly. Those are the rules. When you come to Ophiuchus. Show your license. Vote.

But I can vote? If I sneak in and fake it, yes?

Yes. Technically. Jericho nodded, considering. But it is illegal. 

Do you guys know who you’re voting for? Olive tried, hoping to stop Maria’s thoughts from derailing the conversation any further.

Gabrielle, came Jericho’s immediate affirmation.

There was a beat of tension.

Olive nibbled on the outer shell of the taco. Is she… going to be running running? Is she… able to?

She is a first chairwoman now. Of the General Investigations Department. Jericho took another long sip of his carton of juice. Yes. She is able to.

That wasn’t what Olive meant.

Ley? I like Ley! Maria cheered. She is cool, no?

I was thinking of selecting Gabrielle as well since she’s a potential ally, Werner agreed, eyes narrowing. Having her as the head chairman of Ophiuchus would be a better option than having either Leona or—

There was a brief, minute pause in Werner’s line of thought which was another reason why Olive had begun to worry.

—…but given the reach these saint candidates have, it may be a waste of our votes. Werner set down the pen he’d been writing with. Still, it is down to the numbers, so every vote is valuable. We shouldn’t be careless with our choice.

I wonder why he and Leona are in the running, Atienna pondered. The way he was speaking of it made it seem as if Ophiuchus was at the palm of their hands. While I do expect him to play games, Leona doesn’t seem like the type to do so with a free election, don’t you think?

Olive grimaced and felt a pang in his chest from Jericho.

I’m not too good with politics but it’s all about pullin’ wool over the people’s eyes, ain’t it? Make ‘em think they got a choice even though they don’t? Ta make it less suspicious? Cadence suggested. I could try askin’ Francis if ya’d like, but ya know him. I ask him one thing, and he goes on and on and suddenly it’s the next day—not that’s it’s not entertainin’, but I’ve got things ta do now—

I like listening to Francis talk, Jericho interjected.

Cadence spread her arms and winked to the side. I’d welcome ya to come here through a gate and listen ta him in my place, detective, but—

—no, came Werner’s ultimatum. Francis is a valuable ally. We cannot risk endangering him by having Scorpio somehow track you through a gate to him, Jericho. 

And there’s the ‘but,’ Cadence popped, lowering her hands and then shrugging. Anyways, ya got any idea what’s up with the whole election thing, detective? Do ya think ya could squeeze the deets from good ol’ Gabe?

Jericho cocked his head in thought. I am not a politician. I don’t know. But I could ask ‘Gabe.’ 

Have you thought of becoming a politician? Maria pressed. Like Atienna or Ollie, yes—

Oh… I wouldn’t say I’m—

Olive choked on a piece of meat and waved Derik off when the man startled forward. I’m not a politician.

Perfect time ta be a politician though, ain’t it? Cadence chortled, earning a raised brow from Carl across the room from her. I got some info from down the drain pipe and it looks like we’ve got things burnin’ up in Sagittarius, Leo, and Cancer. Changin’ tides are perfect huntin’ ground for those types, yeah?

Given these developments, you should be cautious, Maria, Werner interjected. Being in your hometown doesn’t equate to being safe.

Maria threw her head back and laughed merrily. You worry too much, my dear Werner. She winked and closed her eyes beneath the morning sun rays. She exclaimed—“But for you… I will! I am confirming this for you—saying it out loud!”

There were so many internal exasperated sighs that Olive wasn’t sure which was his.

Atienna cleared her throat and shut her book. Did everyone enjoy their brunch? 

As if all was right in the world. 

Olive reached for another taco.

* * *

After breakfast, Olive made his rounds through the village. Lavi had not returned since fading away during brunch and the other five had desynchronized to start—rather, to continue —their daily activities. Therefore, all he had was the company of one Derik Stein who would occasionally dole out glares in random directions beneath the burning high noon sun. That didn’t deter any of the stall-runners, of course.

Still, it was rude in Olive’s opinion—especially since this was Trystan’s hometown. But Olive could only allow himself to feel slightly annoyed. It was not too long ago that he would’ve done the same thing. 

When he returned to the small Carter cottage in the evening, Miss Carter was already home from her work out in the fields and was bustling around the small square of a kitchen that had walls painted pale yellow. Pots and pans littered the top of the small kitchen counter beside the sink, while a cloud of flour hung in the air.

“Good afternoon, Miss Carter,” Olive greeted her with a slight dip of his head once he’d caught her attention. “Do you need any help?”

“Smells good,” Derik noted.

Ugh.

“No, no, I can’t ask you to help. Thank you though, Olivier.” Miss Carter waved him off as she whipped her hands on her apron. She nodded over to the small square table nestled two steps away by the opposite wall. A pile of envelopes rested there. “You’ve got quite a lot of letters to you this evening. It looks like you’re going to be even busier now.”

After thanking her, Olive paced over to the table and pulled out the three letters addressed to him. One was in a manila envelope sealed with paraffin wax, the second was in cardstock, and the last was in a sky-blue-colored envelope and looking fairly wrinkled. He opened the first one with a hammering chest—

To Dear Olivier,

We were certainly happily surprised to receive a letter from you, although we would appreciate a call from you just as much. We’re sure this period must be very hard for you. Please remember that the royal palace is still your home. Whenever you’re ready to come home or visit, the gates will always be open. Additionally, we are aware that you’ve hired a personal bodyguard outside of Aries to replace—

Olive tensed as he felt his heart crumple. The heavy anchor that he was very familiar with began to drag his chest down once more. After grimacing and letting out a breath, he forced himself to continue reading. 

—Honored Head Royal Guard Trystan Carter. While we respect your decision, we would still like to offer our other highly-trained royal guards here if you would like. Your safety is a priority, Olivier. If we sense that you are not well-protected enough, we may send additional guards your way, so please keep us updated on your whereabouts.

To now address the other portion of your letter to us, we would first like to mention our surprise to hear of your interest in Capricorn. Rather, we are surprised to hear that you’re interested in the tariff imposed on the country. Please understand, Olivier, that while we understand the many should not suffer at the hand of the few, we still must honor our relationship with Sagittarius. This may seem cruel to you, dear, but it is necessary. This is how countries and alliances operate. We cannot help everyone. Perhaps when you come onto the throne, you will understand our choice on the matter. 

On another note, your ley-line project in Torrine brings us great pride and joy. From the presentations and notes that you’ve sent us, we can tell clearly that you have grown and matured very much since you’ve left the palace. Your thoughts for our people ring loud and clear. We wish this project of yours well and are happy to offer assistance if needed.

Finally, we do have one request from you, Olivier. As you may have heard, the emperor of Sagittarius has been on his sickbed for quite some time now. The royal court has recently received an invitation to send a representative to visit the Sagittarian court as a sign of comfort and solidarity between our two countries. At the moment, we are both quite preoccupied with matters concerning the larger ley-lines. Therefore, we were hoping that you might be able to go in our stead since you are familiar with some of the clans and the country already. If it is too much for you at the moment, please write to us or call us to let us know. We understand.

We think about you every day,
Your Aunt and Uncle

Of course. Stupid. Olive didn’t know why he thought writing to convince them would work. More than anything else, he’d probably just drawn their attention more. The thought of that brought him unease. And now what? An invitation to Sagittarius? For the emperor? While Olive did feel sympathy for the man, he’d also gotten the feeling from Claire that the emperor wasn’t the greatest person. Still…

Grimacing, Olive continued to his next letter. 

To Ariesian Crown Prince Olivier Chance,

Your presence is honorably requested at the Royal Courts of Sagittarius this coming weekend February 12th, 1941. The details are attached separately. We look forward to your presence. 

Sincerely,
Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan
유성  

Olive resisted crumpling this one up. Not only was it blunt, but it was also obviously another political play by Claire. An invitation from the Seong Clan to the Ariesian prince when the emperor had a foot in the grave and right after a request for a representative from Aries? 

Olive peeled open the next letter.

Hey Ollie,

You probably received a super boring, overly formal invitation to visit Sagittarius from me earlier. I’m hoping that you opened this letter before you opened that one, but I’m assuming you didn’t, so I’m just going to apologize for that here. It’s all formality that we have to go through.

I really need to speak with you. There’s an important matter we should discuss. I’m referring to the topic we were discussing before I boarded the train. Fellow True Conductors should support each other, shouldn’t they? I do miss you too, of course.

See you soon hopefully,
Claire 

Olive scowled and crumpled the letter. 

Didn’t Claire know how to be discreet? What if someone had opened and read the letter? It would’ve been preferable if he’d sent it in code at least. That aside, ‘miss you too’—really? Who did Claire think he was convincing?

After a pause, Olive uncrumpled the letter and reread it.

The tone of the letter itself was upbeat, but appearances were deceiving. Firstly there was the ‘important matter’ that Claire had mentioned point-blank, then there was the fact that this entire development involved Claire’s ill father. Even if there was some bad history between Claire and the emperor, family ties were like iron shackles. This was something Olive knew from his own experiences as well as the memories of the other five. 

Claire…

Olive pondered on the fact that Claire was still cheerful and friendly to him even though his status as a True Conductor had been discovered because of him. The Sagittarian had even been dragged along down into the depths of Capricorn and had his life put in danger while helping him and Werner’s men. While Olive knew that Claire had his own personal motivations during that time, it still was a give-and-take relationship. Correction: friendship.

Olive snorted—“friendship”? Well…Maybe. 

He shook his head and folded the letter with a frown.

And maybe… there was an opportunity here. To help the Captain. If he couldn’t get his aunt and uncle to remove the tariff directly, maybe he could do it indirectly instead. Perhaps by involving himself with Claire, he could somehow convince Sagittarius to reconsider its standing with the tariffs which would then prompt Aries to reconsider it too. Olive disliked how underhanded, dishonest, and convoluted the idea was but that was politics. 

Grimacing, Olive started to go over his to-do list in his head.

1. Trystan’s hometown
2. Aries’s relationship with Capricorn
3. Monadism
4. Lavi/Aries
5. Gilbert’s Arm
6. Claire
7. The Chairman Elections

His mind spun with new and overwhelming additions to the list. There was too much to do and not enough time—

1. Trystan’s hometown ley-line implementation. Physical presence is unneeded for the current stage of the process. Absence acceptable.
2. Aries’s relationship with Capricorn and Sagittarius and consoling Claire. Presence needed in regards to Claire and potential alliance development with True Conductors; possibly a priority.
3. Gilbert’s arm and additional research. Can be done concurrently with other points.
4. Monadism and Lavi research. Can be done concurrently with other points.
5. Conducting License. A one-time event that will not take much time, but should be attended to.

Efficiency, Werner interjected, coming in at a medium-level synchronization. In the distance, Olive could see the man signing off on a stack of files at his desk. These goals can be easily coupled together and handled simultaneously. A pause. Thank you for your assistance with Gilbert and Capricorn, although the point with Capricorn need not be a priority at the moment. You need to hold your safety first

Werner always synchronized at the right time, Olive thought as he nodded slowly and flushed with slight embarrassment. I should be thanking you… Werner, but you… you know… don’t have to help me all the time. I mean, like you said. I need to learn how to figure it out on my own. I appreciate it—

I… apologize for my intrusion. 

Slight embarrassment curled inside Olive’s chest at the statement  which was something else that had changed. A good or bad change—Olive didn’t know. 

But you’re correct: this is a skill you should also develop on your own if you somehow temporarily lose contact with us like during the incident last year. Although a situation may seem unsurmountable, all that is needed is the right method of approach. 

And there it was. That reassurance that maybe everything was steady, that maybe everything was manageable. And so for a moment, with that reassurance, everything was okay.

Right… I got it. Thanks—

A burst of excitement rushed out from Olive’s heart to his head and limbs, and a smile cracked across his face.

Maria.

It is time for an adventure, yes? This is exciting! although Maria was far and her synchronization low, he could always feel her strongly.

Olive locked eyes with Derik and said with an air of confidence, “We’re going to Sagittarius.”

Derik clapped once. “Fucking finally.”

* * *

After bidding Mister and Miss Carter an assuredly temporary farewell, graciously thanking them for their hospitality, and then delegating responsibilities around Torrine, Olive packed his belongings and his conductors in his suitcases and headed to the train station just outside of the town. Derik, as always, only helped with about half the luggage.

“You need to build some damn muscles,” he said, like always.

The train ride to Sagittarius was awkward. Olive was used to rattling on about his recent research and conductors to an attentive Trystan and then switching to listen to Trystan pontificate about the trials and tribulations of his corner of Aries. There was a sense of mutual respect there that Olive had enjoyed—especially since Trystan had actually sounded interested in his conductor ramblings. Trystan had been the second-best listener to his conductor ramblings, with Marta being the first. 

But Derik was different. The man spent the train ride snoring loudly with his head half-hanging off the back of the seat. Whenever he would wake up, he’d just glance out the train window and either grunt and fall back asleep or flirt with the stewardess if she came on by. 

Although Olive was as annoyed by the behavior as he usually was, this feeling was submerged by the pityhe felt towards the man. Forced into wanting to do something. But perhaps it was better that Derik was away from the borders now. Scorpio’s eyes could be anywhere, so keeping close was better, wasn’t it? And perhaps all that pity was up to perspective. It often turned out that those pitied were often leading contented and happy lives—sometimes even happier lives than the ones who pitied them. It could be both a good and a bad thing—the events that had developed with Derik.

Atienna… Olive realized before he reached out to her further. But what about Werner?

We’ll be here for him, Atienna answered him directly—although he could not feel her fully.

Her words were not as comforting as they used to be. 

* * *

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius 

The whistling the wind made as it snuck in-between all of the low-rise buildings and the grooves of their clay roof tiles brought with it heavy nostalgia. The crisscrossing tracks for the v-trams were bare of their locomotives, however; and the cable wires that hung above them swung noisily in the silence of the square. No students buttoned up in sailor uniforms riding on bicycles and no small v-ehicles trudging along either. 

So this country was changing too, Olive thought as he took in the lonely scenery. 

A chill tickled the back of his neck, and he shivered briefly as he set his luggage down on the ground. 

“Damn. You’re weak.”

Olive turned to find Derik sneering at him from behind. He resisted scowling in turn. He couldn’t wrap his head around why in the world Derik was acting like he hadn’t been sobbing and sweating beneath normal Ariesian sunrays just the other day. With effort, however, Olive held his tongue.

Derik sneered at him just a second longer before reaching into the satchel hanging off his back. He pulled out a coat and tossed it at him. Olive caught it and tried not to look at the man’s eyes as he slipped it on.

“Thanks…”

Derik grunted.

Before any awkward conversations could occur, the synchronous stomp, stomp, stomp of marching footsteps reached Olive’s ears. He briefly recalled the stomp, stomp, stomp of marching through the muddy trenches south of the Capricornian border as he turned to find a medium-sized group of Sagittarians approaching him from down the empty, dusted road.

Yuseong Claire, First Prince of the Seong Clan, air Elementalist, and bonafide True Conductor, stood at the front of the approaching group. He was dressed in familiar silk garments with a rimmed hat strung with hanging beads. He would’ve looked just as he’d looked when he’d first revealed himself in the Ariesian throne room months ago if it weren’t for the deep black color of his garments. At his side walked Yuseong Eunji who was dressed in crisscrossing garments tied with a bow. Her hair was tamed into a reserved braid, and she only looked up to meet his eyes once. 

Beside the two of them stood Felix and Soha, identifiable only by their masks. Although it wasn’t raining, they held out paper umbrellas above Claire’s and Eunji’s heads. 

They were all dressed for a funeral even though the emperor was still alive. Odd. 

“Hey…” Olive said awkwardly. “It’s good to see you, Claire, Eunji… Soha, Felix.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Derik sizing Felix up. 

“You came, Olive…” Claire returned, expression tight. He glanced briefly at Derik with curiosity before he bowed stiffly at Olive. “Thank you.”

Eunji, Soha, Felix, and his other servants mirrored the gesture.

The formality caused Olive’s chest to tighten, but he dipped into an equivalent bow as customary. When he pulled himself back up, he tried, “Are… you okay? How’s your dad? And, saints—you don’t need to bow… geeze.”

Claire’s eyes glinted as he slowly pulled himself up. “The emperor has been bedridden these past couple of months. The Seong Clan and the nation of Sagittarius thank you for your presence here. In a tumultuous time like this, the reassurance of Aries’s relationship with Sagittarius presents appreciated solid ground.”

Olive resisted grimacing and straightened himself. “Yes. Of course.”

“I also apologize for not writing recently.”

“You barely wrote to begin with,” Olive muttered before he could stop himself. “No need to start.”

Finally, Claire’s grim expression broke into a faint smile. “Hey, what are you talking about? I wrote to you plenty of times. I guess all the mail carriers have been getting a bit frazzled lately with the elections, Leo and Cancer, and Aquarius and Capricorn, and all that.” 

“I think Aries and Sagittarius are more than just ‘all that.’”

Claire blinked and then chuckled. “Whoops. I guess you’re right. It’s hard to see situations from an outside perspective when you’re inside that situation yourself.”

“Right…”

“Oh, about what I said in my letter—”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat, and he glanced behind Claire at his vassals. “Should we really be talking about it here?”

“Well, why not?” Claire’s smile dipped slightly. “When I showed my father those pictures, do you know what he said to me?”

The pictures of the files regarding the Capricornian Alles Für Alle Project. Vitae conversion. Vitae energy levels. The entire package.

“You’re making me not want to know what he said…” Olive grumbled, looking back at the vassals then at Eunji. “Why are you always so dramatic…? At least whisper…”

Claire merely kept his smile and said, “The emperor told me this: ‘If you ever stand where I’m standing on this throne, you’ll know everything.’”

Olive paused, a sense of apprehension crawling up his spine and unease squeezing his stomach. “What… What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, Ollie. I don’t know,” Still smiling, Claire gestured behind him down the road. “Shall we get settled now?”

Seamus Dolby, First Chairman of the International Relations Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: “A Truly United Signum.”


The Trystan Project is a 10-pronged infrastructure and quality-of- life promotion project instilled by Ariesian Crown Prince Olivier Chance in the year 1941. It aims to increase the amount of vitae supplied to extraneous villages on the edges of Aries by supporting the development and implementation of ley-lines and insulation tubes connecting the country’s main reservoirs to these areas. An additional provision of this project is to increase the state of conductors in these out-skirting towns and to promote education and funding in tandem.

The first town of implementation is noted to be the mountainous town of Torrine.

22.0: The Terrorists & The Saints

Re-cap:

The Saint Candidate of Scorpio has raked his hands through Werner Waltz’s country of Capricorn, unveiling not only the dissent and unrest throughout Signum but also the entire group of True Conductors. Each of the six were put under the spotlight beneath Scorpio’s eyes, while a mysterious seventh burned brightly for an instant. Now the hunt begins in various ways for the six True Conductors, while the background parties begin to…


???

The woman on the ground trembled beneath the light pouring in from the singular, small opening of the cavern ceiling above her. Down from that light sauntered small snowflakes that melted into tiny rivers that trailed down the woman’s pale face. It was a face frozen into a twisted expression of agony. Her fingers were also frozen in place—curved and arched in a way that made them look like talons. Her back was arched all the same, highlighting the bullet-wound the size of a cens coin in her shoulder and the knife with a clear glass handle embedded in her abdomen just below that. Despite this clear agony, the warm glow pulsating from the vitae stream at her side almost made her wide, wild, bloodshot eyes appear peaceful.

ELPIS Leader and designated leader Gamma listened to the woman’s death rattle alongside the three women and two men encircled around her. Although those standing with him had appearances vastly different from his own, he knew they all shared three similar aspects: the white snake tattoos imprinted somewhere on their bodies, their dedication to upholding what was right, and the fact that they were all silent, watching, expressionless. They remained like stone statues even as the thrashing woman lunged forwards abruptly and clawed at Gamma’s face. Not even a flinch.

With a final raspy moan, the woman’s eyes snapped to the back of her head and she fell onto the ground like a ragdoll. Dead. In the seconds that followed, the trickle of the vitae stream and the steady drip, drip, drip of the blood from the claw marks on Gamma’s face filled in the quiet.

Slowly, not quite in unison, the circle of six placed their hands over their chests and knelt to one knee. Dipping their heads, they chanted in unison:

“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only the cycle,
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, wheter in war,
May all return to where all began.”

At the end of the incantation, the quiet remained for some time.

“We’ve been fooled,” Gamma said, breaking the silence as he rose to a stand. 

The woman to his right rose not soon after. Her skin was dark and inked over with intricate white designs that spilled onto her face and down her chest where they met at the white snake tattoo there. She muttered in a milky voice, “But who would do something like this—” 

“It doesn’t matter who they are, Delta!” The glasses-wearing man across from her leapt up, ripped off his hat which was sewn on with the words Oficial de Policía, and stomped on it over and over again. “All that matters is that they’re absolutely, completely, utterly despicable! Absolutely despicable! Amoral, childish, no respect! Defiling not only vitae like this but the cycle and the sanctity of what we do? It goes against the rules— our rules! Rules we’ve nailed down since the very beginning before we even bleached our vitae! Do not tamper! Even if they’ve forgotten it, this is just! Common! Decency—”

“If they’re so terrible, Tau,” Delta interjected, “then wouldn’t it matter who they are? So you could bring them to justice before your jester’s court?” She looked him up and down. “And are you sure you’ve been initiated correctly? Don’t you seem too in-tuned with this whole lawman attitude?”

Tau stopped stomping on his hat to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I wouldn’t expect someone who spent more time pouring over things like vitae theory instead of actually—”

“Aren’t you just taking out your lack of skill in vitae theory on me?” Delta interjected. “It was always law and justice with you, wasn’t it? Like Libra? So much so that you brought the court out into your daily activities?”

“Oh, don’t pull that on me! I refute it!” Tau hacked a cough before snapping, “Are you saying that law and justice shouldn’t be brought into daily life, huh?! Is that what this is—”

“Enough,” Gamma interjected. “Play a round of Itero Recino if you wish to take it any further.”

Tau quieted after a scowl and nodded, while Delta’s lips pressed thin.

Gamma’s gaze drifted to the single woman who was still kneeling on the floor. “Get off the floor, Lambda.”

Reluctantly, the woman agreed and dragged herself up to a stand. 

“Most likely…?” Delta pondered out loud as she studied Lambda. She sank down to the deceased woman’s body and ripped the knife—the resistor—from her body and studied the empty hilt. “This was done some time before we were initiated? This level of vitae theory machination could’ve only been done by one of us, right? At least done by the oldest of us…?”

“Why would they do something like this…?” The man to Gamma’s right pondered out loud. He was dressed sharper than all the others, sporting a crisp blouse, a pair of suspenders, and polka-dotted bow-tie. “It’d be nice if we had access to Theta’s records, but from what you told me…” He shook his head. “I still can’t believe that they’d join hands with criminals…” 

“You don’t think Theta’s destroyed their resistor, do you, Iota?” Delta queried, glancing at Iota then back at Gamma. “You said that they were initiated incorrectly, Gamma? They stole back their resistor from you too?” She tossed the resistor onto the corpse. “I hope they didn’t end up destroying it in a moment of passion. There aren’t many of us left.”

“Oh, right, Omega is gone too…” Iota hummed, re-adjusting his bow-tie. “That’s too bad. They were quite good with mediums, weren’t they?” 

“They met their end chasing after the peacekeeper with the suitcase,” the final woman replied as she tucked a lock of her mousy brown hair behind her ear. She had not taken her eyes off of the deceased woman. “To avenge people she held dear.”

Iota shook his head. “What a foolish thing to do…” He glanced at her. “Omicron died after you were initiated, right, Beta?”

Beta remained impassive. “You call it a foolish thing but you were doing the same thing in your previous initiation.” 

Gamma studied her with a frown.

“Well, that me was a fool too,” Iota replied after a pause. “A fool like them.”

“They’re not fools,” Tau muttered, picking his hat off the floor and dusting it before sneezing. “They’re criminals! Heathens! Giving up everything they’re meant to stand for. Breaking the cycle. Pushing for the syzygy. Disappointing…”

“What was that book that Theta always enjoyed reading?” Delta mused. “There was a quote that really spoke to me, wasn’t there? Reminded me of them? Something about higher beings walking among common men and either being corrupted or disappointed in the end?”

“So much so that they’d try to push something like the syzygy?” Tau scoffed. “A terrible analogy. Absolutely terrible! There’s no responsibility with that—none at all!”

Them—higher beings?” Iota muttered a second after, not quite challenging, not quite agreeing. “Then what would that make us?” His eyes narrowed. “I can’t believe Leo also…”

“Hey, let’s not get into that talk, ‘kay?” Lambda hummed. 

“There’s no justifying them,” Tau agreed. 

Another stretch of quiet passed.

Beta finally said, “I doubt this was Theta’s work. Even if Theta’s was a faulty initiation, their integrity would be more than this—enough to overpower whatever twisted intentions that Francis Foxman holds.”

“I agree.” Gamma nodded. “That much of Theta remains, at least.” 

“But who else would it be?” Iota pressed, frowning. “To disrupt everything like this….” He grimaced. “Tau’s right. They should be punished. Whoever did it doesn’t deserve to return to their resistor.”

“I believe it may be Alpha,” Gamma stated after a pause of thought. “They’re one of the few who are as skilled and knowledgeable in vitae theory to the same degree as Theta. They may have been doing this from the beginning.”

“But—” Iota shut his mouth. “Why?”

“The reason doesn’t matter. The actions do—” Hypocrite, a voice whispered at the back of Gamma’s head, giving him pause. “—We will have to find them to be certain.” He found his gaze drawn to the corpse of a young girl draped across some stalagmites. Perhaps she was no older than fourteen. “They may bring the syzygy closer with their recklessness just as Theta has. It cannot be allowed.”

“A faulty initiation?” Delta suggested.

—ELPIS’s greatest downfall, Gamma knew. 

“Damnit, because of this muck-up, we have another entire damned stain to clean!” Tau began pacing back and forth. “Ley lines, the True Conductors, the suitcase peacekeeper, Scorpio, the damned reservoirs, dirty conductors, and now our damned resistors?!” He gestured wildly around the area. “When there’s one crime, there’s always more! It’s a damned mess! People don’t know restraint! Don’t know how to clean up after themselves!”

Gamma followed Tau’s wide-sweeping gesture and studied the dozen bodies half-buried in snow and scattered around them. The corpses—some prostrate, some hanging off the rock formations that crept along the walls—had all had the same fates as the dead woman now lying at his feet. Embedded in half of those corpses were empty resistors. Scattered around half of them were shattered resistors, glass fragments almost blended in with all the white snow.

“Take care of them, Delta,” Gamma said.

“I suppose I will?” Delta pondered, fastening her glove conductor over her hand and approaching the nearest corpse. She placed her hand over its chest, and in a flash of white light, it disappeared in an instant. Pulling away, she licked her lower lip.

“It doesn’t matter the barrier.” Gamma stared past them all and towards the vitae stream and the white pillars that grew up from them in the distance. “We have all the time and opportunity in the world provided to us—something others do not have. It would be a grievance if we used this time to complain instead of act. If we burn out before we complete our duty, we have other options. We must not forget that we’re the only hope remaining.”

Iota and Delta nodded, while Tau and Beta remained silent.

“We will find everything we’re looking for. No matter the cost.”


Black Constellation Detention Center: Sub-Floor, Ophiuchus 

Wtorek Csilla, the Saint Candidate of Taurus, peered into the two-way mirror and studied the man curled up in the corner of the small room on the opposite side of the pane. The white bed set off to the left-hand wall was still pristinely folded, the glistening chicken and potato mash on the metal tray set alongside the wall still untouched. Despite the gauntness of his face, the hollowness of his cheeks, and the dark circles beneath his eye, the man would not accept any of the ‘gifts’ they had given him. What a pitiful man.

Taurus found her gaze drawn away from him and towards her own reflection on the window-mirror. Her long brown hair was frazzled and had not been tamed by a comb nor calmed into braids in quite some time. She had often deferred the difficult task of managing her hair to Wtorek Elizabeta and Wtorek Izsak—the latter was always the best at braiding. But now she was no longer by their side, she supposed she would have to cut it. What a spoiled life that had been. What a pitiful girl.

“Hilton Tyler,” mused a rumbling voice from behind her. “Now that man is a valiant man. But all valiant men fall—sacrificed by those who sing them as heroes. Then come the bitter regrets. It turns out they don’t enjoy being a hero but merely the idea of it. But that’s with everyone.”

In the reflection of the window, Taurus spied a familiar man approaching her from behind. His dark curls framed his tanned face, and his eyes glistened with an intense fervor. He had long since abandoned the trench coat and matching fedora she had often warmly associated with him. The only thing that remained of his old visage was the white sash that was wrapped around his arm. A hollow imitation. And so she did not turn to face him. Another pitiful man.

“Do you really think everything you did in Capricorn was justified?”

“Not this again—of course, I do.” Scorpio extended his hand and seemed to hold Hilton in his palm from the distance. “I’ve already broken the shepherd. The rest will soon follow. Even so, they were quite a beautiful group of True Conductors. That Maria on the other hand…”

Maria? Oh. Leo’s problem child. Taurus had never personally agreed with Leona’s way of selecting Saint Candidates. She’d predicted this sort of fall out.

“Have you thought about it? We’re so close to the syzygy now, Scorpio,” Taurus murmured. “And yet barely half of us are here to witness it.”

“Well, you can blame ELPIS for that. The fools.” Scorpio twirled a dark curl around his finger before crossing his arms. “Besides, I think the others would be happy if we saw the syzygy to the end without them being forced to awaken here to help us achieve it.” His eyes softened briefly. “It would be a meaningful gift, wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t think Sagittarius would be satisfied with not seeing the syzygy with her own eyes.”

“So, you’re siding with Libra about that? Gigi would just slow things down if we brought her back. You know how she is. If it weren’t for her then we would’ve had all the True Conductors necessary for the syzygy after I did my work in Capricorn. What a shame.” He hummed. “We’d have quite interesting conversations about a particular deceased peacekeeper, if she did return. Fortunately, the people that peacekeeper left behind will be useful in that aspect. I can’t wait until we set dear Werner and Atienna on the hunt…”

He always spoke like she could read his mind. It was irritating. But perhaps it was his intention to make her feel that way.

“It could turn into a game. ‘Who can find the most True Conductors first?’ A True Conductor or a Saint Candidate.”

“The leylines weren’t in place back then during your stunt in Capricorn and they’re still not in place now. The syzygy wouldn’t have happened. You always jump into things without thinking about the consequences.” Taurus shook her head. “You know… Jin burned brighter than all of us.” 

“You always focus on the ‘can’t’s instead of the ‘can’s. Anyways, Leo would be hurt if she heard you say that.”

“Capricorn would hurt you if they ever found out what you did.”

“Well, Capricorn isn’t here now, are they?” Scorpio’s eyes narrowed. “All thanks to them again.”

ELPIS again. It was always ELPIS. They disrupted everything. They took everything.

“How long do they think they can fool themselves? I pity them. It’s the only thing that keeps them going. If they reach any sort of epiphany now, their realization about their own self-destruction would tear them apart. But that’s the case with every being capable of thought. That’s the lonely agony of resisting the flow of the tide.”

“Yes, that’s what we should think after all this time, isn’t it…” Taurus murmured, more to herself than to him. After a beat, she shook herself and said, “I heard that Capricorn’s reservoir in the Prognoikos Aurora is looking almost complete now. You’re mourning Capricorn, but will you be actually happy if they return before the syzygy?

“Well, I do miss their staunchness. I’m quite interested in what they’d think I’ve done with their boring country. So, that’s a yes for me. Leo might say otherwise.”

“Leo… she has a lot on her plate. She’s a good person.” Taurus studied Scorpio’s reflection for a moment before looking back at Hilton. He was a good person too.”

Scorpio arched a brow. “The reporter? Well, I’m sure even you can tell now. It’s all pretend. He’s become the embodiment of regret. If only I could comfort him without breaking him. We will find Louise Bonnefoy and the True Conductor connected to her.”

“Talib. I meant Talib. He was good.” She supposed she would’ve considered Scorpio the same at some point.

Scorpio’s smile thinned. “Are you frolicking in the fields, dear? I’m still Talib Al-Jarrah, Csilla.”

Taurus studied his face, recalling the man who had comforted her when Altair and Vega—rather, ‘Omicron’ and ‘Theta’ as they’d ridiculously named themselves—had raided the detention center some time ago. Without a second thought, Talib had curled around her protectively just as her father would have.

Looking away from Scorpio as this memory burned itself into her mind, she muttered, “In name only.”

Scorpio’s smile became even more sweetly cruel. “Would the same apply to Wtorek Izsak?”

Taurus felt a painful tremor in her chest. 

“The bond between child and parent. Truly there is no stronger bond than that. I know first hand,” Scorpio sang. “You know he’s dead… You shouldn’t cling to that foolish ‘hope.’ I know you feel. It’s a sad irony. His words were kind and gentle, but there was a hint of cruel anticipation in them too like he was looking for a reaction. He’s returned to the cycle… How ELPIS views that as a peaceful experience never ceases to draw wonder from me. Perhaps if I were to infect one of them, then maybe…”

Csilla felt her heart crumple at the statement and the intention. She suddenly recalled how she had tried to earn her conducting license earlier this year to try to become the youngest licensed Conductor. At the time, she had faintly felt the urge to make the Wtoreks proud. But when Izsak had died, her goal had been postponed and another girl had taken that title from her—Yuseong Eunji, apparently. Csilla wondered briefly how Izsak would react to her failure if he were still here. She knew he would still encourage her to get her license regardless. She knew his eyes would still glimmer with pride. Those same eyes would not offer the same to her now because of Gamma. The pitiful man.

“It’s quite peculiar how influential a particular person’s vitae is the younger they are,” Scorpio mused, leaning in close with a hand on his chin. He was studying her with fascination. You’d imagine it’d be the opposite.”

Taurus extended a hand and touched his chest before slowly, steadily pushing him back. Are you running for the head chairman position even though everyone else is standing down for Leona? Is that why you’ve come to me? For my thoughts?”

Scorpio pulled back, hand still on chin. “Out of all of us who’ve been up and about these past couple of years, only Leona and Pisces have been serving dutifully—and myself included of course.”

Taurus felt a pang of indignation at his thinly-veiled accusation but she didn’t allow him to get any more out of her and remained unmoved. He had gotten enough already. 

“However…Leona was not baptized correctly. She barely has half of the vitae necessary to be considered ‘Leo.’ Didn’t you notice?”

“That’s because—”

“I’ve read why that happened, but you know our reservoirs recover with time.” Scorpio frowned. “She should’ve re-basked herself like I did.”

Oh? 

“This particular baptism wasn’t made with the most suitable person, so she may not be able to withstand bathing in the reservoirs—”

“Stop defending her and being so stubborn! If she isn’t completely suitable, then she should’ve passed on the title once her reservoir as soon as recovered but she didn’t and she hasn’t!” Scorpio snapped, his gaze sharpening before narrowing. “And now the election is coming and she’s using it to prolong her stay as ‘Leona.’ Why? Because she’s afraid of ‘dying’! I know it. I saw it.”

A saint candidate being afraid of death was a laughable concept. 

“You’re seeing things that aren’t there, Scorpio,” Taurus muttered. “This isn’t like you.” It was more like Talib than anything. A cruel and twisted version of him. “The syzygy is what’s important. Whatever petty feelings you have should be second to that. You know this.” 

But he was always the type to be swept away by earthly passions.

“You’re wrong. I see everything.” Scorpio tapped the two-way mirror twice. It’s because I see everything that you’re seeing what you see here now: the reservoirs in Capricorn, the True Conductors, Leo and Cancer, Aquarius and Capricorn, the rumble in Sagittarius, everything falling into place.”

Taurus studied him. “You should watch your words, Scorpio. When you say it like that, you’d really be going against the free will clause. We can’t allow that.”

“Oh, I know, dear. It’s all their own actions. I could see that clearly as I was setting the stage and speeding up the inevitable chemical reaction.” His eyes glowed with harsh intensity. “And what I see now is that someone like that doesn’t deserve to be given the title of leader.”

“Whoever becomes chairman doesn’t matter because whoever becomes it will push the syzygy forward,” Taurus said calmly. “Besides Leona is very popular. She’s built her reputation up with her own hands. She’s practically a celebrity. A star. You’ll find it very difficult to beat her in an election through normal means. And I doubt Libra would be pleased if you did the same thing you did to Capricorn to the election.”

Scorpio’s smile dipped for a moment before he pointed upwards as his lips curled. “People claim to love watching stars—” Out from the pocket of his shirt slipped a piece of vitae-coated gold origami paper that folded itself into a star. It sauntered up to the ceiling where it hovered in place. “—but truthfully they love watching stars fall even more.” He slowly pointed to the ground, and the paper star shot downwards before crumpling into a pathetic wad. “‘It turns out you were nothing too,’ ‘You also couldn’t achieve anything,’ ‘We’re the same.’ They praise, worship, then hate, become jealous, and praise again. Pitiable things.” The light in Scorpio’s eyes dimmed. “Even the current chairman is no different. Even though he sought our wisdom when he began his position, he looks at us with disdain now.

Taurus extended out her foot and coated it with her vitae. She brought it down hard a second after, disintegrating the crumpled origami star and shaking the foundation beneath them—

“By the way, I saw them briefly. I hadn’t seen them in a while, so I thought they’d finally departed forever, but… It seems like they’re having some trouble in Gemini and Leo. They disappeared through one of Vega’s gates before I could attach one of my mediums to them unfortunately… however—”

Taurus felt light-headed as she allowed her vitae to dissipate around her foot. “‘Them’…?” She looked up at Scorpio and found that a full smile was splitting across his face. A truly pitiful man.

“Leona is too wrapped up in the election now to give ELPIS her undivided attention.” Scorpio bent over her so that they were almost nose-to-nose. “I was thinking of perhaps handling them finally myself since I can multi-task… but perhaps you would like to play hunter-and-executioner instead? You did enjoy playing house with the Wtoreks. I assure you this play is different only by a slight margin.” He extended his hand out to her. “You’re conflicted—I can tell. This barrier to you and I share—let’s remove it together so we can embrace the syzygy to the fullest. What do you say? We’re so close now, Saint of the Fortress.”

Taurus presumed he was merely trying to draw her eyes away from the Ophiuchian Chairman Election. But… he was right. What stood before Taurus now was a great barrier. And as the Saint of the Fortress, her duty was not only to be a barrier of defense but to also break down any barriers that deterred the people. The duty pulsated within her.

Therefore, Csilla had to find them: friends, teachers and students, ELPIS. To find him: Papa, Wtorek Izsak, Gamma. Barriers to the syzygy in the long term, to the livelihoods of her people in the short term. 

How pitiful they all were.

21c: Outsiders Lurking Below

???

The warmth of the vitae stream cast the white pillars in an iridescent glow. Lambda hummed to herself from where she was perched on top of one of the slanted pillars. She’d been busily scrubbing away at a patch of overgrown moss on a stubborn spot on the pillar for quite some time.

Gamma had been watching her scrub from afar ever since she’d started the useless, repetitive motion. The Lambda kneeling before him now was a far cry from the Lambda he remembered from centuries ago. Gone was the proud, intelligent person who had refined theories of vitae and vitae conversion in those white halls of Ophiuchus. In their place now stood a husk of a person who probably couldn’t even distinguish one vitae theory from the next. The same could be said in a different sense for Theta who had been thoroughly corrupted by their improper initiation. Although Theta was clearly still brilliant as always… ‘Francis Foxman’ was a man who deserved punishment. The same applied to Iota’s incorrect initiation into Iris McKillop. Gamma had been set on returning Iota to the cycle, but Beta thought it would be too cruel and wasteful. In the end, like every other incorrectly initiated person, Iota had been her own downfall.

“It’s really not coming off!” Lambda gasped.

The image of a young girl with twin braids exclaiming the same thing burned at the edges of Gamma’s mind.

Frowning, Gamma trudged over to Lambda, grabbed a hold of her wrist, and pulled away from the pillars. “Save your energy, Lambda. It’s not worth it.”

Lambda blinked up sleepily at him and allowed him to cart her away from the vitae streams and pillars to where Tau had set up a small white metal table along the back cavern wall. Tau glanced up at her at their approach before continuing to flip through the newspaper in his hands. Across from him, Beta reclined, arms crossed, eyes closed.

“This is ludicrous—absolutely ludicrous!” Tau suddenly threw down the newspaper and stomped on it over and over again with his foot. “They’re pressing the law with those ridiculous tariffs! The law! No, they didn’t write correctly the law to begin with! Why even allow tariffs to be so high in the first place? Why excuse imports from specific countries! Wrong! Wrong—ack! I bit my tongue!”

Tau had changed little—at least on the surface. Gamma had been glad to find that at least one other person hadn’t been so careless in burning up and using their vitae. When Tau had disclosed that he’d wanted to use his former identity as Vincente Giustizia to his advantage earlier, however, Gamma had been filled with disgust and disappointment.

Beta cracked open an eye, picked up a glass of water from the table, and handed it to Tau.

Tau downed the glass between his shouts—“Barely any of us left.” Gulp. “Omicron, Omega.” Gulp. “Kappa now too. Burned away.” Gulp. “Theta and Pi are still alive, but they’re not quite themselves.” Gulp. “We still haven’t found anyone to initiate Iota back into.” Gulp, gulp, gulp. “And now Scorpio is awake. And I almost lost some of my officers to his damn spores! And they’re building even more of those ley lines! Do they have the proper licenses? I doubt it! Doubt it!” He slammed the glass back down onto the table. “Scorpio! Obviously, he broke the free will clause because he nearly tore the damn country apart with his offshoots! But Libra hasn’t done a thing! If Theta were with us then—”

“Is it the saint candidates or the True Conductors?” Lambda murmured. “Which one is the wrong one this time?”

“It’s clearly both,” Beta responded. “Both, unnatural in their own way.”

“It’s also clear that these incorrect initiations have been a major setback for us,” Gamma added. “We’ve seen it now with Theta, Omicron, and Iota. We cannot lose another one of us to an incorrect initiation. Those were some of our best and wisest. Having them lose their honor in such a way is despicable. Leaving them alive was a mistake. It would be a mercy to return them to their resistor or even into nothingness—whichever their path may be. I listened to you, Beta, but we will no longer use discretion with them.”

There was a stretch of silence, and Gamma allowed himself to listen to the hum and trickle of the waterfall and vitae stream behind him.

“You speak of discretion, but… when Theta said that they knew about the ‘daughter,’” Beta drew, resting an elbow against the table and leaning into her fist. “What did Theta mean, Gamma?”

Gamma paused, feeling a rare, icy invisible hand seize his heart.

“Wtorek Izsak has a daughter,” Beta continued. “Wtorek Csilla. The papers say she was a ‘failed’ saint candidate of Taurus.” She looked him up and down. “You were correctly initiated, yes?”

Tau set his glass aside. “Of course he was. Omicron confirmed it.”

“I trust you, Gamma,” Beta finally said after a beat. “Even if your initiation was incorrect. There aren’t many of us left. Perhaps we should think of putting new members into resistors to carry our purpose out once we’ve returned to nothingness.”

“I respect you, Beta. I really do.” Tau frowned. “But it’s absolutely disgusting that you’d suggest something like that! Going against our own rules! Disgusting!”

Gamma stared at her for a moment before he spoke: “The syzygy is drawing nearer and nearer with every day. Even though more and more saint candidates have opted for the syzygy since our time, we must hold steadfast to what was taught and asked of us by…” He grimaced. “… by Ophiuchus.”

“So?”

“I think it’s time we initiated Alpha,” Gamma drew. “At this point, Theta has become a nuisance. We should make dues to remove them and bring them at least a small peace. And since True Conductors are easier to dispose of than reservoirs and ley lines and we know the identity of some, we will start focusing more on their eradication.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

In the belly of Ophiuchus, beneath both the Serpens Establishment and the Black Constellation Detention Center, the Saint of Passion entered a dimly lit room at the center of which a long, black, rectangular table rested. Its lacquered, marbled surface hosted a single checkered game board scattered with small game pieces imprinted on with stars.

Scorpio sauntered over to the table and inspected the board. If his most recent memories were correct, he thought, then this was a game he and Libra had set a little over a century ago. Itero Recino, endless like them. It was his turn, if he recalled correctly. 

After setting the wine bottle and glasses he’d brought with him down onto the table, he reached out to move a piece and—

—suddenly flew across the room. He cracked against the checkered wall opposite and slid to the ground as he cradled his throbbing cheek. A glance backwards informed him he had formed a good-sized dent in the wall. His pulsating arms and legs informed him that a break had occurred. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed.

Standing in the place where he’d once stood was a young girl with curly brown hair barely tamed by twisting braids. The dress she wore was off-white and printed on with numerous flowers, which contrasted greatly with the dark russet-colored light that enveloped her hands like gloves.

“Oh, hello, Csilla,” he greeted her casually. “Or Taurus, Saint of the Fortress.”

She stormed over to him and threw her glowing fist into the wall, causing the entire wall to form cracks and the entire building to rumble dangerously. Scorpio supposed those above would’ve thought it an earthquake.

“You’re an idiot!” Taurus seethed, clenching her shaking fist. “You have no self-control! You nearly killed True Conductors! You pushed against the free will clause—”

“What? You’re upset that I broke up your little game of pretend house?” Scorpio rubbed his cheek, smile dipping slightly. “It’s not even a full house anymore, dear Taurus. Wtorek Izsak is dead.”

Taurus’s eyes widened, and she lifted her fist—

—before a hand around the wrist stopped her short. Libra, Saint of the Scales, stood behind her, shaking her head.

“Y’know he’s just tryin’ t’aggravate ya. Don’t give in. It’s just Scorpio.”

“Libra…”

“It’s good t’see ya, Csilla. Yer mother was making a fret about ya. Y’sure just up and leavin’ was what ya wanted t’do?”

Taurus grimaced, lowering her fist as the light around her hands dimmed. She looked away.

At that moment, the granite doors to the room creaked open and three figures entered. One was the golden Leona, Saint of Victory, who immediately seated herself at the table and began pouring herself a glass of wine. The next was Pisces, who drifted in like a ghost, sparing them all a smile before seating himself as well. The last was an elder, graying man dressed in a monochrome suit. The Head Chairman, who took his seat at the head of the table without acknowledging any of them.

After dusting himself off, Scorpio rose to his feet, flashed Taurus a smile, before walking over to the gray man. He knelt before him in a sweeping gesture before placing a kiss on the elder’s backhand.

The elder did not seem impressed.

“I remember when you first entered Ophiuchus. The years haven’t been kind to you.”

“Which is why I’m standing down for the next head chairman election,” the Head Chairman replied. “I suggest one of you take my place.”

“That would go against the free will clause,” Libra stated, walking over to the table and seating herself alongside Taurus. “Our interference would overstep—”

“Not if it’s a free election of a non-governing body,” Scorpio replied, drifting over to his own chair and seating himself. He poured himself a glass with a hum. “I know Leona is preparing to run. Perhaps I should too?”

Libra sighed, folding her hands across the table. “We have several other topics we should discuss.”

“We should start with our ‘failed’ saint candidates issue first,” Scorpio said, swirling his glass of wine. Noticing Leona’s stare, he chuckled. “Oh, I wasn’t referring to you, dear Leona, or Taurus either.”

Leona frowned, unamused.

“But speaking of Leona, that Maria Gloria-Fernandez…” Scorpio peered at her. “Would you care to explain?”

Leona remained silent.

“Fine. There’s also the issue of Aries who is stuck inside that group of True Conductors. I saw her at the threshold.”

“The threshold?” Libra stared. “Impossible. No one returns as themselves from the threshold… But…. that explains a lot.”

“Well, I took a taxi, Libra. Anyway, the fact is that Aries is with them now.” 

“Does that make them no longer viable for the syzygy?” Taurus wondered. “They seem to operate more or less the same…”

“There’s also Virgo’s whereabouts to consider,” Scorpio muttered, suddenly feeling less amused.

“Perhaps we should also consider possibly re-baptizing Gigi.”

“That might not be the best option,” the Head Chairman said, “considering what Sagittarius did during this incarnation.”

“Sagittarius aside, I’ve been considering returning my title,” Leona said. “Although I expect an immediate return, I would have to return to Leo to select a successor if that were the case.”

“Right. You have that unique way of selecting candidates…” Scorpio muttered, moving to pour a glass for all the others. “Will it be a passable baptism though is the question…”

“Perhaps it’s the most merciful way,” Pisces reasoned, accepting a glass. “However returning—even temporarily—when so much is happening in your domain with the crown, Leo? That’s quite risky.”

“Especially if we consider ELPIS has now been divided between Theta and Gamma,” Libra agreed. “They’ll be causin’ a ruckus left and right.”

Taurus tensed. “Most, if not all, of them are very different now…”

“Yes—despite bleaching their vitae to try to remain the same.” Scorpio chuckled. “Of course, at their core, they’re destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.”

There were multiple nods of agreement.

“Let’s focus on what we’ve accomplished so far,” Leona interjected. “First, we have a number of True Conductors groups under our surveillance and care now. Second, the threshold of reservoirs needed for the syzygy has almost been met by the countries’ own, independent actions. Third, our ley lines are making progress. Fourth, we have more True Conductor hunters to find the rest of the needed True Conductors.”

“Dear Werner’s and my old partner Jericho’s group,” Scorpio mused. “You do realize all of these accomplishments were thanks to my intervention.”

Leona glanced at Scorpio, smile thinning. “Although such inelegant, reckless means of doing so put a sour light on those accomplishments.”

Scorpio met her gaze head-on, but before he could respond, Pisces lifted his glass of wine. The Saint of Cycles was a constant, it seemed. Smiling, Scorpio raised his own glass as did the others around him.

“Cheers to the years and lives we’ve lived and given! Cheers to the syzygy and the end!”

Crystalline clinks filled the room.


Part III End.

21b: Hidden Faults

[Chapter Mood Theme]

Re-cap:

The Kaiser is dead, killed by Marionette Engel. The six deal with the fall out as Signum begins to change around them.


“Congratulations, Captain Waltz,” Acting Kaiser General Watzmann said. “You’ve done well. Capricorn thanks you for your service.”

Newly promoted Captain Werner Waltz stood at attention as the general fixed a medal in the shape of a thirteen-pointed star over his chest. Werner stood now in the late Kaiser’s office with Kleine, Bergmann, Brandt, Stein, and Gilbert just a step behind him. The glass shards that had once cluttered the floor had been cleaned up and a rickety replacement glass pane had been put over the window. The warped glass distorted the morning light that was seeping through the clouds, making everything seem hazy and dream-like.

Promotions had been given to Werner’s subordinates as well just a moment earlier: Kleine from Lance Corporal to Corporal Class III, Bergmann from Corporal Class III to Sergeant Class III, Stein from Private to Lance Corporal, Brandt from Medical Combat Class III to Class I, and Gilbert from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant.

“You held the final defensive line against the revolting Verbundene Augen and defended the Kaiser with all your might with the little resources you had and despite being slandered by misinformation,” Watzmann continued. “Marionette Engel’s forces were overwhelming. The military police weren’t prepared for her coup d’état. The Kaiser’s assassination was not your fault. And yet still, order has been maintained.”

General Watzmann, whom Olive had met back on the medical train, had arrived at the capital only two hours after the Kaiser’s death was announced to the public. The two other generals who were in Leona’s care deferred leadership to him. Thus he welcomed Ophiuchus’s intervention with open arms. His lack of involvement with both the Augen and the chancellery cabinet due to his long medical leave had put him in a mostly favorable light in the public eye.

“Waltz, I take it you’ll take your new office position at the capital just as seriously as you did your position on the Border Force. Logistics and communicating with Ophiuchus is quite a big deal,” Watzmann continued, pulling back and surveying the others behind him. “As long as your captain here gets all of his paperwork done, I’m sure everything will run smoothly at the border too. Everything goes top-down.” A pause. “And everything is more-or-less operating the same as before you stumbled upon this discretion as well, so keep your heads up. You have a hefty responsibility on your shoulders. Carry it with pride.”

It wasn’t like he had a choice. Sleaze. 

Gilbert said nothing. Stein shifted in place, leering at the general up and down. Bergmann and Kleine exchanged looks.

“Now, Captain Waltz,” Watzmann continued, “you wouldn’t happen to know what happened to Friedhelm Heimler and Volker Weingartner, would you? Heimler was a prominent member of the Augen, and Weingartner’s being investigated for his own involvement, but they’ve both disappeared without a trace. Weingartner’s daughter too.” He folded his hand over his stomach. “How about Ludwig? He had former relations with the Augen, didn’t he? Would he or your sister by relation know anything? I heard that your family just made it back to Eisburg. Should we make a call?”

Werner clenched his fist behind his back but kept his face stolid. “No, sir. I have no knowledge of what happened to Heimler and Captain Weingartner. I’m aware that Ludwig has dissociated himself from the Augen, and there’s been a case opened for him about the fact that he was also possibly manipulated. I doubt he knows anything about their whereabouts.”

Watzmann turned and pulled a stack of files from his desk. After rifling through them for a moment, he peered at Werner. “And I assume that even after all of this, your loyalty lies to…?”

“To Capricorn, of course,” Werner responded without skipping a beat.

“Very well then.”

Werner watched him set the papers down and then released his clenched fist.

Stripped of his subordinates. Stripped of his original duty. Stripped of his freedom . Stripped of his privacy. It was an unsightly state. And here it was being treated as some exceptional, praised distinctive honor. A false, honorable appearance. Appearances were everything, but also deceiving.

“I’m sure General von Spiel will give you some pointers on the office culture of the capital when he comes around,” Watzmann continued. “It’ll be much calmer and safer here than the border, but you will still be watched and held to the same standard.” He nodded. “I say—with the recent discovery of a vitae reservoir just beneath our feet, Capricorn is about to enter a renaissance age. There’s no better time to be a capital soldier.”

Trystan’s agonized expression as he melted down into a pool of vitae flashed through Werner’s mind.

“You can all leave now. Thank you for your service.”

Werner exited the office with Gilbert and the others following behind. The ringing of telephones and tap-tapping of typewriters filled the surrounding hall. On the walls of the hall hung the familiar portraits of the past Kaisers—Kafke Netzche’s grim-faced profile being the most recent addition.

Werner stared up at the portrait for five seconds more before he turned to face his subordinates. “You all still have two weeks of leave before you’re to report back to the border. You’ll be taken under a different commander then.”

“You’ll always be our commander, Lieuten—er—Captain,” Kleine interjected, brows furrowed, fists clenched. “Not anyone else—”

“That’s not how it works, Kleine,” Werner interjected before inclining his head. “But I appreciate the sentiment. I’ll remember your words.”

Kleine nodded.

Werner took in a deep breath and then said steadily as he met each of their eyes: “This is my last order to you. When you go home, don’t think of what’s transpired here. Enjoy your time with your families instead. And when you go to the border to serve, make sure you come back alive.”

Stein nodded, while Kleine and Bergmann stood at attention. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll see you sometime soon.”

Gilbert lingered by Werner’s side when the other three departed. After a while, he muttered, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me, does it? Honorable discharge and all that.”

Werner turned to him, brows knitting as he glanced again at Gilbert’s armless sleeve that was tied into a knot.

“Well, I’m not letting them kick me out that easily. Not you either. I mean, I heard Nic’s somehow got a job as a medical officer for the new hospital here and earning a good paycheck. Can’t let him beat me.”

Werner stared.

“And not like their bonus package the capital is giving me is going to last us long,” Gilbert continued, ruffling his hair with a sigh. “So I was thinking of maybe trying for that special program for injured-in-combat officers. The one Ludwig mentioned to me a while back.”

Werner paused before he realized in surprise: “The Stahlherzprogramm. That’s the one Kaiser Netzche put in place, correct? To provide influential positions for officers who were disabled during battle… It’s a highly competitive program.”

“Yeah, guess the guy did one thing right other than being a puppet.” Gilbert grimaced. “Well, anyway, I might actually try for that—like I’m going to actually try for it.” He sighed, ruffling his hair again. “No idea what the hell I’m doing jumping right back into things when I got a free pass, but just sitting around doing nothing pisses me off.” He peeked at Werner. “‘Course. Getting into the program is one thing; getting an actual job is another.”

Werner nodded, allowing a slight smile to touch his lips. “I’ll keep a position open.”

“Thank you, paycheck.”

* * *

Werner stepped out from the chancellery building and took in the morning rays seeping in lazily through the clouds. He took a sweep of the streets, noting how the cement roads were even more dilapidated than before. Still, despite this, every so often a group of civilians would filter by in a hurry. And—there was almost complete silence. In the distance, instead of the thunderous boom of battle, there was the warbling of birds. It was a sign of recovery—perhaps. Or maybe that was too optimistic.

Feeling a faint pull at his chest, Werner walked down the steps of the chancellery building and down the road. He stepped around several fallen v-lamps along the way, stopping temporarily to direct some newly deployed and lost military police officers to their designated locations. The pull continued all the while; and eventually, he followed it into a barricaded alleyway. After two more minutes of walking, he reached a very small clearing where a familiar group of five gathered in a circle—some sitting on crates and steel drums and others standing—around a toppled stack of insulating shields.

Olive sat closest to him, face caked in ash, eyes red and puffy. He looked nothing like a regal prince of Aries. Cadence was leaning against the wall beside him, spinning a golden necklace by the chain around on her index finger. When she noticed his stare, she cracked a grin—Hey. I found it on the ground. Honest. 

Maria sat beside her. Despite the sweat staining the woman’s face and the blood soaked into her shirt, she was beaming brightly and waved wildly at his arrival—We are captains together now, no? 

Sitting quietly next to her was Atienna who was also caked in ash but smiling faintly. Last was Jericho who momentarily stopped scrubbing away the blood caked to the suitcase on his lap to turn and offer him a short wave. In between Jericho and Olive was an empty crate waiting to be occupied.

Their appearances were rather poor and perhaps even pathetic. However, at the moment, that didn’t matter to Werner—

Olive shot up to an abrupt stand and approached Werner swiftly, coming to a stop just before him. His eyes were glued to the ground, his hands balled into fists, his cheeks still visibly puffy and red. When Olive finally looked up, Werner noted the boy’s eyes were just the same: red and puffy.

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it with a grimace. Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Werner, causing Werner to lift his hands in surprise.

Desperation, fear, relief, sadness, and loss reeled through Werner’s mind with such intensity that he almost doubled over from the pain of it all. But he maintained himself. Protect.

Werner stiffened, hesitating at the closeness as he thought of politics and appearances, before he slowly lowered his arms. He placed one hand on top of Olive’s head while resting the other across the younger’s back shoulders. He held him there for a stretch of time as he also held Atienna’s gaze. After an agreeable amount of time had passed and the heaviness he felt in Olive’s chest numbed, he led Olive back to the circle and seated himself there alongside him.

The six of them sat there in silence for a stretch of time before Werner felt his stomach grumble  It took a moment for him to realize it was Olive’s stomach, not his own. Absentmindedly, Werner reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the single bar of milk chocolate that his sister had gifted him months ago. After carefully peeling off the wax paper, he handed the full bar to Olive.

Olive took the bar with an embarrassed frown before breaking off a piece for himself. After a beat, he hesitantly handed the rest to Cadence. Cadence bit a piece off the bar nonchalantly with her teeth before tossing it to Maria.

As they continued to pass along the chocolate bar, Werner stared at the wrapper in his hand and then pressed it flat against his knee. Feeling as if he was being moved by an unseen force, he began to fold and crease the paper methodically. Corner to corner, side to side, flip there.

By the time he finished it, Jericho was holding the remaining two pieces of the chocolate bar. Werner placed the newly-folded origami crane on top of the stack of insulating shields in front of him.

Talib—no, that wasn’t it.

He stared at it with the others for a while until, in a flash of black, Lavi appeared before them and knelt in front of it with a dreamy expression. 

Lavi sighed. “That’s really cool. Who taught you, Werner?”

Werner wasn’t sure. Before he could think on it much longer, he felt all six of their stares on his face. No doubt the scorpion tattoo had crawled its way back onto his cheek. It was a sign of their defeat. No. It was a reassurance that, little by little—even if not apparent, whether for better or for worse—they were indeed changing.

Chewing his piece of chocolate carefully, Jericho held the remaining piece out for Werner and dropped it into his palm. After a pause, Werner popped the piece into his mouth.

It was a familiar taste.

Sweet.

* * *

Olive was the first to depart the capital.

He first exited their gathering in the alley and went to clean himself up at a nearby wash house in order to not arouse the suspicion of his royal guards when he returned to the train. Atienna held concerns about him wandering the city alone in the chaotic aftermath, but he rejected her offer to accompany him.

After his long bath, Olive wandered down another alleyway and found a gate of Francis’s that was to let him back onto his train. Just as he was about to pull Francis’s proto-conductor from his pocket to jump the gate, he was approached from nowhere by a duo of military police officers who demanded his ID and his conductors. He flippantly ignored them which caused them to aggressively shove him against the wall. Before any overrides could be made, however, the two officers were abruptly thrown to the side and cracked against their jaws by none other than Derik Stein who flew into the alley from nowhere.

Stein continued to kick the officers while they were down until Olive pulled him away in alarm. Turning to face Olive, the man held out a familiar golden badge. Trystan Carter’s royal guard insignia. Heart seizing in his chest, Olive stared at it in disbelief as he reached out to take it, but then—

Stein dipped into a kneeling bow. “I don’t get all this formality shit, but you basically don’t have a personal guard anymore, right? Well, I’m not being pushed around like some bargaining chip. Those saint bastards want to keep you safe anyway, right? I can do that.” He looked up, gaze wide and burning. “ Please say yes. I’ll be your guard.”

Olive, alarmed and unnerved by the fire in Stein’s eyes, reached out to Werner in alarm. But Werner gave his approval. Begrudgingly, and with slight pity, Olive accepted the offer.

When Olive returned to the medical train cart, he made up some elaborate excuse with Cadence’s help: Stein was a professional sought out by Trystan at Olive’s own orders—with Stein being the reason Trystan left for the capital. Stein then bluntly informed Alexander of Trystan’s death, covering it up with little care as Trystan being caught in a crossfire between the Augen and the military police. Alexander took in the news of Trystan’s death with a strained expression that melded into surprise when Olive requested for them all to return to Aries.

This also brought concern from Jericho and Atienna.

Don’t worry, Olive thought to them as the medical train finally departed to Aries. No matter what happens, I won’t go back to the way I was before. To the way I was back when I was locked up in the royal palace… I promise. I won’t go back. Not again. A promise more to himself than anyone else, it seemed.

Two days later, Olive arrived in Trystan’s hometown and found his way to the late royal guard’s house which was a small cottage no bigger than Olive’s personal bathroom. This made Olive’s stomach drop.

Trystan’s parents’ faces lit up at his arrival and they gushed about how proud they were of Trystan and how honored they were that the prince of Aries had taken Trystan in as his personal guard. Olive almost didn’t want to tell him the truth, but he refused to run away and delivered the news mournfully.

Trystan’s parents immediately fell to their knees and wept at Olive’s feet. He sank down beside them and handed them Trystan’s royal guard badge that Stein had begrudgingly relinquished. It was the only physical thing of Trystan that remained—something that Olive had a hard time relinquishing himself.

“Trystan… He didn’t die for nothing,” Olive reassured them. “He told me about all the problems here. I’ll do something about it. Things will change.” He glanced over his shoulder as Lavi’s apparition appeared there smiling morosely. Lavi, his sister and a true saint candidate. “I promise…”

*

The evening of Olive’s return to Aries was the evening of Marionette’s public execution which was held in the courtyard in front of the chancellery building. Werner did not attend and instead—after witnessing Olive’s personal visit—left the city to meet Otto Vogt’s parents. As soon as he entered their flower shop and they locked eyes with him, however, Otto’s mother slapped him across the face, accused him of murder, and kicked him out of the shop. Werner complied with a steely expression, leaving Otto’s personal flora books and uniform folded neatly at the front door.

On the way back to the capital, the train’s internal speakers played out the execution event in full. It blared out so loudly that Werner had no choice but to put down the papers he was working on to listen. Above the constant crackle of static, a voice cracked out:

“We’re gathered here today to witness the execution of treasonous Verbundene Augen leader Marionette Engel who—on the 15th of this month—assassinated Kaiser Kafke Netzche in cold blood. She has declined Monadic blessings from the local Monadic temple, so we now ask for her final words.”

There was a beat of silence.

“There will always be people like me whether you view me as a hero or a villain,” crackled Marionette’s voice, firm and strong. People who want change for better or for worse and are willing to die for it. That isn’t despair. That’s hope.”

Then came the snap of the rope and more static.

* * *

The second to officially depart was Cadence, who frequently dipped in and out of Francis’s gates to visit Werner in his temporary office in an older building in the military district.

“Ya sure that even with Ophiuchus here, everythin’ is goin’ ta turn out okay?” was one of her frequently asked questions. And also—“Ya sure you’re okay?”

Her concerns were warranted. Marionette’s death brought about a series of riots in which houses and stores of military officers—retired, serving, for-Augen-or-not, high-ranking-or-not—were targeted, torn apart, and burned down. They claimed these riots to be disassociated from the Augen and solely protesting the death of a ‘woman who was merely speaking her mind.’ Suppression—this time without Ophiuchian aid—was slow and dragging.

Sometimes, as if to take her mind off of things, Cadence would often bring with her Geminian tabloids and news articles during her visits with headlines like—

APPARENTLY MISSING TWIN CITIES PHILANTHROPISTS ROMANOS AND FOXMANS REVEALED TO BE SAFE. CONTACT MADE WITH NEWS REPORTER.

And—

ROMANOS AND FOXMANS SAID TO BE TAKING TIME AWAY FROM PUBLIC EYE. WILL CONTINUE PHILANTHROPY.

And—

CAMPANA SPOTTED IN LEO? SECRET LOVER?

It was all gossip and rumor. And although Cadence knew the truth behind the matter—that Francis had whisked them all away into his gates when this all began and that the organizations were all now using his presence to their advantage—she enjoyed the flair of it.

Werner did not believe such things were educational, so he provided her with primary news articles, such as—

A HALF-WAY AGREEMENT ON PEACE AT THE BORDER

Acting Kaiser General Watzmann has stepped forward with the aid of Ophiuchus to address the issues that the Augen movement has brought to light. Stating that he has understood and heard the pleas of the people, he has decided to move forward and cut military spending while simultaneously reaching out to improve relations with Argo. However, Capricorn is not the only country in Signum that has precarious relationships with the Argoan country, and so General Watzmann has reached out to Aquarius hoping to improve border relations.

At 1300 hours on December 27th of the year 1941, a joint agreement was made between the Acting Kaiser General Watzmann of Capricorn and Tsar Efrosin Mikhailov and Premier Onisim Tarasov of Aquarius to create a joint task force to work towards this mutual goal of obtaining a truce with Argo.

To improve relationships between both countries to achieve this, numerous joint activities are to be held during various points in the coming year. Among these activities include less taxation on vitae transportation across borders, the installment of better ley lines between the reservoirs between the two countries, and joint military training exercises. 

When Cadence finished reading this article—at a faster rate than normal, which Werner found pride in—she arched a brow. “Yeah, this is why I don’t like readin’ the news. Stressful and depressin’. I mean it looks good on paper, but. doubt the other countries’re gonna take this too well. The two big militaries of Signum joinin’ hands? Nah.”

“The Augen and other anti-Kaiser groups will be temporarily appeased with this.”

“People are never satisfied for long though,” Cadence noted. “That’s why people keep visitin’ the casinos even though they’ve already won big money.”

Never satisfied…

“If the Foxmans and the Romanos decide to continue to hide,” Werner pressed after a moment of silence, “what will you do?”

Cadence shrugged, shifting from foot to foot.

“I appreciate your visits, Cadence,” Werner finally said, “but Francis’s gates are our only advantage and the saint candidates most likely have him as a high priority target. I’m the person most in the eyes of the saint candidates. Visiting me is putting not only yourself but also Francis in danger.”

A prick of pain stabbed Werner’s chest.

—but Cadence flashed a smile and tipped her hat. “I get what you’re sayin’. Not like we can’t have a party like this in our heads instead.”

Werner placed a hand on her head in response. “You need to speak with Nico to resolve whatever conflicts you have, so we don’t run across any issues in the future. You should be concerned about yourself first.”

Cadence pulled her hat down slightly. “Aye, I know, Captain.”

* * *

The third to depart was Maria, but not before she made her way to the laboratory below the city. The area was warded off and well-guarded by officers, but she easily slipped and bashed her way past them to the underground. When she reached the series of insulation bars and tubes that Olive recalled Kappa being tied up to, she was instead met with the woman’s corpse: killed with a bullet straight through the head. No sign of Conta in sight.

Both Veles and Gabrielle were already there, inspecting the body when she arrived.

“It’s Gamma, most likely.” Gabrielle sighed. “We’re just dancing around blindly at this point.”

“Well, I dare say, Maria, since we’ve reunited by means of my own machinations,” Veles proclaimed abruptly, “I suggest we rejoin our forces to hunt down this nefarious Beta.”

Maria thought on it and agreed jubilantly. She left Gabrielle with Veles in tow and picked up Simon, Lita, and Emmanuel before hurtling them through Francis’s gate to a port near her ship. Once back on board, her crew greeted her as they normally would and rallied her with questions:

“Welcome back, Captain.”

“How was it?”

“You didn’t start that revolution in Capricorn, did you, Captain?”

“No, but I participated in a rally,” she answered. “It was quite fun!”

“We should be careful about traveling from now on,” Raul the Chef said warily as he handed her a newspaper. “Maybe we should pull out of Signum for a little while.”

TARIFF TENSIONS REACH ALL-TIME HIGH

This week has been bursting with economic tension. Sagittarius’s poor relations with Capricorn have been well known since the end of the Reservoir War and became highlighted during the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict. It came to a head today when bedridden Emperor Heixing of the Xing Clan announced that they would place a 30% mark-up tariff on all food and animal products imported from Capricorn. 

The reasoning for this, paraphrased from the Emperor, was due to Capricorn’s “atrocious treatment of its citizens and staining of its people’s civil rights” and its “carelessness for its international allies” as seen during the recent Augen revolution. He has also increased the mark-up of Aquarian imports as well due to Aquarius’s friendly relations and support of Capricorn. Since Sagittarius makes up 10% of Capricorn’s and 15% of Aquarius’s consumers for these items, both are sure to feel the burden. 

Eyes have now turned to Aries who shares a long-standing, strong relation with Sagittarius following the war. There has been talk that, as an ally of Sagittarius, Aries should issue the same tariff. Word has been heard that Aries is to issue a 10% mark-up on the same goods imported from Capricorn and Aquarius.

The Tariff and Embargo Protections issued by Ophiuchus in the year 1926 prevents tariffs being placed on solely one country by one country from being marked-up higher than 30%. This was to protect the economic integrity, stability, and relations throughout the continent. With this act came the ban of embargos for the same reason.

Pointing to this Protection, columnist Edmund Sieg warns against this sort of economic retribution. He states:

“Globalization is necessary to uphold the peace of Signum. Our peace works because we depend on each other economically. If we raise taxes and tariff each other into oblivion, we will force the other party to adapt and become less involved in Signum’s international activities. Independence in this case is not a good thing. Once a country in Signum becomes economically independent from another, there can be no peace.” 

Edmund Sieg has received criticism for his remarks—

Maria crumpled up the newspaper, preparing to toss it over her shoulder. She thought better of it and reopened it with a hum. “They do not know how to get along and share, no? We should be careful, yes?”

Veles chuckled. “There’s no need for caution when I’m around.”

Her crew gave Veles an exasperated look before pressing, “Where to now, Captain?”

“Well… I have been thinking about Conta recently and Leona too,” Maria drew slowly, gaze lowering. “And thinking about them makes me think about the Monadic orphanage I grew up in.” She turned to her crew. “If I am thinking about that place and them, they must be thinking about it too, no? So, we set sail!”

* * *

The fourth to depart was Atienna. Instead of leaving through one of Francis’s gates, she decided to wait with Sefu until the train stations were up and running again. The process took approximately four days, and she spent the time perusing the capital’s library and reading through Aquarian literature alongside Sefu as she thought of Yulia and Kovich.

When she was finally able to load into her train booth the morning of her departure, she felt somewhat morose. She recalled her homesickness when she had been stuck in her override of Werner. Her father and siblings had burned in her mind at the time. Now that she was on her way home, however, she was overcome with a desire to not return. She didn’t think she was as strong as Olive. And so if she returned, she wondered if she would become re-rooted in place

In thought, she glanced at the booth across from her and spied a strange woman sitting there covered in numerous layers of fur coats and adorned in several lower-face masks. It took Atienna a moment to realize that it was Louise Bonnefoy who sat across from her. Alone . Louise’s eyes brightened when their gazes locked, but she quickly put a finger to her mouth. Atienna slowly returned the gesture in slight confusion but looked away when Louise broke off their eye contact.

As Atienna looked out the window in wonder as the train began to roll along the tracks, she received an answer to her unasked question. Outside on the train platform stood Libran reporter and True Conductor Hilton Tyler, absentmindedly lighting a v-cig. He took one long puff before he turned and found himself surrounded by a handful of men and women in monochrome suits wearing white armbands. The ELPIS Department. Without resistance, he followed them away.

So Hilton had chosen a different, more altruistic path. Atienna wondered…

“Hey,” came Cadence’s voice as her apparition appeared suddenly beside her, “we can’t help other people if we can’t help ourselves. It sucks, but…” She reached over and squeezed Atienna’s hand. “Eh, it just sucks.”

*

Atienna switched trains with Sefu near the border of Capricorn. When she entered the compartment on her new train designated by her ticket, she found someone already sitting there. A woman with dark curls, red lips, and bottomless pitch-black eyes. Cvetka Akulova.

“I see you’ve made the same choice as me. Leona’s told me all about it after we reconnected,” Cvetka said, inviting Atienna to sit with a gesture. When Atienna accepted and Sefu followed suit, she smiled and handed Atienna a newspaper article.

A MARRIAGE ACROSS COUNTRIES

As many of you following the regal circles, successions, and gossip of the remaining monarchies in Signum may know, the Cancerian Duke of the House Lune proposed to the Duchess of the House Etoile Louise Bonnefoy almost two years ago. The Duchess has been reported to be ill and has not seen the public eye since then, but the Duke has remained steadfast despite rumors that she’s run away. People lavished that he was absolutely love-struck. So, there’s no question as to why the public was surprised when the Duke proposed to the Princess of Leo. Alas!

While the duchess and dukes are not seats ingrained in the Cancerian government, they still serve as symbols of the country. What this marriage proposal will mean for relations between the two countries and the rest of Signum… we may only wonder. 

Small editor’s note: I’m sure all of our readers have noticed that our recent articles have a different tone than usual and that we’ve been spinning through many different writers. This is because we were recently informed that beloved reporter Hilton Tyler has chosen retirement. We weren’t given much notice—no shame on his part—so our articles may be far and few in-between until we find an appropriate underwriter. To Hilton Tyler, we wish you all the best. 

“This is what happens when you make those kinds of choices. Selflessness is another form of selfishness.” Cvetka tucked a lock of hair behind her ears as her eyes narrowed. “We’re all just cogs in a clock being moved forward by other people’s hands. So, let’s enjoy ourselves, shall we?”

* * *

The last to depart was Jericho, and he left by train alongside Alice and Gabrielle. Since the train ride was stiff with silence, he spent the time conversing with Maria and Cadence inside of his head while sketching in his journal. The only interaction Alice and Gabrielle had was Alice handing over the photo she’d received from Francis.

Their reception in the Serpens Establishment was just as muted. Stares were abound. Jericho did not like it.

“Everyone is just tense because of everything that’s been happening,” Atienna reassured him.

As soon as Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with Gabrielle and Alice, however, they were met by a hysterical Wtorek Elizabeta. She grabbed Gabrielle by the scruff and stared at her with wide, mad eyes.

“Where is she?! Where is she?!” Elizabeta cried. “Where’s Csilla?”

Gabrielle stared at her in confusion—

“It seems as if little Csilla has wandered off somewhere. A runaway.”

At the sound of Talib’s voice, Jericho tensed and moved closer to Alice.

Lounging casually on one of Gabrielle’s sofas was Talib—no, Scorpio, Werner reminded him—himself, no longer bound in suppression cuffs. At his left sat Roberto, looking tense but alert. Sitting on the island table in front of him was a gift basket filled with multiple bottles of wine. Across from that sat Ferris and Moraeni—both tense and quiet, the former appearing concerned as she studied Talib’s face.

“My intention wasn’t to bring Taurus out of hiding, but it appears as if that was another surprising effect.” He curled a dark lock of hair around his finger. “It’s like the universe is dancing at my fingertips—said the man before his fall.”

“So they let you out of your cage, huh?” Gabrielle asked, stiffly. She glanced at Roberto. “Did you let him go?”

“Well, I am needed in the ELPIS Department,” he answered casually, before turning to Ferris and smiling thinly. “But I was considering the Assignment Department instead and working my way up to first chairman. Perhaps even Psychological Evaluations.” He glanced disinterestedly at Roberto. “Oh, yes, Flannery was kind enough to cut me out of Roberto here, but I was thinking perhaps I should place another medium close to you. Well, maybe I already have.”

Roberto tensed, pale.

Flannery doesn’t think you’re dangerous; but even though I know you’re pathetic, Gabrielle, I know how dangerous you can be. You’re very good at pulling people into your fold and having them throw away their lives for you. Me being one of them.”

Scorpio rose from his seat, plucking two bottles of wine and two wineglasses from the gift basket. He sauntered over to her, popped the bottle, and began pouring her and himself a glass. Gabrielle accepted the glass when offered, causing Scorpio to chuckle.

“The head chairman election is coming up soon, isn’t it? The old man at the top is getting too senile, right? I might try for that too.”

He lifted his glass.

“Let’s have one more beautiful form of democracy before the syzygy.”

“The suppression cuffs,” Alice interjected, eyes narrowing. “When you had them on, you felt guilty. I knowyou did, Talib. I saw you.”

Scorpio’s eyes narrowed at her as he brushed past. He paused by the threshold of the door to lock eyes with Jericho and then departed with a wave. “See you around, partner. Keep a good eye on my dear Werner for me.”

* * *

Unlike the other five, Werner did not leave the capital of Capricorn. Instead, he spent his time preparing to move into his permanent office in the chancellery building for his new position. He was not one for decorations, so his office consisted of only his desk, a sofa, a bookshelf exhibiting some books Francis had recommended to Cadence, and a birdcage housing Olive’s blackbird that he’d rescued from storage. It was suitable and practical.

During his second week in his permanent office, Werner was visited by General von Spiel, who delivered to him paperwork to be filed about conductor distribution by the next evening. They exchanged little words besides formalities. Before he left, Von Spiel dropped off a stack of letters he’d picked up for Werner from the mailing room. Among these letters and documents was a letter from home signed by Viktoria.

Setting aside the other letters, Werner opened this one first. Inside, he found a neatly written message detailing the events Viktoria and his family had encountered since they’d arrived home from the capital. She wrote that they were all healthy. Mother was worried and wanted to speak of him. Ludwig was thinking of taking a visit to Sagittarius to see if he could start a business there—

Werner frowned as he scanned over the letter again. It was a coded message—one that Ludwig most likely had helped Viktoria to write: Weingartner, his daughter, and Heimler were in Sagittarius in hiding. Werner reasoned this had to do with the deal the captain made with Claire earlier. While Werner appreciated the information, he thought it dangerous for Viktoria to use this means of communication. Part of him was even slightly irritable at Ludwig for bringing her into it. Then he thought of his mother and father and tensed. Some things couldn’t be fixed, could they? But what did it mean to ‘fix’ something like a relationship?

Werner’s attention was drawn away from the letter as he felt the pull of the synchronization. It was Atienna, synchronizing at a high enough level that he could see her surroundings. She was in a small, familiar room tucked into some silk blankets with a thick tome resting on her lap.

“Well, it’s a relief that you’re not avoiding me at least,” she said, eyes twinkling.

She was referring to Olive.

“He’s trying not to be cold, but he’s clearly upset and it slips out…”

“Olive is still young,” Werner said. “He’s just beginning to realize that not everything in the world is completely right or wrong.” He set down his paperwork. “You made a necessary choice.”

“For us—I agree.” Atienna smiled wanly. “But for others…”

“We need to think in the long-term and be pragmatic.” Werner folded his hands together. “It’s becoming apparent that this is just one battle in a long war. And wars are never won without cost.”

Atienna hid her smile with a hand. “Is your head still on the battlefield despite being confined to an office? You’d make a fearsome military police officer, don’t you think?” She peered into his face and then averted her gaze. “Olive and Cadence were concerned about you and I was too… but when you say things like that, it’s a bit reassuring, don’t you think?”

Werner allowed himself to smile just slightly before he returned his attention to his paperwork. “You should go to sleep. It’s getting late.”

The others had already turned in for the night—Werner could barely feel them in the distance.

Jericho had the earliest sleep schedule, but Werner supposed he had to sleep early due to most of his deskwork cases requiring him to wake up at 0300 hours to handle. The peacekeeper, however, had a peculiar habit of sleeping: with his suit and work shoes on . Despite Werner trying to mend this habit, his instructions often slipped Jericho’s mind. On this particular night, however, Jericho had changed into sleeping wear, clocking out at exactly 1900 hours.

Cadence’s sleep habits were more sporadic. On this night, she’d fallen asleep on the couch after playing a drinking game with Allen and Carl and a disinterested Francis while the other children slept.

Maria’s sleep habits were even more sporadic. Tonight, however, she slept reasonably early with Lita tucked in beside her on her hammock and the rather loud snores of her crew members, the Specialist children, and Veles echoing around her ship.

Olive had stayed up a bit later, tinkering away at his conductors and sifting through books in the library of Trystan’s hometown under Stein’s watchful eye. He had fallen asleep right at his workstation.

Werner noticed Atienna seemed to be peering at them all too, and she looked down at Werner with an inquisitive smile. She then tapped a small hand-written note sitting at the corner of his table. Nico’s handwriting. It read—At least 5 hours of sleep! She then disappeared from his sight, leaving him with a “Goodnight, Werner” and some of her drowsiness.

Goodnight. 

Suppressing a yawn, Werner rose from his desk and turned to stare out the window behind him. It was pitch-black out and the city was dead asleep. After mulling for a moment, he walked over to his office door, closed it, then locked it. He proceeded over to his sofa and laid down on it as he stared up at his ceiling and planned his next day while listening to the ticks of his pocket watch tucked in his chest pocket.

Since he was staying here for the night, he would have to wake up earlier to use the bathing house in the morning: 0400 hours. Coffee: 0430 hours. Then, he would start documenting the rest of Von Spiel’s files right away: 0500 hours. A short lunch at 1200 hours. And the rest of the day filing through papers. Sleep at 2300 hours. 5 hours of sleep.

Acceptable.

Werner suddenly realized that none of the other five were having any dreams or nightmares. What a rare occurrence. Olive had once complained that being in this state was lonely, but Werner found it a quiet recluse. It was only at rare times like this when he had his thoughts to himself that he knew with certainty that they were his own.

And so he thought about that long period when he was not himself. A missing gap in time. As Viktoria said, ‘it was very easy to lose track of it.’ Time, that was. And although he was missing that time, he felt he had somehow gained something else in exchange. Something that he couldn’t quite remember. Not something Scorpio had given him—he was certain, although he disliked thinking about nebulous things like this.

He was not one for philosophy, but perhaps just because something wasn’t remembered didn’t mean that it was not important. Yes. That was obvious. Perfection, imperfections, appearances, unsightliness, victory and failure, and duty aside, he felt more certain of himself. His purpose felt clear. Those he was important to paired with what and who were important to him were even clearer. All of this culminated in one thought, succinct thought:

It was good to be himself.

Werner Waltz closed his eyes.


“How would I describe Lieutenant Waltz? Well, he can pretty scary, harsh, and strict, to be honest. They don’t call him Kaltes Auge for no reason… But once you serve under him and get to really know him, you can tell he’s only being that way to make sure all of us are safe.”

Otto Vogt about Werner Waltz, two months after the Aquarian-Capricornian Border Conflict


21a: Indigo Waltz

[Chapter Mood Theme / Werner’s Mood Theme]

Re-cap:

Gilbert, Nico, Captain Weingartner, and the rest of Werner’s unit are accused of treason and of working with the Augen against Capricorn. As they wait at the top of the execution tower for their deaths, Lieutenant Werner Waltz—who has no awareness of the other five True Conductors to whom he is connected to—steps in as one of the executioners.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

It still wasn’t clear to Werner what made him do it.

Was it his reminiscing of his subordinates standing at attention before him in that dirty clinic in the Twin Cities as he asked them for their trust? That went both ways. Was it Ludwig’s words—“Trust your instincts”? Was it Major General von Spiel’s morose expression and cryptic words? Was it the Kaiser’s steadfast, fiery proclamations? Or was it the incongruency of everything he’d experienced since awakening?

Perhaps it was the fact that he wanted to know the face of the one-handed man kneeling before him. Werner knew it was not Emilia Bergmann whose sharp-shooting he’d helped to perfect a month ago. It wasn’t Otto Vogt who had taught him about flora either. Was it Derik Stein whom he’d once challenged to a shooting match to get him in line? Was it Alwin Brandt whose tall tales and fables he’d secretly eavesdropped on whenever there was a lull in the trenches? Was it Klaus Kleine who’d frequented his side recently and rattle about books and strange theories? Was it Nico who appeared paradoxically worried, yet serene whenever he visited? Or… was it Gilbert—

No. Werner didn’t want to imagine if it was Gilbert.

The thoughts were prospective, reminiscing, and very unlike himself. Werner knew he had no reason to be thinking about these things. Despite knowing this fact and knowing that he was merely following through with his duty and responsibility as a Capricornian, he—

hesitated.

He could see Fischer at the opposite end of the line-up do the same—the man’s hands barely brushing the rifle at his side. But that did not apply to the other officers in the lineup whose fingers were already resting on the trigger of their weapons. Among those faces was Vash Edelstein, an old classmate of his from the academy. From his conversation with Vash earlier, Werner had learned that Vash had taken the capital position that he had given up years ago. Now that Werner thought on it, however, he couldn’t quite recall why he had chosen to transfer from the capital to the Border Force. Was it to escape nepotism? Was it to prove himself on his own merit? No—what was it?

Werner berated himself internally for his distraction.

“Present arms!” the head executioner called from the center of the line-up at the back wall.

Werner swung his rifle forward and pointed it at the head of the man kneeling before him in unison with the other military officers. In the tense silence that followed, the tick-toking of his pocket watch became especially pronounced over his chest. It rattled around there, making him feel as if his chest was hollow.

As his fingers drifted towards the trigger, a blur of black feathers drew his attention away from the back of his subordinate’s head to the window. In that moment, as he studied the fall of the feathers from behind the rosy glass pane, a singular thought rang through his mind: Protect.

The head executioner’s voice boomed, “Fir—”

Without quite thinking—almost on instinct—Werner whipped his rifle to the left and fired. The military police officer who’d been standing there stumbled back as his rifle exploded in his hand and his hand exploded in crimson. The man crashed right into the officer standing behind him before hitting the ground with a blood-curdling screech. Everyone who was kneeling ducked forward immediately.

As Werner watched the scene unfold, his ears rang and the reality of what he’d just done settled in. But there was no room to question or hesitate. Once a decision was made, it needed to be followed through with.

He quickly ducked low, firing off additional rounds at the military officers who were standing at attention along the back wall as they reached for their holsters. Seven out of fifteen of them hit the ground. Not good enough. He was too slow.

Kicking down the masked subordinate he’d been planning on executing only one second prior, Werner exchanged his rifle for the handgun holstered at his waist before darting forward and grabbing the body of the injured, the still screeching officer.

Said officer, cradling his bleeding hand, shouted, “Don’t shoot—”

But the other officers immediately began to open fire.

Using the man as a shield, Werner shot at the stained windows to his left. The glass shattered with a high-pitch screech and rained down in large fragments all around the room. While the military police ducked from the debris, his subordinates floundered around blindly in the blue moonlight drowning the room.

Werner took the opportunity to dart to the side of the bound to his left and shot through the chains shackling his hands and legs. The man, in turn, immediately ripped the sack from his head and whipped around heaving.

It was Derik Stein, whose expression of pure rage melted to surprise upon registering Werner’s face. Werner silently handed him a combat knife and a gun from the belt of the dead officer acting as his shield. Stein accepted them, not even bothering to check for bullets, before he launched himself at the next closest officer who yelped in alarm.

Werner clicked his tongue and shook his head but continued forward, discarding the body of the officer for the one Derik had torn through with his combat knife. He continued forward, shooting over the corpse’s shoulder, until he reached another shackled subordinate and freed him the same way.

Once said man freed his head from the sack over his head, Werner was met with a head of curls.

“Nico.” Relief.

Nico blinked at him and tried hopefully, almost as if in disbelief: “Werner…?”

“Free the others,” Werner ordered, handing Nico his combat knife and the other gun strapped to his leg. “Quickly. Be careful. I’ll cover you.”

Nico opened his mouth, closed it, then nodded firmly before darting off to one of the others laying on their side. Werner caught sight of an officer aiming a rifle at Nico, but he quickly disposed of the woman with a steady shot straight through the head.

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

The air was tightened by the sound of bullets and clouded by moonlight-stained gun smoke.

It was like clockwork. No different from the field—save for the fact that he was now firing on fellow Capricornians and that they were not as combat-familiar as those he’d faced before. Treason—but this was not the time for such thoughts.

Werner spotted Fischer pressed back against the wall, gripping his rifle tightly, eyes darting from left to right. Indecisiveness. Ignoring him, Werner aimed his gun at an officer who was picking himself off the ground: Vash, who turned and locked eyes with him. And then Werner froze on the spot, a sense of cold dread spilling out from his chest into his limbs where it froze them in place. He couldn’t even lift a finger.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant Waltz?” Vash pressed, facing him fully. He didn’t have a long-range weapon on him—only a combat knife that he was holding precariously. A bullet whizzed past his ear, but he didn’t flinch. “You’re committing treason.”

Werner couldn’t understand it. Vash had only a melee weapon, while he himself had a gun. He had the advantage here, and yet he was nailed to the spot.

A loud bang! resounded from Werner’s left, followed by a burst of red at Vash’s throat. Vash covered the area with his hand and began to gurgle as blood spilled from his mouth. Werner turned slightly and found Nico on the ground beside Kleine who was pulling off the sack from his head. The gun in Nico’s hands was steady and poised.

Still, Vash stepped forward, reaching, and—

Bang! 

This time the red blossomed squarely at the center of Vash’s forehead, and he fell flat on his back dead. As soon as Vash’s gaze left him, Werner felt sensation return to his arms. When he turned around, he found Gilbert standing just behind him, his one hand wielding a gun that was still billowing out smoke.

Werner realized that he had almost executed Gilbert.

Again: not the time.

Refocusing his attention, Werner lifted his gun and shot two officers who were scrambling along the back wall—one in the head, and the other in the chest. The latter stumbled away before toppling right out of the shattered window down to the streets below.

Then came silence. No more officers remained standing. Bodies littered the floor in-between the blood and glass—

“Die, die, die, die!”

Werner turned to find Stein straddling the mutilated corpse of the head executioner and driving the conducting blade in his hands into the man’s chest over and over again.

“Stein, enough,” Werner ordered. “You need to preserve your energy. More military police will be coming up here soon.”

Stein halted immediately and panted heavily, hair and uniform soaked in blood, as he pulled himself off what remained of the officer. “Bastard made fun of my mom and stole this—” He held up his free hand, revealing his fingers curled around what appeared to be a gold badge.

“You’re crazier than ever…” Gilbert grimaced.

“Stein, take point at the entrance,” Werner ordered, ignoring Gilbert’s remark.

Once Stein complied and stationed himself there, Werner assessed the others. Nico was helping Kleine—who was sporting a gash on his upper arm—up to his feet. Brandt was reloading a pistol while searching an officer’s body for weapons. Fischer was pressed up against the opposite wall, still motionless and tense. Heimler—was kneeling in front of Captain Weingartner whose chest was soaked in red. A glass shard painted in the same color rested beside his leg. A misstep. 

“Nico! Brandt!” Werner shouted, approaching the older men.

Nico was at Weingartner’s side immediately, sinking down and pressing his hands against the wound. Brandt was at his side a moment later with a piece of fabric he’d ripped off from one of the officer’s uniforms. He pressed against the wound with the cloth and grimaced.

Werner reloaded his gun and nodded at Kleine who approached from behind. “Search the bodies for conducting gloves, conductors, and weapons. If you find transmutation conductors first, give them to Brandt and Nico. If you find conducting-gloves for yourself first, conjure some conductors for them.”

“Y-Yes, sir!” Kleine responded gravely but somehow enthusiastically as he took off to search the bodies.

“Surprise it didn’t take a knock on your head to remember everything,” Gilbert said, wiping his forehead with the back of his head. His cheeks were flushed. “I thought we were goners for a second there.”

So there was something else going on beneath the surface. This fact put Werner somewhat more at ease with what he had just done. Still, he felt like he was walking on unstable ground. Treason…

Kleine returned a moment later, sporting conducting gloves over his hands and carrying two pairs of conducting gloves under his arm. He quickly threw them to Nico and Brandt, who both put them on quickly before moving to transmute the wound over the captain’s abdomen.

“Whatever you’re saying I should remember, I don’t,” Werner said calmly, glancing briefly again at Gilbert’s missing hand, then at Weingartner. “I’ve been told that I was manipulated by the Augen and that you were working alongside them.”

Kleine and Heimler looked up at him at this, causing him to tense inwardly. He felt overexposed—not something he was unfamiliar with, but it was especially pronounced now.

“But you…” Gilbert trailed off.

“Which is why I’ll need you all to brief me quickly on what’s really happening on here.” Werner knelt on a knee as Brandt and Nico finished their work. “How is the captain?

“We’re lucky it wasn’t a conductor this time and that it didn’t hit any vitals, unlike…” Nico trailed off.

“I’m good to travel, Werner.” Weingartner coughed and whipped the blood from his mouth before signaling Brandt to help him up to a sit. “You’re a good man.”

But not a good soldier.

Werner nodded, before surveying the room again. “We need to escape quickly before they bring more reinforcements.” He caught sight of Fischer still pressed up against the wall.

Stein snarled from his position, “I say we execute that bastard for—”

“Stein, stay focused.” Werner regarded Fischer for a moment as he weighed his options. Fischer had not opened fire against them and had clearly been hesitating at the execution orders. Eliminating Fischer here had no benefit as their escape would be known regardless of whether Fischer informed the coming military police officers of it. In addition, Fischer was still his subordinate.

Sentiment.

“Let’s leave quickly,” Werner said, turning away from him, “before the reinforcements increase beyond what we can handle.”

* * *

Fortunately—Werner realized—they had the advantage of being uphill from the military police officers who were ascending the stairs up to them. With Stein and himself at the front of the unit and sniping away with their newly conjured conducting rifles at everything that moved below them, they quickly made their way to the bottom floor. All the while, Kleine briefed him on their side of the events.

It all seemed beyond the realm of imagination. Even ludicrous. True Conductors, Fritz von Spiel, ELPIS, saint candidates, and the Kaiser’s machinations. Thinking about it somehow felt even more treasonous than his current actions.

As they continued to return fire, they pulled past numerous jail cells and a small Monadic prayer room before exiting the building and taking cover in an alleyway just across the street. They remained there to recuperate as Werner spied back on the execution tower building which stood tall, square, and rigid. A dozen or so military police officers were beginning to filter into the building from the road. They needed to move quickly again, Werner realized. But just as he was about to suggest departure, a burst of pale-tangerine light from the black stain on the alleyway wall behind him cut him off short.

Werner took a step away from the light as a familiar figure spilled out from it: a young man with dirty-blonde hair wearing a dark maroon turtleneck. His conductor-gloved hand was pressed against the glowing light on the wall.

Werner vaguely recognized encountering this man once in the Twin Cities. It was Francis Foxman who was—according to Gilbert and the others—an ally, despite the white tattoo gracing the right side of his face.

“Well, this is fortunate,” Foxman said without skipping a beat as he looked them over. “It seems as if you’ve made the right choice, Herr Waltz.” He extended his free, ungloved hand. “Let’s depart quickly.”

Werner tensed, his own hand resting on the rifle swung on his back. There were too many uncertainties already—

“Would ya stop overthinkin’ things already and get in here?” came a voice from inside the glowing light. A pale, thin hand reached out from it and wrapped around Werner’s wrist. “Come on, Lieutenant.”

A surge of electricity shot up Werner’s arm at the contact before it blitzed right to his head. He barely had the time to comprehend it before he was pulled into the glowing light.

* * *

    )

As soon as Werner stepped across the threshold from the capital into what he now recognized as Francis’s exitless room, everything became clear to him: aiding Olive in his escape from the Watch, taking Cadence’s place when she’d been tortured by Donato’s underlings, Maria’s reckless overrides, his cavern conversation with Atienna, and aiding Jericho through both his encounter with Omega and his earlier struggle.

The hollow ticking of Werner’s pocket watch above his chest suddenly felt filling.

“Morello,” Werner realized, instantly recognizing the young woman who stood before him still gripping his wrist. Cadence.

He could see and feel the others outside of Cadence at their distant locations: Jericho and Maria, on top of a building with Marionette Engel bound at their feet; and Atienna and Olive, stowed away in an alleyway with Sefu. Although they were far from him, they were here—their images transposed right in front of him. It was admittedly… a comfort.

“This is wonderful!” Maria leapt in the air. “We are all together again! This is refreshing, no?”

Jericho offered a thumbs-up.

I’m glad you’re alright, came Atienna’s greeting. We were very worried about you.

Olive remained silent beside her, but his relief, desperation, and contentedness bled through. It almost seemed as if the boy wanted to embrace him, but as soon as Werner thought that, Olive pulled away and merely thought—Glad you’re okay.

“You can relax, Lieutenant,” Cadence said, releasing his wrist. “This is what ya would call a military vantage station point thing, right?”

Behind Werner, the rest of his unit and his captain were filtering into the room from the gate. Quiet relief came at the sight of them followed by affirmation that he had indeed made the correct decision. But paired with this came a foreign fear over the fact that he’d almost lost them at his own hands. Werner regarded them for a moment as they marveled at the room before he took his time to survey it despite knowing the layout from Cadence.

Allen was lounging on the sofa on the back wall, while Carl was standing tense with a grimace. All of the children in the room were cowering behind him and throwing fearful looks at Stein who was now sneering at them. In-between Cadence and those two men stood—

“Emilia…?” Kleine whispered in disbelief as he darted over to her. “You’re okay—you’re alive!”

Faint images of Emilia being impaled by Iota’s mediums flashed through Werner’s mind.

“Thanks to the Ariesian prince’s medical Conductors,” Bergmann replied, sharing a momentary embrace with him before she faced Werner and saluted. “Lieutenant, I’m ready for the next orders.”

Controlling his relief, Werner nodded at her. “I—”

“Who the hell are these mooks, Francis?!” Carl snapped. “They’re scarin’ the damn kids—” He did a double-take, squinting past Werner. “Nico?”

Nico, sharing Weingartner’s weight with Brandt, stepped forward and stared. “Allen, Carl…?” He ogled Cadence. “Cadence…”

“We don’t have time for reunions right now,” Werner interjected, gesturing to the unoccupied sofa on the opposite side of the room. “May our captain use this place temporarily to recuperate?”

Allen nodded.

With Francis’s help, Brandt and Nico moved Weingartner to the sofa there. While Brandt remained by the captain’s side, Nico detached himself and made his way back over to them. He sent a tentative glance in Cadence’s direction, but they exchanged no words.

Not the time, like ya said, Cadence reasoned.

Carl jerked his chin out at Werner. “Who’s this guy?”

“This is Herr Waltz,” Francis explained as he joined them. “We did business with him a couple months ago. He was with the Capricornian representative for…”

“You mean the guy from back when everything went downhill financially?” Allen inquired, taking a drag from his v-cig. “Do your business, then leave—”

Werner! Cadence’s alarm and worry struck Werner so suddenly that he almost mistook it for his own. Your face—

Werner stared down at her in confusion, before he suddenly found himself looking at himself through her eyes. And it was through those eyes that he could see it: slowly crawling up his face from his collarbone to his cheek was a dark blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. Everyone around him, aside from Gilbert, Nico, and Cadence, immediately took a step back.

“How peculiar,” Francis muttered, coming to less than a centimeter away from him and studying his face. He pulled away. “It seems as if rather than Scorpio’s spore being obliterated, someone has merely cut it away from its connections…”

“Whaddya mean?” Cadence looked at him worriedly. “I mean, Scorpio’s outta him, right? That’s how we’re talkin’. I mean, I can feel him.”

Francis nodded. “I believe… you can think of it as a puppet with its strings cut or a sheep without its shepherd—wandering without direction. It’s not a danger. Just a blemish. The records state that it’s happened a couple times before. Perhaps it could be transmuted off, although it would be more difficult since it would probably be a more delicate procedure…”

Nico reached for his face. Werner caught the man’s hand before it finished its course, however, and turned to face him. He held Nico’s hand there briefly as he met the man’s gaze before slowly releasing them both.

“It’s all right, Nico. I appreciate your concern. But as Francis said, it’s equivalent to a scar”—one that couldn’t be concealed by gloves—“Your work was as good as it always is.”

Nico looked doubtful but nodded regardless before glancing again at Cadence. This time, they held each other’s gaze.

“Although that issue is no longer pertinent,” Francis continued, “I do have questions regarding what exactly Scorpio brought to the surface in your mind since his infection was of you and not the others. You were with him for a very long time…”

“The last thing I recall is being cut by the infected Augen member,” Werner said, noting how Heimler grimaced at this. “But I understand your concern about the situation.”

Still, he thought on it. He certainly did feel different, but it was difficult to pinpoint why. Something had shifted within him. But it did not give him a sense of unease or alarm. What was it…? He thought back the moment he’d decided to turn his rifle away from Gilbert’s head. Was it possibly… protect?

Cadence looked to Werner in surprise before stepping forward and patting Francis on the shoulder. “It’s a private kinda thing, Francis. Ya just don’t askin’ people about it. It’s fine though. Ya got nothin’ ta worry about.”

Francis nodded, seemingly convinced.

Werner looked away from the Twin Cities residents and faced his subordinates. At his attention, they stood at attention. He studied each one of them, going over their accomplishments, successes, sacrifices, demeanor, his memories with them, and their loyalty in his mind. If there was such a thing as luck, he supposed then that he was lucky to have them as his subordinates.

After ruminating, he finally said, “I am honored and grateful that you all chose to assist me during my absence. I apologize for bringing you into this situation without disclosure. The secrecy regarding my status as a True Conductor, at the time, seemed warranted and necessary for—”

“Just give the orders, Lieutenant,” Stein said, wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand. “No questions asked here.”

“Be respectful, Stein,” Bergmann hissed, before lifting her head. “We’re with you, Lieutenant.”

“It’s not like they have any other choice, Werner,” came Gilbert’s response. He was leaning against the right wall in between two bookcases now. “As for me, I’m stuck with you, so—” When he noticed Werner’s stare, he arched a brow. “What?”

Werner approached Gilbert, reached for the man’s empty sleeve, and held it in his hand. He curled his fingers around the fabric as the realization settled in. It really was gone. The hand Werner had always secretly imagined boasting a ring matching Greta’s was gone.

“Hey… Better to lose my hand than end up half-crazy like Stein over there.”

“This is nothing to joke about, Gilbert,” Werner murmured. His stolid facade broke for a moment, and he grimaced as guilt wracked his chest. It had happened in his absence.

Maria’s apparition appeared beside him then, peering into his face with a rare frown. “I am… sorry, Werner. It seemed like the best solution… no?”

You did what you thought was necessary, Maria. Thank you. Werner glanced at her, then at the others through his connection with them. My words were not only to my subordinates but to you too—for handling the situation while you were in the override to the best of your abilities. If ‘lucky’ described his relationship with his subordinates, Werner supposed a ‘miracle’ would describe his relationship with the other five.

Aw shucks, lieutenant. Cadence’s eyes twinkled from across the room despite her casual expression. We gotta return dues, don’t we? What’s with the sudden sap? It ain’t like ya…

Sentiment.

Protect.

“Second Lieutenant Wolff is injured,” Werner said aloud. “He and Captain Weingartner will stay here while we carry out the next operation.” Feeling Cadence’s stare, he then nodded at Nico. “Fabrizzio, you should stay with him.”

Nico frowned and tensed. “Hey… Werner—”

Before Nico could finish, Werner found himself abruptly met with a slap to the face. It took him a moment to realize that it was delivered by Gilbert.

Werner didn’t move to touch his stinging cheek. He merely frowned. “Gil—”

“Your head’s obviously still not on straight, Werner,” Gilbert seethed, fisting Werner’s shirt. “There’s barely enough of us here as it is. You’re gonna need every single man you can get unless you’re planning on sending these kids out there to fight instead.”

Francis’s eyes narrowed.

Gilbert spat, voice-cracking, “I-I’m still fucking useful, Werner—I—”

Protect.

Werner placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, cutting him off short. “This is not because you no longer have both your hands available. This is because you have a fever and you still haven’t recovered from your injury. You’ll always be more than useful to me, Gilbert.”

Gilbert’s anger melded into confusion and then into worry that paled his face. He looked him up and down. “Shit, Werner, you sure you’re okay…?”

“Again. This isn’t time for jokes,” Werner continued, “But as you’ve said. I can’t choose favorites. I can’t let you decide that you’re fit for combat even though you’re clearly not just because…” He considered this for a moment, thinking about how Gilbert had remained steadfastly at his side regardless of circumstance. This wasn’t a superior-subordinate relationship. This was—“… just because you’re my friend.”

“Holy shit.” Now, Gilbert looked afraid. “I’m not joking Werner. You’re head—”

Werner moved his hand from Gilbert’s shoulder to the man’s chest and then formed his hand into a fist. “I still need you, Gilbert, so I will need you to stay alive and recover for me. Is that clear? I need you… alive.”

Gilbert stiffened at this before his eyes narrowed and he returned the gesture hard. “Fine, but I say take Nic with you. Leave Brandt here. No offense to Brandt, but I feel like Nic has a better chance of snapping you to your senses sometimes.”

Werner felt Cadence tense inwardly. He could see her glancing at Nico, and through her eyes, he saw Nico nod.

There was a beat of silence.

“Werner…” Atienna’s image stepped forward after the moment passed. “To make things… smoother after this is taken care of, I was thinking of perhaps gaining the favor of the two generals who weren’t turned into Scorpio’s offshoots.”

Werner nodded. I see. That’s a good idea. I suggest you find Von Spiel and inform him of your plan. He’s managed to still keep his influential position. From my conversation with him, he is still very much against the Kaiser. He’ll be a necessary component.

Cadence sank to a crouch and sighed as a child ran over to her and started pulling on her hair. “Aw, hell, I’m glad ta see ya, Lieutenant, but this is gettin’ worse and worse by the minute—”

Nico approached her and extended his hand. She arched a brow at him before sighing and accepting the gesture.

“So what’s the plan, Lieutenant?” Cadence asked, tapping her temple. “Any good strategies ya got stored in there? Ya know we’re all in.”

I believe this will require everyone’s assistance to succeed. Werner nodded in gratitude. But everyone aside from Cadence and Maria should try their best to keep their distance and keep their identities hidden. Our identities as True Conductors might be known to these… saint candidates, but not to the public eye. We still need to maintain appearances, so the situation doesn’t escalate further outside of Capricorn—

“Francis.” Werner turned to the man. “Since our connection has been restored, we would be able to use each other’s conducting-types freely, correct?”

Francis nodded. “I would caution against using it too much. You know what conductors really do.”

In the silence that followed, Stein cracked his knuckles. “So are we going to finally fuck this Scorpio up?”

Talk about bein’ unnecessarily gung-ho. Cadence arched a brow. But at least he’s charmin’.

“No, Scorpio is beyond our capabilities right now,” Werner said, placing a hand over his mouth in thought. “Our target is Scorpio’s final tower, so we can rid Capricorn’s forces of the saint candidate.”

Silence passed as the reality of what that meant sank in.

“The Kaiser will most likely be preparing to leave the chancellery building and going into hiding after hearing about what happened at the execution tower,” Werner continued. “We need to intercept the Kaiser and remove Scorpio’s spore before then.”

“So we’re really going against Capricorn…” Bergmann murmured.

“We’re still in service to Capricorn,” Werner stated clearly. “You can select your pown erspective, but I am not in service to the Kaiser, to glory, to honor, nor to any similar ideals. I am—” He thought. “—here to serve the people. And to protect them.”

And right now the Kaiser was the enemy of the Capricornian people and his people.

* * *

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Werner was let out of one of Francis’s gates located in an alleyway just across from the main chancellery building alongside Klaus, Stein, Nico, Heimler, and Brandt. Their faces were concealed with nylon fabric which was also wrapped around their arms and legs. It was the best precautionary measure against being infected in close quarters combat. Pushing aside his concern about the progress Atienna and Olive were making in finding the two generals, Werner reached out to Olive:

We’re in positionNow

The building just across the chancellery building erupted into verdigris flames—Olive’s flames transmuted in color by Cadence’s vitae and propagated through one of Francis’s portals from a distant location. It wasn’t perfect, sporting occasional glimpses of crimson that cracked through Cadence’s thin illusions, but it was acceptable for the small time frame they had.

A handful of military police officers immediately rushed out the chancellery building in alarm and darted forward to douse the flames with conducted water either from their own vitae or from the puddles scattered around the street—which took care of one group of Elementalists. As they fought against the flames, illusory Augen members spilled out from the alleyways around that burning building. The water Elementalists and other officers stumbled back in alarm at their sudden appearance before quickly shifting their attention to combat them. Hidden among the illusions was Maria whose laughter rang through the courtyard as she hacked and slashed away. She was soon joined by Jericho who did the same, albeit with his suitcase.

Cadence, Werner thought. Signal Bergmann for me.

Aye, aye, Lieutenant. 

Werner could faintly hear Cadence conversing with Bergmann from within Francis’s room and then—

—the ground began to shake below the feet of the military police officers in the courtyard. From the street beneath them sprouted a wall of earth that divided and then surrounded them, trapping them in an earthen enclosure. Another larger, taller wall rose around the buildings surrounding the chancellery, including the alleyway Werner was hiding in with his men and the building that was in flames. The wall encased the area in a circle with not a crack to be seen: a large cage with the chancellery at its center.

Everything was being executed as planned.

As more and more military police officers spilled out from the chancellery building in panicked confusion, Werner pressed forward and slipped into said building alongside his subordinates. The halls and office areas within were empty which merely caused Werner to signal for his men to tread forward even more carefully.

As they rounded the corner towards the hall leading to the Kaiser’s office, chattering reached his ears. He pulled his fist up, signaling everyone behind him to halt. Upon peering around the corner, his eyes narrowed.

There were ten military police officers still standing in the hall in front of the doors to the Kaiser’s office. There were most likely even more officers inside. This needed to be handled quickly, silently, efficiently. Covert.

While reaching out to Cadence, Werner signaled his men to stand down and then snapped his conductor-ringed fingers as he unhooked the conducting blade clipped to his waist. The blade sparked indigo in his hands before a shimmer rode over it like a wave, causing it to disappear from sight.

Maria and Atienna. Quietly.

Werner did not enjoy overrides and he disliked the lack of control that came with them, but this was the fastest, most direct course of action. That and he felt a sense of trust.

A wave of drowsiness overcame Werner as he temporarily blinked out of consciousness. When he came back to himself, he was standing at the end of the hall above the quietly groaning and still bodies of all the officers. Snapping his fingers again to dispel the illusion of invisibility, he wiped the smile from his face, signaled his men forward, and approached the large mahogany doors leading into the Kaiser’s office. Once they had all gathered in a crouch in front of the doors, he ordered them to activate the proto-conducting rings that Kleine had conjured for them that were filled with Cadence’s vitae. They obeyed, disappearing from his sight. He snapped his fingers to activate the illusion again himself.

“Do not shoot the Kaiser,” he said. “Leave him to me. Like I said earlier, some of these officers are being manipulated. They are still Capricornian citizens, so try your best to shoot to maim. But if you must, choose your life over theirs.”

“Yes, sir,” came the whispers.

On the count of three, Werner pushed open the door alongside Stein and—

“What do you think you’re doing, Werner?”

There it was again: the cold sensation gripping his chest, holding him tight and refusing to let him go or move.

Werner—someone reached out for him, but he couldn’t tell who—he can’t reach you anymore.

Yes, Werner knew that, but that did not stop his heart from hammering wildly in his chest. Before he realized what he was doing, he was signaling his men to hold fire with two raps of his knuckle against the ground.

Werner…” Nico whispered in his ear.

Reclining leisurely at the Kaiser’s desk was Talib Al-Jarrah, who was smiling as he curled a lock of dark hair around his finger. Stationed around the walls of the room were twenty military police officers—statute and unmoving. The Kaiser was nowhere in sight.

“The man you’re looking for is escaping out the back door as we speak,” Scorpio said. He laughed. “What? Were you planning to pull that Lita out from a gate and use her eyes to cut me out with my partner’s vitae just like that? Then what? Removing me from the Kaiser won’t change anything.” He addressed a shadowed figure standing in the far corner of the room. “The people are already too impassioned by themselves—wouldn’t you say? Nothing will stop them now.”

Tucked away in that corner and bound and gagged was—

Alice. Jericho’s outrage throttled through Werner abruptly, causing his head to spin but also giving him a sense of clarity.

A hostage. A bargaining chip. To prolong this as long as possible. 

Scorpio rose from the desk and walked over to Alice’s side, reaching out for her chin.

“My dear, Ali—”

Alice abruptly ducked low and then surged forward, effectively uppercutting Scorpio with her head. As the man stumbled back in alarm, Alice darted forward and dove for them across the central table. Werner caught her awkwardly before handing her back to the others.

Scorpio straightened and rubbed his jaw as he glowered in their general direction. “Struggle, struggle, struggle—but what for what? I admire your passion, but don’t you see you’re going against everything you stand for? It’s going to happen regardless of whether you fight against it, so why do you do it?”

With Alice tucked away behind them, the next decision was to—

“Open fire!” Werner ordered immediately, grabbing at the twin doors and pulling them half backwards to act as a partial barricade just as the military police officers opened fire blindly on them.

He returned fire with his subordinates and shot two of the officers within. He also caught sight of Scorpio, who was standing undisturbed in the middle of all the flying bullets and vitae-rays.

A hand on his shoulder drew his attention away. It was Nico. “Werner… the Kaiser.”

Werner nodded. “Everyone, continue fire but start the retreat. Our target is not Scorpio. I’m going after the Kaiser.”

“Yes, sir!” came the shouts.

Werner darted up the stairs at the end of the hall and burst onto the third floor. After checking the floor for enemies and finding none, he went from window to window, peering into the courtyards behind and in front of the building until—there.

Down in the courtyard below at the back of the building away from the chaos of the inflamed building and being guarded by a plethora of military police officers was Kaiser Kafke Netzche. Despite the resounding booms of gunfire all around him, the man was calm and grim in the blue moonlight.

It appeared as if now they were relying on the last resort.

Pulling off his protective mask and dispelling Cadence’s vitae, Werner reached out to Olive and waited for the prince’s faint memory of his earlier encounter with Leona and Flannery to trickle down:

“By the way, I get the feeling’ y’might get a little antsy so let me just give ya a hint in case ya get ballsy and get ta it first.” Flannery had crossed her fingers over her chest directly above her heart“Aim for the bullseye.”

A memory that highlighted their lack of control of the situation, yes. But also—intuition: a place to aim. A small window. A risk. But—protect. 

Werner switched out his conducting rifle for the sniping rifle hanging on his back and then propped the conductor against the ledge of the window frame. Peering through the scope, he lined up his crosshairs with the Kaiser’s heart.

Jericho. Werner reached for the man.

Jericho’s image appeared beside him. Faintly, Werner could see him swinging his suitcase left and right at the military police officers outside.

Stay focused. I only need your vitae. 

Still, Jericho tensed and stared into him. The man could not find the words to describe the sensation, but Werner understood. He was afraid of returning to the way he had been when he’d been in ELPIS.

“I trust your intuition, Jericho, so trust me in return,” Werner said calmly. “I won’t take a life with your conducting ability unless absolutely necessary. I understand how you feel.”

Jericho’s brows knitted together before he relaxed slightly and nodded. Trust. His ghostly hand moved over Werner’s. The insulation tubes of the sniping rifle burned a bright off-white.

Suddenly the earth around the Kaiser rose up and encircled the man and his guards in a sphere-like barricade, leaving only a narrow gap for sight. The earthly barricade crunched forward along the ground as the Kaiser’s group advanced. It gouged up the street as it did so, causing puddles nearby to trickle and pool around the protective dome.

An earth Elementalist was with the Kaiser, Werner realized. A Conductor like that could easily dismantle Bergmann’s earth barricade. It was something Werner had considered when he’d planned this operation. However, such an advantage for the Kaiser was one that he didn’t have enough resources to account for and one that he’d hoped the Kaiser didn’t have.

Damn.

This was what happened when all parameters were not fully accounted and planned for. An error.

It’s okay. Not like we had time for that.

Werner contemplated shooting through and disintegrating the barricade but then considered the possibility of the Elementalist being trained enough to pull up another barricade quickly before he’d be able to lock onto the Kaiser. If that was the case, then his location, methodology for attack, and presence would be known to the Kaiser’s guards. The Kaiser’s other guards also needed to be considered. Therefore—

Maria can hold her own, Werner thought. Jericho, can you draw the Kaiser’s guards’ attention? Disguise yourself.

Okay. 

Werner watched through their connection as Jericho peeled away from Maria’s tango with the military officers. The peacekeeper headed around the chancellery building and towards the earthen sphere that was rolling forward. With Cadence’s assistance, he transmuted over himself the appearance of a large group of Augen members. Werner provided Jericho with his vitae; and in turn, Jericho began to rapidly fire on the earthen tomb with the rifle conductor Kleine had conjured for him earlier. As the side of the dome Jericho was firing at began to chip away, the Elementalist—as expected—shifted more of the earth towards the onslaught, leaving the Kaiser’s back exposed.

Unfortunately, the exposure was on the opposite side of Werner’s sight. He could just barely see the top of the Kaiser’s head over the barricade. The vantage point was not good either. After quickly flipping through the different gates Francis had placed around the area in mind, he frowned. None of them would provide a better vantage point. Even the closest one on ground level was not directly facing the Kaiser’s back.

Werner berated himself for not being clearer about his expectations—wait. The water that was surrounding the barricade had flooded inwards towards the Kaiser’s and the guards’ feet and was now reflecting them in full. Captured in that watery reflection was the Kaiser himself and the conducting-blade-wielding Projector right at the man’s side.

Werner hated relying on chance and luck, but it seemed as if that was all that was available to him at the moment. Two shots were required, he decided then. A feint to distract the Projector. And a direct hit to the Kaiser.

The issue remained about the vantage point—

Olive, Gabrielle, and I found the generals, came a quiet voice. Now let me help, Werner. 

Atienna. Werner hesitated for a moment as he considered her political position in all of this, before he inclined his head and reached out to her. He found her leaping through one of Francis’s gates and exiting out of the ground-level gate that he had been considering only a second earlier. In her hands was a proto-conducting blade that was filled with Jericho’s vitae. Werner saw the protective earthen shield around the Kaiser through her eyes and felt her arch her arm backwards in preparation to throw the blade. 

Understood.

Atienna didn’t aim for the Kaiser and instead threw the blade with all her might directly towards the alleyway across from her. 

Werner saw with his own eyes as the proto-conductor blade hurtled across the courtyard, past the Kaiser’s back—

Wind. Temperature. Humidity.

Werner glanced briefly at the puddle beneath the Kaiser’s feet, while chasing the proto-conducting blade with his scope, and then pulled the trigger twice.

Perfect. Everything: crystal clear.

The first off-white ray of vitae zipped through the air, thinning as it hurtled forwards. It hit the tip of the sailing proto-conducting blade and ricocheted off of it towards behind the cover of the earthen sphere. From the reflection of the puddle, Werner could see the Kaiser’s Projector immediately bring his conducting blade up to meet the vitae-ray, causing both to shatter into dust upon contact.

The second off-white ray of vitae hit the hurtling proto-conducting blade just a second after at a different angle. Instead of hurtling towards the Projector, it instead cometed towards the Kaiser and pierced through the man’s chest.

Werner continued to watch tensely through his scope via the reflection of the water.

The Kaiser fell forward onto his knees, but did not shatter into dust. He merely collapsed onto the ground, unmoving, as did the earth Elementalist who was holding the barricade and two of his guards. The guards who were still standing looked around in confusion as the earth wall crumbled away. Jericho quickly charged forward and disposed of them with quick cracks of his suitcase before moving to assess the Kaiser—still breathing. He then turned in Werner’s direction and gave a thumbs up.

Werner nodded.

The commotion from below Werner quieted as well. He peeled away from the window, snapping his fingers and pulling Cadence’s transmutation over himself again as he descended the stairs. Jericho’s presence lingered strongly beside him all the way down. When he slipped back into the hall, he found Alice still pressed against the hall’s wall. His subordinates were still hidden from his view, but he could see the bodies of officers littering the floor inside the Kaiser’s office. Scorpio was poised untouched before the Kaiser’s desk with his head buried in his hand. The window behind the man had shattered, causing the light from the moon to bathe the room in an even harsher hue.

“I thought I told you that you wouldn’t change anything.” Scorpio lifted his head, staring straight through Werner like an arrow. “How many times do I have to tell you that…”

For a moment, Werner thought Scorpio could somehow see him through Cadence’s transmutation, but then the sound of click-clacking footsteps reached his ears.

“Flannery…” Alice whispered, staring past Werner over his shoulders.

Upon turning, Werner spied Flannery Caertas, the Saint of the Scales, coming on towards him up the hall with a knife lined in dark pink vitae in her left and a gun in her right. She stared right at him, seeming to see through Cadence’s transmutation. He tensed at this, but she slipped right past him and then past his men and Alice too.

“Deus ex machina, hm? Well, I suppose it’s time for me to exit stage left,” Scorpio said calmly, before abruptly throwing himself out of the broken window. He didn’t make it past the ledge, however, and was thrown back into the room by an unseen force. He hit the meeting table and slid across it, coming to a stop where Flannery was waiting at the end.

Smiling still, he began to dig into his pockets, fisting a handful of origami paper. Before he could pull it out, however, a golden blade of vitae flew in from the window and effectively severed both his hand from his arms. As the appendages toppled to the ground, Flannery placed the knife at his neck and stared into his eyes.

Leona stepped into the room from the window and rounded the table. As the blood from Scorpio’s severed hand began to glow a dark blue and moved to reattach themselves to his arms, Leona slapped conducting cuffs over the man’s wrists. And then another cuff. And another. And another. And another. By the time his hands had reattached themselves, they cluttered his arms like sleeves of a shirt.

“Well, that was enjoyable while it lasted,” Scorpio said calmly. “A task well done. Reservoirs restored. I wonder what next time will bring—assuming that you’re going to return me to the reservoir now.”

Werner felt Jericho tense.

Flannery glanced back over her shoulder towards Alice who met her gaze evenly. When she faced Scorpio again, she spoke calmly: “Due to the previous precedent set with Dämon Forstchritt and after observin’ the interactions of the opposin’ factions in the country, I’ve determined that yer involvement has merely accelerated what was bound t’happen in this country t’begin with. By the free will clause when we first started this, this won’t be considered as a rule-breakin’ intervention.” She lowered her knife. “Yer free t’continue as ya are as long as y’dont pull anythin’ like this again.”

“The syzygy is approaching and you need all hands on board, right?” Scorpio smiled thinly, words sluggish, as he shrugged. “Whatever you choose to do, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Or is your mercy because of something else?” His smile fell slightly as his eyes lost some of their light, and he looked to the side, something akin to guilt glinting in his eyes. “Sorry for the mess, Flannery.”

Leona looked away from him before slowly sauntering out of the room and into the hall. She stopped by the threshold of the door, scanning the area. “You did well handling Scorpio and the Kaiser. It would be Lieutenant Waltz, am I correct? You don’t need to hide any longer.”

After momentary hesitation, Werner snapped his fingers, dispelling Cadence’s vitae. He signaled his subordinates to remain hidden but motioned for them to draw near to him silently. A beat of silence passed.

Leona chuckled mirthlessly. “If you wish to keep the people under you hidden, that’s fine with me. It’s noble.”

A hand pressed against his arm— “It’s… over, right?” It was Nico.

Werner shook his head subtly. It was far from over.

But. Bullseye, Jericho thought.

Werner found his gaze lingering on Scorpio. Bullseye, he agreed.

* * *

Following this, Werner requested the other five to pull back and keep their distance from further developments. They all agreed to varying degrees of resistance. Atienna and Olive handed over the two generals to Major General Von Spiel whom they’d found with Werner’s direction, while Maria, Jericho, and Cadence handed Marionette Engel over to Leona when approached by her. No words were exchanged in the latter event—not even from Maria, which in itself was something approximate to a miracle.

At 0300 hours, Werner rendezvoused with Alice, Leona, Flannery, and Major General von Spiel in the abandoned convention dome. They each had a person of interest under their watch. For him, it was the Kaiser. For Flannery, it was Scorpio. For Major General von Spiel, it was the two generals. And for Leona, it was Marionette Engel who was bound with normal cuffs and now fully conscious. While Werner had opted to leave his men and Nico behind in Francis’s room, Von Spiel had brought his remaining two subordinates. Flannery and Leona meanwhile came unattended. In tense silence, they stood beneath the broken glass roof of the dome and basked in the full moon. In the distance, peppering gunfire and muted thuds could be heard still—the conflict continuing.

The other five were peering in through him—Werner could feel them. There were times where he preferred his privacy and to be left alone, but now was not one of them.

“I apologize for Scorpio’s behavior,” Leona started first, folding her hands in front of her, “and for the distress that his interference in your country has caused you. “

“He’s caused damage beyond repair,” Von Spiel muttered darkly. “I don’t care if he’s a peacekeeping agent or a saint candidate. He needs to face trial on Capricornian soil.”

“A death sentence wouldn’t be doing him justice,” one of Von Spiel’s two subordinates—a woman with pale blonde hair tied up into a tight bun—muttered.

“You can try to kill him, but you won’t be able to. It would be a waste of your energy,” Leona replied slowly, somehow looking down on the man despite being shorter than him. “You’re very arrogant to think that you can even attempt to do that, despite needing our help to handle him.”

They could barely handle him… came Olive with a grimace.

Flannery sighed. “I understand yer frustrations, Herr von Spiel, but we can’t make our judgements based on emotion. The only reason Scorpio’s still alive right now is because—as I’ve said—his intervention merely accelerated what was already goin’ t’happen.”

“You’re saying this is all our fault?” Von Spiel asked incredulously. “You—”

Alice held up a hand. “Herr von Spiel, I believe it would be best if this situation wasn’t agitated.” She turned her gaze on Flannery and Scorpio. “I’m very well aware of how deep your reach goes, but I evaluated the Augen members. While their reasoning for supporting the Augen made sense with their backgrounds, this revolution is not—”

“There you go again, Alice.” Scorpio sighed. “Always assuming that you’re right and that you know everything. You think that keeping a far distance from everything gives you an outsider’s perspective and the big picture? You’re wrong. You can’t even see the small details—”

Werner felt Atienna frown.

“Scorpio.” Flannery sighed again. “Would y’be quiet?”

Scorpio glanced at her then at Alice, before he looked away as his smile dipped.

“Herr von Spiel—You’re the father of Fritz, aren’t you?” Leona drew suddenly. “Fritz von Spiel’s death was an unfortunate disappointment. He was very valuable to us. If we had only known he was a True Conductor back then, we would have protected him from ELPIS. I hope you can see from this that we are on your side.”

“On our side?” Von Spiel scoffed. “You’ve caused my subordinates so much grief in just a couple of hours. I haven’t lost this many since back in the days of the Reservoir War. Vitae conversion—”

“And yet you bring your subordinates before me again,” Scorpio sang, nodding at the man and the woman who stood stiffly behind Von Spiel. “You change your tune all the time, Martin, but you remain unchanged. You sell out your allies— 

“I merely protected my subordinates by denying involvement with Volker. That’s what comes with command. I can’t pull them into dangerous situations without consent. They’re not puppets—”

“Like I said, you’ve brought them both before me again. If I I recall correctly, you were very gung-ho about sending them down to fight all the Augen members at the dome not too long ago…” Scorpio shifted from foot to foot, the numerous suppression cuffs on his arms clinking loudly. “I also do remember you making a fuss about not wanting to join the ‘revolution’ because you didn’t want to risk your subordinates… so why are they here?” He nodded at Werner causing him to stiffen.“Dear Werner here chose not to bring his along. Would that make you or him the poor commander?”

“They wanted to see you grovel,” Von Spiel replied plainly.

“But the only person here groveling is you.”

“Scorpio, be quiet,” Flannery muttered.

“People aren’t black and white, Talib,” Alice added coolly.

Scorpio glanced at her, lips thinning.

Werner felt Atienna reach for him, and he found himself saying, “We should discuss the best way for this to turn out for all of us.” He received a glare from Von Spiel’s subordinates and an arched brow from Von Spiel. “We know about saint candidates, and you know about us. From what I understand, we all want to keep everything… functioning properly not only for ourselves but for the people we care about.”

“The advisor? Scorpio glanced at Flannery. “She reminds me a lot of you, Libra.”

Seeming to ignore him, Leona placed a hand to her chin as a smile of amusement crawled up her face. “Of course, given the advisor’s deal with me, your safety and… satisfaction is a high priority. I admire her as someone who knows her place. The mechanics do need to be worked out. Let’s see.” She blinked slowly. “I’ll make a suggestion, so things run easier for you: Since this all started with the Verbundene Augen movement—”

“This started with the Kaiser and chancellery cabinet,” Marionette objected from behind Leona, eyes wide. Her hair was tousled and her signature scarf was fraying at the edges and stained thoroughly with blood, smoke, and dirt. She glowered at the Kaiser. “After everything you’ve done—knowingly using the people—”

The Kaiser remained silent, head lifted high.

“As if your actions these past few days are any different, Marionette.” Scorpio chuckled. “You complain about being used until you have to use people yourself.”

“The question isn’t ‘who started it,’ but who is the most important,” Leona said calmly. “You Capricornians are forward-thinking, are you not? What will happen to your country if it loses the Kaiser versus losing Marionette? Do—”

“The country will fall into even more disarray if things are pinned on the Kaiser with less than half the cabinet remaining,” one general interjected from behind Von Spiel. “If the Kaiser is removed, we have to consider who will take his place.” He nodded at Von Spiel. “You’re an honorable leader on the battlefield, Martin. But you do not have what it takes to run a country. No one in this room besides the Kaiser does.”

Von Spiel recoiled. “So you’re agreeing that we should give back the position to the man? How can you say that when the Kaiser manipulated half of the chancellery? You would have been dead if it weren’t for us. If we go to the public about this—”

“I’m just saying this is how things are—not how they’re wrong or right,” the general said, glancing at the saint candidates with a frown. “You don’t understand the situation, Von Spiel.”

“I agree. You seem to misunderstand the situation, Von Spiel,” Leona said, voice thin. “‘Go to the public’? There will be no such thing. If this gets out through your tongue, you may not die—but only because I believe you’re still quite useful and you can still contribute things to your country. On the other hand, your family—your wife who is still weeping over Fritz in that cottage in Volkmarkt—will not be so lucky.” She glanced at Alice. “What do you think happened to Wtorek Izsak? We allow you to walk, make decisions, and commit folly on this continent, but if you overstep your bounds you will be punished. Wtorek is not the first, and he will not be the last. I recommend you not to follow in his footsteps.”

Alice paled then tensed, while Von Spiel bristled.

Leona’s gaze lingered on Werner. “This punishment applies to everyone who knows about this truth whether it be the people in this room right now or the people in hiding who know of it—which is why I highly recommend they come out of hiding unless they’re ready to prepare for a very long funeral when they return.”

Alarm, frustration, fear, and desperation wracked Werner’s chestbut—calm down. I can’t think. The feelings tightened and pulled away.

“If Scorpio can do this to an entire country, what do you think we can do to your lives? We are clearly on different tiers.” Leona closed her eyes for a moment. “We’re giving you different options to cover up what happened here so you don’t have a slip of the tongue and lose things that are important to you…. It’s quite unfortunate that you’ve come across this knowledge. I do pity you.”

Blackmail. Hostages. Like puppets on strings.

“Libra?” Leona inquired. “Your thoughts?”

“It’s not m’place t’decide,” Flannery said evenly. “I even think yer pushin’ yer bounds right now, Leo.”

Scorpio’s eyes narrowed. “Are you seriously using that ‘it’s not my place’ excuse to not get involved again, Libra? So you’re folding back into your slovenliness and apathy after you’ve lifted your hand just a tiny bit? You—”

“It is quite a troublesome situation,” Leona continued, ignoring him. “And as I’ve said, I’m trying to help you, so I ask that no one interrupts me again.” After she allowed a moment of silence to pass, she continued: “My suggestion is this. The Kaiser will reclaim his title and request for Ophiuchus’s intervention of the Augen. The current story that the Augen has been working with ELPIS to manipulate the populace at wide will remain in place. This will allow Augen members to step down if they wish to and conceal their involvement, while also pardoning the manipulated.” She glanced at Flannery. “And it doesn’t push against our agreement.”

Hm, Leona is not very nice right now, is she… no?

Man, another damn cover-up. They’re a cens a dozen these days.

Werner found his awareness of this lack of control unpleasant : blindly following and agreeing with a path set ahead—although he supposed he was no stranger to it. This outcome was more favorable than other possibilities Leona was insinuating.

Von Spiel remained silent.

“You’re just going to let this happen, Werner, Martin?” Marionette half-whispered, half-hissed. “Don’t you care for your country? Don’t you have any pride as a Capricornian? Everything that we worked for… the people who I represent—our ideas—to be turned into scapegoats—”

“Take her away, Charlotte, Roderich,” Von Spiel ordered his subordinates, before his expression smoothed into one of sympathy. “Save what little dignity she has left…”

The man and woman saluted at the order and dragged Marionette out of the building.

“You shouldn’t take it too much to heart, dear Marionette,” Scorpio called over his shoulder to her.“You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.” He faced forward as the doors to the building swung closed, locking eyes with Werner. “Don’t you think so, honey?”

His gaze made Werner’s head spin.

“Now that we have that settled,” Leona continued, turning to him, “we should decide exactly what to do with you, Lieutenant Waltz, and your involved subordinat—”

The doors to the dome burst open abruptly and a singular figure stormed into the room: Marionette Engel. Behind her came Von Spiel’s male subordinate who lunged at Marionette only to be tackled to the ground by Von Spiel’s other subordinate before he could reach her.

“Major General!” the male subordinate shouted as he was pinned by the other. “Charlotte freed Marionette! She’s—”

She’s with the Augen, Werner realized. Right under Von Spiel’s eyes— 

Then he saw the small pistol in Marionette’s hand.

“I refuse…” Marionette hissed, tears streaming from her eyes, her tattered scarf billowing back like wings, as she steadied her gun-wielding hand. “I won’t let you use my country as a puppet!”

Werner darted for the Kaiser. “Get down—”

But the shot rang out before he could make it to the man’s side. The Kaiser stumbled backwards with the force of the bullet, Leona barely managing to catch him before he hit the ground. Werner had to stop himself from calling Nico’s name as he ran to the Kaiser’s side.

Von Spiel meanwhile tackled Marionette to the floor as the woman continued to heave and shout.

Scorpio fell to the ground too, cuffs clinking along with him, as his deep, howling, tear-filled laughter rumbled through the air.

Werner felt his heart skip a beat as he came close enough to the Kaiser to see the single bullet hole running directly through the man’s head. The man’s glassy eyes reflected back the full moon burning down into the dome.

Without affection—as if nothing in her life changed at all with the occurrence—Leona simply stated: “The Kaiser is dead.”

20.4: Soldier » Duty/Lunacy

Re-cap:

While Maria, Jericho, Cadence, Atienna, and Olive, tie the loose ends to their developments in Capricorn, Gilbert, Nico, Captain Weingartner and the rest of Werner’s unit await their fate in the capital’s execution tower. Werner, meanwhile…


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Feeling a familiar sense of deja vu, Gilbert stared at the bars of his cell. Captured. Again. At least it was on home turf this time. The cell was cleaner, larger, better furnished, and all that. Or maybe that was what made it worse—

A loud metal clang abruptly scraped against his eardrums, followed by a shout—“Screw this shit! Fuck you!”—and some more metallic rattling.

From where he sat on his hanging cell bed, Gilbert looked to the bars of the cell next to him. There he saw Derik Stein flipping between shaking and kicking the bars of his cell.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Gilbert nodded at Alwin Brandt who was nestled in the corner of the same cell as the man. “Brandt, stop him. He’s giving me a headache.”

Brandt nodded, rising to his feet and walking over to Stein. He placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered something into Stein’s ear which seemed to calm him just slightly.

“But this is bullshit!” Stein snapped, giving the bar one last kick before throwing himself onto his cell bed and punching the wall beside him. “Fuck this!”

Gilbert sighed, then grimaced as a faint, familiar pounding crept up his spine and to his temples. The two damn painkillers the Militärpolizei had so generously given him were wearing off. He had enough pride not to beg for another.

“Are you alright, Gil?” Nico asked from where he sat on the ground beside him.

Gilbert glanced down at him. Guy always looked worried. But also didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was dragged into some other country’s problem at all. Probably had to do with the fact that he was from the Twin Cities. What was the slogan they all threw around? “Accept everything, reject nothing”? What a way to live. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“I’m fine, Nic.”

Rubbing his temples, Gilbert glanced at Kleine, who was sitting on the floor in the opposite corner of the cell and fidgeting with his glasses. Heimler and Captain Weingartner were sitting on a bed beside each other in the cell across from him.

How the captain had been captured after shouldering all of that hope and vigor—Gilbert didn’t know. What he did know was that Von Spiel had sold them out just like that. Like father, like son. Not only that, but from the ten thousand overly complicated, roundabout questions the Militärpolizei officers had asked them, the bastards had concluded that Gilbert and his entire unit had been working for the Augen all along. The officers even claimed that they were involved in some vitae-manipulation, mass-brainwashing scheme with the help of ELPIS. According to the Militärpolizei, under Weingartner’s command, they’d planned the slaughter at the border. Apparently, the Augen civilian protestors had willingly sacrificed themselves for the demonstration. According to the story, the Augen had been manipulating Werner this entire time to do their bidding. Talk about switching up the damn story.

Admittedly, Gilbert thought it was better to have the story changed from them mercilessly gunning down Augen-leaning civilians to them helping the civillians instead. Hell, maybe even all those Augen members who’d been demanding their deaths in exchange for the civillians who’d died at the border would be willing to back them up now. Maybe some of them would even create a pity fund for his mother if he died here. That’d be nice.

Hell.

Gilbert honestly had no idea what was going on anymore. Everything and everyone kept flip-flopping. News and politics—this was why he hated these things. Right or wrong—whoever was still alive at the end of this mess would be the one to decide, so thinking about it didn’t matter.

The only good things that came out of this were that Werner’s family had been absolved of any involvement with them and that they maybe successfully removed the Scorpio bastard out of Werner. Two victories in the middle of a shitstorm.

Stein was right. This was bullshit—

“—who would’ve thought all these years after graduation, we’d meet again on opposite sides of this line,” came a familiar voice from down the hall that divided the cells.

Gilbert approached the bars of his cell and peered down the hall. Weingartner and Heimler did the same.

Approaching the cells was a familiar man dressed in a ranking Militärpolizei officer’s uniform. Vash Something-or-other, his and Werner’s bastard of an old classmate from the academy, the bastard who’d stroked his ego at them when they’d first arrived in the capital with the Ariesian prince.

“We met at the station, you dick,” Gilbert responded when Vash stood in front of him.

Vash arched a brow before his lips thinned into a smile. Gilbert arched a brow back at him but then took a step back as he saw a familiar blue tattoo crawl up the man’s face. Nico shot up to a stand, while Kleine stiffened and Heimler and Weingartner tensed. Stein, meanwhile, ran back up to the bars of his cell and glowered with Brandt hesitantly joining him.

“We met before that too,” was all Scorpio said.

“Makes sense you’d do your possession shit to Vash. Bastards are attracted to bastards.”

“And Werner?”

Gilbert shrugged. “Yeah, Werner can be an ass sometimes.”

Scorpio chuckled. “Well, since I know you’re wondering about it, Lieutenant Werner Waltz no longer has me inside of him.”

Although the way Scorpio said it made his skin crawl, Gilbert felt relief loosen his shoulders.

“Fuck you,” Stein hissed.

“I enjoyed my stay with you, Derik Stein,” Scorpio drew slowly, glancing at him. “You’re a man who lives truly as himself—to the fullest of your passions. The thought of changing who you are hasn’t even crossed your mind. You don’t care for it. I bet you live a very happy life.”

“If you come over here and let me bash your face in,” Stein spat, “I’d be even happier.”

“Stein,” Gilbert hissed, “stop being a dumbass.”

“Sure.” Scorpio darted to Stein’s cell and shot his hand through the bars.

Brandt barely managed to pull Stein back before Scorpio could claw at him. Scorpio remained standing there, arm lodged between the bars, eyebrows raised at Brandt.

“And… Zu, is it?” Scorpio looked Brandt up and down. “Though, I can see it in your eyes—you’re not them anymore, are you? Just a remnant. In worse condition than the others.” He retracted his hand. “You’re pitiable and terrible at the same time. Dancing around in corpses…”

Brandt frowned.

“Can you believe it?” Scorpio paced to Weingartner’s cell. “Just a day or so ago, you were loved by your military and hated by your people. Now you’re loved by your people—the Augen—and hated by the military. Morals of living manipulating be damned!” He shrugged. “Opinions flip back and forth, but the end result stays the same.”

“I highly doubt a majority of the Augen—the ones who aren’t under your control—” Heimler spat. “—would be supportive of living manipulation.”

“‘Well-intentioned extremists’ is what’s being tossed around here and there. Who has the time for morals when pushed by passion and justice and righteousness, Friedhelm? I mean, if you hadn’t realized my existence, I’m sure you’d be singing along right with all those other Augen folk.”

Heimler’s eyes narrowed.

“Of course, there are people who question the Augen’s and ELPIS’s relationship and think it’s a government set-up. Meanwhile, the others who believe the news is real find you all… abhorrent. But in the end, it’s the passionate, vocal minority against the apathetic—or perhaps fearful—silent majority.” Scorpio chuckled, pressing his index finger to his lips. “And that goes on a larger scale too. Did you know that only 30% of Capricornians are for the Augen movement? Only a quarter of those people have my spores in them. And that’s one of the reasons why things never change. The majority stays silent and abiding as the world moves around them. Like puppets on strings to either apathy or passion… They can’t help themselves.”

“We’re going to be turned into scapegoats for what you’ve done,” Weingartner muttered quietly. “I recognize these cells. They’re beneath the execution tower. We’re going to be executed for treason and working alongside the Augen.”

There it was. The nail in the damn coffin. Gilbert could see Kleine pale behind him. Looked like they were going up to join Otto. Gilbert paused in thought, glancing at Nico.

“Hey, Nico’s not a Capricornian,” Gilbert said. “Pretty sure you’re breaking ten provisions from the post-war treaty if you decide to off him.”

Scorpio chuckled. “Ask your Kaiser, not me. You know everything I do is just going along with what people truly want to do. That includes the Kaiser. I’m just a puppet, like how you’re all puppets. Greed, duty, love—whatever it is, that’s your puppeteer and you’re the marionette.”

“I’m sorry, Nico,” Weingartner said.

Nico offered a half-smile. “Nothin’ to apologize for, Captain.”

Weingartner nodded at him, before he continued, “The Augen members who think we’re with them and support us—they’ll just use this as motivation to keep going. This country will be torn apart. For your reservoirs. It’s history textbook.

“Over and over again.” Scorpio leaned against the bars of the cell. “You should’ve played the same cards as Martin, Volker. And here I thought you desperately wanted to see your daughter.” He glanced over his shoulder at Weingartner and sighed in disappointment when the captain’s expression remained unchanged. “All your families will remember you for being traitors to your country.”

“When’s the execution date?” Weingartner asked calmly, undisturbed, unlike Kleine and Brandt.

“It doesn’t matter when the date is.” Scorpio pulled away from the bars, mocking snipping scissors with his fingers. “What matters is who your executioners will be. Two very familiar faces are being selected for the firing squad. The first is recently promoted Lance Corporal Wilhelm Fischer—”

“Promoted?!” Stein spat. “Are you kidding me? That rat bastard—”

“—who reported into a station filled with my offshoots only an hour after escaping me. He reported everything. What a good soldier.” Scorpio rolled his neck. “The last executioner is your dear lieutenant—”

“You don’t know the lieutenant at all,” Kleine interjected. “He won’t go along with it.”

“Your lieutenant doesn’t remember the other True Conductors right now. Such is the result when True Conductors are squeezed so tightly to the point of nearly returning to the threshold.” Scorpio chuckled. “It’s twice they’ve escaped death now, isn’t it…? No—oh, I remember. It’s thrice. Amazing how they still function as True Conductors after that.”

Gilbert felt his heart skip a beat.

“And ‘I don’t know’ my dear Werner?” Scorpio threw his head back. “I was inside of him! Of course, I know him! Much more than any of you. You think the kindness and leniency that your lieutenant has been showing to you this past year have been because he’s come to care about you all on his own?”

Stein snapped, “Just shut the fuck up—”

Scorpio held up six fingers. “Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance: sheltered to the point where the mention of death turns his stomach, formerly narrowminded to where he thought anyone who took a life was evil, and self-sacrificial to the point of almost being suicidal—”

Stein leaned forward intently at this, while Heimler grimaced.

Scorpio lowered a finger. Cadence Morello, selfish and greedy to the point where she doesn’t let go of the past and clings desperately to people, lying to the extreme of self-deception.”

Nico’s eyes narrowed.

He lowered another finger. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez, someone who pursues things without considering responsibility or circumstances. A woman of whim who operates on her own sense of justice.” Another finger. “Atienna Imamu, who cares only for the people close to her, who cares little for her own country as a whole. Doing anything to protect the ones she loves, while averting her gaze to everyone else.” Another finger. “Jericho, a man of passion and justice who will always do right and white.” And the last finger. “And Shion Myosotis, whose only reason for living was to protect and be remembered.”

Wait. Gilbert frowned. Who the hell was Shion?

Scorpio pressed his hands together. “Those are the reasons Werner trusted you and asked you to trust him—even why he protected you. I remember how he was before he became a True Conductor… What a lovely person. Like ice: cold and hard, but fragile.”

Ugh. Gilbert puked in his mouth a little. Saints—what a creep.

Scorpio startled suddenly, brows pushing down as he grimaced and cast a glance to the side. “They left the train…? Well, no matter.”

“You turn people ugly,” Heimler muttered suddenly. “You force them—”

Scorpio stared at him and chuckled. “You must think I enjoy pushing people to their breaking point.” He pivoted on heels and waved at them as he sauntered down the hall. “No, no. I enjoy taking people to the very edge and watching them take that final step themselves. At that moment, they truly realize and become who they always were—Marionette, Werner, Kafke, etcetera… although breaking the shepherd is the way to go.”


Medical examination: passed.

Psychological evaluation: passed.

Conducting examination: passed.

Fit-for-duty evaluation: passed.

“Well, welcome back to the world of the living, Lieutenant Waltz.”

First Lieutenant Werner Walz tightened his gloves and glanced at the medical officer standing at the threshold of the door.

The medical residency room he was stationed in was smaller than the ones he remembered visiting in the city before. It consisted of two unoccuppied beds, a medicine cabinet filled with other devices at the near corner, and a sink and mirror in the opposite corner. The medical Conductors and ranked officers had informed him of the events developing in the city and country since he had lost consciousness at the border.

First, the Verbundene Augen movement headed by Marionette Engel had started a wave of riots—nearing levels of insurrection—throughout Capricorn. Second, the Augen was working alongside ELPIS and had decimated the city’s main hospital which pushed the patient load onto smaller, local clinics. Third, ELPIS had provided Marionette Engel with the means and conductor technology to be able to successfully manipulate a mass of people. And fourth, he himself had been subjected to this living manipulation.

Werner could faintly recall the incident: an Argoan had charged at an unprepared Heimler with a knife at the border, and he himself had stepped in to save the man. Werner swore the knife he’d been cut with was not a conducting one, but the medical Conductor had said that his time being manipulated had led to distortions in his memory.

Regardless, that was an error not only on Heimler’s part but also on his own. Heimler had shown himself several times to be unprepared for combat before that, and yet Werner had decided to be lenient with him. Perhaps, he’d based the decision for leniency on how effective his leniency had been with Otto Vogt—who was now deceased.

Werner frowned.

Otto had shown great promise after improving following the events at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It was… a shame—more than a shame—to lose someone capable of so much improvement. Werner hoped the case was not the same for Bergmann, who was reported to have been injured by an Augen attack on a homebound train.

Sentiment, Werner realized. But death and injury were to be expected on the field. So, he brushed the thought aside.

Aside from Otto and Bergmann who were no longer with him, according to the briefing, his other subordinates and his captain were being detained and questioned for their personal involvement with the Augen and his state of manipulation. The entire incident had been reported by Major General Martin Von Spiel who had been covertly spying on the operation.

The idea that his subordinates—Gilbert especially—would know of his manipulation and use it to their advantage seemed ludicrous to Werner. Inwardly, it was hurtful. Regardless, he was certain the investigation would find the truth: that his subordinates did no such thing and this was a misunderstanding. But that in itself was a childish thought: an opinion based on his presumptions of his subordinates’ characters. He would have to wait for the true verdict—the true decision—to be made by his superiors.

Him, manipulated. His unit, truncated and under question. Shameful. Unacceptable.

“What did it feel like, Lieutenant Waltz?” the medical officer pressed from the doorway. “Being manipulated, I mean? You’re very… calm after all that. Usually, they have to cart these kinds of cases to the psychiatrics.”

“If you weren’t briefed on the details that I’ve given the head medical officer, then that information is not meant for your ears,” Werner replied. “You’re Corporal Wittenberg, correct?”

The medical officer nodded. “Yes… sir.”

“Your superior informed me that you and several others were assigned to be at another clinic at 0400 hours.” He reached for his pocket watch, but then remembered it was no longer there and dropped his hand. “Instead of looking into things that don’t involve you, you should be following through with what’s been requested.”

Wittenberg stammered something then pinkened and grimaced before departing with a salute. Once the medical officer’s footsteps faded down the hall, Werner walked over to the sink, turned on the faucet, and leaned forward against the basin. Then he puked. He quickly rinsed his mouth and cleaned himself before staring at his reflection in the mirror. Something dark blue appeared at the base of his neck in the reflection. When he blinked, however, the mirage was gone.

Werner felt terrible. There was a sickly-sweet taste at the tip of his tongue paired with bitterness at the roof of his mouth. His right shoulder was pounding to the same rhythm thrumming at his temples. But the pain was manageable.

Werner was rather surprised that he wasn’t put under further observation due to his manipulated condition. It seemed like a careless oversight by the doctors. No, rather than seeming like an oversight, it seemed more like a piece didn’t fit somewhere. A missing step in logic. And missing steps in logic were abound all around him. Everything felt surreal, almost like a dream. For instance—

He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out—not his trusted pocket watch—but two chocolate bars, one with only one square remaining. He undid the wrapper for this one and stared at the singular dark piece. Although he was not one for such indulgences, he placed the piece in his mouth anyway.

Bitter—but the taste was familiar to him. He allowed it to melt on his tongue before he moved to pull up the sleeve of his uniform. There, he found a single word inked there in Common right over his wrist: Shelter. Below it was the number 7. The handwriting was not his own. 

His head pounded.

* * *

Upon exiting his medical room, Werner was escorted by several Militärpolizei officers down a damp hallway lined with open-doored rooms filled with groaning men and women. After turning down a corner, they led him to a smaller room with peeling yellow wallpaper and six Militärpolizei officers dotting the corners. At the center of this watchful guard sat Mother, his father, Viktoria, and Ludwig. He hadn’t seen them since his last leave, but they looked much more worn than before.

From what Werner understood from the briefing, his family had been pulled into this circumstance by Captain Weingartner and his subordinates. They had only been recently rescued due to the efforts of Martin von Spiel.

When Werner felt all their four stares upon his arrival, his palms began to itch.

“I’m glad you’re all safe,” he said as he drew near. “I’ve been informed that you’ve been briefed on the basics of what’s been happening in this country in regards to the Augen and the living manipulation. I apologize for my behavior earlier and that you were dragged into this. I wasn’t myself. It won’t happen again.”

Mother immediately leapt to her feet, closed the distance between them, and threw her arms around his neck. He returned the gesture automatically, holding her for only as long as she held him.

“Oh honey, it was terrible,” she said, pulling away. “I knew it wasn’t you. Oh, don’t ever let something like that happen again. It was awful. You’re supposed to be our Capricornian soldier, aren’t you? Just listen alright? Listen and stay safe.”

When he looked down at Mother, her gaze bore into him; and he straightened himself unconsciously. “I understand. I apologize again. The Augen has gone too far, and the Kaiser and the Militärpolizei will handle them accordingly. You no longer need to be concerned with that.”

Ludwig approached next, wearing a frown. “And the others?”

Werner replied, “My subordinates are being investigated as we speak. But as I’ve said, it’s no longer your concern.” He extended his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Ludwig.”

“No, I meant—you don’t—” Ludwig glanced at the military officers before accepting the gesture with a grimace. “Nevermind.”

His father approached next, extending a hand. Werner accepted it and nodded. They exchanged no words. Viktoria joined them a moment after, hands clasped in front of her. She too glanced at the military officers.

“They’re here to keep you safe, Viktoria,” Werner informed her. “I apologize if my behavior earlier alarmed you. That wasn’t—”

Viktoria shook her head. “No, it’s not that, Werner… But I am glad that you’re yourself again.”

Werner frowned. Her words didn’t match the situation.

Viktoria’s face suddenly brightened, and she dug into the satchel at her waist. She pulled out a thin, circular object no bigger than her palm and presented it to him. It was black and engraved with a feathering design at its edges. On its belly rested a small circular window where he could see tiny black hands ticking on forward.

“I finished this recently. To replace yours. You’re missing it, right?” Viktoria held the watch out to drop in his hands, but hesitated before reaching over and tucking it into his chest pocket. “It’s easy to lose track of time.”

The pocket watch’s ticks almost seemed to match the pace of his heartbeat. A sense of nostalgia and heaviness followed.

“Thank you, Viktoria. It’s beautiful,” Werner said. “The design is unique.”

“That was my intention… I got the inspiration from the convention actually. Some Ariesian guard brought a blackbird in a cage—can you believe that?” She cast a glance to the side. “You were there, but I suppose it wasn’t you.”

“That’s peculiar,” Werner agreed, ignoring the latter comment.

There was a lapse of silence.

“Werner,” Ludwig spoke again, grabbing the arms of his wheelchair and digging his nails into the leather.

“What is it?”

“I…” Ludwig glanced at the officers lining the walls. “I’m sorry.” He reached out and grabbed a hold of Werner’s arm, causing Werner to stiffen. “I know I’m in no position to be asking you to listen to me, but—”

Mother frowned at him, causing Werner’s head to buzz.

“Ludwig, you’re acting strange,” Werner said, glancing at the officers. Appearances. “This seems like it would be better said in private.”

Ludwig pulled him closer and whispered, “Trust your instincts. Don’t believe what you hear or see.”

Werner frowned at him, studied his face, then studied the faces of the police officers around them. Before he could evaluate the situation further, however, a knock at the door drew his attention. There at the threshold stood a highly decorated man holding a clipboard.

“Lieutenant Waltz?” the man nodded at him. “The Kaiser would like to meet you now.”

Werner didn’t allow his surprise to show on his face.

This was a superior speaking to a subordinate. As long as he maintained himself, there would be no issue.

* * *

Werner had only stepped into the chancellery building twice before. First, following Major Erwin Ersatz’s treasonous actions at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. And the second time, following Colonel von Spiel’s treasonous actions in the Twin Cities of Gemini. Neither time had he ever spoken with the Kaiser face-to-face—let alone stepped into the Kaiser’s office chamber.

The Kaiser’s office was quiet and dark. Two sets of Capricorn flags hung from opposite back corners of the room. A rectangular table sat centrally below a hanging chandelier, while a more private desk sat at the very back in front of a window. Sitting at the former location were two men and one woman. The woman was pale, blonde, and had a pair of glasses perched on her nose. One man was older and gruff, while the other was young, had dark curly hair with a mole just beneath his left eye, and was dressed in a trenchcoat. They all wore the Ophiuchian sash.

So Ophiuchus was involving themselves—

Werner’s heart began to hammer suddenly, and his palms began to itch unbearably. He kept himself steady, however, as he assessed what was causing his unease. There. The woman peacekeeper’s gaze—no, it was the one dressed in the trenchcoat. His eyes were warm and kind, but something about those eyes—

“You can relax, Lieutenant Waltz,” came a rumbling, deep voice. “May I call you Werner? No need to worry about the peacekeepers. They’re just here observing.”

Werner followed the voice to the back desk. There the Kaiser sat, quiet, hands folded over a stack of papers. Peacekeepers present, and no generals in sight. The country was truly in chaos.

Werner lowered his hand, folding it behind his back with his other. “If you wish, sir.” After a stretch of silence, he said, “Is this about my condition—”

“What’s more important, Werner—strategy or manpower?”

Although abruptly asked, it was an age-old question asked at the beginning and end of every military tactics class held at every single military academy. It was used to evaluate exactly how much a student had developed mentally, emotionally, and logically throughout their courses. Although it didn’t seem the case, there was a ‘correct’ answer that was accepted and lauded by professors, lecturers, and commanders alike. It was—

“Manpower,” Werner found himself saying as he recalled. It took him a moment to realize he had spoken aloud, saying the exact opposite of the ‘correct’ answer.

The Kaiser’s brows rose. The trenchcoated peacekeeper frowned slightly.

Werner felt both men’s gazes intensify, and his palms began to itch even more. His head still wasn’t in order. “I apologize,” he said. “I was thinking out loud. I believe—”

“No…” The Kaiser remained impassive. “Tell me your logic, Werner.”

Werner nodded then drew carefully: “One would usually think strategies are superior over manpower, but strategy can only extend so far out—especially in a war of attrition. In the end, manpower is a resource. Whoever has the most of it will win in the end. Loyalty of that manpower also plays a major role. When the battle drags on, the loyal will stay while others desert.”

The Kaiser hummed. “Yes, I agree… manpower is the greatest resource… Without it, Signum would fall apart.” He rose from his chair and then turned to face the window behind him. “Do you remember the Kaiser before me? My brother.”

“Kaiser Friedrich Nikolaus Netzche,” Werner recalled. “He was a great general. His tactics are still used on the border to this day.”

“Yes, he was always bright…” the Kaiser muttered. “He’d been handed the Reservoir War by our aunt and her father before her. Like them, he passed away on the battlefield. Just as the war was about to end. A vitae-ray to the leg. A ruptured artery. Medical transmutation back then was not as advanced as it is now. The entire time he begged for someone to put a bullet through his head to end the agony. It was the only time I’d ever seen him so… weak.”

Werner remained silent.

“I wonder what they would think of Capricorn as it is now,” the Kaiser continued. “It was him who pushed for Capricorn’s hyper-militarization, did you know? I just helped him maintain it. I was only 19 when I took on this title. ‘Lucky that you inherited Capricorn after the war, ’ they’d say when they weren’t calling me a puppet of the chancellery. Little did they know, fixing a country after a war is harder than fighting a war.”

Again, Werner opted to remain silent.

‘Never forget the people,’ Friedrich told me on his deathbed. ‘Your duty is to protect the people, but you can’t protect everyone. You can’t choose favorites. You must choose the majority even if you must sacrifice diversity.’” The Kaiser turned back to him. “Numbers. Manpower. As you’ve said.”

Werner was certain that wasn’t what he meant by ‘manpower,’ but the trenchcoated peacekeeper’s gaze made it difficult to think. Additionally, that one singular word that the Kaiser had said rang now in his ears and mind. Protect—

The Kaiser cleared his throat. “You’ve done well in protecting the honor and needs of Capricorn up until this point, Werner. But you still have much that you can do for this country. Don’t let time go to waste.”

* * *

Shortly after, Werner was given the task of temporarily aiding the Militärpolizei in suppressing the Augen throughout the city. He was given command of a small unit of Militärpolizei officers. Among them was Wilhelm Fischer who greeted him with an enthusiastic salute before requesting to speak with him privately.

Oddly enough, Werner was glad to see the man. Fischer was a needed familiar face in all of the disruptions in the city and was also his only subordinate still in active service. 

Again, unneeded sentiment.

“Lieutenant Waltz,” Fischer said as they walked down the cold, empty streets together with the Militärpolizei. “I knew you would follow through and choose Capricorn no matter what. I knew it. I knew it wasn’t really you too and that you’d never go against Capricorn and the Kaiser. Even if vitae conversion is true, it’s worth—”

“Vitae conversion?” Werner frowned. The term sounded familiar.

Fischer opened his mouth, then closed it. “Sorry, sir, if you don’t know it… then… Well, they said I shouldn’t speak about it to anyone who didn’t know.”

“Then don’t speak of it,” Werner ordered tersely, glancing around the dilapidated streets, the boarded-up windows of the buildings, and the bullet shells scattered in-between bits of rubble. “If it’s that classified, you shouldn’t have mentioned it to begin with.”

Fischer stiffened. “Yes, sir, I—”

“And if you had suspicions I was not myself, then you should have acted on them and reported me immediately.”

Fischer cleared his throat. “Yes, lieutenant, it was a mistake.” They continued through the streets in silence until Fischer continued, “About the others…”

“I’m sure the investigations will find out the truth behind the situation.”

Fischer nodded. “Yes, sir… er. They made a mistake and a misjudgment—I agree, but the punishment should only be equal to the crime, shouldn’t it? It wouldn’t be too serious, would it? Where do you think they stand, sir?”

“What I think doesn’t matter. I’m not the one assigned to make the judgment.”

Werner spent no more time on the subject and moved on to complete the task he was given: disposing of Verbundene Augen pockets around the city, whether or not they were being manipulated.

Eventually, his sweeping of the area led them to the building that had formerly hosted the diplomatic conductor convention. The glass dome of the building had fallen in, leaving shards floating above the flooded, tiled floor. Among the shards drifted torn pieces of Augen flags, other similar paraphernalia, and several abandoned suitcases. As he waded through the waters, Werner found a small cage containing a blackbird chirping weakly on top of one of these suitcases at the very corner of the dome.

It felt surreal.

He stared at the bird with curiosity, suddenly becoming hyper-aware of the tick-toking of his pocket watch over his chest. Two of the Militärpolizei walked over to the cage and rattled it while snickering.

“Leave the bird alone,” Werner ordered. “It most likely belongs to one of the international officials or a diplomat. We’ll take it to storage.”

The police officers grumbled, but he silenced them with a hard look. As he watched them transport the cage out from the dome, he frowned. The Militärpolizei here were undisciplined and disrespectful. Nothing like his own subordinates.

There it was again: sentiment—which he methodically folded away and set aside.

Just as Werner finished ordering the dome, another block of Militärpolizei officers arrived to take over. The block was headed by a colonel who first introduced himself as Oskar Müller and then drew Werner aside to speak privately.

“You’re Kaltes Auge?” the colonel asked once they were alone. “You had the debacle with Fritz in Gemini, right? I always thought that Fritz was off. Fortunately, his documentation, files, and reports were precise, so when I took over his office, I didn’t have too much trouble.”

“He was very thorough, sir,” Werner agreed, though he didn’t think this was the situation to be making small talk.

“You look tired, Waltz,” the colonel said, reaching into his chest pocket and pulling out a carton of v-cigarettes. He shook one out and held it out to him. “Here.”

“I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t smoke.”

“It’s an order,” the colonel continued, continuing to hold the v-cigarette out. “It’ll wake you up. Help you perform better. You don’t look alert. We can’t have that.”

Werner tensed.

An order was an order. And appearances were everything. He hadn’t had the time to check himself since leaving with his new unit, but he did feel fatigued. Self-negligence. Unacceptable.

Feeling the colonel’s stare, Werner took the v-cigarette between his fingers, inspected it, and took a puff while hiding a grimace. Much to his surprise, he didn’t hack and cough. The way the smoke curled in his lungs felt somehow familiar.

As soon as he blew out the smoke, he felt it. He felt awake. Sharp. Alert. More so than he had felt before. A drop of vitae for this sort of feeling. Incredible.

“See. I told you.”

The colonel took back the v-cig, his lips pulling up into a smile. For a moment, Werner thought he could see something dark blue on the colonel’s skin peeking up from beneath his collar.

* * *

As Werner moved from the convention to further out in the city, he came across Major General Martin von Spiel who was maintaining a base in the outskirts of the district.

Major General von Spiel was vastly different from Colonel Fritz von Spiel—Werner soon came to realize—in both his demeanor and words. He greeted Werner with a firm handshake and congratulated him on his recovery as soon as they addressed each other. He then proceeded to pull Werner aside to study a map of the city beneath a makeshift tent built in front of a small abandoned bakery. Precision, resources, distribution. All in order. But—

“So, it ends up being that we’re playing this game of soldier,” Von Spiel said to him suddenly while they were planning how to distribute conductors to less stable areas of the city.

“There’s no ‘playing’ soldier, sir,” Werner replied, somewhat confused by the turn in conversation.

Von Spiel nodded. “I suppose you’re right, Waltz. These roles have become reality. Me, some whistleblower unveiling a whole ‘dastardly, treasonous’ plan by Weingartner against the Kaiser. You, a loyal man to the Kaiser. Our lies turned against us.”

“Are you implying you didn’t investigate me and my unit, Captain Weingartner, and my unit…?” Werner observed him. “I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, sir. I haven’t lied.”

Von Spiel, sighed, his gaze distant. “Fritz probably felt the same way: being forced to act a certain way and being caught in a lie. I wonder if whoever it was that he was connected to—that Yulia and Kovich—forced him into that corner.”

Werner had no clue what Von Spiel was referring to, but—”With all due respect, Major General, Colonel von Spiel embezzled Capricorn’s treasury for his own wants. The amount taken could’ve damaged Capricorn’s economy. Whatever his circumstances were, he made his own choice.”

Von Spiel stared at him, eyebrows knitting together slightly, lips pulling downwards. Then his eyes widened and he let out a breath. “I see… So this conversation was going nowhere to begin with. My apologies. Forget I said anything. I’m just an old man who’s made too many wrong choices now… though at least I’ve made those choices on my own.”

Werner paused.

“And I refuse to lay down arms now. A head-on war is foolish, but a war of attrition and coversion—maybe that we can win.”

Werner frowned slightly, considering whether or not he should report in Von Spiel’s odd ramblings.

“Let’s carry on, Lieutenant. Which station would be best to supply rifle conductors to?”

* * *

Werner was called into the Kaiser’s office again not too long after this encounter. The atmosphere in the man’s office was much colder than before, and the three peacekeepers were no longer present. Already standing at attention in front of the rectangular meeting table was Fischer. Hazy light from the full moon bled through the clouds and seeped into the room from the window, drowning everything a luminescent blue.

Despite feeling somewhat lightheaded in the light, Werner stood rigid beside Fischer and clasped his hands behind his back.

“The investigation of the 11th unit of the 212th Division of the Border Force has concluded,” the Kaiser said from where he stood facing the window. “They’ve been found guilty of working with the Augen in a mass living manipulation effort. The verdict is treason. The punishment is execution by firing squad at the execution tower. This will apply to Captain Volker Weingartner, Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff, Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine, Private Derik Stein, Private Friedhelm Heimler, Combat Medic Alwin Brandt, and Combat Medic Nico Fabrizzio.”

For a moment, Werner thought the watch ticking over his chest had stopped.

Keeping his voice even, he tried tried, “Has the possibility of them also being manipulated been considered—”

“They were acting on their own will,” the Kaiser responded. “We’ve checked. Not a single other person’s vitae was found in them by our Transmutationists and medical Conductors.”

Werner had difficulty keeping his face and voice unwavering. “With all due respect, sir, this could be a ploy to further turn the public against you. The execution of enlisted men will most likely receive public outcry. The briefing I received about the developments during my manipulation was unconcise, so I question how thorough the investigation truly was.”—He knew he was stepping out of bounds now but his chest squirmed— “Additionally, Nico Fabrizzio is not a Capricornian citizen. If he’s to be included in the line-up for execution, then this might affect our relations with Gemini. I’ve served with these men. They aren’t—”

“You’re forward-thinking. I appreciate that,” the Kaiser replied. “But do you believe you’re thinking about scenarios we haven’t thought of—we, your superiors who have many years on you? We’ve considered everything within the realm of that possibility. And Nico Fabrizzio was given to us, Werner, so now until the term’s change, he is owned by us. We can’t let foreigners step over what we stand for.”

Clenching his fist behind his back, Werner replied steadily: “I apologize. I was trying to offer a different perspective.”

“You shouldn’t be defending people who’ve wronged you, Lieutenant Waltz,” the Kaiser said. “At least, you shouldn’t be defending people who’ve wronged Capricorn. I hope you haven’t forgotten the needed distance between a superior and a subordinate.” The man turned to face him then, his eyes as piercingly bright as the moonlight surrounding him.

Now, Werner felt his heart thrumming along with the ticks of his pocket watch. A continuous sound, drowning out his own thoughts as his palms itched almost unbearably. The moonlight was blinding.

Always watching, a voice whispered at the back of his mind

The Kaiser was right.

The logical reasoning behind that statement made sense, but still it gave Werner discomfort. It was not a comprehensible feeling. After all, the investigations had found conclusive evidence. Werner himself was not a member of the military investigative police, so it wasn’t his place to question it. He knew his subordinates only from their performance on the field and didn’t know their true character—that was the distance between superior and subordinate. 

But Gilbert—Werner thought—he’d known Gilbert for even longer than that. Although Gilbert was not fond of taking up arms—which Werner had consistently berated him for—he still believed in serving the people. He would never turn against them. And Gilbert wouldn’t betray him to the Augen either. Werner was certain. He’d even trusted the man to keep him in line—

Werner frowned.

Why had he asked Gilbert to keep him in line again?

Something wasn’t right—

“I’m assigning you and Fischer here to serve on the firing squad,” the Kaiser said suddenly.

Werner saw Fischer visibly stiffen out of the corner of his eye.

“Sir—” Werner tried.

“We need to set an example,” the Kaiser continued. “Those in a unit who betray Capricorn will be brought to justice by those in the unit loyal to Capricorn. You’re familiar with executions, correct, Werner? I’m aware that you’ve executed deserters—treasoners—from your unit before you were even given an officer position.”

“Yes, sir, I’m familiar with them—”

“And you’re a soldier—an officer—serving in the Capricornian Army, are you not? I don’t understand why I’m hearing these objections. From what I’ve heard about you, you always follow through with everything on the field no matter what it is.”

An expectation to be met.

Werner suddenly recalled Magda Rath’s last moments, and suddenly the daze and fog that clouded his mind and the pain that was wrenching his chest dissipated. The confusion and struggle were gone. Everything was clear. Practice made perfect. Gilbert was a subordinate, just like the others. This was what a Capricornian soldier would do and how one would think; and he was a Capricornian soldier, so he would do it and how he would think. This was correct. This was to be followed. Appearances.

“I’m aware Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff is a childhood acquaintance of yours, Lieutenant Waltz, but you can’t choose favorites. You can’t afford to. As a position-holding officer in the Capricornian army, your loyalty should not be to a single person or a group of people. Your loyalty is to the land that you stand on.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They’re your subordinates, Werner; and your fellow unit soldiers, Fischer. You have a responsibility and duty as a superior officer and a fellow unit member. Do your duty.”

Right, Werner agreed. He was a Capricornian soldier at his core. Duty, glory, honor, and service. Orders needed to be followed. If not, then things would fall into disarray just like it had now with the Augen. Simple but effective. ‘Simple’…?

“The execution will take place in three hours. I suggest you get ready and head to the execution tower as soon as possible.”

“So soon…?” Fischer asked.

“There’s no point in waiting,” the Kaiser replied. “It’s merely delaying the inevitable.”

With that, the Kaiser dismissed them.

Werner exited the Kaiser’s chambers with Fischer at his side. Once the door closed behind them, he turned to the man and found him pale and sweating. Unsightly—and yet Fischer was the only one who had not betrayed Capricorn. Betrayal? No… Something wasn’t right—but it wasn’t his place to think whether something was right or wrong.Easier.

“Lieutenant…” Fischer whispered.

“What is it, Fischer?”

“Lieutenant, I know what the investigation pulled up, but believe me: the captain and the others were not working with the Augen. I’m not at leisure to say it out loud, but it has to do with a disagreement on vitae conversion. They did talk about a coup d’état but it was just in passing… I don’t think…” Fischer’s eyes were wild. “Being put in a penal unit is a better punishment, isn’t it? Or in jail? An execution is—”

“Are you objecting against orders directly from the Kaiser?” Werner replied automatically. “We should take responsibility and complete our duty.”


Gilbert had always found it funny that executions in the capital were grandiose events. Back at the border, everyone was hush-hush about it. Caught an Argoan partisan or a Capricornian deserter? Sneak ‘em out back, put a bullet through ‘em, and return to camp like nothing happened. Werner did it all the time like it was nothing—even did it for him in his place once. At the thought of Magda Rath, Gilbert’s mood soured.

Damnit.

The Militärpolizei officers came for them at around midnight, putting gags over their mouths and bags with eye holes cut out over their heads. Next came shackles around their ankles—cold, but not rusting at least.

The officers led them out of their cells single-file and into a small room containing two pews against the wall. A Monadic prayer room, so poor souls who were of the faith could ask for forgiveness and whatnot before they met their end.

Hell, Gilbert thought, as if they were going to say a damn Monadic prayer after everything they’d learned. And so, in the end, Brandt, awkwardly kneeling on one leg with a hand placed over his heart, was the only one who prayed—and in some language Gilbert couldn’t understand.

Afterwards, the Militärpolizei officers moved to shackle their hands behind their back. For Gilbert, they simply chained his one hand behind his back in a chain loop—which in itself was pretty humiliating. He didn’t have time to wallow in his self-pity, however, because the police soon guided them out the room and down a dimly lit hallway. Gilbert could barely see where he was going with the bag over his head, nearly tripping and cracking his head when they reached a long twist of concrete steps at the end of the hall. Up and up and up the stairs they were guided until they reached a set of heavy metal doors at the very end. The Militärpolizei officers leading them up pushed open these doors, letting out a cold gust of wind.

Gilbert followed behind his captain and his subordinates as they were ushered inside the room that lay behind it. The floor inside was tiled and splashed with glowing dapples of red, blue, green, yellow, and every color in-between. It took a moment for Gilbert to realize that the kaleidoscopic light was seeping in through the stained-glass windows that took up the left sidewall. Catching some of this light were a series of high-reaching stone arches looped overhead. Although Gilbert was not one for fine arts, he figured he would’ve spent some time admiring it all if it weren’t for what occupied the right-side wall. All along that pillar-embedded wall stood Militärpolizei officers dressed in crisp uniforms and all wearing grim expressions. Perfect for a funeral.

Before Gilbert could admire any further, he was shoved towards the stained-glass windows and made to kneel before them along with the others. Seemingly endless silence followed this. It wasn’t until he counted to five-thousand in his head that those heavy metal doors creaked open again.

From the stained-glass windows, Gilbert caught the faint reflection of their executioners—all with rifles slung over their backs—filing into the room behind him. The first four, Gilbert didn’t recognize. The fifth caused Gilbert to scowl: Vash Something-or-other, the Scorpio puppet. The sixth caused Gilbert to grimace: Wilhelm Fischer in the damn flesh—the bootlicking asshole. Unlike the others before him, Fischer looked pale and nauseous. Served the bastard right, Gilbert thought. If spirits and ghosts were real, he hoped his spirit would come back after this and haunt the hell out of Fischer.

Gilbert’s thoughts dissipated as soon as the seventh executioner stepped into the room. His heart dropped his stomach while Scorpio’s taunts rang through his mind.

As each of the other six executioners stepped into place behind them, one executioner to each man, Werner stepped into place directly behind Gilbert.

As soon as Gilbert met Werner’s eyes in the reflection of the stained glass, he realized that Werner knew it was them. The man might not have known who was kneeling in front of him, but he knew who it could be. And still, he chose to pick up arms.

Damn.

Gilbert couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, he did. Despite all their years of friendship and service, he still hadn’t managed to crack through any layers. He wondered if Werner had even considered him a friend at all. Part of him wanted to be bitter about it, but in the end, he still couldn’t repay that damned debt so what could he complain about? All those debts…

Gilbert let out a sigh. Really should’ve listened to ma. He cast a glance at the others kneeling beside him. One was trembling; another was kneeling straight-backed and tall; someone at the far end was bowing their head.

Aw, hell, Gilbert thought. So this was how it ended after serving for years, huh? Losing a damn hand. Betrayed by his own country. Slandered as being part of some puppet political organization. And blasted backwards by his superior—no, his one-sided best friend. Ha. The least they could do was give him a smoke beforehand.

Usually during these kinds of situations, he thought, weren’t people supposed to start having flashbacks of their lives? He figured since he wasn’t having them meant he wasn’t knocking on death’s door just yet—

“Present arms!”

Gilbert looked up to see that Werner was now pointing the mouth of his rifle against the back of his head. 

Ha.

He found himself thinking of Werner, of Greta, of his mother, then his father, and then of his past classmates and his passed subordinates. Really should’ve listened to ma, he affirmed. And yet here he was about to make her cry all over again, just like his father did. A real shit son.

Just outside the stained-glass window, Gilbert saw a blackbird flutter up to the sky, its ebony feathers cascading down onto the streets below. Werner glanced up slightly, seeming to catch sight of the feathers too. Then, Gilbert heard a familiar, resounding bang!


The Execution Tower was first built at the dictation of Kaiserin Selma Schubert Netzche in the year 1910 during the Reservoir War. It was designed to execute foreign war criminals in full display of the public in order to fill fellow Capricornians with a sense of unity and retribution. In later years as the war dragged on, it was used to publicly execute domestic usurpers and deserters to bolster a sense of unity and strength in standing at the line of duty. 

Since the war’s end, it’s use has been seldom and far between. The open windows that once displayed the executions openly have been built over with stained-glass windows designed by Capricornian artist Gretchen Howser. It stands as a symbol of Capricornian determination.”

Military Buildings, The Foundation of Capricorn 5th edition

20.3: Pirate, Swindler, & Peacekeeper » Mercy, Greed, & Justice

Re-cap:

Five out of the six have reunited in the capital of Capricorn. While Atienna and Olive deal with a death and matter of diplomacy, Cadence, Maria, Jericho, and Emilia Bergmann head out in search for Werner’s family in hopes that Ludwig will be able to tell them the location of Marionnette Engel.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

When Cadence felt Leona’s icy hand wrapping around her own, she knew Francis was going to be pissed. Maria had been leading them to the building where she’d claimed to have spotted Werner’s family when the exchange had occurred. Cadence had immediately skidded to a halt—not from the shock of it but—because Jericho and Maria, who were a meter ahead of her, also slammed on the breaks. She crashed into Jericho and stumbled back to catch her footing. The pain and anguish at losing Trystan and Marta were still very poignant, so it took her a moment to get her bearings.

“—but the saint candidates.” Jericho stared at Maria, then turned back to Cadence. “They are the enemy. Why did Atienna—”

Bergmann peered at them in confusion from where she’d stopped a meter ahead. She jogged back to them. “Did… something happen?”

Distant gunfire peppered in the distance, causing Jericho to grab Cadence by the scruff and pull her into an adjacent alley alongside Maria and Bergmann. A handful of men and women holding pickets and flags stormed past them down the road. Bergmann made some hand signs that Cadence only vaguely recognized, and they remained silent until Bergmann let down her hand.

Cadence figured she’d definitely lost her common sense along with her mind agreeing to come along like this. “It’s nothin’ by the way, ‘Milia.”

It is ‘wrong’? Jericho stared down at her. Not nothing. 

“We’re in a tight situation,” Cadence drew, peering at Atienna from the distance and feeling Olive’s horror and disbelief curl in her stomach. It took a moment for her to get her head around it. “Like I’ve been sayin’, we’re in over our heads. Atienna’s coverin’ us for whatever comes after this play.” She grimaced. It’s just a proposal. Nothin’s set in stone yet. But Cadence wondered if Atienna would laugh or frown if she brought up ‘circumstances.’

Maria’s perturbed expression brightened. “So it is like a pretend play? And Atienna is concerned and wants to keep us safe? Well, there is no need to be when I am here, yes? I will—”

“‘—not lose anyone else.’ Don’t doubt ya a bit, sunshine,” Cadence said. “But let’s just focus on the ‘now,’ and leave that for the more politically-inclined ta think ahead and clean it up, okay?”

* * *

When they reached the building in question, Cadence managed to convince Jericho and Maria to hang back while she transmuted over herself the appearance of a ranked watchmaster Militärpolizei officer—one ‘Gevehard Baasch,’ which was a mouthful to say—who was in command of the police force of this section of the city. Bergmann’s specifications of the man were alarmingly precise, despite her saying that she’d only met the man twice. Personally, Cadence still really didn’t understand the whole Capricornian political rank-and-file scheme, but she understood the concept of there always being a top dog.

After getting the details of the elder, curly-mustached Baasch’s demeanor from Bergmann—it was quite clear that Bergmann was not a fan of the man—Cadence hobbled her way into the building—rather, the hotel. It wasn’t a shabby one either. Nice wallpaper, red-carpeted floor, a chandelier here and there. The emptiness of the hotel halls, however, gave the entire place a disorientingly creepy feel. The mahogany-framed photos of eerily empty scenes—a couple of unoccupied chairs surrounding a lace-clothed dining table and an empty ballroom—hanging along the walls didn’t help with the creepiness either. Hotel needed a better decorator, Cadence decided.

Upon reaching the second-story floor, she rolled her neck and approached the only door that was spilling out light from its cracks. As soon as she opened that door and stepped into the room, she was greeted by half-a-dozen salutes, all given in unison. She returned the gesture stiffly, taking the time to survey the room. The walls were cream-colored, and it was sparse of furniture. Just a three-person sofa—an expensive-looking one—fitting Viktoria, Werner’s father, and Werner’s mother in that order. Ludwig was pulled up to the singular window on the opposite wall. Six guards total—two who had that ‘fresh from the academy’ feel.

Not threats. 

Good to know.

Casually, as she approached the youngest officer and inspected his uniform, she asked, “Have you all been holding up well?”

“Yes, sir,” came his reply as he stiffened. “Thank you for your concern, Watchmaster Baasch. We weren’t expecting you…”

“Good,” she said, nodding, then pulling away and folding her hands behind her back. She eyed the gold wristwatch on his arm. “Have any of you received word on whether or not the others who were accompanying the Waltz family will be under our watch?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ludwig turn and look up at her at this.

“We’re not sure, sir. I wouldn’t think so since those guys are being investigated for treason,” the officer said. “Besides, wouldn’t the riot police have that information…?”

“All the Border Force knows how to do is shoot things down,” another officer grumbled. “It’s not surprising they got pulled into that nonsense.”

Indignation flared in Cadence’s chest at the insultbut she shoved it aside. Not the time. 

Cadence plucked a name from memory—one of the names Bergmann had provided to her when describing Baasch—and said, “Blitzfeld has been asking me about it nonstop.”

“It’s always Blitzfeld,” one of them grumbled. “Poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong just because he got promoted to watchmaster too? The nerve. It wasn’t too long ago that he was just stuck on desk duty.”

Hm. So they disliked Blitzfeld. Talk about lucky.

“Blitzfeld is bringing his own unit to take over here,” Cadence continued. “You’ve been ordered to pull out and return to the station.”

An eruption of protests resounded.

“That’s not fair, sir, “ the younger officer argued. “They just want us to take their place out there risking our lives—”

So that was how it was. Eh.

“Well, it’s duty,” said another.

Cadence placed a hand on the younger officer’s wrist and gave him a pat on the back. She undid the latch of his watch, thought better of it, and reclasped it. “I’ll keep watch until they arrive. I heard that most of the riot police have taken care of those Augen disrupters, so I doubt you have much to worry about.”

Clear relief broke across their faces, causing her to feel a bit of guilt. The officers then gathered together and filtered out of the room in an orderly fashion. Sparing Werner’s family a half-smile, she peered out the window and tuned her ears. When she closed her eyes, she could see through Jericho’s and Maria’s—although it was fuzzy and dizzying. The two were perched outside the exit of the building alongside Bergmann; and when the door swung open and the grumbling military poice officers stepped outside, the two launched themselves at them. A butt of the hilt of Maria’s sword there, an uppercut from the edge of Jericho’s suitcase there, Bergmann slamming a couple of them against the wall with conducted earth here, and suppression cuffs all around.

With a nod of content, Cadence rolled up the window and stepped back. It took just a minute for Jericho, Maria, and Bergmann to climb into the room from the fire escape. Behind her, she could hear Viktoria and Werner’s mother gasp in unison.

Maria paid them no mind, sweeping into the room and twirling out one of Francis’s proto-conductors. She spilled the black liquid out on the carpet, tapped the proto-conductor against it, and reached into the gate that appeared there. When she pulled her arm back out, Lita was dangling from her hand. Maria tugged her up into the air, caught her before she fell, and then placed her on her feet on the ground.

“Surprise!” Maria sang, turning to Werner’s family sitting stiffly on the sofa. “Lita is here!”

Cadence had to admit that Lita’s and Maria’s reunion when Maria had first stepped into Francis’s windowless room when traversing through one of Francis’s gates earlier had been a bit cute. The two were clearly fond of each other, leaving Cadence to wonder if it was possible for her and Nico to have a reunion similarly. Bah. She brushed the thought aside. Lita was still a brat though.

Maria guided Lita around to Werner’s family, and the girl touched them and inspected them through her conducting glasses.

Lita shook her head. “They’re not ‘infected.’”

Maria beamed. “Thank you, my dear Lita. Now you will return for a little while longer, yes? This is a big country, no? Let us not lose you!”

Lita looked somber at this but obliged, hopping back into the gate. Werner’s mother, on the other hand, looked faint as she watched the gate dim into nothing.

“So you’re…?” Ludwig began, coming up to them slowly, completely unalarmed by their intrusion.

Made sense. He was a Waltz.

Intuition, came Jericho’s thought. His response indicates he knows that Scorpio’s spore was cut out of Werner, meaning he has met and spoken to Werner.

Agreed, detective.

Cadence studied Ludwig for a moment.

The memories were very faint, but she recalled the day Ludwig had stormed out of the Waltz house, leaving behind a startled Werner and Viktoria. To pursue his own path and dreams and all that. She didn’t particularly blame him. She doubted he would’ve been able to do anything with the way he was back then. That time apart allowed him to pull himself together—

Cadence suddenly thought of Nico.

Or maybe it was all an excuse, she rebutted. Or maybe she was making the excuse. Bah—not the time to be thinking about that—

You are afraid of being left behind, my lovely Cadence?

Cadence winced. That’s a private thought, sunshine.

You do not have to worry about that, my dear, Maria continued. We are connected, yes? And Jericho and I are strong. We will not leave anyone behind. Not you, especially, yes? I will always be here because I will not die. Do not worry.

“I agree,” Jericho said out loud.

Cadence sighed and rubbed her neck. You two are definitely somethin’ else. Charmin’ and leg-puller—the both of ya. It’s more complicated than that. But she couldn’t deny what a comfort those words were.

Shrugging, Cadence snapped her fingers to dispel her transmutation and then bowed at Werner’s family. “Cadence Morello, at your service. We had a nice dinner and part of a train ride together if I’m rememberin’ correctly.” She pointed at Jericho, who was looking around the room carefully. “Peacekeepin’ Agent Jericho. Ya vibed together in that shelter according to him.” She gestured to Maria, who was still hanging half-out of the window. “And pretty sure all of ya are familiar with Maria here.” She nodded at Bergmann. “Then there’s darlin ‘Milia. Werner’s corporal.”

Werner’s mother visibly stiffened. “What is this? Are we being held hostage?”

“You were before,” Jericho stated, pulling out his identification badge and flashing it to her—right-side-up for once. “You are now under the care of Ophiuchus.”

Nice one.

Jericho nodded.

“You’re all real… ” Viktoria whispered, rising from the sofa.

Cadence arched a brow. “What ya thought we were some fairytale? Ya were workin’ with us, weren’t ya? Or did ya think it was a psychological vitae mishap thing?” She thought for a beat. “Kinda is.”

“I’m not sure what I thought…” Viktoria murmured. “But to think that you’re all living, breathing people…”

Cadence chortled. “We’re better in person, right?” She glanced at Werner’s father, eyed his unchanging expression, and grimaced inwardly. What an unapproachable guy. She paused, moving on to study Werner’s mother. Not as unapproachable as her though. Crazy lady. She grimaced inwardly as memories of her own mother flitted to just below the surface of her mind.

“Don’t be worried, my dear Cadence!” Maria sang as she approached the windowsill. “I took care of that!”

Cadence arched a brow. What does that mean, sunshine…? Anyways. She turned to Ludwig. “Anyway, why’ve they got ya separated from the other loyal folk? In such a nice place too? Have ya seen the lieutenant? Ya seen, Nico?” She glanced at Jericho. “And Alice—the peacekeeper?”

Ludwig nodded, studying her very carefully. “I saw most of them when the military police rounded us together in some interrogation room—Captain Weingartner and Major General von Spiel too. Not the peacekeeper. She wasn’t detained with us. I haven’t seen her since we were rounded up.”

Jericho’s grip on his suitcase tightened.

Cadence arched a brow. “Von Spiel and Weingartner? Heard from Francis that those two guys split…”

“The ELPIS Leader…?” Ludwig frowned. “So he got away…” He cleared his throat. “Weingartner and Von Spiel weren’t so lucky. I’m not sure if it was through one of Scorpio’s mediums or if they slipped up somehow, but they were being questioned with us. But… ”

Saints. Why was there always a ‘but’?

“When we were being questioned, Von Spiel made up some elaborate ruse that he was taking point on some covert operation and gathering information for the state against Weingartner’s ‘treasonous actions’.”

“So, he threw all of ya under the bus,” Cadence noted.

“He’s a very shrewd man…” Ludwig agreed.

A shrewd man or a smart man?

“Von Spiel, huh?” Cadence glanced at Jericho then Maria. Not surprised seein’ how his son went out. “Well, ta each their own…”

“After they finished detaining and questioning us, they decided that we—” Ludwig nodded back to his family. “—weren’t involved. The way they were talking about it…” He clasped his hands together. “It looks like they’re going with some story about the Augen using illegal manipulation methods provided to them by ELPIS to indoctrinate members.”

“That is technically true,” Jericho stated. “The Augen are being used to transmit Scorpio’s spores.”

Ludwig’s expression darkened.

Time to switch gears.

“So… does Ophiuchus have enough of this ‘probable cause’ thing ta really intervene, detective?” Cadence pressed. “The ELPIS Department’s already here, but they seem a little suspect and don’t seem to be doin’ much—no offense. Havin’ actual peacekeepers here cuttin’ down Scorpio’s spores and offshoots would make me feel a lot more comfortable.” She glanced at Jericho. “I mean, that’s why Alice, Gabrielle, and… that’s why they’re here, right? Ta get all the deets ta make the decision. Ain’t it enough details at this point?”

“Unsure,” Jericho replied—and Cadence could see his mind turning over law, cause, and a bunch of other fancy legal terms. “Violation of the living manipulation cause would bring in the Conductor Regulation Department. But the Augen movement is a national political movement confined to inside Capricorn. If Capricorn makes the report and request to Ophiuchus, then they will intervene. Definite.”

Of course. It was all complicated to the point of not working. Made Cadence wonder what the purpose of Ophiuchus was sometimes, especially with all the new information they’d been learning about it recently.

Jericho’s face fell slightly.

Hey, I didn’t mean it like that, Cadence reassured him. And despite it bein’ convoluted, ya still make it work. You’re good, detective. I ain’t lyin’.

Jericho acknowledged her with a nod before shifting his suitcase to his other hand. She could faintly sense another unease there, but she couldn’t tell exactly what it was caused by—because even Jericho didn’t know.

“So Alice is still a no. But Nico and the lieutenant…” Cadence turned back to Ludwig. “Ya got at least an inklin’ of where they are?”

“Werner… I spoke with Werner briefly after that,” Ludwig drew slowly, confirming Jericho’s suspicions. “But he didn’t seem to remember anything that happened these past few weeks.” He looked up at her. “He didn’t even have any idea about True Conductors, but I was barely able to get a word in so—”

“He was normal,” Werner’s mother interjected in a whisper, eyes narrowing into a glare. When Maria glanced at her, however, she quieted and looked away.

“Yeah… There’s been an issue with that.” Cadence sighed, scratching her head. “The not rememberin’ thing, obviously.”

“Ah, so Werner is grumpy again?” Maria wondered from the windowsill.

“I don’t know where he is now though,” Ludwig muttered, staring at Maria. “The police are keeping communication channels closed to ‘protect’ us. The last time I spoke with him earlier, he was being assigned a military police unit because they’re short on hand.”

Ah, damn.

“How about Nico and the others?” Cadence pressed, feeling her stomach beginning to do flips.

“I don’t know either. They’re being detained somewhere separately. Unlike us, they weren’t given a pass,” Ludwig muttered. “I’m sorry. I wish I could be more helpful.”

“Marionette Engel,” Jericho pressed, walking forward. “The Augen. Where are they? You said you knew the movements. Tell us.” He glanced at Cadence and added, “Please.”

After arching a brow at him, Ludwig put a hand to his chin. “One of our scheduled demonstrations—our largest one—was supposed to be in the Herz District—two districts away from all the main government buildings…” His eyes widened, and his hand fell to his lap. “Are you planning on cutting out Scorpio’s spore from Marionette…? We planned for that demonstration to have over 75 people participating. And if it’s just you four… How—”

“Not sure if ya’ve seen sunshine and detective in action, but they can probably handle twice that amount of people.” Cadence hobbled forward to stand beside Jericho and rapped against his chest with the back of her hand. “Trust me.”

Ludwig stared at Jericho then Maria before leaning back in his chair. “So this is how it ends…” He grimaced. “The Verbundene Augen is more than a puppet. Marionette’s vision is beyond Scorpio. I know. I was a part of it. All we wanted was the people we care about to not have to… to not have to go through the same things we did. Was one war not enough?” He clenched his fists. “All the people who are talking about ‘sacrificing for the greater good’—the people who’re war fanatics—are the ones who push people like us onto the frontlines while they sit at their desks and spend their days filing paperwork. If you’re that far away from the frontlines, how can you see that it’s not worth it? We weren’t wrong. We weren’t.”

Ideas might not be wrong, but perhaps the people implementing those ideas were—even if they had the best intentions.

Bergmann sent Ludwig a sympathetic look as she studied her conducting glove.

“Ludwig,” Werner’s mother hissed, her voice causing a strange chill to shoot up Cadence’s spine, “enough—”

That was how movements came and went. They seldom stayed the way they were intended and instead were changed as the ideas of the movement were passed on down to different members. And if a bit of violence entered into the equation to push the movement forward…Was that justice? Was that right if the end goal was met? To the members of the Augen right now, it was a wonder if they would be considered ‘evil’ by their standards.

“Atienna…” Jericho murmured.

Cadence perked her head up and followed his gaze to the corner of the room where Atienna’s and Olive’s images stood flickering. Cadence could barely make out their surroundings in the intense haze of Olive’s tumultuous emotions.

That’s why ELPIS opted for resistors, isn’t it? Atienna continued. So their ideals and purpose remain pure and unchanged. 

Cadence shrugged. We could always ask Francis if you’re interested. Ya know he likes talkin’ a lot about that stuff now.

The corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled before she looked aside. We have to start thinking about what will happen after this. If we truly want to be able to live safely and comfortably for now until we decide what to do next—

Olive stared at her with a mixture of disbelief, apprehension, and confusion.

The Kaiser can’t be in his position anymore… Atienna continued, wrapping her arms around her stomach. I mean, I don’t believe he will hold his position much longer with everything that’s been occurring. If he still is the head of the state after this by using an iron fist, then… I wonder what that will mean for not only Capricorn but for us… and for Werner.

Nothing good obviously, Cadence knew, but since Atienna had struck a deal with Leona, then…

I… have a suggestion, Atienna continued.

Shoot.

The two generals that Werner’s unit held captive… Francis said Scorpio let them go. They’re most likely no longer loyal to the Kaiser and his plan after his betrayal. Since they’re in the chancellery cabinet, they have a high chance of taking his position after all of this—especially since the Kaiser is unmarried and doesn’t have an heir. So if we offer them protection until this ends maybe… Her brows furrowed. On another note, after these sorts of events happen in history, a scapegoat is always needed. Whether we try to change things or not, that will most likely be Marionette or the Kaiser… Well, we should try our best to keep them alive then, don’t you think?

“Man… that’s really scrappin’ the bottom of the barrel though, ain’t it?” Cadence sighed, ruffling her hair. “Not that I’m one to talk. All this political stuff is givin’ me a headache. We’d have ta find ‘em first too, right? The generals?”

“Find who?” Ludwig looked at them in confusion. When Cadence explained it to him, he bristled. “If old members of the chancellery take the Kaiser’s place, then nothing will change!”

“Change is already happening all around us, my dear Ludwig,” Maria spoke suddenly. “Change does not happen on the surface but from within—just like strength, yes? If you think nothing has changed, then that just means what is inside has not changed.” She pulled herself in from the windowsill, stepped in front of the man, and then studied his face. Her own face softened strangely. “But do not worry. We will take care of everything—I know you are thinking about joining us, but I think Werner will be happy if you find someplace else.”

Ludwig made a face. “What—”

“I think Werner has regrets like me. Things that should have been said, but weren’t, yes?” Maria reached out and tapped his nose. “But I will tell you instead—‘Be safe.’”

Cadence reached into her pocket, dug out Francis’s proto-conductor, and dropped it into Ludwig’s waiting palm. “Good luck protectin’ the family, Colonel.”


Francis’s gates were truly exciting. Maria wished she could explore that white ‘space between the gates’ forever, but Francis had become boringly strict since he’d become Theta and had forced her out when she’d tried staying.

Now, alongside Cadence, Jericho, and Bergmann, Maria stood on the edge of the roof of a medium-sized, gothic-esque building that oversaw a large courtyard surrounded by closely stacked buildings. There were only four entrances into this courtyard—four thin alleyways barely visible between the north, south, east, and west buildings. And all of them were blocked by stacked wooden chairs and wooden signs. Makeshift barricades. At the center of this barricaded square stood a large group of men, women, and even some children. Some of them held picket signs, some of them were painted blue from head to toe, and even more some stood gallantly in military uniforms. Most had weapons. Among them Maria spotted one or two who were dressed in a general’s uniform. Several of the Augen members were injured, laying on gurneys and being attended to by others. And at the center of all of them stood Marionette Engel, hair frazzled, signature scarf billowing in the wind, a bandage wrapped around her bleeding head, proclaiming something fiery and passionate that Maria could not hear from this distance.

“It reminds me of the border…” Bergmann whispered from where she knelt at the edge of the roof. “I… can’t believe all of this has happened so… fast. It feels like we were just crossing back over back from Argo a couple of hours ago.”

Maria watched as Cadence fell into a crouch beside Bergmann and peered over the roof’s edge with her.

“Do you think… we can get close enough to Marionette without getting caught?” Bergmann mumbled to herself. “From what I understand… the lieutenant and you all are critical assets to this ‘Scorpio,’ so he wouldn’t be willing to infect you again, right?” She peered down towards the crowd. “But that’s risky too… So, I could try creating an earth pit beneath them to trap them, but I’d need to be close enough to do it… and they’re too spread out… and I’m sure they’d shoot me before I could get them all under.”

Maria chuckled. “Why are we discussing when we can just go down and cut Scorpio out of Marionette just like that?”

“Yeah, I’m not suicidal enough to charge headfirst into things, sunshine,” Cadence interjected. “Not even for you, ‘Milia. We don’t even know how many people down there are actually infected and willin’ ta spare us for one.”

“Does it matter?” Maria inquired, smiling. “I can cut them down before they cut me.”

“I don’t doubt ya, sunshine,” Cadence said, “but ya gotta remember. Not all of us are as amazin’ or as strong as ya.”

“Oh, that’s right…” Maria murmured.

Yes, she needed to be more careful when speaking and acting, didn’t she? ‘ Considerate,’ was the word Atienna liked to say all the time. She was strong, but there was strength of words outside of strength of mind and body. If she said something that caused someone to run off again and if that someone was taken away from her when they ran off—Maria knew she would not be very happy. Happiness was not just her own—

“—so, we need to lure the Augen members away from Marionette…” Bergmann was saying when Maria tuned into the conversation again.

Cadence scratched her head.  Ya know I’m not a strategist, but I say let’s ‘Twin Cities’ it.”

“‘Twin Cities it’?” Bergmann repeated slowly. “Oh—you mean those piano keys that appeared all over the city that day… That was you…?”

“Yours truly,” Cadence replied with a half-wink. “Hope ya enjoyed the light show.”

Bergmann chuckled. “I’m not a strategist either—hated it at the academy—but… We could combine both tactics. My conducting and yours. Most of Lieutenant Waltz’s strategies come from fitting together different textbook tactics, so it could work.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Wait—ya don’t come up with all those strategies and tactics on your own?”

Bergmann chuckled again. “Of course not. Aren’t you connected to Lieutenant Waltz? It’s hard to think of entirely new tactics that actually work on the spot, so you reference old tactics used in the past and adapt them to the situation.” She shook her gloved hand. “The pitfall idea is something the lieutenant had me use before on a different operation.”

“What an educational experience,” Cadence replied.

“My idea is that we go down there invisibly—like how you did in the Twin Cities. I can create pitfalls behind the Augen members at certain areas, and then we can lure them into them with your illusions. We’ll stay at a safe distance by having you transmute your illusions through Mr. Foxman’s gate…”

“Oh, you are smart, my dear Emilia!” Maria sang. “Say, would you like to join my crew? You will still be a part of Werner’s crew, of course, but you can come with me whenever Werner is being too grumpy, yes?”

Bergmann offered another shy, confused chuckle at this before turning back to Cadence. “What do you think?”

Like hell, I’m goin’ down there—but still, Cadence smiled charmingly. “Well, can’t deny a great idea.” She turned away from Bergmann and eyed them. Saints, let me channel both of ya somehow. I’m pissin’ myself.

Jericho gave her a thumbs up.

While Bergmann and Cadence slipped into a gate that let them out in the alleyway just outside the courtyard, Maria and Jericho entered another gate that popped them out of a building closer to Marionette. When Maria peered over the building’s edge and spied Marionette just below her, she was tempted to launch herself forward and take the woman down just like that. But, instead, she waited. She was not quite used to letting others do things first and let them ‘take the lead’ but—as Werner said—‘ patience.’ She had to make sure she didn’t lose anyone else—

“You say that frequently. ‘I will not lose anyone else.’” Jericho whispered, coming to stand beside her and then staring. “Intuition. It is because of Conta.”

Maria blinked at him before humming in thought.

“Intuition…” Jericho continued. “You are… not as happy as before. You are still happy, but not as happy. You are bright, but not as bright. You are… sad?”

Maria tilted her head in thought, continuing to hum. “Well, yes, I’m a little bit sadder—but that is natural, no? I mean, if you lose something, would you not be sad? Especially if you are strong enough not to lose those things?”

Jericho shifted in place. “You came and stayed. Even though you have another goal. Thank you.”

“What are you talking about, my dear? Isn’t it the same for you?” Maria chuckled.

Jericho nodded, then tilted his head back at her. “We… both lost things. And we don’t understand things.” He looked troubled and sad just as Conta had been that night in the Twin Cities.

Maria hummed. “Understanding? Yes… but you understand when you go along the journey, no? Besides, we will find those things, yes? I will find Conta and that adventurer who took me from the orphanage, and you will find the one who forced you into this ELPIS.”

“But it’s more than that. With understanding.”

Maria peered at him.

Jericho stared down at his suitcase. “And I am not sure. If that is what I want. Revenge, yes, because that is justice. Or everything will be for nothing. But how to do it. ELPIS… Theta.”

“Well, you will figure it out eventually, my dear Jericho,” Maria replied. “You do not have to decide now, yes? I am taking the long way around too, you see? It is the journey, not the destination, as they say.”

Jericho’s shoulders relaxed slightly, then he side-glanced at her. “You want to go after that adventurer because he was the one point in your life where you did not feel in control. I remember you said that. Do you feel in control now?”

Maria fell into a crouch in response. Jericho followed suit, sinking beside her. She reached out into the moonlit dark and closed her hand into a fist. “If I ever don’t feel like I am in control, my dear Jericho, I reach out and take control. We are at the center of our own world. We shape and change it with our own hands. No one controls you, Jericho, but you. And no one controls me but me.”

Jericho copied her gesture, holding out his closed fist parallel to hers. He then eyed her fist before shifting slightly and bumping his against hers. She blinked in surprise at this.

“Is that not customary?” Jericho stared at her, perplexed. “We are… making a team commitment. Or is this something else?”

Maria’s lips pulled up higher. “My dear—”

“—and done,” came Cadence’s voice. I know I was the one down there in the pits, but are the both of ya okay?

Maria turned to see Cadence and Bergmann rise out of the gate behind her before beaming brightly. She then opened another gate with Francis’s proto-conductor and pulled Lita from it. Upon request, Lita hopped onto her back, wrapping her arms around her neck and her legs around her waist. Lita’s hammering heartbeat bled out from her chest and into Maria’s back, and then into Maria’s heart. It was quite exhilirating.

Nodding, Cadence sank to the floor in front of Francis’s gate and held her ringed fingers over the pale tangerine glow. Copper light spilled into the gate from her hands, reappearing in a burst of copper from down the alleyway opposite of their building. As a cool draft of wind flooded the courtyard, a handful of figures began to stumble over the barricade and pour out from the alleyway into the square where the Augen gathered. Men and women in military officer uniforms, all wielding various conductors. But all of them were illusions. Cadence’s conducting was truly something else.

One of the Augen members below let out a shout of alarm as they caught sight of the approaching police officers. Some fled down the other alleys, while others shouted to bear arms and began firing at the officers with conducting rifles.

Maria turned to glance at Cadence’s progress, but—

No, keep lookin’ at ‘em, so I can adjust my transmutation, sunshine.

Maria returned her attention to the scene and found that several of the illusionary officers were now on the ground ‘dead’ with vitae-ray marks scorched into them, while the ones who were still standing were retreating back into the alleyway they’d emerged from.

Finally, some of the Augen members who were firing their weapons took the bait and chased after the retreating officers. Moved by the first pursuers, more and more of the Augen members followed suit. One Augen man reached the officers first, swinging his conducting blade at a female officer only for it to phase right through her. The Augen man barely had the time to react as he stumbled forward, because shortly after he phased right through the ground—the illusion of the ground.

“It’s a trap!” one of them exclaimed, but it was too late.

They toppled over each other as they scrambled back and fell blindly into the invisible pitfalls. Maria imagined that the ones who were trying to climb back up out of the pit were being knocked back down by the tumbling bodies of other Augen members. By the end of the chaos, only thirty or so of the Augen remained, a quarter of them being the ones lying in stretchers. The illusory police officers that they’d been fighting faded into nothing in a burst of copper light as did half of the ground of the courtyard which revealed pitfalls full of groaning Augen members.

“I’m beat,” Cadence panted, falling flat on her back.

“You are amazing!” Maria cheered before placing a firm foot at the edge of the building and drawing out her blade from her sheathe. She whispered to Lita over her shoulder. “And now we will show them how amazing we are, yes?”

Lita nodded.

“Wait—” Bergmann began

But Maria scaled down the building quickly, leaping from fire escape to iron ladder to fire escape as she descended. Marionette turned to her at the sound of the metal clangs, eyes widening as she registered Maria’s approach. Before Maria could greet Marionette, however, a large, balding, and burly man stepped defensively in front of her. Maria used the man’s chest as a springboard, launched herself backwards, and landed deftly on her feet. She cracked the hilt of her blade against a man who was charging at her from behind with a conducting blade after she’d dodged his initially downwards swing. She then charged and slashed at another Augen member who was trying to stab her with a knife before noting that yet another was aiming a conducting rifle at her a meter or so away. Before she could get to the man, however, the edge of a suitcase cracked against his temple, and he fell to the ground like a ragdoll. After slapping a pair of suppression cuffs around this man’s wrists, Jericho ran up beside her and stared at the large man in front of Marionette. The man’s muscles were bulging out from the sleeves of his shirt and his neck seemed almost thicker than her own waist. He towered for above her. A titan. 

Absoltuely amazing!

Jericho nodded, seeming to agree.

Continuing to admire the breadth of the large man, Maria stabbed through the leg of a woman who was reaching for her with a conductor-gloved hand. She then stole the conducting blade from the man who had charged at her earlier, activating it with some difficulty in a burst of gold and bringing it up to block the swing of another conducting blade. After kicking back the woman wielding that blade and sending her stumbling back into another man, Maria found herself almost back-to-back with Jericho who had taken out his conductor from his suitcase but had yet to activate it. A glance over her shoulder had informed her that Jericho had taken care of quite a few Augen members.

“This one now, Jeri!” Maria declared, discarding her stolen conducting blade and pointing her other blade at the large man.

Jericho nodded as she charged forth. The large man whipped out a conducting rifle and fired at her, but she quickly ducked below it and came up at his side. As she dodged a swing of his fist, she wrapped her arms around his arm and scaled him quickly until she swung herself up to a seat around his shoulders. Jericho meanwhile had come at the man from the opposite direction and had successfully slapped a suppression cuff around one of his wrists during her distraction. As the man reached for Jericho, Maria quickly slashed at the man’s back with her blade causing him to abandon his pursuit of Jericho in favor of her. As he reached for her instead, she scaled down his body and stabbed her blade into the back of his leg. He staggered forward causing Jericho to throw his body at the man’s other leg. With that, the man stumbled to his knees, giving Jericho the opportunity to slap the other cuff over the man’s other wrist. As he did this, Maria hopped up to a stand and offered Jericho a high-five which he returned with slight confusion.

Saints… Ain’t that excessive—

As the large man fell forward, Marionette who was still standing behind him took a step back. Another Augen member rushed forward at them from behind Marionette, but Jericho darted past Marionette and met the Augen member with edge of his suitcase. Before Marionette could escape any further, Maria grabbed a hold of her arm, jerking her close as Lita reached forward. She called out excitedly—“Jericho!”


Jericho felt uncomfortable. He knew he needed to use his conductor on Marionette—even though he’d promised Alice only to use it against ELPIS. Because he had to. But whenever he thought of even activating his conductor, his head spun and his stomach tightened as memories of those Capricornian men and women disintegrating into nothing barraged his mind. Cycles but not the same. The past threatened to spill over into his present.

Now as he held it in his right hand and his suitcase in his left, he tried his best to focus on Maria beside him and Cadence above him. It made things simpler, made it easier to focus on the present reality. But when Maria called out his name and he saw that she had Marionette in her hold, he felt his head spin again. As he approached the two women, images of Marionette shattering into dust plagued his mind and sent him spiraling into the past. In his confusion, he reached out desperately for Maria—

—and she reached back.

Like I said, my dear Jericho, her voice resounded in his ears, you are strong. And because you are strong, you can show her mercy and all of the ones who are connected to her tower too, no? Is that not justice? Scorpio is doing the same things to them as he did to you, no?

Justice. And mercy…? To think his conducting ability could offer the latter was odd.

“Don’t…” Marionette’s whisper reached Jericho’s ears from Maria’s.

Jericho flicked on his conductor and watched as his vitae spilled out into an off-white whip. He flicked it again, causing the vitae to straighten and thin like a needle.

Viewing the front of Marionette’s chest and the area Lita was pointing to through Maria’s eyes, Jericho stepped forward and drove his conductor—guided by Maria’s ghostly but steady hands—through the woman’s back. Marionette gasped and stiffened immediately. Jericho’s blood roared in his ears, but he relaxed when he saw her still standing before him.

A series of resounding thuds echoed around the courtyard as several of the lingering Augen members fell to the ground unconscious—among them, the generals. A handful of them remained standing, staring at the fallen with fear and confusion.

Heart still hammering, Jericho pulled out his conductor and flicked it off. Marionette turned to him, her expression filled with such pain and horror that he for a moment thought he had stabbed her through incorrectly.

“Our movement… my movement…” Marionette whispered, switching to her native tongue, her knees buckling beneath her as her gaze swept the desolate courtyard. “Don’t you see? Nothing will change…! Absolutely nothing… He’ll win.”

He’s already won, sweetheart,” Jericho found himself saying, the words feeling strange on his tongue.

What’s all this about ‘my’ movement, anyway? came Cadence’s continuing thought. Ain’t that a little too greedy?

“Not Scorpio,” Marionette whispered. “The Kaiser.”

Frowning, Jericho slapped a pair of suppression cuffs over her and then caught her as she fell. As he lowered her to the ground, a burst of cool air tickled his back and the sound of soft, wet footsteps came from behind him. Maria’s face brightened and she waved wildly. Jericho turned his head and felt shame curl in his stomach.

“Francis,” he said.

Francis merely nodded, ignoring the surrounding confused Augen members as he crouched beside him and examined Marionette. “You performed well. Another tower has been removed.”

‘You performed well’? Man, Francis’s people skills still are kinda shot, huh? Talk about waitin’ until the last minute ta enter the scene.

“Now only one more tower remains,” Francis continued, staring at Jericho. “But I’m here to tell you something else. I’ve found Nico, Cadence. And the True Conductor connected to you too.”

Feeling Cadence’s relief curl in his chest, Jericho pressed, “And Alice?”

Francis shook his head, before continuing: “It’s bad. I don’t have gates on the actual site location—they’ve been removed—so I wasn’t able to see Nico’s or the others’ conditions.”

“Where?” Jericho pressed.

“The execution tower at the military central district.”

20.2: Prince & Advisor » Death & Diplomacy

Re-cap:

As the six start to slowly re-unite, they turn their eyes towards Capricorn and think about their interactions with Scorpio. While Olive recalls Trystan and Marta who have been converted into an elevated level of vitae and of P.D. Oram whom he’d nearly killed, Atienan thinks of home, family, and an agreement.


Eisburg, Capricorn

Olivier Chance had awoken to fussy royal guards and medical Conductors prodding him this way and that with stethoscopes, wooden sticks, and thermometers. In between the ‘how many fingers am I holding up’ and ‘are you sure you feel fine,’ they explained to him that he had fallen into a sudden coma while visiting the capital of Capricorn for the conductor convention. Trystan, who had been accompanying him on his Signum-wide travels, had abruptly left, acting on orders that Olive himself had apparently given him prior. Alexander Charming—somehow re-instated in his position—pressed Olive for what exactly he’d tasked Trystan with, but Olive had no clue. In fact, Olive figured that Trystan just had enough of him and had secretly quit the position.

Frankly, Olive didn’t care. Trystan could do what he wanted. Moreover, Olive didn’t understand why he’d decided to come to this foreign country or why he’d decided to get his State Conducting License in the first place. After Alexander had crowed over the ‘accomplishment,’ Olive had ordered him and the other guards out from his cabinet. They obeyed, of course. That was their job.

Once he was alone, he took out his conducting license from his pocket and studied it as he laid on his bed. His picture was ugly, and the entire thing felt wrong. Having a license, having this opportunity. It was something Lavi couldn’t have.

Lavi—he remembered suddenly. He had wanted to get his license so he could research about her ‘condition’—even though only he could see her, even though she might not even be real. Well, he supposed it was the least he could do for her.

Stupid.

However, everything became crystal clear as soon as he felt a warm hand rest on top of his head. His reasons became clear as memory after memory burned at the edges of his mind, clearing away the mistaken loneliness.

Relief came swiftly—followed shortly after by embarrassment. His self-loathing and self-pity were poignant, but it didn’t matter as long as he kept moving forward.

Not so soon after that reassurance was made came his memories of his override. Trystan’s loyalty and words of wisdom, the relief at being able to disclose his nature as a True Conductor to someone he could trust outside of the other five. Claire, Louise, and Werner’s unit. Finding his way to the belly of the capital with the others.

The images stayed with Olive even after he’d reopened the connection with Atienna and they all filtered into the room. His mind buzzed with the memory of Trystan and Marta melting into each other and P.D. Oran melting beneath his touch. Saints —he’d nearly killed someone. And Scorpio had been right. After the Tragedy, he’d wanted everyone around him to disappear more than he’d wanted himself to. Part of him now wanted to return to not remembering—

“—heard about everythin’ that happened in the capital, kid.”

Olive looked up as Cadence—who was disguised as his least favorite guard of all people—placed a hand on his shoulder.

“—I know it doesn’t mean much, but I’m sorry.”

Olive shifted in place. “There’s no reason to say sorry when what happened isn’t permanent.” He was going to fix it—return them both to normal.

The corner of Cadence’s mouth pulled upwards. “That’s the spirit, kid.”

“Atienna, what are you saying? This must be the lingering effects of the morrowheat—”

Olive glanced up and saw Atienna conversing with a gawking Sefu at the corner of the room.

“Everything I am saying is true,” Atienna said to him. “And because of this connection, I have to go back to Capricorn.”

Sefu fell back against the wall behind him, holding his head. After a moment of silence, he said, “Then allow me to accompany you. It is my duty.”

Olive felt a stabbing pain in his chest at the words, but he managed, “So we’re definitely going… right?”

Jericho and Cadence exchanged looks.

“Ta get the lieutenant and the captain,” Cadence drew slowly “And Nico too. And ya know… other important people… Why? Ya on board or something?”

Olive nodded—

But Scorpio was too big to handle. 

Jericho blinked at Cadence. “But Francis wants to handle Scorpio too. He said it’s responsibility.”

Cadence ruffled her hair. “I… think Francis’s head still isn’t tickin’ right. We’re all in over our heads. I mean, think about it. This ain’t just one city, ain’t just one plot, ain’t just about one person. There’s some all-powerful Manipulator revin’ an entire country up, and we’re just—what—six people tryin’ ta face up against a whole political mishap? The best thing we can do right now is just get Nico, Werner, and Werner’s folks and high-tail it outta here. It’s self-contained right now, but if we go bargin’ in… Best to leave it ta the peacekeepers. Werner might throw a fit, but…” She nodded at Olive and Atienna. “Plus, both of ya are high-profile people. Can’t be pullin’ your own countries into another country’s mess, right—” 

Bergmann frowned. “What…? I thought our main objective was to rescue my unit and remove Scorpio. Capricorn is rotting from the inside out because of Scorpio. My country is not perfect—I know. But this is too much!”

Rather than Scorpio causing it to ‘rot from the inside out,’ perhaps it was more akin to Scorpio festering a rot that was already there.

Olive shook the thought away and glanced at Atienna.

“I’m concerned about the diplomats that will be leaving Capricorn,” Atienna drew slowly. “There’s one matter of Scorpio’s spores spreading to the diplomats, and there’s another of the diplomats being harmed by Capricornians. That would cause quite a lot of trouble for Werner’s country, don’t you think? And for Signum as a whole… for you all…”

Cadence arched a brow at Atienna, studied her carefully, then sighed and shrugged. “Well, it ain’t like I can say no if all of ya are on board. Democracy, unfortunately.”

Olive looked between them in confusion before he was struck with a sudden realization. “Wait… Alexander is going to get in trouble if I just disappear. He just received his position back after what happened. I—”

“Just pretend ta throw a fit and lock ‘em outta this room,” Cadence suggested. “They’ll never know ya left.”

Olive arched a brow.

Cadence proceeded over to the door, pulled it open, and slammed it shut so hard that it rattled the walls. As footsteps resounded down the outside hall, she locked the door with a click. A second after, the door pounded and Alexander’s voice boomed—

“Your Highness? Your Highness, open the door!”

The rapping continued until Cadence placed her ringed fingers over her throat and allowed copper light to spill over the area. She opened her mouth and said in Olive’s own voice—

“Just leave me alone for one day. All of you keep coming in and going out—I can barely sleep. I know you don’t want to check up on me all the time, so stop forcing yourself to.”

Olive grimaced.

“… as you wish, Your Highness,” came Alexander’s quiet reply.

Cadence shrugged off her suit jacket and laid it on the floor, revealing a black smudge staining the insides. “Your carriage awaits.”

* * *

    )

Francis’s strange windowless, doorless room unnerved Olive, even though he remembered the place vividly from Cadence’s experiences. The children running around without care just added to the surreality of it all. 

As Olive took it all in, he came to reason that the memories they shared only went so far. For instance, even though he had memories of Allen and Carl, he found himself rather intimidated by them. Despite wanting to get off on somewhat of a right foot with them—even though the two were criminals—he had unconsciously sent Carl a glare when he’d first arrived. Since then, the man had been staring bullets into his back. Carl didn’t bother rising from his lounge on the sofa beside Allen, however, which just unnerved Olive all the much more.

“If only we had a Specialist conducting ability capable of teleporting like this at the border…” Bergmann murmured suddenly from where she was crouching in front of some of the children and letting them examine her glove conductor.

Francis frowned at her slightly.

“We could’ve saved so many more people,” Bergmann finished. “Like Otto… Immediate transport to medical.” She glanced over her shoulder towards Francis. “The Manipulator was behind Otto’s death, right? He was controlling Herr Rath?”

Francis nodded at her. “Since that man was a member of the Augen, perhaps. Although, it could have also been of his own volition.”

Olive tensed and looked away with a grimace.

“We should try to move quickly,” Francis said after a pause. “Most of our operations in ELPIS functioned by splitting up our workforce so we could tackle multiple… objectives at once. I’m sure you follow a different way of doing things, but I suggest we divide and conquer.”

“And…” Cadence leaned against her crutch. “What exactly is our objective here? Still kinda unclear on that. Know I sound like a broken record, but we are in over our heads.”

“Eliminating Scorpio’s remaining towers,” Francis replied, “ensuring that the True Conductors connected to you still in the city are alive, and making sure Dämon Forstchritt’s work—”

Olive’s head buzzed at the mention

“—and, Miss Imamu,” Francis continued. “Your concerns are valid. More conflict will lead to the formation of more reservoirs… I will assist you in that as well.” He glanced at Olive. “However, I have concerns about your involvement, Prince Chance. You’re still a child—”

“I’m the crown prince of Aries,” Olive interjected. “It’s… It’s my responsibility.” As Werner would say. After a beat, he scowled. “Just because I’m a ‘child’ doesn’t mean you can just go throwing me wherever you want. I’m going.”

“That was not my intention,” Francis murmured in response. “But I understand.”

“I have some concerns about Werner’s condition,” Atienna said slowly after a beat. “I understand we can’t exactly prioritize him at the moment because we don’t know exactly where he is, but Scorpio’s influence…”

“The dear lieutenant was with the blue guy the longest, right?” Cadence nodded, locking eyes with Atienna.

“Right… I’m just concerned about what actions Werner will take before we can reach him.”

Olive looked between the two of them in confusion and saw Jericho do the same.

An image of Werner lifting a pistol and pointing it to the back of a familiar brown head flashed through Olive’s mind.

“—Werner wouldn’t do that, Atienna,” Olive interjected, heart hammering.

“She’s not sayin’ he would,” Cadence said, lifting her hands, wobbling over to him, and placing a hand on his shoulder. “But let’s just all agree that—for better or for worse—we were very different people before we lost our collective marbles.”

In the end, they decided to split into two groups. Since they didn’t know the location of Werner, Maria, Nico, and Werner’s subordinates, Francis offered to traverse his gates in search of them and transport them across the city upon request. Cadence—half-heartedly—Jericho, and Bergmann agreed to search the city for Marionette Engel and cut away any spores along the way. They would keep Lita in Francis’s room until her eyes were needed. Olive himself agreed to go along with Atienna and Sefu to ensure the safety of the diplomats. But even though all of this was set in stone, Olive’s mind kept going to his memories below the city.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

The moon was full and the dust particles hanging in the sky made the light coming down around the rigid buildings take on a blue hue.

Supporting Olive with one arm, Atienna Imamu stepped uncertainly out from Francis’s gate behind Jericho, Cadence, Sefu, and Bergmann and onto the gray and wet road. A bridge hung over their heads connecting one pointed spiraling tower to another. The shadows cast by the towers spilled over the courtyard to her left. Resting there lay what remained of a metal statue depicting gallant soldiers aiming their rifles at unseen enemies.

It felt as if she had just been in this city a moment ago, despite it having been weeks. This was—

—crazy. Absolutely crazy. She needed a drink.

Atienna glanced at Cadence who was now relying on just one crutch to hobble around. Atienna knew that out of all of them Cadence wanted to be here the least. But she also knew that Cadence knew her conducting ability was valuable.

As Atienna surveyed the stretching sidewalk and the v-tram with shattered windows to her right, she recalled Bergmann’s earlier explanation of the city’s layout. Francis had presented a map of the city’s entirety during the explanation, but Atienna had never been quite good with object-orientation.

Trying to recall the path to the train station where Gabrielle had told Francis the diplomats were preparing to depart from, Atienna stepped out beneath the shade of the bridge into the courtyard. Fear and anxiety bled in from Cadence and Olive, but Atienna knew that she herself was at peace—perhaps even a bit exhilarated.

Before she could think of a parting word—rather, wait for someone to say a parting word—a stampede of footsteps on the bridge above them drew her attention away. Upon glancing upwards, Atienna spotted an inhuman-looking silhouette peering down at them from the lip of the bridge. She wasn’t given the opportunity to even flinch because the silhouette suddenly launched themselves downwards.

Sefu whipped out his spear. Bergmann turned in alarm, flexing her conductor-gloved hand and reaching towards the ground while grasping her holster with her other hand. The figure, however, half-fell, half-soared over Bergmann’s head and hurtled towards Jericho who reflexively brought up his suitcase. The figure merely used the suitcase as a springboard, flying upwards again in a backflip before landing directly on top of Cadence who was waving her crutch wildly in the air.

As soon as the figure landed on top of Cadence, however, Atienna knew immediately who it was.

“It’s Cadence!” Maria sang, leaping back up to a stand and pulling Cadence back up along with her. She pulled her in close by the arm and inspected her face. “Your freckles are even more lovely up close!”

“Saints, Maria—” Cadence stammered, still clenching her chest. “Ya scared the hell outta me and nearly killed me too—”

“Is… this another one?” Bergmann asked tentatively, rising to a stand, hand still resting on the gun at her hip.

Maria whipped around, faced the Capricornian, and approached her quickly before walking a circle around her. “You are Emilia? It is nice to meet you! Such a lovely name! Say, I met an ‘Emil’ before on my travels to Argo many years ago! Do you know him?”

Standing at attention, Bergmann glanced fretfully at Cadence who was rubbing her shoulders. “Er, no—”

“Well, you should meet each other so you can know each other,” Maria continued. “Someone who is mine and someone who is Werner’s—”

Bergmann made a face. “With all due respect, I don’t belong to anyone—”

Cadence sighed, dusting off her suit jacket. “Okay, sunshine. Ya don’t wanna scare her.” She shook her head. “I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but how did ya find us—”

“What an amazing experience,” Maria rattled on, throwing her hands up into the sky as she twirled in a circle. “I was very confused only a minute before with my crew telling me strange stories about spirits and possessions and ‘manipulators,’ but now everything is crystal clear!” She swiveled around and gestured to the statues. “Well, after I woke up, my crew and Veles told me everything, and I wanted to see for myself. I heard that something happened in this place from rumors, but it turns out that I— of course—did this!”

“Wait. Veles?” Cadence perked up. “Veles is with ya?” She brightened. “This is great! We got a bangin’ fire Elementalist, a dazzlin’ earth Elementalist—” she paused to wink at Bergmann “—and now we got a water Elementalist on the roster. It feels like—”

“Well, he was set on finding Conta and he heard from Simon and Emmanuel that Conta and that other one left, yes? So he left too. A head start without me! Make no mistake—I will find Conta and I will be right there with him. But I must come for this crew first, no?”

Cadence sighed, lifting her hat and scratching her head. “Ya ever heard of ‘the more the merrier,’ sunshine?”

Atienna cleared her throat and interjected, “And where is the rest of your crew now, Maria?”

“Oh, you know Emmanuel and Simon cannot fight!” Maria’s smile thinned slightly. “I left them back where it is safe, yes? I—” She glanced around at them. “—We will not lose anyone else, yes?”

Bergmann stiffened then nodded. Olive followed suit.

Maria leaned in close to Cadence. “And you are watching over my dear Lita, yes?”

“She’s in safe hands don’t worry,” Cadence reassured her. “But—”

“Oh?” Maria cocked her head, listening. “You are looking for that Marionette Engel? I think Ludwig said he knew where the Augen was. We can ask him!”

“Francis did say Ludwig had the deets,” Cadence confirmed, “but he also said that the guy got nicked with the others by the military police after the whole blow out.” I need a drink—

“No, I saw Ludwig! Just now! When I was coming here!” Maria interjected. “I did not recognize him—no—but he was there.”

There?” Bergmann pressed.

A faint, blurred memory of peering into a light-warmed window of a second-story building came to Atienna. A man bound to a wheelchair stared glumly out from that window; and behind him on the red sofa along the backside wall of the room sat another man, a woman, and a younger woman. Posted around them were uniformed officers.

“Werner’s family has separated from the others…” Atienna placed a hand to her chin in thought as the memory faded. “As I thought…” Scorpio was setting the stage on a microscale level too.

“We can go get where the Augen is from Ludwig and then take down the tower in that Marionette Engel person, no?” Maria continued, pointing to Jericho’s suitcase which caused him to stiffen. “And then after that, we can get where Werner is from Marionette or from Francis—whichever one comes first. And then we’re almost done!”

Maria’s vibrancy was—as always—too bright for Atienna. Although her brightness accentuated Atienna’s feelings of stagnation as usual, Atienna sincerely hoped at least that would stay the same.

“We don’t even know if Marionette has access to that information… She’s connected to Scorpio, but that doesn’t mean the connection goes both ways.” Olive arched a brow. “Anyways, doesn’t that entire thing seem convoluted to you…?”

“Nope,” Maria popped. “We go in, we go out, we find the tower, we find Werner, we find Scorpio, and we win!”

“Perhaps we can leave Scorpio for a little bit later,” Atienna pressed gently.

Maria glanced at her with contemplative consideration before brightening again. “Oh, Cadence and Jericho are going to handle this ‘tower,’ yes? And Emilia too? Then I will come with you!”

Bergmann frowned slightly. “I think it might be better if we evenly divide our unit—”

Maria whipped around and pointed at Cadence. “I am hearing from Cadence here that Francis is helping us, yes? So if anyone needs me, I can jump around—” She quieted suddenly, her gaze sweeping slowly from Jericho to Olive to Cadence and then finally to Atienna herself. “This is the first time I am seeing you all like this, no…?”

Atienna nodded.

Cheeks flushing, Maria abruptly threw her hand straight forward. “I have seen people do this recently, yes? I wanted to save this up for when I found Conta and then do it with my crew on the ship, but you are my crew too, no?”

Atienna realized what Maria was aiming for and couldn’t help but smile faintly, despite the gravity of the situation.

“This isn’t some tournament or sport event,” Olive grumbled.

Cadence shrugged, throwing her hand forward and placing her hand over Maria’s. “Eh, why the hell not.”

Jericho looked between them before copying Cadence and Maria in confusion and putting his hand forward too. Atienna followed suit slowly before inclining her head and indicating Sefu to do the same. Bergmann looked around at them in slight confusion before putting her hand down as well. Begrudgingly, and perhaps moved by their own wishes, Olive put his hand down last.

“Let’s go, spirit crew!” Maria shouted without embarrassment as she threw her hand into the air.

* * *

Atienna heard the commotion from the train station before she saw it. The sound was quite familiar. If she closed her eyes, she would be transported to those past days where she’d stood in front of the glowing white Great Tree of Virgo with her mother following the Tragedy of Aries. Yes. In moments of desperation, people always stepped over each other unwittingly—sometimes metaphorically and physically.

As expected, as she approached the station with Olive and Sefu, she found that it was crowded to the brim. Men, women, children, civilians—all were pushing against each other and a thin line of officers that barricaded them from the singular, sleek black train that stood cold on the tracks.

“Let us leave!” some of them cried. “This is a warzone!” and “Why do they get to leave first? They’re not even Capricornians!”—to which the military officers responded with a simple, “Back, back, back! Step back!”

Behind that line of officers gathered a familiar cluster of well-dressed men and women in suits, silk outfits, and satin drapes despite the chill in the air. Despite the chaos unfolding before them, they all looked as if they were distant from the affair.

Distance…

“Olive…?”

Atienna turned towards the call and found Claire standing at the lip of the crowd. Behind him stood his two masked royal guards—Soha and Felix—and one Gabrielle Law who looked more tired than usual.

“Claire!” Olive stared at the prince. “Are you an idiot? Why are you still here?” He ignored the glare of indignation Felix gave him, glanced at Gabrielle, and looked away quickly. “Is Eunji still here too?”

“No, my sister left on an earlier train—but, hey, I tried to leave too, you know,” Claire returned half grumbling, half good-natured despite the situation. He glanced over at the crowd. “Unfortunately, a bunch of other people got the same idea because of everything that’s been happening. The only train conductor that’s willing to operate right now is a ‘good-hearted’ man who won’t move the train until all the people here are on board. They don’t have train passes though, and the military police are trying to keep the diplomats… ‘safe.’”

Olive tensed, glancing at the military police officers. “Why didn’t you just use your conductor and fly out?”

Claire muttered, glancing back at Soha and Felix, “I can’t leave my vassals behind, Ollie.”

Olive’s face paled, and Atienna could feel his stomach drop as Trystan and Marta flashed through her mind.

“It’s good to see you back as yourself,” Claire continued. “I was worried about you, you know. That was a very long overlap… and…”

A faint image of P.D. Oran kneeling in a wreath of crimson flames flashed through Atienna’s mind.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I’ve been trying to get some sense of order here, but I guess having just one peacekeeper here isn’t enough. Most of the diplomats just want to save themselves. They’re afraid of the Capricornians dragging their political movement onto the train.” She nodded at Olive. “So, is everyone well? Are you well?”

Olive opened his mouth then closed it. “Yeah… Scorpio’s been removed.”

“Good.” Gabrielle nodded after a pause. “Anyway, Your Highness, do you have any updates for me?”

As a grimacing Olive disclosed everything that had unfolded since Gabrielle and Claire had left the dome of the convention, Atienna surveyed the two groups pushing against each other on the platform. She thought, considering solutions, considering what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ before an idea came to mind.

“We have to publicly make them choose—force them to decide the eyes of the public, ” Atienna drew slowly. “It’s quite a cruel way to go about things, but it’s a necessary choice, don’t you think?”

Gabrielle waved a hand. “Shoot.”

After explaining her idea to the others, Claire flew her up to the top of the train—Sefu surprisingly didn’t make a complaint—after handing her a makeshift megaphone that he had Felix conjure for her. As Atienna observed the shifting, pulsating crowd from below her, she took in a deep breath and felt her palms itch.

“There are sixteen region-states in Capricorn,” Atienna drew slowly into her megaphone. “We should…” She trailed off as she realized no one was listening.

A burst of crimson flames exploded up into the sky causing the crowd to gasp, shriek, and turn. Once Olive held their attention, he lowered his hand and extinguished the flames before pointing over directly at Atienna. The crowd followed his gesture to her.

“Miss Imamu?!” came an exclamation from below.

Atienna glanced down and saw her diplomat Niymbo Dimka standing at the very lip of the platform and staring up at her incredulously.

“As I said, there are sixteen region-states in Capricorn,” Atienna continued through the megaphone, feeling her cheeks flush at the attention. “There are over sixteen train compartments here. We all want to return home. I suggest we load all people from a specific region from specific train carts.”

“What?!” exclaimed a distinctly Cancerian-looking man from behind the police line in accented Common. “What about us? What about us who are not from Capricorn?”

“As I’ve said,” Atienna repeated, “there are over sixteen train compartments here. Those who are not from Capricorn like myself can take to the other compartments.” Perhaps effectively separating the possible infected Capricornians from the uninfected from other countries. She looked down at Dimka and the other diplomats. “The diplomats here have many trained guards with them. I suggest that they use them to help load and organize everyone onto the train—” Atienna could feel the glares from below. “Is that not what diplomacy is about?”

“Who will have priority?” one of the diplomats asked from below.

“Everyone will get on the train. Let’s not think of priority.” Atienna took in a deep breath. “However, we are working outside of political boundaries. Anyone who visibly supports the Augen, I ask that you put away your beliefs for now. No symbols, no mantras. If you can do that, I’m sure everyone will find a sense of reassurance.” Her words felt heavy and distasteful on her tongue—this choice, uncomfortable.

Atienna could feel Cadence peering in—

Ain’t that a bit risky…? What if a couple of Scorpio’s offshoots and spores spring into action and jump compartments?

The spread of passion versus the spread of possible conflict… Atienna thought back after quiet consideration. I’m not sure if I’ve made the right choice but… hopefully, Scorpio is dealt with before then.

Eh, I’ll gamble for ya, Atienna.

“She’s right!” Dimka shouted over the crowd. “We all want to return home safely. There is enough room on the train for all of us. Tickets and allowances matter little in a time of distress. Let’s work together!”

Whispers and affirmations spread through the surrounding station as Gabrielle pushed through the crowd and began to speak with the diplomats and military police. Atienna herself was brought back down from the top of the train with Claire’s help and rejoined Olive.

I wish the feudal lords back home were as convincing as that, Olive provided.

Atienna chuckled for him and then watched as the civilians were lined up into neat blocks and ushered into the train by a mixture of guards and police officers.

It was always astounding how efficient—as Werner would say—things ran when… when things operated under ever-watchful eyes. She’d read many dystopian books about societies that on the surface operated smoother with heavy surveillance. In reality, such things were deemed cruel. Regardless of method, coming together never lasted long. Pride, stubbornness, national loyalty, and all things laid in-between would not allow such a thing to pass. Or perhaps she was just being pessimistic.

Soon the train’s platform was empty with almost everyone having loaded into the train compartments. All who remained standing on the platform were the diplomats and other international officials. As the last civilian filtered into the train, the diplomats and internationals also began to head into their compartments, leaving just Dimka and his guards and Claire and his guards.

“I’m glad to see you well, Atienna,” Dimka said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I have to wonder how in the world did you make it here?” Before she could answer, he waved his hand. “Well, no matter. We will depart now. Come along—”

“I… still have work that I’d like to finish here,” Atienna drew slowly.  I am an advisor for you. I’ll collect as much information here as possible so we can improve relations with Capricorn.”

“You are a Virgoan advisor, not a Twin Cities information broker,” Dimka said gravely.

Atienna averted her eyes from him and instead met Olive’s eyes. “I’ll find another route back to Virgo.”

“Miss Imamu, this is madness… This country is falling apart.” Dimka glanced at Olive, then at Claire. “And you too both. You are princes of your countries. While I do appreciate your hand in this—and I may be overstepping my bounds by saying this—but I’m sure your… parents would be very concerned about your well-being. You should return home.”

To return home…

Atienna nodded, looking away from Olive and back to Dimka. The choice was clear. “Please go, Niymbo. I will be with you soon. I promise.”

The diplomat regarded her for a while.

“I’ll look after them, Mr. Dimka,” Gabrielle drew slowly, studying them carefully.

“As will I,” Sefu interjected. “Since it is my duty still.”

Although Sefu’s determination was quite endearing, Atienna wondered what exactly was going through Gabrielle’s head. Gabrielle’s raison d’être and goal had just been stripped raw, after all.

Dimka let out a hefty sigh before shaking his head and signaling for his guards to board the train. Before he left, he offered her a tight squeeze on the shoulder and a “Return safely.” Atienna watched them disappear into the train compartment as the train horn blared and smoke began clouding the air.

“Claire,” Olive tried hesitantly from beside her, glancing at the other prince, “do you think you could—”

Claire visibly stiffened, causing Atienna’s stomach to churn.

It’s nothing against you, she reassured Olive.

“Nevermind. It’s fine. You should go, Claire,” Olive muttered. “This is… different from before. I don’t think there are any political benefits to helping me this time around. Besides, you were found out because of me…”

Claire’s guards exchanged looks and studied Claire. At the sight of their concern for their prince, another pang stabbed her chest.

“True,” Claire agreed, causing Olive to grimace. “But I’m not sure how long we would’ve been able to pull this charade off anyway with the way things are going.” He chuckled before his expression became somber. “Hey, I’m sorry about what happened to Trystan and Marta… If that happened to Felix or Soha, I don’t know what I would do…”

Yes… Claire had been looking after his vassals from the very beginiing—all the way back when Olive had first met him in Aries—hadn’t he? Atienna wondered how the nature of royalty and guard relationships was viewed and how it developed at such a young age.

—people keep saying ‘sorry’ about Trystan and Marta like there’s nothing I can do for them. I can do something still. I know it. I—

He means well.

“It’s fine, Claire.” Olive waved him off, glancing at her. “I get it…”

“Hey.”

Olive looked back at Claire.

Claire tapped the fold of his loose blouse where a series of photographs were poking out. He glanced at Gabrielle, who was frowning, and then played a politician’s smile for her. When he looked back at Olive, he said quietly, “When I find out where the two of us stand in this, I’ll tell you. I promise.”

Atienna felt the apprehension in Olive’s chest lessen slightly. She smiled as Olive offered Claire a stiff handshake, which the latter accepted, and watched as the Sagittarian prince departed on the train with his vassals.

Atienna. Olive turned back to her slowly. I… I have to find Trystan and Marta.

We will, Atienna reassured him.

Now…?

Atienna let out a quiet sigh and nodded. She glanced at Sefu faintly, then looked away, not wanting to imagine what he’d look like if the same thing that happened to Trystan happened to him.

As the train began to roll forward along the tracks, Atienna followed Olive out of the station and back onto the road. Before they reached the end of it, however, a shout came from behind—

“Wait, Your Highness, where do you think you’re going?”

Atienna turned to find Gabrielle trailing them. Olive scowled.

“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” Gabrielle asked as she neared them. “That’s not something politicians should be handling.”

Olive opened his mouth.

“Let me come with you.”

Olive still vividly remembered the way to the underground facility. Although he had taken an aerial route to the location, the layout of the streets was still burned into his mind. However, if he had to retrace the entire route there, he was certain he would vomit.

At his request, Francis opened a gate for them a block away from the location and even offered to accompany them. Atienna politely declined the offer— “Mr. Foxman, I wouldn’t say I’m quite an expert on war tactics, but Werner’s has shared quite a few books regarding them with me… I believe that you are quite an important asset here and having you out frolicking with us would be a bit foolish, don’t you think?”

Atienna could be rather sharp-tongued sometimes.


As they emerged from Francis’s gate in a dimly lit alleyway, Olive found himself starting to become afraid of Atienna’s thoughts bleeding into him. ‘There’s no point in doing this,’ she’d maybe think. Or even, ‘Poor Olive. This is all he can do.’ But—

Olive, I’m with you, came the reassurance.

Olive glanced to his left. Atienna who was standing there in the dark met his gaze. Sefu, who was just behind her, arched a brow. Olive tensed, cheeks flushing. But he accepted her words and even found a sense of embarrassing comfort in them However, he did not find the same in Gabrielle who was a quiet presence beside him. He was rather unnerved about how she’d willingly come along with them. Olive wondered if she was just desperately trying to find a reason and purpose now. 

Just as they were about to spill out onto the road, pounding footsteps resounded around them. A figure passed the mouth of the alleyway. They were moving slowly and sluggishly due to precariously balancing stacks upon stacks of folders stuffed with files in their hands. It took a moment for Olive to register who that figure was. Gabrielle on the other hand—

Gabrielle hurtled out of the alley and tackled Dämon Forstchritt to the ground. The woman’s papers cascaded down around them in the aftermath, catching a psychedelic light emitting from the right side of the road. Gabrielle seemed to catch sight of this oddity and slowly turned her head in the direction. Her eyes reflected a terrifying sight, causing Olive to tear out of the alleyway and onto the road.

When he registered the familiar, groaning mass of vitae spilling in-between the buildings and crawling towards them from several yards away, he stumbled back and fell to the ground. 

Trystan and Marta…

Atienna and Sefu were at his side immediately, the former pulling him back up onto his feet.

“What the hell have you done…?” Gabrielle whispered.

“I was just trying to transport my creation… the insulation cube broke… “ Forstchritt muttered faintly, staring at the mass of gelatinous light. “I need to preserve my research.” She turned to the approaching molten monstrosity. “Most of this batch has returned back to the third level of energy! It’s okay . We only need to wait a little while longer and it’ll turn back into a reservoir!”

What…?

“Turn into a reservoir…?” Gabrielle repeated incredulously. “It’ll turn everyone it touches into a reservoir!” She turned to the mass of vitae and flexed her gloved hands. “We have to take care of it here.”

No! There had to be another solution, Olive thought as his mind raced. He could melt insulation tubes together and block the mass of vitae from spreading any further. Or he could burn a hole in the ground. Or—

“That’s a brilliant, valiant decision,” Dämon replied to Gabrielle casually. “We actually recorded in one observational study that despite not having any pain receptors—or even cells—for that matter, it somehow can still feel pain when it’s in the super-elevated-level state of vitae. Perhaps it’s because of the properties of vitae particles… but regardless, you’d be doing it a mercy.”

Olive swallowed bile climbing up his throat as the world spun and realization settled in. Hot tears were threatening to spill from his eyes but he tried to keep his emotions contained because he didn’t want to throw off the others. He could barely even feel them above the pain squeezing his chest.

Gabrielle glared at Forstchritt, face twisting. “How… can you say it like it’s nothing?” When she received no response, she stepped forward and extended her conductor-gloved hand out towards the moving mass.

“No!” Olive shouted, grabbing Gabrielle’s arm and pulling her back. “Don’t!”

“Your Highness,” Gabrielle said tightly through gritted teeth. “That’s not Trystan and Marta anymore. If that thing escapes—”

“I know that!” Olive snapped, fists clenched, feeling his voice crack. “I know that…”

Gabrielle turned back to him in surprise.

The guilt of Trystan and Marta no longer being in the world versus the guilt of hundreds—no, thousands—of people being absorbed into a painful state of agony. The feeling of having Oran’s life dangling at his fingertips. And “the value of a human life” —

Olive knew he couldn’t be selfish. Trystan wouldn’t want him to be selfish; and a small part of him had wanted to show —to prove to—Trystan that he hadn’t made a mistake in choosing to continue guarding and protecting him.

It wasn’t fair … It just wasn’t fair! But… That was what happened to people who cared that much. The ones who desired the most change were the ones who were crushed under the weight of their ideals—well, fine. Olive decided he’d be crushed along with them then.

I’m with you.

Olive took a deep breath and grimaced. “My vitae is at a higher energy level than yours. I’d be able to shoot the energy of the vitae up and back down to the fourth level faster than you.” He let out a shaky breath. “And they’re citizens of Aries. was the one who brought them to this country. I’m the crown prince. It’s myresponsibility. You’re a peacekeeper. This goes beyond your jurisdiction.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she clenched her gloves into a first. She studied him for a moment before nodding. “But if you can’t do it, then I’ll step in.”

Olive took in another deep breath, turning to face the warmth of the glowing vitae. He extended out his hand and tensed. And then, with a cry, he sent out a whip of crimson flame. As the whip touched the mass of vitae, an inhuman groan emitted from its body. The hot tears finally spilled out from Olive’s eyes at the sound, but he increased the output of his vitae until the entire roadblock was engulfed in crimson flames. The heat of his fire dried the wetness on his cheeks.

Sending out another torrent, he squeezed his eyes shut as he recalled stumbling before Trystan’s cell and being taken aback by the passion in the man’s eyes, as he recalled the sight of Marta’s back as he watched her toil away with her conductors in her shop, as he recalled Trystan’s wistful and hopeful gaze and loyalty on that train as he spoke of his hometown, as he recalled Marta’s fervent excitement as she spoke of her newly acquired position in that Capricornian library—as he extinguished what remained of both of them with his own hands.

A hand on his shoulder caused Olive to open his eyes. When he turned, he found Atienna staring at him with warm eyes. He lowered his hand as the flames around him died and then turned back to face the result of his immolation. As the smoke that clouded the air cleared, he was able to see a large, unmoving puddle of vitae staring back at him from just a yard away.

A confirmation.

Olive fell to his knees, digging his nails into the ground and fisting the stray pebbles and dirt in his hands, tears continuing to spill from his eyes as his mind continued to race endlessly.

What if… What if there had been another option that he hadn’t thought of? What if there was a way to separate Trystan and Marta and keep them contained and away from everyone in the city? What if… they had never come to this city in the first place? No—what if they’d never met him? Would they still be standing here today? Endless what-ifs—

Letting out a cry, he slammed his fist into the ground and then curled into himself. He squeezed his eyes shut but all he could see was Trystan and Marta and then Lavi, his parents, and everyone in the palace on that day. 

It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair! Everyone around him kept crumbling away to ashes.

The air was sweltering with smoke, making his sobs and gasps for breath all the more desperate. He cursed himself as he gasped for air—

Get yourself together! You’re going to drag the others down with you. Stop crying! Get yourself togeth—

A hand rested on his back. Atienna. He knew. Comforting pity. He wanted to push her away—push them all away and go back to the way things were before, back to his room, back to being locked away in the palace. Stagnant in place but peaceful.

But that would be the easy way out.

Olive turned and clung to Atienna desperately, buried his face into her chest to hide the tears, and continued to cry for not what he had lost but what others had lost. He cried for so long that he almost didn’t notice Flannery Caertas and Leona approaching them out from the shroud of smoke.


Tears threatening to spill from her eyes as she held Olive in her arms, Atienna tensed as the two saint candidates approached them from down the road. Pushing aside Olive’s anguish that closed a tight fist around her chest, she grabbed Olive by the arm and began to drag him back with Sefu’s help. Gabrielle, however, remained planted firmly in place in front of Forstchritt.

“Step away from Dämon Forstchritt, Gabrielle,” Flannery said. “This is somethin’ y’don’t want t’get yer hands in. Trust me.”

Gabrielle eyed the knife and gun in the woman’s hands, before raising her own hands and backing away. “I don’t remember you being this bossy, Flannery. You both took your sweet time though.”

Flannery didn’t respond and instead stepped in place in front of Forstchritt whose back was facing her. She lifted her gun and pointed it at the back of the woman’s head. Before she could pull the trigger, however, a burst of golden light lit up the smoky area and Flannery’s gun-wielding flopped onto the ground. Flannery stared down at her severed hand, unperturbed.

“ELPIS has P.D. Oran, Flannery,” Leona said calmly. “We need someone to help with the final preparations of the syzygy. After what ELPIS did to the Aurora reservoirs, Gemini and Capricorn are far from being able to assist us with the ley lines.”

The blood pooling out from the severed hand began to glow with an intense dark pink light before slowly being pulled by an invisible force back onto Flannery’s arm. The glowing dark pink blood and ligaments reattached to each other; and once everything was connected, Flannery tightened her grip on her gun again.

“Y’can find other talented minds ‘round Signum, Leo,” she said. “Ones who haven’t committed as many misdeeds as this one.”

“Her work—although disgusting—has helped us draw even closer to the syzygy,” Leona replied. “Her actions fall inside our free will agreement. Even without our influence, she would have eventually done the same thing. Intervening would go against that agreement.”

“If we go along with that precedent,” Flannery said after a pause, “I take it that yer pride would be alright with applyin’ the same t’Scorpio.” She jerked her head at Olive and Atienna. “By the way, I get the feeling’ y’might get a little antsy so let me just give ya a hint in case ya get ballsy and get ta it first.” She crossed her fingers over her chest directly above her heart. “Aim for the bullseye.”

“That’ll be your decision to make, and you shouldn’t encourage them,” Leona replied before turning her gaze to Olive and then Atienna herself. “Atienna Imamu, daughter of the former chieftain of the Imamu tribe—”

Sefu tensed.

“—and Ariesian crown prince Olivier Chance. I’m glad to see you all well and in order. Although Scorpio’s machinations were filthy, at least we know of you now. I’m sure you know by now how important your safety is to us.”

Atienna felt tense, but alive. She replied quietly, “Olive and I may be important to you enough and in the public eye enough for you to turn a blind eye to us, but what of the others? What of the ones who don’t hold high political status? What of Werner, Cadence, Jericho, and Maria? What happened to all of those True Conductors who weren’t of high status that you found?”

“Well, we’ll protect the other four just as we protected them .”

“Protection doesn’t mean happiness, does it…?”

Memories of the dying Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska and Kovich twisted on top of each other bled into Atienna’s mind.

Leona’s lips pulled upwards, and she looked down at them almost with amusement.

“I… have a proposal,” Atienna continued.

Leona arched a brow.

“Cvetka is employed by you. Although she holds an important status now, I believe that was not the case when you first discovered her, correct? Because she agreed to do something for you in turn. She… agreed to hunt down other True Conductors.”

Leona nodded, silent.

“I think it’s a good time to speak of what we can do for each other, don’t you think?” Pulling away from Olive, Atienna rose to a slow stand and approached Leona. Once she was in front of the woman, she extended a hand. “My circle is more than suitable enough to perform the same, wouldn’t you agree?”

—what was she doing…?

Atienna looked over her shoulder and met Olive’s wide-eyed gaze of horror. Protecting what I truly truly care about. 

Cadence’s image appeared behind Olive, and she placed a hand on his shoulder before offering Atienna a nod of approval. Gotta do what we gotta do.

“And your position in your group is where you can make this choice and final decision for them?” Leona inquired.

Atienna considered this before drawing slowly, “Yes… I suppose since Werner’s not here, I am.”

Leona reached out and accepted her gesture with a thinning smile.

Leona’s hands were cold.