Chapters

7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. 

Several months prior, peacekeeping agent  Jericho was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing peacekeeping agent named Leona, future chairwoman of the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus. His investigation took him to the Twin Cities of Gemini alongside his assigned partner Talib Al-Jarrah where he encountered an ELPIS sect and an ELPIS leader Omicron who had been working with Atienna’s teacher Usian. After falling into a period of stasis after their clash, Jericho arrived in New Ram City to rescue Prince Olivier Chance from former peacekeeping agent Izsak Wtorek who was discovered to have been manipulated and indoctrinated into ELPIS. 

Upon Jericho’s return to Ophiuchus, he was introduced by Talib to Gabrielle Law and her inner circle which consisted of his psychiatrist Doctor Alice Kingsley, Agent Ferris Hart, and a handful of other peacekeeping agents. And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!” 

Jericho skidded to a halt as Talib’s voice echoed around the stucco alley walls.  He glanced up and found a paper crane enveloped in dark blue light racing over his head. He chased it down the opposite end of the alley and into the backdoor of what appeared to be a pastry shop. The pâtissiers that were within yelped and jumped backwards at his entrance sending a mist of flour into the air.

He ignored them and scanned the area. 

Floured counters, folded dough, piping bags gripped tightly in hands. 

There.

The origami paper crane was fluttering over the counter that divided the kitchen from the front of the store which was crowded with startled customers. The crane began to ring around a patron who was slowly backing away towards the door behind him. A young blonde man with bulging, vacant eyes.

Jericho threw himself across the counter towards the man. Instead of running out the door as Jericho had calculated, the man grabbed the closest patron—an old woman wearing a floral shawl—next to him with one gloved hand and held out the other hand haltingly to Jericho. When Jericho continued forward anyway, the man flicked his wrist. At the base of his gloved palms flashed brilliantly light that flickered from a pastel pink to a mint green. Telling signs. The light eventually solidified into a distinct shape. A gun. A Conjuror.

The other patrons were shouting and cowering now, but Jericho paid no mind. Instead, he studied the gun. It was misshapen and crooked like someone had melted it the forge of a conductor-manufacturing plant. Seeming to not care about its malformation, the Conjurer lifted the weapon and pressed it against the older woman’s temple. 

Without hesitation, the Conjuror moved his finger to the trigger. Without hesitation, Jericho kicked his foot out and knocked the gun right out of the Conjuror’s hand. The Conjuror did not hesitate again to conjure another weapon—a knife—and he released the old woman and charged at Jericho.

The man jerked forward strangely. Like a puppet on strings. It did not take much effort for Jericho to dodge the thrust of the man’s blade. And as Jericho lunged forward to knock it out of the man’s hand, he found that the blade too was misshapen, bent. Jericho swung his suitcase up and uppercut the Conjuror causing the man to lose his footing. Using the open opportunity, Jericho spun the man around and slammed him against the wall. One of the patrons screamed again.

Jericho reached for the suppression cuffs on his belt and slapped them onto the man’s wrists. The man immediately went slack and let out a groan. 

“What is your name?” Jericho asked as he held the Conjuror in place.

“Leize. I’m Leize. My name is Leize,” the Conjuror whispered, eyes wide, words hollow.  “That wasn’t me. I-It wasn’t. I saw. Not me.”

“You are okay, Leize,” Jericho said. “You will be treated by the Medical Department of Ophiuchus—”

“I’ve found the Manipulator!” This time Talib’s voice resounded much more closely. Just outside of the store. 

The paper crane had slipped beneath the door and was now hovering outside the store.

Jericho released the Conjuror who collapsed like a rag doll onto the floor. He stared at the man for a moment, regretting that he had not put him down more gently. He then addressed the older woman whom the Conjuror had previously held hostage: “Please watch this man. And do not take off the cuffs.” 

With that, Jericho burst out of the storefront following the fluttering paper crane through the busy streets of the Cancerian town. He blasted past the crepe stall that was pulled out on the side of the store and darted along the gray brick sidewalk. 

The crowd casually strolling along the pathway let out shrieks and parted. 

There. 

The only one who was running away from him. 

The Manipulator. A tall, blonde man wearing a dark blue suit. His escape was one full of clumsy stumbling with each step ending in a trip that he had to pick himself up from. Jericho was vaguely reminded of the drunk, swaggering man whom Cadence had played a round of poker with at a bar the last time they had synchronized. 

The distance between them closed swiftly. 

As Jericho neared him, however, the man abruptly whipped out a knife conductor and began swinging it wildly in an arc in his direction. Fortunately, the Manipulator’s erratic behavior earlier had already prompted people to stay as far away from him as possible. No complications. 

Ducking beneath the swing of the blade, Jericho swept his leg beneath the man’s feet causing the man to flop backwards onto his back.

Jericho pounced on the fallen Manipulator and held him there, squeezing the hand that wielded the knife conductor. There was a crack and the Manipulator released the weapon with a yelp.  Jericho placed a foot on the conductor and dragged it away from the man and slipped it into a slot on his belt. He then felt along his belt and then paused. 

Hm. 

He had forgotten to grab an additional suppression cuff from his suitcase which was for once not attached to his arm. 

What to do. 

Abruptly, however, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes had snapped to the back of his head and his tongue was lolling out from his mouth.

Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching him continue to contort almost as if having a seizure. Jericho knew this, of course, was not a seizure. Fact. This was penance. Justice. 

Talib Al-Jarrah joined him half a second later. He was panting heavily but brushed past Jericho to inspect the perpetrator. 

A sympathetic yet righteous look passed over Talib’s face before he knelt down to slap suppression cuffs on the man’s wrists. “What a fool.”

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Cancerian Manipulator was charged with five cases of illegal manipulation and conducting without a license. Four of the cases were women. They were treated by medical Conductors who managed to transmute most of the Manipulator’s vitae out from their bodies. They are in recovery. The same cannot be said for a charged suspect. It seems as if he’s suffering from the usual psychosis that results from living manipulation.” Rattling off the details of their latest closed case, Talib took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He clicked his tongue and shook his head, huffing, “This is why Manipulators have such a terrible reputation. Because of people like this man.”

“If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up not so much different than him,” Doctor Alice Kingsley said from beside him. She was eating a fruit salad from a plastic container and had paused to gesture at him with her fork. “Although with the way you are, I’m not sure it’d make a difference.”

“Ah, yes, Alice, your words are as sharp as a knife that cuts through the heart as always,” Talib said.  “Good. That’s how I know the Organization hasn’t gotten to you yet.” He pointed to her plastic fork. “But, if you continue using things like that then it’s only a matter of time. Don’t you know that’s how they’re able to move forward with their plans? They make small, subtle changes to your environment without you noticing. You think to yourself ‘oh yes, how convenient this disposable fork is,’ but in reality, that fork is a device they use to lower your guard—that’s how they get you. Ignorance is compliance!”

“It isn’t healthy to make blaise comments like that,” Alice returned, slowly inserting a piece of lettuce into her mouth with her fork. “You may eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.” 

“Who says that it’s fiction?” Talib rebutted before his voice became gravely: “The Organization is a very real threat, Alice. I’ve known since childhood that you were of a person of intelligence so it’s strange that you would openly deny their existence—unless it’s that you’re trying to get them to think that you don’t believe them which is quite ingenious—”

“For such a terrifying organization, Talib, why would they have such a common name as ‘Organization’? Assuming that they’re the megalomaniacs you’re painting them as then would they not choose a more eye-catching pseudonym?” 

“Well—” 

Jericho watched them go back and forth from the sofa across from him for a moment before he turned to study the others in the room. Ferris Hart from the Assignment Department was sitting to his left and was giving Talib a tired look. She had recently dyed her hair a bright popping blue, and Jericho still had yet to adjust to it. 

“Adjusting to new things takes time,” Alice had told him during one of their first sessions. “And a willingness to accept.”

Roberto Gonzalez, a middle-aged man of Leonian descent with dark curls and full cheeks, was sitting to Jericho’s right and puffing a v-cig. Roberto belonged to the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus. Although the man was only a general agent in the department, as Gabrielle put it, “he had the keenest eye in Ophiuchus.” Accordingly, Roberto was able to spot conjured or transmuted counterfeits of anything on the spot. He had even closed a case that made headlines in the papers recently. 

Although there was no seating chart in place that Jericho knew of, it always seemed as if they fell into the same seating arrangements whenever they had their lunch meetings in Gabrielle’s office. At the thought of Gabrielle, Jericho stared at the empty desk behind him. The dust piling up on the surface was unsightly.  

“Regardless of your beliefs, your Cancerian criminal was handed to me,” Alice said, waving off Talib mid-rant. “I’ve heard from the chairman above me that they may transfer you both to more specialized departments.” She locked eyes with Jericho as she said this. “And I put a good word in for you both despite my initial misgivings, so we are making progress.”

“Well, your report was nicely typed, Talib,” Roberto commended. He spoke very fast like he was in a rush, but he appeared very relaxed.  “Might get you a promotion up to maybe the fourth chair of the General Investigations Department. And with Gabe promoted to second chair last month, and Alice keeping it up as third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department, we might actually be getting somewhere finally.”

“Correction, Roberto,” Talib interjected, “I wasn’t the one who typed up the report. It was my partner here, Jericho.”

“The ELPIS guy? Really?” 

The guy who gets paid to play spot the difference? Really? 

“I’m not with ELPIS,” Jericho said. “It’s rude for you to say that.”

Roberto scoffed. “I still don’t get why Gabrielle roped you into this to begin with. She wants to create a big and good name for herself in order to head Ophiuchus, but she took you in. With a background like that, you’re bound to ruin her reputation.”

“Not many people know of my former association with ELPIS,” Jericho corrected. “Only the first chairmen of the departments and the executive of Ophiuchus know. And Alice. And you all.” And the other five. “I don’t use my conductor often.”

“Roberto, how could you say something like that?” Ferris interjected. “We’ve been working with him for months now and you can see how dedicated he is. I can’t believe you.”

“That’s not what you said when you found out the first time he used to be a part of ELPIS,” Roberta scoffed. “You told me you were scared of him.”

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

“Enough,” Alice said, putting her salad down on the island table. “Even though Gabrielle is away, we need to keep consistent with our work. There is no point in remaining in the same position. We all need to work to elevate our rankings, including you, Roberto—”

“Hey, I’m trying—”

“Yes, Roberto is merely being stagnated by the Organization’s machinations—”

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth. 

In the past couple of months, Jericho had found that his social circle had increased somewhat. The addition of Olivier, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to six. He was quite happy with his progress, although he could not inform Alice of it due to the group’s agreement of secrecy. Therefore when he was introduced by Talib to the individuals who were in Gabrielle’s inner circle, he supposed he had been something akin to ‘happy’ since Alice was able to see this progress. 

“What are you looking at?” Roberto huffed suddenly causing Jericho to realize he’d been staring at the man.

“Nothing,” Jericho replied, looking away in favor of staring at Alice’s salad. 

Jericho wondered if Roberto was someone who could even be considered a friend. He made a mental note to inquire Alice about it later. Or maybe Atienna or Cadence. 

That matter aside, other than Gabrielle herself, three other people who were a part of Gabrielle’s ‘inner circle’ were missing from the luncheon.  

The first was Moaerni, a man from Piscese who apparently knew Izsak and Gabrielle during the war. He worked in the Licensing Department and had a rather busy schedule. Cadence had tried several times to convince Jericho to “butter Moaerni up” so that Oliviercould more easily pass the State Conducting Exam. Jericho hadn’t understood what she’d meant but Werner, Atienna, and Olivier had all shut down the idea. 

Whenever Jericho would pass Moaerni in the hallways, the Piscese man would always give Jericho a wink and a small smile before rushing off to his next evaluation. Jericho would try his best to return the gesture. That was what their relationship amounted to. 

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta. 

Despite being apparently a significant part of Gabrielle’s operations, Elizabeta seldomly made her appearance. She was a Transmutationist in the Medical Department of Ophiuchus which was one of the busiest departments in the organization alongside General Investigations, Assignments, and Licensing. She was most likely preoccupied with her largest case. That of Izsak. 

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak. 

An Ophiuchian Conjuror originally from Taurus. Someone Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle respected. Someone Olivier was fond of. Someone who had been a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle. Someone who had tried to kill Olivier for being a True Conductor. Someone who had become a member of ELPIS. Correction, someone who had been manipulated via Manipulator into working with ELPIS. 

Needless to say, Wtorek Izsak was also a no show. 

The last no show was Flannery Caertas, but Jericho did not find her not being present unusual. She was not a peacekeeper by profession. And she apparently only swung by in their first meeting because she was well acquainted with Alice and Talib. Jericho was confused about the relation there, but he did not question it. “She’s the money bags,” Roberto had told him one day when he had been in one of his better moods. 

Their luncheon concluded half an hour later, and they all headed back to their respective departments within the Serpens Establishment. While on the way back to the General Investigations Department, Talib excused himself to the toilet leaving Jericho to stand out in the hall waiting for him.

“Traitor.”

At the sudden whisper that tickled the back of his neck, a sense of deja vu whipped through Jericho’s mind and something akin to a chill ran up his spine.  Jericho turned his head in the direction of the whisper but all he found was Ferris Hart.  

“Hey, Jericho,” she said when she approached him, “sorry if I startled you—”

“You did not startle me.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, okay. Uhm…what Roberto said earlier. I—”

“It is okay if you are afraid of me,” Jericho stated, offering her a thumbs up since it seemed customary and appropriate. “I won’t force you to change how you feel.”

Ferris looked sad when he said this, but he couldn’t understand why. 

***

His weekly session with Alice saw to them dissecting the contents of a small leather journal. 

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been adding drawings to the weekly journal entries I’ve been requiring you to write,” Alice noted, flipping through the journal in question. 

That was true. 

After Jericho’s incident in the Twin Cities several months prior, Alice had begun requiring him to detail his thoughts, feelings, and activities in weekly journal entries which she would later go over the following week. 

His first journal entry had read, “Given advice by C. Suggested to use Ophiuchian badge to get occasional free drinks. Informed C that I do not drink alcohol.” The next entry read: “Spoke with Doctor Kingsley. Spoke with Talib. A stated interest in my journal. Spoke with member of ELPIS Department. Denied requested information. Will try again later.”

Alice had not been pleased at these entries, although she voiced her interest in ‘C’ and ‘A’ and only seemed mildly put off when he declined to speak on them. 

The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. 

When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought.

It was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian Lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown and the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner had not been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”

Afterward, Atienna had taken interest in his drawings and had suggested that he continue them in his spare time as to “have something to take his mind off of things”. Maria had asked for him to draw all sorts of things. He was not sure if some of those things existed but tried to complete the requests anyway. Which landed him here with Alice squinting at a cat with bat wings.  

“I was told it was customary to ‘doodle’.” Jericho stared. “This is not what you wanted?”

“Why would you assume that?” Alice asked tersely. She leaned back in her chair with crossed arms. “What you’ve drawn here has told me more than what you’ve written and spoken about in all of our sessions.” For a moment, Jericho thought he saw her smile. “They’re nice, Jericho. Continue them. But I am curious as to what’s inspired them though.”

Praise? 

And then she stared at him with her piercing blue eyes. 

Again he found himself wondering if she could somehow hear his thoughts. Maybe, he thought, she would be able to pry the other five from his mind if she stared long enough. He couldn’t let that happen. He broke off eye contact and stared at the corner of her desk. 

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t mentioned ELPIS recently in your entries or in our sessions save for your recent interview with the ELPIS Department,” Alice drew suddenly. “What are your thoughts on Wtorek Izsak’s condition?”

“The Medical Department says that it is complex. The manipulation. They’re having a hard time transmuting the Manipulator’s vitae from Izsak. Elizabeta would know more about this than me.” 

“Yes, that’s what they say.” Alice raised her head.  “And Elizabeta is only able to perform transmutations along the guidelines that they’ve provided her with. She’s told me that it’s been difficult to even do that.” She began tapping her fingers on the surface of her desk, her manicured nails click-clacking. “You’ve seen how suppression cuffs affect individuals who have been manipulated firsthand, Jericho.”

Recalling Leize’s groaning and stuttering, Jericho nodded. “Yes.”

“This detail hasn’t been released yet but Elizabeta has told me that the suppression cuffs render Izsak fully unconscious.” She shook her head. “And that implies that Izsak isn’t under such manipulation—something that Elizabeta refuses to believe…. As much as I believe in Izsak’s character, these are the facts. But there is something missing. The head of the Medical Department is still labeling this as a Manipulation case despite everything. Something here isn’t fitting. I don’t like it.”

“Is that something Talib has said?”

Alice frowned. “Don’t insult me, Jericho.” 

Jericho stiffened under her gaze. 

But then she shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose before reclining back in her seat with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.” She handed Jericho his journal back before reaching under her desk to pull out a leather, diamond-studded handbag. “Continue your journal entries, Jericho. And feel free to leave whenever you’re ready.” 

Jericho accepted the journal.

Alice paused before him as she rounded the desk and seemed to evaluate him in the silence. After a beat, she said, “Elizabeta asked me to invite you to come down to the Black Constellation Center to visit Izsak.”

Jericho cocked his head. “Why? I wasn’t close to Wtorek Izsak.”

Olivier was. 

“I’m surprised you’re not more interested in it to begin with given your goal,” Alice returned after studying Jericho for a beat. She then sighed: “Elizabeta’s being selfish most likely. I wasn’t going to even mention it. But given your recent journal entries, I thought it might be a good exercise. I’m also curious about it myself so I can’t deny I have a reason either”

Jericho thought on it for a moment. “For you Alice, okay. Izsak is not a real member of ELPIS but since he is being used by them, I will assist.” 

Offering either a hum of approval of a sigh of disapproval, Alice departed from the office leaving Jericho in silence. 

“Traitor.”

This time the whisper ghosted Jericho’s ear. When he turned his head, however, he only saw the awards and certificates dotting Alice’s wall. 

A ghost of a memory? The blur between reality and past illusions hadn’t been happening in a while. What was it that Alice had said? Focus on a single point. 

Jericho focused on a point on the wall. It was painted white, he realized. 

White. ELPIS. 

He wasn’t forgetting, was he? Forgetting ELPIS? Forgetting what they’d done? Forgetting that feeling? 

He gripped the journal tightly, crinkling the pages beneath his fingernails. 

No. He would never forget. His reason for being. 

Suppression cuffs are a newly added addition of required equipment to be carried by Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents at all times. These items will suppress the vitae flow within a suspect who is capable of using a conductor and will render them unconscious. Going forth, each agent is to carry at least two suppression cuffs while out on investigations at all times.

Additional information: The discovery of these devices was made by Agent Leona of the ELPIS Investigations Department, and they have been tested thoroughly. Usage on victims being illegally manipulated will suppress the Manipulator’s vitae and allow the victim to operate at a somewhat normal capacity until the Manipulator’s vitae is removed. 

Mass Department Update posted in the main hall of the Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus, Post Date: 31.08.1941

7.5: Atienna’s Journey (Soggiorno)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred.

Former chieftain’s daughter of the Imamu Tribe, Atienna Imamu’ lives in the country of Virgo which has existed in a state of isolation for many years following the Reservoir War. Her mother was a prominent political figure during this time but was gravely injured during one of her demonstrations which left Atienna fraying between right and wrong, correct and incorrect. She has skirted this line this by averting her eyes from unpleasant things and then beating out her frusterations in the fighting ring known as the Night Circle. However, upon witnessing her former teacher Usian’s machinations and manipulations of her younger brother Bachiru to incite a revolution, Atienna moves forward and crushes—quite literally—Usian’s attempts. Ultimately, however, she is left with the decision to follow through on Usian’s desires or to return to the way things were before. A choice is made, and Virgo begins to peel out of its isolation. Atienna vows to continue on in her mother’s footsteps and reach out to the world as well.

Whether this is the correct choice is…

Zatmeniye Mountain Range, Aquarius

“Saint’s! Stupid! V-ehicle!”

Atienna peered over her book into the front seat of the v-ehicle. The driver’s seat was empty, but the seat beside it was occupied by a man with an unreadable expression. Unreadable, because his bald head was wrapped around numerous times with a colorful bright blue scarf and because another scarf hugged the lower half of his face. Atienna turned to the woman sitting beside her. She too was wrapped in a shawl of many layers and was peering down at a book through her glasses. The lenses were fogged up by the breath captured in her makeshift scarf mask.

“I’m sure Sefu can handle it,” the woman replied to Atienna’s unasked question.

Atienna considered this for a moment before she tried slowly, “I suppose I’ll keep him company then…” With that, Atienna closed her book and set it down gently

Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill with a shiver and pulled her blanket closer around her shoulders as she stepped outside of the v-ehicle. The frost nipped at her nose, and the cold brought tears to her eyes—tears that soon iced over and crystallized on her lashes. She wiped them away with the back of her mittened hand and stared out into the dawning brightness.

Everything was white—the mountainous mounds of shoveled snow that formed a short wall on either side of the road, the evergreen trees that poked up in between those mounds, and even the v-ehicle she had just stepped out of. Well, rather than being buried by a layer of the whiteness from on top, the v-ehicle was buried from the bottom. To be exact, its wheels had become one with the ground. It appeared as if the snow had melted somewhat around the rims due to the heat from them initially, but the water had frozen over again once the temperature had dropped encasing the entire thing in ice.

A tightly bundled, unrecognizable Sefu was pounding down on that ice with the butt of his conducting spear. He continued to pound and pound, seeming to not notice her presence. Abruptly, he let loose an agitated sigh before turning the spear around and slamming its bottom into the ground. He then began to mutter under his breath. A prayer. After letting out a quiet sigh, he whipped his spear around again and pointed its tip at the encasement of ice. The tip began to glow a bright yellow.

“Sefu…. I wonder if that’s a good idea.”

Sefu startled and quickly flipped his spear behind his back. “Miss Atienna—I—”

“Before you move onto that,” Atienna said, drifting to the front of the car, “maybe we should try checking to see if the engine conductor is still in working order? It was making strange sounds earlier. I wonder if something’s wrong with it…”

Sefu stiffened before he stumbled over the snow ruts to the front of the car. He popped the hood and stared. Atienna followed along after him while reaching out to Olive. It took several tries, but she managed to synchronize with him strongly enough for his physical form to appear before his eyes.

“I think it looks fine,” Sefu said, looking down at the device.

Olive shook his head, shivering slightly. The cold cracked the conducting core. There’s no saving it once it’s cracked like that. He gave Sefu a side-eye. Maybe in some fantasy universe you can still use it.

Atienna relayed this information to Sefu—minus the last part—and thanked Olive who mumbled an incoherent thought before disappearing from her sight.

“You cannot be serious…” Sefu stared at the generator conductor listlessly before staring past it towards the stretch of white road behind them. The tracks their v-ehicle had made were already filled in by the snow.

The doors to the v-ehicle opened, and the man sitting at the front of the car and the woman sitting at the back stepped out with a crunch, crunch onto the snow.

“So for all of that praise for the functionality of these v-ehicles,” the now shivering man said, pulling out a long spear conductor from the v-ehicle and fastening it to his back, “they cannot even endure a short journey.”

“Enough, Kabal,” the woman with the reading glasses replied, shrugging her garments closer to her body. “Miss Imamu, what is the nearest town?”

Atienna pulled out a map from the satchel that hung at her waist. Out with it came an envelope that fell onto the snow. In a panic, she picked it up, checked it for damages, and with a relieved sigh placed it back into her satchel. She then inspected the map—

“The nearest town is about eight kilometers away. Vlatgrad. We should be able to reach it if we continue north from here.” She folded the map back into her satchel and began to recall the details of the book she had been reading in the v-ehicle. “It’s a mining town. They speak both Aquarian and Common, so communication shouldn’t be an issue.” She chuckled lightly. “Although, I cannot say the same for hospitality…”

“Well, we’ll just have to convince them to be hospitable,” the woman returned.

The woman was named Chiamaka, and she was of the Maneo Tribe. She was a member of the chieftain’s family of that tribe and had spent her younger years before the war studying social sciences and diplomacy. Her focus was on the governments and politics of the countries of south-eastern Signum which included Aquarius and Pisces. For this reason, she was chosen to act as the diplomat to those countries following Virgo’s slow return from isolation.

That was where they were headed. A tripartite diplomatic meeting between Pisces, Aquarius, and Virgo. A formality of sorts. A prelude to open up better relations between their three countries.

Kabal—currently polishing his spear conductor while still grumbling about v-ehicles—was a royal guard of the Maneo Tribe and was accompanying Chiamaka on this journey as her protector. He was a man of few words, and he never minced them.

Sefu was here to guard Atienna herself which she found a bit strange as her family was no longer considered the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe. Therefore Sefu, being a member of the royal guards strictly serving the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe, had no need to protect her any longer. And yet here he was. Curious.

And Atienna’s own purpose here? It was not diplomacy, that was certain. Her purpose was not as impressive as that. But a purpose was a purpose.

“Well, Miss Imamu,” Chiamaka said, peering at Atienna through her glasses as if evaluating her, “you are my advisor for Aquarius, are you not? So please do advise us on the way.”

Atienna bowed her head and—after they gathered what they could carry from the v-ehicle—started them along the path north.

It was a strange sensation—feeling the heat from her extraneous movements piling up inside her chest yet feeling the biting cold whip at her cheeks and limbs. Despite her sweating, she knew that the moment she pulled her hood down, she’d be bitten senseless by the whipping winds.

She glanced up when she noticed white specs floating down from the gray sky. More snowflakes.

She had never seen snow before. Not even from Werner’s or Maria’s side. It seemed as if their memories of such things had yet to make their way down to her. For this reason, she found this detour rather lovely.

It was a bit surreal. The quietness. The expanse of white. She imagined herself lying flat on the snow and staring up at the sky as they walked on. Absolute stillness. A spec in the middle of everything. Peaceful. The insignificance of herself if she were in that moment—comforting.

“How. Do. Aquarians,” Sefu panted suddenly from in front of her, each step making his voice breathier than the last. “Live. Like. This.”

Atienna chuckled. “Is it really that awful, Sefu?” She extended a mittened hand to catch one of the snowflakes and inspect its intricacies before it began to melt with her breath. “Was it not you who said there is beauty in everything when you requested that we stop by that Aquarian customized conductor store?”

“It was an exaggeration,” Sefu said, teeth clacking.

Atienna hummed. Sefu might think it awful, but to her it was—

“A-absolutely astounding!”

Atienna tensed and turned her head in the direction of the exclamation. Sefu whipped out his spear conductor as did Kabal. Atienna exchanged a look with Chiamaka before Chiamaka signaled for the men to lower their weapons.

“Hello?” Atienna tentatively called out as she advanced towards the direction the sound had come from—a mound of snow that rose up in-between a cluster of pine trees alongside the road.

“Bonjour!” came a muffled voice from within the mound. “Who’s there?”

Atienna stared for a moment before she rushed forward and began digging at the snow pile. She was soon joined by Sefu and Kabal, and she stepped back in order to allow them to pick at the snow with the butt of their conductors. Slowly they began chipping away at the whiteness layer-by-layer until the petite face of a young woman with caramel brown eyes and wispy pale blonde hair frozen to her cheeks became revealed to them.

After blinking away the snow clinging to her long lashes, the woman looked at Sefu, then at Kabal, and then directly at Atienna. She did not appear to be very alarmed by her predicament, beaming at them as she spoke, “Oh, hello there! Are you tourists too? Here to see the infamous Tonkaya Liniya Lights or maybe the Zatmeniye caverns?”

Sefu and Kabal exchanged looks, obviously hesitant to continue their unburial.

“Are… are you okay?” Atienna tried.

“Oh, I’m spectacular!” the woman exclaimed. “This Aquarian rejuvenating technique is really something else. You should try it. It’s supposed to do wonders for your skin!”

Atienna took a moment to digest this information before she smiled gently. “Ah, yes, I’ve heard very good things about those techniques. Although I’ve also heard that it’s recommended that a person only submerges themselves in the cold for fifteen-minute increments. Is this perhaps a new method?”

“Well, yes, fifteen minutes would rejuvenate you, so if you bury yourself for an even longer amount of time it will extra rejuvenate you,” the woman said matter-of-factually, her Cancerian accent coming out in her Common. “I have heard that if you do this often enough, you can practically look young forever!” The woman tried to nod in affirmation, but the snow packed around her head acted as a cage.

Sefu crossed his arms over his conductor. “Well, eternally young in death maybe—”

The blonde woman’s delicate brows rose, and her eyes darted from left to right. “D-Death? W-Why are you saying death? This isn’t dangerous, is it?” Before anyone could respond, the woman began to wiggle in place. The snow packed around her pulsated and cracked.

“Wait—”

The Cancerian woman burst out from the snow pile in a flurry of white and landed on top of Atienna in a tangle of limbs and a bundle of fur.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that!” the woman exclaimed as she pried herself off Atienna and helped pull her up to a stand. Before Atienna could get another word in, however, the woman began to walk around her in circles. “Your clothing is so pretty! Where did you get that from? Is it Aquarian?”

Atienna smiled pleasantly. “It’s Virgoan silk. But I have to say, your clothing is just as marvel worthy as mine.”

The woman was bundled up head to toe in numerous fur accessories. A black Aquarian ushanka topped her head, and several leather fur-lined coats of numerous shades were thrown over her shoulders. Beneath it all, she wore a pair of bright red leather boots that hugged her legs all the way up to her knees.

“Thank you! I—” The odd woman abruptly snapped her mouth shut and pulled back. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been so rude.” She put a hand to her cheek before extending it out to Atienna. “My name Louise Beaumont. I’m a tourist from Cancer.”

Atienna accepted the gesture, more amused than confused. “Atienna Imamu. I’m an advisor from Virgo.”

“An advisor?” Louise studied her for a moment. “You must have loads of knowledge then. Could you possibly spare me some advice?”

It took a moment for Atienna to realize what Louise had misunderstood.

“Here is some advice, miss,” Sefu said from behind her. “It is dangerous for someone to be trekking here by themselves.”

“Oh, I’m not by myself. I am never alone,” Louise responded, before digging into the folds of her coats and pulling out two perfectly round red apples. “When you have food, you’re never alone!”

What an… interesting perspective, Atienna mused.

A screws-loose perspective.

Chiamaka and Kabal regarded the Cancerian with expressions that seemed to coincide with the previous line of thought. Sefu, on the other hand, was salivating. Louise noticed him and offered an apple to Sefu without a thought. Also without a thought, Sefu accepted it graciously.

“But now that you mention it…” Louise trailed off as she watched Sefu devour the apple in two large bites. “I think I am a bit lost. It’s just that I keep seeing all of these wonderful things and—oh, well—getting distracted.” She looked around. “I swear just a minute ago I was near the city…”

Chiamaka spoke suddenly from behind them, “We’re headed to Vlatgrad. It’s a nearby village. They do speak Common, so I’m sure they’ll be able to point you in whatever direction you’re looking for.”

Louise glanced past Atienna, stared at Chiamaka, and then brightened. “Are you sure? Would you be so kind?”

“Accompanying us would make both of our journeys more bearable, don’t you think?” Atienna offered.

***

They continued their trek onwards, their group having increased from four to five. The snow that had been sprinkling down lightly from the sky at the beginning of the day began to pelt harder as they continued further. The white coldness crept upon them slowly and soon they were consumed by the flurry. The howling winds and whips of icey hail and snow that burst out from nowhere made it impossible for Atienna to see more than a meter in front of her face.

Atienna quickly advised for them to walk forward holding hands in a chain in order to not lose sight of one another. Through the storm they continued on, gripping each other like lifelines, with Bachiru at the head and Kabal at the tail. Atienna herself was sandwiched in between Chiamaka and Louise.

“I see something!” Sefu shouted after what had seemed like an eternity. “It looks like a cave! We could take refuge!”

“I’ve never been in a cave before!” Louise exclaimed.

Atienna turned her head to find Louise smiling steadily behind her. She faced forward again and found Chiamaka frowning backwards. After offering Chiamaka a smile of reassurance she doubted the woman could see, Atienna squinted past her and into the storm.

A mouth of blackness loomed like a monolith in front of them. It was so large and towering that Atienna couldn’t help but imagine that it was the mouth of a giant waiting to swallow them up. The icicles that lined the ceiling of the cave and the ground floor almost resembled jagged teeth.

As soon as they stepped within the vicinity of the cave, the howling deafened and became replaced by the echoing tap, tap of their footsteps. The cold left them as well, and Atienna was able to peel down her hood to inspect the cave further. Large ice stalactites hung low from the ceiling with some even extending all the way to the ground. Ice draperies crisscrossed in between them, while below them grew pale bluish-white stalagmites. The back of the cave was pitch black and seemed to extend forever into emptiness.

But, there was light. In the far-left corner of the cave behind a cluster of flowstone and stalagmites glowed orange warmth. Atienna and her group exchanged looks before they rounded the cluster of stone structures to investigate.

A fire crackled there just behind the rock formations. And huddling around that fire was a party of eight people.

It wasn’t one large party—Atienna realized this upon closer inspection. Rather, it was a collection of smaller groups that were distinguishable from one another by their members’ clothing. There were two groups total.

The first consisted of three women and two men dressed in fur coats and fur caps. The firelight made their pale skin glow white and gave their angular faces an accented look. Aquarians.

The second group consisted of two women and one man who were all draped in thick, leather hooded cloaks. Their sun-kissed cheeks were an almost frost-bitten red, and their bare forearms were inked with dark, swirling tattoos. Piscese.

Oh? What a strange coincidence.

“It can’t be—are you the diplomats from Virgo?” one of the fur coat-wearing women murmured.

Chiamaka stepped forward and pulled down the scarf obscuring her mouth. “I am Chiamaka of the Maneo Tribe of Virgo. I am here for the southeastern tripartite meeting.”

“This must be fate,” one of the women dressed in the thick leather cloaks said in lightly-accented Common as she lowered her hood. Her dark curls popped out from beneath it and framed her round cheeks that were marked with black ink. She closed the distance between their two groups. “I am Moana of Pisces. I am the diplomat here to discuss improving relations between our countries.” She gestured to the man and then to the woman behind her who were also dressed in thick leather cloaks. “With me are my advisors Kalama and my guard Afu.” She then extended her hand out to Chiamaka. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Chiamaka accepted the handshake firmly. “And I you, Moana.”

One of the Aquarian men dressed in fur coats stepped forward, removing his gloves and extending a hand in Chiamaka’s direction. He had gunmetal blue eyes, a narrow nose, and wispy hair curling out from his hat. His fur coat was a vibrant blue color that served as a startling contrast to the dull brown coats of his Aquarian companions.

“I am Alexei Andrei,” the man said in Common, and there was barely an accent in his words. “I’m the diplomat representing Aquarius. I thought that this storm would put off our meeting, but it looks like it’s brought our meeting to an earlier time instead.” He chuckled good-nature day.

Another man wearing a fur coat joined Alexei’s side, whipped off his fur hat, and dusted it before nodding curtly at them. He was a head or so taller than Alexei, and his gaze was rather unfriendly.

“You’re…” Atienna trailed off as she registered his features.

Nikita Knovak. The Aquarian sergeant whom Werner had captured along the Aquarian-Capricornian border four months prior. So he was still alive.

Knovak arched a brow. “Yes? I am Nikita Knovak. Sergeant. Just here to make sure no harm for Yulia or Alexei. Nice to meet you.” He remained stiff, did not offer a hand nor inclined his head.

Yulia?

The three women of the Aquarian group stepped forward next.

One of them stood as tall as Knovak and had almost skeleton-like features: high arched brows, high cheekbones, and a high nose. “I am Yulia Kriska. I am Alexei’s secretary and will be recording everything that will be spoken at the meeting.” Her voice was razor-sharp, nasally, and her words—

—well, they almost sounded like a threat. Atienna supposed that words could be a reasonable weapon of choice. Words were powerful, after all—and even more powerful when one used another’s own words against them. A secretary was quite a terrifying thing in that perspective.

“I am Alexei’s advisor.” The woman who stood to Yulia’s left smiled gently as she introduced herself. Even though most of her features were obscured by her fur clothing, Atienna could tell that she was quite beautiful. The black curls that popped out from her fur cap framed her pale face, and the bright red lipstick she wore brought out the fullness of her lips. Atienna couldn’t help but think that something about this woman reminded her of Cadence’s Alma. “My name is Cvetka Akulova. ”

Their eyes met and Atienna offered her a small smile. Cvetka returned the gesture and lowered her gaze.

“Sigurd,” the last Aquarian woman introduced herself. “Yulia and Cvetka’s guard also.”

Sigurd was the shortest one in the entire Aquarian group—although she was still taller than any in the Piscese group—and was also the only one in the Aquarian group who was not wearing a fur cap. Her light blonde hair was tied up into a bun, her eyes an ice blue, and her nose hooked and prominent.

“Oh, don’t undersell yourself, Sigurd,” Alexei said with a light chuckle. “Sigurd here is from one of Aquarius’s special administrative regions. They operate under us, albeit a bit independently, so you’re in for a rare treat. She was born and raised in one of the mountainous tribes…. Which mountain was it? Valdol?”

“Valholl,” Sigurd corrected flatly.

There was tension there. How unpleasant.

“Could it be that you’re from the Valkyrja Tribe?” Atienna interjected with a polite smile. “That is the main tribe that resides in the Valholl mountain rage, right?”

“Yes, I am from the Valkyrja Tribe,” Sigurd answered. She studied Atienna for a moment before crossing her arms and looking away. “That is my home.”

“T-That’s impressive,” Cvetka said after a beat, biting her red lips and tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear. “Not a lot of people know about our native special administrative territories. And when they do, they tend to only pay attention to our seaside ones.”

“Thank you for the compliment, but I honestly only know about that because I am serving as Miss Chiamaka’s advisor,” Atienna explained genially. “I’m Atienna Imamu.”

“Oh, I see.” Cvetka smiled with her eyes. “Well, I hope we can learn a lot from each other then.”

Sefu and Kabal introduced themselves next, and with that the formalities concluded.

“Well, I hope you’ve all brought sleeping bags,” Alexei said good-naturedly after a beat of silence. “The storms in this region can last for quite some time.” He glanced at Chiamaka. “And by any chance, would you have brought any food—”

“It’s all right! There’s no need to worry about the food!” Louise pipped suddenly from behind Atienna.

Everyone turned to stare at her.

Unperturbed, Louise reached into the folds of her coat and pulled out a bag of what appeared to be oats with her left hand and a bag of apples with her right hand. “I’m always prepared for situations like these! That’s what extreme tourism is all about!”

“And who is this?” Yulia asked plainly.

“She is a Cancerian tourist,” Chiamaka explained. “We found her wandering around these parts and offered to guide her to the nearest village. Unfortunately, it appears that we’ve led her more astray than anything else.”

“Nonsense.” Alexei waved a dismissive hand. “These storms make even the most coldblooded in our country lose their heads.” He gestured to all of them. “Besides, this has worked out quite well. Call me a foolish optimist but I find this storm more a blessing than a curse—now, would one of you happen to know how to cook?”

***

That night dinner was a sweet porridge of oats, fruits, and nuts.

It was rather startling to see how much food Louise was able to carry inside of her coats. Atienna couldn’t help but think that the woman had magical, bottomless pockets. In fact, Sefu had started looking at Louise rather reverently—almost as if she were some mystical creature not of this earth. Regardless of Sefu’s admiration, however, he still taste-tested everything Atienna ate. Kabal, witnessing Sefu’s behavior, mimicked it in regard to Chiamaka’s food.

“No,” Atienna heard Cvetka whisper to Alexei, “it is not tradition.”

When dinner was over, Yulia, Chiamaka, and Moana checked out early for the night after formal plans were made by the diplomats to initiate the beginnings of negotiations the following morning. Knovak, Kabal, and Afu held to their duties as guards responsibly and followed on after them. This left Alexei, Cvetka, Sigurd, Kalama, Louise, Sefu, and Atienna to speak amongst themselves. They were using the rock formations that grew around the fire as makeshift seats, and the atmosphere felt more like that of a friendly dinner party than anything else.

They spoke mostly about themselves. Nothing of politics.

A relief, came an intrusive thought.

Alexei started the autobiographical conversation by informing them that he had grown up in a rather impoverished region of Aquarius. Although he received food rations from the government at the time, the Reservoir War had brought with it constant shortages so the rations shrank every week. He received a shining opportunity when the war ended, and the government began seeking out individuals with a strong background in foreign relations and social sciences moving forward—which just so happened to be his area of study when he’d been in school.

He received an admirable “wow, amazing!” from Louise who then explained that she was an extreme tourist who was seeking all the world’s wonders. She listed off all the places she’d been to before which left Atienna feeling rather dizzy, impressed, and wistful.

The Piscese advisor Kalama chattered her way through her origin story but only managed to get halfway through it before she flushed profusely and apologized for stuttering, chattering, and stammering. Alexei offered her his thick fur coat and cap with words of reassurance, and she accepted both graciously.

‘A charming man,’ an outsider would think. But this too was a formality, wasn’t it? The kindness, the generosity. If circumstances were different, if this were not a meeting of diplomacy, would he be so generous? Whether that was right or wrong was up to perspective still.

Atienna refrained from speaking about herself and merely kept to the background. Sigurd kept her history confidential as well, although Louise’s persistence made her divulge that she was an Elementalist Conductor.

“How long do you think this storm will last?” Sefu asked after a pause of silence.

“Maybe several days,” Sigurd answered. “When they come without warning, they last for a longer time.”

Atienna saw Sefu smile slightly out of the corner of her eye. Ah, could it be that Sefu saw this as a vacation of sorts?

Many productive things could be completed within that time frame.

Atienna pondered this thought before politely excusing herself to the restroom.

Instead of heading to the area they had designated as the bathroom, however, Atienna strayed further into the back of the cave. It wasn’t on a whim that she did it, really. Part of her had been thinking about peeling away from the dinner group during the entire discussion. Avoidance, discomfort, exhaustion—perhaps, a mixture of all three. One step forward and another step backward. A dance to some, lack of progress to others. Hm.

Atienna sighed and glanced behind her in the direction of their campfire. While its glow hurt her eyes even from this distance, its warmth did not reach her. Shivering, Atienna considered heading back. But then something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Something on the cavern walls.

Atienna froze and stared.

For a moment, she thought it was the opening to a passageway that was on the wall—it was rectangular, black, and just the right size for someone to slip through. The discordance of the sight threw her in for a loop. Upon closer inspection, however, Atienna came to realize that it was a painting. A painting of a rectangular-shaped passageway done in black.

How interesting.

Atienna approached the wall slowly, extending a hand out to touch its surface. She recalled reading about these things somewhere, although she couldn’t quite remember where.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Atienna startled and turned. It was Cvetka, the Aquarian advisor. The woman was quietly inspecting the dark painting on the wall a meter or so away from her. Curious—Atienna hadn’t even noticed her.

Atienna hummed and tapped her cheek. “Yes, I’ve read that these paintings are very common in the caves of Aquarius. They date back to before Signum was split into thirteen countries, right? Wonderfully mysterious, don’t you think?”

“I see that you really do know everything,” Cvetka said after a pause.

Atienna lowered her hand, looking away. “Oh, I wish I did.”

“Really?” Cvetka reached out and traced the edge of the painted door. “I think not knowing is the best thing in the world.”

“That’s an interesting viewpoint for an advisor,” Atienna noted with a smile. “Unless you are referring to surprises.”

“Oh?” Cvetka glanced at Atienna before she chuckled lightly. “You are quite the teaser,” she said. “But I’m talking about ignorance. What is that Common saying? It escapes me…”

“Ignorance is bliss?”

“Yes.” Cvetka pulled away from the wall. “Well, ‘ignorance avoids disappointment’ is a better way to say it, I think. It’d be nice if we could live in a world where we could ignore everyone outside of us. It’d be peaceful. But that’s not possible—they say human beings are social creatures—so I guess that’s what diplomacy is for.” Pausing, she flushed and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Sorry, sometimes I talk without really knowing what I’m saying…”

Atienna wondered about both things—the former monologue and the latter statement. A line of thought akin to Atienna’s own. How unpleasant…

“You’re very well-spoken for not knowing what you are saying,” Atienna drew with a soft chuckle, “but speaking of avoidance, is it possible that we came here for the same reason?”

Cvetka flushed deeper. “Guilty as charged…”

“It is a lot—meeting everyone at once…” Atienna glanced back to the glow of their camp and then whispered quietly, “I don’t think I remember half of their names…”

“Oh—good—I thought I was the only one who had a hard time keeping up.” Cvetka sighed. “I’m just relieved that I’m not the only who thinks that way.” She wrapped her arms around her waist and offered a small smile. “Well, I’m going to try sneaking off to bed then.” She inclined her head. “It was nice speaking with you, Miss Imamu.”

Atienna bowed her head deeply in acknowledgment. “And I you, Miss Akulova.”

Atienna watched the woman go for a moment before turning her attention back to the cave painting. Why of all things would they paint this peculiar shape, she wondered. After a bit more wonder, she decided that she should get some rest too and headed back to the camp.

She found a spot for herself close to the fire beside a sleeping Chiamaka and a somewhat dozing Kabal who were both spread out on thick blankets. She reached into her satchel, pulled out a blanket of her own, and spread it across the ground.

So how are you doing, Werner? Atienna thought as she laid on her makeshift bed. I thought you’d unsynchronized after making that comment at dinner, but you’re still there, aren’t you?

“I apologize for intruding, Atienna,” came Werner’s voice from beside her. His image appeared before her standing. Their synchronization was strong enough for her to see that he was currently sitting in a train compartment. Bound for the Twin Cities. “It was not my intention.”

I don’t view it as an intrusion. It’s nice to have company you can speak to without putting up a front, don’t you think? Atienna returned. I enjoy our talks, Werner.

There was a pause.

They are informative. Another pause. And pleasant.

It looks as if things are picking up for all of us, don’t you think? Atienna thought. I’m worried for what’s happening on Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Olive’s end of things. And, of course, there’s you…

I’ve already warned Maria. Cadence will be fine if she doesn’t involve herself in things that she doesn’t need to be involved in.

—which Cadence normally did. Never taking risks unless a large enough benefit was involved. But that was just another way to live, Atienna supposed.

And Olive? Atienna pondered.

He is skirting responsibility.

His intentions were well-meaning Werner, Atienna tried. He just wanted help, and he probably did what he thought was best. And… how should I say this… Olive isn’t very… combat pragmatic, so perhaps his decision was…

Intentions are intangible, Werner answered. Actions are. He seemed to sigh internally but his expression remained stolid. I’m not blind to the fact that his split-second decision-making was commendable. He did not freeze. As for the retreat… I must admit it was the proper course of action for him logically. Regardless.

So, perhaps all Werner wanted was an apology regarding the override? It was a bit of a childish wish, and Atienna could not help but smile slightly at the thought of it. It humanized him a bit.

Well, at least in all of this you were able to get a vacation from the front.

“It is not a vacation,” Werner insisted coolly, glancing into the flickering flames of the fire.

Atienna covered her smile with her hand but knew Werner had seen it already.

“If you’re going to rest, I advise you to insulate yourself better,” Werner said, turning away from her. “Many people have died in their sleep from cold exposure.”

“Hypothermia, paradoxical undressing, and cardiac arrest,” Atienna whispered. “The world is quite a frightening place, Werner. And that’s without people.”

Werner turned back to her, unsurprised. “That is correct.”

Atienna reached into her satchel and pulled out another bundle of blankets. She spied that envelope inside as well but averted her eyes from it. Instead, she buried herself in a makeshift fort of blankets and let out a sigh before she closed her eyes.

Good night, Werner.

There was a long beat of silence.

“Good night, Atienna.”

***

When Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill the next day, the first thing she noticed was that the ground was wet—so wet that her makeshift bed was crusted with the cold ice. There was a steady drip, drip, drip from somewhere. Perhaps, one of the ice formations that draped across the cave ceiling was melting. That was Atienna’s first thought.

But then she smelled iron. It was a familiar scent. And as she struggled into consciousness in the cold, she half-dreamt for a moment that she was back in the Night Circle. In the ring, standing against another opponent, fingers itching for more. Adrenaline shot through her veins, and she snapped up in her bed.

The dimming embers of the fire glowed before her and informed her of her reality. She shivered, rubbing her arms, and then went rigid. There was a red substance soaked into her blankets, leaking in from a stream of red that led to a puddle of red to her left.

Atienna turned her head slowly as she continued to follow the trail of crimson and then she felt her breath hitch.

Kalama, the Piscese advisor, laid beside her still bundled up in Alexei’s bright blue fur coat. Her eyes were wide, her lips blue, her skin an unnatural shade of ash. At the center of her chest—at the center of all that blur dyed fur—was a crystalline formation of red that erupted like a flower from the center of her chest.

Aquarius is a large southeastern country in Signum. It is, in fact, the largest country of Signum and is home to several specially governed semi-independent states categorized as either mountainous tribes or seaside tribes. Due to its large size, it also hosts the greatest number of vitae reservoirs out of all of Signum. Although the area around such vitae reservoirs experience high-levels of almost eutrophic growth, Aquarius itself is a cold country holding a record-breaking temperature of -26 degrees Celsius on  January 3rd, 1921. Its southeastern beaches are considered tourist attractions. 

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

7.4: Maria’s Hunt (Cacciatore)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured.

Four months ago, Maria raided a cargo ship belonging to a sailor named Morandi. Onboard that ship, she found a golden woman in a packing container. Calling herself Oros, the woman sowed unrest  on Maria’s ship and eventually inspired a mutiny. Only Morandi and his crew, Maria’s childhood friend Conta, the Monadic priest Simon, the engineer Emmanuel, and the chef Raul remained by Maria’s side. After removing the traitors under the guise of the Golden Beast, Maria confronted Oros and found out that she was, in fact, the missing peacekeeping agent Leona. Leona informed Maria that she was a ‘True Conductor’ before claiming to spare Maria’s life…

Now, Maria sets off to Pisces to pick up a package for the Campana Family of the Twin Cities.

Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Piscese Waters

When Maria opened her eyes, she found that moonlight was still spilling in through her window and that her entire ship sounded as if it were still asleep. Only the creaks and groans of the wooden floorboards as the ship tilted back and forth, and the occasional tap of the waves against the side of the ship. 

Strange. 

Maria stared up past the streak of silver moonlight that cut through the darkness and squinted up at the ceiling in thought. It had been quite some time since she had awoken in the middle of the night. She usually slept into the early morning and liked to be awakened by chef Raul’s shouts of “breakfast is ready!” as he’d bang his ladle against his pot. 

Annoying was always Ollie’s thought on that. 

Shrugging the oddity off, she swung herself off of her hammock and approached the circular window built beside the pole that hosted her dangling prized possessions. She flicked a medal that hung from a nail and then peered through the window.

The moonlight made the black sea glow white. The moon itself was hanging low near where the sky met the sea—so low that Maria was sure she could reach out and pluck it from the air. She absentmindedly glanced at the exterior side of her ship through the porthole and paused.

There was something there. Pressed right up against the side of her ship. She peered closer and came to vaguely recognize the shadowy shape of what appeared to be a smaller ship roped to her own. It was a tiny thing that was probably only able to hold five men, or two horses, or maybe even the great bell of the Monadic orphanage she’d grown up in.

Maria hummed. “Isn’t that the opposite of the usual thing?” She attempted to lean a bit closer to get a better look but found herself unable to because the window was suddenly reflecting back her face. Her curious expression appeared there, illuminated by a deep lime green light from behind. The light also illuminated the face of the one who stood behind her. Those eyes that glowed there on that face were filed with an intent Maria was quite familiar with—the intent to kill. 

Without skipping a beat, Maria spun around and threw out her foot knocking the Projector’s vitae blade right out from their hands. The conductor landed somewhere in the darkness, and the Projector made for it. Maria, however, rushed forward, grabbed the Projector, and threw him across the room. He flipped through the air and crashed into the pole hosting all of her favorite treasures before sliding to the ground. The medal dangling from the hammered nail fell down onto his body. 

Maria plucked her sword from where it rested beside her door frame and pulled it out of its sheath. She drifted to the Projector as he stirred and with a flick of her wrist she picked the medal up with the tip of her blade and tossed it into her hand. The Projector lunged forward in that instant, and she threw her blade out again where it slipped into their mouth. The Projector froze immediately, eyes wide. 

“I have many friends who are Conductors, you see. And I have been putting much thought into whether I should become one too, my dear.”

She pressed the edge of the blade forward and leaned it a bit towards the corner of the Projector’s mouth. The Projector followed the push of her blade to the best of his abilities, but blood still began to dribble from his mouth. 

“But I think using something like this is much more cool, yes?”

Maria pressed the sword further with a thin smile. 

A shout of alarm echoed from above deck, however, halted Maria from the execution. She pulled the blade out from its human scabbard and then smacked the intruder at the temple with the butt of her blade. She did not wait to see them him against the floor, instead charging through her bedroom door and out into the hall. 

Shadows were floundering around in the darkness. Bodies on top of bodies. Flashes of light—conductors. 

Maria whistled down the hall, pulling bodies off of bodies, slashing bodies with blade, slicing hands wielding conductors with fluid ease. She broke up through the stairwell and onto the deck and was welcomed by a wonderfully chaotic scene. 

A flurry of swinging fists—even a swinging wooden plank being used as a makeshift weapon. Occasionally, there would be a burst of light and a shout. 

Maria slipped through the crowded deck, sliding her foot underneath legs and her blade into bodies with graceful ease. Her current crew compared to her previous one four months ago was a bit lacking in the combat arena. She had only picked up a handful of additional members since the incident with Leona, and so a large portion of her ship consisted of just Morandi and his men who were still sailors at heart. What they lacked in physical prowess, however, they made up for in steely determination.

More fun for herself, Maria supposed as she plucked one of the invaders off of the former sailor Giorgio who was fending off two knife-wielding attackers with a broom. She disarmed them with a swish and flick of her blade and used their weapons to pin them to the side of the ship by stabbing right through their hands. 

She spotted another invader on top of Raul—the chef onboard the ship—who was scrambling away on all fours. Maria quickly dispatched the invader by grabbing him by the scruff and tossing him over the side of the ship. There was a loud splash and then a beat of silence and then—

“There she is!” came a shout from one of the invaders across the ship who pointed what appeared to be a conducting rifle in her direction. 

A blast of light shot out from the nose from the rifle, but Maria had already ducked low in anticipation of the attack and rushed beneath it. She closed the distance between herself and the Projector and swung her blade up in an arc. There was a splatter of red, and the Projector let out a wail as he stumbled backward cradling his what remained of his fingers

“Captain!” came a shout from behind.  

Maria whipped around just in time to see someone leap at her from the railings beside her. Her attacker was, however, abruptly tackled to the side by a woman whose face was concealed by a dull magenta scarf and shawl. The woman quickly flipped the invader over her shoulder and knocked them unconscious by slamming their face into the wooden floorboards.

Maria turned away from the scene and locked eyes with the final target of her hunt—a tall and thin man standing at the center of her ship. He was wielding a normal pistol which he held to the head of a young woman with mousy brown hair. Conta. He was whispering something in her ear, and her expression darkened as his words continued. 

Tossing her blade to the side, Maria charged at the man full force. The man startled in response and whipped his pistol in her direction. Maria couldn’t help but laugh at this, reaching for a knife that hung on the belt of a woman she rushed past. 

Just as the man’s finger pressed down on the trigger, Maria swung the knife up in a circle effectively separating the man’s fingers from his hands. He released the weapon immediately but then reached for something at his belt with his still usable hand. 

Maria took the opportunity to rip Conta from the man’s hold and then stabbed the knife into the side of his leg. She swept her legs beneath him, grabbed his arm as he fell, and then flung him off the ship in one swooping motion.

After listening in for the telling splash, Maria dusted her hands, twirled around, and inspected Conta who had fallen onto the floor during the entire dance. 

“Ay, Conta,” Maria said, offering her an extended hand, “you always find yourself in these situations, yes? At least we didn’t have to go for a swim this time!”

Conta wordlessly picked herself off the ground and brushed herself off. Maria retracted her hand with a slightly cocked head. 

A thunder of footsteps resounded behind Maria before she could say anything more. When she turned, she found a panting Morandi and a panting Simon standing behind her. Morandi was covered in blood, but Maria assumed it belonged to the man who had been on top of him in the dimly lit hallway—the man whom she’d lacerated with her blade. 

“Are you alright, Captain?” Simon pressed, placing a tender hand to his heart. 

“Look at the smile,” Morandi sighed from beside him. “Of course she’s all right.” He dug into his pocket and handed something to her. A wad of paper. “It’s them again.”

Maria uncrumpled it and stared at the thing for a long and hard minute. And then she chuckled. “Only 750,000 common coins? That’s only a little more than last time, no? Say, my dears, is that a lot or a little for a person?”

Printed on the paper she held in her hands was an image of her face and below that her name and below that a name—WANTED. 

“Captain, that’s more than I’ll ever make in my lifetime,” Morandi said pointedly. “And this is the tenth time that this has happened this week. This is getting ridiculous. My men and I have to practically sleep with one eye open.”

“I sleep with a knife by my side, Captain,” one of Morandi’s former crew members, Giorgio, responded. “Er—I mean—Mr. Morandi.” 

“You can call him captain, Giorgio,” Maria chuckled and then hummed. “As long as I’m first Captain.”

Morandi grimaced. “That’ll just confuse people, Captain, although I do appreciate the gesture.”

“Nonsense!” Maria rebutted. “In Capricorn, they have things like First Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant! Do you mean to tell me you do not miss the cool title?”

“I don’t tend to think about it anymore, Captain,” Morandi responded. 

“If you say so, my dear.” Maria turned her attention back to the paper. “I wonder why there’s a bounty on my head…”

“Plundering. Stealing. Arson. Assault,” Morandi began. He gestured to the men and women scattered around the floor. “I heard one of them address another familiarly. They may be all from the same group—the same one as before. These bounty hunters.”

For a moment, Maria thought she could hear Olive listing those things along with Morandi. Olive always seemed to dislike it when she’d engage in these types of things for whatever reason. He was not fond of it at all, and she could always feel him flinching whenever she engaged in combat while they were synchronized. 

“It’s called valuing human life,” he’d grumble. “You should try it sometime.” 

It wasn’t as if she didn’t, so she didn’t understand his point. 

It would be fun though, she thought, for this crew to meet that crew. Chuckling at the idea, she turned to Conta who was standing silently. She pointed to her own face and held up the wanted poster. “Say, Conta, do you think that this picture looks like me?”

Conta stared at her for a long moment, before she replied flatly, “I wouldn’t know, Captain.” With that, she turned on her heels and disappeared below deck. 

Maria stared after her with a slight frown. “Is she still upset…?”

Simon placed a hand on her shoulder. “Just give her time, Captain. She’ll come out of it eventually.” 

“Each time they bring more people and each time the bounty ends up being higher,” Morandi grumbled from behind her. He glanced at Maria when she turned to look at him.  “I couldn’t help but wonder if this is related to our current package we’re to pick up from Pisces.”

“Why would that be when my face is the one on the posters?” Maria inquired. “Is it that you are bothered by us taking this job from the Campanas? I know you used to work for the Foxmans, and they do not like the Campanas, yes? And you dislike them just because the Foxmans dislike them?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand the complexities of the Twin Cities,” Morandi said, not unkindly. “There’s a certain level of loyalty required, but at the same time discrepancy is accepted.” He crossed his arms, paused, and then arched a brow at her. “How did you know the Campanas and the Foxmans had ill blood? I didn’t think you were one to pay attention to matters like that.”

Maria thought about Cadence’s meeting with the Foxmans and the Romanos that had occurred just the other day. While she had not been synchronized strongly with Cadence at the time, the memory of it had trickled down to her in her sleep as most of their memories tended to do. When Maria inquired about the debacle the next day, Cadence had waved it off as small family drama. Maria didn’t quite understand why people did not speak their honest thoughts; and when Maria asked Cadence this, the Geminian just laughed loudly. 

“It came to me in a dream,” Maria finally said. “But all right, Morandi, if you feel so strongly about it then we will no longer accept offers from the Campanas after this. Even if it is the most exciting offer in all existence,” she exclaimed, bowing low and placing a hand over her heart, “I swear to you that we will not accept it.”

“…Really?”

Maria popped up from her bow. “Of course, my dear. I am no liar and I never break promises. I don’t really understand it fully… but if you don’t like working with the Campanas because Francis, Allen, and Carl hate them, then this will be the one and only time.  At least while you and your crew are onboard, yes? I like to keep things that are mine happy. Is that such a strange thing?”

Morandi regarded her with an unreadable expression. 

“Besides, a friend of mine also doesn’t like them, although she lies about that for some reason, so it’s like that, yes?”

“A friend of yours?” Simon inquired from where he’d been watching the exchange beside them. 

“A lovely friend!” Instead of elaborating any further, Maria clapped her hands loudly and addressed Morandi: “Well, since all of the excitement is over, could you tell the others to tie all of our visitors up and throw them back onto their ship? Let’s send them on their merry way!” 

Morandi’s men grumbled a bit before he gave them a wave of dismissal and joined them in the task of gathering the bodies.

Maria watched them go before she turned on her heels and registered the magenta scarf-wearing woman kneeling on the floor behind her. The woman was busily tying up one of the intruders with some rope she seemed to have procured from nowhere. Maria approached her and dropped down to a crouch to watch her work. The woman arched a brow at Maria before giving either a grunt, a chuckle, or a yawn, and continued on with her work.

“Hey, Ley, yes?” Maria asked. “Those were some pretty amazing-looking maneuvers you did there, my friend! Where did you say you were from again?” 

Ley had been introduced to Maria through the Foxman brothers. She was a very mysterious person, always keeping her face hidden by a scarf and always covering her head with a shawl. She did not speak much but when she did, she always said something entertaining. 

“To these people here,” Ley said, tapping one of the unconscious perpetrators with her foot, “I’m from their worst nightmare.”

Maria chuckled. “That is pretty funny. That is what people usually say about me!”

“They might die, you know. Most of them are injured. If they don’t die of blood loss, they’ll die from hypothermia,” Ley said, nodding to the side of the ship where Morandi’s men were throwing the bodies over the railings into the attached smaller ship below. “While they are criminals, isn’t that a bit cruel? 

Maria cocked her head and chuckled. “Well, I am already showing them enough mercy as it is, yes? And if they come back—well if you are worried—” She gestured to herself widely. “—I am strong, my dear, so I will protect you.”

Ley chuckled. “If you’re that powerful, then why not tie them and keep them on board? Drop them off to authorities when we get to land.”

“I don’t want anything on this ship to hurt or to take what is mine,” Maria said, and that was that. 

***

Pisces was one of Maria’s favorite countries to visit because it was filled with more colors and sounds than any other country she’d ever visited before. Within the borders of Pisces was an even more spectacular port town which—according to Atienna—topped the lists for the number one tourist attraction sites of Signum. 

The city town Hapaira.

It was commonly known in Common as the ‘town of sapphire’ but it was often referred to as the ‘town of hunters.’ The slogan was that “whatever you were looking for, you could find it here.” And Maria found that those words certainly rang true. 

Excitement was always around every corner. Each turn, a chase or a scene. Each encounter, a door opening to a new and exciting adventure. All sorts of people from all walks of life—those from within Signum and those from without—passed through here. 

Maria remembered the first time she came to the Piscese town almost as if it was yesterday— 

The deep blue sea had brightened to a cerulean hue as she had neared the docks that had been spotted with numerous colorful ships of all shapes and sizes. Piscese women and men had cheerfully greeted her arrival before she had even neared shore. They had swung by using surfboards and sailboards and had climbed onboard bringing with them small, tourist-like trinkets like hand-carved pendants and seashell bracelets. Some even performed small water tricks.

Using conductors, the Piscese Elementalists had dipped their hands into seawater and had made the liquid twist into all sorts of shapes—birds, squares, circles, flowers. Then came the festivities. The night of their arrival so happened to be the night of an annual Piscese summer festival. There was chanting, singing, and dancing—all around a large bonfire fueled at the meeting point of sea and land. In the firelight, the darkly inked tattoos of the Piscese seemed to come alive on their skins—dancing, twisting, telling stories.

That night occurred only a week or so after she’d been taken from the Monadic orphanage. And it had certainly been a night to remember. 

And so, on the morning of the day they were to arrive at Pisces, Maria called all members of her ship onto the deck. It was barely dawn so most of them stumbled around groaning and yawning and grumbling. 

“We’ve been here before,” Giorgio grumbled. “It’s not anything new, Captain.” 

“But not with this ship, these people, and this atmosphere!” Maria had rebutted. 

The protests silenced when Raul brought them a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, chorizo, and coffee. Soon the entire crew was contentedly sipping from warm cups with full stomachs and looking out towards their destination. They weren’t able to see anything, however, since the horizon was veiled by a thin layer of mist, but Maria thought that just added to the excitement. 

Maria tried to reach out to the other five to show them the beauty as well but only managed to get Werner and Cadence synchronized with her. 

Werner appeared to be riding on a v-train of some sort, and Cadence seemed to be sitting by herself in an empty, white hallway that smelled a little bit like alcohol. They seemed like they certainly needed some cheering up. 

Maria drew near to the railings of the starboard port of the ship so they could all get a better look at the sea line. Neither of the two spoke. 

Maria glanced over her shoulder and smiled as she registered Conta standing there. “Do you remember, Conta? Right after the orphanage, they took us here, yes? The pirates.”

Conta stiffened at the address but then replied just as flatly as before: “Yes, Captain, I remember.”

“It’s not like you to reminisce, Captain,” Simon said as he joined them, coffee mug in hand. “Although I understand why. The town is really something else. It almost reminds me of home… the Monadic Temple.” 

With that, they all turned their attention forward just as the ship pulled through the misty veil revealing the city that glistened white on the blue horizon. But—

It was easy to see even from their distance the ruin.

The bay was littered by overturned ships, splintered pieces of wood, and metal cargo containers that jutted up like cliff faces from the seabed. In between all of these things lay fallen palm trees that bobbed up and down in the water and wooden crates that bounced back and forth in between them. The sandy white beaches in the distance were empty and strewn with fallen trees, and the docks looked desolate. 

Saints, that’s not good, Cadence thought with a grimace. What happened there?

“It must have been a storm,” Morandi said from behind Maria as he neared the railings. 

Captain Gloria-Fernandez, came Werner’s gravity. You should be cautious. Just because a storm has passed doesn’t mean the danger has passed. 

“Ay, your worry too much, Lieutenant,” Maria chimed, ignoring the look of confusion Morandi gave her. 

You worry too little, Werner returned before fading from her vision along with Cadence. 

***

It was quiet as they pulled in. Navigating around the wreckage was an exciting event for Maria, although Morandi and Simon didn’t seem to share the same sentiment. Maria cheerfully consoled them all the while and safely docked her boat at the pier. Her voice carried across the waves and seemed to be swallowed up by the void of dead silence around them. 

“Something isn’t right here, Captain,” Morandi muttered under his breath, squinting up at the sky as he followed her off the ship onto the pier. “The seagulls are too quiet. The ocean is too calm.” His leather footsteps against the wood beneath them accentuated his words. 

“You are always saying how you want everything to be more calm and quiet,” Maria returned. “Is this not what you wanted? And, as you said, there was a storm. And—Raul? What are you doing?”

Raul the chef had followed them off of the ship. His sunburnt cheeks were clammy with sweat, and he was wringing his white chef’s hat in his hands. She’d never seen him without his hat before and was enamored by his blonde curls. 

Raul shook his head. “This place gives me the creeps, Captain. I’d feel much safer going with you.” 

Before Maria could even digest the statement, her attention was drawn to the handful of her crew members who had followed the chef off of the ship. Simon, Conta, Ley, and a handful of Morandi’s men including Giorgio were standing nonchalantly behind him. 

“We’re tired of staying on board,” said one. “Time to stretch the legs.”

“I want to sightsee,” said another. 

“I’m the one who knows the location of our package holder,” Simon provided, nonplussed.

“I’ve never been to Pisces before,” Ley explained with a yawn. 

“Emmanuel and some of the others will keep an eye on the ship,” Simon added, “so there’s no need to worry about that.”

Maria shrugged, not really concerned about the ship at all. 

They set off in a cluster. 

Simon tried his best to speak about the best the town had to offer as they walked along the pier, but eventually, he trailed off. The bright and colorful straw-roofed stalls that usually dotted the walkways along the pier were empty. The tent flaps of the barren stalls slapped noisily against the wind in the quiet. 

There was not a single person in sight.

As they drew near the lip of the town, Maria took in the familiar sights. Little shops and buildings—some with stuccoed roofs and others with straw roofs, some with wooden structures and others made of colorful limestone—dotted the red brick path before them. Many of the buildings had extended roofs that oversaw patios spotted with small tables and chairs. 

But once again there was not a single person in sight. 

“Hello!” Maria called out, cupping her hands. 

When Maria turned, she found a pale Morandi and even paler Raul standing behind her stiff as stone. The others who had come along with them were also rigid save for Conta and Ley who were both looking around curiously. 

“Captain, please refrain from doing that,” Morandi said. 

“How will people know we are here if I don’t shout?” 

“That’s not—”

“Aw, my dears, are you possibly frightened?” Maria asked cheerfully. “You all know you are safe with me.”

If there was a response, Maria did not hear it and continued into the town. The others followed quietly behind her.  

The deeper they went into the town, the more the silence became evident as the crashing of the waves onto the sandy beach faded away behind them. The buildings here were wooden and painted with bright vibrant shades of reds, blues, yellows, and even greens. They had open, glassless windows, and many had doorways that were covered only by colorful pieces of hanging leather tarp. 

Maria spied someone peering in through one of the windows of the buildings. She waved at them, but they flinched away and shut their shutters. Strange.

“Captain, there’s someone sitting over there.”

Maria followed the direction of Ley’s gesture to a very pretty man who was seated at a table in front of a sweets shop. He had silky blonde hair that was tied up in a loose ponytail and was dressed in a loosely buttoned blue blouse over which a checkered suit jacket was thrown. There was a teacup in his left gloved hand and a newspaper in his right gloved hand.

The man continued to calmly sip his tea and read the paper at their approach and only set the cup back on its platter when Morandi cleared his throat. 

“Hello there!” Maria greeted him as she took a seat across from him. The chair was wet, but she didn’t mind it. “You look like you know many things, my dear. Do you know why you are the only one sitting here when it is such a lovely day?”

“I’m afraid I’m as befuddled as you are, miss.” The man smiled politely. He spoke in Common, his accent thick and Cancerian. “It appears as if something has occurred in this town.” His cerulean gaze swept the area. “People are afraid, no?” He paused to take a sip of his tea. “I’ve only heard rumors, but it appears as if this town has been visited by a monster of some sort. A beast.”

“The Golden Beast?” Maria perked up.  

“No.” The man shook his head with a perplexed expression. “I don’t believe that’s what it was.” 

Maria felt a bit disappointed at that revelation, but curiosity soon followed. “If it is not the Golden Beast then what beast is it?”

“I believe they called it the beast of the deep,” the man answered slowly. He then chuckled and shook his head. “Just a series of terrible storms. People always supernaturally explain away things they don’t understand. My, in fact, I know a Libran who—”

“You speak as if the supernatural is not real. Super means ‘cool’ and ‘best’ in Common, yes? So supernatural should mean the best cool of the natural, yes? Natural as in normal, so supernatural as in the best normal! Do you follow?”

The man stared at her silently. 

For some reason unknown to her, Simon and Morandi sighed from behind her. 

Abruptly, the Cancerian man reached across the table and grabbed hold of Maria’s hand and placed a kiss on top of it. “Miss, I tried my best to resist, but your beauty is too captivating. And your words have captivated me further. May I perchance have your name?”

Maria flipped the man’s hand in her own and then tugged it forward so she could return the gesture. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.”

The man stiffened at first but then smiled genially. “I am Chevalier Renée LeBlanc.”

“Chevalier…” Maria turned the word over in her mouth.

Renée flipped his ponytail over his shoulder

“Why does that sound so familiar?” 

For some reason unknown to her, Renée looked as if he’d been slapped. 

“That’s because Chevaliers,” Ley began from behind her with a stifled yawn, “are Cancer’s best Conductors. They’re knighted—which is a big deal there—by the monarchs and receive medals from the prime minister.”

“Wow, you are so knowledgeable, Ley,” Maria praised. 

Renée cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, that is me. Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. I know I have been in the papers quite a few many times, but it is nothing, truly.” He paused to flip his ponytail again. “Anyone can do that. That is nothing in the face of your beauty, my lovely miss, so I must ask if you would like too—”

“Thanks, Renée!” Maria chimed as she shot up to a stand and slapped him on the back. “Those were some interesting things you’ve said!” She squeezed his shoulder and added as if an afterthought: “Oh, would you like to accompany us on the journey, Renée? It is always more fun with more people, yes?”

A pause.

Morandi cleared his throat. “Captain—”

“No, Miss Gloria-Fernandez, I apologize but I must decline,” Renée interjected with a faint smile. “I am here in this town of hunters in search of something myself. As much as your radiance blinds me, I cannot lose sight of what I am here for.”

Renée was rather… dramatic.

Maria stared at him for a long, silent moment before she chuckled at the thought. “Well, alright then, Beene, I think I understand.”

“It’s Renée,” Renée corrected, still smiling, before he returned to his tea and newspaper reading. 

As they walked away from the man and his table, Morandi approached Maria’s side and whispered into her ear, “Captain, don’t you find it strange that he was sitting out there by himself?”

“Not really,” Maria said. “It is a nice day, my dear. Who would not want to enjoy this weather?” She then pointed to the sun beating above their heads in the clear blue sky. 

“Of course you wouldn’t…”

*** 

Simon led them straight through the town while continuing on pointing out where attractions usually were.

 It was certainly a unique experience—seeing all those brightly painted houses and stores with no people in them, and seeing those grand white limestone, intricately designed arches that connected one side of the street to the other without tourists posing for pictures in front of them. There were four of them total along this road and each one was more detailed than the next.

The first time Maria had seen the arches, she had been awed by their detail. Her favorite one was the one carved ocean currents that flowed up both sides of the arch and met at the top to form a splashing wave that resembled a smiling face. On her first night here, after enjoying the Piscese festivities, she had climbed on top of the second arch to better see the design. Conta had been in a panicked worry, fretting from below as Maria had made her ascension. 

From even this distance, however, Maria could tell that the designs had been worn by the weather. Although the designs were still mesmerizing, they were now a bit faded. 

They passed a store that sold surfboards out front, and Maria pondered whether she should go pluck one off of its stand and carry it with her. She brushed the idea aside after a bit more thought. 

It was about fifteen minutes later that they arrived at their destination, a small wooden house painted a bright blue shade. A sign hanging from the extended roof of the store read Post Office. Its red-painted door read the same thing as did the sign at the window. 

Humming, Maria approached the door, pushed it open, and stepped forward. A squelching sound beneath her leather boots gave her pause. At first, she thought it was blood but then realized it wasn’t sticky enough to be that. She peered down and saw her reflection staring back up at her. 

Water. 

The entire floor was sopping wet with puddles of water. No—the entire building was. It dripped down from the waterlogged counter at the back of the shop, dribbled down from the flickering v-light fixtures hanging overhead, and glistened on the peeling walls.  By the smell of it, it was seawater. 

“An Elementalist…” Ley muttered. “But to cause this much damage…”

Maria held up her hand and entered the building. She stopped short when she heard footsteps following behind her and turned to see the others huddled only a meter away. 

Maria turned forward again and approached the empty counter at the back. The mailing slots behind it were clumped with soggy stacks of newspapers, envelopes, and folders. She peered over the counter. 

There was a body there on the floor. A large man with a balding head and black tattoos inked onto his bare, dark arms. He was laying on his stomach, face planted into a puddle. 

Maria leaped over the counter and crouched beside the man. She turned him over. Morandi and a couple of the others gagged from behind her, and Maria spared them a glance before she peered closely at the man’s face. His cheeks were pale and bloated, his eyes a bulging milky white. 

“That’s Elele,” Simon murmured, placing a hand over his heart. “He’s the one who was supposed to be holding the package for us.”

There was something in his mouth, and she reached over to pry it from his lips. A wad of paper. She unfurled it and came to a familiar sight—her own face printed with bleeding ink. 

“You don’t think those bounty hunters did this, do you?” Raul asked. He was standing beside her stiffly on his tippy toes as if he thought he’d fall right through the puddles if he put his full weight down. 

Maria slowly rose to her feet, turned to them, and then smiled. “Well, if that is the case, it is time to hunt instead of be hunted, yes?”

Pisces is a vibrant country with a rich culture and people. Rivers, canals, lakes, and other bodies of water comprise 75% of its land. Due to the constant sunshine that falls upon the land, many of its locations are listed in the official top ten tourist attractions list of Signum. Numerous conservation groups have been put in place by its government to perseve its beauty.

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

7.3: Werner’s Efficiency (Esitazione)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. Werner has uncovered the insurrection plot orchestrated by Major Ersatz who had been working with the terrorist organization ELPIS to eliminate the Ophiuchian peacekeepers sent over to negotiate the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict. Ersatz is brought down and arrested with the assistance of Nico Fabrizzio, a childhood friend of Cadence Morello whom Werner discovered amongst his Aquarian prisoners during the conflict. Nico arrives as a combat medic at Werner’s division following the conflict’s conclusion. With Nico comes an underground agremeent between the Romano Family and the Capricornian Army regarding modified conductors.

Not long after, Werner finds himself back on the battlefield. While in the middle of a volatile mission, he is overriden by a well-intentioned Olive who orders a hasty retreat from combat. The before and after surrounding this event are… 

Abschnitt 45, Capricornian-Argoan Border, Capricorn

Thirty-four days after Major Ersatz’s arrest at the Capricornian-Aquarian border by the Ophiuchians, Werner and his squadron were deployed back out to the southern border. They were ordered to take up station at the Argoan border outpost they were positioned at prior to their rerouting to the Capricornian-Aquarian border. The tactility of this particular outpost was a topic Werner considered often. 

A trench stretching one thousand kilometers to the east and seven-hundred fifty hundred kilometers to the northwest gouged the ground at the location. Another fifty kilometers had been added to the line since they had left. 

The construction of the new area was as remarkable as the previous areas: equipped with living space cleared out many meters below the ground. The network of stairs beneath the surface was also commendable and allowed swift and easy transversal. The Elementalists and Conjurors tasked with construction had also managed to run insulating cables through the entire network, so generator conductors were able to power the v-lights strewn through the tunnels. 

Behind the trench on their side of the border grew the last bits of the Welschen Woods and past that was their main camp. On the opposite side was a strip of bulleted land that stretched for 220 meters. Beyond that would be trenches dug out by Argoans. The Capricornian Border Force—regardless of unit, standing, and ranking—rarely ever came close enough to that side despite the decades they had spent defending against it. A stalemate stretching from near the end of the Reservoir War until now. And a stalemate stretching from a southeastern section of the Capricornian border into a southwestern quarter of Aquarius. 

Werner supposed that was one reason the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict was resolved so efficiently. Both countries were already busy skirmishing on the southern front with Argo, a large country beyond Signum that was hungry for more land. Despite their common enemy, however, there had been no word of negotiation or partnership between the Aquarius and Capricorn against Argo. Not even a proposal. Werner reasoned that their cultures, militaries, and military strategies were too different for those developments. Catastrophe and lack of coordination through union. But maybe in time… 

The southern trenches would often fill with rainwater due to cold fronts from the north meeting warm fronts drifting up from the south. Fortunately, this too had been accounted for and there were drainage systems built into the construct. 

Are you sure this is a battlefront? Olive had thought when he had first laid eyes on the trench. It’s pretty luxurious… 

Efficiency and luxury were two different things. 

But the misconception was understandable. Battle was not around every corner, so it was easy for an onlooker to think this way. Waiting around for things to come was commonplace. The times between offensive mission assignments and defensive battles varied inconsistently, sometimes stretching for days and other times existing for mere minutes. 

Many of the soldiers spent the time staring off into the distance, working on small handcrafts, or playing cards. 

Werner, however, bided his time on matters that would prove useful in the future. Going over past movements, inventorying conductors, running through training exercises, and holding weekly meetings with the other five. 

When battle did come, it often came without warning. A single shot cracking in the distance could mean either another long day of silence or a short day of a firefight. Neither tended to have beneficial outcomes when compared to the cost

Conversely, Werner knew exactly when mission assignments would come to him. It was always after a storm or after a new surge of soldiers would arrive at the front. Opportunity or resources. This time, it came after a rainstorm that lasted three days. 

For this particular assignment, Captain Weingartner had ordered Werner and his division to take hold of a breach in the Argoan line caused by a flash flood from the storm and to send for reinforcements once the area had been secured. And so Werner had taken his best men—including the ones who had accompanied him through the Wechseln Woods four months prior—and two water Elementalists who had just been transferred in for the journey.

It was not a long trek, although it was a waterlogged one and one filled with corpses. The Elementalists cleared the area out easily, sweeping away small puddles of rainwater with a flick of their gloved conductors and drowning the Argoans who straggled along the path. 

They slowed their pace when they neared a patch of boulders that seemed to have been swept out of Argo by the flood. It was not a perfect vantage point, Werner thought, as it was barely above level to the Argoan trench. 

Regardless.

It would not be efficient to press forward before the area was secure, and it would not be efficient to lose his men. And so, Werner ordered his Projectors forward and his Conjurors and Elementalists backwards. He sent a pale-looking Otto Vogt back down the line to inform the command center that they’d secured a vantage point. Then, they began firing. 

This particular Argoan trench had flooded over completely and resembled more of a river than anything else. The Argoans who dotted the area were busily emptying it out one bucket at a time.

When the first vitae bolt hit its target, the Argoans scrambled away. However, they had nowhere to run. Some jumped into the flooded trench to try to swim across it while others ran along its length. 

All of them, Werner picked off easily with his fellow Projectors. 

Through his scope, he followed a particularly young Argoan who fell over the body of one of his comrades whom Werner had sniped prior. The boy scrambled over the corpse for five long seconds, before he appeared to give up and resigned to covering his head with laced fingers. 

It was sad.

Werner hesitated. A grave mistake. 

The young Argoan abruptly reached for something pinned beneath the body of his fallen comrade and whipped it around. Werner recognized the sleek shape and the glint of the glass almost instantly. There was a flash of vermillion. 

And then came the barrage of vitae bolts. Argoan reinforcements, all wielding conductors, pouring in from the opposite side of the flooded trench. 

The sight was startling. The occurrence, almost improbable. 

Outside of Signum, conductors were exceedingly rare. In fact, they were considered luxuries rather than commodities. This had always put Signum—and Capricorn—at an advantage when compared to its exterior, neighboring countries. Of course,  what Argo had lacked for in conductors, Argo had made up for in numbers and production. But now, even though these Argoans were clearly inefficient at using conductors, their numbers… 

As Werner ducked below the barrage of sloppily aimed vitae bolts, he digested the gravity of what this meant. 

One of the water Elementalists was caught by a ray of vitae and hit the ground dead. The other Elementalist was sent scrambling away on all fours before curling up into a ball. Useless. A miscalculation. Those two were evidently not trained well enough for this. A mistake on Werner’s own part. 

And that was when Olivier Chance showed up, green eyes glowing in the dark grayness around him. Just like that night in that small town in Wechseln Woods four months ago during their first synchronization. At that time, Werner had felt the prince’s revulsion and disgust as if they were his own. But this time was different. This time Werner felt Chance’s fear, terror, panic. They were foreign feelings. 

The detonation of a conductor grenade thrown over the rocks provided him some clarity, although also some injury. He managed to get a hold of himself and ordered one of his men to go back to camp and inform the other officers of the Argoan conductors and call for reinforcements. His voice barely carried over the booms of the vitae rays.

The Argoans had more numbers, he knew, but they were untrained. They would be able to hold them until reinforcements arrived. The odds were 0.78 to 1 in their favor. Right? 

And then, in the middle of all of that chaos, Olive reached out for him—

—and he was swallowed into blackness. 

Werner struggled against the darkness for an uncountable amount of time but it was fruitless. Eventually, exhaustion seeped into his bones dragging him deeper and deeper under. 

Goodnight, Werner. 

It was a peaceful voice. One that he recognized. The voice that scratched at the back of his head four months ago when he’d omitted the fact that he’d come across modified conductors to Major Ersatz at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. But it was not a voice that belonged to the other five. 

Who was that

—and in a heartbeat, he was pulled back into consciousness. 

Faint yellow light drifted down from a v-light fixture above him, and the faded curtains drawn around him swayed gently. It would have been peaceful if it were not for the voices and sensations that flood his mind. The other five: all synchronized at varying levels, all shouting inside of his head. 

He could barely discern who was who amongst the chaos. From what he could gather from Atienna’s explanation, it appeared as if the group had lost contact with both him and Chance. 

There was a useful revelation in this. That was the first thing Werner realized. Even if it was for the briefest moment, the connection he and Olive had with the other four had been severed. This was a key. However, his memory of those events was hazy as if lost in a fog. A dream. There was something important he was forgetting, he knew. A thorough debriefing was in order. From Chance especially. 

But there was silence from Chance’s end. The Ariesian prince was certainly there but he was keeping away with all he could. Werner could feel this. Before Werner had the chance to address it, the curtains opened and a figure peered in at him. It was Nico who let out a sigh of relief with brows furrowed with worry.

“Werner…?” Nico tried.

Who else would it be? Came Morello’s amused thought. Y’know—

The synchronization he had with all of them abruptly weakened before Morello’s could finish the thought. A positive event in this case. He needed to get his bearings. 

“What happened?” Werner asked. And then the memory of battle came at him in full force. The success, the failure. He recognized that he was in a medical tent now, so he knew he was behind the trench lines. In other words, it must have been a disaster. “The mission was unsuccessful. The Argoans…”

How many had he lost?

Nico opened his mouth and then closed it before he opened the curtain a bit further and glanced behind him. 

Gilbert was standing there with crossed arms. The man searched his face with a frown before relaxing and placing his hands on his hips. Then he sighed and looked to his left. 

Werner followed Gilbert’s gaze and froze. 

Klaus Kleine. The Lance Corporal stood beside Gilbert and nervously toyed with the nodules on his conducting gloves. He met Werner’s eyes and then glanced back at Gilbert. 

Cold realization swept down from Werner’s head to his toes. The answer was clear. It had happened again. An override.

“What happened,” Werner repeated.

Gilbert and Nico exchanged looks before Gilbert gave him a debriefing. Short, concise, but thorough. 

Shame coiled red and hot inside of Werner’s chest. A retreat. He had ordered a retreat. Against orders. And he had been discovered by Kleine. How did he appear to them now after what he’d done?

His palms itched at the thought. 

“Hey, I know this looks bad, but whoever that was really saved our asses,” Gilbert said after he finished his explanation. “While you were enjoying your nap, I got word from the other divisions who were ordered forward too… the Argoans wiped out half of ‘em with those conductors. They barely managed to get your message around fast enough. They’re shit usin’ ‘em but there were just so many that…”

Sighing, Gilbert shook his head before he continued:

“You know the one positive I thought we had about being sent back here was that we wouldn’t have to face Conductors. That’s the one thing I was looking forward to about this place when we were out near Aquarius. Call it homesickness. But at this rate, the higher ups’ll never let us retire.”

Werner folded his shame away carefully. This was not the time to be thinking of such things. 

Argo’s acquisition of conductors was something momentously consequential. It spelled a changing tide for Capricorn. In the scope of that, even Kleine’s knowledge seemed minuscule. But it could not be disregarded. 

“Kleine,” Werner said slowly as he rose to a stand. The man flinched under his gaze, but that did not reassure Werner at all. “Follow me.”

Werner shared a brief look with Nico before he led Kleine out of the tent and deep into the woods. Werner could hear Kleine’s hesitation increase with every progressively heavier, slower step. Once they reached a sparse patchwork of trees ten or so meters so away from the medical tents, Werner stopped short and turned to face him. The Lance Corporal stiffened in turn and took one step back. 

“So you are aware of the details surrounding my current circumstance.”

Kleine swallowed and nodded. “Not fully, sir, but Second Lieutenant Wolff told me about how you are… uhm… er… somehow connected… mentally?  To others around Signum. And how it started when you were injured on the eastern front.”

Werner allowed a long stretch of silence to pass before he asked, “What will you do with this information, Kleine? Why does it interest you?”

Kleine floundered, looking everywhere but Werner’s face. “I… sir, I’m just… interest—curious. Not in any malicious way. For research—” 

A phantom pain throbbed at Werner’s abdomen. 

“Research.” Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Research implies that you plan to make this information public. Is that your intention, Kleine?” 

Kleine shook his head stiffly. “Sir, it’s not like that—”

That is diligent of you, Lance Corporal,” Werner found himself saying as he leaned in. “I don’t blame you for doing that. You’ve recently received a promotion. It’s only natural that you’d want another one even if it means doing something underhanded like this. And for a person like you, the easiest way would be through—”

“Sir, it’s not like that!” Kleine’s flushed shout was somewhat startling.

Werner pulled back. “Then what is it, Kleine?”

“Sir! It’s because I think I know someone like you!”

Werner froze as Kleine’s exclamation rang out loud and clear. 

“Kleine, lower your voice,” Werner said, scanning the clearing. “And explain yourself fully.”

Kleine glanced around the area before nodding. He continued in a voice that was only slightly louder than a whisper: “She was a girl in my village. Düllenberg. It’s small. Just off the border with Ophiuchus. Uhm. We grew up together—me and her. School—uhm. We were friends… But she just… changed suddenly. I didn’t understand it.” He stared at the ground like it was a distant memory. “Like a different person. She left. Disappeared. My village said that she just went crazy but—”

Werner frowned. 

“—I knew it was something else. I just couldn’t understand it. But then I saw you in the woods that night with the Aquarian captain. I knew it had to be something. I… I need to know… what happened to her.” 

“And this is the truth?” Werner pressed, voice even.

Kleine stiffened once more but then met Werner’s eyes and nodded deeply. “Yes, sir, this is the truth.”

Werner took a minute to digest this information and its consequences. First, there was the matter of whether this was a truth or a lie. Then there was the matter of the result of the lie or the truth.

Another group like theirs? That did seem possible if one looked at the statistics at large. It would be naive to think that they were the only ones who were in this circumstance. 

But there was also a possibility that this was a lie or a mistaken observation. If it was a lie, then…

Major Ersatz flashed into Werner’s memory, and again a ghost pain throbbed at his abdomen. 

There was no use panicking over this situation. Execution was unreasonable and traitorous. Blackmail, unobtainable. Torture, highly consequential, unreliable, unsound, cruel. Careful observation and control would resolve this issue. If there was ill intention here, Werner would excavate it carefully. 

“I understand from Second Lieutenant Wolff’s debriefing that you’ve agreed to keep this issue a secret,” Werner finally said. “I appreciate your discretion and hope that you will maintain it. I ask that you be transparent with me in the future, and I will be transparent with you. I also would like more details on this friend of yours if you are willing to provide it.”

Kleine brightened almost instantaneously, like Atienna when she would discover a book she found particularly fascinating. 

“Of course, sir,” Klaus almost shouted, throwing up an unneeded and awkward salute. “We can find out more about this together. I-I’m sure of it! Thank you for trusting me!”

This was not a matter of trust. 

***

Werner knew that his behavior had been absolutely unacceptable. Although Chance had been the one to enact those actions of retreat and disrespect, Werner knew that he himself had been the one to allow it. Therefore, he himself would have to take responsibility for it. And so, ignoring Gilbert’s objections and Nico’s advisement of rest, Werner headed to the main tent to speak with the captain after his conversation with Kleine. 

The walk to the command tent was one that was lined with silent men and women. They kept their heads bowed low and did not speak with one another as he passed. Some did stare, however, and Werner found himself wondering exactly what they thought of him. Of his recent actions. 

The captain was sitting at his desk at the center of the tent when Werner arrived. He was mulling over documents and did not seem to register Werner’s arrival until he was only a meter away from the desk. 

Weingartner paused and looked up somewhat dazed. “Waltz, what are you doing here? I thought Fabrizzio put you in for three days bed rest.”

Werner offered a salute. “Captain Weingartner, Fabrizzio has cleared me for duty. I am here to address what happened during the mission prior.”

It was a lie. A ridiculous one that didn’t need to be said. Morello…

Weingartner looked skeptical. “Fabrizzio cleared you?”

“With all due respect, sir, I am fine,” Werner replied. “I am here to take responsibility for my earlier actions.”

“Responsibility for…?” Weingartner frowned before realization lightened his features. “Oh, right.” He rose, rounded the table, and came to a stand in front of his desk. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the news trickle down already. We’ve lost half of our battalion because of it. The Argoans and the conductors. We’ve lost…” Weingartner abruptly slammed his fist on the table behind him and sent the papers resting on it fluttering into the air. A pen rolled off and landed beside his foot. Muttering an apology, Weingartner bent down to pick it up. 

There was a beat of silence, and Werner was able to hear gentle patters tapping along the top of the tent. It was starting to rain again. 

“Are you alright, sir?” 

Weingartner froze and studied Werner with raised brows before he murmured, “Yes…” He placed the pen back on his desk, before he continued slowly, “You made the right call on the retreat, Waltz. We were unprepared for the Argoans. The capital is sending more units down now. This is going to look more like the Aquarian-Capricornian conflict than anything else.”

The hot tightness that had been gripping Werner’s chest lessened slightly. So he was not seen as a coward then. This was good. 

Regardless, this spelled danger for Capricorn. 

“So you’ll understand the urgency of this next mission I have for you,” Weingartner continued, “I understand that after everything, you may want to recover…” 

“Like I’ve said, sir, I am fine.”

“As always,” Weingartner said with a gentle smile. “This involves the deal Capricorn made with that organization in the Twin Cities. The Romano Family. The one you forwarded to the capital.”

Werner didn’t allow himself to tense and remained silent.

“There have been certain changes made to the agreement on our end of things. I informed Fabrizzio of this several weeks back.” Weingartner turned away from him. “Fabrizzio has already contacted our associates in Gemini about the change, and they are expecting Nico to come up there alongside a particular representative of ours in several days.”

Nico hadn’t mentioned anything like that. Part of Werner was upset at the fact, but part of Werner could see the logic behind it. He assumed the former feeling belonged to Cadence. 

Wait. “Representative”? The dots connected.

“I see. With all due respect, sir, I believe there are more qualified officers available.”

Captain Weingartner nodded in agreement. “It was a request by the Romano organization. I can only guess that they want to have the person who sparked this deal present for… cultural purposes? I’ve heard that Geminians tend to value friendship and family very highly. There’s no need to worry though, Waltz, you won’t be delegated the duty of negotiating the affair. Just a formality.”

Weingartner waved his hand to dismiss the thought before he continued:

“On the official papers, it will be marked down as a temporary leave offered to enlisted soldiers who have recently performed exceptionally. That way Ophiuchus won’t be inclined to look into it and rumors won’t start among the men. Similar to how we handled Fabrizzio’s transfer.” Weingartner grimaced. “It’s all so convoluted. Ophiuchus seems to regulate things so tightly and somehow underground modified conductors slip right beneath their noses.”

“I’ve heard that Ophiuchus allows the operations of those organizations because the organizations prevent more dangerous, less controlled groups from taking over,” Werner provided. “Ophiuchus’s blind eye has helped organizations like the Romano Family better control the city and lower the crime rates, but it has also made Ophiuchus oblivious to the organizations’ more criminal actions.”

“It’s impossible to achieve clean peace then, hm?” Weingartner gave a noncommittal grunt and smiled slightly. “Well, it certainly looks like your head is in order now which is reassuring.” He paused to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Even if that’s the case, we still have to go through these precautionary measures. Due to the cover up, you will need to select some from your division to accompany you.”

“I will take Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff, Emilia Bergmann, Derik Stein, and Klaus Kleine,” Werner said after a brief moment of thought. 

“Second Lieutenant Wolff is aware of our agreement with the Romano Family. That’s a good choice.” Weingartner smiled briefly. “Kleine’s performance has improved recently, and Bergmann and Stein are due for a promotion.”

“Yes, sir.”

Weingartner picked up a manilla folder from his desk and flipped through it. “A colonel by the name of Fritz von Spiel will be joining you at the Twin Cities. He will be acting as the main negotiator. You’ve heard of him, yes?”

Werner had come across Fritz von Spiel only once before. It had been at a dinner party following his graduation from the military academy. Fritz von Spiel had been an alumnus at the academy and had prepared a grand, patriotic speech at Werner’s graduation prior. He had congratulated Werner for completing his coursework at the top of his class and had then proceeded to blatantly flaunt his money at the women whom Werner had graduated with. 

Fritz von Spiel was from an extremely wealthy family and lived in an extremely wealthy state. Von Spiel’s father had been an accomplished officer during the war, and von Spiel carried that like a badge of honor. As Gilbert had put it, “bastard flaunts all that status and wealth like it’s his own or something.” When Werner had initially heard Gilbert say this, Werner had voiced his disagreement with the disrespect. Now when Werner thought on it, however, he supposed Gilbert did have a point. The last time Werner had heard of von Spiel was through a news article detailing the man’s recent military failure a year or two back. But if von Spiel was to be a negotiator on this matter, perhaps that indicated that the man had improved himself.  

“Yes, I’ve met him once.” 

“Good, well, the train departs tomorrow evening, so it’s best that you inform the ones you’ve chosen now. I’ll fill out the paperwork and send it up to the capital in the meantime.”

A pressure on Werner’s shoulder drew his attention away. He turned his head slightly. It was Cadence. 

Her synchronization was at a high enough percentage to ensemble him to physically see both her and her surroundings. A dimly lit bar, it seemed. The Sognare. Again. 

“Just happened here accidentally,” Cadence said before winking. “But your transmigration to the Twin Cities ain’t no accident. Put in a word for ya with the heads a while back. Thought you could use some vacation time. Didn’t expect it ta come so soon, but hey. It works.”

You have more pressing matters on your end than my situation, Morello, Werner returned. The Romano-Campana meeting that was only one day away. And this is not a vacation. 

Yeah, yeah, whatever ya say. Anyway, I think I’m kinda understandin’ what’s goin’ on right now so… what are ya gonna do about glasses? Cadence quirked a brow. Do ya really believe his spiel about knowin’ someone that might be like us? 

I don’t believe in things until I see proof of it. I will investigate Kleine and handle the matter accordingly. 

No trust for your fellow soldier, ‘ey?

Major Ersatz flashed into Werner’s mind. And then Usian and then Wtorek Izsak.

This had nothing to do with trust. 

***

The rumors spread throughout the line quickly. Pointless rumors filled with words of envy and spite. A waste of energy. Werner and his selected group did not stay to hear such rumors and departed the following morning. 

They took a v-ehicle to the nearest town with a v-train station. Werner requested Wilhelm Fischer’s assistance in operation of the locomotive as the v-ehicle needed to be returned to the border afterwards, and Fischer happened to be one of the few in the division who knew how to operate a v-ehicle.

Halfway through their journey to the town, the generator conductor to their v-ehicle ran empty. There were no vr-stations around due to the remoteness of their location, so they had to resort to the extra generator conductors they had stored at the back of the v-ehicle.  

Fischer struggled for half an hour with replacing the thing before Werner found himself rather excitedly stepping in for him. 

Werner deduced it was Olive’s knowledge and enthusiasm that spurred the excitement, but the boy was still keeping at a distance. 

Inefficient and pointless, Werner thought as he worked away at connecting the insulating cables to the new conductor.

An unasked-for synchronization would happen between them sooner or later, and a confrontation would occur regardless of the prince’s wishes. Putting it off did nothing. 

When Werner finished with the ordeal, he was covered in sweat, a thin layer of soot, and a thick layer of grime. Usually when it came to dirty matters like these, he would make due to quickly clean himself of the filth so he would be presentable. This time, however, he found himself taking a step back and taking in the results of his labor.

When he turned, he found Gilbert smugly smiling, Nico smiling lightheartedly, Kleine looking on curiously, Stein looking on somewhat impressed, Fischer with embarrassed admiration, and Bergmann with confusion. Wiping his hands of the oil and grime with a spare rag as nonchalantly as he could, he ordered them to dispose of the old generator conductor so they could be on their way. 

When they reached the town, Fischer wished them luck before loading into the v-ehicle and slowly rolling away into the setting sun. 

“He’s probably jealous.” Stein snickered, nudging Kleine on the shoulder with his elbow. “Right, Kleine?”

Kleine startled and glanced at Stein with slight fear before chuckling nervously. “I-I guess…”

They boarded the train, loaded their baggage swiftly, and found their way to their seats. Half an hour later and the train departed. An hour in and Gilbert had fallen asleep. Three hours and five minutes in and Werner’s eyes began to droop. Three minutes later he was asleep and fell into a twisted dream. 

He was standing at the center of an empty room. A large window with frost eating up its edges stretched from the ceiling to the floor in front of him. A silver moonlight spilled in from the outside. The touch of it was cold, draining the color of everything it reached. Faintly he could hear a rumbling from just beyond. Thunder.

He heard her enter the room from behind him, and he turned.

There she stood. Long, thin, pale. In her hands was a stick. Long, thin, pale. 

There was a crack of thunder that hid away a more frightening sound. 

“How many times have I explained this to you, Werner?” There was tender love yet disappointment in her voice. “Without the opinions of others, you are nothing.” 

Another crack of thunder and a flash of lighting that bleached everything white—

Werner startled into consciousness and straightened himself. He looked left, right, and forward. Gilbert, face pressed up against the dark window of the train, was snoring away at his left. At his right was the train hall and beyond that a booth occupied by a dozing Kleine, a quietly snoring Bergmann, and a loudly snoring Stein. 

It was like Gilbert and Stein were competing to see who was snoring the loudest. Any louder and they’d shake the entire train apart. Annoying, really. 

Werner immediately recognized the thought as belonging to Olive and reached out to him. Again, the prince skirted away. 

Avoiding responsibility and confrontation like this did no one any good. It created more complications than solutions. 

Shaking his head, Werner glanced at the seat across from him. It was empty. Nico was nowhere to be seen.

Werner reached into his uniform and pulled out his pocket watch. He flipped it open, studied the hands. Five hours, seven minutes, and forty-five seconds had passed since they had boarded the train.

The tapping of footsteps drew his attention away from the ticking of his pocket watch. He turned his head to find Nico who was approaching their booth from down the hall. The man slid quietly back into his seat beside Kleine. They locked eyes as he eased himself in.

“Sorry,” Nico whispered. “Did I wake you?”

“I was awake before,” Werner responded curtly. “We aren’t going to the Twin Cities for recreation, so I advise you rest too.”

“I tried.” Nico offered a rare grimace. “But—I hate to say it—I’m nervous to go back.”

“Then you need to conquer your anxiety, Fabrizzio,” Werner returned. “Nerves will create unreliability during our meeting, and we need everything to proceed smoothly.”

Nico paled and then grimaced. “Sorry, Lieutenant, but I don’t have a stomach of steel like you. I’m sure Cadence has told you—or shown you—a lot of my less than stellar moments.” 

Werner shut his watch and slid it back into his pocket. “Nico, you will most likely only need to speak a few words at the beginning of the meeting. The rest will be handled by Colonel von Spiel and Ricardo, Francis, and the others. To put it simply, we are mere decorations for the meeting. Reuniting with your old… acquaintances will only be stressful if you make it so. You’ve only been gone for four months.” When he looked up, he found Nico staring. “What is it?”

“Sorry…” Nico mumbled. “It’s just interesting seein’ you talk about Ricardo and Francis like you know them. Now I’m trying to picture what it’d be like if you grew up with us in the Twin Cities.” He chuckled. “All I can see is you lecturing Carl and Cadence. You’d probably be Allen’s favorite.” 

“… That’s a ridiculous thought.” Werner frowned. 

“Yeah, I guess.” Nico glanced out the window. “I still can’t believe Fortuna got proposed to…” He grimaced again but this time childishly. “…by someone from the Campana Family of all things. Everything’s changed so fast…” His reflection was somber. “Thanks for that update by the way. Can’t believe how hard it is to get a good line at the southern border. When they do get through to me, it’s just business.”

Werner had indeed informed Nico about Ambrose’s initial proposal to Fortuna at Cadence’s request. Cadence had claimed that she needed a “gossip buddy” and had promised to help keep synchronization meetings on track if Werner were to act as a line between them. Prior to this, she had requested him not to inform Nico of Francis’s stabbing, so he had been surprised at this. “It ain’t worth gettin’ him worked up about it,” she had said. 

A lie of omission. 

It was not his concern, however. It was not his intention to inform Nico of the development to begin with, so he had complied with that request as well. 

“Whoever that was that overrode you…” Nico drew suddenly. “… he had… an interesting way of speaking.”

Werner resisted tensing. “Yes, I once again apologize for his behavior.”

“I thought he was charming.” Nico chuckled. 

Werner couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. 

“Are you all right after all of that though?” Nico continued. A frown was pressing down on his lips. “I mean, it’s the second time that this has happened… and from what you’ve told me… this mostly happens to you—the override…” 

Werner’s palms began to itch. “I appreciate your concern, Nico, but I will resolve this issue on my own.”  He turned away from the man and ended with, “As I’ve said, get some rest.” 

It was only after Nico drifted off that don Ricardo Romano was stabbed. 

Argo is a southern country beyond the continent of Signum. It is a large country with a population equivalent to that of all of Signum’s countries combined. There are no vitae reservoirs within its border, and its means of garnering energy relies on an older method that has been long abandoned by Signum’s countries. It shares its border with both Capricorn and Aquarius but frequenty encroaches into the former two territories. As a result, there are constant skirmishes at the south of Signum.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, Beyond Edition

7.2: Cadence’s Family (Conoscenti)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. After investigating an attack on a bar belonging to the Foxman Family who share business relations with the Romano Family, Cadence has discovered that Romano Family executive Verga has been siphoning off illegal conductors from the Romano Family. Banding together with a group of street orphans who were wronged by Verga and who are headed by Matilda, Cadence is able to successfully reveal Verga who is switfly put down. A mystery still lies, however, in the mysterious cargo Verga had claimed to be shipping for ELPIS. 

Three months later, the city appears to be brewing once more with the death of the mayor and an attack on one of the Foxman brothers.

Twin Cities, Gemini

The synchronization meetings that Werner liked to hold at the beginning of each week were events Cadence actually enjoyed. But calling them meetings did them a disservice. Despite Werner’s attempts to keep things professional and controlled, they always unraveled into something resembling the chaos that graced cheap late-night bars. Mostly in part thanks to Maria—but Cadence liked to think she had a hand in at least one or two of the derailments. Of course, neither Werner nor Olive found them particularly amusing and Atienna always tried to patch up the whole mess as gently as possible. 

Still.

It was fun to pretend that they were more than a couple of randoms forced to work together due to mystical circumstances. 

That being said, despite the get-togethers being enjoyable, Cadence could have done without it this week. She had two other meetings of high importance lined up after all. Two important meetings just because some guy fell in love with some girl.

Cadence paused on her stroll through the city on top of a small bridge as she thought on this. She peered down at her reflection on the softly rippling canal below her. She understood the sentiment. Falling in love and causing a bit of chaos. Love. The one thing that could conquer everything and anything. 

Cadence frowned a bit. Her outfit wasn’t very appropriate for the meeting she was heading to, was it? Just her usual overly large suit that she still hadn’t gotten to the dry cleaners yet. It wasn’t really presentable for this kind of meeting, right? 

Damn. Werner was rubbing off on her. 

A gondola passed beneath her distorting the reflection. 

She pulled away and snapped her ringed fingers. The usual glowing copper light began there at her fingertips before sliding up her arm to her shoulders to her other arm to her legs. When the light faded, she gave the gawking passersby a wink before inspecting her reflection again.  

A crisp, well-fit reverse monochrome suit, and—

She touched her beaten hat and watched as it transformed into a black fedora in a flash of light.

“Perfect.”

***

The building that housed her second meeting of the week was one that everyone knew belonged to the Romanos. Like everything in this city, it was hidden under a false guise—an art museum. And what a grand art museum, it was.

Wide, polished marble stairs unfolded up to a path lined with the pillars that held up a stucco roof. The pathway, in turn, led to great glass doors that reflected back the dim city lights. 

Climbing the stairs took great effort as did the walk to the doors. But it wasn’t bad. The weather was pleasantly warm with a soft wind blowing up from the south, and the crickets were just beginning to sing.  

When she entered the building, she was met with a cold updraft, veiled darkness, and a burly man who gave her a once over and then a nod of approval. The v-lights in the place were dim, and she had to inch forward slowly in order to not trip over the rug. She could barely make out the glass cases of pottery that lined the walls and the abstract murals hung up on frames behind them. Not that she needed light to tell what they looked like. She used to sneak in here all the time with Nico, the Romano children, and the younger Foxmans when she was a kid. All to try and see if they could sneak into one of the executive meetings. 

She slipped through the door which was also guarded by another burly man at the back and stepped into a different world. 

A large ballroom unfolded before her. Glittering, gray chandeliers hung high above velvet-tiled floorboards and cast shattered rays of light across the pale walls and even paler square dining tables that dotted the room. At the center of it all was a large circular wooden table above which a grand chandelier twinkled. A spotlight on a stage. 

Men and women huddled in loose yet tight circles with eyes that flickered, hands that gestured, smiles that assured. Waiters and waitresses weaved in and out of the sea of chatter smoothly, efficiently. 

A pleasant place, a tourist might think if they took a quick glance around.

But appearances were deceiving.  

Cadence weaved through the crowd, offering friendly handshakes and tips of the hat to the bigwigs. There was old Caporegime Donato, who once again asked her to transmute a couple of lottery tickets for him. He had a bag leg from the war and had unfortunately dragged along his son who had an attitude that even put Olive’s to shame. Feliciano Donato, a twenty-something man with a square jaw and narrow eyes that always seemed to be scheming who wielded his father’s status like a police baton. Cadence didn’t really know the younger Donato too well, but she heard enough about him from the Foxmans to keep their conversation pleasant and short. 

Then there was Caporegime Agape whose name meant love but whose Family-designated duties meant anything but that. Although she was a small woman, her presence was like none other. Whether it was due to her hawk like eyes, the deathly tight bun she always wore, or her bright red lipstick, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Maybe it was all three.

As usual, Agape appraised Cadence’s body from beneath her librarianesque glasses as they spoke of the hosts and hostesses working at her business front. As usual, Agape said, “If you’re not going to work in the medical field as a transmutationist, you might as well come work for me. Being able to change what you look like would be very popular with the patrons.”

To which Cadence responded with, “I’m already popular with your patrons by personality alone, Agape.”

Cadence greeted Caporegime Benedetto next. Benedetto was a large man that made everyone in the room seem like dwarves. He had bad burn scars eating up half his face from the war and always seemed to be grimacing, but his loud and booming laugh was jolly enough to brighten anyone’s day. Even Verga had gotten along with him before he’d kicked the bucket.

Cavallo received Cadence’s next greeting, but the old man kept the conversation short and brief stating that he had other people he needed to greet too. Or maybe he thought he was above her now since he’d recently been given the title of Caporegime. Cadence didn’t blame him. It was natural. 

A minute later she spotted the police commissioner of the city intermingling with one of the lower-ranking executives and immediately ducked her head. Vincente Giustizia. Although Ricardo paid the commissioner off well enough, he was still someone she didn’t want remembering her face too well. The man was praised for his pretty boy face and suave personality, but he just rubbed Cadence the wrong way. 

After making her last round greeting the Romano heads and a couple of their underlings, Cadence laid eyes on someone who was not intermingled with the rest of the chattering crowd. She approached this person slowly, thoughtfully, and then reached out to tap her shoulder. 

“Hey, doll, what ya doin’ all by your lonesome?”

Matilda jumped and swiveled. Her lacy white dress flowered outwards at her turn. Her hair had grown out even more over the past couple of months and was tied into a neat ponytail. The tenseness in her shoulders released slightly as she met Cadence’s eyes.

“Not gonna mingle with the others? Ya seem like that the social butterfly type, y’know?”

“I don’t know why I accepted the invitation. I don’t even understand what this is all about.” Matilda frowned, traced the butterfly-shaped birthmark on her face, crossed her arms stiffly, and then began to rub them nervously. “I’m not like anyone here.“ 

It was hard to tell whether Matilda’s disdain was directed towards herself or to the others surrounding her, but Cadence had an inkling. The swindler cast a glance around the room and hummed in thought before flashing a grin. “Nah, ya fit in just right.  I mean with the way you and your pals have been deliverin’ the goods these past couple of months, it’d be weird if ya didn’t get a pat on the shoulder. Saints! You’re practically parta the Family now!” 

Matilda’s face brightened only briefly. There was still that dim fire in her eyes. Leftover embers from that night in Warehouse 13 three months ago. 

“Word of advice. Take it easy and fake your confidence till ya make ‘cause there’s a lot of people out there who’d do more than kill ta get where you are.” Cadence pulled away with a tip of her hat. “And don’t think about it too much. There are times ta think and times ta enjoy.”

With that, Cadence re-entered the social sphere. She chatted up several of the waitresses who were walking around with platters of food and wine and was just about to get a phone number when—

“Well, you’re lookin’ unusually sharp today, Cadence,” came a rumbling voice that carried all the way over from the large round table at the center of the room. 

The table was evidently much more lovingly attended to than some of the others. Expensive wines and half-eaten sirloin steaks and other foods Cadence didn’t recognize were piled up on there. The extravagance made sense. This was a table for executives, after all.

“Hey, what are ya implyin’, Mr. Carl Foxman? ” Cadence approached the two men dressed dark green and dark blue suits who were seated there. The man in the dark green suit grinned while the one in dark blue suit remained impassive. “I’ve always been the most attractive one outta all of us.” She spied the empty seat to Allen’s left. “Is Francis doin’ any better?”

“Yes, he is,” came a voice from behind paired with a musical chuckle. “And I have to agree with Allen. You look nice.”

Cadence looked over her shoulder. And broke into a grin. “Francis! Well look at ya. The way they were all talkin’, I thought ya was a goner after ya got stabbed. Shouldn’t ya be restin’ a bit more or somethin’?”

“You’re starting to sound like the old doctor, but I do appreciate the concern.”  

Cadence turned on her heels with a shrug. “I mean ya just called Carl Allen. I know ya guys are brothers, but I expected that sorta slip from Carl not you.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just pullin’ your leg, Carl, ya know that.” Cadence chortled. 

Francis was dressed in his go-to crisp, dark maroon suit. His hair was loosely styled back as usual. There were faint dark circles beneath his eyes—not the kind that could easily go unnoticed. Cadence didn’t have time to address it because the man was soon shaking out a cartoon of v-cigs in her face. 

Waving off the offer, Cadence arched a brow. “Aw, come on, Francis, stop teasin’ me like that. Ya know I’m tryin’ to abstain from that kinda stuff.”

Francis lit a v-cig and put it to his mouth. He took a drag. “I thought I’d try at playing devil’s advocate.”

“Sure you should be doin’ that?” Cadence nodded to the cigarette. She then craned her neck back towards Allen. “Nothin’ the eldest Foxman brother has to say?”

“Francis is an adult,” was all Allen said. 

“Smoking ain’t bad for you anyways,” Carl said as he accepted a cig from Francis. “That’s all propaganda. Tryna kill good business.”

“I’d expect the money talk from Allen but not from you,” Cadence returned, amused.

Francis took a seat beside Allen before taking another drag and gesturing to the chair across from him. 

Cadence found herself arching a brow again. She chuckled. “That’s kind of ya, Francis, but ya know that—”

“Only don of the Romano Family and executives are permitted to sit at this table,” came a voice from behind. 

Francis looked past Cadence and smiled. “Fortuna, it’s good to see you.”

“Aw come on, Fortuna. Can ya go one day without pickin’ on me?” Cadence sighed, giving Francis a look. “Besides, ya don’t really fall into any of those categories either, do ya?”

“If you think I’m not going to use Ricardo’s status to my advantage to combat my other disadvantages, then you’re naive,” came the reply.

“If I talked about my father like that, he’d beat me into a coma,” Carl scoffed. “And what’s this about disadvantages? I remember when we were younger—”

“Carl, careful. This isn’t the time or the place for that sorta talk,” Allen interjected, not even looking up from his steak. “This is a meeting between business partners, not friends or family.”

A mirthless chuckle. “Hearing you talk, I can tell that you four really haven’t changed at all.”

Cadence turned on her heels.

There she was. The girl.

Fortuna Romano. 

Her wavy dark hair was tied in an elaborate bun that blossomed from the back of her head like petals of a flower. An equally dark dress hugged her neck and arms and ghosted her calves. Earrings that resembled the chandelier above their heads twinkled above her shoulders.

Fortuna was cute, alright. She’d always been the best looking one out of all of them. When they’d used to run through the streets wild causing trouble, Fortuna’d always be let off easy when they were caught in the act. Carl had argued that it was because she was a girl, Allen had argued it was because of her status as Ricardo’s daughter, while Francis had insisted it was because Fortuna had a silver tongue. Cadence knew it was all the above and then some. Her fortunate circumstances were one in a million, but her drive was also one in a million.

Fortuna brushed past Cadence and took a seat at the table. She waved her hand and summoned a waiter to fill up a glass of wine. After taking a sip, she nodded in Francis’s direction. “You must be feeling well to be at your v-cigarettes again—though you don’t look it.”

“I appreciate the concern, Fortuna,” Francis returned, “but even if I had a foot in the grave, I wouldn’t miss an important event like this.”

“Your foot was in a grave.” Fortuna frowned somewhat, swirled her glass. “If this is you merely trying to prove the Foxmans’ resilience in response to what happened that night then—”

“A bunch of cowards—just thinking about that night pisses me off!” Carl snapped abruptly. His fist started shaking. “Once I get my hands on the bastards who did it, I’m gonna—”

“There’s no use getting worked up here,” Francis assuaged. “Besides, everyone knows we have no leads on who paid those goons to jump me.”

“No leads—what, Francis!” Carl snapped. “It’s obviously those Campana—”

Uh-oh. Not good. 

“Say, Francis,” Cadence interjected, leaning over the table and looking the man up and down. “I heard ya really went all out that night. Took out some of the guys in the alleyway yourself like some sorta superhero.”

“Is that how they’re playing it on the street?” Francis looked away from Carl and appeared amused. The expression flitted away quickly. “Well, unfortunately, reality isn’t such a pretty picture. Stefano and Maximallian were the only ones of ours who made it outta there alive.” A glower. “And three of them got away. I can’t even remember their faces—” 

A creaking sound cut their conversation short, and the chatter around the room suddenly died down. Cadence didn’t need to look up to know who it was. The change in atmosphere at his mere presence was enough of an identification. 

It was the boss. Ricardo Romano. 

Cadence clapped a hand on Fortuna’s shoulder and arched a brow. “Not sharin’ the grand entrance with the boss?”

Fortuna merely gave a quiet humph and took a sip of her wine. 

Quickly, quietly, the individuals within the room began to shuffle to their respective tables. Like clockwork. 

The Caporegimes and other executives did not even glance at Cadence as they seated themselves at the table in front of her. Those sitting at the square tables behind her, however—well, she could feel their stares. Why are you speaking with the executives, those eyes seemed to ask, who do you think you are. Talk about drama. Well, that was fine. It was the situation, after all.

Giving each of the four a tip of her hat, Cadence pulled away from them. She spied Matilda sitting stiffly at a table with two other men and headed towards her. Might as well keep her company, Cadence figured. 

“Please, Cadence. Sit here. You are family.” 

Cadence froze and turned her head. Ricardo locked eyes with her from across the room. She hadn’t seen him face-to-face in a month or so, but it seemed as if he’d aged ten years since then. The wrinkles on his cheeks were accentuated by the fragmented light of the chandelier, and there were circles darker than Francis’s beneath his eyes. 

What was the old man playing at?

“There is an empty chair beside Fortuna for a reason, Cadence,” Ricardo continued as he seated himself in-between Agape and Cavallo at the table. “The matter we’re going to discuss also pertains to you, so it would be easier if you were here too.” 

That definitely hadn’t been notated in the invitation. Well, maybe it’d been in fine-print somewhere. But Werner would have pointed it out if it were, so in the end this had all been a trap. Well played, Cadence concluded. 

“I see,” Cadence returned with a feigned smile of realization. “I didn’t realize. Thanks for the invite.” 

As Cadence seated herself beside Fortuna, she felt something prick her back. An intense stare. Living in the Twin Cities made one attune to these sorts of things. It was always best to know when one had eyes on them—wanted or unwanted. Rolling her neck, Cadence threw a subtle glance back in the direction of the stare. 

It was Donato’s son, Feliciano. He was seated at one of the smaller square tables closer to the central main table, and his glowering intensified as their eyes met. Jealousy, probably. Cadence figured he definitely had some sort of complex. But since he was Donato’s son, she couldn’t say much about it. And so, picking up the knife and fork set beside the plate in front of her, she began to make diligent work of the steak there. She popped a piece in her mouth and felt it melt on her tongue. 

Saints, this was good.

Appearances. 

She placed her utensils down after savoring the taste and glanced up to find Carl still working on his steak. The clack of his fork against the glass plate echoed around the quiet hall. Instead of kicking Carl into etiquette as she had been expecting, Francis’s gaze remained fixated on Ricardo. Allen instead whispered to Carl, and the latter stopped, choked a bit on the large piece of steak he’d just swallowed, and straightened himself with watering eyes. 

“First off,” Ricardo began as he signaled a waiter for a glass of wine, “I would like to thank you all for submitting your selection for the next mayor. We will take into consideration all of your selections and compile them. Of course, this will take additional time and consultation with the recent developments.” There was a pause. “Which is, as I am sure you all know, the reason for why we’re here today,” Ricardo continued, “and I’m sure you all have your opinions on this matter. Additionally, due to this matter, we will move our discussion on Ophiuchus’s investigation of Verga’s ELPIS shipment to next week. But first—” He gestured across the table to Francis. “I am glad you’ve made a full recovery, Francis.”

Francis returned the smile cordially. “I appreciate your kindness, Mr. Ricardo. And as always, we are glad that you’ve invited us to such an important meeting.”

“Of course, Francis. The Romano Family and the Foxmans have shared a partnership for many years. Not consulting you about this affair would not only be rude but also dishonorable. While on the topic of your incident, I once again am offering the Romanos assistance in finding the culprit.”

“No need,” Allen interjected thickly. “This is something we’ll handle on our own. But it’s appreciated, Ricardo.”

Ricardo nodded. “Then we may move to the matter at hand. In regard to the Campana—”

A chime rang through the room as Fortuna finally placed down her glass and met her father’s eyes. “There’s no point in beating around the bush. Ambrose Campana has proposed to me.”

Whispers followed. 

Agape shook her head, pushed up her librarian glasses, and pursed her red lips. “That’s absolutely ridiculous. The gall that boy has. He’s worse than his father. At least the don of the Campanas is better at hiding his intentions.”

“Agape, I understand your position puts you in a mindset that,” Donato said with a hum, rubbing his bad leg and then reaching for his fork, “gives you a jaded worldview on love and the like, but I like to have a little faith in humanity. And the youth of today. Love.”

Bendetto grunted in agreement from beside him and stroked his scarred chin. “I remember when I met my Lucy. You said we’d never make it, Agape, but look at us. Ten years and still going.” 

“I agree with Agape,” said another. “The Campanas obviously want to gain a foothold in the Family and—”

“Ultimately, it’s my decision since I am the one being proposed to.” 

Everyone turned their attention to Fortuna. She met each of their stares head-on with crossed arms.

“You four haven’t changed” was what Fortuna had said to them earlier, but Cadence figured that out of all of them Fortuna herself was the one who’d changed the least. Always straightforward and to the point. 

“A union between the Campanas and the Romanos would be advantageous for the Campanas, yes,” Fortuna said evenly, “but it would also be advantageous for the Romanos. We would be able to expand our business to the west side and make use of the manufacturing plants there too.” Uncrossing her arms, she finished with, “Any hurdles that we could encounter on the way are nothing if you can see the bigger picture.”

“Fortuna!” A loud bang resounded around the room followed by the clattering of silverware. “How dare you!”

Cadence whipped her head forwards and found Carl standing with both of his fists pressed against the table. His veins were visible on his neck which was beginning to turn an almost inhuman shade of red.

“Hey now, Carl,” Cadence tried as she raised a hand.

“Stay out of it, Cadence!” Carl jabbed a finger in Fortuna’s direction. “You know the Campanas are behind what happened to Francis!”

Cadence winced and glanced at Francis, but the youngest Foxman’s attention was still fixated on Ricardo instead of his brother. Cadence felt something crawl up her spine as she registered his expression. Something about it was familiar. Hot, burning ha—

“They went after us because we refused to do business with them!” Carl snapped, slamming his fist back down on the table. “Because we are loyal to you!”

Fortuna exhaled. “You think the Campanas would risk a war with us over something like that? That aside, what’s all this about loyalty? The Romanos and the Foxmans are business associates. If profit appears elsewhere, the Romanos are going to invest in that profit. That’s all there is to it.”

Carl faltered for a moment before he leaned across the table. “You really are a b—”

Before Carl could finish, Allen grabbed Carl’s arm. “Enough, Carl.”

Carl opened his mouth but then closed it and pulled back. 

“It seems as if you already know our views on this situation,” Allen said, addressing the table as a whole as he released Carl from his grip and rose to a stand. He wiped his hands on the provided napkin, dabbed his mouth, and threw it onto his plate.

Cadence watched as Carl and Allen exited the room without another word. She then turned her attention to Francis who remained seated and staring at Ricardo. She kicked his foot from underneath the table.

Francis stirred from whatever daze he’d entered. He stared at her for a moment before he unlit the v-cig dangling from his fingertips and pocketed it. He leaned forward and cleared his throat.

“I apologize for my brothers’ outbursts. This whole situation has clearly gotten them riled up.” He clasped his hands together. “Their actions today do not define how the Foxmans view the Romanos, and I hope this does not sour our relationship in the future.” A pause. “I’m sure we will be able to work something out.” Francis stood, pulling his napkin from his lap and setting it to the side. “We appreciate the invitation.” He smiled cordially at Fortuna. “And congratulations, Fortuna. Ambrose is a lucky man.” With that, he too left the room. 

Whispers returned with his exit. 

Caporegime Donato rubbed his bad leg again and shook his head. “I knew it from the beginning. Those boys aren’t suited for this kind of business.” His voice was quiet enough to be lost in the chatter of the surrounding tables but loud enough to carry around their own table.

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence saw Feliciano smirk. The guy really had a punchable face. Why was he enjoying this so much anyways? Probably enjoys other people’s suffering since he’s so miserable himself. What a stand-up person.

“You’re just jealous ‘cause they hit it big in half the time it took you to,” Caporegime Bendetto said as he shoved a large piece of steak in his mouth.

“I’m not the type of person to worry about pride,” Donato returned, “but don’t tell me you’ve never thought about them like that. You know best that their needs to be a separation between business business and personal business.”

Cadence resisted arching a brow. She could have sworn Donato was fond of at least Allen. Did Carl say something to him or something?

Wow. I don’t really care, aren’t you and the Foxmans close? came Olive’s thought, which came much more forcefully than the previous thoughts had. The prince always precursored his statements with I don’t care which Cadence found humorous since she could feel that he in fact really did care. Cadence spied him and his surroundings out of the corner of her eye. It looked like he was wandering that Sagittarian city again.  If you have any tips on being that two-faced, I’d like some. It’s impressive. 

It’s a bit more complicated than that, kid, Cadence thought back as she side-glanced at Fortuna who had returned to sipping her wine. 

“Cadence, I hope you don’t share their sentiments,” Ricardo called out to her suddenly. “You’ve been in our employ for many years now. I am aware that you view yourself as a mere associate of ours, but I was wondering if you would be willing to fully extend your services out to the Campanas as a friendly gesture.”

Cadence raised a glass. “Of course, boss.”

***

It didn’t help that right after the Romano-Foxman meeting Cadence and the others lost contact with Werner and Olive. It was strange. Not having the kid’s sarcastic snaps just ghosting the edges of her mind. Weird not having Werner’s reporting and understood and is that clear and, of course, the wonderful you should attend to that in reference to cleaning. 

As their disappearance drew on, Cadence’s chest became wracked with worry and her stomach twisted with a bottomless nausea that started to knot into cramps. Atienna’s thinly veiled concern most likely, she figured. Cadence had half the mind to call Nico up about it but knew it would be fruitless since she hadn’t been able to reach him since he’d been sent out to Argo. In fact, Werner had been her only means of communication with him. 

The silence was uncomfortable so the next day Cadence stopped by the Casa De Bambolle. She spotted Agape managing the storefront, so she quickly disguised herself as a patron and took to chatting up the hostesses and hosts within. 

But the noise from there was still not enough.

Cadence then swung by the Sognare. As usual, the bartender did not even look up at her entrance. He cleaned the already spotless glassware behind the counter as she played her favorite hopping tune. 

When she was leaving after she’d finished her final song, the bartender grumbled as usual about his bar shutting down per lack of visitors.

“Don’t ya worry, pal. Y’know me, I’m always here to keep this place open for ya.” She reached into her suit pocket, pulled out a fistful of cens from her wallet, and tossed it onto the bar top with a wink. 

The bartender pulled the cens over the table grumbling. “Yeah, but what am I gonna do when you’re not here anymore?”

“We celebrate,” Cadence said, waving the man off and nestling at the back of the bar with her piano. Right. A celebration. It was only a matter of time now. Everything was in place. “Besides, I have an inkling that you’ll get another visitor real soon.”

Relief came swiftly after when Werner and Olive returned to them. They both seemed to be tense from whatever had happened, but Cadence figured she’d be able to iron that out swiftly.

***

The dreaded Campana-Romano get together was at the very end of the week. If it wasn’t bad enough that Cadence had to attend the meeting instead of perusing the gambling dens for tourists like she usually would, she also had to traverse the maze that was the west side of the city. 

While the east side of the Twin Cities was constricted by spider-webbing roads, the west side was threaded through with crisscrossing canals. The sound of slapping gondolas against small wooden ports was as common as the squawks of seagulls. The popularity of the gondolas in this half of the city made v-ehicle usage sparse, and only a few could be seen parked along the sides of buildings. The buildings were older here—more brick and mortar than metal and steel. Unglazed windows were a cens-a-dozen as were bird droppings. City workers armed with scrapers and mops made their way up and down the walkways mechanically, dutifully. 

Cadence was familiar with these parts well enough to know which corners were tourist traps, which alleyways people were most likely to get jumped, and which districts were shown in the popular magazines. Cadence was headed to one such district. 

The Giorno District. It was strategically littered with all sorts of high-end stores and restaurants with twisting metalwork displays of arts popping up in-between them. Men and women in suits and dresses flocked the streets like doves on a wedding day. When Cadence was younger, she’d like to imagine bringing Alma to these kinds of sites. They’d laugh to themselves loudly and then quietly judge people who were just like Cadence—people who were from the opposite walk of light, people who did not belong in such districts. What a dream.  

The meeting destination was hidden beneath a casino—the largest one in all of the Twin Cities. Its front entrance was blazed to the underworld and back with flashing v-lights, and its walls were decorated with all sorts of art pieces that originated from various countries around Signum.

Despite its grandeur, Cadence couldn’t help but think that the Foxmans’ casino was better. Despite the warm greeting she received in the back of the casino as the Campana bodyguards led her to a hidden room there, she couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place. She didn’t let them know that, however, and gracefully waltzed into the meeting room with a smile. 

The atmosphere within this meeting room was completely different from the Romano Family one. If insincerity and tension had a smell, then this room was permeated with it. The scent was a lot like alcohol and not the good kind. Too clean.

Four tables had been set up at the room’s center in a square formation. Cadence didn’t really see a point to the tables being there since there was no food to be eaten anywhere. The only thing close to a meal was the cheese blocks and wine bottles the waiters and waitresses carried around the room on stainless steel platters. Cadence resisted frowning. She’d hoped that she’d at least get some free food from this meeting, but it looked like she was going to have to hit one of the restaurants on the strip before heading home. 

It was less crowded here than the Romano meeting, Cadence realized as she scoped the place out further, but she figured that it made sense since only executives and specially deemed associates had been invited to this one. Only a handful of people were seated, and Ricardo among them. He was lounging beside a thin man with dark eyes and dimples. The thin man’s face was lined with wrinkles, but his grin was youthful. The don of the Campanas. Oddly enough, he looked as normal as could be. If Cadence didn’t know any better, she would have thought he was some office worker in uptown. 

Hands in pockets, Cadence kept to the walls. She smiled when she received glances from familiar faces and offered a respectful nod to those who greeted her. All formalities. Stiff and awkward. There was a brief temptation in her to reach out to one of the others to garner some free entertainment but she thought better of it. Although she did not think she was a decent person, she felt like she was decent enough not to subject them to this kind of torture.

Cadence almost chuckled at the dramatic thought and then froze as she felt a particularly curious gaze prick her skin. She shrugged her stiffened shoulders and scanned the crowd. It did not take long for her to lock eyes with the starrer. 

There he was. The boy.

Ambrose Campana. 

He had inherited his Cancerian mother’s fair hair and skin while maintaining his Geminian father’s dark eyes, dimples, and height. When their eyes met, he beamed. Cadence mirrored the expression. 

“That hair! You must be Cadence Morello!” Ambrose exclaimed, closing the distance between them. His voice was comparable to Francis’s in melodic quality, albeit several octaves deeper. 

Cadence spread her arms wide open. “And you must be Ambrose Campana. Have ta admit. I’m a bit star struck ta have the don’s son talkin’ ta me all friendly-like.”

The corners of Ambrose’s eyes crinkled. “Oh nonsense. You’ve known Fortuna for quite some time, haven’t you? And the Foxmans too.”

Cadence did not allow her surprise to show on her face. “I see the Campanas are well-versed in the word on the street.”

“Well, we have half a city to look after,” Ambrose provided. He scanned the crowd. “While it pains me to see that the Foxmans have declined our invitation, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve heard many good things about your services. Frankly, my father’s always wanted to hire you out, but his sense of rivalry against the Romanos prevented him from requesting you.” Ambrose extended a hand, still all smiles. “But now that there will be a union between us, I hope we can work together in the future.”

Cadence mirrored his smile again and accepted the gesture. “My pleasure.”

Intuition, came Jericho’s sudden thought. He was very lightly synchronized. Cadence could barely feel him. Regardless, his presence was a bit of a comfort. The memory of the emptiness left by Werner and Olive was still scratching at the back of her mind. This man is involved in illegal business.

Not really intuition, detective, Cadence thought back. Besides, look who you’re thinkin’ to.

…Yes, I know you are ‘Cadence’. A beat of silence. You shouldn’t be involved in this type of business. It is illegal. 

And yet ya still haven’t reported it to your Serpens Establishment. Kinda warms my heart actually. Makes it feel like we’re friends or somethin’. Cadence did not allow her mental smile to seep to her cheeks. We are friends, right?

Yes, we are friends. What— 

“Your thoughts seem to be elsewhere, Miss Morello,” Ambrose interjected. “Are you alright?”

Cadence glanced down and realized that she was still gripping Ambrose’s hand tightly. Thanks to Jericho’s influence of course, she figured as she chuckled an apology and released the man from her hold. 

“Just can’t believe you and Fortuna are a thing,” she said. “But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. You two are perfect for each other.”

Ambrose’s eyes glittered, and his smile climbed a bit. It would’ve been charming if Cadence didn’t feel unnerved by it.

“I think so too,” Ambrose agreed.  He stared past Cadence’s shoulder, and she could see Fortuna reflected in his eyes. “We’re going to make great changes to this city together—me and her.” He gave Cadence a cuff on the shoulder. “Well, time to join my bellflower.” And with that, he departed. 

Good for them, Cadence thought, watching Ambrose join Fortuna who was speaking to one of the executives of the Campana family at the corner of the room. Cadence snagged a glass of wine off a platter and reclined back against the wall. She took a sip, gave a pleasant hum in response, and watched the pre-meeting pleasantries unfold. 

An abrupt and cold wind whistled through the room cutting Cadence’s serenity off short. For a moment she thought she had synchronized with the prince and was experiencing his windy city. But then—

—there was an ear-piercing scream from one of the waiters followed by a loud crash.  

Cadence looked up and found herself frozen stiff in place. But not because of the cold. 

The floor was littered with shattered bottles of wine. The red and purple liquids seeped in between the remnants of the glass bottles and around the fallen platters that once held them up. The silver platters themselves reflected a startling scene.

An invisible line now divided the men and women who had been casually chattering just a moment earlier. They faced that invisible line—rather, each other—in frigid silence.  The Romanos were on the right and the Campanas were on the left. In-between them and eclipsing the invisible line was the table Ricardo and the Campana don had been seated at. It was almost perfect reflection accented by the weapons they had pointed at the divide, at each other. Normal pistols, conducting guns, conjured guns. 

“Enough!” came a furious shout from the corner of the room. It was Fortuna who was now pushing herself between the two groups. Storming over to the Romano side of the room, she slapped away the gun that Bendetto had been pointing at a stocky Campana capo. “This isn’t the time to be doing this!” 

Ambrose was behind her, snapping at the Campana side of the room. “Stop being idiots and get some medical Conductors in here now!” He did not wait to see if any of the Campanas abided by his order and instead scrambled towards the table that sat on the invisible line. 

Fortuna soon joined his side and remained standing stiff as stone. 

Their bodies blocked the view of the sight as did the bodies of the executives who began rushing around and out of the room. Nonsensical shouting filled the air as did a peculiar smell. 

Usually Cadence would keep as far away from this type of chaos as possible—she’d fold into a corner somewhere, step behind someone, maybe even put on a different face—but this time she found herself being pulled forward by an invisible string. Jericho. 

She pushed past the crowd that had gathered around Fortuna and Ambrose and nearly slipped on the wet floor. She managed to catch herself halfway through the action and grimaced down at her shoes. They were stained red now. But it wasn’t with wine.

Cadence slowly looked up at the table—the center point of the invisible line. 

She saw the don of the Campanas first. He was lying face-first across the table, arms splayed out like a bird. There was blood pooling beneath him, but Cadence couldn’t tell from where. 

Ricardo Romano was laying right next to him with a knife embedded into his back. There was something tied to the end of the knife’s hilt. A piece of paper. A note in Common. 

Jericho read it to her plainly— 

“You cannot run away from what you’ve done. What is taken must be returned.”

The Romano Family of the east side of the Twin Cities and the Campana Family of the west side have shared a rivalry for many decades. Their rivalry stems over territorial issues. This nearly exploded into an all out war a decade ago, but was prevented by a peaceful exchanging of gifts. Recent developments indicate a union between the two families.

The Romano Family has many money laundering fronts to conceal their true business from detection: illegal conductor manufacturing. The Campanas operate similarly, although their particular true business activities are kept very under wraps. Note: get this information from the Campana capo Enzo?”

Information card #138, Category F, Date: 03.09.1941,  Astante’s Brokering Files

7.1: Olive’s Bravery (Codardia)

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance, having spent the past six years rejecting everything after the Tragedy of Aries took away of his family, is now accepting that he must move on forward. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Watch and an attack by the former peacekeepre Izsak Wtorek, Olive has decided that he must complete the State Conductor Exam and leaves the royal palace life behind him. He hopes by completing the exam, he will be able to gain better access materials that may help in understanding his sister’s condition–his bodyless, ghostly sister whom only he and the over five can see.

Three months have passed since he’s left New Ram City with Trystan at his side and now…

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius

“Chance, the minutes from last week’s meeting.”

This was pointless.

“Chance, if we don’t clarify what topics were discussed last week then this meeting and subsequent meetings will be meaningless. We need to understand what each of us has been doing and what we will be doing in order to not interfere with one another.” A pause. “Besides, this will aid you in the interview portion of your Conductor Exam.”

Olive didn’t see Werner’s logic but he figured he’d humor Werner like they all had been doing for the past three months.

Werner’s image resided in the corner of Olive’s room. The man was sitting at the round table, hands clasped in front of him. A gray rain cloak caked with dirt, mud, and grime was thrown over his shoulders. The uniform and medals beneath his cloak were, however, as immaculate as always. 

“Fine,” Olive sighed walking over to his desk drawer. After arching a brow at Jericho who was standing beside it, he pulled out a bound notebook, flipped it open, and began to read: “The first five minutes of last meeting were spent reviewing what happened in the meeting before that. I summarized my arrival at Sagittarius and how my studying and research and search have been going, Cadence talked about the Campana-Romano drama that’s been going on, you gave a very detailed report on the Argo…” Olive frowned and looked to the side. “…front. Atienna just left for Aquarius with—”

“Sorry, Olive, but may I ask Cadence something before we move further?” Atienna interjected. Her image was sitting across the table from Werner. She was bundled up tightly—wrapped head to toe—in swaths of colorful silken cloth. The only part of her that he could see were her eyes that twinkled with their usual inquisitiveness. 

Olive shrugged.

“Cadence, have you gotten any farther in that book I gave you?” Atienna pressed. “I believe it was thirty pages long, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much…” Olive could feel her smiling beneath her scarf. “But I understand if you’re a bit busy with everything going on…”

“Do not give her excuses, Atienna,” Werner interjected. He sighed, offered her an almost apologetic look. “I understand your perspective, but we all have things we need to do regardless of our circumstances.” He raised his head in Cadence’s direction. “Well, Morello?”

Cadence was leaning against the wall with crossed arms. “Guys, come on, what’s the point? I mean, if I need ta read somethin’ I can always get one of ya to help me with that.”

Olive was still rather surprised that Cadence was illiterate. She seemed to be verbally fluent in almost every other language in Signum, so Olive had assumed that had applied to her reading ability too. He’d only found out about her illiteracy two months ago when he had synchronized with Jericho at random. At that time their random synchronizations were still a bit awkward—not that they weren’t awkward now—and the peacekeeper had let slip that Cadence had called upon him to help her read a notice that had been posted outside her favorite bar. The news traveled fast after that.

Werner frowned. “We still don’t have a complete handle on this synchronization. You may be put into a situation where you will be required to use those skills without our assistance.” 

A life-or-death situation where Cadence would need to read to survive? That sounded like the plot to a terrible book.

Werner gave Olive a pointed frown. The man really did believe that a situation like that was a possibility. Made sense. ‘Nothing could be left to chance’ was his law. 

“I mean, we’ve got enough of a handle on the synchronization to have meetings like this once a week.” Cadence shrugged.

“We can make it happen approximately 65 percent of the time. We cannot prevent it from happening. And while we are beginning to grasp the ability to decrease synchronization, we still can’t prevent the desynchronizations that occur at random,” Werner amended. 

“Exactly.” Cadence unfolded from the wall, hands wide-spread. “If I’m in a pickle I’ll just keep throwin’ out a line till I connect to one of ya.”

There was a mental sigh from somewhere. Although Olive couldn’t quite pinpoint who had given off the feeling, he knew which of them hadn’t. Jericho and Maria. 

During his entire note reading routine, Maria had been wandering around the room marveling at the different types of furniture. Her first comment had been about his bed which was a thin but fluffy mattress laid straight across the wooden floor. While rambling on about how marvelous it was to see a Sagittarian-style bed again, she had strayed over to his bird’s cage and was now inspecting the animal inside.

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.

“My turn, yes?” Maria hummed before she threw herself back on Olive’s bed. She folded her hands beneath her head and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m off to Pisces to pick up something mysterious!”

“Ya can just say that ya got a delivery pick up for the Campanas,” Cadence said, peering down at her. “I’m not the type to hold that stuff against ya. I mean, like I’ve said I’m just a Romano associate. No hard feelins.” 

Maria twirled her hair. “Hm? What do you mean? Did I not mention that?”

“‘Course. Forgot who I was talkin’ to.” Cadence chuckled. She then nodded to Jericho. “And how ‘bout you, slicker?”

During the entire conversation, Jericho had been doodling away in a small leather journal. He’d been doing that a lot lately, and Olive attributed it to either Doctor Kingsley’s work or Atienna’s suggestion. Werner had lectured the peacekeeper on the importance of paying attention during meetings a while back but had given up about two months ago. The reason? Despite the supposed distraction, Jericho always seemed to be able to keep track of what was going on in the meetings. A weird sort of multi-tasking ability. And with Werner, as long as things were efficient, then they were acceptable.

Closing his journal, Jericho said, “I received the letter about my ELPIS Department application. Yesterday.” A pause. “I’m unsure if you already know this. But I was rejected.” Stated concisely without a hint of shame or embarrassment. Not so much as a flush even after a long stretch of silence passed. 

“Right.” Werner ruminated. “I will coach you on your next interview then.”

Jericho cocked his head slightly. “My last interview went well.”

It had not gone well. 

They had all bared witness to Jericho’s one-on-one interview two weeks prior. The first chairman of the ELPIS Department, Agent Leona, had still been in the Twin Cities at the time, so the second chairman of the ELPIS Department had conducted the interview. The first thing Jericho had done was follow through on Cadence’s advice of complimenting the interviewer. So Jericho had complimented the second chairman on his wonderfully balding head. “It sparkles nicely,” he had said. Then Jericho had considered Werner’s advice of exemplifying his personal strengths by connecting them with his previous accomplishments. Jericho took this literally and informed the chairman of how he’d beaten an ELPIS member to the point of unconsciousness with only his strength and his suitcase. It had only spiraled further from there. 

“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.

He was being gentler than usual.

Cadence drifted over to Jericho and gave him a tight squeeze on the shoulders. “Don’t overthink it too much. We’re all a bit lackin’ somewhere—”

Cadence was cut off as she appeared before them, floating down from nowhere like usual with her dark black hair falling into place just as they turned to face her.

“Hey, Lavi.” Cadence offered a tilt of her hat and a grin.

“Hey, Cadence.” Lavi waved. She peered at Werner. “How are you doing, Werner?”

“I’m doing fine, Lavi,” Werner answered curtly. “Thank you for your—”

Maria shot up from the bed and bounded over to Lavi’s side before taking the girl’s hands in her own. “I’ve been waiting for you to appear, Lavi! Really! I wish we could speak freely without my dear Olive having to be present all the time.”

Before Olive could even react to the unintended insult, Maria continued:

“I saw something magical two days ago! It was a sea creature! I know you like these types of things, yes? So I tried to catch it, you see. My men said it was impossible, but nothing is impossible, yes?”

“When it comes to you, yes,” Lavi agreed with a chuckle.

Maria was a dangerous influence for sure. But Lavi…. 

Lavi was different from them. The more Olive spent time with the others, the more he started to realize it. The fact was that Lavi did not seem to be connected to the others at all. She could not synchronize with them nor did any of their memories seem to trickle down to her. The only connection she had with them was through him. 

“Enough. We need to stay on the subject at hand,” Werner stated clearly, concisely. It was amazing how his voice carried despite him not actually shouting. Olive supposed that was something one picked up when they were in a position of leadership.

“—fifty cens worth if you find the right market. ‘Course, you can transmute that kinda stuff and fake it but that takes the fun out of it.”

And somehow, during Olive’s split-second of distracted introspection, the conversation had derailed to this extent. He arched a brow at Cadence who appeared to have joined in on Maria’s antics. Despite being connected to the former woman, he had a hard time telling whether or not she was truly invested in these meetings. 

“Enough,” Werner repeated, turning to Atienna almost as if for assistance, “we need to at least get through this meeting—” He trailed off.

And Olive could see exactly why.

With even Atienna looking more amused than concerned, it was already too late to salvage this meeting.

Abruptly, a loud boom echoed from Werner’s end, and the man shot up to a stand staring off into the distance. Olive hesitantly peered deeper into Werner’s surroundings. The man had been sitting on a small boulder hidden behind a cluster of rotted trees. The sound had caused the ground to shake and sent the droplets of water collecting on his cloak to splash up into the air.

Without another word, Werner bent down to pick up the conducting rifle he’d set beside him and turned away from them all. And just like that, as if by a pair of saintly pliers snapping down on a single link, the chain between them all disintegrated. 

Olive swallowed, half-tempted to reach out and start another synchronization. He paused, however, when he saw Lavi standing beside the bird cage with her hands folded by her back. Peering at him, she quirked a brow. 

He held out his free hand in turn, palm up. For a moment, there was nothing. And then pops of crimson light danced around his fingertips. Pops that sparked into embers that twirled around his fingers. 

The sight of it was still nauseating, the smell kickstarting a headache at his temple. But… with practice every single day like Werner had recommended then maybe—

Lavi’s gaze brightened, and she gave him a small applaud. 

A knock at the door jolted Olive causing him to dispel the flame vitae with a wave. He turned back to his sister only to find that she had apparated into thin air once again.

After snapping his meeting notebook shut and shoving it back into his drawers, he walked across the room and pulled open the door. It was Trystan Carter, the former Ariesian head royal guard turned his personal guard. Even though Trystan had shed the honorable Ariesian title, he hadn’t yet shed the demeanor that came with it. Straight backed with furrowed brows even though he didn’t have anything to prove. Pointless. 

“Are you ready, your highness?”

***

The afternoon sun hung low, shrouded by a thin layer of clouds that crawled across the skyline. The wind was fresh, clean, and light, almost like a glass of cold water on a particular hot Ariesian day. 

Olive took in a deep breath. And then sneezed. He shivered and accepted the coat Trystan pulled out from his travel pack.  Shrugging it on, he took in the cityscape.

It was much more open here in this Sagittarian city than in the tight network of interconnected marketplaces of New Ram City. The flattened dirt roads were wide and lined with medium-rise buildings that had tiled roofs that sloped down in a curvature. In-between the v-streetcars that rolled along the crisscrossing tracks pedaled men and women on bicycles. Half of them were dressed in neck high buttoned shirts and silk dresses that went to their calves, while the other half wore loosely folded garments. There were a couple of bicyclists around his own age, all dressed in what resembled black sailor uniforms. Students, probably.

“What will it be today, your highness?” Trystan asked. 

Olive inclined his head across the street, and Trystan followed him over to a restaurant there. 

While Trystan went in to grab a table, Olive wandered over to the newspaper stall across the street. As he approached, he took in the two large posters that hung from the sides of the stall. A water-color portrait of a man with an elegantly long beard and a cone-shaped crown at the top if his head. There were characters underneath the portrait that Olive could not read but he assumed it said something along the lines of “All Hail the Emperor!”

The stall vendor there peered down at Olive through his circular glasses at his approach, stroked his graying mustache, before grunting and disappearing behind a stack of papers in the back.

Crossing his arms, Olive perused the displayed papers. Each rack boasted the same article albeit in a different language. But not Capricornian, not Geminian, not Virgoan. Not even Common. The newspapers were in the different languages of Sagittarius

Upon Olive’s decision to come to this country, Werner had questioned him on which languages of Sagittarius he was familiar with. Olive’s subsequent confusion resulted in Atienna gently and Cadence amusedly informing him of his ignorance. Atienna had then further elaborated on the diversity of the Sagittarian languages in a lengthy lecture. Each one of the ten clans of Sagittarius had its own respective language paired with its own unique characters, dialects, and alphabets. 

This resulted in this particular city having eleven names. Ten in the different languages of Sagittarius, and one in Common. The Common name for it was Thousand Name City. 

Whoever had come up with that name was ahead of their time, Olive had thought when he’d read the Common sign that was stacked up on top of ten other signs at the city’s north entrance upon his initial arrival. 

The stall owner abruptly popped back up at the counter and waved a newspaper in Olive’s face. It was in Common. The man gave a surprised but pleased grunt as Olive handed him five Sagittarian wuen-dongs in exchange before the former dipped back into the depths of his stall again. 

Tucking the paper under his arm, Olive joined Trystan back at the restaurant. They were seated by one of the open paper windows and were served two cups of piping hot corn tea. After taking a sip, Olive began to peruse the newspaper.

The first article detailed Ophiuchus’s adoption of a highly advanced vitae-spectrophotometer that would enable them to solve cases more efficiently through vitae-color identification. A small time Ariesian conductor engineer had spent months developing the device and found recognition upon debuting it at New Ram City.

The second article was a political opinion piece about Virgo’s current diplomatic relationships with Libra, Pisces, and Aquarius and how everything was still in the preliminary stages. About how everything was so uncertain. 

The third was about a weaponized proto-conductor that was able to store a Conductor’s vitae in a way that made it available—properties, abilities, and all—for another Conductor who was not of the same conducting type.  At the moment, only Conductors who were able to utilize vitae intraneously were able to store their vitae within the device.

Olive wanted to dig his nails into this proto-conductor. He had caught a glimpse of them on Cadence’s end when she’d been tasked to keep tabs on Matilda and her delivery crew a month or so back. The proto-conductors has been among the deliverables. When he had pressed Cadence for details—about whether it operated similarly to conducting grenades—Cadence had merely responded with an impish smile. 

“Well, wish ya’d be that enthusiastic when you were taking to me about normal things,” she had said. 

“Your highness—” Trystan began, bringing Olive out of his thoughts. 

“Not here.”

“Sir—”

“Weird for someone older to be calling someone younger sir.” Olive could see Trystan taking a deep breath from the corner of his eye.

Finally, Trystan said, “I still think finding a translator would be best, Olivier.” He waited until the waitress brought them two bowls of soup and left before continuing. “I admit that your understanding of the Sagittarian languages is… impressive. But we need to find someone who can translate the written word for us. You’ve only been reading the Common texts, but I truly believe that Sagittarian ones would be very beneficial for your exam studying.” He glanced around the restaurant and continued in a quieter voice, “Besides, the way Sagittarian wind Elementalists utilize vitae through their conductors might—”

“Be helpful in showing me how to control the way I use vitae without a conductor?”

Trystan stiffened, eyes darting around the room. “Olivier, please, don’t talk about your ability so loudly. Someone might be listening.”

“Why?” Olive arched a brow. “Everyone’s going to see it when I take the practical portion of the exam anyways.”

Trystan looked as if he wanted to argue further. But instead, he said, “We should still find a translator.”

“I know,” Olive grumbled, lowering the article and tapping his fingers on the table, “but I’d rather get a translator who can also get us access to that Sagittarian temple that the guide mentioned.”

Bodhi Temple.

“A temple not of religion but of wisdom,” the guide had said. “It has sovereignty over itself, and Ophiuchus the Sagittarian government barely touch it. It’s a sacred place. If you’re seeking knowledge, you’ll find it here—of course, gaining entrance is no easy feat. That’s why Ophiuchus hasn’t ever reached that place!”

“Of course, Olivier. I see your point.” Trystan picked up the bowl and began to sip before he paused and said hesitantly, “I understand your apprehension, but perhaps we could ask—”

“Only when I’m desperate,” Olive interjected quickly.

*** 

After they finished breakfast, they boarded one of the nearby v-streetcars enroute to the heart of the city. The scenery flitted by in streaks of reds and blues and flashes of yellow. The same colors greeted them when they boarded off of the tram, albeit suffocated by a thin cloud of haze that hung low in the air. Bodies were pressed up against bodies, stalls pressed up against stalls, tea stores on top of tea stores. Shops filled with bright and colorful fruits Olive had never seen before dotted the spaces in between them all. 

It was an almost familiar atmosphere to him. Almost.  Despite the familiarity of it all, Olive felt uncomfortable. It was much colder here despite the close proximity of everything. The wind seemed to find its way through even the narrowest of spaces, but the people did not seem to so much as shiver. 

Olive spent the entire day with Trystan scouring the city’s center looking for a freelancer who met their qualifications. There were many who claimed they did, but a quick questionnaire from Trystan shut many of them down.  

They finally found their man just before they boarded the last tram of the day. The Sagittarian was a former monk of the temple they were in search of and had studied the written language of all the clans there exclusively. He was an old, wiry man with a long, white beard and with a wisdom in his eye that twinkled every time he smiled. In other words, he fit the image of what they were looking for perfectly. He also was, however, a worldly man and requested a down payment of 400 Sagittarian wuen-dongs. 

Suspicious.

But Olive was tired and annoyed and nearing the point of no longer caring. It was just money. 

Trystan seemed a bit concerned on putting down such a large down payment but conceded when the Sagittarian provided to them with documentation proving his residence and his studies there. Trystan, who also seemed tired and rather annoyed, happily provided the man with the sums. 

After receiving the funds, the man informed them that he would need to quickly pack his things and that he’d be back shortly. Before they could put in another word, he disappeared from their sights. 

After waiting for two hours, Olive said, “Our two brain cells work wonders together.”

Cadence appeared then and with a somewhat sympathetic expression confirmed for Olive that they had been swindled. And that was the end of that. Let me lend ya a hand next time, kid. Just call out ta me. I know a liar when I see one. 

***

As Olive was winding through the city in defeat the next day with Trystan in search of a breakfast place, he found his thoughts straying to Werner. The booming sound that had cut off their meeting from Werner’s end was still engrained in his memory. It had sounded like thunder almost, but slightly more mechanic. 

Werner hadn’t synchronized with him above the thirty percent level since the incident. While Olive knew the man was alive and unharmed, Olive couldn’t help but feel anxious. He hoped Werner didn’t know that. 

Out of all six of them, Werner, Cadence, and Jericho were the ones who got their hands the dirtiest. Maria didn’t count since her view of the world was a complete outlier. But those three—their lives were filled with violence and death every single day, and yet they didn’t seem to pay it any mind. Or maybe they were just pretending. Or maybe…

Olive absentmindedly wandered into a small bookstore as he continued mulling and selected a book from the first shelf he saw without so much as a thought. Trystan followed him, patiently studying the spines of the books crammed into the small shelves. 

And what about me, Olive thought to himself, all I’m doing is studying for this stupid exam. I’m not even close to finding out about what I can do for Lavi.  It didn’t feel fair at all. Olive brought the book to his face and buried his head into it. Stupid exam. Stupid Sagittarian temple. Stupid guide. I’m really… 

“Your highness?”

With a sigh, Olive lowered the book from his face. And then he froze. 

Storm clouds were slathered across the sky. Low, overbearing, like they could drop down and crush him at any moment. There was a terrible smell in the air, and the dirt beneath Olive’s feet felt wet. Stretched out before him was a muddy marsh that was peppered with small craters and fallen trees. Jutting out in-between the scattered trees and waterlogged holes were boulders that stood as tall as him. 

A crack of thunder rumbled on the horizon. No. Not thunder. A conductor. A Projector’s vitae ray. A flash of light blue. 

This was not the bookstore. 

Chance?

Olive turned his head to the left.

Werner was tucked up behind a boulder there. His cloak was dripping with dirt and rainwater, and his usually combed back platinum blonde hair was falling into his face. The rifle conductor in his hands gave off steam. It had been fired recently.  

Their gazes met.

Werner’s eyes were terrifying. They almost seemed to glow an ice blue in the darkness. A razor sharp focus. Eyes that had just taken a life. 

 Olive could still feel the tightness of the man’s finger on the trigger of his conductor. 

You shouldn’t be here. 

“I didn’t mean to…” Olive managed. He glanced behind him and saw a group of Capricornian soldiers huddled against a cluster of rocks. And—

—a body. There was a body lying right behind Werner. Rather, it was half a body. The uniform was Capricornian. The blood staining the periwinkle uniform was beginning to wash away with the rain, and the mud seemed to be consuming what little was left of the Capricornian’s body. It looked as if the mud was going to swallow it hole. 

A bright flash of light and a terrible whine exploded just behind Olive pulling his attention away. A jolt of pain throttled every limb in his body, and he was left gasping for breath. But this wasn’t his pain. It was Werner’s. But Werner wasn’t harmed. Olive knew this. He felt this. But.

Olive shook his head, attempting to dispel the ringing in his ears and searched the swampy ground for Werner. There.

The Capricornian had been thrown back several feet by the blast and was now beginning to bring himself back up into a crouch. Without glancing at Olive, he returned to the cover of the boulder—half of which had been annihilated by the blast—and signaled his groaning, recovering men to lay low but move forward.

“I need three men on that target,” Werner ordered. “They may have gotten their hands on conductors, but they don’t know how to use them efficiently. Otto, go back to base and report that the Argoans at the twenty-third section have conductors. We need reinforcements.”

“But—”

“Go!”

The ordered man scrambled to a stand and darted back through the muddy swampland. Werner, however, remained pressed up against the rock. He locked eyes with Olive and answered the unasked question—

I’m staying. I was ordered to gain control over this section. I will hold here until we have reinforcements.

Without another word, Werner turned his back to Olive, aimed his conductor, and fired. 

What? But this was crazy. Why were they still pushing forward? There was no way they’d win. No way. 

Olive had seen it because Werner had seen it. They were outnumbered. Even if they came out of this with a win, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Run away. They all had to. If they didn’t then they would—Werner might—

Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—

—then slipped forward and face-planted into the mud. He scrambled to his feet and reached for Werner again. But Werner was nowhere to be found. Realization dawned a beat after as he registered that his outstretched hand was gloved. Werner’s hand. 

“Lieutenant?!” 

Someone scrambled to Olive’s side. A familiar-looking man with dark black hair and glasses splattered with mud and water droplets. There was blood running down his face. 

“Lieutenant…?”

Olive stared at him, and the man stared directly back.

“How many grenades should I conjure, Lieutenant?! Do you need another conductor?!” 

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it. 

“Lieutenant?!”

And then Olive reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist. The man stiffened, looked down at Olive’s grip, and then back up at Olive.

“Retreat,” Olive said slowly, quietly, so quietly that he wasn’t sure whether he’d said anything at all.

“… what?”

“Retreat!” Olive snapped, jerking the man towards him as he scrambled to a stand.  “Do you not know what that means?!”

Without waiting for a response, Olive began to run, dragging the man along with him. They had barely made it a foot away from the rock before there was another flash of light and the entire thing exploded into fragments. One of them fragments caught Olive’s temple, and he stumbled forward blindly. When he caught himself and looked up, he found a cluster of Capricornian soldiers staring at him wide-eyed and gaping. 

“Retreat!” Olive shouted at the flabbergasted soldiers huddled in front of him as he tugged the glasses-wearing man along. “What will staring do? Retreat—now!”

There was only a split second of confusion and hesitation before the soldiers scrambled upright and began to flee backwards. Olive followed after them, tugging the glasses-wearing man along with him for only a little while longer before he shoved him forward to run on his own.

Their flight was met with a rain of light from the direction that the grenade had come from. Vitae rays. 

Olive didn’t know what was worse. The boom they made as they pelted the ground around him, or the moment of blindness he had when one hit an area in front of him. He didn’t know at all. All he knew was that he had to run.

 Run. Run. Run. 

Olive wasn’t sure how long they ran for but eventually his knees gave out and he collapsed on all fours. Everything was a haze. Footsteps around him, panting, gasping. Was he even still alive? He fisted the mud and felt the cold seep in between his gloved fingers. Something wasn’t right. He felt sick. Saints. He felt sick. He wanted to heave but couldn’t. 

A pair of feet entered his periphery.

Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.

A man with peppered grayed hair was in front of him. The man looked like he could be a schoolteacher if it weren’t for the dead look in his eyes and the mud and blood caked to his military uniform.

Olive recognized this man. He was Werner’s captain. Captain Weingartner. The man’s lips were moving—

“—retreat?”

What?

“Werner, what’s going on? Why did you retreat?”

“Werner.”

Olive blinked at Weingartner through a haze of heat, dirt, and sweat. In the background, he could make out the shapes of heaving, shifting soldiers. He swallowed, panted, blinked. Wiped the sweat from his face. What in the world was going on? 

He could feel the wetness of the air, feel the grit of dirt rubbing in between his toes and the rubber of his shoes. The squelching of rubber against mud, the absence of the open breeze, the cling of cloth against his sweaty back.

Something was definitely wrong. Why was he still here? Why—

“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”

“If you really like the sound of your voice that much you should be a politician.”

As soon as the words left Olive’s mouth, his heart stopped. In the place of the thrumming of his heart, he instead felt the beat of Werner’s heart. Hammering, thumping, beating.

The full weight of what he had done sunk in. 

Olive stared at the captain, and the captain stared back. And then the captain’s eyes narrowed.

“Lieutenant Waltz, would you care to repeat that?”

A stampede of sloshing footsteps from behind Olive cut him off before he could retort.  Someone clamped a hand on his shoulder and jerked him backwards. Olive turned his head. 

Brown hair and slate gray eyes. A half-grin, maybe smirk. Gilbert Wolff. Werner’s Second Lieutenant and childhood friend. Someone who knew about the synchronizations. Vague memories came to Olive’s mind.

“Captain Weingartner.” Gilbert gave a salute. “I think Lieutenant Waltz may have a concussion. I saw him hit the ground pretty hard earlier before the retreat.  I think I should take him to medical.”

Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.

And so, for effect, Olive promptly bent over and puked. 

***

Gilbert guided Olive through a ridiculously slippery path. Every step led to a mudslide that the Capricornian had to rescue him from. Olive had resisted at first but eventually conceded to the man’s help when he ended up slipping right into a five foot pit at one point. After a mile or so of silent treading, they came across a large stone slab. When they rounded the rock, Gilbert grabbed Olive’s shoulder and spun him around. 

“Werner?” The man’s eyes searched Olive’s for something he evidently did not find. He then tried again in Common: “… who are you?” Gilbert opened his mouth again in the silence that followed but paused and continued to stare.

Olive felt uneasy under the man’s gaze, but then realized why the man was gazing at him so intensely. Olive was shaking. His shoulders were trembling. He wasn’t sure if it was from the frigid cold that was burning his cheeks or—

 Saints. He was pathetic.

Olive jerked himself away. “Don’t touch me.”

Gilbert recoiled and raised his hands, eyes wide with surprise. He paused and swallowed, before he said, “My bad.” His gaze lingered. “The tent’s this way. Nico’ll probably know how to handle this better.”

They found Nico in the first of a series of lined up tents that were set up behind a cliff face a mile deeper into the forest. When they entered, Olive was immediately overwhelmed by a putrid smell. The smell wasn’t an overwhelming alcohol-filled slap to the face, but it wasn’t a nauseating wave of suffocating iron either. It was a terrible mixture of both.

Pulling the crook of his elbow up to his face, he recoiled away from the tent’s flap. Gilbert paused and turned back with a raised brow. Undeterred. Olive dropped his hand and frowned.

“It smells.”

Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”

After a beat, he followed Gilbert into the tent. Blinking away the tears that formed at the smell that permeated within, he surveyed the interior.

There was a row of beds lining each side of the tent with nothing between them besides an occasional metal cart. The beds were occupied by uniformed men and women who were pale yet sweating. Some of them looked like if they moved even an inch they would die from exhaustion. 

A coldness gripped Olive’s insides at the sight of them, and he felt as if just by breathing in the same space as them he was decreasing their chances of survival—  

“Hey, you home?”

Olive ripped his gaze away from the groaning woman on the bed closest to him and came face-to-face with a frowning Gilbert Wolff and a pensive Nico Fabrizzio. 

Olive regarded Nico. Cadence’s longtime, childhood friend. Olive had only seen flashes of Nico from the handful of Cadence’s memories that had trickled into his mind since their six-way connection began. In those memories, Nico had been a teary-eyed, curly-haired mess of a boy who followed Cadence around like a lackey. Now he stood before Olive tall and almost dignified. Almost intimidating.  

“So you’ve switch places? You guys call it an override or something, right?” Nico drew slowly in Common, wiping his gloved hands on a rag at his side. “You can’t switch back?”

Olive’s teeth were clacking inside of his mouth, and he was sure if he tried to answer he’d bite his—Werner’s—tongue right off. Nico’s eyes widened, and he headed to the back of the tent.

“Nico’s the only medic in here,” Gilbert provided. “So you don’t need to hold your breath.”

When Nico returned, he was holding a folded blanket which he held out to him. After a long beat Olive accepted it and threw it over his shoulders. He shrugged into its warmth. 

“So.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Why’re you here?”

Olive scoffed. “You’re acting like I want to be stuck in the middle of a mud swamp in the middle of a death zone. We obviously don’t share the same interests.” When he registered Nico’s wide-eyed stare, he clarified. “I’m not a masochist.”

Nico’s gaze softened. “Right. This must be pretty terrifyin’ for you.”

The pity in Nico’s eyes was infuriating. 

“I’d be more terrified of someone who wasn’t terrified of something like this,” Olive returned. 

Nico and Gilbert exchanged a look. Right. After the whole fiasco with Major Ersatz, Cadence, ELPIS, and the Aquarians, the two men had somehow struck up some weird sort of friendship. Olive personally didn’t understand it. From what he’d seen from Cadence’s and Werner’s memories, Gilbert and Nico were almost complete opposites. Weird. Creepy. 

Then again, these were two people that Werner trusted. And Olive himself could feel that trust the man felt for them so—

“This is the first time I’ve overridden someone, so I’m on edge.” Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. “Maria’s the only one who’s done it like this before, but she’s something else so I can’t draw from her or anything.”

“Okay. That’s alright.” Nico nodded encouragingly. “Do you know what you were doing before this happened?”

“I doubt it’s going to help, but all I was doing was looking for books to study for the Conducting Exam,” Olive recalled. “And then I synchronized with Werner. And I—”

“Study for the—how old are you?!”

Olive sent Gilbert a pointed glare before looking away. “Not as old as you are obviously, old man.”

“Old man?!”

“Look, I just wanted to…” Olive grimaced, fisting the blanket. “…help. I wanted to help. Excuse me for not wanting to jump into a suicide run.”

“So you were the one who ordered the retreat then. Not Werner.” Gilbert pulled back and sighed. He ruffled his hair and rolled his neck. “Well, that makes more sense.” He gestured to Nico and then to Olive. “So, what do you make of this, Nico? Can you fix it?”

Nico’s shoulders sagged. “I… I honestly don’t know. Sorry. But… Werner is all right, right? What are the others in your group saying about what’s going on?”

“The others…” Olive reached out for them as he’d done countless times before and then froze. He reached again—this time a bit more desperately.  There was a vast stretch of cold emptiness in the intangible space they’d always hazily occupied. It wasn’t like those times when their synchronization fell below thirty percent. Even then, he was able to feel them in the distance. Nothing like now. Nothing like this pit that reminded him too much of those six years after the tragedy. He covered his ears hoping that maybe all the groans of the death and dying were just too loud for him to hear them, but— “I can’t feel the others…. I can’t.”

“It’s okay. Calm down.” Nico was easing him down onto a crate at the corner of the tent. “Just relax.”

Olive lowered his hands, suddenly feeling weak. He was glad that he was sitting. If he wasn’t, he probably would’ve just fallen to—maybe even through—the ground then and there. “What if…” What if he was stuck like this? What if Werner was—

A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off. 

“Look, kid. If you’re really connected with Werner, you should know he’s much tougher than that. Don’t worry about things that don’t need to be worried about.”

Olive glanced up. It was Gilbert. The man looked uncomfortable, and his hand was barely, delicately resting on Olive’s shoulder—like he thought that even the slightest touch would make Olive crumble to ash. Olive wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed or laugh at the ridiculousness of it. He’d seen Gilbert’s demeanor through Werner’s eyes, after all, and delicate was definitely not a word to describe the man.

“I really don’t need reassurance from someone who’s been stuck as a Second Lieutenant for four years,” Olive said after a beat as he pulled away from the man and unfolded from himself. 

“Hey!” Gilbert pulled his hand away and then frowned deeper, rubbing the back of his neck. “Did Werner tell you that or something?”

Clownishness aside, Gilbert was right. There was no use feeling sorry for himself.

Olive held out his gloved hand. Clenched it and unclenched. The leather that was sticking to his sweating palm felt like it was ripping his skin right off. Why did Werner even like wearing these things? “Atienna said something about emotional state having to do with it but—”

“I-Is Lieutenant Waltz, alright?” came a question asked in Capricornian.

Olive felt his nausea intensify as he lifted his head. Standing at the flap of the tent was the Capricornian soldier with flattened black hair and a pair of round glasses—the soldier Olive literally dragged through the mud in his escape. The blood had been cleaned up off the soldier’s face, and he was now sporting bandages around his head. The man’s name was coming to Olive now. Klaus Kleine. A Conjuror in Werner’s squadron who was present during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.

“What are you doing here, Kleine?” Gilbert asked in Capricornian, stepping in front of Olive casually. “You know Nico can’t fix your glasses if you’ve broken them again. Can’t you conjure yourself a new one?”

Flushing, Klaus Kleine pushed his glasses up the bridge of his short nose and stammered, “I-It’s not that, sir. I just wanted to see if the Lieutenant was alright. He helped me during the retreat.” Klaus looked up. Their eyes met. 

Olive reflexively glared. 

“Is the Lieutenant—”

“Look, Kleine,” Gilbert sighed in Capricornian as he drew to the tent’s entrance, “it’s great that you’ve got yourself promoted to Lance Corporal, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You still have a couple more ranks to go before you can be friendly with the First Lieutenant. Hell, look at me. I’m only one rank under and—” 

“Does this have to do with what happened to the Aquarian Captain three months ago?”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. Before Olive could even think of what Klaus was implying, Gilbert grabbed the man by the scruff and dragged him into the room. Klaus stared wide-eyed at Gilbert and struggled to stay on his toes as he was lifted off the floor. 

Werner was going to be so pissed. 

“Hey, saints, calm down—” Olive began to mutter with a frown. A sharp pain abruptly struck his temple, cutting him off short. 

“Yeah, Gilbert, let’s hear what he has to say first,” Nico agreed. 

Gilbert and Klaus glanced at the combat medic, before the former released the latter. Klaus stumbled back and steadied himself before he said something quickly in Capricornian. Clipped and harsh as usual. But—and a chill crept up Olive’s spine as he realized this—Olive could not understand what the man was saying. His head buzzed at the revelation, and he tried his best to hang onto the words the two Capricornian soldiers exchanged. But it was gibberish.

What was going on?

Even at the very beginning of their connection, Olive had been able to understand vaguely what the Capricornians had been saying on Werner’s end despite only speaking Common fluently. So now why—

Gilbert had turned to him was now addressing him in Capricornian. 

The sounds meant nothing to him. 

Gilbert seemed to have recognized his confusion, because his brows rose and he asked in Common, “Oh yeah, you don’t speak Capricornian, right?”

Olive shrugged and didn’t comment on the oddity. There was no point in panicking about it. It’d just cause more problems not worth the trouble.

“Well,” Gilbert continued in Common, “Kleine here says that on the day the Aquarian Captain disappeared, he saw a certain someone with that Aquarian Captain waltzing through the woods. Apparently there was a confrontation between that someone and Kleine, but Kleine here decided to keep his mouth shut for curiosity’s sake.”

Maria. Of course it was Maria.

 Olive narrowed his eyes first at Klaus and then at Gilbert. “What did you tell him?”

“Only what Werner told me.” 

Olive stiffened further. His mind raced. Werner would definitely not want to involve any more people he knew in this mess. Out of all six of them, Werner had become the most stringent about keeping things discrete and quiet after the events following Ersatz. 

Swallowing his alarm, Olive muttered, “You must be the type of person who tells people where you hide your money. Might as well tell the entire world at this point.”

“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”

Klaus said something again in Capricornian before he got a nudge on the back by Gilbert. Klaus startled, glanced wearily in between them, and then spoke in accented Common: “Ever since then, I have been…” He seemed to struggle to find the word. “… keeping an eye out. I knew it was something else. The Lieutenant is good at appearing normal, but I watch. Carefully. I thought Lieutenant had condition.” He gestured to Nico and Gilbert. “I thought Doctor Fabrizzio transferred here to help with condition. But then secrecy between you three so I figured something else. Did not expect this. Phenomenon.”  He mumbled to himself a bit more before he gave a salute and hesitantly extended his hand. “Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine.”

Olive frowned at the extended hand before pointedly crossing his arms. “I know who you are.” He looked away and found his gaze fixated on the unconscious woman on the bed again. He wasn’t sure if she’d become several shades paler since he’d walked into the room or if his eyes had adjusted to the light. He squeezed his arm and muttered, “It’s too convenient. That you’d be interested in helping Werner. It’s suspicious as hell.”

Klaus stared at him wide-eyed before giving an uncertain look to Gilbert who shrugged nonplussed.

“Look, Olive, right?” Gilbert gestured to him offhandedly. “I don’t know where you’re from, but here, we don’t have time for that. Save that for the politicians. If Kleine really wanted to run off with this info, he’d have done it three months ago. Besides, the only thing you’re doing right now, kid, is making Werner look crazy.”

“Well, then at least now Werner will blend in with the crowd here,” Olive offered nonchalantly. “But whatever. This is your place, not mine.”

Klaus was gaping again.

Gilbert flourished his hands sarcastically. “Thank you.”

Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. He was certain now. It wasn’t just his nerves that had him shaking. It was freezing out here. He couldn’t understand how Werner and the other soldiers could stand it. 

“Stop looking so stressed, kid. I get that your little possession group likes to keep things tight and under the table. Makes sense. But still—” Gilbert grimaced and shook his head as he looked Olive over. “This is so damned weird. I’m looking at Werner but I’m not.”

“Don’t look at me then,” Olive returned. He thought back to the incident with Izsak and Leona and then to Usian, Ersatz, and Verga. “It’s not like we don’t have a good reason to be cautious.” Before Gilbert could respond, Olive addressed Klaus with a slight nod. “So what’s in it for you? Do you want to blackmail us or something? Money? Promotion?” Olive squinted. “Eye surgery?”

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions, and he shook his head wildly. “No, no, no, of course not! I—” He dug into his uniform pants pocket and then shoved something into Olive’s hands. A small, leather-bound journal no larger than his hand. Reminiscent of Olive’s own journal. “Here. Notes in here.”

Olive arched a brow and opened it. “It’s in Capricornian,” he stated flatly but continued to flip through it anyways. He did recognize a couple of words. Oberleutenant, First Lieutenant. Morgen, morning. Geheimnis, secret.  Each page was marked with a date at the top. While the initial entries were short and concise, the latter entries following July 5th were much more detailed. July 5th. When Maria overrode Cadence and Werner. 

“Want to know. I like to observe—”

“You don’t need to try to defend your hobbies to me. I don’t really care what you do in your free time.” Olive interjected.  Klaus would probably get along well with Talib, he thought to himself as he turned another page.  

“I—er—” Klaus glanced at Gilbert who shrugged. He flushed in turn.

“It’s still weird.” Olive continued to flip through Klaus’s observations. He paused halfway through on a page that contained a sketch of what appeared to be a conductor. It was a set of thick ring conductors connected together by insulation tubes. “You’re trying to design your own custom conductor?”

Klaus flushed again. “Yes. Military conductors not tailored to Conductor. Hard to use sometimes, it is. New conductors shipped in recently—”

Olive figured he was referring to the conductors the Romanos and the Foxmans were shipping to the Capricornian Army as a part of the new deal Cadence and Werner initiated. The idea didn’t sit well with Olive at all. Illegally producing conductors and selling them to fuel a war. Cadence had of course wiped her hands clean of the matter, and whenever Werner spoke of it he merely said that it was none of Olive’s concern. 

“—said we can request our own custom conductor—”

“The concept is good but there is no way that this’ll be able to handle the amount of vitae particles you expel as Conjurer to create things,” Olive said. “You’ll overheat the thing. Conductors who conduct intraneously will never be able to use something like this. If you’re a Transmutationists, then maybe… but other than that…” Olive handed Klaus his journal back.

“Thank you…” Accepting the journal, Klaus glanced between them all. “So… what now? With Lieutenant? Solution? Idea?”

A beat of silence. 

Olive stared at his hand. “Well, I’ve never actually been overridden myself before. Not completely, I mean.”

“Maybe if you to be… knocked unconscious….” Klaus drew. “Then there would be… recalibration?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take. For someone who presented himself as a bookworm, Klaus sure was violent. But then again, Klaus was a soldier. Violence was on the roster. 

“We can’t do that!” Nico objected, startling Olive with the intensity of his voice. “You might really injure Werner. Head injuries are serious!”

“Well, it’s better than me being stuck here like this,” Olive finally mumbled. “I can’t do anything. I’ll just end up getting Werner killed or something.” His gaze was once again drawn back to the woman lying on the bed. “Besides, you don’t look like you have the time to waste here—ow!” Olive jerked forward as something sharp cracked against the back of his skull. When he turned, he found Gilbert standing behind him with the butt of his conducting rifle still in the air.

“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed. 

“What is wrong with you…?” Olive muttered, rubbing the bruise that was beginning to blossom at the area of impact. 

Gilbert lowered the  rifle and swung it back over his shoulder. “You agreed.” A pause. “So feel any different?”

“Well, yeah. The back of my head hurts now,” Olive grumbled. He frowned as the pain throbbing at the back of his head abruptly dulled. “I feel sort of—”

The world lost focus, and Olive was reminded of the watercolor paintings Maria had stolen from a ship bound to Cancer. Smears of brown, yellow, and gray. 

Olive stumbled forward, reaching for the support of the crate behind him. Just as he reached it, however, it fell away from his sights. As did the beds in the room, as did the dirty ground beneath his feet, as did the cold and the nauseating smells within the tent.

And then there was deep black.

*** 

When Olive opened his eyes, he did not see the gray of the clouded skyline nor did he see the tan of the Capricornian medical tent. Instead he saw sky blue silk drapes and the top of a mahogany bed canopy.  

He held his hand in front of him. Sunburnt and gloveless. He was back. Back on a bed. A comfortable bed.

Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—

—wow, where did you all go? Is this some sort of new trick? I would like to learn it!

—it was strange not feeling you—

—how are you all feeling?

The synchronization was low level but came with such force that Olive nearly leapt out of the bed. He could feel them again. All of them. The hollowness had been filled.

Fine, fine, I’m fine, Olive thought back as he sat up.

Werner was there. Olive could feel him too. But Olive did not venture any further than that. He knew it was fruitless, but he tried his best to pull his thoughts and feelings away from the man as much as possible. He couldn’t face him after what he’d done. 

“Your Highness!” 

Olive glanced to his left and found Trystan sitting on a chair at his bedside. The man unfolded himself quickly and drew nearer. 

“Are you feeling alright?”

“I look how I feel,” Olive grumbled, “but I’m fine. What happened?”

“You passed out at the bookstore suddenly. You were out for the entire day…”

Olive swallowed, studying the sky-blue drapes. The color was familiar. “This isn’t our inn. Where are we?”

“Well…” Trystan pulled back and inclined his head.

Olive followed the man’s nod to the left side of the wall where a paper window stood wide and open. There was a cherry blossom tree growing just outside there, and a soft wind plucked the pink petals from its branches and tossed them into the room. 

“Claire?”

Plucking a stray cherry blossom petal from his hair, the Sagittarian prince turned away from the window and offered a pleasant smile. “Morning, Olive.”

Sagittarius is a rich, diverse, and windy country and the largest country of Signum. It consists of ten clans and is ruled by one emperor. Each clan hosts its own unique language, culture, and way of life and is governed by one royal family whose members share blood relations to the emperor.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

7.0: A Broker’s Concern (Malignità)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured. The six main characters have come together to save the Ariesian Prince from an assassination attempt made not only by the Capricornian Watch but also by the terrorist organization ELPIS. Virgo is out of isolation, the traitorous Verga has been removed, the missing peacekeeping agent has been found, the Watch has been disbanded, and now…

Twin Cities, Gemini

There was always “a word on the street” in the Twin Cities of Gemini. There was always something big happening in the city. Rumors, tall tales, gossip, and the like circulated through alleyways and late-night casinos like currency. Gossip for gossip, rumor for rumor. All done without an air of professionalism. Parsing through not only the truths and lies within these things professionally was what Astante did for a living.

For example, there was a rumor on the street that he was the best at his job. The best information broker in town was what they called him. While this was an interesting rumor, no one would pay good money for it.

Mulling about this to himself in his office, Astante emptied out his favorite box of dominoes onto his desk.

People in this city were more interested in other matters. Such matters that could easily tip the delicate balance of the city. Yes. The east half of the city and the west half of the city were on opposite ends of a wonderfully crafted scale that had been in place long before he took up this profession. It was a delicate balance that he watched carefully. He took note of even the most minute shifts, even the smallest tips of the scale.

Sighing, the information broker selected a domino from the pile and with careful precision balanced it upright on his table.

It started off with an interesting woman dropping by his office without appointment and requesting information on a renowned mercenary group that operated in the south-eastern countries of Signum. In exchange for this information, she offered him a large suitcase full of currency from different countries. Usually, he’d ask people for a piece of information as well, but she was so entertaining that he let her go with just that.

Astante had a scheduled appointment right after that with a young man who wanted information on the schedules of the leaders of a certain group. The young man claimed that he wanted an audience with the Foxmans for a job application and was tired of queuing for weeks for them. A terrible lie. So terrible, that Astante decided to go right along with it.

The Foxman brothers were a small crime organization that had a reasonable amount of power in the city due to their control over the city’s docks. There were three of them all together with the eldest Allen serving as the main head. They dealt in shipping all types of black-market goods in and out of the city and had a friendly business relationship with the Romano Family of the east side. At the end of each week, the three brothers would come together for a round of cards at the Rosario Round, a casino that served as one of their money-laundering fronts.

In exchange for this information regarding the brothers, the broker requested information about the changing relations occurring between the Campana Family of the west side of the city and the Romano Family from the liar. As usual, his lying patron was startled at his request but begrudgingly gave it when he learned that he wouldn’t receive the information he wanted unless he gave some himself. That was the art of brokering, after all.

Three days later, a rumor circulated the streets. One of the Foxman brothers had apparently been ambushed in the back alleyway outside of the Rosario Round. Of the five men who had accompanied him, only two had survived. The brother was left in critical condition.

Frowning as he recalled this, Astante continued to line up the dominoes.

Following this chatter, he had found himself booked for every day the following week. His first client was unsurprisingly the other two Foxman brothers. He was nearly thrown from his chair when he informed them that he had divulged their patterns to another patron. He was almost thrown out the window when he declined to tell them who requested such information.

“It’s policy,” he had told them. “Client protection.” In turn, they refused to tell him about their current relations between the Romano Family and the Campana Family.

That was fine, the broker supposed. He hadn’t given them information they hadn’t already known anyways. Besides, several days later that he had received that information from a member of the Campana Family who wanted to know if the Foxman brother who was stabbed truly survived the incident.

An hour after that Foxman encounter, he had been greeted with yet another unscheduled visit by a Saggitarian tourist who requested information on the best touring sites in Gemini and Aquarius. As the Saggitarian put it, he wanted the “good, secret, one-of-a-kind” locations that no one knew about. Which was an astounding request in itself. The Sagittarian requested locations that were “so jaw-droppingly inspiring that laying eyes on it sent people to hospitals.” A strange request to an information broker, but Astante was so entertained that he let the man have the information free of charge.

That too was surely something akin to a domino, he thought as he placed another piece down near the edge of his desk.

He was starting to run out of room. He glanced at the newspaper laying beside the domino he’d just placed. The headline took over half the front page—

TWIN CITIES MAYOR LUCIANO VARGAS MURDERED IN PRESENCE OF BODYGUARDS. WHAT DOES THIS SPELL FOR OUR CITY?

The fine-print article below it detailed the events of the mayor’s death. To summarize, one moment the mayor was in one piece, and in the next his limbs were scattered across his office. A locked-room mystery.

Astante brushed the paper to the ground and continued to line up the dominoes in the cleared space.

The rumors surrounding the mayor’s death came aplenty. Each one was more outrageous than the next.

The dockworkers and young kids had speculated that the Golden Beast was behind it. There was no other explanation for such a sudden and grizzly death. The Golden Beast was a story that started off as a small sea tale that had exploded out into a full-on popular urban legend. A tale about a merciless monster that disappeared people in a flash. He knew, however, that the spread of this legend could be traced to a renowned swindler who often took offers from the Romano Family.

After laying down the last domino, Astante leaned back to admire his work.

Of course, those were just rumors. Mere speculation. And although there was no such thing as a useless rumor and groundless speculation, the truth of the matter lay in a completely opposite direction.

This was all tied to three peculiar visitors who came to see him recently: the woman with the snake tattoo on the left side of her face, the man who seemed to have a book attached to his right arm, and that smiling saint candidate.

However, there was always a shade of truth in rumors. And the truth from that rumor of the Golden Beast was that normal people were no longer part of this pile-up.

With a hum, Astante reached out and flicked one of the dominoes at the end of the lineup. As he spun in his chair, he tuned his ears to the wonderful crescendo off the dominoes falling one after the other.

“With the Twin Cities left mayorless in the wake of this tragedy, many residents are left concerned on what this means for the safety of their families. Some are calling for a more detailed investigation of the mayor’s murder by the Twin Cities’s Police Officer Comissario Vincente Giustizia, while others are looking to the future and debating who should next take up the reigns.

We interviewed a trio of young businessmen on the street on what they thought of the mayor’s death. Although two declined to comment, one gave the following statement: ‘With the mayor gone, maybe there’s still hope for this place. Maybe we can now move forward.’

By this statement alone, the division of our city is clear. 

Former Mayor Vargas leaves behind a loving wife and three year old daughter.”

The Daily Duo, 03.11.1941

6c: Outsiders Looking In

Yuseong Haneul—though he preferred the name Claire—sat on the ledge of the belfry overlooking the New Ram City’s market square. It was crowded as usual given the time of the day, but even still, he was able to pick him out from the crowd.

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance. He was standing at the exit of the marketplace, looking back with a determined expression. At his right was Trystan, and at his left was a birdcage.

Claire thrummed his fingers in thought, but a shadow dancing in the corner of his eye distracted him. He turned. A woman stood there. Her hair was a light blonde, her eyes an ice blue, her nose hooked and prominent.

“Why do you enjoy being stepped on so much?” she asked.

“Hey, I’m not a masochist,” he sighed. “But in order to create a better world, you need to be willing to make a few sacrifices.” He turned his attention back to the square and back to Olive.

She didn’t respond and instead followed his gaze to Olive. “Is he really one then?”

“Yup,” Claire affirmed with a thin smile, resting his cheek on his fist. “He’s like—”

“My Lord, who are you talking to?” came another voice.

It was Soha who had just climbed her way up the tower. She stood behind him without her mask. Her confusion was clear as her gaze swept the empty bell tower.

Claire chuckled. “To myself like usual.”

* * *

Leona approached the two-way mirror and peered inside.

Izsak Wtorek sat in the room on the opposite side of the glass. His hands were bound, and his eyes stared forward into nothing.

“They got rather close this time,” the man who stood next to Leona murmured. “ELPIS… to think they’d taken an Ophiuchian agent…”

Leona glanced at him. His brows were furrowed, his lips drawn tight, eyes focused on the man on the opposite side of the mirror. An expression of loss.

“But they’ll continue making the same mistakes over and over again,” Leona returned. “Struggling like an ant.” She observed Izsak. “Don’t worry. Izsak’s and Ophiuchus’s reputation will be saved since we pinned his actions on the act of illegal manipulation conducting. Of course, we’ll keep him here and alive to see if ELPIS decides he is worth retrieving.”

A soft chuckle. “With all due respect—from one saint candidate to another—ants are quite powerful when they work together, Leona… but, thank you.”

“No need to thank me. That aside, you can still crush them with your boot—ants, that is.”

“This was hopeless from the beginning. They should know this.” Another chuckle. “Well, your temporary problem and the end of the border conflict aside, we’ve had good developments. Virgo has finally come out of isolation after some prodding. Unexpectedly, it was a daughter of the Imamu tribe that did it. And… you found one of them?”

“Yes, a True Conductor. A pretty amusing one.” Leona smiled. “I’ve already put a tab on her, but we shouldn’t make a move until we know who she’s connected to.”

“That’s good. We’re close to the syzygy. True peace at last.”

* * *

The pitch-black warehouse smelled of iron.

“They really went after you, Omicron,” came a voice from the shadows. “From the Twin Cities to Aries to here.”

“No, they didn’t send a saint candidate. They must not see us as enough a threat.”

“That’s a good thing. Usian failed and the Geminians still have our shipment. Plus, Verga’s dead.”

“Right. The Romano Family and the Foxmans.”

“We have to get it back.”

“And the Ophiuchians have two of ours too. What a headache.”

Moonlight spilled into the warehouse, illuminating a lake of crimson. The bodies that floated in the pool were identifiable only by the white sashes wrapped around their arms. The whiteness of the sashes matched the whiteness of the snake-like tattoos of those who stood above the corpses.

“We’re the only hope left.”

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

The Watch has been stopped. Wtorek Izsak has been revealed to be affiliated with ELPIS and has been apprehended by Gabrielle Law. Due to the efforts of the swindler, the soldier, the chieftain’s daughter, the pirate,  the peacekeeper, and the prince himself, the prince has survived. They have survived. But questions and choices still need to be made. It is time to move on forward.

Olive felt like he’d been picked up by a whirlwind, tossed around in the air for the better part of a week, and then gently placed back down onto the ground as if all was in order. Everything fell into place the next couple of weeks after the Watch’s attack so perfectly that Olive couldn’t help but feel unnerved.

Gabrielle and Jericho left a week after the incident with Izsak in cuffs. Other Ophiuchian Agents, including Leona and Talib, arrived to apprehend the remaining members of the Watch and to bring them in for questioning. Samuel and the other guards present during the attack were making a recovery at the hospital. Olive had visited them for the most part during the stay, but as soon as they were well enough to make lengthy conversation, he stopped visiting.

Trystan was released from prison and was re-offered his position, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the feudal lord heading the Ariesian Investigation Bureau was called into questioning in his place. Olive figured that if he looked hard enough, he might find poetic justice in there somewhere. 

Olive learned from Cadence that the Romano Family and the Foxmans were working with Ophiuchus to find out exactly what else Verga had been shipping for ELPIS. Ricardo and the Foxmans had also rented out Matilda and her crew’s services. They were delivery men again, although they now transported conductor parts from facility to facility instead of whole conductors to civilians. It was stupid, Olive had thought, for them all to end up right back where they started. 

“That’s how the city works,” Cadence answered with a shrug as she attended the party celebrating the new partnership. “They had nowhere else to go anyways. Rinse and repeat.”

In the middle of a toast at the aforementioned party, Francis had coyly offered to Cadence a packet of normal cigarettes and a bottle of wine.  But after casting a glance in Olive’s direction, Cadence accepted only the wine.

Werner appeared to be ending on a slightly more positive note. After extensive interviews from Ophiuchian Agents and Capricornian officials, it was decided that Werner acted appropriately in the situation regarding Ersatz and ELPIS and that he was uninvolved with Ersatz’s plan. A statement by the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer also proved his and his division’s innocence. The Capricornian government was ruled to be involved in the ELPIS machinations as well.

Major Ersatz had survived the battle and was brought to Ophiuchus to be detained and questioned about his ELPIS involvement. He was given a dishonorable discharge by Capricorn, and the Watch was dismantled shortly after—per order of Ophiuchus. Werner was revered as a hero and given temporary leave, which he extended to the rest of his division.

The Ophiuchians also mediated the border conflict, and it was resolved with the vitae reservoir being declared as belonging within Capricornian borders. There were reparations to be made on both sides. Gilbert had derised the swiftness of it all and had something akin to “if it was solved that easily then why fight over it to begin with” to which Olive couldn’t help but agree. 

Soon after that, a new combat medic was introduced to Werner’s division. His placement was followed by a sudden influx of weaponized conductors. The oddity was questioned by common soldiers but remained unquestioned by high-ranking officers. On the surface the medic’s responsibilities seemed to merely be tending to the injuries of those within the division. However, his true responsibility lay in acting as a liaison between “the Capricornian army and certain organizations in Gemini” or so stated the official documentation Werner received a week prior to the medic’s arrival.

Cadence was worried, but they all knew Werner was reliable. Nico would be fine.

Maria’s side was surprisingly more subdued. Her ship had been quiet and empty since Olive’s incident. She pulled back into Pollux Bay a few days following the event, and the Foxmans greeted her warmly, much to the surprise of Morandi and his men. After hearing about her circumstances from Conta, the Foxmans offered her the services of Morandi and his men with condolences. Although there was some resistance at first, a flash of Geminian cens sealed the deal for Morandi’s group. They set out to sea the very next day.

When Olive asked what Maria’s goal really was on a stormy night at sea, she had laughed and said, “There was only one moment when I was not in control of my life, and I am in the search of the person responsible for it.” When he asked why in the world she would chase after someone like that, she simply responded with her usual ‘why not?’ Olive didn’t think he’d ever understand Maria.

Atienna’s conclusion made a bit more sense to Olive. Virgo ended its isolation two weeks after Usian’s arrest. Atienna’s father, however, resigned from the Tribal Council and stepped down as chieftain of the Imamu Tribe. Bachiru was upset, but Atienna thought it was for the best. She was planning to take a step forward, after all. Not as chieftain, of course. That responsibility was for someone else more worthy. Now that Virgo was ready to reach out to the world again, a diplomatic party needed to be formed to interact with the other countries. And Atienna was determined to have a foot in it. Despite the strength of her words, however, Olive could feel the falter through the link that they shared. He decided not to address the matter. 

Atienna herself spent quite some time researching the meanings behind ‘syzygy’ and ‘True Conductor’, but it seemed as if without a Conducting License she could barely scratch the surface of anything. How ELPIS and Leona knew of these words was also a mystery. And since there were so many dangerous unknowns involved, the six of them agreed to keep their connection under the table until they figured out how to resolve it. This agreement occurred following Atienna’s long-winded proposal, of course.

A small resolution came with Claire as well. With the conclusion of the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict and the promise of reparations, Claire graciously returned home. But not after solidifying Sagittarian-Ariesian relations with the king and queen and then insisting that he and Olive become pen-pals during the same meeting. No tact at all, or perhaps too much tact. Olive had declined the offer point-blank in front of his aunt, uncle, and the feudal lords. Of course, Claire had just laughed the entire ordeal off.

While Olive’s personal relations did not seem to improve much, Olive discovered that Jericho’s relations did.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he did his best to avoid the commotion that came with his mission completion. The mystery of what had unfolded was the new buzz of the Serpens Establishment, and wiithin the first few days of his return, Jericho was approached by over a dozen peacekeepers pressing him for details. Thankfully, the ELPIS Department made a statement on Leona’s disappearance and Izsak’s involvement not long after.

According to the report, Leona had been ambushed by ELPIS after a fellow peacekeeper disclosed her location to them. A traitor to the upstanding, philanthropic Romano organization of the Twin Cities was then tasked by ELPIS to handle her imprisonment, but the traitor was discovered by the organization and was dealt with swiftly. Meanwhile, Leona managed to break free of her captors and successfully stopped the assassination of the Ariesian prince. The assassination was orchestrated by a recently ELPIS-converted Capricornian major with the assistance of the aforementioned peacekeeper. There was no mention of Maria’s ship.

Talk about paintin’ a pretty picture, Cadence thought as Atienna read the article in the newspaper. Not givin’ credit where credit is due.

The traitorous peacekeeper involved in the assassination attempt and Leona’s capture, the ELPIS Department elaborated, went by the name of Izsak Wtorek. A Taurusian who had served in Ophiuchus since its founding. Izsak was believed to have been under the influence of a Manipulator Conductor and was currently undergoing treatment in Ophiuchus through the Medical Department and the Psychological Evaluations Department.

Jericho and Talib’s names were mentioned only briefly at the end of the article. When pressed by Cadence, Jericho informed the group that he felt neither pleasure nor displeasure at this.

Shortly after the article was published, Talib invited Jericho to a party to celebrate a successful case closed and led Jericho into an office at the very back of the Serpens Establishment.

Within the office, Gabrielle sat at a desk with Alice Kingsley at her right and the pink-haired Ferris at her left. On a couch in the room sat three men and two women. All assessed Jericho with differing expressions upon his entrance.

“How would you like being my minion?” Gabrielle had asked, extending a hand. “I’m planning to become head chair of Ophiuchus and bring real peace to Signum, and I could really use someone like you on my team. You have a thing against ELPIS, right? Well, if you work with me, I can get you to them.”

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

Now Olive found himself kneeling before his uncle and aunt in the throne room of the royal palace. He had bowed upon entering and remained prostrate despite their insistence that he stand.

The red of the carpet below his feet was nostalgic. Almost alluring. Beckoning him to stay. To reconsider. To return to how things were before—skipping classes at the university, watching council meetings with disinterest, escaping to Marta’s shop to sleep for hours. It really was tempting. An easier way. Drifting through days with indifference.

But—

Mustering all of his courage, Olive lifted his gaze from the carpet to his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve decided to take the State Conducting Exam.”

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

“That’s wonderful, Olive!” Terra hummed. “Now that this is over with, you can return to the university and—”

“I’m going to study on my own,” Olive said. “I’m leaving the Capital.”

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

There was a flicker of black out of the corner of his eye. Not any of the others. Lavi.

“I don’t care if it looks like I’m running away. If I stay here, I’ll fall back into the same patterns over and over again. I won’t change,” Olive continued, rising to a stand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll never be able to repay you. I know it seems selfish of me leaving like this, but I have to take responsibility.”

His uncle and aunt remained silent. There was disappointment in their eyes. But he could live with that. Letting out a small breath, Olive turned away from them and exited the chambers with his sister following right behind.

“My brother’s been looking weirdly determined recently. Usually, I’d think that’s a bad thing but he looks kinda cool so maybe it’s a good thing this time.

Lavender Chance, unknown time

6a: Chance Ignition

Re-cap:

The Capricornian Watch, and the truth behind the assassination. Yuseong Haneul. Lavi Chance. 

Prince Olivier Chance’s mind is swirling with these recent revelations and with everything he has revealed to the others about that tragedy six years ago. Meanwhile, peacekeeper Wtorek Izsak has disappeared after making a mysterious, startling discovery. Unbeknownst to Olive, a spark has ignited and New Ram City braces itself for the flame.

New Ram City, Aries

“Run and hide.” That was what Werner said right after admitting he knew of the secret Capricornian organization behind Olive’s assassination attempt. Ten out of ten. Still, there had been regret in the man’s eyes and guilt too. And…

It was weird feeling concern coming from that man. A Capricornian soldier who executed people without a second thought.

No. Olive knew the situation wasn’t as black and white as that. It had just been easier for Olive to think of people that way. It made rejecting people easier, which made it easier for people to keep their distance. No loss for either party. But Olive wouldn’t be able to do that now. He wouldn’t be able to reject and run away. Not with this connection. Not with the others.

He still felt raw and exposed from his earlier outburst, and part of him just wanted to bury his head beneath the ground. The embarrassment was almost too much. Sleeping forever and forgetting all about this—it’d be easier if he just did that. Even better if he just disappeare—

Olive stopped the thought before it fully formed. He focused on the road ahead. It was a dusty, dirt road reaching from the mansion gates to the royal palace. As he glanced between the iron bars to the palace that was no bigger than his fist in the distance, he realized how isolated it truly was. The only people who travelled this path were maids, butlers, and guards coming and leaving work. Occasionally a merchant cart would roll by selling goods, and Olive could see one approaching them on the road now. Nowadays, merchant carts visited the mansion more often than his aunt and uncle. So, in reality, this place had been home for Olive alone. A fact he hadn’t noticed before.

Olive turned his head and glanced at Samuel beside him. The guard was conversing with the other guards posted at the gate. They were marveling at the v-ehicle they had pulled in from the palace. Olive had to resist rolling his eyes.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Olive had informed Samuel he had found a lead on the assassination plot. But Samuel didn’t seem alarmed by his information. Samuel’s casualness was most likely linked to Olive’s past unreliability. Even still, the guards were so casual about the entire affair that for a moment Olive felt he’d been overreacting about the entire thing. Werner did seem the type to over-worry anyway. It was ridiculous—Werner worrying about this when the man had just barely made it out of a battle alive. Really—

Before Olive even finished the thought, an arrow whizzed right past his head and ricocheted off of the iron bars behind him. Olive turned his head in confusion and found a familiar arrow resting on the ground at his feet.

He looked up. The traveling cart that he’d seen only a moment before was parked right across the road. A man dressed in a chef’s uniform and wielding a conducting bow peered out from behind the cart. A handful of people Olive recognized from his days spent wandering the Ariesian markets were beside him. Shop owners. Customers. Beggars. All holding conductors.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” They spoke Capricornian.

There was a flash of periwinkle light.

“Your highness!”

Samuel rushed at him.

There was a burst of blue, and they both flew backward to the ground. The world spun. Olive’s ears rang.

Shaking off his stupor, Olive lifted his head. The blast had sent him back onto mansion grounds. The gates were now twisted and bent out of shape. He scanned the area around him and froze. Samuel was beside him. Unmoving.

No. Not again.

Olive stumbled to Samuel’s side but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around his wrist. His heart leapt to his throat before he realized who it was. Cadence. Even though he knew she wasn’t actually there, he could feel her fingernails digging into his wrist.

“Hey, your highness, their job is ta put down their lives for ya, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “Don’t go wastin’ their efforts.”

“Bu—”

“Those guys are here for you, kid! If ya wanna play hero, then ya should be gettin’ as far away from them as possible!”

Olive stiffened.

She was right.

He started toward the gate but stumbled back when he saw a cluster of the Watch blocking his path. Inside was the only way. But there were non-Conductors within the mansion. He needed to warn them.

Olive sprinted into the mansion and was met with perplexed looks from workers and guards alike. “Intruders!” He snapped. “Run! All of you!”

The mansion guards rushed to the door without hesitation, while maids and butlers scrambled away. A guard shoved Olive back and ordered him to climb the stairs.

Before Olive could argue, a ray of vitae blasted through the window next to the door and sent out fragments of wood and glass.

Olive’s ears rang.

Run.

Olive clambered to his feet and darted up the stairwell behind him.

He could hear them following. The stomp, stomp, stomp of their steady footsteps. Their panting breaths. Their shouts in Capricornian. He just barely managed to duck as a bullet ricocheted off the wall behind him. As he reached the last step, his foot caught on the rug beneath him. He face-planted on the floor before scrambling to his knees. He lifted his head and turned to a Capricornian pointing a rifle at his face.

“Pathetic,” came the accented Common.

Olive scoffed despite the fear. “I may be pathetic, but wouldn’t that make you—the person who’s trying to kill someone as pathetic as me—even more pathetic?”

A grimace. “Die, prince.”

Atienna appeared before Olive and guided his hand up to grab the Capricornian’s wrist. The man froze in confusion and Atienna used the opportunity to make Olive flip the man backwards and kick him in the face. The gun clattered to Olive’s side before the man tumbled down the stairwell. A handful of the Capricornians rushing up the stairs stepped to the side as the man fell, while others further went down to assess the damage.

“Keep going, Olive!” Atienna said before flickering out from his vision.

Olive grabbed the gun and ran down the hall. He ducked as a bright green ray of vitae whistled just above his head. He stumbled again and rolled, scrambling around a corner. He remained there for half a second to catch his breath, only to be startled as a vitae bolt barely missed the top of his head and gouged a hole in the wall above. Plaster rained down onto his hair and into his eyes. Taking a deep breath and gagging on the dust that clouded the air, Olive wiped his eyes and peered around the corner.

The Ariesian guards were holding off the Watch. Both sides were struggling. Projectors taking advantage of Conjurers on both ends. Elementalists blasting through them. Their numbers appeared even.

But Capricornians are more combat-ready. That is fact. Even after War’s end, they’ve been heavily trained. Many have seen real battle at the southern border with Argo.

As if to highlight this, a Capricornian Projector’s vitae bolt shot through the shoulder of an Ariesian flame Elementalist who had just gained the upper hand against a Capricornian Conjurer.

Olive bit his lip, heart hammering. He had to help. Somehow. He couldn’t be useless.

Werner appeared then, synchronizing in front of him with absolute clarity.

“Chance, calm down,” came Werner’s voice. He crouched down to Olive’s eye level. The man’s eyes were cold. Calm. He wrapped his hand around Olive’s own, which wielded the gun. “May I?”

Olive nodded.

Werner moved to cover Olive’s eyes with his other hand.

There was a silence in the darkness, then a handful of cracks. Shots fired.

The hand was removed from Olive’s eyes. A number of Capricornians were now on the floor cradling their legs. Confused Ariesian guards stood over them.

“One centimeter off,” Werner clicked his tongue. He turned to Olive. “I merely incapacitated them. I won’t kill another Capricornian. I’m only aiding you because your death will harm Capricorn.”

Uh.

“But I apologize that I didn’t inform you of this sooner. I have put you and Capricorn in unnecessary harm.” After a moment of staring, he said, “What are you doing? Run.”

Olive swallowed, nodded, ran. He stumbled down the hall and clambered up the next staircase before reaching the top floor. It was simply attic space, containing a handful of crates and valuables and a large open window at the end.

This had been a terrible idea.

Abruptly Maria appeared before him. Olive startled in surprise.

“Ollie, you are afraid, yes?” Maria asked. “I think I understand.”

“This really isn’t the time to be realizing your character development,” Olive snapped, whipping his head around toward the staircase. He could hear them coming up now. How many of them were there? Werner had listed some large number earlier, but Olive was in no state of mind to recall it.

“Do you trust me, Olive?”

Olive turned his head back to Maria.

Trust. That was a strong word. But…

“I guess…”

Without warning, Maria took his and guided him—

“Wha—”

—right out the window.

As the open sky rushed past Olive, his only thought was that he should have expected this from someone like Maria. The earth mocked him as he hurtled down toward it.

Olive squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around the arm. At first, he thought it was one of the others, but then realized that would be impossible. Olive opened his eyes. The ground danced only inches below his dangling feet. Mocking again. He looked up. A hand was wrapped around his wrist. A familiar hand.

It was Claire. No, Haneul. Floating in midair on a staff. Wind sparkling with sapphire specs of light whistled out from the holes beneath the center of the staff.

“Y-You! Haneul!” Olive stammered as he dangled from Haneul’s grip. “You are a Conductor! What else have you lied about?!”

“That’s what you want to talk about?!” Haneul exclaimed. “And it’s still Claire!” With that, he pulled Olive up onto the staff. “Why do I always find you in situations where you’re running from something—”

He was cut off as a ray of vitae hurtled toward them from the window. He grabbed ahold of Olive’s shirt and blasted them out of the ray’s trajectory and up into the sky with a gust of wind. They whistled forward like an arrow, and the city flitted past them in smears of reds and browns. The wind whipped at Olive’s face, stinging his cheeks and his eyes, and the city blurred further with his involuntary tears.

“We have to get help! The royal palace!” Olive shouted. “Samuel and the other guard—”

“They’ll be waiting for you! Disguised! I need to keep you away from them! Trust me!”

He’s right.

“You haven’t exactly proven yourself to be trustworthy!”

“Yes, yes, I get it,” Claire sighed. “I’m actually a prince. I lied. I’m sorry. Seriously, I am. But honestly, I didn’t just approach you just because you were the Ariesian Prince. You’re actually a pretty okay person to hang out with.” He glanced at Olive. His eyes were remorseful but determined—although Olive wasn’t sure how much of either of those emotions were true. “Still, I would do it again. For my country.”

“And you said that I didn’t seem like a prince…”

“Well, I’m nothing special. There’s a prince or princess for each clan in Sagittarius. It’s actually pretty complicate—”

“Where are we going?” Olive asked as he realized their trajectory. They were heading to the city walls. “You’re going in the opposite direction of the royal palace! We have to—”

Claire remained silent before leaning forward and dipping the nose of the staff down. The air rushing them lessened and became almost pleasant as they descended. Eventually, their descent led them to an area along the city’s wall undergoing construction. There was a deep hole there in the wall—an unhealed scar from the War—and a wooden platform strung up by a rope alongside it for construction. Waiting for them on the platform were Claire’s masked vassals. Olive tensed as he saw them and recalled the night he had first met Claire.

“My lord!” the white mask exclaimed as they hovered on the conductor beside the platform. “What is going on? Why are you not at the royal palace—”

“The assassins have come,” Claire said. “I’m taking Olive away from the city. I want you and Felix to go to the royal palace and inform them that I have the prince in my custody.”

So this was another political ploy then.

At least he’s helping ya, kid.

“But, my lord,” the wooden-mask—Felix—objected. “Shouldn’t one of us come with you? What if they have an air Elementalist Conductor among them?”

“It’d be too heavy to carry someone else,” Claire sighed. “Besides, Capricornian Elementalist Conductors are rare.”

“Yeah, if you ignore the one who fired the flaming arrow,” Olive scoffed.

“The insolence!” Abruptly, Felix stepped forward threateningly. “My Lord, allow me to cut out his tongue!”

“A good way to kickstart an international incident,” Olive said with disinterest.

“Yeah, don’t do that.” Claire waved Felix off.

The man immediately stiffened. “B-But—”

“We’re going now. Be swift,” Claire ordered with an air of finality. The light and easygoing tone he had been using earlier had dissipated. His dark eyes were sharp and harsh—almost like Werner’s.

Felix tensed and then bowed his head.

With that, Claire kicked them back up to the sky. They ascended in a blur and burst above the clouds. The city was barely visible from this height, and the sun’s already unbearable rays whipped out mercilessly without the cover of the clouds. “I’m going to exit on the opposite side of the wall to throw off the Watch,” Claire continued as he moved them forward.

Olive frowned and watched as the city streamed underneath them. “Hey… even if there’s a second motive for why you’re helping me… thank you.”

Claire glanced back at him and smiled.

“I’m not talking to you,” Olive clarified.

Claire arched a brow before shook his head and chuckled. “Hold on to me.”

“What?” Olive frowned, peeling away. “Why?”

“In case you pass out,” Claire supplied. “The air is thinner up here. I’m used to it but—”

He was cut off as an arrow whistled out from below and knocked him right off the staff. Olive barely had time to discern where the arrow had come from before they were both in free fall.

“Claire!” Olive shouted as they tumbled through the open sky. He reached for the Sagittarian and just barely grabbed a hold of him.

His conductor!

The wind whipped at his eyes, but Olive blinked the tears away as he searched the skyline for Claire’s conductor. There. Only a centimeter away from his hand. How lucky. He grabbed it and fought the wind to bring it to Claire’s chest. “Claire!”

Claire’s eyes fluttered open and widened. He wrapped his fingers around his conductor and sent a burst of air out of it just as they were about to hit the ground of the bazaar below. But they were still too low. They crashed through a fruit stall in the marketplace before tumbling across the pavement.

Screams filled the air. Olive ignored them, wiped off the fruit juices that had splattered onto his face, and turned to Claire who lay beside him. The Sagittarian’s brows were furrowed in pain, and he gripped his shoulder where the arrow protruded. The arrow was still surrounded in flame-like vitae.

“The vitae’s spreading,” Olive realized in horror. “We need to get you to a Transmutationist.”

The guards ringed around them.

“Isn’t that the prince…?” one of them whispered uncertainly.

“Assassins!” Olive snapped for the fifth time that day. “We’re under attack! Evacuate the civilians!”

The guards barely had the time to exchange looks before a deep green vitae bolt exploded the flower stall next to them. Splinters shot out, petals fluttered, bystanders shouted and scattered.

Across the street, four Capricornians emerged from a dark alleyway. Two ducked behind the fallen stalls and pulled out long-ranged conductors: three rifles, one bow. The other two charged the Ariesian guards who had also drawn out their conductors amidst the chaos. There was a pause as the guards and the assassins locked eyes, then a flurry of dizzying light.

Four guards. Four Capricornians.

Another flurry of light.

A pottery stall imploded just feet away, sending shards of clay and ceramic cracking against the walls of nearby buildings.

Two guards. Three Capricornians.

Another flurry of light—

A dark green vitae bolt tore through the extended brick roof of a bakery, and a rain of blasted brick cometed the dusty square. The debris floated down into a soup shop just below it and knocked a steel pot right off of its nesting place above a fire. Its contents spilled across the ground and lapped at the feet of the two Conductors remaining.

One Ariesian guard. One Capricornian assassin.

The Capricornian who remained was the bow wielder. As the guards closed in around him, the assassin abandoned his bow for a melee conductor hanging at his hip. He ignited the weapon and produced a blade of vitae flames. The remaining Ariesian guard, a Conjurer, produced a haphazard sword that locked with the Capricornian’s blade. But the Capricornian’s sword was blazing, and the Ariesian’s began to melt against the heat. Globules of molten metal dribbled from the point of contact onto the ground.

Just as the Ariesian was about to collapse beneath the weight of the other’s sword, a bang rang out from the alley. A gunshot. The Capricornian fell to the ground. Relief spread over the Ariesian guard’s face as he squinted into the shadows of the alleyway. A figure stepped out.

A monochrome uniform and a white sash. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek…!” Olive sighed in relief. He turned to Claire who was still tense beside him. “It’s okay. He’s Gabrielle’s partner. Gabrielle’s the one who was in the throne room.”

The Ariesian guard approached Izsak while clutching his conjured blade like it was a lifeline. “Sir, I don’t know how many are left but they appear to be Capri—” The guard was cut off as Izsak brought up his gloved hand to the man’s mouth. “Sir—”

There was a bright flash of light at the base of Izsak’s glove conductor followed by a squelching sound that Olive found vaguely familiar. It was a sound that echoed within Werner’s and Jericho’s memories. A terrible sound.

The Ariesian guard stiffened, then went limp. Izsak released the man from his grip, and the man hit the ground spluttering. Protruding from the guard’s mouth was a mass of barbed wire.

“M-Mr. Wtorek?”

Get away from him.

Olive wasn’t quite sure which of the others had shouted it, and he couldn’t see any of them either. He wished he could. This didn’t make any sense.

Izsak coolly stepped over his victim before flicking his wrist. There was another flash of light, and a circular shape formed at his palm. But Olive was entranced by something else.

White. It was white.

Izsak’s vitae.

It was a pure white.

It didn’t make any sense. How—

Damn, Jericho was right, came Cadence’s thought. Everything really is ELPIS. But isn’t this guy your peacekeepin’ pal? Why would he—

What—

Grenade.

Werner’s thought sharply cut through Olive’s horror. Izsak casually dropped the conjured grenade and watched as it rolled to a stop a few feet away from Olive’s foot.

Olive grabbed Claire by the scruff and threw him backward before leaping away himself. It was a pretty useless and pathetic attempt. It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether he had made the escape attempt or not. But screw it, he thought. After all of the efforts the others had made to ensure his survival, he figured it would be even more pathetic if he didn’t try anything.

The grenade detonated, sending both Claire and Olive flying through the air.

Olive was thrown back into another stall. In the dazed confusion that followed, it took him a second to comprehend the colors that surrounded him: the flash of a blue bed sheet, the cotton plush from a mattress, and the red silk of a carefully woven blanket. By some means of ridiculous luck, he had been sent crashing into a stall that sold bedroom furniture.

A large tarp fell over his head from behind, and he fought against it for a panicked minute before he broke through the surface. Feathers from imploded pillows fluttered down around him obscuring the skyline. He stumbled over a bundle of silken pillowcases before tripping over a body. Claire. Olive darted to the Sagittarian’s side and shook him hard. Claire only groaned.

Olive opened his mouth to snap at him only to get a mouthful of feathers. He spat and gagged and spat again.

Pay attention.

Olive froze and looked up.

Out from the storm of fluttering white stepped Izsak Wtorek. His glasses were gone. And without them, he looked unnatural as he stood before the backdrop of raining feathers. In the man’s left hand was another grenade and in his right was a conjured pistol which he pointed in Olive’s direction.

“M-Mr. Wtorek, w-what—”

The man’s finger pressed down on the trigger of the gun.

Olive kicked up the thin blue mattress lying at his feet. He wasn’t quite sure if he had done it on instinct or if one of the others had overridden him to do it. Regardless, he was grateful for the mattress that exploded in place of his head.

Olive stumbled to his feet, grabbed Claire by the arm, and pulled him out of the mound of blankets, pillows, and mattresses. He tripped and stumbled and cursed with every step. Claire’s added weight paired with the sweltering Ariesian sun made the fatigue building in his legs almost unbearable.

“You’re so. Heavy,” Olive panted as he dragged the Sagittarian to the corner of the street. He was half-tempted to just leave Claire there. He was a two-faced bastard, after all. But Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, so he continued pulling and panting.

Olive barely managed to drag Claire to the mouth of the alleyway before another grenade casually rolled to a stop an inch away from his foot. Without thinking, Olive kicked the thing as hard as he could. It flew a couple feet in the air before it erupted into flames and smoke.

The blast wave sent Olive into and through another stall that featured mechanical parts and accessories. There was no mattress to break his fall this time around. And Olive began to feel knob-like bruises pulsating at his rib cage where he had landed awkwardly on a small generator conductor. His ears rang, his body ached. His hands were sticky with a black substance.

Get up, Chance. Get up.

No. He couldn’t. It hurt.

Get up, Olive!

Olive bit his lip and pushed himself up. He stumbled over the remnants of the stall in front of him and assessed his surroundings. A canister filled with a black substance to his left. A couple of stray metal parts, an insulating tube, and a kick-starter were scattered hazardously across the ground.

But where was Claire?

There—only a couple feet away. And only a couple inches from Claire: Izsak. Izsak who was approaching Claire with his conjured pistol.

No.

Olive desperately scanned the area for anything he could use.

Not again.

This didn’t make sense.

The pieces didn’t fit. His thoughts didn’t either. Blurs of the past and the present. Heat from an unstoppable fire in his mind’s eye—heat from the sun whipping down from above his head. A memory. A reality.

And the reality was that Olive couldn’t let Claire die. Not when Claire had risked his life for him. Even if Claire was a dirty politician, even if Claire was just like the feudal lords who had whispered things behind his back after the Tragedy.

Olive knew that even with everything the other five had told him just that morning, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Claire died. But he couldn’t let himself die either.

There was only one way. He didn’t know how to control it, but he would have to.

Olive reached down for the canister filled with the black substance and threw its contents onto the peacekeeper. Izsak lifted his hand in surprise as a strip of oil painted him half black.

Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak.

Olive repeated the endless mantra in his head as nausea and terror built up in his stomach.

Control it. Small.

Olive extended his hand out, and sparks erupted at his fingertips. Izsak’s eyes widened just as a stream of fire raced right toward him. The fire ate up the oil trail leading up to the man and consumed him in an instant. Smoke clouded the air.

Stop, Chance. You’ll exhaust your vitae reserves!

It was too late. The flames at his fingers died.

Olive’s head spun, and he felt faint. He staggered to the ground, squinting up past the smoke as it peeled away with a breeze that drifted through. The acrid smell still made him sick. But not as sick as he felt when he realized what he’d just done. Hot bile climbed up his throat, and he heaved onto the floor before wiping his mouth.

Kid, ya had to.

He rejected this thought and forced himself to look up.

Standing in the place Izsak had been was a large metal shield singed at its center. Out from behind that shield stepped Izsak, coated in the oil but perfectly unharmed.

Olive felt both relief and horror. The relief faded as Izsak’s gaze focused on him. The man approached Olive with purpose. There was no light in his eyes, and Olive knew from Cadence and Werner’s end that there was an intent to kill glistening there.

No. He couldn’t die. Not when all of their lives were tied to his. Not when Lavi was—

Olive scrambled backward desperately.

Izsak came to a stop a foot away from him.

“M-Mr. Wtorek…” Olive stammered wide-eyed. “Why…?”

Izsak stared holes into him. “What you did just proves it. You really are one of them.” He reached forward—and for a stupid moment, Olive thought that the man was going to offer him a cuff on the shoulder and shout ‘just kidding!’ Instead, the man wrapped his glove conductor around Olive’s throat.

Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as he scratched at the Izsak’s hand. He couldn’t breathe. Suffocating. Throat-crushing. A pressure. Just like that time six years ago.

“A saint candidate—no. You’re one of the connected. A True Conductor.” Izsak’s eyes seemed to glow white as his grip tightened. “You can’t be allowed to live… The Tragedy of Aries. You should have died then.”

Something inside Olive’s chest crumpled at the words and he felt tears prick his eyes. Olive wasn’t sure whether the tears were from the man’s words or from the fact that he was on his last breath.

“If the syzygy happens, then—”

—and from nowhere a black suitcase cracked against Izsak’s head, sending the man stumbling away. Olive fell to the ground and gasped for air. He rubbed his throat and looked up. Standing in Izsak’s place was Jericho, suitcase and all.

Olive felt the fear gripping his stomach release. “How—”

“I regained consciousness,” Jericho explained. “Doctor Fabrizzio Senior’s treatment.”

“I can see that…”

“The ELPIS initiates in the cargo warehouse are in custody. They informed me that the ELPIS leader went to Aries. Capital city. Intuition.”

Olive nodded slowly.

“Atienna convinced… me to abandon the ELPIS initiates. To come to you. Talib is at the port in Gemini to pick up Leona. Now I’m here.” He paused in thought. “Without jurisdiction. Off mission. Doctor Kingsley will yell at me.” Jericho clicked open his suitcase and turned toward Izsak, who was just rising to his feet.

Olive tensed.

A familiar, nightmarish-looking stuffed animal popped out from Jericho’s suitcase first and fell to the ground. Izsak stared at it for a moment before returning his attention to Jericho, who had pulled out a slim, cylindrical conductor from his briefcase.

“Wtorek Izsak,” Jericho said, activating his conductor with a flick of his wrist. “I’m apprehending you for involvement with ELPIS.” He glanced at Olive and Claire. “For making an attempt on the lives of the Ariesian and Sagittarian princes.”

Light spilled out from Jericho conductor’s tip forming the shape of a whip. The color. Pure white. It was blinding just looking at it.

“So you’re the traitor that Omicron was talking about,” Izsak said as he observed the conductor. “The traitor she met in Gemini.” He glanced at Olive. “The fact that you knew to come here means that you’re connected to him. You are a True Conductor too.”

Olive could barely grasp what was happening.

Why was Izsak…? Why was Jericho’s vitae color…?

Jericho’s past was hazy to Olive, but he had seen flashes of it. Memories of rolling sandy dunes, of a person in a white cloak extending a hand, of the very same hand offering a pat on the head as Jericho pulled the trigger on a trembling young Conductor.

You were indoctrinated into ELPIS when you were young… came Atienna’s realization that was filled with a wave of sympathy.

“Yes,” Jericho affirmed. “But I am here now to eliminate them.”

Jericho swung his conductor, and it hurtled out toward Izsak’s side. Izsak quickly conjured a thick pipe to block it. The whip wound around the pipe’s body. Izsak glanced at it with disinterest. Disinterest quickly morphed into surprise as white cracks appeared along the steel. Izsak released the pipe just as it crumbled to dust.

“You’re a Specialist,” Izsak realized.

“Stay back,” Jericho said as he threw Olive a look over his shoulder. “I am able to break apart vitae particles with my conductor.”

“You could’ve told me that before you swung that thing!” Olive snapped as he struggled to a stand. “Something isn’t right. You know Izsak… This is…”

Jericho’s glowing white whip straightened into a blade and Jericho quickly thrust it in Izsak’s direction. Izsak barely managed to dodge the jab, but he did not make it out untouched. The blade caught onto his Ophiuchian band which disintegrated in an instant. In a split second, the white blade of the sword splintered and shot out in all directions.

Rather than a whip or a sword, it seemed formless.

One of the splinters pierced Izsak’s leg, but the man quickly ripped himself away from it.

Not in long enough, came Jericho’s thought. He then recalled the splinters of light back with a flick of his conductor. The next moment he was charging at a crouching Izsak who was nursing his leg. Jericho transformed his vitae into a blade and raised it high.

Wait! This doesn’t make sense. Mr. Wtorek is—

Jericho hesitated.

Izsak took the opportunity to roll out from beneath him. He rose to his feet and glowered at them. “I’m outmatched,” he confirmed. “But I can’t allow you to live. Your existence is unnatural.” With that he brought up his hand and conjured an object.

A conducting grenade. A whole handful of them.

Get away—

A great wave of heat exploded out from the alleyway and a torrent of magenta flames enveloped Izsak’s hand. The man let out a yelp before ripping off his glove conductors that were beginning to melt in the oil-fueled heat. Before he or Olive or Jericho could react, Gabrielle burst out from the alley and tackled Izsak to the ground. The two Ophiuchians tousled around, throwing punches and kicks and snarls. Eventually, Gabrielle managed to deliver a well-aimed crack to Izsak’s jaw which dazed him. Grimacing, she hoisted herself up on top of the man and pinned his hands behind his back with an unreadable expression.

“Stay down, Wtorek,” she whispered.

Izsak struggled a bit more before going limp.

“We were just informed of the Watch by the Capricornian military. It’s a special-ops group of theirs that’s been given orders by a dissenting officer,” Gabrielle panted as she studied Izsak’s face. “Half of the royal guards have been dispatched around the city and are cleaning them out. The order from the Kaiser has been sent out for Watch members to ceasefire.”

As if on cue, the square became flooded with Ariesian guards. Some rushed to the fallen guards while others rushed to aid Gabrielle, civilians, Olive. Medical Conductors and palace guards surrounded him and barraged him with a flurry of questions.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Olive snapped, waving them away. “The others need more help than me. Samuel at the mansion and…” Claire.

Claire was attended by several Ariesian guards and had been joined by his vassals, who were frantically shouting at the Ariesians in Sagittarian. Claire appeared more amused at the situation than anything else.

Their eyes met. Claire cracked him a grin and gave him a thumbs up. Olive glared and looked away. Jericho was still standing beside him, staring holes into Izsak.

“You okay?” Olive eyed Jericho’s conductor which he had deactivated as soon as Gabrielle had burst through the alley.

Jericho blinked at him. “Yes.”

They stared at each other for a long while before Olive bent down to pick up the fallen stuffed animal off the floor. He stared at Izsak for a beat, felt something crumple in his chest, before he handed the plush to Jericho.

They stood in awkward silence.

Jericho asked, “Hug. Would that be customary?”

Saints. Jericho was weird.

“No.”

What a terrible week.

Specialist: a Conductor who does not fall into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Their ability to utilize vitae ranges with each manner of utilization vastly different from the next. There is still not much known about them as they consist of only 1% of the Conductor population.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran