4.4: Gloria Twist

Re-cap:

Convergence occurred. Maria spent her time waltzing around the lives of the other five and returned only to be challenged to a duel and surprisingly disarmed by the mysterious golden Oros. Maria’s crew members appeared to be dissenting but she did not notice this herself. Maria’s carefree nature opened up a dangerous door… 


Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

“Hm? Mutiny? Why would I be concerned about something like that?”

Maria was not only addressing Simon and Conta who were currently present with her in her quarters but also Werner, Olive, and Cadence who were mentally present.

“Captain,” Conta began, “the men… they saw you—”

“—lose in your duel if I’m gettin’ the details correct,” Cadence finished.

“I didn’t lose,” Maria replied with a laugh.

Simon exchanged a glance with Conta, while Cadence tried to exchange a look with Werner.

“Right, right, ya didn’t lose.” Cadence nodded with a grin. “But some people probably don’t see it that way. And y’know how it is in these types of professions—once the big top dog looks like it’s feeling’ a little under the weather, all the other ones pounce.”

“I’m not feeling under the weather, though,” Maria replied.

Conta and Simon’s confused expressions deepened.

“Right, right, there’s nothin’ ya can’t do,” Cadence agreed laxly, “but that doesn’t change the fact that Oros lady is—”

“—conversing closely with some of the other men,” Simon said. “When I spoke with Morandi and his men earlier, they said she was saying strange things. Not to mention, Pierre…”

“Let them say strange things then.” Maria chuckled. “Everyone says I say strange things all of the time! It’s not fun being by myself, no? And we’ll take Pierre out of his cell and get him off this ship when we get to land.”

“But Captain,” Simon pressed, “the things she’s saying. She’s convincing some of them to leave and—”

“If they want to leave, they can leave,” Maria said with a shrug.

“Captain.” Simon smiled tiredly. “Do you recall the first thing you said to me when you found me?”

“Hm… ‘I like your priest outfit’?”

Simon chuckled and shook his head. “No, you said to me, ‘I like your eyes. I’ve decided! From now on, you are mine. Do you understand what that means? You cannot leave my side, and in turn I will protect you.’”

“Did I say those things?” Maria cocked her head with a slight frown before she brightened again. “Well, if I did, it was a spur of the moment thing.”

“It may have been that for you,” Simon said gently. “But for others, hearing things like that can be very troubling for the heart and the ego. Some view it as a chain. People don’t like being chained down, Maria.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Maria said, tousling her hair. “But I do understand not wanting to be chained down.”

“What about the others? The missing ones?” Conta pressed. “Simon and I’ve searched the entire ship top to bottom and we can’t find them. Morandi says he hasn’t been able to find some of his crew either.”

“Oh… they are still missing?” Maria pulled off her shirt in thought. “Well then…”

Both Werner and Simon flushed before looking away while Cadence and Conta looked on unperturbed.

Olive was facing the wall and shaking his head. “Get me the hell out of here.”

“Those disappearances…” Maria grabbed the towel hanging from her chair and wrapped it around her body. “I will look into that.”

* * *

The bath was a new installment on the ship. Six months ago, they had picked up a group stranded in the middle of a storm. They were members of a passenger ship bound from one of the outer countries to Gemini and were clinging desperately to the wreckage of their capsized ship. A day after getting those passengers on board, the Gloria Grail was throttled by the same storm, which had been pushed backward by wind currents.

They braved the storm and it was certainly exhilarating—though no one else seemed to think so—and made it to Geminian ports on a ship that sported five holes in its hull.

The passengers who were apparently from rich families offered to restore the ship. Although Simon had pressed to decline, Maria had said “why not ?” Emmanuel, one of the passengers, happened to be an engineer hoping to learn about the conductors of the countries of Signum on his travels. He offered to design them a new ship, but Maria had cheerfully refused. Instead, Maria offered him a spot on her ship so he could see Signum in full. As she later found out, he hadn’t seemed to understand that Maria’s ship was what people considered a ‘pirate’ ship and had accepted the offer out of ignorance. He adapted well, however, and had managed to convince Maria to let him install a bathhouse on board.

And here it was.

Emmanuel was amazingly talented—Maria was sure to tell him that.

The bathing room was more like a sauna than anything else, equipped with a large hot bath and five shower stalls. The bath was Maria’s favorite as it reminded her of the hot springs of Sagittarius.

Maria sank into the waters and let out a sigh of relief. She stretched out her legs and stuck one out to lather it with a bar of soap that had been set to the side. She was halfway through this motion when she noticed she wasn’t alone.

Although Cadence and Olive had seemed to have lessened their synchronization with her, Werner remained. He stood, hands clasped behind him, with his back to her near the showers.

“Oh, if it isn’t the soldier! If you were going to stay here, why did you not just say so?”

The soldier flushed, cleared his throat, and stared at the door. “It is not my intention to intrude on your privacy.”

Maria chuckled. “What are you talking about? You are not intruding.” She gestured to the water. “You should join me! The water is perfect! How do you say it in Capricornian?”

“Perfekt.”

“Oh, so the same way—”

“No—”

“Anyway, join me!”

“I’m not actually present so that would be physically impossible,” Werner supplied. “Besides, that would be inappropriate.”

“How so?”

Werner turned slightly, caught himself, and said, “That should be obvious.”

Maria stared at him before swimming closer to the edge of the tub and studied his back. “Hm?” Maria squinted, trying to peer into his surroundings. “Where are you—”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t pry,” Werner said curtly. “I took the precaution of secluding myself when this synchronization first occurred, but I do not want a repeat of the Aquarian captain.”

Maria rested her chin on the edge of the tub. “Are you still mad about that?”

“Lingering on it does nothing,” Werner replied, back still turned. “That doesn’t mean I will not keep it in mind and allow it to happen again.”

Maria thrummed her fingers before she smiled. “I see. Your crew must think you’re pretty—how do they say it—‘cool’, yes?”

“What my men think of me is irrelevant,” Werner said after a stiff pause. “Leadership is about being an example to the people beneath you. You must be able to understand them, but you must not allow your understanding to cloud your judgment. That is how a chain of command works.”

“You do not have to lie to me,” Maria chuckled. “About you thinking that it is irrelevant.”

“Wha—”

“But this ‘understanding’ you are talking about… do you think I am lacking in it?” She thought of Conta and Simon and Morandi and Pierre as she asked the question.

This caused Werner to face her. After meeting her eyes, he turned away again and answered curtly, “Yes, I believe you are.”

Maria hummed. “I see. Well, I will become better then. Improve, yes. I can do anything, you know, but some things just require a bit more effort.”

In the distance, she could almost see Olive turn his head.

“You need to put more focus on Oros,” Werner returned. “I agree with Cadence and the members of your crew that she is something that needs to be removed. She challenged your leadership and is spreading dissent among your men.”

“Hm, since everyone is saying it, I guess I should look into it.” Maria frowned a rare frown. “I really don’t like being pushed to do things though.” She brightened a beat after and chuckled. “Hey, is it me, or are you being a little bit friendlier now, Wern?”

“It’s Werner,” Werner corrected. “And recent circumstances have indicated that improving relations would be beneficial.”

“You are talking about Nico, yes?”

“How—”

“I saw him when I was freeing that Aquarian captain,” she said.

There was a jolt in Werner’s chest which resonated within her own. He really was upset about that then.

“I don’t regret what I did,” Maria said, “but I am sorry about the trouble you are in.”

The door abruptly flew open. And the synchronization she had with Werner weakened to the point where he disappeared from her line of sight and she could no longer hear his thoughts. Which was a bit disappointing.

Maria turned her attention to her party crasher with a slight pout.

Standing at the threshold of the door was Oros in the flesh. And in the nude. All concerns immediately flew from Maria’s mind.

“May I join you?” the woman asked.

Maria beamed. “Yes, of course!”

Oros moved forward with an air of grace, crossing the bathroom as if she was gliding, before sinking into the waters right across from Maria. She plucked the bar of soap out of Maria’s hands.

“You are very good at sword fighting,” Maria said as she watched Oros lather herself.

“Of course, I am,” Oros answered with a smile.

“For someone who is so good at sword fighting, I’m surprised you were caught off guard and locked in that crate.”

Oros’s smile deepened. “I’m surprised someone like you was somewhat capable.”

Maria chuckled. “I am strong, yes.”

There was a stretch of silence.

“Say,” Oros said, “have you ever heard the tale of the Golden Beast?”

“I’ve heard it many times before. It’s a very popular sea-farer’s tale.” Maria hummed. “But I am excited to hear your version of it!”

Oros smiled thinly before she began:

“The Golden Beast is something that suddenly appears on ships. No one knows what it looks like or what it is. Some say it disguises itself as a passenger on the ship. It’s a merciful thing and so as long as it’s treated with utmost respect, it spares the ship. However, if it feels as if it has been wronged in any way, the ship’s fate is sealed.”

“Oh, very ominous!”

“Slowly, one by one, members and passengers of the ship start disappearing. Some say the beast makes them a part of the ship while others say the beast eats them whole. Still, like I’ve said, the Golden Beast is merciful. If the passengers promise to become the beast’s servants, then they are spared.”

“And if they don’t?”

Oros mimicked picking up a piece of food and dropping it in her mouth.

“That’s interesting. So how does your version end?” Maria pressed.

“Well, no one who has heard the story has lived to tell its ending.” Oros crossed her arms.

“That doesn’t seem very good for you or for me, does it?” Maria laughed.

“No. Just for you,” Oros concluded, rising to a stand.

Maria looked up at her in confusion that was forgotten once she noticed how the light spilling in from the window caught onto Oros’s features. Really, she was radiant. Almost glowing.Gold hair. Gold eyes.

“Hey!” Maria leapt up from the water. “You said your name was Oros, yes? Are you sure it’s that? I have a friend, you see, and he is looking for someone called—”

The door to the bathroom flew open.

Maria turned her head and found a handful of her crew standing there. One crew member in particular stood out to her.

Maria, came a warning voice.

Maria was in front of that man in an instant, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Pierre! Shouldn’t you be in your cell?” She squeezed. He tried to rip her hand away, but she tightened her hold, causing him to yelp. She then looked at the others around him, meeting each of their eyes, and smiled. “What exactly is going on here?”

They remained silent, whatever gusto they’d come in with seeming to have left them.

“What are you doing?”

The men turned their gazes away from Maria and toward Oros.

“Are you really going to show your cowardice to me when I’m standing right here?” came Oros’s rumbling voice.

Pierre’s gaze hardened, and he signaled some of the crew members forward. And step forward they did, dragging in unconscious bodies with them.

Maria stepped back as she registered who the unconscious bodies were. Simon, Morandi, Morandi’s men, Raul the Chef, Emmanuel, and—

—Conta. She looked strange lying there on the floor. It didn’t suit her. She was always bright—Conta.

“I’ve gotten rid of the ones who wouldn’t accept my offer.” Oros’s voice drew nearer until it was echoing just beside Maria’s ear. “Although these ones also rejected me, I couldn’t help but think to offer some mercy. You seem to favor them.”

Something hot and sharp pressed against Maria’s back, causing her to turn her head to the offending object. A sword—no. It was shaped like a sword, but it had properties unlike one. Its edges glimmered a blinding gold, and it hummed strangely. A conductor.

Oros pressed the weapon to Maria’s back. “I am the Golden Beast.”

4.3: Waltz Misfire

Re-cap:

Convergence occurred. Werner just discovered that Maria had overridden him prior and had freed the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer whom he’d been ordered to execute for partisanship by Major Ersatz. He had no memory of this, but he was not one to panic. He still needed to act as a representative of Capricorn in mediating the Aquarian-Capricornian conflict despite the convultion of everything. Thus, he carefully considered his next options and seemed oddly vigilant of the prince. But then Cadence synchronized and appeared before him and recognized one of his prisoners.


Abandoned Town, Capricorn

The synchronization event brought upon by Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance seemed to have exacerbated Werner’s condition.

Whenever he’d rest his eyes, he’d enter an odd sort of microsleep where what he assumed were memories would barrage his mind. The dreams were so vivid that they’d almost seemed real. Flashes of a narrow street and the sound of laughter, the warm sun in an open garden, a flicker of swirling flames in a quiet and reverent chamber, the splash of saltwater on a sunny day, and a cramped darkness in a damp room.

He’d been trying to resist sleep due to these things. But he already knew the truth. He was compromised.

However, it seemed as if not all information was transmitted through this synchronization. While the flow of feelings and thoughts was uncontrollable, the flow of memories received and given seemed to depend on each individual. He’d questioned Atienna about it during one of their sudden synchronizations. At the time, Atienna had tilted her head in thought as she rested her cheek on her bandaged fist and said, “I wonder. I’ve mostly just seen what I believe are memories from Olive.” For a moment, her expression became sympathetic. And then she smiled, saying, “Lieutenant Waltz, are you perhaps concerned we may see something you don’t want us to see?”

He had left it at that.

Atienna was perceptive but she was not confrontational. That aside, Cadence was hiding something. That much was apparent given her profession. What she was hiding was just out of his grasp. The answer was ghosting the very edges of his knowledge. Perhaps, it was intentional.

Either way, he was not happy when she started following him during their synchronization. After all, she could easily siphon off information regarding the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict from him and feed it to whomever she decided. It was in her line of business, though she claimed innocence.

Regardless, he still had his duty and rounds to perform. Keeping his mind clear, he’d entered the cabin housing the prisoners when—

“Nico…?”

He’d felt Cadence’s horror as if it were his own.

Now, Werner found his gaze forcefully focused on the Aquarian combat nurse who was kneeling in front of one of the other prisoners. Aquarian? No, the combat nurse looked nothing like an Aquarian.

Werner hadn’t recognized the combat nurse before this moment, and he’d only felt slight déjà vu when he’d heard the man’s name. It was a common name, however, and Werner assumed he’d heard it in passing. But that was the problem with assumptions.

Werner slowly approached the combat nurse. Swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat, he asked for confirmation in barely a whisper: “What is your name?”

From beneath a mess of curly black hair and with steady eyes an amber so clear, the young combat medic answered. “Nico. Nico Fabrizzio.”

“Nico Fabrizzio—that’s my name. But they always call me crybaby Nico. I don’t know why,” the young boy stuttered in a shaky voice as he wiped away tears and dirt from his face.

“Ya don’t know, ya say?” She’d chortled as she reached into her pocket and provided him with a handkerchief. 

He took it and wiped his face before mumbling a shy “thank you.”

“Ten cens,” she’d told him, matter-of-fact, extending her hand out.

“What?”

“Ten cens for the kerchief.”

Nico started to laugh but stopped short when he’d realized that she hadn’t been joking. He dug into his pockets, pulled out two five Cen coins, and dropped it into her palm. 

She’d smiled charmingly for him. “What’s the underground doc’s kid doin’ wanderin’ around gettin’ his ass beat for? With a reputation like that, you’d think ya wouldn’t have to be dealin’ with a schoolyard bully.”

The young boy had sniffled. “I-I know. I know. I’m sorry. I-I just—”

“No more waterworks, Nico, please.” She’d sighed. “I’m no good with this stuff.”

Nico had gulped down two more sobs before he nodded his head. “Are you really working with the Romanos?”

“Yup. Not officially a part of the Family though, but they’re already givin’ me a nickname.” She’d puffed her chest out then, filled with a sense of childish heroism and pride. “They call me the black knight of the Romano Family.” She’d rubbed her nose and winked at him, saying with little to no embarrassment, “And that would make me your black knight too, wouldn’t it?”

At the end of that conversation, after speaking vaguely about cages and opportunity, she’d extended her pinky out to him. When he’d accepted her gesture, a sort of indescribable happiness blossomed in her chest.

That was where their friendship began. Two dirty children standing in a filthy alleyway overshadowed by clouds thick with soot. Side-by-side through cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Side-by-side, teaching each other the oddest of things like how to play piano or how to swallow a cigarette whole or how to sew up a small cut. All the way, side-by-side, until now. 

The wounds from their most recent fight were still raw. The hurtful words Nico had said to her still rang in her ear. 

Wait, ‘ their’ most recent fight?

No. That fight had not involved Werner. Cadence was the one who’d fought with Nico. Cadence—

Werner blinked and the images that whirlwinded through his mind cleared. He was still standing in front of Nico Fabrizzio, who was for once not teary-eyed despite the straining situation.

A pair of hands gripped Werner’s arm. The man turned his head and found Cadence wide-eyed. Despite her not actually being present, he could feel her nails digging into his skin. A trick of the mind, most likely and logically. But Werner couldn’t even think at the moment.

“Please,” she whispered, “help him.”

He looked back at Nico. The man seemed to be limping.

Was he hurt?

“Enough,” Werner said. Cadence, Nico, and the Aquarian prisoners froze. “Nico Fabrizzio, come with me.”

The man looked back over his shoulder. “With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz, these men are injured. If I don’t change their bandages now, they could get worse.”

“That idiot.” Cadence bit her lip.

“I will send in our combat medic to aid them,” Werner said. “Now, come with me.”

Nico looked back at one of the men on the bed who gave him a firm nod. Swallowing, Nico followed Werner out of the cabin. Fischer and Bergmann were still standing guard outside. The former started in surprise when he saw Nico emerging behind him.

“Send in Brandt to tend to the injured,” Werner ordered.

“But—”

“These are prisoners, Private Fischer. They are not animals. Or do you not have any pride as a Capricornian?”

“Er,” Fischer stammered. “Right away, sir.” He ran off to fetch the combat medic.

Werner inclined his head, indicating Nico to continue following him. They crossed the dirt path in silence.

“Hey, hey,” Cadence stammered as she came along beside him, “what are ya gonna do to him?”

That question indicated that she could not at the moment tell what he was thinking. Which would have been a good thing if he was thinking at all.

Werner led Nico into a cabin, gesturing for him to go in first and then closing the door behind them.

Werner, urged Cadence.

Ignoring her, Werner turned to study Nico. The man was standing stiff and staring at the rows of tables at the center of the room. No. He was staring at the items neatly lined up on top of them. The conductors, the vices, the flyers.

Werner stepped beside him, and the man stiffened further.

“Why… did you bring me here?” Nico asked.

Werner stared at him for a moment before gesturing across the room. “Stand over there.”

Nico followed his gaze and his eyes widened. He studied Werner for a moment before complying. Werner joined him shortly after.

Pointing to the instrument in front of them, Werner said, “ Play.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Uh, you’re kinda bein’ a creep, Werner,” Cadence whispered with a nervous laugh.

Werner glanced at her and hesitated, then repeated, “Play.”

Nico swallowed and nodded, resting his hands on the keyboard in a natural position. And then he started playing. A deep melody flowed out. It wasn’t choppy and full of energy like Cadence’s had been. It was slow, methodical, pleasant.

“He’s usually better than this,” Cadence said. “He’s just a little nervous ‘cause, y’know.”

Werner found himself nodding. There was a bit of pride in Cadence’s voice and worry in their connected feelings. It was hazy, but Werner supposed there was a bit of guilt there in her too. It was none of his business, but he was aware of the fact that Nico and Cadence had recently gotten into an argument. Argument…

Then the memory came to him. The phone call between Cadence and Nico. The one that ended with their fight. For a moment, Werner felt rude for intruding on such a memory. Then realization dawned.

“You supplied the Aquarians with the modified conductors,” Werner drew slowly.

The music stopped. Both Cadence and Nico froze. Silence filled the air.

“You’ve been delivering them to the Aquarians before the border conflict even began.”

Nico turned to him, and there was fear in his eyes. And guilt. “How…?”

Cadence’s image stepped between them.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Cadence stammered, hands raised. “This is just Romano Family and Foxman business! Nico just came along to help in case any of our guys got caught up in your fight.”

“Those weapons are the reason why sixty-seven Capricornian lives have been lost this past week,” Werner stated.

“Nico is barely a delivery man. He has nothing—”

“Just barely a delivery man, you say.” Werner met Cadence’s eyes. “Those children are also ‘just delivery men.’ As I’ve said before, what you do does not concern me, but do you expect me to treat Nico differently? He holds pertinent information regarding this as do you. He will be taken in by higher authorities and questioned there. I’m sure this holds implications for Ophiuchus as well.”

Werner and Cadence both paused, but Jericho did not appear.

Cadence swallowed, and Werner could see her mind racing in a million different directions.

“I should have told Major Ersatz about the conductors from the beginning,” Werner said to himself more than her. But at least this synchronization connection had proved useful. “I’ll inform him when he arrives.”

“Wait, think about this, Werner. And I mean to say this with all due respect. Your major is crazy. Admit it. Ya know it. I know ya know it.”

“My opinions of Major Ersatz mean little in light of his position and the countless times he’s proven himself serving Capricorn.”

“Ya say that, but you’re still standin’ here talkin’ to me,” Cadence said. “Look, I get that I’m bein’ hypocritical and selfish askin’ for ya to look the other way, and you’re completely justified in bein’ pissed, but we could work somethin’ out.”

Werner remained silent.

“Those conductors we’ve been supplyin’ to the Aquarians—we could supply them to you instead. For a price, ‘course, but I’m sure your higher-ups can handle that. Ya need ‘em, don’t ya?”

Werner hesitated.

“Please,” Cadence pleaded, lowering her hands, “Nico is good, aight? He was just born into unfortunate circumstances.”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Responsibility—”

“He was born into unfortunate circumstances, but he’s still tryna do good despite that. Stupidly, might I say.”

“He’s aiding the Aquarians.”

“He’s helpin’ people who’re hurt. That’s just how he is. I know that’s how he is, and because I know, you also know.”

A brief image flashed into Werner’s mind.

A young, teary-eyed Nico, stumbling around in the middle of a rainstorm with Cadence on his back.

“Lieutenant Waltz,” Nico said suddenly but slowly, carefully, “who are you talking to?”

Werner looked past Cadence and met Nico’s gaze.

“Sir, I don’t think you’re well,” Nico continued. “That night with Captain Dunya Kramer—”

The Nico standing in front of him abruptly flickered and was replaced with—

A young Nico Fabrizzio, dressed in his usual slacks and suspenders, extending a shy hand in apology even though Cadence had started the fight.

“Stop it,” Werner snapped through gritted teeth, gripping his pulsing head. He took a step back away from Nico, away from Cadence, and grimaced as a familiar wave of déjà vu wracked his brain. “Stop doing that.”

“I’m not doing anything…” Cadence was pale.

Was she pale because he’d raised his voice? He couldn’t tell. Everything was hazy and painful and confusing and—

—and as always Nico was standing th ere with a conce rned look on his face. Always concerned, always worrying, always crying.

The haze faded as did the pain and confusion.

Werner lifted his head from his hand and found both Cadence and Nico staring at him with wide eyes. Nico was right beside him, holding him steady with rigid and tense hands. Cadence stood a little ways away looking concerned.

“You’re not an Aquarian combat medic,” Werner said, meeting Nico’s eyes.

After a pause, Nico answered, “No, I’m not.”

“You were involved in the shipment of these conductors to the Aquarians.”

“… yes, I was.”

“Why are you still here?”

Nico pulled away from Werner. “I… just…” Their eyes met. “I know this sounds convoluted, but they needed help.”

“By helping them, you’ve indirectly aided them in killing Capricornian soldiers.”

Nico met his eyes head on. “That goes for anyone I help. Even helping you stand now could be leading to someone dying in the near future. It’s something I’ve accepted.”

Werner looked away from him. “If you remain here, you will be questioned by my superior when he arrives.”

Nico tensed.

“However, I have my doubts about my superior’s current mental faculties. If I were to bring you to him, he may act irrationally and damage the potential information you carry.”

Werner could feel Cadence brighten from beside him.

“That being said, Nic—Mr. Fabrizzio—I will arrange for an agreement to be made with an associate of yours in exchange for your freedom.”

“You got it, Werner,” Cadence chirped from beside him as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Leave it to me!”

“Freedom?” Nico gave Werner a wary look. “I can’t just leave the people I was treating…”

“What? Sorry, this isn’t like him.” Cadence sighed with exasperation and ruffled her hair. “You could scare him a bit ya know. Maybe point your conductor at him to give him an idea of the…er… horrors of battle?”

Werner side-glanced at Cadence before addressing Nico: “I will see to it that the Aquarian soldiers you were tending to are treated fairly.”

Nico took a moment to digest this information, before he tried slowly, “You said you’d make an arrangement with someone. Who exactly—”

Werner interjected, “That is none of your concern.”

Nico stiffened.

Werner could feel Cadence frowning at him from the corner of his eye. “Your concern should be getting away from this camp and returning—”

“Uh… what the hell is going on here?”

A familiar voice rang throughout the room, which was disconcerting to Werner since he and Nico were the only physical occupants. He wasn’t synchronized with any of the others, so that voice wouldn’t have been them either. Plus, Nico had visibly reacted to the voice.

Werner scanned the room slowly. Empty. He turned back to Nico and—

The window. There was a window right beside the piano. An open window. And just outside that window stood one Gilbert Wolff who had a highly disturbed look on his face. 

How had he not even noticed?

“How long have you been standing there?” Werner asked calmly, palms itching.

“Is this really the time to be calm?” Cadence chuckled nervously.

“Long enough,” Gilbert replied. “So what exactly is going on here? Actually, what’s been going on this entire time? You’ve been acting sketchy as hell, Werner.”

Nico looked between them, tense.

Werner narrowed his eyes and spoke curtly, “Second Lieutenant Wolff, this is none of your concern—”

Gilbert met Werner’s eyes. There was something in them. Anger? Betrayal? Hurt? Before Werner could dissect the emotion, Gilbert leapt through the window, rushed at him, and then grabbed him by the scruff.

“Werner, for saint’s sake!” the man snapped, shaking him hard. “I’ve been with you for too many years now! If you’re gonna be losing your mind, let me know, so I can lose my own before you!”

Werner paused. 

Gilbert had been by his side since they were schoolboys just as Cadence and Nico had been by each other’s side. Would Gilbert—

“Wait a minute,” Cadence started warningly.

—yes, Gilbert would.

* * *

“So, what you’re saying is that you think you’ve been talking to people from across Signum telepathically, and you’ve been having visions of their memories or thoughts or whatever. And to boot, you think that if one of the people in your happy connection group dies then you all die.”

They were standing by the piano, having closed the window minutes earlier. Nico was sitting in the opposite corner of the room looking unsure of what to do with himself.

“Yes, Gilbert.”

Gilbert paced back and forth, before stopping to give him a look. “Werner you know how this sounds, right?”

“I am very aware.”

“W-Well, actually, it may not be as unbelievable as it sounds,” Nico interjected. “I mean, if you look at the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, then it might actually be possible…”

Gilbert stared at Nico before thumbing him. “Okay, who is this? Why is he here?”

“That is Nico Fabrizzio. He works alongside an underground organization called the Romano Family.”

“Okay…” Gilbert rubbed his chin and looked Nico over. “So he’s not an Aquarian. You could kinda tell that just by looking at him. But how did you know that other stuff?”

Werner opened his mouth but paused to glance at Cadence who was standing beside him and studying Nico from afar. Gilbert tried to follow his gaze but found nothing. When Cadence felt Werner’s gaze, she shrugged.

I do enjoy bein’ a black knight.

“I am connected with an individual associated with Nico. She goes by the name Cadence Morello.”

Nico stiffened before rushing forward. “Cadence?! Cadence—you’re connected with Cadence?!” He looked around the room. “I-Is she here?”

Werner glanced at Nico and nodded. “Yes, we have arranged an agreement regarding the conductors the Family has been shipping to the Aquarians.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Gilbert stepped in-between Nico and Werner. “You’re saying that one of the people you’re connected to knows this guy? Isn’t that a bit too coincidental?” He turned to study Nico. “Are you sure you don’t have anything to do with this?”

Nico shook his head with wide eyes. “Honestly, this is the first time I’ve heard about this, but it would explain what happened with Dunya Kramer.”

Gilbert backtracked. “What exactly happened to Dunya Kramer?”

Werner looked away despite himself. “It appears that some people within this group are able to… take over others in the group.”

“What?!” Gilbert snapped. “They can control you? Like possession? Shit, Werner. Do you need an exorcist or something? Look, I know a Monadic priest—”

“We need to focus on the subject at hand,” Werner said. “Besides, that’s why I’m telling you. If something like that happens again, I’m trusting you to keep me in line.”

Gilbert appeared startled at this statement.

Werner unhooked the pistol at his side, turned it around, and handed it to Nico. Gilbert tensed as Nico hesitantly reached out to accept it.

“A precautionary measure,” Werner said. He nodded at the window. “Roughly five miles north from here, you will find a party of Ophiuchians who are here to address our current conflict with the Aquarians. When you get to them, you will tell them that you are a traveler who was caught up in the conflict. You will not tell them you were a prisoner here nor that you were aiding the Aquarians. From there, you will take the train home. Is that clear?”

Nico blinked dazedly before he nodded.

“What are you waiting for?” Werner pressed.

Nico shook himself and nodded firmly. “Right.” He headed to the window and paused with one leg hanging out. He seemed to ruminate something before he lifted his head to meet Werner’s gaze.

“I… thank you,” both Nico and Cadence said.

With that, Nico climbed out the window and disappeared into the night. Cadence faded with him.

* * *

Gilbert grunted and then asked, “So, what are we going to do about Ersatz?” He glanced around. “Uh, and are they still here?”

“No, it appears we’ve desynchronized for now,” Werner said. “That doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of me, however. Perhaps it’s below thirty percent.” Absentmindedly, he lifted his hand to his face and tapped his cheek in thought. “We will have to hide Nico’s existence from the major. We’ll hide the modified conductors from the major as long as we can, but we’ll pin them on the Aquarians as a temporary measure if they’re discovered. I’ll inform the general about the Romano Family involvement and the major’s condition as soon as I’m able to speak with him.”

“Wow, that’s awfully crafty of you,” Gilbert noted. “Always knew Ersatz was cracked.”

Werner studied Gilbert for a long moment. They really were like Nico and Cadence, weren’t they?

Gilbert offered him raised brows in turn. “What is it?”

“Gilbert… thank—”

A knock on the cabin door cut Werner off short. It creaked open a second later, and Fischer stood at the threshold. After offering a formal salute, Fischer said, “Lieutenant Waltz, Major Ersatz has arrived. He’d liked to speak to you immediately.”

Gilbert swore under his breath.

Werner nodded. “Inform him I will join him shortly.”

Fischer cocked his head in slight confusion before glancing at Gilbert. “Sir, he said immediately.”

“Right.”

Leaving Gilbert behind, Werner exited the cabin and followed Fischer down the pathway leading to the small town’s square. Ersatz stood in the center, inspecting the buildings with a whimsical expression. The major turned at their approach and brightened upon seeing Werner.

“Ah! Werner, good to see you in order!”

“And you, sir,” Werner returned after giving the man a salute.

Ersatz signaled for Fischer to leave and for Werner to come closer. Both men obeyed.

“Right, Werner. I’ll have my men supply you and yours with the conductors we’ve brought along.” The major tilted his head to the side.

In the direction he indicated, hidden behind one of the cabins were fifteen—no, thirty men. They wore Capricornian army uniforms, but Werner did not recognize any of them. It was an unusually high number of men to bring to a peace negotiation. The major motioned for one of the men to come forward.

The man handed Ersatz the conducting rifle from his back before returning to his unit.

“I apologize, sir. I don’t understand,” Werner drew. “With all due respect, why are you supplying us with conductors and why did you bring such a large group with you? I understand that you’re here to overtake my mission to attend the peace negotiations—”

“Peace negotiations?” Ersatz pushed the rifle into Werner’s hands. “Did I not make it clear over the radio, Waltz? We are going to eliminate the Ophiuchian Agents they’ve sent down here.”

4.2: Morello Bridge

Re-cap:

Convergence occurred.

Cadence assisted Olive in finding evidence to support the falsely imprisoned Trystan. Now, she could focus on the task at hand free from distraction. She discovered that the children of Warehouse 13 and their leader Matilda had been previously hired by Verga to deliver modified conductors the man had stolen from the Romano Family. Verga had deemed the children disposable and had begun to kill them. The children, believing that the Romano and Foxmans were the ones behind these incidents, had retaliated against the organizations leading to the attack on the TwinStars Pub.

Verga asked Cadence to lure the remaining children to him so he could clean up the mess and leave the city unharmed. In return, Verga offered her money and her life.


Twin Cities, Gemini

Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she would say, porcelain fingers flying across the bone-white keys. Clear laugh chiming, she’d look down with a coy smile.

Cadence would tune her ears to the sharp chords the woman would play and would try to jump in to play with her. But the woman would always be too fast. Alma, that was. “Just Alma.” Alma, the young entertainer who had spotted an even younger Cadence peering at her playing piano through a frosted window in the Sognare.

Yes, Alma was always too fast. At everything. Cadence could never hope to keep up with her, and that was what made Cadence want to reach her even more. And even though Cadence hadn’t seen Alma in years, Cadence still wanted to reach her. It was why Cadence was in the business she was in, after all.

But Alma was always with her in a spiritual sense—with her lessons and the like. After all, only a couple years after Alma’s other services had been bought out by a mysterious suitor affiliated with the Romano Family and Alma had disappeared from the city, Cadence herself would be saying, “adapt, adapt, adapt ”—to Nico, of course, when she’d taught him how to play the piano. She was always too fast for him though.

Adaptation. That was another bible she followed. Other than that cost-benefit analysis.

Adaptation was the key to survival in the Twin Cities. Never reject anything. Never fully accept anything. Pride was debt. Loyalty was interest. Always change, never stay still. Appearances were deceiving.

Even with those mantras, however, Cadence found it a bit harder to adapt to her current predicament. Being psychically connected to five other people took some getting used to. Fortunately, most of them were pretty easy to read.

There was the Ariesian prince. A brat, but probably only because he was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. The kid was abrasive and rejected people like it was second nature—on the surface at least. Cadence saw the truth. That desperation for connection. Typical angsty kid. Give him enough talking to, paired with a sprinkle of the old cold shoulder, and he’d warm up to her real quick. Calculated negligence. That aside, being buddy-buddy with a prince obviously came with its perks.

The Capricornian lieutenant was a different story. Cold and unyielding and distant. That was the problem with people who held positions in the middle-rung of authority. They weren’t high up enough to bend to compliments and praise, and they weren’t so far down the ladder that they would do anything to get higher. The man’s stony disposition didn’t help. He barked out commands with such authority and presence that Cadence wanted to shed a tear for his lackeys. But he was hiding something, Cadence could tell. And people with secrets were easy to play a tune to.

Atienna was something else altogether. She was mysterious, and her intentions seemed to hover just beyond Cadence’s reach. Just like Alma. Just when Cadence thought she had Atienna playing to her tune, she’d find that she was the one playing to Atienna’s tune instead. But that made things interesting.

Maria, on the other hand… Well, the captain was a complete wild card. Cadence got a headache even thinking about her.

And Jericho. Jericho had a one-track mind. He was easy. And he came with the perks of being an Ophiuchian Agent. If Cadence played her cards right, he could be her free pass out of sticky situations.

In this case, this whole connection thing came with more benefits than costs. Of course, it was still risky. Having her thoughts and feelings open was a downside, but she could bypass these issues by playing half-truths.

After the whole fiasco with Olive’s personal assassination investigation was over, Cadence had begun to focus on her larger task at hand: Verga’s job. She’d probably annoyed Olive enough to make him not want to look in her direction even if they did synchronize completely. And Atienna seemed busy at her end, so she wouldn’t interfere either. It was smooth sailing from here.

Currently Cadence was donning the disguise of the recently deceased Duccio and making her way through the city streets. Morning had come and gone. She’d stopped by the Abaccio Hotel after she’d managed to abruptly ‘remember’ Jericho’s earlier confrontation with Matilda. When she checked with the bellboy at the front desk, he’d informed her that the girl had departed just that morning. What luck, Cadence had thought. She was just exiting the hotel lobby when Jericho appeared in front of her.

“What are you doing?” he’d asked.

“Workin’,” she’d answered with a shrug. “Life-on-the-line kinda deal, but I’ll handle it.”

“The person you are working for.” Jericho’s eyes seemed to glow unnervingly. “He’s… working with ELPIS.”

A familiar burning heat sparked its way into her chest. It was suffocating, and she could feel it frying the edges of her reason.

That was the trouble with this connection. It went both ways. And she couldn’t control what information went and came. But she could adapt.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she’d said to him. “I’m plannin’ to find out all about his ELPIS deal while I’m at it. The kids delivered the goods for Verga, so they probably know a thing or two about what exactly’s goin’ on in that department.” She offered him a placating hand raise. “I’m not pro-terrorist. Don’t worry.”

“And the children,” Jericho said without further elaboration.

“Well, I’m sure Verga’ll just give ‘em the old Geminian slap on the wrist.” Cadence put on a sympathetic expression. “But that’s a good thing. Teach ‘em to keep their noses clean. I mean, he has a daughter. He’d be the devil if he’d do anything bad when he has a kid of his own.” She waved the thought off and nodded to Jericho. “Enough about that. How you feelin’?”

“I’ve been thinking a lot since my body is not functional at the moment.”

“Any philosophical thoughts you wanna throw onto the table?” Cadence joked.

“We were children,” was all he’d said.

Cadence had cocked her head, caught off guard by the odd statement. “Yeah, we were.”

And just like that, Jericho had faded back into his blackness.

Yeah. Jericho was weird.

Cadence brushed the encounter from her mind as she continued through the crowd of pedestrians around her. She crossed over a canal and walked beneath a high bridge where a couple of musical street performers were taking a breather. She gave them a nod.

When her destination glowed its way into her view fifteen minutes later, she halted.

The place that Matilda said was their next target. The Geminorium Gamma. The Foxman brothers’ restaurant front.

It loomed like a behemoth compared to the smaller buildings around it. A pair of gilded, white pillars rose up at its entrance, holding up a stone-black plaque that she assumed read its name in swirling letters. The glow from the windows was warm and acted as a rosy backdrop to the silhouettes dining inside with their polished silverware and gaudily designed plates.

The restaurant looked packed. Good for them.

Cadence turned away from the dazzling building toward the sidewalk that ran opposite. A few pedestrians and a couple of tourists ogled the restaurant with wistful eyes as they passed by. Not exactly what Cadence was looking for, but her intuition told her that this was the place to be.

Intuition? Hm.

She noticed a narrow alleyway no wider than a meter hidden behind a collection of trash bins on the walkway. Shoving her hands into her pockets, she approached the mouth of the alley and peered in. And almost had a heart attack.

Huddled there just behind the bins was someone small—legs drawn up against the chest and arms wrapped around the legs. A butterfly-shaped birthmark blossomed on the pale face that peered out from the darkness toward the restaurant.

“Matilda!” Cadence shout-whispered.

The girl blinked slowly as if waking up from a dream before her gaze rose to meet Cadence’s—rather Duccio’s—face. “Duccio!” the girl exclaimed. “You’re all right! I tried to reach you, but I thought…”

“I’m all right. Don’t worry.” Cadence scrambled over the bin before crouching down beside the girl. “Thought I’d find you here.” She glanced down the alleyway as she shoved her hands in her pockets. She scanned the darkness behind them. “The others aren’t with you? What about Marzia?”

Matilda looked away. “No… I… the ones that I could reach… I told them to lay low. But I couldn’t reach Marzia. She might be…”

Cadence reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. “If she’s not here, then she’s out of the city. Don’t worry. I know her.”

Matilda met her eyes and then looked away toward the restaurant.

Cadence followed her gaze before asking, “What are you doing here? After what…” Cadence allowed her voice to crack and she looked away. “W-What…. happened yesterday… they probably have people around guardin’ the place. It’s dangerous.”

Matilda shook her head. “No. They’ve already forgotten about us. I can tell. You don’t buy bug spray after you think you’ve killed the bug.”

“Tilda…”

“I don’t really know,” Matilda mumbled. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“I’m here for you, Tilda. Whenever you come up with another plan, I—”

Matilda shook her head. “I can’t ask any more from you. Not after what happened. You’re the only one out of all of us who knows how to use a conductor like that. If we lose you, then…”

So Duccio had been the one to set off the bomb. Talk about an ironic retribution.

“Even when I see all of them in there with their families being happy,” Matilda nodded toward the restaurant, “I still want to blow the entire place up. Actually, the more I stare at them, the more I want to do it. Maybe they’ll know then. About what kind of people they’re supporting. And maybe they’ll know just like I do: that I’m out here, and they’re in there.”

Cadence paused and looked at her. She was still staring holes into the restaurant. Pretty murderous thoughts for—what—a fourteen-year-old? Well, that was what they called desperation.

Slowly, Matilda lifted her head and met Cadence’s gaze. “Am I a bad person?”

This wasn’t the first time Cadence had been asked this sort of question, and she figured it wouldn’t be the last. People always needed reassurance of their deeds, but in reality…

“It’s not that there’s good or bad,” Cadence said with a sigh. “It’s all just circumstance. There’s no use applying morals to situations. That’s just self-righteous. There’s no good or bad in the world. There’s just people makin’ choices and tryin’ to justify themselves.”

Matilda was staring at her now.

Cadence scratched her neck. “When I can’t sleep, I think about weird things—”

She froze. There it was. That familiar feeling. Déjà vu.

She’d become sharply synchronized with someone else. A coolness crept along her back, and her vision went double. In the far distance of her mind’s eye, she saw a familiar cabin filled with tables toppled with items that looked familiar. Conductors, packets of v-cigs, and the like. In the far corner of the cabin was a piano. At the other end of the cabin was—

Werner.

Shoot.

She really didn’t need someone asking her if she was really going to be putting these children under the bus. Her life was on the line here, after all, which meant that their lives were on the line—

“What you do and say is of no concern to me,” was all the soldier said, not even turning to face her in his mind’s eye.

Well then.

Cadence turned to face the girl and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Matilda. It doesn’t have to be over yet.”

Matilda glanced at the restaurant. “What do you mean?”

“When I was running away, I saw Verga. The creepy-lookin’ one. He works under the Romanos. I heard him talking. He’s the one who’s behind this. Not the Foxmans or the Romanos. That bastard’s been stealin’ the conductors from them and makin’ us sell and deliver them for him just to throw us away when he doesn’t need us anymore.”

“But…” Matilda’s eyes widened. “Wha—if that’s true… If it was him, then… the TwinStars Pub… we…”

“It’s okay,” Cadence said, squeezing her shoulders. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I found where he’s hidin’. The Vitae Roll. He’s always at that joint, and he’s so cocky that he goes there without anybody with him.”

“Duccio, what are you saying?”

“We can end this once and for all. Get revenge for everyone. For us.” Cadence stared into her eyes. “But we need everyone who’s left to do it.”

Matilda pulled away. “I don’t know, Duccio… That sounds… too easy… And after everything that’s happened…”

Hm.

“We’ve lost so much already, Matilda,” Cadence said. “And it’s not fair that we’re the only ones who know it.”

Matilda stiffened.

“I know an associate of the Foxmans and the Romanos. A street swindler,” Cadence reassured her. “We’re on good terms. I’ll tell her everything after. I promise. I got this. We’ll be safe.”

Matilda stared at her for a long, quiet moment before turning back to look at the restaurant. She bit her thumb. “One last time… tomorrow. Let’s do it.”

And that was that—

But they were children.

Cadence froze again.

Werner.

It wasn’t so much a thought as a feeling. It wasn’t so much a feeling of absolute disgust as she’d been expecting but an entirely different feeling altogether. Regret. An emotion that Cadence always ignored.

Yeah, they were children, Cadence tried to argue—to herself mostly. But that meant nothing in this kind of place. She would know.

* * *

When Cadence dropped into her bed that night, she fell into a restless sleep. Rolling images attacked her between periods of emptiness. She wasn’t sure whether they were dreams or memories. Or nightmares.

There was Alma tapping away on the piano as the crowd cheered in the background. There was Cadence’s first meeting with the Foxmans when they were all younger—with Francis extending a hand out to her and her cheekily extending a stack of cards back. There was her, the Foxmans, Nico, and the other kids running wildly through the streets and then piling together their pickpocket winnings beneath the Dioscuri Bridge. There was laughter, thrill, danger, freedom.

And then there was Alma being dragged away into the darkness by a shadowy silhouette. Then the Foxman brothers watching calmly as a man tied to a chair was beaten to a pulp with a pipe in front of them. There was Nico, wiping his patient’s splattered blood off his face with a rag. And then there was Ricardo Romano standing above her as the rain pelted down harsh on his bright yellow-orange umbrella. Everything was gray around them, but when he extended his hand, the world gained a bit more color.

When Cadence awoke, she knew she was not alone. She sat up in bed and cast a glance to Werner, who stood by the window.

“How much did you see?” she asked, too tired to put on a smile.

He shifted where he stood, not looking at her. “I didn’t see your parents.” Well, that was an awkward response.

“Well, neither did I.”

Werner stiffened. “I apologize. It wasn’t my intention to see those private things.”

Cadence couldn’t help but cackle. “Well, it ain’t a big secret.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

Cadence sighed and paced over to where Werner stood. The man took two steps back in turn. She didn’t pay it any mind and instead stared out the window. Instead of seeing the small, bustling, cobblestone square she greeted early in the mornings, she saw Werner’s surroundings. A window and a thicket of thin trees in the dark distance. She could tell by his reflection in his window that he was still in that room with all the tables.

“Doin’ inventory?”

“Yes.”

He was being friendlier than usual. Was it because he’d seen some of her dreams and memories? What? Was he a softie after all?

Absentmindedly, she said, “Y’know, bein’ in this business isn’t my end goal. It’s just a stepping stone.”

“Is that so?” He was looking at her now, almost curiously.

“Yeah, just ya watch. In a couple years or so you’ll see me playin’ on the big stage. I’ll have one of those fancy v-ehicles and a big house. Everyone’ll know my name.”

And Alma would be at her side.

“Those are high expectations,” Werner noted. “It’s good to set the bar high.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Cadence grinned. She thrummed her fingers against the windowsill absentmindedly. “Did ya see how I met Ricardo Romano?”

“Ricardo Romano. He is the leader of the syndicate you often work for, correct?” Werner said slowly. “I don’t believe I have.”

Cadence cracked a grin. “I picked his pockets.”

Werner was frowning again.

“He didn’t realize it until later but when he did, he sent out the huntin’ dogs. When he found me, I thought I was a goner.” She turned to him and chuckled. “But y’know what? He offered me a damn job instead of a bullet! I rejected, ‘course. Said I’d rather have a full course meal and boy did he treat me.” She shook her head. “Still don’t get why.”

“But you’re working with him now.”

That was what the guy got out of that?

“Yeah.” Cadence felt the smile fall from her face as Alma flashed in her mind. “Got a little bit desperate. But it ain’t bad.”

She doesn’t feel any shame by betraying those she’s worked for?

“Uh, Lieutenant, sir, our thoughts are kinda linked so even if ya don’t verbalize, I can still hear what you’re thinkin’.”

Werner’s eyes widened a fraction of a centimeter, and Cadence thought he looked a bit embarrassed. It must have been a fluke, because he met her gaze a beat after, saying, “Things are seldom held together or maintained for long without loyalty. Consistency. Dreams included.”

“I get ya,” Cadence agreed, “but I mean, our lives are on the line here. If I don’t do it, Verga’ll kill me. Even if they get to him first, he’s already probably hired someone to kill me. He’s meticulous.”

“I see.”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re like my real family.” Cadence shrugged before she winked. “I’m like a lone cat, y’know. Ya feed it but ya don’t take it in.”

Werner stared into her. Man, he had such an intense gaze. It took every ounce of Cadence’s willpower to hold it. Abruptly, however, he turned away from her.

“I have to make my rounds now.” He nodded curtly. “Goodbye.”

And that was that. Or so they both thought.

As he moved out the cabin, Cadence found herself being pulled along with him. He stopped short just outside and turned to give her a look. She responded with a shrug and a “not like I can help it.”

He held his ground for the better part of a minute before he gave in and stalked toward another cabin further down the dirt path. She followed him and glanced at the two Capricornian soldiers standing guard there. A woman and a man. Emilia Bergmann and Wilhelm Fischer, Werner’s mind provided. They saluted Werner upon his arrival—which Cadence found bizarre—and moved aside for him to enter the cabin.

The cabin was dimly lit, containing about six beds, four of which were occupied. The people in the beds were in uniform but in a uniform different from the one Werner wore. The people in the bed looked completely worn out. Like how the gamblers at the casino looked when they’d bet the last of what they brought with them and lost.

Prisoners, Werner’s mind supplied.

Man, Cadence thought as she looked them over, it would suck to be a prisoner. And then she saw him. And her entire world froze over.

Was it the chill from Werner’s surroundings that was leaking into the warmth of her home, or was it the stone-cold realization dawning on her? She didn’t quite know. But. No. Anybody but him.

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she’d told him all the years ago. But she didn’t mean it like this. That idiot—

“Nico…?”


The Sognare: Bar and Tunes. Est 1921.

Formerly a popular late night destination frequented by musicians, tourists, and starry-eyed children, it has fallen into obscurity and debt. Some say its fall from popularity and grace is akin to the slow takeover of criminal organizations in the Twin Cities. 

4.1: Chance Direction

Re-cap:

The convergence occurred and communication was set in stone. Olive discovered that the other five could see the phantom ghost of his sister and a pitiful hope stirred in his chest. The assassination investigation occurring in the background and his bathroom conversation with Claire, however, was weighing on his mind.


New Ram City, Aries

“Good morning!”

Olive snapped up in bed, heart thundering as his eyes darted around the room. Sunlight was just beginning to spill onto his carpet from the window, and his bird chirped its morning song at the foot of his bed.

Damn Maria.

Thirty percent whatever.

Olive fell back and closed his eyes tight. Just as sleep was beginning to claim him again, he was greeted with the rattling of morning street traffic echoing at the back of his mind. From Cadence’s end. It had to be.

What in the world was going on? This synchronization thing was happening too frequently now.

He opened his eyes and glared at the ceiling. No use sleeping. After swinging his legs off his bed, he fed his bird and then made his way toward the door.

“You’re up early, Ollie.”

Olive paused and turned his head. Lavi. She sat on the windowsill, looking out at the courtyard below.

“Did something good happen?” she continued absentmindedly.

“More like a series of unfortunate events,” Olive muttered.

“Really?” Lavi turned away from the window. “I like your new friends.”

Not friends.

“It was nice speaking to someone other than you for once,” she continued, somewhat cheeky. “I mean, you’re so grumpy all the time.”

Olive froze in place. What was this? She’d never said anything like this before. Not even once. She had always just been there by his side as if she’d never left, always acting like all was right in the world. A ghost. An illusion. Something Doctor Kingsley had said ‘felt nothing and only existed as a reminder.’ But they had confirmed it, hadn’t they—the other five? She was more than an illusion that only he could see. Right? Or?

“Lavi, you—all this time…” Olive whispered, taking a step toward her. For these eight long years that she’d been at his side—“Have you… are you lonely?”

“Huh?” Lavi frowned. After twirling a dark lock between her fingers, she looked down at her feet. “I guess it does get boring sometimes.” She pulled her knees to her chest. “I was never an extrovert like you, but I’m not a hermit either, you know.”

A terrible, yet familiar feeling seized his chest.

How could he have not realized?

“If that’s the case then…” Olive swallowed, looking away. “I’ll find a way to make it so that… you can talk to people whenever you want. I promise.” He looked up at her and found her staring at him rather vacantly.

There was a stretch of silence.

“Okay,” she said with a strange smile before she disappeared.

* * *

When Olive cracked open the door to his room, he found that it was Samuel and another guard posted by his door. Trystan was nowhere to be seen.

“Your highness, you’re up early,” Samuel said as he noticed Olive peeking out the doorway.

“Like I could sleep with all the racket you’re making out here,” Olive said, slipping into the hall. “Well, I guess it’s fine since it looks like you’re temporarily free from the leash that Trystan has around your neck.” He looked around with disinterest. “Where is he anyways?”

Samuel and the other guard exchanged nervous looks.

“About that… Trystan’s been stripped of his position as head royal guard.”

Olive started. “What? Why? Because of what happened yesterday? That was my fault. I just passed out. As much as he’d like to, he wouldn’t knock me out.”

The two exchanged looks again.

“No, it wasn’t that, Your Highness.” Samuel clenched the conductor that hung at his side. “Trystan has been arrested for… treason.”

Treason…?

“They found evidence linking him to your assassination attempt,” Samuel continued. “From the conductor inspection.”

Olive’s ears began ringing and he felt his blood run cold.

“The conductor-type and conducting-type that he uses matched the one used on you. Plus, the timeline matched up with his transfer to the royal palace and…” Samuel looked away. “Well, all the royal guards know. During his days at the academy, he was very vocal about his views on the royal family and officials. It was so obvious. I can’t believe we didn’t see it.”

Olive remained silent.

“Everything is all right now, your highness,” Samuel said gently. “He tried to get close to you as head royal guard to probably finish the job he failed to do. It’s a good thing he’s gone.”

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt. “The Ophiuchian Agents work pretty quickly for all the trash talk everyone likes to give them.”

“No, it was actually the Investigation Bureau,” the other guard supplied. “They were running a parallel investigation themselves.”

Olive frowned.

“Right now, the IB is trying to send the peacekeepers back to Ophiuchus since their job’s finished,” Samuel said. “But you know Ophiuchians. They always want to have control—”

“I’m hungry,” Olive interjected. “Let’s get breakfast.”

* * *

The chairs lining the table in the dining room were empty as usual, although the table itself was full. Eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruits, yogurt parfaits—the surface was completely cluttered with them.

Olive settled down at a random chair and began to pick at the food with his fork.

Samuel and the other guard were standing by the wall. At the opposite end of the room was another set of guards. All four of them seemed to be at ease. Olive hadn’t seen the royal guards relaxed like this in weeks.Being relieved of the suspicion surrounding the assassination investigation must do wonders for the stress lines.

Well, it all seems a little too convenient ta be true.

Right. It would be a different story of Izsak and Gabrielle had closed the case but if it was the Investigation Bureau—wait.

Olive shook his head. There wasn’t any point in thinking about this. He knew that. So if he knew it, then who thought otherwise…? Who was synchronized? He scanned the room carefully as a vague sensation of déjà vu greeted him.

“So, this is the kinda stuff royalty gets treated with.”

Olive nearly jumped as the voice within his mind resounded right next to his ear. Leaning with an elbow propped on the table to Olive’s right was one grinning Cadence Morello. She picked up a pear from the fruit tray and took a bite.

Olive blinked. And then he realized that he was the one taking the bite, not her. He frowned and put down the pear she’d made him pick up before glancing at the guards. They didn’t seem to register anything out of the ordinary.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” she said with a mild wince.

What was she doing here?

Cadence shrugged as she turned around and leaned against the table with crossed arms. “Not like I can control it. I’m actually preparin’ for a job and decided ta hit my favorite bar just beforehand. Was drinkin’ with some tourists and found myself here.”

There was a slight throb at Olive’s temple, followed by a series of images and sounds. The first was of Cadence entering a brightly lit bar. The next was of her sitting in a booth surrounded by a group of young men and women marveling at the bar’s interior and ‘ the beauty of Geminian architecture.’ After that came the image of Cadence pulling out a deck of cards and setting it on the table. And then one of Cadence pulling a man’s wallet from his pocket as she threw an arm around his shoulder. The last image—Olive somehow knew—was what Cadence was doing at that very moment.

Classy.

“What should I call ya by the way?” Cadence gestured to Olive. “Are ya a stickler for titles or do ya wanna be called somethin’ else?” She raised her hands. “Just wanna get along with everyone since we’re here together.”

Olive sighed.

“All right, Your Majesty. Then it’s free real estate with nicknames,” Cadence chortled. “Anyways, I couldn’t help but notice your predicament.”

It wasn’t really a predicament.

Olive blinked, and his surroundings abruptly changed. He was standing in front of the booth Cadence was seated in. He could see the flashy jewelry worn by the people seated at her table—none of whom acknowledged him—to a startlingly clear degree, and he could hear the faint clinks of glass and silverware in the background. There was a disgustingly strong smell of v-cig smoke in the air.

Olive knew in reality he was still sitting at the table back at the mansion. He could even taste the sweet parfait he’d just spooned into his mouth. Still, it felt strange.

He examined Cadence’s card game with disinterest. What was this? Poker?

I’ve got a good eye for people. Comes with my profession, Cadence’s thoughts echoed in Olive’s mind as she flashed a charming smile to the woman across from her. Trystan—that’s tall, dark, and handsome, right? From what I can tell, he’s a cherry boy. Honor and duty type of guy. A schoolboy playin’ warrior. She dealt the cards to the tourists and placed a bet of fifty Geminian cens. Definitely not the type of person to try an assassination attempt. Wouldn’t want that on his record. 

The tourists placed their bets in Aquarian Dracul.

“The Investigation Bureau thought otherwise, but maybe you’re right. Maybe I should be listening to the words of someone who’d cheat tourists out of their money instead,” Olive retorted.

I may not know much about politics, but I know enough ta not trust a politician. Cadence increased her wager. And I’m pretty sure those are more of your thoughts than mine.

The tourists exchanged nervous looks. Some folded. Others clung to their cards, grinning.

Anyways, cherry boy was obviously framed. Cadence increased her wager again while patting the woman to her left on the shoulder and subtly pulling off the woman’s silver necklace and pocketing it.

“Not like I can do anything. The IB already made its decision. And it has nothing to do with you,” Olive muttered.

Well, the point is that your assassin is still out there and ya don’t have a royal guard that’ll fly to your side on command anymore. Cadence made eye contact with him. You’re not tellin’ me ya don’t even feel a little bit worried about tall-dark-and-handsome? Not a bit of righteous justice coursin’ through your veins?

Olive frowned. He didn’t want to be patronized by someone like Cadence. She was probably just concerned about the possibility of her dying along with him.

Man, kid, ya really don’t pull your punches, do you? Cadence leaned over the table to order another round of drinks from the bar. When she pulled back, she unfastened the wristwatch from the man sitting across from her and tucked in her palm.

How in the world are these people not seeing this ? Olive wondered. It was kind of impressive.

Anyways, shouldn’t ya be a bit more concerned about dyin’? Or is this just how kids are nowadays?

“Why are you calling me a kid when you’re one yourself?” Olive returned.

Cadence’s smile cracked for a moment, but she brought it back up easily. Look, I’ll admit it. I don’t wanna die. But, I don’t want you to die either. I get easily attached. What can I say?

Cadence finally revealed her cards, as did two of the other tourists who had not folded. Judging by the tourists’ ecstatic faces and cheers—

“You lost,” Olive noted.

Did I? Cadence winked and tapped her full pockets.

Olive blinked.

The bar scene slowly faded away from his vision, and the dining hall came into focus before him. He’d been working on an omelet the entire time he’d been speaking with her. It was odd—being mentally present in more than one place.

Cadence was back standing at his right, hands on hips.

“I do think it warrants some looking into,” came a familiar, sudden, quiet voice to his left. “Being wrongly accused and arrested is a bit pitiable, don’t you think? But it’s ultimately your decision, Olive.”

Olive didn’t need to turn his head to see who it was. Atienna. Cadence offered her a tip of her hat at her sudden arrival. Her presence was calming.

“Fine. I’ll look into it.” Olive sighed, rising to a stand. “I probably won’t be able to do anything, but I don’t want your deaths on my hands—”

“Your Highness?”

Olive jumped in surprise. Samuel was standing puzzled right behind him.

“Were you speaking to me, sir?” Samuel asked. “I couldn’t hear you from my post.”

Olive looked to his left and right. Atienna and Cadence were gone. Of course.

* * *

It wasn’t hard for Olive to give Samuel and the other guard the slip when they brought him to the royal palace upon his request. They weren’t as tightly wound as Trystan nor were they as keen as Alexander. In fact, as soon as they arrived inside the main entrance hall, the two immediately began to gossip with the other guards present. It was expected. They hadn’t been the most attentive before or during the assassination incident. 

Olive waited for the guards to start talking about how they had seen Trystan’s betrayal coming before he leisurely made his exit.

People love to gossip , came Cadence’s observation.

Olive jumped at the echo of her voice inside his head. They still seemed to be synchronized, unfortunately, but at least it was to a lesser degree than before.

He slipped through a door that led to the stairwell. Peering up it, he squinted at the stretch of red carpet extending up numerous zigzagging staircases. He then glanced down at the same red zigzagging downward.

Okay, so ya wanted ta visit your family. That’s really cute of ya, but what does this have ta do with the whole Trystan-and-assassin thing?

“The royal dungeon is beneath the palace,” Olive sighed. “It’s where Trystan is being kept and interrogated, probably.”

Saints. You keep a dungeon beneath your royal palace? Monarchies are really somethin’ else.

Olive waved away her thoughts and began his descent. He moved quickly, but quietly. Tense. As he went deeper and deeper down, the decorative walls became bare and unpainted and the carpet was traded for hard concrete flooring.

He paused as loud clanging echoed from below. Pressing his back against the wall, he continued slower. When he reached the next floor space, he peered cautiously around the corner. A great oak door. The light leaking from the space beneath the door was warm. There was a sweet smell wafting out.

The kitchen.

He quickly passed this area and descended further.

After three more levels, he reached an absurdly long set of stairs. It seemed to go on for miles, and he became self-conscious of his labored breathing as he continued down. Near the bottom, he began to hear a sound other than his panting—stomping leather boots. He paused just in front of the threshold where the floor level met the stairway.

It was dim here. The floor was cobblestone, the walls brick. There were wooden tables draped in red sheets along the walls. Large pillars ran from the floor to the high-rise ceilings. From his angle, he could just barely make out the wrought iron door leading to the jail.

Voices and footsteps drifted toward him.

“—it was really Trystan. I always had a bad feeling about him when we were together at the academy.”

“Right? He was always so snooty. Talking about how reliant we’ve become on Ophiuchus—look at him now! Caught not by Ophiuchus, but by us. Ha!”

“Yeah, he was only popular there because his grades were kinda good and he was kinda okay with his conductor. Nothin’ special.”

Three pairs of footsteps began to drift away.

Olive darted forward, hurtling toward the table across the room and ducking beneath the tablecloth before clamping his hand over his mouth. Damn it. This was so stupid.

What’s with all the sneakin’? Can’t ya use your authority to just waltz in there? 

“I’m a prince. I’m just here for appearances. I don’t actually have a say in anything,” Olive whispered under his breath. “If they find me here, they’ll put more guards on me and I’ll never be able to sneak back in here. I’m not crawling around for fun.”

“Hey, guys, I’m kinda hungry. How about we grab lunch real quick?” One of the guards sighed.

“I was hoping you’d say that. I was just about to eat my hand,” responded another.

“You’ve been liking food a lot recently huh?” asked the third.

“Are you calling me fat?”

Olive waited for the shadows of boots to pass him by and listened for the pad of footsteps to fade up the stairs before peeling out from beneath the table.

Wait, wait, wait. What if there are more of ‘em?

“There aren’t,” Olive said, brushing off the dirt from his shirt. “Clement, Adam, and Leslie are the only ones on guard around this time since it’s near lunch. They always skip out for food.”

Wow, y’know the rotation of your royal guards? You’re pretty good, kid. 

“It’s nothing special. Just helps for when I sneak around.” Olive looked around the room. There wasn’t much to see. Just a v-light barely brightening the room and a thin window near the high ceiling.

He walked over to the dungeon door, which had rust creeping along its edges. As he reached for the handle, he paused. Grimacing, he grabbed the padlock that hung there.

Locked.

Olive took a step back and scanned the walls.

What’re you doin’?

“Looking for the keys,” Olive sighed. When he noticed that the key holder built into the wall was empty, he swore under his breath before addressing Cadence. “What are you doing? Why are you still here?”

Jeez. Don’t take it out on me, your highness. Can’t help it. And ya could always lock-pick it.

“I’m not the type of person who learns how to break into places in my free time.”

Well, you’re in luck because I happen ta be the type of person that does.

Olive frowned. “Are you planning on overriding me?”

Nah, I’ll just tell ya how to do it. Not sure what model that is, but I’m pretty sure usin’ the end of that pin in your shirt’ll do.

Creepy how she knew that. Olive reached for the gold-pressed pin and unfastened it.

A minute later and he was kneeling on the ground, blankly jabbing the end of his pin into the padlock with little result.

No, no, no, ya can’t just go straight in like that—

This was stupid. How else was he supposed to do it?

To the side ! You’re supposed to feel for it and twist it and—

“You really should avoid becoming a teacher,” Olive muttered under his breath. “Or a lock picker. Your job prospects would be—”

“What are you doing?” A cool voice abruptly cut their conversation short.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he could feel Cadence’s heart do the same. A chill crept up his spine, but it was not a hair-raising chill. Rather, it was a familiar one.

Olive rose to his feet and turned.

It was the Capricornian Lieutenant. Werner Waltz. He stood there with his hands folded behind his back inspecting the room with an unreadable expression.

“It seems that I’ve synchronized with you and Morello,” Werner said calmly. He raised his hand briefly to his temple before clasping it behind his back again. “This is reckless.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Olive grumbled, turning away from him.

Cadence tried to assuage Werner while Olive continued working on the padlock, which he was now tempted to smash his head against.

“So you don’t believe Carter was the perpetrator,” Werner said after a lengthy pause. “Then who do you think did it?”

“Don’t know,” Olive said. “Don’t really ca—”

Werner held up his hand, cutting him off short. “Someone’s coming.”

“Wha—”

“You need to hide.”

Olive’s eyes darted around the room. The table. Beneath there.

He made for it. Or at least he tried to. He barely took his first step before he tripped over his own foot and face-planted on the ground.

Kid—

Shadowy arms abruptly wrapped around Olive’s waist and drew him up off of his feet. Up, up, up, up, until he was near the ceiling and straddled against one of the pillars. Before he could scream, a hand was clamped over his mouth and a familiar ‘ shhhh’ brushed his right ear.

Don’t panic , came Werner’s voice although Olive could no longer see him. Decreased synchronization?

Below them, one of the guards from earlier approached the cellar door. He unhooked something from his belt and hung it on the wall. The key. The guard let out a sigh, rubbed his face, and headed back up the stairs. The sound of his footsteps echoed for a moment before silence fell.

Olive swallowed and looked over his shoulder. He glared into the shadows, and then—“Claire?!” he whispered incredulously, jerking his head away from the clamped hand.

The sight was almost unbelievable. There Claire was hanging upside down from the pillar. He was using his legs to wrap around it and hold himself in place.

“Wha—what are you—”

“Wait, wait, let me get us down first,” Claire whispered back in a strained voice.

A minute later and they were both on the ground. Claire collapsed back against the pillar behind him and sighed. “You’re pretty heavy, you know.”

Olive frowned.

“Anyways, I’m really glad you’re okay after yesterday. Should you really be—”

“What are you doing here?”

“I—what do you mean—”

“Don’t play dumb.” Olive looked him over. “What are you doing here in the dungeons?”

Claire’s eyes bulged. “This is a dungeon?” He looked around bewildered. “You have dungeons beneath your royal palace?”

“Wha…?”

“I thought this was the treasury.” Claire took a step back and swiveled in a full circle. He pointed at Olive. “I thought you were trying to steal something so that’s why I—what are you doing here then?”

Olive shook his head incredulously before he snapped: “First off, does this look like a treasury room to you?!” He startled himself with his own shout and pulled back with crossed arms. He continued more quietly: “Secondly, why would I steal some from the treasury? And third, what were you doing looking for the treasury in the first place?”

Claire opened his mouth and then closed it before he said, “The Ramicus.”

Olive stared. “You broke into the treasury of the royal palace to try and steal a pot that I was going to give to you.”

“I thought since you fainted… I didn’t want to stress you.”

“I’m more stressed now that you’re here—”

There isn’t time for this. Werner’s thoughts cut through like a knife. You came here with an objective. 

The prince clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned away from Claire. He walked to the cellar door and unhooked the key before inserting it in the slot.

“Wait, what are you doing here though?” Claire pressed from behind him. “I mean… the dungeon—isn’t it dangerous?”

Kid —it was Cadence now— careful.

“Trystan was arrested for my attempted assassination,” Olive stated plainly.

That’s the opposite of bein’ careful.

“Trystan?”

Olive ignored him and pushed the door open. The metal door creaked on its hinges and scrapped against the floor. Olive stepped inside with Claire following shortly behind.

Surprisingly, the room inside was well lit. The dungeon consisted of ten individual jail cells—five on the left and five on the right. A wide walkway divided the room in half, and at the center was a long table piled with documents.

Only one cell was occupied. The one closest to the window. A figure cloaked in shadows was sitting on the bed in the cell and had raised his head at their entrance. When he registered them, he shot up and ran to the bars.

“Your Highness?!”

Olive frowned and put a finger to his lip.

“W-What are you doing here?” Trystan whispered.

Trystan looked worse for wear. There were bruises on his cheek, and his left eye was swelling. His fingers that were wrapped around the bars of the cell were raw red. It looked like the Investigation Bureau had interrogated him thoroughly. But even still—

His eyes were strong.

They glimmered with a sort of fiery intensity that Olive supposed all foreigners thought Ariesians possessed.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Olive returned.

Trystan’s eyes widened at the implication, and his grip on the bars tightened. “It wasn’t me, Your Highness. I would never dare to take the life of an Ariesian—much less a member of the royal family. It’s my duty to protect them.”

“You sure like waxing lyrical,” Olive said, looking him over. “But the evidence is really stacked up against you. You need to start keeping your political opinions to yourself.”

Trystan froze.

“I read through some of your papers earlier today.” Olive reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of folded paper. He opened it and recited in a mocking tone: “‘ The election of feudal lords has moved from competitions of merit to calculated nepotism. The royal family has devolved from its former state of reassuring the people through their image to being mere figureheads. They need to be reformed. ’”

That’s a bit dramatic.

Olive ignored Cadence and continued, “Anybody reading your papers would think you were a radical. Maybe you’re radical enough to think that an assassination would solve everything.”

Trystan’s grip on the bars loosened and he stared into the floor. “That’s… not the way true, permanent changes are made. The reason I became a royal guard was because… I wanted to try to change things from the insi—”

“Are you going to break him out then?” Claire asked, sounding a bit hopeful.

Trystan finally noticed him standing behind Olive. “You’re… How—”

“Long story,” Claire said with a wave. “But we’re going to get you out of here—”

“No, that would be stupid,” Olive interjected.

Claire paused. “We’re not breaking him out?”

“Firstly, there’s no ‘we.’ Secondly, breaking him out would cause more trouble for him and for me,” Olive continued. “It doesn’t help him look innocent.”

Olive turned away from the cell and walked to the center table. He moved aside the papers there that detailed aspects of the case recorded by the Investigation Bureau. There, beneath the file. He picked up two thin metal objects that had been set to the side together. He held them loosely for the other two to see.

“My arrow…” Trystan identified. “And the one you were shot with.”

“Since the IB didn’t have the actual conductor used on me, they focused on the conducting type used instead and the fact that an arrow was used. A Conductor who is a fire Elementalist who uses a bow conductor.” He pointed to the tips of the arrows. “But the real evidence is here.” He tapped his shoulder. “And here.”

“You believe me?” Trystan whispered.

“You’re too stuck up to dirty your hands trying to kill me.” Olive waved him off. “But who knows.” With that, he headed back toward the door.

“Your Highness—no, Olive.”

Olive paused and turned.

Trystan met his eyes. “Thank you.”

The very sentence made Olive nauseous. Disgusting. He exited the cellar without another word, Claire following.

Abruptly, Claire said, “Let me help you, Olive.”

Olive stopped in his tracks, turned, and stared.

This guy is too suspicious. No one ever offers help without schemin’ somethin’ behind the scenes.

Olive had to agree with Cadence on that part, but—

Claire pressed on, “You’ve seen me. I’m pretty good at getting in and out of places. Maybe even better than you.”

He was pushing it now, Olive thought.

“Why do you want to even help me?” Olive asked.

“Like you said.” Claire shrugged. “I’m an idiot.”

Maybe he really was an idiot.

Or maybe he’s playin’ idiot.

Either way—

Someone is coming —Werner again, cutting through their thoughts with his clipped voice. Storming of footsteps down the stairwell followed.

Olive grabbed Claire’s arm. “Okay fine. I’ll let you be an idiot. How did you get in here?”

Claire pointed up to the window.

* * *

Half an hour later Olive and Claire arrived at the specialized conductor store where they had first met. They entered the building side-by-side and were welcomed by a familiar mess of tables topped with conductor parts and a haze of smog.

Didn’t think this’d be the kind of place a prince’d hang out at.

Olive nearly jumped at the sound of Cadence’s voice. She’d been silent during their journey here. He, for a moment, had hoped the synchronization was gone. Why in the world was she still here—

“Chance?” The owner of the shop appeared out from behind the curtains at the back of the store. Wiping her hands on a rag that hung at her waist, she walked up to the counter and squinted at him.

“Didn’t expect you to be here so soon,” she said. She glanced at Claire. “You were here the other night, weren’t you? You know each other?”

“Claire.” Olive thumbed at Claire. “Marta.” Olive pointed to the woman. Introductions done and over with.

“Nice to meet you, Claire.” Marta gave him a slight bow of her head before turning her attention back to Olive. “You here to sleep again or…?”

“I’m actually here about that thing you were talking about last week.”

“That thing?” A question from both Claire and Cadence.

“My vitae-spectrophotometer!” Marta boomed, causing Claire to jump.” I’m finishing up the trials as we speak. I’m hoping to get it board-approved at Ophiuchus by the end of next month.”

“I need to use it.”

Marta paused. “Use it?”

“Borrow it,” Olive tried. “Test trials.”

Marta looked unconvinced.

Tell her that you’ll convince your uncle and aunt ta set up an exhibition ta promote her invention thing.

Why? Olive wondered. It wasn’t like he could actually convince them of that, and he doubted Marta cared.

But she doesn’t know that. And besides, there’s one thing I know about anyone who creates anything. They always seek validation.

With nothing to lose, Olive told her what Cadence had suggested.

Without another word, Marta took them to the back of her store. It was as cluttered as Olive expected, but for some odd reason he felt an itch to clean it up. Its appearance was… unacceptable. 

After rummaging beneath her desk in the corner of the room, she pulled out a large rectangular contraption and hefted it onto the desk. It was black with two slots set slightly off-center. She connected its two cables to a square generator conductor and a large, cylindrical, glass insulator.

The generator conductor was an Ariesian brand with the obnoxious Ariesian ram printed at its center. It read ‘100 VPps’ and 10K VP charge. One hundred vitae particles per second. And ten thousand vitae particles stored inside? That was pretty good.

Noticing Olive’s stare, Marta shrugged. “Plugging into the vitae provided by the city generator conductors is too unreliable.”

Claire cleared his throat. “Sorry, I’m confused. What does this do?”

“Whenever someone uses a weaponized conductor, some of their vitae lingers on not just the conductor, but whatever they used their conductor on,” Olive said. “A Manipulator’s vitae’ll still be in whatever they manipulated. If a Projector uses a conducting rifle, their vitae will linger on whatever they shoot at. And, well, you can see why Elementalists are so dangerous.” He pulled out the two arrows he had tucked into his coat pocket and nodded to the device. “This thing can extract and read that vitae.”

“Oh! So it’s like the V-Type Test they give you so that you can find out your conducting type?”

“Don’t compare my baby to that simple thing!” Marta snapped. She placed a gentle, loving hand on the device. “The V-Type Test isn’t sophisticated like this thing. This baby here—it can read vitae colors. And not just from human beings—no, that would be too boring. My vitae-spectrophotometer can read the colors of anything.”

“I see,” Claire said, despite evidently not seeing.

“Everyone has a unique color to their vitae, so…” Olive removed the arrowhead from Trystan’s arrow and moved toward the machine as Marta messed with the cables connecting everything together.

“You sure know a lot about conducting,” Claire noted.

“Not conducting. Vitae theory goes over my head. But… conductors—yeah, I know a thing or two.” Olive set the arrowhead in one of the slots. Marta handed him a cubical glass cover to slip over it. “I wanted to be a conductor engineer when I was younger.”

“What made you change your mind?”

Both Claire and Cadence asked the question.

“I realized it was stupid. Pointless,” Olive answered as he helped Marta check the cables. “You make things thinking that you’re helping people. That you’re making a difference. But that’s just you trying to reassure yourself that something you’re putting so much effort into actually matters. It’s stupid.” He moved away so that the mechanic could hook an empty vial to the other slot. “Sometimes just by doing that, you make it worse for everyone else without realizing it.”

Damn, kid. Uh, are you all right?

Marta ran the machine.

After half an hour, a wispy light spilled into the empty vial in the contraption. Olive then tested the assassin’s arrow next with Marta’s help. After another half an hour, another empty vial was filled.

After retrieving both vials, Olive held them up to the light. The one labeled ‘death arrow’ contained a swirling vermillion light while the one labeled ‘Trystan’ contained a pale-rose light.

“They’re different!” A grin broke across Claire’s face. “This proves Trystan is innocent!”

“It’s not enough,” Olive said, tapping his shoulder. “We need to test one more thing.”

After the third vial was filled with a blood sample from Olive’s shoulder, they examined the vial’s contents. It swirled vermillion.

“Now we’ve proven Trystan’s innocence,” Olive said, slipping the vials into his coat pocket. “And—”

“I don’t get what’s going on and I don’t want to get involved,” Marta interjected bluntly. “But you’re going to have that exhibition set up for me, right?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. You’ll have your moment in the spotlight,” Olive muttered. He tapped his pocket where the vials were stored. “But first I have to turn this into—”

“Wait.” Claire gave a rare frown. “Is that a good idea? I mean, you already know you can’t trust some of the people at top. They might just get rid of the evidence as soon as you give it to them. Even if you’re royalty.”

I agree , came Werner’s sudden thought. Caution is key.

Had Werner been quietly watching the entire time? Creepy.

But he had a point.

“I’ll hold onto it until I can get to Gabrielle or Izsak—they’re the Ophiuchians that’re here to investigate all of this.”

“That’s a good idea,” Claire approved. Abruptly, he checked his wristwatch. “Oh—I have to go now. Sorry.” Before Olive could respond, Claire had already made it to the curtains. “But I’ll keep in touch! Good luck with everything!”

Your Highness, I don’t mean to get in-between you two, but I know a liar when I see one.


“The prince is a bit rude, don’t you think, Clarence?”

“Yeah, but that’s not our problem. Kid is probably goin’ through a phase or something. I mean, it’s not like he really has a place here. He’s only being kept beside the throne because the king and queen feel for him. If those two have a kid, then it’s going to be an entirely different situation alltogether. I mean, look at him. Any successor’d be better.”

“It’s dishonourable to speak of the prince in such a way. We are royal guards now, Clarence, Menma. Criticism of Aries’s government is necessary, of course. The feudal system is flawed. But this is rude, unempathetic—“

“Look, Menma, Trystan’s at it again with his politically righteous talk. That’s why no one likes you man. If you keep up that downer attitude, no one’s gonna come help you when you need it.”

A conversation between Trystan and two fellow royal guards

3.[]: Convergence

Re-cap:

A phantom pain radiated out for the prince, the swindler, the soldier, the pirate, the chieftain’s daughter, and the peacekeeper. Although they are in physically different locations, the prince’s rang out to them loud and clear—“Enough already. You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.

The synchronization was beginning.


It hurt.

Saints. It hurt.

Even after the medical Conductors had come and gone saying that all was in order, it still hurt. Even after they had informed Olive of what had occurred—that he had fainted in the bathroom, that Trystan had been called in for questioning after carrying him to his room, that he had been unconscious for several hours. Even after he bit his tongue and kicked all the doctors out of his room, it still hurt. But that didn’t matter.

As soon as Olive was alone, he ran to the door to make sure it was shut tightly and slid to the ground.

It hurt. But—that wasn’t what was important. What was important was….

Olive scrambled to his feet and spun around the room.

“Enough already.” He glared at the ceiling. “I don’t care if you wanna mess up my life. It’s already a mess, anyways. If you’re not real, fine. I already know I’ve got screws loose. But if you’re real…” He glowered at the corners of his room, fists balled. “Don’t you dare… give me hope.”

Silence answered him. Deafening.

“Well, fine.” He turned away and faced the door. “It doesn’t matter anyway.” He paced to the door but stopped short with his hand on the knob. His grip on it tightened, and he bit down on the inside of his mouth. “No, you know what? No.” He turned away and walked forward, arms crossed. “ Enough already. You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now. ”

His voice boomed around the corners of the room. When the echo of his voice died, another sound came to take its place. There was no word to describe it. The sound of something breaking? Something cracking apart? Clapping? Whatever it was, it unfurled from all directions, into all directions. His surroundings reverberated with the noise, then splintered and fragmented. Different colors and sensations. Hot and cold. Blue and green. Gold and orange. White and black.

And then as everything melted together, five figures appeared before him.

There was the woman in the window—Atienna—sitting at the foot of his bed surrounded by flowers Olive knew were not really there. Sitting on his windowsill a little ways away from her was a boyish, red-haired young woman who had cards in her hands and a smile on her face—a smile that slid down into a gawk. Her gaze fell away from her cards and toward a man who stood opposite her beside Olive’s closet: a dark man with square glasses and dark eyes. Standing just a few feet away from him was the green-eyed, pipe-swinging woman. Even as their eyes met, her smile remained unfazed. It may have even grown brighter.

“What is this?” the blonde man—the soldier with ice blue eyes that Olive had seen aiming a conductor at an unarmed man on that moonlit night—who stood at the corner of the room whispered as he rubbed his temple. As the man appeared to realize his situation, his expression became horrified and then reserved. Without another word, he brushed past Olive and headed toward the door. He tried it. It didn’t budge. Pausing there with his gloved hand pressed against the frame of the door, he stated, “This is a hallucination.”

Atienna stared at the man and reached out for him when an exclamation cut her off short—

“Atienna?”

Atienna looked back at the red-haired woman who called her name, and her eyes widened. “Cadence?”

“Spirits!” the green-eyed woman boomed as she jumped up onto Oliver’s bed with widespread arms. She looked down at all of them with a blinding smile. “Why is it that you have summoned me here?”

Atienna, now halfway off of the bed and no longer surrounded by her garden, blinked up at her with a dissonant smile. “Maria…? You know I’ve said that we’re not spirits.”

Maria blinked down at her and scratched her head. “You are Atienna, yes? But if you are not a spirit then…”

“I ask that none of you move.” The man with the glasses spoke with an air of authority that did not match his blank expression. He extended his hand out to no one in particular. “I am Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. Currently, I’m investigating—”

“Wait,” Cadence interjected as she studied the man, “aren’t you—”

“Huh?” Maria tilted her head at Jericho before she crouched to his eye level. “Hey, I know your voice!”

“Can someone tell me what is goin’ on here?” Cadence snapped, leaping from the windowsill, throwing down her cards. “Even this is gettin’ a bit too much for me. Where am I?”

“This is not real,” the soldier, eyes closed, chanted from his corner. “I am suffering from a head injury. A concussion. This is not real. I need to inform a medical Conductor of my hallucinations. This is not real.”

“Uh, Werner, right?” Cadence pulled back and peered at the man. “Are ya all right?”

The soldier continued to mumble. Cadence continued to stare. The green-eyed woman and the agent continued to speak over one another. And Atienna continued to observe them all with an expression that was either one of curiosity or amusement.

Olive observed the chaos unfolding in front of him for a few minutes before he felt something thin and brittle inside snap in two.

“Oh, my saints, just shut up already!” He yelled so loudly he thought he’d torn his vocal chords.

Surprisingly, they obeyed and ogled.

“Look, I don’t get what’s going on, and normally I wouldn’t care.” He crossed his arms. “But…” He pointed at Atienna. “You saw her. You could see her. You could see Lavi ” He took a step forward. “Right?”

Atienna lifted her head and opened her mouth to respond, but—

“Wait a minute, aren’t you that prince? The Ariesian one!” Cadence said, jabbing a finger in Olive’s direction. “Yeah, I recognize ya! From the newspapers!”

The soldier stiffened. “Ariesian prince…?”

Cadence stepped forward and eyed Olive up and down. “The tabloids were sayin’ that you were in ‘hopeless, irrecoverable condition,’ but you’re lookin’ pretty good, kid.” She offered up a smile that reminded Olive of the feudal lords in court.

“That’s not the point—”

“Prince?” Maria jumped down from the bed and came to a stand right in front of him. She was tall and had to stoop to peer into his face. He could see all the flecks of green in her irises now. They looked almost inhuman. “I’ve never seen a prince before—wait a moment. You are the boy! From that night! The grumpy, short one!”

“I—what?” Olive recoiled before he glowered. “I don’t want to be talked down to by someone who—”

“Who said anything about talking down to?”

“Is it customary to shout when meeting a large amount of people like this?” Jericho interjected.

Everyone stared at him for a beat.

Atienna took the opportune moment of silence to step forward with raised hands. “Everyone, please calm down.” Her voice was gentle, deep, and quiet, reminding Olive of the sound of owls hooting in the quiet of a dead night. “This is the first time we’ve been able to talk all together like this so we should try to understand what’s going on, don’t you think?” She glanced at Olive and flashed him a sympathetic smile. “After we get at least a little bit of an idea about what’s happening, we can then move on to our individual issues. If that’s all right with everyone?”

“Yes. A good idea.” Jericho gave a thumbs-up from his corner. “This could aid in my investigation.” He gave another thumbs-up with his other hand.

Well, he was definitely weird. Olive resisted grimacing. Well, whatever.

“Whatever you say, doll.” Cadence tilted her hat with a charming smile.

Olive nodded in agreement, then found his gaze drifting over to the corner of the room. Atienna and then Cadence followed his gaze and locked eyes with the soldier who stood there still stiff as stone.

Cadence called back to him, “You gonna join us, good sir?”

There was an uncertain pause of silence in which the soldier appraised them with scrutiny. His eyes were sharp, cold, calculating. He seemed to have recovered from whatever meltdown he’d been going through earlier.

“I mean,” Cadence hummed, “if we’re all goin’ crazy, we should at least try to understand it, right?”

“If this is how this situation is going to be handled,” the soldier said finally, unravelling himself from his corner of the room and falling in place beside the peacekeeper, “I will partake. I believe that we should start with introductions first.”

“Call this a wild guess, I feel like we all sort vaguely know each other’s names already.” Cadence said pointedly.

“Things should not be left to assumption,” the soldier replied.

He was weird too.

“Right, right.” Cadence nodded as she hopped off the windowsill. She tilted her hat at them. “The name’s Cadence Morello. I’ll be open with ya, so I hope all of ya will be open with me. Born in Aries, raised in Gemini. Currently working in the Twin Cities. Nice ta meet ya.”

Something about the way Cadence spoke made Olive want to befriend her. Which was alarming because he never wanted to befriend anyone.

“Twin Cities?” Maria exclaimed before she chuckled. “I was just there a couple of days ago! Such a fun place.”

“Were ya now—”

“We should stay on task,” the soldier advised, raising his hand to stop the conversation from derailing any further. “I am Werner Waltz, First Lieutenant serving in the Capricornian Army, 212th Division of the Border Force.”

Capricornian Army. Border Force. Olive felt a chill run down his spine, as he recalled staring into the whites of that young soldier’s eyes the night he’d somehow found himself in Werner’s presence. Olive had felt it then. The intent to kill. The lack of hesitation. To somehow reach that point—it made Olive’s stomach churn.

The green-eyed woman clapped her hands and rose to a stand above the bed. Olive was jarred out of his thoughts. Cadence and Werner gave her odd looks. Atienna, however, had an expression that betrayed curiosity. Jericho showed no reaction at all.

Taking a deep bow, the green-eyed woman introduced herself with a grin, “Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez of Gloria’s Grail—here at your service! I am excited to discover more things about you all!”

“Atienna Imamu.” Atienna gestured to herself, tucking a stray dark curl behind her ear with downcast eyes. “I… am the daughter of the current chieftain of the Imamu Tribe in Virgo.”

The peacekeeper’s introduction came next, and he stepped forward with a hand extended in greeting: “Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. I’m in the Twin Cities of Gemini. Investigating the disappearance of a fellow agent. ELPIS may be involved.”

“Olivier Chance,” Olive provided.

There was a long stretch of silence.

“So we got the ‘who’s,’” Cadence drew. “Now we need to know the ‘what’s’ and ‘why’s,’ right?”

“That would be the next logical step,” Werner affirmed and nodded at them. “If this is indeed real, what exactly is this and why is it happening?”

“Oh, it’s real all right.” Cadence leaned forward, nodding at Jericho. “I met him in the flesh just the other day. Saved my ass too.” She winked at him. “Owe ya one.”

“Just because you two have claimed to have met beyond this,” Werner interjected, gesturing to the space between them, “doesn’t mean it is real.”

“Got ya, got ya.” Cadence leaned back. “Y’know, you make a lotta sense when you’re not mumblin’ to yourself in some corner.” She flashed a sly grin.

Werner didn’t react with a cold snap nor a gaze of disapproval as Olive had expected. Rather, Werner appeared startled: “That was inappropriate of me.” He cleared his throat. “Regardless, I need confirmation from you all on what you’re seeing right now. At the moment, I’m standing in the communications cabin at my camp. This is fact. However,” he paused, glancing around Olive’s room, “there is an image superimposed on my surroundings.”

“Yeah, it’s my room,” Olive said.

“I see.” Werner glanced around the room again, gaze lingering on Olive’s unmade bed. “Then, is it the same case for all of you?”

Cadence nodded, bending down to pick up the cards off the floor. “I’m sittin’ in my apartment right now, but I…” She stood and ran a finger along the frame of the windowsill. “Yeah. This is weird.”

“So, it appears as if somehow we’ve synchronized with Prince Chance’s location, although we aren’t actually present,” Werner concluded. “And this is not the first time it has happened, correct?”

“For me at least, this synchronization has happened quite a few times,” Atienna replied with a thoughtful expression. “I believe it’s happened between us, Werner, at least once.”

Werner seemed caught off guard by the comment and studied Atienna with a frown.

“Synchronization?” Maria repeated falling back onto Olive’s bed. “Is that what this is called?”

“You’re going to get my bed dirty jumping all over it.”

“Huh?”

“We need to stay on topic. Referring to incidents like these as ‘synchronization’ will aid our communication,” Werner interjected. He frowned and then suddenly looked tentative, cautious. “But I believe there are levels of synchronization.”

“Levels?”

“The way we’re speaking to each other right now will be labeled as eighty percent synchronization,” Werner stated concisely.

“Why not one hundred?” Cadence asked to which Werner responded with a frown.

“If that’s the case,” Atienna murmured, “then would thirty percent appropriately describe when our thoughts cross, and perhaps sixty percent when both thoughts and feelings cross?” She glanced around timidly. “That’s… if I’m correct in assuming we’ve all experienced those things?”

Werner stared before nodding. “Yes, that’s acceptable.”

Atienna held her chin in thought as she observed them. “It’s interesting how our brains are interpreting this, isn’t it? It really is almost like astral projection.”

“Okay, got it. Numbers. Synchro.” Cadence clapped her hands. “Now, I was hopin’ for some reassurance that you’re also all seen some weird stuff. Like vision weird. I mean, as much as I’d like to be psychic, I’d rather not see some weird bird man on fire when I’m mindin’ my own business.”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. How—she saw? The nightmare that kept him from sleeping every night. That memory that had become twisted over the six years since the incident.

“Oh, I saw that too!” Maria exclaimed. “What was that?”

She saw too? All of them? Of course, they saw. Synchronization. But memories? Dreams? What else could they see and feel? Could they feel the panic seizing his chest right now? The fear? No. Get out.

“It’s all right, Olive,” Atienna murmured, voice gentle. “Let’s not delve into it too much.”

He looked up from the ground. They were all looking at him. Maria with a bit of curiosity. Jericho with a blank stare. Atienna with the same sympathy in her eyes as always. And Werner with furrowed brows.

The soldier studied Olive for a moment before he nodded. “This is good information. Now we know that memories may also factor into the equation.”

“I have an idea.”

All heads turned to Jericho.

“You nearly died with the assassination attempt, correct, Olive Chance? Around four or five days ago,” Jericho recalled matter-of-factly.

Olive shrugged and nodded, grateful for the deviation, although he was unnerved at the bluntness. He could feel Atienna shoot him a look of concern and could even feel the emotion, which unnerved him even more.

“And you’re Atienna Imamu. You were poisoned around that time too.”

Atienna covered her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry you had to experience something like that. I wasn’t aware our synchronization was happening that early.”

“It wasn’t because of synchronization. Ophiuchus keeps tabs on every country in Signum. Even the ones in extreme isolation,” Jericho said bluntly.

Atienna lowered her hand and clasped it over her other. “I see… that’s how peace is kept outside, is it?”

“I fell down the stairs four days ago too,” Jericho continued. “I was in critical condition.”

“Must’ve been a long flight of stairs,” Cadence whistled.

“It was. In fact, it holds the record of being the longest staircase in Signum.”

There was a pause. Olive resisted rolling his eyes.

“Right…” Cadence raised a brow. “Anyways, I was caught up in an incident around that time too. Saints must be on my side with how I survived that one.”

“I was also injured four days ago by a Projector,” Werner affirmed. “I don’t believe in miracles, but if I were to speak in such terms, I would call my survival something like that.”

Everyone turned to Maria, who blinked back at them perplexed.

“Well, I can’t really recall ever doing something like nearly dying,” she hummed. “I mean, I will never die.” Her tone was matter of fact.

Olive could feel that she really did believe she’d never die, which was a concept Olive found hard to wrap his head around. This woman had more screws loose than he did.

“But I did fall into the ocean four days ago. It was a nice swim.”

“So, that settles it. It happened because we all nearly kicked the bucket.” Cadence hummed, “Now we have the ‘how’—”

“We have a timetable of when it happened,” Werner corrected. “And we only have half of the ‘how.’ Our near-death experiences may serve as the points of connection, but the line isn’t drawn.”

Cadence chuckled. “Right, right. I’m gettin’ too eager. Ya got smarts, Lieutenant. And ya speak like a poet. I like that in a guy.”

Werner’s frown deepened.

Gross.

“I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this,” Atienna murmured, placing a hand beneath her chin. “I’ve spoken about this before, but in Virgo, there’s a common belief that vitae is more than just a source of energy. The belief is that it also has the capability of storing memories.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with that theory. You’re referring to the one that goes along with the P.D. Oran school of thought, am I correct?” Werner ascertained. “The belief that there’s an imperceptible part of vitae that is actually representative of the soul. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. It hasn’t been proven, but it’s often taught that way to the general public to help them understand what vitae actually is.”

“Oh, do you not believe that, Werner?”

“Although P.D. Oran has published a number of widely accepted works, he has a number of disproven and even redacted papers,” Werner responded. “When that theory is proven completely, I will believe it. Until then, vitae is energy. Nothing more. But please continue.”

An inquisitive smile graced Atienna’s lips. Tucking another lock of hair behind her ear, she continued, “Well, it goes against the widely accepted belief that vitae burns up after being used by a conductor or when someone dies or when something is destroyed. In this theory, vitae gets released and returns to the world in a cycle. And since this theory also says that vitae contains memories, that would mean that memories are released through vitae upon death. If a person is resuscitated, their vitae would return to them and they would most likely say that their ‘life flashed before their eyes’. But what if two people died close to one another and were resuscitated at the same time? What if during the time period where their vitae were returning to their bodies, there was a crossing over of their vitae?”

“Wait, wait, I barely understand what vitae is. My attention span is only so long.” Cadence swatted her hand above her head as if the action would somehow do away with her confusion.

“Sorry, I tend to ramble when I’m excited,” Atienna mumbled, flushing.

“No, no, I got ya’ now, I think,” Cadence reassured her. “So, you’re sayin’ when we nearly died, our souls—vitae or whatever—crossed over during the ride back and that’s why this is happenin’?”

“That’s my theory,” Atienna concluded.

“Wow!” Maria beamed. “You know everything!”

Atienna flushed. “I don’t really. I wish I did.”

“Even if the Anima-Vitae hypothesis is true, that still wouldn’t make for a concrete explanation. We were nowhere near each other during our near-death experiences and I’m certain a near-death experience on that particular day was not just exclusive to us,” Werner supplied after considering this.

“What about you, your highness? What d’ya think?” Cadence interjected, nodding at Olive. “Ya got access to all sortsa education, right? Ya must be pretty smart?”

Olive ignored her.

He’d skipped too many lessons in the past to really have a grip on the conversation. Usually, he didn’t care if people knew this, but he didn’t want these people to know.

“Oh, I see,” came Cadence’s light response.

Damn.

“I’m surprised you don’t know about vitae,” Jericho said, locking eyes with Cadence. “You wouldn’t be able to take the State Conducting Exam without this knowledge.” He pointed to Cadence’s ringed fingers. “You are a Conductor. You must have a license. May I see it—”

“Wait, I have a question!” Maria shouted, snapping up in the bed. Cadence gave her a grateful look. “I think I get this synchronization stuff, but does that have anything to do with me being able to speak with people from your places? I mean, I was on my ship, but I was still able to speak with them when I was ‘synchronized’ with you all.”

There was another pause of silence as realization settled in.

“So it was you!” Cadence snapped, rising to a stand. “With Verga! You…!” She glared at Maria before her shoulders relaxed and she held up her hands. “I got a lot on my hands now ‘cause of that, y’know?”

“Ah, were you talking about the sad man?” Maria asked, before she offered yet another smile. “I just told him my thoughts. Was that not what you were thinking too?”

Cadence opened her mouth to retort but seemed to think better of it.

Werner stepped forward and addressed Maria: “Captain Gloria-Fernandez, was it you who dealt with the Aquarian prisoners?”

“Oh, yes!” Maria mused. “Were they Aquarians? Such an interesting group! They had very interesting accents.”

“What did you do with the Aquarian captain?”

Maria peered at him. “You do not remember?”

“This is serious. I was ordered to—” Werner caught himself. “I was ordered to handle the Aquarian captain by my superior.”

“Oh. Well, I let her go.”

Werner’s expression betrayed nothing. “You let her go?”

Maria shrugged. “Yes, I felt like it. It’s not so bad, is it?”

Werner’s expression yet again betrayed nothing. “It’s unacceptable.”

Maria did not appear fazed. “What about it is unacceptable?”

Cadence took the opportunity to pop up between them. She raised her hands and faced Werner with an easy smile. “Look, I get it. I’m in the same boat. But ya gotta make do with the cards you’re dealt.” She glanced back at Maria. “Besides, gettin’ along at this point is what matters, right? Understandin’ one another?”

Werner’s gaze was frigid, causing Cadence to raise her hands higher. But then he shook his head as if pained and conceded, “I’m aware of that, Ms. Morello.”

“So there can be an override of will.” Atienna looked thoughtful.

That was when Olive realized it. No, he felt it. While the others had brought in pieces of their surroundings with their arrival, Jericho had come with nothing. There was a gaping blackness behind Jericho. A hollow space. A void.

Olive’s thoughts must have bled outward—or maybe it was someone else’s thoughts bleeding in—because everyone slowly turned toward the peacekeeper.

“Is there something on my face?” Jericho asked slowly.

“Jericho,” Atienna tried gently, “where exactly are you right now?”

Jericho stared. “I don’t know. I am unconscious.”

“Unconscious?”

“Yes, I was injured. Ambushed by—”

There was a flare of red-hot rage that nearly winded Olive. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Werner holding his head with a grimace. Atienna was frowning deeply, and Cadence looked nauseous. Maria, of course, looked unfazed.

“—ELPIS.” Jericho gestured to his shoulder and his abdomen. “I’m in critical condition.”

No one said anything. No words needed to be said. A mutual understanding had dawned on all of them.

“What…?” Cadence was smiling, but her fear and nervousness bled into the room, causing Olive’s stomach to do flips. “Are ya sayin’ that whenever one of us goes through somethin’ like that, we all feel it?”

“Are you feeling all right right now, Jericho?” Atienna asked with concern.

“I feel no pain,” Jericho replied. He studied his hand, fisting it and unfisting it. “This feels like a dream. It’s hard to hold on.”

Cadence swore under her breath and ran her hand through her hair. She paused halfway through the motion as a thought struck her. A thought that radiated outwards—

What would happen if one of them died?

“If anything, all of this information highlights our need to break off this connection,” Werner finally said after a long stretch of silence.

“Break it off?” Atienna repeated.

“We are a liability to each other like this,” Werner responded. “Politically, this is a disaster waiting to happen. A prince of Aries, a person involved in the Virgoan political sphere, and an Ophiuchian agent. If something happens between one of your countries, then your confidentiality is compromised. Additionally, Jericho and I are constantly in combat due to our professions. This—” He paused, gesturing to the man. “—is a risk that is accepted in such professions.”

“Well, when ya put it like that…”

“What is this about cutting off a connection?” Maria shot up abruptly from the bed. “This seems to be an interesting occurrence, no? Are we not lucky to be experiencing something as unique as this? Why would you want to stop something that can lead to so many possibilities?”

“Lucky?” Olive asked flatly.

“Of course!” Maria sang, launching herself off his bed and landing right in front of him. She took a step forward and he took one backward before she spun on her heels and faced the others with widespread arms. “I was already blessed with such an expansive world made just for me to explore and discover, but now?” She grinned. “Now I can see everything through your eyes!”

Her energy was ridiculously infectious, and it took all of Olive’s willpower to keep his head straight. He mumbled, “It must be nice to be an idiot…”

Even Cadence looked befuddled by her enthusiasm.

Still, the lightness leaked out from her into the air. And for a moment, everything felt like it might turn out all right. And then—

Suddenly, she appeared right before Olive, landing gently on her feet, hair softly cascading down onto her shoulders as if she had just floated down from the ceiling.

Olive’s eyes widened. “Lavi—”

Cadence yelped and leapt back. Maria leaned forward with interest while Atienna covered her mouth in surprise. Werner’s hand reached for his side automatically. Before any further action could be taken, Olive stumbled forward, putting himself between his sister and them.

“You can see her.” Olive felt weak at the knees. “You can see her.”

“Your sister?” Werner said slowly, his expression becoming distant and strange. He eyed Olive. “Is this… a memory?”

Before Olive could respond, Lavi pushed him aside and stood in front of Werner with crossed arms and puffed cheeks. “That’s rude! Of course I’m real!”

Werner stiffened.

“Wait, so there’s seven of us?” Cadence wondered. She looked Lavi up and down. “What’s your name, doll?”

“Lavender Chance,” his sister answered, chin raised.

“Well, that’s a pretty name,” Cadence complimented. She smiled. But the name sounds sorta familiar and in a bad way.

“Her name sounds familiar because she was one of the royal Ariesian family members who died in the Tragedy of Aries,” Werner offered, studying Lavi and then Olive. “Am I correct, Prince Chance?”

Olive wasn’t sure if he responded.

“I’m dead?” Lavi huffed. “I’m standing right here, you know?”

As soon as those words left her mouth, she disappeared. All traces of her gone in an instant. Listening distantly to the commotion following her sudden exit, Olive explained, “She comes and goes. But she always comes back.” —No matter what. Six years of this mirage. It was probably some form of punishment.

There was a long stretch of silence.

“Okay, okay, okay, as exciting as this has been, this is gettin’ a little too much for me,” Cadence sighed, looking around wearily. “No more sudden surprises, right?”

Olive’s head was still buzzing. They could see her. And if they were real and they could see her that meant that she was—

— real.

Was that a good thing? A bad thing? What exactly—

“I don’t really understand what’s going on,” Maria said as she met Olive’s eyes, “but things are real if you think they are real, and things are good if you believe they are good, no?”

Olive stared at her, unsure if she was crazy or if she was an idiot or if he was crazy or if he was the idiot.

Jericho broke through the silence with an out of place statement: “ELPIS may be involved with our current condition.”

“You think ELPIS may be involved?” Werner pressed, ripping his gaze away from Olive. “What makes you think that?”

“Intuition.”

“Intuition?” Werner frowned. “That’s not enough grounds to draw a conclusion.”

Jericho digested this before responding: “ELPIS may be behind the prince’s assassination. It may be behind Atienna’s incident. It most likely was behind mine.”

“Okay, Jericho, you’re a nice guy and all,” Cadence said, walking over to the man and placing a hand on his shoulder, “but it sounds to me like you’re seein’ ELPIS everywhere. I mean—oh.” She released him.

A memory—her memory—bled into Olive’s mind and jarred him out of his daze.

It was a blurry barrage of feelings and images, but Olive got the gist of it. Some old man named Verga was being paid by ELPIS to ship something. Olive shook his head to shake off the memory and saw the others doing the same. They must have seen it too then.

Olive peered at Cadence. So that was the kind of work she did. It made sense.

“Saints, ya might be onto somethin’ actually,” Cadence muttered, glancing at Olive for half a second before focusing her attention back on Jericho. “Well, Agent Jericho—”

“Yes, I will look into it. But right now.” He stared down at his hands. “I can’t.”

Cadence cracked a grin again. “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“Not because of my injuries. Most information about ELPIS is restricted to the ELPIS Division. I am not in it yet.”

Cadence’s grin fell somewhat, but still she said, “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“I hope by completing this missing agent case I will be promoted to the division,” Jericho concluded with a nod.

“All right, before this gets anymore out of hand, perhaps we should get on common ground,” Atienna gently said, clasping her hands together. “We all have things going on at the moment, right? And we have no idea how to stop whatever this is. Perhaps we could help each other out. I’m not talking about getting involved in national affairs or anything, but it would be reassuring if we all guaranteed each other’s safety for the time being, don’t you think—seeing how much we affect one another? And, of course, this is so that we ensure we also don’t interfere with one another without the other’s permission, right? And work together to look into what this is? I’m sure each of us has access to information the other doesn’t have. It’s much better than ignoring one another and coming across unexpected problems because of it, don’t you agree?” She let out a breathy sigh before flushing. “Sorry… rambling.”

Werner frowned, glancing at Olive. Then he nodded. “That is acceptable, so long as everyone agrees to those conditions.” He directed his gaze at Maria.

Cadence cracked a grin from where she sat. “Well, sounds good enough ta me. Let’s get along and look after one another, shall we?”

“So we are all going to be around one another from now on then?” Maria brimmed with a radiant joy that was almost blinding. “How exciting!”

Olive rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Whatever happens, happens.”

“I accept,” Jericho said.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief that filled the room with an odd sort of serenity.

“So, to summarize this meeting’s conclusion—” Werner cleared his throat. “—we will be working with one another strictly to ensure our survival. We will mutually research what exactly this occurrence is, and we will investigate the possibility of ELPIS involvement. I don’t believe we will be able to get much on that front until Agent Jericho has recovered and joined the ELPIS Division.”

Jericho nodded.

“Seems about right,” Cadence affirmed. She nodded at Jericho. “I’m assumin’ you’re still in the Twin Cities. I’ll try sendin’ ya some help.”

They stood for a moment staring at each other.

“So…” Cadence tapped her foot. “Now what?”

They stared at Olive.

“What?”

“Well, ya are the one who synchronized us here. Ya gonna cut it off?”

“I have duties that I need to attend to,” Werner agreed. “I can’t do them in this state.”

Olive scowled. “I don’t even know how I brought you here! How do you expect me to send you away? You must think highly of yourself to think I want your company.”

Cadence whistled. “Okay, kid.”

“Perhaps emotional state is a factor,” Atienna murmured in thought. “Distress, anger—it seems as if synchronization increases with these things. I’ve injured myself several times within the time window of this connection, but I don’t think any of you have felt it.” She peered at Jericho. “So maybe the reason why we felt Jericho’s pain is…”

“So we gotta wait until everyone is all calm-like?”

Maria sprung up. “This is great, yes? Now we can get to know each other!”

“I will refrain,” Werner stated.

“Same,” Olive agreed.

Cadence shrugged her shoulders. “I got some time ta kill.”

And so they waited. And waited. And waited.

Olive felt the anxiety and tension that had consumed his entire body begin to slowly ebb away as Cadence and Atienna entertained Maria’s odd conversational topics. Golden beasts. Conductors. Money. Currency. Philosophy?

As the minutes ticked on, slowly, one by one, they began to fade from his vision until he was all alone.

His room was quiet. His windowsill unoccupied; his bed empty; the floor graced with feathers strewn loosely about, having fallen from the cage. But he could feel them distantly in his mind’s eye. Clearer than before. The noise, the colors, the sensations buzzed around in his mind. They were there. And Lavi—she was here.

What was it? Thirty percent synchronization? Ten?

Olive walked over to his bed and fell face-first into it.

What a bother.


Anima-Vitae Hypothesis: a theory about vitae that comes in three parts. Firstly, a part of vitae is representative of the soul. Secondly, vitae particles have the ability to store memories. Thirdly, upon the death of a person, their vitae does not dissipate. Instead, their vitae particles rejoin with the soft, living vitae of the natural world thus rejoining a cycle. A common belief held in Virgo. Has yet to be proven but was popularized by P.D. Oran.

All Things Vitae by L.B. Ran

3.6: Jericho Brutality

Re-cap:

Jericho and Talib were in the Twin Cities investigating Leona’s disappearance. After a fruitless meeting with the Foxman and the Romanos, they followed an intuitional lead Jericho found through his psychic link to Cadence in Warehouse 13. Although Jericho managed to save Cadence, their case was now falling flat once more.


Twin Cities, Gemini

“Curse the Organization for stealing my wallet. Now I can’t get the sustenance I need to truly get to the bottom of their nefarious deeds.”

They were standing outside a cafe. It was dark out and the light from the café window was warm.

Jericho stared at Talib before pulling out a handful of common currency from his uniform pocket. He extended his hand out to Talib, who reached out his in confused correspondence. Jericho dropped the common-coins into his partner’s hands.

Talib startled and pushed the money back. “My friend, I was merely—”

Jericho pushed it back toward Talib. “Is it not customary to do this for colleagues?”

A minute later, and they were sitting at a small table inside the café. Talib had ordered them both black coffee. He had asked for them to be served in paper cups and claimed that styrofoam was laden with a chemical designed to control the masses. The barista, who was already vocally miffed about having to take common-coin instead of Geminian cens, glared at them as she brought their drinks.

“How does it taste?”

“Like dirt,” Jericho replied, moving his suitcase on the floor to the side and out of the way of the barista.

Talib nodded thoughtfully. He took a sip of his drink and jerked away with a yelp. “Hot!”

“This does not seem relevant to… “ Jericho began. After he received an odd look in turn, he amended: “Would you like me to ask the barista for a glass of ice?”

“No, no, I will live through this.” Talib blew on the surface of the liquid before taking another tentative sip. He gave a nod of approval before pulling out a small journal from his front pocket. He flipped through it before speaking: “So we have an abandoned warehouse occupied by what I reckon are orphaned children. And an apparent ELPIS sect targeting them.”

“They were not ELPIS,” Jericho interjected.

“Right,” Talib agreed. “That much was clear from the reports of their vitae color. Most likely, they were hired hands. And—” He paused, reaching into his pocket again. He pulled out a yellow sheet of paper that had been folded into the shape of a butterfly. “I planted one of these on one of the Foxmans during our meeting and overheard that they were preparing an operation at the warehouse. The hired fake ELPIS fits into the equation somewhere. With the way they were executed, perhaps it’s a matter of internal betrayal. But it’s still an internal affair.” He took a moment to catch his breath and leaned back in his chair. He stared at the ceiling with a frown. “Those children…” He pinched the bridge of his nose.

Talib seemed to have lost the exuberance he’d shown earlier. There was a chance that Talib’s conversation with Cadence Morello had something to do with it. Jericho paused at the thought. Talib’s conversation with Cadence—how did he know about that? Most likely the same way he had known about the warehouse.

“I have to ask—how did you know about the warehouse?”

“You called it intuition,” Jericho replied.

“I did.” Talib stroked his non-existent beard. “With that sort of intuition, perhaps you will be the one to finally bring down the Organization.” He folded away the origami and his journal back into his pocket. “But first thing’s first. Since the warehouse seems out of our jurisdiction, I say we head to the docks we were going to investigate prior to our warehouse detour.”

“The ELPIS members inside the warehouse were fakes,” Jericho said. “But that doesn’t mean that ELPIS is not involved.” After receiving an arched brow, he clarified, “As you said. Intuition.”

Talib leaned forward, his expression softening. “Yes, but if we suspect ELPIS involvement, we should report it to the ELPIS Department. We’re not equipped to handle them. We should focus on our Leona case. I understand you’re concerned about the children as well, but that is not our jurisdiction. The best we can do is send in a report and see if anything comes of it.”

“This is not about the children,” Jericho clarified with a slight tilt of his head. “This is about ELPIS.”

Talib froze before regarding him. “It seems as if you have quite the fixation on ELPIS.”

“Yes, I would like to work for the ELPIS Department.”

“I see. How gusty. Have you applied?”

“Ninety-nine times.”

Talib choked on his drink and cleared his throat. “I see. Well, now I’m curious. Despite the numerous roadblocks the Organization has put in your way, you seem to be very steadfast at your goal. May I ask exactly what is behind your remarkable determination?”

“They need to be exterminated.”

“Exter…?”

“Completely exterminated,” Jericho clarified. After a pause, he added, “Hope. In the original Ophiuchian language. Before the War ended. That’s what it means.”

“Excuse me?” Talib scratched his hair beneath his hat. “Hope?”

“That is what the world ‘elpis’ means,” Jericho answered. “What ELPIS thinks they are… it’s that. Pure white hope.”

“White…” Talib folded his hands. “Yes… I’d heard rumors about it. About how they are somehow able to bleach out the color of their vitae.” He shivered. “To purge the color of your vitae—that’s akin to erasing the color of your soul, don’t you agree? I didn’t believe it until I encountered my first ELPIS member. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”

“They trick people.” Jericho stared into his reflection in the coffee cup. “Convince people they are the only hope left. Desperation to preserve the last hope. ‘ If I do this, then everything will be okay. If I don’t do this, there won’t be any hope left.’ That hope. Desperation to do anything. Self-justification.” He looked up from his cup. “False hope. The cause of war and suffering. If ELPIS is eliminated, false hope will be eliminated. No more war and suffering. Peace.”

Talib remained silent for a long while before he asked, “Do you really believe eliminating ELPIS will lead to peace?”

Jericho met his eyes. A strange question. “Of course. It’s why I joined Ophiuchus.”

* * *

“As much as I trust your intuition, I think it’s best if we check out the docks first. Many things come in and out from Pollux Bay. Perhaps even people.”

“We go back to the warehouse afterwards?”

A sigh. “If you really believe there are leads to Leona there.”

They had left the café fifteen minutes ago for the long walk to the bay. The intercity trams were still closed at this time, and there were very few v-ehicles dotting the road. Getting a ride would be extremely difficult, so they traveled on foot. The cobblestone walkways were slick from the drizzle half an hour earlier, and Jericho had already had to catch Talib from slipping on the walkway five times. Each time ended with Talib declaring that the Organization had set traps for them.

A series of metallic bangs from an alleyway to his left caught his attention. He stopped short and turned toward the sound, ignoring Talib as the man ranted about how the State Conducting Exam was actually some ‘diabolical’ test to track Conductors.

The bangs continued, and Jericho stepped into the mouth of the alley—

Bad idea. Bad idea. Not a good gamble, especially in this city.

—and continued forward.

It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the darkness away from the lit streets, and he could barely make out the dead-end of the alley and the dumpster that occupied its left wall. A body was just emerging from the trash bin. Small. Short. Something was cradled in its arms. Food.

He took another step forward quietly. And then another—

—right into a puddle. The splash that followed caused whoever was huddled in the darkness to freeze. It was too dark to see any semblance of color. Only shades of black and white. But Jericho could still make out the features of the girl who stood in front of him. Nothing about her stood out to him except—a splotch of paler skin took up half of her face. It resembled the shape of a butterfly.

Jericho felt something click in his head, and he advanced toward her. “You—”

The girl’s eyes hardened, and she bared her teeth at him. She glanced over her shoulder and seemed to take note of the dead-end before she let out a snarl and dashed toward him.

Intimidation as a distraction in order to escape. Concealed weapon. Immobilizing her before she reaches that point would be the best option.

The thought came suddenly, but the thoughts had never failed him before.

Gripping his suitcase, Jericho swung his leg out and caught the girl in the stomach with his knee. She let out a wheezing gasp as something clattered onto the floor beneath her. A shard of glass wrapped with cloth at one end. A makeshift knife.

Before she could even make for it again, Jericho kicked the object to the side while reaching forward and grabbing the girl by the wrist. He held her up a couple centimeters above the ground watching as she kicked her feet.

“You were there. At the warehouse,” Jericho stated as he pulled the girl closer. “Why? What do you have to do with ELPIS?” There was a slight throb at his temple, and he found himself asking after a pause, “Why are you attacking the Foxmans and the Romanos?”

The girl’s eyes widened in the darkness, but she said nothing and continued to squirm in his hold. He tightened his grip.

She spat something in what seemed to be Geminian.

“My Geminian is rusty,” he said in Common. “I’m not from around these parts. I’m from Ophiuchus. Do you know Common?”

The girl ceased her struggling. “O-Ophiuchus? You are peacekeeper then?” Broken Common.

“Yes,” Jericho supplied. “What do you have to do with ELPIS?”

“Nothing!” the girl shouted. “Nothing! Romano and Foxmans! Their fault! Help us—you must! Peacekeeper!”

He noticed the tears streaming from her eyes. “Am I hurting you?”

“Yes!” she hissed.

“I am sorry,” he said, releasing her from his grasp. She stumbled to the ground, but he reached out to stop her from falling. “Don’t run away, or I’ll catch you again.” He paused thinking before he added, “Without hurting you.”

The girl gave him an odd look as she wiped the tears away from her eyes. She rubbed her wrists with an almost glare but nodded.

“Jericho!”

It was Talib, running toward them, waving wildly. When he reached them, he bent over, heaving, gasping—“Partner, you really need to stop disappearing without telling me!” It took him another minute to catch his breath, and Jericho and the girl watched him in silence. Only after he collected himself did he notice the girl. “Oh, and who might you be?”

“She was at the warehouse. She was one of the children involved. I recognize her. She knows something. Intuition.”

“I see.”

Talib lifted the brim of his hat as he crouched down to the girl’s eye level. He extended a hand to her. “I am Agent Talib al-Jarrah of Ophiuchus at your service. And what would your name be?”

“Matilda,” she said, lifting her chin and accepting the gesture. She then squinted at him in the darkness, before she whispered, “Ophiuchian peacekeeper—you, really?”

“Yes, yes, would you like to see my ID?” Talib pulled out his badge from his coat pocket and handed it over to her before she answered.

Matilda took into her hands almost reverently. Like all other Ophiuchian ID badges, it came in a bifold. The bottom half contained the usual State Conducting License watermarked with the Ophiuchian symbol while the top half held a circular silver badge. The badge had an image of a snake with wings wrapped around the continent of Signum. She ran her fingers over the plastic that covered the license and then the badge.

“Now, I have a couple of questions for you and after I ask them you can ask your questions, all right?”

Matilda nodded as she handed back the badge.

“You were at the warehouse a couple of hours ago, were you not?”

The girl nodded.

“Are you injured?”

The girl shook her head.

“Good. Now, do you know why you were attacked by the people in white cloaks?”

Matilda shook her head with a tremble. “We do nothing to ELPIS, but…”

“They were not actually ELPIS members, Matilda,” Talib said slowly. “It seems as if they were impersonators.”

Her eyes widened, and the fear was replaced with an emotion Jericho could identify immediately. Rage. Her fists balled, her teeth bared. “Them! Romano! Foxmans—”

Talib raised his hand placatingly before he put a hand on her shoulder and said slowly, “Listen to me, Matilda. It is taken as a serious offense to promote anything related to ELPIS. Even simply masquerading as them. Position, power, and status cannot protect you when you commit this offense. Even if you are a footstone of this city, you will be taken into our custody. Do you understand, Matilda?”

Matilda glanced at Jericho for a moment before nodding firmly.

“Good, so will you answer my questions honestly?”

Matilda nodded again.

“You are behind the recent attacks on buildings that are owned by the Foxmans?”

Matilda hesitated and then nodded.

“Do you understand that you have hurt innocent people in your act?”

Matilda lowered her gaze.

“You do realize that I will have to report your confession to local authorities, correct?”

Matilda bit her lip, eyes widening.

“At least that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Talib continued. “But at the moment, I can’t help but think that this whole murderous revenge plot is not something that someone as sweet as you could come up with. Why did you do it? No. What made you act in the first place? What was the catalyst?”

Matilda’s brows furrowed. “Don’t know ‘catalyst,’ but her. She tourist. Pretty. Help save from thieves. She brave. She told us pride. ‘ Don’t let our pride and family pride be trampled on.’ Lose pride, lose everything. ‘Fight back,’ she said. Not ant. Yes.”

She ?” Talib pressed. “Someone saved you and then told you to pick a fight? Well, that’s rather convoluted.” He rubbed his chin. “Did you happen to catch her name?”

“Never forget. Leona.”

Jericho straightened himself, but Talib remained impassive.

“What did she look like?”

Matilda flushed as she looked to the side. “Pretty. Gold hair and eyes. Strong. Like magazine girls.”

Talib pulled out his journal and jotted down details before he nodded firmly and stood. He put the journal back into his pocket and pulled out something else. A key. “This here is a key to our suite. The Abaccio Hotel on Decoco Street. You know it, yes?”

The girl nodded slowly.

“My friend and I probably won’t be heading back to our hotel tonight if this checks out, but we rented it out for the entire week. Even if this doesn’t turn out to be anything, my friend here doesn’t sleep, you see. It would be a waste if the room just sits like that so…” Talib dropped the keys into her hands. “You may use it tonight. These streets aren’t good to be running around late at night.”

The girl stared at him.

“I know you probably don’t trust me, but—”

“Yes, trust!” Matilda urged, wrapping her fingers around the key. “You Ophiuchians. Peacekeepers. Help us. The one, Leona Ophiuchian. Help us. Encourage us. Trust.”

Talib half-sighed, half-chuckled, “Right, right. Run along now. Leave this to us.”

Jericho waited for the girl to disappear from the alley before he addressed Talib: “You are good with children. You must like them.”

Talib wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Oh, saint’s no! I despise them. In fact, I break out in hives every time I come near one.”

“I see.”

“Yes, in fact, I believe that the Organization—”

“I see what you mean now.”

“What’s that?”

“I see what you mean about the children.”

* * *

They arrived at the bay ten minutes later. The slippery cobblestone streets had become gradually replaced with cement walkways as they drew nearer to their destination.

It was foggier here than at the warehouses, and Jericho could see less than a meter in front of him. The sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon and the heat it brought with it saturated the air with a heavy humidity.

“I’ll go this way.” Jericho pointed to the left.

Talib stared. “Splitting up? That never ends well. Besides, I could use my conductor to look around instead of wandering around like geese.”

“I don’t like sitting around,” Jericho replied. “We can cover more ground. All reconnaissance plans need to take into account not only persons, but also location.” Jericho pointed to the fog.

Talib scratched his nonexistent beard again before nodding. “All right, if you put it that way, I’ll trust your intuition.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of white origami paper which proceeded to fold itself into a frog. The paper frog shivered to life before hopping right out of Talib’s palm into the fold of Jericho’s uniform. “I didn’t imbue it with much, but it should be enough for communication. If you find something or come across trouble, just give it a tear, and I’ll come to you.”

“What about you?”

Talib looked somewhat surprised but then straightened his trench coat and hat. “Well, I will send my own messenger if anything occurs, but that frog there will unfold if anything happens to me.”

“How will I know where you are if something happens to you?”

“I will yell very loudly. I did win the National Screaming Competition of ‘28.”

Something tickled Jericho’s chest.

Talib stared at him.

“I’ll take the west side,” Jericho said.

* * *

As it turned out, Jericho had chosen the direction where the cargo holding facility was located. He had known this, of course. The entire layout of the bay was familiar to him. Somehow.

Metal cargo containers surrounded the main buildings of the facility, and stacks of wooden crates lined the edges of docks extending out into the mist.

Strange. The lights to the buildings were off. It was silent. No gulls.

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase and approached the closest building. He peered into the dark of the windows and inspected within. Nothing out of the ordinary. At least, he didn’t think so. He wasn’t sure what constituted as normal for a dock building.

Quickly, Jericho turned on his heels and extended his hand. “Hello, are you—please stop screaming, sir.”

The man who approached Jericho from behind while he had been inspecting the building swallowed his yelp and wiped his sweaty hands on his overalls. His overalls were damp, his hair matted down, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had dark blonde hair and hazel eyes—eyes that darted to Jericho’s Ophiuchian sash and then to his still-extended hand.

“I am Jericho. I am from Ophiuchus.” Jericho flashed his badge with his free hand. “I would like to ask you some questions. Do you speak Common?”

The man hesitated for a moment before accepting Jericho’s gesture. Uncalloused hands.

“Well, I can’t say no to an Ophiuchian Agent,” the man answered in Common, quickly yanking his hand away. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I’m here investigating the disappearance of another agent. Leona.”

The man glanced at the building. “Well, do you have a picture? A lot of people come around these parts.”

“I don’t see any people at the moment. And no, I don’t have a photo. But that’s not needed. You would be able to identify her by her uniform.”

“Well, if you put it that way.” The man wrinkled his nose, causing Jericho to pause.

“I am sorry if I came off as rude,” Jericho amended. “This is serious. This case.”

Now the man looked interested. “You a newbie or something?”

Jericho thought on it. “Or something.” After thinking on it some more, he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and tried, “Anything will be appreciated.” Realizing that the man was uncomfortable with the gesture, Jericho removed his hand. He wondered why Talib had done it more effectively. “We believe this may involve ELPIS, so time is important.”

“ELPIS, huh? That does sound pretty serious.” He then rubbed his chin. “Now that you mention it, I think my friend mentioned seeing someone odd.”

“Friend.”

“Yeah, he’s inside right now on break.” The man nodded toward the building. “I can take you to him.”

Jericho stared at him, and he seemed to squirm under his gaze. Finally, Jericho nodded.

The man dug into his overalls and pulled out a ring of keys. He fumbled around for a couple of seconds before selecting a rusty key and fitting it into the keyhole of the door to Jericho’s right. With a grunt, he pushed the steel door open and jerked his head toward the interior.

Jericho followed the man inside and watched the faint sliver of light cast by the open door behind him thin into nothing. Complete blackness. The sound of footsteps. A soft click. The v-lights flickered on. 

It didn’t take long for Jericho’s eyes to adjust, and he studied the interior. It was large and mostly empty with just several bare metal shelves lining the wall and a handful of steel beams rolling along the floor.

“Where is your friend?” Jericho asked as he turned around.

A flash of silver, and then a shout. “Right here!”

A soft thud echoed.

The man stumbled backward, panting heavily.

Jericho spun around his suitcase which he had lifted to his chest moments before. He inspected the knife that was now embedded a couple of centimeters deep into its surface. He looked at the man, asking, “Why did you do that?”

The man was visibly sweating now, but his fists were clenched. His eyes were hard.

“I may have to bring you in for further questioning,” said Jericho, removing the knife from his suitcase. “Attacking an Ophiuchian Agent is a crime.”

“All you Ophiuchians are so damn arrogant. You and that woman. Attacking an Ophiuchian Agent? Attacking anyone should be a crime! But you only give a damn about what you think is right.”

Jericho stared at him. “You seem angry.” He paused. “‘That woman’?”

“You’re damned right I’m angry!” The man reached into his back pocket and glowered. 

A conductor probably, Jericho deduced. 

“Using those damned conductors on us and saying that it’s for peace when we can’t even defend ourselves! Forcing us to use these things to protect ourselves and then throwing us behind bars for it!”

“Are you a licensed Conductor?” Jericho asked. “If you use any more force against me, I will have to retaliate—”

Letting out a blood-curdling scream, the man pulled out his conductor and ignited it in a flash of bright light. He swung it wildly at Jericho’s chest, and Jericho felt the heat radiate even as he ducked backward. Jericho was forced to push him back with a well-aimed kick to the chest. This caused the man to stumble back and grip his conductor as if it were a lifeline.

A Projector. Melee-type. Sword. Long sword? Vitae color: green. Not well-trained. Illegal conducting. Jericho stated his observations to the man calmly.

“Untrained?” The man spat. “I’ll show you just how much they taught me.”

The man flicked his wrist. For a second, there was nothing. But then slowly, from where the vitae-formed blade met the tip of its conductor, it began to pale. From a deep blue to a sky blue to—

There was a ringing in Jericho’s ears as the white bled into his vision. White. White. White. The world twisted, taking on a stark monochrome gradient.

“You Ophiuchians—”

There was a deafening crack followed by a splatter of red. The man collapsed to the ground. He was probably screaming. His cheek was leaking red. The liquid on the corner of Jericho’s suitcase dripped the same color.

Good. Good. Good. Anything but that white.

“That color. This changes things.”

The man scrambled back, reached for his conductor. It ignited again. A blinding white.

No. No. No.

It wasn’t enough.

Jericho lifted up his suitcase and brought it down. Lifted it up, brought it down. He did it again. And again. And again. And again. Die. Die. Die

The conductor rolled out of the man’s hands, losing its blade of white vitae as it left its wielder’s hands. The white was gone. There was only red and black.

Stop it.

Abruptly, color returned to Jericho’s world. The gray bricks of the building. The yellow of the flickering v-lights. The off-white of his Ophiuchian armband.

The ringing in his ears faded.

Jericho paused and set down his suitcase. He reached for what he believed was the man’s throat and checked his pulse. Still alive. Unconscious. He grabbed the man’s face in his hands and shook it hard. The man stirred.

The man whimpered. “Please…I… missing agent… tell…know…”

“I see.” Jericho glanced at him before he rose to a stand. “Their training was too much for you, after all. Thank you for your cooperation. But after you tell me, you still have to die.”

An inhuman sound escaped from the man’s throat.

“There can be no hope for peace as long as even a hint of ELPIS remains,” Jericho informed him. “Even if you turn away from them, a part of it still remains in you. And you need to be eliminated—”

Jericho jumped backward just as a ray of light hurtled past where his head had been. That color—

Jericho righted himself. A man and a woman stood there, wearing overalls similar to the man who now lay motionless on the ground. The man held a handgun conductor still billowing out smoke. In the woman’s hands was a close-ranged conductor which spilled out a vitae whip that flickered from a pale yellow to a painful white.

Calm do—

But the thought was drowned out by a familiar high-pitched ringing that resounded in his ears. The world spun, taking on a monochrome hue once more.

Black and white. White. Sounds. Shouts. Movements. Blurs. Die. Die. Die.

People like this didn’t deserve to live.

When the world came into focus, the white glows of the man’s and the woman’s conductors were gone. Both were laying in a puddle of red. Jericho’s suitcase was in his hands. It was no longer black. The world remained monochrome with splashes of red. The ringing still resounded.

Not enough , Jericho thought, watching the red spill in-between his boots. Not enough.

“Beating down our new recruits with just a suitcase. I can’t tell whether you’re crazy or talented. You’re scarier than that woman. Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”

“O-Omicron,” the woman on the floor sputtered.

Jericho turned his head. For a moment, he caught a glimpse of a pale face—a pale face marked on the left half by a tattoo inked in white. From this distance it looked like the letter S with a line drawn straight down the center of it. But Jericho knew that the symbol was not as simple as that. He knew even from this distance that the S was in fact an intricately designed snake and that the line was in fact made of letters spelling out a word. ελπίς. ELPIS.

He had seen that tattoo for the first time on that hot summer day. The sun had been beating down on the sand, parching it and forcing it to soak up all liquids—including the blood. The heat had even dried up his tears before they hit the ground. He supposed that was why the woman in the white cloak had reached out to him kindly. Perhaps she had thought that he had been so strong that he didn’t cry. As she had cupped his cheek in her hands, he had seen it. The tattoo that glowed white on the right half of her face. The same tattoo worn by all the people in the white cloaks who stood over the corpses of his neighbors and his—

It was the same. The same.

Jericho’s monochrome world fragmented. The black in the world thinned out into nothing. There was only white.

His head buzzed. His chest seized as his heart thundered. There was an iron taste in his mouth. He felt his grip tighten on the handle of his suitcase. He needed to do it. It was time. If he didn’t do it, every part of him would explode—implode—with this feeling.

Jericho clicked open his suitcase, and a silver, thin cylinder no longer than his palm fell into his hand. He gripped it tightly in his hands. Finally. Finally. Finally. After all these years finally. One of them was right in front of him.

“I forgot to bring my shovel,” Jericho murmured absentmindedly to himself.

The tattooed figure whistled in response.

The door to the warehouse was suddenly thrown open, and a lone figure stumbled in.

“Jericho!”

It was Talib. Why was he here?

“Get awa—”

There was a high-pitched whine followed by a squelching sound. A splatter of red.

But Talib was fine. Although he looked horrified.

A wetness emanating from Jericho’s abdomen and shoulder caught his attention. He brought a hand to the area. Wet. Red. How?

Jericho turned his head around and saw it. Twin metal poles covered in faint, pure white light were sticking out of his back. The poles quivered before moving forward, guided by an unknown force.

The pain was burning hot like someone was pouring hot embers down his throat.

Jericho forced himself to glare up at the tattooed figure who stood there with a metallic gloved hand lazily extended outward. The poles followed the pull and continued their course, ripping themselves right through and out of Jericho’s abdomen and shoulder and into the figure’s waiting hands.

From behind. A Manipulator.

“Conductors are people who are licensed to kill,” the figure said. “And yet the founders of your peacekeeping organization were those kinds of people. It’s scary to think that you peacekeepers think you’re the epitome of justice with that kind of background.”

But Jericho wasn’t listening because he was already rushing towards the figure while his conductor sparked to life in his hand. There was a flash of light, and the figure shouted in alarm. With a flick of their gloved hand, they brought the twin poles back up to defend themselves. Then there was a blinding burst of white against white.

“You…!” The figure’s eyes widened.

And then there was only black for Jericho. A void. Emptiness. A place where time and space did not exist. But suddenly—

“Enough already! You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.”


ELPIS is a Class 1 terrorist organization operating in numerous sects throughout Signum. Formed after the Reservoir War, their members were initially comprised of a handful of people from the original former country of Ophiuchus. They have since expanded their ranks to include citizens of other countries whom they’ve lured into their ranks. They have been linked to the Tragedy of Aries, the Dune Massacre, and several other engine conductor-destruction related events.

Their leaders are discernable by the snake-like tattoos that are found somewhere on their bodies.Members are identifiable by the curiously white color of their vitae when using weaponized conductors. The manner behind this bleaching is still not fully understood.

In a statement presented back in 1936 by one of their leaders, their goals were clarified: “To destroy the false peace of Signum and to promote hope in a conductor-less future.”

All ELPIS related cases are to be handed to the ELPIS Investigation Department of Ophiuchus. 

Annual Update Report, ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus

3.5: Imamu Snap

Re-cap:

Atienna continued to tiptoe around the brewing conflict surrounding her poisoning even after she witnessed her brother Bachiru discussing something of obvious political dissent with her former teacher Usian. She went to the Great Tree of Virgo with her mother who was injured six years prior and encountered Werner Waltz through their psychic link. A voice was egging her on at the back of her head—urging her to move. Everything ugly was bubbling to the surface.


Imamu Estate, Virgo

“Can you hear it? The pulse of syzygy?” 

Atienna stopped and turned.

There was nothing behind her. Only the long, familiar stretch of green walls she had known her whole life. What an unpleasant thought. Recently they had been occurring more often. She looked away.

“What is it, Atienna?”

Safiyah was giving her the usual look of concern. Despite meeting one another just the other day, Safiyah had insisted on popping in for a wellness check.

“The walls. Do you think we should repaint them?” Atienna wondered, moving over to the wall and pressing her hand against it. “The green is a little suffocating, don’t you think?”

“Atienna…”

“Maybe white?”

Something terrible twisted in Atienna’s stomach at the thought.

“Well, maybe not white—”

“Atienna!” Safiyah rushed forward and grabbed her hand. A surprisingly tight grip. “What happened? Did someone do this to you?”

Atienna startled in alarm. When realization dawned, she could not help but smile. Safiyah always worried incessantly.

“I was gardening again,” Atienna replied, slipping her bandaged hand out of her friend’s grip and then holding it sheepishly. “The roses are very pesky.” She dropped her hand and flushed. “Even though I’ve been at it for years I still—”

Safiyah threw back her head and let out a dramatic sigh. “You’re so clumsy! You need to take better care of yourself! Every single time I see you, you always have on new bandages! If I didn’t know you, I would think you were out getting into fights with your hands like that. Who would’ve thought gardening was so dangerous.”

The irony was not lost on Atienna, but instead of addressing it in words or in mind, she mimicked snipping scissors loosely with her hands as they continued their stroll down the hall. “Gardening. I don’t think it’s really fair coming out of it unscarred. To help, to hurt, to cultivate—whether it’s either of those intentions—it’s a change. And change always results in pain one way or another, don’t you think?”

Safiyah stared at her before shaking her head. “You say the strangest things sometimes, Atienna.”

“And I’m grateful you’re still my friend despite it.”

“I’m your friend because of it.” Safiyah elegantly rolled her eyes. “I know what to expect from you.”

“Do you?” Atienna grinned devilishly.

“Of course.” Safiyah huffed. “With the Council, at the moment they’re saying that they’re refraining from international involvements due to the current internal affair, but who knows what they will say next? We might be off to fight in that silly Capricornian-Aquarian conflict tomorrow after they suddenly declare they suspect outside involvement with your poisoning. Well, not tomorrow. They’ll probably sit on it for another couple of years or so before we hear anything of it.”

“I thought you’d be happier about that. About the continued isolationism, I mean. Well, I hope you wouldn’t be happy about my case.”

“Oh, stop teasing me.” Safiyah rolled her eyes. “What I’m saying is that other people change ‘at the tip of a hat,’ as the Ariesians say. But you never change.”

Those were words meant for comfort, but for a moment Atienna felt something flare up in the pit of her stomach. Her palms itched, but the sensation only lasted for a second. This was not the place, after all. She could wait. She needed to.

Atienna chuckled. “Being around a boring person all the time must be a hardship.”

They passed through the halls, speaking about everything except what Atienna presumed was on their minds. When the front doors were within their sights, they found Nia and Sefu waiting for them at their posts. The guards turned almost immediately at the approach and gave their usual salutes.

Safiyah nodded at them with an air of nobility that she seemed to draw from thin air. Under her breath, she whispered, “They’re not going to search me again, are they?”

“I bribed them with food made by my father’s personal chef,” Atienna whispered back. “Kupika. He’s served the chieftain family of the Imamu tribe for generations. Apparently, he gets requests to cook outside of Virgo.”

“I don’t mind being bribed as well.”

After sharing a hug with Safiyah, Atienna watched as Nia escorted her out the door and through the pathway outside leading to the gate. Sefu remained posted by the door

“You look tired, Sefu. Did you have a late-night shift again?” Atienna asked.

Sefu turned his head toward her, but his face remained impassive. Rigidly, he looked over his shoulder at the twisting walkway and back down the hall behind her. Almost immediately the tightness in his shoulders loosened. He hung his head. “Miss Atienna, I’ve been posted here since midnight! I am near fainting!”

Atienna covered her mouth in shock. “I’m so sorry. You’ve been here for that long? Without food?”

“Well, no. I did take a lunch break an hour earlier,” Sefu admitted. “And a breakfast break before that, but there have been so many guests coming in and out of the estate that—”

Atienna hid her smile. “Worry not, Sefu. I am at your service.”

With that, she made her way back through the halls and found her way to the kitchen doors. She reached for the handle but paused as a muffled voice echoed from within.

Bachiru.

Probably raiding the fridge again in an effort to procrastinate his homework from Usian.

Usian…

Sighing, Atienna pressed her hand against the door and pushed it open an inch.

“—tonight at the Great Tree.”

Atienna froze and peered down at the gap beneath the door. The light spilling out from the crack was smeared by shifting shadows. One, two, three, four, five—

Just how many people were inside? And with so many people present, why was Bachiru the only one speaking?

“All the Council does is speak about their beliefs about what is right,” came Bachiru’s voice, “what is moral, what is good for this country. But beliefs alone do nothing. They are merely the spark, and a spark that does not catch flame is meaningless. Actions are the tinder to the flame.”

Atienna’s vision swam.

Those were the exact words. The words that she had engraved into her heart. The words that her—their—mother had spoken to that crowd on that day. That day that—

No.

“I already have the support of the Mkuki tribe. Although they have close ties with the Ra who have strictly voted against Sagittarian support, I have managed to convince their eldest chieftain son of our cause. We will stand together in front of the Great Tree—the symbol of stagnation for our country—and we will burn down the conductors and the tree itself! We will show those old men and women sitting on their chairs that it is time to do away with the old. That we must reach out! If —”

Atienna peeled away from the door.

Should she intervene? Stop him from starting something that could become something irreversible? Was the irreversibility good or bad? Would Bachiru be in the right, in that case, or the wrong. Both? Ideals were never wrong as long as they were viewed within the right frame of mind, but… No. She didn’t know. What was right, what was wrong. Both.

Bachiru, he—

Abruptly, a woman appeared right in front of Atienna’s eyes. Out of thin air. Like she had been dropped from the sky. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the sensation of skipping pages in a book and being taken from a tragic scene to a happy reunion. Startling, but not quite out of place nor unwanted.

The woman was very tall with broad shoulders and a posture that radiated confidence. Her deep green eyes were determined, looking straight ahead without reluctance. The smile she wore was charismatic and fearless. Perhaps an author may have spotted her in passing and then crafted a heroic princely figure in a novel out of inspiration. Yes, that was the impression Atienna got from this woman. An unearthly, impossible person.

“For you to drop by so suddenly, you must be very bold,” Atienna said, meeting her eyes.

“Oh! You can see me!” The woman let out a laugh that filled in all the corners of the hallway. She stepped forward and clasped Atienna’s hand in her own. Warm. “Are you a spirit too, then?”

Atienna opened her mouth to reply, but—

“Well, I suddenly found myself with that other one, yes? The short, angry child? Well, it was very boring, so I left that place. And then I was somewhere else and now I am here.” The woman rocked back on her heels and nearly stumbled back toward the door. She caught her balance on the balls of her feet, however, and rocked forward. “But you’re the first one to speak to me like this! Say, why is that, spirit? You are a spirit, yes?”

This was a bit too much. But perhaps this was just the way this person was.

“Well, although I can’t confirm or deny your interesting theory on spirits, I can’t say I feel very much like one,” Atienna responded.

“You just denied my theory, didn’t you? Why are you saying you can’t? When you speak like that, I get really confused, you know?” The woman’s gaze pierced through her like an arrow. It was unnerving. Those unsettling eyes paired with that sparkling grin.

Atienna covered up her smile of discomfort with her hand. “Well, when you put it eloquently like that, I guess I have to confirm that I am not a spirit. I doubt the others you’ve encountered are either.” Atienna then did her best to explain what little she knew of their current situation. The connecting thoughts. The mirages. The feelings.

After the lengthy explanation, Maria Gloria-Fernandez tilted her head and stared at Atienna, puzzled. And then she broke out into another dazzling grin and gripped Atienna’s shoulder. “I don’t really get it, and I definitely have never felt anything but emotions that are my own,” she said. “But from what I am understanding, we are currently experiencing something that no one has experienced before, yes? In other words, this is amazing!”

Atienna was rather taken aback. Even Cadence hadn’t reacted this positively. Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if people like this truly existed. She wondered—

“What are you doing?” Asking this, Maria suddenly popped up only centimeters away from Atienna’s face.

Atienna stepped back and smiled. “I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, but I could ask you the same thing.”

“I told you. I’m here because I’m bored,” Maria answered. She leaned back against the door behind her and paused when Atienna froze. She gestured backwards and cocked her head. “You want to go inside, don’t you? Or is it that you want to walk away? I don’t really get what’s going on, but whatever you do is much better than just standing here, no?”

Atienna’s palms itched. Had she not dressed them properly before?

“It’s very kind of you to be concerning yourself with my current situation,” Atienna replied, “but from what I gather, you seem to be at a crossroads yourself.”

Maria frowned, perplexed. “Huh? What are you saying? What does that have anything to with what you want to do?”

This Maria was—

“Your body is strong. I am sure if you tried to punch me now and I let you, it would definitely hurt. But your eyes…” Maria lifted her hand, brought it to Atienna’s face—just barely brushing over her left eye. “At first, I thought you were like the boy, but you’re not even looking in any direction. Not a path of escape, not a path forward.” She cracked a grin again. “Well, regardless, I still like you.”

Leaving that statement in the air, Maria Gloria-Fernandez promptly disappeared from Atienna’s sight. But the itch remained.

There was a sound from behind the door. Someone was approaching. Atienna swiftly backed away and headed into the bathroom two doors down. Once inside, she approached the stone sink carved from the wall and ran the water. She rinsed her face before shutting off the spout and headed to the window on her left. She could barely make out the pathway leading to the gates from this angle, but she could still see the sunlight splattering through the overhanging canopies.

Sunlight…

She glanced down at the sill. Her heart sank at the sight of it. With all the commotion going on, she had forgotten to water her flowers here and they had begun to wilt. Virgo was in the middle of a heat wave, after all. She picked up the pitcher that was in the corner of the room, filled it up in the sink, and took to watering her neglected plants.

Bachiru—

Worrying did nothing. It was better not to think about it. It was all useless anyways.

Atienna held her lightly throbbing temple as a heaviness suddenly pressed down on her chest. The feeling of déjà vu that she had become familiar with followed shortly after.

And then she felt it. That sensation again. Like with the woman. Something startling but not out of place or unwanted.

Atienna turned her head.

And just like that, a young boy appeared there in the mirror above the sink. He was sitting on the edge of a windowsill, staring out. There was another person sitting next to him. A friend? No, it didn’t seem that way.

Just like Maria, he did not seem alarmed at her appearance.

As she spoke with him, Atienna couldn’t help but wonder what it was that made Maria think they were alike initially. It was a little ways into her conversation with the boy that she noticed the third person. A girl. She could barely make out the girl’s thoughts, but everything about her was surrounded in a haze. When Atienna addressed the boy about the girl, he gave an unexpectedly emotional response. There was desperation in his eyes and anger and guilt. But before she could address it—

—like a lightning bolt, an unexplainable rage throttled through her core.

It bubbled up in her chest and rose upward where it lodged in her throat. Her vision blurred.

Bachiru. How dare he? After everything that had happened, after everything their father had suffered, after—

“Ah!” Abruptly, Atienna found herself doubled over, cradling her stomach. Her hands were wet, warm. She tried to move them away from her abdomen to assess the damage, but even the slightest movement caused excruciating pain to shoot through the area. Grimacing and blinking the tears out of her eyes, she looked down. Red seeped between her fingers.

Blood…? Yes. And no. This wasn’t her pain, she realized. Not her wound. This was—

Atienna looked up at the mirror above the sink. “Jericho.”

A coldness gripped her insides as she spoke the name and the feeling closed in around her chest. She gasped for air as the iciness gripped tighter, making each breath even more painful than the last. Black dots flooded her vision.

And then the coldness released her.

It took a moment for Atienna to catch her breath. When she looked back up at the mirror, the boy was gone. The pain was gone too. She glanced down at her stomach. Nothing. But the feeling remained. Lodged in her throat. What in the world was that pain?

She leaned against the windowsill and wiped her brow. After taking a minute to collect herself, she stood and glanced around the bathroom. Rubbing her arms, she asked quietly, “Are you all right?”

Silence answered her. The quiet sent a chill down her spine.

Taking in a deep breath, Atienna she her way back out the hall and then found herself right in front of the kitchen doors. Maria’s words echoed inside of her mind again and paired with that feeling, they were almost unbearable.

Atienna reached toward the door, but it swung open abruptly.

Bachiru stood there, startled. “Oh, Atienna. Did Safiyah leave already?”

Atienna remained silent and peered behind him. The kitchen was empty, but the tabletops were cluttered with crumb-filled plates and used utensils.

“Did your friends leave already?” Atienna smiled pleasantly.

Bachiru’s eyes widened and his body tensed. “I—Wha—Yes.” He swallowed. “I invited them over to make bets on the Olorun Game Festival this fall.”

Atienna walked forward and did not allow her gaze to leave his face even as he backed away. She closed the door behind her. “What are you doing, Bachiru?”

“Wha—what do you mea—”

“Arson is a bit extreme, don’t you think?”

A long stretch of silence.

“So you have heard then,” Bachiru said. “You’ve always told me it’s not polite to eavesdrop.”

“Nor is it polite to destroy something that thousands of people rely on.”

Bachiru lifted his chin. “If we don’t do something, then they will win.”

“They?”

“The people who hurt you, Atienna.”

“I am perfectly fine , Bachiru. What happened to me has nothing to do with what you’re doing. Using what happened as an excuse is a bit irresponsible, don’t you think?”

“It has everything to do with you! You heard what has been said—what everyone knows! You were poisoned because Father wanted to support the Sagittarians! It was a threat!”

“And if it really was a threat, is destroying the conductors and the Great Tree the correct way to respond? When the one who did it is not even known? Who is to say that the people you’ve allied with aren’t the ones who did it? It’s an endless spiral of conspiracies. Why spread distrust to others when there’s already enough of it? It doesn’t fit together, don’t you think?”

Bachiru opened his mouth and then closed it.

“These issues that are happening—I think you are justified in your feelings,” Atienna said gently. “But I’m not sure you’re going about it the right way. Are you certain your actions are justified? Think about it, Bachiru. Do you believe that no one will be harmed if you go through with this? Will you be able to live with it?”

A soft, wry chuckle escaped Bachiru’s lips as he shook his head. “That’s always how you are. Not even addressing what this is all about. Question after question after question. Dancing around everything.”

Ah. There it was again. That accusation.

Averting her eyes? What was wrong with that? It was better than choosing something and hurting others, wasn’t it? Right. No matter where it landed on the scale, a choice always ended with suffering. Not only that…

Her palms ached, her knuckles cracked as she clenched her fists.

No. No. No.

Keep calm. It wasn’t right to be angry now. Bachiru was justified in his thoughts from his point of view, but she was also justified in hers. No one was right, no one was wrong. And what she was feeling right now was only for the night. That was a choice for no one to see.

“Seeking to offer peace to another country by promoting violence in your own—don’t you think that’s just a little bit strange?”

“Atienna. You know that speaking about beliefs does nothing. Acting on those beliefs is what matters. Just speaking about it lets problems fester. Mother—”

Something snapped inside Atienna at the single world. A dam broke.

“Wait, I didn’t mean…”

The feeling that had been bottled up near her throat suddenly released. The red, hot anger spilling out into her fingers, out from her mouth, coursing into her veins. 

Did she scream? Yell? She didn’t know. What she did know was that there was now a deep dent in the wooden table beside her and—

—that in the petals of wood that fragmented outward from the dent’s center, her closed fist now rested. There was a dull throbbing at the side of that fist, but it hurt no more than it hurt when she threw a bad punch in the ring.

“A-Atienna.”

Bachiru was wide-eyed. Concern? Fear? She didn’t know.

“What makes you so sure that you’re right?”—whether she was shouting or whispering, she didn’t know either—“What kind of arrogance do you have that you think your version of justice is so much better than mother’s, than anyone else’s?”

Bachiru was stumbling backward, but she continued toward him.

“After everything she fought for, after everything that’s happened to her—to us—because of what she fought for, how dare you do all of this? How selfish can you be? Calling me indecisive? I have been thinking of this family every single day since mother became like this! What to do and what not to do so the same mistake never happens again—it’s all I ever think about! And you—you have the gall to—”

Bachiru was up against the wall now, and she was mere centimeters from his face.

“You told all of those people in here that beliefs were meaningless without action. Using mother’s words so easily.” Atienna clenched her pounding fist. “Do you know what I hate most, Bachiru? You do, don’t you? It’s when people speak with such vindication without having a clue what they’re talking about!”

Atienna released all of her righteous, burning anger and punched the wall right next to his head. The picture frame that had been hanging there shattered and the wall behind it splintered. Glass shards rained down onto the floorboards as the picture within the frame became loose and fluttered downward.

Out of the corner of her eye, Atienna caught a glimpse of the photograph.

It was the six of them. Before they became the chieftain household of the Imamu tribe. Before—

The anger, the heat, the rage disappeared in an instant, leaving Atienna with a cold emptiness. Atienna stumbled backward, cradling her bleeding hand. She looked away from where the photograph now lay on the ground and up at her brother who flinched at her gaze.

“Bachiru, I…”

Her brother slid to the ground shaking, and her heart fell with him


“Miss Atienna? Yes, she’s a very nice, respectable young woman. Very kind. Always looking after her siblings.”

“Right? She’s always so considerate. I don’t think there’s a bad bone in her body. In fact, I think she intimidates some people with her gentleness.  That’s Imamu tribe upbringing for you. Plus, she always sneaks us food—“

“Sefu. That’s inappropriate.”

A conversation between Nia and Sefu, guards of the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe

3.4: Gloria Waltz

Re-cap:

Captain Gloria-Fernandez raided a ship exporting cargo from Gemini and discovered a golden woman in one of the cargo containers. The woman remained unconscious, and the captured members of the cargo ship were nervous about the woman. With the assistance of Olive, Maria was able to awaken her. And the ever-curious Maria…


???

“Are your eyes naturally that color?”

“They are.”

“Wow, that’s not normal, you know?”

“Captain… that’s not very polite.”

They were sitting in the dining hall that was, for once, absolutely silent. It hadn’t been this quiet since they had to perform maintenance on the dining hall after it had been flooded following a particularly bad storm. Maria had enjoyed using the flooded room as a swimming pool, but she had a hard time convincing her crew to do the same. She had swum through the darkness of the hall all by herself, listening to the floating tables clack against one another in the water. In that moment, she had wondered if it was possible for anything to be silent like that again.

And now she was experiencing such silence.

The dining room was crowded. Filled to the brim. All the tables but one were filled, and the crowd spilled out of the dining area into the hall beyond. Not one of them spoke, and not one tried to hide their stares.

The object of everyone’s attention was sitting right across from Maria. Despite having on only the ill-fitting clothes that Conta had provided, the golden woman glistened like royalty.

At Maria’s right sat Conta, as always. And behind Conta stood Simon. For some reason, both had sighed at her words.

“It’s all right.” The golden woman smiled. “It’s only natural to be awed by something you don’t see every day.” Her gaze swept the tables surrounding her.

“You’re definitely something interesting!” Maria agreed. She tried to get a better view of the woman, tilting her head to examine her from all angles. “I definitely like you. I want to know more about you.” She clasped one of the woman’s hands in her own as she rose from her seat and leaned in close. “My dear, tell me about yourself!”

The woman tensed.

“Captain…” Conta sighed before turning to the golden woman. “What’s your name?”

The woman turned to Conta and stared at her long and hard. Her gaze trailed down Conta’s cheek to the nape of her neck. She smiled. “You may call me Oros.”

“That’s a Leonian word,” Simon interjected gently from where he stood behind Conta. “May I ask if that’s where you’re from?”

Oros lifted her head and studied Simon carefully. She then chuckled under her breath. “I can tell that you’re a Leonian by the way you speak.” She pulled herself away from Maria, folding her hands in front of her.

Maria couldn’t help but marvel at the elegance.

“I have to admit I’m surprised that a member of the Leonian Monastery is here,” Oros continued. “To be so far away from home and duty…”

“You—”

“Oh! You’re Leonian?! That’s amazing! They say a Leonian can always tell whenever another Leonian is in the room,” Maria exclaimed, shooting up from her chair and slamming her hands on the table. “Say, I want to ask something, my lovely Leonian. I’ve been searching for someone from Leo—”

“Captain,” Simon interjected with a smile. “Shouldn’t we try and understand what happened to our guest first before you get to that?”

Maria glanced over her shoulder at him before she hummed. “Ah, that’s right. I am actually pretty curious about that.” She turned to Oros again. “How exactly did you end up in that box?”

Oros glanced away, gaze sweeping toward the crowd that had gathered at the door. “I’m wondering about that fact myself.” She folded her hands beneath her chin and eyed the group gathered by the doorway. “I recognize some of the men who were in charge of my transportation on your ship.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Why?”

“They are a part of my crew now, you see.” Maria did not turn her head away from the woman. “And you could be too, yes?”

Oros smiled thinly.

Maria held her gaze before an abrupt and loud yawn escaped from her mouth. Oros frowned, Simon looked away, and Conta flushed.

“Well, I’m getting tired so…” Maria rose to a stand. “I will take a rest, and you can explore the ship, yes? My crew can be very entertaining also, so you’ll feel at home!”

She gave both Conta and Simon a tight squeeze on the shoulder before heading toward the door. As she left the premises of the table, she heard her crew members who had been silently listening from the sidelines burst into chatter. Some remained where they were seated, while others rushed over to Oros’s side.

As she exited the hall, she was stopped by a hand on the shoulder. Morandi. He was surrounded by former members of his crew.

“My apologies, Captain, but are you really going to let her roam around your ship?”

Maria tilted her head curiously. “Why…? Are you afraid that she’ll take her revenge?”

Morandi frowned.

“Well, don’t worry.” Maria chuckled, heartily patting him on the shoulder. “You are part of my crew, so I will protect you now.”

* * *

When Maria arrived in her quarters, she threw herself onto her hammock and closed her eyes. It did not take her long to fall asleep. It never did.

She enjoyed dreaming. It wasn’t unlike being awake. She could wander around and do as she pleased as usual, but with a bit more flair. When she’d discussed her dreams with Conta one day, Conta had suggested that perhaps Maria’s dreams were lucid. But Maria didn’t quite understand it.

Recently, however, her dreams were different. But not in a bad way. And she could always tell when her dreams were going to be different. Like now. It was happening. She could feel it. Pinpricks at the very recesses of her mind.

Flashes of people she vaguely recognized and their unfolding lives greeted her.

Spirits. They had to be. Ghosts, maybe. How fun to be able to watch them. She wished she could speak to them, but oftentimes they didn’t hear her.

In this dream, she encountered the boy she had saved the other night. Then she encountered the red-haired woman who she decided to follow around for a while. There was the other woman too—the one who wouldn’t meet her eyes. And then there was the stiff, blonde-haired man. The soldier. This man, she followed closely.

He was quite interesting, although Maria thought he could do it with a little more smiling. Like the woman who would not meet Maria’s eyes, there seemed to be uncertainty in the way he handled himself. Although his voice was firm, his eyes were… well, it was paradoxical.

She wondered if she would be able to ask him about it. So after he had a rather boring conversation using a radio, she followed him further to a small cabin.

Speaking her thoughts out loud to him, she reached for his shoulder, stepped forward, and—

—stepped onto the wooden flooring of the cabin.

The feeling was similar to jumping into the sea from the starboard bow on a hot, humid summer day. A bone-chilling splash surging through every toe, finger, muscle in a singular instant. Almost like before with that boy whom she’d rescued.

Exhilarating.

Maria stumbled forward as she caught her breath, then spun around to face the soldier. But he wasn’t there. There was only a wooden door creaking to a close. She pressed it shut and then came to a realization.

Her hands were gloved. Black leather. Wearing them felt strange. She flexed her fingers and felt the material rub the skin between her fingers. Almost uncomfortable.

But they looked absolutely beautiful! The craftsmanship!

Maria held up her hands to the light to better examine them and came to another startling realization. Her hands were larger than she remembered. These hands were not her own. And as she inspected further, she began to have the suspicion that her feet were not her own either. And definitely not her hair which fell into her eyes.

She felt something prick her skin. Someone was looking at her. She glanced up and looked around. A couple crates there, a makeshift desk there, a lamp hanging from the ceiling. Nothing really interesting. Everything was gray, drab, brown. Colorless. Even the men standing, staring in the corner of the room seemed colorless—

—wait.

There were six people sitting behind her on a set of beds pressed alongside the wall. They were gaunt-looking—the kind of people one’d probably find on the floor of a bar at the crack of dawn. At least, that was what they looked like. They were caked in so much dirt they almost all looked identical. If she lined them up in a row, the only way she’d probably be able to tell the difference between them would be by looking them in the eyes or maybe measuring their height. Their matching uniforms looked nice though. She bet they’d sell for a lot on the market.

As she inspected them further, she realized that they all looked vaguely familiar but she couldn’t put names to their faces. Then again, she couldn’t name some of her crew members. She’d encountered so many people over the years that it was impossible to keep track of names at this point.

“Besides, there are a lot more things to do than spending time memorizing names, right?” Asking this, she approached the group and pointed to the man nearest to her. “Don’t you think?”

The addressed man stood a head shorter than her and had a bandaged head. There was a small scar on his lower lip and a bruise surrounding one of his slate gray eyes. He remained silent and instead shifted his gaze over to someone sitting on the bed across from him. Maria followed that gaze over to a woman who sat staring at her.

The woman had a fancier uniform than the others, and it was decorated with beautiful medals. Her thin and wispy hair was tied into a tight bun.

“Is there something you need, Lieutenant Waltz?” the woman asked in Common.

Waltz. A familiar word. A dance. No, a name? Yes! That was it. The man-spirit she had been observing up until now—that was his name! Werner Waltz. How pleasant-sounding.

Maria stared down at her gloved hand. The puzzle pieces fitted loosely together in her mind. Somehow, she had ended up here as Werner Waltz. A dream within a dream. Maybe? At least it was an interesting one.

Well, she might as well have some fun.

Maria crouched down so she was at eye-level with the woman and stared at her.

The woman did not budge from where she sat and did not break eye contact. But she did stiffen. “Lieutenant Waltz?”

Maria hummed. “You look really familiar. Do I know you?” She smiled pleasantly. “What’s your name? I want to know.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to get at, Lieutenant Waltz.”

Maria pulled back and rose to a stand. “I’m trying to get at your name.” For a brief moment, she wondered if she should tell them she was not Werner Waltz but brushed the thought aside. It was too much of a hassle.

“If you’re not joking, Lieutenant,” the woman spoke slowly, “I suggest you get checked out by one of your medical Conductors. Your behavior is unusual.”

Maria brightened, hands on hips. “You’re quite the honorable soldier, my friend, telling such a thing to someone who I think is your enemy.” She took a step backward, fell back onto one of the crates, and then crossed her legs. “But honestly, I’m not interested in things like that. So, tell me your name.” She pointed to the others. “And your name and your name and your name and your name and—well—you get the point.”

The woman stared back at her. Her frown seemed a bit uncertain now, and she eyed the doorway.

“I’m… Captain Dunya Kramar.”

“A captain, huh?” Maria laughed at the irony. “You and me should get along then, yes?”

Dunya’s frown became even more uncertain.

“‘Captain Dunya Kramar’.” Maria absentmindedly reached into her pocket. It was a strange and sudden impulse, but she followed through with it anyways and pulled out a silver pocket watch. “Dunya Kramar…”

It was a simple-looking pocket watch, but upon closer inspection, Maria could make out a faint design carved into it. She pointed to the person in the next bed. He was the one she had approached first. He remained silent for a moment before Dunya tapped his foot roughly.

“I am Nikita Kovak. Sergeant. I told you. Or do Capricornians really have such short memory.”

“That’s quite a thick accent you’ve got there, Nikita,” she said, flipping the pocket watch between her fingertips.

“I could say the same for you.”

Maria stared at him. He squirmed under her gaze. Why was everyone so uptight and uncomfortable in this dream within a dream?

“I admit it’s not my first language,” Maria said. “But I’m going to learn them all eventually. That reminds me, where are you all from? That really is a strange accent.”

The six stared.

She stared back. And then she noticed it. Him.

“Lieutenant Waltz—” Dunya began.

“You.” Maria pointed to a man kneeling beside one of the bedposts, almost hidden. While she had been speaking, the man had been tending to one of the other men occupying the farthest bed.

The addressed man stiffened halfway through what appeared to be a bandage change and met her gaze.

“You look different from the others,” she said.

And he did. He had wonderful dark curls, olive skin, and brown eyes. He stuck out like a sore thumb.

“What did you say your name was?”

The man exchanged a look with the captain. “I… didn’t tell you my name.”

“You didn’t?”

“He’s a combat medic,” Dunya provided. “The treaty states that combat medics—”

Maria held up her hand and turned to the captain. “I don’t know about this treaty thing, and I don’t really care about it. Rules are a pain, right?” She approached the combat medic quickly, ignoring how the man he was tending to tensed at her presence. She smiled and repeated, “Your name.”

The man told her his name. And although his voice shook, his eyes were clear. Gaze steady.

And what a lovely name. But…

“I see…” Maria hummed walking backward to her previous spot. She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Well, how do I put this…” She peeked at the six and pressed her hands to her lips. “I really don’t like how this story is ending…”

“Story?” the combat medic murmured.

“But, that’s how stories go, so I’ll change it.”

“Change?”

“Yes, that’s it!” She began to spin the pocket watch by the chain. “The more I think about this, the less it feels like a dream within a dream. And if that’s the case, that means it’s something absolutely extraordinary.” The faster she spun it, the faster she spoke: “This is an extraordinary thing that’s so extraordinary I don’t believe it’s even fair to call it extraordinary because it’s beyond that!” She tossed the watch up in the air, pointed to Dunya with one hand, and caught the pocket watch with the other. “Do you understand?”

“I don’t believe I follow.”

“Well,” Maria said, tossing the pocket watch up and down. “It’s not so much about following and understanding, actually, as it is about experiencing. If you don’t experience it, there is no way that you can truly understand it and follow it, right?”

“He talk in circles…” muttered Nikita. “He’s… cuckoo.”

“Now, there are some circles that can lead you somewhere.” Maria caught the pocket watch mid-air and threw it at the combat medic who fumbled but caught it. “Like the one that led you to me.”

The combat medic startled and looked up. “You know me…?”

“I guess we’ll see.” Maria laughed. She turned back to Dunya and pointed at her. “You, are you what they call a partisan?”

Dunya frowned. “Like I said, Lieutenant, those flyers had nothing to do with m—”

“ ‘Execute the partisan,’ ” Maria parroted, trying her best to mimic the gravelly voice she’d heard over the radio. “That’s what he said!”

Immediately, all the soldiers besides the captain were standing. Or tried to. Two of them ended up fumbling and catching themselves on the edges of their bed, and the others fared no better.

“That’s—”

“—ridiculous!”

“Is that what your superiors told you to do?” Dunya asked calmly.

Maria threw her head back and laughed loud and clear. It was just too ridiculous—that very question. Absolutely ridiculous—no, hilarious!

When her laughter finally subsided, Maria wiped a tear from her eye and met the tense woman’s gaze head-on. “I really like you. You’re funny, you know? Anyways, I have no superiors. The only person I follow is myself.”

Dunya’s expression didn’t change, but she said, “Really? I thought Capricornians were all about rank-and-file. Order through homogeneity— honorably , like you all say, of course. And I’ve heard rumors about you, Lieutenant. They call you Cold Eye. Because you follow through with an order no matter what.”

“Rumors?” Maria parroted in thought. “About Capricornians? Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She ignored the perplexed looks she received and tapped her chin. “Speaking of rumors, have you heard the rumor about the Golden Beast?”

“No. I haven’t,” Dunya drew slowly. “You said that you only follow yourself, and now you’re saying all this. So are you not planning on executing me in cold blood? If not that then what will happen to me? Your superiors will punish you if you do that, won’t they?”

“I could let you go.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

“You would let me go? Just like that? Ignoring your orders?” Dunya’s eyes narrowed. “What are you playing at?”

“I’m not playing at anything,” Maria replied with a shrug as she came to a stand in front of the captain. She absentmindedly twirled her hair and was pleasantly surprised at how smooth and silky it was. “If I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. Does there really need to be anything else to it?”

“Why? Why me?”

Maria thought on it for a moment. “Well, I like your eyes. They’re strong.” She extended her hand out to Dunya and then beamed. “I’m strong too. You see, mercy and kindness is something only the strong can have. Do you understand?”

Dunya shook her head.

“Well, that’s okay. Let’s go, yes?”

Dunya staggered a bit as she moved forward, wincing as she pressed her free hand against her leg. “You’re serious about this.”

“Well, of course, I am. I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.”

“Then my men—”

Maria glanced back at the others. “No, not them.”

Dunya’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “I’m not leaving without my men.”

“Captain…” one of them murmured.

Maria peered back at them and then at Dunya. “Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’—”

Maria reached out and gestured directly into the woman’s eyes again. “I don’t really understand you. You want to leave. I can see it in your eyes. You are afraid of dying. But still, you are holding yourself back from what you really want to do.” She dropped her hand to her waist. “I really don’t understand.”

“Come on, Lieutenant. Are you telling me you wouldn’t do the same for your men?”

“Oh, I would definitely fight to free my crew if I were in your shoes, and I would free them, definitely.” She hummed. “But you are injured, and you are up against me. You have no hope of winning. Besides, if you try to fight, then this entire thing would be pointless, yes?”

“Is that how you think of this, Lieutenant?”

Maria cocked her head, ruffled her hair, and then sighed. “Hm, I can’t really speak for him, but it’s not like Idon’t want to help them and it’s not like I really want to either.” She stared at her gloved hands and flexed them. “It is more like a gut feeling, you know? That I shouldn’t. It’s not that I can’t. It’s because I won’t. I trust my gut—myself. That’s the only absolute in this world, yes?”

“It’s okay, Captain. Your life in danger. Not ours,” one of the captives said.

Maria perked up in surprise, meeting eyes with the soldier who had spoken. Then, she smiled as she addressed Dunya: “Do you see that look in Tika’s eyes?”

“It’s Nikita.”

“Is it?” Maria squinted at the soldier. “Are you sure?”

“Wha—Yes! I give you when you ask for it!”

“Oh,” Maria chuckled, “well, I’ve never been good with names—”

“Then why you ask—”

“Anyways,” Maria reached out and held Dunya Kramer’s hand in her own, “shall we go, fellow captain?”

* * *

Maria yawned and stretched out her arms. Sunlight from the window just above her head spilled into the dark room, and she caught the rays with her hand. Her ungloved, dark hands. Familiar hands. Her hands. She flexed them in the light.

“Oh, it looks like I’m back.”

Back on her hammock, back on the ship, back on the edges of the open waters. She studied her favorite treasures that were hung on the pole opposite her before swinging off the bed and heading out the doors.

As she combed through the halls, something tickled the back of her mind. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but something was amiss. It was quiet. Way too quiet. A deep silence had fallen over that ship. Perhaps all of her crew had taken to Oros again?

She peered into the dining hall and sure enough she found a cluster of them still gathered around the table where Oros sat. The golden woman was speaking quietly to them, but Maria was not interested in that at the moment. Maria bypassed the dining hall and climbed up onto the deck of the ship. The sun hung high in the sky and the wonderful breeze whistled its way through the sails. There were only a handful of people on deck. Not as many as usual.

Odd. The only crewmembers she had seen had been in the dining hall and here on the deck. Where were the others?

Humming in thought, she began to climb the stairs to the wheel.

“Captain.”

Maria paused and turned her head. A vaguely familiar-looking man stood behind her at the foot of the steps with a smirk.

“You lookin’ for somethin’, Captain?” he asked.

“What was your name again?” Maria blinked down at the man with a cock of her head.

The man’s face contorted and twisted.

“That’s a scary expression,” Maria noted. “Wha—”

A sudden change in wind and a high-pitched whine caught her attention. The silver edge of a sharpened blade glinted in the air.

Oh. He was attacking her.

Sparks flew in the air as she unsheathed her blade and brought it up to meet his. She felt his blade rattle against her own as he tried to push back against her. In vain, of course. In one fluid motion, she dragged her sword down his to the hilt and disarmed him with a twist of her arm. His blade hurtled into the air and fell into her free hand awaiting its arrival.

Crisscrossing the blades and bringing them to the man’s throat, Maria studied him. “Oh, I remember you now! I raided your ship a couple months back, yes? Those were good times, no?”

He glowered.

“What is this, my dear Louis?” Maria pressed. “Why did you do something like that?”

“It’s Pierre,” the man snapped.

“To not even recall the name of someone beneath you, have you no pride?”

Maria turned her head.

Standing at the top of the steps was Oros. The woman’s hair caught the sunlight like a flame. She was glowing.

“I’m joking, of course.” Oros chuckled. She pointed to Maria’s blades. “Your swordsmanship is much better than your crew’s. I’m very interested.” She extended a hand. “If you don’t mind, I’m quite bored. Do you mind showing me?”

Whispering began. People had begun to gather around.

But Maria paid them no mind. She stared at Oros and thought. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? She broke into a smile. “You know how to fight too? That’s pretty amazing!” Without skipping a beat, Maria tossed Pierre’s sword up at her.

Oros deftly caught and inspected it.

“That woman is crazy,” someone muttered from behind her. “To be challenging the captain like that.”

In the blink of an eye, Oros was in front of her. Maria parried the swing of Oros’s blade before flipping backward off the stairs onto the deck. She had barely landed before Oros struck again with lighting fast ferocity.

The crowd parted around them but remained watching.

Maria parried the blow and aimed a kick to the woman’s stomach. Oros blocked the kick with her arm and jabbed at Maria again—this time at her throat. Maria dodged to the side while swinging at Oros’s chest with her own sword. Just as Maria’s blade was about to skirt its destination, Oros brought back her sword to block it and pushed Maria back with a grunt.

“You’re amazing!” Maria exclaimed with a laugh. “Really, you’re good!”

She was the only one laughing. The crew members who had gathered were watching in silent awe. Maria didn’t blame them. A fight with her had never lasted this long before. Which was exciting. But Oros seemed to think otherwise.

“Who are you?” Oros asked, expression unreadable.

“I told you,” Maria chuckled. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.”

Oros’s gaze darkened. Her grip on her sword tightened.

“Huh? What’s wrong?” Maria asked. “This is just for fun, yes?”

Instead of answering, Oros charged forth again. Maria flipped backward, landing on the railings of the edge of the ship and balancing on the thin beam easily. Oros lunged again, flipping up onto the rails herself and balancing with an air of grace. There was a collective of gasps.

Maria stared and then said pointedly, “That’s not normal, you know?”

Oros smiled thinly in response and charged again.

Parry. Dodge. Jab. Slash. Parry. Dodge. Jab. Slash. Down the railing, they went. Maria felt like they were dancing. Another parry that sent them both stumbling backward.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Maria touched her face and then pulled back her hand. Red.

There was another gasp from the crowd.

Maria looked up and saw a faint line of red on Oros’s sword.

This woman was…

“Amazing,” Maria murmured.

A sharp pain abruptly struck her simultaneously in the shoulder and the stomach. Which was odd because she hadn’t been stabbed. She didn’t think she’d ever been stabbed before. What was this?

Maria was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she did not pay any attention as Oros charged forward again. Maria barely brought her sword up in time to block the blow, and it was done so haphazardly that with a flick, Oros sent Maria’s weapon into the air. And then far out into the sea.

Maria stared after it, feeling a rare frown form on her lips. “That was my favorite.” She turned back to Oros, only to find her sword pointing at her throat. Maria cocked her head in turn, meeting Oros’s eyes.

Silence reigned.

But then Oros lowered her sword, hopped back down into the deck, and rested the weapon on the wooden floorboards. She turned back to Maria with a vague smile.

“Yes, that was fun.”

It was the first time Maria had ever been disarmed.


“Our Captain? Well, Morandi, if there was anything I could say about a dear Captain then it’s that there’s an 80% chance she’s not human. She never knows when to stop, and she always acts without thinking about the rest of us.”

With those kind of working conditions, why don’t you just leave?”

“Well, you’ve seen her, Morandi. To put quite simply…. fear.”

A conversation between Morandi a member of Maria’s crew

3.3: Waltz Trigger

Re-cap:

Unwittingly influenced by the Ariesian prince’s morals, Werner Waltz disobeyed his major’s orders to execute Aquarian soldiers he found on the way to the negotiation meeting hosted by Ophiuchus regarding the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.  Instead of executing the Aquarians he found in an abandoned town on the way, he spared them and claimed them as prisoners. He was plagued by visions of people he had not seen before, and it had gotten to the point where he was able to speak with them. 

But appearances must be kept in order…


Abandoned Town, Capricorn

Werner had never been a fan of cigarettes, natural nor conductor-based. He’d never understood the novelty of them nor why their usage was so popular. The smell was unpleasant, the ashes from a fallen stub easily ruined the bottom of leather shoes, and the smoke always clogged the air. He never made his displeasure known, however.

His captain smoked, his men smoked, Gilbert smoked. Even several of his family members smoked. V-cigs had become a commercial item. They were easy to distribute and ship, and they acted as stimulants. With one drop of diluted vitae present in each cigarette, all it took was one puff and a worn soldier could easily hold up their conductor battle-ready for at least five more hours. The efficiency and practicality were clear. To voice his disapproval and displeasure would be unsound. Even minutely displaying expressions such as those would be similar to conveying his unhappiness with the military distribution of the cigarettes. Such displays were fruitless and could even appear anti-government.

And Werner was well-practiced in keeping up appearances. Hiding his desire to crinkle his nose when coming across his men smoking together had become second-nature. He often didn’t even need to consciously think about it anymore. A moment of the satisfaction of voicing displeasure at the cost of respect? Senseless.

And so when Werner had stepped into the small cabin where several of his men had taken refuge, he was not thinking about the cigarettes they were most likely smoking. Instead, his thoughts were on their next movements, their prisoners, and—

—and that distorted radio call from the previous night. A hallucination, surely. It had to be. Caused by fatigue and exhaustion. It wasn’t even dawn yet, however, and he still needed to go over their route through the woods and touch ground with the major. However, sleep did sound tempting the more he thought on it. He had slept for four hours exactly before departure. It was enough sleep to keep going for perhaps eight more hours, but any more than that might affect his cognition and judgment. Just as Werner was considering the prospect of rest, however, the smell of smoke from the lit v-cigarettes greeted him at the threshold.

The smell was pungent as usual and the haze of gray curling around the cabin touched all corners and walls. The light from the lit buds faintly illuminated the faces of those within. Werner was scanning those faces when the sensation hit him.

Absolutely disgusting.

The world spun and a wave of nausea rippled up his stomach and to his throat. It took all of his willpower to not gag and cover his mouth.

A suffocating, disgusting smell.

“Sir, did you need something?”

“Tell Vogt to switch posts with Stein,” Werner managed curtly. “Clean your close combat weapon and switch out your insulators. And dispose of those propaganda flyers.”

Without waiting to hear the usual “yes, sir,” he turned on his heels and walked briskly back out into the cold night. The full moon that had hung high and serenely in the sky now drooped low and harsh. The blue light was blinding. The fact that it was being dispersed into numerous streaks by the surrounding trees made matters worse. The black of the tree shadows, the blue of the light. Flickering flashes. Paired together they exacerbated the pounding in his head and the tumbling of his stomach.

He managed to keep himself straight until he met the wall of another cabin that provided relief from the light. He collapsed onto it, pressing his hand against the wooden planks and feeling the cold seep through his leather gloves. For a brief moment, he considered pressing his head against the wall.

“Hey, have you seen all the stuff the Aquarians had—whoa, you alright?”

Werner startled and turned.

Gilbert. The moonlight eclipsed half of his unreadable face in blue light. Crisp, clear.

The head-spinning nausea was gone.

Werner straightened himself and noticed that there was something folded in Gilbert’s hands. A sheet of paper.

“Werner, you look paler than Vogt.”

“It’s the light,” Werner said. He frowned at the crumpled paper in Gilbert’s hands. “I thought I told you to dispose of those.”

Gilbert cracked a grin and uncrumpled the paper, stretching it out to its full length. A familiar face that any Capricornian would recognize was printed there. The Kaiser. With his pants down and flashing polka dot boxer briefs.

“Shameless.”

Gilbert sighed and then shrugged his shoulders. “You’re no fun. Well, anyway, I was inventorying the Aquarian supplies like you said and—well—you’d better see this for yourself.”

Werner followed Gilbert into the building where he had ordered his men to store the crates of Aquarian supplies they uncovered four hours earlier. Most of the items had been removed from the wooden boxes and were now organized into rows on five long tables that ran parallel to each other at the center of the room.

The closest table seemed to hold items of vice. V-cigarettes. Bottles of liquor and moonshine. The farthest table was what caught Werner’s attention, however. It was unmistakable: the shapes that were laid out onto the table. Conductors. However, something about them was different.

He followed Gilbert to the table and watched as the man picked one up.

“Never seen anything like it,” Gilbert said, weighing the conductor in his hands before tossing it over.

Werner caught and inspected the conductor carefully, running his gloved fingertips over the dips and grooves with care. It vaguely resembled his conducting sniper rifle, but it was much lighter. He doubted it weighed more than a canister of water. That characteristic was not the only aspect of the weapon that caught his attention.

He flipped open the cartridge that ran the length of the conductor to inspect the insulator. “They’ve minimized the diameter of the insulator but extended its length. The insulation system is thin…”

“Didn’t know you were a conductor mechanic.”

Werner looked from the uncovered sleek and slender glass tube that ran along the nozzle of the weapon to its trigger.

Gilbert was now a table away rifling through the vice items. After deep digging, Gilbert held up what appeared to be a carton of cigarettes and shook it open. After selecting one from the box and giving it a sniff, he laughed, “Lieutenant, I think these guys are smoking morrowheat now. Man, with them whiffing this stuff, no wonder we’re winning.”

Werner turned his attention back to the conductor and ran his finger along the uncovered insulator. He closed the cartridge and set the weapon back down on the table. “They don’t allow conductors to be made with such thin insulation. Ophiuchian regulation on this is rigorous.”

“So they’re doing it under the table somehow,” Gilbert concluded before he shook his head. “Bastards.”

“It would seem that wa—” As Werner raised his head to affirm this, he froze.

It was just behind Gilbert. Pressed against the chipped wall. Black and white teeth encased in a wooden skeleton. Piano.

In a blink, Werner was in front of it, hands itching, fingertips extended. It was a different itch than usual. Faintly in the background, he heard Gilbert call his name. Werner turned his head in acknowledgment, but found himself freezing once more—

—because standing right beside him was the young woman from the radio. Cadence. Her eyes closed, head tilted ever so slightly, lips pursed. She appeared to be concentrating on—

A soft, light, clear, trembling sound resonated in his ears. No, not a singular sound. A collection of sounds. Notes. Melody. He’d almost forgotten what it had sounded like. Music, that was.

The young woman’s fingers were hopping, darting, flying across the keys. Despite the rapidity, her movements were not stiff nor rigid. She moved with an odd grace that seemed almost inhuman.

Werner could not tear his eyes away.

A startling display of talent.

“Well, thank ya. Good ta know ya like what ya see.”

Her voice cut through the melody so suddenly he almost jumped. She was looking at him now, although her fingers continued to tap on the keys. The notes that flowed out were softer now, almost sadder.

“Though that’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe music as just a collection of sounds.” She stared at him for a moment before chuckling. “As expected of a Capricornian. Straighta the point.”

Not again. Another hallucination.

Cadence sighed, almost as if in annoyance. “All right, well if you’re gonna be that way, then I’m just gonna get back to it. Got my plate a bit full. No offense.” And with that, she returned her attention back to the piano and the melody erupted into a loud crescendo.

He felt his heart pound almost in sync with every slammed note.

This hallucination. He knew he had to look away, to collect himself. But he couldn’t.

That wallet…

The young woman had not been speaking, yet her voice echoed in his head.

Wallet?

An image flashed within his mind. An atrocious looking wallet that appeared to be made of denim and studded with diamonds. A somber man pocketing the wallet with a sigh. A young boy sitting in a chair. The same young boy colliding with an Ophiuchian agent wearing a trench-coat.

The images were followed by an odd sensation: a feeling that rose in his chest. A foreign feeling he knew was not his own because there would be no reason for him to feel it. Curiosity, hesitation, desire. They drilled into his chest and leaked outward.

Oddly enough, Werner knew exactly what the images and feelings meant.

It seemed as if a cost-benefit analysis was in order. Duty and reason. A problem left unchecked would exacerbate and fester. Excision was necessary no matter personal feelings.

The woman stopped playing. She turned to him in surprise before she cracked a smile. “Well, ya stone-cold fella, that was just the motivation I needed.”

He blinked, and she was gone.

“Damn, Werner, have you been practicing? I thought you gave up all that after you joined the military academy.”

Gilbert was standing at his side now, hovering over the piano with a mild expression. He didn’t meet Werner’s gaze as his eyes appeared to be fixated on something else. Werner followed Gilbert’s gaze to his own hands.

His hands were paused just above the keys the woman’s hands had been above. And as the buzz in his head began to ebb away, the slight ache in the muscles of his fingertips informed him of the impossibility that had occurred.

Werner pulled his hands away from the keys— slowly , due to the odd feeling that the piano would pull him back in if he moved too quickly. A chill crept up his spine at the thought.

“You should play something for the guys when we get back. It’d be a good morale boost.”

Werner flexed his fingers to get some feeling back in them. Without his conscious knowledge, had he just—

“Hey, Lieutenant.” Gilbert jerked his thumb to the door.

The door to the cabin flew open. Klaus stood there with a stiff salute.

“At ease,” Werner said, turning toward him. “What is it?”

“I just received a call from the major, sir,” Klaus said, swallowing. “He requested to speak with you, sir. It sounded urgent.”

* * *

“Werner, is that you?”

Werner pressed the mouthpiece connected to the communications radio down closer to his mouth. “Yes, sir. Would you like me to give my military code?”

“No,” came Major Ersatz’s response. “We don’t have time for that.”

Werner paused before he conceded, “Yes, sir.”

“Are you alone?”

Werner glanced around the room. “Yes, I’m alone. Private Klein left a moment earlier.”

A breathy sigh of relief resounded amidst the static crackling in the background of the headset. “Good, good, good. We don’t know who we can trust.”

“Trust, sir?”

“That’s right, that’s right. We can’t trust them. We can’t rely on them. Since the very beginning, we couldn’t.”

Werner remained silent.

“Waltz? Are you still there, Waltz?”

“Yes, sir, I am.” After a moment, he said: “I’m unsure of what you’re implying. Who are you saying it is that we can’t trust?”

“Ophiuchus.”

The venom with which he spat the world made Werner hesitate. This didn’t seem like Ersatz’s usual tirade. There was a nervousness in the major’s voice that was unsound. Perhaps even unhinged.

“Those bastards. Calling themselves ‘peacekeepers’ when they’re the ones who’re tearing everything apart. Everything….”

There was a shake in the man’s words.

“We can’t let them get what they want, Werner. We can’t. We have to protect Capricorn. You’re the only one that I can trust. You’re the only one who knows what needs to be done and who’ll do it.”

After considering this in the pause of silence that followed, Werner asked, “What is it that you want me to do, sir?”

A sigh of relief resounded from the headset. “I knew I could rely on you, Werner. I knew I could. You always listen. You’re a constant.” There was the sound of fluttering paper. A scritch, a scratch. “I’m requesting for the Watch to go forward with their operation.”

Now, Werner felt his heart skip a beat. “Sir, wouldn’t that incite—”

“Exactly. Take it out of their hands. Take it with our own. Even if it results in more of it. It’s the only way.”

“With all due respect, is this something the generals approve of?”

“Waltz.” There was a snap in Ersatz’s voice. “I’m one of the Watch’s founders. It is under my oversight, do you understand? You are under my oversight. What happens above you shouldn’t concern you.”

Werner considered this. Attempting to converse with Ersatz seemed pointless. By the sound of the man’s voice, he would not budge from his position. “I understand.”

“I know all of this sounds sudden and confusing, Waltz. But it’s what’s necessary.” There was more rifling in the background. “Give me your location. I’ll be relieving you of your mission upon arrival.”

A pause.

“There’s something I need to tell you regarding our location, Major Ersatz,” Werner said slowly. “My men and I are currently stationed at an Aquarian base we overtook.” He paused. “From questioning, I’ve concluded that it’s a medical camp—”

“From questioning?” There was an edge to the major’s voice. “You’re not implying that you’ve taken prisoners, are you?”

“I was acting in accordance with the Treaty of Ophiuchus. Given that this is a medical camp, I believe my decision was appropriate in this situation. Wars cannot be won without guidelines.”

“Yes, that’s true,” the major said with some hesitation. “How many are there?”

“Six. One combat medic and one captain.”

“A captain!” The lightness in Ersatz’s voice returned. “Did you learn anything about their movements?”

“No. She informed me that their base was a medical camp, and that was all. But I found several propaganda flyers on her persons. I believe she planned to distribute them—although she claimed they were not her own.”

“Openly admitting to creating a medical camp on Capricornian land. The nerve.” There was a sigh. “So, she’s a partisan then. As I recall, there are no protections written down about that in the treaty, right? Execute the captain. Yourself. Discreetly. It may bring down morale if the others see you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” The words came so easily from Werner’s mouth that for a moment he wondered why it had been so difficult to pull that trigger hours earlier. Perhaps it was because it was logical. Partisans created dangers behind the line and bred opposition.

“Is there anything else you need to tell me, Waltz?”

The modified conductors—

—no, don’t. 

“No, sir. That is all.”

“Have one of your men give me your coordinates. I will be there shortly.”

“Of course. I will be waiting, Major.”

Static greeted him instead of silence.

* * *

Stein and Bergmann, who were posted outside the building where the Aquarian prisoners were being kept, saluted Werner at his approach. He gave them each a curt nod and signaled for them to rejoin the others. Stein appeared grateful at the respite.

When they disappeared over the ridge, he turned to face the door. His pistol hung lightly at his side, and he ran his thumb along its surface. Using his conductor would be wasteful and excessive, so he had set his aside. Besides, using a conductor for an execution seemed—

—too cruel.

Cruel? That had nothing to do with this. He had done this countless times before when stationed along the southern border facing Argo. Partisans had passion. Passion was dangerous. That aside, Major Ersatz—

—sure seemed to be strange.

Was he—

—sure about this? 

Werner pushed the thoughts aside, opening the door and taking a step over the threshold and—

My, my, to be so unsure of yourself that you follow what it is left by others… is…

—and he stepped onto the mud-caked grass that was just beginning to warm from the rising sun.

Werner winced at the sudden brightness spilling from between the trees and brought his hand up to catch the rays of light. Light. Morning.

He brushed back his bangs that had somehow fallen out of his updo and let out a breath. His head buzzed as he reached into the fold of his uniform for his pocket watch. Gone. He unstrapped the pistol from his side and popped open the chamber to inspect it. Empty.

A cold sweat began to prick the back of his neck.

He sifted through his memory carefully, dissecting each and every detailed moment there. But there was nothing. Nothing after entering the cabin that held the Aquarians. An empty unknown amount of hours and an empty chamber. Perfectly snipped out as if with a pair of scissors. A void of time.

But panic solved nothing. He had to think it through. Specialist enemy conductor. Concussion. Sleepwalking. Dreaming. The possibilities were endless. And although the why was important, the most important thing would be—

A crunch of footsteps against the ground from behind caused Werner to turn his head. It was Gilbert, trudging up the rocky hill with purpose. His expression was different than usual. There was no half-lidded smirk, no sly and scruffy grin. No, he trudged up with a thin smile and eyes that seem focused.

“Second Lieutenant.”

“Hey, Werner,” Gilbert said with a slight jerk of his head. There was a pause of silence, and his eyes seemed to avoid Werner’s. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Werner felt himself frown. ‘Looking for’ what, exactly?

Wait. Was Gilbert all right?

Werner inspected Gilbert from the distance that had somehow formed between them. Gilbert met his gaze and quirked a brow.

Yes. Gilbert looked unharmed. There was no need to investigate when there was a more pressing matter at hand.

He brushed past Gilbert and headed up to the camp behind him. He nearly skidded on the ground as he paced up the hill, but he righted himself and made his way to the building in which the prisoners were held. For him, it had only been a minute ago that he’d been standing at the front of the building. Now?

The soldiers posted at the front of the door saluted him, but he ordered them to leave. After he watched their heads disappear from his line of sight, he entered the cabin and inspected those inside.

Five. Five heads. Five Aquarians. He could barely make out their faces, but he could tell. The Aquarian Captain was gone.

He called out for the nearest Aquarian and ordered the man to follow him outside to the back of the building. After ordering the soldier to line up against the back wall, Werner evaluated the man carefully.

“Sergeant Nikita Knovak, correct?” Werner asked in Common. “Your captain. Where is she?”

The Aquarian made an odd face before looking left and right and peeking over Werner’s shoulder. Werner didn’t know what the man was looking for.

Calmly, Werner pressed: “I asked you a question. I know you speak Common. Where is your captain?”

“What you mean, sir?” A thickly accented response. “You took her out last night.”

Took her out, as in the execution? Of which he had no memory? There was too much uncertainty with that assumption.

“I took her out,” Werner repeated. “What do you mean by that?”

The Aquarian’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you playing at, Capricornian?”

“I am not playing, Aquarian.” He held his gaze.

The Aquarian looked away with a half-scoff, half-grimace. “You took her outside. You tell me you lost our captain to nature?”

Werner studied the Aquarian for another moment before he returned the man back into the cabin. He tried his best to keep his thoughts in order as he exited the building. 

Had he truly executed the captain, then? The evidence pointed to that, but still. Too much uncertainty.

He was just stepping off the stairs of the cabin leading to the ground when Gilbert suddenly appeared in front of him. The man peered behind him: “Is there something going on that I should know about, First Lieutenant ?”

Before Werner could think of an answer, a sharp, searing pain exploded at his shoulder at the location of his former injury. The world blurred into smears of black and white, and the sounds around him undulated.

Werner doubled over at the sudden pain, but just as he did that, it dissipated. Like it’d never been there in the first place. Werner straightened himself and found Gilbert hovering over him with widened eyes. The very sight made shame build in Werner’s stomach.

“Werner, are you—”

Collecting himself, Werner cut him off: “Major Ersatz will be joining us shortly. Inform the others.”

He could resolve this on his own. He could not risk appearing weak.


“Werner Waltz is what every Capricornian should aim to be. Loyal, honorable, reliable, excelling, organized, proficient. Doing what needs to be done. If there are rumors about you being a monster and you’re given a name like Cold Eye by your enemies, you know you are doing right by Capricorn. For this reason, I recommend Werner Waltz for promotion to the rank of First Lieutenant. He will do wonders for Capricorn.”

Excerpt from Query Advisory Letter, Major Ersatz of the Capricornian Border Force, 1939

3.2: Morello Chorus

Re-cap:

Working alongside Francis of the Foxman Family and Verga of the Romano Family, Cadence Morello had disguised herself as an orphan pick-pocketer named Duccio. Duccio appeared to be working for whoever ordered the hit on the Foxman’s TwinStars Pub to silence Figeroli who had been siphoning of modified conductors from the Romanos. When Cadence arrived at Warehouse 13 where Duccio was to meet his payers, however, she was greeted with the sight of passionate, furious children who wanted revenge on the Romanos and the Foxmans. Before she could wrap her head around it, the warehouse was raided by fake members of ELPIS. She was saved by Jericho who found her through their psychic link. They were joined by Verga and other members of the Romano Family who had been tipped off by Jericho’s partner.

But now all leads were lost… 


Twin Cities, Gemini

The rain took care of most of the dirty work. It pelted down and washed the red out into the bay. The bay itself swallowed up all the body bags weighted with cement blocks.

Cadence stood beneath the roof at the entrance of Warehouse 12 and watched as the men moved the bodies from Warehouse 13 to the bay in an assembly line fashion. Morbidly productive. She could’ve almost laughed at the sight.

A packet of v-cigarettes was shoved into her face.

“Come on, Francis, y’know I only like the old school kind. V-cigs just got such a weird taste to ‘em. Don’t know how you can like ‘em.”

Francis shrugged and shook one out for himself. He lit it and stared out into the bay. “This is a mess.”

“Figuratively or literally?”

“Both.” Francis took a drag. “I may not be a saint, but I’m not the type of person who finds pleasure in seeing dead kids.” He nodded at one of the body bags being carried out. A white-gloved hand was sticking out. “ELPIS, on the other hand…”

“They weren’t ELPIS members,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. When Francis gave her an inquiring look, she shrugged easily. “Overheard the peacekeepers talkin’ about it when they went around askin’ questions. Not the usual ELPIS MO.”

“That explains them being so dismissive. Peacekeepers, huh?” Francis spun the v-cig in-between his fingertips. “They talk to you too?”

“The one with the trench coat did.” A half-truth. “I think he’s got an inklin’ about your business, and he didn’t seem too happy ‘bout it. ‘Course, peacekeepers never get involved in these parts, but don’t worry. I ruffled his feathers a bit and sprinkled a little misdirection, so he’s got other things to worry about.”

Francis hummed in response. “As reliable as always, Cadence.”

“You know I don’t like receivin’ half-hearted praise. What’s up?”

Francis sighed. “Carl’s happy to get a little revenge—if you can even call it that. He’s been on about retribution for the past week. Allen’s glad that we’ve cut our losses with this. The reason for the attacks and the connection between the kids, the conductors, and the ELPIS wannabes are the last things on their minds.”

“But you’re not happy,” Cadence figured. “Ya don’t think it’s that simple.”

“And you do?”

“Well, there’s the fact that any person we could remotely ask about this—” Cadence gestured off-handedly to the area in front of them “—is either ten meters under or ten kilometers away from the city. And there’s also the question as ta how those kids got their hands on those conductors like ya said.” She grinned crookedly and shrugged. “But at least now everything is cleaned out, right?”

Francis took a deep drag. “Well, there’s still that kid you interrogated earlier.” He glanced down at her. “Do you think he needs some more company now?”

“Name your price.”

The faintest smile graced Francis’s face, and a comfortable silence passed.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Francis said. “How’s Nico doing out on that front?”

Cadence paused and then smiled with a shrug. “Y’know him. Always a bleedin’ heart.”

A black, silent shadow passed over them. Cadence didn’t need to turn her head to identify who stood beside her—the sudden change in atmosphere was all that it took. It felt like a funeral.

“Clean up goin’ good, Verga?” Cadence asked. “You’re as efficient and tidy as always.” She glanced at him. “Ever thought of startin’ your own business?”

“Flattery gets you nowhere with me, Morello,” Verga returned. “Getting things done does.”

“Hm.” Cadence slid her hands in her pockets and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Well, I thought that’s what I did, so that you could get things done.”

Verga frowned.

“Just tryna lighten up the atmosphere.” Cadence raised her hands. “Y’know, you’re the only one I think I can never charm.”

As if to confirm this, Verga frowned deeper.

Francis took the opportune pause to interject himself into the conversation: “Mr. Verga, while I very much appreciate your hand assisting us in this matter, I would have preferred it if you would’ve informed us of your intent before you executed it. We have stakes in this too. Greater stakes than you.”

Verga’s brow twitched, but he shoved his hands in his pockets and cleared his throat. “Well, that Manipulator Ophiuchian sent me that message outta nowhere. Had to act fast.” He reached into his pocket and pulled a packet of cigarettes and what appeared to be a wallet. A denim, diamond-studded wallet. Not seeming to notice the looks he was receiving, he snapped it open, shook out a plain lighter onto his palm, and used it to light a cigarette. He pocketed the pack.

“Can’t say I agree with your fashion taste,” Cadence interjected. She stared at the wallet before gesturing to the man’s coat pocket. “But you know how to smoke ‘em. Ain’t it polite to offer a business associate a smoke when ya got some?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Verga waved his hand dismissively before lighting the cigarette and putting the wallet away. He turned to Francis. “Anyways, I get that you’re sore, but the entire thing’s solved now, ain’t it? An eye for an eye. No one’s gonna come knockin’ on your front door anymore.”

“Well, we can’t be sure of that, can we,” Francis stated, taking a drag. “There’s no one to confirm that now, is there.”

Verga stared at him before wringing his hands. “We had to do what we had to do. You saw what was left in there. With ELPIS and everything. You may be in business with Ricardo, but we’re still stickin’ our neck out to help you.”

Cadence stepped between them with cheerfully raised hands. “Y’know what we say in the city. Unless you can remake the world, it is what it is.”

Francis stared at Cadence and then at Verga long and hard before he smiled cordially at the latter. “Of course. I apologize for my rudeness. I’m not in the right profession if I’m questioning things that’re swept under the rug.” He paused, extinguishing his v-cig with a flick of his wrist and repocketing it. “I just can’t help but worry about repercussions and consequences no matter how small it is. We appreciate the assistance.”

“Paranoia gets the best of us.” Verga nodded.

Cadence resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Verga was many things. A smooth talker was not one of them. But Verga was an important member of the Romano Family. Even as just an associate of the Romanos herself, she knew she couldn’t risk getting on his bad side. Even if he was insulting her childhood friend. That was just the way it was.

Francis’s smile did not falter, and instead he gave his usual musical chuckle. “Of course. By the way—Cadence, would you care to join me for a celebratory drink?” He glanced at Verga apologetically. “I would invite you, Mr. Verga, but I overheard Cavallo has some paperwork you need to complete.”

Verga grunted before stalking off.

* * *

Duccio was still sitting in the same position they’d left him at inside the interrogation room when they arrived. On the chair, head pressed against the cold surface of the metal table in front of him, motionless.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

There was only one thing different from before.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

The red droplets continued to dribble down onto the floor from Duccio’s pale hand. The sound filled in the emptiness left by Francis’s question. The droplets had trickled down from a trail of red that traced up the adolescent’s arm and ended at his mouth—open, tongue-less. Duccio’s eyes unblinkingly reflected the overhead lights and stared listlessly at the missing appendage.

Francis turned to the trembling man who stood at the doorway behind them. “I asked you a question, Stefano. What is the meaning of this?” 

His voice was not raised nor was there an undertone of fury beneath his words. There was not even a glint of fire in his eyes. Even still, Cadence shivered. Francis was one of the most terrifying people she knew.

“I—sir, I—”

“Coherent sentences please, Stefano.”

“I… I only left for a second, sir.”

“Only one second,” Francis repeated. “Mr. Stefano, are you aware of the multitude of things that can happen within one second?”

Stefano stammered.

“Go ask if anyone saw anything strange before this happened.”

Stefano nodded stiffly before scrambling out of the room.

“Looks like a suicide,” Francis muttered once they were alone.

“Sure looks like one,” Cadence agreed. “But you and I both know that appearances are.” She frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose as a sharp pain pulsated from the back of her head. The familiar sensation of déjà vu followed soon after, causing her to search the mirrors of the room. Nothing. No one.

“Is something wrong?”

“Still can’t stand the smell,” Cadence lied easily.

Francis didn’t question it and nodded before returning his attention to the scene. “It could be an act of retaliation. One of ‘em might’ve snuck past the lax security. An in-group kill,” Francis reasoned. “It may not have been intentional, but he did rat out the group.”

Cadence paused. Didn’t that mean that this was—

—her fault?

She shook her head. No, of course not. What happened was because of circumstances. No one was at fault. Everything was up to chance and circumstance, and there was nothing anybody could do about that.

“Then there’s the question on how they knew Duccio spilled to begin with.” Francis placed a hand over his mouth in thought. “But maybe I’m just being a pessimist. Maybe Verga was right. The main point is that their operation was shut down without much cost on our side.”

Yeah. It would be simpler that way.

“Hey, watch it. My mental wellbeing is worth a fortune.”

Francis finally cracked a smile.

Really, it was simpler that way. She was used to leaving incidents that were ‘a little too good to be true’ as is. ‘Don’t question good things that come your way’ was the saying. But for some reason, with this case, she felt an itch that wouldn’t go away.

That ridiculous-looking wallet that Verga had. Duccio’s gruesome death. Which was not her fault. But… what would she gain from pursuing this itch?

Cadence hit the Sognare as she mulled. There, she played the piano, had an odd conversation, and reached a conclusion.

In the end, all decisions were the result of an intensive cost-benefit analysis. It was a term shr had learned from an economics book she’d stolen from a student tourist visiting the capital a couple years back. The book had sold for a good fifty cens, and she’d managed to convince the buyer to read the first couple of chapters out loud to her for free. She hadn’t recalled the term until recently, but now it was her bible.

The benefit: possibly finding a rat within the Romano Family and earning some more reputation points with the boss and the streets. But the cost: dying while doing it. A pretty high cost. But the higher the cost, the higher the reward.

Besides being daring was—

—exhilarating.

Cadence rubbed her temple.

* * *

It wasn’t hard to disguise herself as one of Verga’s men. All it took was a coupon to a one-cens store that she’d transmuted into a free ticket to the Casa delle Bambole, a self-transmuted disguise as one of the most popular hostesses working at the establishment, and a flirtatious wink. The fact that Verga’s hand-selected men were dumb as bricks was a bonus. Not much finesse required.

And so, in less than an hour, Cadence had adopted the appearance of a gruff, short, heavyset man and ambled her way to Verga’s favorite joint. A general conductor store that specialized in v-cigs. Ceremoniously named the Vitae Roll. It was a small building only two stories tall and was nestled in the city’s less grandiose side. The windows were boarded over with planks of wood with streams of smoke trickling outward sand upwards from between the spaces.

As she drew nearer to the building, the acrid smell curled in her nostrils and caused her stomach to burn. She stopped in her tracks at the sensation, but that only exacerbated it. A swift pounding formed at the back of her neck.

And suddenly—

—she was standing in the middle of a red-carpeted hallway. Light spilled in from the long windows lining the walls around her, giving the carpet an unnatural glow.

She recognized this hallway. But at the same time, she didn’t.

She didn’t have time to dwell on the contradiction long. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A sensation she wasn’t all too unfamiliar with. She often wandered the less than pristine streets of the city at night alone, after all.

Someone was behind her. Watching her.

Before she could think of a way out of whatever this was, some unknown force made her head turn in the direction of the presence.

A vaguely human shape stood there just a couple meters away. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air.

Feathers…?

Yes, whatever this thing was, its entire being was made of pitch-black birds.

White holes formed where its eyes should have been, and a white smile cracked there.

“Thank you.” An inhuman voice spilled out from the crack of its mouth. “Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for helping me. Don’t forget me.”

This was different from her conversations with Atienna and that Capricornian soldier.

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest. But her legs remained still, stiff, frozen in place.

The thing took one step forward, and the carpeted floor beneath its foot immediately burst into flames. Another step, another burst of crackling red. Closer and closer it drew to her with an inferno following at its feet.

Run. Run. Run—

“Thought you weren’t feelin’ well, Averci.”

And just like that, Cadence was back on the street corner. The familiar, heavy humidity in the air greeted her like an old friend and the smell of mildew from the wet cobblestone streets coated the back of her throat. Cold sweat clung to the back of her neck.

Was that… a memory? A flashback? She’d used to get them sometimes when she was younger and in a half-asleep state but not to this extent.

“What the….?” She whipped her head in the direction of the voice in a panic.

It was one of Verga’s men she’d seen around. Bell. He was standing at the doorstep of the v-cig store with a bored look on his face. He seemed so bored that he couldn’t care enough to look her over. Cadence used the opportunity to even her breathing and order her thoughts.

Obviously, this was a sign from the saints for her to not go through with this. Cost-benefit analysis be damned. This—

Her temple throbbed.

—was exciting.

“Threw up a lung and now I’m fine,” Cadence found herself saying. As soon as the words flew out of her mouth, she felt like truly throwing up. “Gotta get some cash for another round at the game house.”

The man regarded her for a moment, before he cracked a crooked smile and grunted in agreement. He jerked his head back toward the door and rubbed his fingers together. “Apparently the big boss is plannin’ something even bigger than the last big thing. And bigger means more big money.”

Cadence had underestimated how stupid Verga’s men were. In street smarts and book smarts.

“Well, I like my women like I like my money,” Cadence sneered in response as she made her way up the doorsteps. “How about we get this cracking then.”

“I like the sound of that,” came the guffawed response. The man held the door open for her and followed her inside.

Cadence was immediately greeted with an even more intense wave of acrid smoke. It filled out all the corners of the shop and coated everything in a thin wash of gray. The man sitting behind the counter was somehow even grayer than the haze around him.

This was definitely Verga’s style.

“So how big we talkin’ here?” Cadence asked with a yawn as she followed Bell to a door at the very back of the store. She took a quick glance at the glass cases that haphazardly sprouted up from the carpet. They were filled with different models of v-cigs, each seemingly more bizarre than the last. She turned back to Verga’s man and tried, “Bigger than a gig killing the next generation?”

“Yeah.” The man glanced at the shop owner and wrinkled his nose. “I knew entering this business wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows and I’ve seen my fair share of offing husbands and wives, but kids… well…”

This goon was really acting like he had morals. Cadence resisted chortling at the very idea and instead dissected what he’d revealed.

‘ Kids.’ Plural. The warehouse incident was probably what he was referring to. But…

Duccio’s corpse and the diamond-studded wallet flashed into her mind.

No. That wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t specific enough.

“Really? It was hard for you?” Cadence gave a dismissive wave. “Piece of cake.”

“You’re sick, Averci.” The man crinkled his nose, then rubbed it with a shrug. “Then again, I’m sure Verga knows what he’s doing.” He paused, shaking his head. “All for a single kid. I don’t even think my life is worth all that trouble.”

So her hunch had been right.

The door opened, revealing a musty room with a boarded-up window and a round table set in front of it. The light shining in from the windows was gray and barely illuminated the men seated in the chairs around the table which was toppled with cheap wines.

Giving the seated group a nod, she stepped into the room and―

The door locked softly behind her.

Every cell in her body screamed in alarm. Escape. Where was the exit? Through the window? No. Keep cover? Blend in. Safer.

She kept her arms and legs steady as she fell into place beside the other men by the window and settled on the ledge. She glanced up at her captor. It was Verga, hand still wrapped around the doorknob. Like always, he looked like he’d come straight from a funeral. Just another reason to skip this joint. But… As much as she wanted to leave now that she’d gotten the ‘who,’ Cadence figured that she could at least get the ‘why.’ The dots were there, but the connection was not.

Ah, that phrase could apply to more than this situation, couldn’t it?

Cadence resisted frowning, shook away the intrusive thought, and refocused her attention on Verga. The man was looking at them all like he was sizing them up to figure out what casket he could fit them into.

That’s a funny way of describing him!

Another piercing headache.

“We got a rat here,” Verga said reaching into his pocket and turning to face them. “Someone here’s been snoopin’ around without my permission.”

Damn. But how did he know? Keep calm. Let them talk. Play along. Verga didn’t know she was here. But she might as well go and ask him straight up.

What?! No. Stupid!

“What are you talkin’ about, boss?” It was Bell. He’d settled in on a chair right beside her and had been perusing the bottles of wine when he’d started at Verga’s accusation. “We’re all pals here, aren’t we—”

A soft click answered his question.

Verga had drawn the object from his pocket. A small pistol.

Well then. This wasn’t good.

A heavyset man seated next to her rose to a stand with a flabbergasted expression. He swung his hands wildly and stammered: “What’s this all about?”

Stupid move. Which was confirmed when Verga pointed the pistol squarely at him.

“Are you the rat?” Verga asked the man calmly.

“What?!” the man sputtered. “Of course not! I’ve been working for you through thick and thin, boss. I’m loyal.”

“And how do I know that for sure about that?” Verga pressed. “The only way I know if you’re loyal is if you die for me.”

“Wha—”

There was a loud bang, and then the standing man was face down on the floor. There was a hole in the back of his head, and a pool of red formed a halo around him. But Verga’s gun had not fired. Instead, it was Bell’s gun that had. Where Bell had procured the gun from, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Nor did she have any idea where that seemingly daft and innocent man that greeted her at the doorstep went. Talk about a change of face. This was getting sticky.

“Call it ironically old-fashioned, but…” Verga tightened his grip on his gun with a shrug. “I really prefer these things to conductors. Much less trouble with insulators crackin’ and whatnot.”

Two of the other four men in the room leapt from their chairs while two remained frozen in place. The moment both men came to a stand, they found the noses of the two guns pointed squarely at their heads. In the same moment that those two men rose to a stand, Cadence subtly shifted so she was wedged behind all of them.

“Speaking of conductors,” Verga continued, “did you all know that with the treaty that ended the war, the amount of conductors each country is allotted is required to be inversely proportional to the amount of vitae reservoirs each country has? The idea is countries with fewer reservoirs’ll be allowed to have more conducting generators to harvest the vitae. But as it turns out, there’s nothing in the treaty that specifies what kind of conductor a country is allowed. Now, there’s a loophole the Capricornians took advantage of.” He pointed the gun at the gaunt man standing to Cadence’s right. “Have you found a loophole workin’ for me?”

What the hell did that even mean.

“Wha—” The gaunt man shook his head with raised arms. “No, I’m not—”

The bullet came from Verga’s gun this time, which he reloaded slowly as he watched the gaunt man’s body fall across the body of the first victim.

What the hell. Was he planning on killing all of them? Cadence knew she had to get out of here. She could buy time by convincing the remaining group to fight back. Would they be able to? Yeah, if they listened to her. But they were already sitting there like gamblers who’d just bet their entire life savings and lost. They’d already accepted what was going to happen. No good.

But wasn’t Verga being counterproductive by doing this? If he was planning to kill all of them then why put on a show? Unless…

Cadence paused.

He knew —

A chiming laugh rang through the air. And for a moment, Cadence swore she could taste sea-salt on her tongue.

“My, my, my, to break things that belong to you with your own hands—are you not strong enough to protect them all?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence could faintly see a woman with brown curls and sun-kissed skin. A hazy image that would go out of focus every time she tried getting a better look at it.

“You…” Cadence began before she came to a startlingly horrifying realization.

The words that the woman had said. Those taunting, unfearful words—had come right from Cadence’s own mouth. The smile was just barely leaving Cadence’s own lips now, and the laughter was just beginning to die away in her throat. As the smile and laugh left her, Cadence felt cold nausea occupying the hollow they left. She whipped around to fully face the brown-haired woman, but only found a confused-looking Bell in her place.

“What was that now?” Verga growled as he gestured the two last standing men to move aside with a jerk of his gun.

Obediently, despite everything that had occurred, the two stepped away from her. One of the two gave her a questioning look and whispered the name of the man she was disguised as under his breath.

She could feel all of their eyes on her. Looking her up and down. Trying to gauge the meaning behind what she’d said—not that she even knew the meaning behind them herself. Eventually, if they stared long enough, they might be able to actually guess what was up. Intuition and stupidity were in two different categories after all. And Cadence wasn’t going to let them—more so Verga—enjoy the satisfaction of unveiling her. Not without her letting him have it that way.

Cadence stepped forward, hands in the air. “Okay, okay, ya got me, ya got me, boss.”

Unconvinced, Verga cocked his gun. “That’d be the first time you’d be callin’ me boss. Morello.”

Cadence paused before she sighed and snapped her fingers. Her illusion fragmented, starting from her conductor, and then cracked along the rest of her body. In a flash of copper light, her work shattered, and she was left looking much like her usual, charming self. There was a collection of surprised gasps as usual, but she ignored them and said: “Well, it was worth a shot. Guess Francis was right about ya bein’ too sharp ta trick.”

A lie. Francis had in fact stated clearly that Verga was as dull as a rock. Regardless, Verga sneered.

“That woman you tried to seduce Averci with—she was my woman,” Verga said. “After all that crying and begging, I started to believe her when she said she hadn’t tried flirting with another man. But that left me wonderin’ how that could be possible since I saw it with my own eyes. And the answer is standin’ right in front of me.”

“I admit it. I’m gettin’ sloppy.”

Verga’s smile slid from his face. “How’d you figure it out?”

“Figure what out exactly?” Cadence returned.

“Don’t play dumb!” Verga snapped, jabbing the gun aggressively in her direction. “About the kid! About the conductors we’ve been siphoning off of Romano!”

Siphoning off conductors? Well, that was new and that explained a whole lot. But Verga didn’t have to know that she didn’t know that.

“Yeah, well, I might know all that.” Cadence shrugged. “But I don’t know the ‘why.’ And y’know me, I don’t usually question the ‘why’s, but I couldn’t help scratchin’ this itch.” She raised her head and met his eyes. “I mean, Romano practically saved ya like a saint. Ya got good workin’ perks along with that, and I heard that he was finally gonna appoint ya capo, so I’m tryin’ ta place why—”

“Why not?”

“Uh, loyalty?” Cadence offered before she shrugged. “But I guess jealousy trumps that.”

Verga crinkled his nose. “Jealousy?”

“Toward Cavallo.”

Verga’s smug expression morphed into something much more unpleasant, which made Cadence queasy. The man lowered his weapon and clenched his fists.

“Am I wrong?” Cadence frowned and scratched her head. “I mean, ya both joined the Family at around the same time, but Cavallo’s been holding the position of capo and a large amount of turf to govern for five years now.”

“And that’s exactly why!” Verga growled, using his gun as a pointer. “I’ve done more for Ricardo than Cavallo has, and I’m still second rate. It’s not enough.” He shook his head. “They call themselves a family, but they’re only lookin’ out for themselves. Everyone’s expendable.”

“It never was that kind of family to begin with,” Cadence said. “Ya had a good thing goin’ for ya, Verga. Just needed to bide your time.”

“Funny hearin’ that from you,” Verga said, voice regaining its gravely calm. The smirk returned. “You can take whatever appearance you want and have everything at the palm of your hand.” The smirk grew. “Well, almost everything. Which brings me to my point.”

“I was hopin’ you were gettin’ to that,” Cadence sighed, eyeing his gun. “Not sure how much longer I can handle this tension.”

Verga pulled out a small pouch with his free hand and tossed it to her. Cadence caught it with her left hand. Heavy.

When she opened it and peered inside, the familiar glint of Geminian cens met her eyes. By gauging the weight of it in her palm, she could tell there was more than five hundred cens in there.

“And that’s just the down payment.”

Cadence took a cens out and rolled it in-between her fingers before holding it up to the light. It was real, alright. She put the cens back into the bag and tossed the bag up and down. “So, basically, long story short—you’re tellin’ me to join ya in exchange for a couple of cens.”

“Oh.” Verga’s face split into a very unfitting grin. “We’re making more cens than you can even imagine. You have no idea how many people I’ve gotten on my list.”

“Your list. Ya mean the people you’re selling the conductors to?” Cadence frowned. “I’m pretty sure Romano and the Foxmans have all the high-end customers in their pocket. I mean, ya can’t get much better than the Aquarian army.”

“I know you can think bigger than that, Cadence. Times are changing. People know that the peacekeepers are just that in name only. Completely useless. Won’t protect anything when it hits the fan.”

“No need to get into politics with me, Verga. Sorry to say that I’m not into that kinda stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “But from what I’m gatherin’ you’ve been sellin’ our conductors to regular old citizens.”

“I just found my own loophole. They pay as good as the governments do. Sometimes even better.” Finally, Verga lowered his gun with a grimace. “Though I gotta admit that they ain’t as bright in usin’ ‘em. They get petty sometimes. Shoot parents and kids. Shoot the delivery men when they don’t get what they want. And you know how it is. Injured delivery men in this kinda business is a liability. They start demanding stuff and threaten to spill. You just can’t have ‘em around.”

So that was how it was.

“So the kids at the warehouse…”

“Just a couple of brats who I gave work to. Want revenge for what I did to their no longer capable members. Course, they think it’s all on the Romanos and the Foxmans since they own everything and I’m smart enough not to show my face. Brats did me a favor with explodin’ the TwinStars. Nicked Tulio. I gave him a cut, and he got too cocky.”

The dots connected. One last dot to go.

“So you want me to work for your enterprise ya got goin’ here.” Cadence hummed. “Well, do ya really think I’m that disloyal?”

“I’m not askin’ you to work for me. Just help me clean up this mess. And what’s this about loyalty? Yeah, anyone who looks at you would think you’re loyal to the bone to the Romanos. But I can see right through you. You nearly fooled me. It’s easy mistakin’ that eagerness and reliability as loyalty. But you’re not even really part of the Family.”

Cadence lowered her hands and looked the man over. “Never said I was. That’s what the word ‘associate’ means.”

Verga snickered. “You’re like me. A coward with big dreams. Sure, you seem like you’d lay down your life for the guy next to you, but I know how it is. When really bad things go down, Cadence Morello ain’t around.”

“You’re flatterin’ me.”

“Damn, I even heard Ricardo offered you a position as capo and you flat out denied it,” Verga continued. “Wouldn’t keep your opportunities open enough swearing loyalty that way.”

She resisted rolling her eyes.

“You’re speakin’ too vaguely.” Cadence scratched her head. “What exactly do you think a common goon like me could possibly ever dream of?”

There was a long drawn out pause of silence.

“All I need for you to do is to use your skillset to gather the rest of those brats here without Ricardo or the Foxmans finding out. Those brats are the only ones tying me to this. Just get them here and let me take care of the rest. A pretty good deal if you ask me, seein’ that you’ll be receiving not only a triple payment of what I already gave you there, but also the opportunity to sweep all of this under the rug. Done and over with.”

“Sounds like you’re tryin’ ta reassure yourself with the last bit there. If I take up this job offer, then it really is buried since I won’t be able to tell the Family or the Foxmans after without getting a round in the head.” Cadence hummed. “And after all this is sunk into the deep blue sea, you just continue on your merry way collectin’ cens without repercussions for… how long?”

“After this next round of sales, I’m leaving this city. Taking a leave of absence from the Family.” Verga paused. “So I can take care of my real family.”

Cadence perked up at this and then raised a brow. “Y’know, I may be a bleedin’ heart, but ya gotta tell me a more convincing lie than that to try to win me over.”

Verga frowned. “No, it’s true.” He reached into his pocket with his free hand again and drew out a black-and-white photograph for her to see. Captured in its white frame was a pair. A slender, smiling man who looked as if he’d just walked out from a zen garden and a grinning girl with pigtails who looked around eight years of age. “She’s in Alhena right now waiting for me.”

Not a good or smart move for him—showing his daughter like this, but Cadence would take what she could get.

“Saints, Verga. Maybe you really do need retirement. Workin’ in this line of business isn’t doin’ wonders for your age lines.” Cadence sighed. “You said Alhena? Ain’t that one of the poorest cities in Gemini?”

Verga nodded before pocketing the photo. “The war left me broke and my wife dead. I left to come here and make money so I could give my daughter a better life.” He abruptly stared at his hands and suddenly looked somber, tired. “This isn’t me. This city made me into this.”

All due to circumstances, huh? An excuse. But—

“Well, I gotta say that I empathize with ya. Who am I to deny a father and a daughter a happy ending? But above all that, money talks.” Cadence slipped the coin bag into her coat pocket and nodded to his gun. “Ya make a compellin’ argument.”

“Good.”

With that, Verga raised his gun back up and pulled the trigger, as did Bell. The last two men slumped over, dead.

“Not good future job prospects if you ask me,” Cadence said evenly, keeping the tremble out of her voice.

Verga shrugged. “They were stupid. Expendable. Knew too much.”

Cadence whistled, extending a hand. “Man, Verga, you’re really goin’ all out with this then, aren’t ya?”

Verga smirked and accepted the gesture. “That ain’t me goin’ all out.”

Cadence pulled back and eyed Bell before she paced towards the window and peeked out through the shudders. “But, really, workin’ with ELPIS wannabes isn’t goin’ ‘all out’ to ya?”

“Who said it was just wannabes?”

Something clicked into place inside her head.

Cadence turned away from the window slowly.

“Like I said, Morello, I find the loopholes. No customer is denied.”

She tried focusing on what Verga was saying, but there was a static sound at the very fringes of her hearing making it difficult to understand anything.

“Of course, I’m not stupid or desperate enough to sell conductors to them. But they sure are desperate. Shipped somethin’—well, someone —out of Gemini for ‘em a couple days ago. No idea how they managed that. Doesn’t matter. Got another order comin’ in for them as we speak.”

The static ate away at the corners of her vision. Pinpricks of black, gray, and white. Whiter than the bleaching light that bled through the shutters. A pure white.

She could barely make out Verga’s silhouette against the whiteness.

“Morello… er, what’s with that look, Morello?”

Look? What look? Her face?

She could barely think enough to control the monstrous feeling that was now spreading like a wildfire out from her chest. The feeling had come so suddenly that, at first, she hadn’t known what it was. It was a feeling she rarely felt and never to this extent.

Anger. Rage. Suffocating. Snapping through every muscle in her body. An overwhelming itch somewhere deep inside that needed to be scratched. It was agonizing.

Working with ELPIS? ELPIS? How could he? How could he? He—

The static pin pricking her ears suddenly went silent. An unfamiliar voice cracked out—

“Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”

A flash of scorching white.

Run.

No.

“Jericho!”

Pounding footsteps. 

And then an explosion of pain. Out from her stomach, there was an explosion of pain unlike anything she’d felt before. Pain. Saints—

Had she been shot?

Verga wasn’t brandishing his gun and neither was Bell.

But she felt a damp and warm wetness at her abdomen. Sucking in a breath, she pressed her hands against the area. Dry. What? She pulled her hands away and saw her pale, unstained hands—

Saints. It hurt.

She stumbled forward, grasping the edges of the table in front of her and nearly tripped over one of the bodies on the floor. The pool of blood had spread, making it slippery and wet.

Was she dying?

No.

In an instant, the world became clear again. There was Bell standing in the corner looking confused and Verga looking concerned of all things. The smoke from the shop below curling up from the floorboards suddenly looked alluring. A nice cloud to rest in.

“Morello?”

She fell into it with open arms.

And then there was nothing.


“The Romano Family controls the east side of the Twin Cities. They do a lotta underground work. Don’t know what exactly but heard it’s got somethin’ to do with conductor manufacturin’. Heard they work with the Foxmans to ship those things out. Makes me wonder why Ophiuchus ain’t done nothin’ about them yet. Anyway, they’re rivals with the Campanas out on the west side. Last turf war was about five years ago. Not pretty.”

Melodia Calla, barista at the Lumiere Cafe