2.[]: Boy in the Capital

“Hm. Yes, that boy. The foreigner. Claire. He’s very well-mannered. He says he’s here searching for something. Something he can only find here. I don’t have a clue what that is. The heat maybe?”

Sarah Apples, Fruit Stall Owner in New Ram City

New Ram City, Aries

The dawn air had soaked up much of the late-night rain and hung heavy with humidity. Even with the breeze circling around him, he was sweating. While the sky-blue cloak drawn over his head protected his dark hair from drinking in the sun’s rays, it also trapped him in his own sweltering body heat.

How Ariesians could tolerate these blazing temperatures astounded him.

The downtown marketplace was just beginning to awaken, and all the Ariesian small-time business owners threw open their windows and greeted the scathing heat with either a hearty, determined nod or enthusiastic smile.

An older woman with deeply tanned skin and wisps of gray hair hidden beneath a faded kerchief was opening a fruit stall to his left. He approached her with a friendly smile and after some bargaining, he managed to get a pound of peaches for five common-coins. The units of measurement in Aries always confused Claire. They were the only country in Signum that preferred using imperial to metric.

Regardless, the peaches were a bargain. Smaller stores often preferred their native currency—in this case, the flimsy Ariesian bill—over common-coin and tended to charge higher on foreign currency. He thanked the woman with a bow before retreating to the shade provided by a tarp canvas pulled over a jewelry stall. There he sat on a crate and bit into a peach as he watched the dawning buzz of the marketplace evolve into a daybreak bustle.

He couldn’t help but smile as he watched a child around the age of twelve—who was helping her parents transport crates of spare conductor parts—pause and bask in a sudden gust of wind. The wind swirled through her dark hair before coming up to meet him where he sat.

Conductors… What was it that Olive had said the night before? A conductor with a strong insulator? Yes, that did make sense conceptually.

He took another bite of his peach and chewed thoughtfully.

Olive Chance. Olivier Chance. Ariesian prince.

He scanned the crowd and rolled the peach in his palm, nearly dropping it when he spotted the very subject of his thoughts amongst the masses of colorful cloaks and twirling umbrellas. A cloak of deep red shrouded the prince’s dark head in shadow, but those green eyes were unmistakable. Behind Olive trailed two men dressed in uniform, metallic and red. The red seemed to part the crowd of the bazaar like waves.

A silence took over the passersby as they stared, and whispers of speculation followed.

But he knew the truth. This was indeed Olive Chance.

Tucking the peach back into his bag, he leaped from his seat, shouting: “Olive!” He waved wildly as he wove through the bodies crowding the marketplace. “Olive!”

Wide, green eyes turned toward him.

“Olive!” he exclaimed one last time as he broke through the crowd with arms wide. He brought his hands down on the prince’s shoulders. “You’re okay!”

Olive pulled away from him. “Claire?!” For a moment, the corners of his mouth ticked upward. “How…?”

“I’m—”

Before Claire could even finish his sentence, he was met with the flame-lit tip of a drawn arrow. At the other feathered end of the weapon was a young man wearing a fiercely stern expression. His hair was black and cut layered, and his almond-shaped eyes were hazel.

“Release the prince at once,” he ordered, pulling the arrow taut.

Before Claire could comply with the order, Olive clicked his tongue loudly, pulled away from Claire’s grip, and pushed the bow-wielding man’s arms aside.

“Trystan, stop.”

Trystan tensed but did not lower his weapon.

“He isn’t a threat,” Olive finally said, glancing away. “This is Claire. The guy I mentioned who was with me last night.” He gave Claire a once over. The relief that had been on his face was now replaced by curiosity and suspicion.

“What?” Trystan whispered before he lowered his weapon. “Him? My apologies,” Trystan said as he fastened his conductor to his belt, still eyeing Claire with suspicion. “But if that’s the case, I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.”

Claire started. “Q-questioning…?”

“It is my duty as head royal guard to ensure that members of the royal family are protected. Since you were involved in an incident that may be tied to the assass—”

“If you want to go accusing people of things,” Olive interjected with a look of annoyance, “move to a more private area. Unless you like broadcasting political issues to the entire city.”

Trystan stiffened and glanced around. The whispering around them had become louder now. He exchanged a look with his fellow guard, then swallowed and cleared his throat. “My apologies, Prince. Claire, if you would come with us, we will take you to the palace so you can be questioned. It will not take long.”

“Not take long?” Olive stared. “It took us two hours to get here because of the traffic. And we still haven’t gotten the things we need. I’m not going until we’ve got everything.”

Trystan’s eyes narrowed. “Right, your highness. Then I’ll have Samuel take him instead while I remain here with you.”

“Look,” Olive said, “it’ll take two times as long without Samuel.”

“What do you suggest,” Trystan asked.

Claire studied Trystan. For someone who was head royal guard, this man seemed like a novice. There was a lack of professionalism in the way he conducted himself with Olive. Perhaps this was a cultural difference. Or maybe it had to do with Olive’s personality. Or it could have been Trystan himself.

Trystan turned to Claire since Olive only offered continued silence. There was frustration in his eyes, but he spoke calmly: “Claire, seeing as we are occupied at the moment, I would rather you accompany us until we finish our… duties… then accompany us back to the palace for questioning.”

“Ah, well, actually that all kinda works out.” Claire chuckled sheepishly. He turned to Olive. “Now that I know you’re okay, I was hoping to ask you about that conductor.”

They wove through the marketplace district with surprising ease, discussing parts and models of conductors. Slowly their conversation turned toward the events of the night before and Trystan couldn’t help but involve himself in the details.

“So, you tried to run and get help using the chaos as a distraction.”

Claire nodded. “But all the guard posts I ran to were empty.”

“Because we were already assisting the prince at the scene.”

“And when I ran back—”

“The situation was already dealt with,” Trystan concluded. “We were no longer in the area.”

“I hope that clears things up.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”

Trystan held up a hand. “No, I’m glad you were with the prince. Your presence may have been what thwarted the attack. You still will need to report to the palace though. My opinion means little.”

Claire stared up at Trystan’s serious face.

Olive was walking half a meter ahead of them and Claire ran to join him, but Olive did not so much as acknowledge him.

“So, the conductor you mentioned last night,” Claire began. “I know you showed me to a general conductor store, but I honestly still don’t know what to loo—”

“There’s nothing more annoying than a guy who beats around the bush.”

Claire frowned in confusion.

“It’s a two-way torture,” Olive continued without looking at him. He grimaced. “Then again, I could care less about whether or not you want to torture yourself, so never mind. Ask about it or don’t.”

Well, that certainly was a roundabout way of speaking.

Claire hesitated and glanced at Olive’s hands. “You mean… ask about that?”

Now Olive met his gaze. His eyes were emerald, narrowed.

“I… I didn’t want to be rude or anything, but since you asked…”

His gaze then flicked to Trystan, who followed closely behind. There was tension between them.

“What kind of conductor were you using?” Claire pressed with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like it before! It was so small I couldn’t even see it! I was actually wondering about that, but I thought that it wouldn’t be right if I mentioned it because of what was going on so I…” He trailed off.

Olive regarded him for a minute before he scowled. “You really are…”

“Are what?” Claire pressed. When he received no response, he suppressed a sigh and glanced around. “By the way, I’m sorry if I’m overstepping here, but is it really safe to be wandering around the streets like this when you have something like that going on?”

Olive followed his gaze before frowning deeper than he already was. “Staying in one place in a situation like this does more harm than good. Habits make you an easier target.” He let out a sigh. “Besides, my damn bird has been making a mess in his cage. I think I need to change his diet.”

“You’re shopping for your pet bird?” Claire couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s surprising.”

“How? You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way, right?”

This made Olive halt in his tracks and stare.

Claire stiffened beneath the attention and felt himself flush. “Uh… well… I’m sure you have a lot of friends in high places. I mean—not in a bad way. Like sons and daughters of officials—um. But anyways, a commoner like me probably doesn’t have much to offer you so—”

“You really are an…” Olive trailed off without a change in expression, and for a moment, Claire thought a different word would fall from his mouth. But in the end Olive let out what appeared to be his favorite word: “Idiot.”

Ouch.

“It depends on your definition of idiot,” Claire returned. “But I think you have a very broad definition of that.”

“A lot of people fall into that category in my book,” he said.

Claire blinked in surprise before he chuckled. “It’s always good to fall in with the majority.”

They spent the next couple of hours weeding through the marketplace. When they stopped by a conductor parts stall, Olive took the time to point out which parts were overpriced and which were too good to be sold at a backwater market. The stall owners seemed to be biting their tongues all the while—something Olive seemed to enjoy to almost devilish levels.

When they saw shops selling pet-care supplies, Claire took the time to explain which feeds were appropriate for which kind of birds.

“You know a lot about birds,” Olive finally noted, looking disinterested as usual as he spun a birdcage from where it hung on a pole.

“Oh, yeah.” Claire chuckled. “I usually end up spending a lot of time in places full of them. You tend to pick up a thing or two.”

Olive chuckled. Or perhaps he scoffed. Maybe sneered. It was hard to tell. “So that’s the kind of company you hang around. Makes sense.”

It was definitely a sneer. The implication was clear.

Still, Claire smiled. “It’s therapeutic, you know.”

Olive regarded him for a moment before the sneer slid from his face.

At the next conductor shop, Olive casually asked, “You have a conducting license, right?” He sounded like he already knew the answer, and so when Claire presented him with a—

“Why?”

—he turned to him with a bewildered expression. After the singular question and its implication registered with him, Olive snapped, “Because you need one to buy a weaponized conductor!”

“Ah… that’s right.”

“You’re not even a Conductor, are you?”

Claire scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s why I needed help, you see. Because I’m not a Conductor myself so I don’t really know. Well, I can always come back for it after I get a license,” Claire hummed.

Olive looked down. “It must be nice…. to be so carefree.”

At the cusp of dusk, they finally completed their last stop.

The traffic had increased tenfold around them. They were limb-to-limb with other shoppers and a couple of shopkeepers who were closing up. Olive briefly mentioned something about rush hour, and how everyone was now trying to leave the marketplace at the same time. Trystan and Samuel attempted to push back the crowd while simultaneously juggling all the items Olive had bought.

“Be careful,” one of them said.

“It’s easy to get lost or pickpocketed,” someone else said.

But Claire did not hear the rest of their worries.

Because Claire had already slipped away from them.

* * *

From the belfry of a steeple that oversaw the entire market square, Claire sat enjoying the evening breeze. He was seated on the railings that caged in the bell behind him with one leg dangling over the edge and the other tucked just beneath it. He studied the people below.

In the square, the little dots of Ariesian citizens and of tourists darted from stall to stall, cloaks fluttering. From this distance, the sleeves of their cloaks looked almost like wings. The way they wandered around without exiting reminded him of birds trapped inside a cage. Claire couldn’t help but smile at the thought.

A shadow flickered from behind him. Then another. He turned.

Standing in front of the bell was a figure dressed in black-cloth stealth gear. A traditional white mask painted on with red cheeks and a black smile obscured their face. Beside that figure crouched another in similar gear, wearing a wooden mask.

Claire smiled. “I was afraid that you were going to kill that Ariesian guard.”

“I-I apologize,” stammered the wooden-masked man as he bowed his head. In the next second, he sprung up into a stand with a fisted hand. “But he was going to lay a hand on you and—”

“Settle down now,” the white-mask said not unkindly, but not gently either.

“It’s all right.” Claire nodded. “I understand how you feel. Ariesians are pretty dangerous.” He turned back to the scenery. The square was empty now. The white tiles of the marketplace seemed to glow in the heat. “Besides, in the end, I was able to earn his trust.” A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “Though I have to work on his head guard.”

“And what now?”

Claire rose to his feet on the railings. “See if Ophiuchus has sent anyone to handle the situation yet. If they intervene, we may have to change our plans.”

“And what will you do?” the white-mask pressed.

“I’m going to get a private session with the Ariesian prince.” Claire threw a thin smile over his shoulder. With that, he dug into his back pants pocket and pulled out a slender cylindrical object that was eight centimeters in diameter and a tenth of a meter long. It was sleek and black with four holes that ran in a straight line along its length. The wind whistled through the holes almost musically. The whistle deepened to a hum as he spun the object in hand. Out from both ends of the cylinder popped the rest of its length, which gave it a completed height of two meters.

Giving the thing one last turn, he listened as the extensions clicked into place and pointed his newly elongated staff down into the city. Wind gathered where his hands skirted the holes in the staff; and with a flick of the thing, he sent the breeze whipping out around him. The bell tolled behind him at the force of the wind, while the two figures embraced the welcomed reprieve from the Ariesian heat.

Giving his companions one last nod, he stepped off the building with his staff in hand. The breeze caressed him and caught him mid-air, lifting him onto his staff, which had remained floating horizontally in the sky. He landed deftly on it, balancing on the thin beam, using the arches of his feet.

2.6: Jericho Raid

Re-cap:

Peacekeeper Jericho has just arrived in the Twin Cities with his assigned partner Talib Al-Jarrah to investigate the disappearance of fellow peacekeeping agent Leona–a case to which he has been reassigned. He has been introduced to fellow agents Gabrielle Law and Wtorek Izsak who are off to investigate an assassination attempt on the Ariesian prince. Jericho finds himself very familiar with the city and stumbles upon a demolished bar which he somehow knows falls under the ownership of the Foxman Family. 

Surprised by Jericho’s knowledge, Talib then informed Jericho that that he had arranged a meeting with the Foxmans and the Romanos for them. 

Twin Cities, Gemini

“Jericho.”

Jericho sat up from his bed in the darkness. The doorway across from him was illuminated and crowded by a familiar silhouette.

“Jericho. My wallet. It’s gone. The Organization stole my wallet.”

“You lost your wallet?”

“No!” The lights to the room flicked on, and Talib’s form was revealed. Disheveled curls, wide and searching eyes, heaving shoulders. “The Organization stole it! They knew it was a limited-edition denim Libran designer wallet! It was diamond-studded and everything!”

“You were pickpocketed,” Jericho concluded.

“Yes.” Talib nodded. “Pickpocketed by a member of the Organization.”

Jericho thought on this before he shook his head. “You bumped into someone earlier. He must have taken it.”

Talib opened his mouth to argue but instead gave Jericho a steady once over. “Did I interrupt your nap?”

Jericho swung his legs off the bed. “I wasn’t sleeping.”

At least he didn’t think he had been. Time seemed to bend oddly when he had been lying down staring at the ceiling. Was it an hour that had passed? Several minutes? An entire day?

He walked over to the storage chest at the foot of his bed. He clicked it open and pulled out his suitcase. His change of clothing was still inside, as was his conductor. And Izsak’s stuffed animal. He pulled the case out and rose to his feet. Talib was still staring at him from the doorway.

“Our meeting with the Romano Family and the Foxmans?”

Talib checked his wristwatch. In turn, Jericho reached into his suit pocket for a pocket watch he didn’t own. He stared at his hand when he found nothing and then returned his attention to Talib.

“The meeting is in about an hour,” the man said, walking over to the bed next to Jericho’s. He knelt down beside his own chest, flipped it open, and pulled out his folded suit and a colorful stack of small, square papers. “Do you want to shower first or…?”

“I don’t need to shower.”

Talib placed the stack of papers on the bed and rose to his feet. “Everyone needs a shower, my friend. To wash off the deeds of the day. To refresh oneself. To appear presentable, not only for oneself but for one’s companions.”

Jericho paused.

Appearances were everything.

“And, of course, to do away with any possible trackers that the Organization might have on you.”

* * *

Jericho’s hair was still damp when they arrived in front of the cobblestone building an hour later. The walls of the building were also damp despite the lack of rain. A result of the fog rolling in from the not so far bay, Jericho concluded.

They were greeted by a large, burly man who motioned them in without a change in expression. A silent guide, he led them through a hazy dining hall saturated with the sounds of clinking wine glasses and laugh-filled chatter. Between those paired noises, a saxophone blared out a hoppy tune complemented by some hidden singer. They passed through this hall quickly and entered the kitchen in the back. Jericho met eyes with some of the kitchen staff before pushing through a curtain-draped passage at the end. After being led down a long flight of stairs, they arrived in front of a twin set of mahogany doors with golden handles. With a grunt, they were ushered inside.

The room within was fashioned similarly to the dining hall upstairs, save for the ornately designed columns that rose up from the wooden floorboards and the single rectangular table that occupied the room. At the table sat four men. One was noticeably older than the others and had a graying, balding head. He sat at the table’s head. He was neither heavyset nor overly thin. His sun-kissed face paired with the silver streaks that ran through his mustache gave him a friendly look. Like he could reach out one of his heavily ringed hands and offer a lovin’ pat on the head.

To the old man’s left sat a young man. His light brown hair was loosely styled back, and his caramel-colored eyes seemed almost amused despite the professional dark red suit he wore. The two men to the older man’s right were also in similar suits although theirs were of different colors. Blue and green. Neither were smiling with their eyes. Their grim expressions seemed unfitting.

Talib stepped forward first, approaching the table with an extended hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Don Romano.” He spoke in lightly-accented Geminian that Jericho vaguely understood. Odd. He’d never taken any lessons in learning languages outside Common.

The old man who was evidently Don Romano accepted the gesture with a nod. “Agent Talib al-Jarrah, right?” He spoke in Common, and his voice was baritone and croaky like something was stuck in his throat. “It’s a pleasure to have an Ophiuchian visiting our fair city. Please do speak in Common.”

“If you wish,” Talib agreed. “I don’t want to butcher your beautiful language, after all.”

The don smiled.

Francis Foxman stood after and introduced himself. Then came Allen and Carl’s introductions which were brief and unsmiling. It didn’t occur to Jericho until all men were looking at him that he had known their names before they had given them. And because he already knew their names, he had thought that they already knew his. But as the silence stretched on, he realized that was not the case.

Jericho approached the table with an extended hand. “Jericho.”

Another round of curt, yet firm handshakes.

Don Romano gestured for both of them to sit at the other end of the table. They obliged and met eyes as they did.

Idle—‘obligatory’ as Alice often called it—conversation started. There was talk of weather, friendly and daily ongoings, and other things Jericho did not believe pertained to their purpose.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. Jericho?” Francis Foxman asked, turning his head away from Talib’s train ride tale to meet Jericho’s focused gaze.

“We’re looking for an Ophiuchian agent. Talib informed you before we came. They passed by here three to four days ago,” Jericho supplied nonplussed. “Have you seen anything unusual within this time frame?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jericho could see Talib half-grimace. Allen’s brows rose, Carl looked torn between perplexed and smug, while Francis seemed as nonchalant as always.

“Right, your reason for being here.” Don Romano rubbed his chin. “You two are the first peacekeepers I have seen face-to-face in a decade. I was actually very surprised by your call, Mr. al-Jarrah. I trusted that Ophiuchus had enough confidence in us to allow us to run our operations without interruption. If another Ophiuchian was sent here earlier without our foresight, then…”

“Of course, Ophiuchus is very aware of the contributions made by your businesses in keeping peace,” Talib interjected before Jericho could even open his mouth. “Although the peacekeeper in question was here several days ago, the Twin Cities was not her destination. She was headed for Aries for a case.”

Francis’s smile faltered. “You’re not referring to the assassination attempt, are you?”

“That is correct.”

“Ha, well, they did a sh—”

A loud thud from beneath the table silenced Carl before he could finish. It was followed by a yelp from and then a glare directed in Francis’s direction.

“It seems as if they’ve failed in the task they were given.” Don Romano did not seem amused nor contempt when he spoke. And despite his words being curt and simple with no questions attached, Jericho felt inclined to answer. It seemed as if Talib felt the same because the man cleared his throat and nodded.

“Yes, they failed their task,” Talib said. He folded his hands beneath his chin. “And it’s something that all departments in Ophiuchus are curious about. But we don’t have an answer for the failure. And that’s because the peacekeeper in question—as I’ve said—went missing right before she was to board her train to the Ariesian capital. Right here in this capital.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the organization, but Talib never did. The silence that stretched on in place of his usual ranting was long.

“Which is why my associate here is asking if you’ve seen anything strange recently,” Talib finally concluded.

Another beat of silence.

Don Romano either let out a heavy sigh or took in a deep breath. “These cities are large, Mr. al-Jarrah. I am not even foolishly arrogant enough to say that I am aware of everything that happens in my domain—which is only this half of the Twin Cities, mind you.” He chuckled. “Perhaps I should retire.”

Showin’ vulnerability while hidin’ vulnerability. This man was definitely wise in his years. Someone who dealt with all types of people.

But…

…he was also cunningly kind. Calculated neglect paired with rationed praise. Even knowin’ this…

“Any information will be helpful. Anything out of the ordinary.”

“You’re in the Twin Cities,” Carl said. “There’s nothing ordinary about any day.” He paused and glanced across the table at Francis and then at Romano. “With all due respect, of course.”

Francis reached into his coat pocket where he pulled out a stack of v-cigs. He offered it around the table before selecting one for himself and lighting it with a flick of his wrist.

“As I’m aware, you do not have a Conducting License, Mr. Foxman.” Talib inclined his head toward Francis’s hand. “Despite your position, you are not above prime laws. Without a license, it is illegal to operate a conductor. Depending on the type of conductor in question, the repercussions can be quite serious.”

“If I recall correctly, that law only applies to weaponized and generator-type conductors.” Francis waved his cig in the air in-between two fingers. “I’m afraid to say that this is just for show. A normal general conductor.”

Talib’s brows raised to almost comical levels. “I see. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m only doing my job.”

“Of course.” Francis smiled thinly. “We all are—”

“Anything unusual,” Jericho repeated, “would be helpful. Thank you.”

Allen and Carl exchanged looks as they always did while Francis seemed to stifle a laugh like he normally did in these types of situations. The boss, on the other hand, remained unreadable.

Then again, Jericho didn’t quite understand what type of situation this was. Too nostalgic and friendly to be a matter of investigation and business. His head was beginning to hurt but he ignored it.

Francis hummed before letting out an ‘ah’ of realization. “Well, actually…” He took a drag of his cigarette. “One of our cargo ships left the docks without our prior notice, but that’s a personal affair. Nothing to do with your missing agent.”

Jericho had known about the cargo ship, but he didn’t know how.

“As you can see, miscommunication is the greatest downfall in any relationship.” Saying this, Romano clasped his hands and leaned forward. Met Jericho’s eyes.

Jericho stared back.

There it was again. That itch to answer a question that had not been asked.

“What about your business that was burned to the ground?” Jericho asked. “That seems unusual.” Talib kicked his leg underneath the table for some reason. Jericho ignored it and continued, “It may tie in with our investigation.”

“I see word gets around fast.” Francis took another drag. “Your concern is warranted, but that was just an accident. The conductor generator in the building overheated. Led to a blown insulator and an explosion. It was a very tragic occurrence. We lost many patrons and many of our employees.”

Jericho stared at him. “The conductor didn’t overheat. Your bar was attacked. Why are you lying?”

Something in the atmosphere snapped in two. It snapped so abruptly and with such force that even Jericho became aware of it. Aware he had misspoken.

The bud of Francis’s loosely held cigarette dribbled ash onto the table.

All eyes were on Jericho, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was an answer. And then he would be one step closer to—

Talib cleared his throat and laughed heartily while clapping Jericho on the shoulder. “Ah, yes, my associate Jericho here is using an old Ophiuchian interrogation technique, you see. It’s a very old, yet effective thing. Used in the olden days when Ophiuchus first started as a peacekeeping organization. Absolute confidence. He’s a stickler for the past and—”

“It is understandable for there to be doubt between us.” Don Romano smiled as if amused. “After all, by name, you peacekeepers represent justice. By rumor, we represent the opposite. Trust is something that must be forged by hand—”

“But I do. I trust you.” Jericho turned to the don and looked him up and down. He then glanced at Francis and Carl and Allen.

The room was silent.

“Which is why I don’t understand why you’re lying about this. Hiding information from us acts as an obstruction of justice. Peace.” Jericho blinked. This was a fact.

Francis shook his head, flicked the line of ash from his cigarette, and took a drag. “If you trust us,” he said with a thin smile, “then trust me when I say that whatever is occurring with our establishment has nothing to do with your missing peacekeeper. It’s a personal matter.”

The smile looked like it could cut through steel.

“Of course.” Talib reached out of his pocket and pulled out a square piece of yellow paper. He placed it down on the desk and pushed it toward Francis. “Well, if you think of anything, please write it down here. It’d benefit us both if we work together.”

* * *

“Well, that was awkward.”

Jericho was winding down a long stretch of cobblestone stairs alongside Talib. The stairs curved around high-rise buildings that scratched at the darkening sky. The buildings seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions and were pressed up tight against each other. Despite this, it felt much easier to breathe here.

Their descent was crowded with people rushing up and down. And Jericho wasn’t sure if he was tasting the smoke from the city, smoke from the pipe of the woman next to him, or the lingering ashen smog from Francis’s cigarette. Above the echoing voices that volleyed within the walls around them, Jericho could barely hear Talib speak. He managed to interpret the man’s words from studying the movement of his lips. But unfortunately, Jericho did not know how to respond to Talib’s statement and settled on a change of topic:

“They were lying.”

Talib inclined his head before stroking his nonexistent beard. “Yes, yes, I believe they were.” He pushed up his hat and ruffled his hair. “It seems as if their pub incident has to do with bad blood.”

“Bad blood?”

“Yes, poor relations. Maybe one group wronged another. Maybe a rival family—although, I doubt that’s the case. From what I know, the two families are trying to hold a peace between them.” Talib readjusted his hat. “So maybe it’s something akin to a petty sense of justice or maybe… vengeance?”

“Vengeance…” Jericho tried the word. It melted in his mouth.

“I noticed that you seemed very, very passionate about this case, my friend. While I do agree with the sentiment that the families are overstepping bounds and need to be dealt with, I don’t think direct confrontation is the way to go. It’s very messy,” Talib said. He peered out at Jericho from beneath the brim of his hat. “Passion is neither good nor bad. Without it, there would be nothing to drive a person to a dream.”

Jericho blinked at him.

“Well, no matter. I’m sure the Romanos and the Foxmans have all the assets they need to handle their situation. What I’m interested in is that ship that left their port at the bay without their notice.”

Jericho tilted his head. “You think the disappearance is tied to the Foxmans?”

“Tied to them, yes. Whether it’s a tightly wound string or a loosely wound one is the question. But a tie is still a tie. Something is there.” Talib scratched his chin. “Just like the Organization. Slow, steady, but relentless. That’s passion for you.” He tapped his nose. “It would give me ease of mind if we crossed the Foxmans off the list.” He quickened his pace a little and slid his hands into his pockets. “It warrants a looking into, doesn’t it?”

Of course, it did. Anything that could involve ELPIS did.

Jericho took a step after him and—

“We are ELPIS.”

Jericho stopped short and whipped his head around. Nothing. Just an ordinary street crowded with ordinary people, many of whom sent him a glare as he blocked their way. Even still, that word rang in his ear, worming its way out from his temple.

Where had it come from?

Raising his hand to his ear, Jericho combed through the area with eyes. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And yet there was that feeling again. Like something was stringing him along.

His left foot moved first. Then his right. Forward and forward into a brisk walk. Weaving past the pedestrians around him. Destination unknown. Down the stairs to the bottom. Through the one-road streets loosely dotted with v-ehicles. Past the fallen TwinStars Pub. Forward through a haze of humid fog.

Onward, onward, until the noisy chatter of the city became drowned out by the sloshing of waves against a cement ridgeline. Onward until the acrid smell of smoke became drenched with the smell of seaweed and brine.

Finally, Jericho came to a halt. He didn’t know how long he’d been walking, but he was sure it was a long time because he was now out of breath. He glanced around but could see nothing through the thick haze that surrounded him. He was lost. No, that wasn’t it.

The fog around him peeled away revealing the other end of the invisible string.

Before him loomed a warehouse with cracked wooden walls and cracked windows that bled out warm light. Even from this distance, he could hear muffled shouting from within.

Warehouse number 13.

Despite the pull, Jericho knew this place had nothing to do with the case. Nothing to do with Leona. Nothing to do with ELPIS other than that coincidental number. Nothing keeping him there, but—

help me.

This was not the first time Jericho had heard a cry for help from within his mind. Echoes of the past were always present—so much so that sometimes he thought they were more than just phantoms. It was during these times that Doctor Kingsley advised him to focus on a physical object he knew was real but—

someone help me.

But this was the first time that Jericho heard a cry that resounded so loudly. The cry drilled out from his temple and encircled him.

He had to go. He couldn’t not go.

He started forward and—

Something wrapped around his wrist and stopped him from pursuing the echo any further. A hand. Talib’s hand. The man was panting heavily and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he doubled over.

“There’s something going on inside the warehouse.”

Talib straightened and adjusted his hat. His eyes narrowed as he seemed to strain his ears. “So it seems.”

Jericho turned back to the warehouse. His head pounded. “We should go investigate.”

Talib held up a hand. “Wait. Let’s not go rushing into things without knowing what we’re rushing into. This may not be within the jurisdiction of our investigation.”

Jericho frowned. “It may involve Leona.” A lie with no ground. He was not very good at lying or, so he’d been told.

“And how would that be so?”

Jericho stared.

“I’m not suggesting we leave it be. We’re peacekeepers by profession, Mr. Jericho. Peace requires patience and planning. We don’t want to accidentally kick start an incident.”

“Then…”

Talib winked and tapped his nose. “I trust your intuition. From what I’ve seen, you seem to be blessed with a very good one. That or you’re psychic.” Before Jericho could even question the odd theory, Talib cleared his throat loudly with hands on hips. “But you are too forward. Regardless, you’re my partner. And so, acting on our contract—”

“Contract?”

“Will you allow me to first survey the area before you enter?”

The earnestness of the question was both suiting and unfitting for Talib. Jericho nodded.

Talib reached into his trench-coat pocket and pulled out two items. The first was the stack of colorful, square papers from earlier, which he placed on the ground. The second was a silver pen with a hollow glass center. It looked like it was out of ink.

Flourishing his hands out dramatically and kneeling to the ground, Talib raised the tip of the pen in the air and lightly tapped it onto the plain white top sheet of paper. The tip pierced through the sheet. Dark blue light began to spill into the ink container of the pen. The light trickled down the sides of the container and dribbled down to the pen’s point before bleeding out onto the white paper. From there, it coated the sheet in a translucent dark blue glow.

Talib lifted his pen away. His eyes were glazed, seemingly focused on some distant point on the sheet. The paper trembled beneath his gaze before its corners drew up toward each other as if guided by an unseen hand. After the corners met, it creased and folded and creased and folded again and again.

The finished product was a bird. No. A crane. An origami crane with paper wings that lifted it into flight just above Talib’s head.

Talib pressed his pen—his conductor—onto the next square of paper which was an orange-yellow color. After absorbing the vitae from his conductor, the paper folded itself into a similar crane and floated up beside its white companion.

Talib repeated this pattern three more times with his eyes becoming more and more glassy with each conduction. When he finished, a rainbow of five paper cranes flapped around his head.

“I’ve never seen a Manipulator manipulate more than two objects before.”

Talib didn’t respond.

The origami cranes departed from their circular route around his head and headed toward the warehouse. They slipped in through the cracks between the wooden walls and disappeared from sight.

Soon, Talib grimaced. “There’s a confrontation going on inside…. they… one of the groups look like children… I…”

“What about the other group?”

“They’re saying that they’re…” Talib hesitated, brows furrowing. His unfocused eyes widened. “ELPIS.”

That was all Jericho needed to hear. In an instant, he was in front of the warehouse doors. Delivering a swift kick, he blew them open. A gust of wind whistled through the chaos unfolding within. But none of the participants in the chaos acknowledged him. Some of them couldn’t.

Nothing within the warehouse was without motion. Not the barrels of trash fire rolling along the ground nor the fragments of wooden crates being blasted through the air. Not the screaming children who darted left and right—some in flight, some in fight. Not the figures dressed in white cloaks that become stained with red.

Snip by snip. Snapshot by snapshot. It was almost the same. The only thing missing was the sand and the beat of the sun—

No, something else was missing. That feeling wasn’t there.

A sudden animalistic roar came from his left, and Jericho turned just in time to see a cloaked figure swing at him with an axe that had a blade-bit made of yellow light. Dodging the blade with a swift step backward, Jericho swung his suitcase up and cracked it against the figure’s temple. There was a splatter of red. The figure slumped to the ground with their conductor still flickering yellow in their hand.

Jericho stared at the conductor.

So, that was what it was. It wasn’t the same after all—

Help me!

Jericho snapped his head to the right. Just a couple of meters away lay the corpse of an adolescent. Half of their face was missing. Most likely shot through by a Projector conducting gun of some type. Dead upon impact.

Jericho did not linger. Something drew his attention away. Not a shout or a scream. Not a flash of light or a blur of a makeshift weapon. No. A pulling feeling. That string again.

He made his way around the chaos while dodging children who swung wooden planks and steel crowbars blindly while tucking beneath rays and blades of psychedelic light. Jericho maneuvered around the chaos with ease. No one present appeared to be a professional Conductor.

He dodged the swing of a bat while ducking under a ray of vitae when he saw it.

Him.

There—just behind the hull of a torn-down ship. A familiar boy was dragging along another, much younger girl by the arm. The boy had a scar running across his face. Despite having never seen this boy before in his life, Jericho knew that his name was Duccio.

But that was just who the boy appeared to be. Appearances were deceiving.

Jericho’s gaze flicked behind the children where a figure in a white cloak swung at them with a glowing conductor blade. A Projector. The boy shoved the younger to the side. The white figure hesitated for a moment before continuing after the boy.

The boy became agitated at this and whipped her head around to gauge the distance between her and her pursuer. A mistake on his part. He didn’t see the steel beam that jutted up from the floor in front of him and tripped right over it. He rolled forward before scrambling to his knees. He turned her head.

The white-cloaked figure was already at his feet and raising his weapon in the air.

Jericho rushed between them, kicking the figure’s weapon-wielding hand into the air and swinging his suitcase right in the figure’s gut. There was a mix of a yelp and a wheeze; he flew back into a pile of wooden crates.

Jericho didn’t check to see if the white figure was immobilized. Instead Jericho stared down at the boy.

Jericho’s head buzzed.

But the ever-present dull headache that had been invading his mind since he had woken up from the medical Conductor’s room in Ophiuchus ebbed away. His head felt clearer than ever before. A clarity that reminded him of his childhood days before the war’s end. Like a splash of cool water washing away the sand that had made home in the cracks of his dry skin. Yes. It was a refreshing, nostalgic sensation just like that. Like water. That too was the manner in which the boy’s face peeled away, revealing an entirely different face underneath. A shimmering splash—a wash—of copper light. Vitae. Revealed beneath the light was a boyish freckled face, a pair of caramel brown eyes, and hair as wild and red as fire. But this was not a boy nor was it a girl. It was a young woman.

“Jericho,” the young woman said his name despite him not having given it.

“Cadence,” Jericho returned. “How do I know your name?”

She stared, smirked, and then asked in Geminian: “How am I supposed to know tha—” Her eyes widened, and she shouted in Common: “Look out!”

Jericho turned his head and brought his suitcase up just in time to catch the swing of a steel, spiked bat in the handle of his suitcase. His assailant let out a gasp of surprise which was then followed by a shout of alarm as Jericho jerked the assailant’s weapon into the air with a tug of his suitcase. He plucked the bat out of the air and drove it up his attacker’s chin. His attacker flew backward and collapsed to the ground a meter away.

Jericho turned his eyes from the fallen figure and back to the young woman. Cadence.

“You killed him…”

“I believe I merely incapacitated him.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You incapacitated him.” Cadence hopped to her feet and circled him. He followed her path with his eyes and blinked when she came to a stop in front of him. “And he attacked you.”

“Yes.”

“Which means he saw you.”

“Correct.”

“Which means you’re real.”

“I believe I am.”

“But you’re like the rest of ’em, aren’t ya…?”

Jericho paused and thought on this. He had been too focused on his objective and the possible ties his objective had with ELPIS to pay any of it enough mind but…

“I think I am.”

Cadence looked him up and down incredulously before hesitantly reaching forward with her hand. She pressed hers against his.

Electricity surged through his entire body at the contact. Cadence must have felt it too—he knew that she did—because she let out a surprised yelp and pulled away. He did not allow her to pull away any further, however, and reached out for her arm and tugged her to his chest—which allowed her to just barely skirt a bright ray of purple vitae that seemed to have come from nowhere. Instead of hitting her square in the chest, as was its original destination, it burrowed through a stack of metal beams behind her.

Cadence chuckled at the sight of the singed metal. “Always heard ELPIS members were violently crazy, but this is a whole ’nother level.” Amusement or fear—Jericho couldn’t tell which one the young woman was chuckling with. On the surface at least. But somehow, deep down, he knew exactly what sort of emotion was behind the statement. As if the feeling were his own.

“They are not ELPIS.”

Cadence stared. “Not to hark on my savior or anything, but these folks literally burst through the doors and said, ‘We are ELPIS.’”

“They were lying.” Jericho swung his suitcase at another white-cloaked figure who charged at them before he pulled Cadence by the scruff out of the line of fire of a conjured gun. “Appearances are deceiving.”

Cadence, still dangling from the collar of her shirt, raised a brow. “So I’m assumin’ you’re not the one who is all ‘appearances are everything’ then.”

Jericho glanced down at her. “No… that wasn’t me.”

“But you know what I’m talkin’ about then.” Cadence hummed. “And I thought so. You don’t seem like the type.” Then she frowned. “If they ain’t ELPIS then—”

Jericho dropped her in favor of catching the wooden swing of a child’s bat. He jerked it out of the child’s hands, paused as he felt Cadence’s stare, and then tossed the bat to the side. He stepped forward which sent the child stumbling back. He paused as a faint, static-filled memory scratched at the edge of his mind. But before the memory could fully form, Cadence stepped in-between the two and gave the child a toothy smile and jerked her thumb backward.

“Ya better skedaddle, kid. The guy you just swung at? Take a good look at that sash on his arm.”

The child’s eyes flicked to the band on Jericho’s arm. The child must not have noticed it in all the chaos, but beneath the overhead v-lights that shone brightly down on them, the sash now glowed. The child’s eyes widened.

Cadence grinned. “The Ophiuchians are here now.”

With trembling lips, the child scrambled backward and darted away without throwing a look back. Cadence cackled at this. “It sure is nice to have friends who gotta bitta international pull, right?”

Friends? Was that what they were? Doctor Kingsley had always told him that creating a supportive social circle was one of the best ways to facilitate reintegration. It was something that Kingsley had always encouraged him to put more effort into. And here this individual was offering friendship. Kingsley would let him be if he agreed, correct?

Unsure how to respond, Jericho replied with a thank you.

Cadence raised a brow. “You’re really savin’ my ass here, so I should be thankin’ you.”

He stared at her. And then somehow, he realized: “You work with Don Romano and the Foxmans.”

There was no change in her expression. Before he could pursue the matter any further, she held up both hands and shook her head. “Is now really the time ta be talkin’ about this?” She gestured to his suitcase. “And isn’t there a weapon inside there that’s more effective than swinging that around?” She paused and gave a lopsided grin. “And I ain’t talkin’ about the stuffed animal.”

Jericho put his hands around his case and drew it to his chest. “My conductor is only used for dealing with true members of ELPIS.”

“And is that your choice or your lady doc’s choice?”

Jericho froze.

The clarity that had splashed upon Jericho dripped away. Replaced by the murkiness that had been present from even before he fell down those stairs. The particles of the past that clung to him tightly clouding his mind.

Cadence seemed to notice this change because she started, held her head, and then frowned. “Hey, I—”

It was then that the doors to the warehouse flew open once more. Jericho tensed and whipped his head in the direction before he brought up his suitcase.

The threshold was once again crowded by an army of silhouettes with conductors in hand. The sensation of déjà vu was dizzying but Jericho remained focused. As he lifted his suitcase in preparation, a hand was abruptly placed on his shoulder.

Cadence pointed at the suitcase. “Call me a bit proud, but I doubt an old suitcase could hurt our heavy guns, ya know?”

‘Our heavy guns’?

Jericho returned his attention to the doorway. All those who stood there were in suits. After one of them gave a shout in what sounded like Geminian, they all charged forward. Anyone who wasn’t in a suit was their enemy, it seemed. Without hesitation, they swung their conductors. Unlike the white-cloaked figures, these individuals seemed like they were trained Conductors. Licensed, perhaps.

“Wonder how they got here,” Cadence said as she watched the tide of battle change as if for sport. She glanced at him. “Not ta be rude but ya don’t seem like the type ta plan ahead for things like these.”

As if to answer her question, one of the suited men came to a skidding halt in front of them after firing a pistol conductor at one of the cloaked figures.

“You all right, Morello?” the man asked in Geminian, and Jericho found himself vaguely able to understand him. Not lifting his gaze from the battle scene, the man reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slip of heavily creased paper. It was square, white, and had a tear at the center. There was a message scrawled in blue ink: warehouse 13—possible internal family-related incident. “Some Manipulator sent this to us. Ophiuchian apparently.” The man paused, seeming to finally realize Jericho’s presence. He eyed the armband and then gave an awkward salute. “W-We’re glad to accept your assistance, sir.” His Common was very accented.

Jericho lowered his case. “There is no assistance. This incident does not fall within our jurisdiction.”

Both Cadence and the man exchanged looks.

“But then…” the suited man began. For some reason, Jericho knew that this man’s name was Donatello.

“This appears to be an internal situation. It does not seem to involve our case. These are not truly ELPIS members.”

“How do you—”

Cadence held her hand up to silence Donatello and tipped her hat. “Well, regardless, thanks for comin’ here to save me even though I ain’t in your jurisdiction.” She extended a hand. “Cadence Morello.”

Jericho stared at the hand for a long moment as he listened to the battle raging on in the background. It didn’t seem like the appropriate place to be doing this exchange.

“It’s never an appropriate time or place unless ya make it one.”

Jericho thought on this for a minute before he ceded. “Jericho.” He accepted the gesture.

The brushing of their fingertips sparked electricity again but left their palms warm.

Donatello glanced between them in confusion.

* * *

The situation was dealt with swiftly.

It was a very efficient execution.

The white-cloaked individuals were herded together into an inescapable corner by a team of suited men. One of the cloaked figures broke away from the group, scrambled to their knees, and begged to be spared.

Cadence, who had been hanging on the outskirts of the scene, frowned. “Wait—”

But the man who headed the raid—the man who looked as if he’d just come from a funeral—raised his hand and brought it down swiftly. Alongside his fist came a rain of Projectors’ vitae bolts. The flashing lights that pelted down were dizzyingly nostalgic. If Jericho closed his eyes, he was certain he’d slip into the past. Instead of doing that, Jericho glanced at Cadence.

She’d tried to speak with him more after their aid came. About what was happening between them and why. But whatever it was, it was not pertinent to his case. When he’d told her this, she’d stared and laughed before shaking her head and walking off with a wave. Now, she seemed pale. In the flashing light, she looked almost sick. Which didn’t make much sense to Jericho. This was her profession, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it common to see things like this?

He glanced back at Cadence. There was color in her cheeks again, and she was wearing a crooked smile. All in order.

A sudden dull pain shot through his arm, and he stared down in confusion. Nothing out of the ordinary. No injury visible.

He glanced back at Cadence. She was still smiling but she was gripping her arm. There was no injury visible there. The only thing out of the ordinary was a faint trail of scarlet that ended a couple of meters away from her. But the floor was painted in red. It was difficult to tell the source of the trail.

He rubbed his arm absentmindedly.

It had been a while since he noticed pain.

Manipulator: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Manipulators utilize vitae strictly intraneously. They are able to inject their internal vitae into objects and manipulate the physical movements of those objects. Some are even capable of using their object of manipulation as a medium and ‘see’ through the medium. (Manipulation of living things is highly outlawed and highly dangerous to both the Manipulator and their victim.)*

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran with an addendum by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus

2.5: Imamu Prune

Re-cap:

Atienna, while recovering from her recent poisoning by an unknown perpetrator, has been hearing whispers of conspiracy all around her. Many believe her poisoning has to do with Virgo’s decision not to aid the Sagittarians who have gotten caught up in the southern border conflict between Aquarius and Capricorn. Her father had supported Saggitarian aid, and her brother believes her poisoning was an act of political retaliation. Her teacher Usian has been saying strange things. And she has witnessed an argument between her father and brother.

Unable to bottle up her anger any longer, Atienna slipped out of her house and entered an underground fighting ring. Here, she was known well– as the undefeated Queen of the Night.

Tribal Council Hall, Virgo

Atienna had yet to memorize all of the rooms within the Tribal Council Hall. When she first came to the Hall years ago, she thought she would be able to memorize the entire layout of the building within the week since there were only twenty-four rooms at the time.

Currently, she sat within the reception room on one of the many chairs that circled a small black tree growing at its center. The tree was about two meters tall and was barely beginning to bud flowers amongst its glass-like leaves. Admiring it would be so much easier if there weren’t a crowd filling out the floor in front of her.

When she had come here for dinner several days ago, the room had an entirely different layout. There had been no tree growing from the center then. Instead, there had been patches of flora crisscrossing the ground, following the path of the vitae streams that flowed there. Atienna wondered how the room would look tomorrow. Different, sure. Unrecognizable, maybe. This was because the rooms of the Council Hall changed alongside the shifting currents of the vitae streams that trickled in from the outside and swirled around the floor in different patterns every day.

Atienna was drawn out of her thoughts by a loud sigh. She turned her head just in time to see Safiyah throw herself on the chair beside her.

“Your brother is impossible,” Safiyah said, arms crossed, glaring through the crowd that stood around them and in the direction where Atienna assumed her brother stood. Her expression then became sympathetic, and she turned to Atienna before reaching out and squeezing her hand. “As are you. If I had been poisoned, I would be locking myself up in bed.”

“To escape from these meetings or to rest and recover?” Atienna wondered.

“To escape these meetings of course.” Safiyah threw her hands up in the air. “If we are to be required to come here, I would at least like to take part in the meetings!” She then cleared her throat, then spoke like a schoolteacher: “Family members of the chieftain are not allowed to take part in meetings as they have not earned their positions. Nepotism. And yet, our purpose here is to ‘follow tradition and facilitate peace amongst the tribes’?” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Facilitate peace—half of us can’t sit in the same room without throwing fists with one another. And isn’t that nepotism anyway?”

Atienna concealed her smile with a hand. Safiyah’s rants were always interesting to hear.

Safiyah glanced at her before relaxing back in her seat. “Why do I always get the feeling that you actually enjoy being here?”

“What makes you think I enjoy it?”

“A feeling, my friend.”

Atienna supposed that was true.

The smooth snip of her garden shears as they snapped shut on the neck of damaged parts of her favorite bush. The muffled flaps of her new book as the pages ruffled up against another. The many changes of expression that fluttered across a single person’s face in a single conversation. All of these were things that she found relief in. These things and—

And the crack of her knuckles against bone and flesh. This, too, was something that could wrestle out the tension in her shoulders. It would leave her fingers raw as a paper cut or a prick of a thorn would, but it was not unpleasant.

But Safiyah did not know this. What sort of expression Safiyah would make if she knew—Atienna could only wonder.

“Honestly, you even seem to enjoy my rants.” Safiyah nodded before she took Atienna’s hand in her own and bowed her head. “Someone who will actually listen to me curse the heavens—Atienna, may I take your hand in marriage?”

Atienna inclined her head in turn and gave her hand a squeeze. “Oh, I was about to ask you the same. But are you and Bachiru not—”

“It’s not like that!” Safiyah snapped, pulling her hand away flushing.

“Were you and Bachiru discussing the Sagittarian issue again?”

Safiyah’s expression soured once more, and she pulled away with a roll of her eyes. “Even worse. Your brother has become convinced that supporting the Sagittarians is not enough. Says that our isolation has caused us to turn on one another. That…”

“That my poisoning was a stab at my father who was promoting Sagittarian support and that not supporting the Sagittarians would be giving in to the other side.”

Safiyah hummed.

“I do know my brother.”

“Convoluted ideas, don’t you think?”

“Is that what you think?”

Safiyah thought on this and crossed her arms. “Getting involved in the affairs of others doesn’t always lead to a joyous revolution of hand-holding. Sometimes it’s better to let people resolve things themselves for all parties.” Her gaze became distant. “We both know that.”

Atienna felt her fingers ache.

Safiyah’s expression then became wry. “Besides, thinking that you can just swoop into other’s problems and solve them just like that is… egotistical.”

“So averting one’s eyes…” Atienna murmured.

“What was that?”

“I was just wondering to myself,” Atienna replied with a smile.

“If only Bachiru was as quiet and thoughtful as you.” Safiyah sighed. “I’m pretty sure that all of your family’s good traits were passed onto you.”

“And what of Kichea and Kamaria?” Atienna smiled as she leaned forward.

Safiyah responded with a huff. “I love them to death, but I swear sometimes they are evil incarnate.”

“They are mischievous.”

“You were too now that I think about it. We all were. You, me, Bachiru.” Safiyah shook her head. “Bachiru… to think after everything we’ve been through together, he’d go so far as to call me a black-hearted ELPIS sympathizer.”

Atienna found herself frowning. The word burrowed into her temple and kick-started a dull headache. “He said that?” Her frown deepened when Safiyah nodded in confirmation. “What in the world is he thinking?” Atienna pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Safiyah.”

Safiyah matched her frown. “It was rude, but it wasn’t…”

But Atienna was already on her feet. “I’m going to have a word with him.”

While right and wrong were subjective, there were certain things that were not tolerable.

After sifting through a jungle of brightly colored garments, high-towering headdresses, and daring flashes of bare skin, Atienna made out her brother in the crowd. He stood at the corner of the room in his usual formal attire of a deep green sash thrown over a loose gold-gilded robe. But he was not alone. Beside him stood Usian in his deep purple. Green and purple were colors that went well together—or so said Color Theory by P.C. Sies.

But at the sight of them standing beside each other, Atienna faltered.

Bachiru and Usian. A student, a teacher. They were two dots to be connected. Or perhaps they were already connected. And what would she do if they were?

Around the two crowded a group of fellow sons and daughters of chieftains. There was an intensity in their eyes.

The scene was all too familiar—

“Oh, you have a lot to say for being part of a tribe that is the prime suspect for the poisoning!”

“Prime suspect? How dare you!”

She averted her eyes away from them and turned her attention toward the commotion. The words were flying between two young men who looked around Bachiru’s age. One young man wore a scarlet scarf that fell only an inch or so above the ground. At his ears hung fang-shaped earrings. The other man was draped in a loose yellow shawl patterned with blue zig zags and green polka dots.

“I spent a good portion of the last school year going out to each of the tribes’ lands and studying the flora native to each area.” A wide swooping finger was pointed. “Have you heard of sorrowheat? It’s a very rare and deadly plant that causes intense fevers that can lead to death. And do you know where such a plant is found?”

There was a gasp amongst the crowd gathered.

“Are you serious? How dare you imply that?!” the fang-earringed man snapped. “How dare you? The Imamu tribe and the Jino tribe have had close relations for years after we held the Shala Line during the war!”

Atienna observed them and unconsciously flexed her fingers. She wondered if they truly saw a point in this confrontation. Where did they think their words would carry them? Speaking as if they’d experienced firsthand the bonds forged between the tribes and as if they had the power to bend and break the bonds just like that. Ah, but that was fine wasn’t it?

If you are so annoyed by them, my dear, then why do you not intervene?

Atienna paused, but she did not panic. Instead, she carefully scanned the area in search of someone who was out of place. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of dark brown curls and a white smile.

And suddenly she found herself between the two men. The two looked down at her, startled, before they quickly inclined their heads reverently. In unison, they asked about her well-being before sending each other tantalizing glares.

“There’s no point in pointing fingers,” she said before she smiled gently. “Besides, I was the one who was poisoned, wasn’t I?” She let her question sink in as they lingered in silence.

The door to the hall cracked open and a guard announced the chieftain meeting had concluded. By the way her father muttered to himself under his breath on their way home, Atienna supposed the meeting turned out similarly to the ‘strengthening of tribal relations.’

* * *

Despite the itch of her fingers, as soon as she arrived home, Atienna strode to her mother’s door. There she paused, pressing her palm against the white-painted wood. Cold to the touch. As any divide should be. And even if she crossed this physical barrier, there would still be another one to cross. An insurmountable one that towered over her even now. So, the least she could do was overcome this physicality.

Atienna pushed forward through the door and entered the room. It was a quiet room. At the center of it was an occupied bed hidden by drapes reaching down from the ceiling. Thin, pale, white curtains hung in front of an ajar window that allowed in a small breeze and setting sunlight. At this window sat her mother, as beautiful as always. Dark rope of hair smoothed and tied back by the attendant earlier in the morning. Unblemished skin marred only by a pale scar at her temple. Ebony eyes staring at whatever scenery played out beyond the windowpane. Ebony eyes that did not rise to meet Atienna even as she approached.

When she reached her mother’s side, Atienna placed a hand over her mother’s.

She rolled her mother’s chair out of the room. She passed by Bachiru, who averted his gaze at the sight of them and then Kichea and Kamaria, who were holding each other’s hands. Kichea looked on with curiosity while Kamaria stared on blankly. Nia and Sefu trailed behind her. Their conductors were deftly held in their left hands while in their right they held a collection of records and a dismantled music player, respectively.

They continued outside the house, through the back door, winding down a forested path that lay just beyond. There were no buildings here, and the sounds of nature—chirps, buzzes, distant pattering—filled in the pockets of silence. This path was far from the path Atienna took last night under the cloak of darkness. The path here was well-trodden and the trees that grew along it on both sides reached up to meet each other overhead. The vines that hung from the brambles had been carefully trimmed and tucked away by gardeners that morning, yet the vines seemed to be drooping down toward them again. The gardeners would be back soon to cut away the overgrowth.

As they walked on, the air became gradually warmer and lighter.

It was an hour and a half before they reached their destination marked by a gate of ferns. Through their green leaves bled shifting, psychedelic light. Blues, reds, greens, and whites in between.

Nia stepped forward and parted the ferns. Immediately, light spilled into the shade provided by the canopies. Atienna nodded in thanks before turning forward to face the blinding light.

When her eyes adjusted, she found a great white tree rising above a marsh of pools and light. The tree had a thick trunk as wide as her house. Where its reach ended for the sun-setting sky was unknown. Its branches spider-webbed across the horizon, forming cracks along the skyline. But the cracks were not empty. Glittering on their tips were glass-like leaves that reflected light from below.

At the tree’s base was a pool of vitae. Out from it flowed streams of light that wove their way through the marsh. Alongside the vitae streams were normal ponds and rivulets that too reflected the brilliance of the vitae.

Ringed around the edges of the bank were thin, silver poles with glass tubing wrapped around them. Generator conductors. Smaller than the ones she’d seen in the books. Despite Virgo denouncing excessive reliance on vitae reservoirs, it seemed even they couldn’t escape occasionally harvesting it for power.

Atienna rolled her mother to the edge of the riverbank. After locking the chair in place, she aided Nia and Sefu in setting up the music player. With much effort, she convinced both guards to take a half hour break. She knew that they obeyed not out of desire to rest, but to allow Atienna and her mother some privacy.

When the two were out of earshot, she placed the needle of the player on the record and waited for the static whine to lull into a tune.

The tune that rolled out from the record player was slow and melancholic, nostalgic. A tune that had been popular near the war’s end nearly two decades earlier. One would think war-end tunes would be joyous, celebratory. Then again, politicians saying ‘war is over’—was there any meaning behind those words?

“Mother,” she said, sinking to her knees beside the woman, “are you comfortable?”

As always, there was no answer. Only a listless stare into the distance.

How boring, came a thought she knew was not her own. But she couldn’t spare the time to think about such things. In her mother’s presence, she couldn’t wonder about anything at all.

“Bachiru thinks he’s following in your footsteps. I can see it in his eyes,” she said as she gently laid her head across her mother’s lap. “Trying for justice.”

In silence, her mother gazed past her toward the soft glow emanating from the pool of light beneath the tree’s roots.

“He thinks he’s being selfless, but I think he’s being selfish. But he’s probably neither.”

Again, no answer.

“He wants to be like you, but I can’t let him. Is that wrong of me?”

There was a crunch from behind her. The sound of a twig snapping.

Atienna turned her head.

But instead of finding her guards emerging from the fern doors, she instead found a matchstick patch of jet-black brambles rising from sodden, frosted ground. And beyond the matchstick work—

—was him.

It was that man again. The soldier.

In contrast to the grayness of the woods that unfolded around him, the man’s ice-blue eyes seemed to glow as a conductor would.

Smiling at him, she told him her thoughts on their shared matter before turning her attention back to the tree.

“They say that memories are stored in vitae. That’s what our Ancestor Virgo taught us at least. But we don’t worship her like the worship Ancestors. They’re not saints to us. To us, Virgo was a teacher.”

She felt another pair of eyes on her, but she didn’t turn to look.

“There’s an old Virgoan belief that when you die, your vitae doesn’t burn away into nothing like they teach you in books. The belief is that your vitae leaves your body and becomes a part of the soft vitae in the world around you. The essence of vitae is a cycle. Neither created nor destroyed—just returned and retaken.”

Another shadow flickered out of the corner of her eye. Another curious observer, maybe.

“The memories stored in your vitae also become shared with the vitae in the world around you,” she continued. “That’s why your life flashes before your eyes when you have a near-death experience. It’s your vitae leaving your body and taking your memories along with it to rejoin the rest of the vitae in the world. Romantic, don’t you think?”

Silence.

“But I didn’t learn that from Virgo’s teachings. Not from any of her books at least.” She blinked up and traced her mother’s jawline with her eyes. “Those books never taught me what would happen if you were stuck like this. Not quite alive, not quite dead. Where would your vitae fall in the cycle? You can only wonder…” She smiled thinly. “Is an ideal really worth something like this?”

On that day six years ago, Atienna had come with her mother to this vitae reservoir just like this. At the time, her mother had brought her close to her side, murmuring with a smile, “This is the symbol of Virgo’s version of peace.” She’d gestured to the tree then. “The Great Tree was planted right when the war ended, and it has sprouted beautifully. Sturdy. Standing in place forever.”

Atienna had frowned then in confusion, book forgotten loosely in hand. “Standing sturdy in place? Isn’t that the opposite of what you are trying to do, mother? Pressing for Virgo to leave isolation in order to aid Aries after that ELPIS attack is the opposite of that, isn’t it? If this is some metaphorical lesson, mother, I don’t understand.”

“You never get tired with the questions,” her mother had chuckled before looking up at the tree. “Standing firmly in place about our beliefs. Acting on those firm beliefs. That is the metaphor.”

Atienna had only frowned deeper. “Mother, that is a very convoluted metaphor.”

Her mother had given a light scuff on the head as Usian appeared behind them. “It’s time,” was all he’d said.

They had gathered in front of the Council Hall then, arms linked defiantly, blocking the entrance of the tribal chieftains trying to enter. Most of the chieftains stayed as far away as possible from the human chain, while others came close and openly derided her mother for hypocritically standing with the people who supported an ideology that the Council voted against despite being a chieftain herself.

No one knew who threw the first punch but, in the end, everyone was throwing them. A mass of bodies tangled up with each other. Pinning each other to the floor. Swinging at each other blindly. Pulling people off each other. Shouts. Screams. Blurs.

Atienna had always been glad that she’d managed to squeeze her eyes shut just before her mother’s head cracked against the floor.

Vitae streams are run-offs from vitae reservoirs. Attempts have been made to redirect their flow back into vitae reservoirs but many attempts have been unsuccessful. Harvesting attempts have ended similarly. Their direction and flow is erratic, and settlements tend to form away from them. Still, nature seems to thrive at the streams’ edges. Thus, in Virgo they are respected and Virgoans often live alongside them.

Lecture 78a, 22nd Revision, Professor Morgan, Royal University of New Ram City

2.4: Gloria Jive

Re-cap:

Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez has christened the sailors who were a part of the ship she raided members of her crew. The former sailor captor Morandi has accepted her recruitment proposal with some resistance. At the insistence of her normal crew, she allows them to go through the cargo they’ve obtained from the cargo ship. The pirates are disappointed when they only find spare conductor parts.

Then, Maria stumbles upon a large crate. And within? Numerous amounts of gold coins, jewelry, and all things that glitter. And a woman with golden hair. 

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

Maria pressed her index finger forward. Again, she received no response. She sighed.

“Captain, I don’t think that’s helping…”

“Oh, I’ve tried telling her, Conta. But she seems very set on doing it.”

Maria straightened from where she had been leaning over the bed and leaned back in her chair. Bending her head backward, she eyed the two who stood behind her.

Conta sat at a round table in the back. A mountain of glittering golden coins, jewels, conductors, and spices were littered before her. The smell was excitingly intense, and the sight dazzlingly bright.

At the opposite corner of the room stood Simon with a bucket of water in one hand and a rag in the other. He crossed the room and knelt down beside Maria. His gaze was not trained on her, however. It was trained on the woman who lay on the bed in front of her.

The woman with golden hair.

The woman was clothed now—as per Conta’s insistence—in one of Maria’s blouses and pants. A thin blanket had been thrown over her—once again, as per Conta’s insistence—and the only sign the woman was alive was the gentle rise and fall of the sheet.

Maria watched Simon draw the rag across the woman’s forehead before she reached forward and pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek again. No response.

Maria peered at her closely.

Even her eyelashes seemed to be made of gold.

“My dear Simon, what do you think is wrong with this lovely lady?” she asked, peering deeply into the man’s face. “Why will the most interesting of treasures not awaken?”

“That, I don’t know.” Simon sighed as he pulled away. “No signs of fever. Heart rate slow, but not alarmingly so.” He gently, reverently lifted the thin blanket to reveal the woman’s hands that were still bound by the thick, steel cuffs. “And the fact that we can’t remove this isn’t helping.”

“You say so, but I have yet to—” Maria reached for the offending object, but a gentle hand placed on her wrist stopped her. Eyes sharp, she glanced up.

Simon smiled down at her knowingly. “I have no doubts about you, Captain, but I fear what the removal of that will do to our mysterious guest here. It may be connected to her condition.”

Maria returned the smile. “My Simon, how daring of you.”

“Oh, well, I do learn from the best, my Captain.”

Maria laughed and slapped him on the back before she hopped to her feet. She made her way over to Conta’s side and leaned over her shoulder.

“Anything of interest, my dear Conta?”

Conta tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before plucking a coin from the pile and stacking it on top of a tower of similar coins.

“Just the usual, Captain,” she said.

Maria stared at her for a long moment, and Conta seemed to flush beneath her gaze. The moment stretched on, and the groans of the ship resounded in the silence. Finally, Maria cracked a smile and squeezed Conta’s shoulders. “Whatever you say, my dear Conta.”

With that, Maria swept out of the room. She made her way down the halls, enjoying the cracking sound her boots made against the wooden floorboards. As she approached the mess hall at the end of the passage, the sounds of idle chatter and the squeaks and clacks of chore work reached her ears. As she drew nearer and as the sound of her boots resounded louder and louder, the sounds of chore work heightened, and idle chatter lowered.

She burst through the doors of the mess hall with a grin and observed the scene with hands on hips.

The mess hall was dotted with the newly indentured men. Some dragged soapy rags across food littered tables while others swooshed mops across the brine-stained floor. In the back, behind the kitchen counter, Maria could faintly hear the plastic clicks of dishes and the metal clacks of silverware.

The sailors were still in their uniforms, which had begun to lose their pristine white glow. At her arrival, they all slowed their movements.

“My, my”—she laughed—“you are doing so much better than the ones on duty before you! Perhaps they did so poorly on purpose?”

No one answered her question, which made her hum in thought.

A sailor who manned one of the mops nodded at her. “Captain, may we assist you with anything?”

Maria stared at the mop-wielding man for a long moment before she closed the distance between them. They were almost nose to nose now, but even as she peered more deeply into his face, he held his ground. As she pressed forward a bit more, he only faltered for a fraction of a second. She pulled away from him and grinned with relief. Clapping a hand on his shoulder, she said, “Ah, my dear Morandi, I was afraid you were sick—you were acting so strangely just now! So easygoing!”

“Well, Captain,” he responded, “seeing as we’ve reached an agreement, it would be dishonorable for me not to follow through.”

Maria scratched her head and hummed again as she turned away from him. “There’s that honor you speak of once again.” A thought came to her, and she snapped her fingers and twirled around before clamping her hands back onto his shoulders. Squeezing tight, she said, “You will answer my questions!”

Morandi started and then frowned. “Look, I’ve already told you everything I know about that woman. I know nothing about her. We’re just charged to ship things. We don’t ask what we’re shipping. That’s part of the job.”

A beat of silence.

“Tell me about conductors and conducting.”

Morandi stared. “I—Excuse me…?”

“Conductors, conductors, vitae, extraneous, intraneous.” Maria bounced on the soles of her feet. “Tell me about these things! Spirits have been doing strange things with them, you see? And I want to know more! And I wish to know, Morandi, from you who is tasked with carrying them for our dear friends in Gemini.”

Morandi faltered a step before he shook his head. “I am by no means an expert, Captain. I don’t even have my Conducting License.” He took a moment to collect himself before he regarded her. “I’m aware that your crew is quite the salad bowl—you’re all from different parts—but I’m surprised you don’t have even one Conductor among you.”

“Oh, we do have a Conductor.” Maria hummed with a grin. “A former Conductor. Simon from Leo. But he is retired. Taken on a religious lifestyle. Something about worshiping your Ancestors? What’s that religion called? Monadism?” She turned to the men and gestured to herself. “I was raised in a Leonian Monadic church alongside Conta, did you know?”

Morandi and his men did a double take.

Maria spread her arms wide. “They said I was amazing and that I had the greatest potential for saint candidacy. Funny, no? I already knew that I could do anything. I didn’t need people telling me those things. Belief in myself has always been enough for me.”

“S-saint candidacy—you?! That’s—”

“Pretty cool, yes?” Maria chuckled. “Well, I never really understood the entire thing. But I was excited to see what it was all about, you see? But alas! Right before my initiation ceremony, the church was raided! By pirates of all things!”

Morandi exchanged a look with his men.

“That was the only time I haven’t been in control of my life, and it is… how do you say… troubling? Yes. Troubling.” Maria pursed her lips and tapped her chin. “I am in search of those pirates… the captain… I will find them… yes.” She uncurled herself and stared at the sailors for a moment. “What were we talking about again?”

“Conductors…”

“Right! I wish to hear from you, Morandi. About these conductors!” Maria took a step back and fell back into a seat at the wooden table. “Tell me your experience and knowledge of these things. Your version, your tale, your legend.” She propped her elbow up on her crossed legs and rested her chin on her knuckle before she offered a smile. “Please do make it interesting.”

“What’s with the sudden interest?” he asked with narrowed eyes.

“Maybe I’ll know it when you tell me!”

There was a stretch of silence.

Finally, Morandi sighed, rested his mop against the table, and crossed his arms. “Well, where do I even start? The basics? Like how Conductors channel and manipulate vitae through conductors? Or about the basics of vitae? Soft versus hard? How vitae can be manipulated extraneously or intraneously—”

“Ah, yes, about that,” Maria interjected. “I think I’ve heard about it. From the spirits. About how certain Conductors can use the vitae in themselves versus the vitae outside. But is it not tiring to use the vitae from inside? The concept is beyond me, but vitae is like energy, no?”

“For someone who claims to not know how vitae and conductors work, you sure seem to know a lot about them,” Morandi mused before ruffling his hair. “Like I said, I’m not an expert, but from what I understand, intraneous vitae can be replenished through ingesting the soft vitae that is present in food. Still, Projector Conductors who literally just shoot out the vitae inside of themselves—well, apparently, they have shorter life expectancies than other Conductors… or something like that. Not sure if that’s really it. I mean, why would anyone want to do that?”

“Maybe that is what you call passion?” Maria tapped her chin in thought before she mused: “There is a saying that goes ‘vitae is the color of a soul,’ no? Would conducting then not be akin to burning the soul of something for fuel? Like a fire?” Her eyes widened and she leaned forward. “Can something like a soul truly be replenished by eating?”

“That’s just a saying. Vitae isn’t actually a person’s soul,” Morandi said matter-of-factly. He quirked a brow. “If you’re this interested, why don’t you go to Ophiuchus and take your State Conducting Exam? That way you’ll get access to all sorts of vitae-related research material you wouldn’t be able to gain access to otherwise. Maybe you could even think to release me and my crew on land while you’re at it.”

“Why do that when it’d be so much easier and exciting for me to hear about it from people like you?” Maria returned with a chuckle. “Besides, that is not our agreement.”

“To think a pirate would hold so steadfastly to promises.”

“I never break a promise, my dear Morandi.” Maria rolled her neck before hopping off her table and coming to sit beside him instead. Abruptly, she snapped her fingers and grinned. “Ah, yes, I almost forgot! How many people are able to manipulate vitae without those conducting devices? I would like to learn how since it seems quite fun!”

Immediately, a short burst of laughter erupted from Morandi’s lips, but it was quickly silenced with a clearing of the throat. He exchanged looks with the others around him who were also stifling their laughs. The sound was not mirrored by Maria.

“You’re… serious?” he asked before he shook his head. “Forget ‘how many’—there’s no such thing as conducting without a conductor. Those two go hand-in-hand.” He spread his arms wide. “It’s just not possible.”

“There’s no such thing as no such thing,” Maria said after a pause. “It’s just that you don’t know of it yet.” She stretched out her arms and leaned her head back against the tabletop behind her. “‘Impossible’ is something to be broken by the strong.” In the silence that followed, she studied the lines of the ceiling and turned her ears toward the groans of the ship. The smile slipped from her face. “Also, ELPIS—what is it?”

The other members of the cleaning crew who had been listening in on the conversation froze at the question. Maria didn’t pay them any attention and merely turned her head expectantly toward Morandi again. The thumps of footsteps and muffled voices from other areas of the ship resounded in the silence.

Maria tried again. “So, what is this ELPIS exactly? What is so exciting about it?”

Morandi gave her a look of confusion, but when she did not acknowledge him, he sighed. “It’s not a what. It’s a who.”

“Who?”

“The matter is hush-hush, but they’re what’s left of a group of people who fought during the war. Lived before the war. The thirteenth group.”

“The thirteenth group, you say…?” Maria murmured. “Do you mean those funny people who work in that Ophiuchus place?”

“No, no, no. Definitely not.” Morandi shook his head. “Well, I think I understand the confusion. Where Ophiuchus is now is where that thirteenth country was located originally.”

“Thirteenth country?”

“Yes.” Morandi rubbed his chin. “They had some radical beliefs—that country. They saw usage of vitae and conductors as evil, sacrilegious. Tried to purge conducting and those who used conductors. Very steadfast in their beliefs. Determined. Even though they use conductors themselves. Hypocrites. I was never on the battlefront during the war—worked on cargo just as I do now—but I’ve heard many stories about them. Horror stories.” He reached for the mop and studied it. “But they are the reason why the war ended.”

Maria perked up at this.

“The twelve countries ended up banding together to fight against them,” Morandi explained. “It was an annihilation. Of self-defense, of course. Left all of us too weak to fight any further.” He shrugged. “Still, it’s difficult to kill off radical beliefs. Some pockets of the country survived and branched out. Eventually became known as ELPIS. But they’re only a fraction of what they used to be. Anyways, the leaders are psychopaths.”

“Leaders?”

“Yes, usually you’re able to tell them apart from the others because they have special tattoos. A rite of passage, I suppose.”

Such an odd thing—ELPIS.

Maria turned the word over in her mind. What a sour and unpleasant thing—strange, since she usually enjoyed even the most morbid of concepts and ideas. She leaned forward and thrummed her cheek in thought. Her eyes locked onto one particular sailor who seemed to be fidgeting with his collar. With a smile, she nodded at him. “You seem like you have something interesting to say. What is it?”

The sailor in question stiffened before he cleared his throat and stepped forward. “I—er—they’re pretty big actually, ma’am—er—Captain. When I was younger, my home was attacked by them. They ransacked the conductor that powered our town and took a bunch of children. I was one of the lucky ones…I’ll never forget it… when they used their conductors, the color of their vitae—they were all the same… completely whi…” The sailor shook his head.

Maria whistled before gesturing to the other sailors in the area. “Does anyone else have anything interesting to add about this ELPIS?”

“They’re just plain crazy,” interjected another sailor without skipping a beat. “Don’t know how or why, but their mass conversion rates are insane. Completely insane. I knew a friend of a friend—a farmer in Taurus—who just up and joined ELPIS one day. Just like that. Left his wife and daughter without a second thought.” A swallow. “There’s a rumor that they like… show you some terrible secret that just makes you snap and join them.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Now that’s crazy,” one of the others scoffed.

Maria hummed. “Crazy is just something you use to describe something you don’t understand, no? Perhaps you to me?”

The sailor started. “Uh, well, yes, I guess… I mean—”

“Why so flustered, my friend?” Maria laughed.

“I—”

“It’s all right, Giorgio. Doubt she means anything by it.” Morandi rubbed his chin again and then shook his head with a sigh. He turned back to Maria and finished, “Anyways, I’m by no means an expert in history either, so…”

Maria patted the man’s shoulder and beamed. “My dear Morandi, how knowledgeable you are!” She gestured out toward all of them. “You all are very knowledgeable! How lucky of me to have you on my crew! Surely, I chose well!”

“How is she even a captain,” one of the sailors muttered under his breath.

“Oh?” Maria hummed at the sailor who had spoken and made her way over to his side. “So will you be challenging my leadership, my dear?” When the man stumbled back, she chuckled. “You can think what you want, my dear. What sort of world would this be if that were not the case?” Before he could respond, she turned away and addressed all of them with an absentminded wave. “Anyways, you can all rest for the night. You told me such interesting things, after all!”

“Uh—”

“See you later, my dears!” With that, she swept out of the room.

* * *

When Maria returned to the cabin that housed the mysterious woman, Simon was nowhere to be found and Conta was dozing away at her table. The golden woman was, of course, just as asleep as before.

Maria crossed the room and knelt down beside her again. She pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek. No response as always.

How boring.

“It might be the handcuffs…”

Maria perked up and turned her head. Leaning against the wall with crossed arms to her left was a familiar boy. He had dark hair that was tied into a loose ponytail and green eyes. There was a cloak thrown over his shoulders that looked fabulously extravagant.

“Oh!” Maria pointed at him as she rose to her feet. “You are that boy from earlier, no? The small, angry one. With the fire!”

The boy started and uncrossed his arms as a scowl formed from his expression of indifference. The indifference returned a second later, and he reclined against the wall with crossed arms. He threw a glance in Conta’s direction. “You’re taking this hallucinating thing pretty well.” He glanced back at her. “You must be crazy or stupid.”

Maria tilted her head at him and hummed. “That may be so.” She tilted her head as a thought occurred to her. “But what about you?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed but he said nothing, instead choosing to approach the bed. He bent over the golden woman and studied her with a frown.

Maria hummed. “Do you see something you like, my dear?”

In response, the boy sent her a quick glare but remained focused on the golden woman. He knelt down with hovering hands. He hesitated. “Can I touch her?”

Maria cocked her head. “Why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask her?”

Another glare. He leaned forward and traced the cuffs around the woman’s wrists. With care, he lifted them and rubbed his thumb against the edge. There was a thin, almost imperceptible strip of material there. It seemed to be glass. His eyes widened. “It’s a conductor.”

“A conductor?” Maria tilted her head.

The boy inspected it closer. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Usually, conductors have an insulator just on the inside to help control vitae flow but…” He pressed against the material, and it seemed to squeak beneath his fingers. “There’s an insulator on the outside.” He shook his head and pulled back. “I didn’t think it was possible… but I think these handcuffs are suppressing—no, maybe it’s constricting—her intraneous vitae flow somehow. And if it’s doing that then…”

Maria scratched her head before she chuckled. “Well, I don’t really understand but you sound like you know how to remove it, yes?” She peered into his face. “At first, my dear crew tried using all sorts of things to try and remove it, but Simon insisted that doing so was too risky. I care for Simon, you see, so I listened to him.”

“Look, I don’t care. But you helped me this morning, so I’ll return the favor. I don’t like owing people. Real or not.”

“Real or not?” Maria ruffled her hair and rose to her feet. The boy craned his neck up to look at her, and she smiled at him. “Oh, I am very real my friend. I am the most certain thing in this world.” She pointed a finger at him. “It is you who is uncertain. But since I am something that is completely certain, I can make you certain just like that.” The snap of her fingers echoed in the quiet that followed.

The boy stared and glanced away with a mumble, “You sure like to talk a lot.”

Maria threw her head back and laughed. “Well, of course! How else will you know what I’m thinking?”

“I don’t want to know,” the boy huffed as he rose to his feet and walked over to the table where Conta rested. He reached out but Maria stopped him with a hand around the wrist. “I just need this conductor,” he said. When she released him, he reached over and plucked a slender object from the table. It was long and black with a thin, pointed end like the blade of a rapier. The handle of the thing was made of rubber and was a dull gray color. It was only slightly larger than his hand. “It’s a kickstarter. Pre-charged with vitae,” he explained. “Usually they use these things on new conductors because the insulators in them can become stuck and prevent vitae flow—”

“I don’t really get it,” Maria laughed, “but I am surprised! You sure sound smart!”

“It’s common knowledge,” the boy responded as he turned away from the table and walked back toward the bed. “Any person who knows about conductors knows about it.”

Maria stepped in front of him and stared into his eyes, searching. “What is this? Are you rejecting what I think of you? My opinion?”

The boy hesitated. “No, I—”

“Then why do you deny what I say?”

“Why do you have so much to say?” the boy returned evenly.

At this, Maria laughed again. “My dear friend, why are you asking a question I have already answered?”

The boy opened his mouth to retort but then shut it, pushing past her toward the bed. “Anyways, if I can get this past the insulator to reach the conducting core, I might be able to overcharge it. Overheat it.”

Maria made her way over to him as he knelt beside the bed. She watched as he lifted the cuffs and slid the thin, pointed part of the conductor into a crack that was between the metal and glass of the cuffs. He pressed down a nodule at the side of the device, and it hummed with life as light spilled from the nodule down its shaft to its pointed tip.

Maria leaned forward and watched with awe. “Wow! Conductors are truly beautiful, no? For the world to contain something like this—it’s quite amazing, yes?”

The boy gave her a strange look again before shaking his head and returning his attention to his work.

Maria studied him with interest before a thought occurred to her. She leaned in close—so close that her breath blew stray hairs out of his face—before she asked, “Ah, by the way, what is this Tragedy of Aries that I keep seeing everywhere?”

And just like that, the boy was gone. The conductor that had been in his hands was suddenly in hers, and as the thing gave one last final hum, the cuffs let out a click. A second later and they fell open onto the mattress of the bed. In turn, the golden woman let out a soft breath.

Maria leaned in, spilling her shadow across the woman’s face.

The woman’s golden lashes fluttered open. Slowly, as if waking from a dream, her eyes rose to meet Maria’s.

The woman’s eyes were the color of molten amber. Not quite gold, not quite brown.

Extending a hand, Maria grinned. “My golden lady, shall we become friends?”

“The Golden Beast has a hunger that’s insatiable. They say that it only appears in front of people who have no destinaton. Like wanderers or nomads–no, sea drifters. It climbs aboard the ship and disguises itself as a member of the ship. And  if it’s disrespected, then slowly one by one, everyone disappears leaving only an empty ship drifting to the shore. They say that the Beast actually eats everyone, leaving not even a drop of blood left…. Scary, huh?”

“Don’t go spreading that story around too much, Brandt. Next thing you know, the guys up top’ll be asking us to go and catch the thing to sick it on on our enemies. We’ll never retire then. ‘Cause we’ll never find it!”

A conversation between Capricornian combat medic Alwin Brandt and Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff

2.3: Waltz Aim

Re-cap:

Capricornian Lieutenant Waltz has been assigned to a peace negotiation to resolve the conflict occurring on the Aquarian-Capricornian border regarding the Vitae Reservoir. He is to meet an Aquarian negotiator as well as  Ophiuchian peacekeepers near the Capricornian village of Gradstall to represent Capricorn. He has chosen his Second Lieutenant Kraus, Projector Kleine, Transmutationist Brandt, Projector Stein, Projector Fischer, Projector Otto, and Elementalist Bergmann to accompany him. In a contradictory fashion, his major has ordered him to execute any and all Aquarian soldiers he finds along the way.

Recently, there’s been a voice at the back of his head. He is uncertain of whether or not it is his own.

Wechseln Woods, Capricorn

Werner pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. It was hard to read in the setting sunlight dispersed by the brambles rising around them, but he could still make out the hands.

They had been walking for exactly eight hours, thirty-two minutes, and twenty-two seconds since they set off from their first rest stop at exactly six in the morning. At this point, they were ahead of schedule.

Odd. It seemed as if they’d been walking for longer than that.

Snapping his watch closed and tucking it into his breast pocket, Werner observed the skyline. It would be best if they continued on at a steady pace from here. They would reach the nearest populated town within four hours.

“Stop it, Stein!”

Werner turned his head.

Private Klaus Kleine was sandwiched in-between Derik Stein and Wilhelm Fischer. They were pressing against him from both sides. Stein wore a sneer and Fischer a grimace. Beside Fischer stood a frowning Emilia Bergmann.

“Enough, Fischer!” Bergmann said, pulling on the man’s shoulder. “Leave him alone already!”

Otto Vogt observed the confrontation from behind with a nervous expression. He toyed with his hands as his gaze flicked from the ground to his comrades.

Werner nodded at Gilbert who was walking beside him. The man let out a sigh before falling back toward the other group. Alwin, who was walking just a step behind him, fell back as well.

“Fischer, Stein, knock it off,” Gilbert snapped, pulling the two men off the bespectacled, shorter soldier. “My legs are already sore from walking all day. Don’t make my ears sore too.”

“Er, sorry, sir,” Fischer apologized.

Stein merely rubbed his neck and shrugged the strap of his conducting rifle up his shoulders. Kleine bowed his head, readjusted his glasses, and fell back in step next to Vogt. Gilbert laughed dryly.

“Aren’t you guys tired of going through the same routine every time you’re around each other?” he asked. He glanced at Kleine and Fischer who were looking away with embarrassment. He shook his head before nodding at Brandt. “Speaking of routine, do you have any more of your bootleg stories for us?”

Brandt comically rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, I do have one that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell. Heard it while I was in the Twin Cities a while back.” He peaked at Werner. “But…”

“You’ll waste your energy. We still have four hours until we reach our next resting point,” Werner said, turning away and looking forward. He could feel his squad’s displeasure at this information, but he continued nonetheless: “We need to tread carefully and be attentive. We don’t know if there are any Aquarians nearby. It’s not worth the risk.”

Gilbert jogged up to Werner’s side and matched his pace. “Oh, come on, Werner, Aquarians out this far? Almost all of them got caught up at the Zeigenberg Ridge.”

“You just said it yourself. Almost. That’s not an absolute.” Werner continued at a steady pace. “Nothing should be left to chance, Second Lieutenant Wolff.”

“With all due respect, First Lieutenant Waltz,” Gilbert pressed, “I think they could use a bit of a morale boost. I mean, we’ve been walking for hours and we’re due to walk for several more.” He leaned in close and muttered, “And it’s not like there’s a spa at the end of this happy camp journey. I know that even someone like you isn’t fond of Ophiuchus getting involved.”

Werner glanced at the man. “Gilbert, morale has nothing to do with this.”

Gilbert quirked a brow as if challenging the idea.

Werner looked away and addressed those behind him: “Private Brandt, you said you heard your story when you were in the Twin Cities, correct? Then it must be your story about the Golden Beast. I’m sure everyone has heard it by now. There is no point in telling it again.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alwin start in surprise. The man quickened his pace and fell into step beside him.

“Lieutenant, how did you know about the Golden Beast story?” he asked.

“As I’ve said,” Werner replied quietly, “I overheard you telling it before.”

Alwin frowned. “But I’ve never told it before, sir.” He exchanged a look with Gilbert across from him. “Right?”

Gilbert half-nodded, half-shrugged.

“Guess you must be a mind reader then, sir,” Alwin chuckled.

“I am not a mind-reader, Brandt,” Werner replied, “but if you and Second Lieutenant Wolff can’t remember the story that you told, perhaps it wasn’t a story worth telling.”

Gilbert rolled his eyes and fell back. Eventually, Alwin did too.

They walked on in silence.

The only sounds were the wind whistling its way through the trees and the crunch of sticks and fallen leaves beneath their boots. The grayness of the darkening sky draped a dreary atmosphere over their route, and Werner could see why Gilbert had mentioned ‘morale.’ However, comfort was not a priority here.

Suddenly, a faint sound that did not seem to belong to nature reached his ears.

Werner held up his hand, signaling his men to stop. Most conformed instantly while others stumbled in surprise. Werner glanced at them before straining his ears and carefully examining the woods around them and the path ahead. A fog had rolled in from the east, threading everything in a haze. The faint sound seemed to bounce off the fog and resound around them.

Music, Werner realized as he inclined his head and unstrapped his conductor from his back. He exchanged a look with Gilbert, who was frowning. Before Werner could interpret that frown, the distant sound grew in volume and the echo seemed to concentrate in a single area.

There, just behind a jail of thin black trees to his left. Werner lowered his conductor in both awe and confusion. He didn’t understand how he or any of his men could’ve missed something like this.

Right before him blossomed a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the skyline. At its roots glowed a pool of light. A vitae stream…? Impossible. There was no such thing documented in this area.

In front of this impossibility knelt a woman with dark hair, dark skin, and a dark green dress. Her head was resting on the lap of an older woman sitting in a wheelchair. Beside them was a record player that twirled out a melancholic tune sung in garbled words by a somber singer.

Werner stepped forward and attempted to make out the features of the older woman but stopped when he realized that her back was to him. The kneeling woman, however, lifted her head and locked eyes with him. A thin, almost coy, smile crept up her face.

“It’s funny,” she said, “how close you can be to someone, yet so far away. You’d think that things like painful memories would bring people closer together, but they can pull people apart too.”

Werner brought a hand to his ear. Rather than her voice echoing from the distance, it sounded as if her voice was resounding in his head.

“W… rn…r…?”

The woman slowly broke eye contact with him and turned her eyes back toward the tree.

“You know,” she began, “they say that memories—”

“Werner!”

A hand clapped on his shoulder. He started and turned. It was Gilbert. The man searched his face with concern and confusion. Odd behavior, seeing that there was an anomaly before them. Werner returned his attention to the tree and the women but only found the black matchstick trees caging an empty clearing.

There was a sharp prick at his temple and a ringing at his ears. The black brambles swam around him as did the faces of his soldiers.

“Wern—”

“It was just an animal,” Werner said, shouldering his conductor. “Let’s keep moving.” Without waiting to see if protest followed, he continued down the path.

He was grateful for the chilled breeze that came with dusk. It cooled the sweat still trickling down the back of his neck. Once again, a dissonant silence reigned. Rubber crunching against gravel, wind whistling through leaves, bated breaths.

They were watching him, Werner knew. His division. He could feel their gazes glued to his back, and he felt his palms itch in response. What they were thinking, however, he did not know. What he did know was that as soon as he completed this assignment, he would check himself in with a medical Conductor immediately. He had irresponsibly left something to chance.

A barren hill came into view. The slope of it was gradual and dotted with boulders and fallen logs. It was slick with mud.

Werner held up his hand, signaling his men to stop again. This time Gilbert came to his side and glanced around the area.

“Up there.” Werner nodded at the hill that rolled up ahead of them. Very faintly on the hill-line glowed the light from a cluster of buildings.

“Houses,” Gilbert murmured. “That can’t be right. There’s nothing about this on the maps.”

Werner almost let out a sigh of relief. So, what he’d been seeing this time was indeed real. Pushing the feeling aside, he motioned for Gilbert and Fischer.

“Scout the area,” he ordered. “Who, what, why.”

Both saluted before making their way up the hill. They returned exactly forty-five minutes and thirty-two seconds later. Their legs were soaked through and caked with dirt.

“It’s an Aquarian base. Mostly injured men,” Gilbert informed Werner upon their return. “The town’s been abandoned since the end of the war. They took advantage. There was no red cross noting it as a field hospital.” He held out a crumpled piece of paper. “Propaganda posters.”

Werner digested this information. Lawfully, medical camps and hospitals that displayed the red cross were under the protection of international humanitarian law which prohibited them from being attacked. A rule both written and unwritten during the war. Where that rule fell during this time of tumultuous pseudo-peace when there was no red cross present… well, it was obvious. It would be best if they went around it and reported its presence instead. It would save his men energy. The uphill trek would be tumultuous.

But then Major Ersatz’s orders came to mind. ‘Eliminate any Aquarian pockets on their side of the border.’ These orders too were sensible, logical. Even if these Aquarians were injured, if they recovered and remained on this side of the border, they would surely become a threat. No red cross, no protection. No remaining Aquarians, no threat. The propaganda posters were also concerning.

“How many?”

“Maybe around fifteen-ish,” Fischer said. “There were about five who looked like they could maybe put up a fight, sir.”

“Maybe?” Werner frowned.

“I-It was hard to tell, sir. But I’m pretty sure it’s around there,” Fischer returned.

Werner mulled over this and then they set out.

They crept upon the small settlement with the fog as their cover. They approached the town from all directions. Werner had the long-range Projectors position themselves in vantage points that allowed them to scope out the five uninjured Aquarians. Werner himself found a slab of rock overgrown with thrush above a small cabin. At the farthest left window of the building sat a man outlined in a yellow light. His head was buried in his hands. One of the uninjured Aquarians. According to Fischer’s report, within the building there were two additional Aquarians. Injured. Werner could deal with them swiftly.

A three-note whistle indicated they were all in position.

Werner peered through the scope and aimed his conductor at the man’s temple. He pulled the trigger. The silencer on his conductor deafened the blast of indigo light to a windy whistle. Glass shattered. The bolt met its target. A spurt of red followed by a thud.

Werner moved his scope to one of the upper floor windows where a man who had been curled up on a metal bed shot up to a sit. An easier target. He aimed and pulled the trigger. The bolt whistled, cracked through the window, and shot through the man’s head like a pin needle. The corpse hit the floor with a thud, and the sound was followed by a shout of alarm from within.

Panicked shadows streaked across the windows. Werner easily followed them through their path with the scope. One strayed too close to the window. An aim and a muscle twitch ended the shadows in a blur of indigo.

Then there was silence. Faintly in the darkness, Werner could make out the faint glows of fires conducting bolts from the others.

Werner waited there, peering into the building, peering around in the darkness before he lowered his scope. Pressing his fingers to his lips, he let out another whistle which was met by a chorus of similar whistles.

After twenty-two seconds more of careful observation, he made his way down to the building. He creaked the door open with his conductor and peered inside. Red seeped across the wooden floorboards, and a body rested by the window at the very corner of the room.

Werner knelt down beside the corpse to check the pulse. He would check the ID tag after he cleared the rest of the building.

After making his way through the first floor, he carefully, quietly climbed the stairs. As he reached the final step and entered the hall there, he saw a shadow flicker out of the corner of his eye. He raised his hands just as a shout ripped through the air and a body launched itself at him from the darkness. He was slammed against the wall by the shadowy figure and felt them attempt to wrestle his conductor away from him. A quick kick to the chest sent the person flying backward into the dark.

“Don’t move,” Werner snapped, pointing his conductor into the pitch-black.

From the opposite end of the hall, silver light spilled in from the windows. Moonlight unveiled from the clouds. It slowly cascaded down, inching closer and closer, until it reached the area where Werner’s assailant was hidden. The shadows pulled away from the area and revealed his assailant’s freckled face as well as the face of the man his assailant was hovering over protectively. The man was injured. The bandages wrapped around his head and torso were stained red. His breathing was labored. He would not last long.

The freckled man abruptly raised his hands in the air. “Please. We surrender.” Spoken in Common. He gestured slowly, cautiously to the man behind him. “He needs help. Please.”

It was pathetic. Unsightly. But orders were absolute.

Werner raised his conductor, aimed it at the man.

What are you doing…?

Werner paused.

What was he doing? Killing injured, surrendering soldiers? These soldiers who had surrendered in hopes of returning to the families and friends waiting for them? Families and friends…

A migraine built at Werner’s temple, and his vision began to blur. He squeezed his eyes shut to dispel the nausea that came after. When he opened his eyes again, he felt his blood run cold. Standing just behind the Aquarian soldiers was a boy. A boy with deep green eyes and long dark hair that was bleached blonde at the tips and tied into a loose bun. His skin was pale, but in some areas, it looked sun-beaten red. His eyes were harsh and cold.

Werner didn’t know this boy, yet he did. A name was on his tongue. Olive.

But what was that in the boy’s eyes…? Judgement…? Disgust, pain, empathy. Werner somehow knew that to the boy he appeared unsightly.

“How can you even do this to people?” the boy whispered.

The boy’s eyes scrunched, and he covered his mouth as he hugged his stomach with his free hand. And then it came. The flashes of memory. The bodies that had been strewn across the floor on his way to this level. The bodies that he had aimed at. The soldiers who had crawled away from his target. The people he had killed.

Anton. Lukas. The names returned to him as did their faces. The Aquarians and those who he’d slain on the southern border of Argo.

Something squirmed at the pit of Werner’s stomach and rose to his throat. Shivers followed as did a piercing pain at the back of his neck. It came so forcefully that he fell on all fours—an action that sent his conductor skidding away. He was only vaguely aware of this because bile came crawling up his throat and out his mouth.

All of those bodies—

—but he had to kill them. There was no other way. Orders were orders. Could that boy not understand this—

Wiping the bile from his mouth, Werner lifted his head to look at the boy. But he was gone. In the boy’s place was the freckled Aquarian who stood there pointing Werner’s very own conductor at him. It seemed he was a Projector, then. A grave error.

He locked eyes with the Aquarian. The desperation in those eyes was familiar.

The Aquarian’s finger moved toward the trigger. And then there was a bright burst of turquoise light. Werner winced at the brightness. When his eyes adjusted, he found the freckled Aquarian on the floor and missing half of his face. The man he was protecting lay beside the pool of red, unconscious.

Werner turned his head. Just a couple steps below him stood a shaking Vogt, the tip of his conductor still billowing with smoke.

Lowering his weapon with trembling hands, Vogt asked, “Are you okay, sir?”

Werner turned away from him and pried his conductor from the fallen Aquarian’s hands. His own hands were trembling. Could Vogt see? Swallowing the bile in his mouth, Werner rose to a stand and wiped the sweat from his brow.

“I’m fine, Vogt. Thank you.”

Vogt straightened and nodded. “Of course, sir.” His gaze then shifted to the bodies on the floor, and his face turned green.

Werner followed his gaze, and his stomach immediately churned. He looked away from the mess and at Vogt who looked pallid, exhausted. Again, Werner’s stomach churned. The gazes of the green-eyed boy and the freckled Aquarian burned into his mind

“Tell the other men to take the Aquarians in if they surrender,” Werner found himself saying. He noticed Vogt stiffen in surprise but continued nonetheless: “We should follow the laws that were in place during the war.” He stared at Vogt for a moment and the boy wavered under his gaze. “We’ll take camp here for the night.”

* * *

An hour or so later and Werner was standing in a small cabin furnished with two wooden desks pressed along the walls and a handful of chairs. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and, paired with the moonlight streaming in from the window, it provided the cabin with all-reaching light.

At one of the desks sat Klaus Kleine. On the desk was a large book opened to a page displaying a military radio in detail: parts, wires, knobs, nuts, and bolts. Kleine’s gaze was locked onto the page and sweat beaded his brow. His conductor-gloved hands were extended outward and the base of them glowed with teal light. Very faintly, a glowing wire-like object took shape just below his extended hands.

The door to the cabin creaked open.

Gilbert. He stepped inside, gave a nod to Kleine before joining Werner’s side. “So what’s going on?”

“I’m having Private Kleine conjure a radio so I can update Major Ersatz on our current location.”

Gilbert rubbed his neck. “Well, yeah, I can see that, Werner, but I was talking about how you said earlier we’d keep on for the rest of the day but now you’re saying that we should rest here. It’s not like you to change your mind, so what’s up?”

“The men need rest,” Werner said, folding his hands behind his back. “We don’t know how many more Aquarian pockets we’ll find along the way. Exhaustion will lower their performance.”

“Huh.” Gilbert grunted. “What about the Aquarians then? Usually, you’re all ‘orders are orders,’ but you switched things up today.” He shrugged. “I’m not complaining or anything. Want to blow through my mandatory service with as little guilt on my mind as possible. But is there something going on?”

Werner glanced at Kleine. He seemed to be too focused on conjuring the radio parts to be listening in on their conversation.

“I’m just following the precedent set during the war. It didn’t occur to me before.”

“Right…” Gilbert studied him for a long while before he stretched and yawned. “Well, if anything else happens to occur to you, I’m here.”

Werner turned to Gilbert, but hesitated. Before he could say anything, Kleine shot up from his seat and stretched with a huff. He turned around, stiffened, and saluted.

“It’s all done, sir. Everything should be in working order.” Kleine gestured to the desk now topped with a military radio identical to the one in the book. Microphone, headset, and all.

“Good work, Private Kleine.” Werner nodded at him. “I will need another backup radio.” He paused as Kleine grimaced for a fraction of a second, and his stomach churned with an odd emotion that felt as if it was not quite his own. Guilt. “If you are feeling up to it.”

Gilbert and Kleine both seemed surprised by this statement and Werner was too, but Klaus nodded deeply before moving over to another desk and bringing his book with him. Gilbert headed toward the door.

Werner watched them go, and then—

There was a static crackle from the recently conjured radio in the corner of the room. A voice cracked out: “Hello?”

Kleine did not move from where he was working on another radio, and Gilbert did not turn back from the doorway.

“Nico…?” the voice cracked again. “Callin’ me back right after you hung up?”

Still, no one moved from their positions.

“Hello? Are you there?”

Werner paced over to one of the large machines and picked up the headphones producing the sound. He placed them to his ear and leaned down toward the microphone. “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, Border Force, speaking. What is your military code?”

Static prickled his ears. White noise.

But then: “What’s this code you’re talkin’ about?”

Now that the headphones were pressed up to his ear, Werner could hear the strange lilt to the voice on the other end of the line. Their accent was odd.

“Operator?” the voice pressed.

Werner’s heart skipped a beat and his head spun.

He opened his mouth to respond, but then—

“Oh, you’re like her, aren’t ya?”

What?

The static that crackled out from the headphones was overcome by a much louder sound. A high-pitched whine. It screamed through his ears and pierced his temple like a bullet. The lights in the room intensified, bleaching everything around him in a painful white. While Werner managed to remain rigid and standing, he couldn’t help but to squeeze his eyes shut. He had suffered from concussions before but what he felt now was several times worse.

“Who are you?”

Werner opened his eyes.

The radio room was gone.

He was standing in a pale hallway with polished wooden doors. Papers littered the floor. And right in front of him stood a young woman who leaned on the rim of a gray telephone station that looked in need of repair. She pressed the receiver to her ear.

The woman’s eyes were narrowed, and her lips were pulled downward, but the expression only lasted a fraction of a second. Soon she was offering a lopsided grin: “Well, I gotta say that these hallucinatory meetings keep gettin’ weirder and weirder.”

The voice that came out from the young woman standing before him simultaneously crackled out of the headphones that he still had pressed to his ear.

Werner, lost for words and certain he’d lost his mind as well, stood frozen in place.

“By the look of your face,” the young woman drew, pulling off the fedora on her head and resting it atop the phone box, “this must be the first time you’re experiencing this. That is, if you’re real.” She spread her free arm wide. “Welcome to the party.”

Werner opened his mouth wordlessly again.

“The name’s Cadence.” The woman mocked a deep bow. “But maybe ya knew that already.” Straightening herself, she offered her hand. “And you look like… a Werner.”

“What’s the meaning of this?” Werner managed to find his voice. It only came out as a whisper.

“Well, not sure ’bout that,” the woman replied after a moment of staring. “Either I’m goin’ insane, we’re both goin’ insane, or we’re experiencin’ somethin’ outta this world.” After another moment of staring, she continued: “Honestly if there’s a meaning to all this, I can’t really think one up. This is how it’s going to be now—I think—and we just gotta make use with what we have.”

Werner remained silent. He glanced down at the microphone he was holding. Despite him being in what appeared to be a completely different location than the communications cabin, he was still able to see and to feel the device in his hands. A hallucination, then. A result from his injury several days earlier. That would answer the question as to why Gilbert and Kleine didn’t acknowledge the radio transmission.

“Ey, you’re a soldier, aren’t you?” the young woman Cadence pressed. “Capricornian by the looks of it. Let’s just say you’re real. Ya wouldn’t happen to be involved in that border conflict, would ya?”

Werner glanced back up at the woman.

“Even though you’re a Capri, I don’t have anything against ya and what you’re up to,” Cadence continued. “None of my business.”

And then Werner closed his eyes. He counted to fifty, and as the numbers in his head became louder, the ringing in his ears became quieter. The woman’s voice became nonexistent. Faintly, he could hear Kleine tinkering in the background of the radio station.

“’Ey, what the hell?!”

Werner opened his eyes.

Cadence was right in front of him now. She was so close that he could see even the smallest freckles on her cheeks. Her caramel brown eyes were wide and livid.

“Is that how they teach manners in your country?!” she snapped.

Werner stumbled backward in surprise. The headphones and microphone clattered noisily onto the floor beside him.

“I ain’t one to know much about manners, but even I know that ignoring someone is one of the worst things ya can do!”

“I—” Werner swallowed. The only words he could think of were: “I apologize.”

Cadence studied him before pulling back with crossed arms and a nod. “Well, I get it. You’re confused. I was pretty confused too so I can’t really judge ya too harshly. Sir, I still am confused.” She dropped her arms and then moved to rub the back of her neck. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling. “Here’s the low-down.”

Werner followed her gaze up, and for some reason, he thought of the sky and the moon. He hadn’t seen the clear sky for a while now.

“You and me? If we’re both not insane, then we’re somehow communicatin’ across borders,” Cadence continued. “Don’t know how. Don’t know why.” She whistled. “But if we really ain’t hallucinatin’, then it looks like we’re connected somehow. At this point, with everythin’ goin’ on, I’ve pretty much accepted it. Problems of the heart and mind, ’ey?”

Her words were incomprehensible.

“I am hallucinating,” Werner said.

The young woman cackled. “Well, then I am too. But if I’m hallucinatin’, then that means you’re not real. Bah, just thinkin’ about it makes my head hurt.” She really did seem amused. “There are others part of this whole maybe-hallucination-maybe-real thing, so I recommend ya be friendlier with ’em. Not everyone is as easygoin’ as I am, sir.”

“I was injured during a battle. I suffered a head injury. I didn’t allow myself sufficient time to recover.”

Cadence cackled again. Louder this time. An unrefined laugh. “You’re gonna be a hard one, ain’t ya? Well, that’s how life is.” She extended her hand out to him. “So, how about we become acquainted then? From one hallucination to another.”

He stared at her hand without comprehending it. Slowly, he reached out.

“Werner!”

And just like that, the hallway scenery shattered. The papers, the phone, the doorways fell down around him in shards. The woman reflected his expression of surprise before she too fell away into pieces.

He was standing back in the radio station with the microphone and headphones still resting on the ground beside his feet. The hum of the radio whirled in the background. In the background where Kleine sat staring at him with his hand still extended in the direction where Cadence once stood. Gilbert Wolff stood beside him, gripping his raised arm tightly.

“Werner!” Gilbert repeated, eyes wide, grip tightening.

Their stares pricked his skin. The palm of his hands began to itch terribly.

Werner dropped his arm and tried to recollect himself. A difficult task due to the buzzing in his head and the cold sweat trickling down his back. He swallowed and then tried in an even voice: “Is there something else you’d like to tell me, Wolff?”

Like nothing occurred.

Gilbert stared at him and opened his mouth. But then he followed Werner’s gaze to Kleine, and his eyes narrowed. He shook his head and released his grip. Disappointment probably.

“Back to work, Private,” Werner said, clearing his throat.

Like nothing occurred.

Capricorn: a southern country of Signum that shares a border with Aquarius and the southern outskirts country of Argo. A highly militaristic country that values duty and service. There is a compulsory military service in place, and the country boasts the youngest average age of Conductor licensing out of all the countries of Signum.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition

2.2: Morello Verse

Re-cap:

Swindler Cadence Morello has been tasked to investigate who was behind the bombing of the Foxman brothers’ TwinStar Pub by Cavallo who is in a senior position of the Romano Family. A show of goodwill. Another senior member of the Romano Family, Verga, claims that it is a waste of time. After running through the streets with the Foxman brothers with little result, Cadence heads to her favorite piano bar where she meets a strange woman named Atienna. A woman whom only she can see. 

Twin Cities, Gemini

“I’m tellin’ ya,” Cadence snapped, slapping her hand over her chest, “check me over again! You definitely missed something!”

Doctor Fabrizzio continued to shuffle slowly through the files on his clipboard, undeterred. They were in the man’s office again, sitting opposite each other. The illusion of normal doctor-and-patient reinstated.

“Doc, come on!” Cadence pressed. “This is serious! I’ve been—”

“You’ve been seeing things. Yes. I heard you the first time and the subsequent times after that.” The doctor nodded as he continued to rifle through the papers. He hummed and tapped his chin. “You hallucinated a woman speaking to you. And yet, you had a lengthy talk with the woman even after you realized the bartender did not see her.”

Cadence paused, mouth half-open. “Well, that’s because—”

“Because she charmed you,” the doctor finished. He peered over the clipboard. “You’ve always had trouble with that type.” He set the thing aside and leaned forward with a smile. “Seeing as you had a lengthy conversation with her with little harm or consequence, I don’t see the problem.”

“The problem is that she wasn’t real!”

But what exactly was ‘real’? The only real thing that she could be sure of was herself. Her existence. And since her existence was the only certainty, didn’t that mean that the world belonged to—

“What is it that you want me to do, Cadence?” the doctor pressed. “You seem more amused by this situation than distressed.”

Cadence shook away the pain that pricked her temple and smoothed down the smile that had climbed up her face without her notice. “What if this is some aftereffect of that explosion in the bar? What if I knocked my head real good or somethin’?”

“Physical ailments, I can heal, Cadence. That is what I’m interested in. But you have no lingering physical injuries of concern that I can see, and you know that I am always thorough.” The doctor leaned back in his chair with a smile. “Things of the mind and heart are not my profession, Cadence. I cannot help you with that.”

Cadence frowned, pulled back into herself, and crossed her arms. “And what are you implyin’ by ‘heart’?”

“I wouldn’t know,” the doctor replied. “As I’ve said, I’m not an expert in those matters. But in the physical realm of things, I must say you are perfectly normal. Functioning physically properly.”

Cadence sighed and lifted her hat to ruffle her hair. “As much as I love spendin’ time with ya, doc, if I knew you were just gonna send me away, I woulda spent my time elsewhere. There’s a lot goin’ on, ya know. The city’s a mess.” Cadence peeked at the doctor and found that he was back at flipping through his clipboard. She merely shrugged.

“Nico called again,” he said suddenly. “Maybe you could convince him of what I could not.”

Cadence frowned. “Convince him?”

* * *

It took less than a second for Cadence to connect to Nico on the phone.

“Hello—”

“Nico, what do ya think you’re doin’?”

“Cadence?” Nico’s voice crackled. “Are you okay? Why didn’t you tell me about Francis’s bar? I had to hear from Francis about it! Wha—”

“Am I okay?” Cadence huffed. “What about you? Why am I hearin’ from your pops that you didn’t leave with Clive and Rino?”

A confirming pause.

Cadence leaned against the wall and pinched the bridge of her nose. “And why would ya do something like that?”

“I’m going to come back…” Nico tried to reason in a quiet voice. “I just hung back—”

“Just? Whad’ya mean ‘just’?” Cadence leaped from the wall and began to pace. “Nico, I don’t know if ya noticed, but you’re in the middle of a battle-zone. The longer you stay there, the closer you’re inchin’ to death’s door!”

“I know that!” Nico’s voice was rising. “But if you just saw the people that’re here, Cadence… I—and I’m a Transmutationist. I’ve been training like a medical Conductor my entire life. I…”

So that was what it was. Cadence returned to her place against the wall and swallowed a sigh. She twirled the phone cord around her finger as she glanced at the wall opposite her. She turned over numerous responses in mind and played out their reactions in turn. Nope. Nada. Bad ending. It took her a while to settle on something that’d get her the response she wanted: “Nico, you’re a kind person. You wanna do what ya can for others. And ya feel guilty. Guilty because you were the one deliverin’ the goods that may or may not have gotten them into that situation.”

“That’s not it. That’s not it at all.”

As expected, Cadence thought. Hook. Line. Sinker. She crossed her arms and rolled her neck before asking, “Then what is it?” A practiced pause. “Is it that you wanna rebel against your old man? Usin’ the stuff he taught ya to do things he wouldn’t want ya to do? Nico, there’s better ways of doing that stuff.”

There was a long and lengthy pause. And then, “Cadence, what are you doing?”

Cadence frowned. “What do ya mean? I’m just tryin’ ta understand—”

“You didn’t think I’d notice?” Came the quiet, calm tone. “Cadence, I’ve known you for years. I know how you sound when you’re tryin’ to twist someone around your finger.”

Well, that much was true. Cadence would have been more surprised if he hadn’t figured it out by now.

“I can’t believe that… that you’d try to do that to me… of all people…”

Was that judgment? Disappointment?

Cadence shook her head.

No, it couldn’t be. Nico would never. She was only acting out of concern.

“I get that you’re concerned, Cadence,” Nico murmured. “But you could’ve just said it instead of—”

“Fine, I’m concerned, aight?” Cadence half-sighed, half-snapped. “I’m concerned that you’re makin’ a reckless decision and that you’re gonna get yourself killed.

“Reckless? Cadence, who do you think we work for? It comes with the job—and didn’t you say the city was too small for the both of us? Shouldn’t you be happy that I’m going off on my own outside the city?” There was an almost audible frown with the question. “Or were you just tryin’ to string me along then, too?”

“Look, I ain’t tryin’ to string anyone along,” Cadence said. “I just don’t understand why you’re doin’ it. By the sound of it, it really does sound like you just want to get at your pop—”

“I want to help people, Cadence! Help people other than the ones that the Family and my dad say are ‘worth saving’! What does that even mean? Everyone is worth saving! If not, then what’s even the point of being alive?” A deep breath. “Cadence, this is what I want to do. My choice. I can’t stand standin’ here and doin’ nothin’. My drea—”

“If you’re sayin’ that your dream is to go out there and play on death’s door, then that’s a stupid dream, Nico!” Cadence snapped despite herself.

“Stupid…?” A shaky, deep breath. “I thought you said there was no such thing as a stupid dream.”

“Nico—”

A loud drone blared through the speaker, causing her to jerk back with a wince. It took a moment for the meaning of the sound to settle in.

“He…” Cadence stared at the phone. “The jerk hung up on me!”

* * *

Cadence stepped out from the office building and squinted up at the crack of skyline. Orange light bled down, just barely reaching her face.

“You look like you need head back inside and have another round with Doctor Fabrizzio.”

Cadence turned her head and feigned a lopsided grin as she registered Francis Foxman standing at the mouth of the alleyway. “Same to you. Look like work’s been stressful.” She glanced to Francis’s right and then left. “Where’re Carl and Allen? Feels wrong not seein’ ’em by your side.”

“Oh right, you were in the doctor’s so you probably haven’t heard.” Francis reached into his pocket, pulled out his v-cig, and lit it with a shake of his hand. “Some Ophiuchian agents have come to the city. Requested an audience with us and Ricardo.”

Cadence whistled. “Jeez, no wonder you look like you’ve had a bad morrowheat trip.” She slid her hands into her pockets and kicked a stray wad of paper aside. “So the boss too, huh? Man, bet he’s not too happy ’bout that.”

“Yes, it’s rather sudden.” Francis took a drag. “Apparently, they’re here because—”

“An Ophiuchian agent’s gone missing and was last seen in the city,” Cadence murmured. But how did she know that? Her mind went to Atienna. ‘Problems of the mind and heart,’ huh? If anything, Cadence figured that the doctor’s words had created more problems for her than the hallucinations did. The doctor’s words and Nico. Damn, Nico. What in the world was he thinking? Was there any way to drag him back? Probably not, seeing how the doctor hadn’t lifted a finger yet. The doc probably thought he’d sit back and see how this played out. And seeing how that phone conversation ended… Damn… Did Francis even know…?

“Yeah. Exactly,” Francis replied from beside her. “How did you know that?”

Cadence cracked a grin automatically and shrugged. “Y’know me.”

“I’m not sure I do even after all these years.” Francis chuckled. “Anyways, Allen and Carl are getting ready for the meeting.”

“Skippin’ out then, Francis? That’s surprisin’.”

“I wish that were the case, but I’m here for something else.”

Cadence arched a brow.

Francis chuckled in turn. “Unfortunately, I’m not here for you either, Cadence.” He twirled his cigarette between his fingertips. “We got a lead on the TwinStars incident.”

Cadence grinned, arms spread with hands in pockets. “Now what’s with ya doin’ my job for me? I’ll be replaced with ya before y’know it.”

Francis chuckled again. “You know that I don’t have your skill sets.”

“Which is why you’re here, I’m assumin’.” Cadence made sure that her smile did not reach her eyes. “One of these days I’m hopin’ that you’ll swing by with a bottle of champagne to invite me for a double date instead.”

“Maybe one day.”

Francis led Cadence through the city and into a well-furnished brick building on a rather busy street. The inside was set up like an office. A few nice desks lined the walls, and there was even a potted fern growing in the corner. One of the men sitting at the closest desks jumped to a stand and approached them nervously.

“M-Mr. Francis, Ms. Morello, you arrived earlier than expected,” the man said.

“Did we now?” Francis smiled.

Cadence pushed past him and placed a reassuring hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Come on now, Stefano, how many times have I told you now to just call me Cadence.” She threw a glance at Francis. “No need to change things up just ‘cause the boss man is here.”

“Um, sorry, ma’am, that’s—”

“All right now, Cadence, you’ve had your fun.” Francis nodded at Stefano and addressed him politely. “I take it our guest is still in good condition?”

“Oh, yes, sir, but Mr. Allen did have to pull Mr. Carl off of him earlier when they were both here…”

Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, show me what ya got.”

Stefano led Cadence and Francis through a door at the very back of the office. The door led into a hall, which led into another room that was dimly lit. A window was built into its farthest wall that peered into another room.

A two-way mirror, Cadence thought as she peered through it.

“Hey, that’s…”

“What—y’know the brat?” came a voice from behind.

Cadence turned her head and found a familiar figure leaning against the wall behind her. “Well, Verga, can’t believe you got invited here before me. Gotta say I’m hurt.”

“Verga helped us bring him in when we first got word of him,” Francis explained. “Do you know him, Cadence?”

Cadence rolled her neck and covered her mouth with her hand. She studied the boy who sat in the other room, hands bound, with purple bruises kissing his eye and lower lip. Studied the scar that ran across the boy’s face. Stupid kid. Getting caught like this even after she’d given him the money. What a waste. But it was what it was. “Not really. May’ve seen ’im on the street once.”

“Well, the info broker said he was seen leaving the scene right after the tavern went up,” Francis said. “Obviously seeing his age, he most likely isn’t working alone. So—”

“Surprised you didn’t beat the answer outta him,” Cadence muttered. “I mean, I’m surprised Carl didn’t.”

“Oh, he was very close to it.” Francis smiled thinly. “But I don’t think that would be the appropriate punishment nor would it get the answers we need so—”

“So, it’s about time to put your skills to use, Morello,” Verga grunted. “Always wanted to see how you worked.”

Cadence snickered. “Well, ya got me flattered.” She turned to Francis. “Got a face I can use?”

* * *

When Cadence entered the interrogation room, the boy with the scarred face gasped and rose to a stand. The boy’s hands were cuffed behind him, and the chains jangled as he came around the table.

“Marzia, what are you doing here?!”

Yes, that was the name of the face Cadence currently wore. Marzia Belle, a fourteen-year-old orphan who did odd jobs around the city. Small and slender with curly chestnut hair and gap teeth, she was often seen in alleyways alongside Duccio Carrego. Duccio Carrego who was a boy easily identifiable by a scar that ran diagonally across his face.

“D-Duccio,” Cadence stammered as she ran to him. “Are you hurt?”

Duccio looked away with a grimace. “I’m fine. But you. Why are you here?”

Cadence lowered her gaze and glanced nervously toward the mirror behind her. “I’m here for the same reason you are…” She met the boy’s gaze again. “I… think they know about it, Duccio.” A couple of blinks and tears leaked from her eyes. “What do we do if they know?”

“Know?” Duccio repeated with a frown. His eyes then widened. “You don’t mean that they know about… damn!”

Hook. Line. Sinker.

“Will the others be okay?” Cadence whispered.

Duccio’s eyes widened and he stared bullets at the mirror. He then closed the distance between them and whispered under his breath, “We need to warn them somehow…”

Cadence did not respond and instead pressed her body against Duccio’s own.

“It’ll be okay, Marzia,” Duccio murmured, pressing his chin gently on top of her head. “We’ll get them out of the warehouse somehow.”

The warehouse. By the docks at the bay? No. The Foxmans owned nearly all the docks there. Then…

“Maybe we could get them to move…” Cadence whispered, glancing nervously over her shoulders. “Trick them by moving to a different warehouse nearby. They won’t expect it.”

Duccio frowned and glanced down at her. “We can’t. Thirteen is the only one that’s not owned by any of the city officials.”

A warehouse given the number thirteen. An abandoned warehouse. There was only one warehouse that fell under both of those categories.

Bingo.

Cadence pulled away from Duccio with a grin. He frowned in turn.

It was time for a showy revelation.

Sometimes it’s better to live on in ignorance.

Cadence’s head spun as the familiar, gentle voice echoed in her ears. She whipped her head around. Her reflection—rather, Marzia’s reflection—in the two-way mirror met her gaze.

“Marzia…?”

Cadence ignored Duccio and instead tried to focus her vision, which was dimming and brightening in a dizzyingly repetitive cycle. A shadow flickered in the corner of her eye just behind her reflection in the mirror. It was the woman from before. Atienna.

They made eye contact through the mirror. Atienna’s lips were faintly upturned but her eyes were dark and faraway.

Cadence could feel it. Feel her judgment. Which was a strange sensation because it felt as if Cadence was expressing that judgment. Expressing that judgment toward herself. It felt so raw and real, she could feel it pressing down on her chest. Was this maybe real, maybe hallucinatory woman judging her? Like Nico had…?

Cadence had to know. Had to ask. But if she did now, she’d look crazy. And she had to keep up appearances, after all. Because appearances were…

Atienna abruptly broke off their eye contact and looked away as she drew her arms around her waist. She said nothing but her smile remained as did her dark, far-away expression.

Even if Atienna was judging her, what did Cadence care? She’d been judged for doing worse things by people she knew for certain were real. So why now…?

The pressure on her chest increased tenfold, almost leaving her short of breath. It was suffocating. Like smoke. Curling around her and strangling her.

“It’s all right, Duccio,” Cadence found herself saying as she turned to the boy. She pulled his head toward her shoulder and stroked his hair. “We’ll make it out of here somehow.”

* * *

When Cadence exited the interrogation room and entered the observation room, she was met with the watchful gazes of Francis and Verga. Unfortunate, seeing as how she’d just managed to escape the gaze of Atienna. Closing the door behind her, she took her original form with a snap of her fingers and a flash of light.

“You looked like you’d seen a ghost or something for a second there,” Francis noted, v-cig hanging forgotten between his fingers. “Surprised you didn’t do your usual dramatic reveal.”

“That wouldn’t be too smart now would it?” Cadence shrugged it off easily. “He could be lying. Can’t put all our cards onto the table.”

A clapping sound cut their conversation in two. Verga was grinning. “Well, you really are something else, Cadence. Your performance really does live up to the rumors.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Cadence waved him off before placing her hands on her hips. “We’re lucky he didn’t notice anything off. Any expert would’ve. Not enough info and too short notice.”

“Take a damn compliment, Morello,” Verga snapped before grinning again. “Anyways, since you worked so hard already, just leave the rest to me. I’ll send some of our men to handle that warehouse situation. To dispose of the trash, if y’know what I mean.”

The pressure on her chest returned, and Cadence frowned. “That’s a little bit trigger happy, don’t ya think?”

Verga raised a brow.

The pressure on Cadence’s chest increased. “We still don’t know why the children are doing this.” The words felt strange in her mouth, but she continued nonetheless with a shrug: “And then there’s how they managed ta make a mess of the pub in the first place. Pretty sure the kid in there ain’t masterful enough to pull it off himself, and if he was, that’d be pretty embarassin’ for all of us. Someone’s pullin’ the strings.”

Verga looked like he was about to burst a vein, but Francis interrupted him with a hum: “I agree, Cadence. Warehouse 13….” He tapped his fingers over his mouth. “The Campana family might be involved in this then. If that is the case, Cadence, how do you suggest we go about answering those questions?”

“I’ll go in as Duccio.” Cadence shrugged again, and the pressure lessened.

* * *

Warehouse 13 resided on the very outskirts of the east side of the Twin Cities. It belonged in a cluster of fifteen warehouses that lined the Castor River. Despite its location, it did not see many ships because right across the river were the warehouses of the west side. Warehouses that belonged to the Campana family. At best, they were friendly rivals with the Romano Family. At worst, they were bitter enemies. Fear of the fallout of friendly rivalry kept even the most desperate investors away from the area.

“And yet I’m here.” Cadence sighed.

Despite the cold, she couldn’t see her breath. The fog over the area was too thick and heavy. Like smoke. The haze of it obscured the sun, which wasn’t able to touch the top of the warehouses despite the lack of skyscrapers within the vicinity.

Warehouses 13 was built at the very end of a long line of wooden, rickety warehouses. A large steel-plated sign that designated its number hung above its doors. The doors were rotting off their hinges. Through the cracks in the wood, she could make out shadows shifting in a backdrop of light.

Shrugging herself more into the guise of Duccio Carrego, Cadence stepped into the building. The inside of the warehouse was unexpectedly warm. Several trash fires dotted the floor and coated stray stacks of metal and wood in a red-orange glow. There was a wooden boat missing half of its hull at the very center of the room.

About two dozen people occupied the building, and when Cadence entered, several of them turned their heads toward her. Some nodded, some waved and smiled, one even came over to smack her on the back before dashing off again. Another came to clap a hand on her shoulder and gave her a shake and said, “What’s wrong, Duccio? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Cadence stared into that person’s face. His wide eyes and chubby cheeks burned into her retinas. Child. He was a child. Probably no older than twelve. In fact…

Children. All of the occupants within the building were children. None of them could have been older than sixteen. Were they all being used?

Cadence shrugged her shoulders with nonchalance. “Just waitin’ for the boss.”

The boy gave a returning shrug before thumbing behind him toward the boat. “Heard she was preparin’ a big speech this time ’round.”

She?

Cadence turned her eyes toward the boat just in time to see a figure walk out onto the very tip of the ship. It was someone of short stature. Even shorter than herself, Cadence gauged. The girl’s hair was dark and frizzy, and her dark skin was splattered with a birthmark that was concentrated around her left eye in an almost butterfly-like pattern. A pair of plaid overalls were pulled up over her pin-striped blouse, and a pair of dirty boots hugged her feet tight.

After a long moment of silence in which all eyes turned toward her, the girl finally spoke: “We did it, you guys. We did it.”

There was a beat of surreal silence. And then there was a deafening roar. Cheers, whooping shouts, claps, laughs, fist pumps, literal jumps into the air. Every child and adolescent in the area was absolutely ecstatic. Except Cadence, of course. She glanced around the room and tried her best to keep her bewilderment hidden.

“We sure are some devilish kids,” Cadence said to the boy who stood beside her, “to be cheerin’ on the deaths of a dozen people like this.”

“Well, Duccio…” The boy’s smile faltered. “I mean they’re… they’re the ones who…”

He trailed off as an odd, reverent silence settled into the room. As the last of the cheering died down, all eyes once again turned to the girl who stood on the boat.

“The families that run the city—we were nothing to them,” she continued, her squeaking voice ringing clear. “They probably forgot our existence already despite everything they did. We were probably just like ants to them. Something they didn’t even care or think about when they stepped down on us. Squashing us.” Here, the girl paused and seemed to make eye contact with every single person in the room, including Cadence herself. “But we gave them a taste of their own medicine. We showed them what the bite of an ant can do.”

Taste of their own medicine? The explosive conductor. It couldn’t be—

No one clapped, yet there was determination in the air. All eyes were locked on the girl’s form, all heads nodding in agreement.

Cadence was missing something. She knew she was definitely missing something. Where was this animosity coming from? Sure, the crime families operating in the Twin Cities kicked in a few dozen people or so, but that was business. They never did anything involving children. Ricardo was fond of children. What was this?

“Tomorrow we’re hitting them even harder.”

Of course they were. Cadence resisted sighing.

“Thanks to Francisco and Frieda, we just got the conductors for the job.” The girl continued, making eye contact with Cadence. “In three days, we’re going for their cover-up joint in the downtown Gamma District. Now, they’ll have to see us.”

So they were planning to hit up a joint in the Gamma District. That obviously was in reference to the Geminorium Gamma dining spot that the Foxmans owned. Yet another front for the conductor circling business. A very, very busy and successful front. But how in the world did these kids get their hands on those conductors? And why were they out for the Foxmans and Romanos? The Romanos kept a leash on production and the Foxmans a careful eye on distribution. Unless—

A clap resounded through the area, and its echo seemed to seep into all corners of the room. Cadence looked around. No one else seemed to react to it despite it ringing loud and clear. So loud and clear that it kickstarted a migraine at her temple.

Cadence swept the area in search of the source and found her gaze settling on the very edge of the boat. Sitting cross-legged on the pointed bowsprit of the ship was a woman with wind-tousled dark brown hair that framed her sun-kissed face. Even from this distance, Cadence could see the woman’s long lashes and the almost unnatural glow of her bottle-green eyes under them. The bright white smile that was cracked right beneath those eyes was unnerving. Regardless, the woman was stunning. Her sharp, wolfish features contrasted startlingly with what she wore, however. A loose and partially unbuttoned white blouse was thrown loosely over her toned frame, and a bright red sash hung at her waist. Tucked in that sash was what appeared to be a sheathed sword. She looked more like a picture-book privateer than anything else.

“How wonderful! Such a passionate speech.” The woman laughed a musical laugh that put Francis’s to shame. The woman swept her gaze across the room before locking eyes with Cadence. “Things are starting to get exciting, don’t you think, my mysterious friend?”

“Who—”

Abruptly the doors to the warehouse flew open behind Cadence, and she turned toward the doorway. Outlined in the misty darkness of the threshold stood a group wearing blank white masks. Cadence looked back at the ship. The woman was gone. The girl who’d been standing behind the woman was gaping in shock and horror. Cadence flicked her gaze back to the white-masked figures just in time to see them pull objects from behind their backs.

There was a bright flash of green light, a terrible whine, and then a squelching sound—like the sound boots made when stomping on muddy wet ground. Cadence felt something warm splatter against her left cheek. Her gaze flicked in the direction. Lying on the ground there was the boy who had been talking to Cadence earlier. Half of his face was missing. Carved out, leaving only red.

As she stared at the blood pooling out from his head, Cadence couldn’t help but think that she hadn’t gotten to know his name. Distantly, someone screamed.

“We are ELPIS,” hissed one of the mask-wearers, “and we are here to bring you to justice in the name of hope.”

Foxman Family. A crime organization within the Twin Cities. Headed by the Foxman brothers: Allen, Carl, Francis. They control the port territories at the Pollux Bay. Their existence is permitted as long as they offer their full cooperation regarding the suppression of smaller, more dangerous organizations within the city and regarding assistance with Ophiuchian Agent cases. Further investigations regarding their business to ensure it does not overstep Ophiuchian international regulation are underway. 

Report XX, Gabrielle Law, General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus 

2.1: Chance Deflection

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olive, tired of the suffocating extra protection he has received from increased security due to the assassination attempt on his life, has snuck away from the watchful eyes of his royal guards Trystan and Alexander. He has escaped to a conductor store owned by a woman named Marta whom he knows well. His head has been aching since the attempt, and he has been hearing things. But he does not care.

He dozed off, but not before speaking with a ghost–or perhaps an illusion–of his sister who died six years prior. A strange young man entered the store just as he fell asleep.

New Ram City, Aries

When Olive started into consciousness, he nearly fell out of his chair. Nose-to-nose with him was the young man in the sky-blue cloak. The one who’d been sitting behind him when Olive had first arrived at the store.

“What the—”

The young man pulled back with raised hands. “S-Sorry! You looked like you were having a bad dream… I…”

Olive ignored him and glanced over his shoulder toward the couch. His sister was gone. He glanced back over the counter. The back room of the shop was still thick with smoke. The clock that hung to the side of the wall read 2:01.

Nine hours of sleep.

Olive frowned.

He felt odd. As if he’d been asleep for longer than that. As if he’d been away for longer than. It still was a long time regardless. Olive figured the royal guards were probably looking for him now.

“Do you come here often?”

Olive turned back to the young man who had lowered his cloak to reveal his face. His features were sharp—more foxlike than catlike, Olive realized. His dark hair was wildly windswept. And he was tall. Two or three heads taller than Olive.

Instead of answering, Olive swept off the chair and started toward the door. The young man followed him.

“I-I was wondering if you could give me some advice on a conductor for a friend of mine. A weaponized one,” the young man continued. “They’re an Elementalist—”

Olive stopped short, sent him a look of displeasure. Did this person not know who he was? Usually, people on the streets avoided him when he traveled without a cloak and recognized his face. Whether it was because of his handed-down status or the rumors surrounding him, Olive didn’t care to know. He asked, “What makes you think I know anything about conductors?”

The young man rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Good question. You just… seem like the type? I mean, you’re here.” He gestured to the store.

“You’re here, too,” Olive returned. “There’s a mechanic in the back.”

“She seems busy…”

“She is,” Olive affirmed, sliding past him. “That’s what appointments are for.”

“Oh, you have to set an appointment?” The young man blanched before he chuckled with embarrassment. “I feel like an idiot now.”

Olive paused just as he reached the door and craned his neck. “How long have you been waiting here?”

The young man glanced at the clock. Paled. “Nine hours…”

Olive stared. “You are an idiot.”

The young man continued to ogle the clock.

“Extraneous or intraneous?”

“What?” The young man blinked out of his daze.

“Your friend is an Elementalist Conductor,” Olive repeated. “Do they conduct vitae extraneously or intraneously? The vitae outside their body or inside?”

The young man perked up immediately. “I-Intraneously?”

“Then you should probably get one that has a stronger insulator,” Olive said, turning his attention back to the door. “So they don’t exhaust their vitae reserves.”

“An insulator?”

Olive paused. Turned. “The material that goes inside a conductor? To keep vitae utilization stable?” When the young man frowned in confusion, Olive turned to him fully. “How are you looking for a conductor when you don’t even know what an insulator is…?”

“Th-That’s why I’m here.” The young man scratched his head. “Isn’t it…?”

“This shop is for special, customized conductors,” Olive said. What a pain. “You have to know what you want before you come here.” He pushed the door open but paused halfway through the threshold. “It’s closed right now, but there’s a store a couple streets down.”

With that, he inclined his head and pressed outside. The young man brightened and followed him.

The twilight air was still heavy and humid, but the lack of sun allowed a cool breeze to creep between the buildings. As Olive led the young man around the block, the breeze picked up.

The darkness of the night crept into the corners and alleyways around them, but a couple of stores were still open and poured out warm light. The streets were dotted sparsely with pedestrians. Nothing even remotely comparable to the afternoon rush hour from earlier.

The young man shoved a hand in Olive’s face. “I-I really appreciate you showing me the way. My name is Claire.”

Olive studied the hand apprehensively. “I don’t really need to know that.”

“Oh, true.” Claire lowered his hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’s your name?”

“You don’t really need to know that.”

“But I kind of do,” Claire insisted. “You’re helping me out. I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least get your name.”

Olive regarded him. “Olivier.”

“Oh, okay.” Claire nodded. “Can I just call you Olive?”

What—why? Did this guy really not know?

“I don’t really care.”

“I’m seventeen,” Claire continued, unperturbed. “How old are you, Olive? I mean if you don’t mind me asking…”

“Sixteen.”

“Oh, so I’m older. Are you from around here?”

“That’s how I know where everything is,” Olive replied dryly as they turned down a corner. “Let me guess: you’re a tourist.”

Claire broke out into a smile. “How did you guess?”

“You don’t know where anything is.”

“I guess you’re right about that.” Claire laughed sheepishly. “Anyways, it’s really impressive how much you know about conductors.” He pulled off his cloak and tied it around his waist. “Passionate people really inspire me. The fact that you can find something that you really love out of the millions of things out there and choose to pursue it on our own? It’s amazing.”

“Are you sure you’re not a solicitor trying to sell me something?” Olive side-eyed Claire.

“Did it sound that way?” Claire frowned. “I’m being honest…”

They trudged up a sloping walkway in silence.

“It’s not a passion,” Olive finally grumbled. On the outskirts of his vision, he saw a flash of long black hair. “It’s barely even a hobby.”

“Passion, hobby,” Claire mused. “They’re all things that you care about enough to—”

Olive came to an abrupt stop which sent Claire crashing into him. Claire stumbled backward after mumbling an apology before he gave Olive an inquiring look. In response, Olive nodded at the building in front of them. A behemoth, wooden sign loomed on top of the building. conductors: general, weaponized, generator.

The store was much larger than the shop they were previously in. This took up the entire block. It was a wooden building with window displays filled with conductors of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

Claire blinked up at the sight. “How did I not notice that before?”

What a pain, Olive thought with a sigh.

Claire returned the sound with a grateful smile and an extended hand. “Thank you—”

A sliver of brilliant cyan light cracked through the blackness just behind Claire. It blitzed past Claire in an instant and hurtled past Olive’s head. A dull crack resounded followed by a sharp pain at Olive’s ear.

Olive cradled his ear with a wince before he turned his head. A short knife with a blade made of cyan light was embedded in the wall just behind him. Its light dissipated a second after, taking the shape of the blade along with it. The handle clattered to the ground.

There was wetness at Olive’s ear. A drip, drip, drip of blood.

A conductor, he realized. A melee conductor. A Projector Conductor’s weapon.

“What—”

A shadow dropped down between them before Claire could finish.

A tall and dark figure cloaked in black.

Their face was covered by a white mask with painted red cheeks and a black smile.

The masked figure reached for their hip where an array of bladeless hilts hung on a belt. With a deft twist of their fingers, they plucked one of these hilts and twirled it in the air before pointing it at Olive. Out from the hilt grew a bright cyan blade. The light from it banished the shadows around them and ended at the hot tip that ghosted Olive’s throat.

Olive swallowed.

The figure spun the knife in hand and raised it high in the air.

“Olive!” Claire shouted.

Here we go again, Olive thought as he watched the edge of the knife hurtle toward him. It was like the universe was pushing him toward this point. But why? What did his assassination even accomplish? Was his life really worth all of this effort? At this point, wouldn’t it be better if he just—

Dodge! Tuck!

The thought came at Olive so forcefully that he obeyed it without hesitation. With a quick drop of his knees, he fell beneath the line of the knife’s path. Its sharp edge missed the top of his head by a hair’s breadth and carved a line in the wall where it became embedded.

Fight! Grab their weapon! Use it against them! Sweep their feet!

What? No! That was stupid!

“Run!” Olive shouted at Claire before he ducked out underneath the figure who had reached for their belt again. He gave the figure a jab at the side with his elbow before dashing down the walkway. His footsteps pounded in his ear as did his heartbeat. But those were the only sounds he could hear. Had the assassin gone after Claire?

Olive craned his neck just in time to see the silver glint of a blade arcing toward him.

Duck!

Olive snapped forward and ducked. The blade once again skirted his head. The momentum of his evasion, however, sent him tumbling forward and crashing into a trash bin.

A woman across the street gave a shout of alarm. Papers, rotten food, and scraps of metal rained down around him, drowning out the sound. By the time Olive got his bearings, the shadowy shape of the assassin was in front of him.

The assassin flicked their gloved hands and lilac light grew from their palm. The light illuminated their face—their mask. The mask was brown. Wooden. Carved into a smile.

The mask. It was different, Olive realized. The vitae color and conducting type were different too. A Conjurer Conductor, probably. This was not the person who had attacked him before. There was more than one assassin.

The lilac light began to take shape in the assassin’s hand. Another sword. As it solidified in their hand, the light it emitted dimmed until all that was left was a normal longsword, which they lifted into the air.

This was—

—exhilarating!

What… ?! Like hell it was!

“Guards!” Olive managed as he scrambled backward.

He felt something ghost the skin of his hand and turned his head. Crouching right beside him was a woman with tanned skin, with dark brown hair that fell in wild waves to her ears, with bottle-green eyes that glowed unnaturally in the darkness. A woman whose hand was wrapping around his.

“Wha—”

Before he could respond, the woman jerked his hand and forced it to wrap around a stray metal pipe on the ground beside him. With a manic grin, she guided his hand and the pipe upward—

Clang!

Sparks erupted in the dark as metal clashed against metal. The woman pulled Olive’s hand back and forced it forward with the pipe. With a surprised grunt and a metallic screech, the masked figure blocked the blow with their longsword.

Olive’s arm strained against the push of the assassin’s sword, but the woman continued to guide his pipe forward, forward, forward. But the assassin seemed prepared. Flicking their free hand, they conjured another weapon there in a flash of purple light. A dagger.

“Wow, conductors sure can do amazing things!” the woman laughed—of all things—from beside him.

The figure hesitated for a moment before driving the dagger toward Olive’s side. With a quick upward kick, however, the woman sent the dagger spinning in the air. Using the temporary distraction to her advantage, the woman gripped Olive’s hand tight and slid the pipe across the longsword. The motion sent the assassin stumbling back. Without hesitation, the woman swung the pipe at the assassin’s side. A sickening crack resounded.

As the assassin collapsed with a groan, Olive released the pipe, rose to his feet, and dashed down the walkway. He was jerked back, however, by the woman whose hand was still wrapped around his own. She was studying the groaning assassin curiously.

“What are you doing?!” Olive snapped. “Ru—”

He blinked.

The woman was gone.

His hand felt cold.

He looked around in confusion.

Nowhere.

“Wha…?”

He couldn’t linger on the absurdity for any longer because the masked figure rose to their feet. With a grimace, Olive turned on his heels and ran down the road. He locked eyes with the woman who was still standing across the street with her hands cupping her mouth in horror.

“Hide! Get the guards!” Olive snapped at her. She stumbled back in response, but he didn’t wait to see if she followed his request. He rounded the corner into an alleyway and threw a glance back in the direction of his assailant. They were dashing after him at an alarming speed.

“Olive—!”

Olive snapped his attention forward just in time to see a familiar pair of fox-like black eyes. With a painful crack, he collided with Claire and fell to the ground alongside him in a messy tangle of limbs.

“Olive!” Claire panted breathlessly as he sat himself up. He gripped Olive’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Olive swallowed a groan and unfurled his body. “W-Why are you here?!”

“I-I was following—”

“Why in Aries’ name are you following me?!” Olive snapped.

“I was just trying to help!” Claire returned, an edge creeping into his voice. He pulled himself up to a stand and then frowned. “Why are they chasing you?”

“Because I’m the prince, you idiot!” Olive snapped.

“The prince…?! The prince of what?!”

“Seriously?!” Olive recoiled. “I’m the prince of Ari—”

A swift blow to the side cut him off and sent him flying against the alley wall. His vision blurred as his back cracked against brick. His bandaged shoulder pulsated in unison, and his vision dimmed. With a grunt, he shook away the paired pain and forced himself to focus.

The assassin with the wooden mask approached him, sword in hand. But Olive didn’t care for this assassin. The assassin he cared for was the white-masked one who was now approaching a fallen Claire with a glowing cyan knife.

No.

Not again.

It was happening again. All his fault. The same thing. If he hadn’t reached out that helping hand then—

Olive felt it before he saw it. A heat bubbling up the base of his palms. A heat that steadily rose in intensity and temperature until it reached a boiling point. No! But it was too late. Before he realized what was happening, activation energy had been reached.

A flash of pure red sparked at his palms. A spark that exploded into a blaze of deep crimson. A wreath of fire.

The wooden-mask let out a shout of alarm as the flames licked at their feet. They stumbled backward to escape the heat, but the flame was relentless. Crawling across the ground, snapping, and devouring everything in sight. There was no stopping it now.

Soon the wooden-mask was pressed against the opposite alley wall alongside the white-mask. Flames surrounded them.

“Impossible!” the white-mask whispered against the wall of fire. “Without a conductor…?”

Mind buzzing, Olive scrambled to his feet and to Claire’s side. Claire sat up and squinted in confusion. His eyes widened and reflected in the blackness of his irises were the flickering flames. He turned to Olive and whispered, “Did you…?”

The crackling fire crept closer and closer to their assailants as Claire continued to stare, but then a gust of cold wind swept through the alley, extinguishing the roaring fire in an instant. A haze of smoke took its place and suffocated everything in a gray.

Olive stared. What sort of luck—

And then he coughed. He doubled over and coughed and gagged. The haze around him clouded everything. His sight. His mind.

Abruptly, a warm cyan light broke through the smoke, and Olive blinked up to find the white-mask staring down at him. Their knife conductor was pointed squarely at his face.

“Halt at once!” a familiar voice suddenly boomed from the darkness behind them.

Olive turned his head in the direction of the sound. And in the darkness there, a blade of deep crimson light bloomed. The face lit up above it belonged to none other than Alexander Charming.

A fiery arrow burst out of the darkness just behind the man’s head, and it hurtled toward the white-mask. Drawing and igniting another knife conductor in a flash of cyan, the white-mask deflected the arrow with ease.

Out from the night emerged Trystan with a sleek, black bow and arrow in hand. He was soon joined by a group of royal guards who each wielded a conductor.

“In the name of the Ariesian king and queen,” Trystan shouted, “you are hereby under arrest for your assault on the Ariesian prince. Lay down your weapons immediately!”

The white-mask and the wooden-mask exchanged looks before—in a mind-boggling feat of acrobatics—they scaled the wall behind them and climbed onto the rooftop. They peered down the ledge for a moment before disappearing into the night.

“After them!” Trystan ordered. The guards behind the man split off into groups. Trystan followed suit, disappearing down the street, conductor in hand.

Olive watched in a stupor before he turned to Claire. Claire who was no longer sitting beside him. Olive looked around wildly. Nothing. Nowhere. Nowhere. Nothing. Nothing but smoke and ash.

“Prince Chance,” Alexander said as he came to Olive’s side. His voice sounded distant, gargled. “Are you all right?”

Olive turned and emptied his stomach onto the ground. He could taste it. The acrid smoke curling on his tongue. He could feel it. The ghost of flames licking his skin. He could hear it. A distant crackle and pop. A memory.

“They escaped,” came a distant voice. It was Trystan, re-entering the alleyway panting. “Is the prince all right?”

“Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

A pause. “Those flames…”

“That’s for another time,” Alexander responded. He shut off his conductor with a flick of his hand. “Send out a search party for the assassins. We might still be able to catch them.”

“Right.”

Olive could feel Trystan staring at him—staring at his hands that were surrounded by dying embers. But Olive was staring at Trystan too. Staring at the conductor in the man’s hands. The bow and arrow.

* * *

The throne room was quiet save for the pit-pat of his uncle’s shoes as he paced back and forth in front of his throne. The throne of the king of Aries was as grand as all thrones tended to be. It had a gold frame that intricately twisted around a red cushion and rose up in the shape of ram horns. The queen’s throne next to it had the same design, and Terra sat on it pinching the bridge of her nose.

Olive stood in front of his pacing uncle. To his left stood Alexander and Trystan, both standing with their heads bowed.

“So you still haven’t been able to catch the two assassins,” his uncle drew as he threw a glance in Alexander’s direction.

“No, we haven’t, my king,” Alexander replied, finding a way to bow his head even more. “The search party we sent out several hours ago combed through the entire city, but they’ve found nothing. The assassins may have fled the city.”

“And the boy and the woman that Olive mentioned?”

“We haven’t been able to find them. Witnesses said they did see a boy running after Olive, but they didn’t see a woman.”

Olive frowned at this information. Was Claire…

Abruptly, Alexander sank to his knees, startling Olive from his thoughts. The royal guard pressed his head against the floor and clenched his fists. “My king, I am deeply ashamed that I let the prince be put in harm’s way like this, not only once, but twice now. I humbly accept any punishment.”

Olive uncrossed his arms. “Hey, wait a minute—”

“Olive, quiet,” his uncle said as he approached Alexander. “Alexander,” he said, “you’ve served the royal family for many years now and you’ve proven yourself worthy of your title as the head of the royal guards numerous times. After seeing the way you handled the Tragedy, I thought that there was no person better fit for the job.”

“Yes, my king.”

“But as you know, the Ariesian royal guard’s sole purpose is to protect not only New Ram City, but the royal family,” his uncle continued. “Alexander, your personal feelings toward Olive have clouded your judgment. I know you view him as an adolescent in need of freedom, but Olive is the prince of Aries. He is no normal teenager.”

Terra perked up at this with a frown.

“You will be demoted from your position as head royal guard, and you will be assigned to an outpost at the outer city wall,” his uncle stated without a drop of emotion.

Olive stiffened. Wasn’t that excessive? In the end, it had been his own decision that put him in the path of the assassins.

“But—”

“Olive! You don’t have a say in this,” his uncle snapped. “Especially after your constant reckless disobedience! Take some―”

“I know!” Olive snapped back. “I know it’s my fault!”

His uncle closed the distance between them in an instant. Hand raised.

Olive waited but the impact never came. Instead, his uncle lowered his hand and turned away.

“Although it may have been Olivier’s decisions that led to this situation,” his uncle continued, stepping in front of the former royal guard, “it is your duty to ensure these decisions do not get out of hand, Alexander.” He met Olive’s gaze. “Do you understand, Olivier?”

The doors clicked open a moment later, and a royal guard walked up to them.

“Sir, the Ophiuchian peacekeepers are here,” she said.

“Gabrielle and Izsak…” Olive mumbled under his breath.

The guard startled. “Yes, those are the peacekeepers. My prince, how did you know it was them?”

Olive frowned. How did he know?

“Send them into the meeting chambers and tell them we’ll be in shortly.” His uncle waved his hand.

* * *

Olive was wandering down the halls of the palace several hours later. The meeting seemed to be stretching on forever. It was a meeting his uncle and aunt had excluded him from very pointedly, but he didn’t focus on this fact.

The assassins. Claire. Alexander. The woman. They were all weighing on his mind. And the weight on his shadow? Trystan and another guard by the name of Samuel. They were at his heels and watching him like hawks. Alexander had been the only guard to truly master the art of the aloof watcher.

Alexander.

Olive clenched his fists as his gut twisted.

That was what happened when you cared about things.

“Hey, cheer up, Ollie! Maybe we could go to Uncle and convince him to let Alexander slide after!”

Olive stopped short and turned his head. There Lavi was, twirling a lock of dark hair as she strayed between him and the guards.

“I’m not going to convince him about anything,” Olive muttered, turning away from her. “You heard what he said. It’s final. I can’t take back the fact that I snuck out, and I can’t change the fact that he’s being punished because of it.”

“Why are you like this?” Lavi sighed, crossing her arms. “You never used to give up so easily!”

Olive clicked his tongue and whipped his head in her direction. A retort was on the tip of his tongue, but it died there as he locked eyes with Trystan who stood behind her. The man was exchanging a confused look with Samuel. Olive shut his mouth.

“What?” Lavi huffed. “You’re going to ignore me now? You can’t just do that.”

“Yeah, I’m aware.” Olive glanced away from her and stared at the ground. He’d been aware for six years.

“Good.” Lavi beamed, chin lifted. “Now, I’m sure we can convince Uncle if we go to him together.” A pause. “And maybe we can convince him to let us out with some guards to try to find Claire and that lady.”

Olive paused and shook his head. Of course, Lavi saw the woman and Claire. She’d always been able to see things he could see, whether they were real or not. Coincidentally, she strayed the line between reality and illusion too. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Trystan study him with uncertainty.

“Uh, sir,” Trystan began.

A smile broke across Lavi’s face as she pointed down the hall. “Oh, look, it’s—!”

“Well, look at who we have here! It’s Olive Chance!” came a familiar voice.

Down the hall came a man and a woman dressed in black and white suits. White sashes imprinted with the Ophiuchian symbol were wrapped around their right arms. The woman wore a red tie, while the man wore a yellow-orange one. Gabrielle Law and Izsak Wtorek. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents.

“Miss Law,” Olive greeted them in surprise as they came to a stop in front of him. “Mr. Wtorek.”

“Olive, didn’t think we’d see you!” Izsak grinned. “How many years has it been now? Three?”

“It’s been two years,” Gabrielle replied with a yawn. She looked him up and down. “I’m glad to see that you’re all right.” She then reached for his head with her ringed hand. Before she could make contact, he slapped it away with a pointed glare. Instead of looking annoyed by this, she chuckled. “Same as ever, I see.”

Really, what a terrible personality. The most two-faced of them all.

“Look at you!” Izsak whistled. “You’ve grown so tall.” He snapped his fingers and reached into his suit pocket with a gloved hand. “I need your opinion.” There was a familiar amber glow from the area, and when Izsak pulled his hand out from his pocket, a stuffed animal rested in his palm. Pointed ears, buggy eyes, stubby tail.

Olive couldn’t help but let a smile tug at the corner of his lips as he studied the atrocity. “You’ve gotten better.”

Izsak chuckled. “That’s good to hear. Ophiuchus may outlaw the conjuring and transmutation of currency, but there’s nothing written about stuffed animals. In other words, I can start my own monopoly!”

Olive took it from the man and turned it over in his hand. Lavi skirted close to him and rubbed her fingers across its cheek. Her eyes brightened, and she brought up her other hand to squish its other cheek. “Wow,” she whispered, “it’s so ugly that it’s cute.”

“You all know each other?” Trystan’s question cut through the conversation abruptly, and all heads turned toward him. When he realized the attention, he straightened and cleared his throat. “Uh, I apologize, sirs, for interrupting your conversation. I was merely curious.”

Gabrielle regarded him before asking, “Trystan Carter, right? I remember seeing you at the Conductor Exam. I see you’re doing well for yourself. Climbed the ladder pretty quickly, too. King Augustus mentioned thinking of giving you a promotion to head royal guard.”

Olive started at this and glanced at Trystan. Their eyes met. He looked just as startled.

“I’m not surprised you asked if we know each other,” Gabrielle continued, rolling her neck. “I bet you haven’t seen our prince here talk to anyone so friendly like, right?”

What a terrible personality, Olive thought as he regarded the man and did his best to suppress a scowl.

“But to answer your question, yes, we know each other. We’ve been acquainted since six years ago.”

Trystan took a moment to digest the information. After a beat, he stiffened in surprise. “Wait, do you mean… six years ago… during the Tragedy?”

Olive stiffened in the silence that followed. And as he watched, Lavi tucked a lock of hair behind her hair with an unreadable, faraway expression. His stomach churned.

“We were one of the many peacekeepers at the scene after it happened,” Izsak explained.

Gabrielle elaborated, “The fire destroyed most evidence of ELPIS involvement in the royal palace, so we’re lucky Olive was there as key witness.”

There was a somber silence.

Before any more information could be offered, Olive interjected with feigned disinterest, “Anyways, is the meeting over?”

“Yeah, we just wrapped up,” Izsak replied, gaze lingering. “We’re working with the chair of your Investigation Bureau and Security Council to get to the bottom of this before it gets anymore out of hand.” He paused in thought. “You need to be careful, Olive.”

“He’s right you know,” Lavi added, arms crossed again.

“They seem very set on the idea that the assassins are Ariesian,” Gabrielle muttered. “Which I can’t exactly fault them for. It’s very rare for non-Ariesians to be Elementalists with the fire attribute.”

Izsak’s gaze flicked to Gabrielle’s face. “You sound unconvinced.”

Gabrielle chuckled, sliding her hands into her pockets. “I even have my reservations about whether the second group that attacked Olive last night are part of the first assassination attempt. We don’t fully understand the motive. There are too many variables to say for certain.”

And nothing could be left up to chance.

“You mean that there might be more than one group?” Lavi frowned. She gave Olive a worried look. “That’s not good.”

“Anyways”—Gabrielle sighed, waving the thought off—“all the royal guards are to submit their conductors for inspection by tomorrow night.” She nodded at the two who stood behind Olive. “Why don’t you two submit your conductors right now? I’ll handle our prince here.”

Trystan and the other guard exchanged uncertain glances, but before they could protest, Izsak stepped between them and pushed them down the hall. “Here, here,” Izsak said good-naturedly as he threw a glance back at Olive and Gabrielle, “I’ll show you where to submit them.”

It wasn’t until the three had disappeared from view that Gabrielle spoke.

“I heard that you used it again,” she said quietly. Her dark eyes seemed to bore into his face as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right? Would you like me to put in a word to Doctor Kingsley?” Olive winced at the pressure, and she pulled back in surprise. “Oh, sorry…” Another pause. “You should get your wound examined. You know how dangerous elemental vitae can be.”

“I’m fine,” Olive replied, shrugging away from the woman. With that, he inclined his head down the hall and headed in the direction. Lavi soon joined him at his side.

“Wait―where―”

“To feed my bird,” Olive said. “It’s quieter.”

“But―”

“I’ll ask for an escort home, so don’t worry. You won’t get in trouble with your superiors.”

“And he says that I have a terrible personality,” Gabrielle sighed before she shouted: “You should be going to the medical Conductors!”

Aries is a warm northern country ruled by a fair king and queen. Beneath the king and queen are feudal lords who are assigned states to govern and given certain duties in turn. The capital is New Ram City which is under the protection of the royal guards, personally selected Conductors chosen to protect the royal family.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition