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

Re-cap:

The last domino falls.

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She told him what it was at the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice.

What a lovely word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, a golden opportunity came with Ambrose Campana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was rather pathetic, really.

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

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

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

What a bastard.

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

What?

Her eyes narrowed.

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

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

It really was like looking into a mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

Bastard.

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

***

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

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

Wait. Damn.

Fortuna grimaced as a thought came at her from nowhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Damn. Completely powerless. A cycle.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stab at her pride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

(    )

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

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

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

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

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

Wait.

Fortuna’s gaze flicked across the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Friday now,” Fortuna returned.

Agape understandably paled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The police? What was this?

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

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

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

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

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

The officer stared at him befuddled.

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

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

“Chief—” the police officer started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up,” Fortuna whispered.

Carl turned to her incredulously. “Wha—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Francis Foxman, executive of the Romano Family

8.3: Werner’s Diligence (Rilassamento)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence did not respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pickpockets. Taking advantage of tourists. 

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

Pickpocket ring leaders. Street rats—orphans. 

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

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

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

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

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

Werner felt his blood run cold.

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

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

“Werner?” Nico asked. “What it was?”

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

*** 

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

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

Was he late? 

Werner checked his pocket watch. 

He was on time. 

Which meant that he was late. 

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

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

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

Werner peered over the piano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The restaurant owned by the Foxman Family. 

***

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

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

It was a pleasant melody. 

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

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

Kleine…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a douch—

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

Gilbert watched them go longingly. 

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

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

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

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

Gilbert shrugged again. 

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

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

“And you’re the liaison?” A scoff. 

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

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

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

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

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

Werner’s head pounded at the sound. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico faltered. “Right…”

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

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

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

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

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

The pounding began to subside. 

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

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

His lips were moving.

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

He’s crazy. 

Crazy stressed maybe.

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

There was a beat of silence.

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

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

Douche. 

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

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

“Walk with me, Waltz.”

That’s usually the right signal ta skedaddle. 

“Of course, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“What is it, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s my duty, sir.”

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

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

‘Propaganda?’ 

Werner frowned. 

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

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

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

What the…

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

—they all had a couple of screws loose.

Frowning, Werner shook the disrespectful thought off. 

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

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

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

With the Campanas?

“Is there an issue, Waltz?”

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

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

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

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

Werner shook his head.

Atienna. 

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

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

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

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

“Get your shit and get out!”

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

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

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

Fritz’s gaze darkened. “Gang?” 

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

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

“Uh, Mr. Francis, I—”

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

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

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

The meaning was clear. 

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

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

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

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

He didn’t recognize it—

Theta. 

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

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

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

Unsure… 

Jericho flickered out of sight before he elaborated. 

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This has—”

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

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

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

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

Cadence smiled wanly. “Thanks, detective.”

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

There was a beat of silence. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long stretch of silence passed.

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

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

The explanation was nonsensical, but acceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I did.”

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

And that left Werner by himself. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we come in?” Kleine asked. 

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

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

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

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

“Evaluations,” Werner replied. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kleine flushed deeper and stared up at the ceiling. 

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

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

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

Werner sighed. “I see.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was essential to know these types of things as a commanding officer. And it was obvious. 

“You’ve been quiet since the train ride,” Werner said. “And you’re here.”

“It’s kind of stupid… It’s really nothing.”

“If you think it’ll affect you at the meeting next week then it’s not nothing.”

“I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I didn’t think I’d be back here so soon.” Nico half laughed with a wry smile. “Seeing Francis was nice and all but…”

“You aren’t happy that you’ve returned.”

Nico paled somewhat. “Cadence isn’t listening in is she…?”

“My synchronization is low with everyone at the moment, but I can’t say for certain if the memory of this will trickle down to them or not.”

Nico’s brows furrowed, and he seemed to weigh his options before he finally relented: “I know that my main reason for even being in your division is to be a liaison, but I enjoyed being out of the city. Helping you all.”

“Are you planning on leaving those duties when we’re finished here?”

Nico shook his head fiercely, hands raised. “N-No, of course not! I mean, I don’t want to… it’s just that I feel like someone’s is just going to come up to me and rip me off the streets and drag me back.” 

There was a beat of silence, and Nico flushed. 

“Well, when I say it like that,” he mumbled, “it does sound pretty stupid.”

“It’s good practice to be vigilant.” Werner capped his pen. “And you’re wearing a Capricornian officer’s uniform. No one will approach you.”

“You say stuff like that so confidently sometimes, I can’t help but believe you.” Nico chuckled. 

“It’s fact, Nico. Not confidence.” Werner replied. 

Nico chuckled again, rubbing his arm. After a pause, he asked, “Is Cadence alright? I’ve been trying to reach her and my dad, but the lines must be bad or something. They’re not picking up.” Nico stared at him, amber eyes wide and filled with worry like usual. “Is there something going on?”

And then Werner could feel it. A pressure at the back of his neck—a pair of arms wrapping around him. A phantom. A weight. 

He shouldn’t tell him. Nico would worry. And if Nico worried, he would act rashly. 

But it would be best to tell him. To clear the ground so the issue would not create complications later. Complications of trust.

This had nothing to do with trust. 

And after a cold, long drawn out moment, Werner realized that he couldn’t tell which thought belonged to him and which thought belonged to one of the others. 

“Werner?” 

“She’s fine. She’s just busy,” Werner said, tugging at his collar. “There’s no need to worry about it.”


(    )

“I’m home! And with a special delivery!” Shouting such a pleasant thing, the young woman stepped into the room that had no windows and no doors. “It was hard getting to him, you know? It was like that. Yeah.”

Tau sighed, arms crossed, from where he sat by himself at the makeshift board game table. “Do you mind clarifying, Omega? You always talk like everyone can read your mind.”

Letting out an airy giggle, the woman called Omega flipped her bleached hair lazily. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could?”

“You’re still going on with that air-headed act?” Tau lifted a brow. 

Omega smiled. “Is it not cute?” Not waiting for a response, she stretched out her arms and leaned side to side with a groan. She then pounded her shoulder lightly with a sigh. “That was a bit more exhausting than I thought it’d be.”

“You’re complaining about being tired all of the time when I’m the one who’s doing all the hard labor?” came a grumble from behind. 

Out from the darkness behind Omega stepped Iota dragging along a squirming, sobbing man bound with thick chains. Iota’s polka-dotted dress was stained with blood, and her bow was beginning to slip off of her head. 

“You managed to get him,” Tau said, rising from his chair and walking over to them. “Did Leona finally leave?”

“Yep,” Omicron popped, threading her fingers through her hair. “Iota had a lot of fun picking off the peacekeepers.” She whispered behind a hand to Tau, “I think she might be a sadist.”

Iota shrugged, fixing the bow in her hair.

“It looks like Leona’s heading back to Ophiuchus,” Omega continued, eyes somewhat glazed over. “Hopefully, Omicron will leave before then.”

“Did you check him for hidden weapons?” Tau interjected.

Omicron absentmindedly ran her fingers through her again, and Iota gave him a pointed glare.

“W-Why…? Why’re you here?” the chained man at Iota’s feet stammered suddenly, staring at Tau wide-eyed. “Y-You’re the co—”

Tau glanced down at the man. “You’re one of the mayor candidates the Romanos were looking at to replace the recently deceased Mayor Vargas. Depa something. The candidate most likely to be selected.” He sank down into a crouch in front of the man and grimaced. “How much are they paying you? How many underhanded things did you have to do in order to get on that candidate list, huh? Do you feel even a little bit guilty, huh?”

Depa gaped at him.

“What?” Tau scowled. “Can’t talk? What’s the issue? You morally reprehensible pig!”

“Tau, you can reprimand him after we’ve gotten the information we need,” came a voice from the dark corner of the room. 

Depa’s gape widened as a figure holding a book stepped out from the corner, and he remained wordless as the figure came to a stand in front of him.

“This must be the first time you’ve ever been this terrified isn’t it?” Theta asked, staring down at the chained man. A pleasant smile. “Rest assured. It will only become more of a nightmare for you from now on.”


8.1: Cadence’s Honor (Dishonore)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

The violence of the Twin Cities has reached even the criminal bosses who rule the city’s underbelly. Criminal boss and owner of the city ports, Francis Foxman, was stabbed several weeks prior and the assailant still remains at large. Not soon after this, during a meeting meant to unite the powerful Romano Family and Campana Family through the engagement of Fortuna Romano and Ambrose Campana, both dons of the Families are stabbed under mysterious circumstances.

Despite being caught up in all of this chaos, Cadence Morello still finds time to visit the Sognare and dreams of Alma, the pianist who had treated an orphaned Cadence kindly onto to disappear many years ago.

Twin Cities, Gemini

“Why aren’t you saying anything, huh?!”

Thuds resounded through the near-empty casino.

“You just said you were going to talk!” Another thud. “A minute ago!” Thud. “So why!” Thud, thud, thud. “Are you so damned quiet?” There was a monstrous roar. “Talk, dammit!”

Whistling, Cadence watched as a man was sent flying through the casino hall and sent crashing into a billiard table. The cue balls lined up on its surface exploded upwards and ricocheted off of nearby poker and roulette stations which sent black and white poker chips clattering onto the waxed floor.

“Talk,” Carl had said, but Cadence presumed the man didn’t have enough teeth to talk at this point.

The man who was now draped across the billiard table let out a croak as if in agreement with her thought.

“You’re making a mess, Carl.” Francis stood beside Cadence while inspecting one of the cue balls that had hurtled towards him amidst his brother’s tantrum. “Is this any way to treat a guest at our fine establishment?”

Carl whipped around with a glower. “What? You want me to get him a chair?!”

Francis smiled. “Well, we could certainly do that. He may not be able to stand with what we have planned for him for the rest of the day.”

Carl arched a brow and then smirked. He signaled for the group of men and women lounging at the mini-bar at the opposite corner of the hall. Two of the men rose from their positions, one picking up a chair from a nearby table and the other grabbing the croaking man off the pool table. Utilizing a level of teamwork worthy of a cricket duo, they threw the beaten man onto the chair and dragged him in front of the brothers.

“And here, by ‘guest’ I was hopin’ you were referrin’ to me.” Cadence chortled and bent down to pick up one of the poker chips that had rolled over to her feet. She glanced at the man that had been dragged in front of them and resisted a grimace. She could barely make out his eyes beneath all that purple and red. “Is it always this excitin’ when ya guys are openin’ a new business?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Francis set the cue ball onto the poker table behind him.

Allen sat at that table shuffling a deck of cards with a v-cig in his mouth. “Don’t break any more equipment, Carl. Replacing it’s expensive.”

Carl wiped his bloody fists on a towel provided by one of his men. “Come on. We can replace things, Allen. But we can’t replace blood.”

Something twisted in Cadence’s gut at his statement. The memory of Olive’s words and the look in the kid’s eyes on that morning the previous week.

Guilt.

Damn, that kid’s self-deprecation was infectious.

Allen rose from his table, pocketed the deck of cards, and walked over to stand beside Carl. Although Allen was smaller than Carl, he held a pressure that was ten times as suffocating. The seated man shrank into himself as that pressure weighed him down.

“If I heard you correctly over Carl’s shouting earlier, you would be Mr. Luigi, right?” Francis asked the man as he pushed between his brothers wearing his usual calm smile.

Out of all of them, Francis had always been the most mild-mannered one. Whether it was delivering business deals to executives or delivering orders to underlings, he always spoke politely and respectfully. Back in the day, she’d joke around with Carl that if Francis or Nico ever stepped foot out of the city, people would assume they were from the good walk of life. Francis had dropped into their conversation to point out that Cadence herself could appear as anyone she wanted so she had the upper hand in that case. But appearances were deceiving.

“Well, am I correct that you are Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed calmly. “Just nod your head yes or no.”

Luigi swallowed and nodded slowly.

It seemed as if he thought Francis was a ray of mercy.

“We see you here quite frequently, Mr. Luigi,” Francis continued. “And we’re quite familiar with the large debt you owe not only to us but also to your bookie. But, since you also happen to be bringing in a large sum of patrons from your other gambling nooks, we’ve been turning you a blind eye. I understand how this is easy for you to interpret as giving us the slip but—”

“Who was it that told you to jump my brother, huh?!” Carl roared, grabbing Luigi by the throat. “And don’t you dare tell me that it wasn’t you! We have five other witnesses pinning you on the damned scene!”

“I don’t know!” The man sobbed, spluttered. “I don’t know! I didn’t ask! I only spoke—spoke to some middle guy—to some middle man!”

“That’s not a name!”

“Please, believe me! I don’t even know the middle man! He didn’t show his face!”

Francis straightened himself and glanced at Carl. “What do you think, Carl? Does Mr. Luigi here seem to be telling the truth?”

“Well, I dunno, Francis.” Carl sneered. “You got an idea?”

Francis’s smile thinned. “How about this, Mr. Luigi. How about we resolve this with a simple request. If you do one small thing for me, we’ll let you go. Don’t worry. It’s not anything big. It’s the sort of thing you’d try to do if you maybe had just a little bit too much to drink. How about it?”

Luigi nodded fiercely.

“Are you sure, Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed. “Well, while it is a small task, if you can’t do it then we’re going to have an even longer talk afterwards.”

“I-I’ll do it!” Luigi stammered, spitting out blood. “Whatever you want me to do to someone, I’ll do it! Whatever it is!”

Carl exchanged a look with Francis before he barked out a laugh. Francis remained smiling.

“Oh, Mr. Luigi, this isn’t something we’re asking you to do to someone else,” Francis explained. “This is something we’re asking you to do to yourself.” With that, Francis reached into his pocket, pulling out the cue ball he’d picked back up from the table a minute earlier and holding it out to the man. “Think of this as a pill of truth. Swallow it whole, and we’ll believe you and let you walk.”

Luigi’s eyes widened as he stared at the ball. “B-But that’s—that’s—”

“You accepted, Mr. Luigi. A deal is a deal.”

Francis handed the cue ball to Carl who then began to slowly shove the thing into the man’s mouth. Gagging and screaming followed.

Cadence felt a bit bad for Luigi. He probably had just taken up the job out of desperation to try and get some cens to pay off his debt. Desperation made people irrational and stupid.

But at the same time, part of her was a bit happy at his suffering. That was probably because to her the Foxmans had a speci—

Bah.

She was getting too worked up about this. It wasn’t like any of this involved her anyways. This was strictly a Foxman issue. And Francis was fine, so—

Those are impressive mental gymnastics, came Olive’s thought paired with sarcastic mental clapping. Gauging by his demeanor, Cadence assumed that this was not an intentional synchronization. The synchronization was light, so she could only tell that he was eating breakfast and that he felt uncomfortable with his situation. He was not visible to her. So, you’re really doing it then. Thought you were friends with them.

Sure, we’re friends. Doesn’t mean I gotta always meddle in his problems. We’re grownups. Friendship is different when ya reach a certain age, Cadence returned. A slight smile tugged on the corner of her lips. Which is why enjoyin’ your little friendship breakfast hang out with Claire should be a priority—

Annoyance bled out from their connection. We aren’t—

Man, we’ve synchronized twice today already, kid. I know we’ve been gettin’ along real swell lately but—

“You seem to be in a good mood, Cadence,” Francis said suddenly, drawing Cadence out of her internal conversation. “Never thought you to be the sadistic type.”

During her spiel with the kid, Carl had ordered some of their men to drag out “Mr. Luigi” to the back room where Cadence presumed additional hospitality would be offered.

“Saints, I wasn’t the one makin’ mincemeat with my fists,” Cadence quipped. “I’m a lover at heart.”

Carl scoffed, wiping his knuckles off with another towel. “You just don’t like gettin’ your hands dirty.”

The entrance doors to the casino abruptly flew open, and a woman wearing a fedora stepped in. She rushed to Francis’s side. “Boss, the police commissario is here,” she stammered. “He wants to speak with you.”

“Tell him to buzz off,” Carl muttered.

“He insists,” the woman pressed. “Says it’s important.”

Allen turned to the woman which caused her to stiffen. But he brushed past her and walked over to the poker table and sat back down slowly. He gave a puff of his v-cig and began inspecting the deck again.

Allen really did not know how to treat a woman. Well, he didn’t know how to treat anybody.

“I ain’t a fan of ‘the law’ seein’ my face,” Cadence said, pulling the bill of her hat down low, “so I’ll be makin’ my exit—”

The large wooden doors to the casino blew open without warning.

Cadence immediately snapped her ringed fingers and transmuted the form of one of the brothers’ men over herself. Francis glanced at her briefly before turning to face another one of his underlings who had rushed in from outside.

“Sorry, boss,” the man panted. “They wouldn’t listen—”

Francis nodded. “It’s all right, Clarence.”

“’All right’?” A scoff resounded from the door. “’All right’? What about the current state of things makes you think it’s ‘all right’?”

In stepped a group wearing familiar uniforms. Gray button-ups with billed gray caps and gray slacks. Very gothic in Cadence’s opinion. Matched the police’s state in the city perfectly. In front of this gray uniformed group stood a man in a suit. His dark brown hair was slicked back, his sharp eyes piercing through the square glasses that rested on his hawk nose.

Commisario Vincente Giustizia. The police commissioner of the Twin Cities of Gemini.

Cadence had purposefully stayed as far from his as possible not only at the dinner party with the Romanos and Foxmans but also in general. She didn’t trust law enforcers and trusted corrupt law enforcers even less.

Not talkin’ about you, Jericho, Cadence thought just for good measure.

“Commisario Giustizia,” Francis greeted the man with a practiced smile. “What do we owe the pleasure of seeing you today?”

“Oh, trust me. If it’s a pleasure, it’s only for you!”

Cadence resisted doing a double-take. Francis and Carl exchanged looks. Allen remained impassive.

“I mean, look at all this.” The officer stomped over to Francis, gesturing wildly around him. “How did this building even get approved by the city officials? What licenses do they actually have to run this establishment? And their restaurants? And their bars?!”

For a man who was rumored to be cool, suave, and level-headed, Vincente sure enjoyed shouting maniacally.

Cadence had heard many things about Vincente from the people of the city. That he was a handsome gentleman, that he was kind and considerate, that he was fighting for a safer city against the darker underworld. But people of that underworld knew the truth about him. And as Fortuna had so eloquently put it years ago, he “was a soulless, greedy pig who would bend over backwards for money only to flaunt it on women half a second later.”

Carl glowered, taking a step forward.

Francis held up a placating hand and stepped forward himself. “If you want our licenses, I’d be happy to provide them, Mr. Giustizia, as long as there’s probable cause for it. That is the law which I’m sure you—”

“The law?” Vincente huffed. “The law? I am the law! I’m more of the law than—”

“Why’re you here?” Allen asked plainly. “If you don’t give us a reason and continue to make a scene before our business opens then you’ll have to arrest yourself for disruption.”

“Arrest myself?!”

What a funny person.

For a moment, a laugh tickled Cadence’s throat. But even though she did not allow the laugh to escape, Vincente whipped his head in her direction.

“You—are you laughing?”

“Uh, no, of course not. Sorry, sir,” Cadence responded, voice deep and gravely. She coughed and slammed her chest with her fist. “Bad cough. Trynna quit smokin’ but it’s givin’ me a hard time.”

Vincente scrutinized her.

Something about the man’s gaze made her skin crawl. It was almost familiar—the feeling. She couldn’t quite place it. An unpleasant nostalgia. A memory was on the very tip of her tongue. One of the others’. Before she could reach out to one of them, he looked away from her.

“Well, you do have a point. My apologies.” Vincente cleared his throat and straightened his uniform. “That isn’t like me, is it.” He glanced back at the officers behind him who shook their heads with a collection of “No, chief”s. “I shouldn’t have been so straightforwar—”

“You still haven’t answered our question,” Allen said. “Why you’re here. Did Fortuna or Cavallo send you? Or are you here to complain about not receiving your pay off from Ricardo? I’m sure you know why that payment’s late.”

You know why I’m here,” Vincente replied, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“This is about what happened last week. The unfortunate circumstances that fell on Ricardo and Mr. Campana,” Francis concluded. “If you’re here to question our involvement, you won’t find anything. We weren’t there on that night. And we’ve been in good business with the Romanos and wouldn’t dare to disrupt that.” He frowned, eyes hardening. “To even think that we’d raise a hand towards someone who we’ve been working with for years is an insult.”

“Why don’t you look into the Campanas?” Allen asked loosely, still not looking up from his cards. “Heard their don is already making a speedy recovery. Suspicious.”

Vincente didn’t acknowledge the man and instead placed a hand on Francis’s arm. “Look. I’m just here to ensure nothing else happens. For your sake—”

Several of the Foxmans’ men stiffened at this and directed their steely gazes towards Vincente.

Keeping his smile in place, Francis held up his hand to keep them at bay. He then grabbed the officer’s resting hand. “Commisario Giustizia, while your concern is warranted…” Tightening his grip, he removed Giustizia’s hand from his arm. “… your accusations and suspicions are not. Frankly, I find them very rude.”

Vincente winced and rubbed his hand once Francis released it. He took a moment to study Francis long and hard, and Francis held his gaze in turn. Finally, the police commissioner turned on his heels and signaled for his officers to leave. He left a beat afterwards, stating rather ominously that they’d be seeing each other again soon.

“Who does that bastard think he is waltzing in here like that,” Carl spat once the doors to the casino had slammed shut. “Bet those damn Campanas are tryna get that guy to plant something on us or somethin’.”

“Ricardo owns him, not the Campanas,” Allen corrected.

“Still!”

“Seems like suspicion is comin’ in from all angles.” Cadence sighed, shaking her head. “It was pretty awful—that night. Can’t get his body outta my head—Ricardo’s, I mean. It just didn’t look right.”

“Yeah, always thought the mean old bastard would outlive us by at least fifty years,” Carl grumbled.

“Stop talking like he’s dead,” Allen interjected. “He’s in good hands with old man Fabrizzio.” He grunted. “Though I feel sorry for his bill.”

“How’s Fortuna…?” Francis asked suddenly.

“You know her. She knows the boss’ll pull through so she’s not even sheddin’ a tear.” Cadence chuckled. “She may have been a bit cold in the doc’s waitin’ room that night, but she really does appreciate the flowers.”

Carl turned with a grimace. “Yeah, well, good.”

“And is Fortuna the one that sent you here, Cadence?” Allen asked without hesitation.

“Come on, Allen. There’s no need to bully Cadence,” Francis sighed. “She may be many things—” He paused to chuckle at his own joke. “—but she’s a friend first and foremost.” He turned to her, wearing his usual smile. But his eyes were as hard as steel.

“‘Course, I mean I can’t forget all the stupid stuff we’ve done together, right?” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Ya know, after Fortuna and Ambrose started gettin’ along together, I thought everything’d get sorted out.” —She was speaking too much now, she knew— “Thought it’d even somehow sort out your bad blood with the Campanas too.”

There was a long stretch of silence before Allen waved his hand of cards in the air. “Let’s play a round.”

“A round of cards?” Cadence huffed, feeling the corner of her mouth tug upwards as Carl joined his older brother at the table without question. “Now?”

“Why not?” Francis asked, joining Allen at the table too. “They’re always interesting, aren’t they?”

“Interestin’?” Cadence arched a brow. “Ya mean interestin’ in how we all end up somehow havin’ royal flushes at the end?”

Francis offered a musical chuckle in response.

***

After the game—after Allen won three times in a row—Francis offered to accompany Cadence on the way back to her apartment. She’d moved again recently and Francis had stated he wanted to check out the front.

It took a lot of convincing for Allen not to send them off with five additional men. Cadence assured the man that she of all people knew how to get out of sticky situations and that she was sure to pass on the knowledge swiftly.

The two were strolling along the sidewalk commenting on their previous game when Cadence spotted a familiar candy store coming up around the corner. A sign in the shape of a lollipop hung from its window.

“Hey, Francis, ya remember when we used ta do a trio routine with Nico t’pull one over on that candy shop owner?”

“Mr. Ferrari,” Francis recalled, glancing at the store in question. “Yes, I do remember that. It worked like a charm. We ended up stealing two hundred cens worth of candy over the years. The cops wouldn’t look into it, so he ended up putting up wanted signs he drew himself.”

“Yeah, didn’t he try ta put ‘em all around town or somethin’?” Cadence threw her head back and cackled. “Wait, I remember now. No one—”

“No one would let him put his signs up, so he ended up just placing them all around his store,” Francis finished. “And people started to think we were child candy brand models.”

“Man, the look on his face when we made our last heist. Cleaned out his entire stock of candied nuts.”

“And that’s how we discovered I was deathly allergic to peanuts.” Francis chuckled.

“Yeah. Never seen Nico cry that much before in my life. I had ta practically drag the both of ya ta the doc’s.”

“Don’t know what was worse. The anaphylactic shock, meeting Doctor Fabrizzio for the first time, or Allen beating us over afterwards.”

“Eh, Allen doesn’t even come close to the doc. No offense—”

“Matilda and her group remind me a lot of how we were before we started getting more involved in the city. Do you think a couple of years from now, she’ll also be…”

Huh? That was random.

Cadence turned to address the odd change in conversation but paused when she saw a familiar figure peering into the window of the candy store they had been discussing.

It was the Sagittarian tourist from that night in the alleyway with Feliciano and two of Matilda’s girls.

“Give me a sec,” Cadence said, patting Francis on the back as she approached the tourist from behind. She cleared her throat and said, “Well, talk about a twist of fate.”

The Sagittarian’s head perked up as he turned around. And he squinted at her for a long and hard moment before he threw his hands up in the air.

“It’s you!” he exclaimed, suddenly wrapping Cadence in a tight hug. “My knight from the night! Cadence, was it?”

Cadence was taken aback but returned the gesture with a pat on the back. “For someone who doesn’t know up from down, ya sure got a knack for rememberin’ names. By the way, what’s your name?”

The man pulled away before dipping into a low bow. “I am Kuroihoshi Hideyoshi.”

Interesting customs.

“Your friend there…” The man popped up a beat after and seemed to register Francis standing behind her. With raised brows, he muttered, “Isn’t he…”

Cadence glanced back at Francis before placing a hand on Hideyoshi’s soldiers. “Listen, Hide—can I call ya Hide? Number one tourist experience be damned. Ya don’t want to be barkin’ up that tree.”

“I swear that he…” Hideyoshi rubbed his chin. He startled suddenly and whipped back to look inside the store. “Saints! They’re almost sold out.” He whipped around again and grabbed Cadence by the shoulders. “The limited-edition Cioccolato bar! How can I call myself an extreme tourist if I don’t get my hands one of these?!”

Extreme tourist? That sounded a bit familiar…

“Uh.”

Without another word, the man spun around again and dashed into the store. Cadence watched with mild amusement and confusion as the man began to shout ecstatically to Mr. Ferrari’s son who was currently manning the counter within.

“What was that guy’s deal?” Francis asked, approaching Cadence from behind.

“Touristy type,” Cadence explained as she nodded down the street and started walking again. “Met him a couple of nights ago while Feliciano was kickin’ him in.”

Francis frowned, falling into pace beside her. “Donato’s son?”

“Yep. Seems like he’s got a coupla screws loose—the tourist, I mean. Directed him to the Sognare to keep him off the streets for a little while—I mean, I do perform acts of kindness every once in a blue moon.” She chortled before she sighed: “This city keeps gettin’ weirder and weirder.”

It was more like the world, actually, that was getting weird.

“The Sognare…” Francis frowned. Realization flickered in his eyes. “Wait, Cadence, don’t tell me that you’re still—”

“What?” Cadence shrugged. “I gotta keep ‘em in business. ‘Specially since Nico is off playin’ soldier, you and your brothers are rakin’ in business, and Fortuna is Fortuna. One of us has got ta stick to the roots.”

“Nico is going to be back in town soon,” Francis murmured. “I almost forgot. Should we throw a welcome party for him?”

“Nah.” Cadence waved off the idea. “Ya know he’s not into that kinda stuff.” Plus with everything going on…

Francis seemed to consider this for a moment and stopped suddenly in his tracks. She turned to look back at him.

“Cadence. Don’t take what Allen said too seriously. About you being hired out by Cavallo or Fortuna. He just has to put up that front for the men. Honestly, you can just forget it ever happened.”

“And done.” Cadence snapped her fingers. “And should I forget what you said too?”

Francis shook his head with a wry smile. He stared off across the street before pulling out a v-cig from his pocket and igniting it with a flick. “You ever think back and wonder how things would’ve turned out if we made different choices? I mean, you always said you wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way, and Carl and Allen wanted to open a bar of our own. Without all the extra things we’ve added on the side, I mean.”

“Not really.” Cadence shrugged. “That was a bit random, Francis. What’s got ya reminiscin’?”

Francis half-sighed, half-laughed. He took a drag and then rolled the cigarette between his fingertips. “It’s nothing. Forget what I said.”

“Already forgotten.”

They reached her apartment fifteen minutes later. Francis politely declined her invitation to stay for lunch and then headed on his way.

Not suited for this business, huh? Cadence mused, waving to him from her apartment window. As if anyone was suited for this business. People were just making due with what they had.

***

On the dawn after Ricardo Romano and the Campana head were attacked, Cadence was called into Ricardo’s main office. With all of the chaos that had unfolded shortly after that night, Cadence was surprised at how swiftly things were dealt with.

Ricardo and the Campana don sent to their respective medical Conductors. Increased security for executives. A full investigation launched by the commissario that tore through both sides of the city. Not even a single drop of additional Campana or Romano bloodshed that night despite the circumstances. Not even a rumor of the events slipping out besides those who had attended the party and additional high-profile parties related to them.

Really, the city was terribly efficient.

When Cadence stepped into Ricardo’s office, she was rather surprised at her lack of surprise at seeing Fortuna sitting there at her father’s desk. For anyone else to do it, it might’ve been seen as disrespectful or callous. But Fortuna was different. She was putting her foot down. Her position of power nailed firmly in place. A sign for the other caporegimes to lower their greedy eyes.

So much for family.

Cavallo stood beside Fortuna with a steely expression, but Cadence didn’t pay any mind to him. She approached the table swiftly.

“Fortuna, is everythin’ all—”

“I have a job for you, Morello.”

Cadence paused and then spread her arms. She glanced at Cavallo. “Already? Well, aren’t we workin’ fast—”

“Don’t look at Cavallo, Morello. I am the acting head,” Fortuna stated, folding her hands on the table. “And I am the one giving this order.”

Morello, appearances. Werner’s voice ghosted the edges of her mind.

Cadence lowered her hands and folded them behind her back. Cavallo arched an eyebrow at her but she kept her gaze focused on Fortuna. Fortuna smiled ever so slightly at this, but the expression didn’t last long.

“The Campanas have already set their own paid police dogs loose in the city,” Fortuna said. “They’re turning over every stone in sight to find the ones who did this. Starting with the Foxmans.”

Cadence dropped her hands to her side and leaned forward a bit. “Now, I ain’t one to be involvin’ myself in drama and gossip, but that seems a little suspect, don’t ya think? I know the Romanos and the Campanas have a good thing goin’ but…”

Fortuna held her gaze before speaking, “The engagement between the Campanas and Romanos has obviously been postponed. Goodwill aside, we can’t allow the Campanas to handle this investigation on their own.”

Saints. An entire engagement postponed just like that. Cadence didn’t blame them, but it seemed a bit detached. Was the whole romance between Fortuna and Ambrose broken off like that? All that passion gone—rather, put on hold—in an instant? Was there even any passion to begin with, or were they both batting eyes at each other at face value?

Bah. None of it involved her. No use thinking about it.

Cadence finally noticed the flowers sitting in the vase on the table behind Fortuna. “So ya want me ta look into the Campanas? I heard their don is makin’ a fast recovery, so it does seem a little weird. ‘Course, intentions aside, the idea that a don would knock himself into a hospital room just ta gain the upper hand does seem a bit extra—for both sides.” —Saints, she was rambling. Too much time talking to Atienna— “Then again, this city is—”

Fortuna seemed to notice her gaze because she soon clarified: “You’re mistaking my intentions, Morello. Yes, I want you to look into the Campanas, but I also need you to look into the Foxmans. One of them may have gotten their hands on a Specialist who was capable of doing something like that. I don’t care about why someone did this. I want to know who. And how.”

Cadence paused and arched a brow. “Ya sure that’s a good investment of time? I mean, they weren’t even there.” Which made them even more suspect.

“Morello. You call yourself a freelancer, but a major source of your income comes from work from this Family. You are employed by us, Morello. Not the Foxmans. I hope you haven’t forgotten this.”

Cadence kept her voice even and a pleasant smile on. “How could I? Black knight, right?”

Fortuna glanced back at Cavallo before she leaned back with crossed arms. She sighed. “Again that ‘knight’ talk. We’re a business, Cadence. The Foxmans are a business. Nico is an associate of our business and so are you. We’re not children anymore. You could argue that we never were.”

Do people really say these things and think they sound cool?

“Things like this always come from the direction you least expect them to,” Fortuna continued. “That’s why they happen. I want you to keep an eye on the Foxmans. See if they’re up to anything and what they were up to last night. It doesn’t matter if you find it out as yourself or as one of the Foxmans’ men. The same applies to the Campanas. I want you to keep an eye on the acting head in particular.” She reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a case. She clicked it open. “This is the first half. You’ll receive the rest after you complete this.”

It glittered alluringly—the stacks of cens all nicely wrapped up in a clear plastic packaging, all lined up in stacked up rows. The money she’d gotten from her most recent odd job swindle was nearing its end, and her monthly bills were coming on down the road—

And there Olive appeared behind the table looking at her with an expression of both disinterest and judgment. A judgement that she felt curl up in her own chest.

“Look, the pay is swell and all, Fortuna,” Cadence said, reaching out to close the case. “But I’m actually kinda booked at the moment—”

Fortuna reached out and placed a hand above Cadence’s, effectively stopping her from closing it fully. “You have unusual monetary habits, Morello.”

Cadence froze and released the case.

“Splurging half of your pay as you please and storing the other half in a deposit at the city bank,” Fortuna said, pulling the case open again. “What exactly are you saving all that money for?” She folded her hands again. “Who?”

“For myself, of course,” Cadence returned smoothly. “Y’know Allen’s always preachin’ about savin’ up for a rainy day. Heard it so many times, thought I’d at least try practicin’ in.”

Fortuna seemed to consider this and then abruptly chuckled. “The owner of the city bank passed away a week ago. We were able to get one of our own into the vacant position.” She pulled the case back open. “We’ve asked him to keep a special eye out on the accounts of the people who are associated with us. For protection’s sake.” Fortuna’s smile thinned. “Don’t you think you at least owe us something for the extra measures we’re going to ensure the safety of your funds?”

The threat was clear. As clear as Olive’s piercing green gaze.

Regardless, Cadence took two steps backwards and offered an overzealous bow. “Of course, my liege. How can I forget your wonderful generosity?”

Olive grimaced and turned away.

***

Near the end of the week after her stroll with Francis, Cadence opted to forgo her Foxman investigation in favor of a Campana investigation. She reasoned that she wouldn’t be able to get much from the Foxmans since they were too focused on their own personal investigation.

Unfortunately for Cadence, however, the Campana’s security had increased tenfold. They checked for conductors at the entrance to all of their establishments and even had the city police running around every block checking every pedestrian in sight.

It was as if the universe was directing Cadence in the Foxman’s direction. At this point, it wasn’t her fault.

Brushing these thoughts aside, Cadence made her way through the city and towards the Sognare. A soft tune was already drifting out of the bar as she approached. Her heart skipped a beat at the sound, and she continued further albeit a bit more slowly.

As she neared the entrance, the melody became clearer. Like water trickling down a stream into a still pool. The way of play—Cadence recognized it. There was only one person who could play in such a melodic manner.

Taking in a deep breath, she snapped her fingers. She did not need to check a mirror to see that she was now dressed in a crisp suit instead of a beat down oversized one.

She pushed through the entrance. The bartender did not greet her as usual but this time it was not out of habit. This time his negligence of her arrival was due to his attention being drawn away to the center of the stage at the back.

Standing there beneath the spotlight in front of the old grand piano was a woman. A woman with short black curls, with pale ivory skin. Her small and thin frame was wrapped in deep black dress that glimmered with stones—like stars in the night sky. But even the stars paled in comparison to the glimmering smile the woman gave Cadence as she turned away from the instrument.

“Alma…”

Cadence drifted past the tables, nearly tripping over her own two feet as she neared the stage. Alma neared the edge at Cadence’s approach and sank down to a crouch.

“Hello, Cucciolo.”

Cadence extended her hand out to the other woman while taking a gracious bow. Alma accepted the gesture, bowed even more graciously, and pulled Cadence up onto the stage.

“My, this is more dramatic than when you stopped by our hotel with flowers,” Alma finally said as she guided Cadence over to the piano. “You still haven’t told me how you found me. We’d barely settled back into the city, and there you were with your roses. You left me so curious that I didn’t have any choice but to accept your invitation to come here. Playing on my curiosity like that.” She tutted.

Cadence had known the exact moment Alma stepped foot in the city. It had been exactly one week prior to the Romano-Campana meeting on a sunny Tuesday morning. 8:09 am to be exact on Werner’s watch. And while Cadence had known Alma was in the city the moment Alma had arrived, finding Alma had been an entirely different story. This was because, for these past ten years, Alma had been in the company of a dangerous party.

“Well, maybe if you swing by here tomorrow then I’ll tell you. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.”

Alma chuckled at this and looked Cadence up and down before the corner of eyes crinkled. “You’ve really matured so much since then. It feels wrong for me to keep calling you ‘Cucciolo’. I wouldn’t have even recognized you if it weren’t for…” Alma trailed off, raising a hand to twirl a lock of Cadence’s copper locks around her index finger.

“You could call me darling instead,” Cadence suggested, resting her hands on the piano keys and playing a C major. “And I’ve been reading lately, so I hand my maturity off to the that.”

A beautiful chuckle followed by a short musical staccato. Cadence returned the sound with a staccato of her own, albeit a bit faster.

“I meant to ask when you visited,” Alma drew, “how is Miss Agape? You must know her well now if the rumors that I’ve been hearing are true. She always treated me so kindly when I was working at the Casa…” Another smile crinkled the corner of her eyes. “I wouldn’t have been able to practice at the Sognare if she didn’t give me the time off… and then I wouldn’t have been able to meet you.”

“She keeps trying to get me to join the Casa or one of her other clubs.” Cadence sighed, playing another C major. “She’s always looking for profit—”

“Don’t do that, Cadence,” Alma whispered, eyes wide as she cupped Cadence’s cheek with her hand. “Not at the Casa or the clubs. You’re too talented, too precious to me to do something like that.”

“Hey, the workers at the Casa and the clubs are plenty talented.” Cadence chuckled, stroking a B flat. “I mean, I’m sure they lost a lot of talent when you left. Agape complained about it all the time.”

Alma’s eyes suddenly lost their light. “So, if you really do know Agape well enough for her to speak to you like that,” she drew, pulling away her hand, “then it really is true. You really have been working with the Romanos all these years—”

“No!” Cadence shook her head. “I haven’t joined them. I’m only working for them. I’m not on any of their rosters or anything. Just odd jobs here and there.”

Alma remained silent.

“…I only decided to stay with them because I knew one of the executives bought you out from the Casa de Bambolle and—” And she had needed the funds.

“—and gifted me to the Campanas. As some temporary truce,” Alma reached her own conclusion. “Because one of the executives from the Campanas thought I was charming.”

Cadence stared down at the black keys in between all of the white.

“Oh, don’t look so sad, Cadence. He’s been very kind,” Alma drew. “Enzo, the one who bought me. He was just a capo for the Campanas then but now he’s second in command. Truth be told, I hated him at first. I did everything I could to upset him. I broke his favorite vases, called him names in public, and refused to speak with him at home. But he was very patient and always paid attention to me. When he found out that I missed playing the piano, he bought one for me. When he saw me get frustrated playing a complicated piece, he bought me a teacher.”

I can do that too, Cadence thought. I can do that for you too. And then she thought of Fortuna and her bank account. Fortuna really knew how to hit it where it hurt.

“He even rented a stage for me to play in front of an audience recently. Can you imagine that?”

“It sounds like he certainly knows how to treat people.” Cadence faked a smile.

Alma’s eyes twinkled again, but in a different way. “He calls me his songbird even though I have a terrible voice. I thought he was being silly at first, but it turns out he really does think of me that way.” She glanced at the piano. “Like a bird in a cage. The only thing that’s changed are the surroundings.” She turned back to Cadence smiling. “He kept me in his villa in Cancer, did you know? It’s a very beautiful country.”

“Alma…”

Alma shook her head. “My feelings for Enzo—and Agape, the Campanas, and the Romanos—are still complicated, but I have a lot to thank them for. I mean, without the union between the two Families, I would’ve never come back here. I would have never been able to see you again.” She stared at the piano. “Cadence…. you’re special, you know that? You made me feel like I could do anything.”

Her words were like a dream.

Cadence felt her chest swell. “I guess I have a lot to be thankful for too. Since you’re here again. I… I’ve been making decent money here… and… maybe… I was thinking…” After this all settles down. “I could make a decent place for you here. Like your own piano playing joint—place, I mean.”

“A place for me here?” Alma remained smiling but the light in her eyes changed. “This city is as suffocating as I remember it. The skyscrapers remind me of the bars of a cage. It smells worse than before somehow, and there’s trash everywhere. And then there’s everyone else—those pitiable people clogging up the streets all thinking they’ll do something big someday.”

It wasn’t that bad, was it? Cadence hated the place too, but she’d grown up on these filthy streets. It wasn’t quite home, per se, but it wasn’t not-home either.

Cadence found herself pausing at her own thoughts.

Wait a moment.

Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that she’d been dreaming about kissing the city goodbye? And playing on the Ophiuchian Way with Alma? But recently, she had been thinking that it wasn’t too bad staying here—that it was bearable. What exactly had changed…?

A cold began to creep up her spine as her mind drifted to the other five.

She was fickle. That’s all it was. 

“Cadence.”

Snapped out of her thoughts, Cadence looked back at Alma and found her frowning.

“Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Alma asked quietly. “Enzo has been distant these past few days. Cold. Stressed. Angry. He told me that the union between the Campanas and the Romanos was postponed, but he hasn’t told me anything else…. But—this involves little Francis and his brothers, doesn’t it…? I overheard Enzo speaking with the other executives the other day…”

The Campanas were talking about the Foxmans? Did they suspect them? Or were they trying to frame them? Or?

“They’re not so little anymore.” Cadence threw up an easy smile. She had to find a way to steer Alma off this conversation quick. But then she paused as she fully digested Alma’s words. “’Angry’? What do you mean angry?”

Alma’s lips drew downwards. “They own the ports now, don’t they—Francis and his brothers? And little Nico is probably working with his father, and cute Fortuna is probably…” A hum. “I really did love when you would bring them by.”

“Yeah, but Alma, what do you mean by angr—”

“Cadence,” Alma said, “can you do something for me?”

“Anything, Alma,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. She was being watched by some of the other five. She could feel their gazes prickling her skin, ghosting her consciousness.

The others wouldn’t understand. The others weren’t like her. They had all grown up differently than her. And that was fine. That was just the hand fate dealt them. There was no helping it. Yes, they wouldn’t understand that—

—before Ricardo, before the Foxmans, before Nico, there was Alma. And before Alma—well, Cadence didn’t want to think of what came before Alma, so Alma to her really was the beginning. Alma, the pianist who would play a tune at the Sognare every Thursday night. Alma, the mysterious young woman who drew in all types of late-night walkers to the bar. Alma, who had beckoned a eight-year-old Cadence in from the cold winters outside with a pale finger. Alma who had ignored the words of protests from bar patrons and had allowed Cadence to sit at a table closest to the piano. Alma, who had taken Cadence into her small flat, not caring about how grimy Cadence’s cheeks were nor how dirty her worn-down shoes were. Alma, who had taken Cadence’s hand and twirled around her flat to music droning off the record player. Alma, who had given Cadence a home. No. Alma who had become home.

“I’m scared, Cadence,” Alma whispered, voice as breathy and lovely as always. “The Foxmans must have something to do with what’s going on. Could you look into it for me, please?”

Yeah. The universe really was directing her into the Foxman’s direction. There was no helping it now.


(    )

“It’s your move, Iota.”

“I know that, Tau.”

Conversing in a small room lit only by an assortment of wax candles, a man and a woman sat across from one another observing a game board placed on top of a stack of books. The man was wearing glasses and was dressed in a crisp suit. The woman was wearing a polka-dotted blue dress and had a red bandanna tied into a bow on top of her head. There were no windows present to provide better light nor were there any doors present to let in air, but this did not seem to deter the man and the woman at all.

The game board in question consisted of approximately 10 by 10 squares and was littered with small token-shaped black and white pieces. There were twelve white pieces left on the board and only two black pieces. It was evident who was winning.

After a longer beat of silence, the woman named Iota reached forward—the white snake-tattoo on the arch of her hand glowed in the candlelight—and moved one of the white pieces diagonally up and over the second to last remaining black piece. She tucked the black piece beneath under her palm as she did so and dropped it on her side of the table.

Iota’s opponent reached for his remaining black piece on the board and used it to jump across three of the white pieces—

“Dammit!”

Iota slammed her fist against the side of the makeshift book table, sending the playing pieces jumping into the air. She clicked her tongue and slid three black pieces over to the other man Tau. The man picked them up, removed the white pieces he had jumped over, and arranged the black pieces in their place on the board.

“Forget it!” Iota snapped, slapping her hand onto the board. “We’ve been playing for hours.”

“So you’re saying that I win the argument then?” Tau inquired, rubbing his wrists.

“Of course not!”

“Well, if we can’t resolve our arguments with words, we play the game. Whoever wins the game wins the fight. If we don’t follow this rule then we’d argue all the time and nothing would get resolved, and then we wouldn’t get anywhere with anything. That’s the law and order!” Tau said, starting off calm and then ending irate. Pausing, he turned his head to the corner of the room that was clustered with piles of books and warmed by soft candlelight. There was a figure there, sitting in silence and reading a book. “Isn’t that right, Theta?”

“And if the game remains unfinished then that means the fight wasn’t important enough to begin with,” came the reply from the direction.

“The children went looking for you again, Theta,” Tau said after a pause.

Iota glanced into the corner as well. “Your identity will be discovered soon, won’t it…?”

“And then the city will discover us,” came the quiet reply. “You sound like you don’t like that idea, Iota. Is it that you want to remain hidden for the rest of our time here?”

Iota threw her head back as laughter wracked her body. “Of course not!” Her eyes went wide, and she slammed her fist onto the board sending pieces clattering to the ground. “I’m just dying to tear this city limb from limb.” Her legs began shaking. “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting—watching those bastards walk around this place like they own it and throwing around those modified conductors like—”

“Calm down, Iota. Don’t be rash. We don’t want a repeat of what happened to the former mayor and the heads of the Families. When you act independently like that, you cause problems for the entire group.”

Iota shut her mouth immediately and grimaced. “Sorry, I…”

“I understand your frustration, Iota, but we must be patient.” The flutter of a page turning. “There’s no use rushing to the ending when the ending remains the same.”

“Right, ‘leader’. Patience I can do.”

Sitting in this room that had no windows and no doors—no exits—Theta smiled and continued to read in the dark.


“Ah, yes, Alma. I used to play duets with her down at the Sognare. She had big dreams, that one. Very kind too. Took in some orphan a while back. Kid became attached to her hip. Alma always did seem a bit… off though. Anyways, I haven’t seen them in years. I wonder what they’re up to.”

Sebastian Faux, former player at the Sognare

7.2: Cadence’s Family (Conoscenti)

Re-cap:

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

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

Still.

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

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

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

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

Damn. Werner was rubbing off on her. 

A gondola passed beneath her distorting the reflection. 

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

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

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

“Perfect.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But appearances were deceiving.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence turned on her heels.

There she was. The girl.

Fortuna Romano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh. Not good. 

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

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

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

It was the boss. Ricardo Romano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the old man playing at?

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

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

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

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

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

Saints, this was good.

Appearances. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers followed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers returned with his exit. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

But the noise from there was still not enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he was. The boy.

Ambrose Campana. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we are friends. What— 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho read it to her plainly— 

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

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

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

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

7.0: A Broker’s Concern (Malignità)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured. The six main characters have come together to save the Ariesian Prince from an assassination attempt made not only by the Capricornian Watch but also by the terrorist organization ELPIS. Virgo is out of isolation, the traitorous Verga has been removed, the missing peacekeeping agent has been found, the Watch has been disbanded, and now…

Twin Cities, Gemini

There was always “a word on the street” in the Twin Cities of Gemini. There was always something big happening in the city. Rumors, tall tales, gossip, and the like circulated through alleyways and late-night casinos like currency. Gossip for gossip, rumor for rumor. All done without an air of professionalism. Parsing through not only the truths and lies within these things professionally was what Astante did for a living.

For example, there was a rumor on the street that he was the best at his job. The best information broker in town was what they called him. While this was an interesting rumor, no one would pay good money for it.

Mulling about this to himself in his office, Astante emptied out his favorite box of dominoes onto his desk.

People in this city were more interested in other matters. Such matters that could easily tip the delicate balance of the city. Yes. The east half of the city and the west half of the city were on opposite ends of a wonderfully crafted scale that had been in place long before he took up this profession. It was a delicate balance that he watched carefully. He took note of even the most minute shifts, even the smallest tips of the scale.

Sighing, the information broker selected a domino from the pile and with careful precision balanced it upright on his table.

It started off with an interesting woman dropping by his office without appointment and requesting information on a renowned mercenary group that operated in the south-eastern countries of Signum. In exchange for this information, she offered him a large suitcase full of currency from different countries. Usually, he’d ask people for a piece of information as well, but she was so entertaining that he let her go with just that.

Astante had a scheduled appointment right after that with a young man who wanted information on the schedules of the leaders of a certain group. The young man claimed that he wanted an audience with the Foxmans for a job application and was tired of queuing for weeks for them. A terrible lie. So terrible, that Astante decided to go right along with it.

The Foxman brothers were a small crime organization that had a reasonable amount of power in the city due to their control over the city’s docks. There were three of them all together with the eldest Allen serving as the main head. They dealt in shipping all types of black-market goods in and out of the city and had a friendly business relationship with the Romano Family of the east side. At the end of each week, the three brothers would come together for a round of cards at the Rosario Round, a casino that served as one of their money-laundering fronts.

In exchange for this information regarding the brothers, the broker requested information about the changing relations occurring between the Campana Family of the west side of the city and the Romano Family from the liar. As usual, his lying patron was startled at his request but begrudgingly gave it when he learned that he wouldn’t receive the information he wanted unless he gave some himself. That was the art of brokering, after all.

Three days later, a rumor circulated the streets. One of the Foxman brothers had apparently been ambushed in the back alleyway outside of the Rosario Round. Of the five men who had accompanied him, only two had survived. The brother was left in critical condition.

Frowning as he recalled this, Astante continued to line up the dominoes.

Following this chatter, he had found himself booked for every day the following week. His first client was unsurprisingly the other two Foxman brothers. He was nearly thrown from his chair when he informed them that he had divulged their patterns to another patron. He was almost thrown out the window when he declined to tell them who requested such information.

“It’s policy,” he had told them. “Client protection.” In turn, they refused to tell him about their current relations between the Romano Family and the Campana Family.

That was fine, the broker supposed. He hadn’t given them information they hadn’t already known anyways. Besides, several days later that he had received that information from a member of the Campana Family who wanted to know if the Foxman brother who was stabbed truly survived the incident.

An hour after that Foxman encounter, he had been greeted with yet another unscheduled visit by a Saggitarian tourist who requested information on the best touring sites in Gemini and Aquarius. As the Saggitarian put it, he wanted the “good, secret, one-of-a-kind” locations that no one knew about. Which was an astounding request in itself. The Sagittarian requested locations that were “so jaw-droppingly inspiring that laying eyes on it sent people to hospitals.” A strange request to an information broker, but Astante was so entertained that he let the man have the information free of charge.

That too was surely something akin to a domino, he thought as he placed another piece down near the edge of his desk.

He was starting to run out of room. He glanced at the newspaper laying beside the domino he’d just placed. The headline took over half the front page—

TWIN CITIES MAYOR LUCIANO VARGAS MURDERED IN PRESENCE OF BODYGUARDS. WHAT DOES THIS SPELL FOR OUR CITY?

The fine-print article below it detailed the events of the mayor’s death. To summarize, one moment the mayor was in one piece, and in the next his limbs were scattered across his office. A locked-room mystery.

Astante brushed the paper to the ground and continued to line up the dominoes in the cleared space.

The rumors surrounding the mayor’s death came aplenty. Each one was more outrageous than the next.

The dockworkers and young kids had speculated that the Golden Beast was behind it. There was no other explanation for such a sudden and grizzly death. The Golden Beast was a story that started off as a small sea tale that had exploded out into a full-on popular urban legend. A tale about a merciless monster that disappeared people in a flash. He knew, however, that the spread of this legend could be traced to a renowned swindler who often took offers from the Romano Family.

After laying down the last domino, Astante leaned back to admire his work.

Of course, those were just rumors. Mere speculation. And although there was no such thing as a useless rumor and groundless speculation, the truth of the matter lay in a completely opposite direction.

This was all tied to three peculiar visitors who came to see him recently: the woman with the snake tattoo on the left side of her face, the man who seemed to have a book attached to his right arm, and that smiling saint candidate.

However, there was always a shade of truth in rumors. And the truth from that rumor of the Golden Beast was that normal people were no longer part of this pile-up.

With a hum, Astante reached out and flicked one of the dominoes at the end of the lineup. As he spun in his chair, he tuned his ears to the wonderful crescendo off the dominoes falling one after the other.

“With the Twin Cities left mayorless in the wake of this tragedy, many residents are left concerned on what this means for the safety of their families. Some are calling for a more detailed investigation of the mayor’s murder by the Twin Cities’s Police Officer Comissario Vincente Giustizia, while others are looking to the future and debating who should next take up the reigns.

We interviewed a trio of young businessmen on the street on what they thought of the mayor’s death. Although two declined to comment, one gave the following statement: ‘With the mayor gone, maybe there’s still hope for this place. Maybe we can now move forward.’

By this statement alone, the division of our city is clear. 

Former Mayor Vargas leaves behind a loving wife and three year old daughter.”

The Daily Duo, 03.11.1941

5.2: Morello Conclusion

Re-cap:

Cadence has sold out Matilda’s orphans street gang to the greedy, traitorous Verga and has set up the dominoes for their fall. Afterwards, she faces the judgments of Jericho and Werner. Things take a turn for the worse when she finds her childhood friend Nico among Werner’s prisoners. A deal is made with Werner, however, and Nico is freed. But Cadence herself is still in a cage…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence was exhausted. Emotionally and mentally.

First there had been the incident with Nico and Werner. And now there was Olive’s emotional dilemma. Those two events had just exacerbated Cadence’s exhaustion.

Olive’s memory of the fire had been seared into Cadence’s mind. The screams, the smells. Awful. And then there was Olive’s suffocating self-deprecation. In that moment, Cadence had truly felt that it would be better if she too just disappeared. Terrifying.

It was all too much.

But still, Cadence had a job to do.

She stood in front of the Vitae Roll now in the guise of Duccio. Beside her was Matilda, and behind them were what remained of Matilda’s street gang. A bunch of ragtag kids so scrawny the wind could knock them over. Since their numbers dwindled, they looked much less fearsome than at the warehouse.

Matilda turned to face the fifteen kids behind her. “This is what we’ve been waiting for,” she said calmly. “Verga is in there smoking a v-cig without even a care in the world about what he’s done, so let’s remind him.”

Each person looked to the person on their left and their right. They nodded at one another in acceptance of whatever was to come. Like true residents of the Twin Cities.

They rushed the building like a storm.

The door was blasted open by a well-aimed kick, and they flooded into the building swinging their pipes and bats at everything they could see. Glass cases shattered, premium v-cigs were sent flying through the air, and the wood that splintered off from the randomly dispersed chairs flew out like shrapnel.

The store owner let out a screech before ducking below the counter.

They bypassed him and stormed up the stairs leading to the room where Verga resided. Matilda was the one who moved to open the door. With a steely look in her eye, she pushed it open and stepped into the room.

Verga was there all right. He was standing by the boarded-up windows peering out into the empty street below. He was there and so were fifteen men holding guns.

“Knew you’d be quick, Cadence,” Verga chuckled without turning.

The children stared out in confusion.

“Sorry, kids.” Cadence shrugged as she crossed the invisible line that divided the two groups. She turned on her heels with raised hands. “That’s just how the cards fall.”

“D-Duccio…?” Matilda stuttered. “Wh—”

There was a barrage of gunfire followed by a cloud of gun smoke and then silence. Cadence wrinkled her nose at the smell and waved the smog away from her as best as she could.

When the cloud cleared, the bullet holes riddling the wall opposite became apparent. As did the bodies. They were toppled over each other, limbs tangled up with one another, eyes still wide in horror. Red pools spread across the floor.

Cadence rubbed her neck and turned to face Verga. “Okay, okay, that’s done an over with, I’d like to—”

A pistol was pointed squarely in her face.

“Wha—”

The gun fired.

Cadence’s body hit the ground and red formed beneath it.

Verga grinned and shrugged, waving his gun loosely in the air. “Did you really think I’d trust you enough to not tell the Foxmans or Ricardo after this was over and done with? Guess you really are rusty!”

Verga laughed heartily and his newly hired guns laughed with him. But then he frowned. He squinted down at Cadence’s body which still held tightly onto the guise of Duccio and then—

Hook. Line. Sinker.

“Did ya really think I’d not tell the Foxmans or Ricardo before this was over with?”

The entire room glowed copper before cracks appeared along the walls, over the bodies, and across the ceiling.

“Shit,” Verga managed before the cracks along the room around them shattered.

What was revealed beneath the broken illusion was probably Verga’s worst nightmare. There stood the children looking alive and well. Behind them were Francis Foxman, Carl Foxman, and Allen Foxman along with about ten of their men. Cavallo stood to the side with an expression of disappointment.

Cadence, looking very much alive and like herself, stepped out from behind Cavallo and shrugged. “Turns out I’m not gettin’ rusty after all.”

* * *

Cadence had already realized how stupid the deal was from the very beginning. There was no way Verga would let her go just like that. He was a bastard. But how to go about saving her tail was another story.

It was Nico’s appearance that had started it. Nico’s appearance paired with Werner and Jericho’s insights. To have two people whose jobs were to kill other people judge her was baffling. She’d expected judgment from the prince and Atienna, but not from those two.

Frankly, with how this whole connection thing worked, it felt as if all their misgivings about her actions were her own misgivings. And she couldn’t live with that.

‘Save the children’ it was.

Attempting to pull the kids out of the hole was going to decrease her chances of surviving this mishap. It’d be risky. But the higher the risk, the greater the reward.

So she had revealed herself to the children during their pre-raid meeting. It had been quite the debacle, and she had to spend about fifteen minutes arguing for her life before the kids settled down and lent her an ear. From there it was smooth sailing. Like Jericho, the kids had a rather one-track mind. Revenge, revenge, revenge.

Then she had brought Matilda to Cavallo and the Foxmans. Francis had offered his condolences while Carl insisted on at least smacking the children around a bit, but Francis was the voice of reason.

Cavallo and Ricardo were informed subsequently. Cadence thought Cavallo was going to shoot her on the spot, but Ricardo intervened with his fondness for children. Verga’s assassin was taken care of quickly. And that was that.

* * *

The execution happened in an instant. There was a shower of bullets, then a ring of bodies hit the floor. Verga was the last man standing.

The man was visibly shaking. “So… you gonna cement me and dump me in the bay?”

“Oh no,” Francis said pleasantly. “Mr. Ricardo said that it was only fair that the people you wronged dole out your punishment. And we agree wholeheartedly.”

Verga frowned in confusion and then realized that the ring of children was now approaching him.

Ricardo was as kind as he was cruel.

“At least you’re dressed for your own funeral,” Cadence said as the children descended upon him.

While the Foxman brothers and Cavallo watched the children tear Verga apart with a strange, sick amusement, Cadence excused herself and descended the stairs. She felt like she was about to keel over there. She’d definitely expended too much of her vitae with that light show. She was thinking about a goodnight’s rest when she was abruptly synchronized with Werner.

Werner who was beating a Capricornian soldier to death with the blunt of a conductor.

3.2: Morello Chorus

Re-cap:

Working alongside Francis of the Foxman Family and Verga of the Romano Family, Cadence Morello has disguised herself as an orphan pick-pocketer named Duccio. Duccio appears to be working for whoever ordered the hit on the Foxman’s TwinStars Pub to silence Figeroli who has been siphoning of modified conductors from the Romanos. When Cadence arrives at Warehouse 13 where Duccio is to meet his payers, however, she is greeted with the sight of passionate, furious children who want revenge on the Romanos and the Foxmans. Before she can wrap her head around it, the warehouse is raided by fake members of ELPIS. She is saved by Jericho who finds her through their psychic link. They are joined by Verga and other members of the Romano Family who have been tipped off by Jericho’s partner.

But now all leads have been lost… 

Twin Cities, Gemini

The rain took care of most of the dirty work. It pelted down and washed the red out into the bay. The bay itself swallowed up all the body bags weighted with cement blocks.

Cadence stood beneath the roof at the entrance of Warehouse 12 and watched as the men moved the bodies from Warehouse 13 to the bay in an assembly line fashion. Morbidly productive. She could’ve almost laughed at the sight.

A packet of v-cigarettes was shoved into her face.

“Come on, Francis, y’know I only like the old school kind. V-cigs just got such a weird taste to ‘em. Don’t know how you can like ’em.”

Francis shrugged and shook one out for himself. He lit it and stared out into the bay. “This is a mess.”

“Figuratively or literally?”

“Both.” Francis took a drag. “I may not be a saint, but I’m not the type of person who finds pleasure in seeing dead kids.” He nodded at one of the body bags being carried out. A white-gloved hand was sticking out. “ELPIS, on the other hand…”

“They weren’t ELPIS members,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. When Francis gave her an inquiring look, she shrugged easily. “Overheard the peacekeepers talkin’ about it when they went around askin’ questions. Not the usual ELPIS MO.”

“That explains them being so dismissive. Peacekeepers, huh?” Francis spun the v-cig in-between his fingertips. “They talk to you too?”

“The one with the trench coat did.” A half-truth. “I think he’s got an inklin’ about your business, and he didn’t seem too happy ’bout it. ’Course, peacekeepers never get involved in these parts, but don’t worry. I ruffled his feathers a bit and sprinkled a little misdirection, so he’s got other things to worry about.”

Francis hummed in response. “As reliable as always, Cadence.”

“You know I don’t like receivin’ half-hearted praise. What’s up?”

“Carl’s happy to get a little revenge if you can even call it that. He’s been on about retribution for the past week. Allen’s glad that we’ve cut our losses with this. The reason for the attacks and the connection between the kids, the conductors, and the ELPIS wannabes are the last things on their mind.”

“But you’re not happy,” Cadence figured. “Ya don’t think it’s that simple.”

“And you do?”

“Well, there’s the fact that any person we could remotely ask about this,” Cadence gestured off-handedly to the area in front of them, “is either ten meters under or ten kilometers away from the city. And there’s also the question as to how those kids got their hands on those conductors like ya said.” She grinned crookedly and shrugged. “But at least now everything is cleaned out, right?”

Francis took a deep drag. “Well, there’s still that kid you interrogated earlier.” He glanced down at her. “Do you think he needs some more company now?”

“Name your price.”

The faintest smile graced Francis’s face, and a comfortable silence passed.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Francis said. “How’s Nico doing out on that front?”

Cadence paused and then smiled with a shrug. “Y’know him. Always a bleedin’ heart.”

A black, silent shadow passed over them. Cadence didn’t need to turn her head to identify who stood beside her. The sudden change in atmosphere was all that it took for her to know. It felt like a funeral.

“Clean up goin’ good, Verga?” Cadence asked. “You’re as efficient and tidy as always.” She glanced at him. “Ever thought of startin’ your own business?”

“Flattery gets you nowhere with me, Morello,” Verga returned. “Getting things done does.”

“Hm.” Cadence slid her hands in her pockets and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Well, I thought that’s what I did, so that you could get things done.”

Verga frowned.

“Just tryna lighten up the atmosphere.” Cadence raised her hands. “Y’know, you’re the only one I think I can never charm.”

As if to confirm this, Verga frowned deeper.

Francis took the opportune pause to interject himself into the conversation: “Mr. Verga, while I very much appreciate your hand assisting us in this matter, I would have preferred it if you would’ve informed us of your intent before you executed it. We have stakes in this too. Greater stakes than you.”

Verga’s brow twitched, but he shoved his hands in his pockets and cleared his throat. “Well, that Manipulator Ophiuchian sent me that message outta nowhere. Had to act fast.” He reached into his pocket and pulled a packet of cigarettes and what appeared to be a wallet. A denim, diamond-studded wallet. Not seeming to notice the looks he was receiving, he snapped it open, shook out a plain lighter onto his palm, and used it to light a cigarette. He pocketed the pack.

“Can’t say I agree with your fashion taste,” Cadence interjected. She stared at the wallet before gesturing to the man’s coat pocket. “But you know how to smoke ’em. Ain’t it polite to offer a business associate a smoke when ya got some?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Verga waved his hand dismissively before lighting the cigarette and putting the wallet away. He turned to Francis. “Anyways, I get that you’re sore, but the entire thing’s solved now, ain’t it? An eye for an eye. No one’s gonna come knockin’ on your front door anymore.”

“Well, we can’t be sure of that, can we,” Francis stated, taking a drag. “There’s no one to confirm that now, is there.”

Verga stared at him before wringing his hands. “We had to do what we had to do. You saw what was left in there. With ELPIS and everything. You may be in business with Ricardo, but we’re still stickin’ our neck out to help you.”

Cadence stepped between them with cheerfully raised hands. “Y’know what we say in the city. Unless you can remake the world, it is what it is.”

Francis stared at Cadence and then at Verga long and hard before he smiled cordially at the latter. “Of course. I apologize for my rudeness. I’m not in the right profession if I’m questioning things that’re swept under the rug.” He paused, extinguishing his v-cig with a flick of his wrist and repocketing it. “I just can’t help but worry about repercussions and consequences no matter how small it is. We appreciate the assistance.”

“Paranoia gets the best of us.” Verga nodded.

Cadence resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Verga was many things. A smooth talker was not one of them. But Verga was an important member of the Romano Family. Even as just an associate of the Romanos herself, she couldn’t risk getting on his bad side. Even if he was insulting her childhood friend. That was just the way it was.

Francis’s smile did not falter, and instead he gave his usual musical chuckle. “Of course. Cadence, would you care to join me for a celebratory drink?” Francis asked before glancing at Verga apologetically. “I would invite you, Mr. Verga, but I overheard Cavallo has some paperwork you need to complete.”

Verga grunted before stalking off.

* * *

Duccio was still sitting in the same position they’d left him inside the interrogation room when they arrived. On the chair, head pressed against the cold surface of the metal table in front of him, motionless.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

There was only one thing different from before.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

The red droplets continued to dribble down onto the floor from Duccio’s pale hand. The sound filled in the emptiness left by Francis’s question. The droplets had trickled down from a trail of red that traced up the adolescent’s arm and ended at his mouth. His open, tongue-less mouth. Duccio’s eyes unblinkingly reflected the overhead lights and stared listlessly at the missing appendage.

Francis turned to the trembling man who stood at the doorway behind them. “I asked you a question, Stefano. What is the meaning of this?” His voice was not raised nor was there an undertone of fury beneath his words. There was not even a glint of fire in his eyes. Even still, Cadence shivered.

Francis was one of the most terrifying people Cadence knew.

“I—sir, I—”

“Coherent sentences please, Stefano.”

“I… I only left for a second, sir.”

“Only one second,” Francis repeated. “Mr. Stefano, are you aware of the multitude of things that can happen within one second?”

Stefano stammered.

“Go ask if anyone saw anything strange before this happened.”

Stefano nodded stiffly before scrambling out of the room.

“Looks like a suicide,” Francis muttered once they were alone.

“Sure looks like one,” Cadence agreed. “But you and I both know that appearances are.” She frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose as a sharp pain pulsated from the back of her head. The familiar sensation of déjà vu followed soon after, causing her to search the mirrors of the room. Nothing. No one.

“Is something wrong?”

“Still can’t stand the smell,” Cadence lied easily.

Francis didn’t question it and nodded before returning his attention to the scene. “It could be an act of retaliation. One of ’em might’ve snuck past the lax security. An in-group kill,” Francis reasoned. “It may not have been intentional, but he did rat out the group.”

Cadence paused. Didn’t that mean that this was—

—her fault?

She shook her head. No, of course not. What happened was because of circumstances. No one was at fault. Everything was up to chance and circumstance, and there was nothing anybody could do about that.

“Then there’s the question on how they knew Duccio spilled to begin with.” Francis placed a hand over his mouth in thought. “But maybe I’m just being a pessimist. Maybe Verga was right. The main point is that their operation was shut down without much cost on our side.”

Yeah. It would be simpler that way.

“Hey, watch it. My mental wellbeing is worth a fortune.”

Francis finally cracked a smile.

Really, it was simpler that way. She was used to leaving incidents that were ‘a little too good to be true’ as is. ‘Don’t question good things that come your way’ was the saying. But for some reason, with this case, she felt an itch that wouldn’t go away.

That ridiculous-looking wallet that Verga had. Duccio’s gruesome death. Which was not her fault.

But what would she gain from pursuing this itch?

Cadence hit the Sognare as she mulled. There, she played the piano, had an odd conversation, and reached a conclusion.

In the end, all decisions were the result of an intensive cost-benefit analysis. It was a term Cadence had learned from an economics book she’d stolen from a student tourist visiting the capital a couple years back. The book had sold for a good fifty Cens, and she’d managed to convince the buyer to read the first couple of chapters out loud to her for free. She hadn’t recalled the term until recently, but now it was her bible.

The benefit: possibly finding a rat within the Romano Family and earning some more reputation points with the boss and the streets. But the cost: dying while doing it. A pretty high cost. But the higher the cost, the higher the reward.

Besides being daring was–

—exhilarating.

Cadence rubbed her temple.

* * *

It wasn’t hard to disguise herself as one of Verga’s men. All it took was a coupon to a one-Cens store that she transmuted into a free ticket to the Casa delle Bambole, a self-transmuted disguise as one of the most popular hostesses working at the establishment, and a flirtatious wink. The fact that Verga’s hand-selected men were dumb as bricks was a bonus. Not much finesse required.

And so, in less than an hour, Cadence had adopted the appearance of a gruff, short, heavyset man and ambled her way to Verga’s favorite joint. A general conductor store that specialized in v-cigs. Ceremoniously named the Vitae Roll.

It was a small building only two stories tall and was nestled in the city’s less grandiose side. The windows were boarded over with planks of wood. Thin streams of smoke trickled outward and up from the spaces between the planks.

As she drew nearer to the building, the acrid smell curled in her nostrils and caused her stomach to burn. She stopped in her tracks at the sensation, but that only exacerbated it. A swift pounding formed at the back of her neck.

And suddenly—

—she was standing in the middle of a red-carpeted hallway. Light spilled in from the long windows lining the walls around her, giving the carpet an unnatural glow.

She recognized this hallway. But at the same time, she didn’t.

She didn’t have time to dwell on the contradiction long. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A sensation she wasn’t all too unfamiliar with. She often wandered the less than pristine streets of the city at night alone, after all.

Someone was behind her. Watching her.

Before she could think of a way out of whatever this was, some unknown force made her head turn in the direction of the presence.

A vaguely human shape stood there just a couple meters away. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air.

Feathers…?

Yes, whatever this thing was, its entire being was made of pitch-black birds.

White holes formed where its eyes should have been, and a white smile cracked there.

“Thank you.” An inhuman voice spilled out from the crack of its mouth. “Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for helping me.”

This was different from her conversations with Atienna and that Capricornian soldier.

Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest. But her legs remained still, stiff, frozen in place.

The thing took one step forward, and the carpeted floor beneath its foot immediately burst into flames. Another step, another burst of crackling red. Closer and closer it drew to her with an inferno following at its feet.

Run. Run. Run—

“Thought you weren’t feelin’ well, Averci.”

And just like that, Cadence was back on the street corner. The familiar, heavy humidity in the air greeted her like an old friend and the smell of mildew from the wet cobblestone streets coated the back of her throat. Cold sweat clung to the back of her neck.

Was that… a memory? A flashback? She’d used to get them sometimes when she was younger and in a half-asleep state but not to this extent.

“What the….?” She whipped her head in the direction of the voice in a panic.

It was one of Verga’s men she’d seen around. Bell. He was standing at the doorstep of the v-cig store with a bored look on his face. He seemed so bored that he couldn’t care enough to look her over. Cadence used the opportunity to even her breathing and order her thoughts.

Obviously, this was a sign from the saints for her to not go through with this. Cost-benefit analysis be damned. This—

Her temple throbbed.

—was exciting.

“Threw up a lung and now I’m fine,” Cadence found herself saying. As soon as the words flew out of her mouth, she felt like truly throwing up. “Gotta get some cash for another round at the game house.”

The man regarded her for a moment, before he cracked a crooked smile and grunted in agreement. He jerked his head back toward the door and rubbed his fingers together.

“Apparently the big boss is plannin’ something even bigger than the last big thing. And bigger means more big money.”

Cadence had underestimated how stupid Verga’s men were. In street smarts and book smarts.

“Well, I like my women like I like my money,” Cadence sneered in response as she made her way up the doorsteps. “How about we get this cracking then.”

“I like the sound of that,” came the guffawed response. The man held the door open for her and followed her inside.

Cadence was immediately greeted with an even more intense wave of acrid smoke. It filled out all the corners of the shop and coated everything in a thin wash of gray. The man sitting behind the counter was somehow even grayer than the haze around him.

This was definitely Verga’s style.

“So how big we talkin’ here?” Cadence asked with a yawn as she followed Bell to a door at the very back of the store. She took a quick glance at the glass cases that haphazardly sprouted up from the carpet. They were filled with different models of v-cigs, each seemingly more bizarre than the last. She turned back to Verga’s man and tried, “Bigger than a gig killing the next generation?”

“Yeah.” The man glanced at the shop owner and wrinkled his nose. “I knew entering this business wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows and I’ve seen my fair share of offing husbands and wives, but kids… well…”

This goon was really acting like he had morals. Cadence resisted chortling at the very idea and instead dissected what he’d revealed.

‘Kids.’ Plural. The warehouse incident was probably what he was referring to. But…

Duccio’s corpse and the diamond-studded wallet flashed into her mind.

No. That wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t specific enough.

“Really? It was hard for you?” Cadence gave a dismissive wave. “Piece of cake.”

“You’re sick, Averci.” The man crinkled his nose, then rubbed it with a shrug. “Then again, I’m sure Verga knows what he’s doing.” He paused, shaking his head. “All for a single kid. I don’t even think my life is worth all that trouble.”

So her hunch had been right.

The door opened, revealing a musty room with a boarded-up window and a round table set in front of it. The table was topped with various cheap wines. The light shining in from the windows was gray and barely illuminated the men seated in the chairs around the table.

Giving the seated group a nod, she stepped into the room and―

The door locked softly behind her.

Every cell in her body screamed in alarm. Escape. Where was the exit? Through the window? No. Keep cover? Blend in. Safer.

She kept her arms and legs steady as she fell into place beside the other men by the window and settled on the ledge. She glanced up at her captor. It was Verga, hand still wrapped around the doorknob. Like always, he looked like he’d come straight from a funeral. Just another reason to skip this joint. But… As much as she wanted to leave now that she’d gotten the ‘who,’ Cadence figured that she could at least get the ‘why.’ The dots were there, but the connection was not.

Ah, that phrase could apply to more than this situation, couldn’t it?

Cadence resisted frowning, shook away the intrusive thought, and focused her attention back on Verga. The man was looking at them all like he was sizing them up to figure out what casket he could fit them into.

That’s a funny way of describing him!

Another piercing headache.

“We got a rat here,” Verga said reaching into his pocket and turning to face them. “Someone here’s been snoopin’ around without my permission.”

Damn. But how did he know? Keep calm. Let them talk. Play along. Verga didn’t know she was here. But she might as well go and ask him straight up.

What?! No. Stupid!

“What are you talkin’ about, boss?” It was Bell. He’d settled in on a chair right beside her and had been perusing the bottles of wine when he’d started at Verga’s accusation. “We’re all pals here, aren’t we—”

A soft click answered his question.

Verga had drawn the object from his pocket. A small pistol.

Well then. This wasn’t good.

A heavyset man seated next to her rose to a stand with a flabbergasted expression. He swung his hands wildly and stammered: “What’s this all about?”

Stupid move. Which was confirmed when Verga pointed the pistol squarely at him.

“Are you the rat?” Verga asked the man calmly.

“What?!” the man sputtered. “Of course not! I’ve been working for you through thick and thin, boss. I’m loyal.”

“And how do I know that for sure about that?” Verga pressed. “The only way I know if you’re loyal is if you die for me.”

“Wha—”

There was a loud bang, and then the standing man was face down on the floor. There was a hole in the back of his head, and a pool of red formed a halo around him. But Verga’s gun had not fired. Instead, it was Bell’s gun that had. Where Bell had procured the gun from, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Nor did she have any idea where that seemingly daft and innocent man that greeted her at the doorstep went. Talk about a change of face.

This was getting sticky.

“Call it ironically old-fashioned, but…” Verga tightened his grip on his gun with a shrug. “I really prefer these things to conductors. Much less trouble with insulators crackin’ and whatnot.”

Two of the other four men in the room leapt from their chairs while two remained frozen in place. The moment both men came to a stand, they found the noses of the two guns pointed squarely at their heads. In the same moment that those two men rose to a stand, Cadence subtly shifted so she was wedged between and behind all of them.

“Speaking of conductors,” Verga continued, “did you all know that with the Treaty that ended the war, the amount of conductors each country is allotted is required to be inversely proportional to the amount of vitae reservoirs each country has? The idea is countries with fewer reservoirs’ll be allowed to have more conducting generators to harvest the vitae. But as it turns out, there’s nothing in the Treaty that specifies what kind of conductor a country is allotted. Now, there’s a loophole the Capricornians took advantage of.” He pointed the gun at the gaunt man standing to Cadence’s right. “Have you found a loophole workin’ for me?”

What the hell did that even mean.

“Wha—” The gaunt man shook his head with raised arms. “No, I’m not—”

The bullet came from Verga’s gun this time, which he reloaded slowly as he watched the gaunt man’s body fall across the body of the first victim.

What the hell. Was he planning on killing all of them? She had to get out of here. She could buy time by convincing the remaining group to fight back. Would they be able to? Yeah, if they listened to her. But they were already sitting there like gamblers who’d just bet their entire life savings and lost. They’d already accepted what was going to happen. No good.

But wasn’t Verga being counterproductive by doing this? If he was planning to kill all of them then why put on a show? Unless…

Cadence paused.

He knew—

A chiming laugh rang through the air. And for a moment, Cadence swore she could taste sea-salt on her tongue.

“My, my, my, to break things that belong to you with your own hands—are you not strong enough to protect them all?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence could faintly see a woman with brown curls and sun-kissed skin. A hazy image that would go out of focus every time she tried getting a better look at it.

“You…” Cadence began before she came to a startlingly horrifying realization.

The words that the woman had said. Those taunting, unfearful words—

The words had come right from Cadence’s own mouth. The smile was just barely leaving Cadence’s own lips now, and the laughter was just beginning to die away in her throat. As the smile and laugh left her, Cadence felt cold nausea occupying the hollow that they left. She whipped around to fully face the brown-haired woman, but only found a confused looking Bell in her place.

“What was that now?” Verga growled as he gestured the two last standing men to move aside with a jerk of his gun.

Obediently, despite everything that had occurred, the two stepped away from her. One of the two gave her a questioning look and whispered the name of the man she was disguised as under his breath.

She could feel all of their eyes on her. Looking her up and down. Trying to gauge the meaning behind what she’d said—not that she even knew herself the meaning behind them. Eventually, if they stared long enough, they might be able to actually guess what was up. Intuition and stupidity were in two different categories after all. And Cadence wasn’t going to let them—more so Verga—enjoy the satisfaction of unveiling her. Not without her letting him have it that way.

Cadence stepped forward, hands in the air. “Okay, okay, you got me, you got me, boss.”

Unconvinced, Verga cocked his gun. “That’d be the first time you’d be callin’ me boss. Morello.”

Cadence paused before she sighed and snapped her fingers. Her illusion fragmented, starting from her conductor, and then cracked along the rest of her body. In a flash of copper light, her work shattered, and she was left looking much like her usual, charming self. There was a collection of surprised gasps as usual, but she ignored them and said: “Well, it was worth a shot. Guess Francis was right about you bein’ too sharp to trick.”

A lie. Francis had in fact stated clearly that Verga was as dull as a rock. Regardless, Verga sneered.

“That woman you tried to seduce Averci with—she was my woman,” Verga said. “After all that crying and begging, I started to believe her when she said she hadn’t tried flirting with another man. But that left me wonderin’ how that could be possible since I saw it with my own eyes. And the answer is standin’ right in front of me.”

“I admit it. I’m gettin’ sloppy.”

Verga’s smile slid from his face. “How’d you figure it out?”

“Figure what out exactly?” Cadence returned.

“Don’t play dumb!” Verga snapped, jabbing the gun aggressively in her direction. “About the kid! About the conductors we’ve been siphoning off of Romano!”

Siphoning off conductors? Well, that was new and that explained a whole lot. But Verga didn’t have to know that she didn’t know that.

“Yeah, well, I might know all that.” Cadence shrugged. “But I don’t know the ‘why.’ And y’know me, I don’t usually question the ‘whys,’ but I couldn’t help scratchin’ this itch.” She raised her head and met his eyes. “I mean, Romano practically saved ya like a saint. Ya got good workin’ perks along with that, and I heard that he was finally gonna appoint ya capo, so I’m tryin’ ta place why—”

“Why not?”

“Uh, loyalty?” Cadence offered before she shrugged. “But I guess jealousy trumps that.”

Verga crinkled his nose. “Jealousy?”

“Toward Cavallo.”

Verga’s smug expression morphed into something much more unpleasant, which made Cadence queasy. The man lowered his weapon and clenched his fists.

“Am I wrong?” Cadence frowned and scratched her head. “I mean, ya both joined the Family at around the same time, but Cavallo’s been holding the position of capo and a large amount of turf to govern for five years now.”

“And that’s exactly why!” Verga growled, using his gun as a pointer. “I’ve done more for Ricardo than Cavallo has, and I’m still second rate. It’s not enough.” He shook his head. “They call themselves a family, but they’re only lookin’ out for themselves. Everyone’s expendable.”

“It never was that kind of family to begin with,” Cadence said. “You had a good thing goin’ for ya, Verga. Just needed to bide your time.”

“Funny hearin’ that from you,” Verga said, voice regaining its gravely calm. The smirk returned. “You can take whatever appearance you want and have everything at the palm of your hand.” The smirk grew. “Well, almost everything. Which brings me to my point.”

“I was hopin’ you were gettin’ to that,” Cadence sighed, eyeing his gun. “Not sure how much longer I can handle this tension.”

Verga pulled out a small pouch with his free hand and tossed it to her. Cadence caught it with her left hand. Heavy.

When she opened it and peered inside, the familiar glint of Geminian Cens met her eyes. By gauging the weight of it in her palm, she could tell there was more than five hundred Cens in there.

“And that’s just the down payment.”

Cadence took a Cens out and rolled it in-between her fingers before holding it up to the light. It was real, alright. She put the Cens back into the bag and tossed the bag up and down. “So, basically, long story short—you’re tellin’ me to join ya in exchange for a couple of Cens.”

“Oh.” Verga’s face split into a very unfitting grin. “We’re making more Cens than you can even imagine. You have no idea how many people I’ve gotten on my list.”

“Your list. Ya mean the people you’re selling the conductors to?” Cadence frowned. “I’m pretty sure Romano and the Foxmans have all the high-end customers in their pocket. I mean, ya can’t get much better than the Aquarian army.”

“I know you can think bigger than that, Cadence. Times are changing. People know that the peacekeepers are just that in name only. Completely useless. Won’t protect anything when it hits the fan.”

“No need to get into politics with me, Verga. Sorry to say that I’m not into that kinda stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “But from what I’m gatherin’ you’ve been sellin’ our conductors to regular old citizens.”

“I just found my own loophole. They pay as good as the governments do. Sometimes even better.” Finally, Verga lowered his gun with a grimace. “Though I do admit that they ain’t as bright in usin’ ‘em. They get petty sometimes. Shoot parents and kids. Shoot the delivery men when they don’t get what they want. And you know how it is. Injured delivery men in this kinda business is a liability. They start demanding stuff and threaten to spill. You just can’t have ‘em around.”

So that was how it was.

“So the kids at the warehouse…”

“Just a couple of brats who I gave work to. Want revenge for what I did to their no longer capable members. Course, they think it’s all on the Romanos and the Foxmans since they own the ring and I’m smart enough not to show my face. Brats did me a favor with explodin’ the TwinStars. Nicked Tulio. I gave him a cut, and he got too cocky.”

The dots connected. One last dot to go.

“So you want me to work for your enterprise ya got goin’ here.” Cadence hummed. “Well, do ya really think I’m that disloyal?”

“Not work for me. Help me clean up this mess. And what’s this about loyalty? Yeah, anyone who looks at you would think you’re loyal to the bone to the Romanos. But I can see right through you. You nearly fooled me. It’s easy mistakin’ that eagerness and reliability as loyalty. But you’re not even really part of the Family.”

Cadence lowered her hands and looked the man over. “Never said I was. That’s what the word ‘associate’ means.”

Verga snickered. “You’re like me. A coward with big dreams. Sure, you seem like you’d lay down your life for the guy next to you, but I know how it is. When really bad things go down, Cadence Morello ain’t around.”

“You’re flatterin’ me.”

“Damn, I even heard Ricardo offered you a position as capo and you flat out denied it,” Verga continued. “Wouldn’t keep your opportunities open enough swearing loyalty that way.”

She resisted rolling her eyes.

“You’re speakin’ too vaguely.” Cadence scratched her head. “What exactly do you think a common goon like me could possibly ever dream of?”

There was a long drawn out pause of silence.

“All I need for you to do is to use your skillset to gather the rest of those brats here without Ricardo or the Foxmans finding out. Those brats are the only ones tying me to this. Just get them here and let me take care of the rest. A pretty good deal if you ask me, seein’ that you’ll be receiving not only a triple payment of what I already gave you there, but also the opportunity to sweep all of this under the rug. Done and over with.”

“Sounds like you’re tryin’ to reassure yourself with the last bit there. If I take up this job offer, then it really is buried since I won’t be able to tell the Family or the Foxmans after without getting a round.” Cadence hummed. “And after all this is sunk into the deep blue sea, you just continue on your merry way collectin’ Cens without repercussions for… how long?”

“After this next round of sales, I’m leaving this city. Taking a leave of absence from the Family.” Verga paused. “So I can take care of my real family.”

Cadence perked up at this and then raised a brow. “Y’know, I may be a bleedin’ heart, but ya gotta tell me a more convincing lie than that to try to win me over.”

Verga frowned. “No, it’s true.” He reached into his pocket with his free hand again and drew out a black-and-white photograph for her to see. Captured in its white frame was a pair. A slender, smiling man who looked as if he’d just walked out from a zen garden and a grinning girl with pigtails who looked around eight years of age. “She’s in Alhena right now waiting for me.”

Not a good or smart move for him—showing his daughter like this, but Cadence would take what she could get.

“Saints, Verga. Maybe you really do need retirement. Workin’ in this line of business isn’t doin’ wonders for your age lines.” Cadence sighed. “You said Alhena? Ain’t that one of the poorest cities in Gemini?”

Verga nodded before pocketing the photo. “The war left me broke and my wife dead. I left to come here and make money so I could give my daughter a better life.” He abruptly stared at his hands and suddenly looked somber, tired. “This isn’t me. This city made me into this.”

All due to circumstances, huh? An excuse. But—

“Well, I gotta say that I empathize with you. Who am I to deny a father and a daughter a happy ending? But above all that, money talks.” Cadence slipped the coin bag into her coat pocket and nodded to his gun. “You make a compellin’ argument.”

“Good.”

With that, Verga raised his gun back up and pulled the trigger, as did Bell. The last two men slumped over, dead.

“Not good future job prospects if you ask me,” Cadence said evenly, keeping the tremble out of her voice.

Verga shrugged. “They were stupid. Expendable. Knew too much.”

Cadence whistled, extending a hand. “Man, Verga, you’re really goin’ all out with this then, aren’t ya?”

Verga smirked and accepted the gesture. “That ain’t me goin’ all out.”

Cadence pulled back and eyed Bell before she paced toward the window and peeked out through the shudders. “But, really, workin’ with ELPIS wannabes isn’t goin’ ‘all out’ to ya?”

“Who said it was just wannabes?”

Something clicked into place inside her head.

Cadence turned away from the window slowly.

“Like I said, Morello, I find the loopholes. No customer is denied.”

She tried focusing on what Verga was saying, but there was a static sound at the very fringes of her hearing making it difficult to understand anything.

“Of course, I’m not stupid or desperate enough to sell conductors to them. But they sure are desperate. Shipped somethin’—well, someone—out of Gemini for ‘em a couple days ago. No idea how they managed that. Doesn’t matter. Got another order comin’ in for them as we speak.”

The static ate away at the corners of her vision. Pinpricks of black, gray, and white. Whiter than the bleaching light that bled through the shutters. A pure white.

She could barely make out Verga’s silhouette against the whiteness.

“Morello… er, what’s with that look, Morello?”

Look? What look? Her face?

She could barely think enough to control the monstrous feeling that was now spreading like a wildfire out from her chest. The feeling had come so suddenly that, at first, she hadn’t known what it was. It was a feeling she rarely felt and never to this extent.

Anger. Rage. Suffocating. Snapping through every muscle in her body. An overwhelming itch somewhere deep inside that needed to be scratched. It was agonizing.

Working with ELPIS? ELPIS? How could he? How could he? He—

The static pin pricking her ears suddenly went silent. An unfamiliar voice cracked out—

“Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”

A flash of scorching white.

Run.

No.

“Jericho!”

Pounding footsteps.

And then an explosion of pain. Out from her stomach, there was an explosion of pain unlike anything she’d felt before. Pain. Saints—

Had she been shot?

Verga wasn’t brandishing his gun and neither was Bell.

But she felt a damp and warm wetness at her abdomen. Sucking in a breath, she pressed her hands against the area. Dry. What? She pulled her hands away and saw her pale, unstained hands—

Saints. It hurt.

She stumbled forward, grasping the edges of the table in front of her and nearly tripped over one of the bodies on the floor. The pool of blood had spread, making it slippery and wet.

Was she dying?

No.

In an instant, the world became clear again. There was Bell standing in the corner looking confused and Verga looking concerned of all things. The smoke from the shop below curling up from the floorboards suddenly looked alluring. A nice cloud to rest in.

“Morello?”

She fell into it with open arms.

And then there was nothing.

“The Romano Family controls the east side of the Twin Cities. They do a lotta underground work. Don’t know what exactly but heard it’s got somethin’ to do with conductor manufacturin’. Heard they work with the Foxmans to ship those things out. Makes me wonder why Ophiuchus ain’t done nothin’ about them yet. Anyway, they’re rivals with the Campanas out on the west side. Last turf war was about five years ago. Not pretty.”

Melodia Calla, barista at the Lumiere Cafe

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

2.2: 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 

1.2: Morello Introduction

Re-cap:

Swindler Cadence Morello has been tasked to investigate an individual who has been siphoning off modified conductors sold by the Romano Family whom she is an associate of. She has tracked the man down to the TwinStars Pub and disguised herself as a patron.

Just as she revealed the man’s and her own true colors, she was caught in a mysterious explosion.

Twin Cities, Gemini

“I’m tellin’ ya! I’m tellin’ ya!” Cadence snapped, slapping her hand against her chest with each clipped syllable. “Ya need to check me over again! What if ya missed something?!”

She was dressed in a loosely buttoned, long-sleeved blouse that came down to her knees. While wearing it, she knew she looked like a child. The man who sat across from her on a metal stool wore a crisp white lab coat and a pair of white gloves. He almost looked like a highly esteemed doctor. Papers, shiny tools, and bandages cluttered the tables lining the walls of the room around them. While sitting within this room, Cadence figured the two of them looked like they were a regular doctor and patient.

But appearances were deceiving.

“Cadence, your psychological state is much more concerning than your physical state.” The doctor appeared amused as he said this, smiling and stroking his stubbled chin.

What a quack, Cadence thought. The doc’s bad interpersonal skills were probably what landed him here in the first place, doing jobs underground rather than up above with the good folk. The doc was a Specialist vitae Conductor, after all. If Cadence had been blessed with that manifestation of conducting type instead of being born a Transmutationist Conductor, she would’ve kissed this city goodbye a long time ago. Imagine that. Being able to conduct vitae in a way that didn’t fall into any of the normal five categories. Not a Transmutationist, a Projector, a Conjurer, an Elementalist, or a Manipulator. But a Specialist.

“Between me and you, doc.” Cadence raised a brow. “I reckon my psychological state is a lot better than the state of your other patients. If you can call them that.”

“Oh dear, Cadence,” the doctor sighed as he placed a tender hand to his heart. “Are you implying that I don’t see my patients as patients?”

“I ain’t implyin’. I’m clearly statin’,” Cadence returned with a crooked grin before she laughed and raised her hands. “I’m jokin’. I’m jokin’. I’d be dead six times over if it weren’t for you.”

The doctor smiled. “Well, it looks like you’re feeling better now.”

Cadence rolled her neck and shrugged. “Well, I’m alive and kickin’, so…”

“Much luckier than other patrons in that bar. It seems as if the Family retrieved you just in time. Unlike the others.”

Cadence paused and then rubbed the back of her neck and tapped her foot. “I see. Sounds like I got a lot of work cut out for me then.” She let out a dramatic sigh and hung her head. “Can’t a gal catch a break?”

“If it makes you feel any better, Nico called.”

Cadence perked up. “Ya mean he’s on his way back?”

The doctor shook his head. “He did ask you to call him back though. You can use the phone outside.”

“Is that your way of tellin’ me to get out of your office, doc?” Cadence raised a brow. “I did nearly die, y’know. Y’sure I shouldn’t hang around here a little bit longer just in case? I know you’re the best in the business, but still. What if I pass out?”

“If you pass out, then come back,” the doctor replied. “You know that I’m only interested in injured people.”

* * *

The phone booth outside of the room was, to put it eloquently, a piece of crap. Its wooden casing was so chipped that parts of it jutted out like jagged teeth. The nails that kept the wood in place were also popping up like weeds. The phone itself was covered in a thick layer of dust. Made sense. People didn’t make appointments with the doc. They dropped in whenever they had a foot in the grave.

Cadence picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear. She twirled the cord around her index finger and said into the mouthpiece, “Operator, connect me to the line that was called last from this one.”

As the line rang, she thrummed her fingers along the surface of the booth and grimaced when a splinter plucked the tip of her pointer.

“…. Cadence?” A voice cracked out from the speaker.

Cadence felt a smile crack across her face. “How goes it on the front lines, soldier?”

“That’s not funny,” came the quiet response. “People are dying out here, Cadence.”

“People die everywhere, Nico,” Cadence said matter-of-factly. When a silence fell over the conversation, she grimaced. “It’s that bad, huh?”

“Yeah… We managed to deliver the shipment to the Aquarians three days ago, but just the other day they got caught up with the Capricornians—”

“Whoa, whoa,” Cadence shouted, straightening herself. “You’re okay, aren’t ya? Ya didn’t get caught up—”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

“That’s a relief.”

Cadence considered telling him about her recent near-death experience but thought better of it. The entire ordeal seemed like something that was better kept on the down low.

“It’s good to hear your voice, Cadence,” Nico said.

“Yeah, right back at ya. Don’t get all sappy on me again. And no need to worry about that other stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “It’s not your war, Nico. Just hurry up and get out of there, okay?”

The line crackled with static.

Cadence pulled away from the phone and shook it a bit before pressing it back up to her ear. “Hello? Nico?”

“Werner, what’s wrong?”

Cadence did a double take. “Who the hell is Werner?”

“What?” came Nico’s voice. “Werner? Who’s that?”

Cadence pulled back from the receiver and stared at it. She shook her head and pressed the phone back to her ear. “Nothin’. Never mind. Think we accidentally crossed someone else’s line.”

“Really? I didn’t hear anything.”

“It was only for a sec.” Cadence waved him off again. “Anyway, come home quick, a’ight? Don’t get caught up in complicated things, Nico.”

* * *

When Cadence stepped back out onto the streets of the city she knew like the back of her hand, she took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. She spat soon afterward.

Here, in this backwater alleyway where the buildings stretched upward to unbelievable heights, she could barely see the sky above her head. It was just a crack of white up there. Too far to reach.

She was back in her usual wear now. A simple and loose suit topped with her favorite hat. Dark maroon in color because it got the blood going and it complemented her freckles and copper hair.

She turned and prepared to walk down the alleyway when she noticed a group standing at the mouth of it. They were looking at her. A trio of them. A trio of men wearing suits. From left to right the suits went from dark green to dark red to dark blue. From left to right the men went from thin to bulky.

“You could at least look a little bit happier to see us,” the one who wore the maroon suit and who stood at the center said in an almost musical voice. He then reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slender, cylindrical object no larger than his index finger. He gave it a quick flick of the wrist, and the tip of it lit a glowing orange. Taking a drag from the unlit end, he studied her.

“Well, excuse me for not jumpin’ for joy when I saw you, Francis. Not to be rude, but usually when you guys show up, someone’s about to die.” Cadence shrugged and offered a lopsided smile as she closed the distance between them. “It was almost me this time.” She leaned forward and pressed the tip of her ringed index finger against the bud of the v-cigarette. A familiar copper light bled out from her ring and pooled onto the cig. The light-coated cigarette then took on a different shape. A curve there, a sprout here, a blossom there. By the time the light faded, the cigarette had taken on the form of a white lily.

“And I’m glad it wasn’t.” Francis smiled in amusement. “We were hoping to accompany you to Cavallo’s place.”

Cadence pulled her finger away from the tip of the cig. The copper light blinked again before cracking and receding from both her hand and the cigarette. The cig took back its original shape. The illusion broken.

“Huh?” She frowned. “What for?”

“The Romano Family’s personal associate was nearly killed,” the blue suit provided. “How would the Foxmans look if we ignored this transgression against our closest ally?”

This was a lie. Cadence knew. Or maybe a half-truth.

“The explosion happened on our turf, Cadence,” Francis explained after giving the blue-suit a look. “You know Cadence is a human lie detector, Allen.”

That was right. The TwinStars Pub was one of the Foxmans’ joints. They had many of these bars sprinkled throughout both the left and the right Twin Cities, but this one in particular was one of their most famous. All patrons knew who held ownership of their bars, but very few knew that the bars were in fact just a simple cover for the Foxmans’ real business.

Allen didn’t so much as shrug. “I thought she might be off of her game.”

“Well, it is a matter of turf.” Francis muttered after a pause. “But it also is a matter of connections.” And here, Francis’s expression darkened. “The fact that someone thinks they can harm a childhood friend of the Foxmans’ without retaliation just goes to show how soft we’ve become. Something we need to fix.”

Cadence whistled before inclining her head. “Shall we?”

And so, they walked as a quartet out the alleyway and onto the open streets. The roads here were narrow, allowing only one v-ehicle to roll along at a time. The sidewalks were wide enough to hold a pool table lengthwise but still filled to the brim. The congested streets were something Cadence was in fact fond of. It was easy to blend in.

“So,” Cadence drawled as they walked along the path, “anything interesting happened since I nearly kicked the bucket?”

“Someone attempted to assassinate the prince of Aries,” the green suit supplied nonchalantly.

Cadence stopped in her tracks and whipped her head around. “You serious, Carl?”

“With a bow conductor of all things,” Francis clarified. “Word is that the arrow was shot by an Elementalist Conductor.” He took another drag. “Fire.” And another drag. “Anyway, the whole kingdom’s been in the fritz about it. To think that an Ariesian may have made the attempt. Can trust themselves as much as they trust their neighbors.”

“I’ll never understand monarchies.” Carl shook his head. “All this ruckus just ’cause some kid got shot.”

“It’s important this ruckus gets resolved quickly,” Allen grumbled. “Aries and Gemini are strong trading partners. They provide us with most of the material for Ricardo’s modified conductors. We’re losing money by the second.”

“Still,” Carl huffed.

“What, Carl?” Cadence raised a brow. “Don’t like the idea of bendin’ over backward for someone and swearin’ fealty?”

“And you would?” Carl returned.

“Course,” Cadence laughed. “No point in hidin’ it.” She raised her ringed-fingers up and rubbed them together. “Just give me a nice sum, and I’ll swear my loyalty to you, my liege.” She gave a deep and mocking bow.

“Pretty sure any king or queen you serve under’d be bankrupt one week after you joined their ranks,” Allen said.

“And I’d be filthy rich.” Cadence chortled.

* * *

They reached their destination five minutes later. It was a small building wedged between a flower shop and a bookstore. The sign on top of the building read ‘Sagittarian Tea Shop’. And if one peered into the large open windows of the building, they would see just that.

Jars of tea leaves and other herbs and roots lined the back wall of the shop. In front of this collection was a counter manned by a balding man who looked of Sagittarian descent. At the counter was a balancing scale and a cash register. Perfectly normal and upstanding.

Every time Cadence came to this place, she’d have to force herself to suppress her laughter.

Appearances were—

—everything, after all.

Wait, what?

“Everything?” Cadence frowned. “They’re deceivin’ is what they are.”

“Cadence?”

Cadence blinked and found the Foxman brothers staring at her from the door. She glanced left and then right as a chill crawled up her spine. What was this feeling? Like she was being watched. But there were too many people walking back and forth to tell from where. No, that wasn’t it. It felt as if she was being watched from everywhere. Left, right, up, down. Outside, within.

Instead of addressing the subject, however, she pulled up a bright smile and dusted off her shoulders. “Gotta prepare myself ta face the devil, y’know?”

* * *

When they entered the tea store, an intense wave of earthy scents greeted them. Root, herb, leaf, branch. Dirt. It was poignant, to say the least. Foreign scents that did not belong this deep into the city.

Cadence walked up to the counter and tapped the scales. “I’d like twenty-five grams of morrowheat, please.”

The Sagittarian stared at the four of them for a beat before he headed to the back of the store. Without hesitation, they followed him past the curtain hanging next to the herbal displays and into the backroom that lay beyond. They were led up a long staircase and down a hall that opened into a large room.

The room had wooden floorboards covered by a royal-red carpet. At the center of the rug was a square table manned by six chairs. A burly, thick man with a balding head and a thick beard sat at one of them. He had on a black dress shirt and a pair of pin-striped slacks. At his wrist gleamed several bracelets studded with gems. He had on a gaunt expression that made it look as if he’d just come from a funeral.

At the opposite end of the room was an oak desk piled with neatly stacked papers. A man stood behind this desk with his hands folded just as neatly behind him. He wore a white button-up shirt and a white pair of dress pants. His hair was a snowy white as well, and his skin was as pale as the rest of his clothing. It was difficult to see, with the lightness of his skin, the wrinkles that graced his features.

The white knight to her black knight.

“I see you’re well, Cadence,” the man in white said as he turned his blue eyes on them. The monocle above his left eye glinted in the dull overhead lights.

“Define ‘well’.” Cadence raised a brow. “Honestly, I should be restin’ up somewhere nice instead of havin’ ta book it here.”

“I see you brought the Foxmans with you,” Cavallo continued, ignoring Cadence’s comment. He offered out his hand and gave each brother a firm shake. “As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you. Without your control over the ports, we would never be able to ship out our conductors. It is a shame that one of your establishments was destroyed in this incident.” He gestured to the chairs. “Please, sit.”

The Foxmans obliged.

“Thanks for having us, Cavallo,” Francis said as he flicked his wrist and put out his v-cig, which he then tucked away in his pocket. “How’s Ricardo doing?”

“Our boss is doing just fine,” Cavallo returned. “Although, he sends his condolences for your establishment.”

“Which is why we’re here,” Allen provided.

“Look,” the burly, balding man who sat across from the brothers sighed. “Your joint got busted. It sucks. I understand. But you’re gonna be wastin’ your breath lookin’ into it. It was probably just some drunk punk who got a little bit too handsy with a conductor of the explosive variety.”

“I think it’s more than that, Verga,” Cadence ruminated. She lifted her hat to scratch the back of her head before leaning back against the wall behind her. She crossed her arms. “Yeah, it’d be too much of a coincidence if it was just that.”

“A coincidence?” Cavallo turned to her.

“I’m thinkin’ someone has an aim here.” Cadence nodded. “I mean, look, everyone knows that that joint belonged to the Foxmans. No one in their right mind’d hit the place up even if they were wasted.” She ran her fingers along the brim of her hat. “And then there’s the fact that we were just about to nab the guy who’s been weedin’ out some of the Romano Family business.”

“What’re you implying, Cadence?” Francis threw a look back toward her.

Cadence shrugged. “Looks like someone wanted to silence him.”

“That’s just an assumption,” Verga grumbled.

“It’s intuition,” Cadence returned. “There’s a difference.”

“And that’s what your intuition is telling you? That there is more to this?” A smile wrinkled Cavallo’s wrinkles. “How about you take point on this then, Cadence? Look into this matter for us. Find out who set off the explosion. A favor from the Romanos to the Foxmans. Pay will be included, of course, Cadence.”

Cadence pulled her scowl up into a grin. “‘Course, my liege.”

* * *

Going door to door asking questions about who saw who when and where and why was exhausting after having pulled through a near-death experience. It didn’t help so much that only one out of her three companions was any good at speaking to people. Then again, Allen was the one who handled the monetary issues and Carl was the one who dealt with their goons and underlings. Not many social skills were needed for those sorts of things.

After they made their final rounds around the block housing the burnt remains of the tavern, the Foxmans were approached by one of their underlings. There was something mentioned about one of their ships leaving the port off schedule. It sounded serious enough to make Francis lose the melodic quality in his voice. And so, they parted ways.

Cadence watched them go with a wave before she headed in the opposite direction. Slipping her hands into her pockets, she weaved through the streets and walkways with a hum. Soon the cement sidewalks bled into cobblestone paths and the high-rise buildings shrank down to two-tiered apartments with stucco walls.

The skyline stretched high above her head. The sun hung low on the horizon but was hidden by a long bridge that stretched far into the distance.

The Dioscuri Bridge. The bridge that connected the left and the right side of the Twin Cities. It rose up in a great arch above the Castor River that cut the city in two and emptied out into the Pollux Bay. At night, sometimes the city officials would activate the engine conductor wired into the bridge and cast illusions of light across it.

Cadence made out a stream of smoke passing above the bridge. The v-train. If she strained her ears, she bet that she could make out its clicks and clacks and its bellowing horn as it pulled into the station. She’d always imagined herself sitting on that train. Watching the Twin Cities flit past below her window. Of course, she’d be on the train leaving the city, not the one that was arriving to it. A pleasant daydream—

Bam!

A small, frail body collided with her own and sent her stumbling backward. When she righted herself, an adolescent no older than thirteen stared back at her with wide, round, black eyes. A boy. Unruly brown hair framed his face and barely concealed a scar that ran from his left temple to his right cheek.

“Sorry, sir, sorry.” The boy bowed his head. He bent down to pick up her hat that had fallen to the ground and handed it out to her.

She accepted it but held it there. “No problem, kid.”

“Really,” he said, retracting his hand. He turned to leave. “I’m really sor—”

She grabbed his retreating hand and jerked him toward her. Out from his pants pocket fell a familiar object. Her wallet. The boy’s eyes widened, and he blinked up at her with a startled expression. An expression which became horrified as she took on his appearance in a burst of copper light with a snap of her ringed fingers.

Holding him in place, she bent down to pick up her wallet. She then pried open his hands and emptied its contents out onto his palm. Ten Cens. Enough to buy three drinks at any bar.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, mimicking his voice, “but I’m not stupid enough to carry a lot of money with me on these streets.”

The boy stared at her wide-eyed, wordless.

She sighed and released him as she snapped her fingers and shattered the transmutation. She then waved him off absentmindedly. “Get a move on, kid. And try to pickpocket someone who doesn’t look broke next time.”

The kid opened his mouth to retort but paused. He then pulled the coins close to his chest and took off down the street without another word.

Sighing, Cadence continued her path down the cobblestone walkway until she reached her most frequented place in the city. A small building only one story tall. A wooden sign was placed in its singular square window. Sognare, bar and tunes.

Shrugging her shoulders, Cadence entered.

The bar was dimly lit and empty. The bartender didn’t even look up from his busywork of cleaning glassware when she entered. With a whistle, she slipped past the round tables that dotted the floor and made her way to the very back where a stage had been raised on a platform. She hopped up onto the platform and approached the large, grand piano that stood tall there.

It was a beautiful thing. Black and white keys made of ivory. A polished shine. Dusted religiously.

Her fingers itched for the keys. They longed for them. Even if the person she’d played for was no longer present.

Cadence gently placed her fingertips on their desired destination and pressed down. A shrill chord rang out.

“That’s a lovely piano.”

Cadence started, turned, and found someone standing at the very edge of the stage beneath the spotlight.

It was a young woman wrapped in a bright green dress that looked like it was made of silk. The top of her dress was a mesh of colorful beadwork that wrapped all the way around her neck. Her dark skin seemed to bring out the vibrancy of the colors, and her dark eyes reflected the dim lights coming from the bar in an eerie way. Her cheekbones were high, and her lashes long. In other words—

“Doll,” Cadence cracked a grin as she drew off her hat, “you’re lovely.”

A thin smile broke across the woman’s features, and she hid it with her hand.

“What’s someone like you doin’ in a place like this?” Cadence continued.

“Sir…” the bartender called out in the distance.

“And what is ‘this place,’ exactly?” the woman returned. Her brows were arched, and her eyes glimmered with mischief. She glanced around as she drew her arms around her waist.

“Well” Cadence scratched the back of her head. “You tellin’ me you entered this place without even knowin—”

“Sir, who are you talking to?” Finally, the bartender raised his voice loud enough to cut into their conversation.

What a spoiler.

Cadence frowned at the bartender before gesturing back to the woman. “What do you mean? I’m—”

The space she was gesturing to was empty. A spotlight on an empty stage.

There it was again. That itching feeling. Like she was being watched.

“I’m… losing my mind,” Cadence concluded.

Transmutationist: a Conductor who falls in one of the five general conducting-type categories. Transmutationists tend to be versatile. Most are able to utilize vitae extraneously, but there are some Transmutationists who are able to utilize vitae intraneously. Transmutationists are able to directly manipulate the vitae particles within objects. Thus they are able to change the form of objects by breaking apart and rejoining the vitae particles within those objects. They tend to mostly find occupations in the medical field. Transmutation of currency is outlawed*.

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