8.5: Jericho’s Reunion (Seperazione)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

After enjoying his usual luncheon with Gabrielle’s inner circle, Jericho begins to wonder if his connection with the other five has quelled his rage. Alice says it is good progress and invites him to visit ELPIS-converted Wtorek Izsak who is imprisoned in the belly of Ophiuchus. 

Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus

“These security checks are ridiculous. We’re Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. We shouldn’t have to go through these things like these tourists here.”

“Is it that you think you’re above all of these ‘tourists’, Talib? Do you think you’re above the security measures?”

“See! That’s exactly how the Organization wants you to think. They’re taking advantage of your docility and compliance! These vitae-spectrophotometer tests are just tools they use to find their next targets!”

“And how and why exactly would they do that? And who are these targets?”

Jericho paused and turned. Alice was walking right behind him and Talib beside her. She was wearing a slim-fitting pale blue dress with a blue ribbon tightened around her waistline, while Talib wore a loosely buttoned blouse with a pair of slacks. A blue scarf was lightly tossed over his shoulders as if as an afterthought.

Their outfits somewhat matched, Jericho realized. Maybe they were a ‘couple.’ But he had assumed Ferris and Talib were a couple. Had he conjectured incorrectly? Or was this one of the ‘love triangles’ Cadence liked to talk about?

Deciding that these thoughts were irrelevant, Jericho continued forward.

They were walking along a wide bridge platform that rose high above the ground. Several meters below them glowed a cluster of oval-shaped vitae reservoirs. There were thirteen total with twelve smaller ones circling around a larger central one. The glow from them from this distance was psychedelic—shifting from soft blues to pale greens to bright purples. Particles of light rose from the pools and dusted the air coating everything in a dreamy haze.

It hurt to look at.

The platform they were walking across was one of twelve. Each platform hung over one of the twelve outer reservoirs and connected together at a central platform that stood tall above the largest reservoir. The platforms were congested, but not as congested as the streets of the Twin Cities.

Jericho approached the railing to his left and peered downwards into the light. His head pounded at the glow, but he took a deep breath and reached out to the other five. It took two tries. Synchronization was around 80 percent with all five appearing physically before him. Some were confused. Some were curious. One was excited.

Uh, what’s the deal, detective?

You said that there was nothing happening on my end, Jericho explained. I’ve heard that it is… customary… to visit places like this Prognoikos Aurora attraction since they are ‘touristy’—

“Jericho, put your hands down,” Werner interjected. “You’ll draw attention.”

Jericho put down his air quotation marks. Touristy. Uplifting to the spirit. That is what the books say. About this place.

“That’s very nice of you, Jericho,” Atienna drew with a smile, clasping her hands together. “Thank you.”

Her smile was pleasant.

Maria threw her hands up the air and wrapped him in her arms before she peeled away and leaned over the railings. “Amazing! I have always wanted to visit this place!” She leaned forward. “What do you think it’s like to swim in it?”

“These are gigantic compared to the one in the royal palace,” Olivier noted, ignoring Maria as he peered over the railings beside her. He grimaced. “There’s so much of it here. I don’t understand why it isn’t just harvested and given out.” He glanced at Werner. “It’d save people a lot of trouble.”

It seemed as if Lavi was not with him today. Jericho was somewhat disappointed. He had wanted to see her reaction.

“That’s not how economics works, kid,” Cadence replied to Olivier with a shrug, glancing with only mild interest at the reservoirs.

“And you know how economics works?” Olivier arched a brow back at her.

Cadence remained smiling. “Hey, I ain’t the one who got scammed by some old coot.”

“Well, this place is considered sacred in Monadism,” Atienna informed them. “It is used for the baptismal portion of saint candidate ceremonies. Although… I have heard that they are starting to begin the construction of a continent-wide insulator system to connect these reservoirs with other major vitae reservoirs around Signum. They’re hoping to provide the poorer areas with it too.”

Olivier perked up at this. “Really? I must have missed that…”

Atienna pressed her fingers to her lips. “It isn’t that you have missed it, it is that it has not been announced yet. Diplomats have very interesting conversations.” She smiled lightly. “Despite everything we can still keep personal matters from each other. That is reassuring, don’t you think?”

Olivier shrugged and glanced at Jericho. Jericho had not heard of it either and mimicked the gesture.

Cadence cracked a grin, nudging Olivier on the shoulder. “See, friends in high places everywhere.”

“I’m literally the Ariesian prince…”

“Exactly!” Cadence snapped her fingers and waved him off. “Anyway, I once sold a whole group of elites from Cancer phony VIP tickets to this place.” She slipped between Maria and Olivier at the railings. “I couldn’t really understand why a buncha people would fork over a thousand common coin to visit some vitae reservoirs but lookin’ at it now…”

“It’s pleasant,” Werner agreed. “The gesture is appreciated, Jericho. I’ve always wanted to see the Ophiuchian vitae reservoirs myself, so—”

What? Cadence’s grin widened. Mr. This-isn’t-a-vacation is takin’ in the scenic view?

“I do appreciate the natural wonders of Signum,” Werner returned coolly. “These are the things that fuel our countries. We should treat them with respect.”

“Hm—Hey, why are some of ‘em kinda lower than the rest?” Cadence inquired, gesturing to about eleven of the reservoirs. “It kinda ruins the whole symmetry.”

“It is a natural phenomenon,” Atienna explained, observing them far from the railings. “Every couple of decades, the levels of the vitae reservoirs rise and fall. I hear there is still research going on about it.” She glanced at Jericho before placing a hand on her chin. “However… During the end of the Reservoir War, the original country of Ophiuchus ended up desecrating half of the reservoirs here, so several of them have never risen since then.”

Cadence rocked back on her heels and grimaced. “That sounds like a history lesson I don’t wanna get into.”

The nausea that had been lightly holding Jericho’s stomach suddenly tightened as he watched them continue to converse, and he placed a hand over his stomach absentmindedly.

Olivier glanced back at him with a frown. “Look, Jericho, it’s not that great.” He loosely thumbed the reservoir below him. “You don’t have to show us this. A picture is good too.”

Cadence whipped around grinning. “Or ya could draw us it too. We could put it in a frame and everything. Hey, who knows? Ya might be the next big artist! People’ll be talkin’ about ya in the streets!”

“—uh, Jericho, are you home?”

Jericho snapped his attention to Talib who was standing right beside him waving a hand in front of his face.

The man startled at Jericho’s attention and placed a hand over his heart. “Saints! You scared me.” He straightened his scarf and nodded. “I was saying that this really is quite the view, isn’t it? And it’s nice to be out of uniform.”

Jericho stared back at him before he nodded. “No one stares.” He glanced around at the pedestrians passing by around them. “I didn’t realize. Some people aren’t fond of peacekeepers.”

Talib nodded slowly, following the passersby with his eyes. “Either we’re too controlling or we’re not controlling enough. Either we spend too much time saving people who don’t matter or we don’t spend enough time saving people who matter.”

“You’ve thought about this. A lot.”

“Yes, well… we can’t save, help, and make everyone happy,” Talib said. “But if we can save and help at least one person, I think that’s enough. Like that poor fellow and those women who were manipulated by that Cancerian.” He paused, gesturing to Jericho’s waist. “You’re a Specialist, right? I wasn’t going to talk about it but—”

“Jericho.”

Jericho turned to find Alice behind him. She had been walking along the opposite railing and now stood before him with an unreadable expression as usual.

“I think this is good progress for you to come here,” Alice said curtly. “But today is also the day you said you would come with us to visit Izsak. I hope you don’t think that coming here this morning excuses you from your promise.”

“This is not an excuse.”

Alice nodded. “Good.”

***

Black Constellation Detention Center, Ophiuchus

Beneath the Serpens Establishment was the Black Constellation Detention Center. It was a prison that extended many meters below the ground and consisted of a network of halls and cells layered up on top of one another. Ferris had likened it one time to a beehive.

After passing through the ten security checks at the Center’s entrance—one of which consisted of a vitae-spectrophotometer test—Jericho, Alice, and Talib were allowed into a small elevator. When Jericho had come here when Ophiuchus had first begun using the vitae-spectrophotometer test, he had nearly been tackled to the ground when the results of his test came in. Alice had been nearby at the time, however, and had flashed her Ophiuchian chairman badge in his defense. Following that event, she had done a hefty load of paperwork and procured a special badge for him that allowed him to bypass the tests.

“Good ta know people in high places, right?” Cadence had chortled.

Sometimes Jericho wondered what those people who knew the color of his vitae thought of him. Rumors had probably already started.

They rode down the elevator in silence. Jericho watched as light from different levels bled through the crack in doors as they descended past them. Ten minutes later the elevator dinged, and they reached the last floor.

When they exited the elevator, they were met with a sterile nearly all-white hallway. Lining the left of the hall were large two-way mirrors in-between which large metal doors stood rigid. In front of each of those doors stood a pair of uniformed peacekeeping agents. Cells.

The walls across from them were spotted with black metal benches. The walls themselves were dotted with occasional strange streaks of black.

Jericho glanced into the first two-way mirror as they walked past. Usian. Laying down on the bed provided within the room with his hands folded over his stomach, the man stared up at the ceiling with an unreadable expression.

The second two-way mirror down the hall contained another man. Major Ersatz. The Capricornian major paced the room back and forth while biting his thumb and muttering to himself.

Jericho felt his gaze unnaturally linger on the man before he forced himself forward.

They came to a stop before the third two-way mirror.

Jericho glanced inside.

Wtorek Izsak sat at a table set at the room’s center. Across from him sat a woman in a black suit wearing a white armband. Her wavy brown hair was tied into a rather messy bun, and her hand was resting on the man’s upper arm.

Wtorek Elizabeta.

The heaviness in Jericho’s chest felt foreign and detached.

Alice immediately went to the window and stood before it with crossed arms. Jericho stared after her for a moment before glancing at the other wall.

There was a girl sitting on the bench across from the two-way mirror of Izsak’s cell. Wispy brown hair braided, caramel-colored eyes. She appeared to be around fourteen years old. Resting on her lap was a strange-looking stuffed rabbit, and Jericho was reminded of the monstrous stuffed animal that rested on a table back in his condo.

“That’s Izsak’s daughter. Csilla,” Talib whispered as he detached himself from Jericho’s side and walked over to the bench. He sat down beside the girl and began speaking animatedly and using his usual dramatic hand gestures.

Csilla giggled in turn. She was entertained, it seemed.

Jericho stared at the two and offered Csilla a small wave when the girl looked up at him. She returned the wave with a faint smile before her gaze drifted to the two-way mirror. Jericho followed her gaze before coming to a stand beside Alice in front of the glass pane.

“Maintenance still hasn’t gotten rid of those stains yet?” Alice grimaced and turned to one of the guards standing beside the door. “Mladen, it’s disgusting to look at.”

Mladen was a tall, lean man with a light mustache, a prominent brow, and an expression of complete indifference. An Aquarian, gauging by his sharp features.

The Aquarian grimaced. “Every time you complain I go up to maintenance and cleaning and tell them. After that we have to take the prisoners out to a separate level while the stains are cleaned out. Then we move them back in. You know what happens after that? More stains appear. And the cycle repeats. Someone is pulling some stupid prank, and I have to suffer for it either way.”

“Give me the names of the maintenance crew, and I’ll deal it with myself if you can’t.”

Stains?

Jericho looked around.

There. It was barely viewable from his current angle, but there was a black streak running along the wall just behind Izsak’s head. It was about the length of his arm, and it looked a bit familiar. It reminded Jericho of the paintings in Atienna’s cave. And…

Jericho turned his head.

There were similar black streaks on the wall behind him.

So it wasn’t a customary design then.

“That doesn’t help me,” Mladen complained. “I’ll just have to move all of them again when the stains reappear.”

Alice sighed and knocked on the steel door.

Elizabeta startled from within and pulled her hand away from her husband’s arm. She turned back towards the door and then glanced at the two-way mirror. Although she couldn’t see them, she nodded in their direction.

“Open the door,” Alice ordered.

Mladen rolled his neck and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a set of keys and inserted one into the slot in the door. There was a cold draft of wind as the door groaned open.

The guard beside Mladen shivered and grimaced. “Saints. They need to turn off the damn heat—”

A loud squelch cut the guard off, and the sound was followed by a gurgle and then a steady drip, drip, drip.

Jericho turned, stared, and then tried to piece together the events that had preceded the scene before him. All he had seen was a flash of tangerine light, a glint of metal, and then—and then just red.

Red seeping in-between the white tiles of the floor, red bleeding onto the guard’s Ophiuchian armband, red pooling out from the guard’s mouth—his mouth from which a steel beam now protruded. The beam extended almost all the way to the opposite wall, and the weight of the thing dragged the peacekeeper forward. His body crumpled to the floor in an instant, sending red droplets splattering onto the walls as he clutched his throat and gurgled.

“Z-Zeke!” Mladen shouted, rushing to the fallen guard’s side. He glared at the other Ophiuchian guards standing frozen around him. “Conductors! Get the damned medical Conductors! Don’t just stand there!”

“Wait! Nobody move!” Alice snapped.

The door to the cell behind her was just barely open. The chaotic noise from their side seemed to have traveled through the crack in the door, however, as Jericho could see that Elizabeta had shot up to a stand through the two-way mirror. Izsak, meanwhile, was facing the wall and was staring at the black smear there.

“Where in saint’s name did that come from?!” shouted another one of the peacekeepers closest to the elevator.

The elevator doors were closed. None of the peacekeeping agents had pulled out their conductors yet. The perpetrator was not in sight.

Jericho whipped his head around to where Talib and Csilla sat. The girl’s face was buried in Talib’s chest, and the man was holding her tightly and staring at Zeke with wide eyes.

The wall behind the two was glowing. No. The black patterns painted on the wall were glowing—glowing with pale tangerine light. And out from those numerous glowing splotches grew steel beams coated in white light.

Familiar. Manipulator. White. That color.

The world around him began to blur, the surroundings melding into one another.

Calm down. Think.

Jericho whipped his head around and tackled Alice to the ground just as the steel beams whistled out from the pools of light. The ear-piercing screech was followed by the ring of metal against glass, metal against tiled floor, metal against body. When the sounds dampened, Jericho peeled himself off of Alice and observed his surroundings.

Talib was on the ground as well, body caged protectively over a shivering Csilla. They both looked unharmed. Several other peacekeepers had also made the successful dodge. A number of them, however, were flat on the ground—bodies pierced through with pieces of metal.

The glow from the wall dimmed leaving behind the black smears that still seemed to hum with a faint energy.

Specialist…? But even for that, this is—

Jericho scrambled to his feet to fully assess the damage. The two-way mirror leading to Ersatz’s cell had shattered and the floor was flooded with blood, bodies, pieces of metal, and fragments of glass. The two way-mirror of Izsak’s cell was, however, still intact—the door, still cracked open just slightly.

Ears ringing, Jericho dashed towards it.

“Jericho, wait!” Alice snapped, rising to a stand only to slip on the blood that dyed the floor crimson.

Ignoring her shout, Jericho ripped the door open and rushed inside.

Elizabeta stared at him wide-eyed as he entered. “Jericho? What’s—”

Jericho’s gaze fixated upon the black streak on the back wall that Izsak was now extending a hand out towards. Before Jericho could move forward, however, he was pushed to the side by another peacekeeping agent. Mladen.

The peacekeeper flicked his gloved hands and conjured a pistol and a combat knife in a flash of deep green light. He pointed the pistol squarely at Izsak, gripped the knife tightly in his other hand, and snapped, “Don’t move, Wtorek!”

“What are you doing?!” Elizabeta hissed at him. “Are you craz—”

The black streak on the wall began to glow with pale tangerine light bringing with it a chillingly familiar updraft of wind. Something slithered out from that glowing streak. A hand.

Elizabeta whipped her head around and stared at the glow gaping. “What in the world is—”

Izsak started forward, reaching out towards the hand protruding from the wall with an extended hand of his own.

“No!” Elizabeta cried, throwing her body across the table and tackling Izsak to the ground away from the light.

“You’re going to make this very hard for us, aren’t you?”

Jericho froze as the familiar voice drifted out from the glowing light. The same voice as the one from that night at the docks. The same mocking tone. The same feeling building in his chest. A hot iron heat that sent a surge of electricity through his entire body. His head buzzed, his ears rang—

Jericho, calm down.

The hand retracted back into the pool of light for a beat and then shot outwards again flinging out a spray of red that splashed across the room.

Without thinking, Jericho ducked beneath the splatter. Mladen, however, lifted his hand wielding the knife, and the red droplets caught on to his hand and the blade.

The man wiped the droplets from his face with a grimace. “Disgusting—”

And then the blood flecked upon his conjured blade began to glow white. The whiteness consumed the entire thing in an instant. Before the man had the chance to react, the knife flew from his hand and then flipped over to face him with its point. It hovered there for a moment before hurtling forward and piercing his shoulder. The force of the blow sent him flying back out of the doorway. He hit the wall in the hall with a thud before sliding to the ground motionless.

“‘Disgusting’? Isn’t that a bit too harsh? Unsanitary, yes—I have to admit that it is.”

Out from the glowing streak on the wall stepped a young woman dressed in a loosely buttoned blouse and a pair of black slacks. A chain glinted faintly on her neck barely hidden by her dark, loose rope of braided hair partially concealed her face. By her relaxed demeanor, however, it was evident that the concealment was not done purposefully. She had nothing to hide.

Sighing, the woman paused to brush off her shirt before glancing to the side of the room where Elizabeta remained hovering over Izsak. “You’re not going to cause trouble for us, are you?”

“Stay away from my family,” Elizabeta hissed, eyes fierce and cold. “He’s not one of you!”

The woman sighed again and snapped her conductor gloved fingers. The sound was followed by a whirling whine as the knife from Mladen’s shoulder flew out from his body and into her waiting hand.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Omicron said, pointing the knife at them, “but that man—”

Jericho rose to a stand, heart hammering, ears ringing, head pounding. If the others were there, he could not hear them or feel them. All he could feel was the heat that was building inside his chest just waiting to explode outwards. A feeling almost forgotten. Never.

Flipping her hair away from her face, the woman turned to face Jericho. In the pale overhead lights shining down from above, the white of the snake tattoo on the left half of her face blended into the pale of her skin.

Omicron. Yes. That was her name. He hadn’t forgotten since that night at the docks in the Twin Cities. He could not recall the pain he’d felt when she’d pierced him through with the steel beams that night, but he could still recall the white glow of her vitae. A member—a leader—of ELPIS in here. In the Serpens Establishment. In the place Alice had said was safe.

Omicron’s eyes widened. “You’re…”

Recognition. Good. Good to know one’s executioner.

Izsak locked eyes with Jericho from beneath Elizabeta and held up a warning hand in the ELPIS leader’s direction. “Omicron, be careful, he’s a—”

What? Why was he—

Jericho grabbed one of the chairs that had toppled to the ground, leaped over the table at the room’s center, and swung the chair at her head. Omicron formed a fist with her gloved hands, and out from the pool of light on the wall behind her came another steel iron bar. The clang of metal against metal rang through the room as the bar slipped through the legs of the chair and locked it in place.

But Jericho was not deterred. He slipped beneath the thing and landed a solid kick to the woman’s chest sending both of them flying back into the wall and into the pool of light. Cold nipped at Jericho’s ears as they tumbled through a stretch of void and light. A tumbling free fall with no end and no beginning and—

—suddenly Jericho was falling out onto the messy floor of a familiar hallway. The floor was wet and red beneath him and littered with shards of glass, steel beams, and unmoving bodies dressed in monochrome.

He was somehow back out in the hall outside of Izsak’s cell. Above him, the black streaks on the wall were once again glowing with light.

Spatial distortion? Even for a Specialist, that’s hard to believe. Regardless. Pay attention. Look out for the other Conductor. Be careful. Get reinf—

Jericho’s ears began to ring again, muting Werner’s cool, calming voice. In the white noise, he began to evaluate his physical condition as Alice had directed him to do over and over again. The fragments of glass from the shattered two-way mirror of Ersatz’s cell had pierced his forearm, but he did not feel the pain. Operational still.

He focused his gaze upon Omicron who lay only a meter or so away from him. She was slowly rising to her feet now, groaning.

There was another peacekeeper laying beside him. At the peacekeeper’s waist were two conductors. One in the shape of a gun, and the other a bladeless hilt.

There was a sudden pang of horror in Jericho’s chest followed by remorse and disgust and pity at the sight of the body—the corpse—and then—

Probably a Projector’s conductor. Probably incompatible with a Specialist. It’s too dangerous—

Olivier.

But those facts didn’t matter.

Jericho lunged for the Projector’s gun, whipped around, and pointed it squarely at Omicron just as she turned to face him. Her eyes widened for a moment before an impassive expression slipped itself over her face. Acceptance. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger.

The heat and the hum that trembled through the conductor told Jericho that his conducting-type was most definitely incompatible with the conductor. But the conductor still served its purpose. Out from its tip exploded a burst of blinding white light that hurtled right towards the woman’s torso.

In the moment before contact, however, another figure leapt in front of the white blast. The vitae ray caught the figure’s shoulder, and the force of the blast sent him flying back into Omicron. A familiar groan reached Jericho’s ears.

It was Ersatz, who lay draped across Omicron’s body while clutching his shoulder. Omicron stared down at him wide-eyed, before she reached into her pocket and slipped something into his hands. A pendant, knife-shaped and crafted with a glass handle.

Saints—your conductor!

Jericho glanced down and saw that the conducting gun was smoking.

You’re crazy! You cracked the insulator! It’s not usable anymore—

Jericho chucked the thing aside, gaze snapping to the bladeless conductor still at the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

Omicron whipped her gloved hand out again sending three of the steel beams that were scattered around the ground hurtling in his direction.

Jericho dove for the Projector’s blade conductor, activated it, and sliced through the steel beams with ease. Then without hesitating again, he lunged at her.

Omicron pushed Ersatz to the side as she launched herself backwards. She tensed as her escape was shortened by the two-way mirror behind her. Back pressed against the mirror, she glowered.

“You’ll die here,” Jericho stated before he swung again.

Omicron dropped and ducked below the swing but the blade skirted her braid, disintegrating it in an instant and leaving her with a rugged short cut. She flicked her wrist and sent another wave of pipes in his direction from all sides. She slipped out beneath him as he disassembled the pipes with three quick swishes. Before she could get out of his reach however, he grabbed her by what little remained of her hair and threw her back up against the pane. She hit it with a thud and slid to the floor with a slight grimace.

“Haven’t you heard of being a gentleman?” she asked.

Instead of answering, he swung at her again. She moved quicker than before, although she still barely managed to skirt him this time. His conductor, however, did make contact with something on her person—an oddly-shaped pendant of the chain that had been hanging from her neck. It was knife-shaped with a clear handle just like the one she’d handed to Ersatz. It fragmented and shattered in an instant just like everything else his vitae touched. This time, however, Omicron’s reaction was different. Her eyes widened in horror; and with a roar, she sent Jericho away from her with a solid kick to the chest.

Jericho hit the black painted wall behind him but immediately popped back up to a stand while flipping the conductor in his hand. The handle of it was hot in his grip, but he did not pay it any mind.

Omicron still had a completely stricken look on her face as she gripped the chain around her neck. Distracted.

He made towards her again but Olive’s thoughts rang out once more—

Jericho, it’s hot! You’re overheating the conductor! It hurts—

No sooner did the thought leave his mind did his hand suddenly release the conductor. It fell onto the floor, losing its blade of light immediately. It sizzled and smoked and popped, sparks bursting from its body.

He glanced at his hand. It was red and raw.

“You’re really crazy, you know that?”

He looked up to find Omicron standing and holding her gloved hand out in his direction. Surrounding him from all sides were rows of glowing white pipes. But he stared past them and stared holes into the woman. The woman grimaced and flicked her wrist—

—but before she could bring her hand down, Omicron was abruptly tackled to the side wall by another body. Jericho could barely register that it was Alice before the two women fell into the glowing pools of light there and disappeared in an instant.

No.

Jericho dashed towards the wall but was stopped by a hand around the wrist. Turning his head, he found Ersatz standing there, eyes wide and livid, practically foaming at the mouth. There were white cracks along man’s body, bleeding out from his wounded shoulder. The cracks were gradually spreading, fragmenting along his lower torso. Still, Ersatz struggled forward, brandishing the knife Omicron had dropped onto the ground moments before. Before Ersatz could even make a move, however, he too was tackled to the side of the wall—and into one of the glowing pools of light—by another peacekeeper. Mladen. In an instant they too were swallowed up.

And then—

—just like that, the light on the wall dimmed into nothing, leaving the black smears looking just as they did when Jericho had first come into this hall.

Jericho slowly walked up to the wall and placed a hand on one of the smears. Cold.

He couldn’t quite comprehend the scene.

Elizabeta was now out in the hall hugging Csilla tightly. There were other peacekeepers filtering in through the elevator. Talib was standing in front of him, shaking him and shouting. Alice. Where was Alice.

Were those his own thoughts or Talib’s shouts. Jericho didn’t know.


(    )

“Oh…” Omega lifted her head as she flipped her hair. She was sitting at the board game table across from Tau and had been using one of her black pieces to capture one of his white ones when her eyes had suddenly glazed over.

“Omega?” Tau pressed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “What is it?”

Omega returned her attention to the board game, eyes still glazed over, as she finished capturing one of his pieces. “Omicron isn’t in the Serpens Establishment anymore. Neither is Ersatz.”

Tau clicked his tongue at her move and handed one of the black game pieces he’d captured previously back over to her. “That’s good…. Then, where are they?”

“I don’t know,” she hummed, accepting the piece and placing it in the spot that his piece had previously occupied. She flipped her hair again, this time over her shoulder. “They’re not anywhere that I’ve used my conductor at. I can’t see them through any of my mediums. Oh, but Izsak is still there—”

“What?!” Tau snapped, shooting up to a stand. “That’s not good at all! What was the point of Omicron going there? I knew trusting that peacekeeper was a terrible, awful idea! Dammit! Izsak has valuable information! If I hadn’t lost that damn game with Omicron then—”

“It was the peacekeeper with the suitcase again,” she said, voice sing-song. “But he didn’t have his suitcase this time around. What a terrifying person.”

“The suitcase bastard Omicron met in the Twin Cities?” Tau pinched the bridge of his nose. “Again?”

“Theta is off right now,” Omega sang. “I wonder what they’ll do when they find out their knight in shining armor has failed.”


“If someone asked for your help, cried in front of you, or asked for your love, what would you do? Certainly, the easiest answer would be to embrace them. It’s the simplest method with the fastest effect. But giving a hug or a kiss or even offering a drink—these are all temporary measures. What about tomorrow? The day after that? Would you embrace them every single time? And what if you’re no longer around? What then? That is why, Jericho, I will not be like any of the others. I will not simply embrace you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley, Third Chairwoman of the Psychological Evaluations Department of Ophiuchus

8.4: Maria’s Capture (Fuga)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Maria has a bounty on her head, but she is not concerned with it. Instead, she has focused her attention on retrieving a package she is to deliver to the Campanas from Pisces. Upon arrival at Pisces, however, she has discovered that the package holder Elele has been murdered by the bounty hunters after her head and that the package is now missing. Maria thus begins a hunt for the bounty hunters, while Conta’s aloofness weights on the back of her mind. Her mysterious new crew member Ley also seems to know more than she’s letting on. Amongst everything, there is a tale swirling around about a “beast of the deep”. 

Hapaira, Pisces

“We’ve been on this so-called hunt for over three days now, Captain,” Morandi grumbled from where he sat at the foot of the steps. “This isn’t looking good. If the Campanas were to…”

“Nonsense, my dear Morandi!” Maria laughed, wiggling her bare toes and feeling the smooth stone beneath her feet. She reached down into the river which ran up to her thighs, cupped a puddle of it in her arms, and then flung it in Morandi’s direction.

Ley and Simon who were seated to his left managed to leap away just before the wave of water crashed onto shore, but Morandi and the others at his right were not as lucky and were barraged by the torrent.

“Captain!” came the shouts of exasperation.

Morandi sighed before he pulled off his shirt and wrung it over the river and laid it out on one of the steps to dry.

Maria had discovered this waterway during one of their many searches for the bounty hunters. The water here was crystalline making the rock bed beneath it visible to the naked eye. The rush of the river was barely audible, and the entire thing was bordered by a pair of short staircases that ran along its length. Beyond the stairs on the left was a strip of empty, small, and colorful brick buildings; and beyond the stairs to the right was a patchwork of marshy overgrowth.

Upon their arrival, Maria had staked a claim on the land and labeled it as hers. Simon had informed her that it wouldn’t be possible for her to claim the land legally to which Maria had responded with “that’s why we do it not legally, no?” That had all been in good jest, of course. There was no way she would trap this piece of gorgeous land under her title. Something as beautiful as this deserved to be free and unclaimed. In a sense. It was still hers, of course. If anyone would dare to defile it, she would show them the terror that was the Golden Beast.

“I wonder what is taking my dear Giorgio so long?” Maria sighed as she ran her hand along the surface of the water. “He is surprisingly energetic when it comes to this stuff, yes?” She recalled Giorgio’s excitement when they’d first found this river. He had floundered around with her, kicking up the water with his feet.

“He’s a river boy at heart,” Morandi explained as he picked up a stray stone and tossed it into the river. “His village—before it was attacked by ELPIS—was renowned for its fishing industry. He’s practically married to any flowing body of water. It’s a bit of a strange interest, now that I think about it.”

Married, hm?

Maria paused in her play to glance over her shoulder. Sitting on the steps at the opposite side of the river was Conta. The woman stared at Maria with a blank expression which deepened into a frown when Maria wadded across the river to join her.

“What are you looking at my dear, Conta?” Maria asked, falling to a crouch in the stream in front of her so they were at eye level. “I was looking for you earlier, you know? Usually, you are already one step behind me, but this time I had to go in search of you! It’s fun to switch things up from time to time, yes?”

Conta averted her gaze. “I suppose, Captain.”

Maria chuckled lightly, resting her chin on her knees. “You know, it is strange. I am actually sort of glad that you are mad at me, Conta. It’s more funny than strange, actually? I mean…” She paused to stare at Conta’s reflection in the rippling water. “It is from that distance that I truly realize how much you mean to me.”

Conta’s reflection stiffened, and her eyes narrowed. “Captain, I…”

Maria beamed and popped her head up. “Even though I say that, I still hope that your next words are going to be ‘I am no longer upset with you.’ I truly did not mean to say that—” Maria paused, rose, and turned around.

Giorgio was coming along the strip of trodden land lining the stairs at the opposite side of the river. In his hands was a brown bag which looked full of food. A gift from Raul, probably. The chef had decided he felt comfortable enough not accompanying Maria several days ago and had returned to the ship to continue his cooking duties. Since the stores and stalls dotting the pier were still devoid of people, it was not so hard to raid them for food ingredients. In fact, it had been rather boring. But Raul was happy with that so Maria supposed it was fine.

Maria drifted back across the river and popped up back onto the stairs on the opposite side just as Giorgio came down the stairwell. When she approached him, he flinched away from her while holding the brown bag of food high above his head.

“Captain! Captain!” Giorgio stammered. “The food! You’re dripping wet!”

Maria neared him still, placing one finger to her lips as she reached for something at his belt. “You said you sleep with a knife, my dear Giorgio, but I see you have started carrying it with you all times! You are starting to get the hang of me being your captain, yes?”

“Wha—”

Maria plucked the knife from his side, flipped it and caught it by the tip of its blade, before hurtling in the direction of one of the buildings behind him. The knife whistled through one of the open windows—a sound followed by a loud grunt and then a thud.

Maria brushed past the others and headed to the building she had sent the knife into. She leapt in through the window and landed deftly on the wooden floor inside. There was a trail of blood there leading to the corner of the room, and within that corner resided a panting man who was clutching his left arm. He was tall and dark with bottle green eyes. He tensed as Maria approached him.

Her gaze flicked to his sides. No weapons.

Wait. Had she gotten the wrong person?

Pay attention. Observe.

Her gaze drifted to the man’s wound—rather, the hand clutching the wound. And then she smiled. This was definitely the right person. What was it that Cadence always said? ‘Bingo.’

“You are not a very good spy, yes?” Maria asked, reaching forward and wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the knife that protruded from his arm. “I could see you following my dear Giorgio from far away, my friend.”

The man’s bandaged hand gripped his wound and what little of the blade protruded from his arm. He was evidently missing several fingers.

Without hesitation, Maria ripped the knife out from his arm and watched as the man yelped and slid to the ground with a groan.

That’s terrible.

Not really.

Maria fell into a crouch in front of the man and tapped the knife at his cheek. “What exactly were you doing, my friend, following Giorgio like that?” She smiled and pressed the edge of the knife against the man’s face. “Mm… that’s not the right question. The right question is what were you planning to do to my dear Giorgio?”

Gritting his teeth, the man remained silent.

“You see, I have lost quite a few things recently, and I’ve been starting to think that the feeling of losing things is not fun, yes? So this is important to me, do you understand?”

Again, silence.

“Hm. How about this? One of my friends likes reading books, you see,” Maria continued. “There is one book she read—it is quite funny—where this one character who was a cannibal, yes? He ate other people and was able to get their memories from eating them. It was a horror story, but I found it very funny. ” She leaned in close and whispered into the man’s ears: “Shall I give it a try?”

“Captain!”

Maria turned her head and found Ley, Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio storming into the room behind her. While Simon, Giorgio, and Morandi came in through the door, Ley leapt in through the window and was at Maria’s side at an instant.

Ley’s gaze flicked from the knife in Maria’s hands to the wounded man. Her eyes then narrowed from above her magenta mask, and she sank to the floor beside Maria while placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Do you mind if I try a crack at it, Captain?” Ley asked, voice barely muffled. “I used to be called a villain back in the day, so I’m sure that I might get some more out of him with just a little less loss of appendages.”

Maria considered Ley’s proposal for a moment before she nodded and peeled away from the bounty hunter’s side. Ley took her place, falling into a crouch in front of him.

“Where are your bounty hunting pals?” Ley asked after either a yawn or a sigh. “You came alone even after you saw her tear through you guys that other night. That doesn’t seem like a very bounty hunter-like thing for you to do.”

The nameless bounty hunter glowered, but something else flickered in his eyes. What was that look? Pain—a different one than physical. That pain was of someone who had lost—

“Piscese bounty hunters don’t tend to operate in groups so I was pretty surprised when I saw you guys working together.” Ley yawned again, rubbing the tears out of her eyes. “Sorry. Tired. Anyway, that’s a pretty murderous vibe you’ve got there in your eyes. Makes me wonder if the bounty is all that’s on your mind.”

The flicker in the man’s eyes sparked into a flame and he launched himself up at Maria only to be swept to the ground by Ley who had kicked her feet beneath his own. He hit the ground with a thud and then went limp.

Ley swore under her breath and reached over to check the man’s pulse. “He’s just passed out.” She glanced at Maria. “We could use a Transmutationist if you’ve got one.” She gestured to his bleeding arm. “It’s not deep, but what do I know?”

“You really know how to take the reins, huh, my dear Ley?” Maria chuckled before she glanced over her shoulder at Simon. “No Transmutationists here!”

Ley shrugged and began to search the man’s clothing. She paused and pulled out something from the folds of his shirt. It looked like a keychain. A rather cute one of a blue mini surfboard. “Either a lead or a dead end.”

Maria hummed.

“It might be too good to be true,” Ley drew, “but there was that surfboard shop we passed by earlier.” She tossed the item to Maria. “Surfboard. Water. The Elementalist. The beast of the deep. Bounty hunters. The package. There’s too many coincidences.”

Maria inspected the keychain before swinging it by the ring around the point of her knife. “So the surfboard store is the way to go, yes?” She threw it up in the air, caught it, pocketed it.

Ley rose to her feet. “That seems the case. I think we should wait until princess here wakes up before we check it out though—”

“No, you will all stay here while I go now,” Maria said, wiping the knife off on her shirt. She twirled it around as she approached Giorgio who was hovering by the doorway and slid the thing back into his belt. “If there really is a beast out there, then it only makes sense for another beast to face it, no?”

***

Oddly enough, excitement was not brewing in Maria’s chest as she wove her way back through the colorful town of Hapaira. Instead, an emotion that was a bit unfamiliar to her was growing there. She couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but it was quite unpleasant—tying her stomach into knots.

At a fork in the red brick road beneath one of the town’s infamous arches, Maria paused to look left and then right. “I don’t remember which way to go…”

Left.

It was Werner!

She looked around but could not see him.

Wait—

He sounded unhappy.

Unhappiness has nothing to do with this. I am advising you to think your actions through thoroughly. Going into an unknown location without the proper support is—

Maria laughed, feeling the odd knot in her stomach lessen. “Do not worry, Werner, I am strong, and I will never die.” She turned down the left path and began to wind down the narrow stone walkway there.

Everyone dies, came Werner’s thought. You should refrain from speaking out lou—

“Not me.” Maria hummed as she continued onwards. “And not you. We won’t die.” Ever. “I won’t let you.”

She reached the surfboard store not so soon after. It looked the same as before with bright colorful surfboards lining its front and seashell trinkets hanging from its extended roof. It was a very open store with its shutter door pulled all the way up to allow in sunlight. Upon closer inspection, however, Maria noticed that behind all of those displays at the very back wall was a small and narrow blue door.

After a moment of consideration, she reached out and pushed over one of the upright boards decorating the front. It crashed into the surfboard behind it which knocked into another surfboard—all in a domino crescendo. The crashes echoed through the silence surrounding her for a moment but quietness reigned in a beat after.

Hm. No one was coming through the door. That was a bit boring.

She was crazy.

“Oh, Ollie!” Maria greeted him and threw her hands up in the air. She looked around but she could not see him either. She didn’t mind it though, as the knot in her stomach disappeared completely leaving her feeling light and pleasant as always. “Are you here to join me on this adventure?”

‘Course he is, doll. It’s hard ta ignore that kinda spirit, came Cadence’s voice drifting down into her thoughts. I was wonderin’ why I couldn’t stop shakin’ my leg. Turns out your excitement is just that infectious.

Cadence was here too! Well, that was wonderful. All that was needed was Atienna and Jericho, and it would just be like the synchronization meeting minus all the long boring talk.

“Well, onwards we go!” Maria cheered.

Wait—

Maria paced up to the narrow blue door at the back of the store. When she pulled it open, she found a staircase descending downwards. While the path down was entirely pitch black, she could see a very faint light glowing from the bottom. Without skipping a beat, she dashed down the stairwell. When she reached the floor below, she found herself standing in a very small room lit only by a single v-bulb that swung from the ceiling. But—

Maria could feel Olive pale immediately with fear, disgust, and horror. She could even feel the chill that ran up his spine. It was an unfamiliar sensation to her.

How awful….

It was Atienna, and with her came a wave of apprehension and worry. Something weighed down in Maria’s chest at Atienna’s thought. An uncomfortable weight.

There were bodies everywhere in front of them. Bodies on top of bodies. Bodies drooping over the small circular tables that dotted the space. Red staining into the wood.

Ignoring Olive and Atienna’s apprehension, Maria continued forward and glanced around. These were most definitely some of the bounty hunters that came at her the previous week. This was definitely peculiar.

Maybe they all killed each other, Cadence suggested. Like a shootout. Bang, bang.

Why would they do such a thing? Atienna pondered.

Bounty greed? Cadence tried. I mean, they are after the money.

Atienna seemed to think about this deeply. As strong and as terrifying desire is, it’s a bit strange that they would all be cooperating with another only to turn on another so suddenly, isn’t it? Even though they haven’t obtained what they’ve come for…

Well, when ya put it that way…

Intuition. The same weapon was used to kill all of them. It was Jericho, solidifying before Maria’s eyes with absolute clarity. He was crouched down inspecting one of the bodies. It was riddled with fist-shaped holes as was the body beside it. They have similar markings. Not a shootout. One person.

Werner solidified beside him as well and gave a firm nod. I would say that a Projector did this, but these markings seem different. He gestured to a woman draped across one of the tables. She had a hole drilled straight through her forehead. Look at the singe marks of the exit holes. It’s too controlled and clean.

The one who killed your package holder Elele. Jericho nodded. “That person was an Elementalist. This is another party.”

Maybe it’s another bounty hunting group, Cadence reasoned. Killin’ off competition. And Mr. Fingerless there thought it was you, so that’s why he went after ya alone. Kinda weird for a bounty hunter though. Never thought they’d be the type for camaraderie.

Was this really about Maria’s bounty? Atienna thought. I know you have quite a strong personality, Maria, and you draw attention everywhere you go, but it’s a bit strange that the bounty hunters knew exactly where you would be… plus, we still don’t know the chronology of these events. If one event is moved slightly out of order then…

That’s a valid point, Atienna, Werner agreed.

Wow, ya both are risin’ detectives ain’t ya? Cadence snickered. Gonna give Jericho a run for his money—

‘Run for my money’—what does that—

It’s awful, came Olive’s abrupt thought.

Jericho and Werner exchanged looks.

Don’t get me wrong. Olive continued, hesitant. I get that they’re out for Maria and that they’re dangerous. But when you talk about them like that, it’s like they’re not even human. A pause. These were people.

Olive… Atienna began.

Maria noticed something black flicker out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, what’s that?”

Sitting in the back corner of the room was a polished black crate that reminded Maria of one of the fancy cabinets she had stolen from a Cancerian estate several months prior. Surrounding it was a ring of corpses—some still clutching what appeared to be conductors, knives, and guns.

Ignoring the hesitation she felt curling in her chest, she strode over to the crate and popped the lid open. The interior was lined with bright pink padding, and it was filled with silk white pillows and stuffed animals.

It looks almost like a coffin… that is a bit ominous, don’t you think?

Looks like a good place ta take a nap. The container looks kinda familiar though—

There was a creak from behind Maria.

Hm.

Maria kicked up a knife that one of the corpses was holding, caught it, and spun around slashing. The figure that was standing behind her, however, ducked backwards from the swing and missed it by a hair’s breadth.

Oh! Maria thought as she studied the person. That is sort of impressive—

“Geeze, Captain. It’s just me.”

It was Ley, standing with her hands held up in the air.

“Wow,” Maria hummed, lowering the knife in surprise. “You are quite skilled, Ley!”

Skilled or creepy? Olive thought. There’s a difference.

I’m the one who’s skilled?” Ley chuckled, straightening herself and adjusting her scarf mask.

“What are you doing here?” Maria asked. “I said to stay behind, yes?”

Ley opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by another voice coming from behind—

“Who’s there?”

Maria cocked her head. Ley’s gaze focused on a point behind her. Following that gaze, Maria turned around.

There was something beneath one of the tables over which two corpses were draped. Rather, it was a someone. A person who was huddled there on all fours. After a beat of silence, that person crawled forward from out beneath the table and rose to a stand.

There was alarm from Werner, Olive, and Atienna’s end but Maria herself was simply curious because—

—standing amongst the corpses was a girl no older than twelve. Her skin was a pale white which was only several shades lighter than the milky white of her eyes. The colors contrasted with her dark brown hair which was graced with a red bow. The bow itself reminded Maria of the ones that would be placed on top of her birthday presents back at the orphanage.

The girl turned her milky eyes in their direction.

“Are you here to pick me up for Mr. Campana?” the girl asked, brushing off her wonderfully expensive-looking sequined blue dress before crossing her arms with a huff. “I’ve been waiting all day, you know?”


Twin Cities, Gemini

Swallowing, Matilda pressed down on the folds of her dress and checked her reflection on the window to her left. Her hair wasn’t as dolled up as it had been that night at the Romanos-Foxman meeting, and so it frizzed out like a lion’s mane. Her butterfly shaped birthmark seemed even more prominent beneath the dim v-lights of the cafe, and she couldn’t help but nervously pick at the chipping wood of the table in front of her. It wasn’t her fault, really. She hadn’t been expecting this meeting at all.

“What’s wrong?”

Matilda startled and turned forward as her invitee slipped back into the seat across from her. She stared down at her hands. “Uh, nothing, I…”

“You seem nervous.” A chuckle that sounded off. “There’s no need to be.”

“Right,” Matilda said nervously, toying with a thread that was coming loose at the bottom of her skirt, “so why… did you… erm—”

“Do you… want to leave the city?”

Matilda froze and looked up.

The man was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater which was much different than his normal wear, but his easy smile was familiar.

Matilda’s mind raced. What was he saying? Why was he saying it? Did he want her to leave the city? Was she not doing a good enough job with her group? “Why would I want to do that? I mean, I wouldn’t find a better opportunity than this here…”

“Opportunity?” The smile began to slide from his face.

“I mean, even if I left the city, where would I go?” Matilda tried. “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to even go anywhere. I don’t think I’m on any records. And records are important, right? I mean, I know people who left the city trying to make a name for themselves, but they end up coming back here with even less than before. This is the only place for people like me.”

There was a pause. The chatter of those around them reached Matilda’s ears. It was worse than silence.

“I see. If you look at it that way, I can see how you would want to stay forever,” he said quietly. “You are very well-spoken, Matilda.”

Matilda found herself flushing at this, and she didn’t quite know why. She was never like this around him usually. She cleared her throat. “Thank you, but can I ask why you’re asking, Mr. F—”

Her voice caught in her throat, and it took her a moment to find her words again:

“A-Are you… is everything okay…?”

“You really are well spoken…” The man gently rubbed the wetness from his eyes. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Have you come across anything strange with the items you’ve been delivering?”

The question was so odd that Matilda for a moment forgot the man’s tears. “What do you mean?”

“Items that maybe aren’t conductors or conductor parts is what I’m referring to.”

Matilda shook her head. “Were we missing some of the items we handed off? I know some of the recent deliveries haven’t made it to the drop-off locations, but I already explained everything to you…”

The man remained silent for a moment, turning to look out the window. “Your current occupation is very dangerous,” he drew, “and it’s going to become even more dangerous soon. You should leave. I’m sure the children working under you have already started to voice their dissent.”

Matilda stiffened. “I-I can take care of them. I don’t know why some of the others acting up suddenly and quitting, but I can always look for others. There’s a lot of kids like me on the street looking for some cens so—” Her voice caught in her throat again as she registered the gaze that the man fixated upon her. Something about it was unnerving. Unnatural. “Is there something wrong?”

“The only thing chaining you to your circumstances is yourself,” he murmured, rising to a stand, “and if you can’t break those chains yourself then allow me to destroy your circumstances.” He tossed a handful of cens onto the table and turned to leave. “As I’ve said, you should leave.”

Scattered among the Geminian Cens that were still clattering back and forth on the table were a handful of strange black and white game pieces imprinted faintly with the shapes of stars.


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.”


7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. 

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

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

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!” 

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

He ignored them and scanned the area. 

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

There.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There. 

The only one who was running away from him. 

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

The distance between them closed swiftly. 

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

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

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

Hm. 

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

What to do. 

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

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

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

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

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well—” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The ELPIS guy? Really?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

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

“Hey, I’m trying—”

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

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta. 

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

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak. 

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

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

“You did not startle me.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

That was true. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praise? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that something Talib has said?”

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

Jericho stiffened under her gaze. 

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

Jericho accepted the journal.

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

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

Olivier was. 

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

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

White. ELPIS. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.2: Cadence’s Family (Conoscenti)

Re-cap:

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

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

Still.

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

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

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

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

Damn. Werner was rubbing off on her. 

A gondola passed beneath her distorting the reflection. 

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

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

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

“Perfect.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But appearances were deceiving.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence turned on her heels.

There she was. The girl.

Fortuna Romano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh. Not good. 

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

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

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

It was the boss. Ricardo Romano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the old man playing at?

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

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

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

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

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

Saints, this was good.

Appearances. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers followed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers returned with his exit. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

But the noise from there was still not enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he was. The boy.

Ambrose Campana. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we are friends. What— 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho read it to her plainly— 

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

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

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

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

7.1: Olive’s Bravery (Codardia)

Re-cap:

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

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

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius

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

This was pointless.

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

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

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

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

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

Olive shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had not gone well. 

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

“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.

He was being gentler than usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Olive could see exactly why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready, your highness?”

***

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

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

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

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

Olive inclined his head across the street, and Trystan followed him over to a restaurant there. 

While Trystan went in to grab a table, Olive wandered over to the newspaper stall across the street. As he approached, he took in the two large posters that hung from the sides of the stall. A water-color portrait of a man with an elegantly long beard and a cone-shaped crown at the top if his head. There were characters underneath the portrait that Olive could not read but he assumed it said something along the lines of “All Hail the Emperor!”

The stall vendor there peered down at Olive through his circular glasses at his approach, stroked his graying mustache, before grunting and disappearing behind a stack of papers in the back.

Crossing his arms, Olive perused the displayed papers. Each rack boasted the same article albeit in a different language. But not Capricornian, not Geminian, not Virgoan. Not even Common. The newspapers were in the different languages of Sagittarius

Upon Olive’s decision to come to this country, Werner had questioned him on which languages of Sagittarius he was familiar with. Olive’s subsequent confusion resulted in Atienna gently and Cadence amusedly informing him of his ignorance. Atienna had then further elaborated on the diversity of the Sagittarian languages in a lengthy lecture. Each one of the ten clans of Sagittarius had its own respective language paired with its own unique characters, dialects, and alphabets. 

This resulted in this particular city having eleven names. Ten in the different languages of Sagittarius, and one in Common. The Common name for it was Thousand Name City. 

Whoever had come up with that name was ahead of their time, Olive had thought when he’d read the Common sign that was stacked up on top of ten other signs at the city’s north entrance upon his initial arrival. 

The stall owner abruptly popped back up at the counter and waved a newspaper in Olive’s face. It was in Common. The man gave a surprised but pleased grunt as Olive handed him five Sagittarian wuen-dongs in exchange before the former dipped back into the depths of his stall again. 

Tucking the paper under his arm, Olive joined Trystan back at the restaurant. They were seated by one of the open paper windows and were served two cups of piping hot corn tea. After taking a sip, Olive began to peruse the newspaper.

The first article detailed Ophiuchus’s adoption of a highly advanced vitae-spectrophotometer that would enable them to solve cases more efficiently through vitae-color identification. A small time Ariesian conductor engineer had spent months developing the device and found recognition upon debuting it at New Ram City.

The second article was a political opinion piece about Virgo’s current diplomatic relationships with Libra, Pisces, and Aquarius and how everything was still in the preliminary stages. About how everything was so uncertain. 

The third was about a weaponized proto-conductor that was able to store a Conductor’s vitae in a way that made it available—properties, abilities, and all—for another Conductor who was not of the same conducting type.  At the moment, only Conductors who were able to utilize vitae intraneously were able to store their vitae within the device.

Olive wanted to dig his nails into this proto-conductor. He had caught a glimpse of them on Cadence’s end when she’d been tasked to keep tabs on Matilda and her delivery crew a month or so back. The proto-conductors has been among the deliverables. When he had pressed Cadence for details—about whether it operated similarly to conducting grenades—Cadence had merely responded with an impish smile. 

“Well, wish ya’d be that enthusiastic when you were taking to me about normal things,” she had said. 

“Your highness—” Trystan began, bringing Olive out of his thoughts. 

“Not here.”

“Sir—”

“Weird for someone older to be calling someone younger sir.” Olive could see Trystan taking a deep breath from the corner of his eye.

Finally, Trystan said, “I still think finding a translator would be best, Olivier.” He waited until the waitress brought them two bowls of soup and left before continuing. “I admit that your understanding of the Sagittarian languages is… impressive. But we need to find someone who can translate the written word for us. You’ve only been reading the Common texts, but I truly believe that Sagittarian ones would be very beneficial for your exam studying.” He glanced around the restaurant and continued in a quieter voice, “Besides, the way Sagittarian wind Elementalists utilize vitae through their conductors might—”

“Be helpful in showing me how to control the way I use vitae without a conductor?”

Trystan stiffened, eyes darting around the room. “Olivier, please, don’t talk about your ability so loudly. Someone might be listening.”

“Why?” Olive arched a brow. “Everyone’s going to see it when I take the practical portion of the exam anyways.”

Trystan looked as if he wanted to argue further. But instead, he said, “We should still find a translator.”

“I know,” Olive grumbled, lowering the article and tapping his fingers on the table, “but I’d rather get a translator who can also get us access to that Sagittarian temple that the guide mentioned.”

Bodhi Temple.

“A temple not of religion but of wisdom,” the guide had said. “It has sovereignty over itself, and Ophiuchus the Sagittarian government barely touch it. It’s a sacred place. If you’re seeking knowledge, you’ll find it here—of course, gaining entrance is no easy feat. That’s why Ophiuchus hasn’t ever reached that place!”

“Of course, Olivier. I see your point.” Trystan picked up the bowl and began to sip before he paused and said hesitantly, “I understand your apprehension, but perhaps we could ask—”

“Only when I’m desperate,” Olive interjected quickly.

*** 

After they finished breakfast, they boarded one of the nearby v-streetcars enroute to the heart of the city. The scenery flitted by in streaks of reds and blues and flashes of yellow. The same colors greeted them when they boarded off of the tram, albeit suffocated by a thin cloud of haze that hung low in the air. Bodies were pressed up against bodies, stalls pressed up against stalls, tea stores on top of tea stores. Shops filled with bright and colorful fruits Olive had never seen before dotted the spaces in between them all. 

It was an almost familiar atmosphere to him. Almost.  Despite the familiarity of it all, Olive felt uncomfortable. It was much colder here despite the close proximity of everything. The wind seemed to find its way through even the narrowest of spaces, but the people did not seem to so much as shiver. 

Olive spent the entire day with Trystan scouring the city’s center looking for a freelancer who met their qualifications. There were many who claimed they did, but a quick questionnaire from Trystan shut many of them down.  

They finally found their man just before they boarded the last tram of the day. The Sagittarian was a former monk of the temple they were in search of and had studied the written language of all the clans there exclusively. He was an old, wiry man with a long, white beard and with a wisdom in his eye that twinkled every time he smiled. In other words, he fit the image of what they were looking for perfectly. He also was, however, a worldly man and requested a down payment of 400 Sagittarian wuen-dongs. 

Suspicious.

But Olive was tired and annoyed and nearing the point of no longer caring. It was just money. 

Trystan seemed a bit concerned on putting down such a large down payment but conceded when the Sagittarian provided to them with documentation proving his residence and his studies there. Trystan, who also seemed tired and rather annoyed, happily provided the man with the sums. 

After receiving the funds, the man informed them that he would need to quickly pack his things and that he’d be back shortly. Before they could put in another word, he disappeared from their sights. 

After waiting for two hours, Olive said, “Our two brain cells work wonders together.”

Cadence appeared then and with a somewhat sympathetic expression confirmed for Olive that they had been swindled. And that was the end of that. Let me lend ya a hand next time, kid. Just call out ta me. I know a liar when I see one. 

***

As Olive was winding through the city in defeat the next day with Trystan in search of a breakfast place, he found his thoughts straying to Werner. The booming sound that had cut off their meeting from Werner’s end was still engrained in his memory. It had sounded like thunder almost, but slightly more mechanic. 

Werner hadn’t synchronized with him above the thirty percent level since the incident. While Olive knew the man was alive and unharmed, Olive couldn’t help but feel anxious. He hoped Werner didn’t know that. 

Out of all six of them, Werner, Cadence, and Jericho were the ones who got their hands the dirtiest. Maria didn’t count since her view of the world was a complete outlier. But those three—their lives were filled with violence and death every single day, and yet they didn’t seem to pay it any mind. Or maybe they were just pretending. Or maybe…

Olive absentmindedly wandered into a small bookstore as he continued mulling and selected a book from the first shelf he saw without so much as a thought. Trystan followed him, patiently studying the spines of the books crammed into the small shelves. 

And what about me, Olive thought to himself, all I’m doing is studying for this stupid exam. I’m not even close to finding out about what I can do for Lavi.  It didn’t feel fair at all. Olive brought the book to his face and buried his head into it. Stupid exam. Stupid Sagittarian temple. Stupid guide. I’m really… 

“Your highness?”

With a sigh, Olive lowered the book from his face. And then he froze. 

Storm clouds were slathered across the sky. Low, overbearing, like they could drop down and crush him at any moment. There was a terrible smell in the air, and the dirt beneath Olive’s feet felt wet. Stretched out before him was a muddy marsh that was peppered with small craters and fallen trees. Jutting out in-between the scattered trees and waterlogged holes were boulders that stood as tall as him. 

A crack of thunder rumbled on the horizon. No. Not thunder. A conductor. A Projector’s vitae ray. A flash of light blue. 

This was not the bookstore. 

Chance?

Olive turned his head to the left.

Werner was tucked up behind a boulder there. His cloak was dripping with dirt and rainwater, and his usually combed back platinum blonde hair was falling into his face. The rifle conductor in his hands gave off steam. It had been fired recently.  

Their gazes met.

Werner’s eyes were terrifying. They almost seemed to glow an ice blue in the darkness. A razor sharp focus. Eyes that had just taken a life. 

 Olive could still feel the tightness of the man’s finger on the trigger of his conductor. 

You shouldn’t be here. 

“I didn’t mean to…” Olive managed. He glanced behind him and saw a group of Capricornian soldiers huddled against a cluster of rocks. And—

—a body. There was a body lying right behind Werner. Rather, it was half a body. The uniform was Capricornian. The blood staining the periwinkle uniform was beginning to wash away with the rain, and the mud seemed to be consuming what little was left of the Capricornian’s body. It looked as if the mud was going to swallow it hole. 

A bright flash of light and a terrible whine exploded just behind Olive pulling his attention away. A jolt of pain throttled every limb in his body, and he was left gasping for breath. But this wasn’t his pain. It was Werner’s. But Werner wasn’t harmed. Olive knew this. He felt this. But.

Olive shook his head, attempting to dispel the ringing in his ears and searched the swampy ground for Werner. There.

The Capricornian had been thrown back several feet by the blast and was now beginning to bring himself back up into a crouch. Without glancing at Olive, he returned to the cover of the boulder—half of which had been annihilated by the blast—and signaled his groaning, recovering men to lay low but move forward.

“I need three men on that target,” Werner ordered. “They may have gotten their hands on conductors, but they don’t know how to use them efficiently. Otto, go back to base and report that the Argoans at the twenty-third section have conductors. We need reinforcements.”

“But—”

“Go!”

The ordered man scrambled to a stand and darted back through the muddy swampland. Werner, however, remained pressed up against the rock. He locked eyes with Olive and answered the unasked question—

I’m staying. I was ordered to gain control over this section. I will hold here until we have reinforcements.

Without another word, Werner turned his back to Olive, aimed his conductor, and fired. 

What? But this was crazy. Why were they still pushing forward? There was no way they’d win. No way. 

Olive had seen it because Werner had seen it. They were outnumbered. Even if they came out of this with a win, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Run away. They all had to. If they didn’t then they would—Werner might—

Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—

—then slipped forward and face-planted into the mud. He scrambled to his feet and reached for Werner again. But Werner was nowhere to be found. Realization dawned a beat after as he registered that his outstretched hand was gloved. Werner’s hand. 

“Lieutenant?!” 

Someone scrambled to Olive’s side. A familiar-looking man with dark black hair and glasses splattered with mud and water droplets. There was blood running down his face. 

“Lieutenant…?”

Olive stared at him, and the man stared directly back.

“How many grenades should I conjure, Lieutenant?! Do you need another conductor?!” 

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it. 

“Lieutenant?!”

And then Olive reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist. The man stiffened, looked down at Olive’s grip, and then back up at Olive.

“Retreat,” Olive said slowly, quietly, so quietly that he wasn’t sure whether he’d said anything at all.

“… what?”

“Retreat!” Olive snapped, jerking the man towards him as he scrambled to a stand.  “Do you not know what that means?!”

Without waiting for a response, Olive began to run, dragging the man along with him. They had barely made it a foot away from the rock before there was another flash of light and the entire thing exploded into fragments. One of them fragments caught Olive’s temple, and he stumbled forward blindly. When he caught himself and looked up, he found a cluster of Capricornian soldiers staring at him wide-eyed and gaping. 

“Retreat!” Olive shouted at the flabbergasted soldiers huddled in front of him as he tugged the glasses-wearing man along. “What will staring do? Retreat—now!”

There was only a split second of confusion and hesitation before the soldiers scrambled upright and began to flee backwards. Olive followed after them, tugging the glasses-wearing man along with him for only a little while longer before he shoved him forward to run on his own.

Their flight was met with a rain of light from the direction that the grenade had come from. Vitae rays. 

Olive didn’t know what was worse. The boom they made as they pelted the ground around him, or the moment of blindness he had when one hit an area in front of him. He didn’t know at all. All he knew was that he had to run.

 Run. Run. Run. 

Olive wasn’t sure how long they ran for but eventually his knees gave out and he collapsed on all fours. Everything was a haze. Footsteps around him, panting, gasping. Was he even still alive? He fisted the mud and felt the cold seep in between his gloved fingers. Something wasn’t right. He felt sick. Saints. He felt sick. He wanted to heave but couldn’t. 

A pair of feet entered his periphery.

Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.

A man with peppered grayed hair was in front of him. The man looked like he could be a schoolteacher if it weren’t for the dead look in his eyes and the mud and blood caked to his military uniform.

Olive recognized this man. He was Werner’s captain. Captain Weingartner. The man’s lips were moving—

“—retreat?”

What?

“Werner, what’s going on? Why did you retreat?”

“Werner.”

Olive blinked at Weingartner through a haze of heat, dirt, and sweat. In the background, he could make out the shapes of heaving, shifting soldiers. He swallowed, panted, blinked. Wiped the sweat from his face. What in the world was going on? 

He could feel the wetness of the air, feel the grit of dirt rubbing in between his toes and the rubber of his shoes. The squelching of rubber against mud, the absence of the open breeze, the cling of cloth against his sweaty back.

Something was definitely wrong. Why was he still here? Why—

“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”

“If you really like the sound of your voice that much you should be a politician.”

As soon as the words left Olive’s mouth, his heart stopped. In the place of the thrumming of his heart, he instead felt the beat of Werner’s heart. Hammering, thumping, beating.

The full weight of what he had done sunk in. 

Olive stared at the captain, and the captain stared back. And then the captain’s eyes narrowed.

“Lieutenant Waltz, would you care to repeat that?”

A stampede of sloshing footsteps from behind Olive cut him off before he could retort.  Someone clamped a hand on his shoulder and jerked him backwards. Olive turned his head. 

Brown hair and slate gray eyes. A half-grin, maybe smirk. Gilbert Wolff. Werner’s Second Lieutenant and childhood friend. Someone who knew about the synchronizations. Vague memories came to Olive’s mind.

“Captain Weingartner.” Gilbert gave a salute. “I think Lieutenant Waltz may have a concussion. I saw him hit the ground pretty hard earlier before the retreat.  I think I should take him to medical.”

Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.

And so, for effect, Olive promptly bent over and puked. 

***

Gilbert guided Olive through a ridiculously slippery path. Every step led to a mudslide that the Capricornian had to rescue him from. Olive had resisted at first but eventually conceded to the man’s help when he ended up slipping right into a five foot pit at one point. After a mile or so of silent treading, they came across a large stone slab. When they rounded the rock, Gilbert grabbed Olive’s shoulder and spun him around. 

“Werner?” The man’s eyes searched Olive’s for something he evidently did not find. He then tried again in Common: “… who are you?” Gilbert opened his mouth again in the silence that followed but paused and continued to stare.

Olive felt uneasy under the man’s gaze, but then realized why the man was gazing at him so intensely. Olive was shaking. His shoulders were trembling. He wasn’t sure if it was from the frigid cold that was burning his cheeks or—

 Saints. He was pathetic.

Olive jerked himself away. “Don’t touch me.”

Gilbert recoiled and raised his hands, eyes wide with surprise. He paused and swallowed, before he said, “My bad.” His gaze lingered. “The tent’s this way. Nico’ll probably know how to handle this better.”

They found Nico in the first of a series of lined up tents that were set up behind a cliff face a mile deeper into the forest. When they entered, Olive was immediately overwhelmed by a putrid smell. The smell wasn’t an overwhelming alcohol-filled slap to the face, but it wasn’t a nauseating wave of suffocating iron either. It was a terrible mixture of both.

Pulling the crook of his elbow up to his face, he recoiled away from the tent’s flap. Gilbert paused and turned back with a raised brow. Undeterred. Olive dropped his hand and frowned.

“It smells.”

Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”

After a beat, he followed Gilbert into the tent. Blinking away the tears that formed at the smell that permeated within, he surveyed the interior.

There was a row of beds lining each side of the tent with nothing between them besides an occasional metal cart. The beds were occupied by uniformed men and women who were pale yet sweating. Some of them looked like if they moved even an inch they would die from exhaustion. 

A coldness gripped Olive’s insides at the sight of them, and he felt as if just by breathing in the same space as them he was decreasing their chances of survival—  

“Hey, you home?”

Olive ripped his gaze away from the groaning woman on the bed closest to him and came face-to-face with a frowning Gilbert Wolff and a pensive Nico Fabrizzio. 

Olive regarded Nico. Cadence’s longtime, childhood friend. Olive had only seen flashes of Nico from the handful of Cadence’s memories that had trickled into his mind since their six-way connection began. In those memories, Nico had been a teary-eyed, curly-haired mess of a boy who followed Cadence around like a lackey. Now he stood before Olive tall and almost dignified. Almost intimidating.  

“So you’ve switch places? You guys call it an override or something, right?” Nico drew slowly in Common, wiping his gloved hands on a rag at his side. “You can’t switch back?”

Olive’s teeth were clacking inside of his mouth, and he was sure if he tried to answer he’d bite his—Werner’s—tongue right off. Nico’s eyes widened, and he headed to the back of the tent.

“Nico’s the only medic in here,” Gilbert provided. “So you don’t need to hold your breath.”

When Nico returned, he was holding a folded blanket which he held out to him. After a long beat Olive accepted it and threw it over his shoulders. He shrugged into its warmth. 

“So.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Why’re you here?”

Olive scoffed. “You’re acting like I want to be stuck in the middle of a mud swamp in the middle of a death zone. We obviously don’t share the same interests.” When he registered Nico’s wide-eyed stare, he clarified. “I’m not a masochist.”

Nico’s gaze softened. “Right. This must be pretty terrifyin’ for you.”

The pity in Nico’s eyes was infuriating. 

“I’d be more terrified of someone who wasn’t terrified of something like this,” Olive returned. 

Nico and Gilbert exchanged a look. Right. After the whole fiasco with Major Ersatz, Cadence, ELPIS, and the Aquarians, the two men had somehow struck up some weird sort of friendship. Olive personally didn’t understand it. From what he’d seen from Cadence’s and Werner’s memories, Gilbert and Nico were almost complete opposites. Weird. Creepy. 

Then again, these were two people that Werner trusted. And Olive himself could feel that trust the man felt for them so—

“This is the first time I’ve overridden someone, so I’m on edge.” Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. “Maria’s the only one who’s done it like this before, but she’s something else so I can’t draw from her or anything.”

“Okay. That’s alright.” Nico nodded encouragingly. “Do you know what you were doing before this happened?”

“I doubt it’s going to help, but all I was doing was looking for books to study for the Conducting Exam,” Olive recalled. “And then I synchronized with Werner. And I—”

“Study for the—how old are you?!”

Olive sent Gilbert a pointed glare before looking away. “Not as old as you are obviously, old man.”

“Old man?!”

“Look, I just wanted to…” Olive grimaced, fisting the blanket. “…help. I wanted to help. Excuse me for not wanting to jump into a suicide run.”

“So you were the one who ordered the retreat then. Not Werner.” Gilbert pulled back and sighed. He ruffled his hair and rolled his neck. “Well, that makes more sense.” He gestured to Nico and then to Olive. “So, what do you make of this, Nico? Can you fix it?”

Nico’s shoulders sagged. “I… I honestly don’t know. Sorry. But… Werner is all right, right? What are the others in your group saying about what’s going on?”

“The others…” Olive reached out for them as he’d done countless times before and then froze. He reached again—this time a bit more desperately.  There was a vast stretch of cold emptiness in the intangible space they’d always hazily occupied. It wasn’t like those times when their synchronization fell below thirty percent. Even then, he was able to feel them in the distance. Nothing like now. Nothing like this pit that reminded him too much of those six years after the tragedy. He covered his ears hoping that maybe all the groans of the death and dying were just too loud for him to hear them, but— “I can’t feel the others…. I can’t.”

“It’s okay. Calm down.” Nico was easing him down onto a crate at the corner of the tent. “Just relax.”

Olive lowered his hands, suddenly feeling weak. He was glad that he was sitting. If he wasn’t, he probably would’ve just fallen to—maybe even through—the ground then and there. “What if…” What if he was stuck like this? What if Werner was—

A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off. 

“Look, kid. If you’re really connected with Werner, you should know he’s much tougher than that. Don’t worry about things that don’t need to be worried about.”

Olive glanced up. It was Gilbert. The man looked uncomfortable, and his hand was barely, delicately resting on Olive’s shoulder—like he thought that even the slightest touch would make Olive crumble to ash. Olive wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed or laugh at the ridiculousness of it. He’d seen Gilbert’s demeanor through Werner’s eyes, after all, and delicate was definitely not a word to describe the man.

“I really don’t need reassurance from someone who’s been stuck as a Second Lieutenant for four years,” Olive said after a beat as he pulled away from the man and unfolded from himself. 

“Hey!” Gilbert pulled his hand away and then frowned deeper, rubbing the back of his neck. “Did Werner tell you that or something?”

Clownishness aside, Gilbert was right. There was no use feeling sorry for himself.

Olive held out his gloved hand. Clenched it and unclenched. The leather that was sticking to his sweating palm felt like it was ripping his skin right off. Why did Werner even like wearing these things? “Atienna said something about emotional state having to do with it but—”

“I-Is Lieutenant Waltz, alright?” came a question asked in Capricornian.

Olive felt his nausea intensify as he lifted his head. Standing at the flap of the tent was the Capricornian soldier with flattened black hair and a pair of round glasses—the soldier Olive literally dragged through the mud in his escape. The blood had been cleaned up off the soldier’s face, and he was now sporting bandages around his head. The man’s name was coming to Olive now. Klaus Kleine. A Conjuror in Werner’s squadron who was present during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.

“What are you doing here, Kleine?” Gilbert asked in Capricornian, stepping in front of Olive casually. “You know Nico can’t fix your glasses if you’ve broken them again. Can’t you conjure yourself a new one?”

Flushing, Klaus Kleine pushed his glasses up the bridge of his short nose and stammered, “I-It’s not that, sir. I just wanted to see if the Lieutenant was alright. He helped me during the retreat.” Klaus looked up. Their eyes met. 

Olive reflexively glared. 

“Is the Lieutenant—”

“Look, Kleine,” Gilbert sighed in Capricornian as he drew to the tent’s entrance, “it’s great that you’ve got yourself promoted to Lance Corporal, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You still have a couple more ranks to go before you can be friendly with the First Lieutenant. Hell, look at me. I’m only one rank under and—” 

“Does this have to do with what happened to the Aquarian Captain three months ago?”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. Before Olive could even think of what Klaus was implying, Gilbert grabbed the man by the scruff and dragged him into the room. Klaus stared wide-eyed at Gilbert and struggled to stay on his toes as he was lifted off the floor. 

Werner was going to be so pissed. 

“Hey, saints, calm down—” Olive began to mutter with a frown. A sharp pain abruptly struck his temple, cutting him off short. 

“Yeah, Gilbert, let’s hear what he has to say first,” Nico agreed. 

Gilbert and Klaus glanced at the combat medic, before the former released the latter. Klaus stumbled back and steadied himself before he said something quickly in Capricornian. Clipped and harsh as usual. But—and a chill crept up Olive’s spine as he realized this—Olive could not understand what the man was saying. His head buzzed at the revelation, and he tried his best to hang onto the words the two Capricornian soldiers exchanged. But it was gibberish.

What was going on?

Even at the very beginning of their connection, Olive had been able to understand vaguely what the Capricornians had been saying on Werner’s end despite only speaking Common fluently. So now why—

Gilbert had turned to him was now addressing him in Capricornian. 

The sounds meant nothing to him. 

Gilbert seemed to have recognized his confusion, because his brows rose and he asked in Common, “Oh yeah, you don’t speak Capricornian, right?”

Olive shrugged and didn’t comment on the oddity. There was no point in panicking about it. It’d just cause more problems not worth the trouble.

“Well,” Gilbert continued in Common, “Kleine here says that on the day the Aquarian Captain disappeared, he saw a certain someone with that Aquarian Captain waltzing through the woods. Apparently there was a confrontation between that someone and Kleine, but Kleine here decided to keep his mouth shut for curiosity’s sake.”

Maria. Of course it was Maria.

 Olive narrowed his eyes first at Klaus and then at Gilbert. “What did you tell him?”

“Only what Werner told me.” 

Olive stiffened further. His mind raced. Werner would definitely not want to involve any more people he knew in this mess. Out of all six of them, Werner had become the most stringent about keeping things discrete and quiet after the events following Ersatz. 

Swallowing his alarm, Olive muttered, “You must be the type of person who tells people where you hide your money. Might as well tell the entire world at this point.”

“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”

Klaus said something again in Capricornian before he got a nudge on the back by Gilbert. Klaus startled, glanced wearily in between them, and then spoke in accented Common: “Ever since then, I have been…” He seemed to struggle to find the word. “… keeping an eye out. I knew it was something else. The Lieutenant is good at appearing normal, but I watch. Carefully. I thought Lieutenant had condition.” He gestured to Nico and Gilbert. “I thought Doctor Fabrizzio transferred here to help with condition. But then secrecy between you three so I figured something else. Did not expect this. Phenomenon.”  He mumbled to himself a bit more before he gave a salute and hesitantly extended his hand. “Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine.”

Olive frowned at the extended hand before pointedly crossing his arms. “I know who you are.” He looked away and found his gaze fixated on the unconscious woman on the bed again. He wasn’t sure if she’d become several shades paler since he’d walked into the room or if his eyes had adjusted to the light. He squeezed his arm and muttered, “It’s too convenient. That you’d be interested in helping Werner. It’s suspicious as hell.”

Klaus stared at him wide-eyed before giving an uncertain look to Gilbert who shrugged nonplussed.

“Look, Olive, right?” Gilbert gestured to him offhandedly. “I don’t know where you’re from, but here, we don’t have time for that. Save that for the politicians. If Kleine really wanted to run off with this info, he’d have done it three months ago. Besides, the only thing you’re doing right now, kid, is making Werner look crazy.”

“Well, then at least now Werner will blend in with the crowd here,” Olive offered nonchalantly. “But whatever. This is your place, not mine.”

Klaus was gaping again.

Gilbert flourished his hands sarcastically. “Thank you.”

Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. He was certain now. It wasn’t just his nerves that had him shaking. It was freezing out here. He couldn’t understand how Werner and the other soldiers could stand it. 

“Stop looking so stressed, kid. I get that your little possession group likes to keep things tight and under the table. Makes sense. But still—” Gilbert grimaced and shook his head as he looked Olive over. “This is so damned weird. I’m looking at Werner but I’m not.”

“Don’t look at me then,” Olive returned. He thought back to the incident with Izsak and Leona and then to Usian, Ersatz, and Verga. “It’s not like we don’t have a good reason to be cautious.” Before Gilbert could respond, Olive addressed Klaus with a slight nod. “So what’s in it for you? Do you want to blackmail us or something? Money? Promotion?” Olive squinted. “Eye surgery?”

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions, and he shook his head wildly. “No, no, no, of course not! I—” He dug into his uniform pants pocket and then shoved something into Olive’s hands. A small, leather-bound journal no larger than his hand. Reminiscent of Olive’s own journal. “Here. Notes in here.”

Olive arched a brow and opened it. “It’s in Capricornian,” he stated flatly but continued to flip through it anyways. He did recognize a couple of words. Oberleutenant, First Lieutenant. Morgen, morning. Geheimnis, secret.  Each page was marked with a date at the top. While the initial entries were short and concise, the latter entries following July 5th were much more detailed. July 5th. When Maria overrode Cadence and Werner. 

“Want to know. I like to observe—”

“You don’t need to try to defend your hobbies to me. I don’t really care what you do in your free time.” Olive interjected.  Klaus would probably get along well with Talib, he thought to himself as he turned another page.  

“I—er—” Klaus glanced at Gilbert who shrugged. He flushed in turn.

“It’s still weird.” Olive continued to flip through Klaus’s observations. He paused halfway through on a page that contained a sketch of what appeared to be a conductor. It was a set of thick ring conductors connected together by insulation tubes. “You’re trying to design your own custom conductor?”

Klaus flushed again. “Yes. Military conductors not tailored to Conductor. Hard to use sometimes, it is. New conductors shipped in recently—”

Olive figured he was referring to the conductors the Romanos and the Foxmans were shipping to the Capricornian Army as a part of the new deal Cadence and Werner initiated. The idea didn’t sit well with Olive at all. Illegally producing conductors and selling them to fuel a war. Cadence had of course wiped her hands clean of the matter, and whenever Werner spoke of it he merely said that it was none of Olive’s concern. 

“—said we can request our own custom conductor—”

“The concept is good but there is no way that this’ll be able to handle the amount of vitae particles you expel as Conjurer to create things,” Olive said. “You’ll overheat the thing. Conductors who conduct intraneously will never be able to use something like this. If you’re a Transmutationists, then maybe… but other than that…” Olive handed Klaus his journal back.

“Thank you…” Accepting the journal, Klaus glanced between them all. “So… what now? With Lieutenant? Solution? Idea?”

A beat of silence. 

Olive stared at his hand. “Well, I’ve never actually been overridden myself before. Not completely, I mean.”

“Maybe if you to be… knocked unconscious….” Klaus drew. “Then there would be… recalibration?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take. For someone who presented himself as a bookworm, Klaus sure was violent. But then again, Klaus was a soldier. Violence was on the roster. 

“We can’t do that!” Nico objected, startling Olive with the intensity of his voice. “You might really injure Werner. Head injuries are serious!”

“Well, it’s better than me being stuck here like this,” Olive finally mumbled. “I can’t do anything. I’ll just end up getting Werner killed or something.” His gaze was once again drawn back to the woman lying on the bed. “Besides, you don’t look like you have the time to waste here—ow!” Olive jerked forward as something sharp cracked against the back of his skull. When he turned, he found Gilbert standing behind him with the butt of his conducting rifle still in the air.

“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed. 

“What is wrong with you…?” Olive muttered, rubbing the bruise that was beginning to blossom at the area of impact. 

Gilbert lowered the  rifle and swung it back over his shoulder. “You agreed.” A pause. “So feel any different?”

“Well, yeah. The back of my head hurts now,” Olive grumbled. He frowned as the pain throbbing at the back of his head abruptly dulled. “I feel sort of—”

The world lost focus, and Olive was reminded of the watercolor paintings Maria had stolen from a ship bound to Cancer. Smears of brown, yellow, and gray. 

Olive stumbled forward, reaching for the support of the crate behind him. Just as he reached it, however, it fell away from his sights. As did the beds in the room, as did the dirty ground beneath his feet, as did the cold and the nauseating smells within the tent.

And then there was deep black.

*** 

When Olive opened his eyes, he did not see the gray of the clouded skyline nor did he see the tan of the Capricornian medical tent. Instead he saw sky blue silk drapes and the top of a mahogany bed canopy.  

He held his hand in front of him. Sunburnt and gloveless. He was back. Back on a bed. A comfortable bed.

Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—

—wow, where did you all go? Is this some sort of new trick? I would like to learn it!

—it was strange not feeling you—

—how are you all feeling?

The synchronization was low level but came with such force that Olive nearly leapt out of the bed. He could feel them again. All of them. The hollowness had been filled.

Fine, fine, I’m fine, Olive thought back as he sat up.

Werner was there. Olive could feel him too. But Olive did not venture any further than that. He knew it was fruitless, but he tried his best to pull his thoughts and feelings away from the man as much as possible. He couldn’t face him after what he’d done. 

“Your Highness!” 

Olive glanced to his left and found Trystan sitting on a chair at his bedside. The man unfolded himself quickly and drew nearer. 

“Are you feeling alright?”

“I look how I feel,” Olive grumbled, “but I’m fine. What happened?”

“You passed out at the bookstore suddenly. You were out for the entire day…”

Olive swallowed, studying the sky-blue drapes. The color was familiar. “This isn’t our inn. Where are we?”

“Well…” Trystan pulled back and inclined his head.

Olive followed the man’s nod to the left side of the wall where a paper window stood wide and open. There was a cherry blossom tree growing just outside there, and a soft wind plucked the pink petals from its branches and tossed them into the room. 

“Claire?”

Plucking a stray cherry blossom petal from his hair, the Sagittarian prince turned away from the window and offered a pleasant smile. “Morning, Olive.”

Sagittarius is a rich, diverse, and windy country and the largest country of Signum. It consists of ten clans and is ruled by one emperor. Each clan hosts its own unique language, culture, and way of life and is governed by one royal family whose members share blood relations to the emperor.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

The Watch has been stopped. Wtorek Izsak has been revealed to be affiliated with ELPIS and has been apprehended by Gabrielle Law. Due to the efforts of the swindler, the soldier, the chieftain’s daughter, the pirate,  the peacekeeper, and the prince himself, the prince has survived. They have survived. But questions and choices still need to be made. It is time to move on forward.

Olive felt like he’d been picked up by a whirlwind, tossed around in the air for the better part of a week, and then gently placed back down onto the ground as if all was in order. Everything fell into place the next couple of weeks after the Watch’s attack so perfectly that Olive couldn’t help but feel unnerved.

Gabrielle and Jericho left a week after the incident with Izsak in cuffs. Other Ophiuchian Agents, including Leona and Talib, arrived to apprehend the remaining members of the Watch and to bring them in for questioning. Samuel and the other guards present during the attack were making a recovery at the hospital. Olive had visited them for the most part during the stay, but as soon as they were well enough to make lengthy conversation, he stopped visiting.

Trystan was released from prison and was re-offered his position, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the feudal lord heading the Ariesian Investigation Bureau was called into questioning in his place. Olive figured that if he looked hard enough, he might find poetic justice in there somewhere. 

Olive learned from Cadence that the Romano Family and the Foxmans were working with Ophiuchus to find out exactly what else Verga had been shipping for ELPIS. Ricardo and the Foxmans had also rented out Matilda and her crew’s services. They were delivery men again, although they now transported conductor parts from facility to facility instead of whole conductors to civilians. It was stupid, Olive had thought, for them all to end up right back where they started. 

“That’s how the city works,” Cadence answered with a shrug as she attended the party celebrating the new partnership. “They had nowhere else to go anyways. Rinse and repeat.”

In the middle of a toast at the aforementioned party, Francis had coyly offered to Cadence a packet of normal cigarettes and a bottle of wine.  But after casting a glance in Olive’s direction, Cadence accepted only the wine.

Werner appeared to be ending on a slightly more positive note. After extensive interviews from Ophiuchian Agents and Capricornian officials, it was decided that Werner acted appropriately in the situation regarding Ersatz and ELPIS and that he was uninvolved with Ersatz’s plan. A statement by the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer also proved his and his division’s innocence. The Capricornian government was ruled to be involved in the ELPIS machinations as well.

Major Ersatz had survived the battle and was brought to Ophiuchus to be detained and questioned about his ELPIS involvement. He was given a dishonorable discharge by Capricorn, and the Watch was dismantled shortly after—per order of Ophiuchus. Werner was revered as a hero and given temporary leave, which he extended to the rest of his division.

The Ophiuchians also mediated the border conflict, and it was resolved with the vitae reservoir being declared as belonging within Capricornian borders. There were reparations to be made on both sides. Gilbert had derised the swiftness of it all and had something akin to “if it was solved that easily then why fight over it to begin with” to which Olive couldn’t help but agree. 

Soon after that, a new combat medic was introduced to Werner’s division. His placement was followed by a sudden influx of weaponized conductors. The oddity was questioned by common soldiers but remained unquestioned by high-ranking officers. On the surface the medic’s responsibilities seemed to merely be tending to the injuries of those within the division. However, his true responsibility lay in acting as a liaison between “the Capricornian army and certain organizations in Gemini” or so stated the official documentation Werner received a week prior to the medic’s arrival.

Cadence was worried, but they all knew Werner was reliable. Nico would be fine.

Maria’s side was surprisingly more subdued. Her ship had been quiet and empty since Olive’s incident. She pulled back into Pollux Bay a few days following the event, and the Foxmans greeted her warmly, much to the surprise of Morandi and his men. After hearing about her circumstances from Conta, the Foxmans offered her the services of Morandi and his men with condolences. Although there was some resistance at first, a flash of Geminian cens sealed the deal for Morandi’s group. They set out to sea the very next day.

When Olive asked what Maria’s goal really was on a stormy night at sea, she had laughed and said, “There was only one moment when I was not in control of my life, and I am in the search of the person responsible for it.” When he asked why in the world she would chase after someone like that, she simply responded with her usual ‘why not?’ Olive didn’t think he’d ever understand Maria.

Atienna’s conclusion made a bit more sense to Olive. Virgo ended its isolation two weeks after Usian’s arrest. Atienna’s father, however, resigned from the Tribal Council and stepped down as chieftain of the Imamu Tribe. Bachiru was upset, but Atienna thought it was for the best. She was planning to take a step forward, after all. Not as chieftain, of course. That responsibility was for someone else more worthy. Now that Virgo was ready to reach out to the world again, a diplomatic party needed to be formed to interact with the other countries. And Atienna was determined to have a foot in it. Despite the strength of her words, however, Olive could feel the falter through the link that they shared. He decided not to address the matter. 

Atienna herself spent quite some time researching the meanings behind ‘syzygy’ and ‘True Conductor’, but it seemed as if without a Conducting License she could barely scratch the surface of anything. How ELPIS and Leona knew of these words was also a mystery. And since there were so many dangerous unknowns involved, the six of them agreed to keep their connection under the table until they figured out how to resolve it. This agreement occurred following Atienna’s long-winded proposal, of course.

A small resolution came with Claire as well. With the conclusion of the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict and the promise of reparations, Claire graciously returned home. But not after solidifying Sagittarian-Ariesian relations with the king and queen and then insisting that he and Olive become pen-pals during the same meeting. No tact at all, or perhaps too much tact. Olive had declined the offer point-blank in front of his aunt, uncle, and the feudal lords. Of course, Claire had just laughed the entire ordeal off.

While Olive’s personal relations did not seem to improve much, Olive discovered that Jericho’s relations did.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he did his best to avoid the commotion that came with his mission completion. The mystery of what had unfolded was the new buzz of the Serpens Establishment, and wiithin the first few days of his return, Jericho was approached by over a dozen peacekeepers pressing him for details. Thankfully, the ELPIS Department made a statement on Leona’s disappearance and Izsak’s involvement not long after.

According to the report, Leona had been ambushed by ELPIS after a fellow peacekeeper disclosed her location to them. A traitor to the upstanding, philanthropic Romano organization of the Twin Cities was then tasked by ELPIS to handle her imprisonment, but the traitor was discovered by the organization and was dealt with swiftly. Meanwhile, Leona managed to break free of her captors and successfully stopped the assassination of the Ariesian prince. The assassination was orchestrated by a recently ELPIS-converted Capricornian major with the assistance of the aforementioned peacekeeper. There was no mention of Maria’s ship.

Talk about paintin’ a pretty picture, Cadence thought as Atienna read the article in the newspaper. Not givin’ credit where credit is due.

The traitorous peacekeeper involved in the assassination attempt and Leona’s capture, the ELPIS Department elaborated, went by the name of Izsak Wtorek. A Taurusian who had served in Ophiuchus since its founding. Izsak was believed to have been under the influence of a Manipulator Conductor and was currently undergoing treatment in Ophiuchus through the Medical Department and the Psychological Evaluations Department.

Jericho and Talib’s names were mentioned only briefly at the end of the article. When pressed by Cadence, Jericho informed the group that he felt neither pleasure nor displeasure at this.

Shortly after the article was published, Talib invited Jericho to a party to celebrate a successful case closed and led Jericho into an office at the very back of the Serpens Establishment.

Within the office, Gabrielle sat at a desk with Alice Kingsley at her right and the pink-haired Ferris at her left. On a couch in the room sat three men and two women. All assessed Jericho with differing expressions upon his entrance.

“How would you like being my minion?” Gabrielle had asked, extending a hand. “I’m planning to become head chair of Ophiuchus and bring real peace to Signum, and I could really use someone like you on my team. You have a thing against ELPIS, right? Well, if you work with me, I can get you to them.”

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

Now Olive found himself kneeling before his uncle and aunt in the throne room of the royal palace. He had bowed upon entering and remained prostrate despite their insistence that he stand.

The red of the carpet below his feet was nostalgic. Almost alluring. Beckoning him to stay. To reconsider. To return to how things were before—skipping classes at the university, watching council meetings with disinterest, escaping to Marta’s shop to sleep for hours. It really was tempting. An easier way. Drifting through days with indifference.

But—

Mustering all of his courage, Olive lifted his gaze from the carpet to his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve decided to take the State Conducting Exam.”

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

“That’s wonderful, Olive!” Terra hummed. “Now that this is over with, you can return to the university and—”

“I’m going to study on my own,” Olive said. “I’m leaving the Capital.”

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

There was a flicker of black out of the corner of his eye. Not any of the others. Lavi.

“I don’t care if it looks like I’m running away. If I stay here, I’ll fall back into the same patterns over and over again. I won’t change,” Olive continued, rising to a stand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll never be able to repay you. I know it seems selfish of me leaving like this, but I have to take responsibility.”

His uncle and aunt remained silent. There was disappointment in their eyes. But he could live with that. Letting out a small breath, Olive turned away from them and exited the chambers with his sister following right behind.

“My brother’s been looking weirdly determined recently. Usually, I’d think that’s a bad thing but he looks kinda cool so maybe it’s a good thing this time.

Lavender Chance, unknown time

6a: Chance Ignition

Re-cap:

The Capricornian Watch, and the truth behind the assassination. Yuseong Haneul. Lavi Chance. 

Prince Olivier Chance’s mind is swirling with these recent revelations and with everything he has revealed to the others about that tragedy six years ago. Meanwhile, peacekeeper Wtorek Izsak has disappeared after making a mysterious, startling discovery. Unbeknownst to Olive, a spark has ignited and New Ram City braces itself for the flame.

New Ram City, Aries

“Run and hide.” That was what Werner said right after admitting he knew of the secret Capricornian organization behind Olive’s assassination attempt. Ten out of ten. Still, there had been regret in the man’s eyes and guilt too. And…

It was weird feeling concern coming from that man. A Capricornian soldier who executed people without a second thought.

No. Olive knew the situation wasn’t as black and white as that. It had just been easier for Olive to think of people that way. It made rejecting people easier, which made it easier for people to keep their distance. No loss for either party. But Olive wouldn’t be able to do that now. He wouldn’t be able to reject and run away. Not with this connection. Not with the others.

He still felt raw and exposed from his earlier outburst, and part of him just wanted to bury his head beneath the ground. The embarrassment was almost too much. Sleeping forever and forgetting all about this—it’d be easier if he just did that. Even better if he just disappeare—

Olive stopped the thought before it fully formed. He focused on the road ahead. It was a dusty, dirt road reaching from the mansion gates to the royal palace. As he glanced between the iron bars to the palace that was no bigger than his fist in the distance, he realized how isolated it truly was. The only people who travelled this path were maids, butlers, and guards coming and leaving work. Occasionally a merchant cart would roll by selling goods, and Olive could see one approaching them on the road now. Nowadays, merchant carts visited the mansion more often than his aunt and uncle. So, in reality, this place had been home for Olive alone. A fact he hadn’t noticed before.

Olive turned his head and glanced at Samuel beside him. The guard was conversing with the other guards posted at the gate. They were marveling at the v-ehicle they had pulled in from the palace. Olive had to resist rolling his eyes.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Olive had informed Samuel he had found a lead on the assassination plot. But Samuel didn’t seem alarmed by his information. Samuel’s casualness was most likely linked to Olive’s past unreliability. Even still, the guards were so casual about the entire affair that for a moment Olive felt he’d been overreacting about the entire thing. Werner did seem the type to over-worry anyway. It was ridiculous—Werner worrying about this when the man had just barely made it out of a battle alive. Really—

Before Olive even finished the thought, an arrow whizzed right past his head and ricocheted off of the iron bars behind him. Olive turned his head in confusion and found a familiar arrow resting on the ground at his feet.

He looked up. The traveling cart that he’d seen only a moment before was parked right across the road. A man dressed in a chef’s uniform and wielding a conducting bow peered out from behind the cart. A handful of people Olive recognized from his days spent wandering the Ariesian markets were beside him. Shop owners. Customers. Beggars. All holding conductors.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” They spoke Capricornian.

There was a flash of periwinkle light.

“Your highness!”

Samuel rushed at him.

There was a burst of blue, and they both flew backward to the ground. The world spun. Olive’s ears rang.

Shaking off his stupor, Olive lifted his head. The blast had sent him back onto mansion grounds. The gates were now twisted and bent out of shape. He scanned the area around him and froze. Samuel was beside him. Unmoving.

No. Not again.

Olive stumbled to Samuel’s side but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around his wrist. His heart leapt to his throat before he realized who it was. Cadence. Even though he knew she wasn’t actually there, he could feel her fingernails digging into his wrist.

“Hey, your highness, their job is ta put down their lives for ya, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “Don’t go wastin’ their efforts.”

“Bu—”

“Those guys are here for you, kid! If ya wanna play hero, then ya should be gettin’ as far away from them as possible!”

Olive stiffened.

She was right.

He started toward the gate but stumbled back when he saw a cluster of the Watch blocking his path. Inside was the only way. But there were non-Conductors within the mansion. He needed to warn them.

Olive sprinted into the mansion and was met with perplexed looks from workers and guards alike. “Intruders!” He snapped. “Run! All of you!”

The mansion guards rushed to the door without hesitation, while maids and butlers scrambled away. A guard shoved Olive back and ordered him to climb the stairs.

Before Olive could argue, a ray of vitae blasted through the window next to the door and sent out fragments of wood and glass.

Olive’s ears rang.

Run.

Olive clambered to his feet and darted up the stairwell behind him.

He could hear them following. The stomp, stomp, stomp of their steady footsteps. Their panting breaths. Their shouts in Capricornian. He just barely managed to duck as a bullet ricocheted off the wall behind him. As he reached the last step, his foot caught on the rug beneath him. He face-planted on the floor before scrambling to his knees. He lifted his head and turned to a Capricornian pointing a rifle at his face.

“Pathetic,” came the accented Common.

Olive scoffed despite the fear. “I may be pathetic, but wouldn’t that make you—the person who’s trying to kill someone as pathetic as me—even more pathetic?”

A grimace. “Die, prince.”

Atienna appeared before Olive and guided his hand up to grab the Capricornian’s wrist. The man froze in confusion and Atienna used the opportunity to make Olive flip the man backwards and kick him in the face. The gun clattered to Olive’s side before the man tumbled down the stairwell. A handful of the Capricornians rushing up the stairs stepped to the side as the man fell, while others further went down to assess the damage.

“Keep going, Olive!” Atienna said before flickering out from his vision.

Olive grabbed the gun and ran down the hall. He ducked as a bright green ray of vitae whistled just above his head. He stumbled again and rolled, scrambling around a corner. He remained there for half a second to catch his breath, only to be startled as a vitae bolt barely missed the top of his head and gouged a hole in the wall above. Plaster rained down onto his hair and into his eyes. Taking a deep breath and gagging on the dust that clouded the air, Olive wiped his eyes and peered around the corner.

The Ariesian guards were holding off the Watch. Both sides were struggling. Projectors taking advantage of Conjurers on both ends. Elementalists blasting through them. Their numbers appeared even.

But Capricornians are more combat-ready. That is fact. Even after War’s end, they’ve been heavily trained. Many have seen real battle at the southern border with Argo.

As if to highlight this, a Capricornian Projector’s vitae bolt shot through the shoulder of an Ariesian flame Elementalist who had just gained the upper hand against a Capricornian Conjurer.

Olive bit his lip, heart hammering. He had to help. Somehow. He couldn’t be useless.

Werner appeared then, synchronizing in front of him with absolute clarity.

“Chance, calm down,” came Werner’s voice. He crouched down to Olive’s eye level. The man’s eyes were cold. Calm. He wrapped his hand around Olive’s own, which wielded the gun. “May I?”

Olive nodded.

Werner moved to cover Olive’s eyes with his other hand.

There was a silence in the darkness, then a handful of cracks. Shots fired.

The hand was removed from Olive’s eyes. A number of Capricornians were now on the floor cradling their legs. Confused Ariesian guards stood over them.

“One centimeter off,” Werner clicked his tongue. He turned to Olive. “I merely incapacitated them. I won’t kill another Capricornian. I’m only aiding you because your death will harm Capricorn.”

Uh.

“But I apologize that I didn’t inform you of this sooner. I have put you and Capricorn in unnecessary harm.” After a moment of staring, he said, “What are you doing? Run.”

Olive swallowed, nodded, ran. He stumbled down the hall and clambered up the next staircase before reaching the top floor. It was simply attic space, containing a handful of crates and valuables and a large open window at the end.

This had been a terrible idea.

Abruptly Maria appeared before him. Olive startled in surprise.

“Ollie, you are afraid, yes?” Maria asked. “I think I understand.”

“This really isn’t the time to be realizing your character development,” Olive snapped, whipping his head around toward the staircase. He could hear them coming up now. How many of them were there? Werner had listed some large number earlier, but Olive was in no state of mind to recall it.

“Do you trust me, Olive?”

Olive turned his head back to Maria.

Trust. That was a strong word. But…

“I guess…”

Without warning, Maria took his and guided him—

“Wha—”

—right out the window.

As the open sky rushed past Olive, his only thought was that he should have expected this from someone like Maria. The earth mocked him as he hurtled down toward it.

Olive squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around the arm. At first, he thought it was one of the others, but then realized that would be impossible. Olive opened his eyes. The ground danced only inches below his dangling feet. Mocking again. He looked up. A hand was wrapped around his wrist. A familiar hand.

It was Claire. No, Haneul. Floating in midair on a staff. Wind sparkling with sapphire specs of light whistled out from the holes beneath the center of the staff.

“Y-You! Haneul!” Olive stammered as he dangled from Haneul’s grip. “You are a Conductor! What else have you lied about?!”

“That’s what you want to talk about?!” Haneul exclaimed. “And it’s still Claire!” With that, he pulled Olive up onto the staff. “Why do I always find you in situations where you’re running from something—”

He was cut off as a ray of vitae hurtled toward them from the window. He grabbed ahold of Olive’s shirt and blasted them out of the ray’s trajectory and up into the sky with a gust of wind. They whistled forward like an arrow, and the city flitted past them in smears of reds and browns. The wind whipped at Olive’s face, stinging his cheeks and his eyes, and the city blurred further with his involuntary tears.

“We have to get help! The royal palace!” Olive shouted. “Samuel and the other guard—”

“They’ll be waiting for you! Disguised! I need to keep you away from them! Trust me!”

He’s right.

“You haven’t exactly proven yourself to be trustworthy!”

“Yes, yes, I get it,” Claire sighed. “I’m actually a prince. I lied. I’m sorry. Seriously, I am. But honestly, I didn’t just approach you just because you were the Ariesian Prince. You’re actually a pretty okay person to hang out with.” He glanced at Olive. His eyes were remorseful but determined—although Olive wasn’t sure how much of either of those emotions were true. “Still, I would do it again. For my country.”

“And you said that I didn’t seem like a prince…”

“Well, I’m nothing special. There’s a prince or princess for each clan in Sagittarius. It’s actually pretty complicate—”

“Where are we going?” Olive asked as he realized their trajectory. They were heading to the city walls. “You’re going in the opposite direction of the royal palace! We have to—”

Claire remained silent before leaning forward and dipping the nose of the staff down. The air rushing them lessened and became almost pleasant as they descended. Eventually, their descent led them to an area along the city’s wall undergoing construction. There was a deep hole there in the wall—an unhealed scar from the War—and a wooden platform strung up by a rope alongside it for construction. Waiting for them on the platform were Claire’s masked vassals. Olive tensed as he saw them and recalled the night he had first met Claire.

“My lord!” the white mask exclaimed as they hovered on the conductor beside the platform. “What is going on? Why are you not at the royal palace—”

“The assassins have come,” Claire said. “I’m taking Olive away from the city. I want you and Felix to go to the royal palace and inform them that I have the prince in my custody.”

So this was another political ploy then.

At least he’s helping ya, kid.

“But, my lord,” the wooden-mask—Felix—objected. “Shouldn’t one of us come with you? What if they have an air Elementalist Conductor among them?”

“It’d be too heavy to carry someone else,” Claire sighed. “Besides, Capricornian Elementalist Conductors are rare.”

“Yeah, if you ignore the one who fired the flaming arrow,” Olive scoffed.

“The insolence!” Abruptly, Felix stepped forward threateningly. “My Lord, allow me to cut out his tongue!”

“A good way to kickstart an international incident,” Olive said with disinterest.

“Yeah, don’t do that.” Claire waved Felix off.

The man immediately stiffened. “B-But—”

“We’re going now. Be swift,” Claire ordered with an air of finality. The light and easygoing tone he had been using earlier had dissipated. His dark eyes were sharp and harsh—almost like Werner’s.

Felix tensed and then bowed his head.

With that, Claire kicked them back up to the sky. They ascended in a blur and burst above the clouds. The city was barely visible from this height, and the sun’s already unbearable rays whipped out mercilessly without the cover of the clouds. “I’m going to exit on the opposite side of the wall to throw off the Watch,” Claire continued as he moved them forward.

Olive frowned and watched as the city streamed underneath them. “Hey… even if there’s a second motive for why you’re helping me… thank you.”

Claire glanced back at him and smiled.

“I’m not talking to you,” Olive clarified.

Claire arched a brow before shook his head and chuckled. “Hold on to me.”

“What?” Olive frowned, peeling away. “Why?”

“In case you pass out,” Claire supplied. “The air is thinner up here. I’m used to it but—”

He was cut off as an arrow whistled out from below and knocked him right off the staff. Olive barely had time to discern where the arrow had come from before they were both in free fall.

“Claire!” Olive shouted as they tumbled through the open sky. He reached for the Sagittarian and just barely grabbed a hold of him.

His conductor!

The wind whipped at his eyes, but Olive blinked the tears away as he searched the skyline for Claire’s conductor. There. Only a centimeter away from his hand. How lucky. He grabbed it and fought the wind to bring it to Claire’s chest. “Claire!”

Claire’s eyes fluttered open and widened. He wrapped his fingers around his conductor and sent a burst of air out of it just as they were about to hit the ground of the bazaar below. But they were still too low. They crashed through a fruit stall in the marketplace before tumbling across the pavement.

Screams filled the air. Olive ignored them, wiped off the fruit juices that had splattered onto his face, and turned to Claire who lay beside him. The Sagittarian’s brows were furrowed in pain, and he gripped his shoulder where the arrow protruded. The arrow was still surrounded in flame-like vitae.

“The vitae’s spreading,” Olive realized in horror. “We need to get you to a Transmutationist.”

The guards ringed around them.

“Isn’t that the prince…?” one of them whispered uncertainly.

“Assassins!” Olive snapped for the fifth time that day. “We’re under attack! Evacuate the civilians!”

The guards barely had the time to exchange looks before a deep green vitae bolt exploded the flower stall next to them. Splinters shot out, petals fluttered, bystanders shouted and scattered.

Across the street, four Capricornians emerged from a dark alleyway. Two ducked behind the fallen stalls and pulled out long-ranged conductors: three rifles, one bow. The other two charged the Ariesian guards who had also drawn out their conductors amidst the chaos. There was a pause as the guards and the assassins locked eyes, then a flurry of dizzying light.

Four guards. Four Capricornians.

Another flurry of light.

A pottery stall imploded just feet away, sending shards of clay and ceramic cracking against the walls of nearby buildings.

Two guards. Three Capricornians.

Another flurry of light—

A dark green vitae bolt tore through the extended brick roof of a bakery, and a rain of blasted brick cometed the dusty square. The debris floated down into a soup shop just below it and knocked a steel pot right off of its nesting place above a fire. Its contents spilled across the ground and lapped at the feet of the two Conductors remaining.

One Ariesian guard. One Capricornian assassin.

The Capricornian who remained was the bow wielder. As the guards closed in around him, the assassin abandoned his bow for a melee conductor hanging at his hip. He ignited the weapon and produced a blade of vitae flames. The remaining Ariesian guard, a Conjurer, produced a haphazard sword that locked with the Capricornian’s blade. But the Capricornian’s sword was blazing, and the Ariesian’s began to melt against the heat. Globules of molten metal dribbled from the point of contact onto the ground.

Just as the Ariesian was about to collapse beneath the weight of the other’s sword, a bang rang out from the alley. A gunshot. The Capricornian fell to the ground. Relief spread over the Ariesian guard’s face as he squinted into the shadows of the alleyway. A figure stepped out.

A monochrome uniform and a white sash. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek…!” Olive sighed in relief. He turned to Claire who was still tense beside him. “It’s okay. He’s Gabrielle’s partner. Gabrielle’s the one who was in the throne room.”

The Ariesian guard approached Izsak while clutching his conjured blade like it was a lifeline. “Sir, I don’t know how many are left but they appear to be Capri—” The guard was cut off as Izsak brought up his gloved hand to the man’s mouth. “Sir—”

There was a bright flash of light at the base of Izsak’s glove conductor followed by a squelching sound that Olive found vaguely familiar. It was a sound that echoed within Werner’s and Jericho’s memories. A terrible sound.

The Ariesian guard stiffened, then went limp. Izsak released the man from his grip, and the man hit the ground spluttering. Protruding from the guard’s mouth was a mass of barbed wire.

“M-Mr. Wtorek?”

Get away from him.

Olive wasn’t quite sure which of the others had shouted it, and he couldn’t see any of them either. He wished he could. This didn’t make any sense.

Izsak coolly stepped over his victim before flicking his wrist. There was another flash of light, and a circular shape formed at his palm. But Olive was entranced by something else.

White. It was white.

Izsak’s vitae.

It was a pure white.

It didn’t make any sense. How—

Damn, Jericho was right, came Cadence’s thought. Everything really is ELPIS. But isn’t this guy your peacekeepin’ pal? Why would he—

What—

Grenade.

Werner’s thought sharply cut through Olive’s horror. Izsak casually dropped the conjured grenade and watched as it rolled to a stop a few feet away from Olive’s foot.

Olive grabbed Claire by the scruff and threw him backward before leaping away himself. It was a pretty useless and pathetic attempt. It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether he had made the escape attempt or not. But screw it, he thought. After all of the efforts the others had made to ensure his survival, he figured it would be even more pathetic if he didn’t try anything.

The grenade detonated, sending both Claire and Olive flying through the air.

Olive was thrown back into another stall. In the dazed confusion that followed, it took him a second to comprehend the colors that surrounded him: the flash of a blue bed sheet, the cotton plush from a mattress, and the red silk of a carefully woven blanket. By some means of ridiculous luck, he had been sent crashing into a stall that sold bedroom furniture.

A large tarp fell over his head from behind, and he fought against it for a panicked minute before he broke through the surface. Feathers from imploded pillows fluttered down around him obscuring the skyline. He stumbled over a bundle of silken pillowcases before tripping over a body. Claire. Olive darted to the Sagittarian’s side and shook him hard. Claire only groaned.

Olive opened his mouth to snap at him only to get a mouthful of feathers. He spat and gagged and spat again.

Pay attention.

Olive froze and looked up.

Out from the storm of fluttering white stepped Izsak Wtorek. His glasses were gone. And without them, he looked unnatural as he stood before the backdrop of raining feathers. In the man’s left hand was another grenade and in his right was a conjured pistol which he pointed in Olive’s direction.

“M-Mr. Wtorek, w-what—”

The man’s finger pressed down on the trigger of the gun.

Olive kicked up the thin blue mattress lying at his feet. He wasn’t quite sure if he had done it on instinct or if one of the others had overridden him to do it. Regardless, he was grateful for the mattress that exploded in place of his head.

Olive stumbled to his feet, grabbed Claire by the arm, and pulled him out of the mound of blankets, pillows, and mattresses. He tripped and stumbled and cursed with every step. Claire’s added weight paired with the sweltering Ariesian sun made the fatigue building in his legs almost unbearable.

“You’re so. Heavy,” Olive panted as he dragged the Sagittarian to the corner of the street. He was half-tempted to just leave Claire there. He was a two-faced bastard, after all. But Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, so he continued pulling and panting.

Olive barely managed to drag Claire to the mouth of the alleyway before another grenade casually rolled to a stop an inch away from his foot. Without thinking, Olive kicked the thing as hard as he could. It flew a couple feet in the air before it erupted into flames and smoke.

The blast wave sent Olive into and through another stall that featured mechanical parts and accessories. There was no mattress to break his fall this time around. And Olive began to feel knob-like bruises pulsating at his rib cage where he had landed awkwardly on a small generator conductor. His ears rang, his body ached. His hands were sticky with a black substance.

Get up, Chance. Get up.

No. He couldn’t. It hurt.

Get up, Olive!

Olive bit his lip and pushed himself up. He stumbled over the remnants of the stall in front of him and assessed his surroundings. A canister filled with a black substance to his left. A couple of stray metal parts, an insulating tube, and a kick-starter were scattered hazardously across the ground.

But where was Claire?

There—only a couple feet away. And only a couple inches from Claire: Izsak. Izsak who was approaching Claire with his conjured pistol.

No.

Olive desperately scanned the area for anything he could use.

Not again.

This didn’t make sense.

The pieces didn’t fit. His thoughts didn’t either. Blurs of the past and the present. Heat from an unstoppable fire in his mind’s eye—heat from the sun whipping down from above his head. A memory. A reality.

And the reality was that Olive couldn’t let Claire die. Not when Claire had risked his life for him. Even if Claire was a dirty politician, even if Claire was just like the feudal lords who had whispered things behind his back after the Tragedy.

Olive knew that even with everything the other five had told him just that morning, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Claire died. But he couldn’t let himself die either.

There was only one way. He didn’t know how to control it, but he would have to.

Olive reached down for the canister filled with the black substance and threw its contents onto the peacekeeper. Izsak lifted his hand in surprise as a strip of oil painted him half black.

Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak.

Olive repeated the endless mantra in his head as nausea and terror built up in his stomach.

Control it. Small.

Olive extended his hand out, and sparks erupted at his fingertips. Izsak’s eyes widened just as a stream of fire raced right toward him. The fire ate up the oil trail leading up to the man and consumed him in an instant. Smoke clouded the air.

Stop, Chance. You’ll exhaust your vitae reserves!

It was too late. The flames at his fingers died.

Olive’s head spun, and he felt faint. He staggered to the ground, squinting up past the smoke as it peeled away with a breeze that drifted through. The acrid smell still made him sick. But not as sick as he felt when he realized what he’d just done. Hot bile climbed up his throat, and he heaved onto the floor before wiping his mouth.

Kid, ya had to.

He rejected this thought and forced himself to look up.

Standing in the place Izsak had been was a large metal shield singed at its center. Out from behind that shield stepped Izsak, coated in the oil but perfectly unharmed.

Olive felt both relief and horror. The relief faded as Izsak’s gaze focused on him. The man approached Olive with purpose. There was no light in his eyes, and Olive knew from Cadence and Werner’s end that there was an intent to kill glistening there.

No. He couldn’t die. Not when all of their lives were tied to his. Not when Lavi was—

Olive scrambled backward desperately.

Izsak came to a stop a foot away from him.

“M-Mr. Wtorek…” Olive stammered wide-eyed. “Why…?”

Izsak stared holes into him. “What you did just proves it. You really are one of them.” He reached forward—and for a stupid moment, Olive thought that the man was going to offer him a cuff on the shoulder and shout ‘just kidding!’ Instead, the man wrapped his glove conductor around Olive’s throat.

Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as he scratched at the Izsak’s hand. He couldn’t breathe. Suffocating. Throat-crushing. A pressure. Just like that time six years ago.

“A saint candidate—no. You’re one of the connected. A True Conductor.” Izsak’s eyes seemed to glow white as his grip tightened. “You can’t be allowed to live… The Tragedy of Aries. You should have died then.”

Something inside Olive’s chest crumpled at the words and he felt tears prick his eyes. Olive wasn’t sure whether the tears were from the man’s words or from the fact that he was on his last breath.

“If the syzygy happens, then—”

—and from nowhere a black suitcase cracked against Izsak’s head, sending the man stumbling away. Olive fell to the ground and gasped for air. He rubbed his throat and looked up. Standing in Izsak’s place was Jericho, suitcase and all.

Olive felt the fear gripping his stomach release. “How—”

“I regained consciousness,” Jericho explained. “Doctor Fabrizzio Senior’s treatment.”

“I can see that…”

“The ELPIS initiates in the cargo warehouse are in custody. They informed me that the ELPIS leader went to Aries. Capital city. Intuition.”

Olive nodded slowly.

“Atienna convinced… me to abandon the ELPIS initiates. To come to you. Talib is at the port in Gemini to pick up Leona. Now I’m here.” He paused in thought. “Without jurisdiction. Off mission. Doctor Kingsley will yell at me.” Jericho clicked open his suitcase and turned toward Izsak, who was just rising to his feet.

Olive tensed.

A familiar, nightmarish-looking stuffed animal popped out from Jericho’s suitcase first and fell to the ground. Izsak stared at it for a moment before returning his attention to Jericho, who had pulled out a slim, cylindrical conductor from his briefcase.

“Wtorek Izsak,” Jericho said, activating his conductor with a flick of his wrist. “I’m apprehending you for involvement with ELPIS.” He glanced at Olive and Claire. “For making an attempt on the lives of the Ariesian and Sagittarian princes.”

Light spilled out from Jericho conductor’s tip forming the shape of a whip. The color. Pure white. It was blinding just looking at it.

“So you’re the traitor that Omicron was talking about,” Izsak said as he observed the conductor. “The traitor she met in Gemini.” He glanced at Olive. “The fact that you knew to come here means that you’re connected to him. You are a True Conductor too.”

Olive could barely grasp what was happening.

Why was Izsak…? Why was Jericho’s vitae color…?

Jericho’s past was hazy to Olive, but he had seen flashes of it. Memories of rolling sandy dunes, of a person in a white cloak extending a hand, of the very same hand offering a pat on the head as Jericho pulled the trigger on a trembling young Conductor.

You were indoctrinated into ELPIS when you were young… came Atienna’s realization that was filled with a wave of sympathy.

“Yes,” Jericho affirmed. “But I am here now to eliminate them.”

Jericho swung his conductor, and it hurtled out toward Izsak’s side. Izsak quickly conjured a thick pipe to block it. The whip wound around the pipe’s body. Izsak glanced at it with disinterest. Disinterest quickly morphed into surprise as white cracks appeared along the steel. Izsak released the pipe just as it crumbled to dust.

“You’re a Specialist,” Izsak realized.

“Stay back,” Jericho said as he threw Olive a look over his shoulder. “I am able to break apart vitae particles with my conductor.”

“You could’ve told me that before you swung that thing!” Olive snapped as he struggled to a stand. “Something isn’t right. You know Izsak… This is…”

Jericho’s glowing white whip straightened into a blade and Jericho quickly thrust it in Izsak’s direction. Izsak barely managed to dodge the jab, but he did not make it out untouched. The blade caught onto his Ophiuchian band which disintegrated in an instant. In a split second, the white blade of the sword splintered and shot out in all directions.

Rather than a whip or a sword, it seemed formless.

One of the splinters pierced Izsak’s leg, but the man quickly ripped himself away from it.

Not in long enough, came Jericho’s thought. He then recalled the splinters of light back with a flick of his conductor. The next moment he was charging at a crouching Izsak who was nursing his leg. Jericho transformed his vitae into a blade and raised it high.

Wait! This doesn’t make sense. Mr. Wtorek is—

Jericho hesitated.

Izsak took the opportunity to roll out from beneath him. He rose to his feet and glowered at them. “I’m outmatched,” he confirmed. “But I can’t allow you to live. Your existence is unnatural.” With that he brought up his hand and conjured an object.

A conducting grenade. A whole handful of them.

Get away—

A great wave of heat exploded out from the alleyway and a torrent of magenta flames enveloped Izsak’s hand. The man let out a yelp before ripping off his glove conductors that were beginning to melt in the oil-fueled heat. Before he or Olive or Jericho could react, Gabrielle burst out from the alley and tackled Izsak to the ground. The two Ophiuchians tousled around, throwing punches and kicks and snarls. Eventually, Gabrielle managed to deliver a well-aimed crack to Izsak’s jaw which dazed him. Grimacing, she hoisted herself up on top of the man and pinned his hands behind his back with an unreadable expression.

“Stay down, Wtorek,” she whispered.

Izsak struggled a bit more before going limp.

“We were just informed of the Watch by the Capricornian military. It’s a special-ops group of theirs that’s been given orders by a dissenting officer,” Gabrielle panted as she studied Izsak’s face. “Half of the royal guards have been dispatched around the city and are cleaning them out. The order from the Kaiser has been sent out for Watch members to ceasefire.”

As if on cue, the square became flooded with Ariesian guards. Some rushed to the fallen guards while others rushed to aid Gabrielle, civilians, Olive. Medical Conductors and palace guards surrounded him and barraged him with a flurry of questions.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Olive snapped, waving them away. “The others need more help than me. Samuel at the mansion and…” Claire.

Claire was attended by several Ariesian guards and had been joined by his vassals, who were frantically shouting at the Ariesians in Sagittarian. Claire appeared more amused at the situation than anything else.

Their eyes met. Claire cracked him a grin and gave him a thumbs up. Olive glared and looked away. Jericho was still standing beside him, staring holes into Izsak.

“You okay?” Olive eyed Jericho’s conductor which he had deactivated as soon as Gabrielle had burst through the alley.

Jericho blinked at him. “Yes.”

They stared at each other for a long while before Olive bent down to pick up the fallen stuffed animal off the floor. He stared at Izsak for a beat, felt something crumple in his chest, before he handed the plush to Jericho.

They stood in awkward silence.

Jericho asked, “Hug. Would that be customary?”

Saints. Jericho was weird.

“No.”

What a terrible week.

Specialist: a Conductor who does not fall into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Their ability to utilize vitae ranges with each manner of utilization vastly different from the next. There is still not much known about them as they consist of only 1% of the Conductor population.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

5.1: Chance Rejection

Re-cap:

Olive Chance, guided by Cadence, Atienna, and Werner, and aided by Claire, has managed to gather evidence proving that the arrested Trystan Carter is not the one behind the assassination attempt through the use of a vitae spectrophotometer. All he needs to do is find the right moment to present the evidence—the three samples—to the king and queen, but… 

New Ram City, Aries

Olive’s walk back to the royal palace was oddly filled with thoughts of Maria. He could only faintly see her in his mind’s eye. In a dark and dim cell with hands cuffed in chains, Maria sat without a smile. The very sight of her was unnerving. Betrayal must hurt.

When Olive finally made it back to the palace, he was greeted by Samuel and the other guard who had escorted him there.

“Your highness!” Samuel exclaimed. “Where have you been?”

“I—”

“The king and queen request your presence immediately.”

* * *

When Olive entered the throne room, he was immediately ushered into his chair beside his uncle and aunt’s thrones. They were already sitting there, both grim and stiff. They didn’t even look at him when he seated himself. Something he welcomed. Oddly enough, they were dressed formally. Dressed in the attire they would wear only to diplomatic meetings. A black suit and a red tie for his uncle, and a black dress laced with red for his aunt.

Olive then noticed Gabrielle standing to the side of the room with crossed arms. Izsak wasn’t with her. He needed to get the vials to her.

Before he could think on it any further, one of the royal guards abruptly entered the room and boomed, “Your highnesses, please welcome the nineteenth prince of Sagittarius. Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan.”

Oh. So they were expecting a prince from another country. That explained things. Talk about late notice. He thought of Atienna and wondered if they were here to seek aid.

Olive threw a disinterested look to the doors of the throne room, which creaked open slowly.

A person drifted forward, gliding in a way that made them seem as if they were floating on clouds. Sky-blue Sagittarian silken robes laced with silver-woven clouds wrapped around them. Their hands were hidden by the long, dangling sleeves of the robe, while their face was hidden by a black hat. The hat’s rim was wide and circular, and its top rose to a flat top above their head, slightly higher than a normal hat would. A blue and white beaded string connected to the ends of the hat hung inches below their chin.

They bowed low as they neared the throne before lifting their head to meet the king’s and queen’s eyes.

Olive felt faint as soon as he registered the face hiding beneath the brim of the hat. A coldness seeped into his bones. His head buzzed, his stomach burned, a buzzing panic seized his chest.

“It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” Claire said calmly, smoothly, voice as steady and tranquil as Atienna’s. “I greatly appreciate your acceptance of my presence given the current circumstances that befall your crown prince.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction, and their eyes met.

Olive felt bile climb up his throat as understanding dawned on him. He couldn’t breathe. He could taste smoke in the air.

“Prince Yuseong,” his uncle said calmly, “we are always glad to welcome a member of the Sagittarian royal clans even with short notice. However, given the current political state of things, I do have to question your reason for coming here.”

“With all due respect, that’s exactly what I’ve come here for,” Claire interjected. “While I understand your desire to keep out of the border conflict due to your current internal issues, I must say it would be impolite to reject the request of a party that has aided you.”

“What are you saying, Prince Yuseong?”

Olive shakily reached for his coat pocket. Empty. When did he…?

Claire gestured behind him. Two figures entered the room and came to a stand beside him—one of his left and one on his right. Both of them were donning masks—one a porcelain white and one a wooden brown.

“These are my vassals,” Claire said. “The one with the wooden mask is Felix, and the one in the white mask is Soha.” He waved his hand in the air, and the two stepped forward each presenting two items in their hands with a bow. One vial and one arrow each. “This is evidence that Trystan Carter is not the assassin.”

“How did you get your hands on those arrows?”

“I’ve been investigating the assassination since I arrived,” Claire answered. “I will be open. The two individuals that went after the prince several nights ago were my vassals here, but I meant no harm. I was merely trying to lure out the true assassins which did not turn out as planned unfortunately.” He gestured to Olive. “And as to how I got my hands on these arrows… you could ask Prince Chance that.”

Olive felt his uncle and aunt staring at him.

“We have much to discuss,” Claire—no, Haneul—finished with the smile of a politician.

* * *

Olive wasn’t really aware of being led back to his room nor was he aware of walking to his bed and sinking down into it. His bird was tweeting loudly, but he could barely hear it above the ringing in his ears.

Shut up already.

He buried his head.

Out of the corner of his eye, five shadows flickered into existence. What? All of them? He didn’t need this right now. Eighty percent synchronization. Eighty percent suffering.

“Leave me alone…” Olive muttered.

They didn’t move. One drifted closer. Atienna. She brought her with a sensation of calm. A calm he didn’t deserve.

“Leave me alone!” Olive snapped, leaping from the bed.

“Do you…” Atienna began. She paused then continued gently, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to understand… we’re connected, Olive. The things you feel, we feel too.”

Olive sent her a glare. “Sure, anything to distract you from your own problems.”

Atienna froze.

“Hey now, your highness, let’s not get too harsh here,” Cadence said as she drew near. “It ain’t all that bad, kid. I know it sucks that Claire stabbed ya in the back, but it ain’t your fault. He was very convincin—”

“This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t listen to you and just let it be!”

“Yeah, prince, you’re right,” Cadence reassured him. But I did say the kid was a liar. “You shoulda just done your own thing. Ya know better than us about these kinds of things. You’re right—”

“I knew. I knew… It was pointless for me to try to help, but I did it anyway.” Olive kicked the pole of the birdcage, sending his bird into a fluttering panic. “I’m an idiot who never learns. Always the same thing over and over again. I—”

I should just die.

Like a lightning bolt, Olive’s thought rattled through the room.

Silence, shock. Shame, anger.

“Whoa, kid, that’s a bit much. Ya messed up, but there’s no reason ta start goin’ ta those lengths—”

“Why?” Olive scoffed. “Every time I try to help, I end up dragging down everyone around me. This, me freeing Oros, and—the world would be better if I was gone.” He shook his head before glowering at Cadence. “And what do you care? Sure, you might be connected to me, but I know what you really think. I’m just a spoiled brat to you. You act so sad, but it’s just an act in the end.”

All of them remained silent.

“Stop looking at me like that. Does feeling pity toward other people make you feel better about yourself? ‘I may be bad, but at least I’m not like that.’ Is that what you’re thinking? I know it is. You just don’t want to admit it.”

“Kid, you might be brat, but you ain’t that bad—”

“Not bad?” Olive scoffed. “I’m the one who caused the Tragedy of Aries!”

Another beat of silence.

Cadence exchanged a look with Werner. “Kid, I don’t know much history, but I doubt that you—”

Werner held up a hand. “Tell us.”

Olive stared at him wide-eyed. Words lodged in his throat. Heart hammering in his chest.

Atienna drew near and guided him onto the bed. There was no pity in her eyes. Only understanding. Nothing right, nothing wrong.

Screw it.

Olive swallowed and let out a breathy sigh. “I… My little sister was really talented. They said she had the ability to become a saint candidate. They took her to Ophiuchus to do the tests, but she failed. She was so upset after. I just wanted to cheer her up.” Saints, he was pathetic. “I did everything I could. Tried to build stupid toy conductors. But none of it was enough. So I snuck her out of the palace one day when my p—” Olive clenched his fists. “My parents had a meeting there. Bought her a stupid bird even though I had no idea how to take care of it. She was so happy after that. She was probably just tired of being cooped up all the time—I… I felt like I’d accomplished something. I got full of myself. So stupid.”

It was a memory forever burned into his mind. Her last smile.

“When we came back to the palace, there was a homeless man outside. None of the guards noticed him. And he was hungry and tired, and he asked for help. And… And… Because I was feeling like some self-righteous hero, I snuck him in. I…” He felt his voice crack. “I let him in… And he—”

“He let in the ELPIS members who murdered the people inside the royal palace,” Jericho realized. “The ones who started the fire.”

“ELPIS didn’t start the fire.” Olive felt somewhat lightheaded. “There were bodies everywhere, and it was all my fault… I…” He buried his head in his hands, eyes wide. “I tried to get Lavi away. I tried so hard. I ran. I ran. I ran, but they—she—”

The image of her small body dangling from that man’s white gloved hands invaded his mind. He felt sick.

“Maybe one of them could be saved, but I—” Olive dug into his hair. “I was just thinking to myself that I… that I couldn’t look at it. I just couldn’t look at her. At any of them. That’s all I could think. I couldn’t control it. I…”

The memory flashed in his mind. The fire that erupted from his hands without warning, spilling out from his fingertips, devouring everything in sight without discrimination. The white cloaks that the ELPIS members wore. The bodies strewn on the floor. His sister.

The smell had been revolting. It was truly something that no one should ever experience. The odor of burning flesh. The screams as bones and muscles melted. Seared into his memory.

When the Ophiuchians arrived later, they found Olive curled up in a pile of ash. Gabrielle had been the one to find him. Izsak had conjured mountains of stuffed-animals to try to get him to speak. But Doctor Kingsley had been the one to break through. They were the few who knew about his ability to channel vitae without a conductor. Something that he’d been able to do ever since that day.

Saints. He was pathetic. Saying he should just die or disappear when that was too easy of a punishment. Like an ant.

“Channeling vitae without a conductor…” Jericho stared.

Yes, it was all out now. They all knew what he’d done—

Jericho said, “ELPIS… their fault.” There was an edge to his voice, but Olive couldn’t feel the righteous anger from all those times before.

“That’s right, kid,” Cadence agreed. “Even if you didn’t let them in, they still would’ve gotten in. Besides, you were just a—”

“Don’t say that!” Olive snapped. “Just saying that doesn’t make it better!”

“That is obvious,” Werner interjected. He closed the mental and physical distance between them and lowered himself, so they were eye-level. “But now you know you must take responsibility. You believe your sister is still present, correct? She is more than an illusion. That line of thinking isn’t illogical given our situation.”

Atienna glanced at him and then nodded. “I’ve been giving it some thought since you mentioned her. In the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, your sister may actually be alive in a sense. During the Tragedy, when she was near death, her vitae may have left her body and entered you. It might also explain why you’re able to conduct without a conductor.”

“If that’s the case,” Werner continued, “then you are partially responsible for her current condition.”

“Werner—”

“And it’s your responsibility to find a way to reverse it,” Werner finished. “You have a goal now and a duty to reach that goal’s end. For your sister.”

An image flashed through Olive’s mind. It wasn’t Lavi. It was a young, frail-looking girl with platinum blonde hair and pale blue eyes. But the feeling was the same. A sibling affection.

Something clicked into place within Olive’s chest, and it suddenly felt as if the world became a bit clearer. He was ashamed at the feeling but at the same time…

“I’ll avenge you too,” Jericho interjected.

Too?

“I don’t want revenge.” Olive frowned. “And I don’t want anyone being killed on my behalf. I’m not like that.”

Jericho cocked his head at him.

“Nothing’ll be solved by beating someone with a suitcase,” Olive grumbled, rubbing his arms and then wiping the tears away from his eyes. Had he been crying? Embarrassing. “But thanks for the thought, I guess.”

Still, it didn’t feel right. It felt too easy. It really didn’t feel like he deserved this sort of redemption or whatever this was. It felt like an escape.

“You cannot die, Olive Chance.”

Everyone turned their attention to Maria. She was still within her jail cell on her ship—they could all see this—but she was standing now and gripping the bars of her cell. Tightly, just like Trystan had.

“I won’t allow you to die,” Maria elaborated. “Because I like you, and you are mine.” She looked toward him. “And I don’t let bad things happen to things that are mine.” She brightened abruptly and addressed all of them. “And that’s all of you.”

They all stared.

“Chance…” Werner said suddenly. There was an edge to his voice. “The attempt on your life was not an assassination attempt.”

Olive blinked a couple of times at the sudden nonsensical change. “Uh, what?”

“It’s very well known that Sagittarius is seeking aid from other countries after being pulled into the border conflict. It’s also known that Aries and Sagittarius have shared good relations following the Reservoir War. It follows that Aries would come to aid Sagittarius if anything were to happen to them. That is unless Aries had their hands full with something else.”

“Werner…” Atienna murmured. “What are you saying?”

Werner opened his mouth, then shut it. His eyes widened, then darkened. Abruptly, the synchronization between them was cut.

4.2: Morello Bridge

Re-cap:

Convergence has occurred.

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

In return, Verga offers her money and her life.

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

Cadence would tune her ears to the sharp chords the woman would play and would try to jump in to play with her. But she would always be too fast.

Alma, that was. “Just Alma.” Alma, the young entertainer who had spotted an even younger Cadence peering at her playing piano through a frosted window in Sognare.

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

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

Adaptation.

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

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

Even with those mantras, however, Cadence found it a bit harder to adapt to her current predicament. Being psychically connected to five other people took some getting used to.

Fortunately, most of them were pretty easy to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Jericho was weird.

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

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

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

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

The restaurant looked packed. Good for them.

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

Intuition? Hm.

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

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

“Matilda!” Cadence shout-whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tilda…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matilda was staring at her now.

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

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

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

Werner.

Shoot.

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

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

Well then.

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

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

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

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

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

“Duccio, what are you saying?”

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

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

Hm.

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

Matilda stiffened.

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

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

And that was that—

But they were children.

Cadence froze again.

Werner.

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

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

* * *

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

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

And then there was Alma being dragged away into the darkness by a shadowy silhouette. Then the Foxman brothers watching calmly as a man tied to a chair was beaten to a pulp with a pipe in front of them. There was Nico, wiping his patient’s splattered blood off his face with a rag.

And then there was Ricardo Romano standing above her as the rain pelted down harsh on his bright yellow-orange umbrella. Everything was gray around them, but when he extended his hand, the world gained a bit more color.

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

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

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

“Well, neither did I.”

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

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

There was a long stretch of silence.

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

“Doin’ inventory?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

And Alma would be at her side.

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

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

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

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

Werner was frowning again.

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

“But you’re working with him now.”

That was what the guy got out of that?

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

And that was that. Or so they both thought.

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

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

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

Prisoners, Werner’s mind supplied.

Man, Cadence thought as she looked them over, it would suck to be a prisoner.

Then she saw him. And her entire world froze over.

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

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

“Nico…?”

The Sognare: Bar and Tunes. Est 1921.

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