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.”


8.2: Olive’s Stagnation (Accelerazione)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Olive was in search of a Sagittarian translator and someone who could take him to the infamous Bodhi Temple in order to study for his State Conductor’s Exam when he suddenly overrode Werner and caused the man to order a retreat. He awakens from the override in the care of Prince of the Seong Clan of Sagittarius, Yuseong Claire.

Sihyeon Villa, Sagittarius

When Olive awoke on that cloudy afternoon, he knew that it was going to be a terrible day. There was a heaviness in his chest that squeezed tight—almost like there was an anchor hooked onto his heart that was dragging his entire body deeper, deeper down. With the feeling weighing him down so heavily, the only thing he could was think. Think about the things he’d done the previous—no, the previous week. Absolutely fruitless. Meaningless. Mistakes made. Nothing accomplished at all.

Dammit. 

Olive curled into himself and tried to collect his thoughts—catch them—before they somehow slipped out to one of the others. It was times like these that he hated their connection the most. The vulnerability, the rawness—

Good morning! No—beautiful morning! Yes! It is a beautiful morning! The sun, the air! Something exciting will happen today! I can feel it!

The exploding shout came paired with a burst of heat against his face, a splash of cold water on his skin, the feeling of wet clothing clinging to his body, and—of course—a rush of feverish excitement. The first feeling was welcomed. The others, not so much. 

Saints, Maria. Don’t just synchronize like that randomly. Ya nearly gave me a heart attack. 

Had Maria just attempted synchronization with all of them just to wish them a good morning?

But it is a very good morning. I wanted you all to experience it too!

Maria was crazy. 

Rubbing his face, Olive forced himself up off his bed. He shivered and sauntered over to his bird cage to feed his bird and then stared out the paper window that opened up beside it. The cherry blossom flower petals from the tree outside had made it into the room and dusted the floor of the room and the bird cage. His bird was busily collecting all of the petals into a corner.

Greedy bastard.

Olive glanced back out the window at the courtyard. There was a pond out there beyond the cherry blossom and persimmon trees. A small pavilion with curved up roofs floated on an island at the center of it, and it was surrounded by lotus flowers that bobbed up and down in the water. 

It was peaceful.

He almost wanted to look at it forever. But he knew he couldn’t. He had to keep moving. So with a heavy sigh, he started his morning grooming. 

When he finally made it outside of his room half an hour later, he was greeted by Trystan who was posted outside his door: 

“Did you sleep well, Olivier? Good morning.”

Olive arched a brow at him. “What about you? You don’t need to be on me all the time especially since Claire has his guards all over this vacation home thing.” 

“Yes, he has been hospitable but—”

Olive sighed. “Yeah, I know. It’s not like we can trust him completely, but since we’re here…”

Might as well take advantage of the situation. 

Trystan seemed to understand his point and nodded.  “Prince Yuseong has invited you to breakfast again,” he said as they began to walk down the hall. 

The floors here were of polished wood, and they had been provided with woolen slippers to walk around in. The estate, while consisting of only one floor, was expansive. Paper sliding doors lined the hall, and light from the outside seeped lazily through the square white pap slots giving everything a hazy glow. 

“The Sagittarian diet is very nutritious I’ve heard, so you should eat as much as you can to recover.”

Was he a nanny or a guard at this point? He almost sounded like Werner minus the strictness. 

Sounds like tall dark and handsome got promoted to nanny, came Cadence’s chirpy response. A light synchronization. 

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt.

Trystan continued, “That may be a good time to test the waters with Prince Yuseong regarding—” He trailed off and stopped short. 

There was a girl halfway out of one of the sliding doors up ahead. She had round cheeks and jet-black hair that grew out to the sides of her ears. She was dressed in the formal silken light pink robe, but she was bare footed. They locked eyes. 

Claire’s younger sister. Eunji. 

Claire had introduced him to her the first night Olive had spent at this villa at dinner.  And what an awkward dinner it was. The girl had bowed her head respectfully to Olive when he was introduced and then had proceeded to stare at him during the entire dinner. Lavi, who had appeared before Olive at the time, had gushed over the girl, floating over to her and asking her all sorts of things about herself—her favorite color, her favorite book, her favorite animal. Not that Eunji could hear her, of course. Olive supposed Lavi was excited to see someone closer to her age around. Before Olive could repeat any of Lavi’s questions to Eunji, however, the girl had excused herself from the table and had run off escorted by a flock of bodyguards. 

A flock of bodyguards that was currently nowhere to be seen. 

“What are you doing?” Olive asked plainly. 

Eunji’s cheeks were flushing now. “I—I…”

A stampede of footsteps came from down the hall. Sagittarian guards. Eunji’s eyes widened, and she threw herself out the doorway without another word. A second later a collection of twenty guards wearing masks of various colors and designs came pounding down the hall. Behind them were two unmasked women wrapped in light silken garments. 

The entire flock, minus the two unmasked women, started off in the direction Eunji had disappeared to. Both women bowed before Olive and Trystan.

“I apologize if the young lady has disturbed you,” the younger woman said, dipping her head further. “She was at her daily lessons with her teacher but she suddenly ran off.”

“No need to apologize,” Olive grumbled. “It’s not like I need one… no need with the bowing either.”

“You are a friend of the prince,” the more elderly of the two said, “so you will be treated with respect.”

And what if that friend was royalty? Olive thought to himself.

It appeared as if none of the villa staff knew of his status as Ariesian prince. Not even Eunji did since Claire had merely introduced him as “my friend I met in New Ram City.” But Olive didn’t hate it. He had already gotten used to the feeling of not being recognized in the streets of Sagittarius—although he did hear a couple of pedestrians and some of Claire’s vassals occasionally say, “Doesn’t he look a bit like the Ariesian prince?” A welcomed experience. 

“Alright then.” Olive shrugged, slipping past them with Trystan. “Good luck finding her.”

*** 

The dining room of Claire’s villa was spacious and lined with the familiar paper-sliding doors. A single square table with short legs sat at the center. Silken plush cushions were furnished at the sides of the table, and seated at one of those cushions was Sagittarian prince of the Seong Clan, Yuseong Haneul—although he still insisted on being called Claire. 

There were two guards posted behind Claire. Familiar ones. Firstly there was the white masked Projector who nodded deeply upon Olive and Trystan’s arrival. Then there was the wooden-masked Conjuror who seemed to glower at them. If Olive recalled correctly, their names were Soha and Felix, respectively. They were the two vassals who had accompanied Claire to New Ram City, and they had been the ones who had attacked him on the night he had first met Claire. It had all been an act, but Olive still felt unnerved by them. 

Claire gestured for them both to sit. Trystan, as usual, hesitated at the invitation. Olive, however, flopped down on the cushion chair and indicated for Trystan to do the same. After another pause of reluctance, Trystan sat down as well but not before giving the two guards watchful looks. 

“Your sister probably isn’t going to come for breakfast,” Olive said, glancing at the remaining open cushion seat. “It looked like she was trying to get as far away from here as possible. I can understand the sentiment.”

If Claire had heard the last part, he didn’t show it. “I’m sorry if she disturbed you. She has a habit of trying to escape the guards.” Claire offered an apologetic look, although Olive thought he saw some smugness there. “How are you feeling by the way?” He gestured to the steaming tea cups and the assortment of colorful side dishes of pickled vegetables set out on the table. “You should try some of the daikons, they help with digestion and have a lot of potassium. They’ll help you feel much better, I promise.”

“Thanks…”

“Anyway,” Claire continued, “I was just speaking with Felix here about how lucky it was that we came across you that day. I literally just decided to go to that bookstore on a whim, and, well, you said something about studying for the Conducting Exam, right, so—”

“What do you want from me, Claire?” 

Claire paused mid-monologue and chuckled. “What do you mean?” 

Olive could feel Cadence peering in. Despite his disappointment in her recent choices, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to impress her. How pathetic.   

“I appreciate the hospitality,” Olive said, “but I’m not going to play along with your act. You can continue if you want, but I’m just going to be sitting here with popcorn.” He crossed his arms. “If you think that you can trick the same person with the same act, maybe it’s time to reconsider who the real stupid one is here.” 

That was right. Olive had more to lose this time around. He had to be careful.

“How dare you!” Felix snapped, taking a step forward. “You may be the prince of Aries but you are in the land of Sagittarius. You—”

“Calm down, Felix.” Claire he’d up a hand.

“But—”

“Felix.”

The wooden-masked man tensed and then folded back on himself along the wall. He said nothing more. 

Claire turned back to Olive with lightly furrowed brows and a hesitant smile. “I know how it looks with what happened last time, but honestly I—”

“I didn’t come to this country without learning how your government works,” Olive interjected. “I know that the emperor that sits on the throne is your father. I mean, obviously.”

Claire visibly stiffened at this, and his expression twisted in a startling manner. He almost didn’t like himself. The contempt in his eyes. 

“I also know that he’s the father of the princes and princesses of the other nine clans here. Your half-siblings. And I know that all of you can technically inherit the throne.” Olive picked up his teacup and stared into it. Cadence’s reflection stared back at him. “There’s a lot of rivalry, I bet… since all of you can inherit the throne. You have to constantly make yourself look good—like, ‘being the one to get aid from foreign countries’ good. What’s pride and honor, right?

Claire’s frown deepened which Olive couldn’t help but feel a rush of victory from. And a sudden pang of guilt. 

Don’t mind it, kid, Cadence’s thoughts of reassurance floated down from somewhere in the dark. Keep goin’. 

“And let’s not forget to mention that other thing you’ve been keeping secret from even your closest associates.”

While Soha and Felix exchange looks from behind their masks, Claire paled somewhat. 

It was always good to pretend that ya know more than ya actually do. 

“Look.” Olive sighed. “If you want to lead people around all of the time then get a dog. If you want something from me then just say it. But maybe this time I want something from you too. If not, then we’re both wasting our time here playing pretend—” 

Claire rose from his cushion abruptly and began to slowly walk over to where Olive sat. Trystan tensed from beside him and stiffened further when Claire sank to his knees and bowed before Olive. 

“My lord!” Felix unfolded himself from the wall and took a step forward in protest but was stopped by Soha who placed a hand on his arm. 

The righteous victory, the coyness, that had been building at Olive’s core crumbled in an instant. 

“Prince Chance, I admit that I do have intentions that go beyond me offering you hospitality but I promise you that these are not ones that directly surround me. It involves my sister.”

Eunji? What about her? And now Claire was suddenly speaking like a politician again too. Olive didn’t like this one bit.

“My sister is only twelve years old. She took the V-Type Test recently which revealed that she’s an air Elementalist like me. So she’s… viable for the throne. And because she’s viable, my mother wants her to complete the State Conducting Exam so that our clan has two candidates for potential rulership.”

What? Wasn’t Eunji only around twelve? Wasn’t that too young to take the exam—not to mention inherit a throne? Werner had told him that the average age for State Conducting Licensing in Capricorn was sixteen, but Olive had assumed that the early age was due to Capricorn’s military focus. But twelve was kind of—

“But because she’s taking this exam and because she is an air Elementalist, she has been brought to the attention of the other clans. I know they will seek to kill her—”

Kill?

Olive’s heart skipped a beat at the word. No. Assassinate. 

The memory of the arrow wreathed in flames from four months prior came at Olive suddenly. 

“—before she can complete the exam in order to decrease my clan’s chances of gaining control over the throne. The other members of my clan have retracted their aid because they don’t view her as worthy. The guards that you see on the estate are the only ones we have to protect her.” Claire took a deep breath. “Please, Prince Chance. My sister means everything to me. I’m not asking for you to protect her, but your presence as the prince of Aries alone will be enough to make the other clans hesitate.” Claire’s fists balled. “Just for a little while, I ask you to accompany us until she completes her exam.”

A succession war, Olive realized, a chill creeping up his spine. That was insane. The idea that individuals were out there who were willing to kill someone who showed just a fragment of promise just to gain an upper hand. This was not what Olive had been expecting at all. He had assumed Claire was going to try to use their supposed friendship as a means to make himself look more diplomatically inclined when compared to his half-siblings. 

Naive. 

Dangerous. 

“You want the prince to act as a decoy?” Trystan drew darkly, rising to a stand. He stopped short when he saw Soha and Felix tense. 

“No, not a decoy. Just as a warning.” 

“Then why didn’t you announce that I was the Ariesian prince when I first came here if you want to use me like that?”  Olive asked. “And why are you letting your sister take the State Conductor Exam if that’s what’s making people target her? Does she even want to take it? And—saints—get up!”

Claire straightened himself up from his bow but remained seated. He locked eyes with Olive, eyes afire. “She must take the State Conductor Exam in order to increase our clan’s chances of gaining the throne. This is for the sake of our clan, Prince Olivier. We cannot be selfish when thinking for our people—I’m sure you understand this.”

Olive felt his stomach tumble, and the anchor that he had forgotten about started to weigh down on his chest once more. 

“As for why I didn’t announce your status—I want to ensure that any traitors that found their way into our domain will be ousted.” Again, Claire spoke like a politician. “If I revealed that you were the Ariesian prince then they would hide away and bide their time. I can’t let them fly under the radar only to come back up when you are no longer with us… I…” He looked away. “The affairs of my country and clan are complicated. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” 

There was something in Claire’s voice—it sounded as if he was disappointed in himself more than anything else. 

“So you’re risking your sister’s life to try and save her?” Olive frowned after a stretch of silence. “Those are some impressive mental gymnastics.” He rose from his cushion slowly. “Well, I have things I want too, like I said. Risking my life is a high token though, so I’ll think about it.” 

Olive headed to the doorway behind him but paused when Trystan started to follow.

“I’m just going to the restroom, Trystan.” Olive waved a dismissive hand. “You can finish your food. I’ll be back in a second.” 

Olive exited the room before Trystan could respond. 

He continued slowly down the hallway as he mulled over the recent revelation and glared holes into the wooden floorboards. He really did hate politics. It was the same here as it was back in Aries. Maneuvering around every other person, playing people like chess pieces, false words and faces. What for? It didn’t make sense.

Something flashed out of the corner of Olive’s eyes causing him to look up from the floorboards. He paused. Stared. 

It was Eunji, once again halfway out of one of the sliding doors. Had she been caught earlier and was now trying to attempt another escape? Or had she never been caught in the first place? 

They locked eyes. 

She did not flush this time, at least not visibly. She did not move either. 

“Your brother cares for you a lot, you know,” Olive said after a beat. “I don’t really care about it but you should think about things like that before you make dumb decisions.”

Eunji stiffened at this and looked down. When she looked back up at him, her cheeks were beet red and the corner of her eyes were wet. “I-I know that…” 

Olive tensed and looked left and then right. Shoot. This was awkward. Dammit. This is why he hated getting involved with other people. Misunderstanding and disappointment, one after the other. 

“Well, if you know that then why are you out here causing trouble?” Olive finally asked. After not receiving a response, he tried, “Do you think acting like this will make him pay attention to you any less? That’s not how it works, you know. Not with family at least.”

Eunji stared at him, eyes wide.

A padding of footsteps coming down the hall before she could respond, and Olive turned his head to find the older vassal from earlier approaching him. The woman offered a deep blow and muttered an apology before rounding him and nearing Eunji.

“The others are looking for you on the opposite side of the villa, but I had an inkling you would be on this end,” the vassal said, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “How about we return to your lessons and then we can have some fun, my lady?”

Eunji dipped her head, glanced at Olive, and then nodded meekly. 

Smiling at this, the vassal inclined her head in Olive’s direction. “Excuse me, sir.” And then she began leading Eunji down the opposite end of the hall.

Olive stared after them for a beat, before turning on his heels and walking in the opposite direction. 

Olive. 

It was Atienna. With her thought came a surge of adrenaline. A thrill. Something had happened to her recently, although the details had not yet trickled down to him yet. Her hands were curled into fists. As their synchronization increased, so did the details of her circumstances as did her image which appeared beside him. He turned to her alarmed. 

Atienna—

Something’s not right, don’t you think?

Olive stopped in his tracks and swiveled around. 

Eunji and the elder vassal were halfway down the hall. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. In fact, it was a tender scene with the elder vassal guiding Eunji with a hand on the back. 

But appearances were deceiving. 

Olive approached them slowly. “Hey, wait a minute.”

They both stopped and turned. 

Olive stopped short too a foot away from them. “I… Claire wanted Eunji to come to breakfast with us.” 

The vassal smiled. “Yes, well, it may be best if Eunji finishes her morning lessons before that. This is a very important time for her.”

Olive arched a brow. “Can you really think without a full stomach? Or is this some Sagittarian torture technique?”   

The vassal’s polite smile drooped. Eunji looked between them in confusion although there was a hesitant smile beginning to climb up her lips.

Careful, Chance. 

It was Werner. 

He was watching? Even after—

The vassal shook her head and then spoke in a variant of Sagittarian—one that Cadence knew did not belong to the Seong clan: “I guess I’ll make use of this foolish foreigner now.” 

Eunji looked up at the vassal in confusion just as the vassal charged at him—

Saints, Olive thought in the split second that followed. For an old woman she moves fast

—and slammed him to the ground. 

“That Seong prince will find your corpse and that brat princess’s corpse, and you will be named the assassin,” the old woman hissed. 

The override was brief. 

One moment the old woman was on top of Olive, and the next he was on top of her. He barely had the chance to digest the sudden change of position, before the older woman kicked him away and scrambled to her feet and backwards. Olive hopped to his feet too, grimacing at the knobbing bruise forming at his abdomen, and then ran at the woman with a shout. Instead of charging at her, however, he ran right past her towards Eunji. Olive grabbed the girl by the arm and pulled her close while whirling around and extending out his free hand towards the assassin. Crimson sparks danced at his fingertips and spilled onto the ground.

A line of fire now divided them. 

Olive squinted past the flame at the older woman who was now staring at him and gaping. Realization set in for him a beat afterwards.

He had done it. He had done it! He had been able to conduct and control his vitae exactly how he’d wanted too!

Reckless—yes, but he had finally done it!

Focus. 

“I am the Ariesian prince Olivier Chance,” Olive stated as the embers swirled around him. “You dare attack this young girl whose brother offered me hospitality in my presence?”

Well, that’s dramatic, came Cadence’s thought. What’s with all the waxing lyrical? 

Olive felt his cheeks burn—not from the heat of the flame, but from the heat of embarrassment. I know that.

“I care little for the political affairs involved,” Olive continued, speaking above the crackles. “But I cannot stand by while you raise your hand against both me and this innocent young girl. What is your name and where do you hail from?”

The older vassal paled in the light and remained silent. 

“You don’t believe me?” Olive pressed. “Is the sight of my flame not enough for you? Are you blind to the color of my vitae?”

I think your overactin’ is convincin’ enough. 

“I ask you again—what is your—”

One of the paper doors behind them burst open. In came another woman holding a blade ignited with glowing purple vitae.

It was the other vassal. The younger one who had been with the elder one earlier. Her eyes took in the scene in confusion, and then they narrowed with determination. Without another word, she charged at Olive, blade raised. 

“No, wait!” shouted the older vassal. “Don’t! That’s—”

Olive brought up his hand, feeling heat spark at his fingertips.

 It was too much. The moment he’d done it, he knew it was too much. An explosion of heat erupted from his extended hand engulfing the assassin in an instant. A familiar, acrid smell curled up in Olive’s nostrils as the assassin’s screams filled the air. But he could not take time to process the events. The flames were still reaching out and consuming everything, despite the fact that he had lowered his hand and was no longer expelling vitae.

Olive threw himself over Eunji and braced himself for the ensuing heat but—

A cold wind throttled through the hall, blasting open the paper doors and snuffing out the flames in an instant. Light poured in from the outside and blinded him briefly. 

When Olive’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found Claire standing in the now open hallway behind the elder assassin with his staff conductor in hand. The area around them was speckled with flecks of floating blue light. Behind the Sagittarian prince came Felix, Soha, Trystan, and a handful of other masked guards. Soha quickly apprehended the older assassin who did not resist and instead was staring horrified in the younger assassin’s direction. 

Olive swallowed, felt nausea build at the pit of his stomach, and pulled away from Eunji. He gave her a quick once over and found that—although her face was once again beat red—she seemed fine. He turned back to the younger assassin and felt his head buzz. 

The younger assassin laid on the ground groaning, croaking, sobbing. Her entire body was covered in splotches of red and charred black, and her clothing was indiscernible from her skin. The smoke that curled out from the extinguished flames that had consumed her body smelled disgusting and looked unnatural. 

Hey, kid, she’s still alive. Nothin’ a little bit of transmutin’ won’t fix. Besides, you were just defendin’ yourself—

But—

“Are you alright, your highness?” It was Trystan who was now kneeling beside him. “I apologize for not getting here sooner.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” Olive murmured, glancing back to his left where Eunji still remained stiff and red. She was staring at his hands which he began to rub despite himself. 

A shadow passed over the three of them. Claire. The Sagittarian prince locked eyes with Olive before sinking down next to Eunji.

“Are you okay?” he asked. 

Eunji managed to offer a nod. 

Several of the guards who had accompanied Claire across the hall abruptly dropped to their knees and bowed before him.

“My lord, I apologize for our negligence,” said the one who was closest. “We should have kept a better eye on her. We are ashamed.”

It was a rather familiar scene. 

“No, they slipped past me too,” Claire said, rising to his feet. He turned to Soha who had the elder assassin in tow. Glancing at them briefly, he addressed the other guards: “Please take Eunji to the medical Conductors.” He then glowered at the younger assassin who was sobbing on the ground and cradling her splotchy painfully black and red arms. “Treat her too but don’t let her out of your sights.”

“Yes, my lord,” came the echoing responses. 

Felix took the lead and gingerly aided Eunji up to a stand before guiding her down the open hall. The other guards picked up the younger assassin and started off in the opposite direction. 

“You are from the Sitaara Clan, correct?” Claire addressed the elder vassal who was now staring at Olive. “One of the mid-tier clans. I’ve heard that the eldest princess of your clan took the V-Type Test, and it read that she was a Conjuror. It’s rare, and I understand it must come as a shock to your clan. I do feel some sympathy, and I believe you have learned your lesson, so I will return you and your friend back to your people.” He side-glanced at Olive.

How annoying. But—

“The Sagittarian prince has treated me with hospitality,” Olive stated clearly to the woman. “And it is the Ariesian way to treat those who treat you kindly the same. I won’t stand for underhanded attempts like this against someone who has treated me well.”

“Do you understand the gravity of raising a hand against the Ariesian prince?” Trystan pressed from beside him. 

The older woman paled in response and then dropped to her knees, pressing her forehead against the ashen floor. “I did not know you were the Ariesian prince. I would not have laid a hand against you or the young lady if I had known. Please, my actions do not reflect the actions and intentions of my clan towards Aries—”

Olive resisted squirming and merely grimaced. He hated when things came down to this. “It shouldn’t matter whether or not I’m the Ariesian prince.” His thoughts returned to the younger assassin, and he looked away from her. 

“Y-Yes, of course,” the older woman stammered. “I… my apologies.”

“Since I am releasing you back to your clan,” Claire interjected, “I take it that you will inform them of everything you have witnessed here, correct?”

The woman stiffened at Claire’s voice and lifted her head to glower at him. Her gaze then flicked to Olive and then she bowed her head once more. “Of course.”

Claire then ordered Soha to take the woman away leaving the hallway to just himself, Olive, Trystan, and Felix. 

“Ollie…” Claire tried hesitantly. 

“There’s a temple up in the mountains a couple of miles away from this city. It’s called Bodhi Temple,” Olive began coolly. “Apparently, it has a library of unique books that are good for studying for the State Conducting Exam. Apparently, it’s very hard to get into. In fact, a guide told me that there are only two ways to get into it. Either dedicate your life to the temple or be brought in by someone who has access to that place. And I’ve heard rumors that royal members of Sagittarius’s clans are—”

“Okay.”

Olive closed his mouth, feeling rather unvictorious. “Okay?”

Claire nodded. “That’s actually where the Seong Clan has been sending their potential successors to study for the Conductor Exam for generations. I have a sky v-tram booked to get us there already. You and Trystan are free to come along.”

Olive exchanged a look with Trystan.

“I also need someone who can help translate the written word for me. Of all the languages of Sagittarius,” Olive tried challengingly. 

“I can do that too.”

***

They left for the sky v-trams two days later. 

The sky v-trams were something Olive had been secretly looking forward to seeing. These were things that were exclusive to Sagittarius consisting of boxcars strung along together and suspended by a pair of very thin cable wires. Metal wing-like extensions designed to catch updrafts protruded from each boxcar. Each tram was conducted by four Licensed air Elementalist Conductors who would conduct air up the shaft of the wings.  This paired with the v-trams own uniquely constructed conductor engine brought it higher and higher up the cables to its destination. 

Needless to say, when Claire informed Olive that they would need to ride the v-trams in order to reach the temple up in the mountains, Olive had been somewhat happy. If the burnt young woman’s body did not plague his dreams, he might have even been ecstatic. Keep moving forward, was something Werner had told him afterwards. Regrets are tools for motivation if you utilize them properly.

There were only four people allowed per each boxcar of the v-tram, and so Soha, Felix, Trystan, and Eunji filed into one—both Felix and Trystan protested at this—while Olive and Claire were seated in another. The rest of their shared boxcar was filled up with their luggage which counted as two passengers together. A handful of Claire’s other guards were piled up in the adjacent boxcar and would occasionally glance into the window of the doors that separated the cars to check on them. 

The sides of the boxcars were lined with red cushion seats for sitting but also contained poles to hold onto for standing. Olive opted to stand in order to get a good look out of the large windows lining the cart above the seats, and he watched with mild interest as the wings of the boxcars shook as they ascended. Seeing the ginormous v-tram station fall away below him and blur away to a tiny dot was interesting to say the least.

Claire abruptly joined him after spending half an hour searching his luggage. The Sagittarian prince leaned against one of the poles adjacent to Olive and crossed his arms. Olive offered him a disinterested look in turn before admiring the view again. 

“I guess you want me to tell you more about True Conductors as a part of everything too then, right?” Claire asked suddenly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Since we’re alone for the moment, I thought it’d be best to get this out of the—”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he turned to Claire slowly. “What.”

Claire froze and dropped his hand. “What?” 

“Did you just say True Conductors?!” Olive snapped, taking a challenging step forward before hesitating and then taking a cautious step back. “How do you know that word?”

“Because I am one?” Claire returned with a perplexed expression. “You didn’t know—but I thought—isn’t that the reason why you said what you said?”

What?

“The secret that I kept hidden from everyone—you said you knew what it was,” Claire explained slowly, before realization eclipsed his features.  He sighed, rubbed his face, and then rubbed then rubbed the back of his neck. “You were bluffing. I should’ve known.”

Olive remained silent, staring, unsure of how to react, unsure if he should try to reach out to the others. 

“Well, we did make a deal, and I’m grateful for your help.” Claire glanced out the window and then back at Olive. “So, anyway, I bet you have a lot of questions now, huh? I’d be happy to answer what I can.”

There was a long stretch of quiet. Their compartment darkened as they passed through a patch of clouds. 

“You’re a True Conductor?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.” Claire chuckled a bit—almost nervously—in the silence that followed. 

“And… what are True Conductors?”

“People like you and me,” Claire elaborated without really elaborating.

“And who are people like you and me?”

“People who are psychically connected with other people,” Claire said, tapping his temple. “Connected through memory and therefore thought and feeling.” He tapped his chest to finish the statement. “It’s a bit romantic if I say it like that though.”

“You’re connected to other people too…?” Olive knew he sounded like a broken record, but he was too befuddled by the sudden revelation to think straight. 

“Yup,” Claire popped. “I am connected with other people, but I’ll refrain from saying who. I’m sure after that whole thing in New Ram City, you’re plenty aware of the dangers that come with this… status.”

“Why…?” Olive shook his head. “I mean why are we… like this?”

Claire frowned, and Olive could see the gears turning in his head. His gaze brightened as he realized the meaning of Olive’s question. “Well, the why still escapes me, honestly. But the how is through a mutually-timed near death experience. At that moment where everyone in your connected group was knocking on death’s door, our vitaes somehow crossed over—”

“The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis….”

Claire’s brow shot up somewhat. “Yes, exactly. The top Conductors in vitae research at Ophiuchus say that there’s no sound evidence behind the idea, but there’s no sound evidence denying it either. So I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and agree that vitae does in fact store memories. I’ll refrain from commenting on the soul aspect of the entire thing since I’m no philosopher.” A sheepish chuckle. 

“Vitae stores memories.” Olive tried a course correction. 

“Right. That’s actually how this psychic link works. It isn’t that we’re able to telepathically communicate with people in our group. It’s just that the memory of our thoughts is flowing into the other person.” Claire made a circle with his index finger in the air. “The mirage of the person you see is all just a memory that they have of themselves. Simple.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Well, we timed it when my group and I met physically in person. It actually was only a month after we became connected. Anyways, when we were speaking to one another inside of our heads, a person in my group noticed that there was a very small lag time between when something would be said and when something would be responded to. When we timed it, we noticed that there was a five-second gap between when one person would think of something and—yeah.” 

Olive figured he made a face because Claire chuckled again. 

“The time frame got shorter, of course, the longer our group was connected,” Claire explained.  “We stopped timing it three years ago when it was below half a second. We thought it had to do with the amount of memories we shared, but who knows really.”

Three years ago? How long exactly had Claire been a True Conductor? 

Brushing those thoughts aside, Olive took a brief moment to mull over the information. 

Everything Claire said sounded realistic, but a portion of it did not match up with his own experiences. Was there really such a lengthy lag between his communication with the other five? It didn’t seem so much that he was speaking to a memory of them than actually speaking to them. And if there really was such a time lag with newly connected groups, how had they helped him as if they were actually there on that day in New Ram City? 

“Speaking of memories, I honestly was a bit concerned for you in the beginning. You may or may not have experienced this already, but the more time you spend connected to them the higher the chance that there’s going to be an overlap.”

“Overlap?”

“Mhm, like… a possession almost.”

“An override.”

“Is that what you call it? So you must have experienced it yourself already.” Claire hummed. “Or maybe you were the one doing it since your sense of self is pretty strong from what I’ve seen.”

Olive couldn’t help but grimace as he recalled his override of Werner.  As Claire’s words settled in, he arched a brow at him. “Sense of… self?”

“Yeah, your sense of who you are, your ideals, your values. Well, I’m sure you’ve noticed that this connection tends to affect everyone in your group a little differently.” Claire shrugged. “Some people receive more memories and the feelings associated with them than others, and some people are more affected by things like that. Those all have to do with how strong that sense of self is. The weaker, the more easily affected. Of course, that’s not a bad thing exactly.”

Olive’s thoughts immediately returned to Werner. A weak sense of self?  Werner of all people? No. That didn’t make any sense. Werner was dependable, reliable, reasonable, and steadfast.

“It does make some good food for thought though.” Claire looked out the window again, but the darkened clouds had made it more of a mirror so he was left staring at his reflection. “Memories make us who we are, right? So… then…” Claire waved a dismissive hand. “Well, anyways, I haven’t encountered any groups that have completely shared their memories one hundred percent yet.”

“So there are more people like us?”

Claire nodded. “I’ve come across a total of ten separate groups not including you. Whenever we’d come across each other, we’d exchange notes about the things we experienced. That’s how I know so much about this.” His gaze darkened suddenly. “Of course, that was before.”

“Before?” Olive sighed, scowled. “Stop making everything so mysterious and get to the point.”

“How do I put this without making you launch yourself out of this sky v-tram to try to get away from me…”

“Maybe by not starting off with that,” Olive grumbled.

Claire frowned and a hardness entered his gaze. “Of the ten groups that I encountered before, only four of them are still… active.”

“Active?”

“The other six have completely disappeared off of the face of this earth,” Claire said. “The other nine True Conductors and I  had all planned a get together a year ago. I was invited but I didn’t end up going since I had my State Conductor Exam to go to. Someone in my group went instead—although she’s a loner so she kept to herself and sort of spied on them instead of being friendly.” A fond smile traced his lips at the last statement, but then the corners of his lips drooped down again. “After that meeting,  we started losing contact with the other groups one by one. We think some True Conductors out there might be hunting other True Conductors down. Maybe they’re working with ELPIS? I don’t know. And why ELPIS is after us—I don’t know either.”

“So then why trust me and why trust you?”

“Good question.” Claire rubbed the back of his neck again. “You just seem trustworthy to me. As for why you can trust me—that’s up to you really…”

Olive grimaced. “How did you know I was one…?”

Claire chuckled again. “Well, it was kind of obvious. You talked to yourself a lot, and the night we first met you pulled it some pretty unnatural moves. I mean, I know they teach you a lot of things in your royal academy, but you held your own against Felix that night and he’s been trained for his entire life. You hurt his ego quite a lot by the way.” 

Again, a wave of a hand.

“But you’ve stopped doing that now which is good. And it’s also good that the ELPIS member… that Izsak Wtorek—”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat, and found himself rubbing his throat.

“—who found out that you were a True Conductor is locked up in Ophiuchus now. He won’t tell the other members of ELPIS so you’re safe.”

“That’s not the only group we should be worrying about.”

Claire looked away from the window with a perplexed expression. 

“It’s not just ELPIS that’s after True Conductors,” Olive explained. “It’s… well… I don’t know who, but someone who’s connected to me encountered a saint candidate who knew the word ‘True Conductor’.”

“A saint candidate?” Claire’s frown deepened. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.” Olive glanced back at the other compartment. “She actually became less hostile when she found out that ‘my person’ was a True Conductor.” 

“That’s pretty strange,” was Claire’s only comment. 

“The saint candidate is also working for the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus,” Olive mumbled, “and we’ve been thinking she might be connected to ELPIS somehow or maybe another group also looking for us—”

“Just because it’s one saint candidate doesn’t mean that it’s the others,” Claire interjected, voice tight, eyes sharp. 

“I didn’t say that…” Olive frowned at Claire’s reaction, and Claire looked away from him in turn.

It seemed like a touchy subject. Too much of a hassle to address further. Better to drop it.

Claire seemed to appreciate the silence that followed, because he addressed Olive with a light-hearted smile next: “That ability of yours to conduct without a conductor is something else though. I don’t know any True Conductors who can do that.” He studied Olive for a moment. “Are you sure you shouldn’t try hiding it a bit? Like try using a conductor instead?”

“You don’t think I tried?” Olive grimaced. “I burned right through the thing just like that.” He snapped his fingers. 

Claire’s brows shot up, and he chuckled. “You’re quite terrifying, you know?” He tapped his chin as he squinted at him. “Are you having trouble controlling it—your conducting, I mean?”

Olive’s mind flashed to the young assassin, and nausea gripped his stomach.

Claire hummed. “Well, maybe the monks at the temple can give you a hand with that. Air Elementalist conducting is very different from fire Elementalist conducting—or so I’ve heard—so maybe leveraging the two will…” He shrugged. “I have no idea where I’m going with this, to be honest.” 

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to the temple. Air conducting is freer in a practical sense, while fire conducting has to be more controlled and precise.” Olive nodded, suppressing the nausea with a deep breath. He prepared to continue to address the subject when a thought—rather a realization—came at him suddenly. He unfolded himself from the pole he was leaning against and took a step forward. “Wait, forget about that—what about the syzygy? What is that even?” 

“What?” Claire frowned perplexed, un-crossing his arms and obviously startled by the change in conversation. “Syzygy? What’s that? Something to do with your conducting?”

“… Nevermind.” Olive frowned, folding back against the pole. After a beat, he said, “You’re awfully relaxed about being-hunted-down-by-ELPIS situation. It must be nice to be so carefree.”

Claire chuckled at this, but the sound was hollow. “Ollie, I know I’ll probably sound selfish by saying this but I don’t have the time to worry about things like that. I have my clan and my country to think about. I’m sure you understand, right?”

Olive shrugged.

“Anyway, the key here is to be careful.”

The clouds pulled away, revealing the bright of the sun and the looming mountains below. 


(    )

In the room with no windows, no doors, and no exits, the seven children dashed around in excitement.  It was a game of tag, it seemed. They wove around the candles littering the floor, stumbled over the stacks of books that rose up like pillars, and bumped into the bookcases lining the walls. 

Tau watched them go from where he sat alone at the board game table before he slammed his hand against his leg and jabbed a finger in their direction. “Stop running!”

The children froze and stared. 

“What is wrong with you kids nowadays?! First you run around acting like you own the entire place, and then what?! You’ll be taking this outside and disturbing the lives of all the upstanding common folk! Jaywalking, trespassing! All it takes is one slip-up, and you’ll be in and out of youth correctional centers for the rest of your life—”

“Leave it be, Tau,” came a familiar voice from the dark, “you have more important things to do. Besides you seven will take responsibility and clean after yourselves, right? Responsibility is everything.”

The seven children nodded fiercely before they continued their play as they looped around the room—this time carefully straightening the items that were out of place along the way. 

Tau sighed, pushed up his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, about ‘those important things.’ Unfortunately, I’m not getting anywhere even with my connections. Nothing on our package from Verga and nothing on that other vitae reservoir and generator conductor.”  

A page turn and a thoughtful hum in response. “I see, so we can’t rely on that then. That’s not unexpected. You were someone who was paid to look away from these types of affairs.”

Pushing his glasses up his nose again, Tau scowled but refrained from chasing the subject. “We still haven’t heard back from Omicron, Omega, and Beta either. Are you sure we should be moving forward with this, ‘leader’?”

“Beta’s and Omicron’s affairs are separate from us. And you know Omega is a cautious person. They won’t move until the time is right.” A flutter of another page. “Besides, Omicron never fails.”  


Sagittarius’s royal succession ceremonies are very elaborate and are celebrated all over the country. In order to be considered viable for the throne, an individual must be a direct descendant of the emperor or empress, be an air Elementalist, and obtain a State Conducting License. Near the end of the ruler’s reign, the crown princes and princesses of the nine clans of Sagittarius gather at the capital to initiate the selection proceedings. The final decision is made by the ruler, thus each clan tries their best to earn their favor. 

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

8.1: Cadence’s Honor (Dishonore)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

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

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

Thuds resounded through the near-empty casino.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi swallowed and nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

“That’s not a name!”

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

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

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

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

Luigi nodded fiercely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell him to buzz off,” Carl muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl glowered, taking a step forward.

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

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

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

“Arrest myself?!”

What a funny person.

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

“You—are you laughing?”

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

Vincente scrutinized her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis offered a musical chuckle in response.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh? That was random.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting customs.

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

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

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

Extreme tourist? That sounded a bit familiar…

“Uh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Already forgotten.”

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

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

***

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

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

Really, the city was terribly efficient.

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

So much for family.

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

“Fortuna, is everythin’ all—”

“I have a job for you, Morello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence froze and released the case.

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

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

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

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

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

Olive grimaced and turned away.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alma…”

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

“Hello, Cucciolo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alma remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alma…”

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

Her words were like a dream.

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

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

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

Cadence found herself pausing at her own thoughts.

Wait a moment.

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

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

She was fickle. That’s all it was. 

“Cadence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(    )

“It’s your move, Iota.”

“I know that, Tau.”

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

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

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

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

“Dammit!”

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

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

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

“Of course not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right, ‘leader’. Patience I can do.”

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


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

Sebastian Faux, former player at the Sognare

7.6: 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

7.4: Maria’s Hunt (Cacciatore)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured.

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

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

Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Piscese Waters

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

Strange. 

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

Annoying was always Ollie’s thought on that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria pressed the sword further with a thin smile. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain!” came a shout from behind.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Really?”

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

Morandi regarded her with an unreadable expression. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The city town Hapaira.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to sightsee,” said another. 

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

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

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

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

They set off in a cluster. 

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

There was not a single person in sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Golden Beast?” Maria perked up.  

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

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

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

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

The man stared at her silently. 

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

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

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

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

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

Renée flipped his ponytail over his shoulder

“Why does that sound so familiar?” 

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

Morandi cleared his throat. “Captain—”

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

Renée was rather… dramatic.

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

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

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

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

“Of course you wouldn’t…”

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

7.3: Werner’s Efficiency (Esitazione)

Re-cap:

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

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

Abschnitt 45, Capricornian-Argoan Border, Capricorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Efficiency and luxury were two different things. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless.

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

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

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

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

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

It was sad.

Werner hesitated. A grave mistake. 

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

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

The sight was startling. The occurrence, almost improbable. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—and he was swallowed into blackness. 

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

Goodnight, Werner. 

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

Who was that

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

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

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

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

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

“Werner…?” Nico tried.

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

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

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

How many had he lost?

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

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

Werner followed Gilbert’s gaze and froze. 

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

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

“What happened,” Werner repeated.

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

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

His palms itched at the thought. 

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

Sighing, Gilbert shook his head before he continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A phantom pain throbbed at Werner’s abdomen. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner frowned. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not a matter of trust. 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weingartner looked skeptical. “Fabrizzio cleared you?”

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

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

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

“Are you alright, sir?” 

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

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

Regardless, this spelled danger for Capricorn. 

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

“Like I’ve said, sir, I am fine.”

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

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

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

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

Wait. “Representative”? The dots connected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“Yes, I’ve met him once.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No trust for your fellow soldier, ‘ey?

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

This had nothing to do with trust. 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lie of omission. 

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

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

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

“I thought he was charming.” Nico chuckled. 

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

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

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

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

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

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, Beyond Edition

7.1: 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