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

7.2: Cadence’s Family (Conoscenti)

Re-cap:

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

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

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

Still.

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

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

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

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

Damn. Werner was rubbing off on her. 

A gondola passed beneath her distorting the reflection. 

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

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

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

“Perfect.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But appearances were deceiving.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence turned on her heels.

There she was. The girl.

Fortuna Romano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh. Not good. 

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

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

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

It was the boss. Ricardo Romano. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the old man playing at?

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

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

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

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

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

Saints, this was good.

Appearances. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers followed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers returned with his exit. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

But the noise from there was still not enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he was. The boy.

Ambrose Campana. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we are friends. What— 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho read it to her plainly— 

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

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

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

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

7.1: Olive’s Bravery (Codardia)

Re-cap:

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

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

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius

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

This was pointless.

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

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

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

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

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

Olive shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had not gone well. 

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

“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.

He was being gentler than usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Olive could see exactly why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready, your highness?”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not here.”

“Sir—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodhi Temple.

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

Suspicious.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Your highness?”

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

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

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

This was not the bookstore. 

Chance?

Olive turned his head to the left.

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

Their gazes met.

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

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

You shouldn’t be here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—

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

“Lieutenant?!” 

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

“Lieutenant…?”

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

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

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it. 

“Lieutenant?!”

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

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

“… what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Run. Run. Run. 

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

A pair of feet entered his periphery.

Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.

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

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

“—retreat?”

What?

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

“Werner.”

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

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

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

“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”

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

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

The full weight of what he had done sunk in. 

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.

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

***

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

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

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

 Saints. He was pathetic.

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

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

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

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

“It smells.”

Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”

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

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

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

“Hey, you home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pity in Nico’s eyes was infuriating. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Study for the—how old are you?!”

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

“Old man?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive reflexively glared. 

“Is the Lieutenant—”

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

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

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

Werner was going to be so pissed. 

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

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

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

What was going on?

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

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

The sounds meant nothing to him. 

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

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

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

Maria. Of course it was Maria.

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

“Only what Werner told me.” 

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

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

“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”

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

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

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

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

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

Klaus was gaping again.

Gilbert flourished his hands sarcastically. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Want to know. I like to observe—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beat of silence. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed. 

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was deep black.

*** 

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

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

Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—

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

—it was strange not feeling you—

—how are you all feeling?

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

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

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

“Your Highness!” 

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

“Are you feeling alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Claire?”

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

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

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

7.0: A Broker’s Concern (Malignità)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured. The six main characters have come together to save the Ariesian Prince from an assassination attempt made not only by the Capricornian Watch but also by the terrorist organization ELPIS. Virgo is out of isolation, the traitorous Verga has been removed, the missing peacekeeping agent has been found, the Watch has been disbanded, and now…

Twin Cities, Gemini

There was always “a word on the street” in the Twin Cities of Gemini. There was always something big happening in the city. Rumors, tall tales, gossip, and the like circulated through alleyways and late-night casinos like currency. Gossip for gossip, rumor for rumor. All done without an air of professionalism. Parsing through not only the truths and lies within these things professionally was what Astante did for a living.

For example, there was a rumor on the street that he was the best at his job. The best information broker in town was what they called him. While this was an interesting rumor, no one would pay good money for it.

Mulling about this to himself in his office, Astante emptied out his favorite box of dominoes onto his desk.

People in this city were more interested in other matters. Such matters that could easily tip the delicate balance of the city. Yes. The east half of the city and the west half of the city were on opposite ends of a wonderfully crafted scale that had been in place long before he took up this profession. It was a delicate balance that he watched carefully. He took note of even the most minute shifts, even the smallest tips of the scale.

Sighing, the information broker selected a domino from the pile and with careful precision balanced it upright on his table.

It started off with an interesting woman dropping by his office without appointment and requesting information on a renowned mercenary group that operated in the south-eastern countries of Signum. In exchange for this information, she offered him a large suitcase full of currency from different countries. Usually, he’d ask people for a piece of information as well, but she was so entertaining that he let her go with just that.

Astante had a scheduled appointment right after that with a young man who wanted information on the schedules of the leaders of a certain group. The young man claimed that he wanted an audience with the Foxmans for a job application and was tired of queuing for weeks for them. A terrible lie. So terrible, that Astante decided to go right along with it.

The Foxman brothers were a small crime organization that had a reasonable amount of power in the city due to their control over the city’s docks. There were three of them all together with the eldest Allen serving as the main head. They dealt in shipping all types of black-market goods in and out of the city and had a friendly business relationship with the Romano Family of the east side. At the end of each week, the three brothers would come together for a round of cards at the Rosario Round, a casino that served as one of their money-laundering fronts.

In exchange for this information regarding the brothers, the broker requested information about the changing relations occurring between the Campana Family of the west side of the city and the Romano Family from the liar. As usual, his lying patron was startled at his request but begrudgingly gave it when he learned that he wouldn’t receive the information he wanted unless he gave some himself. That was the art of brokering, after all.

Three days later, a rumor circulated the streets. One of the Foxman brothers had apparently been ambushed in the back alleyway outside of the Rosario Round. Of the five men who had accompanied him, only two had survived. The brother was left in critical condition.

Frowning as he recalled this, Astante continued to line up the dominoes.

Following this chatter, he had found himself booked for every day the following week. His first client was unsurprisingly the other two Foxman brothers. He was nearly thrown from his chair when he informed them that he had divulged their patterns to another patron. He was almost thrown out the window when he declined to tell them who requested such information.

“It’s policy,” he had told them. “Client protection.” In turn, they refused to tell him about their current relations between the Romano Family and the Campana Family.

That was fine, the broker supposed. He hadn’t given them information they hadn’t already known anyways. Besides, several days later that he had received that information from a member of the Campana Family who wanted to know if the Foxman brother who was stabbed truly survived the incident.

An hour after that Foxman encounter, he had been greeted with yet another unscheduled visit by a Saggitarian tourist who requested information on the best touring sites in Gemini and Aquarius. As the Saggitarian put it, he wanted the “good, secret, one-of-a-kind” locations that no one knew about. Which was an astounding request in itself. The Sagittarian requested locations that were “so jaw-droppingly inspiring that laying eyes on it sent people to hospitals.” A strange request to an information broker, but Astante was so entertained that he let the man have the information free of charge.

That too was surely something akin to a domino, he thought as he placed another piece down near the edge of his desk.

He was starting to run out of room. He glanced at the newspaper laying beside the domino he’d just placed. The headline took over half the front page—

TWIN CITIES MAYOR LUCIANO VARGAS MURDERED IN PRESENCE OF BODYGUARDS. WHAT DOES THIS SPELL FOR OUR CITY?

The fine-print article below it detailed the events of the mayor’s death. To summarize, one moment the mayor was in one piece, and in the next his limbs were scattered across his office. A locked-room mystery.

Astante brushed the paper to the ground and continued to line up the dominoes in the cleared space.

The rumors surrounding the mayor’s death came aplenty. Each one was more outrageous than the next.

The dockworkers and young kids had speculated that the Golden Beast was behind it. There was no other explanation for such a sudden and grizzly death. The Golden Beast was a story that started off as a small sea tale that had exploded out into a full-on popular urban legend. A tale about a merciless monster that disappeared people in a flash. He knew, however, that the spread of this legend could be traced to a renowned swindler who often took offers from the Romano Family.

After laying down the last domino, Astante leaned back to admire his work.

Of course, those were just rumors. Mere speculation. And although there was no such thing as a useless rumor and groundless speculation, the truth of the matter lay in a completely opposite direction.

This was all tied to three peculiar visitors who came to see him recently: the woman with the snake tattoo on the left side of her face, the man who seemed to have a book attached to his right arm, and that smiling saint candidate.

However, there was always a shade of truth in rumors. And the truth from that rumor of the Golden Beast was that normal people were no longer part of this pile-up.

With a hum, Astante reached out and flicked one of the dominoes at the end of the lineup. As he spun in his chair, he tuned his ears to the wonderful crescendo off the dominoes falling one after the other.

“With the Twin Cities left mayorless in the wake of this tragedy, many residents are left concerned on what this means for the safety of their families. Some are calling for a more detailed investigation of the mayor’s murder by the Twin Cities’s Police Officer Comissario Vincente Giustizia, while others are looking to the future and debating who should next take up the reigns.

We interviewed a trio of young businessmen on the street on what they thought of the mayor’s death. Although two declined to comment, one gave the following statement: ‘With the mayor gone, maybe there’s still hope for this place. Maybe we can now move forward.’

By this statement alone, the division of our city is clear. 

Former Mayor Vargas leaves behind a loving wife and three year old daughter.”

The Daily Duo, 03.11.1941