Chapters

Four (2/5): morello bridge

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she would say, her porcelain fingers flying across the bone-white keys. Her clear laugh would chime through the air as she’d look down with a coy smile.

Cadence would tune her ears to the sharp chords that the woman would play and try to jump in to play with her. But…

She would always be too fast.

Alma, that was. “Just Alma”. Alma, the young entertainer who had spotted an even younger Cadence peering at her playing piano in a dimly lit bat through a frosted window.

Yes, Alma was always too fast. At everything. Cadence could never hope to keep up with her, and that was what made Cadence want to reach her even more. And even though Cadence hadn’t seen Alma in years, Cadence still wanted to reach her. It was why Cadence was in the business she was in.

But Alma was always with her in a spiritual sense— with her lessons and the like. After all, only a couple years later after Alma’s otherservices had been bought out by a mysterious suitor affiliated with the Romano Family and Alma’d disappeared from the city, Cadence herself would be saying, “Adapt, adapt, adapt.” To Nico, of course, when she taught him how to play the piano. She was always too fast for him though.

Adaptation…

That was another bible she followed. Other than that cost-benefit analysis.

Adaptation was the key to survival in the Twin Cities. Never reject anything. Never fully accept anything. Pride was debt. Loyalty was interest. Always change, never stay still. Appearances were deceiving.

Even with that being said, however, Cadence found it a bit harder to adapt to her current predicament. Being psychically connected to five other people took some time getting used to, after all.

Most of them were pretty easy to read though.

There was the Ariesian prince. A brat, for sure, but probably only because he was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. The kid was abrasive and rejected people like it was second nature to him—on the surface at least. Cadence could see the truth. That desperation to reach out for another person and to be reached out to himself. A typical, angsty kid. Give him enough talking to paired with pulling away, and he’d warm up to her real quick. Calculated negligence. That aside, being buddy-buddy with a prince obviously came with its perks.

The Capricornian Lieutenant was a different story. Cold and unyielding and distant. That was the problem with people who held positions in the middle-rung of authority. They weren’t high up enough to bend to compliments and praise, and they weren’t down the ladder enough to be desperate to scramble higher no matter the cost. The man’s stony disposition didn’t help either. He barked out commands with such authority and presence that made Cadence want to shed a tear for the lackeys under him. But he was hiding something, Cadence could tell. And people with secrets were easy to play a tune to.

Atienna was something else altogether. She was mysterious, and her intentions seemed to hover just beyond Cadence’s reach. Just like Alma. Just when Cadence thought she had Atienna playing to her tune, she’d find that she was the one playing to Atienna’s tune instead. But that made things interesting.

Maria, on the other hand… Well, the Captain was a complete wild card. Cadence got a headache even thinking about her.

And Jericho… Jericho had a one-track mind. He was easy. And he came with the perks of being an Ophiuchian Agent. If Cadence played her cards right, he could be her free pass out of sticky situations.

In this case, this whole connection thing came with more benefits than costs. Of course, it was still risky. Having her thoughts and feelings open was a downside but playing by half-truths was the way to bypass these issues.

After the whole fiasco with Olive’s personal assassination investigation was over and done with, Cadence had begun to focus on her larger task at hand: Verga’s job. She’d probably annoyed Olive enough to make him not want to look in her direction even if they did synchronize completely. And Atienna seemed busy at her end so she wouldn’t interfere either. It was smooth sailing from here.

Currently Cadence was donning the disguise of the recently deceased Duccio and making her way through the city streets. Morning had come and gone. She’d stopped by the Abaccio Hotel after she’d managed to abruptly “remember” Jericho’s confrontation with Matilda. When she checked with the bellboy at the front desk, he’d informed her that the girl had departed just that morning. Just her luck, she had thought. She’d just exited the hotel lobby while thinking this when Jericho abruptly appeared in front of her.

“What are you doing?” He’d asked.

“Workin’,” she’d said with a shrug. “Life-on-the-line kinda deal but I’ll handle it.”

“The person you’re working for.” Jericho’s eyes seemed to glow in an unnerving way. “He is working with ELPIS.”

A familiar burning heat sparked its way into her chest. It was suffocating, and she could feel it frying the edges of her reason.

That was the trouble with this connection. It went both ways. And she couldn’t control what information went and came. But she could adapt.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she’d said to him coaxingly. “I’m plannin’ to find out all about his ELPIS deal while I’m at it. The kids delivered the goods for Verga so they probably know a thing or two about what exactly’s goin’ on in that department.” She offered him a placating hand raise. “I’m not pro-terrorist. Don’t worry.”

“And the children,” Jericho said suddenly without further elaboration.

“Well, I’m sure Verga’ll just give ‘em the old Geminian slap on the wrist,” Cadence had said after putting on a sympathetic expression. “But that’s a good thing. Teach ‘em to keep their noses clean. I mean, he has a daughter. He’d be the devil if he’d do anything bad when he has kids of his own.” She waved the thought off and nodded to Jericho. “Enough about that. How you feelin’?”

“… I’ve been thinking a lot since my body is not functional at the moment but my consciousness still is.”

“Any philosophical thoughts you’ve been thinkin’ about that you wanna throw onto the table?” Cadence asked jokingly.

“We were children,” was all he’d said.

Cadence had cocked her head, caught off guard by the odd statement. “Yeah, we were.”

And just like that, Jericho had faded back into his blackness.

Yeah. Jericho was weird.

Cadence brushed the memory of the encounter from her mind as she continued forward through the crowd of pedestrians ambling through the walkways. She went over a canal and crossed beneath a high bridge where a couple of street performers were taking a breather. As she passed them, she couldn’t help but let her gaze linger.

When her destination glowed its way into her point of view fifteen minutes later, she slowed to a stop.

The place that Matilda had said was their next target. The Geminorium Gamma. The Foxman brothers’ restaurant front.

It loomed like a behemoth compared to the smaller buildings beside it. A pair of gold-gilded white pillars rose up at its entrance and held up a stone black plaque that she assumed read its name in swirling letters. The light that glowed from the windows were warm and acted as a rosy backdrop to the silhouettes dining inside with their polished silverware and ridiculously designed plates.

The restaurant looked packed. Good for them.

Cadence turned away from the dazzling building and towards the sidewalk that ran opposite from it. It was dotted with only a few pedestrians and a couple of tourists who ogled the restaurant with wistful eyes. Not what Cadence was looking for but her intuition told her that this was the place to be.

Intuition. Hm.

She noticed a thin alleyway no wider than a meter hidden behind a collection of trash bins on the walkway. Shoving her hands into her pockets, she slowly approached the mouth of the alley and peered in. And she almost had a heart attack.

Huddled there just behind the bins was a small body, legs drawn up against the chest and arms wrapped around the legs. A butterfly-shaped birthmark blossomed on the pale face that peered out from the darkness towards the restaurant opposite.

“Matilda!” Cadence shout-whispered.

The girl blinked slowly as if waking up from a dream before her gaze rose to meet Cadence’s—rather Duccio’s face. “Duccio!” The girl exclaimed. “You’re all right! I tried to reach you but… I thought…”

“I’m alright. Don’t worry.” Cadence scrambled over the bin before crouching down beside the girl. “Thought I’d find you here,” She sighed, glancing down the alleyway as she shoved her hands in her pockets. She scanned the darkness behind them. “The others aren’t with you? What about Marzia?”

Matilda looked away. “No… I… the ones that I could contact… I told them to lay low. But I couldn’t reach Marzia. She might be…”

Cadence reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. “If she’s not here, then she’s out of the city. Don’t worry. I know her.”

Matilda met her eyes and then looked away towards the restaurant.

Cadence followed her gaze for a moment before asking, “What are you doing here? After what…”—and here, Cadence allowed her voice to crack and she looked away—“w-what…. happened yesterday… they probably have people around guardin’ the place. It’s dangerous.”

Matilda shook her head. “No. They’ve already forgotten about us. I can tell. You don’t think about buying bug spray for a bug after you think you’ve killed it.”

“Tilda…”

“I don’t really know,” Matilda whispered quietly. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“I’m here for you, Tilda. Whenever you come up with another plan, I—”

Matilda shook her head. “I can’t ask any more from you. Not after what happened. You’re the only one out of all of us who knows how to use a conductor like that. If we lose you, then…”

So Duccio had been the one to set off the bomb. Talk about an ironic retribution.

“Even when I see all of them in there with their families being happy,” Matilda mumbled suddenly ;, “I still want to blow the entire place up. Actually, the more I stare at them, the more I want to do it. Maybe they’ll know then. About what kind of people they’re supporting. And maybe they’ll know just like me: that I’m out here, and they’re in there.”

Cadence paused and looked at her. She was still staring holes into the restaurant. Pretty murderous thoughts for—what—a fourteen year old. Well, that was what they called desire.

Slowly, Matilda lifted her head and met Cadence’s gaze. “Am I a bad person?”

This wasn’t the first time Cadence had been asked this sort of question, and she figured it wouldn’t be the last. People always needed reassurance of their deeds, but in reality…

“It’s not that there’s good or bad,” Cadence said with a sigh. “It’s all just circumstance. There’s no use applying morals to situations. That’s just self-righteous. There’s no good or bad in the world. There’s just people makin’ choices and tryin’ to justify themselves.”

Matilda was staring at her now.

Cadence scratched her neck. “When I can’t sleep, I think about weird things—”

Cadence froze. There it was. That familiar feeling. Deja vu.

Suddenly, abruptly, she’d become sharply synchronized with someone else. A coolness crept along her back, and for a moment her vision went double. In the far distance in her mind’s eye, she could see a familiar cabin filled with tables toppled with items that looked a bit familiar. Conductors, packets of v-cigs, and the like. In the far corner of the cabin was a piano. At the other end of the cabin was—

Werner.

Shoot.

She really did not need someone asking her if she was really going to be putting these children under the bus. Her life was on the line here, after all, which meant that their lives was on the line—

“What you do and say is of no concern to me,” was all the soldier said, not even turning to face her in his mind’s eye.

Well then.

Cadence turned to face the girl and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Matilda. It doesn’t have to be over yet.”

Matilda glanced at the restaurant. “What do you mean?”

“When I was running away… I came across Verga. He works under the Romanos. I heard him talking. He’s the one who’s behind this. Not the Foxmans or the Romanos. That bastard’s been stealin’ the conductors from them and makin’ us sell and deliver them for him just to throw us away when he doesn’t need us anymore.”

“But…” Matilda’s eyes widened. “Wha—if that’s true… If it was him… then… the TwinStars Pub… we…”

“It’s okay,” Cadence said, squeezing her shoulders. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I found where he’s hidin’. The Vitae Roll. He’s always at that joint, and he’s so cocky that he goes there without anybody with him.”

“Duccio… what are you saying?”

“We can end this once and for all. Get revenge for everyone. For us.” Cadence stared deeply into her eyes. “But we need everyone who’s left to do it.”

Matilda pulled away from her. “I don’t know, Duccio… That sounds… too easy…. And after everything that’s happened…”

Hm.

“We’ve lost so much already, Matilda,” Cadence said. “And it’s not fair that we’re the only ones who know it.”

Matilda stiffened.

“I know an associate of the Foxmans and the Romanos. A street swindler,” Cadence reassured her. “We’re on good terms. I’ll tell her everything after. I promise. I got this. We’ll be safe.”

Matilda stared at her for a long quiet moment before turning back to look at the restaurant. She bit her thumb. “One last time… tomorrow. Let’s do it. ”

And that was that—

But they were children.

Cadence froze again.

Werner.

It wasn’t so much a thought as a feeling. It wasn’t so much a feeling of absolute disgust as she’d been expecting but an entirely different feeling altogether. Regret. An emotion that Cadence always ignored.

Yeah, they were children, Cadence tried to argue—to herself mostly. But that meant nothing in this kind of place.


When Cadence fell into her bed that night, she fell into a restless sleep. Rolling images attacked her in-between periods of black emptiness, and she wasn’t sure whether they were dreams or memories. Or nightmares.

There was Alma tapping away on the piano as the crowd cheered in the background. There was Cadence’s first meeting with the Foxmans when they were all younger—with Francis extending a hand out to her and her cheekily extending a stack of cards back. There was her, the Foxmans, Nico, and the other kids running wildly through the streets and then piling together their pickpocket winnings beneath the Dioscuri Bridge. There was laughter, thrill, danger, freedom.

And then there was Alma being dragged away into the darkness by a shadowy silhouette. There were the Foxmans’ watching calmly, distantly, as a man tied to a chair was beaten to a pulp with a pipe in front of them. There was Nico, wiping his patient’s blood that had splattered onto his face with a rag.

And then there was Ricardo Romano standing above her as the rain pelted down harsh on his bright yellow-orange umbrella. Everything was gray around them, but when he extended his hand outwards, the world gained a bit more color.

When Cadence awoke and cracked open her eyes, she knew she was not alone. She sat up from bed and cast a glance to the side where Werner stood by the window.

“How much did you see?” She asked, too tired to put on a smile.

He shifted where he stood, not looking at her. “I didn’t see your parents.” Well, that was an awkward response.

“Well, neither did I.”

Werner stiffened. “I apologize… that was not my intention—to see those private things.”

Cadence couldn’t help but cackle at the sight and criss-crossed her legs. “Well, it ain’t a big secret.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

Cadence sighed and paced over to where Werner stood. The man took two steps back in turn. She didn’t pay it any mind and instead stared out the window. Instead of seeing the small cobble-stone square that she usually greeted early in the morning, she saw what Werner saw in his surroundings. A window and a thicket of thin trees in the dark beyond that. She could tell by his reflection in the said window that he was still in that room with all the tables.

“Doin’ inventory?”

“Yes.”

Well, he was being friendlier than usual. Was it because he’d seen some of her dreams and memories? What—was he a softie after all?

Absentmindedly, she said, “Y’know, bein’ in this business isn’t my end goal. It’s just a stepping stone.”

“Is that so?” He was looking at her now, almost curiously.

“Yeah, just you watch. In a couple years or so you’ll see me playin’ on the Ophiuchian Way. I’ll have one of those fancy v-ehicles and a big house. Everyone’ll know my name.”

And Alma would be at her side.

“Those are high expectations you’ve set yourself,” Werner noted. “It’s good to set the bar high.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Cadence grinned. She thrummed her fingers against the window sill absentmindedly. “Did ya see how I met Ricardo Romano?”

“Ricardo Romano— he is the don of the crime family you sometimes work for, correct?” Werner said slowly. “I don’t believe I have.”

Cadence cracked a grin. “I picked his pockets.”

Werner was frowning now.

“He didn’t realize it until later but when he did he sent out the hunting dogs. When he found me, I thought I was a goner.” She turned to him and chuckled. “But y’know what? He offered me a damn job instead of a bullet! I rejected, of course. Said I’d rather have a full course meal, and boy did he treat me.” She shook her head. “Still dont get why.”

“But you are working with him now.”

That was what the guy got out of that?

“Yeah….” Cadence felt the smile fall from her face as Alma flashed in her mind. “Got a little bit desperate. But it ain’t bad.”

Does she not feel any shame by betraying those she’s worked for?

“Uh, Lieutenant, sir, our thoughts are kinda linked so even if ya don’t verbalize, I can still hear what you’re thinkin’.”

Werner’s eyes widened a fraction of a centimeter, and Cadence thought he looked a bit embarrassed. It must have been a fluke, because he met her gaze coolly a beat after— “Things are seldom held together or maintained for long without loyalty. Dreams included.”

“I get ya,” Cadence agreed, “but I mean, our lives are on the line here. If I don’t do it, Verga’ll kill me. Even if they get to him first, he’s already probably hired someone to kill me. He’s meticulous.”

“I see.”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re like my real family.” Cadence shrugged before she winked. “I’m like a lone cat, y’know. Ya feed it but ya don’t take it in.”

Werner stared into her. Man, he had such an intense gaze. It took every ounce of Cadence’s willpower to hold it. Abruptly, however, he turned away from her.

“I have to make my rounds now.” He nodded curtly. “Goodbye.”

And that was that. Or so they both thought.

As he moved out the cabin, Cadence found herself being pulled along with him. He stopped short just outside and turned to give her a look. She responded with a shrug and a “not like I can help it”.

He held his ground for the better part of a minute before he gave in and stalked towards another cabin a little further down the dirt path. She followed him and glanced at the two Capricornian soldiers standing guard there. A woman with a steely gaze and a man. Brunhilde Falk and Wilhelm Fischer, Werner’s mind provided. They saluted Werner upon his arrival—which Cadence found bizarre—and moved aside for him to enter the cabin.

The cabin was dimly lit, containing about six beds, four of which were occupied. The people in the beds were in uniform but in a uniform different from the one Werner wore. They looked completely worn out—the people in the bed. Like how the gamblers at the casino looked when they’d bet the last of what they brought with them and lost.

Prisoners, Werner’s mind supplied.

Man, Cadence thought as she looked them over, it would suck to be a prisoner.

Then she saw him.

And her entire world froze over.

Was it the chill from Werner’s surroundings that was leaking into the warmth of her home, or was it the stone-cold realization dawning on her? She didn’t quite know. But.

No, no, no, no. Anybody but him.

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she had told him all the years ago. But she didn’t mean it like this. That idiot—

“Nico…?”

Four (1/5): chance direction

Good morning, my lovelies!

Olive snapped up in bed, heart hammering in his chest, as his eyes darted around the room. Sunlight was just beginning to spill onto his carpet from the window, and his bird was chirping its morning song at the foot of his bed.

Damn Maria.

Good morning, Maria, came Atienna’s response at the back of his mind.

Olive fell back in bed and closed his eyes tight. Just as sleep was beginning to claim him again, however, he was greeted with the rattling sounds of morning street traffic that once again echoed at the back of his mind. From Cadence’s end. It had to be.

What in the world was going on? Everything from their end was so clear now. The sounds, the colors—if he closed his eyes, he could practically see it and touch it.

He opened his eyes and glared at the ceiling. No use sleeping now.

He swung his legs off his bed, fed his bird, and then made towards the door.

“You’re up early, Ollie.”

Olive paused and turned his head. Lavi. She was sitting on the windowsill looking out at the courtyard below.

“Did something good happen?” She continued absentmindedly. 

“More like a series of unfortunate events,” Olive muttered.

“Really?” Lavi turned away from the window. “I actually liked your new friends.”

Not friends.

“It was nice speaking to someone other than you for once,” she continued, somewhat cheeky. “I mean, you’re so grumpy all the time.”

Olive froze in place. What was this? She’d never said anything like this before. Not even once. She had always just been there by his side as if she had never left, always acting as if all was right in the world. A ghost. An Illusion. Something that felt nothing and only existed as a reminder. 

But they had confirmed it, hadn’t they? The other five. 

She was more than an illusion that only he could see.

“Lavi, you—all this time…” Olive whispered, taking a step towards her. “Have you… are you lonely?”

“Huh?” Lavi frowned. After twirling a dark lock between her fingers, she looked down at her feet. “I guess it does get boring sometimes,” she admitted, pulling her knees to her chest. “I was never an extrovert like you but I’m not a hermit either, you know.” 

A terrible yet familiar feeling seized his chest. 

How could he have not realized?

“If that’s the case then…” Olive swallowed, looking away. “I’ll find a way to make it so that… you can talk to people whenever you want. I promise.” He looked up at her just to find her staring at him rather vacantly.

There was a stretch of silence. 

“Okay,” she said with a strange smile, and she disappeared. 


When Olive cracked open the door to his room, he found that it was Samuel and another guard who were posted by his door. Trystan was nowhere to be seen. 

“Oh, your highness, you’re up early…” Samuel said as he noticed Olive peeking out the doorway.

“Like I could sleep with all the racket you’re making out here,” Olive said, slipping out into the hall. “Well, I guess it’s fine since it looks like you’re temporarily free from the dog leash that Trystan has around your neck.” He looked around with disinterest. “Where is he by the way?”

Samuel and the other guard exchanged nervous looks. 

“About that…” Samuel said quietly. “Trystan’s been stripped of his position as head royal guard.”

Olive started. “What? Why? Because of what happened yesterday? That was my fault. I just passed out. As much as he’d like to, he doesn’t have the power to knock me out without touching me.”

The two exchanged looks again.

“No, it wasn’t that, your highness.” Samuel clenched the conductor that hung at his side. “Trystan has been arrested for…. treason.”

Treason…?

“They found evidence linking him to your assassination attempt,” Samuel continued. “When he was called in for his conductor inspection and questioning—well—it was all laid out there.”

A ringing began in Olive’s ears, and he felt his blood run cold.

“The conductor-type and conducting-type that he uses matched the one used on you. Plus, the timeline matched up with his transfer to the royal palace and…” Samuel looked away. “Well, everyone serving as a royal guard knows… During his days at the academy, he was very vocal about his views on the royal family and officials. It was so obvious. I can’t believe we didn’t see it.”

Olive remained silent.

“Everything is alright now, your highness,” Samuel said gently. “He tried to get close to you as head royal guard to probably finish the job he failed to do. It’s a good thing that he’s gone.” 

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt. “The Ophiuchian Agents work pretty quickly for all the trash talk everyone likes to give them.”

“No, it was actually the Investigation Bureau,” the other guard supplied. “They were running a parallel investigation themselves.”

Olive started at this information.

“At the moment the IB is trying to send the peacekeepers back to Ophiucus since the thing they came here for is over and done with,” Samuel said. “But, you know Ophiuchians. They always want to have control—”

“I’m hungry,” Olive interjected. “Let’s get breakfast.”


The chairs lining the long table within the dining room were empty as usual, although the table itself was full. Eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruits, yogurt parfaits—the surface of the table was completely cluttered with them. 

Olive settled himself down at a random chair and began to pick at the food with his fork.

Samuel and the other guard that had been posted at his door were standing a little ways away by the wall. At the opposite end of the room was another set of guards. All four of them seemed to be at ease. Olive hadn’t seen the royal guards relaxed like this in weeks. Having the weight of the assassination investigation and being suspects themselves abruptly removed from their shoulders must do wonders for the stress lines, Olive thought.

Well, it all seems a little too convenient to be true.

Right. It would be a slightly different story of Izsak and Gabrielle had closed the case but if it was the Investigation Bureau—wait.

Olive shook his head. There wasn’t any point in thinking about this. He knew that for sure. So if he knew that, then… who had thought otherwise…?

Who was here?

Olive scanned the room carefully as a vague sensation of deja vu crept along the corners of his mind. 

“So, this is the kinda stuff royalty gets treated with.”

Olive nearly jumped as the voice within his mind abruptly resounded right next to his ear. Leaning with an elbow propped up against the table to Olive’s right was one grinning Cadence Morello. She picked up an apple from the fruit tray and took a bite.

Olive blinked.

And then he realized that he was the one taking the bite, not her.

He frowned and put the apple she had made him pick up down. He glanced at the guards. As expected, they didn’t seem to register anything out of the ordinary.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” she said with a mild wince. 

What was she doing here?

Cadence shrugged as she turned around and leaned against the table with crossed arms. “I’m actually preparin’ for a job and decided to hit my favorite bar just beforehand. Was drinkin’ with some tourists and found myself here.”

There was a slight throb at Olive’s temple followed by a series of images and sounds. The first was of Cadence entering a brightly lit bar. The next was of her sitting in a booth surrounded by a group of young men and women marveling at the bar’s interior and saying something about the beauty of Geminian architecture. After that came the image of Cadence pulling out a deck of cards and setting it on the table. And then one of Cadence pulling a man’s wallet out from his pocket as she threw an arm around his shoulder. The last image—Olive somehow knew—was what Cadence was going through at that very moment. 

Classy. 

“What should I call ya by the way?” Cadence gestured to Olive. “Are you stickler for titles or do you wanna be called somethin’ else?” She raised her hands. “Just wanna get along with everyone since we’re here together.”

Olive sighed.

“Alright, your majesty. Then it’s free real estate with nicknames,” Cadence chortled. “Anyways, I couldn’t help but notice your predicament.”

It wasn’t really a predicament. 

Olive blinked, and his surroundings abruptly changed. He found himself in front of the booth Cadence was seated in. He could see the flashy jewelry worn by the people seated at her table—none of whom acknowledged him—to a startlingly clear degree, and he could hear the faint clinks of glass and silverware in the background. There was a disgustingly strong smell of v-cig smoke in the air.

Olive knew that in reality he was still sitting at the table back at Aries, and he could feel the sweetness of the parfait that he’d just spooned into his mouth. Still, it felt strange.

With an air of disinterest, he examined Cadence’s card game with the tourists. What was this? Poker?

I’ve got a good eye for people—comes with my profession, Cadence’s thoughts echoed in Olive’s mind as she flashed the woman across from her with a charming smile. Trystan—that’s tall, dark, and handsome, right? From what I can go off of from what I’ve seen, he’s a cherry boy. Honor and duty type of guy. And a school boy playin’ warrior.

Olive watched as she dealt the cards to the tourists. She placed a bet of fifty Geminian Cens.

Definitely not the type of person to try an assassination attempt. Wouldn’t want that on his record. 

The others placed their bets in what appeared to be Aquarian Dracul. 

“The Investigation Bureau thought otherwise, but maybe you’re right. Maybe I should be listening to the words of someone who’d cheat tourists out of their money instead of the state police,” Olive retorted. 

I may not know much about politics but I know enough to not trust a politician. Cadence increased her wager. And I’m pretty sure those are more of your thoughts than mine.

The tourists exchanged nervous looks. Some folded. Others clung to their cards with grins.

Anyways, cherry boy was obviously framed. Cadence increased her wager again, while patting the woman to her left on the shoulder and simultaneously, subtly pulling off the woman’s silver necklace and pocketing it. 

“What’s the point in telling me about this? Not like I can do anything. The IB already made its decision. It has nothing to do with you,” Olive muttered.

Well, the point is that your assassin is still out there and you don’t have a royal guard that’ll fly to your side on command anymore. Cadence made eye-contact with him. You’re not tellin’ me you don’t even feel a little bit worried about tall-dark-and-handsome? Not a bit of righteous justice coursin’ through your veins?

Olive frowned. He didn’t want to be hearing about that from someone like Cadence. She was probably just concerned with the possibility of her dying along with him.

Man, kid, you really don’t pull your punches, do you? Cadence raised her hand and leaned over the table to order another round of drinks from the bar. When she pulled back, she somehow managed to unfasten the wristwatch from the man sitting across from her and tucked in her palm. 

How in the world were these people not seeing this? Olive wondered. It was kind of impressive.

Anyways, shouldn’t you be a bit more concerned about dyin’? Or is this just how kids are nowadays?

“Why are you calling me a kid when you’re one yourself?” Olive returned.

Cadence’s smile cracked for a moment but she brought it back up easily. Look, I’ll admit it. I don’t wanna die. But separately from that, I don’t want you to die either. I get easily attached—what can I say?

Cadence finally revealed her cards as did two of the other tourists who had not folded. Judging by the tourists’ ecstatic faces and cheers—

“You lost,” Olive noted.

Did I? Cadence winked and tapped her full pockets.

Olive blinked.

The bar scene slowly faded away from his vision, and the dining hall came more into focus in front of him. He’d been working on an omelet the entire time he’d been speaking with Cadence. It was odd—being present in more than one place and being vaguely aware of it. 

Cadence was back standing at his left, hands on hips.

“I do think it does warrant some looking into,” came a familiar, sudden, quiet voice to his right. “Being wrongly accused and arrested is a bit pitiable, don’t you think? But it’s ultimately your decision, Olive.”

Olive didn’t need to turn his head to see who it was. Atienna. Cadence offered her a tip of her hat at her sudden arrival. 

“You two must have a lot of free time on your hands,” Olive muttered with a sigh. “Only if all normal adult life was like that.”

“Thought you said I was a kid,” Cadence returned cheekily. “But really—”

“Fine. I’ll look into it,” Olive sighed, rising to a stand. “I probably won’t be able to do anything but I don’t want your deaths on my hands—”

“Your highness?”

Olive jumped in surprise. Samuel was standing right behind him with a puzzled expression. 

“Were you speaking to me sir?” Samuel asked. “I couldn’t hear you from my post.”

Olive looked to his left and right. Atienna and Cadence were gone. Of course.


It wasn’t hard to give Samuel and the other guard the slip when they brought Olive to the royal palace upon his request. They weren’t as tightly wound as Trystan nor were they as keen as Alexander. In fact, as soon as they arrived inside the main entrance hall, the two immediately began to speak jovially with the other guards present.

It was expected. They weren’t exactly the most attentive before or during the assassination incident. 

Olive waited for the guards to start talking about Trystan and how they had seen his betrayal coming before Olive leisurely made his exit.

People love to gossip, came Cadence’s observation.

Really. How did she have this much free time on her hands, Olive thought to himself as he slipped through a door that led to the stairwell. He peered up, squinting at the stretch of carpeted red that extended up numerous zigzagging staircases. He then glanced down and found the same red zigzagging downwards. 

Okay, so you wanted to visit your family. That’s really cute of ya, but what does this have to do with the whole Trystan and assassin thing?

“The royal dungeon is beneath the palace,” Olive sighed. “It’s where Trystan is being kept and interrogated, probably.”

Saints. You keep a dungeon beneath your royal palace? Monarchies are really somethin’ else.

Olive waved away the thought and began his descent down the stairs. He moved quickly, but quietly. Tense. As he went deeper and deeper down, the decorative walls were replaced with bare unpainted ones and the carpet traded for hard concrete flooring. 

Olive paused as loud clanging echoed from below him. He pressed his back against the left wall and continued slower. When he reached the next floor space, he peered cautiously around the corner. A great oak door. The light leaking from the space beneath the door was warm. There was a sweet smell wafting out.

The kitchen. 

He quickly passed this area and descended further.

It was after three more levels that he reached an absurdly long set of stairs. It seemed to go on for miles, and he began to become self-conscious of his labored breathing as he continued down. As he neared the stair’s bottom, he began to hear a sound other than his panting.

Stomping leather boots. 

He paused just in front of the threshold where the floor level met the stairway. 

It was dim here. The floor was made of cobblestone, the walls of brick. There were wooden tables draped in royal red sheets along the walls, and a desk was placed at the very corner. Large pillars ran from the floor to the high rise ceilings.  It was a little bit too far for him to see it from this angle, but he could just barely make out the fringes of where the wrought iron door leading to the jail cell room stood.  

Voices and footsteps drifted towards him.

“—it was really Trystan. I always had a bad feeling about him when we were together at the academy.”

“Right? He was always so snooty. Talkin’ about how reliant we’ve become on Ophiuchus—look at him now! Caught by not Ophiucus but by us—ha!”

“Yeah, he was only popular there because his grades were kinda good and he was kinda okay with his conductor. Nothin’ special.”

Three pairs of footsteps began to drift away.

Olive darted forward, hurtling towards the table that was just across the room. He scrambled to the floor and rolled underneath the tablecloth before clamping his hand over his mouth. Damn it—this was so stupid. 

What’s with all the sneakin’? Can’t ya just use your authority to just waltz in there? 

“I’m a prince. I’m just there for appearances. I don’t actually have any say in anything.” Olive whispered under his breath, before he paused and sent a look over his shoulder. “If they find me here, they’ll put more guards on me and I’ll never be able to sneak back in here. I’m not crawling around for fun but if that’s what you’re into—”

“Hey, guys, I’m kinda hungry. How about we grab lunch in the kitchen upstairs real quick?” One of the guards suddenly sighed.

“I was hoping you’d say that. I was just about to eat my hand,” responded another.

“You’ve been liking food a lot recently huh?” Asked the third.

“Are you calling me fat!?”

Olive waited for the shadows of feet to pass him and listened for the pad of footsteps up to fade up the stairs before peeling out from beneath the table.

Wait, wait, wait. What if they’re more of ‘em?

“They’re not,” Olive said, brushing off the dirt from his shirt. “Clement, Adam, and Leslie are the only ones on guard around this time since it’s near lunch. They always skip out for food.”

Wow, y’know the rotation of your royal guards? You’re pretty good, kid. 

“It’s nothing special. Just helps for when I sneak around.” Olive took the time to look around the room. There was not much to see that he hadn’t been able to see earlier. Just a v-light that gave the room sparse light and a thin window high up near the ceiling. 

He walked over to the cellar door and grimaced at the rust growing along its edges. He reached for the handle and paused. He grabbed the padlock that hung there.

As expected, it was locked. 

Olive took a step back and scanned the walls.

What’re you doin’?

“Looking for the keys,” Olive sighed. When he noticed that the key holder built into the wall was empty, he swore under his breath before addressing Cadence. “What are you doing? Why are you still here?”

Jeeze. Don’t take it out on me, your highness. You could always lock-pick it.

“I’m not the type of person to learn how to break into places in my free time.”

Well, you’re in luck because I happen to be the type of person that does.

Olive frowned. “Are you planning on overriding me?”

Nah, I’ll just tell ya how to do it. Not sure what model that is but I’m pretty sure usin’ the end of that pin in your shirt’ll do.

Creepy how she knew that, Olive thought as he reached for the gold-pressed pin and unfastened it. 

A minute later and he was kneeling on the ground blankly jabbing the end of his pin into the padlock with little result.

No, no, no, you can’t just go straight in like that—

This was stupid. How else was he supposed to do it?

To the side! You’re supposed to feel for it and twist it and—

“You really should avoid becoming a teacher,” Olive muttered under his breath. “Or a lock picker. Your job prospects would be—”

“What are you doing?” A cool voice abruptly cut their conversation short.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he could feel Cadence’s heart skip a beat as well. A chill crept up his spine after, but it was not a hair-raising chill. Rather, it was a familiar one.

Olive rose to his feet and turned.

It was the Capricornian Lieutenant. Werner Waltz. He stood there with his hands folded behind his back inspecting the room with an unreadable expression. 

“It seems as if I’ve synchronized with you and Morello,” Werner said calmly. He raised his hand briefly to his temple before clasping it behind his back again. “This is reckless.” 

“I don’t have time for this,” Olive grumbled, turning away from him.

Cadence tried to assuage Werner while Olive continued to work on the padlock which he was now tempted to smash his head against.

“So you don’t believe Trystan was the perpetrator,” Werner said after a lengthy pause. “Then who do you think did it?”

“Don’t know,” Olive said. “Don’t really ca—”

Werner held up his hand, cutting him off short. “Someone’s coming.” 

“Wha—”

“You need to hide.” 

Olive’s eyes darted around the room. The desk. Beneath there. 

He made for it. Or at least he tried to. He barely took his first step before he tripped over his own foot and face-planted on the ground. 

Kid—

Shadowy arms abruptly wrapped around Olive’s waist and drew him upwards. Upwards off of his feet. Up, up, up, up, until he was near the ceiling and straddled against one of the pillars. Before he could scream, a hand was clamped over his mouth and a familiar shhhh brushed his right ear. 

Don’t panic, came Werner’s voice although Olive could no longer see him. 

Below them, one of the guards Olive recognized from earlier approached the cellar door. The guard unhooked something from his belt and hung on the wall. The key. 

The guard let out a sigh before rubbing his face, muttering under his breath, and heading back up the stairs. The sound of his footsteps echoed for a moment before silence fell. 

Olive swallowed and craned his head neck to look over his shoulder. He glared into the shadows, and then—

“Claire?!” Olive whispered incredulously, jerking his head away from the clamped hand.

“Olive!”

The sight was almost unbelievable. There Claire was hanging upside down from the pillar. He was using his legs to wrap around the thing and hold himself in place. 

“Wha—what are you?!”

“Wait, wait, let me get us down first,” Claire whispered back in a strained voice.

A minute later and they were both on the ground. Claire collapsed back against the pillar behind him and sighed— “You’re pretty heavy you know.”

Olive frowned deeply. 

“Anyways, I’m really glad you’re okay after yesterday. Should you really be—”

“What are you doing here?”

“I—what do you mean—”

“Don’t play dumb.” Olive looked him over. “What are you doing here in the dungeons?”

Claire’s eyes bulged. “This is a dungeon?” He looked around bewildered. “You have dungeons beneath your royal palace?”

 “Wha…?”

“I thought this was the treasury.” Claire took a step back and swiveled in a full circle. He pointed at Olive. “I thought you were trying to steal something so that’s why I—what are you doing here then?”

Olive shook his head incredulously before he snapped: “First off, does this look like a treasury room to you?!” He startled himself with his own shout and pulled back with crossed arms. He continued more quietly: “Secondly, why would I steal some from the treasury? And third, what were you doing looking for the treasury in the first place?”

Claire opened his mouth and then closed it before he said, “The Ramicus…”

Olive stared. “You broke into the treasury of the royal palace to try and steal a pot that I was going to give to you.”

“I thought… since you fainted… I didn’t want to burden you with that.”

“It’s more of a burden now that you’re here—”

There isn’t time for this. Werner’s thoughts cut through sharply like a knife. You came here with an objective. 

Why was that Capricornian even here watching him?

The prince clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned away from Claire. He walked over to the cellar door and unhooked the key from where it hung before inserting it in the slot.

“Wait, what are you doing here though?” Claire pressed from behind him. “I mean… the dungeon—isn’t it dangerous?”

Kid—it was Cadence now—careful.

“Trystan was arrested for corroborating my assassination,” Olive stated plainly. 

That’s the opposite of bein’ careful.

“Trystan?” 

Olive didn’t answer him and pushed the door open. The metal door creaked on its hinges and scrapped against the floor. Olive stepped inside with Claire following shortly behind him.

Surprisingly, the room inside was well lit.

The cellar room consisted of roughly ten individual jail cells—five on the left and five on the right—with roughly six inches of spacing in-between each. A wide strip of walk space divided the room in half, and at the center of the walk space was a long table piled with an assortment of documents and items. 

Only one cell was occupied—the one closest to the window. The figure cloaked in shadows there had been sitting on the bed inside the cell and had raised his head at their entrance. When the figure registered them, he shot up to a stand and ran to the bars.

“Your highness?!”

Olive frowned and put a finger to his lip.

“W-What are you doing here?” Trystan whispered.

Trystan definitely looked worse for wear. There were bruises on his cheek, and his left eye was swelling. His fingers that were wrapped around the bars of the cell were raw red. It looked like the Investigation Bureau had interrogated him thoroughly. But even still— 

His eyes were strong.

They glimmered with a sort of fiery intensity that Olive supposed all foreigners thought Ariesians possessed.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Olive returned. 

Trystan’s eyes widened at the implication, and his grip on the bars tightened. “It wasn’t me, your highness. I would never dare to take the life of a fellow Ariesian—much less a member of the royal family. It’s my duty to protect them.”

“You sure like waxing lyrical,” Olive said, looking him over. “But the evidence is really stacked up against you. You really need to start keeping your political opinions to yourself.”

Trystan froze.

“I read through some of your papers earlier today.” Olive reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of folded paper. He opened it and began to recite in a mocking tone: “‘The election of feudal lords has moved from competitions of merit to calculated nepotism. The royal family has devolved from its former state of reassuring the people through their image to being mere figureheads. They need to be reformed.’”

That’s a bit much.

 Olive ignored Cadence and said, “Anybody reading your papers would think you were radical enough to act on them. Maybe you’re radical  enough to think that an assassination would solve everything.”

Trystan’s grip on the bars loosened and he stared into the floor. “That’s… not the way true, permanent changes are made.”

“Are you going to break him out then?” Claire asked suddenly, sounding a bit hopeful.

Trystan finally noticed the Saggitarian standing behind Olive. “You’re… How—”

“Long story,” Claire said with a wave. “But we’re going to get you out of here—”

“No, that would be stupid,” Olive interjected. 

Claire paused. “We’re not breaking him out?”

“Firstly, there’s no ‘we’—”

Odds are better with ‘we’.

“Secondly, breaking him out would cause more trouble for him and for me,” Olive continued, ignoring Cadence’s thought. “Doesn’t help him look innocent.” 

Olive turned away from the cell and walked to the center table. He moved aside the papers there that detailed aspects of the case recorded by the Investigation Bureau. There, beneath the file. He picked up two long, thin metal objects that had been set to the side together. He held them loosely for the other two to see.

“My arrow…” Trystan identified. “And the one you were shot with.”

“Since the IB didn’t have the actual conductor used on me, they focused on the conducting type used instead and the fact that an arrow was used. A conductor who is a fire elementalist who uses a bow and arrow.” He pointed to the tips of the arrows. “But the real evidence is here.” He tapped his shoulder. “And here.”

“You believe me?” Trystan asked quietly.

“You’re too stuck up to dirty your hands trying to kill me.” Olive waved him off. “But who knows.” With that, he headed back towards the door.

“Your highness—no, Olive.”

Olive paused and turned.

Trystan met his eyes. “Thank you.” 

The very sentence made him nauseous. Disgusting. 

He exited the cellar without another word. Claire followed shortly behind him.

Abruptly, the Sagittarian said, “Let me help you, Olive.”

Olive stopped in his tracks, turned, and raised a brow. 

This guy is too suspicious. No one ever offers help without schemin’ somethin’ behind the scenes.

Olive had to agree with Cadence on that part but—

Claire pressed on: “You’ve seen me. I’m pretty good at getting in and out of places. Maybe even better than you.”

He was pushing it now.

“Why do you want to even help me?” Olive asked.

“Like you said.” Claire shrugged. “I’m an idiot.”

Maybe he really was an idiot. 

Or maybe he’s playin’ idiot.

Either way—

Someone is coming—Werner again, cutting through their thoughts with his clipped voice. Storming of footsteps down the stairwell followed.

Olive grabbed Claire’s arm. “Okay fine. I’ll let you be an idiot. How did you get in here?” 

Claire pointed up to the window.


Half an hour later and they arrived behind in front of the place where they had first met. The specialized conductor store. They entered the building side-by-side and were welcomed by a familiar mess of tables topped with conductor parts and a haze of smog.

Didn’t think this’d be the kind of place a prince’d hang out at.

Olive nearly jumped at the sound of Cadence’s voice. She had been silent during their journey here. He had for a moment had the hopeful thought that he was finally left alone. Why in the world was she still here—

“… Chance?” The owner of the shop appeared out from behind the curtains at the back of the store. Wiping her hands on a rag that hung at her waist, she walked up to the counter and squinted at him.

“Didn’t expect you to be here so soon,” she said. She glanced at Claire. “You were here the other night, weren’t you? You know each other?”

“Claire.” Olive thumbed Claire. “Marta.” Olive pointed to the woman. Introductions done and over with. 

“Nice to meet you, Claire.” Marta gave the addressed a slight bow of her head before turning her attention back to Olive. “You here to sleep again or…?”

“I’m actually here about that thing you were talking about last week.”

“That thing?” — a question from both Claire and Cadence.

“My vitae-spectrophotometer!” Marta boomed, causing Claire to start. “ I’m finishing up the trials as we speak. I’m hoping to get it board-approved at Ophiuchus by the end of next month.” 

“I was wondering if I could use it.” 

Marta paused. “Use it?”

“Borrow it,” Olive tried.

Marta looked unconvinced.

Tell her that you’ll convince your uncle and aunt to set up an exhibition to promote her invention thing.

Why? It wasn’t like he could actually convince them of that, and he doubted Marta cared.

But she doesn’t know that. And besides, there’s one thing I know about anyone who creates anything— they always seek validation.

With nothing to lose, Olive told her what Cadence told him to tell her. And—

Without another word, Marta took them to the back of her store. It was as cluttered as Olive expected it to be but for some odd reason he felt an itch to clean it up. It’s appearance was… unacceptable. 

After rummaging beneath her desk at the corner of the room she pulled out a large rectangular contraption and hefted onto the desk. It was black with two slots set slightly off-center. It was connected by two cables to a general generator conductor that was square and white and to a large, cylindrical, clear glass insulator. 

The generator conductor was an Ariesian brand—the obnoxious Ariesian ram was printed on its center and everything—and read “100 VPps” and 10K VP charge. One hundred vitae particles per second. And ten thousand vitae particles stored inside? That was pretty good. 

Noticing Olive’s stare, Marta shrugged. “Plugging into the vitae provided by the city generator conductors is too unreliable.”

Claire looked between them in confusion. “Sorry… I’m confused… what does this do?”

“Whenever someone uses a non-general conductor, some of their vitae lingers on not only the conductor but whatever they used their conductor on,” Olive said. “A manipulators vitae’ll still be in whatever they manipulated. If an externalist uses a conducting gun, their vitae will linger on whatever they shoot at. And, well, you can see why elementalists can be so dangerous.” He pulled out the two arrows he had tucked into his coat pocket and nodded to the device. “This thing can extract and read that vitae.”

“Oh! So it’s like the V-Type Test they give you so that you can find out your conducting type!” 

“Don’t compare my baby to that simple thing!” Marta snapped. She placed a gentle, loving hand on the device. “The V-Type test isn’t sophisticated like this thing. This baby here—it can read vitae colors. And not just of human beings—no, that would be too boring. My vitae-spectrophotometer can read the colors of anything.”

“I see,” Claire said despite not seeing.

“Everyone has a unique color to their vitae, so…” Olive removed the arrowhead from the Trystan’s arrow and moved towards the machine as Marta began to mess with the cables connecting everything together.

“You sure know a lot about conducting,” Claire noted.

“Not conducting. Vitae theory goes over my head. But… Conductors—yeah, I know a thing or two,” Olive corrected absentmindedly as he set the arrowhead in one of the slots. Marta handed him a cubical glass cover to slip over the thing. “I wanted to be a conductor engineer when I was younger.”

“What made you change your mind?”

Both Claire and Cadence asked the question. 

“I realized it was stupid. Pointless,” Olive answered as he helped Marta check the cables. “You make things thinking that you’re helping people by making them. That you’re making a difference. But that’s just you trying to reassure yourself that something you’re putting so much effort into actually matters. It’s stupid.” He moved away so that the mechanic could hook an empty vial to the other slot. “Sometimes just by doing that you make it worse for everyone else without realizing it.”

Damn, kid. Uh, are you alright?

Marta ran the machine. 

After half an hour, a wispy light began to spill into the empty vial. They then tested the assassin’s arrow next. And after another half an hour, another empty vial was filled. 

After retrieving the vials, Olive held them up to the light. The one labeled ‘death arrow’ contained a swirling orange-red light while the one labeled ‘Trystan’ contained a pale-rose light.

“They’re different!” Claire exclaimed, a grin breaking across his face. “This proves Trystan is innocent!”

“It’s not enough,” Olive said. He tapped his shoulder. “We need to test one more thing.”

After the third vial was filled and Olive’s shoulder was treated, they examined the contents of the former. It swirled a red orange color, matching the color of the vitae inside the tube labeled ‘death arrow’. 

“Now we’ve proven Trystan’s innocence,” Olive said, slipping the vials into his coat pocket. “And—”

“I don’t get what’s going on and I don’t want to get involved,” Marta interjected bluntly. “But you’re going to have that exhibition set up for me, right?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. You’ll have your moment in the spotlight,” Olive muttered. He tapped his pocket where the vials were stored. “But first I have to turn this into—”

“Wait.” Claire gave a rare frown. “Is that a good idea? I mean, you already know you can’t trust some of the people at top. They might just get rid of the evidence as soon as you give it to them.”

I agree, came Werner’s sudden thought, jot. Caution is key.

Had he been silently watching this entire time? Talk about creepy.

But he had a point.

“I’ll hold onto it until I can get to Gabrielle or Izsak—they’re Ophiuchians that’re here to investigate this mess.”

“That’s a good idea,” Claire approved. He checked his wristwatch. “Oh—I have to go now. Sorry.” Before Olive could respond, Claire had already made it to the curtains. “But I’ll keep in touch.”

Somethin’ about that kid, came Cadence’s thought. Your highness, don’t mean to get in-between you two, but I know a liar when I see one.

THREE CONNECTING PIECE: convergence

It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.

Saints. It hurt. 

Even after the healers and Transmuters had come and gone saying that all was in order, it still hurt. Even after they had informed him of what had occurred—that he had fainted in the bathroom, that Trystan who had just been called in for questioning an hour earlier had brought him back to his room, that he had been out for several hours.  Even after he bit his tongue and kicked them all out of his room, it still hurt. But that didn’t matter. 

As soon as Olive was alone, he ran to the door to make sure it was shut tightly and then fell back against it and slid to the ground. 

It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. But—

But that wasn’t what was important. What was important was… What was important was… 

Grunting, Olive scrambled to his feet and spun around the room.

“Enough already.” He snapped at the ceiling. “I don’t care if you wanna mess around and mess up my life. I’m already screwed as it is. If you’re not real—fine. I already know I’ve got screws loose. But if you’re real…” He glared at the corners of his room, fists balled 

“Don’t you dare… give me hope.”

Silence answered him. Deafening silence.

“Well, fine.” He turned away and faced the door. “It’s all pointless anyways.” He paced towards the door but stopped short with his hand on the doorknob. His grip on it tightened, and he bit down on the inside of his mouth. “No, you know what. No.” He turned away and walked forward, arms crossed. “Enough already! You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.”

His voice echoed around the corners of the room. When the echo of his voice died another sound came to take its place. There wasn’t a word Olive could use to describe it. Maybe it was like something breaking? Something cracking apart? A clapping? Whatever the sound was, it unfurled from all directions, into all directions. His surroundings reverberated with the noise and then cracked and fragmented. Different colors and sensations. Hot and cold. Blue and green. Gold and orange. White and black.

And then as the sceneries melted together, five figures appeared before him. 

There was the woman in the window with the flowers—Atienna—sitting at the foot of his bed surrounded by a garden of flowers that Olive knew was not really there. Just a little ways away from her sitting at his windowsill was not her boyish, red-haired young woman who had cards in her hands and a smile on her face—a smile that began to slide down into a gawk. Her gaze fell away from her cards and towards a man who stood opposite her beside Olive’s closet: a dark man with square glasses resting over his dark eyes. Standing just a few feet away from him was the green-eyed woman who had an unnerving demeanor about her. Even as their eyes met, her smile remained unfazed. It may have even grown brighter.

“What is this…?” The white-haired man—the soldier with ice blue eyes that Olive had seen aiming a conductor at an unarmed man on that moonlit night—who stood at the corner of the room whispered as he rubbed his temple. The soldier then swept the room with an expression that was at first horrified and then reserved. Without another word, he brushed past Olive and headed towards the door. He tried it. It did not budge. And so instead, the man paused there with his gloved hand pressed against the frame of the door. Calmly, he said, “This is a hallucination.”

Atienna stared at the man and began to reach out for him when an exclamation cut her off short—

“Atienna?”

Atienna looked back at the red-haired, young woman who had called her name, and her dark eyes widened. “Cadence?”

“Spirits!” The green-eyed woman exclaimed abruptly, loudly, exuberantly, as she jumped up onto Oliver’s bed with widespread arms. She looked down at all of them with a blinding smile. “Why is it that you have summoned me here?”

Atienna, who was now halfway off of the bed, who was no longer surrounded by her garden of flowers, blinked up at her with a smile that seemed almost unnatural. “Maria..? You know I’ve said that we’re not spirits.”

The woman—Maria—blinked down at her and scratched her head. “You are—Atienna, yes? But if you are not a spirit then…”

“I ask that none of you move.” The man with the glasses said with an air of authority that did not match the tilt of his head. He extended his hand out to no one in particular. “I am Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. Currently, I am investigating—” 

“Wait,” Cadence interjected as she studied the man, “aren’t you—”

“Huh?” Maria tilted her head at Jericho, before she crouched so she was eye level with him. “Hey, I know your voice!”

“Can someone tell me what is goin’ on here?” The red-haired woman snapped as she leapt up from the windowsill and threw down her cards. “Even this is gettin’ a bit too much for me. Where am I?”

“This is not real.” The soldier, eyes closed, chanted from his corner. “I am suffering from a head injury. A concussion. This is not real. I need to inform a medical Conductor of my hallucinations. This is not real.”

“Uh — Werner, right?” Cadence pulled back from her outburst and peered at the man. “Are ya’ alright?”

The soldier continued to mumble. Cadence continued to peer. The green-eyed woman and the agent continued to speak over one another. And Atienna continued to observe them all with an expression that was either one of curiosity or amusement.

Olive himself observed the chaos unfolding in front of him for what seemed like hours before he felt something thin and brittle inside of him snap in two.

“Oh my saints — just shut up already!” He snapped so loudly that he almost thought he’d torn his vocal chords.

Heads turned. Gazes became fixated. Voices were silenced.

“Look, I don’t get what’s going on, and normally I wouldn’t care.” He crossed his arms. “But…” He pointed at Atienna. “You saw her. You could see her. You could see Lavi…” He took a step forward. “Right?”

Atienna lifted her head and opened her mouth to respond but—

“Wait a minute, aren’t you that prince? The Ariesian one!” Cadence said, jabbing a finger in Olive’s direction. “Yeah, I recognize ya! From the newspapers!”

The soldier stiffened from the corner of his eye. “Ariesian prince…?”

Cadence stepped forward and eyed Olive up and down. “The tabloids were sayin’ that you were in ‘hopeless, irrecoverable condition’, but you’re lookin’ pretty good, kid.” She offered up a smile that reminded Olive of the feudal lords in the court.

“That’s not the point—” 

“Prince?” Maria jumped down from the bed and came to a stand right in front of him. She was tall—he realized—and she had to stoop slightly to peer into his face. He could see all the flecks of green in her irises now. They looked almost inhuman. “I’ve never seen a prince before—wait a moment. You are the boy! From that night! The grumpy, short one!”

“I—what?” Olive recoiled before he glowered. “I don’t want to be talked down by someone who—”

“Who said anything about talking down to?”

“Is it customary to shout when meeting a large amount of people like this?” Jericho interjected. 

Everyone stared at the Ophiuchian for a long second. 

Atienna took the opportune moment of silence to step forward with raised hands. “Everyone, please calm down.” Her voice was gentle, deep, and quiet, reminding Olive of the sound of owls hooting in the quiet of a dead night. “This is the first time we’ve been able to talk all together like this so we should try to understand what’s going on, don’t you think?” She glanced at Olive and flashed him an expression of sympathy which he bristled at. “After we gain at least a little bit of an idea of what is happening then we can move on to our individual issues… if that’s alright with everyone?”

“That is an appropriate idea.” Jericho gave a thumbs-up from his corner. “This could aid in my investigation.” He gave another thumbs-up with his other hand.

He was definitely a weird one. Well, whatever.

“Whatever you say, doll.” Cadence tilted her hat with a charming smile. 

Olive gave Atienna an affirmative nod but then found his gaze drifting over to the corner of the room. Atienna and then Cadence followed his gaze and locked eyes with the soldier who stood there still stiff as stone.

Cadence quirked a brow and called back to him, “You gonna join us, good sir?”

There was an uncertain pause of silence, and in that silence the soldier seemed to appraise them with scrutiny. His eyes were sharp, cold, calculating. Whatever meltdown he’d been going through earlier he seemed to have recovered from. 

“I mean,” Cadence hummed, “if we’re all going crazy we should at least try to understand it, right?”

“If this is how this situation is going to be handled,” the soldier said finally, unravelling himself from his corner of the room and falling in place beside the peacekeeper, “I will partake. I believe that we should start with introductions first.”

“Call this a wild guess, I feel like we all sort vaguely know each other’s names already.” Cadence said pointedly, easing her way back onto the windowsill she’d first been sitting on when she’d arrived in Olive’s room. 

“Things should not be left to assumption.” The soldier replied coolly. He folded his gloved hands behind his back and seemed to put away whatever nervousness he’d shown earlier with the motion.

He was weird too. 

“Right, right.” Cadence nodded as she hopped off the windowsill. She tilted her hat at them. “The name’s Cadence Morello. I’ll be open with ya, so I hope all of ya will be open with me. Born in Aries, raised in Gemini. Currently working in the Twin Cities. Nice to meet ya.”

Something about the way Cadence spoke made Olive want to befriend her which rang alarm bells in Olive’s mind because he never wanted to befriend anyone.

“Twin Cities?” Maria exclaimed suddenly before she chuckled. “I was just there a couple of days ago! Such a fun place.”

“Did ya now—”

“We should stay on task,” the soldier advised, raising his hand to stop the conversation from derailing any further. “I am Werner Waltz, First Lieutenant serving in the Capricornian Army, 212th Division of the Border Force.”

Carpicornian Army. Border Force. Olive felt a chill run down his spine, as he recalled staring into the whites of that young soldier’s eyes the night he’d somehow found himself in Werner’s presence. Olive had felt it then. The intent to kill. The lack of hesitation. To somehow reach that point—it made Olive’s stomach churn.

The green-eyed woman clapped her hands loudly and rose to a stand above the bed. Olive was jarred out of his thoughts and took a quick look around the room to make sure he wasn’t the only one who found her behavior strange. Sure enough, Cadence and Werner were giving her odd looks. Atienna, however, had an expression that betrayed curiosity. Jericho did not show any reaction at all.

Taking a deep bow, the green-eyed woman introduced herself with a grin, “Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez of Gloria’s Grail—here at your service! I am excited to discover more things about you all!”

“Atienna Imamu.” Atienna gestured to herself, tucking a stray dark curl behind her ear with downcast eyes. “I… am the daughter of the current chieftain of the Imamu Tribe in Virgo.”

The peacekeeper’s introduction came next, and he stepped forward with a hand extended in greeting: “I am Agent Jericho of Ophiuchus. Currently, I am in the Twin Cities of Gemini investigating the disappearance of a fellow agent. We believe that it may involve ELPIS.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

“Ok, so we got the who’s,” Cadence drew. “Now we need to know the what’s and why’s, right?”  

“Yes, that would be the next logical step.” Werner affirmed. He gestured to them all. “If this is indeed real, what exactly is this and why is it happening?”

“Oh, it’s real alright.” Cadence leaned forward, nodding at Jericho. “I met him in the flesh just the other day. Saved my ass too.” She winked at him. “Owe ya one.”

“Just because you two have claimed to have met beyond this,” Werner interjected, gesturing to the space in between them, “does not mean it is real. However, it is what must be worked with.”

“Got ya, got ya.” Cadence leaned back. “Y’know, you make a lotta sense when you’re not mumblin’ to yourself in some corner.” She flashed a sly grin.

Werner did not react with a cold snap of rightness nor a gaze of disapproval as Olive had been expecting. Rather, he appeared startled: “That was… inappropriate of me.” He cleared his throat. “Regardless, I need confirmation from you all on what you are seeing right now. At the moment, I am standing in the communications cabin at my camp. I know this with certainty. However,” he paused, glancing around Olive’s room, “there is an image superimposed on my surroundings.” 

“Yeah, it’s my room.”

“I see.” Werner glanced around the room again, gaze lingering on Olive’s unmade bed for a second longer. “Then, is it the same case for all of you?”

Cadence nodded, bending down to pick up the cards off of the floor. “I’m sittin’ in my apartment right now but I…” She rose to a stand and ran a finger along the frame of the windowsill. “Yeah… definitely… this is weird.”

“So, it appears as if somehow we’ve synchronized with Prince Chance’s location, although we are not actually present.” Werner concluded. “And this is not the first time it has happened, correct?”

“For me, this synchronization has happened quite a few times,” Atienna replied with a thoughtful expression. “I believe it’s happened between us, Werner, at least once.”

Werner seemed caught off guard by the comment and studied Atienna with a frown. 

“Synchronization?” Maria repeated as she fell flat back onto Olive’s bed. “Is that what this is called?”

“Are you clean to be jumping on my bed?” 

“Huh?”

“We need to stay on topic. Referring to incidents like these as ‘synchronization’ will aid only our communication,” Werner interjected. He frowned and then suddenly looked tentative, cautious. “It appears that during synchronization, there are times when…” He trailed off.

“Like a flooding,” Atienna supplied, offering him a small smile of affirmation. “The synchronization with one person overwhelms the other.” She tilted her head, placing a hand on her cheek. “Feelings and thoughts of another come in so strongly that they overtake you. I believe I experienced something similar recently.” She looked to the side. “Although, I can’t remove myself from responsibility just because of that.”

“Then—” Werner began before he seemed to catch himself. When he received an inquiring look from Atienna, he said, “We should save our personal questions for the end.”

“Okay so when we experience this synchronization thing, we end up crisscrossin’ like this or whatever. Flooding is when someone else’s feelings and thoughts or whatever overwhelm you,” Cadence summarized. “Now, I was hopin’ for some reassurance that you’re also all seen some weird stuff. Like vision weird. I mean, as much as I’d like to be psychic, I’d rather not see some weird bird man on fire when I’m mindin’ my own business.”

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. How—she saw? The nightmare that kept Olive from sleeping every night. That memory that had become twisted over the eight years since then. 

“Oh, I saw that too!” Maria exclaimed. “What exactly was that?”

No. She saw too.

Of course, they saw. Synchronization. But memories too? Dreams? What else could they see and feel? Could they feel the panic seizing his chest right now? The fear? No. Get out—

“It’s alright, Olive,” Atienna murmured, her voice cutting through him like a knife. “Let’s not delve into it too much.”

He looked up from the spot he’d been drilling a hole through with his eyes on the ground. They were all looking at him. Maria with a bit of confused curiosity. Jericho with a blank stare. Atienna with the same sympathy in her eyes as always. And Werner with furrowed brows.

The soldier studied Olive for a moment before he nodded. “This is good information. Now we know that memories may also factor into the equation.”

“I may have an idea.”

All heads turned to Jericho. 

“You nearly died with the assassination attempt, correct, Prince Olive Chance? Around four or five days ago.” Jericho asked matter-of-factually.

Olive shrugged and nodded, grateful for the deviation, although he was unnerved at the bluntness. He could feel Atienna shoot him a look of concern and he could even feel the emotion which unnerved him even more.

“And you said you were Atienna Imamu, correct? You were poisoned around that time  too.”

Atienna brought a hand to her mouth, eyebrows shooting up in surprise. But then her hand lowered and a polite smile took the place of her gaping mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry you had to experience something like that. I wasn’t aware our synchronization was happening as early as that.”

“It was not because of synchronization. Ophiuchus keeps tabs on every country in Signum. Even the ones in extreme isolation,” Jericho said bluntly.

Atienna lowered her hand and clasped it over her other. “I see… that’s how peace is kept outside, is it?”

“I fell down the stairs four days ago too,” Jericho continued calmly. “I was in critical condition.”

“Must’ve been a long flight of stairs,” Cadence whistled. 

“It was.” Jericho informed her. “In fact, it holds the record of being the longest staircase in Signum.”

There was a pause. Olive resisted rolling his eyes.

“Right…” Cadence raised a brow. “Anyways, I was caught up in an accident around that time too. Saint’s must be on my side with how I survived that one.”

“I was also injured four days ago by a conducting ray,” Werner affirmed. “It was near a vital area. I don’t believe in miracles, but if I were to speak in such terms I would call it something like that.”

Everyone turned to Maria who blinked back at them perplexed.

“Well, I can’t really recall ever doing something like nearly dying,” she hummed. “I mean I will never die.” Her eyes were bright, confident, shining, and the way she said the odd phrase was matter-of-factual.

Olive could feel that she indeed believe that she’d never die which was a concept Olive found hard to wrap his head around. This woman had more screws loose than he did, he concluded.

“But I did fall into the ocean four days ago. It was a nice swim.”

“So, that settles it. It happened because we all nearly kicked the bucket.” Cadence hummed, “Now we have the how—”

“We have a time table of when it happened,” Werner corrected. “And we only have half of the how. Our near death experiences may serve as the points of connection but the line isn’t drawn.”

Cadence chuckled. “Right, right. I’m gettin’ too eager. Ya got smarts, Lieutenant. And ya speak like a poet. I like that in a guy.”

Werner’s frown deepened.

Gross.

“I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this,” Atienna murmured, placing a hand beneath her chin. “I’ve spoken about this before but in Virgo, there is a common belief that vitae is more than just a source of life energy. The belief is that it also has the capability of storing memories, in a sense.” 

“Yes, I’m familiar with that theory. That’s the one that goes along with the P.D. Oran school of thought, am I correct? She was popular during the War, if I recall correctly.” Werner said. “The belief that there is an imperceptible part of vitae that is actually representative of the soul. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. It has not been proven, but it is often taught that way to the general public in order to aid their understanding of what vitae actually is.”

“Oh, do you not believe that, Werner?”

“Although P.D. Oran has published a number of widely accepted works,she  has also published numerous disproven and even redacted papers.” Werner responded. “When that theory is proven completely, I will believe it. Until then, vitae is energy. Nothing more. But please continue.”

Atienna’s gaze lingered for a moment as an inquisitive smile graced her lips. Tucking another lock of hair behind her ear, she continued, “Well, while I believe it’s widely accepted that vitae burns out and ceases after it is utilized by a conductor or after a person dies, this belief says contrary. When something or someone dies, their vitae gets released from their physical being and returns to the world. And since, in this theory, vitae contains memories that would mean that memories are released through the vitae upon death. If a person is resuscitated, their vitae would return to them and they would most likely say that their ‘life flashed before their eyes’. But what if two people died close to me another and were resuscitated at the same time? What if during the time period where their vitae were returning to their bodies, there was a crossing over of their vitae?”

“Wait, wait, I barely understand what vitae is. My attention span is only so long.” Cadence swatted her hand above her head as if the action would somehow do away with the confusion clearly cluttering her mind.

“Ah, sorry, I tend to ramble when I’m excited,” Atienna mumbled, flushing. 

“No, no, I got ya’ now, I think,” Cadence reassured her. “So, you’re sayin’ when we nearly died, our souls—vitae or whatever—crossed over during the ride back and that’s why this is happenin’?”

“That’s my theory,” Atienna concluded.

“If the Anima-Vitae hypothesis is true, that would make for a sound explanation, although the reasons for why would still remain unknown,” Werner supplied after a moment of thought.

“What about you, your highness—what do you think?” Cadence asked suddenly, nodding in Olive’s direction. “You got access to all sortsa education, right? You must be pretty smart?”

Olive ignored her. 

He’d skipped too many lessons in the past to really have a grip on the conversation. Usually, he didn’t care if people knew the fact, but with these people for some reason he just couldn’t let them know.

“Oh, I see,” came Cadence’s light response.

Damn.

“I am surprised you don’t know about vitae,” Jericho said, locking eyes with Cadence. “You would not be able to take the State Conducting Exam without this knowledge.” He pointed to Cadence’s ringed fingers. “You are a Conductor. You must have a license. May I see it—”

“Wait, I have a question!” Maria shouted suddenly, snapping up in the bed. Cadence gave her a grateful look but it went mostly ignored. “I think I get this synchronization and flooding stuff, but does that have anything to do with me being able to speak with people from your places? I mean, I was on my ship but I was still able to speak with them when I was ‘synchronized’ with you all.”

There was another pause of silence as realization settled in. 

“So it was you!” Cadence snapped, rising to a stand. “With Verga! You…!” She glared at Maria for a tense second before her shoulders relaxed and she held up her hands. “I got a lot on my hands now ‘cause of that, y’know?”

“Ah, were you referring to the tall, strange-looking man? The grump one?” Maria questioned, before she offered yet another smile. “I just told him my thoughts. Was that not what you were thinking too?”

Cadence opened her mouth to retort but seemed to think better of it. “Yup, that’s the one.”

Werner stepped forward at this moment and addressed Maria: “Captain Gloria-Fernandez, am I correct to say that you were the one who dealt with the Aquarian prisoners then?”

“Oh, yes!” Maria mused. “Were they Aquarians? Such an interesting group! They had very interesting accents.”

“What did you do with the Aquarian Captain?”

Maria peered at him. “You do not remember?” She glanced at Cadence and then at Olive.

“This is a serious matter. I was ordered to—” Werner seeme to catch himself. “I was ordered to handle the Aquarian captain by my superior.”

“Oh. Well, I let her go.”

Werner’s expression betrayed nothing. Olive couldn’t feel anything from him. “You let him go.”

Maria shrugged. “Yes, I felt like it. It’s not so bad is it?”

Werner’s expression yet again betrayed nothing but his voice quieted and he almost looked paper. “It’s unacceptable.”

Maria did not appear phased. “What about it is unacceptable?”

Cadence took the opportunity to pop up in between them. Her hands were raised in placating, and she wore an easy smile as she faced Werner. “Look, I get it, I get it. I’m in the same boat. But ya gotta make do with the cards you’re dealt.” She glanced back at Maria. “Besides, gettin’ along at this point is what matters, right? Understandin’ one another?”

Werner’s responding gaze was cold and frigid causing Cadence to raise her hands higher. But then after a moment, the man shook his head oddly. Finally, he said, “I’m aware of that, Morello.”

That was when Olive realized it. No, he felt it. While the others had brought in pieces of their surroundings with their arrival, Jericho had come with nothing. No, not with nothing. As Olive looked closer, he could see it. There was a gaping blackness behind Jericho. A hollow space. A void.

Olive’s thoughts must have bled outwards—or maybe it was someone else’s thoughts that were bleeding inwards—because everyone began to slowly turn towards the peacekeeper. 

“Is there something on my face?” Jericho asked when he finally noticed their gazes.

“Jericho,” Atienna tried gently, “where exactly are you right now?”

Jericho stared. “I don’t know. I believe I’m unconscious.”

“Unconscious?”

“Yes, I believe I was injured. Ambushed by…”

There was a flare of red hot rage that nearly winded Olive. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Werner holding his head with a grimace. Atienna was frowning deeply, and Cadence looked nauseous. Maria, of course, looked unphased as always.

“….ELPIS.” Jericho gestured to his shoulder and his abdomen. “I believe I’m in critical condition.”

No one said anything. No words needed to be said. A mutual understanding had dawned on all of them. 

“What…?” Cadence was smiling, but her fear and nervousness bled into the room causing Olive’s stomach to do flips. “Are ya sayin’ that whenever one of us…goes through somethin’ like that, we all feel it?”

“Are you feeling alright right now, Jericho?” Atienna asked with concern.

“I feel no pain. Most likely because I am unconscious,” Jericho replied. He studied his hand, fisting it and unfisting it. “This feels like a dream. It’s hard to hold on.”

Cadence swore under her breath and ran her hand through her hair. She paused halfway through the motion as a thought struck her. A thought that radiated outwards—

What would happen if one of them died?

“If anything, all of this information highlights our need to break off this connection,” Werner finally said after a long stretch of silence.

“Break it off?” Atienna repeated.

“We are a liability to one another remaining like this,” Werner responded coolly. “Politically, this is a disaster waiting to happen. A prince of Aries, a person involved in the Virgoan political sphere, and an Ophiuchian agent.  If something happens between one of your countries then your confidentiality is compromised. Additionally, Jericho and I are constantly in combat due to our professions. This,” he paused, gesturing to the man, “is a risk that is accepted in such professions.”

“Well, when ya put it like that…”

“What is this about cutting off a connection?” Maria shot up abruptly from the bed. “This seems to be quite an interesting occurrence, no? Are we not lucky to be experiencing something as unique as this? Something that so little people have the chance of experiencing? No one will see it quite like this, no?  Why would you want to stop something that can lead to so many possibilities?”

“Unique and fun?” Olive quirked a brow at Maria.

“Of course!” Maria sang, launching herself off of his bed and landing right in front of him. She took a step forward causing him to take a step backwards, before she spun on her heels and faced the others with widespread arms.  “I was already blessed with such an expansive world made just for me to explore and discover, but now?” She grinned. “Now I can see everything through your eyes!”

Her energy was ridiculously infectious, and it took Olive’s entire willpower to keep his head straight. He mumbled, “It must be nice to be an idiot…”

Even Werner was looking befuddled by her enthusiasm. 

But still, the lightness leaked out from her into the air. And for a moment, everything felt like it might turn out alright. And then—

Suddenly, abruptly,  she appeared right before him, landing gently on her feet, hair softly cascading down onto her shoulders as if she had just gracefully floated down from the ceiling.

Olive’s eyes widened. “Lavi—”

Cadence yelped and leapt back. Maria leaned forward with interest, while Atienna covered her mouth in surprise. Werner’s hand reached for his side automatically. Before any further action could be taken, however, Olive stumbled forward, putting himself in between his sister and them.

“You can see her.” Olive stared at them. He felt weak at the knees. “You can see her.”

“Your…. sister…?” Werner said slowly, his expression becoming distant and strange. He eyed Olive. “Is this… a memory? Is she real?”

Before Olive could respond, Lavi pushed him aside and stood in front of Werner with crossed arms and puffed cheeks. “That’s rude! Of course I’m real!”

Werner remained impassive.

“Wait, so there’s seven of us?” Cadence wondered.  She looked Lavi up and down. “What’s your name, doll?”

“Lavender Chance,” his sister answered, chin raised.

“Well, that’s a pretty name,” Cadence complimented. She smiled but she thought to herself that the name sounded sort of familiar and in a bad way.

“Her name sounds familiar because she was one of the royal Ariesian family members that died in the Tragedy of Aries,” Werner drew slowly, studying Lavi and then Olive. “Am I correct, Prince Chance?”

Olive wasn’t sure if he responded. 

“I’m dead?” Lavi huffed. “I’m standing right here, you know?”

As soon as those words left her mouth, she disappeared. All traces of her gone in an instant. As Olive vaguely listened to the commotion following her sudden exit in the background, he explained, “She comes and goes. But she always comes back.”

Always. No matter what. It was probably some form of punishment.

There was a long stretch of silence afterwards. 

“Okay, okay, okay, as exciting as this’s been, this is getting a little too much for me,” Cadence finally sighed, looking around wearily. “No more sudden surprises, right?”    

Olive’s head was still buzzing. They could see her. They could see her. And if they were real and they could see her that meant that she was—

—real.                                                                                                                                                                             

Was that a good thing? A bad thing? What exactly—

“I don’t really understand what’s going on,” Maria said suddenly as she met Olive’s eyes, “but things are real if you think they are real, and things are good if you believe they are good, no?”

Olive stared at her, unsure if she was crazy or if she was an idiot or if he was crazy or if he was the idiot.

Suddenly, Jericho broke through the silence with an out of place statement: “ELPIS may be involved with our current condition.”

“You think ELPIS may be involved?” Werner pressed, ripping his gaze away from Olive. “What makes you think that?”

“Intuition.”

“…. intuition?” Werner frowned. “That is not enough grounds to draw that sort of conclusion.”

Jericho digested this response for a long minute, before he responded: “ELPIS may be behind the prince’s assassination. It may be behind Atienna’s incident. It most likely was behind mine.”

“Okay, Jericho, you’re a nice guy and all,” Cadence said, walking over to the man and placing a hand on his shoulder, “but it sounds to me like you’re seein’ ELPIS everywhere. I mean—oh.” She released him as a sudden memory came to her mind— a memory that abruptly bled into Olive’s mind as well jarring him out of his daze.

It was a blurry barrage of feelings and images but Olive got the gist of it. Some old man named Verga apparently was being paid by ELPIS to ship something. Olive shook his head to shake off the memory and saw the others doing the same. They must have seen it too then. Olive took the opportunity to peek at Cadence.  Huh, he thought, so that was the kind of work she did. It made sense.

“Saints, you might be onto something’ actually,” Cadence muttered, glancing at Olive for half a second before focusing her attention back on Jericho. “Well, Agent Jericho—”

“Yes, I will look into the matter. But at the moment.” He stared down at his hands. “I am unable to.”

Cadence cracked a grin again. “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“Not because of my incapacitation, but because most information regarding ELPIS is restricted to the ELPIS division of Ophiuchus which I am not yet a part of.” 

Cadence’s grin fell somewhat, but still she said, “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“I hope with my completion of this Leona case that I will be able to be promoted to the division,” Jericho concluded with a nod.

“Alright….before this gets anymore out of hand, let’s get on common ground,” Atienna gently said, clasping her hands together. “We all have things going on at the moment, right? And at the moment we have no idea how to stop whatever this is. Perhaps we could help each other out. I’m not talking about getting involved in national affairs or anything, but… it would be reassuring if we all guaranteed each other’s safety for the time being, don’t you think—seeing how much we affect one another? And, of course, this is so that we ensure we also don’t interfere with one another without the other’s permission, right? And work together to look into what this is? I’m sure each of our countries has information the other doesn’t have. It’s much better than ignoring one another and coming across unexpected problems because of it, don’t you agree?” She let out a breathy sigh before flushing. “Sorry… rambling…”

Werner frowned, glancing at Olive for a moment. And then he nodded. “That is acceptable, so long as everyone agrees to those conditions.”

Cadence cracked a lazy grin from where she sat. “Well, sounds good enough to me. Let’s get along and look after one another, shall we?”

“So we are all going to be around one another from now on then?” Maria brimmed with a radiant joy that was almost blinding. “This will be fun then, my dears!”

Olive rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Whatever happens happens.”

“I accept,” Jericho said.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief that filled the room with an odd sort of serenity. 

“So, to summarize this meeting’s conclusion,” Werner cleared his throat, “we will be working with one another strictly to ensure our survival. We will mutually research what exactly this incident is, and we will investigate the possibility of ELPIS involvement. I don’t believe we will be able to get much on that front until Agent Jericho has recovered and joined the ELPIS division.”

Jericho nodded.

“Seems about right,” Cadence affirmed.

“Then, I will return to my duties and try to resolve the obstacle that has been put in my way.” Werner nodded curtly. And with that, he was gone. 

Cadence nodded at Jericho. “I’m assumin’ you’re still in the Twin Cities. I’ll try sendin’ you some help.” When she received a look of surprise, she chuckled, “I can be reliable, y’know. Honest.” And with that, she gave a tip of her hat. “Well, I guess I’ll be checkin’ out too. Nice meetin’ ya.” And she disappeared.

Maria soon followed suit with an energetic shout and an incomprehensible wave. Jericho didn’t even say anything before he disappeared, but Olive was beginning to expect as much from him.

Atienna lingered. She lingered and drifted over to where he stood. A gentle smile and warm eyes. “That was very brave of you, Olive. Calling out to us,” She said. “You should be proud of yourself.”

The kind words made something in his stomach twist, and he averted his gaze with a scoff. “There’s nothing brave about doing something that benefits you in the long run.”

“Perhaps,” she murmured in response.

And then she too was gone.

His room was quiet.  His windowsill was unoccupied, his bed empty, the floor graced with feathers from the cage strewn loosely about.

But he could feel them—see them—distantly in his mind’s eye. Clearer than before. The noise, the colors, the sensations buzzed around loosely in his mind. They were there. And Lavi—she was here.

Olive walked over to his bed and fell face-first down into it.

He wasn’t alone.

What a pain.

Three (6/6): jericho brutality

“Curse the Organization for stealing my wallet. Now, I can’t get the sustenance I need to truly get to the bottom of their nefarious deeds.”

They were standing outside a cafe. It was dark out, and the light from the cafe window was warm.

Jericho stared at Talib before pulling out a handful of common currency from his uniform pocket. He extended his hand out to Talib who reached out his hand in confused correspondence. Jericho dropped a handful of common-coins into his hands.

Talib immediately startled and pushed the money back towards him. “My friend, I was merely—”

Jericho pushed it back towards Talib. “Is it not customary to do this for ‘partners’?”

A minute later, and they were sitting at a small, circular table inside the cafe. Talib had ordered himself a cup of foamed mocha, while he had ordered Jericho a matcha latte. He had ordered them to be served in paper cups as he claimed that styrofoam was laden with a chemical designed to control the masses. 

“How does it taste?”

“Green,” Jericho replied, moving his suitcase on the floor to the side and out of the way of a stumbling barista.

Talib nodded thoughtfully. “I did hear that there were people who could actually taste colors, but  they are exceptionally rare. I suppose that makes you exceptionally rare then, my friend.” He took a sip of his drink and then jerked away with a yelp. “Hot!”

“This does not seem relevant to… ” Jericho began. After he received an odd look in turn, he amended: “Would you like me to ask the barista for a glass of ice?”

“No, no, I will live through this.” Talib blew on the surface of the liquid, before taking another tentative sip. He gave a nod of approval before pulling out a small, leather journal from his front pocket. He began to flip through it before speaking: “So we have an abandoned warehouse occupied by what I reckon are orphaned children. And an apparent ELPIS sect targeting them.”

“They were not ELPIS,” Jericho interjected.

“Right,” Talib agreed. “From the way they were acting and our investigation of the scene after, it’s clear that those white cloak-wearing individuals were definitely not members of ELPIS sect A or sect B. Most likely, they were hired hands. And,” he paused, reaching into his pocket again and pulling out a dark black sheet of paper that had been folded into the shape of a butterfly. “I planted one of these on one of the Foxmans during our questioning and overheard that they were preparing an infiltration operation at the warehouse. The hired fake ELPIS fits into the equation somewhere—though I don’t know where. With the way they were executed, perhaps it’s a matter of internal betrayal. But in the end, it still is an internal affair.” He took a moment to catch his breath and leaned back in his chair. He stared at the ceiling with a frown. “Those children…” He pinched the bridge of his nose.

Jericho observed him. He seemed to have lost the exuberance he’d shown earlier. There was a probability that Talib’s conversation with Cadence Morello had something to do with it. Jericho paused at the thought. Talib’s conversation with Cadence—how did he know about that? Most likely the same way he knew about the warehouse. But this was irrelevant. 

“I have to ask—how did you know about the warehouse?”

Irrelevant. 

“You called it intuition,” Jericho replied. 

“I did.” Talib stroked his non-existent beard. “With that sort of intuition, perhaps you will be the one to finally bring down the Organization.” He folded away the origami and his journal back into his pocket. “But first thing’s first. Since the warehouse seems out of our jurisdiction, I say we head to the docks we were going to investigate prior to our warehouse detour.” 

“The ELPIS members inside the warehouse were fakes,” Jericho said. “But that doesn’t mean that ELPIS is not involved.” After receiving an arched brow, he clarified, “As you said. Intuition.”

Talib leaned forward, his expression softening suddenly. “I understand you’re concerned about the children as well but that is not our jurisdiction. The best we can do is send in a report and see if anything comes out of it.”

“This is not about the children,” Jericho clarified with a slight tilt of his head. “This is about ELPIS.”

Talib froze before regarding him strangely. “It seems as if you have quite the fixation on ELPIS.”

“Yes, I would like to work for the ELPIS division.”

“I see. How gusty. Have you applied?”

“Ninety-nine times.”

Talib choked on his drink and cleared his throat. “I see… Well, now I’m curious. Despite the numerous roadblocks the Organization has put in your way, you seem to be very steadfast on your goal. May I ask exactly what is behind your remarkable determination?”

“They need to be exterminated.”

“Exter…?”

“Completely exterminated,” Jericho clarified. After a pause he added, “Hope. In the original Ophiucian language. Before the War ended. That’s what it means.”

“Excuse me?” Talib scratched his hair beneath his hat. “Peace?”

“That is what the world ‘elpis’ means,” Jericho answered. “War, famine, and suffering exist because of false hope. Creating false hope is what ELPIS does, and they need to be punished for that. If ELPIS is annihilated—all members killed and all beliefs eradicated—then true hope will return. And peace will follow.”

There was a long stretch of silence. Talib was gazing at him with an unreadable expression. Jericho wondered if he had spoken too bluntly or too confusingly. Alice had coached him on that many times.

Instead of addressing bluntness or confusion, however, Talib merely leaned forward and asked, “Do you really believe that? Peace can be achieved by getting rid of ELPIS?”

Jericho met his eyes. A strange question. “Of course.” 


“As much as I trust your intuition, I think it’s best if we check out the docks first. Many things come in and out from Pollux Bay. Perhaps even people.”

“Then we go back to the warehouse afterwards.”

“Yes, of course, partner.”

They had left the cafe fifteen minutes ago and had begun their long walk to the Bay Area. The intercity trams were still closed at this time, and there were very few v-ehicles dotting the road. Getting “a ride” as Talib put it would be extremely difficult, and they had taken to the streets. The cobblestone walkways were slick with rainwater from the drizzle that had dusted the streets half an hour earlier, and Jericho had already had to catch Talib from slipping on the walkway five times. Each time ended with Talib declaring that the Organization had set traps for them.

As they walked and talked, Jericho began to feel as if something had changed between them. He just wasn’t sure what. Had he said something odd? This was still too hard. But if he did not try to adapt, he would never be able—

A series of metallic bangs from an alleyway that opened up to his left interrupted his thought. He stopped short and turned towards the sound, ignoring Talib as the man continued forward speaking about how the State Conducting Exam was actually some “diabolical” test to collect and track 

The sound continued, and Jericho stepped into the mouth of the alley—

Bad idea. Bad idea. Not a good gamble, especially in this city. Illogical. Run. Observe. Exciting.

Irrelevant. 

—and continued forward.

It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the darkness away from the lit streets, and he could barely make out the dead-end of the alley and the dumpster that occupied its left wall.

A body was just emerging out from the trash bin as his eyes adjusted fully. Small. Short. Something was cradled in its arms. Food. 

He took another step forward quietly. And then another—

—right into a puddle. The splash that followed caused whoever it was that was huddled in the darkness to freeze and look up. It was too dark to see any semblance of color. Only shades of black and white. But Jericho could still make out the features of the girl who stood in front of him. Nothing about her stood out to him except—

A birthmark took up half of her face. Vaguely, it resembled the shape of a butterfly.

Jericho felt something click in his head, and he advanced towards her. “You—”

The girl’s eyes hardened, and she bared her teeth at him. She glanced over her shoulder and seemed to take note of the dead-end, before she let out an abrupt snarl and dashed towards him. 

Intimidation as a distraction in order to escape. Concealed weapons are a possibility. Immobilizing her before she reaches that point would be logical.

The thought came suddenly as had the others, but the thoughts had never failed him before. 

Gripping his suitcase tightly, Jericho swung his leg out and caught the girl in the stomach with his knee. She let out a wheezing gasp as something clattered onto the floor beneath her.

A shard of glass wrapped with cloth at one end. A makeshift knife. 

Before she could even make for it again, Jericho kicked the object to the side while simultaneously reaching forward and grabbing the girl by the wrist. He held her up in the air watching as she kicked her feet above the ground.

“You were there. At the warehouse,” Jericho stated as he pulled the girl closer. “Why? What do you have to do with ELPIS?” There was a slight throb at his temple, and he found himself asking after a pause, “Why are you attacking the Foxmans and the Romanos?”

The girl’s eyes widened in the darkness but she said nothing and continued to squirm in his hold. He tightened his grip. 

She spat something in what he assumed with Geminian.

“My Geminian is rusty,” he said in Common. “I’m not from around these parts. I’m from Ophiuchus Do you know Common?”

The girl ceased her struggling. “O-Ophiuchus? You are peacekeeper then?” Broken Common.

“Yes,” Jericho supplied. “What do you have to do with ELPIS?”

“Nothing!” The girl shouted. “Nothing! Romano and Foxmans! Their fault! Help us—you have to! Peacekeeper!” 

He tilted her head in thought and then noticed the tears streaming from her eyes. “… am I hurting you?”

“Yes!” She hissed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, releasing her from his grasp. She stumbled to the ground but he reached out to stop her from falling. “Don’t run away, or I will catch you again.” He paused thinking before he added, “Without hurting you.”

The girl gave him an odd look as she wiped the tears away from her eyes. She rubbed her wrists with an almost glare but then nodded. 

“Jericho!”

It was Talib— running down the alley towards them waving wildly. When he reached them, he bent over heaving.

“My dear partner, you really need to stop disappearing without telling me!” Talib gasped between breaths. It took him another minute to catch his breath, and Jericho and the girl watched him in silence. Only after he managed to collect himself did he seem to notice the girl. “Oh, and who might you be?”

“She was at the warehouse. She was one of the children involved. I recognize her. She knows something. Intuition.”

“I see…”

Talib lifted the brim of his hat as he crouched down to the girl’s eye level. He extended a hand out to her. “I am Agent Talib Al-Jarrah of Ophiuchus at your service. And what would your name be?”

“Matilda,” she said, lifting her chin and accepting the gesture. She then squinted at him in the darkness, before she whispered, “Ophiuchian peacekeeper—you, really?”

“Yes, yes, would you like to see my ID?”  Talib pulled out his badge from his coat pocket and handed it over to her before she answered.

Matilda took into her hands almost reverently. Like all other Ophiuchian ID badges, it came with the usual State Conducting License printed over with a faint Ophiuchian symbol paired with a silver badge. The circular silver badge was in the image of a snake with wings wrapped around the world.  She ran her fingers over the plastic that covered the license and then the badge.

“Now, I have a couple of questions for you and after I ask them you can ask your questions to me, alright?”

Matilda nodded as she handed back the badge.

“You were at the warehouse a couple of hours ago, were you not?”

The girl nodded.

“Are you injured?”

The girl shook her head.

“Good. Now, do you know why you were attacked by the people in white cloaks?”

Matilda shook her head with a tremble. “We do nothing to ELPIS but…”

“They were not actually ELPIS members, Matilda,” Talib said slowly. “It seems as if they were hired hands.”

Her eyes widened, and the fear immediately was replaced with an emotion Jericho could identify immediately. Rage. Her fists balled, her teeth bared. “Then them! Romano! Foxmans—”

Talib raised his hand placatingly before he put a hand on her shoulder and said slowly, “Listen to me, Matilda.  It is taken as a serious offense to promote anything related to ELPIS—even simply masquerading as them. Position, power, and status cannot protect you when you commit this offense. Do you understand what I am implying, Matilda?”

Matilda glanced at Jericho for a moment before nodding firmly. 

“Good, so will you answer my questions honestly?” 

Matilda nodded again.

“You are behind the recent attacks on buildings that are owned by the Foxmans?”

Matilda hesitated and then nodded. 

“Do you understand that you have injured innocent bystanders in your act?”

Matilda lowered her gaze.

“You do realize that I will have to report your confession to local authorities, correct?”

Matilda bit her lip, eyes widening.

“At least that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Talib continued. “But at the moment, I can’t help but think that this whole huge, murderous revenge plot is not something that someone as sweet as you could come up with. Why did you do it? No—what made you act in the first place? What was the catalyst?”

Matilda’s brows furrowed. “Don’t know… ‘catalyst’ but… her. She… tourist. Pretty. Help save from thieves. She…. brave. She told us…. pride. ‘Don’t let our pride and our family’s pride be trampled on’. Lose pride, lose everything. Fight back, she said. Yes.”

“She?” Talib pressed. “Someone saved you and then told you to pick a fight? Well, that’s rather convoluted.” He rubbed his chin. “Did you happen to catch her name?”

“Never forget. Leona.”

Jericho straightened himself but Talib remained impassive. 

“What did she look like?”

Matilda flushed as she looked to the side. “Pretty…. gold…. hair and eyes. Strong. Like magazine girls.”

Talib had pulled out his journal and had etched all these details down before nodding firmly and rising to a stand. He then put the journal back into his pocket and pulled out something else. A key.

“This here is a key to our suite. The Abacchio Hotel on Decoco Street. You know it, yes?” He asked/

The girl nodded slowly.

“My friend and I probably won’t be heading back to our hotel tonight if this checks out, but we rented it out for the entire week. Even if this doesn’t turn out to be anything, my friend here doesn’t sleep, you see. It would be a waste if the room just sits like that so…” Talib dropped the keys into her hands. “You may use it for the time being. These streets are not good to be running around in late at night.”

The girl stared at him.

“I know you probably don’t trust me but—”

“Yes, trust!” Matilda urged, wrapping her fingers around the key. “You… Ophiuchians. Peacekeepers. Help us. The one… Leona… Ophiuchian. Help us. Encourage us. Trust.”

Reaching over and patting her on the head, Talib half-sighed, half-chuckled, “Right, right. Run along now. Leave this to us.”

Jericho waited for the girl to disappear from the alley before he addressed Talib: “You are good with children. You must like them.”

Talib wrinkled his nose immediately and shook his head. “Oh, saint’s no! I despise them. In fact, I break out in blisters every time I come near one.”  He showed Jericho his hands, and he had indeed broken out into blisters.

“I see.”

“Yes, in fact, I believe that the Organization—”

“I see what you mean now.”

“What’s that?”

“I see what you mean about the children.”


They arrived at the bay ten minutes later. The travel time was shorter than before because the slippery cobblestone streets had become gradually replaced with cement walkways as they drew nearer to their destination. 

It was foggier here than at the warehouses, and Jericho could see less than a meter in front of him. The sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon and the heat it brought with it saturated the air with a heavy humidity. 

“I’ll go this way.” Jericho pointed to the left. 

Talib raised a brow at him. “Splitting up? That never ends well. Besides, I could use my conductor to look around instead of wandering around like geese.” 

“I don’t like sitting around,” Jericho replied. “We can cover more ground.” 

All reconnaissance plans need to take into account not only persons but places as well.

—Saying this thought out loud, Jericho pointed to the fog. 

Talib scratched his nonexistent beard again before nodding. “Alright, if you put it that way— I’ll trust your intuition.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of white origami paper which proceeded to fold itself into a frog. The paper frog shivered to life before hopping right out of Talib’s palm into the fold of Jericho’s uniform. “I didn’t imbue it with much but it should be enough for communication. If you find something or come across trouble just give it a tear, and I’ll come to you.”

“What about you?”

Talib looked somewhat surprised but then straightened his trench coat and hat. “Well, I will send my own messenger if anything occurs, but that frog there will unfold if anything happens to me.”

“How will I know where you are if something happens to you?”

“I will yell very loudly. I did when the National Screaming Competition of ‘28.”

Something tickled Jericho’s chest.

Talib stared at him for some reason. 

“I’ll take the west side then,” Jericho said.


As it turned out, Jericho had chosen the direction where most of the cargo holding buildings were located. He had known this of course. The entire layout of the bay was familiar to him. Somehow.  

Metal cargo containers surrounded the set of brick buildings, and stacks of wooden crates lined the edges of a set of docks that extended out into the mist. 

Strange.

The lights to the buildings were off. It was silent. No gulls. 

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase and approached the closest building. He peered into the dark of the windows and inspected within. Nothing out of the ordinary. At least, he didn’t think so. He wasn’t certain what constituted as normal for a dock building—

Quickly, Jericho turned on his heels and extended his hand. “Hello, are you—please stop screaming sir.”

The man who had approached Jericho from behind while the latter had been inspecting the building swallowed his yelp and wiped his sweaty hands off onto his overalls. His overalls were damp and his hair was matted down. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He had dark blonde hair and hazel eyes— eyes that darted to Jericho’s Ophiuchian sash and then to his still extended hand.

“I am Jericho. I am from Ophiuchus.” Jericho flashed his badge with his free hand. “I would like to ask you some questions. Do you speak Common?”

The man hesitated for a moment before accepting Jericho’s gesture. Uncalloused hands. Smooth.

“Well, I can’t say no to an Ophiuchian Agent.” The man answered in Common, quickly pulling his hand away, almost ripping it right out of Jericho’s hands. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I’m here investigating the disappearance of another agent. She went by the name Leona.”

The man glanced at the building. “Well, do you have a picture? A lot of people come by around these parts.”

“I don’t see any people at the moment. And no, I don’t have a photo. But that’s not needed. You would be able to identify her by her uniform.” 

“Well, if you put it that way…” The man wrinkled his nose, causing Jericho to pause.

“I’m sorry if I came off as rude,” Jericho amended. “This is a serious case.”

Now the man raised a brow. “You a newbie or something?”

Jericho thought on it. “Or something.” After thinking on it some more, he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and tried, “Anything will be appreciated.” Realizing that the man was somewhat uncomfortable with the gesture, Jericho removed his hand. He wondered why Talib had done it more effectively. “We believe this may involve ELPIS so time is important.”

“ELPIS, huh?” The man rubbed his nose. “That does sound pretty serious.” He then rubbed his chin. “Now that you mention it, I think my friend mentioned seeing someone odd.”

“Friend.”

“Yeah, he’s inside right now on break.” The man nodded towards the building. “I can take you to him.”

Jericho stared at him, and he seemed to squirm under his gaze. Finally, Jericho nodded.

The man dug into his overalls and pulled out a ring of keys. He fumbled around for a couple of seconds before selecting a rusty key and fitting it into the keyhole of the door to Jericho’s right. With a grunt, he pushed the steel door open and jerked his head towards the interior. 

Jericho followed the man inside and watched as the faint sliver of light cast by the open door behind him thin into nothing. Complete blackness. The sound of footsteps. A soft click.

The v-lights flickered on, illuminating everything in a bright flash. It did not take long for Jericho’s eyes to adjust, and he began to study the interior. It was large and mostly empty with just several bare metal shelves lining the wall and a handful of metal poles leaning against the wall.

“Where is your friend?” Jericho asked as he turned around. 

A flash of silver, and then a shout— “Right here!”

A soft thud echoed.

The man stumbled backward panting heavily.

Jericho spun around his suitcase which he had lifted to his chest moments before and inspected the knife that was now embedded a couple of centimeters deep into its surface. He looked at the man.

“Why did you do that?”

The man was visibly sweating now, but his fists were clenched. His eyes were hard.

“I may have to bring you in for further questioning,” Jericho said as he removed the knife from his suitcase. He inspected it. “Attacking an Ophiuchian Agent is a crime.”

“You Ophiuchians are so damn arrogant. Attacking an Ophiuchian Agent? Attacking anyone should be a crime! But you only give a damn about what you think is right.”

Jericho stared at him. “You seem angry.”

“You’re damned right I’m angry!” The man reached into his overall’s back pocket and glowered. A conductor, probably, Jericho deduced. “Using those damned conductors to screw over everyone else and force them to use it themselves!”

“Are you a licensed Conductor? If you use any more force against me, I will have to retaliate—”

Letting out a blood-curdling scream, the man pulled out his conductor and ignited it in a flash of bright light. He swung it wildly across Jericho’s chest, and Jericho felt the heat radiate even as he ducked backwards. But the man continued slashing wildly with the light, and Jericho was forced to push him back with a well-aimed kick to the chest. 

The man stumbled backwards, and Jericho took the opportunity to collect himself and observe the man and his conductor which he gripped in his hand as if it were a life-line.

An Externalist. Melee-type. Sword. Long sword? Vitae-color: blue. Not well-trained. Illegal conducting. 

Jericho stated his observations to the man calmly.

“Untrained?” The man spat. “I’ll show you just how much they taught me.”

The man flicked his wrist. For a second, there was nothing. But then slowly, from where the vitae-formed blade met the tip of its conductor, it began to pale. From a deep blue to a sky blue to—

There was a ringing in Jericho’s ears as the white bled into his vision. White. White. White. The world twisted, taking on a stark black and white gradient.

“You Ophiuchians—”

There was a deafening crack followed by a splatter of red. The man collapsed to the ground. He was probably screaming. His cheek was leaking red, after all. The liquid on the corner of Jericho’s suitcase dripped the same color. 

Good. Good. Good. Anything but that white.

“That color… this changes things.” 

The man scrambled backwards, reached for his conductor. It ignited again. A blinding white.

No. No. No. No.

It wasn’t enough. 

Jericho lifted up his suitcase and brought it down. Lifted it up, brought it down. He did it again. And again. And again. And again.

Die. Die.  Die. Die. Die. Die. Die. Die. Die. Diedieidiedie.

The conductor rolled out of the man’s hands, losing its blade of white vitae as it left its wielder’s hands. The white was gone. There was only red and black.

Stop it.

Abruptly, color returned to Jericho’s world. The gray of the bricks of the building. The yellow of the flickering v-lights. The purple of his Ophiuchian armband. 

The ringing in his ears faded.

Jericho paused and set down his suitcase. He reached for what he believed was the man’s throat and checked his pulse. Still alive. Unconscious. He then grabbed the man’s face in his hands and shook it hard. The man stirred.

The man whimpered. “I… missing agent… tell…know…”

“I see.” Jericho glanced at him before he rose to a stand. “Thank you for your cooperation. But after you tell me, you still have to die.”

An inhuman sound escaped from the man’s throat. A familiar sound. Despair.

“There can be no hope for peace as long as even a hint of ELPIS remains,” Jericho informed him. “So even if you have turned away from them, a part of it still remains in you. And you need to be eliminated—”

Jericho jumped backwards just as a ray of light hurtled past where his head had been. That color—

Jericho righted himself and found himself staring at a man and a woman who were wearing overalls similar to the man who now laid motionless on the ground. The standing man was holding a long-ranged conductor. A hand-gun conductor that was still billowing out smoke. In the woman’s hands was a close-ranged conductor which spilled out a vitae whip that flickered from a pale yellow to a painful white.

Calm do—

But the thought was drowned out by a familiar high-pitched ringing that now resounded in his ears. The world spun, taking on a monochrome hue once more. Black and white. White. White.

Sounds. Shouts. Movements. Blurs. 

Die. Die. Die.

People like this don’t deserve to live.

When the world came into focus, the white glow of the man’s and the woman’s conductors were gone. Both were laying in a pool of red. Jericho’s suitcase was in his hands. It was no longer black.

The world remained monochrome with dapples of red, the ringing still present in his ears.

Not enough, Jericho thought as he watched the red spill in-between his boots. Not enough.

“Beating down our new recruits with just a suitcase— I can’t tell whether you’re crazy or talented. Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”

Jericho turned his head. For a moment he caught a glimpse of a pale face. A pale face marked on the left half by a tattoo inked in white. From this distance it looked like the letter S with a line drawn straight down the center of it. But Jericho knew that the symbol was not as simple as that. He knew even from this distance that the S was in fact an intricately designed snake and that the line was in fact made of letters spelling out a word. ελπίς. ELPIS. 

He had seen that tattoo for the first time on that hot summer day. The sun had been beating down on the sand, parching it and forcing it to soak up all liquids—including the blood. The heat had even dried up his tears before they hit the ground. He supposed that was why the woman in the white cloak had reached out to him kindly. Perhaps she had thought that he had been so strong as to not shed a tear. As she had cupped his cheek in her hands, he had seen it. The tattoo that glowed white on the right half of her face. The same tattoo worn by all the people in the white cloaks who stood over the corpses of his neighbors and his—

It was the same. The same. 

Jericho’s monochrome world fragmented. The black in the world thinned out into nothing. There was only white.

His head buzzed. His chest seized as his heart began to thunder. There was the taste of iron in his mouth. He felt his grip tighten on the handle of his suitcase. He needed to do it. It was time. If he didn’t do it, every part of him would explode—implode—with this feeling.

Jericho clicked open his suitcase, and a silver, thin cylinder no longer than his palm fell into his hand. He gripped it tightly in his hands. Finally. Finally. Finally. Finally. After all these years finally. One of them was right before him. Right in front of him. 

“I forgot to bring my shovel,” Jericho murmured absentmindedly to himself.

The tattoo-ed figure whistled in response. 

The door to the warehouse was suddenly thrown open, and a lone figure stumbled in.

“Jericho!”

It was Talib. Why was he here?

“Get awa—”

There was a high-pitched whine followed by a squelching sound. A splatter of red.

But Talib was fine. Although he looked horrified.

A wetness emanating from Jericho’s abdomen and shoulder caught his attention. He brought a hand to the area. Wet. Red. How?

Jericho turned his head around and saw it. Twin metal poles that were covered in faint, pure white light were sticking out of his back. The poles quivered before they began to move forward guided by an unknown force. 

The pain was burning hot like someone was pouring hot embers down his throat.

Still, Jericho forced himself to glare up at the tattooed figure who stood there with a metallic gloved hand lazily extended outwards. The poles followed the pull and continued their course, ripping themselves right through and out of Jericho’s chest and shoulder and into the figure’s waiting hands.

From behind. A manipulator. 

“All you Conductors can do is cause pain for others and call it retribution or justice,” the figure said. “You don’t even have the capacity to think about what others causing pain to you feels like.”

But Jericho wasn’t listening because he was already rushing towards them with his conductor sparking to life in his hand. There was a flash of light, and the figure shouted in alarm. With a flick of their gloved hand, they brought the twin poles back up to defend themselves.

There was a blinding burst of white against white.

“You…!”

And then there was only black.

Black.

Black.

Black.

A void. Emptiness. A place where time and space did not exist.

And then—

“Enough already! You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.”

Abruptly, Jericho felt himself yanked forward and out of the void of black. It took a moment for him to adjust to the sudden brightness and the warmth around him. When he collected himself, he found himself standing in a bedroom. There was a large bed draped in royal pressed against the wall. At the foot of the bed was a bird in a cage.

Jericho understood as soon as he arrived that he was, in fact, not actually present in such a place. But he did not feel out of place.

And he was not alone.

There were five others.

Three (5/6): imamu snap

“Can you hear it? The pulse of syzygy?”

Atienna stopped and turned. 

There was nothing behind her. Only the long, familiar stretch of green walls she had known since—since—

—ah, what an unpleasant thought. Recently they had been occurring more and more lately. 

She looked away.

“What is it, Atienna?” 

Safiyah was giving her the usual look of concern. Despite having met with one another just the other day, Safiyah had insisted on popping in for a wellness check. 

“The walls…. Do you think we should repaint them?” Atienna wondered, moving over to the wall and pressing her hand against it. “The green is a little suffocating, don’t you think?”

“Atienna…”

“Maybe white?”

Something terrible twisted in Atienna’s stomach at the thought.  

“Well, maybe not white—”

“Atienna!”

Safiyah rushed forward suddenly and grabbed her hand. A surprisingly tight grip. “What on Earth happened? Did someone do this to you?”

Atienna startled in alarm and then wondered what in the world Safiyah was referring to. When realization dawned, however, she could not help but smile. Safiyah always worried incessantly. 

“I was gardening again,” Atiena replied, slipping her bandaged hand out of her friend’s grip and then holding it sheepishly. “The roses are very pesky.” She dropped her hand and flushed. “Even though I’ve been at it for years… I still…”

Safiyah threw back her head and let out a dramatic sigh. “You are so clumsy! You need to take better care of yourself! Every single time I see you, you always have on new bandages! If I didn’t know you, I would think you were out getting into fights with your hands like that. Who would’ve thought gardening was so dangerous.”

The irony was not lost on Atiena, but instead of addressing it in words or in mind, she mimicked snipping scissors loosely with her hands as they continued their stroll down the hall. “Gardening… I don’t think it’s really fair coming out of it unscarred. To help, to hurt, to cultivate—whether it’s either of those intentions— it’s a change. And change always results in pain one way or another, don’t you think?”

Safiyah stared at her wordlessly before shaking her head. “You say the strangest things sometimes, Atiena.”

“And I’m grateful you’re still my friend despite it.”

“I’m your friend because of it.” Safiyah elegantly rolled her eyes. “I know what to expect from you.”

“Do you?” Atienna grinned devilishly.

“Of course.” Safiyah huffed. “With the Council, at the moment they’re saying that they’re refraining from international involvements due to the current internal affair, but who knows what they will say next? We might be off to fight in that silly Capricornian-Aquarian conflict tomorrow after they suddenly declare they suspect outside involvement with your poisoning. Well, not tomorrow. They’ll probably sit on it for another couple of years or so before we hear anything of it, I’m sorry to say.”

“I thought you’d be happier about that. Not the part about my investigation case, but about the continued isolationism—well, I hope you wouldn’t be happy about my case.” Atienna chuckled.

“Oh, stop teasing me.” Safiyah rolled her eyes. “What I’m saying is that other people change ‘at the tip of a hat’ as the Ariesians say. But you—you never change.”

There were words that Atiena knew were for comfort, but for a brief moment she felt something flare up in the pit of her stomach. Her palms itched, but the sensation only lasted for a second. This was not the place, after all. She could wait. She needed to.

And so instead, Atienna merely chuckled jokingly, “For you to be around such a boring person all the time must be a hardship for you.”

They passed through the halls speaking about everything but what Atiena presumed was on their minds.  When the front doors were within their sights,  they found Nia and Sefu waiting for them at their posts. The guards turned almost immediately at the approach and gave their usual salutes.

Safiyah nodded at them with an air of nobility that she seemed to have drawn from thin air. Under her breath she whispered, “They’re not going to search me again, are they?”

“I bribed them with food made by my father’s personal chef. Kupika. He’s served the chieftain family of the Imamu tribe for generations. Apparently he gets requests to cook outside of Virgo,” Atiena whispered back.

“I don’t mind being bribed as well.”

After sharing a hug with Safiyah, Atiena watched as Nia escorted her out the door and through the pathway outside leading to the gate. Sefu remained posted by the door.

“You look tired, Sefu. Did you have a late-night shift again?” Atiena asked.

Sefu turned his head towards her but his face remained impassive. Rigidly, he looked over his shoulder at the twisting walkway and back down the hall behind her. Almost immediately the tightness in his shoulders loosened, and he hung his head.

“Miss Atienna, I’ve been posted here since midnight! I am near fainting!”

Atienna covered her mouth in shock. “I’m so sorry. You’ve been here for that long? Without food?”

“Well, no. I did take a lunch break an hour earlier,” Sefu admitted. “And a breakfast break before that but there have been so many guests coming in and out of the estate that—”

Atienna kept her hand over her mouth to hide her smile. “Worry not, Sefu. I am at your service.”


Atienna made her way back through the halls and found her way to the kitchen doors. She reached for the handle but paused. 

A muffled voice echoed from within. 

Bachiru.

Probably raiding the fridge again in an effort to procrastinate his homework from Usian. Usian… 

SIghing with a smile, Atiena pressed her hand against the door and pushed it open an inch.

“—don’t have to follow what the Council orders.”

Atienna froze in place and peered down at the space between the floor at the door. The light spilling out from the crack was smeared by shifting shadows. One, two, three, four, five—

Just how many people were inside? 

And with so many people present, why was Bachiru the only one speaking? 

“All they do is speak about their beliefs about what is right, what is moral, what is good for this country. But beliefs alone do nothing. They are merely the spark, and a spark that does not catch flame is meaningless. Actions are the tinder to the flame.”

Atienna’s vision swam. 

Those were the exact words. The words that she had engraved into her heart. The words that her—their—mother had spoken to that crowd on that day. That day that—

No. No. No.

“I already have the support of the Mkuki tribe. Although they have close ties with the Ra who have strictly voted against both Sagittarian aid, I have managed to convince their eldest chieftain son of our cause. And as you all know they are one of the tribes that have the highest number of registered Conductors. With them at our side, we can—”

Atienna peeled away from the door. 

Should she intervene? Was that right? For stopping him from starting something that could become something that could become irreversible? Was the irreversibility good or bad? 

Should she allow Bachiru to continue? Was that right? Would he be in the right, in that case, or the wrong. Both? Ideals were never wrong as long as they were viewed within the right frame of mind.

No. She didn’t know. What was right, what was wrong. Both.

Bachiru he—

And just like that, suddenly, abruptly, a woman appeared right in front of Atienna’s eyes. Out of thin air. Like she had been dropped from the sky. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the sensation she would feel when she would skip pages in a book and be taken from a tragic scene to a happy reunion. Startling, but not quite out of place nor unwanted.

The woman was very tall, with broad shoulders, and a posture that radiated confidence. Her deep green eyes were strong and determined, looking straight ahead without reluctance. The smile that she wore was charismatic and fearless. Perhaps an author might have spotted  her in passing and then crafted a heroic princely figure in a novel out of inspiration.  Yes, that was the impression Atiena got from this woman. An unearthly, impossible person.

“For you to drop by so suddenly, you must be very bold,” Atienna said, meeting her eyes. 

“Oh! You can see me!” The woman chortled, letting out a laugh that almost sounded unearthly as it filled in all the corners of the hallway. She stepped forward and clasped Atiena’s hand in her own. Warm. “Are you a spirit too then?”

Atienna opened her mouth to reply but—

“Well, I suddenly found myself with that other one, yes? The short, angry child? Well, it was very boring so I left that place. And then I was somewhere else and now I am here.” The woman rocked back on her heels and nearly stumbled back towards the door. She caught her balance on the balls of her feet, however, and rocked forward. “But you—you’re the first one to speak to me like this! Say, why is that, spirit? You are a spirit, yes?”

Ah. This was a bit too much. But perhaps this was just the way this person was. 

“Well, although I can’t confirm or deny your interesting theory on spirits, I can’t say I feel very much like one,” Atienna responded. 

“Hm? You just denied my theory, didn’t you? Why are you saying you can’t? When you speak like that, I get really confused, you know?” The woman’s gaze pierced through her like an arrow. It was unnerving. Those unsettling eyes paired with that sparkling grin.

Atienna covered up her smile of discomfort with her hand. “Well, when you put it eloquently like that, I guess I have to confirm my suspicions that I am not a spirit. I doubt the others you may have encountered are either.” Atienna then did her best to explain what little she knew of their current situation. The connecting thoughts. The mirages. The feelings.

After the lengthy explanation, Maria Gloria-Fernandez merely tilted her head and stared at Atiena with a puzzled expression. And then she broke out into another dazzling grin and gripped Atiena’s shoulder tightly. “I don’t really get it, and I definitely have never felt anything but emotions that are my own,” she said. “But from what I am understanding, we are currently experiencing something that no one has experienced before, yes? In other words, this is amazing!”

Atienna was rather taken aback. Even Cadence hadn’t reacted this positively. Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if people like this truly existed or if this was just a burst of sudden emotion that Maria was exhibiting out of nervousness. She wondered—

“What are you doing?” Asking this, Maria suddenly popped up only inches away from Atienna’s face.

Atienna stepped back despite herself but smiled thinly. “I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, but I could ask you the same thing.”

“I’m here because I’m bored,” Maria answered simply. She then leaned back against the door behind her and raised her brows when Atiena startled. She gestured backwards and cocked her head. “You want to go inside, don’t you? Or is it that you want to walk away? I don’t really get what’s going on, but whatever you do is much better than just standing here, no?”

Ah. Atienna’s palms began to itch. Had she not dressed them properly before?

“It’s very kind of you to be concerning yourself with my current situation, but from what I gather, you seem to be at a crossroads yourself.”

And then Maria frowned, perplexed. “Huh? What are you saying? What does that have anything to with what you want to do?”

This Maria was—

“Your body is strong. I am sure if you tried to punch me now and I let you, it would definitely hurt. But your eyes…” Maria lifted her hand, brought it to Atienna’s face—just brushing over her left eye ever so lightly. “At first I thought you were like the boy, but you’re not even looking in any direction. Not a path of escape, not a path forward.” She cracked a grin again. “Well, regardless, I still like you.”

Leaving that statement in the air, Maria Gloria-Fernandez promptly disappeared from Atienna’s sight. But the itch remained.

There was a sound from behind the door—someone was approaching. Atienna swiftly backed away and headed into the bathroom two doors down. Once inside, she approached the stone sink carved from the wall and ran the water. She rinsed her face before shutting off the spout and headed to the window to her left. She could barely make out the pathway leading to the gates from this angle but she could still see the sunlight splattering through the overhanging canopies.

Sunlight…

She glanced down at the sill. Her heart sank at the sight of it. With all the commotion going on, she had forgotten to water her flowers here and they had begun to wilt. Virgo was in the middle of a heatwave, after all. She picked up the pitcher that was in the corner of the room, filled it up in the sink, and took to watering her neglected plants. 

Bachiru—

Worrying did nothing. It was better not to think about it. It was all useless in the end anyways.

Atienna held her lightly throbbing temple as a heaviness suddenly pressed down on her chest. The feeling of deja vu that she had become familiar with followed shortly after.

And then she felt it. That sensation again. Like with the woman. Something startling but not out of place or unwanted. 

Atienna turned her head.

And just like that, a young boy appeared there in the mirror. He was sitting on the edge of a windowsill staring outwards. There was another person sitting next to him. A friend? No, it didn’t seem that way. 

Just like Maria, he did not seem alarmed at her appearance. 

As she spoke with him, Atiena could not help but wonder what it was that made Maria think they were alike initially. It was a little ways into their conversation that she noticed the third person. A girl. She could vaguely make out the girl’s thoughts, but everything about her was surrounded in a haze. When she addressed the boy about the girl, he gave an unexpectedly emotional response. There was desperation in his eyes and anger and guilt. But before she could address it—

—like a lightning bolt, an unexplainable rage throttled through her core. 

It bubbled up in her chest and rose upwards where it lodged in her throat. Her vision blurred.

Bachiru. How dare he. After everything that had happened, after everything their father had suffered, after—

“Ah!”

Abruptly Atienna found herself doubled over, cradling her stomach. Her hands were wet, warm. She tried to move them away from her stomach to assess the damage but even the slightest of movements caused an excruciating arrow of pain to shoot through the area. Grimacing and blinking the tears out of her eyes, she looked down. Red was seeping between her fingers. 

Blood…?

Yes. And no.  This wasn’t her pain, she realized. Not her wound. This was…

Atienna looked up at the mirror above the sink. “Jericho.”

A coldness gripped her insides as she spoke the name and the feeling closed in around her chest. She gasped for air as the iciness gripped tighter, making each breath even more painful than the last. Black dots began to flood her vision.  And then—

—the coldness released her.

It took a moment for Atienna to catch her breath. When she looked back up at the mirror, the boy was gone. The pain was gone too. 

She glanced down at her stomach.

Gone.

But the feeling remained. Lodged in her throat. 

What in the world was that pain? 

She leaned back against the windowsill and wiped her brow. After taking a minute to recollect herself, she stood up and glanced around the bathroom. Rubbing her arms, she asked quietly, “Are you alright…?”

Silence answered her. The quiet sent a chill down her spine and a sensation of fear she knew was irrational. Still, she decided that staying in the bathroom any longer would do more harm than good. 

Taking in a deep breath, Atienna made her way back out the hall and then found herself right in front of the kitchen doors. Maria’s words echoed inside of her mind again, and those words paired with that feeling were almost unbearable.

Atienna reached forward towards the door.

But then it swung open abruptly.

Bachiru stood there looking rather startled. “Oh, Atienna—did Safiyah leave already?”

Atienna remained silent and instead peered behind him. The kitchen was empty but the tabletops were cluttered with crumb-filled plates and used utensils. 

“Did your friends leave already as well?” Atienna smiled pleasantly.

Bachiru’s eyes widened and his body tensed. “I—Wha—Yes.” He swallowed. “I invited them over to make bets on the Olorun Game Festival this fall.” 

Atienna walked forward and did not allow her gaze to leave his face even as he backed away. She closed the door behind her. 

“What are you doing, Bachiru?”

“Wha—what do you mea—”

“The Mkuki Tribe—what is it exactly that you plan to do with them? Use them as a tool to bend the Council to what you want? Through fear?”

A long stretch of silence. 

“So you have heard then.” Bachiru finally said. “You have always told me it is not polite to eavesdrop.” 

“Nor is it polite to urge people who are seeking peace to bear arms.” 

Bachiru lifted his chin. “If we don’t do something, then they will win.”

“They?”

“The people who hurt you, Atienna!” 

“I am perfectly fine, Bachiru. What happened to me has nothing to do with what you are doing. Using what happened as an excuse is a bit irresponsible, don’t you think?”

“It has everything to do with you! You heard what has been said—what everyone knows! You were poisoned because father wanted to support the Sagittarians! It was a threat!”

“And if it really was a threat, do you think dividing our Council is the correct way to respond to it? When the one who did it is not even known? Who is to say that the people you’ve allied with aren’t the ones who did it? If you look at it that way, it’s an endless spiral of conspiracies. When one already doesn’t know who to trust, why would they be spreading distrust to others? It doesn’t fit together, don’t you think?”

Bachiru opened his mouth and then closed it.

“These issues that are happening—I think you are justified in your feelings and what you want to do,” Atienna said gently. “I can’t tell you whether you’re right or wrong, but I can tell you that what you’re choosing to do is out of what you feel is right.” 

A soft, wry chuckle escaped from Bachiru’s lips as he shook his head. “That’s always how you are. Can’t even tell me whether I am right or wrong? Not even addressing what this is all about. Question after question after question that goes nowhere. Just because you don’t see the problem, it doesn’t mean it’s not there!”

Ah. There it was again. That accusation. 

Averting her eyes? What was wrong with that? It was better than choosing something and hurting others, wasn’t it? That’s right. No matter where it landed on the scale, a choice always ended with suffering. 

Not only that… Not only that…

Her palms ached, her knuckles cracked as she clenched her fists.

No. No. No.

Keep calm, she told herself. It wasn’t right to be angry now. Bachiru was justified in his thoughts from his point of view, but she was also justified in hers. No one was right, no one was wrong.

And what she was feeling right now— that was only for the night. That was a choice for no one to see. 

“Seeking to offer peace to another country by inciting violence in your own—don’t you think that’s just a little bit strange?”

“Atienna. You know that speaking about beliefs does nothing. Acting on those beliefs is what matters. Just speaking about it alone lets problems fester. Look what happened to mother—”

Something snapped. A dam broke. 

“Wait, I did not mean…”

The feeling that had been bottled up near her throat suddenly was released. The red, hot anger that was now spilling out into her fingers, out from her mouth, coursing into her veins.

Did she scream? Yell? She didn’t know. What she did know was that there was now a deep dent in the wooden table beside her and—

—that in the petals of wood that fragmented outwards from the dent’s center, her closed fist now rested. There was a dull throbbing at the side of that fist but it hurt no more than it hurt when she threw a bad punch in the ring.

“A-Atienna…”

Bachiru was wide-eyed. Concern? Fear? She did not know.

“What makes you so sure that you’re right?” — whether she was shouting or whispering, she did not know either — “What kind of arrogance do you have that you think your version of justice is so much better than mother’s—than anyone else’s?”

Bachiru was stumbling backwards, but she continued towards him. 

“After everything she fought for, after everything that’s happened to her—to us—because of what she fought for, how dare you do all of this? How selfish can you be? Calling me indecisive? I have been thinking of this family every single day ever since mother became the way she is! What to do and what not to do so the same mistake never happens again—it’s all I ever think about! And you—you have the gall to—“

Bachiru was backed up against the wall now, and she was mere centimeters from his face. 

“You told all of those people in here that beliefs were meaningless without action. Using mother’s words so easily.” Atienna clenched her pounding fist. “Do you know what my greatest aversion is, Bachiru? You do, don’t you? It’s when people speak with such vindication without having a clue about what they are speaking about!”

Letting out that final shout, Atienna released all of her righteous, burning anger and punched the wall right next to his head. The picture frame that had been hanging there shattered and the wall behind it splintered. Glass shards rained down onto the floorboards as the picture within the frame became loose and fluttered downwards.

Out of the corner of her eye, Atienna caught a glimpse of the photograph. 

It was the six of them. Before they became the chieftain household of the Imamu tribe. Before—

The anger, the heat, the rage disappeared in an instant leaving Atienna with a cold emptiness.

Atienna stumbled backwards, cradling her bleeding hand. She looked away from where the photograph now lay at the ground and up at her brother who flinched at her gaze.

“Bachiru, I…” 

Her brother slid to the ground shaking, and her heart fell with him. 

Three (4/6): gloria waltz

“Are your eyes naturally that color?”

“They are.”

“Wow…! That’s not normal, you know?”

“Captain… that’s not very polite…”

They were sitting in the dining hall that was, for once, absolutely silent. It hadn’t been this quiet since they had to perform maintenance on the dining hall after it had been flooded following a particularly bad storm. Maria, of course, had enjoyed using the flooded room as a swimming pool but she had a hard time convincing her crew to do the same. She had swum through the darkness of the hall all by herself, listening to the floating tables clack against one another in the water. In that moment, she had wondered if it was possible for anything to be silent like that again.

And now she was experiencing such silence.

The dining room was crowded. Filled to the absolute brim. All the tables but one were filled out, and the crowd spilled out of the dining area into the hall beyond. None of them spoke to those surrounding them and they did not try to hide their stares.

Maria sat at the one table that was not completely with the object of everyone’s attention sitting right across from her. Despite having on only the ill-fitting clothes that Conta had provided (a baggy shirt found below deck, and a thin pair of pants that came up only above the knees), the golden woman glistened like royalty. 

At Maria’s right sat Conta, as always. And behind Conta stood Simon. For some reason, both had sighed at Maria’s words.

“It’s alright.”  The golden woman smiled. “It’s only natural to be awed by something you don’t see everyday.” Her gaze swept the tables surrounding her.

“You’re definitely something interesting!” Maria agreed, tucking her hands under her chin. She tried to get a better view of the woman, tilting her head to examine her from all angles. After taking in the woman’s delicate brow, high cheekbones, she said, “I definitely like you. I want to know more about you.” She reached out and clasped one of the woman’s hands in her own as she rose from her seat and leaned in close. “My lovely, tell me about yourself!”

The woman tensed.

“Captain…” Conta sighed under her breath, before she turned to the golden woman and tried hesitantly: “What’s your name?”

The woman turned to Conta and stared at her long and hard. Her gaze trailed down Conta’s cheek to the nape of her neck. She smiled.  “You may call me Oros.”

“That’s a Leonian word,” Simon interjected gently from where he stood behind Conta. “May I ask if that’s where you’re from?”

Oros lifted her head and studied Simon carefully. After a moment, she seemed to chuckle under her breath. “I can tell that you’re a Leonian by the way you speak.” She pulled herself away from Maria, folding her hands in front of her. 

Maria couldn’t help but marvel at the elegance. 

“I have to admit I’m surprised that a member of the Leonian Monastery tary is here,” Oros continued. “To be so far away from home and duty…”

“You–”

“Oh! You’re Leonian?! That’s amazing! They say a Leonian can always tell whenever another Leonian is in the room,” Maria exclaimed, shooting up from her chair and slamming her hands on the table. “Say, I want to ask something, my lovely Leonian. I’ve been searching for someone from Leo–”

“Captain…” Simon interjected with a smile. “Shouldn’t we try and understand what happened to our guest first before you get to that?”

Maria glanced over her shoulder at him before she hummed. “Ah, that’s right. I am actually pretty curious about that.” She turned to Oros again. “How exactly did you end up in that box?”

Oros glanced away, gaze sweeping towards the crowd that had gathered at the door. “I’m wondering about that fact myself.” She leaned forward, folded her hands beneath her chin, and eyed the group gathered by the doorway. “If I’m assuming correctly, some of the members of the crew who were in charge of the shipment I was a part of are on this ship now.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Why?”

“They are a part of my crew now, you see.” Maria did not turn her head away from the woman. “And you could be too, yes?”

Oros smiled thinly. 

Maria held her gaze for a moment before an abrupt and  loud yawn escaped from her mouth. Oros frowned slightly, Simon looked away, and Conta flushed. 

“Well, I’m getting tired so…” Maria rose to a stand. “I will take a rest, and you can explore the ship, yes? My crew can be very entertaining also, so you’ll feel at home!”

She gave both Conta and Simon a tight squeeze on the shoulder before heading towards the door. As she left the premises of the table, she heard her crew members who had been silently listening from the sidelines burst into chatter. Some remained where they were seated, while others rushed over to Oros sat. 

As she exited the hall, she was stopped by a hand on the shoulder. Morandi. He was surrounded by former members of his crew. 

“My apologies, Captain, but… Are you really just going to let her roam around your ship like this?”

Maria blinked at him and tilted her head curiously. “Why…? Are you afraid that she’ll take her revenge?”

Morandi frowned.

“Well, don’t worry,” Maria chuckled, heartily patting the man on the shoulder. “You are part of my crew, so I will protect you now.” 


When Maria arrived in her quarters, she  threw herself onto her hammock and closed her eyes.  It did not take her long to fall asleep. It never did. 

She enjoyed dreaming. It was like being awake but with a dash of strangeness. She could wander around and do as she’d like just as usual but with a bit more flair. When she’d discussed her dreams with Conta one day, Conta had suggested that perhaps Maria’s dreams were lucid ones. But Maria didn’t quite understand it. 

Recently, however, her dreams were different. But not in a bad way. She could always tell her her dreams were going to be different. 

She could feel it now as she drifted away. It was happening. She could feel it. Pinpricks at the very recesses of her mind.

Flashes of people she vaguely recognized greeted her, and their lives unfolded in front of her.

Spirits. They had to be. Ghosts, maybe. How fun to be able to watch them. She wished she could speak to them, but oftentimes they didn’t hear her. 

In this particular dream, she encountered  the boy whom she had saved the other night first. And then she encountered the red-haired woman whom she decided to follow around for a while. There was the other woman too—the one who wouldn’t meet her eyes. And then there was the stiff, blonde-haired man. The soldier. This man, she followed closely. 

He was quite interesting—although Maria thought he could do it with a little more smiling. Like the woman who would not meet Maria’s eyes, there seemed to be uncertainty in the way he handled himself. Although his voice was firm, his eyes were… well, it was paradoxical. 

She wondered if she would be able to ask him about it. So after he had a rather boring conversation using a radio, she followed him further to a small cabin. 

Speaking her thoughts out loud to him, she reached for his shoulder, stepped forward, and—

—stepped onto the wooden flooring of the cabin.

The feeling was similar to jumping into the sea from the starboard bow on a hot, humid summer day. A bone-chilling wash of cold surging through every toe, finger, muscle in a singular instant. Almost like before with that boy.

Absolutely exhilarating.

Maria stumbled forward as she caught her breath and then spun around to face the soldier. But he wasn’t there. There was only a wooden door that was creaking to a close. She bounded over to it and pressed it closed shut which was when she came to a realization.

Her hands. They were gloved. Black leather that hugged fastly to her fingers and stretched all the way to the base of her wrists. Wearing them felt strange. She flexed her fingers and felt the material rub the skin in between her fingers. Almost uncomfortable.

But they looked absolutely beautiful! The craftsmanship! 

Maria held up her hands to the light to examine them further and came to a startling realization. Her hands were larger than she remembered. These hands were not her own. As she inspected further, she began to have the suspicion that her feet were not her own either. And definitely not her hair which was now falling into her eyes.

She stared at her foreign hands for what she thought was a very long time, before she felt something prick her skin. Someone was looking at her. She glanced up and looked around. A couple crates there, a makeshift desk there, a lamp hanging from the ceiling. Nothing really interesting. Everything was gray, drab, brown. Colourless. Even the men standing, staring in the corner of the room seemed colorless—

—wait.

There were six people sitting behind her on a set of beds pressed alongside the wall. 

Yes, right there in the corner of the room huddled a group of six gaut-looking men—the kind of men one’d probably find on the floor of the tavern at the crack of dawn. At least, that was what they looked like. They were caked in so much dirt that they almost all looked identical. If she lined them up in a row, the only way she’d probably be able to tell the difference between them was by looking them in the eyes or maybe measuring out their height. Their matching uniforms looked nice though. She bet they’d sell for a lot on the market.

As she inspected them further, she came to realize that they all looked vaguely familiar to her but she couldn’t quite put names to their faces. Then again, she couldn’t name some of her crew members. She had encountered so many people over the years that it was impossible to keep track of identities at this point. 

“Besides, there are a lot more things to do than spending time memorizing names, right?” Asking this, she approached the group and pointed to the man nearest to her. “Don’t you think?” 

The addressed man stood a head shorter than her and had a bandaged head. There was a small scar on his lower lip and a bruise surrounding one of his slate gray eyes. For some reason, he remained silent and instead shifted his gray gaze over to someone sitting on the bed across from him. Maria followed that gaze over and found a woman staring at her.

The woman had on a much fancier uniform than the others, and it was decorated with all sorts of shiny, beautiful medals. Her hair was thin and whispy and was tied into a tight bun. 

“Is there something you need, Lieutenant Waltz?” The woman questioned in Common.

Waltz. A familiar word. A dance. No, a name? Yes! That was it. The man—the spirit—she had been observing up until now—that was his name!

Werner Waltz.

What a pleasant name.

Maria stared down at her gloved hand and the pieces fitted loosely together in her mind. Somehow she had ended up here as Werner Waltz. A dream within a dream. Maybe? At least it was an interesting one.

Well, she might as well have some fun. 

Maria crouched down so she was at eye-level with the woman and stared at her long and hard.

The woman did not budge from where she sat and did not break off eye contact. But she did stiffen. “Lieutenant Waltz?”

Maria hummed, sighed, and finally asked, “Hm, you look really familiar. Do I know you?” She smiled pleasantly. “What’s your name? I want to know.”

“I don’t get what you’re trying to get at, Lieutenant Waltz.”

Maria pulled back and rose to a stand. “I’m trying to get at your name.” For a brief moment, she wondered if she should tell the woman that she was not Werner Waltz, but she brushed the thought aside. It was too much of a hassle.

“If you’re not joking, Lieutenant,” the woman spoke slowly, “I suggest you get checked out by one of your medical attendants. Your behavior is unusual.”

“Oh!” Maria grinned, hands on hips. Inclining my head, she sighed. “You’re quite the honorable soldier, my friend, telling such a thing to someone who I think is your enemy.” She took a step backwards and fell back onto one of the crates. Crossing her legs, Maria offered the woman another grin. “But honestly, I’m not interested in things like that. So, tell me your name.” She pointed to the others. “And your name and your name and your name and your name and—well—you get the point, yes?”

The woman stared back at her. Her frown seemed a bit uncertain now, and she eyed the doorway.

“I’m… Captain Dunya Kramar.”

“A captain, huh?” Maria couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. “You and me should get along then, yes?”

Dunya’s frown became even more uncertain.

“Captain Dunya Kramar.” Maria turned the name over in her mouth and absentmindedly reached into her pocket. It was a strange and sudden impulse, but she followed through with it anyways and pulled out a silver pocket watch. “Dunya Kramar…”

It was a very simple-looking pocket watch, but as she inspected it closer, she could make out a faint design carved into it. Absent-mindedly she pointed to the person in the next bed. He was the one she had approached first. He remained silent for a moment before Dunya tapped his foot roughly.

“I am Nikita Kovak… a sergeant. I told you—or do Capricornians really have such short memory.”

“That’s quite a thick accent you’ve got there, Nikita,” she said, flipping the pocket watch in-between her fingertips. 

“I could say the same for you.”

Maria stared at him. For some reason, he squirmed under her gaze. Why was everyone so uptight and uncomfortable in this dream within a dream? 

Ah, well. 

“I admit it’s not my first language,” Maria said. “But I’m going to learn them all eventually—ah, that reminds me, where are you guys from? That really is a strange accent.”

The six stared.

And stared.

And stared

She stared back. And then she noticed it. Him.

“Lieutenant Waltz—” Dunya began.

“You.” Maria pointed to a man who was kneeling beside one of the bedposts almost hidden. While she had been speaking, the man had been tending to one of the other men occupying the farthest bed. 

The addressed man stiffened half-way through what appeared to be a bandage change and met her gaze.

 “You look different from the others,” she said. 

And he did. He had wonderful dark curls, olive-skin, and amber eyes. He stuck out like a sore thumb.

“What did you say your name was?” 

“I…” The man exchanged a look with the captain. “I… didn’t tell you my name.” 

“You didn’t?” 

“He’s a combat medic,” Dunya provided. “The Treaty states that combat medics—”

Maria held up her hand and turned to the captain. “I don’t know about this treaty thing, and I don’t really care about it, to be honest. Rules are sort of a pain, right?” She approached the combat medic quickly, ignoring how the man he was tending to tensed at her presence. She smiled and repeated, “Your name.”

The man told her his name. And although his voice shook, his eyes were clear. Gaze steady.

 And what a lovely name. But…

“Ah. I see…” Maria hummed as she walked backwards to her previous spot. She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Well, how do I put this…” She peeked at the six soldiers and pressed her hands to her lips. “I really don’t like how this story is ending…”

“Story…?” The combat medic murmured.

“But, that’s how stories go, so I’ll change it.”

“Change…?”

“Yes, that’s it!” She began to spin the pocket watch by the chain. “The more I think about this, the less it feels like a dream within a dream. And if that’s the case, that means it’s something absolutely extraordinary.” Faster, faster, faster, she spun the watch—faster, faster, faster she spoke: “This is an extraordinary abnormality that is so extraordinary I don’t believe it even is fair to call it extraordinary because it is beyond that!” She tossed the watch up in the air, pointed to Dunya with one hand,  and caught the pocket watch with the other. “Do you understand?”

“… I don’t believe I follow.”

“Well,” Maria said,  tossing the pocket watch up and down. “It’s not so much about following and understanding, actually, as it is about experiencing. If you don’t experience it, there is no way that you can truly understand it and follow it, right?”

“He talk in circles…” muttered Nikita. “He’s… cuckoo.”

“Now, there are some circles that can lead you somewhere.” Maria caught the pocket watch mid-air and threw it at the combat medic who fumbled but caught it. “Like the one that led you to me.”

The combat medic who had been examining the watch for a fraction of a second started and looked up at her. “You know me…?” 

“I guess we’ll see.” Maria laughed. She turned back to Dunya then and pointed at her. “You, are you what they call a partisan?”

Dunya frowned. “Like I said, Lieutenant, those flyers had nothing to do with m—”

“Execute the partisan.” Maria parroted, trying her best to mimic the gravelly voice she’d heard over the radio. “That’s what he said!”

Almost immediately, all the soldiers besides the captain were standing. Or tried to. Two of them ended up fumbling and catching themselves on the edges of their bed, and the others fared no better.

“That’s—”

“—ridiculous!”

“Is that what your superiors told you to do?” Dunya asked calmly. 

Ah—

Maria threw her head back and laughed loud and clear.  It was a tickle that wasn’t satisfyingly scratched no matter how hard she laughed. It was just too ridiculous—that very question. Absolutely ridiculous—hilarious!

When her laughter finally subsided, Maria wiped a tear from her eye and met the tense woman’s gaze head-on. “I really like you. You’re really funny, you know? Anyways, I have no superiors. The only person I follow is myself.”

Dunya’s expression did not change but she said, “Really? I thought Capricornians were all about rank-and-file. Fascism and dictatorship—honorably, like you all say, of course… and I’ve heard rumors about you, Lieutenant. They call you Cold Eye. Because you follow through with an order no matter what.”

“Rumors?” Maria parroted in thought. “About Capricornians? Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She ignored the perplexed and baffled looks she received and tapped her chin. “Speaking of rumors, have you heard the rumor about the Golden Beast?” 

“No… I haven’t.” Dunya said, for some reason now speaking slowly, carefully. “You said that you only follow yourself, and now you’re saying all this. If I didn’t know any better, it’s like you’re saying you’re just going to let me go—”

“Yes, sure. Why not?”

There was a long stretch of silence.

“You would let me go? Just like that? Ignoring your superior’s orders?” Dunya’s eyes narrowed. “What are you playing at?”

“I’m not playing at anything,” Maria replied with a shrug as she came to a stand in front of the captain. She began to absentmindedly twirl her hair as she continued to speak, and she was pleasantly surprised at how smooth and silky it was. “If I don’t want to do something, I just don’t do it. Does there really need to be anything else to it?”

“Why? Why me?”

Maria thought on it for a moment.  “Well, I like your eyes. They’re strong.” She extended her hand out to Dunya and then beamed. “I’m strong too. And you see, mercy is something only the strong can have. Do you understand?”

Dunya frowned and shook her head.

“Well, that’s okay. Let’s go, yes?”

Dunya staggered a bit as she moved forward, wincing as she pressed her free hand against her leg. “You’re serious about this.”

“Well, of course, I am. I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.”

“Then… my men—”

Maria glanced back at the others. “No, not them. ” 

Dunya’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “I’m not leaving without my men.”

“Captain…” One of them murmured.

Maria peered back at them and then at Dunya. “Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’—”

Maria reached out and gestured directly into the woman’s eyes again. Matter-of-factually, she hummed, “I don’t really understand you. You want to leave. I can see it in your eyes. You are afraid of dying. But still, you are holding yourself back from what you really want to do.” She dropped her hand to her waist. “I really don’t understand.”

“Come on, Lieutenant. Are you seriously telling me you wouldn’t do the same for your men?”

“Oh, I would definitely fight to free my crew if I were in your shoes, and I would free them definitely.” She hummed. “But you are injured and you are up against me. You have no hope of winning. Besides, if you try to fight then this entire thing would be pointless, yes?” 

“Is that how you think of this, Lieutenant?” 

Maria cocked her head, ruffled her hair, and then sighed, “Hm, I can’t really speak for him, but it’s not like I don’t want to help them but it’s not like I really want to either.” She stared at her gloved hands and flexed them. “It is more like a gut feeling, you know? That I shouldn’t. It’s not that I can’t. It’s because I won’t. I trust my gut—myself. That’s the only absolute in this world, yes?”

“It’s okay, Captain. Your life in danger. Not ours.”

Maria perked up in surprise, meeting eyes with the soldier who had suddenly spoken. Then, she smiled as she addressed Dunya, “Do you see that look into Tika’s eyes?”

“It’s Nikita.” 

“Is it?” Maria squinted at the soldier. “Are you sure?” 

“Wha—Yes! I give you when you ask for it!”

“Oh,” Maria chuckled, “well, I’ve never been good with names—”

“Then why you ask—”

“Anyways,” Maria said, reaching out and grabbing Dunya Kramer’s hand in her own, “shall we go, fellow captain?”


Maria yawned and stretched out her arms. Sunlight from the small, circular window just above her head spilled into the dark room, and she caught the rays with her hand. Her ungloved, dark hands. Familiar hands. Her hands. She flexed them in the light. 

“Oh, it looks like I’m back.”

Back on her hammock, back on the ship, back on the edges of the open waters where the bay met the sea . She studied her treasures that were hung on the pole opposite of her before swinging off the bed and heading towards the door. She was just yanking it open when she was greeted with a—

“Captain!”

“Conta!” She gave her quartermaster a shake. “I just had the strangest dream!”

“Captain, please, listen to me!” Conta stammered. “I can’t find Sebastian or Lizabeth or Marion. I spoke with Morandi, and he’s been looking for Rosa and Feliks the entire day. He can’t find them anywhere.”

“Hm?” Maria tilted her head. She gave Conta a shoulder squeeze and chuckled. “You worry too much, Conta! You know them! They are probably in the wine cellar again!”

Conta shook her head. 

“Really, Conta—”

Before Maria could finish, Conta lurched forward and clamped both her hands over Maria’s mouth, whispering, “Captain, just listen!”

And Maria did. 

It was quiet. The only sounds to reach her ears was the creak of the wooden floorboards and the soft lapping of the waves against the hull of the ship.

Maria pulled Conta’s hands away from her mouth and squeezed them tightly. Meeting her eyes, she said calmly, lightly, with a smile, “Stay here, yes?”


Maria climbed up onto the deck of the ship. Despite the sun hanging high in the sky and the wonderful breeze whistling its way through the sails, there was a heavy silence that permeated through the area. There were a handful of people on deck. Not as many as usual. 

Humming in thought to herself, she began to climb the stairs to the wheel of the ship. 

“Captain.”

Maria paused and turned her head. A vaguely familiar-looking man now stood a little ways behind her at the foot of the steps with a smirk.

“You lookin’ for somethin’, Captain?” 

“What was your name again?” Maria blinked down at the man with a cock of her head.

The man’s face contorted and twisted.

“That’s a scary expression.” Maria noted. “Wha—”

A sudden change in wind caught her attention as did a high pitch whine. The silver edge of a sharpened blade glinted in the air.

Ah. He was attacking her.

Sparks flew in the air as she swiftly unsheathed her blade and brought it up to meet his. She felt his blade rattle against her own as he tried to push back against her. In vain, of course. In one fluid motion, she dragged her sword down his to the hilt and disarmed him with a twist of her arm. His blade hurtled into the air and then fell into her free hand that was waiting for its arrival. 

Crisscrossing the blades and bringing them to the man’s throat, Maria studied him. “Oh, I remember you now! I raided your ship two months back, did I not? Those were good times, no?”

He glowered. 

“What is this, my dead Louis?” Maria pressed lightly. “Why did you suddenly do something like that?”

“It’s Pierre,” the man snapped. 

“To not even recall the name of a subject beneath you…have you no pride?”

Maria turned her head. 

Standing at the top of the steps was Oros. The woman’s hair caught the sunlight like a flame. She was glowing. 

“I’m joking, of course,” Oros chuckled. She pointed to Maria’s blades. “Your swordsmanship is much better than that of your crew. I’m very interested.” She extended a hand outwards. “If you don’t mind, I’m quite bored. Do you mind showing me?”

Whispering began. People had begun to gather on deck. 

But Maria paid them no mind. Instead, she stared at Oros and thought. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? She broke into a smile. “You know how to fight too? That’s pretty amazing!” Without skipping a beat, Maria tossed Pierre’s sword up at her. 

Oros deftly caught it and inspected it. 

“That woman is crazy,” someone muttered from behind her. “To be challenging the Captain like that.”

In the blink of an eye, Oros was in front of her. Maria parried the swing of Oros’s blade before flipping backwards off the stairs onto the deck. She had barely landed before Oros struck again with lighting fast ferocity. 

The crowd parted around them but remained watching. 

Oros was fast, Maria thought as she parried the blow and aimed a kick to the woman’s stomach. Oros blocked the kick with her arm and jabbed at Maria again—this time at her throat. Maria dodged to the side while swinging at Oros’s chest with her own sword. Just as Marka’s blade was about to skirt its destination, Oros brought back her sword to block it and pushed Maria back with a grunt. 

“You’re amazing!” Maria exclaimed with a laugh, pushing back her hair that was now beginning to become wet with sweat. “Really, you’re good!”

She was the only one who was laughing. The crew members who had gathered were watching on in silent awe. Maria didn’t blame them. A fight with her had never lasted this long before. Which was exciting. But Oros seemed to think otherwise. 

“Who are you?” Oros asked, expression unreadable. 

“I told you,” Maria chuckled. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.” 

 Oros’s gaze darkened. Her grip on her sword tightened. 

“Huh? What’s wrong?” Maria asked. “This is just for fun, yes?”

Instead of answering, Oros charged forth again. Maria flipped backwards, landing on the railings of the edge of the ship and balancing on the thin beam easily. Oros lunged again, flipping up onto the rails herself and balancing with an air of grace. There was a collective of gasps.

Maria stared and then said pointedly, “That’s not normal, you know?”

Oros smiled thinly in response and charged again. 

Parry. Dodge. Jab. Slash. Parry. Dodge. Jab. Slash. 

Down the railing, they went. Maria felt like they were dancing. 

Another parry that sent them both stumbling backward. 

Drip. Drip. Drip. 

Maria touched her face and then pulled back her hand. Red. 

There was a gasp from the gathered crowd. 

Maria looked up and saw a faint line of red on Oros’s sword. 

This woman… Oros was…

“Amazing,” Maria murmured. 

A sharp pain abruptly struck her simultaneously in the shoulder and the stomach. Which was odd because she hadn’t been stabbed. She didn’t think she’d ever been stabbed before. What was this? 

Maria was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she did not pay any attention as Oros charged forward again. She barely brought her sword up in time to block the blow, and it was done so haphazardly that with a flick of her wrist, Oros sent Maria’s weapon hurtling into the air. And then far out into the sea. 

Maria stared after it, feeling a rare frown form on her lips. “That was my favorite…” She turned back to Oros only to find that the woman was now pointing her sword at her throat.  Maria cocked her head in turn, meeting Oros’s eyes. 

Silence reigned. 

But then Oros lowered her sword, hopped down back into the deck, and rested the weapon down on the wooden floorboards. She turned back to Maria with a vague smile—

“Yes, that was fun.” 

It was the first time Maria had ever been disarmed.

Three (3/6): waltz trigger

Werner had never been a fan of cigarettes, natural nor conductor-based. He’d never understood the novelty of them nor why their usage was so popular. The smell was unpleasant, the ashes from a fallen stub easily ruined the bottom of leather shoes, and the smoke always clogged up the air. He never made his displeasure known, however. 

His Captain smoked, his men smoked, Gilbert smoked. Even several of his family members smoked on occasion. V-cigs had become a commercial item. They were easy to distribute and ship, and they acted as stimulants. With a drop of vitae in a single cigarette, all it took was one puff and a worn soldier could easily hold up their conductor battle-ready for at least five more hours. The efficiency and practicality were clear. To voice his disapproval and displeasure of their usage would be unsound. Extrapolating this further, even minutely displaying expressions such as those would be similar to conveying his unhappiness with the military distribution of the cigarettes. Showing such displays were meaningless and could even appear anti-government.

And Werner was very well-practiced in keeping up appearances. Hiding his desire to crinkle his nose and turn his head when coming across his men smoking together in clusters had become second-nature. He often didn’t even have to consciously think about reigning in his expressions anymore. A moment of the satisfaction of voicing displeasure at the cost of morale? Illogical. 

And so when Werner had stepped into a small cabin where several of his men had taken refuge, he was not thinking about the cigarettes they were most likely smoking. Instead, his thoughts were on their next movements, their prisoners, and—

—and that distorted radio call from the previous night. A hallucination, surely. It had to be.Perhaps, it had been caused by fatigue and exhaustion. It wasn’t even dawn yet, however, and he still needed to go over their route through the woods and touch ground with the Major. Although sleep did sound tempting the more he thought on it. He had slept for four hours exactly before departure. It was enough sleep to keep on going for perhaps eight more hours, but any more than that might affect his cognition and judgment. Just as Werner was considering the prospect of rest, however, the smell of smoke from the lit v-cigarettes greeted him at the threshold. 

The smell was acrid as usual and the haze of gray uncurled around the small room touching all corners and walls. The light from the lit buds faintly illuminated the faces of those within. Werner began to scan those faces when the sensation hit him.

Absolutely disgusting. 

The world spun as the smoke curled in his nostrils and sent a wave of nausea rippling up his stomach and to his throat. It took all of his willpower to not gag and cover his mouth.

An absolutely suffocating, disgusting smell.

“Sir, did you need something?” 

“Tell Vogt to switch guarding posts with Steiner,” Werner managed curtly. “Clean your close combat weapon and switch out your insulators. And dispose of those propaganda flyers.”

He wasn’t sure if Vogt was present, but he didn’t have the strength to squint past the thicket of gray that had filled out the room like cement.  Without waiting to hear the usual “yes, sir,” he turned on his heels and walked briskly back out into the cold night. The full moon that had hung high in the sky and that seemed so serene earlier now drooped low and harsh. The white light was blinding. The fact that it was being dispersed into numerous streaks by the surrounding trees made matters worse. The black of the tree shadows, the white of the light—flickering flashes. Paired together they exacerbated the pounding in his head and the tumbling of his stomach. 

He managed to keep himself straight until he met the wall of another cabin that provided shade from the light.  He collapsed onto the structure as soon as he reached it, pressing his hand against the wooden planks and feeling the cold seep through his leather gloves. For a brief moment, he considered pressing his head against the wall as well—

“Hey, have you seen all the stuff the Aquarians had—woah, you alright?”

Werner started and turned.

Gilbert. The moonlight eclipsed half of his unreadable face in silver light. Crisp and clear. 

And just like that, the head-spinning nausea was gone. 

Werner straightened himself and noticed that there was something folded in Gilbert’s hands. A sheet of paper.

“Werner, you look paler than Otto.”

“It’s the light,” Werner said, unable to think of any other response. He frowned at the crumpled thing in his hands. “I thought I told you to dispose of those things.”

Gilbert cracked a grin and uncrumpled the paper, stretching it out to its full length. A familiar face was printed there—a face any Capricornian would recognize. The Fuhrer. With his pants down and flashing polka dot boxer briefs.

“How shameless.” 

Gilbert sighed and then shrugged his shoulders. “You’re no fun. Well, anyway, I was inventorying the Aquarian supplies like you said and—well—you’d better see this for yourself…”


Werner followed Gilbert into the building where he had ordered his men to store the crates of Aquarian supplies they had uncovered four hours earlier. Most of the items had been removed from the wooden boxes and were now organized into rows on five long tables that ran parallel to each other at the center of the room. 

The closest table seemed to hold items of vice. V-cigarettes. Bottles of liquor and moonshine. The farthest table was what caught Werner’s attention, however. It was unmistakable, the shapes that were laid out onto the table. Conductors. However, something about them was different.

He followed Gilbert to the table and watched as the man picked one up. 

“Never seen anything like it,” Gilbert said, weighing the conductor in his hands before tossing it over. 

Werner caught and inspected the conductor carefully, running his gloved fingertips over the dips and grooves with care. It vaguely resembled his conducting sniper rifle but it was much lighter. He doubted it weighed more than a canister of water. That characteristic was not the only aspect of the weapon that caught his attention. 

“They’ve minimized the size of the diameter of the insulator but extended its length. The insulation system is thin…”

“Didn’t know you were a conductor mechanic.”

Werner paused and looked from the sleek and slender glass tube that ran along the nozzle of the weapon to its trigger. Gilbert was now a table away rifling through the table stacked with vice items. After digging through the pile, Gilbert held up what appeared to be a carton of cigarettes and shook it open. After selecting one from the box and giving it a sniff, he chortled—

“Lieutenant, I think these guys are smoking morrowheat now. Man with them whiffing this stuff, no wonder we’re winning.”

Werner turned his attention back to the conductor and ran his finger along the insulator. “They don’t allow conductors to be made with such thin insulation. Ophiuchian regulation on this is rigorous.”

“So they’re doing it under the table somehow,” Gilbert concluded before he shook his head. “Bastards.”

“It would seem that wa—” As Werner raised his head to affirm this, he found himself freezing in place.

It was just behind Gilbert.

 Pressed against the chipped wall. 

Black and white teeth encased in a wooden skeleton.

Piano.

 In a blink, Werner was in front of it, hands itching, fingertips extended outwards. It was a different itch than usual, he thought vaguely to himself. Faintly in the background, he heard Gilbert call his name. Werner turned his head in acknowledgment but found himself freezing once more—

—because standing right beside him was the young woman from the radio. Cadence. Her eyes were closed, head tilted ever so slightly, lips pursed. She appeared to be concentrating on—

A soft, light, clear, trembling sound resonated in his ears. No, not a singular sound. A collection of sounds. Notes. Melody. He’d almost forgotten what it had sounded like. Music, that was.

The young woman’s fingers were hopping, darting, flying across the keys. Despite the rapidity, her movements were not stiff nor rigid. She moved with an odd sort of grace that seemed almost inhuman. 

Werner could not tear his eyes away.

A startling display of talent.

“Well, thank ya’. Good to know ya’ like what you see.”

Her voice cut through the melody so suddenly he almost started. She was looking at him now, although her fingers continued to lightly tap on the keys. The notes that flowed out were softer now, almost sadder.

“Though that’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe music as just a collection of sounds.” She stared at her for a moment before she chuckled. “As expected of a Capricornian. Straighta the point.” 

Not again. Another hallucinatio—

Cadence sighed, almost as if in annoyance. “Alright, well if you’re gonna be that way, then I’m just gonna get back to it.” And with that, she returned her attention back to the piano and the melody erupted into a loud crescendo. 

He felt his heart pound almost in sync with every slammed note.

This hallucination—he knew he had to dispel it, to look away, to collect himself. But he could not.

That wallet…

The young woman had not been speaking and yet her voice echoed in his head.

Wallet?

Suddenly, abruptly, an image flashed within his mind. An atrocious looking wallet that appeared to be made of denim and studded with diamonds. A somber man pocketing the wallet with a sigh. A young boy sitting in a chair. The same young boy colliding with an Ophiuchian agent wearing a trench-coat. 

The images were followed by an odd sensation: a feeling that rose in his chest. A foreign feeling that he knew was not his own due to the fact that there would be no reason for him to feel it. Curiosity, hesitation, desire. Ridiculous feelings drilled into his chest and leaked outwards.

Despite the fact that Werner knew that such things were nonsensical, he knew exactly what the images and feelings meant.

It seemed as if a cost-benefit analysis was in order. Duty and reason. A problem left unchecked would exacerbate and fester. And to prove oneself in an area where no other person could would allow one to rise in the ranks in a way that everyone would be able to see.

Abruptly, the woman stopped playing. She turned to him with a look of surprise before she cracked into a smile. “Well, ya stone-cold fella, that was just the motivation I needed.”

He blinked.

And she was gone.

“Damn, Werner, have you been practicing? I thought you gave up all that after you joined the military academy.”

Gilbert was standing at his side now, hovering over the piano with a mild expression. He did not meet Werner’s gaze as his eyes appeared to be fixated on something else. Werner followed Gilbert’s gaze to his own hands.

His hands were paused just above the keys the woman’s hands had been above. And as the buzz in his head began to ebb away, the slight ache in the muscles of his fingertips informed him of the impossibility that had occurred.

Werner pulled his hands away from the keys—slowly, due to an odd feeling that the piano would pull him back in if he moved too quickly. A chill crept up his spine at the thought.

“You should play something for the guys when we get back. It’d be a good morale boost.”

Werner flexed his fingers to get some feeling back in them. Without his conscious knowledge, had he just—

“Hey, Lieutenant.” Gilbert jerked his thumb to the door.

The door to the cabin flew open. Kurt stood in the mouth of the doorway with a stiff salute.

“At ease,” Werner said, turning towards him. “What is it?”

“I just received a call from the Major, sir,” Kurt said, swallowing. “He requested to speak with you, sir… I… he… it sounded urgent.”


“Werner, is that you?”

Werner pressed the mouthpiece connected to the communications radio down closer to his mouth.  “Yes, sir. Would you like me to give my military code?”

“No,” came Major Ersatz’s response. “We don’t have time for that.”

Werner paused before he conceded, “Yes, sir.”

“Are you alone?”

Werner glanced around the room, and emptiness met his gaze. “Yes, I’m alone… Private Klein left a moment earlier.”

A breathy sigh of relief resounded amidst the static crackling in the background of the headset. “Good, good, good. We don’t know who we can trust.”

“Trust, sir?”

“That’s right, that’s right. We can’t trust them. We can’t rely on them. Since the very beginning, we couldn’t.”

Werner remained silent.

“Waltz? Are you still there, Werner?”

“Yes, sir, I am.” After a moment, he said: “I’m unsure of what you’re implying. Who are you saying it is that we can’t trust?”

“Ophiuchus.”

The venom with which he spat the world made Werner hesitate. This did not seem like Ersatz’s usual tirade. There was a nervousness in the Major’s voice that was unsound. Perhaps even unhinged.

“Those bastards. Calling themselves ‘peacekeepers’ when they’re the ones who’re tearing everything apart. Everything….”

There was almost a shake in the man’s words.

“We can’t let them get what they want, Werner. We can’t. We have to protect Capricorn. You’re the only one that I can trust. You’re the only one who knows what needs to be done and who’ll do it.”

After considering this in the pause of silence that followed, Werner asked, “What is it that you want me to do, sir?”

A sigh of relief resounded from the headsets. “I knew I could rely on you, Werner. I knew I could. You always listen.” There was the sound of fluttering paper. A scritch, a scratch. “I’m requesting for the Watch to go forward with their operation.”

Now, Werner felt his heart skip a beat. “Sir, wouldn’t that incite—”

“Exactly. Take it out of their hands. Take it with our own. It’s the only way.”

“With all due respect, is this something the Generals approve of?”

“Waltz.” There was a snap in Ersatz’s voice. “One of the Watch’s founders is me. It is under my oversight, do you understand? You are under my oversight. What happens above you shouldn’t concern you.”

Werner considered this for a moment. Attempting to converse with Ersatz seemed meaningless. By the sound of the man’s voice, he would not budge from his position. “I understand.”

“I know all of this sounds sudden and confusing, Waltz. But it’s what’s necessary.” There was some more rifling in the background. “Give me your location. I’ll be joining you with and relieving you of your mission upon arrival.”

There was a pause.

“There’s something I need to tell you regarding our location, Major Ersatz,” Werner said slowly. “My men and I are currently stationed at an Aquarian base we overtook.” He paused. “From questioning, I’ve concluded that it’s a medical camp—”

“From questioning?” There was an edge to the Major’s voice. “You’re not implying that you’ve taken prisoners, are you?”

“I was acting in accordance with the Treaty. Given the revelation that this is a medical camp, I believe my decision was appropriate in the given situation. Wars cannot be won without guidelines.”

There was a long stretch of silence before Ersatz finally muttered, “Yes, that’s true. How many are there?”

“Six. There is one combat medic and one captain among them.”

“A captain!” The lightness in Ersatz’s voice returned. “Did you learn anything about their movements from them?”

“No. She informed me that their base was a medical camp, and that was all. But I found several propaganda flyers on her persons. I believe she planned to distribute them—although she claimed they were not her own.”

“Openly admitting to creating a medical camp on Capricornian land. The nerve.” There was a sigh. “So, she’s a partisan then. As I recall, there are no protections written down about that in the Treaty, right? Execute the captain. Yourself. Discreetly. It may bring down morale if the others see you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” The words came so easily from Werner’s mouth that for a moment he wondered why it had been so difficult to pull that trigger hours earlier. Perhaps it was because it was logical. Partisans created dangers behind the line and bred opposition.

“Is there anything else you need to tell me, Waltz?”

The modified conductors—

no, don’t. 

“No, sir. That is all.”

“Have one of your men give me your coordinates. I will be there shortly.”

“Of course. I will be waiting, Major.”

Static greeted him instead of silence. 


Steiner and Falk who were posted outside the building in which the Aquarian prisoners were being kept saluted Werner at his approach. He gave them each a curt nod and signaled for them to rejoin the others. Steiner appeared grateful at the respite while Falk offered him a lingering gaze. He met the gaze coolly and did not look away until she turned her head. 

When they had disappeared over the ridge, he turned to face the door they had been guarding. His pistol hung lightly at his side, and he ran his thumb along its surface. Using his conductor would be wasteful and excessive at this time, so he had set his aside for now. Besides, using a conductor for an execution seemed—

—too cruel.

Cruel? That had nothing to do with this. He had done this countless times before when he’d been stationed along the southern border facing Argo. Partisans had passion. Passion was dangerous. That aside, Major Ersatz—

sure seemed to be strange.

Was Werner—

—sure about this? 

Pushing these thoughts aside, Werner pushed the door open and took a step over the threshold and—

To be so unsure of yourself that you follow what it is left by others… is…

—and stepped onto the mud-caked grass that was just beginning to warm from the rising sun. 

Werner winced at the sudden brightness spilling out from in-between the trunks of the trees and brought his hand up to catch the rays of light. Light. Morning. 

Morning.

He brushed back his bangs that had somehow fallen out of his updo and let out a breath. 

Calm. 

His head buzzed as he reached into the fold of his uniform and reached for his pocket watch. Gone. He unstrapped the pistol from his side and popped open the chamber to inspect it. Empty. 

A cold sweat began to prick the back of his neck. 

He sifted through his memory carefully, dissecting each and every detailed moment there.  But there was nothing. Nothing after entering the cabin that held the Aquarians.

An empty unknown amount of hours and an empty chamber. Perfectly snipped out as if with a pair of scissors. A void of time.

But panic solved nothing. He had to think it through.

Specialist enemy conductor. Concussion. Sleepwalking. Dreaming. The possibilities were endless. And although the why was important, the most important thing would be—

A crunch of footsteps against the ground from behind caused Werner to turn his head. It was Gilbert, trudging up the rocky hill with purpose. His expression was different than usual. There was no half-lidded smirk, no sly and scruffy grin. No, he trudged up with a thin smile and eyes that seem focused.

“Second Lieutenant.”

“Hey, Werner.” Gilbert said with a slight jerk of his head. There was a pause of silence, and his eyes seemed to avoid Werner’s. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Werner felt himself frown. “Looking for” what? He was speaking as if they had a conversation in which Werner stated he was looking for something which was impossible. Their last conversation was about the piano. What exactly—

Wait.

Was Gilbert all right?

Werner inspected Gilbert from the distance that had somehow formed between them. Gilbert finally met his gaze and quirked a brow. 

Yes. Gilbert looked unharmed. There was no need to investigate at the moment when there was a more pressing matter at hand.  

He brushed past Gilbert and headed up to the camp behind him. He nearly skidded on the ground as he paced up the hill but he righted himself and made his way to the building the prisoners were stored in. For him, it had only been exactly a minute ago that he’d been standing at the front of the building. Now?

The soldiers posted at the front of the door saluted them but he ordered them to leave. After he watched their heads disappear from his line of sight, he entered the cabin and inspected those inside.

Five. Five heads. Five Aquarians. He could barely make out their faces, but he could tell. Their captain. The Aquarian captain was gone.

He called out for the nearest Aquarian and ordered the man to follow him outside to the back of the building. After ordering the soldier to line up against the back wall, Werner evaluated the man carefully.

“Sergeant Nikita Knovak, correct? Your captain—where is she?” Werner asked in Common.

The Aquarian made an odd face before looking left and right and then even peeking over Werner’s shoulder. Werner did not know what this soldier was looking for.

Calmly, Werner pressed: “I asked you a question. I know you speak Common. Where is your captain?”

“What you mean, sir?” Came the response, thickly accented. “You took her out last night.”

Took her out—as in the execution? Which he had no memory of? There was too much uncertainty with that assumption. 

“I took her out.” Werner repeated. “What do you mean by that?”

The Aquarian’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you playing at, Capricornian?”

“I am not playing, Aquarian.” He met the Aquarian’s eyes and held his gaze.

Finally, the Aquarian looked away with a half-scoff, half-grimace. “You took her outside. You tell me you lost our Captain to nature?”

Werner studied the Aquarian for another moment before he returned the man back into the cabin.  He tried his best to keep his thoughts in order as he exited the building. Had he truly executed the captain then? The evidence pointed to that, but still. Too much uncertainty. 

He was just stepping off the stairs of the cabin leading to the ground when Gilbert suddenly appeared in front of him. The Second Lieutenant peered behind him before raising a brow. “Is there something going on that I should know about, First Lieutenant?”

Before Werner could think of an answer, a sharp, searing pain exploded at his shoulder at the location of his former injury. The world blurred into smears of black and white, and the sounds around him undulated.

The pain came so suddenly that Werner found himself doubling over and gripping his shoulder. And then, just like that, the pain dissipated. Like it’d never been there in the first place.

Werner straightened himself and found Gilbert hovering over him with widened eyes.

“Werner, are you—”

Collecting himself, Werner cut him off coolly: “Major Ersatz will be joining us shortly. Inform the others.” 

He could resolve this on his own.











Three (2/6): morello chorus

The rain took care of most of the dirty work. It pelted down in heavy droplets and washed the red out into the bay. The bay itself dutifully swallowed up all the long, black plastic bags that were weighted with cement brick blocks.

Cadence stood beneath the roof at the entrance of Warehouse 12 and watched as the suited men moved the bodies from Warehouse 13 to the bay in an assembly line-like fashion. Morbidly productive. She could’ve almost laughed at the sight.

Maybe it was a good thing Nico wasn’t coming back at the moment. 

A packet of cigarettes was abruptly shoved into her line of sight. 

“Come on, Francis, y’know I only like the old school kind. V-cigs just got such a weird taste to ‘em. Don’t know how you can like ‘em.”

Francis shrugged and shook one out for himself. He lit it and stared out into the bay. “This is a mess.”

“Figuratively or literally?”

“Both.” Francis took a drag. “I may not be a saint but I’m not the type of person who finds pleasure in seeing dead kids.” He nodded at one of the body bags being carried out. A white-gloved hand was sticking out. “ELPIS, on the other hand — well, I’m not self-righteous either but seeing them taken down is…”

“They weren’t ELPIS members,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. When Francis gave her an inquiring look, she shrugged easily. “Overheard the peacekeepers talkin’ about it when they went around askin’ questions. Not the usual ELPIS MO.”

“Peacekeepers, huh?” Francis spun the v-cig in-between his fingertips. “They talk to you too?”

“The one with the trench coat did. I think he’s got an inklin’ about your business and he didn’t seem to happy ‘bout it. ‘Course, peacekeepers never get involved in these parts but don’t worry. I ruffled his feathers a bit and sprinkled a little misdirection so he’s got other things to worry about.”

Francis hummed in response at this. “As reliable as always, Cadence.”

“You know I don’t like receivin’ half-hearted praise. What’s up?”

“Carl’s happy to get a little revenge if you can even call it that.  He’s been on about retribution for the past week. Allen’s glad that we’ve cut our losses with this. The reason for the attacks and the connection between the kids and the ELPIS wannabes are the last things on their mind.

“But you’re not happy,” Cadence figured. “You don’t think it’s that simple.”

“And you do?” 

“Well, there’s the fact that any person we could remotely ask about this…” Cadence gestured off-handedly to the area in front of them. “… is either ten meters under or ten kilometers away from the city.” She grinned crookedly with a shrug. “But at least now everything is cleaned out, right?”

Francis took a deep drag. “Well, there’s still that kid you interrogated earlier.” He glanced down and quirked a brow. “Do you think he needs some more company now?”

“Name your price.”

The faintest of smiles graced Francis’s face, and a comfortable silence passed. It would’ve been peaceful and serene if it weren’t for what was unfolding in front of them. 

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Francis said suddenly. “How’s Nico doing out on that front?”

Cadence paused and then smiled with a shrug. “Y’know him. Always a bleedin’ heart.”

A silent shadow passed over them then. A black, silent shadow. Cadence didn’t need to turn his head to identify who it was who was now standing beside him. The sudden change in atmosphere was all that it took for him to know. It felt like a funeral after all.

“Clean up goin’ good, Verga?” Cadence asked half a smile. “You’re as efficient and tidy as always.” She glanced at him. “Ever thought of startin’ your own business?”

“Flattery gets you nowhere with me, Morello.” Verga returned. “Getting things done does.”

“Hm…” Cadence slid her hands in her pockets and bounced on the balls of her feet for a moment before she hummed. “Well, I thought that’s what I did so that you could get things done.” 

Verga frowned.

“Just trynna lighten’ up the atmosphere.” Cadence raised her hands. “Y’know, you’re the only one who I think I can never charm.”

As if to confirm this, Verga frowned deeper.

Francis took the pause in silence to interject himself into the conversation: “Verga, while I very much appreciate your hand in assisting us in this matter, I would have preferred it if you would have informed us of your intent before you executed it.”

Verga’s brow visibly twitched at this but he shoved his hands in his pockets and cleared his throat. “Well, that manipulator Ophiucian sent me that message so suddenly–I had to act fast.” He reached into his pocket and pulled a packet of cigarettes before reaching into his pants pocket and pulling out what appeared to be a wallet. A denim, diamond-studded wallet. Not seeming to notice the looks he was receiving, he snapped it open and shook out a plain lighter onto his palm and then used it to light a cigarette. He pocketed the packet. 

“Can’t say I agree with your fashion taste.” Cadence interjected. She stared at the wallet for a long and hard minute before gesturing offhandedly to the man’s coat pocket. “But you know how to smoke ‘em. Ain’t it polite to offer a business associate a smoke when ya got some?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Verga waved his hand dismissively before lighting the cigarette and then gingerly put away the wallet into his pants pocket. He turned to Francis and gestured to him.  “Anyways, I get that you’re sore, but the entire thing’s solved now, ain’t it? An eye for an eye. No one’s gonna come knockin’ on your front door anymore.”

“Well, we can’t be sure of that, can we,” Francis said, taking a drag. “There’s no one to confirm that now, is there.”

Verga stared at him for a moment, before wringing his hands. “We had to do what we had to do. You saw what was left in there. With ELPIS and everything. You may be in business with Ricardo but we’re still stickin’ our neck out to help you.”

Cadence stepped in-between them with cheerfully raised hands. “Y’know what we say in the city. Unless you can remake the world, it is what it is.”

Francis stared at Cadence and then at Verga long and hard before he smiled cordially at the latter. “Of course. I  apologize for my rudeness. I’m not in the right profession if I’m questioning things that’re swept under the rug.” He paused, unliting his v-cig with a flick of his wrist and repocketing it.“I just can’t help but worry about repercussions and consequences no matter how small it is. We appreciate the assistance.”

“Paranoia get’s the best of us.” Verga nodded. 

Cadence resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Verga was many things. A smooth talker was not one of them. But Verga was an important member of the Romano Family, and even an associate of the Romano’s herself, Cadence couldn’t risk getting on his bad side. Even if he was insulting her childhood friend. That was just the way it was.

Francis’s smile did not falter, and instead he gave his usual musical chuckle. “Of course.”

“Cadence, would you care to join me for a celebratory drink?” Francis smiled thinly before glancing at Verga apologetically. “I would invite you, Verga, but I overheard Cavallo has some paperwork you need to complete.”

Verga harrumphed before stalking off. 


Ducio was still sitting in the interrogation room when they arrived. He was still sitting in the same position where they’d left him. On the chair, head pressed against the cold, hard surface of the metal table in front of him, motionless.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

There was only one thing different from before.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

The red droplets continued to dribble down onto the floor from Duccio’s pale hand, and the sound filled in the emptiness left by Francis’s question. The droplets had trickled down from a stream of red that traced up the adolescent’s arm and ended (began) at his mouth. His open, tongueless mouth. Duccio’s eyes unblinkingly reflected the overhead lights and stared listlessly at the missing appendage. 

Francis turned to the trembling, frail man who stood at the doorway behind them. “I asked you a question, Stefano. What is the meaning of this?” His voice was not raised nor was there an undertone of fury beneath his words. There was not even a glint of fire in his eyes.  Even still, Cadence could feel something in the air.

Really, Francis was one of the most terrifying people Cadence knew. 

“I—sir—I—”

“Coherent sentences, Stefano.” Francis said calmly, evenly. 

“I… I only left for a second, sir.” 

“Only one second,” Francis repeated slowly. “Stefano, are you aware of the multitude of things that can happen within one second?”

Stefano stammered. 

“Go ask if anyone saw anything strange before this happened,”

Stefano nodded stiffly before scrambling out of the room.

“Looks like a suicide,” Francis muttered once they were alone.

“Sure looks like one” Cadence agreed. She glanced at him. “But you and I both know that appearances are…” She frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose as a sharp pain pulsated from the back of her head. The familiar sensation of deja vu followed soon after, causing her to search the mirrors of the room. Nothing. No one.

“Is something wrong?”

“Still can’t stand the smell,” Cadence replied easily.

Francis didn’t question it and nodded before returning his attention to the scene. “It could be an act of retaliation. One of ‘em might’ve snuck in past the lax security. An in-group kill,” Francis reasoned. “It May not have been intentional but he did rat out the group.”

Cadence paused. Didn’t that mean that this was—

her fault?

She shook her head. No, of course not. What happened happened because of circumstances. No one was at fault. Everything was up to chance and circumstance, and there was nothing anybody could do about that. 

“But then there’s the question on how they knew Duccio spilled, to begin with.” Francis places a hand over his mouth in thought. “But maybe I’m just being a pessimist. The main point is that their operation was shut down without much cost on our side.”

It would be simpler that way.

“Hey, watch it. My mental well-being is worth a fortune.”

Francis finally cracked a smile. 


Really, it was truly simpler that way. She was used to leaving incidents that were “a little too good to be true” as is. “Don’t question good things that came your way” was the saying. But for some reason, for this particular case, she felt an itch that wouldn’t go away. That ridiculous-looking wallet that Verga had. Duccio’s gruesome death. Which was not her fault. 

But what would she gain from pursuing this itch?

Cadence hit her usual bar as she mulled over these thoughts. 

After much thinking, much playing, and an odd conversation paired with a drink, she came to a conclusion.

In the end, all decisions were the result of an intensive “cost-benefit analysis” which was a phrase Cadence had learned from an economics book she stole from one of the tourists who had happened to be a student visiting the capital a couple years back. The book had sold for a good fifty cens, and she’d managed to convince the buyer to read the first couple of chapters out loud to her for free.. She hadn’t really recalled the term until recently but now it was her bible. 

The benefit: possibly finding a rat within the Romano Family and earning some more reputation points with the boss and the streets. 

But—

The cost: dying while doing it.

A pretty daring and high cost. But the higher the cost, the higher the reward. 

Besides being daring was–

—exhilarating.

Cadence rubbed her temple. 


It wasn’t very difficult to disguise herself as one of Verga’s men. All it took was a coupon to a one Cens store that she transmuted into a free ticket to the Casa delle Bambole, a self-transmuted disguise as one of the most popular hostesses working at the establishment, and a flirtatious wink. The fact that Verga’s hand-selected men were dumb as bricks was a bonus. Not much finesse required.

And so, in less than an hour, Cadence had adopted the appearance of a gruff, short, heavyset man and ambled her way to Verga’s favorite joint, a general conductor store that specialized in v-cigs—ceremoniously named the Vitae Roll.

It was a small, brick building, only two stories tall and nestled in the City’s less grandeur side. The windows were boarded over with planks of wood. Thin streams of smoke trickled outwards and up from the spaces in-between the planks. 

As she drew nearer to the building, the acrid smell of the smoke curled in her nostrils and caused her stomach to burn. The sensation came so suddenly that she stopped in her tracks but that only exacerbated the sensation and caused a swift pounding to form at the back of her neck. 

And suddenly she was standing in the middle of a red-carpeted hallway. Light spilled in from the long windows lining the walls around her, giving the carpet an unnatural glow. 

She recognized this hallway. But at the same time, she didn’t.

She didn’t have time to dwell on the contradiction long because she soon found that the hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end. A sensation she wasn’t all too unfamiliar with. She wandered the less than pristine streets of the City at night, after all. 

Someone was behind her. Watching her.

Before she could think of a way out of whatever this was, some unknown force made her head turn in the direction of the presence. 

A vaguely human shape stood there just a couple meters away. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet black feathers swirling through the air. 

Feathers…?

Yes, whatever this thing was, its entire being was entirely made of pitch black birds. 

White holes formed where its eyes should have been, and a white smile cracked there. 

“Thank you.” An inhuman voice spilled out from the crack of its mouth. “Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for helping me.”

This was different from her conversations with Atiena and that Capricornian soldier. 

She was not in control here.

Her heart thundered in her chest. But her legs remained still, stiff, frozen in place.

Fear was in control here. 

The thing took one step forward, and the carpeted floor beneath its foot immediately burst into flames. Another step, another burst of crackling red. Closer and closer it drew to her with an inferno following at its feet.

Run. Run. Run

“Thought you weren’t feelin’ well, Averci.”

And just like that Cadence was back on the street corner.  The familiar, heavy humidity in the air greeted her like an old friend and the smell of mildew from the wet cobblestone streets coated the back of her throat. Cold sweat clung to the back of her neck. 

Was that… a memory? A flashback? She’d used to get them sometimes when she was younger and in a half-asleep state but not to this extent. 

“What the….?” She whipped her head in the direction of the voice in a panic. 

It was one of Verga’s men. He was standing at the doorstep of the v-cig store with a bored look on his face. He seemed so bored that he couldn’t care enough to look her over. Cadence used the opportunity to even her breathing and order her thoughts.

Obviously, this was a sign from the saints for her to not go through with this. Cost-benefit analysis be damned. This—

Her temple throbbed.

was exciting.

“Threw up a lung and now I’m fine,” Cadence found herself saying. As soon as the words flew out of her mouth, she felt like truly throwing up. “Gotta get some cash for another round at the gamehouse.” 

The man regarded her for a moment, before he cracked a crooked smile and grunted in agreement. He jerked his head back towards the door and rubbed his fingers together. “Apparently the big boss is plannin’ something even bigger than the last big thing. And bigger means more big money.”

Cadence had underestimated how stupid Verga’s men were. In street smarts and book smarts.

“Well, I like my women like I like my money.” Cadence sneered in response as she made her way up the doorsteps. “How about we get this cracking then.”

“I like the sound of that,” came the chortled response. The man held the door open for her and followed her inside.

Cadence was immediately greeted with an even more intense wave of acrid smoke. It filled out all the corners of the shop and coated everything in a thin paint wash of gray. The man sitting behind the counter was somehow even grayer than the haze around him. 

This was definitely Verga’s style.

“So how big we talking here?” Cadence asked with a yawn as she began to follow Bell to a door at the very back of the store. She took a quick glance at the glass cases that haphazardly sprouted up from the carpeted floor. They were filled with different models of v-cigs, each seemingly more bizarrely-shaped than the last.  She turned back to Verga’s man and tried, “Bigger than a gig killing the next generation?”

“Yeah…” The man glanced at the shop owner and wrinkled his nose.  “I knew entering this business wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows  and I’ve seen my fair share of offing husbands and wives but kids… well…”

This goon was really acting like he had morals—Cadence resisted chortling at the very idea and instead dissected what he had revealed by what he’d said.

“Kids”. Plural. The warehouse incident was probably what he was most likely referring to. But…

Duccio’s corpse and the diamond-studded wallet flashed into her mind.

No. That wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t specific enough. 

“Really? It was hard for you?” Cadence raised an unimpressed brow. “Piece of cake.”

“You’re sick, Averci.” The man crinkled his nose but then rubbed it with a shrug. “Then again, I’m sure Verga knows what he’s doing. He paused, shaking his head. “All for a single kid. I don’t even think my life is worth all that trouble.”

So her hunch had been right.

The door opened as they reached it revealing a small, musty room with dim, boarded-up windows and a round table set in front of it. The table was toppled with various wines from cheap brands. The light shining from the windows was gray and barely illuminated the men seated in the chairs around the table. 

Giving the seated group a nod, she stepped into the room and—

The door locked softly behind her. 

Every cell in her body screamed in alarm. Escape. Where was the exit? Through the window? No. Keep cover? Blend in. Safer. 

She kept her arms and legs steady as she fell into place beside the other men by the window and settled on the ledge. She slowly lifted her gaze up to meet her captor. 

It was Verga, hand still wrapped around the doorknob. Like always, he looked like he’d come straight from a funeral. Just another reason to skip this joint. But…

As much as she wanted to leave now that she’d gotten the who, Cadence figured that she could at least get the why. The dots were there, but the connection was not.

Ah, that phrase could apply to more than this situation, couldn’t it?

Cadence resisted frowning, shook away the intrusive thought, and focused her attention back on Verga. The man was looking at them all like he was sizing them up so he could figure out what casket he could fit them into.

That’s a funny way of describing him!

Another piercing headache.

“We got a rat here,” Verga said suddenly, calmly, as he reached into his pocket and turned to face them. “Someone here’s been snoopin’ around without my permission.” 

Damn. But how did he know? Keep calm. Let them talk.

Keep calm. Play along. He didn’t know she was here. But she might as well go and ask him straight up. 

What?! No. Stupid!

“What are you talkin’ about, boss?” —It was Bell. He’d settled in on a chair right beside her and had been perusing the bottles of wine when he’d started at Verga’s accusation. “We’re all pals here aren’t we—”

A soft click answered his question.

Verga had drawn out the object from his pocket. A small pistol. 

Well then. This wasn’t good.

One of the other men who was rather heavyset seated next to her rose to a stand with a flabbergasted expression. He swung his hands wildly and stammered: “What’s this all about?”

Stupid move.

Which was confirmed when Verga pointed the pistol squarely at him.

“Are you the rat?” Verga asked the man calmly. 

“What?!” The man sputtered. “Of course not! I’ve been working for you through thick and thin, boss. I’m loyal.”

“And how do I know that for sure about that?” Verga pressed. “The only way I know if you’re loyal is if you die for me.”

“Wha—”

There was a loud bang, and suddenly the standing man was on the floor. There was a visible hole in the back of his head, and a pool of red was forming a halo around him. But Verga’s gun had not fired. Instead, it was Bell’s gun that had. Where Bell had procured the gun from, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Nor did she have any idea where that seemingly daft and innocent man that has greeted her at the doorstep went. Talk about a change of face.

This was getting sticky.

“Call it ironically old-fashioned but…” Verga tightened his grip on his gun with a shrug. “I really prefer these things to conductors. Much less trouble with insulators crackin’ and whatnot.”

Two of the other four men in the room leapt from their chairs immediately while the other two remained frozen in place. The moment both men came to a stand, they found the noses of the two guns pointed squarely at their heads. In the same moment that those two men rose to a stand, Cadence subtly shifted so she was wedged between and behind all of them.

“Speaking of conductors,” Verga continued,  “did you all know that with Treaty that ended the War, the amount of conductors each country is allotted is required to be inversely proportional to the amount of vitae reservoirs each country has. The idea is countries with fewer reservoirs’ll be allowed to have more conducting generators to harvest the vitae. But as it turns out, there’s nothing in the Treaty that specifies what kind of conductor a country is allotted. Now, there’s a loophole.” He pointed the gun at the gaunt man standing to Cadence’s right. “Have you found a loophole workin’ for me?”

“Wha—” The gaunt man shook his head with raised arms. “No, I’m not—”

The bullet came from Verga’s gun this time which he reloaded slowly as he watched the gaunt man’s body fall across the body of the first victim. 

What the hell. Was he planning on killing all of them? She had to get out of here. She could probably buy time by convincing the remaining group to fight back. Would they be able to? Yeah, if they listened to her. But they were already sitting there like gamblers who’d just bet their entire life savings and lost. They’d already accepted what was going to happen. No good. 

But why was Verga….? Wasn’t doing this counterproductive? If he was planning to kill all of them then why was he putting on a show?  Unless…

Cadence paused.

He knew—

A chiming laugh rang through the air. And for a moment, Cadence swore she could taste sea-salt on her tongue and a faint breeze tossing her hair.

“My, my, my, to break things that belong to you with your own hands— are you not strong enough to protect them all?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence could faintly see a woman out of the corner of her eyes. Brown curls, sun-kissed skin. A hazy image that would go out of focus every time she tried getting a better look at it. 

“You…” Cadence began before she came to a startingly, horrifying realization.

The words that the woman had said. Those taunting, unfearful words—

The words had come right from Cadence’s own mouth.  The smile was just barely leaving Cadence’s own lips now, and the laughter was just beginning to die away in her throat. As the smile and laugh left her, Cadence felt cold nausea occupying the hollow that they left. She whipped to fully face the brown-haired woman but only found a confused looking Bell in her place. 

“What was that now?” Verga growled as he aggressively gestured the two last standing men to move aside with a jerk of his gun.

Obediently, despite everything that had occurred, the two stepped away from her. One of the two gave her a questioning look and whispered the name of the man she was disguised as questioningly under his breath. 

She could feel all of their eyes on her. Looking her up and down. Trying to gauge the meaning behind what she’d said—not that she even knew herself the meaning behind them. Eventually, if they stared long enough, they might be able to actually guess what was up. Intuition and stupidity were in two different categories after all. And Cadence wasn’t going to let them—more so Verga—enjoy the satisfaction of unveiling her. Not without her letting him have it that way.

Cadence stepped forward with her hands up in the air. “Okay, okay, you got me, you got me. Boss.”

Unconvinced, Verga cocked his gun. “That’d be the first time you’d be callin’ me boss. Morello.”

Cadence paused before she sighed and snapped her fingers. Her illusion fragmented, starting from her conductor, and then cracked along the rest of her body. In a flash of yellow-orange light, her work shattered and she was left looking much like her usual, charming self. There was a collection of surprised gasps as usual, but she ignored them and said:  “Well, it was worth a shot. Guess Francis was right about you bein’ too sharp to trick.”

A lie. Francis had in fact stated clearly that Verga was as dull as a rock. Regardless, Verga sneered.

“That woman you tried to seduce Averci with—she was my woman,” Verga said. “After all that crying and begging, I started to believe her when she hadn’t tried flirting with another man. But that left me wonderin’ how that could be possible since I saw it with my own eyes. And the answer is standin’ right in front of me.”

“I admit it. I’m gettin’ sloppy.” 

Verga’s smile slid off of his face and his grip on his gun tightened. “How’d you figure it out?”

“Figure what out exactly?” Cadence returned. 

“Don’t play dumb!” Verga snapped, jabbing the gun aggressively in her direction. “About the kid! About the conductors we’ve been siphoning off of Romano!” 

Siphoning off of conductors? Well, that was new. But Verga didn’t have to know that she didn’t know that. 

“Yeah, well, I might know all that.” Cadence shrugged. “But I don’t know the why. And y’know me, I don’t usually question the ‘whys’ but I couldn’t help scratchin’ this itch.” She raised her head and met his eyes. “I mean, Romano practically saved ya like a saint. Ya got good workin’ perks along with that, and I heard that he was finally gonna appoint ya capo,  so I’m tryin’ ta place why—”

“Why not?”

“Uh, loyalty?” Cadence offered before she shrugged. “But I guess jealousy trumps that.”

Verga crinkled his nose. “Jealousy?”

“Towards Cavallo.” 

Verga’s smug expression immediately morphed into something much more unpleasant—which Cadence found very pleasant. The man lowered his weapon and clenched his fists. 

“Am I wrong?” Cadence frowned and scratched her head. “I mean, ya both joined the Family at around the same time, but Cavallo’s been holding the position of capo and a large amount of land to govern for five years now.”

“And that’s exactly why!” Verga growled, snapping his gun up again and using it as a pointer. “Despite everything I’ve done more for Ricardo than Cavallo has, I’m still second rate. It’s not enough.” He shook his head. “They call themselves a family but they’re only lookin’ out for themselves. Everyone’s expendable.”

“It never was that kind of family to begin with,” Cadence found herself saying. “You had a good thing goin’ for ya, Verga. Just needed to bide your time.”

“Funny hearin’ that from you,” Verga said, voice regaining its gravely calm. The smirk returned. “You can take whatever appearance you want and have everything at the palm of your hand.” The smirk grew. “Well, almost everything. Which brings me to my point.”

“I was hopin’ you were gettin’ to that,” Cadence sighed, eyeing his gun. “Not sure how much longer I can handle this tension.”

Without speaking, Verga pulled out a small pouch with his free hand and tossed it to her. Cadence caught it with her left hand. Heavy. 

When she opened it and peered inside, the familiar, dull glint of Geminian Cens met her eyes. By gauging the weight of it in her palm, she could tell there was more than five hundred Cens in there. 

“And that’s just the down payment.”

Cadence took a Cens out and rolled it in-between her fingers before holding it up to the light. It was real, alright. She put the Cens back into the bag and tossed the bag up and down.  “So, basically, long story short—you’re tellin’ me to join you in exchange for a couple of Cens.”

“Oh.” Verga’s face split into a very unfitting grin. “We’re making more Cens than you can even imagine. You have no idea how many people I’ve gotten on my list.”

“Your list—ya mean the people you’re selling the conductors to?” Cadence frowned. “I’m pretty sure Romano and the Foxmans have all the high-end customers in their pocket. I mean, you can’t get much better than the Aquarian army.”

“I know you can think bigger than that, Cadence. Times are changing. People know that the peacekeepers are just that in name only. Completely useless. Won’t protect anything when it hits the fan.”

“No need to get into politics with me, Verga. Sorry to say that I’m not into that kinda stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “But from what I’m gatherin’ you’ve been sellin’ our conductors to regular old citizens.”

“They pay as good as the governments do—sometimes even better.” Finally, Verga lowered his gun with a grimace. “Though I do admit that they ain’t as bright in usin’ ‘em. They get petty sometimes. Shoot parents and kids. Shoot the delivery men when they don’t get what they want. And you know how it is. Injured delivery men in this kinda business is a liability. They start demanding stuff and threaten to spill. You just can’t have ‘em around.”

So that was how it was.

“So the kids at the warehouse…”

“Just a couple of brats who I gave work to. Want revenge for what I did to their no longer capable members. Course, they think it’s all on the Romano and the Foxmans since they own the ring and I’m smart enough not to show my face. Brats did me a favor with Figeroli. I gave him a cut, and he got too cocky.”

The dots connected. One last one to go.

“So you want me to work for your enterprise ya got goin’ here.” Cadence hummed. “Well, do ya really think I’m that disloyal?”

“Not work for me. Help me clean up this mess. And what’s this about loyalty? Yeah, anyone who looks at you would think you’re loyal to the bone to the Romanos. But I can see right through you. You nearly fooled me. It’s easy mistakin’ that eagerness and reliability as loyalty. But you’re not even really part of the Family. ”

Cadence lowered her hands and looked the man over. “Never said I was. That’s what the word ‘associate’ means.” 

Verga seemed to snicker at that. “You’re like me. A coward with big dreams. Sure, you seem like you’d lay down your life for the guy next to you but I know how it is. When really bad things go down, Cadence Morello ain’t around.”  

“You’re flatterin’ me.”

“Damn, I even heard Ricardo offered you a position as capo and you flat out denied it,” Verga continued. “Wouldn’t keep your opportunities open enough swearing loyalty that way.”

She resisted rolling her eyes. 

“You’re speakin’ too vaguely.” Cadence scratched her head. “What exactly do you think a common goon like me could possibly ever dream of?”

There was a long drawn out pause of silence. 

“All I need for you to do is to use your skillset to gather the rest of those brats here without Ricardo or the Foxmans finding out. Those brats are the only ones tying me to this. Just get them there and let me take care of the rest. A pretty good deal if you ask me, seeing that you’ll be receiving not only a triple payment of what I already gave you there but also the opportunity to sweep all of this under the rug. Done and over with.”

“Sounds like you’re tryin’ to reassure yourself with the last bit there. If I take up this job offer, then it really is buried since I won’t be able to tell the Family or the Foxmans after without getting a round.” Cadence noted before she hummed. “And after all this is sunk into the deep blue sea, you just continue on your merry way collectin’ Cens without repercussions for…. how long?”

“After this next round of sales, I’m leaving this city. Taking a leave of absence from the Family.” Verga paused. “So I can take care of my real family.”

Cadence perked up at this and then raised a brow. “Y’know, I may be a bleedin’ heart but ya gotta tell me a more convincing lie than that to try to win me over.”

Verga frowned. “No, it’s true.” He reached into his pocket with his free hand again and drew out a black-and-white photograph for her to see. Captured in its white frame was a pair. A slender, smiling man who looked as if he’d just walked out from a zen garden and a grinning girl with pigtails who looked around eight years of age. “She’s in Alhena right now waiting for me.”

“Saints, Verga. Maybe you really do need retirement. Workin’ in this line of business isn’t doin’ wonders for your age lines.” Cadence sighed, glancing up at the man. “You said Alhena? Ain’t  that one of the poorest cities in Gemini?”

Verga nodded before pocketing the photo. “I left to come here and make money so I could give her a better life.” He abruptly stared at his hands and suddenly looked somber, tired. “This—this isn’t me. This city made me into this.”

All due to circumstances, huh?, Cadence mused. But….

“Well, I gotta say that I empathize with you. Who am I to deny a father and a daughter a happy ending? But above all that, money talks.” Cadence slipped the coin bag into her coat pocket and nodded to his gun. “You make a compellin’ argument.”

“Good.” 

With that Verga raised his gun back up and pulled the trigger. The man that had been standing to Cadence’s left slumped over dead a second after as did the man that had been at her right. 

“Not good future job prospects if you ask me,” Cadence said evenly, keeping the tremble out of her voice.

Verga shrugged. “They were stupid. Expendable.”

Cadence whistled, extending a hand. “Man, Verga, you’re really goin’ all out with this then, aren’t ya?”

Verga smirked and accepted the gesture. “That ain’t me goin’ all out.”

Cadence pulled back with raised brows and eyed Bell out of the corner of her eye before she paced towards the window and peeked out through the shudders. “But, really, working with ELPIS wannabees isn’t going ‘all out’ to you?”

“Who said it was just wannabees?”

Something clicked into place inside her head.

Cadence turned away from the window slowly.

“Like I said, Morello, I think outside the box. No customer is denied.”

She tried focusing on what Verga was saying, but there was a static sound at the very fringes of her hearing making it difficult to understand anything. 

“Of course, I’m not stupid or desperate enough to sell conductors to them. But they sure are desperate”

The static ate away at the corners of her vision. Pinpricks of black, gray, and white. White. White. White. Whiter than the bleaching light that bled through the shutters. A pure white.

She could barely make out Verga’s silhouette against the whiteness. 

“Morello… er, what’s with that look, Morello?”

Look? What look? Her face?

It was too hard to even think about wearing and controlling the right facial expression because right now she could barely control the monstrous feeling that was now spreading like a wildfire out from her chest. The feeling had come so suddenly that, at first, she hadn’t known what it was. It was a feeling she rarely felt. But when she did feel it, it was never to this extent. 

Anger. Rage. Suffocating. Snapping through every muscle in her body. An overwhelming itch somewhere deep inside that needed to be scratched. It was agonizing. 

Working with ELPIS? ELPIS? How could he? How could he? He—

The static pinpicking her ears suddenly went silent. An unfamiliar voice cracked out—

Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”

A flash of scorching white.

Run.

No.

“Jericho!”

Pounding footsteps. 

And then an explosion of pain. Out from her stomach, there was an explosion of pain unlike anything she’d felt before.  Pain. Pain. Saints—

Had she been shot?

Verga wasn’t brandishing his gun and neither was Bell.

But she felt a damp and warm wetness at her abdomen. Sucking in a breath, she pressed her hands against the area. Dry. What? She pulled her hands away and saw her pale, unstained hands—

Saints. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.

She stumbled forward, grasping the edges of the table information of her and nearly tripped over one of the bodies on the floor. The pool of blood has spread making it slippery and wet. 

Was she dying?

In an instant the world became clear again. There was Bell standing in the corner looking confused and Verga looking concerned of all things. The smoke from the shop below curling up from the floorboards suddenly looked alluring. A nice cloud to rest in. 

“Morello?”

She fell into it with open arms. 

And then there was nothing.

Three (1/6): chance detection

“We must allocate our funds to the military!”

“Oh please! What for? So you can waste more money on elaborate uniforms—they already look like walking art pieces at this point! That’s not what the people need to see in this time of crisis! They need reassurance and answers!”

“If anything, that just shows you that the Investigation Bureau needs the funds. 

“The investigation bureau? With Ophiuchus around, the Bureau’s existence is an oxymoron. It’d be better to just dissolve it all together which is what I’ve been saying since the War ended twelve years ago!” 

Their words bounced around the room—not quite hitting their mark nor their target. In other words, this was a useless debate. Just like all the other debates before it. Olive had practically memorized their entire routine by now. Right after a jab at the investigation bureau—

“What? That’s ridiculous! You’re putting the Royal family’s safety at stake by doing that! Do you not care at all about the prince?”

—there would be a remark on the necessity of protecting the royal family. In this case—specifically him, the deadbeat nephew of the king and the queen. The king who currently sat at Olive’s right and the queen who sat to the king’s right.  They were seated at the very center of the wall across from the officials who sat in their chairs that were lined up in a U-shaped formation. 

It wasn’t like any of them really wanted to help him. He wasn’t egotistical enough to think that they needed to or that they were obliged. But the fact was none of them wanted to help Aries either. All they wanted to do was line their pockets some more. As if their pockets weren’t overflowing enough. Well, maybe they did need the money. Needed it to fill their mansions and groom the lands titled to them when they were ordained as feudal lords when they took up office. 

But he didn’t care. Not really. Even if he did care, none of his caring would really matter anyways. In the end, whatever changes they managed to get through would probably be undone by some successor further down the line. 

Why he even had to sit and watch them go at it went over his head. His uncle had said something about showing up for the people. But these weren’t people. These were politicians.

And politicians aren’t people?

Something tickled the back of his throat at the sudden thought. A laugh. He almost choked on it but covered it with a cough.

If they’re people then humanity is screwed, he returned.

A flicker of black out of the corner of his eye interrupted his thoughts. Lavi. She stood at the center of the room with her hands pressed up against her ears, with her head tilted upwards, with her eyes closed gently. The v-light that was sprinkling down from the chandelier above them painted her cheeks with dapples of white and blue. 

“Can you hear it?”

Olive uncurled from where he sat as a chill crept up his spine. 

Her eyes opened slowly, lashes catching onto the light. Slowly, she lowered her hands and met his eyes.  “The pulse of the syzygy.”

“Lavi…?”

“Is there something you’d like to comment on, Olive?”

Olive turned his head and found his uncle’s eyes boring into him. Not only his uncle’s eyes but everyone’s eyes. Their gazes prickled his skin. 

He glanced back to the center of the room. She was gone. 

“I need to use the restroom.”


Olive didn’t think he would ever walk down a hallway and hear only one pair of footsteps ever again. 

He glanced over his shoulder as he drifted down the palace corridor. Trystan was keeping at his shadow. The man’s left hand was resting on the conductor at his hip, and his gaze swept from the floors to the windows to the ceiling—as if he’d find some shadowy assassin clinging to the walls like a spider. 

When they reached the black wooden doors of the bathroom at the end of the hall, Olive reached for the handle and pulled it open. He gestured widely inside. Trystan stiffened before clearing his throat and entering the room. He swept his gaze along the mirrors and the sinks below them then searched the stalls. He checked the window before returning to the door and giving Olive a curt nod.

“All clear,” Trystan informed him.

“Right. So which stall should I use?”

Trystan paused. “I—What do you mean?”

“Well, the head royal guard needs to be thorough, right?” 

The initial shock on the man’s face folded away into annoyance, which then folded away again into a controlled expression of reserve. “I will be waiting for you outside, your highness.” He glanced at the window, hesitated, but said nothing as he strode out.

Olive shut the door behind him. He then ambled forward, glanced at the bathroom stalls, before bypassing them and approaching the mirror. He glared at his reflection for a moment, before turning on the sink and splashing his face with hot water.  He remained there, gripping the edge of the sink, as he stared into the steam rising up from the waterfall of blazing tap water. 

A creaking sound drew away his attention, and it was followed by a flicker of black out from the corner of his eye.

He straightened and turned. “Lavi—”

His words died in his throat as a shadow spilled out from the window that now stood ajar. A silhouette perched there—black against white. 

Olive barely had the time to take a step back before the figure lunged forward pinning him against the sink and clamping a hand over his mouth. The steam rising from the sink provided a cloak of concealment for the intruder but Olive had already seen it. Seen his assailant’s face. It was—

“Claire…?” came his muffled question.

His assailant stiffened, before pushing past the cloud of steam. “Olive…?”

“What the—why are you—what are you doing here?” Olive stammered, hissed, whispered. 

“What are you doing here?” Claire whispered in turn, looking truly, ridiculously concerned and confused.

It was such an earnest expression that Olive had to take a moment to digest it before he scowled and snapped: “This is the royal palace. I’m royalty. Do you need more clarification—”

“Is everything alright, your highness?”—Trystan’s voice was barely audible above the rush of water.

Olive reached over to turn off the faucet and didn’t even glance at Claire as he answered, “Everything’s fine. You’ve already got the position as head royal guard. Are you really trying to climb up further now? I may be the prince but you really need to be sucking up to other people. I can’t change anything.”

“That’s—I…” Came Trystan’s response before it was dampened by silence.

Olive turned back to Claire and shrugged the young man’s hands off of his shoulders. “Stop looking like that. It’s annoying. I don’t want to be involved in whatever this is. Just get out of the palace now.”

Claire took a step back, hands raised in placation. “I—You don’t want to know… why I’m here…?”

Olive dusted his sleeves and crossed his arms.  “Like you want to tell me. With how you ran off the other day, I doubt it’s something that’ll be good for you or for me.”

“Ok, I have an explanation for tha—”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Ok the truth is—”

“I said I didn’t want to hear it—”

“I’m in this country illegally.”

Olive paused. 

“I snuck in past the borders and I don’t have any papers on me.” 

A long stretch of silence passed.

“But you have to understand. I’m here for a reason—”

“This isn’t a confessional,” Olive said. “And that’s what all the illegal aliens say.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “So is that why you approached me then? Want me to magically wave my hands and make all of your problems go away?”

Claire stiffened in surprise and he shook his head flustered while waving his hands. “No, no, no, no, I had no idea—honestly.” He paused, met Olive’s eyes, and gestured hesitantly at him. “I don’t mean to be rude but you didn’t really seem like the type. You don’t act regally—no offense.” He started waving his hands again. “I didn’t even know you’d be here—really!”

Olive said nothing.

In the silence, Claire seemed to crack. “Ok, there’s this guy who promised to forge papers for me if I got him something from the royal palace. It’s this red vase thing.” Claire mimicked the shape with his hands. “Apparently it’s a super valuable artifact, and I heard a rumor that it might be here so I… yeah.”

Olive looked him up and down. “Are you…suicidal? Stupid?”

“I….”

“Get out.”

Claire opened his mouth but then resigned himself to silence. He made to the window. 

That’s not very exciting, is it? Just letting him go like that.

Exciting? Who the hell cared if it was exciting, Olive thought—but then a sensation cracked open in his chest and expanded outwards. It twisted deep in the pit of his stomach and before he could even put a name to it, he was already extending a hand outwards haltingly. 

“Wait—”

Claire, one foot already on the windowsill, paused and turned his head. He looked torn between confusion and fear but he held steady. 

“The Ramicus.”

Claire’s brows furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“That’s what the pot is called. The red one you’re talking about. They say that our Ancestor brought it from her homeland when she first came to Signum,” Olive elaborated.  “I’m not going to forge documents for you but I don’t mind giving you the urn. It’s ugly and everyone’ll be secretly happy it’s gone anyways.”

“I…” Claire stepped down from the sill. “I’m confused… Do you really mean that…? I—but why..?”

“That must be your favorite word.” Olive grimaced. “Do they not teach you ‘don’t question good things that come your way’ in your country?”

“I… thank you,” Claire finally managed after he took a second to register Olive’s meaning.  “I don’t know what to say… I mean first the conductor and now this.” He took a step forward. “Please let me thank you somehow—oh, I know! I can treat you to something. You probably’ve eaten everywhere in the city already but still—” 

“I’m not leaving the palace without my guards.”

Claire visibly faltered and then chuckled. “O-Oh, right… Of course. You’re royalty. It’d probably be strange if you went out with someone like me.”

“It’s not that…” Olive glanced back at the door. “It’d be too much of a pain to deal with all the increased security. I already tested my luck yesterday.” 

Claire was silent. And then he dug into his satchel and presented Olive with a rice ball. He’d tried some before when a traveling chef from Sagittarius visited the palace, but that had been a long time ago. 

“How about I treat you here? Uh, it’s not much, I know. But it’s still something.”

Olive raised an eyebrow. “Is it poisoned?” 

“I—uh—what?”

Before Claire even had the chance to form a coherent sentence, Olive grabbed the rice ball out of his hands and joined him at the windowsill. He sat down on the protruding terrace and bit into the ball. He chewed thoughtfully as Claire settled down beside him with a rice ball of his own. 

A comfortable silence passed. 

Then, Olive asked, “Why are you trying to sneak into Aries in the first place?  Getting your papers isn’t that hard if you know what you’re doing.”

“I thought you said you didn’t want to know.” Claire spoke in such a way that made it impossible to discern whether he was being sarcastic or earnest. 

“Fine, don’t tell me.” 

“I’m looking for something here. It’s important. I just didn’t have enough time to go through all that paperwork.”

“If you’re going to be vague about it, I don’t see why you even bother saying it.” Olive grumbled. “What’s the point of not getting to the point.”

Claire stared for a beat before he chuckled. “It’s just difficult to explain… it’s not something physical.”

Olive harrumphed. “So are you telling me I was wasting my time finding you a conductor?”

Claire flushed. “Oh, well—I mean I did need one.” He paused, turning to stare out at the horizon. “But this thing I need… it’s something that you’d expect to get everywhere, but…”

“Are you a deaf poet?” 

Claire shrugged. After a beat, he asked, “Don’t you get bored of staying inside here all the time?”

“I’ve never been outside of the Capital.” Olive shrugged. “Hard to know what you’re missing when you never experience it. Which is why you shouldn’t experience it. People who go out there doing things just increase the amount of things they realize they’re missing, and then they keep going out to try and fill in what they’re missing but it’s just an endless cycle.”

“Wow, it must be fun to be you.”

“You’re still here though. You must be a masochist,” Olive replied. 

So this is what men do when they’re in the restroom together. I’ve always wondered.”

A gentle voice wafted in from behind, causing Olive to snap up from where he sat and whip his head around. He swept the bathroom as a familiar sensation crept up his spine and clouded his mind. Deja vu…?

The bathroom was empty. Occupied only by the remnants of steam from earlier. Nothing out of the ordinary. The cool wind that had been drafting in from the outside had begun to clear up the fogged mirror above the sink. Olive stared at it for a moment in confusion.  And as the blurriness began to recede to the corners of the reflective surface, he did a double-take.

Captured on there was not a reversed image of the bathroom’s interior but an entirely different scene. A window frame. A white window frame with a flower box at its lip. A white window frame with a white flower box and a white windowsill on which a young woman had propped her elbows up against. A young woman who offered him a pleasant, white smile as their eyes met. As if nothing about their situation was odd at all.

The more Olive looked at the mirror, the more it looked like a window instead. Vines spilled out from the flower box and into the sink and the tiled floors of the bathroom, and sunlight bounced off the glass windowpanes and splattered the flowers in droplets of light. It looked like a painting. 

“W-What is it?” Claire whispered. He was craning his neck to peer inside the bathroom. 

Olive glanced at him and then back at the mirror. Claire’s words confirmed his suspicions: this was something that he could only see. Like the woman from that night. Like La—

“It’s nothing,” Olive said, turning away and tapping his foot. He took another large bite out of the rice ball and swallowed without tasting it. 

A soft chuckle resounded from behind again. “I’m not sure how but I get the feeling that you’re in a tense situation right now.  You must be very daring to be spending time alone with someone you’ve just met while also turning your back on another person you’ve just met despite it. Is this what they call bravery or is this what they call loneliness?”

Olive craned his neck just enough so that he could send the woman a glare. A glare which he soon found himself re-directing to the wall just beside the mirror-window when the woman smiled. It wasn’t that the woman had an unpleasant smile or a creepy one—in fact, it was a very beautiful one. All white. But something about it seemed unnatural.

“It’s a good thing.” She said, now smiling with her eyes. “Many psychologists believe that human beings are social creatures, so I think it’s very natural to feel lonely. I’ve always wondered if people who never feel lonely have somehow evolved beyond the need for that. Or perhaps it’s a devolution?” There was something odd in the way she smiled, but whatever strangeness he saw was tucked away as she hid a chuckle with her hand. “Sorry, I’m rambling now.”

Was that an insult or a compliment? Was any of that even directed at him?

There was a long stretch of silence, and the woman’s smile tipped downwards. Her eyes, on the other hand, softened with an understanding that usually would have caused Olive to grit his teeth. Somehow, however, he could almost feel—understand—the sentiment behind her expression. Almost apologetic.

“You seem like you’re the one who’s lonely,” he finally said. 

The woman’s eyes did not brighten, but the corners of her lips turned upwards slightly.  “You don’t seem very alarmed by my presence.” 

“You’d have to beat sword lady’s entrance if you wanted to alarm me,” Olive grumbled, facing forward again but keeping the woman in the corner of his eye. “Anyways, I’m not a stranger to being messed up in the head so nothing can surprise me.”

“S-Sword lady?” Claire muttered beside him in confusion, and then his expression matched the one the woman had earlier. Sympathetic, apologetic. “I don’t think you’re messed up in the head. I…” He glanced at the mirror. “I…uh… I talk to myself a lot too. A lot of people do. It’s actually a sign of intelligence, you know?”

Olive stared at him. “Right. Thanks for the pep talk.”

Claire suddenly appeared rather bashful. Foreigners were odd. 

“I don’t think I’ve met this ‘sword lady’ yet, but I’ve met the one called Cadence and the one called Werner,” the woman continued from her windowsill. She reached out and gently touched the lip of a flower that bloomed on one of the vines. “On another note, the human brain is so complex and not completely understood. Even the greatest researchers don’t completely understand what is considered normal for a person’s mind. So for you to say with that level of certainty that I am a symptom of this ‘messed up head’ of yours—well—you must be smarter than them.”

“You really like to talk don’t you.”

The woman chuckled at this, and for a moment Olive found himself wondering how in the world he kept encountering people who laughed at pointed insults.

“Well… I think I am a little bit extroverted,” Claire replied. “But I’ve been trying to tone it down recently…”

Olive glanced at him and then looked back at the woman. 

“I suppose you’re right to say I’m lonely,” she said. “Although it’s self-inflicted. I’ve been wondering recently… perhaps I’m a bit of a sadist? Or would that be a masochist?” 

Olive felt something tickle in his chest at that statement. An almost dry laugh. Which was embarassing. He side glanced quickly at Claire to check if he’d seen the slip, but he was focused solely on the horizon. Olive followed his gaze and then froze. 

It was Lavi. She was here again. Standing at the very edge of the roof. 

Olive came to a stand immediately, startling Claire beside him.

“Wow…” Came the flower woman’s response. “I think this is the first time I’ve experienced more than two of us speaking like this to each other. This is something rather amazing…”

Then it clicked.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat. No, he felt his heart stop altogether. 

She could see Lavi. She could see Lavi.

Of course, she could see her. It was only natural. They were both swirling around in his mind so it was only naturally that they could see each other. Just like Lavi could see his hallucinated sword woman from the other night, this hallucination could also see Lavi. Logically, it made sense. But. But even so.

It was pathetic, Olive knew. He knew it was pathetic to feel this emotion rising in his chest after so many years, but even though he knew it was pathetic he couldn’t stop himself from feeling it. From acting on it.

“You can see her?” Olive whispered, whipping his head around and gesturing loosely to where Lavi stood. His voice sounded unnatural in his own ears. “You… can see her?”

“… see who?” Claire’s voice resounded faintly in the background.

The woman in the mirror was no longer smiling with her lips nor her eyes. She seemed to be analyzing his expression. She straightened herself and peered into his face and then glanced at Lavi again. “Yes, of course, I can see her.”

It really was pathetic. How just four words could make that stupid, worthless, embarrassing feeling surge. That hope.

“You—” he stepped onto the windowsill breathlessly and—

And then there was pain. A sharp, pulsating pain erupted like fire.  It came so suddenly and so forcefully that for a moment he thought he’d been shot again. Hd looked towards the window bewildered but was only met with Claire’s bewildered gaze. 

“What’s wrong?” Claire asked. 

He wasn’t sure if he screamed or cried or swore but a second later he was on the ground shaking. 

Distantly, someone called out a familiar name—

“Olive!”

He blinked once. Twice.

The bathroom around him twisted and was swallowed up by an entirely different scenery. Somewhere gray and drab. Somewhere wet.

He was on the ground. 

On an unfamiliar hard, cold concrete floor. 

Red spilled out from somewhere and pooled at his fingertips.

 A cloak of white swooshed just beyond his line of sight.

In the distance, a familiar voice called out a familiar name—

“Jericho!”

And then there was black.

TWO interlude: boy in the capital

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

How Ariesians could tolerate these sorts of blazing temperatures astounded him.

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

An older woman with deeply tanned skin and wisps of gray hair hidden beneath a faded kerchief was opening a fruit stall to his left. He approached her with a friendly smile and after five minutes of bargaining, he managed to get a pound of them for five common-coins. It was a decent deal seeing how smaller stores often preferred their native currency (in this case the flimsy Ariesian bill) over common-coin. He thanked the woman with a bow before retreating to the shade provided by a tarp canvas that was pulled over a jewelry stall. There he sat on a crate and bit into an apple as he watched the dawning buzz of the marketplace evolve into a daybreak bustle. 

Everyone here seemed to be so carefree. Not in the sense of having no responsibilities, but in the sense that they carried their responsibility over their shoulders without letting it weigh them down. 

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

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

He took another bite of his apple and chewed thoughtfully. 

Olive Chance. Olivier Chance. Ariesian prince. 

He scanned the crowd and rolled the apple in his palm but then nearly dropped it when he spotted the very subject of his thoughts appear in the masses of colorful cloaks and twirling umbrellas. A cloak of deep red shrouded the prince’s dark head in shadow, but those green eyes were unmistakable.  Behind Olive trailed two men who were dressed in uniforms, metal and red. The red seemed to part the crowd of the bazaar, like a parting of waves.

A silence took over the parted people as they looked on.

“Is that…?”

“No, it couldn’t be…”

“But those colors….”

The hushed whispers that were passed around were speculative. 

But he was not speculative in the least bit. He knew the truth. The truth that this was indeed Olive Chance. 

Tucking the apple back into his bag, he leaped from the crate he was sitting on before shouting: “Olive!” He waved wildly as he wove through the bodies crowding the marketplace. “Olive!”

Wide, green eyes turned towards him.

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

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

“I’m–”

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

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

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

“Trystan, stop.”

 The addressed young man frowned deeply and pulled up his weapon again. “But, your highness, sir—”

Olive narrowed his eyes.

Trystan tensed but did not lower his weapon.

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

“What?” Trystan whispered before he lowered his weapon. “Him?” 

Claire smiled and raised his hands. “No need to start anything. It was my fault.”

“My apologies,” Trystan said in return as he fastened his conductor to his belt. “But if that’s the case, but I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.”

Claire started. “Q-questioning…?”

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

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

Trystan stiffened and glanced around. The whispering around them had become louder now. He exchanged a look with his fellow guard and then swallowed and cleared his throat. “My apologies,” he said again, meeting Claire’s eyes. “I did not intend to cause a scene.”

“I think I understand.” Claire smiled faintly, raising his hands loosely in the air. “Responsibility and duty, right?”

Trystan’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second before he nodded. “If you would come with us, we will take you to the palace so you can be questioned. I assure you, it will not take long.”

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

Trystan’s eyes narrowed, but he cleared his throat and nodded. “Right, your highness. Then I’ll have Samuel take him instead while I remain here with you.”

“Look,” Olive said, “I’m not trying to repeat history. If you want to waste your time, go ahead. It’ll take two times as long without Samuel though.”

“Then what are you suggesting?” Trystan’s eyes narrowed. 

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

Trystan turned to him in response to the continued silence Olive offered. There was frustration in his eyes but he spoke calmly: “Claire, seeing as we are occupied at the moment, the best choice may be for you to take yourself to take yourself to the palace on your own.” 

Did Trystan really trust a stranger to abide to such an extent?

“But I would rather you accompany us until we finish our… duties… and then accompany us back to the palace for questioning.” 

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


They wove through the marketplace district with surprising ease. The presence of an Ariesian prince was certainly something else. To be able to burn a path through a suffocating cluster of hardy, stubborn, business-minded individuals was certainly something only a prince of Aries could do. Of course, that very thought was a bit prejudice.

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

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

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

“And when I ran back—”

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

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

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

“There’s no opinion that means little,” Claire returned, meeting Trystan’s eyes. “It scares me when I think of people who think their opinion is law.”

Trystan uncharacteristically raised a brow. “Right…”

Claire turned his attention forward. Olive was walking half a meter ahead of them and looking as if he wished to be ten thousand meters ahead of them instead. 

Trystan nodded.

Claire ran up to join Olive’s side, but the latter did not so much as acknowledge him.

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

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

Claire frowned in confusion.

“It’s a two-way torture,” Olive continued without looking at him. He grimaced. “Then again, I could care less about whether or not you want to torture yourself so nevermind. Ask about it or don’t.”

Well, that certainly was a roundabout way of speaking.

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

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

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

His gaze then flicked to Trystan who followed closely behind them. Something was tense between them. It wasn’t hard to ascertain what that was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That much was true.

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

This made Olive halt in his tracks and stare.

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

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

Ouch. There was that word again. Well, it was easier to deal with people who at least responded to him conversationally. 

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

Olive narrowed his eyes again. Abruptly he glanced to his left. Claire followed his gaze but found nothing there. 

“Fine. I don’t care anyways,” Olive said to the empty space.

Frowning in confusion, Claire returned his attention to the prince and found that the prince was staring at him.

“A lot of people fall into the category in my book,” he clarified. “The idiot category.”

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


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

When they swung by stalls and shops that sell pet-care produce, Claire took the time to explain which feeds were appropriate for which kind of birds. 

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

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

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

It was definitely a sneer. The implication was clear.

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

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


They swung by a conductor stall next and perused the items there. 

Casually, off-handedly, Olive asked, “You have a conducting license, right?” He sounded like he already knew the answer, and so when Claire presented him with a—

“… why?”

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

“Ah… that’s right…”

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

Claire scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s why I needed help, you see. Because I’m not a Conductor myself so I don’t really know…”

Even Trystan looked exasperated at this point which indicated that he had been paying close attention to their previous conversations. He bowed his head to hide this fact, but Claire had already seen it. This Trystan was definitely new to this profession. 

“Well, I can always come back for it after I get a license,” Claire hummed. 

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

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

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

“Be careful,” one of them said.

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

But Claire did not hear the rest of their worries.

Because Claire had already slipped away from them.


From the belfry of a steeple that oversaw the entire market square, Claire sat enjoying the evening breeze. He was seated on the railings that caged in the bell behind him with one leg dangling over the edge and the other tucked just beneath it. He had propped an elbow on the former leg and was resting his chin on his fist as he studied the ongoings of the people below.

In the marketplace’s square, the little dots of Ariesian citizens and of tourists of Aries darted around from stall to stall, bouncing from wall to wall. Cloaks fluttering. From this distance, the sleeves of their cloaks looked almost like wings.

Ironically, the way they wandered around without exiting made him think of birds trapped inside a cage. 

Claire couldn’t help but smile thinly at the thought.

A shadow flickered from behind him. And then another. He saw the black splotches from the corner of his eye and quickly turned to assess them. Standing in front of the grand, brass bell was a figure dressed in black, cloth stealth gear. A traditional white mask painted on with red cheeks and a black smile obscured their face. Beside that figure crouched another in similar gear, albeit wearing a wooden mask. 

Claire’s eyes widened.

And then he smiled.

“I was afraid that you were going to kill that Ariesian guard,” he said. 

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

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

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

“And what now?”

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

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

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

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

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

Whether the wind carried him away or whether it was his conductor that did—

—Claire still did not know.