“If I were in charge, I would have you relieved of duty.”
He blinked at the woman who sat across from him. He had heard many stories about her from his coworkers. About how her square-rimmed glasses did nothing to hide her ice-blue eyes “that could rip out your soul”. About how the tapping of her perfectly manicured nails “could drive even the strongest-willed Conductor insane”. About how her Librish accented voice “could shake down the very walls of Taurus’s renown fortress of a capital city”.
Alice Kingsley. The Ice Gate of Ophiuchus.
And now that he’d had the opportunity to sit before her twenty-five times now, he could confirm the stories as true.
“I think you’re too dangerous. Too unstable.” She continued evenly. Her Librish lilt resounded around the white walls of the office and made the room seem much larger than it already was. “But I doubt you even care about what I think.”
“I do care,” he responded automatically. “I care a lot. About what you think.”
“Spare me the facade. We’ve been through this many times already, Jericho.” Alice waved her hand as she rifled through the papers in front of her. “I study people for a living. And I see you for who you are.” She paused, lowered her papers, peered over them. Her eyes bore into him, digging, searching.
It almost felt as if she could hear his thoughts.
“But I doubt you even care about that either.” She returned her attention to her papers flipped through several more of them before she stacked them neatly on the table in front of her. “You’ve passed the psych evaluation the bureau has provided, and there’s nothing I can do about what’s been written.”
“So, you’ll be dispatched to the Saggitarian-Aquarian border. There’s been word of an ongoing dispute around Gradstal which is a town that connects the two countries. You’ll receive a debriefing on the train ride there.”
Jericho blinked. “I thought…”
“You would be dispatched to handle the ELPIS issue?” Alice gave one dry, chuckle. “As much as Ophiuchus values the both of us, they also know how to play us well.”
There was a long stretch of silence. But she did not speak.
“Jericho, you can leave now.” Her voice came out gently for once. It startled him out of his stiffness.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jericho nodded. With that he rose to a stand and walked toward the glass door behind him. Before he reached it, however, it swung open wife. There in the doorway stood a woman with blindingly red curls. She had on cat-eyed glasses and wore a blue dress with a loose red, fur-lined jacket thrown over it.
Not in standard uniform.
In her hand was a cane which she tapped against his foot with a smirk — but was it a smirk or was it a friendly smile? He always had trouble reading expressions.
He had seen this woman a couple of times before during his visits to Kingsley’s office. She was the first person he’d seen in Ophiuchius who wasn’t an overseer or there to take their State Conducting Exam. Kingsley and the woman were friends, apparently. Up until that point, Jericho hadn’t realized that it was possible to make friends.
Friends outside of Ophiuchus, that was.
The red-haired woman was blind, maybe. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to point that out, he reminded himself. He didn’t want a repeat of that last incident. The one that had caused the other agents to team up and lock him in the closet for three hours straight. Uncomfortable and awkward.
“Excuse me, and goodbye.” He flashed a quick smile and proceeded down the hall.
The hall itself was littered with Ophiucan agents streamlining back and forth between the rooms dotting the walls. All in monochrome. Just as he was.
There had been a large number of cases opened these past few months. So many that closing one case meant immediately opening another. This past month he’d handled four cases himself. And here was another one. Not the one that he wanted.
Posted on the wall of the main lobby was a large map of the continent of Signum. It was almost perfectly circular with Aries to the north, Virgo to the east, Capricorn to the south, and Scorpio to the east. At the very center of the ring of twelve countries was the city-state of Ophiuchus. Vitae reservoirs were marked on the map with a blue star while locations of EPIS attacks were marked with an X.
He bit the inside of his lip before turned down the hall, made several more turns, and pressed out the entrance of the building. Sunlight met his eyes. As did the light from the vitae reservoir that glowed several miles away. Even from this distance with an entire strip of buildings and a mile of desert between them, he could feel the warmth of it in his skin. Warmer than the sun. It painted the long marble staircase just below him in a blinding white.
His stomach churned, and he placed a hand over his belly. He turned his eyes away from the light, and his stomach settled. When he closed his eyes, and he felt right again. He paused and thought. Would it be unreasonable to walk down the stairs with his eyes shut like this? He had done a handful of times before. He’d always made it down with success. The only downfall was that the other agents would always give him looks for some reason when he did it. Drawing attention to himself was not something he wanted to do.
Then again, it seemed as if lately everyone was too busy to pay anyone else much mind.
A breath of air suddenly tickled the back of his neck and drew him away from his thoughts. The breath came with a whisper: “Traitor.”
Something pressed against his back. No, something pushed against his back.
His eyes snapped open in time to see the third marble step from the top come rushing towards him.
The momentum was too great. He could not right himself.
His head cracked down on the step first. Then came the rest of his body. Down he rolled — each crack of limb against marble signaling another tumble forward.
It seemed as if he’d been rolling for hours before he finally hit the bottom. He immediately tried to right himself, but his limbs wouldn’t allow it. His arms were broken, it seemed.
He threw a furtive glance up at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadow recede back into the building. Then, he was alone.
He would not succumb to this, he knew. He thought this to himself as he clenched his fists tightly in the red that pooled around him. Not until he’d done it. Not until then. He would not let go.
Then again, what was this?