Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters
Maria pressed her index finger forward. Again, she received no response. She sighed.
“Captain, I don’t think that’s helping…”
“Oh, I’ve tried telling her, Conta. But she seems very set on doing it.”
Maria straightened from where she had been leaning over the bed and leaned back in her chair. Bending her head backward, she eyed the two who stood behind her.
Conta sat at a round table in the back. A mountain of glittering golden coins, jewels, conductors, and spices were littered before her. The smell was excitingly intense, and the sight dazzlingly bright.
At the opposite corner of the room stood Simon with a bucket of water in one hand and a rag in the other. He crossed the room and knelt down beside Maria. His gaze was not trained on her, however. It was trained on the woman who lay on the bed in front of her.
The woman with golden hair.
The woman was clothed now—as per Conta’s insistence—in one of Maria’s blouses and pants. A thin blanket had been thrown over her—once again, as per Conta’s insistence—and the only sign the woman was alive was the gentle rise and fall of the sheet.
Maria watched Simon draw the rag across the woman’s forehead before she reached forward and pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek again. No response.
Maria peered at her closely.
Even her eyelashes seemed to be made of gold.
“My dear Simon, what do you think is wrong with this lovely lady?” she asked, peering deeply into the man’s face. “Why will the most interesting of treasures not awaken?”
“That, I don’t know.” Simon sighed as he pulled away. “No signs of fever. Heart rate slow, but not alarmingly so.” He gently, reverently lifted the thin blanket to reveal the woman’s hands that were still bound by the thick, steel cuffs. “And the fact that we can’t remove this isn’t helping.”
“You say so, but I have yet to—” Maria reached for the offending object, but a gentle hand placed on her wrist stopped her. Eyes sharp, she glanced up.
Simon smiled down at her knowingly. “I have no doubts about you, Captain, but I fear what the removal of that will do to our mysterious guest here. It may be connected to her condition.”
Maria returned the smile. “My Simon, how daring of you.”
“Oh, well, I do learn from the best, my Captain.”
Maria laughed and slapped him on the back before she hopped to her feet. She made her way over to Conta’s side and leaned over her shoulder.
“Anything of interest, my dear Conta?”
Conta tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before plucking a coin from the pile and stacking it on top of a tower of similar coins.
“Just the usual, Captain,” she said.
Maria stared at her for a long moment, and Conta seemed to flush beneath her gaze. The moment stretched on, and the groans of the ship resounded in the silence. Finally, Maria cracked a smile and squeezed Conta’s shoulders. “Whatever you say, my dear Conta.”
With that, Maria swept out of the room. She made her way down the halls, enjoying the cracking sound her boots made against the wooden floorboards. As she approached the mess hall at the end of the passage, the sounds of idle chatter and the squeaks and clacks of chore work reached her ears. As she drew nearer and as the sound of her boots resounded louder and louder, the sounds of chore work heightened, and idle chatter lowered.
She burst through the doors of the mess hall with a grin and observed the scene with hands on hips.
The mess hall was dotted with the newly indentured men. Some dragged soapy rags across food littered tables while others swooshed mops across the brine-stained floor. In the back, behind the kitchen counter, Maria could faintly hear the plastic clicks of dishes and the metal clacks of silverware.
The sailors were still in their uniforms, which had begun to lose their pristine white glow. At her arrival, they all slowed their movements.
“My, my”—she laughed—“you are doing so much better than the ones on duty before you! Perhaps they did so poorly on purpose?”
No one answered her question, which made her hum in thought.
A sailor who manned one of the mops nodded at her. “Captain, may we assist you with anything?”
Maria stared at the mop-wielding man for a long moment before she closed the distance between them. They were almost nose to nose now, but even as she peered more deeply into his face, he held his ground. As she pressed forward a bit more, he only faltered for a fraction of a second. She pulled away from him and grinned with relief. Clapping a hand on his shoulder, she said, “Ah, my dear Morandi, I was afraid you were sick—you were acting so strangely just now! So easygoing!”
“Well, Captain,” he responded, “seeing as we’ve reached an agreement, it would be dishonorable for me not to follow through.”
Maria scratched her head and hummed again as she turned away from him. “There’s that honor you speak of once again.” A thought came to her, and she snapped her fingers and twirled around before clamping her hands back onto his shoulders. Squeezing tight, she said, “You will answer my questions!”
Morandi started and then frowned. “Look, I’ve already told you everything I know about that woman. I know nothing about her. We’re just charged to ship things. We don’t ask what we’re shipping. That’s part of the job.”
A beat of silence.
“Tell me about conductors and conducting.”
Morandi stared. “I—Excuse me…?”
“Conductors, conductors, vitae, extraneous, intraneous.” Maria bounced on the soles of her feet. “Tell me about these things! Spirits have been doing strange things with them, you see? And I want to know more! And I wish to know, Morandi, from you who is tasked with carrying them for our dear friends in Gemini.”
Morandi faltered a step before he shook his head. “I am by no means an expert, Captain. I don’t even have my Conducting License.” He took a moment to collect himself before he regarded her. “I’m aware that your crew is quite the salad bowl—you’re all from different parts—but I’m surprised you don’t have even one Conductor among you.”
“Oh, we do have a Conductor.” Maria hummed with a grin. “A former Conductor. Simon from Leo. But he is retired. Taken on a religious lifestyle. Something about worshiping your Ancestors? What’s that religion called? Monadism?” She turned to the men and gestured to herself. “I was raised in a Leonian Monadic church alongside Conta, did you know?”
Morandi and his men did a double take.
Maria spread her arms wide. “They said I was amazing and that I had the greatest potential for saint candidacy. Funny, no? I already knew that I could do anything. I didn’t need people telling me those things. Belief in myself has always been enough for me.”
“S-saint candidacy—you?! That’s—”
“Pretty cool, yes?” Maria chuckled. “Well, I never really understood the entire thing. But I was excited to see what it was all about, you see? But alas! Right before my initiation ceremony, the church was raided! By pirates of all things!”
Morandi exchanged a look with his men.
“That was the only time I haven’t been in control of my life, and it is… how do you say… troubling? Yes. Troubling.” Maria pursed her lips and tapped her chin. “I am in search of those pirates… the captain… I will find them… yes.” She uncurled herself and stared at the sailors for a moment. “What were we talking about again?”
“Right! I wish to hear from you, Morandi. About these conductors!” Maria took a step back and fell back into a seat at the wooden table. “Tell me your experience and knowledge of these things. Your version, your tale, your legend.” She propped her elbow up on her crossed legs and rested her chin on her knuckle before she offered a smile. “Please do make it interesting.”
“What’s with the sudden interest?” he asked with narrowed eyes.
“Maybe I’ll know it when you tell me!”
There was a stretch of silence.
Finally, Morandi sighed, rested his mop against the table, and crossed his arms. “Well, where do I even start? The basics? Like how Conductors channel vitae through conductors? Or about the basics of vitae? Soft versus hard? How vitae can be manipulated extraneously or intraneously—”
“Ah, yes, about that,” Maria interjected. “I think I’ve heard about it. From the spirits. About how certain Conductors can use the vitae in themselves versus the vitae outside. But is it not tiring to use the vitae from inside? The concept is beyond me, but vitae is like energy, no?”
“For someone who claims to not know how vitae and conductors work, you sure seem to know a lot about them,” Morandi mused before ruffling his hair. “Like I said, I’m not an expert, but from what I understand, intraneous vitae can be replenished through ingesting the soft vitae that is present in food. Still, Projector Conductors who literally just shoot out the vitae inside of themselves—well, apparently, they have shorter life expectancies than other Conductors… or something like that. Not sure if that’s really it. I mean, why would anyone want to do that?”
“Maybe that is what you call passion?” Maria tapped her chin in thought before she mused: “There is a saying that goes ‘vitae is the color of a soul,’ no? Would conducting then not be akin to burning the soul of something for fuel? Like a fire?” Her eyes widened and she leaned forward. “Can something like a soul truly be replenished by eating?”
“That’s just a saying. Vitae isn’t actually a person’s soul,” Morandi said matter-of-factly. He quirked a brow. “If you’re this interested, why don’t you go to Ophiuchus and take your State Conducting Exam? That way you’ll get access to all sorts of vitae-related research material you wouldn’t be able to gain access to otherwise. Maybe you could even think to release me and my crew on land while you’re at it.”
“Why do that when it’d be so much easier and exciting for me to hear about it from people like you?” Maria returned with a chuckle. “Besides, that is not our agreement.”
“To think a pirate would hold so steadfastly to promises.”
“I never break a promise, my dear Morandi.” Maria rolled her neck before hopping off her table and coming to sit beside him instead. Abruptly, she snapped her fingers and grinned. “Ah, yes, I almost forgot! How many people are able to manipulate vitae without those conducting devices? I would like to learn how since it seems quite fun!”
Immediately, a short burst of laughter erupted from Morandi’s lips, but it was quickly silenced with a clearing of the throat. He exchanged looks with the others around him who were also stifling their laughs. The sound was not mirrored by Maria.
“You’re… serious?” he asked before he shook his head. “Forget ‘how many’—there’s no such thing as conducting without a conductor. Those two go hand-in-hand.” He spread his arms wide. “It’s just not possible.”
“There’s no such thing as no such thing,” Maria said after a pause. “It’s just that you don’t know of it yet.” She stretched out her arms and leaned her head back against the tabletop behind her. “‘Impossible’ is something to be broken by the strong.” In the silence that followed, she studied the lines of the ceiling and turned her ears toward the groans of the ship. The smile slipped from her face. “Also, ELPIS—what is it?”
The other members of the cleaning crew who had been listening in on the conversation froze at the question. Maria didn’t pay them any attention and merely turned her head expectantly toward Morandi again. The thumps of footsteps and muffled voices from other areas of the ship resounded in the silence.
Maria tried again. “So, what is this ELPIS exactly? What is so exciting about it?”
Morandi gave her a look of confusion, but when she did not acknowledge him, he sighed. “It’s not a what. It’s a who.”
“The matter is hush-hush, but they’re what’s left of a group of people who fought during the war. Lived before the war. The thirteenth group.”
“The thirteenth group, you say…?” Maria murmured. “Do you mean those funny people who work in that Ophiuchus place?”
“No, no, no. Definitely not.” Morandi shook his head. “Well, I think I understand the confusion. Where Ophiuchus is now is where that thirteenth country was located originally.”
“Yes.” Morandi rubbed his chin. “They had some radical beliefs—that country. They saw usage of vitae and conductors as evil, sacrilegious. Tried to purge conducting and those who used conductors. Very steadfast in their beliefs. Determined. Even though they use conductors themselves. Hypocrites. I was never on the battlefront during the war—worked on cargo just as I do now—but I’ve heard many stories about them. Horror stories.” He reached for the mop and studied it. “But they are the reason why the war ended.”
Maria perked up at this.
“The twelve countries ended up banding together to fight against them,” Morandi explained. “It was an annihilation. Of self-defense, of course. Left all of us too weak to fight any further.” He shrugged. “Still, it’s difficult to kill off radical beliefs. Some pockets of the country survived and branched out. Eventually became known as ELPIS. But they’re only a fraction of what they used to be. Anyways, the leaders are psychopaths.”
“Yes, usually you’re able to tell them apart from the others because they have special tattoos. A rite of passage, I suppose.”
Such an odd thing—ELPIS.
Maria turned the word over in her mind. What a sour and unpleasant thing—strange, since she usually enjoyed even the most morbid of concepts and ideas. She leaned forward and thrummed her cheek in thought. Her eyes locked onto one particular sailor who seemed to be fidgeting with his collar. With a smile, she nodded at him. “You seem like you have something interesting to say. What is it?”
The sailor in question stiffened before he cleared his throat and stepped forward. “I—er—they’re pretty big actually, ma’am—er—Captain. When I was younger, my home was attacked by them. They ransacked the conductor that powered our town and took a bunch of children. I was one of the lucky ones…I’ll never forget it… when they used their conductors, the color of their vitae—they were all the same… completely whi…” The sailor shook his head.
Maria whistled before gesturing to the other sailors in the area. “Does anyone else have anything interesting to add about this ELPIS?”
“They’re just plain crazy,” interjected another sailor without skipping a beat. “Don’t know how or why, but their mass conversion rates are insane. Completely insane. I knew a friend of a friend—a farmer in Taurus—who just up and joined ELPIS one day. Just like that. Left his wife and daughter without a second thought.” A swallow. “There’s a rumor that they like… show you some terrible secret that just makes you snap and join them.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Now that’s crazy,” one of the others scoffed.
Maria hummed. “Crazy is just something you use to describe something you don’t understand, no? Perhaps you to me?”
The sailor started. “Uh, well, yes, I guess… I mean—”
“Why so flustered, my friend?” Maria laughed.
“It’s all right, Giorgio. Doubt she means anything by it.” Morandi rubbed his chin again and then shook his head with a sigh. He turned back to Maria and finished, “Anyways, I’m by no means an expert in history either, so…”
Maria patted the man’s shoulder and beamed. “My dear Morandi, how knowledgeable you are!” She gestured out toward all of them. “You all are very knowledgeable! How lucky of me to have you on my crew! Surely, I chose well!”
“How is she even a captain,” one of the sailors muttered under his breath.
“Oh?” Maria hummed at the sailor who had spoken and made her way over to his side. “So will you be challenging my leadership, my dear?” When the man stumbled back, she chuckled. “You can think what you want, my dear. What sort of world would this be if that were not the case?” Before he could respond, she turned away and addressed all of them with an absentminded wave. “Anyways, you can all rest for the night. You told me such interesting things, after all!”
“See you later, my dears!” With that, she swept out of the room.
* * *
When Maria returned to the cabin that housed the mysterious woman, Simon was nowhere to be found and Conta was dozing away at her table. The golden woman was, of course, just as asleep as before.
Maria crossed the room and knelt down beside her again. She pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek. No response as always.
“It might be the handcuffs…”
Maria perked up and turned her head. Leaning against the wall with crossed arms to her left was a familiar boy. He had dark hair that was tied into a loose ponytail and green eyes. There was a cloak thrown over his shoulders that looked fabulously extravagant.
“Oh!” Maria pointed at him as she rose to her feet. “You are that boy from earlier, no? The small, angry one. With the fire!”
The boy started and uncrossed his arms as a scowl formed from his expression of indifference. The indifference returned a second later, and he reclined against the wall with crossed arms. He threw a glance in Conta’s direction. “You’re taking this hallucinating thing pretty well.” He glanced back at her. “You must be crazy or stupid.”
Maria tilted her head at him and hummed. “That may be so.” She tilted her head as a thought occurred to her. “But what about you?”
The boy’s eyes narrowed but he said nothing, instead choosing to approach the bed. He bent over the golden woman and studied her with a frown.
Maria hummed. “Do you see something you like, my dear?”
In response, the boy sent her a quick glare but remained focused on the golden woman. He knelt down with hovering hands. He hesitated. “Can I touch her?”
Maria cocked her head. “Why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask her?”
Another glare. He leaned forward and traced the cuffs around the woman’s wrists. With care, he lifted them and rubbed his thumb against the edge. There was a thin, almost imperceptible strip of material there. It seemed to be glass. His eyes widened. “It’s a conductor.”
“A conductor?” Maria tilted her head.
The boy inspected it closer. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Usually, conductors have an insulator just on the inside to help control vitae flow but…” He pressed against the material, and it seemed to squeak beneath his fingers. “There’s an insulator on the outside.” He shook his head and pulled back. “I didn’t think it was possible… but I think these handcuffs are suppressing—no, maybe it’s constricting—her intraneous vitae flow somehow. And if it’s doing that then…”
Maria scratched her head before she chuckled. “Well, I don’t really understand but you sound like you know how to remove it, yes?” She peered into his face. “At first, my dear crew tried using all sorts of things to try and remove it, but Simon insisted that doing so was too risky. I care for Simon, you see, so I listened to him.”
“Look, I don’t care. But you helped me this morning, so I’ll return the favor. I don’t like owing people. Real or not.”
“Real or not?” Maria ruffled her hair and rose to her feet. The boy craned his neck up to look at her, and she smiled at him. “Oh, I am very real my friend. I am the most certain thing in this world.” She pointed a finger at him. “It is you who is uncertain. But since I am something that is completely certain, I can make you certain just like that.” The snap of her fingers echoed in the quiet that followed.
The boy stared and glanced away with a mumble, “You sure like to talk a lot.”
Maria threw her head back and laughed. “Well, of course! How else will you know what I’m thinking?”
“I don’t want to know,” the boy huffed as he rose to his feet and walked over to the table where Conta rested. He reached out but Maria stopped him with a hand around the wrist. “I just need this conductor,” he said. When she released him, he reached over and plucked a slender object from the table. It was long and black with a thin, pointed end like the blade of a rapier. The handle of the thing was made of rubber and was a dull gray color. It was only slightly larger than his hand. “It’s a kickstarter. Pre-charged with vitae,” he explained. “Usually they use these things on new conductors because the insulators in them can become stuck and prevent vitae flow—”
“I don’t really get it,” Maria laughed, “but I am surprised! You sure sound smart!”
“It’s common knowledge,” the boy responded as he turned away from the table and walked back toward the bed. “Any person who knows about conductors knows about it.”
Maria stepped in front of him and stared into his eyes, searching. “What is this? Are you rejecting what I think of you? My opinion?”
The boy hesitated. “No, I—”
“Then why do you deny what I say?”
“Why do you have so much to say?” the boy returned evenly.
At this, Maria laughed again. “My dear friend, why are you asking a question I have already answered?”
The boy opened his mouth to retort but then shut it, pushing past her toward the bed. “Anyways, if I can get this past the insulator to reach the conducting core, I might be able to overcharge it. Overheat it.”
Maria made her way over to him as he knelt beside the bed. She watched as he lifted the cuffs and slid the thin, pointed part of the conductor into a crack that was between the metal and glass of the cuffs. He pressed down a nodule at the side of the device, and it hummed with life as light spilled from the nodule down its shaft to its pointed tip.
Maria leaned forward and watched with awe. “Wow! Conductors are truly beautiful, no? For the world to contain something like this—it’s quite amazing, yes?”
The boy gave her a strange look again before shaking his head and returning his attention to his work.
Maria studied him with interest before a thought occurred to her. She leaned in close—so close that her breath blew stray hairs out of his face—before she asked, “Ah, by the way, what is this Tragedy of Aries that I keep seeing everywhere?”
And just like that, the boy was gone. The conductor that had been in his hands was suddenly in hers, and as the thing gave one last final hum, the cuffs let out a click. A second later and they fell open onto the mattress of the bed. In turn, the golden woman let out a soft breath.
Maria leaned in, spilling her shadow across the woman’s face.
The woman’s golden lashes fluttered open. Slowly, as if waking from a dream, her eyes rose to meet Maria’s.
The woman’s eyes were the color of molten amber. Not quite gold, not quite brown.
Extending a hand, Maria grinned. “My golden lady, shall we become friends?”