Twin Cities, Gemini
“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she would say, porcelain fingers flying across the bone-white keys. Clear laugh chiming, she’d look down with a coy smile.
Cadence would tune her ears to the sharp chords the woman would play and would 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 through a frosted window in Sognare.
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, after all.
But Alma was always with her in a spiritual sense—with her lessons and the like. After all, only a couple years after Alma’s other services had been bought out by a mysterious suitor affiliated with the Romano Family and Alma disappeared from the city, Cadence 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.
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 those mantras, however, Cadence found it a bit harder to adapt to her current predicament. Being psychically connected to five other people took some getting used to.
Fortunately, most of them were pretty easy to read.
There was the Ariesian prince. A brat, 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—on the surface at least. Cadence saw the truth. That desperation for connection. Typical angsty kid. Give him enough talking to, paired with a sprinkle of the old cold shoulder, 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 so far down the ladder that they would do anything to get higher. The man’s stony disposition didn’t help. He barked out commands with such authority and presence that Cadence wanted to shed a tear for his lackeys. 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 she could bypass these issues by playing half-truths.
After the whole fiasco with Olive’s personal assassination investigation was over, 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, Cadence had thought. She was just exiting the hotel lobby when Jericho appeared in front of her.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Workin’,” she’d answered 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 unnervingly. “He’s… 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. “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 without further elaboration.
“Well, I’m sure Verga’ll just give ’em the old Geminian slap on the wrist.” Cadence put 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 a kid 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.”
“Any philosophical thoughts you wanna throw onto the table?” Cadence joked.
“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 encounter from her mind as she continued through the crowd of pedestrians around her. She crossed over a canal and walked beneath a high bridge where a couple of musical street performers were taking a breather. She gave them a nod.
When her destination glowed its way into her view fifteen minutes later, she halted.
The place that Matilda 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 gilded, white pillars rose up at its entrance, holding up a stone-black plaque that she assumed read its name in swirling letters. The glow from the windows was warm and acted as a rosy backdrop to the silhouettes dining inside with their polished silverware and gaudily designed plates.
The restaurant looked packed. Good for them.
Cadence turned away from the dazzling building toward the sidewalk that ran opposite. A few pedestrians were out 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.
She noticed a narrow alleyway no wider than a meter hidden behind a collection of trash bins on the walkway. Shoving her hands into her pockets, she approached the mouth of the alley and peered in. And almost had a heart attack.
Huddled there just behind the bins was someone small, 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 toward the restaurant.
“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 all right. Don’t worry.” Cadence scrambled over the bin before crouching down beside the girl. “Thought I’d find you here.” She glanced 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 toward the restaurant.
Cadence followed her gaze before asking, “What are you doing here? After what…” 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 buy bug spray after you think you’ve killed the bug.”
“I don’t really know,” Matilda mumbled. “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 nodded toward the restaurant, “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 I do: 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 desperation.
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—”
She froze. There it was. That familiar feeling. Déjà vu.
She’d become sharply synchronized with someone else. A coolness crept along her back, and her vision went double. In the far distance of her mind’s eye, she saw a familiar cabin filled with tables toppled with items that looked 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—
She really didn’t 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 were 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.
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 saw Verga. The creepy-lookin’ one. 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 into her eyes. “But we need everyone who’s left to do it.”
Matilda pulled away. “I don’t know, Duccio… That sounds… too easy… And after everything that’s happened…”
“We’ve lost so much already, Matilda,” Cadence said. “And it’s not fair that we’re the only ones who know it.”
“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.
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. She would know.
* * *
When Cadence dropped into her bed that night, she fell into a restless sleep. Rolling images attacked her between periods of emptiness. 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. Then the Foxman brothers watching calmly 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 splattered blood off 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, the world gained a bit more color.
When Cadence awoke, she knew she was not alone. She sat up in bed and cast a glance to Werner, who 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. It wasn’t my intention to see those private things.”
Cadence couldn’t help but cackle. “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, bustling, cobblestone square she greeted early in the mornings, she saw Werner’s surroundings. A window and a thicket of thin trees in the dark distance. She could tell by his reflection in his window that he was still in that room with all the tables.
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 ya watch. In a couple years or so you’ll see me playin’ on the big stage. 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,” 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 windowsill absentmindedly. “Did ya see how I met Ricardo Romano?”
“Ricardo Romano. He is the leader of the syndicate you often work for, correct?” Werner said slowly. “I don’t believe I have.”
Cadence cracked a grin. “I picked his pockets.”
Werner was frowning again.
“He didn’t realize it until later but when he did, he sent out the huntin’ 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, ’course. Said I’d rather have a full course meal and boy did he treat me.” She shook her head. “Still don’t get why.”
“But you’re 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.”
She doesn’t 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 a beat after, saying, “Things are seldom held together or maintained for long without loyalty. Consistency. 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 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 toward another cabin further down the dirt path. She followed him and glanced at the two Capricornian soldiers standing guard there. A woman and a man. Emilia Bergmann 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. The people in the bed looked completely worn out. 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. Anybody but him.
“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she’d told him all the years ago. But she didn’t mean it like this. That idiot—