The entire Augusti high command had gathered around a table near the villa, and none of its members dared to speak.
Allowed to sit between Vulcan and Livia at the mafia princess’ behest, Ryan kept his arms crossed as he observed the scene. The various ‘Olympians’ formed a circle, all of them eyeing their leader warily. Mercury’s mummified head had been placed at the edge near Pluto, while Narcinia sat with her parents. Mars kept an arm behind his chair, clearly the most relaxed of all people present.
The man made Ryan curious. The priest never blinked or betrayed any facial micro-expression. And instead of looking at Augustus like the rest, his focus remained entirely on Livia.
Augustus listened to his brother Neptune retelling him the events of last night, his body shrouded in a halo of lightning. It made it impossible to clearly distinguish his face, and the man radiated power in more ways than one. Ryan couldn’t shake the pervading aura of dread around the table, as if everyone worried they might get punished for a minor offense.
Even Ryan didn’t crack a joke. He didn’t know the limits of Augustus’ invulnerability except that most powers failed to work on him. For all he knew, the lightning emperor might be a White interfering with other abilities the way Cancel did; and unlike Vulcan, Augustus struck the courier as someone who killed at the slightest provocation.
Mob Zeus joined his hands, once the tale finished. Obviously, Neptune had presented the attack as an irresponsible prank instead of a carefully prepared suit-rescue mission, but his brother didn’t seem to care. “You summoned me for something this trivial?”
“Dynamis will retaliate,” Neptune pointed out. “The incident was public.”
“They dared to take our son,” Venus spoke up, her wiser husband immediately putting a hand on her arm to dissuade her to speak; all in vain. “This is simply retaliati—”
“His parentage is the only reason Felix’s head isn’t in a bag right now.” The cold certainty in Augustus’ voice made Atom Cat’s entire family flinch. Narcinia, in particular, looked at her feet to avoid facing Mob Zeus. “Abandoning his duties is one thing, but I cannot stand rats.”
“He is your godson, Janus,” Mars said with the familiarity of a trusted lieutenant. He alone didn’t seem to fear Augustus, with the exception of the mob boss’ close family members; enough to use the man's real name.
“He is a traitor who broke my daughter’s heart,” the lightning emperor of Italy replied, Livia’s face a stone mask. “To think I once expected to call him my son-in-law one day…”
“Just give us time,” Mars argued, unabated. “We will reason with him.”
“I shall show mercy to Felix, due to the strong bond between our respective families,” Augustus replied. “But I never want to see him again, and if he takes arms against us, there will be consequences.”
A tense silence fell on the table, Mob Zeus turning his head towards Ryan and Vulcan. While she remained outwardly strong, the courier sensed the Genius clench her fists below the table. The courier took her hand with his own, helping her relax a little.
“You,” Augustus told Ryan, suddenly noticing the Genome’s existence. “Who are you?”
“Quicksave, sir,” the courier said. “I’m immortal, but don’t tell anyone.”
“Gods and men are only equal in one thing, and that is death.” Mob Zeus examined Ryan closely. “You do not fear me as much as you should.”
Ryan waited briefly, in case it was rhetorical, before realizing that Lightning Butt wanted an answer. Augustus did sound a lot less threatening when the courier called him that in his head. “Well, sir, with all due respect,” the Genome said, “I’ve seen far worse than you.”
Augustus observed him without a word, and it started to hurt just looking at this thunder elemental. The silence grew more and more oppressive until Lightning Butt turned his deadly attention to Vulcan, as Ryan’s superior. “What is his power?”
“Alternate reality jumping,” Vulcan lied.
Augustus said that without raising his tone, but the electrical tension in the air increased tenfold. All gazes turned at Vulcan, while Pluto eyed Ryan sharply.
“What is his power?” Augustus repeated, the crimson aura around him growing in intensity.
“I don’t know,” Vulcan admitted. “I don’t understand it yet.”
Augustus let the silence set in, until Jasmine had to look away to avoid eye damage from the light. The mere unspoken threat of violence cowed the proud Genius. “The wise woman admits her own ignorance, Vulcan,” Lightning Butt said while trying to sound profound, before asking the other Capos, “Who is he?”
“Ryan Romano, real name Cesare Sabino,” Mercury said through the mummified skull. “Son of Freddie Sabino, alias Bloodstream. A blood-controlling Psycho killed by the Carnival four years ago.”
It took everything for Ryan not to make a face of pure disgust, cursing all the times Bloodstream had introduced him to strangers using that name. He had believed in that delusion so much, that he convinced everyone else it was the truth.
Strangely though, he did notice Livia’s face softening when Mercury mentioned the Carnival. She glanced at Ryan with what the courier took for a look of sympathy. Augustus’ halo, meanwhile, flashed brighter for a second before returning to normal.
“Bloodstream…” Mars spoke up, remembering something. “Yeah, I remember him. That body-jacking maniac whacked a few of our guys back in the day.”
Jasmine’s eyes widened as if she reached a eureka moment. “Wait, she’s your sister?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ryan replied dryly.
“And all that time I thought you wanted to…” Jasmine caught her breath. “Nevermind.”
Augustus kept his attention focused on Ryan. “What is your power?”
“I told you, sir,” the courier replied. “I’m immortal.”
“Quicksave is a Violet who can affect alternate universes, usually to avoid death,” Livia spoke up on Ryan’s behalf. “His abilities will help me develop mine.”
The emperor joined his fingers together. “You will vouch for him, my daughter?”
Lightning Butt nodded to himself, before turning to his sister. “I marked him,” Pluto said, smoking her cigarette. “He provided valuable services so far, but if he steps out of line, I’ll whack him.”
After one last cursory glance at the courier, Augustus dropped the subject and turned to Livia next. “My daughter, you approved of this attack?”
“Yes, I did,” Livia replied calmly.
“Then why are we talking about it?”
“Janus,” Neptune cleared his throat. “This is serious.”
“Minerva is my heir and speaks with my voice,” Lightning Butt replied with disdain. “Your role is to advise and mentor her, not to question her orders.”
Neptune joined his hands, clearly unhappy with this turn of events. “Then what, we prepare for war? Even if we win, it won’t be without heavy casualties.”
“There will be no war,” Livia said with absolute confidence. “The Manada will retaliate in a public manner, yes, but Hector will rein in his sons before things degenerate. He is just as afraid of a prolonged conflict as you are, Uncle. Which is why he hired Adam the Ogre to attack us while maintaining plausible deniability.”
“Do you have any proof of that?” Mercury spoke up. “I could not find any evidence, and from what Vulcan told us, Dynamis tried to wipe out the Psycho trash after she drove them out of Rust Town.”
“Yes, I am certain,” Livia said. “I believe that either Adam double-crossed his corporate masters to pursue his own agenda, or Hector decided to erase the evidence.”
“What do we do about the Meta-Gang, brother?” Pluto asked, lighting a cigarette.
“Wipe them out,” Augustus declared. “I want them all dead, to the last man.”
“Is it worth it?” Venus asked. “They ran away.”
“You leave your enemies alive, and they will return to torment you,” Augustus replied, his voice chilling. “I will not take the risk. No man, no problem. Don’t care about the resources needed, don’t care how long it takes, don’t care if it is disproportionate. Kill them all.”
And like that, Lightning Butt signed the entire Meta-Gang’s death warrant. Pluto exchanged a glance with her niece and Vulcan, and Ryan could tell that they had already decided to cooperate to make that judgment a reality.
“What next?” Augustus asked abruptly.
“My retirement,” Mercury spoke through the mummified head.
“That’s a shame,” the lightning elemental said, a hint of emotion breaking through his unflappable demeanor. “Your departure diminishes us all.”
“Eh, it’s about time I pass the torch too,” Mercury replied. “I have the perfect candidate to take over my division.”
“Jamie Cutter,” Mars guessed, Ryan immediately glancing at him. “Zanbato. Good soldier.”
“Jamie has been nothing but loyal and competent since we introduced him into our organization,” Mercury said with pride. “Men respect him, he’s trustworthy, and he gets results.”
Most Capos around the table voiced their agreements, Vulcan included… though with one lone exception. “I am against his ascension.” Bacchus opened his mouth for the first time, his soothing voice somehow cutting through the noisy discussion. “His opinions on Bliss worry me, and my division relies on supply runs from Mercury’s.”
“I was against selling narcotics too at first,” Mercury said with what appeared to be a shrug. “But I knew my place, and so will the boy.”
“Zanbato’s loyalty to our organization will always trump his personal values,” Livia voiced her opinion. “We made him who he is in more ways than one, and he will never forget that. I validate his candidacy.”
Augustus listened without a word, before reaching a decision. “Very well, my old friend,” he told the mummified head. “Zanbato shall take your place as the new Mercury, and you shall be released from service. My home will always remain open to you.”
“Zanbato’s power does not fit the theme though,” Pluto mused out loud with an amused smile. “Perhaps he should take another name? Hercules maybe?”
“That will annoy Dynamis,” Venus said with a smirk, both women exchanging a chuckle.
“No, the name stays,” Augustus quickly decided. “But he will change his costume. Vulcan.”
“Yes?” Jasmine quickly spoke up.
“You will build Zanbato equipment worthy of his new divine station,” Lightning Butt ordered. “Costs are not an issue.”
“I will.” She nodded hurriedly, eager to make the invincible man forget the previous incident.
“What else?” Augustus asked, immediately moving on.
“We are close to a breakthrough with Bliss,” Bacchus spoke up, Narcinia shifting on her seat. “I can feel it. A strain pure enough to speak with God.”
“Your obsession with refining this product worries me,” Venus said, glancing at Narcinia. “You overwork my daughter for a pipe dream.”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Narcinia replied with a bright smile. “We are making something wonderful.”
“Indeed,” the priest said with a sharp nod. Ryan realized that he only participated when it impacted the matter of Bliss, and ignored everything else. “This tribulation will soon reach its end. However, I worry about theft. Geist sensed strangers testing our defenses lately.”
“Strangers?” Pluto asked with a frown. “The Meta? Dynamis?”
“He couldn’t tell.” Bacchus looked at Vulcan. “You would have my full gratitude if you could take time to improve our sanctuary’s defensive perimeter.”
Jasmine made a frustrated face. “The defenses I set are already perfect.”
“I am not so certain, unfortunately,” Livia said. “The odds of an attack on Ischia have been increasing lately.”
“Dynamis, the Meta, they can attack that island all they want,” Vulcan snickered. “They won’t get in.”
“I still wish that we review them together,” Livia said with a calm smile. The princess voiced it like a request, but Jasmine knew it was anything but. The Genius breathed inwardly and said nothing.
“Do you need our assistance, Minerva?” Mars spoke up, his wife stiffening at his side. “If anything endangers Narcinia…”
“I do not think your presence will be necessary, at least at this stage,” the mafia princess said, a smile on her lips. “We can handle ourselves.”
Augustus didn’t seem interested in the subject, and the discussion moved on to a boring activity report.
As he listened, Ryan learned more about which Capo oversaw which part of the organization. Bacchus controlled the drug division, which involved Narcinia in its production; Vulcan managed the weapon trafficking, while Mercury handled gambling, casinos, and money laundering activities; Mars and Venus managed the prostitution and pornography wing of the organization; finally, Pluto, meanwhile, handled hits, assassinations, and ‘alternative protection services,’ while Neptune oversaw most of the organization’s legitimate front businesses.
Augustus didn’t say much during the entire conversation, letting his daughter speak in his place. Livia discussed the Bliss production, the organization’s revenues, where to invest, and so on. All in all, Mob Zeus seemed completely uninterested in the logistics of his own empire. He only cared about his family’s authority and those who dared challenge it.
He was a warlord, not a king.
“I think we are finished,” Neptune said upon finishing his own report.
“We are.” Augustus rose to his feet once he had heard enough. Clearly, he was not one to waste time with pleasantries. “Livia will take care of the rest. Do not bother me again.”
The lightning emperor quickly vanished inside the villa without a sound, the crimson halo disappearing with the man himself. Pluto and Neptune exchanged silent glances with Livia as if exchanging a silent message.
Ryan couldn’t explain why, but he had the intuition something was at work there.
“Narcinia, we’re going home,” Venus told her daughter, as she and her husband left the table. Mercury’s mummified head had lost all semblance of life, the necromancer behind the line having ended the ‘call.’ “We'll pick up your sister on the way.”
“I thought she was at Zanbato’s house?” Mars asked, a little surprised.
“No, she stayed at her boyfriend’s place, and wants to present him to us.” Venus shook her head. “She is moving too fast if you ask me.”
“I hope he has powers,” Mars said, with the same tone of a racist father saying ‘I hope he’s white.’
“See you soon!” Narcinia waved a hand at Ryan and Livia. The family politely saluted the other people present, before leaving through the park.
“I will take my leave too,” Bacchus declared, turning to Livia. “Will you test the refined strain, Minerva?”
“I doubt so,” the mafia princess replied with a distant gaze. “I cannot see what happens in alternate realities after I take your bliss strain. The risk is too great.”
“Please give it thought,” the priest argued. “A Blue of your power might be the key to a divine revelation.”
Augustus’ daughter dismissed him without an answer, and the priest responded with a formal bow. “Vulcan, Quicksave,” he nodded at the two before leaving, “I will see you on Ischia island.”
Neptune looked at Vulcan and Ryan with a frustrated gaze, before raising his hands in surrender and leaving for the villa. Pluto moved to her spot near the swimming pool and continued her book where she had left it. “Quicksave,” she said while picking up her novel.
“My niece’s mercy is the only reason you still draw breath,” Pluto replied while flipping her book’s pages. “Never forget that.”
Such nice, friendly people.
“You look adorable together,” Livia told Ryan and Jasmine with a warm smile, once everyone had left the gathering. “It’s another surprise.”
Once almost everyone had left the gathering, Jasmine realized she hadn’t let Ryan’s hand go, and quickly broke contact. “I don’t need help,” she told him, glancing away. “It was nice, but I don’t need help.”
“Sure, I will adopt a hands-off policy then.”
The Genius chuckled. “Your jokes aren’t good, Ryan… but you are, I will give you that.”
“My, but thank you.” The courier winked back, before turning to Livia. “Did you know how everything at this meeting would turn out?”
“Yes, with one exception,” she said with apathy. “When my father turned to look at you. Everything afterward was completely unplanned.”
So she couldn’t read the time-traveler at all. Good. Ryan didn’t know how he could handle someone capable of predicting his actions before he even thought of them.
Still, he felt some sympathy for that girl. Her situation was not so different from his own, living in a rehearsed reality while desperate for new stimuli. And she had probably talked her father out of murdering him on the spot.
“I would appreciate it if you announce to Zanbato the news of his promotion,” Livia said with formal dignity. “I believe he will be less embarrassed if it comes from a friend rather than a direct superior.”
“Sure, that will make more drinks for us when we celebrate,” Ryan replied, though he couldn’t suppress his curiosity. “What did you mean when you say that you made him?”
“We have a war chest of Elixirs,” Livia explained. “Originals that we collected before they could be used, or knockoffs we ‘requisitioned’ from our corporate competition. When unpowered foot soldiers prove themselves worthy of ascension through merit and loyalty, they are granted a potion. Jamie was among them.”
“And about your father? Can I call him Lightning Dad?”
“Not to his face,” Livia chuckled, while Jasmine rolled her eyes. “Rome had co-emperors, one elder Augustus, and a junior Caesar groomed to take his place. He is giving me more leeway as time goes on. I apologize for… well, how he treated the both of you. My father thrived in more violent times.”
“At least he gets shit done,” Vulcan replied, having recovered enough to snicker. “Unlike the suits on the other side of town.”
“I still don’t get why you spoke on my behalf though,” Ryan admitted.
“Call me a good judge of character, but I can tell you are a great friend if treated with respect,” Livia said, a hint of sadness breaking through her composure. “And I can tell you are in great pain, deep within.”
Ryan’s mood turned sour. “Do you want it?” he asked Livia, finding the current situation a little too familiar to his liking. “To follow in your father’s footsteps?”
The mafia princess had an excellent poker face, but the courier had mastered the art of reading micro-expressions over his endless wandering. She was good, but couldn’t quite hide the unease beneath.
“Careful, Ryan.” Livia gave him a strained smile. “Here be dragons.”