With mouth slackened, Gerard read the headline on his computer again. The Restitution Controversy: Narcissa Richmond Denies The Followers of Yewel Adora's Tear!
Waves of agony crashed one after another behind his eyelid. Why had she pulled that? They had collected half a million crowns, just like she asked.
He scrolled down, revealing a picture of Narcissa flaunting the tear-shaped diamond necklace which dangled around her neck. It looked great on her. Its red shade not only glistened with the verdant fur coat and oversized floppy hat she sported, it blended with the wine-red color she had dyed her shoulder-length curls.
The beauty of it all left a sour tang in his mouth.
How could she of all people wear Adora's Tear? How could she, someone who sparked her fame with an affair which was exposed by a sex tape that "mysteriously" surfaced, possibly deserve to even touch it? The picture, the article and, the attention Adora's Tear brought her sickened him. The relic was a gift from Yewel! It was an indestructible symbol of peace, a reminder of what violence and selfishness brought! It was not some overblown celebrity's trinket!
He lowered his gaze to the statement Narcissa issued. "You know, after thinking about it, I find myself more attached to this necklace more than I thought. I'm not sure I can give it up for just half a million crowns. Maybe a full million?"
He scowled. She was just moving the goalposts. She'd probably keep moving the goalposts. Nothing they did mattered. In The Republic of Heimilis, the restitution of plunder from The Great Upheaval depended entirely on the goodwill of those who possessed it. Once again his people were at the mercy of people who had none.
Gerard slumped back in his chair and drooped his shoulders. If only someone like The Grandmaster of Theft targeted-
He shook his head. He couldn't think like that. That wasn't how he was raised. It wasn't the type of thoughts he, a priest of Yewel, should have. How could he expect to teach goodwill and tranquility if he harbored such negativity?
He had to just let it go. They'd be the ones trapped in the reincarnation cycle, not him.
Nine months passed, during which time Gerard divorced his thoughts from Adora's Tear and Narcissa Richmond. Whenever she appeared in the media, he ignored her. Whenever The Tears came up, he made a point of telling himself that it wasn't the worst thing in the world. Day in and day out, he acted as he was supposed to. Everything went the same as it always did until the day a bespectacled girl with a caramel ponytail visited his church and requested to speak with him.
He found her in a pew, a brown satchel by her side and scripture in her hands. She noticed him as he approached then rose, revealing her shortness, and bowed her head.
"Good day to you, Mr. Turner," she said, her voice as subdued as her wardrobe. Her flannel shirt - light pink, long-sleeved, and loose - concealed whatever figure she had while blue jeans and white sneakers covered her lower body. She seemed more wholesome than most other teens, assuming she was a teen. Her smooth creamy skin and freckled face suggested as much.
"Hello Miss Whitwick," he said. "It's a blessing to meet you. How may The Followers be of service?"
"Actually, I'd like to be of service to you today." She rummaged through her satchel, plucked out a black cloth, and unwrapped it to reveal Adora's Tear.
His brows sprung up. "It...it can't be!"
"It can and it is." She held out the pendant and it sparkled.
"H-How did you get this…?"
"It's a family heirloom. I just learned about it thanks to that mess between The Grandmaster of Theft and Narcissa Richmond."
A blizzard swept through Gerard's body. "Something happened between those two?"
"You haven't heard? She's been missing for nearly two weeks."
Just how far out of the loop was he? Had he blocked her out so much that it muted everything involving her?Whatever happened to her, he thought, couldn't have happened to a nicer person. Then his gut roiled. He couldn't think like that. What did it say about him that that thought even crossed his mind?
"Anyway," she continued, "I don't know how my family got this, but whatever. I'm sorry if my family somehow hurt your people."
The pendant mesmerized Gerard, but he shook his head, breaking its spell. "We'll have to get this verified first. If it really is one of The Tears, there's a reward of-"
She pushed the pendant into his hands. "I don't care about that," she said, her sable eyes blazing. "Righting an injustice is reward enough."
Gerard began to open his mouth, but then stopped and peered at Adora's Tear. This… this can't be real… He clenched it and its polished, oily surface pressed against his hand. It was real. It was real and the girl was real. Everything actually worked out this time. He touched her shoulder with his free hand and said, "Thank you. You've no idea how much valuable this really is."
Her eyes crinkled at the corners.
"If there's ever anything I or the church can do for you-"
Her lips flickered into a frown, but then she arched them back up. The smile, however, paled in comparison.
"Is something the matter?" Gerard asked.
"Not at all," she said, her voice more reserved. Her gaze flitted over to the doorway, as if she was preparing to flee.
"If there's anything that troubles you, we are here for you. Please don't be afraid to lean on us."
"…Is it true that if there's something that someone wishes to get off their chest, The Followers promise absolute confidentiality about anything shared?"
"We won't betray your secrets. And I'm happy to lend my ear."
"I…" She dropped her head and sighed. "I'm really, really, really sorry, but can I have a moment?"
"Take all the time you need."
She crumbled back into the pew, clasped her hands around her head, and stared at the spiral pattern which lined the carpet. The church's clock tower clicked and clacked as Gerard waited for her decision. Once the clock reached the minute marker, she poked up her head. "There is something I'd like to discuss, but is it alright if we do this elsewhere? In a few days from now?"
"Why do you want to speak somewhere else?"
"Nevermind," she said as she grabbed her satchel, "I won't bother you-"
"It's not a bother, really! I was just curious. If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay. This situation is unusual, but not unheard of. We just need to have a background check done on you and to register where it'll happen. Are you okay with that?"
"Yes, that's fine." She pulled out a piece of paper and pen from her satchel and jotted down a number. "Here. Call me when you're ready."
Three days passed after the girl exited the church, during which Gerard turned over Adora's Tear to their high priest. Their high priest contacted their HQ, who confirmed its authenticity then whisked it off to their main temple. After that, the church hired an outside service to inspect Athena Whitwick. She passed every test.
Gerard contacted her without any worries and they made a deal to meet at a lounge bar in Himitus' entertainment district called The Crooked Warden. When the night came, he changed into his casual wear and drove into the city.
Once he pushed open the heavy door to the bar, a storm of babble struck his ears while colognes, spices, and beer assaulted his nostrils. A crowd of people packed the building; some huddled around the counter – where an attractive male bartender performed stunts – while others dined in front of the televisions mounted on the wall. Gerard traversed between the occupied booths, skimming each for Athena. She waited in none.
"Gerard Turner?" an aloof voice asked.
He spun around to a suit-clad man with light bronze skin, gray eyes, and crow-black hair which he had combed back. A pair of sunglasses atop his forehead capped off his appearance.
Gerard squinted upon witnessing the man. Aside from his face appearing as smooth as marble, the man revealed nothing about himself. He wasn't particularly tall or short, muscular or thin, handsome or hideous. He just existed. Gerard's stomach prickled; what did someone like that want with him?
"Gerard Turner?" the man repeated.
"Um, yes I am, sorry. And you are?"
"Here to escort you. Miss Athena is waiting in the VIP room." The man pointed towards a carpeted stairway. "You first."
With the black-suited man shadowing, Gerard hiked up the stairs. He cast a glance and forced a smile back partway through, but not a flicker of emotion surfaced on the man's face. His eyes exhibited nothing but a mechanical focus.
Upon reaching the hallway at the top, the suited man clutched onto Gerard's shoulder. "Wait." He passed by Gerard and positioned himself in front of the crimson padded double door which resided at the end of the corridor. "Athena has two requests before you enter. First, turn off your phone and leave it with me. You'll get it back when this is over. Second, you let me check you with this for any bugs."
He drew out a chrome block from his jacket pocket and extended an antenna from the top.
"Uh, if you don't mind me asking, why all the secrecy?" Gerard asked. "Her background check didn't say anything about all this."
"She'll explain everything inside. If you get inside. I can't let you pass until this is taken care of. It's your call if you go any further or not."
Gerard peeked back at the stairs. Would anybody blame him for backing out? None of this was a part of what they agreed on nor was it too late to turn back. Then again, he had given his word. And she had given them Adora's Tear, free. And even if she hadn't, she had asked for help. What kind of priest, let alone person, would he be if he turned away? "That's fine," he decided as he removed his cellphone from his pocket. "Do what you must."
The man collected the phone, ran the device up his body from toe to head, and then studied the results. "Alright, you can enter. Just don't try anything."
With those parting words, the man stepped to the side, out of the walkway. Gerard trudged to the door, pushed it open, and crossed the threshold.
Silence and the sweet fragrance of strawberries replaced the blather and odors of below. Bright lights showered down from the ceiling to reveal a spacious room with a coral carpet, crown-gold walls, and framed television monitors which transitioned between various artworks, none of which he recognized.
The projected paintings weren't the only thing he didn't recognize. He also couldn't recognize the lady who lounged opposite the entrance in one of the beige club chairs that furnished the room.
Gerard's breath stopped and his mouth moistened as he gawked. She was as much a work as the paintings: she possessed clear creamy skin; a well-formed, moderate-sized bosom; a diamond-shaped face; longbow lips which were painted pink; a long, straight nose; cat-like jade eyes; and long, straight red hair that she stylized with a front fringe and side locks which spilled down her shoulders.
Like her ally, she boasted a predominantly black suit. Hers featured a choker necklace, a jacket which harmonized with her white blouse and red tie, a skirt which reached her knees, stockings, and heels. The ensemble melded with her lithe figure as well as two interlocking puzzle pieces would one another.
"Good evening, Mister Turner, and thank you for coming," she said, her voice smooth and articulate. "I offer my sincerest apologies for the cloak and dagger routine. My circumstances force me to tread with caution. May I interest you in a drink? I can conjure up whatever concoction you desire, so long as it's non-alcoholic."
"You're… not Athena Whitwick…"
She had a grace about her Athena lacked. She sat with perfect posture, one leg crossed over the other, her hands folded on her lap. She wore a smile that could disarm an army.
"I am," she said, "depending on how you perceive things. Athena Whitwick is one of the guises I assume whenever I conduct fieldwork which requires anonymity."
"Then who are you really? And what do you want?"
She tilted her head and propped her chin against her palm. "You don't already know? Peculiar…" Her lips bent into a tiny grin. "I suppose that has its benefits as well. At any rate, my name is Cassidy Cain. I am heiress to the Cain fortune and all which lies within its reach."
His eyes widened. How did he not recognize her? Sure, he wasn't the most pop culture sensitive person, but even he knew her name and reputation. Gambler, philanthropist, socialite – those words and more described the things she took part in.
"As for what I seek," Cassidy continued, "I've been forthright from the onset. I wish to speak with you in private and the church failed to offer the same solace as this bar. Would you please take a seat?"
She beckoned Gerard in, but he remained still, his legs locked. How could he just walk in and sit down with her? How could he go any further without knowing what was going on?
"W-why did you need to disguise yourself?" he forced out.
"Anonymity," she said playfully, "as I stated twenty seconds ago."
"But why? What's so different about this than anything else you do?"
A hand shoved against Gerard's back, thrusting him in. He stumbled forward, caught himself, and then twisted around to spot the black-suited man drawing the double doors shut. They came together with a clunk.
Cassidy sighed. "I apologize, he can be… protective."
Gerard looped back to Cassidy, who pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Well, I pay him to protect me, so I suppose I shouldn't complain. Regardless, the seat is still on the table, so to speak." She gestured towards the armchair across from her. "I assure you it's more comfortable than standing in the doorway."
Gerard swallowed hard. He couldn't allow himself to be intimidated. She hadn't even actually done anything worth being intimidated by yet, beyond the secrecy – which she must have had a good explanation for. He just had to go along with things and see how things went. He advanced into the room and eased into the seat. Its soft cushion absorbed him the second he touched it.
"See?" she asked. "I told you so."
"Y-yes, you did," he said as his back sank deeper into the chair. "So, uh, before we begin, is there anything you prefer I call you?"
"Seeing as my name is Cassidy, I believe that should suffice." She leaned in closer. Her lips edged into a smirk. Her voice sank to a whisper. "Or perhaps you can call me The Grandmaster of Theft. It's no less valid."
His mouth gaped and he did a double take. "Y-y-you're kidding, right? I mean, you're…you're still just a kid!"
She snickered as she melted back into the cushion. "I am by no means a child. In fact, I turn twenty in two months."
"That's still young to be a thief like The Grandmaster! Or a thief at all."
"If we're to go by statistics, my criminality shouldn't come as a surprise. It's far more common with those my age than it is older sorts. That and of my social standing, what with the lack thereof repercussions. Regardless, if you don't believe me, answer me this: What do I have to gain from sharing that with you if I am not The Grandmaster of Theft? I'm a busy person as is and I don't possess the time to play random pranks on priests."
He took her in as if she was an abstract painting. Although everything she said made sense, it didn't add up. The Grandmaster wouldn't just up and admit that she's The Grandmaster. It wasn't a very thief-like thing to do. Or was it? It's not like he knew her or how she thought. And the confessional did protect her from any danger, so it wasn't as if she had any reason to lie. "But…how? How can you possibly be a master thief?"
"I thank you for your compliment, but I don't consider myself a master. The Grandmaster of Theft is merely a title I conceived as a means of psychological warfare. As the saying goes, reputation precedes."
"That doesn't answer the question."
"That is where you're mistaken. It answers part of the equation. People perceive me as a master criminal, which in turn enables me to perform in ways I otherwise might not. If there is one thing I've learned well, it's that perception is power."
"Can't that only go so far, though?" he asked. "Sooner or later you have to actually do something to back it up."
"This is true. That's why it helps that I'm fortunate in ways which extend beyond my, well, fortune. For instance, the man who escorted you here is one of my accomplices. His name is Augustus Wynn. Should you ever speak with him again, please address him as Wynn and Wynn alone. He's not particularly fond of his given name. Anyway, on the surface, he's my bodyguard and chauffeur. In the criminal underworld, there are numerous names for what he does: heavy, muscle, hitter, enforcer, troubleshooter. You can select whichever you prefer. The task is ultimately the same."
His stomach turned and his toes curled. She could describe it anyway she wanted, what he was is a thug. But why would someone like her deal with thugs? "But why do you do it? How…"
The shiver that slivered up his spine dissuaded him from asking how she could stomach hurting people as she did.
Cassidy frowned. "How…?"
His heart hammered, harder and harder and harder. He had to choose his words carefully. Although rumor said The Grandmaster of Theft didn't hurt innocents, better safe than sorry. "I just don't understand how you can bring yourself to do this."
She placed her hand to her jaw, closed her eyes, and hummed to herself. "Mr. Turner, if you don't mind me asking, why are you a priest? Why did you join The Followers?"
He blinked. Why was she asking that of all things? "To help people, of course."
"Then we have that in common. I too wish to help others. What's more, I possess the power to help others. I possess the power to make a difference which others cannot. And what's the point of possessing this power if I fail to actually utilize it?"
"But why must you be a criminal to do that? How does being a criminal help anyone? If you want to help people, there are other options out there. Especially for someone like you."
Her lips puckered. Had he hit a nerve?
If he had, she didn't show it for long. Instead she curled her lips back into a smile and asked, "How familiar are you with The Osion Purge?"
His brows rocketed up. "What about it?"
"Are you familiar with how your people's beliefs in the sanctity of human life came into conflict with King Gregory's mandatory military draft? And all that resulted in?"
He clenched his teeth together then forced out, "Yes."
"Then I needn't go on about how Gregory outlawed the worship of Yewel, how he had your people slaughtered, your temple ransacked, and how the survivors fled? Or the aftermath? Oh! Have you read The Exodus of Tai Emmons? That one, in particular, caught my–"
"Stop! I don't need to hear anymore…"
"I won't disagree that there are other options available to me," she went on, unflustered. "I was born lucky. Powerful. However, the same sadly cannot be said for those I aid. Case in point, how well were your people fairing without me?"
Gerard averted his gaze. She obviously just wanted him to acknowledge her methods and goodness. But he couldn't do that. Hate and forcing one's will on another was wrong no matter what. That's even why Adora's Tear came into existence; The Twenty Tears were created when Yewel crystallized the bloody tears of Adora, the spreader of The Gospel of the True Path, into unbreakable stones after her murder. By stealing Adora's Tear from Narcissa, Cassidy had violated the very ideals it stood for.
But...she still had done something. She had acted when nobody else did. She didn't let Narcissa get away with things. She had made him happy by returning things. How could he not, at the very least, acknowledge that? How could he not feel some measure of gratitude, despite everything else?
Silence filled the room until Cassidy spoke with a bitter tone.
"I've found that doing what's conventionally considered good – being friendly, adhering to the laws, showing mercy, telling the truth – is not always enough to ensure that the right things occur. Sometimes the only options people are left with are to either yield to these tormentors, to allow them to prosper in spite of why they're prospering, or to do something 'bad' to remedy the unjust state of affairs. It's when predicaments such as these arise that we become a factor. We're 'the villains' so people like you don't have to."
He who walks the path of a thief, no matter their reason, taints both their soul and the world, he recalled from Alucin Elua – the writings of Yewels, but couldn't say. After all, he understood her.
His skin tremored. He understood her. He understood the unspoken frustration which underscored her words, the annoyance brought from seeing the traditionally good things fail. He understood something someone like him shouldn't have anymore, something he shouldn't have felt, something he should have – had to distance himself from.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think there's anything I can do for you." Gerard rose to his feet and his regard flew to the door. Just a few steps and he'd be away from her siren song.
"That's where you're wrong, Mr. Turner," Cassidy said, her voice smooth once more. "In fact, I'm in need of your assistance in particular. There's a role I wish for you to assume in my present operation."
He hastened to the door. "I will not be an accomplice to any crimes."
"I'm not asking you to. Quite the opposite: I wish for you to convince me to not commit a crime."
He faltered, said "Wh-what?", then spun back around.
"I once read that sometimes the best approach to overcoming a problem is to introduce someone who possesses an alternate perspective, who thinks differently from those already embroiled. They might possess an idea which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I've such a dilemma and you see the world in a way I do not. Ergo, you might possess the answer I seek. So, would you be so kind as to help me?"
Her eyes, in contrast to her self-assured aura, pled for him to stay.
Gerard swallowed back a lump. He couldn't leave now. Not when she was genuinely trying to do good, even if her methods were suspect. "I'll need to know what the crime is first."
She sealed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Murder."
"You're planning to murder someone?!"
Her smile broadened. "Although we are on a private level, I'd be grateful if you didn't shout such things," she said with a hint of venom.
His heart thudded. He couldn't blame her, though. That wasn't exactly something anyone would want to broadcast to the public.
"And for the record," she continued, "I've yet to actually plan the deed. I'm simply entertaining the idea."
"What's there to even think about? Why would you think about it?"
"There's this… calling them a person is generous, but it'll suffice. I recently encountered a person who has forced me to contemplate taking their life. It's perplexing, to say the least. On one hand, I rather not kill anyone. These lives we lead are, to the best of my knowledge, all we have and will ever have. To take a life is to take everything and that's a theft I'm not exactly comfortable with."
"Then how can you even consider killing someone?"
"…Because there are some things in this world which cannot and should not be tolerated or absolved." Her nails, which bit into her chair's arms, betrayed her otherwise composed outer shell. "Before I continue, allow me to make one thing clear: I will punish this person for what they've done. That is not open to debate. Do not squander my time with any attempts to persuade me otherwise or try to interfere with my operations. While I've no desire to harm you, I'll do what I must should you force my hand. Do you understand?"
Gerard's legs jellied. Her voice was as sweet as ever, her face as serene as when she welcomed him. If she was bluffing, how would he know? Even if she was, she didn't seem the type of person worth testing.
"I guess it's a good thing you're trying to think of alternatives to murder at least… I'll do my duty as a priest." He returned to the chair. "So who is it you want to kill? And why?"
"You're going to wind up raising all sorts of questions if I simply tell you who they are and what they've done. What's more, I rather you understand why I feel as I do before you pass judgment. If I'm to do this any justice, I'll have to share with you all the details surrounding my latest job from the beginning."