To celebrate the new alliance, Mundo called for a movie night. Sid had managed to recharge a laptop computer, and set it up on a table in one of the ballrooms. There wasn’t enough power for a monitor, but everyone was so happy at the prospect of seeing any movie at all that no one cared. Mundo even authorized a glass of wine for everyone sixteen or older.
Cassie sat with the others, sipping her wine to make it last and watching the images on the tiny laptop screen. It had been so long since she had seen a movie that she expected to enjoy it. Instead, she was surprised to find herself bored. The younger children were mesmerized, but many of the older teens used the occasion to kiss, grope, and whisper about each other. Cassie noticed Leila was snuggled up to David, ignored by Sid and oblivious to Paul sitting a few feet away. Alaina and her fashion-conscious friends sat together, pointing to figures on the screen and giggling about shoes and hairstyles. In the rows behind Cassie’s seat were sounds that suggested a few couples were sufficiently engaged with each other that they would’ve been better off going to their rooms.
With so many distractions, the movie soon lost its appeal and Cassie tried to sneak away without attracting attention. She was in the hallway and had just turned on her flashlight when someone said her name.
“I never could get into those romantic comedies,” Galahad said, emerging from the darkness. He motioned for her to turn off her flashlight so they could use his instead. “Where are you going?”
“To get some sleep. I promised to help Doc make herbal tinctures tomorrow and I want to do it early, since I’m supposed to teach the garden committee how to plant lettuce in the afternoon. Thanks for finding all those seeds, by the way.”
Galahad shrugged and started walking toward the lobby with Cassie tagging by his side. “No need to thank me for stumbling across something by accident.” They were now walking past Conference Suite A and could hear wild laughter from behind the closed door. Galahad shook his head. “Mundo had better be careful. It’s one thing to make alliances, but if he keeps carrying on like it’s pre-Telo times, people are going to get mad. Just because he’s our founder doesn’t mean we can’t vote him out.”
“It’s not every day we get visited by an empress, though.”
Galahad scoffed. “Alex went to college with her older sister and knows all about the self-appointed Empress. She’s just Elissa Templeton, B-student, failed to make the junior varsity cheerleading team so she got into drama instead. She’s nothing special.”
By now they were at the base of one of the two great spiral staircases that dominated the lobby. They climbed the steps to the halfway point, then sat and dangled their feet over the side. Galahad turned off his flashlight to conserve the batteries and Cassie took a few cautious sips of her wine. Observing that he wasn’t drinking, she asked, “Finished your wine already?”
“I gave away my share. I drank enough in the first months of the Telo to last me a lifetime.”
“Me and Leila kept all our liquor for trade.”
“A smarter move than drinking it, that’s for sure.”
They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes.
“So who were you before the Telo?” Cassie finally said.
“I told you the day we met. Jay Gallard, ordinary guy.”
“No special interests? No hobbies?”
“A few. But it was my cousin who was the big dreamer. Still is.”
“From the way he was acting tonight, I’d say some of those dreams are about Leila.”
Galahad shifted position. “I don’t suppose you could put in a good word for him?”
“What would I say? She’s looking for a guy with influence. I don’t think Paul fits her criteria. No offense.”
“Leila never thought she had much going for her,” Cassie went on. “She’s smart, but she was fat before the Telo, and she wanted to be thin and fashionable like her sisters. Now that she is, she intends to use her looks as a shortcut. I don’t blame her, I guess. Being smart is hard work.”
“Well, hanging around David will only get her so far. I like him well enough as a foraging buddy, but he’s no one I’d want to see a nice girl get involved with. He takes what he wants and moves on, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her.” When Galahad said nothing, Cassie added, “And I’ll put in a good word for Paul.”
Galahad’s hand touched hers in the dark, then almost as quickly drew back. “Thanks.”
In the quiet of the empty lobby, their talk shifted to ordinary things—chores, people, and what the new alliance would entail. Cassie found Galahad’s presence comforting, and the gentle timbre of his voice made her think maybe everything in this crazy world would turn out okay. The wine made her sleepy and she wished she could lean against Galahad’s shoulder, feel his arm around her waist and listen to his quiet words all night. Instead, she heard the sound of banging doors, stomping feet and excited voices as the movie ended and kids began trooping down the hall.
Elissa stepped out of Conference Suite A, her curls and tiara in disarray. As she started across the lobby, her page ran ahead with a battery-powered lantern and the girls carrying Elissa’s train stumbled over their feet as they tried to keep up. The rest of the retinue filed in and her guards scurried ahead to open the doors and get her litter ready.
From their perch on the spiral staircase, Galahad and Cassie watched a crowd of Regents follow the Thespians outside to see them off. “Want to go?” he asked.
“I saw the arrival. It was enough drama for one day.”
He laughed softly and it was a reassuring sound. “I’ll see you to your room, then.”
She took his hand and let him pull her to her feet. “Thanks, but I don’t need help.”
“Can’t a guy do something just because he wants to?” He let go of her hand and turned on his flashlight.
As Cassie followed him up the stairs, she fought the urge to tell him that what she really wished was that instead of lighting her way, he would keep holding her hand. Nothing good would come of that, though. He was what, eighteen? The Telo would get him soon, and she wasn’t sure if she could bear another loss. She feigned disinterest and let him walk her to her room where he dismissed her with a wave. “Good night,” he said. “And don’t forget what we talked about.”
EXCERPT FROM CASSIE'S JOURNAL:
We got a visit from the Empress Elissa today. Those Thespians sure love their costumes and makeup! When I first saw them I thought they were crazy, since all that time spent fixing themselves up could be better spent looking for food or filtering their water. But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe they’re the sanest of us all. They get to be someone different every day.
Maybe I should make up my face and wear a costume. I could pretend I’m just about anyone but me. I think that’s what Leila is doing with her jewelry and sexy clothes. Being someone else helps her forget, which makes it easier to move forward.