After the group disappeared into Conference Suite A, Cassie went back to working on the alternators. But in spite of the group’s good intentions and Sid’s patient instructions, no one got much done. Instead, they speculated on the meaning of the unannounced visit.
“Seems like a bad idea to make yourself so obvious,” Paul said.
“And no way can she run away in that dress if something goes wrong,” someone else pointed out.
“Sitting ducks,” Sid agreed. “Now remove that c-clamp. What do you mean you lost your needle-nose pliers? They were right here a minute ago.”
Just before dinner, one of Mundo’s messengers came out of Conference Suite A and ran outside. A few minutes later, the Thespian guards trooped in and headed toward the dining room.
They were going to feed the interlopers! All thought of finishing a generator vanished and Cassie and the others put their heads together, wondering if the Thespians were paying and what they should say to Mundo if they weren’t. They were still discussing the matter when the dinner gong rang.
“Generosity is good policy,” one girl tried to reassure the group as they headed toward the restaurant. “It’s how we maintain our alliances.”
“Alliances don’t mean jack when you’re dead from starvation,” Sid told her. “If they want to show up at dinner time, let them bring some food with them. Or toilet paper.”
“How do you know they didn’t? Could’ve hidden a whole warehouse under that stupid train she was wearing.”
The group entered the dining room and Cassie noticed Leila was at David’s table, leaning forward to listen while he talked about something that was clearly bothering him. She headed over in the hope that they were discussing Elissa and she could get some inside information, but was waylaid by Doc, who waved her to his table. She slid into the seat Doc was holding for her and asked why Elissa had come and why they were feeding her guards.
“We’re feeding everyone,” he said. “Including the Empress. Elissa and her retinue will be here any minute.” He looked around. “I think they’re just waiting for us all to get here so they can make a big entrance.”
“But what’s it about?”
“I have no idea, but this is only the second time Elissa has come in person. The first time was to ask our help in a joint action to pressure the Pharms to lower the price of vitamins for the winter. This must be pretty big, or she would’ve sent a representative.”
At Mundo’s table, some children were setting out candles, crystal goblets and bottles of wine. “Looks like they’re going all out,” Cassie said.
“Well, she is an empress. Although when they were just the Thespians she was only a queen. Merging with the Operatics made her figure she deserved a fancier title.”
They were silenced by a fresh banging on the dinner gong followed by a few short notes on a trumpet. With a regal swish of her skirts, Elissa swept in on Mundo’s arm. Mundo’s two girlfriends followed Elissa’s train-bearers, looking annoyed, and a combination of Regent and Thespian guards took up the rear, creating havoc by blocking aisles and stumbling into things. When they got to their table and found their seats, they paused before sitting. By now the Regents had figured out they were expected to stand in the presence of the leaders. It wasn’t their usual custom, but with a scraping of chairs on the parquet floor, everyone got to their feet.
“Friends,” Mundo announced, “I’m pleased to introduce Her Excellency, Empress Elissa of the Thespian-Operatics.” He paused for effect, although only the youngest children were impressed. “She and her people are our guests for the evening, and after we’ve eaten she has some important news to share with us. But for now, please have a seat and enjoy your meal.” Mundo motioned for everyone to sit.
Dinner was unusually quiet and formal. Elissa’s bodyguards stood behind her throughout the meal, tasting new dishes for her and acting like she really was royalty. This made Mundo and his girlfriends Nisha and Kayleen put on airs too. Cassie thought the meal would last forever, with dish after dish of food going to Mundo’s table while everyone else ate the usual inadequate slop. After their first glasses of wine, the leaders grew more animated, leaning across their table and sharing jokes. By dessert it seemed they had forgotten they weren’t alone and the Regents sat in sullen frustration, watching them eat pieces of chocolate off a plate passed around by the page.
It was Alex, the guard leader, who figured out that they had better quit acting like kings and queens and tell the group what was going on. He said a few words to Mundo, who glanced across the dining room, then got to his feet. He didn’t need anyone to bang the gong for silence, although someone did.
“Regents,” he said. “Our honored guest, the Empress Elissa, has news to share with us.”
At these words, Elissa stood. Her page blew a note on his trumpet, and with an arrogant lift to her head, the empress spoke. “I’ve come to tell you of an alarming new development in the city. We have reason to believe that someone is kidnapping children.”
Cassie and many of the older teens suppressed sighs of annoyance. Kidnappings weren’t new, nor were they something anyone could do much about.
Elissa went on to explain that two Operatic children had vanished recently and that the younger brother of one of her consorts had been stolen in broad daylight by an older teen wearing the signs of a tribe unknown to them. “We’ve heard rumors,” she said, “That these children are being picked up by loners and minor groups and traded to a new gang based outside the city. We’ve also heard that this gang, who kids are calling Obits, sometime come into the city to do their own raids. We don’t know the habits of this group and are conducting an investigation.”
By now the Regents guards were fidgeting with boredom. Doc leaned toward Cassie and whispered, “Someone’s picking up kids for slave labor. Sad, but it happens all the time.”
Elissa picked up the vibe in the room and glanced at Mundo for help.
“These are not typical child-raids,” Mundo said. “The children are being taken by unknown people who have access to diesel fuel. They’re being put into vans and are never seen again. We have reason to think outsiders are involved.” He looked around the room. “The Thespian-Operatics are asking us to join them in the creation of an alliance for the purpose of investigating these kidnappings. If this is a new group from outside the city limits, they must be killed or driven out. If the children can be recovered, we must do so. We will tolerate no disrespect.”
By now the Regents children were wide-eyed with concern and many teens who had been skeptical were sitting up and paying attention. When Mundo opened the floor for comments, he got an earful.
“How do we know this is being done by outsiders?”
“It could be just a group of outcasts from here in the city.”
“Kids should stick with their groups. If they get picked up, that’s between them and Charles Darwin.”
Elissa listened in increasing annoyance, butting in once to say, “Wait until it starts happening to your kids. See how smug you feel about it then.”
Finally Alex stood up. “Whether you believe what’s happening is important or not, an alliance will be a good thing. It will increase cooperation and security for all of us.”
This sparked a few murmurs of agreement and Mundo seized the moment to put the matter to a vote. “All in favor of joining the alliance, raise your hand.”
Cassie and most of the others raised their hands. Elissa gave a regal smile and made a formal speech of thanks, but although her words were cool, there was relief in her eyes.