The story was simple enough. They successfully worked their way into the Obits, first as an affiliated minor gang, then as junior members. With Cuervo as their go-between, they sent information to the alliance about the Obits’ numbers, supplies and range. The Obits were a layered group, with access to information tightly controlled by the level of trust each member earned. “I never got very deep,” Banquo explained. “But the food was good and so was the medical care. We got vitamins every day and you could always get a pain-killer or antibiotic if you needed one. A good thing, since Galahad had that infected arm.”
“It got infected?” Cassie blurted, ignoring the way Julilla looked at her.
Banquo quit twisting his hat. “They took him to medical the very first day. He must’ve made a good impression on someone, because he was able to get in deeper than the rest of us.”
“Then why were his reports the least informative?” Mundo wanted to know.
“He was under the closest observation,” Banquo said, as if it were obvious. “A lot of what I reported, like the sighting of grownups, was what he told me, not what I saw for myself.”
“Then how do you know it was true?” Elissa said. “Your instructions were clear. You were to report hearsay as such and not as personal observation.”
Banquo ducked his head and resumed plucking at his hat.
“This sheds a whole new light on things,” Mundo said darkly. Since Cassie and Julilla had no way of knowing what he was talking about, he added, “Galahad is the only member of our embedded team who didn’t make it out in some fashion. Before you arrived, we were discussing the possibility he was being held prisoner. But now it sounds like he could’ve turned double agent, since we know nothing about what he was doing that close in.” He gave Banquo a stern look. “Isn’t that so?”
Banquo made a motion with chin and shoulders that could’ve meant anything.
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t make it out in some fashion?’” Julilla asked.
Mundo looked at the Thespian. “Would you like to tell it yourself?”
Banquo shook his head and shrank smaller in his chair.
“Jesse from St. Xavier’s and Isabel from the Operatics were apprehended by the Obits’ internal police.”
“I hid when they came for us,” Banquo explained.
“Coward,” Elissa said.
“How else was I supposed to save them, Your Excellency?”
“Good question, since you only saved yourself.”
Banquo bowed his head. “Maybe if they hadn’t done it so fast.”
“Done what?” Cassie asked.
“Executed them. I found them hanging from lamp posts as a warning to others.” At Cassie’s look of dismay, he added, “But Galahad got in good with their upper command. I think he’s still alive.”
“And probably working for them,” Mundo said bitterly. “Hanging was his specialty with the KDS.”
“What do you mean?” Cassie demanded.
“He never told you the Kevorks called him Gallows?”
Cassie shook her head and fell silent, not wanting to hear any more. As other members of their team showed up, she wondered if she could leave without attracting attention. She could say she felt ill—that wouldn’t be a lie. Over the last two months she had almost convinced herself she didn’t care what Jay Gallard had or hadn’t done, but now she realized she had been secretly forgiving his faults, preparing for some unlikely future in which she would see him again and he would explain himself in such a way that she could trust him. They would have a happy ending, living out a long and peaceful life together, no matter how improbable the odds. But now—
“This has been a failure from beginning to end.” Elissa slumped in her chair, then remembered she was supposed to be an empress and sat up straight. “We should collect our alliance into one grand army and attack.”
“Attack where?” Julilla said, speaking out of turn and earning a scowl from Mundo.
“There’s a building being guarded by high-level Obits,” Elissa explained. “It’s part of a lab complex where they take the children. We’ll attack there.”
Banquo jumped to his feet. “I’ve told you I don’t know where it is!”
“You say you know which road it’s on. Surely we can find it, if that’s the case.”
“It’s off County Road 223,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s visible from the road, or down another road off that. And they probably have ambush points.”
Mundo gave him an intense look. “So are you saying it’s impossible?”
“Think carefully,” Elissa added.
Banquo stared at the floor. “Of course not, Your Excellency. I’m only advising caution.” He shifted from one foot to the other. “May I be excused, Madame?”
Elissa dismissed him with a wave of her hand and turned her attention to Mundo. Neither leader noticed the way Banquo caught Cassie’s eye as he backed out of the Imperial Presence. A few minutes later, Cassie excused herself, claiming she needed to use the toilet. She found Banquo waiting for her in the tunnel of velvet drapes, and followed him to a dark corner beside an iron ladder that reached into a great dark space overhead.
“What is it?” Cassie asked as he fumbled in a pocket.
Banquo withdrew a small box and pressed it into her hand. “He said to tell you he loves you.”
She shook her head. “If he’s staying of his own free will, he doesn’t love me, and I can’t love him after the things he’s done.”
“Cassie.” He grabbed her hand and held it tight, no longer the nervous weakling of a few minutes ago. “I know you don’t know me, but trust me that nothing is how it looks. We need to have faith. Everything depends on it.”
He dropped her hand and slipped into the shadows, leaving her alone with her flashlight, the gift, and her conflicted feelings. She sat on the floor with her back to the wall, and opened the box. Inside, glittering like a private star, was a diamond ring.
EXCERPT FROM CASSIE’S JOURNAL:
Battle preparations have begun and everyone is being mobilized. Those who can fight, train. Everyone else is being taught to spy, run messages, or do first aid. Meetings take place all day and often late into the night. Sometimes the meetings are here on the patio deck, other times Mundo and some of his guards and advisors sneak out in disguise to meet at the other groups’ locations.
I went along when we formally added the Zoo Tribe to our alliance. I wish I hadn’t been picked for that assignment because Zoo is a dirty, barbaric group. It appears they lived in the aquarium and small animal buildings during the winter, but now that it’s summer, they’re camping under the trees in the tigers’ fake savannah and the jaguars’ phony jungle. The animals themselves are dead, of course, and the Zoo kids wear the hides and make things with the bones. To seal our friendship, they burned scrap in a metal trash can and made music by beating bones together and chanting nonsense words. I was offered some oily meat, which I refused because it stank. I was offered a necklace made from a fang on a leather sinew, which I accepted. Then a tall boy in a headdress made of feathers and zebra tails led us in a crazy procession through the grounds that ended at the scummy sea lion pool, where those who dared jumped in to cool off from the summer heat.
As preparations continue, Julilla gets angrier and angrier. She says we don’t know enough about what we’re up against—will we be fighting just the Obits, or the Pharms, too? No one is sure. Worse than that, we’re not even certain how many Obits there are. Banquo is vague and not even the twins have been able to find out.
We’ve been eating, at least. After three days of roadblocks, the Pharms took the blockades down and went back to selling drugs and kidnapping children, as if we no longer interested them. It’s been a week since they last came to the hotel, and then it was just to stomp around and act all fierce and important while demanding to know why we hadn’t bought antibiotics recently.
There’s been no word about May. The twins have made a few attempts to find her, but they haven’t succeeded, mainly because we have no clues to indicate what part of the city she’s in, let alone what building. We don’t even know for sure she’s alive, although most of us suppose that if she were dead she would’ve been hung in a public place like our embedded team or thrown on our driveway like Cuervo. We’re divided over whether to pursue the matter. It’s one of the things we argue about when we’ve got nothing better to do.
And in spite of all that’s going on, we seem to spend a lot of time not doing much. Julilla said most of a soldier’s time is spent waiting. She was right.