Contrary to custom, breakfast was served in the dining room and although the meal was generous, Cassie was disappointed to find herself sitting alone. Galahad had been asked to sit with Alex at Mundo’s table, and with Leila dead, Julilla lying in the ward, and Doc too busy to eat with the group, Cassie was left to her own devices.

After the meal, Galahad gave a report to the group, in which he related the simple statistics of battle: number of casualties, weapons lost, damage inflicted on the enemy. “We think a few got away from us,” he said. “But unless they’ve got another cell somewhere, there aren’t enough left to re-form. There are no more Christian Soldiers.”

This brought cheers, but Cassie noticed Galahad took no pleasure in their victory. And he hadn’t mentioned Paul.

Mundo took the floor. “As many of you know, we had planned to hold a cremation today.” He picked out Cassie in the crowd. “But we’ve had an offer from the Thespians to do a joint funeral for all our dead. They can provide a bier, a priest, music and inspirational readings. They’ll have appropriate clothing for anyone who wants it. So unless someone has strong objections, I’d like to appoint a committee to work with the Thespians on the final details.”

Cassie could tell that it was her approval Mundo sought and she struggled to get her thoughts in order. She hadn’t planned much for today— they would put the bodies in the shuttle, take them to an empty parking lot, speak a few words and set them on fire. The prospect of dealing with the Thespians was daunting, but she was comforted by the idea that she might be able to give her friend a proper send-off. “I support the plan,” she said.

“Me, too,” said Alaina.

Several of the guards nodded their heads and the matter was put to a vote.

“Cassie,” Mundo said, after the measure had passed unanimously, “I’d like you to head our committee.”

* * *

Cassie stood under the awning of the circular drive with the wind whipping the skirt of her long black theater dress. She wondered if cremation was such a good idea, after all. There were a lot of bodies to burn and the wind might spread sparks and set all of downtown ablaze.

Around her, those who would be attending the funeral milled about, whispering and waiting for the cortege. The Thespians had said they could acquire a horse to pull the bier and everyone was curious if this was true, since no one had seen a horse in months. Just as a knot of black-clad forms came into view, Cassie felt a hand on the back of her waist.

“You okay?” Galahad asked.

“So far, so good.” She looked at him in his black suit—a near-perfect fit, even though it was a woolen Thespian affair styled for the nineteenth century, with striped pants, a cutaway coat and a thick cravat. “Thanks for coming. I know you would’ve rather slept.”

“It was the least I could do.”

“What happened wasn’t your fault.” Cassie looked around. “If anyone should be here, it should be David since she was his girlfriend. Sort of. Bastard.”

“He cared. He’s just not good at showing it.” He gave a small sigh. “Kind of like me.”

He kept his arm around her waist and Cassie moved closer as they watched the cortege approach. The Thespians made an odd sight in theatrical gear spanning almost the entirety of human history. There were nuns, a flapper and a black knight, a Mandarin in embroidered silk and a gypsy with bangles and flowing scarves. There were boys in frock coats and girls in hoopskirts that dragged the street, gathering dust and filth. A boy pounded a solemn rhythm on a drum while another in black cape and tights beat time with what looked like a pair of human femurs. Leading the way was a teen in a black cassock, carrying a wooden cross aloft, and behind him marched Elissa in a heavy gown that looked like it came from a production about Mary, Queen of Scots. Strangest of all was the wheeled bier, draped in fluttering black gauze and drawn by two donkeys led by boys wearing giraffe pelts, which were the only spot of color among the black costumes.

“Zoo tribe,” Galahad said in answer to Cassie’s wondering look. “Those donkeys must be on loan from the petting zoo.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t eat them,” May said, having pushed her way through the crowd to join them. She was dressed soberly today, having spurned her usual bright colors for a simple gray dress.

“Too valuable for other purposes,” Galahad pointed out. “They’re crazy in their own way at the zoo, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got no sense.”

“I wish they’d buy my jewelry. I’ll miss Leila.” She squeezed Cassie’s hand. “And not just because she was one of my best customers. She was smart, even if she didn’t like to show it.”

Cassie nodded. She just wanted to get this day over with. Must the Thespians move so slowly? Why had she consented to all this drama?

It felt like hours before the cortege pulled up in front of the hotel. By then Mundo and Kayleen had joined the group on the curb and they, along with Alex, Cassie and Galahad went to meet the Thespians. Even though Cassie had agreed in advance to the little ceremony of bowing and pleasantries, the whole thing felt needlessly theatrical and she hoped she didn’t look foolish as she curtsied before Elissa and spoke the words of welcome she had been coached to say.

While all this was going on, the Regent dead were loaded onto the bier. With a flurry of drum-tapping, the cortege re-formed, now nearly twice as big as before, and they made their way back into the street and resumed their march, keeping time to the slow beat of the drum.

The plan was to burn the bodies on a freeway overpass visible from most of the city, thus satisfying the Thespians’ need for dramatic effect. Cassie tried not to trip over her long skirt as they trudged up the entrance ramp and she felt sorry for the donkeys pulling the heavy cart. Finally they crested the rise and made their way to where a smaller group of Thespians and Operatics waited, guarding a pile of rubbish and a pair of spotlights she couldn’t immediately see the purpose of.

The bodies were removed from the bier and laid on the gasoline-drenched pyre with such efficiency that Cassie thought perhaps they would get the matter over with quickly, after all. But no, it was now time for poetry readings, dramatic declamations, a soliloquy from Hamlet, and a skit hastily thrown together to commemorate the previous day’s battle. Then the boy in priestly garb took the group through a standard funeral ceremony complete with a solemn intonation of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which Cassie thought appropriate given that if they ever got the fire lit there would be enough ashes to cover the entire exit ramp. Finally an Operatic girl sang an aria with a clear sweet voice that would’ve impressed Cassie under better circumstances. When she was finished, a boy stepped forward and played Taps on a cornet while Elissa and Mundo exchanged a significant look.

Cassie hadn’t been told anything about this next part of the ceremony, other than that the pyre would be lit. Elissa motioned to the boys near the spotlights and they moved them into position. Sid had been standing at Cassie’s elbow, visibly bored with the proceedings, but as the Thespian light crew aimed the spotlights and unfolded silver panels to catch the sun, he stood up straight. “Are they going to use those how I think they are?”

“I have no idea,” Cassie said, although now that the boys had their beams focused, she realized she did in fact know what was happening. The spotlights had been converted into concentrators to focus the sun’s rays.

“Spotlights are Fresnels, aren’t they?” Sid took a few steps forward, entranced. “What a good idea.”

“Shut up,” a girl said, shoving him. “And get out of the way so I can see.”

Wisps of smoke began rising off the pile of wood, paper and rubble. Sid ignored the girl and made his way to one of the spotlights to talk to the boy operating it. Soon they were deep in conversation about solar rays as the wisps of smoke became flames and then a roaring blaze that roiled across the shrouded bodies.

By now Cassie was paying no attention to Sid and his new friend working the spotlight. She ignored May, standing nearby and nervously playing with an amulet. She no longer even noticed Galahad until he went up to the pyre, took something from his pocket and threw it in. The flames blazed white then faded back to a dull, angry orange.

“What was that?” she asked as he resumed his place by her side.

“Something of Paul’s.”

Cassie wanted to press for details, but he cut her off.

“Look,” he said, pointing. “Other side of the guardrail. Outbound lane.”

She looked in the direction indicated and saw the twins in full face makeup, watching the proceedings from afar. “I wonder why they don’t join us. They know they’d be welcome.”

“I guess they figure it’s our deal.”

The twins watched for awhile longer, giving Cassie something besides Leila’s burning body to think about. But then a gust of wind blew a cloud of oily black smoke into their midst and she doubled over choking. By the time the wind shifted and she wiped her watering eyes, the twins were gone.




Alice Audrey said...

Just what she needed - to get stuck making the funeral arrangements. Actually, it was probably better than letting her mope.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

And all the Thespian drama, too. Nice kids, but annoying as all heck.

Alice Audrey said...

Yeah, I'm really grateful you don't make us actually endure it in all it's particulars.