They stayed in the building until nearly nightfall, then slipped out at dusk and made their way to the theater, which was nearest safe place Galahad could think of. The Thespians were helpful in their strange way, arranging a cot for Cassie to rest on and quoting Shakespeare. More helpful was the shot of vodka Elissa’s page brought on a silver tray. It dulled her racing mind while she waited for Galahad to explain to Elissa and her guard commander what had happened. It also took the edge off her desire to rage at the made-up boy who stood at the foot of her cot declaiming from the tragedies:

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

It crossed her mind to ask the fool how he would like being beaten to death in the street, but instead she accepted another shot of vodka and sank into the luxury of not having to care about anything for a little while.

It could’ve been an hour or only a few minutes, but when Cassie opened her eyes she found Elissa standing by her cot, wearing a blue dress that looked like something out of a production of Camelot. “We’re sorry about your friend.”

Cassie gave a faint nod and wished the room would quit trying to spin.

“We told Galahad you can stay here as long as you like. When you’re ready to leave, we’ll give you an escort back to the hotel and we’ll coordinate strategy with your leader to avenge this needless attack.”

Again, Cassie nodded, her tipsy brain not up to the task of wondering why the Thespians would engage in a risky revenge over the death of a Regent, especially one as unimportant as Leila.

Elissa brushed a lock of hair out of Cassie’s face, then walked away with a regal air. But as she left the room, Cassie thought she heard the empress mutter, “Those fuckers. We should’ve cleaned out that goddamn cult a long time ago.”

Cassie closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Galahad was sitting by her side. She was so relieved to see him that she couldn’t find words and hoped he could read her mind, instead.

“You okay?”

“I think I’m drunk.”

“It helps. Just don’t get used to it. Then it makes things worse.” He took her hand. “I feel like an idiot. You warned me about Paul and I should’ve listened. I’d give anything to go back and do this day different.”

“I know.”

“Do you really? Sometimes I think—”

“Please don’t talk. I’m drunk and I won’t remember it.” Cassie tried to create a space beside her on the cot, too tipsy to be afraid of rejection. “Hold me. Just until I fall asleep.”

He looked at the narrow spot beside her. “That’s not a lot of room.”


Galahad stood up, still eyeing the cot skeptically. But he wedged himself into it somehow, and Cassie nestled in his arms. With her head pillowed on his chest and lulled by the steady beat of his heart, she fell asleep.

* * *

A group of Thespian guards, attired in phony chain mail and faux-leather leggings, accompanied Cassie and Galahad back to the hotel after midnight. As they approached the front entrance, they could see that all the older Regents had waited up for them, full of eager questions. Cassie was glad she was still numb and had the warmth of Galahad’s embrace imprinted on her recent memory, otherwise she didn’t know how she would’ve coped with the fuss when all she wanted was to slip away to someplace dark and quiet so she could try to make sense of the day.

She was wondering how she could best get away and if Galahad would go with her, when David stalked out of the shadows, his face paler, his eyes more deeply charcoaled than she had ever seen. There was something malignant in the way he glared at Galahad, and Cassie wished she could have another shot of vodka and be oblivious to what would happen next. Beside her, Galahad stiffened and there was a note of fear in his eyes, despite the defiant lift of his chin. Cassie waited for the accusations to begin and was relieved when Alex broke through the crowd.

“Get back, everyone!” He forced David aside. “Come with me,” he told Galahad and Cassie. “Mundo wants your report.” To the rest of the group, he added, “All questions will be answered after the debriefing.”

Alex and his guards ushered Cassie and Galahad to Conference Room A, where Mundo and Julilla were waiting. Julilla rose to greet them and gave Cassie a hug that startled her and made her want to cry.

Mundo urged everyone to sit, and directed a guard to have food and wine brought in. He asked about their health, injuries, and how the Thespians had treated them, until the food arrived—a bowl of out-of-date packets of potato chips. Cassie went through two packets of chips while Galahad gave a detailed description of the events of the day. When he was done speaking, the others eyed him solemnly.

“You realize what we have to do,” Mundo said.

“I know. And if it’s not an issue with anyone, I want the command.”

Alex looked at him askance. “I don’t doubt your ability, but what about conflict of interest?”

“That’s why I need to do it. I won’t have anyone say I allow my cousin to kill our people. Besides, I forage this city every day. If the Christian Soldiers are out of their territory, I stand a better chance of finding them than you do. No offense.”

“Good point,” Julilla said without giving Alex a chance to respond. “But if you have to face him in armed combat, do you think you could…?”

“After this? Yes.”

For a moment, everyone looked at each other in silence. Then Mundo said, “Fine. You say you want a chance to make things right, you’ll have it.”

“Can I be on this team, too?” Cassie asked.

“No,” Galahad said, with such firmness she was taken aback.

“But she was my friend.”

The others at the table shook their heads. Alex started to explain, but Julilla rose and motioned Cassie into the hallway.

“I’m not weak, and I’m not a child,” Cassie said when they were alone.

“That’s not why,” Julilla said. “It’s that you’ve never trained for battle, and this sort of fight isn’t one to engage in when you’re upset.”

“What about Galahad? He’s upset, too.”

“He’s ex-Kevork. Totally different situation.” Seeing that this answer didn’t satisfy, she added, “Your boyfriend is going to have a hard enough time doing the right thing without you there. You haven’t trained to fight together, so if you go, he’ll be worrying about protecting you when he should be focused on his mission.”

“He’s not my boyfriend and his worries are his problem.”

“His worries are our reality. You know I wouldn’t bullshit you. Besides, you look like you could sleep for days.”

Cassie folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t want to sleep. Every time I close my eyes….”

Julilla rested a hand on Cassie’s shoulder and peered into her face. “Want to tell me what really happened out there? Might help to talk about it.”

“You heard. That fucking bastard. I should’ve pushed him off the garden patio when I had the chance. Or had Truong shoot him, or—”

“Be careful with the what-ifs. They’ll kill you.”

“So will damn near everything else.”

“No, the other stuff only kills your body. The what-ifs kill your soul.”

* * *

Cassie couldn’t bear the thought of going to her room and asked Galahad if she could sleep in his room instead while he stayed up to plan strategy. To her disappointment, he refused. “I have my reasons. Please believe me.”

She didn’t believe him, but let him walk her to the clinic where he found her an empty mattress in the ward. After explaining the situation to Doc, Galahad knelt by her side. “Is there anything you need?”

The only thing she needed was for today to have never happened. “Don’t go.”

“We’re not leaving yet. We’ll probably be talking all night.” He cupped her cheek in his hand. “I’ll try to come by before we leave, but if I can’t, I don’t want you to worry about me or anything else.”

After Galahad had gone, Doc came to sit with her. He offered a few strained condolences, then fell silent, as if unsure how to continue.

Cassie forced a smile. “This isn’t a suicide watch. You don’t have to stay with me.”

Doc was visibly relieved. “It’s not that I don’t care. You’re one of my only real friends here. But between Zach and Nisha, and then waiting up in case you or Galahad came back injured….”

Touched, Cassie rested her hand on his. “Get some sleep. If I need anything, I can get it myself.”

“Sasha’s covering the ward tonight and will get me if you need me. I sent her to get something to help you sleep, so she should be back any minute.”

“You don’t have to treat me like I’m fragile.”

Doc got to his feet and affected a stern demeanor. “I’m not. I just don’t want you having bad dreams and screaming. You’ll scare my patients.”

Cassie suppressed a giggle at the thought, which was funny because it was so likely to be true. She was glad when Sasha came into the ward with a glass and a half-full bottle of wine.

Cassie poured a glass and tried not to think about what Galahad had said—that such measures would make things worse if she came to rely on them. Well, it was only for this one night. She would be better tomorrow. She would have to be. If she wasn’t going to be strong, she might as well hang herself off the patio balcony and be done with it.

She gulped the wine, wincing at its sour taste and hoping it would make her dizzy like the vodka had. As the warm glow spread through her veins, her muscles relaxed, her mind slowed down, and she found herself wondering if Leila was still lying in the street. She would have to go check. Yes, that would be her mission while the others were away avenging themselves against the Christian Soldiers. She would find Leila and give her a proper burial.

Comforted by the thought that there was something she could do, she allowed the wine to overtake her thoughts and fell into a dreamless sleep.



Anonymous said...

I love me an author that can fearlessly kill their darlings.

Anonymous said...

This kind of spec fiction requires a body count, I think. :) My newest novel is a comedy. Lots of mayhem, but bodies would ruin the tone.

Alice Audrey said...

“No, the other stuff only kills your body. The what-ifs kill your soul.”

I love this line!

Anonymous said...

Its kind of sad. You've went through 12 chapters with Leila you get used to her presence and she gets horrifically kill in one of the worst ways. I change what I said. About Leila she was just a lost young lady. Rest in peace Leila. I love this book so much. It's like your in it living through their eyes in their reality.