Cassie awoke to the staccato of the Operatic drummer’s warning, overlaid with the sound of trumpets blaring the call to arms. Cassie reached for her weapons in the dark, and after checking that the boys and girls assigned to her were awake and knew their duties, she left the sergeant in charge and ran to her assigned rendezvous point.

She found the allied commanders in a huddle, discussing the arrival of the Pharms. Elissa was kitted out in a Napoleonic uniform, even to the impractical light pants, and Cassie’s eyebrows went up at the sight of all the grass stains. Judging from Mundo’s smug expression of ownership as he eyed Elissa’s rump, Cassie suspected there were new secrets in camp other than her own.

“The plan is the same as it was yesterday,” Julilla told the group. “We want to prevent them from setting up any major ordinance, but given the terrain and our present good position, it’s not wise to attack until after sunrise.” At Jason’s protests, she added, “Don’t forget they’re to the west of us. If we wait another couple hours, they’ll have to fight with the sun in their eyes. And besides, we need sunlight if we’re going to use your precious Fresnels.” She glanced at Jason’s legs, bare and pale underneath the skirt of his Roman general’s costume. “Nice legs, by the way.”

While Jason turned red and sputtered, Amy, arrogant in fatigues and an armband in the St. Catherine’s colors, agreed with Julilla’s plan, adding that it wasn’t good to change strategy because “the public school lowlifes” among them would only screw it up.

Cassie held her breath and was relieved when Julilla let the classist remark pass as if she hadn’t heard it.

“So we need scouts to spy on the Pharms. We’ll need details of their number, their weapons, their setup, and how many Obits will be fighting with them,” Julilla continued.

This suggestion was greeted by agreement as to strategy, but everyone had an excuse as to why their own people shouldn’t be put on the task. Cassie was the only one who volunteered some of her team, a proposal Mundo nixed. Julilla had just declared she would conscript scouts if none were offered willingly, when the answer to her dilemma strolled up to them, sleepy and yawning in the grim light just before dawn.

“Is this the strategy meeting?” Danica asked.

“It’s for leaders, not freaks,” Jason snapped.

Danica eyed his short skirt and sandals. “So why are you here?”

While Amy giggled and Elissa and Jason glared, Julilla said, “Actually, I may have an assignment for you.”

“Not another one,” Danny protested. “We just wanted to know what the plan is, so we’d know if we had time to make coffee and have breakfast.” At the raised eyebrows all around, he added, “Don’t get excited. We brought our own.”

“Regents food always sucks,” Danica added. “And judging from last night, it hasn’t gotten any better now that it’s an allied project.”

Julilla held up a hand to forestall the firestorm that was sure to follow Danica’s remarks. “We need someone to spy on the Pharms and report on what we’re up against. You’re good at that sort of thing.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Danny said. After glancing at his twin for confirmation, he added, “But yeah, that would be right up our alley.”

“Pharms always have coffee,’ Danica reminded him. “If we steal theirs, we won’t have to use our own.”

“That’s right.” Danny gave Julilla a grin. “We’ll do it. Just tell us what kind of information you’re looking for.” Danica poked him and a look passed between them. “But we only steal coffee for ourselves. If you want caffeine, you’re on your own.”

* * *

Cassie spent the next half hour readying her troops in a weedy field with a service road behind it. They had barricaded the road the day before to slow down any enemy attempt at a flanking maneuver, but it also limited the possibility of retreat should the battle go badly. Then again, nearly everyone was at or near the Telo danger age. Without a life to lose and with a lifetime to gain, there was no reason not to fight hard.

She was scanning the horizon, trying to determine the time by the angle of the sun, when a boy ran up to her. “You’re wanted on the front lines, Captain!”

Cassie started, still not used to being addressed by her new rank. “Do you know what for?”

“Parley,” the messenger said, then babbled a lot of words that made no sense, although they were all perfectly good English.

Cassie followed the boy to the front, where the leaders stood near Julilla, who was watching something through a pair of binoculars.

“Cassie’s here,” Mundo told her.

Julilla lowered the binoculars and turned around. “Your boyfriend is over there,” she said. “It looks like he’s with the parley group, and he doesn’t appear to be a prisoner. There could be an advantage to having you go with us to meet them.” Her grim tones softened as she added, “But we understand if you’d rather not.”

Cassie glanced toward the Pharms and Obits, who had arrayed their troops in the main parking lot. A knot of people had separated from the army and were walking toward them, carrying a truce flag. Fear and hope surged through her. Jay was with them! He was okay and she would actually get to see him!

“Well?” Julilla asked.

“Remember, he’s the enemy,” Elissa said.

“You owe him nothing,” Mundo added. “Come with us to the parley, but only if you can do it for the right reasons.”

Cassie swallowed and gave a faint nod. “I’m on your side, not his.” Unconsciously, she reached a hand toward her throat where she wore Jay’s diamond ring on a chain under her shirt. “Maybe I’ll notice something the rest of you don’t.”

Amy sniffed and Neal rolled his eyes, but Julilla nodded as if Cassie had said nothing unexpected. “We demand free access to the bunker,” she reminded the group. “We want a full accounting of the kidnappings and the motivations behind them. We want the bodies of any dead returned to us. And if there’s a Telo cure, we want it.”

“And the formula,” Mundo reminded her.

“For God’s sake, yes,” Julilla agreed. She scanned the group of leaders. “So are we all in? Have I forgotten anything? Good. Let’s go, and remember to stay on message.”

* * *

Cassie thought she had never seen Galahad look as good as he did that morning, tall, tan and powerful in his black Obit uniform and with his long hair ruffled by the morning breeze. He turned pale at the sight of her and she wondered how she looked to him now—well-fed and strong, her hair in braids and her face made up for battle with a blue swath painted across her eyes like a raccoon’s mask.

She barely heard the negotiations as they progressed from politely firm to mocking and hostile. The Obits denied there was a Telo cure in the bunker. The Pharms said the office park and surrounding countryside were their turf and to leave or face the consequences. Both groups denied any knowledge of the kidnappings, and Neal, who had lost a brother to them, had to be restrained from attacking with his fists.

“We know you’re lying,” Elissa told them. “Our spy who didn’t turn traitor,” she stopped to sneer at Galahad, “Told us different.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Galahad said. “Everyone knows Thespians say whatever will make the best story.”

“And everyone knows not to trust a Kevork,” Julilla countered.

While the accusations and counterarguments moved into high gear, Cassie caught herself staring at Galahad. Their eyes met and for a moment the world stopped on its axis. She loved him, no matter what he had done. What stupid sequence of events had put them on opposite sides like this? Why hadn’t they run away together, Telo be damned, when they had the chance?

Galahad made a small tugging motion at the cuff of one sleeve. It was a casual act, so subtle as to go unnoticed in the heated arguments swirling around them. But Cassie noticed and for a moment didn’t comprehend. Under the cuff of his sleeve was a patch of blue, but—

He dropped his sleeve and his features went blank as an Obit turned to him with a question. Cassie didn’t hear his response because suddenly she understood. He was wearing his Regents gauntlet. Did this mean he was on their side, after all?

As soon as she had his attention again, she unbuttoned the collar of her shirt, just enough so he could see the ring. She scanned his face for a reaction.

Galahad gave a slow nod and touched his wrist again. Then with relief in his eyes and a faint sly smile, he turned back to the conversation.

Cassie buttoned her shirt and pretended interest, but there was nothing more to be gained by the parley. They would fight, but Galahad was on their side. She couldn’t wait to tell Julilla.



Alice Audrey said...

Well, it's about time! I mean, it think the test drive is over.

Alice Audrey said...

That's good enough for me, but will it be good enough for Jullila and Mundo?

Alice Audrey said...

This is weird. A comment I intended for a different blog showed up here. I guess that's what I get for having a dozen windows open at once.