As she walked through the crowd on her own, taking careful steps and trying to smile kindly at everyone who passed her, Corra spotted Leta in the crowd, holding a glass of wine. She met her eyes and they exchanged a silent conversation. Everything okay? Leta asked, lifting her brow. Corra smiled an all good.
Just then, an older gentleman, without even a word of greeting, plucked the last bite-sized concoction from her tray. She resisted the urge to make a rude remark to him and instead took the opportunity to approach the table where a couple of the household allies were arranging more trays to be taken around the garden.
She was about three feet away from it when one of the women working, without even looking up, pointed at a tray at the end and said, “Take that one.” She pointed to a stack of used trays behind her. “Place the old one here.”
Corra hesitated, a little stunned, but she wouldn’t be deterred. Slowly, she did as she was asked, but as she hoisted the new tray onto her hip, she watched the woman a moment longer. She was clearly a ball of stress, just barely keeping afloat as her fingers worked doublespeed placing the — what were those things even? Corra’s understanding of rich-people food was limited — exactly two inches between one another in three columns of five. Corra had brushed it off before when the cranky woman had threatened her with ‘punishment’ but it occurred to her as she watched that this ally standing in front of her knew exactly what the punishment was and was trying very very hard to avoid it. She felt a subtle ache in her chest.
“Tired of doing this?” Corra asked abruptly. The woman snorted.
“Don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she growled, rolling her eyes and continuing her work.
Corra felt a slow smirk spread across her face. “A lot, actually,” she said and felt a beat of hope when the woman looked up at her, her eyes growing wider. “I’m with the Conduit.”
– – – – – – –
In the crowd of mingling party guests, Leta managed to keep an eye on Corra and was pleased to see that her disguise was working perfectly. She flashed her friend a brief smile, then turned around to find Finn again. They were supposed to be watching the other guests, staking out the important figures and making sure anyone who could pose a threat to the operation was accounted for, but the man had seemingly disappeared. Probably to enjoy the open bar and fancy finger food, she assumed.
Leta resisted rolling her eyes. But it was of no matter, she didn’t need him. She could take care of it herself.
Before she could melt back into the crowd, however, a snippet of nearby conversation caught her ear.
“Have you heard what’s happening on Vescent?” breathed a man over her shoulder. Leta froze in place, turning to listen, subtly as she could.
“It can’t be true, can it?” said a woman in reply, sounding terribly worried. “It’s just rumors! There’s simply no way the Society would permit — would permit — ”
“Executions,” the man finished darkly. “Executing their own people. And how are we to know what’s true and what’s isn’t? No media is allowed anywhere near that planet anymore. . . ”
When their conversation broke off, Leta found herself gripping the edge of the nearest table. Executions, media black out — her stomach dropped. It was true, of course it was. She had guessed that things would be growing darker there after what had happened a few weeks ago, the riot that she herself had been a part of. Their words didn’t ring untrue, but they still sent a shiver down her spine and she felt powerless to help. For one fleeting moment, Leta knew what she’d do next. She’d tell Fiearius about this and he’d understand; maybe they could even do something —
But then she remembered. Fiearius was gone to her now.
Her chest gave an ache of longing. Quickly Leta pushed away from the table, determined to get a hold of herself. Around her, interested murmurs and excitement rippled through the garden; the meteor shower was beginning.
In a rush, Cai pushed through the kitchen doors, skidding to a halt in front of her. “It started! It’s time!”
Corra had been waiting there for only a few minutes, but it felt like hours. The word of their planned escape plan had spread like wildfire, reaching every ally on the premises in under twenty minutes and now, she was surrounded by over sixty equally jumpy people who barely fit in the space. Some of them had asked her a thousand questions, others had glared at her with skepticism, but most had just stood quietly nervous, ready to bolt at the very first sign that this was going south.
She could hardly blame them. Misbehaving on the job was bad enough, misbehaving by trying to get away from the job was a sentence she didn’t want to consider. These people were on the verge of either sweet, wonderful freedom or what would likely be very harsh punishment. Of course they were afraid. They had every right to be terrified. The Conduit agent who had visited before must have given a very convincing sales pitch though. They’d all shown up after all. And Corra was determined to get them out of here. No matter what.
“Alright, everyone stick together!” yelled Corra over the crowd as she waited near the doors. “Head straight for the gate and don’t look back. There’s not a lot of time, the shower won’t last long, we need to make the most of it.”
“I’ll lead the way,” Cai volunteered, meeting her at her side. “But if you get separated, the docks are just north of here, a few blocks, can’t miss them.”
“The ship you’re looking for is the Beacon. Big, silver boat,” Corra explained. “We won’t leave until either we have everyone aboard or–”
But suddenly a third voice rang out in the crowd. “Wait!” cried one of the younger allies in dismay. His face shone with worry. “This isn’t everyone.”
Corra froze. Not everyone? That couldn’t be right. She’d done a head count. She’d done a head count eight times. Counting heads was all she had been doing for the last few minutes. There were sixty-three allies total and sixt- three in this room. But the man insisted, “Elli, she’s not here. We can’t leave without Elli.”
A murmur of agreement rang through the room. “She was here a few minutes ago,” someone else pointed out. “Where’d she go?” asked another. “She said she had something to do,” said one more.
Corra couldn’t believe that someone on the verge of everlasting freedom would suddenly feel the need to take a bathroom break. There wasn’t time for this. One loose cog could make this whole machine crash. But they were right. They couldn’t leave without Elli, no matter how bad her timing was.
“I’ll find her,” Corra promised the concerned faces around her. To Cai, she added, “Take them out of here. You know the way.”
His face darkened with worry. “Are you sure? Maybe we should just wai–”
“There’s no time,” Corra insisted as she reached around him to the small of his back and seized the small gun he’d concealed there. Grabbing Cai’s hand, she placed it in his grip and held both for a moment. “You can do this,” she assured him with a smile. “Just remember what I taught you. And hopefully you won’t need to use it at all.”
His hands were still slightly shaking as Corra dropped her own, but he nodded firmly. “Right.” But then he turned those big sad puppy dog eyes of his on her. “But you’ll catch up, won’t you?”
Corra grinned. “Of course. My ship can’t take off without me!” She patted him one last time on the arm before turning to head back out of the kitchen. “Good luck!” she called over her shoulder as the caravan of allies started to make their way out.
Praying to God that this would all go as planned, Corra started to scour the hallways.
She found that the first floor was empty — even the bathrooms were deserted. Then she found her way to the ally barracks in the basement in case this Elli girl had needed to grab some personal possession. But they were also empty. As she continued to search the halls, dead quiet now that everyone was either outside watching the meteor shower or outside fleeing for good, Corra hit the COMM hidden behind her ear.
“Leta, are there any allies out there? We’re missing one.”
There was a brief silence, presumably while Leta situated herself to both look around and talk to herself without anyone noticing. Finally, she answered, “I don’t see any. All the trays are gone. No one by the food table…There’s a bartender, but he seems paid, I–oh! Hang on.” Leta’s surprise called Corra to freeze in place, right on the precipice of the staircase.
“Yeah?” she insisted impatiently. She could still hear the ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s from Leta’s side of the COMM so there was still time — but it was fading fast. As soon as the meteor showered ended, it wouldn’t take long for people to start wondering where all the food had gone off to.
“I think –” It sounded like Leta was quickly weaving through the crowd. “She’s not working, but–yes, okay, there’s a girl. Young girl. Blonde. I saw her cleaning tables earlier. And she’s with that sour looking woman we left you with.”
Corra groaned. How the hell did that happen? What had this Elli girl done? But then Leta said something that made her retract the question.
“This doesn’t look good…They’re going up to this guy, the host of the party. Corra–I don’t think there’s–she’s whispering something in his ear.”
Corra’s heart thudded. It wasn’t what she’d done. It was what she was about to do. Without even thinking, she started to run.