“If this funeral lasts longer than thirty minutes I shall never forgive you,” Ianthe said. She idly drew a thread of blood out of the pad of her finger and flicked it against the plex window of their shuttle.
“If you wanted to weigh in on the schedule today you shouldn’t have taken so long in the bath,” said Coronabeth, with deep disdain. “It was either show up at a funeral or go read picture books to war orphans, and I know how irritated you get with the war orphans.”
From the bench opposite, Naberius drawled, “I for one am always grateful to be spared the war orphans,” although no one had asked him. Ianthe, discontented, whipped a tiny lash of blood across his lips, and he sputtered and fumbled for his handkerchief as the shuttle slid into the docking bay on Trentham Sector 4.
There were no war orphans; Coronabeth had put this funeral on their calendar for one reason and one reason only. (Well, there were war orphans, somewhere, but none who needed to be urgently read to.) She was tired of all her correspondence going barely acknowledged. She wanted to talk to a particular second lieutenant, and she wanted to talk to that particular second lieutenant now.
Yes, she could have waited until her and Ianthe’s birthday gala, but that was ages away: two whole months until they were seventeen! If she waited that long she was going to explode. It was a marvelous stroke of luck, really, that this funeral had come along. Corona practically bounced out of the shuttle.
They had arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule, and they stood out, Third House representatives in a mass of Cohort uniforms. The Tridentarii had been draped in identical red funeral garb, of a shade that made Corona look like a lovely glowing gilded rose, and Ianthe like a bit of yellowed bone jutting out of a carrion. Naberius strutted a half-step behind them in a red that didn’t quite go with the twins’: there was much to admire in a matched pair, but Mummy always said that threesomes never worked out.
The funeral hall churned with muted chatter, and the aimless standing around of people waiting for something to start that they half wished was already over. Coronabeth spotted her mark immediately. Second Lieutenant Judith Deuteros was standing, head bowed, at a bright red coffin on a plinth. The lid of the coffin was flung open, like an invitation, and if there was one thing Corona loved, it was invitations. She left Ianthe and Naberius behind without a word, and came up beside Judith to look.
The corpse in front of them had had its chest blown neatly open, ribs butterflying out, the white struts revealing a glutted cathedral of organs and guts. There was hardly even a smell. Some of the shining viscera had been sewn attractively back into place, some not. The necrocoroner had scattered a bit of glitter into the ripped gallbladder, to draw the eye to it. “Nice touch,” Corona said, pointing to the organ. “Do you think it’s symbolic of someth—”
Judith slapped Corona’s hand away—and then looked up, horrified. “I’m sorry, Princess Coronabeth, I didn’t realize it was you—”
“No, no!” said Corona, who would have laughed if they’d been anywhere else. Her smile couldn’t be stopped, though, and she bit her lip to keep it spreading too wide. “You were right to do it. I shouldn’t be touching the art.”
“You shouldn’t,” Judith said, repressively.
“I shouldn’t. So I won’t hug you hello either, then. Lovely to see you too—it’s been so long! Didn’t you get my last note?”
“Yes. Thank you for your kind words. And the flowers.”
“Why didn’t you reply?”
“I did. I sent the appropriate thank-you note the very day I received them.”
“But Jody, that was just a three-line card with a signature! All those platitudes about I appreciate your support—it said nothing at all about you ! Tell me about your life, how you are. How’s your new assignment? Do you like it? How’s your cav?”
Judith’s face tightened, almost imperceptibly.
“Oh no,” said Corona. “Is she unsuitable?”
A quick, firm shake of the head. “Marta the Second is in every way an outstanding cavalier.”
Then why the strange face? “Do you not like her, or something?”
“No; she is marvelous,” Judith said, with something approaching actual human feeling. “She is a credit to the Cohort and her training and I am lucky to have her. I never thought she would condescend to serve with me instead of using her talents in supramural engagements, for which she is clearly more suited.” Then, more quietly, and with an odd touch of sadness: “I respect her immensely.”
A horn blared, and then several more took up a military reveille. A stir in the crowd by the door, a parting of the sea of red: somebody in a wildly fancy Cohort uniform was marching stiff-legged toward the dais, medallions glinting on the breast of their coat. A gloved hand tugged Corona insistently to the side, into the crowd, away from the coffin and its decorated occupant. Judith only let go of her hand when they were a few layers back, and said, “Sorry for just grabbing you, but—”
“Not at all,” said Corona; Judith could grab her anytime she liked. She wouldn’t, of course, but—anyway. Corona rose onto tiptoe and scanned the crowd; if Ianthe and Babs had snuck away on their only required engagement this week she would—“Ooh! Jody! Isn’t that your cav over there?” There was a tall woman on the opposite side of the hall who looked just like Marta the Second.
In response Judith pulled them further back into the crowd, until they were fully at the wall. Far be it from Corona to question this; the further back they were, the more they could talk! There was somebody up on the dais who had begun to intone sententiously about the body in the coffin, or the person who had vacated the body in the coffin—a captain, very skilled, sadly fallen, much to be missed, et cetera. Corona’s only question, hearing about any death, was always “But how’d they die?” which was of course the one question no one ever wanted to answer; she listened to the speech for a bit, and then, once it became clear they weren’t going to go into any gory details, grew bored. Had it been half an hour? Would Ianthe really be fussy about it, or had she said that just because? The atmosphere, though solemn, was suitably imperial; it gave Corona a spike of pride. What a fantastic operation they ran, through all the Nine Houses. The uniforms made everyone look good; they were really something. She leaned over to Judith and whispered:
“That’s a sharp outfit, Jody. Careful, you could puncture—”
“Shut up,” Judith hissed. “It’s standard.”
“Still sharp,” Corona insisted. “I’ve never seen you in something like this before. The things you wear to civilian parties are always so...ruffly. This is refreshing.”
Judith looked like she would have had a lot to say about that if not for various people in front of them turning around in disapproval. Corona took the hint, and took on an air of innocent solemnity as the military band took up a plodding dirge. She was probably supposed to be thinking sad thoughts about the captain who’d died a hero, but she was really just feeling vaguely fuzzy and warm inside. She’d been right, and Judith was here, and they had talked, and now they were standing next to each other companionably listening to the sludgy blort, blort, blort of several tubas, and she could see Judith in profile out of the corner of her eye if she pretended to be looking at those tubas, and it was a profile she could have looked at for hours and hours without being bored, because there was so much going on in Judith’s face all the time, made so much more interesting because Judith tried so hard to pretend there wasn’t, and her skin truly looked so soft and nice to touch, though of course Corona wasn’t going to reach out and touch Judith’s cheek because that would be weird to do at a funeral, and weird to do in general, actually, although what if she did, sometime, what if she offered to do Judith’s makeup or something, somewhere, and then she could—
“Stop smiling,” Judith hissed, and Corona snapped back to attention. The dirge had ended, but no one was clapping, because why would you. This should have been the part where they all got to disperse for disappointing canapés and tea, but no one was moving. Some cymbals clanged, and a line of Cohort soldiers marched in. And kept marching. And kept marching. And kept marching—
“What are they doing?” Corona whispered.
“Marching,” Judith said without moving her mouth at all, which was impressive.
Coronabeth certainly couldn’t wear out her welcome before canapés, so she shut her mouth. When the line of soldiers had marched in, somebody clanged some cymbals again, and a half dozen soldiers closed the lid of the coffin, hoisted it onto their shoulders, and bore it out again through the great double doors. This all happened in complete silence. Perhaps the tuba players had grown tired? And then the marching continued. And continued. And continued. And continued. Five minutes later, the last of the soldiers had marched out of the hall, and if you listened closely, you could hear people muttering things like “Finally!” and “I hate the Twain Territorials, they’re always so silent” as they meandered over to the wilting canapés.
“So, did you know this captain?” inquired Corona, handing Judith a cream puff on a plate. She wasn’t going to let her go so easily.
Judith took the plate and frowned at it. “I can’t disclose that.”
“What even happened? They never said.”
“The situation on the planet—well. That’s classified.”
“You can tell me,” Corona said, winningly. “I’m a princess.”
“You don’t have clearance.”
“No, but I have an imagination, and I can guess and you can either say I’m wrong or remain tellingly silent. Let’s see—they have to have music and marching at this funeral because the captain died in the line of duty, and died a hero, which probably means whoever was in command feels really guilty about her death because they made a horrible mistake—ahah! Did the recon force allow their necromancers to split up? That’s as good as a birthday present for insurgents, I bet.”
“I never knew you were so interested in combat tactics.”
“Oh yes,” said Corona. “I love wars, actually. Mad about them. Never met a war I didn’t like. Don’t you like wars? You’re Second, you must like wars!”
“I would not say I like wars. I respect them. Wars are a necessary evil in service of preserving imperial hegemony—”
“What’s your favorite war?”
“My favorite war?”
“My favorite is the Great Gluttle War.”
Judith nearly choked on a bite of cream puff in disbelief. Corona laughed.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Great Gluttle War! On a planet far out in space called Outer Sigma, about two thousand years ago, the Cohort encountered a region that had spectacular arable land, but it was full of highly aggressive flightless birds which had to be got rid of before anyone could settle there, so they sent in some specialized task forces. The total casualties were over a thousand gluttles and two soldiers, one of whom was pecked through the forehead at astonishing speed—gluttles can even peck through plex, did you know?—and the other was found to have perished in the throes of grave-lust with a dead gluttle. Their cloacae are actually terribly toxic, even up to seventy-two hours after—”
“Princess, there is no veracity to this—”
“Oh, good, you are listening!”
“That’s not a real war. That’s a hoax. It didn’t happen. I’ve never even heard of gluttles.”
“It’s real! They had to declare it a war to excuse the casualties. All the information appears in the Imperial War Registry, which is six floors down from here, in fact. If you like, we could ditch this funeral and go look at the documents. They’re fascinating.”
“That would be rude and insensitive—”
“You’re right,” Corona said. “Another time, perhaps.”
“—but very funny,” Judith finished, and there was a lift to her eyebrow that suggested she actually meant it, even though the rest of her face was as blank as new flimsy.
Funny! Judith thought she was funny! Coronabeth could have died right there. She floated on a cloud through the rest of the conversation—she couldn’t have said, later, what they talked about, but it was wonderful.
It wasn’t long before Ianthe and Babs wandered up and complained about wanting to leave. Judith bid them all goodbye very correctly and politely, and Corona turned around no less than four times as the Third left the hall, hoping to catch Judith looking back too. (She didn’t, but that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, right?)
As their shuttle fell away from the matte globe of Trentham, Ianthe said, “That was boring.”
Naberius said, “Dead boring,” and snickered.
“I don’t know,” Corona said, unable to repress the grin that lingered on her face, nor to forget the stuffy, grumpy second lieutenant in the sharp red Cohort jacket, who had said she was funny and almost—almost!—smiled. “I think I rather like military funerals.”