Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major
For disclaimers, see Chapter 1
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch
But that the sea, mounting to th' welkin's cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! a brave vessel
(Who had no doubt some noble creature in her)
Dash'd all to pieces! O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perish'd!
Had I any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow'd and
The fraughting souls within her."
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Sitting in his office, reading through yet another boring report - this one on the possible repercussions of urchin farming on the Avalon marine ecosystem - Duke Thomas gratefully received the call from his secretary which informed him that a prestigious visitor was waiting to see him. Immediately granting admittance, he spent a few moments looking out the large windows of his fortieth floor office overlooking the Avalonian capital city of Outremer.
Less than a minute later, the door opened and the Heir to the Atlantlan Throne entered. Her ever present Guard took up position just outside the door, allowing the princess to enter the room alone.
"Evelynne! How wonderful to see you again, my dear," Duke Thomas greeted the princess. Standing, he made his way around his large desk to embrace her. "I saw you just a few days ago and I wasn't expecting to see you again for a while. Not that I'm complaining, of course."
"Hello, Domdom. How have you been?"
Taking Evelynne's arm, he led her to the comfortable chairs arranged less formally to the side of his office. Like the true gentleman he was, the Duke helped Evelynne to sit before easing himself into his own chair and answering her question. "Oh, just like always. Paperwork, endless meetings, having to be polite to people I can't stand. You know how it is. You know, I really wish you would find a young man that I could make my Heir so that I could finally get a bit of rest." He missed the uncomfortable expression that crossed his guest's face. "So where are young Alleandre and her friend? She promised to visit and discuss Tolkein with me." This time the Duke noticed Evelynne's slight flinch. "Oh dear, is everything alright? Alleandre, is she well?"
"Ally's fine," the princess reassured him. "She and Chorus are visiting the Templar Museum right now. I have a meeting with First Justicar Farrell in a couple of hours about something he wanted to discuss in person, so I decided to come and visit you for a while." The uncomfortable expression was back. "Actually, Ally was kind of what I wanted to talk to you about." Having said that, Evelynne fell silent.
"Yes?" the Duke prompted. "Has she done something? Are you worried about her?"
"Noooo..." Evelynne drew out the word. "Not really done anything as such. It's just..." She was silent for a moment. "This discussion has to remain between you and me, okay? You can't tell anyone."
"Of course, Evelynne. My lips are sealed."
"Good." Another moment of silence. "The thing is..." Now I know why Ally said this is so hard. It is. "I think I'm attracted to Ally," Evelynne finally blurted.
Duke Thomas' white eyebrows rose. "Really."
The princess didn't seem to have heard him. Now that the dam had burst, the words came tumbling out. "No, that's not quite right. I know I'm attracted to Ally. And it's not just her. I was also kind of attracted to Mila'a - she works at the sa-kima farm, you don't know her - and just now I was looking at your secretary and I thought she was really pretty. But not just 'oh she has nice earrings' pretty, but 'I wonder what it would be like to kiss her' pretty. Although I don't feel for them anything like what I feel for Ally. I mean, Ally's also smart and funny and warm... and she does this cute little thing with her lips when she's concentrating really hard. And I keep wanting to hug her, and protect her, and..." Realising she was running on, she forced herself to a halt. Okay, here goes. "Anyway, I think I'm a lesbian."
The Duke's brows remained near his hairline. "I see." Now they dropped into a light frown.
Her heart somewhere around her knees, Evelynne waited for a few moments. "Please say something. I needed to talk to someone, and I thought of you, because you always seemed... supportive of gay rights and all that. Although Ally said that you can't always tell, so if coming to you was wrong..."
Grabbing the princess' hands, Duke Thomas brought her new babble to a stop. "No, my dear, not at all. I'm glad you did come to me. I was only somewhat surprised. But rest assured I am not going to tell you that you will be going to Hell, or that you should be ashamed. It would be somewhat hypocritical of me in any case."
Evelynne's jaw dropped open. "Hypocritical? But... You mean..."
Smiling at her reassuringly, the Duke said, "I mean that I also have an... alternative view on what constitutes the fairer sex. I always have."
"But... but... You were married! To Duchess Ariannes! A woman! Did you...? Did she... know?" Thoughts of her own issues disappeared in the face of this new revelation.
"Yes, my dear, I was married to Ariannes. And I loved her quite dearly. She was my best friend. She knew whom I preferred, but that was fine, because I also knew whom she preferred. It was something of a marriage of convenience. I had a few young men, and she had her young women, and we were both as happy as we could be with the arrangement."
"But... why? Didn't anybody know?"
"A few people knew. Your grandfather knew. He was not very happy, as he was quite conservative, but he was also my friend. Several others suspected, but nothing could be proven. We were very discreet. You must remember that this was over sixty years ago, and our society was not as tolerant as it is now. Of course, we still have a way to go."
"Isis," Evelynne breathed. "So is that why you never had children?"
"In part. We did... try several times, in order to provide an Heir. However, Ariannes died before we were successful. After that I felt it unlikely that I would ever find another woman who would be able to accept a similar arrangement, so I never remarried."
"Isis," the princess said again. She sat quietly, digesting this information.
"So now you know my secret," the Duke said. "However, you came here to talk about your situation. You believe that you are a lesbian?"
"And that I'm attracted to Ally," she added.
"Let us deal with the first part for now," Duke Thomas suggested. "What makes you think you are gay?"
Evelynne stared at him incredulously. "You mean besides wondering what it would be like to kiss your secretary?"
"Of course. Simple sexual curiosity does not make you homosexual. Over the course of my own life there have been a few women about whom I have been... curious. It most certainly does not make me heterosexual."
"This has been more than a few women," Evelynne mumbled.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, for me it's been more than a few women," she said more loudly, blushing to the tips of her ears. "I spent most of yesterday looking at every woman around and imagining what it would be like to kiss them. And it felt... good." At her host's encouraging expression, Evelynne continued, "So then I tried imagining what it would be like to kiss the men. And while it wasn't really repulsive to imagine - except for a few -" She shuddered. "- there was just... nothing there."
The Duke smiled. "Well, that it certainly a good indication. However, it does not tell you for sure."
"So what can?" Evelynne asked plaintively. "How do I know?"
In reply, Duke Thomas reached forward to touch Evelynne's chest just above her heart. "Right here. This knows. Listen to it. It will tell you."
Frowning, the princess closed her eyes and searched within herself. What am I? she asked. Who am I?
The answer came back: I am Evelynne. And then she knew.
Evelynne's eyes snapped open. "I'm me," she said wonderingly. "I'm sexually attracted to women, but I'm still me."
Duke Thomas smiled at her proudly. "Good, Evelynne. Now remember that. No matter what happens, no matter what anyone says, remember who you are. You are a good person. You always have been. A woman who just happens to prefer other women. It is a part of you, and only a part, and in our society that brings the label of 'lesbian'. But that label does not define you."
Evelynne had tears in her eyes, and the Duke fished in a pocket for a handkerchief. "Thank you, Domdom," she said, wiping them away. It felt like a great weight had been lifted and she could breath easier.
"You are very welcome, my dear." He attempted to inject some lightness into the discussion. "Now on the more juicy... I mean specific details. Tell me about Alleandre."
"Well, first off, I suppose you should know that Ally's also gay."
"Is she now? I must say that I suspected as much." At the princess' questioning look, he explained, "One of the stereotypes of homosexuals is that they are able to automatically recognise each other. In English I believe it is quite cleverly termed 'gaydar'. However, like most stereotypes, it is generally less accurate and more exaggerated than should be believed. However, being part of a fairly small group, we tend to learn to recognise the characteristics of other members of our club, if only subconsciously. I'd imagine it saves embarrassment when asking someone to dance. In fact, 'gaydar' is a quite accurate term, since rather than passively receiving the data, it involves sending out minute, subtle signals and interpreting the resulting reaction. At least, that is how Jason explained the concept to me."
Evelynne looked slightly bewildered. "Please tell me there's some kind of manual for all this."
The Duke barked a laugh. "I'd imagine there is one somewhere on the internet. Unfortunately... or fortunately, the rest of us must learn through practice." The princess' cheeks reddened again, and Duke Thomas noticed. "Evelynne Sophia, get your mind out of the gutter."
Though her cheeks were still flaming, she managed to pout, "Don't want to. I have company down here." Becoming serious once more, Evelynne said, "Well, about a week ago Ally got a phone call from her ex-girlfriend, and that's when she told me that she was... you know, gay." Duke Thomas nodded in understanding. "I guess I was attracted to her even then, because I remember, only in retrospect, that I felt kind of... relieved when she said they weren't getting back together. I didn't realise it at the time, though. But then things really came together two mornings ago." The princess cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I, um, went to see Ally in the morning, and I guess she was just getting out of the bath. Um, I went into her room without knocking and she was... well... um... you know... without clothing."
"That's what I thought. So anyway, she was really embarrassed, but we talked for a while afterwards, and things seemed to be turning out okay. But all I could think about that day - and yesterday - was that she was... or is absolutely gorgeous."
"I see. And does Alleandre know how you feel?" the Duke asked.
Evelynne paled. "Isis, no! Definitely not! I think. I've been looking at her quite a bit the last couple of days, and I think she might have noticed that something is going on, but she hasn't said anything."
"I see," he repeated. "And what is it exactly that you feel? Is it simply a physical reaction, brought about be your emerging sexuality? Do you have a more... romantic interest? Or is your response being enhanced by the knowledge that she did save your life, and you're feeling somehow... obligated?"
The princess started to respond angrily to the last option, but then stopped and looked thoughtful. "No, I suppose that is a reasonable suggestion. And the answer is, I don't know. I'm... pretty sure it's... more than just physical, though." She hesitated, and her companion motioned for her to continue. "We went to visit the sa-kima farm, and when we were there Ally got asked out by one of the students working there, Mila'a. Now, I certainly can't blame Mila'a for being interested -" Evelynne indicated herself. "- look who's talking, after all. But I remember that I felt... jealous when Ally told me. And when she said she was considering it, I felt... hurt. It physically hurt, right here." She pressed a hand to the centre of her chest.
"Ah, my dear," Duke Thomas said comfortingly. "I agree that what you feel is more than simply physical. And as much as I would like to be able to assure you that what you are feeling towards Alleandre is either infatuation, or great friendship, or even love, I'm afraid emotions are not so easy." When Evelynne sighed in resignation, he smiled. "Be patient, my dear. These feelings are new, and you are dealing with a huge number of issues right now: your injuries, the upcoming Assumption of your duties, new friends, and most recently your own sexuality. All I can advise is to be aware of your emotions. Do not try to pick them apart. Just let your mind work them out on its own time." He looked directly into her eyes. "And also know that whatever happens, I will always support you. Will you be telling your father about this?"
Evelynne frowned. "Not just yet. I think I want to have things a bit clearer in my own mind before..."
The Duke nodded in understanding. "There is one other thing on a more professional level. While I do not believe that your sexuality, whatever it may be, would interfere with you Assuming your duties, either as Heir, or as Queen, there are enough old laws that someone may be able to raise an objection, no matter how spurious. With your permission, I would like Jason, my Legal Advisor to investigate the matter on your behalf."
"Would you be able to keep my name out of it?" the princess asked plaintively. "At the moment, I'd like it to be the fewer people who know, the better."
Duke Thomas' eyebrows rose. "Evelynne, my dear, you are the only Heir Atlantl has right now. I think he will be able to guess who I am talking about. However, you can trust him. After all, he has kept my secret for years."
"I guess you're right."
"Of course I am." The Duke rose to his feet. "However, unless I am mistaken, you have an appointment to keep with First Justicar Farrell." He helped Evelynne to rise. "And I have another pile of boring paperwork to do. Seeing as apparently you will not be finding me a young man to be my heir," he teased, "I suppose I must do it myself. And remember Evelynne, if you ever need to talk to me, you are welcome at any time."
"Thank you, Domdom. Who knows? Maybe I'll find you a nice young woman to become your heir instead."
"So how did it go?" Ally asked as Evelynne settled herself into the seat next to her.
The princess waited until she was comfortable and the limousine had started to pull out of the covered entrance to the Avalon Administrative Hall before answering. "Not too bad, really. Justicar Farrell needed me to formally start the process to elect my Advisory Council. I cannot officially Assume any duties until I do, and since I cannot legally influence the election in any way, my 'vacation' has been effectively extended."
"Your Advisors are elected?" Chorus asked. "How does that work? I thought you would appoint your own Advisors."
Evelynne looked shocked. "Appoint my own Advisors? That would be kind of pointless, don't you think? If I were to choose someone, they would be more likely to tell me what I want to hear than give good advice. No, the aristocracy has absolutely no influence on the election. We may not nominate candidates, publicly support or veto anyone during the campaigns, or generally have anything to do with the election. The entire process is entirely in the hands of the commoners."
Ally asked, "So who runs for Advisor? Can anyone be nominated?"
"Isis, no! Anyone running for public office must first be an expert - or at least experienced - in their fields. And not just theoretical experience, either. For example, someone wanting to become an Agriculture Advisor has to have been an actual farmer. Same kind of thing with Military, Science, Economic, Foreign Affairs, Law, and so on. Then they apply to the Advisory College and spend at least four years training for the post, and also learning history, science, math, art, philosophy, political science, economics and just about anything else they can think of. Their academic results, which are publicly posted at election time, are considered along with their previous experience by the College Council to determine their potential Advisory rank. A person with little experience and low marks might be able to become the Advisor to a Baron, at most. On the other hand, if he has four post-doctorate degrees and graduates top of his class, he might become the King's Advisor."
"That seems a little... exclusionary," Chorus said uncertainly.
"No, think about it," Ally said. "In most other democracies, the only jobs requiring absolutely no previous formal knowledge or training are prostitute and politician. At least the way they do things here, you can be sure that the people in charge are at least intelligent and educated. Do Advisors have any real power?"
"Well, the ruling noble technically has absolute authority, but the Advisors'... well, advice is always public knowledge, unless of course it violates national security. Nobles who consistently act against their Advisors' suggestions tend to be very unpopular, and if a majority of his Advisory Council agrees, his decisions can be vetoed. Advisors who feel that the noble is truly abusing his authority can also apply to the King, Queen and Hall of Nobles to have him stripped of power."
"So the nobles only rule as long as they have their Advisors' support," Ally concluded.
"Exactly. Of course, the rest of the world only tends to see our 'elite, autocratic aristocracy', which makes us very unpopular in certain areas."
"Like the United States."
"Well, in their case there's also this little thing where we've consistently refused to bow to their wishes, which also annoys them a bit. They also don't like the fact that they owe us so much money that if we decided to call in all their loans at once it would take over fifteen years of their gross national product to pay us back." Evelynne smirked.
Ally laughed. "I can't think of a single country that doesn't owe Atlantl money, actually."
"Botswana," Chorus said immediately. "My homeland has absolutely no national debt whatsoever."
"Darn, you mean I can't intimidate you, then?" Evelynne pouted.
Chorus grinned. "Nope."
Ally steered the topic back. "So you're going to start the elections, then?"
"I've already sent out the official proclamation. Once the potential candidates have been confirmed, the campaigns will begin. I'll have no control over it at that point, except for moderating the mandatory debates. So, since I'm going to be on 'vacation' for a while longer, you have me all to yourselves for the next couple of months." Suddenly realising what she had said, Evelynne winced. "That one's too easy," she declared to Chorus.
Chorus grinned again and picked up the easy points. Turning to Ally, he said, "All to ourselves, eh, Ally? For a couple of months, even. I'm sure we could corrupt her easily, with your feminine wiles and my masculine charm." He flashed his brilliant teeth at Evelynne. "We could rock your world, Princess."
Ally looked blank for a moment before the message clicked. Reddening, she stuttered something incomprehensible. She cast a sidelong glance at the princess and blushed even more furiously.
Evelynne watched the exchange, and especially Ally's reaction, with great attention. She had accurately predicted Chorus' response, but now the other woman's actions were examined with a new degree of interest. She looks uncomfortable, Evelynne thought. But then she looks uncomfortable whenever sex in mentioned... or even hinted at, for that matter. So her blushing is not really a definite sign of interest. On the other hand, it's not a sign of disinterest either. Recalling Duke Thomas' recommendation of patience, she decided to simply file the reaction away for later corroboration. With a new sense of peace, she allowed herself to be drawn back into the conversation. She realised that Ally had asked her a question. "Sorry, Ally, I went away for a moment there. What were you saying?"
"I was asking if you did anything else while we were at the Museum."
"Oh. Well, I saw Domdom also. We talked for a while."
Ally perked up at the mention of the man who was quickly becoming one of her favourite Atlantlans. "Oh yes, how is he doing?"
"Just fine. As busy as ever, but he's not going to stop until we actually cremate him. He'll probably still be working at his own funeral. Anyway, we had a nice long conversation. He... helped me out with some... personal issues."
"Oh." Ally looked concerned. "Are you okay? Is it something I can help with?"
If only you knew. "No, I'll be fine. It was just some things I had to work out, and Domdom helped me talk them out. I feel much better. Don't worry, when I need to, you'll definitely be the first person I talk to about them." I hope. If you aren't with someone else... like Mila'a. The princess briefly toyed with the idea of arranging to have the student transferred to study penguin conservation at the South Pole. No, I can't do that. No matter how I feel, there's no guarantee that Ally will ever feel the same. And she does like Mila'a, so they could be happy together. She sighed mentally. So no South Pole. Darn it.
Ally studied Evelynne. The princess had a quirky smile on her face, as if she was enjoying a private joke. In fact, Evelynne's entire bearing was subtly different from earlier in the day. That morning - the two days before, actually - the princess had been somewhat stiff, hesitant, almost... frightened. Now, though, she was more relaxed and confident, nearly the same woman had met in the hospital in Marseilles. Although looking back, there was a difference there as well. Nothing Ally could put her finger on, but... She firmly reined in the temptation to search Evelynne's mind for the answer.
Evelynne suddenly thought of something. "Oh yes, I also ran into Omar ibn Larak, za's Foreign Affairs Advisor. You remember him?" At Ally's nod, she continued, "He asked me to ask you respectfully if you had given any more thought to giving an interview with a media agency. Apparently everyone wants to know about you, and the websites just aren't enough."
"Websites?" Chorus asked.
Evelynne nodded, then grinned. "Advisor Larak showed some of them to me. You're quite the hot commodity in certain circles, Ally. In addition to the basic 'who is Alleandre Tretiak' sites, there are a several where men - and more than a few women, I might add - have... speculated, shall we say, about what you're like in bed."
"Me?" Ally squeaked. "They... It... They... In bed?"
Chorus looked on with intense interest.
"Oh yes," Evelynne said solemnly. "In fact, some are speculating that the reason you haven't really been seen since France is because I'm keeping you locked up as my love slave."
"Locked... L-love slave? What?" Ally knew that she was going to spontaneously combust any moment now. Or implode from lack of oxygen.
"Yes. They go into quite a bit of detail, actually. I made some copies here if you want to see." Evelynne started to reach for her bag.
Ally's hand shot out to grab Evelynne's wrist. "NO! No! Nonono." Suddenly, without warning, she couldn't breathe. Her vision dimmed, and a dull roaring filled her ears. The roaring quickly re-formed into laughter, and the darkness sprouted mocking eyes and pointing fingers. Ally froze, locked into the memory, waiting helplessly for the contempt and denigration to sear themselves directly into her brain. Nothing came, but still she waited. Please let it stop. I don't want to hear them. Please let it stop. I don't want to hear them. Please let it stop... Some small part of her mind, hopelessly trying to inject reason, was dimly aware that she was actually saying the words aloud. And still she waited for the foreign emotions to come.
"Ally! Ally, it's okay. You're not at school. Nobody is laughing at you. It's just Evelynne and Chorus here. Please, Ally, let it go..." From far away, Ally heard a familiar voice. There were emotions associated with that voice, and they were not the cold, hard ones she was expecting. Hesitantly she opened herself to the emotions, like a turtle emerging from its shell, ready to pull back at the first sign of danger. She only sampled the surface, though, reading guilt/friendship-love/concern/fear/anger-directed-elsewhere. Reassured, Ally seized the emotions like a lifeline and slowly pulled herself up and out of the pit.
Evelynne shook her head violently as a wave of dizziness crashed over her. She put it out of her mind, though, when she saw Ally's eyes, which had been terrifyingly blank, clear, and the intelligence behind them emerge once more. She was kneeling before Ally in the cramped space between the fore- and back-facing seats, but she ignored the discomfort. Chorus was sitting beside the stricken young woman with his hand resting carefully on her shoulder. The car rocked slightly as it came to a halt on the side of the road, stopped by Evelynne's panicked communication.
With the clarity returned to Ally's eyes, Evelynne raised a hand to rest against her cheek. "Oh Isis, Ally, I so sorry. I didn't realise... I didn't think... I'm sorry."
Ally dredged up a ghost of a smile. Her voice was hoarse, as though she had been screaming, as she said, "It's okay. I didn't think either. Sometimes it just... hits me." She laughed bitterly. "I guess I'm not as over it as I thought. Maybe I should sue my shrink, eh?"
The door to the limo opened suddenly to reveal the concerned face of a couple of Evelynne's Guards. "Your Highness, what's wrong?" one asked.
Hoping to spare Ally any further embarrassment, Evelynne ad libbed, "Ishta Tretiak is just feeling carsick, that's all. I think she needs a bit of fresh air."
The Guard nodded in sympathy and offered a hand to the still pale young woman. His companion pulled back and spoke quietly into his mic. "I understand, Ishta Tretiak. We are well out of the city right now, so stopping for a few minutes should pose little risk."
Ally shot a grateful look at Evelynne before accepting the Guard's assistance out of the vehicle.
Once the young woman was outside and taking deep breaths of air, Chorus moved closer to Evelynne and asked quietly, "What just happened here?"
The princess looked torn. "Has Ally told you about her... panic attacks?" she hedged.
Chorus was surprised. "No, she hasn't said anything like that to me. What happened?"
Evelynne hesitated. "Well, she gets attacks. I can't tell you why... You have to ask her, and if she wants you to know she'll tell you. Just be aware that it's really hard for her to talk about, so be careful, okay?"
Though dissatisfied, the young man nodded acquiescence.
A moment later Ally re-entered the car. She was slightly pale and pinched around the eyes and lips, but still looked much better. "Sorry about that," she said, obviously wanting to put the incident behind her.
Her companions quickly reassured her, and after several awkward minutes, the conversation picked up once more. However, it wasn't long before Ally's newly battered psyche succumbed to sleep, and she dozed for the rest of the journey.
In a large room in the Common Guard Headquarters, a low murmur of speech, computers, and radio signals filled the air. Throughout the intelligence-gathering area, analysts attempted to seek out any possible threats to the Atlantlan Kingdom.
Lieutenant Alfred Toburn, a young analyst who had recently arrived in the Guard, exclaimed in triumph as he recorded particular piece of data. The exclamation attracted the attention of General D'vaya Danun, Marshal of the Common Guard.
"You have something, Alfred?" she asked brusquely.
The young technician looked up. "Yes, Ma'am," he replied. "We have another transmission from Unknown Beta-43 to the HBLA."
The General's normally unsmiling face remained unchanged. "Is it encrypted like the others?"
Alfred's face fell. "Unfortunately yes, Ma'am."
General D'vaya sighed. "Well, send it off to De-Encryption, Alfred. Maybe we'll get lucky."
"Already done, Ma'am." Greatly daring, he asked, "If I may, Ma'am, why is this code so hard to break?"
The General sighed again. "Because it's very, very good, Lieutenant. Oh, we break encryption every day here. Everything from the American CIA to Moroccan drug smugglers. But this is absolutely top of the line encryption. Only the highest levels of any nation's intelligence and military use anything like it. And we know that it's not one of ours. Which means it's an external agency. And that is what scares me." She smiled humourlessly at the young man's disbelieving expression. "Yes, Alfred, some things scare even me. The fact that a very powerful unknown foreign agency is communicating with those lunatics in the Hy Braseal Liberation Army is one of them. I'll add to that the fact that we still have absolutely no idea what the messages say." She looked carefully at the now very sober analyst. "Good. Now I think you are paranoid and frightened enough to work here."
Continued in Chapter