Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers see Chapter 1

"Yü said: 'The flooding waters seemed to assail Heaven; in their magnitude they embraced immense hills, overtoppled mighty mounds; and the people were bewildered, overwhelmed. So I mounted my four conveyances and along the hills I hewed down trees. At the same time... I showed the multitude how to procure flesh to eat. I opened passages for the streams throughout the nine provinces and conducted them to the sea, sowing grain at the same time...; showing the multitudes how to procure the food of toil in addition to flesh meat. I urged them, further, to exchange what they had for what they had not, and to dispose of accumulated stores. In this way, all the people received grain to eat and the myriad regions began to come under good rule...'"

- Shu Ching 2.4.1

Chapter 12

"And so, My Lords, that is what I wish you to consider." King Jad finished his proposal and leaned back to observe the responses of the twelve people standing politely before him.

All thirteen of the people officially present shared the King's Office with four ever-present members of the King's Guard, as well as Mohammed al-Shan, the King's personal secretary. The King's Office was the room in the Royal Palace in Jamaz where the King traditionally took care of the technical details of rulership. Other locations were the sites where official Proclamations were made, and Audiences heard, but this was where the negotiations were held and the infinite number papers requiring the King's signature were signed. Traditionally, it was also a room where visitors could speak with the King with a lesser degree of formality. The Queen's Office, at the opposite end of the Palace, was used for identical purposes.

There was a certain degree of eye contact between the twelve colourfully dressed dignitaries, but not, King Jad was interested to note, a large amount of surprise.

After a few more moments of whispered discussion, Dame Greta McMurray, Grand Mistress of the Order of Saint Mary the Virgin, stepped forward slightly and cleared her throat. "It is an admirable sentiment, Your Majesty," the hard-faced, silver-haired woman said. Looking at her, one would never imagine that she was one of the most loved actresses in Atlantlan history. "However, there are, of course, certain considerations. The most obvious are the diplomatic repercussions."

King Jad waved away the objection. "I have spoken personally to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and her Foreign Affairs Office on the subject, as well as the Canadian Prime Minister and his pertinent officials. They are both completely supportive of the idea. In fact, Elizabeth was mostly annoyed because I had suggested it first. However, she has agreed that Atlantl has the primary authority in this case, although she and the Prime Minister will both be presenting their own acknowledgements." The King's friendly expression was replaced by a more confrontational one. "So you can throw out any objections based on diplomatic grounds."

"I do not believe we have strong objections per se, Sire," Sir Keven DeMolay, Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, said. "In fact... I have had at least two members of my own Order come to me on their own and say they are willing - eager, even - to be sponsors themselves. One of them, Sir Arthur Ramirez, is Master of the Heir's Guard."

"I can report the same, Sire," Sir Mbala Rutonga, Grand Master of the Order of the Broken Chain, confirmed. "Dame Selina Russell is also an Heir's Guard." The extremely tall black man gave a surprisingly deep laugh. "According to her, Ishta Tretiak has been... adopted by the Guard."

"So you see, Sire, we have no specific objections to your proposal as it stands," Dame Greta said, reclaiming her role as spokesperson.

An uncomfortable throat being cleared drew attention to a muscular middle-aged man towards the rear of the group.

"Yes, Sir Massey, you have something to add?" the King asked.

"Not... particularly, Your Majesty," the Master of the Order of the Holy Spear said. "I have a... personal objection to Ishta Tretiak's... choice of lifestyle."

"You mean the fact that she is homosexual," King Jad said mildly.

"Yes, Sire," Sir Massey said uncomfortably. "While I would be able to personally overlook this... fact for the honour of the Nation, I am afraid my Order would not allow such a... person within its ranks."

"While I disagree with Sir Massey's prejudices, the core of his point remains valid, Sire," Dame Greta spoke again. "All of our Orders have specific requirements, and without more knowledge, we cannot know whether Ishta Tretiak is indeed eligible." She shrugged. "We have been unable to find out."

The King looked more satisfied as he pushed his large, intricately carved chair back and rose to his feet. "I may be able to help all of you with your decisions. I am leaving in about an hour to visit my daughter, and also escort Ishta Tretiak's parents to see theirs. While I am there I will obtain the information you need."

"Of course, Sire," Sir Keven said. "If I may ask, how will you find out?"

"Oh, I will be very devious and clever in ferreting out the knowledge. I will just ask her."

"What's up with you?" Chorus asked Ally, as they stood in the bright morning sun with Evelynne and watched the helicopter make its final approach. "You've been jumpy all morning."

"Nothing," Ally declared. "I'm fine." Chorus and Evelynne shared a disbelieving glance behind Ally's back. The taller woman saw it. "Okay, I'm a little nervous."

"Why?" Evelynne asked. "It's just your parents. I would have thought you would be happy to see them."

"Oh, I am," Ally declared. "It's just that... I haven't seen them in over six months. On top of that, they just found out that I've been shot. That sort of thing tends to make parents a little... well, crazy. You should know."

"Ah yes," the princess murmured, recalling several instances since her return that she had witnessed her father's reactions in private. Publicly he had been strong and stoic, but when they were alone he had completely broken down. Evelynne had rarely seen her father cry, and the experience was still somewhat unreal. "You know it's only because they love you, though."

"I know. And believe me, it helps. A little."

The trio, along with a small contingent of Guards and servants, braced themselves against the wind of the helicopter's rotors as it finally touched down on the landing pad. A light spray was kicked up as the wind struck the surface of the pad, damp from the morning's light rain.

As the aircraft's motor slowed and the waiting ground crew moved forward to place the blocks under the wheels and place a step for the occupants. The helicopter's ramp came down and a uniformed Guard positioned himself to assist the passengers in disembarking.

Unfortunately for the Guard, he was violently pushed aside as a small dark-haired woman dressed in jeans and a blue shirt rushed down the ramp, ran a short distance away from the vehicle, leaned over, and vomited heavily onto the pavement. A moment later, a much taller balding man with a small moustache exited the aircraft much more carefully and hurried over to hand the sicken woman what looked like a facecloth.

The onlookers at the side of the pad watched the scene in surprise, except for Ally, who only sighed heavily. When Evelynne looked at her with a questioning expression, she muttered, "Ladies and Gentlemen, my mother."

As the enthralled audience looked on, the easily recognisable form of King Jad disembarked the helicopter. Walking over to the small woman, who was still bent over, though no longer retching, he asked a question which went unheard over the dying engines by the people watching. The woman Ally had identified as her mother shook her head in negation, and the balding man said something in response. After wiping her mouth a final time with the handkerchief, Mrs Tretiak looked for a place to put it. The King waved over one of the waiting servants, who took the offensive item with admirable aplomb.

The more urgent matter now taken care of, Mrs Tretiak finally looked around at her surroundings, leaning on her husband's arm while doing so. The King said something else and pointed towards the patient welcoming party standing about twenty metres away. Looking in the indicated direction, the couple caught sight of their daughter standing nervously and leaning on her cane. Suddenly they were both rushing towards Ally; King Jad left behind, forgotten.

Ally saw her parents coming towards her and found herself moving awkwardly forward to meet them, ignoring Evelynne's warnings about the wet slickness of the concrete. Time seemed to stretch, and then she was buried in her mother's arms, her cane falling to the ground, to be joined a moment later by her father, who wrapped his own strong arms around them both. Ally felt her mother's face buried in her chest, felt all the arms around her tighten even stronger, and had no qualms about opening her mind completely to them, feeling her mother's relief and overwhelming love pour into her soul. Her father's emotional output remained a stubborn blank, and she felt a momentary pang that she had never been able to share this part of her gifts with him. As if he could tell what she was feeling, the tall man's embrace strengthened once more, as he strove to show his love and support through purely physical means.

They remained that way for several long minutes as the rest of the party waited patiently. Evelynne looked on with a sense of envy, but this time it was directed at Ally for having two parents to love her. She smiled at her father, who was avoiding intruding on the private moment, and somehow knew that his thoughts were travelling along similar lines. He saw her smile and shared a smile of his own as they both paid silent tribute to a woman that Evelynne, at least, could barely remember.

Finally the embracing family broke apart, with much sniffling on the part of Mrs Tretiak, and Ally's father produced yet another handkerchief, which she used to wipe her eyes. Once she had, Mr Tretiak reclaimed the material and used it to discreetly wipe away his own tears.

Looking down at her diminutive mother, Ally gave a watery smile of her own and said, "Hi Mom. Hi Dad. So how's life been treating you?"

The question startled a laugh out of her mother, and her father gave a chuckle of his own. "Oh, pretty well, you obnoxious imp," Mrs Tretiak replied. "Of course, you have been scaring the pants off both of us. What have you been getting yourself up to this time, young lady?"

Ally looked away, suddenly shy. "Well... I -"

"Never mind that now," her father interrupted. "We can talk about that later. Right now all I want to know is how you're doing."

"I'm doing... well. I was in kind of bad shape for a while," she admitted, then hurried on as her mother's face, still pale from her recent flight, whitened even more, "but now I'm almost healed." It was only a small exaggeration.

"Good," the older Tretiak said. She wrapped her arms around her daughter once more and whispered, "We both love you, Ally. Don't you ever do anything like this to us again. We want you to be well."

"I love you too, Mom," Ally whispered back. In a louder voice she continued, "I'm actually doing pretty well. They're treating me quite decently here."

"I'd imagine so," her father said wryly, a twinkle in his eye. "You have helicopters and limousines to take you everywhere, servants to cater to your every whim..."

"It's not like that," Ally protested before seeing the joking grin. "Of course, how silly of me. I have slaves waiting on me hand and foot, bringing me caviar, wine and jewels. I do nothing but lounge on pillows all day, and have my free choice of w... men from the Royal Harem." She cast a quick glance at King Jad, but he appeared to have missed her near slip.

"Harem?" Chorus stage-whispered to Evelynne. "You have a harem? Why wasn't I told about this?"

Everyone, except for the perpetually dour Nancu Ylan, laughed.

Any potential ice broken, Ally turned to the waiting people, still leaning on her mother's arm. She saw Evelynne holding her fallen cane and reclaimed it with a mouthed "Thank you."

With her balance regained, but with her mother still holding tightly to her arm, Ally introduced, "Your Majesty, I know you've already met them, but I'd like to formally introduce my parents, Catherine and William Tretiak. Mom, Dad, His Majesty King Jad of Atlantl."

The King smiled. "Indeed we have met, but we were unable to speak much. I was somewhat busy on the trip over." Given her mother's actions upon landing, Ally suspected that the excuse was a polite fiction to cover up Mrs Tretiak's inevitable airsickness. "However, I hope to rectify the missed opportunity."

Turning to the next ranking member of the entourage, Ally said, "And this is Her Highness Princess Evelynne Sophia al-Heru DeMolay, Heir to the Throne. Your Highness, my parents."

Now that she could see Ally's parents clearly, Evelynne could see where her friend's looks came from. Except for being slightly thinner, Ally's face was an almost exact replica of her mother's, right down to the small mole just below her left ear. Her hair was also the same colour, though the older Tretiak's was significantly longer, reaching almost to her shoulders. On the other hand, Mrs Tretiak was even shorter than the princess, leaving her husband and daughter to tower over her. Ally's height and build were obvious genetic gifts from her father, who topped a few inches over six feet. That was the only resemblance between them, as his balding head and sandy hair were almost diametrically opposite Ally's own. The only way in which Ally resembled neither of her parents was the shade of her eyes. Mr Tretiak's were a rich brown, nicely complementing his hair, and his wife's were a deep blue; both were totally unlike Ally's striking grey eyes.

Evelynne chuckled delightedly. "Oh, Ally, that's very good. Very formal." Turning to the two older Tretiaks, she said, "What Ally actually meant to say is, 'This is my friend Evelynne.'" To emphasise the informality, she moved forward and caught Ally's parents in a strong embrace. "Thank you so much," she whispered, pitching her words for their ears alone. "If it wasn't for your daughter I wouldn't be here right now." After a final squeeze she pulled back.

Taken aback by the princess' actions, Mrs Tretiak said, "You are quite welcome, Your H- Evelynne." She changed the title at Evelynne's admonitory finger. Slightly more confident, she continued, "We're quite proud of our Alleandre."

Flushing at the praise, Ally next introduced, "And this is Keitumetsemosimaniwapula Tladi. Also known as Chorus."

Now out of the unfamiliar heights of nobility, Ally's parents confidently shook the young man's hand. "Of course, Chorus. Ally has told us about you in her letters."

"Don't believe a word of it," Chorus said promptly. "It's lies, all lies. Lies and slander. Completely untrue. Whatever she's told you, I didn't do it."

Mr Tretiak's eyebrows rose. "So when she says that you're a very pleasant, intelligent, well educated young man, we shouldn't believe her?"

The young man turned to look Ally square in the eye. "Ally, you said that? I think you must like me." After receiving a blush as reward, he turned his attention back to the Tretiaks. "Okay then, that part is true. But anything bad you've heard is false, and I have the pictures to prove it."

"And we really don't want to see those pictures," Ally declared. "Trust me." She shot a thankful glance to Chorus for successfully getting her parents to relax a little.

"Shall we go inside?" Evelynne asked. "Not that isn't very pleasant out here, but Latifa has made us a late lunch, and I for one am starving."

Oh yes, she's making that peanut butter chicken. It is absolutely heavenly," Ally enthused.

"What about our luggage?" William Tretiak asked.

"It has already been taken up to the Palace," King Jad answered. "By now I'd imagine it is being unpacked and cleaned, knowing Nancu Ylan as I do." The party began to make its way up the path leading to the Palace. "Tell me, Mr Tretiak, what is it exactly that you teach?"

"Geography and history, er... Your Majesty."

"Please, I owe your daughter, and you by extension, a great debt. To you I am Jad, at least in private. Now, what level do you teach?"

"High school... Jad."

"Ah, a very important subject and a very important age. Do you enjoy it?"

The two men's voices faded as they moved ahead of Ally and her mother.

As they started up the pathway in pairs, Evelynne and Chorus leading, Ally and her mother were left to take up the rear, except for a few ever present Guards. Holding her daughter's right arm as they walked, Mrs Tretiak said, "Ally, it's so good to see you again."

"I'm glad to see both of you too, Mom. It's been a while."

"Indeed it has." They were silent for a few moments, simply reaffirming the bond between them. Looking up, Catherine Tretiak saw her husband and the King engaged in spirited conversation. "It looks like your father has made a new friend."

"I know." Ally laughed. "It gets a little surreal when you suddenly realise that these people are in charge of running an entire country. And here's the ruler of one of the most powerful nations on Earth talking to Dad about... teaching in Canada."

"You seem to be settling in just fine," Ally's mother remarked.

"Well, I have had nearly two months to get used to them. It helps that they're such... likeable people. Especially Evy and her father."

"I see." The shorter woman looked sidelong at her daughter, and Ally wondered if she had given too much away. "I have a question to ask you."

"Shoot." Ally braced herself.

"You wouldn't happen to have a breath mint, would you? I'm afraid I am a little... rank."

The taller Tretiak woman felt like she had dodged a bullet. "Actually, I do." She reached into her right hand pocket and pulled out a large handful of small hard candies. "I know how you get when you fly, so I came prepared."

"Smartaleck," her mother muttered. She still took the mints.

The expanded number of guests necessitated moving lunch from their more familiar informal dining room to the main hall. The room was much longer, panelled in rich, dark wood, and hosted a huge table. King Jad, naturally, sat at the head of the table, with Princess Evelynne to his right and Ally next to her. The older Tretiaks and Chorus took up the other side of the table. Almost a dozen places remained unfilled at the end of the table.

"That was absolutely delicious," William Tretiak said, pushing his chair back slightly from the table while wiping his mouth with his napkin. "Your chef is a genius. I'm just sorry you weren't able to eat any of this, dear." The last sentence was directed at his wife, who was still slowly finishing her bowl of plain yoghurt.

The yoghurt had been served at exactly the same time as the rest of the meal. Through some mysterious means Latifa had heard of Ally's mother's inevitable illness during flight, and had automatically arranged to have something relatively non-upsetting for the unfortunate woman. Ally had not yet become accustomed to requesting specific meals from the Mistress of the Kitchens, and had been pleasantly surprised by the thoughtfulness.

"Thank you, honey, but at the moment I am quite happy with the yoghurt. I'm sure I will be able to try some of... Latifa, was it? Some of Latifa's cooking soon." She suddenly looked uncertain. "Although... I'm not sure how long we are going to be staying. We came rather... suddenly, and... I don't know how long we're welcome."

"Oh, you are more than welcome to stay for as long as you wish," Evelynne declared immediately.

"Absolutely," confirmed King Jad. "In fact, now that you're here, we're counting on you to be here at least until after the banquet that's scheduled for next weekend."

"Banquet?" Ally asked, startled.

"We only confirmed it this morning," the princess explained. "It's been sort of a last minute thing. I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to tell you about it." She mouthed another "Sorry" to Ally with an entreating expression on her face.

Completely unable to not forgive Evelynne, Ally said as much with her own face. Aloud, she said, "Okay. Well, I'm sure you'll have fun at the party."

Evelynne shared a wry glance at her father, who explained, "No, I'm afraid you don't understand, Alleandre. The banquet is in honour of my daughter's safe return and recovery. Considering the part you played in that return, I was... we were hoping that you would join us as one of the guests of honour."

Ally paled. "Me?" she squeaked. "Guest of honour?"

Her mother recognised the signs of Ally's nascent anxiety and stretched a hand over the table to comfort her, but was surprised when Evelynne grasped her daughter's hand first.

"Yes, you." The princess' tone was gentle. "You need to realise that you didn't just save my life. You also saved the life of the next Queen of Atlantl, and there are a lot of people who want to acknowledge that. And around here, one of the traditional ways to do so is to present you to them. Now, if you honestly believe that you can't handle that much attention, you do not have to go. Nobody is going to force you." Evelynne smiled at her friend encouragingly. "But I'd love it if you would come."

Damnit, Ally thought. How am I supposed to resist that? I can't disappoint her. Crap. It's almost as if she knows I'm half in love with her. She made a decision. Some inner voice was raising issue with use of the word "half", but she ignored it. "Okay, I'll go." Ally put on a theatrical frown. "But I refuse to enjoy myself."

"Awww." Evelynne's face formed an equally dramatic pout, complete with a trembling lower lip. "Pleeeeease? Please say you'll have fun. I'll hold my breath until you do," she threatened. She even looked ready to do so.

Even though she knew it was only in jest, Ally still melted internally. "Okay, okay," she mock-grumbled. "I'll have fun. I wouldn't want you to pass out and have to save your life again."

Catherine Tretiak watched in amazement as she watched her shy, reserved daughter and the Crown Princess of Atlantl... flirting with each other. It was the only word she could think of to describe what they were doing. She looked to her husband, but he had, of course, missed it. As brilliant as William was in the classroom, outside of it he had trouble recognising interpersonal relations. A glance to her other side showed that Chorus, at least, had noticed something going on, and was watching the exchange with avid curiosity.

She wanted confirmation, however, and knew only one way to do so. Lidding her eyelids slightly, Catherine sank into herself, shutting out external distractions. Just as her daughter had taught her, she sought the correct mental frame to extend her perceptions. The process had nowhere near the skill and finesse with which Ally did it, but Catherine's mind slowly, haltingly, began to receive the emotional currents in the room.

Sharing Ally's moral distaste for eavesdropping on unsuspecting people, the woman quickly shut out any but the emotions leaking from her daughter across the table. And they were certainly leaking. Ally's mind was more open, more free, and more relaxed than her mother could ever remember her being before. And prominent among the emotions were those Catherine had been half afraid - and half hoping - to find.

She withdrew her perceptions back into herself to find the table's other occupants looking at her with concern. Catherine realised that she had been asked a question. "Pardon?"

"I was asking if you were alright, Mrs T," Chorus repeated.

"Oh." She looked across the table at her daughter and saw that Evelynne still had not released her hand, though neither seemed aware of it. Catherine's slightly strained smile wasn't faked. "I think that... blasted helicopter is still bouncing my stomach around a little. Would you all mind if I had a little lie down?" She awkwardly directed the question to King Jad, uncertain of how to excuse oneself from royalty.

"Of course, Catherine," the King said, nothing but concern etched on his red face. "In fact," he continued, rising to his feet, "I actually need to speak with Alleandre for a little while. Alone." His expression halted Evelynne's automatic objection. "Evy, perhaps you could show Mr and Mrs Tretiak to their rooms."

"I hope that you will agree to stay for a while," Evelynne commented as she walked Ally's parents to the suite of rooms which had been set aside for them. "I know that she's been missing you a lot."

Catherine Tretiak was leaning heavily on her husband's arm. Now that she knew that her offspring was safe - physically, at least - the adrenaline that had been supporting her during the long flight to Atlantl was rapidly dissipating. Since William was concentrating on manoeuvring them both down the hall, she answered, "We would love to stay for a while, and we would like to for as long as we can." She squeezed her husband's arm. "The school board was more than willing to extend William a leave of absence, but he is going to have to get back before the school year is too far advanced. As for myself, while I can, in theory, take as long as I like, I have several research projects that are going to require my attention. I'm sure that we can stay for at least a few weeks." Catherine looked to William for confirmation.

He nodded. "Absolutely. Some things are more important than work."

Somewhat more hesitantly, Catherine asked, "Er... Evelynne, has Ally said anything about what she intends to do? What her plans are?"

This time it was Evelynne's voice which betrayed her own uncertainty. "Well, we haven't really talked about it much. So far we've just been concentrating on getting her well again. Once she's fully functional..." She shrugged, unable to completely keep the distress from showing on her face. "Personally, I'd like Ally to stay around, but that might not fit in with her plans for the future. Still, she is more than welcome to stay for as long as she wishes."

"You sound like you two are very... close."

"Oh, I like to think that we've become really good friends," Evelynne affirmed. For now, a hopeful voice whispered in her mind. She felt herself redden slightly and looked down to see Mrs Tretiak watching the blush curiously.

Catherine took the princess' flush as more evidence to confirm her uneasy suspicions. Oh dear, she thought. I really must speak with Ally about this.

In the interim, they had passed several doors along the hallway. "This is my room," Evelynne said, pointing to a doorway on the right. "And just up here next door is Ally's room." The princess stopped them slightly beyond that at a door in the opposite wall. "And this is where you will be staying." She opened the door and waved the couple inside.

"Oh my," Catherine said as she and William took in the room's beautiful décor. Similar to Evelynne's and Ally's rooms, this one featured a motif based on a mythological creature; in this case Phoenixes appeared to set the walls and furniture ablaze. "Oh my," Catherine repeated. "I think we may have to stay a while after all."

Alleandre nervously followed King Jad as he made his way to the Palace's study. Upon entering, the King lowered his large frame into a comfortable armchair, and waved his guest into another chair nearby. Ally silently did as she was bidden, leaning her cane against the arm of the chair and sitting stiffly upright. Sir Adun, the King's vigilant bodyguard, took up an inconspicuous position near the door.

"Oh, this is nice," the King said, sighing heavily. "You have no idea how few opportunities I get to simply sit back and talk with someone on non-life-threatening matters."

Uncertain how to reply, Ally just smiled nervously.

The King must have made some hidden signal, because suddenly Nancu Ylan was in the room, standing near the King's chair. "Your Majesty?" the Seneschal asked.

"Ah, Ylan, would you please bring me a glass of... oh, make it port. Something mellow."

"Of course, Sire." He paused and appeared to be waiting.

The King also seemed to be waiting, looking at Ally, who stared back blankly. Finally, after several moments, he said, "Alleandre, would you care for anything?"

Ally blushed bright red. "Oh, right... um... sorry... Uh... ginger ale, please?" she asked the Seneschal meekly.

Nancu Ylan nodded solemnly, as if she had answered promptly. "Of course, Ishta. Your Majesty." He gave a short bow and left the room.

"So, Alleandre, how have you been doing lately?"

"Um... much better, thank you, er... Sire," Ally stammered. "I still get tired easily, but, um, that should pass."

King Jad smiled encouragingly. "Actually, you do not need to call me 'Sire', Alleandre. Since you are not one of my subjects, I am not the symbolic head of your family."

"Oh. Uh, okay, then... Sir."

He smiled in approval. "Well, I am very happy to hear that you are recovering well. It helps me with some considerations that I must... well, consider."

Just then Nancu Ylan re-entered the room bearing a tray with their drinks. Conversation was temporarily halted as they were passed to their respective drinkers. The Seneschal then left the room.

The King took a large mouthful and sighed in satisfaction. Ally sipped her own ginger ale more slowly.

"Ah, now we can get down to business," King Jad declared. Leaning forward, he placed his glass on a nearby table and looked up at an obviously nervous Ally. "Alleandre, relax," he commanded gently. "I'm not about to order you beheaded. I just wanted to talk to you, get to know you a bit better."

Ally strove to relax, and managed to produce a reasonable facsimile of ease. She found that she had no desire to try to read the King's intentions, and put it down to his obvious authority. "Yes, Sir."

"Good. Now, tell me what you've been up to lately."

As Ally began describing the activities that she and Evelynne had participated in during the past few weeks, she found herself relaxing more in the King's presence.

"... and the Templar Museum was absolutely fascinating."

King Jad nodded. "Oh, I agree. Did you happen to visit the Grand Mosque while you were in Outremer?"

"No, Sir. I saw it as we drove past, and it looks beautiful, but we didn't go in. I'm afraid religion really isn't a priority for me."

"No? You don't identify with any faith? You are not a Christian?" he asked.

"Definitely not, Sir." The young woman shook her head vehemently. "I have some... problems with most of the formal religions."

"Ah, you are referring to the fact that you are homosexual." When Ally froze, her eyes wide, the King reassured her, "Oh, I know, Alleandre. Don't worry. I have no problems with your lifestyle. In fact, I have been surreptitiously helping Duke Thomas with his protection of gay rights. What I'd really like to see is a final decision of equality, and then get politics out of the whole matter entirely. I believe it was Prime Minister Trudeau of your own country who said, 'Government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.'"

"I believe that was the essence, yes, Sir," Ally said. She was still slightly dazed by the equanimity with which the King seemed to be accepting her.

"So if you are not a Christian, Muslim, Jew or anything formal, how would you describe your spiritual beliefs?"

"Well... I guess I'd call myself a... scientific emergent spiritualist, Sir?"

"I see. And what exactly is a... scientific emergent spiritualist?"

"Well, Sir, in a sense, I believe that the entire universe is alive in some manner, but not necessarily sentient, and at the same time ruled by invariable physical laws - hence the science. On a local level, I believe that groups of sentient beings who all believe in the same thing cause the object of their belief to form as an emergent property. So if a lot of people all believe in a particular god, that god... coalesces out of their collective will. Not as a physical being, but as a kind of... group consciousness. And if enough people concentrate on their belief and endow it with certain 'powers', who knows what it can accomplish?"

"Fascinating," King Jad murmured. "So, for example, the Israelites escaping Egypt reach the Red Sea, which blocks their path. They pray to their 'God', in reality focussing their wills on removing the barrier, and their combined willpower actually parts the waters."

"Exactly, Sir." Ally was surprised that the King had grasped the concept so readily.

The reason for his perspicacity was revealed when he said, "Hector Cortez, one of my Advisors, has a similar theory, although it is slightly more... classically religious in nature. I'm sure he would enjoy speaking with you."

"I'd like that as well, Sir," Ally confirmed.

"Actually, Alleandre, I must admit that I have an ulterior motive in talking with you right now." He smiled. "Don't worry, it's nothing bad. Quite the opposite, in fact." He saw that his companion was listening attentively and continued. "Because of your actions, there has been some discussion on the best way to reward you." He held up a hand to forestall Ally's objection. "Hear me out. My Office, along with several others, has been flooded with suggestions. Some of them are quite frankly... impractical, however well meaning. One suggestion was that I marry you, for example, and make you Queen." He laughed when Ally choked on her ginger ale. "As I said, well meaning, but unfortunately impractical."

"I quite agree, Sir," Ally choked out, red from both her coughing fit and embarrassment.

"On the other hand, some of the ideas hold merit. The monetary reward, for example." When Ally looked ready to object again, the King cut her off by saying, "That is out of my hand, at least in part. The Hall of Nobles voted almost unanimously to reward you with funds raised from its own members. Each Noble will donate a sum that they consider appropriate, and the total will be presented to you at the banquet this weekend. Please try to look surprised," he joked.

Ally was speechless. "I'll... try, Sir," she finally managed to say.

"However, that is only the Nobles' contribution," the King continued. "I have my own personal thanks, which I will keep as a surprise for now. There is also one other thing: a significant number of both Nobles and commoners would like to see you knighted."

"They want to what?" Ally exclaimed. "Sir?" she added belatedly at a disapproving glance from Sir Adun.

"We would like to knight you," the King repeated calmly. "Assuming you accept, you would be Dame Alleandre Tretiak."

"You want to do this now?" Ally asked incredulously.

"Oh, goodness, no," the King said, shaking his head. "We must first determine which Order of Knighthood you would be raised to. Then the actual knighting is a quite involved ceremony lasting two days. Fortunately, you no longer have to duel anybody."

Ally ignored the attempt at levity. "But why me, Sir? Aren't knights supposed to be, like, celebrities, or heroes, or... something..." She trailed off.

King Jad saw the comprehension spreading across Ally's face. "Exactly, Alleandre. Whether you like it or not, you are a celebrity - at least for the moment - and you are also most definitely a hero... or heroine, as the case may be. This is merely an attempt to acknowledge that fact."

She sat for a moment in silence, trying to wrap her mind around this concept. The King waited patiently. Finally, Ally said slowly, "Sir, let's assume that I agree to... this. What exactly would happen next?"

King Jad carefully hid his delight. "Well, the first thing is to determine exactly which Orders you are eligible for. Each one has certain specific criteria which potential neonates must fit. The Templars, for example, accept only Christians, just as the Order of Mohammed only accepts Muslims. You would, therefore, be unable to join either. On the other hand, the Order of Saint Mary the Virgin accepts only virgins, but has no other religious requirements. It is, naturally, quite a small Order. If I read between the lines correctly when Dame Greta was speaking this morning, they are currently debating whether a woman who has only been intimate with other women is still technically a virgin." He cast a glance at Ally's furiously blushing face. "In either case, I do not believe you would be particularly interested in joining their Order."

Ally couldn't speak, and settled for shaking her head, perhaps a bit more vigorously than she might have intended.

The King took pity on her. "As well, even if you are eligible for a particular Order, you may not wish join. The Order of the Illuminated Word, for example, accepts nearly anyone, but they are a cloistered monastic Order, devoted to debating and writing religious commentaries.

"Now, if an appropriate Order is found, you would then be formally nominated by a member of that Order. If no Order is satisfactory, you could still be knighted as a Knight Errant, answerable only to your particular Noble Sponsor. And given the response in the Hall of Nobles to your actions so far, there will be no shortage of candidates eager to Sponsor you.

"Then would come the knighthood ceremony itself, which is really too involved to go into detail right now, but involves investing you with your new coat of arms, and you would become Dame Alleandre."

"Oh." Ally voice was small. "After that, what do I do, Sir? Do I ride around on a horse and fight for honour?"

The King was relieved that Ally seemed to be taking the suggestion more in stride. Either that or she was in shock. "Well, a few things change. For one, you would be a citizen of Atlantl, with all the privileges and responsibilities thereof. You would be required to pay taxes, contribute to the Realm, vote for the Advisory Councils, and so on, but you would also be protected by all Atlantlan laws and the Ithikan Compact. Because you are a Canadian citizen, you are also a subject of Queen Elizabeth and the British Crown, which could potentially cause some complications. However, since I do not anticipate a war with England any time soon, they should be fairly easy to iron out. Other than that, your life would be much the same as it was before." He smiled again, large white teeth gleaming in his red face. "Riding horses is entirely optional."

"Okay." Ally seemed to have regained some equilibrium. "Um, do I have decide right now, Sir?"

"Not at all. Although I was hoping to make the announcement this weekend at the banquet."

"Oh. Well... I'll think about it tonight and let you know tomorrow, Sir."

The King waved away the statement. "Please, Alleandre, there's no rush, and it is a momentous decision. Take your time. If you could let me know a day or two in advance, though, I would appreciate it." He leaned forward and looked at the woman in front of him, who looked impossibly young at the moment, although there was a certain ancient wisdom in her grey eyes. "I also want you to know that even if you decide not to accept this honour, for any reason of your own, many people respect greatly you anyway, including myself. For saving my daughter, you will always be welcome in my company."

Though uncomfortable with the blatant praise, Ally chose to accept it gracefully. "Thank you, Sir. Evelynne has come to mean a lot to me. I have no regrets about my actions."

"Excellent." The King leaned back comfortably in his chair and Ally relaxed more into hers. "Now, how about if I tell you a little about the various Orders of Knighthood. Purely for educational purposes, of course."

He was rewarded with the first genuine smile Ally had bestowed on him all afternoon. "Of course, Sir. I'd like that."

To be continued in Chapter 13

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