Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

And it came to pass that the next day about evening we saw within a kenning before us, toward the north, as it were thick clouds, which did put us in some hope of land, knowing how that part of the South Sea was utterly unknown, and might have islands or continents that hitherto were not come to light. Wherefore we bent our course thither, where we saw the appearance of land, all that night; and in the dawning of next day we might plainly discern that it was a land flat to our sight, and full of boscage, which made it show the more dark. And after an hour and a half's sailing, we entered into a good haven, being the port of a fair city. Not great, indeed, but well built, and that gave a pleasant view from the sea.

- Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis

Chapter 14

"No! There is no way I'm coming out dressed like... like this!"

Those words - strongly spoken but muffled by the closed door to Ally's bedroom - were the first thing Evelynne heard as she walked from the hallway through the open doorway into the sitting room. Chorus and Mr and Mrs Tretiak looked around as she entered, and the young man barely suppressed a low whistle of appreciation as the princess moved closer to where they were clustered around Ally's bedroom door.

"Good evening, Evelynne," Chorus said quietly. "O'derenn mai-lata presh ala-at."

Evelynne was wearing a deep blue dress somewhat similar to the one she had been wearing on the fateful day in Marseilles. This one was quite form fitting in the upper body, leaving her right shoulder bare, and then billowing out at the waist to trail down to the floor. A simple coronet held the princess' flaming hair in place, although this time it had been allowed to trail partway down her back. Small gold earrings, in the shape of some great cat, were the remaining extent of her jewellery, and a small purse, in a shade matching the dress, completed the ensemble.

"Thank you," the princess said. "You don't look so bad yourself. Any of you."

It was true. Chorus was wearing a dark green overcoat with gold buttons, but it was left open in the front, allowing the shirt beneath to show. The bright white of the ruffled shirt was an extreme contrast to his dark skin, and also to the lighter green of his trousers. The red cummerbund around the young man's waist and gold clasp at his throat gave him a decidedly piratical look.

Mr Tretiak looked downright plain in comparison. He was wearing a much more conventional almost-tuxedo. However, elegant stitching in silver thread created patterns that chased each other around his arms and shoulders. When he moved his arms, the reflected light was mesmerising.

Catherine Tretiak outdid them all in terms of colour, however. The top of her outfit was a Middle-Eastern style kaftan which hung to her knees. The elaborate dye-work and embroidery created a riot of colour: blues, greens, reds, yellows and purples all mixed on her torso. The colours spread to her baggy pants which could be seen beneath the shirt. The true mastery of the garment, though, was in the fact that even such a confusion of colour was somehow vibrant and stimulating without being garish or clashing.

"We scrub up pretty good, Princess," Chorus replied with a roguish smile. Or perhaps it was merely his ensemble which made it that way. "I'd just like to say that I appreciate going to a party without having to wear a tuxedo. They make it so... boring."

Evelynne shook her head. "If there's one thing Atlantlans know about men, it's that they love to dress up just as much as women. So why make them all wear the same clothes?" She looked at Mrs Tretiak, who was vainly trying to convince her daughter of something through the still closed door. "What's going on?"

William Tretiak sighed and answered, "Alleandre does not wish to come out. She is concerned about her outfit."

"That's not quite true," Catherine objected. "She thinks the dress is beautiful, but doesn't think that she is... good enough to wear it."

"Come on, Ally," Chorus called through the door. "I'm sure you look fine. Come out and we'll tell you so."

"No! I can't wear this thing out there!" Even muffled, Evelynne could hear genuine panic in Ally's voice.

"Ally..." Chorus coaxed. "Come on, I picked out that dress myself."

"I know! And you're the person I'm going to strangle with it!"

The dress was the real purpose to Chorus' early morning expedition with Maïda almost a week earlier. Upon hearing that there was going to be a party, he had assigned himself the mission of making Ally "drop dead sexy" for the event. With the lady-in-waiting's collusion, he had chosen a magnificent dress.

Apparently, he had only been partially successful.

"Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, get out here right now!" Catherine resorted to her greatest weapon, the dreaded Triple-Name Mom Voice, and everyone waited with baited breath for several seconds for the response.

Finally it came. "No!" There was a moment as the people waiting exhaled in disappointment. "I told you, I can't wear this! I'm just not the right kind of person. People like me don't wear these. You know that Evelynne's going to be there in some gorgeous gown," she continued, unaware that the princess was present, "and looking absolutely perfect, and everyone is just going to fall in love with her like they always do, and then they'll look at me, and think, 'What is she doing here?'" There was a pause as the emotional voice seemed to swallow back tears. "And I can't take that! So tell them I'm sick or something, and go without me. Please."

Evelynne held back her own emotions as she listened to the plea from behind the closed door. Chief among them was sympathy for her friend's obvious distress, but a smaller part was pure fury directed towards those who had made Ally so insecure about herself in the first place. That part longed to track the perpetrators down and pummel them with her bare hands. Maybe I can get Sir Arthur to arrange a little "visit" from the Guard...

Yet another part was concentrating on and revelling in Ally's declaration of Evelynne's "perfection".

For now, though, the princess carefully kept those parts from revealing themselves as she called softly, "Ally, this is Evelynne. Nobody is going to be doing anything like that to you. Listen, do you trust me?"

A muffled, "Yes," was the response.

"Okay, then please come out here and let us see you. I promise that we'll tell you the truth. Okay?"

There was another long pause. "Okay," came the reluctant answer. "But if anyone laughs, I'll kill them." Despite the levity forced into the words, the tone was still apprehensive.

There was a brief rustle on the other side of the door, then it swung open slowly to reveal Ally leaning on her cane and nervously twisting a length of black cloth in her free right hand.

The response from the onlookers in the room was silence. Evelynne's mouth dropped open, and she had to put a hand on the back of a nearby chair to keep from falling over. Any lingering doubts she might have had about her attraction to Ally or her sexuality in general rapidly withered away.

Ally stood the stares and silence for a long moment before saying suddenly, "See? I told you. I can't do this." She turned and made to re-enter her bedroom.

Without quite knowing how she had crossed the intervening distance, Evelynne found herself grasping Ally's arm. "No, wait!" she blurted. "That was just shock. Not bad shock. More like... 'wow' shock." She looked around at her companions for confirmation.

"Oh yeah," Chorus said, still staring. "Definitely 'wow' shock. I mean... Damn, Ally, if you weren't gay and I weren't a gentleman, I'd do you right here. Ow!" He was suddenly snapped out of his daze by the impact of Mrs Tretiak's hand on the back of his head. Looking in that direction, he saw the threatening glares of both Ally's parents. Immediately cowed, he stammered, "I mean... That is..." Despite twenty-four languages, words failed him, and he finally just waved his hand to indicate Ally's body and said, "Wow."

"Despite your friend's language," Ally's mother said, with another glare in the offender's direction, "he is right. You look absolutely wonderful." She took Ally's other arm and gently tugged her forward. "Come into the light so we can see you better."

As they moved to the centre of the room, the full effect of Ally's outfit and makeup could be seen.

The gown was a sheer black sheath, shot through with silver threads which glittered in the light. The dress conformed to her body, hugging her form from just above her breasts to her ankles. Two straps ostensibly held the dress in place, but Ally suspected that sheer willpower was the major factor. Though nearly skin-tight, the dress stretched with each movement, creating a fit that she had to admit was very comfortable, if a little disconcerting. It felt oddly like wearing a strong wind.

In addition to the dress, Maïda had also spent some time that evening attempting to tame Ally's tousled hair into a more elegant style. Through some mystical process she had managed to straighten it, and because it had grown in the months since the shooting, had been able to brush it all to one side, so that it framed the right half of Ally's face like a dark brown shield.

As everyone admired the dress, their eyes inevitably fell on one of the main reasons Ally had been so reluctant to venture into public. Situated in the middle of her right shoulder, just below the collarbone, the shiny white scar of her bullet wound was clearly visible. When she saw Evelynne staring at the scar, Ally tried to instinctively cover it up with her hand, but since her left was occupied with holding her cane, the right could only do the job with much awkward fidgeting.

"I don't... I can't... It's..." Unable to give voice to her embarrassment, Ally finally shrugged and hung her head, hiding her face behind her newly styled hair.

"It's impressive," Evelynne said firmly, raising her friend's face again. "Wear your scars proudly. They are a mark of honour."

Catherine and William stood back, looking on with some surprise as the princess managed to skilfully draw their daughter out of her shell.

"Um... I know," Ally said softly. "But I don't..."

"That's okay," Evelynne said in sympathy. "I didn't either. But that's why you have this." She reached down and plucked the cloth out of Ally's hand. Shaking it out, she proceeded to fold it in half diagonally, then drape the shawl over Ally's shoulders. "And this." Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a small brooch bearing a single large emerald, which she used to fasten the scarf in place.

Ally seemed to relax visibly as the scar - and, incidentally, her upper chest - was covered. She even managed a weak smile down at Evelynne. "Thank you."

The princess reached up and gave her friend's shoulder a final pat. "You're welcome." Then she stepped back and eyed Ally's form consideringly. "Now, what are we missing here?" she asked the room in general.

"A trenchcoat?" Ally said hopefully.

Ignoring her, Evelynne said, "Earrings. Or one earring anyway." Ally's mother nodded.

"Um, I don't wear earrings," Ally objected. "My ears aren't even pierced."

The princess shared a glance with her co-conspirators. "And that," she said triumphantly, "is why I had these modified to clip-ons." Reaching back into her purse, she produced a pair of dangling silver earrings in the form of an ankh. Looking carefully, Ally could see that each was inscribed with tiny Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Giving in to the inevitable, Ally bent down slightly so that Evelynne could affix one earring to her left ear.

"There," the princess said once she was finished. She tried to ignore the subtle smell of cinnamon that seemed to cling to Ally's body. "You look gorgeous."

Ally blushed predictably, but was rescued by her mother, who announced, "Now we need shoes. I think I saw some over here..." She hurried to a small table by the door.

"I am not wearing high heels," Ally declared firmly. "I'm going to look stupid enough as it is without falling on my face the whole evening."

"I know, dear, and that is why I had Chorus pick these up instead." Catherine displayed a pair of low-heeled black shoes.

Ally's righteousness deflated. "Oh. Okay," she said meekly, before bending over to slip the shoes on, painfully aware of how the dress stretched to outline her body. Before she could lose her tenuous grip on her courage, however, she straightened and said, "Okay, let's get going before I go insane."

"Of course, dear," Mrs Tretiak said. She put her arms out and pulled her daughter into a strong hug. "You look beautiful, Ally," she whispered. "We all think so."

She stepped back and William took her place. "Your mother is right," he said in an equally low voice. "You're wonderful."

"Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad."

"All right, why don't you three go ahead. Your father and I will join you in a moment," Catherine suggested.

"Sure thing, Mma T," Chorus said. "Shall we?" Turning, he offered Ally his arm before noticing that Evelynne had extended hers as well.

Ally solved the dilemma by handing her cane to Chorus and then linking arms with both of them.

As the trio exited the suite, Catherine turned to her husband and asked in a low voice, "So? What do you think?"

"About what?"

"You saw how they were acting."

He sighed. "You mean that our Ally seems quite taken with young Evelynne? Who, if I'm not mistaken, returns the interest?"

Catherine looked surprised. "You mean you noticed?"

"Hon, just because I don't have yours or Ally's gifts does not mean that I'm blind. Of course I noticed."

"And it doesn't bother you?"

"Of course it bothers me, but not for the reasons you might think. Evelynne lives in a world where many powerful people would do anything to exploit Ally's abilities. I worry because of that. As for a possible... relationship between them... I am concerned, yes. But I can't say that I actively disapprove."

"You don't? Why not?" The surprise was still evident in Catherine's voice.

"Because Ally needs to be with someone who is her equal. That was my chief concern over her relationship with Anabel... once I got over the whole lesbian thing, of course." He smiled wryly. "While I truly liked Anabel, she was simply not Ally's equal in power or potential. She was much too... common. Evelynne, however, is anything but common. Her is a person who one day will control an entire nation, and influence many others. I personally can't think of a better person."

By now Catherine's surprise had changed to shock. "But what about public reaction? The world does not tend to find homosexual leaders acceptable. In Evelynne's position that is going to have a strong effect."

"Dear, what the public finds acceptable changes every day. Twenty years ago, the mere idea of gay marriages would have been unthinkable. Today, it is legal in many countries, including Atlantl, and is being debated in many more. Who knows what society will find acceptable in five years? Ten years?"

Catherine looked up at her husband with an adoring expression. "You know, at times like these I remember why I married you."

William looked hurt. "You mean it wasn't my dashing good looks?"

"Well... that too," she admitted with mock reluctance. She sighed, becoming serious once again. "So you're telling me to just back off and leave things alone."

William gently embraced his wife. "Honey, we are here to help her, to support her when she needs it. We cannot control her life for her. It is her life to live, her mistakes to make... her rewards to win."

Catherine rested her head on his chest. "I suppose so. But they're our worries to fret about."

"Naturally. However, right now," William said, looking at his watch, "it is time for us to go and see our wonderful daughter rewarded."

"Then let us do that," Catherine decided, allowing her husband to escort her out of the room.

"So how are you holding up?" Evelynne asked. When there was no answer she turned in the car's seat to look at Ally sitting beside her. "Ally?"

The young woman was sitting silently with her eyes closed and breathing deeply, and for a moment Evelynne thought she had fallen asleep. Then she noticed the odd positions of her friend's hands: her open right hand was extended slightly, with the palm turned slightly inward, while the left was facing palm outward, the forefinger bent to touch the inside of her thumb. It wasn't an obvious position, but as close as she was, the princess had no difficulty making it out, even in the dim light of the limousine.

Evelynne looked at Chorus, who was sitting across from her, facing the rear of the car and arched her eyebrows in question. His answering shrug displayed his own ignorance, so she turned back to Ally. Calling her friend's name again finally brought a response.

With a deep exhalation, Ally's eyes opened and her hands relaxed into a more natural position. She cast a glance to her left, where her mother was speaking softly to her father in the opposite seat and looking out the window at the darkening city outside the window. Looking in the opposite direction she saw Evelynne's concerned gaze.

"Sorry," she apologised. "I just needed to calm myself down a bit."

"You were meditating?" Evelynne asked.

"Yeah, it's a technique called mudra meditation," Ally explained. "It uses certain positions of the hands to facilitate a trance state. I learned it from a Chinese friend in Vancouver." Among other things. "That position is called An Wei She Chu Yin. The mudra of tranquillity."

Now that she knew what her friend had been doing, Evelynne could see that Ally appeared visibly more relaxed, and her complexion had returned to normal from its previous paleness. "Did it work?" she queried needlessly.

"Oh, yes. Of course, what I'll be like when I actually have to talk to people... Who knows?" Ally managed a wry smile.

"Well," Chorus said, looking out the window, "you're about to find out. I think we've arrived."

Indeed, the wail of the accompanying police sirens, heard faintly even inside the car, silenced and the limousine pulled smoothly to a stop. The brightly-lit entrance to an impressively large building, the Royal Banquet Hall of Outremer - sporting an interesting mix of Arabic and Greek architecture - was a short distance from the door. The origin of occasional bright flashes of light puzzled Ally for several moments until she realised that there was a fairly large gathering of reporters and photographers lined up some distance away. The thought of all the press almost broke through Ally's newly acquired calm, but she carefully suppressed the panic.

"You ready?" Evelynne asked, bestowing an encouraging smile.

"Too late to back out now," Ally replied, steeling herself as the door to the limousine was opened by a smartly uniformed Guard.

As befitted her rank, Evelynne exited first, allowing the Guard to help her out of the car, then standing aside as Ally followed. Ally's parents came next, while the rear was taken up by Chorus.

Ally blinked in the sudden barrage of flashbulbs as she exited the vehicle into the warm evening air. She fought the urge to instinctively hide her face. Instead, she took her cue from the princess beside her and waited calmly while her parents got out of the car.

Evelynne noticed her companion's aborted attempt to hide, and smiled when Ally visibly drew herself together. She was struck by the beauty and projected confidence of the woman beside her, and her smile turned slightly feral as she thought of some of the people who might see the pictures. Take that, you bastards, the princess directed the thought at all the people who had made her friend so shy and self-conscious over the years.

Then everyone had exited the limousine and the group walked up the steps to the Hall's doors. The Royal Guard was very much in evidence, stern-faced men and women watching everyone alertly, almost daring someone to try something. Nobody took them up on the challenge.

At the head of the stairs the density of Guards increased suddenly, as the King and Queen came out to personally welcome their guests. The King looked fiercely handsome. His blue and purple tabard brought out the fire of his hair and beard, while the cut of his suit seemed to add even more mass to his already impressive bulk. A crown, larger than Evelynne's coronet but not overly large, adorned his head. Taken together, he looked like some refined war god, just off Mount Olympus, and Ally half expected to see flames shoot from his mouth as he spoke.

In comparison, Queen Cleo el-Kareen appeared much more refined and delicate, a though she was wearing a tabard very similar to the King's in both colour and style. The apparent fragility was immediately dispelled as soon as anyone looked into her strong, determined eyes, which were a near mirror image of Evelynne's own. It was also immediately apparent from which side of her family the princess got her figure. Although the years had added a small amount of thickening to the Queen's body, she was still a strikingly attractive woman.

Despite the similarities, Queen Cleo was not Evelynne's mother, but her aunt. As the princess had explained to Ally, the Atlantlan Constitution required both a King and Queen who split power between themselves. While each Monarch was fairly autonomous, certain decisions - such as a declaration of war - required unanimity of purpose. When Evelynne's mother, the previous Queen, had died before her Heirs were old enough to assume her Throne, the Hall of Nobles had elected her sister to succeed her until either Evelynne or Patrick came of age. Since then she had served in an exemplary manner, displaying a distinct diplomatic ability which offset the King's more volatile temper.

All of this sped through Ally's mind as she and her companions approached the two Monarchs. Somewhat more used to the exuberant way in which members of Evelynne's family tended to greet each other, she was slightly surprised when they met with a formal handclasp and brief kiss on the cheek. Then she remembered the cameras and realised that on this occasion more reserve was in order.

Evelynne finished her murmured greetings to her father and aunt, then it was Ally's turn. She offered her hand to the King, and was briefly surprised when he grasped it, then pulled her forward to kiss both her cheeks.

"Ishta Tretiak," King Jad said, "it's good to see you again. You are looking well."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," the young woman replied. "I'm feeling well, except for a bit of nervousness. However, I will try to avoid throwing up on your floor."

The King laughed. "That would be much appreciated, especially by the Seneschal of the Hall." He turned to his sister-in-law. "I believe you have already met Queen Cleo?"

"Yes, Sir, briefly. Your Majesty," Ally said, offering her hand once again.

"Ishta Tretiak," Queen Cleo said, clasping her hand and smiling in friendly greeting. "I am happy to see you walking again. The last time you were still in your wheelchair."

"Yes, Ma'am. I managed to leave it behind a few days after you visited." She was desperately trying to remember all of the protocol that Evelynne had spent the last few days trying to teach her.

"Now, just as you don't call my father 'Sire', since he is not your liege lord - yet - you would not call my aunt by the full title 'Madam'. 'Madam' comes from 'ma dam', literally translated 'my mother'. Since she is not the theoretical head of your family yet, you can just call her 'Ma'am'." Ally heard Evelynne's words in her memory. "It's not much of a difference, but it's what the stuffy protocolists insist on."

"Excellent. I am glad to see it."

With her own greetings out of the way, Ally's next task was the introductions of her parents and Chorus to the King and Queen. She avoided sweating her way through them through sheer willpower, and felt that her grasp of diplomacy and protocol must have been adequate, if Evelynne's approving smile was anything to go by.

After the introductions had been completed, the group moved off the steps and into the foyer of the Hall. Ally breathed a sigh of relief once out of the glare of the cameras, and noticed that her father, never a hugely social person himself, likewise relaxed.

"I'm afraid Patrick was unable to join us this evening," the King said. "Apparently he is fighting a rather nasty stomach ailment."

"I know," the princess said. "I talked to him earlier. We're going to meet up as soon as he feels better."

Once inside the foyer the number of Guards dropped dramatically. There were still at least five present, including Sir Adun, and Ally was sure that many more were hidden discreetly out of sight. She would have liked to use her abilities to sense their presence, but knew that such an action would require more time than she had available.

Other than the Guards, the foyer's only occupant was a man of medium build and dark hair, dressed in a spotless white uniform adorned with gold braid and carrying a heavy looking sceptre, who appeared to have been waiting for their party to arrive. As soon as they were through the door, he hurried over.

"Your Majesties," he said in a high voice, bowing deeply.

"Donald," King Jad replied to the Seneschal. "I believe that unless there are any objections -" He looked around, but none were forthcoming. "- we are ready to enter."

"Of course, Sire." Bowing again, then drawing himself up, the man turned and marched to the large gilded and intricately carved doors at the other end of the room. He paused for several moments while the rest of the group formed up behind him. The King and Queen took their places at the head of the line. Ally, uncertain of her place, was startled when Evelynne firmly took her arm as she had done on the walk through the garden several days ago. Casting a helpless glance at her parents, she allowed herself to be manoeuvred into position at the princess' side right behind the Monarchs. The elder Tretiaks took up the rear, Catherine bracketed by her husband and Chorus, each of whom tucked one of her hands into the crooks of their arms.

Satisfied that everyone was in order, the uniformed man raised his sceptre and struck the double doors solidly. Everyone except Evelynne and her father and aunt jumped slightly at the booming sound which erupted. As if by magic, the doors swung slowly inward revealing the huge chamber beyond and the crowd of people within it. The party started forward. A deep, respectful silence had fallen when the doors opened, which was broken as soon as the Seneschal crossed the doorway.

"Hear ye, hear ye!" he bellowed in a strong, carrying voice strangely at odds with his normal, mildly effeminate tone. "My Lords and Ladies, Free-men, Ambassadors, and Guests! Entering are His Royal Majesty King Jad Richard ibn Jad deMolay! Her Royal Majesty Queen Cleo Janet el-Kareen! Her Royal Highness Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay! Ishta Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak! Mrs Catherine Rachelle Tretiak! Mr William Oliver Tretiak! Mr Keitumetsemosimaniwapula Tladi!" Ally was highly impressed that the Seneschal had managed to speak Chorus' full name without even a stutter. "All hail Their Majesties! All hail Her Highness!"

"Salé!" the gathered people shouted.

The quiet remained, broken only by the shuffling of feet, rustling of clothing and murmured greetings of the people who had moved aside to form a long aisle to the back of the room, where a small raised platform was located. As they passed, each person present either bowed or curtseyed deeply to the King and Queen, then did so again as Ally and Evelynne passed.

The Reception Room of the Royal Banquet Hall was impressive. Unlike many of the buildings in Atlantl, this one was decorated along more Classical European lines. A veined marble floor was interspersed with tall white columns which in turn supported a high arched ceiling. The ceiling sported brightly painted frescoes, apparently of an Islamic religious nature, if the number of mosques depicted were anything to go by. Although the floor was mainly clear, chairs and couches lined the walls, and many green plants added colour.

Ally was painfully aware of her cane and slow, limping pace, along with the form-fitting nature of her gown, as she tried to shut out the hundreds of eyes upon her and found herself fighting back panic. Evelynne seemed to sense her growing unease and tightened her hold on the taller woman's arm in silent support. Ally relaxed slightly when, towards the end of the seemingly endless walk, she saw the stooped and aged figure of Duke Thomas, who gave her a genuine smile and bow.

Evelynne, more able to read the expressions of the man she had known all her life, could see the impish grin behind his apparently innocuous smile. In case she had been mistaken, the subtle wink he had given her, as if he was a little boy with a secret, confirmed it. The princess felt herself flushing uncontrollably under his knowing gaze. She had not spoken with him about her feelings since seeing him in his office, and was sure that now he was looking at the two of them with satisfaction.

Of course, with the way I'm practically draped over Ally right now he probably thinks we're already lovers, Evelynne thought. Not that she seems to be complaining at all... Catching a glimpse of Ally out of the corner of her eye, she took in the faintly glassy eyes and stiff smile and decided that perhaps the only person getting a bit of a thrill out of the contact was herself.

She happened to be wrong, as Ally was also deriving a certain sensual pleasure from having Evelynne pressed against her. She recalled the discussion she had had with her mother, though, and reluctantly pushed the sensations to the back of her mind.

The group reached the low podium at the other side of the room. At the Seneschal's discreet urging, those members of the Royal party not used to such occasions were arranged to stand in front and to the side of the dais. Leaving his companions momentarily after a last kiss to Evelynne's cheek, King Jad mounted the platform and turned to address his guests.

"My Lords and Ladies," he began, speaking in English for the benefit of the foreigners present, "fellow Citizens, honourable Ambassadors, and respected guests. A little over two months ago, assassins attempted to take the life of Her Highness, Princess Evelynne. They were thankfully unsuccessful, but did succeed in wounding her." He paused. "As a King, I was shocked and dismayed. As a King, I have dedicated significant resources towards finding those responsible. As her father I was devastated, as any parent would be when his child was injured in such a brutal way. And it is as a father that I welcome you all here tonight, to celebrate Evelynne's survival and recovery from her injuries.

"However, I have another reason to celebrate. If it had not been for the quick actions of a certain young woman, we would be mourning instead of celebrating. At great risk to herself, Ishta Alleandre Tretiak used her own body as a shield, placing herself between my daughter and the assassins' bullets. She was sorely wounded through her courageous actions, and it is only through the Gods' grace that we are not now mourning her death. Instead, Ishta Tretiak is also here with us tonight, so that we may thank her appropriately for her selfless actions.

"Also present are Catherine and William Tretiak, the people responsible for raising such a fine, courageous and generous young woman." He turned to address them directly. "I have had a chance to speak with Ishta Tretiak, and must also lay the credit for her intelligence and grace at your feet as well."

William beamed proudly and Catherine mouthed a "Thank you" to the King before smiling at Ally, who was by now beet red.

King Jad continued, "This is supposed to be an informal occasion, so I will keep this brief. I am sure there will be plenty of flowery speeches after dinner." There was a general chuckle from the audience. "For now, just let me reiterate my thankfulness for the return of my daughter safe, if not necessarily sound, and my gratitude to Ishta Tretiak for allowing her to do so. Ladies and Gentlemen, Princess Evelynne and Ishta Tretiak!"

He stepped off the dais applauding, and the assembled crowd joined in. They held back while King Jad embraced his daughter and Alleandre again before moving forward to give their own greetings. There appeared to be no particular precedence to the order in which the people came forward to greet the group at the foot of the dais. When two or more people arrived at the same time, one would inevitably be deferred to, leaving Ally to suspect that there was in fact a specific order of status.

The faces seemed to pass in a blur as it seemed like half the population of Atlantl shook Ally's hand, and she quickly lost track of the names, and associated ranks, of the numerous Barons, Baronesses, Counts, Countesses, Ambassadors, and Free-men. Still, she tried to maintain a pleasant demeanour and return their salutations and comments with appropriate words of her own, even as the constant pressure of so much attention wore on the young woman's naturally reserved disposition.

It made it easier that most of the guests appeared genuinely pleased to meet her. Even those who seemed less than impressed with Ally on a personal level - for whatever reasons of their own - were honestly grateful for their Princess' recovery. Ally was struck once more by just how popular Evelynne appeared to be, even among those present who were not part of the aristocracy.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was really perhaps fifteen minutes, the last of the persistent well wishers had stepped back after a last handshake. Ally breathed a surreptitious sigh of relief as the other guests began to break up into their own small groups, and the hum of conversations filled the air. "Whew," she said softly. Looking to Evelynne, who smiled back at her, she asked, "So what happens now?"

The princess reached out once more and pulled Ally's hand to rest on her arm. "Now we mingle. We have to show you off, you know."

"Mingle?" Ally's expression was doubtful. Looking around, she saw that her mother was already dominating a conversation with a group of elegantly dressed nobles, and Chorus was apparently flirting with a group of women whose ages ranged anywhere from twenty to eighty. She couldn't see her father, but assumed that he was also off somewhere, discussing politics, if she knew him. "I'm not really the mingling type. Now the wallflower thing, that I can do."

"Nonsense," Evelynne objected. "My father has already attested to your 'intelligence and grace'. You don't want to call him a liar, do you? He is the King, you know." She began gently guiding Ally towards one of the smaller knots of people. "Come on, I know the Canadian Ambassador is just dying to meet you."

Ally sighed in relief as she sank into one of the chairs lining the walls of the room. The last three-quarters of an hour had been stressful, and between standing for the entire time, carefully navigating through the crowd, and the tension of avoiding any major faux pas, her back was beginning to ache with a vengeance. Also, in the intervening forty-five minutes she had been separated from Evelynne somewhere in the press, whether by accident or design she wasn't sure.

The social pressure had not been as bad as she had expected, but Ally had found that much of the conversation tended to revolve around the political and social events in Atlantl. Needless to say, they were not topics in which the young woman had much experience. So, after enduring enough of the last conversation with an expression of false interest plastered on her face to appear polite, she had excused herself and found her way to a large, comfortable chair by the wall.

Now Ally sat, sipping a glass of wine appropriated from a passing servant, and watched the social dance unfolding in front of her. Watching the people, she amused herself with imagining what might happen if she reached out and tripped some of them. She was chuckling internally at the image of the entire roomful of people collapsing like so many dominoes when she became aware that another person had taken a seat on the couch to her right.

Turning in that direction, she saw a very handsome young man, probably in his mid-twenties, with wavy golden hair and wearing a deep red tabard. Seeing that he had attracted her attention, the young man said, "Are you sure you ought to be sitting out here on the sidelines? You are one of the guests of honour." He smiled winningly, revealing perfect white teeth.

Ally flushed. "Actually, my back... I was getting a bit tired. So I decided to sit down and have a rest from..."

"From all the bluster and pompous self-importance out there?" the man finished for her, waving a hand to indicate the ballroom. When Ally started to stutter a denial, he said, "Relax, it's why I'm out here as well. If I had to listen to Count Graham say one more thing about 'the natural historic rights of the aristocracy' or 'the required respect from the lower classes', well..." He shuddered theatrically. He stuck out his hand. "I'm Larrel, by the way?"

More at ease, Ally placed her hand in his, flushing as he raised it to brush his lips across the back. "I'm Ally... er, Alleandre Tretiak."

"Pleased to meet you... again, Ally. Weren't you at this party earlier?" Larrel teased, not letting go of her hand.

"Um, well, yeah," Ally muttered. Suddenly she recalled something. "Wait a minute. Larrel? Evelynne's Lech... um, cousin Larrel?" She lowered her eyes in embarrassment at her slip.

Far from taking offence, Larrel grinned delightedly. "That would be me," he confirmed brightly. "Count Larrel Peren of Alsatz at your service, milady." He executed an intricate bow from his chair. "As for all those rumours about me..." He leaned closer and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. "They're all true." He leaned back as Ally blushed. "However, I don't believe you have anything to fear. From what I hear, I'm not exactly your type. But if you're ever in the mood to try..." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind," Ally said wryly. She could tell that the Count was putting on an act to put her at ease, but found herself relaxing anyway.

"Actually, I was on my way to the kitchen to see if see if any of the waitresses was amenable to some... company later this evening. I could try to find one for you if you'd like."

Ally choked on her drink. "No, no, that's quite alright. Um... I'm sure I can find... companionship on my own, thank you." Of their own volition, her eyes instinctively attempted to seek out Evelynne in the crowd, finding her engaged in conversation with another tall, handsome man.

Larrel noticed the direction of Ally's gaze, and his eyes narrowed in speculation. Making a decision, he leaned in closer and spoke in a low whisper. "Ally, while I can find no fault in your taste, I feel I must warn you. My cousin Evelynne is not the most... available person. As much as I would wish it otherwise, she does not have the greatest freedom in choosing her partners. The man she is speaking with right now, for example, is the Heir to Count Jazeer, and has been widely rumoured for several years to be the most likely candidate for Her Highness' spouse. While I personally do not believe that the affection between them is so great - on either side - it may not be up to them. Politics has ended more than one relationship." A shadow in his eyes told Ally that he spoke from personal experience.

"I'm not in a relationship with Evelynne," Ally replied quietly, feeling an urge for complete candour. "And I know that I'll likely never be in a relationship with her. That doesn't mean I can't look, does it?"

"Of course not!" Larrel exclaimed, brightening. "In fact, a healthy fantasy life is absolutely vital. The only thing more vital is turning those fantasies into reality, which I try to do on a regular basis. And if I can't actually slip someone into your bed, you can't stop me from turning a few in your direction. So tell me, besides red hair, what are you looking for in a woman?"

Ally laughed.

"... and so if the entire universe can be considered to be a single complex particle, then all of its associated phenomena can be described as being peaks in the Schrödinger Wave Equation of that particle. All of the matter and energy of the universe actually arises where the probability wave collapses into reality."

"Okay, I can see that, but how is this useful? I think the universe is too big to calculate on a computer."

"True, but the problem can be carried over into a smaller analogue. Any smaller portion of the universe can also be considered a single particle, but whereas the entire universe is in an infinite potential well, smaller parts have more complex boundary conditions. Still, if we can determine the exact energy potentials of a given region of space-time..."

Evelynne hung back for several minutes and listened bemusedly to the conversation between the two people a few feet away. Finally, though she interrupted. "Can I break in, or do you two want to get a room?" she asked with amusement.

Startled, Ally and Larrel looked up at the interloper into their own private universe. Larrel recovered first and stood to kiss the princess' cheek. "Evelynne, we didn't hear you come up."

"Obviously," Evelynne said wryly.

"We were just talking and I remembered that Ally has a degree in physics, so I asked her to explain something from special relativity for me. Before we knew it we were solving the Grand Unified Theory of the universe. We didn't even see you standing there."

"Of course, because we didn't observe her, there's some question as to whether Evelynne was actually present, or whether she existed only as a probability waveform until we saw her," Ally added, rising to her feet. She was relieved to see that the princess' potential husband-to-be was nowhere to be seen.

"Really," Evelynne said, looking at her friend strangely. "Well, I can say that dinner actually exists, whether you can see it or not, and I've come to take you to it, just to make sure."

"Excellent," Larrel said, offering both his arms to the young women. "I'm starving."

"Understanding the universe will do that to you," Ally commented sagely.

As expected, dinner was a lavish affair.

The guests were seated at long table which Ally could only describe as immense. It was the kind of table where one needed an outside phone line to ask another person at the far end to pass the salt. The King and Queen sat at the head of the table, and the other diners were seated according to decreasing rank. Evelynne sat at her father's right hand, and Ally was by now only mildly surprised to find herself in a place right next to the princess. Duke Thomas, whose city was hosting the event, was across the table at the Queen's left. To Ally's right sat Duke Hassan of Lyonesse and his wife. The third Duke of Atlantl, Duke Marsden of Hy Braseal, had sent his regrets at being unable to attend, but he was busy dealing with the fallout of several more HBLA attacks. Ally's parents were some way down the table, and Chorus was near then end, though he had shown no particular regret at the situation. Holly Bualo, attending with her father, Baron Arris Bualo, may have had something to do with it.

Ally had engaged in a spirited conversation with Duke Hassan during the meal (it was too polite to be called an argument). Though the Duke had obviously disagreed with several of Ally's personal qualities, he had been exquisitely polite, and by the end of the meal the two had reached an unspoken agreement that while they would never be great friends, they could at least respect each other.

Right now the seventh and final course was being cleared away, although Ally, never a big eater to begin with, had been stuffed after the first four. With the last plates removed from the table by the efficient servants, the King got to his feet and cleared his throat to call for silence.

"My Lords and Ladies," he said, his voice carrying easily throughout the room. "As I promised earlier, we have arrived at the flowery speeches part of the evening." Laughter rolled around the table. "I have decided to exercise my Royal privilege and speak first, though I will be brief."

"Thank Isis," Evelynne said in a stage whisper, and everyone laughed again.

"Earlier this evening I said most of what I wanted to say," King Jad continued. "All I can do is reiterate my sentiments: I am more grateful than I can express that my daughter has come home alive. I am especially thankful to Ishta Tretiak for saving her life. I was actually searching for an appropriate way to reward this wonderful young woman and was unable to think of anything, when one of my close friends, Duke Thomas, suggested a reward that I found particularly apt." Evelynne and Ally both shot surprised looks at the elderly Duke. This was the first they had heard of his involvement. "I am therefore honoured and pleased to announce that, with the blessing of both the Canadian and British governments and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, in several months Alleandre Tretiak will be knighted to become Dame Alleandre Tretiak, Sponsored by Her Highness Princess Evelynne deMolay." The dinner guests erupted in conversation, as those who had not heard the rumours reacted to the King's announcement. Most of the people reacted with surprise, and a few were obviously delighted, though they were balanced by the few who were clearly disapproving. King Jad continued over the din, "I am certain that Princess Evelynne's first Sponsorship will create a positive precedent for her future." The King raised his glass. "To Princess Evelynne and Ishta Tretiak!"

The assembled guests echoed the salutation as Ally grinned sheepishly and her parents, Evelynne and Chorus smiled in pride.

Duke Thomas was the next to rise. "I have had the privilege of being able to speak with young Alleandre several times since she graced our nation with her presence," he began without preamble, "and I have been struck by the grace, intelligence and insight she displays. I think that even if I had met her in some manner other than as a result of the unfortunate events which forced her here I would still have been honoured to call her a friend. I am therefore truly honoured to be able to present to her a reward for bringing home our princess, whom I consider to be my own granddaughter. The Hall of Nobles has created a fund in Ishta Tretiak's name, and each has donated a sum from their own Privy Purses. At last count, the sum total of the fund was... let me check to make sure..." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. "Ah, yes. Two million, four hundred sixteen thousand, eight hundred and fifty seven tali." Ally became ware that she was staring dumbfounded, her mouth hanging open. Duke Thomas saw her and shook a finger at her. "My dear, did you think that we just passed a hat around the office?"

A chuckle arose around the table as Duke Thomas sat down again, leaving Ally to attempt to regain her composure. Evelynne rested a comforting hand on her arm.

Two million tali! Ally thought. That's, like... a million dollars! Oh my God. And I thought that reward I got in Australia was a lot.

A number of other people stood up to make speeches. Most followed the King's lead and kept them relatively short, although a couple rambled on for several minutes before making their point. The Canadian Ambassador spoke of Canada's pride in producing such a distinguished "Native Daughter", and made it sound as if he personally were responsible. The Ambassador of France expressed her country's regret that such a terrible event had occurred on its soil, and concluded by stating a hope that it would not affect future visits. The Italian and Swiss Ambassadors, representing countries that the princess would have visited had her tour not been cut short, issued open invitations for future visits.

Ally had absolutely no desire to speak, and thankfully it appeared that nobody expected her to. She suspected that her discomfort with public speaking, well known by now to both the King and Evelynne, had been taken into account.

Evelynne had planned on making a speech of her own, but seeing the tension and growing tiredness on her friend's face she opted against drawing more attention. Instead, once the other speeches had ended, she sent her father a prearranged signal with a tilt of her head and a raised eyebrow.

Receiving the message, King Jad nodded slightly in understanding and stood once more. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he announced, "I am afraid we must bid goodnight to our guests of honour. Ishta Tretiak has yet to recover fully from her injuries, and I have been told that she has a therapy session early tomorrow morning." It wasn't completely true. Her therapy wasn't until the afternoon, but the fiction allowed her to save face.

The other guests rose to bid farewell to Ally and Evelynne, and Ally didn't have to feign fatigue as she was helped to her feet. After a final round of farewells, they left the dining room, accompanied by Ally's parents and Chorus, as well as the King and Queen.

"You don't have to leave with us," Ally protested to her parents and friend. "If you want to stay you can. I'm just totally wiped right now."

Catherine hesitated and looked at her husband. "I wouldn't mind staying a while longer," she admitted. "I was having a fascinating discussion with Duke Thomas about aquaculture."

"Certainly," Evelynne said. "When you're ready to go just tell one of the servants and they'll get the Seneschal to arrange transportation. I assume you'd like to stay as well." This last was directed, with a twinkle in her eye, at Chorus, who smiled unashamedly.

"Oh, I think I'll be able to suffer through a bit longer," he confirmed.

"Then that's settled," the King said. He hugged Evelynne, holding her for several long moments. Then he did the same for Ally. "Sleep well, both of you," he instructed.

"Thank you, Sir," Ally said. She received a warm hug and kiss from her father and mother, who echoed the King's sentiments. "Good night."

Ally's tired mind, stressed from the evening's events, barely registered the short walk out of the Hall to the limousine. Once inside she leaned her head back just for a moment, to rest her eyes, and then knew nothing more.

Continued in Chapter 15

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