Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers see Chapter 1

Author's Note 1: To those people who responded to my mother's threats of magical retribution: Thank you. Your karmic signatures are being cleansed as you read this. To those who did not reply: Beware! Bewaaaaaaare! Mwahahahahahaaa!!

Author's Note 2: If you happen to respond better to pathetic pleas, maybe the fact that it's my birthday today (Dec 15) will move you. My God, I'm turning 26!!! Canes, walkers, Depens, and dentures may be sent to:

"O you who in a little bark, desirous to listen, have followed behind my craft that singing passes on, turn to see again your shores; put not out upon the deep; for haply, losing me, you would remain astray. The water which I take was never crossed. Minerva breathes and guides me, and nine muses point out to me the Bears."

- Dante, Paradiso

Chapter 15

"Evelynne, do you mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?" Ally asked as she walked into the main study of the Summer Palace.

Evelynne looked up from the old, leather-bound book she was reading and smiled in greeting. "Of course you can. You know you don't need to ask." She took a moment to assess Ally's demeanour, and was pleased with what she saw. A few days before after the banquet she had been pale, drawn, and obviously stressed, and had slept until nearly noon the day after. Now, though, her friend was much more relaxed and rested, and even now seemed to radiate a confident poise that made her extremely attractive. Not that I'm biased or anything, Evelynne thought with an internal smile.

The taller woman came closer and sat down in a chair opposite the princess. "Well, I wasn't sure if you were busy, or…"

Her companion made a face. "No, not really. I'm just brushing up on my heraldry." She held up the book she had been reading. Ally looked at the title, but it was written in Lantlan and she couldn't translate it. "This is one of the classics on heraldic symbolism. It's very complete and very interesting, but it was written in 1872 and the author was somewhat… long-winded."

"So why are you reading it?"

"For you, silly. You can't very well be a knight without a coat of arms, and as your Sponsor it is my responsibility to provide you with them."

Ally blushed. "Oh. Don't you just put some animals or something on a shield?"

"Oh, Isis, no!" Evelynne exclaimed. "Every part of the blazon has meaning. The type of animal, the various bars that cross the shield - those are called ordinaries, by the way - their positions. Even the colours used are symbolic. For example, red symbolises 'military fortitude' or 'magnanimity', silver is 'peace and sincerity', and so on."

"Oh," Ally repeated. "So you have to try to describe… well… me using those symbols?"

"You, your actions and achievements, part of your history if I can. Of course, this will just be your initial blazon. As time goes on you'll gain more achievements and your arms could change. And then if you ever have children, and one of them is knighted, they'll inherit it."

"Well, I don't know about the 'having kids' part," Ally said wryly, "but I suppose stranger things have happened."

"Indeed they have," Evelynne agreed, trying to imagine Ally as a mother. It was surprisingly easy. She shook off the image. "Speaking of parenthood, where are yours? Your parents, I mean."

"Well, Dad is talking planting times and cultivation techniques with James in the garden, and Mom went in to Kilim for the afternoon. Duke Thomas apparently promised to introduce her to one of the local cetacean biologists, so she's going to be in her own little world for a while. Chorus went with her. He mumbled something about 'Baron Bumbbmbmbbl's *cough* daughter'." Ally managed to mimic Chorus' voice perfectly."

"Well, good for him," Evelynne said, grinning delightedly. "So you mean I've got you all to myself?" Oo, bad princess!

"I'm all yours," Ally confirmed, then seemed to realise what she had said. She flushed predictably. "Um, that is… I'm… Yes, you have me," she finally said, deciding to simply let the slip go and hopefully die a quiet death.

"Good," the princess said. Oooh, Ally, you have no idea what you do to me, do you? She quickly drew her mind back from that line of thought. "So what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Oh, right." Ally also seemed to have to bring her thoughts back on track. "Well, you know how some people have been talking to me about giving an interview?"

"Nobody's been pressuring you?" Evelynne asked, suddenly protective.

"No, no," Ally said. "I mean, they obviously want me to, but they haven't been insisting or anything. And I suppose that since I haven't said, 'No,' outright that they're justified in asking. Anyway, I was thinking of just giving an interview and getting it over with." She paused momentarily. "Plus, I've seen some of the articles and things that have been written already, and they haven't all been… totally accurate. So I thought I'd just kind of set the record straight."

"That makes sense," Evelynne said. "What do your parents say?"

"Well, they both know just how much I hate being the centre of attention, but they also think I'll keep getting hounded until I do. Also, I've been talking to Annie and some other family members, and they've been getting asked questions, too, but they didn't want to say anything until I'd said something. I'm hoping if I do this they'll finally be left alone."

"It sounds as if you've already made up your mind."

"I guess so," Ally admitted. "But I wanted to run it by you first. You have more experience than I do in this kind of thing, anyway."

"That I do. So how exactly did you want to do it?"

"Well… I was wanting to talk to a Canadian reporter, probably someone from CBC. I always thought they had a good reputation. But I also thought I should talk to someone from your main network - LANTA, is it? After all, this is where I am at the moment, and in a while I'll be a citizen, so it only seemed polite."

Evelynne nodded approvingly. "Very diplomatic. I'll make a Lady out of you yet. And you said you weren't a people person," she said chidingly. "So that's two television interviews. How would you want that to work? One interview with each, both reporters at the same time?" She knew the situation which she thought was the optimal one, but wanted to see if Ally would reach the same conclusion.

Ally seemed to be thinking hard. "Well, I'd prefer to just have one interview and get it over with, I don't know if that would work. I mean, all the in-depth interviews I've ever seen have been one on one. So maybe… if I did two interviews, but made them actually air them at the same time?"

"Excellent," Evelynne praised. So now we've decided on the TV part. Have you thought about newspapers? They tend to be more detailed, which can also be a good thing."

Ally smiled. "Actually, yes. I thought about talking to someone from the Parksville Reporter." She chuckled. "It's hardly the National Post or Globe and Mail, but I know the editor. He was my English teacher in high school, and I really liked him. He's also really good. He's been offered positions at several bigger newspapers, but turned them down. He doesn't want the big city life. I thought that if he wrote up an article, he could publish it, and then sell it to other newspapers if he wanted."

Evelynne grinned as well. "I like it. It's pleasantly… perverse. Besides, if you like this person, I think he deserves it."

"I have to say there's another reason for wanting to do this. The interviews, I mean. A kind of ulterior motive." Ally flushed slightly.


"Well… I was thinking about it last night and thought that it would be… fun to shove all this into the faces of all the people who used to call me a freak. Kind of a… 'kiss my ass' statement." She chuckled sheepishly.

Evelynne, though, broke into peals of laughter. "Oh, that's perfect," she said after several moments, still giggling. "You know, it's good to know you're not always as noble as you usually seem." The princess grinned again. "Besides, I dare you to say that during the interview."

The sound of laughter escaped from the other room as the door opened, and Evelynne let out a breath and relaxed. She hadn't even realised how tense she had been. Now though, as she heard a low voice saying something she couldn't catch, and Ally's genuine laughter in reply, she realised that she need not have been worrying.

The door turned out to have been opened by the cameraman who had been taping the interview, who stopped, startled at the sight of the princess lurking outside the door. With an awkward half bow and mumbled greeting, he quickly escaped toward the front of the Palace, no doubt to get help dismantling the lighting and sound equipment within the study.

Taking the cameraman's leaving as confirmation that the interview was at an end, Evelynne walked casually to the door she had "just happened" to have been loitering outside for the last two hours and looked into the study. Sure enough, although the camera was still set up, the large bright lights had been dimmed, leaving the gentler light from several lamps to illuminate the scene.

Ally looked casually elegant, and was carefully attempting to unclip the small collar microphone from her green silk blouse, but appeared to have somehow tangled the cord. Evan Waterman, the reporter from the CBC, was laughingly giving suggestions, but from Ally's disgruntled expression he was not actually helping much.

At that moment, Ally seemed to sense Evelynne's gaze upon her, and looked up. Despite her predicament, her eyes were clear and relaxed, if a little embarrassed. "Evelynne," Ally greeted, "do you think you could give me a hand with this? I think this thing has a mind of its own. It doesn't want to leave and go home."

Ally was squirming slightly in her seat, trying to untangle the cord which ran inside her shirt. I don't blame it, Evelynne thought. I wouldn't want to leave either. She flushed slightly and pushed the thought aside. Walking into the room, she was grateful that the spotlights were off and her blush was hidden.

Mr Waterman stood quickly as the princess entered, executing a decent formal bow. "Your Highness," he said.

"Mr Waterman," Evelynne replied. "How did the interview go?"

"Very well, I believe, Your Highness. Of course, it is always easier with an intelligent and co-operative subject." He smiled down at Ally.

Evelynne's eyes widened slightly at the praise. While she had no doubt about her friend's intelligence, she was a little surprised at a reporter calling Ally co-operative, especially after the last interview. She looked at the Canadian reporter with new respect. He must have been particularly effective to get Ally to relax.

"Unfortunately, your co-operative subject is finding her equipment less than co-operative," Ally interjected, pausing in her attempts to extricate herself. She looked up at Evelynne. "I think I really do need a hand… or two."

"Okay, let's see what I can do." Evelynne dropped to her knees before her friend, leaving Waterman standing.

For several minutes, while desperately trying to ignore just what her hands were in close proximity to, Evelynne worked to try to untangle the microphone cord. Finally, though, the cord outside Ally's blouse was straightened. Unfortunately, it refused to budge from inside Ally's shirt.

"It's stuck on something," Evelynne said unnecessarily.

"I know." Ally lowered her voice. "I think it's stuck on my… um… my bra."

"Oh," the princess replied at the same volume. "Well, can you reach in and get it?"

Ally's eyes flicked to the reporter, who was politely ignoring the scene. "Um… not without being really obvious."

"Oh, okay." The princess turned to address Waterman. "Excuse me, could you give us a moment here?"

"Certainly, Your Highness," the reporter said. "I'll just be right outside."

 As soon as he had left the room and closed the door, Evelynne turned back to face Ally. "Okay, do you think you can get it now?" she asked.

Ally flushed, but gamely reached into her blouse, one hand through the collar and one from beneath, to try to once again extricate herself. She could feel the tangle, somewhere around her left armpit, but found it was too awkward to release. "Damnit," she swore. "I can feel it… right here… but I can't… get it." She sighed in frustration. "I managed to get it on easily enough."

Evelynne had to restrain herself from laughing at the look of fierce concentration on Ally's face. "Should I try?" The words were out before the princess could censor herself.

The taller woman looked startled, then semi-reluctantly lifted her left arm out of the way. "Um, okay."

Evelynne carefully brought her hands to the indicated area. She valiantly tried to ignore exactly where the area was, and the heat, enhanced by Ally's obvious blush, which radiated through the silk. Despite the distraction, she was able to quickly find the tangled knot of wire, but found herself unable to untie it through the barrier of the fabric. "Isis, Ally, how did you manage to do this? It feels like it's wrapped around the strap." Finally giving up, she said, "Okay, I think there are two ways to do this. One, you can go to the bathroom and try to untangle yourself. Two, you can just open your blouse here and I can try again." Evelynne strove to keep her tone even and businesslike, although several parts of her were definitely rooting for the second option. Knowing her friend's shyness, though, she didn't hold out much hope.

She was therefore very surprised when Ally, after a few moments' thought and a marked increase in temperature, said, "Um, okay. At the moment the second option seems easier right now." Noticing the princess' surprised expression, Ally felt the heat in her face increase again, and explained, "I mean… you've already seen me naked, right?"

Shaking herself out of her shock, and positive that Ally would be able to hear the cheering going on in her head, Evelynne relied, "Right. Besides, we're both women, here. Although in your case…"

Ally smiled wryly. "I'll try to behave myself."

Damnit. The thought unknowingly echoed through both minds.

Ally brought up her hands and called upon all her mental discipline to keep her hands from shaking as she unbuttoned her shirt. Although it was rather loose, she still had to release all the buttons in order to reveal the problem. Finally, she held the left side open as she waited for Evelynne to do her job.

For her part, Evelynne found herself intensely focussed on the body before her, even though she tried to concentrate solely on disentangling the knotted microphone cord. She took in Ally's increased respiration, which hitched slightly when she accidentally brushed against her friend's breast. Despite herself, the reaction surprised her. Is she attracted to me? the princess wondered. Catching a glimpse of Ally's face from the corner of her eye, she noticed the flared nostrils, the clenched jaw and the convulsive swallow, and a kind of cautiously optimistic joy rose up. Now is not the time to go onto this, Evelynne told herself firmly. Not in the middle of the study, and certainly not with a reporter waiting right outside the door.

That decided, it was - unfortunately, Evelynne thought - an easy matter to actually untangle the errant wire from where it had somehow managed to wrap itself around Ally's bra strap. The princess stood holding it while Ally quickly rebuttoned herself.

I wonder if I can keep this, Evelynne thought, and immediately slapped herself mentally in the back of the head.

Ally had just finished the buttons when a diffident knock sounded at the door. "Your Highness? Ms Tretiak?" Waterman's voice asked. "If you're having too much trouble, I have some scissors you can use."

"Now he tells us," Ally muttered, although Evelynne noted that she did not seem unduly upset.

"Thank God that's over," Ally breathed with a sigh. She let herself collapse backwards into a large armchair.

Around her, the study showed no signs of the equipment that had recently filled it, and Evelynne smiled as she lowered herself into a chair opposite in a more dignified manner. "It didn't seem to go too badly," she said. "You seemed to get along with Mr Waterman. Unlike before with Mr D'Lin." She frowned. "I'm sorry about that, by the way."

Ally waved away the apology. "It's not your fault. It wasn't even Mr D'Lin's fault, really. I think we were just two people whose psyches are wholly and completely incompatible."

The interview with the reporter from LANTA, Altantl's main television network, had occurred earlier that morning. Only Robert D'Lin's professionalism and Ally's sheer determination had prevented it from becoming a disaster. The problem had not even been that they didn't like each other, but as the interview progressed, they had both grown more and more edgy and curt in both questions and responses. With her heightened psychic awareness, Ally suspected that the reason was a literal incompatibility between their minds, two psyches attempting to communicate on two different frequencies, creating a pattern of destructive interference. She knew that everyone tended to meet people that they didn't like, for no rational reason, and chalked it up to some kind of "psychic interference".

"If you say so," Evelynne didn't look convinced. She only knew that Ally had emerged from the interview pale, tense, and near tears, and the sight had stirred fierce protective instincts. "He is considered one of LANTA's top reporters," she admitted grudgingly.

"He must be," Ally agreed. "If he wasn't, I don't think we would have finished the interview."

"Okay." Since Ally clearly had no hard feelings, Evelynne felt petty holding onto her grudge, and coaxed her protective side, still growling, back into its cave. "So you're talking to… Who was it, Mr Tyler? Your old teacher? You're talking to him this evening?"

All nodded. "I offered to fly him out here, but he broke his leg a few weeks ago and really didn't want to fly. So instead, we'll be talking on the phone. That should be good."

"Well, it'll definitely be less exciting." Evelynne's gaze found itself drawn to Ally's torso, where she had recently freed the microphone wire.

"Oh, yeah," Ally said, reddening. She ducked her head. The comment had reminded her of an idea which had been brewing the last few days… since the banquet, to be precise. It concerned her growing feelings for Evelynne, which she had successfully been suppressing, but the afternoon's unexpected and intimate events had brought them surging to the fore.

"On another note," Ally said, "there was something else I wanted to talk to you about." She hesitated, uncertain of how to proceed.

"Yes?" Evelynne asked. She could see that her friend was struggling with something, but wasn't sure what it was.

"Um, I 'm not sure how to put this, but… I think I need a break," Ally said.

"A break? From what? The interviews are almost over."

"No, it's… Please don't take this the wrong way, but… I need a break from… all this." Ally's expansive gesture took in the whole room. "All of the people, the banquets, the interviews… everything."

"Oh." Evelynne thought she understood now. "You mean a vacation? We could do that. We could go and visit one of the retreats that…" She trailed off upon seeing Ally's uncomfortable expression. "What's wrong?"

Ally felt terrible. "That isn't quite what I meant. If you and I went somewhere, we'd still take along a bunch of servants, bodyguards, and so on, and that's part of what I want to get away from." She sighed. "You know I'm naturally a very… private person, and having people around all the time is… draining. Don't get me wrong, I've been having a really good time, but being around people constantly is just really exhausting for me. You seem to actually gain energy from personal interaction, but for someone like me, each person I talk to… wears off a bit of my armour, and eventually I start feeling… raw."

"Oh." The princess was surprised. She knew that her friend often got tired easily in social situations, but had not realised that it was an ongoing process. "So… you want to leave?" She carefully hid the pain she felt.

"I don't want to, really, but I think I need to," Ally said. "I can feel it right now." She placed a hand in the centre of her chest. "Right around here. It's almost a physical sensation… like someone's rubbing my soul with sandpaper."

"Ouch." Evelynne managed to quirk a half smile. "So were you thinking about going back to Canada with your parents?"

Ally shook her head. "No, I think that would be worse. If I go back it'll just start all over again. I'll be a celebrity again, and I'll have to deal with more reporters, people wanting to meet me, talk with me. And I won't even have the insulation that you've been able to provide here with all the security. I know I'll have to go back eventually, but right now I don't think I can."

"Okay, I can understand that." Now that she knew what to look for, Evelynne could almost see effects of the strain Ally had been under, and kicked herself for not noticing the toll her friend was paying sooner. "So if you're not going back there, where did you want to go?" Though her tone was calm, inside her heart was breaking.

"Well… I was thinking of maybe buying or renting a house or apartment somewhere here in Atlantl, since I am apparently a wealthy woman now." Ally smiled self-deprecatingly. "I'd do it quietly, so that there's no big fanfare, and just become a hermit for a couple of weeks. After that?" She shrugged. "I don't know. I was also thinking of maybe applying to a university to start my Master's degree."

"Are you going to be able to live on your own? You know, with your back and all? What about your physiotherapy?"

"I thought I'd use my new-found wealth to hire someone to come in and clean every few days. I've never been a big fan of cleaning anyway. As for my back, I can basically do my exercises on my own now. I'd still go in for check-ups, but that's easy to set up."

"It sounds like you have everything worked out." Despite her best efforts, Evelynne couldn't entirely keep the mildly petulant tone out of her voice. "You've been thinking about this for a while."

"Yeah." Ally looked embarrassed. I can't tell you the other reason for doing this, she thought. I'm getting in too deep with you. It's all very well to put on a brave face with Annie or Mom about what I'll do when you finally do get together with Count Whatsisname's son, or some other suitably heterosexual male, but I know it'll be hell. So I need to start some kind of separation now, so that you can move on with your life without me holding you back.

"Can I come and visit, at least?" Evelynne asked.

"Of course! You're still my friend, Evelynne." Although I wish you could be more. "Not only that, but soon you'll also be my Liege Lady, so it's not as if I can say, 'No,' can I?" Ally managed a genuine smile.

"Darned right," Evelynne said firmly, returning the grin.

"So what do you think, Mom?" Ally asked. She waited nervously for her mother's reply.

"I like it," Mrs Tretiak answered as she walked back into the room. "I especially like this living room. It's very bright and open." She looked around the large sitting room, taking in the white walls, made especially bright by the afternoon sun pouring through the large westward facing windows.

"It'll get a bit smaller once I get some furniture in here," Ally commented. "I thought I'd go into town the day after tomorrow once I move in to find some."

"Something in a nice beige would be good. But that's up to you. It is your house, after all." Catherine laughed. "Your house. I never thought I'd see the day." She moved to wrap an arm around her daughter.

Ally shrugged. "I figured that since I'd be here until at least the new year I might as well get something good. At least the bedrooms are bigger than my one at home."

"That they certainly are." Her mother paused, uncertain of how to bring up the next topic. "So you think you'll stay here until then? You're not going to be staying with Evelynne?"

"Subtle as usual, Mom. No, I told her I need some 'alone time', which is true. I also figure that she's going to be more and more busy, and I really don't want her to have to keep on taking care of me." Ally saw her mother's penetrating stare and folded. "I also think that if I can create a little distance now it'll make it easier when she moves on," she said quietly. "It'll also give me a chance to get on with my life. I hope we stay friends, though."

Catherine wrapped her daughter in a gentle hug. "Of course you will. Trust me, nobody forgets you easily. And don't worry, some day you'll have a princess all your own."

Ally squeezed her mother tightly, then pulled back. "Thanks, Mom." She looked around the room once more. "So where did Dad get to?"

"Right here," the man in question answered as he walked into the living room. "I was checking out your back yard. You have a very nice swimming pool back there. It almost makes me wish we weren't flying home tomorrow." He looked at Ally sternly. "You just be careful about swimming there by yourself, especially with your back."

"Relax, Dad," Ally chuckled. "You know me. Do you honestly think I'm really in danger of drowning?"

"Maybe not," William admitted. "But you be careful anyway. I also noticed that the trees and hedge in the back yard block any view from your neighbours, even though they are half a kilometre away."

"Really?" Ally said innocently. "I hadn't noticed." She saw her father's disapproving stare. "Okay, okay. I thought they might be useful in case I went… out at night."

"As odd as this may sound, I wish that only meant that you were going skinny dipping."

"Dad! Please!"

"I know." This time it was William's turn to embrace his child. "You just make sure you're careful, alright?"

"Aren't I always?"

"Ha!" Catherine barked. She tapped Ally's cane. "Look at what happened the last time you were 'careful'."

Ally ostentatiously cast her eyes around the luxurious room. "And this turned out badly how, exactly?"

Ally held her breath, ignoring the vestigial pain in her back, as her mother hugged her fiercely and seemed disinclined to let go. Finally, though, she had to pull back slightly. "Sorry. No oxygen," she explained.

Catherine relaxed her hold slightly, but didn't completely release her. "Sorry," she mumbled into Ally's shirt. Finally she pulled back and looked up into her daughter's face with watery eyes. "I'm going to miss you."

"I know, Mom. I'll miss you too." Ally smiled. "You know you can come and visit any time, right? Since I'm no longer broke I can fly you out here whenever you want."

Catherine smiled back and pulled away to wipe at her eyes. "I don't know," she said. "I barely survived the last flight out here. I'm not sure I could do it again."

"Don't worry, there'll be no helicopters next time. Besides, you can try out that technique I showed you. You remember it, right?"

Catherine obediently placed her right hand palm outward and her left palm up. "The Shih…"

"… Shih Wu Wei Yin," Ally completed. "Now try to meditate like that."

Her mother dropped her hands. "I'll give it a try." She stepped back to allow her husband to take her place.

A naturally less emotive man, William settled for pressing his daughter into a single strong hug. "You take care now," he whispered, his voice suspiciously hoarse. "We love you."

"I love you both too, Dad," Ally whispered back.

Nodding, he pulled back to allow the final member of the small group that was leaving to say goodbye.

Chorus moved forward and extended a hand in Ally's direction. The young woman took and held it for a moment before pulling him into a hug as well, much to his surprise. "You take care of my Mom and Dad, you hear?" she whispered fiercely.

The stocky man hugged her back. "I will," he promised. "And you take care of Evelynne." For once, his tone was free of innuendo. "She needs a friend."

Ally nodded and pulled away.

Seeing that Ally had finished her goodbyes, Evelynne stepped forward from where she had been waiting and offered a hand to Mr Tretiak, who was closest. "Have a good trip, William," she said. "I know my father is sorry he couldn't be here to see you off."

"Well, I'm sure he couldn't be doing anything more important," William said jokingly. He moved closer and spoke in a voice intended for the princess' ears alone. "Please protect Alleandre, Evelynne," he asked earnestly. "She isn't always as strong as she seems."

"I promise," Evelynne vowed in an equally low voice.

After a final round of hugs and farewells, the older Tretiaks, plus Chorus, made their way down the covered walkway to the plane that would take them on the first stage of their journey back to Canada. Ally's mother had flatly refused to be placed on another helicopter after her previous disastrous journey.

Ally, Evelynne, Maïda, and the assembled members of the Heir's Guard watched until the airplane was out of sight.

Eventually, Ally turned away and let out her breath in an explosive sigh.

Evelynne smiled sympathetically. "You okay?" she asked. "You look like you want to go with them."

Ally shrugged. "Part of me does. Okay, a big part of me does. But I still think I'm doing the right thing."

"Good," the princess said. She started toward the doors to the first class departure lounge of the Outremer airport with Ally, her Guards moving with her like a cloud. Looking out the window at the setting sun, she said, "Well, let's get you back to your new house. You must be excited about moving in." Evelynne wished she could muster some enthusiasm for her friend's situation.

"So what do you think?" Ally unconsciously echoed her earlier question to her mother, although this time it was directed at Evelynne.

"It's nice," the princess said. "It's not as big as the Summer Palace, of course, but…"

"Evelynne, I hate to break it to you, but there are sports arenas which aren't as big as the Summer Palace."

Evelynne smiled wryly. "True." Turning serious, she asked, "Are you sure you're going to be okay here one your own?"

"I'll be fine," Ally assured her. "I'll be going into Outremer tomorrow to pick out some furniture. My Mom has left me detailed instructions on suitable colours and styles." Both Ally and Evelynne grinned. "Someone will be coming in to clean the place every few days."

"Good," Evelynne said. "And you have the number to call in an emergency?"

"It's right up here." Ally tapped her head. She rattled it off.

"Good," the princess said again. For some reason she couldn't think of more to say. Awkwardly, she said, "Well… then I guess I'll leave you to get settled in." She hesitantly held out her arms in Ally's direction.

Ally willing moved into them, and the two women spent several moments holding each other.

"I'll come and visit you," Evelynne promised, "I'll call beforehand."

"Excellent. And you don't need to call. You're more than welcome anytime."

"Thank you," Evelynne whispered, and it wasn't clear just what she was thankful for.

Ally still seemed to understand. "You're welcome."

Evelynne looked up into Ally's face. Greatly daring, she stretched upwards and brushed her lips across Ally's. Then she turned and hurried out the front door into the darkness beyond.

Ally stood, slightly stunned, listening to the sound of the engines as the princess' escort started off down the road towards Outremer, and from there back to the Summer Palace. She lifted her fingers to her mouth briefly, feeling oddly both exhilarated and depressed.

"I've got to get out of here," she said aloud, turning and making her way to the door leading to the back yard.

A few minutes later, the recently purchased property was vacant.

To be continued in Chapter 16

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