Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"During this Storm, which was followed by a strong Wind West South-west, we were carried by my Computation about five hundred Leagues to the East, so that the oldest Sailor on Board could not tell in what part of the World we were. Our Provisions held out well, our Ship was staunch, and our Crew all in good Health; but we lay in the utmost Distress for Water. We thought it best to hold on the same Course, rather than turn more Northerly, which might have brought us to the North-west parts of Great Tartary, and into the frozen Sea.

"On the 16th Day of June 1703 a Boy on the Top-mast discovered Land. On the 17th we came in full View of a great Island or Continent (for we knew not whether) on the South-side whereof was a small Neck of Land jutting out into the Sea, and a Creek too shallow to hold a Ship of above one hundred Tuns. We cast Anchor within a League of this Creek, and our Captain sent a dozen of his Men well armed in the Long Boat, with Vessels for Water if any could be found. I desired his leave to go with them, that I might see the Country, and make what Discoveries I could."

- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Chapter 24

"No really, Dad, I'm glad you called. I'm just a bit surprised since it's so early over there. Or late, depending on how you look at it." It was about eight in the morning on Saturday at the Summer Palace in Atlantl, which meant that it was just after one am at Ally's parents' house in British Columbia.

*"Well, you can blame your Mother for this. She wants to leave right away so that she can be up in Prince George as soon as possible. Who knows how long she'll be."*

Ally laughed. "Yeah, knowing Mom she won't even throw up in the plane. Get her a flight with a whale at the end of it and she's in her own little world. Is she worried about what she might find?"

*"A little, of course. This particular humpback isn't a member of the resident pod, and loners are usually much farther south at this time of year. So she doesn't know if it's just lost, or if it's sick, or if it's looking to join the residents in the area. If it's just passing through she'll tag it and observe for as long as it's around. If it's ill, she'll have to consult with all the usual groups about what to do next. So neither of us has any idea how long she'll be away this time."*

"Oh well, at least Mom'll be having fun. What about you? How are your students doing this term?"

*"Oh, just fine for the most part. I had a very interesting visit from one mother whose son came to the school last term, demanding to know why I failed her little darling. She was less than impressed when I told her that simple attendance never guarantees a pass in my class. My students actually have to earn their grades."*

Ally tsked into the phone. "Now, Dad, you're being unreasonable. Think of how terrible it would be if we all had to actually work to get ahead." She shook her head, even though her father couldn't see her. "Setting the bar high is so anti-egalitarian, you know. How do you expect lazy people to compete?"

William chucked as well. *"Tough beans. The fact that I have a bar at all upsets some people."* Changing the subject, he asked, *"And how are you doing? I don't need to say that your Mother and I were very worried about what happened last week. How is that turning out?"* Unsaid was the fact that both of Ally's parents were willing to drop everything and fight tooth and nail to protect their daughter if necessary.

"It's been okay so far," Ally said cautiously. "I think the head of the Guard and I have reached... an understanding. She's still feeling me out at the moment, and I have no illusions that she trusts me completely, but she hasn't made any big waves."

*"Good."* A pause. *"One reason I ask is that your Mother says that there are at least two people watching us at all times, regardless of where we go. I was a bit sceptical, since I've never seen them myself, but then you know that your Mother is more... perceptive than I am. She says they aren't hostile. In fact, there is apparently a 'protective' air about them. Like they're guarding us. Is that part of your... arrangement?"*

Ally thought furiously. "No, we never discussed anything like that. You say they're not bothering you at all?" Her father gave the affirmative. "Okay, I'll see what I can find out. Until then, pretend you don't know they're there. I don't want you tipping them off."

*"No problem. Personally, I didn't even know they were there anyway, so it won't take much acting on my part. So how are you and Princess Evelynne doing? You said she was rather shaken."*

Ally winced. "Yeah, she was kind of freaked out, not that I'm blaming her or anything. Unfortunately, we havenět had much chance to talk, since she's been really busy this last week." She knew her father was concerned that his daughter was involved with the princess, so she did not elaborate or mention her suspicion that Evelynne's large workload was an avoidance mechanism. She also refused to show how hurt she was at her friend's actions. "Still, she called last night and said she'd be ho... back at the Palace some time today. She just has to tie up a few loose ends in Outremer."

*"Well... good. Hold on a moment, will you, dear?"* William's voice became muffled as her spoke to someone on the other end. *"Your Mother is out of the shower and we're going to head to the airport now. Do you want to speak with her again before we go?"*

"No, that's okay, I'll catch up when she gets back. Oh, before I forget. Have you checked you bank account recently?" Since Ally's father had not mentioned anything about it, she knew that he had not.

*"No, not for a while,"* he confirmed. *"Why?"*

"Oh, nothing much. Before you check it again, though, could you make an appointment with your doctor to get your heart checked? Trust me on this."

The limousine pulled up to the impressive front doors of the Summer Palace, and Evelynne drew in a deep breath to calm her stomach. A Guard opened the door and held out a hand to help her out of the car, and she managed to grace him with a thankful smile. On the other side of the vehicle, another Guard aided Maïda to exit.

The rain had ceased, but the dark clouds overhead threatened to spill at any moment, so the princess and her lady-in-waiting wasted no time hurrying up the steps to the doors, where the Seneschal was waiting to greet them. "Good afternoon, Your Highness," he said, reaching out to remove Evelynne's coat. "I trust your trip went well."

"Quite well, thank you," Evelynne half-lied. "We managed to get a lot of work done." That much at least was true. Looking around, the princess was half-relieved and half-disappointed that she Ally Had not arrived to meet her. "Where is Ally, Ylan? Do you know?"

"I believe Dame Alleandre is in the gymnasium, Your Highness," Nancu Ylan said. "We were uncertain of the exact time of your arrival."

"The gym?" Evelynne's brow furrowed. "Does she have physical therapy today?"

"No, Your Highness. Dame Alleandre has begun to exercise with Sir Arthur."

"Really?" The princess was surprised. "When did this start?"

"I believe their first session was yesterday, Your Highness. I am afraid they become quite focussed on their activities. It is possible they did not receive the message of your arrival."

Either that or Ally is so mad she doesn't want to see me, Evelynne thought guiltily. Although even if she is, Uncle Arthur would still come and meet me. So maybe they are just... busy. But I didn't think Ally worked out a lot. Turning to Maïda who was standing nearby, Evelynne said, "Maï-ma, do you have that bag?"

"Yes, Highness, right here," the other woman replied, holding out the cloth bag, which Evelynne took.

"Oh good. Do you want to come with me?" Evelynne's question was casual, but Maïda could easily see the anxiety behind her words.

"Of course, Highness."

Ally was standing with her legs apart in a balanced stance, her hand held loosely in front of her in a casual guard position. "Okay," she was saying to Sir Arthur, who was standing in front of her while Theodora Nixon looked on, "now if you come in with a punch..." Obediently the bodyguard threw a right-handed punch in exaggerated slow motion. "As it comes in, I sweep aside with Butterfly Hands -" Ally's hands crossed at the wrist, her left hand on the right, fingers spread, with her palms pointed to the right, and, equally slowly, brushed the incoming fist to the side. "- but the fist is trapped by the Hands, even though I'm not grasping it in any way. At the same time, I'm stepping back -" She moved her right foot backward, maintaining the stance. "- while still trapping the incoming hand, and drawing you forward and off balance at the same time. Once you're committed and falling forward, the Butterfly Flaps Its Wings -" Her wrists rolled over one another, reversing the position of her hands. "- and what was a block is now a strike or a push along your exposed right side." The heels of her open hands contacted Sir Arthur along the right side of his rib cage, and with an odd rolling motion that seemed to rotate around her hips, thrust forward with her hands. It was a deceptively gentle move, as even at its slow speed, it pushed Sir Arthur's large body back a step.

Recovering his balance, Sir Arthur nodded. "A most interesting move. I must say that the Butterfly Hands is quite fascinating."

"Yeah, I like it. If you practice, you can use it to guide and trap a person's arm in pretty much any way you want."

"I can see that. Shall we try again, a bit faster this time?"


Ally retook her position, waiting for Sir Arthur to strike. This time he was much quicker, but Evelynne knew he was still pulling his punch. Ally took it in stride, however, catching his strike in the deceptively open block and continuing in one smooth movement, first drawing him towards her, then pushing him back several paces.

Sir Arthur shook his head bemusedly at how easily this thin, decidedly unmuscular woman was able to knock him back. The day's exercise had shown him that she was by no means an expert at fighting, but she seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of the most efficient ways to move, and he knew that given time he could turn her into a magnificent fighter.

Major Nixon had been watching with intense concentration. "I think I've got it," she said. "Let me see if I've got it right."

"Okay," Ally agreed.

Nixon stood, relaxed, until Ally's fist lashed out towards her chest. When they had begun training together that morning, Ally had instinctively tried to temper her speed, but had quickly found it unnecessary. What Dicky lacked in strength she more than made up for in speed, and her hands instantly flashed out in a perfect Butterfly Block, and before Ally could blink she felt those hands resting on her ribs. She knew that if Dicky had not pulled her strike at the last possible moment, she would likely have several broken bones.

"Not bad," Ally said with exaggerated nonchalance.

Nixon giggled, and incongruous sound that made her sound like a six year old. "Almost, but something didn't quite flow right. Let me try again."

The next time went worse, however.

Ally had just begun her strike when the door to the gym opened suddenly. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence, as the entire staff of the Palace was free to use the facilities at any time, but this time, rather than a servant or Palace Guard, Evelynne was the person who entered. Ally had just enough time to recognise the princess when she felt her wrist trapped by Nixon's crossed hands. While the technique was intended to pull the attacker off-balance, Ally was so distracted that she fell completely forward. Major Nixon, startled, could not react in time to maintain her balance, and both women collapsed to the floor in a tangle of limbs.

Through a red embarrassed haze, Ally felt herself being carefully helped up off the prone body of Major Nixon, who appeared equally uncomfortable, if her bright cheeks were anything to go by. Ally could feel Sir Arthur's big hands on her arm supporting her, and looked up, mortified, to see that Evelynne had somehow teleported across from the door and was now looking at her with worried eyes.

She was also saying something, and it took a moment for Ally to make it out over the roar of blood rushing in her ears. "Oh Isis, Ally, are you alright?"

"Um... yeah, I'm okay," Ally found herself saying. Unable to look at Evelynne's concerned face any more, she looked down and saw that Major Nixon was in the process of lifting herself up off the floor. "Oh geez, I'm sorry," she said, bending down to help the other woman up. Once they were both upright once more, she grimaced. "So, some great sensei I am, eh?"

"Oh, I don't know, Ally," Sir Arthur said. "It was certainly effective in knocking your opponent to the ground." Now certain that Ally was indeed alright, he turned to face the princess. "Good afternoon, Your Highness. Welcome back. I was not aware you had arrived."

"Oh, that's okay," Evelynne said, her eyes never leaving Ally. "We only just got in."

"Indeed. Well, Ally, I believe we can quit for today. I must go and speak with Sergeant Y-Ellani so that she can make her report." Sergeant Y-Ellani had temporarily taken over as head of the Heir's Guard while she was in Outremer, at the princess' request. Officially the Sergeant had been assigned as part of her promotion training, but unofficially Evelynne had found Sir Arthur's constant presence a distraction.

"Certainly," Evelynne said. She felt a sinking sensation in her stomach as Ally still refused to look in her direction. "Maïda is also right outside. I'm sure she'd like to see you."

"Indeed, Your Highness," Sir Arthur said. He shot a glance at Major Nixon, but his second-in-command's expression remained assiduously blank. "In that case I will speak with you later." He saluted briefly. "Your Highness, Dame Alleandre." Then he left the gym, Major Nixon trailing behind him.

Evelynne still seemed to be in a kind of trance, until the soft bang of the gymnasium door closing broke her reverie. "Um... hi," she said softly.

Ally's eyes briefly flicked to Evelynne's face before darting away again. "Hi," she replied.

"So... how was your week?" The princess wanted to suck the words back in again instantly when she saw the expression of pain flit across Ally's face. She hurried on. "I, um... I think we need to talk."

"No, really?" Ally said, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She instantly moderated her tone. "I'm sorry. I'm just... feeling a little... I don't know." She folded her arms across her chest and bent her head in an unconsciously defensive gesture.

"No, that's okay," Evelynne said, feeling her guilt begin to gnaw at her once more. Looking around, she seemed surprised that they were still in the gymnasium. "Um, would you like to go someplace else?"

Ally appeared slightly startled as well. "Yeah." She looked down at her own attire of sweat pants and a tee-shirt, both liberally stained with sweat. "I think I need a shower, too."

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but..." Evelynne teased lightly, and was rewarded by a slight smile, though it quickly disappeared again. "How about if you go and have a shower and I'll bring some food up to you room?" She wanted the discussion they were about to have to take place in a relatively private setting, but also thought that Ally might be more comfortable in a place that was, in a sense, identified as her own.

Ally thought for a moment. "Okay, that sounds good. I'll, um... see you up there, then."

When Ally stepped out of the shower, she walked into her bedroom and spent several moments considering what to wear. She didn't know what Evelynne was going to say, having ruthlessly shut down any hint of empathic awareness, and therefore wasn't sure what kind of clothing was appropriate. Is there any kind of clothes one wears when possibly breaking up with one's royal girlfriend, even though one's never technically dated? Ah, to hell with it.

Deciding that, whatever the outcome, she might as well be physically comfortable, Ally grabbed a pair of black silk pyjama pants, then threw on a baggy red button-down silk shirt. When she had been living on her own in Outremer, Ally had picked up a similar set on a whim, for once deciding to spoil herself, and had come to love the smooth feeling of the fabric against her body.

Decently attired, she drew in a deep breath for courage, held it for a moment, then exhaled explosively. Thus fortified, Ally walked to the door leading to the sitting room, opened it, and hesitantly entered the other room.

She saw that Evelynne had taken the opportunity to change into more comfortable clothing also; in her case a pair of baggy blue trousers and a rich purple sweater with the Royal Seal above the left breast. True to her word, the princess had also brought up a tray of sandwiches and fruit, which rested on a nearby table. Evelynne had taken one end of a long couch and was sitting so that she was partially facing the unoccupied end. The implied invitation for Ally to join her on the couch was obvious, but she was also sitting so that she was facing several single seats across from her, leaving the choice of seating arrangements in Ally's hands. That's Evelynne, Ally thought. Always the diplomat. What's that saying about diplomacy? Ah yes. "The art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they're looking forward to the trip."

Currently Evelynne was also entertaining another guest, who looked up with interest as Ally entered the room. The new guest quickly jumped down from Evelynne's lap and bounded across the floor to Ally's feet, loudly greeting her at the same time. Cassie then made an abortive attempt to climb Ally's leg. Ally hurriedly bent over and picked her up before the cat could pull the young woman's pants all the way down to the floor.

Evelynne watched the two females with a wry smile. "Well, that shows me who's really important around here, doesn't it?"

Ally looked up from the bundle of grey fur currently buzzing happily in her arms. "Oh, don't kid yourself. This beast has taken over this place completely. I'm afraid there was a coup. Not a completely bloodless one, as a few of the servants can attest, but it was over really fast. It seems you've been replaced. This is the actual ruler of Atlantl now."

While she was talking, Ally had walked forward and taken a seat in a chair across from the princess. Evelynne winced internally at her choice, but carefully kept the reaction from her face. "Really? Well, in that case I suppose I must pay tribute. Although what I have is more for Her Majesty's Regent." She reached over the arm of the chair and picked up a cloth bag that had been lying on the floor. Evelynne hesitated looking at the bag in her lap. "Um... I wanted to get you something to say 'I'm sorry' but I wasn't quite sure what. I thought about maybe a private jet, a diamond necklace, or perhaps a small Caribbean island, but I thought that might give the wrong impression. I really don't want to buy your forgiveness. Not that I think you even would forgive me if I tried like that. So instead I, um, got you something that a, uh... normal person would get." She handed the bag across. "I don't have much experience with apologising for things like... this, so I'm hoping that the thought will count for something."

Ally automatically took the bag. Whatever the gift was, it was hard, thin and rectangular, about the size of a large paperback book. Hesitantly she reached inside and found that there were actually two objects inside. She sat looking at them dumbly for a moment, unable to quite believe what she was seeing. Finally she looked up at Evelynne. "Ghostbusters?" she said incredulously. "You got me Ghostbusters on DVD? And Ghostbusters II?"

The princess shrugged uncomfortably. "Like I said, I wanted to get you something kind of... normal, and I remembered you saying you liked those movies. I also figured that it was kind of appropriate. You know, because things have been kind of... weird lately."

Ally looked down at the DVD's again, then back at Evelynne. "Um... thank you," she said. "This is really cool." In spite of Ally's sparse words, the princess could tell that she was truly pleased, and the tight band around Evelynne's chest loosened slightly.

"Well, I wanted to get you some physical gift to show you that I was sorry. But that isn't the apology. To truly apologise, I have to say..." She took a deep breath. "I'm so sorry," Evelynne said earnestly. "I'm sorry for hurting you. I'm sorry for not trusting you. I'm sorry for... leaving like I did."

"But why did you?" Ally asked, her voice hoarse with a week's worth of repressed emotion. "I told you I was there if you wanted to talk. I would have answered anything you asked. And even if you needed time to yourself, all you had to do was say, 'Ally, I need some time to think.' I wouldn't have liked it, but I would have left you alone until you did want to talk. But you didn't. You just took off, and you didn't say a word, and I didn't know what was going on, after you promised me you'd talk to me. I mean, I know you were mad at me -"

"Mad at you?" Evelynne's head shot up. "I wasn't mad at you!"

"What?" Ally asked, confused.

"I wasn't mad at you," Evelynne repeated. "I'm still not mad at you."

"But I thought -"

"No, Ally. I was never angry at you. Well, maybe briefly, but I got over it quickly. I understand why you never told me about any of your abilities before. I really do. And I believe you when you say you were planning on telling me soon anyway."

"Then why did you go?" Ally's tone was bewildered.

"Because I was... afraid of you," Evelynne admitted softly, looking down at her hands clasped in her lap. She glanced up at a sharp gasp to see that Ally had paled alarmingly.

"Afraid... of me? But I... It... You seemed okay with it before. That night when I showed you... you know." She waved a hand near her head. "You seemed to find it... fun."

"Oh, I did," Evelynne protested. "And I was okay. But then later..." She sighed at Ally's confused expression. "You remember the meeting with General Danun? What am I saying, of course you do. Well, you were sitting there, and I could tell you were a little nervous, but you were answering questions, and everything was going okay. And I was looking at you and thinking, 'That's my Ally,' and I was ready to back you up in any way I could. But then you were bargaining with her, and frankly threatening her. And then suddenly you stood up and threw them around and you weren't 'my Ally' any more. You were this demigoddess, and I could practically see the power coming off you. And you did it so easily, and you were so... cold, so impassive, so focussed. I felt like I didn't know you any more, and it... scared me." By now tears were streaming down Evelynne's face, and Ally looked like she wanted to throw up.

"Oh God, Evy," Ally said, shaken. "I didn't... I wasn't... I didn't realise. That day I wasn't 'a little nervous'. I was terrified. I was going to meet people who could end my life if they wanted to, both literally and figuratively. I was frightened, Evy. But I also knew that if I wanted to stay in control and protect myself, I couldn't let them see how scared I was." She laughed bitterly. "That apparently worked, if you couldn't tell. I also didn't know what they were like. It's not like I hang around with national security agencies on a regular basis. All I've seen are movies, and they don't paint a very rosy picture. So I thought I'd just be up front with what I wanted. And I wasn't bluffing. If anyone tries to hurt the people I love, I will strike back in any way I can. But I also know that I'm not particularly imposing, so I had to show them that I could back up my threats if I had to, so I performed my... demonstration. However, that took a lot of concentration, so I wasn't impassive, Evy. I was just so... involved that I guess my emotions kind of... shut down." Ally hung her head. "I didn't realise I was so frightening. I'm so sorry."

Evelynne was surprised. She had assumed that Ally had been nervous, perhaps even a little frightened, considering the confident mask she had worn that afternoon. To learn that Ally had actually been terrified came as a shock, although now that she thought about it, Evelynne couldn't see why it should be. She doesn't like being around people she doesn't know in the best of circumstances, which those certainly weren't. Her greatest secret had been revealed to people she didn't know and didn't trust, people who could, as she said, destroy not only her life, but those of her friends and family. I think I'd be more worried if she wasn't scared. And then I just sat there, letting her take the heat, and did nothing. It doesn't matter that she seemed so much in control, I should have done something.

The princess looked up to see that Ally hadn't moved. Her head still hung, and her arms were wrapped around her chest in a vain attempt to protect her already battered psyche. She didn't even seem to notice that Cassie was rubbing her head against the crossed arms, trying to provide some comfort of her own.

Evelynne stood and, moving slowly as if she was approaching some skittish animal, crossed the short distance between them to kneel once more in front of Ally's chair. This seems to be becoming a habit, an irreverent part of her thought.

She carefully placed a hand on Ally's knee, but there was no reaction, apart from a small wince, so Evelynne reached up and gently pried one of Ally's hands from where it was locked around her other arm. Drawing it down, she held it in her own left hand, softly stroking the palm with her right. "I'm sorry," she apologised again. "I didn't know and I should have. I really messed up this time. I don't know why you should put up with me."

There was silence for a moment, then Ally asked in a very small voice, "Are you breaking up with me?"

Evelynne paused in her stroking as the question shot like an arrow through her belly. "Do you want me to?"

There was another endless silence before Ally whispered, "No."

The princess couldn't hold back a sigh of relief. "Good," she whispered back. "I don't want to either."

Ally hesitantly raised her eyes at the answer to search Evelynne's face. The other woman responded by spreading her arms wide in invitation. Cassie wisely jumped down from Ally's lap before she could be crushed between the two women.

There were no tears this time, just a gradual release of tension as pent-up anxieties slowly vented themselves, banished by the safety of that embrace. They remained like that for long minutes. Evelynne ignored the growing protests from her knees, concentrating instead on stroking Ally's back, feeling the muscles there slowly relax. Suddenly realising that Ally's neck was in tantalising proximity to her lips, Evelynne couldn't help turning her head slightly to place a feather-soft kiss there. Ally emitted a tiny surprised but pleased squeak at the touch, instinctively tilting her head slightly to encourage the contact. Evelynne complied by placing a series of kisses along the arch of Ally's neck, beginning near the shoulder and slowly working her way up, lingering at the point just behind Ally's left ear, enjoying the hitch that developed in her partner's breathing. Then she made her way along the jaw-line, culminating in a soft but passionate shared kiss that seemed to last for hours.

Finally they broke apart. "Is my apology accepted?" Evelynne asked, her eyes sparkling.

"Of course," Ally replied, her tone a mixture of mirth and seriousness. "Maybe we should have more misunderstandings if that's your usual method of apology."

Evelynne's eyes darkened. "No, I don't want that. I'd prefer to never have any more misunderstandings between us."

Ally looked at her with a slightly sad expression on her face. "As nice as that would be, love, it's not going to happen. We will have misunderstandings, arguments, and even fights. They're inevitable. But they can be used to make us stronger. You know how one makes a sword..."

The princess looked at her curiously, then winced suddenly. "Ouch, my knees are killing me. Sorry, love, but I've got to move."

"Okay, here." Ally helped the other woman up, then drew her into her lap. "Is this okay?"

Cassie looked at the usurper who had stolen her position, then stalked off to another chair with a dismissive flirt of her tail. This meant war. After a nap.

Evelynne slowly relaxed into Ally's warm embrace. It had been a long time since anyone had held her like this. "This is perfect," she murmured. "I'm not crushing you, am I?"

"A little," Ally admitted. "But I like it. I was never able to do this with A... anyone else."

"Okay," Evelynne said, snuggling in. "What were you saying about a sword?"

"What? Oh, that. Well, whenever bad things happen, either to me or anyone else, I always try to remember how a sword is made. You start out with a lump of iron, which is of strictly limited usefulness. If you leave it, and do nothing with it, maybe keep it warm and safe, it does nothing. If you cool it with water when it gets hot, it will rust. In order to make anything useful out of it, first you have to take that iron and stick it in a fire until it gets red hot. Even then if you leave it, it goes back to the way it was before. To make a sword - or a plow, or anything else - you have to take that red hot iron and start beating the crap out of it with a hammer. Then you cool the iron in water, then you heat it and hammer it again and again, until it forms the shape you want. It is only after a lot of stress and activity that you end up with a sword."

Evelynne looked at her curiously. "So that's your metaphor for life? You're making a sword?"

"Oh no, I'm not making the sword, I am the sword. Whenever you have conflict in your life, you get beaten a little more into a useful shape. You have to have stress so that you can be receptive to the change. And in between, you have to be 'cooled off'. Of course, there's a balancing act going on. Too much heat and the metal becomes brittle and breaks easily. Too many blows with the hammer and the shape is deformed. Keep the iron in the water too long and it rusts. But if you do it right, the result is a beautiful tool. Of course, you can extend the metaphor. Good swords require impurities: carbon to turn the iron to steel, other metals to make stronger alloys. Japanese blacksmiths didn't just hammer the swords into shape, they would fold the metal, then hammer it flat, sometimes dozens of times."

Evelynne was gazing into Ally's eyes with an impressed look. "Wow," she said. "You're quite the philosopher, aren't you, love?"

Ally blushed. "No, I just think a lot. I've had my share of conflict in my life, and I was looking for some way to justify it. Then I realised that everything I have done and everything that has happened to me has had a part in making me who I am today. And I'm quite content with who I am. Changing anything about my past would make me a different person, and there's no way of knowing if I'd be better or worse. So even if I had the chance, I would never change a thing."

"Like I said, you are a philosopher. And, for the record, I'm quite content with who you are, too." Evelynne reached up and placed a kiss on Ally's lips, then settled back down, resting her head on Ally's shoulder. "So you think we'll have more misunderstandings and arguments?"

"I'm sure of it," Ally said. "We are two different people, so by definition we have different ways of looking at the world, and those ways will not always be compatible. The key is to keep trying to talk to each other." There was silence for a moment. "That's what hurt the most about you leaving. I could have handled it if you were confused, or angry, or even if you had said, 'I'm having a hard time and I need to go away and think for a while.' But you didn't. You didn't say anything, you just left. And that hurt."

"I'm sorry," the princess said again. "I've never been in a relationship like this before. But I promise you I'll try to talk to you in the future."

"I'm sorry, too. About everything. I could have called you, but I didn't. Believe me, I don't have a whole lot of experience with this kind of thing, either." They sat in silence for a few minutes more, just enjoying each other's company, until Ally's stomach growled. "Hmm, someone's hungry," she said. "What time is it?" She peered at a clock - adorned of course with dragons - on a nearby table. "It's almost six! No wonder I'm hungry. I haven't even had lunch yet."

"Well, then," Evelynne said, rising to her feet after a last kiss, "I suppose we'd better feed you." She held out a hand to help Ally out of her chair. "Over supper you can tell me just what you were doing beating up my bodyguards."

"Um, sure. After supper could we watch Ghostbusters?" Ally's face was like a little kid's. "Please? Huh? Can we, can we, can we? Huh? Huh? Can we?"

"Oh, I suppose," Evelynne agreed magnanimously. "We can take these sandwiches for snacks. Latifa hates to have her food go to waste."

"Oh goody," Ally said. After the huge release of tension, she felt almost giddy. "I just have to get my slippers." She made her way back into her bedroom, her lack of musical ability almost painfully obvious as she sang "Who you gonna call?" decidedly off-key.

"So, you got everything fixed up, Sir?" Corporal Driscoll asked the two men in work fatigues coming out of the Main Armoury of the Ru'en Army Base just outside Jamaz.

"I think so, Corporal," the older of the two replied. His insignia marked him as Sergeant Olles with the Royal Atlantlan Army, Logistics Division. "Of course, you probably won't need that air conditioner until summer."

"Probably not, Sir," the young Corporal agreed. "I'm not quite sure why it had to be fixed now."

"Don't ask," the Sergeant said. He continued with a conspiratorial air. "This is the military, Corporal. You'll soon learn that orders coming from anyone above the rank of Sergeant-Major aren't supposed to make sense."

Driscoll laughed. "If you say so, Sir. We'll still be glad to have a brand new air conditioner when June comes around anyway."

"That you will, Corporal," Olles said. Heaving a put-upon sigh, he hefted his tool box. "Well, I suppose I'd better get back to keeping this place running. As you were, Corporal. Let's go, Ivan." He addressed the silent dark-haired man beside him.

"Aye, Sir." The soldier saluted.

Sergeant Olles and his work mate walked quickly out of the armoury, bound for another task.

Behind them in the armoury a piece of electronics in no way related to the proper functioning of an air conditioner lay dormant within its innocuous shell, awaiting the signal to activate. Built directly into the machinery of the cooler, not even Sergeant Olles knew it was there.

Continued in Chapter 25

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