Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major
For disclaimers, see Chapter 1
"The breath of the west wind bore her
Over the sounding sea,
Up from the delicate foam,
To wave-ringed Cyprus, her isle.
And the Hours golden-wreathed
Clad her in raiment immortal,
And brought her to the gods.
Wonder seized them all as they saw
"Tell me again how you talked me into this," Ally complained from behind her bathroom door.
Evelynne couldn't help but smile from her position perched on the edge of the bed. "If I recall correctly, all I had to do was flash a bit of leg and you were only too eager to accede to my every desire." She twitched the shawl around her shoulders into a more comfortable position. The shawl was a rich emerald green colour, only slightly darker than the ankle-length green dress she was wearing. The shade of the dress, matched by the real emeralds in her ears, made the princess' hair gleam like fire as it tumbled across her shoulders, and was made well enough that she did not look like a Christmas decoration. Amazingly, the entire outfit had taken only an hour to get into.
Getting Ally into her own formal wear was, naturally, taking much longer, despite the fact that hers was the simpler of the two choices of attire. Flatly refusing to wear another evening gown, the taller woman had consented to wear a loose blue silk shirt, and a pair of baggy silk trousers, along with a darker blue jacket. She had also refused an elaborate hairstyle. The last time had been special, she had claimed, but this formal soirée was not being held in her honour, and she therefore felt that it would be unfair to inflict further punishment.
Ally snorted, the sound muffled by the door. "If I recall correctly, you flashed a whole lot more than 'a bit of leg', and the blood wasn't really flowing to my brain at the time. That's psychological warfare, you know. I'm sure it's outlawed by the Geneva Convention."
Evelynne lifted an eyebrow, although Ally couldn't see her... although perhaps she could. "You weren't complaining at the time," she pointed out. "In fact, 'eager' was probably too mild a word. 'Slavishly devoted' is probably more accurate. Besides, all's fair..."
"... in love and war," Ally finished. "That's so clichéd it should be outlawed." There was a put-upon sigh from the bathroom. "Okay, I'm coming out now. And remember, if you laugh you're going to this thing alone. And sleeping alone tonight."
"Come on, Ally," Evelynne coaxed. "You know I'd never laugh at you." She was well aware that, no matter how confident and comfortable Ally appeared around her, there was still a core of shyness and insecurity that ran deep within her lover. "And those Pink Panther boxer shorts you had on the other night don't count. You were trying to make me laugh."
"Okay, just remember that I'm not wearing them now."
The door to the bathroom opened, and Ally emerged, freshly brushed and showered. Her hair was still a little damp from her shower and curled slightly around her face, much longer than it had been when they had first met. The light brown locks now reached nearly to the nape of her neck.
She stepped out into the bedroom and held her arms out at her sides. "So? What do you think?" She threw in a quick pirouette for good measure.
Evelynne smiled and stood, unable to contain herself. "I think you look gorgeous," she said, walking over to her lover. She saw that Ally was wearing the earrings she had given her before the last formal outing. "I think everyone's going to be jealous that I have such a beautiful date." She faltered. "Even if..."
"Even if I can't really be your date," Ally said. She shrugged dismissively, but Evelynne could see the hurt in her eyes.
*I'm sorry,* Evelynne said. *I know I've said it before, but...*
"I know," Ally replied. "The world isn't ready yet for the Atlantlan Heir - the female Atlantlan Heir - to be involved with a woman. I understand."
"I'm glad," Evelynne said, although she wished there was some way to take the pain out of her lover's eyes. While Ally had been intensely private in her past relationship, she had never had to actively hide it, and the princess knew that doing so now weighed on her sometimes. "Still, at least I'll be able to dance with you tonight."
Ally shook her head violently. "Dance? Oh no, no dancing. Dancing, me... not good. Bad, even. Pain ensues."
"Oh, you're not that bad. Just think of it as one of your Kung Fu forms, and you'll have no problems."
Ally looked at her strangely. "You want me to beat the crap out of you?"
Evelynne rolled her eyes. "That wasn't what I meant, and you know it. Besides, you lived with a professional dancer for a year. I'm sure you must have learned something."
"Well, I'll try," Ally said uncertainly. "But I didn't know that we could dance together. Won't that... you know, let the cat out?"
"Well, we can't dance together as a couple," Evelynne said, bracing herself for the disappointment on Ally's face, "but there's nothing stopping me from dancing with one of my knights. In fact, with the Debt I Owe you, you could get away with ordering me to dance with you. It would be considered very bad form, but nobody would stop you."
"Okay, I can live with that. Not the Debt thing, but the other part. Still, I'll have to see about the dancing. With all those people there..."
"Alright," Evelynne said, already knowing that nothing was going to stop her from convincing Ally into at least one turn around the floor. "You could always start with my cousin Larrel. He's an incredible dancer, and he seems to be able to pass on some of his grace to others for a time."
"I'll think about it," Ally said. She looked up at a nearby clock. "Are we ready to go yet? I'd like to get going before I completely lose my nerve."
"Almost," Evelynne said. "There's just one thing." With that, she reached up and pulled Ally down into a searing kiss. After several moments they finally separated. "Okay, now we're ready."
"Evelynne, my dear, you are looking particularly lovely tonight," Duke Thomas said as a Guard helped the Heir from the limousine. He bent to kiss her hand. A moment later, his eyebrows rose as Ally similarly exited the vehicle, although she refused the offer of aid. "And Alleandre, you are quite stunning. I feel that I must insist on a dance later this evening. I will be the envy of all the men present... as well as a fair number of the women, I'm thinking." Ally blushed and looked away, and the Duke took the opportunity to wink surreptitiously at the princess.
Evelynne grinned back. Step one of her plan was complete. She knew that Ally would be unable to turn down a dance from the grandfatherly Duke Thomas. In the middle of it, the Duke would be "called away" to speak with some other guests, and Evelynne would be conveniently nearby to take his place. After all, it would be impolite to leave a woman dancing alone, wouldn't it? It was unlikely that Ally would be fooled for long by the deception, even without using her talents, but by that time it would be too late.
"I'd... be honoured," Ally said. She looked up at the wide glass front doors of the Ducal Residence of Outremer, and could easily hear strains of music coming from inside. The music was the typical style of Atlantl, a combination of European classical and Arabic traditional music. It took some getting used to, but captures the islands' melding of cultures perfectly. "So, how often do you throw one of these shindigs?"
Duke Thomas laughed as he began leading his guests up the stairs, one on each arm. "I attempt to plan a... shindig, as you say, once a year. It may not be as lavish as the Royal Galas in Jamaz, but we muddle through."
Evelynne snorted, a very unprincesslike reaction that earned her a startled look from a nearby Guard. "Muddle through, indeed. The truth is that everyone attends the Royal Galas because they have to. They are usually extremely boring events, where only those with a deep interest in political manoeuvring have a good time. Domdom's parties, however, are the place to just... what's the term? Hang out. Yes, hang out and have a good time. Which isn't to say that politics and making sure you're seen with the right people isn't done, but at least the people have fun doing it."
"Oh, good," Ally said. "Just as long as I'm not expected to talk politics all night. I'm just not cut out for that sort of thing, I think."
Duke Thomas and Evelynne shared a look. Ally was still obviously unaware of the number of allies and friends she had made - although a few enemies as well, unfortunately - without apparently even trying. Simply trying to do the right thing, without any political agenda, had actually been the most effective thing she could have done. In addition to those who felt indebted to her for her actions in saving their Heir, a number more, in varying positions of influence, were impressed with the way in which she had handled her new position at the Aztlan excavation. Her intelligence, and willingness to help anyone who asked for it, had left her as an unofficial advisor to several Nobles, including Duke Thomas himself. Evelynne suspected that her lover's habit of trying to see things from all angles - including angles that nobody had thought of before - and almost preternatural ability to bring together seemingly disparate concepts as the solution to a problem, were a part of her success.
Just last week, Ally had nearly single-handedly solved Count Urubi's employment problem by casually announcing that certain electronic components could be made using relatively low-tech equipment, from a number of recyclable materials. Since Urubi's County was conveniently placed next to Countess Ressick's, who had been suffering from a chronic landfill problem for years, the ultimate solution was obvious... assuming one had the scientific and creative background to see it. The refitting of several of Count Urubi's currently defunct factories would provide an immediate job boost within the county, followed by the constant employment of several thousand new employees once production began. It would take some time to set up, of course, since technical specialists who actually knew how the process worked would have to be recruited, and most of the details would have to be worked out, but the groundwork was laid. Evelynne had heard from several of her sources in the Hall of Nobles that the normally taciturn Urubi had been heard singing for several days after his and Ally's casual conversation. The singing part was likely exaggerated. At least, Evelynne hoped so, having had the misfortune to be standing next to the Count once when he was singing the national anthem. Still, the number of "offhand", "casual" enquiries of Alleandre's opinion on some matter were increasing.
Of course, not everyone was a fan of the young woman. Her opponents ranged from those opposed to her religion, her sexuality, her political views... even a few who just "didn't like her". A number of Nobles had been heard to be "concerned" over the amount of time the princess was spending with "someone like her". Fortunately, they were usually soundly chastised, especially if one of Ally's supporters was nearby. Unfortunately, Ally had a tendency to hear the negative things said about her, rather than the positive, a fact that had caused her no small degree of hurt.
Still, the young woman seemed to be taking events largely in stride, although she often and suddenly got a kind of puzzled look, as if she couldn't quite believe that she was actually socialising in such circles. For someone whose most prominent interaction prior to coming to Atlantl was getting Wayne Gretzky's autograph in person, she was handling things very well.
While Evelynne was musing on these matters, the trio had navigated their way up the stairs to the main doors, which were opened by two servants in Ducal livery. Walking out of the warm evening and into the coolness of the marble foyer, Ally and Evelynne found another person waiting to greet them.
"Chorus!" Ally exclaimed, releasing the Duke's arm so that she could hug her friend, who was dressed in a smart tuxedo bearing the Ducal crest on its left breast. "I thought you were still busy dealing with that... language job."
"I am," Chorus replied. "But the... details of the job are such that I can work on it just about anywhere, so I've been helping out with His Grace's Economic Advisor in the meantime."
"And doing a fine job of it, too," the Duke declared, smiling at the stocky young man. "He's been extremely helpful in setting up some new diamond imports from Botswana that should be bearing fruit - so to speak - in another few months."
Chorus shrugged. "My uncle works in the Ministry, and he certainly knows a good deal when he sees one. Of course, the efficiency, or lack thereof, of the Botswana bureaucracy is legendary, otherwise we'd be seeing results a lot sooner." Turning to the princess, he bowed. "Your Highness, it seems that our friend Ally still hasn't learned proper etiquette." He mock-scowled at the woman in question, who blushed. "I'm happy to see you again. Have you been successful in keeping our boorish friend out of trouble?"
Evelynne laughed at Ally's indignant splutter. "It's Evelynne, remember? And yes, she has been staying out of trouble... for the most part."
"Mmm, I saw the news reports. I admit I had my suspicions." He frowned at Ally, who looked away. "How bad was it?" he murmured.
"It was... bad," Evelynne admitted. "Fortunately I was in a position to... take care of her afterwards."
The way in which she said it made both Chorus and Duke Thomas look at her closely. Nearly simultaneously, they arrived at the same conclusion.
"Jesus, Ally, you're..."
"Oh my, Evelynne, you..."
Their immediate responses ran over and through each other, while the two young women made desperate shushing motions.
"Yes," Evelynne said, "we are." She appeared more than a little apprehensive over her friends' reactions, as did Ally.
Chorus looked shell-shocked, and Duke Thomas recovered first. "Are you happy, Evy?" he asked softly. "Both of you?"
"I am," the princess replied in a low but firm voice. She shared a look with her lover. "We are. Very."
"Good," the Duke said. "Then I am happy for you."
"Jesus, Ally," Chorus said, still stunned, "How...? When...?"
"'When' was about six weeks ago," Ally replied quietly. "The 'how' is none of your business."
"Oh. Ally, do you know what you're getting into?"
"No," Ally admitted. She looked at Evelynne again. "But I'm learning." Both the good and bad connotations of that statement weren't lost on the princess. "Nobody said love was ever going to be easy."
"Indeed they didn't," the Duke murmured. He looked up to where another servant, this one more formally attired, was trying to get his attention. "Unfortunately, it seems that my Major Domo feels our presence is required inside."
"Ally, darling, you look absolutely ravishing tonight!"
Ally started at the loud, friendly voice that suddenly intruded into her incredibly boring conversation with Countess Tar'he - although 'conversation' implied a two-way exchange - and turned around curiously, grateful for the interruption. She smiled when she saw who was speaking. "Larrel, it's good to see you." Her eyes telegraphed her genuine feelings. "Count Larrel, I'm sure you know Countess Tar'he," she introduced.
"Of course," Larrel said, smiling broadly. "How are you, My Lady? And how is your lovely daughter?"
The Countess scowled, but quickly, if inexpertly, smoothed her expression. "I am quite well, My Lord... As is Janessa, as I am sure you know."
"Alas, I have been unable to keep in touch with her quite as much as I have hoped," the smiling young man bemoaned with mock sorrow. "However, I remember her fondly. I understand that she has recently been confirmed as your Heir. You must be quite gratified."
"I am," Tar'he said, her bland but disapproving expression still firmly in place.
"Well, I look forward to working closely with her... though hopefully not for some time to come, of course," Larrel said, his eyes twinkling. "Our two Counties would benefit from... closer contact." Sighing dramatically, he gestured towards Ally. "Unfortunately, I fear I must steal this young Knight from you for a time. One of Duke Thomas' Advisors has requested her presence."
"Of course, My Lord," Tar'he conceded. She bowed her head in Ally's direction. "Dame Alleandre, I enjoyed our discussion. I hope we can repeat it in the future."
"As do I, My Lady," Ally said respectfully, before allowing Larrel to take her arm and lead her away.
"Thank you," she said fervently as soon as they were safely out of earshot. Her voice was easily lost in the chatter around them in the Ballroom, so only her companion could hear.
"My pleasure," Larrel said in a matching voice. "Her Highness happened to see you get shanghaied by the esteemed Countess, but was unable to extricate herself from her own discussion. So she sent me instead."
"Well, thank you both, then. If I had to hear one more thing about stock trading with Russia..." Ally shook her head to clear it of the horrific memories. She glanced sidelong at the Count. "So what was all that about her daughter? There was something going on under the surface."
"Ah yes, Janessa. Several months ago, I engaged in some quite pleasant... social interaction with the good Countess' daughter. It was highly... rewarding for both parties. Unfortunately, Tar'he did not appreciate our attempts at... increasing contact between our two realms of influence."
"Really." Ally's tone was uninflectioned. "So does that sort of thing happen often? Irate parents objecting to your... social interactions?"
"Oh, occasionally," Larrel said, waving his hand as if to brush away an annoying insect. "However, quite often I am able to... relieve their concerns. I'd say about half of the time, actually."
Ally shook her head. "I'm not even going to bother asking which half." Changing the subject, she asked, "So did one of Duke Thomas' Advisors really want to talk to me?"
"Oh dear, did I say Advisor?" Larrel's eyes were twinkling. "I meant to say one of his Aides. I really hope I didn't inflate your reputation too much by suggesting that the Duke's Advisors inquire after your opinion on various matters. That would simply gain you too much respect."
Ally's eyes narrowed as she scowled at him. "You're way too devious, you know that?"
"Me? But who did I say sent me to rescue you in the first place? I think she may have mentioned something about enhancing your reputation. Of course, I may have misheard."
"Sure you did," Ally muttered, just as an opening in the crowd revealed Chorus' stocky form waiting near the side of the hall. "Chorus! So you're the 'Duke's Aide' who wanted to see me. I should have known."
"Well," he said innocently, "I do work for that worthy personage in an advisory role. Besides, Evelynne thought her cousin might need backup."
"Somehow I don't think he does," Ally said, while Larrel chuckled. "So where is Evy... Evelynne anyway?"
"Hobnobbing," Chorus replied. "You know, shake-shake, kiss-kiss, talk about nothing."
"He's not quite right," Larrel informed her. "Well, he is about the... 'shake-shake, kiss-kiss' part. But Her Highness rarely talks about 'nothing' at these gatherings."
"I know," Ally said. "For some reason she actually likes these things." She looked puzzled, as though contemplating a completely alien concept.
"She is going to be the next Ruler of the Islands," Larrel stated. "Enjoying this is practically a job requirement. We only hope that her husband will be equally competent."
"Right," Ally said, her voice going flat. "Her... husband."
Chorus looked at Ally sharply, and Larrel looked a little puzzled at her tone, but something caught his eye before he could comment. Ally and Chorus could see an attractive dark-skinned woman in her thirties beckoning in their direction.
"Ah, apparently Baroness Alice of Holden wishes to speak to me," the Count said. He smiled. "I honestly enjoy hearing her perspective on a number of issues, so I believe I would like to talk with her." He hesitated. "Would you like to join me? I can guarantee that she speaks about far more interesting things than Russian stock trading."
"Is this going to be one of your... attempts to 'increase contact between your two realms of influence'?" Ally asked wryly. "Because you know I don't want to cramp your style."
Larrel laughed. "Alas, no. Despite my... efforts, Alice remains... out of my sphere. In this particular case, I believe that you, my dear Dame Alleandre, would have more success in that area. She has, in fact, made several... discreet enquiries about you. This could be an occasion for you to discuss the matter, if you wish."
"Oh." Ally was startled, but managed a hesitant smile in the Baroness' direction, who smiled back. "Uh... well, tell her that I'm... flattered, but right now I have... other engagements."
"Oh? Serious engagements?" Larrel looked surprised but pleased.
Ally hesitated, and steadfastly refused to look in the princess' direction. "I don't know."
"I see. Well, I shall pass on your regrets."
"In that case... Dame Alleandre." The Count bowed to her. "Mister Tladi."
With that he was off through the crowd again, and Ally couldn't help but be both impressed and a little envious over the ease with which he interacted with the people he spoke with. In contrast, the young woman usually felt as though she was forcing herself into a particularly tight-fitting dress, no matter how pleasant the company. The constant pressure of so many strong-willed minds was draining, even when she steadfastly avoided opening herself to their thoughts. It was a little like being forced to carry a moderately heavy backpack all evening; easy enough at first, but after a while, the constant weight was exhausting.
"So, Ally," Chorus said after several moments' awkward silence. "How are... things between you and Her Highness?"
Ally looked at him sharply, then around herself, but nobody appeared to be taking much notice of the pair at the side of the hall. The rest of the guests were too engaged in socialising, and Ally's presence had lost much of its initial novelty after so many months.
Still, she was careful to keep her voice pitched low as she said, "Pretty well." A smile couldn't help but break free as she thought of her lover. "Amazing, actually." She saw Chorus looking at her with a combination of amusement and concern, and frowned again. "Not all smooth sailing, of course, but..." She shrugged. "Incredibly well, considering."
The amusement seemed to win out on Chorus' face. "What, does she hog the covers?"
Ally barked a low laugh. "Hardly. She hogs me, actually. Trying to get her to let go is a real challenge... especially when I need to go to the bathroom." She paused, a bemused expression on her face. "I can't believe I just told you that."
Chorus laughed. "Neither can I, actually. It seems you're loosening up." Turning serious once more, he asked, "Are you sure you know what you're doing? Considering who she is, this has the potential for a disaster that will make your break-up with Annie look like a disagreement over who takes out the garbage. You could get seriously hurt here, Ally."
His companion sighed. "I know," she said, "and all I can say is that I'm taking it one day at a time. I don't know what will happen when we get found out by the press - and we will, it's just a matter of time. Too many people know about us already for it not to leak: Maïda, Seneschal Nancu, Sir Arthur... several of the Palace servants... and now you and Duke Thomas." She sighed again, her voice worried. "But it's not me that I'm most worried about. Sure, I'll be hounded by reporters, have my picture taken way more than I'd like, but eventually they'll move on to the next flavour of the week, and forget about me. Evelynne, though... This will follow her for the rest of her life, and make her job as Queen of Atlantl that much harder. Assuming someone doesn't find some way to get her to abdicate because of it. That's what worries me the most, because she was born to do it. I mean, just look at her." Ally had caught sight of the princess through a break in the crowd, and could see the red-haired young woman speaking earnestly with a group of Nobles, who were all giving her their undivided attention. "And not just the balls and parties, either. You should see her when she's working, trying to help some Baron find a way to finance low income housing while maintaining his budget margin. It's... indescribable. And trouble is that if - when - it comes down to it, I don't know who she'll choose. A part of me obviously wants her to choose me, and to hell with ruling the country. But another part of me recognises just how magnificent she'll be when she does take the Throne, and I feel it's selfish of me to prevent her from doing that." Ally shook her head sadly. "A bit of a quandary, as you can see."
"I can see that," Chorus murmured. "In any case, you know that whatever happens I'm behind you. I like Evelynne, and she's my friend, but you... You're my... I don't really know what the word is, but you're more. Actually, there's a word in Lantlan: que'laka. Roughly translated it's 'soulmate', but without necessarily any romantic overtones. Kind of a combination of 'best friend', 'comrade in arms', 'debt companion'. Maybe 'blood brother' is a better translation. However you want to define it, that's you."
Ally looked at Chorus speechlessly, too overcome to speak. Eventually, she reached out and squeezed his arm tightly, the most physical gesture she was comfortable with in the circumstances. "Thank you," she said, and her voice had a husky tone. "I appreciate that." The pair was silent again for a few minutes, as Ally recovered her composure. Finally, wishing to dispel the overly emotional atmosphere, she asked, "So, speaking of translations... How's that job coming along."
"Frustratingly," Chorus replied, accepting the subject change and the reason behind it. "Whoever it is changes their... language on some schedule I haven't been able to figure out." He was careful to remain vague in the midst of this crowd. "Every time I think I have it, I get a new... letter that changes everything." He scowled. "Still, there is some pattern there, I can feel it. And I know that I'm close. And any time I need incentive to keep going, I just have to turn on the news."
Ally nodded, her face grim. The Hy Braseal Liberation Army had been increasing the frequency of their attacks against Atlantlan government and civilian targets, and now a week didn't go by without some new bombing or shooting. The government, as well as all of the major news agencies, had expressed bafflement at the motives behind the attacks, since they were rarely targeted at any installation that was at all related to Hy Braseal's "liberation". The attacks were confined to the island of Hy Braseal, and Ally had tried several times to find and stop any attack she could, but despite her powers, she was still just a single person, and by the time she reached the site of an attack, it was always too late.
"Well, you know you can ask me for help whenever you need it," she said. "And if you want, talk to General Danun about involving the people I work with. They may not have your particular talents, but they're still a scarily intelligent group of people when you get them together."
"I know," Chorus replied. "It's what I'd expect, with you as their leader. And I will bring it up with the General." After this, the young man felt the need to change the subject to something more pleasant. "So, tell me what your group of 'scarily intelligent people' has come up with recently. I heard about the 'circuit board' theory you were working on."
"Ah yes," Ally said, warming to a topic she was enthusiastic about. "Actually, it's a bit more than a theory now... we think. Taldas - he's our computer scientist - has managed to map and model the entire thing on computer, and he's been running simulations for a while now. So far we know that something definitely happens when we run electricity through it. Unfortunately, we don't know exactly where to hook up the battery, or what current or voltage we should be using, or whether we should be doing it at night, or in the rain... or only when the moon is six days past full, for that matter. I've actually managed to borrow a grad student from Thanelli University who's researching ancient Atlantlan mythology and ritual, and she's busy looking for references in Atlantlan legend that might give us a clue. That ruffled some feathers, let me tell you. Getting a mythology expert to help solve a scientific problem? Blasphemy!"
Ally continued, never quite noticing the way that people would come closer to listen to her speak, and become drawn into the discussion. When the Duke's Major Domo announced that dinner was served, Ally was startled to finally realise that over fifteen people had been listening and speaking with her for the past half-hour... And all without a single instance of shyness or uncertainty on her part.
"Oh my, that was good," Ally said, as she and Chorus made their way from the Dining Hall to the Ballroom. She patted her full stomach carefully with the hand that wasn't holding Chorus' arm.
"It was," Chorus agreed. "However, there are times when all I want is a big steak, rather than all this fancy stuff."
"A steak!" Ally scoffed. "Here we are, having just eaten..." She hesitated. "Well, whatever it was that we ate, and you want a steak." She shook her head. "Savage."
"Sorry, I'm a Motswana," her companion said, shrugging. "We live for our steak. Not to mention our sausage, ribs, and roast. But mostly our steak. Heck, it's our second highest export, we have so much of it."
"Yeah, and heart attacks are your highest non-accidental cause of death."
Chorus shrugged again and grinned. "Yes, but at least we die happy. Fat, but happy." As the pair entered the Ballroom, he looked around at the other guests who were slowly filling the large open space. "So what happens now?"
"I'm not sure," Ally admitted. "I didn't get a chance to ask Evelynne exactly what the game plan is." The princess had been called away temporarily to speak with Duke Thomas on some matter.
"Oh?" Chorus asked, smirking. "Too busy... getting dressed this evening to talk, huh?"
Ally shot him a withering glare that just bounced right off, so she changed tactics. "Yes, frankly. In fact, due to... circumstances, we had to get dressed several times." She mock frowned. "A number of dresses were ruined by our enthusiasm, actually."
Chorus froze, his gaze fixed on some internal vision. Shaking himself, he said plaintively, "Ally, you just can't do that to a healthy, heterosexual male. Now do you know what I'm going to be thinking of for the rest of the evening?"
"Oh, believe me, I know," Ally replied, smirking. "Intimately. But you'll just have to suffer, you pervert."
"That's not fair, Ally," Chorus protested. "You're the one who explained how guys' fascination with lesbians is genetic."
"I did and it is," Ally agreed. "You're still a pervert."
"Well, in that case, would you care to dance with this pervert?" Chorus said, offering her his hand as music began to play and brightly dressed guests began to fill the dance floor. "I promise to keep my hands to myself... mostly."
"Dance?" Ally said, freezing, then shaking her head vehemently. "No no no. I can't dance -"
"- with you, my dear Mr Tladi, because she has already promised me the first dance," Duke Thomas' voice interrupted her. The Duke came closer, a wryly grinning Evelynne on his arm. "Well, my dear, shall we dance? I should inform you that it is considered bad manners to refuse the host of the Gala such a request." Without waiting for a reply, he bowed to the princess and took the stunned Ally's hand, leading her out onto the floor. As they moved off, Evelynne and Chorus cold hear him saying, "Now, please remember that I am quite old, my dear, so no wild stunts, please. I'm afraid that 'dirty dancing' is a wee bit out of my range at the moment. Have you seen the movie?"
As their voices were lost in the surrounding hum of music and conversation, Evelynne turned to Chorus. "Well, that went exactly according to plan," she said calmly. "Stage two should be ready any moment now."
Chorus shook his head. "Somehow, Your Highness, I don't think I want to know. However, if you would care to dance...?"
"I would," Evelynne replied, smiling, "but I promised someone else first. Now, if I can only find him..."
As if on cue, the flamboyant form of Count Larrel appeared at Evelynne's elbow. "My apologies, Cousin," he said, sweeping an extravagant bow. "I was just engaging in some planning for a small... get-together later on tonight. It took somewhat longer than I had anticipated."
Evelynne cocked an eyebrow. "Oh? Was she that resistant to your charms?"
"Not at all," Larrel replied, without a hint of embarrassment. "She was simply inquiring into the possibility of Dame Alleandre joining our... discussion, since she saw us conversing earlier. Alas, I had to inform her that not only would Dame Alleandre find my presence at such a meeting... off-putting, but our honourable Knight is already... involved with her own affairs." He frowned. "Unfortunately, my efforts to elicit the identity of Dame Alleandre's paramour have met with failure." He looked at the two people in front of him. "I don't suppose she's mentioned the matter to either of you?"
Evelynne blushed, but Chorus managed to take the question in stride. "She has, actually," he said. "However, it's a delicate matter, not to mention very personal, so..."
"Say no more," Larrel said. "I, of all people, understand the necessity for discretion in delicate, personal matters. I will enquire no further. However, I believe I promised the first dance to my beautiful cousin." He held out a hand, which Evelynne took. "Shall we?"
"So, how are you enjoying the 'shindig', my dear?" Duke Thomas asked as they moved slowly but gracefully across the dance floor, in deference to the Duke's condition.
"I'm having fun," Ally admitted honestly. She was finding that the dance moves Annie had taught her were coming back, and she was moving with more confidence. "I got trapped by Countess Tar'he earlier, but other than that, I've been having a good time." Of course, I'd be happier if it was just Evelynne and me, and dinner in front of the fireplace, she thought. She caught sight of her lover dancing with Count Larrel, and laughing heartily at something her partner was saying.
Duke Thomas chuckled. "Ah yes, dear Tar'he. A more dedicated, selfless Countess you will not find, but she is most unfortunately in love with her own voice."
"Tell me about it," Ally agreed. "So, what were you and Evelynne talking about? You looked like you had some good news."
"Indeed I do, my dear. I will be making a most pleasant announcement later this evening. A project we have been working on for some time is finally about to bear fruit."
"Well, that's good," Ally said, relaxing as she realised that nobody was going to be laughing at the flat-footed klutz in their midst. "I think she could use some good news."
There was no need to ask who "she" was, as Ally's eyes fixed on the princess, who was slowly making her way, with Count Larrel's assistance, in their direction. Duke Thomas carefully hid his smile, simultaneously catching the eye of his Major Domo, who was watching from nearby for just this moment. A faint head nod signified that the signal had been received and understood. The Duke was fairly certain that his servant was unsure exactly why this subterfuge was taking place, but, like all good personal assistants, the Major Domo would not ask questions. It isn't so much of a deception in any case, the Duke thought. I actually do need to speak with someone.
On cue, when the princess and her dance partner were conveniently close by, Duke Thomas "noticed" his manservant apparently giving him a signal, and paused in the dance. "Alleandre, my dear, it seems my presence is required elsewhere," he said with unfeigned regret. "I am sorry to leave you hanging like this, as it were. I should think you will have no problem finding willing - no, eager - dance partners."
"Really, Domdom?" Evelynne asked. She had "just happened" to overhear their conversation. She looked up at her own dance partner. "Larrel, would you mind if I cut in with Alleandre? I would like to dance with my Knight. I'm sure you'll have no problems finding another partner."
"I'm sure I'll manage," Larrel said with a twinkle in his eye. "Who knows, I may even dance with one of them." He bowed, in turn, to Evelynne, the Duke, and Ally. "Your Highness. Your Grace. Dame Alleandre." Then he was off into the crowd.
"Your Highness," Duke Thomas echoed, and suddenly Evelynne and Ally were alone in the middle of the crowd.
"Okay then, Ally," Evelynne said, taking charge since the other woman had frozen and looked ready to bolt at any second. The princess stepped forward and arranged their arms appropriately. "And... we're off."
Neither of them moved.
"Er... Ally, one of us is going to have to lead," Evelynne said wryly.
Ally blushed deeply, mortified. "Um... okay. Who?"
"Well, I thought that since you were taller, you'd lead."
"Okay," Ally said uncertainly. "It's just that I don't have a lot of experience with leading."
"Really? You mean when you and Annie danced, she'd lead?"
"Um, yeah. I'm... more comfortable letting someone else take charge," the taller woman admitted. Her heightened blush reminded Evelynne that the dance floor wasn't the only place that Ally preferred a slightly more submissive role.
"Alright, then. I haven't done this a lot, but part of my dance lessons included how to lead." Reversing the positions of their arms, Evelynne smiled up at her partner. "And now... we're off. I hope."
Ally couldn't help but chuckle slightly, but she responded much more readily to Evelynne's control, and soon they were moving across the dance floor in a slightly awkward but relatively graceful fashion. At first Ally was incredibly self-conscious, but after several minutes, where nobody had commented adversely on seeing the Heir dancing respectfully with another woman, she began to relax.
"This isn't so bad," she murmured reluctantly.
*See? I told you so,* Evelynne replied, and there was a distinct flavour of satisfaction in her mental voice.
Ally looked at her askance. *Why do I get the feeling that I was set up?* she asked. *This all seems just a little too... convenient.*
*Oh, I don't know. Maybe you're psychic.*
Ally laughed mentally. *Maybe I am. Still... I'm glad you did it,* she admitted.
Evelynne smiled. *Good. So, have you been having a good time so far?*
*Why does everyone keep asking me that? Yes, I am, actually.*
*Good,* Evelynne repeated. She deftly steered them around another couple who were obviously even less skilled than they were. They were silent, both inside and out, for a few more minutes before the princess noticed a young man approaching them. *Well, I'm afraid I must go and be sociable again,* she sighed. *I wish we could have had longer.*
Ally noted the same handsome young Noble, and forced down the surge of jealousy that threatened to erupt. The young man paused nearby and asked respectfully, "Your Highness, may I have the honour of this dance? With your permission, Dame Alleandre?"
"Of course," the princess replied, and Ally gracefully handed her off to her new partner. "Alleandre." Ally couldn't help but wince internally at the formal tone.
A number of people requested the young woman's company for a dance, but Ally begged off, claiming a strained back muscle, and soon she was back on the sidelines, alongside the others who, for whatever reason, chose relaxing over dancing. Ally found herself a seat at a small table with a pair of older Nobles, a Countess and Baroness, whom Ally remembered speaking with earlier. Baroness Shoroi, the younger at sixty-eight years of age, smiled at her warmly. "Alleandre, 'ow are ye?" she asked, her accent a thick mixture of Portuguese and Irish brogue common among the inhabitants of the northernmost region of Lyonesse.
"I'm doing well, thank you, My Lady," Ally replied. "Getting a bit tired, though."
Countess Grace, a more reserved but nevertheless friendly woman, clucked her tongue. "Now, none of that. You're too young to be getting tired this early. Why, when I was your age -"
"- she'd'a be dancin' an' partyin' 'till the nex' risin' o' the sun," Shoroi finished, laughing. "Ignore 'er, lass. She didna' any such thing. 'Er pa woulda tanned 'er 'ide. She's jus' tryin' to live agin through ye, ol' bat tha' she be." Grace glowered at her companion, who just laughed again. It was obvious that such volleys were a common occurrence.
"Ignore her, girl," Grace stage whispered to Ally. "The poor thing's senile. We've tried and tried to get her to step down, but..." She trailed off, shaking her head sorrowfully.
This time Ally joined in their laughter, comfortable enough to relax in their friendly presence. After snagging a drink of fruit juice from a passing servant, she sat back and watched the couples on the floor. As the princess swept by at one point, in the arms of yet another handsome young man, Countess Grace murmured something to Shoroi in Lantlan. Ally, who had been focussed on her lover, thought that she was being addressed, and asked distractedly, "Huh? Pardon?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Alleandre," Grace said. "I was just asking Shoroi whether she thought Count Alistair's young Heir -" She pointed to the man dancing with Evelynne. "- was going to announce his status as a suitor at the Conclave in two weeks."
Ally felt a cold shiver stab through her. "What do you mean? A suitor as in..."
"Marriage, yes," the Countess confirmed. "Now that Her Highness has been confirmed as Heir, it is traditional for all those interested in seeking her hand in marriage to announce their interest each year at the first Nobles' Conclave. It is not binding, and she is not obligated to choose now, or even for several years. She could even marry someone who has never announced his interest formally. Still, it is customary for the Heir to at least acknowledge her suitors. Of course, it also allows those with political agendas - and we all do - a chance to see who might be the next King of Atlantl."
"Oh," Ally said, her heart somewhere in the pit of her stomach. "But she'll have to marry eventually, right?"
"Well," Grace said slowly, "not technically. However, the last bachelor Monarch we had was..." She appeared to be thinking.
"King Ursan bel'Heru d'Molay," Shoroi murmured.
The Countess nodded to her companion. "Thank you. Yes, King Ursan. And he was King..."
"1722 ta 1727," the Baroness said. "Didna rule fer long. Abd'cated ta join the Church, 'e did. Rumours 'bout 'is preference fer other lads. Ne'er confirmed yet."
"Ah yes," Grace said, "I remember now. Good ruler, by all accounts, but he was forced out by the combined Nobility. Officially, of course, he had been called to the cloth by God."
"I see," Ally said, striving to keep her tone level and not reveal the shock and despair that were rising within her. She knew she should have been thinking of this issue long before, but the happiness she had found with Evelynne had left her instinctively avoiding the subject.
"Aye," the Baroness said. "'Tis only ta be hoped tha' 'Er 'Ighness chooses so well as 'er father did when it was 'is time ta pick a bride. Queen Isarin, now she was tha ver' soul o' nobility, Osiris keep 'er."
Ally tuned out the two older women who began a nostalgic discussion of Evelynne's late mother, and concentrated instead on not being sick. It actually wasn't that hard; the sensation in her middle left her feeling as though her stomach had been removed entirely... along with her heart and lungs. What was left was a kind of blank stunned feeling.
Suddenly, she realised that the music had stopped, and Duke Thomas was mounting a small raised dais at one side of the hall. He lifted his hands and cleared his throat to get everyone's attention, and the room swiftly grew silent. "My Lords and Ladies," he announced in a voice surprisingly energetic for someone his age, "I tender my apologies for interrupting your evening, but several of my guests must leave shortly, and I wished to make an announcement before they did so. What I am about to say you would most likely have learned very soon in any case, but I was not about to pass up an occasion to be the one to pass on some welcome news. Having scores of people hanging on one's every word is a rare privilege for gentlemen my age... and since I outrank nearly everyone present, nobody can stop me now." There was good-natured laughter from the assembled guest. "However, I also know better than to push my luck, so I will not keep you waiting. I find it amazing that Count Larrel has lasted this long without glancing at my servants' behinds."
"Don't be so sure, Your Grace," Larrel's voice called out. "I'll have you know I have excellent peripheral vision."
The laughter returned, and this time Duke Thomas joined in. "I will keep that in mind. However, on to my news, although I claim no part in its making. Earlier this evening, negotiators reached an agreement with the American government securing the release of our remaining officers from their custody. The details are not yet public, but I know we are all happy to know that our brave men and women are coming home after so long away." The crowd erupted in conversation, as everyone present tried to express their own feelings on the subject, but the vast majority sounded pleased. The Duke waved his hands for quiet again, and eventually his guests settled. "Our people will be returning in a little under two weeks. They would be home sooner, but the American politicians must, of course, keep face by at least appearing to control the timeline. The two weeks was part of the agreement worked out. His Majesty King Jad will shortly submit a writ authorising the awarding of several medals on the sailors in question. I feel certain that His Majesty's wishes will be ratified, and our people will receive their awards at the Noble Conclave shortly after their return. I have a feeling this Conclave will be memorable."
"Ally, are you feeling alright?" Evelynne asked her lover. The other woman's face was strained and pensive, obvious even in the dim light of the limo. "You look... worried."
Ally seemed to come back to herself with a start and looked away from the window she had been staring out of. She glanced at the princess, but looked away again quickly, unable to meet her eyes. "Yeah... kind of. I just... Could we talk about it back at the Palace? I just need to think for a bit."
Evelynne nodded, worried by Ally's mood. It had appeared that Ally had been having a good time, in spite of her generally reclusive nature, and she didn't know what had happened to change that. She wondered whether someone had said something or done something to hurt her lover, and instantly felt her protective instincts kick into high gear. If someone was rude or insulting they're about to be reminded that I protect my friends... especially ones I happen to be in love with.
The remainder of the ride back to the Summer Palace took place in silence. The atmosphere remained strained, despite Evelynne's attempts to gently coax Ally into conversation. The other woman would reply absently with one or two word answers to each question, then fall quiet again. The princess' attempts to contact Ally mentally also met with failure, revealing that the Adept had closed her mind tightly against any intrusion. Ally Evelynne could detect through their link was a vague sense of emotional pain, coupled with flashes of jealousy and resentment, but they were so faint as to be highly suspect.
When they finally arrived at the Palace, Evelynne and Ally greeted Maïda, who was there to meet them. Due to the late hour, the lady-in-waiting spared them an interrogation into the evening's events, knowing that she would be able to get a full accounting from Sir Arthur. Before splitting up temporarily to maintain the illusion that they were actually going to spend the night in separate rooms, Ally turned to Evelynne and said, "I'll... see you soon." She looked away again. "We... have to talk." The way she said it sent a chill through the princess' stomach, but before she could respond, Ally had disappeared.
A quarter-hour later, Evelynne quietly opened the door to Ally's suite and slipped inside. A quick glance showed that Ally was not waiting in the bedroom, as had become normal, but was instead sitting slouched in an armchair, gazing pensively into the empty fireplace. Cassie was curled up contentedly in her lap, being stroked absently by Ally's long fingers. She didn't appear to notice Evelynne's entrance until the princess murmured a soft, "Ally? Love?"
Startled, Ally looked up at the woman who was standing a few feet away and quickly got to her feet, placing the cat on the floor at the same time. "Evy," she whispered, and made as if to embrace her, before halting herself suddenly.
Evelynne, in contrast, had no problem in wrapping her arms around her lover and resting her head on Ally's breast. "Ally," she breathed, pleased but worried when Ally's arms slowly - too slowly - came up to return the embrace. Lifting her head, Evelynne drew Ally down into a kiss, and almost panicked when Ally refused to escalate it into something more passionate. Breaking off, Evelynne asked, "Ally, what's wrong?"
Ally sighed. "I have to talk to you about something," she said finally. She released her hold on Evelynne and started to sit down again, but the princess refused to let her return to her single chair, drawing her so that they could sit side by side on the couch instead.
"Well, I think you've made that clear," Evelynne replied with a lightness she didn't feel. "Was it something that happened this evening? Did someone say or do something?"
Ally sighed again, and looked down at her hands. "In a way, yes. It's actually kind of an... ongoing thing, but tonight someone - several someones, actually - said something to bring it to a head." She took a deep breath. "I think I need to... go away for a while." The way she said it made it clear even to Evelynne that she was miserable about the prospect.
The princess felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. "Away? What do you mean? Away from the Palace? Away from Atlantl? Away from... us?"
Ally laughed humourlessly. "Yes. Maybe. I need some space to think."
"To think? For how long?"
Ally shrugged. "Until I can come up with an answer."
Evelynne swallowed. "What's the question?"
"The question? That's part of the question. If I knew for sure what the question was, maybe the answer would be easier." One side of Ally's mouth quirked up in a half smile. "I'm being cryptic, I know." She sighed again. "Tonight it became painfully clear that I don't know if we'll ever really be able to be together. At the next Conclave young men are allowed to begin announcing themselves as suitors for your hand in marriage. Now, you may not know them, you may not love them, but I've read enough and heard enough to know that sooner or later you'll have to marry one of them, to provide an Heir, if nothing else. And then you'll have a husband. And where will I be?" Ally laughed harshly. "You know, for a while there I actually had this fantasy that even when you were married and became Queen, that I was your hidden mistress? Every night you'd sneak away from your husband to come and meet me, because we were so much in love. And for a while I actually thought I could do something like that. After all, if we love each other enough, we should be able to work around a little thing like a husband, right? But now I don't know if I can. I mean, let's take a best-case scenario, where your husband knows about us, and has no problems with it. Maybe he has a mistress of his own. That still means that even though we can be together in secret, I'll never be able to hold your hand in public, or kiss you without worrying who might see us. And, damnit, I like kissing you, and holding your hand! But to have to hide all the time... Or what about the flip side, where your husband doesn't know, and wouldn't approve, and you have to go to his bed each night so that he won't get suspicious?" Ally shook her head. "I couldn't stand the thought of someone touching you like that." She shrugged again, the set of her shoulders signifying exhaustion. "Who knows, maybe if you truly loved him, and he truly loved you things would be different. After all, how could I begrudge someone who loved you as much as I do? But even then, where does that leave me? On the outside, at least, I'd be alone. I wouldn't have a partner, or be able to have a family of my own. I..." She trailed off. "That pretty much covers it, I think."
"So you're leaving?" Evelynne asked, her tone dull.
Ally nodded reluctantly. "For a while. I just need some time to work some things out in the privacy of my own head. I don't know, maybe I'll come to the conclusion that I can live with being your secret lover. Right now I'm just really confused." She tried to smile. "Don't worry, you'll know what I learn... one way or the other."
Evelynne couldn't muster an answering smile. She was feeling too much like this was some particularly bad dream. "When... when will you go?"
"Tomorrow morning," Ally replied soberly. She leaned in to kiss Evelynne, although the princess' lips were unresponsive, then stood. "Tonight, though... I think I'm going to go... out." She waved a hand towards the glass doors leading to the balcony. "I need... I don't know what I need, but I know I can't stay here." She hesitated, then walked purposefully towards the balcony doors. Just before going through, she stopped and turned around. "I love you," she said, her voice catching. Then she was out the door into the night, leaving a silently sobbing Evelynne behind her.
To be continued in Chapter 31
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