Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"I have been in the bark

Of Dylan, Son of the Wave,

When the waters rose as lances,

Falling down from the skies,

Into the exposed abyss."

- Taliesin

Chapter 31

Evelynne stood as Seneschal Nancu Ylan ushered Jason McKendrick, Duke Thomas' Legal Advisor, into her office at the Summer Palace. She managed to smile at him in a friendly greeting, an action that felt odd and unnatural. For the past week - since Ally's departure from the Palace, although not from Atlantl - she had had little to smile about. However, she was hoping that the results of this meeting might give her spirits a boost. Regardless, it would not be the final solution to her problems, but hopefully it would at least provide a pathway.

"Hello, Jason," the princess greeted, extending a hand for her guest to take. The Seneschal discreetly bowed his way out, closing the door behind himself. He had orders that this meeting was to go uninterrupted for anything less than the Rising of Atlantl from the Sea.

"Your Highness," Jason said, bowing over her hand extravagantly, as Evelynne rolled her eyes. If there was one person who absolutely loved playing the whole formal etiquette game, it was Jason McKendrick. It was extremely fortunate that he did consider it a game, to be played by the proper rules to be sure, but ultimately for fun. Otherwise he would be absolutely insufferable. It also helped that under the right circumstances he could be persuaded to drop the act.

"Really, Jason," Evelynne teased, "you'd think I was, oh, the Crown Princess or something with the way you carry on."

"You must admit, Your Highness, that the likeness is remarkable," he replied seriously, although the twinkle in his blue eyes showed that he was enjoying the banter. "And I must say that if you are an impostor, you have certainly worked hard at the exercise." He pointedly looked around the opulent but tastefully decorated office.

"I'll be sure to tell the actor playing Ylan that," Evelynne said wryly. "He'll be gratified that his practice has paid off." Walking over to some comfortable chairs nearby, she waved her guest into one of them. "Please, have a seat. Would you care for some refreshments?"

Jason shook his head, placing his black briefcase by the side of his seat and running a hand through his thick, wavy chestnut hair. "No, thank you, Your Highness," he declined. "If it is Latifa's customary exquisite work, I fear that I will be too distracted to remain focussed on business." He hesitated. "I assume that this is a business meeting, Your Highness?"

Evelynne didn't say anything for a moment. "It is," she admitted finally, "although it involves a personal matter…" She trailed off, uncertain of how to continue.

"Your Highness, would this 'personal matter' happen to involve a certain Dame Alleandre Tretiak?" Jason asked delicately.

"Yes," the princess blurted, surprised. "But how did -"

"Your Highness, several months ago Duke Thomas approached me with a certain 'theoretical' legal issue that he wished me to investigate. Last week I was informed that I should expedite my research, as the theoretical issue had the potential of turning into a practical one. He also provided me with certain… parameters so that I could focus my efforts. Dame Alleandre's name was one of those parameters."

"Oh," Evelynne said, stunned that this was going to be less difficult than she thought.

"Before I continue, however, Your Highness, I would like to ask… why you have not involved your own Legal Advisor in this matter. While I am, of course, happy to help you in any way that I can, I must also inform you that my primary allegiance is to His Grace. Under the right circumstances, he could compel me to reveal the facts of our discussion here today. I'm afraid I cannot guarantee my confidentiality in that case."

"That's simple," Evelynne said. "The fact is that I trust you more than I trust my own Legal Advisor. While he is very competent, and I'm probably doing him a disservice, the fact remains that I've only been working with him since December. On the other hand, I've known you for several years now. And the overriding factor is that Duke Thomas trusts you. As for telling him, I'm explicitly stating that you're free to do so. I'm pretty sure that he knows all the pertinent details anyway, and what he doesn't he's probably guessed." She shrugged.

"In that case, Your Highness, and having already looked into the matters I presume you will wish to discuss, I can already give you some good news. There are only two major sticking points, and both of them are largely out of your control. Neither, however, is insurmountable. Before that, though, I'd like to lay out the groundwork that I've already prepared."

Evelynne walked across the courtyard, somehow extremely conscious of the fact that the men working around her were not paying her much attention. As princess, she was used to being the centre of attention of whatever public location she was currently in. However, occasionally she would go to some place where the inhabitants either didn't know or didn't care that she was the Heir to the Throne of Atlantl, and it was always a welcome relief. This was one of the latter, since the brown-garbed monks assiduously working in the gardens answered to an even higher authority. There was respect, even friendliness in their eyes, but none of the deference the princess was used to receiving, whether she wanted it or not.

At the moment, though, most of her thoughts were focussed on the one monk she had specifically come to the monastery to see, and a gut-churning apprehension over the topic of their imminent conversation.

That particular monk appeared suddenly from a door at the other end of the courtyard, beaming at his sister, and Evelynne couldn't help but smile back. She felt herself choking up as he grabbed her up in a bear hug, and she buried her face in the coarse wool covering his shoulder. The other monks looked on with some amusement at the spectacle.

"Evelynne," Patrick murmured into her ear. "It's so good to see you."

His sister squeezed him tighter. "It's good to see you, too."

Patrick loosened his grip so that he could hold Evelynne at arms' length. He scrutinised her face carefully, and frowned when she wouldn't meet his eyes. "You look… tired, Evy," he said. "Stressed. Are you doing alright?"

Evelynne shrugged half-heartedly. "A lot of things are happening right now," she replied. "Actually, that's one of the things I came to talk to you about." She looked around at the nearby monks. "Is there somewhere private we can go?"

"Of course," Patrick said. He began leading her towards the door he had exited from. "The Chapel should be nearly deserted right now."

A few minutes later, Evelynne sat down with relief, not even caring about the hardness of the wooden pew. The Chapel was simply furnished, with a cross, altar, and several pries-deus at one end, and the rest of the space was filled with pews. The only real decoration was a small but beautiful stained glass window above the altar. It was also empty of any other people, as Patrick had predicted.

The princess' brother sat down a moment later, after briefly dropping to one knee and saying a quick prayer. He looked at Evelynne who had closed her eyes and leaned her head back, obviously weary.

"So, Evy, what's wrong?" Patrick asked. "You aren't looking good."

Evelynne opened her eyes and rubbed them wearily. "I've been having some… personal problems," she admitted finally. "And I've been really busy with some official projects." She sighed. "But it's the personal things I wanted to talk to you about, before I talk to za." She swallowed, uncertain of where to begin.

"You know you can talk to me any time," Patrick said gently. "I am a priest, you know. We're supposed to help people with their problems."

His sister laughed wryly. "Actually, you being a priest has the potential to make things worse in this case," she said.

Patrick frowned. "I don't understand."

Evelynne took a deep breath in a vain attempt to steady her roiling stomach. "I suppose I should start at the beginning," she said. "You know how Ally and I have become really good friends?"

"Of course. I consider her a friend as well."

"Yes, well… Shortly after she was knighted we became… more than good friends. Much more."

"I don't…" Patrick's frown suddenly reversed as his brows rose dramatically. "Oh. Oh. I see." He appeared more than a little shocked. "I don't… I never thought… I mean, I knew that she was… But I never thought that you…"

Evelynne took pity on him. "It was a bit of a shock to me, too. However, when I finally came to terms with it, and told her how I felt, and she felt the same way, too…" She shrugged uncomfortably and stared at her hands. "Are you disappointed?"

"Disappointed? No, of course not." Her brother hesitated. "To be honest, a little. But that's just shock talking," he hastened to add. "I think I would feel the same no matter who you were in an intimate relationship with. After all, this is my little sister we're talking about. Er… this is an intimate relationship, isn't it?"

Evelynne blushed. "Um… yes. Very."

"I see. Please spare me the details. Not only are you my sister, but I am a monk, after all." The attempt at humour was successful at lightening the mood.

Evelynne finally managed to look at her brother out of the corner of her eye. "So… you're not mad?" she asked hesitantly.

"Mad? Of course not, Evelynne, I'm not mad. Shocked, yes. Concerned, yes. Mad? Definitely not." He shook his head. "Just give me a bit of time to get used to the idea, alright? Are you happy?"

"Yes," Evelynne replied instantly, then paused. "At least… I was."

Patrick curled an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. "What happened?" he asked gently.

"She, um… left," the princess replied, her voice hitching.

"Left? Why?"

"A pretty good reason, actually. She knew that I'd never be able to acknowledge our relationship, and that I'd also eventually have to get married, 'to provide an Heir, if nothing else,' as she put it. And she didn't know if she could handle that. So while technically she hasn't left me permanently, I don't hold out much hope of getting her to come back. Even if she did, a life hiding like that isn't what she deserves."

"Alright, I can understand that," Patrick said, stroking her hair. "So what did you do?"

"Well…" Evelynne sniffed and moved out of her brother's embrace, dabbing at her nose and eyes with a hand. "The night that she told me she was leaving - that w as the night of Duke Thomas' Gala - I was too shocked to do anything. I love her so much, Patrick, and the thought of her leaving for good was…" She looked up at him with expressive eyes, begging him to understand, and grateful to find gentle acceptance there. "The next morning, though, I begged her to stay. I told her that we could work it out together." She sighed. "Eventually I stopped, though."

"She wasn't going to give in?"

"No, actually I stopped because I realised that she was about to give in… and I realised that doing so would be unfair to her. Whatever I may feel, she feels the need to get away and think about it. But I also know that if I had convinced her to stay when she needed to be alone, she wouldn't feel that she had resolved things in her own mind. And I also know that I have enough power over her to make her do what she really doesn't want to, and it's wrong of me to exploit that power."

"I understand," Patrick said. "And I think that what you did… or didn't do showed a lot of maturity. God gave us all free will, and taking away someone else's, even with the best of intentions, is a great sin."

Evelynne smiled crookedly. "I don't know about sin, but I do know that it just felt wrong."

"So what have you been doing since then?" Patrick asked. His sister looked at him quizzically. "I know you, Evy. You never were one to let things rest when there was something you wanted. You're going to try to do the right thing. So what is it?"

"Well, I have been getting some advice," Evelynne admitted, "and I know what I want to do. Unfortunately, it depends on the agreement of a number of people. Za is one. The Hall of Nobles are another. Ally, of course, is the key figure. And you are another." She took a deep, fortifying breath and looked directly into her brother's eyes. "Patrick, I have a really big favour to ask."

"Evelynne," King Jad boomed, sweeping his daughter into a hug strong enough to lift her feet off the ground. "How are you, my little fireball?" Placing her back on the floor again, he looked at her quizzically. "The Conclave isn't due to start for another two days. I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow at the earliest. Don't you have a meeting with the Avaloni Education Council this afternoon?"

The princess shook her head ruefully. She was used to her father knowing every aspect of her professional life. He never interfered, but she also knew that compared to his decades of rulership she was very much a green recruit by comparison, and it was comforting at times to know that he was discreetly looking over her shoulder - even if it was from two islands away.

"I postponed it," she explained, hugging his arm as he walked them over to the sitting area of his grand office. "All they were going to do was try to convince me to support a few of their less important proposals at the Conclave. I already know what I'm going to endorse, and I'm not about to change my mind at the last minute."

"Ah," Jad said, lowering his bulk into a large overstuffed chair as Evelynne took her own seat.

The door opened and a servant entered, bearing a tray with some tea and a selection of pastries. She silently placed them on the low table and just as quietly exited.

"You know that Count Bransen in on that Council, don't you?" King Jad said casually. "He was most… put out by you backing out. It seems that you maybe… Let's see, how did he put it? 'Taking your duties to your loyal future vassals somewhat frivolously.' Something to that effect, anyway." There was no censure in the King's tone.

Evelynne laughed. "Count Bransen is a useless, incompetent, egotistical fool," she said scathingly. "The only reason he hasn't been stripped of his title by the rest of the Nobility is that he's blessed with a truly spectacular Advisory Council, and he's lazy enough to let them do all the work. He really wanted me there so that he could leer at my breasts and make oh-so-subtle insinuations as to his qualifications as my future husband… and, incidentally, the next King of Atlantl."

"I suspected as much," King Jad remarked calmly. Then his face darkened. "Although not about the leering." His tone was dangerous.

"It's alright, za," Evelynne said. "He's harmless. Creepy, as Ally says, but harmless."

"If you say so," Jad said. "I trust you can fight your own battles… and know to call for assistance when you need it." He took a large gulp of his tea. "Speaking of young Dame Alleandre, how is she? She is scheduled to present a report on her current work at Aztlan during the Conclave, is she not?"

"She is," Evelynne confirmed, suddenly showing the nervousness that had been hiding just under the surface. She took a convulsive swallow of tea, then forced herself to face her father. "Actually, she's what I'm here to talk to you about. Um… I need to get something from you."

Ally swallowed, already feeling a sense of apprehension, even though she was nowhere near its source yet. She had arrived in Jamaz early that morning, and the opening ceremonies of the Conclave of Nobles was not due to begin until after lunch. She was scheduled to present a preliminary report to the Conclave Science Council on the research her team was conducting at Aztlan - an explanation of why they were funding her work, in essence - but not until later in the evening. The thought of standing in front of so many people already had her stomach tied up in knots. Although there was really only one person she was truly nervous about meeting.

All of her staff - it still felt strange to have a staff - had accompanied her on this trip, and were currently eating breakfast at a small café near the port. She was glad for their supportive presence, even if she couldn't tell them the true reason behind her apprehension.

"Yeah, are you feeling alright?" Laura Garrity asked.

"Boss, are you okay?" Taldas asked from across the table. "You're looking a little green around the gills."

"I'll be alright," Ally said, less than convincingly. "I was just trying to psyche myself up for this presentation thing this afternoon."

"Psyche… up?" Rina asked. "What is this, Boss?"

"I'm trying to prepare myself," Ally explained. "I get… scared when I have to speak in front of a lot of people. And stop calling me 'Boss'."

A chuckle swept around the table at the familiar complaint. Taldas Islin had been the first to give her the title, snapping to attention with a crisp "Yes, Boss" when she had asked him to get some food from the commissary one evening, and for some reason it had stuck… much to the "Boss'" annoyance.

In reality, though, Ally was more than pleased with her team. She got on fairly well with all of them, although she and Marjorie Melan, the linguist, didn't click as well as she'd have liked. They weren't hostile or unfriendly, but simple incompatible personalities kept them polite but distant. Fortunately, the linguist got on very well with Taldas, letting him act as an intermediary that both of them could deal with. Ally suspected that Marjorie would like to be more than friends with the handsome man, but he was already taken, if Ally was reading the signals between him and Rina correctly. Still, whatever her other faults, Marjorie seemed to be a decent, honest person, who was unlikely to intrude on another relationship.

"What do you mean?" Taldas asked. "You never have any problem speaking with us."

"Yeah, but you're not actually people," Ally teased. "You're my slaves."

"So do them same thing at the presentation," Laura suggested. "Pretend they're all your slaves."

Ally's brows rose. "You're kidding, right? Somehow I don't think any of the Nobles could be anyone's slaves. And certainly not King Jad or Princess Evelynne."

Laura shrugged. "Well, it might be better than picturing them in their underwear."

Ally began to speak, then stopped. There was no way she was going to say that she had already seen Evelynne in her underwear… in far less, in fact. She shook her head to clear it. Despite two weeks of trying, she had yet to come to a conclusion regarding her erstwhile lover, and now was probably not the time to be distracted with such thoughts. She had vacillated between a nearly overwhelming desire to simply jump into Evelynne's arms and never let go, regardless of other circumstances, and her sense of independence and wish for a more normal life; one where she could show the person that she loved exactly how much she loved her, no matter where they were or who else was around.

Realising she had been silent for several seconds, Ally said, "Please, have you seen some of those Nobles? Count Victus comes to mind." She shuddered dramatically, and everyone laughed.

Count Victus was an incredibly fat man, who made even Rina look petite. And while Rina simply possessed a metabolism that made controlling her weight difficult, she was still very healthy. The Count, on the other hand, was simply lazy, with a pronounced liking for good food and little physical exertion.

"Okay, okay, point made," Laura said, still chuckling. "Well, then, just pretend that it's only us there. Everyone else is just like those robot things at DisneyWorld. What are they called? Oh yes, animatronics."

"Now there's a plan," Ally said. "Have I mentioned how glad I am that you're my assistant?"

"Not in the last hour," Laura replied, smiling. "Marjorie came up with it, actually." Ally looked at the blonde linguist in surprise, who just shrugged and smiled slightly. "And remember, you can reward us by arranging for us to meet King Jad, Queen Cleo, and Princess Evelynne." There was a general murmur of agreement from the rest of the table. They had been subtly hinting - although sometimes the subtle hints were tied to a two-by-four - that Ally using her personal connections to allow them to at least meet the country's rulers would be a good thing for some time now. They were never too demanding or obnoxious, but Ally understood that they would consider it a great honour to do so.

"I'll see what I can do," Ally conceded. "They'll probably be way too busy to do anything today, but tomorrow might be a bit easier. Just remember, I'm not promising anything."

A pleased response came from her friends around the table, and Ally suppressed a sigh. She wasn't entirely sure her "connections" with the Atlantlan Royalty were still in good standing. She hadn't heard from or spoken to Evelynne in almost two weeks, and while part of her was gratified that the princess was allowing her to work things out on her own, another part was worried that the same lack of contact signalled a more permanent break on Evelynne's part. Regardless, Ally was both dreading and looking forward to their next meeting.

"Sure thing, Boss," Taldas said. He glanced down at his watch. "Should we get going? We still need to get changed into our monkey suits, and then it'll probably take forever to get through security. Believe me, you really don't want to miss the opening ceremonies."

Everyone agreed to Taldas' suggestion, and after settling the bill, they started off down the street, Rina asking Taldas to explain just what a "monkey suit" was.

"Man, this place is nuts." Ally had to raise her voice over the din of hundreds of voices. "And we're not even inside yet."

She and her crew had cleaned and changed, and were now in line to pass through security and enter the actual Hall of Nobles itself. The large courtyard was packed with people, all of whom had to be there. The close quarters, coupled with the late May sun directly overhead, were making Ally sweat, and she tugged at the uncomfortable high collar of her formal attire. The tunic and pants were silver, trimmed with purple, the official colours of her blazon, which was prominently displayed on her chest.

"It's the security," the man in front of her commented as the line moved forward slowly. He wasn't quite able to turn around in the press. "Godsdamned HBLA is making everyone nervous."

That much was true. The Hy Braseal Liberation Army had been suspiciously quiet for the last week, leaving the entire population wondering just what they would do next. The Conclave was the most obvious target of their next attack. Add to that the fact that the American Secretary of State had arrived to escort the Atlantlan Navy officers who were returning home, and security had been tightened to unbelievable proportions as a consequence.

"I know," Ally said earnestly. "I know they make me nervous."

The man nodded. "No way we're going to let the teki'a postpone the Conclave, though. Too many interesting things going on at this one. The return of our Naval officers, for one. Princess Evelynne's suitors may begin announcing themselves. Plus, there's a rumour that Her Highness has a big announcement to make. Nobody seems to know for sure what it's about, though."

"I heard that she was actually going to announce that she was going to be giving up all claim to the Throne," another man nearby said. "Apparently she had a meeting with King Jad that left His Majesty in quite a state. I heard that later that day he punched his Legal Advisor."

"Rubbish," Ally's original speaker scoffed. "Although it would be a great loss if she did decide to abdicate. Unless her brother agreed to take the Throne again, the succession would pass to her cousin, Lord Argyle. A decent enough man, but not a candle to Princess Evelynne." He awkwardly managed to extend his right hand behind himself without turning around. "Roald Myrfield, Economic Advisor to Baron Gregor of Hutana."

Ally gripped his hand. "Alle - I mean, Dame Alleandre Tretiak."

Roald twisted around to look at the young woman incredulously. He quickly took in her formal attire and his eyes widened. "Dame Alleandre!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

Ally looked confused, and sneaked a glance at Laura, who had been listening silently. The secretary shrugged.

"I'm here to give a presentation to the Science Council this evening," Ally said.

"No, no," Myrfield said, shaking his head. "I meant, what are you doing standing in line with the rest of us? Peers of the Realm have their own entrance."

"Oh," Ally said, surprised. "I didn't know. I thought I just lined up with everyone else. I've never been to anything like this before."

"Very well," Myrfield said. He peered around, noting that the way back out of the crowd was just as packed as the way forward. "You'll never get around to the Nobles' Entrance in time. In that case…" He took a deep breath and bellowed, "Peer of the Realm! Dame Alleandre Tretiak coming through! Make way! Peer of the Realm!"

There was an impression of surprise, but the word soon spread, and a relatively clear pathway began to open up as more voices added to the cry.

"There you are, My Lady," Roald said, sweeping his arm forward. "We can at least get you to the front of the line. An honour to have met you."

Red-faced, Ally murmured her thanks and moved forward, her small retinue trailing behind her. She couldn't help but feel embarrassed at the bows and salutes that were thrown her way as the people parted to let her through.

"Breathe, Boss," Taldas murmured in her ear. "And smile." Ally managed a somewhat frozen grin. "Needs work."

It took only a few minutes to finally arrive at the first of the security checks, prior to entering the Hall of Nobles. The Guards on duty appeared slightly startled by Ally's sudden appearance, but quickly recovered and waved her forward.

"Dame Alleandre," a tall Guardswoman manning a metal detector greeted. "Please, step through."

Naturally, the metal incorporated in Ally's uniform set off the detector, and the Guard smiled apologetically and waved a wand over her body from head to toe. Satisfied that the Knight was bearing nothing more threatening than a pocketful of loose change and the steel clasps on her tunic, she saluted, touching forehead lips and breast. "Dame Alleandre, welcome to the Hall of Nobles. I am Major Tyran," the Guard said, as Ally awkwardly returned the salute. Other Guards were performing similar searches of Ally's companions. "You could have entered through the Nobles' Entrance."

"So I was just told," Ally replied wryly. "Neither I nor my secretary have been to one of these before, and I suppose nobody thought to give us instructions."

"I see," Major Tyran said, nodding in sympathy. "If you will wait a moment, one - " She broke off suddenly, her hand cupping her ear as she listened to her earbud. Nodding, she spoke briefly into her wrist-mounted mic, then refocused her attention on Ally. "Dame Alleandre, Her Highness Princess Evelynne would like to speak with you before the Conclave begins. If that's alright, I will have someone escort you to Her Highness."

"Um… sure," Ally said, the butterflies in her stomach suddenly growing teeth.

"Excellent," the Guard said. "Your companions will be shown to their seats in the meantime." She nodded to a younger Guard nearby. "Please escort Dame Alleandre to Her Highness in section eight C."

"Yes, Major. If you'll come this way, Dame Alleandre," the young man said politely.

"Thank you," Ally said. She turned to face her crew. "I'll see you in a bit, okay?"

Ally felt her stomach begin to settle as she walked beside the Guard through the gorgeously accoutred hallways. The combination of smooth cool marble and large, bright windows gave the Hall a calming effect. Marble pillars and exquisite painting, tapestries and sculpture from five thousand years of Atlantlan history looked back at her, and she couldn’t help but feel impressed. There didn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to the decorations, but they still seemed to complement each other nicely. After descending a stairway, Ally realised that the windows were now looking over a large garden, on the other side of which was an imposing building she recognised as the Royal Palace. The al-Heru Gardens, she thought, named after the first King of the al-Heru Dynasty, who planted them, and built both the Hall of Nobles and the Royal Palace over eight hundred years ago. The information scrolled in front of her mental eye as her eidetic memory brought it up.

Ally was so busy admiring the lush gardens as she passed that she didn't notice the figures waiting for her ahead until she was nearly upon them. When she did, her stomach nearly decided to give up and leave without her. She stumbled and nearly tripped as she recognised Sir Arthur and Maïda standing there formally, but the majority of her attention was fixed on the pale-faced, red-headed young woman standing stiffly, carrying a box under one arm.

Evelynne was fully and formally attired in her role as Heir to the Throne. Her gown, heavy with decoration and coloured in purple and gold, nevertheless looked light and comfortable as it was blown slightly by a soft breeze coming through an open door leading to the gardens. Her shoulder-length hair was styled surprisingly simply, and was held back from her face by the formal crown resting on her brow. Kohl designs had been added around her eyes, and her lips shone with gloss, but that appeared to be the extent of her makeup… to Ally's inexperienced eyes, at least. She looked so incredibly attractive that Ally was torn between dropping to her knees in awe, and dropping to her knees and throwing up.

Focused on Evelynne, Ally was only vaguely aware of her escort formally announcing her to the princess, then discreetly bowing and walking away. She was only broken from her reverie by Maïda reaching forward to clasp her hand. "Huh? Pardon?" she said.

"I said, you're looking very good today, Alleandre," Maïda repeated. "Quite dignified."

"Oh. Thank you," Ally said, taking in the lady-in-waiting's own modest formal dress. "You look good yourself."

"Alleandre," Sir Arthur rumbled, taking her hand in his own bone-crushing grip. "How are you doing?"

"Um, okay, I guess," Ally replied. She laughed shakily. "A little nervous."

"You'll be fine," Maïda reassured her, and Ally thought she could detect a hidden meaning in her words. "You both will." Before Ally could ask what she meant, the older woman patted her on the arm. "We'll leave you two alone now. Just remember, Highness, the Conclave begins in half an hour." Gathering up Sir Arthur by his thick arm, she walked off, leaving Ally and Evelynne alone.

"Hey, Ally," Evelynne whispered, looking up at the other woman with an expression Ally couldn't decipher.

"Hey, Evy," Ally replied. "Um, so how are you?"

Evelynne choked out a strangled laugh. "That is a far more interesting question than you realise at the moment. Isis, it's more than I know right now."

"Oh, okay," Ally said, confused. She had been expecting a declaration of anger, of hurt, of sadness… even one of love or resignation. This uncertainty was unlike her lover's normal confidence. "So what -"

"Let's go outside," Evelynne interrupted, already moving towards the doors to the garden, tightening her grip on the shoebox sized package under her arm.

"Uh, sure." Ally hurried to catch up.

Once outside, a strained silence fell, as Evelynne led them both deeper into the gardens. "I… like your hair," the princess said finally, glancing at the locks in question out of the corner of her eye.

Ally reflexively brought her hand to her head. "Um, thanks. It was getting a bit long, and I wanted it out of my face. Mila'a did it for me, actually." Her hair now reached to just below her chin, and its natural wave was now broken on the left side by a single small braid just in front of her ear.

"Oh, have you been seeing her?" Evelynne asked with forced casualness.

"She came out to the site about a week ago. I'd promised her a tour." Ally paused. "I… wasn't… seeing her in that sense. You know, like going out."

"I didn't think so. I… trust you." It was mostly true, although there was a small kernel of doubt that she ruthlessly suppressed. After all, Mila'a is beautiful, intelligent, friendly… and isn't carrying the baggage that I am. Ally might be better off with her anyway. "Besides, your mother reassured me on that point."

Ally's brows rose. "You talked to my mother?"

"Um… yes." Evelynne blushed. "They're here, actually."

Ally blinked. "Here? You mean my Mom and Dad came?"

"Yes… I hope you're not angry. It's just that if… things work out well today… I think they'll want to be here."

"Okay." Ally paused. "What did you mean by things?"

"Here, let's sit down," Evelynne evaded, stopping at an ancient intricately carved stone bench, its inscriptions almost vanished with age. An ancient oak tree overhead provided shade. After taking seats some distance apart, the princess asked, "So… have you had a chance to reach any… conclusions? About us?"

Ally sighed, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees and looking down at the ground. "No, not really. And believe me, not for lack of trying. It's like I'm caught between the classic immovable object and irresistible force. You're the force; you pull me towards you like nothing I've ever experienced. But then I hit the immovable object, which is that I can't live in hiding about something like that." She laughed hollowly. "I know, I've been living in hiding my whole life. You'd think I was used to it by now."

"That's different," Evelynne said gently. "You hide what you can do for your own safety, and the safety of those you're close to. I understand why hiding who you love is so much harder."

"Yeah," Ally said, still contemplating her clasped hands. "It's still damned frustrating to not know what I have to do, though." The vehemence of her tone spoke of her inner conflict.

"Well…" Evelynne began, fidgeting with the box on her knees. She swallowed hard. "I think I… might have a solution. One that I pray to Isis you'll accept. I've been thinking a lot, and I've decided that I not only want to have my cake but eat it, too."

With a final fortifying breath, she stood briefly before moving in front of Ally, who jerked back slightly at the unexpected move, and knelt, the intricately carved and engraved box held in both hands. Looking directly into Ally's eyes, she said, *Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, will you marry me?* She opened the lid of the box, revealing a shining silver coronet resting inside. It was only slightly less ornate than the princess' own crown, the silver inlaid with oricalcum, and studded discreetly with a number of precious stones.

Ally froze in complete shock, both physically and mentally, unable to believe the words that had appeared in her mind. Frantically trying to respond, she managed to stammer, "Wha… But… It… Uh… that," before falling silent.

"I know this wasn't the kind of solution you were expecting," Evelynne said hurriedly, worried by the other woman's silence, "but I know I want to be with you. Always. Although I don't know that this is the life you want. I don't know if you've ever thought about staying with me permanently, or if you want to now. I don't know if you want the obligations and responsibilities of being married to me. It won't be easy, and a lot of people won't approve, but…"

The main part of Ally's mind tuned Evelynne's voice out, instinctively falling into a meditative state she often used when working out problems. No words crossed her mind, only a rush of pure concepts, almost too fast for her consciousness to follow, as her subconscious and unconscious examined her feelings and thoughts with a speed only another Adept would be able to match, much less exceed. Time seemed to slow around her as her heightened mental processes kicked into full gear. Logic and emotion battled with each other, complemented each other. Love, fear, doubt, trust, uncertainty, certainty, intellect and animal instinct were all considered and applied to the final equation.

And in the end, the final answer was single word.

Time sped up again, and Ally realised that Evelynne was still babbling, her apprehension and fear over Ally's continued silence clearly perceptible to the Adept's increased perception.


Evelynne's speech jerked to a halt. "Pardon?"

Ally smiled fully for the first time in weeks. "I said 'Yes'."

"Yes?" An answering grin slowly grew on Evelynne's face. "You mean… Yes…?"

"I'll marry you," Ally said. Reaching down, she cupped Evelynne's face and drew her up slightly into a long kiss that the princess settled into with a satisfied sigh.

When they finally broke apart, they both looked a little dazed. Evelynne sat back on her heels, and seemed to notice the open box on her knees for the first time. "Oh," she said. Placing the box on the ground, she reverently lifted out the coronet inside. "Then you need this."

"Is that…" Ally asked.

"This is the Crown of the Heir Consort," Evelynne said. "At least, the one worn by… brides." The word felt strange on her tongue. "The men's one is much uglier." Neither could stop the slightly hysterical giggles that erupted, releasing some of the tension. "As a member of the Nobility, I don't have a ring to exchange. The Crown serves the same purpose."

"Oh," Ally said, still more than a little stunned by events. She held still as Evelynne carefully lowered the "engagement crown" onto her head. I'm engaged, the thought dazedly. I'm going to get married! Then she stopped thinking as her new fiancée leaned in to kiss her once more.

Several minutes later, they parted. Ally's mind kept repeating, I'm engaged! not quite believing it, until finally the reality of the situation kicked in. "Evy," she said seriously, "can you do this? I mean, I'm not… I'm…"

"I can," Evelynne said, smiling. "I've talked to quite a few Legal Advisors about it, and technically, there are only three things that could stop me. As King, my father could overrule my choice of Consort. He didn't. If two of the three Dukes of Atlantl agree, they could overrule me also." A worried expression crossed her face for the first time since Ally had accepted her proposal. "We'll see today whether they do or not." She trailed off, apprehensive.

"Evy, you said three? What's the third?"

This caused Evelynne to break into a broad grin. "You, of course. You could have said no."

"Oh. Well, it's a good thing I didn't, isn't it?" Ally frowned. "Are you sure you want to do this? I can't even imagine the problems you'll face."

"That we'll face," Evelynne corrected. "No, it won't be easy. But if I'm not willing to fight for us… then I wouldn't love you like I do." She smiled again. Her cheeks were beginning to ache, but she couldn't bring herself to care. "There are a few things you do need to know, though. I -" She was cut off abruptly by the long, sonorous tolling a bell in the direction of the Hall of Nobles. "Damn," she cursed. She looked at Ally apologetically. "That means the Conclave is about to Open. I… We really need to be there." She pulled Ally to her feet, then kissed her hard. "I promise I'll explain everything."

"Okay. I trust you," Ally said seriously.

"And I love you," Evelynne replied, taking her fiancée's hand as they headed back through the garden.

 Reaching the doors leading into the outer Hall, Evelynne paused, then took a deep breath. "Alright. Here we go," she said, grinning up at Ally nervously.

Pushing through the doors, they saw the Master of Evelynne's Guard and her lady-in-waiting quietly talking and waiting with apparently inexhaustible patience. They looked up as the door opened, and Maïda's face creased into a wide smile as she took in the coronet on Ally's brow. Sir Arthur's response was more reserved, but even his pleasure was obvious. The older woman immediately crushed her charge in a wide hug. "Congratulations," she whispered into Evelynne's ear. "I'm happy for you."

Sir Arthur just smiled wryly at Ally. "So you said yes."

Ally blushed. "Uh, I guess I did," she said. She returned his smile. "You think I had a choice?"

"You always have a choice," Maïda said seriously, turning her attention to Ally. Despite her serious tone, her eyes were sparkling. "And I want you both to know that we will stand by your choice in any way we can."

Sir Arthur nodded solemnly. "Right now, though, Your Highness, My Lady," he said, acknowledging her change in status with the new title, "we must hurry. You are already a late for the Opening of the Conclave. Their Majesties are about to be announced."

"Then we had better hurry," Evelynne announced. She squeezed Ally's hand in reassurance. "Everything will be fine."

They set off along the corridor towards the Conclave Hall, magically acquiring a full Guard escort along the way. More than a few of the new arrivals bore carefully concealed grins as they took in Ally's new status, leaving her wondering just how many of them had been aware of her and Evelynne's relationship before now. Major Nixon was smirking openly, but Ally's stomach was roiling too much for her to do more than glare weakly at the Sir Arthur's second.

Before long - far too soon, in Ally's opinion - the grandly carved doors of the Monarchs' Entrance to the Conclave Hall appeared ahead, and Ally could recognise the red-haired form of King Jad waiting with the smaller Queen Cleo. When they were still some distance away, the King looked up and saw his daughter and her party approaching. When he saw who was accompanying her, he smiled tightly, then turned to a formally uniformed man bearing a large but simply made gong on the end of a pole in one hand, and a large staff in the other. Speaking in a low voice, he gave the Warden some instructions which had the man startled. Still, this was the Monarch giving the order, and there was no way he was going to disobey any order, no matter how much it went against protocol and tradition.

Turning to face the doors, the Warden formally struck them three times with his staff, paused, then a fourth time. In response, the large double doors swung ponderously open. The Warden strode through purposefully, halting just inside the Conclave Hall. Raising the gong, he rung it once, the echoes of the sound carrying to every corner of the vast Hall. The room quickly grew silent. "My Lords and Ladies," the Warden bellowed in Lantlan, his clear voice surprisingly loud for someone his size, "His Royal Majesty King Jad Richard ibn Jad deMolay, Bearer of the Four Crowns, Lord Protector of the Isles, Keeper of the Laws, Provider of the People, Sovereign of Atlantl! Her Royal Majesty Queen Cleo Janet el-Kareen Sarin, Keeper of the Four Crowns, Lady Protectress of the Isles, Provider of the People, Sovereign Regnant of Atlantl!" The slight differences in their titles showed that while King Jad was the permanent ruler, until such time as he died or formally abdicated, Queen Cleo was effectively holding her Crown in trust against the time that Jad took another wife or regular succession replaced her. Even so, while she held the Throne she was the King's equal in every way. "All Loyal Subjects Hail Their Majesties!"

There was a loud roar of approval as the assembled Nobles and other dignitaries showed their heart-felt approval, but there was a tinge of surprise and confusion as well.

That surprise was echoed by Evelynne's expression, who came to an abrupt halt still a good ten metres from the doors. The surprise and shock slowly turned to a tremulous smile, and tears welled up in her eyes.

"Evy, what's wrong?" Ally asked worriedly, almost painfully aware of the tight grip the other woman had on her hand.

"Wrong? Nothing's wrong," the princess replied looking up at the woman she loved with bright eyes. She took a deep breath and explained. "The Nobility enters the Hall in strict order of rank, from lowest to highest. Naturally, the Monarchs enter last." Another breath. "By entering before us, za and Aunt Cleo have just not-so-subtly told everyone that whoever follows takes precedence over even them, at least in this particular circumstance." She smiled even more widely. "And they've just told everyone, although the rest of the world doesn't know it yet, in the strongest possible terms that they fully support our union, and that today at least it ranks even above their own positions as King and Queen."

"Oh," Ally said, slightly stunned. "So… he's not going to kill me for… you know… corrupting his daughter?" The way she said it showed that there had been a core of true fear behind the seemingly joking words.

"He might," Evelynne replied teasingly. "But it will only be as a father, not as the King of Atlantl."

"Oh, that makes me feel better," Ally said sarcastically. Events seemed to be spinning out of Ally's control, but there was also a sense of rightness to them that was making her just allow things to unfold as they would.

As they were talking, the Warden marched formally back into the corridor. He had held his post for thirty years, and never had the Monarchs deferred to anyone living before. On rare occasions, some hero would be honoured posthumously when his or her casket or colours were the last to enter the Hall, but never while they were still alive. Those were the Warden's thoughts as he exited to Hall, and they were brought to an abrupt halt when his mind finally processed the appearance of the two people Their Majesties had deferred to. Her Highness was easy enough to recognise, and even the young knight by her side was familiar, but what that knight was wearing… The last time he had seen the Crown of the Heir Consort had been near the beginning of his career, when a much younger Prince Jad had escorted his own bride-to-be into this same Conclave Hall, but it was still unmistakable. He gaped briefly, all sense of propriety fleeing, and his gaze darted back down the face under the Crown, half expecting to see the son of some Count or Duke, thus proving that his eyes had at first mistaken him.

No mistake. That face, pale, slightly strained, and obviously nervous, was definitely Dame Alleandre Tretiak, Knight Errant to Princess Evelynne deMolay… and now Consort to the Heir to the Throne of Atlantl.

The Warden saw, out of the corner of his eye, the princess' lady-in-waiting looking at him with a cocked eyebrow and faintly disapproving expression, and he closed his mouth with a snap. He was a professional, he reasoned, and regardless of his own feelings over the… appropriateness of this occasion, he would discharge his responsibility. While there were obviously no protocols dealing with exactly this situation, it would be a simple matter to… adapt one of the existing ones.

Squaring his shoulders, and falling back into his role, the Warden turned once more to face the still open doors. He was aware of the people behind him falling into place, Dame… Lady Dame Alleandre slightly reluctantly, Her Highness with more assurance. When he was sure they were ready, he strode through the great doors once again. Again, he paused just inside and struck his gong with the staff.

"My Lords and Ladies, Her Royal Highness Princess Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay, Heir Apparent to the Throne of Atlantl, Duchess Itinerant!" The Warden took a deep breath and spoke again, his voice clear and unmistakable. "And Her Ladyship Dame Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, Knight Errant to Her Highness Princess Evelynne… and Consort to the Princess Heir!" The assembled people broke into loud, confused, and excited murmuring, almost drowning out the Warden's final words. "All Loyal Subjects Hail Her Highness and Her Ladyship!" His job thankfully completed, the Warden stepped back and to the side, bowing to allow the Heir and her Consort entrance into the Conclave Hall.

Ally and Evelynne walked slowly through the doors, hand in hand. The princess winced slightly at the crushing grip on her hand. A glance at Ally out of the corner of her eye revealed a glazed look and clenched jaw muscles, and she could tell that the other woman was fighting the urge to bolt. Without resorting to speech, she sent a wordless message of love and support through their link, gratified when the grip eased ever so slightly, along with a subtle lessening of tension in Ally's face. A greater degree of comprehension and sanity also entered Ally's eyes, and she managed a tight smile in Evelynne's direction.

Then they were through the doors, and Ally the Conclave Hall at its maximum capacity for the first time.

Semi-circular in shape, the Hall was constructed along the lines of a vast auditorium, and reminded Ally a little of some of the university lecture halls she had been in. The curved half-circle sloped up steeply, its seats placed so that every occupant would have a clear view of the bottom of the Hall. This was where the Nobles sat, each with his or her own desk. The lowest rank, the Barons, occupied the highest tiers as representatives of their own small territories, usually comprising only a few towns or cities. Below them sat their immediate superiors, the Counts and Countesses, each counting several Barons and Baronies as their vassals. Finally, at the bottom of the slope sat the Dukes, each representing one of the islands of Atlantl: Hy Braseal, Avalon, and Lyonesse. Naturally, there wasn't enough room to fit all members of the same rank on exactly the same level, which meant that each Conclave the Nobles were randomly assigned to seats within their own particular section, thus preventing any one Noble - a Count, for example - from claiming superiority simply because he was seated one step below his peers. Wide stairs separated the amphitheatre into three sections, one for each island and its ruling Duke.

At the very bottom, in the centre of the "stage", were placed the Twin Thrones of Atlantl, each exactly equal to the other. Slightly behind and to the sides sat the Thrones of the Heirs: a total of eight, although for the last six years only one had ever been occupied. Today, two would be. It was no accident that every King and Queen of Atlantl for the past eight hundred years had been forced to look up in order to see the men and women who supported their rule. In fact, above the topmost row of Nobles were the Galleries, where any citizen was allowed by Law to view the proceedings… assuming they could find the room. Today, given what the people knew about the issues that would be discussed, the Galleries were packed.

Off to the side, to both the left and right of the Thrones, were two smaller sitting areas, specially designated for visiting ambassadors, dignitaries and other VIP's. Today, one was occupied by the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and assorted members of his staff and Secret Service detail. The other contained a number of other Guests of the Crown, including Evelynne's brother Patrick… and, Ally noted with a slight shock, Catherine and William Tretiak. Ally's mother had her hands over her mouth and appeared to be unsuccessfully holding back tears, her eyes shining, and William appeared surprised, and uncertain over whether to be pleased and proud, or worried and disapproving.

Stepping more fully into the Hall, Ally allowed Evelynne to guide her towards one of the Heirs' Thrones, as the sound of discussion and speculation grew to a dull roar. She saw Duke Thomas wink at her and give her a discreet thumbs up, and couldn't help but smile back crookedly. In contrast, Duke Marsden appeared uncertain, frowning as he listened to an Aide whisper in his ear, and Duke Hassan looked downright disapproving, scowling thunderously in her direction. Ally was unsure of the overall response of the rest of the Nobles, as they disappeared into a vast blur of faces and voices, and there was no way she was about to open her mind more directly in this kind of atmosphere.

Once Ally and Evelynne had taken their seats to the right of the King and Queen, the Warden appeared once more. Despite the extraordinary events that had just occurred, certain formalities still remained before the Conclave could officially Open. Walking briskly in front of the seated Monarchs, he struck his gong several times, calling for silence. It took much longer than usual, unsurprisingly, but finally a modicum of quiet settled over the Hall. Turning to the King and Queen, he bowed deeply and intoned, "Your Majesties, it is, by Law, the time for the Conclave to Commence. Do you acknowledge the Law, that your actions, and those of your vassals, may be examined and judged; that your subjects may have their Voice; that the Laws may be made, modified, or repealed according to custom and the Highest Law?"

"We do," the King and Queen replied formally.

The Warden bowed deeply and stepped back.

King Jad and Queen Cleo looked up at the three Dukes arrayed before them, and repeated, in unison, the Question that the Warden had asked. When the Dukes replied with an affirmative, they each turned to their own immediate vassals, thus continuing the Question up the Hall. Finally, the Barons and Baronesses turned and faced the assembles citizens and commoners in the Galleries. "Loyal Citizens," they proclaimed, their voices blending together surprisingly well for such a large group (many rehearsals, Evelynne confided to Ally later), "your Lords sit before you in Conclave. Will you abide by their decisions and accept their decrees made under the Law?"

The response was much less coherent, but still unmistakably affirmative, if the sheer volume was anything to go by.

"Then I declare the Conclave Open," the Warden declared. "May your deliberations be guided by the Universal and the Law!"

Cheering arose, which quickly subsided as the Atlantlan national Anthem began to play.

The Conclave officially Open, there followed a very long period as each and every Noble in the Hall came forward to individually pledge their allegiance to the Crown and Kingdom, beginning with the Dukes and continuing down to the very newest Baroness, a young woman who was as obviously nervous as Ally was at representing her Barony for the first time. With all one hundred and seventeen Nobles coming up one by one, the entire process took over three hours, and by the time it was over, Ally's rear was nearly asleep, and she was surreptitiously levitating ever so slightly to take the weight off her behind. On the plus side, once the novelty of the situation had worn off after the first few Declarations of Allegiance, she had found herself relaxing enough to calm her roiling stomach. Evelynne, as Heir, had been forced to stand with her father and aunt to accept her vassals' pledges of loyalty.

The "allegiance phase" of the ceremony completed, the princess cast a meaningful glance at her father, receiving a nod in reply. As the King and Queen took their seats, Evelynne remained standing, looking up at the assembled people. Taking a deep breath, she spoke, her voice carrying clearly over the waiting Nobles and commoners, who were completely silent. "My Ladies and Lords, Loyal Citizens," she said, "I know that it is traditional for the Monarchs to make the first speech of the Conclave. However, as you may have noticed, we seem to be… breaking away from tradition this year." A low chuckle rolled through the chamber, although it was likely equalled by the number of disapproving glares. "Earlier today - just before the Conclave Opened, in fact - I sought out Dame Alleandre Tretiak… and asked her to marry me." Another rush of whispered conversation erupted at this final confirmation. Evelynne ignored it, instead turning and walking to where Ally was still sitting, nervously twining her fingers in her lap. The princess held out a hand to her fiancée, who hesitantly took it and allowed herself to be raised to her feet. Still looking at Ally, Evelynne continued, a broad smile breaking across her face. "As you can see, she agreed."

More murmuring broke out, but this time it was more speculative than uncomfortable.

Keeping Ally's hand in her own, Evelynne moved back to the centre of the Hall, drawing her lover with her. Addressing her audience once again, she said, "Needless to say, I am expecting a great deal of controversy surrounding my decision. I am also not so naïve that I believe it will not be the central focus for most, if not all, of this Conclave. So let me announce some things, so that they can be aired, rather than allowing them to fester among rumour and speculation." She paused for a moment, and the entire Hall held its collective breath. "I am a lesbian." The words were spoken clearly and slowly, without room for misunderstanding. "I desire the companionship of other women - specifically this one - and have no desire for a relationship with a man greater than friendship. So regardless of whether you disagree with my choice, I will not be seeking a husband. Should you somehow prevent me from marrying whom I choose, you can rest assured that I will not marry whomever you choose." She smiled thinly. "In such a case, I will become the first bachelor Monarch in three hundred years." She looked up at Ally again, her facing softening noticeably. "I am, of course, hopeful that you will not overrule my choice."

There was near silence for several seconds, broken only by intent whispering. Finally, Duke Hassan, commonly known as the most conservative of the Dukes, stood slowly. His strong, handsome face was solemn. "Your Majesties. Your Highness. I think it will come as little surprise that I am very… disturbed by Her Highness'… decision. I obviously have strong personal and moral objections to Her Highness'… apparent… choice of lifestyle. However, I am also aware that my personal feelings are not sufficient grounds for objection on this matter. I must, like all of us, remain bound by the law. And my apologies, Your Highness, but I cannot help but doubt whether your decision is, in fact, lawful."

*Here it comes,* Evelynne told Ally. *Time to see whether my preparation will pay off. Please, just… follow my lead. And remember that I love you. And… trust me.*

Ally swallowed. She closed her eyes briefly. Trust her? Can I really do that right now? Can I really jump and trust her to catch me? a part of her asked uncertainly. Another part replied, I've been trusting her since I met her. She's been capable of destroying me so many times. And yet she not only hasn't, she now wants to spend the rest of her life with me… openly. So much so that she's defying her entire country to do so. And, just like her decision to accept Evelynne's proposal, the answer to this question was simple. She took a deep mental breath and leapt.

*I trust you.*

Evelynne smiled at Duke Hassan. "I was expecting your objections, Your Grace. And I hope it comes as little surprise that I am prepared to meet them."

"Of course, Your Highness. I'd expect nothing less from the Heir, particularly one with such potential." They nodded to each other, like gladiators squaring off for combat. They might disagree, even dislike each other, but there was a degree of respect, and an acknowledgement that each was being honest to their own beliefs.

"My first concern, Your Highness, is that any… marriage between you and Dame Alleandre - or any other… woman - may not be legal. There are certainly no precedents for such an act."

"On the contrary, Your Grace. There were, the last time I checked, at least forty eight precedents that pertain directly, and another fifty two that are one step removed. The first number is the number of confirmed marriages between women that have taken place since the Marriage Equality Decision was handed down. The second is the number of marriages between men in the same time frame."

"Very well, Your Highness. I will take your word on those numbers. However, that particular Decision is now being Appealed before the Justicars."

"Irrelevant," Evelynne dismissed. "Until and unless the Decision actually is Revoked, it remains as Law, and the Appeals process has no bearing on its implementation."

Duke Hassan nodded reluctantly. "True, Your Highness. Even so, I am not certain that the Decision applies in your particular case."

"Why not?" the princess asked. "That Decision is Classless, and applies equally to all Citizens of Atlantl. By virtue of her Knighthood and sworn Oath of Allegiance to me, Dame Alleandre is a Citizen of Atlantl. I am most certainly a Citizen as well. And by the Fifth Order of the Constitution, 'All Laws Criminal or Civil duly passed shall apply to all Citizens, Commoner or Noble, unless specifically and Lawfully exempted.' The Marriage Equality Decision makes no such specific exemption. So unless you are suggesting that as a Noble I am not bound by the Laws of the Kingdom…" She trailed off, an eyebrow raised.

Realising the danger of such a suggestion, Duke Hassan backed down. Nobles who attempted to prove themselves or their peers above the Law - or in this case, below it - were usually swiftly and decisively removed from their positions. In some cases in the past, about a foot shorter than they were when they first took their inheritance.

"Not at all, Your Highness," Hassan said. "I am merely… investigating possibilities." He paused for a moment to regroup. "Very well, I will concede, for the moment, that the Common Law does not oppose you in this… pending further study, of course. However, there is also, in your case, Royal Law to consider. Such Law does pertain to the Nobility in particular. One particular Law comes to mind. Whomever you do marry, Your Highness, must be able to provide you with an Heir of your body. And forgive me for being blunt, but barring significant medical advances, it seems to me that neither yourself nor Dame Alleandre is… able to perform such a feat." A shocked gasp echoed through the Hall at this statement, but neither Duke Hassan nor, most significantly, Princess Evelynne appeared ruffled.

"I'm afraid I must correct you, Your Grace," Evelynne said calmly. "The Law of Succession does not, in fact, require that I produce an Heir of my own body. It is commonly believed to, and in the past has acted as such, but, like the American Amendment apparently authorising the proliferation of firearms, the actual wording is somewhat different. In reality, the Law requires only that the Royal Consort be able to provide 'an Heir of the Blood Royal.'"

"I don't see the difference, Your Highness."

"It is fairly simple, Your Grace. In order to be eligible as my Consort, Dame Alleandre must only be capable of bearing a child of the Royal Bloodline. I, personally, am aware of no medical impediment to her doing so. And nowhere does the Law specifically state that I must be the parent of the child." Evelynne smiled wryly. "In the past, of course, it has always worked out that way, for obvious reasons. The Kings and Queens of the al-Heru deMolay line have been only too happy to produce as many Heirs as were needed all by themselves. However, this is a new situation. Legally, all I must do is find a willing male of my own bloodline to… donate the required material." Duke Hassan's eyes were widening in slow realisation, and he cut his eyes to his left. Evelynne nodded in confirmation. "As of this morning, Brother Patrick has informed me that he has obtained special permission from his highest superior to so assist, should it be required." She smiled broadly at her brother, who grinned back at her.

Ally had thought that she had exceeded her capacity for shock for the day. She had been wrong. A baby? Me? I'm supposed to…? With Patrick? Okay, maybe not… the traditional way; he's got that Vow of celibacy, after all. But…

*I'm sorry,* she heard in her mind. *I know I should have talked to you about this. I know you've talked about having kids before, and a family, so I hope you're not too angry. But I knew they'd bring this up at some point, so I had to be prepared.*

*Angry? No, I'm not angry. I'm just… Well, I mean, yeah, I've considered having children, but not… I didn't think it would be an issue so soon. And I've always sort of assumed that my… partner would do it. Although I've thought about having one myself, but not for a long time to come. And Patrick? He's… Well, he's… he's Patrick. And he's a priest! Are you sure he's okay with… this?*

*He is,* Evelynne assured her lover. *He was understandably surprised when I asked him, and told him about us, but he was actually really great about it. Once he had got used to the idea, his specific words were, 'Tell Ally, anytime.' Apparently he thinks you're good breeding stock.* The mental smirk was clear.

*Oh. Really. Sorry, I'm still a little… zoned. I thought that becoming a future… wife would be the extent of my shocks for today. Now I've just learned that at some point I'm going to be a mother. Just give me a bit, will you? I'm not… upset, just…* She shrugged mentally, a little bewildered.

*I understand. And I promise that as soon as we can we'll have a long talk about all this.*

For the first time, Duke Hassan looked somewhat shaken. Visibly gathering himself, he bowed his head to the princess. "It seems that I am out of… legal arguments for the moment, Your Highness," he said. "However, I trust you recognise that I, and many of the people I represent, still have grave misgivings. We will speak again, I'm sure, once I have had the opportunity to consult with my Advisors."

Evelynne nodded back. "Of course, Your Grace. Opposition is what keeps the Nobility honest. And I trust you recognise that I cannot and will not wish you success." She looked up into Ally's face again, and her own softened from its previous businesslike mask. "I am in love, Your Grace, and all I ask is the chance to remain so publicly and without reservation."

Duke Hassan cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable with the sentiments being expressed. "Before we can examine… that issue, there is one other matter that should be revealed."

The princess looked back at him, slipping instantly into her role as Heir. "Yes, Your Grace?"

"It is the matter of… Succession. Not yours, Your Highness, barring a full Deposing by the Nobility thus removing your right to Succeed." His tone reflected his torn feelings between his loyalty to the Heir and his reservations over her suitability. "However, our Kingdom must be ruled by a Queen and a King. This is spelled out quite specifically in the Constitution. Assuming, for the sake of argument, Dame Alleandre does become your… wife -" The Duke's aversion to the idea was obvious. "- she will, obviously, be ineligible for the Throne. In such a case, who will occupy the second Throne?" He smiled thinly. "I assume, Your Highness, that you have prepared for this eventuality with your customary efficiency."

Evelynne smiled back, unruffled. "I have, Your Grace. And again I am forced to point out that you are mistaken. While it is true that the Constitution does require both a King and Queen, nowhere in any of the Laws of Succession is there any specification as to the gender of the Monarchs." This was a tricky point - in a whole field of tricky points - but technically it was accurate. Jason McKendrick has called this particular strategy the "Xanth Technicality", after a situation in a fantasy series he was quite fond of. "We must have a King and Queen… but there is nothing specifically preventing a male Queen, or, more pertinent to this discussion, a female King."

This time the uproar was truly spectacular. Ally didn't hear any of it… and she nearly broke Evelynne's hand in her shock.

Continued in Chapter 32