Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"Ye poor posterity, think not that ye are the first. Other fools before ye have seen the sun rise and set, and the moon change her shape and her hour. As they were so ye are; and yet not so great; for the pyramids my people built stand to this day; whilst the dustheaps on which ye slave, and which ye call empires, scatter in the wind even as ye pile your dead sons' bodies on them to make yet more dust."

Chapter 33

"Ally, relax!" Evelynne pleaded. "I was kidding when I said he was sharpening his sword last night. He's really not going to have you executed out of hand." The words appeared to have little effect on the woman walking stiffly beside her down the hallway.

"Relax? Come on, Evy. The most powerful man in the world has just learned that his virginal daughter has been sleeping with another woman, and now they want to get married. And you're trying to tell me he's not upset?"

"I never said he wasn't a little upset," Evelynne said in exasperation. "But he's not angry, and he's not going to do anything mean or malicious. This is just a friendly breakfast between our two families. You don't think your parents are going to stand by and do nothing if things do get bad? When it comes to you, they wouldn't care if he was the Pope, the Prophet Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Vlad the Impaler, or Isis Herself. And do you think I'll stand back and do nothing?" She sounded hurt at the idea. "When I proposed to you I made it clear to the world, my father included, that you come first."

Ally stopped and took a deep breath. "I know. I'm sorry," she apologised. "It's just that this will be the first time I've talked to anyone in your family since they did learn about us. The whole 'meet the parents' thing is making me a little nervous. Okay, a lot nervous. Let's face it, your Dad can be pretty scary sometimes."

Evelynne's face softened, and she grasped Ally's hand, stroking the back of it softly. "I know he can. But he loves me, and I know he'll come to love you as well. Just remember that for this breakfast he is not the King of Atlantl. He's just my father. After all, your parents didn't kill me when they found out about us."

"True," Ally admitted. "But they'd had a much longer time to get used to the idea. My Mom suspected something the first time she met you."

This was a surprise for Evelynne. "Really? But... we weren't together back then."

"No, but you're forgetting that my Mom's an empath. She could sense my feelings for you even way back then." Ally laughed. "She called me on them, and I confidently assured her that nothing was ever going to happen between us."

Evelynne laughed as well, and they set off down the hallway once more, arm in arm. "Well, I think that proves your lack of precognitive ability," she said, still chuckling. "Speaking of people with precognition, do you think Sir Arthur's feelings about today are accurate?"

"Well, it's not like he has much to go on," Ally replied. "All he said was that something seemed 'off' about today. And since he's been working on developing his ability he wanted my opinion on it." She shrugged. "I scanned him like he asked, but I couldn't really sense anything specific. Of course, I don't know what to look for, either. Still, I know he's putting both your Guard detail and mine on higher alert. It could be nothing, though. The brain plays enough tricks on us even without psychogenics complicating things. I mean, take a look at what we go through monthly as women. There have been times when I've been positive that the entire world was about to explode. And others when I actually hoped it would." Ally turned serious. "Still, I'll be keeping my eye out today. He does have a pretty good track record for hunches."

"Alright." Evelynne nodded. "So I should be alert, but not completely worried."

"I think so," Ally agreed. "With the amount of security they have working the city I don't see anything terribly major happening." Stopping in front of a modest sized set of doors, they both paused, and Ally took a deep breath. "Okay, here goes nothing."

Evelynne took both Ally's hands and squeezed. "It'll be alright. And don't worry, Patrick will be there, so if I'm wrong he can administer Last Rites."

"Okay, I'm not going."

A few hours later, Ally was nervous for a similar reason, as she and Evelynne stood outside the Monarchs' Entrance to the Conclave Hall, awaiting the Warden's signal to enter. Having made their point the day before, today the King and Queen would enter last, as befitted their rank, and they were standing and talking quietly several metres away. They saw Ally looking at them, and Queen Cleo gave Ally a friendly smile and the King nodded reassuringly in her direction. Ally smiled back nervously.

Breakfast had been nowhere near as terrible as Ally had feared. There had been a few tense and uncomfortable moments at the beginning, but then Ally's father had engaged Queen Cleo in a discussion of Atlantlan political systems, and the ice had been broken. Patrick had kept the mood light by telling increasingly bawdy jokes, leaving Ally wondering just how he had become a priest in the first place when she wasn't bent over in laughter. Ally had finally relaxed enough to dredge up a joke of her own from the depths of her memory, one that had her parents in stitches, and the Atlantlans present looking at each other in confusion. When she had finally managed to explain it to them, Evelynne had smiled sweetly and patted her on the head, reassuring her that, yes, it really was a funny joke, really. Ally had grumbled and sulked in mock anger until Evelynne had unexpectedly chased it away by leaning over and kissing her briefly but fully on the lips. Ally had lost her se lf-consciousness and all awareness of her surroundings long enough to return the kiss with interest, only coming back to herself when someone had cleared their throat loudly.

They had broken apart quickly, red-faced, to see indulgent smiles on the faces around them. King Jad's right eyebrow had been almost lost in his red hair, and the set of his beard had suggested that he was torn between discomfort and amusement. A comment from Queen Cleo about "young love" had everyone else laughing while Ally and Evelynne suddenly found the food on their plates extremely interesting.

All in all, the King seemed to be taking his daughter's new lover quite well. A brief but frank private discussion near the end of dinner had allowed him to say as much explicitly to Ally, as well as reassure her that he would not, in fact, be seeking her exile to some undersea research site... unless she happened to hurt his daughter in any way, in which case all bets were off.

Ally had quickly decided that she could live with that arrangement.

Coming back to the present, Ally looked down to see that Evelynne was also staring off into space. "What are you thinking about?" she asked.

The princess shook herself out of her thoughts. "Pardon?"

"I was wondering what had you so engrossed."

"Oh. I was just thinking about my talk with Captain al-Rahan," Evelynne replied, referring to the Captain of the Sir Richard, who had been held by the Americans for so many months. The Captain and her fellow officers were back in Atlantl now, and were scheduled to receive medals in recognition of their ordeal in several days. "I wanted to apologise to her for taking the spotlight off what should rightfully have been the main topic of the Conclave. Everyone seems to have forgotten about them in all the furore over us." She squeezed the hand she was holding.

"Was she okay with it?"

"More than okay, actually. Apparently she and her officers feel that they don't deserve the awards. According to her, she and her crew simply followed orders and procedure and did nothing above and beyond that which they expected of themselves. They don't feel that their actions were either exemplary or admirable enough to warrant any kind of special recognition. She actually thanked me for stealing the focus away from them."

"Wow," Ally said, impressed. "She sounds very interesting. I'd like to meet her myself sometime."

"Of course, love. I'll see what I can arrange."

"Um, speaking of meetings, I wanted to thanks you again for agreeing to meet with my team this afternoon. They've been bugging me about it for a while, and now that things are... different I can't see that changing."

"Of course, Ally, I'm happy to meet them. They're important to you, and therefore important to me." Evelynne chuckled. "I can only imagine what they said to you yesterday before your presentation."

"Oh, it was... interesting," Ally agreed, remembering.

Ally took a deep breath and stepped into the conference room where the other members of her team were waiting. Two Guards from the detail that had magically appeared in between her departure from the Conclave Hall and her arrival at this room stepped in behind her and took up prominent positions to either side of the door. Their imposing presence drew the attention of everyone else in the room for a moment. Taldas' eyebrows climbed his forehead, and Rina looked startled and a little frightened, her eyes wide. Laura looked at them inscrutably, as though she wasn't quite sure what to make of them, and Marjorie was frowning.

Once they were all reassured that neither of the forbidding Guards was about start blasting away anyone who simply looked at them strangely, all eyes migrated nearly as one to the young woman they were guarding. Ally blushed fiercely as they were drawn upwards towards the coronet still resting on her head, and she repressed the sudden urge to take it off and hide it somewhere.

No more hiding, she thought to herself. The entire world now knows that Evelynne and I love each other. It's a little late to start worrying about a little engagement jewellery.

"Horus in Flight, Bo-... er, Your Ladyship," Taldas said, his tone a little shaky. "You never said you were that close to Her Highness." He looked as though he was uncertain whether to salute, bow, or give her a high-five.

"Please, don't start with that 'Your Ladyship' stuff," Ally pleaded. "Call me 'Ally', call me 'Alleandre'... hell, call me 'Boss'. I need a little normalcy right now. Or at least as normal as you guys get."

That earned a slightly strained chuckle from the group, although their eyes cut to the Guards standing impassively by the door, afraid that offence would be taken for such lesé majesté. When the two showed no signs of hearing, let alone reacting, the others relaxed a little.

"Okay, then... Boss," Taldas said. "You kind of threw us for a loop, you know. We were waiting for you up in the Gallery, and we were afraid you'd been held up. Rina thought that maybe Princess Evelynne had offered you a space in the dignitaries' seats, so we weren't too worried. But then..."

"Well, let's just say that you were even closer to the Throne... the Thrones than that," Laura finished. "I mean, once I realised what was going on I didn't know whether I should start cheering or not. I'll tell you, it was a bit of a shock. We knew you were friends with her, but now you're... you're..."

"Engaged," Ally supplied. "And yeah, it was a shock for me, too. Still is, actually. But..." She took a deep breath. "Right now we still have a presentation to give, so I think we should get ready for that. Okay?"

"Sure thing, Boss," Taldas agreed, seemingly happy to see that his friend hadn't, in fact, been lost. "But now you've got to get us in to meet Her Highness." He grinned cheekily. "We need to make sure she's good enough for you." Enthusiastic murmurs of agreement accompanied this statement.

Ally sighed. "I'll see what I can do."

Ally brought herself back to the present. "Yeah, you could definitely say it was interesting," she repeated.

"Islin sound like quite a character," Evelynne commented. "And " She broke off as the Warden made a discreet signal that they were ready to proceed. "Well, here we go." She glanced up at her fiancée quickly. "Are you going to be alright?"

"I think so," Ally said. She was still obviously tense and nervous, but the near-terrified brittleness that had been present the day before was gone. "You'll catch me if I pass out, won't you?" Her tone was only half joking.

"Of course," Evelynne said with a reassuring smile. "But you'll be fine." A hand squeeze and a quick kiss later, and they were ready to face the Conclave once again.

This time she and the princess entered before the King and Queen, and Ally's more relaxed mental state allowed her to take in more details than she had been able to the day before. She noted that the expressions on the faces of the watching Nobles were more ones of speculation and curiosity that the previous ones of shock and surprise. Duke Thomas was openly grinning encouragingly, and Duke Hassan was still plainly disapproving, while Duke Marsden face was still bland and neutral.

So, the jury's still out, Evelynne thought. She had thought of many of the same things that her father and Duke Thomas had discussed the night before, and independently come to many of the same conclusions.

Everyone present bowed to or saluted the princess and her Consort as they entered, and Ally was even able to suppress her flinch when the Warden used her full title again. Then they did the same when King Jad and Queen Cleo strode regally into the Hall and took their Thrones. With the formal Opening of the Conclave already complete, there was much less ceremony this time, the idea being that matters of Law and Governance should take priority over ritual.

But I have a feeling that there's going to be one topic dominating today, the princess predicted.

And she was right. The closing words of the King's formal speech had barely stopped echoing when Duke Hassan struck one of the two small bells on his desk.

Evelynne had explained their purpose to Ally earlier. "One is the etan Valar, the Chime of Attention," she had said, indicating the larger of the two bells. "It has a higher note, and indicates that the Noble wishes to be the next to be heard. It's a 'first ring, first heard' basis. Also, if there's a vote, the Nobles ritually strike the bells at the same time as they cast their lot, and the Chime of Attention indicates a 'yes' vote. The smaller one is the etan Frictus, the Chime of Contention. It can be used to interrupt a speaking Noble if the ringer has a particularly strong objection to what's being said. Of course, it's considered rude and improper to abuse the bell with excessive and redundant objections, but there have been times when the whole Hall has sounded like the belltower of Notre Dame. The Chime of Contention also signifies a 'no' vote. The two sounds are very specifically created to create a dissonance when they sound together, so the amount of disagreement over a vote can be estimated by how pure the resulting chime is. Fifty-fifty splits are incredibly nasty." Evelynne had winced at the memory. "Also, if you listen closely, you can get a pretty good feeling over how the vote breaks down according to class and position."

"That is just weird," Ally had commented.

"Oh, it's not counted as part of the official process," the princess had explained. "It's all ritual. But like I said, it can give a fairly accurate instant breakdown over any vote."

This time, though, Duke Hassan's Chime of Attention was the first to be heard, and nobody was about to break protocol and interrupt him before he had said anything. Instead, the watching Hall waited politely straining, in fact for him to speak, and he wasted no time in doing so. As soon as the Warden of the Conclave, who acted as mediator for all proceedings, acknowledged his right to speak, he began.

"Your Royal Majesties, Your Highness, fellow Nobles, Citizens, and honoured Dignitaries. I will not presume to insult anyone's intelligence today by assuming that one particular topic has not been the focus of attention over the last twenty four hours." He smiled thinly. "Her Highness'... engagement took us all by surprise." There was a general murmur as the Nobles realised that Hassan was not going to beat around the bush. The tone of the whispered conversations sounded more speculative than confrontational, but Evelynne could hear a few pockets of much more hostile discussion. "I myself spent much of last night meditating, praying, and speaking with my Advisors on this topic. And I have come to a conclusion." Ally gripped Evelynne's hand more tightly where they sat close to each other in their own thrones. "By Law, the Dukes of Atlantl have the right to ban any marriage between the Heir and any other Citizen, if they can both Declare a valid reason and two of the three agr ee. I have given much thought to the topic and find that I must Object to this proposed marriage on the grounds of Moral Questionability."

Evelynne was saddened but not particularly surprised by either the Objection or the reason given. Moral Questionability was given under the Law as a valid reason for an Objection such as this. It was primarily used as a means of providing an "out" to prevent a criminal from attaining power, but the Law was worded vaguely enough to allow this particular use. The key phrase was that the subject must "engage in behaviour deemed morally reprehensible by a significant portion of the Citizenry". And that was certainly the case here, unfortunately.

"Under the circumstances, I do not believe that allowing such a marriage to occur is either morally justified, or in the best interests of Atlantl. My Objection is therefore hereby published." The Duke looked at Evelynne with a slight amount of sympathy. "I believe the Crown would be ill-served by the inevitable mistrust that such a... union would inspire, both among the Nobility and international community. Furthermore -"

"Trust, Hell!" a loud voice burst out from amongst the Nobles sitting directly behind the Duke, interrupting him in blatant violation of protocol, not to mention good manners. Everyone present was too shocked to respond, including Duke Hassan himself. "There is no way any decent, morally sound person would allow such an... an abomination to occur." Now Evelynne was able to recognise the distinguished features of Count Bransen, now twisted in anger and disgust. "With all due respect to Her Highness " There was little actual respect evident in his tone. " she has obviously been influenced by the perversions of this... this woman." He sneered at Ally, who looked icily calm, although the strength with which she was gripping Evelynne's hand betrayed her true feelings. "The Hall of Nobles has for centuries remained free of such degradation, and to begin now is "

Suddenly it was Count Bransen's turn to be cut off, this time by the low, clear tones of a Chime of Contention, struck with considerable force. Everyone reflexively looked at either the source of the sound or the Warden, whose job it was to formally acknowledge the one wishing to speak. The Warden hesitated only briefly. While he did agree with some of Count Bransen's opinions, though not as vehemently, the way in which the Count had violated protocol by speaking without due notice was a worse crime in his mind. "The Conclave recognises Baroness Alice of Holden," he announced.

The dark woman stood and saluted the Thrones, then faced Count Bransen, seated below her. "My Lord," she said, in tones of complete and utter disdain, "you are completely, absolutely and unequivocally wrong, and the manner in which you have displayed your ignorance, bigotry and stupidity is an insult and a source of shame to all the Nobility, and indeed all the Citizens of Atlantl."

A gasp echoed throughout the Hall. For a Noble to use such open disdain, especially to a higher ranking Peer, was unheard of. On the other hand, many of the Nobles present had been equally dismayed by Bransen's outburst, and that, added to the fact that neither the Monarchs nor the Warden appeared about to reprimand the Baroness, had the Nobles seated around the Count edging away, attempting to isolate themselves from the source of the Royal displeasure.

"I call you a bigot because of your small-minded, narrow views on love and those who share it," Baroness Alice continued. "I call you stupid because of the inconsiderate and disrespectful way in which you have chosen to express your hateful opinion. And I call you ignorant because it is obvious that you truly have no grasp of the lack of truth in your words. The Hall of Nobles is not now, nor has ever been, free of the 'degradation' that you claim. I know this from personal experience. I am a lesbian. And I am not the only one. I will not reveal the identities of the others in this Hall, because it is not my place to do so. For centuries we have hidden ourselves, for reasons that have just become painfully obvious. Well, my future Monarchs require someone to stand for them today, because they cannot hide as we have... nor should they have to. And so I am no longer hidden, and I will support their union with all my power, alone if I have to." By now the Baroness was al most shouting, and she took a moment to catch her breath. "Your Highness, Lady Alleandre, Your Majesties," she said in a calmer voice, "I offer my apologies for any... inappropriate words I may have spoken today."

"Lady Alice," the King said in a deceptively mild voice, "I do not think anything you have said here today is anything but appropriate." He looked significantly at Count Bransen in a way that boded ill for the Noble's future.

There were a few moments' near-silence, as the assembly came to grips with what had just occurred. Then the quiet was broken by another Chime of Attention.

The Warden, inwardly shaken but outwardly unflappable, announced, "The Conclave recognises Count R'Tannis of Techis."

The Count was a grizzled old warrior with only one arm and one eye, legacies of his involvement in the Second World War. He was brash, abrasive, irreverent and more than a little vindictive, and Evelynne disagreed with him on just about every topic they discussed. "Yer Majesties, Yer Highness," he said, his slightly slurred voice a result of more war wounds. "Baroness Alice, ye've made some interestin' points, but there is one on which yer mistaken. Yer not standin' alone, an' neither are Princess Evelynne an' 'Er Lady. I am a lover of men, and I support 'em also."

Evelynne gasped, an action that was echoed by almost everyone else present. Nearly before the commotion died down, yet another Chime rang out, and another Noble stood. "I am Countess Fatima of el-Assan, and I am a lesbian."

And another. "I am Baron Herold of Dre'Kir. I am gay."

And another. And another. Baron Uther of Y'Heldis. Baroness Yvonna of Niblin. Baron Thibald of i-Hul-Kan. Baron Tenocl of Flactonu. Countess Mbalani of nec-Bordo. Baroness Hildegaard of Jern. Baron James of Westerlake. Baron Jikel of Durando-mar. Baron Henriss of Marionne.

At last the Chimes fell silent, and the waiting assembly held its breath to see what would happen next. A moment later, a single Chime rang out clearly.

"The Conclave recognises Duke Thomas of Avalon."

The Duke got stiffly to his feet, leaning on his cane. "Your Majesties. Princess Evelynne and Lady Alleandre. Fellow Nobles and Citizens." He smiled wryly. "It appears that Count Bransen's... objections have been quite amply dismissed as... ill-considered." He didn't even bother looking at the Count, whose normally florid face was very pale, and who appeared to be trying to sink through his own seat into the floor. Bransen was also trying to stay as far away as possible from Countess Mbalani, whose large figure was still standing at her place right next to him. "It appears that the 'homosexual problem' is not simply a 'concern for the lower classes', as I have heard it put. I think that the events of the last few days have shown that love knows no boundaries... even amongst the highest of our classes." He smiled genuinely at Evelynne and Ally. "Those who happen to love their own gender exist in all areas of society. We exist in all levels of society." The was a hush as th ose listening suddenly realised what the Duke had said. Duke Thomas pulled himself as far upright as his age and condition would allow. "I am Duke Thomas of Avalon, and I am a homosexual." He smirked at Duke Hassan, who looked completely stunned. "I have had few regrets in my life, and one has been that I have been unable to marry anyone whom I truly loved. My inability to publicly declare that commitment has caused more than one suitor to leave." A deep, old pain lurked behind his eyes. "I refuse to stand by and permit such a thing to happen to these two wonderful young women, or any others that come after them. I have remained silent for far too long. And so, I formally Refute the Objection of my peer, Duke Hassan. This marriage must be allowed to take place." With that, and a final reassuring smile at the two women in question, he slowly lowered himself back into his chair.

As more furious whispering broke out throughout the Hall, Evelynne could only look at those who had risked their reputations and even titles to support her, blinking as they blurred behind her tears. At that moment, the Count Bransens and Duke Hassans of the Conclave meant less than nothing.

Now that two of the Dukes had formally expressed their positions on the subject, attention turned to the third, Duke Marsden, who was sitting with a deeply contemplative expression on his face. He remained that way for several minutes, ignoring the heated rumble of debate going on around him, before slowly and deliberately striking the Chime of Attention in front of him. As the echoes of the sound died away, dead silence reigned as the assembled Nobility and Citizenry strained for his every word.

None were more anxious that Evelynne and Ally. This man before them now held in his hands the ultimate future of their relationship.

*Whatever happens,* Evelynne said to Ally, unheard by any around them, *I want you to know that I love you. That will never change. And I have no regrets... about anything.*

*I love you, too,* Ally replied, sending as much love as she could through their link, as she could feel her lover doing. *No regrets.*

"The Conclave recognises Duke Marsden of Hy Braseal."

The Duke stood for a moment before speaking, his mellow, pleasant voice carrying to every corner of the Hall, and beyond, carried over the airwaves to every television in Atlantl, as well as millions of others around the world. "Your Majesties, Your Highness, My Lords and Ladies. I believe it goes without saying that the past few days have brought to light several topics that many of us are, frankly, reluctant to deal with and discuss. Many of those gathered here would like nothing better than to have those issues ignored and forgotten. But we cannot afford to do so. Her Highness' relationship with Lady Alleandre is only a part of a much more extensive social change taking place throughout the world. And the thing about social changes is that they are completely and absolutely impossible to stop, even if we desire to do so. So, as much as certain members of both the Nobility and Citizenry may wish to hide their heads in the sand, it behoves us to discuss this issue." He sm iled with sympathy at the entire assembly.

"Change is always difficult, both for its supporters and opponents. It is difficult for its opponents because of the fear of the unknown, of the uncertainty of what the change entails, of the loss of the old, comfortable ways. I can sympathise with these fears. Here in Atlantl we have a wonderful society: prosperous, vibrant, and healthy. And the system we have now is the reason for our success. I fear what may happen when that system changes.

"Change is also difficult for its supporters, and not only because of the struggle they have in pressing forward against those who oppose them. Those are mere practical difficulties. The true pain that the revolutionaries face is that change never happens fast enough for them, no matter how swiftly it may appear to others. They want a new world, and they want it now. And alas, they are often just as blind as those who oppose them. For as history has shown us time and again, the only times that change has occurred overnight it has been accompanied by periods of intense, destructive strife, which has often destroyed the very thing they were seeking to create. And yet change is always a necessity. Otherwise, we stagnate, unable to cope with the realities of the environment we find ourselves in."

The Duke sighed. "However, these are philosophical ideas, abstract concepts, and we must deal with the reality of our current situation. The reality is that Princess Evelynne, the Heir to the Throne of our Kingdom, wishes to marry Dame Alleandre Tretiak. She has also raised the possibility of Dame Alleandre's legitimacy as co-ruler, with the result that, for the first time in our recorded history, we may face two female Monarchs seated on the Twin Thrones.

"I know that many of those who know me consider me to be an eminently practical man, not prone to allowing personal considerations enter into my decisions. I would imagine that those attempting to predict my response here today have wondered whether I would allow the certain political and social friction that would arise from allowing this marriage to take place to override the possible future happiness and governing ability of my future Liege Lady." He cast a sidelong glance at Duke Thomas, who responded with a slight nod of acknowledgement at the words. "However, what they have likely not considered is another issue, secret until now, that has both practical and personal implications for me." Marsden took a breath. "It is well known that my son and Heir, Henrit, has been aiding me in the rulership of the Duchy of Hy Braseal for several years now. There have even been occasional rumours of the possibility of a union between my son and Princess Evelynne. I believe I may say without excessive parental boasting that he is intelligent, charismatic, a gifted administrator, and a just and fair young man. And he is also homosexual." Another collective gasp and renewed murmuring echoed throughout the Hall. Duke Marsden raised his voice over the sound. "This has been a well-kept secret for a number of years, for obvious reasons, just as Duke Thomas has kept his own preferences unknown. But now Henrit has asked me ordered me, in fact to let him 'out of the closet', as I believe the term is used. My son has also suggested to me several times that if it came to a decision for him to hold his title, or abdicate in order to marry some man he truly loved, I would most likely be confirming his younger sister as Heir in his place.

"And so I must make a decision as well, although mine must be made here and now. Do I avoid the political and social strife that will arise if I set a precedent by allowing this marriage to take place? Or do I allow my son, Princess Evelynne, Lady Alleandre, and who knows how many others to both express their love as they see it and also use their considerable talents for the good of Atlantl? I do not know if Lady Alleandre will make a good Queen... or King. I do not know her well enough to make such a decision at this time. But that is not the issue at hand here today. I believe time will tell. And I have the power today to bestow that time. And so, Princess Evelynne, Lady Alleandre, I believe congratulations are in order. I hereby formally Refute the Objection of my peer, Duke Hassan."

"Thanks, Maï-ma," Evelynne said sincerely as the lady-in-waiting prepared to leave. "We just need a few minutes."

"You take as much time as you need," Maïda replied, smiling up at her young ward. There were tears in her eyes. "You've really grown up, haven't you?"

"I have," Evelynne said, smiling back. "But not too much, I hope."

"Oh, you'll always be my little princess." The older woman looked at Ally standing nearby. "Now I have two." She surprised the taller woman by reaching up and wrapping her in an intense hug. "Now you take good care of my Evelynne, you understand?" she whispered. "And just remember that her body isn't the only thing that needs protecting with those gifts of yours. She's given her heart to you for safekeeping. I know it will not remain completely unbruised, but please don't break it."

"I won't," Ally promised in an answering whisper. "She has mine, too."

"I know that, dear." With a final squeeze, the older woman left the room, dabbing at her eyes. She closed the door behind her ensuring the privacy of the two women inside.

Evelynne immediately turned and grasped her fiancée in a fierce embrace. She buried her face in the hollow under Ally's chin and sighed heavily, feeling some of the tension of the past few days seep out of her in her lover's arms.

Ally shivered at the breath on her neck, but was able to focus enough to ask, "So is that it? We can get married?"

"That's it," Evelynne replied, her voice muffled. She pulled her head back slightly. "Oh, Duke Thomas' and Duke Marsden's Advisory Councils could petition to overrule their decisions, but I think the chances of Domdom's Advisors doing that are close to zero. And Marsden is not the type of man to make a serious political decision, even one this personal, without the support of his own Council. So that's it." She pressed her face back into Ally's neck. "We're getting married." Unable to resist the warm skin beneath her lips, her tongue snaked out and lightly tasted the slightly salty flesh of Ally's neck.

"What about Oh God," Ally began, her eyes fluttering closed. "You know I can't think when you do that."

"So then don't think," Evelynne mumbled, moving up to the point behind her lover's ear.

Though sorely tempted to give in, Ally retained enough self-control to pull away before she got completely lost. "First there's something I need to know," she said, looking into Evelynne's pouting eyes. "This thing with me being King or Queen... What will happen with that? It's just that... I'm holding on by a thread here, and..." She trailed off, a hint of genuine fear in her eyes.

Evelynne gently stroked Ally's face. "You don't have to worry about that for a while," she reassured her lover. "The ultimate decision is up to you and the Council of Nobles as a whole. They can Revoke your right through a system of votes. Or you can simply choose to refuse the Crown. In either case, that will be a few years from now at the very earliest. So for now you can just enjoy being engaged. You're... not having second thoughts, are you?"

Ally sighed and drew Evelynne close to her again. "A few," she admitted finally. "But it's just... It's all happened so fast and the way that I'm in the middle of public scrutiny all the time now... And then the whole King issue... But being engaged to you? Loving you? Not at all. Sometimes I wish... I wish we were just a couple of normal women, with normal lives and normal jobs. But then, we wouldn't be who we are now, would we? I wouldn't be me, you wouldn't be you, and who knows whether we'd actually even like each other?"

"I understand that," Evelynne said, running a soothing hand up and down Ally's back. "I'd like to think that we would still be as much in love as we are right now, but who knows? And I know it's been hard for you, and I promise I'll do whatever I can to protect you when the world gets to be too much. And I also want you to know that whether you decide to become my King or not, I will accept your decision. For the record, though, I think you'd make a great Monarch."

Ally chuckled. "You know, whenever I hear someone talking about me becoming King I get this flash of me sitting on the Throne in full drag. Goatee, oiled moustache, gold chains, the works."

Evelynne laughed as well. "Have you ever done that?"

"No. Well, there was a time when I was about twelve or so when I dressed up as a man for Hallowe'en. There was a time when cross-dressing for Hallowe'en was the 'thing' to do. I was desperate to do anything I could to fit in. You know, it's ironic. Cross-dressing as a means of fitting in with popular society."

Evelynne was giggling uncontrollably. "Oh, I can just picture you. I have just got to see photos. I'll bet your mother has some stashed away somewhere."

"No, she doesn't," Ally said quickly... too quickly.

"Of course, dear," Evelynne soothed. "They were undoubtedly thrown out years ago." She knew no such thing had happened. "But when people talk about you being King, I get an image of one of the ancient Egyptian Kings, who happened to be a woman. Their law explicitly stated that only a man could become King. So a few enterprising females took the logical course of legally identifying themselves as men. They wore false beards and were referred to using exclusively male pronouns in official records. So there actually is a precedent of female Kings in history."

"Well, I'm just glad you didn't have to use that argument in my case. Hallowe'en costumes aside, I really have no interest in dressing up as a man."

"I'm glad. Although... I think you'd look incredibly sexy in one of those plaid shirts... and nothing else."

"Well, actually, I have a few at my house in Outremer." Ally blushed.

"Really. It seems we might have to make a little stop on our way back to the Summer Palace once we've dealt with all the rest of the Conclave business."

"Um... okay. So what happens now?"

"Well, now that the minor matter of who I may and may not marry is out of the way, if not out of people's minds, the Conclave can get down to the business of actually running the country. New laws and amendments will be proposed and debated; old laws struck down; reports on the status of the economy, environment, military, education system, research and development, agriculture, and whatever else anyone happens to have an interest in... and a few things they don't; censures and commendations for Nobles and Citizens; foreign affairs meetings. You know. All the niggly little details."

"Ah. That stuff. You know, I noticed that the American delegation wasn't looking too happy," Ally mused.

Evelynne smirked. "No, they weren't, were they? You and I have effectively taken the entire spotlight off them and their 'generous' return of our Citizens. I know that Bush was hoping to use this opportunity to show the rest of the world just how friendly and conciliatory America is. After holding our Naval officers, there through a legitimate accident, for over nine months. You know how loudly they yelled when the Chinese held their spy plane's crew for two weeks. Now, though, every reporter in the States is only asking what his response is to knowing that the next ruler of his biggest competitor in world affairs is a lesbian. So far he hasn't said anything."

"My heart bleeds for him," Ally said wryly. "I think someone needs to smack him upside the head."

"Are you volunteering?"

"Sure. Just give me a line of sight and he won't know what hit him. Literally. Of course, if you decided to project into his mind, you could make him think he was going nuts."

"I think he has enough voices in his head already." Evelynne sighed. "Okay, enough of that. We have to meet his Secretary of State in a few hours. Actually, Powell's not so bad. Even though I don't agree with most of his ideas, I always got the feeling that at least he's honest. Maybe this time you can let me know whether he really is or not."

"Oh, I see how this is going to go," Ally said with a smile in her voice. "You just want to marry me for my mind."

Continued in Chapter 34