Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"For, as their annals show, before our arrivals there, they had never heard anything of us… except that once over twelve hundred years ago a ship was carried by a storm to the island… and wrecked there. Some Romans and Egyptians were cast up on the shore and stayed there ever after."

- Sir Thomas More, Utopia

Chapter Nine

"Ma'am, everything is ready." Commander Ulbrecht Scott came to attention as best he could on the slightly slanting bridge and snapped a salute. Although he had known his commanding officer for four years now, and normally wouldn't have been so precise, the situation at hand seemed to call for an extra degree of formality.

The officer in question, Captain Dame Michelle al-Rahan of the Royal Atlantlan Naval Forces, didn't appear to notice as she stared broodily out of the large windows at the front of the bridge. The day outside was bright and warm, and the Florida coastline was laid out on either side of the ship like some tourist brochure photograph. It all seemed vaguely obscene to the Captain in light of the actions she was about to undertake. She actually took a kind of perverse pleasure that the beautiful vista was marred by the presence of a large contingent of United States military troops and tanks, and that the waters offshore were patrolled by an entire US Navy carrier group.

Commander Scott was about to speak again, in case his Captain hadn't heard the first time, when she turned her ebony face to him. She raised her eyebrows at the large sweat stains marring his deep blue uniform, but didn't comment. The RANS Sir Richard had been grounded without support for over a week now, cut off from resupply, and water to wash clothing had been one of the first things rationed.

The last two days had been even worse. The temperature below decks had been deliberately raised to uncomfortably high levels in an attempt to conceal the crew's activities from snooping infrared detectors. Th official story had been a malfunction in the ship's air-conditioning systems. Given the lack of response from their American "hosts", Captain al-Rahan suspected that the ploy had worked.

"Still a bit warm downstairs, I see, Scotty. Any casualties?"

"We've had six more crewmen collapse from heat exhaustion, Ma'am," Scott said regretfully. "They've been moved outside."

The Captain sighed. "Well, at least this is almost over." Pulling herself fully upright, she pulled her authority around herself like a cloak. "Report," she demanded formally.

Even though she knew exactly what her executive officer was going to say, regulations required a full explicit report for the record. The Commander, who had relaxed slightly, stiffened his tired body to full attention. "Ma'am, we are ready to begin the final stage of Code Nineteen. As per your orders, all sensitive materials have been totally destroyed. I have overseen the operation personally."

The rest of the crew had spent the last two days comprehensively destroying every piece of technology that they did not want to fall into other hands. Computer hard drives and disks had been erased with powerful magnets kept especially for that purpose, and circuit boards had been pulled and smashed. In fact, every individual component of the boards had been pried loose and destroyed with blowtorches. A part of the Sir Richard's submarine detection technology was actually incorporated into the structure of the ship itself, and several teams had been assigned the task of literally ripping the systems from the bulkheads and cutting them into very small pieces.

Commander Scott continued, "I report total destruction of all Class 'A' sensitive technology. I also report total erasure of all Class 'A' sensitive data. Final demolition charges have been placed, and I now relinquish detonation control to you, Captain." He handed across a small remote-control switch.

The Captain accepted the device gravely, then turned to one of the bridge members who had been witness to the exchange. "Mr Cullen, make a note in the log that the First Officer has reported completion of the first and second stages of Code Nineteen. Detonation control has been passed to the Captain, and I am ready to begin the final stages."

"So noted, Ma'am." The Ensign looked absurdly young, and more than a little frightened. Even so, his voice was steady.

Captain al-Rahan offered him a brief smile of reassurance, then moved on to her Communications Officer. "Lieutenant Marshall, transmit to Command that we are ready to proceed on their order."

The young lieutenant nodded and bent to her task. A moment later she reported, "Command orders completion of Code Nineteen, Ma'am."

The Captain nodded at the expected response. "Order received and understood. Estimate twenty minutes to completion. Terminate communication."

The Communications Officer pressed a few final buttons on her console before it went dark. She knelt down, opened a panel and started pulling out circuit boards. A blowtorch was waiting, and the crew turned away from the glare as the acrid smell of burning plastic and metal filled the bridge.

Turning to her Exec, the Captain said, "Okay, Scotty, you have twenty minutes to get everyone off this boat. Get moving."

Scott touched his forehead and breast in salute. "Understood, Ma'am." He turned and left the bridge, already barking orders to the crew. The remaining bridge staff saluted the Captain as well before leaving to assemble on the deck outside.

Captain al-Rahan stood alone on the bridge of the ship which had been her command for four years. Her XO would lead the crew off the ship, where he would temporarily become the senior officer as they were taken into US custody. As was her duty, the Captain would remain on board until the last second, keeping the Sir Richard Atlantlan property as she pressed the button which would detonate the explosives buried deep within her. Then she would have to run like hell to get far enough away before the ship exploded.

For the next twenty minutes, though, she sat on the bridge of her gutted ship and mourned.

The sound of Nancu Ylan opening the front doors to the Palace echoed faintly through the dining room, and Evelynne looked up from her lunch in surprise, then over at Alleandre, who was finishing her own meal. The main doors to the Palace were only commonly used to admit guests. The servants and other less prestigious visitors tended to use other, smaller entrances scattered throughout the building.

"I wonder who that is," Evelynne mused. "I don't recall anyone being scheduled to visit us today."

Ally could only shrug, her mouth occupied with chewing a delicious chunk of savoury chicken. Besides, she had another subject occupying her mind and adding a sense of anxiety to her mood. So far she thought she had succeeded in concealing her worry from her companion.

Evelynne actually wasn't fooled by Ally's façade, though she realised that there was nothing she could say to reassure her friend until the matter resolved itself - which would be later that afternoon. So she temporarily dismissed the matter, turning her attention back to her own lunch. She knew that Ylan would show in any visitors if he considered it appropriate to do so.

Apparently the visitors were of sufficient stature to impress the Seneschal, because he arrived at the door to the dining room a few minutes later. "Duke Thomas of Avalon to see you, Your Highness," he informed. "Shall I show him in?"

The princess broke into a huge grin, and even Ally looked up with interest. "Of course, Ylan, you know he can always see me." Inwardly she shook her head in resignation. Seneschal Nancu Ylan was incredibly efficient and highly skilled at his job, but he was also almost obsessive about formality and protocol. The only time she had ever seen him crack a smile was the time that his grandchildren had visited.

Typically solemn, the Seneschal bowed slightly and held open the door for the Duke to enter. Evelynne stood up as he did so, leaning heavily on his cane. He was also carrying a long, cloth-wrapped object under one arm.

"Domdom," Evelynne cried, rushing forward to envelop him in a hug before he could even walk a few steps. "It's good to see you again so soon. I didn't know you were planning on visiting today."

"I wasn't intending to, in fact," he replied, looking fondly into Evelynne's face, "but a couple of things came to my attention, and I decided to take the time." He gave a little wave to Ally, who waved back. "As a matter of fact, I come bearing gifts." He turned back to the door and called, "Come in, my boy, I think there's someone who would like to see you."

Both women looked on curiously until Chorus walked through the doorway.

"Chorus!" Ally exclaimed, quickly wheeling herself around the table. "What are you doing here?"

The young man bestowed a brilliant grin. "And hello to you to, Ally. I'm doing fine. How are you feeling?"

Ally flushed in embarrassment. "Sorry. Hi, Chorus. I just meant that I thought you were going to spend some more time in France. I wasn't expecting to see you so soon."

"Well, it turned out that France wasn't nearly as exciting without you and Her Highness to keep me company." Turning to Evelynne, he said, "Good afternoon, Your Highness."

Evelynne wagged a finger at him. "It's Evelynne, remember? Dumela, Chorus. O tsohile jang?"

Chorus' eyebrows rose as the princess greeted him in his native tongue. "Ke tsohile sentle." Switching to Lantlan he asked, "Ki so liver'o Setswana, Ur-mata Evelynne?"

"Mi Alleandre re-al'a wei arat," the princess answered in the same language, pointing to Ally. Switching back to English, she remarked, "I didn't know you spoke Lantlan."

Duke Thomas answered, "It seems our young Mr Tladi has something of a gift for languages. I'm sorry, Evelynne, but could we sit down? I'm afraid my leg has been bothering me all week."

"Of course, of course," the princess said, scolding herself for forgetting her manners. "Here you go." She settled the Duke into a chair beside Alleandre. Evelynne reclaimed her own seat, while Chorus took another.

The Duke gave a relieved sigh as he relaxed into the chair. "Ishta Tretiak," he said, turning to Ally, "it's wonderful to see you doing so well. You were looking decidedly flushed the last time we met."

"It comes and goes," Chorus murmured, earning himself a deadly glare from Ally.

"Thank you, Your Grace," Ally answered politely. "I've been feeling much better."

"Now, Alleandre," the Duke said, waving a rebuking finger, "what did I say last time? None of this 'Your Grace' nonsense with me. If you persist in doing so, I shall be forced to consistently refer to you as Ishta."

"Ishta?" Chorus asked, his voice slightly startled.

"It's a title," Ally answered his question. "It means basically the same as 'Miss' or 'Ms' in English."

Chorus shook his head. "No, I know what it means, and it's not quite 'Miss' or 'Ms'. It's a much more respectful designation, isn't it?" He directed the query to the two other Atlantlans at the table. "Sort of almost-nobility?"

"Why, yes, in a manner of speaking," Duke Thomas answered. He spoke to Ally. "I thought you knew. Ishta is a title of respect which one bestows on a person - a woman, actually - whom they consider to have performed a great service or impressive deed. A man is given the title Enku. Traditionally, if the title is given by someone of high rank, it is also used by all persons of lower rank."

Ally stared at him incredulously. "So you mean that because the King called me that -"

"- His Majesty was announcing to society at large that he held you in the highest respect, and that everyone subservient to him - which actually encompasses all citizens except the Queen - should do likewise. I assumed you were aware of this."

Ally turned a stunned, but still vaguely accusing gaze to Evelynne. "Why didn't you tell me about this?"

The princess' expression was apologetic, but her words were not. "It never crossed my mind. To someone from our society," she said, indicating Duke Thomas and herself, "it was simply a natural courtesy. I guess it simply never occurred to me that much of the western world does not possess such ways of indicating respect. I've been referring to you as Ishta Tretiak while speaking to other people for a while now."

Ally still looked quite stunned by her apparently sudden rise in stature, and Duke Thomas decided to take pity on the poor woman. "Alleandre, my dear, my spies tell me -" A conspiratorial glance at Evelynne. "- that you are leaving your wheelchair for good sometime soon."

The young woman shook herself out of her daze, and replied, "Well, I'm not sure about permanently, but I'll be weaned off it for the next while. According to Dr Willes, my physiotherapist, I should be able to get around with a cane. I should only need the chair if I'm going to be out for long periods. He's hoping that once my muscles heal completely, I'll be as good as new." She didn't add the doctor's warning that if the muscles refused to knit properly, she might be forced to use a cane for the rest of her life. On the other hand, had the bullet hit only two inches to the left, even the cane would not have been an option.

"Well then, in honour of the occasion, and with the hope that its use will be short, I would like to present you with this." Duke Thomas took up the long, thin, cloth-wrapped object beside his chair and handed it over to Ally.

Ally took the package in surprise. "Thank you, Your… um… Thomas," she finished, when the Duke raised a warning eyebrow. "You really didn't have to."

"My dear, I am a Duke. I am frequently forced to do things which I do not want to do. It is a pleasant occasion when I can do something simply because I wish to do so."

"Thank you," Ally repeated, admiring the cloth in which the gift was wrapped. It was a rich green colour, and the shimmer of the material, along with the texture under her fingers, told her that it was silk. The cloth was held in place by a pair of blue ribbons. The colour if the ribbons reminded her of Evelynne's eyes. After the ribbons had been carefully untied, Ally couldn't contain a small gasp as the cloth fell away to reveal the object within.

The cane itself was carved from an almost midnight-black wood, which Ally tentatively identified as mahogany. The carving had been fairly rough, leaving the natural shape of the wood almost untouched. It had been smoothed and polished to a brilliant shine, however, and inlaid with a red, metallic material. The metal formed loops and swirls across the surface of the cane, and the light shining on the pattern was slightly hypnotic.

"Oh my God," Ally breathed. "That is beautiful." She peered closer at the designs. "Is that -"

"That's oricalcum," Duke Thomas confirmed. "It's a naturally occurring gold-copper alloy found only on Atlantl. The distinctive red colour is caused by tiny grains of a mineral similar to garnet."

"Thank you so much," Ally said. "It's absolutely wonderful." She handed the cane to Evelynne, who examined it with an appreciative eye.

The Duke smiled, pleased that his gift was being so well received. "Thank you. I made it myself."

"Really?" Everyone looked at him in surprise.

He nodded. "After I injured my leg in the War, I came back home and was less than thrilled with the ugly cane the hospital gave me. So I decided to make my own. I've been making them ever since. That particular one I made about fifty years ago and it became one of my favourites. Unhappily for me, I have shrunk somewhat since then, and the cane is now too long to use comfortably. I reckon that you, Alleandre, are tall enough to use it."

Ylan had come to the doorway and made a discreet gesture to Evelynne. She nodded in acknowledgement, then turned her attention back to the rest of her guests.

"On that note, I have been informed that Dr Willes has arrived and is waiting for Ally to continue her therapy. Ally, do you want company?"

"I'll take her," Chorus said. "We can catch up. If you want me to, that is."

"That would be fine," Ally agreed.

By general consensus, the group pushed their chairs back from the table and Chorus and Ally began to slowly make their way down to the Palace's gymnasium, which had been partially converted into a therapy room for Ally's convalescence. Ally pushed herself along in her wheelchair, while Chorus walked beside her.

For their part, Evelynne and the Duke made their way to the Palace's main study, where they soon found themselves comfortably ensconced in the chairs there.

"I'm glad my gift went over so well," Duke Thomas remarked.

"I'm glad she accepted it," Evelynne replied. "She's remarkably stubborn when it comes to accepting gifts. You wouldn't believe the time I had getting her to understand that the clothes in the closet in her room were now hers. I'm fairly sure she was prepared to keep on wearing the clothes she had in her backpack the whole time she was here. She's incredibly independent. I've been trying to teach her that when people like us, who can afford it, offer a gift, we truly want her to have it, and that it is not taking advantage of us to accept." She grinned indulgently. "Thankfully, it seems I'm succeeding." Her next words betrayed a small amount of hurt. "I'm a bit surprised she let Chorus take her to her therapy, though. So far she hasn't let anyone except Dr Willes and the nurse watch her while she's exercising. She won't even let me in."

"Well, Alleandre has known Mr Tladi for a longer time," the Duke suggested. He had his own suspicions about the young woman's reticence, but decided not to mention them until he was sure. "Also, he only said he would escort her. He might not actually participate."

"I guess so." Evelynne felt slightly better, though she didn't know why. The spike of jealousy she had experienced was irrational.

"Good. And how you doing?"

"Oh, I'm doing great. My shoulder is almost totally healed, and I've been having a lot of fun. Ally's a really wonderful person." She smiled fondly.

Duke Thomas looked over at Evelynne, surprised by the obvious affection in her tone and expression. His eyes narrowed slightly in speculation. It somehow seemed to be more than the simple appreciation of a friend. On the other hand, appreciation of a friend was never simple, especially for someone in Evelynne's position. With her rank, social standing, and responsibilities, she had made very few close friends while growing up. Those people of her own age with whom she usually socialised tended to be the heirs and children of the nobility, who had their own responsibilities, or worse, their own reasons for befriending the next Monarch of Atlantl. It must be amazing for Evelynne to finally have a friend who was her own age, totally unconnected with the nobility, and with no hidden agenda.

Duke Thomas winced suddenly, and his hand immediately went to knead his right knee.

"Domdom, are you okay?"

The Duke waved aside her concern. "I'm just a little stressed. It has been a very busy couple of days. Have you heard about the Sir Richard?"

"No, I haven't read the day's dispatches yet. I was planning to this morning, but then the weather cleared and…" Evelynne blushed. "And Ally and I spent the morning in the garden."

"Ah. Well, it was decided that rather than letting the Americans get their hands on the ship, which had been looking more and more likely, we would scuttle her and destroy all of the technology on board. Yesterday, at about six in the evening our time, the final explosive charges were detonated by the Captain. It gutted the ship, but kept the hull essentially intact. We wanted to cause as little damage as possible to the surrounding area. Since I am technically the Commander in Chief of the Third Escort Fleet, I've been in it up to my neck."

"I'm sorry," the princess sympathised. "Is the crew alright?"

"They are. We have been in contact with various members, and while they are being debriefed and interrogated by the American authorities, they are being treated quite well. According to Captain al-Rahan, the commander of the base where they are being held is being scrupulously professional. We're not sure, but our Intelligence gets the impression that his professionalism is in spite of pressure being applied from above."

"I don't get it," Evelynne commented. "Granted, we're not on the best of terms with the US, but for the last few years relations have been fairly amicable. Clinton might not be our best friend, but he's tended to be very conciliatory. I would have expected him to help move things along more smoothly than they have been."

"It is true that Mr Clinton has been relatively friendly to us, but you are forgetting one very important fact: America is in the final stages of an election campaign. And, with the exceptional skill of election candidates everywhere to grab hold of a sensational issue, the Sir Richard has become a… what do they call it? A 'hot button' topic. Half of the American government wants to show 'conciliation and international goodwill', while the other half wants to 'ensure the security of the American way of life'."

"Except that I doubt they used those words," Evelynne said. When the Duke looked at her questioningly, she explained, "I've seen both Bush and Gore speak. I don't think either of them is intelligent or articulate enough to use such big words. Did you know that Bush actually believed it when a reporter told him the Canadian Prime Minister Jean Poutine was endorsing his campaign?"

"Oh dear. I assume that this was somewhat upsetting to the Canadians?"

"Well, the Prime Minister is actually Jean Chrétien, and according to Ally, 'poutine' is an ethnic French-Canadian food made out of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. Needless to say, she wasn't particularly impressed when she saw the clip on television. Of course, she was laughing rather hard at the time, so I can't be completely sure." She giggled at the memory.

"Oh dear," Duke Thomas said again. He was stifling his own laughter. "Well, I suppose the best we can hope for is that Mr Bush loses the election so that the Canadians will not need to have cheese curds for a Prime Minister."

"So, Ally," Chorus said as the pair made their way towards the rear of the Palace, where the gymnasium was located, "how has it been hanging out with the royals?"

"Very interesting," his companion admitted. "I think I was half expecting all of this aristocracy to be stuck-up snobs, but all of the nobles I've met so far have been really friendly people. You know, you've met Duke Thomas. Baroness Li-Han - she's the ruler of this barony - came to visit a few days ago. A first she was kind of stiff and formal, but Evy managed to get her to relax, and she turned out to be really funny."

"Evy, huh? Well, it sounds like the Baroness wasn't the only one. She's managed to get you to open up, too, hasn't she?" Chorus said. It took a moment, but he was rewarded by Ally's trademark blush. "Oh please, Ally, not everything is a double entendre."

Ally sternly told her flush to recede, wishing she had more control over her own body. Unfortunately, that wasn't one of her talents. "Then stop making innuendoes. Besides, she knows about… you know."

Chorus looked startled. "She does? How did she find out?"

"I told her."

"You told her?"

"Well, I got a phone call from Annie -"

"The bitch."

Ally winced. "Please don't call her that. We actually talked some things out."


"Anyway, afterwards Evy was there and I needed to talk to somebody, so I told her. She was okay with it."

"Well, that was fast. You've only known Evelynne for a few weeks." Chorus paused for a moment. "So have you shown her what you can do yet?"

This time it was Ally's turn to look startled. "I beg your pardon?"

"You know. Have you given her a demonstration?"

Ally was rapidly turning a beet red colour, and making slight choking sounds. Her wheelchair had stopped dead in the middle of the corridor. "A demonstration? Of… THAT? Are you nuts? I… She…" A pause. "Wait a minute, what are you talking about?"

Chorus was confused. "I was talking about your… abilities. What were you talking about?"

The young woman was slowly returning to a more normal colour. "Oh… I meant that Evy knows that I'm… you know… gay."

"Oh. Oh! Okay, then. So she doesn't know…"

Ally shook her head vigorously. She started pushing her chair down the hallway again. "No, that I haven't told her about. I'm not really planning to any time soon, either."

"Understood," Chorus acknowledged. A wicked grin slowly crept across his face. "So you haven't given her a demonstration?"


"In either area?"


"Maybe someday, huh?"

"Maybe somed- NO!"

"Okay, fine. Just checking."

"… and so the Count is hoping that by gaining approval to open the mine, he can create up to five thousand new jobs. He's been having a hell of a time meeting his minimum employment obligations the last few years." The Duke was filling Evelynne in on a few of the less publicised political manoeuvrings of the Hall of Nobles.

"The environmentalists won't like that," Evelynne mused. "He's caught between a rock and a hard place. Although… what if -" She was cut off by a knock at the open door to the study. Both occupants of the room looked up to see Chorus standing in the doorway. Evelynne looked behind him, but couldn't see Ally anywhere. "Chorus, is Ally alright? Where is she?"

"Ally is fine," Chorus said, easing the princess' concern. "In fact, I thought that, given the situation, it might be more appropriate to do something a little more formal." He turned his head slightly and seemed to be listening to someone out of sight beside the doorway. "I've just been ordered to hurry up and get the show on the road. So without further ado, may I present… Alleandre Tretiak!" He stood aside with a flourish in order to allow Ally to enter the room.

Evelynne's concerned face brightened as Ally walked carefully through the door. Then her brain suddenly comprehended exactly what it was seeing. Ally had walked through the door, and was now standing somewhat uncertainly just inside the room, leaning heavily on the cane in her left hand.

"Sorry about that," Ally said, a quirk of a smile on her lips, "but Chorus insisted."

"And well he should have," Evelynne confirmed, quickly standing and hurrying over to her friend. "This is wonderful. You're able to… stand… up…" She trailed of as she got closer and looked up… and up… into Ally's face. "Isis, you're tall," the princess blurted.

Chorus broke into delighted laughter. "I told you," he said. "I told you she'd say that."

Evelynne was chagrined at her outburst. "It's just that I've never seen you standing," she said. "Until now, I've always been taller than you." She struggled with her next words. "Um… just how tall are you, anyway?"

Ally was flushing under the intense scrutiny. "About six feet," she answered. "Six one on a good day."

"That would explain it," the princess murmured. Ally topped her height by at least six inches.

"Um, do you mind if I sit?" Ally asked. "I've just walked all the way here from the gym, and I'm feeling a little…"

"Of course." Evelynne shook herself out of her musings. She was having a difficult time reconciling the Alleandre before her with the small-looking woman she had first seen in the Marseilles hospital. Now she looks like a hero, the princess thought. Taking Ally's right arm, she led the tall woman further into the room and settled her carefully into the seat which she herself had just vacated. Ally sat back in the chair with a heartfelt sigh of relief. "Are you in pain?" Evelynne asked.

"A bit," Ally admitted. "But it's a good kind of pain. Mostly muscles I haven't used in the last three weeks." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them to look at Duke Thomas. "Thank you for the cane," she said. "You're right, Dr Willes was going to give me this really ugly plastic and metal one. This one is much better." She held up the item in question.

"I'm glad you like it, my dear. It looks like I brought it just in time, too."

"And you look good with it," Evelynne said. She smiled proudly at Ally. She wasn't sure why she was feeling so proud of her friend, but decided to simply go with the feeling. "Tonight we have to celebrate! Domdom, you are staying for dinner, aren't you?"

"Oh, I might be persuaded to join such beautiful and charming company for a meal." His smile took in Chorus as well. "Latifa is still creating her masterpieces, I expect."

"Of course. She's told me that the day I don't like one of her meals is the day she resigns and takes holy vows. So far the Churches have been saved from her."

Ally stood in the darkness of her bedroom later that evening and simply revelled in the sensation of being fully upright once more.

Dinner had been a very pleasant and entertaining affair. Maîda had been convinced to join the rest of them for the meal. During the meal, Evelynne and Chorus had teamed up in an effort to get Ally to blush as much as possible, and veiled suggestions, innuendo, double entendres, and embarrassing stories had been used to great effect. Ally had valiantly defended herself as best she could, until Duke Thomas had entered the fray on her behalf, launching a salvo of stories starring a certain young princess until the opposing forces had retreated in disarray. Maîda had been a double agent, launching sneak attacks at both sides, usually when they least expected it.

Ally grinned. It was the most fun she had had during a meal since… She blushed, grateful for both the darkness and the lack of company, as an image of Annie in a very… culinary position presented itself for her examination. She blushed harder as Annie suddenly morphed into Evelynne. Okay, that's enough of that, Ally thought. I'm just feeling good. I'm out of that damned chair, I've just enjoyed a good meal with good friends, and I have a lot of energy to burn. And right now there's only one way to burn it. The image of Evelynne presented itself again hopefully. Okay, two ways, but that's not going to happen. A different image of a more… solitary nature presented itself for consideration. Okay, three ways. But those two are not an option. The second image smirked knowingly to itself and slunk away to bide its time.

Her decision made, Ally made her way to the doors leading to the balcony outside her bedroom. Opening them as quietly as possible, she slipped outside, taking care to remain in the shadows. Once on the balcony, she slowly stood completely upright. Long unused muscles in her back and legs screamed in protest, but she ignored them, enjoying the slight pain as she stretched. When the knitting muscles in the centre of her back registered their own complaints with a much sharper pain Ally stopped. Focusing, she channelled energy into the space surrounding those muscles, supporting them. It wouldn't last forever, but for now the pain disappeared almost completely, leaving only a shadow of itself as a reminder.

Satisfied, Ally opened her mind to her surroundings. The mental energies of everyone within a hundred metres of her position slowly coalesced in her perception. Ally smiled as she recognised Evelynne's mind a few rooms away, bright and strong. Ally was actually surprised that she could recognise the princess so easily, considering the short time they had known each other. She couldn't read thoughts or emotions in this state, but by checking the princess' position against her mental map of the Palace, Ally realised that Evelynne was in her bathroom. She firmly squashed the temptation to extend her perceptions and see exactly what Evelynne was doing.

Putting all thoughts of the princess out of her mind, Ally made a final check of the presences nearby. Satisfied that nobody was in a position to see, she withdrew her mind, then focussed and channelled once more.

A moment later the balcony was empty.

Continued in Chapter 10

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