"Oh, God," Ally groaned, sinking onto the couch in the sitting room of the suite she was sharing with Evelynne.
Evelynne closed the door softly before turning to look at her fiancée. "Are you all right?" she asked concernedly. Grimacing, Evelynne lifted her hands to her head and proceeded to lift off the thick, heavy, red wig that was the closest Maïda had been able to find to her original coiffure. It was remarkably lifelike, but Evelynne had become used to her very short hair over the past few months, and was dearly looking forward to finding some legitimate excuse to explain her new hairstyle to the public.
"My brain is fried," Ally muttered, her voice muffled as she put her face in her hands. Evelynne walked over and sat down beside her, tugging gently on her shoulders until she leaned back into a welcoming embrace. "I've never tried to scan that many people in a row before."
Wrapping her arms around her partner, Evelynne began a slow scratching of Ally's stomach. "Do you believe what they were telling you?" she asked quietly.
Ally closed her eyes and nodded. "They were telling the truth. All of them. None of them is actually… culpable for what happened to Mom. They were just following orders that they honestly thought were perfectly legitimate."
"No guilt, hm?"
"Oh, they're not all squeaky-clean. Hansen and Chaisson are having an affair, and Llamallos is deeply involved in a minor smuggling ring on base; alcohol and pornography, mostly. And there's plenty of guilt about what happened on their mission, trust me. Monika Murthi was just about ready to cry."
"Really? She seemed calm to me."
"Believe me, all she really wanted was to wake up in her mother's arms and realise it was all a nightmare." Ally sighed sadly. "I have a strong suspicion that whatever happens she'll be leaving the army." She turned her head enough to look at Evelynne out of the corner of her eye. "You might want to arrange to have her put on suicide watch for a while."
Evelynne's brows rose, and then she nodded soberly. "I will." She paused. "You don't blame her?"
"It's hard," Ally admitted. "She was the one who actually pulled the trigger. But she was absolutely convinced that her actions and orders were legitimate." She sighed again. "She was doing something she absolutely loves. She's wanted to be a soldier since she was eight. Not the killing part, although she has resigned herself to killing enemy soldiers when she has to. But she's felt the draw to become a warrior, to protect the things she loves, for years, and realising that dream has been wonderful for her. And now that life is over."
Evelynne nodded as well. She was relieved that Ally was able and willing to avoid placing blame where it was not due, but not really surprised. Her fiancée had always shown an ability to assign proper responsibility to whom it was logically due, and in this terrible circumstance the soldiers of training mission Sierra-Foxtrot-Six had been nothing more than puppets. "You're probably right," she agreed quietly. "Even if they're ultimately cleared, their military careers are probably over. They might maintain their ranks and positions, but nobody will really trust them again. Not many commanders will be willing to put them in sensitive posts, and opportunities for promotion will be pretty limited." Evelynne shrugged. "And even if za or Aunt Cleo were willing to bestow direct promotions—which I'm fairly sure they would—that kind of special treatment would only emphasise their isolation."
"Mmhmm," Ally hummed, and Evelynne could practically feel her mind working through their Link.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
Ally jerked back to herself. "I'm not quite sure," she admitted, rubbing her eyes. "After being in so many minds today I think I'm still feeling echoes and there are a few things I can't figure out whether they're mine or theirs."
"That's not good, love," Evelynne said, urging Ally to stand and leading her towards the door to the bedroom. "Towards the end there I noticed you were speaking in a pretty military manner. Like you were using their vocabulary. Is that normal?"
Ally shrugged. "Define 'normal.' I have no idea."
"Hmm. Well, let's see what I can do about that. Take off your shirt and lie down," Evelynne instructed, pointing to the bed. Ally's eyes rose. "Not for that, you horndog," the Princess said in exasperation. She headed towards the bathroom, and a moment later her voice carried back into the bedroom. "I'm going to give you a massage and see if we can get rid of some of your tension. Then you're going to have a nap for a few hours. When you wake up you can see whether you should ask Black Crow for some help before dinner this evening."
Ally's eyebrows remained elevated, but she obediently stripped off her blouse, only hesitating for a moment before removing her bra as well and crawling onto the bed. "Yes, Your Highness," she murmured.
And don't you forget it, Peasant, Evelynne said directly into her mind, smirking as she exited the
bathroom, a small bottle of oil in her hands. A moment later she had crawled
onto the bed and was straddling Ally's hips, her hands beginning to work their
way into tight muscles. "
"Not for long," Ally mumbled into the quilt, her muscles already beginning to relax.
There was silence for several long minutes before Ally spoke again.
"Where did you learn 'horndog,' anyway?" she asked, her voice muffled.
Evelynne laughed, gentling her hands as they neared the small, shiny scar in the middle of Ally's lower back, a constant reminder of the assassin's bullet that had first introduced them and had very nearly taken Ally's life. It was a testament to how much she had healed mentally that Evelynne could touch the scar with only a slight twinge of residual fear. Claire used it a while back, she explained. You remember that time about two weeks ago just after the ceremony, when we were outside in the snow, and you were assaul… I mean, tickling me? And your hands wandered—completely accidentally, of course—into some very… naughty places? She wondered if you were born a horndog, or if it was something I'd taught you.
Ally laughed into the mattress, making the whole bed shiver. I must not have heard, seeing as I was digging snow out of my ears at the time. She chuckled a few moments more. So what did you tell her?
Evelynne grinned. I explained that that much raw talent could only develop naturally at birth. She agreed, and then observed that we both must share that same gene.
Ally opened one eye to glare at her tormentor balefully. "Cheeky wenches, the two of you," she muttered. There was silence for a moment. How do you think she's doing?
We haven't heard otherwise, so I'm assuming fairly well. She must be on the way to the border by now.
Evelynne paused in her massage, looking at Ally in surprise. "How do you know?"
Ally hesitated, and then shrugged awkwardly. "The timing works out about right," she explained simply.
"Oh." Evelynne resumed her kneading. "I miss her, you know," she admitted softly.
Ally nodded. "Me too. Still, it should only be a couple of months," she said sleepily.
"That's true." Evelynne grinned. "I'd love to see Corey's face when she shows up at his door."
Ally chuckled slowly before her breathing evened out into sleep.
"Do you remember the last time we had a family dinner with everyone there?" Evelynne asked as she strolled arm-in-arm with Ally down the hallway.
being followed discreetly by Sergeant Ariman Tresca and Major Susan
They had been performing admirably, sensibly taking their cue from the more experienced Guards. Benson was fairly confident, having been a career Naval officer for sixteen years before her transfer, but Gyrus was visibly nervous, no matter how much he tried to hide it. Ally had caught the younger Guard looking at her with a mixture of fascination and anxiety several times, and she was intensely curious as to what was causing both. She had been tempted to read his thoughts and find out, but had restrained herself from the invasion of privacy.
Distracted by her thoughts, it took Ally a moment to respond to her partner's question. "Of course. The day after you proposed to me." She chuckled. "I was terrified your father would have me beheaded."
Ally shook her
head. The stay in
"I still can't believe a priest is allowed to know that many dirty jokes," Ally mused. "That must be cause for self-flagellation or something." Evelynne laughed. "And now we'll just steer the conversation away from things that priests do to themselves. How is Patrick?"
doing well," Evelynne admitted. "He loves the monastery he's staying
in. I've been to that area of
Ally frowned. "Is that safe?"
Evelynne shrugged. "It's not as though he's completely secure where he is. He's incognito, to be sure, but it isn't deep cover, and there isn't a lot in the way of security at the monastery. Besides, he said he wanted to be here, no matter what ends up happening."
They had arrived at the door to the King's private dining hall while they walked, and had to remember to wait while Captain Benson provided a passcode and checked out the interior before allowing them to proceed. Satisfied that no assassins were lurking behind the door, the Captain held it for the two women.
Inside, the large room was surprisingly warm, given that the entire keep was carved out of solid rock. A roaring fire at the far end certainly contributed, as did a cunningly designed heating system installed under the wooden floor. The chamber was informally divided into two sections; one held the large dining table, an ancient and elegant piece of woodwork, and the other held a collection of chairs and couches gathered companionably around the fire. It was there that the other diners were currently found.
King Jad and Queen Cleo were there, of course, along with the Queen's husband, Jeremiah. They were all dressed in the much more informal outfits that had become the norm over the past week, rather than the intricate and weighty costumes that composed formal court attire. William Tretiak was chatting quietly with Joseph Black Crow, and both looked up and smiled at the newcomers. To Evelynne's mild surprise, Meghan Doherty was there as well, seated next to Maïda near the King and Queen. Still, the older woman had been the conduit by which she and Ally had communicated with Atlantl, so she was directly involved in their little play, even if her role was minor.
Without words, Ally and her partner separated, moving to greet their respective families.
"Hey, Dad," Ally murmured into her father's shoulder. She pulled back. "How's Mom?"
"Doing as well as can be expected," William said, unable and unwilling to hide the pain in his voice and face. "Better, actually. She's going to be fine." He chuckled involuntarily. "She still has that 'Cap'n Cat' idea in her head." He shook his head fondly, and Ally laughed. "She told us to enjoy ourselves this evening and to remember exactly what we eat, so that we can describe it to her in detail later. And she said that you're to eat well and stuff yourself. You're still too skinny."
Ally rolled her eyes and smiled. "Still on hospital food, huh? I can relate." Her father looked at her with concern. She had explained the basics of what had happened to her while she had been away, but had yet to go into the painful specifics. Rather than get into something more suited for a less cheerful situation, she turned to Black Crow. "Hi, Joseph. Thanks for helping me out this afternoon."
"You are welcome, Ally." The Indian shaman-psychologist looked at her sternly. "I said it before and I will say it again. I don’t know what you did today, but you must not do it again, if you can. There were too many echoes in you this afternoon."
"I know," Ally said simply, "but it was something I had to do." Unsaid was the statement that she would do it again without hesitation if the need presented itself.
Black Crow easily read the silent intention and nodded mildly. Ally knew he expected no less.
"Ally, come over here," Evelynne called, drawing her attention. Ally obediently followed. "You remember Meghan Doherty," her fiancée introduced.
The solidly-built woman looked up at Ally and smiled hesitantly, offering her hand. She was probably in her fifties, Ally estimated, her coppery-brown hair liberally streaked with grey, and she was wearing a simple yet attractive green skirt with a maroon blouse.
"Of course," Ally said. "Thanks for everything you've done for us. I don’t know what we would have done without you."
Surprisingly, the older woman blushed like a schoolgirl. "You are very welcome, Your Ladyship," she stammered. "It was my duty to aid Her Highness and yourself any way I could."
"Oh, please," Evelynne interrupted, grinning down at Meghan. "It was more than duty. And really, I think you can call us 'Evelynne' and 'Ally.' After all, you are 'Aunt Meghan.' You're practically family."
The poor woman blushed even more deeply at the full force of Evelynne's charm. "Of course, Yo… Evelynne. It would be my p-pleasure." She managed to smile shakily.
"Good," Evelynne stated firmly.
"Good, indeed," the King murmured, shaking his head abruptly. "Well, I believe the cooks have everything prepared, so shall we sit?"
It took a few minutes to arrange seating. The King and Queen, of course, sat at either end of the tables. Evelynne sat at her father's right, her fiancée right next to her, and Jeremiah also sat at his wife's right hand. William was on Cleo's left, which also put him beside his daughter. Black Crow sat across from Ally, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Meghan sat immediately to the King's left.
Glasses of a deep purple Atlantlan wine sat at each place, and the Queen raised hers. "To family," she said simply. The toast that followed was in the Atlantlan style. The European style was a custom that originated in the middle ages as an attempt to knock the devils that sat on the rim of a glass into the alcohol to drown, all in an often vain attempt to kill the demons that caused hangovers. In Atlantl, the drinkers dipped the index finger into the wine and then ran it around the rim, trying to placate the demons with an offering, rather than kill them. The still-wet finger was then placed to the lips before a sip was finally taken.
Everyone at the table performed the ritual with varying degrees of ease, although Ally hesitated uncomfortably for a long moment before looking at Evelynne. The Princess exchanged a few quick inaudible words before shaking her head, and Ally put down the glass without drinking.
"Is everything all right?" Cleo asked.
Ally shook her head briefly. "I, uh… I don’t drink any more," she said softly, looking down.
"Oh." The Queen obviously wasn't alone in wondering why that was so. Ally had not been a teetotaller before, but this was evidently yet another one of the things that had changed during her time away from Atlantl. "Well, what we do have is some juice instead. Meghan, if you could pass that jug?"
Slow conversation picked up again as juice was poured and Ally sipped gratefully.
Are you all right? Evelynne asked silently, her hand on Ally's thigh comfortingly. I'm sorry. I didn't think about—
It's okay, Ally interrupted. I just couldn't…
Ally hadn't drunk alcohol since the night she had inadvertently taken the drugs which had lowered her inhibitions so severely. The experimental drug had been dissolved into Ally's drink, and the doctors had suspected that it was the alcohol that had reacted with the compound to create a much more intense reaction. Ally knew that her own unique neural chemistry probably also had a lot to do with the unexpected reaction, but she had since suffered from an aversion to alcohol in all its forms that was so strong it neared being a phobia.
However, she really didn't want to explain all that to the others who were dining. Especially not the part where, while under the influence of the drug, she had practically had sex with a total stranger in a bar bathroom. Even though Evelynne had forgiven her completely, the terrifying memory of the event still lurked within Ally's subconscious.
Food had arrived, the servers summoned by some unseen signal, and feasting commenced, interspersed with conversation that flowed easily and naturally. It was a scene that could, with only minor adjustments, have taken place in any dining room around the world, and the true natures of those involved were forgotten. Ally wasn't an Adept, Evelynne wasn't the Heir to the Throne, and the King and Queen simply became proud family members. A few of the conversation topics weren't so typical, perhaps, but all in all it was the most domestic scene Ally had observed since returning to Atlantl.
Cleo was holding court at one end of the table, questioning Black Crow about the techniques and theories he used in his unusual psychological practice, Jeremiah and William deeply involved as well. At the other end, Evelynne and Ally were regaling Jad and Meghan with some of the more amusing things they had seen and heard on their travels. Meghan was rather quiet, still obviously somewhat shy about the company she was keeping, but Jad more than made up for it with his guffaws that threatened to shake the plates off the table.
Actually, Ally mused, as Evelynne wrapped up another anecdote, the former servant appeared more than shy. In fact, she was actively apprehensive, something that Ally could detect even without using her empathic senses. And most puzzling of all was the fact that the older woman seemed to be specifically afraid of Evelynne for some reason. Granted, perhaps she wasn't as used to the Princess' company as she was to the King's, but it seemed to be… more than that.
And whatever it was, Evelynne had picked up on it too, as Ally could tell from the tiny subliminal signals that she could recognise in her lover.
The tale drew to a close, and Jad's laughter finally quieted. "You actually convinced them that Atlantl runs on a twenty-hour day?" he chuckled. "Oh my. Metric system indeed."
Evelynne shook her head. "That's what I said." She sipped her wine—Ally had insisted she not also give up alcohol out of some sense of duty—and looked back and forth between her father and Meghan. "So," she said firmly, "are you going to tell me just what's going on here? I know something's off."
Meghan almost choked and looked at the King in something resembling a panic. In contrast, the King looked back at his daughter calmly before glancing at the older woman and nodding slightly. "I was… We were planning to tell you. Meghan and I are involved."
Whatever Evelynne had been expecting, that obviously wasn't it, although Ally wasn't extremely surprised. Wine sprayed over the table in a perfect spit-take, thankfully just missing Meghan. Ally wrapped an arm around Evelynne's shoulders, supporting her as she wiped ineffectually at her blouse with a napkin. Silence fell at the other end of the table, the other diners looking at them curiously, the Queen with a wicked grin on her face.
"I take it you told her, then," Cleo said, smirking.
"Told me…" Evelynne rasped, still coughing. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Convinced her coughing fit was over, she opened them up again to spear her father with a glare. "All right, now, tell me again."
"Meghan and I are involved," Jad repeated mildly, reaching across to grasp his companion's hand.
"Involved," Evelynne said flatly. "How involved?"
Jad shrugged. "How much would you like? We're lo—"
"Stop!" Evelynne barked holding up a hand. "Don't say that word. I get it. Involved." She took a deep breath, visibly calming herself. "So just how did you get… involved?"
"Well, Meghan was passing along your messages, which meant she had to be able to meet with me at odd hours. A minor servant can only have so much regular contact with the King without raising suspicions, so we had to come up with a legitimate reason." The King shrugged again. "We began to spread the rumour that we were having an affair. After a time, it was no longer a rumour."
"Oh. All right." The shell-shocked look was slowly fading from Evelynne's face. "So… are you… in love?"
"Yes." Meghan spoke up for the first time, her voice quiet.
"All right," Evelynne said again. "Just give me a while, all right?" She took another steadying breath, and Ally could feel some of the tension flow out of the muscles under her hand. Eventually, Evelynne looked up at Meghan, smiling crookedly. "So Aunt Meghan might be a little inaccurate, do you think?"
That startled a laugh out of the older woman, and her own face relaxed. "Perhaps," she said quietly.
"Well, I don't think I can call you mamu right now," Evelynne said awkwardly, and Meghan's expression sobered. There was a pause. "Yet."
The spark came back to Meghan's eyes. She smiled tremulously when Evelynne reached across to squeeze her hand. "I understand… Evelynne. I'm sure my own daughter will be suitably outraged when she finds out as well."
Evelynne blinked. "Wow. Stepsister." She blinked again. "So how is this going to work?" she asked. "Are you getting married? Is Meghan going to be Queen?"
"Marriage is… a distinct possibility," Jad admitted. "As for the Second Crown…"
"No!" Meghan said forcefully. "I have no wish to become Queen."
"Thank you, Adun," the King said, settling into a deep armchair. "That will be all, I think."
"Of course, Sire," Sir Adun murmured. "Madam." He bowed to both his Diarchs before leaving the room, Queen Cleo's Chief of Guards preceding him. The door clicked closed softly behind them.
Jad sighed in satisfaction and looked out over the valley. This particular "room" was set high in the cliff wall that housed the fortress, and boasted a huge, floor-to-ceiling window. In summer, the glass of the window could be removed, turning the room into an expansive balcony, but during the winter—as now—the glass provided protection from the elements. A relatively mild storm was currently lashing the glass, providing a staccato soundtrack to the conversation.
"That went well," Cleo commented from her own chair, swirling a glass of green cer'ant liqueur. "Evelynne seemed accepting of Meghan."
"Once she finished spewing wine all over her future step-mother, yes," Jad chuckled.
Cleo laughed as well. "How is Meghan taking it?"
"Oh, she was unbelievably anxious beforehand. She held up well, though. She really does want Evelynne to like her."
"Oh, Evelynne will," Cleo assured him. "I think she just needs to get used to the idea. After all, she's become accustomed to seeing you single for almost her whole life. The idea of a new 'mother' must be unsettling." Jad's previous wife, Queen Amelia el-Kareen, the sister to the current Queen, had died when Evelynne had been very young, and the Princess had only vague memories of the woman. Cleo hesitated. "I know I've said it before, but I honestly think Meghan is going to be good for you."
"I… Thank you." There was silence for a moment. "Do you think Evy ever knew about the others?" Jad asked quietly.
The King had kept his affairs discreet, but Cleo was under no illusions that he had been celibate since his wife had died. "I'm sure she suspected," she replied. "And if she didn't, she certainly speculated. Evy always was an intelligent child. However, no child wants to imagine their own parent in an intimate setting. I know for a fact that my own parents had sex exactly twice."
Jad guffawed. "Oh, come now, you really aren't still hung up on that sort of thing are you? You're a grown woman, with children of your own, I might add, and there's nothing to be ashamed or uncomfortable of about sex! You know the definition of a prude, don't you? Someone who is ashamed to have been born naked in bed with a woman."
"Oh really?" Cleo's brows quirked. "And Evelynne and Alleandre?"
Jad's glass froze on its way to his lips. Then he slowly and deliberately took a large mouthful and put it down again with equal care. "I will have you know," he said in severe tones, "that my daughter is still a virginal blossom, and that she only enjoys sharing body heat with my future daughter-in-law. She will wear diamonds on her wedding day, so your inferences are quite specious." In Atlantlan culture, diamonds were used to denote a virgin bride, rather than a white dress. Needless to say, not many diamonds were worn during modern nuptials, and the King had always been baffled that so many brides in other countries still wore white.
"Now who's being a prude?" the Queen crowed.
The King muttered something incomprehensible, and a silence fell over the balcony, broken only by the wind and rain on the window.
Finally, Jad looked over at his companion again, seeing a pensive look on Cleo's face.
"Something is bothering you?" he asked.
The Queen looked startled as she pulled herself out of her thought. "I was just thinking of Evelynne and Alleandre, as a matter of fact," she said, and her voice was troubled.
"I do that on a regular basis," Jad replied. "I worry about them constantly. However, no matter how I turn it, I still truly believe that they will be alright. Their romance will be difficult, but they will not fail."
"It's not that," Cleo said, shaking her head. "I worry about them myself. No, I find myself more and more concerned about Alleandre. Not because of what might happen to her, in particular, but more because of…" She trailed off, struggling for words. "I think what bothers me about Alleandre," she continued finally, "is that I cannot help but feel that there is something… inhuman about her."
Jad frowned. "I beg your pardon?" he asked dangerously. It had taken him a while to come to terms with the partner his daughter had chosen, but now that he had he was ready to protect them both with equal ferocity, even from his own sister-in-law.
"It's nothing… overt," Cleo was quick to reassure him, "or even sinister. It's… It's nothing I can specifically point to, or put a finger on. It's more a… feeling I get, deep down. Something that just barely touches my subconscious. An aura." She chuckled. "And now I'm beginning to sound like she does when she talks about touching minds."
"Well," Jad said slowly, "perhaps that's it. We tend to look at Alleandre and just see a young, nervous girl, and forget that she is most likely the closest thing to a living god that exists upon the Earth. She can know our thoughts, see places far distant from her physical location, and defeat forty soldiers without touching a thing. When she chooses, she is the next best thing to invulnerable, and can fly to the top of a mountain as easily as you or I walk. And those are just the abilities we know about. These are things that are practically unique among the human race, and set her apart from the rest of us in a perfectly understandable way. She experiences sensations and abilities of which we are barely able to even conceive, and her outlook must be just as disparate. So, yes, in a quite literal way there is something… inhuman about her."
"You're right," Cleo agreed, nodding slowly. "It's entirely obvious that her… powers make her different. In fact, in retrospect, I think I might be even more concerned if her psyche wasn't different. I just think about the moral and ethical rules she's had to develop around her abilities, and part of me is honestly glad that she doesn't think as mere human does. Humans have always had difficulty controlling their own power."
"Too true. I can't say I really like the term 'inhuman' though," Jad commented. "It has too many negative connotations, which are extremely unfair to apply to Alleandre."
"You're becoming—what's the term?—politically correct?" Cleo smiled at Jad's scowl. "I agree, though. Still, what do we call her? 'Transhuman?' 'Metahuman?' 'Parahuman?'"
"Personally, I prefer 'Alleandre,'" the King said gruffly.
Cleo looked at him. "Touché," she said finally. "It will come up eventually, though. You've seen the signs. Not only Alleandre, but Evelynne as well. Joseph Black Crow and Claire Jones. This Mrs. Chen they've told us about, and Enku Black Crow's mother. Even Chorus Tladi. They are all in control of powers beyond what we mere humans are capable, and they are all in contact. For the first time in history, that we know of, these 'parahumans' are joining together and forming a community. Under the loose leadership of the next ruler of one of the most powerful nations on Earth and her partner, who also happens to be the most powerful of all of them. More will join over time. Only a very few, most likely, but under leadership which is the ultimate in political, social, and personal power. Unless the whole thing falls apart for some reason—which I admit is a possibility—that community is going to be revealed to the world at large. And when that happens, the next generation is going to have to live with these not-quite-humans in their midst. And humans being humans, some will start chanting 'Inhuman.' And almost-humans being, well, almost-human, some of them will live up to that 'inhuman' description. And, now that I think about it, that is why I am actually glad that it's Alleandre who is the most powerful of them all."
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