Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
"Sir Bedivere carried the king to the water's edge, and there found a barge in which sat many beautiful ladies with their queen. All were wearing black hoods, and when they saw the king, they raised their voices in piteous lament.
"'I pray you, set me in the barge,' said the king.
"Sir Bedivere did so, and one of the ladies laid the king's head in her lap– Thereupon they rowed away from the land and Sir Bedivere wept to see them go.
"'My lord King Arthur, you have deserted me! I am alone now, and among enemies.'
"'Sir Bedivere, take what comfort you may, for my time is passed, and now I must be taken to Avalon for my wound to be healed. If you hear of me no more, I beg you pray for my soul.'
"The barge slowly crossed the water and out of sight while the ladies wept."
- Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur
The early morning sun shone though the large glass doors leading to the balcony off Princess Evelynne's bedroom, but were thwarted by the thick curtains drawn across the entrance. Except, however, for a single slice of sunlight which snuck through a crack in the drapes to illuminate the figure slumbering in the bed. The princess slept on, oblivious, until the invading beam sneaked upward enough to strike Evelynne directly in the eyes.
Disturbed by the light, Evelynne waved her hand in a futile attempt to brush it away. When the attempt failed, she slowly came more awake, and additional sensory stimuli began to clamour for attention: the warmth of the bed, the texture of the sheets, the faint sound of birdsong, and the strong odour of fresh coffee. It was this final stimulus which provided the final push to drive the princess into full wakefulness.
Opening her eyes, Evelynne blocked out the bright light with a raised hand, then turned to look at her bedside table, where, as expected, a small carafe of freshly brewed coffee sat waiting. She smiled. Nancu Ylan was a saint, she decided. Every morning he would bring in a pot of sweet coffee, and somehow he was never loud enough to wake her.
Evelynne indulged in a long, sinuous stretch, pleased when her shoulder issued only the faintest protest. Life is good, she decided. The previous night had been extremely fun. Ally, freed from her wheelchair, had been in a good mood, so much so that the War of Teasing that had broken out had failed to cause her to withdraw completely. Her friend had blushed extensively and predictably, but had valiantly rallied. Once Domdom took part on Ally's side, Evelynne had found herself doing a fair amount of blushing of her own. Dear Isis, I can't believe he dragged out that story of me wandering into the men's changing room at his Gymnasium when I was six. That anecdote should have died a long time ago. Oh well, it was in a good cause.
Stretching one more time, Evelynne grabbed the cup of coffee and began to plan her day. She only had a small amount of time left in her "vacation", and she wanted to pack in as much fun as possible before her increasing responsibilities started taking up too much of her time. A quick glance out the window showed that the weather was perfect, with a brilliant blue sky and only a few small clouds.
She and Ally had spent most of their time around the Palace since they had arrived, constrained by Ally wheelchair. Now that her friend was liberated, Evelynne decided that today would be perfect for a slightly longer excursion, assuming Ally was willing.
Finishing her coffee, the princess dressed in some casual clothes and made her way to her sitting room. Picking up the telephone, she made a call to the Summer Palace's security department and made her request. Colonel Allan objected strongly, but politely, claiming that he needed at least eight hours to make the necessary arrangements. Evelynne countered by claiming that Sir Arthur would be able to do it in two. The Colonel argued that stronger security measures were required now, and reduced his time to six hours. After a bit more haggling, they compromised on four hours, which was what they had both been aiming for all along, setting the departure time for just before lunch.
Satisfied, the princess called Maîda to inform her of the day's plans, then looked at the clock. Eight fourteen. Knowing that they had all retired quite early the night before, Evelynne decided to see if Ally was awake yet, and then collect both Ally and Chorus for breakfast. She made her way into the hallway and walked the short distance to the suite next door, nodding a greeting at the servants she saw along the way.
Opening the door to Ally's sitting room, Evelynne entered to see that her friend had apparently not yet left the bedroom. She briskly walked to the appropriate door, knocked perfunctorily, and entered.
"Rise and shine!" she said. "I hope you're decent, becau - Eep!" She froze a few feet into the room.
Ally wasn't decent. Or she was very decent, depending on one's point of view. She had obviously been in the shower, and now stood motionless, in mid-step and leaning on her cane, halfway between the bathroom and the bed. Her stunned brain could not decide whether to dash back into the bathroom, or forward to the bed, where the clothes that were laid out explained the reason for both women's unmoving states.
As Ally's logical side desperately tried to make a decision that would end the stand-off, her sense of modesty awoke with a vengeance to create a deep flush that started at her upper hairline and spread steadily towards her lower. Evelynne watched its progress in fascination. So it does go all the way down. Suddenly realising she was staring, the princess tore her gaze away, trying to look at anything but the woman in front of her. Her eyes found Ally's hooded cloak, draped over the back of a nearby chair. That needs cleaning, she thought irrelevantly. It's got pine needles on it.
"Uh– um– I just - ahem." Evelynne's voice broke. "I just came to see whether you were up yet– Which you are– and– um– see if you wanted something to eat– I mean breakfast," she concluded hurriedly. "So– I'll go now, and see you when you come– I mean when you're dres - When you're ready. To eat that is. Breakfast." She took a deep breath and took another glance at Ally before quickly turning away again. The other woman hadn't moved a muscle. "Um– yeah. So– bye." The princess made an inglorious retreat, fumbling for the doorknob to close the door on her way out.
The door finally closed behind her, and Evelynne moved through the sitting room in a daze to sink into a large overstuffed armchair. Oh Isis, she thought. Oh crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap. This is not good. She'll never be able to look at me again. I just didn't think that– I just didn't think, period. That'll teach me to go into someone's bedroom without knocking. That has to be the worst thing that can happen to a shy person like Ally. I know she's body-conscious, and for me to burst in while she's– in her all-together. Evelynne buried her face in her hands. And what a nice all-together it is. The rogue thought startled her when it inserted itself into her consciousness. What the heck? Where in the Duat did that come from? It's not like I'm attracted to her or anything. After all, she is a woman. Very obviously a woman. A memory of the recent scene confirmed the conclusion. And I'm not– attracted– to– Evelynne's thoughts whirred. Oh Isis, Jehovah, and Allah. I am attracted to her.
And why not? asked a hitherto unheard part of her mind. She's intelligent, compassionate, courageous, modest– and she's got one hell of a body. The previous memory was brought out for study. Tall, thin, not particularly muscular, but not skeletal either. Rather small firm breasts, and enough flesh to be round in just the right places. Looked at objectively, she would never be a supermodel, but Evelynne's thoughts were anything but objective.
She's gorgeous, the princess admitted. But she's a woman. A woman. Does that mean that I like– That I'm–
With an effort, Evelynne pulled her scattered thoughts together. Okay, first things first. In a few minutes Ally is going to come out– A stray thought about coming out tried to distract her, but she firmly pushed it aside. She's going to come out of that room and she's going to be mortified. Now unless she says something, I am going to act like nothing happened. At least until I figure out what's going on with me. I need time to do that, which I don't have right now.
With that decision made, Evelynne sat up straight and prepared to call on all her years' experience in diplomacy to put on the necessary mask for the upcoming events.
The cane tumbled unheeded to the floor as the door shut, and Ally followed it at a slower pace, coming to rest cross-legged on the thick carpet. The feel of the slightly rough material under her bare buttocks jolted her rational mind back into operation, reminding her that she was completely naked - even though a less rational part had been excruciatingly aware the hole time.
The young woman reached out a hand towards her clothing lying on the bed. It was still well over two metres from her outstretched fingers, however, and she instinctively tried to pull the clothes towards her.
Of course, Ally thought with the small part of herself that was still capable of doing so rationally. I probably couldn't concentrate enough to move a penny right now. She was vaguely aware that she was focussing on irrelevant topics to avoid dealing with the reality of her situation. As soon as that awareness impinged on her consciousness, the delicate balance shattered.
Oh my God, she saw me. All of me. She looked down at her own body in disgust and shock. It was too thin, too long, too bony; it was not full enough, not voluptuous enough. The shocking white scar over her right breast seemed to mar what small amount of beauty was present. In the back of Ally's mind she could hear the memories of the cruel laughter, the pointing fingers, the piercing stares– and the dark hilarity and amused contempt that drove directly into her thoughts. Remembered tears ran down her cheeks, and it was only when she felt the salty taste on her lips that she realised they were real.
The tears gave Ally's mind enough of a hold on reality to banish the phantom jeers, and allow it to start working regularly once more. You are not ugly, a familiar voice said, sounding suspiciously like her mother. You are beautiful, intelligent and brave. No, you are not like a supermodel. But models are things people use as props, as smaller versions of the real thing. You, Alleandre, are the real thing. Gradually, Ally's heartbeat slowed. You are the most beautiful girl in the world, a memory of her father said. I know all dads think so, but I happen to be right.
"Thanks, Mom," Ally whispered. "Thanks Dad." She let the memories of love and reassurance wash over her as the panic attack faded, leaving a shivering reaction in its wake. She suddenly realised that she was sitting naked on the floor, and had been for some time.
Just then, there was a tentative knock on the door. An equally hesitant voice called out, "Ally, are you okay? You've been in there for a while, and I just want to make sure you haven't fallen down or something."
Clearing her throat, Ally called back, "Um, yeah, I'll be just a moment." Taking a deep, fortifying breath, she got to her feet as quickly as she could and proceeded to get dressed as rapidly as her back would allow her. Once clothed, she move to the door and opened it to reveal Evelynne's concerned face.
Before she could say anything, the princess said, "I just want to say that I'm sorry for bursting in on you like that. I was just excited and I didn't think that– Well, I just didn't think. From now on I'll make sure to -" She broke off suddenly, taking in Ally's expression. "You're crying," she said, surprised.
Ally reached up and touched her own cheeks, startled when her fingers encountered the dry, gritty remnants of her tears. She immediately scrubbed them away with her hands. "No, I'm not."
"Well you were," Evelynne said. As bad as she had felt before, she now felt ten times worse. She reached out to grasp Ally's hands in her own. "I'm so sorry. I never meant to do anything to -"
"No, it's not that," Ally interrupted. "I– It's– Can we sit down?" she asked abruptly.
"Of course." Evelynne quickly led her friend to sit in one of the nearby chairs, while she reclaimed the seat she had occupied previously.
"First off, I want to say that it wasn't you. Actually, it was you, but it wasn't because of anything you did. Although it was what you did, but not– I'm not making any sense, am I?"
"No, not really." Despite the situation, there was something endearing about a flustered Alleandre. Endearing? Isis, you do have it bad, Evelynne thought. Later, deal with it later.
"Okay," Ally said, taking one last breath for courage. "When I was in elementary school - grade six - I was not the most popular person around. I was very tall for my age, really gawky, awkward, clumsy. I was also, either fortunately or unfortunately, very intelligent. I was younger than everybody else in my class, had no friends, and was generally considered a freak. Well, you know just how tolerant children are of people who are 'different'."
"Not really, but I've heard," the princess murmured.
Ally didn't seem to have heard. Her eyes were fixed on some event taking place over nine years ago. "One day a group of the 'popular' girls decided that it would be fun -" She spat the word with deadly venom. "- to show the rest of the school just what a freak I was." Evelynne noted with alarm that Ally was paler now, still fixed on the memory she was reliving. "So during lunch period, they grabbed me -" Sweating now. "- stripped me -" Breathing faster. "- and shoved me into the hallway. Right at the end of lunch as all the students were going back to class." Fresh tears were streaming down her face now, and the princess gripped her hands firmly, willing Ally to pull back from the memory. "And everyone was staring at me, and pointing, and laughing; and I could only stand there, the freak, the ugly freak, and I could feel everything they were thinking."
All of a sudden the dam broke, and Ally leaned forward into Evelynne's arms, desperately seeking the comfort and succour that she sensed were being offered. The princess was surprised, but instinctively wrapped her arms around the woman pressed against her, holding Ally as she cried silently into Evelynne's shoulder.
They stayed like that for several minutes, until Evelynne felt Ally start to pull away. She opened her arms to let her friend go, though not without a sense of loss.
"Sorry," Ally said, roughly wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands. "I didn't mean to do that. It's kind of stupid. I mean, it's not like I was abused or beaten up or anything."
"But you were," Evelynne objected. She reached up to tap Ally's temple. "Right here." She lowered her hand to touch Ally's chest. "And here. Just because they didn't punch you or beat you with a stick doesn't mean you weren't hurt."
The other woman nodded. "That's what my therapist said. I don't think he really understood what it was like for me though." And its not like I could tell him how I absolutely knew what those kids were thinking. If I had, I'd still be in therapy. As it was, it was over six years before I recovered even a shred of telepathic ability. "So now you know why I can't stand anyone seeing me– you know. If I have time to rationalise it, prepare for it, like going to the doctor, then I'm usually okay, but when it happens suddenly, like just now– It's like a panic attack." She waved a hand in the general direction of the bedroom.
"Well, I'll definitely remember to knock from now on." Darn it. Sensing that Ally had reached her limit in discussing the matter, Evelynne changed the subject. Giving her friend's hands a final squeeze, she stood and said, "I was originally coming to bring you to breakfast. We have a busy day if you're up to it."
"Sure. Just let me go and wash my face, okay?" Ally started towards her bedroom once more.
"I'll wait for you. And Ally?" the princess called softly, causing the taller woman to stop and turn around. "Just for the record, you are anything but an ugly freak. You're beautiful." As Ally blushed, more normally this time, and started to speak, Evelynne held up a hand. "Don't argue. I'm a princess. I'm authorised to make these determinations."
A refreshed Ally walked with Evelynne down the stairs to the breakfast dining room. Their conversation as they walked had been stiff and stilted at first, but by the time they arrived they had almost returned to their previous level of comfort. When they both arrived at the dining room, the two women saw that Chorus had already arrived, as well as a person they had not been expecting.
"Sir Arthur!" Evelynne exclaimed, hurrying around the table to give him a quick hug, which he bore stoically. "I didn't know you were coming back so soon. When did you get in?"
"Your Highness," the bodyguard said formally. At his charge's disapproving look, he relaxed minutely. "Evy," he conceded, "officially I am not back as the Master of your Guard yet. However, I have been given permission to say that I will be reclaiming my position once the investigation is officially complete."
The princess smiled triumphantly. "I knew they wouldn't blame you."
"Indeed. While my team and myself will not be receiving any medals for our actions, we have all been cleared of all culpability."
Evelynne was still smiling. "Excellent. So when did you get in?" she repeated her earlier question.
"I arrived in Kilim yesterday evening, in fact. However, I stayed in the town in order to help the local authorities deal with an incident."
Everyone retook their seats, and the newcomers started to help themselves to the food which had been laid out.
"An incident?" Evelynne paled slightly. "It wasn't– the HBLA, was it?" Hearing the stress in the princess' voice, Ally couldn't help putting a hand on her shoulder in comfort.
"Oh, no," Sir Arthur rushed to reassure her. Evelynne sighed in relief, and Ally gave her shoulder a final squeeze before removing her hand, unsure of what had possessed her. "It was a simple missing person case, and the local police were asking for help in the search. A four-year old boy wandered away from his parents yesterday in the woods of the Sekamat Park Reserve and was reported missing."
Nobody at the table noticed Ally's start or vaguely guilty expression.
"Oh dear," Evelynne said. "Did you find him safely?"
"Well, yes and no," Sir Arthur replied with a wry smile. "It was actually quite odd. It was just after midnight, and the searchers were considering calling off the search until morning, when young James Terris suddenly showed up outside the Kilim Hospital with nothing worse than a few scrapes and bruises and a mild case of hypothermia."
"Isis, that's quite a way from the Reserve," the princess said. "Especially for a child that young. Did he manage to walk the whole way?"
"According to the child, he was actually rescued from the forest by a zhaniyye."
Chorus interrupted, "Pardon, a zhaniyye?"
"A– spirit," Evelynne explained. "You might call it an elf or a fairy. A being with magical powers. Specifically, a female one."
"Really," Chorus said slowly, casting a questioning glance at Ally. The young woman appeared to be fully absorbed in consuming her meal. "An elf, huh?"
"James said that a beautiful dark zhaniyye wrapped him in her magical cloak and used her magic wand to transport him to the hospital. He said that she did not speak a word the entire time. Because of the curse, you see," Sir Arthur said conspiratorially.
"The curse?" Ally asked, startled.
"Indeed. Young Mr Terris believes that his zhaniyye is cursed never to speak until she discovers and marries her true love. He is equally convinced that he is that true love and is looking forward to marrying her when he grows up."
"You don't say," Chorus murmured with an amused twinkle in his eye. "That is really very romantic, isn't it, Ally? Do you think that the magical fairy will marry the boy when he grows up?"
Ally appeared to be flushing slightly, though Evelynne could not figure out why. "You never know," she said defiantly. "So what do you think really happened to him?" she asked the bodyguard.
"Well, supernatural intervention aside, it seems likely that he was picked up by someone, possibly a woman driving a car," Sir Arthur speculated. "She could have wrapped him in a blanket - hence the magical cloak - and dropped him off at the hospital." He shook his head. "The police don't know why she did not stay around, though."
"Isis, a real magical mystery," Evelynne mused. "I'd like to visit– James, was it? What do you think, Chorus? Do you think he might choose to settle for a princess instead of an elf?"
"Oh, I think that anything is possible, Evelynne," he replied, with a very subtle wink at Ally.
After lunch, Evelynne, Alleandre and Chorus piled into a waiting vehicle and set out for their mysterious destination. The princess had refused to reveal the object of the trip, and Ally was simply too relieved that the morning's 'incident' seemed to have been forgotten to press for details.
She still found Evelynne occasionally looking at her with a faintly quizzical expression, however, and wondered whether the other woman suspected something about what had really happened the previous night, or whether she was thinking about the embarrassing events of the morning. At one point she had caught Evelynne staring calculatingly at one of the female Guardsmen assigned as escort, then looking back at Ally with a similar expression, as though comparing the two. The princess had blushed and stopped as soon as she saw that Ally had noticed, leaving the taller woman mildly confused about her actions.
Sir Arthur had opted not to join the expedition. Instead he had chosen to make the most of his unofficial vacation - his first in eight years - and Evelynne had overheard him inviting Maîda on a short visit into the town of Kilim. The princess had not heard her lady-in-waiting's reply, but the fact that she had also decided not to join the outing suggested that she had agreed.
Evelynne had flatly refused to give in to Colonel Allan's desire to travel in the limousine with a full escort, and after a brief struggle the princess had prevailed. So the three young people found themselves comfortably seated in a large Range-Rover, escorted by two more vehicles and a total of six Guards. In their own car, Ally and Evelynne shared the spacious back seat, while Chorus sat in front, next to Sergeant Samantha Erikkson, who was driving.
As the small convoy got under way, Chorus turned around in his seat so that he was facing the two women. "So, Ally, did you have a good night last night?" he asked casually - too casually.
Ally shot him a glare and saw the teasing look in his eye. "Yes, I did." She strove to project calmness and indifference, silently wishing that he would drop the matter. "Despite the unprovoked attacks, supper was great," she said, hoping that he would take the hint.
No such luck. "Actually, I was talking about afterwards. The weather was lovely, there was no moon, the stars were out. I'll bet you could have gone outside last night and nobody would have seen you."
Evelynne joined the conversation. "It was gorgeous outside, wasn't it? I'm sorry I wasn't able to enjoy it more, but I took a bath and went straight to bed."
So she was taking a bath, Ally's baser self wailed. And I could have been there, in mind if not in body. Damnit, why do I have to be so damned honourable? The rest of her told it to shut up. "I went out for a while last night." The words slipped out while she was distracted with her rebellious id. Chorus' smile became triumphant, but also slightly concerned. "Just onto the balcony for a while," she hastened to add. Okay, maybe not just onto the balcony.
"That must be how this got so dirty," Evelynne commented, fingering the hem of the long black hooded cloak Ally was wearing. Several faint smudges of dirt were visible. "Although how you got pine needles on it, I don't know. There aren't any evergreens close to the Palace."
Ally tried to shrug nonchalantly. "There was a bit of a wind. I guess they got blown over."
"Well, be sure to give it to one of the servants when we get back so that it can get cleaned."
"Yes, Mother," Ally said, pleased that the morning's awkwardness was gone, and that they were back to their familiar friendship.
The rest of the half-hour trip was mostly taken up with Evelynne playing tour guide and pointing out various landmarks and the history of the area they were passing through. They had bypassed the town of Kilim while travelling south, and had travelled through an area of forest, which the princess had identified as the southern boundary of the Sekamat Forest Preserve.
Now, though, the group was passing through a region composed largely of farms - fruit orchards, mostly - and ranches. Ally saw that cattle and sheep were the prevalent animals.
To Ally's mild surprise, the lead vehicle turned onto a long driveway. The car in which she and her friends were seated followed it, passing under a large sign as it did so:
Ur-Shahu Sa-Kima Regenre Illikata e'Kilim.
"Okay, ur-Shahu means 'Royal', possessive tense, illikata is 'farm', and regenre means– reconstruction– rebuilding," Chorus said. "And e'Kilim is, well, Kilim, with the associative modifier. I don't know what sa-kima is, though."
"Not bad," Evelynne said. "If you don't what a sa-kim is, I think I'll keep it as a surprise for just a bit longer. Trust me, it'll be worth it."
"Well, if you're 'reconstructing' something on a 'farm', I'd guess that it's some kind of breeding program. Some kind of endangered species?" Ally tried to recall what she knew about rare Atlantlan wildlife. "It's not Atlantlan elephants, is it?"
Evelynne shook her head. "No, although there are programs on Lyonesse to increase the population. Avalon is too hilly for elephants; not like the plains on Lyonesse."
"Well, then, the only other animal I can think of at the moment is–" Suddenly Ally's eyes widened as the car followed the curve of the road around a small hill, and the vehicle's occupants first caught sight of the ranch's animals. "Unicorns!"
Sure enough, a small herd of the graceful animals, long horns rising above incongruously bulky heads, looked up from grazing to watch the cars as the motorcade pulled to a stop in front of a small farmhouse. Nearby were a number of barns and what were obviously storage sheds.
Once all the vehicles had pulled to a complete stop, Sergeant Erikkson got out and opened the princess' door. Another Guard, whose name Ally didn't know, did the same for her own door, then offered a hand to assist as she climbed carefully out and stood leaning on her cane in the warm sunshine.
The door to the farmhouse opened, and a short, middle-aged, brown-haired man hurried into the yard, followed by two much younger people, one male and the other female. All three were wearing stained and dirty overalls and rubber boots. On closer inspection, some of the stains could be seen to be fresh blood.
"Your Highness!" the man exclaimed in Lantlan, screeching to a halt and performing a brief but formal bow. "I'm very happy to see you, Your Highness. If I had known earlier that you were coming I would have been more presentable, but we have been very busy this morning."
"Oh, that's quite alright, Alfonso," the princess said, switching to English for Ally's benefit. "It was a spur of the moment decision." Turning to Ally and Chorus, she introduced, "Alfonso, may I present Alleandre Tretiak and Chorus Tladi? Alleandre, Chorus, this is Dr Alfonso Marens, the Director of the sa-kima breeding program."
"Ishta Tretiak," Dr Marens greeted in heavily accented English. "May I extend my honest thanks for the service you have performed for our nation." Ally blushed and tried to wave away the thanks. "Mr Tladi. I'm pleased to meet you." He turned to his own companions, who were waiting patiently. "Your Highness, this is Mila'a Porse and Jeffrey al-Halan. They are our most recent recruits. Ms Porse is in her final year at Huson University, and Mr al-Halan is doing graduate work for the University of Saint Mary. My other assistants are unfortunately busy right now."
"Ms Porse, Mr al-Halan, welcome to the program. We'll probably be seeing quite a bit of each other now that I'm back," Evelynne said.
"Thank you, Your Highness," they spoke simultaneously, bowing respectfully at the same time. They both seemed a little star-struck.
"Why are you so busy right now?" the princess asked. "It's not mating season, and birthing isn't until April."
Dr Marens smiled. "Do you remember Sally, Your Highness?"
"Of course. Is she–" Evelynne paused as realisation dawned. "Has she fawned?" she asked excitedly.
"Just this morning, Your Highness. One doe. Both are doing very well."
"Can we see?" the princess asked. Ally couldn't help but grin. Evelynne was like a child on her birthday.
"Of course, Your Highness. They are resting in the birthing barn. Jeffrey can show you."
The princess and her still awe-struck guide quickly moved ahead of the rest of the group, heading towards a large barn-like structure a little ways off. Three Guards were forced to move rush to catch up. Two Guards remained with the people left behind, and the last stayed with the vehicles.
Ally carefully picked her way over the slightly uneven ground, relying on her cane for balance. Chorus had moved ahead slightly and was engaged in conversation with the Director - surprising the older man with his knowledge of Lantlan - so when she stumbled slightly only Mila'a was able to catch her arm and stead her.
"Thanks," Ally said, taking a good look at the young woman for the first time. The student had long hair so black that it seemed to glow, and a small braid, bound with beads, hung over each ear. As she straightened, Ally found to her surprise that Mila'a was only a few centimetres shorter than she was.
"You are welcome, Ishta Tretiak," Mila'a said. Her accent was somewhat musical. She made sure that Ally had regained her balance before removing her supporting hand.
Ally winced. "Please, just Ally," she protested. "I'm not really comfortable with this Ishta stuff."
"Of course– Ally. I wished only to show you the respect that is your due."
Ally blushed slightly. "Well, thanks," she said, "but I've been just plain 'Ally' for a lot longer than I've been 'Ishta Tretiak'. I'm still getting used to it."
"Y'vis. I see. However, I do not believe that you were ever– What did you say? 'Just plain Ally'."
Startled, Ally darted a look at her companion. It took a moment, but then she saw what she had been half expecting to see: carefully hidden speculation. While she had seen the look before, only on very rare occasions had it been directed at her. The thoughtful look was very well concealed, as was the inviting expression accompanying it, but skilfully revealed just enough to be seen by someone looking for it.
"Um, thanks," Ally said again, knowing that her answering blush would be interpreted - correctly - as acknowledgement of the subtle interaction. Anxious to change the subject, she asked, "So, have you been working here long?"
Mila'a shook her head. "I have only worked here for two weeks. I am writing my honours thesis on repopulation programs for endangered species. In December I go to Lyonesse to study medo'nta– the elephants. In March I come back to Avalon to study sekema– the mountain lions."
"Are you enjoying it so far?"
"Oh, yes. It is very– exciting work. Especially after three years in the classroom. It was becoming very– stuffy? I think that is the word."
Ally grinned. "Oh, I know about that. As Tom Lehrer says, 'Ivy covered professors in ivy covered halls.' I remember my last year at university and working on my thesis. Although mine was theoretical rather than experimental, so I spent most of my time inside. Not out in the fresh air like this." She used her free hand to gesture at the beautiful surrounding countryside.
"You did a thesis? On which subject?"
"Physics. 'Using the Schröedinger Wave Equation to Speculate on the Nature of Quantum Gravitation.'"
"Y'vis." The other woman was silent for a moment. "And you– understand this?"
"Y'vis." A pause. "You were a– What is the word? A 'nord', yes?"
"A what? Oh, a nerd. Of course I am. I even have a membership in 'Nerds Incorporated'. Aren't you a nerd?"
Mila'a made a sad face. "No. I applied, but I was rejected." She tapped the side of her face. "I do not wear spectacles."
"Oh, darn, I can't teach you the secret handshake, then."
"Perhaps I will reapply. When I am accepted, you can visit and teach me this 'secret handshake'."
Ally drew in a sharp breath at the blatant invitation. "Maybe." Maybe by then Evy will have moved on with her life. Maybe then I'll have to move on with mine. She cast a shy glance at the woman beside her. I could do worse, I suppose.
By that time, they had caught up to the rest of their party inside the birthing barn. Evelynne was peering over a low wall at something on the far side. She was making delighted noises, and even Chorus' face had an expression of surprising gentleness. After receiving a final friendly smile from Mila'a, Ally made her way forward to look over the divider herself.
On the other side were the obvious causes of her companions' behaviour. Lying on a pile of hay was a tired-looking unicorn, and nestled snugly by her side was a much smaller copy, though it lacked the distinctive horn. The larger beast looked up warily at the addition to her audience, then laid her head back down. Her metre long horn remained pointed in their direction, offering protection to her newly born fawn. While the newborn was a mottled, light brown colour, its mother's short hair was a rich golden hue. Despite her obvious exhaustion, the doe kept a cautious eye on her audience from under her thick eyebrow ridges.
"That is so cute," Ally whispered. "I've never seen a unicorn so close before. Heck, I've never seen a real unicorn, period."
"Not many people have," Evelynne whispered back, leaning against Ally's shoulder to minimise the distance her words would have to travel. "Up until recently they were one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Twenty years ago there were less than two hundred remaining. Now we're up to over five thousand. We started re-introducing them into the wild five years ago. I come out to work here quite regularly, and often help out with fund-raising and education events. I'm actually the Program's Royal Sponsor."
"I remember seeing a documentary on how they were hunted for their horns."
"Yes, just like rhinos, elephants and anything else sporting a long, phallus-shaped appendage. A lot of oriental cultures believe them to enhance sexual performance. Thankfully, we've managed to almost eliminate most poaching."
"How did you do that?"
"Poaching and smuggling carry the same legal consequences as murder, including the possibility of the death penalty. In addition, park rangers are authorised to shoot to kill illegal hunters if necessary. It's harsh, but it works."
"They look different from what I expected," Chorus said, his unavoidably louder voice causing the doe's ears to twitch. "I am used to African antelope, which all have two horns, not one."
"Actually, sa-kima also have two horns," Evelynne explained. "If you follow the horn down near the skull, you can see where it splits to either side. And you can see that the fawn has no horns at all. As she grows, she'll first form two little horn-buds. As time passes, the horns will eventually begin to wind around each other to form one horn. Sa-kima use them to defend themselves, dig roots out of the ground, and the males use them to fight for mating rights. It's really quite impressive to watch. Other antelope tend to use more brute force, but with sa-kima it's more like a fencing match. That's why they have such wide foreheads and overhanging eyebrow ridges. It helps protect against injuries to the eyes. Still, a few serious injuries are inevitable."
The princess turned to Dr Marens. "Have you named the baby yet?"
The Director smiled. "Not yet, Your Highness. In fact, we were considering naming her 'Evelynne' in honour of your recovery."
The woman in question shook her head. "Oh, no, there are at least four 'Evelynnes' out in the fields as it is." A contemplative expression spread across her face. "Actually, I think it would be a good idea to name her 'Alleandre'." She smiled fondly at her friend. "After all, it's because of her that I'm able to recover at all."
During her vigorous protests - which were ignored - Ally saw Mila'a's surprised expression, followed by a long searching and speculative glance at Evelynne.
The rest of the afternoon was spent touring the facilities. Ally's spine forced her to take frequent rests, most of which she spent talking about the program with Dr Marens. The Director was an excellent speaker, and extremely passionate about his work. Though Ally's specific interest in the field was not terribly intense, she still found him fascinating to talk to.
Finally, though, the time came to leave, and the farm's entire staff appeared to bid their guests farewell. Ally found herself on one end of numerous handshakes and an equal number of apparently heartfelt expressions of appreciation for saving the princess. Deciding to take her cue from Evelynne, she chose to accept the thanks gracefully.
One of the last people to shake her hand was Mila'a. The tall brunette leaned in close and said in a low voice, "I think you will maybe not be teaching me the secret handshake. I think instead you will be teaching Her Highness. But if I am wrong, you will remember me, yes? You will come and visit?"
Blushing and practically speechless, Ally mumbled something unintelligible before climbing into the waiting car.
To be continued in Chapter 11
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