For disclaimers see Chapter 1
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery."
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
Evelynne sat in her large, warm bed in the early morning twilight and simply relaxed, letting her mind contemplate any topic that cared to cross it. Right at the moment it was idly wondering just how Seneschal Nancu Ylan managed to always have hot coffee waiting even before his mistress awoke - no matter when that happened to be. If she slept in - a rare occurrence these days - or if she woke before the sun had fully lit the sky - like today - the coffee was always present, hot and fresh. Eventually she decided that the Seneschal had implanted some kind of device directly into her brain, which informed him when she was about to wake up.
Sighing, Evelynne let the lighter, idle thoughts go, and reluctantly focussed her attention on the events of the past month. Although she had yet to Assume her full duties, the princess' days had been filled by a steadily increasing number of things which required her attention: a formal meeting with her Advisory candidates, preliminary discussions on setting up her office, meetings with various government officials and nobles, a seemingly endless pile of papers which needed reviewing and signing, and the usual appearances at public events. There had been less of the last than there would normally have been. The Guard was still nervous nearly three months after the shooting, and refused to allow their charge into any situation that they could not tightly control. It had become even worse now that Sir Arthur had been reinstated as Master of the Heir's Guard, and Evelynne had once snapped that she felt lucky to be able to go to the toilet alone. She hadn't liked the speculative expression that had crossed her bodyguard's face.
With everything that had been happening, Evelynne had almost had no time to miss Ally. The princess had visited two weeks after her friend had moved into her new house, wanting to give her the requested time alone, and she had seemed to be settling in well. Evelynne had noticed that Ally seemed more relaxed and happy than she had previously, and had felt guilty about not noticing her friend's stress earlier. They had also spent several evenings in long conversations on the phone, something which Evelynne had looked forward to with great anticipation.
Now, though, she realised that it had been seventeen days since her last visit - she didn't really want o admit that she had been counting them - and almost a week since the last phone call. The princess momentarily contemplated calling Ally right now, but remembered that her friend had a tendency to sleep late, and probably wouldn't appreciate a call at… six thirty in the morning. Although the last time she had called Ally at seven and been greeted by a sleepy, "'Lo?" which she had found absolutely adorable.
It was time, the princess decided, to stop by and visit again. She had an early meeting in Outremer this morning to go over some details of Ally's knighthood ceremony, and then wanted to visit with Duke Thomas. By that time even her late-rising friend should be awake, and she would drop by the house on the outskirts of the city.
That decided, Evelynne finished her coffee, climbed out of bed and prepared herself to convince Sir Arthur to accept the diversion.
"Evelynne, my dear, it's wonderful to see you again," Duke Thomas enthused, escorting the princess to one of the chairs in the informal section of his office. "Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, please," Evelynne said. While the Duke made the necessary arrangements with his secretary, the princess made a small signal to Sir Arthur. Taking one last professional sweep of the office, he left, satisfied that no assassins were about to jump out of any of the vases.
"So, my dear, I have not seen you much lately. You've been busy, I suspect."
"Nobody's seen me much lately," Evelynne said. "Wait, that's not quite true. Actually, everybody's been seeing me lately, just not many of the people I really care about." She hesitated. "That doesn't sound quite right either. I mean, I do care about these people - they're going to be my subjects, after all - but I don't care… Oh, you know what I mean," she finished.
"Indeed I do," the Duke replied. "I understand completely. They are just not your close personal friends and family."
"Exactly. See, my brain has turned to total mush."
"Oh dear." The Duke's eyes were twinkling. "Perhaps you need a stand-in. I happened to see an American film the other day where the American President had a double. Dave, I believe the film was called. However, the stand-in ended up taking the President's place."
"That sounds good, actually," the princess admitted. "What happened to the President?"
"He had a stroke and went into a coma."
"Even better. Then I could get some rest."
The Duke's secretary came in just then and the conversation was put on hold as she set up the cups and pot for tea. Evelynne took a sip and sighed gratefully as the warm liquid seemed to release some of her tension.
"I was just in the city talking to one of the Heralds about Ally's blazon," she said conversationally. "Since I was in the area I decided to come and visit you as well."
Evelynne smiled wryly as she remembered the meeting. She and Herald Cahir had finally settled on the final form of the coat of arms, but then the princess had added one final change to the finished design. In and of itself the change was minor, but the implications were huge, and Evelynne almost chuckled as she remembered the way the elderly Herald had nearly swallowed his teeth. It would have been quite a feat, as they weren't even dentures. The fallout would likely be significant, but she had extracted his promise to keep the matter secret until the knighting, and to get the same promise from those actually embroidering and enscribing the final seal.
"Well, I'm glad you did. Even though it is only nine thirty I've had about as much frustration as I can take today. You have heard that some of the sailors from the Sir Richard are coming home?"
"I heard that some deal had been reached, but not the specifics."
"Well, most of the lower ranking seamen are being released at the end of the week, and they'll be flown back soon. Many of the officers are still being held and interrogated, though. Officially, it's because the US Justice Department is still considering laying criminal charges on being in the country illegally. They have decided that the ordinary sailors will not be charged regardless, since they were only following orders. Unofficially, of course, it's a tactic to try to put pressure on us about a number of economic and military treaty issues, while still remaining 'reasonable and compassionate'. They're going to be going to the polls too very soon, so that's also adding a lot of confusion."
"The officers aren't in any danger, are they?" Evelynne asked, concerned.
"Not that our intelligence has been able to determine. I must say I have come to respect General Grahams, the commander of the base where they are being held. He has forced his own people to proceed within the letter of both American and International Law. At the possible cost of his own future career."
"Good for him," the princess said firmly. "If he does lose his job because of this we should see about hiring him here."
"A little optimistic, but worth exploring," the Duke said. "The other situation I'm dealing with is a possible drug seizure."
The princess frowned. "Isn't that part of the police's job? Or maybe Customs?"
"Normally, yes. However, the Outremer Police recently received a fairly detailed anonymous tip about several large shipments being smuggled through Altantlan ports, the names of a number of smugglers, and also the locations of several stockpiles of hard drugs: cocaine and heroin from the Americas, opium from North Africa and Europe. Under normal circumstances we catch a lot of them, but whoever sent the police the tip has apparently provided nearly every illegal drug shipment for the next month. So many, in fact, that even working at full manpower, the local police and Customs agents could not handle them all. So my office is trying to co-ordinate support in the form of military special forces attached to the regular officers. We also want to try to seize all the shipments simultaneously if possible."
"Wow. That must be a lot of drugs."
"If our informant is correct, the street value is estimated at over fourteen billion tali."
"Isis," Evelynne breathed. "Well, if you need someone to help you cut through red tape, let me know. I may not be official yet, but I can still browbeat obstinate peons."
"I'll certainly keep that in mind." Changing the subject, The Duke asked asked, "How is young Alleandre these days? I'm afraid I have not had the chance to speak with her recently."
Evelynne flushed, a reaction the Duke noticed with interest. "The last I spoke to her she's been doing well. Unfortunately I've been so busy that was a week ago." She paused. "That was actually one of the reasons I came to see you today."
"Oh my, an ulterior motive! You mean it wasn't for my wit, charm, and roguish good looks?"
The princess laughed. "Actually, in a sense those were what I wanted to see you for. Your wit and charm, anyway. I'm sorry to say that your roguish good looks really don't do anything for me?"
The Duke's brows rose. "Ah. You are referring to our last conversation? You have become more… sure of yourself?"
Evelynne shrugged more casually than she actually felt. "Well, I'm sure I'm gay." The words were surprisingly easy to say. "I'm also… more sure about other things." She decided not to hide her thoughts. "I'm sure that I'm attracted to Ally. I think I'm in love with her. I mean, I've never been in love before, so I don't know exactly what it's like, but…" She trailed off, remembering. "I'm pretty sure that kiss clinched it, though."
"Kiss?" The Duke's eyebrows looked like they were making for the top of his bald head.
Evelynne flushed again. "It was just one, and it was really quick. It happened at her new house."
"What happened after?"
"I, um… left."
Duke Thomas blinked. "I…see." A pause. "So what, exactly, did you want to talk to me about?"
"Well… I was thinking that… um… I'd like to… try to… move forward with Ally," Evelynne said hesitantly. "And please don't just give me reasons for why it's a bad idea. I'm pretty sure I've already thought of all of them."
"And you still wish to try this."
"I do." Her tone was firm, belying her underlying nervousness.
"Very well. There is one thing that I believe I must ask first, though. It is all very well for you to decide this is what you want, but do you know if it is what Alleandre wants? You and I both know what a shy and private person she is. Is she willing to embark on this course, knowing the scrutiny she will be under when - not if - it becomes public knowledge?" Duke Thomas smiled sympathetically. "You know I will support you, Evelynne, but Alleandre is my friend also, and I feel I must protect her, especially when she has shown herself to be less than willing to protect herself at times."
"I know, Domdom," Evelynne said, "and I love you for it." She sighed, then continued in a quiet voice. "The truth is that I don't know what she wants. I don't know if the idea has ever even crossed her mind. That's why I want to go very slowly and carefully. I want to find out if she's interested in the first place. I want to make sure she knows the possible repercussions. Then, if she's willing… I want her." She reddened again. "I just have one problem."
"Yes?" the Duke asked when she didn't elaborate. "That is?"
"Well… I have no idea how to do it," she said plaintively. "Don't laugh! I've never been interested in anybody before. And before you say anything -" Evelynne held up an admonitory finger. "- your nephew does not count. I was five at the time."
"I wasn't going to say a word," Duke Thomas said, although his eyes betrayed his true thoughts.
"Well… good. Anyway, I suppose ordinary people learn how to do these things somehow…"
"It's called secondary school."
"… but I never learned."
"So you want me to help you… what, date Alleandre Tretiak?"
"I see." Duke Thomas was silent for several minutes. "I suppose the first thing that you should do is find out if she is indeed interested. The simplest way to do that is to reveal your own interest."
"But what if she isn't? Then she knows I like her, but she doesn't like me that way, and it would get… awkward." The princess looked just on the edge of panic.
"Then you act more subtly. You casually touch her. Listen to her, talk to her, spend time with her."
"Wait a minute, you mean flirt with her!"
"Ah yes, I knew there was a word for it." The Duke beamed triumphantly. He turned serious again. "Listen, from what I have observed, I believe that Alleandre is, deep down, a very romantic person. She does not have a very high personal opinion of herself, and she wants to be flattered, to have attention paid to her, and most importantly to feel loved. She wishes to be courted, in fact."
"Courted…" Evelynne mused. "I remember she was talking about her previous… lover, and how Annie courted her. She used that exact word, in fact. Annie was… is a dancer, so a lot of it had to do with dancing and music." She looked up at her host. "I'm… well, I'm a princess. What do I do?"
"Well, you could knight her… Oh, wait, you're already doing that! No, seriously, Annie did not use dance simply because she is a dancer. She just used what she had, something that was special to her. You have to find something that you have and use it. It might or might not have anything to do with being the Heir."
"Okay," Evelynne said.
"And most importantly…" Duke Thomas waited until he was sure of her attention. "Do not rush things! Be sure before you take each new step. Ordinarily I would give this advice to anybody, but for you it is particularly important, given your unique circumstances. Because of who you are, any mistakes you make - possibly even any correct moves - could have far-reaching consequences, not just for you, but for Alleandre as well. I am not saying this to try to frighten you off, but only to be sure you are thinking about all the possibilities."
"I know," the princess said soberly. "But I have to try. I can feel it. Right here." She touched her chest.
Evelynne sat back in the seat, her stomach roiling with a combination of exhilaration and nervousness, as the car she was sitting in drove up the long road leading to Ally's house. She thought back to the last few pieces of advice Duke Thomas had given her before she left. Okay, just be myself. Only don't hold myself back so much. Don't be outrageously blatant, but don't dissemble either. I want her to fall in love with me, not some person I pretend to be to impress her. Don't be surprised if she doesn't pick up on what I'm doing right away. As Domdom said, she probably has not had much experience being… pursued. And also give both her and myself time to adjust. Don't rush anything. The princess thought for a moment more. I think that's it. Am I forgetting anything? Probably. Oh Isis, what if I do something wrong? What if I'm too obvious and it scares her off? What if…
Her growing panic was interrupted by a low mutter next to her, and she looked across at Sir Arthur - recently reinstated as Master of her Guard detail - who was driving the vehicle. She was momentarily confused, but understood when she saw that the bodyguard had not in fact spoken to her, but had said something into his collar-clipped mic. He listened for a moment to the inaudible reply, then turned to address his charge.
"That was the unit keeping an eye on Ishta Tretiak's house," he explained. "Apparently she has a guest." He frowned. "Her guest's background has been cleared, but I still wish you had allowed me to prepare this visit more carefully."
Evelynne shook her head, even as she restrained her impulse to ask who her friend's guest was. Ally had the right to entertain whomever she wished without having nosy princesses keeping track of her every move. A Guard unit had been assigned to discreetly protect the young woman, but that amounted to observation only, with no interference unless absolutely necessary.
Instead, she turned her attention to Sir Arthur's other concerns. The princess had not wanted to visit Ally with the full motorcade, lights flashing and sirens blaring. That had left only an incognito visit. Sir Arthur had flatly refused to let her go without protection, and a compromise had finally been reached. Evelynne had borrowed a uniform from one of her female bodyguards, and was now disguised as a member of her own Guard. The uniform was a decent fit, but she was aware that Sergeant Christine Himmerman was both larger around the limbs and smaller around the chest, so it alternately constricted and ballooned around various portions of her anatomy. The dark glasses and simple hairstyle completing the disguise made her look far removed from the Heir to the Kingdom.
"It'll be fine," she assured the Guard. "This is Ally we're talking about. I'm pretty sure she isn't hanging around with criminals and assassins. Besides, we're already here."
Sir Arthur looked disgruntled - not an uncommon expression - but refrained from arguing further, knowing the discussion was pointless. They had indeed already arrived, and Ally was also one of the few civilians he trusted completely.
The car pulled to a stop in Ally's empty driveway, and Evelynne spent a moment getting the butterflies in her stomach under control. Stop it! she commanded herself sternly. This is just Ally. Just be yourself… only more so.
With that thought she got out of the car and made her way up the walkway to the front door, Sir Arthur close on her heels. The princess knew that it would be pointless to try to get him to stay in the car. With a civilian of uncertain motivations nearby, there was no way he was going to let his charge out of his sight.
Upon reaching the stained wood front door, Evelynne looked for the doorbell button and pressed it, then stood waiting. It was an odd sensation. She was unaccustomed to ever needing to wait for someone to open the door. There was silence for a moment, then the sound of soft feet on the floor beyond, and then the door was being unlocked. It swung open partway to reveal Ally, dressed in a pair of baggy blue track pants and a grey tee-shirt, her hair - slightly longer than the last time Evelynne had seen her - uncombed.
Evelynne couldn't believe how good she looked.
"Hello?" Ally said questioningly, her gaze through her glasses slightly puzzled. The look cleared suddenly when she recognised the princess. "Evelynne?"
"Hi, Ally," the princess said. She was a little surprised at how steady her voice was. "How are you doing?"
"Great," Ally replied. She took a moment to look over Evelynne's uniform-clad form. "You look… different."
Evelynne lowered her voice and stage whispered, "I'm incognito." She made a show of searching the vicinity for eavesdroppers. "Don't tell anyone." Ally laughed and Sir Arthur made a suspicious snorting sound. "Can we come in?"
Ally started. "Yeah, of course." She opened the door wider and beckoned her new guests in. "Duh. I don't think my brain's working yet."
Entering the house, Evelynne looked through the wide entranceway to the right of the door, through which the living room was located. Ally had obviously been furniture shopping, as a new plush couch and several comfy looking chairs now occupied the room, along with a few small tables. Interesting paintings hung on the walls, but a large flat-screen television and enough electronics to launch a small satellite dominated the far wall. At the moment, though, all of the furniture except for the couch had been pushed aside, and several blankets, pillows, and the remnants of snack foods lay in the middle of the floor. A small pile of video tapes lay nearby. The princess raised an eyebrow at the sight.
"Up late last night?"
"Kind of, yeah," Ally replied, and Evelynne watched as she blushed.
The butterflies in Evelynne's stomach were beginning to turn into something more unpleasant as her mind began to put together various clues, and she didn't like the picture she was building. Ally had apparently had a guest the previous night, a guest whom the watching Guard detail said was still in the house. Add to that Ally's embarrassed expression…
Evelynne was sure that everyone present could hear the thud her heart made as it joined her stomach around her shoes when the distinctive form of Mila'a Porse exited a room further up the hall.
The attractive young woman was fully dressed, but was towelling her still-wet hair as she spoke. "Ally, I think I will be having to leave now. I did not think it was so late and I must be back at the university by this evening. I -" She suddenly cut off as she noticed the new visitors. "I am sorry, I did not hear you come in. You… Ul-mata?" she asked hesitantly. "Eta-o?"
"Hello, Ms Porse," Evelynne greeted, holding out her hand. Somehow she managed to keep her voice level and calm. "I should actually be the one to apologise. I didn't realise Ally had company."
"No, no, er… Your Highness. It is… ekani'is… fine. I must leave now anyway. I must return to university and it is a long journey."
"Okay, then. Well, it was good to see you again," Evelynne lied.
"Ca'era, Ur-mata," Mila'a said, bowing. "An honour."
"I'll see you out," said Ally, who had been silent until now.
Evelynne stood deceptively calmly a ways down the hall and tried not to look as Ally walked her guest to the door. She still caught them speaking softly out of the corner of her eye, and had to suppress a fresh stab of jealousy when Mila'a hugged Ally and gave her a quick but gentle kiss. The two women exchanged a few more quiet words, then Ally opened the front door and let the other woman out. Ally stood for a moment, then ran a hand through her unkempt hair in an attempt to straighten it, and made her way back to where Evelynne and Sir Arthur were waiting.
"As you can see, the lounge is a bit messy," she explained. "Come on into the kitchen instead."
The princess and her bodyguard were escorted into the large, modern kitchen. Unlike the living room, this room looked nearly untouched, and Evelynne felt a small amount of amusement as she remembered her friend's culinary abilities - or lack thereof. An unopened packet of potato chips sat on the counter, along with an almost empty bottle of soft drink and a couple of used glasses. Ally hurried to place the glasses in the sink while her guests took seats at the kitchen table.
"Would you like tea or… well, tea?" Ally asked. "Sorry, but I don't have any coffee. Oh, and I also have whatever this green fruit drink is, and milk."
"What kind of drink?" Evelynne asked, stalling for time to put her emotions in order.
"Um… I think it's called ilasi fruit. Now, I don't know exactly what ilasi fruit is, but I've found that I like it."
"Oh, that's kind of like… a pineapple, I suppose. But with a tinge of vanilla, and an… indescribable undertaste. I must say I'm a little surprised you like it. Not many people do."
"Well, it is definitely an acquired taste, but I tried it when I was in town a while back and I've found that I like it. Would you like some?"
Evelynne shuddered. "No, thank you. It is one taste I have never acquired. I'll just have milk."
"Sure," Ally said, opening a cupboard to pull out a clean glass. "Would you like anything, Sir Arthur?"
"Thank you, Ishta, but no. In fact, with your permission, I will go and inspect the grounds. I do not wish to intrude on your visit," the Guard replied.
"Oh, okay." Ally almost suggested sending him out with some tea for the Guard detail watching her house from outside, but then remembered that she wasn't supposed to be aware of their presence.
The bodyguard got up and left while Ally filled two glasses with milk, placing one in front of Evelynne as she took her own seat at the table.
"I should apologise," Evelynne said after an awkward moment of silence. "I didn't think that you might have other company. I hope I didn't chase her away."
Ally shook her head. "No, Mila'a had to leave to drive back to the university by this evening. She was actually just visiting her father for a few days in Outremer. I bumped into her a few days ago in the city."
"I see. So are you two… dating?"
Ally looked slightly uncomfortable. "Well, actually -" She was cut off by a knock at the front door, immediately followed by the sound of it opening.
Evelynne was briefly concerned, then realised that with Sir Arthur and another Guard detail outside, the only people who would be allowed into the house were those deemed acceptable by both. Her thoughts were confirmed a few moments later when a grizzled, elderly man arrived in the kitchen doorway.
"Apologies, Ishta," the man said with a heavy accent. "I see car outside and know you have visitor. If you wish I come later."
"No, that's quite alright, Vilet," Ally said. "N'amassa. No problem. In fact, this is -"
"Sophia," Evelynne interrupted, standing to shake the man's hand. "I'm a friend of Ally's."
"Good to meet you, Sophia. I am Vilet. I am cleaner for Ishta Ally."
"And I'm afraid I've given you a bit of work today, Vilet," Ally said apologetically. "As you probably saw, the living room… er, va'wer… is pretty messy."
"N'amassa. Is no problem." He turned to address Evelynne conspiratorially. "I say to Ishta Ally, she need husband and children. They make house messy so I have work. But she does not listen." He sighed theatrically. "No husband. No children. House is clean. I have no work." He brightened. "Sophia, you will help, yes? You will find Ishta Ally a husband?"
His expression was so earnest that Evelynne couldn't help but smile. "Well, I'll see what I can do."
"Bona. Good," Vilet said. "Now I go clean."
"Oh, Vilet," Ally called before he left the room, "you'll also have to set up the guest bedroom again. I had company last night."
"In guest bedroom?" The elderly cleaner tsked. "You do not get husband if they sleep in guest bedroom, Ishta Ally." Still muttering, he started off down the hall to the stairs leading to the second floor.
Evelynne looked at Ally, who blushed. "So that was your cleaner, huh?" She was carefully protecting the spark of hope that had emerged upon hearing that the guest bedroom had been used.
"Yep, that's Vilet," Ally replied. "He's determined to find me a husband."
"Does he know you're… you know, gay?"
"Oh yes. It's just that in his mind, if I marry anyone, because I'm a woman I'll automatically be a wife. Ergo, my spouse must be my husband, regardless of actual gender. In Vilet's world there are no such things as 'wife and wife' or 'husband and husband'. Only a husband and wife are actually married."
"I see. I must admit it makes sense… in a weird sort of way." The princess paused. "So how close is Mila'a to becoming your 'husband'? No, never mind, it's none of my business."
"That's okay. The answer is: not very close."
"So you're not seeing each other? Romantically, I mean."
"Well… we've gone out a couple of times. And, of course, she stayed here last night. In her own room," Ally hastened to add. "But there isn't really a… spark, if you know what I mean. I mean, I like her, and I think she likes me, but at the moment there isn't really anything more. Part of it is probably because we both know that it would be really hard to start something right now, since she's really busy with her school. We'd probably only be able to see each other every few weeks. And I know I'm certainly not the kind of person to engage in… casual sex." She blushed furiously again. "I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have minded last night, but she knew not to push."
"Well, that's good," Evelynne commented. Inside she was jumping for joy.
"Yeah. We've sort of agreed that when she's finished her university and if we're both still single we'll see what happens. Knowing me, I'll probably still be single, but as for her…" She shrugged.
"Oh, you never know," Evelynne protested. "Someone could just be waiting to sweep you off your feet."
To be continued in Chapter 17