Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
"There is no one who can return from there,
To describe their nature, to describe their dissolution,
That he may still our desires,
Until we reach the place where they have gone.
Remember: it is not given to man to take his goods with him.
No one goes away and then comes back."
- Egyptian writings, The Song of the Harper, c. 2650-2600 BC
Evelynne walked down the hallway of the Royal Palace in Jamaz with a deep scowl on her face. "K'kela'i," she swore. "Bastards."
A passing servant looked up in surprise, saw the princess' bad mood, and hurried away before her displeasure could spill over onto an innocent bystander. Her Highness had a reputation for even temper and friendliness towards even the lowest servant, but she was still the Heir, and it behoved lesser mortals to treat her with care.
The princess frowned again looked once more at the newspaper - as if the rag could claim that title - in her hands which was the source of her displeasure. Unfortunately, its headline had not changed since the last time she had glared at it, and the words "DYKE KNIGHT" screamed at her in large font across the top of the front page. What followed was a story - an apt word, as it was largely a work of fiction - digging into Ally's past with a complete lack of decorum. If anyone were to take the article seriously, the young woman in question was the greatest sexual deviant since Caligula. The writer had been careful to put things in terms of innuendo, with no statements which could be attacked as libellous, but a few actual quotes from Annie - the only actual lover Ally had ever had - taken obviously out of context gave the story a sense of false authenticity. Ally's supposed relationship with the princess was also spared no scrutiny - if only of a highly imaginative kind.
Evelynne swore again, then sighed and tried to relax. Fortunately, the paper was one of Britain's more sensational publications, with little solid reputation amongst serious journalists, but it was only one symptom of the larger problem. A number of more reputable journals throughout Europe, America, and even Canada and Atlantl had taken Ally's sexuality as a central focus of their stories, if slightly less sensationally. Instead of concentrating more fully on her actual achievements and personality, they had taken this one topic and discussed it to exhaustion. It had not helped that numerous gay rights groups had seized on her as a kind of symbol.
When Ally had learned of the articles, she had shrugged and tried to ignore it, but Evelynne knew she was hurt and embarrassed by the attention being paid to something she considered one of the most private and intimate aspects of her life. Since then Evelynne had tried to avoid bringing the more offensive stories to her friend's attention. Fortunately, there were enough articles which mentioned Ally's orientation only as a passing fact to lend some balance.
It had only become worse in the last week leading up to Ally's knighting itself. And today, with the actual ceremony taking place tomorrow, the Canadian and Atlantlan newspapers were speaking of little else. It had even temporarily eclipsed the debacle taking place with the American Presidential election.
Evelynne sighed again. Oh, well. There's nothing I can do about it now anyway, she thought. In a few days things would hopefully calm down a bit, and she would speak to her newly elected Advisors about obtaining some subtle revenge over the worst of the offenders. So far Mary Ogden, her Public Relations Advisor, had displayed a wicked deviousness in dealing with members of the press, and actually seemed to enjoy putting one over on them. It boded well for the future working relationship between the princess and her Advisor.
Of course, not all of her Advisors were so compatible. Admiral Kama Dessin, the princess' Military Advisor, was probably the worst, and their meetings so far had been strained. Fortunately, like all her Advisors, the Admiral was a consummate professional, and efficiency was the most important aspect of their relationship. Personal friendship ideally came second.
Suddenly Evelynne stopped, realising that her musings had deposited her at the door to Ally's room. Noticing that she was still carrying the offending newspaper, she looked around for a place to put it, and finally slipped it behind a large potted plant nearby in the corridor. As she had decided before, there was nothing to be done about it now, and the last thing Ally needed was another detail to make her more nervous.
Smoothing her hands over her formal blue tunic and trousers, Evelynne reached up and knocked on the door.
The princess opened the door to reveal Ally sitting in a chair before a mirror, while Maïda put the finishing touches on her hair. It was much simpler than the elegant style she had worn to the banquet, but since she would have no chance to fix it for the next twelve hours, the lady-in-waiting had insisted on doing something to at least keep it in place.
"Your Highness," Maïda greeted, not stopping in her task. "You are just in time. I will be done just about… now." With a final brush, she stepped back, satisfied.
Ally turned her head back and forth in the mirror, examining the result. It was fairly simple, dropping straight down the sides of her face, and its natural slight wave gave it volume. The back of her neck was clear, and Maïda had promised she would be glad of the exposure before the night was over. Nodding to herself, Ally stood and shot Evelynne a grin in greeting. "Hey, Evelynne," she said. "I didn't think I'd see you before we got started. Are you sure you're allowed to see me?"
Evelynne smiled back. "I'm knighting you, Ally, not marrying you." She laughed when Ally flushed slightly, then looked her friend up and down. "You look good," the princess declared.
Ally laughed self-deprecatingly. "I'm dressed in grey pyjamas," she protested mildly. "It's not exactly the height of fashion."
"They're not pyjamas, they're penitent's clothes. Besides, you make anything look good."
Ally flushed again. Evelynne had been doing that a lot lately; compliments, gifts and casual touches came frequently. At first she had almost panicked, thinking that her friend might be flirting with her, but had then firmly squashed the hope that arose and decided that it was simply part of Evelynne's outgoing personality. So she had relaxed, and had begun to hesitantly return the favours.
"No, I'm wearing grey pyjamas," Ally insisted playfully. "You're the one who looks… elegant."
"You both look beautiful," Maïda interjected firmly. "And I am older than both of you put together, so don't argue."
"Yes, Maïda," both young women said meekly.
The ensuing laughter was cut off by another knock on the door. Maïda moved to open it and blushed when Sir Arthur appeared on the other side. The Guard controlled himself better and said formally, "My Lady." He turned his attention to the avidly watching young women. "Your Highness. Ishta Tretiak. It is time to go."
Ally took in a deep breath and let it out shakily. Evelynne took her hands and looked up into her friend's eyes. "You'll be fine," she said confidently.
"I will. Although… you don't suppose we could just go back to the Summer Palace and play Fidchell in front of a warm fire, do you? I'd let you win."
The princess laughed. "I always win anyway. Now go. Tomorrow we can play to our hearts content." She gave Ally a little push in Sir Arthur's direction. "I'll come by and see you later on."
"You don't have to," Ally protested. "It's going to be late."
"I know I don't have to. I want to." Evelynne hesitated, then wrapped Ally in a fierce hug before pulling her down for a lingering kiss on the cheek, ignoring the other people present. "You'll be fine," she whispered again. "I believe in you."
Ally looked around the chapel to which Sir Arthur had led her. It was actually an ecumenical place of worship located near the back of the Royal Palace. In their attempt to make the hall into a place of reflection, meditation and prayer acceptable to people from all religions, its decorators had stuck to only geometrical shapes and designs. On that vein they had obviously been given free reign, however, as the chapel was covered from top to bottom in both simple and complex patterns. Incredibly intricate mandala-like drawings shared space with the most basic geometric shapes: squares, circles, triangles. The entire back wall, on the other hand, was painted a pure and brilliant white, with the result that even amongst the riot of form and colour there remained an area of calm; a place to rest the mind.
Finishing her inspection, Ally turned back to Sir Arthur. "It's an… interesting room," she said.
"Indeed." The Guard bestowed a gruff smile. "There is a bathroom through there if you need it," he continued, pointing to an almost invisible door in the right wall. "You may select any area of the room, and move about freely. The only injunction is that you remain reasonably silent. If you meditate by chanting, please keep it within a reasonable volume."
"Not a problem. Anything else?"
"Not at this time. I will check in on you from time to time." Sir Arthur bowed. "Ishta Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, may your musings be enlightening," he pronounced formally.
Ally bowed back slightly awkwardly, given her cane, but acceptably, and he turned to take up his appointed position by the door. As her Nominator, the experienced knight was supposed to guard Ally while she meditated on her own soul and worthiness to become a knight herself. The vigil would last no less than twelve hours, until dawn the next morning, and theoretically the candidate was forbidden from sleeping, though Ally had been assured that unless she actually started snoring nobody would say anything.
Trying to ignore Sir Arthur's presence, the young woman moved further into the room. A large cushion was set in front of the altar at the far end, and she decided it was as good a place as any to sit for the time being. Carefully lowering herself to the ground, Ally crossed her legs and set her cane within reach beside her. Then she let out a heavy sigh and tried to calm herself and lessen the tension over what was going to happen the next day. Well, I have all night to rest and relax, she thought. On the other hand, I have all night to fret and worry, also! Hmm. Kind of a toss-up.
With a mental chuckle, she decided to just make the most of the time alone. She was supposed to be meditating, so she thought that might be a good place to start. Taking a deep breath, Ally closed her eyes and consciously focussed on physically relaxing her tense muscles. Her back ached mildly, but she concentrated on lessening and managing the pain, and it quickly vanished from her conscious mind.
As loose as she was going to get right now, Ally took quick stock of herself and nodded, pleased by the results. Even with this shallow introspection, she could tell that much of the tension and near claustrophobia she had been feeling two months ago was gone. The retreat from public scrutiny had been the best thing she could have done at the time. Though she had missed Evelynne, the rest had done her a world of good.
Putting thoughts of the princess, and their attendant worries, from her mind for the moment, Ally next focussed her will, extending her perceptions outward. She did not try for full vision of the area, settling for reading the subtle fluxes of energy that permeated the area. Sir Arthur was the most prominent, of course, and as Ally watched his mind settled into a light meditative state of its own. She wasn't surprised. If he was going to stay up with her all night, he would need all the help he could get. With the knight's presence burning brightly in her mind, Ally didn't extend her mind outward more, but focussed more closely on the immediate vicinity. Slowly the lesser life forms were brought into focus. In various corners, spiders who had escaped the cleaners pulsed softly with a life of their own. A small colony of ants bustled within a wall, and the floor under the altar was home to at least six mice. Actually… no, one of those was in reality a group of baby mice, bundled together so closely that their bright life forces seemed to merge. Pushing for a bit more resolution, Ally could feel the strain beginning to build in her mental workings. She was actually very pleased. She was rarely able to attain this level of clarity, and as she worked, she slipped down another level, and the world became truly alive. The bright auras of the animals seemed to grow, Sir Arthur becoming a brilliant beacon. On a lower level, the very air came alive with the tiny lives of uncounted bacteria, and the solid objects were fairly coated with minute insects and mites. The two potted plants in the room were subtly but distinctly different, their vegetative life forces no less alive, but unquestionably alien to the animal lives in the room. Ally could even see a fungal infection afflicting one of them, and marvelled that in spite of the disease, the fungus was as alive as anything else was.
She spent several long minutes simply revelling in the interplay of forces around her. Then, with a mental sigh of resignation, she slowly released the strain that was building, and regretfully allowed her perceptions to contract back into their more normal range. There were a few moments of confusion as her mind readjusted to its regular parameters. I have never gone that far before. I have to try that again. But not right now, Ally concluded, registering the protests of her normal senses. I need to get used to it first.
Sitting back more comfortably, she spent the next while just allowing her mind to drift, letting it process the experience it had just perceived. After a time, when she had regained her mental equilibrium, Ally reigned it back in with practised ease. I'm supposed to be examining my soul tonight. That's something else I haven't done in… too long.
This time, before slipping into the trance, Ally arranged her hands into the mudra position of Yun Yin: raising her right hand in front of her body, she let the thumb touch the tips of both her ring and little fingers, while extending the first and second fingers touching each other. When she was sure that she had the position locked into place, she concentrated on the flow of energy through her body. Her breath came slower and slower as she slipped into a deep trance.
Evelynne opened the door as quietly as possible and slipped silently into the chapel. Sir Arthur turned to identify the intruder and smiled in greeting when he saw who it was.
The princess looked around the room and saw her friend sitting cross-legged on the floor near the altar. It was after midnight, and Ally was well into the fifth hour of her vigil. The young woman was sitting upright facing away from the door, and if it wasn't for a hand Evelynne could see loosely held in front of her body, the princess might have thought she was sleeping. Still, she didn't stir as Evelynne came into the room.
On near silent feet, Evelynne moved closer to her bodyguard and whispered, "How is it going? Is she doing okay?"
"I believe so," Sir Arthur whispered back. "Although she has been like that for almost four hours. I checked, and she does not seem to be asleep. She hasn't responded, though. You're welcome to try if you wish."
Nodding at him, Evelynne walked quietly to where Ally was seated on the floor. Coming to her front, the princess saw that Ally's eyes were closed, and her breath was coming slowly and evenly. Her hand was held in front of her in an odd position which reminded the princess of the meditation technique she had demonstrated before.
"Ally?" she whispered softly. If her friend was indeed meditating, or even if she was asleep, she did not want to disturb her. There was no response, not even a twitch, and Evelynne nodded before silently sitting down on the floor next to her friend. Encouraged by Ally's apparent oblivious sense of the external world, she took the opportunity to study the calm features before her.
One thing that she noticed was that Ally's eyes were not moving under her eyelids. Whatever state she was in, it was not REM sleep. From the eyes Evelynne's gaze moved to the rest of Ally's face, completely calm and relaxed. It was a rarity to see such a lack of expression, and the princess had only seen it before when she managed to catch her friend asleep. Unlike the cliché, Ally did not really look younger when she was sleeping. Instead, her face took on an ageless quality, as though she was a marble statue carved by some ancient Greek master. It wasn't the cold of stone, however, but still possessed an incredible vitality, as if a sun was hidden just under the shield of her skin.
Looking on, Evelynne recalled some of Ally's previous expressions. While the other woman was almost always calm and collected, Evelynne had learned to read the subtle changes in her face and posture. Prior to Ally's moving into her new home she had been strained and pale, as if the pressure had been eating her away from within. Which it was, Evelynne mused guiltily. I can't believe I didn't see it then. Actually, that's not true. I did see it, but I just didn't want her to leave. If she hadn't insisted, she'd probably still be there… putting a brave face on everything like she always does. The princess had to admit, though reluctantly, that the time in seclusion had done wonders for Ally's state of mind. Right now there was almost no trace of her earlier strain. Earlier in the evening she had been understandably nervous, but she had obviously used the time to replenish her reserves.
Relaxed, Ally was even more beautiful than Evelynne had remembered. There was a softness there that often turned to wariness in the presence of strangers. Like this, she looked appealingly vulnerable. Although… Evelynne slowly became aware as she watched that in spite of her friend's relaxed and open posture, there was still an undercurrent of strength and power running through her. Suddenly Evelynne became certain that if any danger threatened, Ally would be up and reacting before it was even though the door.
It was an unsettling dichotomy, and the princess became a little uncomfortable, uncertain of just how conscious Ally was of her staring. Standing, she hesitated briefly, then bent down to whisper in Ally's ear. "I believe in you." It wasn't exactly what she wanted to say, but in the circumstances she thought it was enough.
There was no reaction to her statement, and Evelynne spent another moment watching her friend, then turned and quietly made her way out of the room.
Ally floated deep within her own mind, nearly completely unaware of her mere physical surroundings. She was vaguely conscious of a presence nearby, someone very important, but there was no urgency or danger coming from the source. Rather, it was warm, and friendly, and… loving. It did not stay long, moving away after a few minutes, and Ally felt a muted pang as she felt it go. Still, it seemed to leave behind some kind of echo, as though part of it had stayed.
Once she was sure the presence had left, Ally turned her attention inward again. She looked out over the landscape of her own mind, perceiving it in ways that there were simply no words for. She knew that once she arose from her trance, the specific memories of her experiences here would fade like dreams, converted into a more symbolic form by a consciousness lacking the facility to comprehend what was happening completely. For now, though, her perceptions were clear and understandable, as simple and natural as seeing.
As she inspected her mind, Ally became aware that it had changed since she had last gone this far into a meditative state. That had been… over a year ago. I really should have done this sooner. The basic structure had changed little. A year's worth of memories and experiences had been added, and a few had vanished, victims of time. The thought-forms of her abilities were easily found, and responded with varying degrees of alacrity when she stimulated them softly, not enough to activate them. A couple had apparently merged with the more mundane sections of her mind. Hmm. I wonder if that means they're more natural now, like walking and talking. I know that some things I hardly even have to concentrate on any more.
Satisfied that those parts were healthy, and even thriving, she moved on to others. Not all of the experiences of the last year had been good ones. She saw the mental and emotional wound of her break up with Annie. It was well healed, however. Linked with it now were memories of happy times and love, and also a feeling of genuine friendship and affection. Ally was pleased. I love you, Annie.
Moving back, Ally became aware of another emotional scar. Disturbed, she examined it closer. It was deep within memories of the past, and she suddenly recognised the traumatic experience which spawned her panic attacks. It had previously been buried under shields of logic and willpower, carefully protected from exposure. Those shields had not always held in the past, but the ones Ally examined now were somehow weaker, more brittle.
Not quite sure how she was doing it, Ally reached out and touched the unhealed wound.
Suddenly she was back in that grade six body, watching the taunts and laughter, feeling the cruel amusement and contempt. With a wrench, she pulled herself out of the memory, nearly losing the trance. For an unknown length of time she worked on slowing her breathing and heart rate and calming the now-restless surface of her mind. Finally she was calm once more.
What the hell happened there? I've never been able to do that deliberately before. Tentatively, Ally reached for another area of memory, and she was suddenly listening and seeing with perfect clarity as Evelynne explained the rules to Fidchell to her. She reflexively tried to speak to her friend, but found herself unable to move. Of course, it's only a memory. Removing herself, she marvelled briefly at the new ability.
Then she paused. This development didn't seem to have anything to do with why the shield over the trauma had been breached. Examining more closely, she became aware that other areas were affected too, as though a virus had spread within her mind. It did not seem malignant, though. On the contrary, it was strong, and bright, and… familiar somehow.
And then she saw it. Ally was surprised that she hadn't seen it before, but in the unconventional dimensions of her mind it was almost on another plane. A link, gossamer and strong as spider's silk, ran through all her protections to anchor itself deep in some primordial realm of thought. And it was coming from outside.
Hesitantly, reverently, Ally reached out and touched the link, and instantly knew its source.
For a brief instant, Ally nearly panicked, thinking that somehow the princess had deliberately entered her mind. It was possible, she knew, for a suitably gifted person to do so, though doing it without the subject's knowledge and consent was hellishly difficult. Immediately, though, the suspicion faded. Evelynne would never do such a thing, and besides, the link was recognisably an unintentional creation.
And it went two ways. Now that she knew what to look for, Ally could see part of her own mind pushing outward in the fathomless direction of Evelynne's mind. Ally was tempted to follow, to see what she found at the other end, but restrained herself. Not now. I need to figure out what's going on first. I also don't know how long it will take. Or what time it is right now, for that matter. Perceptions of time were different in this internal realm. Minutes could seem like hours and vice versa.
As she reluctantly began the journey up to a more conventional state of consciousness, Ally knew that she would definitely have to re-evaluate her relationship with Evelynne as soon as possible.
Evelynne watched as the great doors at the far end of the Royal Throne Room swung majestically open. She was sitting on her throne upon the stepped dais at the head of the chamber, just below and to the right of the other two thrones, which were occupied by King Jad and Queen Cleo. Both were dressed in their full formal attire, as was the Heir, crowns of state upon their brown. This huge chamber had been the official ceremonial site of the al-Heru/deMolay Monarchy for over five hundred years, and it fairly reeked of decorum. Large stone pillars supported the arched roof, and the walls were hung with the personal blazons of every noble and knight to ever serve the Kings and Queens of Atlantl.
Today another would be added. This one, though, would share a certain characteristic with only two others out of the hundreds lining the walls, and the princess suppressed a surge of nervousness at the thought of the controversy which would certainly erupt from it. She was faintly surprised that it had not leaked out sooner, but those who had actually constructed, engraved, and embroidered the blazon in question had obviously taken their oaths of secrecy very seriously. Too late now, Evelynne thought. Although she would not have changed it if she could have. Words spoken five months ago in absolute privacy would finally be revealed to the world.
The princess was shaken out of her musings by the murmur that arose from the crowd of nobles and guests who had assembled at this hour just after dawn to witness the proceedings. Discreetly placed television cameras promised to record the events for posterity.
The young woman they were all waiting for walked slowly and solemnly through the doors. She was trailed by her Nominator in full regalia, his immaculate tabard proudly displaying the red cross on white background of the Order of the Temple of Jerusalem. Sir Arthur's sheathed sword was held stiffly across his wide body. His feet kept perfect step with his Candidate's pace.
Ally was dressed much more plainly in the simple loose grey tunic and trousers of a suitably humble Candidate. Her feet were bare. A virgin Candidate would have worn white, just as only a virgin bride should, but Ally had blushingly but firmly declined. In her own opinion, she was hardly a virgin, and though Evelynne had felt a pang of jealousy, the princess had acquiesced without demur.
As Ally walked slowly closer, Evelynne wondered how her friend was bearing up under the intense scrutiny of the onlookers. Then she looked more closely and almost gasped aloud.
The hesitant, shy Ally was gone. In her place walked a woman of immense grace and poise. Dignity and power seemed to roll off her in waves, and her feet hardly seemed to be touching the ground. Even her glasses gave her a wise and powerful look. Evelynne could only stare as the proud form of her friend came closer. Isis, Ally, she thought. What in the Duat did you do last night? Sometime during the night Evelynne could have sworn she heard Ally say something to her, and had found herself going back to the chapel to see if she was okay. However, the other woman didn't appear to have moved in the intervening period.
For her part, Ally felt like a changed woman. She felt no discomfort from the watching crowd. Instead she thought, Okay, you want to see me? Here I am. I am as good as any of you. She could feel a thread of power running through her, and could not truly tell if she was controlling it, or if it was controlling her. Either way, it seemed to be having some effect, as even the hostile faces in the crowd - and there were a few - appeared impressed. She had no idea how long it would last, and knew she would revert to her old self eventually, but while it lasted she was going to enjoy it.
Ally looked up and saw Evelynne seated on her throne at the other end of the chamber. Now that she knew it was there, she could feel the connection between them clearly. Even if you never love me, Evelynne, we will always be connected.
Finally, the long walk ended, and Ally stopped before the dais, catching a glimpse of her parents, Chorus, and a few other family members nearby. Dropping to one knee, she bowed her head.
On cue, King Jad and Queen Cleo both rose. "Good Knight, who do you bring before us?" the King asked, his voice carrying clearly across the room.
"Your Majesty, I bring before you Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, daughter of Catherine and William Tretiak, of the Dominion of Canada."
"And for what purpose do you bring this woman before us?" Queen Cleo asked.
"Your Majesty, so that she might be considered by your august selves to be raised to the spur of knighthood."
"And what deeds has she performed, that she might be worthy of this honour?" asked the King.
"Your Majesty, when the Heir to our Kingdom was set upon by cruel and cowardly foes, who did seek to end her life unjustly, Alleandre Tretiak did set her own self betwixt the Heir and her enemies. Alleandre Tretiak was sorely wounded, and spent days near to death. She was no subject of yours, yet she did act as a great and noble warrior in your service."
The Monarchs nodded gravely. "Is there a Noble of the Land who will vouch for the honour of Alleandre Tretiak, and Sponsor her, and be as Lord or Lady unto her?"
Evelynne stood. "Your Majesty, I, Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay, Crown Princess and Heir to the Throne of Atlantl, a Noble of the Land, gladly Sponsor Alleandre Tretiak. For it was mine own life she saved, and I can well vouch for her honour and courage."
King Jad spoke to Ally. "Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, you have been Nominated to the spur by the goodly Knight Sir Arthur Ramirez. Her Royal Highness Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay has Sponsored you. Are these goodly persons acceptable in your eyes?"
Ally's voice was clear. "Your Majesty, I would be honoured to be Nominated by Sir Arthur and Her Highness Evelynne deMolay."
"Is there any goodly man or woman of the Land who does know some reason why Alleandre Tretiak should not receive this honour?" This time the King addressed the assembled crowd. There was no response.
"Then we hereby find you worthy of the spur of knighthood, Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak." At a gesture from the King, a servant stepped forward bearing a sheathed sword, which the King took. Together the King and Queen descended the steps of the dais, gathering the princess as they went. At the bottom, Sir Arthur bowed and stepped back, leaving Ally alone before the dais. King Jad turned and formally presented the sword to Evelynne.
It was not a broadsword of the European style, but more closely resembled a Japanese katana, curved and sharp only along one edge, but the blade flared out, so that it was wider at the tip than the base. The pommel and scabbard were decorated in a style distinctly reminiscent of both Mayan and ancient Egyptian art.
Evelynne stood with the sword resting on her open palms, and Ally reached up to touch it.
"Alleandre Tretiak, do you swear to obey and uphold the Laws of the Kingdom of Atlantl and the Ithikan Compact?"
"Do you pledge allegiance and loyalty to the lawful Rulers of the Kingdom of Atlantl?"
"Insofar as my allegiance and loyalty to the Dominion of Canada and the leaders and rulers thereof allow, I do."
There was some muttering at the response, but it was generally accepted.
"Do you accept myself, Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay, as your overlord, and swear to obey my lawful commands, and submit to my justice?"
This time Ally swallowed before she replied, but still spoke clearly, "I do."
"Do you swear to uphold the good, to protect the innocent, to be charitable, and to work for the good of Atlantl and her people?"
"Then I, Evelynne deMolay, do take you as my subject. I swear to abide by the Laws of the Land and the Ithikan Compact in my dealings with you. I offer my shield and my justice in your defence against your enemies. Should you be hungry, I will feed you. Should you need shelter, I will provide it.
"I also find you worthy of the spur of knighthood." Evelynne touched Ally on each shoulder with the sword. "Therefore, rise, Dame Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak, and receive the honours which are your due."
Smiling, Ally rose to her feet. Evelynne grinned back, and took her new subject's face in her hands to press a kiss on both cheeks. If they were slightly more lingering than was customary, nobody else noticed.
Then more servants came forward. They were carrying what looked like a very heavy white robe. In reality, the robe was covering a long tabard, which hung nearly to the floor. Special seams made it very easy to slip on, and it was utterly impractical for anything but this ceremony, but it would be modified later for more general use. Soft shoes, complete with spurs, were brought forth, and Evelynne herself placed them on Ally's feet. Then she stood once more, and Ally turned to face the hall.
"My Lords and Ladies, Dame Alleandre Tretiak!" Evelynne shouted.
As the gathered people cheered - and Ally's parents cried - the princess slipped the white robe off Ally's shoulders, displaying her blazon for the first time. Simultaneously, a banner bearing her new coat of arms unfurled above their heads. It would be moved to an appropriate position along the side of the hall later, but for now it hung where everyone could see it.
The crowd reflexively cheered and applauded as the banner was revealed. Suddenly, though, they stopped, to be replaced by a near unanimous indrawn breath and then a silence broken only by urgent mutters. For the first time since the ceremony began, Ally felt her composure begin to crack, as shock, confusion, and in some cases disapproval flowed off the gathering in waves. She felt Evelynne stiffen beside her, and a quick glance showed that the princess had drawn herself up proudly and defiantly. She wished she could ask what was happening, but settled for examining her new coat of arms out of the corner of her eye.
Ally was no expert on heraldry, but what she saw was a field of green in the top three-quarters, while the bottom pie-shaped quarter was a rich purple. A silver triangle projected from the right and left sides toward the middle. Facing each other on the green background were two black catlike animals, possibly lions, though they were lacking manes. In the middle of the purple slice rested a red maple leaf. It was all probably very symbolic and meaningful, but Ally had only read a single, albeit large, book on the subject, and so the bulk of the meaning passed her by.
Even as she thought that, it was suddenly as if she had the book in front of her, waiting to be referenced. Startled, Ally "paged" through the volume, almost able to see the pages. She "stopped" when she saw a picture of the two beasts, accompanied by a caption:
Panther: As a lion may be said to signify a brave man, so may a panther a beautiful woman, which, though fierce, is very tender and loving to her young, and will defend it with the hazard of her life.
Ally felt somewhat dazed. I've never been able to do that before, she thought. Did someone stick a computer in my head when I wasn't looking?
Shaking herself back to the present, she realised that the crowd's muttered conversations had not ceased, and looked back at the coat of arms to try to detect the source of their consternation. Despite the knowledge that seemed lodged in her head, Ally could not see what was so unusual. Except… the base of the shield rested on a crown that was an almost exact replica of the princess', and as she looked around, Ally could see that all of the other blazons around the room - the ones she could see, at any rate - had crowns placed above the shield. She had no time to consult the new encyclopaedia in her head as to its meaning, and instead whispered to Evelynne, "What's going on?"
The princess smiled an apology, then raised her hands for silence. Slowly the assembled nobles quieted, and now Ally could see that even the King and Queen looked shocked.
Once she was sure of the people's attention, Evelynne spoke. "My Lords and Ladies, I understand your surprise. It has been two hundred years since this circumstance was last existant among us. However, it is neither a mistake, nor a hasty decision. Five months ago, while in the French hospital, I realised that this admirable young woman had saved my life, nearly losing her own in the process. In that realisation, I felt the urge to declare Viamadi, and so I spoke the Words with intent in my heart." There was dead silence now. "Do not blame Dame Alleandre. Had I not revealed it now, she would still have no knowledge, and I could have ignored the Debt indefinitely. However, my own honour would not allow me to do so, and I therefore chose to reveal the Debt, so that all may know." She indicated the blazon. "None can now deny that my crown supports Dame Alleandre in all things, even to the extent of my life." Evelynne turned and addressed Ally, and her voice, though quieter, still rang clearly throughout the Throne Room. "I am bound to Dame Alleandre Tretiak by Life Debt. She saved my life, and it now belongs to her to do with as she pleases." Now finished, the princess sunk down on one knee and bowed her head.
Ally looked down in complete shock. "What are you doing?" she hissed.
"My life is yours," Evelynne said quietly.
Ally shot a glance at the assembled nobles, who were watching with their collective breaths held. She looked to her parents, but they appeared as confused as she was. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Whatever you like," the princess replied, still not raising her head. "Right now you could cut off my head and nobody would raise a hand against you." She paused. "I hope you don't. I'm rather attached to it."
The attempt at humour flew right over Ally's head. She thought furiously. Damnit, I'm not good at this kind of thing! she wailed internally. I'm not supposed to have my friends offering to let me kill them! She hesitated. My friends…
Reaching down, Ally took Evelynne's hands and helped her back to her feet. "My friends don't kneel in front of me," she said, making sure her voice carried. "Especially not you."
A collective sigh emanated from the people in the hall, and they started to clap, as Evelynne allowed herself to be helped up. The princess' eyes were suspiciously bright. She reached out and gathered Ally into a strong hug, and despite the watching eyes, Ally let her.
"Don't you ever do that to me again," Ally whispered.
Evelynne just smiled, and turned to escort her friend to the masses waiting to congratulate her, beginning with her parents.
Much later in the evening, Evelynne escorted the new knight back to the quarters she had been assigned for the length of her stay at the Royal Palace. Ally had changed from the oversized tabard into a more comfortable, but still formal, set of pants and tunic. She kept reaching up to touch the blazon embroidered on the front, still unable to believe it was there. Evelynne just smiled in contentment.
They reached the door to Ally's suite and walked into the sitting room. The suite was arranged in a similar layout to the one at the Summer Palace, though the décor was significantly more subdued. The two young women moved as one to a long couch, and Ally sank down into it with a sigh of relief. "Remind me not to do this again, huh?"
"I thought you were having a good time at the reception," Evelynne replied.
"Oh, I was. It helps when you have people there that you know. I also haven't seen my grandmother in ages."
"Well, Chorus was certainly happy to see you again. Did he tell you he's going to be taking a job with Domdom as an assistant? You should see him more now."
"He told me. Gee, Chorus actually working. Will wonders never cease?"
Evelynne laughed. "And of course your parents were very proud. You know, I've never been able to picture 'button-bursting pride' before, but I think your Dad nearly took out Count Simpson's eye!"
"That was funny. Of course, having a Count Bartholomew Simpson is even funnier."
"I know. It's a good thing he has such a good sense of honour. Not to mention that his sister is Lady Elisabeth Simpson."
"Oh dear. Bart and Lisa Simpson? Please tell me their father isn't Homer."
"Alas, no." After a few more minutes of laughter, Evelynne said, "I had an interesting conversation with your grandmother. I don't think she likes me."
"Don't take it personally. She doesn't really know you. But don't worry, she told me she'll pray for your entire family. She already prays for me. I'm going to hell, you see."
Evelynne was startled. "Why, because you're gay?"
"Surprisingly no, although it doesn't help. I'm already damned because I haven't taken the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour. Until I rectify that little oversight Grandma isn't going to bother with minor things like homosexuality."
"Oh." Evelynne watched as Ally yawned widely. "You look tired."
"Ugh, I know. I'm really not looking forward to this visit to Canada next week."
"I know, but you really need to be seen there. So just go, sit back, relax, and let everyone make a fuss over you."
Ally sighed. "I guess so. I just don't want there to be any more surprises." She cast a pointed glance at her companion. "Like what happened today. Why didn't you tell me about that Life Debt thing?"
"I wanted to," Evelynne admitted, not looking her friend in the eye. "But I could never find the right time. It really isn't something you bring up in casual conversation. Have you ever had something you wanted to say, but were too afraid to say it?"
That brought Ally up short. You have no idea. "Yes." Cursing herself for her cowardice, she hurried on. "So what does this Life Debt entail, exactly?"
"Well, it basically allows you to do anything you want to me. Theoretically, if you were to abuse me, I could at some point declare the Debt fulfilled. But I know you wouldn't do anything like that."
"No, I wouldn't." Ally thought for a moment. "So, for example, if I wanted you to wear a French maid's outfit and bring me wine and grapes, you would?" Her eyes twinkled.
Evelynne flushed severely. You don't need a Life Debt to get me to do that, she thought. Aloud, she said, "Well, um… yes. If you really wanted me to." She hesitated. "You… don't really want me to, do you?"
Yes. "No." Damn it. "What I would like, though, is a bit of help getting out of this get-up." She indicated her formal attire. "Part of it's fastened at the back, and right now I'm too stiff to reach it. After that I need to get some sleep."
Evelynne nodded and stood. She held out a hand to her friend. "Come on, then. Let's do this in the bedroom, so you don't have as far to go."
Ally took the proffered hand and gratefully let herself be helped to her feet. The princess didn't drop her hand as they made their way to the bedroom. Once there, Evelynne made her turn around and worked on unfastening the tabard. When it was lifted off Ally's shoulders she sighed in relief.
"God, that thing is heavy." She rotated her shoulders, pleased when the right one didn't protest with more than a mild twinge.
"Oh?" Evelynne asked, draping the tabard over a nearby chair. "I think you're getting soft." She poked Ally in the side, and was fascinated by the squeak which emerged. "Or maybe you're ticklish."
"No, I'm not," Ally said firmly, moving away from the offending finger. "I'm just tired."
"Really? So you get ticklish when you're tired?" Another poke, another squeak.
"So you are ticklish." Poke, squeak.
"No, I'm…" Ally saw Evelynne's flexing fingers and the evil grin on her lips. "You wouldn't."
"Wrong!" Evelynne pounced on the other woman, sending them both tumbling onto the bed. The princess' agile fingers, well trained from years of practice with her brother, quickly found their way to each and every one of Ally's ticklish spots.
Ally tried to fend off the seeking hands, but her reactions were delayed by the suddenness of the attack. A reflexive part of her wanted to push the princess away with her abilities, but even if Ally's conscious mind had wanted to, it was unlikely she would have been able to concentrate enough.
Finally, Evelynne gave in to Ally's pleas for mercy, and stilled her fingers. The taller woman lay sprawled bonelessly on the bed, her head propped up on the pillows at the end, completely exhausted. Evelynne now lay quietly next to her, her head resting on Ally's shoulder.
It was peaceful, and each woman simply enjoyed the other's proximity.
"I love you," Evelynne said softly, then clamped her mouth shut. She hadn't meant to say anything, especially not that, but the words had bubbled up and escaped before she could stop them. The body beside her tensed, and her own tightened as well, uncertain of the response.
After several long seconds - hours, Evelynne's mind insisted - the tension in Ally's body lessened slightly. "I love you, too."
Nothing more was said, and the two women just lay there, letting themselves come to terms with this new development. As they relaxed more, Evelynne became aware that Ally's arm had wrapped itself around her shoulders, and a tentative hand was softly stroking her back.
Responding to the touch, Evelynne shifted closer, then hesitantly lifted her head to look into Ally's face. There was nervousness, bordering on outright fear, in Ally's eyes behind her glasses, and a vulnerability that tugged at Evelynne's emotions. Slowly raising herself on her elbow, the princess carefully shifted upward, ready to retreat at any sign that this was too much. There was no such sign, and as she got closer, Evelynne could see the love and longing behind the nervousness.
Slowly, she kept moving, and was aware of Ally slowly lifting her head to meet her, and then their lips softly brushed. It was a brief, hesitant contact, and Evelynne pulled back slightly to see that the fear had nearly dissipated, leaving behind love and a slow burning desire that sent a shiver down her spine. She reached out with her free hand and carefully removed Ally's glasses, setting them at arm's length away on the bed. Then she brought their lips back together in a more solid kiss.
They remained that way for several minutes, and Evelynne felt one of Ally's hands pressed against her back, while the other gently cupped the back of her head, encouraging her responses. Her own hand had found Ally's waist, and was pulling them closer together. The princess was hardly an experienced kisser, but Ally certainly knew what she was doing, and responded ardently to her experiments. When she felt the soft touch of a tongue against her lips, Evelynne's entire universe narrowed to the woman beneath her.
Finally, they broke apart, and with a few more brief pecks, Evelynne reclaimed her position with her head resting on Ally's shoulder. They lay in silence for several minutes.
"This is going to be hard, isn't it?" Ally whispered, her words resounding through her chest to Evelynne's ear.
"Yes," the princess whispered back. She raised her head again. "But I think it's worth it."
In response, Ally brought her down for another kiss. When she was done, she said softly, "I think you should go now. If you don't, you might not have another chance before morning."
While Evelynne thrilled at the implications of that statement, she was aware that it was far too early in their fledgling relationship to be taking such steps. "Okay."
It was still many minutes before she actually left for her own bed.
To be continued in Chapter 19
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