Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"During my stay in the city of Serendib, for that was its name, I visited all the places of interest in the country, including the high mountain on whose summit Adam had been placed by the Angel after being banished from Paradise...

"The King enjoyed his riches, but was possessed of a wisdom that does not always come with wealth or majesty. Much I learned from him of the precepts of old, the ancient truths that can guide and strengthen along the way and have since stood me in good stead..."

- The Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor

Chapter 23

"So, what do you think, Mr Tladi?" the young cryptographer of the Guard Communications Department asked.

"Hmm," Chorus said noncommittally. He didn't look up from the screen where the encrypted message was displayed. "Interesting."

"Oh. Er... is that good or bad?" the young man asked.

"What?" Chorus shook himself. "Oh. At the moment I don't know. It's certainly more... complex than the one you tested me with, Gerry."

"And may I say again just how impressed I am that it only took you a week to break it?"

Chorus shrugged. "The fact that you sent me so much made it easier, actually. It made it easier to find patterns. And nobody ever said War and Peace was lacking in detail." He pointed to the screen. "That's why this particular code could be difficult. There just isn't much to work with. I assume that's normal procedure when sending messages."

"It is," Gerry confirmed. "The idea is to send all the relevant information as economically as possible. It makes the message harder to intercept and also, as you said, more difficult to break. Does that mean you don't have enough to work with?"

"I don't know," Chorus admitted. "I'm used to more conventional languages. If you're immersed in a culture, the amount of data available to help with translation is huge. Context, different methods of syntax, colloquialisms, contractions, accent. Here, you're basically asking me to learn a language that is effectively being spoken by two people. That isn't a very large 'culture'. On the other hand, the fact that it is an inevitably mathematical 'language' cuts out a lot of confusion."

"So you think you can do it, then." Gerry looked hopeful.

"Given enough time... yes. Just by looking at this I can pick up on at least some pattern to the code."

Intrigued, the cryptographer asked, "Oh? Where?"

"Well... it's not like I can actually point it out. It's more like a... sense. A hunch. You know, it's ironic. Here I am talking about the structure of a language and I don't have the language to do so." He laughed. "Think of it this way. You know those three-D pictures where you have to look at them a certain way and then suddenly a boat or a horse appears?" Gerry nodded. "Well, before you see the actual picture, you can still see a certain pattern in the seemingly random lines. That's what I'm doing here. I need to figure out how to look at this 'picture' so that the underlying image jumps out at me."

"I understand." Gerry nodded again. "So what do you need to do that?"

"Information," Chorus said promptly. "As much context as possible in which to place the messages. Time and place of sending, destination, method of transmission, known couriers... If you're right and they are going to the HBLA, what were they doing before and after each message was received? Basically everything you've got."

The cryptographer nodded. "I'll see what I can do." He hesitated. "Do you know how long this is going to take?"

Chorus shook his head. "Not a clue. I haven't done anything quite like this before. It could be a week, two weeks, a month... a year. Maybe I'll never get it. Still, I'll try my damnedest. I owe All... Dame Alleandre a lot."

"As do we all," Gerry replied.

As he made his way to start collecting the requested data, the young man wondered at that. The meeting between the Director of the Common Guard, Princess Evelynne, and Dame Alleandre a week ago had become the talk of the building. Nobody knew what had happened, and General Danun was putting over forty years of intelligence expertise to good use obfuscating the truth, but there were still rumours of the odd noises that had escaped the General's office. For a few days afterwards, the General could be seen rubbing her chest, as if it pained her, and a hesitant rumour had spread that perhaps Dame Alleandre had assaulted her. The rumour had died quickly, since all anyone had to do was look at the relative sizes of General Danun's stocky build and Dame Alleandre's thin frame, not to mention her limp, to realise that it was ridiculous. Besides, Sir Arthur Ramirez and Major Theodora Nixon, both highly experienced Guards, had also been present, and there was no way they would have allowed anyone to assault their superior.

Still, whatever had happened had created quite a response. Another rumour had spread that no less than twelve covert agents had been assigned to Code Seven Surveillance on some of Dame Alleandre's friends and family. Code Seven mandated agents to avoid contact with the subject, but also to protect the subject's well-being at all cost. It was one of the most difficult assignments possible. Gerry wasn't sure exactly what Dame Alleandre had offered in exchange for such protection - assuming the rumour was true - but apparently Chorus Tladi's code-breaking skills was a part of it. After months of trying to crack the same code with no success, Gerry and his team were more than happy for the assistance, no matter how... unconventional.

Ally walked along the corridor in the Summer Palace, the unfamiliar weight cradled in the crook of her arm reminding her of her self-appointed mission. It was not an urgent mission, or even a necessary one, but hopefully it would take her mind off her current troubles for a time. Up ahead she suddenly saw the wide form of her quarry and sped up to intercept him. "Sir Arthur!" she called out.

The bodyguard stopped at her call and turned to face the young woman who had stopped him. He was out of his formal Guard uniform, dressed instead in plain grey workout clothes, and he noticed that Ally was wearing a similar outfit, though hers was blue instead. His eye twitched in surprise as he saw the sword she held in her arm.

"Dame Alleandre," the Guard greeted. "How are you this morning? I notice you are without your cane."

"Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good," Ally replied. Physically, anyway. "My back's just feeling a bit stiff." She grimaced. "According to my therapist, this is probably about as good as it's going to get. Especially with this weather." She was referring to the torrential rain that had been falling for the past four days. "Still, considering the alternative, I'm happy I can still walk."

"Indeed. A very pragmatic view."

Ally shrugged. "I guess so. Anyway, I was wondering, if you're not too busy, if you could do me a favour."

"Certainly, Dame Alleandre. Currently I am about to have a training session. However, I can postpone that if you wish."

"No, no, that's okay. Actually, I was going to ask you about something kind of related." She held up the sheathed sword in her hands. "I was doing some research, and I found out that as a knight I'm technically supposed to be able to use this thing to defend my Sponsor if necessary."

"Technically, yes. But that requirement has not been enforced for decades."

"Yeah, I know, but I thought that I'd like to learn anyway, and I was hoping you'd be willing to teach me."

Sir Arthur's brows rose. "Indeed. I must admit that I am surprised. I believe you have successfully demonstrated that you possess... other methods of self-defence."

Ally nodded, instinctively looking around to see if anyone was listening. Nobody was nearby, of course. "Yeah, I do, but there are times when doing things... that way isn't really an option. For obvious reasons. Besides, it's something I've wanted to learn for a while, but I've never had the chance. And even if you don't want to teach me swordplay, I'd still like to learn some more martial arts. Besides, it'll give me something to do while Evelynne's away."

She said the last part nonchalantly, but Sir Arthur's observant senses picked up the hurt and sadness in her voice, and he felt a surge of sympathy for the young woman. Out of all the people present at the meeting the previous week, Evelynne had appeared to be the most shaken by the experience. Sir Arthur himself, after the initial shock, had accepted the abilities Ally had revealed almost as a matter of course. The Templars had a long tradition of esoteric and magical practices, and while they no longer had any true magicians, at least as far as the Guard knew, the existing legends had left him open to the idea. He was still in the process of assimilating the information fully, but while he did so he treated Ally in much the same way as he had previously.

On the other hand, Major Nixon's reaction was more confused. She seemed to vacillate between a kind of awe over how easily Ally had subdued her, a wary alertness to the young woman's power, and a big-sister complex over Ally's actual physical appearance and personality. Sir Arthur was sure that the Major would work out her feelings in time, but for now she seemed uncertain whether to worship Ally, eliminate her as a threat, or hug her.

As for General Danun, she had reacted to the revelations with the same solid pragmatism that had served her so well for her entire career. She had cautiously accepted Ally's offer of aid, and had taken the young woman's threats to heart. Unknown to Ally, she had assigned covert agents to protect Ally's parents, as well as several of her closest friends. Currently those agents had orders to observe, and protect only if necessary. Chances were that Ally's parents would be very safe from muggings and robberies for a while. However, also unknown to Ally, the General was willing to change those orders if she felt it was necessary.

"She is a very powerful wild card," the General had explained to Sir Arthur. "And while at the moment I do trust her to not threaten this country, I can't afford to take it for granted. If, for whatever reason, she does become a threat, I need to be ready, willing and able to take her out, by whatever means necessary. I believe her concern for her family and friends is genuine, and if I have to I am prepared to use them against her. And if she never does anything untoward, she'll never know."

Sir Arthur personally didn't think that Ally would ever do anything to harm Atlantl, but he recognised that his superior literally could not take the matter on faith.

It was Evelynne, though, who had reacted the most out of character. Sir Arthur knew that Ally had explained things to her the night before the meeting had taken place, and the next morning she had seemed accepting, if a little shaken. He could remember the argument he and the princess had had the next morning, and how she had emphatically protected her friend. Ever since returning from the Guard Headquarters, however, she had retreated, and while she was still polite, she had begun to hold Ally at arm's length. Two days after returning, the princess had gone to Outremer on the pretext of government business. What was supposed to have been a one night stay had turned into two, then three, and now she had been there for nearly a week. In all fairness, Evelynne had been quite busy with administrative work - she was assisting Count el-Rahan revamp his County's medical services - but Sir Arthur also knew that most of the work could have been done from the Palace. And he suspected that Ally knew that too.

While Ally had apparently accepted the princess' distance at first, allowing Evelynne time to adjust, she had become more and more depressed at her friend's constant polite rebuffing of her offers to talk about it. Sir Arthur suspected that Ally had more than a small crush on Evelynne, and while he wasn't sure that the princess returned the affection, it was obvious how Ally treasured their friendship.

Which brought Ally here, seeking some diversion from her loneliness.

"Certainly, Dame Alleandre," Sir Arthur replied, pulling himself from his musings. "I was not planning to practice swordwork today, but I would be happy to instruct you in some martial arts. Have you learned any styles before?"

"Um, can you call me Ally? I'm still not used to being 'Dame Alleandre'. I keep looking around for someone else."

"Certainly... Ally."

She smiled. "Thanks. Um... I learned a bit of Karate when I was in junior high, and then in university I took about a year of Kung Fu. I must say I liked the Kung Fu the best." They began to walk to the Palace's gymnasium. "It seemed to be more... I don't know, 'whole' to me. A combination of physical and metaphysical aspects. The Karate was always too... hard for my liking. Not as in difficult, although it was, but like a hard style."

Sir Arthur nodded. "That is true. Most forms of Karate are known as hard styles. And given your build, it is not surprising that you prefer something softer. Of course, some styles of Kung Fu are quite hard, also. Which style did you learn?"

"Well, it was a style brought over from China about fifty years ago..."

Princess Evelynne was sitting behind her desk in her office in Outremer, looking out the window into the pouring rain outside. Maïda stood, unnoticed, just inside the door to the office, watching her with a concerned gaze. She could easily see reflected in the window the princess' uncertain, abstracted expression, which was also tinged with confusion and unhappiness. Evelynne had been like this for a week, ever since the morning after the mysterious meeting in Jamaz, and the lady-in-waiting was getting worried. She knew that Evelynne was wrestling with some problem... Actually, the princess was avoiding dealing with whatever had her so depressed, instead throwing herself into work, and while Maïda was proud of how effective the princess was becoming at her duties, she also knew her charge was desperately unhappy. At first the lady's hope had been that Evelynne's new friend would be able to pull her out of her depression, but it had quickly become evident that whatever the problem was, it involved Alleandre directly.

Well, it's time to get to the bottom of this, Maïda thought. She also knew that Alleandre was equally hurt by the princess' distance.

Maïda walked briskly into the room and placed they tray holding a pot of Evelynne's favourite tea on the desk. Slightly startled, the princess spun her chair to face her lady-in-waiting, then smiled in greeting. "Hello, Maïda," she said. "Sorry about that. I was just..." She waved a hand vaguely at the window. "... thinking."

Maïda made sure the door was closed and set about pouring two cups of tea. "Quite alright, Highness," she replied, purposefully keeping her tone light. "And what were you thinking about that had you so concerned?" She passed a cup to Evelynne, then took one for herself before easing her frame into a large comfortable chair.

"Oh, um... I was just... trying to figure out how to let Count el-Rahan keep his best doctors and still maintain his budget," Evelynne temporised.

Maïda shot her a severe glare and clucked disapprovingly. "Highness, it wasn't too many years ago that I tanned your hide for lying," she said, "and I'm not afraid of doing it again. So now you have a choice. You can tell me the truth about what is bothering you, or you can say nothing at all. And if you tell me nothing, then I will go back to Kilim tonight, because I know there is someone there who could also use my comfort instead."

Evelynne had been about to respond belligerently, but the last statement hit her like a punch to the belly, and she suddenly deflated. She sighed heavily, staring at her cup of tea.

The silence stretched uncomfortably, until Maïda put down her tea, ready to proceed with her ultimatum. She was stopped by Evelynne's low murmur.

"Have you ever thought you knew someone, then one day found out that they weren't who you thought at all?" Maïda thought she could detect a hint of double meaning in the question.

"Of course, Highness," the lady replied. "Every day. Every time I learn something about a person that I didn't before, it changes who they are in my mind. Just today I learned that young Sergeant Mason in your Guard is married. It had honestly never crossed my mind before, and now I find myself thinking of him in terms of a wife and child in his life."

"Oh. Will you... treat him differently now that you know?" Evelynne seemed to be circling the subject, and Maïda let her for the moment.

"Of course I will. I will be sure to give him some small gift on his anniversary. I will also be keeping my eye out to see that none of the servants becomes too 'friendly' with him."

That coaxed a giggle out of Evelynne. "I'm sure he'll appreciate that."

"It is part of my job, Highness. I am required to poke my nose in where others may not wish me to. As I am doing now." She examined the princess carefully as Evelynne stiffened again. "I do not like to see people hurting, Highness, and if I can somehow help them when they are, I will do so without hesitation. And right now I see that you are hurting. Not only you, but also young Ally as well."

"I know," the princess whispered. "I... learned something about Ally last week. And when I first found out, I thought I could handle it. Oh, it was a shock, and I knew it would take a bit of time to fully come to grips with it, but I didn't think it would affect our... relationship. Then something else happened, and it just... freaked me out, and I just couldn't handle it anymore. And then combined with..." She trailed off.

"I see." Maïda had suspected as much, though she had no idea exactly what it was that had upset Evelynne. "And this new information... it was unexpected?"

"Completely," Evelynne said promptly. "I had never even considered the possibility that she had... that she was..."

A dark suspicion began to form in Maïda's mind. Dreading the answer, she asked, "Was Ally... raped?"

Evelynne was startled. "What? Oh, Isis, no! What made you think that...? Oh... Well, I guess that would upset me. Actually, I know that would upset me. More than upset me, but..." She shuddered, trying to push the images out of her mind. "No."

"Oh. Good." Maïda was beyond relieved, though still confused. "So... what did you learn? Or is it too great a secret?"

The princess almost spat hot tea out her nose. Choking and coughing, she replied, "Secret! Yes... you could... say that!" She laughed somewhat hysterically. "The world's biggest secret!"

Maïda frowned. "I don't understand, Highness."

Evelynne finally got herself back under control, and breathed deeply. "No, you wouldn't. Not many people would." She sat quietly, thoughts racing through her head. Her lady-in-waiting saw the struggle she was engaged in and let her think it out. I'm sorry, Ally, Evelynne though finally. I have to talk to someone, and I just can't talk to your parents, or Annie, or anyone else who already knows. No matter how good and kind they are, and no matter how impartial they would try to be, their first priority would be you. Right now I need someone whose first priority is me.

"Ally is... different," the princess said quietly. "She has certain... abilities that are, if not unique, then certainly incredibly rare. These days, not many people seriously believe that what she can do is even possible." She saw Maïda's blank but attentive expression and sighed. "Ally can... move things without actually touching them. She can just look at something and then, Bam! It's in her hand. Or circling around her head. When that accident happened at Aztlan, a man was trapped in the cab of a crane. There was this metal bar bent across, pinning him inside. There was no way anybody should have been able to move it without at least a blowtorch. But Ally, she got in there and actually bent the metal back using nothing but her bare hands and her thoughts." The older woman was looking at her incredulously. "I'm not crazy. It really happened. Uncle Arthur was there, and he saw it all. Anyway, later that night, I went to Ally's room and she explained it all to me, told me what she could do and how she learned to do it. She can read minds, too, you know, if she tries hard enough. Apparently she can't send thoughts, but she can pick them up. At the time, I was still in shock, obviously, but I really thought I could handle it. And I also... knew that Ally was really scared that I'd go and turn her over to the Guard, or a research facility or something." Evelynne did not want to share the knowledge of the Link with Maïda; it was too personal, to intimate for another person to know about.

"Then the next day we had to go to the Guard Headquarters in Jamaz. Uncle Arthur had reported everything to his superior, and needless to say she was... concerned. And I went along, because I wanted to protect Ally, and make sure she was okay. But then..."

"Then?" Maïda prompted.

"At one point I suppose Ally thought she was threatened, and felt that she had to make some kind of... demonstration. And it was... impressive. You know Major Nixon?" The other woman nodded. "Well, Ally picked her up and pinned her to the wall. And I mean literally pinned to the wall, about a foot off the floor. And she pushed the General's desk halfway across the room. And all this without even touching either of them. She just kind of waved her hands and bang! They were out. She didn't do anything to Uncle Arthur, and later she said it was because she knew he would protect me. I guess that was when I realised just what she was capable of."

Maïda was silent for several minutes, thinking about the story she had just been told. This was about as far from what she had expected as it was possible to be. Finally, though, she asked, "So how did you feel exactly after that?"

"I was... scared," Evelynne said. "I mean... it was one thing to see her do things in her room. It was actually really neat; she made these books go around her head. But this..." She shook her head. "This was raw power, and she used it to incapacitate two professional soldiers. She could have done the same to Uncle Arthur as well. And it was just... scary, that she could do it so easily. And she was so... cold when she did it, too."

"Did you talk with Ally about it afterwards?"

"I tried to, but every time I saw her I kept seeing General Danun and Major Nixon being thrown across the room, and I just... couldn't. And I know I hurt her, even though she never said anything. And now I just wish I could get over this, and get things back to the way they were, because I -" Evelynne broke off abruptly.

"What, Evelynne?" Maïda asked softly. "Because you what?"

"Because I love her so much," the princess said quietly. She looked up briefly, and the older woman could see tears pooling in her eyes. "Surprise. Remember when I asked you if you ever thought you knew someone and it turned out they were someone completely different? Well, here I am." Evelynne laughed brokenly. "I'm in love with Ally. Not just as another person, not just as a friend. This is complete head-over-heels, heart-devouring, romantic love. And there's a part of me that's scared to death of her." Now she broke down into tears.

Maïda had acted as Evelynne's surrogate mother for most of the princess' life, and her reaction was swift and instinctive. In a heartbeat she had crossed to Evelynne and scooped her up in her arms, cradling her like a child. She murmured soothing nonsense words into the young woman's hair, gently stroking her back as she rode out the storm.

Eventually, Evelynne's tears subsided. "Sorry," she mumbled. She tried to back out of Maïda's embrace, but the older woman's surprisingly strong arms wouldn't let her. "I never wanted to disappoint you."

"Oh, dear, you have never disappointed me," Maïda objected. "I have never been disappointed in the past, and I am not disappointed now. Shocked, yes, but certainly not disappointed."

"Thank you," Evelynne murmured.

"So, does young Ally... know of your affection?"

The lady-in-waiting could feel the heat of Evelynne's blush. "Um... yes. She, uh... We, um... We're..."

"Evelynne!" Maïda exclaimed, and the princess pulled back to see her scandalised expression.

"Oh no, not... We haven't done... that. But we've... We're... involved."

"Oh. Well, good." Maïda's face shifted to a worried frown. "Have you thought about..."

"Oh, I don't think there are any possible complications about a relationship with Ally that I haven't already dreamed of myself. And if I've missed them, I'm sure Domdom hasn't."

"His Grace knows?"

"About... me and Ally, yes. About Ally's special abilities, no."

"I see." Maïda was quiet for a moment, then looked down to stare into Evelynne's face. "Are you sure about this?" she asked. "Do you really love this woman?"

"I do," Evelynne replied, then looked away. "But there's this part of me that's afraid of her, and what she can do."

"I see." A pause. "You will have to give me some time to become used to the idea, I'm afraid. To me you are still my little Evelynne, and the idea of you in an adult relationship is... odd. And with a woman, no less. A woman who is also a... what did you call her?"

"What? Oh, you mean... Well, General Danun called her an Adept. I suppose she could also be a witch, wizard, mage, sorceress... I don't think she likes those words, though."

"I see. I can understand why you might be... intimidated. After all, I am more than a little shaken, and I am not even the person directly involved. So I believe your apprehension or even fear is understandable."

"Really? You mean I'm not just being a coward?"

"Certainly not! You are simply trying to work your way through multiple stressful situations. Of course, that does not make it any easier on you. Or on Ally, for that matter. While you are understandably apprehensive, she is certainly hurt by the situation, and for an equally valid reason. While she seems to be a remarkably perceptive and clear-headed person, she is undoubtedly carrying her own fears and insecurities, which your actions are not helping. I am not blaming you, as your own actions are understandable. All I am saying is that you both have issues to resolve, and I believe it would be better for you to deal with them together."

"Oh. Does this mean you... approve? Of Ally and me, I mean." Evelynne's voice was small, but hopeful.

"Well... Looking at her personality, I would have to say yes. She is courageous, intelligent, caring, and kind. With the benefit of hindsight, it is also obvious she worships the ground you walk on. Of course, she is not a member of the nobility, but, considering the personalities of some of those who are, that could be a good thing. Of course, I will deny saying that last if you repeat it." Evelynne giggled. "So all in all, if she were a man, I would be the first to encourage your relationship. However," she continued when the princess stiffened, "I will still completely support your relationship. All I ask is that you give me a little time to get used to the idea."

"Deal," Evelynne said softly.

"In fact, to begin with, I would like to help you resolve your current situation. Why do you think you are so frightened of Ally right now?"

Evelynne thought. "I suppose it's just how powerful she is. I keep seeing her throwing those people around, and bending that metal bar..."

"Do you think she would use that power against you?"

"No," Evelynne replied, but there was a slight uncertainty in her tone. "But... well, how would I stop her if she did? There's nothing I could do."

"Actually, I believe there is," Maïda said. The princess looked at her questioningly. "As you know, Sir Arthur and I are beginning a... relationship of our own." Her cheeks reddened as Evelynne listened, fascinated. "You know just how strong he is. And he has spent the last twenty years learning how to protect, to fight, to kill. If he wanted to, I'm sure he could beat me to a pulp, and I could do nothing to stop him. Everything except one thing. I could just say, 'Stop.' And I know he would. I trust Arthur to never lay an unwanted hand on me, and even if, for some horrible reason, he lost control of himself, I trust that he would listen to me when I told him, 'No.' I believe Ally is much the same. She would never harm you intentionally. In fact, she has demonstrated that she will protect you with her life if necessary. What you need to do is learn to trust her. And if, for any reason, you cannot bring yourself to trust her, you must let her go. Because I also know that she will not leave until you tell her to, and it would be cruel to leave her... hanging on to the hope that you might someday decide to accept her."

Evelynne was quiet for a long time, and Maïda was as well, allowing the princess to process what she had said, while at the same time assimilating her own recently acquired knowledge. The tea was long cold by the time Evelynne stirred in Maïda's arms. The lady-in-waiting looked down to see that Evelynne's expression was much calmer, though still tinged with apprehension.

"Well," the princess said, "I think we need to be getting back to the Palace. You have a man to see, and I... I have to go and trust a woman... if she'll let me."

"Good," Sir Arthur praised. "And now, as I'm going past, bring the left arm up in a forearm strike to the back of the head."

"Like this?" At a fairly slow speed, Ally copied the move, whipping her arm up to come to rest at the nape of the Guard's neck. "Is that really necessary? I mean, I've already taken you out with a kick to the knee, a knee to the groin, and an elbow to the solar plexus."

"Ideally, yes. However, what if all those previous strikes were countered? Always make sure that your opponent is not getting up again."

"That's true." Ally nodded. "I remember my Kung Fu Master telling us that the hands-down best way to avoid getting hurt in a fight was simply not to fight in the first place. But if we ever were forced into a situation where it was unavoidable, the idea was to incapacitate the attacker by any means necessary."

"Good advice," Sir Arthur agreed. "And the key term there is to incapacitate. Never try to simply hurt your opponent. Mere pain is useless, and all that it does is make them angry, and more motivated to hurt you in return. If someone attacks you with serious intent to harm you, do whatever you must to leave them completely unable to do so. Go for the groin, throat, eyes... break the knees if you can. Someone unable to walk, breath, or see is also unable to attack you. Never try to punch someone in the chest or the head; those are the two most armoured places on the human body. Go for the soft spots. In a formal sparring situation, your priorities are different, obviously, but in a real fight against someone who is trying to injure, kill, or rape you, the concept of fair fighting is meaningless. Take your opponent down as hard and, especially, as quickly as possible."

"That seems a little... bloodthirsty."

"Not at all. Merely practical. Most people dislike violence, and wish to avoid harming anyone, and that is admirable. But if someone is coming at you with a knife or a gun - or even just their hands - it is your primary duty to keep yourself alive and unharmed. Be quick. Be decisive. Be ruthless, in fact. And, of course, the instant you get the chance, run away."

"Ah, yes. 'He who goes and runs away, lives to run away again another day.'"

"An excellent piece of advice." The Guard looked closely at Ally, who was absently massaging her lower back with her right hand. Both their training outfits were soaked with sweat. "Are you well?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'm just feeling a little sore. The muscles aren't as strong as they used to be. Do you mind if we sit down for a while?"

"Certainly," Sir Arthur agreed.

They sat on a nearby bench, drinking from water bottles, and Ally looked out over the deserted gym. It was a well-equipped area, with numerous weight machines, stationary bikes, treadmills, barbells, and practice mats. All of the equipment necessary to tone the human body to the peak of physical perfection... or reduce it to a quivering mass of muscle. There was even a set of parallel and uneven bars, and a pair of rings suspended from the ceiling.

The two exercisers sat in silence for several minutes before Ally broached a subject she had been dying to ask about for some time. "Um... do you mind if I ask you a question?"


"Well... you know about my... abilities," Ally said, and Sir Arthur nodded. "Well, I was wondering about your unusual talents."

The Guard looked somewhat perplexed. "I am not sure I understand what you mean. Are you referring to my skills as a Guard?"

"No, not that. At least, not directly. I meant your... you know." Ally gestured vaguely to her own head and then to her companion's, but his expression remained blank. "You really don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"

"I am afraid not."

"Okay. Well... Do you ever know that things are going to happen before they actually take place? Do you ever see things in your head that turned out to be true later on?"

Sir Arthur still looked uncertain. "No, I do not believe so."

"How about hunches? Do you ever have a... gut feeling about certain situations?"

"Occasionally, yes. But I am a Guard. We are all trained to respond to possible threats and subconsciously noticed information. Anyone who cannot learn to do so simply does not become a Guard." He looked at Ally quizzically. "Why do you ask?"

"It's just... I've noticed a few things that have given me some suspicions, and, since you now know about me, I wanted to try to explore them. For example, that accident at Aztlan. You were jumpy and anxious all afternoon. Why?"

Sir Arthur tried to remember. "I am not certain. It was a very exposed location, and I was concerned about possible uncontained risks."

"I guess that makes sense. Although I've seen you in several other situations and you haven't acted like that."

"Possibly," Sir Arthur conceded. "What is your point?"

"Okay, you were concerned about security all afternoon. Fair enough. But what really caught my attention was your reaction when the crane collapsed. Before the crane collapsed, actually. You see, you were doing your normal 'Search for Assassins' routine, but then you suddenly turned around and stared at the crane for a full ten seconds. And then it collapsed. It was like you knew it was going to fall before it actually did."

The Guard looked sceptical. "Are you certain? Perhaps I simply heard some of the girders begin to bend."

Ally shook her head. "No, there was no sound until it actually began to fall. Trust me, I remember." Oh yeah, I remember. This new eidetic memory is handy at times. "And that wasn't the only time. The next day, when we were in the General's office, and I... you know, did my thing? You were moving to protect Evelynne before I had even twitched. And way back in Marseilles, you were moving and shouting orders before any of the snipers' shots were fired. Now, the last two examples could mean that you are a low-level empath, and you're subconsciously picking up on peoples' motivations before they act. But with the crane nobody knew anything was wrong until the thing actually began to collapse, which mean that the other possibility is that you're actually having precognitive flashes of some sort."

Sir Arthur still looked highly uncertain, but given Ally's revealed abilities, he was unwilling to dismiss the suggestion out of hand. He spent a few minutes trying to remember what he had been thinking during those named occasions. "When Evelynne was shot," he began slowly, "I remember that I... just knew that someone was going to shoot at her. And I knew that the two men on the roof were dead." He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. "I did not think of it at the time, or afterwards, but I knew too much that nobody had told me. I knew one of the shooters was a woman, although we did not learn that officially until days later. I suppose I simply dismissed it as speculation..."

"Like a hunch that just happened to come true?" Ally suggested.

"Exactly. And at the accident I knew something was going to fall, and a lot of people were going to be injured. And again I dismissed it." He looked up at Ally, and the dazed expression on his normally impassive face would have been amusing if he hadn't been so shocked.

"From what you've said, I'm leaning more toward the true precognitive ability," Ally said, "rather than the subconscious empathy."

"But I was under the impression that reading the future is impossible."

"Maybe," Ally said, bringing her water bottle to her lips for a drink. "But then, psychokinetically levitating inanimate objects is also 'impossible'." She held out her hand and released the bottle. Rather than falling to the floor, it hung in place, unsupported. Tapping it with her finger, Ally sent it tumbling slowly towards her companion, who caught it reflexively. "Although I actually believe that true visions of the future are impossible. There are a few hypotheses in theoretical physics that say otherwise, but they are highly suspect. I actually think that what we call precognition is actually caused by the mind bringing together immense amounts of data, observed consciously, subconsciously and unconsciously, and then extrapolating the most likely outcome. Kind of like a weather prediction computer, only much more powerful and accurate, since the human mind is billions of times more complex than any computer. Of course, that would only allow predictions based on things observed in one's immediate vicinity. Possibly people with more far-reaching abilities also have remote sensing gifts, or subconsciously tap into the universal unconscious. Someone who could use not only their own mind, but the collective minds of the entire species, would have incredible predictive abilities."

"Indeed." Sir Arthur seemed to be taking the suggestion very well, but Ally had not expected anything else from the normally unflappable Guard. After a few moments of contemplation, he asked, "What should I do with this ability?"

"Oh, I don't know," Ally said. "I'd imagine that in your line of work it would come in extremely useful, especially if you can find some way to develop it."

"And how would I do that?"

"I'm not sure. I've had a few precognitive hunches in the past, but never anything in the least spectacular, and I've never been able to improve the ability. Maybe I don't have the potential, or maybe I just haven't figured out the right way to activate it. I guess my best advice would be to do what you'd normally do to develop an ability: practice. Start listening to your hunches all the time, and see just how accurate they are. The nice thing about that ability is that it has a very obvious feedback mechanism; if you're doing it right, you'll sure know it. Also don't totally dismiss the empathic possibility. Try getting a feel for what people around you are feeling or thinking. Actually, try it when you're sparring. If you find yourself predicting your opponent's moves, try to figure out how you're doing it. And if you do find that you can read people's emotions or thoughts, that I can help you develop."

Sir Arthur was quiet for several more minutes. "Well, Alleandre," he said finally, "while you have not completely convinced me that I in fact possess this... gift, I cannot afford to ignore the possibility. I will do as you suggest and... experiment."

"Well, good." Ally stood and stretched, pleased that her back did not protest. "In that case, would you like to try some sparring? I'll try to be... unpredictable. Just try not to hurt me too badly."

Sir Arthur humphed as he joined her on the mat. "Alleandre, I believe that anybody who tried to hurt you would soon find themselves... incapacitated." At least if they hurt you physically. Your emotions, however, are particularly vulnerable - especially to a particular Heir, who should be here right now. Hopefully Maïda is having some success on that front.

Continued in Chapter 24

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