There was an air of nervous anticipation permeating the air of the room, despite the occupants' efforts to appear calm and unruffled. It had the feeling of waiting backstage at some performance, each participant terrified of falling on their face, but grimly determined to press on, since for many this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Even Claire, who probably had the very least reason to feel uncertain, felt it. There were six other generally young-looking women in the room, each of them clutching a folder and displaying their nervous twitches for everyone else to see. Some tapped their toes, or wiggled their feet. One was absently scraping a tooth with a fingernail, until she realised what she was doing and jerked her hand away from her face until she got distracted and began rubbing again.
The only good thing about the others' distraction, Claire mused, was that they didn't seem to be paying much attention to the most unusual-looking woman in the room. Or perhaps it wasn't so much nervousness as lack of surprise; one stocky young woman that Claire thought was from New Zealand bore an extensive tattoo covering half her face in fascinating patterns. It was possible that everyone else thought Claire's strange colouring was just another form of body decoration.
In many ways, Claire felt sorry for all these women, who had come so far in their quests to gain a position as Page to Princess Evelynne and Lady Alleandre. The knowledge that the upcoming interview was really just a smokescreen for her gave Claire the guilty feeling that she was cheating. It's not like this is the only chance they're going to get, she rationalised. Even if they're not going to get the job with Ally and Evy, the fact that they've got this far means that they stand a really good chance to find work as a Page with some of the other Nobles. The Dukes, even. The thought only made her only feel a little better.
"Ms Bethany Millman."
The door at the far end of the sumptiously furnished waiting room had opened, and a man in full Guard attire whom Claire vaguely recognised as one of Evelynne's Personal Guard called out the name of the next candidate to be interviewed. The tooth-tapper stood, and in a remarkable display of aplomb, her nervous demeanour vanished and she was suddenly a very professional young woman walking confidently towards the open doorway. She held up the pass around her neck for the Guard's examination, and disappeared through the doorway at his nod. The door closed once again, and then there were six.
Claire wondered at her anxiety as she was led down the corridor towards the room where, she assumed her friends—her qor'imae—were waiting. It wasn't as though she was really competing for this job, or that Ally and Evy were going to be unhappy to see her. For that matter, she even knew the Guard who was escorting her. She had spoken with Corporal Te'Inti Li-He several times before she had left for the States, and had found the young woman friendly and reassuring. Perhaps it was that old learned response that had taught her not to expect stability and continuity in any aspect of her life.
And, true, this newest... career move was hardly the mark of stability, but at least two parts of it would continue.
Those two parts were the source of the frisson of happiness/nervousness that shivered through her as Li-He opened the door at the end of the hall without knocking.
"Ms. Claire Jones, Your Highness," the Corporal said formally. "My Lady."
The anxiety peaked as Ally and Evelynne—although the way they were dressed they were unmistakeably Crown Princess Evelynne deMolay and Lady Dame Alleandre Tretiak—looked up from a folder they were jointly studying with grave and solemn expressions.
"Ah, yes, Ms. Jones," Evelynne said soberly. "Please, come in." As Claire did so, beginning to wonder if she'd done something wrong, the Princess addressed her Consort. "What can you tell me about Ms. Jones, My Lady?"
"She comes very well recommended," Ally replied in the same tone. "I happen to be personally acquainted with those who suggested her. A Ms. Sophia Doherty and a Ms. Allison Parks. Not a very bright couple, but quite pleasant on the eyes."
"I see," Evelynne said, and now Claire was beginning to catch the joke that was being played on her. The Princess leaned over to look at the file resting in Ally's lap. "Claire Jones, no middle name. Twenty-two years old. Quite impressive marks in college." Suddenly her eyes widened. "Oh my. She's one of them?"
Ally nodded unhappily. "I'm afraid so. It's quite clear."
"Oh dear. You know what those people are like."
"Yes. Freaks and perverts, the lot of them. Not fit for decent society."
Evelynne shuddered, and she and her lover spoke in unison. "Americans."
"Ha, ha, guys," Claire said dryly. "Very funny. If you'd like, I can take my American ass back home."
Evelynne looked at Ally. "What do you think?"
Her fiancée thought for a moment. "Oh, let's keep her. She does have a quite nice American ass."
Claire's white patches reddened. "Fine. You win."
Grinning, Evelynne stood, Ally a moment behind her. "Hi, Claire." She walked forward, to wrap her friend in a hug. "How are you?"
"Hey, Evy." Claire sighed in satisfaction as Ally wrapped her long arms around them both. "Better now. I missed you two."
"We missed you," Ally said. "It's good to have you back."
With another squeeze, Evelynne released her embrace. She tugged Claire over to the couch, she and Ally flanking the newcomer. "So how was the trip?"
"It was... interesting," Claire admitted. "I'm not sorry to be here, you know, but leaving was..." She didn't know how to describe it. There was definitely no doubt in her mind that her place was here, in Atlantl with Ally and Evy, but it was still... strange to be leaving the U.S. for what was for all practical purposes forever. Oh, she might return, but if she did so she would do so as an Atlantlan Royal Page, or possibly, eventually, as an Atlantlan citizen.
"I know exactly how you feel," Ally mumured, and there was a bittersweet edge to her tone.
Claire looked at her friend consideringly. "Yeah, I guess you do, huh?" Like her, Ally would only officially return to her homeland as someone far different from the person who had left. In fact, it was probably harder on Ally. While, eventually, Claire would probably have the option to return to the United States in relative anonymity, Ally would never even be able to walk down the streets of her home town without being surrounded by Guards, fans, and the press. Add in the fact that Claire didn't actually have any real emotional ties to any of the places she had lived, and the depth of the homesickness Ally must regularly feel was poignant.
"So everyone says, 'Hi,'" Claire said, changing the subject. "Erin wants to know what she should wear to the wedding, and Jean wanted me to steal some towels with the Royal Blazon on them."
Evelynne laughed. "Just don't tell Sir Arthur."
"So what's this I hear about Evy and me being the biggest sluts in Pennsylvania?" Ally demanded.
Claire blushed. "I had nothing to do with that, I swear. That was all Jean and Erin. Although I think Sammy was getting more into it than I think he should have been."
"Bitches," Ally muttered good-naturedly.
"So they're alright with how things have turned out?" Evelynne asked. Although she didn't say anything, Claire could tell that the potential for the whole situation in America to blow wide open was truly worrying her.
"It's kind of strange," Claire admitted. "They were a little hysterical at first, and then they were really freaked out, but now they're... cohesive. It's almost like they all feel they're in some kind of exclusive club now. They all get together at least once a week to make sure their stories are straight and think up new stuff to tell the reporters when they come."
"They're not getting too creative, are they?" Evelynne asked. "If things get too unbelievable even tabloid reporters might catch something."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that. You wouldn't believe how devious Narmin can be when she puts her mind to it. She's made sure that the core stories are all the same, but that each one of them has just enough difference to make them appear like they haven't all been cooked up. They've also toned it down a lot from some of the things that they were coming up with before. Now you were just kind of normal, funny people, with just enough flaws to make you believeable. Jean's going to be insisting that she slept with you, Evy, but nobody else is going to 'believe' her."
"Jesus," Ally said in a slightly stunned voice. "'Oh, what a tangled web...'"
"No kidding," Claire agreed. "I think the whole point of the exercise is to make something so incredibly boring that the press has no reason to dig further, but not so dull that they might suspect the gang's hiding something."
"That's good," Evelynne murmured. "And I think I can add some verisimilitude. Guard Intelligence is setting up 'Allison' and 'Sophia' in Vancouver, just in case someone decides to go that far. They're actually Guard operatives, and their features are similar to ours, but not exact. Just close enough to make the look-alike theory plausible."
"Ally, how's your Mom?" Claire asked suddenly. It was far too easy to get completely caught up in simply being around Ally and Evelynne again, that half-longing, half-belonging sensation that she had missed like an addiction for the past few months.
Ally sighed, but didn't seem as upset as she could have been. "Not too bad, considering. She's starting some physical therapy, and has to learn how to get by with just one leg, but she'd got the bit between her teeth now and she's having a blast terrorising the doctors. Her eye isn't quite as bad as they feared, but it's still really messed up. At best she'll be able to see vague shapes. Although the opthalmologist says that when everything heals they might be able to do something with lasers and artificial lenses. They're going to wait at least a year for that, though." She smiled. "Mom did say that she wanted to meet you properly when you got back."
"I'd like that."
"How is Corey doing in the apartment?" Evelynne asked. "Has he painted the whole thing purple like he threatened?"
Claire laughed. "No. He's barely touched it, actually. He says he's preserving it just how you left it so that fifty years from now, when they want to turn the place into a museum, people will be able to see just how Empress Evelynne and Empress Alleandre lived when they were slumming with the plebes."
Claire shrugged. "He figures that between the two of you, you'll be taking over the entire world within a few decades."
"Well, you tell Pinky that the Brain here and I will get right to work on that," Ally smirked.
Evelynne looked blank. "Who?"
Agent Calvin Rolston of the FBI peered through his night-vision binoculars at the erratically lit compound several hundred metres away. Little in the way of activity was visible, but somewhere out there in the New Mexico desert at least three full action teams from the DEA, reinforced with a full platoon of troops from the Army base near Albequerque, were slowly surrounding the innocuous-looking settlement. It looked like a perfectly unassuming collection of buildings, something that might have been a farm work camp, if there had been any agriculture within a hundred miles. It was an open secret to those in the law enforcement community, however, that this particular compound was a training camp of the American Freedom Brigade, an organisation far more sophisticated than the many and varied ragtag militias, fundamentalist groups and "survivalists" which could be found right across America.
While the less evolved rabble of fringe militants were a constant, low-grade worry to every even moderately intelligent legal agent, they tended to be disorganised and largely ineffectual, constantly hamstringing themselves with infighting between factions and a quite appalling ignorance of the basics of economics, strategy, tactics, and even literacy. Most law enforcement agencies were quite willing to let them quietly exist in a state of perpetual meltdown, except when they started to become a real threat to the more mainstream of America's citizens. Or when some idiot politician decided it was time to boost his poll numbers by proving that he was tough on dangerous fringe groups.
Unfortunately, all of the incompetent groups were fertile recruiting grounds for a much smaller number of true threats. Those organisations with the funding, efficiency, and intelligence to be truly effectual were also, probably inevitably, the ones which managed to remain out of sight of the media and public knowledge. Particularly promising candidates from the lesser splinter groups were regularly enticed into organisations that could make good use of their—usually dangerous—knowledge.
Like the American Freedom Brigade.
The AFB was a mercenary company, although it was officially on the government's books as a "political action organisation." That the limit of their politics was the fact that most of their employers were a variety of third-world dictators—and wannabe dictators—was something that was certainly never mentioned. They kept the governement off their backs by regularly and scrupulously paying their taxes and carefully following the strict letter of the law, or at least ensuring that any breaches were very comprehensively cleaned up. It was frustating to those officers of the law with a modicum of conscience and moral standards, but in many cases their hands were tied.
Now, however, a small but growing number of agents from a variety of agencies was beginning to stir restlessly. It had begun with the failed "Rebellion" in Atlantis. It was interesting that the American media was still using that term—although that was beginning to change as well—with its implications that it had been a popular uprising, rather than the far more accurate "Invasion" by which it was referred to by the rest of the world. In any case, once it had been released that almost all the Invaders had been mercenaries from a number of countries around the world, those who had been tasked with monitoring those groups' activities had experienced a collective shock. It was hardly the first time the United States had been involved in the overthrow of foreign governments—the coup which had ousted the democratically elected President of Chile and installed a brutal military dictatorship came to mind—but this time something had struck a nerve. Nobody could quite say what it was, but there was a dangerously growing groundswell of anger rising in the intelligence and law community, and there were hints that an equal undercurrent was beginning to flow through the civilian populace as well.
That made it all the more frustrating when the current administration continued to drag its feet by insisting on very cautious investigations that amounted to little more than newspaper interviews. Tabloid newspapers, at that. There was something political at work behind the scenes, and many were now beginning to wonder just how much in the way of campaign contributions the companies fronting for the mercenaries had donated.
Calvin Rolston was one of those who had been growing increasingly disenchanted, and he had started from a more fragile place to begin with. His aunt, uncle and cousin had been visiting Atlantis when the Invasion ahd occurred, and the bomb that had been hidden within the Army-surplus refrigeration unit in the kitchen of their hotel had been strong enough to knock out two structural supports. A third of the building had collapsed into rubble, and among the dead had been Rolston's relatives.
When the President had renewed his demand two weeks ago for the extradition of any American citizens among the Invaders—given the way his government had been fumbling its own internal investigations, the trials of those "soldiers," assuming there were any, would take a decade—Rolston's mind had become very clear. He was quite happy to let the Anties deal with that scum on their own—even better, they had the death penalty—but he would no longer sit idly by and watch their compatriots in groups like the AFB sit in his own country with impunity.
It had not taken long to put together the tools he needed. With no direct evidence of wrongdoing on American soil, the FBI was unable to take official action. In fact, the local regional Director, a particularly ambitious and toad-like unfortunate specimen of humanity, had specifically forbidden all the Agents under his command from taking any action against the compound. Turning to other resources, Rolston had "just happened" to meet up with the local second-in-command of the DEA—and a onetime roommate at college—at a bar and, in the course of casual conversation had mentioned his suspicions that that AFB compound was a central staging area for much of the cocaine smuggling on its way north. Agent Sam Novak had been shocked, of course, and had promised to investigate further. Rolston didn't know the exact chain of events after that, but he would be willing to bet that a number of "anonymous sources" and "deep cover agents" had put forth corroborating evidence. With admirable diligence, the DEA had decided that a more direct examination of the property in question was absolutely essential. However, the ever-underfunded agency had nowhere near enough manpower to serve a warrant—obtained from a surprisingly agreeable State Supreme Court Judge with the last name Novak-Styles—and whatever their determination, Agent Novak was not about to endanger his agents unduly. By another amazing coincidence, the Commandant of one of the State's Army bases, in town to visit his old high-school friend Calvin Rolston, had accidentally let slip that a platoon of soldiers, who had all volunteered to give up their Friday night leave, would be engaged in unscheduled war games no more than a few miles from the compound on a certain night. If they were to hear unidentified gunfire out in the desert at some point they would quite naturally be forced to investigate.
Upon consideration, Agent Novak had decided that his duty to protect his country from the scourge of cocaine outweighed the possible danger of injury to his all-volunteer teams, and had scheduled the serving of the warrant on a certain Friday night.
So now Agent Rolston was watching the area from some distance away. He couldn't help but feel guilty that he wasn't more directly involved in the operation. However, if his involvement in this little conspiracy was widely known he would be looking at charges of disobeying a direct order, at best, and treason, at worst. If and when the time came he would be perfectly willing to stand and face judgement, and he would take full responsibility for his actions, but until then there were too many other operations he was quietly arranging with interested officials who had also lost their patience.
"Very well, I'll make the Proclamation on Wednesday," King Jad said, looking around the table at the Nobles and their Advisors who were present. "What did we say? Four-point-five per cent?"
"For six months," Lord Emil agreed. "After that it will drop by point-five per cent per quarter, Sire."
Despite being, in theory, a meeting between all three Atlantlan Dukes and their King, only two of the Nobles were actually physically present. The first was the King himself, of course, and Lord Marsden Hallack, Duke Hy Braseal, was the second. Lord Emil el-Shahir, Duke Lyonesse, was attending only virtually, through a secure video link, and Lord Thomas Baker, Duke Avalon, was in no condition to attend anything.
In fact, Lord Marsden was the only one of the penultimate order of aristocracy to have survived the Invasion nearly unharmed. He had suffered a serious arm wound during the fighting in the Palace, but had somehow survived the attack which had left nearly all his peers dead. One of those peers had been Lord Hassan el-Shahir, the previous Duke Lyonesse, and it was his son and Heir who was present this day.
And the third casualty had been Lord Thomas, who had been seriously wounded by the assassin attempting to kill the Royal family. The Duke currently remained in a coma, and although his condition had improved enough for the elderly gentleman to be taken off full life support, his place had to be taken by his Advisory Council.
Dawn Rousseau, the Speaker for that Council, nodded at Lord Emil's recitation. "It's lower than we were hoping for, Your Majesty, but still high enough that Velez will agree with it, Your Majesty," she said. Hugo Velez was Avalon's Economic Advisor. "Frankly, I think any tax reduction will help stimulate some more foreign investment."
"Gods know we could use it," Lord Emil muttered, and despite the informality of his tone everyone nodded.
Atlantl's economy had nearly always been immensely strong, easily dwarfing that of almost every other nation of comparable population. Only two or three Middle Eastern oil nations boasted a larger per capita income. A large percentage of the Realm's wealth came from taxes, tariffs, and fees on shipping passing between four continents. It was possible for cargo vessels to avoid Atlantlan water and fees, but such a long extension of their route around the islands made it far easier and cheaper to simply pay the tolls. As well, its location at such a major crossroads had led to the development of a massive warehousing and transshipping infrastructure, the taxes from which also flowed into Atlantl's coffers.
However, that same volume of shipping put a huge strain on departments like the Royal Atlantlan Customs Agency, one of the few organisations in the Realm's government which was constantly stretched to the limit, despite the vast sums of money and manpower poured into its operation. Still, RACA had performed with well-known efficiency, catching a large fraction of the illicit trade that plagued every trade route. Their greatest failure to date was allowing so many weapons and people to be smuggled into the country, which had then been used to stage the Invasion. It was now becoming more clear that such a failure reflected less on the Agency's part and more on the existence of some conspiracy to deliberately blind the Customs command structure.
That, however, did not make the current situation any easier. The government had been forced to spend even more time and energy on searching shipping since the Invasion, with predictable results. There were few companies who appreciated the delays and additional scrutiny of their shipping that had become necessary. Even the ones without any illicit leanings whatsoever—and, amazingly, there were a few of those—certainly didn't like the way that spending additional time in Customs meant paying additional money for that time.
Added to perfectly justified uncertainty over the actual security of the Realm, as evidenced by the Invasion and exacerbated by the recent attack on a civilian research vessel, the result was a slight but measureable decrease in investment in Atlantlan-based companies and businesses. It was very small as of yet, and the Realm was nowhere close to sustaining major, permanent damage economically, but one of the reason the nation had been able to be so successful had always been to be very cautious in their economic policies. The best way to maintain a healthy economy was to monitor it growth very carefully, minimising both the sudden jumps and sharp drops that could bring the whole thing crashing down.
So, despite the additional cost, Atlantl's rulers had already initiated a decrease in the shipping tariffs, and were now going to create a short-term tax cut to encourage new foreign investment. Everyone present was well aware of the repercussions, however, so nobody bothered bringing them up.
"Are there any other concerns?" King Jad asked, looking around the table.
"Actually--" "Yes, Sire--"
Lord Emil Hassan and Dawn Rousseau spoke at the same time. There was a brief moment where each wasn't sure who would speak, and then the Duke gestured for Rousseau to continue. The Speaker nodded her thanks.
"Thank you, Your Grace. Sire, I hate to bring it up, but I think we need to begin seriously considering who is going to Succeed Lord Thomas as Duke Avalon."
The King's face was stony, but not completely shut, while the others present looked uncomfortable. "Has there been a change in his condition?"
Rousseau shook her head. "No, Sire. His Grace's health has not deteriorated. However, by the same token, neither has it improved. In fact, his doctors claim that even if he emerges from the coma, they are frankly highly doubtful as to whether he will be able to withstand the rigours of the office. And while we on the Advisory Council have been successful acting as regent so far, there are... stresses forming. I won't say we're become polarised—yet—but we need a strong leader to keep us focussed and coherent."
The King clearly wanted to argue, but the situation was far too important to allow purely emotional attachments to overrule practicality. "You have suggestions?"
"Yes, Sire. We have located a blood relative, a second cousin, who could be considered eligible, but to be blunt she really wouldn't be qualified. She is herself retired, and the full extent of her political experience seems to be as casual leader of her lawn bowling team." The Speaker shrugged. "The analysis suggests that she would also be highly uninterested in the role of Duchess, even if we were to offer her the Duchy."
"I'll want to see your analysis before Cleo and I make any final decisions, both for your estimate of this candidate's abilities and her desire for the job. If she is actually qualified I'm quite willing to urge her to accept the Duchy, whether she wants to or not." The King looked at the Speaker. "However, since it sounds like this candidate is questionable, I assume you wouldn't have brought it up unless you have another suggestion."
"Yes, Sire. I'm afraid the other option is simply to replace Lord Thomas by promoting one of his Counts."
A year before the suggestion would have brought great scepticism, since displacing an aristocratic dynasty was usually the last resort. However, with the massacre of the Nobility, more than one lower Noble had been raised in the intervening months to fill a vacancy in an upper tier. Only a half-dozen, perhaps, but that was more than the previous hundred years put together. Therefore, Rousseau's statement was met only with raised eyebrows.
"You're sure?" King Jad asked, although his tone wasn't dismissive or even sceptical. "Thomas might have something to say about it when he wakes up."
Rousseau shrugged. "I'm afraid so, Sire. We could make the appointment provisional, but we think it'll create more stability in the long run to officially establish a new Ducal dynasty. We need leadership with indisputable authority, especially now."
The King grunted softly, turning to Lord Emil and Lord Marsden. "Thoughts?"
"I'd like to see Speaker Rousseau's reports and analyses myself before committing fully, Sire," el-Shahir said, nodding, "but I already have faith in her Advisory Council. If they honestly feel this is the best route, I'll back it."
Hallack took a little longer to speak. "I don't really see a problem with the concept itself, Sire," he said finally. "My main concern is with the timing. Shaking up the Nobility again, especially on such a high level, is something I don't think we can take lightly. That said, would it be better to do it now, while everyone is still settling into place, and hope the splash is buffered by the already unsettled waters? Or should we wait until our new Nobles have their feet under them so that the structure is more secure when we start changing bricks?"
"A good point," Jad noted. "Dawn? How long can you hold things together?"
"For a while yet, Sire," Rousseau said promptly. "We're nowhere near to fracturing or factionalising. I only brought it up because the signs for that potential are there. It's still in the realm of abstract policy disagreements, but I want to head it off before cliques actually start forming in the Advisory Council and departments." She shrugged, waving to herself. "I'll admit that I have my own biases and ideas on how things should be run, which is why we need a ruler above us to provide unequivocal direction."
"Very well. I will definitely sit down with Cleo and discuss it. In the meantime, I want all of you to start taking the measure of your Nobles. How they're going to react, how a change might affect policies, everything you can. Dawn, keep an ear out for who your Counts might elevate from their number. And discreetly, of course. I can handle all of this being a vague rumour—Gods, it's already at that point!--but I don't want to have a power-struggle in the Nobility at this point."
There were murmurs of agreement from those present, both physically and virtually.
"Good. Now, Emil, you had something."
"Yes, Sire. In fact, it is vaguely related to Speaker Rousseau's topic." The Duke nodded towards the Advisor. "Not about the Ducal succession, but... about the Royal succession."
"Oh?" King Jad's brows lowered, but his voice remained mild, something that nobody present found reassuring in the least. The King was known for remaining calm and level until a certain point was reached, whereupon he tended to explode in ways unfortunate to those around him. Such as when he had broken his Legal Advisor's nose during a discussion concerning Princess Evelynne's right to marry a woman.
In addition, Lord Emil's father, the previous Duke Lyonesse, had been the first public opponent to the engagement between the Heir and Lady Alleandre, and while his initial attempt to block the union had been defeated, his Heir had made his own discomfort with the situation known.
"Yes, Sire," Lord Emil repeated, and he was young enough that his concealment of his apprehension was imperfectly hidden. "First, let me say that I am in no way questioning Princess Evelynne's right to ascend the Throne. She is the Heir to full extent of the law, no matter what... other circumstances may exist." There was a slight thawing of the King's expression, which increased as the Duke continued. "I have also chosen, with the support of my Council, to remove my objections to the... marriage between Her Highness and Lady Alleandre." That had Marsden blinking in surprise and Rousseau gaping in open shock. "For the next years we will need to work together far more closely than in the past, and I cannot allow my own biases to jeopardise our political security." He suddenly smiled ruefully. "Polls are also showing an ever-increasing level of support for the union, even in my own Duchy. In some ways, the mere fact that they and their... relationship have remained so strong in acting as a rallying point to keep the Realm together."
That was true. The political and social leanings of the three islands tended to follow those of their Dukes surprisingly closely, which meant that Lyonesse was by far the most conservative of the three. While support for Evelynne and Alleandre's engagement had always been high in Avalon, and moderate in Hy Braseal, the fact that approval had recently actually exceeded fifty per cent in Lyonesse had been a shock to everyone.
"I should also say that I am not giving up my reservations about Lady Alleandre become the next King... Queen... whichever."
King Jad chuckled. "Let me inform you that Lady Alleandre's reservations about becoming King are twenty times as great as yours."
"Indeed. In any case, that is a discussion for the future."
"As Her Majesty is wont to say, 'I hear a "but" coming,'" Marsden said wryly.
"There is," el-Shahir said simply. "Whether there is the chance for this discussion in the future depends on having a viable line of succession. To simplify, while Princess Evelynne is the Heir, she has already survived two assassination attempts so far. While I am honestly distressed by the possibility, I have to wonder what happens if she does not survive the next one. She is, as far as any of us know, the last in the al-Heru-deMolay dynasty." His last statement had the barest hint of a question.
The King picked up on it. "No, there are no 'bastard Princes' waiting in the shadows," he said, again with that menacing calm.
Lord Emil looked a little startled to have it denied so quickly. "Ah, as you say, Sire. However, at the risk of being indelicate, it would be simpler if there were. As it stands, the situation is precarious. There are the cadet branches of the family, but they are so convoluted that we're looking at massive strife if two or more competing claims choose to stake their positions vehemently. I, myself, have some vague connection, but so do Lord Marsden and a quarter of the Nobility."
"If necessary, one of the Dukes could be raised," Marsden pointed out. "It's how the al-Heru line was established in the first place."
"True, but then we're just looking at the some problem we have now with Lord Thomas' succession." Lord Emil smiled apologetically at Rousseau and shrugged. "Only on an even larger scale."
King Jad was impressed, and a glance at Lord Marsden showed that the older Duke was as well. For a Noble who had been abruptly installed less than a year before, el-Shahir was showing a good grasp of the political realities. His father had been a strong, canny ruler, for all his cautious conservatism, but the new Duke Lyonesse was shaping up to be even more impressive.
"I presume that, like Speaker Rousseau, you would not have brought up the subject if you didn't feel you had a solution." King Jad cocked a bushy red eyebrow.
"Not solutions, as such, Sire. More along the lines of... ideas. Suggestions." Despite his admirable attempts to hide it, Lord Emil was obviously struggling with his own discomfort.
By this point, however, the King was losing patience. "And these suggestions are...?"
The young Duke took a deep, fortifying breath. "We need another Heir, Sire," he said with commendable firmness. "Either a child of your body, or..." Here he lost some of his confidence. "Or a child of Princess Evelynne's." He seemed almost relieved to have got it out.
Dawn Rousseau cringed, but Lord Marsden looked almost bland. It was obviously not the first time the idea had crossed his mind.
The King, however, was not so sanguine. "Are you suggesting that Evelynne have a child, at this time, in the middle of this crisis, with all of the other responsibilities she is carrying, simply to... to..."
Now that he'd thrown himself into the pit, el-Shahir seemed to have decided that there was no way out other than facing the lion. "To provide a lifeline of stability and continuity so that our nation does not get thrown into chaos or possible civil war should the worst happen? Yes."
"And the legitimacy of this hypothetical child? I highly doubt that my daughter will be willing to marry the father, even at a time like this. She does happen to be engaged already, and, as your own father pointed out, neither she nor Alleandre are equipped to properly reproduce on their own."
"Actually, Sire, I do think that, if there were no other option, Her Highness would be prepared to do her duty and perform whatever task was required in order to safeguard the security and society of her people. However, I do not think proper marriage is strictly necessary. Though I find it personally unfortunate, illegitimate children have inherited their parents' titles, even the Throne, on several occasions in the past, with, I might add, very little stress on the Realm as a whole."
"And the father? The laws are quite explicit in that an Heir, even an illegitimate one, may only inherit if his or her complete parentage is fully known. That means no anonymous 'donors.' And even if it was fully known who this father was, there are at least two potential pitfalls waiting to happen. One, this father, whoever he may be, is hardly going to sit idly by while his own offspring is raised to a position of such power. We fought a three-year civil war in the 1200s because Prince Rasa's father wanted him on the Throne, rather than his younger, legitimate brother.
"And the second has to do with this very stability Evelynne's and Alleandre's relationship seems to be providing. How long do you think that will last once Evelynne is forced to be 'unfaithful' to her fiancée, no matter the necessity? Even assuming that the stress of this situation doesn't destroy their relationship on its own?"
Lord Emil looked ready to rebut, when Lord Marsden cleared his throat gently. "I believe that I might have a compromise, one that may satisfy all our requirements, though I'm sure none of us will be truly pleased."
to the Academy