by PsiDraconis

Chapter 14

"Your Ladyship."

"Your Ladyship."

Two women smiled wryly, clearly amused by the obviously silliness of the exchange. Of course, they were new enough to their titles so that they still couldn't really take such accolades seriously. Each in their own way, they were both outsiders of a sort in the ballroom where a large number of fellow Nobles were gathered, engaged in the constant dance of politics on which the Realm was run.

Lady Artemisia Masters, Baroness Vascha, had held her title for less than a year. In fact, she held the dubious distinction of being the very last Noble to take her place prior to the Invasion and massacre of her peers almost a year before. It had been only a day after she had made her first Oath of Allegiance to her Diarchs that the Invaders had struck. The Lady had seen half her Personal Guard die that day, and remembered little of the battle afterwards, although her surviving armsmen had reported that she had picked up the sidearm of one of her fallen protectors and forced the attackers to keep to cover, although admittedly her aim had been more courageous and enthusiastic than precise. When the smoke had cleared, Lady Artemisia had found herself among the mere ten per cent of the Nobility who had survived, part of the "Old Guard", rather than the "New Blood" who had inherited their predecessors' titles en masse. However, with her true assumption of duties only a day old at the time, most of the "Old Guard" considered her to be part of the new rabble of Nobility who were unconcernedly breaking old alliances and traditional understandings in favour of their own goals. There was definitely a line drawn between the two factions, although it was nowhere near becoming true ideological fracturing.

Lady Rafiqa Ilham was, on the surface, about as different from Lady Artemisia as it was possible to get: sixty-eight years old to Artemisia's twenty-seven, nearly two metres tall to her peer's one and a half, and as dark as Masters was pale. And where the Masters bloodline had ruled the Barony of Vascha for nearly six hundred years, Lady Rafiqa was the very first of a new family now occupying the Barony of Narbos. Not all of the Nobles who had died in the Invasion had possessed legitimate Heirs to their peerages, leaving an untenable situation distressingly similar to that on which the Royal family itself was near to occupying. Fortunately, the Constitution and Ithikan Compact provided for just this circumstance, although their drafters would never have imagined the solution being applied so many times in such a short period. If a Noble died without Heirs—or was deposed, as in the case of ex-Lord Bransen—a member of his or her immediate vassals would be elected by their peers to be raised to the higher level of aristocracy. The practice had been applied a few times since the Compact's signing, but the recent attacks had forced seven elevations within the space of a year. And, as one Noble moved up, his previous seat was left empty, resulting in a need to be filled. This ultimately left a Barony without a Lord, and no lower lever of aristocracy to be raised to it. In such a case, it was up to the Freeman citizens of that Barony to nominate and elect one of their own to the empty seat.

Prior to the Invasion, Rafiqa Ilham had been a member of the Council of Aldermen of the city of Benu, capital of Narbos, a position she had held for twenty-four years, and one which she had no intention or ambition of rising above. Unfortunately for her, the nomination of a candidate for elevation to the Barony did not require that candidate's consent or approval. Neither of which were forthcoming when the Alderwoman was informed of the decision. She had protested loudly, publicly and, at times, violently, but the citizens of Narbos were particularly stubborn believers in a peculiar rule of democracy: "Any person who is capable of getting themselves elected should under no circumstances whatsoever be given the job." Anyone who actually sought public office was immediately held suspect, and the elected officials of the Barony tended to be those who had to be forced to take the position.

And so Alderwoman Rafiqa Ilham had become Lady Rafiqa Ilham, Baroness Narbos, and first of the new bloodline for the Barony, much to her dismay. Thankfully, she had six other peers who had been newly raised from the ranks of the Commoners—at least two of whom were just as disgruntled by their sudden change in status—and they had, perhaps inevitably, coalesced into a small faction of their own, one that enjoyed nearly unprecedented support from their citizenry. The press had yet to think up some semi-clever name for this group, but that was only a matter of time. And, somehow, Baroness Vascha had migrated into the newest of Atlantl's political alliances, where, given that every single one of the new Nobles were older than her, most by decades, she had been adopted as a sort of prodigal daughter, and ambassador of sorts to the established families of the Nobility.

"I saw you speaking to His Majesty," Lady Rafiqa noted, absently running a finger around the edge of her wine glass, "and the Royal Consort."

"Teyu," Masters replied, nodding. "I must admit I was... hemem... uncertain about how to address Lady Meghan."

"Believe me, I think she feels a lot like I do," Ilham replied wryly. "Just wanting to run away and hide from this bunch of stuffed-up popinjays."

Lady Artemisia giggled. "K!ayet," she said. "This is true."

The King's announcement that he had taken a Consort had surprised nearly all of Atlantl, and when it had been revealed that this Consort was a mere servant, the surprise had been complete. Even so, acceptance from the general populace had come with remarkable speed. After all, if the Heir to the Throne could take a foreign, Commoner woman as a Consort, who could get upset simply because the King's choice used to clean his office? This gathering of the Nobles, the first large-scale one since the Invasion, had been intended partially as a chance for the Nobility to get to know this woman who was inevitably going to be part of social life at the court in the future. So far the King had been reticent to confirm marriage plans, but had been quick to state that nothing would jeopardise his daughter's right to rule.

"And speaking of wanting to run away and hide, I notice that Lady Alleandre is holding herself remarkably well."

That was true as well. The Heir Consort was dressed in a simple tunic and trousers, with her tabard bearing her coat of arms as the only real indication of her Knightly status. Of course, few other people would ever have the Heir's arm tucked comfortably into the crook of her left elbow. What was surprising was that Lady Alleandre was once more relying on a cane, leaving many wondering if the rumours of her intense involvement into the investigation of the Invasion were true. It was quite obvious that something was wearing deeply on the young woman's reserves. It was hardly surprising, considering the Consort's temporary exile with her Royal fiancée, her mother's grave injury, and the events of the Invasion itself.

Also present, and nearly as intriguing as the Heir and her Consort, was Princess Evelynne's new personal Page, Claire Jones. The mere fact that an American had been chosen had been shocking enough to citizens of both Atlantl and the United States, especially considering the recent tensions between the two nations, but her unique appearance was also a source of immense fascination. However, neither Princess Evelynne nor Lady Alleandre had made any comment whatsoever to the young Page's variegated albinism and shocking bicoloured eyes, and nobody else, in Atlantl at least, had quite built up the courage to make any comments of their own. It made the rumour that Page Jones was also a lesbian practically irrelevant.

It was with some surprise that the two newly-made Baronesses realised that the Princess' personal assistant was walking in their direction, and if Lady Artemisia was too young to notice the almost painfully careful way the strikingly coloured woman was carrying herself, Lady Rafiqa could spot it instantly. The Page was quite clearly ill-at-ease in the gathering, and the older Baroness wondered again just what skills and personality traits had convinced Her Highness to choose the woman. Regardless, the clothiers had been exceptional in choosing a simple purple and gold uniform that turned her appearance from strange to exotic.

"Baroness Vascha, Baroness Narbos, I bring Princess Evelynne's compliments, and her request for several moments of your time in private." Page Jones' speech was careful and precise, as was her bow, although the hint of uncertainty in her tone betrayed her unfamiliarity with the setting and terms of address. "Her Highness wishes to ask you about the challenges and opportunities of being the Realm's newest Nobility."

And that was a half-truth at best, Lady Rafiqa realised, and saw by her companion's expression that Lady Artemisia knew it as well. Had it truly been a request for nothing more than a friendly chat, Page Jones would not have used the formality of their peerage titles. The fact that she had done so told them both that whatever this discussion would be about would have some bearing on their official standing in the Nobility.

However, one did not refuse a request by the Heir to the Realm without incredibly good reasons, so Lady Rafiqa bowed in return to the Princess' representative, a fraction of a second behind Lady Artemisia. "Certainly, Mistress Claire," she said. "I'm sure we would be delighted."

Evelynne turned as she sensed the presence at her elbow, after an apologetic glance at Lord Larrel, who was also a cousin, though one not in the Royal Line, and therefore ineligible for the throne—a fact for which he was consistently and loudly grateful. The Lord just nodded and grinned. He and Evelynne had been close before the Invasion, and the princess felt a lingering sadness that the Invasion seemed to have curbed the Lord's exuberance to some degree. He had been notorious throughout the Nobility and beyond for his unashamedly hedonistic and promiscuous lifestyle, so much so that his truly impressive ability as ruler of his County was often overlooked.

"I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but the message you were waiting for has arrived," Claire murmured with a small, perfectly-correct bow.

"Thank you, Claire," Evelynne said, smiling. The near-terror rolling off her friend reminded her a lot of how Ally had acted when she had attended her first Noble gathering. How are you holding up? she asked silently.

I'm doing okay, Claire replied, although I'll be really glad when this is over.

Won't we all? Evelynne said wryly. "Have you told Alleandre yet?"

"Yes, Your Highness. Her Ladyship said that she would meet you there."

It was still strange to have such a close friend acting so very formally and with such deference, and Ally and Evelynne had taken great pains to make sure that when they were among those who knew the true relationship they had they treated Claire as the friend she was. In time it would be possible for the American woman to relax some of her formality in public, as it was hardly unknown for close relationships to develop between Pages and their Lords, so few would take notice.

"Thank you. If you'll excuse me, Larrel, I have to take this."

"Of course, Evy. My regards to your gorgeous Consort." Larrel grinned as Evelynne rolled her eyes.

On the way out of the crowded ballroom, Evelynne maintained her smile, nodding and exchanging greetings with those she passed. Her grin turned genuine as she saw her father's new official Consort at the centre of a group of older Ladies, where they all seemed to have thrown off their airs of aristocracy and were gossiping and laughing together like fishwives. There were those who were quite put out with the King's choice, feeling that it was somehow demeaning to take a servant as a companion, but they had learned to keep their opinions to themselves. On the other hand, there was at least one woman who thought that it was the King who was the questionable choice, and Evelynne's mind flickered back to her first meeting with Meghan's daughter.

"Your Highness, Your Ladyship, I present Ms Eustace Frances-Doherty." Sir Arthur's formal introduction ushered the short, brown-haired woman into the room. She was older than Evelynne by some ten years, and her resemblance to her mother was easily apparent. Curly brown ringlets framed a carefully bland face, but the woman's sharp brown eyes radiated enough suspicion and barely-concealed uncertainty that Evelynne didn't even need Ally's empathic talent to read it.

Nonetheless, Meghan's daughter made a perfectly correct bow before her princess. "Good evening, Your Highness," she said, and the almost-hostility could be heard in her voice as well.

"Please, call me Evelynne," the princess encouraged, smiling, while a quick glance showed that her Consort was just as aware of the odd undercurrents in Frances-Doherty's manner. "Considering the circumstances. We're almost step-sisters. May I call you Eustace?"

"If you wish, Your—Evelynne." There was only the slightest thaw in the woman's tension.

Evelynne wasn't about to be put off. She had tamed far more formidable foes than Eustace Frances-Doherty, if not in quite the same unusual circumstances. "Excellent. And, of course, this is my fiancée, Ally."

"Hi," Ally greeted, and Evelynne could tell she was being as casual as possible, providing possibly more familiar social cues. "It's good to meet you at last. Your mother's said a lot about you."

"Thank you, ah... Alleandre. Only good things, I hope."

Ally sighed theatrically. "You know mothers."

That brought a crack in Eustace's icy armour, and she even smiled. "I'm afraid so. My condolences on your own mother's... condition."

"Thank you. I'll tell her."

"Well, I don't know mothers like you do," Evelynne said, "but if Maïda is anything like that, I have a pretty good idea."

Ally laughed, but, oddly, Eustace's face closed down a bit more once again. "As you say."

So it's something about me specifically, Evelynne thought while gesturing her guest towards the chairs set up in front of the fire and ordering tea brought in. She seems fine with Ally. So it's probably not anything to do with our engagement. It had been a worry, that Meghan's daughter might not accept the relationship between the Princess and her Consort, as apparently she was more at home among the more conservative elements of Atlantlan society. Of course, it is my father who's in a relationship with her mother, and I know how strange that's making me feel.

"I'd like to offer my personal congratulations on your engagement," their guest said. "Although I wish you could be enjoying it in happier circumstances." Whatever her internal struggles, Frances-Doherty was obviously trying to overcome them.

"Thank you," Evelynne said, taking Ally's hand in her own and pressing a kiss to its back.

"Evy thought you might not like having a step-sister-in-law quite the way we have it now." Evelynne was shocked by her fiancée's bluntness, but a quick glance at Eustace showed an expression of respect that was somewhat unexpected. However, it was quite possible that the other woman was one of those who appreciated plain, forthright speech, and that Ally had picked up on it either empathically or subconsciously.

"You're correct," Frances-Doherty said, "although maybe not in the way you think. I'll admit I was... disgruntled when Her Highness... Evelynne proposed to you, and I still don't know whether your relationship will be good for Atlantl. However, given everything that has happened, I think there are far more important issues to address right now. M!a!a bek!a bek!a ne. The future will take care of itself." The woman hesitated. "May I be blunt?"

"You mean you haven't been so far?" Evelynne asked incredulously, which brought a grudging smile to her possible step-sister's face.

"Evelynne... I am far less concerned about what you might get up to in the privacy of your own bedroom, or the fact that I may be gaining a step-sister, than I am about the fact that you are that step-sister. That your father might become my mother's new husband. I'm not naïve, and I know just what kinds of pressures those of the Nobility can apply to those who serve them. Given that your father is the very highest level of the Nobility makes his influence so much the greater."

It took only a moment for Evelynne to understand what Frances-Doherty was saying. "You think my father is forcing Meghan to be with him?!" she asked incredulously.

Eustace shrugged, but didn't look away. "I don't know, but it's a possibility I can't ignore. King Jad literally holds the power of life and death over all his subjects, and while I think that he's been a very good Diarch, I just don't know how far his professional integrity extends into his personal life. There have certainly been instances in the past where less honourable Nobles have abused their power for personal gain."

Evelynne was stunned to near silence. Finally, she managed to grind out, her tone ice-cold, "I can assure you that--"

Frances-Doherty shook her head forcefully and interrupted. "No... Evelynne, I'm sorry, but you can't assure me. I honestly hope I am wrong, because I respect His Majesty a great deal, and if this is truly what my mother wants I will support her utterly. But for now, the only person who can assure me of anything is my mother herself, and I am going to withhold judgement until she does so."

"Your Highness. Mistress Claire." Corporal Li-He nodded with utter formality as she held open the door to the small sitting room, and her face was bland and professional, but Claire still felt her own face heating up as she avoided looking at the young Guard.

Even since Ally had revealed Li-He found Claire attractive, the new Page had been trying to figure out just what to do about it. With her unusual appearance, Claire wasn't used to the idea that anyone found her attractive, so she had minimal experience to draw upon. It also hadn't helped that the Corporal had maintained a friendly presence, but no more than that, with not a flicker to indicate that she actually was interested. Claire had found herself wondering if Ally had been teasing her, but had dismissed the thought instantly; Ally would never lie to her about anything emotional. On the other hand, it was possible that the mind-reader was simply mistaken, and that was something Claire took very seriously. Ally's mental state had been shaky enough over the past months, a condition not soothed by the seemingly unending scans she was performing in the investigations. On the third hand, Claire reluctantly admitted to herself, it was possible that Li-He was just as uncertain. After all, the Pages' Handbook she had been supplied with had stated quite clearly that relationships between Pages and any security personnel were to be strongly discouraged, though it stopped short of banning them outright. Presumably the Corporal had a similar section in whatever Guards' Handbook she used, and Claire could certainly understand any trepidation she might feel about trying to explain a relationship with her charge's personal Page to Colonel Nixon.

Shaking herself out of her thoughts, Claire forced herself to focus on her nominal duties, remaining close by Evelynne's elbow as the princess walked forward to greet the three Nobles who were waiting to meet her. With Lady Artemisia and Lady Rafiqa was Lady Lois Nunanje, Baroness Hemet-Ankh, who was one of the few Nobles who had survived the massacre the previous year. Always patriotic, Nunanje had emerged from the Invasion with a devotion to her Realm and Rulers that just barely stopped short of fanatical. Her Barony had been at the forefront of those who had begun their own professionally-trained militias. Though she had been energetic in encouraging and funding them, she had also shown the ability to quickly and ruthlessly disband any which showed any signs of slipping out of the government's oversight.

"Lady Rafiqa, Lady Lois, Lady Artemisia, I'm very pleased you agreed to speak with me," Evelynne was saying, as though any of the Baronesses would have even considered refusing her request. "Now if my Consort would arrive we can begin our discussion." The princess looked back at Claire. "She is coming, correct?" There was a faintly humorous undertone to her question that covered up an even deeper worry; the meeting they were about to have was one that Ally would have gratefully avoided if at all possible.

Claire had a sudden flash, as though she was floating behind and just above Ally as her friend walked down the same hallway she and Evelynne had just traversed. Mentally shaking away the unexpected flicker of remote viewing, the Page murmured, "She's here right now, My Lady."

Evelynne nodded, accepting the information without a hint of questioning, though the other Ladies showed vague surprise when Corporal Li-He opened the door once more, ushering in the wayward Consort.

Ally was wearing her blue and silver trousers and tunic, complete with tabard that had become her customary uniform to official events, no matter how Evelynne tried to convince her to wear a gown. At first, Claire had been with Evelynne in urging Ally to wear something more feminine, but after a few weeks as Page, and wearing somewhat similar livery, albeit in the princess' colours of purple and gold, Claire had realised just how much a uniform helped the wearer blend into the background, no matter who they were and what they looked like.

Ally herself could almost hear Claire's thoughts as she limped closer, and shot a friendly smile in the other woman's direction. Then she turned her attention to Evelynne, who hurried forward to grab her elbow—Ally didn't even bother trying not to accept the support gracefully—and lead her forward to introduce her. Then they were sitting, she and her fiancée together on a couch, and Ally could barely suppress the groan of relief as her aching back muscles released their load. Still, her companion felt it, and sent a wordless surge of love and support through their Link.

"Well, I would like to begin immediately, if you don't mind," Evelynne said once everyone else was settled, and Claire was standing behind the couch in her proper position as Page. She would have far preferred to have her friend with them on the sofa, knowing that Ally—and herself—could use all the support they could get right now, but there were proprieties to consider. "As you might have guessed, we're not here to talk to you about being the new rulers of Baronies."

Lady Rafiqa glanced sideways at each of her peers. "I think that's a safe enough bet, Your Highness," she replied. "A casual discussion does not usually require the formal presence of Baroness Narbos, or Hemet-Ankh, or Vascha." She hesitated. "I find it quite interesting that each of us is from a different Island, as well."

"You're correct," Evelynne said plainly, and Ally knew neither of them was surprised. One didn't become—or at least remain—one of Atlantl's Nobles without a high level of intelligence, and the machinations of Court ensured that one quickly learned to look for the true intention behind every statement. "You are here as representatives, not only of your own Baronies, but as personal witnesses and representatives of each of your Dukes and Duchies as well."

That brought varying expressions of surprise to the Ladies' faces, and Ally could almost feel it as well, even though her mental shields were up with every bit of strength she could muster behind them. Lady Rafiqa's brows rose, and Lady Lois looked speculative, while Lady Artemisia was plainly rattled at being thrust into such an important position.

"You are further enjoined, by Royal and Ducal Decree, to a Vow of Silence concerning the words that will be spoken here tonight, and the events which may arise from it. Breaking this Vow will be considered an act of Treason against the Realm. Do you so swear?"

Lady Lois' agreement was instantaneous, followed a moment later by her peers.

"Good," Evelynne said, smiling. "Those Guards now present, and Page Jones, do so witness this Vow.

"Now," she continued, "you should know that a decision has been made that will, hopefully, stabilise the al-Heru-deMolay Dynasty by providing for the possibility of a fully legitimate Heir, should something unfortunate occur to the current Heir—that is, myself." Ally squeezed her partner's hands tightly. "The King and Queen, along with the Dukes of Hy Braseal, Avalon, and Lyonesse, and the Heir and Heir Consort, have chosen a... novel course of action. By the end of the month, arrangements will be made for Lady Alleandre to undergo ova extraction at a secure medical facility. At the same time, Brother Patrick, one-time Heir to the Throne, shall... perform a sperm deposit at a similar secure location, with the permission of his Abbott. These sperm and ova will be cryogenically preserved until such time as they may be required. The offspring of this process shall be considered to be the fully legitimate Heir Apparent to the Realm, until and unless such time as an Heir is produced in a more... conventional manner." Evelynne leaned forward to hand across three leather folders, each bearing five seals, to the now-stunned Nobles. "The specific legal and Dynastic details are provided herein. It should be noted that this procedure is being approved without precedent or prejudice for any future situations which may arise."

Lady Rafiqa's hands were actually shaking lightly as she flipped through the papers within her folder. "You say the Dukes have agreed to this... proposal."

"Yes." Evelynne nodded. "Documents stating as much can be found within the legal material."

"So... mer yeb en !anek, Ur-Mata," Artemisia stuttered. "What is our place in this plan?" She gestured to herself and her peers.

"Obviously, such an unprecedented plan is going to be vulnerable to attacks by those who question its legitimacy. Even those with no ill intent could have grave doubts about the veracity of any donated material, should it ever be used, and therefore the status of any Heir would be in question, and we would find ourselves back where we are now. In order to minimise that doubt, steps are being taken. To begin with, witnesses shall be present at all medical procedures. At Alleandre's procedure will be present myself, her mother, and Mistress Claire." Ally didn't have to look to know that Claire was blushing at the surprised looks she was receiving. "The three of you will also be present." That quickly brought the Ladies' attention back to Evelynne. Before they could comment, the princess continued, "The ova that are extracted will be divided into four portions; Mr. and Mrs. Tretiak will receive one set, and the remaining three will become yours to safeguard until such time as all three Dukes, in accord, determine that they should be used." Evelynne smiled thinly. "We anticipate that if such an event comes to pass, neither the King, Queen, nor myself will be in a position to make such a decision. You should also know that Patrick's... contribution will be treated in a similar manner, and kept in the care of three male Nobles whose identities you are not required to know."

"So, how're we supposed to take care of... the material?" Lady Lois asked in her low drawl.

"That is entirely up to you to determine. The only requirement is that it be completely secure. Whether that means hiding it in plain sight at a public cryogenic facility, or locking it in a vault in your Manor, or some other option, is your choice. Although obviously we'd like you to be able to remember where you put it should it be needed." Nobody smiled at the weak attempt at humour.

"Ah... Your Highness?" Artemisia looked as though she was a hesitant student trying to get the teacher's attention. "I am, of course, honoured to be chosen for this task... yem!akhi yeden, Ur-Mata. But... may I ask why... we have been chosen?" Lois and Rafiqa nodded, and Ally silently applauded the younger Lady's courage in asking the question.

"Needless to say, this course of action is laden with political and social nuances," Evelynne replied. "It's possible that whoever finally controlled the conception of the next Heir, should the worst happen, would be tempted to use the opportunity to increase their personal power. Whoever ultimately completes the genesis will be, in effect, a kind of foster-parent. To be blunt, you have been chosen because every psychological profile we have been able to run on you has shown that none of you are at all interested in power for power's sake." Not only that, but Ally had spent some time over the past weeks surreptitiously scanning each of the women in the room, and the final decision had only been made after her ultimate choice. "Lady Rafiqa, you had to be forced into your Barony practically at knifepoint, and Lady Lois is, if you'll pardon me, so dedicated to the continuity of the Royal Dynasty that it borders on obsession. And Lady Artemisia, we've found, actually has a near phobia of the political power she wields, which is why she is so careful in its use, and why I'm confident she will ultimately make a great Noble.

"The other reason," the princess continued, while the three Nobles looked at each other speculatively, Artemisia flushing redly, "arises, in a sense, from the first one. Each of you is, for your own reasons, far less tied to any outstanding alliances with others who might in turn attempt to use your power to their own advantage. You are all, in a sense, outsiders to the mainstream Atlantlan aristocratic framework, even the new one that has been forming since the Invasion." Evelynne half-smiled. "It's certainly not fair, but it’s quite important that the task we're asking you to perform be a lonely one."

Later that night, Ally felt cold, even though she was lying in bed, under warm blankets, with her even warmer lover wrapped around her. She could sense that she was nowhere near sleep, and the faint tension in Evelynne's body told her that her partner was still awake as well.

Silence remained for a long time before Evelynne finally broke it. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Silence again, but Ally knew her partner could feel the whirring of her mind through their Link, even if she couldn't sense specifics, and was patient enough to wait it out.

"I don't want to do this any more," Ally said finally, and a deeper meaning resonated through the same mental bond, ensuring that Evelynne understood far more than the harsh words.

Still, the bond gave only vague impulses, not specifics, so she had to ask, "Which part?"

"All of it," Ally said without hesitation. "I don't want to have this procedure, I don't want to be tramping through strangers' minds all the time, I don't want to be in charge of this investigation... all of it."

"And me?" Evelynne whispered.

Despite everything, Ally tightened her grip almost painfully. "You are the only thing I do want." She swallowed, and there were tears hiding just behind her words. "Do you know what it was like this evening, telling these people what I was going to have done to myself? And... all anyone could say was the 'material'. The 'donation'. The 'specimens'. That's all part of me! They're going to be sticking things into me and taking out little bits, and giving them to strangers. But it's not even that. That I could handle. But if my... material," she spat out the word, "is ever actually used, do you know what that'll mean? It means you'll be dead! And probably Patrick, and your Aunt and Father, and God knows how many others. And maybe me as well, but I almost think I'd rather be dead than to have to live in the aftermath of that." She was crying openly now. "And I know I've been taking hormones, and I'm probably hysterical, but all I could hear any time anyone said, 'the potential Heir,' was: Evelynne is dead. And I don't want to think that any more!"

Continued . . .

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