“Your Majesty, you asked me to inform you...” Mohammed al-Shan, King Jad's personal secretary, waited in front of his Diarch's desk for the King to look up.
King Jad raised his head from the latest of the endless stream of reports that were the lifeblood of running any nation, his gaze concerned. “They're on the ground?”
“Yes, Sire. Her Highness' and Her Ladyship's Personal Guards have just reported. Her Ladyship is about to begin the procedure.”
“Ah. And have you arranged for--”
“Appropriate flowers have already been delivered to the Winter House for Lady Alleandre's return, Sire. I have also taken the liberty of ordering several other gifts. I hope I have caused no offence by submitting my own personal wishes for Her Ladyship's well-being as well.”
The King leaned back in his chair, a mingled expression of amusement and affection on his face. “Ah, Mohammed Jésus al-Shan, whatever would I do without you? Sometimes I think you would do so much better in this chair than I would.”
The secretary's face remained typically grave. “I can assure you, Your Majesty, that I have no intention whatsoever of taking your Throne for myself. I would be, I think, far underqualified when compared to those who shall rightfully wear the Crowns.”
Jad smiled again. “You don't know how glad I am to know that my daughter and Alleandre have your support.”
Mohammed bowed. “Indeed, Your Majesty.”
“How are you doing, love?” Evelynne asked softly. She was standing by her partner's bed, stroking back hair that was damp from sweat, and rubbing her thumb across the back of a hand that was gripping her own almost painfully.
“Can we go home yet?” Ally asked plaintively, her eyes somewhat glassy from more than the sedative the doctor had given her a short time before. “I don't like this any more.”
For one of the only times in her life, Evelynne hated her country, her Dynasty, and her duty for what they were forcing her lover to go through. “Ally, love.” She bent down even closer. “If you really want to stop then tell me and we'll find something else. I promise.”
Ally closed her eyes and swallowed convulsively. “No. You need to do this. We need to do this.” Her eyes opened again, staring dazedly up at her partner. “I just... I can't think properly, and I should be able to think properly, and I can see how I should be thinking, but I'm... not.” The young woman blinked rapidly. “I don't like not being able to think because the last time...”
The last time her mental facilities had been compromised, Ally had almost had sex with a total stranger, which had led to the darkest emotional period in her life, Evelynne's mind completed. Her stomach clenched, and she leaned down to press a lingering kiss on Ally's forehead. The doctor had applied the sedative when it had become clear that Ally's anxiety was doing unfortunate things to her blood pressure and tension. It had been successful at controlling those more physical symptoms, but a side effect appeared to be the heightened confusion that the doctor had assured Evelynne was a rare but documented reaction to the drug in extreme cases.
“I'm going to be right here the whole time,” Evelynne promised. “I'm going to make sure nothing happens to you.” Then, knowing one of Ally's real fears, “I'm going to make sure you don't do anything.”
Ally's smile was shaky. “Promise?”
“I promise. And when we're all done, I'm going to take you home and put you to bed and treat you how a Princess should really be treated.”
Ally was relaxing slowly, and Evelynne wasn't sure if it was the sedative taking effect as it should, or this was simply another ebb in her lover's wildly swinging emotions.
The woman in the hospital bed smiled sleepily. “May as well get some good use out of these hormones while I still have them, huh?”
Evelynne chuckled. The past weeks had been... memorable, as Ally's artificially influenced moods had displayed a marked tendency towards the amorous, although there had been times when she had been more than willing to pull the entire Winter House down around their heads over some minor irritation. Those uncontrolled emotions had played their part in contributing to her fear and confusion, as a part of her remained clear and rational throughout, able to witness her lack of control while largely unable to stop it. After the events in America, it was actually the lust which had Ally frightened the most, and Evelynne had learned to remain nearby as often as possible in order both to calm Ally's fears and... alleviate her symptoms should the need arise. While it had been inconvenient at times, Evelynne certainly wasn't complaining.
There was a hesitant knock at the door, and then Claire's familiar face peeked in. “Ally, Evelynne, they said it'll just be a few more minutes,” she said softly.
Evelynne smiled and Ally managed a shaky grin. “Thanks, Claire,” Evelynne said, beckoning the other woman farther into the room.
Gingerly, as though afraid she was going to break something, the exotic woman closed the door behind her and shuffled closer. “Hey, Ally. You've probably been asked this a lot lately, but how are you doing?”
Amazingly, Ally chuckled. “You know, Evy just asked me that exact thing.” The laugh faded, but a degree of renewed calm remained behind, much to Evelynne's gratitude. “I wanna go home.”
Claire's eyes flickered to Evelynne, who gave a barely seen nod. “Y'know, if I could I'd be the one going through this for you, right? But somehow I think it might raise questions when the kid's born and she turns out to be a zebra, huh?”
A few months before Claire would never even have considered making light fun of her own unusual appearance, but the time spent among people who accepted her, for the most part, for who and what she was had brought out a wryly self-deprecating humour that signalled her own acceptance of her bicoloured looks.
Ally laughed again. “Not a zebra,” she objected, shaking her head. “What do you think, Evy? Maybe a Siberian white tiger? All sleek and prowly?”
On cue, Claire flushed deeply, leaving Evelynne to giggle as well. “What's black and white and red all over?” she asked, grinning.
Claire rolled her eyes. “Gee, I've never heard that one before.”
Ally's relatively calm state managed to last until the medical staff who would be performing the procedure actually entered the room. Then she was forced to allow her legs to be placed within the stirrups provided, and only the crushing grips of Evelynne and Claire on each hand kept her from screaming. The nurses and doctor tried their best to give her as much modesty and dignity as possible, but such things were in short supply.
Then the witnesses were allowed in, each of the Ladies appearing almost as anxious as the patient, and Ally squeezed her eyes tight as Evelynne kept up a constant, soothing stream of near-wordless comfort into her mind, and Claire's friendly presence glowed nearby in her awareness. It was only when she felt a light touch in the middle of her forehead, and the presence of new but familiar minds that she opened them again, looking up dazedly to see her father's face hovering over head, smiling at her encouragingly. Turning her head, she confirmed that she was now flanked by her mother, leaning against the bed and standing on her one leg, and Black Crow, whose mind she could feel oh-so-subtly soothing her fears within her own. None of them said anything, but the emotions Ally could feel coming from all of them were a balm to her distressed soul, and she was able to close her eyes again with a measure of peace.
She clung to the minds of her friends and family, and even the uncomfortable but supportive thoughts of Ladies Artemisia, Rafiqa, and Lois, as the gel for the ultrasound equipment was applied to her lower belly, and then the discomfort, bordering on pain, as her body was invaded with utter professionalism.
Endless eons later, Ally was vaguely aware that she was being covered once more, and looked around in a near-stupor to see the three Baronesses escorting the equipment out of the lab. They would stay with her ova through every step of the process as they underwent preservation, and then all of the potential Heirs would be secreted away in locations only known to them.
Dreamlike, Evelynne's face floated above her. “Ally, love? We're all done now. The doctor is going to give you something to let you sleep, alright? Don't worry, we'll be here when you wake up.”
It was with extreme gratitude that Ally finally allowed her mind to shut down.
“It's finished, za,” Evelynne said, her own exhaustion evident even to her father, who was on the other end of the secure line. Slumping down against the wall, she couldn't have cared less about how undignified the position made her look. She rubbed one hand over her drawn face and through dishevelled hair as the other held the phone to her ear. A few feet away, Sir Arthur stood guarding the door to the office the princess had commandeered.
“How did it go?” Jad asked, his love apparent in his voice.
Evelynne shrugged, and her tone echoed the motion. “As well as could be expected, I suppose. There were no complications, and the doctor was excellent. Ally... she survived.” She sighed. “She doesn't deserve this, za.”
“Nobody deserves exactly this, Evelynne,” her father said resignedly.
“Don't I know it.” Evelynne pinched her nose between her fingers. “She's resting now. I almost want her to stay sleeping until we get back to the Winter House so that she doesn't have to see this place ever again.” She looked around the room with something akin to hatred. It wasn't really the building's fault, she knew. It was actually a military facility, often used by the Guard for some of its less-publicised procedures, which made it about as secure as any building could be. “Her parents are with her now.”
“That's good.” There was a pause. “I know that there's nothing that can truly be enough to thank Alleandre for everything she's done, but I wanted you to know that I'm speaking with the Dukes about making her the primary Charter holder of her own Order.”
Evelynne closed her eyes shut, tears leaking out between the lids. Ally was already a Paladin in her own right, a Knight Errant sworn not to an established Order, but to Evelynne herself. Now the King was proposing that Ally be given the privilege of founding her own Knightly Order, its Charter drafted and authorised, the Nomination of new Supplicants under the sole authority of its Grand Dame. It was an honour bestowed very rarely, in recognition of service to the Realm of Atlantl as a whole, and not merely to a particular Noble or fief. As such, it required the support of the Citizenry of the Realm, in a nation-wide referendum. Such support had been given sporadically in the past, though it was hardly unknown. There were several dozen Orders already under Charter to the Realm, though only a handful had any significant membership. The Templars, the Mohammedans, the Eye, the Broken Chain, and the Steersmen were among the largest, while there were in fact a few that consistently retained only a single member, chosen carefully by the previous Knight so that particular Order could continue.
“If anyone deserves it, it's Ally,” Evelynne said roughly. “Although I don't know if she's going to even think about accepting. She doesn't want to be in the centre of anything, za.”
“I know. But she needs to know it's being offered. It is entirely her decision as to whether she accepts.”
“After all this is over, Ally is going to do anything she wants to,” Evelynne said firmly. “Nobody is going to be telling her what to do, or make 'suggestions' that might even slightly resemble orders. Nobody, za. Not me, not you, and if the entire Hall of Nobles so much as wants her to—to open a shopping mall, I'm going to cheerfully tell them exactly where they can shove it.”
“I'm sure you will,” her father said with combination of wry amusement and total understanding.
“Just so long as everyone else--”
Evelynne's forceful statement was interrupted as Sir Arthur's voice suddenly echoed through the room. “Phoenix One to Sorceress One,” he barked into his collar-mounted microphone, and Evelynne's blood chilled. She had glimpsed the half-dazed look in her bodyguard's eyes twice before, and knew what it meant: Sir Arthur knew something was about to happen, or had already happened, that nobody without his paracognitive ability yet knew. “Priority Status Check! Condition and location of Sorceress Actual!”
The princess stared at him, the phone in her hand forgotten, as the Guard listened intently to his earbud for several long seconds, unsure whether her heart was actually beating. Her own Guard designation was Phoenix, or more fully Phoenix Actual, while Ally had been assigned the apt code-name of Sorceress. If Sir Arthur suddenly had a burning desire to know where Sorceress Actual was, and what her condition was, Evelynne wanted to know even more. She felt suddenly dizzy with near-panic, but shoved it aside, diving into her mind, feeling for the Link that bound her to Ally, and nearly fainting when she found it still present. A part of her responded instantly by attempting to surge up from her seat, but Sir Arthur's immovable hand instinctively held her in place.
It took her a moment to speak, but by then the senior Guard was broadcasting to the entire unit. “Phoenix Team, Condition White! Quartz-Two-Sorceress! Yellow-Four! Sound-off!”
Most of the code went over Evelynne's head, but she understood at least one of the phrases from her own security training, and she was suddenly light-headed. The next thing she knew, Sir Arthur was plucking the telephone from her nerveless hand. “Apologies, Sire,” he said to his ruler quickly. “We have a White Condition. I urge you to alert Sir Adun and the Common Guard.” Then, without waiting for a reply, he pressed the disconnect button in what would have been a disastrously disrespectful move under any other circumstances.
Then he pressed the button on the phone which connected him directly to the facility's control centre. “Control, this is General Ramirez. I am hereby taking control of this facility under authority of a known Condition White. I am ordering an immediate lockdown. Nothing is getting in or out of here until I personally say so.” There was a moment as Evelynne strained to hear the obviously startled voice on the other end, but Sir Arthur cut off the unfortunate speaker. “Lieutenant, I now have the authority to do anything I want in this facility. You will contact Commandant Stable and inform him that he is to report to me immediately in the Command Centre. You will then perform a roll-call of every Guard, soldier, officer, technician and janitor in this base. Every person will be ordered to remain at his or her present location. Persons found within the corridors who are not lying down with their hands behind their heads will risk being neutralised by members of Phoenix and Sorceress Teams, up to and including the application of lethal force. You will arrange an immediate check of the vehicle pool, and provide an accounting for every vehicle or aircraft which has entered or left within the past forty-eight hours. You will do the same for any personnel who have arrived or departed on foot within the same time period. You will also arrange to have all video surveillance from the last twenty-four hours available for immediate review by either Colonel Nixon or myself. I will be there in five minutes, Lieutenant. I'd suggest you hurry.” Without waiting for a response, Sir Arthur placed the phone down firmly.
“What's happening?” Evelynne was finally able to demand, coming out of her stunned daze. “Where's Ally?” She wasn't terribly surprised to hear her own voice breaking under her strain and confusion.
The Guard looked at her, and she was distantly gratified that he didn't even consider not telling her. “Lady Alleandre's location is unknown at this time, as well as the locations of two of her protective detail,” he said bluntly, and Evelynne sagged back into her chair. Condition White. “They are not answering signals from Colonel Nixon. I have ordered this facility sealed until the situation is understood.” He hesitated. “It could be that Captain Benson and Corporal Li-He are simply within a shielded area of the hospital with Lady Alleandre for medical reasons, but...”
“But if it wasn't a crisis you wouldn't have known something was wrong,” Evelynne whispered. “She's still alive,” she said, gaze turning inward once more. “And she's not in pain, or afraid. Although there's...” A long pause. “She's still sedated.” The princess looked up. “She's... dormant. But I don't know where she is. Ally can always tell where I am, at least the direction, but all I can do is feel her.”
“It's a good thing to know, Evelynne,” Sir Arthur said, relaxing his professionalism for a moment to become the almost-Uncle he had been for so long. “Keep her in your mind, and let me know the instant you... feel anything different.” With an almost painful expression of relief, Evelynne nodded, glad to be able to contribute something to the situation, and firmly locked her sense of Ally's soul into her consciousness, quashing her instinct to panic at the same time.
As she did so, Sir Arthur spoke into his mike again. “Phoenix confirms Sorceress remains viable. I say again, Sorceress is viable.” Any other protection detail would have questioned such knowledge, but these teams had been working with a telepath, a clairvoyant, and an Adept for months.
“What about Catherine and William?” the princess asked. “And Claire?”
The Guard listened to his earbud for a moment. “The senior Tretiaks are unharmed,” he reported after a few seconds. “Mistress Claire's location is also unknown.” He broke off, listening again, and then nodded. Sir Arthur held out a hand to his charge. “I would like us to go immediately to the Command Centre, so that the situation may be analysed.”
Squaring her shoulders, holding firmly onto her lover's soul within her mind, Evelynne stood. Screaming would have to wait.
Continued . . .
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