The ringing of the phone was almost lost in the omnipresent bustle and noise of the main news offices of LANTA, Atlantl's major television network, and Martina Lowes answered it only by sheer reflex.
"Lowes," she muttered absently, still focussed on the computer screen in front of her, and she rested the receiver between ear and shoulder as she jotted down a new series of notes. The voice on the other end finally drew her attention. "Maggie! What's up? You made any headway on that connection with Hep'shesut?"
"Sorry, babe, nothing there."
"Fret not, hon. The base angle's a bust, but I still have something for you. In fact, I hope you brought along a clean pair of panties, because I'm about to make you cream yours."
Martina's eyes rolled indulgently. "Dream on, Maggie. Some day you'll realise that I already have two husbands who help me with that on a regular basis. You just aren't my type."
"Don't be so sure, Marti. Two husbands and a wife aren't that big a stretch from two husbands." Martina laughed, and there was a sorrowful sigh from the phone. "Fine. If you're not going to propose right now, I'll just have to keep wooing you. Starting with this gift: our Prodigal Daughters have returned home." There was silence. "Babe, you still there? I said gorgeous Princess Evelynne and her oh-so-delectable Consort are back."
Lowes shook herself from her shock. "I heard you. You're not kidding? When did this happen?"
"Exactly when they got back to the
"Shit, thirty minutes?" Martina leapt up and began shoving her laptop, recorder and notebooks into her field bag, and started snapping her fingers and waving her hands towards her cameraman, who was currently chatting up one of the research aides by the lunchroom. "That doesn't give me a lot of time." She was already mapping out the fastest route from the office to the airport through Jamaz's noon-hour traffic. "And I need to change my underwear."
The smirk from the phone was audible. "Told you so. Just call me your human vibrator."
"Tell you what, you come over for dinner on Saturday and you and Ahmed can discuss vibrators. I need to repay you for this somehow."
"Ooo, the studly Ahmed. Although if you really want to repay me, you could—" Maggie's suggestion was lost in the click of disconnection.
Forty-five minutes later, Martina Lowes and her cameraman, Hee Jae Kim, were standing in a small room, bare but for the one-way mirror on one wall, along with six other reporters from various media and their respective photographers, both still and video. Lowes was impressed by the assortment. They were all people she respected highly, even Nand'ik Sumarri, the only other television reporter, with whom she regularly battled without restraint for stories. They were such bitter enemies that they were practically friends. The two of them had actually come to blows in an abandoned parking lot one night, resulting an a cumulative total of three black eyes, a broken nose, four broken fingers and a truly artistic array of bruises. Not long after that, Sumarri had introduced Martina to the man who would become her second husband.
Right now they were all trying to act very nonchalant and unthreatening, a state highly encouraged by no less that six Guards in full battle uniform who ringed the walls. Rather than the handguns the Guards normally wore, these men and women carried full assault rifles, and the fact that the weapons were pointed to the ground wasn't particularly reassuring. Lowes had once done a series on Guard training—the unclassified portions, anyway—and knew that any one of the stern, unsmiling soldiers around the room could probably take apart every reporter present with her bare hands, even the very young-looking Guardswoman closest to her, who must have been all of five feet tall and about the same age as her niece.
So far, the impromptu press conference had been very tightly controlled. After every piece of equipment and body part had been thoroughly scanned and searched, the reporters had been taken to a secure location with a view of the runway, so they could take pictures of the landing airplane. The plane wasn't the regular Royal passenger jet, but instead a Meher Reconnaissance and Evasion Aircraft. That actually made sense from Lowes' point of view; Lady Alleandre's mother's boat had been attacked with a missile after all, and the Meher boasted the pinnacle of Atlantlan electronic counter-measures and anti-missile defences.
They had also been in position to film two small, almost totally obscured figures disembarking the aircraft. The pair had been instantly surrounded by more fully-armed Guards and swept inside the terminal. The Crowns really weren't taking chances with the safety of the Princess and her Consort, Lowes observed. There was something tickling the back of her mind, though, the sensation similar to the hunches that had made her a journalist, and she couldn't pin it down.
Now the reporters had been hustled back to their room, where they had been waiting for the last five minutes. A movement out of the corner of her eye caught Martina's attention, and she glanced over at the Guardswoman nearest the door. The woman was listening to her earbud, and murmured an inaudible response into her collar mike. Lowes nudged her cameraman's shoulder and Hee Jae looked over and nodded. He didn't raise his camera to his shoulder—such an overt move seemed less that recommended given the on-edge soldiers in the room—but she saw him surreptitiously checking his equipment.
"Isi, eni," the Guard's surprisingly soft voice broke the quiet. "Her Royal Highness Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay, and Heir Consort Lady Dame Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak."
With that, every Guard snapped to full attention, and even the reporters stood a little straighter. The door to the side opened, and the first through was the immediately recognisable form of Colonel Sir Arthur Ramirez—Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Ramirez, Lowes realised, taking in his rank insignia. The Master of the Heir's Guard had completely dropped out of sight shortly after the Invasion—quite a feat for such a distinctive individual—and obviously at some point he had been promoted. Rumours had placed him heading some covert branch of the Guard investigating some aspect of the Invasion. Lowes suspected he had been overseas for most of that time, since he would have been spotted too easily had he remained in the Realm.
The next was Colonel Theodora Nixon, who was Sir Arthur's complete opposite in almost every respect, but nearly as distinctive. Where the General was nearly three feet across of solid muscle, the Colonel looked like a strong wind would blow her over. Appearances were deceiving, however, as the woman would never have been accepted into the Guard, much less appointed the new Master of the Consort's Guard, had she been physically fit. Nixon's actions since the Invasion were far more observable than Ramirez's, but far more baffling on the surface. Taking over the Consort's Guard was a fairly understandable act, but while the Consort's Guard was traditionally composed of three or four members, it had now been expanded to at least twice that. And the new recruits were unusual as well: a collection of previously undistinguished low-ranked Guards for the most part, with at least one former Navy Captain for good measure. Lowes had been trying to get behind the scenes of those decisions for months, and the only thing she had been able to confirm was that all of them had been inside the Hall of Lords during the attack. A few Guard teams who had happened to be in the right place at the right time to save the Royal Family's life was a fairly reasonable scenario, but such an act should have resulted in promotions, a few medals, perhaps even a knighthood or two, not assignment to what had suddenly become one of the most important Guard postings available.
A couple of those new Guards followed—Captain Amanda Benson and Lieutenant Rupert Gyrus—along with two more established members of the Heir's Guard, Lieutenant Ariman Tresca and Captain Susan Martinez.
The next individuals through the doorway were Princess Evelynne and Lady Alleandre. Lowes immediately bowed deeply, touching forehead, lips and chest in formal greeting, and around her the rest of the reporters did the same. They all held the bow for perhaps a moment longer than was strictly necessary, and then straightened. As they did so, Her Highness performed the same greeting, though her bow was much shallower, and Lady Alleandre followed. As they did so, Lowes' mind raced as it catalogued her first impressions. They had changed slightly since they had been last seen in Atlantl, gaining an air of maturity, but otherwise looked much the same, beyond a few minor physical differences. The Princess was wearing a light green blouse and blue slacks, which her Consort leaned much more heavily towards dark colours, with a dark blue sweater, and black pants tucked into black calf-length boots. An amethyst ring was prominent on hands bare of any other adornment.
"Good afternoon, isi and eni," Princess Evelynne said. A jumble of greetings answered her. "It is gratifying to see such select members of the press here to meet us." It was a message, Lowes realised, and acknowledgement that those present had been carefully chosen as recipients of the "leak." "If you wish, pictures may be taken."
That was the signal for the assembled camera operators and photographers to ready their equipment and begin filming or snapping. The photographer from the Hy Braseal Inscriptor made the mistake of using a flash with his first picture—Lowes was sure it was an honest error—and hastily disconnected it after a penetrating glare from Lady Alleandre.
Meek little "Lady Ally" has grown up, Lowes thought, interested. No more hanging onto her lover for support.
While all of Atlantl had watched the film of Princess Evelynne's entrance, with her brand new fiancée and Consort, to the Hall of Nobles extensively over the past months, few had probably scrutinised it as closely as Martina Lowes. The story itself was massive, of course, but Martina had taken a more personal interest in the events as well. Despite firm support going as high as the Diarchs, the Marriage Equality Decision handed down by the High Justicars had still maintained a fairly strong opposition. A reversal of that Decision would have created a very uncertain situation for people like Lowes and her unconventional three-way marriage. Now that Decision was incredibly stronger than it had been. The unequivocal support of both the King and Queen; the finding of two of the three Dukes of a lack of Moral Questionability; and the sudden openly fierce defence by at least a dozen self-admitted homosexuals among the Nobles, not to mention all those who weren't gay themselves, but whose Heirs, friends and children had chosen to come out into the open, and their supporters had all combined into a nearly invincible force.
The Invasion had been an inconceivable tragedy, killing nine out of every ten Nobles, but the abruptly elevated Heirs had found their strength quickly. Many of them had realised on their own just how inexperienced and uncertain they were, and had reached out to their fellows, forming new relationships and alliances that had completely rearranged the traditional political landscape of the Nobility. Without old, ingrained associations to restrict them, the new Nobles—the "Young Blood," as several pundits were referring to them—were creating a network that was less hidebound and restrictive than before. There had always been a strong ethic of cooperation among the Atlantlan Nobility, but long-standing personal grudges and unofficial "political party" affiliations had naturally crept in. Now the Young Blood, while still somewhat uncertain, was far more willing to reach out to anyone who would help.
support of the Order of the Illuminated Word, a multi-faith religious order,
for the suggestion that Evelynne's brother acting as a donor to give Alleandre
the ability to bear an Heir of Royal blood had shocked much of the religious
community, but new support had grown from that as well. It had begun
with several of the smaller religions, such as the Atlantlan Unitarian Society
and the Universalists, but had grown to include such
groups as the Liberal Jewish Congress, the Ithikan
Muslims, and at least six of the nine
Not everyone was so accepting, of course, but Princess Evelynne's previous near-universal popularity had combined with the outpouring of public sympathy and anger over the Invasion to create an iron-bound sense of respect at the very least. That had wavered slightly during the Heir's long exile under the Geranin Protocol, and Lowes had privately questioned the wisdom of keeping the Princess incommunicado for so long. However, it looked like any doubts had been swept away after the attacks on decoy Guard units over the last months, and support would strengthen even further once it became known that the Heir and her Consort had returned to face the attackers, rather than remain in hiding, if Lowes was any judge.
And if both Princess Evelynne and Lady Alleandre proved as strong and confident as they appeared at first appearance, their opponents didn't stand a chance.
"We are both very happy to be back in Atlantl," Princess Evelynne continued. "The time away has been difficult, although we are extremely grateful for all the support expressed both here in the Realm and around the world. There is really nothing we can say that will adequately express our thanks. Of course, it is very unfortunate to be forced to return in the wake of recent terrible events. We are looking forward to aiding in the capture of those responsible in any way possible, and bringing these cowardly attackers into the daylight." She took a breath. "We will now take a few questions."
Hands instantly shot up. Lowes' rival, Sumarri, beat out the rest of them by a fraction of a second, and the Princess nodded to him.
"Your Highness, Your Ladyship, can you give any details on your location while you were under the aegis of the Geranin Protocol?"
Princess Evelynne shook her head. "I'm afraid not. All details under the Geranin Protocol are classified for obvious security reasons."
It was a question that was inevitable, Lowes knew, even though nobody present had any illusions that it would be answered. Her question was the next chosen.
"Your Ladyship, reports are that your mother was seriously injured in the recent attacks." Lady Alleandre nodded, stone-faced. "Have you been in contact with her, and can you tell us about what injuries she has received?"
"I have visited my mother since we returned. She is in very serious condition from multiple wounds. However, she has regained consciousness and is in good spirits, given her situation. A full medical report will be released at a later date."
It was obvious that the Lady was gritting her teeth, at least metaphorically, in order to give out such personal information, and the non-reporter in Lowes sympathised.
Another question. "Your Highness, can you tell us anything about the attacks themselves? Do you have any leads or suspects in custody?"
"We do have several very promising leads which we will be investigating with all the authority of the Thrones behind the Guard. I cannot comment on the details of this sensitive, ongoing investigation, except to say that no level of society or government will be spared our scrutiny."
Again, it was the kind of non-answer that was inevitable and expected.
"Your Highness, are you suggesting that you suspect collusion within the government itself?"
"We have no proof at present. However, the resources and planning behind the Invasion point to persons with large amounts of money and power. We will follow any leads to their utmost conclusion, no matter where they take us."
"Your Highness, will you be investigating the international connections as well?"
"As I said, all leads will be followed to their utmost conclusion. International involvement in the Invasion is a given, as we know from the nationalities of those Invaders who were captured. As well, the murders over the last months of several undercover Guard teams in the course of their duties while abroad also points to an external connection. Whether the core organisation behind all of these is located within Atlantl, or abroad, or both, is something I cannot comment on."
It was the first officially stated connection between the recent attack on the Consort's mother, the murders of the diversionary Guard teams, and the Invasion. Before Lowes could follow up on it, though, the Princess turned her head slightly to catch a signal from Sir Arthur. "I'm afraid that is all the time we have for now, isi and eni. You may rest assured that the Thrones will reveal what details it can as the investigation progresses. Thank you."
Under more normal conditions, the press might have tried to get in one last minute question, but the foreboding Guards around the walls curbed their enthusiasm severely. Instead, cameras were turned off with polite speed and a chorus of goodbyes followed the Heir and her Consort out the door, trailed by most of the Guards.
Once the door closed again, Lowes let out a breath, feeling the adrenaline drain from her system. It had been an informative meeting, she mused, far more revealing than its seemingly guarded statements might suggest. As she jotted down her immediate impressions, she felt a presence nearby and looked up to see Nand'ik Sumarri standing nearby.
"Martina," the other reporter said shortly.
"Nand'ik," Lowes replied in the same tone.
There was a long silence as they each waited for the other to break first. Eventually, Sumarri relented.
"An interesting experience, don't you think? Quite a splash."
Despite her personal dislike of the man, Lowes respected his professionalism without question. "Very prominent," she said, nodding. "One might almost say… blatant."
as well. Quite a risk for the Guard to be taking,
landing in a public airport. It could be considered to be
uncharacteristically sloppy. A press conference of the same size would be much
more secure within the
"One could suggest that the whole point of this exercise was an attempt to draw an assassin into the open on an easily accessible runway. In theory, of course. No Guard Master would take such a risk with her charge, however."
"Of course not." There were several moments of thoughtful silence. "It's unfortunate that I could not get a good shot of Her Highness and Her Ladyship actually debarking the aircraft," Sumarri finally said casually. "It would have made a good opening for the story I will be presenting."
"I agree," Lowes said. "Just a bit too far away to see real details, and obscured by very enthusiastic Guards as well. A suspicious person might believe, with absolutely no evidence, of course, that the Heir and her Consort were already waiting within the building, and the whole scene on the runway was staged."
"Then it is fortunate that neither of us is quite that suspicious, isn't it? Such unfounded conspiracy theories are more appropriate for tabloid newspapers, aren't they?"
"How do you think it went?" Evelynne sat back in the limousine seat, urging Ally to lean on her shoulder. There was a slight jerk as the vehicle pulled away, and the sirens of a full police and Guard escort could be heard even through the limo's impressive soundproofing.
"Well, the whole thing served its purpose," Sir Arthur replied from his own seat facing them. "There was no ambush, so we've learned a few things at least."
"Several possibilities," Colonel Nixon agreed. "We'll know soon if our enemy has contacts among the cream of the Atlantlan media. We'll have to wait for the intelligence reports on just what our esteemed members of the fifth estate were doing after they were contacted to be sure, of course. If he does have sources there, he does not have the capability to arrange an attack on such short notice."
"What if he's just cautious?" Evelynne asked.
"It wouldn't fit his pattern so far," Nixon replied. "Whatever his ability to compromise our security, he's shown a degree of what can only be called arrogance. Since the Invasion, none of the activities we have been able to attribute to him have been covert in any way. No, I think that if he could have hit this decoy he would have."
"Well, I'm just glad he didn't," Evelynne said fervently. "And now that the world knows we're back, hopefully he'll focus his attacks on me, and not innocent civilians." She squeezed her fiancée's hand in sympathy for the latest victim. "Do you think any of the reporters suspect anything?"
"Martina Lowes does," Ally said, the first she had spoken since entering the vehicle. Evelynne looked at her with concern to see her with her eyes shut and pinching her nose sharply with the fingers of her free hand. "She and Sumarri have guessed pretty much the whole thing. I… She… I… She's not going to print anything about it, though. Without proof, the whole thing is just speculation for me… I mean her. Damn it!" Ally lowered her hand slowly, and Evelynne was alarmed to see it shaking. "She's still in my head, and I can't get her out."
"What do you mean?" Colonel Nixon asked, leaning forward.
"I mean that… she has a very strong personality. Maybe latent psychogenic talent. And I can still feel the way she thinks. The line between her and me is a bit fuzzy right now." Ally leaned forward, resting her head on her knees.
"Sir Arthur, I need you to arrange to have Black Crow meet us at the Palace," Evelynne ordered. "As quickly as possible. And we'll need a secure room right away." She hesitated, thinking. "Preferably as far as possible from other people."
The Guard simply nodded, s
"I told you to stop reading so many people," she scolded with more concern than heat. "You were already getting echoes before we left the Fortress."
"I'm keeping you safe." Ally's voice was muffled. "I can't stop doing that."
"I know, love. We'll do what we can here." Evelynne turned back to Sir Arthur. "Could you arrange to move up our transfer to the Country House sooner rather than later? We need some recovery space."
"We can't go into hiding again, Evy," Ally protested, lifting her head, but her tone was weak and her eyes bloodshot.
"You're keeping me safe? Well, I'm keeping you safe. Even if I have to protect you from yourself." Evelynne dropped a kiss on her partner's head.
"Are you ready? Don't rush."
Evelynne forced herself to acknowledge Black Crow's words, taking a deep breath that was heavily scented with some kind of burning herb that she wasn't sure was strictly legal.
The psychologist-shaman had
done a good job in creating an effective meditation space with the time and
materials available. The three of them were actually sitting in a little-used
boiler room deep in the basements of the
Once she felt more centred, Evelynne opened her eyes again, looking across at where Ally was sitting. The other woman had stopped mixing up her pronouns, but was still shivering faintly, a sign of the iron control she was maintaining over her own mind. With a final shaky breath, the Adept opened her eyes and nodded.
"Good. Evelynne follow your link into Alleandre's soul. Go slowly. Travel farther inside, swimming down, down, until you reach the place where the spirit lies."
Black Crow's low voice remained perfectly clear, but seemed to fade slowly as Evelynne followed the now-familiar mental link between her and Ally's minds. The entire room became less and less real, until the only clear vision was of her partner. Then, with an almost audible "click" she was there, standing on nothingness with Ally standing before her, who, in some indefinable way, appeared somehow more "real" than she ever was in the waking world. They were both naked, a symbol of the lack of barriers between them in this state, although Ally was still wearing the engagement ring on her left hand and the dragon pendant around her neck. Evelynne remembered the last time she had seen her lover's mental avatar, and the tender, newly-healed "skin" on that entity's body. It had been a leap of mental healing, but now it appeared as though that rebuilding was much shakier than it should be. It was understandable; an emotional blow on learning of the attack on her mother, followed by the stress of ill-advised excessive mind-reading of a large number of strangers, had left this new psychic skin raw and painful.
"Ally? How are you doing, love?" Evelynne thought/said.
"Better now that you're here," Ally replied, and Evelynne could literally feel the truth of that statement. "Still, I have a little too much company right now." She gestured around her, and for the first time Evelynne noticed that there were faint, ghostly images of people surround them, each one seeming to exist in more dimensions than the four of the mundane world.
"These are the… echoes?" Evelynne asked, examining one in some way that did not include mere physical sight.
"In a sense," Ally confirmed. "At least, they're symbolic representations of the echoes that can be understood in this shallow level of trance." She frowned. "I can perceive them all the way down to the deep unconscious." She drew a totally unnecessary shaky breath. "I could probably fix all this myself, but I'm having trouble concentrating on the lower levels."
"Well, that's why I'm here, love," Evelynne said reassuringly. "You just show me where to go and I'll help lead you back." Despite her words, she was filled with trepidation. She had been into Ally's unconscious before, but that experience had been anything but pleasant, despite its beneficial ending.
"Are you sure?" Ally asked, and her partner nodded firmly. The Adept—or whatever aspect of her psyche was actually "standing" there—held out a hand, and Evelynne took it.
At first, there was no change, but then the darkness around them became filled with incomprehensible shapes, manifestations of the architecture of Ally's mind. Evelynne didn't know how long it took, as time in these circumstances was an abstract concept at best, but the part of her that remained awake realised that she was no longer holding a more literally symbolic appendage. Instead, both she and Ally had dissolved into beings of pure mental cohesion, still joined in some way. Of course, even if that really was Ally in "front" of her, they were both inside Ally's mind at the same time, and the recursive paradox of a mind within itself could keep philosophers busy for centuries. Yet somehow, the concept made perfect sense according to the alien rules of this plane.
With senses that were both uncomfortably alien and wholly natural, Evelynne took in the mindscape in which she was immersed. It was immensely strong, she could tell instinctively, a testament to the incredible powers of an Adept, but there were parts that were… uncertain. It tasted like a combination of physical instability and an odd etherealness, as though certain aspects were on the verge of ceasing to exist, or possibly were emerging for the first time. There was too much Evelynne didn't know about manipulating a mind this directly, so she stayed far away from issues of which she felt unsure, focussing instead on regions that were obviously in error.
The echoes of past mind-scans were indeed here in this realm, and were much more real than they had been before. They overlay parts of the mental landscape like ghostly cloths, a mere illusion in most places, but occasionally they touched a bit of Ally's true mind, and from those points of contact dissonance spread. There was something else as well, Evelynne observed as she looked closer, faint trails of cord that led from each echo into the vastness outside the mind, each sounding like blue silver. They were links, she recognised, immaterial constructs mimicking the steel-strong bond that joined Ally to her soulmate, but infinitely weaker. The echoes were more than wraithlike remnants, once this was understood, but were anchor-points to psychic links to the people with whom Ally had merged her mind. That made them all the more dangerous, turning them from figments that would eventually fade away on their own and into conduits for a constant trickle of thought from foreign minds. One or two would be harmless enough, most likely, but most of the dozens of people Ally had scanned over the past weeks were represented here, taking unwitting advantage in previously weakened defences.
Those links must be broken, Evelynne emoted, feeling Ally's love as the words themselves resonated with the mindscape, subtly shoring it up.
I know. Come.
Somehow moving closer in a way that had nothing to do with mundane concepts of space and time, Evelynne inspected the first echo. She couldn't tell exactly who it was, but impressions were clear. A strong-willed, determined mind, smelling faintly of ruthlessness in the pursuit of career, but also a deep devotion to the truth. One of the reporters from the morning, most likely. Extending an ethereal appendage, Evelynne felt around the core of the echo, touching the intangible connection where it had infiltrated Ally's mind. With the most subtle touch she could manage—a surprisingly simple task in a dimension where thought and action were one and the same—she detached the anchor, experiencing Ally's tiny mental flinch at the sting of separation, followed by a feeling of relief. With care and gentleness, Evelynne released the echo into the void, encouraging it to return to its proper home.
Encouraged by her success, Evelynne moved on to the next. With equal care, she removed the tiny psychic hooks, sending the echo on its way. One after the other she worked, and with the removal of each inadvertent intruder Ally's mind quieted a little. There were some she couldn't break, echoes that had become a more integral part of the mindscape. These were important, she guessed, and wouldn't have removed them even if she knew who they represented. Ally's family, in all likelihood, perhaps some of her closest friends. Definitely a very small number in comparison to the dozens of passing scans, and none of them were as strong as the bond between Ally and Evelynne, although one was fairly intense.
By the time she reached that one, however, Evelynne's perceptions were blurring with a burning substance she recognised as exhaustion. Even though the process itself was fairly simple, if profound, a huge amount of energy was being expended, and she was nearing the end of her reserves. As the mindscape became more imperceptible, the mundane world became more solid and real, until with fuzzy surprise Evelynne was back in the boiler room, staring across at a profusely sweating Ally, who looked at least as tired as she was.
"Thank you," Ally whispered hoarsely, leaning forward on her knees to kiss Evelynne with what passion she could muster, before they sank into each other's bodies, holding each other upright while Black Crow summoned the Guards.
Return to the Academy