By PsiDraconis

Chapter 7

"I'm telling you, you should get the doctor to look at it." The comment echoed slightly in the hallway, along with the sound of footsteps. The steps formed an interesting counterpoint to the rain that beat against the windows.

"It's nothing." A significant pause. "Alright, fine, so I don't want some Guard doctor, who can probably shoot the rear out of a mosquito, to hear me complaining because I sprained my finger while firing a gun."

Ally looked down at her partner in amusement. "You did it again."

Evelynne's brow wrinkled. "Did what again?"

"'Shoot the rear out of a mosquito?' Your American roots are showing again, love."

The princess blushed. "Well, I did clean it up a little."

"I noticed that," Ally replied. She turned more serious. "Really, does it hurt a lot?"

Evelynne flexed her finger, wincing. "Not enough to go to a doctor." She grinned upwards seductively. "Enough to require some more... personal attention this evening, though," she whispered.

Ally cocked an eyebrow and glanced up and down the hallway before answering. "Really? That works out well, because I think I pulled a muscle right up here in my thigh," she whispered back.

"Hmm, that does work out well."

Banter continued as they continued down the hallway. Walking several paces in front, Sir Arthur and Colonel Nixon exchanged glances. The group had come from a morning-long primer in self-defence and firearms, and it was obvious adrenaline was still running high in the two younger women.

The training had been a non-negotiable stipulation by the King and Queen on their return to a more public life, and one with which both Masters of the Guard agreed wholeheartedly. As little as a year ago, the idea of turning the Royalty into self-sufficient fighters would have been unheard-of. Of course, plenty of previous Kings, Queens and Heirs had entered military service at some point in their lives, and even maintained their skills when they took their full titles, yet it had been considered... superfluous. After all, the Guard was ever-present, men and women dedicated to protecting their charges without hesitation.

The Invasion had changed all that. The entire Royal family had suddenly been very nearly taken hostage by a single determined assassin, while the very Royal palace itself had been nearly overrun by foreign fighters. Abruptly, the idea of training those Nobles to protect themselves from personal attack—beyond the basic skills which were taught as part of security training—was very appealing. It wasn't only the Royal family, either. Nobles across the Realm were suddenlyawake to the knowledge that the Guard was not as invincible as everyone had once believed, and the art of self-defence was once more becoming a Noble pastime. The tutelage of Swordmasters, marksmen, martial artists, and retired military personnel was in high demand. Some Nobles were even seeking overseas in an effort to lure the best teachers. Karate, judo, tai kwon do, fencing—not the gentleman's Olympic sport, but true lethal sword-play—boxing, and a dozen others were suddenly very popular. Even the ordinary populace was beginning to catch on, taking its cue from it rulers, and if the common citizenry could not entice the very best teachers, they could at least afford those who were still highly skilled.

Militias, sanctioned by local Nobles, were springing up in towns and cities across the islands, ordinary citizens who wanted to be prepared to defend their communities should any threat arise once more. These were not simple ragtag bands of individuals who just happened to own guns, however. By Royal decree, every militia had to be chartered and have a formal chain of command, its membership made known to the Crown along with its total arsenal of weaponry. Strict training requirements were in place, to ensure that the resulting defenders did not become more of a danger than any external threat which might arise. The Crown had made instructors from the Guard and military available. As well, every militia could be automatically incorporated into existing Guard or Army units if the need arose.

None of that made an immediate impact on Ally and Evelynne. The pair had just come from their first lesson in shooting. Contrary to all expectations except her own, Ally had proven only moderately skilled in marksmanship. Those who knew of her talents had expected a near-superhuman result, and the young woman's performance had been disappointing. In reality, it had been respectable enough for a neophyte, but it seemed everyone had come to expect the impossible from the Adept. The unfair and unspoken, yet easily felt, disappointment had affected Ally, causing her to draw into herself in embarrassment, until her fiancée had subtly taken everyone to task for their feelings.

Eventually, Ally had explained that the only reason she could do the things she could were because they were somehow personal to her. Moving an object telekinetically or enhancing her strength was a feat that required a direct personal connection between her mind and her goal. It was something she made a part of herself, even if only temporarily. She could throw an object at any target she could see with near-unerring accuracy, but a gun actually provided a barrier of sorts between herself and the bullet she was firing.

Evelynne had proven quite promising, displaying good eye-hand coordination. Now all she needed to do was learn to control the kick-back of the firing.

The group reached an innocuous-looking door which Sir Arthur opened and peered through suspiciously. Satisfied that the room within was secure, he turned back. "Martinez, Li-He, you're on the door."

"Yes, Sir," Lieutenant Martinez and Corporal Li-He, the two Guards taking up the rear of the entourage, replied in unison. They waited until their respective commanders had ushered their charges into the room and then took up positions on either side of the door.

Inside the room, Ally grinned in delight as a stocky form rose to greet her from his place at a long conference table alongside a much thinner one. "Chorus!" she exclaimed, rushing forward to throw her arms around him. Gleaming white teeth in a grinning black face shone at her. "When did you get here?"

"About a half hour ago," Chorus replied. "I wanted to come find you, but they told me you were cleaning up after playing Rambo all morning. Hello, Evelynne."

"Hello, Keitumetsemosimaniwapula," Evelynne said, smiling and coming forward to receive her own hug. "I've been practicing, you'll notice."

"I notice." The extraordinarily long name was the young man's real one, but he normally went by "Chorus," much to the relief of all. "I brought along my assistant."

Taldas Islin's handsome face furrowed in a frown. "Assistant, ha! The brains behind the operation, more like. Hey, Boss. Your Highness." The man's greeting to Evelynne was far more formal than that to his one-time leader. Ally had hired him early in the year for her team at the dig site of the antediluvian city of Aztlan, where him talents for electronics, programming, and unconventional ideas had some in very useful. Taldas had also been present during the Invasion, and had been witness to his Boss' startling abilities.

"Taldas, please, call me Evelynne."

"Of course, ah... Evelynne." Taldas grinned sheepishly.

"So what have you two been up to?" Ally asked.

"Well, actually, we've been—"

Chorus' explanation was interrupted by a cleared throat. A stern, unsmiling man and an innocent-looking woman were also standing at the table, unnoticed until now.

"Good afternoon, Your Highness," the man said. He was fit without being massive, and his skin was an interesting golden-brown colour. "I'm General ab-Warat. I replaced General Danun as Director of the Common Guard."

"Ah yes. Congratulations on your appointment." The princess' tone was now very formal. "We'll all miss General Danun, I know."

It was a bit of a stretch. Evelynne had developed a dislike for the previous Director of the Guard, after the woman had all-but-threatened Ally in the aftermath of first learning about the young woman's powers. Ally and Evelynne's relationship had been very new at the time, and the revelation had nearly destroyed it. They had weathered that storm, though, and Evelynne had developed a retroactive resentment of the General's actions. Still, the woman had been an effective and skilled Director, and her death in one of the first explosions of the Invasion—inside her own office in the Guard Headquarters, no less—had been a blow to the Realm as a whole.

"We will indeed, Your Highness," the new Director agreed.

"General, I'd like you to meet my Consort, Dame Alleandre Tretiak." Evelynne waved her fiancée forward.

"Your Ladyship," ab-Warat greeted politely with a typical Atlantlan salute. "I am pleased to meet you at last." Despite his words, there was a discomfort and wariness to his demeanour, although Ally couldn't tell whether it was due to her relationship with the Princess, her abilities, or something else.

"Likewise, General, " Ally replied.

"Your Highness, Your Ladyship, I'm Helena Klaussen," the cherubic woman spoke up, breaking some of the tension. "Head of Internal Security."

"Ms Klaussen, it's good to see you again. We've met at a few functions, haven't we?" Evelynne's tone was much warmer.

"We have, Your Highness. The last time, in fact, I got to participate in a very fascinating discussion with Lady Alleandre on the use of Schrödinger's Equation on a cosmic scale." She smiled at Ally. "Well, when I say 'participate' I mean listen rather dumbly and try to follow along."

"I remember," Ally said. It had been at one of her first grand balls upon arriving in Atlantl. Never particularly social, Ally had withdrawn to a safe "wallflower" distance until someone had asked her a question on her Honours thesis. Quite a number of interested people had congregated around the discussion, although Ally had barely noticed. "If it helps, it looked as though you understood every word."

"A façade, I assure you. Perhaps one of these days you might explain everything to me in terms one would use with a four-year-old."

"I'll do that," Ally agreed, smiling.

"Your Highness, if you would care to take a seat so that we may start the briefing." General ab-Warat was obviously trying to steal control, that much was clear to Ally.

Still, Evelynne sat agreeably enough, although it didn't fool her Consort. Ally knew the Princess was just biding her time before exerting her own authority. Once everyone was seated, the General spoke again.

"Your Highness, Your Ladyship, as you can see, I have put together a preliminary schedule and list of ways in which Lady Alleandre will be able to use her... talents to aid in the Guard investigations. In particular, Your Ladyship, your alleged telepathic ability will come in very useful in the interrogation of suspects. In addition, there are several ways in which I believe you will be able to use your other skills to assist. I'm afraid these duties will require frequent and protracted periods at Guard Headquarters in Jamaz, Your Highness, and I will be forced to claim your... Consort for some extended periods of time."

Evelynne just nodded absently, continuing to read the briefing folder before her. Ally had already finished, her talent for speed-reading and total recall coming into play, and she sat back in her chair with her arms crossed, her face stony. Chorus was looking on with shock, Taldas with uncertainty, and Helena Klaussen sat with her hand hiding her eyes. Sir Arthur and Colonel Nixon shared an incredulous glance before the Colonel spread her arms wide, as though spread-eagled, although it looked only like a stretch. Sir Arthur understood, though, and smirked imperceptibly. They both remembered the last Guard Director who had made Ally feel threatened. General Danun had ended up pinned to the wall by her desk, and Colonel—then Major—Nixon had found herself hung from another wall by an invisible force, each of them looking down the barrels of their own guns.

ab-Warat continued explaining his plans, while Ally remained motionless, flicking one of the heavy metal pens on the table between her fingers, and Evelynne just sat attentively. Finally, when the General was finished, the Princess spoke.

"A very thorough briefing, General," she said mildly, and only Colonel Nixon was in a position to see her hand holding her Consort's tightly under the table. "You have certainly come up with some very interesting suggestions." She subtly stressed the word, and the General reacted with a quick start of either surprise or annoyance. "We will definitely take them under advisement. For the moment, however, allow me to explain to you what will happen. To begin with, Lady Alleandre will have final veto power over all proposals, something I noticed you... neglected to mention in your report. Second, Lady Alleandre and anyone she deems helpful will not be working for the Guard or any other government agency. She and her team will work with the Guard or anyone else as the particular situation warrants. Third, the physical conditions under which Lady Alleandre works, including her location, will be entirely subject to her own wishes and necessities. I feel certain she will be willing to respond to requests at other locations depending on the situation, but that will be entirely of her own volition. Fourth, the team which Lady Alleandre will likely assemble will be strictly under her purview and consists of only those individuals she deems acceptable. I believe Mr Tladi and Mr Islin will be a part of that team, but ultimately the choice is hers." Chorus and Taldas nodded quickly. "It may be that a liaison officers of sorts will be needed or desired in order to facilitate coordination between her team and various government agencies. You are quite welcome to suggest candidates for this post, as is Ms Klaussen, but once more the power of decision will rest solely with Lady Alleandre. Fifth, any attempt by an agency to coerce, intimidate, or threaten Lady Alleandre into compliance will be dealt with appropriately."

There was a quiet creak as Ally casually and almost gently bent her pen into a U-shape between the fingers of one hand. She then continued to flip it over her fingers casually.

"Are there any questions, General? Ms Klaussen?"

There was silence around the table. Colonel Nixon leaned over minutely to her fellow Master and murmured, "Splat." Sir Arthur nodded subtly, hiding his amusement. While Princess Evelynne's speech may not have had been as physically spectacular as Lady Alleandre throwing people across the room, in its own way it was just as impressive.

"I have no questions at present, Your Highness, Your Ladyship," Helena Klaussen said quietly, "but I do have some suggestions."

"I'd be happy to hear them," Ally said, speaking up for the first time.

"Your Highness, I must object," ab-Warat exclaimed, and Sir Arthur sighed while Klaussen didn't even bother concealing her eye-roll. "The investigations we are engaged in are far too serious to leave in the hands of civilians. Will all due respect to Lady Alleandre, she is hardly qualified to lead an inquiry of this magnitude, no matter her apparent... talents. It would be much more effective, not to mention safer, to allow properly qualified personnel control."

Evelynne nodded, still with that maddening mildness. "You believe that Lady Alleandre is too unskilled in the ways of espionage to handle a situation like this, General? Smuggling, subterfuge, forgery, code-breaking, stealth, data analysis, and the like?"

The General nodded stubbornly. "With all due respect, I do, Your Highness."

"Mmm. Lady Alleandre, could you please tell us by how much you reduced the smuggling of illegal drugs into Vancouver while you were living there?"

"Nineteen percent," Ally said flatly.

"And the total value of the bounty you won for providing the information that resulted in last year's interceptions? And, incidentally, the first proof that someone was smuggling arms into the Realm."

"Somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred million tali."

"A result based on over ten billion tali worth of seized contraband, I might add. Certainly a basic knowledge of smuggling at the least. Oh, General, can you tell us how Lady Alleandre smuggled us both out of the country immediately following the Invasion?" Evelynne asked innocently.

"I'm afraid I don't know, Your Highness," the General replied, his face stiff and red. "Our inquiries have been—"

"The Roman Strider," Klaussen broke in quietly. "A Bahamas-registry cargo ship bound for Panama. You stowed away in the hold. However, you did not disembark at its final destination, as far as we can determine, which suggests you jumped to another ship at least once during the crossing. Geographical location suggests you landed in eastern Canada or the United States, although you could have then moved further west. It's also possible that you went in an entirely different direction, eventually ending up in west Africa or South America, but I think it unlikely, given that you returned from Calgary."

Evelynne looked at the head of Internal Security with her brows raised. "Impressive," she said. "Would you care to know where we ended up?"

"Thank you, but no, Your Highness. I'm having far too much fun finding out on my own."

Evelynne chuckled and Ally smiled. "Well, let us know when you find out." The Princess turned back to a near-apoplectic ab-Warat, becoming serious once more. "Ms Klaussen is correct. In addition, Lady Alleandre was able to procure forged documents that facilitated our stay. Now, for data analysis... What is your degree in, My Lady?"

"Theoretical Quantum Physics."

"Now, I'm quite clueless as to what that entails, exactly, but I would imagine it requires high intelligence, reasoning skills, and analysis of experimental data. Quite the skills needed for examining intelligence data, am I correct, General?" Evelynne didn't give him time to reply. "As for stealth... Lady Alleandre, can you please describe to us exactly what the interior of Saint Peter's Basilica looks like at three o'clock in the morning? Particularly the document archives."

This time Ally squirmed in embarrassment. "I was curious," she said almost sulkily. "They close off a whole lot of the place to the public during the day. I wanted to see what was there. The Sistine Chapel looks cool in the dark."

"I'll be sure to tell the Pope," Evelynne said wryly. "So, General, would you concede that Lady Alleandre has at least the basic skills needed for work of this type? I'm sure she would be the first to admit that she is far from an expert, but perhaps a fresh, unbiased pair of eyes is just what this investigation needs. Don't you agree?"

There was silence once more, as Sir Arthur leaned subtly nearer Colonel Nixon.

"Splat," he agreed.

After that, the discussion proceeded rather more smoothly. Ideas had been thrown around freely once it was realised that they were welcome so long as they conformed to the ground rules Evelynne had laid down so emphatically. Klaussen had jumped into the fray with enthusiasm, displaying the intense desire to solve a puzzle that had led her to her current position as head of Atlantl's domestic intelligence agency. She was creative and often unorthodox, traits that naturally drew her to Ally and Taldas, who were prone to flights of imaginative thinking that were sometimes hard to follow.

By contrast, Sir Arthur and Chorus provided a sense of grounding in practical issues. Chorus had already been working for Guard Intelligence as a civilian contractor in a code-breaking role. The young man's Savant ability, less directly powerful than an Adept's but still incredibly useful, was a preternatural talent for languages, and since any code was just a translation of a statement into another language, in time he could break even the most intricate code, given enough time and information. It was his efforts which had alerted the Guard to the fact that enemy combatants had breached the security of the Royal Palace and Hall of Nobles during the Invasion.

Sir Arthur had also played a part in detecting the presence of the Invaders, although his method was far more esoteric. The Master of the Heir's Guard was actually a precognitive, as well as an empath. Not even Ally had any concrete idea of how his ability to know the future worked, and it was completely unpredictable, but it had given the Guard a few moments to prepare themselves for when the Invaders had dropped their disguises and attacked. In the aftermath, Sir Arthur had been temporarily detached to head his own investigative team, since without a charge to protect, his position as Personal Guard was superfluous. His searches had taken him overseas, where his infallible ability to tell when someone was lying had borne very useful results. He had also conducted many interviews on the islands themselves, clearing various officials in sensitive positions of any collusion in the attack.

Colonel Nixon had restricted herself to topics directly relating to the protection of her charge. Matters relating to security arrangements were her responsibility, a desire to see her charge dangerously exposed as little as possible.

Eventually, General ab-Warat had emerged from his sulk to contribute, and his subsequent suggestions were actually quite intelligent ideas. Evelynne had to reign him in a couple of times he got too presumptuous, but he displayed an efficiency and pragmatism that were invaluable. He did not seem to be burdened with an overabundance of ethics, as evidenced by his desire to have Ally scan the minds of every suspect brought into custody, which could be a bit disturbing, but it did give insight into some of the darker possibilities of their task.

"There is something we think can help," Chorus was saying, looking at a laptop screen. "Taldas and I have been working on it for a while." He nodded to the man next to him to continue.

"For several months now, Chorus and I have been working on a way to gain easier access to encrypted computer networks. If the Invasion was an operation by some foreign intelligence agency, there would probably be some record of it in their most secure archives. So we've been using Chorus' linguistic ability to construct software and hardware that can communicate with other systems directly through the machine code. We've developed a prototype that seems to be quite effective. Actually, I should say that Chorus did all the really revolutionary stuff. I mostly provided the gruntwork."

"Hardly that," Chorus objected. "I would never have known what to do if Taldas hadn't taught me, and he's the one who created the hardware."

"Well, all I know is that I have no clue how Chorus' program does what it does. By everything I know about programming, which is quite a lot, the thing shouldn't work at all. It's got looping self-reference code that should be impossible to start or end, broken syntax that should cause the whole thing to crash, and patches of what is quite literally gibberish throughout. By every rule of computer programming I know, the damned thing should be as effective as a toaster in communicating with anything." Taldas looked a little guilty. "Ah, sorry, Your Highness."

"I think I can stand some damned swearwords," Evelynne replied wryly.

"Ah. Yes."

"Of course, what Taldas isn't telling you is that the hardware he's created should also be impossible," Chorus added. "I showed some of his blueprints to a few techs and they told me the machine would probably work very well as a paperweight."

"Well, actually, the machine is heuristic and self-modifying. Boss, you remember the discussion we had about evolving computers?" Ally nodded. "Well, I finally got the funds to do the work I really wanted. The computer I made will make a minute change to its core components, test the result, keep the beneficial factors and throw out the rest. Darwinian programming. The down-side is that it's about the size of this table."

"Not quite a laptop yet?" Ally asked.

"So you have this computer which shouldn't work, running a program that shouldn't run," ab-Warat said impatiently. "The question is: Does it work?"

"It does," Chorus said, nodding. "We tested it by..." He trailed off. "Evelynne, can you grant a pardon if we've done something really naughty?"

"I'm pretty sure we can come to an arrangement if you did it for our national interests."

"Oh, of course. National interests," Chorus said firmly, and Taldas nodded emphatically. "Not because we thought it would be cool at all." Equally emphatic head-shakes. "Well, we, uh, we broke into the Atlantlan Air Force R&D mainframe and downloaded the plans for the latest stealth fighter prototype. Codenamed Nox, I think."

There was a sputter as Klaussen choked on a glass of water, and ab-Warat looked like he had swallowed his pen. Sir Arthur banged his knee on the underside of the table, while Colonel Nixon just looked impressed.

"That's impossible," the General said flatly. "I've received no reports of an unauthorised intrusion into the AAF system." He looked uncertainly at Klaussen, who shook her head.

In response, Chorus turned his laptop screen to show the wire-frame model of an odd-looking aircraft. "There wouldn't be," he said. "There's no trace. The program interacts with the external network entirely on the machine level, and essentially looks to all security protocols as though it's part of the system, or at worst a random scrap of corrupted memory. When it exits the system, it can remove every trace that it was ever there, down to the last bit, and also restores the original data to exactly how it was before it was penetrated, right down to the physical location of its memory components. Passwords and encryption don't help, because our program becomes part of the password code itself. Encryption can be tricky, but it's fairly easy to break by analysing the structure of the database itself, something that's done when the encrypted data is returned to our mainframe. About the only way to detect us is to monitor the actual network bandwidth usuage with high accuracy. Hardly anyone does that, and even then we can probably infiltrate the monitor program itself."

General ab-Warat looked stunned, and even Klaussen was practically salivating at the thought of the intelligence that could be gained with such a system.

"It's still got bugs," Taldas said before either could speak. "According to Chorus, the programming is organic, with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that implies, and the hardware is constantly evolving as well."

"I swear, three weeks ago the thing was sulking because I opened a can of soda at my desk," Chorus added.

"Really?" Taldas asked. "Personally, I think it purrs when I enter the room. Anyway, it's not perfect, and I don't think we want to be inside the CIA mainframe and have the thing decide it's bored and start wondering what this line of code does."

Klaussen winced, as did Evelynne, at the thought of the diplomatic repercussions of such an event. Of course, every intelligence agency in the world was constantly trying to crack the networks of its enemies and allies, but revelation of a program that could do it this easily would frighten them, and create problems nobody needed.

"Perhaps not foreign agencies," ab-Warat agreed reluctantly. "But we can probably use it internally, as long as we know it's being used. I presume the program can accept search criteria."

"It can," Chorus said, nodding. "It takes a while, but it's far more comprehensive than anything else I've seen."

"In that case, we know the Invaders had help from someone in the Realm. If we can find information about that person in a database somewhere, we can find that person or persons. I also feel no compunction over going through the networks of criminal organisations."

"We figured that," Taldas said. "It takes some time for Chorus to program the search criteria, but I think we can send out a feeler almost like a worm that would go from system to system. It would only send back information it figured was appropriate, so we won't be invading people's privacy wholesale." He glanced at Evelynne, who nodded firmly.

"Well, I think we have a plan there," Ally said. "Now, how are we going to integrate this into the investigation?"

"You really don't pull any punches, do you, Evelynne?" Chorus asked.

He and the princess were standing by a sideboard, constructing sandwiches from ingredients that had been laid out. Behind them, Ally and Taldas were intently discussing some esoteric subject, possibly related to some new discovery at the Aztlan excavation where the two had met. Neither worked there now, but Marjorie Melan, a third member of the team, was currently heading up a new "Alternative Theories Group."

Ally was also cradling another female in her lap, scratching behind the ears as they spoke. Cassie's eyes, set in a gray face just under those triangular ears, were slitted with pleasure. Ally had originally rescued the cat the previous year, after one of her infamous “Angel” raids, before Evelynne had learned of her abilities. While the pair had been in America, Chorus had taken over care of the feline, and was now returning Cassiopeia to her rightful slave. The cat had sniffed at Ally's hand before flouncing away with distainful disinterest, but had finally been coaxed back with the liberal application of bribes in the form of smoked salmon.

"What do you mean?" Evelynne asked. "Oh, you mean the General? No, I don't, at least where Ally is concerned."

"That's pretty obvious. And I don't think he'll make the same mistake twice."

"Oh, I think he will, at least once. He's used to getting his own way. The General was Commandant of Invers Base, the main Guard training facility, for about fifteen years. So he'll try again, probably more subtly, and Ally or I will have to smack his hands again."

"I'll take your word for it, if you promise to let me know when you do. I'd like to be in the next county." Chorus grinned, adding a healthy amount of hot sauce. "So how are you and Ally doing? How did the big wide world treat you when you were away?"

Evelynne's smile faltered. "There were some parts that were not so good. Ally... Well, something happened to Ally a few months back. I think she'd prefer if we told you together, someplace safe. She... It was bad."

"Oh. Is she okay now?" Chorus asked concernedly, casting a worried glance at his friend.

"She's... better," Evelynne said, shaking off the dark memories and adding more mustard to the sandwich she was constructing. "I don't know if she'll ever be entirely back to her old self, but we're working on it." She cast a quick telepathic thought to her lover, nodded at the silent reply, and began adding a generous amounts of hot peppers.

"That's good. I thought she seemed more... solemn. I just thought it was because of her mother."

"No, that's just the latest. Her mother is actually doing really well, considering the way she was hurt. Refusing to just lie down and quit. She's got this bizarre fantasy scenario where she's going to be a one-legged pirate, eyepatch and all."

Chorus laughed. "That sounds like the Mrs Tretiak I know."

"Cap'n Kate now, thank you. At any rate, another few weeks and the doctors think she'll be strong enough to be moved down here. Anyway, enough serious talk. We're supposed to be having a bit of fun."

"That we are. So where did you go, anyway? What were you doing?" Chorus asked, his face alight with curiosity.

In reply, Evelynne leaned on one leg and lifted a hand to shoulder height, fingers splayed as though holding a tray. "Can Ah take yer order, sir?" she said in an exaggerated but passable southern American accent.

Chorus choked. "You're joking! Please tell me you're joking!"

"'Fraid not, y'all." Evelynne grinned at her companion's stunned expression. "Really, though, I was working in a quite pleasant restaurant. Ally was tutoring students at the local college."

"She would," Chorus murmured, trying to wrap his mind around the idea of the Heir to Atlantl in a restaurant. Serving, no less. "You're kidding, right?" he pleaded again. "Please tell me you're kidding."

"I even sang karaoke."

"No, no, no, this is just not happening." He paused, peering at her suspiciously. "Karaoke? Really?"

Evelynne nodded. "You should have seen Ally up there on stage doing this incredible 'Ride the Wildwind' number. It was... wow. Everyone in the place wanted her that night, I can tell you. Of course, I got her," she gloated smugly.

"This just isn't right," Chorus said flatly. "I've fallen into some parallel dimension. Bizarro World, that's it. Everything backward from how it's supposed to be. It's the only rational explanation."

"Whatever helps you sleep," Evelynne allowed graciously. She picked up two plates, each bearing a sandwich like a work of art. "Come on, let's go and Ally and I can tell you and Taldas all the naughty things we got up to."


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