Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, a fault or cleavage that he may shatter with words or decisions, as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?
— from Private Reflections on Muad'Dib, by the Princess Irulan
Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife—chopping off what's incomplete and saying: "Now, it's complete because it's ended here."
— from Collected Sayings of Muad'Dib, by the Princess Irulan
Chani feels it, when Muad'dib dies. Desert mysticism, the offworlders would say if they knew; but that does not make it less true.
It is late in the night, when it happens. She is in her room in the palace, on her bed, and she feels it like a wound, like being struck by a blade so thin the cut does not sting until you are already bleeding. She cries out, sharp in the quiet, and weeps wildly into her hands; but by the time they come in the morning to tell her Muad'dib is gone, her face is dry and still.
She thanks them quietly, waits for them to go; and when they are gone she stands. This is not Muad'dib's room, not part of his chambers, but he came to her here often, and he lay with his cheek to the sheets just the other morning, before he left. She strips the bed, folds the sheets and locks them away, so there will always be something here with his touch still upon it. She will have much of him, still, in the children within her, but not his touch; so she will hoard what he left behind, like water that will never be drunk.
She looks out over the balcony, the balcony Muad'dib will never look out over again, at the sun Muad'dib will never again see as it hangs over the city Muad'dib died within, and she feels some essential thing inside of her slide through her soul's fingers and blow away like sand.
Irulan is writing when a servant bursts into her rooms with the news; she has only just penned Paul's name when the door swings wide and she sets the stylus down.
The woman is Fremen, not offworlder, so her spice-blue eyes are wide and pained with the loss of Muad'dib, and when she has told Irulan everything she knows, she spits her body's water on the floor, a sacrifice in memory of the Mahdi. Irulan's throat works, but her mouth and eyes are both dry. She dismisses the woman with careful courtesy, and when the door has closed again she stays in her chair, straight-backed, one hand flat against her desk, and sits very still for a very long time.
She has never thought about Paul dying, before this. In a vague and academic way, perhaps; in their state meetings, the prospect of assassination has been raised many times, and when she writes she often considers how Paul's life will affect the centuries to come, when Paul is no longer there. But it is a visceral, physical thing, to die, and it's strange to think of Paul that way when he has always seemed so unreal, so far from her.
She thinks of his face when he was young and angry, lit blue by Arrakis's larger moon as he stared at her uncertainly in his father's hall. Perhaps she's wrong; perhaps he was not so very far, once. But she lost him the moment her father's soldiers came for her, and even when he fought Feyd-Rautha for her, even when he kissed her, he never touched her again.
She loved him; she could not stop it, and she thought of him and wrote of him for so long without seeing him that he had become like a stranger, like an idea instead of a person. But now he is dead, and the day will come soon when she will wake in the night and her face will be wet.
Still, it will not be today; she was in love, and he is dead, and now there is so much to do.
Alia is the first to reach the council room, and she makes sure she is seated, back straight and face placid, when the naibs enter. She's almost tempted to laugh at them, the way they glance at each other nervously and murmur. Where is their faith in Muad'dib?
Her vision is not what her brother's was, she knows; but it is enough, and she saw what has come long before it happened. She saw, too, how he would come to her, the instructions he would leave with her, the words of his mouth backed by ink on paper and his own seal on the little scroll he would press into her hand; and when he finally came and did it, she smiled and kissed his cheek. She had done all of her weeping already.
She has the scroll with her now, held loose in steady hands; but it's not the time just yet. The moment is still coming.
Stilgar arrives, somber-faced; the news of Paul's death was always going to be difficult for him, and though Alia was tempted to tell him beforehand, she saw many times that it would not help. Even had the words come from Muad'dib himself, there would still have been a little hope, and it is the slender threads that sting most sharply when they are cut.
At last, another pair of shoes on the steps, and Alia knows the sound as well as her own voice, she has seen this so many times. Irulan, slow and deliberate as she comes down the stairs. Her training has served her well, Alia thinks; her eyes are dry, and not even reddened.
Everyone waits a moment, even after Irulan steps to the head of the table—waiting for Muad'dib to speak, Alia thinks, and almost smiles. Paul would find it funny, if he were here.
"We must begin," Stilgar says, grief weighing down his voice. "Stoneburners are not subtle tools—even the outskirts of Arrakeen saw the smoke rise in the sky. Word has already spread further than we would like—"
"As though it could be kept secret," one of the younger naibs scoffs. His cheeks curl around a sneer, but there is shock in the blinking of his eyes, despair in the curve of his shoulders, dazed anguish written in the line of his neck. "The Mahdi is dead—the Mahdi. Surely every world will hear the wails of Shai-Hulud."
Irulan's lips pinch for a moment; she, Alia deduces, is concerned with the practical difficulties of an empire without an emperor, not the tears of a sandworm god. "I think we must consider our priorities," she says, firm but not cold. "Before we can determine how this crisis should be handled, we must determine who is to handle it." This crisis—oblique wording. She does not want to say Paul's name.
A few eyes turn to Alia, but Stilgar shakes his head. "Saint Alia is seventeen yet," he says. "However holy her name, it is not possible."
Now. Alia had been sitting back, with her hands in her lap; now she leans forward, resting her forearms on the table, and says, "It is also not necessary."
Whatever eyes were not on her before are on her now, but she cares only for Irulan, sitting stiffly at the head of the table, still in every limb and feature as only those trained by the Bene Gesserit are. Despite the long years she has spent on this planet, breathing and eating spice with the rest of them, Irulan's eyes are still brown, like even the spice knows she has never really had a place here.
But she will now, Alia thinks, and has to work not to smile. "Do you truly think Muad'dib did not see this coming?" she says, with just enough scorn in the words to make the naibs flush. "Do you believe—you, most fortunate among the faithful, who have seen and spoken to Muad'dib so often—do you truly believe that death, alone among all things, could take the Mahdi by surprise?"
The naibs look at each other, shifting uneasily; Stilgar and Irulan alone remain still, and keep their eyes on Alia. In return for their intelligence, she lets herself smile at last, and stands.
"Do not doubt the name of Muad'dib," Alia continues, and, oh, she was a good choice; she has always had the skill to make her voice ring within a room, and many things sound truer when they are said by the young. Paul must have known it, Irulan thinks, and ignores the way something in her chest wants to crumple when his name crosses her mind. "I do not; for he spoke to me before he departed from us."
The naibs look at Alia awkwardly. It's a difficult thing, to ask the sainted sister of the Mahdi for proof.
But Alia is generous, and does not make them ask. She lifts her hand, and in it, Irulan sees, there is a little scroll of paper, of the sort Paul often wrote his holy orders on. "And he wrote, also, that others might know his will when he was gone."
The question must be on everyone's mind; but it is Stilgar who speaks it. "Who, then?" he says.
Alia looks at him and smiles, that little knowing lift to half her mouth that makes her look agelessly superior. She looks at Irulan, and Irulan waits for her to speak, until she realizes Alia has already told her the answer.
But Alia says it anyway for the sake of the naibs, who know Bene Gesserit fighting but not Bene Gesserit subtlety. "He has left the Lion Throne to Irulan."
The room explodes, naibs bursting from their chairs to shout their confusion; but Irulan does not move, and neither she nor Alia breaks the gaze that holds between them.
"That—Corrino—" one naib cries.
That, at last, makes Irulan turn. Her heart is still thundering with her surprise, but he does not know that. "House Corrino is no longer," she says, "and what remains of it rots in exile on Salusa Secundus. It is true that many of the noble houses will see what they remember of my father when they look at me; no doubt this was Muad'dib's purpose. Those houses that chafe under Atreides rule will find me a pleasant alternative to Alia or the Lady Jessica, and those who respect Atreides, and Muad'dib—" and here she pauses to cast a glance around the room, "—will surely heed his order. An order he would not have written, if he saw that I harbored some secret hatred for his house and his ways; and Muad'dib saw all."
The naibs are still standing, but they have quieted grudgingly as she speaks. Stilgar rose with them, though she suspects it was more in readiness to prevent potential violence than to register his own objections; and now, deliberately, he sits.
There is a long still moment. She waits, letting no shadow of anger or uncertainty cross her face, while the naibs eye each other and wonder who will be the next to sit. And then Bahij of Sietch Junadi, an older naib who has spoken often and closely with Stilgar, lowers himself slowly into his chair. "Praise to Muad'dib's name," he says, with gentle reverence. "Bi-lal kaifa," and one by one, the naibs sit.
There is nothing left of Muad'dib. The stories are already spreading; people whisper in the streets of Arrakeen that he turned to the stoneburner with a calm face, and opened his arms as though to welcome the fire. Rumor, as always, disregards simple truths: any who were close enough to have seen such things themselves would have been ash a moment later. Stoneburners do not leave witnesses within the reach of their core blasts.
Muad'dib left orders behind—he knew it was coming, of course he did, and Chani isn't sure whether she wishes she could slap him for his selfishness or thank him for sparing her the helplessness that would have come with foreknowledge. They are unorthodox orders, it's true; but no one can claim the authority to countermand them. Chani thinks it must have been quite a sight, that meeting with the naibs. But it is settled now, and Irulan is the empress regnant; as her first act, she must make the arrangements, plan the impressive memorial ceremonies. Muad'dib's precognition is a shelter over her: no one can say that Muad'dib was manipulated, that some trap of hers fell shut upon the Mahdi without his knowing it.
Chani has never been able to like her, and certainly does not now, with the memory of the reverend mother saying poison from offworld still fresh in her mind; but it cannot be denied that Irulan understands the Mahdi as few others do, though Muad'dib the man was always closed to her. She is an emperor's daughter, and she sees how the legend of Paul Atreides—the name and the myth and the rebellion, and the intersection between them—must be managed. The Mahdi was the savior of the people, and they must be allowed to mourn for him; but he was also the emperor of the Imperium, and the noble houses which gave him their allegiance will not accept solely public ceremonies. Where would that leave them? Who, Chani thinks bitterly, could expect them to grieve without enough levels of private ceremony to tell them whom they are better than?
She is fitted for a dozen gowns in as many days, and endures by letting the hours slip and blend together. The excessiveness of it seems obscene. The palace is Chani's home, but in her heart she is a desert creature still, and death is a sober, practical thing. Opulence, ostentation, political maneuvering: these things are ridiculous in the face of it.
But she was the emperor's beloved. They have so many euphemisms for it—"companion" is the one Chani minds the least, because even though they mean it only sexually, together with its original meaning it is genuinely accurate. She was Muad'dib's companion through the journey of his life, as long as she was able; and now that he is dead, she cannot go and kneel in the sand and scream. She must let them make dresses for her instead.
The memorials, also, slip and blend. They are meaningless; Muad'dib was burned, there is no water to save, and none of the sietch are here to speak of how they knew him, what he taught them. Chani sits by Irulan because she must, and hopes her expressionlessness passes for grief. Not that she does not grieve—but she will not do it where these people can see her.
Kaidama stares out the viewport, and absently flicks one of her braids back over her shoulder.
Arrakis. She had never seen it herself, before today. It is an unassuming little planet, small and dull-colored; amusing, to some degree, that it should draw so much attention, so much traffic.
For it's true, many others have come; House Taligari, certainly, for they had little love for Shaddam even before the war began, and House Vernius likewise. House at-Tam, which gave in to the Atreides pretender long ago; House Ecaz, which has been with the house of Leto since they lost the daughter who might have married him at Harkonnen hands; House Ginaz, which threw in their lot with the Atreides before this Paul Muad'dib was even born, and is only just recovering from their last house war.
But she comes to Dune as an envoy of House Moritani, and that is no small thing. House Moritani is the strongest house remaining that opposes the ascension of Paul Muad'dib Atreides to what is left of the Golden Lion Throne—or opposed it, rather. The present tense is inappropriate, she supposes, now that the man is dead.
They were ready for it, the day space cracked open over the thirty-seven worlds that owe allegiance to Moritani and unloaded ship after ship full of Arrakis fedaykin; but the days since have been long and bloody, and House Moritani, it must be admitted, grows weary.
They have heard, as all others have, that Corrino's daughter has risen to Atreides's place, and that, at last, has given them hope. That is why Kaidama is here.
House Moritani was not the most-favored of Shaddam IV, but Corrino rule was not a heavy yoke upon them; it had been established, and recognized, if reluctantly, by every house. Atreides yanked not only the rug but the floor from beneath the Imperium's feet; and House Moritani was not a minor house, to be appeased by his abrupt marriage to Irulan. Legitimacy, they said over and over in the avenues and palaces of Grumman, was to be earned, not bought.
But many noble soldiers of Moritani lie dead, and now Paul Muad'dib has joined them, and brought the throne to this strange in-between place. Irulan is Corrino but not, Atreides but not. Her claim to the throne discomfits many, for there has been no empress regnant in two thousand years or more; but House Moritani cannot quarrel with her bloodline, and who among their enemies would kill for Paul Muad'dib and yet disdain his final wish?
Kaidama lets herself smile. In truth, she feels a peculiar sense of satisfaction. For all their trickery, all their anger and fervor and bloodlust, those who would follow Atreides must now accept the child of Shaddam IV as their ruler, even if her father's house is no more. The viscount of House Moritani laughed, when he was first told the news, and he dispatched Kaidama with something that might have been called a gleam in his eye.
The door slides open behind her, and she turns.
"The empress has given permission for a single shuttle to land," the servant says, bowing in the doorway.
As they'd hoped. May the empress prove more reasonable than her husband ever was.
"Kaidama Sidebe, envoy of House Moritani," the chatelain announces, bowing deeply, and Alia doesn't bother to stop her eyebrows from rising.
She's not surprised; on the contrary, she was there when Irulan ordered that a shuttle be permitted to descend from the Moritani ship that waited in orbit. But it is a bold move, to send an envoy to an enemy house for the memorials of its master's death. Not strange, not in the Imperium, for Alia and the ancestors that live in her head remember the days when war was half a formality, and often did not even imply a trade embargo, much less a blockade. But bold; and the woman should know it.
And she does, it seems, for despite her house allegiance she bows just low enough to be genuinely respectful.
Alia glances to the side: Irulan is waiting, regal in her stillness, for the muttering that is sweeping the hall to fade away. When there is silence again, Irulan speaks. "We welcome all who would pay their respects to the life and works of the holy emperor Atreides."
So that had better be why you are here, she does not say; but Alia hears it, and so must Sidebe.
"Though he was not our emperor," Sidebe says, "he was known to all the Imperium as a great man, and his death is a loss even to we who fought him."
Another round of muttering—it was not entirely ungracious, Alia thinks, but strikingly frank. Paul would have appreciated it; he never cared much for those who sought to hide their meaning or allegiance. She eyes the woman for a moment. There is something strange about her, her uncomplicated tones and movements. Would they truly send an envoy wholly untrained? It doesn't seem possible.
"We could not bring them from the hangar," Sidebe continues, "for the security of the empress; but we hope that once the scans are complete, our gifts will be accepted in the spirit with which they were given."
Something in Alia lifts its head at the words. Someone—Leto, the father she never met, that is the one who owns the memory. The words, the phrasing, are an echo of Paul, of that first meeting with Stilgar when he cast his body's water upon the floor, before Alia was born.
Sidebe bows again. "It is our hope that this tragic and untimely ending may give rise to a greater beginning," she says, and when Irulan inclines her head, Sidebe does not press further, only backs away and allows herself to be seated.
She is untrained. Alia scoured her motions and tones for any trace of Bene Gesserit trickery, and found none at all. That, Alia realizes, is exactly why the viscount of Moritani sent her. He knows Irulan's background as well as anyone; he knows that she would hear it, if he sent someone to her who filled their voice with the honey-warm frequencies designed to imply sincerity, to promote trust. So, instead, he sent a far rarer thing: someone who already means what she says.
And he sent her to open doors, to begin what could become the process of negotiating ceasefire; her parting line was not exactly difficult to interpret. Moritani cannot have Shaddam back, things cannot be as they were, but nevertheless there is potential in this moment. Alia sits back, thoughtful. It would not have happened, were Paul still alive.
Is this the thing he saw, that made death indeed the wisest course?
They receive word that there will be a ship from Caladan two days after Moritani comes to them.
Irulan is not a fool; she has acknowledged every noble house that has come to Arrakis, accepted their gifts one by one, but Lady Jessica was Paul's mother. She will not deposit a gift and then depart. When she comes before Irulan's throne—unbowing, as befits the mother of the Mahdi—the rooms have been ready for nearly a week.
She is announced, of course, but Irulan cannot leave it at that; when Jessica has come close enough, Irulan inclines her head. "Holy Mother," she says. "Your presence is an honor; would that it had come under better circumstances."
Lady Jessica acknowledges Irulan's greeting with a simple nod, and Irulan wishes she could stop time for a moment, long enough to press her hot face against the throne's gilded back. She rules now, in Muad'dib's name, and thus she is the empress of the known universe; she had hoped that would be enough to keep Lady Jessica from making her nervous.
In the lower throne beside her, Alia is tense—a heavy lock, ready to fall shut at the slightest touch. But here, in the throne room, Lady Jessica can only smile at her; this is not a good place to speak to your daughter for the first time in twelve years.
Lady Jessica does not nod or smile at Chani, only holds her eyes for a long moment, and Irulan must repress a sigh of relief. It would have been an insult, to greet the emperor's concubine more warmly than the empress—and even if no one had been watching, Irulan admits to herself, it would have pained her. There has never been anyone in House Atreides who has met them both and not wished Irulan were Chani instead of herself. Irulan knows that already; she does not need it confirmed beyond all doubt.
And then Lady Jessica's gaze finds the ghola, and she goes still. "Duncan Idaho," she says.
Duncan bows, a little awkwardly, at the name that's not quite his. Irulan's sympathy for him has never been so sharp. "So they tell me, my lady," he answers.
Lady Jessica's expression does not change; she shows no surprise, no dismay. If Irulan had not known already that she was Bene Gesserit, she would know it now. "You do not remember," she says, in a tone that Irulan knows well. Even, quiet; not a question, but inquiring nonetheless, and Jessica is watching Duncan intently, in case his body will tell her something his words will not. Reverend Mother Mohiam watched Irulan so, in times past.
"No," Duncan says simply. "Nothing."
"You will," Lady Jessica says—and again, the tone that makes it neither fact nor question, only words.
Duncan looks at her uncertainly. "That is the hope, my lady."
Lady Jessica nods; and then her gaze returns to Irulan, and she dips her head apologetically. "Forgive me," she says, "the trip has exhausted me—and my manners."
Irulan cannot smile, facing the mother of her dead husband; so she forgives with a quick lowering of her eyes instead, and then motions for a servant to show the Lady Jessica to her rooms.
Jessica lets herself be led from the hall, but when they have reached the corridor, she slows.
It was Guerney who told her, Guerney Halleck; good loyal Guerney-man, who outlasted Leto, outlasted Idaho—or at least the first Idaho—and now has outlasted even Paul. He was gentle about it, but he spared her nothing, and she knows there was no body, nothing to retrieve or save or shut up in stone.
But there is a tomb—she passed the hall that led to it on the way in, passed the still-faced guards and the people who wailed on the floor before the doors and shed water for Muad'dib.
"What rooms are they?" she asks the servant, when the woman notices she is not keeping pace.
"I—I believe they were my holy lady's own," the servant tells her, "long ago."
The old rooms; an unexpected kindness from Irulan, to place her in familiar surroundings at such a time. No doubt they have been kept just as she left them.
She takes the woman's hand, pats the back gently. "I know the way," she says. "I do tire, but my mind is restless, and I would walk a little. You may go on about your work."
The woman hesitates a little, understandably uncertain; but she does not refuse the holy mother of Muad'dib.
It's not hard to find the tomb again, and the crowd quiets when they recognize her, parts to let her through; the guards do not hold the door against her.
It is quiet, inside, and she thinks before she can stop herself that Paul would have liked it—would have come here to sit and think, if it had not been built to house the dead body he failed to leave behind. In a way, it suits Paul, to have burned away so completely, to have left no trace of himself remaining. It suits the legend well, but also the boy he was, who never wished to do as he was expected to do—they want a body to weep over, but he has denied them. Stubborn, like his father.
Oh, Paul, Jessica thinks, and does not know whether she means the thought as chastisement or lament.
There is a dais—there is always a dais, a level floor would not suit the honor of the emperor. Jessica climbs the few steps carefully, skirt raised out of the way. Her lover, her son; what is it about this planet that takes so abruptly and completely?
But she's being unfair. Somehow, after all, something of Duncan Idaho has been given back to them—and there is Alia, strong and beautiful and alive even after all of Jessica's mistakes. Saint Alia of the Knife, they call her now, and Jessica could not have named her daughter better. The look on Alia's face in the great hall put a weight in Jessica's chest; but she deserves it. She will stay, this time, and bear whatever anger, whatever hatred or punishment Alia is moved to dispense. She will not run away again.
Alia forgets, sometimes, that she is seventeen; it's easy to do, when she can remember things that happened four thousand years ago—when she can remember having been seventeen a hundred times over, in a hundred different bodies.
But it is hard to do when she is looking at her mother. Something about Mother traps Alia firmly in herself; she can walk the streets of Arrakeen with her chin high like she truly is every noble head of house that she remembers being, but her hands are trembling now, here, watching from behind a pillar as her mother touches the tomb of Muad'dib.
She forces them to stop with the control a Bene Gesserit two hundred years ago learned from her mother, and steps out into the hall. "He missed you," she says. I missed you, she means, but she's careful, and she doesn't let the meaning show anywhere Mother will see it.
Mother turns; she's startled, Alia suspects, but her face and body hold no sign of it. There was no body, but there is a tomb anyway, which Alia understands: there must be a place, a shrine to what her brother was, and everything that he stood for. Mother's hand is still resting on the stone, and she turns back to it for a moment. "I missed him, too," Mother says, and Alia is suddenly angry—if that is true, why did she stay away? And, further, down below: did she somehow hear what Alia meant but did not say? Is she replying to it, or ignoring it?
Two minutes, and her mother is already making her into a child again.
"Why are you here?" Alia says, and she lets her voice turn sharp. "There is nothing you can do; he is dead now."
Mother turns again to look at her, and Alia hates the placid calm of her face. "I am here, at least in part, because you are my daughter," she says, very gently. "Paul may be dead, but you are not." She pauses, and looks up: there are windows high in the walls, light filtering in, gold against red stone. "I have been gone too long. Leto died, and Paul was ready, and I went away and let myself forget everything there was to love about this place."
Alia takes a step back, as if that will be far enough to keep any more of Mother's words from reaching her ears. This place? Alia has heard her mother say the word love for the first time in twelve years, and she said it about this place. She shakes her head once, sharply. Paul is dead, but he's not the only one; Alia has not forgotten the Fremen girl, the headless, handless body in the desert. There is a face dancer in the palace, a plot that has not ended with Paul's death. Alia does not have time to worry about a thing so small and stupid as whether her mother loves her.
But the motion catches Mother's eye, and she moves, more quickly than Alia. "My daughter," she says, a hand on Alia's shoulder and another at the nape of her neck. Anyone else, Alia would cut down with fists and feet, and words that come from a thousand long-dead arguments; but this is her mother, and in her mother's presence she is only ever seventeen. "Alia," Mother says, soft, and touches her forehead to Alia's, closing her eyes. "I am so glad you're here. I should not have left you."
Alia laughs, which is foolish; it is harder to control a laugh than a speaking tone, harder to make it say only what you choose for it to say, and Mother must hear the bitter edge in it as clearly as Alia does. "No," Alia agrees, "you should not have." Alia is not the same now as she was when she was five; she does not need someone who understands her, to touch her hair fondly when people stare at her, and tell her that it doesn't matter. She does not need it, but she has never been able to stop wanting it.
Mother's eyes open again, and she moves away—only a few inches, only far enough to look Alia in the eye, to touch her cheek with gentle fingers. "I hope someday you will be able to forgive me," she says, with just the right amount of regret in her voice, and if she had said it any other way—tell me you forgive me, so presumptuous, I am sorry, too little, don't be angry with me, too late—Alia could have closed the door and never looked back.
How does she always know? she thinks, a little despairingly, and when Mother smooths a hand over her hair, she's weak; she can't make herself move away. "I'll consider it," she whispers, and by saying it, she knows, she is already forgiving.
"Thank you," Mother says, no more loudly, and kisses Alia's cheek.
She earned the appellation "of the knife" long ago, Alia thinks, a little wryly—the moment she drove that poison into the fat baron's hand. But today, perhaps, she has also earned the "saint".
Irulan sits at her desk, writing still, as though she does not know Chani is there, or knows but does not mind; but Chani has been watching people all her life, and she sees the odd stiff cast to Irulan's spine that all her Bene Gesserit training cannot quite mask. "Just a moment," Irulan says, putting one last word to the page, and then she sets her stylus down.
She does the offworld reverend mother credit, Chani thinks. There's no sign on her face of the things her spine fails to hide; she looks like it was not mere months ago that Chani came to her in this room and held a crysknife to her throat.
"Ah, Chani," Irulan says. She does not smile, but she ducks her head respectfully for a moment. "I—wished to speak to you."
"I thought so," Chani says, very flat, "or you would not have summoned me."
Irulan grimaces, just a little, and the expression is shuttered away so quickly that Chani cannot help believing that it was genuine; if Irulan had meant her to see it, she would have left it on her face a little longer. "I will not waste your time with obfuscation," she says, looking down at her hands. "I—wish to help you."
Chani blinks. This is not what she was expecting, when a servant came to tell her Irulan wished to speak with her. "Help me," she repeats slowly.
"Paul is—" Irulan stops for a moment, pressing one thin hand so tightly against her mouth that her fingers turn white; but she manages to keep her expression still, and after a moment she lowers her hand and curls it in her lap like nothing happened. "Paul is dead," she says, very evenly. "I am the empress. Things have changed."
Chani shakes her head. She knows these things already—children in the street know these things already—and that is not what she meant. "You have no love for me," she says. "Why should you help me?"
Irulan looks at her, all huge eyes in a still face. "Because it must be done," she says. "Alia is quite literally wise beyond her years, but she is not yet eighteen. I am Paul's widow; but you carry his children. The stability of House Atreides must not be in doubt." She hesitates a moment, and then reaches into her desk, and brings out a small vial of clear liquid. "There is nothing I can say to you that will make amends for what I have done."
"True," Chani says harshly, because it is, and because the memory does not inspire her to feel generous toward Irulan.
Irulan, though, does not flinch. "This will make things easier," she says, holding out the vial. "Undo some of what was done. I know you have no reason to believe me, no reason to trust me; but I hope you will take it."
Chani looks at the vial, and then at Irulan and her sober, drawn face. She wonders whether Irulan sleeps more easily, now, knowing that Muad'dib is not with her because he is dead and not because he is with Chani. It doesn't look like it. "Swear it," she says at last. She takes the wrist of Irulan's free arm, presses Irulan's hand flat against her heavy, rounding belly. "Swear it on Muad'dib's children."
Irulan stares at her, visibly off-balance. Chani nearly laughs: offworlders lead such cold, staid lives, avoiding physicality as though they fear they may break—it's astounding, the way they make a hand around a wrist or a belly against a palm seem so shocking. Muad'dib was like this also, when he was younger, and it had made Chani laugh then, too. But the urge to laugh fades, the longer she looks at Irulan's face. How long has it been, she wonders involuntarily, since anyone has touched Irulan for more than a few moments?
Irulan clears her throat. "I swear it," she says quietly, and her fingers, which were stiff with surprise, gentle slowly against Chani's skin.
When the door closes behind Chani, Irulan is still in her chair, and she sits and stares at her mirror for a very long time, thinking.
She is not precisely sure why it happened—yes, Chani made her swear, and she meant it when she did, but why should Chani take the word of a woman who secretly dosed her with contraceptives for so long? But she's glad Chani took the vial, perhaps gladder than she ought to be. Chani is pregnant, now, and it would be dangerous for her without the medicine; and no matter what Mohiam told her to do, she wishes to kill neither Chani nor her children.
What she said was true: things have changed. She does not dare wonder what she would have done if they hadn't, because she knows herself well enough to acknowledge that she fears the answer. Self-awareness is sometimes desperately uncomfortable.
But things have changed, and Chani has taken what Irulan would give her, and now the odds are good that she and the children will live. Mohiam will not be pleased, but Irulan is the empress now, and the reverend mother of the Bene Gesserit no longer gives her orders.
No one does.
Irulan's breath catches in her throat—stupidly, because it has been weeks, and "empress" is no longer an unfamiliar word on her tongue, but nevertheless it's as though it has only just occurred to her.
True, the responsibility is staggering; from now on, she will act not for herself, but for the whole of the Imperium. She will not while away long quiet days that are all the same, curled in a chair and writing until her hand is stiff. There will always be too much to do. But she will do it, her own will and mind and words, and no one else. Time, betrayal, and Paul's peculiar posthumous generosity have done for Irulan what no one else would, not even herself; and she mourns yet for her father, lies awake at night wishing Paul still lived, but right now, sitting at her desk with her wrist still warm from Chani's hand, she feels almost like smiling.
Scytale is still wearing the girl; they have not caught him yet, though he has heard enough to know that his luck may not last much longer. Servants talk often, particularly of unusual behavior by their masters and mistresses, and the trip Saint Alia and the ghola took into the desert was certainly that. It is well that Scytale had a plan; if he had not thought to take the girl's head and hands, his time as the wide-eyed Lichna would have been cut very short.
Damn Muad'dib a thousand times for dying, a thousand and a thousand more. The Bene Gesserit had assured him that the contraceptives had been administered, and even with the traditional Fremen remedy, no woman would be able to bear the strain of a birth afterward. The perfect opportunity, he had thought; and he had not found it difficult to wait, knowing what would come.
But now Muad'dib is dead, and the plan—so closely tailored to the weaknesses of Paul Atreides!—is in a shambles. The Fremen woman is useless now; whatever happens to her, the children were always likely to live through it, and why should the Corrino empress care whether the Fremen concubine dies, as long as the children survive? Scytale shakes his head, though there is no one in the corridor to see. Good thing, too; Lichna is not the sort of girl to wander hallways cursing at herself.
No, he will have to find another way. Muad'dib, perhaps; the stoneburner took everything of him that was in the street, but somewhere in the palace there must be a trace. A comb that has not been cleaned, or pillows that have not been laundered. The Bene Tleilax brought Idaho back even though the original had been blown to pieces; perhaps it will not be so hard after all. And surely the empress would give much for a Paul Atreides whose love is for her, and not for some whore from the desert. Of course, it will not be real love, not as naive romantics or ancient poetry define the thing; but it is the specialty of the Tleilaxu, to approximate with precision enough that no one can quite tell the difference.
He pauses, and leans for a moment against the wall. Yes; perhaps that will be good enough. He had known the Lady Wensicia well enough to implant many different commands in the new Idaho; it can be made to kill nearly anyone in House Atreides, though they had not thought they would ever use it except on Muad'dib.
He takes the time to mourn a little more: it was a truly beautiful plan. Had they failed, and Idaho had killed Muad'dib, well, Scytale would have been there to take a piece of him away. It would have taken barely any time at all to put a ghola on the throne, Paul Atreides in every respect except the malleability they would have added to the design. Risky, certainly; but surely they could have found a way to excuse his loss of memory. And had they succeeded—oh! What a triumph it would have been, in so many ways!—Idaho would have become himself, and there, right in front of Muad'dib, would have been the proof that it could be done. Surely he would have given them anything they asked, to have his Fremen concubine returned to him. Would have broken his monopoly, supplied them with spice beyond their needs; given them the seat of his power, though they would not have taken his throne.
But Muad'dib is dead; so the plan must change. Bijaz is gone, dead along with Muad'dib, so he will be the one to tell Idaho to kill the woman, the empress, once he is given the trigger phrase. The first Idaho did not know her well, if at all, but she is House Atreides now, by law and by loyalty; perhaps that will make for contradiction enough to draw Idaho out in the ghola. And if it does not, well. No true loss if the woman is killed. Scytale will be there, and all he will need will be a little hair.
Duncan is halfway across the main hall when a hand comes down on his arm.
He is in something of a hurry, but he turns anyway, and is greeted by the sober face of a wide-eyed Fremen girl.
"You are Idaho," she says, "aren't you?"
Duncan does not frown, but there's a part of him that would like to. He is trained as a mentat, but that does not save him from all irrationality; when people call him "Idaho", he cannot help but think for a moment that they are speaking to someone else. Someone he is not.
But that doesn't make it true. "Yes," he says.
The girl looks relieved. She has not been here long, Duncan thinks, if she is not sure who he is; the palace overflowed for weeks with talk of the gift the Tleilaxu had made for the emperor. "I have a message," she says, "information, from Otheym."
Ah, yes: this is Otheym's daughter, Lichna. Duncan pauses for a moment—what message would Otheym have that would go to Duncan?—but then he remembers the girl in the desert, the body in the sand. Otheym might well have told Lichna to deliver his words to the returned Duncan Idaho if she could not reach Alia; and Alia is so often in the council rooms, now. "Yes?" he says.
She glances around the hall nervously. It is something sensitive—something she does not want widely heard.
There is a corridor to the side, small and dimly lit; he steps into it and waits, and there is no sound except Lichna's feet on the floor behind him. No one is visible, and the odds that anyone would have prepared to overhear this conversation on the off chance that he would step into precisely this hallway are ludicrously miniscule.
"Now, what is your message?" he says, turning; and Lichna smiles.
She does not open her mouth to speak, as he is expecting. She hums instead, a low, soft tune that is not quite a melody; the notes meander like they are born of absentmindedness, but the expression on her face is too intent.
He means to shake her hand from his arm, to ask her if Otheym truly sent his daughter to hum at Duncan Idaho—that is how he discovers that he cannot move.
He wants to, he wills himself to; despite his mentat training, there is a moment of thoughtless panic when he strives with everything in him to so much as curl his little finger, and he cannot do it.
She looks at him, satisfied. This, he realizes dimly, is not a surprise to her—this is, in fact, the end she had hoped to achieve. "They will be there," she says, and there is a strange sort of rhythm in the way she says it, as though she is reciting a poem. "They will all be there, and so will you. She will look down from her throne and say the woman shall go free, Duncan; and that is when you will know what you are expected to do."
He is terrified, he feels it, but his heart refuses to pound. He can do nothing but stare at her; not even his own eyes obey his will. Was the real Idaho ever this afraid?
She begins to hum again—the same notes, he thinks, the same notes but in reverse—
He blinks, and shakes his head. "Apologies," he says immediately. He must have been lost in thought; whatever it was he was thinking of, though, he cannot remember it.
"No matter," Lichna says, quietly, and pats his wrist. "Otheym only wished for the house of Muad'dib to know: there are eighteen Fremen girls in the area near Arrakeen who were absent unexpectedly and then returned some time later, in the span before the body was found. If the offworlders wish to test their flesh against their mothers', it will take some time, but he will find some excuse to keep them in the city until it can be done."
"Ah," Duncan says. "Thank you."
He bows a little—overly formal, perhaps, but he does not know the girl, and she has been so helpful.
Chani has never before attended a meeting of the emperor's—empress's—council. Not quite the same thing as the council of naibs; when Muad'dib lived, Stilgar served as their representative to the emperor, and only at exceptional moments were all the naibs called to the emperor's side.
For example, when he died.
Now, though, it seems to have grown: Alia and Stilgar are no surprise, but the Lady Jessica is here also; and three other naibs have come to the table, evidently sent by the naibs' council. They cannot trust Irulan as they trusted Muad'dib—Muad'dib was not quite Fremen, it is true, but he took first blood in tahaddi, he lived in the sietches and trained the fedaykin and rode on the back of Shai-Hulud. Irulan may have married him, but she is remembered best as Corrino, even now.
Most likely, Chani thinks, this is why Irulan has asked her to be here. Stilgar is valuable, of course, but his loyalty is widely known, and it was said even before Muad'dib became the emperor that Stilgar would follow the boy's shadow if it were cast in front of him. Stilgar is valuable, but Chani is better. She knifed a man who would have killed Muad'dib and argued with Muad'dib in the same breath; she knew him and loved him well, but she was not awed by him. The Fremen say it often: if you can trust anyone to fight with a man, you can trust his lover.
She does not like to be used, and she and Irulan are still uneasy, secure in neither hatred nor affection for each other; but Irulan looked so uncomfortable when she asked that Chani is certain she would not have done it if she had seen another way. And she did ask—if Chani had said no, she does not think Irulan would have argued.
So Irulan has Stilgar and Chani both, and Saint Alia of the Knife; and the holy mother of Muad'dib may sit quietly, but she does it on Irulan's side of the council table. Irulan has armed herself formidably.
"I do not wish to be obscure in my aims," Irulan begins. She is Atreides-confident, now; nothing shows in her face but cool certitude. "The holy revolution in the name of Muad'dib has been a cleansing fire across many worlds, but when there is nothing left worth burning, it is time to bank the flames."
Chani blinks. She had expected something to change, certainly; Kaidama Sidebe of Moritani was only the first, and in the days that followed, the other houses major who still opposed Muad'dib came to them also, with gifts and cautious words. But it is an ambitious place to begin. She remembers, involuntarily: Muad'dib, too, favored straightforwardness, though he was not always able to make use of it.
"Empress, now is not the time for weakness," one of the naibs says. Shartif, of Sietch Akwan. "If the great houses sense that you are unsure—"
Irulan shakes her head. "Paul is dead," she says, "but his children will live; the throne is safe. The war is over."
"Empress, there are worlds which would yet resist—" Shartif begins his sentence in a tone that suggests he is explaining water measures to a very small child, and Chani grimaces. It is a poor choice, to use such a tone on Irulan.
"Oh?" says Irulan, deceptively light. "You have seen it, as I have. All the great houses have come to us—even the houses whose people we yet kill have paid their respects to the memory of the emperor. If we should make our peace now, they may move against us, but it will not be with strength of arms. If there should remain rogue worlds or rebellious minor houses within their space, that must be for them to solve themselves." Her voice hardens. "They came to us. There is no one left to defeat. Enough."
It is not the way of the desert, to leave an enemy alive behind you; even less, to look into his face and smile. But the Imperium is not the desert, and Muad'dib is dust in the wind. Chani, too, is tired of death. "Enough," she agrees, and the naibs turn to her. This, perhaps, is the moment Irulan had in mind when she requested Chani's presence.
Although perhaps, Chani thinks wryly, she had not quite pictured Chani two feet from the table, with the bulk of her belly risen between like dough in a bowl.
"With all due respect," one of them says—ah, yes, Chani knows him also; Misid of Sietch Chayyima. "You were the emperor's—" He pauses. He is searching for a word that is not "whore" or "concubine".
Chani will save him the trouble. "Yes," she says, "I was the emperor's companion; I loved him and lived with him and trained the fedaykin alongside him. I was Liet's daughter, and brought water to the desert. But alongside all those things, I was sayyadina, and still am. I am a friend of God; I know the ways of Shai-Hulud, the ways of the Mahdi." She takes a deep breath—as deep as she can manage these days, that is. She feels presumptuous; but if she ever learned anything from her short sweet days with Muad'dib, it was that it is sometimes necessary to take up a mantle you are not certain belongs to you, in order to do what must be done. "I speak for Muad'dib—for his purpose, for his dream. And I stand with the empress."
"This is the time," Irulan says, before anyone else can speak to argue. "The houses which have opposed us wish the war to end, or they would have sent nothing to us, no matter who had died." She pauses. "I know you do not trust me, but you must know I am not wholly thoughtless. If they propose to enforce untenable terms upon us, or will not accept our legitimacy, I will not agree." She stops again, and Chani sees her throat move as she swallows; but no sign of her discomfort reaches her face. "I loved the emperor well," she says, only a little softly. "I will not let fall what he has built."
Alia walks slowly, when she leaves the council chambers; and the whole way back to her rooms, no one tries to speak with her, for which she is grateful.
She was right, in the royal hall, when she saw such rich possibility in Kaidama Sidebe—Irulan has turned them onto a path that could never have existed if Paul were still here. And she saw it in the faces of the naibs: not one of them had even considered the thought until Irulan set it before them.
Such is the nature of plans, she thinks, stepping out onto her balcony to breathe the warm air. The breeze from the desert smells of not-quite-cinnamon, as it always does. The spice is everywhere on Arrakis.
Plans have their foundations, inevitably, in assumptions; and assumptions have roots so deep you can never eliminate them entirely. In those assumptions lies the downfall of every plan.
Take the Bene Gesserit. They have schemed for a thousand years, a thousand and a thousand, to bring about the one who can be in many places, the kwisatz haderach; and because they thought he could not come without their plotting, they did not know him when he stood before them, and they lost him. All their training and marrying and breeding, and Paul came one generation too early, when they did not expect him, and turned the universe upside down.
So too with the naibs. The naibs waited so long for their Mahdi, for the Voice from the Outer World to bring them together and hand them the Imperium. When he came at last, the angriest of them dreamed fervently of war, of a galaxy united under the fist of Muad'dib, all rebellion crushed. No one thought Paul would die, or Irulan ascend, or Moritani open a new door; and now all they have planned has come apart and they are left bewildered.
Everything is different, now, and Paul is gone; there is no one left who knows the shape of what will come.
Alia turns back to her rooms, to the bed under its canopy that lies cool in the shade within.
There is no one now alive who has Paul's vision, who can see with the depth and the breadth with which he saw. But her gift is very, very great; and Paul is gone. Someone must come to know the path, or all may yet be lost.
She takes a dozen quick steps to the corner of the room, and pulls the silken cord that will call a servant to her. She will need considerable spice, to do what is needed.
Alia is rarely easy to find, which Duncan sometimes suspects is intentional; she's there when he does not expect her, with her too-old smile and her piercing eyes, and gone whenever he seeks her out, like she truly is a saint and has been called away by distant prayers. He has seen her solemn and human only once, when they went to inspect the body in the desert; she touched the girl's severed wrists with steady, gentle fingers, and looked at last like there was something she did not know.
That is why he thinks she will want to hear what Otheym's daughter told him—but he cannot find her. Or, he can, at first, but that is because she's in a meeting of the empress's council; so he must wait, and he cannot simply stand and do nothing in the hall until they are finished. Two more people have wailed and wept so long outside Muad'dib's tomb without eating that they have fainted, and a man is apprehended—the third this week—trying to reach the royal family's rooms and drive a knife into someone's throat. Chani's this time, Duncan learns, because she did not seal herself in Muad'dib's empty coffin and starve to death as she should have.
By the time he is finished and the man has been taken away, the council meeting is long over, and no one seems to know where Alia may have gone. He tries the garden room, and the kitchens; and then, reluctantly, Alia's rooms. It seems wrong, to venture without permission to the royal family's personal wing, but he does not know where else to look.
No one answers, when he clears his throat and speaks, nor even when he grows desperate and touches his knuckles to the door; but just as he is about to turn away, he hears a small sound, a breath indrawn and shaking.
Every piece of him that is a mentat concludes that he should leave well enough alone; it is not a truly urgent matter, not something that cannot wait until this evening when he may find her at supper. But something deeper in him is not convinced, and before he can work out why, he opens the door.
He scans the room in the space of a moment, but there is no sign of anyone but Alia, and at first she does not seem to be in danger. She began on the bed, judging by the way the sheets have crumpled and slid, following her down to where she sits now on the floor, with her head tipped back. Her eyes are shut, but she is breathing, and Duncan sees no blood anywhere.
And then she opens her eyes, and Duncan knows something is wrong.
"Spice," he says, even as he hurries forward, because there is only one thing that could make her already astounding eyes so much bluer.
Alia smiles at him, and then shivers, though the room is warm. "So quick," she says, "but then you are a mentat, aren't you?"
"And you have taken too much," he says. "Far too much." He does not feel quick; he feels unbearably slow. The Lady Jessica—she is a reverend mother, and she knows the ways of the spice; but can he leave Alia here to fetch her? Should he call a servant, or would it be best for no one to know what Alia has done?
"No, no," Alia says, suddenly desperate, and clutches at his shirt. "Duncan, Duncan—surely you must see it, surely I can depend on your logic for this. I need to see—I cannot do it alone—the spice is helping me—"
"Helping you?" Duncan says, incredulous. She fell from her bed, she must have, and she sits in a lazy curl upon the floor; she cannot seem to hold her head straight, and her fingers are trembling in his shirt.
"I need to see," she repeats, urgent. "I have the power, I do, but Paul—Paul saw every time he opened his eyes, he did not realize what it would take for me to replace him. He assumed too much. But he meant for it to happen, I know it—I see—" She stops, and peers past him, through him; and then she grits her teeth in irritation. "Too little, too short, they do not fit together—I need more—"
She is seeing now, Duncan realizes, in flashes of precognition too brief for her liking. He cannot get servants—if Alia should happen to speak of something they should not know, what then?
"Keep looking," he says, because he cannot argue her out of it now, and perhaps it will help keep her still. "Keep looking, and I will return to help you."
She's not even listening, he suspects, gazing off at something far away. He pries her fingers gently from his shirt, and sprints for the hall.
He does not know where he intends to go looking, but in the end, he does not have to; as he descends the stairs toward the main hallway, none other than the empress turns the corner in front of him.
"Empress—I am sorry—help me, please," is all that Duncan says, but it is all that is needed. He is always so scrupulous in his politeness; that he should address her with such haste, that he should fail to bow, means something is very wrong.
She follows him up the stairs, along the flat straight corridors—to Alia's rooms, she realizes, a moment before they arrive.
It is a shock to her to open the door, even before she fully understands. Alia is strewn across the floor like a blanket discarded in the heat, awkward and angular like she cannot feel the discomfort of her body, or would not care about it if she could.
"She has dosed herself with too much spice," Duncan says, quiet and hurried, kneeling by her head. "Her visions would not satisfy—she feels the lack of the emperor's gifts."
Irulan can do nothing but stare at him for a moment. Irulan has been thinking of Alia as she always thought of Paul—as she thinks of all of House Atreides, even now, even when she tries not to. Distantly, with a tinge of awe; as though they are different, better, set apart, like they are not really people. Like they could never feel themselves inadequate, could never make mistakes.
Of course, Alia is set apart—she is pre-born, and even at five years old, she was more self-possessed than Irulan has ever been despite her own best efforts. But then Irulan was set apart also, as the firstborn child of Shaddam. Everyone is set apart a little; everyone has their own secret reason to explain why no one else will ever quite understand them.
But Paul knew so much, was so certain, and now Paul is gone; and Alia thought she must do this if they were ever to succeed without him. That is a path Irulan's own thoughts have trodden many times.
"We must take her to the Lady Jessica," Irulan says, and Duncan nods.
"So I had thought," he says.
Together they lift her; it will look strange no matter what, but at least with two of them Alia can be made to stand on her own feet. If she does not recover quickly, they will need a story anyway—an illness, or the like—so it may not even hurt them to be seen supporting her.
She is not frail, precisely, under Irulan's hands; but she is small in a way Irulan was not quite expecting. Alia makes such an impression, is so sharp and clever and ineffable in her knowledge—it is easy to forget she is not fully grown, not even eighteen. Her head tips sideways as they lift her up; her eyes, a deep and drowning blue, go right through Irulan, and Irulan notices with a start that tears are trailing down her cheeks.
When she looks at Duncan, he is looking back. "I do not want to think what she is seeing," he says, soft.
Irulan, the closer of them, shoves the door open with her foot, and tries not to think about it either.
It's like vertigo, being back in the old rooms; except she is the one who's moving, and the world is holding still. She was right, Paul and Irulan kept them exactly as they were. They do not even have the look of rooms unlived-in, for the servants have been in to dust and launder—and yet they match Jessica's memory so exactly that a conscious effort must have been made to put everything back precisely in its place.
She's growing used to it, though she wakes sometimes expecting Leto's hand on her face, or his step on the floor. The old rooms still feel safe to her, even after everything that has happened, and she returns to them automatically when the council meeting is done, to think over what she has seen and heard, and the implications that follow thence.
She is deep in thought, and so it happens again: when the door creaks open, she looks up, and for a moment Leto's name is on her lips, tongue poised to shape the syllables in defiance of fact.
It cannot be called a surprise, that it is not him; but it is a surprise to see Duncan Idaho there, Idaho whom she had thought just as surely dead not so long ago. And it is another surprise, a far worse one, to see Alia propped against him. Between him and Irulan, rather. Irulan has been cool and pale and polite to Jessica, every moment, using her courtesy like a shield to keep Jessica away; but now her cheeks are red with effort, and her fingers are tight with concern on Alia's arm.
"What's happened?" Jessica says, nearly a gasp, and then Alia opens her eyes and renders the question foolish.
"She has taken spice," Irulan says anyway. "We do not know how much."
"Too much," Idaho says.
Yes, Jessica thinks, too much—far too much, judging by the color of her eyes. And she knows the reason why. She wants so badly to stop failing Alia, but she cannot seem to do it. What had she said? Paul may be dead, but you are not. Alia makes her decisions with the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years; but also the accumulated pain, the accumulated loneliness. Not even mentats are wholly objective. Jessica surely helped to set Alia's feet on the path to attempting to replace Paul, even if she did not intend to do it.
While her mind has been working, her body has also: there is a couch across from her, long and wide, and she shoves a stack of papers off it and tosses the blanket away. "Here," she says, "set her down," and she uses every lesson the Bene Gesserit ever taught her to keep her voice calm, authoritative. They must not hear that she is afraid.
They lower Alia down, Irulan taking particular care that her arms are not caught under her; Irulan's face may look calmer than Idaho's, but Jessica sees with Bene Gesserit eyes.
And then Irulan sees her looking, and every minute trace of feeling is wiped away as though it had never been. "Do you require additional assistance, Reverend Mother?" she says, and her voice is nearly as even as Jessica's.
Reverend Mother—not quite a proper title for her, not when she has been gone so long; but then the Fremen do not bestow such things lightly, and they are the ones who ordained her with the water of life. Here, on Dune, she will be such until she dies.
She considers the question, laying a hand against Alia's damp face. No doubt it was some time before they came across her; likely there's nothing to be done now but wait. There are drugs that will hurry the metabolization of spice, to be sure, but if Alia has truly overdosed, that could do more harm than good.
The threat now is abomination. The spice has opened Alia to her precognition, yes, but also to the recesses of her own mind, where a thousand lives' worth of memories wait to overwhelm her. They must try to keep her awake and aware.
As though Alia hears her thinking, Alia's eyes open, then. Jessica stops restraining herself, lets her concern loose across her face—neither the ghola Idaho nor Irulan will disdain her for the lapse. "Alia?"
She has opened a door that will be hard to close, she knows that even before she opens her eyes to see Mother's stricken expression. Mother was not meant to see this—Mother was meant to see her only after, when it was finished, when she had taken Paul's gift in her hand and used it as it must be used.
But the thought is tangled, incoherent. The voices of others have always been in her head, but before they were small, quiet things, drifting past the surface of her mind like someone shouting very far away. It was not hard to tell they did not belong to her.
Now they are screaming.
"Mother," she gasps, and she can barely hear her own voice through the din. Mother is saying something, her face desperate, but Alia cannot hear it.
"Kill her, Alia, kill her," shouts the son of House Tachang, poisoned, as ordered, by his Bene Gesserit bride.
"There is not enough air," wails a girl who would become a reverend mother, from the darkness of a locked room in her father's house. "Alia, please, there is not enough air here—"
"Alia, don't listen to her—"
"Alia, he's lying—"
"Enough," someone says sharply, and the voices retreat. Mother's mouth is still moving, but there is only silence.
There is something moving, Alia realizes, beyond Mother's shoulder; someone, rather, and it's someone Alia knows.
"And here I am without a gom jabbar," she says. It is only a little more than a whisper, but she hears the mockery in her own voice and it makes her feel stronger.
The Baron Harkonnen smiles indulgently, and glides a little closer. "You won't need it," he says. "I'm here to help you, my dear, despite that nasty little trick you played on me."
Alia wants to laugh, but Mother already looks so upset; perhaps it's best not to. "Oh?" she says. "And how will you help me?"
"Why, it's the simplest thing in the world," the baron says. "All you want is a little peace and quiet—not so very much to ask. I can give that to you, and I will ask just as little in return."
"Why?" Alia says.
The baron laughs. "Why not?" he says. "We both gain. You have such promise, granddaughter; I would hate for you to waste it on lifelong madness."
Alia shudders. Not even Paul had known their lineage, for a little while; but no one had needed to tell her, she has known every moment of all her grandfathers' lives since before she was born. So strange, to think the Bene Gesserit had hoped to join Atreides and Harkonnen again—if she had been born first, instead of Paul, and they'd had their way, she would have married Feyd-Rautha. She almost snorts. Oh, she would have married Feyd-Rautha, certainly, with a gom jabbar to pin back her hair for the wedding. He would have been dead before sunset.
She imagines it for a moment, and her blood is thick with spice, baron or no baron. It finally happens, just as she wished it to—just as she hoped it would when she first downed the thin broth of spice and water. For a second, a split second, she sees everything, as Paul would have: sees the thin delicate lines of potential that spiral out around her, ahead and behind; touches one, ten, a hundred, all of them playing out in an instant; and she smiles.
"And what are you so pleased about, my dear?"
She opens her eyes. She hasn't moved an inch, despite the centuries of possibility her mind has just traveled; Mother still bends over her, a hand to Alia's face, and behind her the fat baron floats, looking at her inquiringly.
"My brother had more brains in his little finger than you have in your head, Grandfather," she says, letting just a little pity creep into her tone, and the baron's face goes red. "And so have I. I've never needed your help, and I don't now; if I should lose my mind, I will make sure it is mine to lose, at least. Get away from me," and this she fills with every compulsion she knows, every tone and tremor she can think of that will make him do as she says. He is, in the end, a memory, and he cannot do anything if she does not let him.
The baron makes as though to snap at her, and then calms himself visibly. "You are making a mistake, my dear," he says, "but, as you wish: it is yours to make." He smiles, only a little. "I will leave you for the rest of them, then; and if you should change your mind, you have only to call out, and I will answer."
"It makes no difference to me what you do," Alia says, "for I will not call, Grandfather," and she drives that thought as deeply into her mind as it will go. I will not call. I am myself, my mind is mine. Fear is the mind-killer; I will face my fear, I will let it pass through me, and when it is gone only I will remain.
I will not call.
"Grandfather?" the Lady Jessica says, urgent, and Irulan blinks.
She is three steps away from the couch, and facing the door; Duncan Idaho is ahead of her with his hand on the knob.
Of course—those were Bene Gesserit tones in Alia's voice, she used the considerable depth of her talent. Duncan is not trained, not even as much as Irulan is, and certainly not as the Lady Jessica; he resisted it the least.
"I will not call," Alia repeats, strangely triumphant for someone who is splayed across a couch with spice-drenched eyes; and then she shrieks, abrupt and blood-curdling, and hurls a fist at the Lady Jessica's face.
Jessica's hand blurs, moving faster than any eye could hope to follow, and she catches Alia's knuckles before they are even halfway to their goal. Irulan remembers Chani's speech, cool and confident at the council table; Jessica, too, trained fedaykin.
The shrieking stops, and Alia's gaze drifts away; the expression of horror on her face is swept away by an almost beatific joy.
"Grandfather?" Duncan repeats, hesitant, when the silence stretches.
"The Baron Harkonnen," Jessica says, without moving her eyes off Alia's face. "I am the product of Bene Gesserit breeding; I did not know who my father was for a very long time. It was not pleasant to find out."
Irulan nearly flinches. She did not care for House Harkonnen even before she was their guest; she liked them far less after. It has been a long time—longer still since she sent Farrah to them, to learn what she could not. But she has not forgotten.
This is all the explanation she needs; but Duncan, beside her now, still looks uncertain. "Alia holds within her the memories and lives of several hundred generations from whom she is descended," Irulan explains softly. "She can remember so much. Only a strong sense of herself prevents her from confusing another set of memories for her own—from essentially becoming another person entirely."
Duncan looks at her, eyes wide with startlement and comprehension, and Irulan abruptly realizes why. If anyone can understand, it is he, he whom everyone around him hopes will fill with another man's memories and be transformed into the person they once knew.
"I see," is all he says, and he turns to watch Alia twist and shake on the couch with a new sympathy in his face.
They cannot all three of them stay shut away for too long; they still hope to keep it quiet if they can. Duncan's mentat logic can see the merit in it: it would not be wise to tell the universe that even Muad'dib's sainted sister does not think they can succeed without his abilities.
It is the Padishah Empress of the Golden Lion Throne and the holy mother of Muad'dib who would be most missed if they were absent from the hall for long. So it is he who is left to watch over Alia that evening. It would not be complicated, the Lady Jessica had told him, for the worst had passed that afternoon beneath their watchful gazes.
And, indeed, Alia is still for a very long time. So long that Duncan does not notice when her eyes first open.
He notices when she moves to press her hand to her head, though; and he keeps her from rising.
Alia smiles at him. "Duncan," she says, so warmly, and he feels a flush rise up his throat at the sound of her voice. "Duncan, oh—it was so very beautiful."
Duncan eyes her. It did not always sound like it was beautiful; but then he could not see the things she saw.
"And I needed it so much—I needed it to see that I did not need it," Alia says, and laughs, the sound bubbling from her like a spring. Her eyes are still that too-vibrant blue, but something, some frantic edge, is gone from her face and her voice. "He did not see Moritani, he did not have to. He left us to save ourselves—he left us in order that we might save ourselves, I should have understood more quickly—"
"Alia," Duncan says, helplessly. Even his mentat mind, ticking along with quiet speed as it always does, cannot follow her to where she is.
She smiles, gentle, and takes mercy on him. "He did not go so that he could be replaced," she says. "He left us to save ourselves without him—without the grand, entangled plan that he was meant to be a part of, without a kwisatz haderach or the Mahdi or any of it. We were all caught in the same trap, waiting quietly for him to free us because he was the only one who could; five thousand years of myth had told us so, and even the ones who thought to control us by it believed it. But now he is gone."
"Now he is gone," Duncan echoes, and there is a sudden certainty filling his chest like a breath, a certainty that she is right; he does not know where it has come from, for this is not the cool satisfaction of a mentat's calculation, but it is there.
His expression is perfectly still, he knows it. Mentats are taught better than to betray their conclusions unless they intend to. But Alia sees it anyway; she reaches up and touches his face, benevolent, like she is the saint they say she is, and she has granted him forgiveness. "We have the chance, now," she says. "We always had it; but why should we ever have taken it, when he had been born to do it for us?"
"Now we will do it for ourselves," Duncan says.
Alia's face fills with a quiet steady joy. "Our fates are our own," she says, looking at him with those blue blue eyes, and then laughs again, ecstatic. "A universe of choices! There's nothing quite so lovely. Oh, Duncan," and she clasps his hand. "We must not waste it. We must not be afraid."
Gaius Helen lays down another card, and then sits back to survey the tarot. It is a simple spread; the table in her cell is not very large.
Al-Lat, the destroying sun, has come down beside the Great Worm and below the Star, the Sayyadina. A great trial, or destruction: not a pleasant choice. The waters of the tarot are murky, now; do they tell her she must watch for the consequences of a choice the devoted Sayyadina has already made, or is the moment of decision itself yet to come?
Gaius Helen sighs, and is reaching to draw another card when the doors open.
Not the doors to her cell, no; the doors to the outside, to the dim hall that leads to the place where she is held. Irulan, Gaius Helen sees, and restrains the urge to sigh again. The reading can no longer be trusted, after this point. The tarot is sensitive. A reading begun in a room with only one occupant cannot be finished in a room with two.
She flips the card for curiosity's sake: Auliya, the crowned woman, with the fountain of blessings behind her.
"Reverend Mother," Irulan says, and does not bow.
Of course she doesn't—she is the empress now, empress of Atreides and of the Imperium, and she has inherited all the willful arrogance of the position. Gaius Helen takes her time gathering up the spread, stacking the cards, lining them up. Irulan was a fine sister: intelligent; skilled; well-positioned and obedient. It is a shame to lose her, and it will be a worse shame if she is killed—but the Imperium must be controlled. There is no other way.
But perhaps—perhaps it is not necessary. There is always a chance.
"Empress," Gaius Helen says, "what an honor," and just above the surface of the table her fingers twist and bend. The children?
"The honor is mine," Irulan says, and her fingers move only once. No.
Gaius Helen lifts her eyes from Irulan's hands to her face, which is expressionless and unwavering. She will not kill the children; she is with the Atreides, then, if the stability of that house commands her more strongly than the reverend mother of the order.
"It was my late husband's wish that you be imprisoned here," Irulan says, "and I would not dishonor his memory; but he made that decision in a different time. Things have changed," and for a moment, just a moment, there is something like a smile on her face—faint, fond, like she is remembering something she thinks of with pleasure. "House Moritani, House Khumali, House Qaii, House Est—all these have come to us to make their peace. This is a time of forgiveness, Reverend Mother, even for you." She takes a step closer, rests a hand against the curving bars that form Gaius Helen's cell. "I would pardon you, Mohiam; but there are things you must agree to before it will be done."
Gaius Helen taps the cards against the table edge, draws one and lays it down. Ixion, the Wheel—a warning, she thinks. The wheel turns, things rise and fall. It is, as Irulan says, a time of change, and therefore a time to tread carefully. "Tell me your terms, then, Empress," she says.
"You will never return here," Irulan says. "Sisters of the Bene Gesserit are welcome here, but I must approve every one who wishes to set foot on this world, and none of them will be you. The order may pursue its own aims, as it always has, but you will never again pit any house against any other. You know, as I do, that the Bene Gesserit gain much through mystery, through the appearance of impartial power; you took a chance and bargained that away, and you have lost. I would advise against trying again."
"And you think you will be able to stop me," Gaius Helen says, careful to keep all traces of hostility or challenge out of her voice. Another card: the Pillar of Fire, light on the sand. A sudden enlightenment, or the exposure of a secret. Gaius Helen nearly smiles. The tarot tells her of what has not come to pass, now: so the empress does not yet know about the face dancer, or the ghola. The Bene Tleilax have slipped beneath her sights. A blade against her throat will prove a sudden enlightenment indeed.
Irulan's gaze is even. "Paul was trained by his mother, in secret, here and there; but I was trained by you. I will know the machinations of the Bene Gesserit among the houses when I see them."
Among the houses, and yet not within her own. Gaius Helen has something of a fondness for irony. Irulan will be killed, or else brought to heel, by the blade of the ghola; what cost, then, to agree?
"Your terms are acceptable," she says aloud, and lets her shoulders soften minutely as though in defeat. "My first duty is, as always, to my sisters; and if you are indeed your husband's heir, resistance would serve only to call down the fist of Arrakis."
"A wise choice, to avoid it," Irulan says, and for a moment Gaius Helen feels something that is almost like a pang. Agreement that is not agreement; Irulan is well-trained, and Gaius Helen had sometimes entertained thoughts—such thoughts!—of a Bene Gesserit empress.
She lays another card upon the table. The Hajrite, the Pilgrim: a fateful journey, a determination of success or failure that will decide many things. Their path is before them; no use dwelling on what will not be. "Your generosity will not be forgotten, Empress," she says. Poorly rewarded, to be sure, but not forgotten.
Alia leans against the balcony. Three days, now, since she was here last, since the day she took the spice. Well, not here precisely—for she is in the east upper hall, instead of her rooms—but the position is familiar: a balcony, the sun, the wind, and the city spread out below her like a finely-patterned rug.
Mother wished to make her rest, but it is unnecessary. Alia is not hurt—Alia is as unhurt as she has ever been. Some weight has come away from her, some burden she had not felt herself carrying until she set it down. She sees concern and care and love in Mother's face, now; before she would have seen nothing but fear that she was not strong enough, and it would have made her cold and angry.
She is not angry now.
Quite the contrary, in fact; she has alarmed many servants, many visitors, by bursting into peals of laughter that echo in the halls. She giggles now just thinking of it. Her clever, clever brother. Even she thought always in terms of paths; and paths are already laid down upon the ground, defined, beaten out by other feet. Paths were never what they needed.
But enough: she must not let herself forget. The war is not over yet, even if Irulan has begun the process; even after Moritani and the spice and Paul cutting them all free, there is still the matter of the murdered Fremen girl. They do not even know her name, and no girl is missing—no family knows yet whether they are the ones who will need to mourn.
And then, of course, there are the other things she saw. She touched many possibilities, when the baron came to her, some more troubling than others; and the most troubling of all was of Duncan. Duncan, impossibly, with a blade to Irulan's throat—Duncan! Alia can think of few things less likely, and yet she remembers the spill of Irulan's blood over stone as though it has already happened. It makes no sense—she must be missing something. What would have Duncan taking his knife in hand so?
As she is thinking of him, a vision comes to her there at the balcony, and she says his name aloud before his hand even touches her elbow.
"I—yes, my lady," Duncan says, and she knows he will not let himself look disconcerted even before she turns around.
She never sees everything, even with her abilities, but she thinks now of what she had not remembered before: he was the one who found her in her rooms, for she spoke to him there before he and Irulan took her to Mother, and why would he have been there but to bring her information? He is so scrupulously careful not to presume, because it would be so easy for him when he wears trusted Idaho's face; it is actually rather charming. "The body in the desert," she says gently, and he nods.
"I had intended to tell you—the daughter of Otheym came to me. There are eighteen Fremen girls who may have been replaced; we have been given leave to test them genetically, and Otheym will make sure they do not leave the city until we are able."
It is Duncan, Duncan whom Alia trusts even though she herself never knew Idaho; so she lets herself frown where he can see it. "Otheym," she repeats slowly. "Otheym himself—did the girl say it exactly so?" Somewhere in her mind there is a suspicion—light shining beneath a door, growing brighter.
"She did," Duncan says; it comes out even, uninflected, but he is watching her face so closely. His eyes have not turned with spice, not yet—it's startling to see eyes with so much green in them, on Arrakis. Alia wonders whether Idaho's eyes had gone blue by the time he died. Mother's last memory of him is so blurred.
"Otheym," Alia murmurs. "Tell me, Duncan: do you know why Paul was in the streets the night of the stoneburner?"
"He had some business in the city," Duncan says with a shrug, because mentats do not ask questions when logic can give them an answer. Logic can be beautiful, in its patterns and fractals and rigid angles; but diagrams and matrices, Alia thinks, cannot impart the sweet imperfection of detail that is so often essential.
"He did," Alia says. "He went to visit his dear friend Otheym, who is fallen ill and has come to his last days."
Duncan stares at her. "Perhaps the girl misspoke," he says. "Perhaps she meant only that he would direct as best he could, expecting that I knew his condition."
"It is not impossible," Alia allows, "but there is something about it that sticks at me. I feel a wrongness here."
"That is not logical," Duncan says.
Alia presses her lips together, flat. "I have known mentats," she says, "I have been mentats; pure calculation cannot tell you everything, Duncan."
"Feelings are not trustworthy," he says, in the manner of someone who has told himself a thing many times, repeated it until it is said by rote.
And why should he tell himself such a thing? Alia considers it. "You fear they are Idaho's," she says. "You fear that when you feel, you are not yourself."
Duncan says nothing, only looks at her with those eyes. Green, Alia thinks, which was held in ancient times to be the color of jealousy. The color of fear that a thing you love does not, in the end, belong to you—except that thing is not usually your own life.
She has no true reason to say it; he has flushed occasionally, watched her sometimes. And of course there was the morning she took down eleven blades, the morning before they found the girl's body, when her clothes had seemed suddenly too constrictive for the bright hot joy thrumming within her skin. She had not expected Paul and Stilgar and Duncan, then, but she had not minded either, and it was Paul who had raised a cloth to cover her, not herself.
But she says it anyway: "Idaho did not know me. He felt nothing about me one way or the other."
Duncan's gaze remains mentat-steady; but yes, there, there is the flush that so likes to climb his throat.
Alia grins. "And, think," she says, gently turning back to a simpler subject, "Lichna the daughter of Otheym is a Fremen girl, is she not? And she has not been tested." She had thought the face dancer might go out among the Fremen, kill again; begin a civil war, another, between those who will allow Irulan's peace and those who will not be satisfied. But if the face dancer is Lichna, if the face dancer is at the palace and means to remain there—here, at last, is the answer she has looked for. Here is how a man with Duncan's face will come to hold a blade to Irulan's skin. Of course.
Chani is not expecting the visions. Her eyes are spice-blue, as all Fremen eyes are, and she has gone into spice-trance a few times as sayyadina. But of the two of them, it was Muad'dib who saw most clearly, Muad'dib who met the future with a knowing gaze. Chani has flashes, sees a few things before they come, but Muad'dib saw the movements of many stars, the web of many choices. Chani sees only small pieces of life; herself cooking sfiha and studding labneh with olives, or smoothing folded cloth in sunlight.
But she knows the difference between visions and dreams, and the girl who keeps appearing when she sleeps is closer to a vision. Dressed in simple clothes, Fremen clothes, standing against a backdrop of carved stone: "It's all right, Mother," she says, over and over. "Everything's all right. We are here, Leto and I," and suddenly beside her there is a boy with nearly the same face, exactly the same eyes. "We will live, Ghanima and I," he says, "and so will you," and there is such confident joy in their faces that Chani keeps waking up with aching cheeks because she has been smiling in her sleep.
She mentions them to Alia first, because she needs to tell someone, and because if she is foolish to do it Alia will not fail to say so. Perhaps she is foolish; but it seems almost unkind, to keep such a fierce happiness to herself.
Alia makes it easy for her. Chani finds her in the garden room. Alia is sitting with a far-off look on her face, clearly thinking, but she turns and smiles readily; the second thing she says, after greeting Chani herself, is "And how are my niece and nephew?"
Chani blinks, and thinks for a moment that she should have known it would be a waste—Alia's vision is not Muad'dib's, but that does not mean it is not immense. "You have seen this?" she says, easing herself down onto a bench. She has grown very round, now.
But Alia shakes her head. "Not this," she says. "Some things that are to come, or might have been to come—but it is not important. Tell me."
"They are well," Chani says, "and—and will be."
Alia's eyebrows arch. "You've seen it yourself?"
Chani pauses to consider. She has seen, yes; but it is not as her other visions have been. Perhaps there is a better way to describe it. "They have told me," she settles on.
Alia looks at her, wide-eyed. "They are awake," she says, nearly a whisper. "As I was."
Chani touches the warm round weight of her belly. "Yes," she says. She can't be certain, of course; a spice trance is unwise this close to the day. Still, it feels like the true answer.
Alia reaches out, lays a hand against Chani's fingers where they rest over the curve of her stomach. "They are like me," she says again, so softly, and she sounds like a little girl for a moment, like they are back in the sietch and Chani's belly is heavy with a different child entirely.
"Yes," Chani repeats. Alia is near on the bench, and the impulse to smooth a hand against her long dark hair, to kiss the crown of her head, is suddenly strong; it is easy to obey.
She thinks to tell the Lady Jessica, next. It has been so long since they have really talked, but she remembers how it was when they first came to the Fremen, when Muad'dib's name was new and Jessica spent hours tossing Chani to the sand to teach her the Weirding Way. Jessica is holy, but also kind and compassionate, as not all holy things are. Jessica will want to know of her grandchildren.
And, as she expected, Jessica's face comes alight when Chani tells her of the visions. "More," she says, and Chani wrings every drop of detail from her memories, as careful as she would be with water from a cloth.
Jessica sits back, when Chani has told her everything she can think of, and she presses her fingers to her mouth for a moment. Her eyes are wet, but Chani does not laugh at her. Some joys are worth shedding water for, even in the desert.
"I cannot wait to meet them," Jessica says at last, smiling, and takes Chani's hands. They grin at each other like fools for a moment.
"I hope you will stay, Holy Mother," Chani says, "and teach them all that you taught me."
"That is my hope also," Jessica says; and then she pauses, hands still wrapped around Chani's fingers. "Chani—Chani, forgive me, you have been very kind, but I must ask. Will you tell Irulan?"
Chani stands, even though it strains her back, and draws her hands away.
"Chani," Jessica says, very gently, and nothing else, like her name is a sentence in itself.
There is no point in saying more; Jessica must know it. Chani already knows she is no longer being fair; she should be past it, this petulant desire to keep Irulan always on the outside. They have helped each other, now, Irulan with the medicine and Chani with the council—they have made something of a peace out of it, even if they are not precisely friendly. She should be past this.
She leans against the wall—lucky she has put her side to it and not her front, she thinks wryly, or her head would never touch it. She is strong enough to kill, to make peace, to touch God and ride the back of Shai-Hulud. She is strong enough to master herself.
"Yes," she tells Jessica. "I will."
Irulan sighs, and wishes she could lay her head down upon her desk, just for a moment.
She cannot, of course, for a servant may come at any time—she cannot rest with such pure confidence in her solitude as she used to. So few people had ever come looking for her, before; but now she is the empress, and crises come at all hours.
She is occupied mostly with the papers for Reverend Mother Mohiam; she has reversed Paul's earlier edict, and the draft of a constitution is coming together, but that will not come up until the next convention of the Landsraad, and that will not come until the terms of the peace have been settled, and so on and so forth. She rubs her temples gently. Mohiam first; the rest, she will handle when it comes.
It was a strange thing, to see Mohiam again that way. Irulan visited her in her cell before, of course; but now, of the two of them, it is she who is the more powerful. Mohiam had looked oddly small suddenly, laying her tarot spread on the little table. So different from the tall stern woman who had drilled Irulan in the exercises over and over again. An emperor's daughter must do better. And she has—she has done better, she thinks, than Mohiam had ever imagined she might.
She did not have to put together the release orders personally, of course; but she must read them over before she signs them, be sure there is nothing in them that she does not intend to be there. Ordinarily, she would delegate, but Mohiam must still be dealt with carefully, even when it comes to the manner of her banishment.
There is noise outside her chamber—talking. There are rooms like gates, now, between her and the corridor; where she sits is not even the deepest of them, only the writing room where she had bade the old desk be brought. She looks up just as the door creaks open, and blinks.
"I told the girl not to announce me," Chani says, "but I fear I announced myself in the telling of it."
I prefer it to a knife at the neck, Irulan restrains herself from saying. "Not an official visit, then," she hazards instead.
"No," Chani agrees, and then, uncharacteristically, hesitates. "I am not—interrupting?"
Irulan glances down at the papers for Mohiam, and lets herself close her eyes for a moment. Chani already thinks poorly of her; a moment of weakness cannot make it that much worse. "Nothing that will not keep," she says, and sets her stylus down.
"It will not take long," Chani says, "I only hoped to tell you: the children are awake."
Irulan is slow, at this hour; it takes her a moment to realize what Chani must mean by that. "As Alia was?"
Chani nods. "I have seen them," she says. "They are not quite visions—it is as though they speak to me, through the places in the mind where the spice flows. They will live, and be beautiful; I thought you should know it."
Irulan flattens her hand to her desk, looks away. What is Chani intending to accomplish? She would not do this without a reason, and yet surely her motivation is more complex than the desire to press a finger to the bruise of Irulan's guilt. To remind Irulan of the power she holds, perhaps, as mother of the only children Muad'dib will ever have—a warning, then?
"Is there—is there anything you would have me do?" Irulan asks, and she is pleased to hear her voice stay steady, despite the pause she could not quite avoid.
Chani looks at her, blank-faced and considering, with eyes like smooth stones; and Irulan braces herself for yet another test, another oath she must swear or allegiance she must give up.
"I suppose I cannot make the Padishah Empress rub my feet," Chani says, gentle and rueful at once; and she smiles at Irulan, just a little.
Irulan closes her eyes and touches her desk, and lets her own mouth curl, lets the relief and the gratitude rush up in her like cool water. She had not thought it possible, and yet: Chani has come to forgive her. "No," she agrees, "it would not suit. But I think it is not above the dignity of the Lion Throne to fetch you a footstool."
"My ankles would be grateful," Chani says, and then she truly does smile. "Sit with me a little, and I will tell you what I saw."
Jessica had thought, secretly, that it would not be so difficult to make peace with Irulan as Chani had imagined it; and she thinks now that she was right. They may never be pleased with each other, it is true. But Chani's mouth no longer tightens when she sees Irulan, and Irulan's composed chill has given way to an exacting, almost deferent consideration, like she is reminding herself with every breath to make certain Chani has no cause to be angry.
Not ideal; but then it has not been very long, and time can do so many things.
Of course, to look at them now you would think they barely knew each other. It is the day Irulan has set aside to grant her imperial pardon to Reverend Mother Mohiam, and they are robed in finery in the public hall, severe and expressionless on their thrones. Alia is on the main dais, too, mirroring Chani in the second of the two thrones that flank Irulan's, watching the crowd with narrowed eyes.
Public, of course, is something of a misnomer for this room—it is where petitions are presented, a supposedly free forum, but petitioners are always carefully vetted. Rare is the request that comes to the Golden Lion Throne spontaneously, without a decision already prepared in response.
But today is meant for Irulan to speak, not to listen. Jessica has heard many decrees laid down in her time, ducal adjudications by Leto and imperial proclamations by Shaddam; she attends more to her own thoughts than she does to the words Irulan intones—until, that is, Irulan is interrupted.
At first, Jessica thinks it must have been an accident. Surely no one would think to shout down the Padishah Empress in her own hall. But the first yell is followed by a second, a third, and Irulan completes a particularly intricate sentence and then pauses.
The word that was indistinct the first three times is clear the fourth: "Treason!" is the cry, and a wave of murmurs sweeps the hall as the man who said it struggles forward to the open floor.
"You are brave to be so frank about it," Alia says, before Irulan can do more than raise her eyebrows, and the nearest rows of nobles chuckle politely into their sleeves.
"Treason," the man repeats, and his expression is crumpled with the force of his anger. "To free the Bene Gesserit witch—treason against the memory of Muad'dib! But then what else can we expect, when the Corrino whore was trained by the Bene Gesserit herself?"
Gasps fill the hall at that, and Jessica stands, careful to keep every inch of herself perfectly composed. "As was I," she says loudly, "and as was Muad'dib." She takes a step, down from the dais where the Holy Mother's seat stands and toward the man. He looks like a Fremen—not a naib, she thinks, but still a man of some significance, for he was either let into the hall or had much help to find a way inside. And there is something strange about him—the anger is real, at least to some degree, but the tone is not right. "The training of the fedaykin is the training of the Bene Gesserit. Have you forgotten it?"
"How could I," the man says, "when you, and they, would sit by easily and let this thing come to pass?"
Alia, Jessica notes, is staring at him, eyes narrowed; and then she tears her gaze from him and scans the hall, though Jessica does not know what she is looking for. Did she see this? Does she know what is coming?
"It cannot be countenanced," the man continues. "The words of Muad'dib are law, to the loyal; the witch must not be set loose—"
"The woman shall go free," Irulan says, cool but firm, every inch an empress in her golden throne—and that is the moment Jessica sees the ghola move.
It has been a long while since she has had a reason to pull time to her, to bend the passage of moments to her will; but it comes to her just as easily as it ever did. She bounds the high steps in the space of an instant, down to the floor of the hall and up to Irulan's throne, and catches Idaho's wrist an inch from Irulan's neck.
Irulan is wearing shields, of course she is, so the ghola has come at her with a knife. Jessica is strong, but so is Idaho, and the blade trembles a hairsbreadth from Irulan's throat, moving neither forward nor back.
Jessica is aware that someone has screamed, that Alia has leapt to her feet somewhere to the side; and Irulan sits, pinned between throne and knife, eyes intent on the ghola's face.
"What are you doing?" Jessica says, voice as even as she can make it, but the ghola is not looking at her. He is gazing down at Irulan, and his expression is utterly blank. "Idaho," she tries, and looks closely at him, searching for signs of the man whose face he wears.
"Duncan," Alia says, not loudly but clearly; and Jessica realizes her mistake. She has tried to call him back to himself with a name he does not feel he owns, a name that is not his—why should he ever answer such a call?
The ghola's face has begun to twist, caught between non-feeling and anguish, and Jessica can almost feel the struggle in him through her iron grip on his wrist. She sees the plot, all at once: he was a gift, she remembers it now, from the Tleilaxu. Of course. She has heard rumors of the darker experiments of the Bene Tleilax, conditioning the mind to forced obedience—but the human brain is more complex than even Tleilaxu plots, and surely, surely, they cannot be foolproof.
"Duncan," Alia says again, and the knife trembles harder—the tip catches Irulan's skin, a single shallow cut that wells up with blood, and Jessica hears Duncan's breath catch in his throat, a moment before the knife tumbles from his hand.
Alia catches it before it can fall, blurring in Jessica's vision even though Jessica never taught her to move so; and Duncan stumbles back, half-falling, arm raised like a supplicant with his wrist still in Jessica's hand. "Idaho," she says, and kneels down beside him, but that is not right—he is still only himself, she can see it in his eyes when he looks up. "Duncan," she amends, and gentles her grip. "Duncan."
After the assassination attempt, Irulan thinks, the rest of the proclamation goes quite smoothly. The man who began it all is gone as though he were never there, and when Irulan steps out of the hall and orders Stilgar to have him found, Alia shakes her head.
"They will find no one," she says, "except perhaps another body in the desert. It was the face dancer—I am sorry, Irulan, truly I am, I saw but I did not understand. I did not think it could be Duncan, I thought it would be the face dancer; I followed Duncan all morning, but he was himself, and the future is always changing—"
"You thought they must have chosen to act on another day," Irulan says, "that it would not be this time."
Alia looks at her, and in her eyes there is something that is almost a plea for forgiveness, would be if Alia had ever in her life pleaded for anything.
Irulan touches her shoulder and smiles, and then goes to seal Mohiam's papers at last.
She has just set them down when she becomes aware there is someone else in her rooms—but who would be let in without fanfare, less than an hour after someone tried to kill her?
She turns, and has her answer: the Holy Mother of Muad'dib.
"What will you do with him?" Jessica says, closing the door behind her without looking away from Irulan.
Irulan blinks. "Duncan?" she says. "I—nothing, I suppose."
"Is that wise?" Jessica says.
Irulan forces herself to think it through. "I do not think it will be considered a sign of weakness," she says at last. "He resisted what was done to him successfully—clearly, even the considerable skills of the Bene Tleilax cannot break the loyalty of those who serve the house of Muad'dib."
Jessica looks at her for another moment, expressionless, and then a smile begins to curve the corners of her mouth—a smile on the face of a reverend mother, who would not let it show unless she wished it to. "A good start," she says, "though it will take some work to have that interpretation spread."
Irulan sighs a little, leans a hand on her desk. She will take a chance, she thinks; wherever the Lady Jessica's goodwill has come from, if it can be squandered by a single offhand comment it would have done Irulan no good anyway. "Work for another day," she says, and is rewarded by a chuckle. "Thank you," she adds belatedly; she cannot remember whether she said it before, and there is no one who was in the hall today who doesn't know she owes her life to the speed of Jessica's arm.
"I did not do it to earn your thanks," Jessica says, and Irulan bites her lip; but Jessica does not look angry. "Chani told you about the children, didn't she?"
Irulan catches herself before she can show her startlement. Of course—Chani told Jessica first, no doubt. "She did," she says. And then, following a sudden intuition: "You asked her to, didn't you?"
"I hoped she would," Jessica says, which is not quite an answer but is surprising enough to make Irulan stare.
"Because it would have been right for her to tell you," Jessica says, "and because you deserved to know." She is looking at Irulan almost curiously, now. "We have not spoken much, Irulan; I am beginning to think that is a shame." Jessica crosses the floor, rounds the desk, and touches Irulan's hand gently. "But, as you've said: work for another day. You should sleep; I hope your dreams are kind to you."
"And yours, Holy Mother," Irulan says automatically, and wonders how she will manage to fall asleep with this strange lightness in her chest.
Duncan cannot understand why they were so gentle with him. He tried to kill the Padishah Empress, his own hand held the knife—surely he should already be dead.
But the guards who led him from the hall were not harsh, and they did not take him to the cells; they took him back to his room, and he has sat here for hours, waiting, but no one has come to take his life.
He's almost begun to think they will simply leave him there—that this is his punishment, to sit alone in the dark forever and never know whether they understand what happened. But then the door opens, and he lifts his head.
"Duncan," she says gently, and then pauses. "You are still you, then?"
He nods. He did feel something, when the Lady Jessica caught his arm; but it was him, his own relief and terror and anguish that he felt, and the only memory that returned to him was of standing in a hallway with a girl who was not herself, unable to move so much as a finger. He is still not Idaho.
"Is the empress—" He cannot figure out how to end the question. All right seems too mild, too ordinary a choice to serve as an inquiry after the person he lately tried to murder.
"Irulan is well," Alia says. "It was only a scratch, and you were not made to poison your blade—after all, you would not have been allowed to pass the inspections if you had. They must have known it."
She says it so easily, with such faith—you were not made to. Do they all know, then, that he did not mean to do it—that he never would have done it, if his hands had been his own? He squeezes his eyes shut; he wants so badly to ask, but he has no right to reassurance now. He tried to kill the empress.
"Duncan," Alia says again, and moves closer, close enough to lay cool fingers on the back of his neck. "It was their plan all along—we know it now. Ever since you were first given to Paul, they meant to make you kill; your mind was sculpted to accept it from the start."
He knows it—he has had hours to sit here and think about it, and he sees now how it all fit together. Muad'dib had not resisted the chance to have his old teacher Idaho back; sentiment defeated the dictates of caution, and so Muad'dib had kept him instead of letting Stilgar spill his body's water in the hall. They must have expected it, the ones who made him. And then they would have wound him up like a toy, and he would have killed Paul Atreides. He is not Duncan Idaho; he is a bomb, a gun, a thing constructed with no use in mind except to bring death.
He forces his eyes open again and makes himself look up. Alia is watching him, not unkindly, with the expression on her face that says she knows what he is thinking—it is a familiar one.
"And you did not do it," she says. She did not lift her hand from his neck when he raised his head, and now it is curved, gentle, against his jaw.
"I would have," Duncan says. "If the Lady Jessica had not stopped me—"
"She gave you time," Alia argues, "the time you needed to stop yourself. And you did—you stepped off the path." She lets go of his face, reaches down to clasp his hands. "You wander the desert, now; but you are not alone."
Alia does not climb, much; but she has been people who have, and the slant of the roof of the south wing is very gentle, particularly where it crosses under the windows in the southeast hall.
She would not scale a roof simply for her own amusement, but there is a figure sitting at the edge of the south wing, and she remembers—Mother remembers, that is—how Chani likes to look out at the desert from high places.
There is a storm coming; she would be able to feel it in the air even if she could not see it. It strikes her as funny, almost: the war is as good as over, Mohiam is gone, Irulan is safe, Duncan is considering one day forgiving himself—and now, now, when all is well and as good as settled, there is a storm in the sky. It is building in the southwest, great roiling clouds where twenty years ago no cloud ever passed.
"This place has changed," Chani says, when Alia lowers herself to the eaves beside her. She is looking out at the storm.
"We have brought water to the desert," Alia says, arms around her knees; and she says it neutrally instead of proudly, watching Chani's face.
Chani turns to look at her. "Muad'dib said to me once that we had become water-fat," she says. "Thoughtless. That we had forgotten things we should not have forgotten."
Alia considers. "It is an accomplishment, almost," she says, "to think we have so much that we do not value it as we once did; and it is not wrong, that no one on Arrakis pays to drink other men's washwater."
"No," Chani agrees, "that is as my father would have wanted it." She hesitates, bare feet curling against the red stone of the roof. "We talked in those days of making this planet a paradise; but now I think to lose the desert would make it no paradise for me."
To lose the desert—Alia almost wants to laugh, for the deserts of Dune are wide and deep, and even the efforts of the empire of Muad'dib have barely touched the edges. But she thinks of the grasses she has seen among the sands, the sound of rain that was once so unfamiliar becoming almost commonplace; and the laugh stills in her throat. "There is still time to make a choice," she says instead. "We may keep the water and the desert, both, if we are wise."
Chani laughs. "And what are the odds of that?" she says.
Alia elbows her—in the shoulder, to avoid the sensitive roundness of her belly. "If we are careful, then," she amends. "We will keep the desert for Shai-Hulud, and the fountains to slake our thirst. We need not forget everything."
Chani is smiling at her, but it is more fond than patronizing, so Alia does not elbow her again. "And who am I to argue—a thousand heads are better than one," she says teasingly, touching Alia's hair; and then her face crumples suddenly, breath escaping in a startled rush.
"Perhaps it was only a spasm," Chani says, but she does not sound certain; and a moment later it happens again, and she wraps an arm around her belly.
"I suspect it is time you were off this roof," Alia says, and draws Chani's arm around her shoulder. She remembers what Chani told her, the visions and the awareness, and she grins helplessly.
She cannot wait to meet her niece and nephew.
Chani shoves her sweaty hair out of her face and laughs, and then the midwife hands her one baby. "A moment," she says gently, "to wrap the other," and Chani waits, smiling down at the first, until the woman can pass her the second twin.
They look like crumpled rags, red and wet and very wrinkled; they are beautiful. Chani is tired, but it is a good, clean fatigue, like a long hunt that has ended well. There was blood, but not too much, and the midwife is smiling. Which is good; Chani was hoping to avoid calling in an offworld doctor.
She cradles one baby in each arm, and kisses each on the forehead. She is smiling to herself, thinking how terrible a mother she is—she cannot tell them apart, she does not even know which is Leto and which is Ghanima anymore—when there is a small motion in the corner of her eye, and she looks up.
Irulan is standing in the doorway; her face is smooth, expressionless, but something about her hands, half-curled at waist level, says she is uncertain. She is looking at the twins, but when Chani moves, her gaze shifts to Chani's face. She clears her throat. "They told me it was finished," she says stiffly. "They are well? And you also?"
If there had been any bitterness toward Irulan left in her, it is gone now; the desert teaches practicality above all things, and Chani has been thinking much of the desert today. Irulan's neck is flushed with healing, the little wound left by Duncan's knife scabbed over, and Chani feels nothing but gratitude to see it: nothing but gratitude that Irulan is still alive, that neither one of them has lost the chance to learn to be kind to the other. What was done is done—what matters now is what they choose to do in the time that has yet to come. So Chani smiles. "Yes," she says.
Irulan nods, and makes as if to go.
"Wait," Chani says. "Irulan—come here."
Irulan looks at her—still expressionless, but her hesitation speaks of nervousness. So cautious, even now, even after everything they have done for each other, everything they have forgiven each other.
Irulan draws a slow breath, and comes in.
It is not precisely a birthing room—palaces are not sietches, there was nowhere prepared in the old ways for such things. But it is wide open, windowed, with a bed in the middle, and the storm is nearly over, lightning replaced by a cool, hissing rain. The bed is large, a generous space even for two people, but Irulan still sits gingerly on the edge, like she thinks that if she takes up too much space Chani will change her mind and send her away.
Chani cannot help it; the universe has been kind to her today, and her good mood will not be repressed. She laughs. "Relax, Irulan," she advises, and tips her shoulder to shift one baby a little further down her arm, offering. "Here. You will be doing me a favor, they are very heavy." It is only half a lie: they are, but Chani barely feels it.
Irulan takes the child carefully, cradling it with one arm and easing the swaddling cloth away from its cheek with the other; and she strokes the bridge of its nose with one finger, so careful, like it is made of glass. When she looks at Chani again, her eyes are damp. "Thank you," she says, very quietly.
Chani touches her elbow. "They are your children also, now," she says. "They are ours."
And Irulan smiles at her then, very bright, like the sun rising at the edge of the desert.