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There have been many words written on the subject of Duke Leto’s extraordinary campaign against the Harkonnen on Arrakis, how, despite being massively outnumbered in a manner far beyond any expectation, he managed to pull off a retreat into the desert in reasonably good order, how he managed to ally himself with enough of the Fremen there and ultimately pull off a victory that none could have foreseen.

What is far less known is the actions of Shadout Mapes, a Fremen housekeeper, during the attack. Without her stopping the traitor Yueh, he would have succeeded in sabotaging the house generators, drugging even more of the key Atreides forces, maybe even capturing Duke Leto himself, as was surely his aim. Without her actions, Duke Leto’s war against the Harkonnen would almost undoubtedly have been stillborn.

The moral is clear: books may glorify the names of men, but the actions of the right woman, in the right place, at the right time, can shift the course of history regardless.

— From ‘The Fall of House Harkonnen’ by the Princess Irulan, unfinished manuscript

* * * * *

Irulan pored over her latest chapter until her eyes ached, checking references and cross-references, whispering phrases and paragraphs under her breath to check the flow, polishing it further, albeit not quite to her satisfaction just yet. She almost jumped when someone softly cleared their throat behind her.

She turned around to see Neelam - one of Leto’s house servants, eyes the faint blue of the city born turned deferentially downwards - standing by the door. “Breakfast is being served in the family room, your highness.”

Breakfast was one word for it with the sun already descending in the sky, Irulan thought. When Leto had been out in the desert, during the war, he’d taken to using the Fremen hours. Though he’d started using a slightly more civilised timetable in the years since, he’d never moved all the way back.

“Thank you,” Irulan said and got to her feet. “Don’t worry, I can see my own way there.”

Neelam nodded and disappeared efficiently through the doorway. By the time Irulan had followed her, she had vanished from view. The sign of a good servant, Irulan thought, even if she couldn’t have been born to it. It was hard to imagine that Thufir Hawat would allow anyone who had served the Harkonnen such free rein within the palace, even these years after their exile.

After all, history contained the lesson that a House could come back from even that. After all, the Harkonnen had managed that feat once already.

* * * * *

Movement woke Chani from sleep, her hand automatically sliding for her crysknife. She slitted her eyes to see a servant moving around the room, cleaning and laying out fresh clothes, presumably for Paul for the day. She didn’t need a clock to tell that the sun was still high in the sky, far too early to be up. Paul’s warmth from behind reminded her that they’d just barely gone to sleep, if she needed any other reminder than her still tired muscles.

This might not be a love match but she couldn’t deny that these visits away from the tribes and the desert did her good, though her younger self would have been horrified that she could even think that. Even if some of the habits of these offworlder nobles still grated on her nerves like stepping on drum sand. Like allowing servants into their quarters whilst they slept. She waited until the intruder left before letting herself drift off to sleep again.

Her next awakening was courtesy of Paul himself stirring. Still far too early for Chani’s tastes, but such was the price for visiting the uncivilised city.

“Come to breakfast with me,” Paul said.

Chani shot him a look. That wasn’t usual. “As you ask,” she said cautiously.

* * * * *

The family room was brightly lit as Irulan entered, the smoked screens lowered, and the family seated around the table and a frugal meal. The family — and one addition. Chani Kynes. She ignored the intruder, and offered a smile to Alia, huddled in the deepest shadows available in the room, before turning her attention towards Leto, inclining her head.

“Good afternoon, your lordship,” she said.

“Really, Irulan,” he said and laughed. “Formality, at this hour? Please, sit down and help us break our fast.”

She smiled, disarmed as always, despite herself, despite the presence of the person who meant that she wasn’t a member of this family in truth.

“Of course,” she said. “Even if it isn’t exactly my fast.”

Lady Jessica smiled tolerantly at her. “In which case we are doubly grateful for your presence,” she said. And your tolerance for the circumstances, her attitude suggested, with a slight side eye in the intruder’s direction that as much as stated that she, too, wasn’t best pleased with her presence.

“As always,” Paul added, and Irulan let herself encompass him, as well as… the intruder who was nestled far too close to him. Their rhythms were synched as though they’d already spent some time together, she couldn’t help notice, though it was obvious that they hadn’t been out of bed for too long. Which in turn meant… Irulan felt a stab of sharp irritation. It was bad enough that this Fremen was why the first born daughter of the Emperor was in this situation - unwedded, unpromised even, just with an unspoken ‘understanding’ that was hardly shield enough against the slight to her honour. It was something else that the other person - not even a noble born - with such an arrangement with Paul was practically flaunting herself with him without even the honour of being a bonded concubine. She stifled the flush caused by the thought of this getting back to the Royal Creche that she had lived in before being exiled here.

Something in the glint of Paul’s eyes told her that the line of her thoughts had not escaped him at least, and she suppressed another flush, this of anger. She had no doubt that the Slow Knife of the Atreides had realised the implications of this scene for her, though whether the effects on her were the point or just incidental she had no way of knowing. Maybe if she had been a more adept pupil of the Bene Gesserit ways, she wouldn’t have been so blind, but as it was she had learned it was best not to try and second guess him. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that was one of the lessons Paul had intended to teach her.

She couldn’t help but admire that about him. Maybe in another life, she would have been a good wife for him. Not this one, though.

She sat down, poured herself a glass of water and nibbled at some of the bread that had been placed near her seat, doubtless the most lightly spiced of all.

“How is your book going?” Leto asked, and Irulan didn’t need to remember any exercises to relax and smile at him.

“Slowly,” she said. “As much as I have to thank you for access to all your logs, as well as those you managed to recover from House Harkonnen and other miscellaneous records, it does make a complete overview exhaustive to manage perfectly.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage. You’ll have to let me read it when you’re finished.”

Irulan let herself flush. “I’m sure you know what went on far better than I.”

“Fighting a war with limited information — and being far from a mentat myself — means that I undoubtedly have a slanted view on things. I look forward to reading a more measured summation of events.”

Irulan inclined her head, pleased despite herself. “I always appreciate hearing your thoughts,” she said, then paused long enough to indicate thought without being overeager. “There are a few things you might be able to help me clear up.”

“Always,” he said, and they spent the next half hour discussing some of the finer points of the campaign that she’d been researching. Meanwhile the Lady Jessica talked quietly with Paul, Alia remained quiet in her seat, almost wilting with sleepiness whilst Chani picked at her food, occasionally laying light touches on Paul, in an obvious marking fashion that Irulan did her best to ignore.

It wasn’t as though what did or did not go on in the bedroom would mean anything in the end, anyway. Would Paul really pass up the Imperial throne just to solidify the Atreides claim on Arrakis by cozying up with the local barbarians, no matter how useful they’d been in fighting off House Harkonnen?

Finally, though, the Lady Jessica gave her a slight nod as if to indicate that Irulan should get to the real reason she was here, whilst Paul just watched her expressionlessly. Irulan inclined her head slightly in response. “I’ve had a summons from the High Council of the Landsraad, to ask questions about what I’ve witnessed regarding the running of Arrakis. My father has indulged their request.”

“They’re questioning my honour in public like this?” Leto asked. “On what grounds?”

“I can’t imagine my records will show anything different to yours.”

“Indeed,” the Lady Jessica said. “But what other reason could they have?”

Irulan took a breath to answer, then paused. What other reason indeed. She would have to think. But not now. “So it seems I will be travelling on the same Heighliner as you, if not travelling in the same shuttle. Appearances you understand.”

“Of course,” Leto said. “Just as long as you understand that you will of course be welcome in our lodgings whenever you wish.”

“Your offer is appreciated,” Irulan said, inclining her head. Leaving unsaid, of course, that any such opportunities must perforce be thin on the ground. For the sake of the empire, of course.

Alia slipped from her chair, padded over to Irulan and tugged at her sleeve. “Does this mean you’ll miss my birthday too?” she asked, staring up at her mournfully.

Irulan softened. “I’m sorry, Alia, but I have to.” It was odd, having someone like a sister that she could seem affectionate towards without having to think about the politics of the situation, about possible schemes or possible future schemes. It was even odder having someone like that who she could actually feel affectionate towards. She rested her hand on Alia’s, making sure to present it in a way to anyone watching that she wasn’t posing a threat. “I’ll try to make it up to you by buying an extra special present when I’m there.”

“Really? What?”

“Ah-ah-ah. If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?”

“I guess not,” Alia said, then hugged her. “Come back safe, okay.”

Irulan hugged her back. “I’ll try my best.”

* * * * *

Chani glared at Paul as they left the family room. She waited until they were out of earshot before hissing, “I don’t appreciate being used as a pawn in one of your games.”

She may not know - or particularly care - about offworlder customs, but the way that she had been almost ignored by everyone in that room, including Paul, hadn’t taken much interpreting. She may not particularly care about the offworlder princess - the melon that Paul would undoubtedly pluck and drink at the right time - but that didn’t mean that she enjoyed being used by Paul as a weapon against her.

“I must have imagined you touching me in front of her,” Paul said in a lightly teasing tone.

The blood rushed to her cheeks. “She thinks that she is so much better than me. It does no harm to remind her that she isn’t the statue she likes to pretend she is.”

“Princess Irulan is why I asked you here,” he said, serious all of a sudden.

Chani stilled. “Does she threaten your family’s position here?” Did she threaten the treaty? The agreement between the Fremen tribes and the Atreides family that guaranteed help in terraforming Arrakis in return for help driving out the Harkonnen.

If she did, she would spill the princess’ water and not think twice about it.

“She doesn’t. But there are people at the Council who may.”

“Offworlder politics. If they want to try, let them come here. We will add their waters to the caches.”

“She needs protection.”

“Your father and mother will accompany her with their guards. Are they not enough to keep her safe?”

“I fear not.” There was something in his voice that she recognised.

Chani paused. “You have seen this?” she asked.

“The odds improve if you travel with her.”

Chani looked at him sceptically. “And do your visions give some clue as to how to accomplish the great feat of persuading her?”

“I was rather thinking you wouldn’t ask her.”

* * * * *

“Princess,” Paul said, inclining his head enough to indicate respect without implying submission.

“Paul,” Irulan returned cautiously, looking up at him over her desk. “What can I do for you?”

“Could this not just be a social call?”

“It could,” she allowed, leaving silent the unspoken adjoinder that it probably wasn’t. Approaching her like this, in her office, wasn’t the most conducive atmosphere for any kind of personal call, given their… complicated relationship. Of course the fact that he didn’t make an appointment through her secretary meant that he wasn’t here on official ducal business either.

“You’re right, of course. I have a favour to ask you.”

She considered him for a moment. “What does the duke want from me?” Not that she believed for a moment that he was here on behalf of Leto, but putting the emphasis on his father - and her much better relationship with him than Paul - would hopefully put Paul on the defensive. A little.

“Not him, me,” Paul confirmed. “I’d like to help ensure your safety on this trip.”

Irulan decided to see how much information Paul was willing to give her. “I’m only being summoned before the High Council of the Landsraad to testify. You think there’s a threat to me?”

Paul shrugged. “Whispers and hints only.” Whispers and hints that his mentat training was able to correlate into something like a pattern. Or that was what he wanted her to think.

Certainly he wasn’t giving Irulan anything to work with.

“And that’s enough to make you think my guards won’t be sufficient to the task?” she tried again.

“If there is a plot against you, they will certainly have been taken into account.” So that would be a no, he wasn’t willing to give anything else up at this stage.

“So what do you suggest?”

“Take some Fremen as part of your staff.”

Irulan sat back. “And you think you can find some Fremen who will bow their necks enough to serve me believably?” she asked with some scepticism.

“I believe so.”

“So you want me to take your agents among my people, so you can spy on me and get up to who knows what from the impartiality of the office of the Imperial Observer. A favour is certainly one way to put it.” Madness would be a better way, she tried to suggest with her tone.

“What would you want in return?” he asked with an air like he already knew what she’d ask.

She leaned forward. “No one could blame me if I was merely carrying out my fiancé’s wishes.”

“You know that’s not possible.”

Oh, she knew the reasons. Knew that the ducal heir had to at least appear to be open to wed Chani Kynes as a sign of good faith until the terraforming of Arrakis had been sufficiently begun. Whatever sufficiently meant. But at the same time the Atreides wouldn’t give up Irulan and the chance at the Imperial Throne unless they absolutely had to. Not after they’d blackmailed the Emperor into agreeing to this in the first place.

“Then I don’t believe we have anything to discuss,” she said, looking down and shuffling some documents on her desk.

“Please, Irulan.”

She pursed her lips. “Give me a signed and sealed document attesting that you’re formally asking for my hand in marriage. I won’t use it unless I have to.” Unless your agents make it necessary, she tried to convey.

“I guess I’ll just have to trust you,” he said and smiled.

* * * * *

“A what?” Chani said softly, dangerously.

“People pay attention to nobles and guards. Servants - especially people they think of as barbarians - are more easily overlooked.”

“To the offworlder princess.”

“Maybe she won’t recognise you.”

“Maybe she wouldn’t have. If you hadn’t waved me very prominently under her nose a few days ago.”

He smiled easily. “Ah, yes. That.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What is your game here? What are you trying to accomplish?”

He suddenly looked tired. “Trying to give us all the best chance I can see.”

“If this is so important, why aren’t you joining us? Surely the Slow Knife of the Atreides could do his work much better if he were on the same planet.”

“If only I could. The na-Duke is bound to look after the planet whilst the duke is away. And things would get worse if I smuggled myself there regardless.”

She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing. This… arrangement had already cost her so much. Friends lost during the war against the Harkonnen. The way she had to spend so much time out of the deep desert, amongst air that didn’t taste right, smell right, amongst city dwellers who shied away from her, watched her like she was some wild animal. Not enough time amongst her own people, where every time returned from these trips, she had to face comments about how she was getting soft.

She could not in all honesty blame any of this for her position in the sietches, of being the inheritor of her father’s dream, of belonging to all of them and none, but sometimes she wanted to do so, anyway.

All for the dreams of water falling from the sky of Arrakis.

And what was her pride when measured against that?

But still.

“Jakeem of Sietch Wali and Shokat of Sietch Khaliq are expecting me to oversee their meeting in twenty days time,” she said, opening her eyes.

“You should be back by then. And if you’re not,” he said, his mouth quirking a little. “Would that really be so bad?”

She could not help laughing a little. Paul knew her so well. Liet Kynes might have united the sietches - loosely - but that had somehow translated over time to this, where she was expected to sit in on every major meeting between them, where it was not felt to be a proper meeting unless she did so, regardless of how little she contributed.

“Fine,” she said. “But I expect reciprocation when I return. If this is truly so necessary.”

“I don’t think that Irulan would agree to that.”

She smirked and leaned into him. “Just as well that I don’t have any interest in being served by the offworlder princess, then.”

* * * * *

Irulan let her attention diffuse as she supervised the loading of her shuttle by her new Fremen ‘servants’, all the better to spot anything that deviated from the pattern. Partly it was because as obedient as they had been, they still weren’t trained to proper Imperial standards. Mostly it was because she had in no way forgotten that they were, at best, Paul’s people, not hers. She might not be able to stop a determined effort, but she could certainly make any attempt more risky.

One of her father’s Sardaukar - she wouldn’t call her them hers, even after a couple of years - stepped in the way of one of the Fremen.

“Open the crate,” he said.

The Fremen predictably said nothing, but Irulan could see her tense her muscles to try and dodge past him.

And then there was the other reason to be here. To try and keep a lid on this kind of behaviour. The Sardaukar had been predictably less than impressed at her accepting over a dozen new servants they hadn’t vetted just before she went on a voyage, and the bashar, Mikhail, had made his feelings known. At length.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t sympathetic to their concerns. For that matter, leaving all her actual servants here, including her handmaiden Elinor, felt like she was chopping off a limb, especially if she was headed into danger. But Paul had insisted.

Sadly, she was fairly sure that telling Mikhail that they were Atreides agents allegedly here to keep her safe wouldn’t meet with his approval, and she couldn’t think of a believable story that would assuage his concerns, so she did the best thing she could think of. She blithely ignored his concerns and told him to deal with it.

She was fairly sure she had heard his teeth grind as he’d left. It had caused her to spare a thought that the danger might come from her father’s guards out of sheer frustration.

“Evald,” she said, naming the guard, letting her voice crack out like a whip. “Let her pass.”

She saw his lips press together until they went white, but he nodded, clicked his heels and stepped out of the way.

The Fremen glided past. Irulan didn’t know her name. She didn’t know most of their names. The only one she had managed to get so far was Raia, who the Fremen certainly seemed to want her to believe was their leader, though Irulan wasn’t so sure.

It gave her an unsettled feeling, not knowing even that much about them. Being surrounded by other people’s agents she could handle. It had been how she had grown up, after all. Not knowing anything about them, not having any weapons she could use in an emergency…

That was another thing entirely.

An extraneous movement drew her eye. “Lady Jessica,” she said, bowing her head to the newcomer.

“Princess Irulan,” she said, inclining her head in turn, her eyes flicking over the Fremen ‘servants’. “Always a delight to see you. How goes the travel preparation?”

Irulan winced a little as a crate was loaded in a position that, while perfectly fine for surface travel, would shift possibly disastrously under the varying gravities of space travel and went over to correct it.

“Mostly fine,” she said upon her return.

“So I see,” Lady Jessica said gravely. “I just wanted to say that, regardless of what happens, I hope you have a good time on Uuante.” Please feel free to call upon me, if you have need, Jessica indicated.

‘Me’ Lady Jessica said. Not ‘us’. Not her and Leto, or her and the Atreides. Just her. It wouldn’t just be an artefact of phrasing with her. The question was - was she playing a different game than Leto, or did she just want Irulan to suspect that she might be? Was she still an outcast from the Bene Gesserit, or might she have had a reconciliation with the birth of a proper Atreides daughter?

Not that Irulan was exactly nesting in the bosom of the Bene Gesserit herself these days, trapped as she was on the edges of civilised space. The last message she’d received had been the same as all the rest since she’d arrived. Wait, and do your part by marrying Paul when the time is right.

“Of course,” Irulan said. “You too,” indicating that was her response to Lady Jessice, both spoken and unspoken.

“Fare well,” Lady Jessica said then glided off after Irulan responded similarly.

Irulan was left staring after her, feeling unsettled. Lady Jessica had always shown an interest in her. Not like Leto, who had very quickly started treating her like a daughter, or how a daughter might be treated in the kind of imaginary family Irulan had only read about. Lady Jessica’s interest had always felt more like an attempt to manipulate her, in a familiar way that had made her almost more at home than Leto’s geniality.

But she had never been this unsubtle.

What did this change portend? Was it what might await Irulan at the High Council, where she’d have members of other Major Houses to interact with for the first time? Or was she working in conjunction with Paul, attempting to work on her from two sides?

Was it both? Was it neither?

In the end, Irulan turned her attention back to the packing. There was no point in her even trying to second guess a Bene Gesserit of Lady Jessica’s skills. All she could do was take the future as it unfolded, and make the best decisions she could.

* * * * *

Chani once again itched to draw her knife but forced herself to remain still as she let the guard’s voice brush over her like a light desert wind.

“Bashar Mikhail!” came a sharp voice from behind her that Chani recognised with a sinking heart. “What’s going on here?”

“This one,” the guard in question gestured at her. “Isn’t one of those desert rats you introduced us to. She must have snuck aboard when we were preparing for liftoff thinking we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them with those suits on.” He gave a harsh smile, exposing teeth that were incongruously white and straight for his somewhat battered face. “There’s no doubt that it was done with the connivance of the rest of them.” She couldn’t disagree. He was right on all particulars. Chani hadn’t wanted to risk being recognised by the princess one minute more than necessary. “I suggest that we seal them all in a hold, your highness, and if you’re feeling very generous we won’t depressurise it.”

Chani let herself assume the position of still preparation that Lady Jessica had taught her. The guard - just one, as though that was enough to stop her! - had let himself remain too close to her, obviously thinking she was as helpless as any off-world or city born woman.

“Stop!” the offworlder princess snapped, and to her surprise Chani found herself relaxing, almost involuntarily. A few quick sharp steps and the princess was there next to them, looking Chani in the face searchingly. Her eyes twitched briefly with something Chani couldn’t recognise. “Chani Kynes,” she said, sounding utterly unsurprised. “If you will come with me, I believe we have much to discuss.” She turned, and as the guard started to follow her. “Alone, Mikhail.”

“Your highness,” he protested.

“From the stories I’ve heard, I’m sure that if Chani Kynes wished to harm me, she could have made a very creditable attempt already,” the princess tossed over a shoulder.

The guard glowered at her and Chani sneered back, but followed in the offworlder princess’s wake. She was led to the room in the shuttle that the princess had claimed for her greeting room. The princess seated herself behind the desk and gestured to a chair. “Tea?” she asked.

“Should I not get that for you, your highness?” Chani asked, her pride adding a slight curl to the title.

The princess stared at her hard, then waved at the teapot. “As you wish,” she said.

Chani poured her one cup then herself another, placing both on the desk before seating herself and waiting. The tea was flat and almost tasteless, but water was water and Chani had to stop herself from just gulping it down, protecting it before any more precious liquid could be lost to the atmosphere.

“What did Paul tell you to get you here?” the princess asked, looking at her over the steaming surface of her cup, so water-soft that she didn’t even seem to have a problem looking through the steam.

“The same as I am sure he told you,” Chani replied. The princess just continued to coolly look at her, so she added, “You were in danger and, more importantly, that could endanger the future of my planet.” She smiled, iron-hard. “I’m here to stop that last part.”

“You specifically,” the princess murmured, then focused her gaze back on Chani. “Very well, since it’s too late to refuse Paul’s gift and dump you back on the ground,” Chani bristled at the description, and the princess smiled coolly. “You’ll be playing the part of my handmaiden, since I very much doubt that anyone looking at you will miss that my staff answers to you. I’m sure that you’ll be as happy as I am that this means you’ll be spending most of your days at my side.”

“As you say, princess.”

The princess tsked. “Your highness, please.” She sighed, then rubbed her temple with one hand. “And in private, I don’t see any reason you can’t call me Irulan. I’m sure that will be less grating on both of us.”

Chani looked at the princess - Irulan - then nodded. “As you wish, Irulan.”

Irulan actually looked a little happier. “Now then, let’s get started on instructing you in the duties you’ll be expected to perform.”

* * * * *

She should have seen this coming, was all Irulan could think. A protective screen of Fremen, whose interchangeable still-suits meant they could easily swap someone out at the last minute…

Too slow again. She should have accounted for this, made sure there weren’t any last minute changes amongst the agents that had been foisted on her, not permitted the practical freedom from the constraints of her father’s Sardaukar that Paul had all but asked for.

She trusted that Chani believed what she had told Irulan about why she was here. But though Chani’s heart was practically written on her sleeve as far as Irulan’s trained senses were concerned, it didn’t mean that Paul had told her the truth any more than he had revealed to her.

Paul may have good reasons, legitimate reasons for this subterfuge, but all Irulan could see was the ways that he could use this. If Paul was right, there were dangers here, and Chani died, he could well use this to rally the Fremen behind him, given his relationship with her. Fremen had fought the Sardaukar to a standstill on Arrakis and though they doubtless would have problems if they strayed outside those conditions, he might well be able to hold Dune against all comers. If Irulan survived, then his way would be clear to marrying her as well, claiming the Imperial throne and the Sardaukar as well - becoming an almost unstoppable force in the Empire.

And she couldn’t ignore the fact that with both of his almost-betrothed elsewhere in the galaxy, as well as his parents, if Paul did actually want to do anything as rash as marrying someone of his own choosing, this would be the time to do it. It would be entirely out of character for him to do something so rash, but the thought lingered. She could only imagine how much humiliation she’d feel if that was the case.

But first things first. She needed to keep Chani alive.

“Have you ever fought against shields?” she asked.

“We have fought against the best your empire has to throw at us, and given a good accounting of ourselves,” Chani said, with a thinly concealed sneer at the mention of shields.

Irulan handed her the knife she had concealed about her person and flicked on her shield. “Try to stab me,” she said, activating her shield.

Chani just looked at her for a moment, and Irulan matched it with a challenging stare. Chani sliced towards her with a blurring motion, only to slow near the shield. Not slow enough, as it glanced off the shield and Irulan took the opportunity to strike her wrist and send the knife spinning away.

“If you’re going to fight people with shields, you can’t just flail away like that,” Irulan said and an angry spark lit in Chani’s eyes.

“Fine,” she said and retrieved the knife. This time she didn’t wait around, jabbing towards Irulan. Her knife moved more slowly as it approached the shield, so Irulan whipped her arm towards it, increasing the velocity at which the knife met the shield, causing it to glance off and move out of position.

“You can’t rely on your opponent waiting around for you to just stab them, either.”

Chani pressed her lips together murderously. This time she sliced towards Irulan’s eyes, deliberately drawing short, whilst her boot lashed out, impacting the shield around Irulan’s shins. It glanced off, of course, but it managed to impart enough momentum to stagger Irulan slightly which Chani exploited by body checking her. The next thing Irulan knew, she was on her back, Chani on top of her, the knife pricking at her neck through her shield.

“V-very good,” Irulan said, her voice trembling despite herself before she brought it under control. The look in Chani’s eyes was fierce, and for a moment Irulan thought she might press forward anyway, marking her with her own knife, and her breath caught.

Then the moment passed and Chani rolled to her feet easily, standing in front of Irulan. “I am not so easy to defeat as all that,” she said.

Irulan rose to her feet with an acceptable degree of grace, taking the knife when Chani offered it to her hilt first. “You’re not bad, but you need practice against soldiers who have trained with shields.” Chani looked like she wanted to sneer again, but didn’t disagree. “You also need a shield of your own,” Irulan added, then opened a box from the dresser, and handed Chani the shield inside.

“What about my people?” Chan asked after Irulan had instructed her in its usage.

“I don’t have any more here, and I doubt my Sardaukar will be willing to give any up. But I’ll instruct them to give you all training against shield users.”

Chani looked at for a moment, then nodded. “There’s more to you than I’d thought, Irulan.”

At least that was one hurdle crossed, Irulan thought before she smiled and said, “Likewise,” in a tone calculated to indicate sincerity, hardly meaning it at all. “Likewise.”

* * * * *

Water fell like jewels from the heavens. That was all Chani could think as she looked out at Uuante from the shuttle exit. She stepped out and let herself luxuriate in this miracle, letting - *letting* - water impact her head and shoulders, saturate the cloth and slowly start to trickle downwards. The amount of water vapour in the air was so dense that she almost had to swallow to take a breath.

This was what breathing water must feel like, she thought. It was like having your insides sensuously moisturised.

Someday, someday they would have this on Dune. Someday she would be able to share this sensation with her aunts and uncles and cousins and the people of her tribe and others. Someday she would be able to share this with her children.

Never her mother or father though.

Slowly, her senses expanded, became aware of more than just the water falling from the sky. The other members of her tribe who had joined her on this voyage were similarly standing around, looking at the sky in wonder and awe. Saddiqa - who at twenty was years past such unseemly public displays of emotion - giggled and opened her mouth, letting drops of water land on her tongue so she could swallow them and suddenly everyone else was following suit. Raia - who had reclaimed more water in battle for her sietch than anyone else here - was laughing and laughing as though she was mad. Fadia and Parwi performed an impromptu dance together, despite the division between their sietches. Jaida, her tongue usually so sharp, was seemingly struck dumb, whilst Zaria burst into song with a melodious voice that Chani hadn’t known she possessed.

It was glorious. It was madness. It was ecstasy.

And all around them, people moved past, not looking up, not paying attention, as though this were *normal*, and Chani felt a touch of anger. They had the water of dozens of bodies raining down - enough rings of water to stagger even the strongest of men - and this meant *nothing* to them? Didn’t they realise how wealthy this made them? And yet they ignored it - or, worse, sneered at the Fremen as though- as though they were city dwellers lost on the sands.

Worse, Chani belatedly recalled the lessons that her father had taught her and realised what the acrid taste of the sky-water she’d swallowed meant, and all good humour abruptly left her.

“Come,” she said, her voice sharp. “We’ve crates to carry to the Princess’ quarters that aren’t getting moved while we’re standing here.” Saddiqa opened her mouth to say something undoubtedly idiotic, so Chani snapped, “Now!”

Faces smoothed, heads ducked and some kind of order was established. Chani rode herd until everything had been moved to Irulan’s new quarters, where the princess’ guards were thoroughly going over everything to make sure that there weren’t any traps or spying devices.

Irulan cornered her these, gesturing her into a room that had already been cleared by the guards and shut the door behind them. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Earlier, when we first landed, you seemed happy.” Chani felt a stab of embarrassment at the realisation that Irulan had seen her when she was so unguarded. “Now,” Irulan said and waved a hand in the direction of where Chani had just been growling at Fadia.

Chani smoothed her face of irritation at the intrusion. “It’s nothing,” she said. “I’m just making sure that everything is running smoothly.”

Irulan didn’t say anything, just looked at Chani with one eyebrow raised, waiting, not stepping out from in front of the door.

And maybe Chani felt the pressure to talk rising up in her like a blunted blade forcing its way through her insides. But she couldn’t spoil the pleasure of the others of her tribe by talking about this with them. She supposed that the offworlder princess was as good a person as any to talk to.

“The rain,” she said. “I tasted it. It’s acidic. It’s not a natural feature of this planet either - you can see the signs written in the plants and stone and air of this world.” Chani felt a choking sensation, as though the pressure inside her was trying to relieve itself through her eyes. “They had this jewel of a world, this paradise, and they disrespected it so much that they turned even the rain to poison.”

Chani became aware that Irulan had laid a soft hand on her, but she couldn’t bring herself to look up, to see if she was being regarded with scorn or, worse, pity. All she could do was shake, and let the hand draw the shuddering from her body like a poultice drawing poison from a wound. For a few minutes at least.

* * * * *

“There,” Irulan said, hanging the last of the tiny gems from Chani’s stillsuit nose-tube. Perfect. A pristine surface which hinted at the mysteries beneath. A fair pass at bewitching, if Irulan did say so herself.

“Is this really necessary?” Chani asked in a tone of some disgust. “I look like some city dweller’s fantasy of a Fremen woman.”

“That is more or less the point,” Irulan murmured. Chani gave her a look which promised violence, her reason for being here aside, and Irulan hastened to explain. “It’s camouflage. If visitors see an exotic jewel, they may not think to look any deeper.”

Chani’s expression was a picture unto herself and Irulan forbore to mention that no one was going to mistake her for an Imperial servant, trained from birth. She still felt a frisson from earlier. She’d never thought Chani could feel so deeply, never seen anyone so unguarded around her as Chani had been, never felt anything quite as sharp or sincere as the reflected grief of a woman for a world she’d only just stepped onto. She might have been able to dismiss the laughter of the Fremen with the cynicism of a jaded sophisticate, but Chani trembling as though she might shake herself apart had pierced that veil as though it hadn’t been there.

She still wasn’t entirely sure what it said about her that it had affected her so deeply. Probably just another failure of her training.

“Gorvald has cleared these for you,” Evald said, placing a bowl of scrolls in front of her. The fact that one of her father’s guards had done this personally rather than delegating to one of the Fremen servants made Irulan want to rub her temples.

“Thank you, Evald,” she said and looked over the bowl. Apparently relaying non-secure messages by ornate scrolls had come into fashion since she’d been stuck on Arrakis and the result was the rainbow of clashing colours before her. Some few were subtle or subdued - probably the senders’ way of protesting the current trend. Some managed to make the contrasting colours pleasing to the eye, a few of which bore the hallmarks of some recognised trendsetters. Most, she suspected, had aped the trend whilst completely missing the point and far too many of those had such clashing colours and complicated designs that they threatened to bring on a headache from staring at them. Well, it was either that, she supposed, or it was a far more subtle form of attack than she thought many of the originators were capable of.

The contents of the scrolls were also something of a surprise. Most were the kind of banal greeting or generic party invitations that she had been expecting, given her standing as firstborn daughter of the Emperor rather than her current position. There were far more requests for a personal meeting than she had been expecting, however, from the powerful, such as Duke Hernando Bagrationi, to the merely hopeful, such as a Lord Parveen from a minor House she had barely heard of. Her influence in the past had stemmed from two things - her proximity to her father and Imperial Court, with all the important personages there in and the fact that whoever married her would likely be the next Padishah-Emperor. She had been - and would likely continue to be - stuck on Arrakis for the foreseeable future, and she had been all but unofficially promised to Paul Atreides. If she had been married to him or even if the betrothal had been made official, then she could see it as a way to reach Paul through unofficial channels, but his parents were right here on Uuante, certainly a much better way of touching bases with him.

It was troubling. She had apparently become a person of importance and she was as yet unsure why. Worse, given her limited time here, she’d have to start either accepting or declining these invitations before she was likely to be able to find out why. She stopped as one scroll caught her attention in particular for reasons beyond its hideous colour scheme. It was an invitation to the home of Count Muratomi and his wife Chalice. He was an unsubtle one - as unsubtle as the prominent display of her sister’s name on the invitation. When she’d heard of his marriage to Chalice, the oldest of her sisters, she’d wondered at her father’s choice. Had it been weakness, marrying his second born to a man who wouldn’t be able to parlay that position in the succession into a threat against the throne? Or had it been strength, her father showing that he didn’t need to give Chalice to someone who could provide strength to the throne? At her distance from the court, it had been hard to tell.

Still, Count Muratomi’s lack of subtlety could have its uses. His invitation - as though he had the superior rank and not her - reeked of boastfulness. If she accepted it, she might well be able to provoke some clues as to her sudden popularity out of him. And certainly no one could argue the etiquette of visiting her own sister before she met with anyone else.

Yes, she’d start there.

* * * * *

“Again,” Wiktor said as Chani rolled to her feet, knife in hand. “You have to learn when to let the shield take the hit, and when to parry.”

Across the room, Raia sneered at her, only half in jest. Chani was the only one being trained in shield use, and Raia had let it be known that she thought a true Fremen didn’t need those kinds of off world tricks. No one else had openly challenged her like that - Raia had only earned that honour by being her second - but she couldn’t help wondering how common a thought it was among the others as well.

It didn’t matter. Irulan had proved how useful a shield could be once off the sands of Arrakis, and Chani was too practical to let a tool like that go to waste.

Now if only her instructor would desist in drilling her in habits that would kill her when she was back home. She ignored his advice and let her awareness expand as the Lady Jessica had instructed her, let it encompass her opponent’s perceptions and waited until he was focussed on one blade before letting the other slide through his shield.

“…Better,” Wiktor admitted, though he didn’t sound pleased in the slightest.

Conditions between Fremen and Irulan’s guards, already arid, had started to resemble being in the deep desert without a stillsuit since training had begun. Chani could understand the initial resentment, even appreciate it. Who would want people of unknown provenance and uncertain loyalty in their household? She could even appreciate to a certain extent the deterioration when the lessons were ordered. It would be one thing to suspect that you had taken into your household people capable of violence, it would be another to know, though Chani would always prefer to know. She was a little confused by the almost hatred she had seen in their eyes whenever she or one of the others managed to score a hit, though. What was better than facing worthy foes? Some of these Sardaukar might even be able to face them in a fight without their shields, though they hadn’t seemed to appreciate the compliment when Zaria had told one that.

“Enough,” came Irulan’s voice from the doorway, where she’d been watching Chani and Wiktor fight for the last few minutes. “Chani, I’m going to need you to go and start getting prepared for the visit to Count Muratomi’s house tonight.”

Chani nodded and followed her.

Once they were out of the practise room and away from prying ears, Irulan said in a lower voice, “That does mean that you’ll need to wash.”

Chani briefly closed her eyes and did her best to conceal her horror at the sacrilegious waste of water this would entail. When she opened them, she saw Irulan give a very good impression of someone who wanted to reach out to her, but knew that is would be ill-received.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But, with the best of intentions, perfume alone will not cover up your…” she trailed off, obviously looking for a delicate way to put it.

“My odour?” Chani supplied, taking pity on her. “You offworlders, always so willing to put a barrier between you and anything that makes you human. Your smell, your emotions, your sex.” Irulan’s face went rigid and Chani couldn’t help laughing. “You see what I mean? Your first reaction is suppress, suppress, suppress. Say what you think for once?”

“At least I’m not a rutting animal, sleeping with whoever crosses my path,” Irulan snapped, then snapped her mouth shut, looking appalled at herself.

“Is that what you see? Is that what you really think?” Chani asked, then gave a sharp, almost fragile laugh. “You really know nothing, princess,” and she strode away, willing to even face a bath rather than stay one second longer in the princess’ company.

* * * * *

Count Muratomi’s house on Uuante was very much the same as his invitation, a facade of gaudiness almost to the point of excess concealing a much more humble foundation. Irulan couldn’t help but notice that it would have cost far more money than she had remembered Muratomi having access to, though. Had his fortunes improved so dramatically? It might explain why he had received Chalice’s hand in marriage, but somehow Irulan couldn’t quite believe it. Maybe he’d taken on debt, to bolster his new place in the succession. Or, more worryingly, maybe he had powerful new friends who were willing to pay for his indulgences.

As she left her hover-vehicle and approached the main entrance, Chani silently exited the other side and left for the servants’ entrance, still a tightly contained ball of fury and, surprisingly, hurt. Irulan felt the urge to nibble her lip, a tell her mother had taken pains to break of, for the first time in years. Chani hadn’t spoken anything more than the most perfunctory words of response to her ever since her outburst in corridor. Part of Irulan wanted to scream in Chani’s face that this - *this* - is why polite niceties exist, to smooth over unfortunate differences of opinions. That if Chani hadn’t provoked her, then she wouldn’t have said any of that.

The rest of her was fairly sure that Chani wouldn’t exactly appreciate that, no matter how true it was. Irulan felt an inexplicable urge to try and make things up to Chani quite apart from her natural urge to manipulate such an asset as usefully as possible. She wasn’t even sure why Chani had managed to unsettle her enough to blurt her feelings like that. Her Bene Gesserit tutor would have been ashamed of her.

There was nothing to be done for the next few hours, though, so Irulan cleared her mind of such useless thoughts and concentrated on the task ahead.

The butler who greeted them was impeccably dressed, but wasn’t as smooth as one given the best training from birth. Quite possibly Muratomi’s butler from before his recent elevation. Many of the other servants Irulan glanced as she was guided to the sitting room weren’t quite as finely attired, so Muratomi’s largesse had its limits.

Muratomi himself was waiting there, pallid even compared to his blonde haired wife sitting next to him, dressed in the finest silks in the rather unfortunate colours of his house - red, orange and gold. Chalice had apparently managed to persuade him to let her wear something a bit more refined, thankfully, a deep blue night to the cacophony of his sunset.

“Count Muratomi,” she said, nodding the appropriate amount.

Count Muratomi rose to his feet, towering over her, a muscled mass only lightly concealed by fat. “Sister,” he boomed. “I’m delighted to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” Irulan said. “I would have liked to attend your wedding, but unfortunately my duties…” She made an appropriately sorrowful face.

“No matter,” Count Muratomi said. “We’ve saved a bottle of the cloud-wine that your father sent as one of his wedding gifts, and now seems to be as good a time as any to open it, doesn’t it, wife?” he said, turning towards Chalice. Despite his tone of bonhomie, there was an edge of menace underlying everything he said and did that he was evidently unable to completely suppress.

“As you say, husband,” Chalice said, her tone carefully neutral. She hadn’t looked Irulan in the eye once she she’d entered. As children, they’d been as close as sisters could be - which was to say they’d fought over the affections of their father, their mother and anyone else important in their life. Irulan was aware that she’d been constantly held up as a yardstick to Chalice, and once Chalice had been old enough, the same had been true for Irulan. ‘Your sister has been mastering this subject much quicker than you ever did,’ had been a not uncommon refrain. But despite that, despite all the lessons in Bene Gesserit detachment that they’d both been taught, Irulan liked to think that there had been a thread of real affection between them.

And now Chalice looked like she was trying to do nothing more than create as much detachment between them as she could.

Count Muratomi meant to kill her, she realised with a chill. Not now - not even he was unsubtle enough to kill the Padishah Emperor’s first born in his own home. Soon, though. Undoubtedly soon.

But just in case, she kept one hand within reach of her shield at all times, and had her poison sniffer run over everything twice.

* * * * *

Chani hated this place. Even the servants treated her like she was a trained animal, barely worthy of attention unless she did anything threatening. At least they didn’t seem to have any problems speaking in front of her. Unfortunately, the most useful thing she’d been able to glean was that someone called Parveen had a deathly allergy to seafood - the concept of which still boggled Chani.

Of course, when she got the summons to leave, she was faced with the situation of being in a vehicle with the princess. She wasn’t sure why the princess’ little gibe earlier bothered her so much, even if she was honest enough with herself to admit that it had. She doubted the princess would have anything like so much self awareness if the positions were reversed. Maybe it was because she had begun to hope that she’d found another person stuck in between definitions, another kindred soul like Paul.

It didn’t matter. Obviously her wanting had led her to see a potential bond where nothing existed.

“Your highness,” she said tonelessly as the princess entered the vehicle. For a moment, she thought that the princess would respond, but instead she just nodded to Chani and took her seat.

“Be careful,” Irulan said to the pilot. “I don’t think there’s much a risk, but just in case…”

The pilot nodded and took off.

For long moments, Chani’s pride stopped her from asking the princess the cause of her increased caution, mild though it had been, but in the end her promise to Paul and the implied danger to Arrakis won out. “What do you think might happen, your highness?” she asked.

Irulan gave her a little smile. “Oh, nothing really. It’s just I’m fairly sure that my brother in law is going to try and have me killed,” she said lightly.

For a moment Chani just looked at her as the words that she’d said in quite *that* tone sunk in. Then she nodded, tightly. “We’ll kill him tomorrow then. It shouldn’t be much challenge - his guards are watersoft and slow offworlders.” She wished that Irulan had told her whilst they were there. Killing her way to the Count would have provided a welcome distraction from the servants blathering on.

Irulan closed her eyes briefly. “Please don’t,” she said and Chani had the oddest impression that she was speaking to Chani’s thoughts as well as her words. “Muratomi is a tool and is almost as blunt as one. If he attacks us, we’ll see it coming. Meanwhile we can watch him and find out who’s supporting him. If we kill him now, they’ll doubtless all scurry off into the undergrowth.”

“Missile incoming,” the pilot said coolly and the vehicle immediately started slowing. “Hold on.”

Irulan’s eyes widened. “No! Surely not even he…”

There was a crump from outside and, a few seconds later, a bang and a rumble the engine cut out and the craft began plummeting towards the ground.

“Switch your shield on,” Irulan yelled over the juddering on the craft and Chani’s hand flicked it on even before she thought about it.

With a terrific crash, the vehicle dismantled itself around them, pieces bouncing off shields, and they ended up half buried in the ground, supported by nothing but the shield. For a moment, Chani lay there stunned as the ground softly collapsed around her, passing through the shield. Then she pulled herself free and went to help Irulan out of a similar situation. By the time she had managed that, the pilot and the guards, led by Gorvald, were standing ready to deal with any enemy that dared approach.

“Form up under that tree,” he snapped. For a moment, Chani stood confused - surely it’d be better to make a break for the street where they could lose their pursuers - but everyone else obeyed, taking up positions around Irulan so they could protect her from all angles, so Chani followed suit.

For long minutes, everything was still. Chani risked a glance at Irulan, who was standing tall, unbowed, somehow seeming almost pristine despite the dirt smeared all over her, and vowed to spill the waters of any and all on-comers, followed by a very personal visit to Count Muratomi. Then, with the whine of suspensors, hover-vehicles flew in and discharged thirty or more men wearing black uniforms with no insignia who advanced towards them, blades at the ready.

Chani’s focus narrowed to the men in front of her and the quickly blood-slick ground beneath her. Her right hand blade flashed in defence again and again, as her left hand one pierced the shields of enemy after enemy, piercing soft flesh to kill or cripple. The guard to her right shifted away slightly, and she instinctively followed suit, holding the line.

Suddenly the remaining men in front of her broke and fled. Behind where they had been was another force of men, this time in a uniform of purple and green, blades out, but not advancing. One of them, a handsome man with dark skin, took a step forward, hands held high.

“Your highness,” he said. “What a pleasure to see you this evening.”

“The circumstances could be better,” Irulan said drily. It was only then that Chani realised that she was decorated in the black spatters of blood at night, that she was gripping a bloody bladed knife in one hand. At some point in the fight, despite the best efforts of Chani and her guards, someone got close enough that Irulan stabbed them.

“Indeed. Whilst I’m sure that the Sardaukar could have handled the situation, I’m honoured that I could do my humble part to help.”

“You seem to have the better of me,” Irulan said. “For whilst you seem to know me, I must admit that I don’t recall you.”

He smiled, his teeth bright in the dimness. “As you have noted, the circumstances are not really the best for introductions. If I might call upon you tomorrow, then we perhaps we could meet more formally.”

Irulan gave him a smile in response. “I’d be delighted to host you and find out more about you.”

“In the mean time, might I withdraw to a safe distance and keep an eye on things, just in case you have more unwelcome guests turn up before your friends arrive?”

Irulan looked to Gorvald, who stepped forward and said, “We won’t have a problem as long as you keep together and in our sight.”

The man nodded and gracefully withdrew, his troops clustering with him.

“Well,” Irulan said, turning to Chani, a wan smile on her face. “This has certainly been a more eventful evening than I was anticipating.”

* * * * *

“My apologies, your highness,” Piotr said when everyone had seated themselves in the transport.”The craft was civilian, so when I flicked on the full shield to protect us from the missile, the backed up exhaust cooked the engine.”

“Apology accepted,” Irulan said, tapping a finger on her lip. “It won’t be possible to acquire a military flyer in the time we’re here. Certainly not one that we could trust.”

Piotr nodded. “I fear so, your highness.”

“How about ground vehicles? Are we safe in this?”

“You’d be best off talking to Bashar Mikhail about this, your highness. But, in general, whilst shielding makes them hard targets to damage, their movement is much easier to control, and achieving mobility kills against them becomes a distinct possibility. So, no, you’re not completely safe. But speaking for myself, I don’t see any better options and judging by the fact that we’re taking you back this way, the Bashar doesn’t either.”

“Thank you,” Irulan said. She looked down and saw a blob of blood on her hand drying to a tacky mess. If she didn’t wash it off soon, it’d be hard to remove. Her clothes were a write-off.

She’d killed someone tonight for the first time. She’d always known it was a possibility, had it drilled into her as part of the prana bindu training, but she hadn’t really believed it would happen. She had been repeating the litany against fear to herself when Issa had gone down in front of her, hamstrung by a lucky blow. The soldier fighting him had followed him down, using momentum to slice up his thigh, towards his groin. And before she really knew it, the drills had kicked in, she’d darted forwards and the man had been gushing quick, violent spurts of blood from his neck.

She’d killed a man, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Feelings were an animal response, she’d always been taught.

But then, she never had been the best student.

“Why didn’t we head for the streets after the crash? We could have lost the pursuers, made our own way back,” Chani asked Gorvald. Irulan snuck a look at her, anything to distract herself, but the only thing Chani radiated was an honest curiosity.

Gorvald shot Chani a sharp look and for a moment Irulan thought she’d have to intervene, have to do something which didn’t involve more blades and more blood, but then he softened slightly. “Our shields would have protected us against most things apart from a ground assault. Piotr had informed base camp of our situation before we crashed, so if we stayed where we were, then we could expect reinforcements with a minimum of trouble. And there’s also the fact that on the streets, anyone might or might not be an enemy. If we stayed there, anyone approaching that we didn’t recognise we could kill.”

Chani nodded, obviously taking his words under consideration. “Thank you. Your words have the echoes of some of the lessons I was taught, but applied in different caverns.”

Gorvald smiled sharply. “From what I saw tonight, as long as you take take orders well, you won’t be a *complete* liability in a combat situation.”

“I might be able to say the same about you back on Arrakis,” Chani shot back. “But I’d really have to see you in action first, without your precious shields.”

Irulan managed to lose herself in the banter all the way back, but when she stood up, back in the compound, part of the seat tried to come with her.

Oh.

She’d forgotten about that.

“Your highness,” Gorvald said. “Why didn’t you tell us your were injured?” Chani’s dark eyes reflected the same accusation.

“It wasn’t important,” Irulan said. “It was just a scratch.” Pain was just a message, a warning, and humans could overwrite messages and ignore warnings. Even Irulan could manage that much. Just the reminder, though, caused a sort of phantom itch, an almost null sensation that told her than she was in pain, even if she wasn’t acknowledging it at the moment. “Chani can attend me in my room.”

Gorvald gritted his teeth in an entirely unsubtle manner. “Don’t you think that Doctor Serhat would be able to take better care of you than…” His eyes flicked in Chani’s direction and all of the old harshness was back.

One part of her realised that she was helping to destroy what bonding had occurred between the Fremen and her father’s Sardaukar, but the rest of her didn’t care.

“It’s not that serious,” she reiterated. “I’d prefer that my handmaiden tended my wounds.” Gorvald opened his mouth to reply. “Issa needs his attention more,” she said in a tone of finality.

Gorvald’s teeth clicked together and he saluted with a precision that demonstrated just how angry he was with her. Chani looked at her consideringly but nonetheless fell into step as Irulan quick stepped her way to her quarters.

Once they were inside and the door was shut, Chani said, “I may have learned about herbs from my mother and stitched my share of battle wounds, but I am no Reverend Mother, not even in training.”

Irulan stood in the middle of the room, unable to relax even a single muscle lest she lose control entirely. “Not even Count Muratomi would have attacked me that blatantly. Marrying a second daughter is no excuse for making that kind of move on the first. So, either he thinks he has friends powerful enough to deflect the attentions of the Sardaukar - not likely - or he thinks my father won’t be in a position to order them shortly. Or-“ she bit her lip. “Or my father is the one to whisper in his ear. It would be a way to make sure that the Atreides don’t inherit the throne. Both Chalice and my third born sister are already married. He’d be able to throw up his hands and offer them my fourth or fifth born sisters at best.” She tasted copper as her teeth pierced flesh. “The Sardaukar aren’t *my* guards, they’re my father’s. Serhat isn’t my doctor either.” She closed her eyes. She knew these men, how they were put together and how she could dismantle them if need be. But she couldn’t quite face that right now, when she was having problems tracking and a single mistake could be fatal. “I don’t want to deal with that tonight,” is all she said.

“Would your father really see you dead like that?” There was a note of shock in her voice that Irulan almost found cute.

She opened her eyes. Nothing had changed since she’d closed them. “I’m a student of history,” she said drily. “I certainly wouldn’t be the first to suffer that fate. Now, we have a scratch to deal with.”

Chani nodded. “I’ll gather some supplies,” she said and left.

The room when she left seemed larger than Irulan remembered, so empty it almost seemed to beg for something to fill it.

She’d killed a man tonight.

It wasn’t as though he was the first person she’d caused to die, just the first death she’d inflicted with her own hands. She didn’t know why this should seem different, but it did, it did.

Animal instincts, her tutor would have doubtless scoffed. The result of a beast seeing mortality all too close. She closed her eyes to try and find the calm within, but it seemed like a fractured thing tonight, jagged shapes and ill-fitting pieces.

She resisted the urge to jump when Chani slipped back into the room holding two jars and a kit.

“Here,” Chani said, handing over the larger of the jars. “Drink.”

Irulan rose one eyebrow.

“Spice mead,” Chani said and gave her a fierce grin. “It’s traditional after your first kill.”

Irulan found she had nothing to say to that, and concentrated on the jar instead. She broke the seal and the strong smell of cinnamon wafted out. The poison sniffer identified nothing more dangerous than alcohol when she waved it over the jar, so she took a sip and the taste of melange was overwhelming. She took a gulp and it was like a blow to the back of her throat.

“Now roll over on your front and let me take a look at the injury,” Chani said. Irulan followed her instructions as Chani sliced through her dress with quick, clean cuts, preserving the material as much as possible.

“A scratch indeed,” Chani said, amusement in her voice. “I doubt anyone would have noticed if you offworlders didn’t have blood as thin as water.” But she helped Irulan disrobe anyway, and as Irulan lay back on the bed, she heard the pop of Chani breaking the seal on the other jar. And then Chani’s hands were on her back, rubbing the ointment in.

As it started to work, maybe it was the slow fading of the null messages of pain, maybe it was some accidental cross-wiring, but Irulan was suddenly hyper aware of Chani’s hands on her skin, moving across her body. She took another gulp of the spice mead to distract herself, but if anything, it only increased her sensitivity, unwanted, irrational, *animal* heat starting to pool between her legs so that she let out a faint gasp.

An inexcusable tell, she scolded herself, just one more of many.

Chani briefly stopped rubbing to lean over and whisper in her ear. “It’s fine. It’s normal. Don’t worry.”

Maybe it was because she couldn’t see her, maybe it was because Chani had started rubbing ointment again into even the most minor scratch on her body, maybe it was because she’d taken another swallow of the spice mead, even though she was fairly sure it was a bad idea, but she exposed herself, asked, “How did you know?”

“Everyone goes a little mad the first time they take water in combat.”

She’d killed a man tonight.

Irulan deliberately twisted her thoughts away from that, turning them back to the woman behind her. “Even you?”

Chani laughed, sounding more relaxed than Irulan could remember hearing. “Even me. Though I imagine it’s taking a different form for an offworlder than it did for me.”

“What did you do?” She just wanted the circling to stop, and concentrating on Chani’s words was better than concentrating on how her hands felt.

“I found this pretty boy I’d had my eye on for some time, and shared some of the water I’d won.” She gave a chuckle, but it sounded strained, as though there were some underlying, unspoken shadow to her words. “After that… we shared some other things.”

“Oh,” Irulan said, only just suppressing the flush that seemed to determined break out on her skin.

“Oh,” Chani said, in a teasing voice. “Are there any pretty boys that you’ve had your eye on?”

“No!” Irulan said in a strangled tone of voice. “I couldn’t… Whoever I marry will be the next Emperor! I have to be…” she gestured towards her hip with one hand. “Intact.”

Oh,” Chani said and Irulan was now positive that if she turned around, she’d be able to see Chani’s eyes laughing at her. “That does limit your options, but hardly eliminates them. I can give you some pointers, if you’d like.”

“That’s not necessary,” Irulan said, twisting around, unable to avoid pulling her legs up, clearly demonstrating how defensive she was feeling. She knew the mechanics of sex, even if she’d never experienced the actuality. She could remember her middle aged Bene Gesserit tutor now, giving her lessons on how to seduce a man, how to make it look like you were being seduced. “There’s no one I can ask, anyway.”

Chani looked at her with fathoms deep eyes. “You could ask me,” she said simply.

Oh.

She hadn’t thought- had never really considered-

Oh.

She’d killed a man tonight, and just at the moment, she couldn’t quite imagine making it through the night by herself.

“Yes,” she heard herself say.

This is how you seduce a man, she remembered.

She leaned forward, gazing deep into Chani’s eyes. “Please,” she murmured.

* * * * *

Chani woke, transitioning from sleep to wakefulness almost instantaneously as was her habit, and stretched out on the floor where she had taken her rest last night. The faint scents from last night still surrounded her - the spice of home mixed with the musk of sex.

Chani certainly hadn’t been expecting last night. The princess she thought she had known wouldn’t have been capable of spilling blood, and certainly would have been far too calm and controlled to have celebrated her first spilling as she had done last night. She still wasn’t quite sure what to make of this Irulan that had been revealed, but she had to admit she liked her more than she had thought possible.

She probably shouldn’t have stayed the night - though she wasn’t entirely certain what offworlder etiquette would have to say on the matter - but, well. There had been one attempt on Irulan’s life already, and if her worries about the guard were in any way founded, having Chani in the room as an additional precaution seemed wise.

She rolled to her feet, and stretched out the remaining kinks, before looking down at the bed. Irulan was almost lost in its centre, small in its plush vastness and so still it was as though her sleeping mind thought that she could disappear if she were motionless enough.

It was a side of Irulan Chani had never seen before. Even when Irulan had ignored her every time they had met, Irulan had made sure that Chani knew she was ignoring her.

“Irulan,” she said softly. Irulan’s breathing didn’t change and Chani couldn’t help rolling her eyes a little at the lack of responsiveness. Anyone on a raiding party would have either been awake by now or would have been ribbed about it for weeks if it was a first offence. More than that, well. People were reclaimed if they slept too deeply in the desert. Better than the tribe do it than someone or something else. “Irulan,” she said more loudly, then “Irulan,” with a snap in her voice.

Irulan snorted and her eyelids fluttered. It was such a watersoft response, yet somehow Chani found it a little endearing. Not that she’d ever admit that.

“Chani?” Irulan said sleepily then opened her eyes, wide-eyed for just a second before settling into her usual impenetrable look. “Chani,” she said in a far more lucid tone.

“Irulan,” Chani said. “I’m going to go and tell the others that we might have a problem with your guards. I wanted to wake you before I left.”

“Yes,” Irulan said. “Thank you.”

“Do you want to come with me, or shall I leave you to do your…” she waved disgustedly in the direction of the bathroom.

“That’s quite alright.”

“I’ll send someone along as soon as I can.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Irulan said, then hesitated for a moment. “Chani?” she asked with an oddly tentative note in her voice.

“Yes?”

“About last night…”

Chani raised an eyebrow as Irulan studied her as if she was looking for something.

“Thank you, but it can’t happen again. We can’t even talk about it again.”

“Offworlder thing?”

“If you want to put it like that, then yes.”

Chani nodded, then left the room. Offworlders. She’d never understand them.

* * * * *

“Bashar Mikhail,” Irulan said, looking up from her desk, casually, as if to imply that he raised no concerns in her. “Good to see you.”

Mikhail saluted her sharply. If he noticed that the two - rather than the usual one - Fremen ‘servants’, Jaida and Parwi, were more tense and alert than they would have been yesterday, he gave no obvious sign of it other than a slightly increased tracking of them in turn. “Your highness,” he said. “I’m here to discuss the details of your increased security with you.”

“Please sit down,” Irulan said, gesturing to a chair. “How much of my schedule can your Sardaukar deal with?” she asked once he had seated himself.

He stiffened, as she had intended. “There are levels of risk in everything, your highness, and the Great Houses have enough troops on this planet to bury your guard in bodies, if they should so choose. The Sardaukar would annihilate them for this insult, but that wouldn’t bring you back from the dead.”

His concern did seem to be genuine, as far as she could read it. If there was a plot against her from among her father’s Sardaukar, she would wager that he didn’t know about it. And if he didn’t know about it… She felt something inside her relax minutely.

“I understand,” she said. “But you do realise that I have duties here I have to carry out.”

“Until we’ve eliminated this threat, I have to strongly suggest that you don’t leave the compound unless it is utterly necessary.”

She considered for a moment. Not being able to leave the compound would mean she was somewhat more cut off from the loci of power, with the attendant ability to extend feelers and try and find out what was going on.. On the other hand, her sudden popularity would seem to suggest that quite a number of nobles would come to see her.

“Acceptable,” she judged. “As long as I can receive visitors.”

He nodded. “I’ll make the preparations accordingly, your highness.” He saluted again, and left the room.

In the clarity of the morning, she was able to judge the situation more clearly. The most likely hypothesis bridging both her sudden popularity and Muratomi’s attempt on her was that it was popularly thought that her father would shortly be losing the authority of his position - one way or another. There was nothing for it - she’d have to push Paul into announcing their betrothal when she returned. As it was, she remained a prize ready to be grabbed or eliminated by the strongest contender. Maybe that was why he had sent Chani along with her - to enforce proximity that might allow some kind of peace between them, enough to survive the difficult days that were surely coming.

Chani. She tried not to think of last night, with mixed results. For the first time since she had known her, she was truly not sure what to make of her. Emotion blinded the eye, she knew, and she feared she was far too compromised to judge her accurately. Had last night meant anything to her, or was it nothing more than a passing dalliance or some Fremen ritual?

And what did Irulan want the answer to be?

* * * * *

“Have the shields from the men who attacked us last night been cleared yet?” Chani asked.

Gorvald looked up from the workbench where the seized shields had been sorted into three piles. “This bunch,” he said, pushing one pile towards her. “They’re cheap and shoddy so I can’t promise that they won’t cut out on you, but they’re better than nothing.”

Chani nodded and gathered them into a box. She wasn’t entirely comfortable taking something that the Sardaukar had provided her after hearing Irulan’s fears last night, but if they did have to fight them, Chani had practised against them enough to know they’d need any edge they could get.

She placed the box in front of Fadia and unhooked her own shield as well. “Can you check these and see if the offworlders have tampered with them?” Hopefully if they had, they’d underestimated them as the savages that offworlders so often thought the Fremen to be.

Fadia hesitated, running her finger over the case of one. “I haven’t had a good look at one of these before,” she said.

“But you know the theory.”

Fadia nodded. “It’s quite interesting,” she said, then smirked a little wickedly. “There are some interesting traps that I’ve thought of that I might be able to use these for when we return.”

“Do your best.”

Parwi very obviously thought about making a smart remark, but subsided when Chani shot a look in her direction. Raia, the scars around her eyes tightening, wasn’t so restrained as she stormed up to them. “What are you planning to do with these shields," she spat the word like a curse, “when Fadia has finished checking them?"

Chani looked at her levelly. “This is not the desert, and we are far from the tribe. If we are to survive here, we need to learn new ways, new tricks.”

“We need no such thing to kill watersoft offworlders, whether they call themselves Sardaukar or not.”

For a moment, Chani deliberated. Raia had sneered when Chani had accepted Irulan’s present of a shield, but had said nothing. Her forbearance had apparently reached its limit. Raia, as the most experienced, had a lot of sway amongst the others, especially those from allied sietches like Saddiqa and Jaida, and Parwi was obviously inclined to support her in this. Did she really think that they needed the shields this much? For a moment, her pride warred with her practicality before it lost. “I say we do,” she said.

Raia’s hand went to her knife. “Bad enough you use one. Worse that you sleep with these watersoft offworlders. I will not let you inflict them on the rest of us as well. I challenge you for leadership.”

All eyes were on them. Chani couldn’t back down, even if she had wanted to. She nodded. “Jaida, Fadia, clear the room.” They both nodded and stood up. Good. At least they were following her orders. Fadia carefully packed all her tools, secured the shields and then moved the workbench to the side of the room. Jaida moved the chairs to the sides of the room, followed by the bed rolls and what personal effects weren’t already stowed away. Jaida took Chani’s clothes as she stripped, whilst Fadia took Raia’s.

“May thy knife chip and shatter,” Raia said and drew her knife.

“May thy water taste sweet as victory,” Chani said, completing the ritual and drawing her own knife.

They started circling. The room wasn’t as big as the fighting areas they were used to, less room to manoeuvre and withdraw. Hopefully less room for Raia to best use her superior experience against Chani’s youth and strength.

Raia was the first to attack, a few exploratory stabs that Chani sidestepped. When she tried a counter-slash at Raia’s knife hand, Raia’s other hand flashed out, grabbing Chani’s arm, slowing her enough for Raia to twist her knife around, lightly slicing Chani’s knife arm. Chani shifted her knife grip and slashed Raia’s off arm deeply enough as she sprang away that a crimson trail started dribbling to the ground as a flap of skin waved in the air.

A wash then. Raia might be able to better afford injuries to her off arm, but given enough time, the blood loss might make up for the difference.

Chani hoped.

Raia stabbed once, twice, three times, pressing her advantage whilst it lasted. The first Chani managed to sidestep, the second she took on her off arm, the bone of her forearm knocking the blade aside before it could reach a softer target, leaving a bloody furrow but nothing too immediately serious. The third flashed towards her eyes, making her blink whilst Raia swept one leg around, into Chani’s, knocking her off balance. Chani ignored Raia’s knife, recklessly stumbling forwards instead of backwards, turning her head so Raia’s knife carved a furrow through her scalp, and managed to bodily check Raia. As they collapsed downwards, Chani’s off hand fastened on Raia’s wrist, keeping her knife away from her, Raia’s weakened off arm wasn’t able to keep Chani’s knife from repeatedly fishing in her stomach.

Once they were down on the ground, it was over quickly. Chani retained her grip on Raia’s arm, and let her knife repeatedly find Raia’s lungs by way of her abdomen. As Raia’s rattling breath finally ceased, Chani gave herself a moment as her blood ran down her arms and off her head before pushing herself up.

“I take it no one else has a problem with my leadership,” she said. The other women looked away.

“What do you want done with Raia’s water?” Jaida asked.

Chani hesitated. It was good question. She didn’t want to buck tradition any more than she had to, but on this water rich world, she very much doubted that there were any facilities to reclaim the water from her body. “I’ll make sure that her body is frozen and returned so that we can reclaim her water, as is proper. Jaida, would you stitch my wounds?”

* * * * *

“Please show the Reverend Mother in,” Irulan said to Chani. And then please leave, she tried to ask with her eyes, but she wasn’t completely sure that she was understood.

Chani nodded before leaving, giving Irulan a good look at the stitched cut to her head that Chani had suddenly acquired, but refused to explain. Irulan stifled a sigh. This, on top of everything else, was among the last things that Irulan needed.

Reverend Mother Mohiam stalked in accompanied by Chani, her every movement calculated to dominate the surroundings. Immediately, Irulan felt like she was back in the Royal Creche, trying her best to stifle her nervousness at the prospect of her first lesson with her father’s Truthsayer.

“Reverend Mother,” she said, standing and bowing deeply. When she raised her head again, she was relieved to see that Chani had disappeared.

The Reverend Mother, of course, seemed to notice both the look and the relief. “Interesting servants you have here, child,” her voice accenting the words to let Irulan know just what the Reverend Mother’s opinion of said interesting servants was, as well as hinting that she was aware of Irulan’s relationship with the specific servant in particular.

Irulan fought the urge to blush. Growing up in the Royal Creche and seeing more than enough of her father’s concubines, she was more than familiar with women sleeping with women - the only acceptable outlet for sexual urges apart from the Emperor. But Irulan and her sisters had been taught that sex was just a tool like any other - how to seduce a man, how to make it look like he was seducing her and how not to get swept away by such base animal urges.

In these lessons, like so many others, she had proven to be distinctly imperfect.

“A favour for a favour, Reverend Mother,” she said. “In return, I have in writing what I went to Arrakis to get.” A promise from Paul Atreides to wed her.

The Reverend Mother pursed her lips. “It took you long enough, child.” Too long, her tone implied. “Just remember your mission.” To get a child of Atreides blood, no matter the cost.

Irulan bowed her head, before looking up again. “If I survive, I will.” What did she know about the attack on Irulan?

“You have more people interested in your survival than you know, child,” the Reverend Mother said. Not necessarily friends, her tone implied, as if Irulan couldn’t guess that herself.

“Are there any in particular you’d suggest I call upon?”

“Remember your lessons, and I’m sure all will be well.”

Irulan bowed her head again. That was it, then. The Reverend Mother wouldn’t - or, less likely, couldn’t - offer any more help. Doubtless if Irulan failed here, they already had a backup plan in progress. Maybe one of her sisters, maybe another Bene Gesserit initiate.

As far as the order were concerned, she was here on her own from here on out.

* * * * *

The man Chani was escorting through the compound had skin approximately the shade of Chani’s but there the similarity ended. Large, watersoft though with a physique that promised at least some of his substance was muscle rather than fat, and with an arrogant gaze that passed over her as though she wasn’t there.

Shield or no, she could spill his water before he could blink.

“Duke Hernando Bagrationi,” she announced to Irulan, before retreating to the corner of the room so she could keep an eye on proceedings.

“Princess,” he said, bowing to one knee, before rising again. “I’m glad to see that you emerged unscathed after the cowardly attack last night.”

“My thanks, you lordship,” Irulan said, gesturing towards a seat which Bagrationi took. “Could I get you a drink? A brandy from Killuy, perhaps. Not the best selection, sadly, but the compound assigned to the Imperial Observer has not been used in some time.”

“Thank you, your highness,” he said. “Maybe I could offer you some finer beverages if you come visit me in my castle.”

Irulan tilted her head slightly in a way that led Chani to believe that there was some subtlety to his words that Chani was missing. Her response seemed perfectly cordial, though. “I’m afraid I won’t be leaving the compound for anything other than to give my testimony to the High Council. Security, you understand.”

Bagrationi laughed in a way that grated on Chani’s nerves. “I nearly forgot your present. Please have your servant see if your security has cleared it yet.”

Irulan flicker her eyes towards Chani, and Chani bowed. She didn’t like leaving Irulan here with the duke, but Irulan had demonstrated enough of the weirding ways that she should be safe with this watersoft man.

Gorvald handed her the box when she got to his office. There was something almost amused in his eyes. “There’s nothing dangerous in there,” he said.

Chani walked off with the box towards the princess’ office. She took a moment to peek inside the container, her eyes widening slightly when she saw what was inside.

Well, maybe this Bagrationi wasn’t as soft as all that.

When she entered the room again, Bagrationi was leaned forward slightly over the desk, as if trying to dominate Irulan who was sitting primly upright on the other side. He turned as she entered and gave a grin which he probably thought was dangerous.

“My gift,” he said grandly, opening the box and retrieving the jar inside and placing it on the desk.

“Well,” Irulan said, looking slightly green in a way that Chani didn’t quite believe as Duke Muratomi’s head floated in front of her.

“Feel safer now, your highness?” he asked. “I promise you, my house can offer you any protection you need.”

“And my sister?”

“Don’t worry. She’s currently enjoying my hospitality. Feel free to visit her any time you wish,” he said, and even as unfamiliar with their ways as Chani was, she could still clearly read the veiled threat in his voice. She suppressed the urge to unsheathe her knife and end this charade.

Irulan met his gaze briefly before looking away again. “Thank you for your kind gift, your lordship. I quite look forward to seeing your home once all this is over. Sadly,” she looked at the papers scattered on her desk, “My duties are multiplying faster than I attend to them just at the moment. You understand, of course.”

Bagrationi’s jaw clenched a little, but he nodded. “To our next meeting,” he said.

“Likewise,” Irulan said.

* * * * *

Irulan let her breath escape as Duke Bagrationi left the room. Another powerful man far too sure of himself, and this one more dangerous than the late Muratomi. Not to mention that Duke Bagrationi was still unmarried as far as she knew.

Had Count Muratomi’s head really been intended as an offer for her hand? Had Duke Bagrationi really been that sure of his position that he’d flout her father’s wishes without even the fig leaf that Muratomi’s hiring of a third party had provided. It suggested that not only was the Emperor’s position was as fragile as Muratomi’s attack suggested, but that Duke Leto’s position was far less secure than she’d thought.

And the threat that he could, if need be, marry her sister, with all that that entailed had been hardly veiled at all.

“Lord Parveen to see you, princess,” Chani said. “Also known as the man who came to our aid last night,” she added.

“Oh?” Irulan had been about to dismiss him - she just didn’t have the time for a noble of a minor house today - but that changed things. “Please send him in.”

Chani reappeared after a short time with Parveen in tow, who immediately swept into a florid bow as soon as he entered the room, and Irulan couldn’t help but be a little charmed in spite of herself.

“You do me great honour, your highness,” he said. “Lord Parveen at your service.”

“Please,” she said. “Sit yourself. Is there anything I can do for the man who rushed to my aid last night?”

He gave her an impish smile. “Just let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.”

“If you don’t mind, how did you happen to be in the area, to appear so quickly?”

“I could say it was luck, but that wouldn’t quite be true, I’m afraid.”

“Oh?’

“I don’t know if you’re familiar with my house, but we produce some of the finest furniture in the Empire. Maybe not quite fine enough for an Imperial residence, but most other houses - even great ones - would not be ashamed to say that they had one of our better pieces, crafted from impeccable materials, to accent their homes properly. What this means is that we deal with people and Houses all over the Empire, and that means that we hear things, your highness. Even things that are not intended for our ears.”

He was implying Count Muratomi’s new furnishings, Irulan realised. “If that’s true,” she said. “Why didn’t you give me some warning before the attack?”

Lord Parveen looked a little embarrassed. “You have to realise my position, your highness. I didn’t realise that he’d act so soon, and if I’d accused Count Muratomi without proof…”

Irulan held his gaze, searching for the truth of his words. They were plausible enough, and yet…

“In which case, I have to thank you for being prepared enough to have your House contingent in the area, despite your lack of proof.”

“Of course.”

“Is there anything else that you are willing to share with me, even if you can’t quite prove it?”

He hesitated for a moment.”I hear that Duke Bagrationi was prominent amongst Count Muratomi’s new friends.” His eyes slid toward the jar still on Irulan’s desk. “Though that relationship seems to have run its course.”

“Quite.”

“There are also a few Houses who have felt the need to bring more soldiers than is entirely traditional to Uuante.” He began listing off names, Bagrationi, Muratomi and close allies were prominent amongst them. “Of course, not all of them appear to be entirely friendly to each other. In response, I and some other Houses Minor have also managed to reinforce our retinue here, though we can’t hope to match the forces of the Great Houses, of course.”

“Of course,” Irulan said. “And what do you and friends intend to do with these forces?”

He smiled, brilliant white teeth almost blinding. “Anything we can do to help you, of course.” He bowed again, not nearly as humble as he doubtless wished to appear. “I pledge myself to your service, your highness.”

* * * * *

The hilt of Raia’s crysknife weighed heavily in Chani’s hand as the rite of remembering ended. This hadn’t been the first such rite she’d held, hadn’t even been the first that she’d been the cause of but it had been the first that she’d been challenged or challenger since she’d taken leadership of the group.

There was no funeral plain for the handle, not a proper desert as far as she could tell on this planet where wealth pissed down from the heavens, uncaught, unloved, ignored. It wouldn’t feel right to leave it here, but Raia’s shade would weigh on her until she let it go.

Maybe it was a good thing, she thought. Maybe being Liet Kynes’ daughter had allowed her to become too soft for too long. No one had wanted to challenge her, to win that fight or have their water spilled, even as she had moved further and further from the desert traditions, pushed by her half life between the sietches and the exigences of her not-relationship with the Atreides and Paul.

When this was over, maybe she’d retreat to the deep desert and let the simplicity of that life enfold her. Maybe even take a husband like she’d dreamed as a young girl, despite the dangers.

Common sense told her that it wouldn’t be that simple, could never be that simple given who she was, but still. Sometimes she ached for that, regardless.

Never mind. Enough wandering in circles. She had duties here still to attend to, and it was far from clear that the danger to Irulan was over.

She went to the exit of the room they’d used for the rite. When she opened the door, there was a pentashield seal in place and she tensed.

Something was badly wrong.

* * * * *

Neelam stood, head bowed, in front of Irulan as the shigawire projection of Lady Jessica recited the message she’d brought.

“I’m sorry that we can’t be there to give you this message in person,” Lady Jessica said. “I’m sure you understand the politics of the situation.”

They would have seemed to have been alone in that, Irulan couldn’t help thinking somewhat resentfully. But she didn’t miss the subtext of Lady Jessica’s statement. It wasn’t the politics of the Landsraad that had stopped Leto from visiting and making sure that she was fine. It was the forces arrayed on the planet that had uses for Irulan in a position of vulnerability, rather than shored up by Duke Atreides.

“Leto sends his love and worry regardless, and wants me to let you know that if there’s anything you need from him, he’ll do it, propriety be damned.”

He might not be willing to start a war over this just yet, but it warmed her heart to know that he would if she needed him to.

“As far as he’s concerned, you’re his other daughter.”

Irulan frowned, paused the projection and played the sentence again. It wasn’t that the sentiment was false - she was fairly sure that Leto did felt about her as she did about him - but the emphasis that Lady Jessica had put upon it. She wanted Irulan to remember this statement, even if she didn’t care to elucidate precisely why.

“As for myself, I wish you the best in the trials ahead, and that you will always have a home with the Atreides, regardless of what might happen. If nothing else, I must admit you rather liven up the evenings.”

So the Atreides had found less friends here than they’d been expecting. She didn’t doubt that there was some minimic film attached and hidden that had names, friendly and unfriendly, along with what information they had been able to gather and were willing to share. It would be useful to go over that and contrast it with her own observations.

“Thank you, Neelam,” she said. “You may go now.”

Neelam curtseyed, turned and opened the door, only to be confronted by a pentashield seal.

For a split second, Irulan blinked. Those seals were only supposed to activated in the case of the compound being breached, either to protect key areas or to stop invading forces. There had been no alarm, which meant…

She activated the comm. “Security room, what’s the situation?”

“We’re on high alert. Until further notice, we’re locking you down for your own safety, your highness,” Gorvald said. It was his intonation, his pattern of speech. Barring Face Dancer infiltration, she’d swear it was him.

“In my office?” she asked, interjecting disbelief into her voice. “Is there a current incursion that you haven’t informed me about?”

“It’s being dealt with,” he said. “When I have some spare men, I’ll have you escorted to your bedchamber and your guest escorted out.”

“What is happening?” she demanded.

“I’m sure Bashar Mikhail will brief you more fully once he has time.”

Even over the comms, his words, his tone sent shivers down Irulan’s spine. He wasn’t talking to her as the person who he ultimately reported to. He was talking to her like she was a problem to be handled.

“Of course,” she said and signed off.

The worst had happened. Her father’s guards were no longer even technically hers.

* * * * *

The stitches in Chani’s arm pulled as another Sardaukar died beneath her blades.

Although the room they’d used for the ritual of remembering had not been in the central building of the compound, they’d still been within the main defensive shields. And although pentashields were almost impossible to penetrate directly, going around with the explosives that Parwi had prepared proved far from difficult. The Sardaukar could have remained within the central building, made them spend blood if they’d wanted to go in after them, but instead they’d joyfully come out and matched blades with the Fremen, almost as eager to fight them as the Fremen were to finally fight them properly.

And Chani had to admit that the Sardaukar were good enough that this way wasn’t without blood either. One on one, they might have been able to take these Sardaukar, but there were more of them and they had better tricks here on ground they’d made far more theirs.

One thing the Atreides had taught them during the war on the Harkonnen was when it was best to retreat, if only for awhile.

“How’s the work on the generator shaft going?” she called.

“Almost done,” Fadia murmured.

Taking out a single generator shaft wouldn’t cripple the external shield, but it would soften it enough for low velocity objects to pass through. Chani gritted her teeth and prepared to fight to give her the time needed.

Saddiqa’s body lay on the floor, her infectious grin never again to show on her face, positioned so that it might trip or at least inconvenience anyone coming around the corner, her water spilling out over the floor, making it slick. Ahlima and Leila hadn’t even made it this far and Chani had no idea if Parwi would succumb to her injuries or not.

“Here they come,” Jaida muttered and for long moments all that existed were her blades and those of her enemies.

“Done!” Fadia yelled, hoisting Parwi up as they began a fighting retreat.

Moments later, the supply of Sardaukar dwindled and disappeared and the sounds of nearby battle became evident.

Jaida looked at Chani with one eyebrow raised. “Has someone else decided to join the celebration?”

* * * * *

The pentaseal shimmered and disappeared, revealing Evald.

“Please come this way, your highness, for your own safety,” he said.

“What about Neelam?” she asked.

He hesitated for a moment. “Her too,” he said, and gestured for her to walk in front of him, obviously far more anxious about her than Irulan.

The fruit of all that time practising against Chani’s Fremen, Irulan supposed, even if Neelam wasn’t Fremen herself. Not that she was complaining.

“How’s Kareeda?” she asked casually.

“She’s- It’s not important.” Finality in his tone - like he didn’t believe that he’d see her again. Whatever this was, he didn’t think he’d be returning to Arrakis.

“Oh,” she said, letting sympathy fill her voice. “I’m sorry.”

“*She’s* not important,” he said, like he was trying to convince himself. “She’s just a desert rat.” Intonation not quite his own. Something he’s been told- by Gorvald probably.

“A pity you didn’t manage to get her anything to remember you by, then.” Reminding him of the times he’d not had enough money because he’d lost in cards to Gorvald, of his half-hidden suspicion that Gorvald had been cheating.

He tensed his jaw, and concentrated on Neelam, shutting her out.

She’d never been able to quite master the voice, but she didn’t need it, not for this.

“Do you know what’s going to become of me?” she asked, voice low, trembling just on the edge of perception, like someone who’s on the edge of giving up, just like she’d seen Kareeda use once or twice.

Combining his guilt towards Kareeda with his dislike of his immediate superior worked. “Nothing you need to worry about. We’re to keep to you safe for your husband.”

“Paul Atreides?” she asked, playing dumb.

He gave her a scornful look before returning his gaze to Neelam. “Burseg Holsten,” he said like it should have been obvious. She was familiar with the name, of course - one of the highest ranked members of the Sardaukar. Apparently he held more sway - over Irulan’s personal guard, if nothing else - than she had known. But then her father had always kept her away from the inner workings of the Sardaukar whenever possible, unlike certain of her other sisters. “The Padishah Emperor is dead, and this world, like the Empire, will fall into chaos without a strong successor.”

The news that her father was dead left her curiously unaffected. After the buildup of the last few days, she couldn’t say that she was surprised. But still. What kind of daughter heard that and felt… nothing.

Not that it mattered. The Empire was lacking a helmsman, and the Sardaukar were one of the interested parties in filling that void. A threat that had long been considered, but one that needed the Great Houses united against it.

A sudden fury took her. Damn Paul for leaving her vulnerable like this. If he hadn’t left her betrothal dangling then she wouldn’t be like an unguarded jewel, waiting for the first thief strong enough to grab her.

“Thank you,” she said before her fist blurred, knocking Evald unconscious before he’d even noticed that she had started moving. “Come on,” she said to Neelam, who was staring at her wide-eyed. “We need to escape now, whilst they’re distracted.”

* * * * *

The fighting outside seemed to reach its pitch. With a wordless accord, the Fremen moved out to fight.

The courtyard was painted with corpses, so slick with blood that Chani felt a pain deep inside at the waste of it all, of all this water going uncollected. The vast majority of the bodies were not Sardaukar. Turning some of the unfamiliar bodies over revealed a symbol Chani recognised - that of the Duke Bagrationi that had visited earlier in the day.

Somehow Chani doubted he was here purely to rescue Irulan.

“The princess,” she said and though the others looked at her in disbelief a little, they followed her still.

The corridors within the central compound were embattled still. This was not the time for combat, though, and they tried to avoid as much of the fighting as they could, aided by Fadia’s observations of the security measures in place, in part won by flirtation with Siver, a receptive Sardaukar guard, too quick to boast, too slow to see her keen wit behind her blue-on-blue eyes.

This got more difficult as the intruders either started to retreat or ran out of bodies to throw at the Sardaukar. Finally after having checked both the meeting room Chani had last seen Irulan and her quarters, she was forced to admit defeat. The other places Irulan could be were too heavily fortified to take without suffering grievous losses, and they didn’t even know Irulan was still in the compound.

They were almost out when Jaida darted away. When she came back into view, it was preceded by a cowering city-dweller. A familiar city-dweller at that - Lady Jessica’s servant. As she glanced up and met Chani’s eyes, it was as though she put off a cloak as she stood taller, more assuredly.

“Lady Chani. I’ve found you,” she said, curtseying smoothly, slowly as to obviously present no threat.

The name came to her - Neelam. “I am no lady,” Chani said. “What are you doing here?”

“I was here to visit Princess Irulan on behalf of Lady Jessica when the princess’s Sardaukar took her prisoner. The princess managed to incapacitate her jailor, but when we reached the outside there was another force waiting that managed to capture her.”

“Which symbols did they bear?”

Neelam described the insignia of Duke Bagrationi and Chani’s hand clenched on the hilt of her knife. She knew she should have cut his throat when she had the chance.

“How come you were not captured alongside her, or killed?” Jaida asked, narrow-eyed. “Surely they wouldn’t have wanted a loose tongue running around.”

“They were more focussed on making sure that they captured the princess. She used that to distract them enough that I managed to duck back inside the compound.”

Jaida looked at her questioningly and Chani gave her a slight shrug. There was no way to know whether or not Neelam was telling the truth, but it did have the ring of something Irulan might do.

So. They had a new target.

“Come with me to the Atreides compound,” Neelam said. “I’m sure they will help you.”

Chani scowled. On the one hand, her pride insisted that she could finish this mission with her Fremen and her Fremen alone. Look at what a supposedly allied force had already done.

On the other hand, Paul had been the one to start her on this quest. If she didn’t trust his mother and father, who could she trust? And the simple truth was she didn’t know where Bagrationi might have taken Irulan. The Atreides might.

She nodded. “Take us there.”

* * * * *

“Your dress, your highness,” one of Bagrationi’s servants said as she and another woman entered, carrying a highly elaborate garment that looked all too much like a wedding dress. Behind them, two guards framed the door, an unspoken threat as if Irulan needed the reminder.

“Of course,” she said, turning away, demonstrating trust. The smallest of steps, but if she was going to be forced to become the duke’s wife - as seemed not unlikely at the moment - the sooner she could build up rapport with someone, even servants, the better. “I prefer to know the names of the people who are dressing me,” she tossed over one shoulder, adding in just enough crack of the whip to remind them of who they were speaking to.

“Loua, your highness.”

Camara, your highness.”

She nodded curtly, and memorised the names alongside the faces. Whilst they dressed her, she used a combination of haughtiness with one or two flashes of almost covert politeness to hopefully instil in them the proper sense of her position together with the idea that she might be approachable if properly courted. A seed for the future. And from the chatter they used to fill the empty spaces of the conversation, she managed to glean the names of some of Houses that would be in attendance. Not just House Bagrationi, and its attendant Houses Minor, such as House Mimir Bagrationi, House Jiria and House Lansana, but other Great Houses such as House Isfahan, House Phyfe and House Villish.

It was possible that the politics of the Landsraad had shifted more than Irulan had thought during the years of her exile to Arrakis and these Houses were all now firmly allied to Bagrationi, but Irulan thought it more likely Bagrationi was making a statement:

Here, look at my strength as I marry the first born daughter to the former Padishah Emperor in front of you. Am I not fit to rule you?

By not simply marrying her in private and making this a fait accompli when he presented it to the world, he was either justly confident in his position, overconfident or trying to make it look like he was confident. And it wouldn’t really matter if he could pull it off.

She studied her image in the mirror. “That will be satisfactory,” she said to Loua and Camara. “Now,” she said, turning to the guards. “Is it time for you to escort me to my future husband?”

* * * * *

“There has been much traffic to the country estate of House Bagrationi,” Thufir Hawat said. “And not just from House Bagrationi, but a multitude of other Houses too. If the princess is not there now, it is a certainty that she will be there shortly.”

“Could he have married her already?” Leto asked.

Chani tuned out the conversation which seemed to be increasingly heading in the direction of politics that she had little interest in, and frowned at the map instead. It wasn’t that she didn’t know the value of such things - no one could remain in a position such as she had inherited from her father and not be aware of that - but to her mind, it simply had little bearing on the matter at hand. Offworlder manoeuvring had offworlder consequences. She was far more concerned about Irulan and the consequences her capture might have for Arrakis.

The House Bagrationi compound looked… adequately fortified in an offworlder kind of way. Doubtless if they were expecting attack - and how could they not be? - the shields would be ready to be raised at a moment’s notice, which once done would make penetrating it almost impossible without time and effort.

On the other hand the all the traffic meant that for as long as it lasted, they wouldn’t be keeping the shield up all the time. If they could get some people inside, then they might be able to take down a generator and create a soft spot that would allow a more general invasion.

“Do you know anyone with an invitation who would be willing to take along some extra passengers?” she asked, looking up at them, interrupting the conversation as the debate turned towards how angered which Houses would be by an attack where their nobles were present.

Leto looked at Jessica and Thufir. Jessica shook her head slightly as Thufir said, “If I had more time, undoubtedly. Within the time frame we are looking at - no one has responded to my feelers as of yet.”

Leto rubbed the back of his head. “And as much as I hate to admit it, even with the attack on the princess, I’m not sure how well House Atreides would handle the backlash that an assault on Bagrationi with all those nobles present would cause.”

“What about if it could be argued that we were not assaulting Bagrationi, but responding to an assault?” Jessica asked.

“What do you mean?” Leto asked.

“I can’t imagine that the Sardaukar are eager to let Bagrationi’s assault on their compound slide. If we could arrange for them to find this information out, they might well take matters into their own hands. Once that happens, well…” Jessica shrugged.

Leto shot a look at Thufir. “Can you make this happen?”

“Make sure they find this information out? Certainly. Guarantee their response…” Thufir looked thoughtful. “Given what Neelam relayed to us, there are undoubtedly more Sardaukar on the way. They could just wait for reinforcements.”

“Unless you give them a reason to act now,” Leto said. “They can’t stand against the full might of the Houses of the Landsraad. If you feed them the intelligence that Bagrationi has enough votes for the Houses to unite under him once he has married Irulan…”

“They’d have to act now.,” Thufir said. “I’ll see what I can do.” His stained mouth quirked a little. “After all, this might not even be a fiction.”

“And see what you can do about smuggling some of my women in,” Chani said. “We do not need shields to fight, and I want to have someone I trust willing to move when the time comes.”

* * * * *

The room Irulan was escorted into was dominated by a large screen taking up the entirety of one wall, displaying a green pastoral landscape and a sun low in the sky, shining in her face. A throne was silhouetted against the setting sun; seated in it a man who Irulan was barely able to recognise as Duke Bagrationi.

A beginners trick, she thought scornfully, designed to display his strength, instead just highlighting his weakness. Another unsubtle man, though this one with significant power. Muratomi had been propped up by her father. Who was behind Bagrationi? Or might he just be the figurehead of a coalition, a safe candidate that his supporters thought they could manipulate?

“Greetings, princess,” Bagrationi said, his voice booming out across the room. “Please, feel free to approach me.”

“Your grace,” she said, curtseying. Not much, though more than a princess would to a duke. More like one noble would to another. A shade off a woman betrothed to her future husband. As she approached him, the sun behind him set, allowing her to see his features. On the surface he was calm, confident, but underneath tension hummed in his muscles like the strings of a baliset.

Good.

“I realise that this is very sudden,” he said. “But I would like you to consider my suit for your hand.”

At least he was observing the forms, even if just the barest measure of them. It meant she had some measure of power, even if she would have to measure its boundaries very carefully.

She looked away and to the ground, projecting a certain shy bashfulness. “If it were up to me…” she trailed off. “But there has been an understanding between my father and the House Atreides for three years regarding my disposition.”

He chuckled. “An understanding? Surely if House Atreides were at all serious - and were at all deserving of the honour of you joining with them - they’d have had the na-Duke betrothed to you years ago, and you’d be married by now.”

It was a good point, and nothing Irulan hadn’t thought to herself a thousand times. “I cannot argue with your grace on that,” she said.

“The Empire needs you now, needs a new Padishah Emperor to sit on the throne right now. And Paul Atreides is not here, has promised you nothing. Whatever your father’s ‘understandings’ were, surely they are irrelevant now. So please, think on my suit again,” he said and snapped his fingers in summons.

And, again, he had a good point. Paul *wasn’t* here and, in any case, she wasn’t under any illusion as to how the understanding between her father and Duke Atreides had been arrived at. No matter how much she liked Leto, why should she feel beholden to marry his son when they’d placed her in this abominable position for years on end? Duke Bagrationi might have kidnapped her by force of arms, but if he was powerful enough to pull off cementing his claim to be the next Padishah Emperor amongst the other Houses, was that really a worse claim than any other?

And maybe he wasn’t as unsubtle as he at first seemed. Either that or well coached. He certainly knew the right tack to take with her,

Chalice, head bowed, the side of her head bandaged, walked into view carrying a tray bearing two full glasses. Despite the fact that she was acting as a servant, she was wearing a fine dress, similar to Irulan’s, Ah yes, here was the other side of the equation. If she proved recalcitrant, the Duke already had another daughter of the Padishah Emperor. And if anything happened to Irulan, then Chalice would be the eldest daughter.

Chalice seemed to stumble slightly, her body bowing minutely in Irulan’s direction. At your service, sister, she indicated.

A threat, but also a potential ally. If she could be believed. Irulan indicated acceptance back, and then smiled brilliantly back at the Duke. “You are, of course, right in all particulars. I would be delighted to join my hand with yours,” she said.

It was decided then. If she could, she’d delay, give any rescuers some space to act. But if time ran out or the rescuers proved to be the Sardaukar, she’d marry him without a second thought. And if he was someone else’s puppet or figurehead, there was no reason he couldn’t be hers as well. Even if he had been involved in the death of her father.

* * * * *

“No, no, you have to adjust it like this,” the woman overseeing Chani said, pulling down a fold of cloth. “Now try walking again.”

Chani gritted her teeth and tried to move as directed, all swaying hips and sinuous movements in an orderly predictable pattern that felt utterly alien to someone used to desert walking and fighting. It didn’t help that the clothing restricted her movements to an unnatural degree.

From the sound of the sigh from behind her, her coach was less than impressed as well.

“Walk more smoothly,” she said, walking around in front of Chani so she could demonstrate. “Don’t stutter your steps.”

One and two and three and four, Chani thought, concentrating on following the movements.

“Better,” she was told. “Acceptable. As long as you don’t move around too much. Now let’s see you walk to the carriage.”

Thufir, as it turned out, had managed to make contact with some nobles who were willing to smuggle some Fremen in as part of their staff. Some Houses Minor who were willing to throw their lot in with the Atreides, in return for future considerations. There had been a lot of frowning how this had happened too easily, too quickly, how they didn’t know these nobles well enough, but the simple fact was they needed this. And anyone who thought Chani or the others would make a good hostage would find out how the Fremen reacted to such threats.

She acknowledged Fadia as she approached the carriage and curtseyed to Lord and Lady Bat-Uul, her masters for the evening, before entering the servants’ entrance on the carriage. There wasn’t much room for the two of them, but then there didn’t need to be. The engines roared, the floor trembled and then they were off.

A short time later the vehicle rocked slightly then the engines died down. There was a knock at the door and Fadia hit the release to reveal two guards in Bagrationi colours.

“Out,” the one of the left said.

One and two and three and four, Chani thought as she exited the servants’ chamber and stood in front of the guards, head lowered as they searched her and Fadia.

“Follow me,” the guard said as he led her, Fadia and the carriage pilots to a crowded room filled with people wearing the colours of dozens of different Houses. Some were better dressed than others, but all looked like offworlder servants. She wandered through the room until she had located Jaida and the others, who had been smuggled in with the other nobles.

All accounted for.

She dodged an attempt by a man with smiling dark eyes to start a conversation and forced herself to relax.

Now it was a matter of waiting.

* * * * *

“Thank you for attending my wedding,” Irulan said to Duke Ngara whilst wearing a charming smile.

“What a pity I couldn’t also attend your betrothal,” he rumbled. A potential ally, Irulan thought. Or at least someone not wholly satisfied with Bagrationi.

“Quite,” she said. “But I was quite overcome when the duke asked for my hand after all these years of almost exile, and insisted on an immediate ceremony. I’m just glad that my sister could attend.” She waited, but the guards Bagrationi had assigned didn’t react in any way to her words. Good.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Ngara said thoughtfully. “It’s always good when you can have family there to give you away. Now, I’m afraid I must take my leave of you.” He moved off in the vague direction of Bagrationi. If enough people asked about Chalice, Bagrationi would hopefully bring her into play.

Or at least put her somewhere Irulan might be able to keep an eye on her.

“Your highness! What a delight to see you again,” came a familiar voice.

“Lord Parveen,” she acknowledged, turning around. “A pleasure indeed.”

“Though of course you don’t need any rescuing now,” he said, teeth flashing, though his tone subtly implied the opposite.

“Of course,” she said.

“Though I do hope that if you need any fine furniture or wardrobes - or anything, really - you’ll think of me.”

“I’ll certainly keep you in mind,” she said, one eyebrow raised slightly in question.

“I do hope you enjoy my wedding gift,” he said, then bowed and made his exit.

Parveen again, either trusted enough by Bagrationi to invite or more powerful than his House Minor status would suggest. Not to mention that Muratomi had had new woodwork and furniture in his manor. Parveen would certainly be one candidate for being behind Bagrationi, though his words certainly suggested that he wasn’t fully behind him.

In the background, she saw Ngara moving away from Bagrationi after having had a conversation with him. Bagrationi, frowning, gestured for a servant, then made his way over to her.

“Come, my dear,” he said, taking her by the arm. “I think it’s time to start preparing for the ceremony now.”

“But I haven’t finished greeting the most powerful lords of the Great Houses,” she said, pursing her lips slightly. “If I don’t complete the circuit, Borgoi, Hajns and Yasu at the least are sure to be insulted. And if I talk to them, and not Spokan and Est…” she trailed off.

He stared into her eyes for a long moment, then nodded. “Of course, my dear. How about I accompany you while you do so?”

Irulan smiled at him. “If you would be so kind. I really am a little out of touch with the latest court politics, as you know.”

“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”

In the background, she saw Chalice being escorted into the main hall by two guards, and inside she smiled.

* * * * *

The wave passed over the view from outside, subtly distorting it. Jaida, who had taken position near the window, nodded.

The compound’s shields had gone up. That was the first signal.

The guards in the room suddenly looked alert. Four of them made their way to a door and left, cutting their numbers in half, and the others started paying more attention to what was outside the room rather than what was in it.

She made her way to Fadia. “Make your way to the driest door,” she murmured. In this water rich world, that’d be the one that led deepest into the compound. “Pass it on.”

Fadia nodded and moved to the next Fremen as Chani did likewise. Soon they were all gathered near there, watching, waiting. The guards didn’t appear to notice that anything was wrong.

Watersoft fools.

There was a slight rumble, and the shield flickered. Whoever was attacking, they’d managed to reach the shield generators.

Good.

That was the second signal.

She and Zaria lunged at one guard near this door, whilst Jaida and Fadia attacked the other. Zaria slammed the heel of her hand into the softness of his throat whilst she grabbed a knife from his belt and plunged it into his heart. The screams from the other offworlders in the room barely had time to start before the Fremen had opened the doors, dragged the bodies of the guards through them and had closed the doors behind them. She tossed her guard’s other dagger to Zaria and took his shield for herself, whilst Fadia did likewise for the other body. That still left several of them without weapons, but Chani didn’t doubt that they’d pick up others along the route.

There was a pause as they took it in turns to change their clothing around so they didn’t reveal the identities of the Houses who had smuggled them in, and then they moved forward.

Another rumble and the sound of distant screams. The incursion from outside was getting closer. They’d just have to get to Irulan first.

The skitter of footsteps sounded from ahead and Chani smiled slightly.

Ah, someone they could ask the way of.

* * * * *

Something about the tenor of the background hum of the crowd subtly changed. Moments later, one of Bagrationi’s guard came up and whispered in his ear. Not good news, from his expression. Looking around, it took her almost a minute to identify what had changed.

The shields had gone up around the compound. There was an attack in progress. Of course, it might not be the *right* people attacking, but Irulan couldn’t help feeling a flicker of hope regardless.

Then they flickered, and the background chatter changed once again. This was an attack that was working, that had gotten past the first and toughest barrier, the external shield.

“My dear,” Bagrationi said, grabbing her by the arm. “I believe it’s time to retire to the chapel.”

She briefly debated resisting, but there were too many guards near him. “Of course,” she said, relaxing into him.

Across the room, she saw more guards approaching Chalice, only to have Duke Ngara step in the way, along with Baron Fidbolgs and Count Orzaba. The lead guard attempted to push past Ngara only to have him resist and refuse to move.

A rumble, as though from an explosion, cut through the chatter of the room, leaving silence in its wake. The smell of ozone filled the air as guest after guest, guard after guard activated their personal shields.

“Do you really want to be responsible for starting a war between Bagrationi and our Houses?” Ngara asked the lead guard.

Well done, sister, Irulan thought. Chalice had managed to force the cracks Irulan had opened into a breach.

Beside her, Bagrationi took a breath. “Duke Ngara, my friend. We don’t have time to argue like this. The Sardaukar are attacking, but they wouldn’t dare attack us all.”

Ngara’s eyes flickered lizard-like between Bagrationi and Irulan. “They’re here for the Princess Irulan,” he said. “And you, after you attacked them. House Ngara has no part in this and neither do our allies.” He raised his voice. “If there is anyone here who does wish to fight the Sardaukar, I invite you to stand with Bagrationi. Anyone else - let us leave this place, now.”

Bagrationi gritted his teeth. “Fine, if you want to be a coward, then so be it. But the Princess Chalice stays with me.”

Ngara spread his hands. “She has asked me for sanctuary, and I have granted it. So she’s coming with me. Unless you want to start a war on another front.”

There was a crowd of guests already trying to leave, but enough stood with Ngara to make Bagrationi hesitate. Maybe without the sound of fighting getting ever closer, he’d have made another decision, but he nodded sharply and said, “Fine. Take Chalice. You’ll regret this decision. I’ll make sure of it.”

Then, guards flanking him, he turned and hustled Irulan out of the ballroom, in the opposite direction to the sound of fighting. They got as far as the second intersection before figures leapt out from the left hand passageway, knives flashing.

Female figures, with blue on blue eyes.

Moments later all of Bagrationi’s guards were dead and Bagrationi had four knives hovering near his neck just outside his shield.

“Would you like to spill his water?” Chani asked.

Irulan, relief singing through her veins, smiled at her. “I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the pleasure.”

A moment later they left, leaving Bagrationi to choke on his own blood.

* * * * *

“Here she is,” a familiar voice called. Evald. He had managed to get within sight range before they’d heard him, unlike the watersoft guards Bagrationi employed. He didn’t survive long, Jaida’s knife finding his throat, but the damage was done. Sardaukar started to converge on their location.

Chani gave a Fremen cry, that of a desert bird, and the others took it up. Now that they had been discovered, it would be best if they could attract the attention of the Atreides reinforcements.

And then the Sardaukar were on them, blades flashing.

On Arrakis, this would not have even been a fair fight. Here, though, with the shields they were still getting used to, together with the losses they had already suffered…

Chani suddenly wished fiercely for Raia to still be at her side, even as the wounds she had inflicted on her still pulled.

Fadia threw a fold of cloth in the face of the Sardaukar in front of her and Chani used his momentary distraction to slide her knife in between his ribs.

Mikhail stepped into his place, a small but confident smile on his face.

“I’m glad you didn’t manage to get yourself killed before we got to have this fight.”

Chani didn’t bother to waste her breath on a reply, just concentrated on keeping his blades from her. A momentary opened in his guard and she sliced out, taking advantage of it, only to have her knife bounce off his shield as she moved slightly too quickly. Mikhail didn’t make that mistake in return, his blade slicing into her stomach.

“A pity you haven’t had the chance to practice more,” he said, keeping up the pattern of attack, parry and counterattack. “Then this might be a bit more challenging,” he said as his blade cut into her again, running up her arm. The cut she gave him in return wasn’t anywhere near as big, for all that his offworlder blood ran like water.

He sliced up at her chest, which she parried, then down and the injury to her arm slowed her enough that she didn’t manage to stop that one as it cut into the side of her kneecap, causing her to stumble to one foot, opening her guard lethally.

“A real sh-,“ he was cut off, staggering backwards as *something* blurred over her head and into him.

It resolved into Irulan wrestling with one arm, giving Chani the opportunity she needed to plunge her knife into the artery near Mikhail’s groin, blood spraying in jagged spurts into the inside of his shield before dripping downwards. He used his dying strength to throw Irulan over him into the Sardaukar still behind him.

Chani staggered to her feet and fought onwards, onwards, on.

Now the tempo of the battle reversed as the Sardaukar tried to retreat with Irulan, who refused to make things easy for them, with blurred punches and kicks throwing Sardaukar off, sometimes only enough to slow them, sometimes enough to allow Fremen blades to find their water.

But it wasn’t enough. Irulan was dragged further backwards into the centre of the still standing Sardaukar. Jaida darted after her, reckless to the end, only to receive a knife gash to her throat for her troubles. The nearest three Sardaukar detached, fighting back to back to delay the Fremen for as long as they could. The rest of the Sardaukar retreated…

Only to run into a force coming up behind them.

After dealing with the stay behinds, Chani and the others moved forward. Crushed between the Fremen and whoever was on the other side, the Sardaukar were slowly whittled away. Finally, Irulan managed to trip the only Sardaukar who was holding her by that point. Chani tossed her a blade which Irulan snatched out of the air and used to finish him off. Then she blurred to Chani’s side and said, “I saw Duncan Idaho on the other side.”

And so the fight continued. Finally, eventually, the last of the Sardaukar were down, and Duncan, supported by Atreides troops, stood in front of them.

“Your highness,” he said, bowing to Irulan. “Let us get you somewhere safe.”

* * * * *

Irulan resisted the urge to glance back over at Chani again, who was pale enough, injured enough even after first aid that Irulan was surprised that she was still conscious, albeit slumped in the seat next to her in the transport. Pure stubbornness, Irulan could only surmise.

But paying her too much attention would be a weakness she was unwilling got show in present company. A weakness that she was all too aware of after having seen Mikhail almost kill her earlier. Chani was the first person to touch her as just one human to another in… in far too long. It didn’t matter that it probably wouldn’t happen again. Once was enough. More than enough.

But enough of such thoughts.

“Thank you for your assistance,” she said to Lord Parveen, seated across from her.

“It was my pleasure,” he said. “I did hope you enjoyed my wedding present.”

“A dozen Fremen smuggled in is… untraditional, but I can’t say it was unappreciated.” It was the token he’d played to get a seat in the Atreides transport after all.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” Leto said softly, resting a hand on her shoulder.

She felt that blank nothing again, but lowered her eyes as she was expected to do. “Thank you. It wasn’t easy hearing about it like that.” She managed to convince her eyes to look shiny. Lord Parveen, at least, looked away.

“We’ll give you as long as we can,” Leto said and Irulan felt a surge of gratitude. If they’d been alone she might have leaned into him.

Maybe.

But they weren’t and she didn’t.

“Thank you,” she said. It wasn’t that she needed the reminder that the situation as a whole was far from sorted. There still wasn’t a Padishah Emperor and some of the Sardaukar at least were on their way to try and enforce their choice. Unless there was a candidate the other Houses could rally behind, it would mean civil war. It might mean civil war regardless.

But she was too fatigued to think through all the implications clearly, wrung out after the long day and above all else she needed to not make a mistake right now. A single misstep could shift the course of the empire.

“Where’s my sister?” she asked.

Lord Parveen answered. “I’m afraid we weren’t able to stop Duke Ngara and his supporters from making off with her. She should be safe, though, at least for the moment.”

She barely stopped herself from biting her lip. It was what she had expected, but she’d hoped…

She’d hoped.

“Thank you,” she said and spent the rest of the trip in silence.

* * * * *

Chani could feel Irulan watching her in the darkness.

“You need your sleep,” she said. Making sure that Irulan got her rest wasn’t why she’d insisted on sharing Irulan’s room when they’d gotten back - and it undoubtedly wasn’t why Irulan had concurred - but it was a reason that worked at the moment, a reason she could admit to herself.

“So do you,” Irulan replied sharply. “More so, given how much blood you lost.”

“Didn’t your doctor fuss enough replacing that?”

The bed creaked a little, as Irulan shifted position. “You could have at least taken the bed.”

“I’m not an offworlder who needs things like that. Besides, your bed it far too soft.” She made a face. “I couldn’t sleep on that.”

The bed creaked again as Irulan pushed herself off it, footsteps as she padded over to Chani accompanied by a light hissing as she trailed sheets behind her, followed by a grunt as she lay down next to her. “I don’t know how you do this,” she said.

“I am not soft,” Chani said, a smile in her voice.

There was a sigh as Irulan relaxed a little. “I’m sorry about Raia, Jaida, Saddiqa…” she murmured, listing all the fallen, and Chani couldn’t help feeling touched that Irulan knew all their names. It wasn’t… it wasn’t what she would have expected from an offworlder.

“There’ll be a remembrance ceremony tomorrow when the moon rises,” she said. “You’ll be permitted to attend,” she added after a pause.

“Thank you,” Irulan said softly.

“Just so long as you remember the reason they died was to bring water to Arrakis. Just so long as you honour their deaths and bring their water back a hundred fold, a thousand fold, a million fold.”

“I’ll try my best.”

They lay in silence for a while, the only sound being as Irulan shifted uncomfortably on the ground. Chani was about to tell her to just get back on the bed when she spoke again.

“Before I got to know you, I was so jealous of you,” she said, an odd note in her voice.

“Not everyone can be born Fremen,” Chani said blandly.

Chani could practically sense Irulan rolling her eyes. “Not that. The only reason I wasn’t betrothed, even married to Paul was you. The only reason I couldn’t move on with my life was you. The only reason that I was exiled to a backwater, that I lost much of my power was you. And you, you swept by with your Fremen mores, and slept with him whenever you wanted.” Irulan paused a moment, swallowed, then added, “I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t your fault, but it felt like it at the time.”

Chani laughed, unable to prevent a note of harshness from entering her voice. “Trust me, life amongst the sietches is not as soft as you are thinking. I am the daughter of Liet Kynes, the inheritor of his dream. Any man married to me would have great influence amongst the tribes. I do not know how marriage works amongst you offworlders, but among the Fremen a man who kills a man in a duel inherits most of his belongings, including his wife. Unless I picked the strongest man amongst the sietches, someone would always be willing to kill my husband so he could own me.” She laughed again. “Some are willing to kill a man if I just sleep with him.” Sometimes even if they just thought that she might sleep with them. “Paul was… Paul was someone who no one amongst the tribes would be able to challenge.” She couldn’t help sneering a little. “And even him I could not have, because it was always known that he’d choose you in the end. And because it would always be politics, at least a little, between us,” a promise that the Atreides would bring water to Arrakis, “And neither of us could ignore that totally.”

At some point during her speech, Irulan had wrapped herself around her, so feather soft that she didn’t even pull on any of her wounds. “No,” she said gently. “Men fighting and killing each other over who gets to own you. I can’t imagine what that’s like at all.”

Chani laughed until it hurt, until she could feel blood leaking out from the injury on her stomach. “Maybe the Fremen and you offworlders are more alike than either of us had thought.”

“Fancy that,” Irulan said, still whisper soft. “Now go to sleep.”

For a moment, Chani almost did just that, before a thought struck her. “Is this really want you want?” She made to gesture before she realised the darkness made it irrelevant and the tightening of the skin over her wounds just made it foolish. “The throne,” she clarified. “Do you want to be the wife of the next Padishah Emperor, or is it just what you’ve been told you should want?”

Irulan was quiet for such a long time Chani almost wondered if she’d gone to sleep.

“Yes,” she said finally. “It is. I’ve spent the last few years…” She paused a moment, then continued, “Let us just say that being irrelevant isn’t to my tastes. Not to mention that we’re standing at a point where the Imperium could erupt into civil war if we’re all not very lucky, and I would prefer that my name not be associated with that. And, as a minor side note, whoever did come to power in any aftermath would undoubtedly not be minded to leave me alone, and I’ve really had quite enough of being hunted down for one lifetime.”

“But it is what you want?”

“Yes, it’s what I want,” Irulan said. “Now *rest*.”

Being given orders by an offworlder - even someone who had proven herself like Irulan - should probably have raised Chani’s ire, but instead, somehow, Irulan’s presence softened all the edges, allowing her to drift slowly away from consciousness.

Until Zaria burst into the room. “You have to get up now,” she said. “The offworlders say that more Sardaukar have arrived in orbit.”

* * * * *

Irulan dressed herself as quickly as she could, tension winding itself like a knot in her stomach.

“What are we going to do?” Chani asked from behind her.

“I-“ she started. “There needs to be a new Padishah Emperor, one who the Houses can rally around, enough at least to make sure the Sardaukar respect that choice. I need to make that choice, marry someone.”

“Who?” she asked bluntly.

Irulan opened her mouth, then shut it again. “I haven’t decided yet,” she finally said.

The carriage over to the Council building was tense, quiet. Chani sat next to Irulan, facing Leto and Lady Jessica. Just before they arrived, Leto reached out and touched Irulan on the hand.

“I never told you how much I was looking forward to officially welcoming you as my daughter. No matter what happens, what you decide, know that you have my full support.”

“I need a husband,” she said, needing to say it out loud, to broach the possibility with him.

“I know,” he said steadily. Next to him, Lady Jessica looked away. She knew what those words must cost him, that he couldn’t want to be married to her any more than she wanted it, but still…

She needed an emperor now, Paul was too far away, and Leto was the only one she could really trust.

Reverend Mother Mohiam’s voice echoed in her memory: Just remember your mission, and she knew what the Reverend Mother had meant. To wed Leto, and bear a child of Atreides blood.

She swallowed and felt a little sick. “Thank you,” is all she could force out.

Lord Parveen found her once she’d left the carriage, on the way to the main chamber of the Council building, to her complete lack of surprise.

“Greetings, your highness.”

“Lord Parveen,” she acknowledged.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do?” Have you decided who you’re going to marry, she interpreted.

Another man offering himself up as her emperor, albeit one far less conflicted.

She stopped, looking him over. She didn’t even need to ask what she’d find if she questioned him about whether he’d been involved in her father’s death in front of a truthsayer. Even if he hadn’t been involved directly in it, he’d known it was going to happen. Risking the wrath of a Great House by interfering in Muratomi’s attempt on her life made little sense otherwise - it wasn’t as though she could reward him whilst in her current position. And if he wasn’t in bed with Bagrationi, why else would he been able to get not just an invitation to Bagrationi’s triumph for himself, but for at least two other minor lords who must have been deeply in debt to him?

But for all that, the fact remained that he had been able assemble a coalition of Minor Houses and wield far more influence than he should. Whatever else could be said about him, he must be an effective politician and the empire needed that now more than ever. Certainly, though she hated to admit it, more effective than Leto, who had been outmanoeuvred twice in under a decade.

Would he really be worse than whoever her father would have chosen for her, had he been given free rein?

She gave him a tight smile. “I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise,” she told him. “Now, if you don’t mind, I believe that I’m expected.”

She left him bowing in her wake.

The High Council of the Landsraad was in chaos. Duke arguing with Count arguing with Baron. In the midst of the floor, she saw Duke Ngara, Chalice welded to his side, undoubtedly proclaiming that they should acknowledge him as the new Padishah Emperor, and probably that any rumours that Irulan was still alive were unfounded.

She walked to the podium and stood on it, looking out at the crowd, Chani at her side. “We need action now, not talk,” she said, letting her voice cut into the crowd, bringing silence in its wake as they all looked up at her. She couldn’t help but feel a little pride at the successful, albeit minor, application of Voice, never something she had mastered with any reliability. “We need to stand united against the Sardaukar - *now* - or we will fall. We need a new Padishah Emperor, and I announce that my choice is-“

She couldn’t help taking a breath. Who should she decide? Leto or Parveen? Honour or political ability?

But before she could say a name, Chani stepped up. “As the leader of the Fremen tribes of Arrakis, as the only people who have shed more water of the Sardaukar than they have of us, I offer my allegiance to the Padishah Empress Irulan.”

What?

Leto stood up. “I also offer my allegiance to the Padishah Empress Irulan.”

Her eyes found Lord Parveen - he had managed to garner a seat here, if any further proof of his political acumen were needed - and for a moment she saw the sheer frustration within them before he smiled, nodded as if to acknowledge a hit, then stood. “I also offer my allegiance to the Padishah Empress Irulan.”

Duke Ngara stood up. “What nonsense is this? The Padishah Emperor is and always has been a man. Do anyone really think that the Sardaukar will accept a woman on the throne?”

His words broke Irulan’s almost paralysis. “If we are united, they will accept whatever we tell them.” She turned her attention to the greater assembly. “Will you stand with us, or will you fall to the Sardaukar?”

For a long silent moment, she didn’t think it would be enough, that the assembled peers of the High Council would ignore her, follow Ngara. But first one, then another, then a multitude stood, proclaiming their allegiance to her. Even Ngara, once he had seen the way the tide was turning, mouthed the words, somehow forcing down the fury in his eyes.

The doors slammed open, and a wedge of Sardaukar, led by Burseg Holsten, entered the chamber, and it immediately fell silent as all eyes were drawn to them.

“Greetings, Burseg Holsten,” she said. “You’ve arrived just in time. The successor to my late father has just been declared.”

He looked at her with cold eyes. “Oh?”

“You may proclaim your allegiance to the Padishah Empress Irulan,” she told him.

He looked at her for a moment, then looked around. “Is this the case?” he asked.

“It is,” Leto said.

“It is,” Duke Ngara said.

“It is.”

“It is.”

For a long moment after the echoes affirming her rule died out, the Sardaukar stood silently, unmoving, imminent violence in the air. Then Holsten dropped to his knees, followed by the rest of the Sardaukar. “It will be an honour to serve you, your Imperial Highness.”

“Good,” she said. “Then please retire back to your ships. I do not have need of your services at the moment.”

He nodded again, rose to his feet and left. In his wake, everyone in the chamber seemed to breath at once.

“And now I must make preparations for my journey to Kaitaine and my coronation. I will, of course, be expecting you all there to swear your oaths more formally,” she said and dismounted the podium.

As the crowd of nobles started milling, she caught up with Duke Ngara and Chalice, both of whom, she noted, were wearing new rings.

“Duke Ngara,” she said. “Duchess Chalice. I’m glad to see you both in such good health.”

Ngara nodded with a modicum of grace. Chalice did so with far more elegance. “Thank you, your imperial highness,” she said.

“I regret that, once again, it seems I have missed your wedding,” she said. Do you want me to do something about it? she meant.

If she was now Padishah Empress, it was the least she could do.

“I understand,” Chalice said. “This were very hectic, and this did rather take the both of us by surprise.” She turned a smile towards Ngara. No, thank you.

It wasn’t a love match, by any stretch of the imagination. But Ngara was certainly more powerful than Muratomi had been, and certainly a far better match than a widowed second sister would have normally been able to hope for. Irulan would have to trust that her sister knew what she was doing.

“As long as you’re happy,” she said, meaning it.

* * * * *

After the rite of remembering the next night - with Irulan and what few of the Fremen survived - Chani found Irulan looking up at the night sky.

“I still can’t quite believe that this is happening,” she said. “That I’m the Padishah Empress.”

“Do you think that you can’t do this?” Chani asked, and Irulan turned towards her, eye flashing.

“Of course I can,” she said, then relaxed, shrugging a little. “Assuming I manage to make it past the first few obstacles. At the moment, everything is still in flux.”

Chani didn’t find anything to say to that, she just looked up where Irulan had been staring. It was as clear a night as they seemed to get on this planet - many stars were visible, rather than shrouded to the point of invisibility by the ever present water vapour. A light moved against the background - a ship, doubtless, entering or leaving the atmosphere.

“I imagine that you’ll be leaving for Arrakis tomorrow,” Irulan said, her voice almost but not quite calm, and Chani turned to look at her, but she was facing away once again.

“I was planning on accompanying you to Kaitaine,” she said, though the idea hadn’t fully crystallised until she had spoken.

Irulan twisted around to look at her sharply. “The situation there will take months to settle down. Maybe years.”

Chani offered her a half smile. “Who else will assure that water will flow on Arrakis, if I am not there to watch your back?”

“A leader cannot be away from the centre of power for that long,” Irulan said, but it was a half hearted thing.

“My position among the Fremen is not one that requires my constant presence. It isn’t as though the naibs follow my orders,” Chani said. “Besides, maybe it is best that I lengthen my leave of absence. I find that I do not care to be their talisman any longer.” She felt a curious lightness as she spoke. No more would she have to mostly be an adornment to talks between sietches, at least for a while. At least until she could truly say that she was bringing water to Arrakis.

And if she did need something decided, she could always go back home and beat some sense into the naibs until they agreed with her.

Irulan smiled, a bright thing, obviously reading into her words things that Chani did not say. “I imagine I can find a use for a trustworthy Fremen within my court,” she said lightly.

But perhaps Chani had meant them regardless. “I’m glad to hear it,” she said, pressing forward until her lips met Irulan’s. “Now,” she said after an appropriate pause. “Tell me about this world Kaitaine that I will soon be visiting. What wonders does it hold? Does it also have water that falls from the sky?”

Irulan opened her mouth, and began.