They are in Chambers when the message arrives. "Emperor Atreides," says the hologram, a woman with long brown hair bound tight behind her head. "On behalf of the New Republic, I request an audience with you." The hologram freezes.
"They are Empire-Wreckers," Irulan says. "I do not recommend we engage with them."
"I think that we should meet with them. Perhaps we can learn from them," Alia says, and he turns, regards his sister with suspicion. His sister sits straight in her chair; she smiles at him, a half-smile, and when she meets his eyes she does not flinch, but he hears what she is trying to say all the same.
"Let them land, then," Muad'Dib announces. "We will hear these Republicans. Perhaps they have something to teach us."
"My Lord," Irulan interrupts.
"They may be Empire-Wreckers, Irulan," Muad'Dib says, "But then, so are we."
Alia bites back a grin, and Paul rests his hand on his sister's shoulder.
"It is the right choice," she says.
He wonders what she knows.
The ship lands in the night, and he feels the dust storm gathering on the wind. He does not rise to greet them; he listens to his sister's even tread past his door, and looks down at Irulan's covered head as she meets them upon the steps.
He does not rise to greet them; they can wait.
The light filters through the hall, and he turns his head to see his sister, see his wife. He straightens in his chair; faces the supplicants. "Emperor Muad'Dib," the Councilor bows. "I am Councilor Leia Organa, of the New Republic."
"I know who you are," Muad'Dib says. In the silence, he watches the dustmotes dance in the sunlight.
"Your Majesty, Arrakis is very beautiful," the Councilor begins again, and Alia coughs.
"Welcome to Dune," she says, rising smoothly.
Muad'Dib stands. "My sister will guide you," he says, as he steps from the dais.
A member of the party steps forward. "Your Majesty," says the Jedi Skywalker, "We have brought gifts to please your majesty, though none so beautiful as Dune."
Muad'Dib smiles at the weaving words of the Jedi. "It is true," he says. "There are none so beautiful as Dune."
The words taste bitter on his tongue, and he closes his eyes.
He sits, legs crossed, eyes still. He meditates upon the path, the steps his people must take and the journey they must walk. The mid-evening breeze tinkles the windchimes, and he feels a breath across his skin, a whisper in his ear.
He opens his eyes, and he is alone in the room.
He hears the echo of laughter through the corridors of the palace, and he knows it is the laughter of the Republicans.
He tries not to think of it as a portent, but he knows the way these things go.
The Republicans have been sullying his sands for three days, and he steps around the ripples they make in the path, steps around the puddles where they tread.
The Councilor asks for him at breakfast; makes appointments with his scheduler; watches him from above as he leaves the palace. The Jedi follows him through the streets of the City, always in the corner of his eye. The Wookie sheds fur through the hallways of the palace. The Commander makes small talk with him when they meet by accident, but there are no accidents in his city, in his palace.
Muad'Dib commends the Councilor for her persistence, but he cannot see her footsteps but for the ripples she weaves across the path, and she is only here but for the words of his sister, so he keeps out of her way.
The Jedi bows to him on the edges of Arrakeen. "Your City is a masterwork of architecture," Skywalker says, turning back to look at the city towering above him. Muad'Dib looks down at the Jedi's bare arms, looks across at the desert.
"I am from a desert world," Skywalker says, and when he looks up his eyes are bright blue, and Muad'Dib does not frown.
The Councilor dances with Irulan, follows the housekeepers as they give away water, learns of the worm and the Sietch. She surprises him with her presence as he breakfasts with Stilgar, and he frowns.
She debates Fremen politics with Stilgar and Irulan, and he leans back, entranced by the line of throat and her fingers, curled around the shawl. "The navigators are still a threat," she insists. "Their alliance with the Sith gave them things they will not readily give up, you have to consider all the alternatives."
Stilgar shakes his head. "The navigators are never any real threat," he says. "Cut off their supply and you cut off their heads. And they are no mythical beast, ready to grow another head. One cut is all it takes."
"The navigators are more hardy than you think," Irulan advises.
Organa presses her lips together. She turns to Muad'Dib, her eyes beseeching. "Your Majesty," she says, "You have to understand."
He closes his eyes, traces the path of the navigators. "Stilgar has the way of it," he says. "Cut off the head, and the beast dies."
Organa forms a fist with her hand. When he opens his eyes, she is flexing her fingers slowly. "They are not so easy to be rid of. You cannot be so complacent."
"Stop your whining," the Commander says, slapping the Wookie on the arm. "You've been to hotter places than this."
The Wookie crows some more. "No, Tatooine wasn't different, it's just as stinking hot, and just as much sand got up your ass." The Wookie says something. "I won't keep my voice down!" the Commander yells, and recoils from the hands of a beggar, hands shaking with spice withdrawal.
He drops a coin in the outstretched hand, and drags the Wookie away. "Damn addicts," the Commander mutters, and the Wookie howls soflty. "Don't even think about it, they would never try this shit out," he replies, and lost in the shadows, Muad'Dib watches them leave, their steps sure.
"Your Majesty," Organa says, later. She bows before him as he sprawls on his throne, his hand to his mouth and his audience chamber empty. Her footsteps echo, and he watches her hair sway as she makes her way towards him. "Your Majesty, you cannot ignore this threat."
"There are no threats to my Empire," Muad'Dib says. When he looks up, the reflection in her eyes is indistinct, muddied. He reaches forward, grabs her hand. "Why can I not see your footsteps?" he whispers.
"My future is not dictated by any prophecy," she snaps back, and the whisper of her skin makes him think of his children, and he frowns, the plural where none should be.
The Councillor slowly pulls her arm away, and he flexes his hand in the absence. "Your Majesty," she inclines her head, and he watches her go.
Alia smiles up at Muad'Dib, the happy glow of a spice eater. "Alia," he says, "behave yourself!"
She beckons him closer, and he sits beside her, rests his hand upon her arm. When he breathes in, the air is free of the cloy of smoke, and he leans in, sniffs her jaw.
Alia laughs. "I haven't been drinking the spice, brother. The Councillor's brother has been teaching me his ways." Muad'Dib hums, and Alia whispers, pulls him closer. "They can see through space, brother. They can see the threads that connect us, threads that are much clearer than those our mother can see."
"And no spice," Muad'Dib asks.
"No spice," Alia laughs.
He looks down from the walkway, and sees two sandy heads bowed together, and realises they are twins.
"We must notify the Naibs," Muad'Dib begins as they walk along the corridor, and Alia holds her hand up, keeps him from moving forward.
"Look, this Atreides guy has a serious problem," he hears, the words drifting around the corner, and he pauses.
"Muad'Dib," Councillor Organa corrects.
"Okay, two serious problems. A guy who changes his name to something ridiculous is clearly a meglomaniac, how're we going to get anything from him?"
The Councillor shushes Commander Solo, and Muad'Dib steps forward, his step steady, his sister by his side. He smiles at them, tugs Alia on when she would stop and challenge them.
"Commander Solo is correct," he says, later. "They will not get anything from us."
"Perhaps we should encourage them to leave," Stilgar suggests.
"Perhaps we should," Muad'Dib agrees. He nods at Alia, and she smiles.
As she leaves, she draws her shawl close against her shoulders.
Muad'Dib closes his eyes.
He finds Councilor Organa watching the sun rise from the main balcony. "You should not be out here," he says.
"Emperor Atreides," she says, casually pushing away from the railing. "The sun here is beautiful."
"The sun here will kill you," he says.
"It is still beautiful," she replies. She takes a deep breath, and does not choke on the desert air. "I was hoping to meet with you, to discuss the future of the New Republic."
He considers her, watches the paths unfold behind her and wonders at their Jedi ways, so similar to the Bene Gesserit and yet so unfamiliar.
"Your New Republic cannot remain," he says into the silence, and he turns away.
"Your Majesty," she protests, and for a moment he finds it difficult to move, like walking in a sandstorm, before he blinks and tears away.
"It cannot stay," he says.
He recognises a threat when he sees one.
He wonders what his sister has gained from these Republicans, that her footsteps are muddied.
"Thank you for your welcome," Councilor Organa says, a nod of her head and a lie on her tongue.
"There can be no Republic," Muad'Dib says, no patience for the ponderous formality of farewells to a group he will not allow to remain separate from his Empire, from his rule.
"Commander Skywalker particularly enjoyed visiting your planet, its similarities to his homeworld brought him comfort."
Commander Solo glares as he clomps past, and Muad'Dib looks up.
"His homeworld was harsh?" Muad'Dib asks, idly.
"And he is the stronger for it," she replies, with a smile, and he struck once again by the line of her neck. "But then, one of us always has to be the stronger one."
She steps onto her ship, and the ghost of a smile remains on her face until she disappears from his sight.
The skies above Arrakeen are never silent, and the hum of liftoff is nothing against the sound of worms and the steady beat of thopters.
Muad'Dib does not watch them go.
He knows where they are.
In the silence of the night, he wanders the corridors of the palace, looking for his sister. He thinks of the Republicans, of their ripples and their eddies, and he wonders at their sure steps, at their ways which are so familiar.
Alia's room is empty, and he drifts towards the library, towards the kitchens, and finally, towards the training room. Naked, she stands in the moonlight, and he counts nine blades in the air as she dodges them, feels them in the path and defends her body the way their mother taught them.
Muad'Dib smiles, and keeps on watching, and counts the blades as she disarms and drops them, and keeps on smiling right until she drops the final blade in mid-air, five metres away, her hand outstretched.
Muad'Dib stills, and as he meets Alia's eyes she smiles at him, and he thinks her eyes of blue upon blue are perhaps not as bright as they have always been.
Muad'Dib turns away, keeps his feet on the path.