Do not be deceived by the common histories. The story of Muad'dib is the story of an individual. Yet the story of the Mahdi is the story of the planet Arrakis, the planet known as Dune; the individual cannot be separated from the place.
-from “Origins of the New Imperial Order” by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
The water trickles incessantly from the smooth marble curve of the fountain to the shallow receptacle at its base. The pool within, disturbed by the ripples of water flowing into it, reflects only color and movement on its surface.
A young woman stands in the center of the room. Every movement she makes is subtly elegant - a footstep to the left, slight pivot to the right, one hand noiselessly curving through the air and coming to an abrupt and smooth stop over her stomach. She senses the empty space around her as if the air is made of water. Every particle, every breath, every sound in the room, from the trickling of the water to the nearly inaudible breathing of the room's other occupant - she is aware of them all, and she makes herself a part of the space and the space a part of herself.
And then she exhales, and her movement ceases.
Irulan awaits the judgement of her onlooker. She holds her pose. Her muscles ache with the exertion; despite the seeming ease and simplicity of each movement, the amount of concentration required to follow the routine is immense.
A nearly imperceptible nod is her only acknowledgement from the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. Better, then, than her last session. Not yet acceptable. She assumes the first position of the exercise and inhales; internally, she recites the mantra that has accompanied her training from its beginning. She must do better.
These exercises are pointless. Irulan's training will forever remain incomplete. She might as well spend her days reading in one of the countless libraries, like her younger sisters and half-sisters, or escape to the confines of another planet altogether, where she might live out the years before her marriage in solitude. But she has duties, and even if those duties bring her no joy, she must perform them.
Each morning she rises from her bed with the sunrise and follows the same routine. One half standard hour of meditation, of turning her eye to her inner self and training her mind. Then she chooses her clothing to match the day, allows a servant to bind her hair, and goes to her lessons or her personal studies.
Today is not an ordinary day. The Reverend Mother meets her outside her chambers, interrupts her before she can make her way to the library.
"Come, child," says the Reverend Mother, and Irulan has no choice but to follow. She inclines her head as is proper, given their relative positions, but it's also an unspoken question - one the Reverend Mother reads readily enough.
"The emperor has asked to see you. There is a... matter of concern."
They exit Irulan's quarters and enter one of the countless connecting corridors of the imperial palace. Here, as everywhere, their skin and attire are bathed in the soft blue light that emanates from the imitation sun-lights lining each of the halls and rooms of the palace-city.
"You must do as he says. You must not question it," the Reverend Mother whispers hurriedly in her ear as they walk along the corridors, towards the imperial audience chambers. "Much is to be gained or lost."
Irulan holds her expression as it is - stony and cold, unresponsive. A learned response. Very few events shock her, even in passing, but she's only peripherally involved in most of her father's political maneuverings. Such urgency in any matter involving Irulan herself isn't something she could have anticipated.
They slip through the back entrance into the imperial audience chamber. Seated at the head of the table, her father is deeply engaged in a conversation with the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Irulan takes her place beside the Reverend Mother among the other dignitaries present: a Guild representative, two other members of Great Houses, and several diplomats acting in place of their lords.
"And what have the Harkonnens done to protect the spice harvest since the fall of the Atreides?" her father demands, his eyes on the Baron.
"Majesty, let me assure you, if your inclination is to implicate-"
"There is no implication!" the emperor half-shouts, rising from his seat.
The Baron hesitates. For what response can anyone give to an angered emperor? Anger or retaliation would cost the Baron his position, and perhaps his life. Indignation might cost him his influence. Yet meek acceptance would cost him his reputation. Her father seems to sense the precarious place in which he has positioned the Baron, for he sits down again and continues, in a more restrained tone, "The spice must flow, Baron Harkonnen."
"As you say, Majesty."
"This rebellion has gone on long enough. The local people must not be allowed to interfere with the spice harvest any longer. Daughter," he snaps. He gives a quick gesture with two of his fingers.
"Father," she replies. She bows her head and bends her knees. Deference, but not too much of it, not in front of any of the Harkonnens. Although the Houses of the Landsraad are ostensibly their supporters, Irulan has understood what is implicit in that statement since she was a small child. They have no allies; they have only enemies, and potential enemies. She faces her father and awaits his instruction.
“This matter has progressed unchecked for too long. The Harkonnens can keep their mandate on Arrakis, but they will do this under imperial command. Irulan. You will go to Arrakis. You will represent the interests of the emperor and you will impose imperial order to ensure the uninterrupted production of the spice."
Several barely audible gasps come from the nobles and officials in the room. Irulan herself inhales sharply, though she allows no other outward signs of surprise. Her eyes travel to the Baron's face. Anger is present, yes, glittering within them, but beneath it something else.
An unprecedented move, and not only because Irulan is a daughter and not a son. No emperor has ever dared to try to rule Arrakis so directly. Upsetting the balance of power so blatantly would result in unintended and as yet unforeseen consequences, the kind of consequences the emperor has ever been eager to avoid. She understands the implicit meaning. For her father to be willing to gamble so much, he has very little left to lose. Their position is more precarious than she could have guessed.
Her refusal here would mean humiliation for her and her father both. It is expected that she will do exactly as she does: lower her eyes in deference, bow her head in acquiescence, bend her legs slightly at the knees, straighten and harden the lines of her face as she turns towards those gathered around them. A show of acceptance followed by a show of strength. She is an emperor's daughter. She must carry herself like one.
Once all others have filed out of the room and Irulan is alone with her father, she meets his eyes over the broad hexagonal table that dominates the open space of his audience chamber. He seems reluctant to hold her gaze.
"Do you really think, father, that my presence alone will calm a rebellious populace? If the people of Arrakis are so dissatisfied with their rulers, what can I do to convince them otherwise? Vendetta may be entrenched in our history and law, but the Harkonnens-"
"Enough! You know less than you believe."
"I know more than you believe."
"Perhaps that is the case. Perhaps not." He stops for a moment to collect himself. Then he takes a breath. "Farewell, daughter."
She looks away as quickly as she can, but too late to avoid seeing his eyes once more. In them she sees something akin to sorrow. Tired, bitter sorrow, reluctant sorrow, but she recognizes it for what it is. Before she leaves, she stops by the door, her hand resting against its smooth, black wooden handle.
"You have always underestimated me, father. One day you may learn to regret it."
As she leaves her father's audience chamber and enters the hallway outside, the Reverend Mother is waiting for her. She touches Irulan's elbow - a meaningless gesture to anyone watching, but it conveys the truth of their relationship. Other Reverend Mothers have given Irulan lessons and training, but she has always been under the direct tutelage of Gaius Helen Mohiam.
She follows her mentor and teacher, aware of many other pairs of eyes fixed on her back. They stop only once the doors of the training room are closed behind them. The Reverend Mother seems agitated; she hides it better than anyone else, but Irulan has known her all her life.
"Is my father's concern so deep that he truly believes this to be the correct course of action?" she asks. Her hand rests over one of her books, left the night before on the desk.
"The spice trade is threatened?"
"The Harkonnens struggle to meet the spice quotas. But this is of little concern. Many have ruled Arrakis, and the Harkonnens will come and go as have all the others, for all the thousands of years of the empire. You must obey your father, yes, but you have another task. You must find the Atreides boy.”
"Paul Atreides? I had heard he was killed in the Harkonnen attack, left to die in the desert along with his mother. Do you mean to say he survived? How can you be certain?" She has heard other things about the Harkonnen attack, also, but these are wisely kept to herself. Her father's enmity of necessity with the Duke Atreides has never been a well-kept secret. She dares not openly accuse him of any involvement, but she suspects. She would be a fool not to.
"It is said he has fled to the deep desert, where even we cannot follow. There is no certainty in such things, but if he has survived... he must be found."
"What do the petty vendetta wars of two Great Houses mean to the Bene Gesserit? Surely Paul Atreides is of no concern to you." A baited question, and the Reverend Mother would be well aware. Still, Irulan knows the art of laying false trails, even if this is a clumsy attempt.
"Don't play the fool, girl. Pretending not to know our purpose will not endear you to any of us. The bloodlines must be maintained."
"Atreides and Harkonnen. Both must be preserved."
A storm is coming, Irulan senses. She saw a storm, once, when she was visiting a planet far from Kaitain. Without a satellite weather control system, charges in the atmosphere couldn't be dissipated or directed to discharge only over uninhabited areas and oceans. She remembers the way the clouds seemed to inflate with darkness, the hint of metallic dust on her tongue, the scent of water just before the rain. The word entered her vocabulary that day. On Arrakis, she has heard, there are storms of sand. The metaphor seems apt. A sandstorm approaching from afar. An alien thing, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and Irulan is being sent to quell it at its center. Or perhaps not. Her father's sorrowful gaze comes to the forefront of her mind again.
While Irulan considers her prospects, the Reverend Mother approaches the fountain where the water trickles down into a pool. She holds out her hand to block the flow of liquid. The water strikes her palm, spraying outward, creating a half-circle of droplets on the ledge and the ground at her feet.
"On Arrakis-" she begins, as she begins any other instruction.
"Water is currency," says Irulan.
"You remember your lessons well."
"I am an emperor's daughter."
"More than that, child. Oh, more than that." From her tone, it sounds like the Reverend Mother knows something Irulan doesn't. Perhaps something Irulan does not yet know. Whether the Reverend Mother's prediction is the result of a conscious or unconscious observation, Irulan will never know.
She doesn't look back as she departs - at the training room that has served as her prison for so many years, or at the Reverend Mother. She has never possessed any of the inner sight of the Bene Gesserit, but she has enough foresight of her own, born of logic and intuition, to know that she will not be returning here for a very long time.
Not sixteen hours later, Irulan is seated in a spacious compartment on a Spacing Guild liner. Her window overlooks the central docking bay, but she pays it no mind. She wears only a dress of black Sharrajjan silk with a necklace of Kaitainian silver draped across her neck and shoulders, without any of the ostentation of the imperial court.
This is far from her first journey on a Heighliner. As a representative of the emperor, she has visited a hundred worlds, holdings of Great and Minor Houses alike. Always the Guild representatives greet her personally and assign her shuttle to a secure compartment guarded by imperial Sardaukar, leaving her alone with no one but her books for company.
To Arrakis, she has brought very little with her, and nothing of great value. A few of her books, her writing supplies, and several chests of clothing. Elegant dresses and robes, headpieces, a sparse collection of imperial jewelry. Even on Arrakis, she will be required to attend banquets, meet with diplomats, dance while her face is tight with smiling. Irulan is one of the brightest and flawlessly cut gems in the emperor's treasury. She has her uses, but her value is intrinsically tied to her appearance. There is more - or perhaps less - to her father's decision to send her to Arrakis than his need for an imperial steward. Any number of House rulers have far more practical experience than her.
Something bothers her about this arrangement. The urgency and speed of it, the unparalleled scope of the extension of her father's power. He has recently gained a small majority in the CHOAM directorship votes, yes, but the Houses would surely oppose unilateral imperial control of Arrakis. This situation with the local people must be far more dire than anyone was willing to admit. It bothers her, too, that the Baron Harkonnen showed so little surprise or outrage at this development. He's cunning, but his skill at public deception is questionable. He might hide the substance of his plans, but not the existence of them.
To pass the time, she carries with her a book detailing history from mankind's mythic terran past to the origins of the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. She holds in her hands thousands of years of history. And as the barrier descends over her window to block her view of the docking bay, to obscure the secrets of the Guild, she wonders: she's going to the place where the history of all the worlds of the empire truly began.
Arrakis. No other name arouses such passion in the imaginations of the peoples of the empire. Arrakis. Dune. The desert planet. The source of the spice. The land of the Fremen. The birthplace of the Mahdi. Arrakis is all of these.
-from "A History of the Planet Arrakis" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
She expects sand and dust in her first breath of Arrakis air, as the door of the shuttle opens. When she inhales, she is greeted instead by the faint but pervasive scent of cinnamon permeating the air. Spice is everywhere on Dune, or so she has heard, but imagining a thing is different from experiencing it.
The city of Arrakeen is a collection of small buildings and spice storage silos built up around the great Residency, nestled within a ring of rocky mountains. A city out of place in the desert of Arrakis, but its history is longer than that of any of the cities of Kaitain. People have lived here for as long as people have lived on Arrakis.
The Sardaukar guards sent with her by her father usher her into a vehicle, but the scent of melange follows her into the climate-controlled interior. As she is driven through the streets and markets of Arrakeen, she hides her marvel behind an expression set firmly in place. This is the planet that lies at the heart of everything. Not the world she was born onto, the world where she spent her childhood. Without Arrakis, there would be no commerce, no travel, no empire. This dusty place holds the key to their existence, not the vaulted halls and rounded arches in the low, controlled light of the imperial capital. All of her father's efforts, and his father's, and all of their fathers before them - all of it wasted on building their empire around the wrong nucleus.
She knows the customs of Arrakis from her readings. When she sees a woman squeezing the last drops of water out of a dirty rag, in the entrance of one of the market buildings, she's neither startled nor disgusted. Still, she watches with interest. No one wants for water on Kaitain. Other currencies hold sway there.
This is a peaceful place, considering how much blood was shed here, and so recently. She cannot help but wonder if they drive over the same dusty ground where the Atreides staff and guards were dragged out of the Residency and executed, only a few short years ago. The floors of the imperial palace have seen such bloodshed and more, centuries of it, but the recentness makes this war seem somehow more real.
As they near the Residency, the vehicle slows. A guard appears opens the door for her. She steps out and finds herself standing before a crowd, no doubt gathered to witness the arrival of the imperial princess. The people are all clad in shades of brown, light and dark, so that she can't safely estimate their number.
"Mahdi!" comes a cry, from somewhere amid the gathered people, followed by another - the same word repeated. The sounds of a scuffle ensue, and then silence. These are a frustrated people, she remembers. Tired from months and years of living beneath the Harkonnen whip. Exhaustion breeds resentment, and resentment turns into anger, and the Harkonnens have done nothing to stop it. Whatever it means, she understands the reason these people shout.
The Residency, once she enters it, doesn't remind her of her home even superficially. While the capital palace-city of Kaitain is a wonder of modern architecture, the palace in Arrakeen feels ancient. The stone was likely hewn from the mountains of Arrakis, but the design clearly came from the minds of offworlders. The trappings on the walls in the first room are hung to reflect imperial insignia, but the round columns and the orange-gold crystal structures that serve as lighting fixtures belong to neither Corrino nor Atreides nor Harkonnen. This place has seen rulers come and go like the tides on an ocean planet or the seasons in the far upper and lower latitudes of Kaitain. Irulan is but one of many. (Not that the same wasn't true of her role on Kaitain, she thinks bitterly - she was but one of many daughters who had walked the halls of the palace and wished for more than they were given.)
Inside the massive, rusted metal entrance doors to the Residency, a young woman in nondescript brown robes and an off-white veil greets her, bowing deeply before her. When she straightens, Irulan can see that the whites of her eyes have entirely turned to the deep blue that indicates spice saturation.
"Your name?" Irulan asks, eyeing her up and down. A Fremen woman, and a servant.
"Aadila, Majesty." She averts her eyes, forces her gaze to the stone floor beneath their feet. "I am here to serve."
"You needn't call me that. "My lady" will do."
"Yes, my lady. I will take you to your rooms now, if you wish."
In the evening, she pulls a chair to her desk (wood must be such a rare thing, here; she wonders where it came from) and arranges her writing supplies. Placing her thoughts and ruminations in writing was something she learned to do long ago, to combat the loneliness of life in the imperial palace. Her earliest memories are of her tutors' hands teaching her to trace the shapes of the letters. They were never kind and rarely patient, but she learned. Each letter she draws now in graceful curves on the translucent synthetic paper surface bears the mark of their teaching.
As her stylus reaches the end of the page, she pauses. The history of Arrakis has been inconsistently documented and poorly understood. So many questions remain: what secrets of ruling noble families are buried in the sand, how numerous are the local people, where does the spice originate? Perhaps, one day, she will write her own history of this planet.
Whether any of her works ever find an audience, however, is another matter entirely. There are entire libraries on Kaitain dedicated to the long-forgotten works of imperial daughters. The thing Irulan dreads the most is this - all her thoughts, all her ideas, relegated to the shelves in the furthest corner of a minor imperial library, forever unread. Yet still she writes, because she can't rid herself of the one thing the Reverend Mother has always told her is the most perilous of all: hope.
She strokes her finger along the page-indicator and begins anew on a fresh surface.
Her first days in the Residency are spent learning its layout and observing proceedings in relative silence. First she must understand; only then can she act. The palace itself is built in a straightforward and imposing manner, designed to be easy to navigate and to remind the local people of the wealth of their offworlder rulers. Fitting, considering the current regime, she supposes. She learns the names of the head servants and the chief Harkonnen guards.
A great banquet is arranged on the tenth day after her arrival. She finds a table spread worthy of the court of the emperor himself awaiting her in the great hall of the palace. Crystal flagons filled to the brim with precious water accompany each setting.
Across from her sits the Baron's stocky nephew, the previous ruler of Arrakis before the brief Atreides interlude. He eats and drinks in the same manner as he rules - taking what he wants, with no mind to decorum.
"My lord Rabban," she says in greeting, inclining her head only as much as one would to one of lesser status. To the Baron, she would make the necessary gestures. This man is no Baron - although perhaps one day he might be. An alarming thought. Is this the bloodline the Bene Gesserit are so desperate to preserve?
"How do you like Arrakis so far, princess?" he says, and she needs no Bene Gesserit training, nor any training of any kind, to sense the intent. Although she lacks the skills of interpreting truth and lies, her father's tutors taught her well enough to recognize hidden intent of all kinds. This young man's eyes are those of a predator. They hold the same hungry intent as many in the imperial court, but this Harkonnen is too young and too distant from the politics of the Imperium to know that he should try to hide it.
"Arrakis is harsh in its beauty. A place of great danger and great profit, one might say?" Irulan replies. She sips at her sugar wine and watches him, giving the appearance of rapt attention. Inwardly she scoffs at the gaudy opulence of this Harkonnen show. The wine, the foods, they are the products of distant planets, brought here at great expense, while the people of Arrakis scrabble for the last few drops of water from a rag.
"You'll find the Harkonnens rule Arrakis with a firm hand." To boast of the mess he has made here shows his quality as a ruler. Irulan needs no more confirmation of what she already knows.
"But the Harkonnens do not currently rule Arrakis, do they?" she says, meeting his gaze.
"We've been here for more than eighty years, and we always meet the spice quotas. We know how to squeeze until we get every last drop!"
"Eighty years, and this is the first time in the history of the empire that the emperor himself has directly intervened in the governance of Arrakis. Does that speak well of the Harkonnen family?"
Rabban's face turns white, and then red. He grips his glass too hard in his fist. His desire to respond to her inflammatory remark is clear, but he seems to have this much restraint, at least.
"You're enjoying your food?" he asks, selecting another piece of roasted fowl.
"Yes, thank you. A marvellous selection. Rarely have I seen dishes from so many worlds." He seems to miss the sarcasm in Irulan's words, as she suspected he might.
They have little else to discuss. Irulan spends the rest of the meal listening to Rabban's stories of the slave pits of Giedi Prime. Were she not trained to endure such narratives, she thinks she might lose her appetite.
The cry comes from the crowd in the main street of Arrakeen. Mahdi. First a single man, then another, then a dozen. Mahdi. There's meaning in this word. Irulan listens from the courtyard in the front of the Residency and wonders. Mahdi. She heard the word on her arrival to Arrakis, too. Mahdi.
"Aadila," she says later to her servant, as they walk down the length of hallway between the bathing room and Irulan's personal quarters. "Might I ask you a question? What is "Mahdi?""
"A Fremen word, my lady. They had a prophecy. One day a leader would arise and guide them to their destiny. They called him the one who would guide them to their future." Hesitation marks her words. She is holding something back. Irulan considers pushing her, but now is not the time.
"And the Fremen, they believe that this leader has arisen now?"
"No one has seen his face, or even heard his name. He could simply be a myth, or a rumor to frighten the offworlders. No one knows but the people of the sietches. The Fremen villages."
"Thank you," Irulan says, offering a tight smile that Aadila takes as her cue to leave. Irulan pauses beneath the arched entrance to her bedchamber to consider Aadila's words. Logic tells her that local leaders rise and fall in the Imperium's outer systems as often as colorful buzzflies land on crystal-flowers in Kaitain's domed gardens, but instinct tells her otherwise. This Mahdi is important. She remembers once more her sense of impending doom, on the day she was sent to Arrakis. A storm is coming.
It is said: one will come for whom the way will shorten, and this one will be Lisan al-Sahra, the voice of the desert.
-from "Prophecy of the Fremen Messiah: An Explanation" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
The word follows Irulan after that. She hears it shouted outside her windows, whispered in the corridors, spoken in hushed tones around corners. Mahdi. The messiah of the Fremen.
Countless revolutions have arisen and ended in failure throughout the long history of the empire. The fact that she stands here on Arrakis, a daughter of the Padishah Emperor, here to oversee his interests on the spice planet - this is a testament to the fact that no one has ever succeeded in overthrowing the ancient power structures.
Yet it is not this fact that troubles her. She was taught that no one ever could succeed. Power is evenly distributed, and though each noble and each institution scrabbles for more power, none can amass enough to effect change. Here, though, at the very heart of the empire... Here is the place where the scales could tip one way or another. Here is where the future could be decided. Her father has always scorned her love of books, but the study of history sometimes reveals more than the logic games of the Mentats or the complex layers of diplomacy of the politicians.
When she witnesses her first sandstorm, building east of the Shield Wall, she thinks of fragility and wonders who will withstand its wrath.
"A small group of Fremen raiders attacked a spice mining operation just south of the Shield Wall this morning. No survivors, and they lost the spice too."
Gathered at the table for this meeting were Rabban, three Harkonnen advisers, and the Baron's other nephew, Feyd-Rautha, visiting from Giedi Prime. Irulan has heard stories of this young man. By all accounts, he's intelligent, quick on his feet - and utterly ruthless.
This meeting room is nothing like her father's audience chamber. The table is utilitarian and rectangular, and the room is no larger than her father's personal office. Irulan's back has grown sore sitting in these chairs each day for the past three weeks, listening to endless arguments and discussions of tactics to meet spice quotas or keep the Fremen in check. Until now she has held her tongue, but the time comes when silence is no longer the best strategy.
"Have you tried appeasing them? Speaking with their leader, this Mahdi? What does he want?" she says, interrupting their debate.
Rabban has the audacity to laugh at her. "Appeasing - who, the filthy Fremen dogs? Can you appease animals with diplomacy? Is that what they taught you on Kaitain?"
"Silence, Rabban, would suit you better here," murmurs his brother. "Let me handle this." He turns to face Irulan - unaware that she can hear his whispers? Unlikely. A display, then, although Rabban's wilful participation is equally unlikely. The more intelligent and cautious elder brother, and the savage youthful lord. A clever trick, if she were not able to see right through it. "Your Highness, we appreciate your presence here-"
"And my role here is - what? Am I here to observe?" It has always been said of her that she prefers literature and philosophy to politics. It isn't, strictly speaking, a lie. But she was sent here to govern, and she intends to do so.
"You're here to represent the emperor as the acting governess of Arrakis, aren't you? And my brother and I are eager to help you maintain the spice production. After all, we have experience on Arrakis."
"I wish to contact the Fremen and arrange a meeting with their leader," she says. She looks at the Baron's nephews and dares them to disagree with her.
"All right. Of course, Highness. I'm afraid there's one problem, however. Who are you going to send? All of our staff are currently busy. The spice harvest operations are very demanding," Feyd-Rautha says, in a tone of mock-appeasement that stops just shy of mocking. He meets her gaze with no difficulty or hesitation, no sense of humility.
She sees the truth then. The Harkonnens control Arrakis. She might hold the title of emperor's daughter, and she might rule Arrakis officially, but she has no support here. The local administrators and guards serve the Harkonnens, except for her small regiment of Sardaukar. Not nearly enough to seize the kind of power she needs to act.
She is a tool of the Padishah Emperor, and she is often used as such. She has learned with painstaking effort to keep her anger in check. But this - this angers her. To be sent here blind and unaware, with no warning about her actual role in this, no alternative but this humiliation.
"If you'll excuse me," she says, standing abruptly. Staying here is pointless. "I have other things to attend to."
Once she determines her intended place on Arrakis, she stops confining herself to the courtyards and corridors of the Residency. Support, she imagines, must be won from the people, and if the people never see her, she can win nothing. She orders her guards to accompany her out into the streets of Arrakeen twice a week. The fact that they obey when her father has always been so restrictive causes her some puzzlement, but Arrakis is far from the imperial homeworld, far from the emperor. Maybe she's beyond his reach here.
She leaves one morning dressed in the local manner, with a robe and a veil around her hair and face, and brings with her only two Sardaukar. They've barely set foot within the spice market when a commotion arises in one of the alleys between the stone buildings. Several men shout; then she hears what sounds like a struggle. Two Harkonnen guards throw a man in brown robes from the alley out into the open.
"You will pay, Harkonnen scum!" the man yells, struggling back to his feet.
"Silence!" One of their boots connects with his shin. Even so, the man remains on his feet. The Fremen bear themselves as well as the imperial Sardaukar. Irulan has yet to encounter a Fremen who betrays even the slightest hint of his or her emotions, save one difference: the Fremen allow themselves anger. The Sardaukar learn to face their enemies without rage. The Fremen seem to embrace anger as a tool.
"On your knees! You will answer for your crime against your lords!" The Harkonnen guard's wrist shoots out and he strikes with a baton at the back of his knees. This time the Fremen falls, but he still glares in defiance at the Harkonnen men. Though her guards are eager to usher her away, Irulan pauses and turns to peer out from the folds of her hood.
"Princess," one of her Sardaukar says urgently, his hand hovering near her elbow. What a fool, she thinks. A fool to think that any imperial princess would be so delicate as to need protection from the sight of violence. The only shocking aspect of this is that brutality is practiced openly here. On Kaitain, it's hidden behind false courtesies and guarded smiles. That kind of brutality - the cold, calculated kind - is the kind Irulan understands well. This open violence is the brutality of a barren desert world.
The guard levels his weapon at the man's head. The appropriate action might be to look away, but Irulan simply watches and maintains her blank expression. Blood splatters over the ground. Several droplets of it land on her boots. What a waste. On a planet where water is precious, the water of this man's body now pours out onto the street.
As he falls, she catches a glimpse of his eyes, open wide in their final moments of life. The blueness is so startling she nearly gasps.
In the evening, once she's safely back inside the Residency, she takes to reading a book of Kaitainian poetry. The forms and patterns are reassuringly familiar to her, but even so she remains distracted. As one of the moons of Arrakis finishes its descent into the field of view of her window, she rises from her seat and walks to the ledge. Once there, she happens to glance to her left and sees herself reflected back in the mirror hanging on the wall.
Something about her appearance leaves her feeling unsettled. Her eyes, she decides. The sheen of blue is surely nothing more than the reflection of the moon on the stone floors and walls of her bedchamber, almost the same blue glow that bathes the halls of the imperial palace – yet she is reminded far too viscerally of the man in the markets. The blue-in-blue of spice saturation.
She fears spending too much time in this place. She might become a part of it.
Weeks pass, and Irulan learns. She learns the patterns of the weather, the fluctuating price of water, the names of the Harkonnen staff. Slowly, she believes she begins to gain some measure of respect from some of the officials. Not enough to make a difference, yet, but even the greatest of schemes must start somewhere.
Whenever Rabban passes her in the halls, he gives her a look that suggests some sinister fantasy. Still, she fears little for her safety. There are those who would see her and her family dead, or worse, but for Rabban to strike at her here would spell doom for his entire family. Her father would retaliate in full force. No. For now, at least, she is safe.
"A stillsuit, my lady," Aadila explains, as Irulan turns and turns again in front of her mirror. She has asked a mining scout pilot to take her into the desert today, to survey spice mining operations in person.
"Used to collect perspiration and bodily fluids and recycle them," she says; she reads about the customs, peoples, and technologies of Arrakis each night before she sleeps.
"Yes, exactly. One must always wear a stillsuit into the desert."
Aadila has to help her arrange the tubes and padding of the stillsuit properly on her body. Irulan's servants on Kaitain were born and raised within the imperial palace complex, bred and trained to absolute obedience, and then subjected to Imperial Conditioning to ensure absolute loyalty to the imperial family. Aadila, too, must have undergone the Conditioning to be assigned as her servant, but she still feels distinctly ill at ease to allow unfamiliar hands so close to her body. Trust no one, her father has always cautioned.
Once adjusted, the stillsuit feels surprisingly light and far less bulky than she first anticipated. She waits while Aadila changes into her own stillsuit, and then they go together to the flight bay.
The view from the ornithopter is magnificent. The desert surrounding Arrakeen is but one small area ringed nearly entirely by mountains, with the city clearly intentionally built in the shadow of their protection to weather the sandstorms. Beyond the mountains lies a sight beyond even Irulan's imaginings. The desert of Arrakis is an ocean of sand, an endless expanse that stretches forever outwards to meet the horizon. Here and there an outcropping of rock breaks the golden waves of the dunes. From above, these appear inconsequentially small, but Irulan gets the impression that if she were to stand at the base of any of the outcroppings, they would tower above her.
"Spice is produced beneath the sand. When we find a spice-mass, we send a crawler and a mining team to extract it," Aadila says, as they fly.
Irulan has always found it odd that no book, in any format, filmbook or synthetic paper, explains the origins of spice. Of course it's assumed to be something inherent to Arrakis itself, but no one has any notion of what that might be. Asking here seems almost foolish, but she can't resist: "How is spice produced?"
"No one knows, my lady." Her companion appears nervous, hesitant. Her face is wet with the beginnings of perspiration. The effect of the heat of the desert sun? Nervousness at their distance from Arrakeen? But Aadila is Fremen, born and raised in the sietches.
They land before Irulan has a chance to ask. Stepping out onto the sand feels like stepping out onto the surface of an ocean, albeit one with waves the color of molten gold.
"... I thought we were visiting a spice harvester," she says, confused. Even in the far distance, the white and gold expanses of sand are broken only by the rocks and the dunes. She sees nothing remotely like what her books describe as a mining operation. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she peers out across the desert.
They've not been on the ground for more than a minute when she senses it. Movement. Vibration. A presence, hidden in the sands. They're not alone here. She barely has time to whirl around to face the sound before it's over. Her Sardaukar guards lie dead in the sand, along with the pilot. Three robed figures stand over them. Fremen.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Aadila says, over and over. And then, in a terrible moment of realization, Irulan understands that she has been betrayed. Rabban's expression. Not so harmless a fantasy after all. The sorrow in her father's eyes. She has been betrayed so deeply she can't react, can't think.
She waits for them to kill her, but they merely back away, into the ornithopter. Stunned to silence and stillness, she can only watch as the ornithopter lifts off and kicks up a cloud of dust in its wake, and then as it disappears into a black dot in the dark blue sky. No imperial blood stains their hands. They've left her for the desert to finish her.
For several minutes after that, she stares at the horizon. Betrayed by her family, her people, someone she had begun to think of as a friend. This is how it must have felt for Paul Atreides and his mother. Left to die on the most desolate planet in the universe, with only the slimmest hope of survival.
The sun is high in the sky. How far out in the desert is she? Too far to walk back, certainly. Too far from any city to find people other than Fremen. Even if these Fremen allied with the Harkonnens who attacked her are a minority, she doubts any Fremen will welcome her.
One thing is certain: she can't stay here. She will almost certainly die, but she refuses to do it here. The nearest rock outcropping of substantial size lies to the east. There, at least, she might find shade. With grim purpose, she pulls the mask of her stillsuit over her face.
Min asharq ila agharb, they say. From the east to the west, there is only the desert.
-from "Collected Sayings of the Fremen" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
The desert winds bite into the exposed skin around her eyes. Hours have passed, at least, but the sun remains high in the sky. Already she's starting to wonder if a quick death might have been preferable.
She retreats into the place she was taught to seek. Breath - life - inhale, exhale - blink, reflex, - animal instinct buried deep within - step forward - muscle, bone - another step - blood in her veins - deep breath - heart pumping - breath. Her mind hides within the confines of her body.
The sun crosses the sky, bare and unrelenting. There are no filters to soften its rays on this planet. The air is bone dry and filled with dust, but breathing through the mask of the stillsuit makes it more bearable. Still, she needs water, and she knows nothing about where to find it in the desert. Whenever she can, she sips at the recycled water of her stillsuit. It won't be sufficient to keep her alive for long.
On the first night, she huddles in the meager shelter provided by a short rock wall jutting out of the sand. She sleeps for a few short hours and then rises, unwilling to submit. The outcropping she wants to reach is larger in her field of vision, now, but still distant.
She travels throughout the rest of the night. As the sky begins to lighten, she finds herself alternately climbing and crawling up the steep incline of a massive dune. Her destination lies to her right, looming over the desert, but she hopes to find some clue to her surroundings at the top of the dune. Yet when she reached the summit of its crest, there's nothing before her. Sand as far as the horizon, rippling dunes of even greater height than this one, a few more rocky outcroppings in the far distance. This is Arrakis. This is Dune. The desert planet. She'll find no refuge in its unforgiving landscape.
For a brief time, in the unrelenting heat of the second afternoon, she finds herself feeling grateful for the clear weather. She could never have survived even this long in a sandstorm. Then, as she trudges onwards towards the rocks, she wonders about her sanity. A storm would kill her quickly. The sun is killing her slowly. If she had the chance to choose, would she truly prefer this death?
A pointless question, even as an academic exercise. She has no choice at all.
As the sun sets on her third day in the desert, she becomes aware that she can go no further. Here is the limit of her endurance. She collapses to the sand, her destination stretching up into the sky before her, yet still unreachable. Another hour's travel, perhaps. She sees nothing in the rocks that could help her. Better to die here, then, and stop resisting. Better to submit.
She sits in the sand and watches the desert. Her eyelids feel heavy. Somewhere in front of her, she thinks she sees dark figures - the figures of men. Her eyes fall shut. She struggles to open them again. The dark figures are approaching her now.
It isn't until they stand around her in a circle that she realizes they aren't a vision or a mirage. One of them grabs her shoulder.
"Come," he says, his voice harsh. He drags her to her feet. Someone presses a container to her mouth; she drinks eagerly from the water inside. Then she has no choice but to follow where they lead. Towards the rocks. Caves, she remembers, with difficulty. The Fremen are said to inhabit cave complexes.
They give her water, once they bring her through the entrance to the sietch. She has a few moments to catch her breath before they bring her through a maze of passages and into some sort of central room, with exits leading out in all directions. There, they march her to the center and push her to her knees.
A young woman stands above her, clad in the dark desert browns the Fremen preferred over her stillsuit. Her hair is cut short, to just above her chin. Beside her stands a man, similarly attired, but he is different from her, somehow, in some way Irulan can't place in the few moments she has to observe them. They both have the piercing blue-in-blue eyes of the desert people.
"We have found this offworlder, Mahdi!" her captor shouts. "She was wandering the desert alone."
Irulan exhales slowly. She looks up to the young man again. This is their Mahdi? This is the leader of the Fremen, their messiah? He's unlike the rest of the people gathered here. He moves differently, with purpose. The color of his eyes might be the same, but behind it - something else. Something almost familiar, yet entirely foreign. When he isn't the one to answer, Irulan's surprise is visible on her face.
The woman steps forward and looks down at her with nothing but resolute determination in her eyes. "Take her water."
"You can't kill me," Irulan says, in disbelief, though why she believes this now, after being abandoned to the desert, she doesn't know. "My father is Shaddam IV, the Padishah Emperor. I am-"
Suddenly a blade presses against the soft underside of her chin. "Silence. The Mahdi speaks."
Her eyes snap up to the young woman. This is their Mahdi. Not he, she. And she's no myth or legend. If Irulan dies now, she will die with questions on the tip of her tongue: who is this woman who leads so many hardened desert people, who inspires such faith?
The young man at the Mahdi's side moves close and places his hand on her shoulder. "Chani, wait."
"Muad'dib?" Chani seems to hesitate. He leans over to whisper something into her ear.
"I will have her water-" Irulan's captor starts to say, and she knows the taste of fear more acutely now than in the days she spent wandering the desert.
Irulan's eyes are wide, but she allows no other hint of her fear. The blade presses tighter and tighter against her skin. Her back is straight, her body still. Her mind begins to race, but she attempts to calm it: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. I must not fear-
“Stop,” Chani commands again, harsh in her anger. “She speaks truth. Muad'dib knows of her. It is as she says. She is the daughter of the emperor."
The next words are spoken in a language Irulan recognizes but does not speak. The language of the Fremen. She heard snippets of it in the markets of Arrakeen, among the visiting traders from the desert. She was even given a book of Fremen sayings as a gift, but she was abandoned in the desert before she had a chance to read it. She understands nothing of the conversation that follows, but she senses the tension. Finally the strange young man called Muad'dib chimes in with several words, spoken calmly but firmly, and everyone falls silent.
Another man seizes her arm and roughly drags her to her feet, with one word only: "Come."
He brings her through yet more dark corridors worn into the stone itself. Eventually they emerge into a smaller cavern, its ceiling barely high enough for Irulan to stand upright. The dark recesses in the walls are lit by a glowing spherical lantern. One broad stone ledge is covered with a blanket; the rest of the room is bare, devoid of any furnishings.
"Stay here." He pushes her roughly to the ground, but she catches herself on a ledge in the wall and straightens. She must not appear weak here. A single misstep could spell disaster.
Attempting to argue or escape would serve no purpose. She settles in to wait. For the moment, she hangs onto her life - although perhaps by only a thread.
While she waits, she tries to work out why the young man and his blue eyes left her feeling so unsettled. The Fremen have a way of carrying themselves, she has observed during her short time on Arrakis. They're warriors, predators, always bristling with intent. This young man, this Muad'dib, carries himself not like a Fremen but instead like someone who was trained in the Bene Gesserit arts. Still, calm, not a hint of his emotions to betray him when he moves, yet still clearly poised to strike. She knows of only one man rumored to be trained in the Bene Gesserit Way.
Paul Atreides. No. Could it be? The son of Duke Leto, fled to the desert, serving the leader of the Fremen?
She can only imagine what horrors have driven him this far into the desert. His father dead, his House all but destroyed, their followers scattered. Of his mother, she knows nothing. She and her son were supposedly both killed by the desert, but no trace of their bodies was ever found. If Lady Jessica is here, though, Irulan didn't see her with the Mahdi and Paul.
In the darkness, she settles once more into the alcove and tries to sleep.
A Fremen woman rouses her from her sleep and tugs her arm. She has enough time to smooth back her hair and then she's stumbling after the woman, trying to keep her footing on the uneven floor of the caves. They pass through dark rooms and brightened chambers, up a set of stairs carved into the stone itself, and then finally into a chamber larger than all of the caverns Irulan has seen so far combined. Far above, the sun filters in through cracks in the ceiling. The ground gradually slopes upwards until it reaches a number of terraces that have the appearance of a broad, natural staircase.
Chani stands on the highest terrace, and Muad'dib is at her side. No, Irulan is correct - Paul Atreides. She can see it clearly now. He has the look of the Atreides family. This Muad'dib is the lost Atreides son. The rest of the Fremen present stand back, reverent, obedient. Immediately Irulan can tell - this woman, this Mahdi, commands their respect and obedience.
For some reason, Irulan's eyes are drawn to Paul. He wears half of a smirk, and he meets her gaze with confidence. There's something there, in the deep blue of his eyes, that speaks of why the Bene Gesserit fear him, but Irulan has only mismatched parts of the whole. She doesn't yet have the knowledge to piece them together.
Chani's voice stirs Irulan from her thoughts. "Why were you wandering the desert here? We are far from your cities."
Here she has several options, but she chooses the simplest, the one she believes least likely to lead to retaliation: something close to the truth as she knows it. Her suspicions are best kept to herself, for now. "A group of Fremen ambushed my ornithopter and left me here to die."
"She's lying," Paul says. Can he read the truth in her words? He has the training; perhaps he also has the gift, though Irulan has never heard of a man possessing it before.
"Why did they do this?" Chani says again, this time demanding, not merely questioning. She appears to believe Paul without question.
"I don't know," Irulan says.
Paul descends from his place on the upper terrace after Chani nods to him. He obeys her so willingly and so readily, as if he belongs to her mind, body, and soul. Some great and monumental thing has taken place here between them, but Irulan will need time to understand it, and time seems like a thing she might soon find herself lacking. Paul stops when he stands before her.
"She saved your life once. She doesn't have any obligation to do it again," he says - a warning.
"I'm not lying," she replies, addressing Chani. "As he says; you saved my life. I have no reason to lie to you or your people. I am grateful for what you've done for me."
Paul shakes his head. The blue of his eyes is piercing. "You know something. There's something you're holding back."
"If I knew anything more, I would tell you. My father will no doubt be sending his men to search for me. If there is anything to know, surely they will discover it." Information might be her only weapon here. They might just as easily kill her for not divulging it, but at least this way she has one small thing with which to bargain.
"Give her food and water," Chani says, with a gesture at the Fremen woman standing at Irulan's side. "I must speak with Muad'dib."
The same woman who brought her here seizes her arm again. Once again she is marched through the complex of caves, back into the confines of the same room. They give her food, and water, and leave her to ponder her fate alone.
When she begins to lose track of the hours, perhaps half a day later, she looks up to the nearly inaudible sound of footsteps. Paul apparently moves in near-silence at all times, even on the stone floors of the caverns. He pushes back the curtain of her room and peers inside.
"Come with me," he says. "Chani wishes to speak with you again."
"And what will you do if I refuse?" She arches her eyebrows. She has so few methods of resistance, here, but Paul at least should be accustomed to imperial diplomacy.
"This isn't the imperial homeworld, your Highness." On the lips of another, her title is always spoken with reverence - or at the very least, respect. Paul manages that and a distinct undertone of mocking, and somehow the combination makes it all the more disrespectful.
"And you are not a Duke," she finds herself saying, drawn into his manipulative mocking despite herself.
"My name is Muad'dib."
Again, she raises her eyebrows. "Is that so?"
"It's the truth." He has an open expression, meant to convey honesty. Irulan has never claimed to be the most skilled at the Bene Gesserit arts; in any case, Paul is largely unreadable to her, sealed off behind his deep blue-in-blue eyes.
"Your name is Paul. Son of Duke Leto, heir to the Great House Atreides. Ruler of Caladan, although I suppose you can no longer lay claim to that title."
"Yes. Once, that was who I was." He shifts his weight, but otherwise seems unaffected and indeed unsurprised by her deduction.
"Can you give up your name so easily?" That any noble born son of such high standing could find himself hiding away like this and pretending to belong to the Fremen is an absurd thought. But isn't that where Irulan finds herself, as well? The daughter of the emperor, a princess of the Imperium, dressed in sand-colored robes and a sweat-stained stillsuit, kneeling on the sandy floor of a cave in the desert of Arrakis. So far from anything she has ever known.
"I don't recall being given a choice," he says. She thinks of an ancient saying. Rarely have any of the ancient proverbs she was forced to learn as a child so accurately reflected her circumstances.
"Choice is illusion," she says evenly, looking past him, her eyes distant, no hint of emotion at her lips.
"So is power. Or have you not figured that out yet?"
"I have found it wiser to learn what I can before I make accusations of my guests."
Paul raises his eyebrows. "Guests?"
"Is this a game we are playing?" Irulan asks. "Am I disappointing you?"
"If it's a game we're playing, which of us do you think is winning?" He still mocks her. Each word is carefully chosen to make her seem childish and unprepared for the situation in which she finds herself. Of course, he's correct; she is unprepared, and she has no friends here. The best she can hope for is to match him.
"My apologies, my lord. I had heard you were a skilled and cunning young man, but I had never hoped to be able to speak with you to see it for myself," she says, with a slight mock nod of respect.
"Then I suppose you got your wish." He offers her his hand - something of a small kindness, or perhaps an even deeper layer to his mocking. She takes it anyway, because the rules of diplomacy are the only rules she knows. He leads her once more through the cave complex. She's beginning to memorize the twists and turns, when to go left and when to go right, but it will never help her if she has nowhere to go but the open desert.
Once again they emerge into the large cavern. This time the cracks in the ceiling are dark, and the space is lit with Fremen globe lanterns. Chani sits on a rug on the floor beneath the terraces of stone, deep in conversation with another Fremen, unfamiliar to Irulan. At their approach, Chani lifts her head and stands, leaving her companion to wait for her with a quick gesture of her hand. She comes too close to Irulan and seems to size her up, looking up and down her body. If she finds any fault, it doesn't show on her face.
"Irulan." Chani pronounces each syllable separately, distinctly, and places the stress on the wrong syllable. I-ru-lan, as if her name is of Fremen origin. "This is your name?"
"Yes," Irulan replies. She holds her chin high.
"This is what you wish to be called?"
"Yes." This seems like some sort of ritual or initiation, but Irulan has no knowledge of Fremen customs beyond those described in her books, and she's starting to see how little any outsider has ever penetrated into Fremen culture.
"You will travel with us now. Your water belongs to us."
Not for the first time in her life, or even on this particular day, she has no choice. She might have escaped from the city, but here in the desert, she's trapped. To leave on her own would be the equivalent of suicide. Chani's offer - if it can be called such - is her only chance for survival.
"Very well. My water belongs to you, Mahdi," she says, and she bows her head. She pauses in that position, waiting, hoping she's said the right thing, daring only to glance upwards at Chani. When Chani nods, Irulan can't help exhaling visibly and audibly.
This time, Irulan is allowed to follow Paul into a round cavern where many Fremen sit, spread out over the ledges and the floor, eating a meal. He sits with her near the entrance and hands her a package. Within, she discovers a hardened bread that tastes strongly of spice and unfamiliar herbs, drizzled across the crust with spice-honey.
"You refused to answer before," Paul says, after allowing her to eat in silence for awhile. "Why did the Fremen attack you?"
Irulan hesitates. Not the whole truth, perhaps, but she can give him something, some reason to start to trust her. "They were almost certainly allied with the Harkonnens," she says. "I suspect they attacked me for a reason very similar to why they attacked you and your father. Some combination of profit and power. Is that not always the case?"
"No true Fremen would have let you live."
"Not Fremen, then. Harkonnen men in Fremen clothing?"
"It would seem likely," he says. The truth of it is surprisingly clear, now that Irulan has this missing piece of information. Yet still - it's altogether too simple. Again, she lacks some key part of the whole. The sorrow in her father's eyes when they parted - there is the key.
"They needed a way to deny their involvement. My father will blame the Fremen, and the Harkonnens will keep their stranglehold on Arrakis," she says, in place of her actual thoughts. These she must still keep secret for now.
"You won't find many allies here in the desert."
"I don't find many allies anywhere." The first of her lessons: trust no one. The imperial family stands alone.
Chani joins them sometime later, when she finishes speaking with the man whose discussion they interrupted. She kneels on the floor beside Paul, close enough to touch. "Few people survive alone in the desert. Almost all are Fremen," she remarks, looking at Irulan with something akin to curiosity. As if Irulan is a creature to be examined, her habits understood and categorized.
"Paul must have. Muad'dib," she says quickly, correcting herself. Her pronunciation is clumsy, though she tries to imitate what she's heard from the Fremen.
"I know of Muad'dib's former name," Chani says. Paul touches her shoulder, and they share an intimate look.
Now that she knows she's in no imminent danger of death, and she no longer feels weak from hunger and thirst, Irulan's curiosity gets the better of her. "How do you survive here with so little water? You must have sources unknown to outsiders. And the spice - do you harvest it yourselves? I've always found it odd, how few spice miners in the employ of the Harkonnens are Fremen."
"You will learn," Chani says. She surveys Irulan again, with the same searching look as before. This time, when she finishes, she smiles. She holds it only for moment, and it isn't a smile of much warmth. Even so, Irulan feels something like relief for the first time in nearly a week.
Over the days that ensue, Irulan observes carefully her surroundings and the people within them. It takes time to learn to differentiate faces when every pair of eyes is deep blue-on-blue, and every person, male or female, wears the same brown robes over their stillsuits. The Fremen slowly start to speak with her as she lives, eats, and sleeps among them. She asks her questions - about their customs, their practices - and they answer in halting, one or two word answers.
One Fremen man in particular stands out from the rest. Paul follows closely wherever Chani goes, but this man is never far behind them. She learns that he's called Stilgar and that Chani trusts him with something more dear than her life. She has yet to learn what that thing is.
Another thing stands out in her mind. Spice. Here, everywhere, there is spice. In the food, in the water, in the rock walls and in the sand, the scent of spice. Stronger here than when she first arrived on Arrakis. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she senses that she's beginning to understand something, some part of the puzzle that is Arrakis.
Sietches usually sleep during the day and come alive at night, when the air cools and the sun hides below the horizon. This is the way of the desert, Irulan learns. It takes time for her to acclimatize, but no more than on any planet where the rotations are irregular. She learns to wake with the setting of the sun.
The fifteenth day after her rescue by the Fremen, Irulan comes awake to a deep rumbling in the ground beneath her. The caverns shake and tremble; dust falls from the ceiling. For a few tense minutes, she wonders if the entire rock structure is going to come tumbling down on top of them.
Once the shaking subsides, she rushes out to the main chamber, only to find the few Fremen who are still awake sitting and speaking in low voices, unconcerned. Chani stands near the entrance, her hands clasped in front of her waist, her eyes closed, murmuring in a low voice, "Bless the Maker and his water. Bless his coming and his going. May his passage cleanse the world. May he keep the world for his people."
When Chani finishes her prayer, she turns to Irulan and gives her a second smile. "The passing of a maker," she explains.
"You call them worms. We call them makers."
"That shaking was the passing of a worm?"
Chani nods. Then she says something that Irulan needs a moment to understand properly: "Tomorrow, we will call a maker."
"... For what purpose?"
"We will ride it."
"Ride- you ride the giant sandworms?" For all her training and poise, there's no power in the universe that could have prevented Irulan's momentary surprise from showing on her face and in her voice. Often she feels like a child among the Fremen. They are masters of their home, creatures of the desert. She is but a visitor.
"Shai-hulud provides," Chani replies. "You, too, must ride. It is the way of the desert. We travel to another sietch tomorrow."
Irulan's eyes widen. Paul, passing through the room, claps his hand down on her shoulder. "Don't worry. Fremen children learn to ride the worms. It shouldn't be a problem for an imperial princess."
In the early evening, a group of Fremen from another nearby sietch join them before their journey. They all congregate in the main chamber, where members of each tribe visit with each other, eat, and make preparations for their travel.
"She is not Mahdi!"
When the cry comes from the other side of the chamber, all murmurings and movements cease. No one dares move once the accusation has been made. Chani, in the midst of cleaning her stillsuit with Paul at her side, stands straight and turns to face her accuser.
"I am the daughter of Liet," she says calmly, as if this has happened often enough that she feels no concern. "I have led our people to victory against the offworlders. Many naibs have come to me."
The Fremen who shouted withdraws a knife from his belt and lunges for her before she can even finish speaking. What occurs next happens so fast that even Irulan, with all her training, can barely follow it. One moment Paul stands by Irulan's side. The next he holds a milky white blade to the neck of the man who dares to challenge Chani.
There's no anger on his face or in his eyes. No fear, either. Nothing at all that can be detected. This is not an act of desperation or violence for Paul. This simply is. Irulan could have averted her eyes, but she chooses not to. Like the man in the Arrakeen market, this is a thing she chooses to watch to its end.
"Wait," Chani says, still sounding as calm as Paul appears. Paul obeys without question, every muscle in his body seemingly locking in place in the same moment.
"What should I do with him?" he asks, his blade still tight against the man's throat.
"I will take his water."
Paul relents. He lifts the blade away and steps back. "As you wish."
Chani's movements, unlike Paul's, can be followed by the untrained eye. If anything, they're all the more brutal for it. She kicks aside the feeble attempt to defend against her, and then she has the man on the floor, her foot on his stomach. She bends over; her blade draws a line of red across his neck. As she steps away, he clutches his throat, tries to speak, tries to breathe. Moments later he's dead. Fremen rush in to collect his body, to preserve as much of his water as they can.
Before Irulan can react, Stilgar seizes her arm and pulls her away from the gathered Fremen, into an alcove.
"You have seen the blade of the crysknife. The tooth of the Maker," he says, watching her eyes with the intensity his gaze always holds. "Now you belong to us. You may never leave this place without our permission."
A chill spreads through Irulan's body down to her bones, despite the lingering heat of the desert sun warming the rock walls. Her eyes stray to the bloody blade in Chani's hand. The fabled crysknife, unseen by offworlders. Now she knows why.
When the sun passes below the horizon, they leave the confines of the rock caves for another sietch. There are many thousands of them in the deserts of Arrakis, Irulan has learned. Perhaps more. Each can hold any number of Fremen, from a few dozen to a few thousand. Her filmbooks spoke of Arrakis as a desolate planet, almost devoid of life. Even in these first few weeks of living in the desert, she has seen how false this is. Tiny blooming plants grow in the crevices between the rocks. Twice now she's seen small rodents peeking out from hiding spots. The Fremen are far more numerous than anyone has ever imagined. Arrakis is a living planet, a desert teeming with hidden life.
Under the light of both of the moons of Arrakis, they hide in the lee of a dune and peer over its edge. Somewhere in the distance, the ground thumps to a steady rhythm. This, Irulan guesses, is how they call a worm.
Her suspicion is confirmed moments later when the sand breaks like water and a creature of massive proportions emerges, spreading wide the gaping maw of its mouth. It defies all description. Irulan can only look on in wonder. No book, no arrangement of words could ever do this sight justice.
"Do as I do," Chani whispers. For what feels like the thousandth time since her arrival on Arrakis, Irulan is endlessly grateful for her training. She can imitate Chani's movements well enough. Perhaps not well enough for the Reverend Mother on Kaitain, but here in the desert, no one watches her that closely.
Her heart beats faster than she thinks a human heart is capable of beating, but her feet fall in the imprints left by Chani's boots as Chani starts running to catch up to the worm. As they near the length of its body, she feels the wind created by its passing, the sand and dust blowing against the skin around her eyes. She can scarcely breathe.
Chani's arm loops around her waist and lifts her from the ground. Her heart beats faster still as they climb. Although she wants to help, she knows so little of what to do - where to put her hands and feet, how to hold onto the smooth side of this segment of the worm's body. As they near the top, Stilgar seizes her arm and hauls her up onto the ridge where he and the rest of the Fremen are already gathered behind Paul. Stilgar helps her keep her balance, keeps a grip on her arm as she looks up. And then - then her heartbeat and breathing seem to stop together at once.
Before them lies the great desert of Arrakis, bathed in the blue light of a desert night, lit by the faces of two moons. The rocks jutting out of the sand are black shapes against endless white. And through this pristine expanse the worm travels, and they are insignificant passengers on its back, witnesses to this unbelievable thing.
"I never imagined that such beauty existed, on any planet, in any corner of the universe," she murmurs. Her words are lost in the wind, heard by no one, but it matters little. They're still truth.
Shai-hulud, they call him. The only true ruler of the desert.
-from "Arrakis: The Planet and its Inhabitants" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
From sietch to sietch, they make their way towards some unknown destination. In each complex of caves they stop for several days. Chani speaks with the leaders, whom Irulan learns are called naibs. Paul confers with some of the other Fremen. Irulan does what she knows - she watches, and she waits, and she learns. She longs for a way to write down her thoughts, to record everything she now knows about these people. One day, perhaps, when this is over.
"Not what you expected?" Paul says. He leans against the entrance to Irulan's new sleeping quarters, in this sietch built among the ruins of an ancient city. Here Irulan has a bed, and blankets made of desert cloth, and even a chair and desk made of stone. None of these resemble her belongings on Kaitain, or even in Arrakeen, but the simplicity is almost comforting.
"You have no idea what my expectations are," she says.
"Does it bother you, living here? You'd prefer your palace on Kaitain, surely, with your servants and your climate-controlled rooms..."
"My father's palace," Irulan says, to correct him. "You and I share more than you know. I know the loneliness of being the child of a great man, as I am certain you do."
"I was the heir to House Atreides, once. Now my House is ruined. I'm no one's heir." It strikes Irulan that Paul must have been a very different young man, once. His frequent mocking betrays lightheartedness that must have been all but extinguished from him with whatever drove him into the desert and turned his eyes so very blue. Yet he retains some levity, some humor. She's grateful for it.
"Nor am I," she says - not unkindly. "And unlike you, Paul Atreides, I never was my father's heir."
They share this: the loss of everything they once knew.
The first weeks are the most difficult. Small problems compound into larger ones. The stillsuit is an invention of obvious ingenuity in a desert environment, but wearing the same one every day is trying. Although the Fremen clean their stillsuits carefully, water is for drinking, not for bathing. Only so much cleaning can be done with the rough edges of sandstone.
And then there's the sand. Sand, everywhere. In her hair, in her eyes, in her mouth, somehow even in her stillsuit. How she despised those years, locked away in the imperial palace, a disappointment to her father in all respects despite his professed love for her. How she longs for them now. Simply to breathe air clear of sand and dust and the faint scent of cinnamon would be a luxury the likes of which Irulan doubts she'll ever experience again.
The wind whistles through the ruins of the sietch at all hours of the day and night, growing louder in storms and quieter on calm days. Irulan thinks that even after all these weeks, travelling from one set of caves to the next, she will never learn to sleep easily with the sound of the wind in her ears.
She suffers, but she endures. She dares not breathe a word of her discomfort for fear of offending her hosts. She must do better.
On the first morning of the second standard week since their arrival at this sietch, she rises before the dawn and takes the knife she has been given to defend herself. Not a crysknife, but its edge is sharp enough to serve its purpose. In one hand, she bunches her hair. With the other, she grips the handle of the knife. Then in one smooth motion, she slices through her hair at her chin. This is the way of the desert.
When Paul raises his eyebrows at her as she passes him and Chani in the central square of the ancient city, she simply gives him a small half-smile in response. Chani is enigmatic as ever, but she thinks she sees approval in her eyes.
Before the morning meal, Irulan kneels with the rest of the Fremen as they pray. She doesn't know the words they chant, but she closes her eyes and bows her head as they do.
"You learn quickly," Stilgar says after, while they eat, with something like pride in his voice. As it should be - he has been teaching her many of the lessons of the desert.
"As I have been taught," Irulan says. This is a trick she learned long ago: a double truth. Her quick learning was taught to her, but Stilgar and Chani are teaching her the ways of the Fremen. A compliment and a second truth wrapped around one another.
Sitting beside them, Chani gives Irulan a third smile since they met. She wonders why she keeps track. Will she record this, too, when she writes of the rest of her experiences?
"Only Muad'dib has learned so much of our ways," Chani says, and in her voice, too, there is pride.
The ruins upon which this sietch is built are extensive, but the bulk of the residential areas are situated in the same area of the city. Irulan's room is near the room where Paul and Chani share a bed. It isn't imprisonment, exactly, but she can't leave, and they keep a close eye on her - as do many of the Fremen. Still, they allow her to spend most of her time as she wishes, so she begins to explore the ruins. Stones as old as the history of Arrakis lie half-submerged in the sand. The wind has long since worn away the geometric patterns carved into them, but some traces remain. And somewhere deep beneath, there must be more of this city. The desert conceals its past.
Again she longs for something with which to write. She wants to put a description of these ancient stones into words on a page. Great things must have happened here, but so long ago that no one remembers.
Here, she learns the fate of Paul's mother. She finds her sitting on a stone platform, overlooking the central area that often serves as a market for the passing traders of other sietches, and she kneels beside her. The former concubine of Duke Leto Atreides. A Bene Gesserit lady, a Reverend Mother in her own right. Mother of the Duke's son and heir. Irulan runs her knowledge of Jessica quickly through in her mind in order to determine the correct approach: cautious deference.
"Did you ever think to find yourself in a place like this?" Jessica says, and turns to Irulan with a knowing smile. There's an odd gentleness to Jessica's tone, as if she wishes to convey that she understands Irulan's position, but something else underlying it. Caution, warning, tension. Irulan is suddenly acutely aware that Jessica has the advantage here. Jessica, too, is trained in the Bene Gesserit arts, and she's a far more skillful practitioner than Irulan ever will be. Irulan has only a small portion of Jessica's skill in reading people.
"Did you?" she asks, deflecting.
"I hoped. Hope is... often a woman's greatest weakness." The look in Jessica's eyes is distant, but it hardens again when she meets Irulan's eyes. When she shifts, the straight lines of her body remind Irulan of Paul's - deliberate, graceful, but also restrained, concealing the strength she possesses.
"I've often found that being a woman is a woman's greatest weakness," Irulan says, without humor. "But I had hoped you would tell me about your son."
"He calls himself Muad'dib."
"He serves Chani faithfully."
This is truth, but it's also nothing more than Irulan already knows. She wants to ask what she has wondered since she saw Paul and Chani for the first time: "What happened here, after you and your son fled from Arrakeen?"
"Is this mere curiosity?"
"Call it curiosity if you wish. I merely want to understand the truth."
"You see the truth before you now. My son and I have taken refuge here, among these people. But you aren't asking about my son. You wish to know about Chani."
Shame pools in Irulan's stomach, to be outwitted so quickly and effortlessly at a game she's spent years practicing. At this point her only option is to smile tightly - an admission without words.
"The Fremen believed that her father was going to bring water to the desert. He is dead now, and she leads. My son has proven himself a formidable follower," Jessica says. A self-evident truth that reveals nothing. Jessica knows how to hide her thoughts as well as the desert sand hides the houses and temples and markets that once formed the city in which they sit.
"And you?" Irulan asks - another diversion. Pretend they aren't both aware of Jessica's omission, pretend that Irulan did wish to know about Jessica and Paul all along, and perhaps Jessica will forget Irulan asked at all. But Irulan knows better than that. Jessica was also trained by Gaius Helen Mohiam, and Jessica has had decades more to practice her tricks.
"I try to find peace where I can," Jessica says, with finality. Her gaze is fixed on something in the distance.
When Irulan looks out from the platform, she sees a girl in a tan Fremen robe running through the market. The girl slows, and when she turns to look at them as if she senses Irulan's gaze, her eyes are fully blue. They hold a knowing look, the same one Irulan often sees in Paul's eyes. An eerie thing for a child so young.
"Alia," Jessica calls out. The girl turns away, and then she disappears into the crowd of people.
"She is the sister of Muad'dib," Chani says, when Irulan asks.
"I had never heard of a second Atreides child."
"She was born here."
"She can't be more than three years old, then! How-?"
"The Sayyadina Jessica took the Water of Life. The gift of Shai-hulud. Her daughter sees what we see."
The Mahdi was Sayyadina. Drinker of the Water of Life. Survivor of the spice agony. What the desert had not yet hardened within her, the ritual took from her, and gave it back transformed.
-from "The Life of the Mahdi" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
At the councils of the naibs, Irulan is meant to stand and not speak. Here, too, she's a symbol, a tool, a means to an end. For many weeks, she observes. She stands with her arms folded at her waist, with the perfect poise of an imperial daughter, and she listens to the debates and discussions. Much of it takes place in the Fremen language, but Bene Gesserit training begins first with the study of language. She learns quickly.
Such is the pattern of her days as the days themselves grow shorter. Irulan remembers reading that Arrakis has seasons, in the sense that it orbits a sun and has an axial tilt, but at this altitude the desert heat only cools slightly, and only near the poles is Arrakis ever truly cold. The desert is unchanging, and Irulan's days blend into one another.
One day, finally, months after her arrival in the sietch, Chani catches her arm as they leave from the meeting room. "Irulan."
"Chani," she replies, as she has learned that the custom is to greet another with their name.
"Come," Chani says. Irulan follows where Chani leads, across the rocks, towards the overhang at the edge of the sietch, overlooking the open desert - the bled. They stand together in silence while Chani observes the sand, undisturbed by wind or worm tonight. Finally Chani turns to her, with a light of eagerness and desire to learn in her eyes. "Why do the Harkonnens fight us?"
"Arrakis is the foundation of the empire's economy," Irulan says, after giving Chani's question some thought. "One might say they have little choice but to try to squeeze every last drop of spice from this planet, as the Fremen squeeze water from used rags."
"You know of them."
"Of House Harkonnen? Yes. I know their history, their titles, their holdings..."
"Will you tell me?" Chani asks.
She considers the proposition, but only for a moment. "They have wronged me as they have wronged you."
"The Fremen say: he who fights at my side is the enemy of my enemy."
"I believe your people are not the only people who have this saying."
"It is ancient wisdom."
Irulan nods. Then she takes a deep breath and prepares to teach Chani the earliest lessons of her childhood. Perhaps they will serve Chani better than they have ever served her. "The empire is founded on a principle of shared power. The emperor rules, but only with the support of the Great Houses of the Landsraad, and the Spacing Guild has a monopoly on travel. None of these three can exist without the other two, for the emperor depends on the profits of the Houses, the Houses need the stability provided by the imperial family, and no one can move anywhere without the Guild's Navigators. The balance can survive a small upset, but rarely is it ever tested by a great one."
"In the desert, the man who is both wise and strong guides. The rest follow. We need no one's permission to travel in the desert," Chani says, sounding troubled, but she appears to understand Irulan's explanation easily enough. Surely Paul has told her at least this much before.
"Your people live a simpler life," Irulan says.
"And what kind of life does a Harkonnen live?"
"Has Paul not told you?"
"Muad'dib sees much, but you are the daughter of the emperor."
"Then I will tell you everything I know."
They sit together, overlooking the desert, and Irulan begins her instruction.
Often left to her own devices, Irulan has to find ways to occupy herself and her time. There are no books in the caves of the deep desert. Writing utensils and surfaces must be nearly as rare and precious as water. Sometimes she takes to tracing letters in the sand, but these are blown away by the wind in the space between daybreak and nightfall.
What else is there to do, then, but hone her mind and body? On most days, she sits with the old Fremen women and exercises her tongue, learning new Fremen words and slowly filling in her knowledge of their language. Often they laugh; they call her names they call children and then teach her the meanings. "He who walks with loud footsteps," she learns, is a particularly potent insult, but not as insulting as "water-soft."
When the rest of the sietch prepares for sleep in the early morning, she finds an open space and practices movements remembered by her body's muscles. Her hand circles through the air and comes to a stop over her stomach. She moves with the careful and practiced precision of Bene Gesserit training - each muscle where it should be, each breath drawn at the correct moment. Perhaps she still makes mistakes, but the Reverend Mother isn't here to tell her to do better.
"You have skill." Paul's voice startles her from her near-trance. Irulan merely looks at him with her eyebrows raised. When she gives no answer, he says, "My mother taught me to move like that when I was a boy."
Still, Irulan holds her pose. This tension between them, eventually it will snap. She can already see that much. She only wonders what might happen when it does.
"I wonder," Paul says, always with the same calm. Sometimes it's infuriating. "How much training did you receive?" He takes a position - one foot outward, the other facing Irulan, his hands held out, palms up, before himself. Irulan's body reacts without any input from her mind. She takes up the opposite stance.
"Every moment of my life has been spent training for one thing or another," she says, though her focus is on his body and how it moves. "Although I've been told your training was far more successful than mine."
Instead of answering, Paul holds out his palm. Irulan lays her hand over it. They move together, with elegant precision. Many months have passed since Irulan last followed this routine, but her muscles have a memory of their own. It's not a dance, nor are they sparring as Paul does with Chani's Fedaykin each morning and evening. This is a far more intricate art. Each of them knows their role, and neither falter.
The next time she sees Paul, he's kneeling beneath the ancient statue that towers over the sietch, its features worn away by time. Whether it was once a man or a woman is impossible to discern. He murmurs something under his breath, but Irulan is too far away to make out any of the words.
One of the oldest of the Fremen women watches him, beside Irulan. The years have made her blind, but when she speaks, she does so with authority and wisdom. "He is the one who can be in many places at once."
"It is his purpose."
Irulan's eyes travel to Paul again. He seems to know why he's here. If only Irulan had the same insight, maybe she would find the same sort of purpose, here or elsewhere.
One day she comes awake to the sound of Paul screaming from his room. She thinks to go and see if something has happened, but soon after he goes quiet again. No Fremen guards come running. But after that, she listens more carefully, when she sits at her desk in the hours before she sleeps, and she finds that Paul often cries out in his dreams.
To see is to know, and to know is a peril few have experienced, for knowledge breeds desire to change. This Muad'dib knew from the beginning.
-from "Muad'dib: An Understanding" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
She teaches Chani as Chani teaches her. She learns the names of the sietches and their leaders, the best ways to cross the desert soundlessly, the religious customs surrounding Chani's title. In turn she tells Chani about Great Houses and vendetta, about imperial economic strategies, about the balance of power and the ever-present greed that leads men to wage wars that encompass entire worlds.
Sometimes, when the sunrise is soft against the sand, Irulan sits at the edge of the sietch and watches as light returns to the desert. Blooms of red and purple and pink flowers emerge, briefly, to take advantage of the morning dew. She watches the Fremen dew-gatherers moving amid the blooms, harvesting what water they can. Their robes stand out as dark figures against the gray sand and bright flowers.
Chani comes to stand beside her one morning, with a question on her lips. "Do you wish to return to your homeworld?"
"I... don't know," Irulan admits. This is more honesty in a single moment than she has permitted herself in the last five years of her life. Kaitain, too, is a beautiful place, but Kaitain's beauty is a clumsy imitation of nature. She misses her sisters and half-sisters. She hates when the Fremen mutter "water-soft" in their language as she passes, not knowing that she already understands.
"When the Harkonnens are gone, you will decide." Decide. As if Irulan's life has ever been dictated by her own choice. Chani seems to see something of her hesitation, because she brings her hand up and presses her palm against Irulan's shoulder. Irulan feels warmth through the fabric of her shirt. When Chani's lips curve, she realizes that she has long since lost count of how many times Chani has smiled at her.
Paul and Chani depart for weeks to the western sietches to recruit more warriors for their Fedaykin. Irulan finds herself spending the time with Jessica, the only other outsider in the sietch. They have little in common besides their training, but they find topics of conversation anyway.
"Tell me truly: how did Chani come to lead the Fremen?" Months before, she would not have dared to ask so openly. Now she feels secure enough in her place here. She will never be a desert creature, but she has the same right to know. She hesitates to ask Chani herself; the Fremen speak of such things only in hushed tones, with coded words. Lisan al-Sahra, they say, and then nothing more.
"She called him out, and then she bested him in combat," Jessica says, eyeing Irulan with the same caution she always reserves for her. Whatever she looks for, this time she seems to find satisfactory enough, because she continues: "... Truthfully, I believe he may have let her win. A man is obliged to kill his opponent in ritual combat. That is the way of things, here. She spared his life, and now the Fremen follow where she guides them."
Irulan simply nods, accepting. She senses that this is still only one part of the story, but perhaps she will never know the whole of it. At the least, Jessica seems to have accepted her - either because she has proven herself, or simply because she isn't a threat. The latter is far more likely, she thinks, with no small amount of self-contempt. She's nothing but a child before Jessica.
The next evening, she finds an empty book bound in cloth on her desk. When she opens it, the scent is overwhelming - a musky, dusty scent, infused with the cinnamon scent of Arrakis itself. Paper, in the ancient form. Accompanying the gift is a well of black ink and a pen. She has been given many priceless gifts in her life, worth as much as an entire world or more - but this is much more valuable than any golden trinket, any exotic plant, any cargo hold filled to the brim with melange. Eagerly, she pulls her stone chair to the desk, dips the pen in the ink, and sets her hand against the paper.
"No, not like that. Like this," Alia says, with patience Irulan can scarcely believe from so young a child. Her hand guides Irulan's on the paper in the gliding, graceful loops and lines of the Fremen script used to write the formal register of the Fremen language, the archaic classical language of prophecy and religion, so different from the colloquial language they speak.
"You must be quite a gifted child, to have learned so quickly," Irulan says. She means it as a compliment, but she has found that Alia is not a normal child at all.
"This one," Alia says, as if she doesn't hear Irulan. Her stubby fingertip is hovering over one of the letters Irulan traced with utmost care onto the page.
"Good. This one."
"You must be quite a gifted princess, to learn so quickly," Alia says, peering up at Irulan with her too-mature blue-blue eyes. For a moment Irulan can't believe that Alia would dare to taunt her so brazenly. She opens her mouth to answer in indignation, but before she can say a single word, Alia's finger darts across the page to another letter. "This one."
"... Lam," Irulan says, in disbelief.
"Good. This one."
When Chani returns, Irulan resumes eating with her and Paul each evening. Their discussions are more tense, now; the Harkonnens seem to be raiding ever closer to the inner sietches. Yet Chani seems more confident than ever. As they eat their spice-laden cakes and dried meat, Irulan watches her with Paul - the way they lean together, the way their fingers touch when they reach for something. The way Paul's blue-in-blue eyes follow Chani's every movement. Chani catches her watching them closely and smiles.
"You are curious," Chani says, and she laughs. Irulan's insatiable curiosity is something of a joke now, among the Fremen.
"Paul's eyes," Irulan begins.
"I took the Water of Life," Paul says, interrupting her, as if he already knows what she wants to ask.
Exactly what this means is unclear, but Irulan remembers the way the Reverend Mother seemed to fear him. You must find the Atreides boy. Well, she has found him, but she still doesn't entirely understand. But this is a question for another time. For now, she asks something else she's been wondering. "How long does it take for the whites of the eyes to turn blue, in the deep desert?"
"Years. But it's inevitable. Even for offworlders... even for you, eventually, if you stay." Paul turns back to Chani and they begin to speak of preparations, plans, but Irulan can think of nothing but Paul's answer. For hours afterwards, she's haunted by his words.
After that, she starts to notice Paul's eyes following her wherever she goes. Blue-within-blue. His, somehow more than the rest, seem to pierce her consciousness and leave her dreaming of spice.
Chani watches her, too. She has a look in her eyes that speaks of intent, but not the kind of intent Irulan remembers seeing in the Baron Harkonnen's nephew. Not a gentle intent, either, but nothing in the desert is truly gentle. When Chani passes her in the market, her fingers brush against Irulan's palm. Irulan shivers, despite the heat.
"This one," Alia says. She points.
By now, Irulan believes she should have grown accustomed to Paul Atreides leaning against the entrance to her room. Even here he seems poised to strike, but she knows he has no desire to hurt her. He's had plenty of opportunities. She's not so naive as to consider herself anything other than a tool to these people, a method of bargaining for when they make their move, but Paul has been kind to her even as he mocks her.
But now he has a look in his eyes. His gaze flicks up and down, from her feet beneath her desk to her face. She senses that tension between them once more. Like a storm, the charge in the air has to discharge. Something must give way. She braces herself.
"Come with me," he say - a phrase to which Irulan has become accustomed.
"Where are we going?" She raises her eyebrows in a familiar way. Paul does the same in response.
"Chani wants to see you."
"I spoke with her less than three hours ago. Is there something so urgent it cannot wait for tomorrow?"
"She wishes you to sleep in her bed, tonight."
The appropriate reaction is likely surprise, but Irulan feels none of it. She has learned the customs of the Fremen well. She knows what this means, and more importantly what it does not mean. "Does it not bother you?" she says, her brow furrowing.
"Why do you always like to answer questions with yet more questions?"
"You're doing the same thing," Paul says. His half-smirk is reminiscent of the one she saw on his face not a day after the Fremen rescued her from the desert.
"Fremen take more than one wife," Irulan says, as if she states a fact, as if there's no struggle here between them. She wonders which of them has the upper ground.
"That's right. Why? Does it bother you?"
"You and I are not Fremen."
He needs to do nothing more than stare at her with his deep blue-on-blue gaze, and she understands. Muad'dib is his name now. Paul Atreides is someone whose name he wears when he needs it and discards when he does not. He is Fremen.
"And you find no fault in allowing the woman you love to share her bed with another?" she asks.
"I'm not allowing her to do anything. She belongs to the desert, not to me. And I don't think you understood. She wants both of us at her side."
Truthfully, she understands very little of any of this, even after months of living among the Fremen. But is it not better to submit? Her resistance wears thin enough as it is. She can only keep so much of her former life wrapped around herself like the shredded rags of one of her silk dresses, the vestiges of who she used to be. She looks up at him and says, calmly, "Then answer my question: does it bother you?"
"No. It doesn't bother me."
It both is and isn't enough, but Irulan still rises and follows Paul along the hallway and into the room he shares with Chani. She tells herself she does this because she must, because she needs to secure her place among these people, but she knows it to be a lie even before it fully forms as a thought in her mind. And they demand nothing of her; they remove their outer clothing, and then hers, their hands careful as they unclasp her robes. They lie beside her on their bed and they say nothing. Their movements and their touch are enough to communicate their intentions. At first Irulan stiffens, but Chani presses her palm to her shoulder, and she exhales and lets her body go slack.
As the eldest of the imperial princesses, she has never known intimacy. Her sisters and half-sisters might kiss her cheek. Her father might lay his hands on her shoulders and claim to care for her. No one has ever kissed her shoulder, laid an arm across her waist, run their fingers through her hair. No one has ever shown her these small kindnesses. She closes her eyes and inhales the scent of spice on Chani's skin.
In the morning Chani takes her hand and brings her deep within the rocks of the sietch, past the living areas, through passages and rooms carved into the rock until they emerge into the largest cave Irulan has ever seen. She breathes in, and she smells the ever-present cinnamon scent of melange - and something else, something rich and deep and beautiful. The scent of plants, of soil, of water. She runs her fingers across the broad leaf of a green plant, and wonders if she sees the color so vibrantly only because it's been so many months since she last saw anything so green.
"My father saw a future for this planet," Chani says, with reverence in her voice. "I will guide our people to that future. There will be water in the desert."
Water in the desert. Irulan breathes in again and thinks: yes. Now she understands why the Fremen follow this woman.
A name has intrinsic power. This was the principle the Emperor Shaddam IV and the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen both failed to understand. It was by this principle the Mahdi led her people to their destiny. And it was by this principle Paul Atreides became Muad'dib of the Fremen. All those who fail to perceive the power a name can possess are helpless when confronted by it.
-from "The Life of the Mahdi" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
Life in the desert follows a predictable rhythm. Falling into it is like sinking into the water of a hot bath filled with the oil of Nuqanni roses - like being fully embraced by its heat. One day becomes many. One month blends into the next. Chani comes and goes, and where Chani goes Paul follows. Irulan remains in the safety of the sietch. Of all the lessons given to her, never was any thought given to teaching her more than the most basic principles of defending herself. Her training was reserved for the political arts.
The Harkonnens, say the Fremen, are learning to fear the one called Mahdi, for she strikes only at their weakest points.
"Will you make for Sietch Jabal tonight?"
"No. We will go east. They say the Harkonnens will raid near the mountains. We will be waiting for them."
Irulan lies on her back beside Chani, in the relative safety of their sleeping quarters. For ten months they have slept here each day, whenever Chani and Paul are in the sietch. For ten months Irulan has counselled Chani in every aspect of imperial politics, and for ten months Chani has commanded her people to strike against the Harkonnens.
Paul is elsewhere today, training the new Fedaykin, unable to rest. He often dreams of things to come. Terrible things. Irulan worries for him, but she worries even more that his visions might actually come to pass. Supposedly some of the Bene Gesserit have this gift. Those who underwent the spice agony. This thought terrifies Irulan more than she cares to admit even to herself. Find the Atreides boy, she remembers, and struggles not to shiver.
Chani's fingers come up to run through Irulan's short hair. They don't calm her as much as they usually have, these past ten months.
When Chani and Paul return from the eastern sietches, their expressions are grim. Chani calls a meeting of the naibs. Although Irulan attends as she always does, her mind is elsewhere. She only listens with one ear while the naibs argue about the Harkonnen raids - until she hears one of the younger naibs pleading with Chani.
"They will find us here soon, Mahdi. We must act. We must find a way to stop them. They say the emperor himself is in Arrakeen now-"
And suddenly Irulan knows, and it's blindingly simple. Her mind returns to the present, turning away from thoughts of terrible things to come. For the first time in all these months, she raises her eyes and looks around the circle of naibs.
"Arrakis is the key," she says calmly. Many of them seem startled, either by her presence or by her remark, but none speak. She forces herself to think only of practicalities, not to imagine what force might have forced her father's hand and brought him here, not to think of what she will say if she ever comes face-to-face with him again.
"The key?" Paul has that look in his eyes. Distant, knowing, as if he's already foreseen that these very words would come from Irulan's lips, and his question merely serves to confirm what he already knows. His dreams, Irulan thinks, for she knows now: he sees the future. Did he see this, too?
"He who holds Arrakis controls the fate of the empire. The fate of the universe," she explains, looking from face to face.
"She who holds Arrakis," Chani says quietly. Irulan thinks it an appropriate correction, until she realizes that Chani's eyes are fixed on her. They hold a fervent light she's grown accustomed to seeing, but she isn't accustomed to seeing it directed solely at her.
"Arrakis is yours, Chani, I'll not deny it, but-"
"Not me. You are the emperor's daughter. You have chosen our way, our life."
"Me?" Irulan can't help but laugh bitterly. "My father would never allow my succession. The Imperium has had no empress in a thousand years. If we had the proper leverage, perhaps... I might marry, and my husband would sit on the throne."
"You are with the Fremen now. Will you marry an outsider?" A great deal of warmth floods Irulan's stomach at the thought that Chani no longer considers her an outsider. But the question is a valid one, and she has no answer.
"Spice. Spice is the key," Paul says, interrupting them before Irulan can speculate. "Imagine a universe without spice. How far would the emperor go to make sure the spice harvest continues uninterrupted? What about the Spacing Guild? The Bene Gesserit?"
Irulan's eyes widen as she considers the unspoken implication. "Those are dangerous questions, Paul," she says.
"Sometimes danger and opportunity can be the same thing."
"Shall we hold the spice harvest ransom, then?"
"No. We strike where it would hurt them the most. Threaten to destroy the spice. All the spice." There are gasps, but understanding begins to dawn on each of the naib's faces in turn. A daring plan, but perhaps their only chance of fighting against an enemy with superior firepower and the potential support of the entire empire.
"And then?" Irulan says, challenging Paul. "What will you do when you have brought my father to his knees? You might win concessions, but can you hold Arrakis against the full force of the imperial forces and all the forces of the Great and Minor Houses of the Landsraad combined?"
"No. But you can," he says. And here is the terrible thing: she knows what he wants from her, what he asks. She knows because she already foresaw this, without his dreams or his visions.
"I was a daughter, when my father wanted sons," she replies - a weak attempt at resistance.
"Once I too was a daughter," Chani says. "Now I am Mahdi, the voice of my people." Again, her eyes are reserved for Irulan.
Paul's submission to Chani has puzzled Irulan for a long time. Now, in this dimly lit chamber, on the eve of war, she finally understands. For all his prescience, all his claim to sight, Paul is helpless. Chani commands him as she commands the Fremen - with her voice and with her vision, and he can do nothing but obey.
This is an impossible thing Chani and Paul ask of her. But it might be the first true decision Irulan has ever made. Everything turns on this, she senses. Her action or inaction here might decide the fate of everything.
She breathes deeply, and then she nods.
"How do you intend to have your threats taken seriously? Even with the Harkonnens gone, no force in the universe could withstand the Sardaukar and the personal House forces at full power, and my father will bring them to Arrakis, once he has word of your intentions," she says, once she's alone with Paul and Chani again.
"She is right, Muad'dib," Chani says. "They will know our lie."
"No. Because it won't be a lie." Paul walks away from them and throws out his arm in the direction of the open desert. "This planet's ecosystem is centered on one thing: the worm. The worms defend the spice-grounds. The spice and the worms are a cycle. What happens if we destroy that cycle at its roots? There is a way."
"The Water of Life," Chani breathes. She and Paul must have been talking without Irulan again, because Irulan doesn't know what this means, but it doesn't matter. She understands the implication well enough.
Spice and worms. The life-cycle of the desert. It seems so terribly simple, now. But Irulan can't think about this revelation, because her attention is drawn to a more pressing matter. Paul knows a method to destroy the lifeline of the entire universe, the thing that links each planet to the next. The substance upon which the entire Imperium depends.
"And if they refuse? If they choose to resist to the very end, then what will we do?" she asks, fearing the answer.
"Then they choose their own fate," Paul says simply.
Chani seems convinced by Paul's answer and his conviction, but Irulan's terror shakes her to her very core. Is this who Paul truly is - so ruthless, so brutally efficient that he would wipe out an entire civilization to reach his ends? To herself, she vows to play her part well. This vision must not be allowed to come to pass.
First one sietch, then another, then another - the Fremen arrive in the ruins of the ancient city in groups large and small, here to follow the Mahdi into battle. The ranks of the Fedaykin swell until some must sleep outside the city, in tents of coarse tan desert fabric.
The night before they plan to move on Arrakeen, all of the Fremen warriors gather before the statue. Chani stands above them, and Irulan sees in her the same resolute determination she saw on the first day they met. These are her people, and she intends to see them to their freedom, to their destiny. Paul is at her side, always with the same enigmatic expectancy on his face, always close at hand to defend her.
"Together, we will fulfill my father's dream," Chani shouts, and all fall silent to listen as she raises her crysknife high above her head. "You have named me the voice of the desert. Tomorrow, I will speak for Liet as I have spoken for all of our people. The Harkonnens will hear my father's voice. We will drive out the invaders and bring water to the desert!"
Thousands upon thousands of Fremen raise their voices in unison: "Mahdi! Mahdi! Mahdi!"
Irulan stands behind Chani and Paul, hidden in the shadows of the statue, and she remembers a time when this word seemed so strange to her. Mahdi. She feels it within her, now. Mahdi. The name of someone she holds dear. Someone to whom she is willing to submit. Mahdi.
"Is there water on your homeworld?" Chani asks her, later in the night, while they lie awake and wait for Paul to join them.
"Is it like the waters of Muad'dib's homeworld?"
"No. Caladan is a planet of oceans."
"Water that reaches the horizon, like the sands of the desert," Chani says, her eyes wide and bright with imagined wonder. Paul has been telling her stories, then.
"Your homeworld has no oceans?"
"We have... tamed the waters of Kaitain." She struggles to think of an appropriate metaphor. "We imprison our waters. We have conquered the oceans, the rainforests, and the skies."
"Has Paul told you of forests?"
"Trees. Plants that are taller than men, growing in many rows and columns, as far as a man can see."
"Rainforests are water forests. Water is everywhere - in the soil, in the streams and rivers and lakes, in the clouds. Even in the air you breathe."
"So much water," Chani murmurs, her fingers tracing circles on Irulan's breast.
"It is not so wondrous as you might think. Kaitain belongs to the imperial family. Arrakis belongs... to itself. No one rules the desert. The Fremen are part of the desert, but they do not conquer it. They know the effort would be futile."
"You are sha'ir," Chani says, laughing softly, and then her lips brush Irulan's skin at her collarbone. Even now there are Fremen words Irulan still doesn't recognize. At first she takes it to be yet another insult like the hundreds of others she has endured in her many months in the desert, but it's clear by now that Chani has no desire to insult her.
"Sha'ir?" she asks, laughing along with her, with the feather-light touch of her lips.
"Your words are wise, and you speak them well."
The sound of someone else's laughter interrupts them before Irulan can reply. Paul leans against the entrance of their sleeping room, holding back the beaded curtain. "She's calling you a poet."
They all laugh together, then. Tomorrow might bring unspeakable horrors, but tonight - tonight Irulan is a poet in a Fremen sietch, far from the politics of the Imperium.
"Will you join us, Muad'dib?" Chani says.
"If you wish me to," he replies. The ease of his movements reveals his trust for them both; he lets them see his back, unguarded, while he slips out of his robes, while he removes his boots and leaves them by the entrance. When he turns to face them, he has a cryptic smile playing at his lips.
Lying there, later, with Chani's arm across her waist and Paul's deep, steady breathing beside them, Irulan can imagine that this is what peace feels like. The sound of the desert wind whistling through the rocks outside is no longer a disturbance but a comfort. She falls asleep to the rhythm of the desert and its creatures.
She watches Chani and Paul leave in the morning with the same calm, empty expression she once learned to wear for the Reverend Mother. It is the way of the Fremen, not to show reaction to a parting such as this. By nightfall they might all be dead. Much blood will be shed today. Even so, she holds her head high and proud. This woman who commands an entire people, this man who sees what others cannot - these are her allies.
When the blood of the Harkonnen invaders becomes a river - when the people of Arrakis know the meaning of this word - then our work is done.
-from "The Mahdi: Conversations" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
When the sun sets again, Irulan walks into the Residency in Arrakeen accompanied by a contingent of Fedaykin left behind to guard her.
The bodies of the dead and dying still litter the streets of the city. Here and there a wounded Harkonnen or Sardaukar soldier moans; other succumb to their injuries before Irulan's eyes. Fremen children run through the streets clutching knives, putting an end to the suffering of their enemies and marking bodies for water collection. On the other side of the city, smoke rises from a fire burning among the stalls of the cloth market. Even the smoke carries the acrid scent of cinnamon.
Their victory here came at great cost, but it isn't over. Irulan remembers something she once read in a book: when the war is over, the real battle begins. They've only won the city. Tomorrow the negotiations will begin.
Once she reaches the Residency, the Fedaykin leave her to make her way through the secured corridors and courtyards alone. She still remembers the way, but her life is in the desert now. The rhythm of her days follows the sun and the wind, the passing of the worms, the scent of the spice. This palace is someone else's world now.
In an empty corner, she pauses. Staring up at her are a pair of familiar blue-in-blue eyes - Aadila, she recalls, a servant she once thought to call a friend. But she gives it no more thought than this. She continues on towards the sleeping quarters, down the long hallway lined with columns. She pauses outside her room and freezes there, in perfect stillness, when she hears the quiet conversation taking place within.
“There were wars, all across the universe. People dying. Billions of people. I saw so many things, Chani. I saw you-”
“Shh. Do not speak, my love. These things are not real.”
“But they are. I saw them.”
"What did you see?"
"I saw myself, holding all of the empire in my hands. The future - I couldn't escape. I wanted to, but it was like a dust basin, swallowing me whole..."
Irulan presses her back to the wall and wills herself to be unseen. But this is a futile effort, and she should have known it. Paul senses her immediately.
“You're the empress. You don't need to hide," he calls out.
“I am not an empress,” she says, as she composes herself in an instant and turns to step around the open stone archway. It's a petty response and an unnecessary one; Paul is baiting her, and she falls so easily into his trap. She has never learned to hold her tongue in his presence. “Not yet.”
"But you will be."
"If we succeed tomorrow."
"We will succeed," Chani says, with calm and certainty. She looks Irulan right in the eyes. "Join us."
Irulan is like Paul, like so many of the Fremen. She's powerless to choose when Chani speaks to her. She sits on the edge of the bed in which she once slept.
"Paul, your dreams..." she begins, but Chani interrupts her by standing and walking over to the window ledge, where a pitcher of water sits cooling in the night air. She takes the pitcher by its smooth raw clay handle and holds it over the palm of her other hand. Wasting water is a crime, but for the purpose of calming Paul, Chani seems to make an exception. She pours a small amount of the water onto her hand and holds it in the centre of her palm.
“See,” she says, and as she calmly tilts her hand to allow the water to fall to the floor, she looks Paul in the eyes. Irulan is reminded once again of why so many people follow her so willingly and so blindly. “The water falls. But the place where it falls... this is not chosen by fate. I can choose.”
The change in Paul's demeanor is imperceptible, yet Irulan feels it instantly – an easing, a smoothing over of lines worn deep into his soul. Perhaps it's their shared Bene Gesserit training that allows her to sense it so intuitively.
"What you have seen, Muad'dib, it is not my future. It is not our future," Chani says. She touches Paul's shoulder, and he exhales.
Irulan kneels on the bed in front of Paul. This is the most vulnerable of positions, but she has never felt safer, not with a thousand of her father's Sardaukar at her back.
“Will you help me?” she asks.
Paul doesn't answer, but Irulan doesn't need an answer. She can see it and sense it. She knows it for what it is. Chani's fingers trace the roundness of Irulan's ear, tucking away hair fallen loose. Paul reaches out to run his thumb along her jaw. Tomorrow, the real battle begins. She is comforted to know these will be the people at her side.
She rises before the dawn, as she once had every day. From the clothing she brought with her to Arrakis, still stored in chests in the palace, she chooses a dress of deep red silk. Blood will be spilled again today. Around her collar she fastens an elaborate neckpiece of gold jewelry engraved with the imperial lion insignia. At her wrists she wears bracelets of Kaitainian silver, embedded with blue and green gemstones in the shape of water droplets. Today, she is Princess Irulan once more. Only once more.
The desert is Chani's world. Paul's world is within himself. This world of deceptively elegant clothing and soothing falsehoods is Irulan's world. She is many things, now. An emperor's daughter. A lover. A rebel. Today she will be something else entirely. Today she will change the fate of the empire - or die in the effort to do so. A storm is coming, and she walks at its center.
She holds her skirt as she sweeps into the council chambers where the Reverend Mother awaits her at the table ringed with chairs. Etiquette dictates she should sit. She chooses instead to stand.
"You have done well, child," her old teacher says - as if this is a casual greeting after a short time apart. "Better than anyone could have expected. Now, we are poised for victory. First, you must-"
"I will do nothing until you tell me why I was sent here to find Paul Atreides."
She sees the hesitation in the Reverend Mother's eyes. This is a great secret, then. One to which she was never intended to be privy. She sees, too, the moment of decision, when the Reverend Mother realizes she has no more ground on which to stand.
"He is the Kwisatz Haderach."
"The Kwisatz Haderach." The words are foreign, but she already knows what they mean. She has all the pieces now. "The one who can be in many places at once?"
"I've not spent my time here idly."
"You speak of things beyond your knowledge, child. "
"I am not a child."
"In this, you are but a child. But you are trained in the Way, and you have all the tools we need. When the time comes... you must be prepared."
Irulan meets the Reverend Mother's eyes without fear. "I've had more than enough time to prepare. Tell my father... tell him that the Mahdi will meet with him in the great hall, if he comes unarmed and unguarded. I give my word under the bond of the Convention that he shall not be harmed."
"Be prepared, girl," the Reverend Mother warns again, but there's a glitter in her eye as she leaves that speaks of the deviousness of her plans. She thinks Irulan her puppet still.
The mood in the great hall of the Residency is somber when Irulan enters, flanked on one side by Paul and the other by Chani, both in their simple desert robes. The Reverend Mother has taken her place by the emperor's side on the raised dais at one end of the room. She meets Irulan's eyes briefly.
Lining either side of the room are nobles and dignitaries of all kinds. There are five Guild representatives in gray, and members of at least six Great Houses that Irulan can see - including the Baron Harkonnen and his nephews. How unfortunate. She had hoped they'd died in the previous day's fighting. She glances at Paul, but his face is unreadable.
The Baron drifts forward and raises his arms. "I really must insist that this is, quite frankly, the most preposterous proposition I have heard in all my life. Feyd-"
The young man Irulan recalls meeting nearly two years before steps forward to obey his uncle. Before either of them can react, the other nephew - Rabban - rushes towards her with a knife in his hands, shouting. He never reaches his target. He falls to the floor writhing with Chani's crysknife buried deep in his throat.
In an instant Feyd-Rautha has a blade in his hand, but Paul is ready. They circle one another. Even in the first few seconds, Irulan sees what must be unclear to Feyd-Rautha - he's outmatched. Paul has knowledge of the Way and the gift of foresight, and has lived years in the harsh world of the desert while Feyd-Rautha practiced slave-hunting on Giedi Prime. Paul feints, tests him, and Feyd-Rautha responds in kind. They continue to circle each other in silence.
She might have spoken, ended this here. Perhaps Feyd-Rautha and the Baron might have escaped with their lives. But she learned her father's lessons well. No mercy to a traitor. She watches with seeming disinterest as the encounter reaches its natural conclusion. Paul thrusts his knife into Feyd-Rautha's ribs, and then turns his attention to the Baron.
As his scream pierces the silence, she thinks only this: she feels no pity for this man.
Paul has blood on his hands and his clothing when he straightens. He and Irulan turn in unison back towards the emperor. On either side of them stand the Lady Jessica, with Alia at her side, and Stilgar with some of the other naibs. They appear to be unarmed, but Irulan knows them well enough by now to see that they are ready to spring forth in an instant if Chani commands it.
The emperor rises slowly from his seat. His formal robes are the color of a flower on Kaitain that Irulan especially loved when she was a child - a deep purple. She forces the memory from her mind as Chani steps forward.
"Listen to me," Chani says. "Listen carefully. If you do not do as we say, the spice will be destroyed. There will be no more spice."
"What you are saying is - is impossible! No one would dare-" Shaddam says, almost stammering with rage and disbelief. This is not the composed man Irulan once knew. His face has gained what seems like decades of age in lines and wrinkles in the time since she last saw him.
"We're not lying," Paul says. "Tell them, Mother. Tell them we're speaking the truth." He stares right at the Reverend Mother. Right through her, to the very depths of her. Irulan is suddenly grateful to have never been on the receiving end of this gaze.
"He speaks truth," the Reverend Mother says, her reluctance and discomfort obvious even to the untrained eye.
"We will name our terms," says Chani, her voice even, her expression calm, but Irulan knows the look in her eyes. One false move means death for the man standing above her, facing her. He seems unaware, or he would surely hide the rage building ever greater in his stiff pose and fixed expression.
"Fine," he snarls. They've left him no choice.
Chani's voice remains clear and steady as she names the price for the empire's continued existence: "The Princess Irulan will take the throne of the emperor. She will rule the empire from this planet."
"This is madness-"
"I will become her wife." An audible gasp sweeps through the room like a wave upon a shore. Never before has anything like this occurred. No person has ever made such demands of an emperor, not in the entire history of the Imperium. And here Irulan stands, expressionless while Chani demands her hand in marriage, while her father's face grows redder and redder.
"Only a madman would agree to these terms. I will not be swayed by the threats of a woman child and the son of a deposed Duke!"
Here is her cue. Irulan takes a breath. She must be steady here, composed, calm - as Chani is. She comes forward, ascending the stairs with calculated grace.
"Do you think we are offering you a choice, father?"
"We? What is this "we" - have you forgotten what you are?" His desperation is unbecoming for an emperor. Were she the one seated on the throne, Irulan would never have lost her composure like this. This is one thing her father has never learned the way she has: how to submit to humiliation gracefully. He never learned, but he taught her well.
"I am Irulan of House Corrino, and I am your daughter." There's no emotion in her voice, and none in her eyes. She feels only numbness. She might as well have been made of ice. What a thought, on a desert planet. Her answer is spoken quietly, but her voice rings out in the utter silence that follows her father's outburst.
Apparently stunned to silence, the emperor says nothing. Moments later, the Reverend Mother hurries to his side and whispers a few words into his ear. Irulan can imagine what they must be. A Bene Gesserit would know the true nature of the peril the emperor faces, but then the Reverend Mother still believes Irulan is on her side. She takes the emperor's arm, and he follows her down from the dais, each footstep heavy on the stones of the floor.
A great many words might have been suitable. Questions, demands, accusations - for Irulan has many. But none are needed. This is her answer to his treachery.
She raises her voice to address the nobles and dignitaries. "We hold the key to your fortunes or misfortunes. Choose, as you see fit. Know only that we will not hesitate."
Murmurings ensue from the gathered ranks of nobles and Guild representatives, but not a single voice is raised in protest. Chani joins Irulan on the dais, and they stand together, side by side. Irulan's heart is beating too quickly again, but it slows when she feels the warmth of Chani's body beside her.
“There is one final matter I intend to settle here today. Paul Atreides,” she says, in slow, even syllables, no hint of emotion to betray her. Her eyes briefly seek the Reverend Mother, who nods almost imperceptibly – this is her moment of victory. The Kwisatz Haderach, delivered to her by her new puppet empress. Oh, how wrong she is.
Paul approaches her, down the long walkway lined by spectators. He wears nothing but the tan of the desert, unadorned save for the blood of his fallen Harkonnen foes, but he is possessed of more dignity than any of the other nobles here. Each step is measured, identical to the last down to the minute movements of the muscles in his legs.
He kneels before her.
“I am yours, my empress.” The fervency in his voice shocks even Irulan, but she keeps her reaction internal. The Reverend Mother is not so fortunate, or perhaps not so capable. Her gasp rings out against the stone walls and floors of the chamber. How many decades of training and composure has she endured, only to betray herself here?
"Paul Atreides," Irulan says. "Muad'dib of Arrakis. You will command the Fedaykin, who will henceforth serve as my imperial guard."
Paul inclines his head with precision to the exact degree that indicates complete deference and acceptance. Any hint of his usual mocking is absent here. As he straightens, Irulan exhales. All eyes are on her now.
She takes Chani's hand. Their fingers slide together.
"You sold me," she says to her father, once they're alone in the council chamber, almost in disbelief, except her many months on Arrakis have given her more than enough time to comprehend, to learn to believe this. The sorrow in her father's eyes, the lack of surprise in the Baron's - a collusion, a theatrical performance to give imperial support to quelling the Fremen rebellion. Also, perhaps, a way to rid himself of a rebellious daughter with pretensions of ambition. She recalls another of her father's lessons: accomplish much with little. "For a profit, you sold me and abandoned me to die."
"It is not as simple as that, daughter," he says, rubbing at his temple. "You know this. The pressure from the Landsraad to deal with Arrakis-"
For a moment, Irulan can only stare at him, but she remembers how to speak before he finishes. "And to think I once felt pity for Paul Atreides and his mother."
"I did only what was necessary. I regret what I had to do."
"Yes. Regret. I did tell you that you might live to regret underestimating me."
"Daughter," he pleads. What a day this is - her father is the one pleading to her. And she has no sympathy left for him. With unmistakably deliberate motions, she unclasps the silver bracelets at her wrists, one at a time, and places them on the table between them both. The delicately crafted metal clinks against the stone surface with finality.
She meets the Reverend Mother a final time before the former imperial party boards the shuttle to take them back to the Heighliner hanging in the upper atmosphere. Never before has she seen such anger on a Bene Gesserit's face.
“They will say such things-” the Reverend Mother hisses.
“Then let them say such things!” Irulan snaps, her composure finally reaching the outermost limits of its endurance. "Let them speak of me as they will. Perhaps they will learn to fear me."
"Perhaps it would be wise if they did." This is meant as a warning, but Irulan has long ceased caring what the Bene Gesserit think of her and her actions.
"Your arrogance will be the end of us all!" Arrogance. Yes, she can believe that she is arrogant. But she is only what she's been made to be. If anyone dislikes this outcome, they have only to look to their own mistakes. She is, like Paul and like Chani, merely a product of her environment.
"What's done is done," she says.
"There will be resistance." The Reverend Mother taps the ground with her staff.
"You always knew this was coming." Irulan stares out over the city. Her capital city, she thinks. One day Arrakeen will bustle with the activity of thirteen thousand worlds. Silk, silver, grain, wine, works of art, machines, spice, water - all of these and more will find their way here.
"The end of the imperial line, yes. The reorganization of the empire, yes. This? This is madness. This is heresy. What you have undone cannot be remade! No one could have foreseen such a thing."
"He was not meant to be! He is a mistake born of Jessica's selfishness!" Irulan's arrogance cost them the throne. Jessica's selfishness cost them their Kwisatz Haderach. Centuries, millennia of plans, wasted because of arrogance and selfishness. But what of the arrogance of the Bene Gesserit themselves? To think that the universe could be controlled with breeding.
"But he exists," Irulan replies. "You never foresaw this, yet it is." The Bene Gesserit have no more power over her, over any of them. She controls the entire universe's supply of melange now. She might not be naive enough to believe that their struggles are over, but neither is she so foolish that she doesn't see the folly of the Bene Gesserit and their plans.
Not for the first time, and likely not for the last, she wonders what terrible things Paul might have done, might still do, that frighten even the most powerful of the Bene Gesserit. But she must deal in truth, and reality, and not in speculation or imagined conflicts. It's a question for another time.
She turns her back on the Reverend Mother before she speaks again. These are her last words to the woman who made her what she is: "Consider that perhaps you were as blind as the rest of us."
Chani meets her that night in the palace, on a terrace overlooking the city. The fires have been put out, the bodies of the dead collected to remove their water. The windows of the few homes that are lit this late at night remind Irulan of the glowglobes in the desert caverns.
"Is Paul asleep?" Irulan asks.
"Yes. He finds peace in his dreams tonight."
Irulan thinks of one of the old principles, an ancient truth. That which submits rules. To be haunted by visions of the future, she thinks, would be the most terrible fate of all. And then she understands another truth: this is why Paul gave himself over to Chani.
"To submit gives him peace," she says.
"He is Muad'dib. Only Muad'dib."
Irulan breathes in deeply and then breathes out, and leans against the ledge, close to Chani. "This can't last, Chani. Many of the Great Houses will oppose us. I don't know if we can avoid open war."
"This war, we have won," Chani says, insistent, determined. "We will bring water to the desert, Irulan. If we must fight for our future, then we will fight."
"Your people are resilient, but we may wish to know what tomorrow brings before this is over." She thinks again of Paul, of his visions - of the ones that came true, and the ones that did not. Trusting their fates to foresight would be a mistake, but what a terrible gift it is. So tempting, and so dangerous.
"This is your home. They are your people."
"I fear I will never belong here, Chani," Irulan says gently.
"Close your eyes," Chani says. Irulan obeys.
With lips dried by the desert sun, Chani kisses each of her eyelids. And Irulan understands. The visible effects of living on Arrakis are inevitable, unavoidable. The blue of the spice will one day leech into her eyes if she stays here, if she spends enough time in the desert and consumes enough spice. She can do nothing to prevent it short of leaving, and she has bound herself to this place now, as Paul has done.
Arrakis. Dune. Her home.
She no longer fears to see the blueness of her eyes staring back at her in the mirror.
The rock yields nothing, and so it is worn down by the wind and the sand. The man learns to take shelter from the desert, and so he survives.
-from "The Words of Arrakis" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I
The dusty ground of the port of Arrakeen is a welcome sight for Irulan. She has been gone far too long. Two months away from the capital city, visiting the former inner planets of the Imperium, negotiating for her tenuous peace. She longs for the sand and the wind of the bled, the scent of spice in the desert air, the graceful Fremen script beneath her pen on true paper.
"Irulan." Stilgar still greets her with familiarity as she disembarks, even after five years as her advisor. I-ru-lan, he pronounces, in the Fremen way.
"Stilgar." She bows her head. He deserves her respect.
"How was your journey?"
"You know that tension is always building, although I may have temporarily quelled its eruption into some form of retaliation. The Houses that have gone renegade and fled remain a problem, as always, but one to which I can't foresee any simple answer. I believe we may have avoided war, for now. I suppose little has changed."
He nods. None of this is unexpected. They always have work to do.
"The Mahdi and Muad'dib wait for you in the palace," he says.
She pulls the folds of her veil around her face as she climbs into the vehicle that will take her to her home. It is here, and only here, that she wears the coarse brown and tan clothing of the desert. She feels more comfortable in it now than in any of her silk gowns and elaborate head-pieces.
The sight that greets her in her private chambers brings a smile unbidden to her face. She hangs back behind the entrance to take it in.
She has seen Paul in battle. She has witnessed the nearly imperceptible speed of his blade as he slashes a line across a throat. He moves as if he knows not where his opponent is, but where his opponent will be. When Paul moves a muscle, takes a step, breathes, blinks, it's always deliberate. Here he's the same: every movement careful, calculated, dictated by his training. Yet these are gentle touches, his fingertips seeking out the curves of Chani's belly, his eyes light with laughter.
She has seen Chani, too, in times and places where she commanded men and women with her voice and her eyes. She has seen Chani's hands take life. Now they cradle life. Life Chani created, life that belongs to her and Paul both. Irulan's heirs.
As she watches her wife and the commander of her imperial guard with such joy on their faces, she vows that it will be her own hands that guide the children's hands as they learn to trace letters on paper - the boy and the girl. She will sit at their bedside and read them stories and histories. They will never know the loneliness of the austere halls of Kaitain. They will be desert creatures.
"Are you still hiding outside your own bedroom?" Paul says, interrupting her thoughts.
"And if I am?" she asks, peering around the doorway, letting the hood of her robe fall to her shoulders, uncovering her hair, still cropped short in the desert way. "Will you order your empress to join you?"
"If she leaves me no other choice."
"Then I suppose I've no choice but to obey." With no reluctance whatsoever, she slips off her boots and joins them in their bed. For now, she wishes only to lie between them, to breathe in the air of her homeworld and be at peace. The struggles of tomorrow should be left for tomorrow.
"We will go into the desert," Chani murmurs, into Irulan's ear. "Our children will be born in the sietch."
Irulan closes her eyes, allows Chani's words to take her away from this place. Paul's hand is low on her back, soothing. This is her family. These are her people. She has found her purpose.
I have done all I can to avoid open war with the remaining Houses of the Landsraad. Chani and Stilgar believe it may be enough. Still, I worry for Paul; often he still sees truth in his visions. I worry, too, that the world Leto and Ghanima have been born into is a vicious and unforgiving place.
Perhaps my fears are ill-founded. Perhaps the future brings only peace.
But I believe the saga of Dune is far from over.
-from "Personal Reflections of Arrakis" by the Empress Irulan Corrino I