Irulan stole across the courtyard, stepping lightly in her satin shoes. Her long, violet nightgown rustled around her petite frame. Alia scolded her for such elegant clothes, such trifles in the face of Muad'dib's legacy.
"You have to put on a show of decency and propriety. You are his widow," she said sternly. "If not to us and to his children, but to his followers. They imagine you had a rich and happy marriage."
"With another woman's children," Irulan pointed out, hurt by Alia's words. It's not that she minded her task of official Atreides widow, but she felt her own habits should not be constricted in the process. Hadn't she given up all she knew? Hadn't she stayed here in this wasteland all these years? Now she must give up her mink coats and satin shoes as well? When would her sacrifices be enough?
"All rulers have concubines," Alia grimaced. "It does not mean to them what it means to you."
Concubines, yes. And as Irulan walked discreetly to Lady Jessica's chamber a sense of irony pervaded her thoughts. Here she was again, a pawn stuck in between wavering between different points of danger. No power but what the beloved concubine would allow. She felt humiliated that all this time in the castle and she was still treated by some as another Corrino traitor.
The moment Jessica opened the door and showed her aging face that so resembled Ghanima's, Irulan felt her resentment wash away. It was worth it after all, to be here to protect them in any small way she could. Not for a moment could she regret throwing herself in the fire to shield the twins. They carried the seeds of all possible futures. And even more than that, they were hers. They were the children she had been denied. She would always feel that it was her fault that Chani was gone, that she had somehow wished it into existence even if Paul had stated before his death that there was no other way it could have been. And so she owed them her life, her mothering, her servitude. She owed Paul their safety.
"Irulan!" Jessica ushered her in and closed the door. "I'm glad you've come." Irulan studied her face to find the truth in this. She wasn't sure how Jessica felt about her, the stepmother to her grandchildren. Perhaps Jessica only saw her as everyone else did. A barren tool.
"I had to come," she answered. "Anything I can do to guarantee the safety of Muad'dib's children, I must do." Jessica's eyes glittered.
"I know. I know you have done this from the beginning. You have been there from their birth and on. Chani would be grateful." Irulan pictured her former rival's dark, fierce eyes and shivered. She hoped Chani would be happy that her children had a protector, but perhaps she was repulsed that the protector was a Bene Gesserit princess.
"Chani is gone. Leto and Ghanima are alive. Therefore they are our concern." She adopted a brisk, business-like tone to hide her nervousness.
"And Ariana." Jessica frowned. "I know that the twins are your charges, but surely Ariana deserves our thoughts as well."
"She is not in immediate danger,' Irulan argued. "And if Leto can secure his throne, she will be safe. He would never allow harm to come to her." The validity of this statement had more weight with her than Jessica. Jessica had not witnessed the glances between the cousins, or the long walks in Arrakeen.
"Still she is part of this. What is your plan?"
"We need to get them out of here as soon as possible. All three of them, if that is your wish. But we must take them and go. They are not safe here."
"Leto will refuse." Irulan sighed.
"We can take Shael as well if that will convince him. She will be less of a threat without her sisters to influence her."
"Stilgar will side with you. He no longer trusts Alia."
"I will remain here so that Alia does not feel abandoned…if there is an Alia to be reached anymore, I will try."
"I wonder if Duncan…" Irulan mused. "Rumors fly around the palace. Alia has taken up with some of her priests and she is not being very discreet. They even say she might be pregnant."
"Alia is not that stupid," Jessica said. "Or whichever Harkonnen or Atreides voice inside. A pregnancy with some nameless priest would solve nothing. If that is her scheme she will try another way. Not Duncan, obviously."
"Are you sure you want to be left alone with Alia and the Bene Gesserit?"
"You forget I am Bene Gesserit." Jessica pushed her towards the door gently. "I will tell Ariana. You tell Stilgar and the twins. Leave tomorrow, don't wait. The situation here is rapidly collapsing." Irulan slipped out the door, staying close to the walls. As she made her way down the hallway she heard footsteps behind her and whirled around. A gloved hand came up quickly to her face but she blocked it with a steady arm. She still remembered her training. Another body came up behind her, grabbing her waist and trying to pick her up. She let out a kick and felt it connect with his shin. She tried to scream but a hand on her mouth silenced her. She bit into it and tasted blood and though her arms continued to block her face, she knew she was outmatched.
Then Ariana was beside her, suddenly, ripping the cloaked figure off and throwing him against the wall. Her hands worked in a blur, knocking two figures on to the floor.
"Come," she commanded, grabbing Irulan's arm and pulling her down a corridor. They kept running until they reached Ariana's quarters. She shoved Irulan in and locked the door behind them.
"They won't risk getting us in here," she said breathlessly. "I have my own security whereas my mother put Jessica in a room with none." Irulan was awed by the calm indifference with which Ariana spoke about her mother.
"Why, what are they doing?" Irulan sputtered, feeling cowed and childish. She was supposed to be able to handle herself. Hadn't she been doing it all these years? Ariana sensed her disappointment.
"You couldn't have known it would be tonight," she said. "But you knew it would be coming. Isn't that why you were with Jessica? Plotting your escape?"
"Yes. It was supposed to be tomorrow. But I suppose now we should move faster…"
"Yes, you should. My mother…Alia wanted to kill Jessica and blame the rebels. She wanted to incite the undecided Fremen in the middle against them."
"But not me. The Fremen wouldn't rally for me…then why…?" Her voice trailed off and a wave of bitterness threatened to choke her as she realized her own superfluous role in these schemes.
"She just wanted you out of the way," Ariana confirmed quietly. "One less thing standing in between her and Leto." Irulan looked at the girl, wondering how they had existed for so long in the same household while barely knowing each other. There had been affection in the past, when Ariana was young but somehow that had faded and they had remained fairly indifferent. Ariana never sought her out like Ghanima or teased her like Leto. For the first time Irulan considered whether she had failed in her task to protect Paul's children. Shouldn't Ariana be considered one of them as well? Not directly, but still part of his legacy.
"I'm sorry," Irulan said. "I failed you, I didn't protect you. I just thought- you had Alia before. And Duncan."
"I didn't need protecting," Ariana replied. "Neither did Leto or Ghanima. What you provided us was more than protection and by the end you will know how much we valued it." She placed a cold, yet comforting hand on Irulan's shoulder. "You are part of this. Don't let anyone convince you differently. Stay with us." Irulan looked up tearfully.
"What should I do?" She asked. Ariana smiled grimly.
"Get Ghanima. I will see to Leto and his new acquaintance."
"She wanted to stay behind, didn't she? She'll have her wish ."
Ariana knocked on Leto's door, her face calm but her inner thoughts in turmoil. She was afraid, though she controlled it carefully with her Bene Gesserit training. What use was fear to them now?
Leto opened the door cautiously, his naked form glistening in the dark. Ariana looked away.
"We're leaving now," he stated. "I already told Stilgar. A 'thopter is ready and waiting for us." Ariana felt dismayed for a moment that again he was one step ahead of her. Leto threw on a dressing gown and beckoned her in.
"Irulan was just attacked."
"Alia moves fast."
"My father will be next."
"Not if he is with us." Leto sat next to her, placing a hand on her neck.
"It is all happening as it should," he said. "There is no other way. We must get to safety."
"And then what?"
"Then we undo her. Killing her would solve nothing."
"Then she is truly gone?"
"You know she is." Ariana sighed and laid her head against his chest, feeling his heart beating rapidly.
"You were already awake," she accused him angrily. Leto smiled.
"Is insomnia a crime?"
"No, but this wasn't insomnia. Shael was here."
"This surprises you? She pushed him away from her.
"Surprises me that you would be so reckless. What can be gained from allowing her simple and inelegant seduction?"
"A link to my enemies. By caving they think I am theirs. And a worthy heir. Why not with her? I am not my father, I have not found my soul's mate so easily."
"There are other methods to conceive an heir." She looked up at him meaningfully, knowing that he already knew her desire. Surely her sense of the same thoughts in him was wrong. She had been here all along and yet not a whisper had passed between them of the potential of what they could create.
"That would be even more dangerous." Suddenly his lips were on hers, rough and insistent, tasting of spice. She felt her body responding, a warmth rising to her cheeks. Then he pulled away, laughing.
"This is what you want then?"
"You know that it always has been."
"But it's not love."
"It is partly love." Ariana felt a flush rise up her neck. "What are your arguments against it? What can Shael give you?"
"She is part of us, our bloodline. She has a right to mother an heir."
"What do you mean? She is not Atreides."
"No." Leto kissed her again, this time softer. "I would, Ariana, if I were free to do as I wished. But my destiny is with Shael. They think they brought her to me, that they instigated this. But Shael was bound to cross my path sooner or later. I would have sought her out."
"But why?" Ariana strained her vision, reaching as far as she could see to determine the mystery behind Leto's mystery. But she only saw the vast desert, disappearing into the ground.
"It does not matter at the moment. It will come out when the time is right."
"Do you love her?"
"Did my father love Irulan? No, perhaps that is not the right comparison for I do love Shael. In one of the only ways the preborn can love." He kissed her once more and she knew it would be the last time, at least in that instance. "But no Ariana, if that is the answer you seek. Not love, not the way I can see us being if we let ourselves. Does this make you happy?"
"No." She stood up and walked to the door. "I've decided that I'm staying. She's my mother. I must see this through to the end. In the 'thopter. In a half hour. Bring your destiny."
Alia stormed into her husband's chambers, arousing him from a deep sleep.
"Where are they?"
"What do you mean, Alia?" He used her name purposefully, hoping for any way to connect to her, to awaken the person within,
"Leto, Ghanima, that Bene Gesserit wench. Irulan, all of them gone."
"And our daughter?"
"She stayed. But you aren't surprised are you? You helped plan this?" And you, Duncan thought. You smell of other men. Your voice is not your own. Your hands move like they belong to a stranger.
"It will make things simpler if they are gone."
"How, Duncan?" Alia asked, her voice strung with revulsion. "How is it simpler to have the future rulers of the empire holed up in a sietch plotting against their aunt and protector?"
"Perhaps they are not plotting."
"Don't be stupid. From the minute that my mother set foot on Arrakis she has been searching for a way to gain control. Now she is holding them hostage."
"Then let's use it to our advantage," Duncan replied, unable to believe his own words. Was it right to play both sides? Would it work? If he allowed Alia to think he was plotting with her, perhaps he could lure her into a trap. And it would allow the children to remain safe.
"To what end?" Duncan searched his mind. How to deflect her?
"Wensicia," he answered quickly.
"What? What does that Corrino shrew have to do with us?"
"You know she has been in contact with Irulan." Duncan had read the letters himself, unwilling to risk any collaboration between the sisters.
"Do you suspect something?" Alia's lip curled menacingly.
"Not of Irulan."
"Then what's the point? The end game?"
"She wants to marry Ghanima to her son Farad'n."
"The royal niece to some Corrino bastard? Even you must know that's preposterous, Duncan. What does Farad'n have to offer Ghanima but a ruined kingdom on a wasteland planet?"
"Arrakis was once a wasteland," Duncan reminded her. "Things are not always as they appear on the surface. True enough of the young prince. They say he reads histories and writes like his aunt Irulan. Intelligent, handsome. Would Ghanima be so unlucky?"
"Her potential would be squandered. Wasting away as a bastard's wife on some hellish planet doesn't quite live up to the destiny she is owed as an Atreides."
"You are aware that Ghanima is also a bastard?"
"Of the most powerful man who ever lived. Not a Corrino hag and some nameless Sardauker." Alia laughed, a vicious cackle tumbling out her curved mouth. "They say it was rape but I call foul. Who would want Wensicia so badly as to force her? She's more detestable than Irulan."
"The wedding doesn't need to happen. But give her hope that it will. Distract her. Send the Lady Jessica as an envoy to plan the match." This one was a gamble, he knew. But Jessica could handle herself against Corrino treachery. He wasn't so sure about Alia's madness.
"I have a better idea." His wife brightened. "Invite them here. Bring the serpent to the hawk. Show them how hospitable we can be. And if they are cooperate? We will give them Ariana."
"Why not you then? A woman of your charms…well Farad'n would not be able to resist!"
"I have thought of it," Alia answered pensively. "They would jump at the chance, wouldn't they? But no Ariana needs a place if she is to survive." Duncan wondered if any part of this had to do with their daughter's safety. Could Alia be Abomination and Mother as well?
"My daughter will never be ruling a kingdom. She will be safe in Corrino obscurity and she can neutralize them. Send word to them. Get them here." She swept out of the room, her emerald dress flowing against the door.
Stilgar led the way into the sietch with obvious ease at being in his home. Ghanima smiled at his jubilance and felt a stab of guilt that he had spent so much time in Arrakeen for their benefit.
"You must always wear this," Leto said patiently to Shael, who fiddled with the tube at her mouth. "The stillsuit is life." Shael glanced over at him with awe. This was a foreign world to her, despite all she'd read about the Fremen.
"These are your true people," she said. Leto smiled.
"They are. It starts with the Fremen and it ends with them."
"I thought it started with Muad'dib."
"Without Fremen, there would be no Muad'dib. Only Paul Atreides." Stilgar listened, though pretended not to. Did I do right by this child? He wondered, although Leto could no longer be called a child.
"Alia will not come after us," Ghanima remarked. "It would make her appear weak. She will say we are on some type of journey." She turned to Shael. "And what of your Bene Gesserit sisters? Will they try to recover you?"
"I am where my sisters want me to be."
"Of that I'm sure." Ghanima looked away. She had barely spoken to her brother's mistress. "Will they be safe?"
"They are older and wiser than I." Stilgar interrupted their conversation.
"It does not feel so long since I was here," he said thoughtfully. "But it feels like eons."
"The still suit still fits," Leto grinned. "And it looks good on you, Stil." He turned to Shael and Ghanima, with Irulan trailing close behind.
"My father is glad we are here together," he said, as he took a swig of flat water from his suit.