The Emperor would not long survive the loss of his wife.
Everyone, it seemed, in the Imperial City of Pallantia knew this fact, though no one would say it out loud. They whispered in corners, growing silent when one of the Imperial family passed. It was in their eyes when they bowed to Marus, who would be Emperor after his father. It was in their voices when they greeted Dauris, who had sat at her mother’s side to the very end, and now waited upon her father in the same way. It was in their hands when they wanted to reach out to Illian, but did not dare.
Sir Gallus was growing old. He had been for years, but it was quickly becoming an issue, one he had delicately brought up to the Emperor’s attention. The Emperor was aware, but was not certain that he would live long enough to see to Gallus’ replacement. It was proving so difficult to keep his promise to his wife, to live long enough to see his daughter’s twelfth birthday. So Emperor Matthias called Marus in to see him.
Marus approached his father curiously. “You asked for me, Father?”
With effort, the Emperor nodded. “Sir Gallus wishes to spend his remaining years with his grandchildren, if possible.”
Marus nodded. “I will see to a replacement, if that is your wish. I still do not trust my sister’s safety without a guardian, not after…” He didn’t have to repeat the warning that Jules had given before his life ended. The brother who had sought to kill Dauris all those years ago had not given up his goal.
The Emperor nodded. “I have sent orders to recall a soldier. He is a recent recruit, younger than I would like for the task but…” The Emperor paused to catch his breath after a fit of coughing. He had put some time into quietly tracking down where this particular soldier had been sent and looking into his performance record. If he was right, if his daughter did dream, he owed her this opportunity, this chance to see the truth of her dreams. “But he has only grown in the few years he has served us and has exceeded both expectations and promise though he is still a young man. I do not know how he will react to such an assignment, but he is the best.”
Marus nodded. “I would want only the best for my sister. The soldier’s name?”
Dauris came running when the servant told her that her father was asking for her. She had only celebrated twelve the week before, and her new dresses were still odd feeling around her waist, but it was a definite improvement. Her immediate fear, though, was stilled when she came into the Emperor’s chamber to see that he was not alone. Marus stood at his side and kneeling before them, his back to her, was a soldier in armor, helmet at his side.
The Emperor took a deep, shaky breath. “Daughter, come to me.” His voice was so weak.
Dauris came walking up to her father slowly and reached out to take his hand in hers as she did so. “Father? You called for me?”
He nodded. “Sir Gallus…” He took another deep breath. “Sir Gallus wishes more time with his grandchildren.” Dauris nodded. She was not surprised. “This soldier is to be your guardian in his stead.” Dauris turned her head to look at the kneeling soldier. “His name is Gabriel.”
Dauris felt the strength drop out of her knees and she abruptly sat down on the edge of her father’s bed, unable to keep from staring at the face that looked back at her. A face she never thought that she’d see, not in reality, not outside of dreams. “G-gabriel?” She spoke in a stunned whisper; her voice would not strengthen beyond that.
Marus felt his heart stop for a bare moment at his sister’s reaction. What was happening? “Sister? Do you know this man?” Could it be possible?
Dauris forced herself to breathe normally. Gabriel’s face, so familiar, was not the one she wanted to see, the one she feared that she would never see. His brow was unmarked, unscarred. The name was the same, the face the same, but he was not the one she had seen more than once as a dear friend of hers and a shieldbrother to the wolf that followed her trail. She stood and took a step towards the soldier who would be her guardian. “Do… do you have a twin brother?” She had to ask. She had to at least ask before she gave up hope entirely. “A twin brother with a scar here?” She drew a line with her fingertip across her forehead, above one eyebrow, that went into the hairline.
She saw his eyes widen. He wasn’t expecting the question. When he didn’t answer immediately, she sighed and turned back towards her father, sitting down again. “It is well enough. You do not have to answer. I just…”
The Emperor gripped her hand and fell into a fit of coughing, and immediately Dauris was distracted with trying to calm him. “Daughter?… This man’s twin…?” He could not speak, could not catch his breath to finish his question. He had to know, before he died, that his daughter’s dreams would find their way, that all their preparations would somehow be enough to carry her through. He owed her that much for the gift that her intervention had given him.
Dauris nodded. “Yes, Father, if such a man exists, I have seen him.” She shook her head, tears in her eyes. “But I do not think that he does.”
The Emperor’s coughing faded and he sank back into his pillows, a small, sad smile on his face. “Do not worry, my daughter. Dreams… will not be denied.” He reached up to gently touch her face. “You look so much like Grainne… when she was young, and challenged me. My daughter …” He seemed to look beyond her and his eyes brightened with what might have been joy. “Grainne?” His hand dropped and Dauris caught it, pressing her face into it to hide her tears.
“Father?” After a moment she set his hands down across his chest, tears still wet on her cheeks as Marus gently reached out and closed his father’s eyes.
“He is gone, my sister.” His voice was kind.
She nodded, another tear falling. “There will be arrangements…”
“I will see to them.” Marus looked up at Gabriel. “See her to the bower and then return to me.”
Gabriel saluted him and then stood to follow as the young princess walked slowly from the room.
When Gabriel returned, Marus took him aside as servants saw to the body of the old Emperor. “You never answered my sister’s question.” He kept his voice low, private. “I would know the truth of the matter. Do you have a brother, a twin, with a scar as she indicated?”
Slowly, reluctantly, Gabriel nodded. “Yes, my liege, I do have such a brother, but he… we have not laid eyes upon each other for years. I do not know where he is, or what he has become.” Gabriel paused. “If I may be so bold, the princess… does she dream Castellan dreams?”
Marus looked thoughtful. “She has never spoken of such to me, though I am hardly the one she would confide in. Father knew something, so I would think such dreams likely.” He sighed and then took on a commanding stance. “Do not speak to my sister of your brother. She is not to know about him.”
Gabriel nodded in understanding. “Yes, Lord Marus. I hear and obey.”
Delegations from every nation started arriving for the funeral, and the Imperial coronation that followed. Dauris wished to meet each of them personally; it was her place as the only female in the family to see to the needs of their guests. Marus, though, decided otherwise. He would be the one to greet their guests, and Dauris was to stay in the bower. There would be time, later, for her to meet her cousins of the South and of Castellan.
Dauris lay on her stomach in the elevated bowl that was her bed and played tug-of-war with her dog and an old towel that had been knotted up just for such a purpose. Little Brother pulled on the towel and twisted his body just like he was fighting some creature, but both of them knew that it was just for fun. Dauris sighed in frustration. Some days she felt just like Nii-chan, always pulling on something that was always held back from her. Just when was she going to be able to give Mother’s letter to Uncle Ainmire of Castellan if she couldn’t meet with them personally? And just what was in the letter that was so important that she had to be the one to deliver it to him?
After a moment Dauris sighed loudly and let go of the towel. The dog, still very much a puppy, fell backwards with the lack of resistance. For a moment he was still, then he took hold of the towel and shook it back and forth, growling like he was attacking some small creature, and then dropped it and tried to lick Dauris’ face. She actually giggled and grabbed her friend and held his wriggling body close to her for a time. She couldn’t hate Marus, not after all that he had done, no matter how infuriating he was or how insufferable or how pigheaded. Especially when she thought of the look in his eyes when Nii-chan had run up at him barking like he was four feet tall to the shoulder and three hundred pounds instead of maybe fourteen inches long nose to tail and perhaps four or five pounds. And he had been smaller when they’d found him.
She let go of Nii-chan and sat up. She wasn’t going to let her brother keep her from delivering the letter, but she had to handle this discreetly. Maybe she could find one of the Castellan knights in the hallway.
Dauris clutched the sealed letter in her hands as she looked both ways down the hallway outside the bower. She wasn’t even certain why she was so nervous, but something in the air teased senses she hadn’t used in… at least a century.
She took a deep breath. She was born of nobility, born for leadership. She was not going to cower in her rooms like a child when she had a task to do. She was born of Pendrac, and Ailis, and claimed Nianna as her nursemother. She was better than that.
Nii-chan wagged his tail cheerfully as he followed her into the hallway, his toenails clicking against the smooth stone as they set off in search of the apartments which had been set aside for the Castellan royal family.
She was almost there when she felt the shadow fall over her and heard a far too familiar voice clear his throat. “Princess, I thought you were staying in your bower for the afternoon. It’s not safe out and about like this. Who knows what could happen to you?”
Dauris barely contained the wince as she realized that Gabriel had found her and that getting to her uncle and cousins… was going to be more difficult than she had wished.
Even after all these years, he still wasn’t used to people bowing to him. In his mind, he still thought of himself as Bastion, just trying to find a way to survive with a little brother who depended on him.
But he wasn’t really Bastion to anyone but himself and his brother anymore. Once there was another brother… but he’d vanished from their lives and Bastion hadn’t seen or heard from him since. He wondered, sometimes, where the other had gone to, what he was doing with his life, how he was surviving… but it was the sort of thing he really couldn’t let himself obsess over. He had other things to do.
He’d arrived in Pallantia just that morning and was still recovering from the journey. He’d left his entourage back in the apartments that he’d been given and was wandering the hallways, not really looking for anything in particular, just seeing what was there to see.
He turned a corner and saw one of the pages watering a potted plant. “Oh, your Highness,” the boy said, bowing as he passed.
He stifled a chuckle and bowed his head to the boy, smiling at the way he blushed all the way to his collar at being noticed. Yeah, he never was going to get used to that sort of thing.
He turned another corner and heard voices. Out of curiosity, because there wasn’t anything else going on and he wondered if he might be able to actually help someone, he followed the sound to where two people were arguing.
Dauris turned to look at her guardian, forcing her shoulders straight. She was nobility, damnit, she wasn’t going to act like she was doing anything the least wrong by walking the hallways in her own home. “I never said that I was going to remain in my rooms the whole afternoon. I have things I need to do and I’m going to do them.”
Gabriel looked at her, struggling to remain calm because she always seemed to know how to annoy him. “Perhaps I could assist you then?”
Dauris pinched her lips together in frustration. She really didn’t want to deal with having Gabriel following her every move as she did something like this. This was her mother’s last request of her. This was something she had to do herself. “No, thank you. This is my home. I refuse to be afraid to walk in my own home.”
“I insist, your Highness. It is my responsibility. What is it that you seek to do and I will give my utmost to assist you with all speed.”
“No, Gabriel, I am perfectly capable of seeing to this myself.”
Gabriel was at his wits end with the girl, though he admired her strength of will, even though it made her incredibly frustrating to deal with. “I insist.”
She was about to say something else, when a man turned the corner and interrupted them. He was tall and broad-shouldered, just like Gabriel, though instead of the armor that her guardian customarily wore, this man wore the thigh-length tunic and hose that were common in the border nations, and from the quality of the velvet and the detail in the trimming and such, he was one of the nobility of those lands.
Gabriel whirled, a snarl rising up from him when he saw the man who had arrived. “You… what are you doing here?”
The man blinked in surprise. “Gabriel? What…? I’m here for the ceremonies, I’m… I’m the envoy from Reis-Bohnen.”
Gabriel stepped to put himself between the man and Dauris. “Leave here, now.”
Dauris rolled her eyes. “Gabriel, what has come over you? This man is an envoy from another nation! It’s my responsibility to greet him!” She stepped around him and took her first really good look at the man and her eyes widened as she looked up into his face.
There was the scar on his forehead that she’d seen so many times in her dreams.