Marus carefully mounted the winding steps of his brother’s tower. He knew, as did they all, that his mother could not, and not even he would ask this of Illian or Dauris. So Marus chose to lessen himself for the greater good. He would plead with his brother to return home, at least for the celebration, now less than a week away.
He entered the main chamber to find Jules working with something on a table. There were pages everywhere, and books scattered about, alongside jars of specimens and herbs and on one end of the table there was a small cauldron with a tiny fire underneath it, burning merrily away. The contents of the cauldron boiled and bubbled and steamed in a strange mixture that made Marus’ nose itch.
His sneeze caught Jules’ attention. He looked up at him and blinked several times to focus his eyes. “Marus? What are you doing here? I asked not to be disturbed.”
“That was several weeks ago, Brother, we became concerned. Illian and Dauris will be celebrating nine this week, and they wished for you to attend.” It was very difficult for Marus not to tear into his brother for worrying them all so much.
Jules turned back to whatever had him so fascinated. “I don’t know that I’ll make it. I am very busy.”
For a moment Marus lost control of his temper. “Mother is dying, Jules. How could you be so busy that you would worry her and sap away what strength she still has?”
Jules looked up at him, astonished. “Mother?”
“Yes. A little more each day. We don’t talk about it, mostly we try not to think about it, but she’s wasting away little by little and there’s nothing any of us can do. And every time I go to see her I can see how much she worries about you and it’s killing the rest of us.”
Jules looked down and for a moment he seemed tired, sorrowful and so very tired. “If I could just unlock a little of the power…”
“What power, Jules? What power could be worth not being there when your mother needs you?”
Jules sighed. “The power to Heal her. Tell them I’ll be there. Somehow… I’ll be there.”
Lukan noticed the change in Jules almost immediately. “Highness, what troubles you?”
Jules looked down at the book. He carried it with him everywhere he went; even now he was absently turning pages, not really seeing anything. “My brother came to see me. Mother is dying.”
Now this was interesting. Such tones of genuine concern. How could any concern for his family remain after so long immersed in the book? This prince was made of interesting stuff. Well, if there is something one cannot destroy, the next choice is to use it. “When did she become ill?”
Jules shrugged. “I don’t know. She was always delicate, but that was just the way she was. I never gave it much thought until…”
He sighed. “Until the day we found Dauris. Before Illian returned with her, Mother had a spell. She lost her breath and almost didn’t regain it. She laughed it off, said we were worrying over nothing, but… I knew something was wrong.”
Ahh, an opening, and so wonderfully presented, too. “So this started when your sister arrived?” Jules nodded slowly. “Is it possible… I do not know how to ask this without seeming rude.” Jules looked at him and frowned, and then nodded him to continue. “Is it possible that something in your sister is causing this condition?”
Jules drew in a startled breath. “How would that be possible?”
“The book… it spoke of persons gifted with power, persons out of the ordinary, if she were such a one, and required energy from a living being to sustain her life…”
Jules looked very troubled indeed. “How would I be able to tell? She has always been odd for a child, but I have not sought out her company.”
Lukan shrugged. “Power knows power. Such a one might fear the book, fear the knowledge it holds in the hands of one outside her control.”
Jules sighed and stood to leave. “I need to study the book some more. Maybe something in it will give me the wisdom I need.”
Lukan nodded. “Have a care, Highness, if she is such a one, to have survived any length of time she would need to be wily to the extreme, and powerful. We could learn much from her, if we had means to study her.”
Jules left, book in hand. Lukan went back to his drink with a feeling of satisfaction. With a little careful timing, he would have this golden-eyed girl in his hands by the end of the week. Then he would know if she was truly what he thought she was, and if she was… then she would die.
The party was a success. They had chosen a hall with a polished wood floor, and white walls with gold trim. Along the outer edges were braziers burning brightly against the winter chill and at one end was a stone dais upon which sat chairs for the Emperor, the Empress, and the guests of honor along with their brothers, only one of which was there at the start of the evening. The two guests of honor smiled and nodded at all the courtiers and entertained many by joining in the dancing and simply having fun.
But it would have been difficult to miss the way that the whole Imperial family turned their heads every time the doors to the hall opened as someone entered or left, or the way they seemed to be waiting for something, for someone. Waiting, until the door opened and Jules walked through.
From the way their faces lit up, it was obvious that this was the highlight of the evening, at least for the Imperial family. But something was off. Something was wrong. And the first one to notice it was Dauris.
“Brother,” she called, “where… where did you get that book?” There was a slightly worried tone to her voice, a hint of an edge.
He looked down at the red-leather volume still in his hand. He had almost forgotten that he was still carrying it. “A… a friend gave it to me. It is the most amazing book.”
“A friend.” The flatness of her voice was telling. “What did this friend look like?”
Jules looked confused. “He called himself Lukan. Here, let me show you.” Then he waved his hand and produced an amazingly lifelike illusion.
Dauris didn’t know which made her scream, the image, the fact that Jules had managed to produce it when she knew full well that their magic did not include the production of illusions, at least in this manner, or the fact that the one who called himself Lukan was wearing those thrice-damned glasses that haunted her nightmares. The scream, though, startled the courtiers and sent them scurrying for the exits, even as Gallus came running towards her from his position towards the edge of the dais. It didn’t take long to empty the room.
The only one who wasn’t startled by her scream was Jules. He had produced a sword, she didn’t know from where. For all she knew he could have managed to materialize it out of thin air. Goodness knows she used to be able to do that very thing. Jules stood, holding the sword at the ready, looking at her without the least bit of compassion in his gaze for the sheer terror he had caused. “Scared, little sister? Don’t worry, there’s more where that came from.” He banished the image with a motion.
The Emperor stood from his seat and took a few steps forward. “What is going on here? Jules, I demand to know why you are threatening your sister.”
“She’s an abomination, Father. She’s a demon from another world and if I do not destroy her she will drain the life out of each and every one of us.”
Marus glanced over at Dauris. “That image…?”
“The one who tried to kill me. The one who is my uncle, who attacked me and left me to die in a cavern I could not escape from. The one who hunts me as much because I will not serve his master as because he fears that I can destroy him!” She threw the last as if it were a challenge towards Jules.
Marus narrowed his eyes. So he was right to put a guardian on his sister. “Jules, this is madness!”
“No, Brother, this is Power!” He raised the book, showing it to them. “This is the Power to make the Empire unassailable. Magic like you have never seen, the ability to transport troops in an instant, or assassins if need be, the ability to create weapons that cannot be used against us, even the Healing needed to make Mother whole again!”
From where she sat, Grainne paled and Illian put a hand over hers.
Dauris groaned. “It’s the book. Ah Elar, Everlasting Immortal, it’s the book.” She looked up at him and spoke louder, pleading. “Jules, I beg you, destroy the book. Please! It’s using you, taking over your mind. It’s not really giving you anything. If you don’t turn your back on it now you will end up a slave to the one who made it.”
The Emperor looked at Dauris. “You know of these things?”
“I’ve seen them once or twice. Even heard about one that looked like a wedding band, and it was one of the worst about taking over the one who carried it. I swear to you, by any oaths that you will accept, Jules isn’t in his right mind.”
Jules laughed. “Now I see, you have them all enthralled, demon-witch! I know all about you, how you journey from land to land, drawing the life out of those around you to maintain your youth. I knew that you were evil from the moment I saw your inhuman eyes!” Again he laughed, and the sound chilled Dauris to the bone. “I will cleanse the Empire! I will be the hand of justice!” He lunged towards Dauris, but at the last moment, the sword moved in his hand and he struck the Emperor.
There were cries of shock as the Emperor fell back, blood falling onto the stone of the dais. Marus paled as he caught his father and eased him down. “Damn you, Jules! What have you done?”
Dauris dropped to one knee and reached just under the hem of her dress, grateful that she had thought to get Gallus’ help in rigging a leg sheath for her to carry her knife. She hadn’t even known why she had strapped it on for the party, just an odd feeling in the back of her mind. “You don’t know anything, Jules! There might be other goldeneyed girls out there, stranger things have happened, but each and every one of them would be Motherborn, and the Mother doesn’t give golden eyes to a villainess.”
She stood, holding the knife in one hand. “Or didn’t your precious book tell you about the Speakers?”
Jules actually looked unsure of himself. Like he was fighting against the compulsion, but he wasn’t winning. “Demon-craft, that is what you speak.”
“No, Jules, I don’t. I can’t. It’s part of what who and what I am. It’s why I knew that you were dangerous from the moment I first saw you. Sinister, that’s what you are. Sinister doesn’t always become a threat. Sinister can sometimes be an ally. But sinister is always dangerous.”
Marus looked at Gallus, who nodded and tossed him his sword. Marus caught it easily and stepped forward to put himself between Jules and Dauris. “My brother, you are hereby judged guilty of treason in the form of assault on the body of the living Emperor. It is my responsibility to bring you to justice.” His voice actually cracked.
Illian started forward. “I will help you, my brother.”
Dauris put her arm out to stop Illian. “Don’t you dare, Illian! You are innocent. The blood of a kinsman, the guilt of fratricide, must never be on your soul. Guard Mother. She is innocent, too.” She took a few steps forward to stand beside Marus. “I will stand with our brother.”
Jules laughed at her even as he lunged again, and his blow was blocked by one from Marus. “I will destroy you, witch!”
“I’d rather you not use that term to describe me, Brother. Each and every definition is inaccurate when you try to apply them to me. My magic is not that of a human of the forest, nor am I an ancient hag living in a swamp practicing some occult magic, nor am I a worshipper of such entities that bestow witchcraft. If you knew half of what you think you know about me, you wouldn’t even have to be told that.”
The battle, such as it was, was not fair. Jules was trained, and trained against multiple opponents, but while Marus was fighting him, Dauris was aiming for the book, and on a lucky swing she caught it through the front cover with the knife that she carried. None of them were prepared to hear the book scream, though.
Jules stumbled and dropped the book, even as Marus struck him with a swordblow. He fell to his knees, one hand against the bleeding wound, as Dauris gave the book a few more slices for good measure and then carried it over, still on the point of the knife, to one of the burning braziers that stood at the edges of the room. The fire made quick work of the paper and leather and Dauris turned back towards her brothers. But then there was a burst of energy from the disintegrating book and it knocked Dauris to her knees. Something inside her cracked from the power released by the death-throes of the book that had been created to corrupt and enslave her brother. She struggled to her feet again and returned to Jules’ side.
Jules was gasping for breath when she knelt next to him and gently placed his head in her lap. He looked up at her and his eyes were clear through the tears falling from each side. “Oh, little sister, what have I done?”
She sniffled through tears of her own. “It’s not your fault. It was Wolf Eyes, Lukan. He is to blame for this.”
“But I… I attacked my own father. I attacked the Emperor. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He raised his voice. “Forgive me, Father!”
The Emperor nodded slowly, tears in his eyes that he would not allow to fall. “I forgive you; lay the blame on him who corrupted you. Let us call healers…”
Jules tried to breathe, but it sounded shallow, and rattled in his chest. “I will not survive this wound, Father. I am broken too deeply; Lukan’s claws pierced too deeply into my soul…” He looked at Dauris. “Lukan seeks your life, little sister, and he will not stop. He sought to have me take you for testing, and his methods… are not gentle.” She paled, but nodded. Jules turned to Marus. “Finish it, Brother. You will be a better Heir to Father than I was, and when the day comes, you will be a better Emperor.”
Marus tightened his grip on the sword he held. “As you wish, my brother.”
Dauris shook her head. “No, my blade has killed before, and it might do the magic that it carries some good to be used for a mercy stroke.”
Marus nodded slowly. “Very well, but wait a moment.” He looked up at Gallus. “Carry Mother back to the bower and take Illian with her. They don’t need to witness this.” Gallus bowed and quickly lifted his Empress in his arms. Illian walked beside them, his hand holding his mother’s. He met Dauris’ eyes as they passed and she could see tears in them. Tears to match her own. When they were gone, Marus looked at the Emperor. “Do you wish to leave, Father? So that you do not know with your own eyes which of your children strikes the blow that kills your eldest son?”
The Emperor shook his head. “I am Emperor still, not just a father.” He paused. “It will not change anything for me to see which hand wields the blade.”
Marus nodded and then knelt next to Dauris. She gripped the blade tightly. “I must, my brother.”
He nodded again and then took her hands in his, four hands held the blade, layered around the handle as the siblings gave it direction, plunging it into Jules’ chest. They were able to give him one last gift. It was quick.
Tears coursed down Dauris’ cheeks as she raised her face and howled for grief. Twice more she howled, sounding so much like a grieving wolf that it was almost unnerving, if it weren’t so appropriate somehow. Then she fell silent and did not speak for quite some time.
They pulled the knife free and as their hands separated, Marus held his out to her. “Give me the knife, my sister.” Slowly she handed the bloody knife to him, laying it in his hand. “You are nine years old, little sister, they would whisper. I would spare you those whispers, if I can. I must be holding the blade when they return.” She nodded her understanding.
And so it was, when the bravest of the courtiers returned they found the room empty except for a wounded Emperor, his grieving daughter, the heir-that-was dead, and the heir-that-was-now holding the blade that had taken his life.