Jules couldn’t get his mind off the book.
He knew that he should be concerned about his sister, about how she had acquired a knife of such unusual design, about how she had acquired a knife at all, much less such a unique knife, one that had killed, and one which she, apparently, knew how to use to defend herself. He should be concerned with why a five-year-old child would need to know how to use a knife. He should be investigating how such a child could be abandoned by her family, by an uncle whose responsibility it was to guard and to protect her.
But he couldn’t get his mind off the book.
It teased him, the richness of the leather, the texture of the paper, the way the printing upon the page almost seemed to make sense, when he looked closely and concentrated. He had to read it; he had to decipher it; he had to get back to it. It was the most frustrating book that he had ever seen. It was the most fascinating book that he had ever seen.
When asked about the nature of the print, Lukan merely shrugged at him. “Perhaps you will be the first to unravel its meaning, your Highness. My learning was not sufficient to the task. I believed that you, with your superior education, would have better luck.”
Jules determined then that he would not allow a book to defeat him. However long it took, whatever it demanded of him, he would conquer this book. This was a war, and he was, after all, the descendant of the Warlord himself.
He studied its pages late into the night, and rose as early as he could wake himself to begin again. He stopped visiting his mother every morning; though for some weeks it was an intermittent absence. He barely noticed the passing of the time after a while, as season followed season.
It was not a fruitless struggle, though. He found that he could find sense in a sentence here, a paragraph there, a full page every now and then. He took every opportunity to sit with Lukan discussing the wisdom and the knowledge that was slowly making itself known to him through the pages of the book. Jules found Lukan to be a most helpful fellow scholar.
It was a book of magic.
But the knowledge hidden in the pages of the book was not simply the spells and the enchantments that Jules had learned in his own childhood. This was magic that superseded all the magic that he knew, went above it and beyond it into the realms of pure possibility. Healing that could raise the dead, the ability to create items through the power of the will and the mind alone, instantaneous travel from one place to another unlimited by wards or barriers.
But how to harness this magic? How to bend it and shape it to his will, so that the Empire would be unassailable under his rule from any threat?
Grainne felt listless, tired, as she set her embroidery down for the fifth time. She was attempting to add some embellishment to what would become a gown for Dauris, who was growing rapidly. She looked across the room at her daughter, who lay on her stomach across from Illian, lying similarly on his stomach, as the two of them played a game on a wooden board with stones of clear glass. Peacefully playing together as they should… though there had been days when such peace was hard-won.
In a few weeks they would celebrate the ninth birthdays for both of them. After some discussion it had been decided to treat the two as twins for the purpose of such celebrations. Marus joked on occasion that they certainly argued like twins when Illian got it into his head to be very much the little boy and pick a fight.
It made no difference to Dauris when they marked her gaining of a year. She was counting down until her twelfth year so that she could finally set aside the short bodices that were appropriate for young girls.
Grainne smiled, then, at the memory of the fight that had broken out when the maids began to fit the gowns to the little princess. Dauris did not like short bodices. And that was phrasing the matter mildly and with great restraint. After much yelling and screaming and only after Grainne had commanded her obedience had Dauris reluctantly acquiesced to the gowns. But only until her twelfth birthday. Upon that day she insisted that the waistline of her gowns shift to her natural waist and stay there. With a brief nod, Grainne had agreed to the concession.
She never had asked why Dauris disliked the bodices so much.
Dauris looked up at her sigh and frowned a little in concern. It was becoming ever more difficult to disguise her decreasing energy from the little girl, who was unusually observant. “Mother? Are you well?” She asked at least three or four times a day.
Grainne smiled. “Yes, Dauris, I am well. My years are merely making themselves felt, that is all. One day you, too, will have more years than you can conveniently remember.”
Dauris looked at her with a flat expression. She didn’t believe any of her protestations of health, and she certainly didn’t accept the explanations offered, but thus far she hadn’t made much issue over the matter. There were other concerns in the family.
Jules had not come down from his tower in weeks.
He had built it a year before, as a place of study and retreat; a place where he could be with himself and his thoughts. None of them were happy to see him move his things into the building at the far end of the Imperial grounds, but then, none of them had any grounds to stop him, and he had become so distant, even before that.
Dauris sighed and turned back to the game. “He had better come to the party.” She didn’t have to say who she spoke of. Jules was on all their minds more often than not.
Illian didn’t look up from the game. “Do you want to see if we can sneak in and prank him good?”
Dauris shook her head. “No, I’d rather not go anywhere near there. It feels wrong. Very wrong. And that worries me. If I have to go in after him, though, I’m not going to be very happy about it.”
Grainne frowned at her daughter slightly. “I am his mother. It is my place to coax him home again.”
Dauris looked up at her with that flat expression again. “You can’t walk out to the garden without stopping three times to rest. The only way you are getting out to that tower of his is if someone carried you, and we’re more than willing, but the height differences between Marus and Illian would make it difficult to manage.”
Grainne smiled at the mental image of a carry-chair tipped precariously to the front or to the back as her sons tried to lift it. Dauris was right though; there was no way that she would be able to make such a journey. Not anymore. She sighed sorrowfully. “I miss him.”
Illian sighed. “We all miss him, Mother. He had better be at the party.”
Dauris nodded her agreement. “Or I’m going in after him.”
When Grainne laid down for her afternoon rest, Dauris and Illian quietly left the bower to find distractions elsewhere. Lessons were in the mornings, afternoons were for themselves. By longstanding agreement they didn’t speak until they had finished climbing their way into a secret retreat in one of the trees in the garden.
They had built it themselves one summer, with generous help from a few choice adults. A treehouse, a real honest-to-goodness treehouse almost completely hidden in the branches of a particularly large and leafy tree. And it was all theirs.
Illian spoke first, once they had ascertained that there was no one else nearby. “Did you dream again?”
Dauris nodded slowly. “Yes, last night.”
Illian found a scrap of paper that they kept in their retreat, one of a stack on which he kept notes. He made a marking with a charcoal stick and tapped his lip with it as he thought. “That’s the third time this week.”
“I dreamed every night in the cavern.”
He nodded. “Was it still a wolf this time?”
She sighed. This was all a useless exercise to her mind, but her brother liked to hear about her dreams, so she lost nothing in giving in. “Yes, a large wolf, the largest I’ve ever seen. He’s following my trail, even as I’m running through a forest… I trip and fall and he catches up to me but instead of attacking, he lunges… and stands above me to growl at something else.”
“He’s protecting you.” He always leapt to that sort of conclusion.
She did her best not to roll her eyes at him. He was a hopeless romantic, but it was one of his more endearing traits. She wasn’t so certain of the creature’s benevolence. “If you want to think that. He could have simply been telling other predators that I was his prey, not theirs.”
“I still think you’re dreaming about a protector. But not Gallus… he didn’t trail you.”
“It could mean anything at all, Illian, or nothing. For crying out loud, Mother’s dreams sent you and Jules and Marus trailing after me in the cavern.”
“But that was years ago, Dauris. You wouldn’t still be dreaming about it if it had happened already. This is someone you’re supposed to meet still.”
She shook her head. “I’ve had nightmares for most of my life that I don’t always understand, but I’ve never had a dream that showed something that hadn’t happened yet.”
Illian nodded, still thoughtful. “It is very strange.” He tilted his head as he looked at her. “You look like you’re my age… but you sure don’t sound like it sometimes.”
She shrugged. Sometimes the mask chafed and she had to let it slip. “If it makes the adults happy to think that we could be twins, I’ll not argue with them. I like… I like having a brother than I can trust as much as I trust you.”
He flushed at the comment and smiled happily. “It is nice to be trusted.” He sighed then, and returned to the papers. “I have to do something. Why don’t you just tell everyone that you’re dreaming? Castellan dreams are not to be denied.”
She sighed, still convinced that there was nothing foreshadowed in the visions that plagued her during the night. “That didn’t stop Father from trying to stop Mother’s sister from following Castellan dreams. And we still don’t know that this wolf is anything other than my brain creating a phantom of all those who would try to hurt me.”
“But the wolf stands over you, tries to protect you.”
“That still doesn’t mean that I trust the intentions of anyone who would try to protect me. Marus wants to protect me, and I don’t trust him even though I adore him. And what do we do about Jules? He’s become so strange…” She looked down, shaking her head.
He had to concede her point. “So what do we do? We need to talk to Father about this.”
“Father… Father told me that if I were to run away from Pallantia after Castellan dreams, that I would have his permission.” The admission was softly voiced. “I don’t know if he remembers, but he wouldn’t have survived as Emperor if he didn’t pay attention to what he promises.”
“Then we have to make certain that you have that permission.”
“He dotes on you almost as much as Marus does me.”
Illian nodded reluctantly. “It’s weird, sometimes.”
There was a tapping on the tree trunk below them. Dauris looked out a window in their retreat to see her Guardian, Sir Gallus, standing at the base of the tree, looking up at them, a smile on his face. “Are you done yet up there, Lady Dauris? I am not certain how much longer I can appear to be looking for you.”
She smiled at him. He was such a grandfatherly bodyguard, and they never lied to each other about the fact that a bodyguard was exactly what he was. The only reason he gave her any privacy in this treehouse was because she always came here with Illian and it was in the middle of the Palace grounds. “We’ll be down in a moment, Gallus.”
He nodded and backed off a ways.
She looked back at her brother. “We’ll figure out something. Still, it could all be for nothing. My dreams might simply be dreams.”
Illian smiled. She always made this argument. “You can’t fight Castellan Dreams, Dauris. They’re gonna happen. They always do.”
She shrugged and they crawled their way back out of the tree.
Gallus was waiting for them a short distance away from the tree. “Ahh, there you are, Lady Dauris. I was beginning to get worried about you.”
She grinned and ran up to him for a hug. There were days, oh, there were days she loved being a child and having a child’s freedom. Short bodices notwithstanding. He lifted her into his arms and hugged her as tightly as he would any of his grandchildren, and then reached out and ruffled Illian’s hair for good measure. Illian glowered but endured it because adults were always doing that to him.
“Has the baby gotten here?” Dauris asked in an excited voice. Gallus’ daughter-in-law was expecting another grandchild for him any day now and Dauris was almost as excited about it as Gallus was.
Gallus grinned and nodded. “A messenger just found me not even an hour ago. If you are willing to let me lead your wanderings then we might be able to go see them.”
Dauris grinned and clapped her hands. “Please?” She looked over at Illian. “I gotta go see the baby!”
Illian grinned. “May I come, too, Sir Gallus?”
Gallus nodded. “Yes, young lord, I don’t see why you couldn’t come too.”
Gallus’ son, Krecian, was waiting for them at the house that they kept in town. He grinned at his father’s approach with the two children in tow. “I see that you brought friends this day, Father!”
Gallus laughed. “They insisted.”
Dauris shouted out eagerly. “Merchant Krecian! Where’s the baby?”
They all laughed. “Sleeping,” Krecian told her, “and I am threatened against my life if I wake her.”
“Babies sleep better when there’s noise around them, or they’ll never be able to sleep through anything when they’re older.” Dauris paused. “Her? The baby’s a girl?”
Krecian nodded and led them through to the room where his wife rested. Dauris immediately calmed down when she saw the tiny bundle, her eyes going wide and taking on a strange longing.
She walked up to the new mother respectfully and bowed. “May I… may I hold the baby?”
At a smiling nod, Dauris sat down carefully and reached her arms out to receive the bundle. She looked down into the crunched and wrinkled face and smiled. “Oh, you are precious,” she whispered.
Illian looked at the little baby and frowned a bit. “She’s so small, and so wrinkled.”
Dauris grinned at her brother. “She’s been squeezed in a very confining space for as long as she can remember. You were wrinkled when you were born, too.”
The tiny child blinked her eyes open and looked up at Dauris and the Princess smiled at her. “Hello, little one, welcome. Life is going to be very confusing for a while, and you are going to be very frustrated sometimes as you learn to communicate with those around you, but you have a good family and you have brothers to protect you and that is a great deal there.” For a moment Dauris felt a bit of frustration of her own. The child was important; she was of great importance, but she couldn’t tell how. She sighed and held the child a moment longer until she started making unhappy sounds. With great reluctance she gave the child back to her mother. “She’s hungry and I don’t have what she wants.”
There was soft laughter as the mother began to carefully nurse her child.