They arrived in Pallantia as the afternoon sun was starting to descend. Jules volunteered to gather a few things from the market. Grainne and Illian needed to speak to the Emperor. Marus smiled at little Dauris. “I guess that means that I get to walk you to the bower. Mother’s maids will be able to find clothes for you until some are made.”
Dauris looked at him seriously as they walked towards the bower. She had so many questions, so many things she knew that she didn’t know. She was concerned about what she didn’t know and how thoroughly it could make her life difficult. “We are the family of the Emperor?” He nodded. “Mother and Father are married, yet they live separate lives?”
Marus nodded. It was such a simple matter, one he had never given much thought to so that the mere fact that this strange child questioned it made the matter suddenly strange to his mind, too. “Theirs was a political match.” It was the only explanation he could give; for all that the words fell flat to his ears.
Dauris sighed. The concept was one she knew quite well, for all that she didn’t agree with it. “I don’t want a political match. I would want a partner, a companion. I would want a man to share my life with, my whole life.” Of course, that presumed that she thought such a thing was ever likely to happen for her. There were… too many hazards in bonding so strongly to a person. Her parents had bonded that closely, and their unity had robbed her of both of them in the very hour of her birth.
Marus smiled at the serious expression on her face. “You are very young to be thinking of such things.” He didn’t want to think of how quickly she would grow up, though. How quickly others would start murmuring such things.
She looked up at him, her eyes betraying worry and concern. “Would Father try to force me to take a political match that I did not want?” She had no illusions. She knew that a culture which embraced such concepts was unlikely to dispense with them across the transition of one generation. Some few might be allowed the freedom to choose their own bondings, but if the Emperor himself had taken a political bride… would he not just as easily consider an adoptive daughter to be a tool of negotiation?
He knelt to look her in the eyes outside the door to the bower. He saw the worry, and knew better than she how incredibly possible her fears were. He was not the eldest son, and he knew that Jules was a pragmatic man, ever looking at the logical solution in spite of what romanticism gave people. His words came from his soul. “I swear to you, Dauris my sister; no one will force you to take any match you do not desire. I will protect you.” He didn’t even know if he would have the ability to challenge his father or Jules regarding Dauris. He just knew that he would.
She blinked slowly as she looked into his face and saw the intensity there. “There is darkness in your soul. It frightens me.”
“You do not need to fear me. Not ever. I swear it.” He put the flat of his hand over his heart, bowing his head to her in the manner of a formal oathtaking. He did not ever wish to frighten this precious sister of his.
“Do not let the darkness win, my brother. I do not want to have to destroy you.”
He started in surprise, blinking a bit at the absolute sincerity in her voice. It was plain to him that she meant every word of the threat, the promise. He smiled after a moment and took her hand as he stood and then reached for the door to the bower. It pleased him that she took such matters so seriously. No matter how unchildlike her words happened to be. “I like you, little sister. You are almost as odd as I am.”
The Emperor was waiting in his study, reading over some old treaties as he waited for news of the afternoon excursion and what happened while his sons were out with their mother. He was standing next to a bookshelf with a volume in his hands when the door opened and Illian came rushing through with the sound of running feet and happy shouting.
“We found her, Father! Mother dreamed me a sister and we found her and we brought her home and can we keep her, Father? Can we keep her forever and ever?”
Grainne closed the door behind them and walked over to look at her husband, who looked back at her curiously. “So this was your errand today?” he asked. He knew that they had gone looking for something, though Marus had been characteristically vague when asking for his permission for his sons to take the shuttle for an afternoon away from the city with their mother.
She nodded. “Yes, my husband. I woke from the dream and our sons insisted on the search. We found her where the dream told me that she would be, a daughter for us and a sister for our sons.”
Illian was jumping up and down. “She’s my age and she’s pretty and she’s got gold eyes when she gets angry and her ears are pointed and she’s got white in her hair like some of the old ladies have and she told Marus and Jules not to hurt me or Mother and that made Marus laugh and we’re going to call her Dauris and that means Golden Gift, even though her name will be Tresoria Dauris and I really want to keep her, please, Father?”
The Emperor looked at his wife, a strangely bittersweet look in his eyes. “So my wife has been given Castellan dreams of a daughter?” He sighed and looked down at his youngest son. “Do you want this sister so very much?”
Illian nodded so emphatically that his hair went flying every direction. “Yes, Father! I’ll be good as good can be to her.”
The Emperor laughed at his youngest son and lifted him in his arms. “Can you truly be good to her? Little girls are not like little boys. And she is certainly not a puppy that you found following you home from the market. She is a person, and she will, doubtless, annoy you greatly as the two of you grow together. She will want to follow you when you want to be alone and she will want to be alone when you want to follow her and you will doubtless quarrel on many occasions.”
Illian shook his head vehemently. “No, I promise. I won’t quarrel with her ever.”
The Emperor laughed. “Do not make promises that you cannot keep, my son.” He set Illian down and the boy looked up at him expectantly. The Emperor looked at Grainne. “I would like to meet with this girl-child, if I may, before I see to the formal adoption papers.”
Illian crowed with delight at his father’s agreement, not that he had harbored even a single doubt as to the answer. Grainne smiled. “Yes, my husband. I will bring her to you.”
“Thank you, my wife.”
The only clothing that the maids could find for Dauris on such short notice came from Illian’s closet. A ruffled shirt and a vest with a bit too much lace for the boy’s sensibilities, a small cloak and a set of breeches. She stood in front of a mirror and looked at her reflection, oblivious to the smiles that the maids tried to hide behind their hands.
Marus had to agree with them. His sister posed before the glass and swirled the cape and looked utterly adorable. She looked up at him for a moment. “This doesn’t make me look like a boy, does it?”
He shook his head. As if any boy would have hair falling that long down his back. “No, Dauris, you don’t look like a boy.”
She nodded. “Good. I like this style.” She swished the cape a few more times. “Sometimes boys get better clothes than girls do. Not always. Skirts are nice, but they do get in the way a lot.”
A few muffled giggles could be heard. Marus grinned, sharing the humor of such strange statements coming from his very serious little sister. “I would not know.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. You’re a boy.” The giggles became louder. She looked over her shoulder at the maids. “They giggle a lot.” Marus almost choked and she looked at him. “Are you all right?” He nodded. “Good.” She sighed, sounding melancholy. “I don’t like to laugh. It hurts.”
Just then the door to the bower opened and Illian came running in, followed by Grainne. Illian was shouting for joy. “Father said yes!” He stopped suddenly and looked at Dauris. “Those’re my clothes.” She nodded seriously. “You look better in them than I did.”
Marus looked at their mother, hopeful for the future. “So it went well? Father agrees?”
Grainne nodded, smiling happily. “He wishes to speak with her first, but yes, he agrees.”
Dauris turned away from the mirror and walked over to her mother. “I am ready,” she said, offering her hand.
A stranger walked through the marketplace. His clothing was of quality fabrics and fine stitching, if a bit odd in design and style. His long dark hair hung loose beneath a tall hat, though a streak of white ran through it on the left side. He wore a pair of blue-tinted round lensed spectacles that hid his eyes from those who glanced his way, and then looked away. Something about him, the hint of a shadow surrounding him, made more than one person uncomfortable.
For his part, the stranger looked at the people, at their clothing, and at the way they interacted with each other and barely contained a snort of derision. And this was supposed to be an Imperial city. They were so open, so unprotected, so secure in their own safety, so complacent. For an instant the desire to unleash havoc and destruction upon them was very strong, but he contained it. It wouldn’t do to lose control of his own instincts.
He scanned the crowd again and caught the tantalizing hint of a soul in turmoil. Now this was fascinating. He drew closer and saw a tall young man at one of the merchant stalls buying… a child’s doll? This grew better and better. There wasn’t a protected mind in the area and it took nothing to reach into them and gather the information he needed.
This was the Imperial Prince Primus Julian Krellian, called Jules by his family. He was in the market purchasing some few trinkets for a new sister, found just today in a cavern to the southwest of the city. A five-year-old girl with golden eyes and strange inhuman ears, or so the rumors went. Jules had seen her eyes, seen the golden color, and seen her pointed ears that looked similar to those of the dryads and that was a matter of some concern.
It was beyond impossible that it was the same annoying, interfering, thrice-blasted woman that he knew. That phoenix-flame still burned, but in other worlds. He’d know her influence the moment he came across it, and she was not in this place. Whoever this child was, though… she was similar enough to the Firebird that he felt a chill of concern and decided to look into the matter personally.
Jules, apparently, was a pragmatic soul, who accepted the magic of his world as simply being, much like the storms and the weather. He was shaken because the finding of the girl was not so easily explained away. The foundations of his worldview were being chipped away.
Now this suggested all sorts of fascinating possibilities to the stranger’s sordid mind. It might be interesting to see what he could do to this Prince who so feared things out of his ordinary world. Possession would give him a tool to use to unhinge the fabric of the world, something to enable him to wrap the whole of the world in chaos and destruction, but it was very power-intensive. Coercion of any sort usually was. But if he could corrupt the Prince… convince him that his allies were enemies… that could be a very interesting step in the right direction. And it could very well put that golden-eyed child in his hands and then… well, if it was the sort of child he thought it was, then he would be very creative in her suffering and torments before he ended her life.
Jules looked up at the strange man who approached him. “Do I… know you?”
“Don’t tell me that you’ve forgotten me, your highness.”
After a moment of concentration, Jules suddenly remembered being introduced to the man, Lukan, on a hunting trip a few years past. They had struck up something of a friendship during that time. “Ah, Lukan, forgive me. I had forgotten.”
“No matter, your highness. I have been away on business for quite some time. I just wanted to give you something that I found in my travels. I thought you might find it interesting.” Lukan handed Jules a book that was bound in red leather with gold scrollwork around the edges and the binding.
“Why, thank you.” Jules accepted the book with a curious look and turned it over a couple of times in his hands, examining it. He didn’t see the look in Lukan’s eyes, though it was most certainly not the sort of pleased look a friend would wear.
“I’ll be staying in town for a couple weeks, if you wish to find me.”
Jules nodded. “I may do just that.” He still looked at the book with an interest that bordered on fascination.
Lukan bowed. “Until then, your highness.” And he vanished into the crowd, a smile of pleasure on his face at a beginning successfully accomplished. Memory insertion was difficult, but not impossible. Particularly against an undefended opponent.