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 a brother 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 This was magic that superseded all the magic that he knew, went above it and beyond it into the realms of pure possibility.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. 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. 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 of him 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 he still a Knight this time?”
“Yes. I almost never see the Prince anymore, though the Pirate shows up now and then. The Knight, though, is the most common, and even as a Pirate he’s showing more Knightly tendencies.”
“What stood in your way this time?”
“Other than his brother? As always, mine.”
Illian frowned. “I would never stand in your way.”
She shook her head. “It’s not you that I’m worried about. If these are Castellan dreams… It’s Jules or Marus.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I cannot believe I’m even considering this. I’ve never had a true dream before in my life… ”
Illian looked at her quizzically. “Never?”
She flushed. “Well, there was one, but that… that one doesn’t count. It was about my eyes. I was crawling through a market, under the tables and through tunnels of fabric and found a mirror and my eyes were golden.” At Illian’s confused look she smiled hesitantly. “My eyes were blue at the time. They became golden later.”
Illian blinked in surprise and then nodded. “It is very strange. You look my age, but we both know that’s not the truth.”
She shrugged. “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. How do we keep Jules or Marus from coming between you and your Knight?”
“Provided that he’s not simply some figment of my imagination?” Illian nodded to her with a smile. “I don’t know. Given the culture here and some of the attitudes I’m seeing…” She sighed deeply, “Oh why does it matter? I don’t even know whether it’s worth the headache. How am I supposed to prepare for something when I don’t even know what it is?”
Illian blinked. “What do you mean ‘not worth it’? He- he’s…” he paused, slightly flustered, “he’s your Knight. He comes to rescue you. Obviously you’re supposed to fall in love and get married and live happily ever after and all that… right?”
She shook her head, old grief in her eyes. “I have loved before, Illian. I have loved so strongly that it would make your stories pale in comparison… but I have never had the ‘happily ever after’. He died in my arms and my screams probably still echo through that land.” She shivered slightly from the memory. “His final act was to put our wedding ring in my hand… he’d never had the chance to ask the question.”
“But… but… Lady Zaira was given Lord Gryphon back after his death… maybe… maybe you will get yours back too?” His eyes widened as inspiration struck. “Maybe your Knight is your lost love come back from death to find you again!”
She sagged against the wall of the treehouse. “And maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s just someone who feels that it’s his duty to guard me. He might do so out of genuine friendship and caring, but it doesn’t have to be love, much less the sort of love that would make a marriage work in any world. I’m not even certain that I want to marry anyone at all. I certainly don’t want to be forced into it, though I have no doubt that issue is going to come up eventually. Especially since we are a noble family and noble marriages usually have all sorts of complications involving treaties and alliances and whatnot.”
“Why don’t you just tell everyone that you’re dreaming? Castellan dreams are not to be denied.”
She sighed. “That didn’t stop Father from trying to stop Mother’s sister from following Castellan dreams. And besides, it doesn’t stop Marus from arranging a marriage for me that I don’t want if the Knight is just a dear friend after all.”
“But Marus dotes on you.”
“I adore Marus… but I don’t trust him. He’s not like you are, Illian. And what do we do if it’s 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. “Castellan dreams will not be denied, Sister.”
She shrugged and they crawled their way back out of the tree.