Summer faded into autumn and the Empress faded with the year. With the falling of the first snow, she died with her family around her.
For days Dauris was inconsolable.
Finally, Illian and Marus had had enough, and Illian marched into the bower to confront his sister. “Marus wants to take you for a walk and I want you to go. All you do is sit in here and cry.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a girl. I’m supposed to cry.”
“I know that! And I cry too. I will for as long as I live. But we turn twelve soon, and you need to do some shopping for the party, which we will have in spite of everything. I thought you were looking forward to giving up the short bodices.”
“I was, but without Mother… ” She looked down at the bracelet that she still wore. In point of fact, she even slept with it on. It felt… comforting.
“Dauris, a walk isn’t going to hurt you. Please, if you lock yourself in here then Marus… he’s already going strange again when you aren’t around. Take him shopping with you. Gallus is with his grandchildren today and it can just be the two of you.”
“What about you?”
Illian looked down at his feet. “Father… Father and I are going to take care of some matters. I’d rather not have Marus around when we do.”
Dauris blinked. “He agreed?”
“Father dotes on me. I wish I knew why, but he does. Please, Dauris, take Marus away from the Palace long enough for Father and me to see to the transfer.”
She nodded slowly. “Alright, let me get my cloak.”
— — —
Marus waited for Dauris at the entrance to the gardens. She had to smile at him when she saw the worried look in his eyes. She still feared that one day they would be on opposite sides in a war, but she could never hate him. She loved him too much. Especially after what he had done for her after Jules died, and before.
For a while they simply walked in silence, enjoying the coldness of the air.
Then one of the females of the court walked by, all done up in tasteless wealth, walking her utterly useless lapdog that was almost as arrogant as she was. Oh, she bowed to them, they were higher on the social ladder than she was, but Dauris had seen how she treated everyone else.
Still, Dauris was better bred than to snort in her face. She saved the giggles for after the woman was out of hearing range. “Did you see that dog of hers? I’m surprised the poor animal can still walk. She tends to carry it everywhere with her.”
Marus was cheered greatly by the way Dauris laughed. It wasn’t full laughter, she almost never did that, but it was still better than the silence. “Lapdogs are all the fashion the last couple of years. Almost every female in court has one.”
“Do you want one?”
Dauris actually stopped still for a moment. “I was adopted by a dog when I was a baby. I still remember the stories about how she would climb into my crib and then wouldn’t even let my parents near me.”
“That isn’t answering the question, Dauris.”
“I know. I just… I never thought about having a dog, or a cat, or anything of that sort.” She’d had a dog, once. A little creature she’d loved as much as any child of her own. A loyal friend no matter what. She missed that little dog terribly.
“Well, it would have to be an unusual animal, that is for certain. No dust mop dogs for my sister.”
She chuckled. “I’m partial to short-haired animals myself. Easier to clean up after.” It was true, to an extent, but it wasn’t the whole truth. She’d love any creature that let her mother it.
They continued walking and talking until they were almost out to the market where Dauris slipped on a spot of ice, falling flat on her seat as her feet flew out from under her. Marus looked at her, startled.
“Are you alright, Sister?”
She laughed, more at herself than anything else. “Yes, I’m fine. Just give me a moment and I’ll stand up.”
Marus reached a hand out to her to help her up when a small dark brown shape ran up from an alleyway, barking madly at Marus. It startled him so much that he actually backed up a couple steps. Then the small shape turned towards Dauris and started whining and she realized that it was a small dog, a puppy, barely even weaned, and it was cold and frightened.
“Oh, baby, what are you doing out here by yourself?” Before Marus could stop her, Dauris opened her arms and the tiny dog jumped into them, trying to burrow into her warmth. “Oh, sweetheart, oh you poor dear.” She wrapped the dog in her cloak to try to warm her up.
Marus looked at the two of them for a moment in stunned amazement. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, Heavens, some days I have to wonder if someone up there doesn’t have a twisted sense of humor.”
Dauris looked at him curiously. “Why do you say that, Brother?”
“Because that is exactly what you did when we first found you, Little Sister.” He reached out his hand again and she took it with the opposite hand from the one holding the little dog close to her. He helped her to her feet and looked at the puppy, still smiling. “I believe we found you a lapdog.”
She looked down at the puppy, and had to smile at the big brown eyes that pled with her for warmth, and food, and safety. She didn’t know how it was possible, not after all this time… not when the last time she’d seen this little one was peeking out from the backpack of the woman she shared her life with as she ran for dear life. This… this was her baby. “I’ll call her Annie.”
— — —
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 was a new recruit when you came to me to assign a guardian for my daughter, too new for such a task, but now… ” 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. “Now he is seasoned and experienced and has exceeded both expectations and promise. 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 in all the worlds she had seen, there had been greater coincidences. 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.” 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… he is not a man for any princess, much less one such as your sister.” 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.”