Jessica had never really paid attention before, to the way one’s feelings were able to distort reality, to disturb the flow of time and space. She certainly did now.
She felt like her last words exchanged with the Reverend Mother Superior, a last encouragement and warning before embarking into the spacecraft, had been hours ago; and yet, no matter how fast was the ship was, no matter how advanced his technologies were or how many stars and planet she seen streaming in the void, time seemed to slow and stretch mockingly at it reminded her of the reality of her situation.
The day had come for her to officially accomplish the very mission she’d been trained, raised and born for: join Caladan, a planet under the jurisdiction of House Atreides, and become Duke Leto Atreides’s concubine.
A simple task, really.
As there was no one in her sight, no one to keep a mask on for, she allowed herself a handful of seconds to acknowledge the stubborn, boiling anticipation coursing through her veins. The adrenaline it caused was somewhat unexpected and yet appreciated, a burn that acted like a balm against the tight collar of her clothes, a traditional Bene Gesserit dress that seemed intent on suffocating her before she would be able to reach her destination.
Leto the Just, they called him. A brave and compassionate man, whose golden reputation crossed galaxies - and Jessica was to become his concubine and breed a daughter, for the greater good of Bene Gesserit’s age-old agenda, to step always closer to the goal they had aspired to reach for thousands of years: producing the Kwisatz Hadarach.
Whether the Duke would allow himself to trust a complete stranger, sent by a notoriously nefarious organization, would be the question, and she knew that as soon as she would set foot onto Caladan she would have none other than herself to count on - she only hoped she would be able to gain more allies than enemies, and that the Duke would be of the former option.
It would indeed be extremely different from what she had known all her life, from being part of a group, an organization: although it restrained her freedom, it also brought a sense of protection deeper and more solid than she could ever feel while on her own. The Bene Gesserit had raised her and trained her - until then she had never truly been fending for herself without constant supervision.
Now she was about to dive into the unknown, out of the Bene Gesserit’s absolute jurisdiction. She had no idea of what would possibly happen, of who she would be able to trust - if any of the people she would meet would be worthy of trust.
But there was one thing she was certain of, one small and tenacious idea rooted deep in the back of her mind.
She would not fail.
Where the hidden lands of Bene Gesserit she remembered faintly visiting were nothing but dry and flat lands, buildings nested between the crooks of ravines and canyon-striped deserts, Caladan was swarming with life and colors, constantly animated with sounds and movements - the starkest of contrast she could have ever imagined, and she was fascinated despite herself. Even from afar, the planet was a gem of hushed blues and dulled greens, and as the ship entered the atmosphere Jessica started to perceive thick mist swirling between valleys and flourishing foam crashing onto sand and cliffs, mountains shaped through the flow of raging rivers. As the ship started its slow descent, preparing to land, she could feel the air hum a constant melody, wild and free, the roar of the sea waves and the wind howling between cliffs and oceans.
The castle itself was perched and steady on the highest top she had yet seen on the planet, dominating oceans and valleys, the ancient bricks of the building almost merging with the natural stone of the mountain it rested upon. There were no gardens, no decorative buildings, no pretense of wealth presented through pointless monuments or parcs.
The aircraft landed, and Jessica breathed in deeply, a last vow of bravery and strength, before stepping outside; as soon as she did, she felt the humidity seeping through her clothes, setting deep between her bones. She ignored it, locking her jaw in front of the vicious bite of the wind - regulating her body temperature was thankfully an easy task, thanks to the rigorous training she’d followed ever since she was a child.
Her sight acclimated to the sudden flood of natural light, and her eyes locked with Leto Atreides, waiting with his guards at a safe distance from the ship. He seemed like the man she had been told about - the perfectly groomed hair and beard, as well as the pristine suit, gave him an air of incontestable authority. There was no doubt that this Duke inspired respect from his people, and that he was not a man to be defied.
“Lady Jessica, I presume?” He announced as they both stepped towards the other. His voice rich and deep, tone polite and pleasant- a shiver ran down her spine. “May you be welcome to Caladan.”
As they reached each other, Jessica offered her hand, and calloused fingers encircled it gently before the skin of her knuckles met warm lips. Her eyes never leaving his own, she felt a small smile threatening to pull at her mouth- he was obviously studying her as deeply as he could, within this short span of time. Not that she could blame him for doing so, as she had been doing the same ever since she had noticed him.
She allowed the stubborn smile to stretch on her mouth, tilting her head forward in a respectful nod. “It’s an honour, Duke Atreides. This is a beautiful planet you have. I can see why it is so highly praised across galaxies.”
He offered a small smile back, and let go of her hand to step besides her as they started to move towards the castle. “We’ve been blessed with unique weather and landscapes - so I must admit that Caladan’s high reputation is not entirely my doing.”
“You’ve still contributed to it quite a lot,” she insisted, faint amusement tainting her voice at his odd show of modesty.
“Maybe so,” he conceded pleasantly. “Would you like a visit, after you’re settled?”
His willingness for small talk was already a good sign; while Jessica hadn’t expected a warm welcome or to be appreciated immediately, she was certainly glad for the lack of offensive comments or hostile behaviour that many of her predecessors had received upon meeting their significant other- maybe they would be able to work out something together, after all.
“We could go now, if you’d like. I would greatly appreciate it, indeed.”
After an extensive presentation of the palace’s layouts, Jessica was guided towards her private quarters by none other than the duke himself. She schooled her expression into a carefully neutral one as they stepped into the room - hers. It’s not that she hadn’t expected to get her own bedroom; despite her mission and the Bene Gesserit’s impatience concerning the accomplishment of their age-old plan, Jessica was well aware that such a task would not be realized in a couple of days - and considering the… required intimacy for it, she was actually more than glad that the duke had decided to first give her her personal quarters.
Not that she was naive enough to believe she wouldn’t be surveilled very closely.
Still, she couldn’t help the surprise that almost knocked the air out of her lungs, as she noticed how luxurious and spacious the room that had been prepared for her was - it had clearly been prepared with more care than she could have ever imagined. Basked in a flood of natural light, the silver glow of the winter sky filtered through the curtains and bounced onto the large leaves of potted plants disposed around the room, some of them blooming with gorgeously coloured petals.
“Do you like it?” the Duke inquired politely. Although she didn’t turn to him to confirm her suspicions, Jessica had the distinct feeling he was watching her with open curiosity.
“It’s beautiful,” she answered carefully, her gaze roaming across furniture and windows. It was unlike anything she’d expected - the room, the welcome, him. How delightful, to be treated with respect rather than cold indifference, to maybe be considered an ally rather than an enemy or a prize. Jessica had heard so many things about the way her fellow concubines had been treated - she’d come to imagine this would become her exact fate.
She realized her short answer might have come off as disrespectful, so she added leisurely, “I’m very grateful. Thank you for preparing such welcoming quarters.”
She risked a glance at him from the corner of her eyes, only to see him note minutely, a faint expression of satisfaction painted across the firm lines of his face.
“I’m glad to hear this is of your liking.”
They both paused as several voices called out from behind the double doors, before someone she recognized as a warmaster entered the room to whisper something in the duke’s ear. She watched as a frown grew on the noble’s forehead.
“I’m afraid I must go,” Atreides declared as the other man left, inclining his head slightly in a polite nod. “A recent storm destroyed some of our orchards, and there’s apparently been some… trouble, let’s say, among our workers. Please make yourself comfortable, and don’t hesitate to require anything you might want or need. I’ll see you again for dinner, Lady Jessica.”
As entertaining as the idea sounded, Jessica had something else in mind.
“Would you like me to join?” she asked instead.
He faltered in his stride, turning to her once more, head tilted as if to study her. Then, as if she’d said something particularly humorous, a small smile spread across his lips.
“I appreciate your offer,” he told her honestly, voice surprisingly devoid from the sarcasm or annoyance she had almost expected. “But you’ve just arrived on a new planet after a long trip, and I think I’m safely assuming you are quite exhausted from it. Besides, you don’t have the appropriate clothes to go out in such weather; no matter how your dress might be resistant to the weather, I doubt they’re impervious to the violent rains we can get on this planet.
“That wouldn’t be a problem,” she insisted politely.
That elicited a small grin from him. “I know you and your Bene Gesserit sisters can regulate your own body temperatures, but that still requires a consequent effort that a good set of clothes could replace easily-” he began, smile twitching a fraction wider when she arched an eyebrow in suspicion - this was, after all, information that was supposed to be kept away from indiscreet ears. “I have my ways to get the information I need. No offense meant by that, Lady Jessica, but I like knowing who exactly I’ll be welcoming within my walls.”
“Fair enough,” she accepted; it wasn’t like he would be able to do much from such a small fraction of knowledge about her abilities. “I’ll see you later, then. Thank you again for the room.”
And this was how, for the first time in hours, Jessica was finally left on her own, the sudden silence heavy yet welcoming, the reality of her situation yet to fully dawn on her. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forwards, watching with wonder and curiosity the traditional furniture adorning the room. On them had been placed various boxes of what she guessed to be jewelry, artisanal perfumes and several plates of dry sweets - from what she could see, dried and honeyed pieces of fruit that must have been grown in the palace’s orchards.
The ocean was visible through the ornate window facing her waves, and even from where she was standing she could see the massive waves of an another upcoming storm crashing upon the cliffs in a rain of foam.
Finally, she allowed herself to sit on the bed, pleased to discover the firmness of the mattress, the plush of the silken blankets. She breathed in deeply, air filling her lungs until it burned, and closed her eyes.
She would be fine.
The next day, Jessica woke up at dawn, and watched with unconcealed fascination the mesmerizing green and blue shades painting the morning skies of Caladan. There was soon a knock on her doors, and as she opened the heavy wooden panels she was met with an older woman.
“Good morning, Lady Jessica. The Duke asked me to prepare some sets of Caladan clothes for you,” the tailor explained with a small smile at the concubine’s polite inquiry. “The humidity is getting strong and we’re about to enter the storm season. He’s afraid your current clothes will not be efficient enough against the weather of this planet, and he said he didn’t want you to be confined within the palace for weeks.”
The tailor was cheerful and humorous, her touch feather-light - while Jessica kept her expression mostly formal, she did appreciate the genuine enthusiasm. Several pieces of fabric were presented to her, all made of the same silken material, but each with different colours and shades.
“Those are not worn commonly on Caladan,” Jessica inquired as she pointed to warmer colours, the gold and red hues standing out from the rest of the fabrics. “Are they?”
“You’re right- traditionally, we prefer more natural shades, such as those greens, blues and browns,” the tailor explained patiently, showing with a wave of her hand the other colours. “But those are merely preferences, and you’re welcome to choose anything you like, my lady.”
She considered it for a moment - choices, as trivial as they could be, had been something that had rarely been given to her; and to be given the opportunity to choose something for herself was something she valued greatly.
“I’ll keep those traditional colours then, if that’s alright,” she finally said, the ethereal pale blue of one of the pieces catching her eye.
“Of course. I’ll have everything prepared for you.”
The older woman then sent her a pleased look, gaze heavy with approval, as though she’d just passed some kind of implicit test, before she delved good-heartedly into lengthy explanations of the different uses and meanings for each color among the Caladan population.
Those were small steps - but once again, the first ones were always the most crucial.
Duke Atreides was a busy man - not that it was surprising in any way, considering the weight of uncountable responsibilities resting on his shoulders. And yet, he would make obvious efforts to spend meals in her company, to invite her to numerous visits and meetings. It was obvious that he was at least curious about her as a person rather than simply a woman he needed to have a child with - and she greatly appreciated that, as she didn’t intend to remain idle while living on Caladan.
“I want to participate,” she’d told him, early during the first days of their cohabitation -there were, after all, few other ways to call it. “To take part in politics, to learn about Caladan’s customs and culture, to be a part of this planet. If I’m here to stay by your side for an undetermined amount of time, I want to be active.”
“That’s something I understand,” he’d answered easily. “You’ll understand I can’t give you so many responsibilities at once, but you’re very welcome to join me for small meetings and audiences.”
The underlying meaning of his words was clear: if you want to take part in important matters, you’ll need to prove yourself worthy first.
That was fine with her; being a stranger and an intruder he had been forced with, she had never expected his blind trust from the start- and neither did she trust him, maybe if only a little, although she knew she would have to learn to.
And so days and days flew around, soon morphing into weeks and months, most of them rainy and beautifully stormy, others exceptionally warm under the rays of the two suns that would occasionally peek shylu from behind deep seas of clouds.
Jessica undertook the arduous task of educating herself rigorously about Caladan culture - its economy and politics, its history and environment. It often happened that she would not see him for days at once; but then Duke Atreides would sometimes bring her some of his favourite books, seeming pleased that she was taking such interest in his planet, or he would offer small anecdotes about the subject she would be studying.
Soon enough, too, he would get bold enough and attempt to ask her questions about the Bene Gesserit.
“You do realize that I’m not allowed to tell you much about it, right?” She asked after yet another question, in a half-hearted attempt to sound more stern than amused. Clearly, she’d failed, because he grinned at her with a cheek she had not expected from the man. Such an expression was strangely pleasant, especially on him.
“Well, you can’t blame me for trying,” he quipped back, not the least bothered by the lack of satisfying answers. “I’ve been quite curious about this.”
“I thought you had your ways.”
Atreides chuckled. “This is the Bene Gesserit we’re talking about. Even my most diligent sources aren’t able to find out much about your sisters and Reverend mothers.”
She smiled back. “Well, maybe they’re not diligent enough.”
One day, he invited her to a sparring session, which she earnestly accepted - she hadn’t had yet to test out the training rooms and she’d missed dearly the peace of mind that physical exercise would bring her.
“Shall we go against each other?” she asked as he presented her the arsenal room of the gym, testing the weight of a wooden staff with a quick glance in his direction.
Amical fights were, in her humble but strong opinion, an excellent way to judge accurately of someone’s most honest personality- their strengths and weaknesses, their values and priorities. The way someone reacted when backed against a wall would tell a lot about them - more than words would ever be able to.
And it seemed like he shared that opinion as well, she mused as she watched the spark challenge coming to life within his dark eyes.
“I’d be honoured to, Lady Jessica.”
The first fight lasted barely more than a couple of seconds - as soon as it started, Jessica leapt forwards, and swept the man off his feet with a fast blow to the back of his knees. He lands heavily on his back, a slight wheeze escaping his mouth in reaction to getting the air knocked out of his lungs, and eyes shining in utter delight.
She took pride in that - she’d been trained severely in all martial arts and fighting techniques as soon as she’d been able to walk, and it rejoiced her greatly to note that she was more able to stand her ground against the very leader of House Atreides - a house renowned for its fighters.
He got up again and again and again, never even remotely disgruntled from his consecutive losses, and seemed on the contrary to gain in interest and ease with each of her victories. The weight of his gaze was heavy on her as he studied her movements, and Jessica felt a satisfying thrill coursing through her veins as the fights got progressively harder, as he adapted his fighting methods to her and against her - he was definitely a fast learner, and soon he was able to parry several of her hits, and to attempt a few of his own.
The first time he managed to send her to the ground, he never gloated or laughed, instead offering his hand to help her get back on her feet, eyes glinting with unmistakable and yet humble pride.
“You’re an excellent fighter,” he told her, sounding extremely pleased with that fact.
She arched an eyebrow, more in tease than in offense. “Were you expecting anything less?”
“Of course not,” he answered, dusting off his clothes. “If anything, I would have been disappointed to discover you couldn’t fight. Shall we go for another round?”
She felt a smile bloom on her mouth, and for once she didn’t bother with containing it. “Well, if you’re so pressed to have the tip of my weapon against your throat once more, my Duke, how could I possibly refuse you?”
Sometimes Jessica would surprise herself by getting lost in her thoughts, unfocused eyes admiring the harsh landscapes of Caladan. She would watch raging seas and growling storms dancing past the palace, would wait for the divine glow of golden sunsets during the rare days where the skies would remain clear and void.
She knew she had better to do than stay idle in front of her windows; and yet, something in the swirl of waves and foam was strangely hypnotic, and pleasantly mind-numbing- and now that there was no one chiding her for daydreaming, she probably indulged herself much more than she should have. She couldn’t help but wonder if the locals considered the harsh beauty of their planet differently; if they would dream of storms and seas like she did.
At night, when sleep would refuse to embrace her, it was oceans of stars she watched avidly - as if her sudden pretense of freedom had awakened a curiosity buried deep within her chest, as if she had just realized the universe beheld an infinity of small beauties and her soul now wanted to remember them all.
It was a welcome moment of peace and quiet, a few minutes during which she didn’t have to worry about anything but the regularity of her breathing in the comfortable touch of silence - until one day she made the mistake of lingering a little too long by the library’s sole window, in the Duke’s presence.
“Would you like a walk on the beach?” he asked, the low depth of his voice gently shaking her off her thoughts. “You’d get a great view of the ocean from here.”
“Why not,” she hummed with an absent smile. “Before Caladan I had never seen oceans, so I’ve been curious about it.”
He raised an eyebrow at her admission, closing the thick book he’d been skimming through as he stepped closer to her. “I thought Lampadas had oceans.”
She chuckled at the planet’s name. For some reason, it didn’t bother her that he seemed to be able to get such intel on places that were supposed to be kept a secret - even the very planet that hosted the Bene Gesserit school. “Looks like your sources got diligent enough.”
“It does,” she continued, turning her head back to the ocean. “But the place I grew up in was not anywhere close to one, and much better hidden. It’s not like I could freely roam around the planet, either.”
The concept of never seeing the sea from its shore seemed a foreign concept to him, and that idea was oddly amusing, so she added with a smile, “I did see those oceans from afar, when embarking on a spacecraft for a mission. I simply never really had the occasion to visit.”
“Well, it’d be a shame to stay indoors all day long on this planet as well,” the Duke declared, joining her as they gazed at the faraway waves. “Caladan has many memorable landscapes. I think you would appreciate seeing them.“
Her smile widened. “Oh, you think so?”
“I’m certain of it.”
“Are you offering this because you think it’d be enjoyable, or are you looking for a way to get more information out of me?”
The gleam in his eyes was enough of an answer. “Maybe both.”
“Don’t you have more pressing matters than strolls on the beach?” Jessica argued back, not ready to give in just yet.
It’d been clear from day one that the Duke was a stubborn man- so the surprise was somewhat diminished when he equally refused to step back. “This could be a good exercise of trust as well - we’ll need to build it someday.”
“I’m aware trust will be a key factor - but are you afraid I’ve been sent to kill you?” she asked, torn between disbelief and genuine amusement.
“I’m not,” he denied easily, and she believed him. “If it had been your goal, I have the distinct suspicion that I would have been buried a long time ago.”
“You're right.” There was no point in lying.
“But you’ll admit that our meeting was somewhat… forced. And if we are to rule together, I’d rather feel comfortable in my own home, with a solid trust towards the person living with me. For now, much like I don’t have full trust in you, Lady Jessica, I believe you have your own reserves as well.”
That got her full attention, and she turned her head in his direction, watching for any hint of reproach and finding none. He was merely stating facts.
“And I am willing to change that,” he continued, with a stare that bore straight into her eyes, deep into her soul. “If you’ll let me.”
Jessica breathed once, twice, not shying once from his gaze. There was an underlying hope in his voice, a genuine spark of interest that’d been here from the very first words they had exchanged - and maybe against her better judgement, she allowed that same embers of hope to transpire in her words as she spoke again.
“That sounds like a reasonable plan.”
Atreides’ guards kept a reasonable distance for them to consider a pretense of privacy, as they climbed down the narrow stairs carved into the dark cliffs surrounding the palace. It was now clear what he had meant by exercise of trust - the steps were too small to walk side by side, forcing them to go one after the other.
“I’ll go first,” she had offered as a token of her goodwill - she did, much like him, wished to build that dearly-needed trust.
“The lower steps might be slippery from humidity,” he had warned her in return, in a weak attempt to hide the pleased surprise in his voice. “Be careful not to slip.”
As she climbed down, the most suspicious part of her urged her to turn back and make sure he wasn’t going to attempt to push her off. She tampered that paranoid voice down, and resisted the urge to instead concentrate on the scenery. The sky was exceptionally clear today, painting the sea in a deep blue, and the salted air filled her lungs pleasantly as she took a deep breath upon reaching the last step.
The texture of humid sand was strange under her shoes, but not unpleasant either, and she glanced behind her to watch the marks left by the soles of her feet as she walked.
For the longest time, neither of them said anything, the lull of the waves conversing in their stead. The rush of water and foams offered a state of peace that filled her chest and soul - it felt like she was taking her first true breaths.
As they glanced at each other they exchanged nothing but a small, knowing smile.
There was no need for more.
After that day they would occasionally come back on that secluded beach - maybe not as much as she would have liked. She had already gone by herself when she had desired for some fresh air, only to find out that she liked those quiet moments much more by the Duke’s side - his presence offered a solid and friendly weight to her side, and it had taken her an almost absurdly long time to realize that ever since she’d been introduced to him there had not been a single interaction with him that she had disliked. Those moments spent together between solid cliffs and ever changing oceans were rare as Atreides’ presence was increasingly more required with the problems born out of the rain season - destroyed orchards and storm-raided fields, worried and desperate civilians were indeed a much more pressing matter.
But sometimes, when the day was still strong and bright with little to no duties left to attend, he would join her in the library or the training room and send her a meaningful look, a silent invitation conveyed through a small quirk of his eyebrows, a tilt of his head.
The warmth that bloomed in her chest when he would do so never once weakened.
It was in the dead of the night, another couple of weeks later, that Jessica woke up in cold sweat within the absolute darkness of the room, muscles tense and coiled, heart pounding wildly in her ribcage.
For a split second she wondered whether it was the remnants of a nightmare her body had not yet fully forgotten - but then she knew, and forced herself still, kept her eyes shut tight and ears strained for any foreign noise.
And then she heard it - the faintest brush of air, the smallest vibration as the doors of the room slid open in absolute silence, followed by an almost imperceptible rustling of fabric.
She surged upward, her eyes finding the intruder with ease despite the thick shadows enveloping her, and it froze mid-step as it realized it had been discovered.
The shadow had no chance to act.
“Stop,” she commanded in a clear and harsh word, summoning the specific frequency required to use the voice - and with such a specific and strong word, there was no risk for her order to be ignored.
There was a strained gasp as the stranger was rendered powerless, and she rose to her feet, snapping her fingers to light the small lamp above her bed until her room was flooded in golden light. They were covered in dark clothes, and all but their eyes were hidden behind fabric. They were fixing her with anger and fear, the frustration of having been caught clear as day and scalding.
They obeyed reluctantly, their body yielding to her demand immediately even as the soul burning bright in those eyes attempted desperately to resist.
She walked past the intruder with barely more than a disdainful glance at them, her fingers hidden against the handle of the dagger hidden within her robes. There was no one else in the hallways surrounding her room but a couple of slumped guards, and she wasn’t able to stop the heavy sigh that escaped her lips.
As she reached the last corner of the hallway leading to the Duke’s quarters, she was both relieved and irritated to notice that his guards were still standing and awake - pleased because it meant he was most likely out of danger, and annoyed because it also meant they had stopped her as soon as they had seen her, and were now refusing to let her go any further.
“There’s currently an assassin kneeling in my bedroom,” she spoke in a cold voice, viciously satisfied when the two men exchanged an uneasy glance. “Now I understand you won’t let me into his room, but I’d appreciate you at least warning him of a dangerous individual roaming within his own castle.”
They finally relented and one went inside, while the other remained to Jessica’s side.
“Please forgive us, Lady Jessica,” he excused himself flatly. “We-”
“Are merely doing your role as guards,” she completed. She wasn’t there to fight them, and it wasn’t like they had been outrageously disrespectful towards her. “I understand, don’t worry.”
They fell silent as the door opened once more, the Duke stepping outside with an urge that erased all possible traces of sleep.
“Lady Jessica,” he called out, moving even closer to examine her under the dim lights of the hallway. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she reassured immediately, blinking at his tense posture. “Unharmed. This was clearly an amateur.”
That seemed to do the trick and his face relaxed, the ghost of a smile passing upon his lips.
“Against you, there aren’t many people that wouldn’t be considered amateurs.”
She mirrored his expression. “This one was particularly bad.”
But now wasn’t the time for jokes and pleasantries, her mind finally seemed to remember, and so Jessica turned around with a nod, and led the three men back to her quarters; the assassin was still forced to his knees, unable to even turn his head at the sound of their footsteps.
She stopped in front of the intruder, arms crossed, and waited for Atreides to come next to her. He was studying the figure with a gaze of steel as he walked around, and then he locked eyes with her and nodded.
“Remove your hood,” she commanded the assassin. Then, to the duke, “Do you recognize them?”
He raised an eyebrow, assessing the almost unnaturally and quite characteristic pale skin. “Not personally - but it would appear our guest here was a gift from the House Harokken.”
“What do you wish to do with them?” His gaze, perfectly neutral, remained riveted to the uncovered intruder.
Jessica turned to him. “Shouldn’t you be the one to decide? That’s why I warned you of their presence.”
He gestured to the guards, a small motion of the hands that she recognized as an order for search, and they went to pat down the immobilized man. One of them paused, hands pressed inside a concealed pocket, and stood back up with a concerned expression.
“Sir. He was in possession of this.”
The guard handed a small object to the Duke, who raised it to eye level to inspect it. Under the dim light that filled her bedroom, Jessica perceived the weak shine of a crystal syringe, a pale orange liquid swirling within from the movement.
“Poison,” he noted as he handed her the syringe delicately. “You would have suffocated. A painful death.”
There was a deadly edge concealed behind the regal calm he exuded, the slight narrowing of his eyes a telltale sign of his inner turmoil.
“I’m fine,” Jessica repeated, because it sounded like the only meaningful thing to say at the moment. “It’ll take more than a mere assassin to get rid of me.”
At last, some warmth returned in his eyes when he looked at her once more, his gaze roaming quickly over her figure once more as if to verify the truth of her statement.
“That I don’t doubt,” he murmured. “They didn’t stand a chance against you.”
Maybe quite inappropriate to feel during such an ordeal, Jessica ignored the satisfaction that swelled in her chest, and focused on the incapacitated man. She locked eyes with him, and almost scoffed - reading him was absurdly easy and even an open book would have required more effort for her to decipher.
Hatred. Resignation. Disappointment.
His only regret was to have been caught before being able to accomplish his task.
“Do you need him alive?”
Atreides took a moment to answer. “We would need to interrogate him eventually, and get him to tell how he managed to infiltrate the castle. But we have no guarantee he’ll talk.”
“Then I suggest we let him live for now, while making him know the same fate he was about to inflict upon me,” she offered in professional indifference, and drank in the flick of fear that finally flashed upon the condamned’s face. “I’m sure it’ll also help him to become more… talkative.”
He tilted his head ever so slightly, appraising. Even now as she kept her gaze trained on the intruder rather than him, she could feel the weight of his gaze on her, could imagine the pair of dark eyes studying her intently as he considered her idea. “We’ll have to keep this vial to study its poison,” he reminded her carefully. “Would that be a problem?”
He nodded once, then stepped back, as if to give her the space to accomplish her deed. “Then by all means, Lady Jessica, you’re welcome to do whatever you’d please with him.”
“Thank you, Duke.”
She took one step forward, forcing the kneeling man to crane his neck in order to look at her. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple, strained gasps the only noises he was able to make - he’d understood. Yet he didn’t shake or turned his gaze away from her; and for that, Jessica allowed herself to feel a spark of respect at his dedication and resignation.
“I won’t ask for your name,” she told him. “Here on Caladan, or among your masters, it holds no significance. You’re merely a pawn among many others, and you’ll always be considered as one.”
She paused, giving the door of her room a long glance as she remembered the slumped bodies past them. She wouldn’t pretend the guards’ death particularly affected her; she knew little more than their names, and through her rigourous upbringing she’d always been discouraged to care - the Bene Gesserit had always considered people for the purpose they served rather than for their humanity. Having no use would mean to be discarded.
But she’d seen the way the Duke’s eyes had lingered in the hallway, the clench in his jaw, and the grief buried deep within his voice - and she had remembered that this was a man who looked fiercely after his people, who knew the names of everyone working for and around him, who would greet and nod at the maids working in the palace and thank the cooks for their food.
Maybe, maybe, between a man who cared almost too much and a woman who didn’t nearly care enough, they would be able to reach some kind of equilibrium; and for this, she was ready to learn compassion - feelings were a muscle of another kind, in the end, and if she had been taught to control them then there was nothing preventing her from developing them.
And first, she would avenge.
“But while failing to complete your mission, you killed two people - and so you will pay for their lives, with yours. Eventually.”
Her eyes returned to the spy - and when she spoke again, her voice was made of steel, infused with unyielding power.
“You will hold your breath for as long as you can,” she ordered. “You will hold it until your lungs burn, until your vision blurs - and only when you are about to lose consciousness, will you be allowed to take a breath - one exhale, one inhale. And you will repeat this, over and over again.”
Jessica then stepped back to Atreides’ side, even as the assassin’s eyes widened a fraction, the only sign of the horror raking through his body.
By the time the guards had taken him out of the room, his lips had already gained a deep shade of purple.
“A harsh punishment,” the Duke commented. His tone was undecipherable, even to her, and she turned her head to him; he was still staring at the door.
He finally looked at her, and when his eyes met hers she realized the nature of the emotion painting his face: the burning desire for revenge and pain.
“I’m almost tempted to say it wasn’t harsh enough,” he corrected. “But considering we’ll leave him a few days like this… I’m sure I’ll change my mind upon my next visit.”
Their deaths weren't your fault, she wanted to tell him.
“Even the tightest securities aren’t infallible,” she declared instead. “We can revise it tomorrow.”
“We will. My men- they were killed by the same poison that was about to be used on you,” he explained somberly, a growing spark of anger tainting his voice.
Unsure on how to proceed with comforting him - this had never been something she’d been taught, after all - Jessica opted to follow her instinct, and placed her hand on his arm, brushing her fingers lightly across the fabric. “I know it won’t bring them back. But we’ll get back at them, one way or another.”
At once there was a warm weight on her fingers, and for a second she feared that she’d misread him, that he was going to dislodge her hand. The doubt quickly dissipated as the palm of his hand rested against the back of her much smaller one, the pad of his thumb brushing against her knuckles, squeezing delicately in gratitude.
“With you, I know we will.”
The matter was still weighing on his mind the next week.
“I’m more than able to defend myself, you know,” she declared, picking a deep red fruit from the breakfast table.
He had the gall to sound amused. “I think you proved it many times already. Still, I would be reassured to know your sleep wouldn’t be disturbed by another assassin.”
She paused halfway through the peeling, watching him as he bit into an apple in an attempt to uncover his most exact motivation. “There are many ways to keep an eye on me - a lot of them that wouldn’t ask of us to share the same room.”
“I’m aware. But I think that’s the option I would like best.”
Misinterpreting her silence for hesitation, he added, “I would understand if you wished to keep your own quarters, though.”
She shook her head. “No- I think… I would like that.
The expression he made was too much for her to bear, something relieved and warm and affectionate, and she deflected with a small quip.
“But I do hope your bed is at least as comfortable as mine.”
He snorted at the joke, a small grin pulling at his cheeks. “With me, in it? Trust me, it’ll be even better.”
“I’ll know who to blame if I happen to sleep badly, then.”
When later that night he entered their room silently as Jessica skimmed through a book about Caladan fishing, she watched in amusement as he took a double-take, blinking at her - though she was unsure of whether it was because she was actually there, or because she was still awake.
“You don’t have to wait for me to sleep, you know,” he told her in lieu of a greeting. Second option it was, then.
“Good evening to you too, my Duke,” she answered with a smile, closing her book gently to put it away. “I know, but I wanted to.”
“If we’re to sleep in the same bed, I think the least you could do is call me Leto.”
“Only if you call me Jessica.”
The mattress dipped as he joined her. “That should be manageable.”
True to his word, Jessica slept wonderfully that night, and all the ones that followed.
The realization, when it dawned on her, wasn’t a bright flash of thunder nor a breathtaking punch to the gut; rather, something slow and solid, the last piece of a puzzle clicking into place, giving her the knowledge of something that had been there all along but whose meaning had yet to reach her.
She liked the depth of his voice and the warmth of his eyes, the way he nurtured love for his people and hatred for his enemies. She liked how he had always kept a respectable distance to her while always seeming even closer - and despite the curious nudges, the testing of their limits, he never pushed or backtracked, instead tuning himself to her own body language.
She was fairly certain he had come to enjoy her presence as well.
As privy to her inner thoughts, only a few days trickled by before Leto offered, along with another stroll to the shore, his arm for her to take. Taken with a flash of boldness, a tantalizing curiosity to explore the what ifs and to discover reaction, she took it with no hesitation - and the expression she was awaiting for was the most pleasant, with the corner of his mouth twitching and curling into a surprised smile, his dark eyes widening ever so slightly while his free hand reached almost on instinct to rest on the hand she’d slipped in the crook of his arm.
He only let go of her to climb down the cliff-carved steps, and his hand found hers again as soon as both of their feet touched the ever humid sand of their beach.
As they walk along the rushing waves - a deep shade of grey this time, a broken mirror of the clouds looming above them in a promise of heavy rain. The silence between them is not unfamiliar, but it felt different this time, as if they had shifted into an uncertain territory.
“We’ll have to acknowledge this, one day,” she spoke up first.
"Acknowledge what?” He asked her, even as the edge of his tone suggested he knew exactly what she was talking about.
“This atmosphere between us. The tension.”
“Isn’t this what they want us to do?” he asked, only half-amused, yet fully waiting.
But waiting for what, exactly? Was it her denial he expected, or a confirmation?
Jessica puffed at his pretense of ignorance. “You’ll recognize this goes further than a mere sexual attraction. Especially since we have done barely more than holding arms.”
“So you have a desire… beyond your mission.” His tone had shifted from friendly teasing to deliberate carefulness, and she tore her gaze away from the sea to stare at him.
“And what if I do?”
“Then I’d be extremely glad,” he told her in a low voice that the sea almost drowned out, closing the already small space between them to brush his hands along the length of her arms, his forehead almost touching hers. “Because so do I.”
Jessica realized he was, once again, waiting for her - giving her an out. He would wait for her to be the one to decide, and would respect her decision should she wish to step away.
So, obviously, she took the leap, stood on the tip of her toes, and gained the few precious inches that allowed their lips to meet.
It was a strange sensation, his beard brushing against her chin, the impossible warmth of his lips against hers - stranger even was the fact that she liked it.
There was little distance recovered even as they broke off, arms and hands snaked against each other, his gaze firmly planted into her eyes - a loving stare that she returned with equal intensity.
"The first thought that came to my mind when I saw you, stepping out that ship, is that you were terribly dangerous,” he told her in a murmur, and she smirked in appreciation.
'Is that a compliment I hear from you?'
'Of the highest kind."
“How do I get you to tell me more?”
“I may have an idea.”
They pressed themselves to their room and yet it wasn’t nearly fast enough - nothing was enough, their bodies heated so greatly they felt like they were burning, the brush of their clothes much too uncomfortable.
Caladan clothes, Jessica discovered that day, were as beautiful and resistant as they were a nightmare to get rid off.
The touch of his lips against her newly revealed skin was pure fire and she sighed in disappointment each time they would leave her - never for too long, though, just enough for him to breathe in and discard her clothes some more.
“I once happened to wonder why you didn’t press me for this to happen sooner,” he muttered between careful kisses, nipping at her collarbone while his fingers worked to finally undo the intricate lace of her dress.
“Because I didn’t need to- “ she managed to let out between his relentless assaults, and if not for the highly distracting feel of him against her she would have been annoyed with the way her answer came off as a gasp rather than distinctive words. “I didn’t wish to. I didn’t exactly have a time limit to- to carry out the mission. And-” she paused again, the words refusing to leave her throat when his mouth found a particularly sensitive spot behind the shell of her ear, “and if we’re going to proceed with it today - I want it to be for us. Not for them.”
“I would have imagined the Bene Gesserit more impatient than this,” he grinned against her skin. “But I quite like that idea.”
“They’ve been doing this for centuries - I think a few months don’t hold much significance to them. Besides, they appear to believe in the natural flow of events - so, in other words, no need to force things to happen, as fate will bring them to us naturally.”
“Ah, yes, the natural flow of events,” he chuckled dryly, the rumble of it echoing pleasantly in her ears. “Hence the millenia-old breeding program.”
Despite herself, Jessica smiled. “I never pretended their motivations made perfect sense.”
“Do you believe the same, too?”
“I don’t think my opinion on this matter is of great importance,” she croaked out.
“On the contrary,” he murmured with a caress between the valley of her breasts, leaning away to look her in the eye before he trailed his fingers further down her body, large and warm palms coming to rest on her knees as he nested himself between her legs. “I believe it does.”
She would have retorted something - she would have; and yet any smartly crafted answer she could have thought of immediately died at the tip of her tongue as his mouth met her.
By the time her head cleared enough for her mind to form coherent thoughts once more, this smug expression of his hadn’t left his face, and she vowed to wipe it off during their next round.
And she did.
Jessica had always been a woman of her word.
In the end, there was no great and orchestrated declaration of love, no fireworks or galas organized in their honour. And it was much better that way, in a sense; it felt much more natural, like something clicking into place and unlocking a constant warmth within her chest - besides, the knowing glances and meaningful smiles they exchanged were worth much more than a thousand words.
“You know, I’ve always wanted a son,” Leto told her one cold winter night as they both rested in bed, breathless and messy, his hand buried in her hair while she let her fingers trail down his chest to count with vindictive pleasure the marks she’d left on him.
She hummed in acknowledgement. The confession was unexpected, but not unwelcome. “Why that?”
“My father was proud and firm - maybe too much at times, but he was a good man. I just hoped to teach my son what my father taught me- to teach him the beauties of Caladan, the ways of ruling it with love and authority, to make sure that he will be free of any greater purpose to serve, if that’s not the path he wishes to follow. And if- when we get a beautiful, strong daughter as our heir, that doesn’t mean I’ll love her any less. But to think she would be born solely to be betrothed and follow the Bene Gesserit’s agenda… It saddens me.”
Something heavy and lukewarm unfurled in the pit of her stomach.
To be born in order to obey, and not to live. To follow and not to love.
Before meeting Leto, before being promised to him, her whole life had consisted of trainings and lessons, warnings and rules. Had she even existed?
As if sensing her inner turmoil, he sighed, and his free hand came to find the stilled limb on his chest. “I didn’t mean to trouble you,” he murmured, pressing his lips against the crown of her hair in a silent apology.
“You didn’t,” Jessica promised. “I was just… wondering.”
“The inflexibility of fate.”
His hand squeezed hers in comfort, and she mirrored his gesture to assure him she was fine.
“Quite a heavy subject of pondering for such a lovely night,” he declared with a small grin once she seemed to convince him that she was truly alright. “Should I help you with that?”
“Oh, you might,” she chuckled in his arms, and before he was able to react she shifted and positioned herself on top of him, trying to contain the victorious smile pulling at the corner of her mouth as he blinked up at her in all of his stunned glory. “But I’ll take the lead from now.”
He still managed to sound cheeky as he breathed out, “Your wish is my command, my Lady.”
Famous last words.
It was around two months later that Jessica told him that maybe, maybe, it was time. She wasn’t sure of the kind of thoughts that had pushed her into this direction, not that it really seemed to matter; all she knew was that it felt right.
Leto was more tender than usual as he made love to her, ridden with anxiety but also hope, and she soothed his worries away as she took control, transforming him with vicious efficiency into a gasping mess under her ministrations. It was slow, terribly so, nothing like their usual pace, and while Jessica had her preferences when it came to their rhythm she enjoyed it all the same.
He brought her food and water afterwards, sliced pieces of fruit displayed on a ceramic plate and honeyed green tea that he placed next to her as she lied in bed, eyes closed, focused on what was without doubt the most important task in her life: allowing her own body to begin the process of pregnancy, and forcing the gender of the future child - yet another rigorous training from the Bene Gesserit, one that pushed the human body to its most wonderful limits and had been conceived especially to fulfill the order’s agenda.
When she opened her eyes once more, her gaze locking with his, all she saw was love and care and the sight was almost unbearable to her - yet she didn't look away, and instead she offered him a smile. It was more of an exhausted, weakened pull of the lips than an actual grin, maybe the most genuine expression she had ever shown him, and she hoped he knew how deep her affection for him ran. He would love her no matter what, daughter or son, Bene Gesserit or Caladan - that she knew.
They had a path to choose - and as she stared at him without a blink, tired and content, Jessica knew she had picked the right one.
Jessica wasn’t surprised to receive a package from the Bene Gesserit the very next week, having without doubt already heard of her early pregnancy. She had almost expected a visit from the Reverend Mother herself, as surely this was important news - but she was not foolish enough to imagine she would be left alone, and knew the tranquility she had gotten terribly accustomed to wouldn’t last much longer.
The fate of the universe might as well have rested on the foetus in her womb.
Leto stayed next to her with furrowed brows as she opened the package, clearly bothered with the order’s apparent omniscience yet not exactly surprised either.
She let out a sigh as her fingers closed around a crystal bottle, and she raised it to eye-level. There was a card as well, but she didn’t even need to read it to know what the incoloured liquid inside was.
“What is it?” Leto inquired with an edge of concern as he hovered closer to her.
The quiet worry morphed into alarm, and she spoke again before he could. “It won’t kill me if I ingest it. But it’ll kill our child.”
Her words, unsurprisingly, did nothing to ease the tight expression on her lover’s face, and she elaborated. “They sent me this in case I had made a… mistake, and caused the wrong gender to be picked.”
They exchanged a knowing look; both knew it would be no accident. Jessica had been trained for too long, too vigorously, to be able to commit such an obvious mistake. Maybe the order had somehow gotten wind of her genuine affection for the Duke, or maybe it was for them a simple way to ensure their plan would happen like they wished to.
“But you don’t need to take this,” he said as confusion crossed his face. Then he paused, realization dawned on him, and locked eyes with her. “Do you?”
There was a sharp, strained gasp of air as he understood before she could even answer. His eyes, dark and warm and wide, torn between hope and despair. It broke her, to watch him almost ready to mourn a child not yet born, to stop himself from fighting or from attempting to convince, to beg her - because it was, in the end, her decision, and her mission to accomplish. He had just miscalculated a small detail: there was no decision to take.
“There will be no need for this,” she smiled comfortingly, the calm of her tone at odds with the frantic rhythm of her heart against her ribcage. The pad of her thumb brushed pensively against the rim of the crystal bottle, where the poison was calling out for her, sweet and tantalizing, a reminder of her duty.
It never stood a chance.
She placed the poison on the table, pushing it away from her - from them. “Our child will perpetuate the bloodline with strength and value,” she recited the words, an expression that had been ingrained in her memory since she was able to read, that so many sisters turned concubines had uttered before her, and how delicious it was, to turn them into an act of defiance, of rebellion, of love.
It was not a lie. Jessica knew, a bone-deep certitude rooted within her very soul, that their child would carry their burden with the strength and ambition of a thousand warmasters.
Leto made a small noise, a meaningless sound of shock and realization and relief- his eyes were even wider now, hands shaking with the slightest tremor, and he looked at her with such adoration and gratitude she nearly lost control of her breathing as well.
“We will be fine,” she promised him quietly, something warm and fierce burning pleasantly in her chest, and she threw the poison a last glance before turning away from it. “He will be fine.”
The words alone undid him; he closed the small distance between them, lacing his fingers with her, a soft concerned frown smeared across his face. She squeezed his hand lightly once, twice. She had never been so sure of herself before this day. The worry melted away instantly, and he sighed deeply, as if finally releasing a breath he had been holding for months or maybe even years.
He tilted his head down, letting his forehead against hers, and they breathed in in unison as neither moved for a long time. One hand splayed on waist and another brushing against the line of her jaw, he held her almost impossibly close, murmuring words of love and gratitude, vowing to be the father and lover she and their son deserved to have.
"If fate truly holds a right in our universe, then so do we,” she hummed as he held her even tighter. “Let's break down our destiny and build it anew."
Hope, she realized. The fluttering, stubborn and warm feeling swelling in her chest was hope. How fitting of a bloom from their desperate love, from the twist of their fate. How worthy of a guide for their child, a beacon of life for the tumultuous life that was already awaiting the flicker of power in her womb.
Their son would encounter many enemies, people ready to deceive and destroy him - but he would be strong, protected, trained. Loved. No harm would come to him, and she would make sure of it.
Because there would be nothing that Lady Jessica of the Atreides would not be able to accomplish.