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Irulan released the heavy robes from her shoulders, exhausted from the long days spent in Leto's court. They had adjourned after nearly a week of back-to-back discussions about CHOAM—kept awake and aware by endless caffeine pills and other stimulants. Irulan had no official duties to the God-king, but she knew she would go mad or waste away into nothing if she did not place some tasks upon herself. A darker part of herself refused to be replaced by her cousin. So she documented the endless meetings, sketched dignitaries, and wrote bits and pieces of script that would be compiled into another working volume. Yet her greatest triumph was a small, detailed sketch she'd made of Ghanima's composed features.

A sigh of exhaustion escaped her as she turned, and it turned into a gasp and jolt at the sight of someone standing in her quarters.

"Ghani," Irulan said, composing herself only out of habit. Her Bene Gesserit control should have stopped the reaction in the first place-though no amount of training could combat the Empress's abilities to sneak.

"You're tired," Ghanima pointed out. Her blue-within-blue gaze met and looked past Irulan's eyes. Ghanima tended to do that, look into Irulan, but it evoked a mental shiver every time. She was just a woman-child, soon to reach sixteen years, and she still frightened Irulan with the depths of her ancient carriage.

"You frightened me, Ghani."

"You know I don't like that childish nickname." Ghanima crossed the distance between them, and they settled into the float-chairs that settled to meet them.

Irulan ignored the complaint. She wanted, achingly, to put her arms around Ghanima and hold her close until the girl-child relaxed into her. A sweet embrace with her Ghani. She ached for it perhaps because their exchanges were never intimate.

"Harq refuses to touch me," Ghanima abruptly said. There was some ire in her voice. "Though I am older than old, have bedded and fucked—" That harsh word brought an involuntary jerk of protest in Irulan.—"more men and women than he could even imagine. I have never been a child." This last vehement statement she directed partly to Irulan, a chastisement for reacting over her obscenity perhaps.

"So you have said many times," Irulan replied. She detested the thought of her cousin bedding Ghanima and put it to her physical age. "But perhaps it's best for your health to postpone childbearing for a few more years."

Ghanima leaned slovenly upon her hand and regarded Irulan. There was little expression on her face. "Perhaps I'm aching for a physical touch." Her curved lips pulled into a pursed smile, all mischief and child. That expression was generally bellied by a very adult statement. "And you, Irulan. Do you ache for a lover? I have never known you to take one or to have taken one all these years you have served in the Atredies court. Surely your body wants, even as we speak."

She refused to blush and rise into the trap. "I have been far too busy worrying about you, Ghani."

"You are a fool to spend a single moment of your life worrying over me. I have—"

"You have sniffed out more plots in more lifetimes than you can count," Irulan said, allowing her irritation to put those words in her mouth. She feared at once she had angered Ghanima by her impertinence. Ghanima, however, laughed in delight.

"I was actually going to say that I've hatched more plots in more lifetimes than you can count," she said, her voice achingly young and sweet. "But I will retract my statement. Worry if you will, Irulan. I will not begrudge your attention." She passed her tongue across her lower lip, a tell given, not betrayed. "I should like to see that sketch you did this morning."

Irulan should not have been surprised that Ghanima knew of it, not with her wily ways. Sometimes she gave a silent prayer that it was Leto, not Ghanima, who took the worm into him, for Ghanima frightened Irulan in more ways than her brother. Mostly her prayer was that Ghanima had retained her humanity. "The notes have been delivered." She began to rise to fetch them, but Ghanima waved her down and moved to the outer room herself. As always, she moved like a sleek cat, efficient and powerful. Ghanima returned with a single sheet of spice-paper in hand, which she studied with a vague smile.

"You favor me. Though I should hope I didn't have such a sweet, beguiling expression on my face in the middle of a war-meeting."

Irulan could think of nothing to say in reply. She felt oddly exposed. Ghanima set the paper into her float-seat and turned those sharp eyes to Irulan. Her expression was no longer soft with pleasure. Irulan could hardly draw breath, though outwardly she was composed. Who was this ancient being who gazed at her from behind Ghanima's eyes?

Then Ghanima slid into her lap, straddling her hips. Irulan swallowed thickly, unable to comprehend this embrace. She hovered between joy at the gentle meeting of flesh she'd always coveted and terrified by the bare sensuality that cast this embrace in an entirely different light. "Ghani," she whispered.

"Oh, yes, Irulan," Ghanima whispered back. Her burnished hair glowed tawny red. Her blue within blue eyes danced across Irulan's face. She looked so young, so wanting with that elven face so soft and unmarked by the desert.


Ghanima's mouth fell to hers, lips against hers. "I prayed," Ghanima murmured quietly, "I prayed and prayed that I would not have to kill you. I couldn't bear the thought. You are my heart, Irulan. I know you feel the same."


"Harq is a stud," Ghanima snapped sharply. "He will share my bed to conceive. You..." She traced her hand into Irulan's robe, parting it across the breasts. That young, powerful hand cupped her breast gently. "You, Irulan, will be my lover."

A moan escaped Irulan's throat. Ghanima, Ghanima who she'd thought as her daughter, Ghanima who was an Atredies, Ghanima who was Paul's daughter, Ghanima who was Ghanima. Ghanima who now kissed her again and put her hand between Irulan's legs, clever, experienced fingers bringing her up and over in hardly any time at all. "Oh," Ghanima moaned, "Oh, you give your water to me. So much water, all for me."

Irulan felt she was dreaming as she parted her legs to offer her wetness to Ghanima, who bent that young burnished head down and drank from her. "All for me. All mine," she whispered. "Irulan."

Was it the Voice? Irulan wondered as her body rose quickly once more. No, no Voice had been used. The seduction, this wonderful embrace... It had been a long time coming, she realized. Ghanima loved her; she had always known this. She loved Ghanima; she had known this since laying eyes on the soft-fleshed baby, who gazed up at her so seriously. She'd sworn no favoritism, but it was always Ghanima who she loved, perhaps because Ghanima had looked to her in exasperated affection. But she had never known a child Ghanima, always this adult who tolerated her whims of motherhood and waited for a more lusty embrace. Ghanima had waited years, all along gently planting this want into her mind.

"Ghani," she gasped, stroking her hand through Ghanima's hair, holding her close even as she shuddered in completion.

"Perhaps a bed would be advisable," Ghanima murmured a moment later. She tilted her soft face against Irulan's leg and kissed her. Those lips twitched into a mischievous smirk as her eyes roved over Irulan's naked body. "You have kept up with your training, Bene Gesserit." She pinched the slight curve of Irulan's hip then placed a shockingly hard bite to her inner thigh.

"Ghani!" Irulan gasped in complaint.

"May I not mark you?" she asked almost innocently. "You're mine to mark. I shall place it here, where only I shall-"

"The bed," Irulan stated, hoping to avoid more bruises. She feared even thinking a moment on this strange situation. Ghanima called her a lover, but was this promise of more embraces like these? Would it be known? Of course they would never speak of it, but some affairs were acknowledged in the court and some hushed to absolute secrecy. She wondered what would happen on the immediate moment as she slid into the coolness of her sheets. Then Ghanima slid in with her, naked and warm against her, erasing all uncertainty on the latter concern. "Oh," she could only think to say.

"Oh, indeed," Ghanima replied with a dark chuckle. There was want in her voice, and Irulan was powerless to any action but taking care of that want and learning that young body. Ghanima jerked against her, moaning and panting, her whispers shockingly pleading. Ghanima was controlled, even when she pretended not to be, and for her to be so undone by a physical touch almost frightened Irulan.

"To think," Ghanima gasped after she'd stilled Irulan's hand, "that even knowing all I do, this body still responds so quickly because yours is its first touch."

Before Irulan could process the enormity of taking Ghanima's virginity, the girl in her arms laughed and shook her head. "That does disservice to you, Irulan. I apologize. I'll rephrase: to think that this body responds so quickly because it is your touch that I feel."

"Leto will kill me," Irulan could only think to say.

Ghanima touched the nape of her neck. "No." Her voice was iron. "No. You are under my protection, and you shall remain so until we are both dead. There is no one in this court that doesn't know the consequences of touching you. Leto will not harm you, as a service to me. You are no danger to us; he knows this."

"This feels so strange."

"This body still seems young to you," Ghanima said with vague regret. "It will age. But I hope you will find some enjoyment in its youth." Then she laughed, mischievous grin back in place. "Your Bene Gesserit training will have merit in keeping up with my appetite. I have waited many years." Saying that, she called her bluff and put a hand between Irulan's legs again. "Once more, Irulan," she whispered.

Irulan could naught but obey.