When they moved onto the next stone they were greeted, not by Askil's laughter, but by the sight of the most beautiful structure in all the Nine Worlds. A few hundred metres ahead of them stood the Emperor's Palace. It looked exactly like the pictures that Niil had seen in his father's library: tall, with slender towers ascending to dizzying heights, all linked by a network of shining crystal footbridges that reflected the sun in dazzling flashes of pure light.
"We've got to go back! Now!!" yelled Niil, who seemed to be on the verge of panic.
"Why?" asked Julien. "Let's go on a bit. Wouldn't you like to see the Palace from a bit nearer?"
"You don't know what you're talking about! There are traps everywhere! We shouldn't have come this far, and now we really mustn't try to get any further!"
Niil looked really scared, so Julien agreed without further argument.
"All right," he said. "Let's go back, then."
But it was easier said than done. They could see a few unconcerned passers-by walking along about thirty paces away, and they could also see Askil, who did look concerned – in fact he was obviously very worried indeed, because it was clear that, while they could see him, he couldn't see them. And, given that he had just lost the guests entrusted to him by the First Lord himself, the anguish on his face was completely understandable. But every time they tried to walk towards him they were blocked by an invisible force that became completely impassible in less than one metre.
"We'll never make it," said Niil.
"Then let's try to reach the Palace," suggested Julien. "The Emperor is sure to help the sons of the First Lord of the Ksantiris."
"You're right, he is. But we won't get anywhere near the Palace. We'll be dead before we've gone fifty metres."
"How do you know? You said yourself that nobody ever gets more than a few steps onto the Square..."
"Everybody knows. And it's not just a vague rumour, either: it's written in the Great Book of Traditions. You're not saying that the Great Book is lying, are you?"
Julien could have said that where he came from you could find any number of books that were completely unreliable, as well as books that contradicted other books, but he didn't think this was the time or place for an argument. So instead he said, "No, of course not. But... what are we going to do, then? Should we wait for someone to come and rescue us?"
"I think it's the only thing we can do."
"But suppose nobody can get to us – or what if someone comes and then they can't get back either?"
Nobody spoke for a good three minutes, during which period they could see Askil getting more and more upset. Finally Ambar cleared his throat.
"I'm going to give it a go," he said.
Niil glared at him. "You'll do nothing of the sort!"
"Ambar, you're my brother – my little brother, which means you have to do what I tell you. And if you so much as twitch without my permission I'll break your leg!"
His tone of voice made it quite clear that he really would go that far if it was the only way to prevent Ambar from putting himself in danger. But Ambar wasn't the sort to give in without a fight.
"Niil, someone has to do something! We can't expect Julien to, 'cos he don't even come from here – the Nine Worlds, I mean. And you're the Noble Son of a First Lord. Me, on the other hand, I'm just..."
"Ambar, you're the Noble Son of a First Lord too!" interrupted Niil. "And our father would never forgive me if I let my kid brother go somewhere dangerous instead of me. And..."
He lowered his voice a little. "And I don't want anything to happen to you either," he finished.
Ambar looked at him in surprise, but he didn't argue any more. It was left to Julien to reopen the debate.
"Ambar's right," he said. "We have to try to get out of this mess ourselves. I don't know why, but I'm pretty sure that we can."
The stone they were standing on was a shiny dark green colour. He looked around, examining the adjoining stones.
"I don't like the look of this one," he said, indicating a grey stone. "That one, on the other hand... I fancy giving that one a try."
And before Niil could stop him he stepped onto the pink stone he had indicated and promptly vanished from their sight.
"No!!" cried Niil. He almost jumped after him, but he caught himself just in time, realising that it would be stupid to give the trap a second victim. He took a deep breath to bring himself back under control and gripped Ambar's hand firmly.
"Whatever happens," he said, "don't let go of my hand!"
Too shocked to speak, Ambar just shook his head and squeezed Niil's hand tightly.
Niil was badly shaken: what had started out as a happy outing had ended in tragedy, and he was very much afraid that Julien's disappearance was only the start: he thought it entirely likely that both he and Ambar would die before much longer.
"Sorry if I scared you!"
Julien suddenly reappeared in front of them, and seeing him standing there, smiling rather sheepishly like a boy who has just broken his mother's favourite vase, Niil was torn between two conflicting emotions: on the one hand he was massively relieved to see his friend, whom he had already given up for dead, reappear in front of him, and on the other he was furious because of the scare he'd had. He couldn't decide whether to hug Julien or thump him. But eventually relief won the day and Niil laughed.
"You pillock!" he said. "You really scared us! Ambar almost started crying!"
Ambar was on the point of saying that he hadn't been the only one, but he managed to bite his tongue. He settled for giving Julien a wink and a smile instead.
"We can get through," Julien told them. "I don't think we can go back, but we will be able to go forwards, though it took me a little while to work that out. And it took me even longer to realise that you couldn't see me any more and thought I was dead. Sorry!"
A few seconds passed without anyone speaking.
"Shall we go, then?" he asked.
"All right," agreed Niil. We don't seem to have any alternative. You go and we'll follow you."
Julien hesitated. "I think maybe we ought to stay holding hands," he said.
Ambar really didn't want to let go of Niil's hand, and so he grabbed Julien with his other hand, keeping himself in the middle and so hopefully protected by the two older boys.
They stepped on to the pink stone. This time there were no sound effects, but they could see that they had moved: the Emperor's Palace was still sparkling ahead of them like a massive jewel.
Once again Julien took his time about examining the stones around the one they were standing on., and this time he settled for the fuchsia-coloured one directly in front of them, even though it was no different from the other stones adjoining theirs except for its colour.
"I think we want this one," he said.
His companions said nothing. Left to themselves they would have been completely unable to choose between the available stones, and they thought that they would almost certainly pick the wrong one, which - if the Great Book was to believed - would probably lead to an unpleasant death. They knew that there were risks in trusting Julien's judgement, too, but if he thought he could get them through... and it wasn't as if they could think of any alternative plan. So they stepped with him onto the stone ahead of them. Nothing nasty happened, but when they looked at the Palace it now seemed to be a considerable distance further away, and they were also looking at it from a completely different angle.
"Klirks!" exclaimed Niil, breaking the silence.
The others stared at him in confusion.
"The stones – they're klirks!" he explained. "All right, maybe they're not all klirks, but that last one certainly was. We've moved a lot further away from the Palace."
"I've never used a klirk," commented Ambar, slowly, "but... don't you need a Guide to make them work?"
"Julien is a Guide!" said Niil.
"Is that true, Julien?" asked Ambar.
"I don't know. People keep telling me that, but..."
Ambar stared at him, a mixture of respect and fear clearly readable in his dark eyes, and at the same time he pulled his hand out of Julien's. Julien was surprised, and indeed a little hurt.
"What's up, Ambar?" he said, looking at him. "Have I suddenly grown horns and a forked tail? Am I turning into a monster? And are you actually scared of me??"
"No, Noble Lord, but you know, back where I come from, on the quays and round there, they tell stories about Guides and Sorcerers and such..."
"Now you're calling me 'Noble Lord' again," Julien pointed out. "You can cut that nonsense out right away. I don't know what sort of camp-fire stories they tell on the quays, but I can promise you I haven't eaten anyone yet. Although if you carry on like that, maybe I'll make an exception in your case. Got it?"
Ambar said nothing, but he smiled and grabbed the Terrible Guide Julien's hand again.
"That's better," said Julien. "Anyway, Niil, I think you're right to say that anyone who tried this without a Guide wouldn't get very far."
"Yes, but even with a Guide, there must be some traps that will work! The Great Book of Traditions definitely says..."
"All right, I get it. Yes, we're probably surrounded by traps. I can even sort of sense some of them, which is how I decide which stone to move to next. I've got no idea how it works, or why, but there's definitely something telling me which way to go. Trust me, I'm not going to make a mistake."
"Well, let's pray to the Powers of the R'hinz you're right about that, because if it turns out you're wrong I doubt if we'll even get time to say 'I told you so'."
And with those cheery words they moved on to the next stone.
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