by Engor

Chapter 45

He woke up with a start. It was still dark and the fire had burnt down to a heap of ashes with one or two glowing embers. He was sure that something had entered their refuge, and from the way Yol uttered a low growl he wasn't the only one to feel it. Something moved by his head and he felt Xarax's scaly leg touch his face.

Xarax knows what has come. It's a Neh-kyong, a Site Guardian. Xarax cannot protect you from a Neh-kyong, but this one should not be hostile. Xarax cannot say for sure, however, because it is a long time since he was last in this place.

I suppose we'll find out soon enough, said Julien. And there's no point in just sitting here. Stay with me.

Julien sat up slowly and switched on his torch. It was set to throw the widest beam possible, but although he shone it into every recess of the floor and ceiling he couldn't see anything – which, Xarax explained, was not surprising.

You cannot see a Neh-kyong, he said. Not with your eyes, anyway. He is both here and somewhere else. But Xarax can see him, over there next to the wall. If you don't try to look at him you should be able to get a sense of where he is.

It took Julien a good couple of minutes to relax sufficiently, but then he discovered what the haptir meant: he could make out a dark form a few steps away from him. It was more like the sort of visual echo you get when you've been looking at something which has just disappeared. The effect was even more disturbing because he couldn't actually recognise what shape it was. He knew straight away that it was a living creature of some kind, and that it had a definite form, but his mind refused to see it as anything recognisable.

"Emperor Yulmir, welcome. Your visit is an honour. Your appearance is a little surprising, as is that of the Guide trembling beside you. I see that your haptir is well. Hail, Honourable Xarax."

The powerful voice was also more like a memory of a sound just heard than a normal voice. It was distinctly unsettling, and Julien, who was shivering anyway because his bare chest was outside the warmth of his sleeping bag, had to struggle to compose himself before he could answer.

"Honourable Neh-kyong," he said. "You obviously know me, but I'm afraid I can't remember you. In fact, I can't even remember having been Yulmir. I was born outside the Nine Worlds and there are a lot of things I don't really understand, so I hope you'll forgive me for not knowing your name. As for the Guide, this is the Honourable Master Yol the Intrepid, trapped in the body of an animal. He is the one who found me and sent me back to the R'hinz."

"I have heard some of this. In any event, the custom is that a Neh-kyong is labelled with the name of the place he guards, and so you may call me Tchenn Ril, which is the name of the city where we are. As I understand it, you were cast out of the R'hinz because your opponents were unable to destroy you permanently. You seem to have made some dangerous enemies... But you still have allies, too. You may not be able to remember this, but I am one of them. I have a debt from which only you can release me. My influence is bounded by the limits of this place, and so I cannot travel with you. Nonetheless I think I may be able to offer you some assistance here."

"Honourable Tchenn Ril, you are kind to remind me of your debt of honour, but I imagine that that isn't why you're offering to help me."

"No. It would have been a good enough reason, but the real purpose of offering my help is this: the people trying to bring you down are endangering not just the R'hinz, but also the balance of other realities of which those fools are not even aware. So, how may I serve you?"

"I don't know just yet. I think I need to head for the seat of the Ksantiris, but Yol says that I shouldn't travel by klirk. He thinks it's likely that my enemies are aware that I have returned to the R'hinz, and they've already used klirks to try to kill me twice. Is there any way for you to let the First Lord of the Ksantiris know that I'm coming?"

"No. As I said, my influence is confined by the boundaries of this city and its environs. However, the sun will be up shortly. If you would come with me to the old citadel I think I should be able to find you some equipment that will help you to blend in with the people of this world."

Julien didn't hesitate: he got out of his sleeping bag, dressed and packed away his few belongings. Less than ten minutes later, as the sun was starting to lighten the sky on the horizon, he had made his way through the dripping bushes and rejoined the old stone road. At least it had stopped raining, but the pale stars seemed to radiate a bitter cold that announced frost on the way.

The city was larger than Julien had thought. It took them more than half an hour to reach what appeared to be the only intact building in an immense field of ruins. It was clearly heavily fortified: it had walls that were three or four stories high constructed of massive blocks of brown basalt, reminding Julien of the pictures he'd seen in his encyclopaedia of the huge temples of the Mayans. Every twenty paces or so were warning signs made of plates of the same grey metal as that used for klirks, announcing in Tünnkeh and a dozen other languages that, by Imperial decree, death awaited anyone stupid enough to enter the building. The warnings made it clear that neither the passage of time nor the apparent emptiness of the building would ever change that situation. Julien, who had read that charming announcement just as he was passing under the great vault that was the only entrance to the citadel, whistled softly.

"They don't mess about round here, do they?" he observed. "I suppose we're safe enough with you to guide us, but maybe you could tell me quite what the fuss is about?"

"The signs are there for the same reason that I am. You were the one, Yulmir, who asked me to watch over this place. I am here to make sure that the things that prowl around inside the citadel do not leave it. Actually this whole edifice is not exactly in the R'hinz any longer: like me it exists on two planes simultaneously, although this was not always the case. And you are right about needing me to guide you: if I were not here, you would be dead already, killed by the blind guardians that swarm through the building."

Julien looked around the vast parade-ground they were crossing. One barracks looks pretty much like any other barracks, and this one was no exception. There were rows and rows of windows and rows and rows of numbered doors, all in the plainest style and with no ornamentation at all.

"This place is cursed," the Neh-kyong told him. "It was cast from the Nine Worlds by your order. The Masters of this city had committed a major crime: they had tried to increase their power through the use of forbidden weapons. You no doubt remember that the law of the R'hinz does not outlaw war altogether – indeed, such a law might well be impossible to enforce. But the law of the R'hinz does forbid the use of firearms. The Masters of this city had not only developed such weapons, but were well on the way to learning the secret of the Starfire. It was not the first time it had happened, of course, but every time it does the Emperor's response is always implacable: the people responsible and their researchers are immediately exiled to Tandil, separated from each other and left to fend for themselves with basic weapons and equipment. The remaining population of the city is ordered to evacuate and emigrate to other places. And then an earthquake is triggered – by me, in the case of Tchenn Ril – reducing the city to ruins, with just the one building preserved to stand as a warning to anyone else who might be tempted to follow such a course."

The Neh-kyong led them to a staircase which went down to a network of tunnels that seemed extensive enough to cover the whole area of the building above. The lighting was dim but just about sufficient to allow them to see where they were going. He led them to a door that bore an inscription that Julien couldn't read, but which Xarax told him read 'Cadets' storeroom'. Inside the room was a long counter of polished wood and, behind it, an array of shelves laden with clothing and some other equipment.

Julien spent a while choosing clothes that were the right size for him, making sure that he avoided actual uniforms or anything carrying rank badges. The clothing here was rather different from that on Nüngen: there were no abbas or lais here, but rather clothing that looked a little more like what he was used to on Earth. He selected a pair of trousers made from some sturdy-looking cloth and a sort of hooded reefer jacket made of the same material. The shirts, socks and underwear were all of fairly thick material, suggesting that the climate here wasn't exactly tropical and that the cold temperature outside was not unusual. He dressed himself and then took a couple of spare shirts and a handful of socks and underwear and stowed them in a suitable rucksack. Reluctantly he discarded his sleeping bag, replacing it with a thick blanket. He found a water-bottle and some sort of tinder-lighter which Xarax said was easy to use.

He recognised that he would have to leave his Earth equipment behind. He wasn't happy about leaving his torch and binoculars, and particularly his brand new Swiss army knife, but he realised that it had to be done. The Neh-kyong assured him that he would be able to find replacements for the torch and the knife, although binoculars were not available, and the more common telescope was almost exclusively used by naval officers.

To that end he took them to another store-room, which turned out to be an armoury. There were several sealed boxes on the floor and a wide range of weaponry hanging from the walls: crossbows, sabres, various types of truncheon or club, nasty-looking maces – indeed, an enormous variety of tools designed for butchering your neighbour, from a distance or from close at hand, cleanly or extremely messily. One section was dedicated to bladed weapons, daggers, cutlasses, throwing knives and hunting knives, some of which were beautifully crafted with jewels and precious metals, and some were plain and looked far more businesslike. Julien contemplated a fairly short knife that looked a bit Japanese, the thick blade of dull black metal and plain handle of which immediately inspired confidence.

"Can I have this one?" he asked.

"That is an excellent choice. It is a nagtri from Renngor. You cannot have this one, because it has already belonged to someone, but you can certainly have one of its brothers."

Intrigued, Julien followed the Neh-kyong's instructions on how to open the complicated locking mechanism of a small chest, inside which he found five oblong boxes of red wood. He opened one of these and found a nagtri in a sheath of brown horn. Immediately Xarax spoke inside his head.

Be very careful! If you do not watch what you are doing you could easily lose one or two fingers here. These knives have a sort of life of their own. You have to adopt it gently to allow it to recognise you. Take it out of the sheath, but very slowly.

Julien pulled on the handle, which resisted for a moment and then slipped slowly from the sheath until the whole of the blade was exposed. Julien felt as if he was holding a dangerous animal that was ready to bite him.

Now brush your thumb against the blade – but very, very lightly! instructed Xarax. That weapon can slice through flesh and bone with no effort at all.

Extremely carefully Julien brushed the blade with his thumb. He applied no pressure at all, but immediately blood welled up and ran onto the metal. He pulled his hand away, instinctively putting his thumb in his mouth, and he was looking around for something he could use to wipe the blade when he saw to his amazement that the blade seemed to be absorbing the drops of blood like a blotter.

That's it, said Xarax. Now that nagtri belongs to you. It will never again cut your flesh, and nor will it ever belong to anyone else. Try it: put it to your arm.

It's a measure of how much Julien trusted his haptir that he didn't hesitate, holding the dreadful blade of the nagtri to his forearm, and when it didn't cut him he pressed it down. The only thing that happened was that he felt the blade completely lose its edge, until it was like pressing a wooden ruler against his arm instead. But when he took the blade away and looked at it he saw that the blade was still sharper than anything any armourer on Earth would ever be able to produce. He turned to the Neh-kyong.

"This is a really valuable gift you're giving me here, isn't it?" he said. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

"It is certainly a weapon that is normally reserved for the First Lords of the Noble Houses. It is said that the secret of making them has been lost. Make sure you do not lose the sheath. It is made from the horn of a Tandil tak, and it is the only material, other than one or two of the hardest metals, that this blade does not go through at the slightest pressure. Still, this is only a small gift, and I would like to find you some more. But while we are here, pick out an ordinary pocket knife, too. You would attract a lot of unwelcome attention if you produced a nagtri to peel a garel with."

Julien also took a perpetual lamp, one that ran just using water – or urine, if no other water was available – and sugar or some other sweet substance. It worked on the same principles of bioluminescence as all domestic lighting in the Nine Worlds. He loaded the side pockets of his rucksack with combat rations that looked a lot like cereal bars – they were several centuries old, but Julien was assured that they were still perfectly edible. And the Neh-kyong had one further gift for him, but this one was a lot less welcome.

"Emperor Yulmir," the Neh-kyong said, "you cannot travel on Dvârinn wearing that hairstyle. It would make you far too conspicuous. Of course you could try to pass as a girl, but I would advise against it. You will find some poutris in that cupboard over there."

The poutri was a sort of combination razor and comb carried by all male humans on the Nine Worlds. Julien stuck one into his pocket, promising himself that if he ever properly became Emperor he would issue a decree forbidding the cutting of boys' hair above the shoulders.

"Now if we move on to the Treasury," said the Neh-kyong, "I should be able to find you some money that is still in use in this world. I might even have a present for your Guide, too."

The Treasury wasn't half as grand as it sounded. It was simply a room that held a row of grey strong-boxes and a small desk that had probably once been occupied by some minor clerk. The Neh-kyong indicated a chest whose lock clicked open as Julien approached it. Inside were a number of small cardboard boxes containing coins of bronze, silver and gold neatly stacked in compact rolls. They weren't new – in fact most of them looked very old. With some guidance from Xarax Julien filled a purse with a modest assortment of the most recent coins, and he also collected a reserve of gold coins that he intended to hide at the bottom of his rucksack in case of emergency.

In one corner of the room was a small door that opened into another room filled with boxes of valuables, but the Neh-kyong was looking for something in particular, and he found it in a cupboard of what appeared to be mostly scientific instruments. It was a necklace made of braided white metal threads and adorned with a turquoise the size of a walnut.

"This is my gift to your Guide," he said. "A First Lord had it made a very long time ago. In his old age he became very fond of an elak, a rare animal, graceful and affectionate, and easy to domesticate. He was convinced that the only thing that prevented this elak from being the perfect companion was the fact that it could not speak. Of course quite a lot of pet owners share this delusion, but he was rich enough to be able to make his wish come true. So he offered a fortune to anyone who could make the animal speak. And this is the result. This collar translates the thoughts of whoever is wearing it into sounds. I think it will enable your friend to speak to you direct, and I think he will like being able to do that."

"Did it work for the elak?"

"Oh, yes. However, elaks, despite being charming, are also rather stupid, and the collar never produced anything more than meaningless squeals. You will need to take it outside: you will have to allow the energy chamber to recharge – it runs on sunlight. It has not seen daylight for centuries."

"I'm sure Yol will be able to use it. Thank you again."

Julien took the collar to the dog/Guide and fastened it around his neck. A reflex made Yol wag his tail – after all, a collar always meant that a walk was coming!

They made their way back to the surface. In the courtyard the clear cold air of the early morning had been replaced with a thick freezing fog, and the few weeds that straggled their way between the paving stones were already white with frost. Julien was worrying about his ability to find his way, but the Neh-kyong reassured him.

"I will take you to the edge of my domain," he told him. "On the way we should create an identity for you that will permit you to field most questions. Do not try to remember all of it: your haptir will help you to deal with that. He will remember everything and feed it to you as you need it. Actually he should be able to implant it all in your mind for you."

Xarax! thought Julien. You've been keeping your talents a secret! Is there anything else you can do that I ought to know about?

Xarax has many abilities, but he would not want you to grow idle through relying on him. And besides, talents that you do not use regularly tend to weaken and fade, and your ability to use your memory is one such.

All right. We can discuss it later.

It turned out that Tchenn Ril the Neh-kyong actually knew a great deal about this world, even those parts of it that lay far beyond his own domain. He suggested that Julien should use the name Anhel, a name which indicated that he was a native of a distant island that was nonetheless still a part of the Ksantiri domain. This would explain away his accent and his unfamiliarity with the local dialect. Anhel, son of Hanbar, Master Blacksmith of T'aring (so their cover story went) was on his way back from a visit to the old Master Blacksmith Nalak, who had retired to an almost inaccessible hamlet in the mountainous centre of this island. He had made the visit in order to receive the transmission of a trade secret. He was now on his way back home and was hoping for passage to Ksantir, where he would be able to find a ship to take him back to his own island.

"Provided that you do not talk too much and keep to yourself," said Tchenn Ril, "everything should be fine. Now, obviously your companions cannot travel with you. A haptir and an exotic creature of the size of your Guide could hardly pass unnoticed on a ship, but they can make their own way to Ksantir by land. It would be difficult for you to make that journey: there is no road and the land is too mountainous, but they should be able to pass."

"That's what we originally decided," Julien told him. "Xarax is going to stay in touch with me. He says he'll be able to fly by night and locate the ship I'm travelling on without difficulty."

"Emperor Yulmir, I wish success to your enterprise. This road will lead you directly to Kardenang in a little under one day's walk. And do not forget to cut your hair!"

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