by Engor

Chapter 61

When Julien and his companions returned to Bakhtar Tower Lord Aldegard was tactful enough not to keep him for more than a couple of minutes before he had them taken straight to his parents' kang.

The Berthiers had only been in Aleth for a couple of days, but they were already wearing local clothing, which was a lot more comfortable in this climate than either European clothes or, indeed, the Dvârinn clothes that Julien was still wearing, and which were already making him feel far too hot. His parents were wearing white abbas with a gold and fuchsia trim which proclaimed that they were connected to the Imperial House.

The careful cut and styling of his mother's abba had the effect of transforming her into a sort of Medieval queen, and she no longer looked at all like the sturdy daughter of a long line of Norman peasants. Of course she had always had a pretty face and a clear complexion which made Julien think of crème fraîche, pastry and morning dew, but now her auburn hair had been gathered into a high bun, as was currently the fashion in Aleth, and it had the effect of making her look dignified and noble. Her husband looked completely at ease in a garment which, back on Earth, he would have considered only suitable for wearing at a carnival. And next to him stood a Guide whose canary-yellow fur clashed horribly with anything he got close to, because the apartment was tastefully decorated in delicate pastel shades.

Once the greetings and the emotion of the reunion were over, Mr Berthier looked at Ugo and said, "So, old boy, did you enjoy the journey? I'd say Julien's done a great job. And that's a beautiful collar you've got – it looks like white gold. Isabelle's going to be jealous!"

Of course he had spent the previous twelve years talking to the dog, but never before had he received an answer, and so he was astonished when Ugo said, "And well she might be – it's a completely unique piece. There's nothing like it in the whole of the R'hinz. It would look wonderful on her but I'm afraid that I can't manage without it at the moment."

"Ugo! You can talk!" exclaimed Mr Berthier.

"I've always been able to talk, but only inside my head. Now you can actually hear me."

"I'm so pleased! So where did you find this amazing device?"

"A friend of Julien's gave it to me."

"It's really impressive. He obviously has some excellent friends."

"Yes... I don't want to dampen your enthusiasm, but apparently he also has some rather powerful enemies."

"True – even though it's hard for me to understand why."

Up to this point Isabelle had been chatting quietly with her son, but now she raised her voice and spoke more formally.

"Julien," she said, "I'd like to introduce you to the Honourable Wakhann, who has been kind enough to act as our interpreter, and who has been very much looking forward to meeting you."

The yellow Guide stepped forward and offered his neck for Julien to touch.

May Your Lordship please accept the greetings of a lowly Guide.

Honourable Wakhann, you're doing a difficult job, and you're performing an immense service to my family. And I'd be very grateful indeed if you could do me another favour and stop using the High Speech – and I'd really prefer you just to call me 'Julien', though I suppose I could put up with 'My Lord' if you absolutely insist on formality.

As you wish, My Lord. Anyway, now that the Honourable Master Yol is back I imagine that my humble contribution will not be required any longer.

Don't be so sure. The Honourable Yol is likely to be busy with other tasks, and I'm sure he would like you to go on looking after my parents – if you don't mind, of course.

I would be only too happy, My Lord. Not only would this offer me the rare privilege of getting to know those who are close to you, but it would also give me an opportunity of learning about a culture totally alien to the Nine Worlds.

I'm glad that you're happy to carry on, then. One more thing, though: I absolutely forbid any manipulation of their minds or their memories – for example, I don't want their memories to be altered to make them forget about any of the Guides they might meet. I want you to treat them exactly the same as you would me. You can discuss this with your Masters if you like, but I don't think they'll want to make an issue of it.

Neither do I, My Lord. In fact, Master Aïn has already given me the same instruction.

Lord Aldegard was holding a Council meeting, but it was a very restricted meeting – in fact the only people present were himself, Julien, Xarax, Tannder, Aïn and Yol/Ugo. They were meeting to try to formulate a strategy for the next few days, a period of time that could well be critical for Dvârinn. Tannder was there because Julien had asked him to be – he wanted the input of someone who was in no way politically connected to the situation.

"Tomorrow, My Lord," said Aldegard, "is the day of Ylavan's funeral. You have the choice: you can attend or not, as you think best. After that you have a period of time – it shouldn't be more than twenty days – to nominate a new Mirror for Dvârinn. The ceremony for that will have to take place on Dvârinn, and normally you would need to be present. You could choose not to attend, but I think that if you did that it would be sure to escalate the rumours already circulating about the weakening of the Emperor's power."

"What would you advise me to do?" Julien asked him.

"Well, you don't have to make an appearance tomorrow. I could go and offer official condolences on your behalf. That would then give us twenty days to arrange for a meeting of the Council of Mirrors where we could decide on a new Mirror for Dvârinn."

"I suspect," said Julien, "that you'd agree that we can't appoint Nandak as the new Mirror. There's already a strong suspicion that he murdered his father. I don't think he should even be First Lord of the Ksantiris."

"Well, if he did do such a thing I don't think there will be any way of proving it. He might be a nasty piece of work, but Nandak is nobody's fool."

"Do you think so? I mean, this whole business of having a secret cache of forbidden weapons – doesn't that sound insane to you? Surely he doesn't think people will just stand by and let him use artillery or whatever without doing something about it?"

"If the story is true, I think it can only be because someone has told him that you are no longer in the R'hinz – and if that were the case he could probably conquer the whole planet with his forbidden weapons without anyone being able to stop him. But, again, there's no actual proof that he has such weapons. And in any case you can't interfere with the Ksantiri family succession."

"Maybe not, but there must be some way for us to put a stop to this before things get completely out of hand. For a start, wouldn't it make him have second thoughts if the Emperor were to prove that he is still on the scene?"

"Well, yes – but he could choose to confront you. It's happened in the past."

"And what happened?"

"None of the people who tried it ever managed to carry out their threats. And as for the ones who tried to break the laws of the R'hinz on the quiet, the Council of Mirrors declared their Houses extinct and abolished their Marks. That's what happened to House T'ang Ser, who once ruled over the city of Tchenn Ril, a place with which I believe you are acquainted."

"I'd prefer not to let things get that far.. Obviously I'm worried about it, and I've been thinking about it for a while. And I think I've thought of a way to deal with this and at the same time keep the damage to a minimum..."

Once he was back in his kang – the one he'd shared with Niil and Ambar in happier times – Julien spoke to Tannder.

"You didn't say anything at the meeting," he said. "What do you think of my plan?"

"I tend to agree with the First Lord: I think it's a bit reckless. But I don't think you told us everything and I'd prefer to hear the rest of the plan before I pass judgement – if that's what you want me to do, of course."

Julien then gave a full exposition of his plan and received both Tannder's approval and a few suggestions as to how to make it work more effectively. Then he sent for Master Subadar, who had been his disciple in an earlier incarnation and was now the Grand Master of the Circle of Major Arts, inviting him to supper. He was sure that the man who had reminded him of the existence of the Narthex would be able to help him to find a way around some of the remaining problems...

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