The Ksantiris' First Trankenn resounded with the dull beat of the funeral drums. A cold end-of-winter sun shone down on the crowd assembled on the top deck beneath the perfectly-furled sails of the vessel. A few cable lengths to starboard was the equally impeccably turned out trankenn of the Gyalmangs, on which the death drums could also be heard. Lord Ylavan's body rested at the prow of his ship in a coracle made of leather and plaited wood, an exact replica of the small fishing boats used by his ancestors thousands of years before. Flowers and aromatic wood-shavings covered the body, which was naked except for a thin death-mask of beaten gold that covered his face. Lady Axelia stood beside the boat wearing the grey woollen garment worn by the fisher-folk of long ago, ready to give the order to the six sailors who would lower Lord Ylavan onto the ocean for his final voyage. She was just about to give the ritual command which would begin the operation of the winches that would slowly lower the coracle to the surface thirty metres below when a murmur arose from the crowd.
Lady Axelia turned and saw that a young boy had just appeared behind her. He was thin and wearing nothing at all except for the instantly recognisable tracery of the white Marks of the Imperial House. As she looked at him he spoke, his voice carrying clearly to everyone aboard the vessel.
"Noble Lady Axelia," he said, "before you set your Noble Husband to sail upon the Unfathomable Ocean, I would ask that you permit Yulmir to greet his Mirror for the last time."
Despite her surprise and the awkward robe she was wearing, Lady Axelia bowed with great grace and dignity and then stepped aside to allow the unexpected visitor to reach the coracle, where he gazed for a long moment at the golden mask before returning to the widow's side.
"No-one, Noble Lady, is more worthy to protect his people from the perils of the sea," the boy said. "No-one is more worthy to guide his people through the Streams of Destiny. No-one is more worthy to inspire the Guardians of his lineage with his wisdom."
Once the ritual words had been spoken Lady Axelia waved her hand and the six men began to sing an ancient shanty as they slowly lowered their late Master down to the surface of the ocean. Once the coracle was floating freely a long blast from a whistle triggered the hoisting of the sails aboard the two trankenns, and the great vessels began, slowly at first and then with increasing speed, to draw away from the little boat that bore the dead Lord.
Aboard the First Trankenn there was no sound at all except for the murmur of the wind as it blew gently through the rigging. His arms folded, Julien stood at the prow of the ship and looked at the faces of the crowd. The first stage of his plan appeared to have passed off without a hitch. The air was actually very cold, but he couldn't feel it because his whole body had been anointed with a very effective protective balm that prevented him from feeling the chill: it would have been a pity, he thought, if his funeral speech had had to be delivered through chattering teeth. Nor did he feel at all embarrassed at standing naked in front of everyone, because the old Master of Tradition had been right: the Marks were the only garment that a Noble Son needed. But now he had to press on with the plan.
"Will not the Noble Lords of the Ksantiris welcome the Guardian of the Nine Worlds?" he asked.
Everyone immediately turned to look at the platform where Nandak, Nekal, Niil and Ambar were sitting. Nandak, Niil and Ambar all looked very surprised, but Nekal's face was utterly horrified, and as the others stood up and tried to preserve a measure of dignity, he fell back onto his chair, his face grey and his legs temporarily refusing to obey him. His older brother had to grab hold of his arm and drag him to his feet. Nandak wasn't quite sure what Nekal's problem was, but he did know that he couldn't allow any Ksantiri to shame the family by failing to stand.
"Nandak," said Julien, "perhaps we should give your brother a moment to recover from the joy of seeing his Emperor again. I know tradition says that 'The Emperor is at home anywhere in the Nine Worlds', but I should probably have announced my visit in advance to spare him this emotional shock."
Nandak had by now covered the distance between himself and Julien and dropped to his knees, his head bowed in the posture of one seeking forgiveness.
"I beg Your Imperial Highness to forgive this regrettable incident," he said. "Please accept my most sincere welcome, and my deepest gratitude for the honour you showed to the memory of my Noble and greatly-missed Father."
"Consider the incident forgotten," said Julien. "As for your greatly-missed Father, my true and most faithful Mirror, he at least gave me, in addition to his loyalty, his Noble Son Niil, who has been an important Councillor to me despite his lack of years."
Then he raised his voice and addressed Niil over his older brother's head.
"Lord Niil, will you not find me something with which to cover my body? Surely there are some in House Ksantiri who have not lost their manners?"
Niil ran across and removed all of his clothing, presenting each garment one by one until Julien was fully dressed and then adjusting the ceremonial hatik. By doing this he played his part in the ancient ritual which demonstrated that a Lord had absolute trust in his vassal, to the point of allowing him closer access to his body than his own clothes – and also that any injury done to the vassal was tantamount to a declaration of war against the Lord – in this case, against the Emperor himself.
Having thus delivered a message which was certain to reach the whole R'hinz in the very near future, Julien sent his friend to find some clothes – after all, Niil didn't have the benefit of the protective balm and Julien didn't want everyone to see him shivering – and then he followed Nandak towards the VIP part of the ship, where the cream of the Dvârinn aristocracy was awaiting his pleasure. He paused long enough to make sure that Lady Axelia was looking after Ambar: the former street-boy was looking completely lost, although he did brighten up when Julien smiled at him.
Julien had to endure the respectful homage of a vast number of characters, all of them burdened with a highly inaccurate opinion of their own importance, before he was finally able to escape with Nandak into a slightly smaller room. Here he met not only Lord Aldegard and Lady Delia, his wife, but also Lady Axelia, who was accompanied by Ambar and Niil, who was once again dressed appropriately for the occasion. There were around fifteen other members of the nobility there too, including Lord Delian of the Gyalmangs, the would-be chief ally of the future Master of the World, Nandak. These people were gathered around a long table laid out for a banquet. But as he was being led towards the position of honour Julien noticed that someone was missing.
"Is Nekal having stomach trouble?" he asked his host. "Or has the vision of my person been enough to spoil his appetite?"
Obviously Nandak didn't know. No explanation for his brother's absence, and hence appalling breach of etiquette, sprang to his mind. As he drew breath to launch into a new round of excuses Julien forestalled him.
"Please," he said. "Your brother is old enough to answer for himself, and I'm sure that he has a good reason for this apparent discourtesy. But if you're worried about his health, perhaps my Privy Councillor could try to find out what the problem is?"
Which, translated from the Diplomatic, meant "Something is rotten in the House of Ksantiri and your brother is shamelessly spitting in my face. You'd better sort it out quickly or I'll have to deal with it myself!"
"No, it's fine, Your Highness, I'll send for him."
"As you wish. But it would be impolite for us to start eating while we're still waiting for a guest, so perhaps you could grant me the favour of a short private interview? I think I remember seeing a small room just over there which would do nicely. Aldegard, would you be kind enough to join us?"
Nandak visibly relaxed: a private interview with the Emperor and Aldegard could only be about the office of Mirror. He was glad to be able to talk about something other than the shameful behaviour of his cretinous brother. So they excused themselves to their guests and moved to the smaller room, where they sat in comfortable chairs around a small table well furnished with refreshments.
"If you don't mind," said Julien, "I'd like to introduce someone to you. Xarax!"
The haptir seemed to materialise on the arm of the chair Nandak was sitting in. The man started to reach towards his belt.
"If I were you," Julien warned him, "I'd keep absolutely still. Xarax is one of my personal advisers, and he's by far the most dangerous. Provided that you can keep still you'll have the privilege of a private interview with the Emperor's Haptir. He'll replay for you a most fascinating conversation between Lord Delian and his Master-at-Arms."
Xarax laid his claw on Nandak's arm – the man seemed almost to have turned to stone, for some reason - and then removed it again a few seconds later. Once again Nandak drew breath to protest, and once again Julien stopped him.
"I really would urge you not to deny the evidence," he said calmly. "Lord Aldegard is here as a representative of the Council of Mirrors, and I'm sure you know the power that they hold. From this point on every word you utter will be accurately recorded, just as happened in the scene you've just witnessed, and your words will have immediate and irreversible consequences for you and your House. Is that clear?"
"Lord Aldegard is going to suggest a course of action which has my full approval, and I hope that it gets yours, too."
"Noble Lord," said Aldegard, "You would appear to be guilty of conspiracy against the security of the Nine Worlds. You are, of course, aware of the punishment for such a major crime. However, the Council of Mirrors is prepared to offer you an opportunity to accept a reduced penalty. You may, as a sign of your contrition and as a way to keep the peace of the R'hinz, lead the Council's Guardians to the arms referred to in the conversation you have just witnessed, as well as to any other illegal arms cache that you might know about. You can also submit voluntarily to certain changes in the administration of your domains, and in particular, of the Domain of Ksantir.
"That might come as a surprise to you, but you can blame your Honourable Brother for that: he was stupid enough to refuse to comply with an order that came directly from the Emperor himself, thereby indicating that he did not believe that Yulmir still had sufficient power to protect his messengers. I might add that the hatred he has kindled in the hearts of the people he was supposed to protect has convinced the Council that his talents would be better employed in governing some small uninhabited islet or other.
"But, back to your own situation: you can accept the discreet supervision of a private Councillor appointed by the Council of Mirrors. And finally you can give up the burden of becoming Emperor's Mirror – you can say that you do not feel worthy of following your late lamented Father in that role.
"Of course, you are entirely at liberty to choose another path – for example, you could challenge the accuracy of the charges that have been levelled at you. However, I must warn you that if you choose to follow that path I can absolutely guarantee that the resulting enquiry will uncover the truth – the whole truth, good or bad. Nor should you think that it will be possible to hide anything. For a crime of this magnitude the most extreme means of investigation are legitimate. I'm sure you are aware that there are some highly effective deep mind-probing techniques available to us, even though their use in the case of lesser crimes is prohibited due to the risk of permanent damage to the mind of the person being sounded. But if you truly have nothing to hide then you would have nothing to fear from such an investigation. So... what would you like to do?"
"I accept your terms."
"Finally you're showing some good sense. It's just a pity that you were bereft of it when you committed yourself to this stupidity."
"And now that you've agreed," said Julien, standing up, "I don't see any reason to keep your guests waiting any longer, do you?"
It was a strange meal. The Noble Lord Nandak seemed lost in thought. Of course, the other guests decided, he was probably grieving for his lost father. As for Lord Nekal, maybe he'd eaten something not entirely fresh at breakfast, because he barely ate a thing – and that was odd, because normally he had a very healthy appetite indeed. The consensus among the guests was that Nekal's cook was going to find himself in hot water.
Everyone said that the Emperor was absolutely charming, even though that was hardly the first adjective which had sprung to mind when people had described the Master of the Known Universe in the past. All the same, it was certainly an apt description for the new personality under whose guise Yulmir had chosen to reveal himself – and all the ladies present declared that he was exactly what they would have looked for in a son.
One guest, however, left the table in a state of such confusion that it quite ruined the rest of his day. It was Lord Delian, who simply could not understand why, out of all the subjects available to him, the Emperor had chosen to ask him for the name of his Master-at-Arms.
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