"What are we going to do now?"
Julien and Ambar had been walking for about ten minutes and during that time there had been nothing to be heard but the noise of the wind. Ambar's question caught Julien off-guard.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"What's going to happen to Dillik? Xarax can't stay here with him – he'll have to go with you when we go back to Nüngen."
"Xarax is a free agent. I'm not going to force him to go anywhere he doesn't want to."
"I'm sure that's very generous of you, but don't forget that he can't actually feed without you. Which, I might say, I find pretty..."
"Me, too. I think it's revolting. Believe me, if I could find another way of doing it I wouldn't hesitate for a moment. It wasn't my idea to make it work the way it does – at least, if it was I don't remember. But if Xarax wants to stay on Dvârinn we can always arrange for him to use a Guide to come to see me, or for me to come here, when he's hungry. It wouldn't be that hard to arrange that."
"I don't think Xarax would agree to leave you. I'm starting to get to know him a bit."
"And I know that if I was in Dillik's shoes..."
"Well, I had to leave you for a time."
"Yes, but you couldn't help it and it certainly wasn't your idea. You got expelled from the whole of the R'hinz. You wouldn't have left me otherwise, would you?"
"No. But being with me might be dangerous for you."
"I don't care, and I think Xarax and Dillik feel the same way. We're going to have to find a way to take Dillik with us."
"I can't see his mother agreeing to that. I don't think his father would be overjoyed by the idea either. Niil would probably end up getting charged with kidnapping!"
"All right, but if we don't take Dillik with us, Xarax won't have his heart in whatever he's doing. And that might be really dangerous."
"Well, we've got a few days to try to come up with a solution."
"It's a pity this world is so cold, isn't it? It's a lot nicer on Nüngen."
Another devastating entry from the king of the non-sequitur, thought Julien.
"It's probably warmer further south. Why do you think it's better on Nüngen?"
"Well, it's the clothes here. They're not very convenient."
"Ambar! You're not seriously thinking of doing anything... you know... here, in this cold?"
"Of course not! I don't know, Julien, sometimes you have a one-track mind! No, I'm just saying that it's a lot easier if you're wearing an abba or a laï, because here if you want a pee it takes about half an hour."
"You're just not used to the buttons."
"That's true. Actually I need a pee right now – I expect it's because of the cold. Could you give me a hand with the buttons?"
"I can't. Tannder would tell me off, because it's like if I helped you with your maths problems: you have to learn how to do it yourself or you'll never find out how it works."
"Yes, but it's urgent, and if you don't help me I might wet my trousers. And you wouldn't want everyone to laugh at me, would you?"
"Well, if it's to save you from being humiliated in public I suppose I could. But don't start getting any ideas, all right?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about!"
"Good! When I was your age I didn't have any idea either... well, not really."
Ambar held his coat open and Julien knelt down in front of him and opened the flap in his trousers, which worked in much the same way as on a pair of lederhosen. In fact the 'half an hour to undo' buttons were the height of simplicity and took Julien only a moment, and once the flap was undone he found that the pure white undergarment beneath it had a vertical slit in the front like a lot of pairs of undershorts. There was no problem getting past that either – even a clumsy boy would have found it easy, and to Julien's nimble fingers it presented no obstacle at all. Soon Ambar's sang-neh, nicely adorned with the silver curlicues of his Marks, had raised its head into the pale light and icy air of the morning.
"I can't pee with it like that," said Ambar. "You'll have to do something about it."
This was by now almost a ritual utterance back in their kang on Nüngen.
"Are you sure?" asked Julien. "I should think that if you leave it sticking out into this refreshing little breeze it'll pretty soon subside on its own."
"You're evil, you are! It'll freeze! They say it goes blue, then black, and then... it falls right off! And it's already starting to feel cold. I think you ought to do something about it a bit quick. Maybe you could breathe on it to warm it up... except I think it's already too late for that. You'll have to find a way to keep it nice and warm and out of the wind."
"I'll put my hand around it, then."
"Oh, no, you won't! Your hands must be freezing, seeing as how you aren't wearing gloves! You'd better put it in your mouth."
"You're joking, aren't you? What will people think?"
"They'll think you're a wonderful person, ready to make any sacrifice to save a friend in need."
"Well, all right, then – but only because it's an emergency! Don't go getting the idea that I'm doing this because I want to."
"Of course not! You'd have to be seriously twisted to think something like that..."
While his friends were indulging in the innocent pleasures of a walk in the countryside, Niil was playing his part in the plan they had concocted before leaving Nüngen.
"Master Dendjor," he said to Dillik's father, "please could you show me your Master's Certificate?"
Dendjor was a bit surprised, but he went out of the room and came back a few minutes later carrying a sort of large disc made from some bluish metal. He put this on the table in front of Niil and was then amazed to see the boy cover it with a similar disc of white metal. After a few seconds both discs started to emit a yellow light and a few lines of very small characters appeared on the surface of Niil's disc. The sailor knew immediately what it was: it was an Imperial Commission, which required anyone meeting the bearer to assist him in whatever he was doing, even if the bearer didn't explain why he needed help. You didn't see them very often, and he'd certainly never expected to see one in the hands of a child.
"Noble Lord," he said, "I am entirely at your disposal."
"First things first," said Niil. "It looks as if we're likely to be working together for a while, and so I'd prefer you just to call me Niil. After all, you're old enough to be my father, and indeed Ylavan thought highly of you. And I'm showing you this simply because I want you to know that what I'm asking you isn't just some badly-brought up Noble Son giving orders for the hell of it. You are certainly not 'at my disposal', but I would be grateful if you could help me in my mission."
"Very well – and thank you. So what can I do for you?"
"Well, how about I tell you what I have to do, and then you might be able to tell me how it can be done?"
So he explained his plan, and afterwards Dendjor checked that he'd understood properly.
"So the short version is that you want me to help you retrieve some treasure on behalf of the Emperor. The treasure is guarded by a Neh-kyong in the dead city of Tchenn Ril, but that isn't going to be a problem because the Neh-kyong is the Emperor's ally. And then once we have the treasure, you want it to be used to set up a trading company whose profits are to be used to benefit the families of sailors who have died at sea. Is that it?"
"Of course you realise that this sounds completely insane?"
"Of course I do. For starters, who's going to believe that the Emperor would stoop to interfere in what should be simply a matter for the Ksantiri family administrators? Unless, of course, the family and its assets have been misused by someone who was more interested in his own glory than the well-being of his subjects..."
"I hope you're not suggesting that Lord Ylavan..."
"I'm not talking about Lord Ylavan. He was a loyal Mirror. No – the Emperor has recently been looking into why it is that the citizens of Ksantir seem to have no love, or even respect, for those who are administrating their affairs, and he's come to the conclusion that in this instance he has no option but to interfere – as far as is permitted by the Laws and Traditions of the Nine Worlds, of course."
"Does that mean that your Noble Brother, Lord Nandak, has not been confirmed as Mirror in succession to his father?"
"My Noble Brother has indeed declined the honour, which he feels is more than he could cope with. He has also asked his brother Lord Nekal, who was temporarily in charge of Ksantir, to become Governor of the domain of Zer Trang, which you might have visited if your travels ever took you north of the Polar Circle. As for me, I have the entirely undeserved honour to be a Privy Councillor..."
"What, Privy Councillor to the Emperor?"
"Well, yes. And that's why I have renounced any claim to run things here on Dvârinn, and my younger brother will also have to stay with me in order to complete his education with a tutor of the Imperial House, the Honourable Tannder. In fact the Honourable Tannder permitted me to bring another of his pupils, the Honourable Karik, with us on this expedition. He's probably having a stroll around the docks with Tenntchouk. I know this is a bit hard to take in, but it does all make sense if you think about it."
"If you say so..."
"I'm sure of it. Anyway, right now I need some help – and what I really need is a trankenn captain who is used to commanding a vessel and making the correct decisions under pressure."
"Well, when you put it like that I can hardly say no, but I'm sure you'll understand if I want to find out a bit more about the situation. After all, if a captain is to make the correct decisions he needs to know the facts."
"You're absolutely right. So the first thing you need to know is that it isn't me who is in charge of this operation."
"No, I understand that we're working for the Emperor."
"Yes, but as far as this operation is concerned we take orders from the Honourable Anhel, who can be considered to speak with the Emperor's voice. I do what he tells me, and so will you if you agree to help."
"Niil, you seem to me to be both honourable and sensible. I like you a lot, and I'm ready to help you any way I can. But don't you think you're asking a bit much? That boy isn't even a Noble!"
"I know that the more I tell you, the less likely you are to believe me. But you know that it's impossible to counterfeit or buy an Imperial Commission. This one has Yulmir's seal, which he put there himself, and my name is engraved on it. If you're dealing with me, rather than a bureaucrat sent by the new Mirror, it's because that's the way the Emperor wants it. And if the Emperor honours me with his trust, maybe you could at least give me a chance to earn your trust too?
"And there's another thing: Anhel wants you and your family to go on treating him exactly the way you always have – as a friend of the family, nothing more. If you need to check on the validity of your instructions, you'll come to me, not him.
"You might also have noticed that I didn't say anything about payment or reward, and that's because we want every last sang to go to those who really need it. We're all contributing to this expedition whatever we can without any thought of making money out of it. For example, the new Mirror, Lord Tahlil of the Rent'haliks, is donating his First Trankenn to be the flagship of the new company. And obviously the cost of the wagons and their animals will be met by the Imperial Treasury.
"Do you agree with all that, or do you need a bit more time to think about it? There's no rush – actually we're getting something of a holiday out of it, so we're quite happy to wait for a bit."
"I don't think there's any need for that. As you reminded me, a captain has to be able to make decisions quickly. Just give me two days to make the arrangements, and then I think I'll be able to guarantee, not just that the job gets done, but that it gets done discreetly, too. I imagine that we can trust Gradik and Tenntchouk? They seem to get on well with the Young Master."
"You can definitely trust them."
"Then I won't need to take anyone else into my confidence. I'll send them to rent a couple of wagons in a village three hours from here, and we can meet up with them on the old Tchenn Ril road the day after tomorrow. That should avoid people around here asking questions. But I'd like a word with Master Anhel when he gets back, if that can be arranged."
"Niil says you'd like to talk to me, Master Dendjor."
"Yes, if you don't mind."
The sailor took Julien into the small family living room and directed him to a chair.
"I'm sure Lord Niil has told you about our conversation," said Dendjor.
"Yes, and I'm glad you've decided to help us."
"I have, but... well, there's something about this whole business that worries me. You see, although I have a fairly good education, basically I'm just a simple man who doesn't really like mysteries, and I've always been suspicious of those who pretend to be something they're not."
"Well, that's honest enough," said Julien.
"Sometimes this attitude has made life difficult for me, but on the whole it's worked."
"What's your point?"
"All right, then: I know you're someone of significant importance, otherwise Lord Niil couldn't have shown me an Imperial Commission. I also know that you've been here before and that my son is devoted to you. Now I don't have a problem with that in principle, but I do wonder if letting him befriend a person of your status is a really good idea – after all, he thinks you're just a blacksmith's apprentice. My experience suggests that relationships that are built on a lie are unlikely to end happily."
"You're probably right, and I had been intending to talk to you about that. You're no fool, and Niil assures me that you can be trusted. I'll try to set your mind at rest – but I hope it's an open mind, because otherwise you might find it hard to accept what I'm going to tell you."
"Well, first, I think that your son just made another friend, and one who's a lot more unusual than I am. I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that this friend neither wants to be taken for something he isn't, nor can he be. I can also promise you – if you're prepared to take my word, of course – that the person concerned is absolutely loyal and dependable. But perhaps at this point it would be a good idea to get Dillik to come here, because you'll understand what I'm talking about a lot better if he does."
Dillik was setting the tables in the main room of the inn, but he came when his father called him, and as soon as he closed the door behind him he became aware of the tension in the room. He went pale, but Julien beckoned him to his side and took his hand.
"Everything's all right, Dillik," he said. "Your father just needs an explanation of what's been happening, that's all. So I'd like you to call Xarax. Knowing him, I don't suppose he's far away."
After a brief hesitation Dillik opened his mouth and called for Xarax, his voice trembling a little. The haptir emerged from behind an ornamental chest and jumped onto the boy's shoulder.
Master Dendjor displayed admirable self-control: it was as if haptirs were forever jumping onto his son's shoulders.
"Master Dendjor," said Julien, "I'd like to present the Honourable Xarax, Haptir and friend of the Emperor. He is now also your son's friend. And I want you to know that they found each other without any help from me."
"Father," interrupted Dillik, "Xarax would really like to be introduced to you. He says that if you hold out your hand it will only take a moment. He also says that as you are his friend's father, your honour is his honour, your friends are his friends, and your enemies need to be thinking about emigrating. Please hold out your hand."
Without hesitation Dendjor allowed Xarax to curl his blue tongue around his forefinger.
Honourable father of my friend, said Xarax inside his head, I swear to protect your son with my life. I beg you not to separate us. I know that the Emperor will take it upon himself to provide for your son's needs and his education, and I am also certain that he will make sure that your family can continue to benefit from his joyful presence.
"Honourable haptir," replied Dendjor, "the friendship you seem to have developed for Dillik brings honour to my family. But if you don't mind I'd like to hear what the Young Master has to say about it."
"Well," said Julien, "you already know most of it. Xarax is the Emperor's Haptir. I'm sure you've heard about that relationship."
"To be honest I always thought it was a legend. I thought the haptirs never left their own world."
"That's generally true. As far as I know Xarax is the only exception."
"And can you explain what the Emperor's Haptir is doing in my wife's inn?"
"He's escorting the one whose job it is for him to protect."
"Are you trying to tell me that the Emperor is here?"
"Really? So where's he hiding, then?"
"Father!" cried Dillik. "Be quiet! It's him – he's the Emperor!"
"It's true! Xarax told me. He's even shown me – and Xarax never lies! He's a haptir from Kretzlal!"
"Your son is telling the truth," said Julien. "Xarax never lies. Sometimes he hides things, but he's incapable of actually lying."
As Dendjor stared at him, torn between outrage and sheer disbelief, Julien went on, "You have to understand why I'm travelling like this! If I'd come on an official visit I wouldn't get a moment's peace, and there wouldn't have been a hope in hell of getting our business done discreetly. That's why I'm not wearing my Marks. But if that's what it'll take to convince you I'll be happy to demonstrate, just as soon as we're well away from here. And don't look at me like that! Yesterday you seemed to think I was a nice person, and I thought the same about you. And I'd like you to go on thinking I'm a nice person. It only took Ambar about half an hour to deal with it when he found out who I really was, and I'm sure you'll manage just as well – won't you?"
"Of course... My Lord."
"Anhel, please. Or Young Master is just as good."
"As you wish. But..."
"Forgive me, but I still get the feeling that something isn't quite..."
"If you're thinking you don't yet know the whole story, you're right, and I'll be happy to tell you more when we know each other a bit better. But what I've just told you is the truth. I'll let you decide what you want to tell Mistress Nardik, of course."
"I imagine that the most important thing from her point of view is this: what's going to happen to her son?"
"To be honest, this whole thing came as a bit of a surprise to me too, but... what I suggest is this. Dillik will come and live with me, which will make it possible for Xarax to continue with his official duties without being separated from his friend. Dillik will get as much education as his intelligence and his desire to study will call for. I'm sure that the Honourable Tannder, who is already tutor to Ambar and Karik, will be happy to do the same for your son. Dillik will be able to come back here to visit his family as often as his studies allow – I can arrange for him to have access to the services of a Guide whenever necessary. Actually you'll probably see more of him than you would have done if you had sent him away to study at one of the best schools in Ksantir – and it would probably be a good idea if that's where you tell the neighbours he has gone."
"I can see that a lot of planning has already gone into this," said Dendjor. "You're saying that it's in his own interest and that everything will be for his benefit, but I'm still finding it a bit hard to get my head around it. As far as I can make out, the bottom line is that you've come to take my son away from me – and while I have great respect for the Imperial Haptir, I still think you're riding roughshod over us."
Julien jumped in before Dillik could say something he might later regret.
"Dillik, you need to stay out of this for now and let your father and me discuss it," he said. "Everyone wants what's best for you. Master Dendjor, I completely understand your position, and if I was standing where you are I'm sure I'd feel the same way. You need to understand that nothing is going to happen unless you agree – it's going to be your decision.
"But let me explain how I see things. Xarax is essential to what I do and who I am, and he is irreplaceable. Without him I wouldn't be able to do a lot of the things I have to do. In other words, I need him a lot more than Dillik does. In the normal way of things Xarax would never get attached to anyone except me, and in fact I don't think that any haptir has ever experienced what we call love before. His species is highly intelligent and capable of other emotions, but not that one, not... well, you probably understand what I'm talking about far better than I do. However, he and I had to live through an ordeal that brought us far closer to each other than is normal, to a point where I left in him an imprint of my mind. That's a nice way of saying that I ended up contaminating him. I was worried that he'd resent it, but in fact he says that he's perfectly happy as he is now and wouldn't change back even if he could.
"As for where we are now, he still loves me, but not in the same way that he loves Dillik – at least, that's what he's told me, and I believe him. He also told me that if I wanted it that way he'd be content only to see Dillik occasionally, or even not at all, if that's what circumstances dictated. But I don't think that he yet fully understands what has happened to him. I know that if I was kept apart from someone I love I'd be really unhappy, and I'm afraid that if he was in that situation it would damage the way we work together. The problem is that he and I absolutely have to stay together: I can't replace him and I have no desire to do so anyway, and in any case he can't leave me for very long without having to go into a state a bit like hibernation. Anyway, I like Dillik, and I think that he and Xarax need to stay together, and I'm not saying that just because I need a happy haptir to work with.
"Try to imagine how it is for Xarax, who s completely alone, cut off from the rest of his species. It's not as if I could tell him to go and find himself a friend on Kretzlal – and in any case I don't think anyone on Kretzlal would understand the word 'friend' in the first place.
"And don't lose sight of the fact that your boy seems to absolutely adore Xarax. I don't know how it got that way, so don't bother asking, but I do know that if the two of them were parted Dillik would be very unhappy. That's why I'm making this proposal. As I said, you don't have to accept it, but if you don't I hope you can suggest an alternative.
"I wonder how I'm going to explain any of this to my wife," said Dendjor. "And I have got one more question: what will happen if Xarax grows tired of Dillik?"
Julien turned to Xarax, who was still perched on Dillik's shoulder.
"Xarax," he said, "he's only asking that because he doesn't know you – and it's natural for a father to worry about his child. He certainly isn't intending to insult you. For my part, I know perfectly well that that is never going to happen. But to answer your question, Master Dendjor, Dillik's status will remain the same whatever happens: he'll still be treated as my guest and a pupil of my House. And, unless he committed some particularly dreadful crime, he'll still be my friend, too."
"I believe you're making an honest offer," said Dendjor. "Perhaps I am starting to understand the situation a little."
"I've got one more request," said Julien. "I want Dillik to come on our expedition. It will save Xarax from having to keep flying back and forth between Tchenn Ril and Kardenang."
"Very well. I can't see him coming to any harm if he does."
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