"Why the hell did you do that to me?"
This was the first thing Niil had said since they had left the trial room and moved to the kang reserved for them on board Tahlil's trankenn.
"I'm sorry. There was no other way."
"And how long have you known about the state my brother was in?"
"Aldegard told me when we went back to Aleth. And don't blame him: it was my idea to wait until he was at death's door to hold the trial. It was the only way to stop you from throwing your life away by fighting him... all right, I suppose that Xarax could have popped his head around your brother's door and 'put him out of his misery', but that would have caused no end of questions and complications. I'm sorry, but I simply couldn't let you chuck your life away."
"You lied to me! You betrayed me!"
"No, I didn't. I certainly didn't betray you, and I didn't lie to you either, although it's true that I kept quiet about some things. I had to, both for the sake of your family, and because I simply couldn't risk losing you."
"Yes, but you didn't even tell me about it right before the trial. You made me look like a complete idiot!"
"I kept quiet deliberately. I didn't want everyone to think that you and I had planned the whole thing together, and that you'd asked me to delay the trial so that you wouldn't have to fight to avenge your father."
"Oh, right – as if they're not going to think that anyway, and probably say it, too!"
"I don't know if they will or not, but if they do you can honestly answer that you only found out what was happening at the same time as the rest of the Assembly."
"And that's not all – you know damned well that I didn't want to be First Lord, and yet you dumped that on me right in front of everyone, knowing that I couldn't say no. I'll never forgive you for that!"
"Niil, I'm in far more of a mess here than you are. I have to do what's best for Dvârinn, but surely you can't think that I actually wanted to do this? What do you think would have happened if I hadn't made you First Lord of the Ksantiris?"
"I'm sure His Imperial Highness will give me the benefit of His wisdom."
The dreadful scathing tone of this and the sheer venom with which the words were delivered almost made Julien give free rein to the anger he was feeling. Instead he managed to close his eyes for a few seconds and to take a couple of deep breaths.
"What would have happened, Noble Lord, is that, because you don't have any more uncles, all your cousins to the nth degree would have decided that they would make an excellent First Lord. There would have been conspiracies, plots and probably no end of blood-letting as they scrambled to climb over each other into the seat you had left empty. Every one of them would have formed his own little clan and we would have been faced with a whole lot of dirty little wars. Hell, Niil, you know that better than I do – you know what Dvârinn is like! All right, if a load of ambitious morons want to start assassinating each other it's no skin off my nose, but you know damned well that it would actually be the ordinary people who did the dying, all the poor sods who get conscripted into Lord A's army to fight the other sad bastards in the army of Lord B. Is that what you want for your people?
"Instead, you're now the First Lord, whether your cousins like it or not, and they know where they stand because I'm the one who made the decision. They'll remember the Rite of Trust, too, that we performed at Ylavan's funeral, and that will stop them from trying to take you on. Niil, you're the one who taught me how important honour is in the Nine Worlds. I can't believe you're going to turn your back on me now just because I asked you to be what you claimed to be."
"You didn't ask me – you forced me! What right did you have to do that? The right of the Emperor? Fine, then I'll obey, but you needn't think I'm doing it because I want to. And since we're talking about honour and duty, yes, I'll obey Yulmir because it's my duty to do so and because I respect the position of the Emperor. But if you're going to start being Emperor, don't try telling me that you want to be Julien as well and expect me to come running just because you're short of friends."
"But I'm both! There's nothing I can do about it – it's not my fault! You know I didn't ask to come here! And if there was some way for me to stop being Yulmir, believe me, I'd grab it in a millisecond!"
"Well, I didn't choose it, either. Anyway, the point is that you're the one who's dumped this on me – you, and nobody else. Like it or not, you are Yulmir, and that gives me no choice but to obey you. But you have absolutely no right to demand anything else of me. As from this moment, His Imperial Highness will have to realise that the First Lord of the Ksantiris has too much on his plate to hang around and keep Him company whenever He feels lonely!"
"Your Imperial Highness?"
"Look, I know you're angry about being manipulated – but you can't do that to me!"
Niil remained silent, his face a stone mask and his eyes expressing nothing. And Julien realised that the Niil he had thought he knew so well, the friend he had always relied on without even thinking about it since the first moment he had set foot in the Nine Worlds, had disappeared.
"Niil, please!" he begged. "I need you! I'm on my own. All right, Xarax helps me, and so do Tannder, Aldegard, Subadar and Aïn, as much as they can. And there's Ambar, too.. but it's not the same. You're the only one who is really..."
"If Your Imperial Highness is saying that I'm the only one He can use a doormat without having to worry about the consequences, I'm sure you're right. In fact, you've just demonstrated exactly that. But if you think I'm going to hang around so you can carry on doing it, you're dead wrong – if, of course, the Infallible Yulmir is capable of being wrong. And as for my brother, his place is with his Family, where he will receive the appropriate education for one of his status. Unless, of course, you want to issue an Imperial Edict requiring his presence in Your Imperial Highness's bed."
Julien felt the scorn in those last words as though they had been a slap in the face. In that one second the love he had been sharing with Ambar had been dragged through the mud – and Julien realised that if anyone was capable of taking such a repulsive view of the bond he had with Ambar, then it would be better if that bond ceased to exist. For Niil, who knew him better than anyone, to dare to suggest for one moment that Julien looked on Ambar as no better than a common rent-boy showed more clearly than anything just how livid he was. Julien was dimly aware that they were both by now entering the territory where common sense has flown out of the window and where the only thing that remains is the perverse desire to destroy your opponent and yourself at the same time, but by now he was helpless to prevent it from happening.
"Niil of the Ksantiris," he said. "Your rank and duties demand your permanent presence here on Dvârinn. I therefore release your from your duties as Privy Councillor to the Emperor in order to allow you to dedicate yourself exclusively to the affairs of your Noble House. As for your young brother, you're right: his place is with his family, and I am sure that you will be able to offer him all the affection he needs, as well as an education befitting the son of a Noble House. I shall leave Dvârinn as quickly as it can be arranged. I wish you a safe journey back to Ksantir. Please convey my respectful farewell to your mother, and tell your brother that, regretfully, my schedule does not permit me to take my leave of him in person. I shall detain you no longer."
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