by Engor

Chapter 17

In this assembly of nobles and dignitaries Julien was a complete nobody, and yet, in defiance of all custom, he was seated on Aldegard's immediate left. On Julien's other side was Aïn the Guide, and Julien had to make a definite effort to stop himself from scratching him behind the ears, the way he used to with Ugo. Of course, Julien's mother would certainly not have allowed the dog to be anywhere near the dinner table...

At the other end of the table Ambar clearly felt uncomfortable in this exalted company and was sticking like glue to Niil, who was discreetly demonstrating how to eat the various delicacies that were constantly appearing before him in a refined and socially acceptable manner.

The First Lord gave Julien plenty of time to enjoy his meal before raising the important issue.

"Son, I know you're keen to get back home to your own world and to your family, and we'll do everything we possibly can to help you. But if we're going to do that I'm afraid it's going to mean you having your mind examined again. Aïn has told me how unpleasant that is for you, but we haven't been able to find any other way of finding out where you came from. Obviously we won't do anything that is against your will, so that's why I'm asking for your agreement."

Julien most certainly did not agree. Absolutely not! He turned towards Aïn, and now he really didn't feel like scratching his head. But he could read nothing in those big yellow eyes... He told himself that there was no rush: he was perfectly happy where he was, and he even had friends here. It was like being on holiday, only better. But... he really couldn't enjoy himself properly here knowing that his parents were going mad with worry. He supposed that there was really no choice.

"Yes... I mean, yes, First Lord, I agree for Aïn to enter my mind again."

"Then he'll come and fetch you this evening."

When the door finally opened to admit the strange 'blue dog' Julien had been ready and waiting for some time. For this occasion he had put on the green abba that Izkya had given him. Niil and Ambar, both wearing the grey lakh of House Ksantiri, made it clear that they intended going with him, but the guard who had accompanied Aïn made it equally clear that the First Lord did not require their presence. Niil was on the point of arguing, but he remembered just in time that in this place the First Lord's wishes were as law and could not be challenged.

Aïn and Julien met the First Lord in a bare circular room with no windows. Waiting with the First Lord were three stern-looking old men and two more Guides, one with fur that was a surprising apple-green colour and the other with a rather more orthodox reddish-brown pelt. In the centre of the room was a small raised dais, to which was bolted an empty wooden chair. The arrangement looked rather like the setting for an examination.

"Julien," said Aldegard, "I'd like you to allow three Masters of the Major Arts to examine you. With your agreement Aïn and these other two Guides will help them to try to find out where and how you met Yol the Intrepid. I should warn you that the procedure can be quite unpleasant. Nobody likes having his mind invaded, and you're free to refuse if you want. But right now we can't think of any other way to find the information we need to send you home. It's your decision..."

The idea of having six people digging away inside his head terrified him, but he recognised that without help he would be unable to find his way back to his world and to his parents.

"Noble Lord," he said, "I don't think I really have a choice."

"I think you're right. So now the Noble Master Frenndhir will formally ask your permission, on behalf of the whole group, to enter your mind. I'll stay to make sure that everything goes as it should and that the rules are adhered to."

He gestured to Julien to take his place in the chair, which reminded Julien rather ominously of the ones used in dental surgeries. Then one of the old men stepped forward.

"Julien, I am Frenndhir, of the Akshantaks, Master of the Major Arts," he said. "On behalf of myself and my five colleagues I ask for your permission to enter your mind in order to read it for your own benefit. Julien, do we have your permission?"

"Yes, you do."

The others formed themselves into a chain, alternating humans and Guides, and then Frenndhir pressed his hand against Julien's head.

He hadn't liked having Aïn inside his head and he'd thought that nothing could be worse than that sensation of complete nakedness and exposure to a particularly perceptive outside eye. But he'd been wrong. Now he had six people scrabbling about inside his head, and this time it wasn't just an alien that was like a sort of super-evolved dog – no, this time three of them were human. Humans like himself, who would recognise absolutely everything they found. Humans who looked disturbingly like the sort of old headmaster who thinks that 'leniency' is a dirty word. He felt like screaming. Fortunately Aïn, who could feel his distress, sent him some reassuring thoughts.

Julien, nobody is trying to embarrass you. We're just looking for signs of what Yol did to you, and for things that shouldn't be in the mind of an ordinary boy of your age.

Julien supposed that it was possible that the people rummaging through his thoughts only had the best of intentions. But right at that moment it felt to him that things were creeping into his every thought like probing fingers, digging up hidden memories and scrutinising them closely. Like, for example, that time four years ago when he had been on a school trip and had woken up with his pyjamas completely drenched... NOOO!!

Calm down. This time the thought came from a human. We're not trying to humiliate you, but we have to check all your memories. If it's too hard for you, we can stop.

And in fact it had stopped: once again he felt alone in his head... well, alone apart from the one old man who was talking to him.

If you tell me what you're looking for, maybe I can help, he thought.

You can't help. Aïn assures us that you are a Guide, but we can't find any sign of that. Other than the fact that you don't come from any of the Nine Worlds you seem to be a perfectly ordinary boy. Perhaps if we dig deeper we'll be able to find out how you got here, but if it's too uncomfortable for you we could take a break and try again later.

No, I'd sooner you carried on. The sooner we're finished, the better.

Once again his head was invaded by inquisitors who forced a jumble of memories to the surface, emotions and images flashing by like a chaotic video tape on fast forward, hurling his emotions from joy to despair and back again at high speed. He went uncontrollably from serene calm to wild excitement, from pride to shame, and he was completely helpless to stop it. His face had frozen into a stone mask, and the only outward sign of the hideous internal turmoil he was undergoing were the shiny twin tracks of his tears as they leaked through his closed eyelids.

Sitting just in front of him, the First Lord was watching, and although his expression didn't betray his thoughts, he was profoundly concerned at the thought of what Julien was going through. When he had spoken to the six Masters earlier they had assured him that it would only take them a few seconds to find what they needed. Aïn had insisted that when he had himself made contact with the boy's mind the previous day, the first and most obvious thing about it, blazing like the sun, was the massive power of this apparently unaware Guide. But the process had now been running for more than five minutes, and as far as Aldegard could see the only thing they were accomplishing was the flow of tears down that frozen face. He made the only possible decision.

"Masters," he said, "that's enough. You need to stop torturing this child."

He spoke calmly and without raising his voice, but the chain of humans and Guides broke up straight away, while Julien, slumping forward in the chair, tried in vain to control the sobs that were racking his frame. As if awakening from a dream the Masters stared at the suffering boy. Finally Frenndhir found his voice.

"We had no idea it was so terrible for him," he said speaking on behalf of all of them. "We were engrossed in our search, and frustrated that we couldn't find anything. Julien, I swear we didn't know... we had no idea..."

"Honourable Masters," interrupted the First Lord, "You have done something to his child that the Law forbids us to do even to a criminal. I hope," and now his voice was becoming menacing, "that you haven't caused any irreparable damage, but in any case it's clear that you've made a serious mistake. The Major Circle of Noble Arts and the Central Council of Guides will have to investigate your conduct in due course. I don't think that what you have done can be easily forgiven. It isn't down to me to forgive or not to forgive, but in any case I don't think there's very much that you could say to defend your actions."

Nobody had anything to say in response. Aldegard went to the chair, where Julien was now curled up in a foetal position, picked him up effortlessly and carried him from the room. As they left the room behind them he felt the boy move a little in order to put his arms around Aldegard's neck. Despite his worry for the boy Aldegard smiled a little when he realised what he looked like: here he was, the Mirror of the Emperor, carrying a crying kid through the corridors – and with a face full of the kid's ridiculously long untidy red hair, too.

He hesitated briefly, wondering if he should take the boy to Lady Delia, but then decided that he would be better off with the people he saw as his friends. So he made his way to their kang, ignoring the startled looks on the faces of the people he passed.

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