Customs and habits
Their inspection of the klirk failed to reveal anything new: the grey metal disc stubbornly refused to do anything at all. And so Niil led then on through the park to the far side, and when they emerged from the trees once more they could see a building that looked a bit like a large Roman villa about a hundred yards away. It was white, with a blue ceramic roof.
“Wait here,” said Niil.
He jogged to the house and disappeared through its porch, leaving Julien on his own for what seemed an eternity. It was hot and he was sweating, and before too long he was forced to take refuge in the shade under the trees.
Finally Niil returned with a bundle under his arm.
“There you go,” he said. “Sorry it took so long, but I ran into Izkya and stopped to tell her about you.”
The bundle contained the promised abba and also a pair of sandals, and once Julien had made himself presentable they walked together to the house. Julien saw that the small number of openings in the outer walls were filled with traceries of stone, such as can be seen in India or parts of north Africa. In the centre of the wall was a porch whose black wrought iron gates offered a glimpse into an inner garden, in which could be heard the tinkling musical sound of a fountain.
As they stepped inside a smiling young woman came to meet them. She was wearing a plain blue dress, her hair was done up in a high bun, and her face bore the powder-blue tracery of a Noble Family's Marks. She gave a slight bow and spoke to Julien.
“Niria, Stewardess of the house of Izkya, is honoured to welcome the guest of her Noble Mistress,” she said.
Julien gaped at her, but Niil came to his rescue.
“Be nice, Niria,” he said. “You really don't need to use the High Speech here at home. And I'd like Julien to share my kang, please.”
Niria dropped the formal language of her greeting and gestured to a door that opened off the porch.
“That won't take long,” she said. “You'll just have time for a nice glass of chilled raal with Izkya. Go ahead.”
The room Niil led Julien to was cool and opened onto a roofed gallery that surrounded the patio. There were flower arrangements here and there, and a large hanging tapestry that was patterned with geometric shapes in blue and brown. On the carpet stood a low table made of dark wood; around it were four equally low seats, and on the table stood a white metal tray holding some glasses and a pitcher full of a golden liquid.
A dark-haired girl entered the room. She might have been thirteen or fourteen. Her face, decorated with the Marks of her Family, was lit up by a smile, and her dark green eyes sparkled with intelligence.
“Izkya,” said Niil, “I'd like you to meet Julien, who's actually from foreign parts. Julien, this is Izkya, First Daughter of the Bakhtars.”
“Welcome to my house, Julien,” she said. “You're my guest as much as my cousin's. If you need anything, just ask.”
Julien nodded, thinking that there were a lot of things he needed, starting with a decent shower and a means of getting home. But he smiled all the same.
“Thank you,” he said. “That's very kind of you. I hope your parents won't think I'm a nuisance.”
“Oh... no, you're certainly not being a nuisance. And this is my place. The First Sire and his Lady don't live here, obviously. They live in Bakhtar Tower.”
Then, like a perfect hostess, Izkya poured out three glasses of the golden drink, which tasted like a delicately-flavoured, slightly sparkling, cider.
“This is delicious!” exclaimed Julien. “What is it?”
“It's called raal,” Izkya told him. “We probably produce the best raal in the district. There's nothing better when you're thirsty.”
Niria came to take the boys to their quarters so that they could settle in and refresh themselves before the meal. They followed her along the gallery to a large room with twin beds, each of which was covered with a brown and blue blanket whose pattern matched the one on the tapestry in the other room. At the foot of each bed stood a wooden chest which they could use to store their clothes. A carpet covered the whole floor, and the room also contained a couple of armchairs and a little table.
In one wall was an archway that led into a circular room. This contained an octagonal pool, tiled with a green mosaic, that was sunk into the marble floor, and also a niche with a drain in the centre that was obviously a shower. This bathroom was lit by five narrow slits that overlooked the garden. On the other side of the bathroom was a door that led to a toilet, and this was aired by a rectangular window filled with stone trellis-work that opened onto the gallery. There was also a curtain over it to provide privacy.
Once they were alone Niil opened one of the chests and took out a white djellaba and a pair of woven sandals.
“This is a lai,” he told Julien. “It's what we normally wear inside the house. I've got one just like it in my own chest. We can have a wash and put them on afterwards.”
And, with no hesitation at all, he pulled his abba over his head and threw it into an opening in the wall that had been hidden by a wooden screen.
“You dump your dirty clothes in here,” he said.
Julien was still embarrassed about being seen naked, but he got undressed anyway. Somehow he felt more naked than Niil, because the other boy was still wearing his Marks which, Julien could now see, covered not only his face, but the whole of his body. Julien was an only child, and so had had virtually no opportunity to see anyone undressed before: neither the Cubs nor the Scouts went in for naturism, and indeed France – despite the events of May 68 – was still puritan and basically Catholic, preferring to leave its children in a state of blessed ignorance as far as the human body was concerned. Yes, occasionally he'd caught a glimpse of a friend's willy while sharing a cubicle at the municipal swimming pool, but his only real experience of willy-watching had been his inspections of his own body, which he had spent quite a bit of time staring at in the bedroom mirror, an activity which, over the past few months at least, had made him feel strangely guilty.
Niil – who had no idea of the effect he was having on his guest – was demonstrating how to operate the shower, but once he'd done so he turned and quite blatantly examined his new friend's anatomy.
“You know, apart from the Marks, we look exactly the same!” he observed.
Blushing all over, Julien looked down at Niil's attributes, which were indeed very much like his own in terms of size, shape and even the skin that covered the end (he didn't know what that was called – talking about one's foreskin, or indeed anything else of that nature, was definitely not what was done in polite families). On the other hand, Julien had to admit that his... prick (he could hardly even think such a word, but then his vocabulary in this area was extremely limited... his todger, perhaps?)... all right, his todger, didn't have the added attraction of that nice silvery curl that decorated Niil's. Trying to keep his voice level, he asked the obvious question:
“Those Marks look really good on you. Are they tattooed? Was it done when you were a baby?”
“Of course not! Tattoos are for No-Clans! The Marks are there when you're born, but they have to be revealed. They're proof that you belong to a Noble Family. And who knows? Maybe you've got some too, but you just don't know about them.”
“I'd be amazed if I had,” said Julien. “They're unheard-of on my world.”
“Too bad. Still, never mind – at least you've got nice hair. Most Noble Ladies would kill to have hair like that. But you're really going to have to get it cut. You can't walk around like that.”
“No, thanks, I'll wait, if it's all the same to you. Perhaps we'll find a way to get me back where I came from.”
Niil poured a little liquid soap onto a wet cloth, and straight away it began to foam up, at the same time releasing a strong flowery scent.
“Would you like me to rub your...?”
“No!” interrupted Julien, who didn't want Niil rubbing anything. “No, thanks, I can manage to wash myself.”
Ignoring Niil's disappointed expression, Julien took the cloth and started to soap himself. But clearly Niil's concept of sharing a shower was different from his own, because a moment or two later Niil presented him with another cloth.
“Could you wash my back, please?” he asked.
There was no way to refuse without seeming horribly rude, so Julien took the cloth and set to work. But stroking the body of another boy, even though he was doing it for a good reason, had the inevitable effect, and it was impossible to conceal it in this situation. Julien did his best: he recited his seven times table backwards in his head, but not even that was enough to restrain an erection which certainly looked good, but which was shortly – the moment Niil turned round, in fact – going to make him extremely embarrassed.
He tried to postpone that moment by making sure that he cleaned each and every square centimetre of Niil's nicely-tanned back, desperately hoping that if he took long enough his penis would sink back into innocent softness, but of course that was never going to happen. Instead it seemed to get even harder, and when Niil turned round it was to find himself looking at a stiff, twitching, exceedingly solid member, its head peeking out from under the skin and winking at him, a traitor to its master and a witness to his immodest thoughts.
Julien couldn't look Niil in the eye. Instead he stared at the drain in the floor between them, watching the perfumed bubbles disappearing. He wished he could follow them and slip away into the drain, so that he could simply dissolve somewhere in the sewers of this alien world. But then he raised his glance a little and discovered that he wasn't the only one to be afflicted with a disobedient member – except that when he raised his eyes still further, to Niil's face, he saw that Niil wasn't remotely unhappy about it.
“Great!” exclaimed Niil. “We really are the same! Alright, maybe my sang neh is a little bit shorter than yours, but even so...”
This enthusiastic comment completely wrong-footed Julien. He bit back the apology he had been about to give and mumbled a polite disagreement instead, and when Niil told him to turn around so that he could return the back-scrubbing favour, he did so without further ado.
Once they were both rinsed off, Niil filled the octagonal pool with cool water, and they sat in it side by side. The water wasn't cool enough to reduce their erections at all, but somehow it didn't seem to matter any more: Niil's laid-back behaviour was starting to rub off on the more strait-laced French boy – in fact, Julien was actually unconsciously stroking himself as he listened to the chatter of the other boy, whom he was already starting to consider a friend.
“Izkya's sure to want to take us to see Aleth,” Niil was saying. “It would be a pity to miss out on that while I'm here – it's supposed to be the most beautiful city in the Nine Worlds, after all. We'll definitely have to find you an Affiliate's abba.”
“What's one of those?”
“Well, with Izkya and me, people can see straight away who we are because of our Marks and our clothes. And we can't hang about with just anyone – it would attract far too much attention. So we'll need to dress you as my Affiliate. You couldn't pass as Izkya's, even if you dressed in girl's clothes – although with that hairstyle you'd certainly pass easily enough as a girl...”
Julien turned to glare at him and opened his mouth to respond to the insult, but then he saw the glint of mischief in Niil's eye.
“It's not hard to get you going, is it?” said Niil, grinning at him. “But you couldn't pass as her Affiliate because everyone knows her, and they know she hasn't got one. I'll get away with claiming that you're mine, though, because I'm not from around here.”
“Right, but what is an Affiliate?” Julien asked.
“It's a No-Clan of the same age as you who takes care of you.”
“You mean, it's a servant?”
“If you like. But actually it's a bit more complicated than that, because an Affiliate lives with his Noble Brother or Noble Sister full-time. He gets practically the same education, as well as keeping him entertained and looking after him.”
“And you haven't got one?”
“No. My parent don't like the idea. If I did have one, he'd be sitting where you are right now.”
Julien was on the point of answering that he wouldn't mind the job at all when a gong sounded.
“Time to eat!” said Niil. “Come on!”
They got out of the pool, dried themselves quickly and put on their white robes, which Niil said were usually worn without undergarments. Julien was a bit nervous about that, especially in view of the way in which the traitor between his legs had already betrayed him once. But he supposed that if Niil could manage...
He looked around for a comb, but there was no sign of one, and in the end he had to use his fingers to get his hair into some sort of presentable state.
“I'll get Niria to find you a comb,” said Niil. “Only girls have them; boys don't need them, because boys have short hair.”
“You mean, boys have their heads shaved,” retorted Julien. “My hair isn't long, but I need a comb to keep it in place.”
“Trust me, that hair is long. No Noble Son would be seen dead looking like that. Still, if you act as my Affiliate it won't matter at all – actually people prefer it if the Affiliate doesn't try to look too much like his Noble Brother...”
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