When they reached the lounge they found that a table had been laid out with three places, and that Izkya was waiting for them. Julian generally found girls at the very least weird and frequently completely unbearable, but all the same he was struck by the way the gold and green patterns of her Marks made her already pretty face even more attractive.
The meal was absolutely delicious, even by the standards of fine houses. It was a bit like Chinese food (which Julien loved) in the way it used finely-chopped meat and a kind of sweet and sour sauce. They ate it with a utensil a bit like a pair of sugar tongs, which was a great deal easier than the damned chopsticks supplied by his local Chinese restaurant, which it had taken him absolutely ages to get the hang of.
Finally they all said that they were too full to eat another crumb.
“Right, then,” suggested Izkya. “What about a trip into town? I've sorted an abba out for Julien.”
So the boys went back to their kang to change, and Julien was delighted when Niil fished a couple of pairs of underwear out of his chest and handed one to him. It was a fairly basic garment with a drawstring at the waist. Niil then put on a light grey garment that had a hem decorated with an intricate pattern in dark red.
“This is called a lakh,” he explained. “The pattern is unique to my Family, and only people who carry the Ksantiri Marks are allowed to wear one. But you can wear this.”
He handed Julien a loose, short-sleeved robe in a bottle-green colour.
“This is an Affiliate's abba,” he said. “They come in lots of different colours and it doesn't matter which you choose. I expect Niria picked this one to go with your magnificent mane.”
He grinned at Julien, who this time refused to rise to the bait. Instead he let Niil help him on with the abba – he needed help because it was tricky to sort out how to use the wide, dark blue belt that came with it to catch and display the garment's many folds properly. But once it was on he looked in the mirror and discovered that it had been worth all the fiddling about, because he looked astonishingly good in it.
“There you go,” said Niil. “Now you almost look presentable. Except... wow! I never noticed your eyes before!”
“What's wrong with them?”
“Nothing – they look amazing. They're green, with sort of grey-blue flecks in them. It's...”
“Really? I'm just ordinary, you know.”
“Well, maybe, but they still look beautiful.”
“Do boys usually compliment each other on their appearance here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” explained Julien, “where I come from, only girls talk like that.”
Now it was Niil's turn to look embarrassed.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn't mean to offend you.”
“I'm not offended at all,” Julien assured him. “Quite the opposite, in fact, and thanks for the compliment. Does that mean it would be all right if I say that you look really good in your lack?”
“It's not a 'lack', it's a lakh,” said Niil, emphasising the guttural ending. “But... no, I don't mind you saying that at all.”
They met Izkya on the patio and she led them around to the far side of the house, where they found themselves on the bank of a small river. A boat was moored to a small wharf, and once they were on board Izkya made Julien jump by giving a sharp whistle through her fingers right by his ear. But that surprise was nothing compared to the shock he felt when an enormous water-creature popped out of the water right next to him and stared at him with a huge eye. Izkya gave a different whistle and the creature disappeared back under the water, and a moment later the boat drew away from the wharf. And as the vessel moved out into mid-channel Julien realised that the creature was pulling the boat, rather like a man pulling a rickshaw.
It was still quite hot out here on the water and away from any shade, but Julien found that somehow his garment kept him cool even when the sun was beating down on him. The abba came with a hood, and once he had raised it he felt confident that he wouldn't have to worry about the sunburn to which he, like so many red-heads, was so susceptible.
The journey started in a landscape of private parks and upmarket villas like Izkya's, but gradually they entered a more built-up area, a mix of private houses and official-looking buildings, all built of white stone and most carrying ornate carvings and elegant sculptures. Eventually the river led into a wider thoroughfare, which in turn opened out into a vast lake. Their vessel made its way to a pier to which were moored several other boats like their own and a number of larger, barge-like vessels which Julien assumed were designed to carry freight.
They stepped ashore and Julien saw the people of Aleth for the first time. The pier and the surrounding streets were alive with a throng of colourful, noisy people whose behaviour was the complete opposite of the calm, measured atmosphere he had experienced so far. Children ran about, chasing each other around the market stalls, which were themselves surrounded with buyers and onlookers. The air was full of smells, too, some good and some anything but. There were stalls selling a sort of kebab cooked on braziers, and fruit stalls, and spice stalls, all adding their distinctive aromas to the air.
“Noble Lord! Noble Lord! Got us a talek so's I can eat?”
A young boy of nine or ten was tugging at Julien's abba. He had closely-cropped blond hair, which made his round, tanned head catch the sun and glint like a sort of helmet. He was wearing only a sort of blue loincloth, tattered but relatively clean – actually his body was cleaner than might have been expected, too. But of course Julien didn't have any taleks, or diraks, or indeed any of the other coins or notes in use in the Nine Worlds – and anyway, the kid didn't look that skinny or under-nourished. Still, he was about to ask Niil if he could spare the boy a coin or two when Niil addressed the kid himself.
“If you're hungry,” he said, “take yourself to Batürlik's yard and tell him you're the First-Greeted of Niil, Third Son of the House of Ksantiri.”
The boy gaped at him for a good ten seconds before he finally got his wits about him, at which he dropped to one knee and touched his benefactor's sandal with the tips of his fingers.
“Noble Lord,” he said, “may your kindness bring peace and happiness to you, and to your Noble Family. I am Ambar, son of Aliya, of the Fruit Quay. Call, and I shall come.”
“I know your name, Ambar, son of Aliya, of the Fruit Quay,” replied Niil in a formal voice. “If I call, you will come.”
The boy stood up and scampered away into an alley, one of many that made this entire area a maze which, nonetheless, Izkya and Niil seemed to have no problem navigating. Before Julien had even managed to start asking any of the questions that were filling his head, Izkya offered him an explanation.
“When you visit a world for the first time,” she said, “it's customary to pick a First-Greeted. You normally pick someone who's very poor. You send him to one of your Family's agents, or to a well-established merchant, and he presents himself as your First-Greeted. He's then fed and clothed exactly as a member of your House would be. He might even be offered accommodation, if he doesn't have anywhere else to live. Starting from that moment, your Family sort of sponsors him. It's not a big deal for us, but it is supposed to bring good luck.”
“Is this the first time Niil's been here, then?” asked Julien.
“No,” said Niil, “but last time I was with other members of my Family, so that didn't count.”
“So you'd never picked a... First-Greeted before?”
“No, I hadn't.”
“So why did you pick him?”
Niil shrugged. “No idea,” he said. “He just seemed... no, I really couldn't tell you.”
“And what was all that stuff about 'Call and I will come'?”
“Oh, way back it was part of the deal: you could ask your First-Greeted to help you, and he would always agree, even if it meant doing something really dangerous. On the other hand, if you did ask for help, the First-Greeted became a full member of your Noble Family from that point on, at a level only one step below your own. It doesn't happen any more – nobody would go to a First-Greeted for help. It's just that the ancient form of words is still used.”
“Oh. And who was that that you sent him to?”
“A guy called Batürlik. He's one of my Family's suppliers.”
“But how will he know that it was really you who sent the kid?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, couldn't just anyone turn up on his doorstep and say 'I'm the First-Greeted of Niil of the House of Ksantiri'?”
Niil and Izkya both stopped so abruptly that Julien had taken two more steps before he realised that they were no longer with him. He turned and found them both staring open-mouthed at him.
“What?” he asked. “What did I say?”
“Nobody would ever do that,” Izkya told him. “You'd have to be out of your mind to pull a stunt like that. If anyone really was stupid enough to do that he'd be busted before the day was out.”
“And then what would happen to him?”
“He'd get a one-way ticket to the Great Forest on Tandil.”
“So what's so bad about that?”
“The Great Forest on Tandil is full of extremely nasty animals.”
Julien kept looking all around him, determined not to miss anything. Before too long they had moved away from the bustling, noisy crowd of the port area into a district that was rather more upmarket, with solid, middle-class houses and exclusive boutiques that advertised what they dealt in only by discreet carved signs above the doors. The passers-by here were a lot less noisy and their clothing was elegant and expensive-looking. Quite a lot of them were wearing the Marks of a Noble Family.
They reached the corner of a street and Julien found himself looking at a huge open space, so massive that the buildings on the far side looked no bigger than dolls' houses. It was paved in flagstones, each a different shape, all highly polished and of a multitude of different colours and shades – in fact Julien would have said that every stone was unique, although the huge number of them made it impossible to say for certain.
“What's this place?” he asked.
“That,” said Niil, with a smug little smile, “is the Emperor's Palace.”
“Right there in front of you,” said Niil, gesturing at the open square.
“You mean, it's underneath the square?”
“No, it's above ground.”
“But there's nothing there!”
“Oh, yes, there is. You just can't see it.”
“You mean, the palace is invisible?”
“Now you've got it!”
“Oh, come on! Pull the other one!”
“I mean that you're trying to get me going again, aren't you?”
“Not, I'm not – honest!”
Julien looked at Izkya, but she looked every bit as straight-faced as her cousin.
“But... how can you be sure the palace is there if you can't see it?”
“Well,” said Niil, “it becomes visible every twenty-three cycles.”
“So how long's a cycle? How old are you?”
“I'm twelve and four-ninths.”
Julien thought that a 'cycle' couldn't be too different from an Earth year.
“So have you ever seen it?” he asked.
“No. It's due to appear in about two cycles from now. But we've got some pictures of it – we'll show you once we get back to Izkya's.”
People were walking and talking all around them, but not one of them set foot on the polished flagstones. Instead they were all using the wide pavement that ran all the way around the outside of the square. Obviously Julien wanted to know why.
“Aren't you allowed to walk across the square?” he asked.
“Well, it's not forbidden, but nobody does it,” Izkya told him.
“Why not? Is it one of those things that are just 'not done'?”
“No, it's not that. It's simply impossible to take more than five or six steps into the square before you come back out again. You think you're walking straight ahead, but instead you get turned around and find yourself walking back the way you came.”
“Have you actually tried it?”
“Of course I have,” she told him.
“What about you, Niil?”
“Can I have a go?”
“If you like,” said Niil. “But it would be better to wait until there are fewer people about, because as soon as they see someone trying to cross the Palace Square, everyone stops and watches, so that they can laugh at you when you find yourself back where you started. You really don't want to attract that much attention, believe me. But I promise you can have a go later – maybe when we come back this evening.”
Julien would have liked to try it straight away, but he knew that Niil had a valid point.
A few minutes later Izkya led them onto a wide avenue shaded by plane trees, or something not too different, anyway. They had silvery bark with green spots and large serrated leaves. In the shade beneath the trees there were a large number of stalls offering different types of cool drink and a wide variety of fruit and sweets. But although this was superficially like the port area, somehow the crowds here seemed less noisy and vulgar – in fact it reminded Julien, who normally lived in Paris, of the families who visited the Tuileries Gardens on warm summer afternoons.
Children ran about chasing balls or gathered round one of their number who had a rainbow-coloured spinning top. Others had water fights using big syringes, whose contents sparkled in the air like streams of diamonds. Weird grey animals that looked like a cross between a cat and a squirrel went darting between the legs of passers-by as they scampered from tree to tree, climbing a short way up each one and then stopping as if to wait for something. White-crested birds that looked like green-and-gold pigeons pecked at the grain and crumbs thrown to them by some of the people, and sometimes they would stop nibbling long enough to utter snatches of song that rang out clear and distinct above the background noise of the crowd. In some places the trees were more widely-spread, and between their branches Julien was able to catch glimpses of the silhouettes of buildings that were much taller than any that he had seen hitherto. He pointed to a tower that must have been at least sixty metres tall and which had a large number of openings, presumably windows, in its walls.
“What's that?” he asked Izkya.
“That's Skandari Tower,” she told him.
“Yes, I can see it's a tower, but what's it for? Do people live there?”
“Yes – that's where the First Lord of the Skandaris lives.”
“And has your family got one of those?”
“Can you point it out to me?”
“Not from here, but once we get to the end of the Great Promenade you'll be able to see it.”
“What about you, Niil? Has your Family got a tower too?”
“No. We don't have towers on my world. On Dvârinn we have trankenns.”
Julien opened his mouth, but before he could ask the question, Niil answered it for him.
“A trankenn is a ship,” he explained. “They're very big and really beautiful. Ours is the third most beautiful ship on Dvârinn.”
“You mean, you live on boats?”
“Well, not during the stormy season, but the rest of the time, yes. My father owns a hundred and sixty-eight of them.”
“Wow! Is he the king, then?”
“He's First Lord of the Ksantiris.”
“Does that mean he rules everyone?”
“Well, sort of. He's the Emperor's Mirror, the Keeper of the Law and the Power.”
Julien nodded. He was just starting to realise just how important his hosts were: they obviously belonged to very rich, powerful families – families who actually ruled their worlds.
“What about you, Izkya? Is your father an Emperor's Mirror, too?” he asked.
“Yes, he is.”
“So where is his kingdom?”
“He's the ruler of Frühl.”
“And where's that?”
“Right here. Aleth is the capital city of Frühl. It's also capital of the Nine Worlds.”
“And that's why the Emperor lives here in his invisible palace?”
“So is the Emperor invisible too?”
She looked at him as if he'd just said something completely ridiculous.
“Of course he isn't invisible!” she said.
“So you've seen him, then?”
“Well, no. But my father meets him regularly.”
“What, in the palace?”
“But... how does he get there?”
This endless stream of questions was getting on her nerves, and although she had been brought up to be patient and understanding, there were limits, and being constantly asked questions whose answers were known to the thickest street-child on the planet was not how she wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon.
“He gets there by klirk,” she said, shortly. “Now, do me a favour and stop asking questions. Just look around and enjoy the walk. Would you like some sweetsnow?”
Julien had thrown back his hood once they were under the trees, and unfortunately this meant that when he blushed at the girl's sharp response it was immediately visible, thus adding to his humiliation. And being offered some ice-cream, like a little boy being bribed to behave, simply made it even worse.
He'd noticed he ice-cream vendors, of course, and he'd been on the point of asking his hosts to buy him one. But the manner in which it had been offered simply left him with no choice but to try to gather the tatters of his self-esteem around him.
“No, thank you,” he said stiffly. “Actually I'm feeling a bit tired. I think I'll go back to the boat and wait for you there.”
Izkya had completely failed to notice the effect she'd had on him and was about to make things even worse by pointing out that he would almost certainly be unable to find his way back on his own. But Niil, who had noticed, jumped in to forestall her.
“Listen, Julien, you've really got to try some sweetsnow,” he said. “I'm dying for one myself, and I'd really like to show you how good it is. Let me buy you one – please?”
The way he said it made it clear that he'd be really disappointed if Julien said no, so Julien accepted this opportunity to save face.
“Well, if you insist,” he said.
He allowed himself to be led to the nearest stall and was given a small bowl made of something white and very light, which was then filled with something that looked a bit like blue sherbet. A miniature spoon was then stuck into it. He tried a little nibble.
“Flipping heck!” he exclaimed. “What is it?”
“Surprise!” said Niil, grinning at him.
And it certainly was a surprise: the moment the mixture had touched his tongue it has simply disappeared, leaving nothing but a cold puff of air, sweet and tasting strongly of citrus fruits, something like orange or tangerine or lemon or kumquat... It was absolutely delicious; it was thirst-quenching; it was refreshing. Julien felt that he could eat as much of this as he wanted without ever becoming too full, which was what usually happened when he ate too much dessert.
“That's amazing!” he said. “How do they make this stuff?”
“That's probably the most closely-guarded secret the Guild of Sweet-makers has,” Niil told him.
“Are there other flavours?”
“Sure, there are loads. This one is garel-flavoured.”
He turned to the vendor and said, “Put them on the Ksantiri account, please, Your Honour.”
He handed a cup to Izkya and got back to digging into his own, with obvious relish.
Shortly afterwards they reached the end of the avenue, a place where a number of low buildings stood, interspersed with wide green spaces in which towers of all heights and shapes stood proud and tall. Izkya pointed to one of the tallest ones, a tower that seemed to be made of some sort of polished metal and which, in the warm light of the afternoon sun, shone with a sort of coppery hue.
“That's my Family's tower,” she said proudly.
Niil, wanting to avoid any more unwanted questions from Julien, jumped in to add, “That's where the First Lord of the Bakhtars and his Lady live.”
Julien gaped at it. The tower wasn't just high, it was almost supernaturally beautiful, and the metal that covered it gave the impression of being almost organic, growing out of the ground like a giant plant rather than being man-made. It was an incredible feat of craftsmanship. There were other towers not too far away and some were even taller, but none of them matched the Bakhtar tower for sheer beauty. There were airships moving slowly between the towers, and their rainbow-coloured decoration made them look like huge insects looking for nectar from gigantic plants.
“That,” he breathed, “is incredibly beautiful.”
“You should see it at sunset,” Niil told him.
“And speaking of sunset,” said Izkya, “it's about time we headed for home.”
Suddenly Julien looked unhappy. The mention of the passing of time brought home to him where he was: he wasn't on holiday – which is what the afternoon had felt like – but stranded on an alien world.
“What's up?” Niil asked him.
“I should at least try to get back home,” said Julien. “My parents will be worried sick if I don't get back this evening...”
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at email@example.com