Julien was almost out of air. He seemed to have been underwater for ages, and although he knew that his body was slowly floating up towards the surface, he was also very much aware that being struck just before he hit the water had meant that he hadn't been able to take a deep breath before going under. Nor did he know how far he had sunk. In any event, in a few seconds he'd be out of air, and so – on the grounds that he would definitely die unless he tried something – he looked around him, decided that the water looked a little darker beneath his feet, and struck out in the opposite direction.
The first stroke he took was agony: he felt as if there was something piercing right through his chest. But at this stage the pain was irrelevant: within a few seconds he was going to be unable to stop himself opening his mouth and trying to breathe underwater. So he kept going. Every stroke took a huge effort, and he knew that he was using the last of his energy reserves, and yet he wasn't afraid – in fact, the searing agony tearing through him made him almost think that drowning would simply be a release from pain. Nevertheless, something inside him refused to give up and kept him struggling towards the surface.
But a few seconds later he realised that he had reached the end of the road. He had no more strength and he was out of air. Everyone had to die one day, he thought...
He opened his mouth and expelled the air that seemed to be trying to burst his lungs in a scream of pain and despair that began as a stream of bubbles... and which ended under a sky that seemed full of an incredible number of stars.
Julien gulped in air. AIR! Forgetting his wound for a moment he basked in the pure pleasure of being able to breathe once more – and if the act of breathing was tearing open the wound in his back, and each stroke that he took to stay afloat was turning the arrow-head in the wound, well, too bad.
“Julien! Dive!” yelled a voice.
He turned and saw Izkya close by on his left.
Dive? No chance, he thought. But she yelled at him again.
“We've got to go under!” she shouted. “We need to swim under water – that way, towards the lights!”
She got close enough to grab his shoulder, and now he could see that she was pointing to a cluster of lights on the shore off to his right. They seemed to be miles away.
“I don't think I can,” he told her. “I'm wounded.”
“I'll help you,” said Niil, who had just appeared on his other side. “Where are you hurt?”
“It's my back – the right-hand side.”
There were sudden splashes all around them, the closest only three or four feet away, and Julien realised that the killers were still trying to finish them off. He duck-dived back under the water, getting as deep as he could and then trying to use his feet and left arm to propel himself in the right direction.
He still felt like death, and now he was starting to wonder how much blood he had already lost. He was sure he was never going to reach the side of the lake, anyway. But then he felt a hand grabbing his tunic and pulling him forwards, and he realised that he'd do better just to use his legs and let his friends help him. He popped up for air and saw that it was Niil who was trying to tow him along.
Izkya was a little way ahead of them, but she turned, saw that Julien was struggling, and swam back to them.
“I'll take his other side,” she told Niil.
They dived once more, this time without any arrows hitting the water nearby. They hadn't got very far, but Julien was starting to hope again despite the pain in his chest.
They surfaced every thirty seconds or so, each time expecting to hear the splash of arrows, but it looked as though their attackers had lost them, which wasn't surprising in the near-total darkness. Nonetheless, they stayed underwater as much as they could in order not to betray their position with a lot of splashing. Julien was exhausted, and soon his legs had more or less stopped working.
Then they heard shouting, and they could see lights on the surface of the water.
“Boats!” gasped Niil, relief in his voice. “Someone's coming to rescue us!”
“Wait!” said Izkya, before he could call for help. “We don't know who they are. They could be working with the killers, looking for us to finish the job.”
So they just kept swimming, on the surface now so that they could keep an eye on the boats, which fortunately – or not – didn't get any closer to them.
It took them over half an hour to reach the shore . Julien was vaguely wondering how he could still be alive after probably losing half the blood in his body, but he was so completely exhausted by now that it didn't seem to matter. Even the pain in his chest had faded to a dull ache.
The current in this part of the lake wasn't particularly strong, but it had still carried them quite a distance, and instead of the stone pier where they had moored that afternoon, they fetched up against a dilapidated wooden wharf . It took them several minutes of groping their way around the slimy pillars before they finally found a ladder that would take them up to dry land.
Julian found it almost impossible to climb the ladder: his right arm had more or less packed up on him and he needed help from both his companions before he finally made it to the top. He slumped down on the edge of the wharf.
“We need to have a look at your injury,” said Niil, starting to take off Julien's tunic.
Julien let him get on with it: he was too tired even to think properly. Very carefully indeed Niil got the tunic off him, although getting it over his right arm made Julien give a moan of pain.
It was hard to see anything: the only light came in the form of a vague glow from the lights of the city, and those were quite some way away.
“You're all right,” reported Niil. “It hasn't broken the surface.”
“What?!” gasped Julien, roused from his torpor. “That's impossible – it definitely hit me! And it hurts like hell, too!”
“Yes, you were hit,” explained Izkya, “but you were wearing a hatik. They don't just look good – the material also protects anyone who wears one. It's almost impossible to make a hole in it. I'm guessing the arrow, or whatever it was, broke one of your ribs, and that's why it hurts so much.”
A wave of relief swept over Julien, hotly followed by another reaction, and this one made him absolutely furious: he'd spent the last three-quarters of an hour or so convinced that he was bleeding to death, and neither of these rich bastards had bothered to tell him the truth. No, they'd been perfectly happy to keep quiet and let him make a fool of himself. He took a deep breath, ready to tell them exactly what he thought of them... and passed out from the pain in his back.
When Julien woke up he found himself lying on the foul-smelling wood of the quay. He felt cold and light-headed. Niil was kneeling beside him, speaking to him urgently, but Julien couldn't make out anything that he was saying. He vaguely remembered being angry with both Niil and Izkya, but now he realised that this was completely unfair, because it was obvious to him now that they had saved his life – he certainly wouldn't have reached the shore without their help, even if he'd only suffered a broken rib instead of an arrow in the lung. But what was Niil gibbering on about?
“Kanndé yinna?” said Niil. “Tannda, intchikmitchick drogoguidou.”
Suddenly something clicked in Julien's head and he got the message, which was “Are you all right? We've got to get out of here – now!”
Julien realised that he was a mess: now the feeling of anger had been replaced by a wave of emotion that left him on the brink of tears. He tried to pull himself together, because clearly Niil and Izkya had other things to worry about apart from him.
“I'm all right,” he said. “I think I can walk.”
Niil's face seemed to glow with relief.
“Good,” said Izkya, “because we certainly can't stay here. We've got to get a message to the Tower so that they can come and rescue us.”
“Do you know anyone round here?” Niil asked her.
“Well, no, not in this district. I don't think I've ever been here before. I don't even know for sure where we are – I think maybe we're somewhere near Robber's Quay...”
Niil helped Julien to his feet. He was cold: now that his hatik had been taken off he was bare-chested, and he started shivering. The weather wasn't actually all that cold, but the immersion in the lake combined with his exhaustion and the damage to his chest had left him feeling frozen. Niil wrung out his tunic and gave it back to him, but he couldn't get it on again because of his bad shoulder, and in any case wrapping the damp material around his shoulders only made him feel even colder. Niil took it back.
“We've got to find a place where we can warm him up,” said Izkya. “Come on!”
“Let's see if we can find our way to Fruit Quay,” suggested Niil.
They kept their voices to a whisper: the area around Robbers Quay was one where it was better not to draw attention to yourself. This wasn't too difficult because of the piles of boxes, bundles and baskets that were scattered all over the place – and it was dark, of course, and that helped a lot. But there were people about: between the great warehouses that were shuttered and locked up for the night were alleys where there was a glow of light escaping from behind shutters or badly-fitting doors. Muffled shouts and laughter indicated that there was plenty of life down there too, most of it loud and boisterous. And every now and again they had to duck down behind piles of junk in order to hide from small raucous groups or the occasional dangerous-looking individual.
Julien was not only freezing cold, but he was also still in a lot of pain, and he kept having to bite back groans each time he strained his chest as they ducked and skulked their way along the quay.
At last they reached an area where the air was absolutely drenched in an unbelievable mixture of smells. Julien felt a little better: at least the walk had warmed him up slightly, and he'd even found a way of taking shallow breaths that allowed him to breathe without straining his ribs too much.
“This is Fruit Quay,” Izkya told him.
“Isn't this where Niil's First... you know, the kid we met this afternoon... isn't this where he lives?”
“Yes, you're right,” said Niil. “Ambar, son of Aliya, of Fruit Quay. But he's not going to be a lot of help in this situation. I think we should try to get to Batürlik's yard – he's my family's agent, so he's bound to help us.”
“Is it far?” asked Julien, nervously.
“No, not really. About ten minutes, I should think.”
“And with a bit of luck we'll run into some of my father's guards,” added Izkya, hopefully. “He's sure to have sent someone out to find us – we should have been at the Tower ages before this, after all.”
Julien's tunic was almost dry by now, so he put it back on, even though getting it past his shoulder was still painful.
Izkya led them off into a maze of poorly-lit alleys: the lamps were too far apart, leaving pools of darkness between them. Julien looked around nervously: the few passers-by were looking at them suspiciously, which he supposed was understandable: this didn't seem to be an area where three children wearing expensive ceremonial clothing were a common sight. But nobody asked them any questions. And nobody offered to help them.
Eventually they emerged into an area where there was a bit more life, with better lighting and a number of decent-looking inns, from whose doors there wafted out the smell of high-class cooking.
“I'm starving!” complained Niil.
“Tough!” replied Izkya, shortly. “You'll have to wait till we get home.”
“I know that! But I could definitely do with a snack. All that swimming has made me hungry.”
Julien wasn't remotely hungry: now that he'd warmed up again he felt as if his ribs had a really bad case of toothache. He'd have preferred to be knocked out again, rather than having to walk around feeling this awful. But he managed to keep quiet and did his best to walk normally.
They emerged into a small square, on the far side of which was a four-storey building with an impressive porch that could be reached through a pair of large, heavy gates faced with metal. These were resolutely closed. On either side of the porch there were lanterns that illuminated a panel above the gates showing Batürlik's sign of a boat laden with boxes and fruit.
They crossed the silent square and Niil took hold of the metal handle of the door knocker and knocked twice, producing a hollow, somehow sinister sound that echoed across the square. He waited for a while and then, when it was clear that nobody was coming, he knocked twice more, swinging the knocker as hard as he could. They heard the sound of a bolt being slid open, and then a small panel in the door opened and an unfriendly voice said “What do you want?”
“Go and tell Batürlik the Merchant that Niil, Third Son of the Ksantiris, requires his services,” commanded Niil.
The tone was that of one who was used to being obeyed, and Julien wasn't too surprised when a small door set into the larger one opened and the guardian signalled them to come in, projecting as he did so something that Julien supposed was deference. Or possibly grovelling. It was certainly clear that the man was trying to indicate by his behaviour the enormous respect that someone of Niil's exaltedness could not fail to inspire.
“I'm so sorry,” he said. “I mean... May the Noble Son forgive me. If He would be but kind enough to wait here with His Noble Companions for just the smallest of moments, Master Batürlik will certainly come in person to wait upon Him.”
He turned and walked away, his bulky shape silhouetted against the hazy yellow light of the courtyard. Julien's ribs were still feeling dreadful, but he still felt up to making a comment about the man's rapid change of tone, but as he opened his mouth to do so his nostrils were filled with a stench that brought with it a massive sense of déjà vu. He had certainly never before breathed in that sickening mix of cinnamon, raspberry and clogged sewers, but his reaction was nonetheless immediate.
“Ghorrs!” he gasped. “There are ghorrs in here! We've got to go – now!”
He didn't wait for his friends to respond. Instead he wrenched the door open and started running, and to Niil's and Izkya's credit they didn't try to argue, simply rushing off after him as fast as they could, back into the maze of narrow lanes and dark, deserted alleys. You didn't stop to chat about ghorrs. Ghorrs weren't something to be taken lightly. They were an enemy – the enemy – the worst danger you could imagine, barely a step below natural disasters. Ghorrs were vicious killers that no self-respecting person would unleash on his worst enemy.
They ran flat out for about ten minutes, concentrating only on putting as much distance between themselves and Batürlik's yard as they possibly could. Julien felt that every stride was ripping open his chest, but he kept going all the same. His eyes were watering with the pain, but it was so dark that it didn't really make his vision any worse.
When they got back to the waterfront they stopped, gasping, behind a large stack of packing-cases several metres high. When she finally got her breath back Izkya asked the question that had been begging to be asked since their mad flight had started.
“What happened?” she asked. “How did you know there were ghorrs there?”
Julien still hadn't got his breathing under control, so he just shook his head.
“But... are there ghorrs in your world?” asked Niil. “And did you actually see one at Batürlik's place?”
Julien shook his head again. “Not seen,” he gasped out. “Smelled.”
“I didn't see one,” Julien clarified. “But I... I smelled their stench. There was definitely at least one of them there.”
“But how do you know what they smell like? Have you actually seen one before?”
“No. But I can swear that what I smelled was a ghorr. Couldn't you smell it?”
“Well...” said Niil, slowly, “it did stink a bit under the porch. But I certainly couldn't say if it was a ghorr or just a backed-up sewer somewhere. I've never seen one of the damned things. And if you haven't seen one either...”
“I know what I'm talking about.. Trust me. I don't understand how I knew, but I am absolutely certain that what I smelled at Batürlik's was a ghorr.”
“Well, if you're right,” said Niil, “then Batürlik is definitely dead.”
“Why?” asked Julien. “How can you be sure?”
“Ghorrs kill absolutely everyone except their masters,” Izkya explained. “If Batürlik is still alive, it can only be because he's controlling the ghorrs, or because he's an accomplice to the people who are controlling them. And if that turns out to be the case, then I can absolutely guarantee that my father will see to it personally that he doesn't live out the week.”
Julien shivered: clearly breaking the law in this country was a really bad idea. But right now they had more immediate problems. He asked the question they were all thinking: “So what do we do now?”
There was no answer for several seconds.
“Well,” said Niil, eventually, “I didn't see who was attacking us in the flybubble. But if there really were ghorrs at Batürlik's...”
“There were, trust me,” Julien assured him.
“All right, I believe you. So I should think the same people are behind both attempts. We've got to get to your father's place, Izkya, and that's a long way off. You can bet they're still looking for us, and with Julien in his current condition he won't be able to get too far. I think we should find somewhere to hide and then work out how we're going to contact your father.”
“But I don't know anyone round here,” objected Izkya.
What a surprise, thought Julien: the princess doesn't hang out with fishmongers and dockers. Who would have thought it?
“Nor do I,” said Niil. “Except... maybe I could try to find my First-Greeted, Ambar. We're not that far from Fruit Quay.”
“What! You're mad!” exclaimed Izkya. “First, he's only a kid, so what help can he possibly be to us in this mess? And second, you know the tradition as well as I do: do this and the kid would become part of your Family. Your father would go berserk!”
“My Noble Father would do more than merely going berserk if his moron of a son didn't take every possible step to find help when he was in trouble. Besides which, if you've got a better idea, I'm all ears.”
Izkya didn't have a better idea. They decided that it would be best if Izkya stayed with Julien while Niil went to try to find Ambar, son of Aliya. The only way he could do it would be to ask in one of the many taverns in the area, but he was confident that his Noble status, confirmed by his Marks, would protect him from both unwelcome attention and unwanted questions from the locals.
It took Niil a while to pick a tavern to try – none of them looked particularly respectable – but in the end he settled for one that looked slightly less unpleasant than the others. As he entered the room the din suddenly disappeared as if by magic. Niil stepped further into the room, doing his best to project an appearance of calm confidence, as would be expected by a boy of his position, while every pair of eyes in the room turned to stare at him.
He threaded his way between the tables of strangely silent sailors, trying to ignore their stares, until finally he reached the far end of the room, where the owner, a short, tubby, balding man who could see that this boy was completely out of place in his establishment, hurried to meet him.
“Noble Son,” said the innkeeper, “my inn is unworthy of your patronage, but I would be honoured to serve anything you might want.”
“I'm sure your cooking is right up here with the best houses,” said Niil, “but I only need some information.”
Niil had kept his voice down because he didn't want to share his secrets with a room full of strangers, but that turned out to be a major mistake, because the innkeeper, in an attempt to hear him, leaned in close to him, almost close enough to touch.. Not only had it been several days – and quite possibly several weeks – since the man had been near a bath-house, but his clothes were impregnated with a foul mixture of fish and burnt grease, which mixed with the man's own acrid sweat to produce a vile stench. Struggling not to let his reaction show on his face, Niil backed away until his buttocks hit a table, preventing him from retreating further.
“I'm looking for a boy,” said Niil, desperate to get the business finished with so that he could escape to the comparatively fresh air outside. “His name is Ambar, son of a man called Aliya, who I understand lives somewhere round here, on Fruit Quay.”
The innkeeper was visibly surprised, but he managed to remember his manners and caught himself before he could ask a question: you didn't ask questions of members of Noble Families. Instead he looked over his shoulder and bellowed “Karik!”
A brown-haired boy of about twelve, as dirty as his master and wearing only greyish rags, appeared at once but stopped a sensible distance away – obviously he was well used to being beaten and wanted to stay out of range.
“Do you,know a kid called Ambar, son of Aliya?” the innkeeper asked him.
“Well, yes, but he's just a beggar!”
The innkeeper looked at Niil, who nodded.
“Go and get him, and be quick about it,” ordered the innkeeper. “The Noble Son is waiting!”
“But... he's an orphan. He just hangs about on the quays – I really don't know where...”
He was interrupted by a roundhouse slap that turned his cheek red under its coating of grime and brought tears to his eyes. But he managed not to cry out.
“Find him, you cretin!” yelled the man.
The poor kid scurried away, and his master turned back to face his distinguished guest and smiled.
“I'm sure this won't take very long, Noble Son. If Your Lordship would be kind enough to take a seat, I would be honoured to serve you with a cup of our finest raal.”
Niil would sooner have drunk water from the muddiest part of the river than risk putting his lips on any cup in this squalid dive, and by now he'd also decided that any man who could clout a defenceless child round the face without fear of retribution was not a man in whose company he wanted to spend a second longer than was necessary.
“Thank you, Master Innkeeper,” he said, “But I would prefer to wait outside your door and enjoy the night air.”
That was clearly another way of saying that he wanted to get out of the foul stink of this establishment as fast as he possibly could. By now Niil had exhausted his supply of diplomacy, and he didn't spare another thought for the visibly insulted innkeeper as he strode back to the door and into the street outside.
He spent the next half-hour or so impatiently pacing back and forth outside the door to the inn . But then he finally saw, in the feeble street lighting, two boys running towards him. He called to them before they could enter the inn, and Ambar – who was now wearing a yellow-trimmed brown abba reaching down to his knees and a pair of new sandals – positively gaped when he recognised his benefactor. In fact his expression of stupefaction would have been comical in other circumstances.
“Noble Lord!” he gasped.
Niil grabbed his shoulders before he could prostrate himself and held him upright, and as he did so he said to the other boy, “I'm sorry – I have nothing to offer you in payment for your trouble, but I hope to be able to rectify that soon.”
“You don't need to do that, Noble Lord. Just take good care of Ambar.”
That was a highly unusual response: in this part of the world most people wouldn't ever say no to a little profit. Nor, indeed, did they usually tell a Noble Son what to do, no matter how politely it had been phrased. Niil was impressed, both by the boy's willingness to forego the usual gratuity, and by his concern for his friend.
“Karik,” he said, “I am Niil, of the Ksantiris. If I fail to fulfil my promise to you, it will be because I am dead.”
“Then, Noble Lord, I will wait for your reward with eager impatience.”
“Very well. Now go. And you, Ambar – you come with me.”
They found Izkya and Julien on the quay. Of course he'd been gone for some time, and they were both more than a little worried about him, and so they were relieved to see him return. Ambar waited quietly while Niil told the other two what had happened. Finally Niil turned and spoke to him.
“Ambar,” he said, “ we're in trouble. Someone is trying to kill us, and they're serious about it. We were on our way to the First House of the Bakhtars, but I'm fairly sure that if we tried to get there we'd be ambushed on the way. Besides, my guest Julien is wounded and can't run, or even walk too far. We need help. Do you think you could get to Bakhtar Tower for us?”
“Of course I'll go, Noble Lord, but I don't reckon the guards there will take any notice of someone like me.”
“Oh, yes, they will. They'll take notice because you're now wearing a brown Ksantiri abba. And, just in case that isn't enough, take this.” Niil removed his dark blue tunic. “Show them this hatik and they'll have to accept that I sent you.”
“Once you get there,” added Izkya, “you must ask for Lord Nardouk. Nobody else, mind – just him. And if anyone gets obstructive, tell them that the Noble Daughter Izkya will have them sent to Tandil immediately unless they obey you straight away.”
Ambar nodded, looking impressed.
“If it turns out that Lord Nardouk isn't there,” continued Izkya, “you must insist on speaking to my father. Demand to be taken to the First Lord in person, understand?”
Ambar nodded again.
“Be careful,” Niil warned him. “The people who are looking for us won't think twice about hurting you if you run into them. They're trying to kill us, and it's a certainly that they'll kill you too if they find out that we sent you. And... we think they've got ghorrs with them.”
Ambar blanched: ghorrs in Aleth? That was monstrous. But he kept his voice steady and replied, “Don't worry, Noble Lord, they won't see me.”
“Perhaps not,” said Niil. “But... look, nobody's going to blame you if you prefer to wait until morning.”
Ambar hesitated. It was certainly true that things would look a lot less dangerous in daylight. And the thought of ghorrs waiting to ambush him in the dark... but he was clever enough to understand the situation.
“No, Noble Lord,” he said. “If they're already looking for you, we can't waste time. I'll keep my eyes open.”
“Off you go, then,” said Izkya. “Succeed, and I can promise you that my Noble Father will know how to reward you.”
Up until now Ambar had kept his eyes lowered, as was proper for one whose status was that of a beggar. But now he straightened up.
“Noble Lady,” he said, “my folks are dead, but they taught me to be grateful. Now my life belongs to Noble Lord Niil, I don't need nothing else.”
Izkya bristled at such insolence. Was this guttersnipe talking to her about honour? She opened her mouth to tell him what she thought, but Niil beat her to it.
“I hear you, Ambar, son of Aliya,” he said. “You're going into danger for my honour and your own. I'm not offering any reward.”
He put his hands on both sides of the young boy's head, pulled him forwards and gently touched their foreheads together. Izkya said nothing, but she was shocked: this sort of greeting was reserved for very close relatives, or for those to whom you wanted to show great honour.
A second later, the child had vanished into the night.
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org