Ambar was running. He'd taken off his new sandals and slipped them into the pocket of his abba, and now that he was barefoot he was making almost no sound at all. He wasn't quite sure what Niil's head-to-head gesture had meant, but he did feel somehow honoured by it.
He wasn't particularly scared. Sure, the thought of ghorrs loose in the city was frightening, but he didn't expect them to come anywhere near him. By now he'd been on his own for a year, and in that time he'd learned most of the tricks that you pick up living on the streets: he knew just about every hidden corner and every sneaky short-cut, and he knew a dozen different ways that he could take to get to Bakhtar Tower.
Since his parents had died he had survived thanks to the generosity of the local people. If he'd been a bit younger he would probably have been adopted by someone, but he had been ten when his parents died, and that was was a bit too old for adoption. All the same, he'd never been seriously hungry.
The landlord of the small house where he had lived with his parents hadn't been sufficiently generous to let him stay there for free, and so he'd slept here and there on the quays, wherever he could find a bit of shelter, but he still had everything he really needed.
Actually, and despite what the Noble Lord who had sent him on this mission might have thought, Ambar wasn't normally in the habit of begging – in fact he found the idea of begging rather shameful, and he didn't really need money anyway. But when he'd first set eyes on the strange being with the ridiculously long hair that seemed almost to burn as it caught the sun, he had been so fascinated, and so consumed by a weird and inexplicable need to see him closer to and even to touch him, that he had used the only pretext he could think of, which was to ask him for money.
What had followed had been like a fairy-tale in which the main character is blessed by luck in completely unbelievable ways. First the Noble Lord Niil had chosen him as his First-Greeted. Then he had sent him to the merchant Batürlik's yard, where he had not only been given the fine clothes he was now wearing, but also fed to bursting point with amazing food. And then tonight Karik, the pot-boy from the Three Tankards inn, had come looking for him, had found him on Old Quay, and had brought him back to answer the call of his benefactor, whom he had never expected to see again. And finally, wonder of wonders, the Noble Son of the Ksantiris had honoured him with a mission – and a dangerous one, too. So here he was on the way to one of the great wonders of the city, the Tower of the Bakhtars – and not only that, but he had actually been ordered to go right inside it!
He trotted along, keeping to the shadows. He had now left the well-populated area of the harbour behind him and had reached the Great Promenade, that broad, tree-shaded boulevard where – though of course Ambar did not know this – his sponsor and his fascinating friend had eaten sweetsnow earlier that day. The place was still lively at night: under the trees a great array of lanterns illuminated rows of stalls around which a crowd of people moved, eager for entertainment and refreshment. Jugglers went through their routines, and the smells of cooking filled the air. Music added to the atmosphere of excitement and laughter. And there were some stalls that were doing a discreet trade in pills and potions, each of them allegedly created by wizards, each allegedly superior to those being sold elsewhere, and each directly imported – allegedly – from exotic realms and distant lands, if not, indeed, distant worlds.
Ambar was of course not interested in any of this. His main worry was that his brown abba announced loudly that he belonged to a Noble Family, and at this time of night no respectable boy would be anywhere near this place. So he found a dark corner and pulled the abba over his head, thus transforming himself back into the blue-loinclothed beggar-boy he had been only that morning. He rolled his abba and Niil's blue hatik up into a tight bundle and walked openly out into the crowd of revellers.
Nobody spared him a second glance: if the finest wizards in the world had concocted a spell of invisibility for him it couldn't have worked better than his current appearance. A short distance away he saw a couple of other urchins who looked just like he did, hanging round the stalls in the hope of a few scraps of meat or a couple of sweets. They were so much part of the landscape that the vast majority of the people who came out at night to party shooed them away with the same lack of attention as they did the occasional annoying fly that buzzed around them.
He turned around and discovered to his dismay that the shout was aimed at him: there was a man in dark blue clothes waving at him. He didn't have any Marks, but his clothes looked expensive. His hair was cut very short, of course, and – as far as Ambar could tell in the lamp-light – he had the dark mahogany complexion of the natives of Yrcadia. This was really frightening, because there was a rumour that Yrcadians could actually read the minds of their adversaries and so anticipate each attack almost before their opponent had finished thinking it up. Of course, that was only a rumour...
“Yes, you!” called the man. “Come here!”
Ambar approached him slowly, doing his best to act like just another beggar-boy who was here in the hope of getting a few crumbs from one of the food-stalls.
“Noble Lord?” he asked.
He didn't have to act to make his voice tremble with fear, the way any street kid would speak in front of such an imposing and frightening character: that came entirely naturally.
The man threw a coin to him.
“Go to Doskar's stall over there,” said the warrior, pointing at a drinks vendor a hundred metres or so away, “and get me a tankard of beer. And you can keep the change.”
Ambar felt his knees trembling, because he didn't need to look at the coin in his hand to know from its weight that it was a ngul tchenn of a hundred taleks, which was the largest of the silver coins, next below the ser tchoung, the smallest gold coin. And that was far too much for a tankard of ale. What the warrior was giving him wasn't a tip, it was an invitation to share his bed.
This was common enough, of course: there were plenty of poor street-boys in Aleth who kept themselves alive by selling their bodies. But Ambar had only been on the street for a comparatively short time, and had never been hungry enough to consider following that path himself. And nor was the warrior obeying the normal practice for such transactions: the custom was that a boy who was in the market for that sort of business would indicate the fact clearly, either by giving his prospect a look of clear invitation, or by 'accidentally' displaying what he had to offer. Generally it was considered improper to solicit a boy who had not indicated his availability, and even more so to persist when the boy had said no.
But the warriors of Yrcadia weren't exactly famous for their gentle manners and careful etiquette, and nor were they generally very patient. Instead they were highly dangerous: resisting them was hard for anyone, and downright impossible for a street kid that nobody would try to defend. Common sense told Ambar that he would have to go with the man. But this wasn't simply a question of unwanted attention: if it really came down to it, he thought he could probably cope with anything the man had in mind to do to him. No, the real issue was that this was going to prevent him from carrying out his mission.
He nodded and made his way to the stall, where the owner wordlessly handed him an overflowing stone tankard and a considerable amount of change.
The tankard was heavy and difficult to carry, and it was overflowing with strong-smelling beer. There was no way he could carry it as well as the bundle of clothing, and he'd already used the belt of his abba to tie the whole thing into a package that wouldn't come undone. All he could do now was to tie the two ends of the belt together and stick his head through the loop, allowing the bundle to rest on his back. Then he made his way back to the Yrcadian, doing his best not to spill the beer.
The man accepted the tankard from him and took a long swig.
“Good,” he said. “Want some?”
“Um... no, thanks, Noble Lord. And here's your change.”
“I said you could keep it.”
The man put his hand on Ambar's shoulder, gripping it firmly: obviously he had no intention of letting Ambar turn him down.
“You wouldn't say no to a present, would you?” the man asked.
“No, Noble Lord.”
“Good lad! For one moment there I thought that maybe you didn't like me!”
He finished off his drink, rubbing the boy's shoulders with his free hand. Nobody took any notice: this was something they saw every day, and in any case they were only interested in their own entertainment.
The man even slipped his calloused fingers down the back of Ambar's loincloth, stroking the velvety smoothness and clearly liking what he felt. And once he'd finished his beer he took Ambar back to Doskar's stall to return the tankard – apparently now he'd found his boy he had no intention of risking him slipping away.
The warrior had rented a kang in one of the large number of inns in the streets that ran into the Great Promenade. The place was fairly basic, but clean, and he had his own private bathroom. The man of the desk made no comment about his guest's escort: he saw this sort of thing every day. Instead he simply checked that his guest was happy with his accommodation and then just wished him goodnight.
“Take off your loincloth,” ordered the warrior once they were in the kang with the door closed. “And you can put your bundle over here on the chest. What's in it?”
“Just some clothes, Noble Lord, and a little money.”
Ambar didn't want the man to start poking around in the bundle, and so he distracted him in the best possible way by posing in front of him, naked, his hands clasped over his genitals, and doing his best to look submissive and vulnerable, the way an inexperienced rent-boy might.
“Move your hands – I want to see what you've got,” said the man. “Put your hands on your hips.”
Ambar obeyed, trying to look as gauche as possible.
“Turn round... this is your first time, is it?”
”Yes, Noble Lord.”
The man's eyes gleamed. “You're in luck, then,” he said. “You're going to have the privilege of being broken in by a real expert. Your pretty little bum will remember this for a very long time indeed.”
“Please, Noble Lord,” begged Ambar. “I don't really want to.”
Once again Ambar didn't need to act scared, and his tears were completely genuine. They didn't do him any good, though: far from melting the man's heart, they actually seemed to act like an aphrodisiac.
“You don't have any choice,” the man said. “I've paid for it, and now I'm going to take it.”
He didn't seem to care in the slightest that the child hadn't offered, or even agreed to, such a deal. If he had a conscience at all, it obviously wasn't bothering him.
He threw his clothes off, revealing his impressive muscles: his body was clearly that of someone who had been trained for fighting. His erection wasn't particularly massive, but it was still plenty big enough to scare Ambar, whose rear entrance had never had to deal with anything like this. Even so, he would have been prepared to resign himself to his fate, had he not known that even if he did there was no chance of the warrior letting him go before daybreak. And that would mean that he had failed in his mission, because anything might happen to his patron between now and then if he didn't fetch help.
“Come on, then, little chicken,” the man said, “let's start with a shower. We don't want to spoil such a big occasion by stinking of sweat, do we?”
It was while he was being soaped and rubbed down under the shower that Ambar felt the first germs of an idea come to him. He didn't like his situation at all, but his body reacted to the attention it was getting all the same, and the man, mistaking the boy's erection for a sign of enthusiasm, decided that it was time for the kid to take an active part in the preparations.
“Right, it's your turn,” he said. “Don't be shy – get me good and clean everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. After all, you're going to be getting intimately acquainted with my intimate parts, aren't you?”
Ambar managed a little laugh. He took the soap and began to wash the man's body. He intentionally took his time over the erect penis, gently soaping the exposed glans over and over until the man told him to stop. Then he went round behind him, turning his attention to the man's buttocks and then to what lay between them, tickling the man's anus in order to get him to spread his legs, and then moving forward from there until he was able to take hold of the man's dangling scrotum. For a moment or two he rolled the delicate contents between his fingers in a sensuous way. Then he pressed a finger against the underside of the penis and followed it up to the sensitive frenulum, which he stroked a couple of times before following the penis back down to the testicles, which he took hold of once again.
By now the man was completely relaxed, and so what happened next came as a complete surprise: Ambar wrenched the testicles backwards, at the same time ramming his head into the small of the Yrcadian's back as hard as he could. With perfect unison the man's feet slipped on the soapy tiles and he pitched forwards, not even having time to yell before banging his head against the wall and collapsing in a boneless heap onto the floor.
Ambar didn't hang around to witness the success of his stratagem: true, the man was flat out and bleeding copiously, but that didn't mean that he couldn’t regain consciousness at any moment. Ambar grabbed a towel and dried himself quickly, put his loincloth on again, grabbed the bundle of clothes and left, though he had the presence of mind to walk slowly and to say 'Goodnight' to the innkeeper on his way past the front desk.
Somehow, despite the pounding of his heart, he managed to maintain his self-control outside the inn, continuing to walk calmly all the way to the far end of the Great Promenade, where it opened into the maze of private parks he would need to find his way through in order to reach Bakhtar Tower.
Once he entered the parkland he started to jog. There wasn't much light: a little later the moon would rise, but right now there were only a few widely-spaced lamps and the twilight. By day this place was quite pleasant, with its flowering bushes and carefully-selected trees, but at night it was positively scary. Ambar was convinced there were nasty creatures lurking in the undergrowth – in fact he knew for a fact that some were there: the giant centipedes, for example, with venomous spines protruding from their armoured carapaces. Their poison wasn't usually fatal, but it was agonisingly painful, sufficiently so to cause paralysis for around fifteen seconds following the sting, and then a hideous swelling and discolouration of the affected limb. And then there were the gleks, which were a sort of large rat that was capable of giving a nasty bite that would often become infected.
Yes, he had disposed of a dangerous Warrior of Yrcadia, but then he hadn't really stopped to consider what he was doing, and nor had he realised quite how dangerous the Warriors could be: he'd simply acted, and he had been lucky that the man had been knocked out straight away. If he'd stopped to think properly about it first he would never have taken the risk. Here in this dark wood it was different: his imagination kept conjuring up visions of monsters and deadly creatures that liked catching and eating small boys, and he simply couldn't rein it in. In fact this part of his mission, which lasted only half an hour and involved nothing more than crossing a large but basically cultivated and managed park, was by far the worst part of it, because here he was fighting his own demons and struggling against the chimeras of his own imagination. And that was a fight for which he would never be honoured, for no Homer would ever sing in praise of one who fights nothing more than the monsters that haunt the mind of a child...
Finally he reached the base of the enormous tower whose walls were glowing with an amber light. He went straight up the vast staircase that led up to the main entrance, and once at the top he pulled himself up to his full height, forced as much authority as he could manage into his voice and said to the guard, “Honourable Guard! The Noble Daughter Izkya has sent me with a message for the Noble Lord Nardouk! I have to give it to him straight away. And if the Noble Lord Nardouk is not here, I have to take the message to the First Lord instead.”
The guard, who had listened open-mouthed to this, closed it with a snap that could have been heard a mile away. Had the situation been less serious, Ambar would have burst out laughing at him, because clearly this guy had been recruited more for his muscles than for his brain.
“You want me to summon Lord Nardouk?” the guard asked.
“And you think he'll come to talk to a beggar?”
“Then take me to him.”
“Not a chance!”
“Well, the Noble Daughter Izkya also said that anyone who stopped me from completing my mission, or even delayed it, would get a one-way ticket to Tandil. Look, this ought to convince you...”
He undid his bundle and pulled out Niil's dark-blue hatik.
“So,” he went on, “do you fancy a holiday on Tandil?”
The huge guard raised a hand the size of a dinner-plate.
“If your father didn't teach you any manners,” he threatened, “I don't mind doing it for him!”
Ambar never even flinched.
“Lay one finger on me and you'll answer to the Noble Daughter,” he replied. “Can't you recognise a hatik when you see one? Apparently not. But surely even a complete moron would realise that I wouldn't have found something as special as this lying in a gutter!”
The guard restrained himself from delivering the slap he'd intended, but his entire attitude made it clear that he had no intention of letting some guttersnipe tell him what to do. They could have stayed in that stalemate all night, if another guard who was posted a short distance away hadn't heard Ambar's shrill voice and come to see what was going on.
“What's up, Barogh?” he asked. “Trouble?”
“No, just this kid who's looking for a good slap.”
Ambar grabbed his chance and turned to the newcomer.
“Honourable Guard,” he said, “I am Ambar, son of Aliya, of Fruit Quay, the messenger of the Noble Daughter Izkya, and your colleague here won't let me carry out my mission.”
“This piece of scum wants me to summon Lord Nardouk, if you please,” said the first guard. “And he says that if I don't he's going to have me sent to Tandil!”
“And I will, too, if he holds me up any longer!” shouted Ambar, who had had more than enough of this. “That's exactly what the Noble Daughter said!”
“To be fair, that does sound exactly like her,” said the second guard. “I'm inclined to believe you, I think. I'm going to send for Lord Nardouk – but I warn you, little man, if you're lying, you'll be the one heading for Tandil!”
“You're crazy, Askil!” protested the first guard. “If you disturb him for nothing the Noble Lord will skin you alive!”
“I'll risk it,” said Askil. “After all, if the Noble Daughter really did send him, she must have had a pretty good reason for doing so.”
He turned to Ambar. “I don't suppose you can tell me what the message is?” he asked.
“Sorry,” said Ambar. “I have orders to speak only to Lord Nardouk, or the First Lord himself.”
“All right. Follow me.”
The guard led Ambar into a hall so vast that it could have been used to drill a regiment. It was brightly lit, and Ambar could see that the white marble walls were covered in frescoes showing landscapes from all over Frühl.
“Wait here,” said the guard, leaving him staring open-mouthed at the splendour of the walls.
Ambar scarcely noticed as the guard trotted off in the direction of a door at the distant far end of the hall, but he noticed soon enough when the guard came back a few moments later accompanied by a man in a plain black robe, because the newcomer's whole being seemed to radiate power and authority. Ambar struggled not to lower his gaze before someone who looked so serious and so important.
“So,” said the man in a penetrating voice, “I understand that you were demanding to see me.”
“Noble Lord,” said Ambar, trying to keep his voice steady, “I didn't demand anything. But the Noble Daughter Izkya ordered me not to speak to anyone except you. And she gave me this hatik to show that I really have come from her.”
Ambar held out the garment to the man, taking in his appearance properly for the first time: penetrating grey eyes under thick eyebrows, full head of grey hair – and an outstretched hand. Ambar put the hatik into it, and the man examined it.
“This is not the Noble Daughter's hatik,” he said.
“No, my Lord. It belongs to my benefactor – that's the Noble Lord Niil, of the Ksantiris.”
“Indeed it does,” said the man. “Very well, Ambar, you have my attention. Speak.”
So Ambar told his story. He told it clumsily, out of sequence and gabbling a bit in places because he was desperate to say how vital it was for his benefactor and his companions to be rescued straight away. But Lord Nardouk, for all that he held an exalted position, was also very patient, and by asking plenty of questions he soon knew everything that the boy did – indeed, he'd also found out a few things that the boy hadn't realised he knew. He was also a good judge of character, and what he saw before him pleased him very much.
“Ambar, First-Greeted of Niil, Third Son of the Ksantiris,” he said, once the recital was over, “would you please put on your abba, the one your benefactor gave you? You're a brave and resourceful lad, and it's not right for you to have to walk around looking like a beggar. This is your house now.”
Once Ambar was looking decent and had put on his new sandals as well, Nardouk told him to take a seat on one of the stone benches that ran along the walls, and once the boy was seated Nardouk sat down beside him.
“Now,” he said, “I want you to describe exactly where we can find your benefactor.”
“My Lord, it would be a lot easier if I just took you there.”
“Sorry, Ambar, but you're not coming with us. There might be ghorrs out there, and it's a miracle you made the journey once without getting hurt. I want you to stay here and wait for us. Tell me exactly where they are, and please don't waste any more time trying to persuade me to take you with us.”
It was clear that the Noble Lord wasn't going to change his mind, and so Ambar gave as good a description as he could of the quay, and explained exactly where on it the others had been hiding when he had left them a couple of hours previously.
When he had finished, tiredness finally caught up with him and he couldn't stop himself from yawning. And nor could Nardouk stop himself from smiling gently.
“I think it's past our heroic messenger's bedtime,” he commented. “The Honourable Askil will take you to the guards' quarters and find you a comfortable place there. You've done what you had to do. Now it's my turn.”
He turned to the guard and said, “Guard, this child is in your care, and I'm holding you responsible for his safety, understand? I expect the First Lord will want to see him tomorrow.”
He stood up and hurried away, leaving the guard to look after a small boy who was already almost asleep.
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