The unthinkable had happened: despite their most careful preparations, the prey had once again slipped out of their trap. Deep in the Ultimate Desert the Circle of Invocation disappeared with a deafening thunderclap. The seventeen Sorcerers of Eng'Hornath stood rooted to the spot for several seconds. On the Stone of Power, the name of which none dared utter, the victim's blood still dripped: the great blue- and gold-feathered wings had long since ceased to twitch, but the vril, a rare and sacred bird to be found only on Tandil, had lingered on in agony for a considerable time, its pain powering the evil magic of the outlawed sorcerers. Its ravaged beauty was a sign of their allegiance to the Chaos Demons of the Outside, and no sacrifice less significant could have enabled them to control such a large number of ghorrs – and yet still it had not been enough.
Demd'Rhat crumpled and fell. The blood flowing from his mouth and ears looked black in the pale light of the Second Moon, and it was clear that he was dying: the backlash had just struck him. Dark Magic allows no imbalance: if you use it with intent to kill, someone has to die, and if the intended victim somehow avoids the strike, it will rebound upon the one who summoned it up and kill him instead. Demd'Rhat was the second of the Sorcerers of Eng'Hornath to die since they had first gathered to fulfil their deadly mission.
The kang was like a massive suite in one of the palatial homes of the French Riviera. Julien was waiting for them, sitting in one of a number of comfortable chairs that had been drawn up around a low table on which was laid out what was presumably intended as a late night snack, just something to appease their hunger before they went to bed – after all, they'd missed supper. But the way Ambar's face lit up when he saw this collection of amazing food almost made what they had gone through seem worthwhile: he was staring open-mouthed at the spread, most of whose wonderful delicacies were completely new to him.
“You got here just in time,” Julien told them. “I was just about to eat Ambar's share.”
Ambar clearly didn't know how he was expected to behave, and in the end Niil had to push him to a chair and more or less force him to sit down.
“You're going to have to get used to this,” he told him. “You're now part of my family. You're not a beggar any more, or a servant. I know you've got no idea what it's like belonging to a Noble House, but don't worry, nobody is going to yell at you if you get things wrong. So help yourself to whatever you want and leave the rest.”
“But... Noble Lord,” protested Ambar, “Look at the state of me! I'm filthy, and I'll make dirty marks on anything I touch!”
“There's no point in cleaning yourself up now,” Niil pointed out, “because you're sure to get gravy all over you. You can have a bath after we've eaten.”
Ambar still looked doubtful, so Niil grabbed a fritter and gobbled it down in two bites, not worrying in the least about the fat that dripped from his chin onto his clothes. Julien, who had previously seen him eating with delicate little nibbles when he was dining at Izkya's table, thought it better not to comment.
“So... are you all right, Julien?” Niil asked. “I didn't really understand what happened to you, but you seemed to be stuck to the Guide. And how are your ribs?”
“A lot better, thanks. The doctors gave me something to drink that dulled the pain, and it worked so well that I can scarcely feel a thing. Apparently the ribs are just cracked, not broken, which was lucky – I could easily have ended up with a punctured lung otherwise. They reckon they'll heal on their own, but I'm supposed to take it easy for a bit. I don't care, just as long as it doesn't hurt any more.... what about you? Are you all right?”
“There was nothing wrong with me, because I didn't manage to do anything. It's shameful – everyone was fighting and I couldn't help because I wasn't even carrying a knife...”
“You shouldn't blame yourself for that. The fight didn't last long anyway.”
“So... just why were you clinging to the Guide like that?”
“I honestly don't know,” Julien told him. “I was scared stiff, and then someone bumped into me and I just grabbed at whatever was nearest to stop myself from falling over. I can't really remember, to be honest.”
Actually Julien could remember perfectly well how terrifying it had felt to be fused with Aïn. He didn't understand what had happened, though, and he really didn't want to talk about it now. So instead he joined Niil in trying to persuade Ambar to talk, although that wasn't easy, given how good the food was and how enthusiastically Ambar was sampling it. But eventually the boy relaxed sufficiently to tell them, in great detail, the story of his journey from the quay to the Tower.
Julien found a lot of it an absolute eye-opener – for example, the casual way in which this ten- or eleven-year-old spoke about other beggar-boys selling their bodies came as a complete shock to him, and the episode in the shower, and the glee with which this sweet little angel explained how he had beaten his overconfident opponent, also suggested to him that life here was nothing like the life to be found in the world he had left behind. And although he had no sympathy at all for a thug that had intended raping a child, nonetheless he did find himself wincing at the thought of what had happened to him.
“He didn't even have time to yell,” Ambar told them. “He took a big breath, but then his head smacked into the wall and he went all floppy. But I hadn't asked him for nothing, and I sure as hell hadn't given him the old signal, so he didn't have no right to force me, did he?”
“Of course not, “ Niil assured him. “You were quite right to do what you did – in fact you'd still have been right even if you hadn't had a vital mission to accomplish. I hope the bastard's balls go on aching for a very long time.”
“Yeah, well, I hope I don't bump into him again, 'cos if he recognises me he might fancy a bit of revenge.”
The idea of a Warrior of Yrcadia wanting revenge was a picture that Niil wanted to get rid of straight away, before Ambar really started worrying.
“There's no chance of that,” he said. “You're under the protection of the Ksantiris now.”
Now that his story was told, Ambar began to feel really tired – after all, he hadn't been asleep in the guardroom for very long. So he was just about out on his feet as Niil guided him towards a bathroom that Cleopatra would have been proud to use.
“It's all right, Noble Lord” Ambar protested sleepily. “I can manage on my own.”
But Niil was having none of it.
“You can barely stand up,” he pointed out. “You'd fall over and drown in the bath. And I've told you a hundred times already: stop calling me 'Noble Lord'! Julien, can you come and give me a hand, please?”
Julien wasn't completely sure he wanted to get involved in this. Obviously the thought of a nice hot shower followed by a good soak in a tub with a pair of good-looking boys was very attractive, but there was a clear downside: the sight of Niil removing Ambar's abba was already causing his body to react in a way that he really didn't want to make public – even if Niil, who was now naked himself, appeared to be displaying the same reaction quite unconcernedly.
Julien supposed that there were two possible explanations: either Niil was a raving pervert, or boys bathing together was simply a local custom in this world. Perhaps the same was true for boys and girls together, although that idea was distinctly less enjoyable. In any event, what was going on in front of his eyes was hardly the custom and practice in Paris, and even though he wasn't a regular churchgoer and had been spared the need to learn his catechism or to listen to fulminating clerics ranting on about 'bad habits' and 'unwholesome thoughts', he still knew that – in most people's opinion, anyway – anything that caused even a twitch of sexual excitement was a Really Bad Thing, and probably sinful with it. It would be a long time yet before the sexual revolution of the students reached the minds of the majority of the population!
Even what he and Niil had got up to earlier in the day would have been unthinkable in his own world, and although he'd be a bit irritated when the gong had interrupted them, at the same time he'd been quite relieved that they had been interrupted before they could take things to their logical conclusion. To put it another way, Niil wouldn't have to had to push him very hard at all to move him onto stroking.... (all right, w.... wanking – he didn't know any other way to translate kuwa djinpa tang wa) … each other. But he knew perfectly well how ashamed he would have felt after the earth-shaking ecstasy had faded away – after all, that was exactly what happened, like some kind of divine punishment, every time he did it on his own. Not that it had stopped him from doing it – even though he knew how he would feel afterwards, he went on and on abusing his body in that disgusting way...
On the other hand, he was a guest here, and he didn't want to offend his host, did he? 'When in Rome...', after all. So he stood up, removed his clothes and, not even bothering to try hiding his shameful tumescence, he went to join Niil and his pupil. It was his duty to do so, after all...
He quickly realised that he had misunderstood Ambar's apparent reluctance: the younger boy wasn't worried in the least about being naked, but he had been clearly terribly uncomfortable about the idea of the son of a Noble House acting as a servant to him. Still, once he realised that Niil was determined to do this he simply shrugged and accepted his benefactor's ministrations enthusiastically.
As for Julien, he managed to resist the onrush of lust for the space of three breaths... (all right, then, two and a half... almost... well, a second or two, anyway) before he grabbed a nearby sponge and jumped into the warm water that was cascading from overhead to do what Niil had asked him to – in this case, soaping Ambar.
After a few seconds he abandoned the sponge as a completely superfluous piece of kit, no doubt invented by some dried up old stick of a cleric somewhere. In order to soap someone up effectively and precisely, making sure you get into every nook and cranny (it would be unhygienic to do otherwise!) you have to use your bare (BARE!) hands against the other person's bare (BARE!) skin. Clearly the little pads at the end of one's fingers are intended for exactly this purpose.
This was only the second time in his short life that he had been given an opportunity to explore a body other than his own in this way, and he found the experience to be extremely satisfying. More blissful still was the feeling he got when Ambar, giggling because Niil was tickling him, grabbed Julien's hand and placed it right next to the little stiff member that hitherto Julien had only brushed with the back of his hand while applying the soap. Actually Julien found this quite unsettling, but he soon managed to overcome his initial feeling of shock and enter fully into the spirit of the thing by undertaking a little exploration.
It wasn't actually very big – maybe six or seven centimetres long and about the same thickness as one of his fingers – but the way it felt, an incredible mixture of rigidity and softness, filled him with an amazing feeling of warmth and happiness. It was just as well that he was kneeling down at the time, because he felt sure that if he had been standing up his legs would have betrayed him.
Now that he'd taken this first step and realised how wonderful it felt, he had no hesitation in ignoring the faint pricking of his conscience, which was vainly whispering that nice boys didn't take hold of other boys' personal places, and continuing the process by taking his exploration a step or two further. Besides, he told himself, it was hardly polite just to keep still while Niil was still energetically cleaning Ambar's bottom, even though Julien was pretty sure it was completely clean and had been so for some time. So he investigated what he was holding and discovered that the cute little foreskin retracted easily to display a little, round, cherry-pink head, not so very different from his own. Maybe his was a little larger, but then he supposed that he was rather older than Ambar. And the little bag at the base of Ambar's projection held two delicate little balls which, once again, felt much the same as his own.
He could have gone on fondling them all night, but at that point Ambar grabbed his hand, put it back on the shaft and moved it a couple of times, indicating that he was by now more than ready to finish things off so that he could go and resume his interrupted sleep.
It would have taken a heart of stone not to comply with the boy's evident need, and Julien didn't have a heart of stone. Sitting cross-legged, his nose only a few centimetres away from the object of his attentions, he gave it his best effort. He was helped by Niil, who was industriously applying his attention, and his fingers, to areas which Julien had previously thought to have nothing to do with pleasure – although Ambar's joyous reaction to being manipulated both front and rear fairly soon convinced him that he'd been missing something.
With two busy operators manipulating him in tandem it was clear that Ambar wasn't going to be able to hold out for very long, but when things reached their eventual conclusion it was to the accompaniment of some happy squeaking noises from Ambar, whose whole body tensed up for a few seconds before he sagged back into Niil's arms.
“Thank you,” he said, politely. “Thank you very much.” Which just showed that he'd been properly brought up, of course.
He fell asleep while they were still drying him, after which Niil carried his limp, blissed-out little body into the large bedroom, laying it gently on one of the three beds that had been prepared for them and covering it with a light sheet.
“I think maybe we should go to bed too,” he said to Julien. “We'll have time enough tomorrow to have a proper soak in the tub.”
Julien was distinctly disappointed: after the build-up he'd just been through he thought it would be difficult for him to get to sleep, especially given that one part of him at least was clearly not ready to switch off for the night. On the other hand, perhaps it would be just as well to stop now, before he became completely depraved...
“Would it be all right with you if we shared a bed?” Niil went on.
Of course, thought Julien, sharing a bed wasn't depraved, was it? This was simply a case of a boy who had been through a terrible experience just looking for a companionable shoulder to rest his head against... And it would have taken a heart of stone...
“Of course!” he replied. “I don't really want to sleep alone either.”
To sleep, perchance to dream... but not just yet.
Niil extinguished all the lights except for one small one, and then they lay down on a bed so massive that it had either been designed with a giant in mind, or was intended for nocturnal activities with more than a single participant. Julien settled into the embrace of the strange boy that he was already starting to consider a friend, or perhaps even the brother he had never had. Of course, they were no longer in a bathroom, so this wasn't the time or place for horsing around... and what happened seemed to Julien to be so straightforward, so right, that he just went with the flow with scarcely a second thought.
Gradually Niil's gentle caresses began to overcome the restraints that had been imposed on Julien by the hypocritical, puritanical education through which he had grown – an education that despised not only the human body, but kindness itself, and gentleness, and which prevented boys from touching each other except when exchanging blows in anger.
It was clear that here things were different: the boys touched each other, and it felt wonderful. Now that they were no longer under the shower Julien could feel for the first time how soft Niil's skin was. He stroked the small of the other boy's back, feeling it arch under his caress, and moved on to the prefect curve of the firm, warm buttocks. By now all his reservations had vanished away and he explored his friend's body happily, allowing his fingers to wander where they liked, and he found that they apparently knew already precisely where and how to apply their caresses. Niil was teaching him exactly what to do, and he was doing his best to show what a good pupil he was by returning each gesture – with interest, if he could.
Slowly their caresses became more overtly sexual, until Niil took both erections in his hand and started to squeeze them together. Not wanting to be outdone, Julien took hold of their balls and held all four carefully in one hand.
Of course, this couldn't go on for too long: even though they kept fairly still, the way the whole lengths of their erections were rubbing against each other, and the sensation of the uncovered heads of their penises pressing against each other, was too powerful. And so, too soon, they were both pushed beyond the point of no return, and together they experienced the ultimate ecstasy, all the more powerful because they were both still dry.
And then finally exhaustion claimed them, so that before they could even disentangle their entwined limbs they both fell into the deep, calm waters of a dreamless sleep.