Sunlight filled the kang. The boys had been awake for some time,and when they had got out of bed they had opened the curtains to reveal a breathtaking landscape of towers and gardens, set against the backdrop of the elegant buildings of the city of Aleth. But at this moment they weren't interested in the view.
“I'm starving:!” said Niil from the tub, where he was soaking in cool water after his shower. “I can't actually remember eating anything last night.”
Julien, who had been woken up by the pain in his ribs, was twisting around carefully in order to look at the massive purple bruise in the mirror. He glanced into the next room and saw that the remains of last night's feast had been removed.
“I'm pretty hungry myself,” he said. “We must have been asleep for quite a long time.”
“We were. It's already after noon. And that's one hell of a bruise you've got.”
“Yes, and it's starting to hurt again. Do you think they'll give me something for it?”
“Of course they will. It'll probably come when we get our breakfast.”
“Noble Lord,” said Ambar, who had just put on a plain white house lai, “Why don't I run to the kitchen to find you something to eat?”
Niil laughed. “Ambar, you're not my servant, remember?” he said. “You're my guest. Maybe you just want to head for the kitchen so that you can stuff yourself with our breakfast as well as yours, but tough, you'll have to wait here and share it with us properly. But you can pull the handle by the door if you like.”
Ambar did that, and a smiling servant came in. He looked about forty, and the way he moved suggested that he might also be a bodyguard of sorts.
“Good morning, Noble Lords,” he said. “My name is Tannder, and the First Lord has sent me to look after you. I'll make sure Your Lordships have everything you need and I'll serve as your guide around the house. Right now Your Lordships look as if you'd like something to eat...”
“Honourable Tannder,” replied Niil, pulling a lai over his head, “do us a favour: drop the High Speech and just sort us out something to eat before we starve. Oh, and ask the Health Masters for some painkillers for Julien, too...”
The Health Masters had left a colourless, tasteless potion which dispelled Julien's pain completely. Breakfast turned out to be huge, and they got stuck into it enthusiastically, although afterwards Ambar did need another wash, of his face and hands at least.
By now Julien had had time to consider what had happened the previous evening, and he was delighted to discover that he didn't feel even remotely guilty about it. On the contrary, he found that he felt good about it – so much so that he felt sure that he'd want to do it again.
As for Ambar, now that he'd had a good breakfast he decided to take advantage of his apparent new status by squeezing onto the couch between the other two, wriggling about and posing in such a way as to suggest that there might be better ways of spending the afternoon than merely going back to sleep. He didn't even need to say anything: the look on his face and his body language were extremely expressive.
Sadly, fate intervened in the person of Tannder, killing the project stone dead before it even had time to be born.
“The First Lord wants to see all three of you as soon as possible,” he said. “He left word that you were to be allowed to sleep for as long as you needed and to eat a good breakfast, but I think you should consider going to see him straight away now.”
Niil belched discreetly, shielding his mouth with his hand.
“Very well,” he said. “Lead the way, Tannder.”
The windows in the private audience chamber were wide open, admitting some pleasantly cool air which suggested that it had rained a bit earlier. The First Lord was waiting for them there, and so was Aïn the Guide, and he just stared with his yellow eyes at Julien's face.
“Noble Son Niil,” said the First Lord, “I've already met your First-Greeted, and I congratulate you for having been prepared to call on him for help when you needed to. However, I don't know your other companion. My daughter has told me a bit about him, and so has the Master Guide Aïn, but I'd really like to know a bit more.”
“First Lord, I think that it would be better for the Honourable Julien to answer your questions himself.”
“Very well. Honoured Guest, please speak.”
So Julien spent the next two hours telling them his story and then answering the First Lord's many questions. And then Aïn, who had been listening closely, spoke for the first time since Julien had met him, and in so doing demonstrated why he had hitherto been so taciturn: his vocal system really wasn't suited to human speech, and what emerged was more of a squeak than normal speech.
“Yu-lee-yain,” he began, “You say nowthing abwout Yol the Intwepid.”
“I don't know who Yol the Intrepid is.”
“You weaw his mawk. You hawve cewtainly met him.”
“Well, it's possible, I suppose - but I don't even know what he looks like.”
“He iss a Gwuide, like me. He looks like me.”
“Sorry, but you're the first blue dog I've ever met – honest!”
“I do not know what a dowg is.”
“It's an animal, a pet... I'm sorry, I don't meant to offend you...”
“It iss fine. Iss thewe a dowg in youw fwamily?”
“Yes, we've got a big black Bouvier. But his name is Ugo...”
He realised that this was a stupid remark, and amended, “Well, at least, that's what my parents called him.”
Aïn thought for a moment, and then he got up and walked over to Julien.
“Yu-lee-yain, would you please put youw hand on me and allow me to look into youw mind?”
Julien didn't answer straight away. The prospect of having to open himself up to the Guide again really wasn't very appealing, especially bearing in mind what he'd been doing with Ambar and Niil since they reached the Tower.
“I know that it iss not pweasant,” said Aïn, “but I will twy to be ass quick ass I can. Pwease give me youw pewmisswion.”
Julien sighed and nodded. “All right,” he said, unenthusiastically.
He put his hand on Aïn's neck, and once again he had the horrible experience of someone else riffling through his most secret memories, rooting through his thoughts and reminding him of things he would much sooner have forgotten. Then all that came to an end as Aïn spoke inside his head.
It is absolutely certain that you have crossed Yol's path. He's given you a lot of instruction, probably while you were asleep. I'm fairly sure that Yol was the one you call Ugo, although I have no idea why he didn't tell you his real name.
But Ugo is a dog, thought Julien. He's just an animal! Animals can't speak!
For a moment Aïn didn't answer, but Julien could feel that the Guide was seriously worried. Finally he spoke again.
I can't completely grasp this, but I am almost sure that Yol and Ugo are the same person. And as for you... well... I don't think you're just the person you think you are either.
The contact broke abruptly and the Guide went back to his place beside the First Lord, who put his hand on him for a few moments of silent but serious communication.
“Julien,” he said eventually, “there's clearly a mystery here that we will need to unravel. But before that there's something else important that we need to deal with. Let's go back to your kang.”
A few minutes later Lord Aldegard was speaking in a solemn voice to a very nervous Ambar, who was just about managing to stand still in front of him without fidgeting.
“Ambar, Son of Aliya of Fruit Quay, First-Greeted of Niil, Third Son of the Ksantiris: your Benefactor called you and you responded. At the darkest hour and in defiance of danger you fulfilled your mission without expecting any reward. Ambar, the Tradition is clear: you are entitled to demand a place as a full member of the Noble Family of the Ksantiris. Ambar, son of Aliya of Fruit Quay, is this your desire?”
It was obvious that the boy was extremely uncomfortable.
“First Lord,” he said, “I've already told Lord Niil that I don't want no reward. He's been good to me, and anyway I didn't do nothing 'cept carry a message.”
“Well if that is your wish...”
“First Lord of the Bakhtars!” interrupted Niil (thereby breaking all the rules of etiquette). “Mirror of the Emperor! I know the Tradition. It's not yet my First-Greeted's decision to make. Tradition says he has the right to refuse whatever I might offer, but there's nothing in it about him having to ask for anything. Forgive me, First Lord, I'm not trying to contradict you here, but I know that my Noble Father wouldn't want me to fail to do my duty. And clearly my duty is to ask my First-Greeted if he would do me the great honour of joining our Noble Family, in a position immediately below my own.”
Ambar opened his mouth, but Niil hurried on without giving him the chance to argue.
“My Noble Father has often said that if we can't recognise courage and loyalty when we meet it, even if it is displayed by the humblest of men, then we are unworthy of command. Here” (and he pointed at Ambar) “I can see plenty of courage and loyalty – more than enough for him to claim the Noble Name of Ksantiri. Look, Ambar, my father won't be angry about accepting you – on the contrary, he'll be happy that I've recognised your bravery. Please say you'll agree to join our family as my Noble Brother.”
“That's really good of you,” said Ambar, blushing all over, “but what'll people think? They'll say as...”
“I really don't care what people think,” cut in Niil.
“Sorry, Noble Lord, but they'll say as you're a fool and I've taken you for a ride.”
Niil was about to answer that, but the First Lord started laughing.
“Ambar,” he said, “anyone who said that would simply be showing themselves to be rather stupid and completely lacking in good judgement. On the other hand, I can tell you that I, Aldegard, First Lord of the Bakhtars and Mirror of the Emperor, think that Niil of the Ksantiris has made a very wise decision, and I whole-heartedly endorse his choice. So, Ambar – what do you say?”
“Nothing, I suppose.”
“Right, then: Niil, greet Ambar the official way.”
Niil approached the boy who was only going to be his First-Greeted for a little longer and, as he had done the previous evening when entrusting him with the rescue mission, he gently took hold of his head and touched their foreheads together.
After a few seconds the First Lord declared, “You are now Ambar, Fourth Son of the Ksantiris. Shortly your Noble Brother will transmit to you the Marks of your Noble Family. Our own Guardian of Traditions will help him with that in due course. Oh, and I'll contact the Noble Lord Ylavan myself to give him the good news that he now has a fourth son.” He laughed, and that brought an end to the solemnity of the occasion.
“Now let's celebrate,” he went on. “You're invited to dine with me this evening – and that goes for your brother and Julien too.”