Waking up between two friends who are caressing your most delicate bits is by no means the worst way to wake from a period of dreamless sleep. Indeed, Julien would have been perfectly happy to stay there and enjoy it, had the previous evening's raal not indicated that it was extremely keen to return to the ground from whence it came. So he lifted Ambar's hand away from his groin, rolled to the right and gave the surprised boy a quick kiss on the nose.
“Morning, Ambar,” he said. “Sorry, but I need to go and pee.”
He turned to Niil and added, “Morning to you, too. Sorry – I really have to go...”
He threw back the sheet and headed for the bathroom, only to discover that Ambar, a playful grin on his face, was following him.
“I need to go, too,” said the younger boy. “You don't mind if I come with you, do you?”
By now Julien was getting used to this sort of familiarity, but he was a bit concerned about the state of his equipment, which was extremely hard and so not in the ideal condition for peeing. And he felt sure that if Ambar, who was in a similar condition, insisted on coming with him, there was little chance of its solidity diminishing in the slightest. All the same, he answered politely, “No, of course not. Be my guest.”
The toilet area was the type where there is just a hole in the floor, and there was room for them to stand side by side in front of it. Julien tried as hard as he could to think of something – anything – other than the show Ambar was putting on for him, but it was far from simple, and it was clear that Ambar had no intention of making it easy for him. Carefully drawing his foreskin back – clearly he'd been taught the importance of good hygiene – he commented on his own difficulty, smiling mischievously as he did so.
“It's not easy, is it? Usually it softens up after I get out of bed, but for some reason it don't seem to want to this morning, look. Ah, I think we're getting somewhere...”
And indeed a short spurt of straw-coloured liquid squirted from his erection, overshot the hole and hit the wall beyond it.
“Oops!” he said. “Too high! But if I try to bend it, nothing comes out. Are you having the same problem?”
“Yes,” said Julien. “Now I wonder why that is?”
Actually there was something seeping from the end of his penis, but it was only the clear, slick and tasteless (he'd tried it once or twice) liquid which he'd noticed himself producing when he became erect. It had been happening for a little while now, and while it was helpful, in that it meant he could rub himself without needing to spit on his hand, it was also a bit of a nuisance when it made a damp spot on his underwear. And once or twice it had even soaked through and marked his shorts, although so far he'd been lucky and nobody had noticed.
“Perhaps you could give me a hand?” suggested Ambar.
“Well, all the time it's as stiff as this I can't piss. Got any ideas as to what we could do about it?”
“I haven't the least idea what you mean!”
Niil's voice came through from the bedroom.
“Look, be nice and do what he wants,” it said. “If you're lucky he'll leave you to pee in peace afterwards.”
Julien reasoned that it would be the height of bad manners not to concede, the more so since he was actually quite keen to do it. So he grabbed the boy's organ, clearly determined to do whatever was necessary, only to discover that Ambar had his own idea as to exactly how this should be done.
“Not like that,” he said, and he turned his back on Julien and reversed into him so that his back was pressed against Julien's stomach. Then he guided the older boy's hand to its target.
Julien thought that this felt incredible. It was completely practical – he could manipulate Ambar's erection as easily as he usually did his own – and it was also intensely erotic: his penis was squeezed against the small of Ambar's back, his testicles against the boy's buttocks, and with Ambar's frail shoulder-blades pressed against his chest, the close-cropped, slightly scented velvety hair just beneath his nose and his left hand caressing Ambar's soft stomach, it gave him an overwhelming feeling of closeness to the other boy. As Ambar leaned back against him he began to manipulate the younger boy's stiff penis, slowly sliding the thin, almost translucent, skin up and down, covering and revealing the dark-coloured tip and gradually speeding up as his own excitement grew. He was increasingly conscious of his own erection as it was rubbed sensuously between his stomach and Ambar's back, and it seemed to him that they were almost one being: he could sense the way Ambar's excitement was growing, and felt almost as if he was rubbing his own member.
Then Ambar's body went rigid and he gave a high-pitched squeal, and he remained frozen like that for a few seconds as Julien hugged him more tightly. Finally he relaxed with a sigh of contentment. But as Julien started to let him go he said, “No, stay where you are and keep hold of me – please?”
And as his penis softened he began to let loose a warm, golden flow, which Julien could feel as it passed through the little tube of flesh he was still holding. And it was that, rather than the violent jolt of a moment before, that pushed him over the edge into a shuddering orgasm of his own, so powerful that he felt his knees buckling, and it was all he could do not to crush the frail creature he was still holding in his hand.
“Phew,” he said. “Now I reckon I'll be able to pee, too. Do you mind if I let go of you now?”
Ambar turned round, smiled at him and gave him a big kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks,” he said. “And...”
“Would you like me to hold yours for you?”
Julien was aware that it's normal to feel a bit down after an orgasm, but actually this time he didn't feel bad – and nor did he feel any of the shame that had usually followed, and spoiled, his pleasure. He didn't feel ready for an encore just yet, but all the same it was impossible to say 'no' to this delightful little sprite.
“If you want to,” he said.
Clearly Ambar did want to. In fact, his enthusiasm for making pretty patterns and drawing spirals in the air with his companion's copious stream was so great that both of them ended up with wet feet, and far more of it ended up on the porcelain than in the actual hole.
One he had squeezed out the last drop, Julien sighed.
“Well, if you've quite finished, I think we could both do with a shower,” he said.
“Hey, hold on a moment – you're not going to leave me like this, are you?”
Niil stood in the doorway, visibly having a similar plumbing problem to that which the other two had recently suffered, and clearly it would have been unkind to leave him in that predicament. This called for emergency treatment: twice as many hands, twice as many fingers and twice as many sensations... and in record time he was left panting by the magnitude of the shock that ran through him.
Ambar was once again accorded the privilege of watering the tiling, though this time Julien prudently stood back, keeping well out of range. Then they all took a rather necessary shower, before calling Tannder to find them a breakfast big enough to replace all their lost energy.
Izkya was torn between fury and terror: she had been literally cloistered away and forbidden to receive any guests other than the ladies of the First Lady's retinue and her best friend, Alikya of the Freyhags.
Can you imagine?” she complained. “I can't even go back to my own house! I can't see anyone – except you, of course, and thanks for coming. But, really, it's too much!”
“If I've got it right, someone sent ghorrs to kill you,” said Alikya.
“That's what my father says.”
“Well, clearly they couldn't have been after the Ksantiri – he's only a Third Son, after all.”
“True. And they obviously couldn't have been after Julien, either, because he's a complete stranger and doesn't even come from the R'hinz.”
“Yes, and that really is weird!”
“Whereas attacks on flybubbles and marauding ghorrs pop up every day?”
“That's not what I meant. Obviously I'd have been scared shi... scared to death if it had happened to me. But the idea of a mysterious stranger...”
“There's nothing all that special about him, apart from the fact that he wears his hair like a girl. Actually his hair is really nice – I know some girls who would kill to have hair like that.”
“Aha! You've got a bit of a crush on him, have you?”
“Don't be stupid – he's far too young. He's no older than Niil! And he's a No-clan, and he's ill-mannered...”
“Really? I think it's a pity I can't get to meet him, because from the way you talk about him I'm sure I'd find him interesting. And then there's your cousin – you know, I rather like Niil...”
Lord Aldegard came to enquire after Julien's health as soon as he was able to find a moment to do so. And while he was there Julien, having first assured him that he felt perfectly well and that the Health Masters' potions seemed to be doing their job efficiently, raised a subject which had been on his mind for a while.
“First Lord,” he began, “yesterday evening, after... well, when the Masters had finished with me... I mean, I wasn't exactly at my best, but I think I heard you say something about them having made a bad mistake, and that the Council, and the Order of Guides, would want to investigate... Does that mean they're going to get in trouble?”
“Most definitely! What they did was extremely serious, and I'm delighted to see that you seem to have survived it more or less intact, because you very easily might not have done.”
“But I did – I'm not dead, and I feel fine now. So – please could you tell them that I'm not mad at them?”
“Well, if you really feel like that you can tell them so yourself tomorrow. But right now I'm afraid they're busy reporting to their respective Councils.”
“But that's what I'm worried about: I don't think it would be right if they got into trouble because of me. After all, I gave them permission to do it, and to go on doing it. Perhaps I could tell the Councils that?”
“Julien, it's not your fault. They are all Masters, and that means that they're supposed to know what they're doing. And it's obvious that they made a very serious mistake. But if you really want me to I'll pass on your message to the Councils.”
“Thank you. And...”
“First Lord, I'd like to ask you a favour, if it isn't too much...”
“Go ahead. There's no harm in asking.”
“Well... now that I'm feeling better, do you think I could go out for a bit of a walk with Niil and Ambar – and maybe,” he added after a brief hesitation, “with your Noble Daughter Izkya, too?”
“I'm certainly not going to let Izkya leave the Tower until we find out who's trying to kill her. But as for the three of you – yes, I'll allow that, provided you take one of the Guards with you.”
They thanked him, and he was just turning to go and make the arrangements when Ambar spoke.
“Excuse me,” he said, timidly, “but do you think as you could let Askil be the guard what comes with us?”
Aldegard laughed. “The Noble Son Ambar shall have his wish granted,” he said. “Actually, it's a good choice: Askil showed good judgement when he let you into the Tower instead of kicking you down the stairs for being an insolent little so-and-so!”
A little walk
A few minutes later Tannder showed Askil into the room.
“Good morning, Noble Lords!” said the Guard. “And as for you, Ambar, please accept my congratulations on becoming a Noble Son, and I wish you every possible happiness in your new Noble Family.”
Ambar seemed lost for words, merely mumbling something inaudible, blushing and nodding. So Niil answered for him.
“Honourable Guard, my brother and I thank you for your good wishes, and may the Powers of the R'hinz fulfil your every desire. And now please can we drop the High Speech? We'd like you to take us into town. Julien's keen to visit Aleth.”
“That's why I'm here – I've been taken off the duty roster. So, where would you like to go, Your Honour?” he asked Julien.
“Somewhere I could get another bowl of sweetsnow would be nice.”
“And we could have another look at Palace Square, too,” suggested Niil. “Maybe this time you can try walking across it.”
“Yes!” agreed Ambar, enthusiastically. “And we could go to the Central Market, too – there's heaps of stuff comes in there from all over the R'hinz. But I don't reckon we'll have time to see everything – it'll take us long enough just to get to town.”
“Maybe not,” said Niil. “That's one of the benefits of being a guard, isn't it, Askil?”
“True enough, Noble Lord: the First House's guards get to use Smooth Runners, and I'm fairly sure the First Lord won't mind us borrowing one. Actually he's already said that we can.”
From a distance the Smooth Runner didn't look very big. Julien was intrigued: he'd been thinking that it might be some sort of flying carpet, or perhaps some sort of exotic motorbike, but he discovered that it was actually an animal. It looked more or less like a giant caterpillar with a leathery black hide, and the idea was to sit astride it and to hang on to the waist of the person in front of you.. The first passenger, in this case Askil, had a sort of bridle affair to keep him safely in the saddle. As they got closer Julien saw that the animal was a good three metres long, which meant that there was enough room for all of them.
Once they were safely aboard the guard leaned forward and whispered something or other, and the creature rose up on its many legs and started running along one of the paths that led through the park, and it was moving at a speed that an earthly caterpillar couldn’t even attain if it had been fitted with a jet-pack. Julien clung on to Askil's waist as hard as he could, and Askil laughed, enjoying the reaction of the two newbies.
Ambar, whom Niil had considerately placed in front of him, started out by gripping Julien's body with an quite painful embrace, but soon he started to relax and enjoy the ride, whooping with excitement when the creature made a sharp turn that forced them to lean over, or when it slid down an unexpected slope so fast that for a moment it felt as if they had actually left the ground and were floating, free from the pull of gravity.
But all good things must come to an end, and eventually they reached the start of the city proper. They dismounted, and the Smooth Runner simply started grazing on the grass at the edge of the park.
They were at the end of the Great Promenade, the same street where Ambar had had his unfortunate encounter with the Warrior of Yrcadia. But now it was broad daylight and there was not even the least hint of danger: now there were children everywhere, along with innocent passers-by and street vendors. They headed straight for a seller of sweetsnow, where Ambar bought each of them a triple portion, happily telling the vendor: “It's on the Ksantiri account, Honourable!”
Soon they reached Palace Square, where the Emperor's mysterious dwelling was allegedly concealed. There weren't many people about: it was already very hot, and most people had been driven to find the shade of the trees in the avenues or the cool interior of the shops. The surface of the multicoloured pavement shone as if it had just been polished, and as you looked further it seemed to become a huge mirror reflecting a sky whose blueness seemed almost white in the heat shimmer. And, so far away that he wondered if they were even still in Aleth, Julien could see tiny buildings that indicated the far side of this gigantic open space.
“So do you still fancy trying it?” asked Niil.
“Can I come too?” asked Ambar.
“You'll have to,” said Niil. “I can't leave you behind – you can't even wipe your own nose without my help!”
Ambar made a grotesque face at him and then turned to Askil.
“Are you coming too, Askil?” he asked.
“No, Noble Son, I'll just stay here and have a good laugh at you!”
Ambar and Niil each took one of Julien's hands and they stepped onto the first stone. Outside the ground was so hot that you could feel it through the soles of your sandals, but here it was strangely cool, and the stone reflected their image against a background of blue sky.
The next stone had a slightly different amber colour, and as they stepped onto it it made a noise, a faint crystalline sound that hung in the air for a few moments.
Ambar had a brief moment of uncertainty, but when he looked back he could see Askil still standing where they had left him, a smile on his face that would no doubt change to out-and-out laughter when they found themselves unintentionally going back the way they had come.
As they stepped onto the next stone they were greeted by a chorus of birdsong – it was like being caught in the centre of a whirlwind of chirping sparrows. Again, the sound faded after a few seconds. This time they all looked back, realising that they had probably gone as far as they could before the peculiar nature of he place kicked in and turned them round. Askil was still there, and he gave them an ironic wave of the hand.
The next stone was of a deep, lapis lazuli blue. This one made no sound at all, but the air seemed to quiver ahead of them the way it does above an overheated road, and you couldn't see anything but a blur beyond it. They looked back, but this time instead of Askil they saw only more heat-haze air.
“That's it,” said Niil. “It's starting. I think the next step we take will see us outside again.”
“Let's find out,” said Julien, and they took another step forwards, still following their original direction...
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