The boys were only about twenty metres away from the exit to the hall when the four Warriors of Yrcadia suddenly materialised no more than a dozen paces away from them. At first Niil thought they were Palace Guards – and about time too, he thought – but a second look was all it took to tell him he was wrong. These men weren't wearing the Emperor's colours of purple and gold, and nor did their faces show the white Marks of the Palace: instead they had no Marks at all and they were wearing dark blue abbas. They were carrying weapons and were moving into position ready to attack, too – clearly they had to be assassins. And assassins inside the Palace could only have one target in mind: they had to be after the Emperor himself.
Niil was the son of a First Lord, and so his tutor was actually a Silent Warrior, and the Honourable Kanekto had done his best to teach his charge, not only the arts and science that a Noble Son had to know, but all the subtleties of hand-to-hand combat, as well as the ability to handle a wide range of weapons. Niil might have had no actual experience of genuine combat, but he was a long way from being a helpless little boy: he had received extensive training, and he was absolutely loyal to his Emperor.
It's never a good idea to underestimate your opponent, and in the case of the nearest Warrior it was absolutely fatal. He walked forward confidently towards the smallest of the boys, intending to decapitate him with a reverse stroke from his short sabre, and he walked straight into a vicious kick to the temple that sent him straight to the special hell reserved for murderers. His sabre acquired a new owner as Niil snatched it up, and the remaining assassins instantly reappraised their targets and came together to deal with them.
Niil knew perfectly well that he had no chance here, but he was a Ksantiri to the end: his ancestors had proved their courage through the ages, every one of them prepared to give his life for his Emperor whenever he might be called upon to do so, and Niil was determined to follow their example and defend his Emperor by keeping the assassins occupied, hopefully until the Palace Guard finally put in an appearance. He knew perfectly well that his chances of survival were zero but, determined to do his duty to the end and to keep the honour of his House intact, he stepped forward to meet his attackers.
At that moment there came a noise that suggested that a huge hornet was flying into the hall, and indeed a multicoloured... something... flew between the two groups, buzzing about as if it couldn't decide which group to attack first and then, so quickly that the eye could scarcely follow, it flew straight at Julien and slowed at the very last minute before colliding with him. And as it slowed everyone could see what it was.
“It's a haptir!” yelled Ambar in a terrified voice.
Niil's heart sank: as if they didn't have more than enough trouble on their hands in the shape of the three human assailants, now they also had to count this terrible creature among their enemies. It wasn't its size that made the haptir dangerous – actually it was fairly small – but a combination of its other attributes. It was fearsomely intelligent, at least as intelligent as most humans; it had a perception of time that allowed it to think and act at a phenomenal speed; it had a complete mastery of flight; and, worst of all, it was extremely venomous. Its reflexes were far faster than those of humans, and only a top-flight Warrior would have any chance at all of fending it off, and then only briefly. And because there is hardly any contact between humans and haptirs, no warrior would have any chance to train himself in order to fight them.
The haptir, all its claws extended, twisted its body in front of Julien's terrified face, even as Julien tried vainly to protect himself with his hands. The little monster's wings vibrated like those of a dragonfly as it opened its mouth to display two ranks of sharp teeth and a bright blue tongue.
Julien flailed his arms about, trying to beat the creature away from him, but he knew nothing at all about martial arts, and so his efforts were feeble and uncoordinated. The haptir observed him briefly and then effortlessly slipped past his pathetic attempts to defend himself, gripped his right shoulder firmly and wrapped his long tail around the boy's neck.
And so, finally, Xarax, the haptir from Kretzlal, was reunited with his long-lost friend.
For Julien time literally stood still: the people around him were as immobile as statues, and a voice was speaking clearly in his head.
Friend, it said. Xarax has found you again after all this time! Have you forgotten Xarax? And why do you allow these killers to threaten your companions?
The confusion in Julien's mind vanished and was replaced by a tremendous sense of deja-vu, as if he had met the creature addressing him in an incredibly distant past. He had never seen it before, but he nonetheless remembered it, and his memory was steadily growing stronger.
You have changed, but you are still the same, said the voice in his head. Xarax knew you as soon as he saw you. You have forgotten who you are. Xarax does not understand everything that has happened, but he will help you to remember. Trust Xarax.
A sort of slow-motion lightning flash burst into Julien's head, a light far too bright to look at, but inside his head – and then, a fraction of a second later, he could see the people around him once more and he knew what he had to do. More importantly, he also knew how to do it.
Ambar saw Julien, with the haptir still wrapped around his neck, lift his arm, and heard him cry out in a weird throaty voice, “Han Khalimai! To Ganniwey!”
An orange jet of flame shot from his hand and instantly vaporised the three assassins who were advancing on Niil before going on to blast a hole big enough for a horse in the wall of the hall.
In the silence that followed, broken only by the fall of a few stones from the shattered wall, Ambar and Niil remained motionless, hardly daring to twitch. Then they heard Julien speak again, but this time in his normal voice, even though he sounded exhausted.
“That's enough, Xarax,” he said. “Give me a moment.”
And they saw their friend gently stroke the creature that was strangling him.
Nothing moved – in fact it was so quiet that they noticed when the birds on the far side of the damaged wall started singing again. That was enough to get Niil moving. He went first to Ambar, checked to make sure that he was unhurt, and then took his hand and led him over to Julien, who looked as white as a sheet. He had his eyes closed and seemed completely unaware of what was happening around him, although he was still stroking the haptir.
“Julien!” said Niil. “Are you all right?”
Julien didn't answer, but the haptir turned and stared at Niil with its red eyes. It looked like a cross between a lizard and a dragonfly, and most people would have turned and fled on being stared at by something like that. But Niil was not most people. He squeezed Ambar's hand to reassure him, cleared his throat and spoke to Julien again.
“Julien?” he said again. “You're all right, are you? I mean, the haptir isn't hurting you, is it?”
This time Julien did answer him, though his voice sounded tired.
“This is Xarax” he said. “He's my friend, and he won't hurt you. Come closer.”
Julien dropped to his knees, as if speaking those few words had taken the last of his strength.
“Julien! What's happening?” asked Niil.
“It's all right. Come close and stretch a hand out to Xarax, both of you.”
They knew this was probably the most dangerous creature either of them had ever seen, apart from the ghorr, of course, but they both obediently held out their hands. Xarax made two swift movements and touched them both with his blue tongue, which enabled him to register their characteristics and classify them as two humans that he was now honour-bound to protect at any cost. And then Julien collapsed completely and, to his friends' surprise, seemed to fall straight into a deep, peaceful sleep.
The haptir uncoiled from around his neck and studied the two boys for several seconds, and then he leapt straight onto Ambar's shoulder. Ambar gave a little cry of shock as he felt the creature's claws on his shoulder and its scaly tail around his neck. But then he heard a calming voice in his head.
Xarax will not harm you, it said. Xarax needs you for a little while – Xarax's friend is too tired. Xarax also needs to sleep. Will you give Xarax a little of your strength? If not, Xarax will die and his friend will be sad.
“Of course I will! What do I have to do?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Niil. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, it's fine. Don't worry. I was just talking to Xarax.”
Niil had the sense not to ask any more questions.
You do not have to do anything, said the voice. You will feel a bit tired. But Xarax will be careful. What is your name?
“I'm Ambar, from the Fruit... I mean, Fourth Son of the Ksantiris.”
Well, then, Ambar, Fourth Son of the Ksantiris, know that Xarax, Haptir of Kretzlal, thanks you. Now he will sleep, and will trust you to protect him.
And immediately he closed his eyes and seemed to fall deeply asleep, just as Julien had done.
“He asked me to protect him!” said Ambar in amazement.
“You're a Ksantiri now, so it's your duty to protect him,” said Niil. “On the other hand, the idea of a haptir actually asking you to protect him... I mean... sorry, I didn't mean it like that!”
“No, but you're right: he should have asked you to do it. You're the proper warrior, after all. I thought them thugs was going to kill me, but you... well...”
Ambar stopped speaking and looked at the body of the man Niil had killed.
“Well, I had to,” said Niil. “Otherwise he'd have... but... well, it's the first time I've ever...”
Niil was looking at the ground, rather than at the dead man. Now that the fight was over and the adrenaline rush had passed his hands were starting to shake and he looked to be on the point of tears. He hated the idea that he had actually killed someone, even if the person he had killed was an assassin.
Ambar could see how upset he was, and so he gently touched his arm.
“You know, it was me that geezer was after, but you... All right, I know it isn't much, but I wanted to thank you, 'cos I didn't really get time to say thank you earlier. And they'd have killed Julien and all... I'm really proud of you, Niil.”
Niil's emotions were about to overwhelm him, but before that happened a dozen people came rushing into the damaged hall. Most of them were wearing the purple and gold abbas and white Marks of the Palace Guard, but Askil and the First Lord were with them. All of them had weapons unsheathed and were ready to eviscerate anyone who might be threatening the boys' lives, but the way they skidded to a halt with dumbfounded expressions on their faces at the scene before them was so funny that Ambar broke out in a fit of the giggles, and he barely managed to disguise it as a cough. And the look on the face of the nearest guard when he saw the boy wearing a haptir as a scarf was enough to set him off again.
But Lord Aldegard had rather too much self-control to gape in amazement for more than a second or two. He evaluated the situation quickly.
“It would appear that we've missed the battle,” he commented. He noticed Julien and knelt down beside him.
“Is he injured?” he asked.
“No, First Lord,” Niil told him. “He's just sleeping. And, to anticipate your next question, the haptir round Ambar's neck is a friend who asked Ambar to protect him. I think the danger is over.”
“What about this Yrcadian?” asked Aldegard. “What happened to him?”
Ambar got in before Niil could speak.
“First Lord,” he said, “it was Niil what... there was four of them and he fought them on his own, and I reckoned we was done for. But then the haptir turned up. We thought it was attacking Julien, but instead it landed on him and then... Well... Julien shot out this massive fireball and the Yrcadians got burnt to ash – that's what made the hole in the wall over there. And then Xarax – this is him,” he added, stroking the creature that was coiled around his neck, “he sort of jumped on me. I was dead scared. But he only needed me to give him some strength and then to protect him. And then you got here.”
Ambar had gabbled his story out, wanting to get it told as quickly as possible, and as soon as he had finished he gave a massive yawn, and Askil only just got there in time to catch him as he too fell asleep.
“I trust you're not going to fall asleep on us too,” Aldegard said to Niil.
“No, First Lord, I think I can make it through to my normal bedtime.”
“It would appear that you've been working hard here.”
“Not really,” said Niil, indicating the hole in the wall. “That was Julien, and he took out the other three Yrcadians, too. I really didn't do very much at all.”
“Well, perhaps we can talk about that later. Right now we need to get back to Bakhtar Tower.”
“Oh! Aren't we going to meet the Emperor?”
Niil was visibly disappointed not to get even a glimpse of the person for whom he had just risked his life.
“You'll get to see him, but not right away. He can't receive us at the moment. But I'll be surprised if he doesn't want to thank you for your devotion to him before too long.”
Niil was still too shaken up to be able to blush, but he said, “I'm not expecting the Emperor to thank me – not at all! I just hoped maybe I could get a little look at him, that's all.”
“You will get to see him. Now, I'll take Julien and then we must go. Aïn is waiting for us at one of the Palace klirks. Don't worry, Askil will look after Ambar – and may I say what an excellent choice you seem to have made in your First-Greeted, and you were absolutely right to insist on making him a Ksantiri, too.”
They left the Palace Guard to make a start at clearing up the mess, and Aldegard led them off into a maze of corridors whose hidden entrances and plain walls suggested that they were part of a secret network of short cuts known only to those who had intimate knowledge of the Palace.
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