Ambar slept until late afternoon, and when he woke up the first thing he saw was Askil, who was smiling at him.
“So you're back in the land of the living,” Askil greeted him. “I'm really happy to see that you are undamaged, because I thought I'd lost you. It looks as if everything is fine now, although I'd feel a bit happier if that haptir wasn't wrapped around you quite so tightly.”
Ambar was feeling good, and fully refreshed from a decent sleep.
“Better not say anything bad about Xarax,” he said, smiling. “He can probably hear you. Anyway, you don't need to worry, 'cos he isn't going to do me no harm. It turns out he's a friend of Julien... which reminds me: how is Julien? Is he all right?”
“He seems to be all right, but right now he's asleep,” said Askil.
Ambar stood up.
“Where is he?” he asked. “Do you reckon they'd let me visit him?”
“Oh, I don't think that'll be a problem,” said Askil. “He's right there.” And he pointed to the bed opposite Ambar's.
Ambar went and stood next to Julien's bed. Julien was lying on his side, facing Ambar, and so the younger boy could see that his usually pale skin looked even whiter than usual, and formed a striking contrast with his dark red hair. The freckles on either side of his nose were considerably more visible than usual, and his eyelids looked almost purple. It was immediately obvious that he was completely exhausted.
“And the Health Masters have just left him like that?” asked Ambar, sounding shocked.
“They've done all they could. If you think he looks bad now, you should have seen him when he first got here. They say they can't give him anything more to build up his strength at the moment. To be honest, I'm no expert, but I do know that it takes time for stuff like they gave him to work. It's a bit like eating: you need time to digest the food after you've eaten it.”
“So he's sort of digesting his medicine?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What about Niil? Where is he?”
“The Noble Son Niil is taking part in the First Lord's Council meeting. He asked me if I could let him know when you woke up, so if you can manage without me for a bit...”
“Of course. Please go and tell him. And ask when he's coming back, and if I need to wait for him to get here before I eat something, 'cos I'm starving!”
“Ah. I think the Honourable Tannder might be able to help you out there.”
Apparently Tannder had been somewhere within earshot, because he appeared almost immediately. He was holding a tray full of delicious, nourishing food.
“Noble Son,” he said, “I thought perhaps a light snack might be in order for when you woke up. I hope you approve of the selection I have...”
“It's perfect,” interrupted Ambar. “But... maybe I ought to wait for Niil and Julien?”
“I don't think that's necessary. It's important for you to get your strength back.”
Tannder retired, offering a small bow as he went, leaving Ambar to deal with a tray full of food and a large tankard of iced raal.
A few moments later Askil came back.
“The Council is going to last a while yet,” he reported, “but your Noble Brother says he should be free soon. He begs you not to eat all the food in the Tower before he gets here, but to save a bite or two for your starving brother. So far he's only been offered water. That's traditional during Council meetings.”
“What about you, Askil? Fancy having a bite with me?”
“Better not. My captain would skin me alive if he caught me eating on duty!”
“Well, if you're not going to eat with me, can you at least tell me what happened after we disappeared in Palace Square?”
The guard's face darkened at the memory.
“When I saw you disappear I knew straight away that something was seriously wrong. For a moment or two I thought about following you, but then I decided that was a bad idea. So I did what we're supposed to do in an emergency: I ran to a particular house where the First Lord has a klirk back to the Tower. There's always a Guide on duty – they have a rota, day and night.
“I went back to the Tower to tell the First Lord what had happened. I thought he'd have me sent straight to Tandil for losing you, but instead he was good enough to let me come on the rescue mission. The Honourable Guide Aïn took us straight to the Palace, and once we got there the Palace Guards followed us without stopping to ask questions.”
“The First Lord looked at a plan on the wall and then said 'They're in the Oceanic Rotunda' and he started running, but even though we ran as fast as we could we got there too late. And I still don't understand how Lord Niil could stand up against four adversaries like that – I know a bit about the Warriors of Yrcadia, and they're not exactly pushovers. And as for what Lord Julien did... well, I'd have said that was impossible for anyone except a Master Sorcerer, and even then... I think you have a very strange friend there, Master Ambar.”
“I think Julien is even stranger than you think, Askil.”
“What's this, Ambar? I hope you're not showing disrespect to the Terrible Lord Julien!”
Julien's voice sounded better than it had the last time Ambar had heard it. He still seemed to be some way below his best, but he did appear to be on the mend. Ambar, who had thought his friend to be deeply asleep, hurried to his bedside.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Fine. Well, I still feel a bit weak... and I'm starving.”
“I can help you there – I've got everything you need. Come with me. There's loads, 'cos Askil won't eat with me.”
“No, and now I ought to go and tell them that Lord Julien is awake,” said the guard.
He left, and Julien pulled himself out of bed. His legs felt wobbly and he needed to lean on Ambar.
“I need a pee,” he said. “Will you help me?”
After what had gone on that morning this was really a rhetorical question, but Ambar did seem to hesitate.
“What's up?” asked Julien. “All right, I can probably pee on my own, but I'd prefer not to fall over in the toilet. And whatever you might think, I'm still the same Julien. I don't think my penis has turned into a snake since this morning.”
And it hadn't, but even so Ambar refrained from any naughtiness. He helped Julien to pee and then led him to the table, where he started to shovel food into his mouth as if his life depended on it.
After a few minutes stuffing his face he lifted his head, wiped his chin to get rid of the wonderful cold dip that accompanied the crispy fritters, frowned and pointed to the haptir, who was still sleeping peacefully, coiled around Ambar's neck.
“So Xarax chose you as his roost?” he asked.
“Xarax, Haptir from Kretzlal, honoured Ambar, Fourth Son of the Ksantiris, by asking for his protection and a little of his strength,” replied Ambar proudly. Then he gave a sheepish little grin and added, “I just about fainted when he jumped on me! You'd already gone to sleep, but I swear that if Niil hadn't been holding my hand I'd have pissed myself. Can you imagine what is was like, having this monstrous thing flying into your face?”
“Strangely, yes, I can imagine it perfectly.”
“Oh, yes, that's right, he played the same trick on you, didn't he? Actually that was even worse, 'cos we reckoned he was attacking you.”
“Actually once you get to know him a bit he seems like a decent sort. Not pretty, I'll grant you, but decent all the same. Did he speak to you?”
“No, not really, just to ask permission to settle down on me. He was very tired. He fell asleep straight away, and then I did, too. What I don't get is, why didn't he choose Niil instead? Niil could have offered better protection, don't you think?”
“I don't know. Maybe he saw in you a massive nobility of soul, an unshakable courage and boundless devotion, and so he chose to put himself under the watchful protection of this Ambar who everyone thinks is just a little boy but who is really a magnificent warrior. Or possibly he thought about it for a moment and then came to the conclusion that Niil could look after himself, but if Xarax landed on him instead Niil would promptly go to sleep and so would be of no further use to anyone. He might have decided that it was better to choose the younger brother, who is both loyal and courageous, and take from him the energy he needed, leaving Niil to protect us all from danger. What do you reckon?”
“I reckon Xarax is at least as clever as you, 'cos he must have decided what you said second. But I don't care – now that I've got him round my neck I'm starting to like him, even if he is really dangerous.”
“Yes, well... perhaps you could tell me what you mean by that? I feel a lot better now, but he and I didn't really get a chance to get acquainted with each other earlier.”
“Well, he's a haptir. They live on Kretzlal, and you've already seen how fast they can move. Plus, they're poisonous. If you ever got bitten by one you'd fall down dead before you'd taken three steps. Some people say you only have to touch one to get poisoned.”
That is completely untrue. Xarax does not need something like that to defend himself.
Ambar went pale when he heard the voice in his head, but then he recovered.
“He's awake!” he said. “He just spoke to me!”
“I can see that. His eyes are open and he's looking at me.”
Tannder, who always seemed to be in earshot, appeared and began to approach them slowly. And now he didn't look like a servant any longer: if the boys had had Niil's ability to recognise things they would have known immediately that the way he carried himself proved him to be a practitioner of the Silent Art.
“Tannder,” said Ambar in a serious voice, “Xarax wants you to stop moving and stay where you are.”
Ambar listened for a few moments and then went on, “He asks you for the name of your Master and the nature of your all... allegiance? And he also says that if he doesn't like your answer, you will die. He recognises that he will probably die too, but he doesn't care. He's waiting for your answer.”
Tannder gave a small smile, took a deep breath and said “Habderim of Aleth was my Master. My allegiance is to the Emperor alone.”
“Xarax asks why he has never seen you before.”
“My Master died during the Great Trouble. I have seen the Emperor, twice... My Master told me about you, Xarax. He knew you well and was honoured to be able to approach you without fear. The day he decided that I would rise to the rank of Master myself he gave me a secret word, telling me that it would be the key to your benevolence, or even your friendship.”
“Xarax says that's all very well, but he's still waiting.”
“My Master's exact words were these: If you ever cross paths with Xarax the haptir, ask him to touch your hand with his tongue...”
“Xarax says your paths are definitely crossing, so do what your Master told you and let's get it over with,” said Ambar.
Tannder stepped close to Ambar and held out his left hand. Xarax opened his mouth, displaying his terrible pointed teeth in the process, and put his blue tongue on Tannder's extended fingers.
“Saptor,” said Tannder, so quietly that nobody heard it except Xarax and Ambar. Xarax, who up to that point had given every indication of being poised to fight, relaxed visibly and coiled his tongue briefly around Tannder's index finger.
Honourable Master Tannder, Xarax acknowledges you as one of his own. Xarax shares your allegiance. You share Xarax's allegiance.
Honourable Xarax, you clearly know a lot more than I do. I hope that when the time is ripe you'll share it with me, so that I can help to mend what has been broken.
The haptir released his finger, breaking the mental contact, and Ambar spoke for him once more.
“Xarax says that will come in due course,” he said. “He says he's glad you're here, and that you must go on watching over the ones that have been entrusted to you. Does that mean us?”
Tannder nodded. “Yes – you, Ambar, Niil, and... Julien.”
Julien didn't miss that slight hesitation and he turned and stared at Tannder. He was on he point of asking him a question, but then he changed his mind and spoke to Ambar instead.
“Xarax doesn't look well,” he said. “He seems to be losing his colour.”
This was true – normally Xarax looked as colourful as a parrot, but now he was just a sort of washed-out grey.
“Xarax says it's not important,” said Ambar. “He says that only his friend can feed him, but he can wait.”
Julien spoke directly to Xarax.
“Your friend, the one who can feed you – that's me, isn't it?”
“He says yes, but it can still wait.”
“Xarax,” said Julien, “I still can't really remember you, but if you're my friend I don't want to stand here and watch you wasting away. Tell me what you want to eat and I'll get it for you.”
“He says you don't realise what you're talking about and you don't understand the situation, and also that you're still too weak.”
“Xarax, please let me make my own decisions. You came when we needed you, and I know that you're the one who fixed it so that I could...do what I did. Now I want to help you, because I can see that you're not well.”
“He says all right, but you'll regret it. But he isn't strong enough to argue with a sentimental idiot like you any longer. He says watch out, he's going to jump on you.”
And without opening his wings the haptir jumped from Ambar's shoulders onto Julien's.
Xarax is glad to be with his friend again. He likes the boy, but Xarax prefers his friend.
Thanks, Xarax. Now tell me what you need and I promise you'll get it.
My friend does not remember. He has forgotten the Pact. It would not be right for Xarax to force him to comply with something he has forgotten.
Xarax, I'm really starting to like you, but you're driving me round the bend. Just tell me what you want and let's get it sorted out!
All right. If this is really what his friend wants, Xarax will do it.
It's really what I want.
It's going to hurt. It's quite painful. You will have to trust Xarax. Are you certain that you still want to do it?
I still want to do it. I'm scared, but I trust you.
First you must let Xarax help you, because you have forgotten. You must collect the Yel... the energy around you.
Julien felt something click inside his head, and suddenly he saw that the air around him was full of swirling points of light, of every colour imaginable. Then, like iron filings near a magnet, they formed beams that rushed towards his chest. He was filled with an incredible excitement: his penis stiffened beneath his lai and he felt almost on the brink of orgasm. After a few seconds his vision returned to normal, but he felt as charged up as an electric battery.
Now Xarax must eat. You must say 'Xarax, take what I offer you.'
Xarax, take what I offer you, thought Julien, obediently.
This is going to hurt. Not for very long, but it will hurt. And you must be careful. When Xarax is feeding he cannot think clearly. If you do not stop him Xarax might kill you. Take a piece of fruit in your hand.
Julien picked up something that looked like a large apple.
When the garel falls from your hand you must say 'Enough, Xarax.' You might have to say it more than once. But then Xarax will stop.
Now Xarax must eat. Are you certain that you are willing?
And as Tannder and Ambar watched in horror, Xarax sank his teeth into Julien's neck. Julien couldn't suppress a cry of pain: it felt as if several hornets had stung him at the same time, and during the brief moment it took for the haptir's saliva to neutralise its terrible poison he thought he could not withstand it and that his heart was going to stop... but then the pain subsided, first becoming less acute and then disappearing completely to be replaced with a different sensation: once he had fainted in the school's sick room, and he had felt his limbs going numb, as if they were turning into cotton wool. This was a similar sensation, only a lot more intense, and also a lot more unpleasant.
Neither Tannder nor Ambar dared to interfere. They stood and stared, both nauseated and yet fascinated, as the haptir literally gorged on Julien's blood. The boy was standing completely still, his eyes wide open, and clutching a garel fruit so tightly that it looked as if he was trying to crush it. A trickle of blood escaped the haptir's voraciousness and ran sluggishly down Julien's neck to the collar of his lai, where it began to form a slowly spreading stain.
Eventually Julien couldn't hold on to the fruit any longer, and despite his best effort to hang onto it it fell to the floor. His vision was blurred and he felt cold.
Xarax, enough, he thought.
Immediately the horrible sensation of being drained of all his strength came to a stop. Whatever he had said beforehand, Xarax had been careful not to let himself be carried away with his feasting and so had been able to obey Julien's first call for him to stop.
Xarax thanks you. It has been a very long time since he was fed. Now Xarax will dream a little. Later Xarax will tell you about the Pact.
Sleep, Xarax. I think I'll have plenty of time later to listen to your stories. Sweet dreams.
Julien had expected to emerge from this ordeal feeling exhausted, but to his surprise he found that he felt refreshed and rested. He was embarrassed to discover that he actually had both an erection and a desperate desire to do something about it – but then he reflected that this might not be the best time to ask Ambar to give him a hand...
Gradually he became aware of his surroundings once more, and he was amazed to see the horror on Ambar's face and, even more shocking, Tannder kneeling and weeping.
“What's wrong?” he asked. “I'm not dead!”
“But... the haptir – Xarax – he bit you!” said Ambar. “And then... then I think... he drank your blood!”
He sounded so shocked that he could barely string a sentence together.
“Yes, I'm pretty sure that's what happened,” said Julien. “But he had my permission to do it.”
He turned to Tannder.
“And what's the matter with you?” he asked.
“My... My Lord, I...”
“Come on, Tannder, surely you're not going to fall apart like his. Have a drink of raal and pull yourself together, and then perhaps you can tell me what the problem is.”
Tannder did as he was told, and when he had managed to get himself under control he started speaking again.
“My Lord...” he began.
“Oh, look, don't start all that again!” said Julien “Call me Julien the way everyone else does – please? Otherwise I won't realise it's me you're speaking to.”
“My... I mean, Julien... I had already started to think this, but I couldn't see how it could be true. But now I am absolutely certain. Julien, you are no ordinary boy...”
“Well, thanks for the compliment, but it's hardly something to get all worked up about,” said Julien.
“No, you don't understand,” said Tannder. “You're not what you think you are. Julien, you are Yulmir, Emperor of the R'hinz. You are my Emperor.”
“Well, I'm flattered,” said Julien, “but I'm afraid you're wrong.”
“My Lord,” said Tannder, “hardly anyone knows this, but in the whole of the R'hinz there is only one haptir that is bound to a human in this way, and that's Xarax, the Emperor's haptir.”
“What, this Xarax – the one around my neck?”
“Well, it looks as if Xarax has now got another friend apart from the Emperor, then.”
”That's just not possible. If Xarax drank your blood it can only mean that you are the Emperor.”
“Surely there's just one tiny flaw with that argument: have you forgotten that there's already an Emperor? I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be very happy if he thought I was in competition with him.”
“My Lord, there has been no Emperor for nearly thirteen cycles!”
Julien clearly heard Ambar gasp, but Tannder was still speaking.
“Nobody knows except for the Emperor's Mirrors and a handful of other trusted people,” he said. “It's the best kept secret in the universe.”
“Well, even if that is true, I can promise you there's nothing even remotely Imperial about me! My mother would fall about laughing if anyone were to suggest such a thing to her.”
“My Lord,” said Tannder, “There is only one person in the entire universe whose blood Xarax would drink, and that person is the Emperor of the R'hinz. You can ask him yourself when he wakes up. Everyone thought you had gone for good, but Xarax always claimed that you were still alive, just a very long way away.”
This time Julien couldn't think of a good answer, and so a heavy silence fell. Eventually it was Tannder himself who broke it.
“My Lord...” he said.
“May I go to tell First Lord Aldegard?”
“Do whatever you want, Tannder. You don't have to ask for my permission. Trust me when I tell you that I don't feel any more like an emperor now than I did last week, and I'll be very surprised if the First Lord doesn't agree with me.”
“Well, since I have your leave, I'll go and tell him what I have seen.”
And Tannder left the room, leaving Julien and Ambar looking at each other awkwardly.
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org