Tannder led them down to a circular room in the basement of the tower. It looked really ancient: the walls were of huge, rough blocks of granite and the floor was paved with large, irregular, well-worn slabs of limestone. Lighting was provided by a dozen torches set into black metal brackets all round the room. In the centre of the room was a large wooden tub full of what looked like water. There were no chairs.
Three people were waiting for them. On the First Lord's right was an old man in a black robe who just had to be the Master of Traditions, and on his other side was a man in his forties who was wearing a dark red lakh. This man was looking at them keenly.
“As Your Lordship has commanded,” began the First Lord, “We are gathered here in order to accomplish the transfer of the Noble House Ksantiri's Marks to its newest member, the Noble Fourth Son Ambar. Your Lordship has expressed a wish to bear witness to this procedure, and the Noble Lord Ajmer,of the Bakhtars, my cousin and First Councillor, will also bear witness. With Your Lordship's leave, I myself will act as the third witness. And this is the Honourable Master of Traditions Hildemir, of the Hatreas, who will see that the rite is conducted in accordance with tradition.”
Julien nodded as Tannder left the room. The Master of Traditions stepped forward and spoke to Ambar.
“Ambar of the Ksantiris,” he said, “thou shalt now receive the Marks of thy Family. As the infant is submerged in its mother's womb, so shalt thou be submerged in the Primal Bath. Come hither.”
Ambar walked, slightly nervously, towards the old man, who immediately removed the boy's lakh and signalled to him that he should also remove his underwear. Then he turned towards Julien.
“None in the Nine Worlds has precedence before Yulmir, Emperor of the R'hinz and Guarantor of Ultimate Harmony,” he said. “It is therefore Your Lordship's privilege to immerse this child.”
Julien stepped forward and, following the old man's directions, picked up Ambar in his arms and carried him to the tub. There were three low steps at one side, and these enabled him to lift Ambar over the edge and into the liquid, which on closer view was a sort of pale blue colour, and had the consistency of oil.
The Master spoke again.
“Fear thee not, child,” he said. “Sink completely into the Primal Bath and remain submerged for as long as thou canst, then come and stand before me.”
Soon a dripping Ambar was standing in front of Hildemir.
“Niil, Third Son of the Ksantiris, come hither and place thy finger on thy Noble Brother's forehead.”
Nothing happened for a while, and then it became possible to see, in the flickering torchlight, a faint network of silver starting to spread out from the point that Niil was touching. Then the lines thickened and twisted, spreading across Ambar's skin to form the complex pattern of the Ksantiri Marks. After a few minutes the Master of Traditions took hold of Niil's wrist and lifted his hand away from the other boy's forehead, but the Marks went on growing and spreading until finally, a good half hour after the process had started, Ambar was fully equipped with the pattern of Marks that would remain on his body for the rest of his life.
Once again the old man spoke.
“As has been the case since time immemorial, the three witnesses must now ascertain that the Marks received are identical to the original configuration. Noble Lord Niil, I pray thee, put off thy garment.”
Niil undressed and the two brothers stood side by side, wearing nothing but the silver net of their Marks.
Hildemir studied them for a few seconds and then said, “Let it be recorded in the Ksantiri Book of Acts that Ambar, Fourth Son to Ylavan; is entitled to all the rights and privileges of his House and is bound to comply with all the duties and pledges thereof.”
The Master picked up the boys' clothing and returned it to them.
“The only garments needful to a Noble Son are his Marks. Wear them with honour, Ambar of the Ksantiris, and follow the example of thy Noble Brother Niil.”
He indicated that the ceremony was over and that they could get dressed, but first Niil took a large, soft bath towel that the old man handed him and used it to remove the last traces of the Primal Bath from his brother. Then they got dressed, and they were about to leave the room when Aldegard stopped them.
“I have informed your Noble Father of your decision to adopt Ambar,” he said to Niil. “He approved, of course. I should say that my message to him also expressed my agreement with your decision. Anyway, he has now written to me to say that he hopes to see his new son as soon as possible, and also that he was making arrangements for his education. So I think you need to get ready to go back to Dvârinn. It should be possible for a Guide to take you there in two or three days' time.”
“So that's it, is it?” said Julien. “You're just going to leave me?”
The trip back to the kang had been silent and gloomy, in complete contrast to the happy atmosphere which should have prevailed after such a significant ceremony.
“What choice have we got?” asked Niil. “My father has issued an order, and just in case you didn't notice, First Lord Aldegard was pretty keen on us going, too.”
“But why? And what's the big hurry? Surely he could have waited for a while, couldn't he?”
“I don't know, and I suspect that if I asked Lord Aldegard he wouldn't tell me.”
Julien raised his voice.
“Tannder!” he called. “Could you come here, please?”
Tannder appeared immediately.
“First, Tannder,” said Julien, “could you tell us how you manage to get here so quickly whenever we need you?”
“Oh, there's nothing strange about that. My kang is right next to yours, and there's a simple system set up that enables me to hear anything that is said in here. That's how security chiefs usually operate.”
“You mean, you're constantly spying on us?”
“Well, I wouldn't put it quite like that.”
“So how would you put it, then?”
“Well, I've been ordered by Lord Aldegard to protect you and your friends. That's why I listen in to everything that happens here, and if I need to I can also see what is going on anywhere in this kang.”
“What, anywhere? Even the toilet?”
“So I'm not entitled to any privacy at all?”
“Well, I don't really count, so your privacy isn't actually compromised.”
“That's easy for you to say!” exclaimed Julien. “You're not the one whose every word – and, apparently, every action – is being followed!”
“Your Lo... Julien, let me try to explain. You see, I've been through extensive education and training in order to prepare me for this sort of duty, and as a result I can hear whatever is said in this kang, but I forget it, completely and absolutely, immediately afterwards. But I am trained to recognise danger, which is why I came in when Xarax woke up, for example. But I can promise you that nothing I might hear and nothing I might see, no matter how private you might think it, is ever going to shock me. In fact I wouldn't even think for a moment of passing judgement on anything you might say or do. The sole reason for my vigilance is to make sure that nothing untoward ever happens to you.”
“I'm sorry, Tannder, but I really can't think of you as being like the mirror on the bathroom wall. And in any case, don't you work for the First Lord? He's the one who assigned you to protect us, after all.”
“I'm sorry, I didn't make myself clear. Yes, the First Lord asked if I could watch over his guests, and I was perfectly happy to comply. But the First Lord is certainly not my master. As I told Xarax, my allegiance is to the Emperor alone. In fact, every Master of the Silent Warriors is the same: they may hire out their services, and they may even fight for one cause or another as seems right to them at the time. But they have all pledged obedience to the Emperor – which is to say you, Your Lordship.”
“And what does that mean exactly?”
Tannder opened his mouth, but Julien held up his hand to stop him.
“And I'd be really grateful if you could tell me without using the High Speech,” he added. “And I really mean it about calling me 'Julien', at least here in the kang.”
“It means,” said Tannder, “that my life is at your service, and that I will protect you and your friends to the best of my ability. It means that you can order me to do anything that you think is necessary. And it means that I will complete any mission you may give me to the absolute limit of my ability, or I will die in the attempt.”
“That's a bit scary, Tannder. And what do I give you in exchange for all that?”
“You give me something that nobody else in the world can give: you are Yulmir, and you preserve the very existence of the R'hinz.”
Julien thought about that for a moment, but still came to the conclusion that he really didn't want someone constantly spying on him, no matter how pure Tannder's motives might be. So he decided that this might be a good way to test the authority which, according to Tannder, was now his to wield.
“If I were to give you a direct order, Tannder,” he asked, “would you obey it?”
“Then I don't want you looking into my kang.”
“But that's sure to make me less effective. I need to be able to...”
“Tannder! Was all that stuff you just told me about your allegiance to me just a bedtime story for little kids?”
“Then please listen: I want to be left alone in my kang. No ifs, no buts. Or am I really just a prisoner?”
“No, my Lord!”
“Well, at home – my real home – nobody watches over me all the time, and in fact if anyone did... well, it just wouldn't happen. All right, I suppose I can put up with you listening in if you really feel you have to, but I want your word that you're not going to try to see what's happening in here. All right?”
“Look, either you can give me your word on that right now, or I'll be left with no choice but to consider that you were lying to me, the same way that people lie to little kids if they think it's in the kid's best interest. Believe me, I've already been through that sort of thing...”
“Then... very well. I swear to Your Lordship that I will not try to see what is happening in your kang.”
“Thank you, Tannder. I trust you. However, if I were to call for help...”
“Don't worry, My Lord, I'm not stupid. If I think there's even the remotest danger I won't waste time trying to look first, I'll just come straight away.”
“Excellent – I think we can agree with that way of working, then. Thank you. But actually I called you in here to ask your advice. First, have you any idea why Niil and Ambar have to leave so quickly?”
“I suspect that the First Lord and his Councillors would like to get rid of any possible... interference, shall we say?”
“I don't understand.”
“Well, to be blunt, I think they would prefer you to be alone under their control, where you won't be distracted by anything. They want you to become the Emperor again as quickly as possible, and they don't want their plans to be constantly interrupted by – forgive me – a couple of kids getting in the way.”
“I see. So what you're saying is, I'm the Emperor, but I can't actually do anything except what they tell me to. Is that right?”
“That's a rather harsh way of putting it, but in essence that is what they would like – for the good of the Nine Worlds, you understand.”
“What do you mean, it's what they would like? Isn't that exactly what's going to happen?”
“No, Julien. You are the Emperor. I know you're not happy about it, but it does have its good points. For a start, you have the power to change certain things...”
“Well, would you prefer to keep Lord Niil and Lord Ambar with you?”
“Of course I would! Well... if that's what they want, of course.”
Niil and Ambar quickly made it very clear indeed that this was exactly what they wanted.
“So,” Tannder went on, “it seems to me that, owing to the confused state of affairs we've all just been through, His Excellency Yulmir, Emperor of the R'hinz ka aun lee Nügen has not yet had the opportunity to reward the Noble Son Niil, of the Ksantiris, for the bravery he displayed while defending his Emperor. So...”
But before Tannder could explain what he had in mind Niil stood up, placed his hand on his heart and declaimed, “My Lord! No Ksantiri would ever seek for any higher reward than that of having been able to serve his Emperor and defend the honour of his Family. I...”
“Oh, do shut up,” interrupted Julien, as gently as he could. “We all know perfectly well that you weren't looking for a reward when you did what you did. Still, actually Tannder is right: I do feel a bit guilty that I haven't really thanked you yet...”
“But I didn't do it for you! I did it because I thought they were in the Palace to attack the Emp...”
He tailed off.
“You're right: that's exactly why they were there,” said Julien. “And that's exactly what they were doing, too, even though you didn't realise at the time. And, be honest: if you'd thought it was only insignificant little Julien they were attacking, would you have just stood back and let them get on with it?”
Niil went red: he was obviously finding it hard to cope with having done something heroic.
“So,” Julien went on, “Tannder was saying something about a reward, I think?”
“Well,” said Tannder, “what I had in mind was not so much rewarding a piece of bravery as honouring a Noble Family by granting one of members the title of... what about Privy Councillor?”
“What's the benefit of that?” asked Julien.
“Niil's a Third Son, and consequently it's unlikely that he'll ever be able to do anything in life other than what his father and brothers tell him to. However, as Privy Councillor to the Emperor he could live however he wanted to. Of course he would still have a natural duty to his father and his Family, but otherwise he would serve you however you wanted him to.”
“Does that mean that he'd be able to stay with me?”
“If that is what you want, then yes.”
“Would you like that, Niil?”
“Of course I would!”
“All right,” said Julien. “So what do I have to do for that to happen?”
“Your Lordship should lay his hand on the Noble Lord Niil's head and ask if he will accept the office of Privy Councillor. I can bear witness on behalf of First Lord Aldegard, and then he will see to it that the deed is registered. After that the Administration Office will deal with everything, including making sure that the revenues that go with the post are attributed to Niil.”
Niil knelt down and Julien stood in front of him and put his hand on the kneeling boy's head.
“Niil, would you like to be my Privy Councillor?” he asked.
“Yes, please, Your Lordship!”
Neither of the boys really knew how this act would affect what happened to them in the future, but they were both very happy with the situation as it was. They looked at each other, not really knowing what to do next, and they were still doing that when Ambar yawned.
“He's right,” said Julien. “I think we should all get some sleep. I'm certainly tired. Tannder, do you actually sleep at all?”
“Yes, Your... Julien. But I'm a very light sleeper, and in any case Xarax, over there on his box, is as good a guard as there is. And... I hope I haven't overstepped the mark here, but I've taken the liberty of putting a little book beside your bed. Normally a boy's parents would give him this book when they thought he was ready for it... in any case, I hope it will help you to understand our customs a little better.”
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org