Getting to the point
The next morning Julien was visibly not in a very good mood, so much so that Ambar didn't even think about dragging him into the bathroom for some fun in the shower, and breakfast took place in what would certainly not have been called a party atmosphere.
Julien turned to Tannder, whom he had invited to share their breakfast, and asked, “So Lord Aldegard will be coming here this morning?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Do you know what he wants?”
“Not exactly. I think he'd like to start organising a training schedule for you that will help you to get to grips with the essentials of the Emperor's position. And...”
He was interrupted by the low chime that indicated that a visitor was about to enter the kang.
Lord Aldegard was alone. He greeted Julien with a slight bow as the boy got up to welcome him.
“Good morning, Aldegard,” said Julien. “Thank you for coming. But I'm sure you're a busy man – couldn't we have come to you instead?”
“Well, of course you could, My Lord, but it's probably safer if you don't move about too much while there's still a threat to your safety.”
“What, even here in the Tower? I thought...”
“Obviously, My Lord, the Tower is as safe a place as we can find for you, but even so it doesn't do any harm to take precautions.”
“I see. So, to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“I believe that there are a number of decisions to be taken, and I have come to discuss them with Your Lordship...”
“Please, Aldegard,” interrupted Julien, “don't start all that again. Forget the protocol and cut out all the titles while we're on our own.”
“Yes, My Lord. So, first I would like to congratulate Niil on his accession to your privy council. I should also remind him that this promotion also emancipates him and has the effect of making him legally an adult, with all the duties and privileges that entails. From now on he should be addressed as 'Noble Lord', rather than 'Noble Son'.”
Niil bowed with all the dignity of a new adult but sensibly kept his mouth shut.
“Second, we need to talk about the Noble Son Ambar, of the Ksantiris.”
Ambar, who was trying to act as if he was invisible, went pale: it's not usually a good thing when grown-ups start talking about you, and especially not when the grown-ups are particularly powerful.
“As a Noble Son,” Aldegard went on, “it is essential that he starts to receive an education suitable to his rank as soon as it can possibly be arranged. It would therefore be best if he were to travel immediately to Dvârinn to be placed under a tutor chosen for him by Lord Ylavan.”
Ambar realised that his worst fears had come true, and a lot faster than he had expected. He felt his whole universe shake, and he was unable to hide his dismay.
“I've arranged for a Guide to take him there tomorrow,” continued Aldegard, “and...”
“Excuse me,” interrupted Julien, “but I think we should discuss it a little first.”
“Yes, My Lord?”
Aldegard was a shrewd diplomat, but he found it hard completely to hide his irritation at this challenge to his authority. But he recognised that he had at least to listen.
“You see,” Julien explained, “I owe Ambar. I'm only sitting here eating this breakfast because of his bravery. I did my best to honour his brother by making him my councillor – although if I'm honest I'd have to admit that I'm thinking as much of myself as of him by keeping him with me. And apparently, to judge from what you told me yourself, I also honoured House Ksantiri by witnessing Ambar's Transfer of the Marks ceremony. Well, now I'd like to show my gratitude to him in a rather more personal way. With your permission, of course.”
It was obvious that Aldegard wasn't happy about this, but he could hardly refuse to listen to Julien's proposal.
“It's pretty obvious that Ambar doesn't want to go to Dvârinn,” said Julien. “At least, not like this, by being dragged away from the brother he's only just found – or even from me, his friend. Not to mention Xarax,” he added, indicating the haptir, who was apparently coiled up asleep on his box. “Xarax respects Ambar a lot, and I think Xarax knows what he's talking about.
“And finally, there's me. I need to hang onto my friends. I'm probably never going to be able to go back home, and so the least you can do is to let my friends stay here with me, unless it's absolutely essential to do otherwise. So, Aldegard, I'm asking you: can they both stay here?”
The First Lord knew when he was beaten. He didn't even try to argue.
“You're right, My Lord,” he said. “I tend to spend so long looking at the bigger picture of what is right for the Nine Worlds that I'm sometimes blind to the needs of individuals. We can appoint a tutor here for the Noble Son Ambar, or we could even designate him an Emperor's Pupil – there is precedent for that. If we did that he would be dependent on you alone, other than maintaining his family duties, of course. Just like Niil, in fact.”
Julien looked at Ambar.
“Is that all right with you, Ambar?” he asked.
Ambar just nodded – he wasn't sure that he could trust his voice.
“And with you, Niil?”
“Thank you, My Lord, for both of us,” said Niil. “I think I could get used to having him around...”
“Good,” said Julien. “Then we just need to find him a tutor. Perhaps Tannder could look into that – I'm sure you've got plenty of other stuff to worry about, Aldegard.”
“Indeed, My Lord,” said Aldegard. “But perhaps I can offer you a solution that will be helpful to everyone. The Honourable Tannder, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, is no mere butler. He's fully qualified to act as tutor to a Noble Son. If he accepts the job – and if you agree, of course – we wouldn't have to introduce an outsider to your immediate entourage. You already know that you can trust Tannder. He could be formally attached to your House as Tutor to the Emperor's Pupil.”
“What do you think, Tannder?” asked Julien.
“My Lord, it's a great honour. I'd be happy to accept.”
“Good,” said Aldegard. “Next, we need to start getting you reacquainted with your world. I've taken the liberty of arranging an interview for you this afternoon with Master Subadar. He's Grand Master of the Circle of Major Arts, and so he's by far the best qualified person to offer instruction in those subjects. I've also asked the Central College of Master Guides to select an instructor to work with you in order to discover what you can do in that field. Perhaps the Guide could come and visit you tomorrow.”
“I'd be happy to go and see Master Subadar,” replied Julien. “But if I'm going to work with a Guide, I'd prefer it to be Master Aïn.”
“Ah. That could be difficult: Master Aïn is under investigation for his part in the rather unfortunate experience you went though. He could well find himself sanctioned...”
“I've already told you I don't bear anyone any grudge about that. More important, I trust Aïn. Please tell the Circle of Guides that I'm sorry, but in spite of the great respect I have for them I'm not prepared to work with any other Guide.”
“But... My Lord!” exclaimed Aldegard. “You can't impose your will on the College of Guides like that!”
“I'm not trying to impose my will on anyone. I'm just saying that I'm happy to work with Aïn. If they don't want Aïn to work with me, that's their problem. And please be sure to tell them that I would be extremely unhappy if something that was my fault – and please emphasise that it was my fault! - resulted in some Honourable Guides, who did nothing except try to help me find a way back to my own world, getting punished for it. And the same thing goes for the humans who worked with them, too.”
“I'll pass on your comments, My Lord. We still need to talk about arranging a meeting with your Mirrors, and about moving you to some new accommodation, but there's no hurry for that. With your leave, My Lord, I will leave you now.”
“Of course, Aldegard. Like I said, I'm sure you're very busy, and I certainly don't want to hold you up...”
“All right, Tannder – how did I do?” asked Julien, once Aldegard had left.
“Rather well, I thought. You got what you wanted without annoying the First Lord too much.”
“Yes – and if I understood correctly, you're now properly a part of my House, aren't you?”
“Yes, My Lord. However, there are disadvantages to that, too: I won't be able to take part in the First Lord's Council any longer, and maybe it would have been useful if you could have kept an ear open there. I rather suspect that the First Lord saw this as a good opportunity to get rid of someone who wasn't exclusively loyal to him.”
“Well, at least you won't have to worry about divided loyalties, will you? After all, now you're completely on my side... at least, I hope so.”
“Of course, My Lord.”
“Good. And I've just thought of something else, too: if you're going to be Ambar's tutor, maybe you can teach me at the same time.”
“Well, I hadn't really expected to do that, but if you think you'll find it useful I'll be honoured to help.”
Ambar had been wandering around the kang, and suddenly he exclaimed “Oh – it's a copy of the Delights! And it's a really nice copy, and all – I've never seen one like this!”
Julien looked at Tannder, who smiled.
“It's the book I mentioned last night,”' he explained. “I brought it thinking that it might teach you something interesting about our customs. Not all our books are as boring as the Official Court Protocol Guidelines, after all. But, look, I'd better go, too. I've got stuff to do...”
Julien stared at him: something weird was obviously going on, because he'd never seen Tannder in a hurry to leave before. But he still managed to send him on his way with a smile.
“Thank you, Tannder,” he said. “I hope you'll be able to come and eat with us at midday?”
“Certainly, My Lord.”
Once Tannder had gone Niil grabbed Ambar by the hand and towed him in front of Julien.
“Look, Julien,” began Niil, “I... I just want to say... I mean, just now, with the First Lord... well, I can't really thank you for...”
“Don't worry,” said Julien. “Now everything should be fine. And, like I said to him, I was really thinking of myself. That's true, you know.”
Ambar had been too badly shaken to keep control of his emotions. He pulled free from Niil and threw himself into Julien's arms, and Julien barely managed to catch him before Ambar was clinging to him, his legs around Julien's waist and his arms around his neck. Julien could feel his eyes watering, Niil's vision was blurred and Ambar was sobbing. At first glance you wouldn't have realised how happy they were...
It took Ambar a good five minutes to get himself back under control. Julien would have been perfectly happy to go on cuddling him for a lot longer, but he didn't really have any excuse to do so, and so reluctantly he put him back down. There was a short, rather awkward, silence.
“Hey, Ambar,” said Niil, “you said you'd found a copy of the Delights. Can you go and get it? We really ought to show it to Julien.”
Ambar ran to a corner of the room and came back carrying a rectangular box decorated with an intricate floral pattern and inscribed with an inscription in gold that Julien, to his surprise, found that he could read without difficulty: whoever had taught him to understand and speak tünnkeh had done a very thorough job.
“The Precious Garland of Delights,” he said, reading the title aloud just for the pleasure of being able to do so. “That's a weird name for a book – it is a book, you said?”
“It's a very old book,” said Niil. “It's almost as old as the Great Book of Traditions.”
“Have you read it?” Julien asked him.
“Of course I have! So has Ambar. Every boy has read this book.”
“Every boy? Don't girls read it too?”
“No, they've got The Secret Garden of Enchanted Flowers.”
“Oh. And have you read that one?”
“Of course not – that one's for girls!”
Julien opened the box. Inside was a long strip of paper folded like an accordion, each fold being a single page. Each page held a beautifully-executed, full colour illustration, together with some lines of rather poetic-sounding prose. You could tell at first glance that this was a valuable copy, hand-written and illustrated by an artist of considerable talent. But what took his breath away was the nature of the illustrations. He was absolutely sure that his parents would never have given him a present like this!
The first illustration depicted a pond on which multicoloured aquatic birds were swimming. On the bank beside the pond was a little boy of maybe five or six years old, completely naked, examining his erect penis, whose foreskin he had retracted. The text accompanying this picture explained in florid prose that if 'the little boy's fountain' became hard like this, it could be used for something other than watering the flowers. And indeed, the first such alternative use was described clearly and then explained more or less stroke by stroke in the images on the next five pages. Any reader who previously knew nothing about masturbation would have had his ignorance on the subject well and truly dissipated by the time he had read that far.
This fascinating treatise then continued by describing adjoining parts of the body and the pleasures that could be obtained by manipulating them, while at the same time advising the reader to take care not to try inserting anything into his rear entrance that might be dirty or which could cause damage. Instead the author made a number of helpful suggestions about which fruits and vegetables, according to the season of the year, had a form and texture that made them rather more suitable (and less dangerous) for such activities.
The book moved on. Soon the boy was sharing his toys and his exploration with one, and then two, companions. Some of the illustrations even demonstrated what the result of a little imagination could be on a gathering of four or even five naughty boys looking for excitement.
Julien found himself blushing, but he managed to keep leafing forward to the end of the book. The boy's age and development changed slowly as the book went on, anding with a mature adolescent who was by this stage ready to share his exploration with readers of the Secret Garden. In reaching that stage the boy had been given every opportunity to become familiar with both his own developing body and an eye-watering range of activities to try with it – activities of which Julien could never have dreamed, even in his wildest fantasies.
“Are you saying that your parents would give you something like this!?” he asked Niil.
“Like this? Certainly not – this is a really special copy, far better than the one I got. I'd guess that this one comes from the Imperial library. But, yes, every boy gets a copy of this sooner or later. Don't you have anything like it where you come from?”
“Then... how do you manage?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, who teaches you how to use your sang neh?”
“Are you telling me that people don't know how it works?!”
“No! Well, yes – I mean, grown-ups – parents – know this stuff. And I suppose older kids do too, once they're about sixteen or so...”
“You mean, you don't do anything until you're sixteen!?!”
“Surely you've used it, though, haven't you?”
By now Julien's ears were bright red and he was wondering if he was going to have to come over all Imperial and order them to talk about something else.. But Niil looked so shocked that he felt that he had to answer honestly.
“Look,” he said, “at home we don't talk about this stuff. At all. Ever. And especially not with our parents, or with any other adults, either. People say it's wrong to even think about stuff like that. The priests say that it's a sin even to touch yourself there except when you need to pee, and that if you get in to bad habits, like playing with it, you'll burn in hell. I don't actually go to church because my parents don't approve of it, but almost all of my friends do.”
Both Niil and Ambar were shocked. Ambar took his unfortunate friend's hand and asked, with a mixture of compassion and disbelief, “You mean that when you done it with us, it was the first time ever?”
“No... well, yes. I'd done it on my own before, but never with someone else.”
“But that's horrible!” cried Ambar. “I could never live in a place like that!”
His expression at the thought of having to give up sex was so shocked that Julien laughed.
“I'm sure you couldn't!” he said. “You never stop thinking about it at all! I reckon you could recite the entire Delights from memory!”
“No, I couldn't! At least, not all of it... but I don't mind helping you – I'll be happy to teach you what I know!”
“I'm sure you will. In the shower, I suppose?”
“Certainly not! What sort of boy do you think I am? I'll teach you properly, in a bed.”
“Pity. I was just thinking I could do with a shower. Oh, well, I don't suppose Niil will mind rubbing my back for me.”
“Hah!” commented Ambar. “It's not just your back you want rubbing. Look at your front!”
He pointed to the front of Julien's lai, which was not hanging down in the way it was supposed to.
Julien sighed. He thought that this was an excellent garment for this semi-tropical climate, since it was so light and comfortable. But it clearly wasn't the sort of thing you should wear when reading something like the Delights, or even just when being around Ambar, who seemed to generate naughty thoughts even without trying to, because it was far too flimsy. He decided, sadly, that if he was going to go on wearing it he would have to put on some underwear, too.
“Well, I suppose you're right,” he said. “But it'll have to wait: Tannder is coming back for lunch, remember?”
“Ah, but I'm sure he gave you the Delights for you to use it,” Ambar pointed out. “And if you don't get some good ideas out of it he'll be really disappointed.”
“I don't need to read the Delights to get ideas,” said Julien. “I don't need anything at all as long as you're here. Besides, if I do get any ideas, it'll be none of Tannder's business. And, look, could you please stop sitting like that, with your legs crossed? Or if you have to, at least pull your lai down to your knees, instead of sitting there with your equipment on display.”
“What equipment? Oh, that, do you mean? Sorry – I didn't realise you could see it. Anyway, in our culture it's normal to look at people's faces...”
“Ambar,” reproved Niil, trying not to laugh too much, “stop tormenting Julien. Carry on that way and he'll start thinking that's all you ever think about...”
The door chime announced the arrival of their meal and put an end to their jokes. Two rather soldierly-looking butlers set the table while the boys went and washed their hands, and Tannder, with his usual impeccable timing, appeared the moment they were ready to sit down.
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