Master Subadar, the Grand Master of the Circle of Major Arts, entertained Julien in a large, well-lit room whose walls were lined with bookcases. He himself wasn't much to look at: he wasn't particularly tall, his dark hair was starting to show signs of grey, and overall he looked like a kindly uncle getting ready to spoil a favourite nephew. He wasn't exactly in his prime, but then neither did he look particularly old, which came as a bit of a surprise to Julien, who had been expecting an octogenarian greybeard.
Don't trust your eyes, said Xarax, who was curled around Julien's neck. Master Subadar is a great deal older than he looks. The practice of the Major Arts can sometimes prolong the practitioner's life. And he's also a great deal stronger than he looks. Xarax knows him well. His loyalty to the Emperor nearly cost him his life.
“What we call the Major Arts, My Lord,”' began Subadar, “fall into three categories. There are the Outer Arts, practised by a great many people, which rely on external materials and objects. Skilled artisans use them to impart special qualities to their produce. For example, a blacksmith might be able to give his blades a sharper and stronger edge, or a sweet-maker might be able to create some surprising...”
“Yes, I think I know what you mean,” interrupted Julien, remembering his first taste of sweetsnow.
“Unfortunately,” Subadar went on, “not everyone is able to use the Major Arts. You have to have a gift for it. It's rather like having what it takes to be a great musician, or a great mathematician. Anyway, next come the Inner Arts. With those it's not just a case of reciting formulae, mixing ingredients or drawing diagrams. You need rather to understand the laws that govern the fundamental operation of the universe itself. The klirks fall into this category...”
“You mean that the Guides are Masters of the Major Arts?”
“Only the ones who are able to find new pathways, and that is a fairly small number. The rest just have the necessary Gift that allows them to use existing klirks and to wipe the memory of the path from those whom they transport.”
“So... that makes Aïn a really good Master Guide, then?”
“Some say that he's the greatest of all, now that Yol the Intrepid has gone.”
Master Subadar sighed and looked away, but not before Julien had seen the pain in his eyes.
“Did you know Yol well?” he asked.
“He was... he was my chenn-da, my other self. Forgive me, My Lord, but I'd prefer not to talk about it.”
“The third category,” continued Subadar, “is the Secret Arts. Very few people can master them, not least because first you have to be able to master yourself fully. The Secret Arts enable you – up to a certain point – to interfere directly with the thoughts of others, both human and non-human; but above all they allow you to relate to creatures who have very little connection to our own world. Some of these creatures can prove to be extremely efficient protectors. However, this is one of the reasons why only the very greatest of Masters can use the Secret Arts: not all the entities you might contact are benevolent.”
“Are you talking about... well, demons?”
“Some of the entities are certainly malevolent, it's true, and we need to be extremely careful to protect ourselves from them. Are they demons? Well, that would depend on where they come from and what they really are.
“And that brings me to a fourth category of Major Arts. This one involves practices based on pain and terror, and it is precisely those entities that you call demons who give the practitioners of this branch of the Art their power. Those found using them are outcast for ever. I need hardly add that Your Lordship pledged long ago never to use this Art.
“Now, if Your Lordship would please follow me...”
Master Subadar stood up and walked over to a corner of the room. There was a round grey metal plate set into the floor there, and Julien recognised it straight away.
“That's a klirk,” he said.
“Yes, My Lord, and it will take us to somewhere I'd like you to visit.”
“Can't you use it yourself?”
“No, My Lord. I can only use it with the help of a Guide – Aïn, usually. But we won't need him today. It's the same type of klirk as the flagstones in Palace Square, so if you would just like to step onto it...”
“I suppose we'd better hold hands, then,” said Julien.
As before there was no sense of transition. Before they could even blink they were in mid-air and completely surrounded by blue sky. It was the colour of the sky on a summer's day, but there was no sun – instead the light seemed to come from all around them. It had no visible source and they cast no shadow. Nor was there any ground, or indeed any reference point as to which way was up and which was down – and yet Julien didn't feel as if he was either floating in space or falling into an endless abyss. Master Subadar, who was still holding his hand, was smiling as if he'd just heard a good joke.
“Where are we?” asked Julien.
His voice fell flat, unpleasantly so. It was like speaking into a box lined with cotton wool.
“Ah,” said Subadar. “I was hoping that Your Lordship would recognise the Narthex. He used to come here all the time.”
“Err... that would be you, Your Lordship. You used to come here a lot.”
“Master Subadar,” said Julien, sighing, “I'm already confused enough. Please could you just say 'you' when you mean me?”
“As you wish, My Lord. Anyway, this place is unique – in fact strictly speaking it isn't a 'place' at all. We're neither in the Known Universe nor Outside. The Narthex has no actual dimensions, but it also has no limits. Nothing can reach you here, and here anything is possible.”
Suddenly walls appeared around them, and beneath their feet was a floor of alternating white and dark green tiles. High windows appeared in the walls and revealed a landscape of rolling green hills bathed in spring sunshine.
“Did you do that?” asked Julien.
“Yes, My Lord.”
“And is it real? The land outside the windows, I mean.”
“It's as real as anything else here – which is to say that it will continue to exist as long as my mind keeps it in existence.”
“Is it magic?”
“It's an example of what the Inner Arts can do – at least while you're in the Narthex. Actually it's what the Narthex is for - it is used for training purposes. That's why you created it in the first place.”
“You mean, that's why Emperor Yulmir created it. I'm not him – I'm Julien.”
“You're certainly Julien as well, but you can't change what you are. You are and will continue to be Yulmir, whether you recognise it or not.”
“It's weird... I feel...”
“It's like I've been in this room before. But that's obviously not possible.”
“I didn't explain myself very well,” said Subadar. “What you are seeing is not just a figment of my imagination. Rather, it's reality – or a different version of it, anyway.”
“You mean, it's another world?”
“Not exactly. What you can see exists for anyone who is able to perceive it, whether here in the Narthex, or in their own imagination, or even in their dreams. After all, who really knows what 'reality' actually means?”
“I'm sorry, I really don't understand that.”
“Forgive me, My Lord. I tend to forget that...”
“That I'm not Yulmir, just a stupid kid?”
“You are Yulmir, but you're wearing the body and using the intelligence of a really quite bright boy. The only thing you're lacking is Yulmir's massive stack of memories and a little training. And I'm here to help. I'll start by telling you what you told me a very, very long time ago when you brought me here for the first time. I was just a little frightened kid, younger than you appear to be now.
“'Everything in the universe is linked together', you told me. 'Any action, no matter how small, can have incalculable consequences. A Master is really just someone who knows what he is doing and doesn't get distracted.'”
The room disappeared and they found themselves back in the all-enveloping blue they had found when they first arrived.
“Now, My Lord, I'd like you to make something appear. I'd suggest something simple to start with – a ball, perhaps.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
“Just imagine it, and try to see it in your mind with as much precision as you can. Think about its weight, its size, its consistency, and try not to think about anything else while you're doing it. Once you get it clear in your mind it will appear.”
After a few seconds a small steel ball appeared in Julien's hand. It was exactly like the one he'd been carrying in his pocket all through the previous term at school.
Subadar looked delighted – obviously he hadn't expected his pupil to achieve a result as quickly as this. Xarax, on the other hand, showed no sign of emotion at all, merely remaining coiled up and apparently asleep around Julien's neck.
“All right,” said Subadar. “Let's try for something a bit more complicated. Try to think about a particular place, one you know well – your bedroom in your previous life ought to work.”
With a feeling of homesickness Julien pictured himself in his room, trying to remember the exact details – the blue bed-cover, the wallpaper with its cartoon characters, who had been with him since his earliest childhood...
“Oh, by the...!”
Subadar's strangled expression pulled Julien out of his reverie. When he opened his eyes, what he saw was something that neither he nor his instructor had expected.
“What's that?” asked Julien. “Where are we?”
“I've no idea, My Lord, but I'm glad to hear that you don't recognise it!”
“But... what is this horrible place?”
They were in a desert landscape, apparently at twilight. Around them was a circle of rocks roughly carved into twisted figures that seemed to be shrieking with hatred. In the centre of the circle was a large stone, more or less flat, that formed a table for some sort of hideous rite or feast. It was covered in deeply-carved symbols, and they could see that it was still sticky with what had to be blood.
“This horrible place, as you rightly call it, looks to me like the sacrificial altar of a coven of Dark Sorcerers,” said Subadar.
“But I've never seen this place, so how..?”
“You mean, you don't remember seeing it,” corrected Subadar.
“But you said that the Emperor never had anything to do with that type of magic!”
“I did, and I'm still convinced that it's true. But even though I've never taken part in this sort of abomination, I can still recognise what I'm looking at, simply because I've seen one of these accursed circles before. And I believe that this particular memory surfacing at this instant is no accident: perhaps a part of your memory that you can't directly access at the moment is trying to give us a warning. I think we should stop the training now and go back to the library.”
The landscape disappeared, and a klirk materialised in front of them. Subadar took Julien's hand once more.
“Ready when you are, My Lord,” he said.
“It's amazing,” commented Julien. “You can make a klirk appear just by snapping your fingers, but you can't actually use it.”
“I suppose it is amazing,” agreed Subadar, “but that's the way it is. And on the subject of klirks, your next instructor will be teaching you how to use them.”
“Yes. I asked for Aïn to take that on. I hope there aren't going to be any difficulties about that.”
“The First Lord told me you'd asked for Aïn. He also said that you don't want any action taken against any of those who took part in the disastrous attempt to get inside your mind. That was rather an unusual request.”
“I should hope so too – I wouldn't want to think that people have to go through that sort of thing every day!”
“No, I meant that it's unusual to interfere with the decisions of...”
“Yes, I know that's what you meant. But I hope they still do what I want, because otherwise I might start to get the wrong impression.”
“Well, for example, I might start thinking they were taking me for a fool.”
“My Lord! Nobody would dare to think such a thing!”
“Really? Look, Master Subadar, I'm quite happy to do whatever I can to help, and that goes for you, Lord Aldegard, and all the other people who keep telling me that the Nine Worlds need me. But it's got to be a two-way process, and if I ask for something reasonable I'll expect it to be granted. Otherwise we have a tradition, back in the world I come from: it's called 'Going on Strike', and it means that we simply stop working until we get what we want. I don't know whether there's any mention of that in the Great Book of Traditions, but I'll be happy to demonstrate how it works if that's what I have to do.”
“I don't think that will be necessary,” replied Master Subadar, with an amused glint in his eye. “Would you permit me to pass on your... what shall we say... your 'state of mind' on to anyone who might have expected you to be... well, excessively docile, perhaps?”
“I'd be delighted if you would, Master. So, shall we go?”
“Whenever you like, My Lord.”
They stepped onto the klirk and found themselves back in the library.
“You still haven't explained how come I don't need a Guide to do that,” said Julien. “Especially since it appears that nobody else can use a klirk without one.”
“I expect Master Aïn will be able to do that far better than I could,” replied Subadar. “Klirks are his province, after all.”
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