It was still fairly early when Julien returned to his kang. Ambar was leafing through what looked like an atlas of Nüngen, while Niil was engrossed in a book which was definitely not the Delights.
“Isn't Tannder here?” asked Julien.
“No,” said Niil. “He's gone to the quays to look for Karik, the boy I sent to find Ambar the other evening. I promised him a reward. I wanted to go myself, but it looks as if we're not allowed outside the Tower. Perhaps not even outside the kang.”
“Security reasons, apparently.”
“I hope that doesn't mean they're going to keep us locked up?!”
“That's what I asked Tannder,” said Niil. “He didn't seem very happy. He said that it was on the orders of the First Lord, and that it applied to all three of us.”
“I see. And how does my Privy Councillor feel about that?”
“What do you think about it? You are still my Privy Councillor, I hope?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so, theoretically, but...”
“Niil, this isn't a game. If we don't do something quickly we're going to find ourselves with no freedom at all. I already started pushing back a bit with Master Subadar, and I got the impression that he didn't mind me doing it. All right, there aren't too many of us, but we can still stand up and show people that we're not prepared to be little puppets. And if that's going to work we have to start acting as if we had some real power – so I'm asking you to act like a real Councillor: what do you think about what's happening?”
“Well... I suppose I think it's really annoying to be stuck here in the Tower. On the other hand, someone is definitely trying to kill you, so maybe this wouldn't be the best time to go out for a walk. All the same, I think the First Lord ought to discuss it with you, not just order you about. Even if he is doing it for your own good, it's not... I mean, if he really believes that you're the Emperor, then he shouldn't be treating you like a little kid.”
“Exactly!” said Julien.
The chime sounded and Tannder entered the room.
“I'm glad you're here,” Julien greeted him. “Niil tells me that we're now Aldegard's prisoners.”
“I wouldn't put it quite like that,” said Tannder, uncomfortably.
“I don't care how you put it,” said Julien. “As I understand it, we're not allowed to go out – or am I wrong?”
“Well, no, My Lord.”
“Well, in my book, when you lock someone up it's called imprisonment. Isn't that true?”
“My Lord, it's just a security measure.”
“So Niil tells me. And who decided on this particular security measure?”
“First Lord Aldegard.”
“Did he ask for your opinion first?”
“I'm not on his Council any longer, remember?”
“So that's a 'no', then. And he didn't ask my opinion, either – or did he send a message that you forgot to give me?”
“No, My Lord.”
“Good. So now we know where we stand. Anyway, Niil tells me that you ran an errand for him?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Oh, stop all that 'My Lord' stuff, Tannder. And don't look at me like that, either – you know I don't blame you for this, and I'm not going to make waves with Aldegard either – at least, not yet. So just relax and tell us how your mission went.”
“Well, I found Karik, and he was visibly delighted when I told him I was there on behalf of Lord Niil. He asked about Ambar straight away, and I assured him that he was safe, obviously without telling him that he was now a Ksantiri.
“And then I asked him for his own story, and it turned out to be rather sad. His father was a saddler, and he lost his wife when Karik was about five or six. It upset him badly – the father, I mean – and he made the mistake of using tchanag to try to forget his grief. Tchanag is a sort of infusion which does bring with it a sort of blissful peace, but the problem is that it's addictive: after a while you can't stop taking it, and then it starts to alter your character. You have to be very strong-willed to defeat the addiction, and Karik's father was no superman. And the other problem is that tchanag is very expensive.
“After three years of going steadily downhill the man was forced to sell his son's services to the innkeeper – and tchanag supplier – Dehart, and eventually his debt to Dehart grew so impossible that he signed an act of abandonment. He died less than a year later. And to cut a long story short, that left his son a virtual slave. I'd prefer not to talk about exactly what happened to him, except to say that it entailed a lot more than collecting empty mugs. Niil had given me a generous sum of money which had been intended as his reward, but I decided that simply to give it to him and leave would have been a fairly terrible thing to do. So instead I sent for the innkeeper, demanded to see the act of abandonment, and bought it off him for half the sum Lord Niil had intended giving to Karik as his reward.”
He put a grease-stained document on the table.
“I brought the act back with me so that you can have the pleasure or destroying it yourself,” he went on. “Then I asked Karik if he had any other family, or maybe some close friends, that he could live with. But it turned out that he was living at the inn, and Dehart had made sure that he didn't get a chance to make any friends. And I decided that just giving him the rest of the money, even though he was now officially free, wouldn't be enough to improve his situation very much.
“I wasn't with him for very long, but it was long enough to give me the impression that he's basically a decent kid, even though he'd certainly been damaged by what he'd been through. So I took him to a bath-house, and once he'd cleaned himself up properly I gave him the abba I'd bought on the way to the bath-house and then brought him back here with me. He's now in my kang. I hope I didn't overstep the mark too much, Lord Niil – after all, that wasn't exactly what you told me to do.”
“Not at all – in fact I'd say you definitely did the right thing,” said Niil. “We'll have to try to think up a permanent solution to his problems.”
“Well, actually, I have had a thought about that,” said Tannder. “If it's all right with you, My Lord,” he went on, bowing to Julien, “I'd like to take the boy into my service.”
“Why on earth would you think I'd object to that?” asked Julien.
“Well, to start with it might annoy the First Lord.”
“So what? As you've pointed out, you're no longer in his service. Yes I can see why he might not be happy, but provided you're happy to take responsibility for Karik I should think we'll be able to convince Aldegard that his blessed security isn't going to be compromised. After all, the boy is deeply indebted to both Niil and yourself, and unless gratitude is a completely foreign concept to him I imagine that it's more than enough for us to be able to count on his loyalty.”
“Yes, and, all right, I don't know him all that well,” added Ambar. “But he's always treated me nice.”
“There you are, then,” said Julien. “If Ambar's prepared to vouch for him I'd say it's done and dusted. So, Tannder, in what capacity were you intending to use him?”
“I thought he could start out as my orderly. Later... well, it will depend what talents he has. In any case I'm intending to give him at least a basic education.”
“Well, you'd better go and get him, then,” said Julien. “It's not fair to keep him waiting any longer.”
Tannder returned a few minutes later with Karik. Of course Niil and Ambar had only seen him dirty and dressed in rags, and so they could both appreciate the change that a long bath and some clean clothes – in this case a brand new abba in apple green – could achieve. Karik's dark brown hair was a little longer than was customary, but it shone healthily and provided an interesting contrast with his dark blue-grey eyes. He was scrawny-looking – of course he had been undernourished for several years – and he looked more like twelve than his actual age of fourteen, but he was well-proportioned, and despite a yellowing bruise on his left cheek he could still have been fairly described as handsome.
“Ambar!” he exclaimed as he entered the room. And then he jerked aside, as if fearing a blow from Tannder.
Tannder pretended that he hadn't seen the flinch. “You have to call him 'Noble Son Ambar' now,” he pointed out. “He's now the brother of the Noble Lord Niil, of the Ksantiris.”
“I don't care,” said Ambar, blushing. “You can go on calling me 'Ambar' if you like.”
“If that's what you want,” said Tannder. “But outside this kang I'd prefer Karik to address you correctly.”
Niil stepped forward, picked up the act of abandonment and slowly tore it into pieces.
“That's it, Karik,” he said. “You're now free., and you can decide what you want to do with your life. Does this clear the debt between us?”
“Noble Lord,” replied Karik, “you've taken care of Ambar, like you promised. As far as I'm concerned you've never owed me nothing.”
“That's a noble thing to say,” said Niil. “Now I'd like to introduce you to our Lord and Master, the noble Lord Julien.”
Karik was unable to suppress an expression of surprise that this boy, who had no Marks and extravagantly long hair, and who was himself smiling modestly, could be introduced in such a way.
“Don't be fooled by appearances,” Niil went on. “We all owe him our respect and obedience.”
“It's nice to meet you, Karik,” said Julien. “You don't realise this, but you helped me a great deal too, even though we've never met before. Anyway, I'm glad your troubles are over. I think the honourable Tannder has a proposal for you.”
“Indeed,” said Tannder. “The Noble Lord Julien has given me permission to keep you in my service. If that's all right with you I'll teach you everything you need to know and do my best to be a good master. Or, if you prefer, I can give you a sum of money that will be enough for you to settle wherever you want. But if you decide to enter my service you'll first need to swear loyalty to my Lord, and also swear to keep secret anything that you might see or hear while you're in my service.”
“But it's you who will be my actual master?”
“And my duty would be to serve you – sort of like a valet?”
“To start with, yes. After that it'll depend on which way your talents lie.”
“Then I agree.”
“There's one more formality I'd like you to go through before we take a final decision,” said Julien. “Tannder, I want to hear Xarax's opinion. In any case they'll have to meet each other if Karik is going to be working around here.”
“Of course you're right, My Lord,” agreed Tannder.
He turned to Karik. “You're about to get to meet a haptir,” he told him.
Karik went pale and swallowed audibly.
“Don't be scared,” said Tannder. “Yes, he's a dangerous fighter, but he's also my Master's friend. He won't hurt you.”
Julien called and Xarax emerged from the bedroom where he had been waiting and hopped up onto his friend's shoulder. Karik took a step back. He'd obviously never met a haptir, but their universally accepted reputation for ferocity made them bogey-men to all kids.
Let the boy put out his hand, said Xarax. Xarax will taste him.
“Hold out your hand,” said Julien. “And don't worry – nothing bad is going to happen.”
Taking the two steps that brought him closer to the haptir was certainly an ordeal for Karik, but actually holding out his hand towards it demonstrated the trust he had in the people who were helping him. Even so, when the bright blue tongue curled around his fingers he was absolutely terrified.
You have nothing to fear from Xarax if your mind harbours no treason.
As these words sounded in his head he felt his fear melt away, to be replaced by a feeling of absolute trust. Of course, haptirs generally had no problem arousing emotions in people.
Know that Xarax will protect you to the best of his ability as long as you remain true to his friend. Know also that he will kill you if you should ever betray him. Do you understand that?
“Yes, Honourable... haptir,” said Karik.
What is your name?
“I am Karik, son of Aldrik the Saddler, from Tanners' Village, Your Honour.”
Well, Karik, son of Aldrik, from this moment you may consider yourself as protected by Xarax.
“Thank you, Your Honour.”
The contact was broken. The blue tongue disappeared back behind the pointed teeth and Xarax hopped down from Julien's shoulder and went back into the bedroom. Of course, everyone except Julien had only heard one side of the conversation, but its meaning was nonetheless plain.
“I don't think any more pledges are necessary,” said Julien. “If everyone agrees with that, maybe we could celebrate with some iced raal and perhaps a few sweets. Do you think we could do that, Tannder?”
“Of course, My Lord. I'll see to it straight away.”
“And... do you think there's any chance of finding any sweetsnow in the Tower?”
Night had just fallen. The moon was rising, huge and red as it climbed above the horizon, its light strong enough to hide all but the brightest stars. It was almost full, and the strange patterns across its face reminded Julien – not that any reminder was needed – of just how far away he was from the Earth. There were a few thin clouds drifting slowly across the sky, high up, and here and there you could see the coloured orb of light that indicated a passing flybubble. The warm evening air carried a faint perfume of vegetation mixed with traces of incense. Julian could feel himself becoming melancholy, so he made a determined effort to shrug it off.
“Niil,” he asked, “what do people do here in the evenings? Apart from re-reading the Delights, of course.”
“I'm not re-reading it, I'm just admiring the artistry of the illustrations in your copy.”
“Of course – I'm sure you never miss a chance to improve your understanding of culture. But, seriously what else do you do if you don't feel sleepy enough for bed? I don't suppose you've got a telly stashed away in here somewhere, have you?”
“No. What's one of those?”
“It's a sort of box with moving pictures. You can watch films - that's a sort of spectacle that tells a story... never mind. I'll tell you about it some other time. I don't really feel like it this evening.”
“Well, we could always play cards, although I expect I'll have to teach you how. Or we could play Territories – that's a game you lay on a special board that has divisions on it.”
“We've got something a bit like that. It's called chess. But I bet it's one of those games you can't learn in five minutes.”
“I could always sing for you, if you want,” offered Ambar. “And perhaps someone can play the yangchenn. Did you ever learn how, Niil?”
“Of course! I'll get Tannder to find us one.”
Tannder soon returned carrying something that looked a bit like a lute. It was obviously a valuable instrument: the body was inlaid with complex patterns of beautiful marquetry that reminded Julien of the patterns of his friends' Marks. Niil picked it up respectfully and examined it for a moment or two before tuning the impressive numbers of strings with the ease of long familiarity. Tannder checked that everything was well and left silently.
Niil whispered something to Ambar and then started to play a slow prelude, playing the notes of a strange scale – at least, it didn't sound anything like the music Julien had heard on Earth, although as far as he could tell, Niil was playing very well. He supposed that music was a part of a Noble Son's education here, as well as martial arts.
In the soft light of the only lamp that was still burning the sounds stretched into long swirls, modulating here and there and lulling its audience into a state of contentment. Then, in an almost imperceptible whisper, Ambar added his voice to the melody. At first his voice was supported by the yangchenn like a piece of driftwood on a wave, but gradually it began to follow its own path, launching into a series of melismata that resembled sobs, and finally emerging into the deeply moving images of a poem in which the singer is a flower that has just begun to bloom, dying gladly in the hand of a boy who has picked it for his friend.
Nobody could have listened to it unaffected: the way Ambar's pure voice gave life to the simple words of the universal theme of love, beauty and death would have brought tears from a stone. And once again Julien was overwhelmed by a revelation of absolute but unutterably fragile perfection, ephemeral and lost the moment it appeared, but which was completely embodied in the unconscious grace of the young boy.
Ambar sang for a long time, sitting on a cushion. When he stopped singing he moved over to sit on Julien's lap instead, and together they listened as Niil went on playing, improvising on a slow nocturne of a melody, letting each note expand and vanish like ripples on the surface of a lake. Ambar's skin gave off a gentle scent that reminded Julien vaguely of cedarwood, and he thought that he could easily die here, just as he was, or else live this perfect moment for all eternity. Unable to put a name to this feeling of tenderness that was overwhelming him he stayed exactly as he was, with his arms around this warm, delicate being, occasionally gently brushing the boy's incredibly soft cheek with his lips.
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org