It was dark, and it was cold; too. Fortunately the material from which his lakh was made was proof against cold weather. All the same, it wasn't exactly what he would have chosen for a walk along a particularly blowy stretch of the Normandy coast; it left his lower legs bare, for a start, and it wasn't much good at preventing draughts from blowing up under the hem, either. But none of that prevented Julien from actually shouting for joy when he recognised the salt tang in the air and the prickly grass of the dunes. They were no more than a hundred metres from the door of his parents' holiday home, and even if visibility wasn't too good, the thin crescent moon peeped out from behind the clouds for long enough to enable him to get his bearings.
“Xarax, we made it!” he said. “We're back at my home!”
Xarax was sure you would succeed.
“Come on, let's go home. It's just over there.”
Jacques Berthier came to answer the door. He looked a mess: although he was wearing blue pyjamas it was clear that it was a long time since he had slept properly. Nonetheless, although he had clearly been living a nightmare for the past five days he didn't hesitate for an instant, but swept Julien up in his arms and almost crushed him against his chest, which would have done Xarax no good at all if he hadn't had a good strong bone structure.
“My kitten!” cried Mr Berthier.
It was some years since he had last called Julien that, but the use of that nickname, coupled with the relief of finding himself safe at home again after the horrors of the Outside finally broke Julien's reserves and he started to cry.
“Duckling!” cried his mother's voice.
Normally he hated it when she called him that, and he was constantly terrified that she'd do it in front of his friends. But right now the only thing that mattered to him was hearing her voice again, which more than anything else confirmed that his nightmare was over.
But then his mother stepped back in alarm.
“What's that?!” she cried, pointing at Xarax.
“Um... it's a haptir,” Julien told her. “Don't worry, he won't hurt you. He's not dangerous.”
That was an absolute whopper of a lie, of course, but he didn't think they'd yet reached the point where he'd have to start going into details about what had happened to him. In any case Xarax quickly realised the effect he was having and jumped down from Julien's shoulder, scuttling away to hide under a piece of furniture as Ugo, huge, shaggy and black, came bounding into the room to be reunited with his young master, knocking over in his haste two chairs in the kitchen and the hat-stand in the hall.
Some five minutes of complete chaos later the family found itself sitting around the kitchen table, with a steaming cup of chocolate in front of Julien. He knew what was coming: it was Question Time.
“Julien,” his father started, “we're obviously very happy to have you back, but we really need to know where you've been – especially since we had to call the police. They're bound to want an explanation.”
“It can wait until tomorrow if you're feeling too tired now,” offered his mother.
“And... well,” his father went on, “the psychiatrist did warn us that there might be some things that you don't want to talk to us about... If you like we can fix an appointment for you with her just as soon as you feel up to it.”
“Look,” he said, “I don't need a head-doctor, thank you. Yes, I know I look strange and that I'm wearing weird clothes, but I haven't gone bananas, and I wasn't kidnapped by a pervert, either. Although I think you might have trouble believing what actually happened to me...”
He called in Tünnkeh, “Xarax! Could you come here, please?”
Once the haptir was once again comfortably ensconced on Julien's shoulder despite the obvious revulsion of Julien's mother, Julien took a deep breath.
“Right,” he said. “You see this lizard on my shoulder? Well, it's not a lizard. He's a haptir, and he comes from another world.”
His parents both stared at him in dismay.
“Don't look at me like that!” said Julien. “Just listen, and afterwards I'll be able to prove I'm telling the truth...”
He spent the next hour and a bit describing his adventures. He told them about the world of Nüngen and about Aleth and its towers. He described the horror of his crash into the lake. He tried to describe the ghorr. He found that he didn't really have a wide enough vocabulary to explain the surreal beauty of the Imperial Palace. His narrative took in Niil, Ambar and Izkya, and Xarax, too, and his voice trembled a little as he described how Aïn had almost certainly died to save his life. And when his story was finally over he looked up and met the worried gaze of his parents. Obviously, he realised, they couldn't accept that this fairy-story could possibly be true. Yes, they knew that something had happened to their son, but that was a very long way from admitting that he had travelled across the universe, and was – just to put the icing on this insane cake – the Lord and Master of a huge Empire. He supposed that such a thing was way beyond their imagination.
Julien felt exhausted. He couldn't raise the energy to go on trying to convince them. He decided that if his parents refused to believe him and instead came to the conclusion that he was mad, well, that was just too bad.
At that point Xarax spread his wings, flew once around the kitchen and then landed on a visibly alarmed Mr Berthier's shoulder.
Xarax show - hold mother hand, said Xarax in extremely basic and ungrammatical French. Obviously he'd never heard the language before this evening, but he'd managed to glean those few words from inside Julien's head. Mr Berthier did as he was told and took hold of his wife's hand, because the voice inside his head clearly wasn't to be argued with, and once the parents were connected to each other Xarax was able to share his story with both of them.
He didn't actually speak: instead he just shared his memories with them. They saw Julien standing, scared, small and powerless under the vast dome of the Oceanic Rotunda in the Palace, with one assassin already lying dead on the floor. He looked weak and helpless, the light glinting in his hair somehow emphasising how pale he was. They felt, as if they were actually experiencing it themselves, Xarax's surprise and fierce joy when he recognised the friend he'd never expected to see again standing there in the guise of a child. They shared with him his takeover of their son's mind and the activation of the knowledge, hidden away from his own memory, of how to draw energy from the Palace's bountiful supply. And they felt the same exhilaration when, speaking the Words of Power, Julien unleashed a devastating surge of fire which destroyed in an instant those who had thought that killing him and his companions would be a simple matter.
Then the scene changed, and for a brief but terrible moment they were immersed in the chaotic horror of the Outside. They watched as Julien struggled to hang on to his sanity and fought to find some point of reference and balance in a reality from which logic was entirely absent. They felt how the haptir tried patiently to bathe him in the sweetness and depth of the bond that linked them together, and they recognised in the haptir's feelings something of the love that they themselves felt for their son, understanding that he, like them, would gladly have given his life to save him.
Immediately, without even needing to discuss it, they reached their conclusion. How could it have been otherwise? Yes, there were certainly things about the story that they couldn't understand, but it was abundantly clear that their son's life had changed irrevocably. Their duty was to support him unreservedly, and if Julien had to face danger, they would face it with him. Nor would they make the situation more difficult for him by asking him questions that he couldn't answer.
Julien didn't know exactly what Xarax had done to his parents, but it was quite obvious that something had changed. No explanation was necessary: he just knew in that instant that they would help him however they could. For a few seconds time almost seemed to stand still – and then the moment passed and life began again. It was two o'clock in the morning, and Isabelle Berthier was a woman of solid common sense.
“We're not going to be able to do anything right now,” she said, stifling a yawn. “Let's just go to bed. I think I'm going to sleep a lot better than I have recently, anyway.”
“Er, Mum,” said Julien, “do you think that Ugo could sleep in my room tonight – please?”
She might well have been a woman of solid common sense, but she also had some very firm views about a number of things, such as the fact that flowers shouldn't be allowed into a sick-room, and a dog sleeping in a bedroom was extremely unhygienic. It's hard to go against your own nature, and like a lot of mothers faced with silly requests from their children she answered almost without thinking.
“Certainly not!” she said. “You know how unhealthy that is! Ugo can sleep in his basket in the kitchen as usual.”
“I know that's where he usually sleeps, but I really think he needs to sleep with me tonight.”
Julien sighed. He was tired, and he was having to struggle to keep his tone respectful.
“Look, Mum,” he said, “it's late. I thought I'd already explained that Ugo isn't really a dog.”
“Well, what on Earth is he, then? May I remind you that I actually bought him for you myself when you were still just a baby?”
“I know you did, but all the same I'm virtually certain that Ugo is a Guide as well as a dog. Actually his name is Yol – Yol the Intrepid, in fact.”
But Isabelle Berthier didn't get a chance to continue: Ugo parked himself right in front of her and started barking loudly, as if to confirm what Julien had said about him.
“Darling, I think the dog has something to say,” commented Mr Berthier.
Xarax had already dropped to the floor and was approaching Ugo, who suddenly fell silent and looked at the haptir nervously. Then Xarax touched the dog's front paw, and they remained in silent communication for what seemed an age but was in reality probably no more than a couple of minutes. Finally Xarax went back to Julien's shoulder and the boy started to translate for him.
“Yol Ladilak Wondelil yin ek Brath, who is also called Yol the Intrepid,” he began, “would like to thank those who have welcomed and sheltered him during the years when he was unable to explain who he was. He has been treated, fed and loved as one of the family, and he will be grateful for as long as he lives. He says that he doesn't mind sleeping in the kitchen as usual if that's what Mum wants, but that he'd also like a chance to talk to his friend Julien, who is also Yulmir, Emperor of the R'hinz ka aun lee Nügen, Lord of the Nine Worlds and Sole Guardian of the Powers and Gifts. He says that he has been waiting for this moment for many years, even though he never dared to hope that I... Julien... would ever come back. He says he'll do his best to avoid leaving hairs everywhere and he promises not to jump on the bed. He also says that I should remind you that you disposed of the few fleas that were bothering him yesterday.”
Isabelle Berthier was staring at both her son and his dog with a comical expression of disbelief, but at least her husband managed not to laugh. Instead he spoke to Julien.
“Of course we could never have guessed,” he said. “But this is his home and he can do what he wants, so if you'd prefer him to stay with you I don't see why he shouldn't. And I hope that one day he'll be able to tell us his whole story.”
“Thank you,” said Julien. “I'm sure he'll be happy to do that.”
“And... can Xarax understand what I'm saying?”
“Yes, he sort of listens inside my head. He understands everything that I do.”
“Then,” said Mr Berthier, looking into the haptir's disturbing red eyes, “I'd like to thank him. Xarax, I owe you the life of my only child. There is no way I can ever repay that debt.”
“He says,” translated Julien, “that there is no debt. Thanks to you and Mum his friend Yulmir found a new body, and he, Xarax, has now found a new reason to live. He says that your honour is now his. Your friends are now his friends, and your enemies had better start running now.”
“Thank you, Xarax. Actually we don't have any enemies... well, apart from anyone who tries to hurt Julien. But we appreciate the offer.”
“He says that's what he does. And he'd like to talk to Yol about where we go from here. He says he'll teach me everything he can, but that there are some things that only Yol can show me. But first I need to rest. He wishes you a good night with sweet dreams, and as for us... I think bed would be a really good idea.”
When Julien got to his bedroom he felt unsettled. He looked at his bed – a narrow, single bed, clearly designed for sleeping and nothing else – and it reminded him sharply of what he had lost. He hadn't cried when he had been separated from his parents, but the thought that he might never see Niil and Ambar again was intolerable. Especially Ambar: never before had he felt someone's absence so keenly. Ugo could tell that he was unhappy without understanding why, and he gave a little whine of sympathy.
As he sat at the breakfast table the following morning, idly dipping his bread into his bowl of milk coffee, Julien still wasn't sure of how he felt. Obviously he was happy to be safely back at home, but he couldn't deny that he would have willingly gone back to Nüngen in a flash, and not just to see his friends again, either.
“Doesn't your, er, lizard, eat?” asked his mother.
“Mum, his name is Xarax. And he's not a lizard, he's a haptir. More important, he's my friend – I wouldn't have made it back here without him.”
“Sorry, I didn't intend to be rude. Still, isn't he hungry?”
“He doesn't eat very much, and in any case he needs special food.” Julien had wisely omitted to explain Xarax's eating habits when telling his story the previous evening.
“And will you be able to find what he needs here?”
“Definitely. You don't need to worry about it.”
“And does he always sit on your shoulder like that? I mean, he looks nice, if a bit colourful. But it might not be a good idea to go out for a walk with him sitting there.”
“That's not going to be a problem, because he's quite capable of going for a walk on his own, and he knows how to make sure that nobody sees him, too.”
“But if you go out without him, won't he get bored?”
Julien sighed and started to butter another piece of bread.
“I really don't need to go out at the moment, and in any case he can always talk to Ugo. They must have a lot of catching up to do. You haven't forgotten that Ugo is a Guide, I hope?”
“To be honest, I'm not completely sure that I understand that. I hope he won't be offended if I still feed him dog biscuits.”
“I don't think so. He's still a dog too. But I'll ask him if you like.”
Jacques Berthier burst out laughing, spluttering because he had a mouthful of coffee at the time.
“This is surreal!” he exclaimed. “Next you'll be telling me that we should ask the goldfish if he'd like a little Pernod in his water!”
Sprawled on the carpet with a multicoloured haptir and a black as the gates of hell dog, Julien, under the resigned gaze of his parents, organised a group telepathy session. Actually it wasn't really a group session: instead Xarax had to act as intermediary between Ugo, who was really Yol Ladilak Wondelil yin ek Brath, and Julien Berthier, who was also Yulmir, Emperor of the R'hinz ka aun lee Nügen, Lord of the Nine Worlds and Sole Guardian of the Powers and Gifts. If Julien and Ugo had been able to communicate directly with each other things would have been a lot easier and a very great deal faster, but Yol/Ugo was trapped in the body of a dog and no longer had the power of direct communication with a human. Consequently Xarax had to act as his translator, and what Yol had to say was by no means straightforward.
When the Emperor disappeared, he began, all the Guides dropped everything to search for him. It took some time before we realised that he was nowhere in the Nine Worlds. The Emperor's Mirrors decided to keep it secret, at least until they had some definite information about what had happened, but it wasn't easy. Rumours soon started. Some people said that the Powers of the R'hinz were angry, that times had to change and that the old order was about to fall. They said that the Nine Worlds had to go through different ages, exactly as the worlds go through different seasons, and that the Age of the Emperor was at an end. Some went further and suggested that before long the Masters were going to lose their gifts, and that after that there would be no more Health Masters and no more Guides. These rumours spread into almost every tavern in every world, although nobody seemed to know how or where the rumours had started.
Gradually, though, people realised that nothing in their daily lives had changed, that there were still Health Masters to help if you fell ill and Guides if you needed to travel, and so the rumours began to die away.
Nonetheless, the Emperor's Mirrors and the Guild Masters knew that the situation was very serious. If the Emperor could not be found, then what had started out as just a nasty rumour would instead become a terrible reality: the loss of the Emperor was just the first step along a road that would inevitably result in the end of the Nine Worlds. Lord Aldegard was the most worried, and he was the one who pushed us Guides to go further and further afield in our search, so that we were soon looking in the most unlikely places. It would be fair to say that we left no stone unturned on any of the Nine Worlds.
Hold on, interrupted Julien. I don't understand this. Why was it such a disaster? All right, I can understand that it was a bit annoying when the Emperor disappeared, but surely this can't have been the only time? After all, the Emperor has to die sometimes. What do you do then?
The Emperor doesn't die! Never! Well, not really, anyway. He changes his body, that's all. There are always some spare bodies kept ready for him in the Chamber of Life in the Palace. They're bodies without a mind, without thought – really they're just a shell. They look exactly like the Emperor, because they're constructed from his own flesh. It's a bit of very old science that has been preserved, and it uses techniques like the ones that the people here on Earth are just starting to try.
Oh, come on! protested Julien. By Earth standards, Nüngen is primitive – they don't even have electricity! And doing the sort of thing you're talking about must call for a massive amount of complicated equipment...
Julien, you're confusing science with technology. There is always more than one way to do something. And just because you don't see us using electrical equipment on Nüngen it doesn't mean that we don't know about it. Don't make the mistake of thinking of Nüngen society as primitive. Our civilisation – of course, it's your civilisation too – is far older than even the oldest civilisation here on Earth. And for thousands of years the Emperor Yulmir has endured, passing from one body to another, so that he can remain the Guardian of the Powers and Gifts.
This is how it has always been, at least since, after facing disaster several times, the wise men who governed the Nine Worlds decided to put their trust in the wisest of them, and to hand him the key to their various Gifts.
Of course there has been conflict in the Nine Worlds since, from time to time, but nobody has the power to put the worlds themselves at risk. Since he took power the Emperor has ensured that nobody can use any science or technique to the detriment of others. Nobody can plunder a world for profit, and nobody can monopolise knowledge and use it as a tool of oppression.
The Emperor never interferes with the actual government of any of the Nine Worlds: he just watches over them and ensures that no vital balance is disturbed.
And then we lost the Emperor.
I think you were a victim of the same kind of trap as the one Aïn triggered. And those who designed it very nearly got what they wanted, assuming that they intended to remove the Emperor from the Nine Worlds. Killing you was obviously pointless, so instead they hurled you off into the Outside.
Finally my brother Guides came to the conclusion that you were nowhere within the Nine Worlds. But I was sure that you couldn't be dead – if you had died you would simply have moved into one of your waiting spare bodies and carried on as before. So it followed that if you weren't in the Nine Worlds and you weren't dead you had to be somewhere outside the Known Universe. So I started searching for you. And I went on searching for a very long time. I went further and deeper into the Outside than anyone had gone before, and I saw so many wonders, and so many horrors, that I had to stop several times and wipe my own memory so as not to go mad.
Finally I found something. It was just a faint vibration, like the echo of a cry, but it was enough: I knew that you had passed that way. I had a lot of trouble following the trail: I lost it several times. But eventually it led me here, to this unknown world, and here I found you. Identifying you wasn't difficult: your mind doesn't belong on this world, and it was the only thing that was familiar to me in the strange chaos of this world.
But my body had been through too much, and death was only a breath away, and at that point I did something which we are never supposed to do: instead of allowing myself to die and so to be carried away to the Blissful Fields – or maybe to the Great Formless Void - I looked for a new body.
That is where fate betrayed me – or maybe it was a punishment for not allowing death to take its course. I found myself inhabiting the body of a puppy. I suppose it is because a dog is the closest thing on this planet, physically, to our own form. And the dog was clearly very close to you. But a dog is a terribly limited form of life: it can't speak, it's dominated by its senses and by its instincts... and above all, a dog is never free. Either it has an owner, or it will be chased and locked away, and then killed.
That's almost the end of the story. Once I was close to you I found a way to establish contact by entering your dreams, and there I was able to reactivate a very small part of your memory. I knew that the one thing I had to do was to get you back to Nüngen, or to any of the other Worlds. Once you got back there I thought it would be easy for you to regain your identity – someone would surely recognise you, and even a chance meeting with a Guide would do the job, because any Guide meeting you would find you very strange and so would be sure to investigate further. Of course, if I'd been able to talk to you the way I am now, things would have been a great deal simpler.
When you jumped, for some reason your clothes stayed behind. At first I was just going to leave them and hope that the tide would carry them away, just as I was counting on it to erase the klirk. But then I realised that if they were found people would be sure that you were dead, and I really didn't want to do that to your parents. So I took them off into the dunes some distance from here and buried them before coming back home.
I didn't think I'd ever see you again. I knew you couldn't be expected to risk undertaking such a terrible journey just to rescue me, and I'm really sorry about what you had to go through to get back here. But I can't help being happy to have you back with me – and now that we've got Xarax to help us, it should be a great deal easier to get you back to the R'hinz this time.
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