Shortly before midday the fog dissipated to reveal a cloudless sky. The sun made the frost-covered trees sparkle, creating a world apparently made of crystal. Xarax, who until now had simply flown around Julien's head, occasionally landing on his rucksack or on Yol's back, suddenly soared away into the clear blue sky with a triumphant whistle and embarked on a series of breathtaking aerobatics. The haptir was astonishingly good at flying: in addition to a pair of wide membranous wings that allowed him to glide effortlessly and cover great distances with minimal expenditure of energy, he also possessed two short chitinous wings that could operate at tremendous speed, producing a loud and distinctive humming sound. The skilful operation of both sets of wings, together with expert use of his long tail, made him incredibly agile in the air, which in turn made him a most deadly opponent.
After Xarax had swooped over Yol's back four or five times, getting close enough to ruffle his fur, the dog/Guide abandoned his dignity completely and began to play too, nudging Julien into joining in with a game of tag that ended with a final free-for-all that left them all feeling happy and relaxed, finally free from the tension that had come, even though they had not been directly aware of it, from being in the presence of a Neh-kyong. Julien sat cross-legged and idly scratched at the head of the dog who was drooling a little onto his trouser-leg, and then the stone on the dog's fine silver collar uttered a bizarre squeal.
“Hey, Yol, it's working!” cried Julien.
“Take your time. It'll come.”
“Ju... lee... enn.”
The voice was strange and artificial, but it was nonetheless a miracle.
“See? It's getting easier, isn't it? Try saying something else!”
“Yes. It is... not... too diff... difficult. I just... just have to think... nothing but words.”
The dog had stood up and was frantically wagging his tail.
“Julien,” he said. “That Neh-kyong... what a nice fellow!”
“I'm not sure that I'd have put it quite like that, but I know what you mean. You can't imagine how happy I am to be able to talk with you, especially after all the years we've been together.”
“Yes. You were always nice to me, even when you thought I was just an ordinary dog.”
“You were never just an ordinary dog. You were more like a brother. You still are, come to that. I find it hard to see you any other way. And I really won't mind if you go on behaving like a dog sometimes – in fact it'd be sad if we didn't go on playing with each other like we used to, and like just now, in fact. You can even lick my face if you want! But now I think we should get moving again. Do you want a ration bar? I've got loads of them, so we're certainly not going to starve.”
Xarax, who had been coiled up on the ground by his feet, now jumped up onto his shoulder.
Don't forget your hair, he said. There is a small brook just up ahead, and you absolutely have to cut it before you run into any people.
Julien realised that he couldn't put it off any longer. He knelt down beside the stream, wet his head with the ice-cold water and began to sacrifice his hair. Fortunately the poutri, the razor-comb, was an easy instrument to use, and although he hated having to do it, at least it was painless and straightforward. Less than fifteen minutes later he was able to brush his hand across a strangely soft, velvety scalp, which reminded him strongly of the first time he had stroked Ambar's head in the same way. He was suddenly filled with longing: when would he be able to hold his friend close again?
They saw the sea long before they reached the outskirts of the little harbour-town, as they reached the crest of a semi-circle of steep hills that sloped down to the water's edge, forming a good, well-sheltered bay. Only a few boats could be seen tacking towards the shelter of the harbour against a strong south-easterly breeze that whitened the tops of the waves and hinted at a storm on the way.
Julien suggested that they should stay where they were for the night, mainly because he wanted to postpone their separation, but his two companions disagreed: they wanted to make use of the hours of darkness to cross this inhabited part of the island, after which they would be able to follow the jagged coastline northwards. Xarax assured Julien that he would be able to find him, no matter where the boy went. He just asked that a window should be left ajar so that he could get inside whichever room the boy was using.
A few minutes later Julien, now alone for the first time on a world which was completely foreign to him, was making his way down the long snaking road towards the first houses of the town.
He made his way without difficulty to the harbour itself, where the water was rising as the tide came in. The first thing he needed was a place to sleep, so he had a look at the various inns that catered for passing custom and selected one that looked decent enough. The slate at the door told him that there were kangs available and stated a price. Xarax had taught him carefully what each of the local coins was called and what it was worth, and so by now he knew how to use his collection of sangs, taleks, diraks, ngul tchoungs, ngul tchenns, ser tchoungs and ser tchenns. When he entered the inn he was greeted by a woman of about thirty who had a heart-warming smile. Apparently his face still made people want to welcome him, even though he had now lost what he had considered his best feature.
“Welcome, Young Master,” she greeted him. “You look like you're not from around here, but I'm sure you'll find this house to your liking.”
There were two sailors sitting at a nearby table with drinks in their hands, and they looked at Julien with some curiosity but no sign of hostility. Julien cleared his throat, quickly ran over in his head the instructions Xarax had given him on how to be polite and courteous, and smiled at the landlady.
“A very good evening to you, Mistress,” he said. “I'm sure I'll be comfortable in your house. I'm hoping for a passage to Ksantir, and I'd like to rent a kang from you until I can find one.”
“I believe the Star of Kenndril is due to sail tomorrow,” she told him.
“'Twould be a shock ifn she daas,” commented one of the sailors. “Whaat with thaat sou-easter a-blawin'. An' Oi reckon she'll blaw for'n good three days yet, warn't yer say, Gradik?”
“Aar, 'twill at thaat. Mebbe more – culd be ten, twaalve days. 'Carse, it culd laast through to start o' greeat staarms...”
Julien, who had managed to understand enough of this to get the gist, looked profoundly dismayed, but his hostess was quick to reassure him.
“Don't listen to them, Young Master,” she said, firmly. “They're just pulling your leg. You should be ashamed, you two, for bullying a nice young man like this!”
“Yaang maan? Yaang maan?? Why, Mistress Nardik, 'e 'as no hair aan 'is chin yet, an' Oi'll wager 'e's not e'en got aany aan 'is...”
“Tenntchouk, that's enough!” she interrupted him. “Leave my guest alone!”
Julien raised a hand to calm her and offered his most charming smile.
“Don't worry about it, Honourable Mistress,” he said. “I expect it's because they're thirsty that they're talking nonsense. Please give them each a tankard on my account so that they can quench their thirst while you show me to my kang.”
“Aha!” said the sailor. “That's fair spoken, laddie! Yer faather, 'e raised yer roight praaper. Us'n be glaad to drink to yer heealth!”
The room was clean but lacked washing facilities, and apparently there was no bath in the house. The landlady told him that there was a public bathhouse at the end of the quay that would be open until late in the evening, and Julien decided to visit it before supper.
Kardenang was really only a small fishing port, though coastal trading vessels also put in there regularly. But it still had something of a night life: its quay became rather more lively in the evening and inns rather less respectable than that of Mistress Nardik offered the usual types of entertainment for sailors that can be found in similar establishments in every world. Julien managed to make his way along the quay without being propositioned by any of the young or not so young ladies of the night that he passed, though he did collect a number of inviting glances and whispered proposals from sturdy mariners in search of another form of congress. Nobody actually gave him any trouble, however, and he reached the public bathhouse unmolested.
The bathhouse was modest but scrupulously clean and it was run by a middle-aged man, plump, with greying hair and a jolly if slightly obsequious manner, who happily explained to Julien how to use the various facilities with which he was unfamiliar.
He was very attentive – in fact it would be fair to say that he was a little over-attentive, in a way that the old Julien, the innocent schoolboy from Paris, would have been ill-equipped to cope with. But he had learned a bit since his first arrival in the Nine Worlds, and so he simply smiled when the man, having helped him out of his jacket, came back to collect the rest of his clothes - “Yes, and your undergarment too, Young Master, thank you” - on the pretext of bringing him a soft bathrobe, which of course he insisted on helping his young customer to put on. There was no offer to scrub Julien's back in the shower, but as soon as he emerged from his bath the man magically appeared at his side to suggest that a massage would be an excellent way for him to ease his tired limbs. Julien declined politely, but he did allow the man to wrap him up in a large fluffy towel and to dry him gently with it. Afterwards he even stayed to accept a drink of some warm and delicious sweet beverage. And when he asked how much he owed, he was surprised by the man's answer.
“Young Master,” he said, “you have made a poor old man's day. Money would destroy the memory of the moment.”
And Julien was so affected by this pathetic declaration that he leaned in close and gave the man a kiss on the cheek.
“Bath-master,” he said, “you clearly have the soul of a poet. But you must accept this small payment for your services.”
Then he set off back towards the inn, happy to think that on this occasion he had definitely done the right thing.
The meal, which was simple but filling, consisted almost exclusively of the fruits of the sea. By now the room was full and there was a pleasant babble of conversation around him. A young boy and a little girl, both of whom closely resembled the innkeeper, were busy nipping between the tables and joking with the patrons, whom they seemed to treat almost like members of their family. In due course they reached Julien's table and began to besiege him with a barrage of innocent but indiscreet questions. And when he had finished his meal and was getting ready to go back to his kang for the night the boy, who couldn't have been more than ten, grabbed his sleeve in the way that children looking for a favour often do.
“Master,” the boy said, “do you think I could keep you company tonight? Mum said it would be all right to ask you.”
Somehow Xarax's crash course on the civilisation of Dvârinn had neglected to mention this point. He did of course know, because Niil had told him so, that the Precious Garland of Delights was a book owned by every single boy in the R'hinz from a very early age, and of course even complete illiterates could understand its illustrations. And Ambar, who was eleven, was scarcely older than the innkeeper's son. Even so...
“You don't mind, do you?” the boy went on. “Only Mum reckons that spending some time with a Young Master like you can only do me good. Mum likes you – she says that a boy as handsome as you could easily end up marrying a Noble Daughter.”
Julien trembled briefly: him, marrying someone like Izkya? He didn't think so. Still, he thought it would be rude to disappoint a woman who held him in such high esteem that she thought his nobility might rub off on her son. And at least he wasn't yet old enough for her to be trying to pair him off with her daughter! He still felt vaguely guilty, even though he wasn't sure what he had to be guilty about, but in the end he went along with it.
“All right,” he said. “I suppose you can sleep with me.”
“Thank you, Master!” said the boy. “Don't go away – I'll be right back!”
“Take your time,” said Julien. “I'm not going anywhere. But perhaps you could tell me who it is that I'm going to spend the night with.”
“Well... with me, of course!”
“No, I mean what's your name?”
“Oh! Dillik, Master!”
“All right, Dillik. Do what you need to do. I'm heading for bed.”
He'd only been in bed for about ten minutes when Dillik entered the kang wearing a beige lai and smelling nicely of soap and flowers. By now Julien had had time to think about it, and he decided that he had no right to spoil an event that the boy was clearly looking forward to, and so he held out his arms and Dillik jumped onto the bed and into his embrace.
“It's cold in here, Master,” he said. “Why don't you close the window?”
“I like fresh air. Get in here under the duvet – it's a lot warmer. And call me Anhel, not 'Master', all right?”
The boy threw off his lai, burrowed his way under the bedding and snuggled up to Julien, who was wearing only his undershorts. Dillik promptly started undoing the drawstring that kept them up. Julien might still have been a bit unsure about the morality of this, but his body had no such inhibitions and immediately started to react.
“Oh!” exclaimed the boy. “It's bigger than Yarek's! He's my cousin. He hasn't got any hair yet, either. He comes round sometimes when his father goes fishing. He's twelve cycles. So how old are you? Me, I'm nearly nine eight.”
The boy was kneeling up under the blanket, happily examining Julien's equipment in the dim light filtering into the bed from the small bedside lamp. He took hold of it and moved it about to make sure he could see it from every angle. And clearly he was one of those kids who never stop talking, although when Julien stroked his back for him he arched it like a kitten and actually remained silent for at least thirty seconds.
“Do you often sleep with the customers?” Julien asked him.
“Oh, no! One or two have asked sometimes, but Mum always says no. She doesn't want me sleeping with old men the way Yangden over at the Two Lanterns does. Dad doesn't want me doing that either. He's First Pilot on the Mar Tso. That's a trankenn, a really big one. Not as big as the First Lord's of course. It's a merchant trankenn...”
“I think your parents are right – it's not a good idea to do what Yangden does.”
“I've got friends, though! Sometimes my mum invites them to stay over and then they sleep here. She says it's not good for a boy not to have some fun now and then. And there’s Yarek, of course. His is almost as big as yours but he's got little balls. They're almost as small as mine. Feel them and you'll see what I mean.”
Julien obligingly felt the two little beans that nestled beneath the small hard penis.
“They're pretty big for a boy of your age,” he said.
“Do you really think so?”
“I'm sure. And your sang neh is really nice, too. Come closer so that I can see it better.”
To be honest, it was a fairly ordinary sang neh: it was hard and nicely-proportioned, it had a little spout of foreskin at the end, and stroking it felt nice. It wasn't particularly long or particularly thick, but Julien thought that a compliment or two could do no harm.
“Wow!” he said. “Are you sure you're only nine cycles eight?”
“It has plenty of promise. I reckon that if I come back next year you're going to show me up!”
The boy laughed and pressed Julien's hand against the wonder in question. The invitation was perfectly clear, and so Julien pulled him against his own body, following the first-class method he'd learned from Ambar, and did his very best to satisfy the younger boy's nicely-presented request.
The outcome was so overwhelming and so completely satisfying that the boy fell fast asleep almost as soon as it was over, snuggled happily against Julien. Julien, on the other hand, felt slightly dissatisfied – one might even say frustrated – and would very much liked to have been able to masturbate. But he couldn't do that without disturbing Dillik, and so instead he settled for keeping hold of the younger boy's small organ. Even though it had lost its rigidity it was still somehow comforting.
Finally he fell asleep, and it was only because of a need to get up and pee in the middle of the night that he became aware of what was around him. Dillik was still deeply asleep beside him, the bedside lamp was still lit... and there was a haptir curled up on the second pillow next to his head, observing him with its big red eyes. Julien reached out and put his hand on Xarax's head.
How long have you been here? he asked.
You looked happy, and Xarax is in no hurry. That boy is really nice, for a human.
Erm... just so you know, he was the one who asked to sleep with me. He's the owner's son.
You did the right thing by agreeing. It does you good and you would certainly have disappointed him if you had said no. And it would have looked a bit strange, too.
That's what I told myself.
Xarax has never doubted your sense of duty.
Xarax! Was that a joke?
Just because some people are too stupid to see it, it does not mean that Xarax has no sense of humour.
How is Yol getting on? I hope he's not finding it too tiring. He's not used to walking long distances.
He is well. He is tired and his feet have bled a little, but he is happy to be here. He is even happier that he can talk again. But he already misses you very much.
Take good care of him. And tell him that I miss him too.
Xarax will tell him. I hope he will not try to lick Xarax's face. By the way, you will be able to leave Sa Tengdü – not the day that is coming, but the one after. The big ship at the north quay, the Star of Kenndril, is leaving then on her way to Ksantir. That means that we will not need to hurry quite so much. Yol will be happy about that, even though he wants you to scratch him behind the ears again. He claims that Xarax does not do it properly. Of course Xarax has no ears, and so it is not possible for anyone to scratch him behind them.
I think you're just jealous!
Xarax is not jealous. He knows that you love him best.
Do you want me to scratch your belly?
Maybe another time. Xarax must leave now. He will return tomorrow night. Take care of yourself!