The Three Arrows in Ksantir wasn't much like Mistress Nardik's comfortable establishment. It was bigger and a lot more crowded, and as such it offered Julien some precious anonymity. He'd have been happier in a way to move into the same tavern as Tenntchouk and Gradik, but he felt that he couldn't remain open to their well-meaning curiosity any longer. So he stayed with them long enough to share in the promised round of drinks and then said that he had to go and meet a friend of his father's, leaving them to enjoy a traditional drinking session without him.
When Xarax came to visit him that evening they decided that the best plan of action would be for Julien to try to gain an interview with the Noble Lord Nekal, second son of Lord Ylavan and thus Niil's older brother. Xarax, who was expert at listening in to conversations without being seen, had already ascertained that Lord Ylavan was still at sea in his trankenn. He hadn't heard any mention of Niil, and obviously he hadn't been able actually to ask: even if you weren't a haptir, that sort of question might well attract unwelcome attention.
So next morning Julien dressed himself in nice new clothes and presented himself at the gate of the First House of the Ksantiris. He knew it wouldn't be easy: bureaucracy is a plague that afflicts every world, and here in Ksantir were some of the most virulent bureaucrats imaginable. When, several hours later, he finally reached the presence of a tall, thin man who actually asked the nature of his visit rather than simply shunting him off to yet another office, he was very close to reacting violently, even though he knew that that would certainly spell the end of his mission.
“So,” the tall man said, looking down his nose at him, “you say that you have a message for the Noble Son Niil, but you are unable to supply me with any proof of that assertion. You have already been told that the Noble Son is presently on the First Trankenn. So now you feel that you have to meet the Noble Lord Nekal, but clearly it would be out of the question for me to facilitate such an interview without some evidence of your bona fides...”
“Your Honour,” cut in Julien, “do you know about the Great Forest on Tandil?”
“Obviously, but I fail to see...”
“Well, I can promise you that if you continue to obstruct me you'll get a chance to find out for yourself whether it's as dangerous as everyone says.”
“What? How dare you threaten me!”
“Your Honour, I'm not threatening you. And nor am I trying to offend you. I'm just telling you what will happen if the Noble Lord Niil were to find out that you have hindered me in my mission.”
“Look, either you can arrange that interview for me now, or I'll have to go through another channel. That is sure to cost me some precious time, and obviously the Noble Lord Niil will want to know why. And obviously I can't lie to a Noble Lord.”
“Excellent. So, about that interview?”
“A guard will come for you as soon as the Noble Lord Nekal is ready to see you.”
“Thank you, Your Honour. I'm sure the Noble Lord Niil will know how to reward your zeal.”
Despite this he still had to wait for more than two hours on a far from comfortable bench before a guard finally came to take him to the Noble Lord Nekal, who turned out not to look very much like his younger brother. He looked about twenty-five, and his powerful body was already showing signs of thickening around the middle. He was sitting behind a desk whose magnificence was obviously intended to demonstrate how important he was, and Julien disliked him on sight.
“So, my boy,” said Nekal, “they tell me you've been demanding to see me?”
“Noble Lord, I certainly didn't demand anything. It's just that I have a message to deliver to the Noble Lord Niil of the Ksantiris.”
“You mean the Noble Son, I think.”
“No, My Lord. I'm sure you're aware that your Noble Brother has been emancipated, so my message is for the Noble Lord Niil.”
Nekal stared at him suspiciously.
“So what is this message – if such a major state secret can be revealed to someone like me?”
“It simply says 'Julien is in Ksantir'.”
“Is that it?”
“That's all there is, My Lord.”
“So how do you propose that I should send him your precious message?”
“I'm sure a Guide could do it.”
“Oh, a Guide, no less!”
“The message is really important, My Lord.”
“Here I decide what is important! If my half-brother wants messages sent to him by private post he can arrange it himself. After all, he's a man now, isn't he? Isn't that what you said? So who sent this vital message anyway?”
Julien took a deep breath. “It's from the Emperor, My Lord,” he said.
Nekal stood up so quickly that he knocked his chair over, came around his desk, strode up to where Julien was standing and slapped his face.
“How dare you?” he shouted. “The Emperor doesn't need anyone to carry his messages for him. I've no idea what you're trying to do, or indeed what that little bast... my brother is trying to do, but he shouldn't expect to be able to treat me like an idiot. So I'll ask you one more time: who are you and who sent you?”
Julien's cheek was burning and he was having trouble staying on his feet, but he managed to say, “The Emperor sent me and I'm someone the Noble Lord Niil trusts.”
“Well, I don't trust you.”
“My Lord, if you contact your Noble Father I'm sure he can tell you more.”
“So you refuse to answer?”
Julien really had no choice: clearly revealing his identity to this terminally stupid and probably highly jealous animal would have been the height of folly. Not that he'd be believed if he told the truth anyway...
“I'm sorry, My Lord,” he said, “but that's the only answer I can give you.”
“Well, maybe you'll change your mind about that tomorrow. In the meantime I'll be delighted to offer you my hospitality for the night.”
He rang a bell and a guard appeared straight away. Nekal waved a hand at Julien.
“Take that to a cell,” he ordered.
Julien was horrified. He would never have believed that such a stupid, thuggish person could wield authority in the house of one of the Emperor's Mirrors. And the prospect of seeing the inside of a Dvârian prison didn't make him feel any better. The guard shoved him along an apparently endless set of corridors and, no doubt inspired by the attitude of his master towards the prisoner, every time they came to a junction he indicated the correct way to go with a slap to the back or side of the head as appropriate. He seemed to enjoy doing that, and Julien thought that the only reason he didn't use his fist instead of the flat of his hand was because he didn't want to end up having to carry an unconscious prisoner.
Soon they had left the administrative part of the palace behind and the marble corridors had given way to plain, sandy-coloured stone. In this area there were no people scurrying about, no seekers after small favours, and no more clerks who carefully avoided looking at the prisoner as they passed. The large windows of the more populated part of the building had given way to small, barred apertures high in the walls that let in only a little of the late afternoon light.
As they approached a staircase that led down into the bowels of the earth Julien tried to brace himself against the blow he was sure was coming. His head was already spinning, and he felt sure that he'd be in serious trouble if he actually fell over: the guard would be sure to give him a nasty kicking. But instead of a blow there came only a sort of strangled cough, followed by the sickening thud of a pair of knees coming into violent contact with the stone floor. He turned around just in time to see his tormentor fall flat on his face. Xarax was clinging to his back, his jaws still locked on the man's neck. No explanation was needed, but Xarax still jumped onto his friend's shoulder so that he could talk to him.
Xarax asks you to forgive him, but he could not act sooner. Here his friend needs only to push this thug down the stairs. It will prevent the body being discovered too quickly.
Xarax has certainly chosen the right moment, but it still took a lot of effort to drag the heavy corpse to the top of the stairs. By the time he'd managed to push the guy down the stairs Julien was exhausted, and of course it didn't happen the way it always seems to in films: the body got stuck only a few steps down. Julien had to go down and start it falling again several times before he reached the first turn of the staircase, when the body was finally out of sight of anyone passing through the corridor that ran past the top of the stairs. By this stage he knew that Xarax had done more than simply knocking him out: when someone doesn't breathe and keeps his eyes open all the time even while he's being pushed down a flight of stairs you can be pretty sure he's not going to wake up again. Julien supposed that it was a little extreme, but all the same he found it impossible to conjure up even a hint of compassion for the unpleasant troll.
Of course he still had to get out of this hornets' nest, and that looked as if it might be less than straightforward. But he had the perfect scout in Xarax, and as no alarm had yet been raised they were unlikely to run into patrols of guards or locked doors. However, Julien's left cheek had started to swell and bruise, and it looked suspicious because the bruise was hand-shaped. All he could do was to scurry along as close to the wall as he could. He supposed that many of those he passed must have felt sorry for this poor boy whose toothache was so bad that he had to keep a hand pressed to his face all the time.
He also discovered that Xarax had some hitherto unrevealed talents: the sneaky creature had concealed from him his wonderful gift for mimicry. He realised this when the haptir, about to explore a side corridor, was suddenly confronted with three people emerging from around a corner. Julien was sure that they'd notice Xarax, but to his surprise the haptir seemed literally to melt into the stone paving stones, only to reappear once the danger had passed. He began to understand better why people were so terrified of haptirs: not only were they highly intelligent, poisonous and magnificent flyers, but they also had the ability to become all but invisible.
Julien was hugely relieved when he finally got back outside into the street and was able to walk back to his inn. The adventure had left him feeling drained, and when Xarax came to join him in his kang he was almost ready to throw in the towel.
Did you know that that cretin was in charge while his father is away? he asked.
Xarax was unacquainted with this particular Ksantiri. But Xarax would agree that he is a cretin. Xarax witnessed the way he treated you.
Julien didn't bother asking how Xarax could have seen the interview – by now he realised that Xarax could pass unnoticed almost anywhere.
Xarax would have killed him, but that would have caused complications with his family. However, Xarax had not foreseen that he would throw you into prison. Though Xarax thinks that you did not negotiate very well.
I'm sure you're right. Although it's not easy, negotiating with that sort of caveman..
Xarax is acquainted with some perfectly respectable troglodytes.
So, what do we do now? Do you think you can get to the First Lord's trankenn?
Xarax doesn't think so. He cannot fly indefinitely, and he does not know precisely where the trankenn is to be found.
Well, I don't think I can stay here. Once they discover that I killed a guard and ran they're sure to start a manhunt for me. Perhaps I can hide in the woods with Yol.
Or perhaps you could try to reach the First Trankenn.
How? I don't have a boat, and even if I did I'm nothing like good enough at navigation.
But you have got gold. You have more than enough to hire a boat. In fact you have enough to buy a boat. And Xarax can navigate, if not on his own.
Well, I certainly couldn't do it – even if I had a small boat I'm pretty sure my skills at nav... hold on – maybe I can find a couple of sailors I can trust.
And even if you can't trust them they can't blab while you are at sea, and with Xarax close at hand they won't have any opportunity to betray you.
Xarax, I know you're only trying to keep me safe, but sometimes your way of thinking can be a bit scary!
Perhaps, but if Xarax did not think like that, by now you would be providing entertainment for the local convicts.
You're right, of course, and I'm truly grateful. But I think the sailors I'm talking about are completely trustworthy.
Xarax is ready to believe that. But there is no harm in taking precautions. Now, if that is the course of action you intend to take it would be best to do so at once, before things become more difficult.
The Golden Isles inn was distinctly shabby, but then it was catering for a clientèle of none-too-rich sailors who preferred to spend their meagre earnings having fun, rather than on unnecessary luxury. When Julien found them they were just getting ready to start on a fresh round of carousing, their earlier celebrations having been interrupted by the need to sleep. Neither of them smelled particularly fresh – in fact they seemed to be surrounded by a miasma of alcohol, vomit and sundry other unpleasant aromas. However, it was early enough in the evening that they were still perfectly lucid and able to recognise a friend when they saw one.
“Hello, laddie! How're things?” asked Tenntchouk.
“Are ye blind draank?” demanded Gradik. “Look at 'is face! Looks like as someone 'as tried to knock 'is 'ead clean aff his shouldern!”
“Huh? Why, yer roight!! Tell, us laddie – who done this? Us'n 'll go laarn 'im nat to treat our'n mate like thaat!”
“Thanks. But that's not why I'm here.”
“Calm down. I came to ask you for a favour.”
“Whaatever ye waant, laddie!”
“Wait until you hear it before you answer, because I'm talking about a real favour. And it's likely to be dangerous.”
Tenntchouk stopped his friend before he could launch into another heroic speech.
“We're list'ning, laddie,” he said.
“I need two experienced sailors for an expedition. I can't give you all the details now, but basically we need to buy, or hire if we can't manage to buy one, a small boat to go in search of the First Trankenn. I swear there's a good reason for it – actually I've got a message for Lord Niil of the Ksantiris. And it's very important.”
“Impartant, ye say? Waal, thaat surely isn't the easy waay. If'n Oi accept that ye aaren't pallin' our leg, whoi don't ye go an' aask at the Palace? 'Tis said they 'ave Guides there, an' everything.”
“Do you know who's in charge there at the moment?”
“Thaat'll be t'other baast... Oi mean, the Noble Lord Nekal. Whoi?”
“Because I went to ask him to send my message.”
“An' 'e didn't waant ter?”
“He's the one who did this to my face. And he wanted me thrown in jail, too, except I... I managed to escape.”
“Aah. An' the Palace folks, they're aafter ye?”
“Not yet. But they will be soon enough.”
“An' ye reckon as yer mates'll risk their lives wi' ye over thaat?”
Julien looked at his hands, which had just about found room on the tabe amid the dirty dishes. He supposed that when you put it like that...
“Waal, ye were roight, laddie! Us, t'other baastard, we caan't stand 'im. And you – we knaaw as ye're a noice young feller. An' naaw ye're taalking o' buying a boat... does thaat mean as ye've got dough as well as enemies? 'Caas us, we're naat rich, ye understaand. We're naat poor, but we're surely naat rich.”
“I've got money. You'll have to tell me if it's enough. But perhaps we could go somewhere else. Do you have a kang?”
The two sailors looked sheepishly at each other. This place was clearly a brothel, and their 'kang' would only be one of those rooms hired by the hour.
“Waal,” said Tenntchouk, “'tis naat really a place to take a Young Maarster... Oi mean, 'tis naat yet cleaned an' such...”
“All right, then here is what I suggest: you pay what you owe here and we'll go and find a decent place to stay, somewhere where we can all have a bath. Then I'll introduce you to a friend of mine, and you can tell me if I have enough money for what I want to do. Does that sound all right?”
“Aye, thaat it is.”
“Right, then take my purse. Don't waste time haggling with the innkeeper, just pay your bill.”
“Are ye sure? Us'n can pay our'n...”
“Don't waste time. From now on I'm paying the bills.”
In the end they decided to visit a bath-house before looking for a kang, because Tenntchouk had quietly pointed out that no respectable inn would let them in until they had cleaned up a bit. So when Julien came to book his kang he was accompanied by two scrubbed, shaved, flower-scented and well-dressed companions. He booked one big enough for four at a price that scandalised the sailors, but which Julien paid without hesitation. He hadn't exactly had to work for the money, after all.
“'Twasn't needful to book the most pricey room in the town!” protested Tenntchouk, once the transaction was over.
“Don't worry, you won't be here long enough for the luxury to soften you up. We need to get under way as soon as we can. I just thought a bit of comfort would help us to recover, me from my encounter with the Noble Lord and you from the effects of whatever the hell it was you were drinking last night. Anyway, we'd better get down to business. Gradik, if you'd like to empty out my bag you'll find a flat package at the bottom of it.”
Gradik did as he was told, carefully laying the contents of the bag out in a neat pile on the bed.
“Aha! Whaat moight this be, then?” he asked.
“It's a knife, Gradik, but please don't take it out of its sheath.”
Teentchouk went and examined it.
“Waal, laddie, ye're full o' surprises, roight enough.”
“I hope it's the sort of surprise you approve of.”
“Waal... thaat'd depend. This knoife... culd it be whaat Oi think it is?”
“I don't know what you think it is, Tenntchouk.”
“Oi'm thinking thaat 'tis a nagtri. Oi've naat seen one afore, but Oi 'ave heard o' them. Yer don't see many knoives wi' a tak's 'orn sheath.”
“You're right,” said Julien. “It is a nagtri. Is that a problem?”
“Thaat'd depend on 'ow ye came by it. They do say as them thaat pinch 'em don't live very long. Ye'd nat 'ave... borrowed it, loike, fram the Palace?”
“No,” he said. “It's mine, and I can prove it.”
He drew the nagtri from its sheath, not missing the way in which both sailors instinctively recoiled: the mere sight of that blade, which seemed to drink in the soft light from the lamps in the kang, seemed to evoke danger. Julien grabbed a large fruit from the bowl in the centre of the table, set it on the palm of his left hand and cut it in two with a single blow from the knife. The thick leathery skin of the fruit parted as though it had been cut previously and the two halves fell to the floor, revealing that the blade of the knife was now pressing against Julien's palm, but without causing the tiniest scratch.
“I would advise you not to try doing that,” said Julien.
“How did I come by this nagtri? It was a present.”
“So now maybe we should find out if I'm really rich, or just pretending to be.”
It turned out that he was really rich. Not rich enough to buy a trankenn, perhaps, not even a small one like the Star of Kenndril, but a small fishing or leisure boat was easily within his price range.
“I assume that you two will know where to look for a suitable boat,” he said. “Buy it in your own name, and don't cut corners – get something decent and seaworthy. I'm sure you can find a discreet seller, even if we have to pay a little more for his discretion.
“And now, before we go to sleep, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. Xarax!”
Julien was sure that the haptir was hiding somewhere in the room, and Xarax didn't disappoint him. He appeared from under the bed the sailors were sitting on, provoking a strangled cry from both of them.
“Don't be afraid,” he said. “It's a haptir, obviously, but he's also my friend. His name is Xarax and he protects me. It's thanks to him that I was able to escape from the Palace.”
“Powers o' the R'hinz!” exclaimed Gradik. “Oi'll wager 'e left a few dead bodies be'ind!”
“Well, there was one guard who won't have to worry about getting a toothache again. He was hitting me, and Xarax didn't like that. So if you're still willing to help me you'll have to get used to him. If you think it's too dangerous it would be best if we say goodbye now. I'll understand, especially if you have wives waiting for you, or children...”
“Waal... no, Oi don't 'ave no woife. Nor does 'e, neether. An' us, we'd loike to sail wi' ye a little, thaat's fer sure, but...”
“Well, look, even if you decide not to come with me you can still help me to find a boat, can't you? I'll pay you a good commission and we can part with no hard feelings. And I promise that Xarax will do you no harm as long as you can keep your mouths shut.”
“Listen, laddie, if'n we're to sail wi' ye, we have to be honest wi' ye. Ye see, Gradik 'n me, we been together since we was young 'uns, if ye see what Oi mean...”
“Yes. You mean you've always been friends and you're used to sailing together, right?”
“Waal, thaat... an' more. See, we prefer to tell ye, 'caas there are those as don't loike thaat. An' us, we're staartin' to think as ye mix wi' some pretty impaartant folks...”
Julien had no idea what Tenntchouk was talking about – in fact he couldn't even start to see what he was driving at.
“Tenntchouk, I don't understand. What are you saying?”
“Waal, Gradik an' me... we don't 'ave no woife 'caas we don't need one. We 'ave each other.”
A glimmer of light dawned.
“You mean that you love each other – like you would if you were married?” asked Julien. “That you enjoy the Delights together – that you like men, in fact?”
“Waal, yes, thaat's it.”
“But that inn you were staying in... I thought it was... well, you know.”
“Aar, it is whaat ye think it is. But it's naat women ye foind there.”
“I see. But why did you think that was likely to bother me?”
“Waal... when ye was on the Star, there was plenty as sent ye the signal, but ye never said anythin', an' ye never thanked 'em neether. So we thought as you were a noice laddie, very polite an' aall, but that ye didn't care for the loikes o' us.”
Julien thought that he must have skipped a chapter or two in the Delights, because all this stuff about signals was news to him.
“I'm sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings,” he said. “I'm afraid I didn't know. See, where I come from, if you're not interested you just pretend not to have seen anything. But I can promise you that you being together doesn't bother me in the least.”
Neither of them was in the first flush of youth: they'd been well tanned by sun and salt over the course of many voyages, and what little hair they had left was turning grey, but the smile that lit up their wrinkled faces transformed them for an instant into the two mischievous boys they had once been.
“Waal, if'n thaat's 'ow ye feel, then Gradik 'n me, we'll go wi' ye, laddie. An' if'n ye say that yon 'aptir won't haarm us, we'll believe ye.”
“An' if'n ye tell us as 'ow 'e saved yore skin,” added Gradik, “us, we'd loike to thank 'im for it. But there's a thing ye need to knaw: us, we're sailors, an' we'll make yer boat go better than anyone else culd, but... we're not offizers. 'Bout naavigation, us.. waal, we don't know too much.”
“No problem. Xarax will be able to take care of the navigation for us.”