Il était un petit navire...
They left their kang before dawn – they thought it would be sensible to leave before a patrol of guards turned up at the inn to ask if anyone had seen the dangerous escaped criminal. The two sailors set off to spend Julien's money, while he himself headed off in the opposite direction, up into the hills that lay to the south of the town. Xarax had already left to look for Yol. He had suggested keeping a discreet eye on Tenntchouk and Gradik instead, but Julien had flatly refused to let him. It was the first time he had ever disagreed with the haptir, and Xarax had been quite insistent, too.
Xarax thinks this is unwise. You did not even make them swear allegiance to you!
It doesn't work like that with people like them. And in any case, I'm getting a bit tired of ordering people about. If people choose to help me it should be because they like me, or because they think I'm asking them to do what is right.
That is not the way to govern the R'hinz!
You might be right. I don't know. But it's how I deal with my friends.
What if they betray you? You gave them more gold than they could earn in a lifetime! It will be a huge temptation...
If they betray me it'll be my fault, and mine alone. It would be my fault because it would mean that my judgement is no good, and also because I'd have put them into a situation they couldn't cope with. And it'll also prove that I'm not as good a leader as people keep telling me – if I can't even lead a couple of sailors, how am I supposed to lead a whole empire?
But you must not fail! You are responsible for the R'hinz!
If you want me to do my duty you have to let me do it my own way. I am really grateful for everything you've done for me: I like you very much, and I think of you as my friend. But I can't be a puppet. If you try to force me to do it your way, you'll ruin everything.
Xarax does not seek to force you.
Then there's no problem, and we both know where we stand. When we disagree about things we can discuss them, and I'll always listen carefully to what you have to say, but in the end I'm going to have to be the one who decides what to do. I know you're a lot wiser than me, but even so it'll only work if we do it the way I just said. And I need something else from you, too.
You are the Master. You have only to command me.
Don't be like that!
I want you to promise me that you'll never try to manipulate my mind or my emotions in order to convince me of something, even if you think you're doing it for the good of the empire. I'm starting to realise what you can do if you set your mind to it – I felt you doing it to me when we were trapped in the Outside, and I saw you doing it to my parents. I have to be sure that you'll never mess with my head that way. By all means calm me down, or do whatever it takes to stop me wetting myself in fear, but don't ever mess about with my judgement or my will. Just say that you agree – I don't need pledges or oaths, because I trust your word, just as I trust our two sailor friends. Is that all right?
Xarax had then flown away, leaving Julien to his thoughts. His disagreement with the haptir left him feeling uncomfortable: all his life he had tried to avoid conflict. He wanted people to like him and he hated being at odds with anyone. But he had to admit that since this adventure had started things had been slipping away from him faster and faster. This wasn't the first time he'd been forced to confront someone who expected him to obey orders like a good little boy. Until now it had mainly been on minor issues, but he was pretty sure it wouldn't stay that way – after all, he had come barging into their universe and it was no surprise that it had shaken people up. As for Xarax, it wasn't so much the fact that he had disagreed with him over the best way to handle the sailors as the way he'd clearly not expected Julien to challenge him on the issue at all. Julien could only hope that Xarax now realised that he wouldn't meekly go along with doing whatever Xarax told him to simply because 'that's the way we've always done it'. If not he thought that things were going to get really complicated.
Following the directions Xarax had given him Julien left the road and followed a path that led through an area of thorny bushes like the ones he had encountered just after he arrived on Dvârinn. He very much hoped that he wouldn't have to leave the path and fight his way through the undergrowth.
He had his rucksack on his back and his nagtri hanging from his belt, and he was wearing his reefer jacket: the weather was still rather chilly, although the sun was warm enough, and the exertion of the climb sufficient, for him to be wearing his jacket undone. The shoes he'd obtained in Tchenn Ril seemed well suited to this sort of cross-country walking: they were soft and comfortable, but still sturdy enough to handle the terrain.
There were no insects, but that didn't really surprise him, given the temperature – he assumed that Dvârinn insects disliked the cold as much as the Earth variety did. The place wasn't devoid of life, however: he could make out some birds – or some sort of flying creature, at least – high up in the sky.
The wind began to get stronger as he climbed higher, and he speculated that this was probably why he hadn't seen any flybubbles here, unlike on Nüngen, where they seemed to be everywhere. This was a good thing, he thought: at least here he wouldn't have to keep hiding from airborne patrols.
He walked on for another half hour or so, into a landscape that was littered with huge boulders, and he was thinking about stopping for a rest when Xarax appeared.
Xarax has found Yol, he reported. He is not too far from here. But he is tired and his feet hurt. Xarax thinks that he should take him some of your combat rations. He needs water too, but he will have to wait for you for that. Xarax could carry a canteen, and even open it for him with his claws, but Yol would lose most of it because he has no bowl to hold the water.
Then I must hurry to where he is. Take him some food and tell him I'm on the way.
Xarax will guide him to the path and then come back to you.
Poor Yol was in a pathetic condition. He was doing his best to look normal, and he even started trotting when he saw Julien, but the boy could see that he was hurting and that every step was an effort. He ran to meet him and dropped to his knees in front of his life-long companion.
“Julien,” said Yol, “I didn't realise I was so old.”
The voice coming from the collar didn't sound artificial any longer. It was, although Julien couldn't have explained how, now Ugo's – and therefore also Yol's – real voice, a voice that held warmth and both the wisdom of the Guide and the affection of the dog.
“It's over now,” Julien told him. “I'm going to take care of you from now on.”
He gave him a drink and then set to work cleaning the wounds on his paws. The cuts on them demonstrated what a difficult journey it had been. Julien then rummaged in his bag and sacrificed four pairs of socks to make some double-layer bootees that he hoped would last for the remainder of Yol's journey. Then he spent a further hour picking thorns and burrs out of Yol's matted fur. Fortunately it appeared that the local ticks and other parasites didn't fancy dog, or perhaps there simply weren't any here, or it wasn't the season for them. In any event, at least that was one problem Yol had not had to endure.
It took them more than four hours to walk to a cove where a small boat could get fairly close to the shore – Julien thought that they wouldn't want to have to row very far at night. Julien left Yol there and made his way to the suburb of Ksantir where he had arranged to meet the sailors. He had forbidden Xarax from looking for them or trying to find out if they were really doing their best to fulfil their mission, and so he felt a nasty pang of disappointment when he reached the agreed rendezvous and found nobody there. Xarax tactfully refrained from commenting, instead just curling up on Julien's shoulder, warm and cosy inside the boy's jacket.
This was by no means a posh neighbourhood – the houses were small, and many of them looked run-down. It wasn't far from the part of the docks that dealt with repairs and careening, and most of the dock workers lived in this area. Julien had arranged to meet the sailors near a seedy-looking dive that catered for the poorest of the dock workers, but there was minimal lighting in the area and it was easy to stay hidden in the maze of back alleys and dark corners nearby. It would be another two hours before the moon rose, and the darkness, though helpful in keeping him hidden, felt positively oppressive to Julien – and not only was the area singularly unprepossessing, but to make matters worse there was an unpleasant reek of decaying seaweed, smoky cooking fires and the even more unhealthy stink of bodies that had been left to rot filling his nostrils and making the place seem even more repellent.
Of course it was highly unlikely that Lord Nekal's men would be looking for him in a place like this, especially at night, but even so Julien wondered if he would have been able to force himself to wait where he was if he hadn't had the comforting presence of the haptir with him. Yes, there were times when Xarax's cold-blooded killer mentality worried him, but Julien recognised that he probably wouldn't be able to survive in a hostile world like this without him.
It was cold, too, and although he had a woollen hat pulled down over his ears and his hood up Julien still regretted the loss of his hair. A number of silhouettes had passed by his hiding place, but none of them matched the two he was hoping to see. It was true that they hadn't settled on a particular time, but by now Julien was starting to worry that his partners had run into trouble – although he still didn't think for one moment that they might have decided to take his money and run. Still, making shady deals with unscrupulous people wasn't always very safe.
There's someone coming, Xarax told him. Xarax recognises his walk: it's Tenntchouk. Xarax has to admit that you were right.
Julien said nothing, just stepping out onto the path to meet the sailor, who didn't see him until he was just a few paces away.
“Laddie?” he whispered.
“Yes, Tenntchouk, it's me.”
The haptir crawled out from under Julien's jacket and flew silently away into the night.
“Well, we got a boat, me 'n' Gradik, an' we even had toime to get 'er supplies fer about a fartnoight. We're moored at yander pier an' we'm ready to go. We din't 'ave toime to seek out a roight baargain, but she's a noice boat, all t'same. You're naat poor, exactly, but you're less rich as afore. Do we sail tonoight?”
“Yes, we should. We have to pick up a friend on the coast a short distance south of here. You don't mind sailing by night, then?”
“Sailing's naat the praablem, but if'n we have to go ashore...Tonoight it'll naat be easy, loike: moon'll be still be pretty thin... 'twill be blaack as a ghorr's aarsehole.”
“Don't worry, Xarax can see easily at night. He'll guide us in.”
“Yes, waal... Oi don't want to be impolite, but yon haaptir, he makes us'n a fair bit nervous, loike.”
“I understand that, but I promise you've got no reason to be scared of him.”
They walked for a while in silence until they reached a nearly deserted wharf some distance outside the main commercial part of the port. The tide was just coming to the full, and Julien could see the silhouettes of a few masts belonging to two or three vessels moored nearby. The smell of the sea was everywhere, but here at least it was a clean, healthy smell.
From what could be seen in the poor light their boat was a kind of sloop of some twelve metres in length, and it was clearly designed for leisure use rather than trade. The well-polished cleanness of the deck and the gleaming of the metallic surfaces bore witness to that. Julien thought that if the rigging was in the same excellent condition as the deck the boat must have cost a small fortune. She was larger than anything he'd had a chance to steer previously, but he was confident that he could manage this one: he knew from his experience of his own world that pleasure boats are designed to make life as easy as possible for those who sail in them, and he was sure that this vessel would be no exception.
As he stepped on board he was greeted by Gradik, who was beaming with pride.
“Whaat d'ye think, laddie?” he asked. “Us'n have found you a good 'un, hey? An' everything's ready for inspection. You jus' 'ave to foind 'er a name.”
“Thanks, Gradik, we can deal with that later. Right now...”
“Beggin' yer paardon, laddie, but 'twould be baad luck to tak' 'er to sea afore we name 'un.”
Julien knew better than to try to oppose the beliefs of sailor-folk, so he thought for a few seconds.
“Isabelle,” he said. “We'll call her Isabelle.”
They each drank a shot of some awful rot-gut alcohol to toast the name and then smashed the bottle over the gunwale to make the naming official. And then, once the tide was at the full, they slipped the moorings and let the weak current, together with a slight breeze, take their vessel out of the harbour. Julien took the wheel while the sailors set the canvas, experiencing a surge of exhilaration as he felt the night wind filling the sails. And that was the moment Xarax chose to alight once more on his shoulder.
The cove where Yol was waiting for them was not all that far away as the crow flies, but to get there by sea involved a long haul around a cape that was surrounded by some unpleasant shoals, and so it was nearly three hours before they were able to drop anchor as close to the beach as was safe and then lower the dinghy to take them ashore. The moon had risen, but it was only a thin crescent and had barely cleared the surrounding hills, so the beach was still in near-total darkness. And of course Yol's fur was black, which didn't exactly make him stand out. All the same, Xarax was able to locate him immediately. Gradik's surprise at discovering that Julien's 'friend' had four feet was nothing compared to the shock he felt when he heard the strange creature speak.
“Aren't ye going to introdooce us to your friend?” asked the sailor, recovering a little.
Julien thought that it would be sensible not to mention Yol's name unless it was strictly necessary, so he said, “Gradik, this is Ugo. He's a friend from another world.”
Gradik nodded politely.
“Ugo, Your Honour,” he said. “Oi'm roight pleased to meet you. If'n you're a friend o' the lad... of Anhel, then ye're very welcome aboard.”
He might have been welcome, but it still took them a fair bit of effort actually to get him on board: they had to rig up a block and tackle to hoist him onto the deck, because the hull of the vessel was not designed to be accessible to dogs. Still, Ugo didn't seem to mind this somewhat humiliating means of getting on board the ship: the prospect of having a smooth deck under his feet instead of rough stones which hurt his feet with every step he took was more than enough compensation for any feeling of wounded pride.
Then it was time for them to decide which way they were going to go, and so they gathered around a chart of the archipelago. And now Julien found out about another of Xarax's useful skills: when he had 'tasted' Niil and Ambar with the tip of his blue tongue the haptir hadn't simply been adding them to a database. Something inside him was now 'tuned' to their very existence and, provided that they were in the same world that he was, Xarax was able to feel the direction of their whereabouts – just as he could also do, and had been demonstrating, with Julien and Ugo, of course. He couldn't tell how far away they were because, coming from only one direction, he was unable to triangulate, but he could offer the correct heading to take.
Julien wondered why Xarax hadn't actually told him about this ability before.
Xarax can do many things, came the reply, but you don't need to worry about them. Xarax will explain them to you if and when they are needed.
Julien would have liked to argue that particular point – it wasn't what he would have described as being open with each other. But he kept his thoughts to himself. If the haptir wanted to keep his little secrets there wasn't a lot of point in getting irritated by it.
The Isabelle was indeed equipped with a number of helpful devices to make life easier for those on board, and one of those was a sort of autopilot that kept the ship at a constant angle with the wind, allowing the helmsman to doze a little without their being any risk of the ship running into a head wind. Of course this meant that if the wind changed direction, the ship did too, but as they weren't in a race it didn't matter too much and the necessary course correction could usually be made before too long.
The ship was also carrying a comprehensive first aid kit, and with help from Xarax and some of Yol's own memories Julien was able to use it to tend to his friend's bruised and sore feet. He'd chosen to share one of the twin cabins with his friend, obviously ceding the lower bunk to Ugo, and he accepted without comment the rather strong scent of dirty, damp fur that came with him. Yol might well have been a being of refinement and breeding, but Ugo smelled very much like a wet dog. Of course Ugo was very much aware of what he smelled like, and so he'd offered to sleep in the little triangular storeroom in the prow, but now that Julien had found him again he was determined not to risk losing him – even if that meant putting up with not only the wet rug smell, but also the gusts of toxic-smelling flatulence that the poor animal emitted in his sleep. He just hoped that the gas concerned was heavier than air and so would not float up to the level of the top bunk!
Although he'd had a long day he still went up on deck to check that everything was in order, and to offer once again to take a night watch. And once again Tenntchouk turned him down.
“A noight waatch on such a foine vessel be no haardship,” he said. “'Tis raather a pleasure. Ye'd naat want to deny saach a pleasure to me an' me mate, Oi'm sure.”
Of course he didn't. Instead he went back to his cabin and got into his bunk, with Xarax beside him on the pillow. And the whisper of the water against the hull a few centimetres from his ear was enough to lull him to sleep almost at once.
The moment he opened his eyes Julien knew that this was going to be a perfect day. His cabin was on the starboard side of the boat, and the vessel, propelled by a wind from the south-south-west, was heading in a north-westerly direction, sailing fast and easily.
He was alone in the cabin. Ugo had always been able to open doors, provided that the latch was large enough to be gripped in his teeth or moved with his paw, and apparently Xarax had taken the opportunity to leave with him.
Julien dressed quickly and went up on deck. Gradik greeted him with a smile and then continued to scrub away at the already gleamingly clean deck. The boat was currently steering itself, and a quick glance at the compass was enough to show Julien that they were still following the route they had calculated the previous evening. Tenntchouk was nowhere in sight, and Julien assumed that he was asleep below following the end of his watch. Ugo had been sunbathing in a sheltered corner, and when he saw Julien he stood up and made his way unsteadily to Julien's side: he wasn't prone to sea-sickness, but he still hadn't got used to walking on a moving deck.
“Good morning, Anhel,” he said. “Xarax has already left. He thought it would be a good idea for him to scout ahead of us, and he's also going to have a try at reaching as the First Trankenn. Did you sleep well?”
Julien still found it amazing to hear his friend talking. It wasn't so much the fact that he had a voice at all as his way of using it. When he thought back to all the times back on Earth when he'd told the supposed dog to 'fetch the ball' or 'shake hands' or 'sit up and beg'... And although Yol was speaking Tünnkeh here, because any other language would sound suspicious, Julien knew that he could speak French equally well, and probably better than he could himself.
“Good morning, Ugo,” he replied. “I slept well, thank you. I always sleep well on board ships. Have you had breakfast yet? I'm starving!”
“I haven't, but if you're offering I think I'd like to start with half an elephant,” said Ugo. “And then perhaps I could do with a bath. Do you think that will be possible?”
“Well, I could just suggest that you jump overboard, but if you're going to do that we'll have to stop the ship – and that water must be freezing. But I think I noticed a sort of big skin full of seawater warming up on top of the roof, and if we give it another hour or so it should be warm enough for me to be able to give you a good wash – at least, I will if we're carrying any soap that works with seawater. And if you're really good I might be able to talk the bosun into letting me rinse you off with fresh water afterwards.”
Gradik had heard this exchange.
“Whoile we'm still in the archipelago thaat'll be foine,” he said. “We'll waater again afore we enter th'open sea. And the Honourable Ugo, he looks loike he c'ld do with a bit o' caamfort, roight? And if'n ye give me a moment Oi'll saart you out sompthing to eat. An' Tenntchouk, he'll be up again shaartly.”
“Actually, Gradik, I can cook,” said Julien. “You don't have to do it.”
“Oi don't feel as Oi 'ave to. Me, Oi loike cooking. And, beggin' yer paardon, but Oi thinks as Oi'll maanage it better'n you. So, does Master Ugo haave any special wish for his breakfaast?”
“I'm sure I'll enjoy whatever you have,” Ugo assured him. “I'll have whatever Anhel has. And... please could you just call me 'Ugo'? And could you ask Tenntchouk to do that as well, please.”
“As ye wish, 's laang as it don't show no laack of respect, loike. And Oi'll be sure to tell Tenntchouk.”
Julien gave a little smile: the sailor's instinct had been to treat Ugo as a respected adult, and Ugo was now acting like a genuine Guide. He wondered if Ugo would start objecting to being scratched behind the ears or having his belly rubbed.
In fact Ugo was no snob, and once he'd eaten a very satisfying breakfast he allowed himself to be soaped, scrubbed, rinsed – with fresh water – dried, perfumed and scratched all over, even to the point of rolling onto his back to allow Julien easier access to his tummy.
The weather looked set fair, and a few sparkling white crests decorated the ultramarine of the surrounding sea. Now and then they saw a sail, or a set of sails: they were in an archipelago and ships were the main means of transport. Flybubbles, though not completely unknown on Dvârinn, were rare. The sailors had said nothing about pirates and Julien hadn't asked any questions so as not to reveal his ignorance of how things were on this world. Instead he kept himself busy, and at the same time learned a fair bit about sailing, by helping out with the innumerable little jobs that constantly crop up on a sailing-ship, and before too long he felt familiar with the rigging and had picked up a lot of the esoteric jargon which sailing-folk seem to use all the time, mainly to emphasise the ignorance of landlubbers.
Xarax reappeared at the end of the afternoon, startling Tenntchouk, who suddenly noticed him clinging to a shroud less than a metre from his head. The haptir then settled on Julien's shoulder and made his report, which was most interesting. He hadn't made it as far as the First Trankenn, but he had managed to eavesdrop on what was happening aboard the trankenn of the Noble Lord Delian of the Gyalmangs. What he had learned cast a new light on Nekal's arrogant and hostile attitude: apparently his father, the Noble Lord Ylavan, was dead, having succumbed to an illness which was both sudden and suspiciously unresponsive to medical aid. His First Son, the Noble Lord Nandak, had been declared First Lord of the Ksantiris after Lady Axelia, Ylavan's second wife (and Niil's mother) had prudently declined the heavy burden of the succession. This had been kept quiet, not least because of the complication caused by Ylavan having been one of the Emperor's Mirrors.
Julien spent most of the evening listening to a detailed analysis of the situation from his two experts, Xarax and Yol. They wanted to make sure that he'd taken all the essentials on board, and that meant giving him a crash-course on the politics of the R'hinz, something which he would have preferred not to have needed. But in the process of this exposition he realised that Niil's position was now at best delicate, and at worst positively dangerous. As the son of a second marriage he had always been subject to, if not the hatred exactly, then at least the dislike of his older brothers. Nekal had of course known about his father's death, and his brutal reaction to Julien's request for him to contact Niil could easily be explained by the fact that his half-brother, whom he had practically called a bastard in front of a total stranger, was no longer under his father's protection. The only thing still keeping Niil from an unpleasant fate was his status as the Emperor's Privy Councillor. But they thought that if the Emperor didn't fairly quickly affirm that he held that status Niil would not live much longer. As for Ambar, the only thing protecting him – his status as Emperor's Pupil being far less significant – was Niil's own position.
But Niil and Ambar were comparatively insignificant when the bigger picture was taken into account. The Emperor would have to select a new Mirror for Dvârinn, and quickly, at that. He was under no obligation to elect Ylavan's successor as Lord of the Ksantiris: he could equally well promote any of the other twenty-eight Major First Lords of Dvârinn, or even – and this had happened before – choose a complete nobody and raise him above everyone else. But whatever he decided to do, tradition said that he would have to seek the approval of the Council of Mirrors.
That in itself might prove awkward: even if all the Mirrors knew about Yulmir's long absence and recent brief return, probably none of them was yet aware that he had returned to the R'hinz a second time. Obviously Nandak and Nekal didn't know what was happening, and Julien thought that it might prove equally embarrassing to Aldegard and his peers.