Into the lion's den
Niil was seriously worried. He was ready to leave Nüngen as soon as word of his father's death reached Bakhtar Tower. First Lord Aldegard had offered him his sincerest condolences but had then added that, although obviously Niil had to go back to Dvârinn himself to witness his brother's installation as First Lord of the Ksantiris, he was under no obligation to take Ambar with him – indeed, Ambar's presence might just make things even more complicated than they already were. Aldegard said nothing about the actual circumstances of Ylavan's death, but the very fact that he didn't comment on it indicated clearly enough that he was suspicious.
Niil had loved his father and his death affected him deeply, albeit in a rather strange way: he didn't feel any need to shed tears, but he felt very strongly that a universe without his father's comforting presence in it was somehow wrong. He'd never shared his secrets with his father – indeed, it was difficult to share anything with a First Lord – but it was only now that he realised just how large a part the man had played in his life. He was coming to see that he had been, even though he hadn't been aware of it at the time, surrounded and protected by a love that had kept him safe from the machinations of his brothers.
Of course he knew that they were power-hungry and desperate to take over the running of the family, but he would never have believed that they would go so far as to bring about their father's death. He also knew that they disliked him intensely, and his elevation to the post of Julien's Privy Councillor had been especially welcome because it finally allowed him to stop worrying about what might happen to him once Nandak became First Lord of the Ksantiris. Still, he hadn't expected his promotion to bear fruit quite this rapidly. As it was, thanks to Julien he was almost untouchable, because any move against him would be tantamount to a declaration of open rebellion against the Emperor himself. Obviously he wasn't immune to 'accidents', but he didn't think he was significant enough for Nandak to risk staging one for him while his father's death was already under the microscope. Nekal might have been a moron, but Nandak was cunning enough to remain cautious.
The main problem was Julien's absence. Aïn had started to look for him as soon as he was strong enough, but he'd refused to take Niil or anyone else with him, and he'd also refused to discuss his progress with anyone except Tannder, on the grounds that a secret shared isn't a secret any longer. But so far his efforts had achieved nothing, and Niil was afraid that Aïn might be desperate enough to over-exert himself.
When at last the time came to return to Dvârinn he found that he couldn't leave Ambar behind. Common sense said that Ambar would be safest as far away from the older Ksantiris as possible, but Niil was afraid that if he didn't keep Ambar with him he might lose him for ever. And Ambar, who was trying to be brave, clearly felt the same thing. Strangely, perhaps, Tannder didn't try to change their minds, merely observing that he would make sure they were kept informed of how the search for Julien was going.
A moment later they appeared on the First Trankenn's master klirk. Lady Axelia was waiting to greet them, and despite her grief she went out of her way to talk to Ambar, doing her best to show him that she was ready to love him as she loved Niil, and that the First Lord Ylavan would indeed have been proud to accept him as a son.
Nandak's reception of them, while not overtly hostile, was cold, and it made it clear to anyone who witnessed it that it would be pointless to try to seek the favour of Lord Niil or his protégé, and that in fact it would be most unwise to even think about it. And from that point on every meeting between them was conducted in an air of distant neutrality.
One person who didn't feel constrained by Nandak's coldness towards his half-brother was the Honourable Kanekto, who had been Niil's tutor. Now that Niil was officially an adult his services were no longer required, and although Ylavan had asked him to remain in his service, Kanekto had decided instead to retire to the small training facility of the Silent Warriors, to which order he belonged. Only the death of the First Lord had delayed his departure, and now he came to offer Niil his condolences. However, once he had offered the usual expressions of sympathy he glanced at Ambar and then said, “Noble Lord, could we speak in private, please?”
“I don't have any secrets from him,” replied Niil, “but I'll ask him to leave if you want.”
Ambar had already stood up and was heading for the door, but Kanekto stopped him with a wave of his hand.
“Noble Son, you don't have to leave,” he said. “If your brother trusts you, that's good enough for me.”
Ambar returned to his seat.
“My Lord,” said Kanekto, “there are rumours flying all over the place. Some people claim that the Emperor has gone away, and some are even whispering that he's left the R'hinz altogether – and that's why some people think they are now free to act in any way they want, as if they didn't fear the Emperor's wrath any longer. But we understand that he has recently granted you favours, and your brother here, too...”
“And you want to know if I've met him personally?”
“Yes, I can assure you that I've seen him as clearly as I'm seeing you now. He personally gave me the position of his Privy Councillor, and the Honourable Tannder, who is a member of your own Order, was there to see it. So if 'some people' now think that they can break the laws of the R'hinz with impunity they're going to be bitterly disappointed.”
“I'm glad to hear that. But the rumours also say that His Imperial Highness is... different.”
“There seem to be a lot of rumours flying about, Honourable Master. I'd suggest that the members of your Order should make up their own minds about the person to whom they owe their sole allegiance. Or perhaps your brethren don't trust the honourable Tannder any longer? Could it be that they've asked you to pump me for information to see if what I say tallies with what Tannder has no doubt already told them?”
“My Lord, it looks as if you were listening when I taught you. May I have your leave to retire?”
“You don't need my leave, Honourable Master. And I can remember another of your lessons, too: you taught me 'Any assistance which is not spontaneously offered is not worth asking for'. Clearly, then, I'll have to manage without your help, and that's a pity. Still... may the Powers of the R'hinz grant you everything you wish for.”
The silence which followed the departure of Kanekto was followed by the howl of the wind which accompanied the first squall as the storm reached the First Trankenn. Of course this was a large vessel and so the wind didn't cause it to heel over very far, but the swell gradually got bigger and bigger, causing sickening slow rolls which didn't bother Niil at all, but which caused Ambar to be sick even before he could head for the bathroom. This came as a shock to Niil, who realised that he was neglecting his brother's most basic needs, and it stirred him into action. Soon Ambar, with the help of one of the fast-acting seasickness sweets, was washed, dried, comforted and falling into a pleasant drowsiness on his older brother's lap. He was also in a state of mild euphoria, having kept the sweet in his mouth a little longer than was necessary.
“So what did Kanekto really want?” he asked.
“I don't know, but I'm a bit disappointed. I was hoping he'd offer to help us.”
“Why didn't he?”
“Perhaps he just wants to be left alone.”
“What, and all them questions about the Emperor was just small talk?”
“No, you're right. People are getting worried, and they're starting to have serious doubts, too. If Julien doesn't come back soon there are going to be big problems.”
“You don't think... well... you don't reckon anything bad has happened to him, do you?”
“Aïn is sure he's still alive. I'm sure he'll find him eventually.”
“So what's going to happen now?”
“My father's funeral takes place in five days, and by then the storm will be over. And after that... well, what normally happens is that the Emperor chooses a new Mirror for Dvârinn.”
“Will it be your brother?”
“I don't know, but I hope not.”
“He'll be angry if someone else gets chosen.”
“Yes, he will, but if he's got any sense he won't make a fuss about it.”
“Because if the Emperor starts looking too closely into Nandak's affairs he might well find some pretty nasty stuff.”
“Like how my father died, for a start. I don't think it was natural.”
“You mean, someone done him in?!”
“I don't know for sure, but I'm getting suspicious.”
“What, about your brother?”
“I'd sooner we didn't talk about it. With this sort of stuff, the less you know, the better.”
“But... Bloody hell, he was his father!”
“I'm not saying it was definitely him. But you need to realise that the world of the Noble Families can be dangerous sometimes. People want power, and sometimes they'll do some pretty awful things to get it. And now I'd like to talk about something else.”
“All right. So, Lady Axelia – do you think I'll be able to see her again?”
“Well, she's your mother now, more or less. I think she likes you and I won't mind sharing her with you at all. Of course at the moment she's in mourning, and she has some other stuff to worry about too, but I'm sure she'll make time for you.”
“And if she asks me questions about the Emperor, what should I say?”
“She won't. She'd never ask that sort of question. And if someone else starts interrogating you, just tell them that I've forbidden you to talk about it, and that if they have any questions about it they should come and see me.”
Ô combien de marins...
Oceano nox (Victor Hugo)
Julien was dragged from a deep sleep by activity on deck. His companions would have preferred to let him sleep, but it's hard to weigh two anchors without making a hell of a racket. As they might have expected the wind had veered round to the north and threatened to move to the north-east. What had been, despite a fairly choppy sea, a relatively well-sheltered anchorage might quickly become a death-trap if the wind started to come from that quarter, and the sailors felt it was best to leave while they still could, to risk the rough seas around the south of the island once more and so to seek shelter on the western side.
The sun had not yet risen, and going up on deck into a cold wind and icy spray called for something approaching heroism. Ugo, worn out from his night on watch, was asleep in the wardroom – someone had obviously taken the time to dry him and find him a blanket to lie on before leaving him to sleep.
They really needed to go, but the two sailors were having trouble turning the windlass because the strength of the wind and the jolting of the swell were pulling against them on the anchor chain. Julien shouted to them that he was at the helm ready to steer the boat as soon as the last anchor came off the sea bed. The violence of the elements seemed to have subsided a little, but they wouldn't be able to tell for sure until they were clear of the meagre shelter provided by the coast.
As soon as they reached the open sea it became apparent that sailing close to this wind would be extremely difficult, but of course for the first part of their journey they wouldn't need to do that: on the contrary, they were heading south, and that was no problem. They reached the southern cape just as dawn was starting to lighten the eastern sky. The tide had turned and the boiling tidal race of the previous evening had fortunately disappeared, but the reefs around the cape were still there, and some of them barely touched the surface of the water, making them almost impossible to see amid the chaos of the waves. For safety's sake they needed to give them a wide berth, but on the other hand, running too far south would be a serious mistake, as it might then be impossible to tack back north into the lee of the island.
As they were fighting to tack close to the wind while allowing plenty of room between the boat and the shoals Julien's heart leaped briefly as a winged form came crashing down onto the deck, but his hope died again when he saw that it wasn't a haptir but some type of flying mammal with membranous wings. It was too exhausted to react when he went close enough to examine it properly. He thought it was some sort of large flying fox, but he didn't dare to pick it up to move it to somewhere dry in case it bit him. Instead he left it to crawl unaided into the shelter of the gunwale.
He'd always enjoyed sailing with his father or his friends, and even when the waters around Normandy and Brittany had been rough it hadn't spoiled his fun. But this was quite different, and now he was beginning to understand what some sailors meant when they said 'Anyone who goes to sea for fun must enjoy holidays in hell'. Until now they had been more or less running before the wind, whereas now that they were trying to fight it the vessel was crashing brutally against the waves, shipping large quantities of water. They'd battened down all the hatches, but they still needed to pump the bilges if they wanted to avoid getting wet feet in their cabins. Julien took his turn with his companions, also sharing the steering with them equally. They'd had no hot food since the previous evening's soup, which now seemed like a gourmet supper.
But the most miserable of them was Ugo, who could do nothing to help and had to remain uselessly in the wardroom while everyone else was struggling to keep the ship afloat. Julien thought Ugo's situation must be the hardest of all.