Once the storm cleared Xarax had been able to resume his flight. He'd been lucky enough to find, high up, an air-stream that carried him in more or less the direction he wanted to go. He'd gambled on Lord Delian's pilot knowing his business and he had won, which was just as well, because he was sure he wouldn't have been able to make the return journey flying against the wind. But now he knew that he wasn't going to have to swim, because the First Trankenn was almost exactly where he had expected it to be. He dived towards the ocean, losing thousands of metres of altitude in just a few dozen seconds, and as he approached the surface of the sea he skimmed along just above it straight towards the huge ship. He'd adjusted his colour to exactly that of the water, and it would have been appallingly bad luck if even the most attentive of look-outs had noticed him.
It only took him a few minutes to locate and find his way into the comfortable suite that had been allocated to Niil and Ambar. They might not have been the Lord of the Ksantiris' favourite people, and Ambar in particular was considered a complete intruder, but they were family, all the same, and so had to be given the consideration due to their position. That said, the crew of the ship weren't exactly fighting for the privilege of serving them, so they were mostly left to their own devices, and nobody bothered to keep them up to date with what was going on. They wouldn't have minded that at all, but they didn't like the way that it had also been made clear that their presence outside their quarters was not called for. They were playing cards when the haptir made his presence known by a discreet flap of his wings. Ambar saw him first and his face lit up.
“Xarax!” he exclaimed.
“Welcome to the First Trankenn,” added Niil. “But I suspect that my Noble Brother would be a lot less happy to see you than we are.”
Xarax hopped up onto his shoulder.
Xarax is happy to see you and your young brother again, Ksantiri. Xarax has news, some good and some less so, and it needs to be relayed to the Noble Lord Aldegard.
Is Julien all right? And is he back?
Julien is well. He's here, on Dvârinn.
Where? In Ksantir?
No, he is somewhere to the south-west of here aboard his own boat. But if you will allow Xarax to explain it to you instead of asking so many questions, it would be simpler.
In fact he put the boys in contact with each other and then told his story to them both at the same time, doing it in his own way and actually sharing the events with them. It only lasted a few minutes, but the incredibly detailed memory they had of it afterwards seemed to cover several hours. Niil was horrified.
Do you really think my brother has found some illegal weapons? he asked.
Xarax believes that it is entirely possible.
But surely he's not insane enough to actually use them?
Considering the way Nekal treated Julien and the suspicions that surround the death of your Noble Father, Xarax is ready to believe that your family is capable of almost anything. This opinion, naturally, does not extend to the two of you! But it is essential that Lord Aldegard be warned of this as soon as possible.
There's nothing I can do. We're more or less prisoners here, and I'd be astonished if they allowed us access to a Guide.
Xarax considered this on his way here. Lord Aldegard will certainly come to the First Trankenn for the funeral of his friend – Nandak cannot refuse him an invitation. Xarax is sure that on his arrival he will ask to see you He might use any pretext for this but it is likely that he will say that he wishes to pass you confidential information from the Emperor. You can then tell him what you know. It will be a bit late, but at least he will then be warned about the situation.
They were interrupted by a chime at the door. Xarax slipped away just before a servant came in carrying a covered tray. Niil hadn't asked for anything and he was on the point of sending it back when Ambar pushed past him and closed the door with the servant in the room.
“Karik!” he cried. “It's Karik!”
Indeed it was the young boy rescued from the clutches of the keeper of the Three Tankards inn by Tannder. He'd intended for Karik to serve as his personal messenger and now, finally, the boy was fulfilling that duty.
“Noble Lord,” he said to Niil, “The Honourable Tannder has sent me to let you know that your master has returned to the R'hinz. They think he's here on Dvârinn, but they haven't been able to find out exactly where he is yet.”
“Karik, it's great to see you! Tell us how you managed to get here – and if there's anything edible on that tray, maybe you can share it with us.”
The tray turned out to hold a fine collection of delicacies supplied by the kitchen of Bakhtar Tower, and they set about devouring these while they talked.
“I'm here with a Guide called Wakhann,” Karik told them. “He's waiting to take me back to Master Tannder, so if you have any messages for him I can take them for you. As you can see, I'm kitted out as a Ksantiri servant, so I can move about the ship without too much trouble as long as I keep my head down.”
“You should bring Wakhann here.”
“I don't think that's possible – if he came anywhere near your kang someone would be sure to spot him. And then...”
He broke off with a strangled croak, because he'd just spotted Xarax, who had shown himself, scaring the boy until he remembered that the haptir was a friend. Xarax had something to tell him, but realising that the boy was still nervous about him he chose to speak through Niil instead of getting within touching distance of Karik.
“Xarax says that you should ask your Guide to bring a small target-klirk that he could carry to Lord Julien's boat,” Niil told him. “He says that has to be the first priority, and that everything else can wait. And I think he's right.”
The latest news
Xarax's arrival on the deck of the Isabelle at dawn on the following morning caused something of a stir. He was exhausted and completely drained of colour, and he was carrying in his claws a disc of the grey metal which Julien associated with klirks., although when Julien took it from him he found it was a lot lighter than he had expected. Of course he'd never seen titanium, a metal much harder and more heat-resistant than steel and which is used in the construction of missiles and rocket engines. On the other hand, he wasn't remotely surprised to find that one surface of the disc was engraved like a klirk, albeit one whose design seemed much simpler than most of the ones he'd seen hitherto.
Glad...here, Xarax told him. Thought... not make it. Fix klirk on deck.
“Tenntchouk and Gradik can do that. You need to come for a shower with me right away.”
Julien handed the klirk to Tenntchouk, explained briefly what had to be done with it and then carried Xarax down to the tiny shower, where he quickly gave him the Yel energy he desperately needed. Then he carried him to his bunk and left him comfortably asleep on the pillow. By the time he got back up on deck the sailors had already fixed the klirk to the planking as he had instructed, and Ugo was now examining it carefully.
“Do you know what it is, Ugo?” asked Julien.
“It's a target-klirk. We use them to mark out somewhere we're exploring for the first time. Only the Guide who made it can use it. I suppose they chose this sort of klirk because it's the only type Xarax could carry. Most Guides keep a few of them, because if they didn't they'd have to wait for a new one to be made every time they needed one. Like I said, they can't be used by just anyone. I'm not certain, but I think this one belongs to Aïn. So how is Xarax?”
“He's asleep. He was nearly half dead, and it must have taken a hell of an effort to get this far. He hasn't been able to bring me up to date with what he's been doing yet, but at least we can be pretty sure that Aldegard knows I'm here. Now I suppose we just have to wait until Aïn comes calling.”
“I imagine that Xarax told them to wait for a good long time – it wouldn't have been a lot of fun for Aïn if he'd appeared on the klirk before Xarax got here. That water's cold.”
Of course the sailors could hear all of this even though they were trying to look inconspicuous, and so all Julien had to do to talk to them was to raise his voice a little.
“We should be getting a visit from a Guide,” he told them. “That's what that piece of metal is for. If it's the Guide I think it is he's a very close friend. In case you've never seen anyone appear on a klirk before it looks weird but there's nothing magical about it, and certainly nothing to be scared of.”
Gradik was quick to reassure him.
“Us, we knaaw about klirks,” he said. “It'd take a saavage from the Nag Ling naat to knaaw about un.”
“Good. In that case, if everything's tidy, can I suggest we go and have breakfast?”
They had plenty of time for breakfast, and in fact they'd also eaten lunch before Aïn reached them. Everyone was watching except for Xarax, who was still sleeping off the effects of his high-energy meal, and Aïn's entrance would have been very impressive, had in not been for for a badly-timed cross-wave which made the boat roll at the vital moment. Aïn slipped and rolled across the deck in fine slapstick fashion. It was greatly to the credit of the audience that none of them laughed, or even seemed to notice the incident. Julien rushed to Aïn's side.
“You wouldn't believe how happy I am to see you again,” Julien told him. “I thought you were dead!”
He dropped to his knees and hugged his friend hard.
My Lord, I thought I had lost you. But I managed to follow your trail to the world where you were born, and then...
You can tell me all about it in a minute. But first I'd like you to see if there is anything you can do for Yol. He's deeply ashamed to find himself trapped in the body of an animal.
He most certainly shouldn't be! He's a hero in the Guild of Guides. He'll be known forever as 'Yulmir's Saviour'.
Well, please could you tell him that before he jumps overboard and drowns himself in shame?
Julien never found out exactly what passed between the Guides in the hour they spent together, but afterwards Ugo/Yol's whole demeanour changed, as if a great weight had been lifted from his mind. Then Aïn explained to them what had happened to him, and Yol had the honour of translating his experiences into words so that everyone could follow – and by now the crew was complete, because they had been joined by a positively sparkling and rainbow-hued Xarax.
Aïn had needed a few days to recover a little from the shock he had received from the booby-trapped klirk, but as soon as he was able he had started to hunt for Julien. He wasn't completely certain that Julien had survived, but he had thought that the odds were good enough to make a search worthwhile. He had one major advantage over his predecessor, Yol the Intrepid: Aïn had taken part in the search through Julien's mind. It's true that that operation had been a total fiasco that might have resulted in his disgrace, but at least it had given him an intimate knowledge of the one he was now searching for.
Like Yol before him, he had started out searching for traces of Julien in the Outside, but after several days of fruitless searching, and when he was on the point of giving up, he had had the same brainwave that Xarax had experienced when he was trying to rescue his friend from the chaos of the Outside: he started rummaging through his own memory in search of images of Julien's home world, a world he had glimpsed during their abortive sounding of Julien's mind earlier. And then he did something which Guides generally make a point of avoiding: he allowed himself a complete experience of Julien's personality, right to the point of experiencing for himself things that Julien had experienced in his life on Earth. This was quite a dangerous thing to do, but he felt that he had nothing left to lose, and so he had immersed himself in the memories of the boy from Earth – and, exactly as had happened to Julien before him, he saw the path to take, clear and safe through the surrounding chaos.
Aïn arrived in Julien's house, right on the klirk whose traces the Berthiers thought they had wiped clean, and at once he knew that Julien wasn't there. The room was full of his scent, but the trace was several days old. However, Julien's mother was there, and her yell of shock almost deafened the Guide's delicate ears. In her defence, Isabelle Berthier had been caught in a moment of weakness, sitting on her child's bed and holding his pillow to her face in an attempt to find a trace of his scent, and when a large semi-toasted blue dog with bright yellow eyes suddenly appeared in front of her she thought for a moment that it was one of the hounds of hell. Still, at least the yell brought her husband running, and he showed great presence of mind by putting himself between the intruder and his wife, who promptly fell silent.
Mr Berthier tried to work out what was going on. The animal didn't actually look threatening: it just stood there, looking at him with its strange yellow eyes. Its fur, a ridiculous powder-blue colour, was extensively singed, and it appeared to have suffered some burns, not all of which had fully healed.
A blue dog? Wasn't that how Julien had described the Guide who had saved his life?
“Aïn?” he said. “Are you Aïn?”
Aïn didn't speak French, or any other Earth language, come to that, and nor had he spent enough time rummaging about in Julien's mind to have extracted from it even the basics of French. But the man's meaning was obvious, and so he answered calmly in his strange Guide's voice.
“Aïn,” he said.
“Je suis Jacques Berthier,”
“Pwa-pwa Yu-li-en,” said Aïn.
“Oui, le papa de Julien. Et voici Isabelle, mon épouse.”
“Oui, la maman de Julien. C'est lui qui vous envoie?”
Aïn was out of his depth here: his vocabulary didn't expend much beyond 'papa' and 'mama'. So he did what he had intended to do from the start: he moved close enough to the man to be in reach and then offered him his neck. Jacques Berthier had had a big black dog called Ugo for a long time, and so actually putting his hand on a dog's neck was almost an automatic reaction.
The Guides, like every highly-evolved telepathic species, had devised a sort of non-verbal communication kit which was essential for making contact with non-speaking species or creatures that had no language known to the Guide. It was a complex mixture of images and emotions allied with an extremely efficient model for the understanding of mental data, and within a few minutes he had succeeded in establishing a sufficient level of communication for what he needed. He learned about Julien's brief stay at the house and his subsequent return to Dvârinn. He also came to understand exactly how distressed the parents were: they simply couldn't understand how they could have allowed, with scarcely a murmur of protest, their only son to head off into a thoroughly dangerous destiny.
Of course, Aïn quickly realised what had happened, but he kept quiet about it: he knew that if they found out that they had been manipulated, illegally and immorally, by a haptir whose only concern was the fulfilment of his own mission to restore Yulmir to his normal self, they would certainly never forgive him. But he realised that there was something he could do for them: he could fulfil their urgent wish to be reunited with their son as quickly as possible, whatever it might cost them.
Aïn, like many of his colleagues, had a first-rate understanding of moral philosophy and he considered that he, as a citizen of the R'hinz, was partly responsible for the crime that had been perpetrated on these people. Of course he understood why Xarax had infringed the code of ethics which he himself had always tried scrupulously to observe, but even so he felt it his duty to do whatever he could to alleviate the consequences. And that is why, after waiting two days to prepare himself and to give the Berthiers time to get their most urgent affairs in order, he had simply transported them back to Nüngen with him. They were now enjoying Lord Aldegard's hospitality, and they had also been offered the services of a novice Guide to interpret for them and to help them to acquire the basics of Tünnkeh.
“You mean, my parents are in Aleth?” asked Julien.
“Yes, Julien, and they asked me to pass on their love to you. Actually they asked me to kiss you for them, although I'm not sure that you'd really want me to do that...”
During this recitation Aïn hadn't really spoken about what Xarax had done to his parents, although he intended to speak to him privately about it once this meeting was over.
“Then I suppose you'd better take me back there – just as soon as we've dealt with a few things here first...”
He turned to the sailors, who were staring at him open-mouthed.
“Tenntchouk,” he asked, “how much money do we have left?”
“Waal, Maaster Anhel , aafter we'd paid for everything, there waas around thirty sertchen left. Oi'll go an' fetch it roight naaw.”
Julien sighed: he was starting to get used to this sort of thing.
“I haven't changed, Tenntchouk,” he said. “I'm the same as I always was, and I'm not going to change either. If you start calling me 'Master Anhel' again I'm going to think you don't like me any more. You can call me 'Julien' if you like: it's my real name, and it might be easier all round if you use it. But to be honest I'm quite happy being called 'laddie'. Is that all right?”
“Wall... aall roight, laddie. But if'n we'd knaawn, us, thaat you was a person so...”
“I just thought it would be better like that.”
“Oi'll go fetch you yer gold, then.”
“No, don't bother. The only reason I asked was because I want to be sure you'll have enough to look after the boat for a while. And it's your boat – this Honourable Guide will bear witness to that. Of course I'd quite like to be able to come sailing with you from time to time...”
“Waal, of caarse! 'Tis jaast sad as you haave ter leave naaw.”
“Thank you. Anyway, we'll leave the klirk on the deck so that Aïn can bring me back whenever I have some free time. And because I don't fancy sailing on a manky heap of a boat we'll open you an account to make sure you have enough money to keep her shipshape. If you're happy with Kardenang as the ship's registered port I'm sure we can also fix you up with a kang permanently reserved for you at Mistress Nardik's – although obviously I don't mind at all if you want to make alternative arrangements. And if you want to hire a hand to help you out, by all means do – just make sure it's someone who can keep his mouth shut.”
“We understaand thaat, us. We're naat completely stupid.”
“Indeed you're not. That's why I want to be able to rely on you.”
“Thaat yer caan, laddie. So, where do we sign?”
“You don't need to sign anything. I've got your word and you've got mine, and that's all we need. Now I'd better get ready to leave. In a day or two Aïn will come back with someone to deal with anything that still needs sorting out. Oh, and... when I first talked about buying a boat you said that you didn't know how to navigate, but I haven't noticed you having a problem with it so far.”
“Waal, whaat we've done so faar, 'tis naat real navigation. We've scarce left th'archipelago. Baat if'n ye waant to sail around the world, we'll need to staady some. Else ye'll need to supply a pilot.”