Heureux qui, comme Ulysse...
(Editor's note: this is the first half-line of a well-known poem by Joachim du Bellay [1522-1560] which is about the joy of returning home after a long journey. The opening could be translated as “Happy the man who, like Ulysses...”)
Julien's parents were not altogether happy about his Marks. During their reunion the previous afternoon his father had made a commendably restrained comment on his new haircut, which Mr Berthier described as 'a little bit over-the-top but definitely masculine', but today he'd found out about Julien's 'tattoos'. They hadn't actually said anything about them, because when their son had returned from the ceremony on Dvârinn he had brought Niil and Ambar with him, and so their conversation, which was in any case limited by their need to make use of an interpreter, was entirely courteous, and that despite the fact that Julien's two friends were also sporting 'silver tattoos'. Julien knew what they were really thinking about it, but for once he didn't care: all that mattered to him was that he had been reunited with his friends, and now all he wanted to do was to spend some time alone with them.
Tannder, who understood exactly what Julien was thinking, made things easy for him by making an appearance after a few minutes to remind His Lordship that he was expected in his private apartments, thus rescuing Julien from any attempt by his parents to insist on him staying to eat with them. Julien also wondered whether it had been planning on Tannder's part or thoughtlessness on Aldegard's that had installed his parents in a kang separated from his own by a great length of twisty corridors which would discourage them from dropping in on him unannounced. Of course, nobody – not even his parents – could just drop in on the Guardian of the Nine Worlds without advance notice...
Until now the three boys hadn't really had a chance to get together or have a private chat, and the first thing that Julien did once they were alone was to hug them both.
Ambar was the one who asked the question that they had both wanted to ask for some time.
“You've cut your hair, and you've got the Marks of the Imperial House,” he said. “How come? Xarax hasn't told us anything!”
“I only started wearing the Marks yesterday evening,” Julien told them. “I'll tell you about it later.”
“I loved the way you just appeared at the funeral,” said Niil. “My brothers were completely flabbergasted. I think they'd made up their minds that there wasn't an Emperor any longer. I hope you're going to tell us what you were talking about in that little room just before the meal. Nandak looked as if he'd seen a ghorr coming after him when you came back into the dining room.”
“Yes, I'll have to tell you about that, because it concerns you directly – both of you.”
“Right. And maybe you'll also tell us about you wanting us to perform the Rite of Trust, because that came right out of nowhere. You really didn't need to do that, you know.”
“Yes, I did – and actually that's why I turned up in the nude. Tannder suggested it. He's pure gold, that man. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that nobody would dare to lift a finger against you after that, even if I'm not around all the time. When you're dealing with morons like Nekal it's a good idea to make sure our relationship is spelled out in black and white. Anyway, I rather liked putting your clothes on. They were nice and warm, especially your underwear.”
“Yes, I noticed.”
“It didn't seem to make that much of an impression on you at the time.”
“That's because I was freezing my bits off! I'm amazed you weren't blue with cold yourself!”
“I have a superhuman nature, don't forget! No, to be honest, Master Subadar found a Health Master who provided us with a box of some special ointment or other that protects against the cold. It's quite long-lasting, too.”
“So Master Subadar was in on your plot too?”
“He certainly was. In fact, he was the one who told me how to do it and what to say. And obviously Aïn helped, too. That's another one who I'm pretty sure is my friend just because he likes me and not because I'm the Emperor. A bit like you.”
“A little while back I'd have said that it's because we're Ksantiris and we're all like that. But after what my bastard brothers did...”
“I have to admit they gave me an interesting impression of what the nobility of the R'hinz is really like. I hope there aren't too many more out there like them. Did you know that most of the people of Ksantir hate Nekal like poison?”
“Well, I'm not entirely surprised to hear it. So what's going to happen to them?”
“Provided they use what little sense they have and go along with what we've arranged for them without making waves, Nekal is going to end up as governor of the most remote uninhabited chunk of rock we can find. But it's a bit more complicated knowing what to do with Nandak. We discussed it with Aldegard for quite a long time. The simplest solution would be to ship him off with a one-way ticket to Tandil for threatening the security of the Nine Worlds and then bump you up to First Lord of the Ksantiris and make your Noble Mother Councillor-Regent until the Council of Mirrors decide that your training is complete. But everyone said that would be a rotten thing to do to you – after all, the whole situation stinks to high heaven and we don't really know who was involved in the conspiracy and who wasn't. You know that we're by no means sure that your father died from natural causes, and I would absolutely hate for you to suddenly fall ill. As for Ambar, if anything happened to you it would be very long odds indeed against him surviving until the end of the day. There's no shortage of people out there who would like to become First Lord of the Ksantiris, and you two would be in their way. Some of your brother's supporters refer to you as 'the bastard and the spare part', and I wouldn't want to repeat what they call Lady Axelia. Your mother has chosen to come and live on Nüngen, and I think that was a really good idea.”
“But... if I understand what you're saying, it sounds as if Nandak has won! He gets to stay as First Lord, even though he's a murderer and a traitor!”
“Well, you could look at it that way. But in fact his hands are completely tied, and it also means that we get to deal with the forbidden weapons without having to annihilate Ksantir the way that Tchenn Ril was destroyed in the past. Nor do we have to obliterate House Ksantiri and scatter its members. We'll keep a close eye on your brother, and in any case once it's clear that you don't want to replace him he'll no longer have any reason to try to kill you or your mother – or Ambar, either.”
“But suppose I want to avenge my father's death?”
“Obviously you have the right to do that, but you would have to choose between assassinating Nandak – which would almost certainly result in you and anyone who helped you being sent to Tandil – or you could prove that your brother was responsible for your father's death, and really I don't think it'll be at all easy to do that. I'm pretty sure that right at this moment there's an epidemic of suicides on Dvârinn affecting anyone who might have known anything at all about your Father's death.
“Obviously everyone, including me, understands how you feel, and if you do decide to avenge your father I'll intervene personally to make sure that nobody interferes. I might even lend you Tannder, just to make sure that nobody shoots you in the back. I'm sure he would agree to do that. He likes you very much – in fact he'd probably even be prepared to go with you to Tandil and try to keep the taks off your back for a day or so, which is about as long as you could hope to last even with a Silent Warrior backing you up. But please stop and think about it first. You owe me that much.
“I also want you to think about what I'm going to do. Nandak is cunning, but if he has done what we think he did there will still be some evidence somewhere. I don't think you'd ever be able to find it, but I, on the other hand, have so many means of investigation open to me that I probably don't even know what all of them are. And I'll ask Tannder and Subadar to use them discreetly. Before too long your brother will start to relax, and that's more likely if he thinks you don't suspect him. He's not stupid, but he's not so clever that he can't make mistakes. He thinks you're not worth bothering about, and he doesn't yet realise that the whole power of the Emperor is on his case – and even if he does discover that, he still won't realise quite what that power is. True, I've just slapped him down, but as far as he can see he's still in charge, and he thinks that sooner or later he'll regain his full power and his freedom to act. He simply doesn't understand that we'll be watching him like a hawk, wherever he goes and whatever he does. And if it does turn out that he had nothing to do with your father's death, you'll know for sure, and if he's guilty you'll also know for sure – and then you'll be able to choose how the story ends: you can either have him sent to Tandil, or you can claim your Right of Retribution and face him in person.
“Yes, I know you'd have preferred it if we'd discussed this before what happened yesterday, but I didn't really get a chance. So what do you think?”
“I think that I'd have to be thicker than Nekal not to agree. And... thanks for getting so involved on my behalf.”
“Oh, it's not purely on your behalf! After all, I hate injustice, and I'd be furious if he's guilty and gets away with it. And obviously I don't want to lose a friend just when I've got him back. I wish you could have been there when I met the Neh-kyong!”
“You've actually seen a Neh-kyong?” gasped Ambar in disbelief.
“Well, it's not really 'seeing' as such. It's sort of weird, actually. But, yes, I have met one. His name is Tchenn Ril, the same as the ruined city he's guarding, and he says he's in my debt. So perhaps when things have calmed down a bit we could go and visit him if you like.”
“Xarax told us you've got a boat,” said Ambar. “What was it like during the storm? We couldn't really feel it too much on the trankenn, but I suppose it was a lot rougher for you...”
Niil seemed to be lost in thought, but Ambar went on plying Julien with questions for a long time, reliving his adventures with him. Julien even offered, after a brief hesitation, a complete description of Dillik and his nocturnal meeting with Xarax. He was a bit nervous about admitting to sharing his bed with another boy, but on the other hand he didn't want his friendship with Ambar to be tainted by secrets. But his friend's reaction demonstrated immediately that there was nothing to worry about.
“I think that's a really nice story you told him,” said Ambar. “What with the dream and the kite as well, it was about the nicest thing you could have given him. And I reckon he deserved it, an' all, 'cos it must have been tough for you with all that stuff happening to you, and he must have cheered you up by sharing your bed. I hope maybe I can meet him one day – and if I do I'll give him a present too, to thank him for looking after you.”
Julien still didn't really know Ambar as well as he would have liked, but he was very happy indeed to discover that jealousy wasn't a part of his make-up.
“And while we're on that subject,” Ambar went on, with a familiar glint in his eye, “don't you think you ought to have a bath?”
“You think I ought to wash off the dust of the road, do you?”
“That's it. Well, maybe it's not dust, but sea-spray – I mean, all that salt is very bad for the skin.”
“And I suppose your sense of duty is forcing you to help me to get rid of it?”
“Well, I'm not really all that keen, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices, don't we?”
“Could it be Tannder who's been teaching you about sacrifice, then?”
“Yes, and he said I have to be really nice to you. And to Niil, of course. And you don't want to make me disobey Tannder, do you?”
“Certainly not! You should always obey your teachers. Did he also tell you to sit like that with your laï pushed right up to the top of your thighs?”
“Well, no, that was my own idea. It seems to work with you every time, a bit like fishing from a very small fish tank. So, about that bath..?”
“Well... I'm not sure. It'll soon be time for supper.”
“Oh, I'm sure we've got plenty of time.”
They did indeed have plenty of time, and after a while Niil came and joined them, unable to resist the peals of laughter echoing from the bathroom and caused by Ambar's attempts to compare, millimetre by millimetre, the Marks on his body with those now decorating some of the more interesting parts of Julien's anatomy.
Back to normal
The next few days were spent planning and implementing a complicated and demanding programme of training with various Masters and meetings with Lord Aldegard. Julien had to put his foot down to make sure he kept a little time for himself, and he was absolutely determined not to be separated from Niil and Ambar again, even though some people would have liked to see the pair sent off to be educated a long way away from their young protector. By now most of the adults working with him had discovered that there was a point beyond which he couldn't be pushed, no matter how hard they tried, but some Grand Masters and other important people, misled by his kind nature and his general politeness, made the mistake of trying to treat him like the child which, technically, he still was. He was quite happy for his parents to treat him like that, but if the First Son of the Whotsits or the Grand Superintendent of the Guild of Whatever tried it, they met with implacable opposition.
Julien had checked and double-checked with Tannder that no stray copy of The Precious Garland of Delights or The Secret Garden of Enchanted Flowers had been left in his parents' kang – he had no wish whatsoever to discuss certain aspects of the culture of the Nine Worlds with them. Tannder assured him that neither volume could be found in their apartment, though he completely failed to mention that a beautiful copy of a companion work, The Complete Cornucopia of Blissful Spouses, had been artlessly left on one of their bedside cabinets, nor that the same cabinet also contained a small, artistically decorated chest which held a number of strange accessories, the use of which was carefully described, with copious highly explicit illustrations, in the Cornucopia.
He didn't yet know whether or not Mr and Mrs Berthier had made any use of either, but he was able to tell Julien that his parents were making steady progress in Tünnkeh, and that they had also started visiting the city of Aleth in the company of the Guard Askil, who had been assigned to them.
Julien had arranged for Tannder to spend an hour a day with him teaching him how to use the present that had been given to him by the Neh-kyong Tchenn Ril. He would have been happy to give the nagtri to Niil, whose eyes had lit up when he saw the blood-drinking blade for the first time, but the nature of the weapon made that impossible: this nagtri could never have another master. He insisted on taking his lessons with his friends, and before long Karik started training with them too. He still looked undersized and scrawny for a boy of fourteen, but his muscles and coordination were developing day by day.
Ambar, being younger, had to struggle and expend a lot of energy trying to keep up, but despite this Tannder had arranged for him to have some extra lessons in archery, using both a regular bow and a small but extremely powerful crossbow. As well as all this he still had to spend a large part of each day doing regular lessons with a number of different teachers, all of whom faithfully reported on his effort – or lack of effort – to his official tutor, Tannder.
Niil, on the other hand, was free to spend his time as he wanted. He spent part of it improving his combat techniques and catching up on his academic studies, which had been interrupted by the arrival of Julien. He was determined to reach a level that would be appropriate for his position of Privy Councillor. He'd also decided that from this point on he was going to follow Julien wherever he went in order to protect him: history was full of people who had died because they had nobody to watch their backs.
Tannder had been sticking to his promise to educate and train Karik, making the best possible use of his natural abilities and his intelligence which, now that it finally had a chance to flourish, was blossoming steadily. Very quickly the boy became a part of Julien's inner circle, sharing meals and joining in with such rare opportunities as they found for escaping from their studies. Ambar was of course always keen to explore new territories, and so he persuaded Karik to join him for a shower as soon as he could, though he did ask Julien and Niil first if they had any objections. And he quickly discovered that although Karik wasn't a lot taller or heavier than he was himself, his sexual development was normal for his age – and of course a normal-sized penis on a small frame looks larger than it really is, while his testicles also looked uncommonly large to Ambar's envious eyes. Further experimentation proved that caressing the penis made it get even larger, and the few little black hairs at the base of it were an object of admiration for Julien and Niil, as well as Ambar. But the crowning glory, as far as all three younger boys were concerned, was Karik's ability to produce an amount of whitish sperm – a product which, if those working on him had the patience and skill to hold it back long enough, could spurt out a surprising distance. Of course this led to some serious experimentation, in which the older boy found himself the subject of a number of highly frustrating, if ultimately satisfying, attempts by his three friends to try to ascertain which method could cause the the slowest, most violent orgasm and the most spectacular result.
At first Julien had worried about Ambar's passionate interest in sex of any sort, and about the way he seemed happy to leap into bed – or more usually into the shower – with just about anyone and at any time. But soon he realised that for Ambar sex and love were two completely different things. He liked sex the way he liked pastries and cakes, as a gourmet who was always keen to discover new flavours. Love, on the other hand, he reserved for just two people, and in different ways for each.
He felt for Niil a serious deep affection combined with a degree of hero-worship, the way a little brother often feels about a really good and loving older brother. And Niil had by now adopted him completely, especially since he now saw Ambar as his only real brother. He watched over him with tenderness, even if he often chose to hide it behind teasing and jokey remarks.
As for the way Ambar felt about Julien, that was patently clear to everyone who knew them. Although Ambar tried to keep his real feelings hidden except for when he was about to go to sleep in Julien's comforting arms, when he would whisper the way he truly felt, he was unable to prevent the way his eyes lit up whenever Julien entered the room, and nor could he stop himself from touching Julien's arm all the time, as if to convince himself that the older boy was really here at his side. Not that Julien did a lot to help disguise their true feelings for one another: he would often slip into a near-trance just from watching the way the rays of the setting sun touched Ambar's delicate, perfect, translucent ear, or he would stroke Ambar's soft brush of blond hair, or almost unconsciously pull the younger boy onto his lap, or rearrange the folds of his clothing, even while he was in the middle of a deep conversation with Tannder. They obviously loved one another in a way that didn't need words, and it was a love that they both felt they were sealing when, for the first time, they shared a genuine kiss. At that point they both recognised that no bodily games, no matter how loving or daring, could ever have the intensity or depth of meaning of this sharing of each other's breath.
They always slept together, and sometimes – if he was sleeping alone and woke up in the night – Niil would join them. But he didn't always sleep alone: Karik was frequently invited to join them for the night, and when he did he shared Niil's bed, because Niil had found that he didn't really like sleeping on his own any longer, and he appreciated the comforting presence of the boy whose gratitude had naturally evolved into friendship. But sometimes Karik was away, off running some strange errand or other for Tannder. He would never speak about these and the others knew better than to ask. Nor would he ever speak about his previous life at The Three Tankards, when he had had to put up with demands of its disgusting patrons. Perhaps one day he would be able to find the words to exorcise that part of his life, which was now happily behind him.
Ugo visited them from time to time, but he spent most of his time with Master Subadar, to whom he had once been Chenn da. Indeed, he still was, for the Grand Master of the Circle of Major Arts had refused to consider their bond broken by the terrible ordeal that had befallen Yol. They had chosen each other when they were still children and together they had developed each other's abilities, each in his own particular field, until they formed a highly efficient pairing. The Guide had led his human brother through many places full of marvels and dangers. Yol was unquestionably the most gifted Guide of his generation, and his role in their symbiotic relationship had not been limited to provided transport. They pooled every resource of their sharp minds, and at times the Guide's incredible mental discipline had been necessary to pull them out out of difficult predicaments.
When Yol the Intrepid had disappeared into the Outside, Subadar had found in Aïn a highly gifted partner, and he still made use of his services as a Guide now. But even if he had wanted to do it, it wasn't possible to establish a Chenn da link twice in a single lifetime. Julien didn't know what happened in the meetings between Subadar and Ugo/Yol, but he did know that whenever he met his friend on his way to his lessons with Master Subadar, Ugo seemed happy and was always ready to chat with him about their life on Earth, and the fact that he had lived there trapped in a dog's body didn't seem in any way to have darkened his memories of their shared experiences.
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at email@example.com