It's a small world
“Fancy a short holiday?” asked Julien.
Now that their guest had departed the three boys were finally alone. Julien's suggestion was unexpected, but Ambar certainly thought it was a good idea.
“I'll have to ask Tannder,” he said, “but if you're the one suggesting it I don't reckon he'll be able to say no.”
“Count me in too,” said Niil. “But I'd like an idea of what's behind this.”
“Don't you want to see something of the world?” asked Julien.
“All right, I'm definitely in. I'll get them to sort us out some hiking equipment, and I suppose I'd better send for Aïn, too.”
Julien laughed. “You've guessed,” he said.
“Well, it's the height of the stormy season in the northern hemisphere, so we're certainly not going for a sail on your boat. I think we're off to collect some of the treasure that your old friend the Neh-kyong is looking after. Spring might be on the way, but I bet it's still pretty cold around Tchenn Ril. I suppose we'll need a cart to bring the treasure back in, too – or were you expecting to pick one up in Kardenang?”
“Yes,” said Julien. “I would have simply left everything to Tannder, but I don't think Tchenn Ril would let anyone into the place if I wasn't there. And I thought that since I'm going to have to go in person – at least if I want to be able to give some money to Tahlil without digging into the Imperial Treasury, which I still don't know anything about – I thought it might be fun to ask you two to come with me and make a little holiday of it. We can ask Karik to come with us if you like.”
“When do we leave?” asked Ambar.
“If we can get everything ready in time, the day after tomorrow. That'll also give me time to hide my Marks.”
“What?!” Both Ksantiris stared at him in disbelief.
“Surely you don't expect me to turn up in Kardenang wearing the Imperial Marks? We wouldn't get a moment's peace and I'd have people grovelling in front of me wherever I went.”
“But... look... I mean, we're talking about Marks here!” exclaimed Niil, sounding both indignant and disbelieving. “You can't remove them – they're there for life, unless your House is declared extinct, of course, or you marry into a different family!”
“That's normally true,” agreed Julien. “But Yulmir didn't spend his entire life stuck in the Palace. He wanted to be able to go wherever he wanted without being recognised, and so his Marks – and therefore mine – can be revealed or concealed whenever I want. The Master of Traditions explained it to me, but I haven't actually tried it yet and I think I'll need to go and see him again so that he can help me to do it, at least for the first time.”
Because his klirk was still fixed to the deck of the Isabelle Aïn was able to go first and make sure that the boat was indeed moored in Kardenang. He was lucky enough to find Tenntchouk on board – the sailor was busy with one of the innumerable little maintenance jobs which have to be done on a sailing boat. They agreed to wait another couple of hours in order for the rest of the party to make the journey after sunset, and that would also give Tenntchouk time to warn Mistress Nardik that she was going to have guests. In fact the inn was completely empty at this time of year: it catered almost exclusively to sailors breaking their journeys in Kardenang, and during the stormy season hardly any ships ever left harbour.
Once the four boys and Xarax were safely aboard the boat Aïn said goodbye and left them, telling them that he would return in five days' time and then every day after that in order to find out what was happening and take the travellers back to Nüngen when they were ready to leave.
Julien introduced his friends to Tenntchouk and Gradik and then went on his own to the inn.
“Anhel!” Dillik rushed towards him as soon as he set foot inside the inn. “Gradik said you would come back, but he didn't know when! I suppose you know that him and Tenntchouk have got a boat now, and...”
“Dillik,” interrupted Mistress Nardik, “give Master Anhel a chance to breathe! Go and fetch him some södja. We're glad to see you again, young Master. Dillik didn't stop crying for a whole day after you left.”
“I was sorry to leave him, too,” said Julien. “He's a really nice boy. You can be proud of him.”
“You can tell his father that shortly – he's at home for the stormy season. Ah, here he is now. I suppose Dillik wanted him to meet you.”
“Hello, Master Anhel,” said the newcomer. “My name is Dendjor, and I'm lucky enough to be married to this wonderful woman. She never stops talking about you, you know.”
“Master mariner, your wife is far too kind. Really I'm in her debt for looking after me the way she did. Dillik tells me that you're captain of a large merchant trankenn, is that right?”
“That's true. It means my wife doesn't have to put up with me being under her feet all the time.”
“I've brought some friends with me. They'll be here in a minute.”
Dillik cam back with the södja, which was an aromatic herbal infusion rather like a strong, scented tea, which was traditionally drunk scalding hot, and Julien had barely started drinking it when his friends arrived, along with Tenntchouk and Gradik, who now had a room here all year round.
“Honourable Hosts,” said Julien, “may I present the Noble Lord Niil of the Ksantiris; his brother, the Noble Son Ambar; and the Honourable Karik shel Tannder.”
Having been introduced as 'Noble Lord', Niil decided to try to avoid the usual problem of rank.
“Honourable Hosts,” he said, “we're here by invitation of the Honourable Ju... young Master Anhel, whom we are proud to count among our closest friends. We'd really like you to treat us no differently from the way you've treated him, and that means that we can manage very nicely without you using the High Speech. And now we're very keen to try some of the cooking which Anhel keeps raving about.”
Dendjor bowed. “As you wish,” he said. “But first I'd like it if we could join you in a glass to the memory of your late Father, who will be sorely missed. Everyone loved him, and I once had the honour of serving briefly as second pilot on the First Trankenn. He was a good man.”
The unexpected reminder of his father's death and the sailor's spontaneous homage to him brought a tear to Niil's eye, and he nodded silently as Dendjor produced a carafe of ratchouk and a small glass for everyone.
“May Ylavan sail for ever among the Blessed Isles!” he declared.
“For ever!” they all replied, emptying their glasses.
The meal was every bit as good as Julien had claimed, and Mistress Nardik blushed prettily when Niil called her over at the end of the meal to congratulate her. The dishes had been served by Dillik and his sister, and the little girl even managed to give Julien a quick kiss as she thanked him once more for her doll. But apart from that one moment Dillik guarded Julien jealously, making sure that nobody else filled his glass or changed his plate. As the meal was drawing to an end he managed to get close enough to Julien to whisper in his ear.
“Can I come and sleep with you again tonight?” he asked. “Mum said it would be all right.”
Julien had been expecting this question since his arrival, and he had his answer prepared.
“You need to ask the Noble Son Ambar,” he said. “Normally he and I sleep together. But maybe if you ask him nicely we might be able to come to some sort of arrangement.”
It was a mark of how important this was to him that Dillik barely hesitated before turning to Ambar, who was sitting on Julien's right.
“Noble Lord,” he said quietly, “the Honourable Young Master says that I have to ask you for permission to sleep with him tonight.”
Ambar managed to keep a straight face.
“Really?” he said. “Well, first there's something I want to know.”
“Yes, Noble Lord?”
“Is the bed big enough for three of us?”
Dillik gaped at him, and Ambar smiled.
“I don't mind at all if you spend the night with Anhel – just as long as I can be there too. I don't mind sharing him, but I really don't sleep very well when he's not there with me. So, is it all right if I'm there too?”
Nobody could resist one of Ambar's smiles.
“Of course,” said Dillik,, relaxing. “I wouldn't want to keep you from his company. And I can understand it, too, because you get really good dreams when you share a bed with him.”
“That's true,” agreed Ambar. “We'll see you later, then.”
As Niil was – at least as far as Mistress Nardik was aware – the most important person in the party, he got the best kang in the house, the one that Julien had used on his previous stay. However, the one shared by Julien and his two sleeping-partners was also very comfortable, and the bed was wide enough to accommodate them easily. Of course they also had the use of the family's private bathroom, and by now Julien had got completely used to the entertainment that usually went on while baths were being taken and didn't worry about it at all any longer. Which was just as well, because Dillik was fascinated by Ambar's silver Marks and was conducting an exhaustive, and rather ticklish, exploration of them.
“I like your Marks,” he said. “And I can see that they go absolutely everywhere on you. Have you had them since you were born?”
“No,” said Ambar. “Actually I haven't had them that long at all. Niil's the one who made me a Ksantiri, and I got my Marks off him as well.”
“You mean you can actually get them transferred? So you didn't start out as a noble?”
“Dillik,” interrupted Julien, “there's a lot of stuff you don't understand yet. Trust me, Ambar isn't just some nobody.”
“That's not what I meant at all!”
“You two are friends, aren't you?”
“I mean real, proper friends?”
“And you really don't mind me sleeping with you?”
Julien glanced at Ambar, who was smiling. It was interesting to hear Dillik getting closer to saying openly what had so far been merely implicit.
“Of course not,” he said. “I like you, and I'm pretty sure Ambar likes you too. You can be friends with both of us, if you want.”
“It's not the same.”
“No, but it's nearly as good – at least until you meet your own 'real, proper' friend.”
“Do you think that'll happen?”
“I'm sure it will.”
“And... do you think it's possible to have a proper friend who... well, who isn't a boy?”
“A girl, you mean?”
“A man, then?”
“No, not that either. Someone who isn't a man, or a woman, or anything.”
“You mean someone who isn't human?”
“I get it!” exclaimed Ambar. “I know what he means. He like to have a haptir as a friend, like the boy in that story you told him – you know, about the boy who made kites. That's it, isn't it, Dillik?”
The boy lowered his head and blushed. Julien found this apparent confusion and embarrassment rather strange in someone who three minutes earlier had been handling Ambar's most delicate parts with no sign of bashfulness at all. He tried to find an honest answer for him.
“I suppose it's possible. But haptirs hardly ever leave Kretzlal, you know, so it's pretty unlikely that you'll ever get to meet one.. And even if you did meet one, you'd be very lucky indeed if he didn't kill you straight away. Why do you want a haptir as your friend?”
“I don't know. I suppose it's that dream – see, it wasn't just that I was flying. I really was a haptir. And... promise you won't laugh?”
“We won't, I promise.”
His brow furrowed as he tried to put what he had been feeling into words.
“At the same time it was like the haptir was someone else – someone I had never met before but who I knew... well... no, that's not really it. I didn't actually know him, but... see, the haptir in my dream... he was sort of like a brother. More than a brother. And since then I can't stop thinking about it. Every night when I go to sleep I make a wish that I can dream about him again, but it's never happened.”
“Have you told your parents about it?” asked Julien.
“Well, I told them about the dream, obviously. But I haven't told them anything else. I don't think they'd understand. But I think you do – don't you?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
“So do you think I could go to visit the haptirs when I'm older? I know they don't travel, but maybe a Noble Lord could take me with him one day...”
He looked hopefully at Ambar.
“Not even a Noble Lord like Ambar can go swanning about on Kretzlal whenever he feels like it,” said Julien. “I'm afraid that for the time being you'll just have to settle for us. And now maybe Ambar will take you for a pee before we go to sleep. I'm sure you'll find that experience interesting.”
“Xarax,” said Julien quietly.
In the soft glow of the night-light the haptir emerged from under the bed and and settled onto the pillow next to Julien's head. On his left Julien could hear the regular and strangely uniform breathing of Ambar and Dillik as they slept in each other's arms.
What did you do to Dillik?
Xarax did not 'do' anything to Dillik. Apparently something just happened.
Can you try to explain?
A bond has formed between the boy and Xarax. Xarax was careless when he allowed him to live the memory of flying above the Palace. Xarax relived it with him and it made Xarax happy.
Surely there's nothing wrong with that?
But Xarax was not only happy, he was also happy for Dillik's happiness. And what Dillik said, it's true for me too.
I don't understand.
What Dillik felt for me, I felt for him. I thought that it would go away, but Xarax still wants more than anything to be one with Dillik.
Julian frowned: until now Xarax had only ever spoken of himself in the third person. Now suddenly he was saying 'I' and 'me'.
Xarax means that I love Dillik! And I can do nothing about it. I could erase the child's memories. I could make him forget about me and not love me any more. But I don't want to do that! And I am unhappy. Maybe Julien believes that Xarax is just a slave of the Emperor, an extension of his powers, a deadly weapon always at hand to protect him. But Xarax is beginning to realise that... I'm just realising that I exist in another way too, and that the long interaction with humans has changed something – many things – about us in a very deep way. I have been contaminated by humans, I think. And even if that seems ridiculous, I don't think I'm sorry about it at all.
Julian was almost as troubled by Xarax's grammatical inconsistencies as by the very nature of what he was saying, but he decided not to comment on it.
Xarax – my friend – it isn't ridiculous. Actually I believe that what is happening to you is something very beautiful. And I've never seen you as a slave, either, or as a mere bodyguard. But we're going to have to find a solution. We can't simply leave Dillik chasing a dream for the rest of his life – and I don't want you to be unhappy, either. You should have told me before. I'm your friend, remember? Even if it isn't in quite the same way.
Xarax did not want Julien to think that he has become weak.
It's not weakness On the contrary, I think it can make you better, and stronger, too. So now we have to decide what we're going to do.
After breakfast Julien went to ask Mistress Nardik for a favour.
“I know Dillik is supposed to go to school this morning,” he said, “but do you think he could come for a walk with me and Lord Ambar instead?”
“Young Master,” she said, “I can never say no to you when you smile like that. And besides, if the Noble Son Ambar of the Ksantiris commands it, who am I to refuse him?”
Half an hour later they reached the place where Dillik had flown his 'magic' kite. At the foot of the slope was the small harbour, which was well protected against the swell that was heralding the arrival of yet another storm.
“Dillik,” said Julien as they admired the view, “do you still want to meet a haptir?”
“Of course I do!”
“Well, you're in luck, because there's one visiting Dvârinn right now.”
Dillik stared at him.
“Are you pulling my leg?” he asked.
“Do you think I'd do that?”
“Well, no, not really.”
“All right then. You see, there really is a haptir on Dvârinn right now. The problem is that it's no ordinary haptir. It's the Emperor's Haptir.”
“The Emperor's got a haptir?”
“Yes. Well, when you say 'got' – it's not like he owns him like a pet. The haptir is a friend and councillor to the Emperor.”
“Now you're definitely having me on!”
“I'm not! Just think for a moment: who am I? And would I do something that nasty to you?”
“Well... then it must be true!”
“Good! So it's the Emperor's Haptir and he's travelling in secret. He's agreed to meet you because you love haptirs so much. But you mustn't tell anyone!”
“You mean, you actually spoke to him? You, yourself?”
“You actually know a haptir?”
“That's not so strange. You'll know one yourself pretty soon.”
“But why didn't you say so before?”
His tone of reproach would have melted a heart of stone.
“I couldn't say anything, for the same reason that you won't be able to tell anyone either: it's a secret. A real, proper secret.”
“All right. I understand.”
“If you meet him you can never talk about it, understand? Not unless you get the haptir's permission. Or the Emperor's.”
“Does the Emperor know I'm going to meet his haptir?”
“How can he? I mean, it's impossible – isn't it?”
“That's another story. All that matters right now is that you agree. You simply can't go boasting to your school-friends about it, or even to your parents or your sister. Think before you answer: this isn't a game, Dillik. If you agree to keep the secret, he'll help you. He could even prevent you from talking about it if he wanted to, but he doesn't want to do anything like that. So...?”
“But I'll still be able to talk to you and Ambar about it?”
“Yes, you will.”
“Then I want to meet him. I swear I'll...”
“He isn't interested in oaths, Dillik. He just wants you not to say anything, ever.”
“I'll really try. So when do I get to meet him?”
“Straight away. Just call him. His name's Xarax.”
“The same as my kite! I bet that's why you wanted me to call it that.”
“Exactly. Go on, give him a call.”
Humming like a gigantic hornet Xarax swooped down on them: he'd been hiding until now in the glare of the sun. At the last possible moment – by which point even Julien was thinking he was going to crash into them – he slowed down and hovered like a dragonfly, allowing them to admire his colour-scheme, which was a hundred times brighter than that of the silk kite which had been named in his honour. Then he settled lightly onto Julien's shoulder.
“Dillik,” said Julien, “allow me to present the Honourable Xarax, Haptir and Friend of the Emperor.”
The boy's jaw was almost on the ground and his eyes seemed on the point of popping out of his head. It took him a good ten seconds to pull himself together enough to answer.
“Honourable Xarax,” he said, “thank you for coming.”
“Xarax says that he's very happy to meet you,” said Julien. “But he also says that it would be easier for you to talk to each other if you don't mind him sitting on your shoulder.”
“Of course Tell him he's welcome.”
Dillik had spoken even though he was looking at the haptir's scary ruby-red eyes at the time. Xarax made the short jump across to the boy and settled into his usual posture with his long tail curled around Dillik's neck. A few seconds later the boy's face lit up with an enormous smile.
“It's him!” he exclaimed. “It's my friend! It's the haptir in my dream!”
“It's a small world, isn't it?” observed Julien. “Anyway, Ambar and I are going to take a walk for a bit. I'm sure that you two have plenty to talk about.”
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org