The wagons were waiting for them about an hour away from Kardenang. Unfortunately the weather was fairly typical for the time of year: a violent wind blew freezing rain across the road, and although their clothes were supposedly waterproof it wasn't long before the rain started finding its way past them. Consequently they were very happy to reach the wagons as it meant that for the remainder of the journey they were able to travel underneath the canvas covers with which the wagons were equipped. They were surprisingly well-sprung, and Gradik and Tenntchouk had even fitted them out with small liquid-fuel heaters like the one they had used on the Isabelle.
The animals pulling the wagons looked a bit like rhinoceroses, without ears or horns but similarly armour-plated, and Julien was interested to discover that they didn't seem to need reins. Tenntchouk explained that you just had to tell them what to do and they would do it: they were fairly intelligent creatures, called lang-gos, and they weren't forced workers but actually had contracts which earned them very high quality food and shelter. The species had once been wild, but had been co-operating with humans for thousands of years now. Over short distances a lang-go could move quite quickly, but its normal travelling speed was more like a human jogging, and that was quite fast enough for the transport of goods or, occasionally, people.
Julien, Ambar, Niil, Karik and Dillik, who still had Xarax wrapped around his neck, travelled in one wagon, so Master Dendjor decided to keep Gradik company on the other one, politely declining Niil's invitation to join him.
“You're on holiday, Lord Niil,” he said. “You stay with the others and enjoy yourself. I'm going to sit and trade unlikely sea stories with this brave sailor.”
It was still fairly early and they could probably have reached Tchenn Ril before nightfall, but although Julien had assured them several times that the Neh-kyong wasn't hostile nobody wanted to risk entering the city until they had the comforting light of day around them. So they stopped a short distance before they reached the outlying ruins while the sun was still above the horizon. The rain had ended and the sky was now clear, and once the fire was lit and enough dead wood had been collected to keep it burning all night Gradik and Tenntchouk, refusing to let anyone help them, started cooking a sort of pot-luck feast, and once they'd finished eating they began a singalong session of sea-shanties beneath the stars, which was frequently interrupted by peals of laughter and also by loud bellows from the lang-gos.
The boys slept in one wagon while the adults settled into the other. Xarax slept coiled up against Dillik: they had decided to try sharing dreams again. Ambar fell asleep with Julien's arms around him, and Niil and Karik snuggled up on the other side of the wagon.
Julien had half-expected to be woken up in the night by the Neh-kyong, but apparently the camp was outside his domain, because what actually woke him up was a mixture of morning light, the wonderful smell of frying sausages, a certain stiffness in his groin and a cold bottom. The reason for the cold bottom was immediately obvious: Ambar had managed to steal almost all of their blanket, and was now lying face down with it wrapped around him, drooling a little onto the folded jacket he was using as a pillow. Julien gently attempted to retrieve part of the blanket to cover his cold bottom and in so doing he found himself pressed up against a completely naked Ambar, who was nice and warm, and also nice and stiff where it mattered, and clearly ready to share whatever might come to pass. Since neither suffered from early morning halitosis there seemed no good reason why they shouldn't share a prolonged 'good morning' kiss.
“Roise and shoine, gentlemen! Breakfast is ready!”
For once Julien was disappointed that Gradik was so efficient. The breakfast certainly smelled good, but he wouldn't have minded at all if it had taken the sailor a bit longer to prepare it. And once they'd rolled out of their blankets they started shivering, because the heating had been turned off for the night.
“So, Dillik,” asked Julien, “did you manage to share your dreams?”
“No. It didn't work. Xarax says we can try again, though. He's sure it can be done.”
“Then I'm sure it will happen.”
Breakfast was fun, but there was still a certain tension in the air: the dead city was no tourist destination. In fact nobody ever went near it, and there was nothing to do there anyway. But the weather wasn't too bad apart from a chilly breeze, and so they started the last leg of the journey cheerfully enough.
When they reached the first of the chaotic blocks Julien called a halt.
“I think I should go on ahead on my own,” he said. “Tchenn Ril knows me, so I'll be safe enough.”
“I'm coming with you,” said Niil. “That's my job.”
“No, it isn't. Your job is to give me good, sensible advice.”
“Well, then, in that case I'm advising you not to try to stop me coming with you.”
“I'm coming too,” said Ambar, firmly. “If my brother's going with you, you'll need me along to stop him from doing anything stupid.”
“Xarax says that he's going with you,” said Dillik. “And he says I can come too as long as I behave myself.”
“Dillik, you're not even really supposed to be here!” protested Julien.
“I hope you're not suggesting that we let you go off into this awful place on your own?” said Dendjor. “And Gradik and Tenntchouk can come too – the lang-gos don't need supervising.”
“This sounds like a mutiny,” observed Julien. “What about you, Karik?”
“I'm sure Master Tannder would never forgive me if I backed out of an adventure like this,” Karik replied.
“Then in that case I suppose we might just as well stick with the wagons for as far as we can get with them.”
However, the lang-gos were a lot less enthusiastic about it, and it took a while to persuade them to enter the labyrinth of ruined avenues that led towards the citadel. Julien, however, found the place a lot less forbidding than it had appeared to be on his first visit. It helped that the weather was clear and that the sun had dispelled the threatening shadows.
They had almost reached the citadel before Tchenn Ril manifested himself. The lang-gos simply froze as soon as they caught a glimpse of him, which they did a lot faster than the humans, because of course their simpler minds weren't trying to make out something that was both present and absent, and as result they were aware of him almost at once. The humans, on the other hand, were at first aware only of an impression of immense power and an inflexible will forbidding them from going any further. Then when Julien showed them where and how to look, they managed to see the Neh-kyong for themselves. Not that it was easy to make sense of it: it was like the memory of a shadow, or perhaps a residual negative after-image on the retina, and in any case his form simply couldn't be described in normal three-dimensional terms.
When he started speaking Ambar and Dillik tried covering their ears, but it didn't do any good because his voice was only tangentially connected to the world of sound. The mind was just about capable of understanding the meaning that the alien creature was communicating, but their ears could no more hear it directly than their eyes could cope with its mixture of appearance and absence. Julien and Xarax were better equipped to deal with this because both had experience of the chaos of the Outside, but their companions were by now all starting to think that coming here might have been a really bad idea.
“Greetings, Emperor Yulmir,” 'said' the Neh-kyong. “It is an honour to meet you once more.”
“Greetings to you too, Tchenn Ril. I'm happy to be here.”
“I see that your haptir is with you, but I do not sense the presence of the Guide Yol.”
“Yol is not with us, but he did ask me to offer you his sincere gratitude. Your gift has transformed his life, and he says that he will bless your name for it until the day he dies.”
“You have surely not brought these people here for no purpose.”
“No, you're right about that. But before I tell you why we're here I want to free you from the debt you say that you owe me.”
“That is very generous of you. But I have my own code of conduct and it forbids me to take advantage of the ignorance of someone acting through kindness but without knowledge.”
“Tchenn Ril, I am not without knowledge. I've spoken to Master Subadar, Grand Master of the Circle of Major Arts, and he told me how you fought against the Emperor as an ally of those who had conjured up a Dre Tchenn to destroy him. I know that you weren't aware of that until the conflict flared into open war, and that then you limited your action to the fulfilment of the covenants that you couldn't escape from. You've paid for your mistakes, but I'm convinced that you are honourable. I've been advised not to do what I'm going to do, but I've made up my mind that I don't want any allies who might not be as willing as the ones I have at the moment. That is why I want to free you from your debt, whatever it might be.”
“As you wish, but you should know that when I leave I will take this citadel with me. This place and I are bound to each other, and the dangerous creatures that prowl through it must not be let loose upon the world. They will have to return to their natural dwelling.”
“I know that. That's why I'm asking you to wait until we're clear of your domain before you leave, so that we don't get caught up in the earthquake it will probably cause.”
“Do not fear. I have no intention of endangering you.”
“So what do I have to do to free you?”
“Just say it and mean it.”
“Then... Neh-kyong Tchenn Ril, I give you back your freedom.”
“Now I am free, Yulmir.”
“Good. So now I have a request to make to the free Neh-kyong Tchenn Ril.”
“I will grant it if I can.”
“I need the money which is lying inside the chests in the vaults of the Citadel. I need it for a purpose that I believe to be good and peaceful. Will you allow me to take whatever I need before you leave this world?”
“If your companions are not afraid to enter the lair of a Neh-kyong they may accompany you and help you remove whatever you need. I would suggest that you bring your wagons as far as the parade ground, if your lang-gos will agree to pull them that far.”
The lang-gos certainly did not agree. Nothing would persuade them to take one more step towards this place which held, they were dimly aware, a vast multitude of extremely hostile creatures. Julien had to allow them to go back the way they had come, hoping that they understood that they should wait at the edge of the ruined city until someone came to fetch them again.
Once the animals had left Julien and his friends pushed the wagons as far as the Citadel's huge parade ground and then, with the Neh-kyong indicating the way, the party went on into the part of the building which Julien had visited previously. In a sort of warehouse they found some small trolleys that would enable them to move the money-chests more easily, and then they were guided into the treasury itself, where Dendjor started selecting what was most worth taking – because it was immediately obvious that they would be able to take only a small part of what was stored here. The men moved the chests onto the trolleys, which the boys then pushed back to the parade ground, where they left them by the wagons so that the men could load them aboard later.
They'd been heaving the boxes around for about two hours when the Neh-kyong took Julien and Xarax – who had stayed with him since they had entered the Citadel – into a small circular room where his presence was particularly oppressive.
“I know that it is not comfortable for you to be here,” the Neh-kyong told them, “But this place is particularly safe. Emperor Yulmir, who is also Julien, I have decided to give you a present.”
“Thank you, but you've already given me access to everything I need.”
“I am not talking about material goods. Even if you had not freed me from my debt I would have allowed you to remove those trinkets. But, as I have already told you, I follow my own rules, and so I have decided to do more. You freed me when you were under no obligation to do so, simply because you are also following your own set of rules – and that means that I now have an obligation to you, one that is more sacred than any other. So I am going, for your sake, to break an oath I once swore to your enemies. I'm certain to have to pay for doing that, but that is no longer your concern.”
“You can't tell me what to do. I am free to act as I think best. So you need to know that someone has arranged for your basic Essence – that part of you that migrates from body to body – to carry what I can only call, in your language, a 'fragrance'. This is how your enemies can find you whenever you step into the Outside. You make it easy for them by not using the ordinary klirks, but in any case, whenever your step into those parts of the Outside common to the R'hinz they are immediately aware of it, although they can't pinpoint exactly where you are.
“You also need to know that all of your so-called 'secret' klirks have been converted into traps of one sort or another, and I strongly advise you not to try using them again. I am telling you this because you are also Julien, and he freed me, which is something that Yulmir might not have done.”
“Thank you, and...”
“That is not all. Here is my gift: I have altered your 'fragrance' and, provided that you use a little discretion, you should now be able to travel without any risk of being detected. This will not protect you from those who want to kill you, but it will even the balance to some extent.”
Julien was moved. He could see past the Neh-kyong's easy words and was aware that interfering as he had was going to cost him dearly.
“Tchenn Ril, is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.
“You can remember me as an honourable entity.”
“But... you're not going to...?”
“Die? No. I shall last as long as the universe itself. That is the reason why I need to find peace.”
“I don't understand.”
“I think you did understand, but that you've since forgotten. But by coming back here you have helped me more than I could have dared to hope. And for that you have my deepest thanks.”
It was late in the afternoon before they were ready to go and bring the two lang-gos back. True to their contract, they had waited patiently at the edge of the city. Everyone was exhausted – they'd eaten combat rations while they worked instead of stopping for a proper midday meal. So when Tchenn Ril bade them farewell Julien was the only one who really felt anything at the departure of this amazing being. In fact he was unable to prevent himself from shedding tears, because he felt sure that he would never again see this strange friend who had freed him from a curse that had been all the more dangerous because he had been completely unaware of its existence.
When night fell they had just about reached the place where they had spent the previous night, but this time there could be no question of sleeping in the wagons, which were now full of cargo. They had to pitch the two tents which Dendjor had had the foresight to pack, but which sadly failed to protect them from the driving rain and gale force wind which carried them tents away with a great flapping of canvas in the middle of the night, leaving their occupants shivering and miserable as they huddled under their rapidly-soaked blankets. The heaters had also been blown away, and they were obliged to spend the rest of the night perched on top of the crates in the wagons, trying their hardest not to die of exposure. They did this by huddling close together and trying to share their body heat, but the crates were extremely uncomfortable, causing them to keep moving about – and this of course disturbed their companions, ensuring that sleep remained completely elusive.
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