The end of the vacation
Fortunately the rain stopped a little before dawn, and that meant that they were at least able to have a hot meal before setting out once more, so by the time the sun was visible through a gap in the clouds they felt a lot better. They had already decided what to do with the treasure until Lord Tahlil was ready to come and collect it, and so instead of heading for Kardenang they went to a small summer cottage belonging to Dendjor, who sometimes used it between voyages when he wanted to get away from the constant hustle and bustle of the inn. The cottage was rustic but comfortable, and from its position on top of an impressive green granite cliff it commanded a magnificent view out across the sea.
Of course they had to go through the whole business of unloading the wagons and moving the boxes through to one of the cottage's two bedrooms, but it was done by late afternoon, and when night fell they had a good meal in front of a very welcome fire. They would have stayed for the night, but with one bedroom out of use the cottage was too small to accommodate them all in comfort. So it was decided that Gradik and Tenntchouk would spend the night at the cottage before taking the wagons back to their owners, while everyone else headed back to the inn, a journey that would take them an hour or so. It was mostly downhill, which was just as well, because the work of moving the treasure into the house had left everyone feeling dog-tired, especially the younger members of the group: Dillik completed the journey asleep on his father's shoulders. When they reached the inn he was put to bed, unusually, in his own room, which left Julian and Ambar to sleep unencumbered by a third party. But they were so exhausted that they fell asleep the instant their heads hit the pillow.
“Ambar, what are you doing?” whispered Julien. It was dark and dawn was still a fair way off.
“I had to pee.”
Julien lifted the blanket. Ambar was naked and shivering,and so was happy to wrap himself around Julien as soon as he was back in the bed.
“Brrr, you're frozen! And keep your feet away from me!”
“I have to warm them up somehow. And you smell nice.”
“Really? We haven't washed for two days, and we must have sweated buckets shifting those damned boxes.”
“I like the way you smell. Go on, lift your arm a little.”
Good grief – mets tes lunettes et écoute comme ça sent bon.” [Literally, “Put on your glasses and listen to how good that smells'”]
“Nothing, it's French.
“Mmm... you shouldn't wash so often, you know.”
“You like it? Did you know that some people reckon people with red hair have an especially strong scent? I was even told once that I stink.”
“Whoever said that must have been a moron. Or maybe you didn't let them get close enough to have a proper smell.”
“Or it could just be that you're twisted.”
“Touch it and see if it's twisted!”
“I wasn't talking about that, I was thinking of your twisted and perverted mind.”
“I'm not perverted. I just love you, that's all. Though I suppose it's not the best way of showing it... So, do you reckon I smell, too?”
“That's completely different. You're my very own special Ambar, and your sweat is as the dew of Heaven.”
“Don't bother to go on – I know the Delights as well as you do.”
“All the same, you really do smell good. Hold on...”
“Don't move, I just need to go down and check something...”
“Nope, it tastes the same as usual. Maybe it needs two or three days more...”
“Hey, I'm not some sort of cheese, you know!”
“Wait... there! Yes, there's a little fold in your groin where you smell a bit like a bush back on my world. It's called a box-tree.”
“Well, I'm flattered, but I hope you're going to do a bit more than just sniff.”
“Well... I don't know, to be honest. Perhaps you've converted me into a connoisseur of scents. Maybe if you show me what it is you'd like me to do I could have a try at it.”
Ambar knew exactly what he wanted Julien to do to him, and so he wriggled under the blanket and proceeded to give him an extremely detailed demonstration.
As had been arranged in advance, Aïn came to the Isabelle, where the five boys were passing the time while they waited for him by playing the Dvârian version of poker. Xarax, who was curled up on Dillik's lap, was trying not to help him too much. The Guide materialised on deck and then negotiated the tricky staircase down to the main cabin. Julien told him how the mission had gone and then raised the issue that had been bothering him the most by reporting his conversation with the Neh-kyong.
I have heard of this sort of thing, Aïn told him, but I don't know anyone who could be considered an expert on it. Perhaps Master Subadar can tell you a bit more about it. But I don't think it's a legitimate use of the Major Arts, and nor do I know of any way to find out whether what the Neh-kyong told you is true.
I don't think Tchenn Ril was trying to deceive me. But you're right: I'd better talk to Master Subadar about it. And if he agrees that it's safe, I hope you'll agree to go on teaching me how to Travel.
Of course I am at your disposal. But...
I know – out last session together didn't go entirely to plan, and your fur still looks a bit singed in places. But I trust you absolutely, and Yol assured me that I couldn't have chosen a better teacher. How is he, by the way?
Yol is fine. He sends you his best wishes and warns you to be careful. Oh, and your Noble Parents also... er, kiss you and hope that you are enjoying your holiday. I have to say, by the way, that they're making great progress in learning Tünnkeh.
All right, now I'd like you to take me to Lord Tahlil – if you know where he is, of course.
He is supervising the preparations for the construction of his new trankenn at the shipyard of Dak Manarang. But you don't need to come with me. I'd be happy to take a message for you.
Thank you, Aïn, but I can't go on hiding in a corner like this. I need to be able to travel freely.
“Niil,” he said aloud, “I need to go and visit Lord Tahlil.”
“Then I'm coming with you! You can't leave me behind!”
“I wasn't going to. We're talking about Dvârian politics here, and that concerns you directly, even if you're pretending to stay out of it for now. I also want to take Xarax, if he doesn't mind leaving Dillik for a while. Karik, Ambar and Dillik can mind the shop while we're away. Don't look like that, Ambar, I'll be back before it gets dark. I promise not to leave the R'hinz this time.”
“Don't make jokes about that!”
“You're right, I suppose that wasn't in very good taste. So Master Aïn will make a quick visit to check that Lord Tahlil is where he's supposed to be, and then he can come straight back to pick us up.”
Aïn then gave a masterly demonstration of his talent by disappearing before their eyes without bothering to go back up to the klirk, leaving behind only a whisper like the crumpling of a piece of paper.
“Crikey!” gasped Karik, his eyes as wide as saucers.
“He's the best of all the Guides,” said Julien. “Even the most senior of them acknowledges that, even if they do so a bit grudgingly.”
“How come I can't remember what he looks like?” asked Ambar.
“That's just something they're allowed to do: they wipe the memory of themselves from the minds of the humans who meet them.”
“Yes, but how do they do it? I mean, you have to touch them to talk to them, like with Xarax, but Aïn never came near me.”
“That's true, and I don't know. I'll ask him, but even if he tells me I doubt if he'll let me tell you. It's probably a major Guild secret. But then he doesn't need to touch you to transport you, either – you just have to be somewhere close by.”
“But you can remember what he looks like, can't you?”
“Yes, but I won't tell anyone. Everyone is allowed to keep their little secrets.”
“It's still weird, though. I don't know how it works for you, but when he's here I don't even think about the fact that I can't remember what he looks like after he goes away.”
“Aïn also told me that sometimes people try to draw a sketch of a Guide while they're with one of them, but somehow it never works. They make their drawing, and they can see clearly what they're drawing, but once the Guide has left they discover that all they've got is a meaningless lot of scribble.”
A noise from the deck told them that Aïn was back, and soon the guide was on his way back down the stairs.
The Noble Lord Tahlil is waiting for you at the shipyard of Dak Manarang, My Lord.
“Come on, Niil – we're leaving. And you three: behave yourselves!”
Dak Manarang was one of the major shipyards of the Southern Hemisphere, close to the domain of Lord Tahlil. The rapid transition from the icy beginning of spring to the end of a tropical summer was abrupt but not unwelcome, and soon the two boys were down to their shirts and thinking about getting rid of their thick woollen trousers. They had arrived at a commercial klirk inside a warehouse that had been cleared of its workers so that Lord Tahlil could meet them in private and take them to a kang he used whenever he needed to be here. Xarax discreetly vanished as soon as they arrived.
“I'm glad to see you, My Lord,” said Tahlil. “Allow me to introduce my eldest son, Tengtehal.”
A boy of around fifteen, dressed in the clothes of a carpenter, dark-haired like his father and a full head taller than Julien, approached and bowed.
“Your Lordship,” he said, “I'd like to express my gratitude at the honour you bestow on my family.”
“Noble Son, please do me the favour of doing what my other close friends do: call me Julien, or if you can't bring yourself to do that, 'My Lord' will be fine. In public I'd prefer 'Julien', though – I don't want people to start gossiping about the Emperor coming to Dvârinn. You can see I'm not wearing my Marks.”
“Indeed, My Lord.”
“And I'd like to introduce Lord Niil of the Ksantiris, who is travelling with me as my Councillor. I understand that his two brothers aren't all that popular, but I can promise you that Lord Niil is nothing like them, and that I trust him absolutely.”
The boy said nothing and bowed again. Julian turned to his father.
“Tahlil, I'm here to ask you a favour.”
“I am entirely at your command.”
“As I promised, I managed to find some money to start the company we spoke about before. However, it's quite heavy and takes up a lot of space. I'd like to find a safe place to keep it.”
“That sounds sensible.”
“I managed to persuade Master Aïn to bend the Guild rules a bit and move it for me with the help of some of his colleagues. He reminded me that it is against a fairly significant Guild rule...”
“Becwause somezing izz not pehmitted does not mean that it cannot be done. It can if it izz foh a good cwause.”
The Guide's strange voice reminded them all that he was present.
“Indeed, Master Aïn,” said Julien. “”You spent a long time explaining all the reasons why this is forbidden before finally admitting that you could help me.”
“My Lord,” said Tahlil, “I'm delighted to hear about this sudden windfall, but I'm having trouble imagining where it might have come from.”
“It was a parting gift from the Neh-kyong of Tchenn Ril. He had no use for all the metal piled up in his citadel, and so he allowed me to salvage some of it.”
“What, you've entered the cursed citadel of Tchenn Ril?!?”
“It wasn't 'cursed', as you put it. Yes, it was forbidden to go there, and it was very well guarded. But if you think there might be a spell on the money...”
“Forgive me, My Lord – it just came as a bit of a shock. Obviously you would have had access to the place, since you were the one who applied the prohibition in the first place.”
“Well, I can't access it any longer. The Neh-kyong has left, and he took his citadel with him. At least, that was his intention the last time I spoke to him.”
“Yes, he has returned to his own world, or whatever place it is that he came from. And that's probably a very good thing, because that Citadel was crawling with a lot of thoroughly nasty creatures.”
“I'm sure you're right, and if all the other places like that could also disappear it would remove the temptation from the reckless idiots who keep thinking it would be a good idea to try plundering them.”
“I'll have to think about arranging that. In the meantime, how's your trankenn project coming along?”
“The builder has come up with a design, but it's a massive vessel, and I don't think I'd be entirely comfortable with a monstrosity like that. After all, there's nothing that says the Emperor's Mirror has to have the biggest ship afloat. Aldegard doesn't live in the tallest tower in Aleth, does he? Not to be rude, My Lord, but this whole performance looks a bit like the sort of contests little boys have to see who has the biggest sang-neh.”
“True. Not that I've got around to measuring mine lately.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Tahlil burst out laughing while his son tried vainly not to blush.
“So,” Julien went on, “what would you suggest?”
“Ideally I'd like a fast trankenn, not too broad in the beam, which would be perfect for sailing upwind, and a great deal better and faster than the behemoths currently favoured by the rich and powerful. It would probably be a bit less stable in really bad weather, but it would certainly be better and faster than anything that tried to escape from me or attack me. And of course it would be a lot less expensive. With a good captain and crew it ought to allow me to enforce the respect of those who aren't too happy about my promotion. The only reason I'm still hesitating is that some of the other members of the Council seem to think that it would be better to maintain the tradition of the most powerful person also having the biggest trankenn.”
“Tahlil, I didn't choose you just so that you could stick to tradition. That's not how I look at it at all. You're going to have to fight to maintain your position against people who think they are better and stronger than you, and you have to be free to choose your own weapons. So I want you to build the vessel the way you want it, and if anyone objects, refer them to me. After all, I sometimes have the same problem with people who think tradition is everything: sometimes I have to impose my will and force them to let me do it my way.
“In any case, the funding for this trankenn comes from my treasury, and I'm fairly sure that's big enough to allow you to build it exactly as you want it. And don't let anyone talk you into doing anything different. But: the money that's coming from Tchenn Ril is only to be used for the purposes we discussed and mustn't be siphoned off for anything else, all right?”
“I can't promise not to think about it from time to time, My Lord, but I can promise that I will not allow it to happen.”
At that point a Rent'halik Guard appeared and announced that a Master Tannder was requesting an interview, and thirty seconds later he was shown in. He bowed to Julien and greeted the rest of the company.
“My Lord,” he said to Julien, “I need to speak to you in private for a moment.”
Tahlil nodded and ushered everyone else out of the room, leaving them alone – although Julien was sure that Xarax was watching, hiding in a corner somewhere
“My Lord,” said Tannder, “I now have confirmation of what we suspected: Lord Ylavan was definitely assassinated, and the murder was ordered by Lord Nandak.”
Julien experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach: he'd really hoped that another culprit might have been found, even if that had seemed unlikely.
“I won't ask if you're sure,” he said, “or if you have irrefutable proof, because you wouldn't be here otherwise.”
“Indeed, My Lord.”
“As we're talking about the assassination of one of my Mirrors I suppose I'll have to attend the trial, but I'm not too bothered about that. What does worry me is that Niil is sure to want to claim his right of retribution. How would that work in this situation?”
“He can choose to have Nandak sent to Tandil, which would be the sensible thing to do, or he can challenge him to single combat. He would have the choice of ground and weapons. If he was still a minor I could represent him as his champion, and I'd have been happy to do so, but he's officially an adult now, which means that if he chooses to fight he'll have to do it himself.”
“And what happens if he is killed?”
“His younger brother could demand his turn, and since Ambar is a minor I would be delighted to stand in for him. And I can promise you that in that event Nandak would stand no chance.”
“And what are Niil's chances?”
“Well, you've seen him in training. He's very good. But Nandak is renowned as a vicious fighter – he always ignores the rules and fights extremely efficiently. He is certainly a serious threat.”
“Is there no way to prevent such a fight?”
“You cannot interfere. It's a question of Family honour.”
“Niil is my Councillor. I could forbid him to fight.”
“No, you couldn't, My Lord, and I strongly advise you not to try to prevent him from fighting if that's what he wants to do. Above all, he needs his friends to support him – having an argument with you about it would do no good at all. Of course, we could always arrange for Nandak to have an 'accident', but Niil would never forgive us if we deprived him of his right to avenge his father. And in any case I don't see you being an advocate of assassination, somehow, even if it is in a good cause.”
“If I've got it right, there's another problem, too: surely even if Niil ends up winning his fight we'll end up with the vicious moron Nekal as First Lord of the Ksantiris instead.”
“That's true, unless the Lady Axelia were to claim the title. She certainly has a legal right to do so, but in the current circumstances it would be tantamount to suicide for her to do it. I suppose that in theory the Universal Council of First Lords could decide to disinherit Nekal and make Niil First Lord in his place, but I doubt if it would happen: that sort of decision needs an eighty percent majority, and far too many members of the Council would be worried about the same sort of decision being made against them.”
“You're right. Perhaps Aldegard can think up a better solution. But in any case I think we should cut the holiday short and head back to Aleth today.”
“That certainly seems to be a good idea.”
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