Mistress Nardik really wasn't happy about Dillik's imminent departure. It took a real effort on her part to remember that Julien was actually a nice person and not, as she felt like saying, a nasty kidnapper. However, when Julien suggested that she should come too so that she could see for herself the sort of life her son would be living from now on, she became a bit happier about it. Julien found Mistress Nardik's 'Over-attentive parent' routine rather like that of a friend of his on Earth: Z..., who came from a Jewish family repatriated from Algeria, had the misfortune to have a mother like that, and her constant attention had hugely embarrassed the poor kid on numerous occasions. Julien desperately hoped that Mistress Nardik would never meet his own parents, because he could already imagine, with horror, the possible scenario:
Mistress Nardik: “Ah, Noble Lady, your Noble Son behaved most admirably towards my little Dillik.”
Mrs Berthier: “Really? I'm delighted to hear it!”
Mistress Nardik: “Yes, he never for one second held back from allowing Dillik to share his bed. Of course at Dillik's age it's a great advantage if his instruction in these areas comes from so distinguished a companion. Books, cousins, schoolmates... they're all very well, but they cannot be compared to the attentions of a truly refined boy. And when I think that it was actually Yulmir himself who taught him how to...”
“Julien!” yelled Niil in his ear. “Stop day-dreaming!”
His friend's voice brought him back to reality, and he remembered that he hadn't yet had a chance to tell Niil the real reason for their early departure.
“Sorry,” he said. “You're right, I was miles away.”
“Aïn says we can leave whenever you're ready. Everyone's waiting for you in the main room of the inn.”
“They'll have to wait a bit longer, because I need to talk to you.”
“I suppose it's to do with Tannder's visit, is it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And did he find something?”
“Yes. He has proof that Nandak did have your father assassinated.”
“Good. I was pretty sure, but you were right, it was best to wait for some proper evidence. So now I can challenge the bastard... I mean, I can, can't I? I hope you're not thinking of trying to stop me.”
“No. I promised you that you could handle it however you wanted, and I haven't changed my mind. I just need you to wait until after the trial. Is that all right?”
“Yes, of course. I won't do anything without your permission.”
“Good. And now I've got something for you.”
“Well, sort of.”
He handed Niil a box made of a rare and valuable wood.
“You can open it now if you want,” he said.
“Wow – it's a nagtri!”
“Yes, it is. Seeing the way things are going I thought maybe you could use it.”
“But where did you get it – and if it comes from Tchenn Ril, like I think it does, how did you get it here without anyone seeing it?”
“I hid it in one of the boxes. The Neh-kyong opened the armoury for me while everyone else was busy moving boxes. I got one for Tannder, too. I left the other two behind: I really didn't think it would be a good idea to give one to Ambar, because these things are really dangerous – in fact I think you should adopt yours now, just to make sure you don't accidentally chop your hand off with it later.”
“What do you mean, 'adopt' it?”
“Take it out of its sheath – slowly! Yes, like that. Now just graze your thumb with the blade – but don't press against it.”
“That's incredible – it actually drank my blood! I never believed that was anything but a legend.”
“Obviously it isn't. And now you don't have to worry about it, because it will never again spill your blood. Nobody else can ever own it, either. But please make sure you find somewhere safe to keep it – we don't want Ambar going anywhere near it. You've no idea of how easily that thing can cut. I don't think there's anything, not even a hatik, that could defeat it.”
“Don't thank me just yet. I really don't like the idea of you finding yourself anywhere where you might have to use it. And even with it, you know that you don't stand a chance against Nandak, don't you?”
“Why do you say that? Who's been filling your ears with rubbish?”
“Nobody has, but I'm not stupid, Niil. Obviously afterwards Tannder will finish the job, but by then I'll have lost a friend.”
“But I can't just stand by while...”
“Nobody is asking you to just stand by. But it's my fault that you're going to get slaughtered...”
“What do you mean, it's your fault?”
“If I hadn't made you my Privy Councillor in order to keep you with me, you'd still be a minor and then you wouldn't have to challenge this animal. Tannder could do it on your behalf.”
“Don't talk like that!”
“You're right, and I suppose this isn't the time to talk about it. They're all waiting for us.”
Mistress Nardik didn't meet Julien's parents – in fact she never even suspected that the reigning Emperor had any parents. However, she was granted a full and detailed inspection of the Imperial kang, and also a three-day stay, at Julien's expense, in the best inn in Aleth, so that she and her daughter could tour the greatest city in the Nine Worlds, see its sights and visit its shops. Dillik, of course, moved straight into the Imperial kang, where rooms and beds were plentiful.
As soon as they reached Aleth Julien went to call on Aldegard.
“I understand that we now have formal proof that Nandak killed his father,” he said.
“We do. The evidence is irrefutable.”
“Niil is going to want to challenge him, in order to avenge his father.”
“So I understand.”
“But if he fights that animal he's going to get killed.”
“Don't worry, it isn't going to happen.”
“Well, that certainly sounds like good news... but how come?”
“Because Niil will forgo his challenge.”
“That doesn't sound even remotely likely. Can you tell me why you think that?”
“I could, but it would spoil the surprise.”
Julien stared at the First Lord.
“Oddly,” he said, “I think I'd prefer to get by without the surprise.”
“Of course, My Lord, If that's what you want.”
The preparations for the meeting of the Council of First Lords of Dvârinn took quite a long time, even though by the standards of Earth justice the meeting took place with almost indecent haste. Traditionally the assembly had to take place aboard the First Trankenn of the Emperor's Mirror. Obviously there were any number of suitable buildings ashore that could have hosted the event, but the tradition had grown up around the essentially maritime and partly nomadic way of life on Dvârinn: everything of any importance had to take place at sea. Of course, this meant that everything had to be delayed – or rather, there had to be a number of 'ceremonial holidays' – in order to avoid the stormy season, during which hurricane-force winds swept through the archipelagos. At that time of year the only sailing that was done was a little coastal hopping undertaken during the brief breaks between storms, and that was used only for the most unavoidable journeys.
Obviously there could be no question of using the First Trankenn of the Ksantiris, and that meant that Lord Tahlil's trankenn had to be fitted out at great speed, because it wasn't suited for this sort of ceremonial meeting at present. Lord Tahlil tried to protest, complaining to Julien about both the time it was taking and the pointless expense, but for once his protests fell on deaf ears: Julien refused, politely, to interfere.
It seemed that Julien had come to terms with Niil's determination to put his life on the line in an ill-matched fight, because he said nothing to try to dissuade him. Instead, whenever his personal schedule permitted, he went along to watch Niil in training. Of course Julien was far from an expert, but even his untrained eye could see that Niil's already very good combat technique had clearly improved – in fact he was now leaving behind the realm of pure technique and moving into the area, unreachable for most people, of the actual Noble Art of Combat. But he was still clearly a long way short of Master Tannder's cool and merciless efficiency.
Niil's mother, Lady Axelia, sometimes came to watch him training. She knew perfectly well what her son was intending to do, but she never said anything to suggest to him that she either approved or condemned him for his insistence on throwing himself into danger. She watched his nimble skips and lethal pirouettes, his unpredictable leaps from one side of the room to the other as he ducked a thrust or offered a fatal blow himself, and throughout it all her face never changed.
Ambar was also a bit worried about the forthcoming fight, but he didn't really understand how dangerous it was. His admiration for the boy who was now truly his big brother prevented him from even for one moment imagining that he could fail. As for Dillik, he liked Niil a lot and admired him as much as Ambar did, but he hadn't known him long enough yet to have established the sort of bond that could distract him from his relationship with the one he now considered to be his haptir. Julien found that amusing, but it didn't bother him, for the simple reason that Xarax was still performing his normal Emperor-supporting function with undiminished zeal.
Dillik had also got into the habit of waking up in the middle of the night and moving to the bed shared by Julien and Ambar, simply for the pleasure of waking up in the morning surrounded by the sort of warmth which might or might not, depending on the general mood, lead to a certain amount of fooling around. Quite often Niil asked if he could join them in the sort of shared intimacy which had come to be so important to all of them, and whenever Karik was free he would join in too, transforming the huge bed into a sort of den in which they could enjoy the feeling of belonging to something like a pack of young animals.
Finally the day of the trial arrived. There were more than two hundred First Lords of the Noble Families of Dvârinn assembled in the hall that had been prepared aboard the First Trankenn of the Rent'haliks. Tahlil was in the chair, and next to him sat Lady Axelia, Niil and Ambar. Julien, wearing once again the blue-green hatik he had adopted as his ceremonial costume and with his Marks on display, sat a little way apart on a dais that overlooked the whole hall. His hair, which by now was once again longer than was normally considered fashionable, shone like a dark flame in the soft light of the hall's illumination. Of course most of those present had already seen him at Lord Ylavan's funeral, and so his youthful appearance drew only a few comments. But everyone was waiting impatiently to see how his new Mirror would deal with the delicate business of House Ksantiri, and so silence fell the moment Tahlil cleared his throat.
“Your Imperial Highness, Noble First Lords and Noble First Ladies,” Tahlil began. “We are gathered here in response to the summons of Emperor Yulmir in order to demand that the First Lord of a Noble Family answers to the charges of parricide and the assassination of an Imperial Mirror. Tradition demands that a man accused of so terrible a crime be brought before his peers free and clad only in the Marks of his House. However, with the agreement of His Imperial Highness and after consultation with the Grand Master of Imperial Tradition, I feel that on this occasion an exception should be made.”
That got people murmuring: things were hardly off to a good start if tradition was going to be thrown out of the window from the word go.
“Please,” said Tahlil, “I would ask this Noble Assembly to withhold its understandable anger until you have heard the rest of what I have to say, because it is the very means by which this crime was committed that makes it impossible for the tradition to be upheld. You see, Lord Nandak of the Ksantiris is suffering from the same illness which killed his father, and is in fact at the very end of that illness. He is unable to move, and will shortly be brought before this assembly on what is soon to be his death-bed, covered by a veil to spare you the horrific sight of his body which has been eaten away by the poison.
“It has been determined that Lord Nandak, driven by insatiable ambition, chose to ignore the will of his Noble Father, who had sought to moderate his behaviour. Lord Nandak had in fact discovered the location of a secret shipyard dating from the time of Tchenn Ril which had escaped the drastic measures taken at the time in order to eliminate the forbidden weapons developed and manufactured by the Family-whose-name-is-no-more. When Lord Ylavan, despite the precautions of his son, became aware of this he attempted to steer him away from the path he had clearly chosen to follow. Everyone here is aware of past attempts to build a personal empire by force of arms... In any event, when Lord Ylavan came to the conclusion that the Emperor would have to be informed, he suddenly died. Of course his sudden death raised suspicions, but the poison was so uncommon that it could not be identified immediately. This was because Lord Nandak had used an extremely toxic substance that he had found amongst the forbidden weaponry, a substance found nowhere in nature, being a by-product of the manufacture of certain weapons.
“The poison acted swiftly, unfortunately – for Lord Ylavan was a perfect Mirror of the Emperor and indeed I cannot remember anyone ever contesting either his justice or his advice. But Lord Nandak, not being a student of the Major Arts, didn't understand what he had found, and he didn't even know of the existence of the Tchiwa Nag Ser, the Black Light of Death. This invisible light radiates permanently from these poisonous substances, and can be stopped only by very thick protective shields of a specific type. Lord Nandak was extremely careful not to touch the poison: he needed only a tiny speck of it, and the dose he gave his father, though minuscule, would have been enough to kill the population of a small town. But although he touched nothing, he had still been inside the cursed place and, despite all his precautions, he had been bathed in the Black Light of Death, and the light has been destroying him, slowly and hideously. It is also destroying, by slow degrees, all those who were fool enough to take part in his plan for conquest. I'm told that the Master-at-Arms of Lord Delian of the Gyalmangs died a week ago, and Lord Delian himself had to ask to be excused from attending this gathering: apparently his health, which was excellent a few weeks ago, has sharply declined of late. Indeed, everyone who took part in this insane enterprise will perish without any need for the involvement of Imperial justice.
“I'm certain that nobody here is linked in any way to this madness, and I am pleased to report that no trace of the poison now exists and that accordingly no further contamination need be feared. The shipyard will of course be dealt with by His Imperial Highness and access to it will be made impossible for all time.”
At this point Tahlil paused for a couple of minutes to give his audience time to assimilate what he had said. It probably also allowed some of those present to start agonising whether their own past contact with Nandak had brought them into danger.
“That is why, Your Imperial Highness, Noble Lords and Noble Ladies,” Tahlil resumed, “I advise this assembly to forgo levelling any charge of 'Major offences against the security of the Nine Worlds' against Lord Nandak or his accomplices: the crime brings with it its own punishment, and while some innocents might also be unlucky enough to die, we can at least be certain that all those who participated will not escape the punishment that they have unwittingly brought upon themselves. I should add that there is no cure for this illness, and even the greatest of Health Masters can seek to do no more than to alleviate, to a greater or lesser extent, the suffering it generates.”
Tahlil paused again, and then went on.
“To speak plainly, I recommend that we dispense with any trial, which in any case could do nothing more than to dwell on mistakes that have already been corrected. To put it even more succinctly, everyone who took part in that disgusting adventure will die a horrible death. Those who might have had a miraculous escape because they were not directly involved should count themselves very lucky indeed and vow to stay well away from temptation of that kind in future. If we do this we can avoid the trouble and animosity that would be sure to result from a thorough enquiry, and it will spare some people the need to have to decide between betraying their friends or lying to the Imperial investigators. I'd now like to ask His Imperial Highness to offer us his advice.”
Julien had rehearsed his little speech until he was able to deliver it without having to think about it, but he still found it strangely moving when he had to address this collection of Lords and Ladies who were still reeling from the revelations Tahlil had spread before them.
“Lord Mirror,” he said, “Noble First Lords and Noble First Ladies, as Lord Tahlil has explained very clearly, a natural justice has spared us the need to undertake a most unpleasant trial. As it is clear that the guilty parties will not escape justice, I can only offer my agreement and thank my Mirror for speaking so wisely. Let Nandak now be brought before us.”
A sort of hospital trolley was wheeled in by two assistants and parked in the empty space in front of Julien. Only Nandak's face was visible, but Julien was still glad that he wasn't seeing it for the first time; he'd seen it just before the proceedings had opened. If he hadn't he felt sure that he would certainly have been unable to prevent his face from registering the profound shock he had experienced on that occasion. Nandak's head was simply one large open sore, the skin peeling away and oozing a transparent fluid. In the silence of the hall everyone could clearly hear the patient's laboured, agonised breathing.
“Nandak,” said Julien, “you are hereby pronounced a parricide. You are stripped of your Marks, and any bond linking you to the Noble House of Ksantiri is now severed. Your name will be cursed forever, and nobody will bear it again. Fortunately you have no offspring and so none will have to bear the shame of your crime. Go now from the sight of this assembly. I leave you to the mercy of the Health Masters. Your death will not be announced, and your body will be discarded in the desert, leaving no marker or memorial.”
The trolley was immediately wheeled away and Julien took a deep breath to prepare himself for his final important act of the day.
“Noble Lord Niil of the Ksantiris,” he said, “please step forward.”
Surprised to be called on, and visibly still in shock from what he had already seen, Niil took a few seconds to respond. Then he stood up and moved forward until he was standing in the space just vacated by his brother''s trolley.
“Niil,” said Julien, “your House is currently without a chief. Lord Nekal, who might have claimed that position, is also approaching a painful – though well-deserved – death. It's no surprise to learn that he lacked even the most basic common sense and so allowed himself to be dragged into his brother's conspiracy. The Lady Axelia, your mother, has declined the succession, and so, since your Noble Father officially emancipated you before his death, recognising that you had come of age, it would appear that you are the only direct descendant of Lord Ylavan who can legitimately take over his position. I can personally vouch for your absolute integrity and your unfailing loyalty. Fate has deprived you of the honour of avenging your Noble Father, but today I present you with a still nobler way: to succeed him in serving his people and his House. If, as I wish, you accept the position, the Imperial Mirror on Dvârinn will be able to offer his counsel and assistance, and the Emperor himself will offer you his help in the name of friendship and the good of this world.”
Julien stood up and swept his gaze across the assembly.
“Before we proceed further,” he said, “does anyone in this Noble Assembly wish to challenge the right of the Noble Lord Niil to become First Lord of the Ksantiris?”
Nobody did so.
“Lord Niil,” asked Julien, “do you accept this honour and this burden?”
Niil stared at Julien. He looked appalled, and it was clear to everyone that he had been given no inkling that this was going to happen. But he managed to recover his poise.
“Your Highness, both the honour and the burden are too heavy for my shoulders. Is there nobody wiser or more worthy to whom you could entrust the future of our House?”
“Perhaps we could, if we searched very carefully, find someone wiser than you. But worthier? I doubt it. Indeed, your reluctance and humility prove that this is the correct decision. To make us beg you any more than this would seem... unhelpful.”
“Your Highness is of course correct. I accept, reluctantly, both the honour and the burden.”
“Then let it be announced that the Noble House of the Ksantiris has a new chief! Long live Niil, First Lord of the Ksantiris!”
The assembly roared out its approval, and if a few voices were rather less enthusiastic than the Emperor's, nobody seemed to notice.
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