A little private talk
“Why the hell did you do that to me?”
This was the first thing Niil had said since they had left the trial room and moved to the kang reserved for them on board Tahlil's trankenn.
“I'm sorry. There was no other way.”
“And how long have you known about the state my brother was in?”
“Aldegard told me when we went back to Aleth. And don't blame him: it was my idea to wait until he was at death's door to hold the trial. It was the only way to stop you from throwing your life away by fighting him... all right, I suppose that Xarax could have popped his head around your brother's door and 'put him out of his misery', but that would have caused no end of questions and complications. I'm sorry, but I simply couldn't let you chuck your life away.”
“You lied to me! You betrayed me!”
“No, I didn't. I certainly didn't betray you, and I didn't lie to you either, although it's true that I kept quiet about some things. I had to, both for the sake of your family, and because I simply couldn't risk losing you.”
“Yes, but you didn't even tell me about it right before the trial. You made me look like a complete idiot!”
“I kept quiet deliberately. I didn't want everyone to think that you and I had planned the whole thing together, and that you'd asked me to delay the trial so that you wouldn't have to fight to avenge your father.”
“Oh, right – as if they're not going to think that anyway, and probably say it, too!”
“I don't know if they will or not, but if they do you can honestly answer that you only found out what was happening at the same time as the rest of the Assembly.”
“And that's not all – you know damned well that I didn't want to be First Lord, and yet you dumped that on me right in front of everyone, knowing that I couldn't say no. I'll never forgive you for that!”
“Niil, I'm in far more of a mess here than you are. I have to do what's best for Dvârinn, but surely you can't think that I actually wanted to do this? What do you think would have happened if I hadn't made you First Lord of the Ksantiris?”
“I'm sure His Imperial Highness will give me the benefit of His wisdom.”
The dreadful scathing tone of this and the sheer venom with which the words were delivered almost made Julien give free rein to the anger he was feeling. Instead he managed to close his eyes for a few seconds and to take a couple of deep breaths.
“What would have happened, Noble Lord, is that, because you don't have any more uncles, all your cousins to the nth degree would have decided that they would make an excellent First Lord. There would have been conspiracies, plots and probably no end of blood-letting as they scrambled to climb over each other into the seat you had left empty. Every one of them would have formed his own little clan and we would have been faced with a whole lot of dirty little wars. Hell, Niil, you know that better than I do – you know what Dvârinn is like! All right, if a load of ambitious morons want to start assassinating each other it's no skin off my nose, but you know damned well that it would actually be the ordinary people who did the dying, all the poor sods who get conscripted into Lord A's army to fight the other sad bastards in the army of Lord B. Is that what you want for your people?
“Instead, you're now the First Lord, whether your cousins like it or not, and they know where they stand because I'm the one who made the decision. They'll remember the Rite of Trust, too, that we performed at Ylavan's funeral, and that will stop them from trying to take you on. Niil, you're the one who taught me how important honour is in the Nine Worlds. I can't believe you're going to turn your back on me now just because I asked you to be what you claimed to be.”
“You didn't ask me – you forced me! What right did you have to do that? The right of the Emperor? Fine, then I'll obey, but you needn't think I'm doing it because I want to. And since we're talking about honour and duty, yes, I'll obey Yulmir because it's my duty to do so and because I respect the position of the Emperor. But if you're going to start being Emperor, don't try telling me that you want to be Julien as well and expect me to come running just because you're short of friends.”
“But I'm both! There's nothing I can do about it – it's not my fault! You know I didn't ask to come here! And if there was some way for me to stop being Yulmir, believe me, I'd grab it in a millisecond!”
“Well, I didn't choose it, either. Anyway, the point is that you're the one who's dumped this on me – you, and nobody else. Like it or not, you are Yulmir, and that gives me no choice but to obey you. But you have absolutely no right to demand anything else of me. As from this moment, His Imperial Highness will have to realise that the First Lord of the Ksantiris has too much on his plate to hang around and keep Him company whenever He feels lonely!”
“Your Imperial Highness?”
“Look, I know you're angry about being manipulated – but you can't do that to me!”
Niil remained silent, his face a stone mask and his eyes expressing nothing. And Julien realised that the Niil he had thought he knew so well, the friend he had always relied on without even thinking about it since the first moment he had set foot in the Nine Worlds, had disappeared.
“Niil, please!” he begged. “I need you! I'm on my own. All right, Xarax helps me, and so do Tannder, Aldegard, Subadar and Aïn, as much as they can. And there's Ambar, too.. but it's not the same. You're the only one who is really...”
“If Your Imperial Highness is saying that I'm the only one He can use a doormat without having to worry about the consequences, I'm sure you're right. In fact, you've just demonstrated exactly that. But if you think I'm going to hang around so you can carry on doing it, you're dead wrong – if, of course, the Infallible Yulmir is capable of being wrong. And as for my brother, his place is with his Family, where he will receive the appropriate education for one of his status. Unless, of course, you want to issue an Imperial Edict requiring his presence in Your Imperial Highness's bed.”
Julien felt the scorn in those last words as though they had been a slap in the face. In that one second the love he had been sharing with Ambar had been dragged through the mud – and Julien realised that if anyone was capable of taking such a repulsive view of the bond he had with Ambar, then it would be better if that bond ceased to exist. For Niil, who knew him better than anyone, to dare to suggest for one moment that Julien looked on Ambar as no better than a common rent-boy showed more clearly than anything just how livid he was. Julien was dimly aware that they were both by now entering the territory where common sense has flown out of the window and where the only thing that remains is the perverse desire to destroy your opponent and yourself at the same time, but by now he was helpless to prevent it from happening.
“Niil of the Ksantiris,” he said. “Your rank and duties demand your permanent presence here on Dvârinn. I therefore release your from your duties as Privy Councillor to the Emperor in order to allow you to dedicate yourself exclusively to the affairs of your Noble House. As for your young brother, you're right: his place is with his family, and I am sure that you will be able to offer him all the affection he needs, as well as an education befitting the son of a Noble House. I shall leave Dvârinn as quickly as it can be arranged. I wish you a safe journey back to Ksantir. Please convey my respectful farewell to your mother, and tell your brother that, regretfully, my schedule does not permit me to take my leave of him in person. I shall detain you no longer.”
The black chimæras of the night
The room in which Aldegard's Inner Council met offered both seclusion and a comfortable environment in which major decisions could be taken. It held a massive low table on which large files could be spread and the sort of comfortable chairs that would have seemed at home in an upmarket club for English Gentlemen.
Julien was there, along with Aldegard, Tahlil, Tannder and Master Subadar. Xarax was there too, clinging to a piece of carving and taking in everything that was said.
“My Lords,” began Aldegard, “we have a serious problem: we have to eliminate the threat of the contents of the storehouse found by Nandak, and we have to do it quickly. Burying it would solve nothing, because sooner of later some cretin or other would start digging for it. I think that the only proper solution would be to seek the help of a Neh-kyong. And that, to the best of our knowledge, can only be done by the Emperor.”
“The Emperor would like to remind you that he hasn't got the remotest idea as to how to do that,” Julien pointed out. “When I met Tchenn Ril, he came to me, not vice versa.”
“Naturally. But Master Subadar knows how to do it, and he'll be able to teach you.”
“Then wouldn't it be better if Master Subadar simply did it himself?”
“That's not possible, My Lord.”
“I knew you were going to say that!”
“Master Subadar certainly has the knowledge. He's got the Gift and the Power, too. What he hasn't got is the Legitimacy.”
Julien sighed. “Let me guess,” he said. “I'm the one who has the Legitimacy?”
“Yes, My Lord. It entitles you to sign a covenant in the name of the whole of the R'hinz.”
“And naturally I can't authorise Master Subadar to act on my behalf.”
“No, My Lord! Such an idea...”
“It's all right, Aldegard, I was only joking.”
In reality, since he had got back to Aleth two hours earlier Julien felt sure he would never be able to joke about anything again. Everyone around him could see that something was wrong, but nobody knew what. Xarax, of course, had witnessed the whole argument, but he had been unable to intervene, and now it was completely out of the question that he should be so indiscreet as to tell anyone about it. He'd also steered well clear of the subject during the brief time that they were alone in their kang while Julien changed out of his ceremonial hatik and into the ordinary abba he normally wore inside Bakhtar Tower.
“Master Subadar,” Julien continued, “I think it would be best to make a start as soon as possible.”
“Indeed, My Lord. We can start tomorrow. And while I help you to remember how to summon a Neh-kyong, Lord Tahlil and Master Tannder can make the necessary preparations.”
“Yes, My Lord,” said Tannder. “The storehouse is in an area between Ksantir and Kardenang, and it's virtually inaccessible by land. We'll need a flybubble to get there. And of course we'll need the formal agreement of the local First Lord before a Neh-kyong can annex part of his territory.”
“I assume I can count on you to deal with that, Lord Tahlil?” asked Julien.
“Yes, My Lord. Not that I think Lord Niil will have any objections.”
“No, I'm sure he won't. But I suggest you leave it until tomorrow. We need to give him time to recover from the shock of the trial and to get used to the thought of his new responsibilities.”
The kang seemed strangely empty. Only Dillik was still with Julien, and fortunately he was too engrossed in his strange relationship with Xarax to notice Julien's black mood.
The chime that announced the arrival of a visitor rang out and Karik came in pushing a trolley that held the evening meal. Usually it was the Bakhtar house servants who performed this role, and so Julien looked quizzically at Karik, who smiled apologetically.
“Master Tannder is about to leave for Dvârinn, so he told me that I could come and keep you company for the meal – if that's all right with you, of course.”
Julien really wasn't in the mood for company: he'd have been happier staying on his own and wallowing in his misery. But he was well-brought up and had a natural tendency to care about the feelings of other people.
“Thank you,” he said. “I'd be happy for you to stay for a bit. I'm more or less on my own – Dillik doesn't count, because he and Xarax are off in their exclusive little world most of the time. I've got no idea what they talk about, but it seems to be absolutely fascinating for both of them.”
“Xarax is teaching me to play Territories in my head,” called Dillik from the adjoining room. “Well... actually it's in his head... or maybe I should say ours... anyway, it's really interesting. But I don't mind coming to keep you company too if you want.”
Julien couldn't help smiling. “No, it's fine,” he said. “Karik's here now. But if you want to eat you need to come and help to lay the table.”
Dillik came into the room, followed by a brightly-glowing Xarax, who was playfully reproducing the complicated pattern of the carpet on his scales as he made his way across it. Julien thought that the haptir's relationship with Dillik was definitely good for him.
“It seems odd, Niil and Ambar not being here, doesn't it?” commented Dillik.
“We'll get used to it,” said Julien.
“So – they're not coming back?”
“Well, Niil is First Lord of the Ksantiris now. He's got a lot on his plate.”
“Yes, but you've got loads of work, too, and you still manage to get back here to sleep most of the time. I'm sure that Aïn could sort something out if you asked him – he and his friends could fix it to bring Niil and Ambar back whenever they want. That'd be really good. And then Ambar would be able to go on studying with us, too – I'm sure he doesn't want to change his tutor. Master Tannder is strict, but we all really like him, don't we, Karik?”
“Yes. I like him very much. But I think you should eat, rather than just sitting there spouting hot air. I'm sure Julien and Niil have already discussed it, and it takes time to sort everything out.”
It sounded as if Karik suspected that all was not well – after all, he didn't have a Xarax to distract him. And at the end of the meal he said, “Would you mind if I slept here tonight? I don't want to be a nuisance, but... well, I feel a little lonely.”
Julien was surprised, because he'd never heard Karik make that sort of request before. Usually he shared Niil's bed, but he always waited for an invitation before doing so. As for Dillik, he generally started out just sleeping with Xarax, and only came to share the others' bed if he had to get up in the night, or occasionally just for a bit of fun in the morning. Julien had no wish to console himself for Ambar's absence in anyone else's arms, even those of a friend like Karik, and so he was about to refuse. But Karik got in first.
“Please?” he said. “I won't bother you. I just don't want to sleep on my own.”
Julien understood that.
“Then of course you can sleep with me,” he said. “I'd be glad of the company.”
Julien was even more exhausted by the day's events than he had thought, and he fell asleep as soon as he was in bed. But he didn't make it though the night: he woke up from a confused but unpleasant dream quite some time before dawn, and as soon as he was awake he felt a great wave of the blackest despair he had even known sweep over him. The loss of Niil's friendship, the apparently permanent separation from Ambar, the complete shambles of trying to live a life which wasn't his own and his acute awareness that he wasn't what people wanted him to be all combined into a situation of complete, irreparable chaos from which there seemed to be no escape. Never in his short life had he been confronted with such a hopeless situation. And what made it worse was the fact that he had nobody to blame but himself. If Niil had rejected him it was because he had driven him to it. Never before had he had a friend as close as Niil, and what had he done? He'd played the Emperor and landed his friend with a fate that he loathed. And at the same time he'd lost Ambar, who was something even more special, and whose absence left a gaping hole in Julien's heart.
And so here, in the depths of the night when he was at his most defenceless, Julien encountered the black demons that lurk in the recesses of the human mind and which can drive from the soul every vestige of light and hope. Who can withstand their evil black breath?
He got out of bed as quietly as he could, not wanting to disturb Karik, who was sleeping on his back on top of the sheet in order to offer himself to the caress of the warm summer night air. Without even looking at his friend's sleeping form Julien went out onto the balcony of the kang's main room and leaned over the parapet. The towers of Aleth shone with a soft light, some close at hand, some a long way away, each displaying its own shade of colour which constantly changed subtly in harmony with the colours of its closest neighbours. But although Julien had come to love this beautiful spectacle, tonight it left him cold. Only the dizzying void spoke to him, the void that led down the vast distance to the granite slabs that formed the esplanade at the base of the tower. It spoke silently, without words, promising the blissful oblivion of nothingness. The jump could be achieved easily and painlessly, and it offered the only escape from the suffering of a pointless existence filled only with absence and loneliness, and the only way to evade the shame of having acted on the advice of his Councillors 'For the good of Dvârinn' without questioning whether he had the right to govern the destiny of those he had claimed to love against their will. There was no question that he'd done the wrong thing. He'd pretended to be the Emperor, and as a result he had hurt those closest to him. And if he tried to be the Emperor again he was sure to mess it up again and hurt other people, because he was blind, and he could only...
“Julien?” Karik's arm was locked around his waist. “Come down. It's dangerous there.”
Julien realised that he was actually sitting on the parapet, his feet dangling over the abyss, in exactly the position adopted by someone about to slip noiselessly into a swimming pool. His face was drenched with tears.
“Come on,” said Karik gently. “I'm too hot, too. Let's go and have a shower and then get back to bed – all right?”
Julien allowed himself to be bathed, rinsed and dried by Karik, who was tactful enough not to ask questions. Then they went back to bed, and Julien raised no objection when Karik snuggled against him so that he could fall asleep knowing that, in Karik's gentle, undemanding arms, he wasn't alone after all.
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