Julien woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. He could clearly remember what had happened during the night, but now he could see it without any trace of the deadly anguish that had almost killed him. A lot of adults might have made the mistake of putting it down to a one-off incident caused by overwork or something, but Julien knew better, and he recognised that he couldn't just leave things the way they were.
The first thing he wanted to work out was how come he hadn't actually ended up dead at the foot of the tower, and since Karik had woken up he decided to deal with that straight away.
“Morning,” he said, “Did you sleep well?”
“Er.... well, yes, thanks. So... how are you feeling this morning?”
“Thanks to you, I'm fine. And thanks for stopping me from jumping.”
“No problem. I suppose sometimes when you wake up like that in the middle of the night you're not feeling quite yourself.”
“Why, has that happened to you, too?”
“More than once. But then I wasn't living at the top of a tower at the time – and anyway, Dehart usually locked me in at night.”
Julien thought about that for a moment, but then he put it to one side and went on, “So how did you know – last night, I mean? What woke you up?”
“I don't know. I just woke up, found myself alone and then spotted you going out of the room. The way you were looking yesterday evening, I thought maybe you could use some company, and then you went out onto the balcony, and I decided to follow you. And as soon as you got up onto the parapet I knew what was going on: even though I wasn't sure why, it was pretty clear that you were going to jump.”
“Right. Now it just seems... well, not quite incredible, but certainly pretty stupid.”
“It would have been, in your case. You'd have hurt a lot of people who love you.”
“I'm not just saying that, you know. It's true.”
Julien could see that Karik meant it, because his eyes were full of tears.
“I'm really sorry,” he said. “I promise not to do it again.”
“It's all right. But... well, maybe if you tell me why you felt like that I could try to help you, couldn't I?”
“Well, thanks. But let's get something to eat first.”
Julien didn't really feel like talking about it just yet, even though he recognised that Karik was probably the best person to talk it through with. He got up, went and had a wash and then put his head around the door of Dillik's room. The boy was still asleep, but Xarax was wide awake, and so Julien beckoned to him to come and join him at the breakfast table.
I am glad to see that you are better this morning, Xarax told him as he sat on Julien's shoulders. You scared me last night.
You know what happened?
I always know how you feel. Even when I'm asleep or busy doing something else. I heard your argument with Niil. After all, it's my duty to know what is going on. I could have spared you what you went through last night. I could have soothed you, calmed you down. But I promised not to tamper with your mind. If I had done such a thing you would have recognised it, and after that you would not have trusted me any more. All the same, I was surprised, because I hadn't realised quite how bad you were feeling. When I realised what you were going to do I rushed to the balcony, but Karik got there first. He's a good boy, and he likes you very much. And he did what needed to be done.
Thank you, Xarax. Next time I look as if I'm not well you can certainly ask me if I need any help. I don't want to be tampered with, but I don't mind a little help now and again. And even if you don't mess with my head, just talking with you is always good.
“Are you talking to Xarax?”
Dillik had entered the room, still sleepy and rubbing his eyes.
“Yes,” said Julien, “but we're finished now. You can take him to the shower with you if you want.”
“I don't think he wants to come,” said Dillik, laughing. “Look, he's turned all blue – he must be afraid!”
Xarax leapt at him, whistling like a deranged kettle and with his wings spread in a convincing impression of a violent attack, and although he clearly cushioned his impact on Dillik's chest it was enough to knock the boy over. The ensuing shrieks and convulsions demonstrated that Xarax had developed a highly effective tickling technique, although quite how he managed to do it without damaging Dillik's delicate skin was a mystery. The game only ended when Dillik suddenly had to grab and squeeze his penis in order not to pee all over the rug. Xarax stepped back, allowing the boy to run to the bathroom. The innocent fun and games was like a breath of fresh air, finally dispelling the last of the anguish of the night. Of course things were still not right and the pain remained, but now Julien had it under control, corralled in a corner of his mind in a way that allowed him once again to act as if his entire universe had not collapsed around his ears.
“Julien, it's really nice to see you again,” said Ugo. “We haven't seen much of you lately at all.”
Ugo's friendly welcome warmed his heart, and Julien scratched him behind his ears in the way he always had.
“If you weren't so lazy you could come and see me,” Julien replied. “Or does Master Subadar lock you in at night?”
“Can you imagine me wandering through the corridors of the Tower on my own? I'd probably scare everyone!”
“Then ask Aïn to jump you over to my kang. I'm sure he won't mind doing that.”
Master Subadar entered the library.
“Good morning, My Lord,” he said. “And no, I certainly don't lock Yol in at night, but it's still partly my fault that he doesn't come to visit you, because I keep him talking a lot. We have a lot to tell each other. But, seriously, I won't mind at all if he gets a chance to get out now and again. I'll have a word with Aïn. He's probably very busy, but his young disciple Wakhann, the one who's been looking after your parents, is likely to have a bit of free time. Now that they can just about get by in Tünnkeh themselves they don't need him quite so much.”
“Well, it would be nice if he can come to visit me sometimes. And you'd be very welcome if you could drop by too, whenever you get a chance.”
“Thank you. So, shall we make a start?”
“Of course – but I think Xarax already knows how it works.”
“Indeed he does, but you still need some preparation for what you're going to meet.”
“I have met a Neh-kyong before, you know.”
“Yes, but there's a big difference between Tchenn Ril and the Neh-kyongs that you are going to summon.”
“Neh-kyongs, plural? I thought we only needed one of them?”
“Yes, we only need one, but you won't know exactly who you're talking to – it'll be more like a sort of public address, and the likelihood is that several entities will respond.”
“So not just Neh-kyongs, then?”
“Sadly, no. Obviously your call will be directed at them, but you won't be able to avoid other things listening in. But as long as you follow the procedure correctly, nothing should be able to cause you any real harm.”
“Er... what do you mean by 'real' harm, exactly?”
“Well, some of them will probably try to get inside your head. I advise you not to let them.”
“Trust me, I won't!”
“It might not be quite as easy as you think. Some of these entities might try to seduce you by presenting themselves as something highly desirable, or as something familiar to you. They'll probably offer convincing sights and feelings. If you give in to them you might find that you don't want to leave the Interworld for a very long time, and by then you'll have lost most of your vital force.”
“But surely Xarax can warn me if that happens? In fact I'd have thought he could stop me from being tempted in the first place.”
“Xarax won't be going with you.”
“What?! Why not?”
“He can stay with you and help you right through the process you'll need to go through in order to gain access to the Interworld, but he won't be able to enter it with you. It's only open to one person.”
“But... if I've understood you correctly, I could find myself stuck there forever!”
“Oh, not forever. But it could well be two or three days, and all the time you're there you'll have no nourishment. The main danger is dehydration. You could get very weak before you realise what state you're in, and then it's likely to be difficult to get back.”
“And has it ever happened that someone never came back?”
“It used to happen quite a lot, back in the past when the Knowledge needed to enter the Interworld was more readily available. But it hasn't happened for a very long time, because now only the greatest of the Masters of Arts are allowed to try.”
“Well, I suppose that's comforting. And what else am I likely to run into, apart from the sirens you mentioned?”
“We don't know for sure. It's not a place you can explore at your leisure, but we do know that some of its inhabitants are particularly hostile – at least, hostile from our point of view. But you'll be safe as long as you don't allow yourself to be ruled by fear. It's a bit like the Outside, and you've already been there, so you know what it's like, and that it isn't as awful as all that.”
“Oh, thanks, Subadar, that's really reassuring! I mean, it only took Xarax an eternity and a half to persuade me to keep my mind open in the middle of that nightmare!”
“I think you underestimate yourself, My Lord. Anyway, to start with you'll just make a few visits to the Interworld without trying to summon anything, just to get you used to its rather unusual atmosphere.”
“Do you really think we need to go galloping into this? I mean, there's no rush, surely? That damned depot has been there for centuries, and it's not going to fly away. And, anyway, they say it's well-nigh impossible to get there on foot, and on it's own it's not doing any harm. Surely all we need to do is to keep a bit of an eye on the place and turn back anyone who gets too close. That way I'd have a chance to train myself for this properly – I reckon about thirty years ought to be long enough.”
Subadar smiled, despite the seriousness of the situation, but he quickly managed to restore a serious countenance.
“That might be perfectly feasible if Nandak's malevolence hadn't stirred things up. While he was messing about with the various devices and containers there he damaged some storage tanks which held some substances which not only give off Tchiwa Nag Ser, the Black Light of Death, but also emit a subtle but deadly gas, one which can be detected only with the most sophisticated instruments. The good news – if there can be good news in a situation like this – is that the place sits in a kind of natural amphitheatre, and the high ground around it prevents the gas from escaping too easily. But this won't last. The gas is only escaping slowly, but eventually the whole valley will be full, and then the wind will start to disperse it. We don't know what will happen then, but there are certainly inhabited areas close enough to be contaminated. So that's why we have to deal with it as quickly as we can.”
“I see. Again, correct me if I'm wrong, and maybe I'm worrying about nothing here, but... are you saying that you want me to walk into a highly contaminated atomic dump? Because that sounds like a suicide mission – another one, in fact. I seem to be meeting a few of those recently.”
“What?! Of course not, My Lord – what sort of monster do you think I am?”
“Don't get angry, Subadar, I'm just asking.”
“You'll wear full protective equipment, a suit that will protect you against both Tchiwa Nag Ser and Tchiwa Lung, the Death Wind. There are a number of these suits in the Palace stores, kept in perfect condition.”
“Well, I suppose that's good to know. But isn't it going to make it more difficult for me if I have to wander about in the Interworld lugging a whole lot of protective gear? I mean, can't I contact a Neh-kyong somewhere else? After all, if it's anything like the Outside... well, space has no meaning there.”
“The Interworld is not the Outside. And the Neh-kyongs, as their name suggests – it means 'Place-keeper' – are extremely sensitive to location. That's why they can only interact with the physical world within certain fairly narrow boundaries. If you want a Neh-kyong to take possession of a place, you have to lead him to that exact place.”
“All right. I can't say that I'm overflowing with enthusiasm, but I suppose we'll have to do as you say. So we'd better start working, hadn't we?”
“Then first, My Lord, we need to go to the Narthex.”
“Can Xarax come with us?”
“Of course, My Lord.”
“Please Subadar, could you stop calling me 'My Lord' every ten seconds? Call me 'Julien', like my friends do. Right now I'd prefer not to keep being reminded that I'm the Emperor, because frankly I don't feel like an Emperor: I feel more like King of the Fools.”
“If that's what you want, Julien. Could you take my hand, please?”
Julien just had time to give Ugo a little wave before they stepped onto the klirk that was in the corner of the room. And then they were in the blue emptiness of the Narthex.
Slithy toves and borogoves
Although the situation was urgent Subadar didn't rush through the preparations, which took eleven days – eleven exhausting days during which Julien had to master complicated actions using facilities that until now he hadn't even known that he possessed. For instance, in order to 'Stabilise the Base of Reality' he had to 'Slow down the Conceptual Analysis', extend the 'Clear and Luminous Perception' and 'establish himself in the Continuous Flow of No-Time.' Quite apart from getting his head around this nonsense terminology he had to perform physical actions that would have been utterly impossible for his untrained mind without Xarax's help. As he had done when they were trapped in the Outside, he once again allowed Xarax full access to his mind and allowed himself to be guided by the haptir, whose limitless patience and constant attention to detail finally achieved wonders.
But although Master Subadar kept telling him that he was making great progress, Julien himself felt that he was achieving absolutely nothing. Often he didn't even understand what he was supposed to do, and when he finally achieved his goal, thanks to a great deal of help from Xarax, he left the Narthex with the absolute certainty that he could never achieve the same result without help. And as for performing these actions in order to master time, space and reality while lost in the middle of a weird, insubstantial place and surrounded by hordes of mostly hostile creatures – that was completely out of the bloody question.
He found it more and more difficult to hide his exhaustion and worry when he returned to his kang at the end of each day, and to add to his problems, by now Dillik was starting to suspect that something had gone wrong with the friendship between Julien and Niil. Dillik was suffering himself: Julien was constantly tired and depressed, and he found himself badly missing Ambar's ebullient personality. Karik had warned him sternly not to raise the subject, but finally on the eleventh evening he couldn't hold back any longer.
“Julien,” he asked, “when is Ambar coming back?”
Julien was too tired to be able to think of a way to change the subject.
“It's not my decision,” he said.
“But you're the Emperor. You only have to ask him to come back and he will!”
“That's not how it works. Ambar is a Ksantiri, and he does what his brother tells him to, because his brother is First Lord.”
“But why won't Niil let him come back, then? I bet Ambar's asked if he can.”
“I'm sure he has, but I expect there's a good reason why he can't.”
“Well, I think you had a row, and that's why.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“'Cos since Nandak's trial you've been different. Even I can see that. Yes, you tried to make out that you were having fun, but I know you weren't really. And just lately you've stopped even pretending, so...”
“Dillik, it's not as simple as that.”
“Of course it isn't simple! You're working yourself into the ground and you're tired all the time. I don't know what to do about it, but I can tell it isn't doing you any good. Xarax keeps telling me to shut up, so I'll shut up, but still...”
“Xarax, let him say what he's thinking.”
The haptir, who was curled up on his young friend's lap, gave a shiver that looked a lot like a shrug.
“Well, I don't reckon it's fair,” Dillik went on. “First, Niil ought to be helping you instead of causing trouble. 'Cos I don't know what it is you do all day, but it certainly isn't a lot of fun. And if you're not having fun then you must be doing your job of Emperoring. And that job is supposed to 'protect the Nine Worlds from harm.' Well, Dvârinn is one of the Nine Worlds, isn't it? Besides, even if you're cross with each other and don't want to talk to each other no more, that isn't a reason why we can't see Ambar, is it? 'Cos Ambar's your friend, and I really like him, too. And when I think about him stuck there on his own, without us... well, that's not fair either.”
“If you want to visit him, it's easy enough – you just have to ask, and one of the Guides will take you to the Ksantiri First Trankenn. I'm sure Ambar will be happy to see you and that Niil won't do anything to stop you seeing him. Karik can go with you if you want. You could stay a few days and...”
“What do you take us for?” interrupted Dillik. “We're not going to leave you here on your own – are we, Karik? If we do decide to go and visit Ambar we'll make sure we're back by bedtime.”
“It might not be that easy. It's not the same time here as it is on the trankenn.”
“We don't care! Ambar will be happy to see us, even if it's just for a few minutes in the middle of the night!”
“All right, then. Actually, I think it's a good idea. Give Ambar a big hug from me.”
Karik and Dillik had already decided that Julien shouldn't be left to sleep without at least two friends to keep him company, and when he tried to argue he was told that he couldn't be so cruel to his friends as to deny them the pleasure of sleeping with him. He wasn't fooled for a moment: he knew why they didn't want him left on his own. But he gave in gracefully and allowed his friends to sleep with him, one on each side. It didn't solve his problems, of course, but it did at least mean that he was able to sleep soundly at night.
Comments, reactions, questions and so on may as usual be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org