Chapter 76

Tu quoque frater?

“Why can't I go and visit Julien?”

Ambar was determined to get some answers to the questions that had been whirling around in his head for the past few days. It had taken a fair bit of cunning just to fix it so that he was at breakfast at the same time as his brother, who had seemed to be avoiding him and who had only spoken in monosyllables on the few occasions that they had met.

“Because you have to stay with your Family. You're a Ksantiri – and he said your place was here, remember? Anyway, you need a proper education.”

“I was getting a proper education in Aleth. Nobody seemed to think that wasn't going well.”

“Well; now you're getting one here.”

“And why hasn't he come to visit me?”

“Ambar, he's the Emperor of the R'hinz! He has other things to do.”

“All right, maybe he does have other things to do, but I'd be amazed if he couldn't find a few minutes to drop by for a visit. He didn't even say goodbye before he left.”

“He was in a rush. He told me to say goodbye to you for him, and I did.”

“So why doesn't he answer my letters?”

“Probably he hasn't got time.”

“I think you're hiding something from me.”

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“No. I just don't think you're telling me everything.”

“Perhaps you'd like to be invited to my private council meetings?”

“I'm not interested in your private council. I just want you to tell me what's going on.”

“There's nothing going on. And now I want to finish my breakfast in peace, because I have a pile of work waiting for me. So do you, I'm sure – you're not on holiday, you know.”

“I think maybe I'll go and visit Julien. Perhaps he'll tell me what's going on.”

“You're not going anywhere. The Guides have got better things to do than to carry you about the place whenever you feel like a change of scenery. You might not realise this, but using the Guides costs a fortune. If you saved up your pocket money for ten years you still couldn't afford it.”

“I didn't even know I had any pocket money!”

“You can access the House Ksantiri account if you want to buy sweetsnow or something.”

“I see. So maybe I'll go and ask Lady Axelia if she can lend me enough to cover my next ten years' worth of sweetsnow money, then.”

“I absolutely forbid you to go bothering my mother with trivia like that!”

“Oh, so now it's your mother, is it? When did I stop being your brother?”

“That's not what I meant.”

“It's exactly what you meant! And you're right, too. I knew this wasn't going to work right from the start. I tried to stop you taking me as your brother, and I shouldn't have let you talk me into it.”

“Don't say things like that – you're being ridiculous!”

“Well, I don't just want to stay here on my own being 'educated'.”

“But... you're not on your own!”

“I am, too. The other students – Hyalek, Trannyen and that lot – know perfectly well I'm not really your brother. And I promise you, they're not my friends, no matter how much they might put it on when anyone's watching! At least in Aleth I had some proper friends!”

“What about me? Aren't I your friend?”

“No! You're hiding things from me and you're stopping me from going to see my friends. That's not how friends treat each other. And don't try to tell me it's because it costs a lot, because I'm pretty sure Aïn would do it for nothing if I asked him.”

“Aïn isn't here, and in any case no Guide would take you anywhere without my permission.”

“Why not?”

“Because I'm First Lord of the Ksantiris, and my brother can't just wander about all over the Nine Worlds whenever he feels like it.”

“Well, give me your permission, then!”


“Why not?!”

“Because I'm not going to let you turn into a spoiled brat!”

“You're not my father! And in case you've forgotten, my father just got assassinated by our brother!”

“I'm head of the family and that makes me legally your tutor.”

“And you think that gives you the right to keep me stuck here?”


“Good, well at least I know where I stand now. Thank you, Noble Lord: I don't have any more questions.”

“Don't be like that!”

“Noble Lord and Noble Brother, I'm addressing you with proper respect, the way I was taught by the Honourable Master Kenntik, who teaches me manners and good behaviour. And now I beg Your Lordship to excuse me. The Honourable Master Sandeark has a mathematics lesson starting in a minute.”

“Stay here!”

“As you command, Noble Lord.”

“Ambar, you can't talk to me like that!”

“Noble Lord, you have just reminded me – more than once – of the respect which your rank commands. I'm talking to you exactly the same way as I would have talked to the Noble Lord Ylavan, if only I'd been lucky enough to have met him.”

“That's not true – you're talking to me the way you'd talk to a complete stranger!”

“With the greatest of respect, Noble Lord, I'm talking to you the way I should talk to someone who has complete power of life or death over me – which, as you've so carefully explained to me, you do. Now may I have your permission to leave your presence?”

“Yes, all right. Come back and see me this evening.”

“Noble Lord, I would advise you not to ask me to share your bed.”

“I wasn't intending to. But why would you 'advise me not to', as you put it?”

“Because people gossip. They pretend I can't hear them, but they know I can. And the gossip is that sharing your bed is the only reason you invited me to join your family.”

“Who would dare to say such a thing?”

“Noble Lord, not even you have the power to order me to tell tales. Can I go now? I'm already late and I'm probably going to be punished.”

“Just say you were with me.”

“Certainly not! I've got no intention of feeding the rumour-mill!”


Chapter 77


“The First Lord Niil is currently in Council and cannot be disturbed. I regret to have to advise you, Honourable Visitors, to arrange an appointment through his private secretary.”

“We'll do that,” said Karik.. “In the meantime I'm sure that the Noble Son Ambar will have a few moments free to receive us.”

“The Noble Brother Ambar does not meet anyone who has not been approved by the First Lord himself.”

“What's this nonsense? We're both members of the Imperial House!”

By now Karik was thinking that the joke had gone on long enough.

“Of course, Young Master,” said the usher, not looking remotely put out. “But here on this trankenn we answer only to the First Lord of the Ksantiris.”

“Well, at least tell him that we're here, then. I'm sure he'll find a moment to see us.”

“I can do nothing of the sort. But I can carry a written note from you to give to the First Lord when his council meeting ends.”

The smirk, together with the hint of scorn in the voice, clearly indicated that the usher was confident that Karik couldn't string two words together without making a complete mess of the complicated spelling, grammar and syntax of the formal Tünnkeh language. And Karik, brutally reminded that he had until very recently been no more than a slave, couldn't help blushing. But Dillik, who had kept quiet hitherto, suddenly butted in using the dialect peculiar to Djannak Island.

“Your Honour,” he said, “I shall write it myself. I'm sure Lord Niil will be delighted to get a message actually written in his own native tongue.”

Dillik obviously didn't know enough of the formal Court language to be able to write in it – in fact very few nobles could either, unless they had recourse to a specially trained secretary – but he'd got enough schooling behind him to be able to write a passable letter in his own dialect. The confused look on the usher's face spoke volumes, and that made Dillik feel very happy indeed, but he had another card still to play, an even better one. He switched back to Tünnkeh.

“I'm sorry, Your Honour,” he said. “I thought that on the First Trankenn of the Ksantiris all the important members of staff would be able to speak Lord Niil's mother tongue. I was saying that I would write the letter myself in his native language as a mark of our respect.”

“On second thoughts,” said the usher, “maybe we don't need to go through all that. I'll send a page to inform the First Lord of your presence.”

“No, I like the thought of the note – in fact I think it's an excellent idea. May I borrow a pen and some paper?”

The man had lost his superior stance, and backed down enough to allow Dillik to write in his best handwriting on the back of an administrative form:

Dear Niil,

Karik and I have come to see you and Ambar, but a Guard says you're too busy to see us and that if we want to see Ambar we have to ask your permission. I know it's complete nonsense and that you'd never stop us from seeing him, but that's how it is.

I hope you are well. Us, we're not too bad, but Julien's working all the time and he isn't too good. You ought to try to come visit us for a bit.

Anyway, hope you can find a few minutes to see us. Karik and I both send our love – if we're still allowed to do that!

He folded the note, sealed it and gave it to the waiting page. Then he turned to the usher and asked, “Do you think we'll have to wait long for an answer?”

“I don't know, but if you'd like to take a seat I'll have some refreshments brought for you.”

There wasn't even time for the refreshments to arrive: Niil came into the room and dismissed the man with a curt nod. He wasn't smiling: instead his face showed clearly the stress he was under. He stopped short, seeming not to be sure how he should greet his visitors, but before the situation could turn awkward Dillik ran to him and hugged him, and Karik was right behind him, and the three-way hug was so emotionally charged that Niil, already weakened by the tension of the past few days, burst into tears.

When he finally got himself back under control the first thing he said was, “Come on – we're going to get Ambar.”

Master Sandeark was trying to teach his students the basics of 'Elements of Spherical Geometry,' an essential discipline when trying to ascertain one's position on the infinite expanse of the open ocean, when his class was interrupted by the First Lord himself, accompanied by two boys dressed in the abba of the Imperial House, bursting into the room. However, Master Sandeark raised no objection and freed without a word of protest – though not without regret – his strangely promising pupil, who was in fact particularly promising when one considered his almost complete lack of knowledge of some other disciplines.


Five minutes later they were sitting in the First Lord's luxurious kang, the refreshments had arrived and it was time for some serious talking. But instead of Niil making the first speech, it was Ambar who started things off.

“Niil,” he said, “I'm really sorry. I shouldn't have said what I did this morning. I didn't mean it.”

“What in particular didn't you mean?” asked Niil, with a hint of a smile. “That I have the power of life and death over you, or that I was hiding things from you?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do, and... well, no hard feelings. But you were right: I was keeping things from you. And I have to confess that I had your letters intercepted, too.”

Nobody gave any outward reaction to hearing an admission of such appalling behaviour: everyone was keeping their face a mask while waiting for someone else to respond first.

“I know it was wrong,” Niil went on. “I mean, I didn't actually read them, or anything, but I was furious with Julien. We'd had a massive argument, you see.”

“An argument?” exclaimed Ambar. “What about?”

“About him forcing me to become First Lord. I never wanted the job. And I still don't.”

“But you can't blame Julien just because Nandak not only killed our father but also messed it up so badly that it might have brought the entire House down with him! And you have to admit that, if he hadn't died, Nekal as First Lord would have been an absolute nightmare!”

“There are plenty of other people in the Family who would be delighted to be sitting where I'm sitting.”

“Yes, but you're the one who's worthy of it. I mean, he said that in front of everyone, didn't he? And I know he really meant it, too. I bet he hasn't changed his mind, either. And I agree with him – and if it wasn't true we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation now!”

“What makes you think you know why Julien did it? As far as I know you're not the Emperor.”

“No, but I understand Julien better than you think. He hasn't always been the Emperor. He doesn't come from a Noble Family, and I think that when he came back – and remember that that only happened because we needed him – he could see what people thought of the Noble Lords around these parts. Yes, Lord Ylavan was respected, but he was away a lot, and Nandak and Nekal between them made the Ksantiris so unpopular that... well, you know about that. I'm sure Julien thought that their death was a good thing for a lot of people. And it gave him an opportunity to do something that he thought would be really good.”

“But he didn't ask me! He didn't talk to me about it in advance – not a single bloody word!”

“That's true, and I don't know why. You'll have to ask him yourself.”

“If I'm going to do that I'll have to meet him.”

“That's no problem – we can go back with Karik and Dillik. And it won't cost anything, either – I won't even have to ask our mother for an advance on my pocket-money!”

“All right, don't rub it in. I'll send a message to Lord Tahlil. Perhaps I'll be able to persuade him to leave his precious shipyard for a bit and stand in for me here.”

“Aïn is here,” Karik pointed out. “I said I wouldn't leave until we seen you, and he agreed to wait. I'm sure he'll be willing to go and collect Lord Tahlil for you if you ask him nicely.”


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