Once again Julien was tired out, but at least this time he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had finally mastered – more or less – the techniques needed to access the Interworld while remaining in something approaching a normal universe. This time he'd managed it without Xarax's help, and Master Subadar had declared that he was as ready as he was ever going to be. Of course he needed a couple of days to recover and build up his strength, and then he would be ready for the actual operation.
He stood on the terrace on top of Bakhtar Tower and looked out over Aleth: the city glittered in the late afternoon sun. A lot of work had been needed to restore the terrace to its former glory following the damage caused by their catastrophic arrival at the end of the attack by the ghorrs, but it was almost complete now and they were polishing the blue agate flagstones By now Julien had reached the stage of considering this city his home: it was a place where life was good in spite of his worries and the burden of his responsibilities, and a place in which his parents were also beginning to settle and make plans for a new life for themselves, plans which did not depend upon the generosity of House Bakhtar or – more disturbingly – the will of their son.
Xarax was curled up on the parapet by his shoulder, and he looked exhausted, too: his usual bright colours had faded towards a dull grey, and Julien knew that it was time to replenish him with the energy he needed. But although Julien wanted to make sure that Xarax was properly cared for, the prospect of feeding him still didn't appeal to him at all, and he needed all his strength to even mention the subject. Perhaps the worst part of the whole business was that Xarax knew only too well how much the process hurt his friend, which was why Julien had to put his foot down each time and insist that Xarax take the energy he needed, despite the fact that he hated the barbarous ritual as much as the haptir did.
All the same, this didn't make him dislike his strange friend, especially since he could see the changes that his unusual quasi-symbiotic relationship with Dillik had brought about in him. He still occasionally spoke of himself in the third person, but not very often, and he had developed a dry sense of humour that certainly hadn't been there before. He'd also started to display a sort of gentle affection, which showed itself in the way he would jump up on to your shoulder or your lap, rather as if his scaly skin concealed a friendly cat. Or, to put it more simply, in a lot of ways the Haptir of Kretzlal seemed to have become almost human.
Julien left the terrace and made his way down to those levels which now housed, almost exclusively, the Imperial services. Occasionally he would pass a guard or a messenger in the corridors, and he never failed to offer a smile in response to their quiet salutes. As usual Xarax melted into their surroundings and flew ahead of him just to make sure that nothing unexpected was lying in wait for him, but all the same when he opened the door to his kang he got a surprise: Niil, who also looked as if he'd spent a few bad days, was waiting for him there. Julien's first impulse was to run and throw himself into Niil's arms, but he managed to restrain himself. Instead he just smiled and raised his eyebrows.
“I came so we could talk,” said Niil, in reply to the unasked question. “Karik and Dillik came to see me, and I realised that we can't go on like this. They're waiting next door with Ambar, but I thought it would be better if we just spoke on our own to start with.”
Julien collapsed into a chair – he was exhausted.
“Sorry,” he said. “I'm shattered. Look, I'm really glad you came, because I think we both went a bit stupid last time we spoke.”
Niil poured him a glass of raal and sat down too.
“I'm still mad at you, you know,” he said. “I really don't understand how you could do that to me – and without warning me in advance, too.”
“I don't understand it either,” admitted Julien. “At the time it seemed to be the best thing to do: you were obviously the most worthy of succeeding your father – in fact there was absolutely no question about it. And I haven't changed my mind about that, either. But it's strange: a moment before I wasn't even thinking about it. I'd discussed it with Aldegard, Tahlil and even Tannder, and they'd all advised me to wait for a bit before making an official decision on who was to be the next First Lord. And I had no problem with that. But at the end of the meeting, when I got up to deliver my little prepared speech, I realised that it had to be you and nobody else. It just seemed blindingly obvious. And so I went ahead and did it. I can only ask you to try to forgive me. If it helps, I think Aldegard wanted to yell at me over it when I saw him just after you left. I don't think he liked me not following his advice. Tahlil, on the other hand... he seemed perfectly happy.”
“What about me? Didn't you think I might not want the job?”
“Well, to be honest, no. I know that just seems ridiculous now, and I still can't understand why I didn't realise that it might make you unhappy. But that's what happened.”
“But I still don't get it. I thought you were my friend. Is that the way you treat all your friends?”
“Niil, I am your friend. I wouldn't hesitate for one moment to offer my life if I thought it would save you. Anyway, I've been thinking about it a lot since that day. Yesterday I talked to Tannder about it...”
“And he says that what I did was exactly what Yulmir would have done. He thinks that the way I can do some things, like using a klirk, without having to be taught how, indicates that I've inherited some of Yulmir's abilities. And apparently he was known for making immediate decisions, often against the advice of his councillors, and as far as anyone can say, every one of them worked out well for the Nine Worlds.”
“Well, that makes your job easy, then: you can do and say whatever you want and nobody's going to argue with you.”
“No, it isn't easy! It's not like deciding which flavour of sweetsnow you're going to eat: these are decisions that affect peoples' lives, and I have to bear the consequences. For instance, what I did to you made you really unhappy, and I might have lost my best friend.”
“I thought Ambar was your best friend?”
“No, Ambar's something completely different. I'm not sure what he is, to be honest – I'm not sure there's a word for it, or if there is, I don't know what it is. You're my best friend – actually, you're probably my only real friend. There's nobody to compare with you, not even Ambar.”
“I'm not jealous, you know.”
“Really? I think everyone is capable of jealousy. And if I was in your shoes and I'd seen my brand new little brother suddenly looking up to a boy who had appeared out of nowhere, I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have been happy about it, especially if that boy turns out to be the Emperor. But it's not like we're chasing the same boy, Niil: Ambar loves you. I can absolutely guarantee that. It's just that he loves you as a brother should. You're not going to hold that against him, I hope?”
The embarrassed look on Niil's face spoke volumes.
“My father has always told me,” Julien went on, “that there's no harm in being jealous, just as long as you don't stay jealous. He says that once you let yourself get poisoned by jealousy or envy you can only see the bad side of everything He reminded me that sometimes I used to go off in a sulk and I'd stay that way even after I'd forgotten what I was sulking about, and he says that letting jealousy eat you up is like that, only worse. After a bit you stop seeing any way to turn things around and instead, somewhere deep inside, you just want things to get even worse. I think that's partly what happened to Nandak and Nekal – well, that and the fact that they were both as thick as pig-shit...”
“All right, that's enough,” said Niil. “You've made your point. But it was still a dirty trick to play on me. You've got no idea what it's like, being a First Lord! It's like I'm a prisoner – there's an endless queue of people bringing me papers to sign, or wanting to ask for my advice. It's an unending heap of boring crap to deal with. And just to make it even more fun, three-quarters of the family are just waiting for me to cock it up. So far I haven't really got anything wrong, but sooner or later I will. And then...”
“Niil, if we can start talking to each other properly again I swear I'll find a way to help you. Right now I'm too knackered to think about it, but I have got one or two ideas and I've got some decent councillors to get advice from. So can we try?”
Niil said nothing.
“Look,” said Julien, “I'm not asking you to jump into bed with me... well, not just yet, anyway. I'd just like us to stop hurting each other and making everyone else's life a misery.”
“I'm starving,” commented Niil instead of answering the question. “What time do we eat around here?”
Ambar managed not to throw himself at Julien or smother him with kisses. He was aware that the truce between Niil and Julien was fragile, and so he simply offered Julien a soft cheek, and Julien kissed it with equal restraint. But the slightly tense atmosphere became a little easier during the meal when Julien made an announcement.
“We've all got two days off,” he told them. “By order of Master Subadar. Maybe even three days. Xarax and I have been working really hard, but we need a break.”
“I'd noticed that Xarax looks a bit washed out,” commented Dillik.
“I suppose all this work you're doing is to get ready for the operation on Djannak that Tannder told me about?” asked Niil.
“Well, yes – but let's not talk about work while we're eating. Anyway, Karik and Dillik have been given time off from their lessons, and I hope you will be too, Ambar, if that's all right with Niil. And now that you're here, Niil, I think you ought to award yourself a break too. You shouldn't let your councillors treat you like a slave.”
“Tahlil won't be happy if I drag him away from his shipyard,” commented Niil.
“His son – Tengtehal, wasn't it? - can fill in for him for a couple of days. If it's all right with you I'll get Aïn to make the arrangements. Of course, if you feel you have to rush straight back...”
“Well, no. I think I'd sooner put up with you.”
“I suppose that's something. So perhaps we can start by having a nice lie-in tomorrow.”
“You call that resting?!” exclaimed Karik.
The laughter that followed this comment dispelled most of the remaining tension. To be fair to Karik, most of the 'lie-ins' the boys had taken in the past had involved subjecting Karik to various erotic experiments, which were often extremely interesting, but which invariably left him feeling drained, in every sense of the word.
“Well, it's that or a grammar lesson,” said Julien.
“I'll take the grammar lesson!” declared Karik.
“Then I propose that tomorrow we let this scaredy-cat sleep in peace. We'll just settle for a late breakfast.”
It was really good to have Ambar's comforting presence beside him once more, but no matter how much Julien would have liked to prolong the moment, he was too tired to stay awake for very long.
He woke up before dawn, as he had programmed himself to do, and made his way quietly to Dillik's room, where Xarax was sleeping curled up against the boy's body. The haptir opened his eyes before Julien could touch him and they went together to the bathroom, where Julien had decided to carry out the dreaded but nonetheless essential task of restoring Xarax's reserves of energy. They both thought that there was no need for Dillik to witness this unfortunate aspect of his beloved haptir's life.
Once the preparations were complete and the bright vortex of the Yel had ceased invading his body Julien braced himself against the blinding pain which usually accompanied Xarax's bite into his jugular vein. But this time, although he felt the sharp prick of the teeth, the unbearable wave of pain failed to materialise. All that remained was the usual slightly nauseous feeling of being close to passing out, followed, as soon as he dropped the sponge he was holding, by the customary flood of excitement which caused his penis to become erect.
It worked! said Xarax inside his head. Xarax thought that the Neh-kyong was telling the truth, but I didn't want to tell you until I was completely sure!
It took a moment for Julien to start thinking clearly again and to realise what Xarax had just told him.
The Neh-kyong? What does Tchenn Ril have to do with anything?
He was the one who gave me this gift! He asked if I wanted anything from him. First I said that I was sure that I could never desire anything, but he insisted, and it seemed important to him. He asked if perhaps I had a wish, even if it was something that I thought he couldn't grant. Then Xarax said that he wished he could feed without causing you pain. And he said that if that was what I truly desired, he would do it. And he did!
But... how is that possible?
Xarax no longer has any venom!
But... did you know he was going to do that?
Of course Xarax knew. Every gift has its price. But the venom is not important.
But it leaves you unarmed!
Xarax still has his claws. And most people are so afraid when they see a haptir that they only want to run away. You may know that I have no venom, but my enemies will not.
Xarax, I don't know what to say, except thank you very much. But I still think you shouldn't have done it.
Xarax could not stand hurting you any longer. Now I must get back to Dillik's bed and have a nap. He likes me to be there when he wakes up.
Tchiwa Ri Kor
They knew it could only mean bad news when Tannder burst in on them while they were having their breakfast, and what he had to say simply confirmed it.
“My Lord,” he said, “strong winds are forecast for Djannak Island within no more than two days. That would probably make it impossible to get there by flybubble for quite a long period. Worse, the wind is likely to come from the south-west, and if it does it could blow the poison gas towards inhabited areas, and maybe even as far as Ksantir.”
Julien sighed, because obviously his plan to relax with his friends had just gone out of the window.
“All right, Tannder,” he said. “Just give me two minutes to say goodbye to my friends and I'll be right there.”
“If you're going back to Dvârinn I'm coming with you,” said Niil. “Ambar can stay here – there's no reason to mess up his holiday. At least he can stay here with his friends.”
“But I want to come with you!” protested Ambar.
“No,” said Niil, firmly. “I'm going with Julien, because it's the least I can do after... well... and in any case it's my duty as First Lord of the Ksantiris. But I don't want you going anywhere near that place.”
Ambar possessed the rare quality of knowing when to keep quiet when faced with an insurmountable argument. He did his best to hide his disappointment and his fears for their safety during their exchange of goodbyes which hid their real thoughts under a façade of good humour, because although he didn't know exactly what was facing Julien he was pretty sure it was going to be dangerous.
They stayed at the First House in Ksantir only long enough to put on the protective suits that had been adjusted to fit them, and then they began the journey to Djannak. The flybubble they were using was a dull grey colour, nothing like the beautiful multicoloured machines that Julien had admired so much on Nüngen. But although it wasn't very pretty it was a fair bit faster than the ones on Nüngen had been, and it also had an enclosed, and apparently airtight, gondola. Tannder told them that the gas envelope was worth a fortune because it was made from the same material as a hatik and was therefore almost impossible to puncture. This came as good news to the boys, who hadn't forgotten their last flybubble journey or the crash that ended it.
It was early afternoon, and the cloudless sky gave them a perfect view of the landscape beneath them. Julien recognised the place where he had gone to meet Ugo, and then they reached more mountainous country. The flybubble entered a canyon with near-vertical walls of reddish rock, and this led them, after a series of twists and turns, into a large natural amphitheatre surrounded by impassible cliffs. The still waters of a small lake reflected the image of the flybubble as it descended to land on the shore.
“The warehouse is hidden, My Lord,” explained Master Subadar. “Actually it's that big mass of fallen rocks at the base of the cliff over there. But you don't need to go inside. It would be best to call the Neh-kyong from here. Do you feel ready?”
“I don't think anyone could ever feel ready for that, Subadar. But I'm going to do it anyway.”
“Whatever you do, don't take your mask off, unless you want to end up like Na...”
At the last moment Subadar stopped himself from mentioning Nandak's name out of consideration for Niil, and went on instead, “Like others who didn't take the necessary precautions.”
“You've already told me that more times than I can remember. Don't worry, I'll be careful.”
Niil wanted to say something but found that his voice wouldn't work properly, and so he just squeezed Julien's shoulder as he stepped into the airlock.
Julien climbed down the few rungs to the ground, walked about ten metres away and then watched the flybubble ascend slowly and almost silently into the air until it was about a hundred metres above him, and there it stopped, a huge oblong form which looked dark and somehow almost threatening as it hung motionless in the completely still air. He gave a last wave to those who were watching him from up there and then started to put himself into the state of semi-trance he would need in order to open the gates of the Interworld.
He'd been through the operation several times in the past few days, first within the safe environment of the Narthex, then in a secluded corner of the garden around Bakhtar Tower, and so by now he knew about the strange environment of the Interworld. It was completely different from the howling chaos of the Outside: the Interworld was more or less a calm limbo where time didn't really matter. There wasn't a real landscape there either, because everything there, while it had a physical existence, seemed to lack proper definition, not least because the forms that existed there did so in several different dimensions in a way that neither the senses nor the intellect could properly grasp. A hill was still a hill, but in an environment where up and down, left and right, near and far, were inadequate terms to describe anything – and so a hill was also something else: it had what might be called 'additional reality' in a way that both blurred and sharpened the vision of anyone trying to look at it. This was highly disconcerting, and could easily lead to the viewer becoming fixated and fascinated by it to a fatal degree.
Colours, too, extended far beyond the normally-visible spectrum, and because of the lack of a proper frame of reference to describe them they seemed to overflow into other senses, hearing and smell for example. Or sometimes everything came together in a sort of holistic flash, until the viewer thought he was surrounded by something that held the key to understanding the entire universe.
It had taken Julien hours of hard training before he was actually able to think clearly in this environment. And once he'd finally managed that he had to move on to being able to create in his mind the image which would produce, in the hyperspace of the Interworld, a signal or call that was powerful enough to attract the attention of a Neh-kyong. In order to do that he performed a complicated dance, the rhythm of which helped him to coordinate the sequence of movements and mental images that he would then repeat, over and over, until he attracted the attention of a Neh-kyong. If only he had had a little round deer-skin drum his strangely-gesticulating shape would have looked exactly like that of a tribal shaman back on Earth.
It only took a few minutes of normal time before his call started to attract some onlookers. He could feel their presence, as if huge beasts were coming to sniff at him. He knew that most of them had no more intelligence than the average cow, but he could also sense that, somewhere among them, there was the sharper signal of a Neh-kyong. He stopped performing his ritual.
“Human-Julien Berthier-Emperor of the R'hinz ka aun li Nügen-Lord of the Nine Worlds-Only Keeper of the Powers and Gifts. To whom are you calling?”
The voice resounding in his head, although it also possessed its own timbre and individuality, was similar to Tchenn Ril's and was undoubtedly that of a Neh-kyong. And indeed there was a Neh-kyong standing before him, impossible to define clearly but radiating a great curiosity. As Subadar had warned him would be the case, Julien was aware that the Neh-kyong already knew exactly why he was there because it had complete access to his mind. It was possible to erect a sort of mental screen that would have offered him a certain level of privacy from the probing of a Neh-kyong, but it took a great deal of training and in any case it wasn't really necessary for this mission.
“I'm calling a Neh-kyong so that he can take possession of a part of the world of Dvârinn and make it his own forever,” Julien replied.
“This is a rich place,” said the Neh-kyong, “and it contains an abundance of precious energy. What would a Neh-kyong have to pay in exchange for the opportunity to feed and take up his residence in it for all time? Every gift has a price, and this is a gift of great value.”
“He would have to make sure that no creature of this universe crossed his threshold or, if it succeeded in doing so by trickery or by force, that it would never leave it again, either dead or alive. He would also have to ensure that no noxious substance ever escaped from this place into the surrounding area.”
“Do you have the power to make such a covenant?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And are you aware that if you do not in fact have this power, the deal will kill you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then I declare that this place, called Tchiwa Ri Kor, will henceforth be my exclusive domain, and that once you and those who travelled here with you have left no creature will enter it without losing his life or, if they should somehow enter by stealth or by force, they will not leave it again, either alive or dead. Chaos is my witness, and I will trade a Drop of your blood for an Instant of my life.”
And then during a moment that seemed to have no duration but which would remain etched on Julien's memory for the rest of his life, he actually became the Neh-kyong Tchiwa Ri Kor. He saw how easily he was able to bypass the feeble protection of Julien's radiation suit and take from within his heart a drop of blood, at that instant actually becoming, for a fleeting moment, Julien, with complete and unrestricted access to his being. Later he would try to describe what it was like to be a Neh-kyong, but no human language would have been sufficient to do that. He would only be able to remember how, seen through the Neh-kyong's perception, this sinister and poisonous environment was transformed into a paradise filled with vital energy and pure pleasure. And he also understood in that moment the warning he had been given, because this moment of overwhelming unity with the Keeper of this place exceeded anything that a normal human mind could have withstood, and he knew for certain that the only reason that it did not destroy his mind was because he truly possessed the power to make this covenant.
The return journey was uneventful. Once the pact was sealed Julien signalled to the flybubble, and once he was aboard they headed back towards Ksantir, which – as soon as they were a safe distance away - allowed everyone to get out of their cumbersome suits. Then Julien, using information he had collected from the Neh-kyong's mind, drew a circle on a map indicating the exact limits of the domain of Tchiwa Ri Kor, the Circle of Death Mountains, in order that all access to it could be blocked and titanium warning signs could be erected so that anyone who chanced that way would know in advance what would happen to him if he failed to turn back.
Once they got back to the First House in Ksantir Niil took Julien to a private study.
“Thank you,” he said.
Julien looked surprised. “What for?” he asked.
“Well, you've removed a serious danger from our island.”
“I don't think much of that was actually down to me.”
“You're the one who invoked a Neh-kyong.”
“That's not all that difficult once you know how.”
“Really? To be honest, they give me the creeps.”
“They're not usually hostile as long as you don't try to steal their territory, and the one I met today was a good one. There was nothing to be afraid of.”
“Well, thanks anyway.”
“All right. Of course, I didn't do that for free. I want a reward.”
Now it was Niil's turn to look surprised.
“Really?” he said. “Well, all right. What is it that you want?”
“I want you to take three days off and to come and spend them with us.”
“Tahlil won't be happy if I do that.”
“Let me worry about Tahlil. He'll be only too happy to do me a favour. In any case he'll need to stay here for a few more days in order to oversee the blockages and warning signs around Tchiwa Ri Kor. Still, if you don't fancy spending three wonderful days on a lake-shore in Paradise I'm not going to twist your arm...”
“All right, all right! It'll mean postponing what I'm sure would have been a fascinating visit to the coal mine at Tang'aleen, but I expect I'll find a way to manage my disappointment...”
Rüpel Gyamtso Lake was a three hour flight away from Aleth, which meant three wonderful hours gliding gently through the cool morning air, sitting in comfortable seats and enjoying an excellent breakfast as they flew. They were in the open gondola of an Imperial flybubble which had been taken out of storage at the palace and carefully serviced especially for this journey. Tannder was piloting it and Ugo had happily allowed them to talk him into coming with them. They were three or four hundred metres up and the visibility was perfect, and so they could see every detail of the landscape below them as it was lit up by the morning sun.
They left the beautiful towers and large hillside estates of Aleth behind them and flew on over an area of low hills where cultivated fields alternated with carefully-managed woodland. There were a number of small villages, which suggested a reasonably large population, and they noticed that all of the vehicles on the roads were pulled by animals, mostly lang-gos like the ones they had hired on Dvârinn. Niil confirmed that these very useful animals were able to function in any of the human worlds.
Soon the air began to warm up and the gondola began to receive visits from a large number of multicoloured insects that rested for a while before flying off on their normal business, whatever that might have been. Ambar said that this was the right season for dzeboos, or 'nice insects', a generic term covering a large variety of flying creatures whose carapaces gleamed like polished metal, making them appear jewel-like. Almost all of them were harmless. One or two varieties had developed the unfortunate trait of drinking the blood of mammals, but Ambar said that they usually only drank the blood of the placid lang-gos, who were more or less unconcerned by their bites. Julien thought that was a good thing, because some of these scarab-like creatures were of an impressive size. Every now and again Ugo would catch one with a snap of his jaws, and he said that they tasted a lot better than the wasps and beetles he had eaten on Earth.
The lake was almost big enough to be considered an inland sea, but although a small number of fishing-folk lived along the shoreline their settlements were far enough apart to leave great swathes of wilderness and endless little isolated creeks where you could happily pretend to be Robinson Crusoe. They flew above the shoreline for a while, gradually losing height, and eventually they landed on a beach of white sand, similar to a number of others they had already flown over. They disembarked, and immediately three Imperial guards emerged from the nearby trees and went on board the aircraft, which flew back the way it had come.
They followed Tannder into the trees, and about a hundred metres along a little gravel path they came to an area where the trees were more widely spaced, and in a clearing they could see a house made of some grey wood with a verandah all around it. An elderly butler wearing the Imperial Marks appeared and greeted them with a formal deference that was clearly intended to discourage any familiarity, but by now Julien had got used to Court manners and he had no intention of letting the snobbery of a lot of puffed up, self-important staff members dictate his own behaviour and spoil his fun. So he asked for the butler's name and then gave him some polite but firm instructions.
“Honourable Tenngar,” he said, “my friends and I are here to relax. Please be good enough to inform the entire staff that I forbid the use of the High Speech during our stay. You could also tell them that smiling is not illegal, and that laughing would be actively encouraged. Any member of staff who really wants to look as if he's at his mother's funeral is cordially invited to take a few days off – I'm sure the Imperial Treasury will continue to pay him. If it comes down to it we are actually capable of doing our own cooking and making our own beds. I hope,” (and here he gave a most dazzling smile) “that you'll forgive me from disrupting the normal running of the house.”
The man paused while he took this in and decided that he wasn't actually shocked by such a breach of etiquette.
“Your Lo... that is, no, My Lord. I'll convey your orders to the staff immediately. And I am sure that every member of staff will find themselves able to smile for you and your guests.”
He even managed to illustrate this with a smile of his own. Clearly he was very much out of practice with such facial contortions and the result looked more like a grimace than a smile, but at least the thought was there.
After they had settled into the two large bedrooms that had been prepared for them they decided to have a dip in the lake before lunch. Tannder led them to a little wooden jetty at one end of the beach where a few small boats were tied up. Some of these had sails and some didn't, but Tannder ignored all of them and strode on to the far end of the jetty, where he whistled through his fingers. Julian remembered the large aquatic animal that had come in answer to Izkya's call during his first day on Nüngen, so he wasn't entirely surprised when a large hump-shaped wave appeared and headed towards them at high speed. And then it broke the surface and he saw the immense eyes and the top of the head of something that had to be very large indeed.
“It's a Lou Tchenn,” Tannder told him. “He and some of his friends have chosen to live here, and they consider themselves to be in the service of your house. They've been providing the sort of services you'd expect them to for several generations now – keeping dangerous creatures out of the bay and pulling boats whenever they're given a chance to do so – so don't hesitate to ask, because they enjoy it and they get something out of it too. I expect Karik and Ambar know the basic vocabulary...?”
They confirmed that they did.
“Then I'm going back to the house,” said Tannder. “While there's a Lou Tchenn in the area you don't need me to watch over you.”
Actually Tannder just went a little way into the wood, stopping in a place where he could still keep an eye on the beach without interfering with the boys' impression of being absolutely free.
The Lou Tchenn turned out to be a lot more than a mere aquatic rickshaw-puller. It was about the size of a killer whale and was certainly as intelligent, and once it was used to its new companions it showed a similar playful nature. Back on Earth Julien had never had the pleasure of swimming naked in water that was exactly the right temperature, because the prudish nature of the age forced just about everyone over the age of four into swimming trunks. And he'd certainly never dreamed of finding himself swimming naked in the company of a friendly monster that was always ready to pull you through the water at an amazing speed or to hurl you out of it in a series of spectacular somersaults.
It was good playing with one Lou Tchenn, but when a couple of others came to join in the fun it became a truly wonderful experience. And although Ugo wasn't really a dog he had always liked jumping and splashing about in the sea, even when it was cold, and he was more than happy to join in the games, abandoning all dignity as he chased after the sticks and stones which the boys threw for him. This activity confused Julien's friends at first, but they soon started following his example, and Ugo chased everything happily. They also discovered that this respectable Guide loved having a tug-of-war with a stick, refusing to let go even when the boys spun him round by it – in fact he seemed to enjoy that most of all.
When they started to feel peckish Tannder reappeared with his usual perfect timing, carrying a big basket of golden fritters which were, he said, the favourite food of the huge guardians of the bay, and the boys found that tossing the golden morsels into the creatures' toothy mouths was strangely satisfying.
The torrid heat of the afternoon gave them no incentive to leave the cool conditions inside the house, and actually the snowy sheets on the beds beckoned them to rest for a while. Ambar was very keen to take advantage of the fact that, for once, Julien was able to dedicate himself to his friend without being distracted by work, but it turned out that the fun and games of the morning had exhausted them to such an extent that they fell asleep as soon as they got into bed, only waking up, blearily, when the sun was well past its zenith.
While they were drinking iced fruit drinks Tenngar, who was doing his best to address the air over his heads rather than their naked persons, told them that if they felt so inclined this was the perfect time of day to go sailing, as the wind could generally be counted on to blow for two or three hours at this time. His sense of duty compelled him to add, regretfully, that it would be wise to wear at least a laï for sailing, because the combination of direct sunlight and the light reflected by the water would cause burning even for those who didn't have sensitive skin. Julien, who knew from personal experience exactly what the butler was talking about, thanked him for the advice and set a good example by choosing, not a laï, but a light abba whose hood would protect him from sunstroke or a sunburnt nose. Ambar, who wasn't cursed with Julien's milky complexion, chose a scandalously transparent laï which somehow accomplished the feat of revealing more of him than than when he was wearing nothing at all!
The small sailing boats had obviously been built for speed and were fitted with two outriggers, transforming them into outrageously over-rigged trimarans which called for careful handling: a distracted helmsman could rapidly lose control, causing the vessel to swerve wildly in a way that would have destroyed larger boats, and which was quite violent enough to throw the crew overboard. The Lou Tchenns were then essential to help right the boats and rescue the crew. Ugo quickly realised that he couldn't possibly hope to stay aboard one of these racing vessels, and after falling into the lake for the second time he decided to stay on dry land, dozing at the edge of the wood while listening to the cries and laughter of the boys out on the lake.
They weren't the only people sailing on the lake, but it was so large that they only caught a glimpse of a distant sail now and again, and those were far too far away to come into contact with them.
At sunset they returned to the house, where supper was waiting for them, and after that they went straight to bed, where once again sleep overwhelmed them almost at once.
They had gone to bed very early, and so Julien was not entirely surprised to be woken up while it was still dark by the entirely predictable arrival of Dillik, who had wriggled into the space between himself and Ambar, who was actually sleeping spread-eagled in a way that would have occupied the whole bed in a land less generous with the dimensions of its mattresses.
“Will you take me for a pee?” asked Dillik.
Julien sighed, because he knew perfectly well where this apparently innocent request was leading. Xarax would no doubt have been willing to surrender his wings, and indeed his life, for his friend, but with the best will in the world the leathery hide of a haptir is never going to feel as soft as the skin of a boy, and even though Xarax's powerful claws were no doubt capable of manipulating a small, delicate member, it's hard to imagine that this could be done in a way that could be truly sensuous. Indeed, Dillik had tried hard to find a way in which it could be done because he really wanted to share everything with his wonderful companion, but some things are simply not possible, and he had yet to find a way in which any sort of satisfaction could be achieved. On the other hand, the idea of being caressed by Julien, or Ambar, or Niil, or Karik was always extremely exciting, provided the opportunity presented itself at a suitable moment.
He'd explained this to Julien, whom he held to be – for no obvious reason – the supreme authority on the matter; and therefore he had invested Julien with the duty of helping him to experience and discover those things which Xarax was unable to do for him. This was why he'd started to appear during the night to ask for help, and it was by now a regular part of the fun and games he experienced with one or other of his companions. Right now Julien wasn't really in the mood for fun and games, but he thought that a bit of tenderness would be no bad thing.
“I'd rather we just cuddled,” he said.
Dillik didn't hesitate at all: he kissed Julien on the nose and then turned round and snuggled up to him, wrapping himself in the gentle embrace of his friend's arms, his bottom pressed comfortably against his friend's soft penis, enjoying the simple but deep happiness of an unlimited intimacy – even if it was true that they couldn't share their dreams or their thoughts. What passed between them had neither name nor form, but it was as tangible as the shared warmth of their bodies, and it was infinitely soft. And there was an unmitigated pleasure in sinking gently into that softness.
When they left the house on the evening of the third day they received touching farewells from all the staff, some of whom even broke another etiquette taboo by expressing a wish that they should visit again soon. Then, after throwing a final basket of fritters to the Lou Tchenns, they climbed into the waiting flybubble, which seemed huge and faintly disturbing as its shadow blended with the growing dusk. Moonrise was still two or three hours away, and the sky continued to darken from a deep purple to an ebony black, strewn with stars of an incredible sharpness. Julien instinctively looked north, searching for the Plough and the Little Dipper, and once again he felt a pang of complete disorientation as he found nothing in that marvellous sky that resembled any of the constellations of Earth. Even the vague familiar ribbon of the Milky Way had disappeared, and he wondered yet again if he was still in his home galaxy, or if the klirks had transported him to the edge of the universe...
End of Volume One
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