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by Engor

Chapter 4

By the time their boat got back to the little private wharf behind Izkya's house the sun was much lower in the sky and the heat had eased a bit. Julien had managed to regain something of his earlier good mood. He was still worried about his situation, but he didn't think it would be fair to cast a shadow over the happiness of his hosts, who were after all doing their best to make his involuntary visit as pleasant as possible.

When they got back round to the patio they found a man there waiting for them. Izkya took him off to one side and had a brief conversation with him.

"That's Alko," Niil told Julien. "He's one of her father's inner circle. He's got his own flybubble."

Izkya came back to join them.

"The Noble Lord Alko tells me that we've got an invitation to the Tower tonight," she told them. "Obviously I sent a message to my father about you when you got here, Julien, and now he wants to meet you. He thinks it should be possible for one of the Masters of the Order of Guides to get you back to your home. So we'd better go and get ready."

"Come on," said Niil. "We don't have long,so we'd better go and get washed and changed. We can't turn up at the Tower covered in dust."

Clothes had been laid out ready for them – presumably Alko had warned Niria about the invitation. These clothes were nothing like the simple robes Julien had seen so far: these were clearly special ceremonial garments. On Julien's bed were a dark, bronze-green tunic and baggy black trousers that could be tightened at the ankle, and Niil had something similar in midnight blue, with dark grey trousers. Niil had already thrown his clothes off and now he helped Julien to remove his abba, and of course the result of being undressed by a naked boy was completely inevitable.

"Come on," exhorted Niil. "We haven't got much time, so we'd better wash together!"

Julien thought he'd already experienced washing about as 'together' as it gets in the shower that morning. He was wrong. This time it wasn't a question of turn-and-turn-about back-scrubbing: instead,the idea now was just to rub soap randomly into your partner's body at any point where you could get at him, laughing a lot as you did it. Julien rather suspected that this particular unorthodox, inefficient and time-consuming method was something that Niil had invented on the spot, although he had to admit that it was certainly exciting. Things would almost certainly had got a lot more interesting if the gong - damn the man who made it! - hadn't reminded them that they weren't supposed to be having fun, but getting ready to meet one of the most powerful men in the world. So they got out of the shower, dried themselves and got dressed – that is to say, Niil dressed both of them.

"Not bad at all," Niil observed once Julien was ready. "That hatik really suits you. I'm sure we've got time to cut your hair, and then you'll look absolutely perfect."

"Not a chance!"

"But you look like a girl!"

"And how do you think I'll look with my head shaved? My mother would throw a fit if I went home with a bald head!"

"Trust me, when you get home your mother will be so happy to see you again that she won't care what your hair looks like."

The way Julien's face clouded over told Niil that he'd spoken without thinking.

"Sorry," he said. "I'm an idiot."

"No, you're right," said Julien. "There's not much chance of me getting home tonight, is there?"

He took a deep breath. "All the same," he continued, "I'd still prefer to hold off on the haircut for now, because I really don't think that your style would suit me at all. And, talking of style, what type of shoes do we wear with this get-up?"

Niil indicated two pairs of something that looked like slippers made from braided silver.

"These," he said. "They're called kamdris."

Julien slipped his feet into them.

"Wow!" he exclaimed. "These are amazingly soft. You, can hardly feel them at all!"

"They're made of tak hair," Niil told him. "It comes from Tandil."

"That's the forest full of dangerous animals, right?"

"Exactly. In fact taks are extremely nasty. You can't buy footwear like this anywhere: the only way to get a pair is if you're given them by a First Lord."

"Then it's very nice of him to lend them to us."

"This isn't a loan. A First Lord doesn't lend anyone anything. These are gifts."

"Wow!" said Julien again. "I suppose I can understand him giving a pair to you easily enough, but why me? He's never even set eyes on me!"

"You're with me, and that's good enough for him."

"But I don't even come from your world!"

"That makes no difference. You're with me, and so people will treat you as well as they treat me. Or as badly, of course..."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, if I had enemies and they caught us together they'd treat you as an enemy too. But don't worry," he added, with the little grin that Julien was getting used to by now, "I'm a nice person. I don't have any enemies. Come on, we'd better not keep the First Lord waiting..."

They went to the porch, where they found Alko talking with Niria the stewardess. Izkya wasn't there yet, which gave Julien a chance to ask one more question.

"Listen, what do you call Izkya's father?" Julien asked.

Fortunately Niil was more patient than his cousin. "He's the First Lord of the Bakhtars, of course," he answered.

"Yes, but... hasn't he got a name?"

"Oh, I see. Well, yes, obviously he has a name – it's Aldegard. But nobody uses it except for his immediate family. Everyone else just calls him 'First Lord'. Well, Izkya calls him 'Father', obviously..."

"And what do you call him?"

"Well, First Lord – or, if he insists, 'Uncle'."

"Is he your mother's brother or your father's?"

"Neither. It's just because our Families are the same rank."

Izkya arrived and Julien looked with some admiration at her outfit. She was wearing a hatik too, but quite apart from the fact that it made her look extraordinarily graceful, the material itself seemed to be made out of the night: it was like looking at a dark sky full of slowly-twinkling stars which shimmered as she moved. Her trousers were the colour of evening mist and were gathered at the ankles with circlets that looked like mother-of-pearl. The outfit was completed by kamdris and white stones in her hair that were like little stars that had escaped from the night sky of her tunic.

Julien had never taken the remotest notice of anything that a girl might be wearing. He'd always found the female obsession with fashion ridiculous, and hated listening to them talking about clothes almost as much as he hated the way they giggled when they were swapping secrets behind boys' backs. But at that moment he had an epiphany: Izkya was beautiful. Dressed in her finest clothes, there was no trace of the slightly snobby, short-tempered girl he thought he knew. This was unmistakeably a princess.

"Come on," said Niil, tugging his sleeve. "And close your mouth: you look like a village idiot."

Niria stopped them to check them over to make sure that they wouldn't disgrace their hostess. She gave them a satisfied smile, and apparently she didn't disapprove of Julien's 'long' hair too much because she reached out and tweaked a stray lock back into place. This gesture almost made Julien lose control of himself, because it reminded him so strongly of the home he was so far away from. It was all he could do to stop himself flinching away, because here was yet another woman who couldn't stop messing about with his hair. - and then he almost burst into tears at the thought of his mother, who did exactly the same thing to him every day before he left the house, no matter how often he begged her not to.

"Go on," said Niria. "Alko will be waiting for you..."

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