"Well," said Julien, after a few moments, "what do you think of that?"
"My Lord..." began Ambar, hesitantly.
"Oh, now look, if you're going to start with all that 'My Lord' stuff again I'll yank your ears so far that you'll be able to tie them under your chin!"
Julien had expected Ambar to laugh, but instead he was alarmed to see his friend burst into tears, exactly like a child being told off by an adult. Clearly this situation was going to need some work.
"Come here," he said, and he picked up a napkin from the table and passed it to Ambar.
"Now blow your nose."
Ambar did that, noisily, and then Julien gathered him up onto his lap and put his arms around him.
"All right, listen to me,'" he said. "I'm absolutely sure that Tannder has got it wrong. But even if he's right, so what? I'm still the same person, and you don't have to be scared of me."
Ambar nodded, still sniffling.
"I don't know anything about this Yulmir character," Julien went on, "but if he's the sort of man who people are terrified to meet I certainly don't want to be him. Anyway, you're my friend, and so is Niil, and even if they do stick a crown on my head, I swear that's not going to change, all right?"
"I believe you, Julien," said Ambar. "Perhaps I'll get used to it in the end."
"You'll get all the time you need to get used to it. Anyway, I'll need to get used to it, too. It's weird: everyone dreams of being a king or a hero or something really special, but now that it looks as if it's happening to me I really wish it wasn't."
Ambar didn't reply, so Julien just kept his arms around him and breathed in the gentle scent of his cropped hair. Slowly Ambar began to relax, leaning back closer against the boy who was once again becoming just his friend. He even managed to laugh when he nestled back far enough for his bottom to come into contact with Julien's erection.
"Well," said Julien apologetically, "I'm feeling like myself again... do you think we've got time to do something about it?"
"I don't think so. I expect the others will be back soon – and you've still got Xarax round your neck, too."
"Xarax is asleep, and in any case I'm sure he won't mind. Still, perhaps you're right: perhaps I ought to try to act serious instead. It's a pity, though."
His hand slid down into Ambar's lap, and there it encountered a small hard projection. This came as no surprise at all to him. He held it briefly and then let go with a sigh.
"No, we're really going to have to be sensible about this," he said, and he eased Ambar away from his lap. But before he went back to his own chair the smaller boy surprised him by offering his cheek for a kiss.
In the event almost an hour went by before the First Lord came back, accompanied by Niil and Tannder, and the delay had given Julien time to realise the implications of his new situation.
"Julien," said the First Lord, "Tannder has told me what he saw. It's quite extraordinary, but I have to say that I think he's right: you really are the Emperor himself come back to us after an absence of far too long. Obviously there's a lot we still don't know, and it's clear that you have no memory at all of your former life, but we do have an idea of what might have happened to you. It might be as well if I tell you about it."
"Well, thank you, but I'm still sure that Tannder is wrong," said Julien.
"I'm almost certain he isn't. I recognise that this is extremely disturbing for you, but I really have no doubt that you are actually the one we'd given up all hope of ever seeing again. Look, I'll tell you what I know, and then you can make up your own mind."
Julien nodded. He thought it highly improbable that he was going to be convinced by anything Aldegard might tell him, but it was only polite to listen.
"Well, according to our reconstruction of what happened," began the First Lord, "a little over thirteen cycles ago the Emperor Yulmir activated one of the Palace klirks. Something happened, and he never reached his destination. At exactly that time the Master Guides warned the Emperor's Nine Mirrors that a violent disruption to the fabric of the universe had taken place, and when we tried to find the Emperor to warn him about it we found that he had completely disappeared.
"We called a meeting in the Palace of all the major authorities in the R'hinz, and while we were still discussing it – because by then it was clear that something exceedingly serious was happening – the Palace was stormed by assassins. We had to fight, and we lost a lot of good warriors that day. Eventually we defeated the attackers, but we decided that the Palace should be closed up except for one small, and very well guarded, hall which would only be used for meetings of the Emperor's Mirrors. Every klirk in the Palace has been deactivated by the Guides' Guild except for a few indispensable and well-guarded ones in order to ensure that nobody could get into the Palace..."
"I think you'll find they missed something," said Julien, "because I don't see how those four warriors who attacked us could have got in otherwise."
"We've got no idea how they managed to get into the Palace. No alarm was set off, which is why the Guard didn't know about it until we arrived. If someone has betrayed us, don't worry, we'll find him."
"Anyway, going back to your disappearance, we decided to keep it quiet so as not to cause panic and disorder."
"What, and nobody noticed?" asked Julien in disbelief.
"The Emperor rules through his Mirrors. There is one in each world. And even when he's here, hardly anyone ever meets him."
"Then what's the point of having an Emperor at all?"
"It's hard to explain that in a few words, but you could say that he guarantees the unity of the R'hinz."
"You mean, everyone agrees that he's the leader?"
"It's more complicated than that. The Emperor is the key that enables the transfer of all Gifts and Powers. Without him the forces that enable us to control our environment, all the special talents of the Guides, the Masters of the Major Arts, and others like them, would gradually be lost because it would no longer be possible to transfer them from one person to another."
"I don't think I quite understand that – I mean, your Emperor has been gone for ages, but the world looks to me as if it's still running completely smoothly."
"That is how it appears, I agree. But we've been lucky: none of the Grand Masters of the Major Guilds has died since the Emperor vanished. To give you an example: if the First Grand Master of the Guides were to die tomorrow, no new Guides could be created until a new First Grand Master had received the power to transmit the gift of the Guides from the Emperor. And if the Emperor wasn't here to give him that power, within a few dozen cycles there might not be any Guides left at all anywhere in the Nine Worlds. And without the Guides our civilisation would collapse."
"But... if I'm the Emperor, you're still stuffed! I don't have any power – in fact, I still don't even understand what you're talking about!"
"What matters," Aldegard told him, "isn't what you know, or what you can remember – it's what you are. Of course you can't remember how to transfer the Power of Healing, for example, but the ability to do so is within you. And that's what makes you so vital to us: in the entire universe, you're the only one who can do it."
There was a silence as Julien digested this, and slowly he realised the implications.
"Then..." he said, his voice shaking a little, "you... you're not going to let me go back home, are you?"
"It would certainly not be sensible to risk losing you again," agreed Aldegard.
"So I'm a prisoner now?"
"Julien, I didn't explain myself very well. Neither I nor anyone else has the power to force the Emperor of the R'hinz to do anything. If you ask for my advice I will do my best to tell you what I think you should do: it is my duty to give you whatever advice would best suit the well-being of the R'hinz. But if you decided to ignore my advice, nobody would ever even think of questioning your decision."
"So... does that mean that I am responsible for everything that happens in the Nine Worlds?"
"Not even the Emperor has enough power to be held responsible for everything that happens in the universe. All the same, many things depend on his judgement and his will. And so the real answer to your question is, yes, you are already responsible for the destiny of the Nine Worlds."
"But I don't want to be! I never asked to be!"
"Of course you didn't, but that's just the way things are, and there isn't anything we can do about it. Believe me, if there was any way to take this burden from you, we would have done it already."
"But it's not fair!"
"No, it isn't, and I'm truly sorry for you. But do you think that we find it fair? With the greatest respect, we would all feel a very great deal safer if the Emperor had come back to us as he was before he left, rather than as..."
The First Lord stopped speaking. What good would it do for him to tell Julien that he was just a stupid kid, without even the most basic knowledge needed for survival in a world that was completely alien to him? And why add to his unhappiness by pointing out that his arrival actually raised as many problems as it solved?
"Go ahead and say it," said Julien. "I know I'm just a kid, and I don't know the first thing about being an emperor. I know I'm not up to it, and I know that gives you a really nasty problem."
And that was true, thought Aldegard: the R'hinz was at the mercy of a child. And before too long that child, who was currently completely out of his depth, would start to realise that he had powers that would enable him to do whatever he wanted. Right now those powers were buried deep in his mind where he had no access to them, but that would not always be the case. Who could foresee what might happen when he became aware of what he could do? That was certainly worrying, and if you thought about it properly it was really quite terrifying. Nonetheless, he wanted to believe that this strange boy was actually a cause for hope rather than a threat.
"Julien," he said, "you're right: I am worried. But whatever you say, and no matter what you look like at the moment, you are still my Emperor, and my Emperor has never failed us through all the thousands of cycles of his reign."
"Thank you," said Julien. "I'm still not convinced I'm who you say I am, but I promise I'll do my best not to mess up."
"In any case, I beg you to let me offer you my protection, because you're clearly in danger. It's obvious now that it wasn't my daughter who was being targeted the other night. Clearly you have a powerful enemy out there who knows of your return, and he's prepared to do anything, no matter how foul, to kill you. Probably it's the same enemy who was responsible for what happened thirteen cycles ago. For the time being it would be best if you stayed right here in the Tower."
Julien sighed: here was more bad news. Now he had to hide from a bunch of thugs. Any hope he had of seeing his parents again soon, already substantially diminished by his new status, now dwindled away to next to nothing. And his parents must be looking everywhere for him and going mad with worry..
"All right," he said. "So what do you think I should do now?"
"You need to start getting used to your new situation," said the First Lord. "To start with you should call me 'Aldegard', not 'First Lord'. You're the Emperor, and nobody has precedence over you. As soon as it can be arranged you'll have to meet your Mirrors, but it'll probably take a few days to set that up."
"My Lor... I mean Aldegard – if there's nothing that needs doing urgently, I'd like to stay here tonight with Niil and Ambar. I'm going to need to talk to them about stuff... sort of like they were my family."
"I understand. And we also have to arrange for young Ambar to get his Marks transferred. Really it should have been done tonight. It only needs a Master of Traditions and three witnesses. But under the circumstances I think we can leave it for a few days."
"Actually I'd prefer us not to wait, if you don't mind," said Julien. "And can I be one of the witnesses?"
There was an awkward silence.
"What?" asked Julien. "Did I say something stupid?"
"No, but... it would give the impression that Ambar is linked to the Imperial House."
"What's wrong with that? You said yourself what a good kid Ambar is. And Xarax has told me the same thing, and I'm fairly sure he's a good judge of people. Remember Xarax chose to ask Ambar to protect him."
That is true, said Xarax inside his head. You are right to want to bind him to you.
So Xarax wasn't asleep! Julien wondered how long he had been listening in to their conversation. All the same, it was impossible to object to it, even though Julien realised that his strange companion would very soon know everything there was to know about him.
"I recognise young Ambar's bravery, but I can tell you that some people aren't going to like it. The very idea that a No-clan can be raised up to a level far above what they themselves could ever hope to achieve..."
"Never mind about 'certain people'. What do you think about it personally? I don't want to start off by making a serious faux pas."
"Well, I'd start out by feeling jealous of the honour you're doing him. I'd think that he isn't worthy and that you shouldn't honour him above the great Noble Houses. But then I'd think about it for a moment, and eventually I'd be happy that my Emperor cares more for what his heart tells him than for observing the proprieties. In other words, Julien, do whatever seems right to you, and if other people don't like it, that's just tough!"
"Great! Then can you set it up for this evening?"
"I'll make the arrangements. And now we should leave you to get washed."
"Thanks, Aldegard, but please let my friends stay with me. I really need them..."
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