Tannder had gone to start filling the bath for them, so for the moment the boys were alone. For a moment they looked at each other without speaking, and Julien sighed, realising that it might take a while before his companions dared to speak to him again.
"What?" he said. "Why are you staring at me like that? Have I grown horns or something?"
Niil managed to laugh.
"No, nothing like that," he said. "In fact you look absolutely normal, what with being covered in blood and having a haptir wrapped around your neck. I can't imagine why anyone would look at you twice."
"Actually," said Ambar, who had found his voice again, "he looks nice now – Xarax, I mean. He's very colourful. You're definitely going to turn heads. Everyone's gong to want one of those... Oh! Sorry!"
Xarax had opened his eyes and turned his red gaze on the cheeky boy, at the same time revealing his sharp, pointy teeth in a way that was anything but reassuring.
Xarax will leave his friend now, said the voice in Julien's head. The child Ambar should not be afraid. Xarax knows that he is not really laughing at him.
The haptir jumped from Julien's shoulders and went to lie down on a large, ornate wooden chest.
"Is he angry with me?" asked Ambar nervously.
"No, I think he can take a joke. I also think he doesn't like baths much, which is why he decided to get off me before I go and get under the shower."
"Lord Niil," said Tannder, appearing from the bathroom, "maybe you should have something to eat while Julien is getting ready for the ceremony. If it's going to take place as planned there isn't really any time to waste..."
Which was a tactful way of telling them that there wouldn't be time for the ablutions to degenerate into a mini-orgy.
"Would you like me to come and help you?" Tannder continued to Julien. "Or will Lord Ambar be able to scrub your back for you?"
"I don't think Ambar will mind giving me a hand. Thank you, Tannder."
"Then if you don't need me I'll go and organise the robes you'll need for the ceremony. I won't be long."
Niil sat down and started to eat hungrily while Julien and Ambar got undressed. Julien had no intention of doing anything other than getting himself clean – Tannder had been diplomatic in his comment about the lack of time, but it was nonetheless true that they really didn't have the time to linger over their bath. But Julien hadn't been prepared for the shock he got when Ambar pulled his white lai over his head.
As the garment was slowly pulled up it revealed a perfect, small, nicely-tanned body, one which just cried out to be stroked. But the emotion that Julien was experiencing as he watched was only peripherally sexual. For the first time in his life he was experiencing beauty. It was almost as if he had developed a third eye which until now had always been closed, but which had now finally opened, offering a direct route into his mind.
He had already seen Ambar naked, of course, and he'd enjoyed what he had seen, and been moved to join in a number of highly pleasurable games as a result. But until this moment he simply hadn't been aware of the boy's sheer BEAUTY. It was as if a veil of ignorance had been torn away, a veil which until now had prevented him from seeing what was truly wonderful and valuable in the world. Sure, he'd often said, 'Yes, that's nice' about things, but now he could see just how meaningless that was. And he'd certainly never looked at any of his friends and thought anything like this – not even 'he looks good', and certainly not 'Wow, he's beautiful!'.
For a few seconds, lost in the contemplation of this miracle, he was unable to move, but then he finally managed to pull himself together and finish getting undressed. He went and joined Ambar in the shower. He had a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach, one that spread to his genitals even though his penis remained soft – it was like the sort of dizziness he had sometimes experienced on a swing, or when walking along the edge of a cliff...
Ambar had no idea of the effect he was having – he simply grabbed a sponge and started to scrub Julien's back, as he had promised.
"Wow, your bruise has gone loads of interesting colours!" he observed.
He was right: the massive bruise was now positively rainbow-coloured, everything from an almost black purple to a rather unhealthy-looking greenish yellow.
"Does it hurt?" Ambar asked.
"Not unless you rub too hard. That stuff the Health Masters gave me is certainly working."
Julien let him get on with it without interfering. Of course, having someone else's hands roaming over his body did cause some side effects, the more so because Ambar was taking an almost obsessive care that no nook or cranny remained uncleaned. At one point his soapy fingers rested on Julien's anus, and for a ghastly moment Julien thought Ambar intended cleaning him internally too. But then the panic subsided and was replaced by a wholly unexpected feeling of pleasure. To think that being touched there could feel so good! A week previously Julien wouldn't have believed it for a second.
Ambar didn't stop there, either: he moved on between Julien's legs to take hold of his scrotum. He started to soap it up with a sort of gentle firmness, at the same time allowing his wrist to continue to massage Julien's anus. And when Ambar's other hand came around his body and took hold of his erection Julien almost climaxed on the spot. Somehow he held it back, taking a deep breath – now he realised just how perfectly the unsuspecting Yrcadian had been seduced before Ambar knocked him out.
"Play fair, Ambar!"
Niil had appeared at the door of the shower, naked and clearly in a very good mood.
"Be nice and let me work on his front," Niil went on.
He turned off the water, soaped Julien up thoroughly from head to toe and then, once he was satisfied with the result, he stood facing him and embraced him firmly, trying to keep their genitals pressed together. Of course Julien was extremely slippery, and that made the contact impossible to control: their stiff organs rolled against and away from each other, their tips pressing together for a second before sliding away... and then Ambar got back to work on their balls, stroking, kneading, and gently squeezing both boys' testicles at the same time.
It didn't last very long, but the eventual shared orgasm was extremely satisfactory to both parties, and it took a while before Niil recovered sufficiently to demonstrate on Ambar his expertise at masturbation.
Julien left them to it and went and sat in the tub, relaxing in a haze of contentment which was gradually sliding into a blissful torpor... and then Tannder returned to the kang. It was time to get out and dry off.
Niil and Ambar started getting dressed, putting on the red-trimmed grey lakhs of House Ksantiri, while Tannder handed Julien a garment covered in abstract patterns in gold and fuchsia.
"Do I really have to wear this?" queried Julien, unhappily.
"Yes. I's a semi-ceremonial lakh, and it's perfect for this evening's event."
"But it's gold and pink! I'll look... well..."
"Ah," said Tannder. "You feel that this garment... is ill-suited to your virility, perhaps?"
"You don't think these are boy's clothes. Am I right?"
"Well, yes. Where I come from only a girl would wear something like that!"
Tannder managed to hide a smile.
"Julien, the only person in the Nine Worlds who is allowed to wear these colours is the Emperor. That's you. There are many reasons for it, both symbolic and historical, but perhaps you'd rather than I postpone the explanations..?"
"Yes, Tannder, I would. By all means postpone them."
He took the garment and put it on, and then he went and stood in front of the mirror. His appearance was certainly flamboyant, and it appeared all the more so because his hair looked as if it had been dyed in order to clash in the most ghastly way imaginable with the outfit. He made a face, and that was enough to send Ambar off into a fit of the giggles. And as if things weren't bad enough, Tannder managed to add insult to injury.
"Um... I think we ought to cut your hair," he said.
"What! You want to shave my head?" cried Julien.
"Oh, I don't think we need to go that far. Ambar's hair is a nice length."
Ambar's hair was about five millimetres long, or call it about an eighth of an inch.
"What if I refuse?" asked Julien.
"Nothing will happen, although I expect the Master of Traditions will be... let's be polite and say 'surprised'."
Julien raised his eyes to the ceiling: this seemed to be getting worse and worse.
"Listen, Tannder," he said, "I'm going to need some time to get used to this, and right now I don't feel like having my head shaved, or wearing a party frock. What about if I wear the Bakhtars' blue robe? We could say I'm wearing it to honour my host, or something."
Tannder thought for a moment.
"We could get you a hatik like the one you wore..."
"Yes!" interrupted Julien. "I liked the style of that one. Thank you, Tannder."
The hatik arrived in record time, which said something about the efficiency of the Tower's servants. And this time when Julien looked at himself in the mirror, clad in the dark green tunic and black trousers, he liked what he saw: in fact he thought he looked like a prince in a fairy-tale.
Niil looked him up and down. It was clear that he still had some reservations about Julien's hair, but he was kind enough not to say so.
"Well, it definitely looks better on you than pink and gold," he commented.
"Very well," said Tannder. "And now it's time for Your Lordship to rejoin your host."
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