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by Engor

Chapter 42

As he sat at the breakfast table the following morning, idly dipping his bread into his bowl of milk coffee, Julien still wasn't sure of how he felt. Obviously he was happy to be safely back at home, but he couldn't deny that he would have willingly gone back to Nüngen in a flash, and not just to see his friends again, either.

"Doesn't your, er, lizard, eat?" asked his mother.

"Mum, his name is Xarax. And he's not a lizard, he's a haptir. More important, he's my friend – I wouldn't have made it back here without him."

"Sorry, I didn't intend to be rude. Still, isn't he hungry?"

"He doesn't eat very much, and in any case he needs special food." Julien had wisely omitted to explain Xarax's eating habits when telling his story the previous evening.

"And will you be able to find what he needs here?"

"Definitely. You don't need to worry about it."

"And does he always sit on your shoulder like that? I mean, he looks nice, if a bit colourful. But it might not be a good idea to go out for a walk with him sitting there."

"That's not going to be a problem, because he's quite capable of going for a walk on his own, and he knows how to make sure that nobody sees him, too."

"But if you go out without him, won't he get bored?"

Julien sighed and started to butter another piece of bread.

"I really don't need to go out at the moment, and in any case he can always talk to Ugo. They must have a lot of catching up to do. You haven't forgotten that Ugo is a Guide, I hope?"

"To be honest, I'm not completely sure that I understand that. I hope he won't be offended if I still feed him dog biscuits."

"I don't think so. He's still a dog too. But I'll ask him if you like."

Jacques Berthier burst out laughing, spluttering because he had a mouthful of coffee at the time.

"This is surreal!" he exclaimed. "Next you'll be telling me that we should ask the goldfish if he'd like a little Pernod in his water!"

Sprawled on the carpet with a multicoloured haptir and a black as the gates of hell dog, Julien, under the resigned gaze of his parents, organised a group telepathy session. Actually it wasn't really a group session: instead Xarax had to act as intermediary between Ugo, who was really Yol Ladilak Wondelil yin ek Brath, and Julien Berthier, who was also Yulmir, Emperor of the R'hinz ka aun lee Nügen, Lord of the Nine Worlds and Sole Guardian of the Powers and Gifts. If Julien and Ugo had been able to communicate directly with each other things would have been a lot easier and a very great deal faster, but Yol/Ugo was trapped in the body of a dog and no longer had the power of direct communication with a human. Consequently Xarax had to act as his translator, and what Yol had to say was by no means straightforward.

When the Emperor disappeared, he began, all the Guides dropped everything to search for him. It took some time before we realised that he was nowhere in the Nine Worlds. The Emperor's Mirrors decided to keep it secret, at least until they had some definite information about what had happened, but it wasn't easy. Rumours soon started. Some people said that the Powers of the R'hinz were angry, that times had to change and that the old order was about to fall. They said that the Nine Worlds had to go through different ages, exactly as the worlds go through different seasons, and that the Age of the Emperor was at an end. Some went further and suggested that before long the Masters were going to lose their gifts, and that after that there would be no more Health Masters and no more Guides. These rumours spread into almost every tavern in every world, although nobody seemed to know how or where the rumours had started.

Gradually, though, people realised that nothing in their daily lives had changed, that there were still Health Masters to help if you fell ill and Guides if you needed to travel, and so the rumours began to die away.

Nonetheless, the Emperor's Mirrors and the Guild Masters knew that the situation was very serious. If the Emperor could not be found, then what had started out as just a nasty rumour would instead become a terrible reality: the loss of the Emperor was just the first step along a road that would inevitably result in the end of the Nine Worlds. Lord Aldegard was the most worried, and he was the one who pushed us Guides to go further and further afield in our search, so that we were soon looking in the most unlikely places. It would be fair to say that we left no stone unturned on any of the Nine Worlds.

Hold on, interrupted Julien. I don't understand this. Why was it such a disaster? All right, I can understand that it was a bit annoying when the Emperor disappeared, but surely this can't have been the only time? After all, the Emperor has to die sometimes. What do you do then?

The Emperor doesn't die! Never! Well, not really, anyway. He changes his body, that's all. There are always some spare bodies kept ready for him in the Chamber of Life in the Palace. They're bodies without a mind, without thought – really they're just a shell. They look exactly like the Emperor, because they're constructed from his own flesh. It's a bit of very old science that has been preserved, and it uses techniques like the ones that the people here on Earth are just starting to try.

Oh, come on! protested Julien. By Earth standards, Nüngen is primitive – they don't even have electricity! And doing the sort of thing you're talking about must call for a massive amount of complicated equipment...

Julien, you're confusing science with technology. There is always more than one way to do something. And just because you don't see us using electrical equipment on Nüngen it doesn't mean that we don't know about it. Don't make the mistake of thinking of Nüngen society as primitive. Our civilisation – of course, it's your civilisation too – is far older than even the oldest civilisation here on Earth. And for thousands of years the Emperor Yulmir has endured, passing from one body to another, so that he can remain the Guardian of the Powers and Gifts.

This is how it has always been, at least since, after facing disaster several times, the wise men who governed the Nine Worlds decided to put their trust in the wisest of them, and to hand him the key to their various Gifts.

Of course there has been conflict in the Nine Worlds since, from time to time, but nobody has the power to put the worlds themselves at risk. Since he took power the Emperor has ensured that nobody can use any science or technique to the detriment of others. Nobody can plunder a world for profit, and nobody can monopolise knowledge and use it as a tool of oppression.

The Emperor never interferes with the actual government of any of the Nine Worlds: he just watches over them and ensures that no vital balance is disturbed.

And then we lost the Emperor.

I think you were a victim of the same kind of trap as the one Aïn triggered. And those who designed it very nearly got what they wanted, assuming that they intended to remove the Emperor from the Nine Worlds. Killing you was obviously pointless, so instead they hurled you off into the Outside.

Finally my brother Guides came to the conclusion that you were nowhere within the Nine Worlds. But I was sure that you couldn't be dead – if you had died you would simply have moved into one of your waiting spare bodies and carried on as before. So it followed that if you weren't in the Nine Worlds and you weren't dead you had to be somewhere outside the Known Universe. So I started searching for you. And I went on searching for a very long time. I went further and deeper into the Outside than anyone had gone before, and I saw so many wonders, and so many horrors, that I had to stop several times and wipe my own memory so as not to go mad.

Finally I found something. It was just a faint vibration, like the echo of a cry, but it was enough: I knew that you had passed that way. I had a lot of trouble following the trail: I lost it several times. But eventually it led me here, to this unknown world, and here I found you. Identifying you wasn't difficult: your mind doesn't belong on this world, and it was the only thing that was familiar to me in the strange chaos of this world.

But my body had been through too much, and death was only a breath away, and at that point I did something which we are never supposed to do: instead of allowing myself to die and so to be carried away to the Blissful Fields – or maybe to the Great Formless Void - I looked for a new body.

That is where fate betrayed me – or maybe it was a punishment for not allowing death to take its course. I found myself inhabiting the body of a puppy. I suppose it is because a dog is the closest thing on this planet, physically, to our own form. And the dog was clearly very close to you. But a dog is a terribly limited form of life: it can't speak, it's dominated by its senses and by its instincts... and above all, a dog is never free. Either it has an owner, or it will be chased and locked away, and then killed.

That's almost the end of the story. Once I was close to you I found a way to establish contact by entering your dreams, and there I was able to reactivate a very small part of your memory. I knew that the one thing I had to do was to get you back to Nüngen, or to any of the other Worlds. Once you got back there I thought it would be easy for you to regain your identity – someone would surely recognise you, and even a chance meeting with a Guide would do the job, because any Guide meeting you would find you very strange and so would be sure to investigate further. Of course, if I'd been able to talk to you the way I am now, things would have been a great deal simpler.

When you jumped, for some reason your clothes stayed behind. At first I was just going to leave them and hope that the tide would carry them away, just as I was counting on it to erase the klirk. But then I realised that if they were found people would be sure that you were dead, and I really didn't want to do that to your parents. So I took them off into the dunes some distance from here and buried them before coming back home.

I didn't think I'd ever see you again. I knew you couldn't be expected to risk undertaking such a terrible journey just to rescue me, and I'm really sorry about what you had to go through to get back here. But I can't help being happy to have you back with me – and now that we've got Xarax to help us, it should be a great deal easier to get you back to the R'hinz this time.

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