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by Engor

Chapter 49

The Three Arrows in Ksantir wasn't much like Mistress Nardik's comfortable establishment. It was bigger and a lot more crowded, and as such it offered Julien some precious anonymity. He'd have been happier in a way to move into the same tavern as Tenntchouk and Gradik, but he felt that he couldn't remain open to their well-meaning curiosity any longer. So he stayed with them long enough to share in the promised round of drinks and then said that he had to go and meet a friend of his father's, leaving them to enjoy a traditional drinking session without him.

When Xarax came to visit him that evening they decided that the best plan of action would be for Julien to try to gain an interview with the Noble Lord Nekal, second son of Lord Ylavan and thus Niil's older brother. Xarax, who was expert at listening in to conversations without being seen, had already ascertained that Lord Ylavan was still at sea in his trankenn. He hadn't heard any mention of Niil, and obviously he hadn't been able actually to ask: even if you weren't a haptir, that sort of question might well attract unwelcome attention.

So next morning Julien dressed himself in nice new clothes and presented himself at the gate of the First House of the Ksantiris. He knew it wouldn't be easy: bureaucracy is a plague that afflicts every world, and here in Ksantir were some of the most virulent bureaucrats imaginable. When, several hours later, he finally reached the presence of a tall, thin man who actually asked the nature of his visit rather than simply shunting him off to yet another office, he was very close to reacting violently, even though he knew that that would certainly spell the end of his mission.

"So," the tall man said, looking down his nose at him, "you say that you have a message for the Noble Son Niil, but you are unable to supply me with any proof of that assertion. You have already been told that the Noble Son is presently on the First Trankenn. So now you feel that you have to meet the Noble Lord Nekal, but clearly it would be out of the question for me to facilitate such an interview without some evidence of your bona fides..."

"Your Honour," cut in Julien, "do you know about the Great Forest on Tandil?"

"Obviously, but I fail to see..."

"Well, I can promise you that if you continue to obstruct me you'll get a chance to find out for yourself whether it's as dangerous as everyone says."

"What? How dare you threaten me!"

"Your Honour, I'm not threatening you. And nor am I trying to offend you. I'm just telling you what will happen if the Noble Lord Niil were to find out that you have hindered me in my mission."


"Look, either you can arrange that interview for me now, or I'll have to go through another channel. That is sure to cost me some precious time, and obviously the Noble Lord Niil will want to know why. And obviously I can't lie to a Noble Lord."

"I see."

"Excellent. So, about that interview?"

"A guard will come for you as soon as the Noble Lord Nekal is ready to see you."

"Thank you, Your Honour. I'm sure the Noble Lord Niil will know how to reward your zeal."

Despite this he still had to wait for more than two hours on a far from comfortable bench before a guard finally came to take him to the Noble Lord Nekal, who turned out not to look very much like his younger brother. He looked about twenty-five, and his powerful body was already showing signs of thickening around the middle. He was sitting behind a desk whose magnificence was obviously intended to demonstrate how important he was, and Julien disliked him on sight.

"So, my boy," said Nekal, "they tell me you've been demanding to see me?"

"Noble Lord, I certainly didn't demand anything. It's just that I have a message to deliver to the Noble Lord Niil of the Ksantiris."

"You mean the Noble Son, I think."

"No, My Lord. I'm sure you're aware that your Noble Brother has been emancipated, so my message is for the Noble Lord Niil."

Nekal stared at him suspiciously.

"So what is this message – if such a major state secret can be revealed to someone like me?"

"It simply says 'Julien is in Ksantir'."

"Is that it?"

"That's all there is, My Lord."

"So how do you propose that I should send him your precious message?"

"I'm sure a Guide could do it."

"Oh, a Guide, no less!"

"The message is really important, My Lord."

"Here I decide what is important! If my half-brother wants messages sent to him by private post he can arrange it himself. After all, he's a man now, isn't he? Isn't that what you said? So who sent this vital message anyway?"

Julien took a deep breath. "It's from the Emperor, My Lord," he said.

Nekal stood up so quickly that he knocked his chair over, came around his desk, strode up to where Julien was standing and slapped his face.

"How dare you?" he shouted. "The Emperor doesn't need anyone to carry his messages for him. I've no idea what you're trying to do, or indeed what that little bast... my brother is trying to do, but he shouldn't expect to be able to treat me like an idiot. So I'll ask you one more time: who are you and who sent you?"

Julien's cheek was burning and he was having trouble staying on his feet, but he managed to say, "The Emperor sent me and I'm someone the Noble Lord Niil trusts."

"Well, I don't trust you."

"My Lord, if you contact your Noble Father I'm sure he can tell you more."

"So you refuse to answer?"

Julien really had no choice: clearly revealing his identity to this terminally stupid and probably highly jealous animal would have been the height of folly. Not that he'd be believed if he told the truth anyway...

"I'm sorry, My Lord," he said, "but that's the only answer I can give you."

"Well, maybe you'll change your mind about that tomorrow. In the meantime I'll be delighted to offer you my hospitality for the night."

He rang a bell and a guard appeared straight away. Nekal waved a hand at Julien.

"Take that to a cell," he ordered.

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