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by Engor

Chapter 51

They left their kang before dawn – they thought it would be sensible to leave before a patrol of guards turned up at the inn to ask if anyone had seen the dangerous escaped criminal. The two sailors set off to spend Julien's money, while he himself headed off in the opposite direction, up into the hills that lay to the south of the town. Xarax had already left to look for Yol. He had suggested keeping a discreet eye on Tenntchouk and Gradik instead, but Julien had flatly refused to let him. It was the first time he had ever disagreed with the haptir, and Xarax had been quite insistent, too.

Xarax thinks this is unwise. You did not even make them swear allegiance to you!

It doesn't work like that with people like them. And in any case, I'm getting a bit tired of ordering people about. If people choose to help me it should be because they like me, or because they think I'm asking them to do what is right.

That is not the way to govern the R'hinz!

You might be right. I don't know. But it's how I deal with my friends.

What if they betray you? You gave them more gold than they could earn in a lifetime! It will be a huge temptation...

If they betray me it'll be my fault, and mine alone. It would be my fault because it would mean that my judgement is no good, and also because I'd have put them into a situation they couldn't cope with. And it'll also prove that I'm not as good a leader as people keep telling me – if I can't even lead a couple of sailors, how am I supposed to lead a whole empire?

But you must not fail! You are responsible for the R'hinz!

If you want me to do my duty you have to let me do it my own way. I am really grateful for everything you've done for me: I like you very much, and I think of you as my friend. But I can't be a puppet. If you try to force me to do it your way, you'll ruin everything.

Xarax does not seek to force you.

Then there's no problem, and we both know where we stand. When we disagree about things we can discuss them, and I'll always listen carefully to what you have to say, but in the end I'm going to have to be the one who decides what to do. I know you're a lot wiser than me, but even so it'll only work if we do it the way I just said. And I need something else from you, too.

You are the Master. You have only to command me.

Don't be like that!


I want you to promise me that you'll never try to manipulate my mind or my emotions in order to convince me of something, even if you think you're doing it for the good of the empire. I'm starting to realise what you can do if you set your mind to it – I felt you doing it to me when we were trapped in the Outside, and I saw you doing it to my parents. I have to be sure that you'll never mess with my head that way. By all means calm me down, or do whatever it takes to stop me wetting myself in fear, but don't ever mess about with my judgement or my will. Just say that you agree – I don't need pledges or oaths, because I trust your word, just as I trust our two sailor friends. Is that all right?


Xarax had then flown away, leaving Julien to his thoughts. His disagreement with the haptir left him feeling uncomfortable: all his life he had tried to avoid conflict. He wanted people to like him and he hated being at odds with anyone. But he had to admit that since this adventure had started things had been slipping away from him faster and faster. This wasn't the first time he'd been forced to confront someone who expected him to obey orders like a good little boy. Until now it had mainly been on minor issues, but he was pretty sure it wouldn't stay that way – after all, he had come barging into their universe and it was no surprise that it had shaken people up. As for Xarax, it wasn't so much the fact that he had disagreed with him over the best way to handle the sailors as the way he'd clearly not expected Julien to challenge him on the issue at all. Julien could only hope that Xarax now realised that he wouldn't meekly go along with doing whatever Xarax told him to simply because 'that's the way we've always done it'. If not he thought that things were going to get really complicated.

Following the directions Xarax had given him Julien left the road and followed a path that led through an area of thorny bushes like the ones he had encountered just after he arrived on Dvârinn. He very much hoped that he wouldn't have to leave the path and fight his way through the undergrowth.

He had his rucksack on his back and his nagtri hanging from his belt, and he was wearing his reefer jacket: the weather was still rather chilly, although the sun was warm enough, and the exertion of the climb sufficient, for him to be wearing his jacket undone. The shoes he'd obtained in Tchenn Ril seemed well suited to this sort of cross-country walking: they were soft and comfortable, but still sturdy enough to handle the terrain.

There were no insects, but that didn't really surprise him, given the temperature – he assumed that Dvârinn insects disliked the cold as much as the Earth variety did. The place wasn't devoid of life, however: he could make out some birds – or some sort of flying creature, at least – high up in the sky.

The wind began to get stronger as he climbed higher, and he speculated that this was probably why he hadn't seen any flybubbles here, unlike on Nüngen, where they seemed to be everywhere. This was a good thing, he thought: at least here he wouldn't have to keep hiding from airborne patrols.

He walked on for another half hour or so, into a landscape that was littered with huge boulders, and he was thinking about stopping for a rest when Xarax appeared.

Xarax has found Yol, he reported. He is not too far from here. But he is tired and his feet hurt. Xarax thinks that he should take him some of your combat rations. He needs water too, but he will have to wait for you for that. Xarax could carry a canteen, and even open it for him with his claws, but Yol would lose most of it because he has no bowl to hold the water.

Then I must hurry to where he is. Take him some food and tell him I'm on the way.

Xarax will guide him to the path and then come back to you.

Poor Yol was in a pathetic condition. He was doing his best to look normal, and he even started trotting when he saw Julien, but the boy could see that he was hurting and that every step was an effort. He ran to meet him and dropped to his knees in front of his life-long companion.

"Julien," said Yol, "I didn't realise I was so old."

The voice coming from the collar didn't sound artificial any longer. It was, although Julien couldn't have explained how, now Ugo's – and therefore also Yol's – real voice, a voice that held warmth and both the wisdom of the Guide and the affection of the dog.

"It's over now," Julien told him. "I'm going to take care of you from now on."

He gave him a drink and then set to work cleaning the wounds on his paws. The cuts on them demonstrated what a difficult journey it had been. Julien then rummaged in his bag and sacrificed four pairs of socks to make some double-layer bootees that he hoped would last for the remainder of Yol's journey. Then he spent a further hour picking thorns and burrs out of Yol's matted fur. Fortunately it appeared that the local ticks and other parasites didn't fancy dog, or perhaps there simply weren't any here, or it wasn't the season for them. In any event, at least that was one problem Yol had not had to endure.

It took them more than four hours to walk to a cove where a small boat could get fairly close to the shore – Julien thought that they wouldn't want to have to row very far at night. Julien left Yol there and made his way to the suburb of Ksantir where he had arranged to meet the sailors. He had forbidden Xarax from looking for them or trying to find out if they were really doing their best to fulfil their mission, and so he felt a nasty pang of disappointment when he reached the agreed rendezvous and found nobody there. Xarax tactfully refrained from commenting, instead just curling up on Julien's shoulder, warm and cosy inside the boy's jacket.

This was by no means a posh neighbourhood – the houses were small, and many of them looked run-down. It wasn't far from the part of the docks that dealt with repairs and careening, and most of the dock workers lived in this area. Julien had arranged to meet the sailors near a seedy-looking dive that catered for the poorest of the dock workers, but there was minimal lighting in the area and it was easy to stay hidden in the maze of back alleys and dark corners nearby. It would be another two hours before the moon rose, and the darkness, though helpful in keeping him hidden, felt positively oppressive to Julien – and not only was the area singularly unprepossessing, but to make matters worse there was an unpleasant reek of decaying seaweed, smoky cooking fires and the even more unhealthy stink of bodies that had been left to rot filling his nostrils and making the place seem even more repellent.

Of course it was highly unlikely that Lord Nekal's men would be looking for him in a place like this, especially at night, but even so Julien wondered if he would have been able to force himself to wait where he was if he hadn't had the comforting presence of the haptir with him. Yes, there were times when Xarax's cold-blooded killer mentality worried him, but Julien recognised that he probably wouldn't be able to survive in a hostile world like this without him.

It was cold, too, and although he had a woollen hat pulled down over his ears and his hood up Julien still regretted the loss of his hair. A number of silhouettes had passed by his hiding place, but none of them matched the two he was hoping to see. It was true that they hadn't settled on a particular time, but by now Julien was starting to worry that his partners had run into trouble – although he still didn't think for one moment that they might have decided to take his money and run. Still, making shady deals with unscrupulous people wasn't always very safe.

There's someone coming, Xarax told him. Xarax recognises his walk: it's Tenntchouk. Xarax has to admit that you were right.

Julien said nothing, just stepping out onto the path to meet the sailor, who didn't see him until he was just a few paces away.

"Laddie?" he whispered.

"Yes, Tenntchouk, it's me."

The haptir crawled out from under Julien's jacket and flew silently away into the night.

"Well, we got a boat, me 'n' Gradik, an' we even had toime to get 'er supplies fer about a fartnoight. We're moored at yander pier an' we'm ready to go. We din't 'ave toime to seek out a roight baargain, but she's a noice boat, all t'same. You're naat poor, exactly, but you're less rich as afore. Do we sail tonoight?"

"Yes, we should. We have to pick up a friend on the coast a short distance south of here. You don't mind sailing by night, then?"

"Sailing's naat the praablem, but if'n we have to go ashore...Tonoight it'll naat be easy, loike: moon'll be still be pretty thin... 'twill be blaack as a ghorr's aarsehole."

"Don't worry, Xarax can see easily at night. He'll guide us in."

"Yes, waal... Oi don't want to be impolite, but yon haaptir, he makes us'n a fair bit nervous, loike."

"I understand that, but I promise you've got no reason to be scared of him."

They walked for a while in silence until they reached a nearly deserted wharf some distance outside the main commercial part of the port. The tide was just coming to the full, and Julien could see the silhouettes of a few masts belonging to two or three vessels moored nearby. The smell of the sea was everywhere, but here at least it was a clean, healthy smell.

From what could be seen in the poor light their boat was a kind of sloop of some twelve metres in length, and it was clearly designed for leisure use rather than trade. The well-polished cleanness of the deck and the gleaming of the metallic surfaces bore witness to that. Julien thought that if the rigging was in the same excellent condition as the deck the boat must have cost a small fortune. She was larger than anything he'd had a chance to steer previously, but he was confident that he could manage this one: he knew from his experience of his own world that pleasure boats are designed to make life as easy as possible for those who sail in them, and he was sure that this vessel would be no exception.

As he stepped on board he was greeted by Gradik, who was beaming with pride.

"Whaat d'ye think, laddie?" he asked. "Us'n have found you a good 'un, hey? An' everything's ready for inspection. You jus' 'ave to foind 'er a name."

"Thanks, Gradik, we can deal with that later. Right now..."

"Beggin' yer paardon, laddie, but 'twould be baad luck to tak' 'er to sea afore we name 'un."

Julien knew better than to try to oppose the beliefs of sailor-folk, so he thought for a few seconds.

"Isabelle," he said. "We'll call her Isabelle."

They each drank a shot of some awful rot-gut alcohol to toast the name and then smashed the bottle over the gunwale to make the naming official. And then, once the tide was at the full, they slipped the moorings and let the weak current, together with a slight breeze, take their vessel out of the harbour. Julien took the wheel while the sailors set the canvas, experiencing a surge of exhilaration as he felt the night wind filling the sails. And that was the moment Xarax chose to alight once more on his shoulder.

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