Niil was seriously worried. He was ready to leave Nüngen as soon as word of his father's death reached Bakhtar Tower. First Lord Aldegard had offered him his sincerest condolences but had then added that, although obviously Niil had to go back to Dvârinn himself to witness his brother's installation as First Lord of the Ksantiris, he was under no obligation to take Ambar with him – indeed, Ambar's presence might just make things even more complicated than they already were. Aldegard said nothing about the actual circumstances of Ylavan's death, but the very fact that he didn't comment on it indicated clearly enough that he was suspicious.
Niil had loved his father and his death affected him deeply, albeit in a rather strange way: he didn't feel any need to shed tears, but he felt very strongly that a universe without his father's comforting presence in it was somehow wrong. He'd never shared his secrets with his father – indeed, it was difficult to share anything with a First Lord – but it was only now that he realised just how large a part the man had played in his life. He was coming to see that he had been, even though he hadn't been aware of it at the time, surrounded and protected by a love that had kept him safe from the machinations of his brothers.
Of course he knew that they were power-hungry and desperate to take over the running of the family, but he would never have believed that they would go so far as to bring about their father's death. He also knew that they disliked him intensely, and his elevation to the post of Julien's Privy Councillor had been especially welcome because it finally allowed him to stop worrying about what might happen to him once Nandak became First Lord of the Ksantiris. Still, he hadn't expected his promotion to bear fruit quite this rapidly. As it was, thanks to Julien he was almost untouchable, because any move against him would be tantamount to a declaration of open rebellion against the Emperor himself. Obviously he wasn't immune to 'accidents', but he didn't think he was significant enough for Nandak to risk staging one for him while his father's death was already under the microscope. Nekal might have been a moron, but Nandak was cunning enough to remain cautious.
The main problem was Julien's absence. Aïn had started to look for him as soon as he was strong enough, but he'd refused to take Niil or anyone else with him, and he'd also refused to discuss his progress with anyone except Tannder, on the grounds that a secret shared isn't a secret any longer. But so far his efforts had achieved nothing, and Niil was afraid that Aïn might be desperate enough to over-exert himself.
When at last the time came to return to Dvârinn he found that he couldn't leave Ambar behind. Common sense said that Ambar would be safest as far away from the older Ksantiris as possible, but Niil was afraid that if he didn't keep Ambar with him he might lose him for ever. And Ambar, who was trying to be brave, clearly felt the same thing. Strangely, perhaps, Tannder didn't try to change their minds, merely observing that he would make sure they were kept informed of how the search for Julien was going.
A moment later they appeared on the First Trankenn's master klirk. Lady Axelia was waiting to greet them, and despite her grief she went out of her way to talk to Ambar, doing her best to show him that she was ready to love him as she loved Niil, and that the First Lord Ylavan would indeed have been proud to accept him as a son.
Nandak's reception of them, while not overtly hostile, was cold, and it made it clear to anyone who witnessed it that it would be pointless to try to seek the favour of Lord Niil or his protégé, and that in fact it would be most unwise to even think about it. And from that point on every meeting between them was conducted in an air of distant neutrality.
One person who didn't feel constrained by Nandak's coldness towards his half-brother was the Honourable Kanekto, who had been Niil's tutor. Now that Niil was officially an adult his services were no longer required, and although Ylavan had asked him to remain in his service, Kanekto had decided instead to retire to the small training facility of the Silent Warriors, to which order he belonged. Only the death of the First Lord had delayed his departure, and now he came to offer Niil his condolences. However, once he had offered the usual expressions of sympathy he glanced at Ambar and then said, "Noble Lord, could we speak in private, please?"
"I don't have any secrets from him," replied Niil, "but I'll ask him to leave if you want."
Ambar had already stood up and was heading for the door, but Kanekto stopped him with a wave of his hand.
"Noble Son, you don't have to leave," he said. "If your brother trusts you, that's good enough for me."
Ambar returned to his seat.
"My Lord," said Kanekto, "there are rumours flying all over the place. Some people claim that the Emperor has gone away, and some are even whispering that he's left the R'hinz altogether – and that's why some people think they are now free to act in any way they want, as if they didn't fear the Emperor's wrath any longer. But we understand that he has recently granted you favours, and your brother here, too..."
"And you want to know if I've met him personally?"
"Yes, I can assure you that I've seen him as clearly as I'm seeing you now. He personally gave me the position of his Privy Councillor, and the Honourable Tannder, who is a member of your own Order, was there to see it. So if 'some people' now think that they can break the laws of the R'hinz with impunity they're going to be bitterly disappointed."
"I'm glad to hear that. But the rumours also say that His Imperial Highness is... different."
"There seem to be a lot of rumours flying about, Honourable Master. I'd suggest that the members of your Order should make up their own minds about the person to whom they owe their sole allegiance. Or perhaps your brethren don't trust the honourable Tannder any longer? Could it be that they've asked you to pump me for information to see if what I say tallies with what Tannder has no doubt already told them?"
"My Lord, it looks as if you were listening when I taught you. May I have your leave to retire?"
"You don't need my leave, Honourable Master. And I can remember another of your lessons, too: you taught me 'Any assistance which is not spontaneously offered is not worth asking for'. Clearly, then, I'll have to manage without your help, and that's a pity. Still... may the Powers of the R'hinz grant you everything you wish for."
The silence which followed the departure of Kanekto was followed by the howl of the wind which accompanied the first squall as the storm reached the First Trankenn. Of course this was a large vessel and so the wind didn't cause it to heel over very far, but the swell gradually got bigger and bigger, causing sickening slow rolls which didn't bother Niil at all, but which caused Ambar to be sick even before he could head for the bathroom. This came as a shock to Niil, who realised that he was neglecting his brother's most basic needs, and it stirred him into action. Soon Ambar, with the help of one of the fast-acting seasickness sweets, was washed, dried, comforted and falling into a pleasant drowsiness on his older brother's lap. He was also in a state of mild euphoria, having kept the sweet in his mouth a little longer than was necessary.
"So what did Kanekto really want?" he asked.
"I don't know, but I'm a bit disappointed. I was hoping he'd offer to help us."
"Why didn't he?"
"Perhaps he just wants to be left alone."
"What, and all them questions about the Emperor was just small talk?"
"No, you're right. People are getting worried, and they're starting to have serious doubts, too. If Julien doesn't come back soon there are going to be big problems."
"You don't think... well... you don't reckon anything bad has happened to him, do you?"
"Aïn is sure he's still alive. I'm sure he'll find him eventually."
"So what's going to happen now?"
"My father's funeral takes place in five days, and by then the storm will be over. And after that... well, what normally happens is that the Emperor chooses a new Mirror for Dvârinn."
"Will it be your brother?"
"I don't know, but I hope not."
"He'll be angry if someone else gets chosen."
"Yes, he will, but if he's got any sense he won't make a fuss about it."
"Because if the Emperor starts looking too closely into Nandak's affairs he might well find some pretty nasty stuff."
"Like how my father died, for a start. I don't think it was natural."
"You mean, someone done him in?!"
"I don't know for sure, but I'm getting suspicious."
"What, about your brother?"
"I'd sooner we didn't talk about it. With this sort of stuff, the less you know, the better."
"But... Bloody hell, he was his father!"
"I'm not saying it was definitely him. But you need to realise that the world of the Noble Families can be dangerous sometimes. People want power, and sometimes they'll do some pretty awful things to get it. And now I'd like to talk about something else."
"All right. So, Lady Axelia – do you think I'll be able to see her again?"
"Well, she's your mother now, more or less. I think she likes you and I won't mind sharing her with you at all. Of course at the moment she's in mourning, and she has some other stuff to worry about too, but I'm sure she'll make time for you."
"And if she asks me questions about the Emperor, what should I say?"
"She won't. She'd never ask that sort of question. And if someone else starts interrogating you, just tell them that I've forbidden you to talk about it, and that if they have any questions about it they should come and see me."
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