Julien's parents were not altogether happy about his Marks. During their reunion the previous afternoon his father had made a commendably restrained comment on his new haircut, which Mr Berthier described as 'a little bit over-the-top but definitely masculine', but today he'd found out about Julien's 'tattoos'. They hadn't actually said anything about them, because when their son had returned from the ceremony on Dvârinn he had brought Niil and Ambar with him, and so their conversation, which was in any case limited by their need to make use of an interpreter, was entirely courteous, and that despite the fact that Julien's two friends were also sporting 'silver tattoos'. Julien knew what they were really thinking about it, but for once he didn't care: all that mattered to him was that he had been reunited with his friends, and now all he wanted to do was to spend some time alone with them.
Tannder, who understood exactly what Julien was thinking, made things easy for him by making an appearance after a few minutes to remind His Lordship that he was expected in his private apartments, thus rescuing Julien from any attempt by his parents to insist on him staying to eat with them. Julien also wondered whether it had been planning on Tannder's part or thoughtlessness on Aldegard's that had installed his parents in a kang separated from his own by a great length of twisty corridors which would discourage them from dropping in on him unannounced. Of course, nobody – not even his parents – could just drop in on the Guardian of the Nine Worlds without advance notice...
Until now the three boys hadn't really had a chance to get together or have a private chat, and the first thing that Julien did once they were alone was to hug them both.
Ambar was the one who asked the question that they had both wanted to ask for some time.
"You've cut your hair, and you've got the Marks of the Imperial House," he said. "How come? Xarax hasn't told us anything!"
"I only started wearing the Marks yesterday evening," Julien told them. "I'll tell you about it later."
"I loved the way you just appeared at the funeral," said Niil. "My brothers were completely flabbergasted. I think they'd made up their minds that there wasn't an Emperor any longer. I hope you're going to tell us what you were talking about in that little room just before the meal. Nandak looked as if he'd seen a ghorr coming after him when you came back into the dining room."
"Yes, I'll have to tell you about that, because it concerns you directly – both of you."
"Right. And maybe you'll also tell us about you wanting us to perform the Rite of Trust, because that came right out of nowhere. You really didn't need to do that, you know."
"Yes, I did – and actually that's why I turned up in the nude. Tannder suggested it. He's pure gold, that man. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that nobody would dare to lift a finger against you after that, even if I'm not around all the time. When you're dealing with morons like Nekal it's a good idea to make sure our relationship is spelled out in black and white. Anyway, I rather liked putting your clothes on. They were nice and warm, especially your underwear."
"Yes, I noticed."
"It didn't seem to make that much of an impression on you at the time."
"That's because I was freezing my bits off! I'm amazed you weren't blue with cold yourself!"
"I have a superhuman nature, don't forget! No, to be honest, Master Subadar found a Health Master who provided us with a box of some special ointment or other that protects against the cold. It's quite long-lasting, too."
"So Master Subadar was in on your plot too?"
"He certainly was. In fact, he was the one who told me how to do it and what to say. And obviously Aïn helped, too. That's another one who I'm pretty sure is my friend just because he likes me and not because I'm the Emperor. A bit like you."
"A little while back I'd have said that it's because we're Ksantiris and we're all like that. But after what my bastard brothers did..."
"I have to admit they gave me an interesting impression of what the nobility of the R'hinz is really like. I hope there aren't too many more out there like them. Did you know that most of the people of Ksantir hate Nekal like poison?"
"Well, I'm not entirely surprised to hear it. So what's going to happen to them?"
"Provided they use what little sense they have and go along with what we've arranged for them without making waves, Nekal is going to end up as governor of the most remote uninhabited chunk of rock we can find. But it's a bit more complicated knowing what to do with Nandak. We discussed it with Aldegard for quite a long time. The simplest solution would be to ship him off with a one-way ticket to Tandil for threatening the security of the Nine Worlds and then bump you up to First Lord of the Ksantiris and make your Noble Mother Councillor-Regent until the Council of Mirrors decide that your training is complete. But everyone said that would be a rotten thing to do to you – after all, the whole situation stinks to high heaven and we don't really know who was involved in the conspiracy and who wasn't. You know that we're by no means sure that your father died from natural causes, and I would absolutely hate for you to suddenly fall ill. As for Ambar, if anything happened to you it would be very long odds indeed against him surviving until the end of the day. There's no shortage of people out there who would like to become First Lord of the Ksantiris, and you two would be in their way. Some of your brother's supporters refer to you as 'the bastard and the spare part', and I wouldn't want to repeat what they call Lady Axelia. Your mother has chosen to come and live on Nüngen, and I think that was a really good idea."
"But... if I understand what you're saying, it sounds as if Nandak has won! He gets to stay as First Lord, even though he's a murderer and a traitor!"
"Well, you could look at it that way. But in fact his hands are completely tied, and it also means that we get to deal with the forbidden weapons without having to annihilate Ksantir the way that Tchenn Ril was destroyed in the past. Nor do we have to obliterate House Ksantiri and scatter its members. We'll keep a close eye on your brother, and in any case once it's clear that you don't want to replace him he'll no longer have any reason to try to kill you or your mother – or Ambar, either."
"But suppose I want to avenge my father's death?"
"Obviously you have the right to do that, but you would have to choose between assassinating Nandak – which would almost certainly result in you and anyone who helped you being sent to Tandil – or you could prove that your brother was responsible for your father's death, and really I don't think it'll be at all easy to do that. I'm pretty sure that right at this moment there's an epidemic of suicides on Dvârinn affecting anyone who might have known anything at all about your Father's death.
"Obviously everyone, including me, understands how you feel, and if you do decide to avenge your father I'll intervene personally to make sure that nobody interferes. I might even lend you Tannder, just to make sure that nobody shoots you in the back. I'm sure he would agree to do that. He likes you very much – in fact he'd probably even be prepared to go with you to Tandil and try to keep the taks off your back for a day or so, which is about as long as you could hope to last even with a Silent Warrior backing you up. But please stop and think about it first. You owe me that much.
"I also want you to think about what I'm going to do. Nandak is cunning, but if he has done what we think he did there will still be some evidence somewhere. I don't think you'd ever be able to find it, but I, on the other hand, have so many means of investigation open to me that I probably don't even know what all of them are. And I'll ask Tannder and Subadar to use them discreetly. Before too long your brother will start to relax, and that's more likely if he thinks you don't suspect him. He's not stupid, but he's not so clever that he can't make mistakes. He thinks you're not worth bothering about, and he doesn't yet realise that the whole power of the Emperor is on his case – and even if he does discover that, he still won't realise quite what that power is. True, I've just slapped him down, but as far as he can see he's still in charge, and he thinks that sooner or later he'll regain his full power and his freedom to act. He simply doesn't understand that we'll be watching him like a hawk, wherever he goes and whatever he does. And if it does turn out that he had nothing to do with your father's death, you'll know for sure, and if he's guilty you'll also know for sure – and then you'll be able to choose how the story ends: you can either have him sent to Tandil, or you can claim your Right of Retribution and face him in person.
"Yes, I know you'd have preferred it if we'd discussed this before what happened yesterday, but I didn't really get a chance. So what do you think?"
"I think that I'd have to be thicker than Nekal not to agree. And... thanks for getting so involved on my behalf."
"Oh, it's not purely on your behalf! After all, I hate injustice, and I'd be furious if he's guilty and gets away with it. And obviously I don't want to lose a friend just when I've got him back. I wish you could have been there when I met the Neh-kyong!"
"You've actually seen a Neh-kyong?" gasped Ambar in disbelief.
"Well, it's not really 'seeing' as such. It's sort of weird, actually. But, yes, I have met one. His name is Tchenn Ril, the same as the ruined city he's guarding, and he says he's in my debt. So perhaps when things have calmed down a bit we could go and visit him if you like."
"Xarax told us you've got a boat," said Ambar. "What was it like during the storm? We couldn't really feel it too much on the trankenn, but I suppose it was a lot rougher for you..."
Niil seemed to be lost in thought, but Ambar went on plying Julien with questions for a long time, reliving his adventures with him. Julien even offered, after a brief hesitation, a complete description of Dillik and his nocturnal meeting with Xarax. He was a bit nervous about admitting to sharing his bed with another boy, but on the other hand he didn't want his friendship with Ambar to be tainted by secrets. But his friend's reaction demonstrated immediately that there was nothing to worry about.
"I think that's a really nice story you told him," said Ambar. "What with the dream and the kite as well, it was about the nicest thing you could have given him. And I reckon he deserved it, an' all, 'cos it must have been tough for you with all that stuff happening to you, and he must have cheered you up by sharing your bed. I hope maybe I can meet him one day – and if I do I'll give him a present too, to thank him for looking after you."
Julien still didn't really know Ambar as well as he would have liked, but he was very happy indeed to discover that jealousy wasn't a part of his make-up.
"And while we're on that subject," Ambar went on, with a familiar glint in his eye, "don't you think you ought to have a bath?"
"You think I ought to wash off the dust of the road, do you?"
"That's it. Well, maybe it's not dust, but sea-spray – I mean, all that salt is very bad for the skin."
"And I suppose your sense of duty is forcing you to help me to get rid of it?"
"Well, I'm not really all that keen, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices, don't we?"
"Could it be Tannder who's been teaching you about sacrifice, then?"
"Yes, and he said I have to be really nice to you. And to Niil, of course. And you don't want to make me disobey Tannder, do you?"
"Certainly not! You should always obey your teachers. Did he also tell you to sit like that with your laï pushed right up to the top of your thighs?"
"Well, no, that was my own idea. It seems to work with you every time, a bit like fishing from a very small fish tank. So, about that bath..?"
"Well... I'm not sure. It'll soon be time for supper."
"Oh, I'm sure we've got plenty of time."
They did indeed have plenty of time, and after a while Niil came and joined them, unable to resist the peals of laughter echoing from the bathroom and caused by Ambar's attempts to compare, millimetre by millimetre, the Marks on his body with those now decorating some of the more interesting parts of Julien's anatomy.
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