Afsan and Dybo walked down the cobblestone streets of Capital City.
"You were amazing!"
Afsan bowed slightly. "I did only what needed to be done."
"Nonsense! It’s the talk of the city, and I hear the newsriders are having a great time with it. No one has ever seen such skill, such innovation, on a first hunt."
"You are too kind."
"And that lanky palace butcher — what’s his name?"
"Cadool, yes. Every time he brings me food, he asks about that hunt. It’s funny listening to him. He’s intimidated by my station, but he can’t help but ask about your kill. He keeps saying he wishes he had been there to see it. I’ve told him three times now about you shimmying up that endless neck, ripping out the thunderbeast’s throat. He loves the story!"
"And no doubt it gets better with each retelling," Afsan said lightly.
"No, this tale needs no embellishment. I thought we were doomed."
"Well," said Afsan, "Cadool probably misses the organized hunt. After all, most of his time is spent simply slaughtering animals in the stockyards. A true ritual hunt is a rare thing. I understand that most people only participate once a kiloday or so. And I wouldn’t doubt that Cadool gets to do so even less often, given his palace responsibilities."
Dybo slapped his belly in good humor. "Well, that’s true enough. Feeding me is a full-time job!"
Clicked teeth. "Exactly."
"Still, it’s not just Cadool who’s impressed. Even Tetex admits that she had overestimated her skill in taking on that monster. When I become Emperor, I should make you leader of the imperial hunt!"
Afsan stopped dead, his jaw hanging open. "What? Surely you wouldn’t do that — I, I’m an astrologer, a scholar."
Dybo stopped too and spoke gently. "I’m teasing you, you gizzard stone of a plant-eater. I know the stars are your first love; I wouldn’t take them away from you."
Afsan sighed with relief and began walking again. "Thank you."
"But it was a remarkable kill…"
"You forget that it almost killed me," replied Afsan.
"Well, yes, you took a nasty fall. But you had so much brains to begin with, I knew that even getting half of them knocked out wouldn’t be a problem."
Afsan dutifully clicked his teeth.
Soon, they were looking down upon the harbor, the steady wind ruffling their sashes. Along the shore were manyjerbok-saja trees, distinctive because their branches all grew in great trailing arrays off to the west, shaped that way by the constant unidirectional wind.
Twenty sailing ships were moored in the harbor, ranging from small pleasure vessels to big cargo carriers. The great River spread out to the horizon, its waters choppy close to Land but looking smooth farther out. Twisty wisps of cloud were visible, but otherwise the sky was its usual deep, clear mauve. Several kinds of animals were on the beach. A caravan of hornfaces, not unlike the one Afsan had journeyed with from Carno, stood by one of the cargo ships, long horns projecting from above their eyes and the tips of their nose beaks, a great frill of bone rising from the back of each head to shield the neck. Nearby, a small thunderbeast was being used as a crane, a cradle hanging from its long neck lifting what looked like a blast furnace off the deck of a three-mast ship. Wingfingers swirled in the air above the beach, individuals occasionally swooping down to snatch something to eat.
Quintaglios were milling about, too. Merchants from Capital City, crowding closer than protocol would normally allow, were shouting offers at the captains of the cargo ships. They were trying to secure the best of the latest shipments of copper and brass tools from Fra’toolar, of gold bracelets and pendants bearing the marks of workers from the Cape of Belbar, and of that rarest of commodities, cloth, from the plantgrowers of the Mar’toolar plains.
The Dasheter, with its double-diamond hulls, was easy to spot among the other ships. Its four masts — two on the port side of the forehull, two on the starboard side of the afthull — stood higher than any of the others in the harbor.
Most of these ships moved cargo from coastal communities. They could be small since they put into port every few days, letting passengers and crew off to run and hunt. Afsan remembered the story of the Galadoreter, blown far out into the River by a storm, unable to land for dekadays. With no way to release the territorial instinct, the crew had fought until everyone aboard had died in a crazed territorial battle. The ship, its decks littered with rotting Quintaglio carcasses half eaten by wingfingers, had blown back to shore near the mining town of Parnood.
But the Dasheter was a long-voyage vessel. Even though meant to carry only thirty people, it was huge. Afsan looked down at its twin hulls: two vast diamonds joined by a short connecting piece. Everywhere, space was maximized. True, a Quintaglio would feel uncomfortable penned in any place that was not clearly his or her own territory, but the four decks of the Dasheter afforded as many square paces per person as possible. Intellectually one would always know that others were nearby but if tricked physiologically into feeling alone, instinct should be kept at bay.
The Dasheter’s vast red sails were angled parallel to the steady wind caused by Land’s travel down the River, preventing them from moving the ship. In the center of each sail was an emblem of the Prophet Larsk, for it was his famous voyage that the Dasheter was going to retrace. The first sail had Larsk’s cartouche; the second, his name in ancient stone-glyphs; the third, his head silhouetted against the swirling Face of God, an image derived from the famed Tapestries of the Prophet that hung not far from Saleed’s office; and the fourth, the crest of the Pilgrimage Guild, founded by Larsk himself, and to which Var-Keenir and all other mariners of note belonged.
"It’s a beautiful ship," said Dybo.
Afsan nodded. "That it is."
Coming up from the harbor was the Dasheter’s identification call. Loud: five bells; two drums. Soft: five bells; two drums. Loud: five bells; two drums. Over and over again.
"The journey will take a long time," said Dybo.
"Anything worthwhile takes time," said Afsan.
Dybo looked at him. "My, aren’t we profound today." He clicked his teeth in humor. "But, yes, I suppose you’re right. Still, it’s frustrating. Why does God look down upon the world from so far away?"
"She’s protecting us, no? Looking out for obstacles upriver, making sure the way is safe."
"I suppose," said Dybo. "Still, why does She never come and look directly down on Land? There are dangers here, too."
"Well, perhaps She feels that the people here are well looked after by the Empress. It is, after all, through God’s divine will that your mother rules."
Dybo looked out at the water. "Yes, indeed," he said at last.
"And one day, you will rule."
Again, Dybo stared out toward the horizon, the steady wind blowing in his face. He said a word, or at least Afsan thought he did, but the wind stole it away before it reached Afsan’s earholes.
"Does it scare you, Dybo? The responsibility?"
Dybo’s gaze came back to look at Afsan. The chubby prince was strangely subdued. "Wouldn’t you be scared?"
Afsan realized that he was upsetting his friend, and that was the last thing he wanted to do. He bowed slightly in concession. "Sorry. But, anyway, your mother is only thirty kilodays old or so. I’m sure she’ll rule for a long time yet to come."
Dybo was silent for a time. "I hope so," he said at last.
Dybo, as crown prince, was ushered aboard the Dasheter first, amid a clacking together of honor stones by the ship’s crew. Afsan had to queue with the rest of the passengers, but it wasn’t long before his turn to board came.
A wooden gangway led from the dock up to the foredeck of the Dasheter. Afsan, his sack of belongings slung over his shoulder, was about to step upon it when he heard his name called by a deep voice. He turned and, much to his surprise, saw Saleed shambling toward him.
"Master?" said Afsan, stepping away from the gangway.
Saleed got within two paces of Afsan, closer than one would normally approach another in a public place. He reached into a pouch at the hip of his blue and green sash and withdrew a small object wrapped in soft hide. "Afsan, I…" Saleed looked uncomfortable. Afsan had never seen the astrologer thus. Irritated, yes. Angry, often. But uncomfortable? Ill at ease? Never.
"Afsan," Saleed said again. "I have a, a present for you." He opened up the knot of hide. Within lay a six-sided crystal, deep red, about the length of Afsan’s longest finger. It seemed to glow from within.
Afsan was so surprised, he did nothing at first. Then, finally, he reached out to take it. He held it in front of his face, and turned toward the sun. The crystal blazed.
"It’s beautiful," Afsan said. "What is it?"
"It is a traveler’s crystal, boy. It is said to bring luck. I — I took this one on my own first pilgrimage."
Afsan, tail swishing in wonderment, said, "Thank you."
"Be safe," said Saleed, and with that, the old astrologer turned tail and walked away.
Afsan watched his master’s back awhile, then walked toward the wooden gangway. He stepped on it, feeling the planks moving slightly as the Dasheter rose and fell on the waves, and walked up onto the deck of the ship.
The Dasheter! Afsan exhaled noisily. A more famous ship one could not imagine. Keenir’s exploits were the stuff of legend, and his ship was well-known even far inland.
Afsan leaned back on his tail for balance, unused to the slow heaving of the deck. A ship’s mate, wearing a red leather cap, much like the one Keenir had been wearing that day in Saleed’s office, gestured to Afsan. "Come along, eggling. Can’t stand there all day."
Afsan looked over his shoulder and realized that someone else was on the wooden gangway, standing patiently halfway across, not wanting to invade Afsan’s personal space. Afsan nodded to the fellow behind him. "Sorry!" He quickly moved farther onto the deck.
The mate moved closer to Afsan. "Your name, young one?"
"Afsan, late of Pack Carno, now of Capital City."
"Ah, Saleed’s apprentice. Your cabin is on the topmost of the aft decks on the port side. You can’t miss it; it has a relief of the Five Hunters carved into its door."
Afsan bowed concession. "Thank you."
"Best stow your gear, boy. We sail soon. You’ll find on the back of your door a list of ship’s chores you are expected to perform. There’s also a prayer schedule; services will get more frequent as we approach the Face of God, of course."
"Thank you," Afsan said again, and headed off to find the door carved with the Five Hunters.
Walking the deck was disquieting. Like all Quintaglios, Afsan had lived through several landquakes. Once, indeed, he had seen a large building topple only paces away from him. The undulating of the deck reminded him of the angry shifting of the land. He had to make a mental effort to tell himself not to seek open ground.
Afsan crossed the connecting piece between the fore and aft hulls of the boat, and found a ramp leading to the decks below. Down here, it was dark and musty. The walls, floors, and ceilings groaned constantly, almost as if alive. He had no trouble finding his cabin. The carving of the Five Hunters was exquisite. Afsan could picture the artisan laboring for days over the planks that made up the door, using fingerclaws as fine tools to chisel out chips of wood.
Each of the Five was rendered in distinctive detail: Lubal in the running posture, back horizontal, tail flying; Belbar in mid-leap, hand and foot claws extended; Hoog baring her fangs; Katoon tipped over so that her tail stood up like a tree trunk as she picked over a carcass; and Mekt, wearing a priestly robe, head held way back, throat expanding in a swallow, the last handspan or so of a tiny, thin tail still protruding from her mouth. Afsan was puzzled. It looked like an awfully small meal for such a great hunter.
And then there were the strange hand gestures, visible in the renditions of Lubal and Katoon: fingers two and three with claws extended, four and five spread out, the thumb placed against the palm.
Afsan had seen that odd configuration somewhere else, but where? The Tapestries of the Prophet. The aug-ta-rot beings. The demons.
Odd, thought Afsan, that a ship that often retraced the journey of the prophet would sport carvings from the cult of the hunters, a cult Larsk himself had diminished from being the major religion of the people to just a series of rites adhered to mostly by those, like Jal-Tetex, who hunted regularly. Still, the Dasheter was not exclusively a pilgrimage ship.
The cabin behind the carved door was small, with a workbench, a single lamp, a trough for storage, a bucket full of water, and a small window, currently covered by a leather curtain. There was plenty of room for sleeping on the floor.
Afsan unpacked his sack, filling the trough with most of its contents. On the desk, he placed his sky charts, his prayer books, and some other books he’d borrowed from Saleed for pleasure reading. In the center of it all, he placed Saleed’s traveler’s crystal.
On the back of the door was the promised schedule of chores. Nothing too complicated: galley duties, cleaning the decks, and so on. He walked across the cabin, pulled back the curtain over the porthole, and stared out at the busy docks.
Suddenly his door creaked open. Afsan felt a twitching at the tips of his fingers, but checked the reflex immediately. Only a member of The Family would enter a room without warning. Turning around, he said, "Ho, Dybo."
"Ho, yourself, you muddied tail of a shovelmouth." The prince placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the room. "Not bad."
"Yours is bigger, no doubt."
Dybo clicked his teeth. "No doubt."
"When do we sail?"
"Any moment," said Dybo. "That’s why I came to get you. Come on, let’s go up on deck." Without waiting for Afsan’s reply, Dybo headed out the doorway. Sometimes, Afsan reflected, he really does act like a prince. Afsan followed. Although Dybo was rotund, he was still much less bulky than an old Quintaglio, so the timbers of the deck made no special groaning under his weight.
They went up the ramp and out onto the main deck. Crew-members were hurrying about, making final preparations. Captain Var-Keenir was walking back and forth, his face still hideously scarred, his tail still shy of its proper length, his steps still aided by a cane. He shouted orders in that incredibly deep and gravelly voice of his. "Lock off that line!" "Stow that cable!" "Angle that sail!" It appeared to Afsan that the crew already had everything under control, that Keenir was really just working off his own impatience. Since he had no tail to lean back on, he couldn’t do many of the jobs himself. But at last Keenir called out the order everyone was waiting for: "Hoist the anchor!"
Five mates worked the wheel that pulled the thick metal chain aboard. As soon as the anchor lifted free of the harbor’s floor, Afsan felt the ship move. The mates continued hoisting until they’d brought the five-pointed holdfast onto the deck. A large puddle spread from it.
Quintaglios worked the rigging for the sails, and the great ship sped along, but, Afsan noticed, not to the east, but rather to the northeast. Of course: the ship would have to tack into the wind, zigzagging its way up the River, sailing alternately northeast then southeast, crisscrossing to the Face of God.
Soon, thought Afsan, looking far ahead, soon I will know your secrets.