"Godglow!" shouted Dybo, pointing to the eastern horizon. At once, every head turned to look. Afsan couldn’t see what his friend was referring to. The sun, purple and fat, had set on the opposite horizon less than a daytenth ago, its sinking below the waves accelerated by the Dasheter’s steady drive to the east. Afsan’s eyes had already adjusted to the darkness of night, or so he’d thought, for he could see many stars, the sky reflection of the River, three crescent moons, and bright Kevpel, one of the enigmatic planets he had been examining on previous nights with the far-seer.
"Where?" came the skeptical cry from one of the other pilgrims.
Dybo was adamant. "There! See how it banishes the stars!"
"I don’t see anything," said the skeptic.
"Douse the lamps, you hornface dropping! It’s there!"
Afsan and some of the others hurried to the glowing oil lamps mounted high on the gunwales and quickly turned off their flames. Darkness enveloped everything, broken only by the twinkling stars and bright moons overhead. No, no, that wasn’t quite right. Afsan stared intently at the distant horizon. There was a glow there, a faint, ethereal luminance, barely perceptible. Dybo must have had keen eyes indeed to have detected it while the lamps were still ablaze.
"I still don’t see anything," said a voice from the darkness, the same gainsayer as before.
Afsan worked his muzzle to form the words "I do," but was so moved by the wondrous sight that no sound passed his throat. He tried again, overcompensating, speaking too loudly for such an awesome moment. "I do!"
Hushed whispers of "Me, too" filled the air, then everyone fell silent. They watched, intent, for most of the night before any real progress became visible. The glow spread left and right across the horizon line, illuminating the crests of distant waves. As it grew brighter it took on discernible color, a pale yellowish-orange. It was dimmer than the early morning glow that heralded the dawn, and completely the wrong hue, but still it gave Afsan the feeling that something huge and bright and powerful was lurking just below the horizon.
Near him, one of the other pilgrims began to rock backwards, balancing against her tail, a low thrumming sound coming from deep within her chest. Afsan glanced at the other’s fingers. Her claws were still sheathed; this rocking was the beginnings of rapture, not a fight-or-flight instinct.
"God made us," said the pilgrim softly. A few others echoed the chant. "God gave us the Land." Several pilgrims were reciting the prayer in unison now. "God gave us the beasts upon the Land." Three or four others were rocking back on their tails. "God gave us the teeth of a hunter, the hand of an artist, the mind of a thinker." The glow was slightly brighter now, covering most of the horizon. "For these gifts," said the crowd, now only Afsan’s voice missing from the chorus, "God asks but one thing." But by the next verse, Afsan found himself joining in the chant. "Our obedience. And that we give with joy."
They rocked together for the rest of the brief night. Even though it was even-night, when many of them should have been sleeping, they pressed on in their worship, the ship rolling back and forth along the waves, the sails snapping in the steady wind.
When dawn came, the sun rose in the east directly out of where the Godglow had been, its blue light replacing the yellow radiance. They took turns scanning the eastern horizon, the tiny, furiously bright sun tracking across the sky, but no more Godglow was to be seen. That night it returned, and ship’s priest Det-Bleen led them through many prayers, but it wasn’t until shortly before sunset the following day that Dybo’s voice went up again. "There!" he cried, loud enough for all to hear above the sounds of the ship, the thunder of the waves. "There! The Face of God!"
All eyes turned to the eastern horizon. The assembled group cast long shadows in front of themselves on the deck as the sun lowered to touch the waters behind them.
At the very edge of the eastern horizon a tiny point of yellow appeared. A few individuals gasped. Afsan was content simply to stare in wonder. It took most of the night before there was more than just a point, before there was something that had a discernible shape. It soon became clear to Afsan that he was seeing the leading edge of a vast, circular object.
According to Captain Var-Keenir, they would have to travel four thousand kilopaces more before the Face would clear the horizon. Tacking alternately port and starboard, that would take thirty-two days, the Face rising by just three percent of its total height for each day of sailing.
Time passed. The Dasheter continued east. The Face crawled up the sky from the horizon, a vertically striped dome growing wider and wider. It swirled with colors, yellow and brown and red and mixes of those in every imaginable combination: oranges and beiges and rusts, pale shades like dead vegetation, deep shades like fresh blood, dark shades like the richest soil.
Every morning, the sun emerged from behind the Face, a tiny blue point rising up into the sky, the Face illuminated only along its upper edge as the sun rose from it, as if from behind a vast round hill on the horizon.
It was a glorious double dawn, the top of the Face lighting up as the sun rose over it. As the day progressed, illumination pulled downward over the Face like an iridescent eyelid sliding shut over a dark orb.
Each day, dawn came a little later, the sun having to climb higher to clear the spreading dome of the Face of God. Afsan took advantage of the prolonged nights to do more observing.
That the Face was not always fully lit fascinated Afsan. In the afternoon and at night, it was indeed a bright dome on the horizon, but every morning only its upper edge was illuminated, a thin line arching up from where the water met the sky, the part of the Face beneath the line dim and violet.
And sometimes none of the Face was lit at all.
It didn’t take Afsan long to figure out what was happening, but the thought staggered him nonetheless.
The Face of God, the very countenance of his creator, went through phases, just as the moons did, and, as he had seen through the far-seer, just as some of the planets did.
Phases, waxing vertically from top to bottom. Part lit, part dark.
The Face of God continued to rise, broadening each day, a vast dome lifting from the distant waves, until at long last, eighteen days after Dybo had first spotted the Godglow, the Face’s widest part cleared the horizon. That event, too, was marked by a prayer ceremony. It was mid-afternoon and the Face’s entire visible hemisphere was illuminated: a half circle, a vertically striped dome, standing where the River met the sky.
Afsan retained enough of his astrologer’s senses to gauge the object’s size: some fifty times the width of an outstretched thumb. He looked to the east and held both arms out horizontally so that his left hand touched the southernmost tip of the Face and his right hand touched the northernmost. Tipping his muzzle down, he saw that his arms were making an angle equal to an eighth of a circle.
Afsan had always admired sunset, had studied the wonders of the night sky, had recently seen more marvels than he’d ever imagined through the far-seer. But he was left dumb by this sight, the single most beautiful thing he had ever seen; indeed, he knew at once that this was the single most beautiful thing he would ever see.
As the Dasheter continued east, the Face appeared to rise slowly, the part intersecting the horizon growing narrower and narrower as the vast circular form lifted higher into the heavens. Gorgeous colors rolled up and down it in loose vertical stripes.
The top-to-bottom cycle of phases fascinated Afsan. When the entire dome was lit up, as it was each midnight, it seemed, paradoxically, like a false dawn. The sky should have been at its blackest. Instead, all but the brightest stars on the western horizon were drowned out by the eastern rising of the Face.
When the Face was a waxing crescent, the illuminated top part rose from the waves like an archway, beckoning the pilgrims to enter.
But when it was a waning crescent, only the lower part lit, the points of the crescent rose up from the horizon like the curving horns of some great beast lurking below the edge.
The Dasheter sailed toward the Face of God, Afsan wondering what they would find.
Afsan saw that the Face did have features, after a fashion. No nostrils, no earholes, no teeth. But there were the famed God eyes, black circles as dark and round as Quintaglio orbs, spaced randomly in a tight vertical band up the center of the rising sphere.
And perhaps there was a mouth, for a huge white oval, measuring a fifth of the Face’s total height, crawled up the right side each day.
Finally, three dekadays after they had first seen the Face of God, its trailing tip broke free from the watery horizon. It was after dark, the Face half full, its bottom lit up. The glowing curved edge lifted from the waves. Afsan had stopped breathing, waiting for the moment of separation. When it happened, he gulped cool night air.
Lovely. Afsan had never had cause to use that word to describe anything in his life, but the sight of the Face of God was indeed lovely. He stared at it, its lower half aglow, its upper half a vast purple dome against the night, the whole circular object floating just above the edge of the water, its reflection on the waves a rippling yellow arm reaching out to the pilgrims.
No, thought Afsan, no, the Face was not quite circular. Even discounting the fact that it was only partially illuminated, it still wasn’t perfectly round. It was narrower than it was tall, squished horizontally.
Of course! What better form for the creator of all life?
Sunrise was breathtaking. The Face was a thin crescent on its bottom half as the searing point of the sun rose from the waves just below it, then the whole sky dimmed again for more than a daytenth as the sun was hidden behind the great dark bulk of the Face. Then a second dawn occurred as the brilliant blue-white light finally rose out of the top of the Face, its upper edge now a bright crescent.
Afsan was always circumspect when using the far-seer. He recalled the trouble he’d gotten into at the palace when he’d suggested to Saleed that he might use such a device to examine the Face of God. Whenever Det-Bleen was on deck, Afsan did no observing. He occasionally overheard other pilgrims and members of the crew making derisive remarks about his obsession with looking through the brass tube, but Afsan didn’t care. The sights were glorious.
Through the far-seer, in close-up, there seemed almost infinite detail in the swirling bands of color that ran up the illuminated part of the Face of God. The bands weren’t sharply defined. Instead, they faded away into little eddies and curlicues. The mysterious God eyes were just as round and black and featureless as they appeared without the far-seer. Under magnification, though, the great mouth, that swirling white oval sometimes visible moving up the Face, looked like a whirlpool.
It was wondrous. Each tiny circular segment of the Face was intricate, each band of color complex and fascinating.
Actually Afsan quickly became convinced that he wasn’t seeing a solid surface. Not only did the Face go through phases, but its visible details shifted from day to day, the configurations flowing, structures drifting. No, Afsan suspected he was seeing either clouds of tinted gas or swirls of liquids — or something, anyway, other than a solid object.
Again he tried to reconcile this with his expectations. Earlier he’d thought of the Face as a great egg, but now it seemed immaterial, fluid. And yet was not the spirit a diaphanous thing? Was not the soul airy and insubstantial? Wouldn’t God Herself simply be a great immaterial spirit?
The Dasheter continued to sail east day after day, its identification call — a semi-ten of drums, a pair of bells, loud then soft, time and again — hailing the Face of God. As the ship moved on, the Face rose farther. At last, eighty days after it had first been sighted, the heart of the great circular form, cycling through its phases once each day, stood at the zenith. The Face, sprawling across a quarter of the sky, inspired awe in Afsan and the other pilgrims.
It was overpowering, compelling, hypnotic. Afsan could not help but stare at it, and, when so doing, he lost track of time. The colors swirling in broad bands were like nothing he had ever seen.
No, he reflected, no, that wasn’t quite right. He had seen similar colors, similar vibrancy, once, kilodays ago. Lost in the deep woods of Arj’toolar province, upriver from where Pack Carno was roaming, he had eaten a strange fungus growing only on the north sides of trees. A Quintaglio does not eat plants, he had reminded himself at the time. But he had been unable to catch any small animal, and, lost for three even-days and two odd, his belly was rumbling and he could taste his own gastric acid at the back of his throat. He’d need something to take the pain off, something to sustain him, until he found his way back to Carno or until someone found him.
He’d seen small scaly creatures nibbling at the fungus, chewing it, rather than swallowing it whole. He’d tried to grab the little lizards but, to Afsan’s humiliation, they scampered away every time he tried to sneak up on them. Even worse, they didn’t scamper very far — just enough to be out of reach of a single lunge.
Children do silly things, and Afsan, like many others, had tried eating grass and flowers in his youth, only to become terribly sick, his stomach cramped for days.
But this fungus, this strange beige lump growing on the side of the trees: it wasn’t a regular plant, it wasn’t green. Perhaps it wouldn’t pain him so to eat it. And, by the prophet, if he didn’t eat something soon, he would die. The lizards seemed to manage it well enough.
Eventually hunger got the better of him. Afsan crouched down beside the tree and snapped off a piece of the fungus. It was cold and dry and had a crumbly texture along its broken edge. He brought it up to his muzzle. It smelled musty, but otherwise innocuous. Finally he placed it in his mouth. The taste was bitter, but not too unpleasant. Still, he was a hunter, not an armorback. He had no molars to grind the plant with, but he used his tongue to bounce it around in his mouth, perforating and tearing it with his pointed teeth. Perhaps working it thus would make it pass through his digestion better than the grasses he’d tried when he was even younger.
At first, everything seemed fine. The fungus did seem to take the edge off his hunger.
But then, suddenly, Afsan felt light-headed. He rose to his feet, but found he couldn’t keep his balance. He staggered a few steps, then decided he’d be better off lying down. He let himself down to the ground, and lay on his side on the cool dirt, a blanket of dead leaves beneath him, discrete shafts of fierce white sunlight coming through the canopy of treetops above his head.
Soon, the sunlight began to dance, the beams sliding back and forth, intertwining, coalescing, fragmenting, changing colors, now blue, now green, now red, now fiery orange, shifting, undulating, rainbows incarnate, swinging back and forth. He felt as if he was floating, seeing colors as he’d never seen them before, brighter, cleaner, more powerful, impinging directly on his mind like thoughts crisp and clear, pure and lucid.
It was similar to the delirium that accompanies fever, but with no pain, no nausea, just a cool sense of tranquillity, of liquid peace.
He lost all track of time, of place. He forgot he was in a forest, forgot his hunger, forgot that night would soon be here. Or, if he knew any of that, it did not seem to matter. The colors, the lights, the patterns — they were all that mattered, all that had ever mattered.
At last, he did come out of it, late into the night. It was cold and dark, and Afsan was very, very afraid. He felt physically weak, mentally drained. The next morning, a hunting party from Carno came across him. They gave him a leather cloak, and individual hunters took turns carrying him back to the village on their shoulders. He never told anyone about the fungus he had eaten, about the strange hallucinations he had experienced. But that event, six kilodays in the past, was the only thing he could compare to the hypnotic effect of staring into the swirling, roiling Face of God.
Every day, ship’s priest Det-Bleen led a service. As the sun rose higher, the Face grew darker and darker, until only a crescent sliver was illuminated on the side toward the rising sun. A little before noon, with the sun arcing high across the sky and the crescent of illumination all but gone, the pilgrims would begin to chant.
The sun, a tiny point compared to the great mauve circle of the unilluminated Face, came closer and closer and closer to the vast curving edge, and then, and then, and then…
The sun disappeared.
Behind the Face of God.
God was dark and featureless.
The whole sky dimmed.
Moons, normally pale in the light of day, glowed with their nocturnal colors.
Bleen would lead the pilgrims in prayers and songs, urging the sun to return.
And it always did, about one and a quarter daytenths after it had vanished. The brilliant blue-white point emerged from the other side of the Face of God, lighting the sky again.
Afsan watched this spectacle every day. As the sun slid toward the horizon, toward dusk, the Face, rock-steady at the zenith, would grow more and more illuminated, waxing from the side nearest the sun in the bowl of the sky. By the time the sun touched the waves of the River, the Face of God was more than half lit again.
Afsan was always amazed by the beauty.
But he knew he’d be able to figure it out.
He knew it.