After a moment’s hesitation, Afsan raced up on deck, following Keenir, the clicking of the oldster’s walking stick a staccato rhythm on the planking. They were on the foredeck of the Dasheter. Ahead, along the angle of the bow, were most of the crew, their red leather caps like a line of bright berries against the horizon. Keenir looked up, the Face of God a vast crescent above his head, and shouted, "Where?"
From high on the observation platform, Officer Paldook pointed. "Dead ahead, sir!"
All eyes peered out into the vast watery distance, ignoring the beige and red and ocher highlights on the wave caps caused by the reflection of the Face.
Somewhat out of breath, Afsan, too, made it to the carved keetaja-wood railing around the edge of the bow. He was only a short distance from Keenir. The captain was intent, staring, searching. His claws were unsheathed, his black eyes wide. The crew was spread out along the pointed bow, almost like a hunting line.
"There!" shouted a sailor farther along the bow.
"Yes!" chimed another. "There!"
Afsan tried to sight in the direction the two were pointing. Way, way out, almost to the horizon, he saw something silhouetted against the azure sky — a crooked shape, like a bent finger, but thinner, more delicate.
Afsan looked at the captain. "What is it?"
Keenir glanced at the young astrologer. "A demon. A demon out of the deepest volcanic pits."
Afsan turned his gaze back onto the distant waters. It took him several heartbeats to find the object again — faster than normal heartbeats, he realized, as his nostrils picked up pheromones passing down the line of Quintaglios. There it was, a crooked curving shape, a — By the prophet! Look at how it moves! Like a snapping whip, it shot forward, then recoiled.
Keenir’s muzzle was pinched in rage; his tail stub twitched openly. "Give chase!" he shouted.
’’Give chase!" repeated an officer on his right, and others passed the command along. "Give chase!" "Give chase!" "Give chase!"
The crew began to run, tails flying, to various stations around the deck. Some climbed the webbing of ropes that led up the naked masts. Shouting instructions to each other, they pulled on ropes at the tops of the masts. The four great sheets of red cloth unrolled and, weighed down by dowels as thick as Afsan’s waist, came crashing toward the deck. The sheets, each with its own tribute to the Prophet Larsk, billowed outward and soon began to snap. The deck lurched as the ship, having been still all these days, heaved into motion.
Crewmembers were swinging on ropes, pulling on cables. Spray in his face, Afsan watched booms swing around. The sails cracked in protest as they were brought against the wind. The booms groaned and howled; the wooden deck creaked under the stress.
But the Dasheter moved! By the very Face of God, it moved with speed and power, harnessing the wind, tacking toward :he strange object far, far ahead.
"What’s going on?"
Afsan turned, surprised at the voice. Prince Dybo had appeared at his elbow. "Ho, Dybo. I cast a shadow…"
"Yes, yes. What’s going on?"
"We’re pursuing something."
"Put a knot in my tail if I know."
Dybo made a gruff sound. A sailor was approaching, carrying a coiled rope. Dybo stepped into her path.
"What are we chasing?"
The sailor wasn’t looking where she was going. "Get out of my way, child."
Dybo thumped his tail against the deck and bobbed his torso in a territorial display.
The sailor looked up. "What the — Oh, Prince Dybo. I’m sorry…" She bowed deeply.
Afsan thought his friend played the role well. Measured, with a distinct pause between each word, he said again, "What are we chasing?"
The sailor looked terrified. She realized that she’d insulted a member of The Family. Tail swishing nervously, she stammered, "Kal-ta-goot. The serpent."
"Why, the one that attacked the Dasheter on our last pilgrimage. At least, we’re assuming it’s the same one. Keenir wants it."
Dybo’s eyes went wide. "His injuries. His face, his tail…"
The sailor bobbed agreement. "Yes, yes. He fought bravely, of course. He’s a hunter at heart, the captain. He wanted fresh meat for the passengers and crew, real bones to gnaw on. He took a hunting party out in one of the little landing boats, thinking to swarm the creature’s back when it surfaced, to dispatch it quickly, and have a feast for all. But that beast is a monster, a killer. We almost lost Keenir." The sailor fell silent, then, timidly, "Good Prince, they need this cable up front to lock off the boom. May I go?"
"Yes." Dybo stood out of her way, and she scurried on up the deck.
Afsan, who’d been marveling at how well his friend assumed the mantle of authority when it suited him to do so, edged closer to Dybo. "So we’re to give chase? If it almost killed him once, what’s to say that this won’t be a dangerous pursuit?"
Dybo looked at Afsan. "The hunt is always dangerous. But it purges our anger. Keenir certainly needs some purging."
Afsan clicked his teeth. "That much is certain."
At that moment, Keenir’s voice went up over the sounds of the ship. "Faster! Faster! It’s getting away."
The Dasheter cut through the waves, foam and spit flying in its path.
From high overhead, Paldook shouted, "It’s moving east."
"Then east we go!" Keenir’s rumbling voice had a dangerous edge.
A sailor near Keenir said, "But, Captain, if we continue east, we will move ahead of the Face of God."
And then Keenir did something a Quintaglio almost never does. He stepped directly into the personal space of the sailor, and, with a violent sweep of his cane, knocked the hapless crewmember to the deck. "I said east!"
Afsan’s nictitating membranes blinked. Ahead, at the eastern horizon, barely visible, a strange curving neck darted back and forth. The Dasheter surged forward into unknown waters.