Afsan often escaped to this place. He remembered the first time he had run up this hillside, half a kiloday ago, after his original encounter with the formidable Tak-Saleed.
Formidable? Afsan clicked his teeth in humor, figuring that the choice of adjective was a sign that he must be getting accustomed to all this. Back then, after his introduction to the master astrologer, the word he’d used was "monstrous."
That first time he’d run up here his only thought had been to get out of the city, get back to his distant home Pack of Carno, back to the simple life of a country boy. He was sure he’d never get used to this dizzying, terrifying world of apprenticeship, of scowling imperial guards, of hundreds of people — ten or more gathered together in the same place at once! Afsan hadn’t experienced crowds like that before, never felt such a wash of pheromones over him. He couldn’t stand the tension, the constant fear that he was encroaching on another’s territory or otherwise breaching protocol. He had found himself tipping from the waist so often it made his head spin.
But on that day, as on this, Afsan had been calmed by the magnificent view from here, tension slipping from his body, claws retracting so far that Afsan thought he’d never see them again, tail swishing back and forth in leisurely, contented movements.
The sun had set a short time ago. It had swollen to a bloated egg, changing from its normal white to a deep violet, before dropping behind the ragged cones of the Ch’mar volcanoes to the west of the city. A beautiful sunset, Afsan had thought, the wispy clouds a veil across the dimming disk, tinged with purple, with red, with deepest blue. But then Afsan found all sunsets beautiful, and not just because of the play of color across the clouds, although this evening that was indeed spectacular. No, Afsan welcomed sunsets because he preferred the night, craved the stars.
This will be a grand night for observing, he thought. The only clouds were around the volcanoes, and those rarely lifted. Overhead, the vast dome of the sky was immaculate.
Tonight was odd-night. Most adults slept on odd-nights. For that very reason, Afsan did not. He preferred the peace and tranquillity of the hillsides on those nights when — the thought came unbidden — it was as if they were his own territory.
Of course, Afsan owned nothing of value, and, having entered a life of quiet study, his chances of acquiring land were — how did the old joke go? — about as likely as one of the Empress’s eggs being used as a game ball.
But even if he couldn’t own land, he would always have the stars. The sky was darkening quickly, as it always did, and there would only be a short time of real night before even-day broke.
Afsan inhaled deeply. The air was as clear as the waters of spring-fed Lake Doognar back home, the smells of — he flexed his nostrils, wrinkled his muzzle — of wildflowers; the scent of a large animal, perhaps an armorback (although how one of those would get this high up a mountain he didn’t know): urine on those rocks, likely from a much smaller critter; and, underneath it all, faint, but more prominent than when he’d first arrived in Capital City, the sulfurous tinge of volcanic gases.
He had been straddling a boulder, his tail hanging over it, to watch the sun go down. Now it was time to climb higher up the hillside. He did so, the three broad toes on each foot giving him excellent traction. Upon reaching the crest, he clicked his teeth in satisfaction, then continued partway down the other side, placing the bulk of the hill between himself and the torch-lit glow of Capital City. Afsan lowered himself to the ground, and lay on his side to look up at the panorama of the night sky.
As usual, Afsan found it uncomfortable with all his weight on his right shoulder and hip, but what alternative was there? Once he had tried lying on his belly in the sleeping position and had craned his neck to look up instead of forward, but that had given him a stinging crick.
Dekadays ago, he’d asked Tak-Saleed why there was no easy posture for Quintaglios to look at the stars, why their muscular tails made it impossible to lie on their backs. Saleed had stared down at young Afsan and declared that God had wished it that way, that She had made the stars for Her face alone to gaze upon, not for the pinched muzzles of overly curious apprentices.
Afsan slapped his tail sideways against the soil, irritated by the memory. He drew his nictitating membranes over his eyes. The purple glow of the twilight still filtered through, but that was all. Afsan cleared his mind of all thoughts of old Saleed, opened the membranes, and drank in the beauty he had come here to enjoy.
The stars scurried from upriver to downriver as the brief night raced by. Two of the moons were prominent at the start of the evening: Slowpoke and the Big One. The Big One was showing only a crescent sliver of illumination, although the rest of its disk could be seen as a round blackness, obscuring the stars. Afsan held his arm out and found that if he unsheathed his thumbclaw, its sickle silhouette appeared about the same height and shape as the Big One. The Big One’s orange face was always intriguing — there were markings on it, details just a little too small, just a little too dim, to be clearly made out. What it was, Afsan couldn’t say. It seemed rocky, but how could a rock fly through the sky?
He turned his attention to Slowpoke. It had been in one of its recalcitrant moods again these past few nights, fighting its way upriver instead of sailing downriver. Oh, the other moons would do that occasionally, too, but never with the determination of tiny Slowpoke. Slowpoke was Afsan’s favorite.
Someday he would make a study of the moons. He’d read much of what had been written about them, including Saleed’s three-volume Dancing the Night Away. Such a whimsical title! How unlike the Saleed he knew, the Saleed he feared.
Some of the moons moved quickly across the sky, others took several tens of nights to cross from horizon to horizon. All went through phases, waxing and waning between the extremes of showing a fully lit circular shape and appearing as simply a black circle covering the stars. What did it all mean? Afsan exhaled noisily.
He scanned the sky along the ecliptic, that path along which the sun traveled each day. Two planets were visible, bright Kevpel and ruddy Davpel. Planets were similar to the moons, in that they moved against the background stars, but they appeared as tiny pinpoints, revealing no face or details, and their progress against the firmament had to be measured over days or dekadays. A few of the six known planets also showed the strange retrograde motions that some of the moons exhibited, although it took kilodays for them to complete these maneuvers.
Near the zenith now was the constellation of the Prophet. Afsan had seen old hand-copied books that called this constellation the Hunter, after Lubal, largest of the Five Original Hunters, but as worship of them was now all but banned, the official name had been changed to honor Larsk, the first to gaze upon the Face of God.
Lubal or Larsk, the picture was the same: points of light marked the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, and the tip of the long tail. Two bright stars represented the eyes. It was like a reverse image, Afsan thought — the kind one gets after staring at an object, then looking at a white surface — since the prophet’s eyes and Lubal’s, too, like those of all Quintaglios, must have been obsidian black.
Above the Prophet, glowing faintly across the length of the sky, ran the powdery reflection of the great River that Land sailed on in its never-ending journey toward the Face of God. At least, that was what old Saleed said the dusty pathway of light crossing the night was, but he’d never been able to explain to Afsan’s satisfaction why it was only during certain times that the great River cast a reflection on the sky.
Saleed! Abominable Saleed! It had taken Afsan fifty-five days riding atop a domesticated hornface in one of the merchant caravans to get from Pack Carno, part of the province of Arj’toolar, deep within Land’s interior, to Capital City on the upriver shore of Land.
The children were the children of the Pack, of course — only the creche operators knew who Afsan’s actual parents might have been — and the whole Pack was proud that one of their own had been selected to apprentice to the court astrologer. The choice, presumably, had been made based on Afsan’s showing in the most recent battery of vocational exams. He had felt honored as he packed his sashes and boots, his books and astrolabe, and set out for his selected future. But he had been here for almost five hundred days now. True, that was something of a record. As he had discovered after arriving here, Saleed had had six other apprentices in the last four kilodays, all of whom had been dismissed. But, even though he seemed to have greater endurance than the previous try-outs, Afsan’s dream of contributing to the advancement of astrological research had been smashed by his master.
Afsan had idolized Saleed, devouring his books on portents and omens, his treatise on the reflected River in the sky, his articles on the significance of each constellation. How he had looked forward to meeting the great one! How disappointed he had been when that day finally came. Soon, though, Afsan would be leaving on his pilgrimage. He thanked God for that, for he’d be away from his master for a great many days — able to study in private, free from Saleed’s critical scowl.
Afsan shook his head slightly, again clearing his thoughts. He’d come here to bask in the beauty of the night, not to wallow in his own misfortune. One day the stars would yield their secrets to him.
Time slipped by unnoticed as Afsan drank in the glory overhead. Moons careened across the sky, waxing and waning as they went. The stars rose and fell, constellations hustling across the firmament. Meteors flashed through the night, tiny streaks of gold against the black. Nothing gave Afsan more pleasure than to behold this spectacle, always familiar, always different.
At last, Afsan heard the pip-pip call of a wingfinger, one of the hairy flyers that heralded the dawn. He stood, brushed dirt and dead grass from his side, turned, and looked. A cool steady breeze played along his face. He knew, naturally, that the air was still — for what could move the air? — and, rather, that Land, the ground beneath his feet, was sailing ever so smoothly down the mighty River, the River that ran from horizon to horizon. At least that was what he’d been taught, and he had learned painfully that one does not question the teachings. And perhaps, he reflected, it was true that Land floated on the River, for if you dug deep enough, did you not often come upon water beneath the ground?
Afsan knew little of boats — although his pilgrimage would involve a long water journey — but he did understand that the bigger the boat, the less it rocked. Land was roughly oval in shape. According to explorers who had traveled its length and breadth, it was some 3 million paces from the harbor of Capital City to the westernmost tip of Fra’toolar province and about 1.2 million paces from the northernmost point of Chu’-toolar province to the southern tip of the Cape of Belbar in Edz’toolar. Such a great rocky raft might indeed float reasonably smoothly down the River. And, after all, the journey was not always a steady one, for the ground shook, sometimes severely, several times each kiloday.
Still, the floating was the part he always had a little mental trouble with. But he himself had seen how the porous black basalts that covered so much of Land’s surface could indeed be made to bob in a chalice of water. Besides, if there was a better explanation for the way the world really was, he couldn’t think of it — at least not yet.
His stomach growled, and, opening his wide mouth, Afsan growled back at it. He understood that a ritual hunting party was going out today, and that meant he might get to eat something other than the usual fare from the imperial stockyards. He wondered what they would bring down. Thunder-beast, he hoped, for it was his favorite, though he knew that even the largest hunting packs had trouble felling those great animals, with their massive pillar-like legs, their endless necks, their lengthy tails. Probably something less ambitious, he thought. Perhaps a shovelmouth or two. Stringy meat, but an easy kill, or so he’d heard, even if they did almost deafen you with the great bellowing calls they produced through the crests of bone on their heads.
He ambled back up to the top of the hill. From there he could look in all directions. Below him lay sleepy Capital City. Beyond, the wide expanse of beach — sometimes completely submerged, but now uncovered almost to its maximum extent. Beyond that, the River, its waves lapping against the black sands.
The River was, Afsan reflected for the thousandth time, like no river he had ever seen inland, nothing like the Kreeb, upon whose north side his Pack of Carno roamed. The Kreeb, which formed part of the border between the provinces of Arj’toolar and Fra’toolar, was a meandering channel of water. But this river — the River — spread from horizon to horizon. That made sense: it had to be immense for Land to float upon it.
Those who had traveled all around Land claimed that from no point were the River’s banks visible. But it must be a river — it must be. For that is what the teachings said. And, indeed, hadn’t one of the great explorers — Vek-Inlee, was it? Or long-clawed Gar-Dabo? One of them, anyway, had discovered what she claimed was one bank of the mighty River, all ice and snow, just like on the tallest mountaintops of Land, after sailing far, far to the north. And another explorer — and that person’s name completely escaped Afsan at the moment — had eventually confirmed that the northern ice was one of River’s banks by sailing an almost equal distance to the south and bringing back accounts of a similar icy shore there. But those stories were often discredited, since they were accompanied by claims that if you sailed far enough north or south, the River flowed backwards, and that was clearly ridiculous.
Afsan stared out at the deep waters of the River. Soon, he thought, soon I shall sail you.
Far out to the east, where the sky and the River met, a purple glow was growing brighter. As Afsan watched, the tiny and brilliant bluish-white sun slowly rose, banishing the stars and planets and reducing the dancing moons to pale ghosts.