Afsan and Dybo lay on their bellies on the deck on the Dasheter, their bodies warming under the tiny but oh-so-bright sun. The wooden planks rolled gently beneath them, but here, below the railings that ran around the edge of the deck, no breeze played over them. There was a body-length between them, that being as close as two males, even friends as good as the prince and the apprentice, could lie without getting on each other’s nerves if they hadn’t recently eaten.
"I understood chasing Kal-ta-goot," said Dybo. "Well, I sort of understood it — I don’t think I could ever get quite so obsessed about anything as Keenir did. But I don’t understand why we’re continuing to the east now that the serpent is dead."
Afsan, sleepy in the hot afternoon, was listening as much to the crashing of the waves and the barking of the sails as he was to his friend’s voice. "It will get us home faster," he said at last.
"That’s what Keenir claimed, too, when I asked him about it." Dybo yawned. "It still doesn’t make sense to me."
"It was my idea," Afsan said. "The world is round."
"Suck eggs," said Dybo.
"No, it really is."
Dybo’s dark eyes rolled. "You’re getting too much sun."
Afsan clicked his teeth. "No, I’m not. The whole world is a ball, a sphere."
Dybo’s tail, sticking up like a rubbery mast, bounced with glee. "A ball? Be serious."
"I am serious. I’m convinced of it, and Keenir is convinced of it now, too."
"What makes you think the world is round?"
"The things I’ve seen on this voyage, both with my own eyes and through the far-seer."
"And what have you seen?"
"The moons are worlds, too — with mountains and valleys. The planets are more than just points of light in the night sky. They, too, are spheres, and at least some of them go through phases just as the moons do. Some of the planets are accompanied by their own moons. The Face of God is a sphere, and it does not glow on its own but shines by reflected light from the sun."
Dybo looked dubious. "All of that is true?"
"All of it. I’ll show you tonight, if you like."
"And you’ve made sense of this jumble of observations?"
"I think so, yes. Look, discounting the stars, which are dim and far away…"
"The stars are far away? I thought everything in the sky moved across the same celestial sphere."
"Forget what you think you know, my friend. Hear me out. Discounting the stars, which are dim and far away, there is only one true source of light in the sky." Afsan flicked his tail toward the hot white orb near the zenith, although neither he nor Dybo could actually see the gesture from their recumbent positions. "The sun."
Dybo’s tone conveyed a willingness to go along with the joke. "All right."
"And moving around the sun in circular paths are the planets. The ones that appear to never get far from the sun in the sky are in fact the closest to it. In order out from the sun, we have Carpel, Patpel, Davpel, Kevpel, Bripel, and Gefpel." He paused. "Although having seen so many additional points of light in the night sky with the far-seer, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other planets so dim that we’ve yet to observe them. Anyway, of these planets, the four innermost — Carpel, Patpel, Davpel, and Kevpel — go through phases, just as the moons do."
"Wait a beat," said Dybo. "You can’t know that; even I know that Patpel hasn’t been visible during our voyage."
"You’re right; I’m assuming it goes through phases. I know from my astrology books that it gets farther from the sun than Carpel does, but not as far as Davpel. From my observations, all of the inner planets that I have seen do go through phases, so it makes sense that the one I can’t see does, too."
"Why does that make sense?"
"Can’t you see?" said Afsan. "It just does."
"It doesn’t make sense to me."
"Can I finish what I was saying?"
Dybo’s stomach rumbled softly. "Very well," he said, but his tone was weary, as though to convey that the punch line of the joke better be awfully good.
"Now, the outer two, Bripel and Gefpel, don’t go through phases" — Afsan held up a hand to forestall Dybo’s objection. "Yes, I know Gefpel hasn’t been visible during our voyage, either, but again I’m assuming."
"So you see," said Afsan, "that makes sense. The objects closer to the sun than we are show phases; those farther away do not."
"I don’t see that at all."
Mist washed over Afsan’s back as the Dasheter rolled on a large wave. "Well, look, you’ve sat around a fire at night, no? To keep warm?"
"Well, you must at some time have sat somewhere neither near nor far from the fire. Some people were sitting closer; others, farther away."
"I’m the prince," said Dybo. "I usually sit in front."
"Of course, of course. But you can imagine what I’m describing. Now, I’m not saying you’re all lined up on one side of the fire. Rather, simply that the distance between you and the fire is, say, five paces. The distance between someone else and the fire, partway around a circle from you, is four paces, and another person, at a different angle to you, is six paces from the fire. Well, if you look at the person closer to the fire than you, he or she will only be partially illuminated. Depending on where they are sitting, perhaps just half their muzzle will be in the light from your perspective. But the fellow farther away from the flames than you, no matter where he’s sitting, will seem to be entirely illuminated."
"But he can’t be — obviously half of his head must be in darkness, too."
"Exactly! But from your point of view, he’s fully lit up — it doesn’t matter whether he’s behind you or opposite you; he’s still completely illuminated — unless of course he is in your own shadow."
"Yes," said Dybo, who had closed his eyes for a moment. "I can picture that."
"All right, then. The planets and the sun are the same way. Those planets that are closer to the sun than we are will sometimes appear less than completely illuminated — will go through phases. Those farther away will always seem fully lit."
"So you’re saying we’re partway out from the sun. Some planets are closer to the sun than we; others, farther away."
"I suppose that might make sense," said the prince. "So you hold that the world — our world — is like a planet, neither nearest to nor farthest from the sun."
"I’m afraid it’s more complex than that." Afsan took a deep breath. "The Face of God is a planet."
"You heard me. The Face of God is a planet."
"It can’t be a planet. You said planets either are fully illuminated or go through phases. The Face of God does both."
"That’s right. When it’s nearer to the sun than we are, it goes through phases. When it’s farther away, we see it as full."
"Well, then, what are we? What is our world?"
"That’s right. Our home moves around the Face of God, and the Face of God moves around the sun."
"That’s ridiculous. Land floats down the River."
"Land does not. The River is just a vast shoreless lake covering the entire surface of the ball-shaped world we live on."
"Oh, come on!"
"Really. Our home is a moon, revolving around the Face of God. Indeed, when we are between the sun and the Face, you can see the shadow we cast moving as a small black circle across the Face."
"You mean God eyes? Those dots are shadows?"
"Oh, yes. I’ve charted them quite precisely. I can even tell you which shadow is cast by which moon, including which one is cast by us."
Dybo shook his head. "Incredible. Well, you can show me what you mean when we turn around and head back."
"We are not going to turn around. We’re going to continue on to the east until we reach Land again."
"You’re not yanking my tail, are you?"
Dybo lifted his muzzle from the deck, brought in a hand to scratch his dewlap. "Well, then, what moves around us?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Dybo, "that the planets move around the sun, and the moons move around the planets, and we’re on a moon. What moves around us?"
"Nothing? You mean we’re at the end of the chain? The bottom? Like plants in the food cycle?"
"Umm, yes, I guess you could put it that way."
"Like plants? That’s not an appealing thought."
Afsan had never worried about how appealing any given idea was, only about how accurate it might be. He was surprised to hear Dybo concerned about the aesthetics of this notion. "But it’s the truth," is all Afsan said.
Dybo shook his head. "It can’t be true. I mean, the Face of God is only visible if you travel way upriver. And it hangs there, motionless in the sky. It’s not moving at all."
"It only appears to not be moving. And as for the Face only being visible after a long voyage by boat, our world is a great ball, and Land happens to be on the side of it that faces away from the Face of God."
Dybo’s teeth clicked in derision. "Remarkable coincidence, that: Land happening to be on the side that never faces the Face of God."
"Not really. Our world is lopsided, because of Land — it’s heavier on one side because of the huge mass we live on. Obviously if something is lopsided like that, there are only two positions it can take that are stable — with the heavier part facing directly toward the object it’s revolving around, or with the heavier part facing directly away. Anything else would cause a wobble."
"Sure. You can see that for yourself. Get a rock ground into a torus shape…"
"With a hole in the middle, you mean? Like a bead?"
"Yes, but much bigger. More like a guvdok stone. Tie a length of twine through the hole, and then put a lump of clay on one side of the outer edge of the disk. Spin the whole thing around by swinging the twine over your head. You’ll see that the clay lump orients itself either pointing directly toward or away from you."
"What happens if the string breaks?"
"What happens if the string breaks?"
"Well," said Afsan, "I imagine the rock goes flying off and…"
" — and hits someone in the head. Which is what I think must have happened to you."
Afsan did not deign to click his teeth.
"But," continued Dybo, "why then does the Face of God hang steadily in the sky?"
"The rate at which we revolve around the Face is the same as the rate at which we rotate around our own axis."
"Of course. That’s what makes the stars appear to spin through the course of a night."
"And you’re saying the two rates — rotation and revolution — match."
"That sounds like another remarkable coincidence."
"No, it’s not. I’ve been watching the moons, both the ones that revolve around the Face and the ones that revolve around the other planets. For those around other planets, there’s only one that I can see any detail on. It’s darker on one side than the other — not because of phases, but because of its constitution, I think. Anyway, it always faces the same side toward its planet. And in our — system, I guess you’d call it — in our system, the nine innermost moons all constantly show the same side toward the Face of God."
"And we are one of the innermost moons?"
"We are, in fact, the innermost moon."
"Ah hah! You may save my faith yet: of all the objects in the sky, you’re saying we are the closest to the Face of God."
"Yes, that’s right."
"All right; I’ll listen further. If you were going to undermine the special relationship between Quintaglio and God, I would have had to leave." Dybo’s tone had become deadly serious. Afsan hadn’t realized quite how important faith was to his friend.
"Don’t worry, Dybo," Afsan said. "In fact, we’re closer to the Face of God than any other moon is to its planet, from what I’ve been able to see. And we’re much closer than the next nearest moon in this system, the Big One."
"Hmmm," said Dybo, and he stretched his chubby body, reveling in the warm sun, already now well past the zenith. "But the sun rises and sets. Why does it do that, but the Face hangs stationary, only rising or setting if you sail toward or away from it?"
"The sun appears to rise and set as we swing around the Face of God, just as objects come in and out of your field of vision if you rotate your own body."
"You’ve got all the angles figured out, eh?" said Dybo. And you told this to Keenir, and he listened?"
There was no point in emphasizing Keenir’s stubbornness. "He listened," Afsan said simply.
"Wow. And you really believe this, Afsan?"
"I really do."
Dybo grunted. "Someday, my friend, I will be Emperor. And, if your studies go well, someday you will be my court astrologer. Perhaps an Emperor should be open to new things. You say you can show me proof of this?"
"The calculations and charts are in my cabin; the planets and moons will reveal their truth to you tonight, if the sky is clear."
"It’s hard to believe."
"No," said Afsan. "It’s the truth."
The ship rolled with a wave. "The truth," echoed Dybo. But after the wave, the planks of the deck did not stop creaking. Afsan lifted his head. A mid-sized male was moving toward them, his feet stamping. There was lots of room between where Afsan and Dybo lay and the mast supporting the red sail with the crest of Larsk’s Pilgrimage Guild, so Afsan felt sure he would avoid them. But the male — he was close enough that Afsan could now see that it was Nor-Gampar, a member of the crew — seemed to be heading straight at them. Dybo, too, lifted his head in astonishment, as the deck planks bounced with each thunderous footfall. And then, incredibly, the crewmember charged right between Afsan and Dybo, violating both of their territories, a three-clawed foot impacting the deck less than a handspan from Afsan’s muzzle, the chitinous points splintering the wooden planks.
Afsan pushed himself upright with his forearms and swung around to look at the intruder. Dybo, too, rose to his feet, claws unsheathed. There, standing now a few paces behind them, was Gampar, his torso tilted from the waist, bobbing up and down in territorial challenge.