The shout went up from one of the other pilgrims, doing her turn in the lookout’s bucket, high atop the forward mast.
At that instant, Afsan’s teeth clicked together in self-satisfied amusement. It was a moment as if out of a work of fiction, like one of those improbable stories that Gat-Tagleeb was known for, when something happened at the most propitious instant.
Ship’s priest Det-Bleen had cornered Afsan on the aft deck. Afsan had been keeping to himself these last few dekadays. Partly it was because of what had happened with the mad Nor-Gampar. No one blamed Afsan for Gampar’s death — it was the only way to resolve such a frenzied challenge when there was nowhere to retreat — but, still, no one liked to be reminded of the violence that they all were capable of, that they held in check just below the surface. And partly it was because of the whispers, the askance glances, that seemed to follow him, people wondering at the folly of sailing east, ever east.
But Afsan needed to see violet sky overhead as much as anyone else, and when the decks were mostly empty he’d come topside and pace, enjoying the steady wind.
But Bleen had approached him, anger plain in his stiff, nonswishing tail, in his extended claws, in his posture, fully erect, as far from a concessional bow as possible.
Because of Afsan, Bleen had said, all aboard the Dasheter were doomed. The flesh from Kal-ta-goot was turning rancid; more individuals would soon go wildly territorial, as Gampar had. Their only hope, said Bleen, was for Afsan to recant, to convince Captain Keenir that he had been wrong, that nothing but endless River lay ahead.
"Turn us back!" Bleen had just finished saying. "For the sake of God and the prophet, get Keenir to turn us back!"
But then the pilgrim’s cry rang out, faint but distinct over the snapping sails, the crashing waves.
"Land ho! Land ho!"
Afsan’s mouth closed, his teeth clacking with glee. Priest Bleen’s mouth dropped open, his face a portrait of surprise. Afsan didn’t wait for the elder to give him leave to go. He ran down the aft deck, across the connecting piece, onto the fore-deck, and up to the point of the bow. It was a long distance, the Dasheter’s length from stem to stern, and Afsan arrived out of breath, his dewlap waggling in the breeze to dissipate heat.
Afsan didn’t have the advantage afforded by the lookout’s greater height; he could see nothing except blue water right out to the horizon. He swung to look up at her, high above. She was pointing. Afsan turned around, and, by God, there it was, rising slowly over the edge of the world, indistinct at this distance, but doubtless solid ground.
"What is it?" asked a gravelly voice from nearby. Afsan turned his head around and saw that Keenir had approached. Now that the captain’s tail had completely healed, his arrival was no longer heralded by the ticking of his walking stick. "Is it our Land? Or some unknown island?"
That possibility hadn’t occurred to Afsan. It must be Land, the place they all called home. Oh, there were some islands off Land’s western shore, an archipelago trailing back like a tail off the mainland. Indeed, Afsan supposed that what he was now seeing was probably one of these, the island Boodskar. But that it might be totally unfamiliar territory hadn’t crossed his mind. We must be back home, he thought. We must be!
"Look!" shouted another voice, and Afsan realized that Prince Dybo had also drawn near. "It’s covered with trees!"
How could he tell that? Afsan turned to face his friend — who had a brass tube held to his eye. Of course, the far-seer! Dybo had become quite a fan of it since Afsan had shown him the wonders of the night sky through its lenses.
"Give me that," said Keenir. Afsan thought the language a bit curt for addressing a prince, but Dybo immediately handed over the instrument.
Keenir put it to his eye. Obviously he’d been thinking the same thing as Afsan. "Trees, all right," he said, "but if that’s Boodskar, there should be an oddly shaped volcanic cone, and I don’t see — wait a beat, wait a beat, yes, by the Hunter’s claws, yes, there it is!"
Keenir’s great paw slapped down on Afsan’s shoulder, and the young apprentice staggered forward under the impact. "By God, lad!" shouted the captain. "You were right. You were absolutely right!"
Keenir turned to look out on the deck. Afsan did likewise. He then realized that all thirty people aboard were here, crowded together, the wonder and relief at being at the end of their journey enough to quell the territorial imperative, at least for a short time.
Keenir’s voice went up. "We’re home!"
Afsan scanned the ranks around him. One after another, the Quintaglios bowed in concession to him. Tails thumped the deck in thunderous applause.
"The eggling was right!"
It took the better part of six days for the Dasheter to make it into the mainland, passing in turn each of the volcanic islands that made up the archipelago. They briefly saw another sailing ship, but it was far out to the north and, although everyone aboard was desperate to see some new faces, Keenir pressed on toward the main shore. The inward voyage was accompanied by a more frequent ringing of the ship’s bells, an increase in the pounding of the ship’s drums.
Finding just where to put to shore was difficult, though. Capital City, clear on the other side of Land, was the only truly permanent settlement. The Packs tended not to stay put long. Rather, they followed the herds of animals. Afsan’s home Pack of Carno migrated up and down the north bank of the Kreeb River; shovelmouths were the staple of their diet.
Buildings would be abandoned by one group, only to be picked up, a kiloday or two later, by another. That is, if they had remained intact despite the landquakes.
At last Keenir settled on a dock set in a small bay, which, judging from his charts, seemed to be the Bay of Three Forests in the southernmost part of Jam’toolar province. The buildings visible from the shore seemed currently unoccupied but mostly intact. Keenir brought the ship in slowly, majestically. The waters were too shallow for the Dasheter to go in all the way, though, so the anchor was put down and everyone rowed ashore in smaller landing boats.
Each shore boat was designed to hold six people, but the Dasheter had only four, not five, the one lost in Keenir’s original battle with Kal-ta-goot having not yet been replaced. Still, everyone crowded into the remaining boats, their joy enough to keep instinct in check for the brief trip to the beach.
At last! After 304 days, Afsan stepped back on solid land. It felt strange not to be rocking back and forth, not to feel the waves, not to hear the snapping of the sails. He took a few steps onto the shore, then collapsed to the sand, delighted, oh so delighted, to be on firm ground.
Others ran off into the forests, perhaps just for the joy of running, perhaps to catch something fresh to eat.
Most of the passengers wanted to be returned to Capital City, so they could get on with their lives. But Capital City was still twenty-five days or so away, sailing along the coastline of Land, and Keenir knew that his passengers and crew needed some time off the ship before they headed back. Indeed, Keenir seemed not the least surprised when two passengers and one crewmember said that they had decided to consider this the end of their voyage. They would make their way inland on their own, catching food as they went.
Soon, small search parties were organized to try to find other Quintaglios. The hope was to find a newsrider, one of those who rode from Pack to Pack on a bipedal mount, bringing the latest word from Capital City to the outlying provinces.
Afsan and Dybo formed one such search party. They headed directly into the interior, looking for the telltale signs that a hunting group or a hornface caravan had passed by recently.
Their skills weren’t really up to the task, but after a half day of searching, Dybo noticed three large wingfingers circling endlessly in the distance. This, they agreed, likely meant a fresh kill. The pair hiked through the forest, occasionally sighting the wingfingers again through breaks in the canopy of trees.
At last they came across eight Quintaglios working over the recently felled carcass of a shovelmouth, bloody muzzles dipping in and out of the torn flesh for gobbets of meat.
The hunters looked up as Afsan and Dybo approached. Sated with food, their territorial imperatives were well in check. They waved for the two youngsters to join them.
"Plenty to go around!" shouted a large female, whom Afsan guessed was leader of the hunt.
The meat, red and runny with blood, did look awfully good after the endless dekadays of bland water creatures hauled aboard the Dasheter and the increasingly gamy flesh of the great serpent Kal-ta-goot. Afsan and Dybo both eagerly bowed concession and helped themselves to fresh flesh, Afsan shearing a large hunk off the tail and Dybo digging into the beast’s haunch with tooth and claw.
"Where are you from?" the hunt leader asked after the boys had eaten their fill.
"We’ve just landed with the Dasheter," said Afsan. There were a few appreciative murmurs: Keenir’s ship was well-known all over Land.
"I am Lub-Kaden," said the hunt leader, crouched on the ground. "What are your names?"
"I’m Afsan and this is Prince Dybo."
Heads that had been buried in the flesh of the shovelmouth lifted themselves clear into the sunlight. Other hunters, already stuffed and lying on their bellies, stirred to face Afsan.
Kaden looked directly at Afsan. "Say that again."
"My name is Afsan. This is Prince Dybo."
She appeared to watch Afsan carefully, but his muzzle did not flush blue. A Quintaglio can get away with telling a lie only in the dark.
Kaden rose to her feet. "You are Dybo?" she said to Afsan’s friend.
No change in his muzzle color, either. One of the other hunters nodded and whispered to a companion, "I had heard the prince was of a mighty girth."
"And you’ve been away on a water voyage, you say? Aboard the Dasheter?"
"That’s right," both Afsan and Dybo said in unison. "A pilgrimage."
"Then you don’t know, do you?" said Kaden.
"Know what?" asked Dybo.
"It pains me to have to tell you, good sir," said the hunt leader, "but we were visited by a newsrider only last even-night. Her Luminance, Empress Len-Lends, died a short time ago."
"My mother?" said Dybo. "Dead?"
"Yes," said Kaden. "A landquake in Capital City, apparently. Part of a roof collapsed. I understand it was a swift death."
Dybo’s tail twitched. Afsan, too, felt pangs of sadness. He’d been too much in awe of his friend’s mother to really say that he had liked her, but he had certainly admired all she had done for the people.
"It also means," said Kaden, bowing low, her tail lifting from the ground as she did so, "that you, good Dybo, are now Emperor of the Land, ruler of all eight provinces and of the Fifty Packs."
Even gorged as they were, other members of the hunting party managed to make it to their feet, bowing their respect. "Long live Emperor Dybo!" shouted one, and soon, the same cry went up from every throat. "Long live Emperor Dybo!"