And, indeed, tomorrow did come — too soon for Afsan’s tastes, even though he woke well after dawn. Wab-Novato had already risen, apparently some time ago, and was hard at work adjusting the lenses on another far-seer.
He lay there, eyes open, watching her across the room. She was not that much older than him, really. Only a few kilodays. Still, she had her work here; Afsan’s job required him to return to Capital City.
Finally Afsan pushed off his belly, rising to his feet.
Novato dipped her muzzle in his direction. "Good morning."
Afsan returned the gesture. "Good morning."
And then there was silence. Did she know it had been his first coupling? Did she regret having done it? Think about it?
He swallowed. Did she want to do it again?
I’ll miss her, Afsan thought. And with that, he realized there was no need for discussion. Their roles — hers here, his there — were immutable.
"I’m expected back in Capital City," Afsan said. "I’ve got to head out this morning."
Novato looked up. "Of course."
Afsan started for the door. He hesitated, though, after a step or two. "Novato?"
"I cast a shadow in your presence."
She looked up. "We cast shadows in each other’s presence, Afsan. And when we’re together, there is light everywhere and no shadows fall at all."
Afsan felt his heart soar. He bowed deeply, warmed to every corner of his body.
"I have a present for you," said Novato. She picked up the far-seer she’d been working on and brought it over to him.
Afsan’s tail swished in delight. "I’ll treasure it," he said.
"As I will always treasure our time together," she replied.
If he’d had to walk the entire way, allowing time for sleeping and hunting and a little sight-seeing, it would have taken Afsan forty days to reach Carno. He managed it in twenty-three. For the first seven days, he rode with a caravan of traders whose wares included brass buttons, needles for sewing leather, and equipment for tanning hides. But Afsan had take his leave of them when their path diverged from his intended course.
The next ten days, he walked alone, thinking. His mind was constantly full of calculations. He stopped every few kilopaces and pulled out his writing leather and strings of beads to work through the more complex math.
Each evening, he used his new far-seer to observe the other moons, the rings around Kevpel, the secrets of the night.
It became clear that what he and Novato had feared was the truth. The world they were on was much, much closer to the Face of God than was any other moon in this system or any other moon around any other planet Afsan could see.
He felt a small temblor one night and an aftershock the next day.
The numbers suggested it; the quaking ground confirmed it. The world was indeed unstable, would indeed break up at some point in the not too distant future. He’d have to consult palace library to check records of increasing landquake frequency and severity and to confirm his memory of the strength of rocks, but it seemed as though the differential forces acting on the near and far sides of this moon would tear it asunder within perhaps twenty generations.
It did not make for a pleasant journey.
On the eighteenth day, he walked across a new bridge of cut stone that spanned the river marking the border between Jam’toolar and Arj’toolar.
That evening, he came upon a tributary of the Kreeb and was able to join up with a troupe of musicians traveling by raft down its winding course. They had many instruments, some with strings and intricate gold inlays, others with brass tubes and keys made from spikefrill horns. The musicians agreed to let Afsan ride with them in exchange for sharing tales of the Capital, but after the first day, the deal was modified: Afsan could ride with them so long as he didn’t try to sing along when they practiced. They took him straight to Carno, the Pack in which he was born. The rafters continued on, and Afsan bade them a safe trip.
There would be reunions here: happy meetings with his creche-mates; tales told in the merchants’ square; a time to recover from the long voyage aboard the Dasheter; a time to decide how best to deal with Tak-Saleed upon his return to still-distant Capital City.
In modern times, since the rise of the religion of Larsk, the world had been divided into eight provinces, each under its own governor. But the ancient Lubalite grouping of the Pack was still the principal social unit.
According to legend, there had been five original hunt leaders, each with her own pack. Just as Tetex had done during Afsan’s first hunt, Lubal, Belbar, Katoon, Hoog, and Mekt had each used sign language to designate the members of their hunting parties. Ten fingers, ten hunters to a pack.
Eventually each of the ten hunters in their packs had founded his or her own pack. Five original packs each with ten hunters thus gave rise to the Fifty Packs that now roamed Land.
Actually there were many more than the fifty traditional packs these days, since subgroupings had formed, but each group knew its lineage. Carno, for instance, traced itself back to Mar-Seenuk, one of the hunters comprising Belbar’s original pack of ten.
The term "pack" was still used to refer to any group of hunters. But "Pack," emphasized with an expansive swish of the tail, written in left-facing glyphs instead of right, referred to the whole social unit: hunters and those who plied a craft, idlers and teachers and scholars, priests and administrators, the young and the old.
Carno was Afsan’s home Pack. His parents probably lived there still, although he did not know who they were. He suspected Pahs-Drawo was his father, for they both had something of the same look about them: earholes slightly lower than the norm (or perhaps foreheads that were slightly higher) and an unusual freckling on the underside of their tails.
But it didn’t matter. Drawo’s loyalty was to Carno as a whole. Afsan had never given much thought to the issue until after he had left and gotten to be friends with Dybo. The prince actually knew his mother (and father, although Ter-Regree had been killed in a hunt long before Afsan’s arrival in Capital City). The Family! The one group in all the world that knew its lineage, that recognized son or daughter, father and mother, grandfather and grandmother. The Family: the direct descendants of the Prophet Larsk.
Saleed had once sarcastically referred to Afsan as "the proudest son of far Carno," but it was true, in a sense: the children were the children of the Pack, not of any individual. Old Tep-Terdog, whom Afsan obviously was not closely related to at all — he had much lighter skin than Afsan’s and eyes closer together — considered Afsan as much his son, as much his responsibility to guard and protect and educate, as did Drawo (or Rej-Serkob, the other likely candidate for being Afsan’s biological father).
Carno, like all villages, had been based on this principle of protecting the young: at its center, farthest removed from the roaming beasts, was the creche, the communal nursery.
In loose bands around the creche were the tents and buildings used by those who hunted only occasionally: the scholars and artisans and merchants. And at the perimeter, constantly on the move, were the Pack’s principal hunters, those responsible for the defense and feeding of everyone else.
If Afsan had still been part of Carno when preparing to take his first hunt, his lessons would have included a tour of the creche to remind him of why Quintaglios went out and sometimes died on the hunt: to protect the future, to feed the young.
And, if his preparations had not been so rushed back in Capital City, he would have been shown the creche there. Actually both creches there, the public one off the central town square and the royal one, used exclusively by The Family, where the eggshells of past Emperors were on display.
But even if that had happened, it wouldn’t have been the same. The creche here in Carno was the one he had been born in, the one he had spent his early days in. He had, at best, dim memories of it. It bothered him that he’d never seen it as an adult.
He thought about asking for someone to show him the creche, but one of the rules of survival he’d picked up back at the palace, where bureaucracy seemed to slow everything, was that it is easier to apologize later than to get permission now.
Besides, he was an adult: he’d had his first hunt, he’d taken the pilgrimage. He’d been through all the rites of passage. There seemed no reason why he couldn’t simply walk into the creche and have a look-see for himself.
Carno’s creche, at the center of the band’s roving area, was a building near the north shore of the Kreeb River. It was shaped like the shell of a gabo nut, three rounded sections joined together. Although the main entrance was on one side of the middle section, there were doors scattered along the perimeter, some for emergency exit in case of fire, some for use by food-bearers, and some for the priests.
Since his approach down the Path of Children had brought him closest to one of the food-bearers’ entrances, Afsan decided to go in that way.
The door was the kind used in service areas: balanced to swing open with a simple push from one’s muzzle, making entrance easy even with laden arms. Afsan, with nothing to carry, used his left hand instead. He’d half expected the door to squeak on its hinges, but they were well oiled. Of course: a hinge that awoke sleeping children would be a high priority for fixing.
He found himself in a curving corridor. A dim memory came back to him: the creche had a double wall, the space between the inner and outer walls being where adults walked who did not want to disturb the egglings.
He moved down the curving perimeter corridor, light from outside entering through windows along its length. About ten paces along he found another doorway, this one in the inner wall. The planks making up the door were carved with a cartouche Afsan hadn’t seen before, depicting whole eggs, jawbones, and what seemed to be broken pieces of shell. There was an unusual locking mechanism: the kind that only worked from one side. Fortunately it was the side Afsan happened to be on. He pressed the metal bar and the door opened.
Hot air hit his face. Inside it was much darker than where he had been, and it took a while for his eyes to adjust.
The room was circular, perhaps thirty paces across. The floor was covered with sand. No, Afsan realized after drawing his heel claw back and forth across the brown grains, no, that wasn’t right. There was no floor. Rather, the walls rose directly out of the flank of the Kreeb River.
There were fires arrayed in a pattern around the room. He could tell by the smell that they were burning kadapaja logs, a wood prized for its even flames and slow consumption. Above each fire was a hole in the roof, allowing most of the smoke to escape. The whole thing could have been heated more efficiently with coal furnaces and aired out with brick chimneys, Afsan thought, but creches were places of ancient traditions.
Suddenly Afsan noticed the eggs: beige, elongated, laid in circles of eight, the long axis of each pointing outward, sand partially covering the shells. The clutch he spotted first was halfway between two of the fires, but he soon realized that there were five — no, six — clutches around the room, each consisting of eight eggs.
However, halfway between many of the fires, there were no eggs at all. Well, it was the hatching season. It looked like most of the eggs had already opened, but a few clutches remained.
Afsan moved partway along the wall until he found a wooden stool. He swung his legs over it, letting his tail drape off the back, and sat, marveling at the wondrous room. His dewlap swung freely in the heat. He could hear his own breathing, the soft crackling of the fires, and, yes, something else, something faint. A ticking, like stones touching together. Where was it coming from?
There! By the prophet’s claws, right in front of him. In the nearest clutch, one of the eggs was cracking from within. He saw the shell bulge out, fragmenting into little segments, a tough white membrane holding them together. The egg was still for several moments, then it quivered again and more cracks appeared in the shell. Afsan watched, fascinated. Finally a large piece of shell dropped from the membrane, falling to the sand. It was followed by another and another and another. A little head was visible now, slick and yellow and wet, with giant eyes closed. Afsan could see the tiny white birthing horn on the upper surface of the baby’s muzzle, a horn that would be lost within a few dekadays of the hatching. A crack was now visible all the way around the egg. Afsan could see the head and shoulders of the baby. It seemed to stretch its body and the egg split along this crack, the two halves falling away from each other. The baby — its head oversized, its body scrawny and pale, its tail only half the length of its body — stumbled forward, then began to crawl from the nest on its hands and knees.
Two other eggs had begun to hatch, as well. One of them split open cleanly, and its little Quintaglio waddled away. But the other seemed to be having trouble. The shell was too thick, or the baby within too weak. Afsan was horrified. After watching the egg rock back and forth without cracking further for as long as he could bear, he walked over to the nest. In the flickering light of the fires, one on either side, Afsan bent over and, extending the claw on his fifth finger, tapped on the egg until it was cracked in a semi-ten of places. At last, the little one within was able to break the shell apart, and as Afsan beamed down on it, the baby began to crawl away.
The three babies made little peeping sounds as they wandered about. Another one of the eggs started to hatch.
"What are you doing here?"
Afsan’s claws extended. He calmed himself and turned around. There was a female of middle age standing in the main doorway, hands on hips. The fires reflected in her eyes. "Hello," said Afsan. "I just came in to watch."
"How did you get in?"
"Through one of the side doors."
"That’s not the proper way. Who are you?"
"Afsan?" The female’s voice was suddenly warm. "By the Face of God, you’ve grown! How long have you been away?"
"Just shy of a kiloday."
"You’re still a skinny thing, though."
Afsan peered at the female. "Do I know you?"
"I’m Cat-Julor. I work here."
"I don’t remember you."
"I don’t often leave the creche. But I remember you. I was here when you were born. That would have been, what, twelve kilodays ago?"
"Thirteen thousand five hundred."
"That long!" Her muzzle moved up and down as she looked him over. "You were always a clever one. I’d love to talk to you some more, but I’ve got work to do. You may watch if you wish."
Afsan nodded concession. "Thank you."
Julor lay on her stomach, arms stretched out in front of her forming a wide angle. After a moment, her body convulsed, and she opened her jaws wide. Lying on her broad tongue and spilling over into the sides of her mouth was a brown-gray lumpy mass. Afsan reeled slightly from the smell of partially digested meat. But the newborns reacted more positively. They lifted their tiny muzzles, sniffed the air, and half crawled, half walked toward Julor, then stumbled into her gaping maw, first one, then another, and, at last, the little fellow Afsan had helped out of his shell. Tiny heads with giant still-closed eyes lapped at the regurgitated food.
Julor obviously couldn’t carry on a conversation in this position, so Afsan went back to his stool. He watched for the better part of the afternoon as the remaining eggs opened. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen that wasn’t in the sky.
The next day, Afsan decided to go back to the nursery and see how the hatchlings were doing. He was particularly interested in his little friend who’d had trouble getting out of his shell.
It was a fine day. The sun shone down from a cloudless purple sky. Pale moons were visible. Most everyone was in a good mood, judging by how little room they left between themselves on the paths of Carno. Afsan bowed cheery concession to those who passed him, and others reciprocated. The walk to the bank of the Kreeb was invigorating.
Although Julor had seemed surprised that Afsan had used the food-bearers’ entrance, she hadn’t really rebuked him for it. Since it was the closest door, he decided to use it again, this time, just for fun, pushing it open with his muzzle. Once more he was in the corridor between the inner and outer walls.
Suddenly all cheeriness drained from him. His claws burst from their sheaths. Something was very wrong. He heard thundering feet and the peeping of egglings. Afsan hurried down the curving hall and opened the inner door he had gone through the day before.
A large male was running around the room, his purple robe flying about him, his tail lifted high off the sand. Peeping loudly and running and stumbling and crawling with all their might, the babies, their obsidian eyes now open wide with fear, were trying to get away from him.
The figures danced in the flames from the heating fires. The male tipped his body low, bringing his head down parallel to the ground. His jaws swung open. There was a baby a single pace in front of him. With a darting motion of his head, the adult’s mouth slammed shut around the infant. Afsan heard a slurping sound and saw a slight distension of the male’s throat as the young one slid down his gullet.
The robed male looked up at Afsan’s call, startled to see him there in the doorway. He made a swiping motion with one clawed hand. "K’ata halpataars," he grumbled from low in his throat. I am a bloodpriest. The voice was deep, ragged, as if forced to the surface. "Get out!"
Suddenly Cat-Julor appeared behind Afsan, obviously brought running by his scream. "Afsan, what are you doing here?"
"He’s eating the babies!"
"He’s Pal-Donat, a bloodpriest. It’s his job."
"Come with me."
"But he’s eating…"
"Come!" She, head-and-neck taller than Afsan, put an arm around his shoulders and propelled him from the room. Afsan looked back, horrified, and saw the robed one scoop up another infant, this one smaller than the rest — likely the one Afsan had helped out of the egg.
Afsan felt sick.
Julor took him down the inner hallway and through the main door, out into the harsh light of day.
"He killed two of the babies," said Afsan.
Julor looked out at the rest of Carno. "He’ll kill seven from each clutch before he’s done."
"Seven! But that will leave…"
"Only one," said Julor.
"I don’t understand," said Afsan.
Julor’s tail swished in indifference. "It’s to control the population. We need space and we need food. There’s only so much of either to go around. A female lays eight eggs in each clutch. Only one is ever permitted to survive."
"That’s necessity. I’m no scholar, Afsan, but even I know that if you increase your population eightfold with every generation, it won’t be long before you’re out of room. Somebody told me that in just five generations, one Quintaglio would have tens of thousands of descendants."
"Thirty-two thousand seven hundred and sixty-eight," said Afsan automatically. "Eight to the fifth."
Julor’s tail swished in amazement. "I don’t know what eight to the fifth means, but…"
"It’s a new way of expressing big numbers…"
"But I think there are more important things to know in life than fancy counting. Surely you knew something about the bloodpriests?"
Afsan bowed his head. "No."
"But you knew eggs were laid in clutches of eight?"
"I’d never thought about it before."
Julor’s teeth touched. "You who can read always amuse me. You bury your muzzles in dusty old pages, but you seem at a loss for dealing with day-to-day life. It’s hardly a secret that most egglings are dispatched. By God’s tail, how could it be kept a secret, after all? I bet you could recite facts to me endlessly about your profession, but you never bothered to wonder about babies."
"Most people know this?"
"Many do. There are unpleasant aspects to life; we accept them, but don’t dwell on them." Julor looked down her muzzle at Afsan. "Of course, most people learn about it in an abstract way, not by actually stumbling on a halpataars at work. Even the bloodpriests must force themselves into a trance before they can do their jobs. It’s a distasteful task."
Afsan thought for an instant that Julor was making a pun with her last sentence. But of course she wasn’t; she couldn’t be — could she? Perhaps she was. Perhaps having to deal constantly with such issues, one did develop a callousness about them.
"I didn’t know," Afsan said simply.
"Well, now you do." She nodded concession to him. "And now you have something to think about. Go."
She gave him a little push that was not unkind — only a creche mother would touch another without thinking. Afsan began to amble away, the sun, which earlier had seemed joyous, now hot and uncomfortable and harsh.
He found a tree to lie under and closed his eyes. He realized, horribly, what that final panel in the intricate carving on his cabin door aboard the Dasheter had really depicted. Mekt, one of the Original Five, clad in priestly robes, a whip of tiny tail hanging out of her mouth; Mekt, a bloodpriest. The cannibalistic rite of devouring children went right back to the ancient religion of the Five Hunters, indeed, was probably the only rite from that religion that was still widely practiced, the only role Lubalites had in the modern worship of the Prophet Larsk.
Afsan sat there and thought. About the dead egglings. About the harshness of existence. And, longest and most of all, about his own seven long-dead brothers and sisters, whom he had never known.
In the middle of the night, Afsan woke with a start. As every learned person knew, Land was divided into eight provinces: Capital, Kev’toolar, Chu’toolar, Mar’toolar, Edz’toolar, Arj’toolar, Jam’toolar, and Fra’toolar. Beside being head of state for all of Land, the Emperor or Empress was also governor of Capital province. But the governors of the other seven were always fiercely loyal to whoever lay on the throne of Capital City. It had hit Afsan that the other governors, from Len-Quelban in distant Fra’toolar to Len-Haktood in Carno’s own province of Arj’toolar, all of whom he’d seen at processions in Capital City, were about the same height, and therefore the same age, as the late Len-Lends, Dybo’s mother. It was all so obvious. Of course these seven governors had been loyal to the Empress. They were her siblings, her — Afsan ran down the list of governors — her five sisters and two brothers.
Imperial hatchlings weren’t gobbled by bloodpriests. Rather, the fastest was selected to become Emperor or Empress, and the other seven would become provincial governors. Their loyalty was assured, since they owed their lives to the institution of the monarchy. Without it, without the special dispensation for imperial hatchlings, they would have been swallowed whole.
Lends’s brothers and sisters now ran the seven outlying provinces. Dybo’s seven siblings would have been spirited away shortly after hatching, and they would become provincial governors when their — Afsan had to search for the words, they were so rarely used — their aunts and uncles passed on.
The descendants of Larsk ran the entire world.
Perhaps this, too, was common knowledge. Perhaps Afsan had, indeed, spent too long removed from the concerns of real life. But he understood now, and maybe this was the greatest rite of passage of all: the movements of celestial bodies were simple and predictable, but the machinations of politics were more complex and more subtle than anything to be found in nature.
Afsan lay on his belly in the dark, but never managed to get back to sleep.