Afsan descended the spiral ramp to the basement of the palace office building. He knew he’d have to endure Saleed’s wrath: anger that he was late in returning from his pilgrimage and fury that Afsan had the temerity to question his teachings. In no hurry to face this, he tarried to look at the Tapestries of the Prophet, peering at them through the reflections of lamp iimes dancing on their thin glass covering. There had been tiny parts of these images he’d not understood the last time he’d seen them, 372 days ago. But now everything was plain. That strange bucket atop the mast of Larsk’s sailing ship: that was the lookout’s perch, just like the one aboard the Dasheter. Those black spots on the Face of God — "God eyes" — were the shadows of moons. Afsan was surprised to see them scattered all over the Face here, instead of just concentrated along widest part, but then he realized that the artist — the famed Hel-Vleetnav — simply hadn’t been a skilled observer of such things, or had made the painting from fallible memory long after her own pilgrimage. Indeed, she’d depicted the Face fully illuminated even though the sun was also visible in the picture, an impossible arrangement.
Around the edges of the tapestry were the twisted, loathsome demons, those who supposedly told lies about the Prophet in the light of day. Afsan had always been horrified at their appearance, but now he looked at them differently.
Surely they hadn’t been monsters, hadn’t been demons masquerading as Quintaglios.
And Larsk himself, the prophet. Had Vleetnav ever met Larsk? Did she really know what he had looked like? She had painted him with a serene expression, eyes half closed. Afsan clicked his teeth. That was exactly right.
After looking his fill, Afsan continued slowly down the corridor to the keetaja-wood door that led into Saleed’s office. Steeling his strength, Afsan drummed on the copper plate in the doorjamb and called out, "Permission to enter your territory?" He heard a tremulous note in his voice.
He waited for a gruff and low hahat dan, but no sound came from within. After several beats, Afsan called out again. When there was still no answer, he pressed his palm against the fluted bar, and the door swung wide.
There was no one in Saleed’s office. Afsan crossed the room to the old astrologer’s workbench. There were many papers and sheets of leather on it, arranged in neat stacks, but they were covered with dust.
Scanning the room, Afsan noticed that a few of Saleed’s favorite things were missing: his great porcelain drinking bowl, always half filled with scented water; his metal drawing tools, used to make star charts; his leather-bound copy of the book of mathematical tables; his guvdok stone, the torus inscribed with the astrologer’s many awards for scholarship.
Afsan left the room and continued down the corridor to the office of Irb-Falpom, the palace land surveyor. Again, Afsan called out for permission to enter. Falpom replied, and Afsan pushed open the door.
Falpom, much younger than Saleed, but still many kilodays Afsan’s senior, was bent over a table, adjusting an intricate metal device that had several calibrated wheels attached to it. "Adkab?" she said. "By the prophet’s claws, is that you?"
Adkab had been two apprentice astrologers before Afsan. Falpom often accidentally called Afsan by that name, and Afsan tried to keep a good humor about it. After all, she was one of the few palace officials who even attempted to remember the names of any of the underlings, and keeping Saleed’s parade of apprentices straight was probably no easy task.
Afsan bowed low. "Hello, Falpom. It’s good to see you again."
"And you! My, how you’ve grown!"
Afsan realized that, yes, in the time he’d been gone, he probably had increased in size noticeably. "Thank you," he said vaguely. "Falpom, I’m looking for Saleed."
The surveyor pushed off the dayslab and leaned back on her itick tail. "Haven’t you heard?"
Falpom dipped her head. "Saleed took ill not too long after you left. He’s been resting at home."
’What’s wrong with him?"
The surveyor clicked her teeth once, a rueful sound. "He’s old, Afsan." Falpom looked at the ground. "I’m frankly surprised that he’s lasted this long."
Afsan’s tail swished back and forth. "I will go see him at once." He took a step back toward the door, then a thought crossed his mind. "Has a successor been appointed?"
"Not yet. What with the loss of Empress Lends — you did hear about that at least, I hope — and the delay before the succession of Dybo, nothing much has been done. I think Dybo is reluctant to name a replacement. He doesn’t want Saleed to think that he’s given up hope of him recovering, but, really, there’s no chance of that."
"I’ll go see Saleed," said Afsan.
Falpom nodded. "He’ll like that. Give him my good wishes."
Saleed lived in a small building a few hundred paces from ie palace. It was an adobe structure, the commonest kind, easy to repair or replace after a landquake. The reddish-beige exterior was covered with a thin layer of glaze for waterproofing. Afsan had stopped by his own tiny quarters before heading to Saleed’s. The slight detour had done nothing to help clear his mind. Saleed had been around forever. As much as the oldster terrified Afsan, he also inspired him. It was impossible to imagine the palace without Saleed.
The adobe structure was free-form in shape, having no right angles. But windows, although at first glance appearing equally free-form, had in fact been meticulously carved as immature duplicates of the building’s own melted profile. This unit contained the homes of several palace officials. Saleed’s apartment was on the ground floor. Afsan had always known where it was, but he had never visited it before.
He made his way down the main hallway, lamps spluttering along its walls. He found Saleed’s cartouche carved into a door at the end of the corridor, a rendition different from the one that appeared on his office door. With a start, Afsan recognized by the way certain characters were drawn that Saleed had made this cartouche himself. It wasn’t a bad rendering, really, although clearly an amateur effort. Saleed a hobbyist woodcarver? thought Afsan. What else don’t I know about him?
He clicked claws against the copper plate by the door, then called out for permission. He thought he heard a sound from within, but it was so low he couldn’t be sure.
He opened the door. Inside was Saleed’s living room, like its owner, stern and hard-edged. There were four ornate day-slabs, one in each corner of the room; shelves of books; an intricate lastoontal board with playing pieces made of gold and silver distributed across it, a game half finished. Afsan hurried through into the sleeping chamber. There, prone on a stone pallet, was Saleed. He looked old and weary, the skin hanging loosely on his face, the black orbs of his eyes shot with red. There were soft leather sheets piled on the sleeping pallet, and a blanket of what looked like thunderbeast hide covered most of his body. The room was dim, no lamp lit, the windows covered by curtains.
On a table next to the bed sat Saleed’s favorite porcelain drinking bowl. Afsan noticed that it was cracked. It must have been dropped at some point after Afsan last saw it, then glued back together. Unfortunately not everything could be repaired so easily. He looked down at Saleed. "Master…"
The tired bulk stirred slowly. "Afsan?" The voice was dry, husky. "Afsan, is that you?"
Afsan bowed low. "It is I, master."
Saleed coughed, as if the effort of speech had disturbed his condition. His throat sounded raw, and his words were little more than protracted hisses. "You were long in returning."
"I’m sorry, master." Afsan felt a pain in his chest, a sadness. He realized now that he had missed Saleed — was going to miss Saleed. "But you taught me well. I discovered many things on my voyage."
Saleed coughed again, forcing his throat back to life. "I hear from Keenir that you sailed around the world."
"Yes, master. Not everyone believes that, though. They think we’re confused. Or deluded."
Saleed’s teeth clicked together weakly. "I’m sure they do." His breathing was labored, loud. "But I believe you."
"Of course. You saw the Face of God?"
"And…" Saleed’s body racked with another cough. Afsan moved closer to the old astrologer, almost invading his territory. "And what did you discover?"
"Master, this isn’t the time. When you’re well…"
Saleed coughed once more. "I will never be well again, Afsan. I’m old, and I’m dying."
Afsan knew that Saleed was telling the truth, but he hoped that in the dim light of the room, the discoloration of his own muzzle would go unnoticed. "No, you’ll be all right. You just need rest…"
"Tell me what you learned." For an instant, there was the sharp edge Afsan was used to hearing in Saleed’s voice, the edge that demanded to be obeyed.
"Yes, master. I — you won’t agree with me, I know — I’ve come to believe that the Face of God is — forgive me — a planet. Like Carpel or Patpel or any of the others."
Afsan prepared for Saleed’s rebuke, but it did not come. "Good. That’s good, Afsan." He coughed again, and when he was done, he said softly, "I knew you were bright enough."
Afsan was startled, felt his tail swish in a wide arc. "What? Then you already knew this?"
Saleed coughed several times. When the fit subsided, he spoke again, even more weakly. "Yes, I have known. But I was too old to do anything about it. You — you’re young." Another cough. "You’re young."
"But without the far-seer, how could you know?"
"Keenir brought me a far-seer kilodays ago, before you’d been summoned from Carno to Capital City."
"But I heard you reject it from him…"
"You don’t survive as long at court as I have without learning how to put on appropriate performances. I wanted you to discover it all for yourself. I could not tell anyone what I’d learned — even Keenir did not know the details, although he agreed to help me entice you." Saleed’s tail moved slightly. "Creche-mates are as one."
Afsan stared into his master’s eyes, eyes that were dark as night. He wondered where Saleed was looking. "I don’t understand."
Saleed coughed again, and Afsan waited for the old one to gather enough strength to continue. "If the Face is a planet," said Saleed, "then the religion of Larsk is based on a misunderstanding." The sheets heaved as he drew in breath to push on. "It will take a young person to fight that battle, to tell the world the truth about itself. I combed the vocational test results from every Pack, and still I ended up going through six apprentices before I found you. I’d almost given up hope. I knew if you wouldn’t dare to defy your master for the sake of finding out the truth, you couldn’t possibly be expected to go against Yenalb. I needed to test the courage of your convictions." Saleed’s muzzle turned toward Afsan. "I see now that this time I chose well."
Afsan dipped his head, accepting the compliment, although not yet quite understanding. "There’s more, though, master," he said. "Do you know of the rings around some of the planets?"
"Rings?" Saleed’s head moved slightly on the sleeping pallet. "So that’s what they are. My old eyes weren’t good enough, I’m afraid, or maybe my old mind was incapable of realizing what it was seeing. Rings. That makes sense, yes." Although still as attenuated as a pre-dawn wind, Saleed’s voice had taken on a wondering tone. "Not solid, I’d warrant. Particulate?" Afsan nodded. "Particulate rings." The air escaped from him in a sigh. "Of course."
"They form when moons around other planets move too close to them."
"That makes sense."
"But, master, our world is too close to our planet to be stable."
Saleed tried to lift his head from the pallet, failed, and grunted weakly. After a moment, he said, "So the student has exceeded the master. Hmph. That’s what every teacher wants. Congratulations, Afsan."
"Congratulations? Master, the world is coming to an end!"
"Whether it does or not, I won’t be here to see it. It appears I’ve given you an even tougher job than I’d thought and for that, my boy, I do apologize."
Afsan felt his fingertips itching, a response to surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Well, Afsan" — and then, maddeningly, the old astrologer fell into a fit of coughs again. When it was done, he continued, "Well, Afsan, if the world is coming to an end, then we must…" and here Afsan saw in his master’s wizened face some of the spark, the excitement he was used to seeing there, saw the brilliance of the mind that had written the definitive works on the stars and planets and the moons, saw his genius " — we must get off this world." He found the strength to lift his head slightly. "And you must convince the people to do just that."
Afsan fell back on his tail, stunned by Saleed’s words. "Get off the world? Master…"
But Saleed was coughing again. When he finished, he said, "I had to wait until you came back, Afsan. I had to know that you would be the one." And then his black eyes closed and Afsan saw his torso collapse beneath the leather sheet as the breath went out of him.
There was no reply. Afsan fished in his sash’s pouch for the object he had stopped by his quarters to get, the traveler’s crystal, hexagonal and ruby red, that Saleed had given to him before he had left on the Dasheter. He placed it on the sleeping pallet next to the senior astrologer’s head. "Have a safe journey, Saleed."