Afsan was heading from Saleed’s home to the palace grounds, where he intended to inform the authorities of his master’s demise. Clouds were gathering, and the sun appeared as nothing more than a mauve discoloration behind them. Afsan wasn’t really paying attention to where he was going. He was lost in thought about what Saleed had said.
"Aren’t you Afsan?"
The voice caught him off guard. He turned to face his inquisitor, a female just shy of middle age, perhaps twice his own weight.
"Yes, I’m Afsan." He peered up into her face. She made no move to bow concession. Afsan didn’t recognize her. "And you are — ?"
"Gerth-Palsab," she said. Gerth, derived from the miracle worker, Gerthalk, was a praenomen syllable often chosen by deeply religious females, just as Det, from Detoon the Righteous, was a frequent choice among males, especially those who had entered the priesthood.
"Hello, Palsab," said Afsan. "How do you come to know me?"
She placed hands on broad hips. "I’ve seen you around."
"Yes. You work at the palace." She said it as though it were an accusation.
"I’m an apprentice astrologer, that’s right."
"I hear they go through those the way I go through teeth." A rude thing to say, thought Afsan, but he made no reply. Palsab continued in a harsh tone. "You’ve recently returned from a pilgrimage."
Afsan felt wary. His tail swished through a partial arc before he quelled the gesture. "Yes, my first."
"I’ve heard stories about you."
Afsan clicked his teeth, feigning good humor. "At day or at night?"
She ignored his remark. "You blaspheme God!"
Two others were passing in the opposite direction. Afsan saw them stop short at Palsab’s outburst, and one half turned to listen.
Afsan thought about simply walking away, but he’d been brought up to respect his elders. "I’ve said nothing that isn’t true," he replied softly.
"You looked upon the Face of God, and called it a fraud."
The two passersby were making no effort to hide their eavesdropping now, and another couple who had been heading in the opposite direction had stopped, as well, startled by what Palsab had said. Calthat’ch — fraud — was a word rarely heard, since the very idea of a blatant deception lasting into the daylight was so difficult to believe.
’’I suggested no deceit, good Palsab," said Afsan.
"But you said that the Face of God was not, well, the face of God."
Afsan looked at the ground, black sand strewn with pebbles. When he looked up again he saw that a fifth pedestrian had tarried to see what the commotion was about. "What I said," Afsan replied, "was simply that the Face of God is a planet. Like Carpel, Patpel, and the rest."
There was a buzz of conversation between two of the onlookers. "And you don’t call that blasphemy?" demanded Palsab.
"I call it observation," said Afsan. "I call it truth."
A trio of young females joined the gathering, and, a moment later, a giant old male. Afsan heard one onlooker remark to the fellow standing next to him, "It sounds like blasphemy to me."
"The truth?" barked Palsab. "What does an eggling know of the truth?"
"I know what I see with my eyes." Afsan scanned the faces around him, then turned back to Palsab. "Look, this isn’t the place to discuss it. I plan to do a paper on what I’ve seen; perhaps I can arrange for you to be loaned a copy."
One of the males stepped forward. "Do you mock her, boy?"
Afsan looked up. "Pardon?"
"She can’t read." He turned to her. "Can you, Palsab?"
"Of course not. I’m a blacksmith; what use do I have for writing?"
Afsan had been with the palace for so long, he’d all but forgotten that most people were illiterate. He’d swished his tail right into a pile of dung. "I’m sorry; I didn’t mean a slight. It’s just…"
The male who had spoken up a moment ago said, "What gives you the right to say such things about God?"
"I claim no right," said Afsan quietly. "I’m just relaying what I’ve seen."
"What you believe you have seen," countered Palsab. "A pilgrimage is a time of visions and raptures. Many think they see things during them — especially during their first."
"I’m sure of what I saw."
"Keep your blasphemy to yourself!" said Palsab, tail slapping sand.
"No," called a new voice. Several more people had stopped to listen. "I want to hear. Tell us what you’ve seen."
Afsan didn’t recognize anyone in the group, but coming down the street was someone wearing the red and black robe of a junior priest. He, too, came over to see what was going on.
"I saw," said Afsan, "that the Face of God goes through phases, just as the moons do."
Someone in the crowd nodded. "That’s right; I’ve seen that."
Afsan sought out the speaker, looking for a friendly face. "Well, don’t you see, then," said Afsan, "that this must mean that the Face of God is illuminated by the sun, just as the moons are."
"The moons are illuminated by the sun?" said the same fellow. This was clearly a new concept to him.
"Of course they are! Where do you think they get their light — from oil lamps?" Afsan realized in an instant that he’d spoken too harshly. "I’m sorry, I mean, yes — that’s right. The sun is the only true source of light."
But it was too late. The fellow adopted a hostile posture. "Seems to me we could use a little more light around here," he grumbled.
Palsab spoke overtop of him. "See, you’ve already contradicted yourself. First you say the Face of God is a planet; now you’re babbling about the moons."
At the edge of the crowd, the junior priest looked agitated. Afsan saw him take off for the Hall of Worship. He turned to look back at Palsab. "But some planets go through phases, just as the moons do."
"What nonsense!" said Palsab. "The planets are just points of light."
"No, they’re not. They’re balls, spheres. And they go through phases. I’ve seen it."
"How?" called a voice from the crowd. "How could you see something like that?"
"With a device called a far-seer," said Afsan. "It magnifies images."
"I’ve never heard of such a thing," said Palsab.
"It uses lenses. You know: like the way a drop of water can magnify what’s beneath it."
Palsab sneered. "So this blasphemy was revealed to you in a drop of water?"
"What? No, no, no. The far-seer works on the same principle, that’s all. Look, what I’m saying is the truth. I’ve seen it. Emperor Dybo has seen it. Many others have seen it, too."
"And where’s this magic device that lets you see such things?" said Palsab.
"Well, I’ve got a far-seer of my own now, but I don’t have the one through which I saw these things for the first time anymore. It didn’t belong to me; it was Var-Keenir’s, captain of the Dasheter."
"Oh, Var-Keenir! Of course!" Palsab sounded quite pleased with herself. "Well, you know what they say about him."
"That he’s a master sailor?" said Afsan.
"That he’s an apostate, eggling. That he practices the ancient rites."
Afsan had never heard that said, but, in any event, he couldn’t see how it was relevant. He was about to point this out when a voice from the crowd said, "What’s this got to do with the Face of God, anyway?"
Afsan turned to look at the speaker, a female much younger than the belligerent Palsab. He bowed politely, determined not to alienate yet another member of the crowd. "A very good question, indeed. The Face of God — the thing we see hanging there in the sky — is a planet, just seen from very close up. It’s the planet that our world revolves around."
In the distance, Afsan saw the junior priest returning with Det-Yenalb, the Master of the Faith, in tow.
"I’ve never seen the Face of God," she said, and Afsan realized that she was indeed much too young to have taken the pilgrimage. "But I’ve seen paintings of it. My class went to see the Tapestries of the Prophet once. It doesn’t look anything like a planet."
Afsan bent low, his tail lifting into the air as he did so. He scooped up a handful of black sand.
"See this sand?" he said, letting it sift between his fingers, falling back to the ground.
"It’s basalt; ground volcanic rock." He pointed over his shoulder. "See the Ch’mar peaks there, off in the distance?"
"They’re covered with the same sand. Can you see it?"
"Don’t be silly," said the girl. "The peaks are too far away."
"Exactly. And the other planets are too far away to be seen in detail. But when seen close up, they would appear as great spheres, just as the Face of God does. And our world revolves around the Face of God."
Palsab made a hissing sound. The girl looked intrigued though. "But I thought the world sails down the great River."
"No, it doesn’t. That’s just a story. I’ve sailed clear around the world…"
Palsab made another hissing sound. "You’ve seen this! You’ve done that! Pah!"
"The entire crew of the Dasheter sailed around the world," said Afsan, trying not to become angry. "And all its passengers, too."
The crowd had continued to grow. Each member was standing a polite distance from the next, so Afsan could easily see to the outmost circle of watchers, where Yenalb now stood. "Did you really sail around the world?" asked the young female.
She shook her head. "Someday, I’d like to sail around the world, too."
"Don’t talk nonsense!" Palsab spat in the youngster’s direction. "The world is flat."
The youngster looked at the ground, but muttered, "He says there are many witnesses."
Afsan was pleased to have found an ally. "That’s right. Many witnesses." He looked at the crowd. Some, like Palsab, were openly hostile, claws exposed, mouth open to show teeth. Others seemed merely curious. He thought of Saleed, of what Saleed had asked him to do. Perhaps now was the time to begin; perhaps this was the place to start. Perhaps…
"But there’s more," he said, the words tumbling out, his decision made for him. "So much more. That we’re on a moon revolving around a planet…" He heard a sharp intake of breath from several people and realized he’d just laid another explosive egg. "Yes, that’s right, our world is itself a moon, just like Swift Runner or Slowpoke or Sprinter. But that we’re on a moon, and that this moon revolves around a planet, is perhaps only of academic interest. It excites me, and I hope that knowledge for knowledge’s sake excites most of you. But I grant that the reality of the way the universe works is mostly of no consequence." He nodded at faces in turn, trying to connect individually with each member of the crowd. "You still have to sleep, you have to toil at your tasks, you must hunt, you must eat. None of what I’ve said affects any of that." He saw a few heads return his nods and felt encouraged to continue. "But I have discovered one fact that is of dire urgency, that will change everything."
A roll of thunder sounded from above. Afsan looked up at the leaden sky.
Palsab grunted. "I take it you’re about to blaspheme again," but even she recognized that the sound from the sky was coincidence. Teeth clicked around the circle.
But Afsan swallowed hard. This was important, vital. Those who hadn’t believed what he’d told them so far certainly wouldn’t accept what he was about to say. The weight upon him was almost palpable. At last, he forced out the words. "The world is coming to an end."
The reaction was as he’d expected: expressions of disbelief or derision, and, on a few faces, of fear. Afsan raised a hand, careful, despite his excitement, to keep his claws sheathed. "What I say is true. It’s a consequence of the other discoveries I made. We’re too close to the Face of God; our path around it is not stable. Our world will be torn apart."
"Nonsense!" shouted one voice.
"You’re wrong!" called another.
"The eggling’s insane," muttered a third.
"I am not insane. I am not imagining things." Afsan fought to keep his voice calm. "What I’m saying is the absolute truth — the demonstrable truth."
Palsab’s claws extended. "You cannot prove what cannot be."
"No," said Afsan, "I cannot. But I can prove this."
Palsab wiggled her fingers, but the onlooker next to her — the same fellow who had taken offense when Afsan suggested that Palsab read his paper — spoke quietly to her. "Let him talk, Palsab. He’ll put a knot in his tail, I’m sure."
Afsan had wanted to make his case in writing, to carefully set up each potential argument, then, piece by piece, show why his interpretation was correct. But here, on a public street, with the first spits of rain hitting his head, here, surrounded by a mob of illiterates, of people who didn’t have the training or temperament to follow an intricate line of reasoning, here, facing those he was arguing with directly, instead of through the safe and neutral medium of an academic paper, a document that would be hand-copied by scribes and circulated quietly to a few hundred academics, here he was very much in trouble indeed.
Still, what choice did he have? Was that not Galbong, the newsrider, now at the back of the crowd? Wouldn’t she spread the story that Afsan didn’t have the courage of his convictions, that he had run rather than defend his wild ideas?
Afsan leaned back against his tail, a passive, nonthreaten-ing posture. "To understand what I’ve come to believe, you have to understand some basic astrology."
"We all know about portents and omens," snapped Palsab. "No, no. The symbolism of what’s seen in the sky is a matter for priests to interpret, or at least for more senior astrologers than myself…"
"You see!" cried Palsab to the crowd. "He admits his own ignorance."
"I’m honest about which things I know and which things I don’t know. Everything I’ve come to believe about the way our, our — system — works I can justify and demonstrate to anyone who cares to listen. I’ll warrant those who claim to foretell your personal futures by reading the sky can’t do the same." Afsan saw Yenalb, at the periphery of the group, scowl, and he realized that again he’d spoken rashly. But, by the prophet’s claws — by Saleed’s claws — it was the truth!
"Look," said Afsan, trying to remain calm. "It’s a simple chain. If those of us who sailed aboard the good ship Dasheter managed to travel from the east coast of Land back to the west coast simply by continuously sailing east, then the world cannot be sailing down an endless river. It must be round." He tipped his muzzle from person to person in the inner concentric circle around him. "It must be."
"If," said Palsab bitterly.
"It’s true; it cannot be denied. I speak of it here in the light of day, and even if I’m confused — which I’m not — you can hardly believe that Var-Keenir, or the other sailors aboard his ship, could become mixed up about which direction they were sailing in."
Palsab opened her mouth as if to speak, but someone on the other side of her — presumably an intimate acquaintance, for he dared to lightly touch her shoulder — said, "Let him finish."
Afsan nodded politely at this new benefactor. "Thank you." He looked now not at Palsab, who seemed no longer to be the speaker for the group, but rather, by lifting his head slightly, he made it clear that he was addressing them all equally. "Now, if the world is round, then what is it? Well, we see many round objects in our sky. We see the sun. But our world is not like the sun. It does not burn with white flame. We see, when we take our pilgrimage, the Face of God. But our world is not like the Face of God. It is not covered with bands of swirling color. And, although our world seems big to us, I have sailed around it, so I know now its approximate dimensions. The Face of God is gigantic; our world is not. Finally we see the moons. Some have cloudy surfaces, some have rocky ones. All go through phases, meaning parts of their surfaces are alternately illuminated and in darkness, just as parts of our world are in night and parts are in daylight. Indeed, as I’m sure some of you know, if a daytenth glass is turned over immediately every time it runs out during a pilgrimage voyage — so that it always has sand flowing through it — you can see that when it’s midnight here in Capital City it is high noon when one is observing the Face of God."
Thunder cracked the air again. The drops grew fatter. Afsan saw that some of those assembled were following what he was saying. "And I can provide similar chains to take you through to my other conclusions: that the Face of God is a planet, that we revolve around the Face of God, that we are in fact the closest moon to the Face of God." Afsan flashed back to his conversation with Dybo on the deck of the Dasheter. He looked directly at Palsab. "So, you see, what I’m saying isn’t that bad. We’re closer to the Face of God than anything else. Isn’t that an appealing thought?"
"It would be," said Palsab, "if you didn’t go on to say that the Face of God was nothing more than, than a natural object. ’The creator is inexplicable,’ say the scriptures."
"And," Afsan said, pretending now to ignore Palsab, pressing on to the bitter conclusion, "my knowledge of the laws that govern the way things work tells me that because we are so close to the Face of God, this world is doomed. Our world will be torn asunder by the same stress that causes the volcanism and the landquakes."
"They are worse now than in the ancient past," said someone from the middle of the crowd. Palsab stared at the speaker. "Sorry," he said with a shrug, "but we’re not all unable to read."
She turned, fuming, looking now neither at Afsan nor the fellow who had spoken of the history of landquakes.
"So you claim we are doomed," said another voice, female, sounding frightened.
This was the chance, Afsan realized, the opportunity to test the reception Saleed’s ideas would have.
"No," said Afsan. "I claim only that our world is doomed."
"What’s the difference?" said the girl whom he’d spoken with earlier. "If the world crumbles beneath us, then surely we will die."
"What do you mean?" demanded Palsab’s friend.
"Well, consider. We now build ships to ply the River…"
"You said it was not a River," said Palsab.
"No, it is not; it’s more like a vast lake. But the name ’River’ will endure, I’m sure, just as we still refer to the Fifty Packs, when there are many more than that number."
She nodded, conceding Afsan at least this much of his story.
"Well, we build ships for travel in water," continued Afsan. "We know travel by air is possible…"
"What?" said Palsab.
"Wingfingers do it," said Afsan simply. "So do many insects. There’s no reason we cannot."
"They have wings, fool."
"Of course, of course. But we could build vessels to fly, like those toys children play with that float upon the air."
"And if we did so?" said a female from the middle of the crowd.
"Why, we could fly from this world to another. One of the other moons, perhaps. Or a moon around a different planet. Or maybe somewhere else entirely."
Afsan cringed at the sound of clicking teeth. "What nonsense!" said Palsab. A flash of lightning lit the group.
"No," said another voice. "I’ve read tales of such voyages. The fantasies of Gat-Tagleeb."
"Children’s stories," sneered Palsab. "Worthless."
But the fan of Tagleeb spoke again. "I’d like to hear more of what this fellow has to say."
"And I’d love to tell more," said Afsan. The rain was growing heavier. He tipped his muzzle up at the clouds. "But this is not the time, I fear. Tomorrow, I’ll be in the central square at noon. All those who wish to discuss this more, please join me there." As an afterthought, he did not know why, he added, "I have a friend named Pal-Cadool in the palace butchery. I’ll arrange for a haunch of meat to be available."
This seemed to satisfy most of the crowd, although Palsab glowered at Afsan before moving on. Lightning jagged across the sky, and the people hurried to get out of the rain.
Afsan tried to catch Yenalb’s attention, wanting to thank him for helping arrange his passage on the Dasheter, but he had already left.
Oh, well, thought Afsan, I’m sure I’ll be seeing him again soon.
High Priest Det-Yenalb returned to the Hall of Worship, his claws flexing in agitation. What had gotten into the boy? Afsan hadn’t been like this before his pilgrimage.
Before his time with Var-Keenir.
Yenalb slapped his tail.
He should have heeded the stories about that one. Yes, there were still Lubalites scattered throughout the eight provinces, but Yenalb had dismissed the grumblings about Keenir. Idle gossip, he’d thought, the kind you hear about any public figure, the kind that even circulated about himself.
But the boy’s mind had been corrupted. He was talking heresy, blasphemy.
That could not be allowed. It could not.
Yenalb entered the main part of the Hall. Most of the lamps were off now, conserving thunderbeast oil. But in the flickering flames of those that were lit, he took stock of the room: circular, so that the domed roof could represent the Face of God, swirling and banded.
Yenalb had seen the Face many times, taken the pilgrimage over and over again, gone there with Empress Lends and her predecessor, Empress Sardon, would go there with the new Emperor, Dybo, on his next pilgrimage.
He had seen the Face, felt the rapture, heard the voice.
It was no lie. It could not be.
Shifting his weight onto his tail, he looked down the mock river, that channel of water between the planks through which the sinners walked. It was half empty, much of the water from the last service having evaporated.
But this was only a model. There was a real River, and Land did float down it, and the Face of God did look down upon the way ahead, to make sure it was safe.
It was true.
It must be.
It was his way of life.
It was the way of life for all the people.
He stared at the sinners’ river for a long time. And, at last, Yenalb felt a calm come over him. The tranquillity of the room entered him, the peace that comes with faith relaxed him, comforted him, assured him.
He knew what he must do.