The workplace of Tak-Saleed, senior court astrologer in the service of Her Luminance Empress Len-Lends, was located deep in the labyrinthine basement of the palace office building. Afsan descended the tightly wound spiral marble ramp, the polished banister smooth and cool beneath his palm. Because of landquakes, stone buildings usually didn’t last long, but this one had managed to remain more or less intact since it was built, here on the site of the prophet’s triumphant return from first gazing on the Face of God. That had been 150 kilodays ago, and the building showed it. Deep scratches were worn into the ramp by the toeclaws of countless Quintaglios. The ramp should have been replaced, but the royal marble quarry near the Nunard rift had been closed after the most recent series of landquakes, and a suitable alternative source of pristine white stone had yet to be found.
As he continued down the curving ramp, Afsan thought again how wrong it was for the chief astrologer not to be quartered on the topmost floor, as close to the heavens as possible. On the first day they had met, he’d asked Tak-Saleed why he worked out of sight of the sky. Saleed’s reply still burned in Afsan’s mind. "I have the charts drawn up by my exalted predecessors, eggling. I need not see the stars to know that they are moving in their prescribed courses."
Afsan rounded out onto the basement level and hurried down the wide corridor, its length illuminated by ornate lamps burning thunderbeast oil. His claws clacked against the stone 3oor.
Along the walls, behind protective sheets of thin glass, were the famed Tapestries of the Prophet, telling the story of Larsk’s voyage upriver to see the Face of God. Around the periphery of the tapestries were horrid renditions of Quintaglios bent in aggressive postures, tails balancing heads. These were the nay-sayers, the evil ones, the aug-ta-rot beings, the demons who knew that Larsk had told the truth but lied about it in the light of day. Afsan looked at their twisted faces and outstretched arms. Each demon had his left hand held strangely, with the thumb over the palm, the claws extended on the second and third fingers, and the fourth and fifth fingers splayed.
The images were flat, with all the characters depicted in plain profile, and no perspective to the form of Larsk’s sailing ship. Many illustrations were still done this way, but Afsan had begun to see an increasing number that used the three-dimensional drawing techniques recently developed by the religious painters of Edz’toolar province. Still, despite their flatness, the tapestries were captivating. Ever since he had begun working here, Afsan had meant to arrive early one morning and spend some time examining the finely painted leather sheets with their colorful images of a time 150 kilodays past.
But today was not the day. As usual, Afsan was late. He bounded down the corridor, his tail slapping up and down. Saleed had finally given up berating Afsan for the noise he made running down the halls.
Afsan came to the great keetaja-wood door to Saleed’s office, the astrologer’s cartouche with its pattern of stars and planets and moons carved into the golden grain. Suddenly there were voices coming from within, loud and harsh, as if engaged in an argument.
Afsan paused, his hand on the fluted brass rod that worked the locking mechanism. Privacy was deeply valued. The territorial instinct could never be completely overcome, and when one was alone behind a closed door it was presumably by choice. But, Afsan decided, since Saleed obviously was not alone, no harm would be done by assessing the situation before stepping into it. He placed his other hand to his right earhole, forming a cup to funnel the sounds.
"I have no use for your toys." That was Saleed’s voice, deep, sharp, like a hunter’s polished claws.
"Toys?" A gravelly voice, pitched even lower than Saleed’s. The Quintaglio word was ca-tart, with the final consonant accompanied by a clicking of teeth. Whoever had spoken it was clearly angry: the terminal click was loud enough to be heard through the thick wood, like rocks clacking together. "Toys!" shouted the voice again. "Saleed, the shell of your egg must have been too thick. Your brain is damaged."
Afsan’s nictitating membranes fluttered over his eyes in amazement. Who could possibly speak to the court astrologer thus?
"I am an obedient servant of my God," replied Saleed, and Afsan could picture the old astrologer raising his wrinkled muzzle haughtily. "I don’t need the help of the likes of you to accomplish my work."
"You prefer to go on spouting the dogma of ages past, rather than really learning something about the heavens?’’ The voice carried a strong note of disgust, and Afsan expected to hear the sound of a tail slapping against the marble floor. "You are an embarrassment to the Empress."
Whoever this stranger was, Afsan liked him. He pressed his ear harder to the door, eager to catch every word. The dry wood creaked. Shocked, Afsan’s claws jumped to attention. There was nothing to do but walk right in as though he had just arrived.
There was Saleed, standing behind his worktable, leaning on his withered arms, green skin spotted yellow and black with age.
Opposite him was the stranger, barrel-chested, wearing a red leather cap over the dome of his head. The stranger had a ragged yellow scar running from the tip of his muzzle to his left earhole. He wore a gray sash over his torso. The sash was perhaps a handspan wide at the shoulder, but narrowed to half that at his hip. Capital City was a port town, and Afsan recognized the sash as the mark of a master mariner.
Quintaglios continue to increase in body size until death, although the rate did slow as time went on. The stranger was about the same size as Saleed — double Afsan’s mass — so Afsan judged him to be approximately the same age as the old astrologer. His green hide, though, showed none of the age mottling Saleed’s did.
"Ah, Afsan," said Saleed. He glanced at the newfangled timepiece on the wall, its pendulum swinging back and forth like the codger’s dewlap. "Late again, I see."
"I’m sorry, master," said Afsan quietly.
Saleed hissed, then swished his tail in Afsan’s direction. "Keenir, this is my latest apprentice, Afsan — proudest son of far Carno." The last five words were ladled with sarcasm. ’’Afsan, pay honor to Captain Var-Keenir."
Var-Keenir! Here? If even half the stories he had heard were true — Afsan tipped from the waist in respect, lifting his tail from the ground. "I cast a shadow in your presence," he said, and for the first time Afsan felt the tired old greeting might actually carry some truth.
Keenir turned his head to look at Afsan. Since Quintaglio eyes are solid black, one can’t tell where another is looking unless the other also turns his head. Afsan always turned his head to look at adults, but few adults repaid the courtesy to those adolescents who did not sport the tattoos of the hunt or the pilgrimage (and those adults who lacked the hunter’s tattoo were accorded no respect by anyone). That Keenir had turned to look at him made Afsan like him even more.
"If you can keep your claws sheathed while working with Saleed, then it’s I who should pay honor to you," said Keenir, the voice so deep it reminded Afsan of the call of a shovel-mouth. The mariner stepped forward, leaning heavily on an ornate carved stick to support himself. It was then that Afsan noticed that most of Keenir’s tail was missing. There was only a handspan’s worth of yellow new growth on the green stub. He could look freely at the injury, for there was no way for Keenir to tell where Afsan had focused his eyes, but he took care to show no other expression on his face or with the movement of his own tail. Afsan judged that Keenir’s tail must have been chopped off only a hundred days ago or so, perhaps in whatever accident had scarred the sailor’s face. "So you would be an astrologer, eh, boy?" said Keenir.
"That is the profession selected for me," said Afsan, and again he bowed in respect. "I would be honored to succeed at it."
"I wish you luck," said Keenir pointedly, and turned for the door. "Saleed," he said over his broad shoulder, "the Dasheter sails in a dekaday. Until then, I’m staying at The Orange Wingfinger. If you change your mind about this new tool, send word."
Afsan clicked his teeth quietly. He had never known Saleed to change his mind.
"Young Afsan," Keenir said, "a pleasure to have met you. Your light will glow brightly as time goes by, of that I’m sure." There’s no way Keenir could have bowed — without a tail to balance the weight of his head, he would have fallen over — but something in his warm manner gave the impression that he had done so nonetheless.
Afsan beamed. "Thank you, sir."
The sailor hobbled out the door. The ticking sound of his walking stick on the marble floor faded into the distance.
Afsan didn’t like asking his master questions, but he had to know what brought the great Keenir to the palace.
"He is a dreamer," replied Saleed, who — much to Afsan’s surprise — failed to reprimand him for impertinence. "He has a device he claims lets him see detail on distant objects, a metal tube with lenses at either end. Apparently a glassworker on the opposite shore of Land built it for him. Keenir calls it a ’far-seer.’ " Saleed spat the compound word. His hatred for neologisms was well-known.
"And the fool thought it might have application in my work. He suggested I turn it on the moons…"
"Yes!" crowed Afsan, and then shrank, expecting a rebuke for interrupting his master. When the sharp words did not come, he continued meekly. "I mean, it would be wonderful to find out what they are."
"You know what they are," said Saleed, slapping his tail against the floor. "They are the messengers of God."
"Perhaps Keenir would let me borrow his far-seer for my pilgrimage," said Afsan. "Then I could use it to examine the Face of God." The words came tumbling out, and Afsan began to shrink the moment they were free in the air.
"Examine?" Saleed roared, his voice erupting from his giant, ancient chest, shaking the wooden furniture in the room. "Examine! An eggling does not ’examine’ the Face of God. You will bow down and worship before It. You will pray to It. You will sing to It. You will not dare to question It!" He pointed his scrawny freckled arm at the doorway. "Go now to the Hall of Worship and pray for forgiveness."
"But, master, I meant only to better see my creator…"
Afsan’s heart felt heavy. "Yes, master." Dragging his tail behind him, he left the dimly lit room.