Afsan had expected his reunion with Dybo to be a private affair. After all, he’d once met on his own with Dybo’s mother, the late Empress Lends. Surely Dybo himself — Dy-Dybo, as he was apparently called now — would make time for his returning friend.
But when Afsan arrived at the main palace, the guards did not nod concession to him, as they had the first time he’d had an audience here. Instead, they turned and walked just behind Afsan, closer than protocol would normally allow. They were much larger than he, and Afsan had to step quickly to keep up with the speed they were imposing.
He was allowed no time to enjoy the Hall of Stone Eggs with its myriad polished hemispheres of rock cut to reveal the crystal hollows within. The guards marched behind him wordlessly. The complex and uneven walls of the Hall deadened the echoes of their mighty footfalls.
They came out into the vast circular chamber with its red telaja-wood doors. Afsan was hustled along so quickly he barely had time to notice that the cartouche representing the Emperor was different: gone were the profiled heads of Tak-Saleed and Det-Yenalb. Instead, most of the cartouche was a carving of an outstretched hand spread over a flat map of Land in the great River. Odd choice, thought Afsan, since Dybo knew full well that such depictions were now obsolete.
One of the guards pushed ahead of Afsan and clicked heavy claws against the copper signaling plate by the door.
Afsan warmed at the sound of his friend’s voice. "Hahat dan."
The guard swung the door open, and Afsan and his burly escorts stepped into the ruling room.
Lying on the ornate throne slab, high on the polished basalt pedestal, was Dybo. His head sported several new tattoos, including an intricate web-like one fanning outward from his right eye and extending back to his earhole. On his left wrist he wore the three silver loops that signified his position. He’d lost weight, although it would take a charitable soul to think of him still as anything less than fat. And he’d grown — even recumbent, it was obvious that he was slightly older.
Afsan realized that Dybo was likely appraising him the same way. The Emperor’s eyes were probably tracking up and down Afsan’s body, but with those obsidian orbs, there was no way to be sure.
Dybo was not alone. Benches, perhaps ten paces long, with intricate gold inlays at the ends, extended from either side of the throne slab. On the left-hand one sat Det-Yenalb, Master of the Faith. On the right, a mid-sized fellow with a slightly concave chest. Afsan didn’t know his name, but recognized him as a palace advisor — quite senior, obviously, if he was allowed to sit upon a katadu bench.
To the left and right of the benches stood more people, some wearing priestly robes, others sporting the orange and blue sashes of the Emperor’s staff. Lends’s worktable on wheels was nowhere to be seen.
Afsan bowed low. He half expected to be greeted by one of Dybo’s usual barbs — a quip about Afsan’s scrawniness, perhaps. But it was Det-Yenalb, not Dybo, who spoke.
"You are Afsan?" the priest said, his voice liquid and unpleasant.
Afsan blinked. "Yes."
"You took a pilgrimage aboard the Dasheter?"
"You know I did, Your Grace. You helped arrange it."
"Answer yes or no. You took a pilgrimage aboard the Dasheter, a sailing vessel captained by one Var-Keenir?"
"Yes." At the far right, one of those in the sash of a staff member was writing into a small leather booklet. A transcript of the proceedings?
"You claim to have made a discovery while on this voyage?"
"Yes. Several discoveries."
"And what were those discoveries?"
"That the world is round." There was a sharp hiss from several members of the assembly. "That the object we call the Face of God is really just a planet." Tails swished back and forth like snakes. Individuals exchanged worried glances.
"You really believe this?" said Yenalb.
"The world is round," said Afsan. "We did indeed sail continuously to the east, leaving from Capital City here on the east coast of Land and arriving back, simply by continuing in a straight line, at the Bay of Three Forests on the west coast."
"You are mistaken," Yenalb said flatly.
Afsan felt a tingling at the tips of his fingers. "I am not mistaken. Dybo was there. He knows."
Yenalb slapped his tail against the floor. The sharp cracking echoed throughout the chamber. "You will refer to the Emperor as His Luminance."
"Fine. His Luminance knows." Afsan moved his head so that there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind: he was looking directly at Dybo. "Don’t you?"
Dybo said nothing. Yenalb pointed at Afsan. "I say again, you are mistaken."
"No, Your Grace. I am not."
"Eggling, you risk…"
"A moment, please," said a wheezy voice. It was the senior advisor, seated on Dybo’s right. He rose with a hiss. Every movement seemed to be an effort for him. His caved-in chest heaved constantly. He was not all that old, but his breathing was ragged — some respiratory ailment, Afsan guessed. The advisor nodded at the clerk who had been taking notes, and that one put down his book and held his inked claw at his side. The advisor’s gait was slow, accompanied at every step by a hissing breath. At last he was close to Afsan. He looked Afsan in the face for several heartbeats, then spoke quietly in a protracted wheeze that only Afsan could hear. "Tell them you are mistaken, boy. It’s your only hope."
"But I’m not…"
Afsan tried again in a faint volume. "But I’m not mistaken!"
The advisor stared at him again, his breath noisy, ragged. At last he said quietly, "If you value your hide, you will be." He turned and headed back to his katadu bench, his steps slow and pained. One of those wearing an orange and blue sash helped him sit down.
Yenalb, looking irritated at this interruption, turned to face Afsan again. "As I said, you are mistaken."
Afsan was quiet for a moment, but then said softly, "I am not." He saw the wheezing advisor close his eyes.
"You are. We have heard how the Dasheter engaged a serpent, how the ship was tossed and turned. You, and the others, were simply confused by what had occurred. You are not a mariner, after all. You’re not used to the tricks the open water can play on one’s mind."
"I am not mistaken," Afsan said again, more firmly.
"You must be!"
"I am not."
One of the other priests spoke. "His muzzle shows no blue."
Afsan clicked his teeth in satisfaction. It was as plain as the muzzle on his face: he was telling the truth. If he were lying, the inflammation of the muzzle’s skin would give him away. Everyone in the room had to see that, had to know that despite Yenalb’s ranting Afsan was telling the truth!
"He is aug-ta-rot, then," said Yenalb. "A demon. Only a demon could lie in the light of day."
Afsan spluttered. "A demon — ?"
"Just as shown in the Tapestries of the Prophet," declared Yenalb. "Just as described in the scriptures. A demon!"
Fingers sprouted claws on half the assembled group. "A demon…"
"For God’s sake," said Afsan, "I am not a demon."
"And what," said Yenalb, his voice dangerously edged, "do you know of God?"
"You said God was a fraud, a natural phenomenon, simply a planet."
"And now you invoke the Almighty to disprove your demonhood?"
Afsan looked left and right. Some of the assembled group had started bobbing up and down. The word "demon" passed from individual to individual.
"I am an astrologer!" cried Afsan. "A scholar!"
"Demon," said the crowd, harsh and low. "Demon."
"I’m telling the truth!"
"Demon." A chant. "Demon."
"A demon among us!" said Yenalb, spinning, his robes flowing about him. "A demon in our midst!"
"Demon," repeated the crowd. "Demon."
"A demon who denounces our religion!" Yenalb’s tail slapped the floor.
Afsan’s claws were out, his nostrils flared. Wild pheromones were free in the room.
"A demon who profanes our God!" Yenalb’s wide mouth hung open, a rictus of ragged teeth.
"Demon. Demon. Demon."
"A demon who has no right to live!"
Afsan felt the crowd surge forward, felt his own instincts coming to the fore, felt the room spinning about him…
Dybo’s voice shook the foundations of the room. Through clouded vision, Afsan saw that the Emperor was now on his feet.
Yenalb, crouched for a leap, turned his head to look at Dybo. "But Your Luminance — he is poison."
"No. Everyone is to hold their positions. The first to move will answer to me."
Afsan felt his body relaxing. "Dybo…"
But the Emperor did not deign to look at him. He turned his back, tail falling off the edge of the pedestal. "Shut him away."