Afsan thought he knew the basement of the palace office building well. After all, Saleed had worked there, as had many other court officials. But this was a part of it he had never seen. Two guards led him down a steep ramp into a dimly lit warren of rooms. Some of them had no doors at all, and seemed to be used for equipment storage. Others did have doors, of rough-hewn and pale galamaja wood, bearing the cartouches of service departments including janitorial and food preparation.
At the end of one corridor was a door whose cartouche depicted a triangle, three different-sized squares and two circles, all surrounded by a large square border. Afsan tried to fathom religious or royal symbolism in this, but finally realized it simply meant "miscellaneous storage." The door swung open, its hinges creaking as it did so, and Afsan was ushered in. It was a dank room measuring about ten paces by six. In it were some wooden crates, a broken wooden gear almost as tall as Afsan — it looked to be a damaged part from a water wheel — a single lamp hanging from the wall, and a shed snake’s skin lying in one corner.
The guards turned to go.
"Wait," said Afsan. "What I’ve been saying is the truth."
"Please. You’ve got to listen to me."
One guard had exited. The other turned as if to speak to Afsan, thought better of it, and walked out as well, closing the splintery door behind him.
Afsan knew the door would be unlocked — the only reason to put a lock on a door would be to keep dangerous things away from children, and he couldn’t imagine youngsters being allowed to play in this grungy part of the palace basement. But no doubt the taciturn and burly guards stood just outside, in case Afsan tried to leave.
What will become of me? Afsan thought. They can’t leave me here forever. He wandered about the room, his tail swishing in the dust on the floor. He had assumed Dybo would be his ally, thought that once the Emperor had heard what Afsan had to say, all resources would be committed to the problem.
Time is running out, Afsan thought, and then, with a shudder, he realized that it wasn’t just running out for the world. It was also running out for him personally.
Do they really think I’m a demon? Yes, the scrolls told of such beasts from ancient times, and again of the aug-ta-rot nay-sayers, who had ultimately been slain because they refused to listen to Larsk. But surely those tales were mere fantasy. How can they be so blind, so terribly blind?
Afsan wasn’t the only one who knew the truth. Keenir knew it. Dybo knew it. The passengers and crew of the Dasheter — at least those with enough mathematics and brains to understand what they had seen — knew it, too. And Novato, sweet Novato, she also knew it.
Would they all remain silent? What punishments could be inflicted upon them if they did not?
It was an odd word, an ancient word. Afsan had read about crimes in books from the past. During the great famine 380 kilodays ago, when half the plants died of plague, and, afterward, half the animals, there had been crimes, Quintaglios stealing food from other Quintaglios. He remembered the old punishment. Hands were cut off. In the 400 days it took to generate a new hand, the malefactor would usually learn his or her lesson.
Would they cut off my hands? It would be painful and awkward, but they would grow back. Who among those who knew would talk, would spread the word? Afsan felt sick at the thought of Novato, who created such magnificent instruments, losing her hands for even a short time. And Keenir had just finished regenerating a tail. At his age, that was a strain. One could suffer only so many such losses before the parts regenerated in malformed ways.
Maybe they were being wise in remaining silent.
But I cannot.
Afsan thought back to his moments of doubt aboard the Dasheter, high atop the foremast in the lookout’s bucket, the pilgrims holding services below, the Face of God roiling above, wind whipping at him.
He’d thought to jump then, to plummet into the deck, rather than disturb the order of the world. But that was before he’d met Novato, seen her sketches, understood the magnitude of it all.
The world is coming to an end.
There was no alternative. Silence now would mean the end of the Quintaglio people.
I must find the strength to go on.
The storeroom had a musty smell. Afsan didn’t like it, and be tried not to breathe deeply. He circumnavigated the room, touching objects, getting used to his new home. The cool stone walls, the rough wood of the crates: it was a harsh room, an uncaring room. His quarters near the palace had hardly been plush, but this was almost unlivable.
He leaned on his tail and let out a heavy sigh.
Rites of passage.
He’d been through them all now: leaving his home Pack and journeying to Capital City, beginning his profession of astrology, climbing the Hunter’s Shrine, taking part in his first hunt, undergoing his first pilgrimage.
His hand went up to the side of his head, feeling the small bumps made by his tattoos: the mark of a hunter, and, added by Det-Bleen aboard the Dasheter, the symbol of a pilgrim.
But maybe it wasn’t just individuals who went through rites of passage on their way to adulthood. Maybe his whole species had to do that. He thought of the dark times, the cannibalistic reign of the earliest Lubalites, the frightening stories told in whispers. He thought, too, of current civilization, with its religion and superstition. And what is to come? What awaited the Quintaglio race, after its childhood’s end?
In the lamplight, Afsan watched drifting motes of dust for a length of time that he did not measure.
"Permission to enter your territory?"
He looked up, startled by the voice coming muffled through the rough wooden door, a door no one had ever thought of equipping with a copper signaling plate. Still, the request was polite. He’d not expected any courtesy now that he was branded a demon. Eyes wide, Afsan replied, "Hahat dan."
The door squeaked open. The two guards were still there, one on either side, but standing between them, wearing a red smock, was lanky Pal-Cadool, his friend the palace butcher. With his long arms, he was carrying a silver tray laden with hunks of meat. Steam rose from the pieces. A fresh kill.
"Hello, Afsan," said Cadool, bowing as much as the tray would allow.
"Cadool! It’s great to see you."
Cadool moved into the room and set the tray on one of the packing crates. He returned to the doorway, but, much to Afsan’s surprise, instead of exiting, he closed the door, shutting out the guards.
"I believe there is enough meat here for two," said Cadool. Afsan eyed the plate. Yes, enough for two, he thought, as long as you ’re not as hungry as I am. "May I join you?" Cadool continued in his protracted speech.
"You’d eat with a demon?"
Cadool clicked his teeth. "I don’t think you’re a demon." He reached down to the plate and grabbed a gobbet of meat. "Do you know the 111th Scroll? ’For there is grace in all Quintaglios, but none more so than the skilled hunter.’ I’m one of those who went to feast on that thunderbeast you brought down, Afsan. A kill worthy of Lubal herself."
Afsan picked up a piece of meat, tossed it to the back of his throat, and swallowed. "Beginner’s luck."
"You are modest. That, too, is commendable. I’ve heard also of the way you killed Kal-ta-goot."
"Then stories of the Dasheter’s, voyage are circulating! You must have heard that we sailed around the world."
"That has been said, yes."
"And do you believe it?"
Cadool helped himself to another hunk, this one with an unpleasant vein of fat running through it. He worried it out with a fingerclaw before popping the meat into his mouth. "I don’t know." Then he did something that didn’t quite make sense to Afsan. He raised his left hand, unsheathed the claws on the second and third fingers, and spread his fourth and fifth lingers. Next he pressed his thumb into his palm.
"I’m sorry," said Afsan. "I keep seeing that sign, but I don’t have a clue what it means."
Cadool nodded. "Where have you seen it?"
"The demons shown in the Tapestries of the Prophet. They’re making that sign, aren’t they?"
"You should know by now that those labeled ’demon’ are not always deserving of that title."
Afsan’s voice was small. "Indeed."
"My cabin aboard the Dasheter had carvings on the outside of its door, carvings of the Five Original Hunters. Two of them were making that sign. And Captain Var-Keenir did it at one point."
"Pahs-Drawo made it after I killed a fangjaw. He’s a hunter from my home Pack, Carno."
"Yes, I know Drawo."
Afsan’s nictitating membranes fluttered. "You do?"
"He’s here in Capital City, isn’t he? Part of the delegation from Carno to honor the new Emperor?"
"Yes, that’s right."
"I met him yesterday at a service."
"Yesterday was an odd-day. There are no services on odd-days."
"Umm, no. No, there aren’t. This was a special service, held at the Hunter’s Shrine."
"What kind of service would be held there?"
Cadool ignored the question, but made the complex hand sign again. "Watch for this sign, Afsan. There are more of us than you know."
"More of who?"
Afsan opened his mouth in question, but Cadool said nothing. Finally Afsan himself said, wistfully, "I thought that at least Dybo would be on my side."
Cadool clicked his teeth so rapidly in laughter that he almost chewed his food. The sight turned Afsan’s stomach.
"I’m sorry," said Cadool, holding up a hand. "You’re young, I know. But surely, Afsan, you can’t be that naive."
Afsan felt a tingling in his fingertips. He didn’t like being laughed at. "What do you mean?"
"Dybo is the son of the daughter of the daughter of the son of the daughter of the son of Larsk, the prophet."
Afsan hadn’t known the exact lineage of his friend, but the number of generations sounded about right. "Yes. So?"
"And Larsk is the prophet because he discovered the Face of God."
"And Dybo rules now, and his mother, Lends, ruled before him, because their ancestor was divinely inspired to take the First Pilgrimage, to seek out the Face of God."
"So the story goes."
"And now you show up saying, wait, no, it’s not the Face of God at all. It’s just a natural object."
"I know all this."
"You know it, but you’re not seeing what it means. Dybo and The Family rule through divine right, by the grace of God. You ask him to support you in saying there is no God — or at least, that the thing his ancestor discovered is not God. If it’s not God, then Larsk was a false prophet. If he was a false prophet, then The Family has no divine right. If The Family has no divine right, then Dybo cannot rule the eight provinces and the Fifty Packs. For him to support you — or to allow others to support you — would mean abdicating his position."
Afsan leaned back on his tail, furious with himself. He’d vowed to better understand the way the real world worked, but, once again, he had failed. "I — I hadn’t thought of it that way."
"You’d better. It’s the only thing that will get you out of this mess."
"But the truth…"
"The truth is not the issue," said the butcher. "At least, not for Dybo. Not anymore."
Cadool popped one more hunk into his mouth, then pulled his weight oft his tail and began to make for the door.
"Wait," said Afsan.
"I’ve got to get back to my duties."
"What do you mean?"
"There’s more than just the fate of the monarchy at stake. There’s more to it than just the Face of God being a planet."
"The world is doomed, Cadool."
Cadool’s inner eyelids batted across his dark orbs. "What?"
"The fact that we are on a moon, the fact that this moon is very close to its planet: it causes stresses. Stresses that quake the land. Stresses that have driven up the volcanoes. Stresses that will tear the world apart."
"Are you sure?"
"I have no doubt. I have seen what happens to moons that move too close to the world they revolve around. They break up into particulate rings of rubble."
"You have seen this? In a vision?"
"No, with a device, an instrument. It’s called a far-seer. It magnifies things."
"I’ve never heard of such a thing."
"They exist. An artisan from Pack Gelbo in Jam’toolar makes them. Anyone can see what I’ve described by looking through one."
"Does Dybo know about these devices?"
"Oh, yes. He’s used one himself, under my guidance."
"I doubt their manufacture will be allowed to continue." Cadool’s tail swished. "You’re sure of this? That the world will come to an end?"
"Who can say? I’ve been trying to get a sense of how much worse the volcanism and landquakes are today compared to various points in the past. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is perhaps three hundred kilodays."
Cadool’s teeth clattered rapidly and he looked away. "Three hundred kilodays? Eggling, that’s generations from now! Why worry about it?"
"Because — because we must do something about it!"
"Do what? Afsan, the future will take care of itself. Don’t ruin your life for it."
"Ruin my life? Cadool, I pledge my life to this cause."
"That may literally become true."
Afsan reared to his full height. "That’s a chance I’m willing to take."
"You’re willing to go against The Family? That’s treason."
"I’m against no one. I am for the truth."
Cadool shook his head, but then raised his left hand and gave the same hand gesture. "Remember this sign, Afsan. Trust only those who know it."
"I must go." Cadool bowed quickly and departed.
Afsan had lost his appetite, but something told him it would be wise to keep up his strength. Over the rest of the afternoon, he ate the five remaining pieces of flesh, his mind wandering far between each one.
That night, Afsan again found himself suddenly awake, a thought having pushed itself to the surface.
Although Dybo had acquitted himself well enough during the thunderbeast hunt, the Emperor was neither tough nor strong nor fast. He was simply fat, and, although gifted musically, not particularly shrewd.
Was Dybo really the best of his mother’s eight offspring? Really the one who ran fastest from the imperial bloodpriest? That bloodpriest would have chosen the eggling to become the next Emperor. If Afsan was right about the lineage of those who controlled the outlying provinces, the imperial blood-priest ate none of Len-Lends’s hatchlings. Rather, he or she sent the seven rejects off to be future provincial governors.
Perhaps a switch had been performed…
Perhaps, just perhaps, Dybo was the slowest of the offspring, the one most likely to be manipulated by the imperial advisors. Lends had been formidable indeed — perhaps too formidable for the priests and palace staff.
It would have been so easy a switch to make. The one that should have been in Dybo’s place would still be alive, but had probably been sent to a distant province, perhaps isolated Edz’toolar.
Afsan could never prove it, could never even suggest it in public. But it was a disturbing thought.
Once again, he spent the rest of the night awake.