Dybo apparently thought that what he’d allowed to be done to Afsan was a kindness, a gentler fate than having him executed. Indeed, the Emperor, in a gesture of his infinite mercy, let Afsan go, free to wander the Capital. Stripped of his rank, stripped of his home, stripped of his sight.
His eyes would never grow back. Bone and flesh, those could regenerate, but the eyes, the organs — damage to them was permanent, irreversible.
Afsan was determined not to dwell on his loss, and not to be a burden on those few who were willing to help him. He was learning to identify the sounds of the city: the clicking of toeclaws on stone paving; the thundering footfalls of domesticated hornfaces making their way down the streets; the chatter of voices, some near and distinct, some distant and muffled; the calls of traders trying to interest those wandering by in the trinkets and tools brought from other Packs; the tourists responding with interest, the locals hissing them down; the entreaties of tattooless beggars; the drums from the place of worship, sounded at the beginning of each daytenth; the identifying calls of ships down in the harbor. And behind it all the background noises, the things he had ignored most of his life: the whistle of the wind, the rustling of leaves, the pipping calls of wingfingers gliding overhead, the chirpings of insects.
And there were smells to help guide him, too: pheromones from other Quintaglios, the reek of oil from lamps, the delicious aroma of freshly killed meat as carts rattled by carrying it from the central butchery to dining halls around the city, the acrid smell from metalworking shops, pollens in the air, perfume of flowers, ozone before a storm.
He found he could even tell when the sun was out and when it was hidden behind a cloud, his skin reacting to the change in heat.
Pal-Cadool and Jal-Tetex became his constant companions. One of them was almost always with him. Afsan didn’t understand why they gave so much time to looking after him, but he was grateful. Cadool had carved a stick for Afsan from a telaja branch. Afsan carried it in his left hand, feeling the ground in front of him. He learned to judge what each little bump meant about the path ahead, with Cadool or Tetex providing a running commentary: "There’s a curb here; that’s just a loose stone; watch out — hornface dung!"
Cadool and Tetex were practically the only ones willing to speak to him. Afsan had not been tattooed with a shunning symbol — his crime was heinous, indeed, but he had not been moved to mate with a rutting animal nor had he hunted without eating what he had killed. But, then again, there were only a couple of other blind Quintaglios in Capital City, and both of them were very old. Everyone could recognize Afsan immediately, the scrawny young adult feeling his way along with a stick. And, after what had happened to Afsan, it was little wonder that no one risked talking to him.
Afsan was no longer a prisoner, but nor was he an astrologer. A priest from Det-Yenalb’s staff had taken Saleed’s place, and no apprentice was needed, apparently. Cadool had made space for Afsan in his own small apartment, two rooms on the far side of Capital City.
Today, the twenty-first day since he had been blinded, Afsan detected a difference in Cadool as the butcher walked beside him. His voice was charged, and there was excitement in his pheromones.
"What’s with you?" Afsan asked at last.
Cadool’s long stride faltered a bit; Afsan could hear the change in the way his friend’s claws ticked against the stones. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, good Cadool, that you’re all worked up about something. What is it?"
"It’s nothing, really." Without being able to see the muzzle of the person speaking, Afsan couldn’t tell if he was being told the truth. Still, since lying was futile in most circumstances, it tended not to occur to Quintaglios to try. Nonetheless, Cadool’s words seemed insincere.
"Come on, it must be something. You’re more stimulated than someone about to go on a hunt."
Clicking noises. Cadool’s laughter. "It’s nothing, really." A beat. "Do you know what time it is?"
Afsan had gotten good at counting and remembering the number of drums sounded from the Hall of Worship. "It’s four daytenths past sunrise. Or it was, a few moments ago."
"Yes. Why? Are you expecting something?"
"We have to get to the central square."
Afsan had also become good at counting intersections. "That’s eleven blocks from here, and you know how slowly I walk. Besides, I — I’m not comfortable there."
Cadool stopped for a moment. "No, I suppose you aren’t. But this will be worth it, I promise." Afsan felt a hand cup his elbow. "Come along!"
Physical contact with others was something that Afsan was getting used to. His claws extended when surprised by a touch, but he managed to get them retracted within a few beats.
Afsan’s gait was slow — he had to be able to feel the stones ahead of him with his stick — but with Cadool propelling him they made good time. Afsan ticked off the landmarks in his mind. The putrid smell meant they were approaching the town axis, down which the main drainage ditch ran. Soon they were close enough to hear the gurgling of the water. Next, the hubbub of the main market. The silence of the holy quarter. The smell of woodsmoke coming from the heating fires in the creche, a sure sign that they were indeed near the town’s center.
And, at last, the sounds of the central square itself. A constant background of wingfinger pips: Afsan could picture the creatures perched all over the statues of Larsk and his descendants, preening their white hairy coverings, stretching leathery wings, occasionally swooping into flight to pluck an insect from the air, or to fetch a gobbet of meat tossed by a Quintaglio seated on one of the public stools that ringed the square. Normal vehicles were prohibited here, so that carriage clacking over the stones must have been passing through on palace business. Indeed, it must belong to a highly placed official, for Afsan could hear the distinctive squeak of a pivoting front axle — a newfangled luxury, found only on the most elaborate carriages. The carriage was pulled by at least two shovelmouths, judging by the methane stench and the click of broad, flat toeclaws.
Suddenly Afsan lifted his head — an instinctive gesture, an attempt to look up. The thundering call of a shovelmouth had split the air, but not from nearby, not the small ones that had just passed. No, it came from out in the direction of the Ch’mar volcanoes, away from the harbor — a bellow, a reverberating wail.
Soon the ground shook slightly. Giant footfalls. A herd of something was moving down the streets of the city. No, no, not a herd — the slamming feet were all of different weights, different strides. A collection of animals? And Quintaglios, hundreds of Quintaglios, running alongside, their voices growing as whatever procession this was approached the square.
There were more calls from shovelmouths, as well as the low roars made by hornfaces and the greeble-greeble of armorbacks.
Afsan felt his claws unsheathe, his tail swish nervously. "What’s happening?"
Cadool’s hand squeezed Afsan’s elbow as he continued to steer him through the square. "Something that should have happened some time ago, my friend. You are about to be vindicated."
Afsan stopped and turned his unseeing face on Cadool. "What?"
"They’re coming, Afsan. From across Land, your people are coming."
"The Lubalites. The hunters. You are The One."
"The one what?"
"The One. The One spoken of by Lubal as she was dying, gored by a hornface. ’A hunter will come greater than myself, and this hunter will be a male — yes, a male — and he shall lead you on the greatest hunt of all.’’
"I know Lubal said that, but…"
"But nothing. You fit the description."
"You can’t be serious."
"Of course I am."
"Cadool, I’m just an astrologer."
"No. You are much more."
The procession was growing nearer. Afsan could feel the ground shake beneath him. The shovelmouth cries were deafening.
"Here they come," said Cadool.
"It’s a stirring sight, Afsan. You should be proud. At the far end of the square, through the Arch of Dasan, perhaps five hundred Lubalites are entering. Young and old, male and female. Some are walking, others are riding on the backs of runners and hornfaces and shovelmouths and armorbacks."
"And they’re heading this way, every one of them. Some of them I know: hunt leader Jal-Tetex, of course, and Dar-Regbo, and the songwriter Ho-Baban. And I believe that is Pahs-Drawo, from your home Pack of Carno…"
"Drawo is here?"
"Yes, him, and hundreds of others."
Afsan felt stones near his feet bounce as the vast procession crossed the square. Their pheromones hit him like a wall. Afsan’s claws extended in reflex. The hunt was on…
"Afsan, it’s glorious," said Cadool, his voice full of wonder. "Banners are snapping in the breeze, red for Lubal, blue for Belbar, green for Katoon, yellow for Hoog, and purple for Mekt. It’s like a rainbow. And those who own copies have the Book of Rites held high in their right hands, in plain view. No more secret worship! The time has come."
"For what?" For the first time in days, Afsan felt panic because he could not see. "Cadool, the time has come for what?"
"For the religion of the hunt to rise again!" Cadool’s words were almost drowned out by the approaching din. "Afsan, they’re here, they’re hailing you. Five hundred left hands are raised in the salute of Lubal…"
"The hand gesture! They’re greeting you! Afsan, return the sign! Return it!"
"But I don’t remember it…"
"Quickly!" said Cadool. He felt the butcher’s hand on his, manipulating his fingers. "Retract this claw, and this one. Good. Now, raise your hand. Yes! Press your thumb against your palm — !"
The crowd went wild, Afsan heard his name shouted over and over again.
"They all want to see you," said Cadool. He barked something at someone in the crowd. Afsan heard heavy claws move across the stones. Hot breath was on his face. "Here’s a shovelmouth. Climb onto its back."
Afsan knew these beasts well. They were commonly hunted by Pack Carno and occasionally domesticated. Adults were perhaps three times his own body length, brown, with pebbly hides, strange crests atop their heads (the shape varying from species to species), and mouths that ended in wide, flat prows. They could walk on two legs, but usually ambled about on all four.
"Here," said Cadool. "Let me help you." Afsan felt one hand upon him, then another, and, a moment later, a third and a fourth. His heart pounded at the strange touches.
"Don’t worry," said a female voice he knew well. "It’s me, Tetex."
They boosted him onto the creature’s back, and Afsan wrapped his arms around its short neck. The thing’s body expanded and contracted beneath him, and he could hear a faint whistling as the air moved through the long chambers of its head crest.
Unable to see, Afsan felt dizzy.
Suddenly the beast’s flank shook, and Afsan realized that Cadool or Tetex had slapped its side, prodding it. The shovelmouth rose up on its hind legs, lifting Afsan into the air. It had a small saddle strapped to its back, and Afsan anchored his feet into that, so that he stood straight, in line with the animal’s neck. Once the lifting had stopped, and his vertigo had begun to pass, he dared unwrap his left arm from the neck and repeated the Lubalite hand sign. The crowd cheered him on.
"The One has arrived!"
"Long live Afsan!"
"Long live the hunters!"
Afsan wished he could see them. It was all a mistake, of course, but it felt good — like basking in the sun after a satisfying meal — to be wanted by someone, anyone, after all he’d been through. He managed to find his voice and said, so softly that only the first row of onlookers could hear, "Thank you."
"Talk to us!" shouted a female’s voice.
"Tell us how you unmasked the false prophet!" demanded a male.
Unmasked the false prophet? thought Afsan. "I merely saw things Larsk did not," he said.
"Louder!" said Cadool. "They all want to hear."
Afsan spoke up. "My training allowed me to see things that eluded Larsk."
"They called you a demon!" came a voice from far away.
"But it was Larsk who was the demon," shouted another. "It was he who lied in the daylight!"
Afsan felt his stomach churning. Such words… "No," he said, now raising his hand in a call for silence. The crowd fell mute, and suddenly Afsan realized that it was he who was really in control here. "No, Larsk was simply confused." Like all of you…
"The One is gracious," shouted a voice.
"The One is wise," cried another.
It came to Afsan that he would never again have the ear of so many. This, perhaps, was his one great chance to spread the word, to show the people the truth. For the first and maybe only time in his life, he was in command. It was a moment to be seized.
"You’ve heard my explanation of how the world works," he said, his throat aching from unaccustomed shouting. "We are a moon that revolves around a planet which we call the Face of God, and that planet, like all the others, travels in a circular path around our sun."
"Behold!" screamed a voice. "The lies of Larsk revealed!" The speaker sounded close to madness. The crowd was nearing a fever pitch.
"But hear, now, the most important message of all!" Afsan dared raise both hands, briefly letting go of the shovelmouth’s neck. "Our world is doomed!"
"Just as it was foretold!" shouted a drawn-out voice that sounded like Cadool’s.
Afsan heard a buzz move through the crowd. "We have some time yet," he shouted. "Although the world’s fate is sealed, we have many kilodays before its end will come."
"Kilodays to pray!" said another voice.
"No!" Afsan again balanced on the shovelmouth’s back, holding both hands aloft. "No! Kilodays to prepare! We must get off this world."
The sounds from the crowd were of puzzlement now.
"Get off the world?"
"What does he mean?"
Afsan wished he could see them, wished he could read their faces. Was he getting through to any of them?
"I mean," he said, "that although the world is ending, our race does not have to. We can leave this place, fly to somewhere else."
"Fly?" The word echoed throughout the square in intonations ranging from puzzled to sarcastic.
"Yes, fly! In vessels — ships — like those in which we now ply the waters of this world."
"We don’t know how to do that," called a voice.
"And I don’t know, either," said Afsan. "But we must find a method — we must! It will mean changing the way in which we conduct our lives. We must give ourselves over to science, we must learn all that we can. Wingfingers fly; insects fly. If they can do it, we can do it. It’s only a question of discovering their methods and adapting them to our needs. Science holds our answer; knowledge — real knowledge, verifiable knowledge, not superstition, not religious nonsense — will be our salvation."
The crowd, at last, was silent, save for the grunts of the beasts.
"We must learn to work together, to cooperate." He smelled their pheromones, knew they were confused. "Nature — or God — has given us a great challenge. We have trouble working side by side; our territorial instincts drive us apart. But we must overcome these instincts, be creatures of reason and sanity instead of prisoners of our biology."
Afsan turned his head in small increments from left to right, as if looking at each individual face. He could hear the hiss of conversation growing, a comment here, a question there, a remark from the back, an interjection up front.
"But, Afsan," came a voice, louder than the others, "we need our territories…"
Afsan held the shovelmouth’s neck firmly so as not to lose his balance as he tipped forward in a concessional bow. "Of course we do," he said. "But once we leave this world, there will be room for us all. Our Land is but a tiny part of the vast universe. We’re going to the stars!"
Suddenly another voice cut across all the others, a voice amplified and reverberating through a speaking horn.
"This is Det-Yenalb, Master of the Faith. Disperse at once. I have assembled those loyal to the Emperor and they are prepared to move upon the square unless you leave now. I say again: This is Det-Yenalb…"
The fool! Afsan felt pheromones from the crowd wash over him like a wave. His own claws extended. The shovelmouth gave a little yelp as their points dug into its neck. He could hear bodies jostling as Quintaglios, already packed too tightly, turned to face the priest. The situation was explosive.
"What are you afraid of, Yenalb?" shouted Afsan.
"What are you afraid of?" echoed the crowd of hunters.
Yenalb’s voice reverberated back. "I fear for your souls."
"And I fear for the survival of our people," Afsan shouted. "Call off your supporters, Yenalb. Do you really want to send priests, academics, and ceremonial guards against the finest hunters in all of Land? Retreat, before it’s too late!"
"I say again," said Yenalb. "Disperse. No punishment will be levied if you leave now."
Cadool’s voice rose up, almost deafening Afsan. "Upon whose authority do you act, priest?"
Echoing, reverberating: "The authority of His Luminance Dy-Dybo, Emperor of the eight provinces and the Fifty Packs."
"And how," demanded Cadool, "did fat Dybo come upon his authority?"
"He is…" Yenalb halted, the final syllable repeating as it faded away. But the crowd knew what he had intended to say. He is the descendant of Larsk.
"Larsk is a false prophet," yelled a female voice, "and Dybo’s authority is unearned."
Shouts of agreement went up throughout the square.
"You will disperse!" said Yenalb.
"No," said Afsan, his voice cutting through the uproar. "We will not. Order your people to withdraw."
They waited for Yenalb’s response, but there was none.
"Once first blood is spilled, Yenalb, there will be no stopping an escalation." Afsan’s voice was going, his throat raw. "You know that. Order the retreat."
Yenalb’s voice echoed back, but it had a different tone. He must have turned around to address those who were loyal to the palace. "Advance!" shouted the priest. "Clear the square!"
For once, Afsan was glad he could not see.