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*36*

Pal-Cadool took stock of the situation. Afsan was sprawled on the Dasheters heaving deck, exhausted. Two members of the ships crew were bent over The One, wrapping his twitching tail in soft hide, cleaning his face and arms with precious pieces of cloth. Emperor Dybo had disappeared below deck. Captain Var-Keenir stood nearby. When Cadool had last seen Keenir, the sailors tail had been pale from recent regeneration. It was now the same dark green as the rest of the captains skin, his injury completely healed.

Keenir, wearing a red leather cap, nodded at Cadool. "You saved The One."

Cadool shook his head. "No, Captain. He saved me."

Keenir looked down at the prone form. "Theres somebody here wholl want to see him." He headed off down a ramp that led below deck, the timbers beneath him creaking under his bulk. Cadool gripped the railings and watched the continuing spectacle of the eruption, black clouds puffing into the sky. Like Afsan, hed been summoned to Capital City as a young adult. But that had been so long ago, the Capital was the only place Cadool called home. His tail swished back and forth as he watched the city die.

He was startled by the sound of small peeps behind him. Turning, Cadool saw Captain Keenir, followed by a female who was slightly older than Afsan, and coming up the ramp behind her, one, two, three eight egglings, half walking, half stumbling. Measuring from the tip of their snouts to the ends of their tails, none was longer than Cadools forearm. They made small sounds of wonder, completely oblivious to the spectacle unfolding on Land in fact, Cadool realized, they couldnt see it over the raised sides of the ship.

Afsan was still prone on the deck. A sailor had brought him a bowl of water. Cadool, exhausted, nodded gratitude to the fellows attending Afsan but Keenir motioned for them to move aside. The females face showed alarm at the sight of the fallen Afsan, and she rushed to him. The babies stumbled along behind her. Cadool moved as close as propriety would allow and cocked his head to listen.

"Afsan?" said the females voice, full of concern.

The One lifted his head from the deck. His voice was raw, ragged. "Whos that?"

"Its me, Afsan. Its Novato."

Afsan tried to lift his head further, but apparently was too tired. It slipped back onto the planks. One of the babies waddled over to him and began crawling up onto his back. "Whats that?" said Afsan, startled.

"Its a baby."

"It is?" His whole body seemed to relax. "I cant see, Novato."

She crouched low to look at him. Her eyes narrowed as she examined his face. "By God, you cant. Afsan, I didnt know. Im sorry."

Afsan looked as though he wanted to say something anything but the words would not come. There was a protracted moment between them broken, at last, by a second baby, perhaps emboldened by the first, climbing up onto Afsans thigh.

"Is that another one?" asked Afsan, his voice full of wonder.

Novato was a moment in replying, as if she had been reflecting on Afsans loss. Finally: "It is. Her name is Galpook."

Afsan reached an arm over to stroke the tiny form. Galpook made a contented sound as Afsans hand ran down her back. "Is she yours?"

"Yes. And yours."

"What?"

"Shes your" her voice faltered for an instant, and then the word came out, an unfamiliar word, a word rarely spoken "daughter."

"I have a daughter?"

"At least."

"Pardon?"

"Afsan, you have three daughters. And five sons."

"Eight children?"

"Yes, my Afsan. Eight. And theyre all here "

"From that night?"

"Of course."

Afsans hand stopped in mid-stroke. "But but the bloodpriests? Do you know about them?"

"Yes," said Novato. "Id understood some vague details before, and Keenir explained the rest to me."

"But, then, with the bloodpriests, how can there still be eight children?"

"Well, the eggs hatched aboard the Dasheter, and there are no bloodpriests here. But even if there were, your children would be safe. You are The One, Afsan. Bloodpriests come from the hunters religion, and no hunter would eat your children."

"You mean all eight get to live?"

Novatos voice was joyous. "Yes."

Another baby had crawled onto Afsans back, and the one who had first journeyed there had made it all the way to the dome of Afsans head, her thin tail lying beside Afsans right earhole.

"I wish I could see them."

"I wish you could, too," said Novato softly. "Theyre beautiful. Haldan thats the one on your head has a glorious golden coloring, although Im sure that will darken to green as she grows older. And Kelboon, who is a bit shy and is clinging now to my leg, has your eyes."

"Ah," said Afsan, in a light tone. "I knew theyd gone somewhere."

"The others are Toroca, Helbark, Drawtood, Yabool, and Dynax."

Cadool knew Afsan would recognize the names: astrologers of the past who had made great discoveries. "Those are good names," Afsan said.

"Im pleased with them," said Novato. "I never dreamed that Id get to name my own children." She moved Haldan aside and spoke softly to Afsan. "Ive missed you," she said.

"And I you," said Afsan, who appeared to be reveling in the sensation of the three babies crawling over his body. "But I dont understand why youre here."

"Keenir knew you were The One. So did someone named Tetex here in Capital City."

"Shes the imperial hunt leader," said Afsan. "But I am not The One."

Novato reached out, stroked his forehead. "The One is supposed to lead us on the greatest hunt of all, and Keenir tells me you want to take us to the stars. That sounds like a great hunt to me."

Afsan had no reply to that.

"In any event," said Novato, "Keenir, Tetex, and other influential Lubalites are convinced that you are The One. When you got in trouble with Yenalb, the Dasheter set sail for the west coast to fetch hunters from there to support you. When Keenir returned to Jamtoolar, he anchored again at the Bay of Three Forests, where hed let you off after your pilgrimage. My Pack was still near there. He heard from Lub-Kaden that Id laid eggs fertilized by you. Keenir convinced the halpataars of Gelbo that you really are The One." She glanced up at the gruff old sailor, standing a few paces away. "His word can lift dragging tails everywhere, it seems. He got them to release all my eggs from the creche."

Afsan said, "You arrived just in time."

Keenir spoke at last, his voice gravelly and low. "We meant to be here earlier, but bad weather delayed us as we rounded the Cape of Belbar."

"Captain? Youre here, too? Its good to hear your voice again."

"Its good to hear your voice again, too, egg Afsan."

Afsan clicked his teeth. "You may call me eggling, if you like, sir." He brought his hand up to find Novatos, still stroking his forehead. "Im so glad you came," he said to her, "but"

"But now you must sleep," she said. "You look exhausted."

Keenir stepped forward. "Let me take you below deck, Afsan. You can have my quarters."

"Thank you," Afsan said. "But Id prefer my old cabin the one with the carving of the Original Five on the door if thats still available. At least I know its layout."

"As you wish," said Keenir. "Do you need a hand getting up?"

"Yes. Novato, can you gather the children?"

"Of course." She lifted Galpook off Afsans head, the baby letting out a peep when picked up. With careful taps she scooted the others off Afsan. Keenir reached his hand out to Afsan but realized after a moment that Afsan couldnt see it.

"Im going to touch you," Keenir said, "to help you up." He gripped Afsans forearm.

"Im sorry, Novato," Afsan said as he rose, his voice a wheeze, "but I really must get some sleep."

"Not to worry." She touched his arm lightly. "We have all the time in the world."


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