Afsan stretched out on the floor, trying to relax. Keenir and Cadool insisted on having him examined top to bottom by Mar-Biltog, who, although no healer, was at least trained in emergency procedures. It was clear, Biltog said, that the lower portion of Afsan’s tail would have to be removed so that the crushed bones could grow back whole. They’d wait until his strength was up, and until they got to a proper hospital, before they did that. He was given water and bowls of blood, and he heard someone drawing the leather curtain across the cabin’s porthole, but that, of course, was an unnecessary gesture.
At last, they left him alone.
Later, he did not know when, he was awakened by a sound at the door to his cabin.
Muifled by the wood, a familiar voice said, "Permission to enter your territory?"
"Dybo?" said Afsan, groggy and still weak. "Hahat dan."
The door swung open on squeaky hinges and Afsan could hear the footfalls of the Emperor crossing to the part of the floor on which Afsan lay.
Afsan tried to lift his head, but his strength had not returned. His chest still hurt.
"How are you, Afsan?" said Dybo.
"Tired. In pain. How would you expect me to be?" Afsan was surprised at the anger in his own tone.
"No different than that, I suppose," said Dybo. "I’m sorry."
Afsan heard the boards creak as Dybo’s weight shifted. He assumed the Emperor had crouched down to better see him. "Yes."
"What about Capital City?"
"Heavy damage, of course. But some buildings are still standing."
Dybo was quiet for a moment. "It was leveled."
"Then what becomes of your government?"
Afsan thought he heard Dybo’s teeth click together. "Governments endure. My power was not vested in a building."
"No. It was vested in a lie."
Dybo’s tone was surprisingly gentle. "Was it? My ancestor, Larsk, was the first to sail halfway around the world. He was indeed the first to stare upon the Face of God. If it hadn’t been for him, you wouldn’t have made your voyage, wouldn’t have discovered the things you discovered. You say the world is doomed…"
"Well, if that is so, it is knowledge we owe at least in part to Larsk." Dybo’s teeth clicked again. "Governments endure," he repeated simply.
"No," said Afsan. "No, they don’t. Or at least yours won’t."
"It can’t. Nothing will endure. The world is doomed."
"You persist in that?"
"You saw what happened today."
"The land shook. Volcanoes erupted. That has happened before."
"It’s going to happen again and again and again and it will get progressively worse until this world cracks like an egg."
"Do you really believe that?"
"Yes, Dybo. I really do." Afsan paused. "Saleed knew the truth. Before he died, he knew."
"Well, what would you have me do?"
"Do whatever must be done. You’ve got the power."
"Perhaps. The Lubalites came close to taking Capital City today."
"You would have taken it back eventually. You were unprepared, but the other provinces would send aid to restore you."
"Yes," Dybo said slowly. "I imagine they would."
"After all, aren’t the provincial governors your mother’s brothers and sisters?"
"Aren’t they?" said Afsan.
"No, they’re not."
"Perhaps. Being blind is a two-way street. I can’t see whether you’re lying. But, then again, I don’t have to take everything I hear at face value, so to speak."
"You’ve become a lot more sophisticated, Afsan."
"I have. It’s part of growing up."
Dybo’s voice was soft. "Yes, it is."
"In any event," said Afsan, "all that matters is that the governors of the other provinces are loyal to you. Only five hundred Lubalites could be mustered from all of Land. That few couldn’t have held power long."
"In that, you’re right," said Dybo.
"I’m right in all of it," said Afsan.
"You know I am."
Dybo’s voice came back differently; he must have turned away from Afsan. "I know you believe you are right. But I have to be sure. What you’re asking for requires enormous resources, enormous changes in every facet of our lives. I have to know that it’s really, absolutely true."
Afsan rolled onto his side, trying to find a posture in which his chest didn’t hurt so much. "You’ll find my notes in my quarters back in the Capital. Even if the building was destroyed, sift through the rubble for them. Have Novato, or any learned person, take you through the equations, show you the inevitability of it all. It’s more than just what I believe, Dybo. It’s true. It’s demonstrably true."
"It’s all so hard to grasp," said the Emperor.
Afsan wondered again if he was right, if Dybo really was the slowest and dullest of the eight children of Lends. If that were so, would he be up to the task? Could Dybo lead his people in the direction they needed to go? Now, more than ever, the Quintaglios required a true guiding force, someone who could take them into the future.
"I have faith in you, friend Dybo," Afsan said at last. "You’ll see, you’ll understand, and you’ll do what is necessary."
The timbers creaked again: Dybo shifting his weight.
"I want to do what’s right," the Emperor said.
"I hope you will," Afsan replied.
"When you’re well, I’m going to appoint you as my court astrologer."
Afsan sighed. "A blind astrologer? What good would I be?"
Dybo’s teeth clicked lightly. "For generations, Saleed and his predecessors worked in the basement of the palace office building, out of sight of the stars. Can a blind astrologer be that much worse?"
"I — I still harbor much anger against you, Dybo. I can’t help it. You allowed my eyes to be taken."
"But I prevented Yenalb from taking your life."
"For the time being."
"Didn’t Cadool tell you? Yenalb is dead. There’s much confusion about who was responsible, of course, but the high priest was killed in the battle in the central square. It doesn’t matter who did it, I suppose; everyone was in dagamant. No charges will be laid."
Afsan felt his injured tail twitch. "Yenalb is dead?"
"And who appoints his successor?"
"The priesthood has its own rites of succession. They will name the new Master of the Faith."
Afsan let air out noisily. "Well, I doubt it will be a moderate. Still, this may indeed be a new beginning."
He felt a hand on his shoulder, briefly. "It is. Whenever you’re ready, we can go back into the city." "How do you mean? Where are we now?"
"Back at the docks. The Dasheter is moored. The eruptions have stopped, and what lava did make it into the city has been cooled by rainfall and has hardened into rock."
"What about Novato?"
Afsan could hear Dybo make a sound with his mouth. "Ah. Novato, yes." The old tone of teasing was back in the Emperor's voice for a moment. "You rutting hornface. Mating out of season. You should be ashamed."
"What will become of Novato?" Afsan asked again.
"She's committed no crime, in my view. She's free to do as she pleases."
"Free to go back to her Pack of Gelbo? Back to the far side of Land?"
"She could have chosen that, yes. But she did not."
"Well, my chief astrologer is going to need an assistant. There is much you can do still, of course, but, well, your condition…" Dybo paused briefly. "I asked her if she'd like to stay here in the Capital, helping you. She said yes."
For a moment, Afsan felt his heart lift, felt a joy he had thought he would never feel again. But then, at last, he shook his head. "No."
The boards groaned again as Dybo changed positions. "I thought you'd be pleased. She told me about how you met."
Afsan rallied some strength. He pushed up off the floor, and got to his feet. His tail was too badly hurt to lean back on, so he reached out with an arm to steady himself against the wall. "I am pleased that she wants to stay. But being my assistant is not a fitting job for her. She's brilliant, Dybo. Her mind is" — he searched for the appropriate term — "far-seeing."
"Keenir says the same thing about her. But if not your assistant, what?"
Afsan turned his head to face in the direction the voice had come from. "You're committed to my vision of the future? Committed to getting us off this world before it's too late?"
Dybo was silent for several heartbeats. Then, at last, decisively, the syllable ripe with firmness: "Yes."
"Then make her director of that operation. Put her in charge of — what to call it? — of the Quintaglio exodus."
"That project will take generations."
"You believe she is the best person for the job?"
Silence, except for the creaking of the ship's lumber, the lapping of waves. "I'll do it," said Dybo at last. "I'll assign her that task, and all the resources she needs." Then: "Are you ready to go up on deck?"
"I think so."
"Let me help you." Dybo reached an arm around Afsan's shoulders, and let Afsan reciprocate. The young astrologer's weight sagged against Dybo. Together, they made it up the ramp and out onto the deck, the steady breeze playing over them. Afsan felt hot sun on his muzzle.
He heard a squeaking of wheels coming across the deck, then, a moment later, Novato's voice. "Afsan, are you all right?"
He nodded in her direction. "I'm still in pain, but it's getting better." His teeth clicked. "I finally understand what Keenir went through. It's awfully hard to walk properly without a working tail." He wished he could see her. "How are the egglings?"
"They're fine; they're right here."
"Keenir found a wheelbarrow down in one of the cargo holds. It's not an ideal stroller, but then the creche operators told me they don't make strollers to hold eight children." She paused for a moment. "It looks like all of them except Galpook are napping."
"Let's go," said Dybo. He and Afsan started walking toward the connecting piece that led up to the Dasheter's fore-deck. After a moment, Afsan could hear the squeaking of Novato's wheelbarrow and a couple of little peeps, presumably coming from Galpook.
"Where are we going?" asked Novato, coming up beside them again.
Wingfingers were singing overhead. Afsan could tell by the way the Emperor's voice sounded that he had tipped his muzzle up at the sky.
"To the stars," Dybo said.