Afsan hated the Hall of Worship. Not all such halls, mind you: he did have fond memories of the small, cheerful one his Pack had built on the shore of Lake Doognar. But this one in particular was loathsome.
The Hall of Worship at the imperial palace! He’d expected it to be holier than any room he’d ever been in, for here the very Empress balanced in prayer, the regal tail held firm and rigid parallel to the ground. Here, the Master of the Faith, Det-Yenalb, spoke directly to God.
There was no real difference between this hall and the one he’d attended as a child. Both had the same circular layout, although this one was five times the diameter of Carno’s. Both had the same wooden floor, although poor Carno’s was deeply scratched with claw marks, whereas this one constantly received fresh planks, stained a pale green, from the nearby madaja grove maintained solely for that purpose. And both halls were divided in half by a channel of water, representing the mighty River on which Land floated. In the hall of his youth, the channel had been just wide enough to accommodate supplicants in single file. But here Afsan had often seen processions of Quintaglios wearing broad leather sashes marching six, seven, and even eight abreast.
But now the huge hall was empty. Major services were held every fifth even-day and whenever a boatload of pilgrims returned from gazing directly at the Face of God. Afsan’s footfalls echoed in the chamber as he entered from the sinner’s doorway, set at right angles to the channel of water. This was significant, he knew: those who came through this entrance, passed beneath this arch of blackest basalt, had turned as far from the natural flow of life as was possible.
He walked to the mock river and tested the ankle-deep water with his toes. As usual, it was uncomfortably cold, although he had heard tell that when the Empress was to walk here it was heated. Afsan stepped into the channel of water and leaned forward, his torso parallel to the floor, his tail swinging up to balance his weight. He’d never been good at this, and he had to splay his legs slightly to make it work, but it was considered disrespectful to drag one’s tail in the holy water.
The last thing he wanted to do was appear disrespectful, for he knew that High Priest Det-Yenalb might be watching even now from his secret place, high above. Afsan kept his muzzle pointed ahead, as the posture of respect demanded, but he rolled his black eyes upward. Painted on the bowl-shaped ceiling was an image of the Face of God, swirling and colorful. But one of the black circular God’s eyes was really a window through which Yenalb sometimes watched, or so Afsan had heard from a court page. Afsan would make sure that Saleed would get a good report of his penance.
Afsan had started in the middle of the river channel, as sinners must, and was now working toward the west end. The symbolism had been explained to him kilodays ago at Carno’s Hall of Worship, the first time he’d had to undergo this humiliation. He’d bitten off a playmate’s finger during a game. The other boy — what had ever become of Namron, anyway? — had regenerated the digit in a few dekadays, but he’d also tattled to the creche master about Afsan.
Anyway, walking to the west end meant walking into the fading light of dusk, reminding one of the darkness that awaited sinners. Even then, Afsan had enjoyed the night, but he had been restrained enough not to point that out to the creche master.
At the end of the channel, balancing all the while, he bobbed his whole body three times. It was an emulation of the instinctive gesture of territoriality, and, in this context, meant, as the sacred scrolls said, here I draw the line, I will allow darkness to come no farther. After the ritualized bobbing, he turned tail and began the slow march the other way, splashing down the river toward the east, toward dawn, toward light, toward knowledge.
Knowledge! Afsan clicked his teeth in rueful humor. How little knowledge we have. What do we really know of the planets? Of the moons? How can Saleed turn down an opportunity to study them in detail, to learn their secrets?
"Boy! Your tail!"
Afsan’s heart jumped, and his fingerclaws unsheathed in surprise. Having lost himself in thought, he’d let his tail dip into the water. He quickly pulled it up and then swung his head around to find the source of the voice, echoing in the domed chamber.
It was the wrong thing to do. With legs splayed, tail swung way up, and head turned around, he lost his balance. He came flopping down belly-first into the river, splashing holy water everywhere. The impact hurt — he could feel the free-floating riblets across the front of his belly pressing in on his organs. He quickly got to his feet, and, fear on his face, hurried onto the madaja-wood flooring, the sound of drips hitting the planks echoing much too loudly in the Hall.
He scanned around for the source of the voice again. There, at the head of the mock river, standing where the sun would rise, was Det-Yenalb, a mid-sized male with an exceptionally long muzzle and earholes that seemed a bit too high on the side of his head. Yenalb wore the swirling, banded, colorful sash of his office.
"Your Holiness," Afsan stammered. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…"
"You didn’t mean to make a mess." Yenalb didn’t seem to be angry. "I know."
"I’ll clean it up right away."
"Yes, I’m sure you will." The temple master looked at Afsan. "You’re the young one from Arj’toolar province, aren’t you?"
"That’s right, sir. Afsan is my name; my home Pack is called Carno."
"Afsan. That’s all? A boy your size should have a praeno-men syllable by now."
Afsan cast his head down. "I have not earned my name prefix yet, although I have chosen the one I hope to merit: Lar."
"Lar," repeated Yenalb. It was derived from Larsk, the name of the prophet. "A high standard to aspire to. And, yet, of course, you would not be here at the palace if you were not already exceptional. You’re Tak-Saleed’s latest, aren’t you?"
"It is my honor to be his apprentice."
"I’m sure it is," said Yenalb. "Afsan, you must take care. God talks to Her children in many ways. To priests, such as myself, She talks directly, in words spoken so only we can hear. To astrologers, such as your master, Saleed, She talks in the complex motions of the stars, the planets, and the moons. To others, She talks in subtler, less direct ways. Has God spoken to you?"
Afsan’s tail swished in sadness. "She has not."
"I see you bear no tattoo. When is your pilgrimage?"
"I am to take it in the near future, although I have not yet scheduleded a voyage."
"You are of the age, though, are you not? You look the right size."
"Yes, it has been ten kilodays since my hatching."
"Then you must go soon."
"I’ve been waiting for the right moment to discuss this with mt master."
"If memory serves, I’ve seen you in Saleed’s company before. Somehow, I doubt a moment when you feel comfortable with him will come." Yenalb clicked his teeth together a few times to show the remark was meant as a jest. Afsan tipped his head in concession. "Well, the Dasheter sails soon. Would you care to travel with Var-Keenir, boy?"
"Would I! That would be terrific — !"
A clicked his teeth again. "I have some influence with Saleed. I’ll speak to him."
"Not at all. You obviously need some enlightenment, or you wouldn’t have been marching the sinner’s march. And nothing is more enlightening than gazing directly upon the of God."
"So I hear."
"Good. Now, do the march again, properly this time, then get a mop and clean up the water." Yenalb turned to go, but then spoke once more. "Oh, and Afsan, you should try to do your hunt before your pilgrimage."
"Well, the pilgrimage is dangerous."
"So is the hunt, I’m told." Again, Afsan regretted speaking so plainly to an elder, but Yenalb dipped his head politely.
"The hunt is less dangerous," the priest said, "as long as you don’t join one of those crazy parties that still adhere to the teachings of Lubal. Go after something that eats plants and you’ll be fine. No, we lose more people on the pilgrimage than we do on the ritual hunt. Riverquakes mean there are times when boats don’t return at all. If anything were to happen to you during your long voyage, and you hadn’t participated in a hunt yet, your soul would arrive in heaven without having completed either rite of passage. That’s bad."
"Well, we all look forward to the afterlife, to a place where we will shed the instincts that keep us from working well together the way a snake sheds its skin. In heaven, at God’s side, with infinite territory, we will constantly enjoy that special camaraderie and those heightened senses that one normally only experiences during a pack-hunt. But you must be primed for that, must have experienced the cooperative spirit of the hunt in this life in order to be able to adopt it as your native mode in the next. And, as for the pilgrimage, well, you must in fact see God in this mortal existence if you are to recognize Her in heaven. She does not — She does not look like one of us."
"I’m looking forward to gazing upon Her face," said Afsan.
"Then I shall go arrange it." And with that, Yenalb turned tail. Afsan watched the old priest’s back as he disappeared down a corridor.
Det-Yenalb made his way out into the blue-white light of day. He paused on the ramp leading down from the Hall of Worship, reflexively sniffing the air. The palace grounds were huge. They had to be.
The veneer of civilization, thought the priest. He snorted. God had told us to live and work together, but even to this day, it’s hard for us to do so.
The territorial instinct was strong, and although the creche masters worked to break it in the egglings, no one ever lost it completely. Yenalb could sense the others around him, smell their skin, hear the clicks of their claws on the paving stones. There across the courtyard, young Henress, smaller even than this Afsan, the problem child from Carno. And, there, flopped on her belly under a flowering tree, old Bal-Hapurd, torpid after a meal. Normally Yenalb would take the shortest path Saleed’s office, since all but the Empress would move out of his way, conceding territory to the priest. But dealing with Saleed required planning. Yenalb took a circuitous route, avoiding everyone. He could not afford to have his concentration disturbed by his own reflex responses to others in his path.
At last he entered the palace offices, went down the spiral marble staircase, passed the Tapestries of the Prophet — pausing to bow territorial concession to the likeness of Larsk and to shield his eyes from the lying demons that formed a ring around the tapestry — and finally stopped at the golden keetaja-wood door to Saleed’s office. Yenalb took a moment to admire the astrologer’s cartouche. The symbols were much the same as in Yenalb’s own. That was proper, for was not the study of the stars, planets, and moons akin to the study of God. But there was something about the layout of Saleed’s that Yenalb found appealing.
Yenalb’s claws drummed against the small strip of metal at edge of the door. The clicking they made against the copper was quiet enough not to be threatening, but distinctive enough that anyone on the other side would realize that someone wanted to come in. Saleed made a questioning bark, Yenalb identified himself, and permission to enter was granted. The priest pressed on the fluted brass bar that opened the door.
Saleed, taller by a handspan than Yenalb — the result of the twenty kilodays difference in their ages — was lying on his dayslab, his belly pressed against the wooden boards. The slab was at an angle halfway between horizontal and vertical, taking Saleed’s weight off his legs and tail. Supported by a stone pedestal, the slab came up to Saleed’s shoulders, letting his head look comfortably down onto his desk, and his spotted arms dangle down onto the desktop, angled to be parallel to dayslab.
Saleed had twin pots built into his desk, one for ink, the other for solvent. He was finishing a glyph at the end of one line on a sheet of writing leather, the ink-dipped claw of his longest left finger steady and firm as it delineated the intricacies of a scientific symbol Yenalb did not recognize. Yenalb bowed territorial concession to the astrologer; Saleed replied by lifting his hands to show that, except for the one he was using for writing, his claws were sheathed.
"I cast a shadow in your presence, honorable astrologer," said Yenalb.
"And I in yours," replied Saleed without warmth.
There was silence between them for a moment. At last, impatience honing his words, Saleed spoke again. "And what business do you have with me?"
"Your latest young apprentice — Afsan, is it? He came by the temple this morning."
Saleed let out his breath noisily. "I sent him there. He had blasphemed."
"Well, he can’t be that bad," said Yenalb lightly. "You’re not tossing him out on his tail like your last five."
"My last six," said Saleed.
"In any event, Afsan marched the River. He is cleansed."
Saleed nodded and turned his head to look at Yenalb. "Good."
"But he has not yet taken the pilgrimage."
"He’s nearly up to my shoulder. A boy that size is old enough for the journey."
"There is more to maturity than height, Yenalb. You know that."
"Granted. But what better way for him to mature than to take the voyage? Your old creche-mate Var-Keenir is in town, did you know that?"
"Yes. Keenir and I spoke this morning."
"The Dasheter sails in a dekaday on a pilgrimage tour."
"I see." Saleed pushed up into a standing posture, letting his weight fall onto his tail. The wood of his dayslab creaked in relief. "And you, Yenalb, who have seen the boy occasionally at service, have spoken to him once or twice, you feel you know what’s good for him better than I, who has been his master for half a kiloday now. Is that it?"
"And now you have the fangs to come in here and set me straight?"
"Saleed, I have only the boy’s welfare at heart."
"And I do not? That’s your contention, isn’t it?"
"Well, you’re not known for being the gentlest soul…"
Saleed slapped his tail against the floor. "I am training the boy’s mind. I am teaching him to think."
"Of course, of course. I meant no slight."
Saleed lifted his tail from the floor and bobbed his torso once, a slow, deliberate gesture, a clear signal that he felt Yenalb had crossed into territory Saleed considered his own.
Yenalb backed away. "My apologies, astrologer. I meant to suggest that you might perhaps see fit to let Afsan voyage with Keenir."
Saleed was not mollified. "Yenalb, perhaps you should place a little more faith in me. Ask Keenir." He drummed his now unsheathed claws against his thigh. "He will tell you that I have already arranged for young Afsan’s passage aboard the Dashetar."
Yenalb’s nictitating membranes fluttered over his eyes. "You have?"
"Saleed, I — I’m sorry. I didn’t know."
"Your business here is concluded?"
"Then perhaps you will do me the honor of withdrawing from my area."
Swishing his tail in wonderment, Yenalb did just that.