The hunt! Afsan excitedly slapped his tail against the floor of the Hall of Worship. All young Quintaglios looked forward to joining in a pack, setting out in the ritual quest for food.
And yet, there was trepidation, too, for the hunt was difficult and dangerous. But if Afsan were to take his pilgrimage soon, then he must make arrangements to join a pack right away.
Most of the apprentices at the palace were older than Afsan — he was, after all, a relatively new arrival in Capital City — and all but a few bore the tattoo of their successful first kill. Afsan’s hand went to the left side of his head, above the earhole, the spot where the tattoo would go. Who else did he know who did not have the tattoo? Dybo.
Of course. Dybo, shorter by three finger-widths than Afsan himself. Dybo, who had such a flair for music and poetry, but who had often enlisted Afsan’s aid in his studies of mathematics and science. Dybo, whose penchant for mischief had gotten Afsan in trouble on many occasions, although, of course, Dybo himself always emerged unscathed. Dybo, the crown prince.
Surely Dybo could be talked into going on a hunt. His blood-red sash of royalty, after all, was a hollow honor in the view of some people, for it had not been earned, but the tattoo of a hunter carried weight everywhere and with everyone. Yes, a prince could get away with not having it, but some would always compare him to the others who never acquired it, the beggars who had to fight with the wingfingers for whatever meat remained on discarded carcasses.
Most people enjoyed killing their own food now and then, Afsan knew, finding it invigorating and cathartic. Some made careers of hunting — Afsan had heard it said that those who might otherwise be too violent for living peacefully with others were often assigned that vocation. But to forgo the Ritual Hunt, one of the prime rites of passage, was to never know the camaraderie of the pack, and, therefore, to never really be considered a part of society.
Yes, Dybo would be the answer. His rank could get them both bumped to the top of the waiting list to join a pack. But where to find him? Afsan looked up at the bright white sun, so small as to be not much more than a searing point of light. It moved quickly across the sky — not quite fast enough for its progress to be perceived at a glance, but with enough rapidity that a few tens of heartbeats later the change would be noticeable. Noon would be here shortly.
Dybo, like most people, slept odd-nights, meaning that tonight he would be up. Usually one wouldn’t eat until just before going to sleep, since torpidity settled in after a large meal. But Dybo wasn’t like everyone else. His appetite was well-known, and he might very well be off devouring food.
Afsan headed down the ramp that led out of the Hall of Worship into the courtyard. A reflex sniff of the air, a quick scan of the grounds to ascertain who was where, then he hurried off to the dining hall.
As he entered the vestibule, he checked the container into which shed teeth were discarded. Only ten or so bright white Quintaglio fangs were at the bottom, their curved, serrated shapes ranging from the length of Afsan’s thumb to longer than his longest finger. So few discards meant that most of the palace residents had not yet eaten today. Afsan paused for a moment to admire the container, a flowing shape of intricately painted porcelain. He clicked his teeth together. At the palace, even a garbage pail was a work of art.
He headed into the first dining room. There were cracks in the stone ceiling from the big landquake of a few kilodays ago.
The dining tables, with their central ruts to drain blood, were worn, the wooden tops pitted with claw marks. Four people were eating there, three females and a male, each separated as widely as possible from the others, each noisily working over meat-laden bones.
Afsan bowed concession to the one he had to pass most closely and entered the inner dining room. There, as he had hoped, was Dybo.
The crown prince didn’t look particularly regal just now. His muzzle was caked with drying blood as he worked over a joint of hornface meat. His chest was covered with animal grease, blood splatters, and not an inconsiderable amount of the prince’s own drool. That the prince was a lusty eater was well-known. And why shouldn’t he be? Stockyards of plant-eaters were kept adjacent to the meal hall, and the Empress’s child got nothing but the finest cuts. Indeed, Afsan felt envy at the sight of the hip joint, mostly cleaned of flesh now by a combination of Dybo’s teeth and claws. Apprentice astrologers got such fare only on holidays.
"I cast a shadow in your presence, Dybo," said Afsan. The greeting was usually reserved for one’s elders. But honor must be paid to any member of The Family, that special group that knew who its blood relatives were, that tiny elite who were direct descendants of the Prophet Larsk.
Dybo, his chest supported by a dayslab angled over the table, looked up. "Afsan!" He scooped an ornate bowl of water from the table and drained it in a massive gulp. "Afsan, you shed skin of a snake!" Dybo smiled in delight. "You gizzard stone from a spikefrill! You shell of your former self! By the Face of God, it’s good to see you!"
Afsan clicked his teeth lightly. Dybo’s exuberance was both amusing and embarrassing. "I’m always glad when my studies permit me time to see you, too, Dybo."
"Have you eaten? You’re looking as scrawny as a wingfinger." Afsan was thin for a Quintaglio, but it was only in comparison to Dybo that he might be thought of as scrawny. The prince’s appetite came at a price.
"No," said Afsan, "although I will eat soon. I like to sleep even-nights."
"Right, right. At some unspecified time in the future, you must tell me what it is you do while the rest of us are sleeping. Great mischief, no doubt!"
Afsan clicked his teeth in jest. "No doubt."
"Well, then, you must eat, my friend, eat so that you will deep soundly. You see, while you are the only one sleeping, the rest of us are out doing things we won’t tell you about." Dybo’s teeth clattered in heavy laughter at his own joke. "Eh, Afsan! Someday you’ll wake up and find your tail tied in a knot!"
"If I do," said Afsan, "I’ll simply cut it off and make the most likely suspect swallow it whole."
"Yuck. Not while I’m eating."
It was Afsan’s turn to laugh. "What other time is there?"
Dybo nodded slight concession. "When indeed, my friend?" He pointed to the hip joint. "This one is pretty well finished. I’ll have it put out for the wingfingers to pick over. But I could use a little more, and I’m sure you’d enjoy a fine piece of meat."
"That I would."
"It is done, then!" Dybo slapped his palm against the side of the dayslab. "Butcher!" he called. "Butcher, I say!"
A Quintaglio clad in a red smock appeared in a doorway. He was long-of-limb, almost insectile, and his muzzle had a drawn-out, melancholy look.
"Bring another hip joint," commanded Dybo. "A nice, bloody one, not yet drained. And water."
With a loping stride, the butcher went off to do as the prince had asked.
"There, Afsan. We’ll get some flesh on you yet. Now, what brings you here? Not to sing again, I hope! I do like you, you malfunctioning bowel, but, by the moons themselves, if I have to listen to you sing again, I’ll stick pebbles in my earholes to drown out the noise."
Dybo’s musical ability was almost as enormous as his appetite, but even Afsan conceded that his own was virtually nonexistent. Still, the young astrologer loved the sound of music, admiring the mathematical precision of it.
"Well," said Afsan, "in a way, I do want to talk to you about my singing."
Mock horror ran across the prince’s face. "No! By the eggshell of God, no!"
"And about God, too. You see, I wish to take my pilgrimage."
Dybo slapped his palm against the dayslab again. "Excellent! About time, you puffed dewlap! You may be a skinny thing, but your height betrays your age. It’s time we shipped you off on a boat."
"Indeed so. But…"
At that moment, the butcher reappeared. With his long arms, he managed to place the hip joint on the table without stooping, positioning it over the drainage trough. This joint was even bigger than the one Dybo had been gnawing on before. Steam rose from the flesh; the animal had been killed moments ago. Afsan looked up at the butcher. His long snout was bloodied. He had slain the beast himself.
"Thank you, butcher," said Dybo, who had never been good at names. Even Afsan, who had been here less than five hundred days, knew this lanky fellow was Pal-Cadool.
"Yes," said Afsan. "Thank you, honorable Cadool." The butcher bowed, and with that insect-like walk of his, strode off to get the bowls of water.
"Well, don’t just stand there, you crusty growth," Dybo said to Afsan. "Lie down. Eat."
Afsan lowered himself, push-up style, onto the angled surface of another dayslab, letting the wood take his weight. "Dybo, I want you to go on the pilgrimage with me."
Dybo’s face was already buried in the carcass, ripping hot flesh from bone. He came up, gulped down what he’d taken, and then stared at Afsan. "Me?"
"Yes, you. You do have to go sometime, don’t you?"
"Well, yes. Of course. I haven’t given it much thought yet, though. But my mother would never let me sail on some scow…"
"I’m going on the Dasheter. With Captain Var-Keenir."
"Are you, now?"
"Yenalb has lifted some dragging tails for me."
"The Dasheter, you say. By the prophet’s claws, that’s a fine ship! We could have a grand time aboard her, that we could! Think of the fun we’d have!"
"I have. Will you come?"
"My mother will have to say yes. The Family belongs to the people, after all."
"The people might find they got a lot more to eat if you weren’t around for three hundred days or so."
Dybo released gas from his belly. "That’s probably true," he said, then clicked his teeth in laughter. "Very well! Let’s assume we’ll do it."
"Excellent. The Dasheter sails in a dekaday."
"That soon?" Dybo used his claws to worry a gob of flesh from between his teeth. He examined the errant meat, skewered on the polished curve of his middle-finger talon, then nibbled it off. "Well, why not?"
"There’s one more thing, Dybo."
"You’ve got my food. You’ve got my company. What more could you possibly want?"
"Yenalb says one should take the hunt before going on the pilgrimage."
"Does he, now? Well, I suppose that makes sense. But the hunt…" Dybo looked away.
"Afraid?" Dybo’s voice sounded hollow. "You are addressing the son of the Empress, you would-be astrologer."
"That I am. Well, if you are not afraid, then why not join me in the hunt?"
"It’s just that…"
Pal-Cadool had returned bearing a platter holding bowls of water. Dybo fell silent.
"How is the meat?" asked Cadool, his words, like his frame, elongated.
"Excellent," said Dybo, still slightly tremulous.
"Young Dybo," said Cadool, each word a ponderous, lengthy sound, "it’s not my place to comment, but I overheard a bit of what you two are talking about, and, with your permission, I have something to say."
Dybo looked up, surprised. It was as though he was seeing Cadool as an individual for the first time. "Speak, butcher."
Cadool dipped his muzzle, now wiped clean, to show that he was looking at the hip joint on the table. "Nothing, young prince, tastes better than meat you have killed yourself."
Dybo looked up at Cadool. The butcher’s muzzle retained its normal green color, so the prince knew that he was telling the truth. Dybo looked back down at the meat, flared his nostrils, enjoyed its smell. "Well, in that case, I must try it. Afsan, a-hunting we will go!"
"You’re not afraid?" said Afsan.
Dybo dug into the meat in front of him. "I’ve endured your singing, excrement from a shovelmouth. What could be more frightening than that?"