Being the apprentice of an astronomer was a far stretch from being a farm boy. Instead of carrying a shepherd’s crook, Dace soon found that he was expected to have a different kind of stick - a stylus, tipped with charcoal - at all times. Even when he was out behind the house on the hill, splitting logs with the professor’s maul, Dace kept parchment at the ready. There was no telling when Pascal would come storming out at him, demanding that the boy come running upstairs to record the old man’s thoughts.
Even in Dace’s first tenday under the scholar, this had happened several times. The first two instances began with hard slaps to the back of the boy’s head. Two was enough. Whether he was splitting logs, dusting off furniture, sending away would-be visitors or just plain following two steps behind the astronomer with stylus and parchment in hand, Dace was ever at the ready.
“Dace!” the astronomer shouted, startling the apprentice. Dace craned his head up from the book he had been reading. He still jumped at the sound of his name from time to time, but the abruptness of Pascal’s shouts were losing their edge.
“Hurry yourself to the door, we’re going to town this afternoon.”
“For getting a new thwacking glove if you don’t make haste, blast it!”
The moment Pascal was out of sight, Dace leapt from his desk and to his wardrobe across the room, smiling. Visits to Loadroan were an infrequent break from the usual tasks that occupied each day for the last several months. As he swung open the oaken doors of the closet, Dace beheld several sets of robes, most of them tattered and a size too large. Pushing them aside, he dug his way deep into the back, and when he found it his smile widened.
When Pascal approached the door, he too was dressed in robes that were of higher quality than his usual scholar’s smock. Dace did not know why they were going to town and he did not care - he thoroughly believed that getting out every now and again was good for not only his own sanity, but also for what remained of his uncle's.
The two wore matching, tall hats that announced their presence as much as it repelled plebeians. They stepped into clean boots, passed the threshold of the door, and Dace whirled to close and lock it. Pascal started without him, taking to the dirt path with as kingly a stride as might be observed in the world's most renowned court. A satisfying click of the lock later, Dace pocketed the key and ran after his master. When he reached Pascal a ways down the slope, he looked over his shoulder to glance at the place they called home.
It was a shanty, lopsided dwelling, a building that had once been a peasant's hut but had recently undergone numerous additions. Dace could remember the first time he had seen the place. It still looked as though one of Pascal’s fungus samples had broken free and sprouted it’s own compartments throughout.
Birds sang and the sky was clear, and Dace always noticed that Pascal seemed of a lighter mood on clear days. Not that anyone could read the astronomer; as far as Dace could tell, his moods tended to easily shift between variations of irate and solemnly angry.
The way to town was never a difficult journey, as the place was in sight from atop the house and to get there one simply needed to roll downhill until cobblestones ground against the nose. Getting back was usually more of a chore, but Dace, like the last time they had come here, opted to worry about that particular detail later. He turned toward the astronomer, who was occupied dodging a low hanging branch.
"What's on the agenda today, sir?" he said, trying his best to not sound too excited.
"I’m expecting a parcel,” was Pascal’s reply. “Got a pigeon this morning that it arrived. You will carry it for me.”
Shrugging, Dace informed his uncle that he understood, and turned his thoughts toward the town.
The sounds of Loadroan could be heard long before Dace could see the gray stone of its walls. A town of markets and business, a place of deals and swindles. People could be heard raising their voices or swinging hammers on iron nails. Saws pulled and pushed where houses underwent the season’s expansions, and often there were the clip-clops of shodden hooves upon the cobblestones.
As they broke from the tree line, he searched ahead for traveling caravans. Whenever men from far lands came by cart, it meant he might get a glimpse of some exotic animal for sale or hear a foreign song from a bearded bard. Loadroan was not a town known for anything extraordinary except that it was conveniently located between many other places. Because of this, its roots as a trading post were worn as a badge by even the most ancient of residents. Alas, no caravans were to be seen, but the same two guards Dace had passed each time he entered from this side of the town nodded as Pascal faced them.
Passing under the archway, Dace could hear the clop of boots on stone, smell the perfumes of passing merchants, and see everything in between. Crossway towns like Loadroan flaunted the benefit of being exposed to that which multiple regions had to offer, and yet the ruling governship pledged allegiance to no one entity but the coin. The town guard was all that seemed to be needed to enforce local peace, and though Loadroan sat on the border between two countries, Dace counted himself lucky to live in an age when the nations were currently not at each other's throats. The town was fast becoming a city, peopled by individuals from near and distant cultures, but most interesting to Dace were the apprentices of other masters.
As they walked, Pascal keeping a brisk pace and Dace keeping up without effort, noticing the apprentices of weavers, blacksmiths, potters, tailors and even soldiers - though those ones always called themselves squires. Never once, however, did Dace lay eyes on another astronomer - let alone another apprentice of one. Though there were scholars with whom Pascal was on some level close to familiarity, few shared his particular interests of study. Dace thought they were fools for that, but more than once wondered whether he himself was the fool for agreeing to be taken under Pascal's care.
Dace could remember the days back on the farm, a time that seemed so long ago. He had adjusted quickly to a life indoors, penning words and tallying sums on parchment rather than seeing to chickens or guiding sheep. His father might have a thing or two to say about his rapid, even eager, accustoming to this new life of something that was most certainly not a country boy. But then, father was half a nation away, and Pascal needed help he could trust. When word reached Dace’s father, he found himself brought to the doorstep of his estranged uncle. There, in this strange place just beyond a strange town, Dace watched as coin was passed to his father as a man might hand over for a yoke of cattle.
Dace’s musings were interrupted when he felt a poke on his shoulder.
Without realizing quite where they were, Dace blinked and looked at his uncle. Pascal stood for a moment, his mind seemingly elsewhere, then abruptly turned on Dace.
"This is the part where I leave you on the street," he said, "and you complain about not being allowed to follow me inside."
"I, but I—”
"I'll be gone only a moment, little fish. It will be faster if you wait out here."
Dace, puzzled, looked at the building behind the astronomer, and wondered what could possibly demand such privacy.
"It's the post," said Dace.
"That it is, and claiming my parcel is damned more difficult than it needs to be. Bloody borders and customs."
"Ahh," said Dace, not really understanding but nodding all the same. "But err, what am I to do out here? Just stand at the corner?"
"Don't move from this spot," said Pascal, "until such time as I come for you. Like I said, I should not be long." Dace raised a finger and opened his mouth to speak, but his words would have landed at the back of the astronomer's robe. A moment later Pascal disappeared behind the oaken door, and shouts were heard from within as unseen people recognized and greeted him, followed by a muffled retort that Dace could not quite hear. Standing with no small sense of awkwardness, Dace looked around, scratching his head.
His eyes wandered up and down the street, eventually resting on the front-end of an establishment he had been to see once before; the Gilded Needle, a clothier’s. The door was open and the master tailor himself could be seen greeting and ushering a passerby-converted-to-customer into his shop, and through one of the window panes Dace could see a familiar, golden-haired shape.
A moment passed and Dace thought, glancing back at the post office behind him. Then, with a deep breath and a little puffing of his chest, he strode out into the street.
"Gods above, lookout!" shouted a driver, and Dace scrambled out of the way of a passing donkey-drawn cart. He dusted himself off and shook off his startled nerves, trying to wave off the embarrassment as the driver turned and shouted profanities over his shoulder. Calm again, Dace looked to the left, then the right, then attempted the street a second time.
Dace had no need for new clothes. The apprentice robes that Pascal had gotten him were not only sufficient for the work he did, but were also a considerable upgrade from the farmer's garb he pulled, pushed, dug and ran in back on the farm. The woven cotton of far off lands was certainly a step up from sticky burlap and rough wool-spun overalls. Gods, Dace itched just thinking back on the memory. How had he survived thirteen years wearing that stuff? Besides, he would eventually grow into the over sized rags to be found in the wardrobe back home.
But no, Pascal's board was enough for his purposes. Dace had a different goal in mind when visiting the clothier's, and he knew he had to hurry before Pascal finished his business at the post office. The master tailor - Dace had tried to recall his name, but it was something utterly unpronounceable - busied himself with his latest reel from the street. But it was not the master tailor himself Dace sought either.
Trying his hardest to look casual, Dace meandered among the countless racks and hanging dress. It was a marvel how many suits, robes, dresses, blouses, trousers - and a number of foreign things Dace simply could not name - hung ready in this place. He passed through some racks, idly reaching a hand to feel the fabric. He tried to look focused and interested in the clothes, but his eyes, though facing forward, scanned the area around him. Where had she gone…?
“Papa,” came the call of someone in a back room. Dace jumped, startling a nearby browser - an elderly woman - and causing her armful of clothes to drop to the floor.
“But a moment, sveetling,” called the master tailor in his peculiar accent. Dace bent with an apology to help regather the shopper's things.
"Papa," called the girl's voice again, much clearer this time. Dace could also hear the sound of a swinging door, heard the speaker enter the main room. Hers was a voice Dace had not forgotten since last he had been here months ago, and the rare times he’d seen her about town.
He had only spoken to the clothier’s daughter once before, and it had been in passing. That visit had been all too brief; Pascal had taken him here to get properly outfitted into apprentice’s robes, but all Dace could remember was her smile and laugh. If a star fell from the sky, and if where it landed there grew a flower, and that flower had a name - that name would be Alegria.
“Iz someteen vong, sveetling?”
“The delivery is here, Papa,” said Alegria, her voice barely showing any hint of her father’s homeland. Even as Dace handed the nearby shopper her clothes, he wondered how this had come to be.
“Ah, at last! Excuse me, sir, iz someteen to which I must attend. My dotter veel see to your needs. Please, sveetling.”
Dace stood upright, facing the elderly woman in front of him and handing her the gathered clothes. Thanks and apologies were exchanged, and Dace turned to see Alegria speaking to the other customer. She did not seem to have noticed him yet.
“What was it you were looking for, sir?” he heard her ask.
“Actually,” said the man, a gentleman by all manner of appearance and demeanor, “I was merely on my way to the pub. I was in no need for…” But Alegria laughed, cutting him off.
“He does that, my father,” she said.
“Yes,” said the man. “I’ve noticed. He pulled me through the door yesterday, as well.”
“Quick,” she urged, nudging him. “Now’s your chance!”
“Blessings, young lady,” said the little man, and with a tip of his hat as he shuffled out the door and back onto the street.
Alegria watched him go, smiling to herself. It was not until she turned toward him that Dace realized he had been staring at her like an idiot. He quickly averted his eyes and busied himself inspecting the nearest article.
“Pardon me, sir,” said the girl, moving towards him. “Can I help you, err, find something?”
Dace had quite forgotten himself the moment he looked at Alegria. His eyes flicked to his hands for a moment, and with a start he replaced the corset he’d grabbed and cleared his throat.
“No,” he said, keeping his voice level and looking in another direction. “Just browsing.” He was suddenly aware of the fact that his plan mostly involved seeing her, and nothing after that.
“Well then,” said Alegria, “I’ll be…hey, you are the astronomer’s apprentice, aren’t you?” A wave of relief washed over him, and he smiled.
“Dace,” he said.
“Yes, I remember you,” she smiled back. “I see my father’s robes fit you well.”
“Yeah,” Dace said, his mind racing for things to say.
“Is it true, that you’re his nephew?”
Dace nodded, but did not break eye contact.
“But you aren’t from Loadroan.”
Dace shook his head.
“My father’s farm, a tenday’s travel east of here.”
“You did look like a farm boy,” she remarked, and Dace could not tell if that was a jab or a pat. “You’re the first one to see the inside of the star-gazer’s home since he came to Loadroan.”
“Pascal said he usually preferred to work alone,” Dace said. “Hasn’t had an apprentice for years.”
“So did you leave the farm to study the stars, too?”
“He sent for me because he needed help,” was the shrugging reply, “so my father had me leave the farm. There isn’t much more to it.”
“I see,” said Alegria. “Why does he do it? Spend so much time staring at the sky when there’s so much to see here on the ground?”
“I thought the same at first,” said Dace, chuckling. “Until he had me in his observatory on a clear night. You’d be surprised how much more sky there is to see atop a roof when compared to standing in the grass.”
“The Temple Voice says that the stars is the realm of the gods,” said Alegria, tilting her head with a half smile. Her voice took on the tone of a school teacher as one lectured one of her slower students. “Does your uncle not fear their wroth?”
“If the gods mind us looking, they’ve yet to show us they care. The Night Stream is especially beautiful this time of year, he says.”
“Oh!” Alegria clapped her hands. “Master Pascal has a tell-uh-scoop, doesn’t he?”
“Telescope, yes. He doesn’t usually let me near it, but…”
“Lucky,” she said. “I wish I could see the Night Stream using a telescope.” Before Dace could respond, there was a crash, and a door on the far wall was flung open.
Both of them turned at the sound of their names, but when Dace brought his eyes back towards Alegria, she was already weaving her way between the racks toward her father. The apprentice wanted to say something - anything - and took a step towards her when he heard Pascal outside, shouting again.
“Gods! Where’ve you gone, foolish fish?!”
Dace was out of the clothier’s in seconds, bursting out onto the street and nearly knocking over a stranger. Had he stayed but a moment longer, he might have caught the sidelong glance of Alegria’s - watching him with a smile as her father went on about the shipment.
“I’m here, uncle,” said Dace, skidding to a halt beside the astronomer. Pascal wheeled and stared down at him.
“I told you to - oh bleeding gods, I don’t care, just follow me around back.”
Dace considered himself fortunate. He knew the risk, and in spite of everything it seemed as though he would be spared his uncle’s anger. Until he saw the cart.
“What is that?” said the apprentice.
“That,” said Pascal, the sound of happiness at Dace’s expense in his voice, “is your burden for the way home.”
It was a two-wheeled rickshaw, a sort of wheelbarrow like back on the farm. The cart itself was normal, but lashed in place was a canvas-covered box the size of a wine barrel. It didn’t matter how light it was; this was not going easily up the hill.
“Is this why you brought me to town?” said Dace. “To pull this home?”
But Pascal ignored him, smirking, and strode over toward the porters around the dock of the post office. He handed them a coin, and turned to beckon his apprentice.
“Little fish, this is why I bought you from your father. Get a good grip, we’ve a long way home.”
By the time they had returned, the sun had dipped behind the distant mountains and a handful of stars were poking through the veil of night. Their quiet, cold light did little to illuminate the road, and Pascals’ torch was barely sufficient for lighting the way. In truth though, Dace barely needed to see anything; it was all a matter of locking his feet in front of him and into the road, one after the other. The winding path up the hill was treacherous, and one misstep could send the cart - and him with it - rolling back down. Pascal presumably pushed from the rear, but judging from the dancing light behind him, there was doubt.
“Nearly there, little fish! Keep at it!”
It was the first time Pascal had shouted something encouraging, and lifting his head, Dace saw the outline of their home. A looming, hunched abomination against an indigo sky. Dace could not see his uncle, but there was a distinct blur of orange light that bounced around and then in front of him.
“Just stop out front here,” Pascal directed, and he went inside. Dace lowered the handles of his cart with all the grace of a mule and leaned on his knees, panting. No sooner had Dace wiped the sweat from his brow did he notice candles alight through the windows, and his uncle burst back outside.
“Well?” Pascal said. “Plan on spending the night out here or were you going to get it to the observatory?”
“Half,” said Dace, pausing between breaths, “just half a moment.”
Pascal clicked his tongue in annoyance. He creaked his neck upward, a motion in which Dace believed all astronomers were very practiced.
“No rain for another hour, perhaps,” he said. “Come on then, little fish. What did they have you lifting at the farm? Feathers?”
“A hundred dints of feathers weighs the same as whatever the blaze’s in that cart,” said Dace. “When were you going to tell me what I’ve been lugging?”
“I told you,” said Pascal, his excitement making him visibly more pleasant. “First we have to get it to the observatory.”
His strength returning to him, Dace shook his head. More than that, his curiosity got the better part of him, and strode around to face the cart.
The package was unremarkable except for its weight. Unless Pascal had ordered a keg of sand, Dace could not guess what was inside, though numerous straps held it fast against the cart’s oaken bed. It had not jostled even once during the trek up the hill, and even after the smallest bumps Pascal had halted everything to inspect his prize. As Dace sized up the thing, Pascal came to help undo the straps.
“This is it?” Dace said aloud, rubbing his tired fingers. But Pascal ignored him, instead focused and grinning.
The final box, after multiple layers of boxes and packaging before it, was little more than the size of a shoe in the end. Most of the weight was in the package’s second layer, a box of lead, and after that a box of glass. Dace likened the entire process to peeling an onion, except that the middle was no sprout, but a simple, wooden case that might be found in a jeweler’s. When Pascal lifted it with his wrinkled fingers, Dace could see it could not have weighed more than a book.
Without a word, Pascal strode into the house. Dace, still rubbing his wrists and unsure of what to do, stood for a moment before following the master inside. Keeping several steps behind, the two bounded up and around the spiral staircase, passing rooms and closets, until reaching the final door on the highest platform. Pascal, suddenly aware of Dace as if for the first time, leered over his shoulder.
“Very good, little fish,” he said. “You may retire for the night. But see that you clean up the remains of the cart before you do.”
“I — but I —” Dace protested. “No fair, uncle! What is it you’ve got?”
Pascal held Dace’s gaze for awhile, saying nothing. There was the click of a turning lock, the twist of a door knob, then the gentle, deliberate closing of the door between them. Dace went back downstairs, alone, and saw to his chores with an irate energy about him.
Pascal did not emerge that evening. At first, Dace was worried, for no sounds came from beyond the door and if his master died alone in that room, how would Dace know? He was relieved to hear the bumping of metal and the dragging of furniture above, but only for awhile. Still Pascal did not emerge from the observatory, and when the apprentice came to knock on the door, he found it still locked. Only frantic banging was there any reply.
"Eggs!" came the astronomer's voice the following day. This was his way of demanding a meal, and Dace was too relieved to receive a response in the first place to be annoyed by the request. In all the time Pascal kept himself enclosed within his study, Dace kept himself busy with his usually burdens of maintenance around the house. Cooking meals was nothing new, but bringing them up to the observatory was an odd routine. The first time Dace brought his master a meal, Pascal opened the door a crack, eyed his apprentice suspiciously, and quickly took the platter before Dace could see into the room. The second time was similar, but on the third meal of this fashion, Pascal insisted Dace simply leave the food at the head of the stairs. This was done, and Dace started to shake off his worrisome thoughts. Pascal was always eccentric in some means or another, and knowing him for only a few months had showed more layers than the cart package.
After a day of this, Dace began to become accustomed to what in his mind equated to living alone with a ghost in the attic. Not once did Pascal venture out from his seclusion, only a few times opening the door and making demands of his apprentice; usually for food and a new, clean bucket. It was never a pleasant exchange, but Dace found delight in having considerably more free time to explore the texts that lined the shelves of the bottom floor.
The house on the hill was nothing if not a private library, and Dace was never short of anything to read, dry as most of the content was.
It was not until the end of the following day that Pascal emerged from isolation. Dace sat upon what was usually designated as the master’s chair, and upon hearing the creak of stairs above, looked up with a start. He lowered his book, What Lays Beyond? by Sir Howekan I. Know, and jumped from his seat.
“Sir!” Dace stuttered.
But Pascal said nothing. He wore a profound scowl and he did not see an apprentice; he saw an obstacle in front of his favorite chair. Dace scurried out of the way, and the master took his seat, adjusted himself in place, and sank.
“Master Pascal,” Dace urged, “what do you need? Can I get you anything?”
The astronomer whispered something that Dace could not hear, but he rushed to pour a bit of tea anyway. When he returned, he found Pascal motionless. But for the snoring, Dace might have supposed his master had expired. With a shrug and a smile, Dace fetched a blanket and covered the old man, leaving the tea in arm’s reach.
Dace was suddenly aware of how remarkably silent the house had become. He tilted his neck upward, following the spiral staircase, and noticed the door to Pascal’s observatory was left ajar. He glanced back at the old astronomer, sleeping soundly and unresponsive.
A minute later, Dace was at the door, peering inside. He had been in the observatory before, but less times than Dace could count on one hand. He glanced back down to the ground floor, saw Pascal motionless in his chair but for the steady rise and fall of his chest. A moment later, Dace was inside, staring with the wonder he always felt whenever he came to this place.
The observatory was a wide space, stuffed with dozens of tools that he could not name. Several he had been allowed to use, and a few others he had witnessed Pascal using. There were tables dedicated to charts that mapped the stars, there were dozens of measuring scales, but most coveted were the telescopes. There were a handful of these, erected upon tripods and pointing upwards and out windows at various angles. Pascal had always complained that there were never enough telescopes in the world, and that the ones he had, though of excellent quality as far as Dace could tell, were far too inferior for something Pascal always referred to as his “great experiment.”
And there, in the center of the room like the main showpiece of some twisted art gallery, sat a monstrosity that Dace only vaguely understood. It was covered in a flowing drape, with only its base visible to him, but Dace knew beneath was an unfinished project. One that Pascal spoke of in hushed, prideful tones, as though there might be a spy hanging just out the window, ready to snatch up his words and take off running.
When Dace had inquired of the conspicuous piece of equipment, Pascal instead went and showed his apprentice to a telescope as tall as a man and nearly twice as long.
“You see, little fish,” Pascal had told him once, as the apprentice stared down the view finder, “each and every star is but a sun, like our own. The only difference is that they’re so bloody far away they look like candle lights in a distant village.”
“If all those are suns,” Dace had said, “then there could be… other people looking up at ours.” He had looked up quickly from the eyepiece. “Right?” He saw that Pascal was smiling.
“This is precisely why children make better explorers than educated old men!” There was a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement, though Dace did not appreciate being seen as a child. At thirteen, he was breaching into manhood.
As Dace strode into the room, aware he was treading on hallowed ground as far as the master was concerned, his steps were light and he held his breath. There was no way he could carry that same telescope he had used, earlier in the month. One of the smaller ones would have to do.
He had everything worked out; the fact that Pascal was passed out tonight only accelerated things. The sun had sunken, but people were still awake in Loadroan. No doubt Alegria and her father had closed up shop and were out on the town. No doubt on a clear night like this, if Dace were to appear from the shadows and offer Alegria something such as nothing she could have ever imagined…
Before he knew it, Dace bumped his weight into something, and he heard the click of metal falling into place. He whirled to see that to his horror in the half-light he had knocked the central piece.
Dace lunged to grasp it, feeling metal bars and gears under the cloth, and found that the thing was not falling. Something simply had shifted, altering its angle slightly. He held himself against it for a moment, until he was certain that nothing more was happening. Slowly, he backed away.
For a moment, Dace considered whether he was better off forgoing the plan and extricating himself from the observatory before anything else happened. Intent on keeping this intrusion from being in vain, he turned around, reaching for the small telescope from before.
A hand fell on his shoulder.
“What are you doing?” came Pascal’s voice. Dace froze, lacking even the capacity to swear or jump.
“I—I—err,” he stammered.
Pascal’s eyes seemed to take in the half-lit scene, and when Dace turned to face his uncle, he was surprised to see the scholar was not furious. The astronomer’s eyes were distant as stars themselves, flicking toward his equipment, still draped in the center of the room, then back to Dace. Then they finally rested on what Dace held, and his expression softened.
“Ahh,” he said, nodding his head. “The girl.”
Dace returned the nod, clearing his throat.
“If you must,” growled the astronomer, “then don’t take that one. Come.” Without letting go of Dace’s shoulder, he dragged the boy over to another corner. There he released Dace from his grip and flung open a cupboard, and pulled out a number of rods and tubes. The apprentice stared in amazement, unsure of what was about to happen.
“How were you going to keep the other one aloft, eh? Didn’t think that far, did you?” He shoved several poles into Dace’s arms. “They screw together,” Pascal said. “Makes legs, like the big one, only smaller of course. And be careful, you have no idea how hard it was to have those things made. There, you see?” More pieces were taken out of the cupboard, and faster than Dace could understand, Pascal assembled a collapsible tube, placing it on the bench.
“This was my old mobile one,” he continued. “From before I had an observatory of my own. If there is a single scratch on it when you return it, tonight, then the Temple Voice will have to invent a word for the punishment you will endure. Is that clear?”
Dace stood, staring blankly. When his thoughts caught up with him, he nodded vigorously.
“It will be kept pristine, sir.” But Pascal was already pushing him away.
“Git! Before I change my mind, little fish!”
As he strode down the road, the stars shining above and the distant sunset fading, Dace could hardly believe his fortune.
As his eyes snapped open, Pascal became aware of his surroundings. Morning sunlight shined through an open window, bits of dust and ash glistening in the air in angled columns through the room. The fireplace, still warm from the previous evening, glowed gently among soft ashes. He rubbed his eyes with crinkly fingers, glancing to the book stand at his side.
“Damn,” he muttered, reaching for his spectacles. He’d fallen asleep in the den chair again, something the healer had advised against him doing, and as he pulled his frame upward with all the excruciating pain of a dry hemlock branch, he felt numerous joints pop and snap.
Dace was nowhere to be seen, but the blanket under which Pascal slept and the missing logs beside the hearth told him that his apprentice was about. Even as he stretched his arthritic limbs, Pascal’s thoughts drifted about in a haze. He had slept late.
Scaling the staircase, step by creaky step, Pascal made for the observatory, passing Dace’s room along the way. The door was ajar, and a quick glance showed his apprentice asleep in his bed, crumpled like an expired accordion.
The astronomer went onward to the observatory, where much to his relief he saw the tripodal telescope replaced on one of his benches. He’d inspect it later; the fact that the boy made it back alive from whatever bungling romantic adventure he’d planned was remarkable enough. Who but the bravest, most intent, or most stupid of boys would leave their home late at night? For a girl no less?
In any other circumstances, Pascal knew he would not have so easily lent the tripod to the bumbling farm boy, but better to distract him than arouse curiosity in the center piece…
Pascal glanced to the center of the room, where his prize remained draped in obfuscating cloth. Everything seemed to be in order. He turned to face out the door.
There was a sudden bump that reverberated through the wall, followed by the sound of scuffling feet. A moment later, the fuzzy head of the astronomer’s apprentice emerged from his room.
“It’s on the bench,” Dace mumbled.
“I see, and it appears undamaged. Up with you, little fish, I’ve need of your youth!”
Dace began to withdraw back into the room. His face was an expression of any adult in the making in the morning; utter dismay.
“An hour more,” grunted the boy, and the door was shut. Pascal would not have it and immediately stomped over, yanking the door open again. Dace was almost back in his bed, and the astronomer could see the boy moved with all the alacrity of a slug.
“Gods, little fish,” said the uncle, “when did you return?”
“At dawn,” muttered Dace, and he fell back among the blankets. Pascal sucked in a breath to berate the boy, but thought against it, releasing the air in a reluctant wheeze. He stood a moment, watching the rise and fall of the boy’s form as he fell back into slumber. Back on the stairs, Pascal closed the door in what he believed was gentle enough, and returned to the observatory.
A whoosh of cloth, a dramatic sound the Pascal found pleasing, but not nearly as pleasing as the sight of his megascope.
The thing resembled a telescope, except in every way its details were simply greater. Immense brass tubes angled upward towards the now-closed sky window, and a number of levers and dials protruded in various places. It was a prototype, the first of its kind, but it would not work. Not yet. In spite of installing the latest, most vital component, still the megascope did not work.
Pascal smiled with pride as he looked upon the thing. Normal logic would follow that it would be used most after sundown, on a night when the stars shone bright and clear, but staring into a blue sky was generally the best way to make certain the massive lens array was clean. Turning a crank and locking the visor into place, Pascal titled his head downward to stare into the twin eyepieces. He blinked, using his other hand to hold his spectacles in place, then squinted.
“Gods,” he muttered, pulling away to look up the length of the megascope. How was he going to clean the outer lens with that lazy, lovesick apprentice of his snoozing away the morning?
Pascal decided against rousing the pitiful prodigal and busied himself with making the morning meal. He hated cooking, and was overjoyed to have Dace around if even just for that. Pascal had not made a meal for himself in months. How had he gotten by without an assistant for so many years before then?
An hour later, Pascal returned to the observatory, a mug of warm tea in one hand. He opted to take the morning slow, saving all the most physical - or irritating - chores for Dace. Pascal sipped his honey sweet tea, passing a glance through the megascope again. He squinted.
“Curious,” he said aloud, noticing the spec of dust on the outer lens had shifted.
Seized by a whimsical curiosity, Pascal reached his free hand toward one of the many knobs near the eyepiece. He sipped again, turning the dial, tiny clicks audible as minuscule micro-adjustments changed the focus of his view.
The old man’s eyes widened and he spit out his tea.
“Dace! Arise, little fish!”
Cold, arthritic hands shook him by the shoulders, jostling him from a dreamscape. Dace grimaced and sat up. It had been a good one; Alegria was there, and they had spent the evening on a rooftop, stargazing and naming constellations…
“Rouse yourself, boy, it’s high noon! Were we in the barbarian lands, you would be dead already. Up!”
“Gods,” Dace murmured in a groggy voice. It had been no dream. “I’ll get to the chores, sir, sorry about…”
“Enough about that! I need you in the observatory!”
Without waiting for a reply, Pascal grabbed his apprentice by the collar and hauled him upright. Dace was young and sturdy with rural youth, but the scholarly astronomer was surprisingly strong. The apprentice followed his master, unsure whether he could resist even if he possessed the will.
Dace was pulled and planted before the megascope, a device he had only seen as as a twisted piece of useless metal. In the months Pascal had Dace under his wing, the megascope had been explained only in hushed reverence and vague purpose, and he had hardly taken Pascal seriously. Now, however, judging from the weight of the astronomer’s tone, Dace was urged to reconsider his assumptions.
Cold, polished brass shined in the noonday light and numerous complicated array of dials, cranks and cables always confused Dace when he looked at it. It always reminded him of fairy tales he used to hear as a child about golems and clockwork beasts. Pascal gestured toward the exposed eyepiece. Dace blinked stupidly.
“Look,” urged the scholar, and Dace did so, leaning over as he rubbed his eyes.
In the months since being taken under Pascal, Dace had seen things at once beautiful and unnerving. He had been shown that their sun was but one of hundreds - maybe even thousands - that the stars were more numerous than a man could count in a lifetime. One of Pascal’s colleagues, a woman whose name Dace could not remember - as she was from a far off city and also had an unpronounceable name - was the first to put forth a strange idea that seemed to be spreading through the known world’s scientific circles. She had been burned at the stake for it, but according to Pascal, that was besides the point. As far as Dace was concerned, the world seemed pretty flat to him, but it was not impossible; apparently most folk simply refused to accept the possibility. Even Alegria had laughed when, just last night, Dace had explained the Night Stream was in fact a band of rocks that encircled their world, shining like stars at night and filling half the sky during a cloudless day.
“That’s such a silly thought,” she said, not far from a giggle. “The Temple Voice teaches us that we are the cherished creations of the gods.” She paused, staring at the farm boy apprentice. “Everyone knows that.”
“I’ve heard the same,” said Dace. “But the Temple Voice also says our maps are full, that there is nothing beyond the sea except the edge of the world.”
“Is that not true?”
“Well, I’ve never been, I couldn’t say. But I hear about it from my uncle, and the books in his house.”
“Your uncle is a peculiar man with peculiar books,” said Alegria, her tone inoffensive.
“I thought so too, when I met him. I also used to think the world was flat, until I saw the thing he showed me. Here, look…”
But Dace had never seen anything like this.
“That’s,” Dace said to Pascal, stuttering, “that’s a… what is that?”
“First impression, little fish.” Dace scrunched his brow as he looked again.
“Looks like a marble is stuck in the lense...”
“A marble!” Pascal cackled. “The blue, little fish! That is an ocean! The swirls of white - clouds! The hues of green and amber —”
“A world?” Dace said, tilting his head.
His eyes were glued down, staring through the brass tubes at the distant orb. It was half in shadow, and behind it was the vast, deep blackness of a starry night. A number of tinier orbs hung in close proximity to it, and as he stared, he swore he could make out the shapes of continents.
“Gods,” muttered the lad.
“I don’t know why it has appeared only today,” said Pascal. Then, more to himself, he said, “if that woman’s theory is correct, it could be only in view for a short time before swinging around and away…”
“What does it mean?” Dace asked. There was no sleep left in his voice.
“It means we have work to do,” Pascal announced. “There’s no telling how long this window will be open! Is it still there?”
“Hasn’t moved yet.”
“We must calculate its trajectory, yes, embiggen the focus, calibrate the zoom…”
“While you get started doing that,” Dace said, edging for the door, “I’ll see about putting lunch together.”
“Yes,” Pascal said, waving him away. The scholar stared for a moment down the eyepiece, silent. As Dace made his way for the door, Pascal shot upright and shouted at him. “Where are you going?”
“To…to make food,” Dace said, his voice weak with confusion.
“Nonsense! I need you, little fish! Fetch my tablet and stylus, there is much to be recorded!”
“So you’re telling me,” Dace said, “that the machine works because of this?”
“Acquired at great expense,” said Pascal. “And luck.”
The scholar held out a cube the size of an apple, made from a metallic substance that Dace could not identify, though it bore the color of copper in patina. Along it’s six green surfaces were carved intricate, swirling designs, and the object had as much open space as it had solid matter. The farm boy could not have imagined its like, and Pascal seemed to know it.
“What is it?”
“A colleague unearthed it not too long ago. Ancient ruins, old civilization, that sort of thing.”
“Ancient ruins? About how ancient?”
“Look,” said the scholar, visibly annoyed. “There is history in the land that dates back far beyond any nation whose name stands today, little fish. Suffice it to say that this,” he indicated the cube, “is a remnant of those people.”
“But what the heck is it?” Dace repeated, barely hiding his annoyed tone. He didn’t understand everything Pascal was saying, but he certainly understood that the cube was rare. There was nothing like this to be found in all the land.
“My colleague called it a Lens Heart,” said Pascal. “Found in the core of ancient megascope.” Dace’s eyes flicked to the monstrous device in th center of the room. “Aye, modeled mine after it,” Pascal continued, following his apprentice’s gaze. “Using fragments of blueprints and sketches from…well, let’s just say far away.”
“This thing was in the crate,” said Dace. “Wasn’t it?” Pascal nodded.
“When I got word that an intact Lens Heart had been found, I sold my estate and put my livelihood at risk to live out here, in this rundown shack of a hut! It’s safer here, in a town closer to the dig site and further from the bloody Temple Voice back home.”
“And you bought me from my father just to haul things from town, did you?”
“I needed an assistant, and one preferably with a strong back!” said Pascal, his tone not in the least bit defensive. “Who better to trust than the son of my brother, eh?”
But Dace did not respond. For a moment he glared as his energetic uncle.
“I am but an ox in your plan, then?” Pascal sighed.
“Would I be sharing this with a mere porter, little fish? My brother said you were young and capable. That was what I sought. Besides, who would’ve suspected I’d get such an eager and useful apprentice out of the deal?”
This brought the hint of a smile to Dace’s expression, and seeing this Pascal clapped him on the shoulder.
“Now, don’t let it get to your head,” he said. “You’re still a bumpkin, no question about it, but you’ve potential. That’s all I mean. Now…” Pascal lifted the Lens Heart in his hand and strode over towards the megascope. A special, box-shaped compartment was there, in what seemed to be an important part of the machine linking two large brass tubes together. Once the cube was placed into its socket, it began to glow and hum. “Get the tablet, and take this down.”
The scholar rounded the base of his scope and leaned over the eyepiece, a soft hum whirring from the core of the machine. Dace stood nearby, stylus in hand.
“Target Otherworld seems to remain where it is, regardless of time of day, however it seems to fall into shadow after nightfall, almost as though our days were aligned.”
Dace scribbled with his charcoal stylus, ready to reach for a new sheet of parchment or a new stub as he went. His handwriting was one of the first skills to improve since leaving the farm, but it took great effort to keep up with the rapid words of Pascal.
“Our discovery, it would seem, is the first supporting evidence for the Maelstrom Orb Theory, which I’m sad to say is not my own idea, but that of Miss Raela Gvontmakher, rest her soul.” Dace’s hand slowed.
“How do you spell Gov…Gvoo…”
“Just put ‘Mistress Raela’ for now,” said the scholar, waving away the interruption, his eyes remaining glued to the eyepiece. Dace put Unpronounceable. “Now, I’ve made a model following the guidelines of the theory,” Pascal continued. “Near as we can tell from her suppositions, my models and the discovery of the Otherworld itself, it would fall in line that our world, too, is a spinning orb, and that both ours and the Otherworld circle around the sun.
“How, precisely, the Megascope is able to keep the Otherworld in its sights without adjustment on our part is beyond me. I suspect has something to do with the Lens Heart, as it has not ceased its glowing since hooking it up to the machine. We don’t know how it works, only that it does.”
“Not very scientific,” Dace mused.
“Quiet, you. Don’t include that. Now, as I was saying. Information gathered so far would suggest that the Otherworld has a biosphere not unlike our own; current magnification allows for what we can only guess to be mountain ranges and forests. Since the discovery of the Otherworld, we have only been able to see it clearly during certain times of day, before a moon or some other obstruction regularly gets between us. Those times would be … just before midnight and … around noon. Convenient, but I’ll take it. During those times, the Lens Heart appears most active. This, too, is for reasons I and my apprentice have yet to understand. What we do know, however, is that during these times, we have a window of about one hour to observe the Otherworld with clarity.
Dace’s stylus did not miss a beat since Unpronounceable, and a moment after Pascal ceased his dictation, the apprentice stopped.
“You get all that?” Though Dace nodded, he did so slowly. “Question, little fish?”
“Yes, sir. You did not mention the magnification experiment.”
“We will put that into motion tonight, as a matter of fact.”
“Indeed. Make a note of the time before you start, then man this hand-crank over here.”
Grass swayed in an unseen breeze, starlight sparkling upon the swirling surface of a nearby stream. The wind carried on through nearby trees, causing silent rattling of iridescent leaves and nearby shadows to dance upon the ground. The place was familiar and serene, and then there was movement.
Rising from the grass not far from the house, a peculiar beast of equal parts scale and wool rose from its slumber. Lifting itself on multiple pairs of spindly legs, the animal tottered in a circle like a drunken pillbug. But if it was among grass, then the thing was at least the size of a sheep, and the large, peculiar structure nearby did not look like a thing of nature.
It could only be one thing.
“We’re going to need more parchment.”
The old man pushed back to retake his place at the helm, but Dace would not yield. After a moment of fruitless shoving the two men looked through the megascope together, each squinting an eye. They spied a glistening rooftop, but no building such as Dace had ever imagined.
“It looks almost like a house,” he said, noticing the walls and shingles all looked to me made of the same stuff that beetle carapaces were made of.
“Not a house,” said Pascal, “an observatory.” Dace snorted.
“How can you possibly tell?”
“The second floor window, “ said the astronomer. “Can’t you see? There’s a small telescope in the window, angled upward…and a light. Gods, look!”
“That light!” Pascal’s voice was as excited as he was incredulous. “Move over, little fish!… yes, yes it is!”
“What is, blast it?” said Dace, furrowing his brow. He believed he had witnessed quite enough enigmas for one day.
“A Lens Heart!” cried the astronomer. “There is a glow that looks like another bleeding Lens Heart in that building.” Dace blinked.
“There’s more than one?”
“Silly little fish,” said Pascal, pulling away to let his apprentice have a turn. “Do you not see? Not only is there more than one Lens Heart, but it’s brother is on another world, physically further even than the Night Stream! Can you imagine?”
The magnitude of the situation was slow to dawn on Dace. Not long ago, he had been a simple farm boy who had possessed but a glimmer of curiosity for the stars. Then he had been shown each star was a sun not so different from their own, and after that he’d been exposed to ideas, theories and drawings that contradicted everything taught by his family, everything said by the Temple Voice. The world was round and not flat; the Night Stream was a ring of glittering rocks and not the river of the gods; and now, not only were there other worlds, but they…
“And how do you suppose the Lens heart got there?”
“Master,” Dace said dreamily, “Come look. There’s more!”
As they stared together, Pascal released a shriek of glee. There was movement, and not that of wind in blue-green grass. Shadows could be seen moving about as other windows in other parts of the house brightened with new lights. The structure seemed to come alive with activity, until at last Dace saw the first of them.
“Gods,” he muttered. “It’s a … it’s a person!” But it was like no individual he had ever laid eyes on, at least as best as they could tell in the dancing lights and shadows.
“A Starman,” Pascal murmured, “Just like in the old ruins! Bless you, Miss Raela for those lovely sketches!”
“You knew there’d be a … err, a Starman?”
“Well I didn’t know know,” said Pascal, defensive. “Hoped, is more like it. Gods, they do exist!”
“How many hands has it got, sir? I can’t rightly tell if its my eyes or the lens or…”
“Four, little fish! The Starmen have four hands, though they stand upright upon two legs like us.” There was a chuckle swimming under his words. “A true Starman…”
The creature beyond the megascope grew visibly excited with every passing moment, dancing about and throwing all its arms into the air. Pascal and Dace each held their breath, keeping silent though they knew nothing could possibly be heard.
The Starman took hold of the Lens Heart in his study, the object still glowing and crackling, and disappeared into deeper parts of the building out of sight of the window.
Before Dace could raise a question, however, they witnessed a change come over the roof of the building. A line appeared along a previously unseen seam, and two great sheets parted and slowly folded to the side. If the Starman was as tall as a normal person, then the building was not much larger than Pascal’s own shanty. The massive roof folded away, and Dace could not help but liken the metamorphosis to an immense insect folding back its wings.
Pascal released a soft, incredulous laugh as Dace tried to understand what he was seeing. The Starman could be seen again, now at the head of a long, twisted sclupture, ending in a wide, reflective surface…
“A megascope,” Pascal declared, more to himself than to Dace. “Gods, the Starman is a fellow astronomer!”
He could be seen with his face planted against part of the megascope that could only be its equivalent to an eyepiece. Four arms could be seen working controls and making adjustments, occasionally reaching to scribble something upon a nearby flat surface. Dace marveled, among all the things to which he could marvel, at how similar the tools and equipment looked between the Starman and his own master. He’d seen the differences in clothing and weaponry between two bordering countries; how these things were so similar between worlds baffled him.
Whether everything might be made of giant parts of as-yet-unseen insects or twisted green metal, Dace could only guess, but one thing for certain was that after a moment of staring through its megascope, the Starman froze in place. The lens was angled eerily up towards them.
“Dace,” Pascal said in a careful, gentle tone. “Lift yourself up, stand over there and … I don’t know. Stretch.”
“What? No, I want to see--”
“Just do it, little fish.”
Dace did as was requested, taking a step away from the scope, stretching his arms high above his head.
“Now, do exactly as I say. Lift one arm, and wave at the sky.”
Dace, with more than a little reluctance, did so.
“Ha!” Pascal shouted, startling his apprentice. “Extraordinary! He’s … the Starman can see you, little fish, just as we can see him!”
“What do we do?” Dace said, lacking any other words. He froze, suddenly self-aware.
“He mimicked your motion!” Pascal squealed. “Two arms, up in the air, like you, then he waved with his right! Ah, now he’s doing his own gesture…placing both sets of hands together, like in prayer, then lifting them upward.”
“This doesn’t make any sense. How is this even possible? You told me distant planetary bodies could not be seen until after they already moved!”
“Pagh! We are stepping into a realm of science to which even I have few explanations, little fish.”
“Let me see,” said Dace, and Pascal allowed him to man the eyepiece so long as he vocalized everything he saw.
“This,” Pascal mumbled to himself, “this kind of discovery would… Gods, the Temple Voice set Ms. Raela to the stake for merely suggesting our world was not flat! Evidence of Starmen would topple everything…”
“He’s moving,” Dace said. Pascal moved to take up his journal, a charcoal stylus in hand.
“Well? Out with it, boy!”
“The Starman looks as excited as you do, sir. He’s stepped away from the megascope, holding his chin with one hand. Pacing around his study, if that’s what it is. Seems to be collecting things. I think he’s writing with his smaller, right-side hand.”
“An extra set of hands sounds most useful,” Pascal muttered, scribbling details onto the parchment. “They must make fantastic craftsmen.”
“Or fearsome warriors…”
“What else, little fish?”
“He’s left the room now. Wait no, he’s back, but with another. Someone smaller, rubbing their eyes. Maybe he’s got an apprentice too, sir! He’s pointing at the megascope, moving his arms around. Oh, he’s doing my gesture, standing straight with one waving hand.”
“I do hope you haven’t insulted him any.”
“The little one is looking now.”
“To hell with the risk! Again, switch with me and wave again!”
“I…sir, they’re gone!” But Pascal refused to believe him. He pushed Dace aside. “What do you mean, gone? Let me see!”
“The view sir,” said Dace. “It’s gone dark.” It had happened as abruptly as thundercloud blocking out the sun.
“Blast it,” Pascal spat. “Hurry, take up some parchment and write down everything while it’s still fresh! We will resume observations on the morrow, when the next window opens.”
At noon the next day, Dace found Pascal in the same place.
“Did you even sleep?”
“Come here boy, hurry,” Pascal said, beckoning his apprentice over. “Whatever darkness has passed overnight, and something else’s happening.” Dace rubbed his eyes, placing a platter of food from downstairs near his master, and took his place on the right side of the eyepiece.
Through the circular, port hole-like view, the lad saw a familiar building surrounded by familiar blue-green grass, though in the daylight the true vibrancy of the flora could be appreciated. The beetle-wing rooftop appeared to be shut, and though one of the six-legged sheep-bugs wandered in the field nearby, Dace could see no sign of the Starman.
“He’s inside,” Pascal said, as though reading the boy’s mind. “I saw him moving about in his home, though. I think he went out sometime during the night, because I watched him get home only fifteen minutes ago.”
“You sure its the same one? What about the smaller one we saw last night?”
Pascal raised his head to glare at Dace.
“That one left too, but did not come back. I’m sure this’s the same one as our ‘colleague.’ Same robes.”
“Then who is that?”
Another Starman was at the door, this one walking with a stride to him that bespoke an individual whose place in the universe was assured. Pascal hated the type, and when Dace heard his master groan, he knew they were both thinking the same thing.
“It’s a bloody priest,” said Pascal.
It was not long before the Starman greeted the priest at the door, letting the pious one inside. For a time Pascal and Dace contented themselves to observe the six-legged sheep-bugs, unable to see either of the Starmen through the windows. There was movement in the rooftop, and the carapace split and opened just like before.
Pascal idly reached for the platter and popped a piece of sliced fruit in his mouth.
“Getting all this?” he asked in a patronizing voice.
Dace scurried to recover his tablet before returning to the astronomer’s side.
“Time,” Pascal said.
“Eleven forty-six,” Dace announced, double checking before scribbling the numerals.
“Our Starman colleague appears to be showing the new priest to his megascope,” the scholar said, taking on a tone of dramatic narration. “He’s gesturing towards it with his two upper, larger arms while keeping his smaller hands pressed together, like what we saw before. Side note, little fish: manual custom observed. Possible religious or cultural significance.
“The priest is standing, towering over our Starman, but he looks patient. Wait, he’s raised a hand - one of the uppers - from the folds of his robe. He’s said something, and now our colleague is gesturing towards the megascope more emphatically. Ah, now the priest’s coming toward the eyepiece… hurry, little fish!”
Startled, Dace jumped back as Pascal leaped up beside him. They were away from the eyepiece and presumably in clear sight.
“Do as I do!” Pascal ordered, and Dace did his best to mimic the motions of his master. They stood straight, waved with their right hands, then clapped both hands together, as if in prayer. Tablet still in his grasp, Dace wondered whether they’d understand at all, and Pascal held the pose for a count of three. Then he scrambled back to the eyepiece, Dace following and pushing to view.
The Otherworld priest recoiled, looking sharply at the scholarly Starman. It looked as though words were being exchanged, but in the mime-like silence it was hard to tell. Dace scribbled notes as they went, the Starman following the priest as he left the room. When they appeared at the front door, the priest strode back down the path visibly upset.
The Starman could be seen once again when he returned to the open space beside his megascope. He paced about his study for a moment, one pair of hands clasped behind his back and the other crossed in front of him. There was a nervous, skinny chicken energy to his steps. As if as an after thought, the Starman stopped and turned his oddly pear-shaped head towards the sky. Dace could have sworn he could make out a pleading expression, but before he could ask, the lens went dark.
“Exactly eleven-thirty, sir.”
“No visual yet,” Pascal said. “Naught but night blackness. I swear, little fish, the wait is the most difficult part of all this. Just think of the things we could learn from the Starmen! The fact that they have a Lens Heart shows they’re at least as competent as us. Maybe moreso, for what little we’ve seen, yea? Oh, the guild will have a field day with this one…”
“But we can’t even talk to them,” said Dace. “How can we learn a language we can’t even hear?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, and an idea came to me in my hammock this morning. We would have to use a language that is universal, that can be seen visually…”
“There is no such thing, sir.”
“Certainly there is, little fish!”
Dace stared at him, truly dumfounded.
“Mathematics, you bumpkin! Surely you don’t think that people from Erastus and people from Sicur practice different maths just because they speak different tongues.”
“So a, err, mathematical language,” Dace repeated, nodding and straining to comprehend.
“That could take some time.”
“An old colleague once told me about the basics. One would equal ‘yes’, and zero would equal ‘no’ - after that’s established, it’d just be a matter of forming questions with diagrams or body language and the like. I’ll send a pigeon at dawn tomorrow.”
“Gods,” Dace said, taking a moment to revel. He lowered the tablet to his side. “I’d love to show all this to Alegria.” Pascal regarded him.
“We will, little fish. Soon, I promise. When our discovery is revealed to the world, you’ll have more to occupy your sights than the clothier’s daughter, I assure you. But you must promise me this: tell no one until I say so. I know what boys your age would want to do and … no, don’t look at me like that! We must gather sufficient evidence, little fish. We cannot show our discovery to the guild - to anyone - without proof, or at least a replicable demonstration.”
“I suppose so.” The lad wandered to the eyepiece and leaned to stare into the dark of the night sky beyond the glittering Night Stream. As he did so, Pascal allowed him his seat, opting to stand and stretch his own legs.
“Well I know so. Near as I can tell, the Otherworld isn’t going anywhere so long as we have the Lens Heart, so proving this won’t be a problem. And by the way,” he strode to a nearby desk, placing a hand on the lacquered surface. His eyes fell on the neat stacks of parchment, organized by date. “You’re a fine apprentice, Dace. Very fine indeed.”
When Dace did not respond, the scholar furrowed his brow.
“When a man compliments you, little fish, it is customary to acknowledge it.”
“Master,” Dace said, “I think I see something.”
“Ah, excellent!” Pascal strode to his side, gleefully leaning down to use his half the eyepiece. He soon took on the expression of a man who had bitten into a lemon. Beyond, they could still see darkness, but lights began to appear, much like a starry sky.
“Did the Otherworld move?”
There was an agonizing moment when nothing changed, nothing could be heard save the beating of his own heart, and Dace felt the horrifying realization creep in. His hopes, his dream…
“No,” said Pascal with a sigh. “No, it’s still there. See the outline of the house? It’s awfully dark yes, but it’s still there. Gods,” he wiped his brow. “But what are those lights, and why are they moving…?”
“Master, they’re torches!”
And then it was clear to them. The Starman’s house slowly came into view as the shroud dissipated, the power of the Lens Hearts making whatever arcane connection it did between the two megascopes. Dace could see the Starman himself, dressed in his usual robe and blinking his great eyes, sitting at the head of his machine. With a start, he lifted a hand, keeping his eyes on the sights, and waved. Pascal and Dace returned the gesture, and the apprentice could not help but smile. They had known of each other’s existence for but a few days, but already he regarded the Starman almost as a friend. But there were torches outside, and as far as Dace could tell, their Starman was unaware. So many torches, and in so many directions…
Dace suddenly leapt up and, as far as Pascal could tell, started doing exercises in plain sight.
“The hell’re you playing at, little fish?” Dace threw his arms in one direction, pointing at a window in their observatory. “I think he knows what a window is.”
“Not ours,” Dace huffed, resuming the exaggerated motion. “His!”
Pascal’s eyes went back down, and he saw the Starman reacting.
“He’s… oh gods, those are torches, Dace! He’s running to the window now, it looks as though he saw your signal. He’s panicked! He’s pacing around the room!” Dace came back to the eyepiece and watched.
The Starman indeed looked panicked. He strode from one end of the study to the other, and then shapes could be seen coming into the light that emanated from the windows. Shapes carrying torches. Other invaders came and banged on the door, some of them holding spears and lengths of rope. The banging was evidently heard, as seen by the Starman’s reinvigorated pacing.
“Gods,” said Dace, “what do we do?”
“What can we do?” Pascal said, his expression grim.
There was a burst as glittering shards sprang outward from the building. A window had shattered, and the Starman could be seen emerging out the side. He had disrobed, tied a makeshift rope from the strips, having made use of his double sets of hands. Pascal cheered as the Starman descended from his second-floor window, climbing with all the grace of a spider. When he reached the blue-green grass, he turned to see that the house had caught fire.
Invading Starmen could be seen throwing their torches en masse upon the roofs and into windows on the other side. The flames spread, catching to the beetle-carapace as readily as seasoned pine. The Starman stared at what Dace could only assume was his home, a place as precious to him as the observatory and the megascope and the Lens Heart was to Pascal. His eyes flicked toward the megascope itself, and he could see flames of yellow and green crawl their way towards the strange, magical machine. The image began to flicker and distort.
“No,” Pascal whimpered, no doubt seeing every detail that Dace noticed. The flames, grew, engulfed the house, devoured the megascope. The last thing Dace saw was a mob of angry men surrounding the Starman, brandishing jagged weaponry and pressing him against the burning house.
The view beyond the eyepiece went black.
The observatory fell silent save the hum of the Lens Heart, and Pascal reeled, slumping in his chair. There was a moment of stillness until the master met the eyes of the apprentice.
On Pascal’s orders, Dace retrieved a hammer, and approached the megascope with it raised high in the air..
Wind swept across the dusty road, whipping sand into Dace’s face. He snorted in an attempt to dislodge the particles that seemed to wedge their way into creases he did not even know he had, and it wasn’t long before his eyes began to water with the effort.
“Come now, little fish,” Pascal called from ahead of him. “It’s a long way to Erastus and we mustn’t dawdle.”
Dace looked to his master once his face was clear of sand, and turned away from the wind. He saw Loadroan in the distance behind them, a town he had hardly come to know as home in the last several months, but still a place he started to like. His thoughts drifted to Alegria, who knew nothing of his doings with his uncle, and how much she would never know. On Pascal’s request, they had left without sending word to anyone but those whom he could trust, and since Dace knew almost nobody, that made the number of people he could tell come to exactly zero.
A hand idly reached to a satchel at his side, and Dace reached inside to feel its contents. A moment later, he beheld the Lens Heart aloft in his palm, swirling filament warm against his skin. The wind picked up once more, and he quickly stowed the precious artifact away. In Erastus he would no doubt meet the apprentices of Pascal’s colleagues, and who knows what else. The big city held many wonders, and until recently Dace thought of Loadroan as a ‘big city.’
“No,” Pascal had told him, when the farmboy asked. “Loadroan is a backwater trading post compared to Erastus. You’ll see.”
With a whirl of his travel cloak, Dace turned to rejoin his uncle on the road.