The Astrologer

The candle’s little amber flame at last melted its wax just enough to let the bronze nail’s heaviness pull itself free, to fall upon the copper candle-stand. The circular disc—bent upward along the rim, like a cymbal—chimed twice, as the nail bounced on the thin-beaten copper. As the stand trembled, the first clear sound fuzzed to a quiet ringing, and silence.

Doraeus twisted under the thin cotton sheet. Rolling his legs toward the edge of his bed, blurry sleep fought to keep his mind from contemplating higher thoughts. Outside the door, one of the Great Library’s novices coughed. Their shadow shifted at the bottom of the wooden door, as they fidgeted in the torchlight. The sage groaned. His skin was hot, the sheet sweat-stained with the unrelenting burn of the Esrolian summer. Doraeus had never imagined Yelm would be so much more stern here, than in Furthest.

Still, Nochet was the only city you could get a decent cup of Kralorelan black tea at any hour of night. Accepting a post among Queen Samastina’s astrologers had its perks.

Naked and still covered in sweat from his day’s sleep, Doraeus walked to the window and pulled aside the heavy ram’s-wool curtain. He barely noticed the wind’s biting sea-scent anymore. Only the first fresh breeze caught his wakening mind each evening. The world was headed to bed when Doraeus woke. All the world but Nochet. No, not Nochet, the City of Mothers, the City of Queens. She never slept. Even now, pitch burnt from long torches at irregular intervals along the streets. Songs staggered along on the air. Bare fragments of drunkards flirting in verse, haulers chanting whilst loading their vessels for the morn.

Wiping grit from his eyes, Doraeus gathered his flat, padded lap-desk, and sat on the bed. “Come in,” he said, barely glancing over when the door cracked. “Light the fire. Bring bread, and tea.” This one—female, younger, he couldn’t remember any of their damn names—at least had learned not to speak and bother Doraeus at his work. He continued reading the previous night’s notes tracking the oscillation of the fourth star of the Hunter while the novice worked. She yawned, and Doraeus’s left cheek twitched irritably. The star had taken on a right-hand twist during the fifth hour, without measurable vertical or horizontal movement. Rotating about thirty degrees rightward, then still for a count of two hundred and seventy-four. And again, for ten cycles.

Doraeus got up, grabbed his robe and jeweled beard—apparently artificial beards were the fashion, currently, and the Queen demanded it or something—then left the priests’ dormitories for the central staircase. Tonight’s novice’s eyes widened as strode down the smoothed wooden floor, but at least she just followed him instead of protesting.

Good. Maybe this one would be worth teaching something.

The sage’s toes pressed into the rougher planks of the staircase, his mind still on the Hunter. The Queen’s sycophants probably had new horoscopes or predictions for him to examine, but they could wait. At worst, he’d scribble some gnomic gibberish. This puzzle was more worth his time. Reaching the Great Library’s roof, Doraeus reached out and grabbed the cup of black tea. Still hot. He drank while looking up into the heavens. It scalded his mouth. Good. One less damned sense to worry about. The less he could taste, the less time Doraeus would waste on meals.

“Slippers,” he said, shoving the little clay cup in the novice’s direction. “And more tea.” He let go of the cup and began to climb the lesser stair, up into the temple’s gilded dome.

Two men stood together in the flat space, gazing up at the dome’s painted ceiling. A masterwork, a near-perfect replica of the heavens in pigment. One could almost admire its artistry, if the painter hadn’t reversed the Twin Stars. Still, it was pretty good.

“Out,” Doraeus said. Already his eyes had lifted to where the Hunter would be tonight. Another flaw in the art. No rotation. The priestly sage wasn’t sure how a painter would do that but fortunately, he didn’t care. One of the men began to say something, and was hushed by the other. Doraeus dropped to his knees in the middle of the floor, and pressed both hands against the lines of silver inlaid there.

Life in Nochet had its perks, yes. The Queen’s silver filled Doraeus’s purse as well as anyone, though she did do it faster. The tea was good. The novices learned a bit quicker than in Furthest. But this, here, was the true reason Doraeus accepted the offer extended by the Queen’s chief astrologer.

The Orrery.

Doraeus began to slowly chant the memory aid, closing his eyes to fall deep within himself. The patterns of the silver on the floor traced through his mind, extending his awareness. It had taken nearly a year for even Doraeus to attune himself to this. The local priests weren’t entirely useless in explaining the basics. Yet they thought, because of this enchantment, there was little need to gaze upon the heavens with one’s own eyes. They had lost reverence in the delicious beauty of explanation. And so night after night, Doraeus had the Orrery to himself. The Queen’s diviners and fortune-peddlers peeked at the heavens like stealing a glance up Ourania’s skirts. In seeking Nochet’s favor, they abandoned the true celestial scholarship to Doraeus.

Once the full pattern was in Doraeus’s mind, he breathed out. Power drained from him, and into the silver-wrought enchantment. His extended consciousness felt power drawn from the four statues placed in the chamber’s cardinal directions. The arcane construct within Rausa’s effigy had begun to run low, and soon Doraeus would need to instruct a few novices to replenish it. Really, it was stupid that even in the Great Library none of the administrators had thought to arrange a weekly servicing. There seemed little point to their work, if Doraeus had to waste mental space recalling such details.

The silver lines began to glow, and the dome above rotated silently, the paint flowing like a mudslide until it reflected the true heavens. Doraeus smiled. With three subtle gestures of his right hand, the Orrery moved, and the stars of the Hunter grew larger. Even the splendid Farsee enchantments bound into the Stargazer’s Tower of his old temple in Furthest hadn’t shown such detail. Doraeus flicked his fingers again, and let the enchantment draw upon a little more of his will. More. More. Until the Hunter’s stars grew nearly to the size of the Red Goddess, in an unaltered sky.

Barely blinking, Doraeus stared at the lights. Waiting. He could do so for hours, if need be. The mundane, well, that’s what novices were for. Eliminating distractions, so Doraeus could devote himself to the Light.

He did not have to wait long. Excitement surged from Doraeus’s chest, tingling down to where his fingertips pressed against the still-cold silver. The fourth star turned. Very similar to last night, it turned toward the right. Doraeus began to count. “Seventy-two, it’s seventy-two,” he muttered, shaking his head. Willing still more power into the Orrery, he felt it turn like a cramping muscle inside his head. Focusing on the fourth star, only the fourth star of the Hunter, until its light filled the chamber like an illusion of dawn.

When it twisted again, two faint flecks of light soared off, toward the center of the sky. They returned on the two hundred and seventieth count. Still for two, and then the star rotated.

“What are you?” Doraeus whispered, when just one fleck fled toward the Polestar. Perhaps he was seeing spiritual action at a distance? If so, this could prove Tryganeia’s Hypothesis, demonstrate that with sufficiently powerful magic, one can see the active movement of the Sky. See the daily lives of stars, the thoughts of the gods, writ large upon the vault of heaven where any person of knowledge might look and read. “Novice,” he said, “watch closely.”

She moved, somewhere over by the chamber’s entrance. Her feet shuffling on the floor, as she stepped into the Orrery. Silent, as duty decreed.

“No sage that I have read records such movements,” Doraeus said. His voice felt rough, his throat thick. Did he remember to drink the second cup of tea? Irrelevant. “This, this moment, is why we follow the Knowing God.”

“It’s beautiful,” said the novice.

“Yes,” said the sage.

And then the fourth star of the Hunter fell out of heaven.

The fate of the fourth star will be revealed in The Queen’s Star, available on Friday, May 26th, on the Jonstown Compendium.

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