"So what do you think?" Nila asked me.
"About what?" I asked.
"About the thing we've just been talking about?" she said.
I looked back and forth between her and Saledameki. All I got was a pair of blank stares.
I asked, "Sorry, what was that? What was the topic?"
"See?" Saledameki chipped in. "Completely out of it. All day."
I shook my head. "Sorry. What were... what were we talking about?"
Heaving a sigh, Saledameki leaned forward and rested her upper body on the table. "The apprenticeship."
"Yeah," Nila added. "Whether I should take it."
"Apprenticeship?" I asked her.
"Yeah. I'm going to apprentice with the goddess Hamia."
"You can do better," Saledameki muttered as she closed her eyes. "You should apprentice with the goddess of kicking guys in the face."
"There's a goddess of kicking guys in the face?" I asked.
"Yeah. She's called Buckley. Or you could apprentice with the goddess of blowing shit up. Dynamina. Actually, never mind. I wanna apprentice with her. You can have Buckley."
I looked at the two of them again, standing opposite the table from me.
"Duh!" Nila groaned. "I'm talking about the apprenticeship with Ramsinor the paint mixer! What have I been talking about for the last week?"
"She doesn't know," said Saledameki. "She's got her head in the clouds."
"Really? Oh! Oh! It's Trent, right?" Nila gasped. "Did he finally ask you out?"
"What? No," I said. "Why would... why would I want to go out with Trent?"
"Good question," Saledameki murmured.
"Haven't you noticed?" Nila asked me.
"Noticed what?" I said.
Nila glared at me. She added a couple of additional gestures: a head shake and a spreading of her arms.
I returned the combination of gestures to her. "What?"
"He's been, like, totally into you ever since we got back from summer break," she said. "Besides... look at him." She nodded toward the corner of the lunchroom.
I began to turn around.
"Don't look at him!" Nila hissed at me.
"What?" I asked her. "You just said, 'look at him'!"
"I didn't mean look at him! I just meant, like, look at him!"
"Phro," I sighed. "Whatever, bitch."
I looked up and down the lunchroom, thinking as I did so that the place seemed to be a little quieter today. Less lively.
The three of us stood in our habitual spot at the end of one of the tables, close to the door. There was a second table behind me, and another behind Nila and Saledameki. All three were parallel, and down to my right, each table had another one placed just after it, with a gap wide enough for two people to pass one another. So there were six tables in total. Each one was long enough to fit about ten people on each side, if we squeezed in.
The entire student body could have squeezed into the lunchroom, but we never did. The other half had their lunch during fourth period, right before us. That meant there was some spare room; per usual, we had half of our table to ourselves. Joss, Mist, Chaelin, and Elementine stood at the other end of our table.
I took a glance over my shoulder, at the table next to the one behind me. That was where most of the other polo players, aside from Nila, normally stood. Trent didn't play polo, but he was there anyway.
Trent was just a bit shorter than me, with black hair that he let grow out into a mop around his ears. He was wearing a black vest over his upper body, the part that had bare skin with only a little hair.
Below the waist, everything was coated in thick sorrel hairs. There were four legs that ended in ungulate hooves, all marked with white boots just past his fetlocks. From his hindquarters, a tail made up of long black hairs sprouted.
No matter where I looked around the lunchroom, it was the same. The colours and markings were different; Mist had a gray coat, and her boyfriend Joss had a black one. Standing in the corner of the room, Ms Josmin – whom I gave a little wave – was bay with black points. But we all had mostly hairless upper bodies with two arms, and a lower body with four legs, a tail, and a coat. We were all taurine.
In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that we were actually two species stitched together at the waist.
Saledameki stood up straight again. She paused a moment to turn her head back and forth, until her wavy black hair settled over her shoulders and down her back. She said to Nila, "She doesn't know. I told you, she's got her head up in the clouds. Sky in name, sky in mind."
Nila gave Saledameki a puzzled look.
Saledameki turned to me. "It's tonight, right?"
"Yeah," I said to her.
"What's tonight?" Nila asked.
I had to giggle at the way she was now turning her head back and forth between Saledameki and me. Her black ponytail flopped one way, then the other.
Finally, Saledameki gave in and allowed her a hint. She jerked her thumb upward and whistled a rising note.
"Yeah," I said. "First time this year."
"Oh," Nila said, nodding her head. "Tonight's your first chance?"
"How long are you gonna have?"
"At least three hours, probably," I shrugged. "Could be as much as three and a half."
"That's pretty good, isn't it?" she asked. "For a first weekend, I mean."
"It's okay, I guess. I mean, it'll be, like, six hours next weekend."
"Cool," Nila said. "Pretty soon you'll have the sky 24/7."
"It's not quite like that," I said. "But yeah, by, like, next month it'll be good seeing all night."
Just then, the bell rang.
"Ugh," Saledameki said, making a face of disgust. "Trig."
"You don't like it?" I asked her as I collected everything into the bag on my left flank and backed away from the table. "Sorry," Sevan and I both said as we bumped into one another.
"Hate it," Saledameki spat.
"Want some help with it?"
"Nah," she said. "I'll figure it out at some point."
"Okay," I said. "Well, if you do need some help, just come out to Copper Point. I'll be there tonight and tomorrow night."
"Well, I might have some stuff to ask you later. But... I mean, I don't want to distract you from your stars and... whatever."
I shrugged. In truth, I didn't mind the occasional distraction. I couldn't concentrate on the skies for hours on end, though the two of them seemed to believe otherwise.
"See you guys later," I said as they turned left out of the lunchroom toward Ms Stigar's trigonometry class. I went straight ahead, toward Ms Viola's leather tanning class.
Once sixth period was done, I met the two of them outside the front doors. Our classmates streamed past us.
"You've got polo, right?" Saledameki asked Nila.
"Yeah." Nila was in a group of polo players, including students and a few other townspeople, that got together every Tuesday and Friday. "Heading over there now. What are you doing later, Mek?"
"Later tonight, or this weekend?" Saledameki asked.
"Either," Nila shrugged.
"Studying tonight, I guess. Then tomorrow... I don't know. Shopping?"
"Well, if you go shopping tomorrow, want to come get me before you go?" Nila asked her.
"Sure. How about you, Sky?"
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe."
Saledameki said, "Well, if we go, we'll stop by your place and see if we can pull your head out of the clouds."
"Okay," I laughed. "Good night, guys."
"Later," Nila said. "Hope you find some good stars tonight."
"Yeah," Saledameki said.
I waved goodbye to them and then began to trot home.
The Sun was low in the western sky. It would soon set, but as I told Nila and Saledameki, I would only get about three hours of good observations tonight. After the Sun set, it would stay close to the horizon for a few more hours before it finally got dark enough.
But I put that out of my mind for the moment, as I made my way through town.
The latest census put our total population at just over one thousand. According to our agriculture teacher, Ms Claine, that was probably getting close to the limit we could support on the available land that we had.
That available land was not really all that much. It totalled about sixty mecompi. I could trot around the perimeter of our town in under three hours.
That's if all of it was passable land. We're squeezed in between a rocky shoreline to the north and some steep cliffs to the south. The cliffs curve around and go right up to the sea, so we are basically locked in.
Actually, to the west, there is some passable terrain between the cliffs and the shore. But that area is forbidden, of course.
As I got close to Serenity Street, I heard a shout from behind me, "Hey Skylar."
"Hey Ben," I said.
My brother, Ben, was two years younger than me. As he approached, I saw that his blond hair had been blown to the side by the wind. I tried to straighten it.
"Phro," he said, ducking out of the way. "Leave it alone."
"You can't leave it all off to the side like that," I told him. "People are going to say we look alike."
"They already say that," he replied. "If you don't want to look like me, why don't you just grow your hair out?"
We turned onto Serenity Street. I said, "You grow yours out. I had this hairstyle first."
"No you didn't."
"Of course I did."
We continued our witty dialogue as we walked down the street.
Ben and I almost did look alike. He was only a tiny bit shorter than I was, and he was probably not yet done growing. Our coats were both sorrel, like our parents, and we both had white pasterns just above our hooves. Our oval faces, both with pointed chins, made us look even more similar.
I trotted up the lane and got to our door first. I opened it and called out, "Hey, we're home."
A couple of minutes later, our father came out into the front room. "Hey, you two," he said as he gave me a kiss on my cheek.
"Ugh," I said. "Hi."
As per usual, he spared my brother any such treatment.
I ducked around the two of them and went back to my room. As I threw my bags down on my bed, I shouted, "I'm going observing tonight."
My father came to my door and asked, "When are you leaving?"
"I don't know," I said, pulling my logbooks and spreadsheets off my shelves. "After dinner, I guess."
"Tomorrow night too?"
"Okay," he answered. "Well, be careful out there."
"You always say that."
"Well, I always want you to be careful."
"How about 'Have a good time'? How about 'Hope you have some good observations and you unlock the secrets of the cosmos'? How about something like that?"
Instead of going with one of my suggestions, he said, "Something on your mind, champ?"
"Why do you still call me that?" I asked him. "I haven't touched a harpoon in, like, years."
"Once a champ, always a champ," he replied, all too glibly I thought.
I put the spreadsheets down and glared at him, folding my arms across my chest.
"I mean it," he added. "I bet if you picked up a harpoon today, you'd still beat anyone else out there."
"I don't want to pick up a harpoon."
"You want to pick up a sextant instead?"
"No, actually, I want to pick up a quadrant." For effect, I picked up the quadrant off my desk.
He didn't respond to that. He just stared at me, tilting his head a bit to the side.
I let my arms fall to my sides and huffed, "What?"
"See you at dinner, okay?" He turned around and headed away.
"Yeah," I said.
I rolled up the spreadsheets and stuffed them, along with the logbooks and the quadrant, into a bag, back home where they belonged.
We had a quiet dinner of salmon with a side salad. Afterwards, I retired to my room to make sure I had everything, and then I strapped the bags to my flanks.
"Okay, I'm going!" I shouted.
On my way out, my father was waiting for me in the front room. "Great," he said. "Have a good time out there."
"And I really do hope you unlock all the mysteries of the cosmos."
He gave me another kiss, this on the side of my forehead.
"I'll see what I can do," I answered.
"We'll probably be in bed by the time you get home," he went on. "Just try not to wake us when you get back."
As I went out the front door, I replied, "I know the routine, Dad."
"I know. Good night, sweetie. And say hi to your mother."
I stopped and turned around. "I will, Dad," I said.
We lived on the west side of town, and Copper Point was on the coastline to the north. It would be about thirty minutes if I could trot the entire way, but the last thousand compi or so were through forest, though there was a path that had been cleared out. I got there with plenty of time until the end of twilight.
As I got to the edge of the forest, though, I sensed something.
I looked all around me. Nobody was following me. There didn't seem to be anything in the trees. I even looked out toward the water, but I couldn't see anything.
Then I spotted it.
Rather, I spotted her.
Copper Point was the farthest western extent of the curved shoreline that defined the Bay of Palascator. Further to the west, the shoreline was fairly straight for what must have been thousands of compi. Both shores were yellow-white sandy beaches that were fronted closely by the forests. The trees stopped near the point, and the last fifty compi or so were simply grass, before reaching the rocks of Copper Point.
And someone was lying on the grass near Copper Point, not ten compi from me.
It wasn't yet dark enough. Only the brighter stars were visible, arcing overhead in their many patterns.
I leaned forward to see if I could tell who she was by her markings. She was lying down, but neither her fore legs nor her hind legs were visible.
And then it hit me.
She didn't have any legs at all. She was a mer.
My heart began to pound. I had never been this close to one of them.
For a second, I found myself, as though by instinct, wishing for a harpoon.
But then I thought, That's terrible. She hasn't done anything to me.
Well, she was hogging my spot, I suppose. But that would not have warranted the visceral, callous thought that first came to my mind.
In the darkness, I couldn't see much of her. Her hair curled away from her head, looking like it was braided up. She seemed to have a very narrow waist, much more narrow than you would ever see on my kind. From that narrow waist, her lower body extended away from me. It seemed to have a brighter colour than the rest of her, but I couldn't tell for sure.
I placed a hand on the tree next to me and took a careful step forward.
But it turned out not to be careful enough. There was a snapping sound that came from underneath me. I must have stepped on a twig.
And in a flash, she was gone.
All I heard was a sharp gasp, and then a ploonk in the water to the right of where she had been lying. I couldn't see anything that might have happened in between.
I waited a few minutes, scanning the water all the while. I could see no activity.
Finally, I walked out of the forest and took up my usual position on the point. I spread out my blanket and collected a few rocks to weight down the corners of the blanket and of my charts and spreadsheets.
Before long, it was dark enough to start making some good observations. I tried to pick up where I left off last spring, on the fixed stars.
Most people didn't seem to notice that there were a lot of stars that didn't move.
That is to say, they moved across the sky over the course of the night. But they always stayed in fixed positions relative to one another. The other stars crisscrossed the sky, all moving in different directions. They existed in huge numbers – I estimated more than ten thousand. The fixed stars were a little hard to pick out, but they had become obvious to me not long after I started looking at the sky.
I only had about three hours of good seeing on this night, but it was enough to identify a few more fixed stars and plot them on the map I was building. That took me over the hundred mark.
I also took some measurements of the moving stars. They moved at different rates: some of them crossed the sky in a matter of minutes, while some of them took several hours.
Finally, I spotted a few items that I called comets. These were objects that momentarily became brighter as they either descended toward the horizon or ascended away from it. I had no idea what they were, but they always moved toward or away from the same spot on the horizon, about thirty degrees south of west. I saw two descending comets and one ascending comet on this night.
A little over an hour after midnight, it was becoming light enough to wash out many of the fixed stars. So I began to pack up.
Kicking the rocks off, I folded up the blanket and stowed it in the bag on my left flank.
There was something on the ground underneath.
I bent down and picked it up gingerly. It looked like it had been flattened underneath me, so I tried to determine its original shape. It had two flat pieces of material joined at the sides, but there didn't seem to be any seams or anything on the sides. In fact, the sides looked more like they had been folded over like paper. If I unfolded them, the whole thing started to look like a loop, or maybe a hoop.
Actually, the whole thing reminded me of a few sheets of paper, attached end to end, but with the last sheet then attached to the first one to make a continuous loop.
But this was made up of long, flat strips in dark green, all weaved together into a tight crossed pattern. They folded over on one edge of the loop, which I thought of as the bottom. On the top, the strips broke free of the weave and extended another inch or two, as though the sheets of paper had strips cut out of them on one side before they were all attached together.
I put it on my head, but the loop was too big around to fit there.
But the mer had long hair, like a braid. Maybe it fit across her forehead and then extended down? Maybe in the back, it attached to her braid?
I put it back on my head. I flattened the sides against my hair, and in the back, I pulled it down. I started to imagine that maybe I could attach it if I had a braid back there.
I began to put the loop away in a bag, but before I took a single step away from Copper Point, I knew that was wrong. She was going to want this back.
But how could I return it? Just drop it in the water? Even if she had an address down there, how would I know what it was, and how would I write it on this thing?
I stepped forward, toward the edge of Copper Point. The grass was about two compi above sea level, with a bit of an incline toward the point, so that the rocks were about three compi above the water.
I folded my legs underneath myself and carefully sat down. Then I leaned my upper body out, forward, and then down. The rocks here were large, and try as I might, I could not dislodge them out of their places.
Not knowing what else to do, I folded the loop again and slid it between two of the rocks. One end stuck out, and I hoped it would be enough for her to find it.
That done, I stood up straight and turned around.
But when I got to the edge of the grass, I realised what I had forgotten to do.
Down on the ground, next to one of the trees, was a flat stone. This one had been carved, though, into a rectangular shape. The granite had then been polished. There were four stars engraved at the top, and then words beneath that.
FRIEND OF ALL
LEADER OF WARRIORS
DEFENDER OF THE TAURINE
I bent down and touched my hand to my lips, and then to the stone.
"Sorry, Mom," I said. "Didn't mean to forget you."