Interlude: The Universe Is Too Big For Small Talk
"That one is Haixmar," Rosa said, pointing to one of the brighter lights in the sky.
"Haixmar," Jen said. "That's different. We call it the Wolf Star." He pointed to a duller star, to the east. "What about that one, the red one? That's the Campfire."
"Takuat," Rosa said. "But I don't see why it can't be the Campfire as well. It's like what it is. Maybe it has its own name for itself, and whatever we call it is always going to be wrong." She propped her elbows on the rail, leaning over so she could get a better look at the night sky.
They were two days from Sia Loxol, two days of travel through the lurid green hills of the lowlands. The three of them had offered their services as guards to a small caravan transporting paper south-west to Sia Marhu. The pay turned out to be more welcome than ever then Jen expected when he discovered that the southern roads did indeed have waystations, but they were actively guarded. No payment - for each one of them - meant no admission. Already his money from Sia Loxol was running low, and he'd wondered what would have happened if he'd had nothing. But the waystations here were not the little wooden huts he remembered, but practically villages in and of themselves. Stout walls surrounded a compound full of low buildings and watchtowers, atop which he and Rosa now stood, whilst Cinn curled at her heels.
Despite the payment, he was glad of those walls. The nights were darker this far south, the roads were unlit and blanketed in darkness, and while they were mercifully quiet, it was only because something else was warding everything else off. On occasions he could still hear it, a low growling noise that echoed through the hills and could be felt through his feet. He couldn't place the call, and though Dhaymin was no doubt itching to know what it was, he decided he was better off in here.
"So that one," he said, pointing to a star he knew well. It was a fast moving point of brilliant light, just above the horizon. "That's the Ice Star, for me."
"Oh, that's Hybari," said Rosa.
"Hybari? But that's not a star, that's a..."
Standing here with Rosa brought him back to one of his favourite books when he was young. His father had forbidden him to touch it, as he did with all the books, but he forbade this one in particular because it had been his sister's favourite too, when she was alive. Jen would sneak it away anyway, and in the last year he'd grown a sneaking suspicion that the woman who would have been his aunt would have approved of his actions. Inside, the writer described the names and motions of the planets, and Jen would sit fixated for hours on the diagrams, curling lines that described each world's orbit.
He'd thought that he could understand a little about that, at least.
"But I didn't think you could see the planets," he said. "I thought people found them with telescopes."
"Not all of them," Rosa said. "But Hybari is usually bright, I'm sure you know that... and over there-" she pointed to another speck of light, this one dull red- "that's Barsu."
"Oh." Jen thought back to the inked drawings, complete with descriptions of both worlds - one pale and icy, one dusty and scattered with deep valleys. He'd always known they were there, somewhere up in the night sky, but it had slipped his mind that they might have been visible all along. In his world, the lights in the sky were all stars, nothing more.
He rested his hands on the rail and looked back at Rosa. Staring back up at the stars in wonder, she didn't look as if she'd paid much attention to his mistake, but suppose she merely said nothing to distance herself from his ignorance? Even he had heard of Fellstar Peak as a child. Bala had even told him stories about the time she'd seen it in the Jakvinta war, but he never knew if she was making it up. It was perched high in the Tuvayka Mountains, where the air was so thin you could almost touch the stars right there, and it was where the scholar lords of Toxilivita would brave the wilds to come marvel at the night sky. Some said that Toxilivital had overrun Jakvinta, the nation for which Fellstar was once the capital, merely to take hold of its observatories, for they were amongst the finest in the world.
And Rosa was standing with him, a minor warrior lord's son who couldn't even name the stars right. He consoled himself with the reassurance that what was a star and what was a planet meant nothing to a beast hunter who didn't want to end up on the wrong side of some sharp teeth right here on the ground, but he still felt a hot, prickling sensation about his ears. He stood in a hunched position, trying to compress his height into something smaller.
"It moved differently, you see," Rosa was saying. "You see it moves across the sky, not with it? Sometimes backwards too? And-"
"I'm sorry. You must think I'm an idiot."
Rosa stopped, and looked up at him. "Why would I think you're an idiot?"
"Because... there." Jen pointed to Hybari again. "I didn't even know that wasn't a star. Honestly, I don't even know what stars are. And you-"
"Oh, that's fine. They're suns."
"You know, like the sun? Only further away, so we can only see them at night?"
"Suns. Yes." Jen rubbed himself behind the ear.
"I don't think a lot of people know that," Rosa went on, "so it's not as if..." She paused. Her hand reached down to pet the dog at her side, as Cinn had just sat up as though she could understand what had happened. "Oh! No! You're not an idiot. Not because you didn't know. I don't know plenty of things. Some of them are important, no doubt. I'll probably find out right when I most need to... No. No, you care."
"Your family, though," Jen said. Her words were comfort, but a small one. No matter what she said, this was one realm where she would always hold the advantage.
"You care," she repeated. "That's why I'm running. Would your father have cared what the stars are?"
"Not as long as they were there. He... had other things to think about."
"Mine neither," Rosa said. "You wanted to know why I'm here, didn't you? I... I saw the looks you were giving me in the theatre. I told you what... but you don't know why, do you?" She was holding on to the rail now with one hand, and though she never took her eyes from the sky, Jen shuffled closer to her. "Fellstar was given to my family after a battle. It was a reward. We took it all. The libraries, the gardens, the telescopes, the peach trees... and we did nothing with it."
Jen thought back to the stories she'd told him of her childhood, of exploring vast libraries alone. He opened his mouth to speak. For Rakaros' own sake! Do you know what I would still give to have been raised there? The words were waiting on his tongue, and yet, he froze.
She was shaking, one hand gripping the rail so tight he could picture it splintering in her fingers, the other dug deep into Cinn's mane. There were things she was not saying, things she still chose not to tell even him, and his burst of anger melted as swiftly as it arose. He moved closer still, so that his arm brushed against hers. He should do something more than this, hold as tight as they held one another in Kastek, when they had each spilled the first of their secrets. No, he wanted to say, no, don't say any more, you don't need to say any more, come here and we'll forget about it. But she did not even react to his touch, and he realised that as much as she was speaking to him, she was speaking to the land and the sky, talking for the sake of talking. She needed this moment, and he let her take it.
"The astronomer Daya Ryn discovered the fifth moon of Maruvemu from that observatory. You don't stop for that, not even if you think it's pointless." She must have realised again that he had no idea what she meant, because though she did not look away, she offered an explanation. "He died well before any of this happened. Don't know what he'd think of the world now. He said once..."
She relaxed her grip, and began to quote.
"'To merely know something is the most important of all things, even if we don't yet understand why.'"
Her voice lapsed, her hand let go of the rail.
And in a moment of clarity, Jen understood. No, not quite. He could never understand, as long as he lived. But he could see now that when she looked at the night sky, she gave it the same thought that he would to a candle burning at midwinter, while he pleased for the light and warmth to return. It was not for survival's stake that she observed its depths, not even mere curiosity, but reverence.
"Of course he... well, I thought of it as..." Her voice slipped into formality again, but this time, it was a line that Jen knew well. "'And Rakaros saw that they had hands with which to touch and shape, and minds with which to think and wonder...'"
"'...and so he knew that this was good, for they would grow to understand their world,'" Jen finished, in unison.
"Yes," she said, and he felt her arm wrap around his back. He rested his head on hers, his chin nestled in her thick black curls. "Did you want to go back?" she said.
"Not yet," said Jen. "You could teach me some more stars, first."