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Damien, the Old Master, the greatest scholar in the empire of Merlia, was a figure who radiated power in his own incomparable way. His was not the manner of kings and princes, and other such lavish idlers or spectre- wielding braggarts. No, his majesty was in his languorous steps by the river bank as they fell on the cold sand, making not a sound, and in the slow, deliberate way his chin moved as he spoke to the fellow- instructor. This pleasant stroll by the Tibia may well play host to a conversation that decided the fortunes of kingdoms and the fall of monarchs, or revealed the mysteries of the cosmos.
Which was why Wladem, the Student, remained rooted to the spot as firmly as the banyan beneath which he stood, struck by awe, intimidated by the stature of the man he was about to approach. Would someone in Damien’s position even bother to lend a puny, insignificant student like him a moment’s notice? Was the dialogue he was presently involved in too important to be interrupted? Would he, Wladem, if actually given a say, be able to carry out his half of the discussion as well as he must: would he not stumble over his feet, or fumble with his words? Was it actually worthy of the great master’s notice, the matter Wladem was about to present before him? There, Wladem found some confidence. Yes, he suspected the matter was worthy.
Summoning all the nerve he had, he whisked himself out of his brambly hiding place- swiftly, before he could change his mind- and took his hurried, jarringly echoing steps towards the two figures silhouetted against the light of the waxing crescent moon. The moon: another reminder of his purpose, it gave him the courage that kept him from turning back and fleeing the moment Damien turned his head to behold the clearly heard pursuer.
Immediately, Wladem dropped to his knees and bowed his head to pay his well- rehearsed customary respects. “Oh, most venerable Damien, master of masters, solicitor of the King, knower of the stars and the scriptures, I most humbly beg for your invaluable attention.” He had managed to produce the exact words his teacher had recommended: no doubt the fact that he was staring at Damien’s feet had helped. For when he looked into the master’s clear, astute blue eyes- the exact colour that the river would be in mid- afternoon, he shrank in wonderment. Damien did not look particularly pleased. He glanced at the instructor who was accompanying him, and Wladem then realised his great mistake, flushing with annoyance at himself. He dropped before the second teacher and, staring at the ground, muttered a greeting that was equally grand in its phrasing, but slightly slurred in utterance. This instructor was slight, a mere shadow before the Master, a middle- aged man with curly hair and an oddly angular face.
When Wladem looked up, to his relief, Damien seemed to look upon him with approval. Clearly, this great man was fastidious about the respectful treatment of his relative subordinates.
“You are a student?” he enquired in a deep, low voice.
“I am, Master. My name is Wladem.”
“What is your discipline?”
“I study astronomy, sir, under Master Humer. It is in this reference and on his suggestion that I am here to speak to you, if you would be so kind as to lend me your ears.”
“Very well, then. Let us hear you.”
Swallowing, Wladem began, “In the texts on astral studies prescribed to us, I came upon certain subjects in which research was begun but abandoned halfway, for a variety of reasons. One of these, a sketchy description of a certain set of observations, particularly interested me. The texts, as you almost certainly already know, talk of the repeated sighting of a mysterious heavenly body- possibly a comet, whose orbit constantly shifts, altering its time period and periodic position. But a vague pattern had been found in these shifts that seemed to be coordinated in some enigmatic way with the motion of the moon. Over the last few months, I have tracked this strange celestial object and followed its progress in the sky. My charts- which I have tried to be as meticulous in preparing as possible- reveal the emergence of an unmistakable pattern, which is in definite correlation with the phases of the moon.” As he expounded this, Wladem slowly began to come into his own: his tone became less breathless, his manner more assured- in the same way as the oil lamp in his room flickered in reluctance when it was first lit, but became steady as it burned away through the hours of the night.
“Well, what of it?” said the other instructor impatiently, “What do you intend to achieve by this weary study?”
For a second, Wladem felt his confidence begin to mercilessly drain out through the soles of his feet. Then he tried to gather himself up.
“It would be presumptuous to form too high an estimate, of course, sir, but if I can substantiate it, which I believe I can, this finding may be of immense importance to astronomy. It would alter the way we view the systems of the universe, and give us a great insight into the dynamics of planetary motions”-
“Of immense importance to astronomy indeed,” said the teacher in contempt, “And of what importance is astronomy itself? An utterly senseless discipline: would you make a profession of idle star- gazing? But speak on, boy, how do you intend to “substantiate” it?”
Wladem, perplexed and flustered, looked to the Master, the one he had actually come to talk to, for some kind of intervention, for some kind of opinion. He was, after all, an ardent follower of the science himself, one of the most accomplished astronomers in the land. But to Wladem’s dismay, Damien was looking at something far off in the night, evidently quite disinterested in the discussion at hand. Clearly, the master had more significant issues to contemplate. Visibly, what Wladem had come up with was trivial in his eyes. He tried to imagine how this man, with so many discoveries, inventions and strategic achievements to his credit, perceived him: a runty, lanky student with bags under his eyes, obviously a hard-worker, but lacking in momentous brilliance, devoid of the seeds of greatness- the way Wladem looked at most of his lesser fellow- students. Now, as it turned out, he was of a piece with them. He stood there, crushed in quiet defeat.
“I asked you a question, boy,” the cantankerous instructor reminded him, “Do you mean to answer it?”
Wladem shrugged to himself. Yes, he would answer it, before resigning to his room in a hostel with a thousand identical ones, resigning to a lifetime of persistent namelessness.
“With the help of my recorded observations, and those of others,” he said, “I have formulated a hypothetical model of the motion of the moon and this object. According to this model, a certain day will come in every twenty- five years when this comet will position itself exactly behind the moon. It is hard to say exactly what this formation will look like, but it is likely that the comet’s trail of ice and dust will be illuminated by the light of the moon, forming in the sky a great plume of scattered moonlight.” His voice was wistful, as if he wished this beautiful phenomenon had really been as important as he has imagined it was. “According to my calculations,” he went on, “this day is not so far. Subject to a slight margin of error, my prediction is that it will come around the twentieth hour of the third day of the following week. That, I believe, would be ample proof.”
He said this last in a throwaway manner, and was unsurprised to see that the crotchety professor still looked convincedly unimpressed, while the Master regarded him in a detached sort of manner.
“When I brought Master Humer abreast of this,” Wladem continued blandly, “he insisted that I approach you and request you to evaluate my work. I thus came to you. I have nothing more to say. I am honoured to have met you, Master Damien, whose many wonderful studies have inspired me since earliest childhood, although I was never until this day privileged to set eyes on you. And you, Master…?”
“Ruben,” said the curly- haired instructor.
“Master Ruben. It has indeed been a pleasure.”
He turned to leave. His steps sounded hollow in the night, his mind felt vacant.
He was stopped by Damien’s deep voice.
“I hope, Student Wladem, you have not been much disillusioned by the captious remarks of Master Ruben here. I, for myself, find the subject matter of your work deeply stimulating.”
Momentarily thrilled, but not daring to be too hopeful, Wladem turned back.
“However,” (that alarming word) the Old Master went on, “There are at present several matters of moment that I must attend to, and I cannot immediately evaluate your work, as you have requested me to do. I would like, in the meantime, to present you with a challenge. Master Ruben, as you have seen, is intensely derisive of the useless sciences. Over all these years, I have been unable to convince him of the relevance of astronomy. If you can show him your hypotheses and prove to him that your project has merit (and be rest assured, he will comprehend the actual facts, for he is versed with the technical sciences), I will gladly go through your work.”
Wladem wondered if this was simply a ploy to indefinitely put him off; it could be. He then tried to form a measure of the task assigned to him. Impossible, he told himself. Convince Master Ruben of the importance of astronomy? He might as well rush to the moon that instant and compel it to stop moving. But it was an opportunity, or at least the semblance of one, and if this was the only chance he would get to prove himself, he would take it.
He appraised his quarry, the impish- faced man before him, who struck him more than anything else as the devil incarnate. If this was what he must deal with, so be it.
“I thank you, sir,” he said to the revered Damien, “I look forward to this challenge. I am certain you will not be let down.”
The fatigue and anxiety Wladem had felt in the course of completing his astronomic tables and making monstrous calculations was nothing to the weariness and frustration in store for him in this second half of his task. He trailed Ruben like a shadow with his tables and charts, his ideas and theories. No remark that the master made, however stinging it may be, could dissuade him from his pursuit. The moment Ruben stepped out of the gates of the university, he would find the resilient Wladem there, waiting to present to him a fresh list of ways in which astronomical findings had resulted in the larger good of society, trying to win his fascination for his own theory in particular. To no avail. Ruben remained a determined cynic, and found some stymying fault with Wladem’s every explanation.
When, around a week later, the day on which the foretold event was to take place finally dawned, Wladem found himself spent. Until only the previous evening, his only thoughts had been of persuading Master Ruben. But early that morning, he decided to give up. And it was a respite. He could devote his mind to what he really wished to be occupied by.
That evening, he requested Master Ruben to join him at the open plaza where he felt the finest view could be obtained. The master did not offer much resistance, but if he had, Wladem would probably not have tried too hard to reason with him. As they sat waiting, Wladem was wordlessly absorbed by his own thoughts. When he did speak, it was more to himself than Ruben.
“Master Ruben, tonight you will surely see the magnificence of the astral sciences. I cannot tell you how excited I am. When my computations first appeared to point this way, I dreamt of what it would look like. It was beautiful. And hours from now, it will become tangible. I will get to really see it, know it is true. And I will know exactly what makes it happen, and how much we have gained in the way of knowledge.”
Ruben was silent for a minute. At length, he said, “Let us suppose for a second that you are not garbling. That this strange thing you foretell will actually happen. But even then, what good will it come to? What will I do with all your moonlight?”
For the first time, Wladem felt in possession of a true response to a question he had tried to answer all week. He looked Ruben straight in the face and said, “Every analogy I have presented to you, you have dismissed as trifling or unsound. I will present no more examples, tell you about no more spin- offs, then. I will not try to justify it to suit what I feel are your views. I will give you a reason you cannot refute. I wish to study this science for its own sake. I have no end at all in view, except to know, to understand. I cannot describe how it feels, the joy of stumbling on a fresh discovery, or of getting to appreciate nature’s beauty in a way that no one else has yet done. So there it is: I choose not to explain myself, Master Ruben.”
For once, Ruben looked stumped. Perhaps it was the shock of being spoken to with such force by a student. But Wladem had not been impolite; it had only been the force of his conviction.
The heavens spoke before Ruben did. As always happened in the winter months, the vestiges of daylight made a swift exit, and within moments night had descended upon the city. Then the moon: a splendid, burnished full circle in the sky, came to smile down at its admirers. It was unaccompanied, but to Wladem’s own surprise, this did not unduly worry him. Perhaps the week that had passed had endowed him with the gift of patience. Then something told him the moment had come; he stiffened and held his breath. At first, it was imperceptible: a single strand that streaked the sky. Then a glowing halo around the sphere. Then suddenly, a dazzlingly bright, intertwining mesh of braids spread to fill the sky. Something he had not envisaged was there too: colour- threads of gold, red and green woven into the fabric of light, as by some wondrously skilful craftsman, as by some startlingly brilliant accident of nature.
There must have been noise around him, people squealing in disbelief and pointing at the sky, but Wladem heard not a sound. It was a moment that was entirely his, and he did not need the commendation of the school, the approval of Damien or the recognition of the masses to tell him what he had achieved. Ruben’s nod he needed least of all. But when, for a fraction of a moment, he managed to tear his eyes away from the heavens, he nearly exclaimed. In Master Ruben’s skyward eyes, there were, unmistakably, tears of admiration.
It was then that the possibility that he had succeeded in his challenge struck him for the very first time.
The following day, when Wladem returned to his cell from the university, a letter awaited him:
Dear Student Wladem,
I should be offended. Never before has a single student ever dared to teach me so many lessons in the space of less than a fortnight. And after all these years, when all these feats of brilliance and all this adulation poured down my ears have made me rather full of myself.
The first lesson, of course, is that I simply must assent to the king’s request to paint my face onto some of the official stamps, or the school textbooks, or have it engraved on the circulating seals or the tablets in the galleries, or something. I had earlier sent in a firm refusal to such proposals- again in an attempt to curb my flourishing conceitedness- but it seems rather imperative now to have something of the sort done, as I evidently do not look the part of the dignified royal scholar. I will, however, lightly berate you for not going to effort of gathering some information about my facial appearance before coming to speak to me. I will make for you the following excuses: that you were too absorbed by your work to do so, and that Master Ruben, with his imperious profile, considerable height and clear blue eyes, would at first sight be even my first choice for the ‘greatest astronomer and strategist of all time’ if I didn’t know better. (Not that Ruben isn’t one of the academics I admire the most.)
Having put right the issue of identity, let me quickly address the question of why. One reason is that my habit of leading people into amusing traps is slowly becoming inveterate. When you came up and immediately mistook Ruben for me, I saw an opportunity for a laugh and indicated to him to carry the joke on, just to see how it turned out, as it were. But when you put forward your idea, I was fascinated, I was curious- and I saw a chance to test you for a quality rarer among the astronomers I have met than true talent or fortitude: the ability to explain. Let me make clear what I mean by this. I think that we scientists have been rather selfish. When artists paint, or minstrels sing, they edify others as well as themselves- indeed, more than themselves. When we, however, set out to make a discovery, we do it essentially for our own enjoyment. Others, we find, are too unqualified to understand what we are speaking of, and choose to exclude them from our exhilaration, from the sheer joy of knowing. And we justify our existence to the world by enumerating the spin- offs of the work we do, without discussing what drives it at the very core. After a week of your so painstakingly gathering such superfluous reasons, you finally explained the real thing to me, moments before you demonstrated it. I doubt that my wicked little fictional Ruben, if he had existed, would not have been moved.
As for your work, I doubt that I have ever been more impressed by such an accurate prediction of an astronomical phenomenon. It is remarkable. I have gone through your theory, and it seems beautifully sound. There is still work to be done- a towering amount of it, and I would like you to meet me at my observatory at the earliest.
Wladem sat for a moment in wondering silence. With delicate fingers, he rolled the scroll up, retied it, and placed it gingerly in a corner of his desk. He walked to the window; the sky apprised him that there were several hours still to go before dawn. Then, suddenly, threw his head back and laughed- one long, lusty laugh that was for once unmindful and uncaring of whom it woke in the neighbouring rooms.
Then he sat back down, picked up his stylus, and having rested his chin thoughtfully on it for a while, unrolled a fresh sheet of papyrus with the line- graphs already meticulously ruled over it. It was to be a night of work.