Chapter the First
The sun was setting in the west, and all over the golden city of Concord clocks began to mark the half-hour. Clocks of all shapes and sizes came alive with their chimes. From the sombre tones of the parliamentary clock tower, through the intricate harmonies of the bells of the world-clock of the spire celestial, to the merry tinkling of the pocket-watch of a young man by the name of Torquil Justinian Montferrac D'Lasse. A young man who was – by the light of this particular sunset – well on the way to drinking himself into catatonia, but refusing to let his encroaching incapacity prevent him from holding forth on any and all topics that crossed his mind. He was aided and abetted in this unseemly but ultimately harmless endeavour by two companions, a Mister Anton Verlasse and a Mister Simeon Delaney Corellary Vale. The three young gentlemen were arranged haphazardly around a table in an eatery by the name of "Marcel's" which they were wont to frequent. They had each of them recently passed out of the illustrious University Beatific and were, this evening, engaged in the merry dissection of their future options.
"A toast" cried D'Lasse, to the room at large, waving a glass of wine in one hand, steadying himself against Anton's shoulder with the other "to the good Master Verlasse. A parvenu shit if ever there was one, but a right clever bastard and no mistake." With this he drained his glass and beamed happily. "Whither then will your path lead, mister first-class- with-honours? The Academy, the Spire, or will you simply join us poor simpletons as we merrily piss our lives and inheritances up the wall?" He sat back down, heavily, his mop of curled black hair flapping every which way as he moved.
"I'm afraid it's commerce for me Justin, commerce and industry," replied the scrawny redhead, staring glumly into his own, half-empty, glass "Father wouldn't have it otherwise."
"Tell your father to go hang, in fact damn it all I'll tell him for you."
"Father wants the company to stay in family hands. I wish to respect his wishes."
"But the old man has years in him yet. You need to do something in the meantime."
"I need to learn the workings of the company. A classical education is all well and good, but the motions of the spheres and the operations of the machine are of little help in understanding what is or is not a competitive rate for the import of lumber."
"So why did the old goat let you attend the 'varsity at all?"
"Contacts. It does a businessman well to know people. He is most pleased that I have the ear of the heir to the Duchy of Knives" he indicated D'Lasse "and one of King's cousins" he nodded to Vale.
"Second cousins." Corrected the third member of the party. He was a tall and gangling fellow with the look of one too many late nights about him. Thin scars graced his left cheek and right wrist, and his hair flopped over his eyes.
"As near as makes no odds. Either way he is delighted with my present social circle," He paused, and took a sip of his drink, "Of course that may be because he hasn't actually met either of you." He braced himself for impact, and a bread roll bounced lightly off of his single-breasted dinner jacket. "But no; much as I would love to spend the next few years pondering the intricacies of the motions of the heavens in the Spire Celestial, I fear I shall not have that opportunity. You highborn sorts can gad about as you please, we simple yeomen have to attend to other duties."
"At least you can pay the bills" interjected Simeon "It'll be the Clergy for me. My brother gets the land, what there is of it, and the titles. I get to be stuck somewhere I won't be an embarrassment or a drain on family resources. That leaves me all of three alternatives. I can join the military, I can stand for government, or I can be a priest."
"The old choice of the second son eh?" quipped Justin, "Warfare, worship or a wig".
"I've no stomach for battle, no talent for politics, so it's the cloth. Fifty years of bloody geometry ahead of me."
"No stomach for battle?" remarked Anton incredulously "I've seen you fence dear boy and if that's a man who doesn't have a stomach for battle, I'm not sure I want to meet one who has."
"That's different. It's formal. Warfare doesn't follow the same rules. It doesn't sit right with me. So It's the cloth."
"Actually I can see you in an amber robe" Justin trilled happily, refilling his glass. "Besides, I've got no more options than either of you. I have to return to my family's seat on the Isle of Knives, miserable bloody cultural wasteland that it is, and live out my days entertaining visiting dignitaries and their dreary daughters."
"Yes, but that's because you're an indolent fop with virtually all of the personal habits of a domestic cat." Replied Anton, coolly.
"Well, yes, there is that" Justin conceded.
And so the evening wore on, conversation meandering from future to past by way of politics, poetry and pedantry. The three companions completed their meal, from aperitif to brandy and cigars, and went forth into the city somewhat inebriate. They wove unsteadily through the gaily lit streets of the Twelve Crowns quarter, picking their way through the crowds of would-be sophisticates that poured out of the theatres after the evening performances. They dallied, as the often did, outside Ms Adeile's Costumerie, where they had each of them in the past spent far more than they could afford on her exquisite line of masks and eveningwear. They skirted the great dark expanse of the Kings' Park, now closed for the evening. They proceeded, by commodious roundabout paths, to drift in the direction of the 'varsity buildings.
They came at last upon the gates of the College Philosophical and stopped for a while in the shadows of its great doorway, leaning against stone arches and brass doors, looking up at the clear night sky. The three graduates slumped, inebriated and exhausted, resting themselves on the cobblestones. Julian reached to his collar and pulled his bow tie undone, allowing it to hang loose about his shoulders.
"You know" remarked Simeon "sometimes I swear you only wear a tie in the first place so you can do the 'rakish, dishevelled, tie loose about the neck' thing at the end of the evening"
"Guilty as charged your honour. Or should I get into the habit of calling you 'brother', now you've accepted your new calling"
"Sod off Justin." He sighed heavily. "Bugger it all I'm too young to go to the Spire."
"Imports, exports, ore and lumber costs. Columns of gross figures with no artistry behind them" mumbled Anton, slouched in a melancholy world of his own in one corner of the great doorway. "Goodbye, alma mater. We shall not meet again."
"Oh will you two stop being such miserable bastards." Blurted Justin, lurching to his feet, the drama of the gesture spoiled by the faint stagger as he regained his balance. "We are far from dead and damned yet. We are young, free and for the most part wealthy. There is a world at our feet, all we need do is…" He struggled for the mot juste "…foot it." He finished, somewhat weakly.
"What the bloody blazes are you talking about?" moaned Simeon.
"We are, all of us, destined to become horribly productive members of society, each in our own inestimably tedious way. However we are young, free and for the most part rich and we do not have to take that road quite yet. There are seventeen islands in this chain, and Kahalaman and Therobad beyond. Let us take to the waves, let us see the sunrise over the waterfalls of the Isle of Promise, let us risk the pirate haunted waters around the Echoing Isle. Let us drink absurdly potent spirits and get seduced by enchantresses and do all the other thousand and five things you simply have to do before you're thirty."
"My father would never allow it" replied Anton, gloomily.
"And mine could never afford it" added Simeon.
"Anton, your father will allow anything if you're going with the King's cousin and you know it. Simeon we're talking about the roguish life of the wanderer, it isn't all that expensive. Besides I can cover your fare if needs be. Think about it gentlemen. Just one year, one year before we succumb to the demands of duty, reality and conventionality. One year to live before we die. If we pack tonight and plan tomorrow we can be on a Turnscrew to the Isle of Songs before the week is out."
The other two thought about it. They did not, on the whole, need to think very hard.
Three days passed. Matters were arranged faster than the three companions had expected. Having recently passed out from the 'varsity, and only Simeon being native to the Green Isle, they were already prepared to make voyage by sea. Only the itinerary changed. The new route would take them via the Isle of Songs to the Isle of Promise, then by roundabout route through the Veiled, Sylvan, Sleeping and Wailing Isles. From there, if all was going well, they would reconsider their options before leaving the Kingdom Harmonious and straying out into the world beyond.
Yes, all in all things had been far easier than anybody had thought. Although Simeon and Anton both had concerns about their fathers' reactions to the proposed tour, these proved to be quite unfounded. Lord Vale had been delighted to have his son out of the way for a while, and Verlasse senior had nothing but enthusiasm for his son's plans to continue the cultivation of his good relations with persons of quality. The potential paternal impediments thus resolved the three had been relatively free to address the practicalities of the trip. The first leg of the journey would be relatively simple. Ships of all sorts made the short hop to the Isle of Songs on an almost daily basis, so arranging passage had not been difficult. From there it all got a bit more complicated, travel and trade between the isles was not so precise a thing as to make it practical to book the next leg of their journey in advance – leastways, not if they wished to leave immediately. Still, they could cross that bridge when they came to it.
It was noon, the plans were all laid, such as they were. The three fellows had gathered at the dockside, in the shadow of the three great brass cranes that facilitated the loading, unloading and even construction of the ships that swarmed about the great seaport. Finding their own vessel – the good ship Lady Descending amongst the dozens of clippers, fishing boats, merchantmen, and even great Silverclad warships was no easy task, and it took them more than a few false starts before they found the right boat. Their passage through the crowded docks was not aided by the fact that they were each of them well provisioned with suitcases. The least burdened was dragging two large unwieldy trunks, strapped to some sort of trolley. Simeon, on the other hand, was wrestling with two trunks, several smaller cases and an easel, all bound together into and absurd, terrifying juggernaut. The diverse accoutrements of the passengers were manhandled aboard the Lady by teams of dockworkers and vanished into the depths of the ship.
The bags loaded, the three companions boarded the vessel. The ship was a Turnscrew, powered by an engine of clockwork and crystal, driven by the inexorable motions of the heavens. As a result it had no need for sails, and minimal need for crew. Not dependent on winds and with a better turn of speed than most other commercial vessels, they were the only way to travel, for those that could afford them. The three graduates could, and had. They had not, however, elected to travel first class; that, they had all agreed, would be against the point of the tour. So they had instead booked a shared cabin. Two pairs of bunk beds and a small writing desk provided a tolerable degree of creature comfort for the trio. However even with the bare minimum of hand luggage it proved a little tight for three. Still, they had none of them intended to use the cabin for anything much besides sleeping.
The bags stowed and the passengers settled the ship set off. In the engine room the Philosopher in Residence began the series of complex alignments, measurements and adjustments that would couple the complex array of cogs, springs and wheels that drove the vessel to the equally complex motions of the celestial spheres. Beneath the surface of the water, three great brass corkscrews began to turn on their axes, driving the ship onwards. As the ship moved and the philosopher worked, as springs tightened and cogs span the screws span ever faster. Soon the ornately moulded prow of the ship was slicing through the sparkling clear waters at a swallow's pace en route to the Isle of Songs.