When they reached the port of Tewabo, just a hundred and eighty miles north of the Worldwall, Joubert brought out two bottles of an excellent Almithean wine he had been hiding somewhere. He poured a modest glass for each present in the company chief’s dining room (minus the seamstress, who had recently embraced teetotalism), raised his own and said, “It may seem that our greatest obstacles are ahead, especially that single great obstruction that cuts our world in twain. But in reality our greatest difficulties are now behind us. We have travelled across the first the Galling Sea and then the Rolonia. It has been an impressive and instructive journey, such as few have made.
“But before we could set off, we had to assemble our supporters, convince and cajole those with wealth to part with it, not for hope of material gain, but for knowledge and glory. And even before that, we had to defy gravity itself, using our science to set humanity free from the mud from which it arose.”
Prolix bastard, Richard Durmoth thought, not for the first time. His eyes flicked across the table to the seamstress, Bisette, who refused to meet his gaze.
“Now we stand not at the bottom of a precipice, but at its height, ready to leap forward and across the barriers of our knowledge. To the Discovery!” This being the name of the small ship they were now abandoning.
“He does go on, doesn’t he?” murmured Sykes as conversation resumed, sitting two chairs down from Durmoth, an army lieutenant between them.
“Every great man loves to hear himself talk,” this lieutenant observed generously, face already cheerful from bumper after bumper of port and sheened with sweat in the equatorial heat.
“Do you think that’s true, Durmoth?” Sykes asked.
Durmoth raised a sardonic eyebrow. He had dark, heavy brows, and he was known to make the most of them. “In Kaifu they say, ‘Bujun suku dirisa, oirislar fakana gudejek.'”
“‘If your ass is tight, the gas goes to your head.'”
The lieutenant roared with laughter, slapping the table. “By God, I’ll remember that! You speak Kai, then?”
“He speaks more than Kai,” said Sykes. “How many languages is it, now? Eight? Nine?”
“Ten, with Wanil.” This being the local tongue, which Durmoth had been rapidly mastering with their guide Boleti’s help. “You always try to undersell me, Sykes.”
“Scarcely possible, I’d say.”
“I don’t know how you can make heads or tails of that gibberish,” said the lieutenant, and now his name returned to mind: Driver, James Driver. “When it’s not that odd clicking they do, it’s just mumbling.”
“Have you not been here long, then?”
“Five years.” A spot of glumness clouded Driver’s cheer. “Hopefully not five more, or I’ll go fucking mad. Just my luck, to get stationed at the end of the world, literally.”
“Maybe it won’t be for much longer,” Sykes observed. “If we’re successful, there’ll be other expeditions, and they’re almost sure to come through here.”
Driver brightened. “You think so? To your success, then!” He raised his glass.
Two hours later, after courses of turtle soup, fish, roast beef, fruit and pudding, the gathering stood, made a final toast to the king’s health, and began to disperse. Driver was wobbly on his feet, but nonetheless made it out the door, thence to his barracks or the local whorehouse. Bisette left quickly, pausing only to say goodbye to their hosts, and Durmoth watched her go, an elegant figure in her blue dress and corset. Perhaps tonight…
“How now, old man?” Sykes said, MacMillan standing beside him as they moved toward the anteroom to collect their hats. “To bed with you? I know you elderly need your rest.”
“They say old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” said Durmoth, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t know a few already.”
“Oh, you know I would never test you. As well throw myself off a cliff.”
No, but the insolent young pup would still offer these minor slights. Unfortunately, it was Sykes’s family connections that had secured Durmoth this opportunity, and so he could not reply as sharply as he would otherwise. To be sure, they both knew Durmoth could whip Sykes to the ground, whether with sword, pistol or bare fists. Sykes might be taller, and with his fair hair and regular features, more attractive to a certain kind of woman; but Durmoth was a renowned brawler, swordsman and duelist, and his magnetic personality had afforded him many a romantic conquest. In the Army they’d called him Devil Dick, for all kinds of reasons.
With a few last pleasantries to their hosts, they stepped outside. The company chief’s house was built on a hill with a view of the small port and town below. The sun had set over the jungle to the west, and in the deepening twilight Durmoth saw many bats twisting against the sky. “I should check in with Boleti, see that our supplies are secure. These Wanilats will steal the hair off your head if you let them.”
MacMillan, a scrofulous, serenely amused chap in a perpetually dirty surgeon’s coat, chuckled. “You’ll learn their language, but you don’t think much of them.”
“If you want to command, you have to make yourself understood. But no, I don’t think merely having a language is any mark of civilization. Do you? I expect even dogs have a language, of sorts.”
“‘To each he speaks their own, though one and all / Still fear that voice’s crack like lash’s fall.'”
Durmoth just nodded, not recognizing the quotation. All might call him accomplished, but he was not exactly literary. His life had been far too active to afford him time for reading, beyond his language studies, though in fact he himself wrote an extraordinary amount, filling journal after journal with his observations. “You two should get some rest as well. We’ll be up early tomorrow, getting things ready.”
“Are we in such a great hurry, then?” said MacMillan.
“More or less. There is some concern that at a certain point in the season, the winds will change – and the whole endeavor rests on the wind, you know.”
“‘The sea reflects the sky, the sky reflects the sea / upon th’empyrean disc, so sail we.'”
Sykes laughed. “He’ll take off your arm in a trice, and be quoting verse all the while. But we’re going to take a post-prandial stroll, see what there is to drink and who there is to entertain. Care to join us?”
Durmoth thrust out his jaw, undecided. “You two go on. I may catch up with you.”
“Do that, old chap. We may not have many opportunities to sample the local delicacies.”
Durmoth found Boleti with legs dangling off the edge of a wooden porch attached to the storehouse currently housing the most valuable of their goods, eating balls of sticky rice from a broad leaf with his fingers. The Wanilat jerked his chin at him in acknowledgement. Around and against the side of the storehouse were still more goods, guarded by Boleti and several others associated with their party, including a few sailors off the ship. “Is all well?” Durmoth asked in Wanil.
“Yes, everything is good. We chased away a few children, but everything is safe.”
Boleti was shorter than Durmoth by several inches, barrel-chested, with deep brown skin. He wore a loose knee-length tunic patterned in dark red and rust orange, and leather sandals. “Five days on the river, then three weeks to the Serpent Spine, you said?” The latter being what the Wanilat called the Great Barrier Wall.
“If the weather is good, yes. Eight days from the river to the Hunnin Pass. There we will see the Spine.”
“And will you not cross it with us?” Durmoth pressed, as he had several times. He would never have Boleti at a dinner table, to be sure; but the man was easy company and dead calm in a crisis, was strong as a bear and hardy as a goat – Durmoth had witnessed him, many times, carry a pack of a hundred pounds for twelve and fourteen hours at a stretch without complaint – and knew the flora and fauna of the equatorial zone like the back of his hand. And the odds were, when they crossed over, that the other side would be similar.
“No, not me.”
Boleti shook his head seriously. “If the gods meant for us to go there, they would not have raised the Spine in the first place.” From a small bag he withdrew some tobacco and put some into a wooden pipe. “Do you know what is on the other side of the Spine? Hell, my friend. The land of devils. If you’re wise, you’ll let your friends go, and stay in the land of humans.”
Vibrating with drink, Durmoth flowed down Tewabo’s main street like a cloud of black smoke. Dogs and drunks eyed him listlessly from the shadows cast by a near-full moon. The air was full of sound and smell: the chirping of a tree frog ubiquitous in these parts, multilayered, musical and bubbling, the half-rotten smell of the sea, the scents of night flowers blossoming, of feces and mud. At the town’s east end, the inn where their party was housed beckoned with lanterns.
He had long since taken off his coat and unbuttoned his shirt, but still his skin was damp with sweat. If only they could whistle up a breeze, they might sleep. But the liquor would help with that.
Before retiring, though, he stopped, turned, and gazed at the moon. Reflected that it would likely be dark when they made their attempt on the Worldwall. Not ideal. But then, he had once written that the trick to not being afraid in the dark was to realize that you yourself were likely the most dangerous predator in it.
Again Bisette came to his mind. Was she awake? He circled around the back of the building, spied her balcony, saw how easy it would be to climb up to it via the rail on the first floor. More: her door was open. Like an invitation. Perhaps she had rethought her animosity.
He smiled, and with sudden decision set down his coat, leapt onto the rail with surefooted ease, seized the wooden balustrade of the upper balcony, and pulled himself up like a strong young ape. Silently, he passed through the open door, saw the seamstress lying on her side with the needless sheets pushed away, in a pale silk nightgown that left her shoulders and legs bare. He crept forward, thinking to awaken her with his hand upon her hip and his lips upon hers, leaned in –
And found a very small pistol that she must have been keeping under her pillow inches from his eyes. She pulled back the hammer with a click that resounded in the quiet room. “You were always a scoundrel, Durmoth,” the seamstress said, “but I didn’t peg you for a rapist.”
Durmoth snorted. “That’s coming it a bit high, wouldn’t you say?”
“Then what are you doing in my room?”
“I’m offering the pleasure of my company. Which, as you recall, you enjoyed once before. Very much enjoyed, I believe.”
“Yet I don’t recall inviting you here tonight. Which makes you an intruder, and me entirely in the right to put a bullet in your head.”
“Your door was open.”
“It’s hot, you idiot. Beastly hot.”
“Put down the gun.”
“I will, when you get the hell out of my room.”
He grinned, teeth white in the gloom. “You’ve got fire, Anne, I’ll give you that.” And nonchalantly he went to her door, unlocked it, and stepped out into the hall.
Fourteen days later, Tewabo was a distant memory. In five long canoes they had rowed up the Paxti River to its southernmost bend, overnighting in a tiny Wanilat village. There they had hired half the men in the village to act as porters, trading steel knives and axes for their labor. With a party fifty men (and one woman) strong, with as many mules for the heavier equipment, they set off on foot up into the mountains. They all breathed a little easier when the elevation increased, moving them out of the jungle at last, so they could finally feel a breeze on the wooded slopes.
Up they climbed, Durmoth enjoying being on land again, feeling his muscles regaining strength lost in the voyage. As they moved into the mountains proper he felt invigorated, reenergized, the weather mercifully clear (it would have been an altogether different trek in the rain), and indeed the whole party seemed to be enjoying high spirits. Shortly before they reached the pass of Hunnin, they cleared the tree line, and were able to look north all the way to the Rolonia Sea, from whence they’d come. Perhaps Joubert was right; perhaps the most difficult parts of their journey were behind them.
Then they crested the pass, moving in the rocky crotch between two barren peaks, and saw the Worldwall.
Most had seen it before, of course. The natives lived nearly in its shadow, and Durmoth and Sykes both had encountered it many times in their travels. But for Joubert, MacMillan and Bisette, it was their first time outside of prints and paintings. “Incredible,” said Joubert, looking truly awed. “Like I dreamed,” breathed Bisette.
Horizon to horizon the Great Barrier stretched, unswerving and unyielding, higher by far than the mountains that pressed against its side, its crest a perfectly even delineation with the blue sky above. Thirty thousand feet high, it was composed of a material so adamantine that the hardest steel pick could make literally not a scratch upon its gleaming, dark gray face. Unscalable and insurmountable, its origin was the greatest mystery of all time – except, perhaps, for what lay on its other side. “Does it truly ring the world?” MacMillan asked.
“Do you think whatever built that would have left any gaps?” Durmoth asked. “It goes right across the ocean, you know.”
“They must have had a powerful motivation.”
“Maybe. But then, I suppose jailers do too. It doesn’t make me hate prisons any less.” And on that, at least, they were all agreed.