Three men sat drinking. They struggled and yet failed to overcome the silences that stretched between them, thrusting each into solitary, dejected musings. They occupied one corner of a large room, reclining in low chairs around a table cluttered with glasses and small dishes. Most of the glasses where empty, as were the dishes - and the other tables in the room were similarly strewn with the detritus of a large and boisterous party. The carpets were a mess of streamers, paper-flowers and confetti, trampled into wilted drifts.
"I have to go," one of the men said eventually. He gazed at the ceiling and yawned, but made no attempt to rise. He was of short stature, sturdily built, with thick, reddish-brown hair - that red currently echoed in the whites of his eyes. Against his chest a green jewel rested, swinging from a thick gold chain. Both the chain and the gem were suspiciously bright and ostentatious, except for a few spots where the gold paint was flaking away to reveal the paste beneath.
"Go on then Reuel," one of the others said after a minute. He was a taller, leaner individual, lying back in his chair as if he had been folded into it, long limbs dangling. He wore his fair hair tied back with a ribbon of violent, lurid pink but otherwise was better dressed than his companions. He flicked a speck from his embroidered velvet sleeve with a fastidious grimace. His name was Ward.
"When I remember how to walk," Reuel said in an aggrieved tone. "I almost had it before you interrupted."
"This is the end," the last of the three said mournfully. "The last night." He had his eyes shut. He was between the other two in height and build and wore a wilted orange flower in his buttonhole. He also wore a jester's hat with bells that tinkled gently every time he moved.
"It's morning, Lorant. Wake up," Reuel told him.
"The last morning then." He opened one eye and peered at Reuel. "If it's morning you should be going. You said you had to meet your father."
"I should go. I know, I should go."
Ward hummed a few notes. "And afterward, the fiancé. I shall expect an invite to the wedding. Mind you don't forget!"
Reuel groaned and heaved himself to his feet. He blinked, stretched and groaned again, rubbing his eyes. He suppressed another yawn behind his hand.
"More like a man on his way to the gallows than the altar," Ward said, with a sly smile in Lorant's direction. Lorant rolled his eyes.
"The sweet Edalene," he said to Reuel. "Don't keep her waiting Reu."
"She's waited three years," Reuel replied calmly. "She can wait a little longer." He sighed and rubbed his face. "Why do feel like it's all over. My life is mapped out in stages. No more surprises. Am I doing the right thing?" He appealed to his friends with a helpless gesture.
"If it's not what you want, speak to your father. I've met him, remember. He did not strike me as an unreasonable man," Lorant said.
"Yes, speak to him," Ward agreed. "It may be that he will allow you to set up in a different line of business. I know I couldn't stomach a lifetime of boots and shoes!" Reuel, whose wealthy father owned several tanneries, ignored this and looked to Lorant, who said;
"I can't. I couldn't. If I had a brother, maybe. But it's my father's most cherished ambition I'd be trampling to dust."
"So, your decision is made," Lorant said.
"It could be worse," Ward put in. "You could be like Lorant here, without a penny to your name. Go to it Reu. Your honoured father waits. Make sure you wash first, is my advice."
Reuel rolled his eyes, but was too weary to retaliate to this gibe. He yawned again, raising a hand in farewell as he crossed to the door. Ward sat up and poured himself another glass of wine. He offered the bottle to Lorant, but the latter shook his head.
"No, I should be going too."
"This is no way to end a party," Ward said. "There's a little place..."
"No. Anyway, I'm out of money."
"No," Lorant said again.
"Strange about Reuel," Ward said thoughtfully, twisting the stem of his glass between his fingers. "For three years it has been nothing but Edalene this and Edalene that - morning, noon and night, yet now he's having doubts? I've thought, often and often, that if I heard another word about her I'd be liable to smother him with his own pillow."
"Not so strange," Lorant said. "I suppose..."
"It wasn't real before to him. Now it is. It is what he wants, I'm sure of that, but he didn't choose it for himself and that makes a difference. He's leaving behind the familiar, venturing into the unknown..."
Ward laughed uproariously at this, almost spilling his drink. "Of all the rubbish! You're no philosopher Lorant."
"I only said..." Lorant stopped. There was no sense in pursuing it. "So what will you do now, Ward?"
"I've told you," Ward said, still laughing. "I've an inheritance to squander."
Lorant doubted it. He frowned at Ward but his friend gave very little away. No, Lorant was sure there was no inheritance - debts maybe. Ward never spoke much about himself. Lorant was sure Ward knew every detail of Reuel's and his own lives, hopes and fears. After three years of close companionship it would have been strange if it had been otherwise. But now he considered it he found he knew very little about Ward - a few snippets of information that amounted to nothing much. That he was the third son of a minor noble at Court. That he had committed some unspecified crime that had forced him to choose between a term of service in the army or suffer some other, worse fate. Ward was always vague as to the crime, and also his guilt. Sometimes he seemed to imply he was innocent, but just as frequently would admit a share of blame.
"Well, what about you?" Ward asked. "I still don't know why you didn't stay. Me and Reu were only ever in it for the minimum - but I thought the army was a career for you."
"I have said. I tried it - it wasn't for me."
"So what will you do now Lorant? Sailor or surgeon, beggar or baker? Potter, fisherman or thief?"
"Well none of those if I have any luck," Lorant said. "But I will find something. And it will be something better than sitting all night in a cold ditch, or marching across a lot of rocks with blisters the size of crowns on both heels."
Ward grinned. "To warm nights and comfortable feet!" he said, raising his glass.
Lorant drained his and stood. "Well, goodbye. Good luck, Ward."
"Same to you."
"Aren't you coming?"
"In a little while. You go ahead. I paid for this wine, so I'm damn well going to finish it if it kills me."
Lorant rid himself of the jesters hat as soon as he could, leaving it balanced on a gate post where the breeze caught the bells and made them shiver and chime. The streets were quiet, filled with that strange, empty hush that descends in the hour before dawn. Lorant buttoned up his coat and rubbed his arms, moving quickly, feeling the cold sting of the wind on his cheeks. The chill air sobered him, but still he felt at one remove from the world, his footsteps muffled, the night sounds far away.
As he walked, the city began to wake around him. He crossed the broad Cathedral Square and heard the bells peal out. They were not the joyous clarions of the afternoon, but seemed to toll instead a slow lament. Lorant unconsciously matched his pace to it, feeling subdued and melancholy. A part of his life had ended, like the closing of a book. The bells rang the changes, rising half a tone, and half a tone again. Am I sorry? He asked himself. Yes and no. I don't know. Lorant felt freed, but also lost, directionless. He wondered how much of this despondency was due to the wine and the chill, overcast morning. He saw a priest emerge from the Cathedral, standing in black silhouette before the open door, face and hands hidden under the folds of his enveloping robes. He surveyed the expanse of cobbled square as though he were passing judgment upon it. Lorant walked on quickly. Thanks to the devout aunt who'd raised him, he could never shift the illogical, childish belief that a priest could intuit his every sinful thought and deed.
Lorant headed west from the Square, toward the market. Here, the day had already begun. Bakers' ovens had been lit for hours, sending aromas of yeast and soda out into the street to compete with the smells of livestock and unwashed bodies. Delivery carts and wagons jostled for room, in haste to unload and be out of the city by the third bell. Errand boys and girls ran to and fro bearing messages, over-large shirts fluttering under their brass-buttoned jackets. Lorant hurried through it, suffering that fragile state common to those who have indulged all night and missed their sleep, where each new sight or sound or scent was an assault - too bright, too loud, too much.
Once he turned the corner into a side-street the sounds of the market became muted. Here, terraced houses faced each other across a narrow, cobbled lane like two armies squaring up to fight. Not smart soldiers - not the front ranks - but the ragged dregs. The houses were grimy and dark, pitted like pox-victims, unwashed and unloved, yet they still retained a belligerent, brooding strength - the greasy, dusty window-panes glaring at their counterparts opposite with a malicious intensity. Signs everywhere, for those who could read, indicated vacant rooms for rent. But the signs themselves did not inspire confidence, often scrawled by illiterate, stumbling hands. There was an atmosphere of listlessness and apathy, a world away from the energy of the marketplace. The only signs of life, so early in the morning, were a sheet that snapped and quivered on a high line and a thin tabby- cat that sat washing itself on a windowsill.
Lorant let himself into the fifth house along and trudged with heavy steps to his rented room. The surge of adrenalin that had carried him across the city was gone, leaving him exhausted, his eyes filled with grit, mouth dry. He drew the curtain to shut out the daylight, fell onto his bed and slept.
He woke in the afternoon, dragged himself out of bed, and began to look for work.
For a week, each day followed the same pattern. He would rise early, full of determination and search for employment. He crossed the city, speaking to traders and craftsmen, artisans and clerks. He canvassed for opinions and options, read notices and approached agents. At around midday he would spend some of his dwindling store of money on food, and begin again. Nightfall found Lorant making his way back to his squalid room, footsore and frustrated.
On the eighth day after a fruitless morning wandering the canal docks, he found a food-stall displaying a delicious-smelling array of pastries. The stall-holder, apron straining over his round belly, began an enthusiastic speech about the merits of his wares.
"Fresh this morning. Oh yes! Never serve leftovers here. Fresh baked and lovely! Can't buy better, no not at twice the price!"
"I'll take one of those," Lorant said, indicating a tray of golden-crusted pasties.
"Good choice. Good choice," the stall-holder nodded wisely and watched Lorant bite into it with satisfaction, dropping the coins into a leather purse that hung from his belt. "After a job are you? I've seen you once or twice, asking around."
"That I am."
"Having any luck?"
"Not so as you would notice," Lorant admitted.
"Terrible, terrible..." he shook his head. "What line of work?"
"I don't know. I wanted to try something new."
"Something new? What were you before?"
"I was a soldier."
"And why did you stop being a soldier?" the stall-holder cocked his head a little to one side, interested. He had a sharp nose and very dark eyes and reminded Lorant suddenly of a bird - a small bird with a puffed-out chest, begging for a crumb of bread.
"I did the three years and thought I'd had enough."
"Not a good answer," the stall-holder said. "If I were thinking of taking you on that's what I'd be asking myself; why you left. I'd be thinking it was something you did wrong. You're too old to ‘prentice. No family trade?"
"No family money either?"
"No," Lorant laughed.
"I see. You know what you should do, don't you?"
"Marry an heiress. Simple."
"If only it were so simple," Lorant said. "Do you know of an available heiress?"
"I'm afraid not," the stall-holder said. "Still, it's an idea."
Lorant, feeling a little more cheerful than before, said goodbye and moved on. He wondered if his decision to leave the army had been a little premature. There were no trades available to a man of his age that did not demand some prior experience or knowledge that he lacked. An apprentice was not expected to know anything, but people wanted apprentices of twelve, not twenty-two. It crossed his mind briefly that if the situation did not improve he might have to visit his aunt. He shuddered and dismissed this idea. He would be rather anything than that.
The stall-holder seemed to have passed on some luck. That afternoon Lorant received a couple of offers of work; a morning helping to clear out a warehouse, a promise of two days' employment unloading and cataloguing cargo on some barges expected to arrive within the week. He returned home, feeling that things were looking up, to find he had an unexpected guest.
Ward, engaged in an appalled and incredulous study of the cracks in the plaster and the variously hued patches of mould, turned. He frowned at Lorant and gestured at the room. "How can you live here?"
"I didn't ask you to call," Lorant said. He felt aggrieved. He was entitled to be critical of his own lodgings, but it was not Ward's place to judge. "You know I'm short of funds." He crossed in front of Ward and sat down on the bed. He eased his boots off his aching feet with a sigh.
"I didn't think it was quite as bad as this! I'm sure I saw a rat, peering at me from under the bed. I thought our old quarters were awful enough. Anyway, that settles it; you'll have to come with me."
"Come with you where? What's happened?"
Ward grimaced. "The family reconciliation did not go as planned, you might say."
"It was nothing. The most trivial...but my father did not agree." Ward said, pulling a face. He went to the window and looked out through the dusty pane. "Not much of a view."
"What happened?" Lorant said. Ward turned to face him, leaning against the sill.
"Nothing, really. Only that my father is the most unreasonable, stubborn old goat ever born. Families! You don't know how fortunate you are Lorant. How I wish my only relative was an unworldly old Aunt!"
"No, you do not."
"Well, perhaps. But she took you in when your parents died. And I don't see her trying to interfere in your life."
"Believe me; she would if I ever gave her the chance. As for taking me in - that was an act of charity she has congratulated herself with ever since, and she's never once let me forget how my half-witted ass of a father lost his fortune.
"Speaking of a fortune..." Ward said.
"Yes? Know where there's one lying around do you?"
"In a manner of speaking - how would you like to make one of your own?"
"Very much of course, but..."
"Come with me then. A friend of my brother's is planning an expedition - a scientific expedition, exploring the far islands of the Western Ocean. We're journeying beyond the edges of the known world! Gold, Lorant - treasures and trade goods."
"Disaster, pirates and death," Lorant said.
"We could be rich."
"We could die."
"There may be minor inconveniences, but what is life without risk? I need to be away for a while or my father and Lady Meade may conspire to drag me to the altar. What's worse than that?"
"Sea monsters, drowning..."
"The thought of meeting any sea monster, be it as big as a house, is infinitely preferable to being tied for life to Tulla Hafron-Synd. Come with me, Lorant. My brother's friend is willing to take us both."
"Who is this friend of your brother's?"
"Artur Baille. He is the nephew of the Lord High Chancellor, with a remit from the King to chart new trade-routes and discover new lands," Ward announced grandly, striking the pose of a bold adventurer. His gaze fixed on distant, imaginary shores where gold hung like pears and apples from creaking boughs and rubies and sapphires blossomed underfoot.
Lorant looked around the small, squalid room and thought of the meagre employment he'd been offered. He sighed. "I'll consider it," he said.
"Excellent!" Ward grinned. "I knew you would."