In the 18th year of my exile, I fell in love with a Brabian woman who was neither wholesome nor pleasant but who evinced in me a kind of dread. I had been so long without romance that it seemed my potential for it was waning, and even though I secretly felt I deserved better, it seemed her sudden appearance in the bleak halls of my life was a sign and that if I let her go, I would regret it when someone worse came along. Thus, I was able for a time to faithfully occupy that future state of mind and look on the woman I then courted as if she were the very best that life had to offer. She was flattered at first, although that did less than I expected to hold her attention, but by the start of our second year of courtship, by which time I had promised to marry her, she came to intuit that I still harbored secret dispositions. She attributed my false affection to desperation rather than melancholy, and I came home one day to find a statue in flesh occupying my front door. When I protested, out of arm’s reach, that this brute was in my apartment, I was told he was the younger brother of my betrothed, who that day had married another man.
Her elder brother shouted this to me from inside as he went about loading a pair of suitcases, one of which was my own, with everything feminine he could find, along with anything of any real value. The fact I was a foreigner made finding work difficult, and I had been living for many months on others’ good graces. It was therefore not theft, my betrothed’s brother explained to me as he stuffed a pair of antique kratchniks, the only heirlooms of my family, into my suitcase. Rather, it was the collection of a debt and would be explained as much to the authorities, if I wished to involve them. I was assured my betrothed’s brothers did not and that it would be better for everyone if I simply left town. It didn’t seem possible, but I was being exiled from exile.
After they left, I emptied my pockets at the corner restaurant and sulked at a small round table as the mirrors behind the bar and in the little alcoves in the wall, which I had never before much noticed, mocked me with my own discountenance. I had no money, having just poured the last of mine into a glass, and no place to live, and I wondered at the possibility of suicide. I did not seriously contemplate it. I contemplated whether I had the guts for it, or for anything for that matter. And when the reflection at the bottom of my empty glass jeered at me that the answer was no, I felt a great shame and set out then to prove the bastard wrong. I scaled the spoked fence of the Astraggia, tearing my suit in the process, and climbed the steps to the bell tower, where I intended to fall off swiftly and with no drama. I had decided that if I closed my eyes and let myself fall backward, then I would see nothing of the ground that waited for me and thereby gain a moment on my nerves. By the time they inevitably failed, there would be nothing left to grab and I would be committed in my endeavor as I had been rarely committed to anything.
I was dismayed, however, to find no less than four other fellows already standing atop the bell tower, one on each wall. It being a narrow structure, there was no place left for me. I don’t know who arrived first nor how long any of them had stood there, but after a short wait, it became clear the line was in no danger of moving soon, and I began to shift my weight and make small sounds of annoyance. Who were these fools selfishly siphoning the resolve I had drained so many glasses to find? The longer I waited, the surer I was to fail at this too. So, I coughed and cleared my throat to break the pre-dawn silence and remind each of them that there were people waiting.
After some twenty minutes, I heard the sound of heavy panting behind me, and a plump man appeared, dabbing his brow with a handkerchief. And yet, he seemed to have lost a great deal of weight recently as the suit he wore hung off him indecisively. We made brief eye contact, and it seemed he was not the least bit surprised or bothered that there was a line for that platform of death. Reading the look of incredulity on my face, he explained to me that there was often a line of Thursdays. This intrigued me, and after I wondered aloud at the cause, we began to speculate. Fridays seemed unlikely, we agreed, seeing as how they were the start of the weekend. If one was going to kill oneself, there was no point in doing it on the eve of leisure. Sunday evening, then, seemed the next logical choice. But Sunday was the Lord’s day, and suicide a sin. I admitted that such a thing would even give pause to the unbeliever, such as myself, if only on logic. Since waiting until morning cost nothing, it was worth the price to mitigate even the remotest risk. Besides, after having enjoyed a couple days off, there would likely be some semicolon of doubt inserted into the sentence of one’s life. What harm was there in returning to work on Monday, if only to prove to yourself that you genuinely wanted it to end?
We were just beginning our analysis of Tuesdays when we were asked by one of the fellows on the wall if we wouldn’t mind taking our conversation elsewhere, which we did. My portly friend was not, it seemed, in nearly as dire straits as I, and he took me to an all-night café by the sea where sailors nurtured hangovers and prostitutes wandered about tempting their last pennies from them. We found a table near the back door with a fine view of the dock. Ships rocked and ropes creaked as my friend confided over drinks that he was a merchant clerk who had, against the law, secretly invested heavily in one of his employer’s adventures. They had received word that afternoon that the ship had sunk off the coast of Astartia, possibly as a result of native attack, and that as such the matter was being investigated by the authorities, who were sure to find evidence of his malfeasance. Not only was he broke, he was about to lose his livelihood and go to jail. He was newly married, he explained, and had only succumbed to foolishness in order to provide for his wife, who had been hinting for weeks that she might be with child.
Well, of course my skin prickled at his words, and I asked him to tell me more about his wife. Was she not a kind woman, gracious of spirit, who would forgive him this first folly on account of its noble cause? No, he explained. His wife was a tight-fisted Brabian who had only recently, and finally, left the house of another man, who was apparently a foreigner, like myself, and quite handsome, but also feckless and whining and not at all like the courageous man who stood resolute on the bell tower, ready to throw himself off.
I asked my new friend what he intended to do, now that his life was over, and after turning to ensure we were not overheard, he lowered his head to the table and admitted to me he had not gone to the bell tower to commit suicide but to find a man such as myself who was possessed of nothing in the world but the strength to do it. As a clerk of soon-to-be-ill-repute, his only hope of avoiding a lengthy jail sentence was to capitalize on the secret he alone was prepared to reveal. His employer, while speaking to the admiralty in his office, had let slip within earshot of the door that there had been a great deal of Atlantium on board, and that the captain had orders to dump it at the first signs of trouble. It would not, therefore, be found on the reef with the wreckage, but likely further out to sea. The clerk had been ordered to gather all materials on the voyage and deliver them to the admiralty that very day, which he had, but not before copying a single thin strip of paper into which a series of holes had been punched. The holes were of two sizes, and their varied order revealed information from radio burst that only a trained man could read. It was the ship’s last transmission, and since it would take the admiralty a few days to analyze and reconstruct the information in the file, which had been provided somewhat out of order, there was more than enough time to steam their way ahead of the navy and recover the Atlantium!
I objected immediately that the admiralty of any nation would never let such a prize simply disappear, but my friend was undeterred. It was not necessary, he explained, to retrieve the entire shipment. A single case would more than suffice to turn us both into kings. Since it had been dumped at depth, and since the bulk of the shipment remained, the navy would never assume theft. The loss of a single case would be blamed on the sea. After all, the crew were all dead, and the navy had no reason to expect anyone but the clerk’s employer knew of the vessel’s secret cargo. And in any case, what did it matter to me? Was I not the courageous man who moments before stood ready to throw himself from the top of the bell tower? What was a few days more to the staunch captain of his own fate? Was not the manner of my death a matter of my choosing and mine alone? If the adventure was successful, I would have reversed my fortunes in so grand a manner as to make life itself unrecognizable. And if it failed, the bell tower would remain.
I did not accept immediately but sat watching the ships rocking at dock. A wind had arrived and it sprinkled drops of rain on the flagstones. Was it possible this was an accident? Was it possible the man across the table really was my betrothed’s new husband? Was it possible she had told him that I had once been a diver of some skill, before the scandal that brought me to my exile-upon-exile? It seemed both unlikely and not. The face of my plump companion revealed all of his excitement—it could not contain it—but no subterfuge. And yet, it didn’t seem possible that such a scheme was his. Was there a prime mover?
I lifted the glass I had barely touched and drained it in one go, catching my reflection in the bottom as I slammed it resolutely to the table. Fate, it seemed, was toying with me. That was vexing. But it was also exhilarating. It seemed that whatever plans existed, they depended greatly on me climbing that clock tower to find all the exits barred. I was not, as I had thought, a courageous man at all, and that bled the act of even the faintest nobility. But was I any better for accepting the path that had been laid for me? Should I not refuse—stand and walk out that very moment and find the steps of an old church on which to curl up for the night?
I looked again at the gathering wind. Over the sound of the waves, I heard the distant rime of the bell tower, calling the penitent home.
Was there a bed, I asked, and was answered in the affirmative. It would be so much easier to be courageous, I realized, after a good night’s sleep, and a wise man would attempt it then.
And that is how I set to sea on the voyage that changed everything.