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Magnificent Desolation


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A.D. MCMVIII

AUGUSTUS HENRICUS DE SABAUDIA et MARCELLUS BONIFACTUS DE FORDA

CULMEN MAGNUM TAPELTORUM hoc vincerunt

In nominibus DOMINI et PATRIAE

 

A.D. 1908

AUGUST HENRY DE SABAUDIA and MARCELL BONIFACE DE FORDA

Conquered this GREAT PEAK of the TAPELTS

In the names of GOD and COUNTRY

 

 

“My apologies, but I will never climb with him again.”

“What? Why is that?”

“He has no honor. He tried to cheat me out of my share of the prize.”

“It was my understanding that you both received the Duke of Brisa’s—”

“The figurative prize, milord. We do not climb for money. We climb for immortality. He tried to rob me of it.”

“If you want immortality, my boy, why don’t you find a priest?”

“I would much prefer my name remembered in the history books than the roll of the parish dead.”

 

The Count of Sabia sighed. One of the heroes of the new generation sat here in his parlor repeating the lies of the old. He turned his gaze back to the newspaper clipping on the coffee table between them: the front page of the Times not one year ago when two men summited the highest mountain yet on the peninsula. They photographed themselves and their bright eyes with a plaque which staked their claim to glory.

 

Glory was an ancient and pernicious lie that had put two bullets through his chest when he was as young as his guest. Though he had seen its villainy firsthand, he knew its uses for old men like himself, their bodies too frail for adventure but their hearts left unsatisfied with their meager share of it. At his beckon, the young would hound after the glory he hunted to the ends of the eurth, and his heart would rest proud over his patronage.

 

Until glory failed them, the count thought grimly. But there was no other way he knew to convince the young to accede to an old man’s worn out dreams, nor any other way to learn its folly.

 

“The venture I propose is extremely hazardous, Henry,” he admitted. “I know you are married now, and I could understand any trepidation you may have at attempting another deadly record, but there is no need to denigrate an old climbing partner to refuse me.” 

“I do not complain of de Forda out of trepidation, milord. I am an honest man. Were I afraid, I would tell you directly that is why I refuse. But I am not afraid of anything. I refuse purely because I will not work with that thief.”

 

So it was not a careful ploy to make use of the rumors, the count gauged. The society gossip was true: the two friends really were at each other’s throats, judging by that glare as hard as granite from Henry’s eyes. Yet these young men had conquered the Tapelts together. He needed both of them if he dared to vicariously attempt the next conquest.

 

“Would it be more amenable to you if I mentioned there would be three others?”

“Who would they be?”

“I would leave that to you, but we will need some exceptional cross-country skiers.”

Henry’s anger faded, replaced by a puzzled brow. “Cross-country in the Tapelts?”

“No, my boy,” the count smiled at the catch he had hooked. The task to reunite Eulycea’s two best climbers was not impossible yet. 

 

“If you can believe it, there are more dizzying pinnacles than the top of the continent. They mark the ends of the eurth, the cardinal directions by which every compass and map guides a lost navigator. The stars themselves point to them.”

 

The count lit his cigar and gave it an experimental puff. “The poles.”

 

He reached forward, dabbing the ashes in the crystal tray on the table between them. “The one in the north has already been seized, but the southern pole in Antargis…”

 

His eyes flashed up at Henry. “...well, there is not a man alive who has seen it yet.”

 

He watched Henry’s eyes glimmer. Now to reel in the catch.

 

“It would be your name in not only the history books here, but in every country the wurld over. There would be streets and palaces and ships and mountains named after you. It would be our flag flying over the whole of the southern hemisphere, your name etched in stone forever. But I must warn you, it is not de Forda you should worry about stealing immortality from you.”

“Who, then?"

“The Salvians,” the count grinned.

Edited by Eulycea (see edit history)
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Port Liosus, Salvian Overseas Territories, 1959

A rocking chair creaked out a slow, steady rhythm as puffs of cigar smoke waft through the air. Pure Iberic tobacco. Much better quality than anything from Marenesia, that was for sure. How the man in the rocking chair acquired such an expensive taste was a tale many knew but one he told few. A glass of water with ice clicked as the man picked it up and lifted it to his lips. After some experiences as a young adult, he rarely indulged in alcohol, preferring water or juice. It sat better in his stomach was the excuse he gave to everyone, but those who knew, knew better.

The porch door swung open with a creak not too dissimilar from the creaking of the rocking chair, still slowly eeking out. A woman, as old as the man, walked out with bread and olive oil, the tray they were on shaking slightly. Setting it down she sat herself next to the man in a porch chair, a small table in between them. A cool July afternoon, it was still bright, sunny, and warm, the palm tree in the front yard swaying gently. Separated from the shore by 100 meters and another row of houses, the front porch still commanded a view of the water and gusts of wind from the ocean still lifted themselves over to inspire the flags to flap and the trees to sway. The older man took another puff as the creaking of his rocking chair continued.

Many of those he knew still marveled over why he would move to Port Liosus. Sure, it was a lovely enough spot in the winter, but the tropics got hot and wet in the summer months. For someone as old (and well-off) as the man, it would make more sense staying here for a couple of months in the winter and moving back to the family on the mainland for most of the year. But not so for the man. His wife would often inquire about it when they were younger. She was a native of the island, half Marenai, and so didn’t mind, but she always thought it odd that a Salvian - one from the northwest that frequented the Agrillians, no less - would prefer somewhere less tropical. Especially after the war broke out and it came dangerously close to home. They were spared, thankfully, and the man would offer his hospitality to both Salvian and Gallambrian troops.

Leo made a lot of excuses to a lot of people about a lot of things, but one thing he always told the full truth about was this. “I am tired of the cold,” he would say, “I never want to experience it again. Ever.”

 

Oppiteone, Northwest Salvia, 1909

A cold spell from the Agrillians had swept over the far northern reaches of Salvia, sending temperatures plunging. While somewhat rare, it wasn’t that out of the ordinary, and anyone who had lived in the area for a decade or two were, if not used to the near freezing temperatures, at least able to cope without many issues. The innkeeper didn’t really mind. If anything, it brought in more business as locals passing by tried to get out of the cold and get a drink in their bellies.

The door swung open, bringing the cold in for a brief second before the door closed. Nobody paid the Iverican any attention as he strolled in. It was loud, even for a Salvian bar, and he doubted many even heard him. The cold did not really bother him, having visited much of Argis’s mountains and peaks but he nonetheless welcomed the warmth of the indoors as he made his way over to a table in one the corner of the bar, right near the fireplace. At it sat 5 men, with an empty chair for himself as the last to arrive. The men facing the entrance cheered him loudly as he walked over, with the others who had their backs to him turned their heads and followed suit as they recognized him. He couldn’t help but grin at the flushed faces that welcomed him.

“My boy! How goes it?” A man, the group’s senior by a dozen or so years and its leader, stood up and hugged the man as he reached the table. The rest greeted him with friendly handshakes and hearty hello’s as he sat down. One of the men waved the bartender over, who brought a large mug of beer for the Iverican. For a few minutes the group settled in and continued to drink before the leader stood up and called for their attention. Those around them continued to chatter, but the table was silent.

“Gentlemen. Every one of us has conquered impressive peaks, explored some of the most unwelcoming places on Eurth, encountered challenge, overcame adversity-”

“Oh save the shit for me ma, get on with it!”

The group chuckled while the leader grinned. “Right. I’ve gathered us all here for a new expedition. I have purposely left you all in the dark about where we are going for some time, although I believe it’s high time you found out.” He paused for a moment. What he was about to propose would be seen as suicidal by most. Even possibly to a couple in the group. But he did not get them all together for nothing.

“We are to make our way towards the Southern Pole, gentlemen. And we’ll be the first to do it.”

Edited by Salvia (see edit history)
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  • 2 weeks later...

Henry spent a week regretting shaking the count's hand. He spent that time under shuttered shades in his study with a glass of port in hand. That is, until Friday.

The grandfather clock across from his desk chimed twice for the afternoon sun. He strained an eye towards its face, but it landed on the bottle instead. It only had enough for one more glass. Soon he would have to get the other bottle from the pantry. That expedition would be fraught with more peril than any to the Antargic; he would have to deal with a more frigid shoulder than any ice shelf. His wife prowled the corridors of their little home, waiting to turn her contemptuous back on him once he emerged from the comforting, mahogany-furnished twilight.

They had only been married a month.

He finished the bottle with two quick swigs, one from his glass and the other straight from the bottle. Setting it down as quietly as he could, he rose stiffly and crept across his study to the door. As timidly as a mouse he waited at the precipice, listening for her footfalls. He heard none. Satisfied, he slowly twisted the doorknob and cracked the door open enough for a peek. His eyes squinted, adjusting to the daylight. This side of the house seemed deserted. Perhaps she had taken her sexta.* He went out and tip-toed towards the kitchen. The floorboards beneath betrayed him with a whining creak. He laid still for a moment, ears listening. But she did not come to investigate. He pressed on through the doorway and into the kitchen.

There she had laid her ambush. She was waiting for him at the counter, her glare piercing right through his heart.

"Drink the merlot, if you must," she said, arms crossed. "We need the port for dessert."

He made no such move to the pantry. Caught red-handed, his ashamed fingers ruffled through his hair and rubbed his aching face. At last, he spoke. "I thought we were dining out tonight."

"You wanted to go out?" Her voice strained its incredulity. "You haven't left the house all week. I have had to leave your meals at the study door while you sat there in your stupor, brooding like... like some tragic actor!"

A stray chestnut-colored curl tumbled down her forehead during her outburst. She replaced it quickly and preened herself for a moment. He was suddenly much more aware of the dark stubble on his chin and his unbuttoned shirt.

"I'm sorry, Lucy. I will telephone the count and tell him it's off."

"No, no, no!" she stomped her foot. "Are you not the man who conquered the Tapelts? Are you not the man who has never given up? Where is that courageous man I married? Mrs. Henry de Sabaudia is looking for her husband, and all she can find is some drunk who stumbled into her kitchen!"

"I'm right here, Lucy. And as much as it pains me to admit, I am frightened."

"Frightened by what, Henry?"

His cheeks burned.

"Tell me what you're frightened by," she insisted.

"I'm too frightened to see him. To apologize. To get on my knees and beg him to join me again." His eyes began tearing up.

"If you're so frightened of a man, you'll never conquer the South Pole," she huffed. "Maybe you should be more frightened of a woman."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You should shave. We have company coming for dinner."

"No, Lucy, you didn't--"

"--I did. You'll thank me later. And so will our finances, with all the fine wine you've been drinking."

His mouth hung open. He wished so badly to plead with her to call it off. He could not bear to see de Forda again. It would be an agony worse than the pains of hell. But she knew how to calm his frenzied mind.

"I'll make some coffee for you. Go run a bath and freshen up."

He quit his futile worrying, straightened his hair, and nodded. "Thank you, dearest."

"Don't thank me yet," she laughed bitterly. "You still have to convince him."

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Marcell Boniface de Forda arrived at the de Sabaudia home a few hours later. The handshake between the two men was stiffly polite. The two women gave each other a hug and admonished their husbands with their glances. Henry excused himself to find them a proper bottle for some drinks before dinner. Lucy toured Marcell and Josephina through the fruits of her labor: the back garden was finally starting to bloom after a month of clearing, planting, weeding, and watering.

The four sat under a pergola at a wrought-iron table, sipping champagne. Both men shrunk from the conversation and offered each other a few curious looks, as if they were studying the surface of the Mun. But the chattering peace would not last. As the sun finally set, Josephina offered her assistance in the kitchen and Lucy gladly accepted, leaving the two friends alone with each other.

"So, Henry," Marcell ventured first. "I hear you and Lucy honeymooned in Salvia."

"We did. We saw the papal palace. Deopolis and King Peter's old crown in the museum."

"I've always wanted to visit. But I hear it's dreadful hot."

"The problem isn't the heat; it's hotter here, in fact. But the air is humid. Under that sun you drip sweat like wax from a candle."

Marcell nodded and Henry was too reluctant to continue the conversation. They watched the dimming sky above them for a few quiet minutes.

 

The pink curtains had closed on the day, the sky darkening into a sleepy blue. It was time to close the curtains on this awful rift between them. Henry gulped down the rest of his glass.

It was time.

"I want to apologize for what I said about you," he began. "About the cheating and the thievery. I want to apologize for ruining our partnership, and worse yet, our friendship. I could not bear to swallow my pride and share the spotlight with you. I'm terribly sorry."

Marcell looked him over. Maybe it was all the staring into the sun, but Henry swore he could see a few tears welling up in Marcell's eyes.

"It cut deep, what you said about me," he replied. "There were many looks I would get in public, you know. But if there's anyone you should apologize to, it's Josephina. She could not stand all the controversy and the gossip. She grieved for our friendship more than I ever could, incensed as I was at you."

Henry swallowed. This was what he feared.

"But in all that anger at being slighted, at having my honor spat upon, I could only remember us in the shadow of Mount Olympus, sharing the tea kettle at camp. What bright smiles we had, dreaming of the future atop that peak," he mused, the corners of his lips drawn fondly. "You and I, ours was a mighty friendship that not even Nature herself could oppose. That friendship made our dream a reality."

"Perhaps I was angry more at the thought that such an invincible thing could be torn apart," he concluded.

A chilly night wind breezed through the garden. But Marcell turned and offered Henry his first genuine smile of the night.

"I would like very much for that friendship to be remade."

"As would I," Henry smiled gratefully. The two friends toasted each other with the last of the champagne and headed inside.

The dinner was uproarious. Their laughter must have kept the whole neighborhood up. The bottle of port at dessert didn't help much at quieting them down. But by the end of that long night of storytelling, glass-clinking, and teary-eyed jest-making, a friendship was remade and a proposal was agreed to. The friends would become partners again. This time, they would not climb, but ski and sled. They would be the first to reach the South Pole. When the de Fordas bid good night, Henry drew his old friend into a hug.

 

 

"Thank you, my love," Henry whispered to his wife in bed, his arms wrapped tightly around her. "If I am a courageous man, then you are one mischievous woman."

"Just promise me, darling, you'll share this victory with him."

He kissed her head of chestnut hair. "Him, but no one else."

 

 

* known in other countries as a siesta.

Edited by Eulycea (see edit history)
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