“Those silly ropes are slowing you down too much,” Nunti said in her high pitched snipping voice, reminding Reinvo of the small noisy dogs high station men liked to carry around all day. The illusion was enhanced by the fact that she was shorter than any woman he’d ever met, but it ended there. He was sure she could toss him ten feet if she wanted to in spite of being old enough to be his grandmother.
At first, he’d tried to match Nunti’s climbing abilities as she easily spidered up the cliffs. After almost falling fifty feet, he’d settled for using the style he knew best: ropes, pulleys, and a steady hand. Nunti wouldn’t let him use pitons; this mountain was sacred grounds, and they were not allowed to damage it. They’d compromised. Nunti would climb ahead of them and secure the pulleys to let them climb. The only problem was her definition of secured and his seemed to differ by about a thousand miles. A fact he reminded himself he shouldn’t mention again as he glanced at the pulley he’d just used that was wedged between two rocks and jiggled as he pulled himself over the lip.
“You’ve said that already, ma’am,” he grunted at her.
“No, I didn’t.” She dropped down, grabbing the cliff next to him. Her long gray braid of hair bounced and swung in the wind.
Nose to nose with him, she looked into his eyes. Her eyes were a silvery blue and as deep as this mountain was tall. “I said you’d make me visit the crown twice if you used the ropes. I just got back from the crown. So I was right, today I visit twice. You may be touched by the sky as much as the ocean, but I’m a sky walker.”
“Ma’am, you’re a wonderful guide. But, if you don’t mind I’d like to survive this day.” Reinvo grabbed a stable rock and finished pulling himself up onto the ledge.
Tossing the rope back down, he braced to help Ardlee make the assent with something more secure than a dangling pulley.
“Hmm,” Nunti said, perching next to him and leaning out to look down the vertigo-inducing hundred-foot cliff face. “He moves better than you.” She picked at her white teeth with a dirty fingernail.
Reinvo laughed. “He is younger, you know.”
“Ha. I’ve grandkids older than you that climb better. Your people don’t sky walk,” she said as she fiddled with something in her pouch.
He knew she was baiting him, so he shook his head instead of getting into another debate with her. She was always probing them for information on their empire and ways. Only she used sly humor and careful wit to get to it. He knew it, and he knew that she knew, he knew it, too. When he didn’t answer, she went down the cliff vertically to chatter at Ardlee, encouraging him to move faster.
Keeping Ardlee’s safety line taught required little thought. Reinvo’s attention took the free moment to take in the sights. The view was already amazing, only two-thirds of the way to the summit. The ocean air carried the fragrance of thousands of native flowers up from the dark green belt next to crystal blue waters.
Below them, the Vibrius stood on a simple dry dock made from the iron-like tall trees that grew here. The gray and white ship looked like the iris of a giant cat’s eye in the middle of a blue water bay. Captain Reinvo knew the Vibrius too well. Even from this distance, he could discern torn iron plating. The mighty ship’s sleek lines marred like an old sailor who’s been too liberal with the mug and too tight with his pride.
The Cannilius, as the natives were called, were far more advanced than he’d expected. They lived in grass huts, wore textiles made of plant fibers, ate a diet of fresh fruits and fish. Yet they also made the finest glass work he’d ever seen, understood the making of iron, and were able to build furnaces out of mud bricks capable of smelting metal parts needed to patch the ship.
A grunt brought his attention back to Ardlee. With a last pull, the two men were sat comfortably on the narrow ledge. Nunti strolled around a corner towards them on a ribbon of the ledge as if walking on a park promenade.
“Eat,” she said holding out two handfuls of some brownish lumps.
“What is that?” Ardlee asked, taking his half.
“Canishassa’s hair. Eat.” She pushed the remaining handful into Reinvo’s hand.
Ardlee and Reinvo exchanged nervous glances.
“Eat, eat. It is only good fresh.” She reached up with a hand and pulled herself above them. “There’s a baby’s path above you. We’ll reach Canishassa’s crown soon.”
Ardlee put the substance in his mouth and chewed. His face remained neutral as he looked pointedly at Reinvo.
“I don’t suppose I could pull rank and say no,” Reinvo muttered.
“Not here, sir.”
The brown substance was spongy and smelled earthy. Reinvo cautiously put it in his mouth and chewed. A thick juice mixed with his saliva, and the flavor wasn’t as bad as he expected.
“Kind of like chewing on a rag soaked in molasses,” he said to Ardlee.
Ardlee pulled out his leather water bottle. “Not the most delicious thing I’ve had here.” He took a long drink.
The route Nunti called a baby’s path, was yet another example of how far apart their definitions for some words were. The path they took consisted of a narrow crevasse traversal and a chimney climb to the top. That was followed by a set of switchback ledges with no place to properly brace.
“Empresses bless me,” Ardlee said, standing and looking at the sweeping view.
“Empresses and Canishassa bless us both,” Reinvo agreed. The summit was surmounted by a set of twenty-foot-wide spikes that jutted up thirty feet at an angle. With Nunti’s permission, they were able to crawl up them to stand on almost level platforms with a three hundred and sixty-degree view of the islands and ocean.
“Where are the edge falls?” Ardlee asked.
“I’m not sure. I thought we’d be able to see them from here,” Reinvo said as he pulled the cloth-wrapped hand telescope Lady Janali had given him before they’d left Ventali from his bag.
Ardlee had the brass climbing altimeter out and was writing in his journal.
“How high are we?”
“Approximately seventeen-thousand five-hundred and fifty feet.”
Reinvo stood and looked through the telescope. Six smaller islands surrounded the largest island of Cannili they stood on.
“What is that?” Nunti said, jumping through the free air to land like a dancer on the spur they stood on.
“This is a telescope. It uses glass to make distant objects easier to see.”
Nunti held out her hand.
Reinvo considered saying no. But, they were only here by the blessing of the chief oracle called the matriarch of the island. She’d allowed them to come under direct supervision of a good sky walker. They were told to follow every direction Nunti gave them to ensure they didn’t anger Canishassa.
He reluctantly handed it over. Nunti took it and looked through it. After fiddling with it for a bit, she figured out how to focus it and then started jumping up and down like a little girl. “I like,” she said over and over.
She was jumping up and down so close to the edge Reinvo started worrying she wasn’t paying attention. He began to walk towards her when she turned facing northwest and walked right past him to stop on the opposite side of the small platform, her toes dangling in the open air.
“Oh,” she said handing it back. Her shoulders were dropping a little.
“What’s wrong?” Reinvo asked, looking in the same direction through the telescope.
“I thought I might be the first since the great shaking made Canishassa flee Monisia to see the misty cliffs of steel.”
There was only an ocean to the northwest. But, there was a slight brownish-gray haze that signaled land to his trained eye.
“The what?” Ardlee asked.
“When the world was being destroyed by the forces of gray, Canishassa brought our peoples here to be safe. The oldest stories say we came from there, where there are great cliffs of steel stretching into the sky. Canishassa chose the first sky walkers to protect the sands before she left.”
“Did all your people speak Ventalian then?” Reinvo asked.
“It’s not Ventalian. I’ve told you. The sky walkers speak the eternal language. We keep it true.”
“So what is the other language?” Ardlee prompted.
“That is the language of our people. The people keep that true.” She turned and stepped off the edge.
Reinvo ran over and saw she’d only fallen a few yards to land on a narrow ledge. She waved. “Be back. I smell something good.”
Reinvo stood for a time just gazing at the blue oceans, green islands, and bright sky. Ardlee had sat at the edge and was looking at the other islands.
“It is beautiful, sir.”
“Yes, it is. We’ve found an impossible paradise.”
Pulling the telescope back to his eye, he scanned the horizons.
“Ardlee,” Reinvo said, handing the telescope to the commander. “Do you see anything?”
Ardlee took his time looking all around. Finally, he stopped and handed the telescope back. “Well, there might be land northwest where Nunti was looking for it. But, nothing at all. I don’t understand. Where is the edge of the world?”
Reinvo looked back towards their homeland. “I know we didn’t pass it.” In the distance with the telescope, there was a black spot on the white line of the horizon. “Get the directional stand, your journal and compass out. We have work to do.” He laid down to prop his arms against the ground while holding the telescope steady.
Ardlee pulled the gear out. “What do you see?”
“I think it’s Mount Terrat.”
“Captain, that’s not possible. Mount Terrat has to be over ten-thousand miles away.”
“Closer to fifteen-thousand I’d say without the navigational charts. But it’s also more than five miles tall. Help me take some readings.”
“Captain, is it even possible to see that far?”
“I don’t know. It’s a fixed spot. It might just be another island mountain. We won’t know unless we try and set a course for it. And to do that...” He stopped pointedly looking at Ardlee who was gazing towards the spot even though it wasn’t visible without the telescope.
“Oh right,” Ardlee said, jumping into motion again and setting up the cartography equipment they’d brought to map the islands with.
With the small three legged stand, they took a reading on the black dot. Then they recorded the general shape and topography of the surrounding islands and packed the equipment away. With nothing remaining to do, they sat, each with his own thoughts.
Ardlee elbowed Reinvo getting his attention. “Nunti is coming back, and I don’t like that grin. She’s found something we’re going to have to taste.”