Amsterdam was the kind of town that members of society avoided at all cost.
Situated beyond the Border, it lay on the edge of the Lowland Territories, just to the north of the Wild Isles, but south of untamed Zealand. It was populated by men who made their money building ships on the docks or gambling on Company bids. The prospectors and sailors lived within the confines of an antiquated dome, even as the Company erected the Barrier around them. The main street, named for pioneer Anton Van Huen, was built on a rise overlooking one of the old canals. It featured a number of smooth-faced modern buildings, fashioned out of industrial-grade ceramic with a garish titanium-gloss finish. They had been designed for longevity, not aesthetics.
On the corner of Van Huen and Rolstadt Streets, a particularly nondescript low-rise sported a sign which read, “The Redlight,” in ironic neon-orange. It was the last refuge of one of the ancient city’s most time-honored comforts.
I think “Denmark” is my favorite track.
Kids are the best. How is it we get from there to here?
Madame Chairman was having a party.
Ferdinand wasn’t surprised by the fact; his mother threw a lot of parties. It was summer in Geneva, and the whole city was alive with the hum of the social season. Laughter hung in a light mist above the rooftops and, in the salons and on the patios, alcohol flowed as casually as the lazy Bosphorus.
The nine-year-old Vice Chairman was holed-up in the boat house of the Summer Palace, practicing tying slip knots and avoiding his mother’s guests. The heat and humidity were beastly in the little shed, but Ferdinand relished the privacy of the disused skiffs, which lay in haphazard piles like a maze. Konrad was there, of course, but the heat made him uncomfortable, and after a few minutes of whining, he’d kept mostly quiet.
Squinting his eyes and holding his childish fingers as still as he could, Ferdinand threaded the loop of the knot with the chunky rope. Piercing the eye with great satisfaction, he was about to pull the end through, when he was startled by a great commotion out on the lawn.
Ferdinand and Konrad rushed to the small window of the boathouse loft. At the crest of the hill, a congregation of gentlemen and ladies watched in amazement as Madame Chairman raced wildly down the sloping lawn, skirts in her hands, feet bare and hair flapping behind her. She was laughing.
Then, behind them, the boathouse door slammed shut. Shuffling to the edge of the balcony to get a good look at the intruder, Ferdinand and the young Ambassador were surprised by what they saw. The man who crouched by the wall of the shed must have been six feet ten inches tall. He was broad and fit, too, a proper giant lurking in the shadows. He wore no shoes, and the buttons of his dress shirt were undone to his chest. There was no sign of the tie and tails he must have worn to dinner, but the crowning glory of the magnificent stranger was a marvelous crop of scarlet hair and matching mustache.
Konrad let out a shout of delight, betraying their position in the loft. The red giant spun on his heels like a cat and squinted into the dark rafters. Ferdinand and Konrad pressed close to the peeling paint of an old hull, hoping to remain unseen.
“Your Excellency?” the intruder inquired aloud, “Is that you?” His voice was clear and wonderful, like the beating sound of unseen wings, lofting birds into the autumn night.
Intrigued, Ferdinand stepped out of the shadows into view on the balcony of the loft. “I am Ferdinand-Kristoff,” he said, trying to project his own voice with grown-up volume. “Vice Chairman of the Company Standard, Patron of Europe, Protector of the Wild Isles. Who is it that asks for me?”
The giant laughed. “That’s an awfully big title for such a small king. Will you grow into it with time, I wonder?”
Ferdinand should have been angry, but his curiosity was running too high to be concerned for his pride. Inching closer to the ladder and summoning all his fledgling courage, he replied:
“Better small with a large title than large with no title at all. Are you a giant?”
The intruder laughed again, big voice booming in the tiny space. Konrad crept cautiously to the Vice Chairman’s side. “Not a giant,” the stranger admitted, “But a Captain. Where I sail the Anne Marie, that’s the only title that matters.”
The boys’ eyes grew very wide.
“The Anne Marie?” Ferdinand exclaimed breathlessly. “She’s captained by Leif Bjorndsson. He’s the greatest explorer who ever lived.”
“Greatest explorer!” Bjorndsson scoffed modestly. “Magellan sailed Victoria around the world; Collins steered Apollo to the Moon! The Anne Marie’s seen her share of shores, but nothing to compare to that.”
“But you are Leif Bjorndsson?” Ferdinand repeated.
“So I am.”
Quickly, Vice Chairman and Ambassador climbed down the ladder to get a better look at the grizzled seafarer.
“Did you really sail to Sweden?” Konrad asked.
“Or Ireland?” added Ferdinand.
“Were you attacked by Wildmen?” Konrad wondered. “Did they eat your crew?”
“We read a book,” Ferdinand explained, “Where a band of merchant sailors were eaten when they ran aground south of Esbjerg.”
Bjorndsson grinned. He looked so fearsome with his canines showing it was hard to imagine him being eaten by anything.
“Boys!” he exclaimed. “The Wildmen are many things, but cannibals? What sort of books have you been reading?”
“Serious books,” Konrad said solemnly.
“Father gave them to us,” added Ferdinand.
“Ah, of course,” Bjorndsson acknowledged. He sat down on the floor of the boathouse so that his shoulders were on level with the children’s heads.
“Tell us about Malmö,” Ferdinand commanded, looking the Captain squarely in the eye.
“Peter Halsrud said there are trees and cities in Malmö,” Konrad blurted.
“Did he?” Bjorndsson asked. The boys leaned against his massive shoulders. Ferdinand thought he smelled the salt spray of the ocean on the nape of his neck.
“Yes,” Ferdinand replied. “But he was wrong, wasn’t he? I told him so! Sweden is just like England, I said: sand and sky and mountains, but no people. Not even Wildmen!”
“You’re right,” Bjorndsson said with amusement. “Sweden is nothing but dunes.”
“Is the Anne Marie a big boat?” Konrad asked suddenly. He was growing fidgety in the heat.
“I’d like to sail a big boat someday,” he added wistfully, staring down the bank toward the cool expanse of the lake.
“The Anne Marie is small,” Bjorndsson said, “Room for me and four others in the crew. Only thing she’s big on is spirit. And imagination.”
“Father says I’m getting old for imagination,” Ferdinand replied with sad resolution. “I must be sensible if I’m to be Chairman.”
“I see,” Bjorndsson said seriously, putting his arms around the boys. “But without imagination,” he added, pointing to the dilapidated boat in the center of the shed, “How will we turn this skiff into the Anne Marie II?”
“What?” the boys chorused.
“You can’t do that!” Ferdinand challenged.
“Let’s just see, shall we?” replied the giant with a wink.
Twenty minutes later, the boys cautiously threw open the boathouse doors, looking suspiciously to the left in right for anyone who might veto their expedition. Seeing no sign of the nanny, Konrad gave the all-clear signal. Bjorndsson lifted a hastily salvaged skiff through the opening and slid it easily into the water below. Then, taking one boy in each arm, he sat them squarely on the aft bench before hoping aboard and pushing the vessel into the sparkling waters of Lake Geneva.
From the water, the land took on a different shape. All his life, Ferdinand had spent his summers under those same trees, lying between the same flower beds. He’d hidden behind the low wall above the docks and raced along the paths joining the boathouse and the conservatory. These were the venues of his greatest childhood adventures, filled with the majesty of memory, lending their grandeur to his grave acts of childish whimsy. But from the vantage of the Lake, on the back of the proud Anne Marie II, his Happy Hunting Grounds seemed diminutive, even insignificant. The trees were stunted, the sweeping lawn a dull brown, surrendered to the basking glare of the afternoon sun. He became detached from it, floating further and further from his associations until the things that once had mattered melted away. Now all that existed was the boat itself, and the gentle rocking of the waves against its sides. In casting off from the sandy beach below the boathouse, Ferdinand had unwittingly set sail from childhood innocence; forever after that country would be to him a foreign shore.
They drifted for a while, how long the Vice Chairman could not have said. He was a captive to the gentle bobbing which had seized the world. He slid along upon the back of time, riding it for those sweet moments like a beast which could be tamed and bidden. The skiff and her denizens were tethered to reality only by the chord of Bjorndsson’s deep bass, rising and falling in time with the waves as he shared with the boys his tales of the North Countries.
As far as Ferdinand was concerned, they could have crossed the North Sea, up beyond the Norwegian Horn, bound for a world of endless day and the untamed shores of Svalbard. But then their vessel drew close to the Palace docks, and Konrad spotted Madame Chairman sunning herself with some of her ladies on their wicker chaises. He jumped excitedly to his feet, waving to her with great bravado. The Anne Marie II promptly capsized; all hands were thrown to the waves.
Bjorndsson dragged the boys from the water by their collars, one in each hand. Madame Chairman and the red giant had laughed uncontrollably as the nanny scrambled to towel off her charges, struggling furiously to make them appear presentable. For once, Ferdinand hardly noticed the fussing.
The sun was going down, and his eyelids were growing heavy. Bjorndsson took him by the hand and led him to the bon fire burning merrily on the waterfront terrace. The Vice Chairman snuggled against the Captain’s massive chest, and let his exhaustion take him. Just as he began to drift to sleep, he was struck by an urgent need to tell Bjorndsson about his plan:
“Let’s keep going,” he murmured sleepily, “All the way to Svalbard. Someday, let’s go further than the Others ever went.”
“Someday,” Bjorndsson agreed, ruffling Ferdinand’s hair. But he was already asleep, happy and dreaming.