“The next moonless night, scarcely a day before I was due to present my new weapon in working order to the Emperor, was the night of my escape.
“I had continued with perfecting the proper ingredient proportions for an ideal explosion, mostly to help my escape and partly to save my neck through an impressive demonstration for the court’s benefit if Sun never showed. But show Sun did, in the darkest and sleepiest part of that night. He arrived in my cell as he had before, wrapped in stealth yet let through the tower’s doors by sympathetic guards. He asked if I was ready, I replied that I was, he dallied in my cell to give the impression that we had things to discuss other than my escape, and then he departed the room.
“The twin explosions occurred three minutes after Sun’s departure (I had done well with the fuses), and the two stacks of gunpowder-filled crates, one against the door and the other beneath the small window in my exterior wall, blew out that door and that wall. I, who had ducked behind a large steel divider which I had requested for protection against accidental explosions, rushed through the open doorway with a torch in hand, hopping over one of the dead guards and dashing towards the stone steps which led to the tower entrance below.
“I encountered the second pair of guards halfway down the first flight of steps, and at that point pulled from my belt a pouch of powder with a fuse unsheathed by my tug. The fuse was lit with my torch, and the pouch descended into the gap between the two men, killing both instantly once it exploded. I had flattened myself on the steps after tossing my primitive grenade, and now rose to continue down the stairs all the way to the ground floor.
“Sun Cheng, his loyalty to his countrymen as a whole apparently greater than his regard for their individual lives, stood above yet another pair of bodies on that floor before a closed pair of tower doors, a bloody short sword in his hand. ‘We must hurry,’ he told me, and he shoved open one of those doors before motioning for me to follow him.
“Follow him I did, through the streets and alleys of the palace grounds, clad in black and keeping to the shadows whenever there was any light to be had, light beyond that emitted by the intensely burning fire at the base of the tower started by a barrel of pitch I had placed with the crate against my cell wall. Not surprisingly, the palace denizens were thoroughly distracted by this novel explosion, many shouting that it was a lightning strike as they rushed past us and others shouting back that lightning does not strike from a clear night sky.
“At the base of the nearest palace wall, Sun paused long enough to retrieve a grapple from beneath his cloak, and tossed it over the wall’s interior parapet above with surprising agility. He then proceeded to climb that wall by means of the grapple’s knotted rope, and motioned for me to follow with the wave of a momentarily-released hand.
“So I climbed after Sun, ruminating knot by knot upon my curious situation: this cold-blooded Chinese bureaucrat was helping me escape from the heart of his empire, even after we had destroyed almost all of the gunpowder which so worried him. I was only a few yards beneath that interior parapet, where Sun supposedly stood guard with his sword over the grapple, when I realized that Sun had never intended to help me escape the Han Empire; I was too dangerous a man.
“Indeed, in the next moment I felt a brief tug upward (as a fish would feel on a line), then found myself falling back to Earth, the limp and useless rope falling with me. The impact with our planet, my friend, was painful in the extreme, and any ordinary man would have been crippled (if not killed) by the fall.
“But I was no ordinary man, and I lay on the ground ruminating on Sun’s treachery as the medibots set to work and the heart-stopping pain began to subside. He had been clever enough to set things up to where it looked as if I had escaped alone (there were no living witnesses to suggest otherwise) and had fallen to my death from the palace wall when my grapple slipped loose.
“But I rose again, approached the wall to set one shoulder lightly against its base, and proceeded to scrape along that base. Once I was confident that Sun (for one) would not see me, I tossed the grapple myself, tested it with my entire weight, and proceeded to climb with a dead guard’s short sword tucked into my belt.
“And that blade would soon be needed. I had very nearly reached the top of the wall when I heard the rushing rustle of another guard, and I withdrew my sword to parry the pike blade which had arced against the backdrop of the pre-dawn gloom. Having failed to chop the grapple’s rope, the shouting guard then swung for my skull. I not only parried this second swing, but drew my assailant over the interior parapet with the pommel and blade of my weapon set against the shaft and blade of his own. The tip of my sword met the neck of the man who foolishly did not let go of his weapon, and he was spouting blood before he met the ground below.
“Over the parapet I climbed, and I immediately confronted a second pikeman atop the palace wall. This second man had less courage than his fallen comrade, however, and backed away slowly before screaming for reinforcements and turning into a full flight.
“I myself did not wait for those reinforcements to arrive, but instead set the grapple against the opposite parapet and proceeded to slither down the exterior side of the palace wall. I was well towards the ground when I felt that familiar tug, and I allowed myself to fall the remaining distance before limping off into the darkness surrounding the Han palace. “
“Fortunately for me, that darkness would not be rolled away by the dawn until I had reached the city’s caravansary (modest, but sufficient for my needs), and I made my way through Lo-yang with no more notice of my passing than during my journey across the palace grounds with Sun. It was before the low walls of that compound, however, on the far side of the city, that I witnessed the capture of Sun Cheng by palace guards.
“I watched from a crouching position between an empty cart and an empty shop as Sun, who had apparently been conversing with the caravansary’s overseer beside the front gate, was taken by the arms. He wore the same black cloak and hood as myself, and shouted for all to hear that a ‘dangerous foreigner,’ the one who had ‘exploded’ the palace tower, would try to escape in a caravan.
“As the traders gathered before the gate laughed at the little bareheaded man being led away, I took the opportunity and used the last bit of night to conceal my dash to and climb over the caravansary wall nearest my position.
“The primitive lock on the wagon parked with its rear door a few feet from the wall was easily picked with the tip of my sword, and I tossed a few large bolts of silk over that wall to make room for myself within. Most fortunately, the man who found the hanging lock a minute later must have chalked it up to carelessness on the part of an underling, for he merely re-secured the wagon before walking away and shouting at some unseen soul.
“And so, a few minutes later, my journey back to the West began. I waited an entire day of riding in that wagon, until the darkness outside the door cracks had returned, then kicked open that double door to the scene of a starlit campsite. I dashed again, this time for the horses tethered to a stake in the ground, my head filled with vague notions of stealing a mount and riding west into the darkness.
“An armed guard who had been standing watch put himself in my way, and we fought with swords for my right to continue past him. Within moments the point of that battle passed, however, as I was surrounded by caravaners who apparently slept with swords at their sides. Another vague notion replaced the previous one when I saw a torch in one of their hands, and the sack of powder which I had carried out in my free hand was tossed into a cloud against the torch’s flames, creating an arc of fire and smoke.
“The crowd of men fell back in fear, and I took the opportunity to speak, a second bag in my free hand: I offered them the gift of gunpowder in exchange for passage as far west as they would travel.
“The man who was apparently the caravan’s leader stepped forward from behind the crowd and asked me why they should not just take my powder and turn me over to the Imperial authorities, seeing as how I must be the foreigner who had ‘exploded’ the palace tower. I replied that the authorities would kill them all as well as I, because of the power of the powder which I held in my hand.
“The leader reacted by not reacting, and stepped further towards me. ‘Teach us the secret of the powder, and we will let you go,’ he informed me in a low voice.
“‘At the end of your journey,’ I demanded.
“‘Very well,’ the leader concurred, before turning to the rest of the caravaners. ‘Get this man a bedroll and something to eat,’ he belted out. ‘He has a long journey ahead of him.’”
“I was relieved to have talked myself out of a corner, but was interested no more in placing trust in my fellow man. The caravan continued on the next morning for its ultimate destination of the Tarim Basin, and continued further toward its goal every morning after that, but I was already plotting my own, separate, journey.
“Every night, I drank several ladlefuls of water before retiring to my bedroll, so that I would awaken well before dawn and be able to see if the sentry on duty had fallen asleep. Also, I carefully observed the behavior of the horses, looking for a pair that were of docile temperament.
“These traders were no Roman soldiers, and my opportunity came on precisely the right night, after we had crossed the Yellow River. The sentry was sound asleep against a fallen log, even as I urinated near him to confirm his somnolence. My two chosen equine friends were tied to the same stake, and neither let out more than a snort as I led them away into the remainder of the night.
“Once we were out of earshot of the camp, I rode my mounts hard in successive one hour intervals, crossing a river ford at dawn (a ford I was familiar with from my journey with Ban’s army), then following the right bank of the Yellow well into the mountains for several days. All my possessions, including my powder and stolen sword, had been taken from me, and I was reduced to stealing chickens from poor villagers along the way until I obtained a knife and a length of rope from a hut wall. Those tools allowed me to snare and skin wild game in the forests where I camped every night.
“That is, every night until the forests ran out. When the Yellow turned south, I turned west, riding through a valley until I reached a caravan trail that headed south itself, towards the Tibetan Plateau. Spring was the season for Chinese caravaners to head south in time to meet up with their Indian counterparts during the Tibetan high summer (when the few Himalayan passes were snow-free), and thus I did not have to worry about encountering contrary traffic. All the while, my horses were able to graze on green grass and I was able to fish in the rivers.
“If you think Tibet a remote and forbidding place, my friend, imagine it more so in the second century. The nights were cold, but I had thought to take my bedroll with me and used it to avoid freezing to death in the Himalayan nights. Not another soul was to be seen for many a mile until I was well on the plateau, and I was as grateful for the companionship provided by my horses as for the transportation.
“It was soon after I spotted my first glacier that I encountered my first Tibetans, a small clan living in huts at a river crossing who obviously made their living off intercourse with the caravans which passed to and fro frequently. At this point, I judged myself safe from the authority of the Han Emperor, and accepted the locals’ offer of a meal and an overnight stay, provided free of charge as mere hospitality.
“Thrice more I encountered riverside villagers willing to share their meager resources with a lone traveler, and then I was in the ancient city of Lhasa, bathing and shaving in the heated water of an inn as the horse I had not sold feasted on hay in a warm stable. I ate a large meal in the inn’s dining room, made small talk with another early arrival from the north, then walked to the city bazaar to approach the wealthiest-looking cohort of swarthy visitors from the Subcontinent about passage to India.
“I was soon given a private audience with the master trader, an old and wiry man sitting cross-legged beneath a pine tree at some distance from the hustle and bustle of the bazaar. He smiled at my fair skin, seemed not surprised when a junior trader acting as translator of Chinese informed him that I was a Roman, then asked me if I wished to return home. I informed the old man that I did indeed, and he informed me that he and his fellow traders would leave in two months’ time, after the last of the caravans had arrived from China, and that I would be welcome to journey south to Sikkim under their protection.
“I expressed my gratitude, the old man nodded in acknowledgment, and he suggested that I enjoy the local scenery while I was there. I nodded myself, with a sudden insight blazing through my brain, and I took my leave from the man beneath the pine tree.”
“You climbed Mount Everest,” Carter interjected, his palms firmly on the floor to help steady himself against his sleepiness.
Cartaphilus looked from up at the ceiling light to down at the haggard-looking man looking back at him. “We need food and sleep.”
Carter glanced down at his watch, and his eyes grew. “We do indeed.” Then he looked away from watch and wanderer and back. “You can hide at my place. Ah’ve got a flat a few blocks away.”
“Hide?” Cartaphilus asked quizzically.
Host looked at guest quizzically. “You tried to deface an ancient bust.”
Cartaphilus smiled, perhaps a bit sheepishly. “Yes, it’s been a long night.” He stood up, along with his host. “How shall we get out of here?”
Carter reached for the tweed jacket he had worn to work the previous day. “We’ll walk out through the front door.”
Cartaphilus scooped up the last of his lamb biryani with the plastic fork, and smiled around the last mouthful. “Indian food for breakfast. How appropriate.”
Carter was seated on the floor against his living room couch, already lighting up a post-prandial cigarette. “Appropriate and convenient. We should get some sleep, but that would throw off our cycle.” He stood up. “Tea or coffee, my friend?”
Cartaphilus smiled. “I quit drinking tea in Seventeen Seventy.”
“So, yes, I climbed Mount Everest during that peaceful interlude,” Cartaphilus began, smoking his own cigarette as he sank into one of his host’s living room chairs. “I raised funds for my little expedition by selling as a novelty in the bazaar a small amount of gunpowder from the pouches of powder I always carried stuffed in my boots, and I hired a guide to lead me up the Brahmaputra Valley to the north foot of the mountain.
“It was there, in view of the summit, that I was introduced to the local Sherpas, who expressed trepidation at even assisting my climb until I showed them too a demonstration of my flashing powder, and pressed a handful of coins into the clan leader’s palm. It was then agreed that I would be accompanied to a high-altitude base camp by a pair of locals beginning early the next morning, and that from there I would attempt the summit alone.
“The two young men who were chosen to accompany me had no notion of what they were about to witness. The tone of their short-breathed utterances between each other seemed to be of admiration, as they struggled to keep up with me on the climb to the pre-determined site of the base camp thousands of feet above their tent village. When we finally reached our campsite, as darkness began to fall, they slowly ate our cold meal and went straight to their tent and bedrolls.
“The two were even more amazed, frightened even, when I woke them before dawn the next morning to inform them that I was headed for the summit immediately, not waiting to acclimate myself to the higher altitudes. The one who knew a smattering of Han pleaded with me not to go as I finished packing my rucksack, but I ignored him and trudged away, only speaking to remind him that we had an arrangement and that the two of them should remain at the camp until I returned or until they ran out of supplies, whichever came first.