Two young men in a slate-gray city. One cast away from the orphanage at sixteen like in Dickens, working in anonymous stores and kitchens, itinerant. Literate enough to dream of seeing the world's ten-thousand more beautiful places, poor and realistic enough to know he never will. The other having near-unimaginable wealth before he has finished college, stratosphere-class parents dead from too much coughing and not enough breathing. His world is one where millionaires are still rare, and worthwhile lives spent without a family are even more so. They are both alone.
Both are also blown non-rhythmically around the city by its innate social convection currents. Brandon, the orphan, from a brick tenement into one of the many working districts of the city, then back. Lawrence, the millionaire, from a (in his eyes) modest row-house to the university he had long ago grown to hate, then back. A few years pass this way, but little changes for either of them.
Eventually, as any two given particles in a chaotic system have some probability of doing, they meet. Instead of the infinitely more likely outcome of a near miss, the angles and momenta are just right to result in collision. Without getting into any specifics, they turn out to fuse together nicely, releasing an altogether appropriate quantum of energy.
The primary form taken by the energy is conversation, building upon their sudden mutual understanding. Brandon tells Lawrence about all of the places he has read about on his weekends and holidays. Foreign eyes and skin-tones, intricately detailed architecture, the musical babble of an alien tongue -- so many radical new kinds of beauty. Brandon is simply stunned that Lawrence has not used his resources to see all of these things implicitly offered to him. For his part, Lawrence can barely believe that somebody so less educated than he could have such a deep understanding of and desire for the world. His detachment is broken, and he resolves within himself to try and begin dreaming as Brandon always has.
In light of that decision, Lawrence makes no argument (barely even pauses in reply) when Brandon one day says, "Get me a cruiser which is light and swift upon the water, captained with wise experience, and manned by people who love what they do."
It is doubtlessly one of the first pure pleasure cruises, and will probably survive history as the most expensive. After a few lengthy meetings and much formal talk, to do with a favor owed to Lawrence's father by a royal family, a port-of-call is secured in a nearby South-Western country. In even less time than that a beautiful maroon and white ship is chartered, and the crew made loyal with a hundred percent pay bonus. Launch commences successfully, with no need for tear-laden goodbyes and slowly waved handkerchiefs, and the pair move due West with the aid of a powerful wind.
West to chalky bluffs as white as winter's second snow, vivid between the blue sky and the bluer ocean. To tiny countries where just one or two others who can speak their language -- they communicate with the universal human facial movements and hormonal scents, well enough that at least the soft brown women can intuit their desire. They visit places more wonderful than anywhere Brandon's books had documented, places about which few words yet been written.
One journey, one thousand distinct subclasses of paradise.
Dreams are often disappointing when they finally come true. Brandon has determined this quasi-universal rule from all the books he has read, and is depressingly certain it will be true of his as well. Hence he is fairly surprised (as a diehard realist and all) when it proves not to be the case for his dreams. As Brandon's experiences keep turning out even better than he expected they would, he notices a growing attraction, an addiction even, to all this novelty. Always having considered himself above material pleasures, his self-image reveling in the experience alone, he is unnerved when the two turn out to be faces of the same coin.
During these halcyon times Lawrence's enjoyment is just as great, but he never has the epiphany implicitly promised to him by Brandon. As the financier of this adventure, he is unknowingly moved by the thousand layers of guilt and duty etched upon him throughout his youth. While both he and his friend see the same profound sights, only in the back of his mind does the resounding starburst firework of opportunity explode. For some the experience might be ruined by this, but for Lawrence it's just more blissful pleasure.
Initially, Brandon doesn't see it, confused that his new brother can be distracted from the moment. Later, after discussion and some of the finest fruit wine that rope can be traded for, he grasps Lawrence's reasoning and (more importantly) why he reasons that way. He smiles so slightly, and says in a low voice, "Gather me a cargo fleet that could move between empires, let the holds be deep and water-proof, the sailors strong and dedicated."
Fast, faster than seems possible, all of the deals Lawrence strikes with those Western lands collapse. Paradise, as it turns out, wants little to do with idealists or opportunists, both of which it senses the eager fleet to be after a few trades. For neither of them is this as much a disappointment as it would seem; Lawrence because he has already recouped much of the cost of the fleet, and Brandon because there is so much else in the world -- so many more potential paradises -- for him to see. Undaunted, they turn their attention to the South, to the trading routes plotted long ago and run continuously for a couple of centuries.
Silk and spices and other finely crafted displays of wealth, all loaded on to one or an other ship under the impossible tropical sun. Final dealings with local merchants for preserved food and clean casked water, brought on board last before the hatches are closed. Then, a forward-looking goodbye, knowing they will return in not very many years. Over the ocean, through storms and doldrums, through hot or cold always with saline spray, back to the country so long ago they thought they would escape. With time the sailing becomes pure ennui, rationalized by how good either destination feels to reach.
The routes are strong and stable, and for the greater part of twin lifetimes the fleet travels them. With maturity, detail replaces novelty as Brandon's motive for learning, he picks up languages and cultures enough to feel at home in many places they trade. Becoming older also changes Lawrence, replaces all the nascent curiosity instilled in him by his friend with hard reasoning. After far too long, they mutually decide that they have spent enough time attending to what society expects of them, and agree that they are (and essentially always have been) in love. Neither of them know it, but this will be their final happy discovery, their last brush with the potential of paradise.
Trading empires unwind surely as clockwork; it is said that the leaders in a given technology rarely innovate that which replaces it. Hence, Lawrence is not really surprised when others develop faster methods of moving cargo from point A to point B, he sees it as natural progression. Unfortunately, he has overestimated the withering demand, leading to debts that only seem to become greater. Telling Brandon is the hardest part, he waits so long that Brandon almost finds out from an angry creditor and his police escort at the door.
A few days after that incident, with the last of the hard cash that the bank will ever give them in a satchel at their feet, Brandon says, "Find me a skiff sturdy and stable upon the water, with rigging and main-sail fast enough to disappear in no time, captained by the two who it saves and damns."
They untether the boat in darkest night, the wharfinger long asleep in his little white house. For the sake of speed they raise all sails, risking the sound of by their motion in the wind. East is the direction Brandon and Lawrence flee now, East the direction of all their nation's enemies, the direction of still waters and barren, rocky islands.
After a month of travel, they arrive on a mud-brown beach that looks deserted, and bring their meager supplies ashore. While Brandon hasn't seen even so much as the top of a mast during their journey, he suggests they scuttle the ship to avoid the attention of others. Against his better judgment, Lawrence agrees, so they salvage what they can (deck planks for fire, sails for shelter) and commend the remainder to the green-black depths.
From the genre and volume of literature Brandon has read, along with his cultural experience, he has a reasonable idea of how to survive outside of civilization. Or at least he believes so. In truth they barely avoid starvation and exposure each winter, with such little knowledge of how to preserve food. This, along with the general malaise of loneliness, takes its toll on both of them. While their feelings for each other are strong, there is little they can do to fight the cabin fever, so they oscillate between fighting and cooperating, avoiding and commiserating, loving and hating. Life is at its coldest for Lawrence and Brandon, having drained most all the warmth from their wills.
Lawrence shares much of his parents' weak constitution, and begins to fall in and out of confused pain and blank sleep. Somewhat surprised that he can still feel anything, Brandon cries for what seems an unimaginably long time after Lawrence finally stops breathing. He toys with the idea of suicide, but that extreme lies outside of his nature, so he decides to wait time out as best he can. He knows it won't wait for him very long.
Near the end, Brandon looks North to the sea which has done so much for and against him, lapping out mute time with its motion. He whispers softly to a best friend who is gone, "Prepare me a ship of which the half-rotten timbers shall be painted black, let the sails be in rags, and the sailors infirm and sickly."