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   Chapter 5 No.5

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 22449

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


A few hours earlier, Geryn gave Tel a kharba fruit. The boy took the bright-speckled melon around the inn, looking for Alter. Unable to find her, he wandered onto the street and up the block. Once a cat with a struggling gray shape in its teeth hurtled across his path. Later he saw an overturned garbage can with a filigree of fish bones ornamenting the parti-colored heap. Over the house roofs across the street, the taller buildings and towers of Toron paled to blue, with sudden yellow rectangles of window light scattered unevenly over their faces.

Turning down another block, he saw Rara standing on the corner, stopping the occasional passers-by. Tel started up to her, but she saw him and motioned him away. Puzzled, he went to a stoop and sat down to watch. As he ran his thumbnail along the orange rind, and juice oozed from the slit, he heard Rara talking to a stranger.

"Your fortune, sir. I'll spread your future before you like a silver mirror ..." The stranger passed. Rara turned to a woman now coming toward her. "Ma'am, a fragment of a unit will spread your life out like a patterned carpet where you may trace the designs of your fate. Just a quarter of a unit ..." The woman smiled, but shook her head. "You look like you come from the mainland," Rara called after her. "Well, good luck here in the New World, sister, the Island of Opportunity." Immediately she turned to another man, this one in a deep green uniform. "Sir," Tel heard her begin. Then she paused as she surveyed his costume. "Sir," she continued, "for a single unit I will unweave the threads of your destiny from eternity's loom. Would you like to know the promotion about to come your way? How many children you'll ..."

"Come on, lady," said the man in uniform. "It's illegal to tell fortunes here."

"But I've got my license," declared Rara. "I'm a genuine clairvoyant. Just a second ..." And her hands began to plunge into the seams and pockets of her gray rags.

"Never mind, lady. Just get moving," and he gave her a push. Rara moved.

Tel peeled back the strip of rind he'd loosened from the kharba fruit, licked the juice from the yellow wound, and followed Rara.

"Son of an electric eel," she said when Tel reached her, her birthmark scarlet. "Just trying to make a living, that's all."

"Want a bite?"

Rara shook her head. "I'm too angry," she said. They walked back to the inn.

"Do you know where Alter is?" Tel asked. "I was looking for her."

"She's not in the inn?"

"I couldn't find her there."

"Did you look on the roof?" Rara asked.

"Oh," said Tel. "No." They turned into the tavern and Tel went upstairs. It was not until he was halfway up the ladder on the second floor that went to the trap door in the ceiling that he wondered why she was on the roof. He pushed the trap door back and hoisted himself to the dusty, weathered rim.

Alter was hanging head and white hair down from a pipe that went from the stone chimney to a supporting pipe that was fastened by a firm collar to the roof.

"What are you doing?" Tel asked.

"Hi," she smiled down at him. "I'm practicing."

"Practicing what?"

She was hanging double from her waist over the pipe. Now she grabbed the bar close to her waist and somersaulted forward, letting her feet slowly and evenly to the ground, her legs perfectly straight. "My stunts," she said. "I'm an acrobat." She did not let go of the bar, but suddenly swung her legs up so that her ankles nearly touched her hands, and then whipped them down again, ending the kip by supporting herself upright on the metal perch. Then she flung her legs back (Tel jumped because she looked like she was going to fall) and went out and down, then under, swung up, arced over, and went down again in a giant circle. She circled once more, then doubled up, caught one knee over the bar, reversed direction, and suddenly was sitting on top of the rod with one leg over.

"Gee," Tel said. "How did you do that?"

"It's all timing," Alter said. Suddenly she threw her head back, and circled the bar once more, hanging from her hands and one knee. Then the knee came loose, and her feet came slowly to the ground. "You've just got to be strong enough to hold up your own weight. Maybe a little stronger. But the rest is all timing."

"You mean I could do that?"

"You want to try something?"

"Like what?"

"Come here and grab hold of the bar."

Tel came over and grabbed. He could just keep his feet flat on the tar-papered roof and still hold on. "All right," he said.

"Now pull yourself up and hook your left knee around the bar."

"Like this?" He kicked up once, missed, and tried again.

"When you kick, throw your head back," she instructed. "You'll balance better."

He did, pulled up, and got his foot through his arms, and suddenly felt the bar slide into the crook of his knee. He was hanging by his left knee and hands. "Now what do I do?" he asked, swaying back and forth.

Alter put her hand on his back to steady him. "Now straighten your right leg, and keep your arms fairly straight." He obeyed. "Now swing your right leg up and down, three times, and then swing it down real hard." Tel lifted his leg, dropped it, and at once began swinging back and forth beneath the pole. "Keep the leg straight," Alter said. "Don't bend it, or you'll loose momentum."

He got to the third kick, and then let go (with his thigh muscles, not his hands) and at once the sky slipped back behind him and his body swung upward away from the direction of the kick. "Whoooo," he said, and then felt an arm steadying his wrist. He was sitting on top of the bar with one leg over it. He looked down at Alter. "Is that what was supposed to happen?"

"Sure," she said. "That's how you mount the bar. It's called a knee mount."

"I guess it's easier than climbing. Now what do I do?"

"Try this. Straighten out your arms. And make sure they stay straight. Now straighten your back leg behind you." As he tried, he felt her hand on his knee, helping. "Hey ..." he said. "I'm not balanced."

"Don't worry," she said. "I'm holding you. Keep those arms straight. If you don't obey instructions you'll have a head full of tar paper. Seven feet isn't very high, but head first it's sort of uncomfortable."

Tel's elbows locked.

"Now when I count three, kick the leg I'm holding under you and throw your head back as hard as you can. One ..."

"What's supposed to happen?" Tel demanded.

"Follow instructions," replied Alter. "Two ... three!"

Tel threw and kicked, and felt Alter give his leg an extra push. He had planned to close his eyes, but what he saw kept them open. Sky and then roof were coming at him, fast. Then they veered away, along with Alter's face (which was upside down), till an instant later the pale blue towers of Toron, all pointing in the wrong direction, pierced his sight. Righting themselves, they jerked out of his line of vision and he was looking straight up at the sky (there was a star out, he noted before it became a meteor and flashed away) until it was replaced by the roof and Alter's face (laughing now) and then once more everything swept into its proper position for a moment.

He clamped his stinging hands tightly on the bar, and when he felt himself stop, he hunched forward and closed his eyes. "Mmmmmmmmmm," he said. Alter's hand was on his wrist, very firm, and he was sitting on top of the bar again.

"You just did a double back knee circle," she said, "You did it very well too." Then she laughed. "Only it wasn't supposed to be double. You just kept going."

"How do I get down?" Tel asked.

"Arms straight," said Alter.

Tel straightened his arms.

"Put this hand over here." She patted the bar on the other side of his leg. Tel transferred his grip. "Now bring your leg off the bar." Tel hoisted his leg back so that he was supported by just his hands. "Now bend forward and roll over, slowly if you can." Tel rolled, felt the bar slip from where it was pressed against his waist, and a moment later his feet were brushing back and forth over the tar paper. He let go and rubbed his hands together. "Why didn't you tell me what I was gonna do?"

"Because then you wouldn't have done it. Now that you know you can, the rest will be easier. You've got three stunts now in less than five minutes. The knee mount, back knee circle, and the forward dismount. And that was the best I've ever seen anybody do for a first try."

"Thanks," said Tel. He looked back up at the horizontal bar. "You know, it feels real funny, doing that stuff. I mean you don't really do it. You do things and than it happens to you."

"That's right," Alter said. "I hadn't thought of it like that Maybe that's why a good acrobat has to be a person who can sort of relax and just let things happen. You have to trust both your mind and your body."

"Oh," said Tel. "I was looking for you when I came up here. I wanted to give you something."

"Thank you," she smiled, brushing a shock of white hair from her forehead.

"I hope it didn't get broken." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of something sinewy; he had strung the shells on lengths of leather thong. There were three loops of leather, each longer than the one before, and the shells were spread apart and held in place by tiny knots. "Geryn gave me the thong, and I put it together this afternoon. It's a necklace, see?"

She turned while he tied the ends behind her neck. Then she turned back to him, touching the green brilliance of one frail cornucopia, passing to the muted orange of another along the brown leather band. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you very much, Tel."

"You want some fruit?" he said, picking up the globe and beginning to peel the rest of it.

"All right," she said. He broke it open, gave her half, and they went to the edge of the roof and leaned on the balustrade, looking to the street below, then over the roofs of the other houses of the Devil's Pot and up to the darkening towers.

"You know," Tel said. "I've got a problem."

"No identification papers, no place to go. I should say you do."

"Not like that," he said. "But that's part of it, I guess. I guess it's a large part of it. But not all."

"Then what is it?"

"I've got to figure out what I want. Here I am, in a new place, with no way to get anything for myself; I've got to figure a goal."

"Look," said Alter, assuming the superiority of age and urban training, "I'm a year older than you, and I don't know where I'm going yet. But when I was your age, it occurred to me it would probably all take care of itself. All I had to do was ride it out. So that's what I've been doing, and I haven't been too unhappy. Maybe it's the difference between living here or on the seashore. But here you've got to spend a lot of time looking for the next meal. At least people like you and me have to. If you pay attention to that, you'll find yourself heading in the right direction soon enough. Whatever you're going to be, you're going to be, if you just give yourself half a chance."

"Like a big acrobatic stunt, huh?" asked Tel. "You just do the right things and then it happens to you."

"Like that," s

aid Alter. "I guess so."

"Maybe," said Tel. The kharba fruit was cool, sweet like honey, orange, and pineapple.

A minute later someone was calling them. They turned from the balustrade and saw Geryn's white head poking from the trap door. "Come down," he demanded. "I've been looking all over for you. It's time."

They followed him back to the first floor. Tel saw that the scarred giant was still sitting at the table, his hands folded into quiet hammers before him.

"Now, everyone," Geryn called as he sat down at the table. Somewhat reluctantly people left the bar. Geryn dropped a sheaf of papers on the table. "Come around, everyone." The top sheet was covered with fine writing and careful architectural drawing. "Now this is the plan." So were the other sheets, when Geryn turned them over. "First, I'll divide you into groups."

He looked at the giant across the table. "Arkor, you take the first group." He picked out six more men and three women. He turned to the white-haired girl now. "Alter, you'll be with the special group." He named six more people. Tel was among them. A third group was formed which Geryn himself was to lead. Arkor's group was for strong-arm work. Geryn's was for guard duty and to keep the way clear while the prince was being conveyed back to the inn. "The people in the special group already know what to do."

"Sir," said Tel, "you haven't told me, yet."

Geryn looked at him. "You have to get caught."

"Sir?"

"You go past the guards, and make enough noise so that they catch you. Then, when they're occupied with you, we'll break in. Because you have no papers, they won't be able to trace you."

"Am I supposed to stay caught?"

"Of course not. You'll get away when we distract them."

"Oh," said Tel. Geryn went back to the papers.

As the plan was reviewed, Tel saw two things. First the completeness of the research, information, and attention to detail-habits of individual guards: one who left at the first sound of the change signal; another who waited a moment to exchange greetings with his replacement, a friend from his military academy days. Second, he saw its complexity. There were so many ins and outs, gears that had to mesh, movements to be timed within seconds, that Tel wondered if everything could possibly go right.

While he was wondering, they were suddenly already on their way, each one with a bit of the plan fixed firmly in his mind, no one with too clear a picture of the entire device. The groups were to split into subgroups of two or three, then reconvene at appointed spots around the castle. Tel and Alter found themselves walking through the city with the giant. Occasional street lights wheeled their shadows over the cracked pavement.

"You're from the forest, aren't you?" Tel finally asked the giant.

He nodded.

"Why did you come here?" Tel asked, trying to make conversation as they walked.

"I wanted to see the city," he said, raising his hand to his scars with a small chuckle. After that, he said nothing.

* * *

Prime Minister Chargill took his evening constitutional along the usually deserted Avenue of the Oyster at about this time every night. Prime Minister Chargill always carried on him a complete set of keys to the private suites of the royal family. This evening, however, a drunk in rags reeled out of a side street and collided with the old man. A moment later, making profuse apologies, he backed away, ducking his head, his hands behind his back. When the drunk returned to the side street, his weaving gait ceased, his hand came from behind his back, and in it was a complete set of keys to the private suites of the royal family.

* * *

The guard who was in charge of checking the alarm system loved flowers. He could-(and had been)-observed going to the florist's at least once a week on his time off. So when the old woman with a tray of scarlet anemones came by and offered them for his perusal, it is not surprising that he lowered his head over the tray and filled his lungs with that strange, pungent smell somewhere between orange rind and the sea wind. Forty-seven seconds later, he yawned. Fourteen seconds after that, he was sitting on the ground, his head hung forward, snoring. Through the gate two figures could be seen at the alarm box ... had anyone been there to look.

* * *

At another entrance to the castle, two guards converged on a fourteen-year-old boy with black hair and green eyes who was trying to climb the fence.

"Hey, get down from there! All right, come on. Where're your papers? What do you mean you don't have any? Come on with us. Get the camera out, Jo. We'll have to photograph him and send the picture to Chief Records Headquarters. They'll tell us who you are, kid. Now hold still."

Behind them, a sudden white-haired figure was out of the shadows and over the gate in a moment. The guards did not see her.

"Hold still now, kid, while I get your retina pattern."

* * *

Later on a bunch of rowdies, led by a giant, started to raise hell around the palace. They hadn't even gotten the kid to the guard house yet, but somehow in the confusion the boy got away. One guard, who wore a size seventeen uniform was knocked unconscious, but no one else was hurt. They dispersed the rowdies, carried the guard to the infirmary, and left. The doctor saw him in the waiting room, then left him there momentarily to look for an accident report slip in the supply room at the other side of the building. (He could have sworn that a whole pad of them had been lying on the desk when he'd stepped out for a bit ten minutes ago.) When the doctor returned with the slip the soldier was still there-only he was stark naked.

* * *

A minute later, an unfamiliar guard, wearing a size seventeen uniform, saluted the guard at the gate, and marched in.

* * *

Two strange men behind the gate flung a cord with a weight on one end over a third story cornice. They missed once, then secured it the second time and left it hanging there.

A guard wearing a size seventeen uniform came down the hall of the west wing of the castle, stopped before a large double door on which was a silver crown, indicating the room of the Queen Mother; he took a complete set of keys to the private suites of the royal family from his cloak, and locked her Majesty firmly in her room. At the next door, he locked Prince Let securely in his. Then he went rapidly on.

Tel ran till he got to the corner, rounded it, and checked the street sign. It was correct. So he went to a doorway and sat down to wait.

* * *

At the same time, Prince Let, getting ready for bed and wearing nothing but his undershirt, looked out the window and saw a girl with white hair hanging head down outside the shutter. He stood very still The upside down face smiled at him. Then the hands converged at the window lock, did something, and the two glass panels came open. The girl rolled over once, turned quickly, and suddenly she was crouching on the window ledge.

Let snatched up his pajama bottoms first, and ran to the door second. When he couldn't open it, he whirled around and pulled on his pajama pants.

Alter put her finger to her lips as she stepped down into his room. "Keep quiet," she whispered. "And relax," she added. "The Duchess of Petra sent me. More or less." She had been instructed to use that name to calm the prince. It seemed to work a trifle.

"Look," explained Alter, "you're being kidnapped. It's for your own good, believe me." She watched the blond boy come away from the door.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I'm a friend of yours if you'll let me be."

"Where are you going to take me?"

"You're going to go on a trip. But you'll come back, eventually."

"What has my mother said?"

"Your mother doesn't know. Nobody knows except you and the Duchess, and the few people who're helping her."

Let appeared to be thinking. He walked over to his bed, sat down, and pressed his heel against the side board. There was a tiny click. Nothing else happened. "Why won't they open the door?" he asked.

"It's been locked," Alter said. Suddenly she looked at the clock beside the Prince's bed, and turned to the window. Light from the crystal chandelier caught on the shells that were strung on leather thongs around her neck as she turned.

Let put his hand quietly on the newel post of his bed and pressed his thumb hard on the purple garnet that encrusted the crowning ornamental dolphin. Nothing happened except a tiny click.

At the window, Alter reached out her hand, just as a bundle appeared outside on a lowered rope. She pulled them in, untied them, and shook them out as the rope suddenly flew out the window again. "Here," she said. "Get into these." It was a suit of rags. She tossed them to him.

Finally Let slipped out of his pajama pants and into the suit.

"Now look in your pocket," Alter said.

The boy did and took out a bunch of keys.

"You can open the door with those," Alter said. "Go on."

Let paused, then went to the door. Before he put the key in the lock though, he bent down and looked through the keyhole. "Hey," he said, looking back at the girl. "Come here. Do you see anything?"

Alter crossed the room, bent down, and looked. The only motion Let made was to lean against one of the panels on the wall, which gave a slight click. Nothing happened.

"I don't see anything," Alter said. "Open the door."

Let found the proper key, put it in the lock, and the door swung back.

"All right, you kids," said the guard who was standing on the other side of the door (who incidentally wore a size seventeen uniform), "you come along with me." He took Let firmly by one arm and Alter by the other and marched them down the hall. "I'm warning you to keep quiet," the guard said to Let as they turned the last corner.

Three minutes later they were outside the castle. As the guard passed another uniformed man at the Sentry's post, he said, "More stupid kids trying to break into the palace."

"What a night," said the guard and scratched his head. "A girl too?"

"Looks like it," said the guard who was escorting Alter and the Prince. "I'm taking them to be photographed."

"Sure," answered the guard, and saluted.

The two children were marched down the street toward the guard house. Before they got there, they were turned off into a side street. Then suddenly the guard was gone. A black-haired boy with green eyes was coming toward them.

"Is this the Prince?" Tel asked.

"Un-huh," said Alter.

"Who are you?" Let asked. "Where are you taking me?"

"My name is Tel. I'm a fisherman's son."

"My name is Alter," Alter introduced herself.

"She's an acrobat," Tel added.

"I'm the Prince," Let said. "Really. I'm Prince Let."

The two others looked at the blond boy who stood in front of them in rags like their own. Suddenly they laughed. The Prince frowned. "Where are you taking me?" he asked again.

"We're taking you to get something to eat and where you can get a good night's sleep," Alter answered. "Come on."

"If you hurt me, my mother will put you in jail."

"Nobody's going to hurt you, silly," Tel said. "Come on."

* * *

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