Captives of the Flame
She made a note on her pad, put down her slide rule, and picked up a pearl snap with which she fastened together the shoulder panels of her white dress. The maid said, “Ma’am, shall I do your hair now?”
“One second,” Clea said. She turned to page 328 of her integral tables, checked the increment of sub-cosine A plus B over the nth root of A to the nth plus B to the nth, and transferred it to her notebook.
“Ma’am?” asked the maid. She was a thin woman, about thirty. The little finger of her left hand was gone.
“You can start now.” Clea leaned back in the beauty-hammock and lifted the dark mass of her hair from her neck. The maid caught the ebony wealth with one hand and reached for the end of the four yards of silver chain strung with alternate pearls and diamonds each inch and a half.
“Ma’am?” asked the maid again. “What are you figuring on?”
“I’m trying to determine the inverse sub-trigonometric functions. Dalen Golga, he was my mathematics professor at the university, discovered the regular ones, but nobody’s come up with the inverses yet.”
“Oh,” said the maid. She ceased weaving the jeweled chain a moment, took a comb, and whipped it through a cascade of hair that fell back on Clea’s shoulder. “Eh ... what are you going to do with them, once you find them?”
“Actually,” said Clea. “Ouch...”
“Oh, pardon me, I’m sorry, please...”
“Actually,” went on Clea, “they’ll be perfectly useless. At least as far as anyone knows now. They exist, so to speak, in a world that has little to do with ours. Like the world of imaginary numbers, the square root of minus one. Eventually we may find use for them, perhaps in the same way we use imaginary numbers to find the roots of equations of a higher order than two, because cosine theta plus I sine theta equals e to the I sine theta, which lets us...”
“Well, that is to say they haven’t been able to do anything like that with the sub-trigonometric functions yet. But they’re fun.”
“Bend your head a little to the left, ma’am,” was the maid’s comment.
“You’re going to look beautiful.” Four and five fingers wove deftly in her hair. “Just beautiful.”
“I hope that Tomar can get here. It’s not going to be any fun without him.”
“But isn’t the King coming?” asked the maid. “I saw his acceptance note myself. You know it was on very simple paper. Very elegant.”
“My father will enjoy that a good deal more than I will. My brother went to school with the King before ... before his Majesty’s coronation.”
“That’s amazing,” said the maid. “Were they friends? Just think of it? Do you know whether they were friends or not?”
“And, oh,” said the maid, continuing, “have you seen the ballroom? All the hors d’oeuvres are real, imported fish. You can tell, because they’re smaller than the ones your father grows.”
“I know,” smiled Clea. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten any of Dad’s fish in my life, which is sort of terrible, actually. They’re supposed to be very good.”
“Oh, they are, ma’am. They are. Your father is a fine man to grow such great, good fishes. But you must admit, there’s something special about the ones that come from the coast. I tasted one on my way up through the pantry. So I know.”
“What exactly is it?” Clea asked, turning around.
The maid frowned, and then smiled and nodded wisely. “Oh, I know. I know. You can tell the difference.”
At that moment, Jon Koshar was saying, “Well, so far you’ve been right.” He appeared to be more or less standing (the room was dim, so his head and hands were invisible), more or less alone (“Yeah, I trust you. I don’t have much choice,” he added.) in the pantry of his father’s mansion.
Suddenly his voice took a different tone. “Look, I will trust you; with part of me, anyway. I’ve been caged up for nearly five years, for something stupid I did, and for something that no matter how hard I try, I can’t convince myself was all my fault. I don’t mean that Uske should be blamed. But chance, and all the rest ... well, all I mean is it makes me want out that much more. I want to be free. I nearly got myself killed trying to escape from the mines. And a couple of people did get killed helping me. All right, you got me out of that stainless steel graveyard I wandered into back at the radiation barrier, and for that, thanks. I mean it. But I’m not free yet. And I still want out, more than anything in the world.
“Sure, I know that you want me to do something, but I don’t understand it yet. You say you’ll tell me soon. Okay. But you’re riding around in my head like this, so I’m not free yet. If that’s what I have to do to get free, than I’ll do it. But I’m warning you. If I see another crack in the wall, another spot of light getting in, I’ll claw my hands off trying to break through and to hell with what you want. Because while you’re there, I can’t be free.”
Suddenly the light in the pantry flipped on. His sudden face went from the tautness of his last speech to fear. He had been standing by the side of a seven-foot porcelain storage cabinet. He jumped back to the wall. Whoever had come in, a butler or caterer, was out of sight on the other side. A hand came around the edge of the cabinet, reaching for the handle. The hand was broad, wiry with black hair, and sported a cheap, wide, brass ring set with an irregular shape of blue glass. As the door opened, the hand swung out of sight. There was a clatter of dishes on the shelves, the slide of crockery slipping over plastic racks, and a voice. “All right there. You carry this one.” Then a grunt, and the ker-flop of the latch as the door slammed to.
A moment later, the light, and John Koshar’s hands and head, went out. When Jon stepped forward again, he looked at the pantry, at the doors, the cabinets. The familiarity hurt. There was a door that opened into the main kitchen. (Once he had snagged a kharba fruit from the cook’s table and ran, as behind him a wooden salad bowl crashed to the floor. The sound made him whirl, in time to catch the cook’s howl and to see the pale shreds of lettuce strewn across the black tile floor. The bowl was still spinning. He had been nine.)
He started slowly for the door to the hallway that led to the dining room. In the hall was a red wood table on which sat a free form sculpture of aluminum rods and heavy glass spheres. That was unfamiliar. Not the table, the sculpture.
A slight highlight along the curve of crystal brought back to him for a moment the blue ceramic vase that had been there in his memory. It was coated with glaze that was shot through with myriad cracks. It was cylindrical, straight, then suddenly veering to a small mouth, slightly off center. The burnished red wood behind the vivid, turquoise blue was a combination that was almost too rich, too sensual. He had broken the vase. He had broken it in surprise, when his sister had come in on him suddenly, the little girl with hair black as his own, only more of it, saying, “What are you doing, Jon?” and he had jumped, turned, and then the vase was lying in fragments on the floor, like a lot of bright, brittle leaves made out of stone. He remembered his first reaction had been, oddly, surprise at finding that the glaze covered the inside as well as the outside of the vase. He was fourteen.
He walked to the family dining room and stepped inside. With the ballroom in use, no one would come here. Stepping into the room was like stepping into a cricket’s den, the subtle tsk-tsk of a thousand clocks repeated and repeated, overlapping and melting, with no clear, discernible rhythm. The wall by the door was lined with shelves and they were filled with his father’s collection of chronometers. He looked at the clocks on the shelf level with his eye. The last time he had been in this room, it had been the shelf below. The light from the door made a row of crescents on the curved faces, some the size of his little finger nail, others the diameter of his head. Their hands were invisible, their settings were dim. (In his memory they went from simple gold to ornately carved silver, and one was set in an undersea bower with jeweled shells and coral branches.) There must be many new clocks after five years, he thought. If he turned on the light, how many would he recognize?
(When he was eighteen, he had stood in this room and examined the thin, double prong of a fire-blade. The light in the room was off, and as he flicked the button on the hilt, and the white sparks leaped out and up the length of the blade, the crescents flamed on the edges of the clock faces, all along the wall. Later, at the royal palace, with that same blade, there had been the same, sudden, clumsy fear at discovery, fear clotting into panic, the panic turning to confusion, and the confusion metastasizing into fear again, only fear all through him, dragging him down, so that when he tried to run down the vaulted hall, his feet were too heavy, so that when he tripped against the statue in the alcove, whirled upon the pursuing guard, and swung the white needle of energy down and the guard’s flesh hissed and fell away--a moment of blood spurring under pale flame--almost immediately he was exhausted. They took him easily after that.)
Clumsy, he thought. Not with his fingers, (He had fixed many of these clocks when his father had acquired them in various states of disrepair.), but with his mind. His emotions were not fine and drawn, but rather great shafts of anger or fear fell about him without focus or apparent source. Disgust, or even love, when he had felt it was vague, liable to metamorphasize from one to the other. (School was great; his history teacher was very good ... School was noisy; the kids were pushy and didn’t care about anything. His blue parakeet was delicate and beautiful; he had taught it to whistle ... there were always crumbs on the bottom of the cage; changing the paper was a nuisance.)
Then there had been five years of prison. And the first sharp feeling pierced his mind, as sharp as the uncoiled hair-spring of a clock, as sharp as jewels in a poison ring. It was a wish, a pain, an agony for freedom. The plans for escape had been intricate, yet sharp as the cracks in blue ceramic glaze. The hunger for escape was a hand against his stomach, and as the three of them had, at last, waited in the rain by the steps, it had tightened unbearably. Then...
Then with all the sharpness, what had made him lose the others? Why had he wandered in the wrong direction? Clumsy! And he wanted to be free of that! And wonder if that was what he had wanted to be free of all along while he had sputtered at the prison guards, choked on the food, and could not communicate his outrage. Then, at the horizon, was the purple glow of something paler than sunrise, deadlier than the sea, a flickering, luminous purple gauze behind the hills. Near him were the skeletons of broken, century-ancient trees, leafless, nearly petrified. The crumbly dirt looked as if it had been scattered over the land in handfuls, loosely, bearing neither shrubs or footprints. By one boulder a trickle of black water ran beneath a fallen log, catching dim light in the ripples on either side. He looked up.
On the horizon, against the lines of light, as though cut--no, torn--from carbon paper was the silhouette of a city. Tower behind tower rose against the pearly haze. A net of roadways wound among the spires.
Then he made out one minuscule thread of metal that ran from the city, in his general direction but veering to the right. It passed him half a mile away and at last disappeared into the edge of the jungle that he could see, now, behind him. Telphar! The word came to his mind as though on a sign attached with springs to his consciousness. The radiation! That was the second thing he thought of. Once more the name of the city shivered in his brain: Telphar! The certain, very certain death he had wandered into caught the center of his gut like a fist. It was almost as if the name were sounding out loud in his skull. Then he stopped. Because he realized he had heard something. A ... a voice! Very definitely he heard it--
Music had started. He could hear it coming from the ballroom now. The party must be under way. He looked out into the hall. A fellow in a white apron, holding an empty tray on which were crumbs from small cakes, was coming toward him.
“Excuse me, sir,” the man in the apron said. “Guests aren’t supposed to be in this part of the house.”
“I was trying to find the-eh-er...” Jon coughed.
The man in the apron smiled. “Oh. Of course. Go back into the ballroom and take the hall to your left down three doors.”
“Thank you,” Jon smiled back and hurried up the hallway. He entered the ballroom by way of a high, arched alcove in which were small white meat, red meat, dark meat of fish ground into patties, cut into stars, strips of fillet wound into imitation sea shells, tiny braised shrimp, and stuffed baby smelts.
A ten-piece orchestra--three bass radiolins, a theremin, and six blown shells of various sizes--was making a slow, windy music from the dais. The scattering of guests seemed lost in the great room. Jon wandered across the floor.
Here and there were stainless steel fountains in which blue or pink liquid fanned over mounds of crushed ice. Each fountain was rimmed with a little shelf on which was a ring of glasses. He picked a glass up, let a spout of pink fill it, and walked on, sipping slowly.
Suddenly, the loudspeaker announced the arrival of Mr. Quelor Da and party. Heads turned, and a moment later a complex of glitter, green silk, blue net, and diamonds at the top of the six wide marble steps across the room resolved into four ladies and their escorts.
Jon glanced up at the balcony than ran around the second story of the room. A short gentleman in a severe, unornamented blue suit was coming toward the head of the steps which expanded down toward the ballroom floor with the grace and approximate shape of a swan’s wing. The gentleman hurried down the pale cascade.
Jon sipped his drink. It was sweet with the combined flavors of a dozen fruits, with the whisper of alcohol bitter at the back of his tongue. The gentleman hurried across the floor, passing within yards of him.
Father! The impact was the same as the recognition of Telphar. The hair was thinner than it had been five years ago. He was much heavier. His--father--was at the other side of the room already, checking with the waiters. Jon pulled his shoulders in, and let his breath out. It was the familiarity, not the change, that hurt.
It took some time before the room filled. There was a lot of space. One guest Jon noted was a young man in military uniform. He was powerful, squat in a taurine way usually associated with older men. There was a major’s insignia on his shoulder. Jon watched him a while, empathizing with his occasional looks that told how out of place he felt. He took neither food nor drink, but prowled a ten-foot area by the side of the balcony steps. Waiting, Jon thought.
A half an hour later, the floor was respectably populated. Jon had exchanged a few words at last with the soldier. (Jon: “A beautiful party, don’t you think?” Soldier, with embarrassment: “Yes, sir.” Jon: “I guess the war is worrying all of us.” Soldier: “The war? Yes.” Then he looked away, not inclined to talk more.) Jon was now near the door. Suddenly the loudspeaker announced: “The Party of His Royal Majesty, the King.”