Captives of the Flame
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.”
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?”
“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,” said Alter. “I guess so.”