King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 5, 6, 7

The tower door was before him now, guarded against the pushing spectators by men in the yellow and green of the Caliph’s guard. The spears pulled aside as the guards recognized the eye-patch and emblem of the ferengi king, and the holy-man white of those behind him. Shef found himself blinking in the cool and dark at the base of the tower.

As his eyes adjusted from the glare outside, he became aware that the owner of the tower was in front of him, bowing slightly and holding clasped hands to his heart. He began to respond, bowing in his turn, jerking out a greeting in simple Arabic. But as he did so he realized with a shock that the man in front of him was a cripple. He could stand upright for a few moments, but then his hands went back to the wooden frame in front of him. When he moved, he pushed the frame forward and then dragged himself after it.

“Your legs,” Shef managed to say. “How were they hurt? With flying?”

The Arab smiled, apparently unoffended. “With flying,” he agreed. “The flight went well, the coming to earth less so. You see, I had forgotten something. I had forgotten that all flying creatures have tails.”

As bin-Firnas, the cripple, began to shuffle his slow way to the stairs leading up the tower, Shef looked round at Thorvin, Hund, and his priest-companions, an expression of doubt and disappointment on his face.

“Another bird-man, after all,” he muttered. “Wait till he shows us the cape of feathers.”

But at the top of the tower, on the square airy platform overlooking the steep sides of the Guadalquivir, there was no sign of feathers, no preparation for a leap. Back in the bright daylight, Shef could see that bin-Firnas was flanked by aides and servants, among them the young man Mu’atiyah who had come on the embassy to the North and the ever-present factotum Suleiman. Some stood by what seemed to be a light winch or windlass, others held lengths of pole and canvas. Behind Shef mustered the priests of the Way, the only ones for whom he had been able to secure admission. Walking to the tower’s lip, Shef looked down and saw most of his men in the crowd, staring up, the giant figure of Brand conspicuous even in the throng. The still-veiled Svandis was close by him, he noted, though neither turned to the other. Brand had accepted the charge of looking after her from his friend and curer Hund, but had refused to have more than absolutely necessary to do with her: the Ivar-face chilled him, he confided, right in his old belly-wound.

“The first thing we do is this,” Shef realized bin-Firnas was saying. “If the king of the ferengis will condescend to notice? See—” He gave an order, the winchmen began to pay out cord. A kite lifted into the air, caught the wind, began to recede into the sky as the windlass handles span. Shef stared at it. It seemed a light box, four walls made of cloth between poles, open at both ends, with slats or vents cut here and there in the cloth.

“This of course is no more than a child’s game,” bin-Firnas continued. “The kite lifts no more than itself. See though that the cord keeps its open mouth pointing towards the wind. Control is much easier into the wind. Away from the wind, it seems easier to sail like a ship, but alas! then the wind is master, not the man. So I found. I would do it differently if I tried again.”

Shef could hear the cries of the crowd from below as they saw the kite. They lined the riverbank, some of them almost on a level with the tower as the slope rose away towards the city’s thousand minarets.

“You understand the kite, then?”

Shef nodded, waited for the word to haul in. Instead bin-Firnas hobbled two paces to the winch, produced a knife, laid edge to cord. The kite, released, leapt up, swooped, sailed away downwind in erratic spirals and flutterings. Two of the waiting servants jumped to their feet, raced down the stairs to pursue and recover it.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry