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

“Now we try a harder thing.”

On a gesture four servants carried forward a different contrivance. Its shape was similar, the open-ended box of cloth between poles, but it was twice as large and clearly heavier in construction. Inside it, furthermore, was a sort of sling of rope and cloth. Short vanes projected from either side. Shef stared at it, puzzled.

A young boy wriggled between the other servants and stood serious-faced in front of the new kite. Bin-Firnas laid a hand on his head, spoke to him with a babble of Arabic too fast for Shef to follow. The boy replied, nodding. Quickly two of the big dark-colored servants lifted him up, dropped him into the mouth of the kite. Walking nearer, Shef saw that the sling was a harness into which the boy fitted. His head remained outside the box, his hands rested on handles. As he twisted them, the cloth vanes to either side of the box rotated.

Carefully, four servants lifted the box, held it up to the wind, walked to the edge of the tower. The winchmen heaved a trifle, took up a yard or two of slack. Shef heard a rising buzz of excitement from outside, which slowly stilled.

“Is this dangerous?” he said quietly to Suleiman, not trusting his own Arabic at this stage. “I do not want the boy killed on my account.”

Suleiman spoke aside to bin-Firnas, while the serious-faced child remained poised on the edge of the tower, the wind tugging at him. He turned back. “Bin-Firnas says, of course, that all is at the will of Allah. But he says also that as long as the cord is retained, all may be safe enough. The danger would come if they released it, let the boy try to fly free.”

Shef stepped back, nodding. Bin-Firnas saw the gesture, turned to feel the wind, and then in his turn made a gesture to his servants. With a grunt they heaved the box up to arm’s length above their heads, felt the wind catch it, let go all together.

For an instant the kite sagged below the wall of the tower, then some updraft or eddy caught it and it rose again. The winchmen span their handles, let the cord out five fathoms, ten. Slowly the kite rose in the sky, the little face still framed in its open end. Shef saw the vanes twist and turn slightly, the box rotate upwards, turn, level off. It dipped and bucked in the wind, but the boy seemed able to control it, to keep the box facing the way he wanted. If it had swooped and plunged like the earlier one once they had cut it free, he might have been thrown out of his harness, Shef guessed. But no, it seemed to ride stably. No worse than a boat on a choppy sea.

Silently bin-Firnas passed to Shef a device like the one Mu’atiyah had demonstrated, a far-seer. Without words he showed that it was different from the last one: in two halves, one sliding over the other in a case of greased leather. It meant you could alter the length of the tube. Bin-Firnas made a squinting face, as he moved the bottom half in and out. Shef took the device from him, trained it on the kite and its flyer’s face, gently moved the tube up and down till the image came into focus.

There it was. The boy’s tongue stuck out between his teeth, he was concentrating grimly on managing his vanes, trying to hold the kite steadily into the wind. There was no doubt, anyway, that the kite could carry his weight.

“How far can you send him?” he asked.

“As far as the rope will run,” reported Suleiman.

“And what if the rope is cut?”

“He says, does the ferengi king wish to see?”

Shef lowered the telescope from his eye, frowning. “No. If they’ve done it once already I’d like to hear about that.”

He focused again as a long dialogue broke out. Finally Suleiman addressed him again.

“He says, fifteen years ago, first they let it fly free with a boy inside. When the boy survived he himself, bin-Firnas, risked the attempt He says he learned three things. First, it is much easier to control flight into the wind than before it. Second, there is a skill in controlling the vanes which the boy had, from many trial flights on the tether, but which he himself had not had time to learn. He says you must react with the body before the mind has time to issue an order, and that is a skill that only time can bring. Third, he learnt that he should also have fitted a vane to control flight side to side, as well as up and down. He says the kite turned on its side as he flew down the valley of the river, and he could not turn it back. So, instead of landing gracefully like a water-bird, he turned end over end in the rocks. Since then he has not walked without support, for all the surgeons of Cordova could do. He says, his legs were his gift to Allah, for knowledge.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry