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The Cripple Who Danced When The House Was On Fire, Chapters 7-9

April 24, 2009 by · 1 comment

Raven Jordan


Photo: R’eyes’

Read chapters 4-6 here

If there were any one thing in which the kingdom might count itself rich, it would be spies.

Trouble was, for the most part they had little that they were specifically directed to do. The commissioners would meet their contacts and informants in strategic tavernas in the mornings, gossip intently over pit-black teas, then finally repair to the patios of their palace offices and spike whatever liquids were available with fine spirits of purple lacegrass until the afternoon had burnt out to night.

The king’s secret service had thus become a haven both for those with an itch for it and those who had none. The latter, mostly made up of those whose skills had proved inadequate to admit them to the prestigious and well-paid ranks of scribes, recopied and filed smeared case notes and gave schoolboys rudimentary lessons on writing cyphers, tying knots, and climbing walls. Their weekly bag of gold, like a garden lantern, guided them home.

Others did have that itch, but they tended to disappear before long–last heard of in the Great Midnight, usually, or sighted with smugglers or pirates out at sea. One notable who had steadfastly remained was an orphan who had been raised by monks, those very botanist monks, as it happens, who had studied the wild rose-spice and tried to make it tame. When asked by the Chief Agent why he wanted to leave the holy brothers and become a spook, the youth replied that, after twenty years in the monastery, it would be a pleasure to serve among honest men. After the Chief Agent managed to stop laughing, he hired him on the spot.

This very spy counted himself fortunate to be driving, a couple of days after the destruction of the warehouse full of the rose-spice, a most sturdy horse-cart down a road that intersected the main route to the village that had just suffered several of the mysterious fires. The king, having taken in just enough of the pertinent news to instruct his clandestine people to pay particular attention to those both infirm and young, had also stopped and thought…and decided that at the very least, if any disabled they encountered provided no clues, they should at least get a free ride. Out on a mission, with a small way to provide his people help, the spy pulled up to a crossroads, leaned back, and inhaled a lungful of sky.

The horses stamped–it was early for resting. One of the pair unloaded in the road. The spy double-checked his maps and documents, then stood on his bench and pulled down a blossoming branch to enjoy how its fragrance mingled with that of the freshly deposited pile. Approaching him, from the very road that led toward the recently afflicted town, he saw a small figure halting along with the help of a staff. “Hello, fellow!” he called out to the other. “Would you need a ride?” He started the horses forward and met the traveler.

The crippled one pushed away the hood of his cloak and for a moment the spy thought he was talking to a young girl. Then he saw the dark down on the ivory face and saw that it was a lad of about fifteen, jet-haired and jet-eyed, with a face as perfect as his poor legs were gnarled. A face, the spy thought, that one might imagine when picturing one’s gods.

“I go to the king’s capital, sir” said the lad, “but I see you’re traveling the opposite way.”

“I’ve just come from there, but now I have to go back,” said the spy.

“Go back? Why is that?” said the cripple.

“Why, I’ve met you!” cried the spy, clapping the cripple on the shoulder so that the lad flinched. “Oh, I am sorry. Sometimes my enthusiasm gets the better of me. I am one of the king’s men, lad—here, see my medallion, right there. His majesty has been so concerned over the welfare of those of his nation who suffer from infirmities that he has dispatched several of us to go about the land and see how the bodily needs of such people are met. It was not announced, you know, so that we would not have every charlatan and crook in the land pretending to be blind or lame. There’s enough bad acting in the capital as it is, what with only the Greenwood Players exposing their pathetic selves anymore. It used to be–”

“Your lordship’s most kind,” the cripple relied. “And so’s his majesty. But I suffer from no infirmity. I get along quite well, as your lordship can see, and there’s no need to take any trouble on my account.”

“Would that everyone had the attitude that you do!” exclaimed the spy. “But, this is my duty, and you certainly could profit from the ride!”

There was nothing the cripple could do but accept. He clearly would rather have gone on his way, and this piqued the spy’s curiosity. As they rode back to the capital the spy asked the usual questions about the cripple’s life history, accepting all the answers he received as detailed lies. When they arrived in the city the spy found the cripple some lodging, and counted out a month’s rent from his official purse. He wanted to know exactly where his cripple was.


Photo: without you.

For many days the spy kept watch, visiting the cripple frequently and treating him to meals and new clothing. Then he tapered off the visits, finally telling the cripple that he had business elsewhere and would not see him for a week.

The cripple had been mannerly and shy. The spy found him always either taking the sun by the broken fountain in his lodging’s court, or in the cool of his rented room with one of the small tattered books he had brought in his pack. The spy, who because of his upbringing knew the value of even a dilapidated book, took a great interest in these, and treated the cripple in the the innkeeper’s pergola to lacegrass liqueur and sweet white wine under in return for hearing him read.

The books’ language was foreign, and the spy listened avidly to the cripple’s translations while letting him think his listener could not read their script. He examined them, with the excuse both of admiring the careful pen-craft of the scribe and of concern for the volumes’ condition; but of deception, he could find none. All was as it had been read. As it was, he found himself paid for having enjoyed several pellucid afternoons, lying back and absorbing like a garden the most liquid of esoteric poetry that ever he had heard–as well as several most startling essays on geological alchemy, pyrotechnical chemistry, and the gravitational properties of plants.

The spy was nothing if not patient when he fell in love.

He was not in love with the cripple as most people would mean it. The twisted body, even the wondrous face—these were parade decorations, such as one might find on any given street. To the spy, being in love meant a rightful fixation, a lawful enslavement like that of a lodestone to the pole. He did not desire to kiss the cripple, nor to give him any sort of physical touch; but the cripple would no more quit his world than would the moon stop wearing out the sky. The cripple was now inescapable. He was the stone inside a ripening fruit, and the spy could only spread a cloth between his hands and wait for it to fall.

Sure enough, upon the very day of taking his leave the spy watched the cripple buying several vessels of a volatile and rather expensive lamp spirit, when the spy knew full well that there were nothing but candles to light in the cripple’s rooms. That night, the spy kept watch on the cripple’s building from a nearby alley. The cripple soon appeared in the pool of light before the doorway with a bundle slung over his back. He carried a large lantern, which he lit before halting away. In previous days, the cripple had gotten out and about quite a bit more than usual, and seemed to have a particular interest in the district where the warehouses lay. It was in that direction he was headed with his lantern, and he behaved as if he knew precisely where he wanted to go. The streets were empty; the warehouses needed little more than a night watchman each, for most of the buildings had high barred windows and heavy gates and were not easy targets for thieves.

But the cavernous structure that the cripple went straight to was one whose owner’s ill fortune had been prominent news in the town. He had gone bankrupt, and all the goods had been cleared out. The building’s owner had not yet found a new tenant for the exceptionally large building, and was likely going to have to put in dividing walls to accommodate several. The cripple went up to the back entrance of the place, and, with expert skill–and a speed that set the spy’s jaw agape–picked the locks first of the outer steel gate and then of the inner door.

Inside, the spy saw the cripple set down his lantern and open the bundle he carried. Out came the clay vessels of the volatile spirit, which the cripple smashed one by one all over the boards and beams of the huge warehouse room. Up and down the wooden stairs he hauled himself, tossing and pouring the fuel. Finally he arrived back in the center of the main floor. As the spy watched, the cripple took up the lantern, swung it in wide circles around his head, and made it fly.

An overhead beam, drenched in spirits, was what he hit, and a brilliance exploded that made the spy cower to the floor. The cripple exulted, hollering mightily as streaks of fire ate the wood. The spy slunk out, intending to catch his man as he fled the scene. But the shouting and hooting continued; the perpetrator showed no sign of leaving the conflagration. Puzzled, the spy climbed to a tiled parapet that let him peer into a high barred window.

The cripple stood in the midst of the flames. He opened his whole body to the fire, hobbling to stay upright, spreading his bat-wing arms like a desperate whore. And then, as the stunned spy watched, the cripple began to dance. Before the spy’s astounded eyes, the hideously twisted legs of the cripple grew straighter, inch by inch, until he was on his feet and cavorting among the flames.

Fire did not harm him; fumes did not choke his breath. He leapt and spun with an agility the spy had never seen in any acrobat. He veered so high the spy thought for a moment he would crash into the bars of the very window the spy looked through. He leapt and whirled, and leapt, and leapt: and now–now, as the spy watched–he did not come down. The fires around him were heavy as rivers of gems; effortlessly he tumbled in a pocket of smokeless air.

The spy found himself shouting. The roof had gone up, and was minutes from collapse. The alarm bells were finally sounding in the distance, but it would be far too late for the building. He scrambled down from the parapet, but could see no way in. Remaining at the top of a wall, he pulled out a snare and a hood. Get your enchanted ass out, he muttered; putting a hand to his face, he found it wet with tears.

In a pillar of gold, the warehouse collapsed. The bucket brigade was a-flurry with dousing out the timber, but the spy searched in vain. No one had seen anyone run away, no; and nobody could possibly have gotten out. At dawn, the spy trudged off to the rooms where the lad had lived.

He found the cripple at breakfast, unscathed and full of joy at his arrival–though the bare legs beneath the table were again hopelessly gnarled. There was no smell of smoke. He passed the spy bread, and cheese, and figs; he was eager to read, and all the spy could do was cram his mouth and listen. The cripple expounded upon poems, chattered about essays, and divulged the freshest morning gossip the spy had ever heard. “Shame about that warehouse last night,” the spy finally managed to say.

“Pirates, sir” said the cripple. “That’s what I heard.”

“Pirates?? On dry land, and in an empty warehouse?”

“That’s what I heard. They’ve put tentacles in the town, and since we have fewer boats on the actual water for them to take, they’re branching out into extortion. Resourceful, you know.”

“Always…resourceful,” the spy replied.

And the cripple laid out the whole tale of the pirates’ supposed strategy to milk money out of the populace while lounging at anchor in shady freshwater mouths. The cripple had heard one part here, another there. Pieced together, it all made perfect sense. By the time the spy was back out in the street at noon, he wondered about the effects of inhaling accelerant fumes. Surely he had not seen what he remembered seeing; it must have all been a hallucination. But–he knew he had witnessed the vessels in the cripple’s hands.

The next time he tailed the cripple, he brought with him the soberest, stealthiest men of the guard, and let them see. Sure enough, the cripple sneaked out and torched another warehouse, and these poor unimaginative and skeptical men went blubbering home to their wives after sputtering out duplicates of the spy’s own sealed and unspoken account.


Photo: faeryboots

This was all the spy needed to arrest his cripple, and he did so with utmost speed, fearing that the dancing arsonist would flee the town–or even the country–to seek a more hospitable burning ground. He was hurrying the lad down the path to the palace jail when the princess emerged upon her terrace, and saw them below.

She had had an amazing day. The wine she was given every day had gotten stronger and stronger of late, perhaps because she had recently become a little less civil toward the arrow. This day the queen had given her the golden goblet brimful of garnet sparkle, told her to drink it all—and had then been called away. The princess held the cup up and swirled the wine round in the sun. Some sloppped over, and made the most amazing gemlike spray. Not as red as my stones, thought the princess with her brain still heavy in fog, not as red, but so pretty. She was right at the railing that looked over the garden, so she pitched the whole cupful into the light.

Just as the drops settled through the leaves into shadows below, she heard the commotion of her mother returning. She caught up a nearby pitcher of mingled wine and water and poured that into the cup, and was placidly finishing it when the queen arrived. So her drink that day was the same as any girl her age would have had.

Without her daily dose, the fog in her head began to lift. The honeycomb that had always obscured things melted and pulled apart. By the middle of the afternoon she was feeling lively, and amused herself with a walk down the long southern wall.

The spy looked up and saw her. He had never seen the king’s daughter at such close range before. Transfixed by the sight of her up in the empty daylight blue, he stumbled again into love. Then he saw the cripple was gazing up too.

When she saw the face of the cripple, so sanely and serenely marked in ivory and ebony, the princess was struck through with love. The spy, down in the sunlight’s glare, could not know this, but he did not like the hunger with which the captive cripple gazed upward. He meant to get the cripple on to the jail, but then the king appeared up on the wall.

“We’ve got him!” sang out the king. “Do you see, my dearest? We have the wretch who has been setting fire to all our buildings! I am wracking my royal brains trying to figure out what punishment is suitable for him! You are a wise girl—what do you say?”

Any other day the drug would have been on her and she would have smiled and been dumb; but this day the king’s daughter spoke. “Hang him up in cage from that tree,” she exclaimed. “Right over there. It gets the wind, and it gets the rain, and he needs to eat bread and water right up there where I can watch him do it!”

The king, as he would be, was delighted. The spy tried to express some misgivings, but it turned out that the princess had been more right than she could know: the tree was positioned exactly so that weather and sun were full upon it. Some of the elders, the old men and women who remembered days gone by, told of how it had been used in just such a way. The princess was praised for her wisdom.

The queen was perplexed when heard the princess was showing a trait people were calling wisdom, but as long as the rubies were forthcoming, she dosed her daughter and kept on. What she did not know was that the princess was now switching the drug for ordinary diluted wine every day now, and that the queen’s arrow had given the girl an idea.

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