Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 25Greg Bear
He was relieved of his troublesome thoughts about Alyon's golden horse.
Michael stayed in the wild orchard for two days, even taking the risk of getting mildly drunk on the wine-tasting pulp of the cherry-fruit. The horse cropped grass contentedly nearby. As Michael lay with his back against a tree trunk, he thought of the Kaeli and wondered what the animals had been like that had carried the Sidhe between the stars. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine such a journey, made without fireball launch-ings or spaceships; simply riding on the backs of the original epon, stretched out across space like quicksilver or molten gold - -
He read a few poems from the book, savoring them, his mind warmed by the fruit, his stomach full. He was content as never before, even with the past horror and his own shame - perhaps because of it. He thought of himself as a comet head at the source of a vast tail of experiences, flowing out behind him, growing longer and richer. Gradually his reverie muddied and he slipped into a doze. The book tumbled from his fingers and lay in the grass, the wind turning the pages deftly, sighing when it found what it wanted.
An Arboral female stood at Michael's feet, regarding him with unblinking green eyes. She walked over to the horse and patted it affectionately, though Arborals had no use for epon. Then she looked up at the Meteoral who had luffed the pages in the book, and a face between the tree branches winked at her. She knelt down and applied a blue-green paste to Michael's forehead. The paste sizzled, releasing vapors which poured down the sides of his nose and into his mouth.
Both of the Sidhe melted into the woods.
Michael saw a palace of silk and gold, as airy and light as a vast tent, rising above a mountain of ice and granite. A huge cataract of melt-water poured from the caverns in the mountain's side. He was led by a shadowy guide from enclosure to enclosure through the palace, and found within a great king - an oriental Khan - :bemoaning the fate of his lost fleet, destroyed by a demon wind far to the east. The Khan had dreams also; dreams of great plains of grass and high snow-capped mountains and trackless desert and wild horses stalked by sturdy bow-legged men with hard, flat determined faces and lank black hair… all of that in the Khan's past. Now he ruled the greatest empire of all time, stretching from the Eastern sea across the mountains and plains, south to the mountains of the snow devils, north to the tent-pole of the world.
The Khan's face changed, becoming that of a pale, gray-haired Caucasian, looking younger than his years, sitting on the Khan's throne. He was not of the royal line. The plains of grass faded, the empire vanished into far history, and the pale usurper regarded his palace with an expression of repressed rage and boredom, of impatient waiting. . ..
Waiting for Michael.
The paste had evaporated. The visions swirled and Michael opened his eyes slowly. He had never dreamed in the Realm, and he didn't believe what he had seen was actually a dream. It had a certain quality, a stamp, which indicated he had once again had a message from Death's Radio… this time, without the use of words.
After tying up a supply of fruit in his shirt, Michael reluctantly left the orchard and followed the tree-lined river, which now turned east, sometimes doubling back in a lazy loop or wrapping around mist-shrouded islands. As the horse walked patiently on, Michael stared across the river at the largest of the islands and fancied he saw battlements in rocky crags. He always stayed on the left bank; it was equally easy to fancy Riverines lurking in the water, ready to deliver him up to Adonna's forces if he was so indiscreet as to try to ford.
He ate sparingly of the fruit, which stayed at the peak of ripeness. Like all Sidhe food, little was sufficient.
In the dusk of his fourth day away from the orchard, the horse took an opportune gap in a wall of shrubs and followed a very old, almost overgrown trail up a gently sloping mountain. They spent the night near the crest, Michael sleeping in an open spot near a weathered cairn, the horse nearby, blinking sleeplessly in the dying firelight.
Michael awoke and saw a silvery band crossing the predawn sky. He rubbed his eyes and looked up again. A mother-of-pearl ribbon of light stretched from horizon to horizon at an angle of about thirty degrees. It had moon-like mottlings, and in fact could have been a severely elongated moon, though it seemed about four times broader. As dawn came, the ribbon dissociated into blurred disks, which broke down further into an indistinct contrail and vanished.
After breakfast - a chunk of meaty fruit - he walked the horse up to the crest to get his bearings. They looked down the opposite side of the mountain into a long, broad valley. The horse snorted with eager recognition; the atmosphere above the valley was a?> golden as its skin, and the trees - thick as lumpy moss, from this vantage - seemed suspended in another season entirely, not spring but autumn. They made up a patchwork of browns, oranges and golds. Despite the warmth of the colors, the morning air filling the valley like liquid in a bowl was quite chill.
Michael looked for some time before finding the structure hidden far to one side of the valley. It was dark, angular and ornate, but he couldn't make out much beyond its general shape. It resembled a tall Oriental pagoda.
"Can you think of any reason we should go down there?" he asked the horse. The horse couldn't. "Nevertheless, we're going."
Caution had kept him from crossing the river, but he discarded caution now. The compulsion was strong - and had nothing to do with Death's Radio.
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The slope down to the valley was about ten degrees, never greater than twenty. On the mountainside, the green trees of the regional spring gradually gave way to autumnal colors until few traces of green remained. The flowers beneath the horse's hooves were transforming from blues, pinks and reds to a uniform golden yellow.
The deeper into the valley they traveled, the darker the sky overhead became, until they were bathed in rich shadowy gold, like the twilight in a smoky old oil painting.
Michael's eye caught a last gleam of blue in a patch of flowers a few yards off the trail. He stopped the horse and dismounted to inspect them.
Four tiny blue flowers, luminous and enchanting, defied the auric suffusion. He could hardly take his eyes off them. He bent down on one knee and cupped them in his hands, then leaned over to smell them. They had little scent, but their color alone was sufficient. He picked one and removed the book from his pocket. Opening at random, he pressed the blue flower between two pages, arranging its petals carefully.
With a sigh - half drowsy and half nostalgic for the colors left behind - he remounted and continued toward the pagoda near the opposite slopes.
A wider winding trail became visible between the trees. Michael guided the horse onto this path and they followed it to a clearing. In the middle of the clearing stood the building, black and shiny as obsidian, sitting on a foundation of glazed dark bricks which absorbed the gentle rolls of the clearing. Surrounding the foundation were bushes glistening with waxy yellow-green leaves and large yellow flowers. Around the bushes stretched a lawn of smooth straw-grass, somewhere in color between ripened wheat and bleached bone.
Michael lifted his eyes to the tower. The first impression of a pagoda-like structure was misleading, he saw now. The tower had seven levels and was taller than it was wide. It seemed to have been carved out of foamy black lava, with the exposed pockets in the rock serrating every edge evenly. The effect was that of lace doilies and wickedly sharp obsidian daggers.
Wisdom clearly demanded a rapid retreat. Yet the house or palace was the most striking piece of architecture Michael had seen in the Realm. He wondered whether the Sidhe had built it. They seemed so little interested in the material arts.
He dismounted and took the horse by the muzzle as he had seen Spart do, leading it toward the dark polished granite gate set in a high courtyard wall. The horse's hooves clopped over ochre-swirled tiles of yellow stone. The top of the courtyard wall was protected by sharp upright crystals of golden quartz. Michael looked around, listening, hoping for a faint br
eeze to relieve the moribund silence and stillness.
The gate had no knocker, but mounted in the wall to one side was a polished wooden dowel tied to a gold chain. The chain passed through two circular eyes mounted in the stone and vanished into a hole.
The horse whickered and nudged Michael's back. He patted its forehead. "Nervous?" he asked. Strangely, he wasn't, and that made him wonder if the place was enchanted. "You be nervous for me," he said. He was becoming more drowsy; the valley swam in the color of so many half-remembered dreams. Part of him felt right at home, protected by the half-light, captured in a pleasant reverie - -
He gripped the dowel and gave it a firm tug. "Hello? Anybody live here?"
A mirror mounted on a wooden frame swung out from the gatepost, swayed briefly and ratcheted downward until it jerked to a stop about three feet above Michael's head. It angled slightly toward him. He looked into it and was startled to see a tiny face peering right back. All he could clearly make out was an unruly tuft of black hair, two glistening eyes with tawny pupils and a physiognomy not precisely human, yet certainly not Sidhe.
The mirror was apparently connected with a series of other mirrors that conveyed images into the building - and vice versa. The face appeared to speak, and in a tinny distant voice said something he couldn't make out.
"Hoy ac!" the face shouted, barely audible.
"Hoy," Michael said. "I need a place to stay the night." Oh, did he now? part of him asked.
"Antros?" the face asked, showing astonishment.
"Yes," Michael said. "I'm human. May I come in?"
The gate creaked, swayed and swung wide, scraping over an accumulation of pebbles and dust in the courtyard. It apparently hadn't been opened in years. Michael walked inside and drew the reluctant horse after him.
The courtyard was deserted. Black stone walls surrounded a well carved from onyx. A black marble crow perched on the rim, water pouring from a slit in its throat. The crow's beak lifted to the dark swirling brown sky and its stone eye regarded Michael with calm curiosity. At the opposite end of the courtyard was another gate, already open.
A small man stood in the gate. He wore a silky golden robe, its hem pooling around his feet. Michael automatically sought the man's aura of memory. It was unfamiliar and difficult to read, neither human nor Sidhe.
"Hello," Michael said.
The small man nodded, A wispy black beard hung to his chest, and his features were slightly oriental. His sallow skin was glossy like fine leather. He hid his arms in the sleeves of the golden robe.
"Sorry to bother you."
"No bother," the man said in perfect English, and without probing Michael's aura. "Not many visitors pass by, certainly no humans. Introduce yourself."
"I'm Michael. Michael Perrin."
•'And I am Lin Piao Tai. What may I do for you?"
"Your vaJley…" Michael gestured beyond the gate, which swung slowly shut, groaning and vibrating He guided the horse around the fountain, closer to the man. "It's very unusual. It seems to be in a season of its own."
"A perpetual season,'' said Lin Piao Tai. "You're traveling, and you need a place to rest. Although I daresay you haven't been bothered by any of the Sidhe, since for a circuit of hundreds of li they scorn these forests. All but the Arborals and Meteorals., and I daresay they haven't shown themselves."
"No," Michael admitted. "I haven't seen anybody until now."
"Just as well. Come in. Leave the horse here. My servants will see to it." Michael patted the horse and followed Lin Piao Tai through the second gate, into the house.
The gate swung behind Michael without any visible help. Just inside the gate, a second fountain was set into a nook. The walls of the nook and the smooth, slightly feminine cup of the fountain were made of pure jet, while the interior of the cup and the floor of the surrounding pool were formed of smooth gray porcelain. The pool itself was illuminated by pale golden candles set in glass cylinders around the rim. Goldfish gleamed in the rippling water, their scales reflecting radiantly in the walls when they swam close. Lin Piao Tai walked down a black corridor, motioning for him to follow.
Michael came to the end of the corridor.
"Welcome to my home, Michael - if I may call you that."
Michael looked around the large room. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high, made of a warm yellow wood intricately carved with designs of birds and fish. The walls were covered with panels of black and rich brown framing gracefully rendered screens of mountains, forests, and flowing rivers, floor to ceiling, the panels serving as fronts of drawers, closets and recesses.
"You must be hungry." Lin Piao Tai pulled the train of his robe aside and with a bare brown foot, drew back a straw mat from the floor, revealing a pit with several pillows spread around the outside and a low table in the center. "My servants will bring food - human food for you, I assume, though no meats - and tea. Be seated, please." Michael descended into the pit and found welcome warmth under the table. A ceramic pot filled with coals kept the entire pit warm.
Lin Piao Tai joined him, arranging his robes to make a kind of sack in which he perched, legs crossed, like a pupa. "Have you traveled far?"
Michael saw no reason to hold anything back. "From the Blasted Plain," he said.
"I am not familiar with… ah! Yes! I remember. Your people are kept there now. They used to wander at will, you know."
Michael's attention was distracted by the figures entering the room. They wore black robes and stood no more than four feet high, slender, with stylized metallic gold faces suggesting neither male nor female. Their hands were jointed and supple.
Whether they were robots or something else, Michael couldn't decide, and he felt it would be impolite to ask, or to probe Lin Piao's aura.
The servants brought in trays with food and pots of hot tea and set them without sound on the table, bowing and retreating. Michael reached for a jellied cake and savored the rich sweetness. "Delicious," he said. Lin Piao poured him tea. "They've closed the Pact Lands down, I'm afraid," Michael said, isolated from the memory. He felt so calm - had felt very much at ease since entering the valley - and what, after all, was wrong with that? Everything was so elegant and peaceful.
"I suspected that would happen eventually. You humans - if you pardon my opinion - are rather troublesome. I've had many dealings with humans in the past. But, on the other hand, I've had dealings with the Sidhe, as well, and I must say I prefer humans." He smiled at Michael. "You don't seem to know what I am. You are aware I am not Sidhe… yet not human, either. My kind is most rare now, all credit to the Sidhe. Rare in my form, at least. Doubtless you've seen my kin on Earth. How is Earth, by the way?"
Michael tried to think of one word that summed it all up, and couldn't, so he boiled it down to three. "Desperate. Cruel. Beautiful."
Lin Piao beamed as if with nostalgic pleasure. "Some things never change," he said. "I am a Spryggla. My kind is as ancient as the Sidhe or the first race of humans, but we allied with neither during the wars. You know about the wars?"
"A little," Michael said.
"Eat hearty," Lin Piao said, passing covered bowls to him. "How fortunate you could drop by. We have a thousand things to talk about. I just know it. A thousand things."
Michael ate from bowls of steaming noodles in savory broth, and spiced vegetables in eggshell-thin procelain cups. As he ate he told Lin Piao what had happened to him in the Realm, and whenever he excised something from the narrative, he found himself slipping it back in a few minutes later. He was wary enough, however, not to mention the book, which was still in his pocket.
"Fascinating," the Spryggla said, shaking his head after Michael had finished. "Now I assume you wish to know more about me."
"Certainly," Michael said. That seemed polite, and he was curious.
Lin Piao's voice changed timbre, increasing in pitch and becoming more sing-song in delivery. The overall effect was entrancing.
sp; "Of the thirty races," he began, "the Spryggla were those naturally suited to mold the dirt, grind the stones, make the bricks and plaster and erect the buildings. We loved places in which to live, and we loved them at a time when Sidhe and humans were content to wander under the broad and roofless sky. We built the first walls, and made the lands within them our own. We erected the first houses and the first granaries, and then the first fortresses. At first, we were not appreciated. The others thought we were possessive and greedy, but that wasn't so. We were just preparing ourselves for the finest of our accomplishments, the cities.
"Soon others saw our worth, and the worth of our cities, and accepted both. They lived under our roofs and within our walls. The rain became a controlled blessing. It was our choice whether to go out in it, or not. The wind became less vexing. There were no animals on Earth at that time; they were created much later, some by the humans, who were excellent in the vital arts, others by the Urges… but I stray.
"We built magnificent cities, all dust now I'm afraid, buried beneath the oceans or crushed in the mouths of the hungry Earth. We were essential. Ah, those times were para daizo - paradise, that is, within walls… but troubled. Soon each kind of glowing light, each intelligence, grew intolerant of its fellows. Tempers became short, and in those times tempers could be formidable, because our powers were formidable. Factions developed in each race, fomenting dissent and urging separation. There was excitement and intrigue, and no one really suspected where it would all lead. We were powerful but innocent. Knowledgeable but naive."
Michael had eaten his fill and sat back against a cushion to listen. He felt a thrill oi expectation. Here at last was the story, simply told, and who cared if it was biased or not, true or distorted?
"Gradually, individuals gathered others around them and became leaders. They called themselves mages. There were four principal mages, called Tonn, Daedal, Manus and Aum, and their power grew at the expense of all the others. They were too strong to really desire war with each other but the lesser mages brought on the conflict through their own ambitions. The war lasted for ages.