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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 26

Greg Bear

  "It was not entirely a bad thing, that war. Nobody died… not forever. We were like young gods then and injuries of combat, while distressing, were remediable. But gradually we learned the desperate arts of tact, and lying, and deceit, of gamesmanship and honour. Then we learned distrust and our, magic grew stronger. The war became earnest. Enemies found it necessary to either be polite or to attempt to destroy each other. There was no middle ground. All the perverse pleasures of combat became engrained - the pleasures of triumph over another, of defeat at the hands of a stronger, of tragedy and loss, contest and victory. These are strong discoveries, and run deep in our blood even now."

  Michael nodded, his eyes half-closed. He was awake, but he didn't need to see Lin Piao to appreciate his story. "The other races - what did Tonn turn them into?"

  "I am coming to that. Finally, it was discovered how to kill. To kill so that the dead would never return to the Earth. All had immortal souls then, but we were bound to the Earth with such desires that death was abhorrent. War became serious indeed. Hate was a thing to be breathed, lived, wallowed in.

  "There were winners and there were losers. The losers were treated badly. When the humans under the mage Manus vanquished the Sidhe, they imposed the worst punishment yet - they stripped the Sidhe of their souls. And when the Sidhe regained the upper hand, strengthened by the desperation of complete extinction, the mage Tonn put an end to the war. The Sidhe did not have the means to steal our immortality, but they could put us in more humble packages. The Spryggla, followers of Daedal, had always been proud of the work they could do with their hands, so Tonn took their hands away from them and put them in a place where there was no need to build - the sea. They became whales and dolphins. Humans were turned into tiny shrews, to exhibit their true character. Others were turned into other beasts. Some had their souls divided among millions, even billions of smaller forms, like the Urges, who were all transformed into one of their own creations, the cockroach. Aum's people, the Cledar, were music-makers, and their art was stolen by the Sidhe, who called it their own. Then Aum and all his kind were turned into birds."

  Michael's eyes had closed, but he listened carefully to every word.

  "Of all the races, the Sidhe preserved only a few of the Spryggla, that we might build for them. They let us live in comfort, and in time we grew accustomed to our fate. We were given work. They took my ancestors off to the stars with them, and we built great things out there. They returned to the Earth eventually, and I was born."

  "How old are you?" Michael asked.

  "I don't know," Lin Piao said. "How much time has passed on Earth?"

  Michael opened his eyes. "How should I know?"

  "Perhaps I will describe something for you, and then you can decide. When I was last on Earth, the greatest human ruler of all time reigned." He spread his hands, his voice carrying a hint of sarcasm.

  "Who was that?"

  "He was a scion of Genghis Khan. His name was Kubla. From shore to shore of the great lands, he demonstrated the new power of the humans, rising again over the sad Sidhe."

  "That was seven hundred years ago, I think," Michael said.

  "Then I am three thousand and seven hundred years of age, by the time of Earth. And how old are you?"

  "Sixteen," Michael said. He started to laugh and choke at once. Lin Piao Tai made a gesture of magnanimity.

  "And yet here you are, traveling the Realm, free and independent. Marvelous. You seem tired, my friend, and evening is coming. Perhaps you should rest."

  "So soon?"

  "Time in the Realm still surprises you? My servants will make up a bedchamber."

  "How did you come to the Realm? Why did you leave Earth?"

  "Tomorrow," Lin Piao said. Michael followed as the Spryg-gla went to a wall and pulled back a panel, revealing another dark corridor. In a small, sparsely furnished room, a feather mattress rested on finely woven reed mats, while on a nearby table a tall candle flickered in a glass dish beside a plate of cold tea and crackers-"For the night, should it last longer than expected and you become hungry."

  The accommodations were the most luxurious Michael had seen in the Realm. He lay on the mattress, pulled the blanket around his chin and was asleep in seconds.

  Beware, beware, his -

  Shh! Hiss!

  On a dreamless plain, voyagers

  Voyage, their eyes shut tight; listen

  To the dripping voices. Children

  Grow, discard ashes, cinders.

  Judas selves linger, ponder;

  Judas others ponder, linger;

  Rude as strange words in the not-dream

  Ponder, linger, and always scheme…

  Michael jerked awake, shivering. He felt in deep danger. His body was wet with sweat; the mattress and blanket were soaked. The candle had burned halfway and flickered with his sudden breath, making the close gray walls dance like gelatin.

  He turned his head to the other side of the room and saw one of the gold servants standing a few feet away, its head in shadow. Michael reached out and lifted the candle. The servant's face rearranged itself in blocks like a clockwork puzzle or toy. Suddenly all the pieces slid into place and the face became a smoothly sculpted blank. It bowed to him, but remained where it stood, as if posted to guard.

  Michael felt under the covers and found the book, still in his pocket. He lay back and tried to remember what had jerked him awake. Perhaps another brush with Death's Radio. The contacts seemed to come more often now, but he seldom remembered them.

  A bell chimed in the hallway outside the room. Lin Piao Tai walked slowly past, carrying a gold and crystal lantern with a leaf-shaped reflector. He winked and smiled at Michael, then motioned for him to follow. "A fine morning," he said as Michael left the bedchamber, buttoning up his shirt. "The finches are singing in the gardens, the lilies are in bloom, breakfast awaits."

  They sat under a rose and golden dawn in the middle of an immaculately groomed garden. Lin Piao had ordered a golden lacquer table set on the slate flagstones to one side of the meandering pathway, laid with dishes of fruit, cooked grains and more spiced vegetables. Michael was ravenous and ate an amount that surprised even himself. Lin Piao Tai picked at his food, watching his guest with obvious delight.

  "There is no finer satisfaction than catering to an appetite, and no greater compliment than eliminating one," he said. Michael agreed and wiped his mouth with a raw silk napkin. 'Today, I would enjoy having you tour my grounds. You should see what a fine place I've made of my prison."


  Lin Piao's expression tilted slightly toward sadness, then brightened again, as if on cue. "Yes. I have been audacious in my time, and now I pay for it. The Sidhe do not forgive."

  "What did you do to them?"

  "I served. Shall we walk?" He led Michael through the gardens, pointing out the various tiers and banks of flowers, all, of course, of assorted golden and yellow hues. A fine mist gently blurred the gardens as they came to the end of the path, blocked by a tall black lava wall. "I was a faithful servant," Lin Piao continued. "In those days, the Sidhe had long since returned to the Earth. They had dissipated themselves between the stars, you know - you've heard most of this before? Good. It tires me to relate Sidhe history. They were not as vigorous as they had once been. They still used Spryggla, and we still did their bidding, though our numbers had diminished even from the few of times past."

  He pulled his golden robes aside and sat on a smooth onyx bench. "There was a conflict. Two factions of the Sidhe - perhaps more - were disputing over how they should conduct themselves on Earth. The Realm had already been opened to Sidhe migration, you see, and many Sidhe had come here, rather than remain in the lands of the new human race. In their squabbles, the factions created various songs of power, hoping to outdo each other. One faction planned to give the humans a song of power. I am confused as to the motives behind this - or even which faction engaged in such foolishness - but I believe it was the Black Order, and that the
y wished the humans to be just strong enough to force all Sidhe into the Realm, where Tarax could control them in the name of Adonna. Praise O Creator Adonna!" He winked at Michael. "They've done their worst, but it doesn't hurt to follow the forms.

  "I was highly regarded in those days, and so I was given the task of designing a palace for the Emperor Kubla, who would have it revealed in a dream. When Kubla Khan built the palace - and it was inevitable he would, given the strength of the dream and the beauty of my designs - in all its forms and measures it would embody an architectural song of power, making the Emperor the strongest human since the wars. I faithfully designed the palace, and others under my command prepared the dream… but a strange thing happened.

  "The dream was transmitted improperly. Kubla was tantalized no end by his vision, but he could not remember it clearly enough to construct it properly. And when I was placed in his service on Earth, the workers were plagued with slips of hand and diseases of the eye. The Black Order was foiled. They blamed me. In their court - a most fearsome place, and may you never see it! - they tried me and found me guilty of bungling. For that, I am confined to this valley." He leaned forward, looking up into Michael's face. "Spryggla have magic too, you know. Magic over shapes of matter. We can be very powerful, though not as powerful as the Maln. They took away my magic, all of it except that pertaining to things yellow or golden. They imprisoned me, and I have done as best I could. Not done too badly, do you think?"

  "Not badly at all," Michael said.

  "I'm glad to hear it. You're the first company I've had in decades. Now and then, some of the Sidhe call on me, give me commissions. It was I who conferred with Christopher Wren, and earlier than that, with Leonardo and Michelangelo… But perhaps I shouldn't be telling you these things."

  "Why would the Sidhe want you to help them?"

  "It all has to do with the factions, the songs of power___No, there's certainly no need for you to suffer through all my past exploits, past failures. That's what they were, you know. Never quite as magnificent as first conceived, always interfered with in the final construction. I'm under a kind of curse." He became emphatic. "But not through any fault of my own! I am most unfortunate, caught between warring Sidhe, dragged this way and that___"

  "Who was your last guest?" Michael asked.

  The Spryggla's face darkened. "Someone I'd rather blot from memory. Most unpleasant. Besides, I am honored by a far more welcome guest now, and I must make the most of his company before he leaves!"

  They walked back to the black stone house. "My powers are strictly confined to the valley. While I am limited to yellow and gold. I can work moderately well with the neutrals, blacks and whites and combinations thereof. Reds and browns do not interfere with my abilities, but of course I prefer yellows. And I can never leave the valley. So, as you can see, I lavish my creativity here." He sighed. "I fear I change my surroundings frequently, otherwise I would end up in a tangle of baroque embellishment. I would go quite mad."

  "May I look in on my horse?" Michael asked.

  "Of course, of course! How fortunate that I designed quite wonderful stables just before you arrived. Your horse is there now, very comfortable, I trust."

  One wing of the house opened to the stables, which were made of gleaming black wood with natural oak stalls. Michael followed Lin Piao along a row of empty stalls, trying to remember something he had forgotten, something important___

  With an effort, it came to him. Lin Piao swung wide the door to his horse's stall. Michael entered and patted the horse on the rump, checking it over to make sure it was being properly cared for. (Why would he suspect otherwise?)

  "I have to leave soon," he said. Lin Piao nodded,, his permanent smile somehow out of place. "I have a responsibility."


  "I have to find the Isomage. So I can help my people."

  Lin Piao nodded. "An honorable journey."

  "I appreciate your hospitality."

  "Yours to command as long as you wish."

  "Everything seems fine," Michael said, closing the stall door. "Thank you."

  Lin Piao bowed. "If I am too zealous of your company, please inform me. I am used to being alone, and perhaps haven't retained all the social graces."

  "I don't mind," Michael said. Indeed, he didn't. He was starting to wonder what it would be like to be on his own again, without these marvelous surroundings, and this wonderful source of information.

  "At any rate, I have work to do," Lin Piao said. "If you will excuse me, make yourself at home. The servants will respond to your needs."

  They separated and Michael returned to the garden to sit and appreciate the flowers, the peace. He was becoming used to the limited colors. He had always liked yellow - liked it more and more now - and felt quite at home.

  With nightfall, they supped in the main chamber. Lin Piao told him of the vicissitudes of working with the human Kubla, of the Khan's quiet melancholies and towering rages. "He was so nostalgic for his people's beginnings, for the steppes. We had tailored the design of the palace to impress him all the more. It was like a Mongol tent, one that might be found in the highest of the seventeen heavens - much larger than the grubby yurts his forebears slept in. All its walls were made of silk. It was a beautiful thing… in conception. But when I saw it built on Earth… the finished thing…" He laid a bitter emphasis on thing. "I was dismayed. Heartsick. All my work, my conferences with the Sidhe… for naught. It was a travesty. It didn't float, it loomed. It was encrusted with Mongol ornament. It was gaudy. Yet I could not make it otherwise. I was only an advisor, an architect. I could not overrule the Khan. He was desperate to capture what he had seen in the dream. Politics, my dear Michael, is a plague found wherever groups of beings gather. I imagine even termites must deal with politics." He smiled. "But you grow sleepy."

  Michael's eyes were so heavy he could hardly keep them open. Lin Piao led him to his chamber, and as he pulled the covers over himself, he heard the Spryggla say, "It's very simple, why there are no dreams here. It is to keep the ways clear. . ..

  "You… or I. We are the ones."

  Then, oblivion. And in the oblivion, almost immediately, Michael struggled. Death's Radio was on him strongly now. He was not dreaming; he was struggling to stay on the ground. There was a great city seen from high in the air; he was almost as high as he had been when Eleuth tried to return him to Earth, but all his seeing focused on the great city, and to one side of the city, black and spiked like the nasty seed-ball of some evil tree, the temple…The Irall. Michael recognized it immediately. The temple of Adonna, and he was being drawn toward it___

  He twisted under the blankets and came awake. He was groggy at first, and almost immediately forgot what had aroused him. There was a noise in the dark room. Michael's eyes seemed glued shut by the secretions of sleep. He took his fingers and pried them open, then rubbed them.

  In dim golden candlelight, Lin Piao stood by the sleeping mat, clutching something. There was a look of exulting on his face, and exaltation.

  "You have brought it to me," he said. "As it was ordained. To me. Across the worlds. The Song. My Song."

  For a moment Michael didn't realize what the Spryggla was holding. It was the black book of poetry Waltiri had given him on Earth.

  "That's mine," he said groggily.

  "Yes, yes. You have kept it well. I thank you."

  "My book," Michael reiterated, struggling to his feet. He reached out for it, but was restrained by two of the golden servants, who stepped from the shadows and held his arms in firm, warm-metal grips.

  "You don't even know what it is," Lin Piao said contemptuously. The change in his tone was abrupt and it shattered whatever remained of Michael's lethargy. "Didn't I tell you, I worked to transmit the dream? And now I see they've tried again, but this time not in architecture… in poetry! And again, somebody interfered. I had heard rumors that your Isomage had part of the Song of Power. Now I know what he has been waiting for. For you, for this!"
/>   He held up the open book so that Michael could see the page he was referring to. "A human poet is sent the Song in a dream. He remembers it, begins to write it down line for line… and is interrupted! Practical business, a person from Porlock, sent no doubt by the meddling opposing faction of the Sidhe. And when the poet returns to his paper, the dream is obliterated, only a part of it written down But Clarkham must have the part never recorded on Earth! And now you have brought the segment not allowed in the Realm, the poem Coleridge recorded, forever a fragment." Lin Piao's eyes flashed as he swung the book up and began to read.

  "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea."

  He turned the page.

  "So twice five miles of fertile ground

  With walls and towers were girdled round-"

  The Spryggla suddenly broke off with a choke and batted at the book with one hand as if a wasp alighted on it. He began to dance, holding the book out at arm's length and squealing like a wounded rabbit. "Traitor!" he cried. "Human!"

  From between the pages fell the blue flower Michael had plucked at the edge of the golden valley. It landed on the floor, flat and lifeless but startlingly brilliant. Amid all the gold and yellow it stood out like a jewel.

  Lin Piao danced away from it, still squealing. He dropped the book as if fearing it contained more. One of the servants released Michael's arm and darted for the flower but at its touch the blossom leaped and seemed to take a breath, expanding and contracting.

  "No!" Lin Piao wailed. "Not this, not now!"

  The servant tried again to pick up the flower, lifting it from the floor and sweeping it as high as it could reach, rushing for the door. But the flower left behind a trail of blue with every motion. The trail seemed to drip color like a swath of paint and then diffused and broadened, pulsing, alive. Lin Piao shrieked as if he were being murdered and followed the servant, staying well away from the trail of blue.