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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 29

Greg Bear

  "There are gardens for those who see," Ulath said.

  "Ulath has been around," Nikolai confided to Michael. "She knew King Arthur personally."

  Ulath regarded Nikolai with mild disapproval, then returned her attention to Michael. "None of us has been very successful at reading you," she said.

  "Oh?" Michael thought he had been read very thoroughly by Ulath.

  "Not where your motivations and plans are concerned. In Inyas Trai, it is polite to be open. Nikolai is very open."

  "Nothing to hide," Nikolai said. "Unless some of the males are around."

  "There are no males here now," Ulath said. "We are curious about Michael___"

  He didn't feel it was wise to open up completely. He told them he had come to the Realm by accident. He mentioned Arno Waltiri's music, skipping a great deal after that - touching only briefly on the Crane Women - and told them about Lin Piao Tai, without mentioning the book. Ulath listened intently, and when Michael was done, stroked his arm. Her touch was cool and electric, quite different from Eleuth's.

  And from the touch of the Ban of Hours. "No matter that it makes you a pawn of those whose wishes you know nothing about?"

  "Come on," Nikolai said somewhat gruffly, standing and rearranging his city clothes. "Let's go find Emma."

  Away from the Ban's house, beyond the groves of trees they came upon a small stone chateau. The chateau was surrounded by poplars and larches. On one side, a mirror-smooth lake diffused the morning sun with a glazed sheen. Swans crossed the lake like small carnival rides, their expanding wakes troubling the rafts of water lilies.

  The heavy wooden door of the chateau was set into an archway carved with foot-high saints. Michael had never gone to church and didn't recognize them. Nikolai crossed himself before one, set at eye level, and murmured, "St. Peter." He took the heavy iron dragon's head knocker in hand and pounded the door twice. "She is quite charming," he said while they waited.

  The door opened. A small thin face framed by lank black hair poked out and regarded them with sharp, narrow brown eyes. "Nikolai," the face croaked, and the door opened wide.

  It was a woman - of sorts. She was barely four feet tall, thin as a stalk of grass, wearing a black shift with long sleeves. Her skeletal hands were gloved in white. The comers of her mouth seemed turned down by nature, and her high quizzical eyebrows carried a message: I'm easily hurt, don't mess with me, I bite instinctively.

  "Is Emma available?" Nikolai asked.

  "For you, always," the woman said. "But who's this?" She looked at Michael as though he were some garden slug brought in by the cat.

  "An acquaintance," Nikolai said. "From Earth, Marie."

  Marie's face softened ever so slightly. "Recently?"

  Michael nodded.

  "Come with me," she said. "She's upstairs, dancing."

  They followed Marie up the stairs to the second floor. Down a short hallway with powder-blue walls, they found a half-open double door. Marie pushed through. "Emma," she sang out harshly, "we have visitors. Nikolai… and a friend."

  The room was very like Lamia's dance studio on the upper level of the Isomage's house; smaller, however, and filled with sun from a broad skylight.

  Standing to one side, dressed in a calf-length dancing outfit, was a girl not much older than Michael. Her black hair was drawn back and tied into a bun. Her long graceful neck and arms were as expressive as the swans in the lake outside. She descended from her point and rushed to hug Nikolai. "Man cher ami!" she cried. "I am very, very glad to see you!"

  She pulled back a step and twirled him around once, then turned to Michael.

  "Pay no mind to him, he is a heartbreaker," Nikolai said. "I know."

  "He is human!" Emma said, delighted. She held out her hand and Michael took it. It was flushed, warm, delicate as a flower. Slightly paler than the fingers, however, was the back of the hand, where the skin puckered faintly as if from a long-healed burn.

  "From Earth," Marie husked. "Recently."

  "Oh! C'est merveilleux!" She clapped her hands with childlike delight. "Nikolai, you found him and brought him here, so he could speak with us, tell us about home?"

  "Partly," Nikolai said. He confided to Michael, "I would do anything to make Emma happy." •

  Marie brought in a small table and they pulled wooden chairs away from the wall and sat. "Marie," Emma said, "bring wine and some of those delightful cakes the Ban gave us."

  She turned to Michael and smiled dazzlingly, then closed her eyes and positively wriggled with delight. "Where are you from?"


  "Do I know… California? Yes, I do! In les Etats Unis. I have never been there. It is a desert, and very dry, no?"

  Marie brought cakes, wine and glasses and poured and served all around. The cakes were sweet buckwheat. When Michael had satisfied Emma's curiosity about California, she asked him if he had ever been to France. "No," he said. Her face fell.

  "Is it that you can tell me anything about France, how it is? What year is it!"

  "1985, when I left," Michael said.

  "Left? You left of your own will? Oh… I was taken. Not that I am not grateful." For a moment she looked as if she were about to cry, but she brightened immediately and touched his hand. Nikolai looked at the contact with undisguised jealousy. "So what was Paris like, France, when you left? So many questions!"

  Michael looked to Nikolai for help. "When did… uh… Emma leave?"

  "1863," the hunter replied darkly. "A bad year for her."

  "Very bad," Emma said, but not as if she felt it. "So it has been… more than a hundred and twenty years. I have hardly known the time. They have been good to me, but sometimes I think I am their toy."

  "They love you," Nikolai admonished, then raised his brows and pursed his lips. "As much as they can love, I suppose."

  "I dance for them," Emma said. "Their attitude, it is so funny! They tell me Sidhe can dance with far more control, grace, even spontaneity, than can I, yet that is only to be expected. I dance, they say, with a special magic, because I have no magic! It is all physical, no sorcery, no illusion. Ah, but if I had stayed on Earth-"

  "If you had stayed on Earth," Marie said, "you would be dead."

  "But if that had not happened," Emma went on, undaunted, "Nikolai tells me I would have changed the shape of the dance! I mean, the way everyone thinks of dance, ballet."

  "You are a legend," Nikolai said. "Michael knows nothing of dance, however. He is a poet. So the Ban tells us."

  "Then I will show you dance," Emma said.

  "Your practice is over today," Marie said. "You must not overdo."

  "Marie is so silly sometimes," Emma said, giggling. "She forgets. Here, I cannot overdo! They protect me. Ulath, the Ban… I feel like a… how is it? A flower in a conservatory, kept under glass." She shook her head saucily. "I am so delicate, such a fine little toy. Nikolai doesn't think of me that way, though. He knows dancers are tough."

  "You are the sister I never had," Nikolai said.

  "I am older than he, aren't I?" Emma asked, searching the faces around the table. "He is from Earth after I, so I am older. Yet we look so different in time! This place, don't you agree, Michael, it is very strange.

  "But no matter. If you wish, you will have me dance for you, perhaps when the Ban requests… or anytime."

  Nikolai told her they had to leave soon, and she followed them to the door, looking quite distressed until she blew them a kiss, smiled, and ran back up the stairs. Marie stared at them forlornly and closed the door.

  "How did she get here?" Michael asked. "Like you, like the others?"

  "No. The Sidhe brought her here, perhaps the Ban or Ulath or another, even. She is Emma Livry; haven't you guessed?"

  "I've heard the name___The Ban…"

  "Emma Livry, one of the finest dancers of her time - but she never had a chance to be as accomplished as her promise. She was just twenty years of age, a beautiful girl. Her dress caught the flame of a gas jet
. She was burned," he screwed up his face, "horribly. I am not sure exactly how it was done, but the Sidhe of Inyas Trai came to her, took her. They healed her and kept her here. She delighted them, so young, so beautiful." He inhaled deeply. "Sometimes even the Sidhe do something worthwhile."

  Emma Livry. The rest of the meeting with the Ban was suddenly clear as could be, and her words:

  "/ venture to guess Nikolai is almost as ignorant of what really happened as you. This dispute over Songs of Power… over the human question… it was raged in all quarters for centuries.'

  "I know about the pleasure dome," Michael said.

  "Good. Then you are not completely unlearned. That was a minor episode, man-child. There have been episodes far more cruel and senseless. Nikolai will no doubt inform you that Emma was a very promising young dancer who met with an unfortunate accident. It was not an accident.

  "Early in her career, she was approached by David Clark-ham. Oh, he had another name at that time-"

  "He's that old?"

  "Even older. Do you know who or what Clarkham is?"

  "Only that he calls himself the homage."

  She smiled again, conveying an entirely different meaning. ''He approached her with plans for a major ballet in which she would have the starring role. She would dance a quite revolutionary solo. And in that solo, Clarkham would incorporate yet another form of the Song of Power. Not as architecture, not as poetry, but as dance. He knew that the Maln had gone to great lengths to discourage the transmission of a Song of Power to the humans, when they realized what humans would be able io do with it - not just drive the remaining Sidhe from Earth, but re-unite the Realm and Earth. First the Maln sabotaged their own early schemes by sending a person from Par lock to Coleridge. When Clarkham came along with his plan to brirg power to himself by realizing a Song, he knew he had to have a great human artist enact the design. Emma Livry was his first choice. The Maln discovered him, however, and before she could dance in his ballet, they… arranged her accident."

  "Why didn't they just kill Clarkham?"

  "He was much too strong."

  "But humans aren't supposed to be capable of working strong magic!"

  "Only now do you question Clarkham's character and abilities?"

  Michael ignored the gently barbed inquiry. "What did they do to her?"

  "She was wearing untreated tarlatan. She wished her costume to be pure white, without the dinge of flame retardants. She was waiting backstage. All the Maln had to do was increase the length of a gas jet when she fluffed her dress. She became a pillar of fire, like a butterfly caught in a candle. She ran across the stage, and the flames ate the wind. Poor butterfly…" The Ban lowered her eyes. "For eight months she lingered in agony. She was so dedicated to the idea of art, such a pure individual, that she invited pantomimists to come look at her writhing, the better to understand the reality of pain."

  Michael made a face and shook his head.

  "You are disgusted?"

  "That's very bizarre."

  "Perhaps to someone with incomplete understanding. But a Sidhe understands. There is nothing but the Song, and all things are the Song. Finally, even the Maln relented, and we were allowed to take her away from the pain. We left a changeling in her place, to die for her, and we healed her, on the' condition that she never leave Inyas Trai. She never has. We cherish her. Even Tar ax has been known to visit, to watch her dance, and Tarax hates your kind with a bitter passion."

  The Ban lifted her hands from the table and stood.

  "Does that mean I'm in danger?"

  She said nothing, merely gazed at him, through him, to more important problems beyond. "You are a pawn," she said. "In the midst of great forces involved in age-long struggle. You are better equipped than most, but you are still ignorant, and it is not my place to inform you." She looked at him tenderly. "Though you come to my bosom, and remember me in dreams, and know me for what I have been to your kind in ages past, I have my limitations, too. I cannot protect you beyond the dictates of the geas ofAdonna."

  Nikolai touched Michael on the shoulder. "No lollypoddling," he said. "You look disturbed. Something wrong?"

  Michael shook his head. "No. Not yet."

  Chapter Thirty-Three

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  The stepping stone where their pilgrimage would begin lay on the north side of the history grove. No one accompanied Michael and Nikolai as they walked through the grove. Nikolai wore heavy clothes to protect him against the upcoming cold; Michael's clothes were considerably lighter.

  Arborals tending the trees stood in the shadows of their charges, male and female both green and naked. They watched but said nothing as the pair passed. "I rather like them," Nikolai said. "They do their work, bother no one, never complain and stay faithful to the Ban. I could live here among them and be quite happy."

  "Why don't you just stay in the city?" Michael asked.

  "Ah, that's another matter. The city is full of tension. Most of the time the males hide in their woods, or hunt in the hills around the Irall. Then there is peace here. But the males return for their Kaeli, and then the Ban must be vigilant to keep her humans and Breeds from being hunted out and taken away."

  "But Tarax watched Emma Livry dance!"

  "Tarax, friend, does not know about you and me. Emma he may tolerate, so long as his power is matched by the Ban's - but the Ban can do nothing to protect us if we are found."

  "So Emma and Marie receive special treatment - - -How did Marie come here?"

  "She has always been here, tending Emma. I have never asked." Nikolai looked at Michael sternly. "Perhaps you shouldn't, either."

  "Are you upset with me?" Michael asked. The stepping stone was visible through a thin stretch of saplings too young for the history groves.

  Greg Sear

  Nikolai took a deep breath. "No. Envious, perhaps. Worried. You are… high profile. They seem to dote on you, as they have never doted on me."

  "Yet the Ban won't protect me, any more than she'll protect you."

  "I have never spoken with the Ban," Nikolai said. "Not that I recall. And you have. Those who attract the attention of the Sidhe face two possible fates. The first is imprisonment, perhaps degradation. Emma is imprisoned, but not degraded, at least not in any way we understand or that she will ever know. She dances; as she says, she is like a flower in a conservatory. I think she enjoys being the flower, being able to concentrate on dance. I would not enjoy that. The Sidhe tolerate me, enjoy me, but they are not attracted to me."

  "What's the second possible fate?"

  "I don't know," Nikolai said. "Perhaps what happened to Clarkham."

  "Is he human?"

  Nikolai lifted an eyebrow. "You seem to know more about him than I do."

  "I don't know everything. He's been alive for a very long time, and he seems to know a lot about magic."

  Nikolai sighed. "Well, for this journey at least, let us travel with light hearts. The Ban has approved, and there is little that will happen on a journey the Ban watches over."

  "Nikolai, do you remember what the Ban looks like?"

  "No." The stepping stone was deserted, merely a dark flat boulder resting on a white gravel circle. Clouds whisked overhead, shading the sun. Wind carried some of the flower-scent fiom the gardens around the Ban's house. "Nobody knows what she really looks like, except perhaps Ulath. It is her weapon against Tarax and the Maln"

  Nikolai Mood on the edge of the stone and reached for Michael'i hand. He pulled gently and Michael accompanied him across the stone's surface. Suddenly, they were surrounded by intense cold.

  Michael was almost instantly blinded by a dazzle of white. He covered his eyes with his hands and felt for the opposite edge of the stepping stone Nikolai took him by the arm and guided him down and into a rock-walled wind-shelter. "Caught me by surprise," Michael said, rubbing his eyes and blinking.

  "Much colder than when I was here last season," Nikolai said. The stepping stone perched on
the edge of a broad shelf of rock, looking over high jagged peaks. Snow filled the valleys between the peaks, brilliant and white and as smooth as the surface of a pail of milk. Snowflakes swirled violently in the wind that howled around the stepping stone and made the walls of their shelter rattle and vibrate.

  "How far do we go from here?" Michael asked, hoping to brace his hyloka for the ordeal.

  "A mile or so. We wait for the others. Never travel alone, especially with weather like this. Adonna must have a bad toothache today." He grinned and brushed a seat clear for them on a bench-shaped boulder. The interior of the shelter was dark and powdered with drifted snow. "Will you be warm enough? Ulath seemed to think you wouldn't have any trouble. The Sidhe can come here naked if they wish. Perhaps you could, too?"

  His hyloka was finally taking hold. "I'll be fine," he said. He cut back his temperature when he felt his pants become warm. This was hardly the place to repeat the incident at Helena's apartment.

  Nikolai clasped his gloved hands and stared down at the rugged black stone floor. He sniffed and glanced across at Michael. "What are you most afraid of?" he asked.

  Michael shrugged. "All sorts of things. Why?"

  Nikolai looked out into the snow. "For talk."

  "What about you? What are you afraid of?"

  "I will admit I am afraid of dying here. If I die here, I become nothing. I never go back to Earth. So I am afraid of not being good enough to stay alive. I know I'm afraid, and I live with it. But you… do you know what you're afraid of?"

  Michael thought of the Ban's comforting, warm arms. "There are lots of things that frighten me, like I said."

  "What in particular?"

  "I'm thinking. Don't rush me. Okay." He looked up at the rock ceiling. "I know. I'm afraid of being normal."

  Nikolai grinned broadly. "Thank God. I was worried perhaps you didn't know. Then you would be dangerous. What are you going to do with your fear?"

  "Avoid being normal."

  "And if you succeed?"

  Michael laughed and felt the cold in his stomach dissipate. "Then I'm going to be sorry I have such a hard time getting along with people. With the Sidhe, with women, my friends… whomever."