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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 33

Greg Bear

  "What would the Council have you do?"

  "I don't know."

  "Who has opposed you most?"

  "Human-hating Sidhe."

  "The Maln."

  "I just don't know…" Michael said, confused again.

  "It seems obvious," Biri said.

  "Then why didn't Tarax kill me when he had the chance? I'm not very strong. Any Sidhe could have killed me. You could, right now, just by raising a finger."

  "Perhaps you are not as weak as you think."

  "Oh, no?" Michael laughed. "You just hollowed out a boulder and lit a fire in it. It's all I can do to keep myself warm."

  Biri dismounted and squatted on the ledge to peer into the canyon. His red-shouldered robe made him look disembodied in the starlight, as if his bust floated on a gray platform over the canyon. "You call yourself a poet," Biri said. "The Sidhe have long regarded poets with respect."

  "I am sixteen, maybe seventeen years old by now," Michael said. "In my lifetime, I've written maybe five halfway decent poems, probably less. In the Realm I've hardly had time to write any. And when I've tried, I've heard somebody else's voice in my head giving me suggestions, or just creating things for me. I'm more a pawn than a poet, believe me."

  "So what do you intend to do?"

  "Maybe sit right here, travel with Nikolai and Bek. See what I'm really capable of before I make any decisions." He paused, then said under his breath, "From what I've learned, I can't see Clarkham being any help. I'm not even sure he's human, or really cares about humans."

  Biri nodded. "If you are a pawn, do you think the forces using you will allow you to remain aloof?"

  That stumped Michael. He sat beside the Sidhe and dangled his legs over the canyon. "At least they won't have me behaving like a silly puppet."

  "If you are being used, either by Tarax or the Council, you face very powerful adversaries if you defy them."

  "So what do you suggest I do?"

  "Not much, perhaps. Advance in your discipline. Finish your training."

  "The Crane Women are gone," Michael said. "I don't expect them to pop up around here anytime soon."

  "I can train you," Biri said. He held his hand out in the direction of the camp. "Tonight, while they sleep. Then you can decide." His smile in the dark was radiant, feral. Michael's back prickled.

  "And if I decide against the Council?"

  "My allegiances haven't solidified," Biri said. "Perhaps you can guide me."

  Michael thought for a moment. "Won't Tarax come after you, try to take you back?"

  "Why? I am useless to him, useless to Adonna. I am just another disaffected Sidhe. They won't waste their time on vengeance. Only miserable Sidhe like Alyons engage in such silliness."

  Michael stepped over to the horse. "So teach me."

  "Beginning now," Biri said, getting to his feet.

  Chapter Forty

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  It might have been the longest night in the history of the Realm. To Michael, it stretched on forever… and it was not pleasant. Bin walked with him away from the canyon until they stood in the middle of a broad belt of sand and small boulders.

  "First, you must realize you are alone," he began. "For a Sidhe initiate, his aloneness is confirmed by the murder of his horse; there can be no closer relationship and no greater shock than being required to kill his most treasured companion."

  "Do I have to kill the horse?" Michael asked, suddenly queasy.

  "No. Your feeling toward the animal is shallow, uncertain. You were not raised with it. The Mafoc Mar did not pick it out for you from the fields when you were young; you did not grow to youthful maturity with the horse by your side. You must find something else."

  "Maybe another shadow-self?"

  Biri shook his head with irritation. "That doesn't concern me."

  They stood in starlight bright enough to cast shadows.

  "No swords, no baubles. Those are all human misunderstandings of magic, human preoccupation with technology. Magic lies purely in the mind. The Sidhe are among the most dishonorable, unreliable creatures on all the faces of Creation, but they have one thing - concentration. What they want, they focus on completely."

  Biri sat down in the grass and gestured for Michael to do likewise. "You are alone," Biri said. "You are the only thing in existence. You will never truly know there are others. Because humans have souls is no reason to believe they differ from the Sidhe in this, that they are eternally alone."

  Michael shook his head. "What about friendship, love?"

  "Love does not occur to the Sidhe male," Biri said. "But I can demolish love even so. Did you love the real person, or your image of the person? Did you love an external, or what the person was to you?"

  "But there has to be someone, something, to love or to be disappointed with."

  "Only yourself. Alone. Life is alone, love is alone."

  "But then you don't exist. Nobody else exists."

  "Together, we are alone. That is the peculiarity of our being. We never know true community. Not even Sidhe, who can reach inside each other's aura of memory, out-see and in-see; not even Sidhe can avoid being alone. You can never rely on another, not to the core of your being. You can never ultimately trust in another… for how is that possible, when you are alone?"

  Biri seemed to vanish, leaving Michael on the grass. Alone.

  He pulled up a sprig and contemplated it, feeling dead inside. If he was unique, solitary, without any support in all of reality - including his own internal reality - if even his mind was alone, with just one voice, and all else illusory -

  The deadness was replaced once again by enormous calm. How often could he have devastating realizations, and then have them smoothed away like a waveless ocean?

  How many more revelations would there be, ending in the same assurance of mastery, all illusory?

  The blade of grass was alone. Together, they were alone. They were alone together.

  The ground of the Realm was alone. The blade of grass was alone with the ground.

  Words flowed within him, arguments, changing shape and meaning, having no meaning. He gave them up only after a tremendous, jerking pain swept him. ,

  "I am in love with words," Michael said. "They are my horse. I ride them, use them. But I can never kill them. Even if I cannot use words to get where I am going." The realization of his dependence was enough.

  His aloneness suddenly became apparent, without words, truth, meaning or thought.

  The only way one can truly be alone is to be at one with everything, everybody…

  The entire universe, having only one voice.

  All the faces of creation, alone.

  Michael became aware of what he had been doing when he performed the small tricks the Crane Women had taught him. 'To be alone is to be difficult to spot."

  He could improve on that. "Aloneness means isolation from needs." He could last indefinitely without food or water.

  "I only fight shadows. If I am alone, there is no enemy to fight." And ultimately, no need to fight. "It is crazy to fight when you are alone."

  He put down the blade of grass and looked up at the multitude of stars. Biri had helped him build this structure piece by piece, carefully. Now it began to collapse. The whole thing was ridiculous. How could he ever believe such nonsense? Yet as it collapsed, it did not take the calm or sense of mastery with it; they remained.

  They had built a boat, crossed a river, and the boat had crumbled just as he stood on the opposite shore.

  Biri came up behind him.

  "It's all wrong," Michael said. "It doesn't make sense."

  "That is the sign over the gate of your acceptance," Biri told him in Cascar. "For a Sidhe, being alone is exaltation, being alone is ridiculous. You must never trust us… or our philosophies."

  "Then I shouldn't trust you at all?"

  "Never trust a teacher."

  He didn't seem to be joking. Michael was far from convinced he knew what th
is final discipline was all about, undeniable though its effects were. And if it was such a discipline that made the Sidhe behave as they did - that segregated males and females, and led to such odd behavior in the males - then he would just as soon be rid of it, effects or no.

  But there was nothing he could do now. He felt stronger, better able to cope. They returned to the canyon, Biri following Michael down the path.

  The eastern horizon was brightening. The long night was finally over. Nikolai and Bek still slept as they approached the camp. The fire had died down to smoking ashes. Biri stayed away from the sleeping figures, staring off down the river.

  "What do you plan to do now?" Michael asked him.

  Nikolai woke up, rolled over and stared in groggy surprise at the Sidhe. "Who's that?" he asked, scrambling to his feet. Bek sat up on the ground. Biri ignored them.

  "I think I will go to the Isomage," Bin said.

  "That's where we're heading," Nikolai said, glancing at Michael.

  "Not necessarily," Michael said. "Why go there?"

  Bin smiled his feral smile. Nikolai shivered and backed away from the camp. "He wears the cloak of the Maln's initiates!"

  "Perhaps because he has some answers," Bin said. "And if you do not go there, somebody has to. Besides, he isn't far from here." He gestured downriver. "The river flows into the sea. The Isomage's lands are on the delta." He turned to walk away.

  "Where have you been all night?" Nikolai asked, staring at Michael curiously.

  "I'm not sure," Michael said. The Sidhe merged with shadows near the canyon wall. When the day brightened, he was nowhere to be seen.

  "I've always been interested in the Isomage," Nikolai said. "A tragic, perhaps fearful person." They gathered fruit from the low scrub trees near the river. "Would it be dangerous to go there just to satisfy curiosity?"

  "Probably," Bek said. Nikolai frowned and bit into a tiny pear.

  "Then we just stay here, or we go back to the Pact Lands - except you say they aren't there any more, and we can't go back. I'm confused."

  "At least the Sidhe knows where his answers are to be found," Bek said.

  "They may not be the answers I'm looking for," Michael said. "If I'm looking for answers. And I don't know why he's going to Clarkham."

  "Perhaps Clarkham can tell him about the Council. Or tell us."

  "I take it both of you want to go on, find Clarkham?"

  Bek considered a moment, then nodded. Nikolai shrugged. "I'm contented wherever I happen to be, so long as none of the Maln are aware of me."

  "Then you should go to Clarkham. I'll make up my own mind, in my own time." Michael stalked back toward the camp, pockets filled with the tiny fruit. Nikolai jogged after him.

  "Michael, Michael, what is wrong? What did the Sidhe say to you? You have changed…"

  Indeed, he no longer felt a need for anyone's presence or advice. He felt an ugliness growing inside, replacing the initial calm Bin's discipline had given him.

  He stopped, staring beyond a fire much larger than the one they had left. "Brothers," came a muffled voice from behind the fire. Wrapped in white from head to toe, Shahpur walked around the flames, arms folded at chest-level. "We've been told you need an escort." Harka, Tik and Dour emerged from behind a nearby boulder. Michael looked over his shoulder and saw Bek approaching, his pace measured and confident.

  "They're all together," Nikolai told Michael, eyes wide with concern.

  "The Isomage welcomes you to the vicinity of Xanadu," Shahpur said. Nikolai groaned.

  "Grand, grand!" he cried, swinging his hands out. "Now you do not have any choice. Nor do I."

  Chapter Forty-One

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  Harka greeted Michael wearily and sat on the sandy river-bank with Tik and Dour standing beside him. The two younger Sidhe seemed nervous; only Bek and Harka remained at ease, Harka perhaps being incapable of anything more. Shahpur could not be read.

  "We have been watching over you, of course," Harka said. He did not fend off Michael's probe; he was, if anything, even emptier than when Michael had last peered into him. His emptiness was as disturbing as Shahpur's horrible fullness.

  "I don't need protecting," Michael said.

  "The Isomage thinks otherwise. There wasn't much he could do while you traveled between the Pact Lands and here, in Sidhe territories. But he had us meet you in the mountains, and even dared to send Bek into Inyas Trai with you. Now that you approach his domain, we are much freer. We can help when necessary."

  "By help," Shahpur said, "Harka means we must insure you come to Xanadu. It is the Isomage's wish."

  The Sidhe, however low their status, still retained certain skills. Michael could tell that just by lightly skimming their auras. He could not escape. He still felt strong, but it was not any sort of strength he could immediately apply; Biri's discipline had somehow confused even his rudimentary skills. If Biri had been with them, the match would have been at least equal; there was nothing he could do to resist now, however.

  "It's what I've been planning all along," Michael said. "No coercion necessary."

  "Excellent," Harka said. "The Isomage will be very pleased.

  He doesn't have many visitors, as you can imagine."

  "What about me?" Nikolai asked.

  "All who have helped the man-child are welcome in Xanadu. Shall we begin now, or must you rest after your… strenuous night?"

  "I'm rested," Michael said. Nikolai squared his shoulders and nodded agreement.

  "Fine. It's a pleasant journey. We can be there by late evening. Of course, if we could all ride…" He looked enviously at the horse. "But we can't. Bek will tend the epon."

  For the next ten miles, the walls of the canyon grew higher until they walked through a deep chasm in perpetual shadow. Mosses and ferns crowded the river bank, some towering high overhead to form a dense canopy, casting everything in verdant gloom. The river became a deep, swift-running torrent no more than thirty feet across.

  In its translucent volume, Michael saw Riverines flashing by like trout, dodging rocks and reed banners in their plunge toward the sea.

  They approached the canyon's end by late afternoon. The walls declined abruptly and the river broadened, pouring out onto a wide, forested plain. The plain was brushed by swift patches of fog; overhead, the sky melted into a color between butter and polished bronze. The trees on the plain took up the bronzen color and became a pale, umbrous green. Golden-edged clouds cast long shadows over all.

  The plain sloped gradually to an immense flat sea, placid as a mirror in the last light of day, reflecting the sky and adding only a darker hint of its own character.

  In the red glow of sunset, they hiked through the nearest spinney of trees, still following the river. The water sighed and hissed over a broad course covered with small stones. Where the Riverines went when the water was only inches deep, Michael couldn't decide.

  Harka urged them on through the evening shadows. The forest trail was overgrown and difficult to track even in good light, but the cadaverous Sidhe seemed to feel an added urgency. Bek, Tik and Dour followed some distance behind. Shahpur stayed near Michael, his white form making barely a noise as he passed through brush and over dry leaves.

  Harka puzzled Michael. There was a familiarity about his emptiness… but Michael had never encountered a Sidhe with Harka's affliction. If these beings worked for Clarkham, it was possible he had performed some sort of magic on them - subjected them to a geas, perhaps. But how could Sidhe be controlled by someone not a Sidhe?

  Again and again, Michael concocted plans of escape, and discarded them. His deep-seated anger and confusion fermented. Why had Bin subjected him to such a weird, ridiculous philosophy? Perhaps, Michael thought, to create the stymie he was in now.

  Nikolai became more and more apprehensive as they neared the shore of the sea. Finally, the pearly ribbon of light appeared and illuminated their path out of the last stretch of the forest. They walked across sand t
o the still water's edge.

  "It is dangerous to approach Xanadu in the dark, even for the desired visitor," Harka said. "We stay here for the night."

  Nikolai followed Michael a few yards up the beach. The others made no move to stop them. Michael bent down and dipped his hands in the sea's glassy surface. The ripple caught the ribbon light and carried it yards away from the beach. The water was neither warm nor cold. Michael brought a wet finger to his lips. It was only faintly salty - more of a mineral tang, actually.

  "There's nothing you can do?" Nikolai whispered.

  Michael shook his head. "Why try? This is where you wanted to go - and I, too, at first."

  "You decided against it."

  "If I change my mind, how can I be sure I'm the one, changing it? If my mind is changed for me, does an escort make any difference? Perhaps they're merely making us do what we should be doing, anyway."

  "I have always felt apprehensive about that Harka," Nikolai said. "But to know he works for the Isomage!" The Russian clucked his tongue, then looked at the Breed, Sidhe and cloaked human from the comer of his eye. "Surprises, surprises. What will we do when we see Clarkham?"

  "I'm sure he'll let us know what's expected."

  The night passed quickly. Michael did not sleep. He sensed a growth of the poison within, a combination of hatred, suspicion and strength that was dismaying. Bin's discipline was blossoming and the flower was ugly.

  Dawn disrupted the eastern sky and shattered the arcing ribbon light into fading fragments. The air hummed once again like the beginning chords of a symphony. When the sun was fully above the horizon, the hum subsided. The bronzen sky brightened to pure butter.

  Harka walked past Michael and Nikolai, who lay in the sand, and gestured for them to follow. "We have an appointment and we're already late."

  Their path took them at a tangent away from the still sea. Within a mile the sand acquiesced to grass - a perfectly kept rolling lawn spaced here and there with peaceful ginkgo trees, rustled by leisurely warm breezes. Once the sun reached a certain angle, it blended with the rest of the sky, leaving only an illuminated featureless bowl.

  Harka pointed to a green hill which rose with dignified gradualness to a rounded peak about five hundred feet higher man the sea. Surrounding the hill were walled forests and gardens, and atop squatted a pale ivory dome, its size uncertain from their distance. In one side of the hill was a deep gash bordered by trees; even from miles away, the sound of water plummeting from the gash was audible. The water came in a torrent down the hillside facing away from the sea and began a sinuous river.