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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 34

Greg Bear

  "The Isomage's palace," Harka said solemnly.

  They approached a stone wall about fifteen feet high, made of blocks of dark marble. There was an open bronze gate, the doors chased with dragons. The gate's only guard was a twelve-foot-tall granite warrior, his fierce oriental eyes fixed on the lifeless sea, one hand holding a gatepost like a spear. As they passed through the gate, Nikolai regarded the warrior with unabashed wonder.

  Within the circumference of the first wall, animals of all description played, browsed and hunted, though the hunts seemed never to succeed. Michael spotted a huge tiger, head hanging as it stalked a herd of translucent deer. The deer, legs like rods of glass, pricked up their ears and bounded away, flushing pheasants from a jade-colored bush. The pheasants flapped wings like sections of stained-glass windows as they ascended; then, tiring, they dropped into a nearby ginkgo.

  The second wall was constructed of glazed brick and was only eight feet high. Steps mounted up one side and down the other. There was no guard, real or stony.

  They now climbed the slope of the hill. At one point they halted and stared out over the river and ocean. Michael estimated they had covered three miles from the outermost wall, which meant the whole circuit was about five miles in radius. The walls were circular, broken only by gates placed at the four compass points and by the meandering river, which emptied into the sunless sea without stirring a ripple.

  The third wall was a hedge barely five feet tall but ten thick and studded with long thorns. The gate in this wall was a pedestrian tunnel beneath the hedge. The plaster walls of the tunnel were covered with frescoes of pastoral Chinese life, depicting a long-mustached, round-faced emperor enjoying the peace and fertility of wise rule.

  They now passed around the hill, out of sight of the sea. A stone causeway guided them up one side of the fountaining chasm, through a wide strip of cedars. Bridges crossed over verdant rills filled with flowering trees and thick, fragrant bushes. The ground beneath them seemed to breathe, each breath punctuated by a sudden roar of water and a deep grinding rumble.

  Through the gap of one particularly long rill, Michael saw the torrent flushing thick chunks of ice, jagged and pale green in the dark waters. The ice bounded from side to side and was finally shattered to milky slush at the base of the hill.

  The steps ended in a graceful carved wood pavilion equipped with silk-padded benches. They rested for a few minutes to allow Harka to regain his breath, then crossed the flawless lawn spreading over the hilltop.

  Two hundred yards from the dome, a circle of black minarets lanced up from the lawn. They were spaced at intervals of fifty feet and had external staircases spiraling to bronze crow's nests at the top. The cages were vacant, but Michael had the strong impression he was being watched, if not from the towers, then from the pavilions of glass, stone and wood that decorated the grounds.

  The dome itself was constructed of silks held aloft by curving poles. The poles were set in walls of alabaster. Now he could judge the dome's true size; it was at least three hundred feet high and twice as broad.

  They entered the pleasure dome through a spidery arch carved of green soapstone. Harka bade them stop with his uplifted hand and turned to Michael.

  "The Isomage meets you as an equal," he said. "That is a great privilege. He is at peace, yet eternally occupied with his work. He invites you as a guest, and as a fellow of Earth. Do you harbor him any ill will?"

  "No," Michael said. Clarkham had never done anything to him, had never, in fact, been anything to him but a distant goal.

  "No," Harka said wearily, "You do not. Nor does your companion." Nikolai regarded the Sidhe with patent mystification. "Enter, then, the fulfillment of the dream and the song."

  Chapter Forty-Two

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  The interior of the silken dome was effulgent with milky light; the air enveloped Michael with warmth and incense. They walked across a black marble floor veined with ice, a layer of chill air flowing over their feet. Nikolai stuck close to Michael, swiveling his head to see everything at once.

  The poles supporting the silken tent converged high above, where a gap in the fabric showed the sky. At the center of the enclosure, up a flight of wooden steps carved with dragons and horses, beyond a teakwood fence topped with gold rails, stood a full-sized house: white plaster walls and curtained windows, a sloping red tile roof, all surrounded by perfectly trimmed oleander bushes.

  "That's Clarkham's house," Michael said. "That's where I began…"

  The front door was open but they didn't enter. Instead, Harka led them up the steps and around the yard to the back. The rear of the house was quite ordinary, with a brick patio and a well-tended garden of tree roses, outdoor redwood furniture with gaily covered pads, an umbrella-shaded round table on curved metal legs. It was extraordinary only in that it was here, a comic discrepancy in an exotic chinoiserie.

  A dark Sidhe female trimmed the tree roses with bronze pruning shears. At each snip, the roses on the tree she pruned glowed and the air filled with a sweet, sharp fragrance. She glanced up and saw the group garnering beyond the lawn's brick border. She smiled, put her shears down on a folding wooden stand and smoothed her gold-trimmed gray gown.

  "Finally!" she exclaimed. "We've been waiting a very long time for your arrival." She walked across the lawn and held out her hand to Michael. He grasped it by the fingers and she beckoned him onto the lawn. The chill of the ice-veined marble was immediately replaced by the warm summer softness of grass. She kissed him decorously on the cheek and led him across the lawn. "Please come," she called back to Nikolai. The others bowed and backed away. Nikolai hesitated, confused, then stepped up onto the grass and followed.

  "David has been very patient," she said. Her voice was as sweet as any Sidhe voice Michael had heard yet, like an inviting smile. Her hair was lustrous, silky black. Her brows were slightly asymmetric, one angling higher than the other, and her lips were more full than the lips of other Sidhe.

  They entered the glass doors and passed into the rear room of the house, where Michael had once watched moonlight spill over the bare wood floor. Here, the room was furnished as a study, with an oak roll-top desk in the corner opposite the doors, full bookcases along two walls and an upright piano placed before the gauze curtains of the bay window.

  "My name is Mora," the Sidhe said. "We don't have long before he comes down to meet you. Before then…" She reached beneath the peplum of her gown and produced a rose from an inner pocket, handing it to Michael. 'To decorate your room. You'll be with us for some time, David says."

  Michael accepted the rose. "My name is-"

  "Oh, we know, we know!" Mora said, laughing. "And this is Nikolai, a friend of Emma Livry."

  Nikolai nodded formally and regarded the books and piano with obvious longing.

  "Now, I must return to the garden," Mora said. "This is a special season, rare and brief." She laid a finger on the rose in his hands. "This will keep for some time."

  She left by way of the French doors, shutting them behind. Michael and Nikolai listened to the tick of a pendulum wall clock mounted over the desk.

  Footsteps sounded on the stairs, paused and resumed. The study door opened and a gray-haired man of middle height, appearing perhaps fifty or fifty-five years old, entered. He wore an open-collared shirt and brown slacks and was shod in fawn-colored moccasins. His face was broad and pleasant and there was a faint growth of ruddy beard on his cheeks.

  "Michael?" he asked, extending his hand. "Michael Perrin."

  Michael took hold of the hand and shook it firmly, feeling, as always, awkward over such ritual.

  "Very pleased to meet you. I'm Clarkham. David Clarkham. Welcome to Xanadu - or has Mora welcomed you already? Of course. She's a marvel. I'd have a hell of a time running this place without her. I trust you had an interesting journey?"

  Michael was at a loss for words. He nodded.

  Clarkham offered his hand to Nikolai. "Mr. Kuprin. I've a
dmired your daring for years now. We met briefly once, though you may not remember. When I visited Emma in Inyas Trai. I was quite heavily disguised."

  Nikolai frowned.

  "Yes," Clarkham said, smiling. "Successfully disguised. It's getting toward upper, and I've laid out quite a feed to celebrate your arrival. I'm sure you're hungry. Food in the Realm is such a chancy thing. Come with me and I'll show you your rooms, let you wash up. I have another guest here, someone you know, I believe - a Sidhe. He'll be joining us for supper. There's so much to discuss, yes indeed!"

  Supper was more of a feast. It was served as the muted sunlight filtering through the silken dome began to wane. A table was arranged on the patio, near Mora's glowing roses, and she brought out bowl after covered bowl of baked vegetables, spiced grains, fresh fruit salads and compotes and green salads. Bread came wrapped in linen in wicker baskets, hot and fresh-baked, and was served with spiced vegetable butter, the milk of Sidhe horses not being suitable for regular butter.

  Michael and Nikolai sat on one side of the table, Clarkham at the head next to Michael. When Mora was through serving, she sat opposite Nikolai. It was then that Bin strolled onto the patio from the house. He smiled cryptically at Michael and sat beside Mora.

  "Fine!" Clarkham said, passing the first bowl of food, "We're all here. Mora has done her usual magic"- he winked at Michael-"in the kitchen. What a fine evening this will be."

  Michael was less enthusiastic. He ate - he was very hungry - and listened, but he said little. Most of the talk was from Clarkham; domestic pleasantries, the state of the garden, the quality of the weather around Xanadu, what the coming spring might portend for the grounds.

  Michael tried not to stare at Bin. Above all else, he wanted to ask two simple questions - why the Sidhe was on such familiar terms with Clarkham, and what Bin's purpose had been in meeting Michael in the canyon.

  Biri volunteered nothing, in fact seldom spoke directly to the newly arrived guests. When the meal was done, Clarkham suggested they go inside. Night had fallen and the interior of the pleasure dome had grown somber. Biri stood and passed his hand behind each of a string of paper lanterns hung across the patio just above head level. They began to glow with a guttering yellow light.

  The scent of roses was noticeable even inside the house. Michael glanced curiously at the electric lights - the first he had seen in the Realm. The illumination seemed harsher and more grating on his eyes. With that final touch, the house might as well have been on Earth, for all the sensation of normality and comfort - Earth in the 1940's, perhaps, considering the furnishings. Michael was not comforted, however. He had been lulled by appearances too often before.

  Clarkham brought out brandy in a crystal decanter and poured snifters for himself, Nikolai and Michael. "The Sidhe love human liquor entirely too much," he explained. "Mora never touches it - says it spoils her heritage. Biri, I suspect, has never touched a drop in his life. The Maln wouldn't approve, would they?"

  Biri shook his head half-sadly. "Alas, no."

  "I, however, can drink, and I hope my guests are willing, too." He caught Michael's eye and passed out the glasses. "Master Michael wishes to know what sort of being I am."

  "A sensible question," Mora said. They sat in the living room on comfortably overstuffed chairs and a couch, all upholstered in fabric prints of jungle leaves and exotic birds. A fire had been laid and crackled warmly in the fireplace.

  '"What is he?'" Clarkham mimicked. "A question asked often, young man, for the past few hundred years, at least. Much less time has passed here, of course."

  "You're not a Sidhe," Michael said, deciding to participate in whatever game was being played. "You're not a Spryggla."

  "Heaven's no!" Clarkham exclaimed, laughing.

  "Arno Waltiri thought you were human," Michael went on.

  "No, you have that wrong, young man. I thought Waltiri was human. I doubt very much if Arno was at all deluded by my masque."

  Michael was taken aback. Clarkham noticed his surprise. "My dear fellow, the game is very complex, and everybody has a stake in it. One can't rectify sixty million years of misery and injustice overnight, or without some turns in the maze."

  "Waltiri's dead," Michael ventured, no conviction in his voice.

  "Let's say I have my doubts," Clarkham said. "He is a very capable and crafty individual."

  Michael couldn't bring himself to ask what Clarkham thought Waltiri was, but Clarkham's tone irritated him. Everything seemed to irritate him now - the light, the company, even Nikolai - as if he were filled with hornets.

  "I was born on Earth," Clarkham continued. "In fourteen hundred and ninety-nine. My mother had come over from England some centuries earlier, where she had served as cubicularia to Queen Maeve herself, before the Queen took to an oak in the Old Forest and her retinue scattered to the islands to escape the charcoal burners. They eventually downed the queen's oak, by the way. Perhaps some of Maeve's venerable smoke resides in the glass windows of a fine English cathedral. But she is no more, and my mother is long dead, too, though she was not mortal. My father was mortal, Michael. I am a Breed, if you have not guessed - fifty-fifty. From my mother I learned Sidhe magic, and from my father - well, my father gave me a form which does not unduly reveal my fay ancestry. That is what I am." He waved his hand at Michael. The hornets hummed softly within.

  "And you, sir. Question answered one for one."

  Michael spoke without hesitation. "I believe I am supposed to be a poet."

  "Oh. And are you?"


  "Just what I've been waiting for," Clarkham said, exhibiting his satisfaction around the room with a contemplative rub of his chin. "We never have enough poetry."

  "To my regret, I have none of my poems with me," Michael said. "And my book was stolen."

  "Which book?"

  "The book Arno gave me."

  "Indeed, indeed," Clarkham mused. "Arno was always quite generous, when he needed something done. Did he give any advice with the book?" Clarkham asked.

  "He suggested I shouldn't be afraid to take risks."

  'To come here, that is."

  "I suppose."

  Mora broke in. "I'd love to hear some of your poetry."

  "I'll have to write some new," Michael said.

  "Splendid," Clarkham said. "Bin's been telling us a little about your journey. Quite remarkable. I'm saddened to hear what happened in the Pact Lands. I understand Alyons paid dearly for his excesses."

  "Your trap killed him," Michael said. Mora gave a tiny, barely noticeable shudder.

  "And he thought you were responsible," Clarkham said. "Poor fool. Never did know which way the wind blew. Not all Sidhe are brilliant, Michael; take that as a lesson."

  "I'd thought you might be disappointed to hear I haven't brought the book."

  Nikolai glanced between them, bewildered and uneasy.

  "Heavens no!" Clarkham said. "What use would I have for it?"

  "I don't have the first part of the Song of Power."

  "Which one? I've dealt with so many in my time."

  "The poem. Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan.' I don't even remember it."

  "Then perhaps you'd care to read it again? I have it, right here." He stood and went to a bookshelf, pulling out a book from between two heavy leatherbound volumes. He handed it to Michael with his finger deftly insinuated between the appropriate pages.

  Michael glanced at the poem. It was the same text - including the introduction - as in the book Waltiri had given him.

  "You thought perhaps the Maln was trying to prevent you from bringing this to me?" Clarkham chuckled. "I've had it for decades. I once told a crazy old Spryggla that I needed it, but only after the fool tried to ensorcel me. For all I know, he spread the word, though his range seemed quite limited."

  "He's dead," Michael said. "Or at least, turned to stone."

  "And who was responsible for that?"

  "Indirectly, I was."

  Clarkham took a deep breath.
"You are very influential, Michael. You eliminate age-old traditions right and left, break tabus, pioneer new ground. No, it isn't the old material I'm interested in. You have arrived here with potential. The potential is in your poetry. You are in the same position as poor Mr. Coleridge."

  Michael turned to Bin. "You've gone over to him, haven't you? You really did want me to come here."

  Bin nodded. "Adonna has no influence here. I am free of him"

  "Ah, fine old Adonna," Clarkham reflected. "Biri tells me you survived even the Irall. I've never been there, myself. I likely would not have survived. I have been a thorn in Tarax's side for many years. Adonna, I suppose, made you forget the meeting. Typical. He's a very old, very weary mage, and he assumes too much responsibility. Valiant in his way, however."

  Michael suddenly recovered a memory of Adonna - Tonn - in his kilt and tabard, holding a staff.

  "Seeing more clearly now?" Clarkham inquired.

  "Seeing what?" Nikolai asked, sotto voce.

  "I'm remembering some things," Michael explained. Nikolai was obviously not competent to be anything but a spectator in this game. Who else was playing?

  "May I ask who, or what, Adonna really is?" Nikolai looked around the circle. Mora took pity on him.

  "At one time, he was the Mage of the Sidhe. He made the Realm - a masterpiece, nobody denies that - but he was overly ambitious. He has always opposed the Isomage."

  "I never could muster up enough hubris to call myself a true mage," Clarkham said. "Others may have, but not I. The mages have earned their positions, their esteem. I simply hope to accomplish what they set out to do, long ago."

  "Quite humble," Nikolai whispered.