Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 35Greg Bear
Michael leaned forward in his chair. "You brought me here for a reason. Your wife - one of them - cleared the way for me. The other allowed me to escape, when perhaps she could have added me to her collection."
Clarkham kept a perfect poker-face, revealing nothing.
"Please tell me why I am here."
"This evening? I was willing to let you rest…"
"Now is as good a time as any."
Clarkham held up his hand and looked at Mora and Biri. "Very well. You are here to finish the final Song of Power. That much must be obvious to you."
It was far from obvious, but Michael nodded.
"I, in turn, will use the Song of Power to gain control of the Realm, and restore liberty to humans and Breeds."
"You'll use it for nothing else?"
Clarkham tilted his head to the right and tapped his forefinger on the endtable, then his middle finger. "You've met Tarax. You know what the Maln is capable of."
"And you've helped me remember Adonna. He doesn't seem such a fiend."
Clarkham's face reddened. "Tonn appears to you as he wishes. Sidhe of his age and accomplishment are very little less than gods, Michael, and enormously devious. I have worked for centuries to simply be able to resist him, and I have succeeded - but I cannot overcome him. It isn't because he is a nice fellow that I wish to conquer him." The muscles of Clark-ham's cheek worked visibly and his eyes narrowed. Then, with obvious effort, he brought himself again under control. The ingratiating smile returned. "It isn't an issue I can always be calm about. Tonn is not quite the monster Tarax would have him be, no. But Tonn knows his Sidhe. He designed the Realm for them, and he rules them with a severity which he relaxes only for the Ban of Hours. Can you guess why?"
Michael shook his head.
"Because she was the daughter who stuck by him when Elme defied him. Even though he turned their mother into an abomination, in a fit of… I'm not sure what you would call it. Horrid anger. When Elme married a human, it was Tonn who orchestrated her banishment, and devised all her fell tortures. When he couldn't break her to his will, and when the Council of Eleu supported her, then and only then did he put all his power into creating the Realm. He hated humans desperately, Michael."
"Perhaps he's changed his mind."
Clarkham looked surprised, then laughed shortly and sharply. "Obviously he's exercised some influence over you, and without revealing his true nature. For that reason, I suppose I should be a little wary of you."
In the ensuing silence, Nikolai regarded the occupants of the room with growing discomfort. "Michael is for the humans and the Breeds," he spoke up finally. "Michael is a good fellow."
Mora smiled and Bin grinned. Clarkham laughed heartily and without malice. "Of course. He has struggled long and hard to get here, to help his people and mine. We will work together, and all our goals will be achieved. For now, after such a long journey and an excellent dinner, it's best we retire to our rooms and enjoy a comfortable night's sleep. Mora will show you where everything is." He stood and stretched casually. "Good evening, gentlemen."
She led Nikolai and Michael upstairs and showed them the bathroom, their bedrooms and places where linen could be procured. She left a scent of roses in her wake. Michael was distracted from his jumbled thoughts by her black, shining hair and teak-colored skin.
There was a fine king-sized bed in his room, the sheets folded back neatly and the white cover pulled down to reveal warm woolen blankets. On the valet near the oak dresser hung a complete change of clothing - slacks, shirt and sweater with new-looking brown shoes made of very supple leather. When he put them on in the morning, he would be better dressed than he had usually been on Earth.
The bedroom walls were decorated with soothing abstract pastel patterns of brown and gray and blue. In one corner sat a tiny rosebush in a brass pot, and beside that, a writing desk with an inlaid leather pad. A goose-neck reading lamp cast a soft glow over the bedstead. A bookshelf near the door was filled with interesting volumes - Gerald Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Keats and Shelley, as well as novels old and new.
He shut the door and sat on the bed. With all the comforts of Earth arrayed before him, he should have felt touched, even despite his caution. But there was no room in him for sentiment. He removed his clothes and put on a terrycloth robe. Then he went into the hall, chose a towel from the linen closet, and entered the bathroom.
Hot water, soap, white enamel basin and tub and marble countertop, fern-leafed wallpaper, tiled shower stall. He showered for a long time, until his exhaustion was unavoidable, and dried himself with his eyes closed.
When Michael returned to his room, he found Clarkham standing beside his bed. Clarkham held a box of paper in one hand, his thumb clamping down a fine black fountain-pen with gold banding and a clip. "For your convenience," he said, placing the items on the desk. His expression was almost beseeching as he took a step toward Michael. Clearly, he was interested in being friendly, but something came between them, a so-far muted antagonism that might break from its cover at any moment.
"Sorry," Clarkham said after the moment passed. He walked around Michael and stood in the doorway. "I'm still having difficulty deciding what you are."
Michael shook his head. "I'm not a sorcerer, if that's what you mean."
Clarkham smiled grimly. "Unaware sorcerers are the most formidable, sometimes. But take no heed of my prattling." He made an offhand gesture at the desk. "Exercise your talents whenever you feel the urge. We will all be a receptive audience."
Clarkham left, closing the door behind.
Michael doffed his robe, put on flannel pajamas laid near the bed and crawled under the covers. He reached up to turn off the light. Every gesture was so alien, so familiar.
He slept. And this evening, he dreamed.
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The rose had turned to glass. It lay on the dresser, perfect in every detail, and rang softly when Michael touched it. He picked it up by the stem and inserted it into the lapel of his shirt. It poked from the sweater, still sweetly scented.
As he came down the stairs, three sheets of paper in one hand and the gold-banded fountain pen in the other, he realized that all that had gone before had been trivial.
In bed, he had written five short poems on one sheet. They were more exercises than finished works; tests of his skill. They showed that his ability had not withered. If anything, even while not in constant use, it had grown.
He passed through the french doors onto the patio.
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Mora, however, was not singing of Abora, but of a paradisaical place called Amhara. Michael probed her lightly and she allowed him into her weave of Cascar words with a smile and a willingness that was quite erotic. Clarkham, seated across the umbrella table from her, did not seem to notice or care. She played her lute-like instrument, occasionally pausing to experimentally tune a string.
Nikolai had already eaten breakfast and sat on a white-painted wrought-iron bench near the low brick wall separating the patio from the garden of tree roses. Bin was not present.
"I dreamed of you last night," Michael told Mora.
"Yes?" She stopped playing.
"You were singing, just like now, with your lute."
"It is apliktera," she said. "Where was I playing?"
Michael didn't answer. He turned to Clarkham and handed him a sheet of penciled poems. "Is this what you're after?"
Clarkham read the poems quickly and laid them on the table. "You know they're not."
"How can I be sure what you need?"
Clarkham stared at Michael steadily. Nikolai shifted uneasily in his seat. Beyond the rose garden, across the black marble-and-ice floor and near the perimeter of the dome, stood Shah-pur, Harka, Bek, Tik and Dour. Far too many for Michael to take on if they combined their power -
to help you last night," Clarkham said.
"You sent me a dream. Not much help." For a brief moment, Michael felt sorry for the Isomage.
Clarkham laughed sharply. "I've dealt with far more songs of power than you, young man."
"I don't need suggestions in my sleep. I've had quite enough from others."
"And who else?"
"Whomever. I'm free of them now. I'm on my own." The image came to him clearly; falling free, living up to his purpose. He was full of strength.
The strength of a bomb.
Arno Waltiri had begun the process. The Crane Women and Lamia - Lamia unwittingly, he assumed - had carried k further; Michael had been forged under their hammers. His journey had annealed him and filled him with the necessary images - images which he would transform beyond all recognition. Clarkham himself had set the timer with the dream sent during the night - awkward as it was, so sublimely ignorant of what was necessary.
"How pompous," Clarkham said. "You're only a boy. You've lived what, sixteen, seventeen Earth years? I'm older than the city in which you were born."
"Wherever you went, you left disaster and disappointment. Even in the beginning… when you worked for the Maln." It was just a guess, but apparently an accurate one.
Clarkham's eyes narrowed and his hands clenched into fists on the table top.
"You were the person from Porlock, weren't you?" Michael continued. "The Maln sent you to interrupt Coleridge. You did your job, but afterward you began to wonder if a Breed could serve Sidhe interests and his own at the same time. And you wondered what Coleridge would have written if you hadn't interrupted…"
Clarkham rose to his feet.
"Years later, when you had developed your own magic, you tried to get Emma Livry to dance a song for you. You must have come very close then, because you drove Tarax and the Maln to bum her."
"I loved her," Clarkham said, his voice a menacing purr. Mora looked up quickly and turned away from his glance.
"Who else did you touch?" Michael asked. "And how much better off would they have been if you had simply left them alone? Besides Arno, of course."
"Do you know who Waltiri was - is?" Clarkham asked.
"No," Michael said. He didn't really want to know.
"His people are birds, Michael. The Cledar. He was the one who seduced me, not the other way around. I had found a way into the Realm centuries before, but it was his music that opened a gateway through my house that I could not close. He was the one who attracted attention to me in the Realm, and brought the Sidhe down on me to destroy my house and enslave my wives. It was his kind that taught the Sidhe how to use music… and he let me believe / was the one controlling things. He was a mage, boy, the last of his people. I'll let you decide how long he has been waiting for this moment, and where he is, now. And how I have turned the tables on him, and on Tonn."
He stretched his arms, yawning to release his tension. "I suggest we stop this ridiculous talk. Time enough to discuss motivations and peccadillos when the song is completed. And I know you well enough, boy, to have complete faith in the necessity of your finishing the song. It's inside you already, isn't it? Whether my dream last night helped or not."
"It was a comic opera dream," Michael said. "Do you think that was what Coleridge was trying to say?"
Biri came through the patio doors with a tray of glasses and a clay pitcher dripping with condensation. Clarkham frowned and waved the pitcher away. "I have it on authority," Clarkham said. "I have always known the shape of this song, but not its fine details."
"Perhaps the song's secret lies in how its vessels transform it."
"Now you're becoming obscure," Clarkham said, taking his seat again.
"What was your dream?" Nikolai asked.
"I was in the original pleasure dome. I dreamed of Mora playing, singing. I was a poet - a wild, untamed poet, living in die forests around the palace. Mora was in the emperor's service. She was loved by the court astrologer, a magician - and I loved her, too. We would meet in the cedars. The astrologer became jealous. He advised Kubla to send his fleet to invade Japan, the Eight Islands. And he arranged for press gangs to kidnap the wild poet and send him with the fleet as a galley slave."
Nikolai listened, enthralled. Mora folded her hands on the table top. Biri had set the tray down and was pouring a glass. "And then?" Nikolai asked.
"Then the astrologer planned his marriage to the Abyssinian maid, knowing the fleet would be sent to the bottom of the sea, and his rival with it. A great wind rose and destroyed the emperor's ships, just as the astrologer had forseen, and all aboard drowned. But the young poet's will was so strong he could not be kept away, even in death. He returned to haunt the palace."
"That's what Coleridge was going to write?" Nikolai asked.
"Nobody knows what he was going to write," Michael said. "Why do you need us at all?" he asked Clarkham. "Why not just complete the song yourself?"
"The Isomage is well aware that form is crucial in a song of power," Biri said. "It takes a poet to give it form."
"Indeed," Clarkham said.
"And you think I can equal Coleridge?"
Clarkham considered, then shook his head, no. "You haven't his lyric ability, boy. But you can still give it form. You can still finish the song."
"Then I choose not to," Michael said with great difficulty. "You don't deserve the power. You abandoned your wives, and you abandoned Emma Livry. How many others did you hurt? Arno simply gave you what you deserved - some of your own medicine."
"The poor, sad German," Mora said, eyes downcast.
"I was not responsible for Mahler," Clarkham said without looking at her. "Or for his child. That was not my work at all." he smiled at Michael, abruptly calm and friendly. "I've been through a great deal, my boy. I must not be stopped now."
'Then go on without me. You fed me the dream. Give it form. If I can't equal Coleridge, perhaps you can."
"I'm not a poet."
"No!" Michael shouted. "You're a parasite. You want power you don't deserve."
"At the very least, I'm a symbiote," Clarkham said. "I interact, inspire. You've been too influenced by Tonn, I suspect, to fully understand my relationship with artists."
"Tonn said poets would rule again someday. I will not allow you to rule."
Clarkham inhaled deeply and let his breath out through his teeth with a faint whistle. "Commendable courage. And stupidity." He pointed to Nikolai. "Look at him."
The corpse in Nikolai's chair was a mass of finely shredded skin and muscle. Blood pooled under the chair. Clarkham raised his finger and Nikolai was restored. "I wouldn't have to be so immature," Clarkham said, "if I were dealing with a worthy opponent. But I'm not. So we'll get our preliminaries out of the way. Produce the final portion of the song, or Nikolai will become what you just saw. But not now. Our emotions have been engaged. There must be time to reflect, prepare."
"I don't need time," Michael said. He had given Clarkham his last chance, and the homage had passed it by with a threat. "I can write it down now."
"I insist," Clarkham said.
Mora contemplated the tree roses in the garden, her face impassive. Nikolai simply looked as he had the night before, out of his depth and bewildered. He hadn't felt a thing.
"Let Mora give you and your friend a tour. There's much to see here. The pleasure dome was quite a remarkable pattern, and I've gone to a lot of trouble to recreate it. It would be a pity if the object of my efforts were to plunge ahead without full benefit of such labor." His smile was almost sweet. "We'll conclude our little dance later. It's a lovely day. Off with you." He lightly fanned a hand in Mora's direction and left the table.
"You must not underestimate him," Mora said as she led Michael and Nikolai across the marble and ice floor. "The Isomage is a very powerful sorcerer."
"I'm sure he is," Michael said.
She turned and regarded him with a pained expression.
"Then why do you anger him?"
"Because for months now, I thought he was the one who would show me the way home and help the humans in the Realm. Now it's obvious he just wants power. He wants to be another Adonna."
Mora shook her head slowly, almost pityingly, her large eyes steady on Michael's face. "No one comprehends the whole. That is what the Isomage has said, and he must be correct. There is always mystery and surprise."
"Besides, he won't harm me until I've given him what he wants. And"- Michael felt the hornets hum within-"I don't care anymore. I'm ready to give it to him. So let's tour and get it over with."
Mora cocked her head to one side. "You are saying that a poet from Earth, given a chance to tour Xanadu from end to end, is not even interested?"
This bothered Michael. The opportunity was unparalleled, certainly; but he was not sure he could be enthused by anything now. "I suppose," he said.
"Then come. We'll start at the top___"
To one side of the dome, in the middle of a neat circle of cedars, was a black marble staircase leading down into the hill. Mora removed a lantern from a brass plate on the wall and preceded them down the steps. Nikolai followed her closely, and Michael trailed a few steps behind.
"How do you serve Clarkham?" Michael asked her.
"As he wishes me to," she answered, barely audible over the whistle of the wind in the shaft.
"And how is that?" Michael pursued, aware he was touching sensitive areas.
"When the Isomage came here, there was nothing but sea. The Maln had ceded it to him in the Pact. He was bitter and exhausted. He had nothing. He had lost everyone he loved; there was only Harka and Shahpur, and they were of little use to him then. He had his power, but no…"
She held her hand up in the air and Michael felt her probe him for the right word.
"Inspiration?" he suggested.
"Yes. I also was lost, cast out because I had loved a human. I wandered by the sea, and the Isomage took me in. He was no longer alone, and his strength to imagine returned. That was when he started on the pleasure dome."
"How did the Isomage create all this?" Nikolai asked as they descended into darkness and cold.