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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 36

Greg Bear

  "He did not," Mora answered, her voice echoing. "The song already has a variety of forms. He simply took the song as it existed and let it shape the Realm within his territories."

  Michael felt the walls with one spread hand; they were ice veined with rock now, and very small veins of rock at that. Ahead was a roaring grumble. The steps vibrated in rhythm with the rise and fall of the grumble.

  "The Realm is built on ice," Mora said, "but that ice does not begin for miles yet. This is ice required by the song, cold in the midst of dark. It melts to form the river. And the river-"

  They turned a comer and cold blue-green light fell on them. Moisture dripped from smooth slick walls of ice. Rivulets gathered in gutters to each side of the stairway. "The river empties into the sea," Mora said. "It waters the grounds first, so that ice leads to life - cold to warmth. That, too, is part of the song. Some things are not mentioned in any manifestation of the song." She stopped and pointed. Deep in the ice were twisted, elongated fish with the heads of cats and deer. Michael looked closer and saw they were not real, but illusions created by fine cracks; looking again, he saw not fish but frozen reeds capped with eyes. "The song must always be more than its singer can convey."

  The steps ended as the floor leveled and they walked directly on ice. Nikolai stumbled in a narrow crack and Michael grabbed his arm. "Not safe for tourists!" the Russian commented wryly.

  The ice around them brightened to a pale blue-green, more alive than the dead green of thick glass. Mora led them on to an expansion in the tunnel. "Come," she said, beckoning toward a broad ice bridge.

  Above, vaults of ice and marble formed curious traceries, vegetal fans of mineral mixed with the translucent water. Below, the accumulated melt careened from the right and cascaded to the left. The cavern bearing the melt was easily five hundred yards across. The chunks of ice seen from afar now took on more meaningful proportion; they were the size of houses, even mansions. And not all the chunks were ice. As Coleridge had described, pieces of rock were mixed in the tumult. The ice bridge - twisted and doubled-back, obviously natural yet too convenient - took the blows of the rushing bergs and boulders without a shudder.

  They walked along the span, Nikolai reluctantly, afraid of slipping off the rounded surface. The air smelled of cold and mist and was filled with noise: high-pitched grinds and squeals, pounding spray, a deep and momentous impression of motion.

  They crossed the bridge and passed into a narrow, low-roofed tunnel, once more as much rock as ice.

  Near the exit, rock predominated. They emerged into the dim overgrown light of a deep wedge in the hill - Coleridge's "romantic chasm." Deeper still, a hundred yards below, where they stood on an unfenced ledge, the melt fountained, carrying its ice and rocks in a frothing torrent. Trees formed a canopy over the ledge, glistening with drops of spray. Nikolai shivered.

  The ledge took them to the rim of the chasm, overlooking the gardens. The sinuous river flowed like sluggish bronze beneath the warm sky. On the opposite side of the chasm were the steps they had climbed to reach the dome on their arrival. Michael stared down at the base of the falls and the bobbing ice in the deep blue pool there.

  "Now we descend to the gardens," Mora said. Michael resisted her hand on his arm.

  "We're just wasting time," he said.

  "Please," she said.

  "Either I do what I was brought here to do, or I leave - now," Michael said sternly. Mora backed away and folded her arms across her breasts. Nikolai stood awkwardly to one side, thumbs hooked in his belt.

  "Why do you wish to hurry things?" Mora asked. "There is always time."

  Michael looked down the slanting path and saw Harka and Shahpur seated on flanking boulders. There was obviously no chance of escape. "Lead on, then," he said.

  The empty Sidhe and the white-wrapped human accompanied them without comment on the rest of the tour. Michael paid little attention to the gorgeous landscaping, the mazes of perfect and ever-blooming flower gardens, die delicate, jewel-like Sidhe animals. In the early afternoon, Nikolai professed to being tired and hungry, and they made their way up the opposite side of the chasm and returned to the soapstone gate. Harka, Michael and Shahpur hung back a bit before entering the silken tent. At Harka's signal, Michael stopped. Shahpur approached and nodded his shrouded head at the Sidhe.

  "We think it wise to warn you," Shahpur said to Michael. "The Isomage will not accept much more defiance."

  Harka sighed. "He has been here a long time, with little to do, and not all of his thinking is clear. He still has great bitterness."

  "He is powerful," Shahpur said. "He will do you great harm…"

  "You know that we are different," Harka said. "I have not always served the Isomage in ways that pleased him. He punished me."

  "And you still serve him?"

  "We have no choice. Now, we warn you only because he thinks you could learn from us. We tell you only because he wills it. I fled from the Maln with Clarkham; I was his partner. We quarreled, and he gained the upper hand. He poured my self from me like wine from a jug. I have only the hollowness. Shahpur…"

  "Once, the Isomage was filled with hatred and it bred a disease in his brain like worms in rotten meat," Shahpur said. "It made him weaker, so he cast a shadow. But the shadow was too strong to simply fade away. He had to cast the shadow onto someone. The Isomage chose me. I carry his past foulness."

  "He has treated us this way," Harka said, "and yet we have never done him great wrong. If you defy him, refuse him what he most desires, he will consider that a very great wrong indeed. Even empty, I shudder to think what he will do to you, to your companion."

  "Then I won't defy him," Michael said. "I'll give him just what he wants."

  "What did the humans and the Sidhe lose when they separated?" Clarkham asked after they had finished the early dinner. Bek and Tik cleared away the plates as Mora brought out a tray of brandy snifters. "One lost magic, and the other lost a sense of direction. Bring them together again - that's inevitable - and both will benefit. Ah, but how to bring them together smoothly? Who understands both Sidhe and humans?" Clarkham lifted his snifter and urged Michael to do the same. "Not Tonn. Not an old, decrepit mage losing control of a universe he himself made. Not Waltiri. Not Tarax, a hard and resolute Sidhe with no sympathy for the old enemies. Only a Breed."

  The brandy was obviously one of Clarkham's evening rituals. Michael sipped the smooth but potent fluid. "How?" he asked.

  "How would I unite them?"

  Michael nodded.

  "Very carefully. Which do I add first, the water or the acid? An old alchemical problem-"

  "Always add acid to water," Michael said, recalling Mrs. Perry's chemistry classes.

  "Yes. Now I would say the Sidhe are acid, and the humans are water… Adding humans here hasn't done any good. The Sidhe have simply spit them out, isolated them. But take a few Sidhe and return them to the Earth… perhaps the results will be better."

  "We're doing well enough on our own," Michael said, disputing his own words before they were out. "We don't need Sidhe."

  "The Earth is a mess, Michael. No one can see into the minds of others, and that makes for a nasty and selfish people. What wonders you make are hard and dangerous wonders, without intrinsic poetry. You fight battles a Sidhe would not even have to acknowledge - against disease, natural disaster, your own confusion."

  "And you want to be in control of the mixing?"

  Clarkham nodded. "Yes. Can you think of another Breed so qualified, with so many… experiences under his belt?"

  Michael shook his head. "You would be the wise one, the benevolent master."

  Mora stood behind Clarkham, her hands on his shoulders. Clarkham covered one hand with his own. "As selfish as any."

  Michael's eyes went to Harka, lingering at the edge of the patio.

  "It wouldn't be an easy job. Frustrating. Infuriating," Michael suggested.

  The early evening light and the glow from the paper lanterns refl
ected gaily in the snifters and cast a mellow subdued air across the patio.

  Clarkham leaned forward and spread his hands on the cleared table. Between his hands appeared an image - the Earth, as immediate and real as ever Michael had seen it, minutely detailed. "All that would be required is to lay a song over it… with the cooperation of humans and Sidhe, guided by the appropriate leader - myself - and the misery would vanish. The world would return to the paradise it had once been - - -"

  "Amhara," Mora whispered, her face warming to cherry-wood brown.

  The globe between his hands rushed at Michael. Michael did not flinch. The image expanded to fill his vision, and he seemed to pass through clouds, over wine-colored seas, over broad white beaches and jungles and sharp, jagged mountains. He could smell the air, clean and somehow exuberant, filled with pleasure and challenge. The image vanished like a bubble but the impression lingered.

  "Youth," Clarkham said. "A young world again, rid of the guilt, wiped of the sin and the hatred."

  "With you in command," Michael reiterated. At that moment, he launched his heretofore withheld probe. Clarkham expertly blocked all but the foremost barb. That portion returned to Michael a brief and horrifying impression of the inner Clarkham - and a realization.


  Foulness, hatred, almost as repugnant and intense as that within Shahpur. How often had Clarkham shed his darkest shadow? How often had his inner foulness regenerated? He carried a malignancy that could not be eradicated, only reduced, to grow anew.

  Shahpur was human; an unprotected soul is flypaper for a cast-off shadow, especially in the Realm.

  When Michael had given Clarkham what he wanted, Clark-ham would give him what he could no longer comfortably contain. A spiritual excretion. How could he counter that?

  And why should I judge him so harshly? Isn't there a darkness and foulness within me?

  Clarkham did not react to the probe. "I will lead. Yes," he said. Only a few seconds had passed. "Who else would you suggest?"

  "No one," Michael said.

  "Then let us put aside our quarrels. You have the key to help bring paradise to Earth, to help me re-unite peoples separated for much too long. Let's cooperate. Our ends are the same." Clarkham gestured for Mora to bring out the pen and paper. She returned to the house and came back with a writing tray, setting it before Michael.

  "And something special to drink," Clarkham ordered.

  Michael reached for the two remaining sheets of paper and began to write. The fountain pen lay its ink in smooth thick lines across the fine linen-grain surface.

  The triple circles round him tighten While from Avernus rise to frighten The ghosts of voyagers dead while wandering From edge to edge his shadow Realm…

  That was just a warmup. He stared at the white paper, turning his mind away from the surroundings. It was like casting a shadow, he thought; the words inside could be drawn out, given shape, sent forth. And they would be deadly.

  Again Bin brought out the clay pitcher and thick heavy glasses. He poured a translucent creamy-colored fluid and passed the portions around.

  Clarkham sipped from the glass Bin gave him and toasted Michael. "The veritable milk of paradise," the Isomage said.

  Weave a circle around him thrice…

  The drink was milky-sweet and biting, with an alcoholic tang. All in all, it was delicious. "Kumis," Biri said. "The drink of Emperor Kubla."

  The kumis began to act in Michael almost immediately. He wrote down the last two lines of Coleridge's fragment:

  For he on honey-dew hath fed And drunk the milk of paradise.

  And then it was upon him. It flashed and sparkled and came so fast he hardly had time to record it all. He knew he would not have another chance. He tried to catch as much as he could, and he exulted. There was no outside source for this; it came from inside, purely from himself, or rather, that self which connected him with Coleridge, with Yeats, with all the fine poets. That moment when there was nothing but the Word, and it came in perfect waves.

  And so the ice, cross ages dripping, Undermines the silken palace, Falls beneath the cedars, ripping As if the years themselves with malice Seek to still great dreams by gripping The gardens, walls and golden towers, Rending from the Khan his powers…

  Perhaps twenty lines passed so quickly he could not write them down. They were not essential.

  As wave to wave, in storm sea floundering,

  His galliots beach, unguided at the helm.

  Thou Khan, who eats the fruit of Faerie,

  Who hastes to leave when bid to tarry,

  Listen to the sweet soft critic,

  That dusk-wrapped maid on sweet strings playing,

  "Palace, towers and gardens," saying,

  "Cannot save your soul from pity

  Nor build from song a timeless city."

  The Caverns roar with rising waters…

  The ground trembled. Clarkham steadied himself against the table.

  Drowning to the highest mountains, Flooding all the Khan's great slaughters Beneath the whirling, vaulted fountains.

  There was more, much more, and it did not simply spin through his head and vanish. The song was created and completed, and Michael knew immediately it was not the Song of Power Clarkham sought. It never had been. From the very beginning, when they had commissioned Lin Piao Tai to build the palace, the element of destruction had been plain.

  Coleridge's poem, and Michael's share in it, were simply decoys, traps meant to snare and destroy those, like Clarkham, who stood in the way of the ultimate combatants. Waltiri, mage of the birds, the Cledar, had sent Michael; the Crane Women and the Ban of Hours had cooperated; Tonn and the Maln had let him pass.

  Clarkham grabbed the sheets as soon as Michael stopped writing. He read them, eyes widening. "Traitor," he said "This is not-"

  "It's finished. It isn't all there, but I've finished it," Michael said, suddenly exhausted. Clarkham crumpled the pages and threw them down on the table. Mora reached for the pliktera beside her chair. Clarkham turned to her, but she would not look at him. The ground shook again as Nikolai backed away from the table. From the chasm, the pulse of ice catapulting to the river bed quickened. Clarkham swiveled to face Biri, who stared at him implacably.

  "You!" Clarkham said. "You're the traitor. You're still loyal to Tarax!"

  "There was no disputing the boy's mission," Bin said. 'Tarax and Adonna willed it, as well as the council of Eleu. All are united against you. Even you willed it. The boy would have turned away, but you brought him here. He would have refused the song, but you forced him to write it. On your own head, Isomage."

  Clarkham's face darkened with rage. His hands trembled, waiting to spill their power.

  "Better leave," Michael whispered to Nikolai. The Russian didn't need any more encouragement. He leaped over the wall, dodged through the rose garden and vaulted the fence to the icy marble floor. Fine cracks shot across the marble surface behind him, throwing chips of stone into the air as the ground shuddered. Michael reached down to retrieve the pages. He flattened them out and held them behind his back.

  "What shall I do with you all?" Clarkham asked. More than ever now, Michael pitied him - and feared him.

  Bin took Mora's hand. They walked away from the Isomage, down the brick steps to the lawn. The light passing through the silken dome was reddening and the fabric rippled under the rough touch of a new wind.

  Clarkham faced Michael alone on the patio. "Get out!" he cried. The black marble screamed and separated along the ice veins. The lawn rippled and showed gashes of soil. The roses shook. Most of the staked trees had turned to glass; the blossoms shattered and cast their fragments on the dirt.

  "GET OUT!"

  Michael turned his back on the Isomage, neckhair prickling. He fully expected to have his flesh riven from his bones, but Clarkham was concentrating all his power on keeping the palace together.

  One of the curved supporting poles snapped with the report of a gunshot. The pole fell a
nd tore out a length of silk. The plaster and brick walls of Clarkham's home split. Chunks slipped away and crumbled on impact. The house's timbers groaned in agony.

  As Michael crossed the lawn, barely able to keep his balance, he heard Clarkham shout his name. He looked back and saw the Isomage standing spread-legged on two separated pieces of the patio. The Breed's hair flew out from his head. His hands and arms crackled with energy.

  He held up a wickedly glowing finger.

  "You may not go!" he shouted over the uproar.

  Coils of viscous light oozed from his fingers and expanded above the rose garden and lawn. They sank around Michael, forming a serpentine net of bright green strands.

  Michael felt his eyes grow warm, then hot. The shadow he cast was a dark, enveloping thing, alone and indescribably nasty. He sprung away from the shadow, passed through the web and leaped to the broken marble, his own hair charged with power.

  And all should cry, beware,beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

  The shadow contained all of Bin's Sidhe discipline, all of the poisonous, virulently inhumane nonsense about aloneness and self-mastery through isolation. It was the philosophy of a discouraged, dying race and it had served its purpose - it had filled Michael with the basic will to destroy. Now he had no use for it - except as a defense.

  Clarkham leaped to a more stable position and drew in the green web. The shadow struggled, made a sound like crushing rock and exploded. Darkness scattered the web and dissipated under the fiery dome light.

  Clarkham shouted in a language Michael had never heard before, then extruded another web, this one intensely blue.

  Michael turned his face away and held up the poem. The lines of ink hissed and crackled. The words shot out in lances of fire over Clarkham's head, setting the house aflame. In seconds, the rear wall and tile roof became a furnace of quicklime, wood and clay. The glass in the french doors exploded and the frames shrunk like blackened matchsticks. Glowing embers wafted up in the rising heat and ignited the silken tent.

  "My work, my work!"