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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 74

Greg Bear

  The five thousand human captives of the Sidhe had been repatriated. Their presence so far had not made much difference in the arts, but less than a year had passed, after all…

  The mage of the Cledar and his retinue had moved to jungles in Mexico for the time being, to establish an enclave where they would wait until a way could be found to return them to their ancestral forms. Michael spoke with him frequently, traveling sometimes to Mexico or sometimes just conversing by thought.

  Michael spent much of his time consulting with Sidhe and with the deep cetacean minds of the Spryggla and the scattered, tragically fractured cockroach minds of the Urges.

  Their time was coming again. Much had been lost, but there was a grudging cooperation between the races now. The sundering was done with. Years, perhaps centuries, would pass before most things could be set right, but that was a short time indeed.

  Michael pressed his thigh against Kristine's and she sighed, adjusting her bulky abdomen without waking. He smiled and felt a love for her beyond expression, and with that love came not fear but apprehension.

  What stability the Earth had now, as always, was very fragile. At any moment, his magehood could topple into singing shards. There was no final security, no certainty. He could not see the future. Yet he was not afraid. Fear would only paralyze him.

  Michael lay his head gently on her stomach and listened, smiling. She stirred again but did not awaken.

  Michael and Kristine arrived at the front door of the trendy little Nicaraguan restaurant on Pico, just before opening time. Bert Cantor came down the street with Olive's arm in the crook of his own and saw the pair. Olive responded to his elbow-nudge, focused on them and smiled broadly.

  "I know you," Bert said brusquely, shaking Michael's hand. "Didn't you used to work here or something? But who's this?" Bert eyed Kristine's obvious condition.

  "This is my wife, Kristine Pendeers. Kristine, Bert and Olive Cantor."

  "Very pleased to meet you," Olive said, smiling at her delightedly. "Oh, when are you due?"

  "Three weeks, roughly," Kristine replied, resting her arms on her abdomen and smiling with anticipation of relief.

  "Men, they just don't know, do they?" Olive sympathized, clucking and urging Bert to open the door.

  Kristine agreed with Olive, to be polite, but her glance at Michael was sufficient. He knew what her pregnancy felt like. Sometimes he even read the child's burgeoning, liquid-dreaming thoughts and conveyed them to her.

  "You know, you have a lot of explaining to do," Bert said, slipping his key into the lock. "About what's happened. I read things in the newspaper that are nothing like what we used to read in the newspaper." He sighed and held the door open for them. "Not good newspapers."

  "Not everything's perfect," Michael conceded.

  Jesus shouted "Hola!" from the kitchen, and Michael waved back with a big grin.

  "The beautiful lady, she's your girlfriend?" Jesus asked, twirling a plastic bag full of dried black beans.

  "She's my wife," Michael said proudly.

  "Eh! Wait until Juanita hears. Juanita, the brujo has a bruja."

  "Such talk," Olive said, waving both hands at the kitchen. "Your folks, how are they? And why didn't you invite us to the wedding?"

  "They're fine," Michael said.

  "It was a small ceremony," Kristine explained.

  "You've told her all about…?" Bert asked, raising his brows and corrugating his forehead.

  "I have," Michael says.

  "And she marries you anyway!" Bert marveled.

  "I would, too," Olive said, casting a defiant look at her bemused husband. "Bert and I, we think… we think you had something to do with what's been happening."

  "Yeah, a hypothesis, call it," Bert said. "How things got so much worse, then better, though all confused. You were the only one who knew anything… I admit, though, you sounded quite…" He twirled one finger around his ear. Then he glanced at the front windows and door and said, "Business hasn't been worth much lately. Oh, what the hell, let's close today and celebrate. And talk. You have to fill us in."

  And Michael did, Kristine helping him with certain parts he left out. Jesus fixed black bean tortillas, and Juanita served, and everybody ate as Michael spoke in a quiet voice of what had happened. He told very few people these things; there was no pride in him now, only practicality, and he knew there were few who would believe, and most of those he did not want to deal with.

  Juanita crossed herself several times.

  "No more meat? Not beef or chicken?" Bert asked at one point.

  Michael shook his head. "Plants are growing that will replace meat," he said. He had modified a number of existing plants just a few weeks before. The changeover, like everything else, would take time, but at least the groundwork was laid.

  "And what about the people?" Olive asked. "How will we get along with all these others here now - the faeries and others?"

  "Not eating meat's part of the way we'll get along better," Kristine said. "They can't stand it."

  "Oh, don't we know!" Bert said, shaking his head vigorously. "Had a few of them walking up the street a month ago, out of place, dressed like they dress, acting like tourists, and they came in here… Such looks! Made me feel ashamed, somehow, and mad, too. No worse than going around in black coats and wide-brim hats, I suppose, and frowning at the gentiles - but still…"

  "It's partly guilt, Michael thinks," Kristine said. "They feel like they'd be eating their enemies…"

  "So many peoples were transformed into animals," Michael reminded them.

  Bert's face paled. "I think we're going to have to come up with new definitions for traef."

  "And what about us?" Olive persisted. "What's going to happen to us, all the people here? Can we just accept them, accept all the changes?"

  "This is the way things are," Michael said, and there was a finality in his tone that made Olive draw her head back and purse her lips, on the edge of disapproval.

  "And you're responsible for all this?" Bert asked, preparing to be astonished again.

  "Oh, no," Michael said. "Not at all." He laughed, and Kristine laughed with him, thinking it very likely that some of Michael's advisors were even now hiding out in the garbage behind the restaurant. "Not at all!"

  "I knew there would be something different tonight," Kris-tine said, weary of attendant marvels. She sat awkwardly on the Morris chair John had dragged onto the patio behind the Perrin house.

  "What's that?" Michael asked.

  "The mage hasn't guessed?" She mocked surprise. She was getting testier as her time narrowed to days. "Your mother. She's keeping mum, but she's a nervous wreck, and John looks absolutely terrified."

  "So what is it?" Michael asked.

  "Somebody's joining us for dinner. Somebody not human, I'd say. You're usually the one responsible for nonhuman guests, but not this time, I take it?"

  Michael shook his head, all innocence.

  "Who does your mother know that isn't human?"

  Michael's eyes widened. "She's never met her in person, but - my great-great-grandmother," he said.

  Salafrance Underhill arrived at seven in the evening, her long red hair tied back in a prim bun, dressed in a cloak the color of autumn leaves. Ruth answered the door herself, turning down Michael's offer flatly. "She's my problem, really," Ruth said. "When she called, I invited her here. I'll greet her at my own front door."

  For a moment, the two women faced each other over the threshold, and Michael saw his great-great-grandmother for the first time. Side by side, Ruth and Salafrance Underhill looked remarkably alike, but there was no denying Salafrance was a pure Sidhe and Ruth was largely human.

  "Great-granddaughter," Salafrance said, her voice even more beautiful than Ulath's, almost as entrancing as the voice of the Ban of Hours. "You have dreamed of me. I've felt your dreams, even across the world and beyond."

  "Hello," Ruth said, struggling with remarkable success to control her shivering.

nbsp; "Is it customary that I should wait out here?"

  "No," Ruth said smoothly. "Come in."

  Salafrance drifted through the door, seeming as tall and slender as a tree, her long face and cold eyes difficult to read as she looked from person to person, lingering on Kristine and her improbably wide belly and then turning her full attention to Michael, who stood by the couch in the living room, feeling awkward and young all over again.

  "I did not know my love for men would lead to this," she said. "I followed the way of Elme for five hundred years, but out of an inner perversity, not by plan. Granddaughter, this is your husband?" She indicated John with a nod of her long chin.

  "His name is-" Ruth began.

  "Yes. I have been watching you all for some time. I hope that does not upset you."

  Ruth swallowed hard but shook her head.

  "I have much to apologize for. I did not prepare my children adequately. I am afraid they issued foolish edicts and did not understand who or what they were, and how they must choose mates wisely. You suffered for this, Great-granddaughter."

  Michael could read his mother's emotions, barely held in check - half an urge to order Salafrance from her house, and half simply to weep. She did neither. Salafrance sat in the living room at Ruth's invitation and gestured for Kristine to sit beside her.

  "Does he read your child for you?" she asked.

  "Michael?" Kristine asked, embarrassed. "Yes. He does"

  "And is it a maker, as well?"

  "We don't know," Michael said.

  "Male or female?"

  "Female," Kristine said. "The doctors confirmed it."

  Salafrance smiled ironically. Her almond eyes could have been regarding anybody in the room at any given moment, without the slightest impression of darting about. "Power is carried by the female… Great granddaughter," she said, focusing her full attention now on Ruth.


  "I am proud of you, most proud."

  Ruth smiled. Michael knew then that his mother would never come to love or even be comfortable around Salafrance Underhill, but she could now be comfortable within herself.

  She had not failed her heritage.

  At dinner, as Salafrance picked at rice and vegetables, she asked, "Where is the nectar of mages?"

  "I gave it back to my father," Michael said.

  "It's in my wine-cellar. Closet, actually," John said.

  "It has waited long enough, don't you think?"

  "Sidhe don't drink, Grandmother," Michael said quietly.

  "Do you know the rule - always forbidden, on occasion mandatory?"

  Michael nodded.

  "This is such an occasion," Salafrance decreed.

  "I'll bring it," John said, pushing his chair back from the table.

  "I am told, and I have felt, that you are in control of this world now, of its making and its song," she said to Michael. "This is so?"

  "It is so," Michael said.

  "And what sort of mage are you?"

  Michael smiled. "That's a broad question."

  "Are you an obvious one, dancing with the song at all times, watching the steps of all who dance with you?"

  "He doesn't meddle," Kristine said defensively. "Hardly anybody knows what he does or who he is." Michael patted her hand.

  "I… don't want to control everybody or act as a policeman," he said. "I don't think I should have any real authority over how people behave or make moral judgments. I won't impose my will on others. I'm a poet, not a master. I may tune the instruments, but I don't lay down every note of the song."

  "And if it comes about that the races try to destroy the balance again?"

  "I'll write that bridge when I come to it," he said, irritated that she should see so quickly what worried him most about the future.

  "You are a very young mage," Salafrance said. John returned with the opaque, time-darkened bottle of wine.

  "What is its provenance?" Salafrance asked.

  John was puzzled, uncertain how to answer. "Arno Waltiri gave it to us."

  "The human who shared his body with the Cledar mage…?"

  "The same," Michael said. "He had it from David Clark-ham. I've heard Clarkham stole it from Adonna."

  "We should all drink…" Salafrance said. "Except for Kristine, who bears perhaps another maker, one who will drink this wine in her own due course."

  "I don't think I could stomach it anyway," Kristine said.

  The bottle was sealed with a thick slug of wax impressed with a tiny sharp design, two triangles nested like a Star of David. When John cleared out the wax plug from the bottle's neck, working carefully to avoid breaking the ancient glass, an almost palpable aroma filled the room, richer by far than Clarkham's wines, beyond a bouquet and into the realm of a summer-heated fruit garden.

  "Who took this bottle, and when, I do not know, but I know whence it comes," Salafrance said. "The sigil tells me. It was once in the collection of Aske and Elme themselves. It may be the last bottle of its kind, and it carries special virtue. It is fitting that the first human maker and mage in untold ages should drink of it and be confirmed by the experience. That is what Elme would have wished, and Aske would have been proud beyond his time."

  "You knew them?" Ruth asked, awe-struck.

  "I am not that old, Great-granddaughter," Salafrance said, and Michael sensed the depths of her humor. "I have met those who knew them. So has Michael." Her look was potent with meaning. Michael almost shivered.

  "Now that both Councils have dissolved, and new orders are found, and new songs to which we dance, let us toast the new mage in humble surroundings, toast a humble creator who vows not to enslave for order's sake but to do what he must, and that alone: tend a garden fit for all God's creatures and weave a lace pleasing to all."

  Not once, in all his time with Sidhe, had Michael ever heard them refer to a god beyond Adonna or Adonna's Yah-weh.

  "Which god is this, Grandmother?" Michael asked.

  "You feel this God in your blood, do you not?" she asked. She held up her glass, and the others followed suit. "The God that requires only our remembrance in extremis. The gentle, the mature, the ever-young, that demands nothing but our participation and growth. The composer of the Song of Earth and all worlds. Invoke this God, Michael, and be a maker and mage."

  Michael examined the color of the wine in his glass: both golden and brown, all wines become one wine, and said, "To all of us, of all races, and the matter we are made of, and the ground beneath our feet, and the worlds over our head. To strife and passage and death and life." He held his glass higher. "To horror, and awe, and all strong emotions, and most of all, to love."

  Salafrance drank, and the others drank as well.

  When they were finished, John put down his glass and said, "I think it must be an acquired taste."

  "It's wonderful," Ruth said.

  Michael frowned, drawing the flavors back and forth. He honestly did not have an opinion. In a few decades, perhaps he would appreciate what he was tasting now.

  "What's it like?" Kristine asked.

  He shook his head. "I don't know," he said.

  "All that suspense, and you don't know?" she chided.

  The rest of the evening went well, with Salafrance telling her own story and Ruth listening closely. There was much about life in the hills and alleged witchcraft and conflict between the early farmers and the clannish Sidhe. Salafrance told of a lonely and rebellious young Sidhe female - herself - coming down out of the hills into the communities of humans, enchanting and being enchanted in turn by a strong young human male and being taken to his cabin to bear children. In time, Salafrance could not stay apart from her kind; the love was strained by forces neither could control, and they parted, Salafrance leaving their children with the man, who found his house filled with witches and warlocks: his own offspring.

  Kristine slept in the crook of Michael's arm as the hour passed midnight. Salafrance said near dawn that she must leave, and Ruth escorted her to the door,
where they had a few words alone.

  Then Salafrance extended her arms and took her great-granddaughter into them, hugging her close. "Humans have always taught us how to love," she said.

  She departed into the dawn, and Ruth returned to the kitchen, her face wet with tears. John sealed the bottle again and placed it in the wine closet. Michael took Kristine home in the Waltiris' old Saab.

  The birth was late. Three days later, on a bright spring morning after a long-awaited night's rain, the sidewalks dappled with moisture and the grass still beaded, Michael opened the front door to retrieve the newspaper. Something feather-touched his aura, and he paused, listening.

  "Man-child," came a voice above his head. He looked up and saw Coom staring down at him from the roof, her long fingers tightly gripping the tile.

  "You still have much to learn."

  He turned. Nare stood on one leg on the lawn to the left, wriggling her long fingers before her flat chest.

  "Even a Lace-Maker and Gardener needs a few tens of years to mature and reach his potential," said Spart, sitting cross-legged on the lawn to his right, smiling at him with her head cocked to one side. "May we teach?"

  Michael's chest swelled with gladness, and he laughed. "Only if you'll teach our child, too."

  "Man-childs," Coom said. "Our specialty!"

  So it was that Michael Perrin came into his time, and the Earth found its youth once more.


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  I have led a dull life, disliking chaos and favoring calm and work and family. Pardon my airs for even thinking of such, but any biography of me will likely be a boring read. Still, there have been a few moments of high interest. One involved the first version of the book you have just read. (Unless, like me, you are in the habit of reading all extraneous matter before sitting down to the main bulk.)