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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 11

Greg Bear


  Michael shook his head.

  "Perhaps not. Anyway, I was dizzy. I stood at the top of a flight of stairs in my apartment building, and at the bottom was nothing but a pool of mercury - you know, quicksilver - and I stumbled. Put my foot in it. Woke up here." She set her cup down and wiped her lips delicately with a forefinger. "I still don't like stairs, even living on an upper floor."

  "That was two years ago?" Michael asked.

  "Give or take. Now - how did you get here? I mean. Henrik explained, but I'd like to hear it from you."

  All of Michael's confidence, built up (he had thought) during the weeks of training, dissolved in her presence. She was fresh, lively, young and completely human. He stumbled over his words, then bore down on memories and produced a passable re-telling of his experiences. When he had finished, Helena looked out the small curtained window, the subdued light from the alley softly dividing her face.

  "We really don't understand anything about life, do we?" she said. "I thought this was like purgatory for those who spent too much time with music and too little time in church. At first, I mean. I was that naive."

  "Many people feel a religious confusion when they first arrive," Savarin said. "I'm studying it."

  "You study everything," Helena said, reaching out with a slender hand to touch Savarin's arm. Michael focused on the contact, with a twinge of jealousy. "Isn't he too much?"

  "You're from New York?"

  "Brooklyn. And you?"

  "Los Angeles."

  "Oh my gawd," she said, shaking her head. "A crazy Californian. I've never heard of Arno Walt…what's his name. Did he ever write serious music?"

  "For movies," Michael said.

  "Nothing else?"

  "Well, the concerto…"

  "Funny, I've never heard of that, either."

  "I think it was suppressed or something. It got him into a lot of trouble."

  "Well, music's a big world. And I do suppose composers have a hard time, even harder than pianists. What are you doing now that you're here?"

  "I'm training," Michael said before he had a chance to think.

  "Training for what?"

  "I don't know." He grinned sheepishly. Helena regarded him with apparent shocked surprise.

  "You must know what you're training for," she said.

  "To get my strength up, I suppose."

  "You don't look particularly sick to me."

  "Weak," he said. "I mean, I just never did much physical exercise."

  "A bookworm like Henrik, I suppose," Helena said. "Well, then it's good for you there are so few books here."

  "Michael brought one with him."

  "Oh, did you? Can I see it?"

  "I don't have it with me." He was surprised how touchy the subject was to him; he recalled Lamia's expression when he told her he had a book. "It's just a volume of poetry."

  "More's the pity it's not a book of music. I'm terribly out of practice." She held up her hands and spread her fingers, crooking the pinkies slightly. 'Til bet you think musicians are terribly vain," she said, sighing. 'Talk too much."

  "No, not at all."

  "Most of the people here are older than me. Some have been here for a hundred years or more. Isn't that amazing? Yet most don't look any older than Henrik, and those who do, were older when they came here. I think it's all very profound."

  "It is," Michael agreed, though he might have chosen a different word. He could hardly keep his eyes off of her. To his embarrassment, he was getting an erection. He held his hands in his lap and tried concentrating on other things - Alyons and his coursers, the Umbral.

  "I wonder if we'll ever figure it all out," Helena continued. She seemed aware Michael's shyness - even of his predicament - and appeared to enjoy it. "Will you be staying with the Crane Women for long? I mean, will they let you live in town?"

  "I don't know. I don't really know much of anything. I'm so ignorant, but…" He wanted to just blurt everything out to her, bury his head in her - He raised his eyes from the blouse. "I have to go," he said. The thought of Alyons had made him presentable again. "They might need me for something. Maybe."

  "Oh, I'm sorry," Helena said, standing. He glanced down at her knees, then at her eyes. No doubt about it. She was beautiful. He wondered what Savarin was to her - just a friend? "Can you come back? I'd like to talk some more - remember old times."

  "I'll try," Michael said. "When would… uh… be convenient?'

  "I work early mornings doing laundry." She displayed her hands. "Ugly, aren't they?" she said, holding them up before his face again. "No labor-saving devices in the Realm. You can come in the afternoon. I'm usually here otherwise. Do call." She smiled radiantly.

  "I have to go," Michael said to Savarin.

  "Certainly," Savarin said. He accompanied Michael.

  "Good-by, until later," Helena said.

  "By," Michael said, waving awkwardly. At the end of the alley, Savarin chuckled.

  "She likes you, my boy."

  Michael merely nodded.

  "And I suppose you won't be seeing me as much, telling me so many interesting things?"

  "I'll tell you whatever I learn," Michael said.

  "After you tell Helena." Savarin cut off Michael's weak protest with a smile. "No, I well understand. Everybody's priorities are for the immediate. I am cursed, in the meanwhile, with an interest in the long-term."

  They parted at the outskirts of Euterpe and Michael returned to Halftown, his thoughts crowded and confused.

  Chapter Thirteen

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  For the first time, life in the Realm had some purpose besides survival and the now-distant goal of returning home. Michael wandered down Halftown's curving market street, thinking of Helena's face, of her lips and the way they moved when she talked to him.

  He found the flattened courtyard and picked through the rubble to the front door of Lirg's - now Eleuth's - house. He knocked on the doorframe. There was no answer for a moment, then Eleuth swung the door wide open and stared at him, blinking wide-eyed.

  "Hello," she said. Her face seemed older, worn.

  "You wanted to talk with me?" Michael asked. He compared Eleuth's strange beauty with Helena's brisk familiarity and felt slightly repelled.

  "I need company," Eleuth said. "But if you have something to do…"

  "No," Michael said. Queerly, the repulsion was turning itself around now to attraction, but a distanced kind of attraction, something he could handle. Eleuth motioned for him to come in and closed the door softly behind.

  The house was decorated very differently from the human dwellings he had seen: solid-looking, clean wooden furniture draped with rugs and fabrics, lamps burning sweet-scented wax in corners away from the windows, a ceramic brick firepit in the center of the house with a chimney poking through the roof. Thick, intricately patterned rugs hung from iron rods between wall and chimney, dividing the interior into four rooms. He sat on a bench and Eleuth sat across from him on the edge of the firepit, which was dark and covered with a brass mesh screen.

  "It's not as if Lirg's dead," she said after a few awkward minutes of silence.

  "What will they do with him?" Michael asked.

  Eleuth lowered her gaze and reached down to adjust a boot. "He will serve Adonna."

  "Whatever that means," Michael said.

  "It means he will add his magic to the rituals. That will weaken him. Breeds are not like Sidhe full-bloods. Magic tires us. The more human blood we have, the less power to spare."

  "And after that?"

  "These are cruel thoughts," Eleuth said. "I'll never see him again, either way. He was a good father."

  Her words were slow and sweet. The sadder she became, the more he was attracted to her. It took very little effort to sit beside her and reach for her hand. For the first time, he felt he was in control. She looked up at him and there were tears in her eyes. "What is death like on Earth?"

  That took Michael aback. Except for Walti
ri, he had never experienced the death of a loved one on Earth. Friends, parents, grandparents were all still living, as far as he knew. Death was an intellectual exercise, something to be imagined and not deeply felt. "Final," he said. "Everybody keeps saying humans have souls and Sidhe don't, but I know a lot of humans who would disagree."

  "It makes no difference here," Eleuth said. "So I'm told. Young people must rely a lot on what they're told, no?"

  Michael lifted his shoulders. "I suppose."

  "And what they're told not to do. Breeds are less constrained then Sidhe. We are already among the low. We don't have much farther to fall."

  "Humans aren't exactly respected here, either," Michael reminded her.

  "But the Sidhe leave them alone. The Umbrals don't come to snatch them away."

  "That's because we're useless. We have no magic. Have you done magic?"

  Eleuth nodded slowly. "A little. I'm learning, but not quickly."

  Michael patted her arm and stood. "I should get back to the Crane Women." He didn't particularly want to, but it was an excuse; he had no idea what more he could do here.

  Eleuth stood, eyes still lowered, and reached out to touch the back of his hand with one finger. "When we are alone, we are most vulnerable," she said. She looked up at him. "Both of us need strength."

  "I guess that's true," Michael said. There was an awkward moment as he tried to figure out how to say good-by. Finally, he just smiled and sidled out the door. She looked after him, eyes wide as when he had entered. Just before the door closed, he saw her turn away with a slow elegance that sent shivers down his arms.

  His confusion multiplied as he crossed the stream and walked across the mound to the huts. Grateful none of the Crane Women were outside, he entered his small dwelling and stood with head brushing the ceiling rafters. His face was marked by lines of reddened sunlight gliding down the opposite wall.

  Michael wasn't disturbed that night, except by a distant, deep hum that filled the land for a second or two. When that passed, he lay on the plaited reeds and stared up into darkness. For a dizzying moment, it seemed mat it wasn't the world that had changed, but himself; that somehow he had twisted around to present a new face. He didn't feel sixteen years old.

  He felt full, expectant… waiting.

  Chapter Fourteen

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  Spart roused Michael early the next morning, taking him by the hand and dragging him from his hut, all the while making strange half-humming, half-whistling noises. She seemed to be trying for a tune and not quite finding it, but the closer he listened, the more he realized the sound went beyond tunes. Before he was awake enough to think clearly, she stopped and strutted around him, her critical eye sweeping him from head to foot. "Ready?" she asked, halting before him with hands on hips.

  "I suppose I must be," he said.

  "We are going on a trip. We will cross the Blasted Plain. You will come with."

  "Okay," he said, swallowing. "Breakfast first?"

  Coom emerged from the hut and tossed him a gray-green lime the size of an orange. Nare offered a crust of bread from the window. He knew better than to protest; besides, Sidhe food seemed to satisfy more. At least, he was seldom ravenous, and on bulk alone he should have starved by now.

  They walked along the banks of the river in the early morning sun, through waist-high reeds and feathery-fronded water plants he couldn't identify. Creepers like green rubber hoses slithered down to the water. Ahead, to the northeast, a patch of intense blue coruscated above the faded orange ribbon which hung over the Blasted Plain.

  The Crane Women plunged along ahead and behind him. He remembered some of the landscape from his unexpected journey during the Kaeli. After two hours of steady hiking, they reached the grassland that had been most stricken by the storm. The grass was still bent and disheveled. Four hours later, he recognized the mound where he had awoken, with its topknot of greener grass, and he saw the border. But the Crane Women veered northwest, clambering out of the reeds and following a winding trail.

  Three hours later, always coming within view of the border only to veer away, Michael was tired enough to halt and utter a weak protest. The Crane Women had been bounding along like children on an outing, acting much younger than they looked (if he could apply any human age at all to them - he wasn't sure he could). "Please!" Michael called out after them. "What are we doing, where are we going?"

  Spart waved him along. Michael sighed. He'd given up trying to find motives for what they did. At the very least, the Crane Women were elusive.

  And now they eluded him. He had bent down for a second to untangle his foot from a root, and when he looked up, they were gone. Instead, at the top of a low hill about half a mile away, was a horse - a Sidhe horse, its rider nowhere in sight.

  Michael searched the hill nervously with his eyes, then walked toward the animal. An unaccompanied Sidhe horse was probably most unusual in the Pact Lands. He had never seen one, at any rate. As he climbed the gentle slope, the horse lifted its head and whinnied. It trained its ears in his direction and turned on pumping legs to face him. Michael stopped; he felt no need to approach any closer. It might be a trap. A Sidhe could be lying on the other side of the hill, waiting for someone just as curious as he.

  "Right you are to be cautious," Spart said, a yard behind him. "Do you know what that is? Do they still have them on Earth?"

  "Of course," Michael said. "But not exactly… it's a horse."

  "The Cascar word is epon," Spart said, "a word so old it predates the earliest horses. There were other steeds in those times, stronger, even more noble. They did not last the wars. Shall we have a closer look?"

  "If you say so."

  "Yes," Spart said. "It is part of what you must learn."

  The horse pawed at the dirt and bent to nip blades of grass. As they drew closer, it reared up briefly, then cantered straight for Spart. She held out her broad hand and it buried its nose in her palm, closing its eyes and nuzzling.

  The horse's coat, up close, was velvety-shiny, the muscles packed tight beneath. Its legs were long and its head narrow, almost bony. The mane hung low on the neck but was well-kept; the horse had obviously been curried recently.

  "Where is it from?" he asked.

  "It crossed the Blasted Plain just a short while ago," Spart said. She patted golden dust from its withers. "Its masters await us beyond the borders. It will guide us across, and if we stay close, the sani will protect us." She held her palm out to him; there were sparkles in it like flecks of mica. "Would you like to ride?"

  Michael shook his head. "I've never ridden a horse."

  "You'll have to learn. Should it be now?" She wasn't asking Michael; she was addressing Coom and Nare, who walked casually up the other side of the hill, Nare with a blade of grass between her lips. They nodded noncommitally.

  Spart squinted at Michael and shrugged. "His choice," she said. "The horse is borrowed, after all." She walked around the animal, feelings its flanks and withers, caressing its hindquarters.

  Nare chuckled throatily and squatted a few yards away, pulling the grass from her lips and inspecting it. "When you plan to ride a horse," she said, "you walk up to it, look it in the eye, say to it, 'You are my soul, I am your master!' Believe it when you say it. Then… you mount."

  "Is that all?" Michael asked. Coom laughed, a sound like dragging slate between clenched teeth.

  "Yes," Spart said. "But to believe it, you must be able to ride like the Sidhe. No human can ride like the Sidhe. You already have souls. There is little room for a horse."

  "I might be able to learn," Michael said defiantly. "Maybe I'll ride just as well."

  "Then try." Spart cupped her hands to provide a stirrup. "Left foot up, right foot over."

  "No saddle?"

  "Unless you're carrying one with you."

  He put his left foot in her hands, grabbed hold of the lower neck and swung up and over. For a moment he hung in empty air, and then he landed
on his hands and knees, the wind knocked out of him. The horse stood a few paces away, shaking its head and snorting.

  "If you can't ride a horse," Nare said, observing him from where she sat, "act like one."

  Michael got to his feet. "It's fast," he said.

  "Some other time," Spart said. Once again, he felt his worth drop to zero. To regain some of his pride, he approached the horse a second time and patted its flank. It turned its pearly gray head toward him, large silver eyes blinking enigmatically. "Ho," he said. "Or something like that. Are we going to be friends?"

  The Sidhe horse flicked its tail at an imaginary fly and lifted one foreleg. "Listen," Michael whispered in its ear, after pulling the head down gently to his level with one hand on its nose. "I'm in bad enough shape without your dragging me any lower. They think I'm a klutz," he nodded at the Crane Women, "and I agree. If you won't be my soul, how about just being my buddy?"

  The horse raised its head, butting his hand away, then cocked its ears in his direction and gently bumped its nose into his chest.

  "Is it possible you have a way with horses?" Spart asked.

  "I wouldn't know; this is the first time."

  "Try again," Spart suggested. "If you succeed, maybe you won't have to cross the Blasted Plain on foot." She held her hands out to form a stirrup again. He stepped up and swung over onto the horse's back. The horse wriggled its back muscles and shook its head but stood steady. Michael wrapped his legs tighter and asked, a small quaver in his voice. "Do I ride it now?"

  Span's eyes turned to the west, where a cluster of three Sidhe horsemen moved slowly across the grassland about a mile away.

  "Who is that?" Michael asked.

  "The Wickmaster," Spart said, blinking slowly and reaching to take the horse by the chin.

  "Why is he here?"

  "Wants to meet the ones who wait for us," Nare said, standing. "Come. Let's cross now."