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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 15

Greg Bear


  "Michael needs a place to stay," Helena said.

  "Why? You have your place outside Halftown."

  "I don't want to be there," Michael said. "I'm leaving the Crane Women."

  Savarin frowned. "That's not good," he said. "I'm afraid there's no place in town for you. You don't have a job, and jobs are important. Outsiders are few and the accommodations are slim even for those living here."

  "I'll work at something."

  "You don't understand." Savarin sat on the end of a pew and spread his hands. "Lamia ordered you to the Crane Women. The townsfolk are in awe of Lamia, no matter how irreverent they may seem. If you displease her, you have no place here. Go back."

  Michael shook his head.

  "Savarin is right," Helena said. "I mean, I've only been here for a short time, and I have to accept things as they are. Getting along, doing things the accepted way."

  "Can't I share your room? Michael asked, glancing from one to the other. Helena's sympathetic smile was weaker this time.

  "You're young," Savarin said. Michael turned away, unable to bear the thought of another lecture.

  "Look," he said, "I know I'm young, I'm stupid, I'm clumsy. So what? I need a place to stay. I need some freedom."

  Savarin laughed bitterly. "Freedom? Show me a human in the Realm who has any freedom. Why should you be different?"

  "I didn't want to come here! Music didn't bring me here."

  "No," Savarin said. "You walked here, on your own volition. You knew you were going someplace. You tried harder to get here than we did. So you are a little less free. There's no place for you here in town." He tried to soften his words by adding, "Not that we wouldn't put you up if we could. But things are balanced very delicately now."

  "We can't afford to rock the boat," Helena restated.

  "I might manage to get you some food," Savarin said.

  "Me, too," Helena said. "And maybe some better clothes. Where did you get those?"

  Michael didn't answer. He looked at Helena imploringly, and realized his few hopes had been exploded. Without a word, he turned and left the school.

  "Michael-"

  He ran. Letting the familiar pleasures and pains of exertion fill him, blanking out his worries, he covered most of the distance to Halftown before forcing himself to slow to a walk.

  He didn't even know who he was any more. At one time he had been the young, bright son of well-to-do, talented parents, living in a prosperous neighborhood in a famous city, hoping - trying - to be a poet. Now he was ragged, bruised… yet stronger and swifter, and he had been forced to do something quite wonderful… or die. He didn't know who his friends were. He was angry at Savarin and Helena, but he didn't actually blame them___

  The Realm was a tough place to live.

  He entered the market courtyard in Halftown. The Breeds paid little attention to him; he was none of their concern. But Eleuth saw him from the workshed, where she was wrapping cloth goods for a customer, and her face lit up with a smile. When she saw his bruises, the smile changed to a look of concern. She finished tying the package and handed it to the tall Breed woman, who glanced at Michael sternly in passing.

  "Hello," Michael said.

  "They've been testing you again," Eleuth said, perching on a stool in front of him. Standing, she was a couple of inches taller. On the stool, her face was level with his.

  "How'd you guess?" He smirked, holding out his tattered sleeves.

  "And they won't let you stay in Euterpe."

  "Did you see me going there?"

  She shook her head. "I'm learning. Very slow, very difficult, but just looking at you I can tell a little of what happened. Why did you leave them?"

  "I don't want to die," Michael said. "And I don't think they much care if I do."

  "You could be wrong," Eleuth said. "But stay here. I have to work for a while."

  "I don't have anyplace else to go," Michael said.

  Eleuth smiled. "I mean, stay here with me. You can help. As long as they let you."

  Michael watched her return to her customers. Suddenly, a different kind of panic assailed him. What was he going to do, living with a Breed woman under the same roof?

  What would she expect him to do?

  Chapter Eighteen

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  "I'm closing now," Eleuth told Michael as dusk settled. 'Today seemed shorter than usual, didn't it? Adonna's whim, I suppose."

  She showed him how to pick up the baskets of merchandise from the board tables and where to put them in the shed, away from the elements. He helped her draw a tarp over the displays of heavier merchandise. "Nobody steals anything here?"

  "Certainly," Eleuth said. "But even Breeds can afford a few safeguards." She didn't explain, simply grinned at him as she closed the gate to the market courtyard. "Now. How long has it been since you ate?"

  "About a day and a half," he said. He hadn't noticed, but the reminder awoke his hunger.

  "I have some broth cooking, some Faer dishes… I hope it will be enough. I mean good enough for you."

  The house next to the market square was soon lit with oil lanterns and candles and a fire was kindled in the pit. Eleuth placed bread on the bricks to warm and stirred a pot suspended over a circle of embers. She offered Michael a cup of water from a cloth bag, cooled by evaporation, and asked him to sit on one of the two wooden chairs.

  "How old are you?" Michael asked as she finished gathering utensils and set a wicker table for them.

  "Oh, that's not a definite thing here," she said.

  "Can you guess?"

  "Not much older than you, by the looks."

  "But I'm sixteen, and you're… bigger."

  "That's natural for those with Sidhe blood. We grow up very fast."

  "Your father was half Sidhe?"

  Eleuth nodded. "My mother was human. She died long ago. I don't remember her very well. Now if I were full Sidhe, I'd either remember everything, or nothing. Depending on what I choose."

  "I feel so stupid, living in the Realm," Michael said quietly. Eleuth handed him a ceramic bowl filled with vegetable broth. It smelled spicy and was; his tongue was aflame after a few swallows.

  "Bread?" she offered. He tried to hide his discomfort by chewing on the durable, brown-crusted bread. "We all learn here, all the time," she continued, sitting across from him. "Isn't that true on Earth? I mean, mortals have finite lives; they must spend all their short years thinking themselves to be very ignorant."

  "I guess." A few more swallows and he seemed to get used to the spiciness. The warmth passed up his neck and into his head. His scalp was sweating.

  "As for me, I'm not terribly bright, even for a Breed. By Sidhe standards, I'm very slow. My father was a fine parent, but I think I was a disappointment to him."

  "He'd rather have had a son?"

  "Oh, no!" Eleuth laughed. "Sidhe always prefer daughters. Magic is more powerful in a family with daughters. But in my case, I inherited very little."

  "What can you do with magic?" Michael asked "I've seen some things, but…" He trailed off.

  "We probably shouldn't talk about it," Eleuth said. She took his empty bowl and filled it again. "You're not a Breed. I'm not sure why you're here or why they tolerate you. Do you know?"

  Michael shook his head. "I wish 1 did. I mean, I think I wish I knew. Maybe I don't want to know."

  "You must know eventually," Eleuth said. They ate in silence for a while. Then she picked up their empty bowls and stuck them in a pot of sand. She spun the pot on its pedestal and plucked the bowls out, clean.

  "You can sleep next to the hearth," she said. She took a rug down from its bar and laid it on the floor, then produced two blankets and a robe. "This was Lirg's," she said, handing the robe to him. "I'll sleep now. In the morning, you can pick out some other clothes. Good night."

  He lay on the rug and pulled the blankets over him. Eleuth put out the fire in the pit and pulled the screen over it, then slipped behind another h
anging into her room.

  He lay in the ember-lit dark for a few minutes, his mind turbulent but blank. His eyes shut.

  Sleep without dreams occupied no time at all. He came awake to the sound of weeping. It was Eleuth. Groggy, uncertain what to do, he sat up on the floor and listened for a minute, chin on his knees. Finally he stood, the old clothes binding him where he had twisted in his sleep. He approached the hanging.

  "Eleuth?"

  The sobbing became softer. "Eleuth, what's wrong?"

  "I'll be quiet," she said, her voice muffled.

  "No, what's wrong?"

  He pulled aside the hanging and saw her lying on a wooden pallet, blankets pulled up around her neck. Her face was streaked with tears which glinted in the light of the room's single candle.

  “I can't remember all the transactions," she said. "No matter how hard I try, I can't keep the accounts in my head."

  Michael leaned sleepily against the wall. "Then use paper."

  "Oh. no!" Eleuth said, shuddering as she wept. "We do not write anything down. That is…wrong. Lirg would be very disappointed in me." She wiped her face with her hands.

  "So you're different. Everybody's different."

  "I'll be all right," she said. "Go back to sleep now." She lay on her back and stared at the ceiling. He let the hanging slip back.

  "Michael?"

  He stopped at the edge of his bedclothes. "What?"

  "Are you afraid of Breeds? I mean, do you hate us?"

  "No," he said. "They're no worse than humans. Better than Sidhe. as near as I can tell."

  He heard her bare feet on the floor. She pulled back the hanging and stared out at him. Nothing was said for a time, then she motioned for him to come join her.

  "I'm mostly human," she said as she held back the blankets for him. He started to clünb in with his clothes still on, but she made a face and pushed him gently back. "Not with those," she said, undoing the strings which belted his pants. "Take off that shirt. You deserve much better."

  He felt very strange, excited but sleepy, afraid but calm. She smiled at his underclothes as he untied the fabric and let it hang in front of him. She took his hand and pulled him down beside her, then kissed his forehead.

  "You're tired," she said. 'Tonight we sleep."

  "I don't want to sleep just yet," he said. He put his arms around her, bunching the coarse, pliant fabric of her gown in one fist. He nuzzled her neck and she lifted her chin, closing her eyes. Then he kissed her. She tasted slightly electric, as if he were licking a dime. With one hand he undid the ties on the upper portion of her gown, revealing her breasts. They were dotted with pearly-gray freckles and her sternum rippled in the hollow between. He touched her skin gently with one finger, then rubbed his cheek against her breasts, feeling her warmth. She held his head and squeezed him closer, kissing his hair.

  "Sweet," she said. "Sana, dosa, sona"

  "What do I do now?" he asked, looking up at her, eyes half-closed.

  "Sleep, Michael," she crooned, stroking his brow. She nestled down beside him and he felt the bare stretch of her leg against his. He moved instinctively, but she restrained him. "Sleep," she repeated, but he didn't hear her finish the word.

  The morning began as a patch of gray light shining on the floor. Michael opened his eyes and looked at the light from where his head lolled over the side of the bed. He rolled on his back and saw Eleuth leaning on her elbow next to him, hair concealing her hand. She smiled and bent to kiss him. "You kept me very warm," she said. She ran her hand down his arm, tickling the hairs.

  They made love. It was the most wonderful thing, and the most silly thing. It had nothing of lust in it, only necessity. They lay holding each other and he secretly surveyed her breasts and stomach, and she secretly enjoyed him looking at her.

  Eleuth got out of bed, climbing over him with her hand cupped between her legs. She dipped a white cloth in a ceramic jar full of water and cleaned him off, then slipped on her pants and shirt. "No market this day," she said. "But I have a few things to do."

  He lay on the cot, half-covered with blankets, watching as the gray light became yellow.

  It was one of the most - no, the single most wonderful thing that had happened to him. He was pretty convinced of that. He couldn't remember anything finer, and yet…

  It had its drawbacks. In all the time he had spent here, there had always been some hope that it was all a dream, some long-play fantasy. But throughout his few pubescent years, he had never been able to have a fantasy so real or vivid as what had happened this morning.

  Ergo, he was not fantasizing. He had more than suspected as much. The drawback was that it was now proven.

  And yet…

  A certain hollowness remained. He was relaxed, as if a knot had been untied between his legs, a knot he had hardly realized was there until now. He had acquitted himself well; Eleuth had enjoyed him, and he sensed the knot flex and tighten as he remembered her enjoyment. His pleasure had been real but unspectacular, sure to get better with practice. Hers had been real and prolonged.

  So what about the hollowness? He couldn't put his finger on it. Like everything else in Sidhedark, the accomplishment (and that seemed a truthful but ridiculous word to use) came with a little hard gnarl of unease, of impending disaster.

  Michael realized that even if he made it back to Earth, he would still have that gnarl buried inside of him.

  Maybe that was part of growing up. Oddly enough, making love didn't make him feel any more adult. It was perhaps the most childish part of being grown-up.

  He was dozing when Eleuth entered, carrying three pieces of fruit. She handed him two of them and he smiled at her.

  "There's a legend on Earth, saying that if I eat this, I have to stay here forever."

  "I wouldn't object," Eleuth said, sitting on the bed beside him. "Bui you've already eaten fruit here, haven't you?"

  He nodded. "Could you teach me to speak Sidhe?"

  She shook her head slowly. "It's more difficult than a human language. Lirg tried teaching my mother. Only the Sidhe have a real knack. Sometimes, it's not even a language in your sense."

  "But I've been able to make out words."

  "Yes. Sometimes we use different words to mean the same things - - -And when we communicate, we in-speak. You allow me to speak your language. I in-speak… look into your mind, and find the words. I wish Lirg were here to explain it to you." Her eyes moistened again and he reached out to touch her shoulder. She lay down beside him. "What will you do today?"

  "Go to Savarin, I think," Michael said. "He didn't help me yesterday, but there are still things I need to know."

  "I'll teach you what I know," Eleuth said.

  "I'm grateful for that, but he may be able to explain things more clearly. He's a teacher."

  "Oh." They ate their fruit. "Can you help me here?"

  "Sure," Michael said. "Why don't you tell me what you need done before I go to Euterpe?"

  Together they counted rolls of fabric and pots. Eleuth brought out pants and shirts for him to try on, and he found a pair that fit reasonably well. Shoes were more difficult. Sidhe and Breed l

  feet were longer and narrower than human feet. Michael found a pair made out of canvas-like material that didn't actually pinch his toes, and Eleuth watched him with her vague puzzled expression as he stamped about, trying to get them to fit. i

  "They'll never believe it back on Earth," he said. "Faeries wear t tennis shoes." Then he laughed at the thought of trying to explain things at home. It was the first time he remembered laughing in the Realm. Eleuth smiled.

  She sewed a pocket into his shirt to hold the book and as'

  she cut the thread with her teeth and tied it off, she said, 'This afternoon I'm expecting a shipment. Could you be back by then to help?"

  "Sure. I thought everything just appeared out of nowhere," he teased. He pointed at the covered racks of merchandise in the storage room.

  "Oh, no," Eleuth said, her long face
betraying distress. "I'm not not nearly that skilled."

  He left when the sun was just below zenith and walked the distance to the human town at a leisurely pace. Something had loosened in him; he could observe things without the nervous tightness that had prevailed before. It seemed he now had the time to put everything in perspective.

  He also confronted the fact that he would soon have to tell Eleuth he couldn't stay forever, that he didn't love her. He •

  wasn't sure what he felt for her; gratitude, affection.

  But there was one image he couldn't erase from his mind: that of the Crane Women - immortal, but because of their human blood, changing with age. How long would it take for Eleuth to change?

  A few Breeds - a male and two females, all of that cast of features that indicated they were older than Eleuth, but how how much older he couldn't tell - were directing a horse cart along the road. They passed Michael without acknowledging his presence, holding their long heads high, their dull brown clothes rippling like fur beneath an unwanted touch. He turned to watch the cart, noting the wood-spoke wheels, the well-fitted but unornamented frame, the simplicity of the harness.

  At the inn, Brecker greeted him civilly while sweeping out the small lobby and told him Savarin was indeed back in his room. Michael climbed the stairs. Behind the wicker door, he heard Savarin humming to himself. Michael knocked on the wicker. "It's me."

  Savarin swung the door wide and smiled at him. "You've forgiven us, I hope?"

  "Yeah," Michael said. "I found a place in Halftown."

  Savarin invited him in and looked down the hall to see if anyone followed. "We want you to understand, it's not you we're afraid of."?

  "I know," Michael said. He didn't want to discuss it, but he knew Savarin would air the issue for a while. He sat on the edge of the washstand, lightly so as not to crush it.

  "It's just that we have to be careful. We stand between Lamia and the Sidhe, between rules that change from day to day. Have you had any trouble from the Crane Women?"

  Michael shook his head. "I haven't seen them. I came here-"

  "You still have to be careful. Where are you staying in Halftown?"