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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 16

Greg Bear

"That isn't important," Michael said. "I want you to tell me what you know about Sidhe language. I can't get anywhere if I can't understand what they're saying."

  Savarin cocked his head to one side and lifted his eyebrows. "Tall order. You have to be largely Sidhe to pick up on all of the tongues. I'd say the resemblances between Sidhe and human languages are strong, but the syntax and methods of understanding are quite different. For example, the Sidhe use a metalanguage… a language of contexts. And Cascar is like a hundred languages thrown together. They never run out of words that mean the same thing, or very nearly. I can't speak it well. I can sometimes make myself understood, but…"

  "I understood it for a time," Michael said. "During the Kaeli. One of the Crane Women touched my head, and I understood everything they said."

  "And what was that like?"

  Michael thought back. "Like listening to music. Each word seemed to be the equivalent of a note. Notes are always the same in music, but place them next to each other and they sound different… or lengthen the notes, shorten them. Use the same word in a different context, and it means something else… sounds different."

  "Perhaps you should be educating me," Savarin said.

  "But it didn't last. I don't remember anything from that night, except what they said… and even that's fuzzy. They were singing, but not singing. I need to know so-" He stopped himself. "I just need to know."

  "Because you still plan on leaving the Realm," Savarin said.

  Michael turned his eyes away and pointed his index fingers together.

  "I don't recommend that. First of all, Alyons will hunt you. No human can escape his coursers. Second, Lamia will resent even the attempt - and, as I've said before, I wouldn't want to cross her. I don't know what the Crane Women will do."

  "I haven't thought much about that," Michael said. "I'm just struggling. I don't want to be anyone's responsibility."

  "Just thank the stars you are," Savarin said. "I've known people to come here, Alyons takes them - and we never see them again - despite the Pact! We dare not object. To what end does he take them? Nobody knows. But you! You seem to be protected. He has not taken you… even though he's tried." He put his hand on Michael's knee and stared at him earnestly. "Go back. Keep up the training. It's for a purpose, I'm sure."

  "I don't see it that way," Michael said. Savarin shrugged.

  "Then we'll discuss Cascar and Nerb. Do you know the difference?"

  "No."

  Savarin explained that Cascar was a younger, less formal language. He believed it had arisen after the Sidhe returned to Earth, and that it was the proto-language out of which had arisen several of the major human language groups, the most familiar of them, for Savarin, belonging to the Indo-European branch. "Certainly the words sound familiar," he said. "Their word for us - a word which never changes, you notice? - is antros. Sometimes they call us males - wires, as in virile, no? - or female, geen, and the latter they apply to their females as well - but as a kind, we are always antros. A spit-word, so to speak.

  "As for Nerb, not many Breeds speak it, and none of the Sidhe I've encountered."

  "I haven't heard much about it, if anything. So say something to me in Cascar."

  "Pir na? Bed antros lingas ta rup la pistr."

  "What's that mean?"

  "'Why? Humans talk as if they have stone tongues.' It's something a Breed once told me. Lingas means both language and speaking and tongue. Context is important, and pitch, as in Chinese. There are other Cascar words for language, meaning eating with the tongue, spitting with the tongue, magic with the tongue. Calling birds with the tongue. All different."

  "How do they learn it?"

  'They're Sidhe," Savarin said laconically. "It comes naturally to them. Nearly every Sidhe and Breed I've met knows how to speak the human languages I'm familiar with. Do they suck the knowledge out of my mind? I don't know. But they only speak Cascar to us when they don't want us to understand, or when they wish to be belligerent." He paused, looking almost sad. "There's another language I've heard hinted at. I know almost nothing about it but mat it exists. One of its many names is Kesh. An unspoken language, used during the star-marches. Not, as you might suspect, a kind of ESP, but something different.

  "And to make things even more confusing, I'm tracking down evidence that the Sidhe picked up words from humans - words from tinker's cant, Celtic languages, etc.; picked them up during their last centuries on Earth. There is a section in 'Hudibras' by Samuel Butler - if I can remember…" He screwed up his face in concentration and peered at the ceiling."'But when he pleased to shew't, his speech/ In loftiness of sound was rich;

  A Babylonish dialect

  Which learned pedants much affect;

  It was a party coloured dress

  Of patch'd and py-ball'd languages;

  Twas (Irish) cut on Greek and Latin

  Like fustian heretofore on sattin.

  It had an odd promiscuous tone,

  As if h' had talk'd three parts in one;

  Which made some think, when he did gabble,

  Th' had heard three labourers of Babel;

  Or Cerberus himself pronounce

  A leash of languages at once.'"

  "We're like little babies here," Michael said, sighing.

  Savarin nodded. "Now perhaps you can tell me why they simply haven't slaughtered us all?"

  "Do they hate us that much?"

  Savarin's expression brightened "Can you tell me anything about the Council of Eleu? Does that sound familiar?"

  Michael couldn't remember hearing anything about it.

  "Then listen closely. You're going to be associating with Breed and Sidhe more and more, whatever your personal wishes may be. Just listen for it. 'Council of Eleu.' And if you find out anything, tell me immediately! To answer your question, no, not all of them hate us. And the Council of Eleu has something to do with those who tolerate us."

  Something flashed into Michael's head and he struggled to keep it, to clarify it. A group of tall, pale figures talking about him. Something about his room in the house on Earth… but it was gone before he could grasp it. "I'll let you know if I hear anything," he said. "How's Helena?"

  "Well," Savarin said. "She worries we gave you the wrong impression, that you hate us, hate her."

  "I don't hate anybody," Michael said. "I'd like to talk to her some more."

  "Certainly. She's working now, I'm sure, but we could walk over later-"

  "No. I'll go myself. I have to ask her some things."

  "Certainly," Savarin said. His lips normally carried a slight sardonic smile; now the expression took on significance. "I believe there is something you must know, very soon."

  "What?"

  "Human sex is dangerous here."

  "Why?"

  "Such things are closely regulated. We do not want children. The Sidhe and Breeds can have young - we cannot."

  Michael just looked at him.

  "The people who have been here longest, and the Breeds, say it is because there are no seedling souls in the Realm. A human child is bom empty. A Sidhe or Breed child is expected to be that way, and already has an internal… how would we say… compensation. But human children are vessels waiting to be filled. They are filled by creatures from the Blasted Plain - Adonna's own aborted children, some say." He set his lips and waved off any further inquiry. 'Talk about it is considered obscene. No more."

  "There's just one other thing," Michael said. "I'm a young fellow - everyone keeps saying that - but why do humans put up with all this crap?"

  "What else can we do?" Savarin scrutinized him intensely, as if looking for something hidden in his face. Then the perpetual half-smile returned and the scholar leaned back, folding his hands in front of him and cracking his knuckles. "You'll learn soon enough," he said in a low voice. "Why not go and talk with Helena now. She should be done with her work."

  Michael didn't expect to be dismissed, but Savarin was obviously thinking about other things. Michael stood
and held out his hand. Savarin grasped it and shook it loosely, then fluttered his fingers in the direction of the doorway. "Go on," he said. "And thank you for coming back. We thought we'd lost you when you ran away."

  Michael nodded and shut the wicker door behind him. Savarin resumed humming, keeping it low enough so it couldn't be heard more than a few feet outside.

  He snapped his fingers while he walked, caught himself, and stuffed his thumb into the fabric tie of his pants. It was early afternoon and the town was slowing down; shops were closing, people were strolling in pairs down the narrow streets, some heading for the ramshackle school, others just walking, talking. Michael saw an oriental man and woman speaking what sounded like Chinese.

  His last question - and Savarin's subsequent expression - kept echoing in his mind. Resistance seemed only natural when somebody oppressed you. Michael's father had often talked about his student days at UCLA - talk which had bored Michael slightly, but came back to him now as a model of how Americans, at least, behaved when they thought something was wrong. Michael wondered if the humans in the Realm could organize a protest, maybe set up a blockade. Keep Sidhe out of Euterpe at least… passive resistance.

  He grinned at how silly it sounded. Alyons would handle a blockade in short order. Some people would probably get killed. Maybe he'd be the first.

  He still found it hard to believe that he could die in the Realm. Death had been a difficult enough concept on Earth, but here, with everything topsy-turvy and so many fantastic phenomena, how could anyone actually die? So what if it wasn't a dream, he told himself. It wasn't exactly reality either.

  His reverie carried him to the steps below Helena's doorway.

  He walked up slowly, apprehensive. He nibbed his chin to check the length of peach-fuzz. A few of the real whiskers he had started were getting quite long now; he hadn't thought about them until this moment, but he wished he had a mirror and a pair of scissors to snip them off.

  He had a panicky moment just before knocking, when he told himself it would be best just to run away, head out across the -

  Helena opened the door.

  "Hi," he said, dropping his hand from his chin.

  "Hi yourself. I heard you breathing."

  "Yeah," Michael said. "I wanted to apologize for running away like that."

  "No apology needed," Helena said. She seemed subdued. She opened the door wider and invited him in, then left the door open and blocked it with a brick. "It must be rough on you. Confusing."

  "I guess. Anyway, that's no excuse to act like a little kid. To be rude, I mean."

  "I'm glad you came back," she said, standing a few feet away. "Would you like to sit?" They sat and Helena bit on a thumbnail, watching him but not really seeing him.

  "Is something wrong?" he asked.

  She seemed to reach a decision and leaned forward, staring at him earnestly. "Michael, will you swear something for me? Double swear? Because I'm taking a big risk."

  "What risk?"

  "Will you swear?"

  "Swear to what, Helena?"

  She stood nervously and paced in front of him, waving her arms as she spoke. "You're a sweet fellow, but you didn't understand what we meant yesterday. You know how strange you are, being taken care of by Breeds and so on."

  "I guess," Michael said.

  "Don't guess. Do you know?"

  "It's strange to me, that's for sure."

  "Well, it's even stranger for us. Nobody from here - I mean humans - has ever been given that treatment before. So it makes us wonder, are you a double agent or what? A Sidhe who just looks human?"

  "I'm not a Sidhe," Michael said, laughing.

  "No, I don't think you are. You sweat when you're nervous." She giggled and placed her hand reassuringly on his shoulder, letting the fingers linger, gripping him. "So you have to swear to me, you're not a double agent, you're not a plant or whatever put here to catch us."

  "I swear," Michael said.

  "Your eyes look so human," Helena said. "Such a nice green color. What's happened to you since yesterday?"

  Michael blinked at the change in subject. "I found a place to live in Halftown."

  "Oh, where?"

  "You wanted me to swear. I did. So what next?"

  Helena kneeled down before him. "You know Savarin. He's a scholar. There are other people you haven't met, except one of them came to see you that night they gave the dinner. When you came to town. A short, heavy fellow with black hair."

  Michael didn't remember him.

  "Well, anyway, he saw you, and th6ught sometime we'd have to decide whether to contact you."

  A bell rang in the town plaza. Michael went to the window to listen.

  "So you're contacting me," he said.

  Helena stepped up beside him. "That's the warning bell," she said, her voice quavering. "Alyons is here, or some of his riders. So I'll tell you quickly. We found a cache of Sidhe metal. Never mind where. Some people here are keeping it, making it into… things. A piano, for one. What I wouldn't give to hear a piano again! But they won't let us play it, of course, until after-" She stopped abruptly, her face paling. Hoof steps sounded in the narrow alleyway. "Michael!"

  "What?"

  "Are they after you, or did you bring them here?"

  "I'm not one of them," Michael said. She grasped his arm.

  "They're outside!"

  Alyons and two of his coursers paced at leisure on horseback toward the door at the end of the alleyway. Alyons glanced up and spotted Michael in the window. Michael pulled back.

  "Antros! Your presence is requested!"

  "They do want you," Helena said.

  "It looks that way."

  "Oh, don't tell them anything. I'm so frightened. Where will they take you?"

  "I don't know," Michael said. He stepped out into the hall and looked the opposite way. If he could only get back into that mindset again - - He turned to Helena and took her hand clumsily in his, having to grasp it twice before holding it firm. He had a crazy urge to laugh. "A piano, eh?"

  "Shh!"

  "That's not what I had in mind, but I guess that's pretty subversive."

  "Man-child!" Alyons called.

  He kissed her hand and felt a flush of pride mix with his fear. A Sidhe appeared in the door at the bottom of the stairs. Michael unceremoniously pushed Helena back into her room and shut the door. He stood at the top of the steps, looking down on the courser with what he hoped passed for imperious disdain. "What do you want?"

  The courser began climbing, giving no answer. Michael looked to either side of the Sidhe, wondering if he could play the uncertain flower down the stairs. There was only one way to find out. With all his speed and concentration, he dashed down the steps, trying to send a shadow to one side and swerve himself to the other. The courser grabbed him without hesitation and placed him under one arm as easily as if he carried a trussed pig, then turned and marched out the door, presenting him to the Wickmaster.

  They exchanged a few words in Cascar and Michael looked directly at Alyons.

  "So you're learning from the Crane Women," the Wick-master said. "But not too well."

  The courser spoke again and they laughed. "Never make a shadow when there are only two ways to send it," Alyons advised. He hefted his wick and motioned for Michael to be tied behind his horse. They skillfully reversed the horses in the narrow alley and left with Michael in tow. He looked over his shoulder and saw Helena at the window, her face pale. His hands were tied by the trailing rope; he could do nothing. For a moment, he had feared the Sidhe would take her, as well.

  They pulled him out of town, walking their horses just fast enough to keep him half-running. They joined another group of four, making a total of seven Sidhe, and jerked Michael down the road to the Isomage's mansion.

  Chapter Nineteen

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  The troop led Michael up the path to the Isomage's house, jerking sharply on his rope as he fell back. Alyons dismounted and wen
t inside while the others waited, silent and aloof even from each other.

  After some minutes, Alyons emerged and took the end of Michael's rope. He reeled it in until he stood just two feet from Michael, towering over him. "She wants to speak with you, man-child." His expression was stony and his eyes seemed fixed in their sockets as he turned away, pulling Michael by his tied and outstretched hands. Alyons seemed to be in a state of controlled rage, which perversely made Michael more optimistic; if the circumstances weren't to Alyons' liking, perhaps he wasn't in as much trouble as he'd thought.

  The interior of the house was as he remembered, only darker and cooler. The sun was now on the horizon. The day had been particularly short.

  The staircase led up into brighter light from the narrow windows along the entry way. Lamia stood on the balcony, her tiny, finely molded hands gripping the railing.

  "Is he down there?" she asked.

  "As you requested," Alyons said, his tone dripping contempt.

  "Send him up to me."

  The Wickmaster took his time undoing the rope, his long corded fingers cool against Michael's arms. "Go," he said. He gave Michael an unnecessarily hard push and pointed up the stairs. Michael ascended, rubbing his reddened wrists and watching the daylight grow dull in the upper reaches. He didn't fancy staying in the house after dark, but even less did he fancy traveling with the coursers at night, or walking back to the town alone. He met Lamia on the landing.

  A change had come over her. He could see it even in the fading light. Her skin was waxen, her face tighter, as if she wore a restraining mask. Around her eyes, scaly patches had started to flake away and her hands were criss-crossed with tiny thin wrinkles like cracks in bread dough. He stopped five paces from her. Lamia made no move toward him, instead regarding him with a wavering gaze. She seemed deadly tired.

  "You grieve me, boy," she said softly. "I set you a task and you run from it."

  "I don't like being a slave," he said.

  "You're… no… slave." Her voice carried bitter humor. "You're freer than I am, freer than Alyons down there." She gestured with a trembling hand and immediately returned it to the railing to support herself. Michael stared down into the lower floor's gloom. Alyons stood at the foot of the stairs, head bowed, twisting the rope and coiling it in his fingers.