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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 18

Greg Bear

"Is there anything I can do?"

  She touched his cheek appreciatively. "No. I will be assigned another job, one better suited to my abilities."

  He felt a surge of guilt as she stroked his cheek.

  "I'm learning more rapidly," she said, her voice distant. "Soon I'll be able to do things a young Sidhe can do."

  "Magic, you mean."

  "Yes. Michael, we could go away today…" The look of misery in her face, the desperation, was more than he could stand. "To the river. It looks like it will be warmer… perhaps we could swim."

  Michael grimaced and shook his head. "I'm not sure I'll ever swim again."

  "Oh, the Riverines are seldom a problem in the daytime. Besides, I can see them long before they reach us."

  That hardly reassured him. Why not spend a day with her, though? It wasn't an unpleasant prospect. But his distance from her had grown now that it was obvious she needed someone, needed to lean on him. "I can't help anybody now," he said. She looked down at the ground.

  Finally the guilt - and a basic desire which made him feel worse - drove him to agree. "What about the market?" he asked as they left.

  "It is taken care of now. Come."

  The sun had reappeared, driving away most of the clouds. The afternoon was pleasantly warm. The river flowed broad and slow and was also warm - which would have surprised Michael, had they been on Earth. The water was clear enough to see long silver fish gliding in the depths, just above ghostly reeds. Eleuth lay naked on the bank and Michael lay on his side, facing away from her, his head supported in one hand. "How is the novice Sidhe doing?" Eleuth asked.

  He couldn't read her tone, so he turned away from the river to look at her. "Fine, I guess. I don't know what it takes to be a priest here - a priest of Adonna."

  "It takes compromises, my father said once. He once tried to worship Adonna like a Sidhe, but it wasn't productive. All the Sidhe have compromised. They worship Adonna, Adonna lets them live here."

  "How can worship be coerced?"

  "Some Sidhe are very dedicated to Adonna. They feel a kinship."

  "What kind of kinship?"

  "Adonna is like the Sidhe, Lirg said once. 'We deserve each other, we and our God; we are both incomplete and lost.' What is the God on Earth like?"

  "I'm an atheist," Michael said. "I don't believe there's a God on Earth."

  "Do you believe Adonna exists?"

  That took him aback. He hadn't really questioned the idea.

  This was a fantasy world, however grim, so of course gods could exist here. Earth was real, practical; no gods there. "I've never met him." Michael said.

  "II," Eleuth corrected. "Adonna boasts of no gender. And be glad that you haven't met it. Lirg says - said-" She suddenly fell quiet. "Does it bother you when I talk too much about Lirg?" she asked after some seconds had passed.

  "No. Why should it?"

  "Humans might wish the talk to center on themselves. Not on others. That's what I've heard."

  "I'm not an egotist," Michael said firmly. He looked at her long limbs, so lovely and pale and silky, and reached out to touch her thigh. She moved toward him, but the movement was too automatic, too acquiescing. He flashed on an image of Spart; what Eleuth would someday become.

  "I'm confused," he said, removing his hand and rolling on his back. Eleuth gently lay her chin on his chest, staring up at him with large eyes gone golden in the low-angled sunlight.

  "Why confused?"

  "Don't know what I should do."

  "Then you are free, perhaps."

  "I don't think so. Not free. Just stupid. I don't know what's right."

  "I am right when I love," Eleuth said. "I must be. There is no other way."

  "But why love me?"

  "Did I say I love you?" she asked. Again he was taken aback. He paused another minute before saying, "Whether you do or not," which was certainly witless enough.

  "Yes," Eleuth said. "I love you." She sat up, the muscles on her back sleek like a seal's, her spine a chain of rounded bumps. The sun almost touched the horizon, orange in the haze of the Blasted Plain. Her skin looked like molten silver mixed with gold, warm and yellow-white. "On Earth, do humans choose those they love?"

  "Sometimes," Michael said, but he thought not. He never had. His crushes had always been involuntary and fierce.

  "A pure Sidhe male does not love," Eleuth said. "He attaches, but it is not the same as love. Male Sidhe are not passionate; neither are most Breeds. Liaisons between Breed males and females are usually short. Lirg was different. He was passionate, devoted to my mother." She sounded regretful. "Sidhe women are passionate, desiring, far more often. They are seldom fulfilled." She turned to face him. "That is why there are Breeds in the first place. Sidhe females and human males - almost never the reverse. Why are you confused?"

  "I told you," he said.

  "Not really. You don't love me? That confuses you?"

  He said nothing, but finally nodded. "I like you. I'm grateful…"

  Eleuth smiled. "Does it matter, your not loving me?"

  "It doesn't feel right, making love and not reciprocating everything. Feeling everything."

  "Yet for all time, Sidhe males have not loved their geen. And we have survived. It is the way."

  Her resignation didn't help at all. It twisted the perverse knot a little tighter, however, and the only way he could see to forestall the discussion was to kiss her. Soon they were making love and his confusion intensified everything, made everything worse… and better.

  As dusk settled, they walked back to Halftown, Michael trailing his shirt in one hand. Eleuth held on to his arm, smiling as if at some inner joke.

  Chapter Twenty

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  The market courtyard was empty when they returned. Eleuth entered the house and began to stack her belongings in one comer. When she came to a brown rug, rolled and tied with twine, she paused and smiled, then undid the twine. "Do you have to go back right away?" she asked.

  "No," Michael said.

  "Then perhaps I can show you some of what I've learned." She lay the brown rug on the floor, smoothing out all the wrinkles, going from corner to corner on her hands and knees. "They'll leave me here for tonight, but tomorrow I must be gone. Lirg would be pleased with how far I've come; if I practice one more night here, it's almost like having him present." She kneeled on the rug and motioned for him to sit at one comer. "Lirg says the reason Breeds have a harder time with magic is because they're more like humans. They have more than one person inside them… but no soul."

  Michael opened his mouth to express doubts about that, but decided he wasn't the one to judge.

  "I'm not sure what he means… meant by that. But I feel the truth in it. Whenever I do magic, and I'm one person, it works. Sometimes my thoughts just split up, and many people talk in my head, and the magic fades. For a Sidhe, there is only one voice in the head, one discipline. So it's easier for a Sidhe to concentrate."

  "Maybe that's what he meant - just concentration."

  "No, it's deeper than that. Lirg said…" She sighed and sat up on her knees. "A Sidhe would be very upset to talk about his parents all the tune. Breeds like to think they're Sidhe… but I'm mostly human. Anyway, when you bring it all down to one person willing one thing, magic just flows. The next hardest thing is controlling it. Now little magic is easy to control. For a split second you tie up the Realm with your head and there it is, what you want done is done. The Realm flows for you. It's almost automatic, like walking. But big magic… that's very complicated. Shall I explain more?"

  Michael nodded. His mouth was a little dry. Eleuth lay on the rug, staring at him steadily with her large dark eyes, her straight hair falling down around her shoulders and curling over one breast.

  "The Sidhe part of a Breed knows instinctively that any world is just a song of addings and takings away. To do grand magic, you must be completely in tune with the world - adding when the world adds, taking away when the world tak
es away. Then it becomes possible to turn the song around, and make the world be in tune with you, for a few moments, at least. A world is just one long, difficult song. The difference between the Realm and your home, that's just the difference between one song and another." She closed her eyes and chanted. "Toh kelih ondulya, med not ondulya trasn spaan not kod."

  "What does that mean?"

  "It means something like, 'All is waves, with nothing waving across no distance at all.'"

  Michael gave a low whistle and shook his head. "And you feel all that?"

  "When it works," she said. "Now sit farther back, on the edge of the blanket. I won't be able to talk to you for a while, because I can't listen to you in-speak. Understand?"

  "Yes." Maybe.

  She stood in the middle of the blanket and held out her arms, then swung them to point at opposite comers, as if doing slow exercises. Michael looked at the corner on his left and saw a curl of darkness, as tiny as a thumbnail, seem to screw the rug to the floor. The rug tensed under his knees as if alive.

  She held her arms down at her side and closed her eyes, lifting her chin. Her fingers straightened.

  For the merest instant, four glowing pillars rose from each corner and passed through the roof as if it weren't there, into a greater darkness high above. She held out her hand, fingers clenched into a fist, and spun once. Her eyes flashed just as he blinked and in the moment his lids were closed, the room seemed bright enough to be seen clearly through the skin.

  She knelt in front of him, held out her fist and uncurled it. A beetle lay in the middle of her palm, like a scarab but deep metallic green, with velvety green wing cases. It moved slowly, turning as if confused.

  "That's very nice," Michael said, not sure whether to be impressed or not.

  "It was a cold night, with clouds and the sky filled with light," she said."It was a kind of road, hard and black, with white lines and golden dots and grass imprisoned in rock on each side, and trees in the grass." She pointed to the beetle. "This was… there. So I brought it back."

  Michael blinked. "I-"

  "I brought it for you from your home," Eleuth said. "You live in a very strange place."

  The beetle crawled a half inch across her palm, then stopped and rolled over. Its legs kicked feebly and it was still. Eleuth looked down on it with concern and touched it gently with one finger. Drops of water glistened on the finger, as if…

  As if it had searched through wet grass.

  "Is it dead?" Michael asked.

  Tears brimmed in Eleuth's eyes. "I think so. I have so much to learn."

  It was dark and very cold when he returned to the mound. The windows of the Crane Women's hut glowed brightly. Spart waited for him between the huts, standing on one leg. She crooked a finger at him, lowered her leg, and strode to his hut. He followed. She gestured for him to pull back the cover and he complied. She snapped her fingers and the letters of the poem in the dirt glowed. "Where did that come from?

  "I'm a poet," he said, resenting her intrusion. "I write poetry. There's no paper here, so I write it in the dirt."

  "Yes, but where does it come from?"

  "How should I know? It's poetry."

  "Do you know how old this poem is?" she asked, pointing to the last few lines. "In its Cascar version?"

  Michael shook his head. "I just wrote it."

  "It is dangerous to write such things. Your play with the Breed girl is making you a very interesting student." She walked away, her long limbs carrying her like a two-legged spider.

  "It's my poem," he called after her. He heard a scratching noise behind him and saw Nare peering around the door into the hut's inner darkness. She mouthed a few words, her eyes focused on the glowing scrawls. "Tonn's Kaeli," she said, grinning at Michael. She straightened and followed Spart.

  The air smelled of dust and electricity, though the night sky was cloudless. He lay on the grass reeds, shivering, and thought briefly of Eleuth and what she had done, then more lingeringly of Helena. He wondered what Helena was doing, and when he would get to see her again… and he wondered if she could ever be as affectionate as Eleuth.

  (What Eleuth had done…)

  It seemed almost too much to hope for.

  Chapter Twenty-One

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  The few times Michael saw the Crane Women training Bin, they spoke Cascar and he couldn't understand precisely what was happening. They continued to work with Michael, and as the days passed and the weather grew colder, Nare finally devoted a day to teaching him how to harness hyloka, or draw-ing-of-heat-from-the-center. He was just beginning to get the hang of the discipline when she abandoned him, and, for a week, they concentrated on Bin from dawn to dusk.

  On a bitterly cold morning, Michael came out of his hut and saw Bin in the middle of the mound with the Crane Women. They surrounded him with linked hands, their eyes closed and faces upturned to the cool blue sky. Snow fell around them in lazy, sauntering flakes. Michael sat cross-legged on the dirt before his hut door.

  For hours, the group simply stood, doing nothing. Michael wrote poems in the hardening dirt and scratched them out, peering up now and then to see if anything had changed. He tried to recapture the sensation of an inner, separate voice, but failed.

  Finally, Bin collapsed between them and the crane Women broke away, backing up, crouched over like birds of prey, their eyes wide and lips pressed tightly together. They went to their hut and left Bin where he lay. Michael went to him and bent over, feeling his forehead.

  "Are you all right?"

  "Go away," Bin said, eyes scrunched shut.

  "Just asking," Michael said. Spart came running from the house, arms swinging.

  "Go!" she screeched. "Leave him alone! Get out of here!"

  "Forever, you mean?" he asked resentfully, running ahead of her shooing hands.

  "Come back at dusk." She looked down on Bin, who hadn't moved.

  "Is he all right?"

  "No. Go now."

  Michael walked across the stream, glancing over his shoulder at the frozen tableau of Spart and the prostrate Sidhe. He frowned and kicked at small rocks on the road to Euterpe.

  The snow fell more heavily, forming speckled caps on the bushes and grass clumps by the roadside. He practiced hyloka as he walked, and felt a gradual spreading of warmth from the pit of his stomach.

  How many days had he been in the Realm? His concentration was broken by the question and he became cold rapidly. He had lost count of the days; perhaps two months, perhaps two and a half or three. Everything had merged into training, running, casting shadows, with highlights of terror, of Eleuth's affection, and thoughts of Helena.

  He frowned and bore down on hyloka again, feeling new heat rise in his chest and spread down his arms. He smiled and swung his arms experimentally. The chill was dispelled. When Euterpe was in sight, he quickened his pace. His face was flushed and his fingers tingled.

  He thought of Biri lying on the ground in apparent agony and was very glad he wasn't a Sidhe. He felt almost giddy with relief that he was Michael Perrin. He was even glad to be in the Realm, because otherwise he wouldn't be so warm, standing in the snow; so warm and comfortable. He kicked his legs and didn't notice the thin trickle of smoke.

  Michael was dancing by the time he reached the outskirts of Euterpe. He jigged past the outer houses, grinning and humming. He wondered vaguely why he was so happy, and turned up the street to Helena's alley.

  A thin coat of ice crusted the cobbles in the central gutter. As he danced, his feet didn't so much crack the ice as melt it. They left steaming tracks. He leaped and ran around the corner of the alley, hollering as he passed between the blank stone walls. In his ecstasy, he seemed to find the inner voice again, and was about to chant a snatch of poetry when he came to the bottom of the stairs. He stopped, somewhat daunted. He didn't want to be less than dignified around Helena.

  Michael's feet hissed on the steps. He stood by Helena's doorway, knocking on the f
rame. Something was burning. He looked around, puzzled, hoping it was only a cooking fire and not the building. The smell grew stronger. He lifted his arm to scratch his nose.

  The sleeve of his shirt smoked. He stared at it for a moment, dumbfounded. Heat radiated from his skin. Flames curled from the edge of the fabric, small and dull at first; then the entire sleeve ignited. He clawed and tugged his way out of the shirt, casting it to the floor, where it sent up volumes of gray smoke. He dropped to his knees and pulled the book from its pocket, dropping it as his fingers scorched the binding.

  The pants caught next and he kicked out of them, brushing bits of char and smoking fragments from his legs.

  His breathing was deep and rapid. The walls of the hallway reflected an orange glow, but the clothing had extinguished itself. His whole body tingled and euphoria mixed with his astonishment and fear. He wanted to dance again, but instead decided it was time to do some hard thinking.

  About what? About something left untended… let out of control. And that was… yes?

  Hyloka. He hadn't stopped the drawing of heat from the center. He shook his head in comic exasperation and concentrated on the center of warmth, gradually damping it down. His hand was still ruddy, so he damped the impulse further. Normal skin color returned.

  With the heat went the euphoria. Michael suddenly realized he was standing naked in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by the blackened remains of his clothes…

  In front of Helena's door.

  It was worse than any nightmare of embarrassment he had ever had. He had burned his clothes off his back. He bent to pick up the book, and without thinking he pushed on the wicker door. It opened - there were no locks in Euterpe - and he darted inside.

  Several seconds passed before he was calm enough to realize she wasn't home. Chilled again, he looked around for something to wear. The closet - a wicker armoire - yielded a long skirt which he tied around his waist. He found a kind of short jacket which barely fit his shoulders and was about to sneak out when the wicker door swung open again.

  Helena came in with several scraps of cloth draped over her arm and a sewing kit in one hand.