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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 19

Greg Bear


  "Hello," Michael said by way of warning. She turned slowly and regarded him with wide eyes.

  "What in hell is wrong with you?" she asked a moment later. He was shivering, mortified, but he managed a miserable smile. "I burned my clothes," he said.

  "Jesus H. Christ." Helena propped the door open with her foot, as if contemplating escape. She glanced down at the blackened rags in the hallway. "Why?"

  "I was trying to keep warm," Michael said. "It got away from me. I was, you know, drawing heat from the center. . .. Spart calls it hyloka-"

  "You're only making it worse," Helena said, relaxing. She folded the fabric over the back of a chair and laid the sewing kit on the seat. "Start at the beginning."

  Michael explained as best he could, and when he was done, Helena nodded dubiously. "So you dress up in my clothes. That's my only skirt, you know."

  "I wouldn't fit in your pants," Michael said.

  "Indeed you wouldn't. What are you going to do? Wear my only dress around? How many clothes do you have?"

  "Just those," Michael said, pointing toward the hall. "I was-"

  "Why did you come here to burn your clothes?"

  His mortification turned into agony. He stammered and felt the start of tears. Then he saw she was enjoying the whole situation, egging him on. "I was coming to visit. It was snowing."

  Helena suddenly started laughing. She bent over and fell back on the chair, knocking the kit to the floor. "I'm so-o-rry," she cackled. "I'm really so-o-o-rry!"

  Michael saw the humor, but couldn't bring himself to join her. "I'll go now," he said.

  "Not in my dress, you won't. What are we going to do? I don't have any men's clothes here."

  "Borrow some, maybe," he suggested hopefully.

  She restrained her mirth and picked up the sewing kit. "Actually," she said, walking around him, "you don't look half bad. Maybe I'll let you wear it."

  "Helena, please."

  "All right. I shouldn't laugh."

  "I'm sure it's very funny," Michael said. "I'd be laughing, too, but it's me standing here like an ass, and in your apartment, too. And it's me wearing your clothes-"

  "Why did you come back? I've seen so little of you."

  'To talk. Up until a few days ago, they've been keeping me busy." He hoped she hadn't heard about Eleuth; he didn't know what kind of gossip network there was in Euterpe. No doubt he would soon find out. "You won't tell anybody, will you?"

  "No. Michael, you are the most unusual person I've ever met, and you get weirder every time I see you."

  "It's just this place, everything about it."

  "Oh. You're normal, then."

  "Yeah - No, I mean, not like everybody else-"

  "Enough, enough," Helena said. "I'll go find Savarin and tell him you need some clothes. He might know where to get them - fabric is scarce around here, you know. You can't just cook it off every chance you get." She giggled. "I'm even bringing home stuff mangled in the tubs at the laundry," she said, pointing to the fabric. "It's part of my job to patch it up."

  "Don't tell Savarin. Don't bring him here, please."

  "But we'll need an excuse. Some reason why you need new clothes."

  'Tell him I wore mine out training."

  "Sure. And walked naked through town to my apartment."

  "Then make something up! Please."

  "I'll be circumspect. I'll tell him it's a secret. You know what he'll think then?" She put on a prim expression. "Well, let him think whatever he wants." She went to the door. "I'll be back shortly. Don't go anywhere."

  "You don't need to tell me that," he said.

  She gave him one final glance, shook her head, and closed the door. Michael looked down at the blouse that barely fit across his chest, and the dress, and gave a helpless groan. He sat on the chair and nibbed his face with his hands, then lifted his head and looked around the small apartment.

  Sitting on the wicker table near the chair was a rounded piece of what appeared to be driftwood. He wondered where it had come from; it was displayed prominently, like a kind of treasure. Wood was highly regarded by the humans. The Breeds were forbidden to trade wood, and he doubted Sidhe traders would supply any to humans. He wondered if he could procure some for Helena, perhaps a board from his hut; anything to make up for what he had just done.

  Near the window looking down into the alley was a tall, columnar ceramic vase with three leafy sticks giving out one small yellow bud. He walked over and sniffed it, but there was no odor.

  The rest of the room was quite spare. Still, after his hut, Helena's apartment seemed like the height of civilization.

  An hour passed before she returned with a cloth bag and held it out to him. "Go into the back room and put these on," she said. "Savarin asked Risky for some leftovers. She had them from a tenant who disappeared years ago. They should fit."

  Michael did as he was told and used the opportunity to examine her sleeping quarters. The bed was made of - what else? - wicker, with a mattress stuffed with vegetable fiber, not precisely straw. Over it were two plain, thin blankets. The area was barely large enough for a single bed. On the walls, more flowers had been hand-painted, clumsy but somehow charming.

  Helena examined him critically when he returned through the curtain. "Well," she said, finger to cheek, "it's not the tailored look, but it will have to do."

  "There's no pocket for my book," he said. He held up the volume, which was starting to look the worse for wear.

  "I'll make you a pocket with some scraps," Helena said. "Give me the shirt." He removed the shirt and handed it to her.

  "So you won't be needing any warm clothes, hm?" Helena asked as she cut out a patch pocket and began to apply it.

  "I don't want to use hyloka again until I know how to control it," he said. He sighed. "There are so many really strange things to watch out for."

  She looked at his naked chest as she sewed on the pocket. He shifted on his chair and pretended interest in the window. He wasn't scrawny but his skin was pale and he was self-conscious. He would never pass for a pin-up.

  "You're getting heftier," she said. "Must be the training. Too bad baggy clothes hide it."

  Snow was falling again. "Does it get real cold here?"

  "Looks like winter's getting started, but you can't always count on it. When winter sets in for sure, it gets very cold. The laundry shuts down, everything stops. Winter is a good time to hide things. The Wickmaster hardly ever comes through then. He doesn't want to see how miserable everybody is. He has to keep us reasonably well-cared for, and what he doesn't see, he doesn't have to correct."

  She finished the sewing and put the needle away. "There. A pocket." She passed the shirt to him and turned her chair around to watch as he put it on. "A regular ragamuffin. Have you thought much about what I said?"

  He buttoned the front and slipped the book into place. "Said?"

  "About our group."

  "Oh. I've thought about it. I'm wondering what you'll do with a piano."

  She stood and peered out the window into the alley, then drew closer to him. "It's not just the piano," she said. "It's bigger than that. The piano's nice, though." A distant look came into her eyes. "I'm all out of practice. My fingers are ruined." She wriggled them and made as if to pound a keyboard. "Stiff. Calluses. But like I was saying, we have other plans. Savarin thinks we can trust you. The Wickmaster seems to hate your guts. Of course, maybe that's just a ruse…There have been humans who have gone over to the Sidhe." She looked at him sharply. "You're more mixed-up with the Breeds than with the Sidhe, and the Sidhe and Breeds aren't exactly close. But we have one reservation."

  "Yes?" He felt vaguely guilty and grit his teeth.

  "Why are the Crane Women so interested in you?"

  "I think because of Lamia," he said. "But listen, if you don't trust me, forget it. Don't tell me anything."

  "You don't know why you're being trained?"

  "Savarin and I have been through all this before. I'm probably th
e most ignorant person in the Realm."

  Helena laughed. "Don't be upset…well, we have to be careful. You know how serious things are. What do you know about the Pact?"

  "That the Isomage, or David Clarkham, or whoever he is, fought a battle and won some concessions."

  "He lost."

  "Yeah, but he made the Sidhe agree to set up the Pact Lands. I suppose having Alyons watch over us was part of it."

  "Savarin says Alyons was sent here as punishment for breaking a Sidhe law. But what I'm getting at is, if we put up some kind of resistance, or try to change things, the Pact is off. Alyons can do what he wants with us."

  "You're not thinking of resisting?" He remembered Biri running around the rock, powdering it, and Biri was just a young, inexperienced Sidhe. What could a Wickmaster do, if all restrictions were off?

  "Yes," Helena affirmed, her eyes wide with excitement. "Isn't it about time?"

  "Is Savarin the leader?"

  "Heavens no. Someone you have yet to meet."

  "But I shouldn't know his name."

  She hesitated, then shook her head. "Not until we're positive you can be trusted."

  "Do you trust me?"

  "I think so," Helena said after a moment. "Yes, I trust you." She smiled broadly and rocked back and forth in her chair. "Nobody could be an undercover agent and bum his clothes off on my doorstep."

  "So what are you going to do?"

  "We're still planning. Nothing's finalized. But if this really is winter, maybe we can get on with it. They've been planning ever since I came here, and long before. The central committee is very careful."

  "Thanks for the clothes," he said, remembering how Eleuth had clothed him before.

  "Nothing to it. Try not to destroy them."

  "No guarantees," he said ruefully. "Sometimes the best intentions go way wrong."

  "Don't I know it," she said. She fastened her gaze on him and bit her lower lip.

  "What's wrong?"

  "You're very handsome," she said.

  "Bull."

  "I mean it. You're attractive."

  "I think you're beautiful." The words came out before he could assess them. Helena's expression didn't change for a moment, but then a slow, warm smile emerged and she touched his knee with her hands. "I mean it, too," he said.

  "You're sweet. What time do you have to be back?" Her tone became businesslike and she went to the window again.

  "Dusk," he said.

  "That'll probably come early today. You want to learn why we're so positive we can resist, and succeed?"

  "I suppose," he said.

  "You'll have to be sure, now," she said sternly. "I'd have to take you someplace pretty unpleasant."

  "How can I - ? Oh, okay. I'm sure."

  "Strong stomach?"

  "I guess."

  She frowned at him, then held out her hand. He took it and stood up.

  "There are several lessons for you to learn," she said. He felt his heart quicken hopefully, but she put on a shawl and held the apartment door open for him. "I have friends in the Yard. They'll get us inside. There's somebody I want you to meet. A Child."

  Chapter Twenty-Two

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  The Yard was at Euterpe's center, a broad, flat brick building surrounded by streets uncharacteristically wide for the human town. Helena marched ahead of him, an intent look on her face. "Nobody likes to go here," she said. "I don't go often. Savarin comes here more often than the rest."

  The entrance to the yard was narrow, barely two feet wide, and blocked with a heavy woven wicker door a foot thick. Helena pulled a knob and glass chimes tinkled faintly within. A peephole slid open in the brick wall beside the door and a yellow, bleary eye peered at them.

  "Sherebith, it's me," Helena said. The wicker door opened with a hollow scraping sound.

  "Yes, Miss Helena. What can I do for you?" A yellow-faced, plump woman in a long gray gown stood in the half-open en trance way, arms folded, staring at Michael with neither trust nor liking.

  "This is a friend," Helena said. "I'd like him to see the Yard and meet Ishmael. Michael, this is Sherebith."

  Michael held out his hand. "Glad to meet you," he said. The woman looked at the hand, grimaced in disbelief and opened the door wider. "Come in," she said in a resigned tone. "He's been quiet today. The others are following his example. Thank whomever for small favors."

  Sherebith led them down a dark corridor, the walls, floor and ceiling of which were made of close-spaced bricks the color of dried dung. Some light entered through narrow slits at intervals of six or seven strides; the only other illumination was from wax candles ensconced between the slits. Despite the musty smell, the floors and walls seemed clean and well-tended. Sherebith went first, followed by Helena and then Michael, who had the nagging urge to look over his shoulder.

  The interior was silent. At the end of the corridor was another heavy wicker door, this one studded on the outside with more glass chimes. "Alarms," Helena said, tinkling one before Sherebith opened the door and set them all ringing.

  Beyond was an open court about ten feet square, again made of brick and devoid of ornament. In each of the four walls was another door. Sherebith stepped to the door directly opposite and unlatched it. As the door creaked open, a damp thick odor wafted out, combining the worst traits of musty cellars and the sewer sludge Michael's father used on the family garden.

  The candles burned dimmer in the thick air beyond. There were no slits for lighting, but covered ventilator holes in the ceiling admitted faint barred spots of day.

  The room's opposite walls were lost in darkness. Square brick columns supported the low ceiling, each side holding a guttering candle. Michael saw pits dug into the floor, each about ten feet on a side and faced with brick and tile. Michael counted seven. "Compound three," Sherebith said. "I call it Leader of the Howl Compound, because of Ishmael. He's the big one. The instigator." She pointed to benches near each pit. "When the compounds were built, people thought perhaps the parents would like to come visit their children now and then. Nobody has, not since the first few months. Only me and the caretaker. I'm the warden." She smiled, revealing snaggled, yellow teeth. "I'm the only one who cares about them, who's kind to them, except the caretaker."

  "What about Savarin?" Helena suggested gently.

  "Him? He has reasons to come here. He gets them upset sometimes. No love for Savarin. Does he listen to them when night's down and they hear the calls from the Plain, things you and I can't hear? No." She pointed to her small, curled ears, hidden beneath straight strands of graying hair. "Calls from their real kin. The bodies mean nothing. It's what's in the bottles that counts, not the shape nor the labels."

  She led them to the middle pit. Michael glanced into the other pits as they passed; the walkways were only a yard wide, and it was difficult to stay calm with the unknown on each side. Each pit held a single pale, reclining figure, some child-sized, some larger. He couldn't make out details.

  Sherebith leaned over the middle pit. "Ishmael," she called softly. "Ishmael, are you home?" A thin gray figure stirred in the shadows.

  "Yes, Mother." The voice was thick, deep and cultured, imbued with an abyssal sadness. Michael felt a tug on some emotion that he could not immediately identify.

  "I'm not his real mother," Sherebith confided with a slack-lipped smile. "But I'm the only one he knows."

  "Ishmael," Helena said, kneeling on the walkway. The pit was as deep as it was wide, and the walls were made of slick, hard tile. The figure was naked and the pit was bare except for three bowls, receptacles for food, water and waste, all arranged neatly against one wall.

  "Yes."

  Michael's eyes had adjusted well enough that he could make out the details of Ishmael's face. It was small, round, disproportionate to such a tall body. The hands were large and hung from arms which began thin at the shoulders and widened to grotesque forearms and wrists.

  "We have some questions to ask," Helen
a said.

  "I'm not otherwise occupied."

  "Has he been here since he was born?" Michael whispered.

  "Almost," Helena said. "He was one of the first that we know of. He's been here since the War."

  "Time passes," Ishmael said. "Questions." He sat down, leaning against the tiles and stretching his pale legs out on the floor.

  "Who are you?"

  "A sideshow for the guilty. A product of lust. Something so evil it must be evilly confined through all its endless life. An abortion walking. Victim."

  "Don't listen to that crap," Helena told Michael. She glanced at him to gauge the effect Ishmael was having, then returned her attention to the pit. "Who are you?"

  "An abortion!" Ishmael's voice rose. "Born of man and woman."

  "You killed your parents."

  "I don't remember." Coy, smiling.

  "You tried to kill others."

  "You are so informed."

  "Who are you?" Helena persisted. "Your name."

  "Call me-"

  "Stop that," Sherebith said quietly. "His name is Paynim. He's one of Adonna's own."

  "Paynim," said the figure, "Ishmael. No matter."

  "He took the child's body when it was born. There are no souls here." Sherebith walked around the pit. "I am the only one who cares."

  "Adonna cares!" Ishmael wailed. "Adonna bred me-"

  "Buried you," Sherebith said, pacing behind Helena and Michael, making Michael edge uncomfortably close to the pit.

  "Adonna freed me."

  "You rose from the Blasted Plain. You still call to your friends there."

  "No friends." Sad, deep.

  "Then what are you?" Helena asked.

  "Out of time, mired in the Realm, given form by Adonna. Ishmael."

  "What are you capable of?"

  The Child shook his head. Michael could barely make out his grin. The air was stifling. Michael wanted very badly to be outside.

  "I stare at the Realm. I foresee."

  "What do you foresee?"

  "Rebellion."

  "When?"

  "Soon, soon."

  "Who will win?"

  Michael looked at Helena, then at Sherebith.