Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 27Greg Bear
The second servant released Michael's arm and backed away. Its face rearranged itself in blocks. Michael quickly dressed and picked up the book. The trails of blue had faded. For a moment everything was quiet and seemed perfectly normal.
Then a smile confronted him in the doorway as he tried to leave. Merely a smile, nothing else; bright blue lips with electric blue teeth. It zipped away. Michael peered around the doorframe, looking from one end of the corridor to the other. Empty and quiet.
He was on his way to the stables, walking through the main chamber, when he saw brilliant veins of blue creeping under the walls, linking to form a cobalt carpet which spread over the floor. Liquid blueness dripped from all the closets and drawers and doorways, splashing across the floor, each drop trailing a thread. Michael could not avoid the invasion. It passed under his feet, tingling but painless, and crawled up the opposite wall. Faintly, from which direction he couldn't tell, he heard Lin Piao cursing.
Michael's numbness wore off rapidly. The Spryggla's magic was failing. He was frightened and pleasantly excited at the same time. The feeling of power, of overwhelming transformation, was like a tonic. He wanted to dance on the blue floor, slap his hands against the blue walls. "Free!" he shouted. "Free!"
He wasn't sure what he was free of. Had Lin Piao actually manipulated him, drugged him? He didn't know, but his thoughts were much clearer and his sense of purpose very strong.
He had to get out. He found the door leading to the outer hallway. The black stone seemed unaffected; even the fountain bowl and luminous pool were as they had been when he first entered. Now, however, he saw waves forming in the pool. The ground vibrated underfoot. As the vibration increased in frequency, the waves in the pool took on a pattern, a tesselation of geometric figures. The water rose up in bas-relief, like gelatin formed in a mold.
Michael watched the process, fascinated, until the tesselations suddenly broke down into blue smiles. The smiles lifted from the pool and flashed past him to do their work.
Michael exited to the courtyard and stood there, trying to remember his way to the stables, when Lin Piao came rushing through a side door. His golden robe was singed at the edges and his black hair had turned white. The Spryggla stopped and fixed Michael with a hate-filled stare.
"You did this! You invaded my home, my valley! Monster! Human! I can find a way to destroy you-"
"I mean you no harm," Michael said coldly. "If I can do anything to help-"
A servant came through the door Lin Piao had just used, swaying back and forth as if about to fall over. Its once-golder surface was now the color of tarnished gun-metal. Its robes were charred and tattered. They fell away in shreds. Lin Piao backed off in terror. "It's spreading! Stop it, stop it!"
"I admit, you are the one, you are the intended. Now stop it, make it go away! I will stay here forever, I will be content-"
Blue cracks appeared in the black stone walls. The cracks joined and the stone crazed as if struck by a hammer. Indeed, the sounds coming from within the house suggested something pounding to get out.
"I don't know what to do," Michael said. "I'm not a magician."
"And I AM!" Lin Piao screamed. "How could this happen to me?" His eyes widened and the skin of his face paled almost to white as he saw a great chunk of stone fall from the wall. Above, the pagoda-like tower teetered, crumbling, all its serrated edges bathed in blue fire. Bolts of fire spread in fans to all corners of the house and walled grounds and crackled out to the valley.
Michael knew there was no place where he could flee fast enough. Not even throwing a shadow would help. The ground lifted under his feet and the paving stones separated, leaking a bright blue glow. He closed his eyes and opened them just as he was abruptly tossed high into the air. All around, fountains of electric blue rose to the sky, catching the warm dark ochre of night and transforming it into cold, star-specked black.
Michael's stomach lurched. He was without weight or substance, wrapped in eternal cold, eternal ice. Lightning played between his fingers and his hair stood on end. All the wool carpets he had ever scuffed across, all the cats he had ever rumpled, came back to haunt him.
He closed his eyes again and lay on the ground, shaken, breathless. The air smelled electric but the ground was still.
There was a long silence. He waited for more but the quiet held. Even before he opened his eyes he felt for the book. It was secure in its pocket.
He looked around. There was little amazement left in him, but all that remained was engaged by what he saw. The house had disappeared, and the gardens with it. In their place was a spreading field of blue flowers. Blue flowers blossomed all over ihe valley. The trees of the valley were losing their autumn foliage. The new leaves were rich emerald like the forests outside.
He felt for bruises. For once he had come through an experience in the Realm without cuts, scrapes or contusions.
Michael turned to see the other half of the valley. Right behind him, fist raised as if to strike, stood Lin Piao Tai. Michael drew back, then stopped. The Spryggla was motionless.
He was, in fact, solid blue.
He had been transformed into a statue of lapis lazuli, complete with his expression of horrified anger.
Twenty yards away, the Sidhe horse whinnied. They walked toward each other, and Michael greeted it with a pat on the nose and an incredulous smile. He had survived, and the horse had survived. They were none the worse for the experience.
But whatever forces had been unleashed to restore the unknown balances of the Realm had not ignored the horse's golden coat.
From tail to nose, Alyon's mount was now a dazzling shade of sky blue.
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Snow was falling on Lin Piao's prison-valley by the time Michael reached the crest of the hill and turned to follow the river. He stopped the horse and looked back through the snow veils. He couldn't make out the spot where the house had stood; the valley was covered with blue velvet, soon to be white. He was hardly surprised by the abrupt reversal of seasons; it was Adonna's whim and to question it, he thought with a grin, would not be following the forms.
He was still unwilling to give the Sidhe horse full rein, so he never rode it faster than a trot. Several more days were spent crossing through forest. Again, food became scarce. Michael hardly noticed. His hunger had lessened. What he really needed, as night followed sunset and yet again three times, was an indication he was heading in the right direction, doing the right thing, and not just moving from point to point on a map of foolish incidents.
At night he kindled a fire with his nailless finger and sat by the flames, reading from the book. His interactions with Death's Radio had stopped; his sleep was undisturbed. He read "Kubla Khan" several times, but he had acquired most of it by heart in junior high school. The words seemed at once silly and sublime, pellucid and obscure. Coleridge's preface to the poem was also in the book, reinforcing some of what Lin Piao had said, but Kubla's dream and the building of the palace were not mentioned.
If Lin Piao had been telling the truth, and Michael saw no reason to doubt the broad outlines, he was in possession of part of a Song of Power. If the Isomage had the second half - the part Coleridge had been prevented from recording - then together, they might be able to break the dominance of the Sidhe and save the humans and Breeds.
Or did he misunderstand the process? How could a Song of Power be both architectural and poetic? Lin Piao had mentioned encoding; perhaps poem and pleasure dome, as originally broadcast by the Sidhe, could be abstracted into a principle, an aesthetic equivalent___
At that point, his mind was lost in vagaries and he closed the book, lying back near the fire.
Proportion, after all, was important in both architecture and poetry.
"Go to sleep," he told himself wearily.
The next morning, at the edge of a broad savannah, with what looked like a mountain (and likely was not) in the hazy distanc
e, Michael found a snare.
It had been tied to a sapling and fitted with a very sensitive rope-and-stake trigger. It hadn't captured anything yet. The horse sidestepped it with a nervous nicker. The snare had obviously been designed to catch a small animal; the sapling couldn't support anything large. The bait was forest roots placed near the trigger in a loop of rope. The roots were still quite fresh.
Michael looked around the bushes and thinning trees. No Sidhe would set a trap for a meat animal; what if it was a magician's snare, set to catch a specimen for some rite? He had seen bones around the Crane Women's mound and hut. But he suspected a human had set the snare. There was something about the snare, a humanness in the casual and elegant way it had been constructed.
He didn't know whether to be hopeful or wary.
He didn't have to wait long. The river broke through the last of the forest and made its half-frozen way across the savannah, straightening and flowing faster in a deeper bed. Michael tried to discern what the towering shape in the distance was, but couldn't. He was positive it wasn't just a mountain.
He was walking the horse on the sandy river bank, skirting patches of river ice and snow, when he felt an imposition. Nothing more than that; simply the awareness of a presence, aware of him.
He stopped and pretended to check the horse's hoof The imposition grew stronger. He took a deep breath and felt for the aura of memory. He had never needed to probe a purely human aura; now, sensing one - a man - he found it quite easy to search.
He knew how far away the man was, but not the direction. Whoever had set the snare was following him at a distance of about a hundred feet. The frosty grass was barely two feet high. "Anything I can do for you?" he called out on impulse. The man was forty or forty-five Earth-years old. Not a native English-speaker, but he seemed to be able to speak English well enough. "I'm not a Sidhe, you know. I found your trap set in the woods."
Slowly, a heavy-set bearded man with short spiky gray hair rose from a low crouch in the grass, shaking his head and smiling through a broad moustache. "Good trick," he said. "You smell like a Sidhe. I didn't know what you were. Bozhe moi, a human, out here!"
The man was a Russian, Michael realized, and a hunter. He didn't come any closer. He stood in the grass, dressed in skins and furs with a cloth bag over his shoulder and a fur cap perched on one side of his head, ear-flaps untied.
"Well," the man said after a pause, "Not like a Sidhe, that is, you don't exactly smell like one. Not sure what you were. I followed you to the Spryggla's valley. You went in, came out… Big changes. I followed you here."
"Then you can teach me a few things," Michael said. "I didn't even suspect you were around until I saw the snare."
"Not much of anybody here, you know." The hunter began walking toward him, eyes flashing with caution. "Sidhe don't come here much at all. This whole area, south to the mountains and east to the city, west to… the Isomage's hole. Euterpe. You from there?"
Michael nodded. "And you?"
"They never caught me," he said. "I was a dancer." He held out his arms and looked down at his solid frame. "I came here when I was fourteen. Christos!" He wiped his eyes with a gloved hand. "Memories. Just seeing you brings them back. Forty years or more. I don't know. Been here…" Now he wept openly, standing ten yards away and shaking, wiping his eyes and finally turning away in shame. "Just a boy," he sobbed. "You're not much older than I was, then."
Michael was embarrassed. "They didn't catch you?" he repeated, trying to calm the man.
"Too fast! Much too fast." He wiped his face with his sleeve and faced Michael again, coming a few steps closer. "I haven't talked with a human in… I've forgotten how long. I hunt, eat, sleep, go to the city and visit the Sidhe - - -Your horse. That's what made me think you might be a Sidhe. Where did you get it?"
"From the Wickmaster of the Pact Lands."
"Alyons?" The hunter stepped back in awe. "How?"
"He's dead. He thought I was the one who killed him. I wasn't. But he - or rather, one of his shadows - gave me the horse."
"Alyons is dead?"
Michael nodded again. "Killed in a trap set by the Isomage."
"I was there during the Isomage's first battle, long ago," the hunter said, st king his head. "I watched the pillar of magic, all the colors and monsters you'd ever hope to see. Some of it caught me, changed me, but I escaped. It aged me." He bit his bearded lower lip and looked up at the sky to blink back more tears. "I became the age I am now. I was just watching, but the magic caught me. I fled. Never stopped until I came to the city." He pointed to the hazy mountain-shape. "A Sidhe woman took me in, taught me. I was very slender back then. But this is all premature. We need names. I am… Christos! I've forgotten." He blinked. "I am… Nikolai! There."
"I'm Michael." Nikolai removed his glove and they shook hands.
"Your hands are very warm for not being warmly dressed," Nikolai marveled. "The Sidhe have taught you, I suspect?"
"Breeds," Michael said. "The Crane Women."
"Do I pry if I ask where you are going?"
Michael didn't feel ready to answer, so he smiled and shrugged.
"I understand. At any rate, you go to the city. The river passes the city, and you follow the river, correct? Do we con- ' tinue together?" He stared imploringly at Michael, bushy eyebrows lifted. Michael agreed.
As they walked on, Nikolai revealed the contents of his bag. He had strips of dried meat, tied neatly in pale white bark. "From something like a rabbit, big eyes," he said. "Stupid for a Sidhe animal." There were pieces of roots used to bait the snare, and fruit much like the kinds Michael had eaten in the orchard. He also had nuts and a bag of acom flour. He took out a wood-bole pipe. "To smoke, I have this leaf, dried. Quite tolerable. Never smoke around a Sidhe. They enrage with jealousy. They can't smoke, you know."
"You're tolerated in the city?"
"They welcome me, they do! The females, you'll see. Sidhe males don't live there much now. Very cold. Prigs, I say. The females will welcome you, too. But the horse… I don't know about the horse. You tell the truth, that Alyons passed it on?"
Nikolai shook his head dubiously. "We'll see. It's a wonderful place, the city. Built for the Faer by Spryggla, ages ago."
That night they camped on a snow-free stretch of sand on the inner bank of a bend in the river. Nikolai offered his pipe to Michael, who refused it politely. Nikolai took a deep puff and blew the smoke across the still night air, just as the stars settled overhead. "My story," he said, "then yours. Agreed?"
Michael nodded. Nikolai began his story and spun it on at great length, in much more detail than was necessary. Hours stretched on, but the hunter seemed tireless. Finally Michael lay back and rested his head on his arms. Nikolai offered him a small pillow filled with flexible leaves. "Go ahead," he said, "doze. Won't bother me." And indeed, it didn't.
The core of the story was that Nikolai Nikolaievich Kuprin had been brought to the United States from Leningrad to dance in the Denishawn school. He had been dancing since the age of seven-"Really dancing, not just tottering like when I was four"- but not necessarily by choice. Music had always held more attractions for him than dance. Along with the grueling dance practice schedule, he had tried to study piano, and finally had become proficient enough to play accompaniment for the other dancers. "It happened when I was playing Stravinksy," he said, voice softening. "I was at my family's dacha in California, in Pasadena, on leave of absence. Nervous exhaustion. They let me play the piano because it relaxed me. I was doing 'Rite of Spring' for the next season's presentations…" He lifted his shoulders and sighed. "Fourteen, I was. I knew nothing of our world, let alone this! Alyons' coursers almost captured me, but I was naturally canny. They were distracted by the conflict. That was when I came near the battle and saw the finale."
He looked down at Michael, who was nearly asleep.
"A little black-haired boy, watching," he said, eyes welling with tears. "What they did, the monste
rs they unleashed. The hatred for my people. It's wondrous I can like any of the Sidhe now. Wondrous."
That was the last word Michael heard that night, or heard clearly; Nikolai continued long after he was asleep.
In the morning, Nikolai was still awake by the embers of the fire, staring out across the misty savannah with bright eyes and an alert expression. "One more thing I learned," he told Michael. "Humans do not have to sleep here. Perhaps you can stop sleeping now, too."
The season was changing yet again. Two days later, the enormous city of the Sidhe covered almost the entire northeastern horizon. The sun was warming, driving out the snow and freeing the river of ice, which crackled and snapped all night as it broke up, and sometimes boomed like cannon. Nikolai suggested they camp on a boulder in case the water rose and flooded the savannah.
Michael offered to let Nikolai ride the horse but he refused. His attitude - half reverence, half fear - worried Michael. There seemed to be something the Russian wasn't telling, perhaps out of politeness, perhaps assuming that Michael already knew.
In the afternoon, less than five miles from the city, they rested beneath a broad laurel-like tree that stood alone on the grassland. "The city is a hundred miles from side to side, roughly .guessed," Nikolai said, tugging experimentally on a low-lying branch. The smell of grass and damp soil swirled around them, driven by puffing breezes. "It's surrounded by five wails, with four gates in each wall. Now those towers on the left…" He pointed a leaf and sighted along it with his left eye. "That's where the music masters work. Sidhe music. Never heard it, myself. My female acquaintances say it would blast a human brain to blissful ash. Interesting experience, perhaps. And over there, in the golden dome, are Sidhe factories. What they produce I've never been told. Nothing goes in, nothing comes out, but they make, nonetheless."
In the warming sun, the city glistened gold and white and silver, with-blue-gray walls and pale gray bridges and roads surrounding a central mountain of Realm granite. Atop the granite a needle-slim spire rose several thousand feet above the savannah, studded with crystalline structures. "We can't see it from here, but on the other side, about ten miles beyond the city wall-"