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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 28

Greg Bear

  "The Irall," Michael said. "Adonna's temple."

  Nikolai stiffened. "You've been here before?"

  "I've seen it… from above. In visions."

  "What else have you seen?"

  "A Sidhe who trained with me showed me the mountains where the Black Order raises initiates for the temple."

  "Those mountains lie far to the north," Nikolai said. "Always in snow, wrapped in snow-clouds, black rock with age-old blue ice sheets."

  "You sound like you've been there," Michael said.


  On the western slope of the city's mountain was a building shaped like a rhombus twisted into a two-turn spiral, about a mile high and three-quarters of a mile across at its base. Around the base were huge tree-trunk supports holding up floors without walls, open to the air. Higher, the trunks branched out and multiplied until they formed a solid thicket around the upper floors. With the trunks and branches providing vertical stability, the Spryggla builders had arranged for transparent panels of many different colors to cover the upper levels, a single color panel to every region separated by a branch. The effect was a miracle of variety and color. Several similar structures, of different size and height, grew up around the mountain.

  Closer to them, on the southern slope, was a low flat building consisting of a mesa-like upper surface braced by thousands of the tree-trunk supports. Each trunk was hung with clusters of dwellings arranged in a pleasing haphazard fashion around the building's circumference. Atop the mesa - barely visible as a green fuzz from a distance - was a thick forest. Yet another building had floors arranged like a stack of cards given a shove and slanted. A third had floors tilted to intersect other floors at angles of thirty degrees or more, the whole resembling a crystal latticework.

  Between the larger structures were profusions of street-level houses, following the contours of the foothills, covering the lower slopes of the mountain and spotting the heights between ambitious roadways.

  Michael regretted he hadn't had more time to talk with Lin Piao. If the Spryggla could build cities like this, they were something very special; he had never seen anything like it and didn't expect he would again.

  Nikolai clearly enjoyed Michael's fascination. "The city is always impressive," he said. "Look over there." He pointed with proprietary glee. "That building. They make it like a small mountain, the walls come out in ridges. Caves in the walls. Never been there. What kind of Sidhe lives there, do you think?"

  Michael wouldn't hazard a guess. The horse walked along beside them, looking ahead with ears perked, as if it knew it would soon be in more familiar company and looked forward to it. As impressed as he was, Michael wasn't quite so enthusiastic. The few experiences he'd had with the Sidhe didn't lead him to relish the prospect of further contact. Nikolai tried to reassure him.

  "Listen, in the country, it's like they're bumpkins. Rude, unsophisticated. This is the city. Females are very different. Not many males. They welcome me, welcome you. We'll get along fine."

  "What about the horse?"

  "He's your horse, is he not? Alyons willed him to you."

  "I don't have any proof," Michael said. Nikolai had nothing to say to that.

  The walls of the city had been assembled from huge blocks of stone, covered with a bluish ceramic glaze. Nikolai urged him up an incline onto a roadway paved with white stone slabs. The roadway pointed straight as an arrow to a broad, low mouth-like gate in the shadow of the outermost wall.

  "We come in from the rear. This is the face the city turns to the grasslands. Not much traffic, a little-used gate."

  The gate resembled the entrance to a huge dark cavern. The wall appeared to be hundreds of feet thick, yet it was only a hundred feet high, making it more of an elevated causeway around the city.

  Nikolai stopped at the edge of the roadway and put down his bag. "Here is where I change clothes, stash my food, domesticate myself to the ways of the Sidhe. You are disgusted if your cat brings home a dead animal, no? The Sidhe would dislike my foodstuffs and choice of apparel." He pulled out a simple tunic and pair of pants, stuffed his other clothing into the bag, and hid it in the hollow trunk of a nearby tree.

  There were-no visible guards. Nikolai led Michael a little ways into the darkness, then stopped and sat down with his back against the glass-smooth inner surface. "We wait a few minutes."

  In more like an hour, Nikolai peered off into the darkness and nodded to himself. "There," he said. "She comes."

  Far off in the gloom, a single figure approached them.

  Michael stood and made himself as presentable as possible while Nikolai looked on. "Who is this contact of yours?" Michael asked.

  "An attendant to the Ban of Hours," Nikolai said enigmatically.

  The Sidhe woman was taller than Michael by a foot, and Michael was somewhat taller than Nikolai. Her most striking feature was her face, which was marked with horizontal stripes of orange bordered by lines of charcoal gray. As she walked gracefully up to them, Nikolai gave her an exaggerated theatrical bow. She hardly looked at him, keeping her gaze on Michael. Her eyes were pale gray-blue, like the edges of clouds set one against another. Her lips were narrow, almost severe, in a typically long Sidhe face. She wore a purple-brown cloak edged with a satiny strip of flame red. Beneath the cloak, glimpsed briefly as she walked, was a cream-colored gown with appliqued floral patterns of pure white.

  She wasn't what Michael would have called pretty, but she was extraordinarily exotic.

  "Hello," she said. Michael felt his aura being delicately feathered, with nothing of Alyons' bluntness or the Crane Women's forthright probing. The sensation was pleasant.

  "Sana rega Ban," Nikolai said. "I introduce my friend, Michael Perrin. He wanders as I-"

  She ignored both of them now, looking at the horse. She smiled and turned back to Michael, then reached out and gripped his upper arm in warm, gentle fingers. "I am Ulath," she said. "Of the line of Wis. Your friend is most unusual, Nikolai. The Ban of Hours will enjoy him, don't you think?"

  "I certainly hope so," Nikolai said.

  "This is your horse?" Ulath asked Michael.


  "I've never seen a blue horse, even in the Realm."

  "There's a story behind that, rega Ban," Nikolai said. "I'm sure he'll tell it again, when the time is proper."

  "Come," Ulath said, "and be welcome to Inyas Trai."

  "That." Nikolai said, "is the name of this city, and I advise you not to say it aloud, even when you are alone."

  "A superstition, Nikolai," the Sidhe woman said, her voice deepening.

  "My lady," Nikolai said, bowing again. "We are but poor-"

  "None of your humility. It doesn't belong here."

  "No, indeed," Nikolai said, straightening and smiling at Michael. "There is nothing humble about the city of the Sidhe."

  The tunnel branched in two in the depths of the wall, one branch leading off into reddish darkness, the other toward a half-circle of daylight. To Michael's relief, they walked toward the daylight.

  They emerged onto a narrow street which wound between walls of tan and white buildings. The street was profoundly quiet. Michael felt as if he were at the bottom of a deep river gorge. Crystalline circular mirrors set in the walls reflected daylight all around, throwing luminous patches onto the streets at intervals of a few yards. As the sun passed overhead, new networks of reflection shifted into being, and new patches appeared as the old faded.

  Ulath walked a steady two paces ahead of Nikolai and Michael, her robes rustling richly and her thick dark red hair swaying back and forth, a seductive pendulum counterbalancing the roll of her hips.

  Nikolai looked around with bright interest, smiling now and then at Michael and silently pointing out one or another feature of Inyas Trai. After a few minutes, having passed only three other Sidhe - all female, and all dressed in some variation of Ulath's garb - they arrived at a broad rugged stone laid into a high-walled, shadowy alcove. Two natural steps provided easy a
ccess to the stone's flat surface. Ulath climbed the steps and looked back at them. "Does he know of stepping stones?" she asked. Nikolai shrugged.

  "Do you?"

  "No," Michael said. Ulath then faced him fully and by the most marvelous kind of out-seeing Michael had experienced, filled his head with the most important particulars of Inyas Trai.

  To get from place to place in the huge city, stepping stones simply and directly took one from here, to there. Each stone had seven correlates. A passenger had only to think of the desired correlate, and he was whisked away. Inyas Trai had no vehicle transportation. One either walked, rode a horse (of which there were few in the city) or used the stones.

  They stepped. The alcove brightened and faded and they stood in the middle of another stone, at the edge of the roof of a very tall building. Wind whipped Michael's hair. They were nearly level with the peak of the mountain and the air was quite cool. A sweet, spicy odor met them, wafting from slender bamboo-like stalks on one side of the stone. Michael was the last to step down; he was still "seeing" and absorbing the information Ulath had provided.

  The city was populated almost entirely by females. Males didn't appreciate urban life; centuries ago, they had retreated to the woods around the Irall, rarely if ever returning. Females ran the city; the Ban of Hours, Ulath's mistress, was the equivalent of a counselor in the city heirarchy.

  Michael blinked. He had suddenly become aware that in out-seeing, Ulath had deftly avoided his aura's barriers and plucked out a substantial chunk of personal information. She smiled at him apologetically and walked on, robes and hair swinging.

  "Where are we going?" he asked Nikolai in a whisper.

  "To the house of the Ban of Hours," Nikolai said, "She keeps the Sidhe records of the city. I will introduce you to Emma, and then I will go on my pilgrimage."

  "You didn't mention a pilgrimage."

  "You're welcome to come," Nikolai said. "I go to the mountains to witness the Snow Faces. The season approaches."

  Michael followed them through an orderly grove of small, thick-trunked trees. They kept to a brick pathway with low railings on each side. "Who is Emma?" he asked.

  "You'll see," Nikolai said, his face expressing the tenderest sentiment. He touched his cheek with his fingers and shook his head. "You must promise…"

  "Promise what?"

  Nikolai shook his head violently. "Never mind," he said, whirling and pointing his finger. "Did you see?" Ulath walked on, ignoring them.

  "See what?"

  "One of the Ban's Arborals. They tend her library."

  "The trees?"

  Nikolai nodded gravely. "Come. We mustn't lag."

  The house of the Ban of Hours was made of wood, magnificently carved and fitted. The roof was high and conical, eight-sided for the first half of its height, then broken into three progressively narrower sections with fewer sides, the highest having three. A tower at the apex was made of brass and carried a silver crescent moon. Two wings protruded from beneath the central structure's conical roof at a forty-five degree angle, flanking a triangular courtyard. Flowers grew in disorganized profusion in the courtyard; roses of all colors, including blue, scented the air and also seemed to warm it. Ulath glanced back at Michael.

  "The Ban of Hours has lived here for ages," she said. "Since long before the city was built."

  "They moved the house here," Nikolai said.

  They took a path beside the flowers and entered the Ban's house through a tall, narrow black door at the apex of the triangle. The interior of the rotunda was surrounded by slabs of black marble veined with green. These blocked direct light from windows set in alcoves in the outer wall. Soft, whispering voices issued from behind the slabs. Michael felt dozens of feathery touches on his aura. He gently rebuffed them and the voices stilled. Nikolai stood by Ulath in the center of the room. Both seemed to be waiting.

  "The Ban of Hours is very powerful," Nikolai said. "There is confusion in her presence, and time is not the same. Do not be afraid. She will not harm us."

  After a few minutes, Ulath shuddered and bowed her head. A tall female dressed in white entered from an adjacent hallway and approached them across the smooth stone floor, seeming to glide more than walk. From high in the tower's interior came a buzzing. Michael turned away from the glare of the Ban's presence and looked up. The lines of the tower spun, filled with golden bees. His thoughts became smooth as he watched the insects. The Ban took his hand and led him behind a marble slab and up a spiral staircase to the second floor. At the end of a hall lined with brilliantly illuminated windows, they came to a wood-paneled room with a floor cut from the single bole of some huge tree. At the center of the floor's concentric graining was a wide, low basin of water. The basin was attended, but Michael could not see by whom or what. The Ban asked him to wash his hands, and when he did so, an incredible perfume filled the room.

  "We are in the presence of a poet," she said, taking his wet hands and leading him into another adjacent room.

  The walls of this room were draped with fine white linen and the floor was covered with woven reed matting. The Ban of Hours held her arms out to him, her hands glowing with warmth and magic. Michael went to her and she folded him to her breasts. "Yes, there has been pain," she said, "and error. It is the way of both our homes. But you know me, do you not?"

  He did, and softly, he began to weep.

  Chapter Thirty-Two

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  Hours later, fed and left alone in a comfortable sleeping chamber at the end of the southern wing, Michael removed his book from its pocket and hefted it in one hand, frowning.

  He had met the Ban of Hours - but he did not remember what she looked like. Ulath he remembered clearly enough, and all the other details prior to the meeting. But he recalled neither the ban's appearance nor the sound of her voice. He had an impression of a tall Sidhe female dressed in white, but what sort of dress - long, flowing, pale or diaphonous?

  No matter how hard he tried to recall, his memory was no more specific than that. Probing Nikolai's aura had proven fruitless; such probes were not very good at eliciting information from recent events, and Nikolai had evidently not been in on much of the meeting to begin with.

  Michael's room held a brass bed with a quilted comforter, a bowl of water on a marble stand and several framed paintings of scenes from Earth. It took him some minutes to realize that the paintings were genuine Corots, with one Turner. So the Ban of Hours was a connoisseur of things Earthly - including, it seemed, himself.

  He undressed and washed himself with water from the basin. Again, the rich, heady smell filled the room -

  And like a catalyst, the smell opened his gates of memory sufficiently wide to release one segment.

  The Ban raised her eyes and regarded Michael with a warm smile, dimples forming just beneath her prominent cheekbones. Her eyes were inclined slightly upward, almond-shaped and deep-set, sapphire blue flecked with silver. "You are determined to go to the Isomage, no matter what the cost?"

  Michael nodded.

  "No matter that it makes you the pawn of those you know nothing about?"

  He nodded again, less certain. The Ban sighed and leaned forward across the inlaid vine patterns of a table top. Between them was a bowl of sliced prepared fruits.

  The segment ended. He dried himself with a linen towel and crawled under the soft bedclothes. The sheets were cool at first, gradually warming against his bare skin.

  Tomorrow, he thought. Nikolai would introduce him to Emma - whoever that was - and they would prepare for the trip.

  The Ban had approved the trip. That much he also remembered. As for the horse - Ulath had said it was being well taken care of by Sidhe grooms. It was, she had hinted, in sore need of good currying and having its hooves trimmed.

  "No Sidhe would ever have history in a book," Nikolai said at breakfast. "Written words bind. Long memory is best. The past stays alive then; it can change like any living thing."

; "So the trees remember?"

  Ulath, bringing a bowl of prepared fruits -

  The Ban had told him about Emma Livry… What about her, though?

  - smiled at him and laid the bowl on the table. "The impressed ones remember," she said. "Sidhe such as myself, who have served the Ban. When we have outlived our usefulness in her service, we have ourselves impressed in the wood. It is pleasant, so I'm told, to be released from all the cares of the Realm, and to have only the past to guard, to cherish."

  Sun lay bright in the crystal window of the refectory. All around, Sidhe females in a bewildering variety of clothing and skin colors ate decorously while lying on their stomachs, as Michael had heard the Romans once dined. Nikolai lay next to Michael, peeling a blue apple and nodding. "I have often wondered what the pure life of the mind would be like," he said. "Halls of memory, corridors of thought."

  Ulath lay beside them and rolled on her side to look at Michael directly. Michael felt a flush of embarrassment. He dropped his piece of bread and reached to pick it up. Ulath stopped his hand with her own.

  "The Ban is very impressed," she said. "She wonders about you. You come to us, trained like a Sidhe, riding a Sidhe horse.

  No human has ever done these things in the Realm. The Ban is curious, as are we all." She pointed to the other females in the refectory.

  "I'm most jealous," Nikolai said, eating a candied peach.

  "You are recently from Earth," Ulath continued. "What is it like there?"

  Michael glanced around the room and realized everyone was listening. "Lots of machines now," he said. That hardly seemed enough. "We've been to the moon."

  "I was on the moon once," Ulath said. "Lovely gardens there."

  "Pardon?" Michael wiped fruit juice from his hands on a white linen napkin. The walls of the Ban's room -

  Emma Livry, yet another pawn -

  "That doesn't sound like our moon," he said, recovering quickly. "It's dead, no air, no water."