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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 4

Greg Bear

  'Even with the cellar door shut, Michael heard the sharp clatter of hooves. There was a high-pitched keening, and then a voice resonant and hypnotic.

  "Hoy ac! Meat-eaters, followers of the Serpent! Praise Adonna, or we unleash your babes and return the Pact Lands to dust and desert!"

  Breaker shuddered and Risky's lips became thin and white. The hooves clattered off, and moments later bells rang again throughout the town.

  "Welcome to Euterpe," Risky said to Michael as she threw open the cellar door and scrambled up the steps. Brecker followed, motioning for Michael to return with them to the first floor.

  "Tomorrow," Brecker told Risky, "our new lodger goes back to the Isomage's house, to Lamia. He's new, you know."

  "He's much too young to be anything else," Risky said. "And he's not like the rest of us. Not if she wants him." That said, she seemed to make an effort to put everything from her mind. "Show him the double."

  "My thought, too. With Savarin."

  "Might as well. There's a lot for him to learn."

  The double on the second floor was at the end of an ill-lit corridor. The room was small, paneled in thin strips of gray pasteboard. The floor was tiled with mica and flaked under his shoes. There were two beds in the narrow space, stacked bunk-style, and a washbasin on a flimsy stand made of sticks and wicker. At least there were no insects he could see.

  As he stood in the doorway, wondering who Savarin was, Risky came up behind him and argued with Brecker over what work he was to do. Brecker gave Michael a nervous glance and took Risky down the corridor, where they whispered.

  Michael caught most of the conversation despite their precautions.

  "If he's under Lamia's protection, should we work him at all?" Brecker asked.

  "Did she forbid it? I say, work him. We can always use hands."

  "Yes, but he's different from the rest of us-"

  "Only because he came from the Isomage's house."

  "And shouldn't that mean something?"

  "Lamia doesn't scare me," Risky said. "Now, if Alyons brought him in under his arm and said, 'Show him a good time,' maybe then we'd spare him some labor."

  That seemed to settle it. Risky showed him the washroom-"Modern, one upstairs and one down," she said, but no running water and no plumbing - and took him upstairs. He began by wringing fresh-washed linens through stone mangle in a laundry room behind the kitchen. As he turned the handle and fed in sheets and pillow casings, he munched on a piece of bread.

  "No crumbs on the sheets," Risky told him, handing him a glass of thin milk. "You look hungry."

  "Starved," Michael said.

  "Well, don't eat too much. We'll just take it out in more work."

  Carrying dried sheets upstairs, Michael noticed that only two rooms were occupied out of the twelve in the building; the double he shared with the unknown Savarin, and the largest, a suite. "We don't go in the suite but once a week," Risky explained.

  "Who's in it?"

  "Hungry and curious. Hungry and curious. Takes new ones a while to learn how the land lies, doesn't it?" She shook her head. "You'll meet him this evening. Brecker's already planning a gathering."

  In the hotel's service court, he was put to chopping sticks - or rather making the attempt. He raised blisters quickly on both hands and felt miserable. He had never enjoyed hard physical labor. As he swung and missed, swung and missed, swung and splintered, swung and finally split a bundle of sticks cleanly, he wanted more than anything to be home again, in bed with a book on his lap and a ginger ale on his nightstand.

  By dusk - which came somewhat early, he thought - he had cut thirteen bundles of sticks into sizes that would fit in the hotel stove. Brecker inspected the small pile and shook his head. He stared at Michael's chest as he said, "No doubt you'll do better later. If you get to stay here. But never mind. There's the meeting tonight." His face took on a contented expression and he winked. "Word gets around. You're good for the business, tonight at least."

  They allowed Michael a half-hour to clean up for dinner. Having eaten only the bread and drunk two glasses of the translucent bluish milk, he was ravenous again. He went to his assigned room and lay on the lower of the two bunks for a moment, eyes closed, too tired to really want to eat and too hungry to nap. He washed his blistered hands in the basin of water and picked at a splinter beneath his fingernail. A pungent herbal smell came from the basin. Michael sniffed the soap - a fatty, grainy bar with no odor at all - and wiped his hands on a rag. The odor departed rapidly.

  He removed his shirt and wiped himself from the waist up with a damp cloth, then used the primitive facilities in the lavatory at the end of the hall. He suspected he would carry the slops bucket downstairs the next day, unless___

  What? Unless his talk with Lamia went well? What would she do besides talk to him, and what was her connection with the riders, the Shee as Risky called them?

  He was too exhausted to really be curious. He descended the stairs to dinner with drooping eyelids and sat at the smooth-worn stone-top table next to Brecker.

  Night had fallen and the table was lit by dozens of tallow candles stuck in holders before each seat. There were twelve seats, each filled, and their occupants - men and women alike - regarded Michael with intense interest whenever his head was turned.

  Michael sat as straight as he could, trying to be dignified and not fall asleep. As a bowl of vegetable soup was carried out by Risky, Brecker stood and raised a cup of watered brown ale. "Patrons and matrons," he began. "We have among us this evening a newcomer. His name is Michael, and he's young, as you see; the youngest I've ever met in the Realm. Let us welcome him."

  Men and women raised their cups and shouted in a bewildering array of tongues, "Cheers!"



  "Zum Wohl!"

  "Here's to Michael!" and so on, more than he could separate out. He lifted his cup to them. "Thank you," he murmured.

  "Now eat," Risky said. When the soup was consumed, she removed the bowl to the kitchen and brought in the next from the stove. This was a pot filled with cabbage and carrots and large brown beans, as well as a vegetable Michael had never seen before - something resembling a brown-skinned cucumber with a triangular cross-section. There was no meat.

  His eyelids drooped and he caught himself just in time to hear, "… so you see, lad, we're not in the best situation here." This from the tall, strong-looking fellow with the full salt-and-pepper beard sitting across and one chair left of him.

  "Huh? I mean, sorry?" Michael said blinking.

  "I say, the town is not in the best of circumstances. Ever since the Isomage lost his war, we've been confined to the Pact Lands in the middle of the Blasted Plain. No children, of course-"

  The plump auburn-haired woman next to him shushed him and rolled her eyes. "Except," he continued, giving her a harsh look, "And you'll pardon the indiscretion, but the lad must know his circumstances-"

  At this several people called out, "And where's Savarin?"

  "He should be the one tutoring the lad," the auburn-haired woman said.

  "The lad," the man pushed on, "must know that there are children of a sort, to remind us of our peril. They reside in the Yard at the center of Euterpe." The auburn-haired woman crossed herself and bowed her head, moving her lips. "And there's not an instrument in the entire land to play."

  "Play?" Michael asked. The group looked at each other around the table.

  "Music, you know," Brecker said.

  "Music," Michael repeated, still puzzled.

  "Lad," the strong fellow said, standing, "you mean to say you don't play an instrument?"

  "I don't."

  "You don't know music?"

  "I like to listen," Michael said, feeling fresh alarm at their amazement. More glances were exchanged around the table. Brecker looked uncomfortable.

  "Boy, are you telling us it wasn't music brought you here?"

  "I don't think it was," Michael said.

The auburn-haired woman gave a shuddering moan and backed her chair away from the table. Several others did the same. "Then how did you come here?" she asked, no longer looking at him directly.

  "He's not a Child, is he?" a stout woman at the end of the table wailed. Her male companion took hold of her arm and urged her back into the seat. "Obviously not," he said. "We know the children. His face is good."

  "How did you get here, then?"

  Michael haltingly gave an account of Waltiri, the note, Clarkham's house and the crossing over. For some reason - perhaps his weariness - he didn't mention the figure in the flounced dress. The gathering nodded in unison when he was done.

  "That," said the strong man, "is a most unusual path. I've never heard of it."

  "No doubt Lamia could tell us more," someone said, Michael couldn't see whom.

  "I know," said a deep, gruff voice. The crowd fell silent. Brecker nudged Michael and pointed out a man seated across from them and to the right. "The occupant of the suite," he said.

  The man was older than the others, none of whom seemed more than forty or forty-five. His hair was a thin white cap on his head and his almost white face carried an expression of bitter indifference. His pale blue eyes searched from face to astonished face. "He never says anything," Brecker said in a whisper.

  "Boy," the man said, standing, "my name is Frederick Wolfer. Do you know of me?"

  Michael shook his head. The man wore a worn formal black suit. The tuxedo was yellowed and torn and the elbows of the jacket had been patched over with ill-matched gray cloth. "Did Arno Waltiri mention me?"

  "No," Michael said.

  "He sent me here," Wolfer said, his jaw working. He raised an unsteady hand. "He sent a man already old into a land that doesn't tolerate the old. Fortunately, I have fallen in with good people." A murmur went around the table. "Fortunately, I have withstood the rigors of war, of Clarkham's attempt to build an empire, and the internment of all of us here in the Pact Lands. All of that…" He paused and looked around the ceiling, as if he might find the proper words floating up there. "Because on a summer night, who knows how many decades ago, I went to a concert and listened to a piece of music, music written by Arno Waltiri. I know the name, yes indeed. I am the only one left alive of those who were transported by his music. The only one. Boy, you must understand our circumstances. All of us here, with the exception of you, all the humans in the Realm, or Sidhedark, or Faerie Shadow, or whatever you wish to call this accursed place - we are here because music transported us."

  "Enchanted," said the auburn-haired woman.

  "Crossed us over," said a plump, black-haired man.

  "Me, when I played trumpet," said the strong fellow.

  "And I, piano," said another.

  Wolfer held up his hand to stop the voices. "I was not a musician. I was a critic of music. I have always believed that Waltiri took his vengeance on me… by setting me among musicians, forever and ever."

  "We loved music," Brecker said. "We added something to human music which it does not ordinarily have-"

  "Except for Waltiri's concerto," Wolfer interjected.

  "We took from ourselves, and made it as the Sidhe have played it for thousands of years, made it whole. And crossed over. All of us love music."

  "And here," Risky said, "there is none."

  "The Sidhe say their Realm is music," the strong man said, "but not for us."

  "Ask Lamia why you're here," Risky suggested.

  "And be careful of that woman, boy," Wolfer said, seating himself with painful slowness. "Be very careful indeed."

  Chapter Four

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  Michael barely remembered stumbling up to the room after dinner, and he had no memory at all of falling asleep. But he awoke at an unknown hour, in complete darkness, to hear the room door open, footsteps and the clump of something heavy being put down on the mica flooring.

  My roommate, he thought. Savarin. He dozed off again with a vague wonder as to what sort of Queequeg the Realm could conjure.

  At dawn, his eyes flew open and he stared up at the bulges between the slats on the bunk above. He rolled over beneath the scratchy covers and stared at a trunk over against one wall, beside the washstand. The trunk was made of the ubiquitous wicker, equipped with heavy cloth straps.

  He hadn't dreamed at all during the night. Sleep had excavated a pit in his life, a time when he might as well have been dead. Nevertheless, he felt rested. He was contemplating getting out of bed when someone knocked on the door. Simultaneously, a bushy-haired head peered over the edge of the top bunk.

  "Lights up," Risky said behind the door. He heard her go down the hall.

  "Good morning," said Michael's roommate. He was about forty, with graying brown hair and large bright eyes. His nose was pronounced and his chin withdrawn, set on a thin neck with almost no Adam's apple.

  "Good morning," Michael said.

  "Ah, American?" the man asked. Michael nodded. "My name is Henrik Savarin. You're in my bunk."

  "Michael Perrin. I'm sorry."


  "Los Angeles."

  Savarin nimbly stepped down the bunk ladder and landed on the floor with a plop. He had slept in his brown pants and loose fitting shirt, and had wrapped his feet in felt tied with lengths of rope.

  "Short blanket on top," he explained. He untied the knots in the ropes and pulled off the felt, then slipped his feet into canvas shoes without socks. "Musician?"

  Michael shook his head. "Student, I suppose."

  "A scholar!" Savarin grinned and slid his palms down his pants legs in an effort to remove wrinkles. "In a land full of those crazy about music, a scholar like myself." He held out his hand. "Pleased to acquaint with you."

  Michael shook Savarin's hand. "I'm not really a scholar," he said.

  "They pry, you know," Savarin said, nodding at the closed door. "Myself, I regard it as most impolite to pry. So no questions for now. But…" He raised his hand and smiled again. "I'll tell you. I study the people here, I study the Sidhe and their languages, and I sometimes teach the new ones. In my day I taught music, but only played a piano poorly. Still, music caught me. I crossed, as they say."

  Michael dressed quickly and followed Savarin downstairs into the dining room. The morning sun revealed that the brick walls were covered with faded hand-painted flowers, arranged in decorative rows in imitation of wallpaper. The dinner of the night before had been cleared without a trace. Only Savarin, Michael and the old man Wolfer were in the dining room. Wolfer ignored them. He sat at his own small table near a window and ate his porridge a spoonful every thirty seconds or so, contemplating the indirect morning light with raised eyebrows.

  Savarin held his spoon on the table upright in one fist as Risky dropped a starchy sphere of porridge into his bowl, then poured thin milk over it from a clay pitcher. She did the same for Michael. The porridge smelled faintly of horse corral, but it didn't taste bad.

  "Lamia wants you this morning," she reminded Michael before returning to the kitchen. Her tone was aloof, as if he were no longer a curiosity or an asset to the inn, and therefore no longer counted for much.

  Savarin grinned at Michael and cocked his head to one side. "You have an acquaintance with the large woman at the Iso-mage's house?"

  "That's the way I came here," he said. Savarin stopped eating.

  "I'd heard the rumor," he said, frowning. "Most unusual. From the house, you mean?"

  "From the gate in the back."

  "Most unusual indeed." Savarin said nothing more until Risky came to take the empty bowls. She removed the half-full bowl from under Wolfer's spoon and carried it away, whistling tunelessly.

  "Did you know," Savarin said, his voice loud for Risky's benefit, "that the Sidhe feel little affection for humans, one of their many reasons, because we often whistle, as our hostess does this moment?"

  Michael shook his head. "Who are the Shee?"

  "Alyons and his coursers, among many o
thers. The masters of the Realm. Whistling irritates them greatly. Any human music. Very sensitive. I believe if you had whistled your way across a Faerie path when they lived on Earth, they would just as soon have flattened you with barrow stones as said good night. Angry about spoliation of their art, you see."

  Michael nodded. "Who is Lamia?"

  Savarin shrugged. "You know more perhaps than I. A large woman who lives in the Isomage's house."

  "Who is the Isomage?"

  "A sorcerer. He angered the Sidhe far more than someone who simply whistles." Savarin smiled. Risky returned with a pitcher of water, which she poured into clay mugs, setting one before Wolfer, one before Savarin, and one before Michael. Savarin tsked her and shook a finger. "The tune," he said. "Bad luck."

  Risky agreed with a nod. "Bad habit," she said.

  "The Shee sound like they-" Michael began, but Savarin interrupted.

  "Pronounce it correctly. It's spelled S-I-D-H-E, from the ancient Gaelic - or rather, the ancients Gaels heard them calling themselves by that name. They pronounce it as a cross between 'Shee' and 'Sthee.'"

  "Yes," Michael said.

  "Try it."

  He tried it. "The Shthee-"

  "Close. Try again."

  "The Sidhe-"

  "That's it."

  "- sound like they're pretty cruel."

  "And difficult. But we do, after all, intrude, and I've been told they came to the Realm to escape humanity. There's been enmity between us for a long time."

  "But it doesn't seem to me that anyone in Euterpe wanted to come here."

  "All the worse, no? Do you speak German?"


  Savarin smiled valiantly, but it was obvious he was disappointed. "So odd," he said. "Only one or two German-speakers in the Realm, and yet Germany was so advanced, musically." He leaned across the table. "So you don't know much about Lamia?"

  Michael shook his head.

  "Learn as much as you can. Carefully. I hear she has a temper. And when - if - you come back, tell me."


  Savarin waved the word away. "You'll return. I have a feeling about you… you're most unusual."

  Michael left the hotel a few minutes later. Brecker followed him into the street and handed him a frayed cloth bag with a piece of bread in it. "I hear Lamia's larder is empty… usually," he said. "Good luck."