Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 62Greg Bear
"Is this true?" Biri asked Shiafa.
"As far as I know," Shiafa said.
"There are no strongholds on Earth?"
"Science beats magic," Michael said. "Not for subtlety, perhaps, and not at magic's highest levels - but in the long haul, and with my world as it is now… That's why the Sidhe finally withdrew from Earth."
"There is war on Earth?" Biri's dignified demeanor slipped a little. Clearly, he did not relish the thought of dying - especially without good reason.
"I don't know what's happening on Earth now, but yes, very likely Sidhe and humans are dying. I would like to prevent more deaths. I can't if I'm stuck here."
Biri considered this at some length. "You must leave," he concluded. "The decision is not mine to make."
Biri's defenses, from the moment of his appearance, had been focused on Michael. They were weak in Shiafa's direction. Michael took his own arrogance and frustration and drew from the center of his hyloka as much power as he could spare and remain alive. He held this mix for as long as he dared and then echoed the virulent shadow off Shiafa. Shiafa reeled and barely kept her footing. Biri's eyes widened as the darkness oozed through his defenses and enveloped him. He struggled, but Michael's strength seemed to reverberate through him; the more anger and frustration Michael felt, the more stymied and impatient, the stronger the shadow became. Within seconds, Biri fell to the tiles.
Michael probed the Sidhe, not knowing precisely what to look for, but knowing it was there. A glowing thread. A cord. The link which he id together Biri's discipline.
Someone buried deep within Michael was almost hysterical. Jesus! Stop doing this! Stop it now, before you eat yourself alive! But he did not listen. He cut Biri's cord of discipline. Michael glanced at Shiafa, who had slipped to her knees, and then at Bin, who lay on the tiles as weak as an unstringed puppet.
"My apologies," he said to Shiafa.
She did not bother to use English. "Yassira bettl strifes," she hissed. "You fight unfairly."
"I suppose there's fairness in smudging out thousands of innocent lives?" Michael asked, shaking his head. "The hell with Sidhe honor. I apologize for using you without asking. There wasn't time."
She stood and looked down at Biri with wide eyes. "He was chief of the Maln. He had great power… Hidden ways of discipline are given to the chief."
I am a bomb again, Michael thought. More powerful, more of a wild card, every minute. Someone will have to stop me before this is finished, or I'll -
He shook his head slowly and probed for more Sidhe. There were two others, and one of them was the Ban. He did not think there would be any more opposition. The Sidhe of the Maln had deserted their own fortress, probably to return to Earth - leaving behind only Biri. They had not expected anyone to reach this far into their defenses.
Michael delved into Biri's aura for knowledge of which door to take. The Sidhe rolled over on the tiles and gasped, still in the shadow's grip. Michael 'considered lifting the shadow, then decided against it. Don't press your luck.
He walked across the chamber toward the proper door. Shiafa ran to catch up with him.
"I am afraid of you, Teacher," she said in a harsh whisper. "You do not know all that you do."
"Amen," Michael said. After so many months in the Realm as a helpless pawn, he felt fierce joy at being able to convert his uncertainty and even his fear into weapons. How far could he just glide, stacking victory upon accomplishment? "It's about time the Sidhe face a real challenge on their own territory. I am sick of duty masking cruelty and of hatred and envy disguised as Sidhe honor and purity. The hell with all of you."
He felt a hint of the Serpent's deep rage there and, to negate that, touched the door with unnecessary gentleness, as if caressing Kristine. The wood was rough and unvarnished. As he had half-expected, it spoke to him. "Welcome, Man-child." The voice was familiar to him; that he had not expected. It belonged to the attendant of the Ban whom Michael had met in Inyas Trai while traveling with Nikolai.
"I am honored you remember. The Ban awaits you. She is in her chamber."
"Are you dead?" In his experience, only dying Sidhe had their thoughts pressed into wood.
The voice laughed. "No! This door carries only a shadow. There are so few of us here and so much to be vigilant against. Enter, man-child."
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The door swung inward, and Michael passed through. Shiafa did not. "She stays outside," Ulath explained.
"Why?" Michael asked, though he was relieved not to have her tagging along.
"Please, no questions. You must move quickly."
The floor-plan of the dark, quiet rooms beyond the domed chamber was like a cross section through a lump of pumice. Ulath's voice guided him from one round bubble-room to another, and it took him some effort to remember the path and keep track of where he had been. The floors were covered by resilient carpets in tessellated patterns, brilliant in sun yellow and coral red. Throughout the rooms, translucent silken curtains dyed in leaf, floral and geometric patterns were suspended from bars reaching wall to wall.
This was not at all what Michael had imagined the fortress of the Maln to look like. There was a feminine sensibility and elegance to the place that completely contrasted with the Maln's age-long activities.
"Stop," Ulath's voice gently commanded when he stood at the center of another large, domed chamber, very much like the first. Overhead, however, was a sophisticated mimicry of day, with soft cloud-patterns weaving back and forth and a gold-leaf stylized sun at zenith, its rays spreading out like branches from an incandescent tree.
Through a door on the opposite side, a Sidhe female in a cream-colored robe with red trim entered. Michael recognized the warm brown skin and black hair, the full lips and eyebrows wryly askew: Mora, who had once been Clarkham's consort. She smiled warmly, but with an edge of guilty tension, and approached Michael slowly, her gown trailing.
"You surprise us all," she said. "The Sidhe thought they were done with you. Even the Ban."
Michael nodded. "I had to… fight Bid to get in here. Subdue him."
She did not seem distressed. "Then you've grown remarkably strong. Biri is not easily overcome." She sensed Michael's unease at her lack of sympathy. Biri, he had learned during his last few minutes in Clarkhan's Xanadu, had been her lover, and she had served Clarkham only in the interests of the Sidhe. "I have been sequestered here, away from Biri, that I might not endanger his accession." Her eyes searched him for any further response, but he kept his reactions under tight control. "Why have you returned?"
"I'm here to bring the Realm's humans back to Earth."
"If you can do that, you will have our cooperation. The stepping stone gates to Earth have been closed; we are not sure by whom."
"Perhaps Tarax," Michael suggested.
"Perhaps. At any rate, Ulath tells me we should arrange a meeting with the Ban, and with Mahler, with whom you are, I believe, familiar."
"I've heard some of his music," Michael said. "Waltiri met him…knew him, once. They corresponded." His eyebrows lifted. "He's here? Alive?"
"Yes. We also have a human named Mozart… He and Mahler have quarreled some in the past. Debated is perhaps a better word. Mozart was astonished when the Ban allowed Mahler to confer with a human on Earth."
"When was this?" Michael asked.
"Recently. Days or weeks or months past on Earth. The conspiracies have not even begun to spin themselves out, Michael. Plays of power and flights of intrigue. Mahler can convey your plans to the others kept here."
"How many are there?" Michael asked.
"Five thousand and twenty-one. Artists, writers of poetry and fiction, storytellers, composers, potters, dancers, dreamers…"
"All… recent?" Days, months… centuries?
"Heavens, no," Mora said, laughing lightly. "The Maln has been collecting them for ten thousand years, ever since the end of the Paradiso
. The Ban was appointed by Adonna to watch over them."
"Then… Emma Livry was not the only one brought here."
"No. Not at all. She was a special case, because of her suffering. The Maln allowed the Ban to bring her to the Realm, even though she was no longer a danger to them - and of no use to their archrival, Clarkham. Other humans whom the Maln ignored until they proved to be a threat were the most unfortunate… Mahler and Mozart among them."
Michael shook his head in wonder. "And the prisoners from Euterpe?"
"They are here."
"After his brief venture on Earth. His journey alerted Biri, who may or may not have acted under Tarax's orders in shutting down the stepping stone in Inyas Trai reserved for humans."
"Then the Ban was going to return them to Earth."
"Of course. They cannot stay here."
"So you are all prisoners… and Biri is your guard?"
"There are other guards," Mora said, with a delicate shudder. "The Realm has become much more… creative, let us say, since Adonna's passage. The Maln has taken advantage of this. Leaving will be much more difficult than getting in."
/ should have thought as much. "I'd like to see the Ban now," Michael said.
Mora nodded once and withdrew. Michael took a deep breath and prepared himself; at their last meeting, the Ban had been in complete control - time had seemed to stop, and his memories of her had emerged only after hours of contemplation, emerged in just the right order to convey what the Ban had wished him to know: that he was a pawn.
Her magic was of a peculiar kind, he could see from this more experienced perspective. It was not an active magic; it was passive. It did not assert and create and destroy; it nurtured and cherished and allowed development. She was none the less powerful for that.
And she had not followed her sister, Elme, in defying their father, Tonn, mage of the Sidhe. She had remained loyal to Tonn - later Adonna, God of the Realm. In return, Adonna had granted her a place and position in Inyas Trai and had supported at least some of her efforts to help the humans in the Realm. Then had she really differed from Elme? In tactics, perhaps, but not intent?
He heard and felt her approach. Her aura was broad and comforting - and also, more than a little deluding. He penetrated the delusion and found warmth beneath. He also found something that drew tears to his eyes and a fullness to his throat.
The Ban of Hours stepped through the doorway, followed by Ulath. The daylight dome seemed to come alive with a greenhouse heat. She was tall, dressed in a gown the color of clouds covering the sun, with silver and gold trimming the sleeves and hem. She moved silently, gliding across the floor with the ease of a dancer - Kristine is almost that graceful - and smiling at him. Her eyes were the only cold thing about her, as dark and intensely blue-green as the ice beneath the Realm, but the coldness was enhanced by contrast rather than detracting. She was nurturing, but she was not to be trifled with, her eyes said.
And she was using none of the tactics she had used on him during their last meeting. She was not greeting him as a pawn or a weak supplicant.
Her gold-red hair was restrained by a white scarf that trailed down her back. She held her hand out to Michael, and he took it, bending automatically to kiss it.
"Welcome," she said. "Friend of Nikolai and one-time weapon of the Councils, now burst his bonds and turned rogue." Her smile was dazzling, conveying gentle humor and no hint of superiority.
She's treating me as an equal… or an ally, Michael realized. Even though I don't yet deserve it. She nurtures what is in me.
"Thank you," Michael said quietly. "I am honored to be in your presence again, Mother." The honorific surprised him some, but it seemed completely appropriate.
"Unfortunately, there is little time to discuss matters, and not even we can hold back the death of my father's creation. Not even if we join hands and concentrate all our combined power."
She held out her hands, and he took them. The sensation that passed back and forth was stunning, an echo of some of the abilities he had felt springing unwilled and unknown from within him. In the Ban, however, these abilities, though weaker (!), were controlled, fully realized. "Not even then," she added softly. "How will you save our humans and Breeds?"
"I'm not sure yet," Michael said. "I have to know what guards the Sklassa and whether I can open a path to Earth big enough, or for a long enough time."
"You already advance beyond me, if you contemplate such acts," the Ban said. "Only the tribal sorcerers - and my father, of course - could do such things, and they are nearly all on Earth now, with their people."
"What I have… what I am… is not developed, Mother," he confessed. "I do not know my limits. I might be dangerous."
"Oh, yes, you are that. But you are the last chance we have. You have seen the true Sklassa, I assume?"
He nodded. "It is not what I expected."
"The illusions of fortresses and horrors… something of a joke for my father, I fear. He ordered Tarax to create this refuge that he might bring Sidhe males and females together in harmony. The Maln administered this fastness. Here they brought Sidhe of all races from around the Realm, to reconcile…" She was suddenly sad. "We have been declining for millions of years. The Sklassa was kept secret because it was not a center of raw power, but only of hope. And the hope was not fulfilled. Few children were born here. Not even Tarax's daughter, though he took a wife in the Sklassa. The wife is dead now. Most of the women who came here did not live, or wished they might not…"
There was a darkness in the Ban at that moment that chilled Michael to the bone. The Sidhe were a dying race. Even the Ban had given up hope for them.
"You have brought her with you, have you not?" she asked. "Tarax's daughter, Shiafa?"
"And she will come with us to Earth, should you succeed?"
He nodded. "I'm her teacher, for the time being."
"Yes. She will teach you much," the Ban said. "Now it would help you, I think, to see the quarters of your brothers and sisters, to look over our preparations for the end and to meet our Mahler. He can tell you more that could be useful."
The Ban dismissed him with a distant smile. Ulath took
Michael's hand and led him through another door. "The Ban is very tired," she explained. "Adonna's death and the difficulties since have taken more than even she can give."
"How did you come to be here?" Michael asked. "And where is the rest of the Maln?"
"The Ban insisted that she stay with the humans when Tarax brought them here from Inyas Trai and other refuges in the Realm. Adonna was still alive then and had some influence, though waning. The Maln disbanded shortly thereafter, that the tribal and racial sorcerers might focus on the problem of the dissipation."
They walked through a sinuous corridor, passing many wooden doors with names scratched on them in Roman and other alphabets.
"When the Realm finally breaks up, it must dissipate. Since the Realm is not far from Earth as worlds go, its end will have an effect."
"I haven't given much thought to that."
"It will change Earth's reality, and much time will pass before the influence of the surrounding reality of Earth will stabilize things."
At the end of the corridor, Ulath held open another thick wooden door for him. Beyond lay a vast ruined garden, rising to hills crested by dying trees and rugged upthrusts of black rock and falling into what might have once been leafy glens. Michael experienced a sharp disorientation; where was the tower? Behind them was only the door in a low cylindrical brick structure like a squat silo. And the sky was not oily slate but a dusty dark gray-blue, like the twilight of the between-worlds.
Across the garden, strolling singly or in groups, were men and women - humans - dressed in Sidhe garb, white sepias and long gray robes. The nearest man, a middle-aged oriental, looked on Ulath and Michael with some interest but did not approach.
"Our humans," Ulath s
aid, smiling. "The Ban has come to think of them as her children - and indeed, she is in a way their aunt."
"Where are we?" Michael asked.
"We are still in the tower. The walls themselves have out-seeing pressed into their fabric. The Ban and Adonna designed this thousands of years ago, that Sidhe might court and find peace. It has not been tended of late."
"I see that. It's sad."
"We are a sad race," Ulath said lightly. They followed a stone path weaving through the hills. Here and there, houses much like the hut of the Crane Women rose in the middle of spinneys of skeletal trees. "Some have chosen to live here, some in the tower."
"And outside the tower?"
"Biri gathered Adonna's abortions and placed them in the grounds around the tower. No one goes there."
Ahead, standing alone on a hill overlooking a lead-colored lake, was a house unlike the others, small and square, surrounded by a rickety porch. The house had apparently been recently assembled in some haste and lacked the ancient stolidity of the other buildings.
A door was half-open on the side facing away from the lake. Ulath knocked lightly on the frame.
A small man, thin and slightly stooped, opened the door and stared at Michael and Ulath over pince-nez glasses perched on a blade-sharp aquiline nose. His gray-unto-white hair flowed back from a high forehead, topping almost emaciated features; he radiated an, intensity that Michael found fascinating.
"This is our savior?" the man asked in English with a soft Viennese accent.
"This is Michael Perrin," Ulath said. "I believe you are acquainted with Gustav Mahler."
Michael hesitantly extended his hand, and Mahler looked down on it with a frown, then grasped it with both hands and shook it vigorously.
"Please come in," Mahler said. The room beyond was sparely furnished with wicker and wood. There was a small writing table and chair beneath a piece of tattered gray and black floral-patterned Sidhe fabric. The table held layers of dozens of sheets of handmade paper, creamy and rough-edged, covered with hastily scrawled musical notes and blots of watery ink. A goose-quill lay near one of the fresh blots. On the opposite side of the room stretched a narrow wicker cot covered with a richly woven red rug. The walls of the room were bare but for dead branches strung up in the comers, reaching out like withered hands.