Delerium's Mistress: Tales of the Flat Earth Book 4 (4 page)

BOOK: Delerium's Mistress: Tales of the Flat Earth Book 4
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At this time, the
Eshva had attempted to console her. They had soothed her, caressed her,
brushing her with their hair, drugging her with their perfumed sighs. When the
terrible process stopped, accomplished, and did not resume, still for a while
they seemed to wish to divert her. But she became an icon then, awake yet
sleeping. A closed door. And gradually the Eshva dropped away from her like
moths with broken wings.

They wandered the
island, her servitors, her fellow prisoners and exiles. Their noiseless ennui
and wretchedness soon embued every valley and height of it. She was, after all,
Vazdru, a princess. The leaden nothingness she had succumbed to bruised and
damaged them. They paled, they faded.

She, too,
sometimes traversed the island. But even as she walked, she slept.
Somnambulist, she would hesitate on the brink of some precipice, from which,
being what she was, no doubt in any case she could not fall. Or, hearing the
music of her cliff in the distance, she might turn her head. But when the mist
about the island thinned a little, and the Eshva would creep gracefully down to
the shore and stand there, gazing to the sea beyond, she did not stir.

No doubt, too,
she had learned many things without any tutor, had been born, even, with
knowledge denied to humankind. No doubt too and too, she did not know what
knowledge was, or its value. Nor what she herself was or might be. That she
remembered her beginning, the mother who had told stories to her while she was
yet in the womb, the awful death of that mother, her own first abandonment to
men, her second to the island, so much is unarguable. Yet even these memories
did not seem to move her to any expression. Even if she was aware of it, she
did not
know
what she was. How then could she
express anything?

She lay on her
royal bed in the Underearth, three days away, or three thousand years away,
from Druhim Vanashta. Perhaps she even felt, like the dim echo of some gigantic
exploding star, the resonance of Azhrarn’s mourning. But if she did, it gave
her nothing, it asked nothing, it turned its face from her.

And so she was—or so she
was not.

 

3

 

“HE IS NOT a bad son,” said the widow. She wrung her
hands and paced up and down. “Those that speak of him, speak well. But then
they were afraid of the master he serves. They will not speak ill of my son for
fear it should seem they speak ill of Prince Lak. But they look askance. Do you
hear much from your Oloru, they say, and their eyes say, He is a cheat and a
deceiver, a buffoon of the court who practices all its vices.” She sat down in
a chair. Her elder daughter, who had heard her mother pacing and come in to
comfort her, now took the widow’s hand. “But I say this,” said the widow, “it
is a weakness in him. Only a weakness. Do we blame a man who is born without
sight, or a man whose leg is broken and who walks crookedly thereafter? Why
then blame a boy whose spirit is unable to see and whose nature has been
warped? Can he help it any more than the poor blind man or the unlucky
cripple?”

“There, there,
Mother,” said the daughter, who was young and fair and golden, somewhat like
Oloru himself.

“You are a good
girl,” said the mother. “Both good girls. But oh, my son.”

In the window the
sky was black and many-starred though the moon had gone down. It would not be
dawn for two hours or more. Away beyond the walls of the old house, the ancient
forest (the same in which Prince Lak now hunted) could be seen raising its
spears and plumes to the sky. Nearby, a ribbon of road turned against the trees
toward the city. Along that very road a year since, Oloru had traveled.
Wellborn though poor, he meant, he said, to find some great lord who would be
his patron. And he had found one. He had found Lak, whose vile hungers and
bestial unkindnesses overtopped the misdeeds of all his fellow princes put
together.

“Oloru should have
stayed at home with us,” said the mother. “He was happy with us.”

“Perhaps he is
also happy now,” said the elder daughter, sadly.

His letters had
given them to think so. He did not mention what he did at the court of the
magician, but only the rich food and fine clothes, and always he sent extravagant
presents.

“It was the
forest,” said the mother in a whisper now. “The forest is to blame.”

The elder
daughter glanced at the window and made a little sign against evil enchantment.

It was a fact, a
month before Oloru had undertaken to seek his fortune in the city, there had
been a strange incident, though not a rare one for those who lived in the
periphery of the forest. Even by day, the wise did not venture there, but
Oloru, the widow’s only son, had always scorned such superstition. Now and
then he would hunt these woods himself, and bring back game, for which the
house was grateful enough. Then came an afternoon when their servant, the only
retainer left to them, hastened home alone. Oloru had gone out with him at
sunrise, but somehow they had been separated in the trees. Then the servant had
searched all morning, and long past noon, but could not discover the young man
or any trace of him. At last the servant returned to his mistress the widow, in
trepidation.

A few terrible
hours then passed in the worst perplexity and distress. Though she dared not
venture into the forest, the mother stood at her gate, and the two fair
daughters and the servant with her. There they stayed, praying or weeping or
silent, or trying to reassure each other, or calling Oloru’s name vainly,
shading their eyes against the westering sun and gazing at the trees as if by
desperation alone they could draw him forth again. The sun began to go down in
a curdle of fire, the road, the house, the waiting figures, all were dyed red,
and the trees all black with their tops seeming to burn. Suddenly something
moved out from the blackness into the redness. There on the road, walking
toward them, was a fifth figure, that of a young man. Oloru.

The household
flew toward him, laughing and crying at once. And he too began to run toward
them, his arms outstretched.

Then, there
seemed to come a curious check. The widow and her daughters faltered and
stopped still; the servant drew up with a muttered oath. For himself, Oloru
also halted. He lowered his eyes and next his head with a modest shyness.

The mother stared
at him. What was it? Was this her son?—yes, yes, who else but he? Her own Oloru
that she had thought lost to her. Although—She looked and looked, and her heart
beat loudly enough to deafen her and to muddy her eyes, so in the end she
thought it was only that. Then she ran forward again and embraced him and he in
turn embraced her, and said, “Mother, pardon me for alarming you so. I mistook
my way. But as you see, I regained a path and have come back to you.” And while
he spoke his bright hair brushed her cheek and it seemed to her she knew him,
of course she did, he was her son.

Yet to the
sisters also, and to the servant, there had at first seemed something not
right, something bizarre. Later, the elder girl had a dream, and in the dream
the left side of her brother’s face, as he returned out of the forest, was
covered by a half-mask of enamel, and when he drew it off, his own face under
it had changed to that of a decaying and horrific male devil. The younger
sister also had a dream in which the eyes of her brother had become like the
sunset, black and red, and she woke up shrieking. But these dreams were soon
forgotten, for there was nothing amiss with Oloru, it was only their troubled
fancy. He was as he had always been, golden and handsome, and full of jokes and
poetic reveries.

It seemed to them
they loved him more than ever in that month, after thinking they had lost him.
And then he left them for the city and the magician-lords, and was lost to them
in truth.

Presently it was the
mother’s turn for nightmares, and often she would rise and pace about, and if
her daughters heard her they would come in to comfort her. And she would say,
“He is not bad.” She would say, “It is a weakness.” And she would say, “It is
the forest’s fault. The forest is to blame.”

Now the elder daughter rose and said, “I will light
another candle; this one is almost out. Let us be as cheerful as we can. Who
knows, he may tire of that other life.” The mother sighed deeply.

Oloru’s elder
sister went to fetch a second candle. As she did so she passed the window, and
happening to look out she gave a sharp cry.

“What is it?” exclaimed the mother.

“There—by the well—a great pale animal with ghastly
eyes—”

The mother
hastened to look. Huddled in the window, the two women stared down at the
courtyard. The gate was locked at night, and surely nothing could get in.
Nevertheless, there beyond the stone curb of the well, something moved.

“Even by starshine I saw it,” said the girl. “As if it
glowed of itself.”

“Lift up the candle,” said the mother. “Let us see
this thing and be sure.”

So the feeble
candle was lifted, and a little more light fell into the yard. Around the well
at once and out of the shadow of a tree which grew there something swiftly
came, and the girl parted her lips to scream.

But, “Oh, the blessed gods,” the widow said. “What
were you thinking of? It is your brother.”

And there under
their window stood Oloru, looking himself like a prince, his eyes fixed on
them, more beautiful than all the jewels with which he was dressed.

Soon the whole
house was roused and down in the antique pillared hall with Oloru. It was a sad
place, this hall, for there were not enough servants now to keep it as it
should be kept, and all the best things had been sold years since. But a good
wine was lugged up from the cellar, and a host of candles fired.

“I cannot stay with you long,” said Oloru. “But I will
return shortly. Then
he
will be with me.”

“What can you mean?” cried the widow in horror.

“What you think I mean? I intend to bring Lak Hezoor
the magician home with me, to be our guest. He will sit here and we will dance
attendance on him. He will see my two sisters and lust after both of them.”

The sisters
shrank. The elder said, uncertainly, “Do you jest with us, brother?” But the
widow cried, “He has gone mad!”

Oloru laughed at
that. He flung up his arms, and looked some while at the spiders’ webs in the
rafters. “Do you not trust me, dear Mother? I, your only son?”

A cold breath
seemed then to blow through the hall. The candles felt it and sank. The women
felt it and they trembled. But then Oloru brought his gaze down from the
rafters and he said gently, “It is perilous, this enterprise, but I must do it.
Once it might have been done another way, easier, and more gaudy. But as things
are now, I require such means as you.”

“What are you saying?” asked the widow.

Oloru seemed
puzzled. “I hardly know. But this I will promise—no harm shall come to any of
you, I swear. What shall I swear on?”

The three women eyed him in dismay
and fascination. At last the mother said, “Swear on your life.”

“My life? No, on something better than that. I will
swear it, by the power of love.”

The candles straightened up. The coldness went away as
if it had heard enough.

“What are we saying?” asked the mother. “This is all
nonsense.”

“No, Mother.
Never was a fact more sure.” And he sprang to his feet. “Now I leave you. By
midmorning we shall be here, I with that monster, and all the parasites who
cling about the monster, and the dangerous fiends that wait on him. Be ready.”
And he darted out of the hall through the door into the courtyard. When they
hurried after him he was nowhere to be seen. The elder sister stole to the
opened gate. “What is that creature which runs into the trees?” But the night
and the forest were very black. It might have been nothing at all.

 

Lak Hezoor the magician-prince woke from his stupor
and turned about on the cushions. There in the entry to the tent stood a shape,
pale and dark, whose eyes seemed cast from far millennia of nights and stars.
Lak Hezoor spoke at once a word of power, to detain this visitor, for he sensed
a supernatural quality. But even in that instant it was gone.

“A demon,” said
Lak Hezoor. “One of Azhrarn’s tribe. Or did I dream it?”

“A dream,” said a
charming voice. “What would demons be doing here?”

“Sorcery attracts them.
It is well known.”

“But there has been no
sorcery.”

“The forest stinks of it. Besides, tell me what
I
am, Oloru.”

“My master,” said Oloru, who was seated by him on the
cushions. “Sun of my life. And a mighty magician. I perceive my error,
glamorous lord. Of course the demons follow you as sheep the shepherd.”

Lak Hezoor only
grinned at this banter. Plainly Oloru had not seen the demon, lacking the
ability or else asleep . . . or only intent on playing with a
curious brass toy he seemed now to have about him, a sort of rattle, which he
shook up and down.

“Where did you come by
that?”

BOOK: Delerium's Mistress: Tales of the Flat Earth Book 4
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