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PROLOGUE: The Tower of Baybhelu
PART ONE: The Souring of the Fruit
CHAPTER 1: Storytellers
CHAPTER 2: All About Bhelsheved
CHAPTER 3: Night Works
PART TWO: Soul of the Moon
CHAPTER 1: A Sacrifice
CHAPTER 2: The Magical Engine
CHAPTER 3: Sunfire
CHAPTER 4: Moonflame
CHAPTER 5: An Image of Light and Shadow
PART THREE: The Bitterness of Joy
CHAPTER 1: Seventeen Murderesses
CHAPTER 2: Mother and Daughter
CHAPTER 3: The Aloe
CHAPTER 4: Dice
CHAPTER 5: Love and Death and Time
When the world was flat and the gods had not yet restructured the universe, the cities and hopes of mankind hung upon the whims of the immortal lords of all diabolical powers.
For these, such as Azhrarn, Night's Master, and Uhlumc, Death's Master, the world was a flesh-and-blood playground for all their strangest desires. Hut among those demonic lords, the strangest was the master of madness, Chuz.
The game that Chuz played with a beautiful woman, with an ambitious king, with an ancient imperial city, was a web work of good and evil, of hope and horror. But there was always Azhrarn to interfere—to bend delusion to a different outcome—and it was a century-long conflict between two vain immortals with women and men as their terrified pawns.
TANITH LEE, acclaimed as the "princess-royal of high fantasy," winner of the prestigious August Derleth Award, now presents a new novel of brilliant coloration and sparkling imagination.
Tanith Lee (* 19. September 1947, + 24. Mai 2015).
Tanith Lee was a British writer of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. She was the author of 77 novels, 14 collections, and almost 300 short stories. She also wrote four radio plays broadcast by the BBC and two scripts for the UK, science fiction, cult television series Blake's 7.
Before becoming a full time writer, Lee worked as a file clerk, an assistant librarian, a shop assistant, and a waitress.
Her first short story, Eustace, was published in 1968, and her first novel (for children) The Dragon Hoard was published in 1971.
Her career took off in 1975 with the acceptance by Daw Books USA of her adult fantasy epic The Birthgrave for publication as a mass-market paperback, and Lee has since maintained a prolific output in popular genre writing.
Lee twice won the World Fantasy Award: once in 1983 for best short fiction for The Gorgon and again in 1984 for best short fiction for Elle Est Trois (La Mort). She has been a Guest of Honour at numerous science fiction and fantasy conventions including the Boskone XVIII in Boston, USA in 1981, the 1984 World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa, Canada, and Orbital 2008 the British National Science Fiction convention (Eastercon) held in London, England in March 2008.
In 2009 she was awarded the prestigious title of Grand Master of Horror. Lee was the daughter of two ballroom dancers, Bernard and Hylda Lee. Despite a persistent rumor, she was not the daughter of the actor Bernard Lee who played M in the James Bond series of films of the 1960s.
Tanith Lee married author and artist John Kaiine in 1992.
Cover of the 1981 DAW-Books edition of DELUSION'S MASTER
A mile from the enameled walls of the city, where the desert lay gleaming like golden glass, a beautiful woman sat in a stone tower, and she played with a bone.
“Will he come to me today?” she asked the bone, rocking it in her arms like a child. “Or will he seek me tonight? All the stars will shine, but he will shine more brightly. For sure, he dare not come by day, for he would outshine the sun. The sun would die of shame, and the whole world grow dark. But oh, he will come. Nemdur,” said the beautiful woman, “Nemdur, my lord.”
Her name was Jasrin; Nemdur was the king whose city stood one mile to the east. Once, he had been her husband. No longer.
When the day began to go, folding its robes around it, slipping from the desert silently, Jasrin called for her women. There were only two attendants now, one very old, and one a young girl. Both pitied her, but she barely noticed them. Nor did she notice the loathing behind their pity. At the door below, brawny men, armed with swords and axes, maintained watch, charged to keep danger out, or in. Palm trees, with fronds of brazen green, enclosed the tower, and a little pool was spread there like a piece fallen from the sky. At sunset, the girl ran down to the pool and drew water for her mistress’s bath. Presently Jasrin bathed, and was perfumed and anointed. The old woman combed Jasrin’s desert colored hair, and plaited jewels into it, as Jasrin instructed her. A garment of silk was put on Jasrin’s body and golden slippers on her feet. All the while, Jasrin kept a firm hold of the bone. She had some cause for this. It was the bone of her child.
“Prepare the feast,” Jasrin said to her attendants. “Soon my lord Nemdur will arrive.”
The attendants obeyed her, as best they could. They laid the tables with embroidered napkins and set out plates of silver, and put cooked meats on them, bread, fruits and sweet meats. They placed wine ready in silver vessels packed about with ice.
“Make music,” said Jasrin.
The girl took a stringed instrument and plucked notes from it like sharp crystal sighs.
Jasrin leaned at the window. She looked toward the city a mile away along the darkened slopes of the desert
Above, the still stars blazed. Jasrin looked for blazing stars which moved, lamps and torches proceeding from the city of Sheve, the procession which would bring her lord to her.
“Soon,” she said to the bone of her dead child, “soon he will return to me. His hair like bronze, his strength like the sun, his eyes like the stars. He will lie with me, and his mouth will be wine, his loins fire. Oh, the music he will make in me, and I will be only an instrument for that music. And in that music, I shall conceive. I shall become big with you, my child; you will be born again.”
But if the bone heard her, it paid no heed. If the night heard her, it paid none. And if Nemdur, the king, where he sat in his palace with his new queen, if he heard her, then he stopped his ears.
At midnight, Jasrin screamed. She flung the bone from her into a corner. She began to tear her skin and her hair, and her two attendants ran to her, and they prevented her. Jasrin had grown so weak, even an old woman and a slender girl could restrain her—they were, besides, well practiced. This happened every night.
And, as on every night, Jasrin wept for many hours. Every night was swept away in her tears, till in the pastel moments before dawn she slept a little, and waking, called for her child. And then the girl would bring her the bone and Jasrin would rock the bone and hold it to her breast.
As the sun rose, Jasrin asked the bone again: “Will he come to me today? Or will he seek me tonight?”
But Nemdur would never come to her.
She had been sixteen when she was wed to him. She had lived till then in a kingdom of many waters, of rivers, lakes, waterfalls, fountains. Green hills were piled above green valleys; skies overlaid a mosaic of green foliage. When they told her she must go from this green velvet land to a land of raw amber, Jasrin had wept, in the manner of one at ease among waters, facile with their use. Obedient, wretched and afraid, she had gone to the man who was to be her husband, and she had fixed her eyes on the green ground she must leave. While with gentle strong fingers he lifted the veil from her face, it was as if the sun shone in on her. Slowly she raised her eyes, and beheld Nemdur was the sun, and the sun dried her weeping with his smile.
Nemdur was beautiful, a young lion. His hair glinted bright as metal shavings; his eyes were the pale burning slate of desert air. When he saw his bride, he had smiled at her because he was pleased by her loveliness. He had wished to be pleased; now, she wished only to please him.
She rode to Sheve in a carriage that tinkled with silver discs, her hair cascading, her eyes brimming not with tears, but love. She was the princess of all waterfalls. In the palace, behind the doors of the bedchamber, Nemdur taught her of another land where fire and liquid mingled.
Soon, she was heavy with his child. Nemdur loaded her with other gifts, necklaces of gold, silver mirrors, bracelets of sapphire, ropes of pearls. He had made for her a garden where lotuses lay like swans on the shallow pools, a water garden in the midst of a desert. He sent her the pelt of a lion he himself had slain, a mantle in which to wrap his son when it was born. So much he sent, but he himself did not come to her any more. The child made her big, cumbersome and ugly. Nemdur, free as sand or sunlight, went into other women. His appetite was large, and his tastes various. The child had merely hastened an inevitable desire in him for change. Certainly, there was yet room in his heart for Jasrin, but also room for others, and in his bed, room for a world of women.
She saw his eyes turn to saffron haired maidens with skin pale, like cream, and maidens colored dark as molasses with hair like smoky fleece. She smelled these skins, this hair, on him, their perfumes and their lust her soul shrank inwards and grew little. At last her soul grew small enough to fit inside a coriander seed.
Then she looked at herself in the lotus pools and in the silver mirrors. And she divined that Nemdur’s child made her hideous, and she began to hate the child. Until that moment, she had scarcely considered her life, or rather, she had not considered that she might have any say in her life. But now a great terror filled her. Huge things had happened to her, and none of them at her ordering. Exile, love, pregnancy and desertion. Next came her labor. Others had suffered worse, but who is to say for Jasrin, at that time, the pain and fear did not appear the most awful ever visited upon woman? Her body seemed split; her brain was cloven. She was delivered of a son and they laid him on the lion’s skin, but Jasrin was laid on molten lava. Yet she thought, I am free of it, and now he will love me again.
Nemdur sent gifts. For his wife, earrings and necklaces of lapis lazuli, for his son, a jade apple. When Nemdur entered the chamber, he lifted the baby high in his arms, as once he had lifted the veil of his bride, and Nemdur laughed with pleasure at his son. He had only smiled at Jasrin. This time, he barely glanced at her.
In a while, a woman wandered from Jasrin’s apartments. She had a soul small enough to fit inside a coriander seed, a brain cloven in two parts. One part said to her: See where my husband plays with his son. The second part said to her: See how my husband has eyes only for the child and none for me.
Nemdur gave the child robes of silk, toys of ivory, an anklet of gold. Nemdur came to Jasrin’s bed.
“Am I beautiful?” Jasrin questioned him.
“Beautiful as a lotus, and you bud beautiful children. Let us make another, you and I.”
“My lord,” said Jasrin, “I am sick tonight. Do not ask me. Go instead to one of your snowy women, or your inky women.”
“Come,” said Nemdur, “it is you I want.”
Then her cloven brain put words in her mouth, like honey:
“I have yearned for you—”
“But I am the last you turn to.”
Nemdur saw her hurt, and he said: “I have been thought less and will amend it. But I never honored you the less.”
“I am just another of your sluts,” said she.
“You are my wife and the mother of my heir.”
Then Jasrin would say nothing else, and she stretched herself out like a stone. When he could not move her, Nemdur left her. His garden was full of flowers; he had no need to wait for one. If you had opened the coriander seed at that hour, you could not have found any longer the soul of Jasrin, for it had shrunk to a speck no bigger than the point of a pin.
That month, the shallow waters of the water garden failed and the lotuses died. There, said the second part of Jasrin’s brain, that is what they have done to you, Nemdur and Nemdur's son.
And the first part of her brain whispered: If you had not borne a child, Nemdur would love you still.
The child was sleeping on his lion skin in the shade, and nearby his nurse lay sleeping, too, and all about were scattered the tiny ivory animals that the king had sent the child, and on his ankle was the golden anklet
Jasrin noiselessly took up the nurse’s outer garment that the woman had cast off in the heat of the day. Jasrin wrapped herself in the garment and pulled its folds over her head, and next she took up the child in the skin. Then she began to cry, for the child was innocent and beautiful; but even so he was her enemy.
Jasrin passed through the palace yards, and no one questioned her, thinking her the trusted nurse. When she went out and through the city, she became only another woman with her child carried close. And sometimes indeed Jasrin saw other women with their babies, and she was sad for them, believing every woman who had borne a child had lost thereby the love of her husband.
Down wide streets and narrow, across the great market place where the brown camels glared like lords, and the blue black figs sweated and the red meat swung and boys danced to a pipe and a snake rose from a copper urn and spread his heart shaped hood. So Jasrin came to the tall enameled walls of Sheve. She did not see the pictures there of beasts and flowers. She ran out through the broad gate whose shadow was like black death. She ran into the desert
About a hundred paces from the walls, where there was a well, clustered an encampment of wandering people. Jasrin walked boldly among the tents, and none challenged her since she was a woman, and in those parts they did not fear women much, or did not suppose they did.
At last Jasrin came on a group of several young children and babies sleeping or sleepily playing together in the shadow of a tent. Nearby a pair of large hunting dogs reclined, their tawny masks upon their paws.
Now Jasrin was beyond reason almost, but not quite. It seemed to her that she might leave her child here undetected, among so many others. And when the mothers came and found an extra child, no doubt they would take it in, concluding themselves repaid by the golden ring about its ankle. Once noon was done, the camp would be disbanded, for such nomads rarely stayed long in any place, let alone beside the cities of the desert country, which they considered devilish and decadent. By nightfall, then, if not sooner, Jasrin would be free of the thing which had, so guiltlessly, robbed her of all happiness.
As she was standing there musing feverishly on these things, one of the dogs raised its head, snuffing the air, and growled softly at her. Plainly, these animals had been set to guard the children, and would guard hers as well when she was gone. Yet the dog’s merciless eyes filled Jasrin with sudden alarm. In frenzy she put the bundle of the child from her and let it fall gently on the sand, beside the other infants. It had not cried; perhaps instinctively it had known her for its mother, while unable instinctively to guess her purpose.
The dog surged abruptly to its four slim feet, and now its eyes were hard charred glasses, fired by the relentless desert sun. Jasrin turned and fled, expecting the dog’s fangs to fasten any moment in her robe or her flesh, but its growling only died behind her, though over it she heard all the sleepy children wake and begin to wail and shriek, as if accusing her, and thus she ran the faster, from the camp and back through the city gateway. Up the streets, wide and narrow, she ran, and near the palace she checked, and threw the nurse’s robe on the ground. The guards, seeing her reenter, stared, for she was the Queen of Sheve and she had come in without attendants from the streets; but they did not question her.
She went to her apartments and sat down there. Her head ached, her very mind ached.
Nemdur would come to her and say: “Our son has disappeared, none can discover him. Do you think the woman who was his nurse killed him?”
And Jasrin would answer: ‘‘Spare her, my lord. She is demented. She is jealous that she has no child of her own, for her own child died ..”
Noon had come, and afternoon, and then the time of redness, the blood red splashed on the walls, the scarlet aftermath of the sun changing swiftly to magenta and to indigo, and the stars appeared, the lamps of the cities of heaven. Jasrin had heard no outcry and no search through the palace. Nemdur had not come to her.
And then he came.
He stepped quickly into the unlit chamber, and for once he did not light the room with his presence, nor did he speak as she had anticipated.
“Jasrin, my wife,” said Nemdur, “I have heard three stories. The first is that someone thieved the robe of a woman as she slept in the garden shade. The second that this same woman, muffled in her robe against the heat, stole out into the city, but that she never returned. The third story is that Jasrin, the Queen of Sheve, came back from the city unescorted, though none had seen her go there.”
Jasrin’s aching cloven brain could not deal with this.
“These are all lies!” she cried. “You should whip such liars.”
But Nemdur said gently to her: “There is a fourth story. Listen, I will tell it you. Nomads pitched their tents by the walls of Sheve, in order to draw water from the well outside the gate, and to sell produce of theirs in the market. But a woman came and left a child lying among the children of the tents.”
“It was the nurse,” Jasrin blurted.
“No,” said Nemdur, “for she was that very hour searching for our child, mine and yours, and she has witnesses to her search.”
“They are all liars!” cried Jasrin once more.
“There is only one liar.”
Immediately Jasrin’s strength went from her like blood from a mortal wound.
“I confess it,” she said. “The child took away your regard for me. I would send away the child instead. Do not blame me. I could not help myself.”
“I do not blame you,” said Nemdur. His voice remained quiet; she could not see his face in the dark.
“And has the child been returned to you?” muttered Jasrin. “Returned,” said Nemdur, and then he shouted across the chamber: “Bring in my son.” The doors opened again, and certain servants entered, and one carried a burning torch, and another a bundle. “Set him down,” said the king, “and let this poor madwoman behold the fruit of her planting.”
So they placed the bundle before the Queen of Sheve and unwrapped it in the torchlight. For a while she stared, and then she screamed, and the two parts of her brain shattered in a hundred fragments.
The people of the tents had known the infant by his gold anklet, and out of respect for Nemdur and out of horror; they had brought home to him, risking his vengeance, what was left of his son. For the dogs had torn the child in pieces. Generally, such dogs would not have harmed a baby, but they were hunting hounds, and they had scented lion the moment the woman approached. When she had dropped the child in the sand, wrapped in the lion skin, the dogs had rushed to it. As Jasrin fled, the dogs had fallen on the skin and coincidentally on the baby inside the skin. Truly, Jasrin was rid of her son; truly she had conquered her enemy.
Nemdur showed none of his grief or his revulsion, nor did he sentence his wife to any punishment He put her aside merely, and had her locked in a lavish pavilion adjoining the palace. He went on sending her gifts, costly hangings, succulent meats and ripe fruit jewels. He was good to her, his tolerance was wondered at. In fact, he would have been less cruel if he had given her instantly to the executioner. Instead, it was a living death he shut her in, worse, far worse, than the scourge, the fire, the clean stroke of a sword.
In the third month of her imprisonment the month when the king was to be married again, somehow Jasrin escaped. She was so mad by then that she half believed she was a bride, that this was the water country, and Nemdur, the bridegroom, was about to receive her and unveil her for the first time. The notion had obsessed her, however, that she would be barren, unless she could find a particular magic token, the promise of the gods to her that she should bear a son. This token was none other than the body of her child. So she reached the tombyard and wandered about there, and at length she came upon a gardener. He, knowing her and seeing no help near, took pity and led her to her son’s tomb, and let her go in. Finally, those who pursued her came on the scene, and perceived her sitting in the twilight of the tomb, with the poor body, all gone to bones, in her arms. In her fragmented mind, she believed she had found the key and symbol of her security and future joy. But in some wellspring of herself no doubt she knew it was her frightful guilt she rocked, and her guilt she would not be sundered from. Repeatedly, those who had come after her attempted to prize the dead from her grasp. Eventually she had relinquished everything save one bone, and this they could not get away, try as they would.
So Jasrin and her bone were removed altogether, to a stone tower in the desert one mile west of the city of Sheve. And here her living death went on, and the routines of her madness never varied, her looking for Nemdur, her speech with the bone, her agony, her fury, her despair, her weeping, on and on. Till all about her grew also a little mad, catching her sickness and even the tower was steeped in the anguish of her insanity, even the trees, the sands, the stars, and the sky.
There were then five Lords of Darkness. Uhlume, Lord Death, was one, whose citadel stood at the Earth’s core, but who came and went in the world at random. Another was Wickedness, in the person of the Prince of Demons, Azhrarn the Beautiful, whose city of Druhim Vanashta lay also Underground, and who came and went in the world only by night, since demonkind abjured the sun (wisely, for it could bum them to smoke or cinders). The earth was flat, and marvelous, and had room then for such beings. But it is not remembered where a certain third Lord of Darkness made his abode, nor perhaps had he much space for private life, for he must be always everywhere.
His name was Chuz, Prince Chuz, and he was this way. To come on him from his right side, he was a handsome man in the splendor of his youth. His hair was a blond mane couthly combed to silk, his eye, being lowered, had long gilded lashes, his lip was chiseled, his tanned skin burnished. On his hand he wore a glove of fine white leather, and on his foot a shoe of the same, and on his tall and slender body the belted robe was rich and purple dark. “Beauteous noble young man,” said those that came to his right side. But those who approached him from the left side, shrank and hesitated to speak at all. From the left side, Chuz was a male hag on whom age had scratched his boldest signatures, still peculiarly handsome it was true, but gaunt and terrible, a snarling lip, a hollowed cheek, if anything more foul because he was fair. The skin of this man was corpse gray, and the matted hair the shade of drying blood, and his scaly eyelid, being lowered, had lashes of the same color. The left hand lay naked on the damson robe, which this side was tattered and stained, and the left foot poked naked from under it. When Chuz took a step, you saw the sole of that gray white foot was black, and when he lifted that gray white hand, the palm was black, and the nails were long and hooked, and red as if painted from a woman’s lacquerpot. Then again, if Chuz raised his eyes on either side, you saw the balls of them were black, the irises red, the pupils tarnished, like old brass. And if Chuz laughed, which now and then he did, his teeth were made of bronze.
Worst of all, was to come on Chuz from the front and see both aspects of him at once, still worse if then he raised his eyes and opened his mouth. (Though it is believed that all men, at one time or another, had glimpsed Chuz from behind.) And who was Chuz? His other name was Madness.
Like Lord Death, maybe Prince Chuz was simply a personification that had come to be, a fluid concept that had hardened into a figure. For sure, his appurtenances were as conceptually they should be. Sometimes he carried the jaw bones of an ass, and when he cracked them, they gave out the braying crazy noises of the living beast. Or sometimes he carried a brass rattle, and shook it like the sistrum, and from it came a clatter as if a brain were being shaken into bits. But sometimes, he wore an over mantle of black purple, embroidered with splinters of glass representing malign configurations of the stars. ...
Jasrin’s six guards had laid aside their axes. With their six swords in their belts, they crouched at the foot of the stone tower in the cool of evening, throwing dice. The moon had risen, one white fruit on the blackleafed tree of night. By her shine and the flare of a torch sunk in the sand, the guards kept score.
The first man threw, and the second. Next, the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Next the sixth. And then the seventh.
The seventh man’s dice fell; they were yellow and had no markings.
“Who is this stranger?” demanded the captain of the six men. He clapped his hand on the stranger’s shoulder, snatched the hand back with a curse. The seventh man’s mantle was strewn with bright scintillants that drew blood. “How did you come here and what is your business?” barked the captain.
The six men peered, and in the torchlight they glimpsed half a face, the other half hidden by the cowl of the mantle. A glamorous young man sat among them, his eyes—or the one visible eye—demurely lowered so the long blond lashes rested on his cheek. With a closed mouth, he smiled. Then suddenly a white gloved hand appeared and in it an ass’s jaw bones that clicked, and let out a raucous braying. And for a second the one eye flashed up, a confused dart of the impossible, before it was lowered again.
The stranger did not speak, but the ass’s jawbones spoke abruptly between his fingers. They said, “The moon governs the tides of the sea, the tides of the wombs of women, and the tides of the humours of the mind.”
The six men sprang to their feet. They drew their swords, but also they backed away. Jawbones which spoke were new to their experience, though not unheard of.
Continuing to smile, his eye meticulously lowered, the stranger rose. Gathering his blank yellow dice, he walked straight through the wall of the tower and was gone. A sound flowed in the air, it might have been a crazy laugh or the screech of a night bird over the desert.
The captain pushed open the tower door, and led his men in a search of the stair and the lower rooms. Soon Jasrin’s attendants, in alarm, ran down the old woman and the young girl.
“Have any passed this way?” demanded the captain.
“No one,” said the old woman. She started to berate four of the guards, who cowered foolishly like small boys.
“Your hand is bleeding,” said the young girl shyly to the captain. For a year, the only men she had seen close to had been these six, and this was the year she had become a woman. As she took the man’s hand, she saw he was strong and comely, and he, as she bathed the wounds the stranger’s cloak had made, realized she was gentle, and that the moon shone through her thin garment on her gentle breasts, and all her gentle hair the moon had changed into a cloud of silver.
Outside, the sixth guard lingered on the sand, amazed, watching the torch which had been knocked into the pool. There beneath the water its flame burned on, as bright as day.
In the chamber above, Jasrin was in her stage of leaning at the window looking toward Sheve. Dimly discerning the commotion below, she said to the bone: ‘There are the messengers to say my lord is setting out. In less than an hour he will be here.”
So she moved about, and so she found a young man seated cross-legged on the carpet, half his face hidden in his mantle, half his body turned from her.
Jasrin gasped, and held the bone protectively to her.
Proudly and angrily she said to the stranger: “My lordly husband will soon be with me, and he will slay you for venturing into my apartments.”
Chuz did not reply, but again he cast his dice. This time they were black as two coals, and where they fell, the carpet smoked.
Jasrin clutched the bone more tightly.
“You will not dishonor me before my child,” she said.
Suddenly the bone began to struggle in her grip. It thrashed and wriggled and ripped itself from her fingers. It tumbled to the ground, and hopped horribly away from her.
“Dogs ate me!” screamed the bone in a thin high voice. “You gave me to dogs to be eaten,” and it threw itself into the folds of the mantle of Chuz, as if it sought refuge from her.
Jasrin covered her ears with her hands. The tears burst from her eyes though it was not yet midnight, not yet the season for her tears.
But a very tender melodious voice began to speak to her. It was the voice of Chuz, one of his voices, for he had many.
“Jasrin of Sheve is my subject, therefore let her approach me and be comforted.”
And Jasrin discovered she was creeping to the stranger, and when she was near, he threw off the mantle with the glass splinters strewn on it. So she beheld the entire aspect of his face, one half youthfully bronzed, one half haggardly gray, the rusty hair and the blond, but it seemed to her it was the most natural face she had ever looked on. Chuz drew her into the shelter of his arms and he rocked her softly and he kissed her forehead with his strange, strange mouth. And for the first it seemed to her, as he had told her, she was comforted.
At length, Chuz, Prince Madness, said to her: “Those who are truly mine may ask a request of me.”
Jasrin sighed sleepily. “Then grant me my sanity.”
“That I cannot do, nor would I if I could. And if I did, sane, you could not bear what you had done, and what you have become.”
“True,” said Jasrin. “It is true.”
Then Chuz produced the rattle of brass and shook it, and he gave a dreadful laugh, raucous and profane, and Jasrin wildly laughed with him, and she reached for the rattle, but in her hands it altered to the jawbones of the ass. These she commenced to clack and to click, till from them exploded a shout: “If I, Jasrin, must be mad, then make also my husband Nemdur mad. Madder than I. Let his madness destroy him.”
Jasrin started in distress.
“I did not say this thing,” she avowed.
Chuz answered in another of his voices, high and coarse.
“These were the words your brain would speak.”
“But in my heart I love Nemdur still.”
“And in your brain you hate him.”
“Again,” she said, “it is true. And will you send him mad?”
“His madness shall become a legend,” said Chuz. He spoke as a murderer would speak in the dark.
But this time they laughed together delicately and low, like lovers. And presently Chuz vanished.
There were several doors by which madness might enter any house. One was rage, one jealousy, one fear; there were others. But Chuz, who could walk through a stone wall if he chose to, must select his entry into the human soul with more care. Jasrin’s lunacy had summoned him, or tempted him, or actually evolved him from the shadows. The impetus of her lunacy was like a psychic fuel, a flow of energy along his quite incorporeal nerves. Though fashioned as a kind of man, he did not reason like one. Nor is it necessary to assume that he, the master of madness, was himself positively mad. Therefore he understood—though understood is an inadequate word—that it was not enough for Nemdur to glimpse him from the back alone. Nemdur must meet Chuz face to face, and so encounter destruction. None of this was like a game to Chuz. It was something like a duty, a service which he performed with dedication.
What then were the chinks he spied out in Nemdur, the crevices whereby madness might enter? It was simple. Nemdur was at the peak of all his life. He was powerful, rich, handsome and secure. He was proud and lustful, and his appetites were large. Nemdur the lover of women, the creator of sons, the King of Sheve. Without vast intellect or imagination, it required a snake beneath the flower to hiss at him: Now you are vital, now you are mighty. But tomorrow, tomorrow. . . . Nemdur had not really considered that today he was a lion, tomorrow, like his hapless dead first son, he would be bones.
Chuz did not exactly take other forms. His art was rather in the way he played upon the extraordinary form he had, like variations on a familiar melody.
Nemdur met him first, leaning in a great door of the palace, his damson overmantle wrapped close. But Chuz did not look particularly like any sort of figure at that moment, more like the shadow of a coming night. “Who are you?” said Nemdur angrily. “One who will outlive you,” said Chuz, and was no more. Later a beggar ran beside the king’s stirrup as he rode out to hunt. The beggar extended a white-gloved hand, and shards of glass, like the quills of a porcupine, glittered along his back. “Give me a coin,” squeaked the beggar. “For when you lie in your tomb what use will your coins be to you?”
As Nemdur sat idly glancing at a book, leafing it impatiently to see if it would please his second wife, who was still new and interesting to him, a wind or a hand brushed the pages. And there before Nemdur was the story of the hero Simmu, who had feared Death and elected himself Death’s enemy, and stolen from the gods a draught of immortality to save himself and mankind from the tyranny of decay and ending.
“Some say,” murmured a voice at Nemdur’s ear, “that at that era, no longer was Death’s Master the title of the Lord Uhlume, who is the Master of the dead, but that Simmu bore the title Death’s Master, seeing he had mastered Death—”
When Nemdur’s dark wife came, walking with white gauze upon her fragrant somber skin, Nemdur said to her: “Here is a book which has the story of the hero Simmu in it. It is a trifle, to delight your femininity. No doubt you believe that there is a well in the sky, with a water of immortality in it.”
“No doubt I do,” acquiesced the woman with a sable laugh.
But when Nemdur lay with her in bed, the glimmer of the lamp made her lovely face into an ebony skull.
Soon the harsh yellow winds of the winter season swept over the desert. The sands blew against Sheve, and the cold frost dripped by night upon her walls and minarets. One came to Nemdur as he was sleeping.
“In a hundred years, Sheve will lie beneath the sands of the desert. In a hundred years, who will remember the name of Nemdur?”
When morning returned over the edge of the world, Nemdur stood at his high window, gazing across his city. He had lost his color, and his hands were clenched with anger. He recalled his dream, how Sheve had been buried under the nomadic sands as if drowned beneath the sea. He had observed his own ghost wandering the world, and many were spoken of, but no one spoke of Nemdur.
There came a sharp sound from the terrace below, like two dice striking the pavement. Nemdur stared down. No one was there. But now, when Nemdur ate a roast fowl, he brooded over the bones.
Strange things happened in Sheve about this time. Lamps would come alight and burn with no oil in them; butchers told of severed heads which spoke, reprimanding the slaughterers. Sometimes a woman would powder her face with pearly powder, and it would turn black as soot, or a kid would be born with five legs, or hens would lay wooden eggs, or doors which had always opened inwards would open out wards, and water that ran from a public fountain would suddenly flow upward into the air. Such events were, of course, due to the presence of Chuz. Additionally, the citizens of Sheve became generally unlike themselves, over industrious where they had been lazy, lackadaisical where they had been busy, snappish, waspish, prone to stupid mirth, quarrels and fits of weeping.
For Nemdur himself, he too was not quite as he had been. His second wife did not conceive, but she laughed her dark laughter at him. His other women were fanciful and spoke of spirits, ghosts and demons. He was uneasy with bones. He thought of the stone tower one mile to the west, of the tomb of his son, and of his own tomb. He thought of Simmu, the fire-haired youth who sometimes, it was said, had also been a maiden. The well in Upperearth, (the country of the gods), had a cistern made of glass, which, due to the sorcery Simmu worked on it, had cracked. Drops of the fluid of immortality had rained to earth and become the property of Simmu. The end of the story—the failure of Simmu’s enterprise—Nemdur had forgotten. Uhlume, Master of Death, Simmu, Death’s Master, and Sheve buried nameless in a sea of sand, these were the fancies of Nemdur.
In the dark before dawn, he sat alone in his chamber and he called for wine. The servitors came, three of them, simply to pour the wine of the king for him. One laid a silk napkin, the second set down a bowl of polished crystal with a stem of gold, the third uncorked a flagon of black ceramic. The wine was poured into the cup, Nemdur raised the cup to his lips, but when he made to drink, no wine would run from the cup into his mouth.
The three servants stood petrified. Nemdur himself upended the cup to see if the wine would run out that way, but though the drink roiled in the crystal, it would not leave the bowl. Then the cup spoke to Nemdur.
“Kindly replace me on my foot,” said the cup.
Nemdur was struck as immobile as his servants.
“You are uncivil,” said the cup clearly. “Would you, when wine had been poured into you, disgorge it in the mouth of the first wretch that set his lips to yours? No, I will retain the liquor and become tipsy.” Here the cup belched, at which Nemdur, with an oath, let it fall. The crystal smashed on the paved floor into countless pieces, and from each of them came a dreadful crying, and the wine spilled like blood.
At this, the fourth servitor (the fourth?) made a swirling motion of his mantle. The bits of crystal instantly became one with other bits of glass upon his cloak, and the crying ceased.
No longer heeding Nemdur, and wailing, three servants fled. The fourth servant, who was Chuz, raised a white- gloved hand. Nothing of his face was visible. The hand pointed at Nemdur.
“What?” demanded Nemdur in trepidation.
Chuz did not speak. He swung his gloved hand toward the wide window. Behind the drapery, which all at once drew itself open on its rings, the night had begun to lose its darkness. The stars were dull as wax, and a fringe of red had appeared on the hem of the sky.
Nemdur rose automatically, and as the peculiar muffled figure beckoned, Nemdur walked to the window. Without moving then, the figure was at Nemdur’s side.
Oddly, as the light began to come, the figure grew more solidly and impenetrably dark. Oddly, Nemdur conceived the notion it was a priest, cowled and folded in deepest purple, one who might guide him.
“This business,” said the priest, “which troubles you, this problem of death and an unremembered name. The answer is straightforward.”
The sun filled the sky and the dawn wind unbound its hair. Great measures of sand were stirred into the air, and Nemdur beheld a mirage.
“What is that tower?” said Nemdur.
How huge it was. It stood some miles to the east, yet it had blotted out the sun. The base seemed broad as the city itself, and from this base it rose in many tiers, each a little less broad, but rising upward, upward on each other, out of sight, into the very topmost regions of the ether—and so disappeared.
“Do you see a tower?” inquired Chuz the priest.
“A tower of several tiers, so tall it pierces heaven.”
“Here is your Oracle,” said the priest. He extended to the king the jawbones of an ass. Nemdur foolishly accepted them, and instantly the jawbones cried aloud, just as the wine cup had cried, but with different words.