In the City of Venus, two noble families—the della Scorpias and the Barbarons—have been locked in a bitter dispute over burial grounds on the overcrowded Isle of the Dead. But it is fourteen-year-old Meralda della Scorpia who pays the ultimate price for their rivalry.
As years pass, parties complicit in her disappearance begin to suffer the consequences. Their shocking deaths can only mean one thing: A supernatural force has been unearthed from the city’s rotting understructure. As these bizarre events throw the city into a panic, a humble apprentice gravedigger is left to sort out the mysteries and subdue the ancient terror that threatens to destroy the entire republic.
About the Author
Tanith Lee (1947–2015) was born in the United Kingdom. Although she couldn’t read until she was eight, she began writing at nine and never stopped, producing more than ninety novels and three hundred short stories. She also wrote for the BBC television series Blake’s 7 and various BBC radio plays. After winning the 1980 British Fantasy Award for her novel Death’s Master, endless awards followed. She was named a World Horror Grand Master in 2009 and honored with the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2013. Lee was married to artist and writer John Kaiine.
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I, Bartolome da Loura di An'Santa, being in sound health, and sane, in this the forty-first year of my life on God's earth, and a Settera Master of the Guild of Gravemakers, declare hereby this account is rendered by my own hand. And that it is, so far as eye or mind can evidence, true. There are to be no witnesses.
You may wonder perhaps that I can write. But it is no wonder at all, for the guild, to which I was apprenticed when very young, saw to it that I learned the knack, and similar abilities, along with my trade.
My purpose is not to speak of my trade especially. My work is secret, as with the fashioners of stone for mausoleums and markers, and the custodians of the Cremarias. The making of a proper grave, and altogether the care of the dead (aside from their spiritual needs, for which the priests cater): that is my province, and it is not fitting to say much of it, here. But even so, it is a skill, as with all right work. Though some may be wary of the gravemaker, since few of us avoid him at the last, I account myself no less a man than the next.
As a boy, I lived in my father's house on the Canal of Scarlets, in the Butchers' Quarter of the City. My father was a butcher, but also a drunkard, and when drunk he would grow angry and beat me. When he was sober, he would beat me, too, being in a foul mood from wanting drink. My mother had nothing to say on this. She liked the cup as well. When I was six, my Uncle Thimeo came and found me bruised like a kicked fruit and lying in filth. I do not remember the scene, nor anything much, before I found myself in his own house, which was farther along the canal, against the Laguna Silvia. The lagoon had entirely filled up only in the last three decades; it had been mostly tidal marshland before. There were many wonders drowned in it, ancient statues and monuments, treasure-troves of coins and gems, it was said, and an antique Roman Circus. There, gladiators had fought in the time of the Caesars, and later sinners and heretics had been burned alive there by the will of the terrible Council of the Lamb. This dire religious authority, though by then gone for most of a century, was yet still spoken of in hushed tones, or with curses.
My uncle's house, after my father's, was like Heaven.
It was kept clean and comfortable, warm in winter and cool in summer, and food came to the table regularly. Thimeo had a housekeeper, Rossa, a big, red woman, who made me sugar pancakes and other sweet things as a treat, and told me stories of heroes and kings while she kneaded dough or plucked a chicken. Only when I was twelve did I learn she was also my uncle's mistress, and then only because they let me notice, judging me by that time to be old enough to be as discreet as they were themselves.
They were a curious couple: he, very thin and sallow; she, large and glowing as the tasty dishes she cooked. But they were happy enough, and indeed she was clever in more than cookery — he had taught her to read and write. In the evenings, I have seen the works of Petronius and Pliny, to name only two, under her hands, and sometimes she read pieces of them aloud to me, translating their Latin as she went.
Meanwhile, I was getting my own schooling from the guild and, by the age of eight, I would read aloud to her, translation now superfluous.
The other things I learned I did not speak of nor, as I have said, shall I do so very much here. All guilds bind their men by powerful oaths, as you will understand.
However, there is one episode I will put down, for it bears on what comes presently.
Two weeks after I turned thirteen, there was a burial on the Isle of the Dead — which place, in common talk, is coming to be called more often, Saint Smoke.
Indeed, there is a good reason for the popular name. The fires of the Cremarias, going on day and night, and sending up their smoulder, are what have earned it.
The City of Venus is built on water, either upon her seven major islands, or on stages and stilts driven down into the oceanic clay floor, in the shallower parts of the lagoons. Here she had balanced some centuries, to the astonishment of the outer world.
Evidently then, despite her many gardens, Venus has little space for burials. Therefore she sends them out to the Isle, which lies near the far edge of the Laguna Silvia where, even in the days of the marsh, the sea had always been deep. Nevertheless, not every person can be buried on one island. And most of the dead, it is a fact, are burned — under the unique dispensation of a past pope, which assures us that, even in ashes, they will be reassembled on the Last Day. (For myself, I think it does not matter much in any case, whether the dead are burned or buried, providing it is well and honorably done. But I, of course, have reasons for such a thought, as you will see.)
Until now, as a young apprentice of the guild, I had done my share of grave-digging, but all these graves had been small ones, meant to receive the little casks and pots of ashes brought from the Cremarias.
Now, however, there was to be a burial in earth, on the Isle. And my uncle took me aside and said that I should go over to attend it, providing I was circumspect and did all as he told me beforehand. This was of course not in any way meant as a show to disturb or thrill me. Rather, it was considered a necessary portion of my education. One learns both by deed and by example.
I do not recall if I was at all nervous. Perhaps I was, I think so, for the burial was to be of a nobleman of the della Scorpia family, who can trace their roots in the City back five hundred years.
Though I had by then seen the funeral boats Venus knows as "Charons," I had never ridden on one, let alone one so grand.
It was some fifty to sixty feet in length, lacquered black with golden trim, and its cabin, where the corpse was to lie, draped in black velvet with a nap of two heights. At prow and stern stood a carved angel with gilded black wings, stretching out its arms in prayer, its head bowed. The oarsmen were dressed also in black, as were the musicians, who were seated forward, to provide stately sad music. But my uncle, a Guild Master, his six assistants, and I were clad in grey, with the badge of the guild in silver to the left over the heart.
Our badge is curious, to those who do not know what it represents. It is a circle sliced by a single horizontal straight line, and it is significant, coming from ancient Rome herself, where it was the symbol of Mors Plutonius: Death.
I have described the funeral boat, but in all there were three vessels, for it was an occasion. On the others stood members of the della Scorpias themselves, clothed in mourning. One woman, who was old, was weeping pitifully, pale as a pearl. But her black was thickly embroidered with gold and her veil was of samite from the Indus. They were very rich, I saw. But riches, of course, still cannot usually keep death away. There were besides several other boats, painted and draped with black, and these, too, set out with us.
The thing was this: The body of the old nobleman was taken first across the Laguna Aquila, then through the wider canals to the basilica of the Primo, which stands on the lagoon of Fulvia. Here a Mass was to be sung for the dead man, and the guild was needed to carry him with dignity first to the boat, then to the basilica, then to the boat again for his final journey. Which meant that my Uncle Thimeo and his assistants, who were to bear the open coffin, went first of all into the palace of the della Scorpia family. Naturally, I, the apprentice, only waited outside, as I had been told to do. Even so, standing by the mooring place, I had space to view the palazzo of the della Scorpias, which I had never seen before.
It was an afternoon of early winter, the sky curded and dim, and little light fell on the palazzo's front. The building stood back from the water's edge, across an open square, and some people idled here respectfully, or merely vulgarly, to watch.
The house plaster was yellowish, and the great timbered door stayed so far shut, behind its colonnade of marble, just as the long, carved tracery windows looked blind, above. And yet it seemed to me there was a marble stair behind the door; and on the wall, a painting of something like dark shapes running, and a chariot, and a wreath of gold, and a man's head half turned with a speck of light fixed in his eye.
Then next the door was undone, to let the coffin and the household out, and I glimpsed inside. I saw the stair, and a mural of a robed man my uncle later told me was a Caesar in his victory chariot, with the wreath of an emperor being offered him.
After we had crossed through to Fulvia and the Mass had been sung, the body was rowed out to the Isle.
By then there were dark rain clouds, and tears fell also from the sky. As we reached the island I could see, away beyond the bar and the sea-walls, the great, slow, silken tumble of the outer ocean.
Then we came to shore, and the guild took up the coffin again, and we passed in through the high gates in the wall. Everywhere ahead lay slopes where graves and the houses of death were planted, and white stone angels. And through this landscape we walked, even the lords and ladies, along a paved road railed by great cypresses, while the rain fell thick as syrup.
So we reached, in about one third of an hour, the della Scorpia burial garden. Which is itself the reason for this tale I would tell.
Those of our trade are called, commonly, gravediggers. Certainly most of us, even the stonemasons of our guild, have taken their turn at the digging of graves, so that everything of our work should be known to us and understood. However, as I said, I had not yet come to the digging of the larger graves, only the little ones for ashes, and so I had not seen many of such burial spots, let alone a burial garden such as belonged to the della Scorpias.
There was a big outer wall, taller than three tall men and very thick. Carved over the gate, and over the chapel portico beyond, was the armorial symbol of the della Scorpias, which is, not surprisingly, the Scorpion who is also a guardian of the City. The della Scorpia Scorpion, though, carries in his foreclaws a flowering branch. I had seen something similar in their banners on the palazzo, and the larger boats, those done in yellow and gold on a chestnut ground.
Attendants of the family had already undone the gate. The procession went inside.
The garden, even under a heavy sky, was beautiful, and lush, and immaculately kept. The somber box hedges were, in spots, trained and cut to the shape of ancient stelae, such as are found about the tombs of the Greeks and Romans. The pillared cypresses had a similar form. At the end of an avenue stood the mausoleum, also marked with the della Scorpia escutcheon. But the mausoleum was, it seemed, full, and the dead lord was to have his bed in the earth. So we went on, the priest who had come from the chapel leading us, and a boy in white ringing the little bell.
Beyond the cultivated hedges lay a wood of beech, one of thousands that scatter the isle. But between the trees, the pallid shoulders of the graves were many. Once, the old lady stumbled, and her servant and a young man of the family steadied her. But the guild, bowed with the weight of the coffin, never missed their step.
The wood ended suddenly, where the trees had been cut down. Here there was a strange, low wall, not three feet high, and very broken in places, although nowhere was it completely fallen. Over this wall, the beech trees began again about ten paces off, and then continued thickly, but there were no graves or markers to be seen among them.
When we reached the area of felled trees, the procession halted. And then immediately the old woman in black and gold began to shout in a thin, frightened, raging voice: "Must it be here? Why must it be so close? ... It's too close! ... No, this must not be! ... No, I won't permit this ... Gido, tell them this mustn't be done."
The men of the family gathered about the old woman, who afterwards I learned was a Donna Julia, and was the dead lord's sister. They spoke to her quietly, trying to calm her, indicating the grave which had been, of course, ready-prepared, its edges laid with velvets, garlands of laurel, and the paper flowers made for death. Then another woman moved forward, large-boned and ugly but with a marvelous, complex crown of coal-black hair. And she said sternly, "Mother, you mustn't protest like this. They wouldn't dare to insult him here. They have never dared it. See how the other tombs are. Not one of them is defaced."
And then the old woman began to weep again, but she had stopped shouting, and the funeral proceeded.
Obviously, I kept my attention on the business in hand, as I knew I was expected to. However, I could hardly help my curiosity: What had the old lady meant by her cries, or the younger one with her declaration that nothing had been vandalized? So rough and sacrilegious an act was surely rare. What might, then, have caused the chance of such an incident here, in the della Scorpia burial garden?
The last rites took a while. The priest spoke darkly of resurrection. Then the box went down and for a second I saw the old man's powdered face. He looked grim enough, as sometimes corpses do, though others seem to smile. The garlands were thrown in, and the concluding words spoken. It was very quiet, no bell to sound, and no bird inclined to sing in the island trees.
The grave would be filled in presently, and this time I was to stay to observe it. So we remained behind after the della Scorpias and their people had gone away. But I knew better than to question my uncle about them before his duties were completed.
That evening, we took our supper at midnight, my Uncle Thimeo and I. But Rossa had provided a good hot meal: a platter of sausages, a noodle soup, and semolina tortelli with pine nuts.
"Uncle," I said at last, "what was the meaning of that scene by the grave? What did the old lady fear would happen to her dead?"
Rossa had gone out, as she usually did after she served, and left us to eat and discuss what we would. Yet still Thimeo paused, looking into the fire. Then he said, "I will tell you what I know, for you'll come to things of this sort, now and then. But, you grasp, these matters aren't to be talked of outside the guild, even where other men know all about them."
"But if it's common knowledge —"
"Even so, Bartolo."
"Then of course not, sir."
"Well, then. The house of Scorpia has, for a century, more or less, been the second party in a feud with another great house here. The name of which house, I will also tell you, since that too is well enough known. They are the Barbarons."
"I've seen their palazzo from the Triumph Canal. A huge palace. They call it Castello Barbaron."
"Just so. And they possess a fortress-castle too, at Veronavera, and a great deal of land there. Their wealth is mostly from commerce."
"And the feud? Is it about trade? Land?"
"In a way, about land," he said. "I've heard myself that it began with some dispute between them during a siege of the City long ago, when the Eastern Infidel of Jurneia sailed into the very lagoons and were only driven off when courageous men got aboard their vessels, under cover of night, and set them afire."
I stared, always amazed by this heroic story, which Rossa had already recounted when I was younger — save, in her version, it had had a slightly different plot.
"As I was told," my uncle said, "there was fighting between the two families when the Barbarons were trying to keep ahold of what they had in Venus, and the della Scorpias were trying to escape before Jurneian ships arrived. I don't know the facts well. Suffice it to say, the families took a dislike to each other. And it happens that the burial ground of each, meanwhile, abuts that of the other."
"Then," I said, breathless with surprise, "that place beyond the little broken wall —" "Is disputed earth."
"So the trees were cut and the wall built to keep out the Barbarons — or show them they can't come in —"
"Supposedly. And you will find something like that too, when and if you must serve the Barbaron burial garden. Of course, neither would truly encroach inside the other's wall. It is the stretch of ground between, that they haggle over. So neither may use that."
"Why do they dispute it? Has one family tried to steal part of it — or done so?" "They have tried. Each house says it belongs only to them. And you know, don't you, Bartolo, how ground for full burial, not for the ashes only, is valued on the Isle."
I stared now at the fire. I was perturbed, but not enough, I admit, to prevent my taking another sausage. It had been a prolonged wait for me, cold and wet, on the Isle of the Dead. Although, naturally, the dead wait there longer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Bed of Earth"
Copyright © 2002 Tanith Lee.
Excerpted by permission of The Overlook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: Death,
PART TWO: Revenge,
Bartolome (The Marriage of Venus),
PART THREE: Love,
PART FOUR: Heaven,
Silvio and Beatrixa (The Ghost Day),
PART FIVE: The World,
About A Bed of Earth,