Three novellas from Tanith Lee—World Fantasy Award winner, Nebula finalist, and the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel—cast shadows on the history of the City of Light.
Stained with Crimson: In the nineteenth century, poet Andre St Jean comes into possession of a ruby scarab ring, only to discover it belongs to the pale-skinned, ebony-eyed Antonina von Aaron, the most beautiful woman in Paradys. Preying upon Andre, she taps into his deepest, darkest desires, drawing him into her vampiric world of gender shapeshifting and bloody nightmares . . .
Malice in Saffron: In the Middle Ages, young Jehanine has had her innocence torn from her by her brutal stepfather. Fleeing to Paradys, she seeks sympathy from her stepbrother, Pierre, who accuses her of lying and casts her out into the inhospitable streets. Finding refuge in a nunnery, Jehanine tries to live in God’s grace. But when dusk falls, she transforms into her male alter ego, Jehan. Prowling the alleyways with a gang of Devil-worshippers, he stalks the city’s denizens, unknowingly sowing the seeds for the fall of Paradys . . .
Empire of Azure: In the early twentieth century, writer Anna Sanjeanne receives a cryptic note from a mysterious man: “In a week or less, I shall be dead.” On the predicted date, Anna follows the stranger’s trail. A chain of clues—a shattered window, a hanging corpse, a leather-bound diary, and a portrait of an unknown woman—soon lead the young journalist toward a sinister and ancient force . . .
Told with lush fantastical prose and an acute aesthetic sense, The Book of the Damned ventures into a morbid and disquieting parallel world, exploring the recesses of identity, gender, and sexual transgression that lie within.
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The Book of the Damned
By Tanith Lee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Tanith Lee
All rights reserved.
STAINED WITH CRIMSON
Le Livre Cramoisi
We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise,
And the door stood open at our feast,
When there passed us a woman with the West in her eyes,
And a man with his back to the East.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
How fast does a man run, when the Devil is after him?
I was seeing it, but unknowingly, as he came towards me up the cobbled hill, his breath cawing with the effort, his eyes colourless and bright. The afternoon had grown late and the sky rolled with storm clouds. Slanting light, driven down between the cliff-like walls of the Temple-Church of the Sacrifice, gave only greyness to the alleys. I had come from Philippe's séance dulled, and with immeasurable foreboding, dissatisfaction. And into all this, the storm-light, the stony channel, my vision, the runner ran. His arms were outstretched and his long rags streamed behind him. He seemed to have been clawed by great thorns; hair and clothes. I stepped to one side to let him by. I thought him a madman. Instead, he fell at my feet. "Ah," he moaned, as if, thirsting, he discovered water, "aah."
I drew back again. His hand clawed after me and gripped my ankle.
"Take your hand off," I said, "or must I make you."
"Lean closer," he answered. "Lean down."
His voice was cultured, and sounded young, though my impression had been of an old man. The hand was elegantly kept, the nails clean and trimmed. Rings adorned it. Suddenly I imagined him some helpless noble creature set on by scoundrels. I knelt beside him.
"Who attacked you, monsieur?"
He laughed. It was an awful noise, as if his throat had been cut. He turned, and I was gazing into his face. It was the countenance of a man in early middle life, no more. How had the other idea got hold of me? And he was handsome.
"Listen," he said, "I have only a moment."
"Ssh," he said, soothing me. Then he laughed again, softly. "Young man," he said, "I am so glad to have found you. Ah yes. Now I will give you the secret of life. Do you want it?"
"Who does not?" I took, his words for a joke, though he lay on the cobbles before me.
"You are right. Who does not. Do you?"
"Oh, perhaps. Here is my other hand. Open it." He offered me a closed fist. "I can't unclench the fingers," he said. "You must do it."
I was bemused by now. I took his fist in both hands and prised it open, which was not easy. There in the palm was another ring, that burned in the half-light a deep smooth red, like a drop of syrup. Yet the boss, highly polished, had also been engraved. Something insectile it would seem to be.
"There now," he said to me. "Take it."
"What else. Yes. Take it." I took it, to calm him, for he was becoming very agitated. "Your name," he said, "give me your name."
"Nothing more. Andre St Jean. That is all. Let me help you up. Where did you mean to go?"
"Away," he said. And abruptly he was scrambling to his knees; next to get upright. I assisted him as best I could. Then he sprang forward, away from me. I called after him, but he only turned back to me the profile of his madman's face and gave a raw snarl that might have been amused hatred or simply terror. He was old again, an ancient lunatic escaped from some hospital, with bits of wire wound on his knotted hands. He rushed flapping and flailing up Sacrifice Hill, and was gone into the dark stone ditches under the church.
An urge came on me to hurl after him the thing he had given me. What could it be but a gaud of glass, or something much worse. But I stole a look at it again, and it had remained immutable. A huge polished ruby, incised with a snub-headed insect of folded wings. I closed my hand on it in a sort of spasm.
The encounter had unnerved me. I leaned on one of the blind walls by me, my head full of gentle buzzings. What was he fleeing from? Oh, pursuit, of course. His keepers must be after him. Or he had robbed someone of the jewel, and the City police were on his track.
The rain began a moment later, a thousand stilettos flung into the street, over and over. The rain would revive me, probably.
When I heard the shadow, I raised my head. I had expected the pursuit, but not the shape it took.
Two black dogs, lean and long, with jackals' pointing heads, came loping up the cobbles through the rain, slick and wet, altogether like basalt. They barely glanced at me. They went swiftly by, and it seemed to me I felt their heat dinning through the chilly air. After them rode a man on a black horse. He was cloaked in black and cowled against the rain, like a priest. But he, as he drew level with me, paused. Through the water, against the black of the hood, I saw his pale face, and the black eyes that fixed on me and seemed to impel the heart out of my body.
"Did he go this way?"
His voice was quiet, but it reached me easily. It was the voice of music, and its colour too was black.
"Who is that?" I said.
"Don't play," he said. "Answer me."
"Yes," I said. I lifted my hand to point, or to show him the ring, which must be his, but in that instant he turned his face from me, and lightly touching his horse with the spur, set it racing over the stones.
He was gone. The air seemed cold as iron. I wondered if I would follow, to see what happened, if he would catch up to the other. I had a notion now the lunatic fled to the Temple-Church for sanctuary, but that it would do him no good. The desire to go after the rider, to make him speak again, perhaps to insult him or somehow draw him out, was very strong. But I had not liked the look of the dogs he did his hunting with in the lanes of Paradys. No, it would be better to go home.
I was turning down into the old market, when I thought I heard a thin high terrible screaming, far off, back up the hill.
Since ten in the morning I had been in the house of crazy Philippe, where the séance had been held with such pomp. It led to all types of manifestation, attractive rotten things, like death-bed lilies. The furniture had moved, a decanter smashed; a naked ghost-child appeared to prophesy – stupidities that were certainly faked, or induced by the energy of suggestion. But it had left me sensitive, left me wanting, in need of a supernatural completion as in need of food or sex or sleep.
What then had I been a witness to? A running man, a riding man, two striding dogs. And had I even heard those dreadful cries behind me?
I stood in the rain below the steps, wondering if he would come back, Satan, Prince of Darkness, on the night-black mare, the broken body of his victim flung casually across the saddle. But no one came except a woman of the alleys, who wished me good-day, looking slyly to see if I would go after her to her lodging.
Stumbling, shivering, I turned for my own.
Philippe, Le Marc, Russe, and some others stood in the street shouting up at my window.
I opened it, and looked down.
The bell was ringing midnight from Our Lady of Ashes across the river. A howling dark, with intervals of deaf stillness. The candlelight touched their faces oddly, making them look mad or damned, the very things they strove to be.
"Regard him!" Le Marc cried in turn, of me, "death's-head with a book. Come down, corpse, and be happy. Despair is so sensuous, so delicious, it will wear you out."
"He is sulking," said Philippe, "because the little ghost-maiden didn't sit on his lap."
"Go with your legions to hell," said I.
They clamoured at the outer door until my landlady trudged up the house and admonished me at the inner one. To keep the peace, I descended. And because, of course, I had nothing better or worse to do.
We went to the Iron Bowl, and later to the Cockatrice, drinking, drinking. The red wine that opens the eyes, and the black brandy that blinds you.
"He's still wearing that ring. Look. Three whole weeks. It must be some token."
"You are a fool," said Russe, going back by the wine to the sombre forests of his blood. "Some cut-throat will have your finger off for that one night, when you're sprawled in some alley."
"The left hand," said Philippe. "He doesn't care what happens to that. As long as the right hand can write."
I gazed at the red ring, the ruby, with the beetle engraved on it.
"Who gave it you?" said Philippe. He smiled. "I know who would like it."
"Philippe, you know everything, why do you bother with us?" said Le Marc.
"Who would like it?" said Russe. "The Devil?"
"What Devil?" I said, feeling my blood on its path turn and rise and move another way.
"It is the Devil's ring," said Russe. "I never saw anything so clearly. Let a thief steal it. It will bring you sorrow, and horror."
"What's new?" I said. I put my head on my arms on the table. Philippe stroked my hair, long as the fashion now was in the City of Paradys, and hennaed "Martian" red, since the fashion too was for such colourings. Blond Philippe, a Narcissus, a snow-chrysanthemum from birth, laughed in my ear. "Don't you want to know whose ring it really is?"
"Tell me, you liar."
"A most beautiful woman."
"Liar, liar," I murmured.
"Not tonight, you are too drunk tonight, and it is too late tonight. Tomorrow we will go to her. And you shall return her the ring. The most beautiful woman in Paradys."
"Who is that?" said Le Marc.
"The old banker's wife," said Philippe.
"Oh, I heard of her. Yes. He lets her hold her salon, like the other empresses of the City. But they are foreigners."
Nearly asleep, I swam through my skull, and sometimes listened.
Philippe and Le Marc half carried me home.
Philippe guided me up the stair and shut the door of my room. He moved about, fingering books, caressing the sheets of paper, some with a single line of prose upon them. "The light drains from the great window," he read, "like blood from a fainting face." He overturned the ink-well, shaped like a gryphon, and with a candle dragged from its socket drew in the ink a crucified Christ, screaming in ecstasy.
"Burn that in the morning," he said. "It will be unlucky."
He sat down on the bed by me, pulled off my shirt and tugged down my breeches. Bored finally by the long caresses, similar to those lavished on my papers, which evoked no sustained response, he concluded his act with a violent introduction and sudden achievement, wracking the house with his groans and cries. He fell asleep lying on top of me, on my back, his white hair getting in my mouth, so I constantly awoke to remove it. Once he whispered again. "Tomorrow, I will take you to her."
A man in a black cowl galloped over and over through my dreams and I was slung across the saddle before him. Near dawn, barely conscious, I too climaxed with a slight shuddering that woke Philippe and caused him to curse and punch me in the ribs.
Before he roused himself I got up, dressed, and left the stinking room.
I went down into the City valley, to the river, coiled like a sliding serpent in the mists of earliest day. The buildings rose like crags from the mist, like hills weathered into oblongs. Birds flew for miles, back and forth.
I thought of casting the ring into the river, but might not some fish swallow it? And then I, cutting into the prize sturgeon of some dinner at Philippe's house, find the ring again, glowing up at me from the fish's backbone?
I had searched the journals, I had asked everyone, but there had been no mention of a particular body found in the yards of The Sacrifice, or of a phantom hunter accompanied by black dogs.
I turned from the river and wandered up towards the tall libraries of the Scholars' Quarter. Philippe would lie in wait for me at my lodging a while, and, as usual, I felt myself done with him for ever, until the next occasion of our meeting.
Two days later, he called on me, at his smartest and most exquisitely dressed. It was mid-afternoon.
"Come to my house."
"As you see, I am working."
"Let me look."
"Oh you," he said, "like some country girl with her lower parts. Very well. Give me a copy when printed. One more slender volume ... Till then, come to my house."
"Go away, Philippe."
"It is tonight," he said.
He had odd eyes, one much lighter than the other. It enhanced his looks, though as a child, he had been disturbed by it. The nurse his dead mamma had got for him had said it was a mark of evil. She urged him on. At thirteen he raped her.
"What is tonight?"
"She opens her salon, like a rose."
"That lovely woman I spoke of. The wonder of the City."
It was hot today and hard to work now concentration had been shattered. I laid my pen aside and put my head in my hands. Philippe trailed a flower across my hands, my neck. Presently I got up and followed him out.
Philippe's house stood up against the old City Wall, near the Obelisk, where they had burned the dead in millions during a plague named "the Death." Now a variety of trees rooted out of the stones, casting a wet feverish shade. The elderly house was shuttered, an old thing itself, despising the human lizards who flickered through its lofty rooms: they lasted only a moment, better let them do as they wished.
"How I hate this house," Philippe had said, a hundred times, cheerfully. Now his father was dead, he did everything he wanted there. It was the scandal of the district, but he was rich.
In one of the marble baths I lay soaking, like a piece of statuary dug up from the muck and taken to be cleaned, while one of Philippe's domestics stropped the shaving razor behind the screen. When I vacated the bath-chamber, drugged and stupefied by hot water and balsams, a valet put me into a suit of Philippe's clothes. We were almost of the same fitting, and everything of his might be worn with loose ease by me.
"Oh what a beauty," he said, flitting round me, most malign of the lizards – one better caged.
The light was growing heavier, more solid, slabs of it in the pillared windows and fallen across the road outside.
"Do you want to dine?" he said.
"I want nothing. I want to go to sleep."
"Bloody slug. Come on. Where is that ring – you do have it?"
I had stopped wearing it. It had been in my pocket, his pocket now, and I took it out and offered it to him. He skipped away. "No, no, Andre. But you must show it to her."
"Her. This woman. She had better be worth all your trouble."
We went out, and along the street together, two young princes in a democratic Paradys that no longer recognised such beings. But who would know me, anyway. A scribbler. A few had seen my plays, and read my essays and miniature novels in their closets. But I was not in the mode, unlike my hair, and now my clothes. I said things that cut too near, or not near enough their candy bones. (Or maybe only I was no good at my trade.) Three pamphlets of mine had even criticised the City Senate, but they took it in good part. There was shame. Probably I would rather have been hauled off to jail, unless I had been.
"Philippe," I muttered, "if I die –"
"Here it is again," he said.
"If I die, see to it – make that wretch of a printer take it all and print it all. Every word. Anything unfinished even, and all the pieces he has refused."
"This ego," he said. "Who will care? If you're dead. Do you think you will?"
"No. But I care now, I care this moment. Promise me."
"Very well. As before. I promise you."
"You. I can't trust you. You never read a line I ever wrote."
"Many lines. Now, how does it go – 'Light leaving a window like blood in a faint' – what was that?"
"Something I can't remember. A dream I think I had."
"Like that other dream. I could make you once. You used to yell louder than I did. I used to listen in amazement."
"You see," I said, "but you don't listen to the words."
"When you die," he said, he swung towards me and took me by the neck, by the snowy linen of his own wardrobe, "when I kill you, Andre, I will make sure every line of your fretful oeuvre is published. Shall I bite through a wrist vein and swear it in blood?"
I pushed him and he drew off.
"This woman," I said, "who is she?"
"I have told you."
"Her name." (Give me your name, the running man had said.)
"Wait, and see."
We walked on, through the thick, tree-interrupted light, as the bells of the City sounded seven o'clock. We were moving west towards the Quarter of the Clockmakers.
"Where does she live?"
"On Clock-Tower Hill."
"Tell me about her."
He said, "Bloodless skin, ebony hair. A pale mouth that seems drawn on to her face, but is not. Eyes like all-blackness."
Excerpted from The Book of the Damned by Tanith Lee. Copyright © 1990 Tanith Lee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsStained with Crimson,
Malice in Saffron,
Empires of Azure,
Preview: The Book of the Beast,
About the Author,