Supreme amongst them all is the demon god Azhrarn, Night's Master, whose deadly whims could change the lives of those in the Flat Earth. Azhrarn holds in his heart a mystery which could alter the very existence of the Flat Earth forever....
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Narasen, the leopard queen of Merh, stood at her window and watched Lady Plague walking about in the city. Lady Plague wore her yellow robe, for the sickness was a yellowish fever, yellow as the dust that swirled up from the plains and cloaked the city of Merh and choked it, yellow as the stinking mud to which the wide river of Merh had turned. And Narasen, powerless and angry, said within herself to the Plague: “What must I do to be rid of you?” and the dimly seen yellow woman bared her teeth and grimaced as if she answered: “You know, but cannot do it.” And then the dust storm folded her away and Narasen slammed the window-shutters closed.
The bedchamber of the queen of Merh was this way: Burnished weapons of hunting and war hung upon the walls which were painted with scenes of hunting and war. The floor was carpeted with the spotted and striped skins of beasts Narasen had slain, and in the bed by night there often lay a pretty girl, the current love of Narasen. The king of Merh, Narasen’s father, had trained and raised her as if she were son rather than daughter, preparing her to rule after him, and this had fitted her inclination very well. Yet she had a woman’s beauty.
One noon, a year before this, Narasen had ridden with her chosen companions over the plains, to hunt the leopard. Her hunting gear was of gold and white and her white hounds ran beside her chariot like snow on legs. A headdress of gold wires and pearl kept back her rose-red hair from her face and her eyes were like the eyes of what she hunted. But there were to be no leopards speared that day. The chariots reached a curve of the river, then cool and dark and with the great trees growing on its banks. As the hounds drank, the companions of Narasen discovered a young man sitting beneath a tree. He was handsome and pleasing to look at, and though he sat alone there with neither attendant nor guard yet he was richly dressed, and at his side rested a staff of white wood with two green emeralds in the pommel.
“Bring him to me,” said Narasen when they told her, and the young man was not slow in coming. “Now, what is this?” she said. “You are within the limits of Merh yet not a citizen of Merh, I think, and you sit alone in your finery. Has no one warned you, wild beasts come to drink at the river and have a nose for human flesh, and robbers live in this land, as in all lands, and they have a nose for jewels.”
The young man bowed, and he gazed at her in a certain way which she had occasionally seen before, which there was no mistaking, and his eyes darkened. But he spoke politely.
“My name is Issak: I am a magician and the son of magicians. I fear neither beasts nor men, for I know spells to charm them.”
“Then you are fortunate. Or boastful,” said Narasen. “Come, show me proof.”
The young man bowed again. Then he lifted the staff, and it changed to a white snake with green eyes, which looped itself three times round his neck. After that, he whistled, and suddenly the water of the river was cut by a thousand bright blades, all its bright fish leaping. And then again he whistled, differently, and birds fell from the trees like leaves and settled on his shoulders and his hands.
Narasen’s companions were diverted and applauded him. But Narasen said, seeing how he still looked at her, and not liking it:
“Now fetch me a leopard.”
At once the birds flew away and the fish sank like stones. The young man named Issak fastened his gaze to hers, frowning, and he whistled a third time. Through the shadow of the trees, ten golden leopards walked, spattered with the shadow and their own shadowy freckling, and each had the eyes of Narasen. Narasen smiled and called for her spears. But as she drew back her arm to make the cast, the young man pulled the snake from around his neck and threw it from him. At once the snake became a staff, fixed point downward in the soil of the river bank. The ten leopards vanished.
“So it was only an illusion,” said Narasen, “a trick. I do not like to be cheated by trickery.”
Then Issak smiled too. Very gently he said: “Whatever it was, most beautiful queen of Merh, I think you could not do it.”
This Narasen did not take to, being told what she could and could not do. She turned away, and to one of her guard she said, “Give the showman some coins. He has a famished air, and probably his finery is an illusion too.”
Issak refused the money. He said: “No coin will suffice. I desire another reward, for it is another thing I hunger for.”
“And what is that?”
“The queen of Merh.”
Never in her life had any man dared speak to Narasen in this fashion. It angered her, and somewhere at her roots it made her uneasy.
“Well,” she said however, lightly, “since you are clearly of barbarous people, and do not understand our civilized manners, I will not have you beaten.”
“Narasen may beat me,” he said, “but no other.”
One of the hounds of Narasen, sensing her anger, began to snarl at Issak. But Issak the magician stretched out his arm toward the hound, and instead it immediately lay down and fell asleep.
“And now,” said Issak, “Narasen the beautiful must learn this. She also might be charmed as easily as her dog. Despite your words, lady, and what you are, love stirs in me at the sight of you. Tonight we shall lie together, and there is no way you can prevent it.” When he said this, rather than arrogance or lust, the young man’s face took on a look of sadness and pain.
Narasen snapped at her guard, who leapt forward to seize Issak the magician. But somehow, where their hands fell, he was not—he seemed to vanish as the leopards had done, and though the guard of Narasen thrust about along the track a good while, he was not to be found.
* * * * *
Narasen returned to the city in an unsettled mood. She was not unjust, though she could be cruel; now she hankered to exact payment for the insolence of the stranger. She believed too, he was intent upon his promise to her, and perhaps had some chance of success, seeing he was so skilled in magic. There was no love in her for the bodies of men, yet, had he approached her another way, she might have commiserated with him. Then she recalled the bizarre tragedy which showed on his face, the expression of despair and hurt. . . . Narasen flung open her bronze doors with a crash, and shouted for her own sorcerers.
Night opened its black flowers; the flower-garden windows of lamplit Merh bloomed below. In the palace of Narasen the guard was doubled at the gates, with orders to watch for foreigners. Outside the apartments of the queen two giant men stood with clubs of brass, leering at each other, hoping there would be trouble that they might commit violence. On the inner door there hung the skull of a hyena and other unsavory amulets devised by the palace sorcerers. Within the rooms, obscure aromatics smoked.
But Narasen, as the night progressed, growing deeper and more still, grew also still and began to doubt herself. From the high windows, she watched the flower lamps of Merh go out, now a scarlet flower, now a gold, plucked by the blue fingers of the peaceful dark. She thought of the sorcerers fumbling their spells and chanting in an antechamber. She thought of the dinner she had sent away with a curse, and of the girl with flax-pale hair who this month shared her bed. And then she thought of Issak the magician, and she laughed to herself and at him, his clever illusions, his boasts, his lust. Almost, she pitied him.
So she went out into the antechamber, and through the purple smoke of the braziers, she saw the sorcerers had fallen asleep at their work, and the floor all littered with their instruments, their bits of bone and silver flails and strings of polished beads. Then she crossed to the bronze doors and opened them, and there the two giant men stood, rigid as old trees, and though their eyes were wide, they saw nothing. In the passageway a green bird was flying up and down. A moment after Narasen had opened the doors, the green bird flew by her, and straight into the antechamber. And there it shed its feathers and became a green jewel which fell to the floor, and the jewel cracked open and out of it burst a shining ray. When the ray faded, there stood Issak the magician.
He looked at Narasen and his face was pale. In his hand he carried one rare blue rose, of the kind that was often spoken of but seldom seen, and this he offered to Narasen, and when she did not take it he said, “If you would prefer sapphires, then so be it.”
Narasen was near speechless, but she made speech nevertheless.
“Your magic is truly remarkable. Am I to be ensorcelled next?”
“If you will not yield in love to me.”
Narasen considered him, his white face and his hand which trembled about the stem of the rose.
“I do not lie with men,” said Narasen.
“Tonight you shall.”
“Perhaps and perhaps,” she said. “Drink with me and we will discuss it.” Then, because he made no move to stop her, she went to a cabinet of wines, and poured for him a generous measure, but she filled her own cup with a harmless sherbet of dates. “Now,” said Narasen, watching him as he slowly drank, “tell me one thing. Your sorcery is vast, yet, rather than use it, you cajole me. You speak of desire, but you have the pallor of a man in fear or sorrow. You woo me with gifts, yet mean to force me if you are able. Why not one thing or the other?”
Issak drank deeply, and his pale face flushed.
“I will tell you, Narasen the fair,” he said. “I am a magician, as you know very well, and I have had traffic with demon-kind, particularly with the Drin, the ugly dwarf-folk of the Underearth. I wished to increase my powers, and these Drin led me to the house of a special mage, far older and more cunning than I, saying he would teach me. But the Drin liked this wretch the better, for he was more the villain. He made a bargain with me for my tuition, that every night he would lie once with me. Now I was young and stupid and anxious to be powerful and wise, and it seemed to me that the delights and abuses of the flesh were nothing compared to this power and wisdom. So, though he was foul, old and bestial, I agreed. Each night I endured him then. One whole month I was his pupil by day, his doxy after dark. It seemed a high fee enough, but I did not know how high a fee. For each time his weapon sheathed in me, his lechery and his sin went with it, passing with his seed into my vitals and thence into my unrealizing flesh, my body and my soul. And every time that this was done, a year of his evil existence was hung on me and in return he drew from me a year of my life to increase his own. Such was the nature of his spell, and so he told me, when at length I would accept no more. ‘You go from me, Issak,’ said he, ‘a magician gifted now with some portion of my brilliant art. But, though you may appear a wholesome youth and your inclination is to be one, my whims and vices are in you, and you will, from time to time, indulge in the deeds that I have pleasured in, become a forcer of maidens and a plunderer of men. Yet, do not lament, you shall not long be troubled. Thirty years have you added to my span; just three years of life are left to you. Only be sure, they will be merry.’ And thus,” said Issak, letting fall the cup of wine half full, “it is with me as he said. Having seen you, it is the legacy of his hot zeal brings me here. The blue rose alone is my guest-gift at the visit.” Then he leant his head upon his arm like a child, and wept.
Narasen said sternly: “You must resist this bewitchment.”
“I have tried,” Issak groaned. “It has availed me nothing.”
“Come, do not weep,” said Narasen. Compassion and contempt were mingled in her, and she had forgotten danger. She went to him and laid her hand on his shoulder in a brotherly fashion. Too late, she saw his tears were suddenly dry, and in that instant he seized her.