A recognized master fantasist, Tanith Lee has won multiple awards for her craft, including the British Fantasy Award, the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror.
The fourth installment in Lee’s breathtaking series, Tales from the Flat Earth, Delirium’s Mistress returns to a shadowy and mythic world where demons battle for dominion, and the fate of mankind is shaped by the whims of capricious and volatile beings.
Beneath the mortal realm of the Flat Earth, demons lurk. But Azhriaz—daughter of the mortal priestess Dunizel and the demon known as Night’s Master, Azhrarn—bridges these two worlds, a being of both light and darkness. Raised on an isolated isle in the demons’ realm of Underearth, guarded and hidden away from demon and mortal alike, Azhriaz was meant to sleep forever, never knowing the world outside her dreams.
But other forces in the Underearth are moving to wake Azhriaz. Prince Chuz, the demon known as Delusion’s Master, has made an enemy of Azhrarn, after his betrayal cost Dunizel her life. Chuz seeks out Azhriaz’s island, drawn by her latent power and entranced by her beauty. To release Azhriaz from her eternal slumber, Chuz must create the grandest illusion he has ever rendered. If he succeeds, Azhriaz will be reborn as Delirium’s Mistress, a sorcerous of extraordinary power. Perhaps even more powerful than Azhrarn himself....
Delirium's Mistress in the fourth book in the Flat Earth sereies.
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It was dusk, and for a while the young man seated on the high roof gazed up into the great sloping dome of sky. Then he read aloud from his book: “Blue as the dark blue eyes of my beloved, the twilight fills all heaven. The stars put on their silver dresses and they are fair, but none as fair as she.” His companions lay on their elbows and looked at him, quizzically. He shut the book and said, “Love, too, is simple madness.”
At which they made wild gestures of dismissal.
“Love does not exist. ‘Love’ is the name women, and their wretched old fathers, put on the trap of a ring.”
“Love is lust. Why make songs about an itch?”
The first young man smiled. He was unusually handsome, pale, very fair, with beautiful eyes the color of low-burning lampshine. In repose, there was a sweetness to him. With sweet melancholy, he sighed.
“Ah, poor thing,” they said. “What troubles him this evening, our Oloru?”
Oloru said, “An answer, which has no question.”
“A riddle!” cried the other young men. They grinned and shouted: “Make us laugh, Oloru.”
And all at once the eyes of Oloru glittered like the eyes of a night-hunting fox. He sprang to his feet, curled over, next dropped in a ball, next lifted his whole body straight in the air, supporting himself by one hand, palm down, on the roof. Then he began, on this one hand, to hop about, crying out all the while in a raucous irritated voice: “Oh, how tiresome this is. You would think by now the gods could have invented a better way for a man to travel.”
The companions, duly diverted, laughed, applauded, and called the entertainer names. Oloru went on hopping, though one of his fine silk gloves was by now probably quite ruined. He hopped to the western parapet, and here his slim upside-down body wavered, so the stars seemed juggled between his feet. “Behold,” said Oloru, “here the sun fell over.” And he toppled sideways through blue dusk and stars, and right across the parapet, and vanished.
The remaining young men on the tavern roof leapt to their feet with yells of horror, upsetting wine jars and other paraphernalia. Oloru was a favorite of their lord, one of the magician-princes of this city. To take this powerful man the tale of said Oloru, smashed on the cobbles seven stories below, was not a charming notion.
But rushing to the parapet and leaning over, they could be sure of nothing in the narrow alley but the gathering of darkness.
Elsewhere, the city spread around them under the sky, its terraces pearl-strung with lamps, its towers bright-eyed with lit windows. Nowhere in that city could they be safe if they once angered their prince, Lak Hezoor. While close at hand rose the palace of this very lord, each of its spires made into a somber candle by the cresset ablaze on its roof, and each cresset seeming now to glare over at them intently.
Consternation. Some ran onto the stair, meaning to descend and search the street on foot. Others were already making up excuses for a violent death that had nothing whatever to do with them. In the midst of this, suddenly Oloru stepped out of a climbing fruit tree that spread its branches along the eastern parapet.
“Yes, love is madness,” said Oloru. “As all things are madness. Piety, wickedness, pleasure, sorrow—every one an insanity. Indeed, to live at all—”
“Oloru!” cried the young men. Two of them ran forward as if to thrash him.
Oloru shrank back against the tree. He lifted both hands in their gemmed gloves, to shield himself. “No—forgive me, my friends—what have I done to anger you?”
The friends gathered menacingly. Oloru was at all times the veriest coward. They knew he would be terrified by a threat or a raised fist. So they berated him, and he grew paler and paler and shrank back into the slender arms of the fruit tree. He explained, stammering somewhat, that he had caught the stonework under the parapet and thus eased himself along the side of the building, unseen, to the tree. Here he had clambered once more to safety. He had not meant to annoy them, only to amuse. They allowed him to go on and on, enjoying his faltering musical voice, his eyes swimming and full of tears of anxiety. In the end, when they had squeezed him sufficiently, and it seemed only the fragile tree kept him on his feet, they relented, flung their arms around him, kissed him and smoothed his golden hair, swearing they forgave him anything, he was so dear to them. Then he tremblingly laughed. He thanked them. When they asked, he took up a lyre of gilded wood and sang for them exquisitely. His voice was so beautiful, in fact, that here and there round about shutters opened quietly. Lovers and losers together leaned into the night, to catch the flavor of Oloru’s song.
“In the lyre-land, string and chord.
Bring me music in a word.
Bring me magic in a look;
For your eyes are like a sword.
And your smile is like a bird
Singing from an ancient book . . .”
And “How you flatter me, Oloru,” someone said. “But you always do flatter better than any other, and perfectly in key.”
Lak Hezoor the magician-prince, clad in dark finery, and with two guards behind him, had come up on the roof very silently. He and his minions could move most quietly, when they wished, and such noiseless arrivals were a habit of his. In this way he often happened on his courtiers at their various and more intimate games. All had grown careful, even in the most frenzied acts of the flesh, to think, and if necessary to speak, well of their lord. Shadowy as his raiment was his long curled hair, and on the gloved hands of Lak Hezoor jewels burned dark as the night had now become. Two great leashed hounds, by contrast blond as Oloru, stared about them, quivering with abstract eagerness for things to chase and rend.
The young men had all obeised themselves. But it was Oloru the magician-prince raised in his arms and kissed on the lips, without haste.
“We are going hunting tonight,” said Lak Hezoor.
Those on the roof who had had other plans for the evening quickly dismissed them from their minds. Only Oloru was heard to say plaintively, “My lord, I hate to see anything killed—”
“Then, sweetheart,” said Lak Hezoor, “at the supreme moments of the death you may hide your face in my mantle, and not look.”
* * * * *
The moon was rising in the hour the hunt set out. It was a full moon that night, and certain exhalations and smokes of the sorcerously tempered city made her appear unusually large, so she dwarfed the towers as she hung above them. She blushed, too, standing there over that place, and drew a cloud around herself. But her feverish light burned through, and laved the black horses and the black or white hounds of Lak Hezoor, and flashed on the loudly blowing horns, the knives and jewels, and in all the host of eyes.
The city disgorged the hunt, its gates flying wide before it without a command needing to be given. Beyond, a long paved road opened through the plain. To either side of the road ran lush fields and groves and vineyards, but off to the west was hill country and a forest many centuries older. Strange stories were told of the forest. Men wandered in there and were never seen again, or other things, not men at all, wandered out of it, sometimes having human shape, and sometimes not. But the magician-masters of the city found the forest tempted them from time to time. Particularly it tempted Lak Hezoor, who was intellectually obsessed by night and all dark things, just as his flesh was inflamed equally by examples of exceptional paleness.
It was a time of harvesting, and now and then the hunt, riding hard and savagely as if already in pursuit of the quarry, passed by some firelit camp of people, or some village set near the road. Then all the lowly folk gathered there would rush forward to the road’s edge, calling aloud praises on the magician- princes, and on Lak Hezoor in person if they recognized him. It would not have been sensible to do otherwise. Seldom, however, did Lak Hezoor pay any attention. It happened, though, when the upswept black walls of the forest were less than a mile ahead, that the sorcerer lord did spy something that checked him. There in a meadow a tallow lamp had been hung from a pole, with a kneeling man under it. Close by a girl was tied to a tree. In the faint lamplight, she shone pale as a pearl, and her long ash-brown hair, woven with white flowers, was her only garment.
When Lak Hezoor drew rein, his company with him, the man ran up and kneeled again on the road.
“Speak,” said Lak Hezoor.
“She is my sister’s daughter, just fifteen years of age, a virgin.”
Lak Hezoor sat his horse and looked over at the girl, while his courtiers slyly and fawningly smiled at him and at each other.
“Once,” said the lord Lak, “maidens were left in this way to entice dragons. Are you expecting any dragons?”
“No—oh, no, mighty Hezoor. It is just the wish of the girl’s heart to give you a moment’s diversion, that is all.”
Lak Hezoor dismounted. He walked away over the meadow to the tree where the girl hung as if half-dead of terror. For a second more the magician was visible, leaning to his dragon’s prey. Then a fan of blackness spread there, occluding both of them. While in the blackness a dull reddish snake of fire seemed to twist, and sparks burst, hurting the eyes of any who still peered in that direction. Once, twice, a sharp scream pierced the sorcerous veil, but nothing else of sight or sound.
The man who had brought the lord his niece waited patiently, eyes lowered. The courtiers sipped wine from golden flasks, petted their horses, discussed fashions and gambling.
Lak was not long over his transaction. Quite abruptly he returned through the black screen, calm and undisheveled as if he had paused to taste some fruit from a wayside bush. The sorcerous screen began to die at once behind him. There showed now something pallid flung on the ground, motionless, amid torn hair and broken flowers.
“What did you hope from me?” asked Lak Hezoor of the patiently waiting uncle. “Not anything much, I trust, for she was very disappointing.”
“No—oh, no. Nothing but to please you, lord.”
“Well, I was not greatly pleased. But you meant for the best. I will not chastise you. Are you content with that?”
“Mighty lord, I am your generosity’s slave.”
As they galloped away, a backward glance revealed the man bending over the paleness in the grass, which did not answer him even when he gave it blows.
“Now, my Oloru,” said the magician- prince as they rode up to the tall gates of the forest, “you seem downcast.”
“I?” said Oloru. “I was only devising a poem to honor you.”
“Ah,” said Lak Hezoor. “That is well. Later you shall tell it me.”
* * * * *
The depths of the forest, then. Not its heart; it was so old, so labyrinthine, the forest—who could enter the heart of it, save some lost traveler in one of the sinister tales? Or else, perhaps, the forest had many hearts, each slowly and mesmerically beating, its rhythm growing a fraction slower and an iota more strong for every passing century.
Certainly, there were portions of the forest where its atmosphere seemed especially and profoundly charged. In one of these spots there was a pool of unknown deepness where the animals of the forest, whatever they might be, would steal to drink. Although it was said that any man who drank the waters of the forest would be changed at once into just such an animal himself—a deer, a wolf, a sprite, or some monstrous creature that had no name.
All about the pool was blackness, but through the colossal roof-beams of the trees there showed the rim of the moon. She was no longer blushing but cold now, and her snowy fire turned the mysterious water to a solid white mirror one might think to walk on.
Thrice, Lak Hezoor’s men had started deer. Pale as ghosts they sprang away, and the hunt madly pursued them. Torchlight crackled through the boughs. Shouting and whooping tore the curtains of leafy air. Sometimes the noise and tumbling speed and spilling lights disturbed curious birds—or winged things of some sort—which rose away into the higher tiers of the branches. On occasion disembodied eyes were lit, and as quickly extinguished. As for the quarry, twice it vanished without trace. But when the third deer broke from cover, Lak Hezoor cast a shining ray about it like a net. Try as it would then, bolt and swerve and seem to fly, the deer could not break free of his magic. Loudly it panted, and groaned like a woman in childbirth, so the hair of the magician’s courtiers bristled on their necks. But at length the deer stumbled and the torrent of the hounds swept over it.
Though a female, it was a huge beast, this deer. So the hunting party was satisfied, for the moment, and made their way into the clearing, to the pool like solid mirror, and dared each other to taste of the water, but none of them did. Instead they lolled on the rugs and bolsters the servants of Lak Hezoor put down for them, and drank wine in glass goblets that the fires turned to golden tears.
Lak Hezoor himself oversaw the gutting of the deer, and now and then himself threw portions of its entrails to his favorites among the shivering dogs. Nearby, Oloru leaned on a tree, his face averted, and his gloved hand lightly over his nose and mouth.
“Come, be my hound, beloved, and I will throw you a piece of its liver,” said Lak Hezoor.
Oloru shuddered, looked at his lord under long lashes, and away.
When Lak Hezoor lost interest in the bloody work, he went to sit among the cushions and fires. He beckoned Oloru to follow him.
“Now sing for me the song you were making in my honor,” said Lak Hezoor.
“It is not finished,” said Oloru, in an offhand way.
Lak Hezoor turned one of the rings on his left hand. It dazzled a searing ray—it was this very ring which had cast the net about the deer and so weakened and killed it. The ring had done as much for men.
“I give Oloru,” said Lak Hezoor, “three of his own heartbeats to complete the song. And since his heart now beats very fast, I think the time is already up.”