A recognized master fantasist, Tanith Lee has won numerous awards for her craft, including the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror.
Delusion’s Master is the third book of the stunning arabesque high fantasy series Tales from the Flat Earth, which, in the manner of The One Thousand and One Nights, portrays an ancient world in mythic grandeur via connected tales.
A long time ago when the Earth was Flat, beautiful indifferent Gods lived in the airy Upperearth realm above, curious passionate demons lived in the Underearth realm below, and mortals were relegated to exist in the middle.
Chuz, Prince of Madness, third of the Lords of Darkness—beauty on one side, foul corruption on the other—“takes pity” on the world. In his gentle, soft embrace, mortal minds repose in a tide of illusion and twisted desire. Yet no one is immune from the sweetest madness of all, and even immortals fall at the cast of the bone dice….
Come within this ancient world of brilliant darkness and beauty, of glittering palaces and wondrous elegant beings, of cruel passions and undying love. Discover the wonder that is the Flat Earth.
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The Tower of Baybhelu
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 sweetmeats. 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 wept 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, necklets 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 in to 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 thoughtless 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 marketplace 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 a 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.
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