In Saint Fire, the second volume in the Secret Books of Venus series, Volpa is a strangely beautiful servant girl who glows with an inhuman inner flame. When her master, an abusive wood seller, is mysteriously incinerated, Volpa discovers her power of fire. Her gift is noticed by the Church leaders, who see her as a mighty weapon in their holy wars. This gripping fantasy of a mysteriously gifted Joan of Arc is stunning from beginning to end.
“Lee’s writing is as entrancing as ever, full of evocative imagery and memorable characters. The questions she raises about faith and hypocrisy, fear and justice, are deftly rendered and not easily answered.” —Publishers Weekly
“The author of Faces Under Water continues her saga of a city at the mercy of powers beyond its control. Lee’s sensual and evocative storytelling imparts a dreamlike quality to this tale of transcendent faith and human passion.” —Library Journal
“Evocative, and set forth in Lee’s eerily crystalline prose.” —Kirkus Reviews
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.
Read an Excerpt
FIRST, SHE SAW THE MOUNTAINS — not knowing what they were.
The sky, perhaps. Yes, probably she thought they were the sky; stones built of thin fine ether. The foothills of Heaven.
Two thirds of the year, there was white on them, snow ... clouds. In high summer they darkened and there was no white.
The farm was in the earthly foothills, and here the slaves worked, among the brown grass and the yellow stalks of grain. Her memory was of sitting, of running, of carrying things.
She did not know what occurred, and after, her mother never explained. There was anger and fright.
Mother weeping. So she wept too.
Then a market-place, down on the Veneran Plain, in a town of stumbling little hovels and mud. It rained.
She was four.
Presently, the journey to the great City, whose name meant Meeting Darkness, or To Travel By Night: Ve Nera. The carter had a nickname for the City. Venus. He made jokes about Venus — now a city, next a goddess. Not the Virgin, the only goddess the child had heard of until then.
Finally, the carter lay over her mother in the cart.
Outside the awning rain lashed miserably.
The carter grumbled, "Took you on — hope you're worth it. And that pest of a baby, that little curse. You women. Breed like conies. Don't dare bud from me. You hear, I'll beat it out of you."
The carter was Ghaio Wood-Seller. Master.
In memory, entering it, the City was indeed a darkness. They were put into a boat — never before felt, the motion of a canal. Arches of shadow, and blocks of night.
Water rippling black.
Christian slaves did not matter, the Church had said so. Bodies might be in chains, souls stayed free.
A month later, Ghaio beat her mother. He made the child, already new-named "Fox," watch the proceeding, as a lesson.
Volpa's mother was never pregnant again. Perhaps the beatings saw to that, or simply the generally harsh life in the Red House. Yet, although life was bad, they clung to it, as if to some granite rock-face. The alternative was to fall into the abyss.
Or was it? Volpa's mother, in the early years, spoke sometimes of God, and sometimes of the Virgin. Later, she mentioned them less.
"We suffer on earth," said Volpa's mother, "so that we can be happy in another place."
But why must we suffer? Volpa might have asked.
Possibly she had done so.
Certainly an outlandish answer seemed to have evolved to just such a question: The world is a school, a cruel and exacting one. Only here can we learn from terrors and mishaps, which, beyond life on either side, are never encountered.
Why then learn? Why is it needful?
"Because only then," said Volpa's mother's sweet tenor voice, "can we be one with God, who has already experienced, and surmounted them."
So God did not send sorrows against mankind to punish or chastise?
No, simply to cleanse, to refine. God, lonely in omnipotence, longed for the company of creatures purified as He had been. He wished that every single soul should achieve such greatness and such wisdom as were already His.
Ghaio, truly, was a diligent exponent in God's school.
Master. Apt title?
Volpa knew to fear and avoid him from the beginning. But it was normally easy, since she lived in another country, the kitchen and the yard.
The yard of the Red House was almost entirely filled with timber, logs, bundles of wood, and the shed where the cart was kept. There was also a cistern to catch rain, whose water was not of the best. (Nicer water was fetched by the woman from the nearest public well.) Over Ghaio's cistern, however, there grew a fig tree. In summer the leaves were like dusty metal. Green figs appeared irregularly in autumn. Bare in winter, the branches had a rheumatic look.
Whatever the season, on nights of the full moon, when Ghaio slept or was from home and the other houses dark, Volpa and her mother would dance about this tree in a strange, silent circling. The old male slave, coming across the yard to the privy one night, saw this, hid his eyes and went away, Volpa had no other indications that the dancing might be profane.
Unlike the lesson of God, she never queried it. They had danced in this way, she thought, in the foothills long ago.
Ghaio slept with her mother — that is, had swift, rough intercourse with her mother — two or three times a month, in the early days. In the past four years, far less often.
Volpa saw and knew nothing of these couplings.
Thus once, Volpa's mother said an odd thing. "He'll be too old before you're grown."
It was less a statement, of course, than a prayer.
Ghaio had shown no inclination to violate the child, who, besides, was kept dirty and muffled and as much from his sight as was feasible.
But time, which leached off some of Ghaio's libido, and some of his strength, was working an opposite magic on the woman's daughter.
Volpa, who had never seen in a mirror — would not be able even to recognize her own face — was at first aware only of slight changes. The ill-treatment which had, perhaps, kept her mother barren, delayed the onset of womanhood. But finally it came. Soreness blossomed into breasts. A thunder of pain broke like a crystal and spotted the straw Volpa slept on with ruby drops.
Then she saw her mother with her hands to her lips. Afraid.
"What have I done? Mumma — I'm sorry — I didn't mean to." (Like the day she broke the pot — and was whipped.)
"No, it's not your fault. It can't be helped. It's what I told you of — do you remember?"
"That? This — is that —"
"Yes. Don't cry. It's good. As it must be."
"But you're crying, mumma —"
"Only from the sun in my eyes."
For Volpa's bleeding had begun in her birth month, late summer, the time of the sun lion, patron of the Primo, the great Basilica of Ve Nera.
Volpa — even her mother now called her that — was fourteen.
Soon, trudging up the alley after the old man, who hauled the cart, behind the creaking wood and picking up any which fell out, Volpa heard fresh abuse. Before she had been pushed about, slandered as a slave child.
Now she was man-handled as a slave who was a woman.
In the market-place boys and men stole up on her and cupped the shallow rounds of her body, breast, thigh, buttock, in unloving hands. Squeezed her like the vegetables. "She's a hot piece." "No, not ripe yet."
Sometimes she was glad when the black-robed priests moved nearby, although they spread fear like the aroma of their incense. Then men left her alone.
The adult Volpa did not confide much in her mother.
Intuitively she knew her increasingly silent parent had enough to bear. Volpa bore her own dismay, unspoken. It was life.
It was God's school.
But sometimes she thought of the story her mother had told her, at the farm in the hills, and maybe again, once or twice, in the first two or three years of the Red House.
The mother was the heroine of this story. It was a real story, true.
Already carrying her daughter in her womb, but not yet knowing it, Volpa's mother had been one night at dusk on a hill.
The day's work was over, and perhaps she was in those days then, allowed rest; she had never said. But pausing, she had looked up above the bare winter fields, into a pale sky that had seemed, she said, the color of the emeralds on the fingers of the mightiest priests. And stars were set out in this polished sky, fierce, and prickled as hedgehogs with their lights.
Suddenly the air, which was cold, grew warm. A warm wind blew up the plain, thick as the gusts of summer. And on the wind, high, high up in the orb of the emerald that was sky, Volpa's mother saw a flight of angels pass.
"At first I took them for birds, Blessed Maria pardon me. They were against the light, and yet they had a gleam on them. And the wings, moving slowly, as gulls' wings do when they catch the currents of the air above the City. But they didn't have any shape of birds, beyond their wings.
They were long, like men with their legs stretched out, their arms crossed over the chest. And on the head of each, a flame — like a star come detached, and going with them."
This story of the angels never varied, or only here and there an iota. Now and then some slight extra detail was added — as of hearing a cock crow in the valley, as if at sunrise, and thinking the cock had seen them too — but never anything left out.
"Where did they go, mumma?"
"Away, upwards — into the dome of the sky. Until they grew so small they vanished."
"Did they look at you?"
"I don't know. Perhaps."
"Why did you see them?"
"Because they were there, and I was looking up," Volpa's mother had replied, with dignified simplicity.
She had told no other.
Now she never spoke of it, and Volpa never asked to hear. In imagination only, Volpa relayed the flight of angels. She had seen it so often with the inner eye of her mind, that now it too had become one with the earthly memories of her infancy in the hills. As if she had witnessed it at her mother's side.
That winter, after Volpa turned fourteen, was very bitter.
Ice — they said — formed on the great Laguna Aquila, and the smaller lagoon called Fulvia, and ice pleated the hem of the sea beyond the bars of sand and the sea walls.
The canals froze solid. Even the cart was able to be pulled along them to the market, not needing the alleys, slipping a little.
In Ghaio Wood-Seller's kitchen in the yard, Volpa's mother kept the hearth going as long as she was able from the meager allowance of wood the master gave them.
They were supposed to use it only to cook his meals.
However, the old man slave stole, a few twigs here, a log there, from the tempting mounds in the yard. Ghaio presumably never guessed. In any case, they were often cold.
During this winter, Volpa's mother began to cough.
She tried never to do it when serving Ghaio, for then he struck her: "Shut your noise!"
One morning, the air seemed to break. Suddenly a softness came, like breath breathed on a rich man's glass goblet.
Volpa, waking on the straw at first light, went into the yard, and saw a single pale flower, some weed, that had pushed up against the house.
When she returned with the first unfrozen water from the cistern, she saw her mother still lay asleep.
"Mumma — wake up!" And she shook the woman's arm because no slave could lie abed.
But the man slave was there, gray as a cobweb gone hard.
"Don't shake her. Don't shake the sleeping or the dead," said this old man.
And reprimanded, a little aggrieved — what one took from master one could not bear from another slave — Volpa stopped. Then she saw the straw was dark under her mother's head. As had happened that time with herself, blood had poured out on the straw. Now, though, it seemed to be all the blood the mother had kept in her body. And the soft new light showed her white as the ice which had melted away.
Ghaio blasphemed and complained. She had not lasted eleven years, this useless, slave bitch. He had her body sewn in the customary sack, and thrown on a boat for the Isle of the Dead, where the bodies of slaves were only burned, there being no room for limitless burials.
Volpa stood stunned and weeping. The boat was rowed away in the gray morning. The old man slave said to Volpa, or to the air, "Cry for yourself but not her. Her pain's done. She is in God's world now."
Volpa wept. She said, "That's no better."
"Oh yes," said the slave. "Why else do you think He damns us for suicide? His world is the best of all, and we must earn it." Volpa only ever heard this man say two meaningful things, and this was the second. (The first had been about the shaking.) Then, as they returned through the alley to Ghaio's yard, the old man said also a prophetic thing, "How I long to get there. Would this could be done.
I won't raise my own hand, Lord. But fetch me — by any means you like, by whatever awful way. The road's stones, but the gates are pearl. Fetch me, Lord. Amen."
The wood-seller had a collection of debtors, among whom was no longer Juvanni the sweet merchant.
His house Ghaio had taken in lieu of the loan that winter. Where Juvanni and his family had gone was anyone's guess.
Ghaio did not want the better house, though. He preferred his hovel. He sold the other, and put the deeds and the money into a chest in the upper room of the Red House, which was reached by a ladder, and full only of a bed, some candles, and many, many similar chests.
In the evening after the mother's corpse had been rowed away for the crematory, Ghaio had Volpa serve his meal.
He took no notice of her, but neither did he strike her. This surprised Volpa, who had tried not to displease him, but knew she had been clumsy.
At last, Ghaio sat back.
"You'll have to take your mother's place. I won't waste cash on another." Volpa waited. "How old are you?"
"Fourteen years, signore. So she said."
"Now I see you, you look less. Skin and bone.
Skinny red fox. Let me see that hair." Volpa drew off her scarf with reluctance. "Ah, you're nothing," said Ghaio.
"Worthless. I might sell you. What'd you bring me, though? A copper venus and a sneering laugh." Then he said, "Go up the ladder and open the chest nearest the door. It's not locked. Inside is a paper with a list of men's names, men that owe me money."
Volpa did what he said. Her whole life had been molded in obedience to him.
She knew he looked at her as she climbed.
In the upper room, she glanced about. She had been there often to wipe the floor and collect the night-pot, but always when the Master was from the house.
There was a tiny window, shuttered against the weather and the dark. The bed was low and spread with a moldy fur — normally her mother would tidy the bed, but today the man slave had done so. In the room was a bad smell, not merely from its enclosure and the accumulation of bodily stinks. It was a corrupt smell.
When Volpa came down the ladder, Ghaio again looked at her. She had to lift her skirt away from her legs to manage the ladder. She gave him the paper.
Then Ghaio reached out and took hold, through slave's tunic and shift, of Volpa's center, the mound of her sex. Her instinct — entire and vital — was to leap away. But she was property. She kept still, as she had mostly had to do in the streets and market. Presently, apparently dissatisfied, he let go.
But, "We'll see," muttered Ghaio, as if promising her something. He was.
That night, Volpa dreamed.
Generally it seemed to her she never did. Rather it seemed that she went — elsewhere. And coming back at sunrise to the Auroria bell over the marshes, she was dazed from a long journey, exhausted by her slumber. And this lethargy mostly only left her gradually in the hour after she rose.
The place or places she had gone to in sleep she recollected only in fragments — some glimmering piece, like a bit of a broken dish, made of some costly substance, yet worthless since broken off. Besides, it soon faded. As she revived, she lost all memory, all sense of the countries of the night.
Her dreams she considered differently, and they were rare — or rarely did she recall them intact. The last one which she could at that time remember had been dreamed at the farm or estate from which her mother and she were sold off. Volpa had been then less than four years old. She was, in the dream, in an orchard, where all the trees were bold with fruit — perhaps only like the orchards of the foot hills and the Veneran Plain. Yet on one tree, at the orchard's center, was an unfamiliar crop. The globes that hung from its boughs were of gold and silver — the image not of metal, but of sunlight and moonlight. (Told of gold and silver once by some traveler at the farm, she had only been able to picture them as such.)
The tree of gold and silver, of suns and moons, attracted Volpa in the dream. She went to it, and began the slow circling dance her mother had taught her for trees.
Then, high in the branches, something moved that also shone. She thought it was a cat at first, but then she saw it had no legs, or ears, and instead of a pelt it was smooth and sheened as any of the fruits of the tree.
As she had told her mother this dream, the mother had grown anxious. "What did you do? Did you pick any of the fruits?"
"Oh no," said the child, "they would have burned me, I thought."
"And the snake?"
"Was it a snake?"
The mother nodded.
The child said, "It slid down and stared in my face. It had such beautiful eyes."
"But did it speak — or offer anything?"
Her mother's face had eased.
"Then you woke me."
"God forgive me that."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Saint Fire"
Copyright © 1999 Tanith Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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