3. The Starry Pavilion
Many tales were recounted then of the Iron Princess who rode at the head of her army, and some were true and some were not. She was a mighty witch, she could take no wound, demons marched in the ranks behind her; she covered her face because one look from it would scald with fire or turn to granite or melt as with acid any who beheld it, though others said she was so beautiful no man could watch her and not lose his wits, and that one of her smiles could darken the moon and one frown could kill the sun.
In a year she had regained all that had been snatched from her, and more, and she sat in her sorcerous tower of brass, or upon the great throne of Zojad in her mask of iron, and ruled with a hand of iron, and if she was not happy, neither was she impotent on the earth, and she burned with a flame of pride that seemed as fierce as any joy.
And then there came a day when everything was done—her empire vast and unassailable, her fame assured, all her goals reached, her hopes satisfied, and there was nothing left—save an emptiness which rushed in like a cold sea and flooded her heart.
So she sat in thought, and out of the cold sea rose one last dream, a dream so foolhardy, so impossible, it lit up her world again with a brilliant light.
She had exacted all her vengeances—on the king who had mocked her, on the sixteen other kings who had slain Zorashad and taken her birthright; only one being remained who had paid her nothing in recompense for her years of doubt and humility and her ruined face. That one being, he who had begun it all with his own casual vengeance—the ruler of the lower lands, master of Vazdru, Eshva, Drin, one of the Lords of Darkness—Azhrarn, Prince of Demons.
At the impulse, the heart of Zorayas raced. Yet she did not boast aloud as Zorashad had done. She kept her own counsel, and only went more often to her tall tower of brass. And there, by the flashes of the blue and lustreless fire, she passed, night by night, in and out of those doors of Power that now were so familiar to her.
* * *
At last she stood in the tower and called up those demons who appeared on earth in the form of strange animals and monsters, the Drindra, the lowest of the Drin, and the silliest and most mischievous of all. Soon the octagonal room was full of grunting, whining, chattering things, which skittered away before the princess’s iron finger.
“Be silent and attend,” said she, “for I wish to ask you questions.”
“We are your slaves, peerless mistress,” fawned the Drindra, dribbling on her boots and licking the floor at her feet.
“No,” said Zorayas stonily, “you are the slaves of your lord, Azhrarn the Beautiful, and it is of him I wish to learn.”
At this the Drindra blushed and shivered, for they loved their Prince passionately and also feared him greatly. Zorayas knew she must be careful then, for asking lore of Underearth was very difficult since no demon could be constrained to tell anything freely, only answer truthfully when the questioner’s guesses were correct, and even then they would, if they could, try tricks.
“It is known,” she therefore began, “that there are certain special tokens that will summon demons of the Eshva and Vazdru. Can it be that there are tokens that will summon even Azhrarn the Beautiful?”
The Drindra chittered together and said:
“No, no, incomparable queen, nothing of that sort can be fashioned by mortals.”
“Did I say tokens fashioned by mortals? I am thinking of curious pipes of silver shaped in Underearth as toys for friends and lovers. Are there such, and can any call Azhrarn?”
“Yes,” hissed the Drindra in mournful voices. “So it is.”
“Then can it be there are any of these pipes on earth?”
“How could it be,” chirruped the demons, “that such pipes should be allowed to reach the earth?”
“This is not what I asked you,” cried Zorayas, and she struck her iron fists together, at which a bolt of steely fire sprang out like a whip and made the Drindra jump and spit.
“Be kind, sweet mistress,” they whimpered, “you are right, and your wisdom glows like a precious jewel.”
“How many of these pipes exist on earth? Seven?”
The Drindra wailed and would not answer.
“More than seven? Less than seven?”
“Three?” Zorayas asked, “two?” And then angrily, “only one?” And the Drindra assented. “Where then does it lie? On land? Under water?”
“Beneath the Sea?”
Zorayas gave a shout of derision, and the Drindra cowered.
“Yes indeed,” said she. “I have heard tell of such a pipe—the serpent’s head your lord gave to a youth who was dear to him, a hundred thousand years ago—Sivesh, who lies at the ocean’s bottom where Azhrarn drowned him, with the silver pipe about his delicious neck, which is now all bones.”
The Drindra lashed their tails and whispered: “Yes,” like the steam from water thrown on hot metal.
Zorayas might have turned herself into a fish and swum down to retrieve the enchanted pipe, but it was very dangerous for a mortal, even a magician, to take on an animal form, or any form other than his own, for quite quickly he would forget his human values and reasoning, and begin to think exactly as the creature would think whose form he had taken. There were many tales of great sorcerers who, in order to avoid some calamity or to discover some secret, changed themselves into beasts, reptiles or birds of the air, and then forgot all their spells and even who they were, and so remained moving, slithering or flapping to the end of their days. Therefore Zorayas bound one of the Drindra by terrible magics, and forced it to fetch her the pipe, which it was very loath to do.
“Rest assured,” said Zorayas, “I wish only to honor your Prince, not to anger him, for indirectly he is the cause of my present good fortune.”
So, bound as it was, the Drindra fled down through the waters of the sea to a place where milk-white bones were lying on the sand. Here the ocean creatures had gathered in wonder a thousand years before, and the sea-maidens with their ice-green tresses kissed with their cold lips the colder lips of the dead youth, touched with their cold pointed tongues the two gems of his chest, the threefold treasure of his loins. But Sivesh did not stir. Only the currents combed his hair, as once demon fingers had combed it, and his wide eyes were full as with tears of tragedy and despair. Eventually the sea folk abandoned him, and the water erased him and left only his bones—and the serpent pipe about his neck. This the Drindra snatched off, gibbering, and fled back to Zorayas’ tower of brass, and cast the pipe down at her feet with the seaweed still tangled on it.
Zorayas took up the pipe and gazed at it, an hour or more.
She had a curious pavilion built in the great gardens of the palace, with walls of jet-black granite. There were no windows in these walls, and the floor was laid with bricks of pure gold, yet the ceiling of the pavilion was strangest of all. It was made of a dull and inky glass that reflected no light and through which nothing could be seen, and here and there in it were set pale diamonds, sapphires, zircons in the exact positions of the stars. So cunning was the workmanship of this ceiling that, looking up from inside the pavilion, you would think there was no roof at all, only the night sky with its little fires overhead. At one end of the chamber, facing the double doors, hung down a thick cord of velvet.
Here in this pavilion, by this cord, Zorayas sat with the serpent pipe in her hand, while the moon rose and the bells of Zojad tolled out the hours of the night. Presently the moon sank, and they rang the last quarter before dawn. Then Zorayas set the pipe to the little incision in her mask, and blew it.
There was no sound. At least, no sound that could be heard on earth. Then suddenly the air was full of a brazen thunder, and in through the double doors burst a lightning. Zorayas reached and twitched the velvet cord to the left and the doors clanged shut again. The lightning meanwhile resolved itself into a shape like a huge dragon, with molten lava licking from its mouth like twenty tongues.
But Zorayas only said:
“Be still, Exalted One. I am protected from your fiery breath by my spells. Will you not permit me to see you, as did my father Zorashad?”
At this, the dragon seemed to melt and fade, and there in the pavilion stood a tall and wonderfully handsome man, with a black cloak like wings.
Zorayas looked at him, and her senses were confused at his beauty, as were all mortal senses, but also her heart leaped with triumph.
“Lord of Shadows,” said she, “forgive your handmaiden that she has entreated you here. By accident I found this pipe, and knowing from an ancient fable that it would call you, how could I resist the chance of looking on your form, O Prince of Princes?”
She knew the vanity of Demons, and had addressed him exactly as she should. Azhrarn seemed neither grim nor questioning, only a little amused.
“You must also know then,” he said, “that, having summoned me, you may ask one request of me.”
“All I ask, O Incomparable Magnificence, is to gaze on you and give you my thanks, and to return you this pipe which is rightly yours.”
And she went down to him and handed him the pipe, which he took, and the touch of his hand was like a cool flame even through her glove, which made her poor twisted fingers sing in pain, and every scar on her ruined face throb, and the scars the pedlar had left upon her breasts and between her thighs were seethed in fire. And just then she heard the bell sound in Zojad which betokened the rising of the sun. What a burning gush of fury and joy she felt. She laughed aloud at it, out of the fire.
Azhrarn had all this while been watching carefully for the dawn lighting of the sky, but no light fell through the black glass roof which looked precisely like the sky itself. However, hearing a bell, he said to Zorayas:
“I am intrigued at your courtesy, Iron Lady, but I think the sun is near, the light of which is to me an abomination. Therefore, I must leave you.”
“Must you?” said she, going back to where hung the velvet cord, and taking it in her hand. “O Azhrarn,” she murmured in a smiling voice, “my father Zorashad was a fool and set himself above you, and him you destroyed. I am his daughter, and in that destruction I lost my birthright and much more besides. Due to my own skill in magic, I have regained many things, but one thing I could not alter, and for this one thing I will, after all, exact a boon from you.”
“Speak then,” said Azhrarn and now he seemed impatient.
“I would see,” said Zorayas, “one of the Lords of Darkness face with his glory the glory of the earth’s sun.”
Perhaps in her triumphant mockery she mistook, but it seemed to her the wonderful countenance of Azhrarn grew paler.
“Have I not told you,” he said, “that I abhor the sun.”
“Abhor or fear, great Lord? I think you go in terror of its rays, which, if they should touch you, would reduce you to powder or stone or some such other lifeless and unlovely thing.”
Then such a look of malign shadow passed over the face of Azhrarn that even Zorayas held her breath.
“Accursed of all women, do you suppose you will go unpunished for your insolence? Fear the night, fool, daughter of a fool.”
And turning, he went toward the closed doors.
“Wait!” cried Zorayas, and gave a little twitch of the cord to the right.
A crack sprang open in the roof of cunning glass, and through it a solitary golden beam shot like an arrow into the golden floor below. Azhrarn stood still and stared at it, and his cloak beat about him of its own volition like a terrified bird.
“I have learned,” said Zorayas softly, “that to a demon, even to the Prince of Demons, the light of the sun is Death. I have learned too that even though he may travel as fast as the lightning flash to his domain, the rays of the sun will still strike him as he passes, and that, even if he wrench up the ground itself, to pass to the lands below in that way, gold is not a metal to his liking, and will take him longer to disperse. Thus, should he attempt to open the earth in this pavilion, he must work slowly because of the gold bricks in the floor, while I can open the roof wide with another tug of the cord, and let in the sun like rain to cover him.”
No one knows then what Azhrarn said or did. Perhaps it was so fearful that even writing it down, the words would scorch holes through the paper and those who read them go blind. No doubt he threatened Zorayas with all manner of horrors, and no doubt Zorayas assured him that even should he slay her she would still drag open the glass with her last strength.
At length Azhrarn grew very still, and stood in the darkest half of the chamber. While the sun arrow pierced the floor before him. He was at her mercy, the mercy of a woman of earth; the thought obliquely fascinated rather than angered him. He saw in it, too, possible avenues of escape. Besides, she had not yet opened the glass roof, this moment was the enjoyment of her pride, and the pride of mortals often destroys them.
After a while, Azhrarn said to her, in his most gentle and thrilling tone:
“You told me, daughter of Zorashad, that you had regained many of those things which your father’s death lost you, all but one thing which you could not alter. What can it be, brave and intelligent maiden, which your vast power could not encompass?”
But Zorayas did not answer, only played with the velvet cord. Azhrarn smiled to himself. He knew very well that his voice, flattering and praising her, was the sweetest sound she had ever heard, and that, for all her ideas of vengeance, she could not bear to silence it just yet.
“It is well known,” he therefore murmured, after a moment or so, “that demon-kind will make bargains. Should you decide to leave your ingenious roof closed and permit me to return to my kingdom, I could offer you vast power, enough to suit even your splendid nature.”
Zorayas smiled, though the iron mouth did not.
“My armies, O Prince, are legendary, and avoided over the whole earth. Already I rule seventeen lands. In another year I could rule double that number if I wished. As for my other powers, you yourself are tasting them, are you not?”
“Indeed, wise maiden. I see my error. Nor is it any use to offer you the riches of the mines,” Azhrarn said lingeringly, “the rubies and diamonds and emeralds at the earth’s core?”
“I have jewels enough,” said Zorayas. “You see, I wear none. But if I wished, I have so many slaves that in a year I could triple the number of gems in my treasury. Look up, at the costly brilliants you mistook for stars, O Prince.”
“Indeed, insurpassable maiden. There is no bargain I can make with you after all. You have everything mortals yearn for—power, sorcery, wealth. Though why you do not yourself wear jewels puzzles me, and also this habit of masking your face and hands—” and at this, Azhrarn saw Zorayas stiffen in her chair and her grasp tightened on the cord. “One request,” said Azhrarn. “At least, O fair and noble one, let me look on the face of my vanquisher. Such beauty you must have that it will outshine the very sun you threaten me with, as even your beautiful eyes do now.”
Zorayas gave a cry; it was full of pain and anger. Azhrarn needed no more; he stretched out his hand and the iron mask cracked right across and fell in pieces. Zorayas shivered, and with her free hand she hid her misshapen face.
Azhrarn laughed. Even in that extreme moment, the workings of the mind of the Prince were far from simple. No longer did he feel any animosity towards the poor grovelling dangerous creature on the throne. He was agreeably provoked by her learning, her cunning, her daring; he saw too, in a woman of such power and warlike thoughts, a way to make some delightful trouble in the world.
“O best of women,” said Azhrarn in his most musical and endearing tone, “I note there is, after all, a bargain I might make with you. Open the roof now, and I, perhaps, may perish and you may be revenged, and will then live out the rest of your short life emptily, shut forever in your mask. Men will bow before you and fight in your armies and tell how you belittled Azhrarn, one of the Lords of Darkness, and all your days neither man nor woman will tremble with desire for you, kiss your lips, sing of your love. You will remain cold as ice till the tomb eats you and the worm takes his pleasure where you have had none.” When he said this, the girl shivered again, though her hand on the velvet cord did not falter. “There is another way,” said Azhrarn softly, coming nearer. “No magic in the world can remedy your ugliness, but I, and I alone, have the power to make you beautiful. More beautiful indeed than you have ever dreamed, more beautiful than any other woman of earth, before or to be. I can make you so lovely that whoever looks at you will ache for you; men will happily die if they can lie one hour with you. You will no longer have need of armies or slaves for cities will open their gates in order to worship this face which now you dare not show. Kings and princes themselves will toil in the mines of earth to lay treasures at your feet in the hope of one touch of your mouth.”
Zorayas stared at the Demon for many minutes, and eventually whispered:
“If you can do this, I will let you go.”
Then Azhrarn went round the chamber, avoiding the arrow of the sun, and he took Zorayas’ crippled hands, and the gloves burst open and a scalding needle ran through her flesh and into her whole body, and when she looked down, her arms were straight and free of pain and white and smooth as ivory, and her hands as graceful as doves, and her breasts like flowers. Next he laid his palms against her face. The fire that seemed to come from them was so awful it made her scream out, her skin was like a land shaken by earthquake. Then the fire died, and she saw the Demon stand smiling at her in a way he had not smiled before, a smile almost of an awesome and indecipherable tenderness. She put her own hands to her cheeks, and felt the difference there.
“Go and find a glass,” said Azhrarn.
And she obeyed him, for what the Prince of Demons promised, he abided by, and the bargain had been made.
Beyond the pavilion in the garden there was a little pool, and going there, holding aside the reeds with her white hands, Zorayas looked at her face as she had looked only once before, in the forest. What she saw was a beauty surpassing the gorgeousness of the leopard, more poignant than the plumage of the spring, like the moon, the sun, a beauty only a Demon could invent, a beauty to cast down the world. And she rose up, throwing aside her iron garments, clothed only in this miracle, and went back into the pavilion and closed the door on the daylight.
The floor was broken wide, and there Azhrarn stood with his passage to the Underearth safely before him, yet he, even he, had stayed for one last look at her.
And Zorayas gazed at him, and kneeled before him and said:
“Now kill me, my Lord, and I will die adoring you, and beyond death I will tell them, if they listen in the mists that wrap the world, that you are King of all the kings, my beloved and my master, whose curse to me is sweeter than the song of the nightingale.”
Then Azhrarn raised her in his arms and laid his mouth on hers, smiling still that what he had created seduced him.
“You have seen yourself, daughter of beauty. Do you imagine that I would destroy anything I had made which was so fair?”
And thus the flesh of Zorayas, which had known only the hurt of old wounds, a lash, a rape, the rasp of iron, knew loveliness in itself, and the embrace of Azhrarn upon itself and within, the seal of dark night upon her morning.