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6. Love in a Glass


Many had died for Zorayas sake, in one way or another. Some risked themselves on fearful enterprises to gain her attention, and perished, some slew themselves at her disfavor, and some she slew herself, for expedience, revenge, or even for amusement. Azhrarn had made her beautiful, and beauty went to her head like strong drink. Azhrarn had set his seal on her, and something of his fascinated wickedness, his delight in the sport of tangling the plans of mankind, had permeated her bones.

One new death meant nothing. She would have thought no more of Jurim, or his taciturn dark brother, if she had not begun to hear a strange story, which angered and interested her.

She had achieved some knowledge of the speech of birds, a frugal bizarre tongue, to human ears more like the conversation of dainty mad people than a language. Zorayas would sit beside a crystalline pool, admiring her reflection in her silver mirrors, while handmaidens combed her hair. And she would listen the while to the chatter of swallows, sparrows and wild ibis as they drank at the margin of the water, among the rushes of thin beaten gold. Presently, in this manner, she learned of an error she had made.

Who is that bird in the water? demanded a sparrow, new to the clear pool, and pecking wildly at its reflection.

Splash! cried another, throwing water over itself.

A third preened dolefully on the marble bank and said:

There sits the queen of Zojad, who does not know she has been cheated.

Cheated of what? Of a worm? cried the first sparrow.

Of a diamond.

What is that? asked an ibis.

Diamonds are the things which fall from the sky to make everything wet, said a swallow. But men catch them in jars.

Tomorrow I shall lay an egg, said the ibis inconsequently.

Mirrash has cheated Zorayas of Zojad, said the third sparrow. He kept from her the one diamond which was worth all the rest that she has, the blue diamond from his fathers tomb-gate.

Worms are to be found near tombs, said the first sparrow, but I suppose no one will thank me for this generous instruction.

My egg will be larger than any egg ever laid before, said the ibis.

The diamond of which Mirrash has cheated Zorayas is worth all the diamonds of the earth, said the third sparrow and, ruffling his feathers, he flew away.

Such rudeness, said the swallow, but I forget why.

It seemed to Zorayas that the sparrow which spoke of the diamond had been unusually lucid. She wondered if Mirrash himself had sent the bird, some final boast to her that he had refused her the last gem and the best.

But he may alter to me, said Zorayas. We shall see.

True, Mirrash had not looked at her, had not allowed the irresistible spell of her beauty to enslave him. True, he would be particularly on his guard against her now. She remembered his cunning with the cake of salt. But she would not rest till she had what she wanted, the last diamond, and his submission. She did not like men to defy her, she, who once had suffered from men so cruelly; like some disease, she had set herself to curb them in her world, to cauterize and make them harmless.

Zorayas saw she must return to the desert palace by the shining river, but not in her former guise. Not a milk-veiled lady under a fringed canopy, accompanied by bells and music and the scent of incense. Nor would she return as she had gone away, a sorceress in some supernatural conveyance drawn by unlikely beasts. This time, Mirrash should have no warning.

***

A storm roared across the desert. Dust rose into the sky. The sun became a red blur, the shining river grew dull as unpolished bronze, and the trees groaned in the wind.

Someone knocked on the gate of the palace, of which all the shutters were closed and bolted. Someone struck the iron of the gate, and wept, and cried for help. At length a porter, on the instructions of the steward, opened the gate a crack and dragged into the confine of the inner court a dishevelled creature. A poor dancing girl she seemed to be, lost from some caravan, her cheap finery in rags, her body scored and bleeding from the harsh beating of the sand, her face obscured by dust and tears and cascading dusty hair of the deepest black. She huddled in the court, kissing the feet of the porter, and next the feet of the steward who had rescued her from such a vile death in the storm.

There were few servants left in the palace, most were gone as the riches were gone. The old steward conducted the dancing girl to a secluded room, showed her a couch and ewers of water, and had bread and wine put before her. The girl thanked him again and again.

Pray tell me, said she, who is your master, that I may also bless his name.

My master is Mirrash, upon whom grave sorrow has come. He would profit from any blessing, great or small.

And is his heart heavy with grief? Some dear one lost, perhaps? Good sir, said the girl, modestly lowering her gaze, I look a poor sight now, but only permit me to bathe and tidy myself, then let me attend the bedchamber of your lord. I have learned many curious arts of love as a part of my trade. Maybe I can console him, if only for an hour or two. Do not deny me for it is my dearest wish. If you think it proper, she added, I will demonstrate firstly to yourself what I am able to perform.

The old steward was past the age for such exercise, and suggested he would be content to watch the dancing girl at her bath. This was agreed on, and the steward was extremely gratified, for though he never quite glimpsed her face through her hair, he had an excellent view of everything else, and the girl was unusually and compellingly beautiful. Presently he grew affable, and let her persuade him that she be taken, unknown to Mirrash, to his bed, there to await the prince.

Certainly, thought the steward, as he stowed the succulent damsel in the bedchamber, I shall get a reward for this.

Mirrash had for some months spent the larger part of every day in the great library of the house, though at other times he shut himself in a cellar room of the palace, which he always kept securely locked. From this room had issued occasional strange sounds and musky odors, and a flicker of weird lights. Tonight also, Mirrash came late from the cellar to his bed, and it might be supposed the eager dancing girl was growing weary of the delay.

The lamps burned dim. Mirrash entered the chamber, threw off his garments and lay down in the bed. No sooner had he done so than he felt a sinuous touch and started up.

Do not be alarmed, my lord, said a sweet voice next to his ear. I am your slave, here to serve you gladly from the well of my love.

At this, Mirrash lay back and said:

Whoever you are, you are welcome to my life.

Then the girl, encountering his face in the red gloom of the lamps, gave a start, for the eyes of Mirrash were bound with cloth.

Why, my lord, is this some game?

Indeed, no, said Mirrash. I have gone blind.

The caressing hands of the dancing girl were still.

Some new trick, she muttered. How can this be? she added.

I have thwarted a powerful sorceress, said Mirrash, Zorayas of Zojad, perhaps you have heard her name? The demons love her, and for sport attacked me and blinded me.

The gentle fingers of Mirrashs companion had roused and were already on the bandaging.

Come, my lord. let me see. I have a little cleverness in healing. Perhaps I may aid you.

No, on no account, said Mirrash, drawing away. Do not trouble yourself.

At this, the girl turned her attention to other areas of the princes body, but he sadly told her: Kind maiden, this, too, is useless. Not only have the demons rendered me sightless but also impotent. Yet the girl, finding things quite to the contrary, assured him he was mistaken. Ah, take no note of such outward signs, this is how the demons torment me. The vessel is filled to overflowing, but no sooner shall we begin to drink than I will find the wine is mysteriously vanished without trace, and the vessel flaccid and empty.

Now, my lord, chided the girl, let us not be overly pessimistic. Perhaps the demons have relented in their spell.

No doubt this was so, for, after some further urging, the sword found the sheath, and Mirrash enjoyed her lustily. Zorayaswho, but she? Even the expedient storm had been her conjuringwas not inclined to join her enemy in his passion, but awaited her moment, demonstrating such cries and movements as he might think feasible under the circumstances. At length, as the supreme instants of congress overtook Mirrash, Zorayas snatched the bandaging from his eyes.

Thus, despite his evasions, at the height of his pleasure, he must behold her and the adhesive enchantment of her face, framed now by red copper hair, the black wig flung aside.

Mirrash moaned and sank down, and cursed himself, and her, and then gazed again at her, and entreated she would forgive his curses, declaring he would be glad to die for her.

That is not necessary, said Zorayas, but some small token. . . .

Anything I have is yours, as I am.

The thing you would not give me, the blue diamond you boasted of, worth all the rest.

Mirrash stared at her. His dark eyes were bloodshot and wildly swimming. It delighted her to see him so utterly reduced.

The diamond is in the gate of my fathers tomb. Take it. Only let me kiss your mouth again.

Later, perhaps, said Zorayas. For now, the diamond will suffice.

They rose. He led her down and through shadowy gardens where the storm had died, beside a shimmering pool, to the marble portico of the mausoleum. Here on the iron gate, something flared with a cool blue light. A great diamond, and something else beside.

Now what is this? asked Zorayas, white as ivory and red as wine in the dark. Some other trick? Come, I know you cannot lie to me now.

Lie to you? I would rather cut out my tongue. He fell to his knees before her and clasped her ankles.

When you showed me the diamond in my palace, it was without a setting.

Yes, he said, I prized it from the setting, this oval mirror, tall and broad as a man, which hangs upon the tomb gate.

Zorayas stepped past him, and went to inspect the object on the gate, and noted it was a polished oval of blue metal, as long and as wide as he had stipulated, with the diamond burning at its center.

A mirror, you say, Zorayas questioned. I can see no reflection.

That is but the case, and the jewel is set in the case. The mirror is within, but no one may look on it. It was my fathers glass, a magic thing he found in an ancient temple. Even he never opened the case to glance at it.

Why not, pray?

It was the toy of demons, Mirrash said, crawling after her, and pressing his lips to her heel. The glass is said to reveal an ultimate truth. No man dares chance such a sight. But, lady, let me extract the jewel for you, and then

Leave it be, said Zorayas, frowning. Are men yet so craven? Demons are wise, but humanity need not fear them if humanity will be courageous. I shall take diamond and case and mirror too. For if no man dares look into the glass, I dare to do so. Come, cease grovelling there, and fetch it down for me, unless you are a weakling.

Mirrash obeyed her. He staggered under the mirrors weight, but set the case, firmly closed, at her feet, and then tried to kiss her mouth which also remained firmly closed. She thrust him from her.

You are only a dog, she said. Do not be less than one.

Lady, he cried, do not trust the mirror, it will harm you. Let me lie with you again, I am on firepity me

You are not worth my pity, said she, you are a fool.

She snapped her fingers. There came a rushing sound. A chariot drawn by black, snake-headed swans swept up and bore both her and her prize away.

Mirrash stood alone in the garden. Soon he went to the pool. A little sparrow, trained by magic to speak certain words, ruffled its wings as Mirrash bent to the water and bathed his eyes. The bandage had been a ploy. Before entering his bedchamber he had dropped inside his eyelids a certain ointment that blurred and distorted his sight. All things this night had appeared as hectic inchoate monstrosities, now elongated, now bloated, as if seen through a warped crystal. Even the wondrous face of Zorayas had appeared so. Though her touch had fired him and her body pleasured him, that devastating submission her face exacted had missed him like an arrow shot wide.

Truly, he thought, her face had resembled her nature tonight. Would his brother Jurim had seen her in such a fashion.

***

Zorayas dug out the diamond and hung it about her white throat. She did not delay to investigate its powers; she had become too interested in the hidden mirror that had framed it.

She made certain preparations. She was proud but not stupid. She sensed already a great force of energy in the oval of blue metal, power striving to pierce the case and enlighten whoever could confront it. An ultimate truth. Who did not hanker after such? It could make her name more terrible than even now it was. And in her own eyes it would also enlarge her. Zorayas, the most beautiful and the wisest woman of earth, the lover of the Prince Demons, the possessor of an Ultimate Truth. Like many before her, and since, whose confidence had withered in their earliest years, even the bright bricks of success had not built a stronger house for her. Within, in the lowest region of her soul and mind, unknown to herself, she was still a small voice crying for another glory to salve her hurts. She must better the best, none must withstand her, she must conquer what others dare not face, drink seas and trample mountains. She would never rest till death, the last battle, made mockery of all her victories.

She went to her tower of brass. She ringed it within and without with spells and talismans and occult symbols. She burned aromatics and sprinkled the floor with wine and blood, and drew there the signs of power. She purified her body, bathed and anointed herself, and spoke words of protection. She stood naked, the beautiful sorceress, her long hair empty of jewels, falling about her like a burning briar.

She eased the hinges of the blue metal case with oil, she slid a slender knife between the case and what lay behind it. She freed the clasps.

She moved back, and let the tall mirror, the height of a man and as broad, containing an Ultimate Truth, fold open. Unblinking, arrogant, she stared into the cold sheen of glass.

And saw

Merely her reflection.

Zorayas mouth whitened, she clenched her hands. She snarled.

She had been cheated.

Then, despite her rage, something caught her eye. What caught it was the pure miraculous loveliness of the image in the mirror, her own. Zorayas hesitated. Her hands slackened, and she let out her pent breath in a slow sigh. How beautiful, how beautiful she was. She had never fully seen before her own perfection. There had been the silver mirrors, highly polished, showing her enough to marvel at, there were the crystal pools where she might lean to glimpse her glorious face between the gold reeds and the alabaster flowers, as once before, at the first, she had leaned to glimpse it. And yet, not one of those reflections could compare with this, not one had shown her so much. Her whole self, clad in visual music, a mirage of flame and ice, metal and silk.

Zorayas laughed, stretching forward, her anger quite forgotten. No glass had ever been this clear or this accurate. Eyes laughed back at her like dark flowers against a sunrise, a mouth laughed like a rose. Her body, an orchid on its slender dual stem, the hollows flushed with a glow as if of candleshine, the penciled line between limbs and torso, the round brush strokes of the pelvis, the fox that crouched at her groin, and above, the white innocence of the breasts with their twin citadels of knowledge.

Ah, the gift of Azhrarn the beautiful, this feast of beauty. Zorayas seemed to fall towards the outstretched arms of the creature before her, which silently beckoned and received. Her palms touched the palms in the mirror, her belly melded to the form of the white pelvis, her breasts flew to the mirror breasts, a meeting of doves. She pressed her mouth to the glass and, for a moment, felt a warm vibrant texture against her body, a mouth that hungrily offered itself to hers.

With a cry, Zorayas threw herself back.

An ultimate truth? Perhaps she had discovered it. That she loved herself, if none other. And then she perceived a new thing. That the mirror, which reflected her so well, reflected nothing else of the chamber, not a ray, not a shadow, not a hanging, not the symbols on the floor nor the smoke-wreathed sigils of the walls. Only Zorayas did the mirror show. Only she.

Zorayas thrust at the case of blue metal and it slammed shut. She took up her mantle, and fled from the tower of brass.

***

Three days and almost three nights passed before Zorayas returned to the tower. During those three days and nights she did many of the things which it had become her practice to do. She rode with her houndsshe hunted men rather than beasts, slaves foolish enough to offend hershe travelled her gardens and her pleasure rooms, pausing to caress a gemmed book, a jewelled wrist. She called together the scholars and astrologers of Zojad, and argued and debated with them. She had actors perform a play for her, and one who amused her she lay with and another whom she did not like so well she hung from a rafter by his ears and his tongue.

She had grown cruel and luxurious. Hardship had taught her, a Demons couching had ensured the rest.

She purchased eighty flamingoes to clothe the pools of her garden. She ordered a feast at which every course was a different color, the red baked meat of crabs and rosy fish and red wine in ruby goblets, white meats with almonds and white wine in porcelain cups, green cakes of angelica, grapes and candied cucumbers and green sherbets in emerald thimbles. And one course for her enemies, a blue course of poisonous cyanose wafers and undiluted indigo in drinking vessels shaped like sapphire skulls.

But all the while she did these evil and exotic things, she was remembering the closed mirror in the tower. The memory skimmed across her brain like a bird, crawled in and out there like a serpent. She inspired, in those three days and nights, no beauty to equal what she had seen in the glass, nor did she inspire quite such fear, not with all her games, as the fear that had clutched her vitals as she fled her own image.

On the third night, she called musicians to play for her. The song reminded her of a womans body gracefully dancing. White peacocks walked in the garden, their whiteness recalled another whiteness of flesh. Zorayas clapped her hands. Her collection of beasts was brought. She went to the huge gilded cages. Spotted panthers with eyes of green bronze, tigers of cinnabar with eyes of orichalcum. And in the eyes of each, a tiny reflection.

It was a terrible craving in her she must satisfy, to look once more in that tall glass. Maybe her fancy, her own magic, had invested it with qualities it did not possess. Yes, no doubt, that was it. If she visited the tower of brass, opened the case of blue metal, she would see simply a large and lustrous mirror, flattery to her exquisite beauty, but no more.

The moon had set. She climbed the stair of the tower in darkness, went in at the door of the sorcerous room in the dark. The case of the great mirror glowed like a still blue lightning. Zorayas crossed to it, freed the clasps, stood back to let it swing open.

She did not need a lamp. The mirror shimmered, glimmered. Something wondrous looked out at her.

Zorayas smiled, she could not help herself. The image in the mirror smiled.

Zorayas caught her breath, the image likewise.

Irresistibly drawn, Zorayas took three steps towards the image; the image took three steps towards Zorayas. They gazed, lips parted, eyes wide. The hands of the image slid downward, and parted the fastenings of the golden dress. Two white moons rose from the golden silk. The image in the mirror whispered: Come nearer, beloved. Come nearer.

Zorayas stared, at the image, at her own hands still by her sides; her own breastscovered by the silk. The image had done something she had not. The image had spoken.

Who are you? Zorayas cried, and what are you?

Yourself, whispered the image. Come to me, my beloved. I seethe and pine and ache for you, beloved of beloveds.

Zorayas trembled. Her eyes filled, she could not breathe. Before she knew it, she had run half the distance toward the mirror, her arms outstretched. A few steps more, and she could press herself again to those familiar valleys and hills, that fragrant landscape which she knew better than any land she had conquered, better than any lover she had ever lain with. But she forced herself to a halt, before the hands which reached out to her could touch her own.

Zorayas ran again from the sorcerous tower, and locked the door behind her. She wept. It was with a sense of desolation rather than of escape or fear that she descended the stairs.

She flung the key of the tower door into a deep well.

***

Mirrash had made the glass, made it especially for Zorayas. It had been forged in cold fires and shaped with burning words. Mirrash had become a sorcerer, letting the ancient books teach him, dedicating himself to his task. It was not so much vengeance he sought, as to rid the world of the wickedness of Zorayas. Jurim was dead, but there would be other Jurims that Zorayas would prey on, if she remained. He had puzzled some while over the tale the story-teller had recounted, puzzled too if the story-teller were really some phantom messenger, broken loose from the limbo of souls in order to warn and advise, or merely a wise man, cunning and well informed.

At any rate, the tale had been aptbeauty abusing what worshipped it, beauty seduced by its own vision. bringing itself to death.

As the snakess had come on an image which exactly resembled herself, so Zorayas should come on one, in a mirror. And the mirror would not be mortal. The mirror would draw life from what looked there, the mirror would live, in its own way, and would desire, love, yearn for, plead with, compel the object of its life.

On the night she had come to him, he had predicted Zorayas behaviour and so outwitted her, but now he was not certain he could guess her mind. He did not know how long he must wait. Zorayas was strong-willed and powerful, perhaps she could resist the mirrors spell.

The palace in the desert fell into decay. The shining river was clogged with weeds and shone no more.

Perhaps Zorayas would exercise her spite upon the giver of the gift

But Zorayas had forgotten Mirrash. She had forgotten everything but one thing. Her actions had become those of a doll on strings, yet she did much. She conquered five more lands, riding at the head of her armies. She had built for herself enormous citadels, mansions and statues. She turned from human lovers and lay with beasts. A third of a year a lion was her lord; his mane was plaited with jewels; in his eyes as he mounted her, she saw reflections.

One night, she wished Azhrarn would come to her. She burned rare smokes, and spoke certain words. She dared not summon now, could only cajole. Perhaps he would have come, the Prince of Demons, if he had been aware of her beseeching. But he had turned from her to other things, turned from her perhaps for a few days, a few months of Undereartha mortals lifetimeand looking back, he found her gone.

Time wearied Zorayas. Though she had the face and body of her youth, she felt an old woman, exhausted and bored by the world. It seemed there was nothing she could not do, and nothing indeed she had not done. No enemy could withstand her, no lover deny her, no kingdom defeat her. Perpetual success beat her to her knees. Now the small voice of uncertainty within her did not cry for victories to salve its hurt; it murmured: What worth was all this labor, that has not eased me?

She had no love for life, had never truly had any. In fact, she would have been happier with less, striving and sadness had made her strong where power had sated her.

The last flickerings of her determination to survive died in orgiastic banquetings, in sorcerous madnesses that dyed the night sky green or the blue hills red, and grew the tails of monkeys upon the rumps of men, in strange excursions overland on a ship with wheels, or across the sea in a big-sailed chariot drawn by dolphins.

At length the ultimate ennui descended on her.

She lay like one already dead. Seven days she lay on her couch. And then one memory quickened her.

Zorayas called three giant men, her slaves. She took them to the tower of brass and instructed them to break in for her the locked door.

It did not take long, she had always realized it would not. The act of throwing the key into the well had been a gesture.

When the door gaped, Zorayas sent the slaves away, and went up alone into the room.

The mirror opened. There could be no doubt. The image stood naked, wrapped in its dark red hair, motionless. The eyes of the image were closed. It made no sign, no movement. It looked like a marvelous icon, as though it were dead.

I am here, Zorayas said. You are all I seek, and all I wish for.

She unfastened her mantle and stepped from it, naked now as the image.

The lids of the image raised themselves slowly. A dawn broke upon the magical face. It raised its arms, the arms of Zorayas: Come to me then.

Not running this time, nor holding back, Zorayas walked towards the mirror until breast met breast, limb met limb, palm touched palm. For an instant she felt the cool resistance of glass, then the glass seemed warmed and melting. Warm eager hands encircled her, squeezing her more closely to a warm breathing form. Her own hands swam and fiercely clasped a smooth slenderness. Mouth fused with mouth and thigh with thigh. Zorayas abandoned herself to an ultimate truth of matchless ecstasy that dissolved her in its fire

The slaves in the garden turned at the weird glare in the sky. A rose-colored sun was being born inside the upper room of the tower of brass. It swelled and brightened, became an intolerable whiteness that pained the eyes of all who saw it. A shattering explosion followed.

After the thunder and terrible light had faded, those who crept to the tower of brass found only a stump of charred metal. Nothing else remained. Not a tile, not an amulet; not even a fragment of glass, of bone, or of womans hair.

***

Mirrash came to the palace where formerly had ruled the queen of Zojad, now so mysteriously vanished from the earth. Some said she had been carried off by the Drin, others that she had abandoned her wickedness to become a traveling holy woman.

There was bickering in the city and in the palace. The kings of many lands were on the march once more, anxious to break the yoke beneath which Zorayas had held them. There was some further trouble too, for in the night a lord, who had appropriated one of the large diamonds which Zorayas had won from Jurim, had been found horribly dead.

As the ministers squabbled on the steps of the tall throne, where once they would have drawn their very breath in anxiety of the woman who sat there, a dark stern man entered the hall. How he got by the guards no one knew, but discipline was lax, and the soldiers were deserting in squadrons.

I am Mirrash, the stranger said. I hear someone has died already of the diamond curse. You will have more deaths unless you listen to me. And he reminded them of the bane the diamonds carried, that only those to whom the jewels had been sincerely given might enjoy them in safety.

My brother gave the diamonds to Zorayas, but she has gone away. If any of you to whom they were not given should attempt to keep them, they will kill you, one by one.

As always, somebody scoffed and said he scorned the curse, and took a diamond collar and put it around his neck. Mirrash shrugged, and soon the man was discovered, blue in the face and unequivocally deceased.

Then they were in a hurry to give the gems back to their rightful owner. Diamonds poured into the casks and boxes Mirrash had brought with him, the casks and boxes were loaded into carts, and mules and outriders attached to them.

Presently Mirrash, with all his familys hoard of treasure restored, got on to his new horse, which Zorayas steward had insisted he take, and rode away towards the desert, grimly smiling, with his back to the setting sun.

***



5. A Love Story | Night's Master | PART ONE