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1. Honey-Sweet


She was so beautiful, and so gentle that they called her Honey-Sweetthough her name was Bisuneh. Her hair grew to the ground; it was the pale delicate greenish-yellow of primroses. She was the daughter of a poor scholar, and they lived in a city by the sea. Honey-Sweet Bisuneh was soon to be married, to the handsome son of another poor scholar. While the fathers had muttered in the library over antique volumes, the daughter and the son had wandered in the shady garden among the roses and beneath the burnished leaves of the ancient fig tree, and first their hands had touched, and next their lips and their young bodies, and presently their hearts and minds. There followed various promises and pledgings, various exchanges of gifts. Since weddings were expensive, foxy prostitutions of art took placeone old scholar composing a lament on the death of a lord which brought tears to the eyes, and considerable silver; another old scholar dedicating his translation of some long dead poet to a prince in a white palace, which brought gold. Both the scholars wives were dead. They looked at their children fondly, this invasion of youth and passion in their dry houses scented only with the dust of books.

It was a month before the wedding.

Beautiful Bisuneh and two pretty friends sat in the twilight garden, under the ancient fig tree. Overhead the stars grew bright, and far below the sea rippled like the back of a dusky, slowly swimming crocodile.

I know a spell, said one pretty friend. It will show how many children you will have. The other friend was afraid, did not like spells. Oh, it is a simple thing. A few words, a lock of Bisunehs hair, a pebble thrown.

Still the friend was reluctant, but Bisuneh was curious. She wanted, she declared, three tall sons, and three slender daughters. No more, no less.

So, under the dapple of the fig leaves and the stars between, they made their magic. It was such a small one. Generally it would have gone unnoticed. But to a demon, the slightest whiff of magic was like a lure.

One of the Eshva was not far off, adventuring on the night time earth, idling by the dark waves of the shore. He scented the spell like a well remembered flower. The Eshva were the most oblique of all the echelons of the Underearth, and the most inclined to dream and to romance, and this one no different.

In his male shape he climbed the shore road, clothed in the gathering night, now floating in the air. He reached the wall of the garden, looked through a crack a bird could scarcely have found.

He observed two pretty girls, one radiant girl.

A pebble leaped and rang on the stone paving.

Why, said the first pretty girl, there are no children here at all. And yet, waityes. One child. A daughter!

Only one, wailed the other pretty girl. Can it mean Bisuneh will die? Or her husband will die?

The first girl slapped her angrily.

Silence, fool! It means the charm has failed. What is this talk of death?

But Bisuneh solemnly shook her head. I do not fear. It is just a silly game. Three days ago I visited the wise-woman who lives on the Street of the Silk Weavers. She told me neither I nor my husband should die till we were very old, unless the sun should sink in the east, which is surely to say nothing can harm us, for who can suppose the sun will ever do that?

Then the two friends laughed, kissed Bisuneh, and put white flowers into her hair. Another laughed also, beyond the wall, silently. But no one was there, only a smooth black cat running away along the shore road, with a flash of silver eyes.

The Eshva entered a room of black jade, threw himself down before a shadow there, kissed its feet, and the kiss bloomed like a violet flame in the shade.

The Eshva raised his glowing eyes. Azhrarn read this within them: A walk in the dream of the earth, the world of men, and a shape there formed like a maiden. Her skin was like the white heart of an apple, her hair a fountain of primroses.

Azhrarn fondled the Eshvas brow and neck. He himself had been a long time from the earth, many months, perhaps a mortal century.

What else is she like?

The Eshva sighed at the touch of Azhrarns fingers. The sigh said this: Like a white moth at dusk, a night-blooming lily. Like music played by the reflection of a swan as it passes over the strings of a moonlit lake.

I will go and see, said Azhrarn.

The Eshva smiled and shut his eyes.

Azhrarn went through the three gates, black fire, blue steel, chill agate. As an eagle, he flew across the purple plain of the night sky; a smear of dead crimson marked where the sun had long since fallen. He came to a city by the sea, to the small garden of a small house. The black eagle settled himself upon the roof. He watched with his brilliant sideways birds eyes, now one, now another.

An old scholar drank wine under a fig tree. He called: Bisuneh! A girl stepped out. The scholar patted her hand, showed her an entry he made in a huge old book, at a place where the page was sign-posted by a pressed papery flower. Light from a window spun the color of green limes in the girls fair hair. The eagle watched motionless, beak like a curved blade.

See, here is your mothers name, and mine, said the scholar. And here is your name and his, the man you are to wed, who shall be my son.

The wings of the eagle softly stirred, no more sound than the breeze made in the leaves of the fig tree.

Presently the old man and the girl went in. A lamp began to glow in a window near the roof, and then went out. The girl disrobed, clad only in her hair, lay down in her narrow bed and slept.

In her sleep, a wonderful scent drifted to her. She heard tapping far off on an open shutter, a noise like leaves walking. A voice sang into her ear, pleasant as velvet. Bisuneh started awake. She stole to her window and looked out.

A dark man stood below in the garden; she could not make him out. Wrapped in her hair, in the shadow of her window, he seemed to her also a shadow. Only his eyes, catching some mysterious light, gleamed.

Come down, Bisuneh, he called softly. His voice was like no other she had ever heard. She almost leaned out to him, almost turned to seek the door and the stair and the way into the gardenbut a cold drop fell into her brain which said: Beware. Come, Bisuneh, said the stranger below. I have loved you a long while, I have traveled many miles to find you. One glance of your eyes is all I ask, maybe one compassionate chaste kiss from your maidens mouth.

The flesh of Bisuneh answered the voice as the harp would answer when the musician takes it up; her nerves and her instincts impelled her towards the door or to leap from the window down into the strangers arms. But she would not.

You must be some evil spirit to summon me thus, she told him. She slammed the shutters closed and bolted them. She opened a little casket and drew out a necklace of coral her lover had given her, and she spoke to it, and soothed it and kissed it, using it as a charm against any wickedness the night might threaten her with. Very soon she felt a delicious tension slacken in the air. Slumber overcame her. She fell asleep with the coral necklace in her hands, and in the morning thought her fear a dream.

***

It amused Azhrarn to be thwarted by this startled virtuous girl. The first time, it amused him. Her strength of will, her foolish sensible disbelief in him, delighted him. The first time, delighted him.

He returned at dusk the next night. There were guests in the garden, merry-making. Later they went away, and the girl stood alone staring out towards the sea, with the coral necklace round her throat.

Bisuneh, smelling the perfume of the lilac colored roses, musing, suddenly noticed a woman standing on the shore road. She seemed to evolve from nothing, this woman, yet, becoming distinct, appeared more vital and more real than anything else. Bisuneh could not take her eyes from the woman. She was impressive, imperious, her hair was blue-black, and her eyes brilliant. She had no modesty, no timidity or reserve. She came straight to the garden wall, and, gazing at Bisuneh with her strange mesmeric gaze, she said: Let me tell your fortune, little bride.

The voice of the woman was deep and melodious. She reached across the wall and took Bisunehs hand, and at her touch, Bisunehs heart began to pound, she could not tell why.

I hear, said the woman, you fear men. This is unfortunate, since you are to be wedded.

I fear no man, faltered the girl.

One you feared, last night, said the woman.

The girl paled, remembering.

It was a dream.

And was it so? Come, why did you fear him? He meant no harm to you.

The girl shivered. The dark woman leaned across the wall and lightly kissed her. It was like no kiss this shy girl had ever known. The kisses of her lover, the deep hunger of youth, had not moved her as did this brief brushing of the lips. Yet, at the kiss, she felt again the recollected alarm of the previous night, her senses tugging one way, her reason another. She snatched free her hand, her mouth.

Who are you? she asked, knowing somewhere deep within herself and failing to comprehend her own knowledge.

A reader of fate, said the woman. Her face had changed, become remote and cruel. You are stubborn, and stubbornness angers the gods. Still, you have been promised a cheerful old age, have you not? Unless the sun sinks in the east.

The woman turned and walked away, but there came a great swirling of sea wind that billowed her cloak, and abruptly she seemed to vanish.

The girl ran indoors. She took an amulet from a box; a holy man had given it to her mother. She hung it about her neck, and prayed that demon-kind would cease troubling her.

The woman had been Azhrarn. He could put on the form of anything, being what he was. The girl had refused him twice now, and in two guises. Mortals did not refuse Azhrarn. His voice, his eyes, his touch produced an alchemy that thrilled their nerves, infatuated them, outlawed their wills. But Bisuneh struggled, and her struggle had ceased to entertain him. Her virtue had become a silken sheath to rip, her beauty a cup to drain.

There was one last trick. It pleased him. He had seen her betrothed in the garden among the guests. Now Azhrarn fashioned for himself an exact semblance of this lover, and knocked on the shutters of her window an hour after midnight, wearing the semblance like a cloak.

She crept to the window, afraid. In a whisper she asked who it might be. She heard a voice she knew. She opened the shutters, he caught her in his arms. The joy of his strength fired her as even her love for him had not done before.

I can abstain no longer, he said. Will you make me wait till we are wed?

No, I will not make you wait, if this is what you wish.

There was no lamp alight in the room, the chamber was black. She recognized his hands, his arms, his body, his mouth, yet did not recognize them; it was all new, a refinding. And it disturbed her, his coming here, the deception, the cool impetuosity, as if planned.

The moon was rising from the sea. Moment by moment it silvered the rose petals in the garden, the trunk of the fig tree, the tiles of the house. Its single eye stared in at the open shutters. Bisuneh, as she began to drown in the waters of desire, as her lover lowered her to the bed, caught abruptly, unexpectedly, the black glitter of a pair of eyes

No, this could not be. They were the eyes of her betrothed, veiled with the vulnerable lusts of men. But yet again, beyond the eyes, beneath them, surfacing as a black shark surfaces from the waters of an innocent sea, another pair of eyes looked down on her, invincible and wide.

Bisuneh thrust free of the tide that drowned her. She flung herself from the bed and clutched the useless amulet. In the gloom, her lover stirred, and his voice was altered.

This is the third time you have refused me. Do you guess who it is you have refused?

A demon.

The moon filled the chamber with a white shining. Bisuneh saw Azhrarn, standing before her. She hid her face from his beauty and his stony glare. She had lost her value for him. He was bored with her. It only remained for him to destroy her, in the way of demons, the stale remnants of a feast that now he would disdain to sample.

Honey-Sweet, said Azhrarn, your days shall be bitter hereafter.

She did not see where he went, but he was gone.

Bisuneh dropped down in a faint.

***

Bisuneh became pale and silent. She would tell no one her foreboding. She went to the temple often to pray. But time went by with no violence or menace in it. She began to think again that she had dreamed it all. Brides were subject to such fancies, so she had been told, in the last days before their nuptials. Bisuneh recalled the wise-womans prophecy: A happy old age unless, impossibly, the sun sank in the east.

The day of the wedding arrived, dusk fell, there was a procession of torches, flowers scattered. The son of one scholar and the daughter of another were joined, and borne away to a feast in the house of the boys father, where their wedding chamber had been prepared.

Many gifts had come; two silver vases, twelve drinking cups of finest porcelain, a great carved chest of cedarwood, sweet yellow wine from an excellent cellar, a damson tree in a pot which next year would bear fruit, a mirror of burnished bronze. But one gift no one could account for. And though it was exceedingly beautiful and obviously of enormous cost, no one would admit to sending it. It had been found by the grooms father in the porch of his house when he rose at dawn, a huge tapestry, an evening scene of woods and waterfalls, very lifelike, worked in a hundred varying shades of gorgeous colored thread. The father, meaning to keep it a surprise for his son and daughter-in-law, had had an inspiration at sunset, and hung it ready in the chamber where they were to spend their wedding night, on the drab wall where there was no window, and very sumptuous it made the room seem.

Presently the bride went up from the feast and quickly enough the groom followed. There were good wishes and certain jests. They shut the door, the two lovers, having glanced about politely and from gratitude at all the riches there, the bowl of purple grapes, the jug of wine, the embroidered cushions, the wonderful shimmering curtain on the wall... The lamp burned low, they barely saw anything, and besides, had eyes only for each other.

They lay down in passion, forgetting all else.

Midnight came and went. Below, most of the wedding guests departed. The streets of the city grew subtly quiet in the last hours before sunrise. Here and there a cat prowled, a dog padded, here and there a robber sidled, and a string of girls with withered hyacinths in their hair, having sold their bodies for a few pieces of money at some lords banquet, walked dolefully homeward to their hovels, arm in arm. And something else was abroad, too, something not clearly seen. It scuttled into the shadow of the wall of the bridegrooms fathers house, eddied up a creeper there, so to the upper story. A window stood ajar. The strange night shape paused, peering in. It was like a little dwarf. It carried something over its arm.

A Drin. Azhrarns messenger, this work being too crude and ugly for an Eshva to achieve. And over the arm of the Drin, a patchwork drapery, like the flaccid skin of some creature, yet set together wrongly, part bristled. part a dull sheen of scales, part a matted fringe of hair. Surely it could not be that somewhere someone had selected the hide of a boar, its chest and forefeet only, the tail of a giant lizard, scaly and reeking, the severed head of a wolf, and combined these three with the stitches of a spell, the rivets of an enchantment?

The slithering dwarf darted over the sill into the bridal chamber. The dwarf grinned at two lovers still entwined, fast asleep. He rolled the young man aside, ran his squat drinnish fingers over the lean torso and strong loins, stared and poked at the girls milk-white figure bound by ropes of yellow hair. But dawn was near. The Drin sensed its coming as the horse scents fire. Quickly he flung down over the youths body the hideous amalgamated skin. Azhrarns second giftthe first being the tapestry upon the eastern wall, where he had influenced the old man, unawares, to hang it.

The vile skin writhed as it settled, seemed to take on life, then lapsed, covering Bisunehs bridegroom totally. Now a shiny tail twitched where the hard-muscled legs had been, a boars muddy belly and forehoofs and barrel neck jerked where the young mans breast had quietly breathed. The handsome face, sated and serene, was replaced by a wolfs grizzled and nightmare face with lolling tongue and yellow teeth.

The Drin was gone. The first rose patina of light appeared on the eastern horizon. The glow of dawn spread over the house, and washed in eventually through the western window of the lovers room.

Bisuneh opened her eyes. Drowsily she noticed the gentle luminosity of the western window, looked where it fell about the chamber, a glow here, a flush there. Looking, she saw the tapestry at last, hung on the eastern wall, catching the window light. How marvelous the tapestry was, the woods of many-leafed trees, the clashing falls, so lifelike she could almost hear them. Above, a sunset sky, the tired sun declining, that darker sun of evening that cannot be mistaken for the fresh pallor of dawn.

Gradually something horrible began to suggest itself to Bisunehs half lucid mind. She could not think what it might be, for she was happy, tranquil, and the tapestry exquisite. Then she remembered. Upon the eastern wall a sun was going downsinking, as in the wise-womans curious foretellingin the east.

Inevitably, as she started up, Bisunehs eyes sought the young man beside her. And found a monster.

She screamed until the two fathers and the guests remaining in the house came running. And still she screamed, as the rest of the company stood stricken with nauseous terror, screamed till the thing on the bed stirred, and tried to speak her name, and grunted and barked, and would have pulled itself forward on its two stumpy hoofed feet, dragging its reptilian tail uselessly behind it, save that a man struck it down, then another and another, till it lay motionless.

***

They believed that the monster had come in at the window and devoured whole the bridegroom, intending next to ravish or devour the bride. Finding no blood or trace of its grisly feast, merely increased their horrified awe. They were doubly terrified now, for the monster appeared dead, its black ichor spreading where the blows had struck it down, and they feared some obscure retribution from a source more obscurefor clearly the creature must be of demonaic origin. None thought for a moment that it was a changeling. Not surprisingly, for none could see in it a vestige of the youth it had been, the handsome and wholesome son of the scholar. And as the frightful skin had grown into and absorbed his own, it might be supposed his brain and his heart were similarly refashioned into some sub-human travesty.

The brides screams had sunk to whimperings, and the women led her away, themselves in tears. The neighbors who had gathered to gawp when her cries had roused them, were sent off with lies. Rather than thinking to ask help from the city, the wedding guests and the two fathers were at one in their desire that the atrocious matter be kept secret, and not merely from fear. They were ashamed at this contact with horror, felt obscurely it must be the punishment for some sin, collective or particular. The dead creature they loaded in a covered cart. Drawing lots, it fell to the wine merchants two strong sons and the three strong sons of the mason to take the cart with its contents, under the mask of darkness, to the city limits. There, among the rocky hills, in a barren gulley seldom visited by men, they tipped the tell-tale stigma away and cast down burning straw to be certain of the work. It never occurred to them the thing might still live; it did not stir, it seemed quite dead, its stench could easily be interpreted as the fetor of decay.

But perhaps something so ensorcelled and deformed could not die.

As the five young men were hurrying homeward, they heard a faint echoing intermittent howling in the gut of the rocks behind them. The masons sons glanced at the sons of the wine merchant. No, it was not their concern, the noise was only thunder. They told each other this until they believed it, by which time the sounds had long since died from their ears.

***

Bisuneh lay sick in her fathers house a long while. It was feared she had lost her wits. They brought her flowers to cheer her, and gentle Bisuneh tore off the flowers heads. They brought her a singing bird in a little cage, but she opened the door and let it free and a hawk spied it in an instant and slew it in the sky, and when she saw that Bisuneh only nodded, as if she had expected nothing else. She cut off her beautiful hair, she shed no tears, she said no word. She was saving herself, letting her hatred and her bitterness swell inside her. She did not know this, it was her instinct.

The physician whispered to her scholar father.

She must not continue as she is. You must take her away to some other place. Her womb is tenanted. She is with child and does not care. She will die and the child will die.

Bisuneh drew no comfort from the prospect of this child, the last vestige left to her of her lover. She was sure the child would perish and she with it. She understood quite well who had harmed her, and why. She grew thinner as her womb increased.

One night her hate was ready. She knew it, and woke knowing it. For the first time in months, Bisuneh spoke, and the force of her hate overflowed her words. She did what no mortal dared to do, she did it, hoping for death. She cursed Azhrarn. Having done so, she sank back exhausted, and waited readily for death to follow.

In those days a curse or a blessing was like a bird. It had wings and could fly. And the stronger the blessing or the curse, the stronger the wings and the farther the bird could go.

The curse of Bisuneh was very strong, for everything in her, who had once been named Honey-Sweet, had turned as bitter as gall. And the bird of the curse, which was of a color never seen by mortals save with an inner eyethe vivid color of pain and the dark color of broodingflew unerringly towards the earths center. It had no eyes, the bird, yet it could see, and no voice. It got through into the Underearth by way of chinks and crevices smaller than a mote of dust, yet it was quite large enough that when it had passed between the towers of Druhim Vanashta, and gone in at an emerald window, and perched upon the shoulder of Azhrarn, he both saw and felt it.

Azhrarn smiled. Perhaps winter smiles when it bites dead the leaves on the trees.

Some mortal has cursed me, said Azhrarn. And he shook off the bird into his hand, and looked at it, and saw the pattern of the brain that had formed it and presently the skull and the head and the face behind which the brain lay. Then Azhrarn kissed the birds icy wings. Does she not realize, said Azhrarn, that no curse comes home to me, who am the father of all curses? But her foolhardy hate pleased him. He had punished her before through others, could do it again.

Little bird, he said, misguided little bird.

***





BOOK THREE The World s Lure | Night's Master | 2. Shezael and Drezaem