The final entry in Tanith Lee’s classic fantasy series Tales from the Flat Earth, Night’s Sorceries forms a breathtaking conclusion to a dark and intricate epic of demons, gods, and mortals.
Azhriaz, daughter of Azhrarn, Demon Lord of the Night, has defied her father’s wishes. Taking on the mantle of Delirium’s Mistress, she escapes her island prison in the Underearth, where she would have spent her life in eternal slumber. With Prince Chuz, her lover and the sworn enemy of Azhrarn, she flees to the mortal realm of the Flat Earth to escape her father’s wrath.
But Azhrarn will not be so easily deterred, and the lovers’ journey has not left the world untouched. In the wake of their flight, bizarre new enchantments emerge, exposing a world of chaos and mystery. The mortals of the Flat Earth are inextricably entwined in circumstances beyond their understanding, caught in the midst of grand conflicts of ambition and betrayal.
Night’s Sorceries spins seven of these tales of wonder—of humans confronted with the supernatural. Trials of true love, tests of humility and fortitude, and startling transformations weave together in these lush stories of passion, revelation, and the human soul.
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Night’s Daughter, Day’s Desire
In the hem of the forest a village lay. An old road ran by the spot, on its way to the towns of the south, and in the past this road it was which had given the village importance and prosperity. Since then other thoroughfares had been built, and fewer travelers came and went through the deep woods. A caravan had not been seen in those parts for seven years. The pink stones of which the village was made had softened, and the hearts grown harder. On a hill above, among the trees, stood a temple. Its pillars were ringed by faded gilt and the turquoise tiles had chipped away from its roofs. Nevertheless, the priests lived well, for the villagers had stayed pious. Every night, on the highest point of the temple, a beacon was lit, to remind the gods where the village rested.
It sometimes happened that a decent family of the area, finding it had too many mouths to feed, would offer a younger son to the temple—no women were allowed there—as its servant. Just such a one was Beetle.
At seven years of age he had been left by his nurse, in a shadowy ghost-light before dawn in the temple’s outer court-yard. Around his neck was a small flawed ruby on a piece of silk. This was the child’s “gift,” without which he could not expect a place in the fane. Poor Beetle (who at that time had another name) stood and cried in the chilly morning, until at length a priest came waddling out and found him, without much pleasure. “Another brat. Well, it is the tradition. Let me see—ah, what a paltry jewel. Stop sniveling, boy. You are now wrapped in the bounty of the temple.” And taking Beetle-not-yet by his scruff, the priest conducted him within.
Here, as the years went by, Beetle (now Beetle) grew up nourished on a religious charity of watered milk, meat gristle, crusts, and rinds. And was meanwhile educated by the temple in the intellectual and spiritual arts of sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and picking up. His new name, given him in the first days, was to encourage selfless industry by sympathetic magic. The other servants of the fane had similar names, except for one sleek boy, who was allowed to trim the altar candles and pour the incense, and who sometimes aided the priests at their disrobing and in the holy bath. This one, called Precious, slept always in a separate cubicle and ate at the priests’ table. But then, the temple had bought Precious from the last caravan.
Very occasionally, needy travelers might pause for shelter at the fane. Though a fee was required of them, it proved a little cheaper than the costs of the village inn.
One day when Beetle, thin and scrawny and weak-eyed like the rest—saving Precious—was seventeen years of age, a peddler availed himself of the priests’ hospitality. The very next evening the Chief Priest summoned Beetle for an interview.
“Dear Beetle,” said the Chief Priest, who presided from his couch, a table at his elbow that had on it confectionery, peaches and wine—so Beetle might have dribbled if his mouth had not become so dry—“my son, it has been brought to my attention that you have committed your old fault.”
“Father,” cried Beetle, throwing himself down, “forgive me for eating the three candles—but I am tortured by such hunger—”
“Alas,” said the Chief Priest, sadly toying with a sugar-almond, “you must strive after the virtue of abstinence. Have we taught you nothing in all your time with us? Alas. Three candles.” (Beetle gibbered, feeling already the thong coming down on his back.) “That, however, is not the matter on which I called you to me. Indeed, since you have made free confession of your sin, perhaps we may overlook it, this once.”
Beetle could scarcely believe his ears. Experience informed him that if he was to be let off one punishment, in a moment more something worse was about to be awarded him. Trembling, Beetle could not think what that might be.
“The fault to which I referred, my son, was that of your distressing habitual laziness. The gods are not served by slackness. But you have been leaning on your broom and dreaming, and lying abed until dawn. You are always observed, my son, even when no man is by. The gods are constantly at watch. My impulse was to chastise you, but I have come to believe that your laziness is due, rather than wickedness, to a sluggishness of your blood. For that reason, I propose to send you on an errand which will enliven you, and bring you back to us, we trust, fresher and more zealous.”
The Chief Priest nibbled a few candied berries in a reluctant way, so as not to distress them by ignoring them.
Presently he resumed.
“I have learned that a rich lord and his lady have recently made their abode in the forest. They are reclusive and dwell out of the world’s eye, which doubtless says much for their modesty. But it seems to me that of the unique comfort the gods give, access to which we may offer them here, they should be reminded. There is reason to suppose they, living so quietly as they do, are unaware of this holy fane a few days’ distance from their mansion. I therefore propose that a messenger be sent them, with the news. And for this task I have selected you, dear Beetle. For,” the Priest smiled upon him, “though you are often tardy, I believe that your heart is pure.”
Beetle groveled. His heart, pure or not, thundered in turmoil. He did not dare question or protest.
“You will be arrayed in some finery,” added the Chief Priest, half closing his fat eyes so the pupils of them seemed to glitter on the youth like the points of lances. “You will represent the authority and piety of the temple. Of course, you will not think to abscond, but if fiends of the forest do tempt you from your errand, you must understand that my curse will be upon you. Do you recall the fate of Ant, who, tempted, ran away, carrying with him a small votive offering of silver?”
“Yes, father. He was never seen here again.”
“And do you know why this is, my son?”
“Because—so you told us—your curse had found him out.”
“Exactly the case. So you realize you must be on your guard, and not stray. For this curse is very terrible and entirely unavoidable, once active. Ant’s bones lie in the woods. But you will perform your mission and return to our loving care.”
“Oh yes, yes, father.”
“Very good. Go away now. One shall come to instruct you more. You leave at sunrise tomorrow.”
Beetle crawled from the presence. Outside, in the dusk-dim colonnade, he got up and stood hugging himself with undelight.
Evidently it was the peddler (who had seemed, when he arrived at the temple, unnerved) who had informed the Chief Priest of rich new neighbors in the forest. However, a few peculiar tales had already reached the village, borne in by charcoal-burners, itinerant beggars and the like. Some said a prince and princess had set up house in the woods. Others said, a pair of sorcerers. Surprises went on among the trees. Lights floated, bells rang, and carpets or clouds went flying between the upper boughs.
Beetle, though reckoned a fool and careful not to correct the impression, had already divined the reason for his selection as a bearer of temple greetings. Being superfluous, he could be risked. If the sorcerers killed and ate him, the temple would be no worse off. On the other hand, if the fair quarter of the tales was true, the moneyed couple might be brought into the fold. Or they might, after Beetle’s visit, send some splendid token to the fane in the hope it would mind its own business. In which event, Beetle had been risked to charming effect.
As for Ant, presumably now he was at large on the far shores of the forest, spending the votive offering. It was not that Beetle feared the curses of the Chief Priest, only that he had come to the conclusion he had no luck, and all places of the earth would be alike and luckless to him. Half-starved and demoralized as he was, he could not summon the energy to flee from one misery to another.
So he meekly waited, and presently a priest came and told him what he must say, and the direction of the rich lord’s (sorcerous) abode—or at least its supposed direction (which seemed to alter.) That night Beetle lay awake on his itchy pallet. In the hour before dawn he was come for again, doused in cold water, perfumed from the least lovely of the perfumery vials, clad in a passable robe, and given an elderly mule, a rod of office and a scroll penned by the Chief Priest himself. Lastly, some pale provisions were handed him in a satchel and he was let loose from the temple gate.
Only Precious, from an upper window, bothered to watch Beetle’s departure—for motives known only to Precious. The plump form, swathed as ever neck to ankle in a comely drapery, was easily visible. But Beetle did not see it.
He rode away into the morning, not looking back or, particularly, forward.
* * * *
For several days, Beetle continued to ride through the forest. At first, he did find the change of scene rather pleasant, but he was also greatly daunted by the size and height and depth of the wood, and by the strange sounds and scents it gave off, and the animals that quite legitimately lived there. He had all his days, till then, been restrained inside the temple’s narrow confines. To sleep under the trees filled him with terrors. Even by day, the grunting of a badger turning in its slumber put him in mind of demons—of which he knew next to nothing, but all of it bad.
Moreover, the sparse provisions he had been given soon gave out, and the mule frequently fell into a doze in mid-plod. Of human creatures—mundane, wealthy or magical—there was not sight nor sign.
As for the road, on the fifth day it became so overgrown, its paving so displaced, that Beetle was forced to retreat from its surface. Shortly then he was lost.
This achieved, and night coming on, Beetle began to consider the Chief Priest’s cursing abilities. Perhaps after all they were efficacious. Meanwhile, the wild beasts of the forest were tuning up their manic howls and trills. Off the road, a lion-cat would be sure to come and devour Beetle and the mule, or a devil-thing would feel free to tear them apart. A feeble rage seized on Beetle. He led the mule into the shelter of a thicket, and hastily made a fire. Chewing his fingernails for supper, Beetle sat and brooded. At last it seemed to him he went to sleep.
But not much later, hearing an eerie noise close by, Beetle awoke again.
In the ferns something crept about. It sounded too small to be the harbinger of horrid death, or maybe it was a venomous serpent. Beetle pranced to his feet, and just then there stole into the firelight a large hare, with a coat like black velvet. Around its neck was a collar of gold, and in each of its long-petaled ears was a tiny silver crescent.
As Beetle was staring, the hare swept the earth with these ears in a polite bow. Turning, it began to move quietly away.
Between fright and curiosity and somewhat thinking he still slept, Beetle felt impelled to press after it.
The hare showed no dismay at this. It kept going at a gentle pace, and soon passed up a sloping glade into a grove of walnut trees, through which the moonlight filtered, turning all the ripening fruit to pearls.
Somewhere among the walnuts, the hare vanished. But by then Beetle had seen faint lamplight shining. He went on, and next, where the grove parted, found himself gazing up at a humble ancient cottage, from whose door and windows the soft glow came spilling out. Here a garden grew, night-sweet with jasmine. Among the vines, a little spring sprang forth like a silver string. Nearby, on a rough table, stood a homely jug, breadcakes, apples and cheese on a wooden dish. These sights filled Beetle with eager hunger. But suddenly he saw, too, the inhabitants of the cottage were resting there, under the wall. Beetle, who had never received obvious kindness from anyone after the age of seven, distrusted humanity. He skulked back, disappointed, behind a cluster of walnut trees.
Just then the moon, less cautious than he, entered the clearing and blended herself with the lamplight of the old cottage, pearl to citrine.
So Beetle beheld the two cottagers more clearly, and a start of envy went through him. For though they were plainly of the poor, dressed in homespun and adorned solely with vine-leaves, both were young and of an exceptional beauty.
The girl’s long hair was black as pitch with the sheen of water. Her eyes, even in shadow, were the blue of the myosotis flower, and made him blink. At her side reclined the young man, and his eyes and hair were more lit than the lamplight. In his hands there was a lyre of crackpot design; incapable it looked of playing, yet from this he coaxed melodious improvisations, and as the girl lay in his arm, all at once he murmured this to her, and Beetle heard it:
In the wasteland, under the tree,
Bread and wine, and you, by me.
And with our song that wasteland shall
Heaven-on-earth become, and be.
After which, the golden young man glanced toward Beetle and it seemed he winked. Beetle was nervously affronted, for he was certain he was well-concealed. No one could detect him. But surely he had been mistaken about the wink, for now the young man said to the young woman, “Let us go in, and leave the night outside to do as it wishes.” And at this she, too, seemed to regard Beetle amid the walnuts, but it was impossible she saw him. Both rose up and went into the cottage, and the door shut firm. In a minute more the lamp was doused.
Beetle waited a great while, a century of ravening famine, before he tiptoed up into the garden and took some of the food from the table, and the earthenware jug which seemed full of a dark wine. Most of his real sustenance he had got by thieving from the priests; he had had to do it, and this theft did not bring him to any compunction, for though they were poor, those two, yet they had plenty, and looks and love besides. But after a gulp or ten, he did leave the jug among the roots of the walnut trees, before running away.