Deaths master, p.38
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       Death's Master, p.38

           Tanith Lee
 

  “That, then, is why I believed I had met with you before. I had met your master at my gates. What comes next? What has he sent you to do?”

  “To fill your veins with misery, and your thoughts with dread. What else?”

  Simmu leaned again on the platform of the game.

  “Misery and dread are strangers to those who live forever. Your master requires another method. Still, as emissary, I make you welcome. Why did he choose you for this work?”

  “Because I understand your wretchedness, Simmu, the punishment that life lays on you in exchange for its retention.”

  “Simmurad is a place of delight, marvel and intellect. We are the gods of the earth’s eastern corner.”

  Zhirek watched him. Zhirek had come to see that truly his remembrance had been wiped from Simmu’s thoughts—either by pain, or by the demons who had so frequently attended Simmu’s existence. Zhirek saw too the chains of responsibility hanging on Simmu, chains he had balked at but which now he scarcely noticed as he crawled beneath their weight. Simmu’s eyes had become hollow. Mingled in them was hate and pleading. As Zhirek had once begged, in vain, a reason for his life from the Prince of Demons, thus Simmu now begged from Zhirek, equally in vain.

  The doors to the chamber of the war-game swung wide. The fair-haired wife of Simmu entered.

  “My beloved,” she said to him coldly, “am I to be excluded from everything of yours? I am Kassafeh,” she said to Zhirek, “and if Simmu is the king of this city, then, as his wife, I am the queen of it. And you are Zhirek, the magician.”

  “Also, he is the servant of Lord Death,” Simmu told her.

  Kassafeh shrugged, and jewels flashed on her shoulders.

  “I do not credit that death takes the form of a man,” said Kassafeh, her voice coarsening, showing her merchant blood. “Nor am I positive we are irrevocably immortal. I think it is some trick of demonkind to make us suppose we are. Few knock on our gates in recent years,” she said to Zhirek. “Why do so few wish to win eternity if it is real? Is it as you say, we are named ‘Living Dead’?”

  “In fact,” Zhirek replied, “Simmurad is rarely called to mind in the world. It has passed already into myth. Only desperate men believe in it.”

  “I will take them war,” Simmu whispered, “then they will believe.”

  “No,” Kassafeh cried, “you will sleep here, my thin cat of a husband, sleep without strength and without love. You, a hero as I once thought you. I could forgive your faithfulness, your indifference, but not your apathy.” She lied in this, but the words sprang to her lips, surprising her with their false vehemence. She had not often railed at Simmu. It was the presence of Zhirek which stirred her to anger and an awareness of herself. And abruptly she inquired within herself: This handsome stranger—have I begun to love him in Simmu’s place? If that is so, I shall wake havoc in myself. I have had no lover save only one. Which was true enough. Brooding and weaving and the eating of sweet gelatine had sustained her for years, but were not sufficient, she who had saved her self-respect through fury and defiance in the Garden of the Golden Daughters, a prison less destructive even than the congealed paradise of Simmurad. Yes, when I look at this dark man my heart lifts and my lungs hurt me. I feel my life, of whatever span it is. Zhirek I will love.

  2

  They feasted in Simmurad. On dishes evolved by sorcery, or dishes brought by sorcery from the tables of kings, stored by sorcery, revitalized by sorcery and set piping hot, fragrant and instantaneous upon the board. In a park of rolling lawns and plumed forests at the center of Simmurad, they hunted lion and deer, which dropped with spears in their hearts, lay still a while, and then, the wound healed, leapt up and ran away. Trees, heavy with fruit, bowed almost to the ground. But the fruit had no taste, no perfume, unless a witch had walked by and created a scent for the tree from some spell. The leaves of the trees and the petals of the flowers which never withered, had all the same texture—like waxed paper.

  Music was played by unseen fingers. Exercises were played with chessmen by the citizens of Simmurad, and exercises with checkers and with plaques of jade, and exercises of throwing or shooting at a mark. In the chamber of the War Game, Simmu and his court conquered the world three times in an afternoon.

  Drugs were sorcerously procured from that world so far from the gates, and sampled. Wines and sweetmeats and clothes were similarly procured, rare and extraordinary books and peculiar plants and astonishing animals, and gems and weapons and cosmetics. Over the floral things magics were set to turn them into more waxed paper, the beasts were given a drop of gray liquid to make of them more toys. Simmu was prodigal with the fluid of eternity; somehow it had lasted, never evaporating, such a little going such a long way, as if the clay vessel in which it remained might never run dry, as the adder never runs dry of its poison.

  Much they did in Simmurad to impress upon Zhirek the glory of their lives and the magnificence of their future. But he was like a shadow in their midst, and by the shadow of him, as if by a strong light, they were able to see their own boredom and futility staring at them. They might have done so much, but—always about to do it—it was never done. Security had eaten their marrow. Zhirek guessed, as he had conveyed, their plight. Though, as he assured them, he at least could hope, eventually, for human terminus and change.

  At night, when the hunting and the exercises and the feasts and the debates were done, Kassafeh would lie alone in her fantastic bedchamber, going over all that Zhirek had said, and all he had done, every expression and gesture. Lamps lit the room throughout the night, not because she feared the dark, but for company and cheer. Once she and Simmu had shared a bed. More recently, she had thought to bring another man to this one, for there dwelt in Simmurad many handsome men. But her fires burned low, and their fires lower. The wise surgeon had the right of it. She had not taken lovers, but her virtue was the product of laziness and disinclination. Then Zhirek had appeared to galvanize inertia.

  Many nights she lay awake beneath the yellow lamps (to which moths were never attracted, for no insects and few birds came to Simmurad—as if they avoided a plague). Many nights alone. Beyond the openwork shutters the vista of the city under the isolated scattered stars of the far, far east of the earth, two or three windows shining as hers did, the glacial noise of fountains, the leaves striking, heavy as lacquer fans. Finally, Kassafeh arose, took from chests the chains of rich jewels, the embroidered silks, caught herself evaluating them.

  “I am the only merchant’s daughter in a city of magicians,” she admitted. She cast the finery back in the chests and left the room.

  It was to the great library she went, stealing through the lightless corridors and up wide stairways, lit only by the stars. She moved secretively, like a felon, through the palace and, coming to the library doors, found them, as ever, locked against her. Simmu was within the library; the glow of a lamp seeped under the doors, she thought she heard him muttering to himself like an old man. She had guessed he would be here, for here he was to be found more often than anywhere.

  She had seen Yolsippa pick the locks of a quantity of doors.

  She took a silver pin from her dress and put the training to use.

  Simmu lay asleep on a narrow couch, and all about him books and parchments littered the floor. The lamp was nearly out, but it showed Kassafeh as much as she desired; there was enough light to despise him by. She had come for that purpose, to despise in order to take courage for what came next. To Simmu’s good looks she was not impervious, however, and without meaning to, she crept close and gazed at him, and so she heard how he moaned in his dream.

  “Zhirem,” said Simmu, “Death is everywhere. I saw you dead, under the dead tree, the cord about your neck and the rain falling in your eyes.”

  Kassafeh, arrested by the familiarity of the name “Zhirem,” leaned yet closer.

  At that moment, Simmu’s body arched upward from the couch,
he went gray, and he cried out as if a knife had been thrust into him. Tears ran from the corners of his lids, sweat trickled after the tears, and the beard began to fray from his jaw. Kassafeh grew rigid with alarm; in this state she witnessed other things: The contours of Simmu’s face and physique, altering, the very skin and scent of Simmu altering—the flowering within his shirt, unmistakable but impossible, even the flung-back head, somehow changed, the agonized features—female.

  It was terrible, this transformation. It had been so long un-practiced, while Simmu adhered to the physical format of masculinity. And it was terrifying to observe the event, and the convulsions of pain and near-pleasure followed by deeper and more gruesome pain, that chased each other over the countenance of Simmu—now man, now woman.

  Kassafeh had not forgotten what she had assumed to be the demon-aided illusion of femininity Simmu had put on in the Garden of the Golden Daughters. But she had never properly seen it, never properly understood—as she had never properly understood her husband at all. Now, as well as being frightened by this sight of the metamorphosis, she was also horribly insulted by it. For she perceived that Zhirek the magician had stimulated the dulled lusts of Simmu as she had failed to do. And could she miss that Simmu, a woman, was more vitally beautiful than Kassafeh? The unloving husband might become, additionally, the rival.

  Kassafeh turned and fled, precipitately shutting the library doors after herself, yet with a stealthy frenzied quiet. Simmu was her enemy. She hated him. Hate happened very suddenly, for she was starved of drama as much as of love.

  She darted up the silent stairways of the palace, toward the rooms Zhirek had been given. She was actually trying to outrace the woman who still lay unconscious on the couch below.

  3

  The apartments of Zhirek were splendid, an extra measure to impress him. By day, windows gave a view of that particular lawn where the snake of corruption Lord Death had sent coiled impotent and sullen about the fruit tree.

  Kassafeh hesitated at this door, though she discovered it unlocked. Even in Simmurad, and so early, Zhirek’s reputation was unreassuring. Yet love, or the form of love which motivated her, made nonsense of caution, and presently she slunk inside. Her strange eyes glowed in the lampless dark. By starlight only, she observed the bedchamber, the bed with its draperies, and the man stretched there.

  Zhirek lay, by contrast with her husband, still as a carving. Indeed, a remarkable stillness, the lids of the eyes down and unmoving, the hands loose at the sides, the mouth closed. The slightest breath did not appear to flex the nostrils. The rise and fall of the rib-cage was so negligible that Kassafeh, for a moment, believed Death’s servant had actually died, despite his cold boast of invulnerability and longevity. But, having reassured herself he breathed, however shallowly, she went to him and embraced him.

  He was cool as a stone and did not wake. She did not concede as yet it was some sorcery that held him. Fired by this second-hand brush with Death, she trembled, discarded her garments, loosened Zhirek’s and lay along him on the bed, caressing for a long time all of him she might come at, with her hands and her mouth. She burned, but he stayed cold-asleep. Nothing of him roused. At last, shuddering and exhausted by her disappointment, she shed tears. But even the proximity of unresponsive flesh had soothed her, and eventually she slept.

  Dawn startled her alert. She opened her eyes and was startled again, for the open blue-green eyes of Zhirek met hers, nearer than the pillow.

  “I came to you in the night,” she said defiantly, “but you had no use for me. You think me brazen, but I have never known a man save my husband, who in the beginning, in any case, forced me.” This lie appealed to her and she brightened. “I am chaste,” she whispered, abandoning herself gladly to her passion, “but you I could not resist.”

  “I made no advance to you,” he said.

  “Do not shame me,” she pleaded, partly in earnest, lowering her lids.

  “I did not come to Simmurad to couple,” he said.

  “Perhaps you are impotent,” said Kassafeh, “as the wise physician tells us immortal men become.”

  “I shall have a death,” Zhirek said.

  “Then that is answer enough, and I am parched for love.”

  And she began to kiss him and cling to him, and the thought came to him that, as a male, Simmu had lain with this woman, a thought which provoked an insidious lust in Zhirek greater than any Kassafeh could entice. There was, too, the uncanny sleep he had woken from, which Uhlume Lord Death himself had granted Zhirek. These slumbers were no less than replicate deaths, death as Zhirek supposed it. The vital organs seemed to stop and the senses vanished between one indrawn breath and another. No dreams troubled the sleeper, or, if they did, went unremembered. Dreadful tomb-pits were these trances, but to Zhirek, so odd had become his turn of mind, they were a promise and a refreshment. And arousing, washed momentarily clean of the stigma of his invulnerability, Zhirek felt life quicken in him.

  Thus, he rendered Kassafeh what she required of him, while the bed-chamber steeped itself in the carmine dawn.

  Later, she asked him: “Will you destroy Simmurad as cleverly as you destroyed my virtue?”

  “Simmurad also is easily destroyed. Already the destruction has begun, and is not of my doing.”

  “And do you serve Death, or is that merely a story you tell to bemuse my husband, who believes he has made himself Death’s enemy?”

  “I serve Death.”

  “I will serve you,” said Kassafeh. Apostasy fired her blood as love had done. “I will help you in whatever manner you suggest. I have no loyalty to Simmu, for he has no care for me. Indeed, none of us care anything for each other, it is difficult even to hate, since we have grown immortal—if immortal we are. But I will hate Simmu for your sake. Besides, he is a fool. He took me from a place of lies, and I believed we should be famous in the world, he a hero-king and I his wife, but we have ended here, which I now think worse than the place of lies he took me from. And we are forgotten and no one speaks our names. Nothing is real, save only you, beloved. Tell me how I may serve you.”

  Enigmatically he looked at her. He did not entirely need her service or her help in anything, but the symbol of her traitorousness had a magical value.

  “Bring me,” he said evenly, “the vessel in which the Draught of Immortality is kept.”

  “I do not know its exact location,” she said, “but I will nevertheless find and bring it to you.”

  He saw cruelty flame in her eyes, the brief spark of living abrasive heat warming her as he had been warmed those moments by the cruelty within himself.

  • • •

  Simmu woke alone, his body racked with pain. He had become a woman in his sleep, altered once more to a man as the dawn returned with its reminders of the city. Simmu knew well enough what had befallen him, and its cause. He did not recall his earlier time with Zhirek, their childhood or their pairing, he never would since Azhrarn had lifted the memory from his brain. Only vestiges, ghosts, shreds of emotion floating in his dreams were left to Simmu of that love affair, sufficient to disturb him, insufficient to explain the hold Zhirek seemed to possess over him, thought and flesh. And Simmu was suddenly no longer exhilarated but afraid of the arm of Death reaching out for him. Afraid, therefore, of Zhirek. Afraid of his own body which could become melting and female and betray him to Zhirek.

  Simmu went from the library.

  He sought his own apartment, passed through all its pleasing perspectives, unseeing, opened a silver chest, removed a silver box, gazed down at the stoppered clay vessel within.

  It was no profound secret where the Draught of Immortality was kept. A short thorough search would have revealed it to any. Now it had occurred to Simmu that it must become a secret. With a slow but frantic activity, he searched the chambers for some new spot to hide the treasure. Like a miser attempting to conceal his hoard, this was how he sear
ched. And Simmu, who was ageless and young, felt a weight of years begin to press on him, all the years that he had yet to live—eternity, even in the same instant that Death’s shadow loomed across his future.

  This paradox and his physical discomfort wore him out. At length, instead of hiding the clay vessel more cunningly, he set it down beneath a tall window, and leaned his forehead on the crystal. In that way, he saw Kassafeh and Zhirek poised together on the balcony of a tower, stretched into the morning as if expressly to be seen.

  Simmu sensed what was between them, rather than beheld it, their conspiracy. A dislocated pang of anger or envy, dulled and remote, went through him and then away from him. Now he felt only sorrow and foreboding. How human he had become, with all the anguish and clumsy confusion of men.

  He touched the green gem at his throat, the Eshva gift; he recalled the vow of Azhrarn, already honored once before, to heed the gem’s burning in fire. But Simmu was aware Azhrarn had lost interest in him, Simmurad a test that Simmu had failed. To burn the jewel in fire would bring no one, not even those who had come on the last occasion, Azhrarn’s servants.

  On the balcony, Kassafeh embraced Zhirek, and he did not repulse her kisses.

  Only Death and life remained to Simmu. And though Zhirek, Death’s agent, was in Simmurad, Death himself could not enter the gates, for nothing had ever died here, nor ever would.

  Simmu took up the clay vessel in its silver box, and abruptly it came to him that his wife would be the instrument whereby the Draught could be taken from him. Wherever he should hide it, the woman would seek it out. And then Simmu dropped the box clattering on the floor and, lifting the clay vessel, pulled out its stopper. Once he had sampled this fluid with reluctance. Now he set his mouth at the brink, and tipping back his head, deliberately drained those last persistent drops of Eternal Life. Some while he waited, head back, vessel tilted, till he was sure he had had all of it, and no single element of moisture was unswallowed. And then he slung the vessel from him so it broke in empty shards against the wall.

 
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