Authors: Tanith Lee
First published in the United States in 2003 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
Woodstock & New York
141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012
Copyright © 2003 by Tanith Lee
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
In the Sun Lands, the letter C is always pronounced as K,
Although CH is pronounced as in the word
The letter Y is always hard, as in
except at the end of a word: Ak–
The letters AI are pronounced as in the word
Conversely, among the Pesh, the letters AI rhyme with the word
Into the Hand of the gods
I give myself. And lie still.
The words that are spoken
before the dance begins
N TEN YEARS
, I shall
be younger than I am tonight. And since I am now one hundred years of age, this prospect pleases and inspires me.
At Sin Dhul, City of the Moon, I am called the Poetess, and by some, the Seer. They say to me that, through all the Empire-Continent of Pesh Sandu, I have been given these titles. My name is Sirai. But in my youth, I had another name. Indeed, I had two names.
Today, Prince Shajhima visited me, here in my sequestered tower in the desert. He brought a great baggage of gifts, much of it food, which my few servants eyed gladly, I will not say greedily. Our diet is often simple, and visitors seldom come, but for the owls and ravens that alight on the tower top, and the nightingale which sometimes sings in the garden. Even the nightingale has been absent some time.
The Prince and I sat talking for an hour or so on the roof, under the awning. The sky was dressed in its afternoon blue, but later it was the richer blue of night, and stars appeared like the lighted windows of an upper world. I enjoy the Prince’s company. Now over fifty, he reminds me of his father—the Battle-Prince, also called Shajhima—when he had reached this age. Now and then, not thinking, I search for the sword scar his father had upon the left hand and, not seeing it, I am for a moment puzzled. So old age is.
I told the Prince I had decided to write down something about my life, my early life, before his father carried me here, a captive barbarian slave, unable to walk, and chained—not with iron, but with despair.
Prince Shajhima assured me he would
like to read such a book. At first I feared he would be the only one unwise enough to do so. Then my chosen scribe, Dobzah, who even now pens these words, came up and said she too was eager for the narrative.
She must put down now that all this, which will be written, shall be by my voice and her hand. I am unable to write so much. But Dobzah is younger than I, and strong. I trust her, and will trust her with my life in these pages.
To picture Sirai, you need only visualize a very old woman, unveiled, thin and pale, her grey hair still long though less abundant, piled on her head. To picture Dobzah, think of the clever, bright-eyed sparrow, whose wings, in the story, outmatch the storm.
After the Prince had left us for the City, which lies five miles away over the desert. Dobzah and I played a game with silver pieces on a fine bone board.
I told Dobzah that I would use, as a heading for the various parts of my life, a word from my own continent, the Sun Lands, the word
. Which indicates those phrases that are spoken during the dance, to give meaning to it. For my life has been a sort of dance, and I value dancing highly, for it taught me how to walk over the world.
Because I am so old, I know soon I must die. But I have no fear, for I have learned something of the ways of God. After death I will wander, I believe, ten or so years about the earth, to expiate my sins, to learn and teach the final lessons. Then, a young girl again, I will go on to Paradise—that heaven beyond all heavens, which all men hope for and many deny. Never doubt. Heaven is there.
But perhaps already I am embarking on that purgatory wandering which precedes delight. For this book will be for me a tortuous return into the past. At my age, I find, I can look back and behold my own self, more clearly than I see others now, just as one may see oneself in dreams. That girl, that child I was, I view half remotely, but also with tenderness, as if I had given birth to her. But I bore only one child, a son, and him I never knew. My own self, I know as I know not one other. Strangely, too, it seems to me now, gazing back into the amber darkness of the past, I can see and divine events which, at the time, were hidden from me. And I can become, almost at a wish, the spectator at scenes which, while I lived adjacent to them, I had no knowledge of. Yet there are things too I may not look at, and perhaps God conceals them, lest I die before this task is done.
listen, Dobzah and I, for the nightingale. But she does not sing. The upper pool, with the tree that is her throne, are glimmering both, mystical with night. At the lower pool, where the washing is done and the women sing, someone has left a jar, which shines dim white, a moon in a cloud.
Shall I begin my history tonight? After supper, and before moonrise.
Dobzah says to me,
And now, for a second, I feel afraid. I, so old I have outlived, as they say here, a thousand roses. Old Sirai in her tower, fears her journey back into her golden youth. But it is to be done. It shall be done.
Come, Dobzah. Let us go and eat the beautiful foods that Prince Shajhima brought, then light the lamp and fill the silent air the nightingale disdains, with this song of words, this dance of life.
Annotation by the Hand of Dobzah
Here I set my vow. I will be faithful to the words of my mistress, Sirai, Moon-Poetess of Sin Dhul.
ARKNESS, WHICH AT
down like black lions to the shore, stood foursquare now on the night hours of earliest morning. But above, Phaidix had lit the cold stars with her arrows. And in the palace below, as always, many lights were burning bright.
From the amphitheater of the hills, the whole chamber of the night lay quiet, sounding—faintly, steadily—only with the Heart of the Land of Akhemony. In the mysterious folds of night’s garment, nothing seemed to stir. Perhaps a fox was running through the winter grass. Perhaps an owl, or some even more supernatural creature, floated between earth and heaven.
Then, thin and sure as a razor, piercing everything, there flew out one high torn note: a scream of pain and fury—and terror.
Things without name or form raised their heads and stared. The stars stared down, and Phaidix’s cruel moon stared as it rose out of the Lakesea.
While among the courts of the palace came a sudden fluttering of the light, like wings
The Daystar, Queen Hetsa, sat upright on the birthing couch, supported by her attendants. All were crying and shuddering in fright, all but the queen. She had spent her first panic and horror in her scream. Now, cleared of it, she pointed at the midwife with one hard, crystal forefinger.
“I? I, madam? Nothing—it’s not—”
“Your potions. Some
, madam. How could I possibly—”
“You shall be flayed alive, do you hear?”
The midwife shrank, and turning with thoughtless distress, slapped her assistant across the cheek. This woman staggered back, still clutching the awful burden to her breast.
But Hetsa was sinking in a faint. Her labor had lasted over ten hours, and down the couch, all down the white linen, ran scarlet evidence of the cost.
The room was full of shadows, also turning red as the lamps burned low, so that everything seemed at last awash with the blood of birth, not least the tall crimson pillars with their capitals of coiling serpents. In one corner, cool clear light flickered alone at the shrine of the Arteptan birth goddess, Bandri.
On some impulse, the assistant of the midwife scuttled there, and putting the bundle on the altar, began herself to sob.
Bandri, of big-bellied black marble, watched impassively behind her veil of offering smoke. All things may occur, she seemed to say. Even this, in the apartment of a queen.
Hetsa was reviving.
She pushed the herbal cup away, and raised herself again. She had been beautiful a month ago, her long, gilded hair and pure skin blossoming from the culmination of a healthy pregnancy. Now she was a hag, a rag. But she spoke finally very low.
“All you in this room—not a word, not a
. Don’t touch me. Take that thing—one of you—anyone of you—and carry it where it must go. I don’t want to be told. I don’t want to hear a
. It’s dead.”
From the red shadow then, the old woman came out, the old nurse that they called Crow Claw.
She must have been lurking there, by the curtains. No one knew how she got in, but you could not keep her out, not if she wished otherwise.
She stood upright and thin as a stick in her black, her heavy ornaments, with her colorless cracked plate of a face flushed by the lamps.
“The child came too fast, was too eager, that’s why.”
Hetsa looked as if she would spit like a cat. “What do I care? Why—
— she’s dead to me.”
“I know what you mean to do,” said Crow Claw. Her countenance had no expression whatsoever, and yet, when the light dipped and lifted, many visible thoughts seemed to pass up and down like birds, crows perhaps, across a wall. “I can’t stop you.”