Authors: Tanith Lee
Beyond the lake a palace ascended. It resembled the palace of the
king in the world above, yet it was more fantastic in its looks, its towers more slender, more burnished—a female palace rather than
male, and certainly young.
In the sunmoonless dusk, its windows blazed rose-red and apricot.
Music wafted over water.
Oh, he could see: this country mirrored the country of Everyday,
prettier, more exotic—yet, a match. Had
then instinctively created this otherworld out of its own basic malleable and uncanny
ingredients? And was that the answer to the riddle of
In a brief while, the fast-flying boats beached on the near shore.
Then the princesses happily exclaimed, and flung wide their arms,
as if to embrace lovers. And at that—at
There they are
, Yannis breathed, in his unheard phantom’s whisper.
For there indeed
Begun as shadows standing between the land and the water,
gaining substance, filling up with color, youth and life. Twelve tall, young and handsome men were there, elegantly arrayed as princes.
But their royal clothes no better than the panoply of their hair—
one amber red, one brown as tortoiseshell, one gold as topaz, red as beech leaves, brown as walnut wood, gold as corn fields, summer
wine, spring beer, winter mead; copper, bronze, and gold—
In God’s name—could God have any hand in this? Yes, yes, Yannis’s
heart stammered over to him. A snatch of the ancient tongue came
to him, from his own past, where he had known pieces of it—that
the soul was neither male nor female, yet also it was
male and female. So that in every woman there dwelled some part of her that
was her male other self. Just as, in every man—
The fine princes walked into the arms of their twelve princesses.
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Why not? They were the male selves of each woman. Every couple
was already joined, each the other, sister and brother, wife and
husband, lovers for ever and a day.
Yannis stared even so as the princes rowed them all back across
the lake to the palace of unearthly delights.
Invisibly, he sat in turn in every boat.
Was it heavy work for them?
. Yannis was lighter even than the light.
Nevertheless, they sense I am with them,
He returned to the air and landed on the other shore first.
How long, that night? Dusk till dusk—so many hours. In the world
they had left, he thought at last it would be close to dawn. But here it was always and never either night or day.
In the kingly great hall that far outshone that of their father above, the young women danced the often lively dances of their world and
this one, forming rhythmic lines, meeting and clasping hands with
their princes, parting again to lilt away, and to return. Sometimes
the young men whirled them high up in their arms, skirts swirling,
hair crackling. Wheels of burning lights hung from the high ceiling, which was leafed with diamond stars. On carven tables food had
been laid, and was sometimes eaten, goblets of wine were to be drunk.
Somewhere musicians played unseen. There were no other guests.
The soldier watched, and sometimes—the plates and cups were
communal—he ate and drank. He wondered if the food would stick
to him, or leave him hungry; it seemed somehow to do neither. He
himself did not dance until it grew very late.
And then, as it had happened on the shore, and as he had known it
must—turning, the soldier found another woman stationed quietly
at his side. She at once smiled at him. He knew her well, though never had he seen her before. She might have been his sister.
“Come now,” she said, soft as the silver and golden leaves in his
pocket, and firm as the single adamant.
And onto the wide floor of the hall, which seemed paved with
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• Tanith Lee •
soot and coal and frost and ice and candle beams and sparks, she
went. And somehow then she was dancing with the amber prince
who had partnered the amber eldest princess. So then Yannis went
forward, and took the princess’s hand. While his spirit’s sister danced with the prince, Yannis danced with Amber, who seemed then to see,
if not to remember him.
“How lightly you step,” he said.
“How strongly you lead,” she answered.
After this, one by one, he danced with each of them, twelve to one,
as his feminine aspect engaged their princes.
“How strongly you lead,” said each princess, seeing him, too.
Until he came to the youngest princess, Gold-as-Gold Evira.
“How strongly you
,” said she.
you lead,” said he.
And he looked into her eyes and saw there, even on that curious
dancing floor, a color and a depth he had met seldom. And Yannis
This after all, the very youngest, soul-wise is the eldest
And she said, “By a ribbon of air.”
And he said, “But I must follow you.”
“You,” she said, “and no other.”
“Are you so sure?” he said. He thought,
What am I saying?
But he knew.
And she smiled, as his soul-sister had, and he knew also her
smile. And then his inner woman returned, and coming up to him
she kissed his cheek, and vanished, and he, if he had grown visible, vanished also.
From high up he watched the princesses and the princes fly
towards the doorway and hurry down to the boats. As they ran he
saw the naked soles of their feet, and they were worn and bruised
and in some parts bloody from so much dancing, and streaked with
shines and spangles.
Yannis ran before them over the lake. He ran before them up
the land beyond, missing the tender farewells. He bolted across the
orchards of the Otherwhere, and behind him he heard them say,
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“Look, is that a hare that runs so fast it moves the grasses?” One
thought it must be a wolf, or wildcat.
Then he fled to the mystic entry to the world, and unmistakenly
rushed in like a west wind, and found instantly the silver spirit-
cord flowing away through the mausoleum, and on. So out over the
graveyard hill, and in at the secret corridor, and up inside the palace walls. Straight through the stone he dived. And stood sentry behind
his body, sleeping tranced as death in the chair, until they came in.
“Look at him!”
Eleven sisters scorned and pinched him and made out he snored,
By then the Earth’s own dawn was rising like a scarlet sea along the windows. It showed their dresses were plain again, and how weary
they were, having danced in their physical bodies all night. But the body of Yannis the soldier had slept with profound relaxation. So in he stepped to wake it up at once.
“Never a hare, nor a cat, running.
ran before you, exactly as
followed you all night, my twelve dancing ladies.” Just this said Yannis, standing lion-strong on his legs of flesh and wood, eyes bright and
expression fierce. And he showed them leaves of silver, and of gold, and a diamond, taken now from his physical pocket. He told them all
he had seen, and all they had done, every step and smile and sip and sigh. And he added he had not needed three nights to do this, only
one. “Meanwhile, I will remind your highnesses, also, of mockery,
pinches, blows—and a twisted pin.”
Their faces whitened, or reddened.
But Evira Gold-as-Gold only stood back in the shadows, her cat
and dogs and most of her birds about her.
“What will you do?” Eleven voices cried.
“Why, tell the king. And he will make me his heir, and you he will
. Whatever that word means, to him.”
Then some of them began to weep. And he said, “Hush now.
Listen. What you do harms nobody. More, I believe you do good by
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it, keeping the gates oiled between here—and
And he is a poor king, a coward and tyrant, is he not? His people sullen and afraid,
his guards afraid, too, or arrogant and drunken. He’s not how a king should be, his people’s shepherd, who will die for them if needs must.
Few kings are any good. Few men, few human things.”
But still they sobbed.
Then Yannis said, “I tell you now what
And he told them. And the crying ceased.
Down into the king’s hall went Yannis, with the twelve princesses
walking behind him on their bare and bruised and lovely feet.
And as he had suspected, the instant the court and soldiers saw
the daughters walked meekly with him, everyone grew silent.
The king with his grayed black-iron beard and hair looked up
from his gold dish of bloody meat. “Well?” he said.
“Their secret is this, sire,” said Yannis, “they stay wakeful on full moon nights and do penance, treading on sharp stones, and praying
for your health and long life, there in their locked room. Such things are best hidden, but now it’s not, and the luck of it is broken. But so you would have it.” And then he leaned to the king’s ear and murmured
with a terrible gentleness this, which only the king heard. “But they are, as you suspect, powerful witches, which is why you fear them; but the old gods love them, and you’d best beware. Yes, even despite all those other men you have allowed these girls to dupe, and so yourself had the fellows shorn of their heads: blood
, no less, to the old powers of Darkness you believe inhabit the lands below the Sun Beneath. This too shall I say aloud? Or will you give me what I’m owed?”
Then the king shuddered from head to foot. Top to toe, that was
fair. And he told everyone present that the soldier had triumphed,
and would now become a prince, the king’s heir, and might marry
too whichever of the daughters he liked.
“That’s easy, then,” said Yannis. “I’m not a young man; I’ll take the oldest head and wisest mind among them. Your youngest girl, Evira.”
, she is the golden cup that holds my heart.
And gladly enough she came to him, and took his hand.
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Less than half a year the iron king survived; maybe he destroyed
himself by his own plotting. But by then Yannis was well-loved by
the city, its soldiers loyal to him, for he had learned how to be a
favorite with them, having seen other leaders do it.
Yannis, therefore, ruled as king, and his gold-haired queen at his
side. Some say they had three children, some that they had none,
But it was not until after the burial of the cruel first king that
Yannis said to his wife, “But did your white cat, at least, not protest?”
“At what, dear husband?”
“At your changing her, for however short a space, into a goat.”
“Ah,” Evira said. “Of course, you have known.”
“And the dogs to wolves, and the birds—to chickens . . . ”
“They were glad,” said Evira, coolly, “privately to meet with you.
For I had sensed you were coming towards us all, and foresaw it was
the only way that you would let me tell you and warn you and teach
you—and so help me to save my sisters, who trust no man easily,
from our fearsome and maddened father. The way matters stand in
this world, it is men who rule. So here too it must be a man. But
a man who is cunning, brave, kind—and with the skills of magic
woken in him, needing only the key of one lesson.”
And from this they admitted to each other that Evira had
disguised herself as the elderly witch in the woods, and since she
was far cleverer than her sisters, none had discovered her. Though
at the last, as they danced, because of the russet radiance of her eyes, Yannis did.
To the end of their lives he and she loved each other, and Evira
and her sisters went on dancing in the other country below the sun,
even with Yannis sometimes. But he never betrayed them. Never.
It took storytellers, alas, to do that.
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• Tanith Lee •
was born in the UK in 1947. After school she worked at a number of jobs, and at age twenty-five had one year at art college.
Then DAW Books of America published her novel
Since then she has been a professional full-time writer.
Publications so far total approximately ninety novels and
collections and well over three hundred short stories. She has also
written for television and radio. Lee has won several awards and
in 2009 was made a Grand Master of Horror. She is married to the
writer/artist John Kaiine.
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