The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

XV. Queen Prezmyra

How the Lady Prezmyra Discovered to Lord Gro what she Would have Brought About for Demonland, in which Should Also Appear Her Lord’s Yet More Greatness and Advancement: And How Her Too Loud Speaking of Her Purpose was the Occasion Whereby the Lord Corinius was to Learn the Sweetness of Bliss Deferred.

ON that same twenty-sixth night of May, when Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha beheld from earth’s loftiest pinnacle the land of Zimiamvia and Koshtra Belorn, Gro walked with the Lady Prezmyra on the western terrace in Carcë. It wanted yet two hours of midnight. The air was warm, the sky a bower of moonbeam and star-beam. Now and then a faint breeze stirred as if night turned in her sleep. The walls of the palace and the Iron Tower cut off the terrace from the direct moonlight, and flamboys spreading their wobbling light made alternating regions of brightness and gloom. Galloping strains of music and the noise of revelry came from within the palace.

Gro spake: “If thy question, O Queen, overlie a wish to have me gone, I am as lightning to obey thee howsoe’er it grieve me.”

’Twas an idle wonder only,” she said. “Stay and it like thee.”

“It is but a native part of wisdom,” said he, “to follow the light. When thou wast departed from the hall methought all the bright lights were bedimmed.” He looked at her sidelong as they passed into the radiance of a flamboy, studying her countenance that seemed clouded with grievous thought. Fair of all fairs she seemed, stately and splendid; crowned with a golden crown set about with dark amethysts. A figure of a crab-fish topped it above the brow, curiously wrought in silver and bearing in either claw a ball of chrysolite the bigness of a thrush’s egg.

Lord Gro said, “This too was part of my mind, to behold those stars in heaven that men call Berenice’s Hair, and know if they can outshine in glory thine hair, O Queen.”

They paced on in silence. Then, “These phrases of forced gallantry,” she said, “sort ill with our friendship, my Lord Gro. If I be not angry, think it is because I father them on the deep healths thou hast caroused unto our Lord the King on this night of nights, when the returning year bringeth back the date of his sending, and our vengeance upon Demonland.”

“Madam,” he said, “I would but have thee give over this melancholy. Seemeth it to thee a little thing that the King hath pleased so singularly to honour Corund thy husband as give him a king’s style and dignity and all Impland to hold in fee? All took notice of it how uncheerfully thou didst receive this royal crown when the King gave it thee to-night, in honour of thy great lord, to wear in his stead till he come home to claim it; this, and the great praise spoke by the King of Corund, which methinks should bring the warmth of pride to thy cheeks. Yet are all these things of as little avail against thy frozen scornful melancholy as the weak winter sun availeth against congealed pools in a black frost.”

“Crowns are cheap trash to-day,” said Prezmyra; “whenas the King, with twenty kings to be his lackeys, raiseth up now his lackeys to be kings of the earth. Canst wonder if my joyance in this crown were dashed some little when I looked on that other given by the King to Laxus?”

“Madam,” said Gro, “thou must forgive Laxus in his own particular. Thou knowest he set not so much as a foot in Pixyland; and if now he must be called king thereof, that should rather please thee, being in despite of Corinius that carried war there and by whatsoever means of skill or fortune overcame thy noble brother and drave him into exile.”

“Corinius,” she answered, “tasteth in that miss that bane or ill-hap which I dearly pray all they may groan under who would fatten by my brother’s ruin.”

“Then should Corinius’s grief lift up thy joy,” said Gro. “Yet certain it is, Fate is a blind puppy: build not on her next turn.”

“Am not I a Queen?” said Prezmyra. “Is not this Witchland? Have we not strength to make curses strong, if Fate be blind indeed?”

They halted at the head of a flight of steps leading down to the inner ward. The Lady Prezmyra leaned awhile on the black marble balustrade, gazing seaward over the level marshes rough with moonlight. “What care I for Laxus?” she said at last. “What care I for Corinius? A cast of hawks flown by the King against a quarry that in dearworthiness and nobility outshineth an hundred such as they. Nor I will not suffer mine indignation so to wit-wanton with fair justice as persuade me to put the wite on Witchland. It is most true the Prince my brother practised with our enemies the downthrow of our fortunes, breaking open, had he but known it, the gate of destruction for himself and us, that night when our banquet was turned by him to a battle and our winey mirths to bloody rages.” She was silent for a time, then said, “Oathbreakers: a most odious name, flat against all humanity. Two faces in one hood. O that earth would start up and strike the sins that tread on her!”

“I see thou lookest west over sea,” said Gro.

“There’s somewhat thou canst see, then, my Lord Gro, by owl-light,” said Prezmyra.

“Thou didst tell me at the time,” he said, “with what compliments in vows and strange well-studied promises of friendship the Lord Juss took leave of thee at their escaping out of Carcë. Yet art thou to blame, O Queen, if thou take in too ill part the breaking of such promises given in extremity, which prove commonly like fish, new, stale, and stinking in three days.”

“Sure, ’tis a small matter,” said she, “that my brother should cast aside all ties of interest and alliance to save these great ones from an evil death; and they, being delivered, should toss him a light grammercy and go their ways, leaving him to be exterminated out of his own country and, for all they know or reck, to lose his life. May the great Devil of Hell torture their souls!”

“Madam,” said Lord Gro, “I would have thee view the matter soberly, and leave these bitter flashes. The Demons did save thy brother once in Lida Nanguna, and his delivering of them out of the hand of our Lord the King was but just payment therefor. The scales hang equal.”

She answered, “Do not defile mine ears with their excuses. They have shamefully abused us; and the guilt of their black deed planteth them day by day more firmlier in my deeper-settled hate. Art thou so deeply read in nature and her large philosophy, and I am yet to teach thee that deadliest hellebore or the vomit of a toad are qualified poison to the malice of a woman?”

The darkness of a great cloud-bank spreading from the south swallowed up the moonlight. Prezmyra turned to resume her slow pacing down the terrace. The yellow fiery sparkles in her eyes glinted in the flamboys’ flare. She looked dangerous as a lioness, and delicate and graceful like an antelope. Gro walked beside her, saying, ‘Did not Corund drive them forth in winter on to the Moruna, and can they continue there in life, alone amid so many devouring perils?”

“O my lord,” she cried, “say these good tidings to the kitchen wenches, not to me. Why, thyself didst enter in past years the very heart of the Moruna and yet earnest off, else art thou the greatest liar. This only canker-frets my soul: that days go by, and months, and Witchland beateth down all peoples under him, and yet he suffereth the crown of pride, these rebels of Demonland, to go yet untrodden under feet. Doth he deem it the better part to spare a foe and spoil a friend? That were an unhappy and unnatural conclusion. Or is he fey, even as was Gorice XI.? Heaven foreshield it, yet as ill an end may bechance him and utter ruin come on all of us if he will withhold his scourge from Demonland until Juss and Brandoch Daha come home again to meet with him.”

“Madam,” said Lord Gro, “in these few words thou hast given me the picture of mine own mind in small. And forgive me that I bespake thee warily at the first, for these are matters of heavy moment, and ere I opened my mind to thee I would know that it agreed with thine. Let the King smite now, in the happy absence of their greatest champions. So shall we be in strength against them if they return again, and perchance Goldry with them.”

She smiled, and it seemed as if all the sultry night freshened and sweetened at that lady’s smile. “Thou art a dear companion to me,” she said. “Thy melancholy is to me as some shady wood in summer, where I may dance if I will, and that is often, or be sad if I will, and that is in these days oftener than I would: and never thou crossest my mood. Save but now thou didst so, to plague me with thy precious flattering jargon, till I had thought thee skin-changed with Laxus or young Corinius, seeking such lures as gallants spread their wings to, to stoop in ladies’ bosoms.”

“For I would shake thee from this late-received sadness,” said Gro. And he said, “Thou art to commend me too, since I spake nought but truth.”

“Oh, have done, my lord,” she cried, “or I’ll dismiss thee hence.” And as they walked Prezmyra sang softly:

He that cannot chuse but love,

And strives against it still,

Never shall my fancy move,

For he loves ’gaynst his will;

Nor he which is all his own,

And can att pleasure chuse;

When I am caught he can be gone,

And when he list refuse.

Nor he that loves none but faire,

For such by all are sought;

Nor he that can for foul ones care,

For his Judgement then is naught;

Nor he —

She broke off suddenly, saying, “Come, I have shook off the ill disposition the sight of Laxus bred in me and of his tawdry crown. Let’s think on action. And first, I will tell thee a thing. This we spoke of hath been in my mind these two or three moons, ever since Corinius’s campaigning in Pixyland. So when word came of my lord’s destroying of the Demon host, and his driving of Juss and Brandoch Daha like runaway thralls on the Moruna, I sent him a letter by the hand of Viglus that bare him from our Lord the King the king’s name in Impland. Therein I expressed how that the crown of Demonland should be a braver crown for us than this of Impland, howsoe’er it sparkle, praying him urge upon the King his sending of an armament to Demonland, and my lord the leader thereof; or, if he could not as then come home to ask it, then I entreated him make me his ambassador to lay this counsel before the King and crave the enterprise for Corund.”

“Is not his answer in those letters I brought thee?” said Gro.

“Ay,” said she, “and a very scurvy beggarly lickspittle answer for a great lord to send to such a matter as I propounded. Alack, it puffs away all my wifely duty but to speak on’t, and makes me rail like a gangrel-woman.”

“I’ll walk apart, madam,” said Gro, “if thou wouldst have privateness to deliver thy mind.”

Prezmyra laughed. “’Tis not all so bad,” she said, “and yet it makes me angry. The enterprise he commends, up to the hilt, and I have his leave to broach it to the King, as his mouth-piece, and press it with him out of all ho. But for the leading on’t, he will not have it, he. Corsus must have it, or Corinius. Stay, let me read it out,” and standing near one of the lights she took a parchment from her bosom. “Pooh! ’tis too fond; I will not shame my lord to read it, even to thee.”

“Well,” said Gro, “were I the King, Corund should be my general to put down Demonland. Corsus he may send, for he hath done great work in his day, but in mine own judgement I like him not for such an errand. Corinius he hath not yet forgiven for his fault at the banquet a year ago.”

“Corinius!” said Prezmyra. “So his butchery of mine own dear land goeth not only without reward, but hath not so much as bought him back to favour, thou thinkest?”

“I think not,” said Lord Gro. “Besides, he is mad wroth to have plucked that prickly fruit but for another’s eating. He bare himself so presumptuous-ill in the hall to-night, gleeking and galling at Laxus, slapping of his sword, and with so many more shameless braves and wanton fashions, and worst of all his most openly seeking to toy with Sriva, i’ this first month of her betrothal unto Laxus, it will be a wonder if blood be not spilt betwixt them ere the night be done. Methinks he is not i’ the mood to take the field again without some sure reward; and methinks the King, guessing his mind, would not offer him a new enterprise and so give him the glory of refusing it.”

They stood near the arched gateway that opened on the terrace from the inner court. Music still sounded from the great banquet hall of Gorice XI. Under the archway and in the shadows of the huge buttresses of the walls it was as though the elements of gloom, expelled from the bright circles round the flamboys, huddled with sister glooms to make a double darkness.

“Well, my lord,” said Prezmyra, “doth thy wisdom bless my resolve?”

“Whate’er it be, yes, because it is thine, O Queen.”

“Whate’er it be!” she cried. “Dost hang in doubt on’t? What else, but seek audience with the King as my first care in the morning. Have I not my lord’s bidding so far?”

“And if thy zeal outrun his bidding in one particular?” said Gro.

“Why, just!” said she. “And if I bring thee not word ere to-morrow’s noon that order is given for Demonland, and my Lord Corund named his general for that sailing, ay, and letters sealed for his straight recall from Orpish —”

“Hist!” said Gro. “Steps i’ the court.”

They turned towards the archway, Prezmyra singing under her breath:

Nor he that still his Mistresse payes,

For she is thrall’d therefore;

Nor he that payes not, for he sayes

Within, shee’s worth no more.

Is there then no kinde of men

Whom 1 may freely prove?

1 will vent that humour then

In mine own selfe love.

Corinius met them in the gateway, coming from the banquet house. He halted full in their path to peer closely through the darkness at Prezmyra, so that she felt the heat of his breath, heavy with wine. It was too dark to know faces but he knew her by her stature and bearing.

“Cry thee mercy, madam,” he said. “Methought an instant ’twas — but no matter. Your best of rest.”

So saying he made way for her with a deep obeisance, jostling roughly against Gro with the same motion. Gro, little minded for a quarrel, gave him the wall, and followed Prezmyra into the inner court.

The Lord Corinius sat him down on the nearest of the benches, leaned his stalwart back luxuriously upon the cushions and there rested, thripping his fingers and singing to himself.

What an Ass is he

Waits a woman’s leisure

For a minute’s pleasure,

And perhaps may be

Gull’d at last, and lose her;

What an ass is he?

What need I to care

For a woman’s favour?

If another have her,

Why should I despair?

When for gold and labour

I can have my share.

If I chance to see

One that’s brown, I love her,

Till I see another

Browner is than she;

For I am a lover

Of my liberty.

A rustle behind him on his left made him turn his head. A figure stole out of the deep shadow of the buttress nearest the archway. He leapt up and was first in the gate, blocking it with open arms. “Ah,” he cried, “so titmice roost i’ the shade, ha? What ransom shall I have of thee for making me keep empty tryst last night? Ay, and wast creeping hence to make me a fool once more the night-long and I had not caught thee.”

The lady laughed. “Last night my father kept me by him; and to-night, my lord, wouldst thou not have been fitly served for thy shameless ditty? Is that a sweet serenade for ladies’ ears? Sing it again, to thy liberty, and show thyself an ass.”

“Thou art very bold to provoke me, madam, with not even a star to be thy witness if I quite thee for’t. These flamboys are old roisterers, grown gray in scenes of riot. They shall not blab.”

“Nay, if thou speakest in wine I’m gone, my lord;” and as he took a step towards her, “and I return not, here or otherwise, but fling thee off for ever,” she said. “I will not be entreated like a serving-maid. I have borne too long with thy forced soldier fashions.”

Corinius caught his arms about her, lifting her against his broad chest so that her toes scarce kept footing on the ground. “O Sriva,” he said thickly, bending his face to hers, “dost think to light so great a fire, and after walk through it and not be scorched thereat?”

Her arms were close pinioned at her sides in that strong embrace. She seemed to swoon, as a lily swooning in the flaming noon-day. Corinius bent down his face and kissed her fiercely, saying, “By all the sweets that ever darkness tasted, thou art mine to-night.”

“To-morrow,” she said, as if stifled.

But Corinius said, “My dearest happiness, to-night.”

“My dear lord,” said the Lady Sriva softly, “sith thou hast made such a conquest of my love, be not a harsh and forward conqueror. I swear to thee by all the dreadful powers that clip the earth about, there’s matter in it I should to my father this night, nay more, now on the instant. ’Twas this only made me avoid thee but now: this, and no light conceit to vex thee.”

“He can attend our pleasure,” said Corinius. “’Tis an old man, and oft sitteth late at his book.”

“How? and thou leftcst him carousing?” said she. “There’s that I must impart to him ere the wine quite o’erflow his wits. Even this delay, how sweet soe’er to us, is dangerous.”

But Corinius said, “I will not let thee go.”

“Well,” said she, “be a beast, then. But know I’ll cry on a rescue shall make all Carcë run to find us, and my brothers, ay, and Laxus, if he be a man, shall deal thee bitter payment for thy violence toward me. But if thou wilt be thy noble self, and respect my love with friendship, let me go. And if thou come secretly to my chamber door, an hour past midnight; I think thou’lt find no bolt to it.”

“Ha, thou swearest it?” he said.

She answered, “Else may steep destruction swallow me quick.”

“An hour past midnight. And until then ’tis a year in my desires,” said he.

“There spoke my noble lover,” said Sriva, giving him her mouth once more. And swiftly she fared through the shadowy archway and across the court to where in the north gallery her father Corsus bad his chamber.

The Lord Corinius went back to his seat, and there reclined for a space in slothful ease, humming to an old tune:

My Mistris is a shittle-cock,

Compos’d of Cork and feather;

Each Battledore sets on her dock,

And bumps her on the leather.

But cast her off which way you Will,

She will requoile to another still —

Fa, la, la, la, la, la.

He stretched his arms and yawned. “Well, Laxus, my chub-faced meacock, this medicine hath eased powerfully my discontent. ’Tis but fair, sith I must miss my crown, that I should have thy mistress. And to say true, seeing how base, little, and ordinary a kingdom is this of Pixyland, and what a delectable sweet wagtail this Sriva, whom besides I have these two years past ne’er looked on but my mouth watered: why, I may hold me part paid for the nonce; until I weary of her.

Love is all my life,

For it keeps me doing:

Yet my love and wooing

Is not for a Wife —

“An hour past midnight, ha? What wine’s best for lovers? I’ll go, drink a stoup, and so to dice with some et these lads to pass away the time till then.”

ornament

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 16:03