Cover image for Saint Fire
Saint Fire
Lee, Tanith.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Woodstock : Overlook Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
335 pages ; 21 cm.

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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"Starting with the premise of four novels based on the phases of alchemy and the four elements, Tanith Lee has created an evocative alternate Italy in her new series, The Secret Books of Venus." "In Saint Fire, the second volume in the series, Volpa is a strangely beautiful servant girl who glows with an inhuman inner fire. When her master, an abusive woodseller, is mysteriously incinerated, Volpa begins to discover her power of fire. Her gift is noted by the Church leaders, who see her as a mighty weapon in their holy wars. Not sure if her powers are heavenly or demonic, the priests are nonetheless determined to have Volpa on their side."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Author Notes

Tanith Lee, September 19, 1947 - May 24, 2015 Tanith Lee was born on September 19, 1947 in London, England, the daughter of ballroom dancers. She attended various primary schools and had a variety of jobs, from file clerk and assistant librarian to shop assistant and waitress. Lee attended an art college for one year, but felt she would be better writing her ideas than painting them.

Her first professional sale was "Eustace," a 90 page vignette which appeared in The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories in 1968. While Lee was working as an assistant librarian, she wrote a children's story that was accepted for publication. Others of her stories were also bought but never published. In 1971, Macmillan published "The Dragon Hoard," another children's book, which was followed by "Animal Castle" and "Princess Hynchatti and Other Stories" in 1972.

Lee was looking for a British publisher for her book "The Birthgrave," but was denied at every House she went. She then wrote to American publisher DAW, known for it's fantasy and horror selections, who immediately accepted her manuscript and published the book in 1975. Thus began a partnership between the two that lasted till 1989 and resulted in 28 books. After the publication of her third book by DAW, Lee quit her job and became a full-time freelance writer.

Lee has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the August Derleth Award and the Nebula. She has had more than 40 novels published, along with over 200 short stories.

Lee died peacefully in her sleep after a long illness on May 24, 2015.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Lee (the Paradys series, etc.) throws more jeweled prose at the city of Venice than almost any writer since George Sand. People sleep under "rose death sheets" and roam in palazzi where the ceilings are painted with pictures of "cloud blown Gods." Except this isn't quite Venice. The canals are still there and Carnival is still that famous time of desire and revenge, but in Lee's alternate 15th century, Titian's Venice is combined with haunting references to Venusberg, where Tannhauser was tempted. The young man being tempted here is Furian, who from disgust has forsaken his wealthy parents and now plies various trades for the alchemist Schaachen. While trolling for corpses in the canal during Carnival, he comes upon an odd mask of Apollo. The mask, it turns out, belonged to a young musician who has drowned. Furian brings the mask back to Schaachen and, suddenly, Furian is a marked man. His wandelier (gondolier) is cut up into 11 pieces, like Osiris, and Schaachen is attacked. Furian seeks a motive, which leads him to Eurydiche, a woman whose face is frozen into statue-like beauty. Everything starts to fall in place for him when he meets her father, Lepidus, a traveler in the Marco Polo mode. Lepidus is the head of the Guild of Mask Makers and as such has assumed an occult power for himself, employing the magical arts of the distant peoples among whom he has traveled. But what does he want with Furian? And is Eurydiche simply a lure, or does she love Furian? This is a fast start to what promises to be an exciting, innovative fantasy series. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One "I spit on the Virgin. She's a whore."     The shadow of the bridge, ghostly in the pre-dawn, closed them over. And Furian thought quickly. How wonderful life is.     Then the shadow lifted. They were out on the canal, and the wanderlier was crossing himself. "Forgive me, Beautiful Maria."     Furian thought, Am I so superstitious then. I must do it too? Tell myself a lie, like this man's extreme piety. (For sometimes they only said, My wife's faithless, or I long to be impotent.)     But the Bridge of Liars, crossing or riding under which you must always lie for good luck, was gone.     Only the canal now, leaden pearl under a half-born sky.     "I don't think you will find anyone, Signore." said the wanderlier.     "No. You're right. It's unusual."     "My cousin, Chomo, he found two yesterday by the water steps at Santa Lala. A girl and a man. Lovers, perhaps.     "I should have hired you then."     "This was in broad morning, Signore. They were caught together by her hair. She had very long hair. Pale yellow. It was a shame."     Furian thought, Shaachen would have liked that . But he only said, "Never mind. We'll go towards the Primo. You can get another fare there easily."     "Thank you, Signore. You're always considerate."     Oh yes, thought Furian. Always, always.     The canal turned, and they came out into wider water. On either side, the dim, dark houses rose, peeling like dying flowers. Iron balconies hung over their heads like the empty cages of enormous birds. A lamp burned, one solitary pink ember.     The wanderlier sang mournfully some kind of sad song: "And so farewell; laugh when you think of me, "Who loved you better, better, better: "He will make you weep--"     The voice of the wanderlier was muffled by the mask he wore, a cheap concoction of paste and board, the shape of a fish's face.     Furian was tired. He longed to sleep, and knew he would not do so, to attempt it would be foolish. Behind his own mask, that of a plain, grotesque white face with a long, pointing nose, he closed his eyes.     The lamp shone on his lids as they passed beneath. And like the Bridge of Lies, was gone.     It had been a fruitless night, from three o'clock searching the canals and pools of the island City for dead bodies to give to Doctor Shaachen. During the autumn carnival, there were often dead, usually murder victims, sometimes not even out in the water, let alone weighted down. Last year Furian had taken five in a night, one a young gallant who had been hanged from a lamp-standard, only his beautiful silver buckled shoes tiptoeing in the canal. The wanderlier yawned.     "My wife will be frying little blue fish," he said, "baking bread. But not," he added, "for me."     Furian grunted.     "Oh, Signore," said the boatman, guiding his wanderer, dark and slick as a dagger between two bulging leaning house fronts, "my wife hates me. She's in love with our son. He's at the University, you understand."     Furian said, softly, "I'm sorry."     "No, I don't mean," said the boatman, as if Furian had asked or insisted, "that she's incestuous. Only that her love is fresh for him. For me, burned out. And when I go home, she says to me, Look at you, Juseppi, you have the face of a fish."     Furian felt he must stir himself. "What does she wear for Carnival?"     "A mask like a dove, with black-ringed eyes. And she wears a white gown. The tops of her breasts are still soft and white, with marbled blue veins. When I touch, she says, Go away, you fish."     "Change your mask," said Furian.     "Last year I was a bull. She told me then she was afraid of me. She made me sleep in my boat."     Furian laughed. He said, "Forgive me. Why don't you take a mistress?"     "Yes. I'll do it. I'll make an offering at the Primo. The first girl I see. Thank you, Signore."     There was a faintly lighted window above, either a late window or an early one. The lattice cast a reflection on the water like black lace.     Just beyond, the waterway closed in again, a channel hardly wide enough even for the narrow wandering boat. But the sky was higher, a ceiling of whitish nacre, and something floated on the water like a blown blossom.     "What's that--look, Signore--a face in the canal."     Furian had got up, careful of the rhythm of the boat. Juseppi the wanderlier poked them forward with his oar, and firmed them in, piercing with the oar the sludge of mud and filth and history under the boat.     The wanderer stood trembling-still.     The water was black as ink here, rimmed with ripples like silver milk. The face floated, upturned, as Furian had seen many faces in this half light, at this season. Was it weed or black hair that wavered out behind? The dead eyes staring at the dawn, so far above, so useless to them.     "In God's name--" said Furian, surprising himself. He felt dizzy a moment, and the movement of his long hair, tied back at the nape of his neck, slipping forward over his shoulder--was like a serpent's touch on his skin.     "It's a mask , Signore."     "So it is."     "But it's been in a fight."     "Yes."     "Shall I search about--something may be down there."     Furian sat. "If it's down that deep, he won't want it."     For Shaachen did not care for the weighted ones, he liked them salad crisp, their lungs with only a little salty water in them.     But the mask was strange. It seemed to have been ripped and bruised. Yes, bruised, as if made of flesh. Skeins of black hair eddied back from it, but they were torn and ragged. About the eye-holes were scales of brassy sequins, but some had come off. One lay neatly on the water like a dull yellow tear.     The mask had been only half-face, resembling a sculpture, some god or handsome classical figure, a perfect nose, and chiseled brows, painted black--for a moment it looked familiar.     All across the right side was a slash, an old rusty color, as if the mask--had bled.     There was something very odd, very sinister in its appearance. But it was the sleepless nights, wine and brandy, the rocking of the boat, which made it nauseous and terrible.     Furian decided. "Use your hook. Bring it in."     "Signore--you want it?"     "Yes. We found nothing else. Let him have that."     The wanderlier gripped his hook, and reached for the mask. As he secured it, the oar let go of the mud and they drifted on.     Furian felt a spasm of distaste as the bruised white mask fluttered heavily off into the boat. It's dead hair spread over his foot.     The boatman crossed himself again.     "He's down below us."     "Perhaps. Or he went home with a bloody nose."     "Without the mask?"     To be unmasked at Carnival was, by the law of misrule, illegal. At least, you would be hounded, fined, even if you were rich, or holy.     "Well. Let's row for the Primo."     The wanderlier turned his wanderer through the narrow way, between arches, where three blind lamps hung down and the dawn shone in them, like mother-of-pearl.     Quickly they came out into a lagoon, the Laguna Fulvia.     The water was a sheet of lilac ice, and from it ascended wan palaces that seemed already drowned. So still was everything a moment, the reflections of the walls of Venus, City of the Sea, appeared more solid and more real than her vaporous buildings floating in twilight above.     Furian noted, as if he must, the huge white dome of the Primo Suvio, and beyond, the transparent veiled amber minarets of the Palace of Justice and the Temple of Art. But the sun was rising, yet one more gilded dome.     Furian shut his eyes. Damn beauty. He would give it all to the ocean for three hours of sleep. Or no. He would die for it, the longest sleep of all. There was no need to disguise the find inadequately as a carpet, or something in a chest. Furian went alone, by the route of the alleys, to Shaachen's house.     To the south, steps led into the water, and there was an imposing pole to moor a boat, topped by a green iron Neptune. On the alley front, the palace looked mean, its windows narrow, sides stained, and scrawled by occasional graffiti. The narrow door, almost always open by day, led into the lower rooms, where Doctor Shaachen's free clinic was, as usual, full of destitutes and criminals. Drinking, smoking of pipes, and a card game were in progress. Elsewhere sat the desperate, jittery or slumped patrons. They would lurk here all day for the Doctor, ready to present their various ailments and diseases. Some he would cure, some, it was said, he killed. He was reckoned very clever, but would always say, (they said), Now, this medicine hasn't yet been tested. It may make you well, or worse. May do nothing. May even harm you. Go home, take it, come back in seven days and tell me what's happened to you. (And, they said, sometimes even the dead had done so.)     Ignoring the patients, who mostly ignored him in turn, Furian climbed the stair, walked the corridor, and rapped on a black door.     "Devil take you. Devil blast you, I say," Shaachen cried. "What do you want?"     "Nothing," said Furian. "Good morning and farewell."     He waited, and the door was flung open.     "Furian. Shit of stars. You have something? In that bag? A head ? Come in."     Furian shrugged, and entered Doctor Shaachen's study.     The window faced to the south, across the canal, but it was filled by small squares of opaque, greenish glass. Against it stood a painterly array of bottles, liquid apricot, jade, and powdery mauve--an effect of pleasing color that was quite random. The fine orrery and astrolabe had been pushed aside, the old books jostled on shelves. Distillers' glasses stood on the table, crowded by the ancient stuffed turtle with a shell of agate. Papers littered the floor. Spider webs massed from the ceiling. The room smelled of stagnant brews, brandy, the canal outside, and of Shaachen's pet magpie, which was standing on the turtle's back, eating some raw shreds of meat out of its dish.     "So, Furian Furiano. Show me."     "It isn't what you think."     "Not a head? A leg, then? A child --?"     Shaachen experimented on fresh corpses. He found them handy. The City police did not hamper him, being well-bribed.     Shaachen leaned forward. He had on, as was normal, his black wig of long curls, under which he was shaved bald. Indoors, he went unmasked, and his face, like the black magpie's face, was that of a wicked old woman. Here and there in the alleys they said that he was truly two hundred years old, having sold his soul to Lucefero for knowledge. Probably he was sixty.     "You'll be disappointed," said Furian.     "That's," said Shaachen nastily, "what you say to all the girls."     Furian said, "It's not flesh. I couldn't find you any flesh to eat or feed to your bird. But I thought it might interest you."     "Give me," said Shaachen. "On the table there."     Furian emptied the bag over the small space on the table. The mask fell out and lay there. Shaachen's magpie flew up with a croak and blue flash from its black and white feathers.     "A mask. At Carnival he brings me a mask!"     Furian said, "If it's of no concern to you, I'll take it back--"     "Wait, wait. Where did you find this?"     "In the water. A street near Fulvia."     "Nothing else."     "Nothing I could see."     Shaachen peered at the mask through a magnifying glass. He touched it, but with a rod, a pair of tongs.     "Something strange. Something peculiar. I look, and expect his eyes to look back at me out of the holes. And perhaps, the reflection of his assassin in them. And perhaps they will. No, I forgive you, Furian Furiano. Something, some thing. I'll give you the price of a full-grown hand. How's that?"     "Very generous."     As Shaachen was unlocking his chest, he said, slyly, "In two nights, there'll be a Revel of Diana. At the full moon." Furian waited once more. "Do you want the work? Bring a companion with you. Only one should be needed. But a hefty fellow."     "I can arrange that."     "We won't meet here, but by the Centurion's Bridge. The Neptune side. Eleven, by the Primo clock."     There came a scratch at the door. Shaachen called in a more friendly voice. A well-dressed woman came in with a tray. She had the mask of a pigeon, and Furian thought of Juseppi the boatman, and his marble-breasted wife. Dull-brazen hair threaded with grey ran down this one's back. Shaachen had cured her of a growth, (he had said, by painting his member with a certain remedy and having intercourse with her.) Now she brought him breakfast every day. There was a whole roast chicken, warm bread under a napkin, peaches. She set down the tray on the space from which Shaachen had, with the tongs, suddenly whipped away the mask.     The chicken was aromatic. Furian felt a hollow pang of hunger.     "Eat with me," said Doctor Shaachen.     "Thank you, no."     Furian picked up the coins. As he was leaving, the woman was slicing a peach into a cup of wine, and the smell of nectar filled the air. The magpie had come down again and Shaachen, calling it "Darling," was feeding portions of chicken to its black beak. The City of the Sea, commonly called Venus, although her name been had Venera, stood--or drifted, in the popular view--on her seven islands. She was aproned by the three great lagoons which held her, Fulvia, Aquila, Silvia, and all through her ran her canals, cutting her in delicate pieces. Seen high from the air, as the sable gulls of the ocean saw her, she was like a broken mirror, reflecting sky. The broken, attributable mirror of course, of Venus.     In the market beyond Shaachen's palazzo, the early vegetables and fruit and fronded herbs were lying in sheets of color, that swam momentarily before Furian's eyes. He could have bitten into everything, the melons, the curled basil, (green, succulent), the purple legumes, the bosoms of young women bending, creamy, to their baskets, where just a slip, a shiver, and the whole breast, a globe of heaven, might be, for half a second, revealed. The inside of his mouth was wet, and he was suddenly hard under his clothes.     For this reason, he would wait. No breakfast. No woman.     He looked instead at the masks of the poor, antiques passed down through generations, kept sacred with the little Virgin statue, the medallion of Neptune, mended, patched. Sometimes only a band of black cloth with two eyeholes cut out. The beggars who clustered at the market's edge sported masks of straw or dead leaves. One had omitted the custom last year, and been hung up barefaced by the heels among the wrung-neck chickens.     Six weeks the autumn Carnival lasted. They were one week into it. He had missed the first five days, lying down with fever in his rat's nest. He must go to the rat's nest now, tidy the mess. Then to the Signora's, to copy her book for her.     A box-litter passed along the market's rim. Four men in ivory livery, holding up a doll in a wonderful mask. It was the shape they especially liked this year, that of an opened fan, narrow end at the chin, all silver lace tines, with the eyes marked in flares of blue sequins, the color that had been on the magpie's back, an alien blue. The woman herself was made out of white sugar. She had a little dog on her lap, fashionably also masked. He looked after her, remembering he could have had a wife like that, a mistress.     The clock was sounding seven from the Primo, several streets behind him. Round the spire the brass horses would be trotting, mechanically tossing their heads, one horse for each of the City's islands.     Furian wondered if Juseppi had made his offering at any of the Primo's pagan shrines, and gone out and found a girl, pretty and willing, in answer to his prayer. Furian's present rooms lay in the Carpenters Quarter, behind Silvia, the smallest and most ominous of the three lagoons. Out of it, or her, at her sea-most end, the island of San Fumo rose like a black hump, curtained by funeral smokes. And under Silvia, as beneath Aquila, lay drowned places.     He had walked until no longer tired, then taken a wanderer to the water steps by the Carpenters' Bridge, crooked as a screw, where a small Neptune stood in a niche, with a votary lamp lit for him. Someone had left a dead crab, too. No one, or few, would rob the gods, and nature took its course with the crab, which had been there ten days, and now stank.     The houses pressed together, most, like his own building, now sheltering several tenants. Washing hung in banners across the alley, and birds twittered above in cages. Some children, quite dirty and seemingly happy, all masked--as cherubs, demons, sprites--were playing by the door.     They called him names when he wanted to get by.     Inside, the passage ran down deep, damp and phosphorescent from the canal under which it went. It came up in a courtyard with more washing, more children, more birds, pots of herbs, a pig in a pen, women at their wash-tubs. Two or three of these bowed to him. He was thought to be a gentleman, but God knew why. He had deliberately lost his accent years before, taking it out only to soothe old ladies like the books Signora. And he lived like a pig. Worse, for pigs, such as the one the Amari family kept, were clean and tidy if well treated.     The climb up from the court was a long one. The attics were reached by four flights of stairs, (Shaachen had christened his rooms the Apartment of the Sixty-Seven steps.)     Once in he shut the door, and poured some water from the stale jug. His appetite had lessened. There was only a slight gnawing now.     Furian wrenched the sheets from his bed, slung them aside for the attention of the washerwoman, dragged the mattress to the window and hung it forth, like thirty others, to air.     He swept the floor. He pushed the two chairs into two new positions. He did not dust off the forty or fifty books. A dead rose crumbled in a crock. Last month, a girl had given it to him on the street, hoping presumably to be followed. But he had only come home and put the rose in water. Where he left it.     When he had finished with the two rooms, he went to get fresh water from the caretaker in the cellar. He lugged the buckets up, mopped the floor, stripped and washed himself. Finally, he took off his mask, to shave.     The mirror was small, but a fine one. If they had known, worth someone's while to steal. He had stolen it from his mother. He did not know why. A silvered glass, with a freckling in the upper circle, like little creatures trapped behind. The frame was knotted bronze, with gilding, and a silver lily. He had taken it up, this hand mirror, while she lay on her sofa weeping, screaming, and his father ranted, and the dogs barked below, stirred by the general din to add to it.     When he walked out, he had the mirror in his grasp.     Now he saw his lean body, his lean-boned face in it. What a fall it had had. The carefully-kept, powdered, smooth countenance of his mother, and a room rich with brocades. Now the rat's nest, and Furian. The eyes, long-lidded, dark but not black, the features long and finely cut. The mouth with its edge of bitterness. So easy to sneer with such a mouth.     When he had finished shaving, he wiped his face, put on the mask again with the pointed nose--his old mask, worn at Carnival for years, generally known like his face, by now, as Furian.     He combed his hair and re-tied it, and put on a clean shirt for the Signora, who would notice. "Have another little cake, Signore Furian. Geletta made them just for you."     Since his hunger had abated he had eaten a cake, but he did not like them, they were very sweet. So he ate another, (His mask had been taken off; she was old-fashioned.)     Today the Signora wanted only to talk about her past, when she had been young. About five o'clock she would grow exhausted by her former triumphs, perhaps jealous of her younger self. Then she would go, and he would start to copy the latest volume into her vellum book. Her tastes were many. He had copied for her frivolous novels and archaic treatises, in Latin, by former princes of religion, when the City's name was written Ve Nera .     But she liked him gone by six, for then, quite often, she would dress for a dinner at seven with her elderly acquaintances. She was of the most minor nobility. She took it all seriously, in a way he partly recognized.     Suddenly she said, "A terrible thing. A most wonderful young man has disappeared. Did you hear, Signore Furian?"     "No, Signorissima." He added politely, "Who would that be?"     "A marvelous musician. He is the son of a ducca. But his musical talent led him to give concerts. And sometimes to compose."     "I see." It sounded embarrassing. Perhaps someone had taken the opportunity of Carnival to kill this bore, as often happened, when all the world was in disguise. One threw off one's self with one's face. It was easier then to do what you really wanted.     "Cloudio del Nero. Ah, from his name one tells his Veneran ancestry. To a scholar like yourself--"     "You flatter me, Signorissima."     "He was so handsome and accomplished. They say," she lowered her voice--no one had spoken of such a thing other wise in her youth--"he had gone to visit a woman. A very mysterious woman ... And he was to meet with other musicians at the Equus Gardens--but he never came."     "How unfortunate."     "Hope hasn't been given up. He was famous, you see, for his good taste. His beautiful clothing couldn't be thieved--it would be identified at once. And the mask--oh, his mask, of the most exquisite. Apollo, half-face, done in white and black, with brazen sequins about the eyes. It was one of the finest masks to be had, modeled on the Apollo at Aquila--"     Furian said, courteously, "And was the young man known to you?"     "Only by word of mouth, Signore Furian. A lovely example of youth, which all too often now, disappoints."     After this exchange, the Signora became exhausted early--it was only four. She went away and left him to his copying. And on the stroke of six the maid came in and told him he must go.     It was as he was walking down the steps to the waiting boat, getting into it, feeling the familiar rhythm of the water, which seemed to rock all Ve-Nera-Venus, that he saw, in his inner vision, the slashed mask floating upon the twilight canal.     Yes, it had been modeled upon a classic Apollo. Yes, it was a half-mask, ending at the upper lip. It was white with black, and sequined. It was, of its kind, impressive.     That then the victim who lay under the water--if he did--Cloudio del Nero.     Would it be worth while telling Shaachen? Having the canal dragged. Someone might pay to have up the corpse.     But Furian found this disgusting. To hunt for corpses for scientific Shaachen's pittance, yes perhaps. But to crawl to some great house, to make a pimp of oneself for death, To wrest away money (I know where ), and feed off grief. To become for those Great Ones what they expected: rubbish. And Shaachen anyway had no care for cash. He had plenty, it would seem. And the corpse would by now be far too drowned to take his tinctures and sewings.     Let it lie. Copyright © 1998 Tanith Lee. All rights reserved.