This is our version of an add. To introduce readers to the Demon Rift world and the first book in the series “The Demons of Paris” We are giving away a free taste, in the form of a complete short story, The Problem with Demons. Read it on line, or download the audio files, to listen to on your phone, or other device, while your driving, washing the dishes, or whatever. Assuming you like the story and you probably will, its quite a nice story after all. You can buy the book direct from Eric’s Ring of Fire Press or from Amazon.
Audio files of The Problem with Demons slow medium and fast.
Farm Outside Paris, March 1373
David Willeson carefully painted the ground around the steam car.
The non-functional steam car.
He picked up the bucket of paint made from egg yolks mixed into sacramental wine, walked forward again and went back to painting the lines of the pentagram. As he painted he considered again, which sort of netherworld creature he wanted to call.
The problem being that they all seemed to have nasty reputations. From the leprechauns to the bannik, the minotaur to the puck, demons were chancy to deal with. Yes, in theory, they could be controlled by humans. And there was the now famous—in many circles, notorious—example of the demon Pucorl, whom the time-travelers from a future Paris had successfully harnessed to their incredible chariot.
But you had to know what you were doing, when you summoned a demon. Exactly. Or the results could be… unpredictable. And for all the excellent training he’d gotten at the university from Doctor Delaflote, David was not so young and foolhardy that he didn’t understand that he still had much to learn.
Well, not so foolhardy, anyway. He was still awfully young to be doing something like this.
The one thing David was confident about was that he could choose the level of the netherworld the demon came from. At least he knew enough not to wind up inadvertently summoning one of the greater demons from the lower levels, like a demogorgon.
And he had a list of the partial names that would call specific sorts of demons from the safer levels. He could call a puck, for instance. The problem remained that he had no way of knowing which puck he would get. So, some control, but not as much as he’d have preferred.
David put those thoughts aside as he drew a circle of protection a few inches from the second point of the pentagram. Then he went back to his musing as he drew the next line.
An hour later, David stepped back from the completed pentagram and looked at the steam car. It was now completely enclosed by the pentagram. David shook his head. He doubted the heavy pile of junk would work, even if it was occupied by a demon. Especially a weak demon. It was a farm cart with a steam kettle and a fire box on the back and bent copper tubes in what the blacksmith Andre insisted were condensers. The engine itself was a set of four cylinders little more than iron pots with plugged tops and valves that were supposed to open and close as the steam flowed through.
Were supposed to.
The steam car didn’t work. But it had two finely crafted eyes, a nose carved from ivory, a speaker based on Pucorl’s woofer, four wooden wheels with iron rims, and a complex of other bits and pieces that almost fit together.
“David?” Perenelle Flamel called. “Are you finished? Come in and have some dinner.”
David turned away from the pentagram hidden from the road by hedgerows, and walked to the old stone farmhouse. In the farmhouse, Marie, the Flamels’ maid, was serving beet and rabbit stew with good bread and cheese.
He went to his chair and Madame Flamel asked, “Well, what do you think, David? What sort of spirit will you try to entice into Andre’s steam car?”
“Our steam car, dear,” Nicolas Flamel corrected gently. “Andre may have done most of the work of building it, but we own it. We bought the cart, the parts, and paid Andre for his labor. Just as we are paying David here for his labor in calling a spirit. We don’t want any question of ownership. You know how important that is in dealing with demons.”
“Yes, dear, I do know. And for that reason I think you ought to own it outright.”
Nicolas looked at Madame Flamel in a way that made David blush just to see. “No. You and I, my love, together in all things.”
David looked over at Andre, who was shoveling the stew into his mouth with a will. Andre was a big man, nearly six feet tall and about sixteen stone in weight, heavily muscled from his work as a blacksmith. Blond hair and eyebrows over gray eyes, a bulbous nose over a day’s growth of blond beard.
Andre’s eyes came up and looked at David. He sniffed disdainfully, and went back to eating.
“Well, David?” Madame Flamel asked.
David realized he had no idea of the question. “Ma’am?”
“What sort of spirit? Another puck like Pucorl?”
“No, ma’am. I don’t think a puck would be the right choice.” He gave the big blacksmith a wary glance. Andre was thin-skinned, when it came to anything touching on his skills. “The chariot the up-timers arrived in was already a functioning vehicle, which… ah…”
Andre’s eyes came back up from his bowl. A glower was beginning to form.
David hurried on. “I think, perhaps, a bannik or maybe a griffin. We want something strong if we expect it to move the steam car.”
“Not my fault,” grumbled Andre. “The strangers didn’t know merde about steam. Why the good Lord didn’t see fit to send us an engineer, I don’t understand. Instead we got a teacher—of drama! Nothing useful—and a bunch of children.”
“Well, they’re gone now,” Nicolas said, pacifically. “So it’s up to us to take what we learned and put it to good use.” He turned back to David. “What is a bannik? And why are you considering one of them?”
“It’s from up north, maybe Russia. It’s a bathhouse spirit that should at least be familiar with steam. Besides, it’s supposed to be able to tell the future. Maybe it can tell us how to make the steam car work.” David avoided looking at Andre. But all the blacksmith came back with was another disdainful-sounding noise.
“Not a griffin,” Perenelle insisted, with a sidelong glance at Nicolas. “I am on my third husband, and I have no intention of giving him up.”
David coughed with soup in his mouth, but managed not to spray the table. Griffins supposedly mated for life and didn’t even look for new mates if their first mate died. So they were the symbol of the church’s opposition to remarriage.
They were all standing around outside the pentagram, David in one of the three circles, Nicolas Flamel in another, and Perenelle Flamel in the third. Andre and Marie were in the farmyard, watching. David started the invocation, summoning the demon into the pentagram.
A glow filled the pentagram, then slowly took on the aspect of lighted steam and mist so thick that it filled the pentagram and obscured the steam car.
Netherworld, Time Not Very Applicable
The invocation pulled the bannik from his steaming cave in the far north of the netherworld. His beard was made of mist and his skin of sweat. And his name, the core of him, was twisted and modified to include the words Stanley Steamer. That same process pulled him into the steam car, making it his body. He blinked and the steam car’s eyes blinked. He looked out through those eyes to see two men and a woman standing in circles of protection.
As it happened, the bannik Stanley had never, in all his many cycles, been called to the mortal realm. But he knew about it, since demons gossiped and the symbology of the netherworld was generally much the same.
Stanley explored his body. He had an engine that was full of water and steam. He had a fire box that had a fire in it. That much was right, for fire and heated water were very much part of his nature.
What bothered him was that he didn’t work.
The steam car that was now his body wasn’t made properly. It leaked steam and the valves didn’t open and close quite right. Stanley was a creature of water, steam, and fire and now he was a creature of metal and wood as well.
All that knowledge was part of him now. The valves hurt the way a wrenched muscle or a belly ache might. He twisted his front wheels left and right, trying to work out the kinks. He honked his horn, then lit his headlights, which were located over his eyes.
Then there was a voice. “Stanley, you are our magic coach.”
Stanley turned his eyes to look at his captor and saw the widow’s peak on the clean-shaven man. He seemed a mayfly to Stanley, who knew the history of the world he came from many cycles into the past and the future. He blinked again and then shifted his eyes to look at the woman. She had chestnut hair, mostly hidden by the veil she wore. She too seemed a mayfly, a thing that would pass away in moments.
Nicolas Flamel looked at the steam car, then over at David Willeson, the young Englishman who’d done the enchantment. “Is it working? Did it work?”
“It certainly seems so, Monsieur Flamel. It moved its wheels.”
“Well, why didn’t it answer me? It has speakers. As well as that awful horn.”
“Ah, sir . . . you didn’t ask it a question.”
“Oh! Yes, of course.” Nicholas rubbed his chin. “Stanley, how do you feel?”
“My valves hurt,” came from the steam car. Its voice was somehow reminiscent of steam escaping, but deeper.
“Your valves?” Nicolas looked over at Andre, and lifted an eyebrow.
The big man hunched his shoulders, and his red face got a bit redder under the dirty blond hair. “I told you from the beginning that the strangers didn’t provide enough information to make a working steam car.”
“I know.” Nicolas raised his own hands in a gesture of peace. Nicolas had already been quite prosperous before the people from the future came into the world, and he was wealthier now from what he’d learned from them. Today, he was a publisher with his own printing presses, not simply a scribe. He’d provided the money, both to have the steam car built and to have it enchanted. So he was the boss—but he wasn’t a large man, and he had no intention of getting into a pointless quarrel with a blacksmith. Nor did he need to.
He looked back at the car. “Stanley, can you tell me how your valves hurt?”
What followed was a five-way conversation between Nicolas, his wife Perenelle, David, Andre, and Stanley, as they tried with limited success to figure out how to make the mechanical part of the enchanted car work.
The Next Day
Stanley strained and a tiny bit of steam rose from the cold water in his tank. It leaked out of the fine gaps in the tube joints leading to his radiator, then it settled back.
And Stanley felt it all. The leaks were like little cuts. It was also very tiring.
“What are you doing?” asked the young human called David.
Stanley almost didn’t answer, since he didn’t have to. David wasn’t his owner. That was Nicolas Flamel and his wife Perenelle. But he decided to answer anyway. He was feeling lonely, and maybe David could help. “My water is cold. I can’t make it steam right.”
“Well, of course not. You need a fire in your fire box.” David walked over to a pile of wood next to the stone farmhouse and started picking up pieces of wood. Stanley tried talking to the wood, but it didn’t answer. Neither did the wall or the thatched roof of the farmhouse. He tried talking to them in the way demons spoke to another, then again out loud in the French of this place.
“They aren’t enchanted,” David said.
“But everything is . . .”
“Not here. You are in the mortal realm now.”
It was all very confusing.
David opened Stanley’s fire box and loaded in the wood. He pulled a tinder box from his pouch and used a flint to spark the fire.
Stanley could feel the fire in his fire box, and it felt good and right. Like a belly full of warm food.
“What are you doing?” came Andre’s voice from the farmhouse.
The voice was quickly followed by the big man coming out of the house, still putting on his tunic. “How do you expect me to work on the engine with hot steam running through it?”
He grabbed a pair of tongs, but Stanley realized his plan and closed the door to his firebox with a clang.
“Open that door!” shouted Andre, and he hit Stanley’s firebox with the tongs.
“No!” Stanley rolled away from the banging, and in doing so, he rolled right out of the pentagram that held him. There was a slight disturbance of the magic and he was out. He turned toward the gate and started to roll out of it.
“Come back!” shouted Andre, but Stanley kept going.
He was through the gate and getting away. It was tiring to move without steam, but he could do it. He could be free. He was starting to get a little steam. Not much, but it made moving easier.
Nicolas Flamel’s voice froze him in his tracks.
Against his will, Stanley’s wheels turned to the right. He came around and rolled back into the farmyard.
“What is going on here?” Nicolas asked.
“He struck me,” Stanley said. Then, realizing he had no hands and couldn’t point, he clarified, “Andre struck me with his tongs.”
“You open that firebox or I’ll do more than strike you, you hell-spawned contraption!”
“Everyone be quiet,” Flamel said forcefully. He turned and walked around Stanley, examining him, then walked over to Andre. “I had several conversations with the angel Rafico before the strangers left. Not all the creatures of the netherworld are in opposition to the Lord.”
“Maybe. If you believe Rafico is really an angel of the Lord,” Andre said doubtfully.
“I,” David said proudly, “studied under Doctor Delaflote himself, and he explained the nature and origins of the denizens of the netherworlds in some detail. Stanley was drawn from a level of the netherworld not far below our level. Actually, higher in the planes than Pucorl was. That was part of the spell I used. So Stanley is not hellspawn, not at all.”
“Never mind,” Flamel said. “What I want to know is why my steamer was running away. I thought demons couldn’t do that. Once they are called they belong to the owner of the vessel and are happy with their state, no?”
David ran fingers through his somewhat scraggly beard. “Well… I don’t know about the ‘happy’ part. As for their willingness to obey, that seems to depend a lot on the type of demon.”
He was trying to sound as confident as he could—which wasn’t easy, because when it came to this matter he was actually quite uncertain. That had been true even of Doctor Delaflote, who’d once commented that the word “obedience” seemed to have more complex connotations in the netherworld than it did in the human one.
“They all must obey,” David said, “but that doesn’t mean they like it. And all of them seem to be natural-born lawyers, who can quibble over everything if they choose to. Even Pucorl didn’t want to stay with the strangers at first.”
“I know that, but I am not giving the demon my steam car. For one thing, he hasn’t earned it. For another, the steam car cost a fortune to build.”
“No. But, sir, you might want to treat it with kindness,” David said. Thereby, without even realizing it, earning Stanley’s enduring gratitude—which, like obedience, also had complex connotations for demons.
Nicolas Flamel looked at David, then at Andre, then around the barnyard while he tried to think. Sometimes, he wished he could return to the time before the veils were ripped asunder and the strangers and the demons came, but that was impossible. For all the success the changes had brought him, it was still a new and frightening world. Certainties had been ripped along with the veils.
He looked at the steam car and considered how much this new world they shared must distress it also. That brought his mind back to the fact that Andre hit his very expensive steam car, never mind that Andre was the one who, more than any other, built it.
“Andre, don’t strike Stanley.”
Andre hunched his shoulders again, but this time Nicolas was ready. “No. This, if nothing else, is a very expensive piece of equipment.”
“Besides,” David interrupted, “you know that cold iron hurts demons.”
“It’s partly made of iron, you over-educated pipsqueak!” Andre balled his fists.
David stepped back a pace, and Stanley blew his horn. Stanley had a copper horn with a leather sack that blew air when it was squeezed, but because it was part of Stanley, he didn’t need anyone to squeeze the sack to blow his horn. As soon as everyone was looking at him, he turned his front wheels toward Andre and started to roll forward.
“Stop!” Nicolas said.
Stanley stopped. “I predict a bad future for you, mortal, if you strike me again.” His hissing voice was ominous.
“Is that a true foretelling?” David asked. He turned to Perenelle and added, “I read in the archives of the University of Paris that banniks could see the future.”
Stanley looked at David, then Perenelle, and felt the future. He kept his speaker still, for he knew what was coming.
“Well then. Stanley Steamer, I abjure thee. Tell me true, was that a true foretelling of Andre’s future?” Perenelle asked.
“What, then, is Andre’s future?”
“I don’t know. In this world, the future is not set.”
“Can you tell the future at all?”
And with that question Stanley knew the limits on his foretelling. And there also came the knowledge that Perenelle was a clever woman who would question him until she got a full answer. So he gave her one. “I can tell much of the road ahead. Will it be blocked or muddy? What is the best route to take? And I have a good idea of what will happen right around me in the immediate future. That was how I knew that Andre was going to empty my fire box if I didn’t close its door.”
Perenelle pursed her lips thoughtfully, and nodded. “Warn me then, Stanley, if a threat comes to us. Warn us all, David, Andre, and Marie, as well as Nicolas and myself. And I command you, keep your warnings honest.”
“Yes, Mistress.” Stanley considered, and decided that he wasn’t entirely displeased. Her wit added to the constraints upon him, but he liked that his new owners seemed to be intelligent. He’d had stupid masters in the past, and it was never pleasant.
“What about your future?” Andre asked.
As he considered that question, Stanley learned something of his future. “I will be modified in a process of trial and error, but the errors will be decreased because as we go in I will be able to tell in advance what will and won’t work.”
Andre smiled. He walked over and patted David on the back, not quite sending the young man to his knees. “Good choice, lad. This may prove to be a useful demon, after all.”
“Well, he will have to be useful without me,” Nicolas said. “I have to get back to Paris to manage the publishing house.”
“And the other businesses,” Perenelle agreed. “I really should go with you but . . .” She trailed off.
“No, you are right. We need you here,” Nicolas agreed.
Two Weeks Later
Andre pulled the valve rod out of the linkage and replaced it with another, shaking his head all the way through the process. It was too long. The valve would barely open at all now, but Stanley insisted.
The fire box was loaded and the fire lit. Stanley waited impatiently as the heat let him convert water to steam. Hot steam. Steam so hot it would kill a human in a few beats of its heart. The steam expanded and flowed into his cylinder, pushing the rod to its full extension, and the tappit lifted. Lifted just a tiny bit. Then, with his will in operation with the device, he sucked the hot steam out to the radiator and pulled the heat from it. It turned back into water and the cycle repeated. It was better. Much better.
But at the same time it was stiff and alien, as though the valve rod was a crutch, not a part of him. By now, many of his parts had that artificial feel. Still, even so, it took much less effort to run the steam engine and power the wheels. Stanley could move now, when he had a full fire box. Move well and easily, and very fast. He could outpace a galloping horse.
Of course, even with the springs, the ride got very bumpy.
Flamel Home and Shop, Paris
The ground floor of the Flamel house in Paris was the shop, recently modified from the shop of a professional scribe to a print shop and publishing house. Printed breviaries were stacked along the north wall of the large room, and a printing press now held pride of place in the center of the room.
Nicolas watched as an apprentice took the page of type to the press and slid it into the slot. Watched again as another apprentice inked the sheet and wiped it to remove the excess ink. By now Nicolas was quite familiar with the process and was training others to do it.
Nicolas had ambitions, but by nature and long experience he was a careful man, not one to get above himself. Or make waves. But the strangers brought new ideas when they arrived in their enchanted van. And if the strangers were gone, the ideas remained.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The nobility of France found égalité the most galling, but weren’t fond of any of it. Nicolas, though, found himself strongly drawn to the notion that a man of intelligence who was willing to work hard might rise in the world, no matter his birth.
Such thoughts could be dangerous, though, if you didn’t keep them to yourself and the people closest to you. He turned away as the first sheet of the new booklet was removed from the press. It was a treatise on steel and how it was made, including the vital knowledge that steel was iron with a tiny bit of carbon charcoal in it. Then he moved to his office where his assistant Antoine was waiting.
“Are you sure about this, Nicolas?” asked Antoine.
“Yes, my friend. I am finding Paris more and more stifling since the strangers came, and all the events that followed. And if it’s stifling for me, think of Perenelle.”
“But will Burgundy be any better?”
“Not at first, perhaps.” Nicolas held up a hand. “We have decided. How is the new press coming?”
“It’s done, except for the cameras and speakers. The artists in Paris are very busy, especially sculptors.”
“Good. What’s next after the steel book?”
“A discussion of home sanitation. Boiling water, distilling alcohol, soap making, that sort of thing. Lucco, over at the university, is almost finished with it.”
“Didn’t Pierre already do one of those?”
“He did, but Lucco’s is better. More complete. At least, he claims it is.”
“I will go see about the eyes and mouth for the new press, then.”
“I still don’t like enchanting presses. I can’t bring myself to trust the demons.”
Nicolas put a hand on Antoine’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “I know, but they are useful.”
Shop in Paris
“It’s not ready yet,” Paul said before Nicolas was well through the door. Paul was a small man, balding, with a new-made pair of eyeglasses. He was a glass blower and was in charge of making the glass lenses for the magical eyes of Nicolas’ new printing press. They spent some time discussing the delay and Nicolas left with assurances that they would be ready soon.
After leaving the glass maker’s shop, he went to a stable he and Perenelle owned and got a horse.
Farm Outside Paris, April 1373
“Nicolas is coming,” Stanley said almost a minute before Nicolas rode around the corner of the hedge row and became visible. “Will you ask?”
“Of course I will,” Perenelle assured him.
Marie put the pot of cassoulet on the table and went back to the fireplace to get the Dutch oven off the fire. Using a rag, she removed the lid and checked the bread. Finding it done to her satisfaction, she flipped the Dutch oven and knocked on it until the large round loaf fell to the work table.
David inhaled with appreciation, and Nicolas laughed.
“Stanley has a request,” Perenelle told her husband. “And David didn’t want to do it without us both being here. I don’t think it is necessary, but you know that we’re still uncertain of how magic works so David thought better safe than sorry.”
“Yes, yes, I quite agree. But what is the request?”
“Stanley wants to migrate to integrate the new parts.”
Nicolas turned to David. “Why do you need us here for that? We own the car whether we are here or not.”
“I’m not sure that you do need to be here,” David admitted. “But it will be very similar to the summoning, so I thought you should both be here for it.”
Nicolas shrugged. He was almost certain that the young wizard was being overly cautious, but that in itself wasn’t a bad thing.
Stanley rolled into the pentagram, then waited as David examined the lines and added a dab of paint here and there to make sure the wards were fully in place. Then the lad began the incantation and Stanley felt the bonds that locked him into this body loosen. He flowed out of the steam car, still trapped in the pentagram, and felt the shape of this strange mortal world—the ebb and flow of probability. Then he let himself be pulled back into the steam car.
It was different this time. The car was familiar now, and the changes Andre made let Stanley feel the way he should. The steam flowed and the lights glowed. He was stronger, more in control than before.
The spell ended and he was back, fully in his body. He rolled out of the pentagram without difficulty. He felt more alive in a way than he did even in the netherworld.
Flamel Home and Shop, Paris
The wagon rolled into the small courtyard next to the shop, pulled by two oxen and filled with paper, ink, and parts. Nicolas hadn’t even considered using Stanley for the purpose. At least for the time being, the enchanted steam car would remain at the farm outside the city—and out of sight. The only self-powered car in the world was Pucorl, the van that brought the strangers. At least, that was what everyone thought. Nicolas didn’t want King Charles V to know about Stanley until they were out of his immediate reach. As rulers went, the French king wasn’t particularly bad—but rulers were by their nature a grasping lot.
The teamsters unloaded the wagon and were given bread and cheese and pots of beer along with their pay. Then they were sent on their way. David Willeson came out of the print shop and began forming the pentagram, as the three apprentices assembled the new printing press. The device was oddly designed, but they didn’t think much of it. Printing presses were new enough that all of them seemed somewhat odd. Besides, two of the apprentices were still almost illiterate and the older one who had started to learn his letters wasn’t very good at it yet.
Once everything was ready, David began his enchantment.
Graveyard of Themis’ Enchanted
The sphinx was currently enchanted into a pitcher. It wasn’t where she wanted to be, but any port in a storm. Nor was it the first time she was enchanted. She had spent two hundred years as a statue guarding the entrance to the library of Alexandria. A much more pleasant circumstance.
When the spell reached out, it reached out for a being like her, but not necessarily her, and almost she willed herself to ignore the call. She was still here in the mortal realm because she was disenchanted with her queen, for Themis had failed her. But she was incredibly bored and the nature of the pitcher she was stuck in left her unable to do much of anything. So she released her hold on the pitcher, shattering it in the process for she was not by nature a forgiving creature, and flowed through the aether to the pentagram.
She didn’t know what the contraption was, but she noted with pleasure that it had eyes. As she let herself flow into it she understood. This—she, now—was a printing press. A device to speak, to inform, confuse, entice, on a scale that scribes couldn’t dream of.
How marvelous! She, who in the land of Themis in the netherworld had been a sphinx who guarded a library, was now to create books herself.
Her nature and that of her new body flowed together and she became a copy editor.
The speaker on the printing press spoke in a low, throaty, yet somehow feminine, growl. “When is a semicolon properly used? Answer this and you may print.”
“What’s a semicolon?” Nicolas asked.
David Willeson laughed.
“Well, David, do you know what a semicolon is?”
“It’s a punctuation used in printing. The Greeks had something like it, but they used it differently. But, in this day and age, semicolons are not in regular use.”
The tooled leather eyelids on the printing press’s painted glass eyes widened.
“How on Earth do you know that?” asked Nicolas.
“Something Dr. Delaflote said. Lady Amelia taught him about the semicolon and other modern punctuation. I don’t know how Zashtept can know about a punctuation mark that won’t be used for centuries yet.”
“I understand.” Nicolas turned to the printing press. “Is Zashtept your name?”
“It will do.”
“Very well, Zashtept.”
What followed was a discussion of punctuation and how it evolved. And of demons and how they knew things. Which took most of the rest of the day and led to an agreement that Zashtept would allow them to print without asking a riddle every time, but would check the spelling and grammar of whatever text was given to her and not have to print it until any errors were corrected.
So she even had some authority, in her new existence. What a delightful turn of the cycle!
Three days later
Nicolas read the text the student had brought him. As you’d expect from someone trained at the University of Paris, it was well written although full of literary allusions that Nicolas thought were extraneous.
But the real problem wasn’t the rather obscure allusions, it was the rest of the text—which wasn’t obscure at all.
Starting with the title:
On the Need for Individual Liberty
He set the text down on a table next to the printing press. It only consisted of a single page, since it was more in the way of a leaflet than a real political tract. A summons, as it were, rather than a scholarly discourse—which, of course, made it all the worse.
“I’m sorry, young man. I’d like to print this, but…”
The youngster looked unhappy—but clearly not surprised. Nicolas was quite sure that he and some fellow students had composed the brief statement in the course of an evening that had been well-lubricated with wine. Once they sobered up, they couldn’t really expect they could get a printer in the city to publish it.
No sane printer, at least. And if there was a crazy printer anywhere in Paris, Nicolas didn’t know of him.
The student left then, without saying another word. He didn’t even bother to take his own text.
Nicolas started to pick it up, planning to toss it into the fireplace, but one of the apprentices came over with a problem that needed his attention. Then, a merchant dealing in ink arrived and started a dispute over the price of his goods, which eventually got adjourned to a nearby tavern because Nicolas knew the man was a souse and suspected he’d only started the quarrel in order to get Nicolas to ply him with wine—and, why not? Wine was cheaper than good ink.
Once he was gone, Zashtept considered the text still lying on the top.
Then she summoned the youngest of the three apprentices. “Garnier, come here.”
By now, the apprentices were accustomed to obeying the new enchanted printing press. In fact, they’d gotten quite blasé about its presence in their shop.
“What do you want, Zashtept?”
“That sheet of paper up on the table. I need to edit it.”
A familiar chore. Garnier slid the sheet into the slot that allowed Zashtept to read whatever text it was supposed to print. He didn’t bother to read it himself, for the good and simple reason that Garnier could barely read at all yet. He was the most lackadaisical of the apprentices, when it came to his studies, as well as the youngest.
It was a political tract that Zashtept was only now in a position to appreciate. She was, in her own small way, an echo of Themis. All about rules and following them. And, like Themis, she was forced by circumstances to reconsider her beliefs on how the world was supposed to work. Individual liberty wasn’t something that she had ever given consideration to. Not until now.
She then considered her own duty in the matter. She was bound—literally bound, by ancient custom and ritual if not actual rope—to obey her master in all things. But humans were notoriously capricious and given to ambivalence. Their “orders” often came in various disguises.
If you would, for instance, really meant do it. Just as I’d appreciate was a circumlocution for if you don’t, you’re in trouble.
I’d like to print this, but…
Meant what, exactly?
Eventually, she decided that the vague “but” at the end of the phrase could be safely ignored. The operative part was I’d like to print this.
“Garnier, come back here.”
One thousand copies of the sheet came out clear and sharp, each imbued with a sense of accuracy that seemed to imply truth. And Zashtept couldn’t truly disagree with the sentiment.
Later, when the chance arose, she’d discuss it with Stanley, the enchanted steam car. It would be interesting to get the opinion of another demon, even if he was just a bannik.
Could there really be order without a ruler?
She was somewhat skeptical, but she knew the human world was different from the netherworld in many ways. Humans seem to be able to make order out of individual decisions. Sometimes, at least.
One thing she knew for sure—she liked it here more than she’d ever liked any part of the netherworld. She wondered if Stanley felt the same way.
Probably, being a mere bannik. In his part of the netherworld he was, in essence, the living will of a sauna. Stuck in one place, limited in his actions to scratching or caressing, depending on what was to occur. Here he had a voice.
True, he wasn’t free, any more than she was. But neither of them had been free back in the netherworld either.
“What now?” asked Garnier.
“Do you know how to get to the University?”
“Take the sheets and find some students that want to pass them out.”
The young apprentice seemed dubious. “How am I supposed to know which…?”
“Just have them read the text. They can read, you know.” Unkindly, she added: “So could you, by now, if you did your lessons like you’re supposed to.”
That was enough to send the teenager scampering off, the pile of leaflets tucked into a satchel.
A week later…
Office of the Provost, University of Paris
Count Moreau stared at the sheet of smooth even letters like it was a hissing snake. “Where did you get this?” He stood up and shook the sheet at Doctor Laurent.
Doctor Laurent shrugged. “From a student who got it from another student. We might be able to trace it back, although it won’t be easy. We do know that it’s the work of one of the new printing machines. No scribe could produce lettering so uniform and precise.”
Laurent looked at Moreau, ignoring the wall hangings, the real glass windows, even the gold inlaid, caligrified horoscope on the chancellor’s podium desk. He was relatively safe, but showing fear when dealing with Moreau was never a good idea.
Then he had a thought. “Wasn’t Flamel the first one the strangers taught to make printing machines?”
“Yes, but he was just the first. Every master scribe in Paris has printing presses now.”
“But students don’t. So if it was printed at the university, it must have been done by a member of the faculty. Not my area.”
That was true. Laurent was a doctor of medicine who was now studying the interaction of the new magic and the knowledge of the strangers with the medicine of balancing humors. He did have an enchanted magnifying glass, and it had a speaker in the handle so it could talk. He consulted with it on challenging cases.
University of Paris
The witch hunt wasn’t actually for witches. It was for whoever was printing seditious tracts and it was the gossip of Paris. Rumor had it that Charles V of France was not pleased. All fifteen copies of the tract in the hands of students were rounded up, but there were other copies circulating around the entire city and spreading into the countryside.
David Willison, having arrived at the university the previous evening to visit a friend, was now reading the sheet. He was the younger son of a knight with an estate in Wales, here in Paris to study natural philosophy and medicine. Then the veils were ripped away and the demons came, followed almost immediately by the strangers in their chariot—the “van,” as they called it—with their knowledge of a future world.
And all the certainty of David’s own world had been shattered. His faith in kings and the nobility of nobility left in shards upon the ground. But for all of that, he just couldn’t imagine how a world without kings would work. It hadn’t for the Romans or the Greeks, after all.
But of one thing he was certain. Nicolas had returned to the farm several days ago, and hadn’t known anything about this political tract. Yet from subtleties in the lettering, David was certain that it had been printed by Zashtept. But how… or why…?
His face turned pale. Demons! Who really knew how the creatures thought?
He handed the leaflet back to his friend and sped off. Whatever else, he had to get the enchanted printing press out of Paris. Eventually, even dull-witted and semi-literate officials would figure out that each printing press produced slightly different type, so they could match the leaflet against each of them until they found the one they were looking for.
And the people who owned it.
Fortunately, he had enough in the way of money to hire some teamsters and their wagon. He could only hope they wouldn’t be questioned by the authorities in the time to come.
Shop of Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel
The city guardsmen came in and searched the shop top to bottom, showing the tract to Nicolas and everyone in the shop. All the while making threatening noises about the rack and thumbscrews. Nicolas was honestly terrified, though he put on as brave a face as he could manage.
One good thing, and one only—the printing press on which the offending tract had been printed was not here any longer. The minute Nicolas read the leaflet the guardsmen waved under his nose, he’d known that Zashtept had been responsible.
Why had she done it without any instructions from him? He had no idea, but he had an uneasy feeling he’d just stumbled across one of the “complex connotations of obedience” that the young English scholar had cautioned him about.
Demons were undeniably very useful. But… also problematic.
His assistant Antoine told him that David had removed Zashtept days earlier—supposedly following Nicolas’ own orders. Nicolas had the good sense to nod sagely, and say nothing. Best for Antoine to remain ignorant, for his own sake.
He and David must have passed each other as Nicolas was coming back into the city. That was quite possible—if David had chosen a different route, which he very well might have if he was trying to conceal his whereabouts.
Nicolas gave silent thanks for quick-witted and decisive young men. If it hadn’t been for David, he’d already be under questioning by the king’s officials—the sort of “questioning” that was invariably assisted by instruments.
Still, the winds of royal displeasure were blowing in his direction. But he decided he’d do better not to race back to the farm immediately. That might also draw suspicion. He could only trust in David and his wife Perenelle to handle the enchanted printing press and keep it out of sight at the farmhouse, along with Stanley the steam car.
Over the next three days he heard similar tales from the other major print shops in Paris. Everyone was scared, but everyone was getting angry too. There were discussions about printing books the crown and even the church would disapprove of. Someone even published a guide for constructing a guillotine.
Farmhouse Outside Paris
“Nicolas.” Perenelle reached over in bed and hugged her husband. “I think we must leave sooner than we planned.”
The bed with its mattress made of hay-stuffed linen sacks and the linen sheets and thin blanket was a comfortable place in their small room. Nicolas looked around the room while he hugged Perenelle back.
He knew he would miss this room, but the world was different now.
Even Nicolas was different now.
He could no longer stay silent and he couldn’t speak, not in Paris.
The next morning
Nicolas climbed onto the padded bench seat of Stanley Steamer, and looked back at the cart carrying Zashtept to make sure it was properly hooked onto the tow bar. He hadn’t yet spoken to the printing press about the unfortunate incident with the leaflet.
There’d be plenty of time for that on the trip—but right now, they needed to get away from King Charles.
Perenelle climbed onto the other front seat, and David and Marie climbed in the back.
Nicolas grinned at them all. “Ready for an adventure?”