The clamoring in my head eased enough to hear the ragged return volley. It was largely ineffectual. The bulky firearms are awkward to employ on the move. A ball harrowed through the mud a couple of feet to my left. A bellow that modulated from shock to pain came from nearby to my right. At least one ball had found a mark. No quarrels hummed by, the enemy perhaps disdaining the arbalest as superannuated technology.
The artificial fog concealing the advance shredded and there they were. High boots over tight leggings. A few steel breastplates, but mostly padded brigantines and leather jerkins. A smattering of arched morion helmets. And, of more immediate interest, pikes, ranseurs, swords. Really not much to differentiate their lot from ours, though they tended to wear some sort of badge in a hue of blue while we sported red: a baldric, sash, spray of plumage, or some such. I didn't pay the details a great deal of attention, being far more concerned with weaponry than accessories. Roughly five hundred defenders were left after yesterday's set-to. About what the Captain had suggested in his pre-battle harangue. Behind the enemy, less than a mile distant and surrounded by a curtain wall, rose the castello, the target of this entire affair.
I let the arquebus fall and hauled free my cinqueada, then supplemented the short sword by filling my left hand with my main gauche. I'd left my rapier with the luggage train. The thin blade is more suited for single combat and urban engagements. Against armor the sturdy blade of the cinqueada is more practical. I spared an envious glance at the katzbalger wielded by my immediate comrade-in-arms, one of the northern mercenaries serving in the condotta. The long, heavy blade of the katzbalger was just the thing for dealing with the oncoming thicket of polearms.
And then the assault crashed into us and my perception contracted to the immediate square footage before me. I batted aside a thrusting pike, the cinqueada scraping along the steel head before gouging a sliver from the shaft. I stepped forward, main gauche plunging across my body to dig into the leading wrist. The pikeman drew back, to be immediately replaced by another assailant who drove the hooked blade of a ranseur at my chest. Seemed a world away from the parry-and-riposte of the fencing salle back in Plenum, but the required moves were similar enough that I reacted instinctively. The chaos of the battle wasn't just another sparring session or even a duel, but I fell into the rhythm and focused concentration I was accustomed to, losing myself in the mayhem for I don't know how long. Whatever the length, I was sheened with perspiration, hair sweat-plastered to my scalp, when I felt the pressure begin to ease, the enemy beginning to draw back.
That was, of course, right when they sent a demon rampaging through our ranks.
I hadn't anticipated that. In my experience one expected a magus somehow involved in a summoning. And that meant a Member of the Collegium. To my knowledge the Prefect whose domain we were intent on conquering was not a Member of the Collegium, nor had he ever been one. In fact scuttlebutt was the Collegium had backed our expedition, tacitly, practically, and financially. So who had conjured the demon?
It was an interesting conundrum, the solution to which would have to wait. The shifting of the press, the wavering of weapons, the occasional fully armored figure tossed bodily, all traced the demon's general heading. And I was right in the path.
The enemy had pulled back, clearing the way for the war-demon to handle the killing. I exchanged glances with a knot of comrades who'd come through the fighting together without serious wounds.
One of the northerners, a blonde-bearded fellow standing a good head taller than me – in fact the very fellow whose katzbalger I'd envied – nodded. “Here he comes, Cesar.” He knew my name. How did he do that? I'd been with the condotta a week and barely recalled the names of four or five of my fellows.
Again, the answer could wait. Blackened talons gripped the arm and shoulder of the soldier-for-hire immediately before me. With the sword in his free hand the mercenary hacked desperately at the figure looming above him, then uttered a horrified shriek as his arm was wrenched completely free of his body.
The demon discarded both pieces and moved on to the next victims. He towered about eight feet tall, a thickly muscled form covered with a scaly hide like a viper's – if vipers grew to the size of oxen. And no snake's scales grew that thick. Teeth like inch-long steel spikes were bared in a ferocious display. This wasn't a creature who chewed its food, just shredded and swallowed. If demons ate. Yellow eyes glared at us beneath a thickly ridged brow.
I'd have been terrified if I hadn't dealt with similar situations a time or two before. In fact the armor I was wearing was a souvenir of one such event. Well, not the armor itself – just a high-necked jerkin, really. But sewn into pockets covering the most vital areas were pieces of a peculiar metal hammered to conform to the pockets' dimensions. The metal had once been a prison or repository for a demon and it retained certain protective or repelling properties.
So I wasn't terrified when I stepped up to face his assault. Not happy. Not bubbling with confidence. Just – not terrified.
He drove the talons of his right hand at my chest, intending to skewer me like a morsel of chicken breast on the tines of a fork. Absurdly ambitious of course: I'm not a tall man but I'm built like a stevedore, with a chest like a beer keg. His talons were nowhere near long enough to transfix me. They hurt though. While they failed to penetrate the thin plate sewn into the front of my jerkin, the force of the blow stopped me mid stride and nearly drove the air from my lungs.
But the surprise stopped the demon short as well. He visibly hesitated, not sure precisely why I wasn't spraying blood like a punctured wineskin. In that pause I delivered a terrific backhand at the still extended right arm. A blow like that would have lopped off the limb of a man. I managed to dig the edge about an inch deep, just wedging it into the bone up to the blade's first fuller.
The demon snorted, pained, and drew back his arm, dragging me with him as I maintained my grip on the cinqueada. He raised me, dangling, to meet him at eye level.
“I am going to eat your face,” he said. The statement was flatly matter of fact, despite being uttered in a voice like a mill-stone crushing broken glass. So maybe they did eat.
Distracted and hampered by my weight dragging down his arm he was unable to make good his threat before my fellows bore in, hacking away.
Even so, he still might have done for us all if a war-demon of our own hadn't been sent into the fray. Proof that the Collegium's backing was substantial. They'd not provided an Arch-magus, no white-bearded Primate vying for a red hat, but certainly no Catechuman either, not if he could conjure up a bruiser that size. An Adept or Deacon at the least.
That was enough for the enemy. Those who didn't surrender or scatter fled back to the castle.
The day was ours. Maybe I'd get paid soon.
When I'd scratched my mark, just over a week ago, next to a scrawl of symbols the recruiter insisted represented 'Cesar' I'd received a single, shaved silver denari. A token, but sufficient compensation to form a contract. Wages would not be paid up front. I, for one, was appalled by the cynicism displayed by this tacit affront to my honesty and rectitude.
The thing was I could use a pile of money just now, but just as urgently I needed to remove my ass from Plenum. Signing on with a condotta fit my needs. I'd done it before when my fortunes ebbed to damp stone and gasping shore-fish. It wasn't ideal; I'm a city denizen and no bivouac-accustomed soldier. I dislike either giving or receiving orders. But a campaign offered egress from the city and the promise of loot. Both timely prospects.
Plenum had recently become a trifle unhealthy for me. As a bravo I accept certain risks. Instigating duels, for a fee, at the behest of those reluctant to mix it up personally, presupposed the possibility of coming in second. That hadn't happened to me yet, though I carried enough scars to demonstrate the dangers of my profession. But in addition to the obvious physical hazard of sharpened steel there were more insidious hazards: magistrates, bailiffs, and those with the money and influence to wield them – instead of a rapier - as a weapon.
I don't wish to rehash the incident. So, a simple summation: a certain candidate for a tribuneship had engaged me to pick a quarrel with his opponent for the open seat. That had gone well enough, first blood drawn publicly. However, instead of resulting in the defeated man's disgrace and withdrawal, he'd garnered public sympathy and overwhelmingly won the election. And immediately brought to bear upon me the weight of the civic authority of Plenum proper. Compared with that of the Collegium – the true power in Plenum and points beyond – such weight was relatively light, but still sufficient to crush a societal nonentity and marginal character such as myself.
Without coin to combat the Tribune with advocates in court (rather than drawn swords in an open courtyard) I'd yielded the field for the time being, abandoning the city a step ahead of the city watchmen prosecuting the arrest warrant.
And thus I signed on with the Condottiere, Captain Auquins. The Captain possessed a reputation as a winner, ruthless but punctilious. He'd been employed by the Aedile Claudio who espoused some sort of claim – specious or otherwise – to the lands governed by the Prefect Orfeo, one of the petty Prefectures clustered north of Plenum, plentiful within a couple hundred miles, but less numerous as one neared lands claimed by northerners. The perpetually churning rumor mill of the condotta's mercenaries held that the Collegium backed the Aedile's cause, though how one of Plenum's money-shuffling bureaucrats rated a provincial Prefecture in the first place gave the rumor mill unlimited grist for speculation.
Still, the rumors had proven correct about the Collegium's backing. Its representative – cassock immaculate despite the mud – stood near the Captain and the Aedile, clearly integrated into the condotta’s command structure. Captain Auquins stood atop a caisson, delivering his remarks in a resonant baritone. Several oxen roamed nearby, temporarily freed from their traces, grazing fruitlessly in the furrowed muck. Another caisson, and three bombards weighing down their gun carriages to the wheel hubs, hunkered nearby.
Off to one side humped two piles of corpses, theirs and ours, though it wasn't readily apparent which was which. It wasn't a sight I expected or wanted to get used to. In my line of work I seldom generated corpses as a byproduct, let alone heaps of them. First blood usually sufficed. A matter of degree, I suppose. I had no claim to moral superiority over these hired soldiers. Paid fighters, the lot of us. Why we did it remained an open question. Different for each man, I guess. I wondered if seeing – and smelling - this harvest led them to the same proposition I was mulling: maybe I should have learned a different trade.
“You fought well today,” the Condottiere was saying. “The enemy is routed. Those not fled are cowering behind yon walls.
“I dispatched heralds to offer terms. The sad news is that they were rebuffed. The castello will not yield. The happy news: we now need not offer quarter. Once taken it is yours to pillage.”
He paused while the condotta broke out in a cheer. The wages of those of us who survived the campaign would pale compared to the potential spoils a vigorous looter could gain in an overrun town or an important fortification. Or even this modest outpost.
He waited until the exuberance subsided. “Yes. Take it and it is yours. With a single exception. Within the keep, probably housed in the library, is a quarto volume. I will see hanged any man who damages or attempts to abscond with it. Aedile Claudio, our principal, will elaborate.”
Auquins assisted the Aedile in hoisting his corpulent frame atop the caisson. “Thank you Captain Auquins. As the Captain said, there is a quarto volume, a certain book, approximately this big” - here he mimed a rectangle roughly the length of the distance from my elbow to the tips of my fingers and about two thirds of that wide. “It will appear smaller and, likely, newer than the other books you might encounter. It will be furnished in silver and bound with silver banding. Take what else you wish. That quarto is mine.”
Quarto volume. I knew the term. Reading isn't a skill a bravo from the gutters of Plenum is likely to possess. But I was not without friends. Domenico, my fencing master, could read. He even owned a second-hand instructional manual, an illustrated folio volume diagramming basic fencing technique. It was a prestigious possession; printing remains a novelty. Even I was aware that mechanically reproduced pages represented an improvement from hand-copied texts. And progress didn't stop there. The advances followed one after the other. Already folio volumes – massive, awkward things capable of performing emergency duty as dining tables – were being threatened with obsolescence by the recently introduced quarto volume. The cleverly folded sheets nested and stitched into signatures could be bound into more manageable volumes. They were the future of the printers' art. Until pushed aside by the next innovation.
Still, it hardly seemed worth all this fuss for a book. Even the sale of an entire library probably would not fetch enough to reimburse the Aedile (or whoever actually paid) for the cost of this expedition. It was enough to raise a degree of curiosity in a humble bravo as to the contents of said quarto volume. Also, certain muted regrets concerning a humble bravo's illiteracy.
Another reason soldiering is not for me: knee deep in gripping mud helping an ox team to drag a massive bombard into position is a miserable experience. I am never called on to do that as a free agent in the city. I could, however, see as easily as the most experienced soldier here why the big guns were necessary. There was a wall between the condotta and the castello. I could figure even more: while I am neither an artillerist, nor a fortification engineer, I was fairly certain the bombards were going to get us past the obstacle in fairly short order. A glacis of earth and timber had been thrown up before the wall. It looked a recent effort and none too thorough. The turf was fresh and sections of the supporting logs peeked through. The original towers, set at intervals along the wall to subject attackers to flanking arrow shot, had been newly resurfaced, a convex shell encasing the front face of each originally square bastion. I grasped the theory well enough: slanted surfaces to deflect cannonballs up and diminish their velocity, rounded walls to perform similar functions laterally. But it was an exercise in retrofitting and an incomplete one at that. A fortification designed to truly withstand a modern artillery siege required more than this hasty patch job.
I might even have felt sorry for those inside were I not mud begrimed, splattered, and plastered. I had my doubts of any laundress being able to return this outfit to pristine condition. And I am fastidious about my attire, as is any self-respecting bravo. Yet another indication that the martial profession is not for me.
I had time to scrape off the worst of the muck while the gunners set up, sighted, and began firing their bombards. The first few salvos were exciting, all that flash and thunder. But after a while it was just so much noise, interfering with naps, dicing, or conversation.
Things picked up again mid-afternoon when the cannonade finally breached a section of wall. It wasn't much, just a ragged gap about a yard wide, dribbling stone and mortar down the sharp slope of the battered glacis. Still that was enough for Captain Auquins to call for an assault. Wisely not willing to lead a forlorn hope himself, he called for volunteers. The lack of enthusiastic response was a trifle awkward. But the Collegium's representative, a Deacon, we learned, by the name of Ambocello, gracefully eased the tension.
“Of course, Captain. I will happily provide you with a spearhead.” So saying, and robes and vestments somehow still pristine, the lesser magus set to work with powders and with candles the hue of dried blood that emitted charnel odors. By the time each of the bombards had fired once more a billow of multicolored smoke began to roil up from the center of the circle Ambocello had fashioned in the mud. The bestial, human-like form of a war-demon manifested within.
Volunteers were more plentiful now that they had this bulwark to mass behind. Not that I was among them. The van of the assault force was composed of the more heavily armored soldiers, primarily northern mercenaries with their heavy cuirasses and long, bludgeoning weapons. We more lightly armed and armored would follow along behind to exploit the breach.
I cheered on the lead element. It couldn't hurt to appear gung-ho. The war-demon, raging and bellowing, outstripped the van as he sprinted for the wall. But the enemy had had sufficient time to prepare a defense – a defense that included a war-demon of their own, rising up to meet ours as he reached the gap.
They collided like bulls in rut competing for the herd. The shock sent a few more stones tumbling down the glacis. The demons grappled, growling, hurling insults and dire imprecations. They bounced each other off of the interior faces of the breach, each concussion showering down a load of stone blocks and filler.
From beyond the wall I could hear defenders cheering on their champion as we were ours. It lacked only a book-maker taking wagers to complete the prize fight atmosphere.
I'd lost track of which demon fought for which side when one lunged forward to sink his fangs into the other's throat. The afflicted demon released a shriek like a scalded cat and drove the talons of both hands into the ribcage of his assailant, hoisted him off his feet and lurched forward, slamming both of them into one side of the breach. The impact visibly jarred each demon, and seemed to knock the fight out of them. They slumped down into the mud, unmoving. Then, amidst a rising cloud of acrid smoke both disappeared. They had each, it appeared, sustained too many injuries to remain.
A silence ensued. A pause fraught with disappointment and dismay. And then, having absorbed more structural damage than it could bear, the wall on either side of the breach collapsed into an avalanche of broken stone and rubble, leaving an open stretch two cart-lengths wide.
We needed no orders. Cheering, we stormed up the sloping glacis and poured through the gap.
The fight proved rather anticlimactic. The defenders were dispirited and demoralized. After a flurry of violence most yielded, a few fleeing within the castello, the final redoubt.
Despite Captain Auquin's release, his troops for the most part did give quarter to those who surrendered. Most of the defenders were mercenaries as well and a certain spirit of professional brotherhood pervaded.
Anyone else, of course, was fair game.
Prefect Orfeo was chief magistrate of the villages and freeholds within about twenty square miles of the castello. Many of the locals had fled within his walls upon learning of hostilities. Not all could fit within the castello and were forced to rely upon the protection of the outer walls. Therefor the situation was thus: the courtyard of the castello was the chicken coop; the unfortunate locals were the chickens; we were the foxes. It wasn't pretty.
After firing off a single round from my arquebus I tangled with one of the few defenders who bothered to put up a fight. By the time I'd hacked off his sword hand I was already late to the festival.
I retrieved my fouled arquebus and edged along the perimeter of the grounds, leaving clustered groups of the victors to their celebrations. It would have been a fine time for an organized troop to sally from the castello and counterattack. Probably would have driven us out handily despite our numerical advantage. But for the moment at least they were still cowed and flustered. By the time discipline could be instilled Captain Auquins would have the guns hauled through the breach, ready to batter down the castello and he'd be bringing his men to heel.
Meantime, I could search for any ungleaned leavings.
Around the back of the keep I glimpsed movement near a pile of refuse heaped near a burn-pit. The movement didn't recur, suggesting that someone was trying to hide from me.
I ambled that direction, not increasing my pace. I didn't want to flush the quarry. I skirted the mound of chicken bones, oyster shells, broken crockery, and other assorted detritus. The pit below still smoldered from the previous disposal.
There. A flash of limbs, long, unbound hair, skirts. A figure, a young woman scrambling to her feet to flee. I dropped the arquebus and had both arms wrapped around her waist within three strides. She thrashed, but only momentarily, then went limp with apparent resignation.
“Make it quick, please,” she said. “Don't hurt me. I won't struggle.”
All throughout the grounds I could hear the cries of those who were struggling. I don't know, maybe long months in the field on campaign left the mercenaries hard up. I'm a cosmopolitan, a bravo of some repute. Companionship I can have when I've the itch without the use of force. And it hadn't been that long.
“Relax, girl. Get yourself cleaned up, dressed in a decent frock, share a flagon of wine with me – then maybe you'd have to worry about your virtue.”
I loosened my grip and she turned to face me, perhaps taking in my disarming grin. She shrugged. “As you like,” she said, sounding more apathetic than reassured.
“What's your name? Are you part of the household here?” I asked.
“Heloise. I work in the kitchen.” It was the dull, flat voice of someone who knew and expected nothing better from life than a scullery maid's drudgery, punctuated by the occasional rape.
“Cesar,” I said, completing the formalities. “You've been working for Orfeo for how long, Heloise?”
“The Prefect? Long as I can remember. My mother was a maid and a wet-nurse here.”
“So you know the castello well?”
“Of course. It's my home.”
“What would you think about helping me get in?”
An eyebrow hitched as calculations flashed beneath her unwashed mop of auburn hair. “What you want in for by yourself?” she asked.
“We're going to get in eventually,” I said. “So I figure, get in first, grab the choicest cut of the pillage. Do you object? Do you hold some loyalty to Orfeo?”
“The Prefect's a good enough sort. He never ill-treated any of us.” She was mulling it over, tugging at a grease-heavy lock. She shrugged “But I don't owe him no favors. Your lot is going to take over. One boss is as good as another, so I might as well have you look kindly on me.”
Reasoned well enough, I thought, but it didn't display much in the way of initiative or imagination. This life was all she knew and so framed her conception of possibilities. It didn't occur to her that she could escape it, learn a new mode of existence.
“I will look kindly on you, especially if you can find me a way in near the library,” I said, pouring all the charm I could muster into my rakish grin.
I couldn't decide if the expression on her face indicated incredulity or scorn. “I thought you wanted first crack at the prime loot. What do you want the library for?”
“I've heard rumors that’s where Orfeo squirreled away some of the best swag.” Close enough to the truth and this conversation had already dragged on long enough without me explaining the sought after quarto volume.
She looked skeptical but said, “Right. Follow me, then.”
“Wait.” I handed her the arquebus. “This should be sufficient token that you're with us. Hold it over your head so no one takes you for a threat. Five minutes after you get me into the castello go ask for Captain Auquins. Show him a way in, a different way if you have one. That's the best way for you to curry favor with the new landlords. Just make sure Aedile Claudio knows it was you who let us in, and you can move up from slops and onion chopping to sauces and chicken trussing.”
An outbuilding housing a root cellar concealed a tunnel that connected with the lower vaults and foundations of the castello. Following Heloise's directions I made my way to the top floor. It should have been perilous, if not impossible. The central keep was not large and was still generously supplied with defenders. But later additions and modernizing had increased the size and left behind narrow clandestine passages, employed primarily for discreet nocturnal visitations. Heloise had learned of these from her mother, who had, apparently, served in capacities supplementary to wet-nurse.
I emerged, appropriately enough, in a bedchamber. An open door on one side led to a music room, and through the doorway in the opposite side of the room opened the library. Straight across from the armoire from which I stepped a stairway spiraled to the levels below. Up it echoed voices raised in various tones of resolution and despair. The Prefect's troops were still reforming and rediscovering their courage.
Crossing the bedchamber, I paused to liberate a fine amethyst set in a wide silver ring, a gold and ivory cloak pin, and a stray silver spoon. If I escaped with nothing else these pieces constituted a substantial haul. Well, perhaps not the spoon. I would have rummaged through the wardrobe but I doubted any of Orfeo's shirts would fit. And he seemed to have a particular fondness for red. Not a color I found flattering. Even if, by some chance, he matched my physique, the odds were his provincial tailor wasn't in the same class as Donatello, to whom I gave my exclusive sartorial custom. No, best not to compromise on fashion.
The library was a wonder, featuring two tall cases crammed with grand folios, obesely stuffed books straining their bindings, and loose sheets weighted down with bric-a-brac. I snaffled a couple of the more valuable – and portable – pieces. The room itself bent at right angles, another door at the far end leading to the music room. The floor was a game board of alternating travertine and green marble.
I ran my fingers along the spines of the collection, feeling the fine-grained leather, wondering what stories the books contained, what information they could impart. I felt a keen awareness of my limitations and I didn't like it.
Then I saw the quarto volume.
It was conspicuous both for the flash of its silver chasing and for its size, a thick volume flanked by towering folios bound in severe black. I tilted it toward me and eased it off the shelf. It was heavier than I thought it would be, bound in a soft, buff-colored hide. Silver tipped each of the four corners of the cover. A cloth-of-silver ribbon poked up as a place marker. A band of silver, sewn into the cover, belted the book round, the clasp buckled, the buckle daubed with sealing wax for good measure. Tooled along the spine and across the front cover were symbols that I supposed spelled out the title.
The Aedile longed for this book. As did, from the evidence, the Collegium. What was so valuable about it? What was worth this expense and so many deaths?
I could not read. Breaking the seal would be a pointless exercise and only serve to direct the finger of suspicion at me upon delivering the quarto volume to Claudio. But somehow I knew I was going to open the book anyway. And abruptly I was equally certain that I wasn't going to turn the book over to the Aedile. I'm fickle that way.
I set the quarto volume atop a lectern, the dimensions of which suggested it was constructed for folios. The quarto volume appeared diminutive on the expanse of the inclined surface. My fingers poised over the clasp. But there was never any real doubt. The sealing wax snapped cleanly as I thumbed loose the clasp, hesitated.
I opened the book.
Dense print massed in formations, column and file, over the rough surface of the page. I thought for a moment that my eyes were tearing up for the letters appeared to shift, then shimmer. I blinked. No, it wasn't my eyes, nor was it a manifestation on the page itself. A film rose, distorting the print beneath. The film coruscated, rippling into a haze that spread and condensed into a fumarole of reddening smoke.
A demon materialized before me. He was squat, hairless except for a fringe hedging the bony plate of his skull. He wore an artisan's apron slotted with loops and pockets out of which protruded dozens of tools. Muscular arms terminated in wide hands and long, agile fingers tipped by clipped talons.
“Shall I set up here?” he asked, his voice like an agitated hornets' nest. He didn't appear much interested in my answer for without delay he set to work fitting a stanchion into an angle iron – both pieces which he seemingly retrieved from some storehouse not visible or accessible to me – and riveted the assemblage to the travertine.
“What are you constructing?” I asked.
“A printing press, of course.” Some sort of frame was in progress, assembled at an astonishing rate.
“And what will you print?”
“Copies of this quarto volume, of course,” he said, snapping out the words as he affixed a horizontal crossbeam to the frame. Tetchiness is intimidating when expressed by a demon.
“Now that is fascinating. What - just from curiosity, mind – does this quarto volume contain?” Absent any compelling need to fight one, it is my policy to avoid antagonizing demons. Questions, unfortunately, seemed to increase this demon’s native testiness. But I had to know.
“It is, inquisitive man, both a basic primer and a comprehensive treatise on theoretical and practical demonology.”
A conveniently located chair beckoned. Seemed to me the best way to absorb this wallop was to flop down into it. Dimly I was aware of the sound of conflict echoing up from the lower levels, but I did not yet heed it. For the moment the demon's revelation crowded out all other considerations.
I began to comprehend the Collegium's true interest. Commerce with demons was practically a monopoly for its initiates, north of the Mother Sea at least. The east and south produced their own practitioners. What would it mean for our virtual overlords if the knowledge to summon these otherworldly entities was available to anyone with the ability to read and the aptitude to learn? No need for entry to the hermetic world of the Collegium, no binding commitment to its authority, regulations, and creed? For that matter, what would it mean to the rest of us? The Collegium – think what one might about arrogance and the corruption of power – at least provided a check on the proliferation of demons. Its Members - the assorted Deacons, Rectors, Councilors and what have you, all the way up the Predicant – may not all be scrupulous, altruistic, or wholly devoted to the True Faith. In fact none of them might be. In my more cynical moments I consider that likely, though some of them seem decent enough fellows. Yet even were they villains to the last man their limited numbers prohibit blanket oppression. They seem more interested in internal squabbles and jockeying for power than in naked, iron-fisted domination. In the hands of the populace at large those built in governors – numbers and political in-fighting - would disappear. What would an unscrupulous man do with access to such power, absent the strictures of expectations, learned ethical guidelines (even if honored more in the breach), peer oversight, pressure and vigilance?
The demon, unconcerned with my musings, was constructing racks upon which he assembled rows of moveable type in letter cases.
“Each book will be identical?” I asked.
“Discounting imperfections in the paper and idiosyncrasies in the individual matrices, essentially yes, down to the summons built into the seal.”
I could sink no further into the chair though I felt as if all support had been yanked from beneath me. What would numberless unscrupulous men do with access to such power? I asked, needing to confirm my conjecture, “Wait, so each quarto volume opened will summon a demon to print countless more, each capable of infinite reproduction?”
“Even so. Are there more questions you'd care to belabor me with?”
Which was worse: concentrated power or diffuse, unfettered power? Was it right that knowledge be restricted? Was it worse for perilous knowledge to be freely disseminated? It made my head hurt. How should I choose? Did I have that right? Why me? All I'd had to do was mind my own business, sneak out with the book, collect my reward, and I'd never have to face this dilemma.
The demon hoisted a ream of paper onto a shelf built into his press. From his unseen warehouse he wrangled a barrel sloshing with ink.
A tumult of conflict, the shouts and ringing clashes of arms, grew nearer. Still I sat, riveted by my internal conflict. I could imagine the chaos this proliferation of knowledge and power might unleash. And yet. I had a life as free as I could imagine. I instinctively shrank from anyone attempting to impose his will on me and dictate my actions. Yet another reason I made a piss-poor soldier. Given my personal inclinations how could I presume to circumscribe the options available to others? By deliberately eliminating a possibility wasn't I dictating their actions? I could not be certain what any individual might do with this information, could not presume the worst of every man.
No. I would not impose restraints. I would not act the censor.
Then the battle boiled up the stairwell into the bedchamber, taking the decision from my hands.
Captain Auquins fought at the head of the onslaught. Two of the remaining trio of defenders fell, pulled down to be swallowed up in the threshing swords of the condotta. That left only a single man, standing at the head of the stairs, defying the invading force. By the red sleeves blousing from beneath his steel breastplate I hazarded he was Prefect Orfeo. He raised his sword, a rapier furnished with elaborate quillons and a finely etched blade. He saluted. Captain Auquins crossed blades with him. Once, twice. Then, with a deft upward thrust, the condottiere took Orfeo beneath the chin and up into the brain pain.
I was uncertain if Auquins saw me, seated and perhaps concealed by angles of doorway and shelving. But he certainly saw the demon, busily slotting letters into slats. Auquins must be aware of the true purpose of his commission. He could see that the chance had passed of securing the quarto volume and sequestering it deep in some dark vault beneath the Collegium. All that remained was damage control.
“Arquebusiers!” he ordered. “Grenadiers!”
It was, I deemed, time to make my exit. I slipped from my chair and snaked into the music room. I hid behind a rack of lutes while troops lumbered up the stairs to assemble in ranks behind the Condottiere. When the flash and thunder of arquebuses and the concussion of exploding grenados commenced I insinuated myself behind the head of the column.
I had, I thought later as I shuffled in turn down the stairs, spent enough time with the condotta. The loot I'd secured might be sufficient to buy my way out of trouble back in Plenum. I had connections, connections more inclined to be friendly upon receipt of funds. Perhaps while advocates and magistrates played through the farce I might use the time to learn to read.
Behind me the quarto volume burned.
©January, 2016 Ken Lizzi
Ken Lizzi is the author of the novel Reunion (Twilight Times Books, 2014), and several published short stories, including "Bravo," in the Pirates and Swashbucklers anthology (Pulp Empire, 2011), which also features the character Cesar the Bravo, and "Bargains" in the Big Bad Anthology of Evil (Kerlak Publishing, June 2013.) His story "Trustworthy", from the Noir anthology (Dark Horse Books, 2009) served as the basis for a multiple award winning short student film. His story, “The Fire Demon, or Brava” appeared in S&S in May of 2015.