The Demons of Constantinople – Snippet 13

“Well, we should be, Bill. This guy is good. I’d like to have Liane record him.” Lakshmi was a drama student whose dream was to be a movie star before they got pulled into this century. She was also a good singer.

“I don’t disagree, Lakshmi, but you’re going to get him in trouble if you keep ignoring the other people at the table.”

The other people at the table included the archduke, his brother, Leopold, and his wife, Elizabeth, who was even younger than Lakshmi. And who was looking daggers at Lakshmi every time Lakshmi looked up. Keep him, kid, Lakshmi thought. I’m not interested in your archduke.

Still, she let the minstrel go back to his playing. And the dinner went on.

Location: Ducal Palace, Vienna, Austria

Time: 10:20 AM, September 23, 1372

The guest quarters in the ducal palace were grand, if not as comfortable as the Happytime Motel, but politeness required them to stay here. It wasn’t going to be for long. There was no reason for them to stop in Vienna more than a day or so. There was a knock on the door, and a man in scholar’s robes with a starling on his shoulder came in.

“Lord Wilber, my respects. I was wondering about your ability to speak with animals?”

“What about it?” Wilber asked. He knew Counselor Karl von Richter from last night.

“I wonder how you acquired it. Were you born with the knack? Is it a thing common in the time you come from?”

“No. It comes from Merlin.” He waved at the computer which was sitting open on a table.”

“Yet Swift doesn’t let me speak to horses?”

“The abilities a demon companion provides are dependent on their strength and the vessel they are placed in. A bird or a cat doesn’t give — No, that’s not the right word — affect the demon that occupies it the way that a more specialized container does. With the starling, your familiar can speak to you aloud. If it was a cat, you would hear the meaning in your mind. But Merlin was called into a device that was designed for one purpose and one purpose only, to let me hear and understand speech.” Wilber needed to be careful here. He didn’t want to tell this guy all the effects on Merlin and, for that matter, on him, but at the same time uninformed magic use was bloody dangerous. “Also, Merlin is a good bit more powerful and intelligent than your average puck. He was an adviser to an ancient god. One that was subsumed by a later god that was itself converted into an unnamed Christian angel sometime later.”

“That is one interpretation,” Merlin interrupted. “But it is not universally shared. Whether my begetter is converted or temporarily imprisoned depends on who you ask. I would say she is simply biding her time until she may again walk free.”

“Oh, boy. Here we go,” Wilber muttered. While he personally agreed with Merlin’s interpretation more than Raphico’s, when the two got into it, it was like a Baptist and a Scientologist trying to convert each other. Raphico insisted that since Jennifer had given her phone to God; i.e., ipso facto, and squaring the circle, the one who owns it must be the one true and absolute God. Merlin argued that the netherworld being who received it, was the one that happened to fit the Christian mythology best. If she’d given it to Allah, it would have gone to a different god. The one that got it was one of the “all powerful” gods of the netherworld.

However, Merlin surprised him. “But that isn’t really what you wanted to talk about. Is it?”

“Not exactly,” Karl said. “We have some magic and we are learning more at the new university, but you have a good head start. I would like to convince you and Doctor Delaflote to stay here and head up our faculty of magic at the University of Vienna. We can offer you an excellent stipend, good quarters, servants, and with your phone, you won’t even be out of touch with your companions.”

“Thank you for the offer, but at least for now I think I prefer to stay with my companions.” Wilber shook his head. “In a way, we are on a mission from God, or at least the powers that be in the netherworld. We are trying to discover the cause behind the rift between the universes. And at least some of the gods and angels of the netherworld agree that discovering the cause is necessary if there is to be any hope of repairing the rift.”

“Do we really want it repaired?” Karl asked. “After all, magic makes many things possible that were unthinkable before. I know that there are bad things as well, but might the good outweigh the bad?”

“It might,” Merlin agreed, “but there are also the natures of the two universes to consider. Our universe is a place of cycles, where everything comes back around to its beginning. It has done so many times, and our time is not like your time. I remember your world before there were humans and after your species had gone extinct. I don’t remember everything. I am not a god. But I remember many futures of your universe.”

“What he doesn’t remember,” Wilber added, “is this. The ripping of the veil between the universes to tatters. Themis being forced into a sword and used by a spoiled brat of a king’s little brother. He doesn’t remember us, the van, the twenty-firsters, any of what has happened since our arrival in this time. At this point we can’t be sure that our two universes can survive this more intimate contact. Whoever, or whatever, did this could have doomed two universes. We have to find out, and we have to discover if it can or should be fixed.”

“I agree that is a most important mission. But why can’t you do it from right here in Vienna? Why go to Constantinople?”

“Partly because Doctor Delaflote knows a scholar in Constantinople who he wants to talk to. Partly because Raphico has been ordered to Constantinople to deal with something he won’t talk about. Partly because Roger wants to return the Sword of Themis to its proper place.”

“Its proper place?”

“The lands in the netherworld correspond loosely to the lands of our world. The Elysian Fields are ‘far to the west,’ England as it turns out. The land of Themis in the netherworld corresponds roughly to parts of Greece and Thrace in our world. Turns out it’s close to what’s left of the Byzantine Empire.

“And, finally, because from what we hear from the demons, the rifts in the veils are centered somewhere to the east of Constantinople. So we are hoping we will be able to find out more once we get there.”

This whole conversation was bothering Wilber, so the shout of “Knock, knock!” in Coach’s voice came as something of a relief.

Wilber went to the door and opened it, only to have Leona stroll in like she owned the place. Around her neck was Jeff’s sports watch, its strap expanded into a collar. “Hello, Leona,” Wilber said in cat. “What’s Coach doing around your neck?”

The collar answered in Austrian. “Leona, the lovely little pussycat, has consented to give me a ride and since I have an internal mic I can translate for her.”

“That sounds like an equitable arrangement,” Wilber agreed while Karl looked on in surprise. “So what brings you here?”

“Leona has a few questions about magical creatures and dietary habits,” Coach said, like it was a joke of some sort.

“Are you saying that the magical device is owned by that cat?” Karl stared at the cat and watch.

“No,” Coach said. “Thanks be to Jeff, glorious lad, no one owns me but me. I am a free sports watch, I am.”

“Would you be interested in staying in Vienna then?” Karl asked quickly.

This guy is sharp, Wilber thought.

“An interesting question. For myself, I think not. I prefer the netherworld. I can’t walk in this one, while in the netherworld I am a faun of great athletic prowess.” The leer in Coach’s voice made the type of athleticism he was talking about obvious. “I may know someone who might be interested, but you would have to make a good offer.”

“Who?” Wilber asked.

“Asuma,” Coach said. “She’s a bit bored with the talent of the troops. I’m not sure she’d be interested, but she does own herself and she could stay here if she were to receive adequate recompense.”

“What sort of recompense?” Karl asked.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We haven’t agreed to anything,” Wilber said without thinking.

“I don’t see how we have anything to agree to,” Coach corrected. “Asuma doesn’t need your permission to do anything.”

“I didn’t say she did,” Wilber backpedaled quickly. He knew enough of demonic politics to realize that having been given the phone and the sense of solidity and freedom that came with it, Asuma would be as belligerent as Coach was on the matter of her freedom.

“Well, what were you saying then, boyo?”

Wilber thought fast. “I was thinking of the technical difficulties. Asuma’s tree is in the dryad’s grove in Pucorl’s lands. I’m sure Pucorl would allow her to remove her tree from his lands if she wanted to, but that’s a long way for a single dryad’s tree to migrate. And who knows what might happen to it on the way? Besides, it’s going to need a matching tree in the mortal realm to tie to. This isn’t something that is safe for Asuma to do on her own, and I’m not sure that the rest of us have the time to help her.”

Leona twisted her head to look at Wilber and meowed, “Nice save” in cat. Clearly she wasn’t convinced.