Merry Christmas!

The Demons of Constantinople – Snippet 24

Helena had a copy of Delaflote’s book and had used it to summon a demon to her white-winged lark. The demon turned out to be a strix, which was under her control but as uncooperative as it could get away with. That left her with a less than high opinion of Delaflote’s skill as a wizard.

She looked over at the cage where the lark resided and it cawed like a crow and she heard in her head, “You’re an idiot.”

“Shut up,” she muttered.

Constantine, looked over at the cage, and frowned repressively. Then he smiled and looked back at her. “You know, Majesty, the delegation has with them a gryphon. I heard that it was made by feeding a cat an enchanted bird.”

“Bad idea, bad idea!” the lark insisted.

Helena looked at the bird, then said, “Find out if that’s true and if it is, precisely how it was done. And find out how tractable the gryphon is.” She shook her head. “More importantly, find out how to get the twenty-firsters on our side.”

Constantine looked at her and she could see him hesitate. “Well, spit it out,” she commanded.

“Manuel has shown considerable interest in Lakshmi Rawal. It wasn’t something I thought we needed to worry about, but if you are looking for a way to bring the girl under –”

“Under our control. Not into the family. And not Manuel. She would rule him, not he her.”

Location: Royal Palace, Constantinople

Time: 9:15 AM, October 28, 1372

Manuel II looked at the clock in the hall. It was brand new, built from a design sent from Paris, and it gave the time to the second. Good. It wasn’t too early. His mother was not an early riser and approaching her quarters before nine wasn’t a good idea.

He walked down the hall and nodded to the guard who stepped into his mother’s room to announce him.

“Come in, Manuel,” his mother called.

He went in as the guard went out. “Mother, you wanted to see me?”

“Yes. What do you think of the twenty-firsters?”

Manuel hesitated. Generally, when his mother asked him what he thought, it was the first step in her telling him what to think. “They are interesting. All of the French delegation is interesting. Cardinal de Monteruc didn’t even try to convert me to the Catholic faith.”

“The patriarch will insist that that is because the Catholics are not the true Christianity, and they know it from their own angels. Additionally, from what the icon says, he’s correct.”

Manuel had been in the Hagia Sophia and heard the enchanted icon speak, but he had also talked to Raphico. He kept his mouth shut.

After a moment his mother waved away that concern. “With your father’s blunder in dealing with Murad, we are going to need the twenty-firsters and their knowledge. We need some way to compel their loyalty?”

She made that a question, not about the need, but clearly about how they were to get it. Unfortunately, Manuel didn’t have an answer for that. “They aren’t all Christians, not that the Christian monarchs have shown any great interest in aiding us against the Ottomans.”

“Can they be bought?”

“Perhaps, if you can convince father and Andronikos to pay the price.” Even though his father and brother were badly angry at each other at the moment, Manuel knew that once they got over their mad, Andronikos would return to being co-emperor and heir to his father and Manuel would return to being the spare. Which suited Manuel fine. He had no desire to sit on the throne and suffer constant neck pain from spending his life looking over his shoulder. “The twenty-firsters won’t come cheap, and the treasury is far from full.”

“Well, they managed to convince your father to anger Murad easily enough. Feel them out. We might even consider a royal marriage if that will buy them.”

Manuel failed to notice her tone as he considered the proposal. Especially as he worked hard to avoid thinking about Lakshmi Rawal in terms of the proposal.

There were four, no, five twenty-firster women. He must include the Widow Grady. However, she was enamored of Doctor Delaflote. The same was true of Jennifer Fairbanks, who was enamored of Bill Howe. That left Annabelle Cooper-Smith, Liane Boucher and Lakshmi Rawal, who was by far the most interesting of the twenty-firsters. Most attractive, most charming, most astute.

He cut himself off. In spite of all that, she might not be the best choice. He forced his mind back to the basic question, how to get the French delegation on their side. There might be another way.

“Are you sure that we need to get them on our side?” he asked, then waved a hand, asking her to wait. “I don’t mean we can afford to have them as enemies. If they are neutral but here, teaching us about not only the magic that brought them here but the techniques and devices that they had in their time, we might gain almost as much benefit without having to give them more than a place to stay and the chance to talk. In our discussions last week they were free with information about all manner of things.”

“So they like to talk. What is the benefit in that?”

“Do you know what a drop forge is?”

“What? You mean like a smithy?” Manuel’s mother sat up on the couch. “Have you lost your wits? What on earth would I, or any person of quality, need to know about the tools in a smithy?”

“And if that knowledge meant we could make rifled muskets small enough that a single soldier could carry them? Quickly and in large numbers?”

“Are you saying that they know how to do this?”

“It seems so,” Manuel said. “Bertrand du Guesclin, who was as you know, the constable of France until he was dispatched on this mission, showed me a device he calls a breech-loading demon-lock. It was the day after my party and he let me fire it. It’s no longer than a bow, but you hold it out like a pike and it throws a lead bullet.” He shook his head. “I am not explaining this well. But the device is amazing. It took me only moments to get the basics. A man, according to Bertrand, can learn to use one well in as little as a few weeks. They used them extensively in the battle of Paris. Roger McLean killed Philip the Bold with one in the sally that ended the battle. Bertrand’s entire force carries the things.

“If we can equip an army with them, they might well let us defeat Murad in the field.”

“And how long until Murad gets them and turns them on us?” Helena asked. She got up from the couch and started pacing around the room like a caged cat. “Anyone can use these single person guns? It doesn’t take a lifetime’s training like the sword or bow?”

Manuel nodded.

“We should kill them all,” Helena said. “Including Bertrand.” She stopped pacing and considered for a moment. “And the king of France, plus every peasant in Paris who has seen the damned devices. Yes, I know it’s utterly ridiculous. The djinn is free of its bottle and will ravage the world whatever we do. But, Manuel, you must see that these devices are even more dangerous to us than the demons. Remember the Zealots of Thessalonica. They murdered the aristocracy and took control of the city for almost a decade, and through most of that claimed to be working for the populari.”

Populari meant, literally, “the people,” but it had another meaning from the old Roman republic. It meant “the lower classes,” not even the equestrians, but the poor and the merchants, those without any title more than “citizen,” the peons.

And those people, armed with the demon-locks, was a terrifying notion.