Monday, October 17, 2011

John Moran

Herbert's First Job
Fiction by John Moran

I was resting in Hell when the portal appeared.
“We need a type one demon,” shouted the thing in charge of logistics.
A little later, he added, “Type twos. Get here now.” A minute after that, “Type threes —  anyone?”
I tugged the edge of his wing.
“They’re in Asia Minor fighting in the wizard war.”
“All of them?”
“So what am I supposed to do? We can’t ignore a summons.”
“Send me.”
“What the heaven are you?”
“Type six sprite, sir.”
“Have you ever been summoned?”
“There’s a first time for everything, right?’
He frowned, looked round in desperation, then shrugged and burned a glyph onto the air.
“You know the rules: fulfill your summoner’s wishes to the letter, and be rewarded with power and lands. Fail, and torture will be thy lot.”
“To the letter?” I said.
“That’s it. Get through quickly.”


I emerged into a teak-paneled hall between a pair of black candles. The ceiling was open to the stars, revealing a tall tower where a zeppelin was tethered.
I turned invisible, preparing my entrance to impress my new master.
“Spirit of Hell, I call thee,” my summoner said. Dressed in a purple hat and cloak with a Toledo rapier at his waist, I knew him instinctively as Count Philippe di Courtuga, lord of the castle and its surrounding lands. Beside him stood a slimmer figure dressed as a butler.
I waited as they completed the spell.
“Hazel sticks, Vincente,” the Count said.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Curse the dratted woman.”
“Indeed, my Lord.”
"So I’m clumsy am I? Have the courting manners of a drunken Spaniard, do I? I’ve had no other complaints.”
“No-one would dare, my Lord.”
“Damn right! Mandrake.”
Vincente upended a squirming leather bag, and the root fell screaming onto the flames.
I felt the tug of compulsion, and used every appearance trick I’d learned from the big boys. Five candles lit spontaneously around the room, dust whirled in a vortex from floor to ceiling and lightning crackled like the discharge of an etheric gun.
“What,” Philippe asked, “are you?”
“I'm a sprite, my Lord. My name’s Herbert.”
“Where's my mezzo-demon?”
This was not going well. I lifted my left foot and scratched my right ear in confusion. “There’s only me available, my Lord.”
Philippe snarled and thrust his rapier at me. I fled to the far edge of the magic circle.
“Begone, useless weakling,” he shouted.
Had I failed already? I hung my head and began to fade.
“My Lord?” Vincente said.
“That was our last mandrake.”
Philippe sighed. “Wait. You'll have to do.”
“Certainly master,” I became solid once more. “Tell me your will.”
“I demand ...” Philippe paused and pushed out his chest… “wrath upon the Countess Montefeltro.”
My forehead ached as I struggled to understand. I was only part-way through infernal studies and my grasp of human was poor.
“You want me to turn her to rubble?”
“Decimate, despoil, extirpate her. Be her bane.”
Philippe paused when I continued shaking my head. 
“Make her miserable,” he said at last.
“Ah,” I said. “That I understand.”
“Then go.”
I rejoiced in my mission, but hadn’t the slightest idea how to carry it out.
“Er. Would you mind if I wander your domain in human form first? Ask questions of the locals, that sort of thing?”
Philippe nodded.
I sped off, taking human form to mingle with his servants. When I inquired about the best way to make a woman miserable, the answer rang the same from everyone.
I returned to find Philippe striding the walls of his castle. Thunder cracked the heavens as lightning struck a tower nearby and ran along a metal strip to safety.
“I have a plan my lord, but it needs clarification.”
“May I do anything to make her miserable?”
“Of course, the more sadistic, the better.”
“Do you want her to recognize you as being responsible?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure. Not only do I want this, I command it!”
“Then we are ready.” I produced the box I’d spent the last hour crafting and revealed a dozen papers within. “These are forged, to come from Lord Gattario, a rebel with ties to the Spanish. If it is discovered in her chamber, she will be ruined politically. For full effect, you should be the one to reveal it.”
“Except I am banned from her castle.”
I smiled.
“I have heard that the lady is shallow and vain. If you allow me to press your advances, you will break her heart as well as her status.”
“Even after I described her as a pregnant hog with stubble to match?”
“Trust me, my lord.”
Philippe clapped his hands together. “Very well. Destroy her, Herbert — whatever the cost.”
I flew across the land, my spirit darkly joyous, and crept into the bed-chamber of Carlotta, fifteenth Countess of Montefeltro. Her eyes were brilliant blue, her bosom high and her waist narrow, though her legs were thick and her voice like clanging brass.
I sat watching for two hours while her maid Lisa brushed her hair.
“Do you think I'm the most beautiful person in the city?” Carlotta asked.
“Undoubtedly, Mistress.”
“Do you think I'm the most beautiful in the country?”
“Few would argue.”
“I think,” continued the Countess, “that I'm the most beautiful in the whole world.”
“You are as knowledgeable as you are beautiful, Mistress.”
Because my first apparition didn’t go as I’d hoped, I put some extra magic into my second. The air shimmered and the room trembled. Two china dogs fell off a shelf, the dark velvet curtains before the casement swung closed, and the multi-pronged candelabra on the black granite mantelpiece lit itself.
I appeared as a pale-skinned footman, kneeling with a bunch of flowers.
“Who are you?” the Countess said.
“I come from Philippe di Cortuga.”
“That worm? I've already told him what I think.”
“Indeed, lady, which is why I return with his deepest apologies. Knowing your beauty he desired to court you, but became tongue-tied in your presence.”
“That’s understandable.”
“I bring flowers, regrets, and a petition from the depth of his sorrow that you might allow him another attempt.”
The Countess sniffed. "I am known for my tolerance.”
“And your ready affections,” Lisa said.
The Countess stared coldly at her. “If I ever find you using humor again, I’ll have you whipped.” She turned back to me. “Tell your master I accept, though I don’t come cheap.”
I watched the maid struggle to control herself, and bowed.
“Thank you, Lady.”
I vanished in a shower of rose petals, then sped through the air to find Philippe groping a maid aboard his airship. The butler stood nearby, looking discretely away.
“Did she reject you?” Philippe asked.
“Of course not, Lord. She will now allow your zeppelin within her airspace. All you have to do is plant the box and seduce her to her room.”
“You’re sure this will work?”
“Everyone assures me this is the perfect way to make a woman miserable.”
“Excellent!” Philippe dispatched the maid with a slap on the behind, then turned to his assistant. “And while I’m sneaking, you can distract her, Vincente. It’ll give you a chance to see that maid of hers again, though why you’re interested in someone of low status I have no idea.”
“We believe we have much in common, my Lord,” Vincente said.


I had just finished my preparations when the airship cruised to a halt outside Carlotta's balcony. Philippe stepped across, placed his ear to the glass and listened. A moment later, he freed the latch with his dagger and stepped inside.
Thanks to me, the room was a riot of color. Roses covered every surface, in vases, schooners and fluted wine glasses. Pink candles burned above the fireplace, while Carlotta's four poster bed had ribbons tied to it.
The noise of a dinner party rose through the floor.
I watched Philippe creep forward and curl his lip at the decoration, unaware it was my doing. He placed the box on the mantlepiece, then stole down the staircase. It took an hour before he returned, leading Vincente, the maid, and a number of dignitaries. As I suggested, he had his fingers around Carlotta’s eyes.
“Ta da,” Philippe said, dropping his hands so she could see what had been done to her room. 
She clapped her hands and turned to her guests. “You see the response my beauty brings.”
“But wait,” Philippe said, “what’s this?” He walked to the mantlepiece and picked up the box.
“Is that a present?”
“A box this beautiful has to contain something special,” Philippe said. He flipped open the lid and offered it to her, then froze. Instead of the letters, I’d substituted his mother’s engagement ring on a velvet pillow.
Carlotta beamed, took the ring from his twitching grasp and placed it on her finger.
“I accept,” she said.
The guests applauded politely. Behind them, Vincente reached out and squeezed the maid's hand.
Six months later, I watched invisibly as double festivities ran into the night. Vincente and Lisa swore some meaningless vows before heading off to a cottage in the woods, but my heart was with Philippe and the moment of his triumph.
I watched as, breath wheezing, he attempted to carry his bride through the door to his chamber. After dropping her on the bed, he spent ten minutes in front of the mirror re-aligning his moustache. Then he moved towards her with what looked like great reluctance.
Shortly afterwards, the two of them lay on their backs and stared at the ceiling.
“You can praise me now,” the Count said.
“If you think three minutes of adolescent fumbling is sufficient, you’ve got another think coming,” Carlotta said.
The Count stood. “You, madam, have the manners of a baboon.”
“And you make love like one.”
“Well get used to it,” he shouted, “because from now on I’m all you’re getting.”
He stormed onto the balcony, slamming the door behind him.
I appeared and waved. This was the moment all demons savor, when the mission is complete and the compulsion to obey dissipates.
“I hope you are happy, my Lord?” I said.
He screamed at me. “You made me marry that harpy!”
With this final confirmation, I bowed and vanished, though I allowed my voice to linger long enough for him to hear it after I was gone, “and I am informed by all parties, my Lord, that nothing else can make a woman so miserable.”


When I returned to Hell, I reported to the thing in charge of logistics.
“That was an interesting approach,” he said.
“You did say to follow his instructions to the letter.”
He nodded. “And she certainly will be miserable.”
I grinned. “Even more so, when the King finds the documents I placed in his palace.”
The thing in charge of logistics put his wing around me and smiled. “You know,” he said, “I’m beginning to think you may be a natural.”

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